Aphelion

The Sea Between Two Skies

Alaam had been operating on Earth for several months as a semi-independent trader while the Positive Vector flew salvage missions to the old front lines, finding the best deals and intelligence on the most valuable wrecks for his shipmates, when the Other approached him. Wayfarer, it called itself: a vraisi-wri, from a reclusive colony with a disturbing problem.

The colony of Sea-Between-Two-Skies, on Lagoon, is a peaceful place inhabited by a secretive people who see themselves as immortal and unforgetting. A month ago, however, something crashed into this world that caused those vraisi-wri who witnessed its arrival – or who later investigated – to forget what they had experienced. And to a vraisi-wri a break in the chain of their consciousness is as alien as passing through death and into life again.

Wayfarer found Alaam, predictably enough, in a bar in London’s interface zone. The vraisi-wri was looking for a ship and crew to help remove the source of the strange, psionic disturbance from its world, taking tenders and comparing ship statistics. The Positive Vector, by dint of its advanced sensor array and considerable renown, top of the list. Alaam accepted the offer after a night’s pharmaceutically-assisted medication, and – while Yan’s initial reaction to being directed to fill a quarter of the Positive Vector’s internal payload capacity with saline at the L1 docks wasn’t exactly delighted – the rest of the crew accepted the job after selling their last load of valuable scrap. Wayfarer arranged a competition between the crews of the leading vessels, the Positive Vector and the Song of the Void, a jeriyd Free Fringe ship. The PV crewers only secured the job when Yan Vogel accepted an insane challenge – to walk a tightrope with the avian captain Steelfeather to demonstrate the suicidal bravery that Alaam had warned their rivals of. Fortunately, Steelfeather’s challenge was a bluff: when Yan accepted the dare, the jeriyd agreed with Alaam: if the Positive Vector crew were interested in a job, it was probably more trouble than it was worth…

Meanwhile, Ethan Wolfe, a former BETA officer who served the mutineers as an intelligence analyst during the war, was preparing to begin a period of leave before having to make a decision on whether or not to return to the Bureau. As he packed, however, he was summoned to a virtual conference with one of the Assistant Directors. A lead on an escaped New Blood vessel – a mysterious craft, a heavy cruiser apparently modified for speed and somehow able to slip through the blockade of Aurum – had appeared in London, in the form of a vraisi-wri recruiting salvage crews for an unusual mission. The Other hadn’t revealed the salvage target but it had described the hazards of the mission, and these correlated amazingly well with a strange effect observed when the New Blood cruiser ran the blockade: the picket ships sent to intercept it seemed unable to see it, apparently forgetting their mission well before they came into effective engagement range. If Wolfe would agree to arrange passage with this alien and to travel as an observer, the United Nation would pay his passage in return for a report on what he discovered. And once this report was transmitted, his sabbatical would have begun.

Interstellar flights are expensive, even for rich who somehow emerged from the civil war with considerable fortunes, so Wolfe accepted the deal. He contacted an old acquaintance, Durante Andarius, captain of the Twilit Vesper, a stealthy fast transport recently retained by the PV, and booked a luxurious cabin for the duration. Captain Andarius did not disclose the nature of his passenger to Yan, and Wolfe saw no reason to reveal that he was officially engaged to observe for the government. He did, however, make it clear on the journey that he had a talent for engaging with Otherworlders, a gift for languages and a knowledge of New Blood ships and systems that might prove surprisingly useful…

The Positive Vector arrived in orbit of the inner-system gas giant Lagoon and discovered that the world was encircled by a thin, oceanic layer of water floating on high-pressure gases and immediately below a layer of oxygen-rich atmosphere that created an environment that humans, ephinri and ursids could survive for some time. Beneath the waves was evidence of an advanced civilisation, spread very thinly through the vast volume within this delicate bubble of water.

