I have a message from another time...
The only sound in Corwin Ravenhair's tiny, self-contained universe was his own breathing, louder and harsher than he was used to hearing it, as it reverberated in the enclosed world of his space helmet.
Carefully and deliberately, avoiding undue haste but not dawdling, he pulled himself along a magnetically-affixed grappling line that stretched across the void in front of him to the hull of the vast vessel a few dozen yards "below". It took him perhaps a minute to reach the ship and mag his bootsoles to the hull plating, at which point he cast off the grappling line and clicked his push-to-talk twice without speaking. The line disappeared from his field of view as it was retracted from the other end. He turned his head, leaned back, and brought the vessel he'd come from into view.
Barely visible against the starfield, the black hull of the
He disengaged one boot magnet, "lowered" himself into a kneeling position, and engaged the magnetic clamps in his vacsuit's gloves, then killed the other boot mag and carefully hand-over-handed along the much bigger vessel's surface, following an exposed conduit aft to an opening in the heavily armored hull that was about ten feet in diameter. Easing himself to the edge of this opening, he double-checked his suit's chron, then looked over the edge.
"Below" lay a conical chamber about a dozen feet deep, its wider end forming the opening in the hull plating into which Corwin was looking. The bottom appeared to be a blank, featureless surface that blended with the walls to form a single smooth contour. Corwin eased himself over the edge and climbed "down" the sloping, curved wall until he was hovering just above the flat at the bottom, then clicked his PTT twice again and waited.
Six agonizing seconds later, the flat "floor" of the chamber began to slide until a hole appeared, opening in a lenticular shape and fattening until it revealed itself to be a circular passage, of a diameter matching that of the chamber floor, through some intervening mass of metal into an inner darkness: the core element of a gigantic ball valve. If the ship's sublight drive systems had been active, superheated plasma would have been diverted from the central thrust tunnel of one of the main engines out through this lateral chamber, thrusting the vessel's stern to starboard—and vaporizing the fragile vacsuited figure who now, without hesitation, wriggled through the valve like a man entering a Jefferies tube.
It was a tight fit, particularly given the unyielding bulk of his suit's extended backpack unit to contend with, but Corwin made it through. Since the thruster had opened, he knew his confederates were in position, that they had compromised the ship's tertiary maintenance and testing computer, and that they had not yet been detected by security, all of which were good things to know. It also meant that now they were waiting for him, and now that they'd given him access to the interior, he had better get a move on.
He switched on his suit's shoulder lamp and moved down the thruster duct until he reached the inner valve. This stood open as well, and he wriggled through it in turn, emerging into the much vaster space of the vessel's portside main engine thrust tunnel, a circular shaft which reminded him, based on what little he could see in the glow of his lamp, of a subway tunnel. To his right—aft—was the enormous bulk of the outer main drive shutter, which closed off the tunnel when the ship wasn't under power so that debris (and intruders) couldn't get into the drive spaces. He turned left, facing forward, and the beam of his lamp was not powerful enough for him to make out anything in that direction.
He checked his chron again. The lateral thruster self-test sequence his confederates had planned to trip lasted for precisely 180 seconds, opening and closing the thruster's outer and inner valve at 30- second intervals. It also operated the inner main drive shutter, which he knew, though he couldn't see it, was about 100 yards ahead of him, at the same interval, which meant that once the valve he'd just entered through closed, he'd have exactly 30 seconds to get forward of it before he'd be sealed in the main drive tunnel, theoretically forever, or at least until the ship next fired its impulse drives. Neither outcome would be satisfactory.
Corwin drifted into the center of the shaft, using economical bursts of his vacsuit's station-keeping thrusters to adjust his position until he was as close to equidistant from the walls as he could get. The suit, built for extended sessions of work in zero-G, was specifically designed to hold itself steady relative to outside structures, so this was a fairly simple task that didn't occupy much of his mind. The rest of it was taken up with triple-checking the calculations he'd made when he'd had this crazy idea in the first place.
Once in position, he switched off the station-keeping system and just let himself float, reached to the modular accessory control board snapped onto his left vambrace, and pressed a large red key marked ARM. It began to flash, slowly and steadily. Corwin took a couple of deep breaths and steadied his mind. The math was right. The plan was going to work.
If the information he'd based the calculations on was accurate.
With a beep, his suit radar informed him of movement off to his left—the thruster's inner valve closing. Without hesitation, Corwin pressed another key on his accessory panel; this one lit up yellow, backlighting the black-printed words igniter enable. Across the top of the board, a row of little oblong yellow lights started coming on, one by one, each labeled with a number, counting up from one to ten. Against his back, he could feel the thruster module vibrate as its igniter came up to operating temperature.
The solution, he would have had to admit, was not ideal. The modular thruster unit he was wearing was intended as an escape system, a one-shot unit designed to provide ten seconds of thrust and enable a crewman to reach minimum safe distance from a stricken starship before that ship suffered a catastrophic failure. It was all brutality and no elegance at all, a 23rd-century application of 21st-century technology that still clung on in the 25th because no one had ever come up with anything better for the price or the purpose. Using one was like strapping the X-1 to your back—the system could not be throttled, or even shut off outright, once it was engaged. Once you enabled the igniter, you had ten seconds to consider your fate, ten seconds of uninterruptible thrust, and then however much longer you were going to live to swear to yourself that you were never going to do that again.
Given his druthers, Corwin would much rather have used a proper flight pack, but he didn't have one handy, and in a situation like this you had to make do with what you had on hand.
The countdown (actually a count-up, which Corwin thought was a little odd) finished, the yellow lights went out, and below the control switches another, matching row, these red, all lit up at once and then started going -out- in order. Corwin had to admit that was a pretty nice touch, but he didn't have long to think about it, because this change coincided with the thruster's firing.
With the sudden onset of acceleration, he felt his sense of orientation to the drive tunnel abruptly redefine itself. Forward was now down. He had no sense that he was traveling along the starship's longitudinal axis now, but instead felt that he was falling down a bottomless shaft, like that footage he'd once seen of a dilithium mine.
