home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      

À Á Â Ã Ä Å Æ Ç È É Ê Ë Ì Í Î Ï Ð Ñ Ò Ó Ô Õ Ö × Ø Ù Ý Þ ß

my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | ôîðóì | collections | ÷èòàëêè | àâòîðàì | add



Anne McCaffrey is a winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Award, a SFWA Grand Master, and an inductee into the SF Hall of Fame. Her work is beloved by generations of readers. She is best known for authoring the Dragonriders of Pern series, but she has also written dozens of other novels. She was born in Cambridge, Mass. in 1926 and currently makes her home in Ireland, in a home named Dragonhold-Underhill.

“The Ship Who Returned,” which first appeared in the anthology Far Horizons, is a sequel to The Ship Who Sang, part of McCaffrey’s Brain and Brawn Ship series. This story follows Helva, a sentient spaceship with the mind of a human girl, as she deals with the death of her human partner and an emergency return to the planet she had saved years before.

Helva had been prowling through her extensive music files, trying to find something really special to listen to, when her exterior sensors attracted her attention. She focused on the alert. Dead ahead of her were the ion trails of a large group of small, medium and heavy vessels. They had passed several days ago but she could still “smell” the stink of the dirty emissions. She could certainly analyze their signatures. Instantly setting her range to maximum, she caught only the merest blips to the port side, almost beyond sensor range.

“Bit off regular shipping routes,” she murmured.

“So they are,” replied Niall.

She smiled fondly. The holograph program had really improved since that last tweaking she’d done. There was Niall Parollan in the pilot’s chair, one compact hand spread beside the pressure plate, the left dangling from his wrist on the armrest. He was dressed in the black shipsuit he preferred to wear, vain man that he’d been: “because black’s better now that my hair’s turned.” He would brush back the thick shock of silvery hair and preen slightly in her direction.

“Where exactly are we, Niall? I haven’t been paying much attention.”

“Ha! Off in cloud-cuckoo land again . . . ”

“Wherever that is,” she replied amiably. It was such a comfort to hear his voice.

“I do believe . . . ” and there was a pause as the program accessed her present coordinates, “we are in the Cepheus Three region.”

“Why, so we are. Why would a large flotilla be out here? This is a fairly empty volume of space.”

“I’ll bring up the atlas,” Niall replied, responding as programmed.

It was bizarre of her to have a hologram of a man dead two months but it was a lot better—psychologically—for her to have the comfort of such a reanimation. The “company” would dam up her grief until she could return her dead brawn to Regulus Base. And discover if there were any new “brawns” she could tolerate as a mobile partner. Seventy-eight years, five months and twenty days with Niall Parollan’s vivid personality was a lot of time to suddenly delete. Since she had the technology to keep him “alive”—in a fashion, she had done so. She certainly had enough memory of their usual interchanges with which to program this charade. She would soon have to let him go but she’d only do that when she no longer needed his presence to keep mourning at bay. Not that she hadn’t had enough exposure to that emotion in her life—what with losing her first brawn partner, Jennan, only a few years into what should have been a lifelong association.

In that era, Niall Parollan had been her contact with Central Worlds Brain and Brawn Ship Administration at Regulus Base. After a series of relatively short and only minimally successful longer-term partnerships with other brawns, she had gladly taken Niall as her mobile half. Together they had been roaming the galaxy. Since Niall had ingeniously managed to pay off her early childhood and educational indebtedness to Central Worlds, they had been free agents, able to take jobs that interested them, not compulsory assignments. They had not gone to the Horsehead Nebula as she had once whimsically suggested to Jennan. The NH-834 had had quite enough adventures and work in this one not to have to go outside it for excitement.

“Let’s see if we can get a closer fix on them, shall we, Niall?”

“Wouldn’t be a bad idea on an otherwise dull day, would it?” Though his fingers flashed across the pressure plates of the pilot’s console, it was she who did the actual mechanics of altering their direction. But then, she would have done that anyway. Niall didn’t really need to, but it pleased her to give him tasks to do. He’d often railed at her for finding him the sort of work he didn’t want to do. And she’d snap back that a little hard work never hurt anyone. Of course, as he began to fail physically, this became lip service to that old argument. Niall had been in his mid-forties when he became her brawn and she the NH-834, so he had had a good long life for a soft-shell person.

