Authors: John Love
NIGHT SHADE BOOKS
© 2012 by John Love
This edition of
© 2012 by Night Shade Books
Cover Illustration by Adam Paquette
Cover design by Claudia Noble
Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich
Edited by Jeremy Lassen
All rights reserved
Night Shade Books
To Sandra, Helen and Ian
is pregnancy convulsions dragged him out of unconsciousness. They were stronger and more urgent. Through his delirium he perceived a drip-drip-drip of blood from something which was not even a corpse any more in the impact harness above him. He held his right hand in front of his face, unsheathed and retracted his claws, and made himself count from one thumb across four fingers to the other thumb. The convulsions went away and he slumped back.
When he woke again his head felt clearer but he couldn’t detect anything except his head; he was eyes and ears and nose and mouth, deep in an impact harness, watching and hearing and smelling and tasting the wreckage of the lifeboat around him. Hours must have passed since the crash and still the crash had not finished. The forces, counterforces, creakings and reverberations of the impact were still going on as the hull settled.
His convulsions came again, and he used the pain to make himself reinhabit his body. Consciousness returned, warily, to his arms and chest and stomach and legs, and he probed for damage. There was a dull throbbing pain in his side, quite distinct from the sharper pain of the convulsions: in view of what he had to do, both the dull pain and the fact of his pregnancy could be hindrances. The thought that his death in the lifeboat would have been a bigger hindrance gave him some ironic amusement, but not for long. Not even the foetus inside him was as important as the need to get out of the wreckage and
someone. Thinking this, he sank back and fell asleep.
When he woke it was midday. The hulk of the lifeboat still creaked and groaned, recounting the minutiae of its crash like an old person repeating the details of a surgical operation. He got up, stretched, and wasted valuable time on a task he could not leave without performing, though he knew its result. Not only were the others dead, all seven of the people he managed to get into the lifeboat before the ship was destroyed, but they were
dead. Between them, they had enough death for seventy.
He continued checking the hulk. There was no communications equipment functioning or repairable. He considered searching the wreckage for weapons, but decided that would be a waste of time; he knew about the desert predators on Bast 3 but he was, after all, a Sakhran and should need no weapons. A voice inside him, perhaps the foetus, said
Sakhran, and you aren’t made for deserts
. He ignored it. Time was beginning to worry him.
He didn’t have much of a plan, but then he wasn’t in much of a situation. The lifeboat had crashed in a desert which extended for at least ninety miles in each direction; he had limited food and water, and pregnancy would impair his hunting skills; and there were no Commonwealth settlements or bases in the desert.
He would simply walk.
If he kept in a straight line, avoided the rock outcrops and stayed in the open, he might be seen by one of the patrols overflying the desert. It wasn’t much of a plan, but to survive the crash and then not give himself any chance was unthinkable. He gouged a large arrow in the sand in his chosen direction, and did a final check for supplies. Then he moved off. A few minutes later, four shadows detached themselves from the darkness of some neighbouring rocks to follow.
After he left the wreck, the sand underneath it started teeming. As in most ecologies on most planets, nothing on Bast 3 would be left to waste.
His name was Sarabt. He was a Sakhran, lately a resident of Hrissihr in the Irsirrha Hills of Sakhra, and more recently (until a few hours ago) Weapons Officer on the
, a Class 091 cruiser and the guardship of Bast System. He was one of only two Sakhrans who had attained officer status on Commonwealth ships, the other being Thahl, also of Hrissihr although Sarabt only knew him slightly.
Bast was the seventh Commonwealth solar system to receive a visit from the unidentified ship which some Sakhrans called Faith. More significantly, though, it was the first of the four previously Sakhran solar systems which the Commonwealth had absorbed; the others were Horus (the system with Sakhra), Anubis and Isis. Horus was the Commonwealth’s richest and biggest solar system. It was heavily guarded already, but rumours were rife—they had even reached Bast—about steps being taken to defend it if Faith went there. It was said that an Outsider Class cruiser, the Commonwealth’s ultimate warship, was already on its way to Blentport on Sakhra.
There were nine Outsiders. One of them was the
, commanded by Aaron Foord, with Thahl as First Officer.
Sarabt looked back. He had covered a good distance, and the wrecked lifeboat was already being heavily scavenged. The arrow he had drawn on the ground was gone, obscured by the shifting of the sand and the movement of what lived in it. Soon nothing would be visible from the air, even if a patrol did fly overhead. He had to stay in the open, but that meant he would be visible not only to patrols but predators. He had been briefed about the predators of Bast 3. Normally they would not have concerned him.
Bast was by far the smallest and poorest of the ex-Sakhran systems. The planet Bast 3 was almost uninhabited, except for a few flyblown Commonwealth military bases and some almost unviable mineral extraction plants. Bast 4 was a larger and more temperate planet, and contained most of the system’s population, but the Bast system as a whole would hardly be ranked as a major asset. The
was the only warship of any size stationed in system. Everybody assumed that Faith would go first to Horus, or maybe one of the other two. Instead it had been Bast, and the
didn’t have a chance.
The engagement was very short. He had heard someone in the lifeboat say that most orgasms were longer, though their outcomes were less certain. They had only got one brief sighting of the unidentified ship, but for Sarabt that was enough.