Corwin accelerated for ten seconds, and then, as the last of the red lights went out, the sense of being pushed from behind ceased. He still felt as if he were falling down the shaft, but now he had reached terminal velocity. He jettisoned the spent thruster unit; it tumbled away, sparked against the side of the shaft, and fell behind as he plunged down the center of the tunnel, now adjusting his body like a skydiver so that he would "fall" headfirst.
Twenty-seven... 28... 29...
... he flashed through the inner drive shutter a half-second before it snapped shut. Just as he'd calculated. Tons of spare time there.
That left him hurtling down the inner thrust tunnel at a velocity he didn't want to keep in mind now that he'd used it in his calculations, heading straight for the complex and impassable inner guts of the propulsion system. The inner shaft was much more complicated than the outer, which was a simple smoothbore pipe that led from the inner shutter to the outer to open space. Here the shaft began to break up into smaller tubes, leading through shock baffles and thermal buffers to the great fusion reactors that powered the vessel.
Here, also, the first residual effects of the ship's artificial gravity, which was active in the crew spaces outside this part of the drive, began to be felt, bending his course gently but inevitably toward the lower bulkhead. This, too, Corwin had factored into his calculations. He let it do its work, dropping lower in the shaft as he still streaked along it—then helped it along with a full-power shot from his suit's weak thrusters as he flashed past a particular landmark he had taken care to memorize while reviewing the ship's schematics earlier.
The sudden off-axis acceleration vectored him into one of the smaller channels, this one not much larger than the thruster shaft he'd initially entered the ship through. Only another emergency-power thruster burst, using up all that remained of his propellant, stopped him from crashing straight into the opposite wall as the minor vent doglegged 90 degrees. In his mind, his awareness of the situation was almost like a map on which his position was marked by a glowing point of light. That maneuver had put him into a subsidiary cooling shaft that led not to the reactor, but to a maintenance area.
In which he would still arrive, at present speed, far too fast for anyone's good, assuming he didn't drift into one of the walls and smear himself along a couple hundred yards of the tube before he got there. The ship's gravity was taking notable hold; "down" really was down now, and he was accelerating again as the shaft plunged toward the lowermost deck.
Corwin curled into a ball, twisting his body so that he was "falling" more or less feet-first now, and played the last card in his plan. With a play of light that was silent in the airless shaft, his Draconic warstaff Stick appeared in his left hand; raising it above his head, he took it in both hands and then turned it so that it lay athwart the shaft. He felt more than heard the shriek of metal on metal, transmitted through the material of his vacsuit, as the gleaming ferrules at the ends of the staff sparked against the inner surface of the duct; grunted as the deceleration wrenched at his shoulders; and hung on. Any ordinary piece of wood, however sturdy, would have been reduced to splinters by the forces at play here, but Stick, once a branch of the World-Tree itself, did not even bend.
He popped out of an angled opening at the base of the vent shaft and fell about ten feet into an engineering inspection chamber, hit the deck in a roll with his shoulder hunched to keep his visor from striking the metal plating, and came up on one knee, skidding the last five feet or so and halting just short of the wall, bracing himself against it with one end of Stick. The ferrule glowed a dull orange, burning a blackened spot on the grey paint.
He remained there for a moment, breathing hard, and then collected himself and rose to his feet, dismissing his weapon back into the aether. Orienting himself, he crossed the inspection chamber to stand by the floor hatch, then clicked his push-to-talk twice again.
After a moment's pause, he heard three clicks in reply, and then the hatch swung open.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Symphony of the Sword № 2
Sonata № 1 ("Quarantena") for Three Parts in C minor, Op. S18a
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Geoff Depew
Philip J. Moyer
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remaster © 2022 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
An antique Corellian freighter emerged from the Scandia metaspace jumpgate and slipped neatly into the traffic pattern surrounding the Quarian Union's one public facility—a helium-3 fueling station orbiting the system's biggest planet, the gas giant Substance. In the cockpit, the two-person crew busied themselves with the routines of arriving in a controlled system, taking little time to look out the windows until they had completed their initial tasks.
Corwin Ravenhair watched his copilot going about her business and smiled a small, private smile. As a novice starpilot with fewer than 200 hours under her belt, Utena Tenjou wasn't yet qualified to approach a controlled station like Scandia-1 as pilot-in-command, which was why she was flying right seat this morning; but she was carrying out her first-officer duties with calm, crisp efficiency, making sure the ship was properly secured from metaspace and properly in the pattern, managing comm traffic with Scandia Control, and generally acquitting herself well. She noticed him watching her, gave him a little smile of her own, and then turned back to her panel to hit the last couple of items on the checklist.
"Good," Corwin said, looking over the completed sheet and initialing it, as was his responsibility as her instructor. Then, grinning, he handed back the clipboard and said, as he had almost every time they'd done this little ritual so far this summer, "We'll make a spaceman out of you yet."
Within ten minutes they'd completed docking operations, slotting the One-Hit Wonder, into one of the smaller berths near the "top" of the hourglass-shaped station. As the Quarian Union's interface with the outside galaxy, Scandia-1 was an "open" station, which meant out-system visitors weren't required to wear environment suits or maintain a shipboard quarantine. The quarian crew conducted themselves as if they were off the Flotilla—not that, Corwin knew, they ever really relaxed their strict isolation regime even at home.
It meant, however, that he and Utena could descend the ramp in their shirtsleeves, and without passing through an airlock, into the small docking bay Scandia Control had routed them to. A maintenance and fueling crew of quarian techs in heavy-duty work suits had already set to work connecting the ³He and exhaust purge hoses to the ship's fuel and life support systems. Corwin had always liked that about coming here, on the infrequent occasions when he did: Quarian technicians had a particular facility for starship work, being natural-born spacers all, and they knew how to treat a vessel right. He waved to the crew chief as he and Utena crossed the bay to the corridor hatch.