“Good healthy stock I am,” the hologram said, surprising her.

Was she thinking out loud? She must have been for the program to respond.

“With careful treatment, you’ll last centuries,” she replied, as she often had.

She executed the ninety-degree course change that the control panel had plotted.

“Don’t dawdle, girl,” Niall said, swiveling in the chair to face the panel behind which her titanium shell resided.

She thought about going into his “routine,” but decided she’d better find out a little more about the “invasion.”

“Why do you call it an invasion?” Niall asked.

“That many ships, all heading in one direction? What else could it be? Freighters don’t run in convoys. Not out here, at any rate. And nomads have definite routes they stick to in the more settled sectors. And if I’ve read their KPS rightly . . . ”

“ . . . Which, inevitably, you do, my fine lady friend . . . ”

“Those ships have been juiced up beyond freighter specifications and they’re spreading dirty stuff all over space. Shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Can’t have space mucked up, can we?” The holo’s right eyebrow cocked, imitating an habitual trait of Niall’s. “And juiced-up engines as well. Should we warn anyone?”

Helva had found the Atlas entries for this sector of space. “Only the one habitable planet in the system they seem to be heading straight for. Ravel . . . ” Sudden surprise caught at her heart at that name. “Of all places.”

“Ravel?” A pretty good program to search and find that long-ago reference so quickly. She inwardly winced at the holo’s predictable response. “Ravel was the name of the star that went nova and killed your Jennan brawn, wasn’t it?” Niall said, knowing the fact perfectly well.

“I didn’t need the reminder,” she said sourly.

“Biggest rival I have,” Niall said brightly as he always did, and pushed the command chair around in a circle, grinning at her unrepentantly as he let the chair swing 360 degrees and back to the console.

“Nonsense. He’s been dead nearly a century . . . ”

“Dead but not forgotten . . . ”

Helva paused, knowing Niall was right, as he always was, in spite of being dead, too. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, having him able to talk back to her. But it was only what he would have said in life anyhow, and had done often enough or it wouldn’t be in the program.

She wished that the diagnostics had shown her one specific cause for his general debilitation so she could have forestalled his death. Some way, somehow.

“I’m wearing out, lover,” he’d told her fatalistically in one of their conversations when he could no longer deny increasing weakness. “What can you expect from a life-form that degenerates? I’m lucky to have lived as long as I have. Thanks to you fussing at me for the last seventy years.”

“Seventy-eight,” she corrected him then.

“I’ll be sorry to leave you alone, dear heart,” he’d said, coming and laying his cheek on the panel behind which she was immured. “Of all the women in my life, you’ve been the best.”

“Only because I was the one you couldn’t have,” she replied.

“Not that I didn’t try,” the hologram responded with a characteristic snort.

Helva echoed it. Reminiscing and talking out loud were not a good idea. Soon she wouldn’t know what was memory and what was programming.

Why hadn’t she used the prosthetic body that Niall had purchased for her—reducing their credit balance perilously close to zero and coming close to causing an irreparable breach between them? He had desperately wanted the physical contact, ersatz as she had argued it would be. The prosthesis would have been her in Niall’s eyes, and arms, since she would have motivated it. And he’d tried so hard to have her. He had supplied Sorg Prosthetics with the hologram statue he’d had made long before he became her brawn, using genetic information from her medical history and holos of her parents and siblings. Until he’d told her, she hadn’t known that there had been other, physically normal children of her parents’ issue. But then, shell-people were not encouraged to be curious about their families: they were shell-people, and ineffably different. He swore blind that he hadn’t maximized her potential appearance—the hologram was of a strikingly good-looking woman—when he’d had a hologram made of her from that genetic information. He’d even produced his research materials for her inspection.

“You may not like it, kid,” he’d said in his usual irreverent tone, “but you are a blond, blue-eyed female and would have grown tall and lissome. Just like I like ’em. Your dad was good-lookin’ and I made you take after him, since daughters so often tend to resemble good ol’ dad. Not that your ma wasn’t a good-looking broad. Your siblings all are, so I didn’t engineer anything but a valid extrapolation.”

“You just prefer blondes, don’t tell me otherwise!”