Before long the PV had located a likely candidate for the source of the trouble: a floating Liberty-class cruiser close to an iceberg settlement Wayfarer identified as Ice Dancing. Scanning through the active atmosphere and into the deep gravity well revealed only limited data, but Michael Bishop and Urork were able to calculate that the vessel should not be floating – that its hull must contain a large volume of air or vacuum. If the craft was more like an armoured freighter than a cruiser, what was it carrying…?

Safely descending through Lagoon’s atmosphere to Dancing Ice took the Twilit Vesper and the Deep Angel, Wayfarer’s transport, two days. Moving any faster would have risked generating enough heat or pressure to trigger a firestorm in the volatile atmosphere, and detours were necessary to avoid titanic storms and naturally-occurring conflagrations. The Vesper landed on the ice while the Deep Angel slipped into the cold waters. Moments later a welcoming committee emerged and crawled or floated onto the ice, Wayfarer and a local leader calling itself the Choreographer leading the way. Choreographer greeted the Otherworlders and then congratulated Wayfarer on its efficiency:

“The ephrini team are already at the wreck.”

Wayfarer hadn’t even approach an ephrini crew on Earth so it was immediately apparent that these were interlopers. However, the ephrini leader had known Wayfarer’s name and had details of the mission, which Wayfarer had planned to reveal only to the crew it hired. The ephrini must have had contacts or agents on Earth to Wayfarer’s details, but knowledge of the salvage mission could only have come from prior knowledge of the ship and its cargo. How they found Lagoon was a question that troubled everyone, as the destination was revealed after transition to Yan and Lehak, the PV’s Navigator. They could not have followed the PV and yet arrived first…

The crew went below the waters to enter the city proper. They quickly learned two things. The first was hat under permanently stormy skies the cool, chemical-rich oceans were not dark but filled with bioluminescence from native and vraisian life. The second was a crash course in thermodynamics, as everyone realised just how they lost heat from their suits in the water compared to a vacuum environment. No-one was harmed but it was clear that survival in these waters would be a matter of hours using their space-optimised equipment. The vraisi-wri proved to be friendly and accommodating hosts, but they resisted any attempts to pry into their society, reacting with nervousness or avoidance to any questions about social structures, economics or the relationship between this colony and others. It seemed to the visitors that Dancing Ice was home to relatively few individuals, and more of a trading most and manufactory than a settlement. Most vraisi-wri seemed to swim with pods of vast, whale-like vessels, each the size of a tower block.

It was decided that approaching the wreck stealthily would be safest, and the Choreographer directed one of the cetaships to act as a mobile base. The massive vessel swam at full speed to the limit of the “zone of madness” and held position while Wayfarer and the others took the Deep Angel onwards.

They did not encounter the effect immediately: the radius of forgetfulness seemed to have diminished dramatically since the last vraisi-wri investigations. Soon the bulk of the Liberty-class was seen on the sonar, mass sensors and even visualised by floating drones. She was obviously a modified cruiser, with its forward armament and middle main drive module replaced by some kind of axial structure that added about a hundred meters to the her length. The aft drive module had been replaced by two outboard drives, giving the ship four main thrusters instead of the usual three and confirming it – to Ethan Wolfe – as the mysterious blockade runner. The ship floated naturally, with no significant patterning signature. It had come to rest with its dorsal hanger bay underwater and only the smooth, curving sheet of armour that was its ventral hull exposed to the wind and rain above the waves.

Sitting on this hull was a large craft of distinctly Ephradan design, large enough to be an in-system craft or orbital drop ship.

The lateral cargo and personnel airlocks and escape pod hatches were all just below the waterline and so access would inevitably involve some diving.

They decided to take the Deep Angel in to the hanger and use the main airlocks there. Wayfarer ordered the craft to descend and approach – and then…

“Well, it’s not here,” said Yan. “It was clearly a ghost on the sensors. Let’s fly a search pattern and head back if we can’t reacquire it.”