In the course of her summer so far, Utena had visited a number of facilities like this, but Scandia-1 was by far the cleanest and most quietly efficient one she'd seen so far. Even the corridors and lifts were spotless and gleaming, like the bathrooms at Petro-Avalon stations. After a few seconds in a silent, high-speed turbolift, they emerged into a large, sprawling room that reminded her of a cross between a spaceport departure lounge and the central plaza of the Ohtori Academy campus. It was the first space habitat she could remember seeing (apart from the O'Neill cylinder aboard Babylon 5, which existed on a whole other scale) that had trees in it. They looked odd set against the view of outer space provided by the vast panoramic windows dominating the curving outer wall.
Encounter-suited quarians and visiting spacers of many descriptions moved here and there in this cavernous space, none of them taking any particular note of the newest arrivals. There was no particular reason why they should; Corwin was at his most nondescript, in work boots and one of the beat-up coveralls that sometimes seemed like all he ever wore aboard the Wonder, and Utena wasn't any dressier in jean shorts, sneakers and her Coco Martinez jersey. Apart from her hair, there wasn't anything about either of them to capture a stranger's attention.
Over by one of the potted palm trees, a slim quarian female dressed in a typical example of the race's standard environment suit—mostly black duraflex, wrapped in places with a richly embroidered grey-violet textile, with a few dull-silver alloy panels and a helmet with a deeply smoked visor that hid all but the faintest silhouette of her face—rose from an industrial-looking sofa and approached them, spreading her hands in a gesture of welcome as she came near.
"There she is!" Corwin declared with audible satisfaction as he stepped into the quarian's welcoming hug. This close, Utena could see that she was quite petite—her helmeted head fit neatly under Corwin's chin as they embraced—but she had a hard-to-define air of sturdiness about her. Sizing her up with the practiced eye of an experienced duelist, Utena would have bet that her fine-boned, slender body concealed a considerable fund of wiry strength.
"How've you been?" Corwin asked, stepping back to have another look at their greeter. "You look great, as it were."
She snorted and replied in a lightly accented, lightly processed voice, "So do you. And you're on time for once!"
Corwin rolled his eyes. "You show up late to the Museum of Science -once- and she never, ever lets you forget it," he said. "Utena, I want you to meet an old friend of mine—Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. Tali, Utena Tenjou."
"A pleasure," said Tali, extending a hand. "Corwin's told me about you in, if I'm honest, excruciating detail," she added as Utena took the hand. Utena hesitated, not sure whether to be offended, then realized from something in Tali's body language, or the angle of the faintly visible reflections of her eyes, that she was joking. That broke whatever ice there might've been and she laughed, giving the quarian's hand a firm shake.
"Just how long have you known him?" Utena asked, curious.
"Since we were about so high," Tali replied, holding her hand at the approximate height of a seven-year-old. "Though we've only seen each other in person a handful of times since then. It's mostly been email. Shall we?" she added, gesturing back toward the docking ring.
"By all means," said Corwin, and they started heading back toward the Wonder. "Where's Chikktika?" Corwin wondered.
"Down for repairs. It's nothing major," Tali assured him before he could exclaim. "Just a couple of failed antigravity modules. Which we knew would happen," she pointed out. "This time I managed to source some of the good ones," she added. "I just haven't had time to install them yet. Maybe this weekend."
Corwin nodded. "Well, I'm glad it isn't serious. Too bad we don't have time to do it today. It'd be just like old times," he said with a nostalgic grin. From the context, Utena concluded that they were talking about a technical device of some kind, and not, as she had originally suspected, a pet—though with these two, she admitted, with a fond thought for her own little Corwin-built robot back on Jeraddo, the distinction was probably academic.
Delving into one of the many pockets on her encounter suit, Tali removed a couple of laminated cards with lanyards attached and handed them to the two humans. "Here are your passes for the Hekademos, and Corwin, here's your supporting ID. They'll be checked when we dock."
Utena looked at her pass, which bore the same holo of her face that was on her provisional starpilot license, couldn't read the angular writing that covered the rest of it, and asked, "What does it say?"
"Well, because you have a provisional license, that makes you a student, and Corwin—"
"I'm apparently on the faculty of the Yuri A. Gagarin Institute for Applied Cosmonautics," Corwin observed with a raised eyebrow, looking at the second document she'd given him. Then he regarded his own lanyarded pass. "These are interscholastic visitors' passes." He grinned. "Tali, you're brilliant."
"Yes I am," Tali replied casually. "Though it's more accurate to say you are the faculty of the Gagarin Institute. Now, you'll be observing three classes today. The one in quarian history is liable to be pretty boring, but I'm hoping you'll enjoy Propulsion Dynamics and Astrogation Theory."
"Actually, they all sound pretty cool to me." At Tali's curious head-tilt, Utena went on, "I'm kind of an exohistory nerd."
"Well, you're not going to have a ton of context for today's lesson, but whatever seals your airlock," said Tali skeptically.
Utena shrugged. "Can't be worse than memorizing all the Klingon popes."
They left Scandia-1 on an inbound vector; Tali took over right seat so she could handle comms with Flotilla Control. The protocols for an outside vessel entering the fleet itself were much stricter than for approaching the fuel station, and without a native guide, as it were, they'd never have gotten beyond the outermost perimeter. As it was, it took them five comm challenges and a number of security checks before they were given a vector that would actually take them through the vast array of vessels toward the academy ship Hekademos, where Tali was a student.
After the last one, she turned to her two guests and said, "Obviously the Hekademos maintains a closed environment, like all our ships. When we dock, a security team will come aboard and perform an inspection. Then we'll all disembark through a decon chamber. You two will need to be suited up before we arrive and maintain isolation the whole time you're aboard."
Corwin nodded, made sure the helm was locked onto the Hekademos's approach beacon, and got up from his seat. "Let's get to it, then."