“I never do, do I?” responded the hologram and Helva brought herself sharply to the present—and the fact she tried to avoid—that the Niall Parollan she had loved was dead. Really truly dead. The husk of what he called his “mortal coil” was in stasis in his quarters. He had died peacefully—not as he had lived, with fuss and fury and fine histrionics. One moment her sensors read his slowly fading life signs—the next second, the thin line of “nothing” as the essence of the personality that had been Niall Parollan departed—to wherever souls or a spiritual essence went.

She who could not weep was shattered. Later she realized that she had hung in space for days, coming to grips with his passing. She had said over and over that they had had a good, long time together: that these circumstances differed from her loss of Jennan after just a few very short years. Jennan had never had a chance to live a full, long, productive life. Niall had. Surely she shouldn’t be greedy for just a little more, especially when for the last decade he had been unable to enjoy the lifestyle that he had followed so vibrantly, so fully, in such a raucous nonconformist spirit. Surely she had learned to cope with grief in her last hundred years. That was when she realized that she couldn’t face the long silent trip back to Regulus Base. He’d insisted that he had a right to be buried with other heroes of the Service since he’d had to put up so much with them and especially her, all these decades. They had been a lot closer to Regulus at the time that subject had come up. But she was determined to grant that request.

There were no other brain ships anywhere in her spatial vicinity to contact and act as escort. She and Niall had been on a primary scouting sweep of unexplored star systems. She might have resented that first escort back from Ravel with Jennan’s body. Not that there was much chance of her suiciding this time. She’d passed that test on the first funereal return to Regulus Base. Which is when the notion to program a facsimile had occurred to her. So it was a way to delay acceptance? Surely she could be allowed this aberration—if aberration it was. She didn’t have to mention the matter to Regulus. They’d be glad enough to have her ready to take another partner. Experienced B&B ships were always in demand for delicate assignments. She was one of their best, her ship-self redesigned and crammed with all the new technology that had been developed for brain ships, and stations. Like that damned spare body Niall had bought and which she had never used. She couldn’t. She simply couldn’t inhabit the Sorg prosthesis. Oh, she knew that Tia did and the girl was glad of the ability to “leave” the shell and ambulate. Lovely word, “ambulate.” She and Niall had had some roaring arguments over the whole notion of prosthesis.

“You’d fit me out with a false arm or leg, if I lost one, wouldn’t you?” had been one of Niall’s rebuttals.

“So you could walk or use the hand, yes, but this is different.”

“Because you know what I’d be using on you, don’t you?” He was so close to her panel that his face had been an angry blur. He’d been spitting at her intransigence. “And you don’t want any part of my short arm, do you?”

“At least they can’t replace that in prosthesis,” she’d snarled.

“Wanna bet?” He’d whirled away, back to his command chair, sprawling into it, glaring at her panel. “Trouble is, with you, girl, you’re aged in the keg. Set in plascrete. You don’t know what you’re missing!” And he was snarling with bitterness.

Since she considered herself tolerant and forward thinking, that accusation had burned. It still did. Maybe, after all, she was too old in her head to contemplate physical freedom. But she could not make use of that empty body-shell as something she, Helva, could manipulate. Not all the brain ships she had spoken to about the Sorg prosthesis had found it a substitute for immolation in a shell. And some of them had been just commissioned, too. Of course, Tia—Alex/Hypatia AH-1033—had once been a walking, unshelled person as a child. Maybe, as Niall had vociferously bellowed at the top of his lungs at her, Helva needed to have her conditioning altered: a moral update. For a brain ship, she wasn’t that old, after all. Why couldn’t she have accepted the prosthesis when he wanted so desperately for her to use it? She and Niall had been partnered a long time, so how could it have altered their special relationship to have added to it that final surrender of self? She really hadn’t thought of herself as a technological vestal virgin, one of the epithets Niall had flung at her. She wasn’t prudish. She’d just been conditioned to accept herself, as she was, so thoroughly that to be “unshelled” was the worst imaginable fate. Using the prosthetic body was not at all the same thing as being unshelled, he had shouted back at her. While she had been sensorily deprived once, she hadn’t also been out of her shell. Nearly out of her mind, yes, but not out of the shell. But she couldn’t, simply could not, oblige. Oblige? No, she couldn’t oblige Niall in that way. A weak word to define a response to his unreasonable, but oh-so-much masculine request. Well, she had refused. Now she wished she hadn’t. But if Niall were still living, would she have relented? Not likely, since it was his death that had now prompted remorse for that omission.