Three hundred years ago the same unidentified ship had visited Sakhra, and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognised what the ship was, and wrote the Book of Srahr, and when they read it they turned away from each other. The Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline, and was later absorbed by the Commonwealth. Sakhrans were mostly agnostic, and they called the ship Faith out of self-mockery. Faith was something they didn’t understand and didn’t want; it had come to them suddenly and without invitation; it would not be denied; and when it left them, which it did as suddenly as it came, they were ruined. They would never recover.
On balance, Faith seemed a good name.
The Commonwealth first used the term Unidentified Ship; it now used Faith as well, but for quite different reasons. The ship was often shrouded, but when it became visible, those who survived said there was something about its appearance to which recordings didn’t do justice. Only a female name seemed right, with its accompanying female derivatives. So the terms Unidentified Ship and It became Faith, and She, and Her.
Sakhrans knew what She was; the Commonwealth didn’t. The Commonwealth knew She visited civilisations and left them ruined and declining, but not why; and Why was the product of
what She was.
Sarabt knew this even better than most Sakhrans, for two reasons: he had read the Book himself, and now he had actually seen Her. He needed to survive, to help stop Her doing to the Commonwealth what She did to Sakhra three hundred years ago.
It was a limited ambition. He didn’t expect he alone could stop Her or save the Commonwealth. He didn’t even (he told himself) have any particular feelings for the Commonwealth. It had features he didn’t like, but it wasn’t a ravening Evil Empire; it worked tolerably well, gave him a good career, and only occasionally showed him unpleasantness or bigotry. So we should
this time, he thought; stop Her doing to the Commonwealth what She did to us. It was an unusual thought for a Sakhran, at least for one born after Srahr. There was no telling where it might lead.
And that gave him another reason to survive. He wanted to contact Thahl. He wanted to know if Thahl had ever had thoughts like this.
There were four of them, each one about his own size and weight. They were reptilian: low-slung, six-legged and very muscular. Their mottled skin, like the desert, was the colour of unwashed underwear. They trotted alongside him desultorily. Their faces were expressionless. So was his.
Every time he felt a pregnancy convulsion, and they were now coming more frequently, he masked it with a sudden unsheathing of his claws which caused the four predators to break formation, but every time he did this they took fractions of a second longer to break and regrouped fractions of an inch closer. As the sun rose higher in the pewter sky, and the day grew as hot as the night had been cold, he became more and more conscious that they belonged in this place, and were adapted to it; and that he didn’t, and wasn’t.
He had been travelling for part of yesterday, all of last night, and part of today. The pain in his left side, the dull pain which was quite separate from the convulsions, would not go away; it dogged him like the predators. He diagnosed it, as far as diagnosis was possible while half-running and half-walking, as a puncture in his minor heart. That meant that without surgery he would be dead in another twenty-four hours, but he was able to assign it a lower priority because he knew he would die of premature childbirth within twelve, or perhaps be killed by the predators within six. If he hadn’t been pregnant he could probably have outrun them, but if he hadn’t been pregnant he would not have needed to.
He might not even have been here: in accordance with regulations, he had reported his pregnancy to Captain Matoub of the
. Matoub should have required him to stand down, but, aware of his abilities, had asked him to embark on what became the ship’s last journey.
He shrugged. Sakhrans did not waste time wishing for the non-existence of facts. Actually, as he continued with the predators loping alongside him, he became aware of one fact which might operate in his favour. Back on Sakhra he had always lived in the Irsirrha Hills; he had never lived in Blentport or any of the other Commonwealth lowland cities, so the poison glands in his hands and feet had not been removed. This would be significant. The ability to augment his claws with poison might give him another full hour.
His claws. Again he unsheathed them, and again the predators hissed and moved away. He hissed back. The inside of their mouths was bright pink; the inside of his was dark red. They returned to their normal formation, alongside him. They seemed to have less trouble in keeping the pace than he did in setting it. Two hours passed.
The sun rose higher, sweating reflections out of quartz veins in the boulders and rock outcrops which were occurring more frequently, and still they stayed loping unhurriedly alongside him. In this fashion another two hours passed. The scene was totally devoid of any element of drama, and it was this, rather than his own deteriorating condition, which made him sense that his calculations were slightly off and their attack was imminent.
He slowed down, sauntered carefully over to the largest boulder within reach, turned with his back against it and waited for them. Amazingly they squatted before him in a semicircle, watching him earnestly. For at least half a minute the tableau remained stable, and he found himself fighting an impulse to start addressing them as though they were a gathering; then the one on his left attacked. He almost felt sympathy for it as his foot whipped out and raked parallel poison trails across its muzzle, for he realised as he watched it shrink back vomiting that these predators had the same inner contradiction as Sakhrans: their social organisation was weak. There wasn’t enough keeping them together.
Just like us
, he thought idly, as he jabbed a hand into the eyes of the one which he’d pretended not to notice climbing the boulder behind him and crouching to spring,
when they come together they’re always less than the sum total of the individual parts.
He reached back, grabbed the poisoned and blinded predator, and tossed it screaming on top of what was now the corpse of the first. It was a foolish act, a gesture which took no account of his physical condition, and it brought on a new and deeper series of pregnancy convulsions which bent him almost double. The two remaining predators, who had started to back away, now looked at him with renewed interest as he staggered and fell forward on his knees, hands clutching his abdomen; and now, of all times, he started to feel the first mixed sense of wonder and outrage at something
separate from himself
causing movement inside his own body.