They went aft to the chamber below the Wonder's service lift, where the spacesuit lockers were, and started climbing into their pressure suits. As they did, Tali leaned against the bulkhead by the door and observed the procedure, noting with satisfaction that Corwin had already taught his student the importance of checking each other's seals when prepping for EVA.
"I understand you don't have a whole lot of space time yet," she said to Utena as the latter checked Corwin's neck seal and gave him a thumbs-up. "Are you going to be OK with staying suited up for the next 12 to 15 hours?"
Utena took her helmet down from its shelf inside her locker, examined the inner padding and the seal ring, then looked up at Tali and grinned. "First time I wore this suit I slept overnight in it. On the Moon."
Tali nodded. "Nice," she said appreciatively. Then she glanced at Corwin and added impishly, "Corwin, you dog."
"Ahem," Corwin replied, making certain Utena's helmet was properly seated (it was). "We must be getting close to the Hekademos control zone," he went on, ignoring the bait altogether, and led the way back to the cockpit as the two girls made eye contact (more or less) and giggled behind him.
It was unusual for two suited humans to join one of the students of the Hekademos for a day's classes, but apparently not entirely unknown. Tali explained, when she had a moment between her first two classes, that the Quarian Union's educational system was the subject of considerable interest in some outside circles, and visitors from institutions from outside the Union were becoming more common in recent years. Hence, the passes she'd acquired for Corwin and Utena (and the identification card backing up Corwin's faculty status) were not much doubted in and of themselves.
The first thing Utena noticed about the Hekademos, besides the fact that it was as clean and meticulously maintained as Scandia-1, was that it was probably the most quiet and orderly high school she'd ever seen. Apart from the weirdness of the Tournament, Ohtori Academy hadn't exactly been rowdy, and WPI had been oddly collegiate because of its unusual setting, but this place was more like what she imagined a military academy would be like. Not that it was oppressive or even particularly regimented, but there was a neatness and order to the way the students conducted themselves that was a little unexpected.
The second thing she noticed was that Tali's classes, which were a grade level behind what Corwin had been used to last year and so, relatively speaking, should have seemed like child's play to a high school junior like Utena, were brutal. Well, no, that wasn't really the word either. That implied a certain level of instructional callousness that wasn't present. Indeed, the instructors seemed at pains to make sure nobody fell behind or felt overwhelmed—but the subject matter was shockingly advanced by any outside standard Utena could think of, and if the instructors were helpful, they also weren't shy about looking to the students to do work and lots of it. Ohtori Academy and WPI had both been top-tier high schools, but at the age of around 12, Tali'Zorah was already effectively in college.
"Is this what school's like for all your people?" she asked during the midday rest period that would have been lunch if communal dining had been part of the quarian cultural scene.
Tali considered the question and then replied, "Pretty much. The Hekademos is the best school in the fleet, and the toughest," she added unselfconsciously, "but all of us tend to be educated at a rate that the outside galaxy views as unusually fast. Part of it is because we don't have many long breaks. Obviously we dont't take summers off, for instance. During the days when the Fleet roamed space, it was vital for us to finish our schooling as fast as possible, and by the time we settled in Scandia the tradition was ingrained." She shrugged slightly. "We're a very efficient people. For centuries we had to be in order to survive, and even today we're not really in a position to kick back and take it easy. Not that I'm saying people who live on planets are lazy," she added, "but... well, there's not quite the same sense of urgency when you know the air's always going to be there even if nobody's trained to maintain it."
Utena nodded. "I can see that. It must be tough, living like this all the time. I mean, I'm handling being suited up right now, but that's at least partly because I know it's only for today."
"You get used to it," Tali told her. "Actually, we look forward to the day when we can suit up and leave the cleanrooms. By the time you're my age, it's like getting out of jail." She tilted her head inquisitively and asked, "What did you think of this morning's classes?"
"History was interesting," Utena said, "even without the context. I'm going to have a bunch of reading to do later," she added with a grin, then admitted, "That astrogation class was way ahead of where I am right now. It's really given me something to think about. I'd like to get a copy of the textcrystal you were using."
"I can dupe you one before you leave," Tali said. "We don't put our academic or technical works under what you would think of as copyright," she explained. "That's another tradition that grew out of the survival culture of the Migrant Era. But I'm glad you got something out of the class, anyway. It's interesting to see how someone who isn't from a spacefaring nation takes to the business. Some are overwhelmed by the complexities and never really get a handle on it—it would be like asking me to run a farm." She smiled, the expression barely readable through her visor, and added, "Corwin says he thinks you're going to make it, and now that I've met you I tend to agree."
Utena laughed. "Nice to know I pass muster." She turned toward Corwin. "You're awfully quiet all of a sudden."
Corwin glanced at her, then returned his thoughtful gaze to his quarian friend and said quietly, "I'm trying to figure out what's bothering Tali."
The two girls sat looking at him in surprise for a moment, saying nothing.
At length, Tali asked, "How do you do that? My own father can't read my moods the way you do, and you hardly ever see me."
Corwin shrugged. "You've been preoccupied all day, trying to plow it under by concentrating on your hospitality. You just mentioned the pre-Settlement survival culture three times. Something's up, I just can't put my finger on what. And I wish I could, because I'd like to help."
Utena looked from one old friend to the other and remarked to herself that whenever she thought she had Corwin entirely figured out, he always came up with something more for her to learn.
Tali seemed to be having the same thought; she mulled it over for a few moments before saying quietly, "You're right, of course. There is something. I... " She sighed. "A few minutes before I caught the shuttle over to Scandia-1 to meet you, Father commed me to say there was some kind of infectious outbreak in progress on the Rayya. He had called to tell me he was putting the ship in quarantine lockdown, according to the old procedure, and order me not to try to come home."
Corwin blinked. "An outbreak? In this day and age?"
Tali nodded. "That's why I've got the Migrant Era on my mind. That kind of thing used to happen a lot more often before the Settlement. There hasn't been one in my lifetime—I don't think even in Father's lifetime."
