Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 05
“Everyone in their positions?” she asked once more. She knew the answer, but in this case, it was best to make sure.
“Secured at secondary station,” Varan confirmed.
I am secured and ready to administer shielding needs, Vick thought calmly.
“Indeed, I am strapped in as well as can be managed. I am ready to come home.” Guvthor’s voice was particularly cheerful; she couldn’t blame him, she felt rather cheerful herself. She had come to like her shipmates better in the past six months, but still, six months was a long, long time to spend on a vessel with only three other people. It was different when you were completely alone.
“Then prepare for Downbreak into Thovia system.”
“You have made the appropriate fine calculations? I mean no disrespect, of course, but the accuracy needed for this particular maneuver –”
“Is taken care of. Trust me, Doctor, I know exactly what I’m doing. If you’ll recall, that’s why we dropped out of TC eleven lightyears back, so I could make sure we had that level of accuracy.” Three minutes, the indicators reminded her. “Assuming, of course, that the information you have given me on the Thovian system is of equal precision.”
The astrophysicist chuckled. “Of that you may rest completely assured. I will then await our emergence with equanimity.”
It was true that what Guvthor wanted them to do – emerge at the very edge of the conversion limit in the Thovian system, at a specific location which would place them precisely opposite from the Imperial contact settlement – was an impressively difficult challenge. On the other hand, she remembered her last entry to Fanabulax system; that had been even more precise than this.
“Don’t know whether it matters,” Varan muttered as the seconds counted down. “They may have picket satellites everywhere by now.”
“Not if they are willing to abide by my people’s wishes in the matter,” Guvthor said, having overheard. “Several of our Gan Hok Rin – what you might call spirit guides? Priests? Well, no matter, several of them have expressed our strong preference that no artificial satellites be placed within our sky unless they are properly tested and blessed by our tradition, and I am afraid that there has hardly been time for that to occur.”
She saw Varan chewing on that. While she didn’t harbor delusions that the Reborn Empire would never mislead native cultures, it would be very hard to maintain such a lie if you were taking some of its people and educating them, like Guvthor himself, to the point that they’d be able to detect your satellites using their own equipment.
“Downbreak in thirty seconds. We will emerge with all D-tech down or at minimal power so that only the emergence flare can betray us. If passives show no response thirty seconds later, The Eönwyl will power up and follow the course previously discussed.”
Ten seconds. Five. Three. Two… one…
The shrill whine of the Downbreak echoed through the ship and all systems went dim, off or at standby, except the passive sensors. Ahead, a broad dark disk was stamped out of Thovia’s sun; they were directly opposite Thovia’s “day” side, on which – if time-matching were correct – the Imperial presence should be located.
“Such excellent piloting,” Guvthor said in a hushed voice, as though their voices might also be heard. “My compliments, Eönwyl.”
She said nothing, watching the D-scanners tensely. For several seconds, there was nothing.
She almost missed it, at seventeen seconds, when several swift, low-power spikes manifested. She leaned forward, replayed the data, overrode the automatic power-up.
“Eönwyl?” Varan asked tensely.
“Something just barely out of the noise. But something, I’m pretty sure. Spread-spectrum with a lot of tricks – a communication, I think. Without my comm countermeasures suite I’d never have seen it.”
Varan reached for his controls. “If we’ve been detected, we’d better –”
“I’m not sure we have. Wait a few more minutes; I’m still analyzing this. It was an isolated event, which makes some things difficult…”
But there were some indications, the most disquieting being that there was in fact a small but detectable difference in signal strength between the signals detected at the bow array and those in the arc arrays. Which could only mean…
She spoke into the intercom. “Dr. Guvthor, did you activate any equipment following our Downbreak?”
There was a pause. When he answered, Guvthor’s good-humored voice held a note of chagrin. “I cannot deny it, Captain,” he said, her title being spoken without a trace of irony. “I had not expected even your sensor suite to detect it.”
“I will have an explanation, Doctor, and I will have one now,” she said in an iron tone. No one plays games with me on my ship!