“Preferably before I became impotent, my girl,” and this was the holo speaking.

“If you knew how sorry I am, Niall . . . ” she murmured.

Information started to chatter in from her sensors. She didn’t quite recall having asked for a spectrographic analysis of the ion trail. Such an action was so much a part of her standard operating procedure that she supposed, in between self-castigation and listening to her Niall program, that she had automatically instigated it.

“Well, well, armed and loaded for bear, huh?”

“Yeah,” Niall in holo replied, “but what sort of bear?”

“Those religious fanatics on Chloe had used fur rugs to keep warm . . . so the analogy is accurate enough,” she replied, amused to have been so accurate. “I remember they went merrily off to . . . ”

“Merrily?” Niall’s voice cracked in dismay. “That lot never heard the word. So what’s hunting bear in this volume of space?” he asked.

“Well, now hear this, dear friend. They’re on that habitable planet which, being the gluttons for punishment they seemed to be when I first met them, they have named Ravel.”

“No doubt a penitential derived gimmick to remind them of their sins,” Niall said in a dour tone.

Helva analyzed the report. “Got an ID on the visitors. Pirates,” she said, for her data files had been able to match the emissions with those of Kolnari raiders. Small—yachts more likely—and some medium-sized spaceships, probably freighters, gutted and refitted for piratical practices and two heavier but older cruiser-sized vessels.

The Niall holo whipped the chair round, staring at her. (Mind you, the program was very good to get this sort of reaction so quickly.) “Kolnari? The bastards that attacked your space-station friend, Simeon?”

“The very same. Not all of those fanatics got captured when Central World’s Navy tried to round all of them up.”

“Wily fiends, those Kolnari.” And the holo’s expression was dead serious. “Last info from Regulus suggested that two groups, possibly four, had escaped completely. Even one group’s more than enough bear-hunters to ravage Ravel with their modus operandi.” The holo slammed both hands on the armrests in frustration.

“I wonder that there are any still alive. After all, the virus that Dr. Chaundra let loose on them was one of the most virulent ever discovered.” She gave a sigh. “The Kolnari were dying in droves.”

The Kolnari—a dissident splinter group that had so adapted to the conditions of their harsh home planet that they were considered a human subspecies—were known to have an incredible ability to adapt to and survive otherwise fatal diseases, viruses and punishing planetary conditions. They had a short life span, maturing when other male human types were only hitting puberty, but the short generations were dangerous despite the limitation. They raided wherever they could, planets, space platforms or freighter convoys, using the human populations or crews as slaves and refitting the captured vessels to their uses—piracy. After their nearly successful raid on Space Station 900, Central Worlds Navy was reasonably certain they had destroyed the main body of peripatetic Kolnari units. They were on alert to locate, and destroy on sight, any other units.

“Huh!” Niall snorted. “Adapting to that particular virus would be just the sort of thing the Kolnari would be able to do, given their perverse nature and crazy metabolism.”

“I’m afraid you could be right. Who else would be insane enough to run ships in that condition? Even nomads don’t get that sloppy about emissions,” Helva said.

“Not if they wish to continue their nomadic existence if they’re leaving a system on the sly. Are you being wise to go after Kolnari?” Niall asked, a trace of anxiety in his tone. “You’d constitute a real prize.”

Helva did a mental shudder, all too vividly reminded of what the Kolnari leader, Belazir t’Marid, had nearly done to the space-station brain, Simeon. Odd that Niall would remind her of that. She knew she’d done a good program but . . . Could she rationally believe in the transmigration of souls? Or that the holo was the ghost of the real Niall?

“I can no more leave those Ravel idiots to the Kolnari than I could to the damned nova. And it is sort of poetic justice,” she said with a sigh. “Let’s see. It’s nearly a hundred years since I had to transport them off their planet before their sun fried it. It took time for Central Worlds to find such a suitably remote star system where they would be safe from both nova stars and any profanity from the evils that beset mere men. Let’s hope that they have some sort of modern equipment protecting them. If not against novas, at least against predators. Ah! The Atlas says the sun’s stable. And there is, or was, a space facility for incoming converts.”