"How bad is it?" Utena wondered. "Did he give you any idea?"
"No," Tali replied, "which means it must be pretty bad. But it would be anyway. Anything that can penetrate our suits' individual biofilters and spread within the greater environment of a ship is automatically going to be a pretty big-league pathogen. That's why the quarantine protocols were written in the first place. So that in the absolute worst-case scenario, we'd only lose one ship."
"Jeez, there must be something we can do," Utena persisted.
Tali actually chuckled at that. "I had a feeling you would say something like that if you found out... but there really isn't. My father is an admiral, which makes him the ranking officer aboard the Rayya, and he's very old-fashioned. If he's invoked quarantine, he means it. If we even tried to get aboard directly, his gunners would shoot, and they'd be within the law to do it."
"He'd have his own daughter shot at?"
"In a heartbeat. The security of the Fleet is paramount. At any rate, there really isn't anything we could do, unless one of you is a first-rate biochemist and nobody told me—" She stopped, looking up, and Corwin and Utena turned in their facing couch to see a tall quarian with the shoulder boards of an officer approaching. Tali got to her feet; not quite knowing what was going on, the two humans followed suit.
"Captain Sarna," said Tali.
"Tali'Zorah," the captain replied. "May I speak to you in private, please?"
Tali hesitated, looking around. No one else in this relaxation area was within even speculative earshot, so she said respectfully, "These are my friends, Captain. Anything you have to say to me, they can hear."
Captain Sarna inclined his head. "Very well," he said. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this so abruptly, but I've only just learned of it myself. The outbreak aboard the Rayya is worsening, and the fever has claimed its first casualties. I'm afraid... one of them is Zira'Vel."
Tali leaned back slightly, the ghosts of her eyes going wide. "Mother is sick? How seriously?"
The captain hesitated, lowering his head, then looked her in the face again and said gently, "I'm very sorry, Tali'Zorah. Your mother is listed among the dead."
Tali stared at him in silence for a few seconds, then murmured quietly, "No. No, there must be some mistake."
Ignoring her denial, which he knew to be a product of shock, the captain went on, "Naturally, you will not be expected to attend your afterwatch classes. If there's anything I or Counselor Ledven can do, please... " He trailed off, aware that Tali wasn't hearing a word he was saying now.
She stood stock-still for a moment, her hands quivering slightly; then she turned and, with a heartrending noise, threw herself into Corwin's arms, parts of their suits' plating clattering together.
He put his arms around her, holding her tight, and made horrified eye contact with Utena over the top of her helmet; then he turned his face to the captain, who stood gazing at the scene with sadness evident through his visor.
"I doubt I can do any good here," the officer said quietly. "Best to leave it to you, perhaps, Professor Ravenhair." He spoke the title without a hint of irony.
Corwin nodded within his helmet, not trusting himself to speak, and Captain Sarna returned the nod, then turned and slowly made his way out. The other students in the relaxation area observed the scene from afar, deduced what it must be about, and quietly absented themselves as well. In the back of her mind, as she stepped up and hesitantly put her hand on Tali's shoulder above Corwin's own glove, Utena remarked to herself on their tact.
What Tali experienced in the next 90 or so seconds was like the bereavement equivalent of a power nap, a brief but unbelievably intense breakdown in which she clung to Corwin with all her strength and made sounds that might have come from some terribly wounded animal. Utena had never seen anyone so utterly consumed by grief since she herself had experienced a short psychotic episode in the bathroom of a palatial hotel suite in Worcester the year before.
Then, with an almost palpable effort of will, the young quarian pulled herself together, straightened her back, withdrew from Corwin's arms, and said in a nearly inaudible voice that was icy with forcibly imposed self-control,
"Take me to Mordin."
It took them twenty minutes to get the One-Hit Wonder from the Hekademos's hangar deck to a revetment outside the Science Center on Halo. Utena had been so preoccupied by all that had happened in the last half-hour that she didn't really notice the spectacle of their approach to the artificial world; she'd been too busy marveling at the continued arctic calm in Tali's voice as she'd talked them past Halo Approach Control and claimed them a berth on the surface.
She and Corwin were back in street clothes, since Halo was by definition an open environment, as the three of them disembarked from the Wonder and crossed the tarmac to the Center. This was an unremarkable-looking building, three stories of white concrete with slightly sloped walls and long, narrow slit windows - almost like a giant bunker. When the trio presented themselves at the security station just inside the outer door, the guard checked them against his terminal, issued them visitor badges, and told them Dr. Solus was waiting for them in the main laboratory.
"So who's this Dr. Solus?" Utena asked Corwin quietly as they followed Tali down the hall toward the elevators.
"Mordin Solus. He's a scientist," Corwin said. "Salarian, a biochemist, among other things. Used to be with their special forces. He and Dad go back."
The pass the guard had given Tali opened the elevator and also enabled her to direct it to the third floor. Once there, they followed the red line on the wall to the double doors at the end, which opened automatically to admit them to a large, well-appointed medical laboratory. The only occupant of this room was an elderly salarian in a black-trimmed white science uniform, outfitted with bionic replacement hands and a couple of interesting facial scars. He looked up at the sound of their entrance, and at the sight of Tali, his face couldn't decide whether to light up with delight or crumple with remorse.
"Tali'Zorah," he said, his voice heavy with regret as the young quarian approached him. "Assume you have been notified. So sorry." He hung his head. "I failed. Cure not in time." Shaking his head, he added quietly, "No words for what I.... feel."
Tali rounded the laboratory bench Mordin stood behind, gently took the silver cylinder he held out of his hand and put it down carefully on the bench, then hugged him.
"Shh," she said quietly. "If you couldn't make it happen in time, Mordin, nobody in the galaxy could have. We both know that."
"I... " Mordin shook himself. "Thank you, Tali'Zorah."
She stepped back and touched the silver cylinder. "Is this it?"