…they encountered the effect. Suddenly the massive ship vanished for everyone but Alaam, even for the sentient mind of the Deep Angel, which continued its approach heedless of the wall of metal it was approaching at speed.

Alaam tried and failed to convince the others of the danger, then, in desperation, he formed psionic barriers for the group, significantly draining his powers but instantly cancelling the effect on the minds of his companions. The Deep Angel dived frantically, then looped up to head in towards to hanger.

“There is a hole in my mind,” Wayfarer said, wonderingly, aware of the clean break in continuity of his memories. More used to horror from his adventures in Known Space than his compatriots, however, it remained sane and was able to calm the Deep Angel.

The cruiser’s frame-gravity was non-functional, meaning that what would normally be the landing strip was the ceiling of the chamber. This wasn’t a problem, but the PV crew knew that Liberty-class ships were built to a tower configuration inside their main hulls, and with only the faintest hint of spatial patterning coming from the ship’s matrices, they would find all pressurised space inside the at 90-degrees to the orientation of the decks. Swimming up to the service hatch in the hanger, however, was no problem, and they quickly gained access to a fully-functioning airlock thanks to some shortcuts and Ethan Wolfe was able to exploit.

Beyond the airlock was an EVA control room designed for the same gravity as the hanger, and therefore upside-down to the salvage team. The space was dimly lit – yellow alert indictators were flashing and green luminescent markers outlined the doors and zero-g handgrips, colouring the grey minimum-power-usage emergency light. Wayfarer floated out first, followed by Wolfe – who froze as three armoured Ephradans appeared from cover at the corners of the chamber and demanded their surrender. Threatened, Wayfarer’s chameleon instinct kicked in and it vanished from sight in the gloom. Two of the ephrini immediately opened fire with rapid-fire laser weapons, one shot actually hitting and incapacitating the vraisi-wri who drifted, unseen, into a rack of space suits.

Alaam managed to get the ephrini to stop shooting and there followed a brief stand-off which ended when Ethan Wolfe released a spider-like smart grenade. The PV followed him into cover and Wayfarer phased through a bulkhead… And while no-one saw what happened next, the results were impressive. The leader of the Ephradans was stabilised and questioned, revealing that he was loyal to the True Empress Arralenzia Dorru, recently deposed by the pro-peace faction responsible for pulling the Imperium out of the Blood War, and under the command of someone he called the Margravine. The ship was the UNS Longinus Lance, a mobile weapons platform created with Ephradan help to destroy the durak base in the Delta Pavonis system, a strategic move that should have ensured New Blood victory by shutting off the Ursan Clans’ access to the Sol Sector. The ship was equipped with a railgun that used weaver-jump technology to accelerate a projectile to relativistic velocities and an ancient ephrini artefact – a crystaline psionic amplifier called a cathedral, one of the devices left behind by the power which “uplifted” the ephrini and spread them across their many homeworlds a million years ago. The cathedral had originally been “set” to produce a cloaking effect, but the crew of the Longinus Lance had been able to rearrange its elements to project a signal that another cathedral could detect. The humans aboard, the ephrini captain revealed, were all technicians and engineers first and foremost, but there was a force of 15 “True Imperial” Moderati in the area. The New Bloods and the Ephradans were maintaining radio silence and using their psionics sparingly to avoid detection, which meant that the PV crew still had the element of surprise – but that the Moderatus genuinely did not know where the other ephrini warriors were.

Yan and Alaam went into secret conference and quickly formed a plan to dispose of the terrible weapon in the depths of the gas giant. They would take Wolfe and enter the main hull, heading for the engineering control area, while Wayfarer and Captain Andarius attempted to sabotage the Ephradan transport to force the Margravine to negotiate.