“Ha!” The holo gave a bark of disgust. “Any satellite systems?”

“None mentioned. No contact in the past forty years, in fact. Well, I’m about to break into their meditations or whatever it is they do down there. There’s nothing but females on that planet. I can’t let Kolnari get their hands on all those innocent pious virgins, now can I?”

“It’d be fun to watch, though,” said a totally unrepentant Niall.

“Shut up, you prurient sadist,” she said as firmly as possible. Maybe she should also shut the program down. No, she needed him, one way or the other, because embedded in that program was the distillation of seventy-eight years of experience . . . his and hers.

“I was never a sadist, my dear Helva,” he said haughtily, and then grinned wickedly. “I’ll admit to hedonism but none of my women ever minded my attention . . . bar you! Have you considered a pulse to any listening Central Worlds units of the imminent unRaveling disaster?”

“I am and”—she paused as she put the final URGENT ALL EYES tag on the beam—“and it’s away.”

For the first time she experienced a touch of relief that she could approach the group without defiling it by the presence of a male. She’d pause the program—since Niall seemed to talk without any cues from her. Quite likely she wouldn’t have as much trouble this time persuading them to seek whatever hidden shelters the planet might provide. Possibly the fact that she had saved them once before would weigh in their obedience to her urgings to make themselves as scarce as possible when the Kolnari arrived. Whatever! She wouldn’t let them be victims to Kolnari rape and brutality. And Ravel was only a minor detour from the way to Regulus. She not only felt better to have something useful to do after going into a fugue over Niall’s death but also was revived by the need. As she had been needed at Ravel, as Jennan’s father had been at Parsaea. True tragedy occurred when those who could have helped were not there when needed. She was here. She was needed. Vigor flowed through the tubes that supplied her nutrient fluids.

“Feeling on form, are you?” the holo asked brightly. “Thatta girl! We gotta do what we gotta do. Data suggests that there’ll be a lot of small settlements, cloisters they call ’em. They’ve increased their population from the Chloe figures.” He sighed. “There isn’t enough of the geo-ecological survey to show possible refuges. Planet’s high on vegetation though.”

“Lots of forests and lots of mountains and valleys. Plenty of cover if they separate. Make it that much harder for the Kolnari to tag ’em even from the air. That is, if they keep their wits about them,” Helva said, charged with hope. “They need only lie doggo until the Fleet arrives.”

“That is”—and the holo’s tone was cynical—”if the Fleet has any squadrons near enough to send in timely fashion or decides such a splinter group is worth saving. I’ve never heard of their type of Faith . . . the Inner Marian Circle. Who’s this Marian they worship?”

“In this case, ‘marian’ is an adjective and refers to Mary, mother of Jesus.”

“Oh . . .  and what’s an inner circle then?”

“I don’t know and it scarcely matters, does it? We have to warn them.”

“Maybe there isn’t anyone left to warn,” Niall suggested. “Hey, did you just say they’ve increased their population from the Chloe figures? How does a celibate religious order perpetuate its membership?”

“Converts,” she suggested. She often had wondered how such minorities did manage to continue to practice a faith that rejected procreation as a sin. “There was a new shipment forty years ago.”

“Ach!” and Niall dismissed that. “Even if they converted preteens, how could the present inhabitants run fast enough at fifty-odd years to escape galloping Kolnari?”

“Parthenogenesis?” she suggested.

“That is, at least, virgin birth.” And he snickered.

“That would go with the theories about Mary.”

Niall snorted. “That was just the first recorded case of exogenesis.”

“Possibly, but it doesn’t detract from the Messiah’s effect on man . . .  and woman . . . kind.”

“I’ll allow that.”

“Big of you.”

“To the realities, woman,” he said, stirring forward in his chair. “First we have to find out if there’s anyone to rescue. AND if there’s any safe place to send them so the Kolnari don’t get ’em until the Fleet heaves into sight. I wouldn’t wish that bunch on my worst enemy . . . Even my second-worst enemy.”

Helva had been scanning the file on the Kolnari. “They might be looking for a new home base. Central Worlds sterilized their planet of origin.”