Mordin nodded. "Just finished. Fully aerosolized, enclosed in standard injector capsule." He picked it up and regarded the knurled fitting on one end. "Hundreds still alive. Could still save them... if we could get it aboard."
Tali took the capsule from him, weighed it in her hand, and then tucked it into a thigh pocket of her encounter suit. "Then that's what we'll do. See if your communications people can raise the Rayya. Now that you've developed a cure, Father will have to listen to reason."
Mordin didn't seem convinced, but he didn't have the heart to argue; instead he showed her to the comm console in the corner of the lab and watched as she sought an uplink to the Rayya. After a few moments of static and link negotiation tones, the visor of one of the ship's bridge crew appeared on the screen.
"Tali'Zorah," he said, sounding surprised. "The ship is under quarantine, you know we're not supposed to receive outside transmissions while—"
"I don't have time to debate with you, Adev," Tali interrupted him. "I have to speak to Father at once."
The commtech hesitated, then nodded and said, "Wait one." A moment later he disappeared and was replaced by another quarian, this one sporting a slightly different helmet. Utena wondered if that was all they needed to recognize each other, then supposed that if it was what you were used to, it would be no harder than any other method.
"Tali'Zorah, communications access is restricted," said this new figure severely. "You know better—"
"Father," Tali cut him off. "Is it true?"
Rael'Zorah gazed silently out of the screen at his daughter for a moment, then lowered his head and said quietly, "Yes. It's true. Your mother passed an hour ago."
Tali stood for a moment without speaking, her head bowed, fists clenched on the console's apron; then she raised her face to the screen again and said urgently, "Mordin has the cure. We can have it to you in ten minutes."
Mordin stepped up beside her, leaning so that he would appear on Rael's monitor, and said, "Confirmed. Isolated and identified pathogen from samples you sent during Phase I. Counteragent ready for distribution. Simulations project 100% effectiveness."
Rael absorbed that, then said, "How wide are your error bars?"
"Minuscule," Mordin replied without hesitation. "Contagion is a variant strain of NCg489-H3-B. Base pathogen well-understood. Once identified, aerosol antiviral G12 readily adapted. Outbreak will be halted within 60 seconds of distribution; symptom reversal will begin in survivors within 150. Complete containment in one hour."
Rael turned away from the screen as if consulting another source of information; then he turned back and shook his head. "If you had come to that conclusion an hour ago I would have cleared you to send a team, but we're in Phase III now. I'm breaking off all contact with the fleet in accordance with General Order 14." He shook his head. "It's too late for the Rayya, Doctor," he added with stiff formality, "but thank you for your efforts."
Tali crowded forward, pushing Mordin out of her way. "Damn you, Father, don't do this," she demanded of him.
"Contain yourself, Tali'Zorah," Rael snapped in his sharpest officer's tone. "As an admiral of the Quarian Navy, my duty in this situation is clear."
"You know that order is outdated," Tali shot back. "It was written in the days of the Migrant Fleet, when there was no hope of help from a facility like this lab."
"My duty is clear," Rael repeated. Softening his aspect an angstrom, he went on, "I know you think you can help, Tali. You always think you can do anything. But this situation is beyond your powers to change. The protocol must be followed. No one enters this ship and no one leaves, until and unless the infection runs its course. Anyone who attempts to do so will be dealt with harshly. The safety of the fleet must come first."
"Why, why, why must you be such a pig-headed—" Tali began.
"Goodbye, Tali'Zorah," said Rael, becoming stiffly formal again. "Keelah be with you."
"Father—!" she tried one last time, but Rael had cut the connection. Tali stood for a moment looking at the blank screen, almost vibrating with anger.
Then she said to the dead link, "Fine, then. If you won't let me save you, Father, I'll do it in spite of you."
Then she turned to Corwin and Utena, but before she could say anything, they had asked her almost in unison, "How can we help?"
They retired to the One-Hit Wonder's wardroom, where they used the holojector in what was technically a game table to examine a detailed set of schematics Tali happened to have of the vessel where she'd grown up. The Rayya was a warship, one of the survivors of the original fleet to leave Rannoch in the late 19th century—half a mile or so long, with heavy shielding, thick armor plate, and bristling weapons emplacement. In her current configuration, as part of the backbone of the Defense Fleet, she crewed more than one thousand, including the various civilian dependents of her military crew.
"It won't be a matter of just cruising up and opening one of the airlocks," Tali said. "In a Phase III lockdown, they'll all be sealed with their external controls disabled, just as if the ship were under combat alert. We could blast our way in if we had a boarding charge, but..."
"I don't have a lot of experience in these matters," Utena said dryly, "but I'm going to guess that would attract a lot of attention."
"Probably, being an attack on the ship and all. What we need is to find a way to get someone aboard who can open one of the airlocks from inside..."
"... but how do you get someone aboard a starship to open an airlock without opening an airlock?" Utena mused.
Corwin gazed thoughtfully at the translucent wireframe of the ship's internal structure for a moment, then suddenly paged to the rear of the ship and traced a line along what appeared, to Utena's semitrained eye, to be some kind of service shaft. He rotated the image, then zoomed in, removing some of the outer structures so that he could get a clear view of the system he was looking at.
Then he turned to Tali and said, "I have an idea."
Corwin was pleased with himself for only getting lost once while he made his way from the maintenance pit under No. 1 engine to the aftmost ventral airlock, though he knew he would have to do better on the way back up. Flexing his gloved fingers, he applied himself to the task of cracking into the unfamiliar security of the computer-controlled airlock. If all had gone according to plan so far, and the clicks in his headset before indicated that it had, the One-Hit Wonder was secured to the outer docking pylon of this airlock, hidden from the Rayya's passive sensors by her Internal Emission Sink stealth system. From the airlock's external comm port, Tali had been able to compromise the maintenance systems and trip the thruster test that had allowed him access, but she couldn't reach the security system from there; that was only possible from within.