Wayfarer and Durante slipped out and into the water via a lateral airlock, avoid detection by a pair of aquatic ephrini patrolling the outer hull. They moved over the armour, Durante keeping low and using sensor blisters and point-defence launchers as cover while Wayfarer had a much easier journey, its symbiotically-chameleonic armour providing all the camouflage it needed in the driving rain. At the ship, Durante released one of Wolfe’s spider grenades into the engine of the vessel… But unfortunately, the Margravine was aboard and was a potent psionic with precognitive powers. Sensing danger, she stormed out of the ship with her guard and seized Wayfarer in a telekinetic vice – while Durante, unable to help against seven Moderati, slipped away.

In the hold, Yan and the others completed their mission, with Yan seizing control of the ship’s systems from the unsuspecting crew thanks to the engineering skillwire implated in Batulathras. The technicians immediately began to take control of local systems but Yan had the advantage and could maintain at least equal control indefinitely…

Negotiations began, with the Margravine holding Wayfarer hostage and Yan claiming to have all the Vogel ships in orbit. The Margravine did not seem phased, as she orderer her battlecruiser to leave the cover of the ring system and approach the PV. The ephrini lady was primarily interested in recovering the cathedral, which is part of a larger whole in the control of the True Imperialists – and pledged to destroy the weapon after it had ensured the abdication of the pretender to the throne. Yan and Wayfarer could not face the prospect of an invisible and invincible weapon, however, and refused even to contemplate surrendering the cathedral to the ephrini counter-revolutionaries. The detonation of the grendade, which crippled the ephrini transport and caused it to slide, smoking, into the sea, put the two parties on a more even footing.

The tension broke when the one of the hatches of the damage control room, from which Yan, Alaam and Ethan Wolfe were negotiating, began to open.

“But I locked them in the engine room…!” Yan protested.

“You locked a crew of engineers in the engine room!” Wolfe pointed out, seizing the lock-wheel.

As Wolfe fought a losing battle to hold the door closed Alaam pushed his automatic shotgun into the opening and fired blindly. There was a spray of blood and Wolfe was suddenly able to close and jam the hatch. After a moment’s silence, Yan began firing the point-defences on the ventral hull and flacknets and glittersand rained down on the armour. The Margravine and her guard had to switch all of their effort to creating a telekinetic shield to deflect the onslaught, and Wayfarer, released, dived through the hull to safety.

Everyone called in reinforcements: the Deep Angel rose up, weapons hot, and the Twilit Vesper came screaming in on a supersonic course that triggered several firestorms en route while a squadron of fighter drones was launched into the atmosphere by the Margravine’s cruiser. Yan released the locking mechanisms, activated the evacuation alarm and set his plan in action: the cargo ports opened and the fuel pumps began to fill the ship’s empty tanks with seawater. The Longinus Lance listed and rolled drunkenly; everyone ran. As the weapons bay filled with water the ship pitched forward and began to descend…

In orbit the PV was forced to retreat, at speed, but the battlecruiser couldn’t match its realspace thrust and broke of pursuit in order to secure the skies for a rescue of the New Bloods and the Margravine’s group. Yan and the others were picked up by the Deep Angel and waited until the downed cruiser sank, accelerating through the water in a storm of bioluminescent shock. The Navigator and the Moderati guard left tied up in the hanger control room went down with the ship, but a large number of escape pods surfaced and deploy floatation gear. Yan declared the mission successful, and they headed back to Dancing Ice.

All sign of the Longinus Lance was lost before the Ephradan cruiser could intervene, and the vraisi-wri had soon assembled enough of a force to threaten the ship. The Margravine retreated.

Before the Positive Vector departed, Wayfarer offered his services as leader of the Deep Angels fighter company to Yan, who accepted on condition that the vraisi-wri ships make do with a dry hanger. Ethan Wolfe also took a cabin as a paying passenger, the Positive Vector allowing more personal space than the Twilit Vesper, despite the luxurious design of the latter’s short-haul cabins.

Some time later, Zal Vogel asked her son why he’d accepted what might be the last mission of the Blood War.

“Do you enjoy the fighting now?”

He couldn’t answer her honestly.

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