“Then let’s not let them have this Ravel, which seems to be a nice planet. Wouldn’t want the neighborhood to go to such dogs . . . ”

“They have an indigenous sort of canine on Ravel. Have you been speed-reading ahead of me again?” she asked, surprised because the list of local fauna was just coming up for her to peruse.

Most of the M-type planets we’ve been on have some sort of critter in the canine slot. Cats don’t always make it.” And he shot a snide glance at her. He was a dog person but she had long ago decided she liked the independence of felines. They could argue the merits of the two species quite happily on their journeys between star systems. “Planet does have predators. Furthermore, our Inner Circle does not have any weaponry and does not hunt. They’re vegetarians.” He grinned around at her again.

“So it’s all organic material?” Helva asked at her most innocent, playing on the theme.

“Just the kind of organic virgin material the Kolnari adore.” The holo rubbed its hands together and leered.

She ignored that. “Temperate climate, too. Makes a change from Chloe, which was frozen most of the time.”

“What! No harsh temperatures to mortify the body and soul?”

“No! And a good basic ecology, which they don’t interfere with. Haven’t even domesticated any of the indigenous beasts for use, but then, this entry is forty years old, dating from the last landfall. They live in harmony with their environment, it says here, and do not plunder it.”

“Which sure does leave them wide-open to being plundered themselves. Which is about to happen. Though, when all’s said and done, I wouldn’t like to see them plundered or deflowered among their vegetable patches by the Kolnari.”

“Nor will we permit it,” Helva said fiercely, although she devoutly hoped that she wouldn’t meet with the incredulity and pious fatalism that she’d encountered the first time and which, obliquely, had caused Jennan’s death.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t know what I could do to help you. You know my reputation with women . . . ” the holo began.

“I’ll do the talking,” she said, firmly interrupting him.

He leaned back in his chair, idly swinging it on the gimbals. “I wonder if they added you to their Inner Circle as a savior.”

“Nonsense. None of the original group would be still alive. They didn’t believe in artificially prolonging life . . . ”

“All cures provided by prayer?”

“Avoiding all impure substances. Like Kolnari.”

Niall cocked his head at her. “Maybe they’ll welcome the Kolnari as a trial sent by whatever Universal Deity they revere . . . ” He paused, scowling. “Mary was never a god, was she? Goddess, I mean? Any rate, would they consider the Kolnari have been sent to test their faith?”

“I’m hoping not. What do we have left of the tapes Simeon recorded?”

“I opine that you would be referring to the rape scene? My favorite of them all,” Niall said, and his fingers tapped a sequence. “You wouldn’t actually dare to play that back at those innocents . . . ”

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” she quoted at him. “If we have to tour as much of the planet as Jennan and I had to on Chloe, I’m going to need to use a sharp, fast lesson. I can rig a hologram for them to see,” she added, since she was pleased with the way she handled holographic programming.

“If you do half as well with that program as you have with mine, it’ll work, honey.”

That remark startled Helva and she activated a magnification of his holographic image. But it was the hologram . . . one could see just the faintest hint of the light source. How could Niall know that he was a holo? Then she remembered the one they had done together at Astrada III when he had had to replay an historical event to prove a point to a skeptical audience. Surely that was his reference.

“I can’t find any indication of how large the population is,” she added, having replayed the entry on Ravel several times.

“Might be they don’t keep an accurate census. Do they even have a space facility?”

“No, but they do have a satellite with a proximity alarm!” she cried in triumph.

“And how far away is the nearest inhabited system that’d hear it, much less act?” Niall wanted to know. “Probably contains no more than the usual silly warning . . . ” And he chanted in the lifeless tones of an automated messager, “ . . .  This . . . Is . . . An . . . Interdicted Planet. You . . . Will Not . . . Proceed Further.” He abandoned that tone and, in a pious falsetto, added, “Or you’ll get a spanking when the Fleet comes.”

Helva gave him the brief chuckle he would have expected. “Our message will prompt action. No one ignores a B&B ship message.”

“And rightly so,” Niall said, loyally fierce, pounding one fist for emphasis on the desk.

There was no sound attached to that action. She’d have to work on that facet . . . when she’d managed to preserve the Chloists, or Chloe-ites or Inner Marian Circle Ravellians from the imminent arrival of the Kolnari. She’d have to be sure they knew just how dangerous and bloody-minded the Kolnari were so they’d make themselves as scarce as possible.