"When you override the airlock," she warned him during the intense little planning session the three of them had held during the flight to the far end of the Formation, "it will probably set off an alarm. It will certainly turn on a light on someone's control board somewhere, since it's a hull opening. Either way, we'll have to assume we've been detected and move fast."
Corwin finished compromising the terminal, paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, and then triggered the outer door. It took 30 seconds for Tali and Utena to cycle through and join him in the inner corridor.
"OK. Clock's running," Corwin said. "Worst-case scenario, we've got... 360 seconds before a security response reaches this point."
Tali powered up her omni-tool's holoemitter and displayed the schematic of the ship again, giving the others a chance to review their routes one more time; then, when both humans indicated they were ready, she shut it down and stood a moment in thought.
"Corwin... Utena," she said hesitantly. "Whatever happens in the next five minutes... thank you. For helping me try."
Corwin smiled, a little sadly. "Welcome," he said, then touched her shoulder briefly. Utena just nodded, at a loss for words. Besides, if she teared up in this helmet it would be a serious pain. (She wondered idly how quarians dealt with that. Could they cry? Physiologically speaking? It had sure sounded like Tali was, earlier.)
Then, without another word, they split up and went their separate ways.
Corwin's job was simultaneously the simplest and potentially the hardest. He had to go up one level, move forward along a service corridor 113 yards, and hold that location until further notice. The location in question was a choke point in the access routes to that section of the ship, where the main turboshaft ended and the secondary ducts began. Any security response to the alarms Utena and Tali were going to be setting off, and the one they might already have tripped, would have to come through here, and it was Corwin's job to see that they didn't.
Preferably without seriously harming anyone, which would be tricky, since they would almost certainly try to seriously harm him if it came to it. Quarian security officers were not known for a sense of moderation when their ships' environmental plants were under threat of intrusion.
He reached his station, made sure he had sightlines on every possible line of approach, summoned Stick again, and waited.
Utena climbed as fast as she could up an emergency ladder, feeling sweat trickle down her back inside her spacesuit and silently thanking Corwin for insisting that she get used to maneuvering in the One-Hit Wonder's machinery spaces, which were much tighter than these, in the suit as part of her training. Without that practice, and the familiarity with the suit's weight and bulk it had given her, she would have found this challenge even more difficult, not that it was a day at the beach regardless.
She concentrated on keeping her breathing deep and regular, which would help her suit's housekeeping systems keep her helmet from fogging up as her body's thermal output elevated within it. The AC unit in the equipment pack on her back kicked up another notch with a noticeable vibration as she passed the third level and made for the fourth. She couldn't read the quarian markings on the inside of this service ladderway, their equivalent of a Jefferies tube, so she was keeping careful count as she climbed. She needed the seventh level from the bottom, which would be the twelfth from the top—deep in the heart of the ship.
The radio silence was the hardest part. She wondered whether the ship's security forces had found Corwin yet, then put it out of her mind. He could take care of himself. She'd seen that during Kaitlyn's mastery trial.
Tali was the only one of the three who could accomplish the task she'd set for herself. Utena wouldn't have known what to do with the ship's master computer core once she reached it, and Corwin, with his broad shoulders and bulkier suit, would never have made it through the emergency access tunnel she used to breach its outer security.
As it was, she nearly didn't get through it either. She'd grown a bit since the last time she'd sneaked down here. Emerging from the tunnel, which was actually little more than an air duct with some secondary conduits in it, she caught her sleeve on a fitting and nearly tore one of her upper-arm pockets off. With an irritated growl, she reflexively slapped a patch over the tear - she didn't think it had actually breached her suit's integrity, but it didn't pay to fool around with such things, particularly with a serious pathogen at large aboard the ship.
It occurred to her, as she went to the main console and interfaced her omni-tool to it, that she was probably being exposed to the virus right now. Her suit's atmospheric filters were no more sophisticated than anyone else's on the Rayya. She hadn't mentioned the risk to Corwin or Utena, though they were surely smart enough to realize it if they thought about it for a moment. It didn't matter. Either they would succeed in their mission, or she was probably better off dead anyway.
Through the eyes of the Rayya's surveillance system (which she now blinded as far as the master security operators up on the bridge were concerned), she saw Corwin at his post and Utena struggling up the ladder toward hers. The latter was about five seconds behind schedule, but harassing her wouldn't help, so Tali maintained comm silence. Hauling that heavy work-rated EVA suit up that ladder was more than Tali would have liked to attempt herself, and she was a much more experienced spacer than the human.
Leaving those two camera views in side windows, Tali tuned them out and turned all her attention to compromising the Rayya's master control program.
This would be a lot simpler if I had a proper interface module, she thought. It's a pity academy students aren't allowed to have them. Not that that stops some of my classmates... who would have thought that being an honest citizen would be a hindrance?
Utena reached the level she wanted, paused for a moment to catch her breath, and then swung herself from the ladder to the grab handles alongside the hatch for Deck 12. The status light on the control board for the hatch was green; she pressed the activator and the hatch smoothly, silently opened, admitting her to another featureless grey hallway. Every nerve fizzing, she made her way along it. She had no difficulty finding her way. There was only one way to go here: forward to a single hatch about a dozen yards away. This, too, showed a green light as she approached. Without hesitation, she pressed the button.
This hatch opened to reveal a surprisingly large room with curved walls blending seamlessly into the ceiling—a half-cylinder about 20 feet in diameter, turned on its side. Ten yards or so in front of her was a massive blast door. As Utena watched, it silently opened, four flat panels sliding away from each other to form a diamond-shaped iris. About the same distance beyond it was another, then another, and so on, all opening smoothly in sequence until she could see, 100 yards or so away, her goal: the Rayya's master atmosphere processor manifold.
The blast doors finished opening...
... and just as Utena was about to start walking down the corridor, they began closing again.