“I am afraid not quite yet, Captain.” His response met her steel with his, though there was still nothing but respect in his voice. “You will understand the necessity soon enough, but I must ask you to respect my need to say no more on the matter until then.”
She debated with herself. She still controlled the ship. She could turn The Eönwyl around and Convert out of there, fly onward into the unexplored galaxy, back to the Empire, or anywhere else, and eventually Guvthor could talk or end up marooned on whatever planet amused her fancy.
But that would make the whole trip pointless; they’d come here on Guvthor’s word. Presumably whatever he was doing fit with that plan. He couldn’t be an Imperial spy; he’d had ample opportunity to betray them if he were.
She glanced at Varan, who looked almost ready to explode himself, but was restraining himself out of respect for her position. All right. “Very well, Doctor. But understand that I will not tolerate this level of secrecy or game-playing again, no matter what your cause – and you had better have a very, very good explanation for this time, or you will never set foot on my ship again.”
“Your objections are noted and completely reasonable, Captain, and I apologize for this secrecy. It will not be necessary in the future, and you will, I am confident, agree that it was both necessary and appropriate for this particular time.”
She said nothing. Aside from Guvthor’s mysterious short-lived signal, there hadn’t been a sign of activity anywhere in the system. “All systems powering up.” She nodded to Varan.
The former Imperial officer efficiently laid in a course on DD-drive which would take them to orbit and thence to landing, once they decided on a landing site. “I’m assuming a synchronous orbit – keep us away from the Imperial presence.”
“No, not at all,” Guvthor said to her surprise. “A lower orbit. Let us survey the area; few locations, or – I should say – few habitable locations on Thovia are suitable for even small spacecraft landing sites, and it may be the only reasonable ones available are at the Imperial outpost. It was important to enter the Thovian system without being seen, but now that we are in orbit, such stealth is unnecessary, perhaps even undesirable.”
She stared at the speakers as though the huge Thovian were standing in front of her.
“That makes no sense whatsoever, Guvthor,” Varan said finally.
It makes perfect sense if we assume the Thovian has gone mad, Vick pointed out. Otherwise it is utter nonsense!
Guvthor’s chuckle echoed through the ship. “I assure you it is neither madness nor senseless, and all shall be obvious in time.”
She gave a sigh and shrugged. “We’ve come this far on your word, I suppose we are bound to follow it to the end.”
In about an hour they entered a low orbit around Thovia’s equator. The planet, as shown in the data Guvthor had given them, had three major continents spaced roughly equidistant around the equator, all of them mountainous to a significant degree; plate tectonics were very active here. There was a minimal axial tilt, minimizing the seasonal shifts from one hemisphere to the other; overall the world seemed slightly colder than Imperial ideal, with significant icecaps on both poles and a lot of tundra edging the icecaps. The very large temperate zones were heavily forested on all three continents, although rainshadow in some areas led to wide, grassy plains regions that the Eönwyl commented looked perfectly good to set down on.
“Oh, indeed they are,” agreed the huge alien. “But we do not like the plains areas at all, and so meeting any of us would become problematic.”
So that’s what he meant by “habitable locations”. Places his people are willing to live.
It became quickly obvious that this meant, basically, temperate lowland and mountain forests. The narrow tropics and subtropics were sparsely populated and always in forested, mountainous regions.
There were a few other features of interest – the immense impact crater which had been on the night side when they arrived but which was now coming into dawning view, so huge that it needed no magnification to be seen from thousands of kilometers away. Sensitive night imagery of the dark side of the planet showed faint but detectable glows at many of the river intersections; like nearly all species, the Thovians clearly followed watercourses and built villages or even towns at them.
She did note, unsurprised, that scans showed some evidence of heavy metals, ancient stonework, and other remnants of civilization at many of these primitive locations. Almost every planet in the galaxy has remnants of the Fall. They, too, must have fallen and – only now – recovered.
“I could just clear a landing spot. As a vertical –”
“ABSOLUTELY not, Captain. Under no circumstances must you damage any of the forest unless it is utterly necessary, which it is not. We will contact the Imperial outpost now.”