Helva was now speeding along the ion trail, its dirty elements all the more pronounced as she reduced the distance separating them. She’d overtake the flotilla within twenty hours. And arrive at Ravel four or five days ahead of them. She’d have to start decelerating once she passed the heliopause, but so would the Kolnari.

“Don’t forget to cloak,” Niall said, rising from his chair. He stretched until she was sure she could hear the sinews popping: which, she reminded herself, is why she hadn’t added more than vocal sound to the holo. Stretching he was allowed, but not the awful noise he’d make popping his knucklebones. “I’d better get some shut-eye before the party begins.”

“Good idea. I’ll work on the hologram while you’re resting and call you for a critique.”

Niall the holo walked across the main compartment and to the aisle and down to Niall’s quarters. Did it never realize that it melded with Niall’s stasis-held body on the bunk?

She’d almost forgotten the cloaking mechanism that bent light and sensory equipment around the ship itself. She’d only used that device once and had held that up to Niall as a really unnecessary piece of technology for a B&B ship to waste credit on. So, it was coming in handy again. B&B ships had no weaponry with which to defend themselves and vanishing provided a much more effective evasion than the tightest, most impervious shielding.

As she judiciously edited the tapes from the Kolnari occupation of Space Station 900, she mulled over the first encounter with the Chloe-ites. At least this time her brawn couldn’t be killed, however unintentional Jennan’s death had been. She also had more tricks in her arsenal than she had had as that raw young brain ship.

She sped along and, well before any sensors the Kolnari might have could track her approach, she went into cloak. Of course, they became spots on her sensors, rather than three-dimensional ships. Still, by the size of the signals as she passed them, she learned a good deal about them. To begin with, there were more than she had anticipated, even taking into consideration all the dirty emissions. None of this lot matched the signatures of any of those that had attacked her friend, Simeon: not that that provided her with any consolation.

The Kolnari fleet was an incredible mixture of yachts, large and small, prizes of other Kolnari attacks—a round dozen of them, stuffed far above the optimum capacity with bodies: some evidently stashed in escape pods as last-resort accommodation. The conditions on board those ships would have been desperate even if the life-support systems managed to cope with such overloading. Three medium-sized freighters, equally jam-packed with little and large Kolnaris. Two destroyer types, quite elderly, but these were loaded with missiles and other armaments. Two of the freighters were hauling drones, five apiece, which cut down on the speed at which the entire convoy could travel. Four drones contained nothing but ammunition, missiles and spare parts: the fifth probably food as she got no metallic signals from it. Nineteen ships. A veritable armada and certainly able to overwhelm the inhabitants of Ravel. Which was undoubtedly why that luckless planet had been picked.

She pulsed an update of her earlier message with these details to the nearest Fleet facility—a good ten days away even by the speed of a pulse. The Admiralty had sworn blind that they intended to wipe Kolnari pirates out of space forever. So here was a chance for an ambitious picket commander to make that clean sweep and get a promotion. A small, modern force could easily overwhelm this shag-bag-rag-bag of barely spaceworthy vehicles. On the other hand, the Kolnari would fight to the last male child able to wield a weapon or fire a missile . . .  and they had rather a few of those. Even Kolnari females were vicious fighters. Reviewing what was known of their lifestyle, it was likely a great many of the women were slaves, captured and forced to breed up more Kolnari offspring.

She sped on, wishing she had more information on the Chloes. Living close to nature on another planet was fine in theory, but practice was another thing altogether. As the original religious group had found out the hard way on Daphnis and Chloe a hundred years ago.

She had completed a holographic account of the less palatable habits of the Kolnari, including the modus operandi of their invasion of the peaceful planet, Bethel. The Tri-D coverage had been found in the space wreckage and used in the trial against those that had been captured at SS900. She was delighted to have found the one that showed vividly how the Kolnari dealt with anyone who defied them. That was the short sharp lesson she needed to project. She edited it, added some voice-over, and then programmed the exterior vid systems to play it.

That ought to cut down the waste of time spent arguing. She wanted every single female resident of Ravel safely hidden away when the Kolnari arrived.

• • • | Federations | • • •