“Since you’ve decided to give the directions, shall I contact them as The Eönwyl, or would you prefer I claim to be Guvthor Hok Guvthor?”
The booming laugh nearly deafened her. “An audacious lie that would be, but alas, unlikely to be convincing. Be yourself.”
By the Testing I hope this mad Thovian truly knows what he is doing.
“Torline and Niaadea, I second that,” Varan murmured.
And after evading it, we head straight into the dragon’s jaws. She activated the D-comm. “Thovia base, this is Free Trader The Eönwyl calling, requesting clearance to land.”
For long moments, there was no response. Puzzled, she verified the transmission band; their orbit was taking them almost directly over the Imperial outpost. It was impossible that they weren’t receiving. “Thovia base,” she repeated, “Free Trader The Eönwyl currently in orbit, requesting clearance to land.”
Another pause so long that she was opening her mouth to repeat her request a third time when an agitated voice suddenly crackled from the speakers.
“Eönwyl, Eönwyl, this is Imperial Contact Outpost Thovia, repeat, Imperial Contact Outpost Thovia. We request that you land immediately and provide assistance!”
The request was so utterly different from anything she expected that, for a moment, she found herself unable to do anything other than stare into Sasham Varan’s equally dumbfounded eyes. “Um… Outpost Thovia, this is The Eönwyl, we are willing to render assistance.” She was focusing the scanners on the area more closely. “Would you clarify the nature of your…”
The telescopic images of the small Imperial outpost snapped into clarity and suddenly it was not necessary to ask Outpost Thovia what had happened. A gray and brown smear cut through the almost universal dense blue-green of Thovia’s forests, an ugly, ragged-edged stain that began high up on the mountain flank and cut directly through Outpost Thovia. Dust still lingered so thickly in the air that the few remaining buildings were blurred.
“They were lucky any transmitters survived at all,” Varan said grimly.
“Outpost Thovia, this is The Eönwyl. We are on our way. Estimate arrival in twenty minutes. If possible, please get as clear an accounting of personnel as you can so that we know how many people we are looking for. With whom are we speaking?”
The voice on the other end was young, and it shook. Probably, she guessed, because its owner is still shaking at the nearness of death. “E… Eönwyl, thank you, it’s a miracle you’re here in time. We weren’t expecting…” The owner of the voice caught himself, got under control. “Eönwyl, this is Lieutenant Jan Mansteros, Imperial Contact Forces.”
She felt the first tiny vibrations of atmosphere. “Lieutenant, we will be there shortly. Can the natives assist?”
“They are already doing what they can, but all our modern equipment… was in the Outpost buildings.”
That will mean they have no useful medical tools at all short of splints and bandages. She glanced over, saw that Varan had already unstrapped himself. “This could get bumpy.”
A tiny smile flashed out and she realized he was already steadying himself as only a psi could, within the double-walled shielding Vick had installed. “Don’t worry about me. I’m getting all the medical supplies we have together.”
“Good.” She shifted the image focus, saw the cleared strip of lighter green and brown, reactivated the comm. “Lieutenant, the landing field appears clear; I will be putting down there unless you advise otherwise.”
“I … I certainly have no objection. Please land there immediately!”
“In moments only. Seven Standing, Outpost Thovia.”
“Standing and Unfallen,” Lieutenant Mansteros’ tone shifted very slightly; she thought that he might have actually recognized the irony in his situation and the traditional expression. “Standing and Unfallen, Eönwyl. Outpost Thovia out.”
“Gentlemen,” she said over the shipwide comm, “it appears we have arrived just in time to be useful.”
How very convenient.
The three words sent a chill down her spine, though the thought had already been there, waiting to be acknowledged, before Dr. Sooovickalassa’s diamond-hard telepathic words brought it forward.
“Is it not?” agreed the cheerful voice of Guvthor, a voice that somehow seemed much deeper, much darker.
“Is it not convenient, indeed?”