"Sprock," Tali'Zorah spat, attempting an override. Someone with command admin privileges, very possibly her own father, had entered the network and was countermanding her instructions to Atmospheric Integrity Control—and trying to trace back her own intrusion route. Fending both efforts off at the same time was extremely tricky, doubly so because whoever was over there—and she more she clashed with him, the more convinced she became that it was her father—was extremely good at the game.
Knowing she had to buy Utena all the time she could, Tali fell back to plan B and flooded the system with junk, slowing it to a crawl. Her commands to the doors and her opponent's were both still getting through, but not very efficiently, and though her opponent maintained the upper hand, the net effect was that the doors were now closing very slowly.
Slowly enough, Tali hoped, for Utena to make it through. If Tali didn't think of something else once she was in there, she might be trapped... but if she could reach the manifold, they could worry about that later.
Corwin's helmet chron gave the mission elapsed time as 00:03:23 when the first group of armored security officers reached his position, emerging from the turbocar and drawing up in surprise at the sight of him there.
"Halt!" one of them cried, drawing a shock baton from a magmount on his hip and energizing it. Down here, this close to the entrails of the ship with all their pipes full of various dangerous substances, there could be no powerguns—one thing in Corwin's favor. "This area is restricted! Identify yourself!"
"Ravenhair's the name," Corwin replied. "Believe it or not, I'm a friend. I'm with a group that's trying to solve your atmosphere contaminant problem."
"What the—he's human!" another of the officers blurted in shock.
"You think he's behind the fever?" a third asked her fellows.
Uh-oh, Corwin thought. I do not like the sound of their voices.
"Easy there," he said, trying to sound as calm as possible. "I'm not your enemy. I just said I'm trying to fix this. It sounds to me like you guys may not be feeling too well yourselves, so what do you say we all just take it easy here and wait for my team to make the problem go away?"
He couldn't technically have sworn he heard one of them say "Get him!" as they charged, but it wouldn't have been in any way a surprise.
When Utena saw the doors start to close, she didn't stop to consider the whys and wherefores, because that was not the kind of person she was. She was the kind of person who, seeing circumstances that might cut her off from accomplishing what she had set out to do, doubled her efforts.
In this case that meant, essentially, running the 100-yard hurdles in a spacesuit.
It helped that the gravity in here felt like it was a little below standard—similar to the gravity on Jeraddo, come to think of it—but it was still not exactly how she would have liked to spend the afternoon, particularly as the hurdles kept slowly getting higher as she went. By the sixth, she had abandoned proper hurdling technique and was instead vaulting them, putting a hand on the flat surfaces to help her over. At the penultimate door she nearly struck her helmet against the upper panels, so small had the central opening become.
So for the last one, she just put on all the speed she could muster and dove for it, entertaining a fleeting vision of the doors closing on her feet as she passed through the shrinking iris; then she was hitting the deck, rolling, and coming to her feet, the last obstacle passed. She felt the vibration through the soles of her boots as the final blast door closed solidly behind her.
That might complicate things.
Still, at least she was here now.
Utena opened the flap pocket on her right thigh and removed the silver cylinder Tali had given her, studying the huge bank of unknown machinery before her as she did. Somewhere on here, there would be a fitting that would accept this device. She hadn't had a lot of time to memorize the holo of the panel Tali had shown her, but she remembered it was in the upper right...
Utena thumbed the switch on the top of the cylinder, causing a sharp point to spring out of the other end as if the device were an enormous hypodermic. Then she stepped to the panel, stretched up on her tiptoes, and shoved the point into the fitting. It slid smoothly in until the face of the cylinder itself clicked into the outer ring of the fitting; a pair of curved metallic arms popped out of the panel, closed over the protruding end, and drew the entire device inside.
Still locked in her battle with the security controller, Tali saw the status indicator for the atmosphere processor begin flashing, indicating that Mordin's delivery module was loaded. Abandoning the struggle for control of the doors, she instead isolated Atmosphere Control entirely, unlocked the board, and commanded an emergency system flush.
Tali slammed a fist down on the console, realizing that her opposite number at the other end of the link had sussed her last move in time to interdict it. That meant it couldn't be her father—surely even he wouldn't be so stubborn as to refuse to let the cure be distributed now that it was actually in the system—but someone else, not fully aware of the situation.
Utena wasn't entirely sure what the story was with this equipment, but she was reasonably certain it wasn't supposed to just do nothing once the vial was on board. Wishing (not for the first time today) that she could read quarian, she scanned the panel with her eyes, looking for any clue that she might have missed a step. "Just plug the cartridge in and I'll take care of the rest," Tali had said, but for all Utena knew she'd run into some kind of problem down below. At which point... what?
She spied an amber light flashing up near the top of the massive control board, above the plate that now covered the fitting where she'd inserted the canister. Next to it was a large mechanical lever set into a vertical slot nearly three feet long, its handle protruding from the top at a slight upward angle. It was painted in a pattern of alternating black and orange stripes that, to Utena's eye, screamed, "In case of emergency, pull this."
Hoping she wasn't about to commit some hideous act of cultural misinterpretation that would see her vent the starship's atmosphere to space or something similarly catastrophic, but not seeing a lot of options, Utena gathered herself, jumped into the air, and just missed the handle. Her second try came closer, but it slipped out of her grip. Still a bit winded from the run through the blast doors, she reached deep inside herself, looking for those reserves that had seen her through the toughest duels back in the old country; dropped into a crouch; and hurled herself upward with all the strength she could muster, her left arm at full extension above her.
Her gloved hand closed on the handle just as she reached the top of her leap; she seized it as hard as she could and let her body weight help her pull it down. The lever moved only grudgingly, clearly not having been used in a long time, if ever. For a second or two she hung there, her bootsoles completely off the floor, pulling so fiercely she would have been chinning herself on the lever if she hadn't been wearing this heavy suit. Something inside the panel gave way with a grinding sound and the lever swung down and locked into its lower position, depositing Utena back on the deck as it did so.
Once more, for a second, nothing happened...
... and then the hull of the Rayya filled with the deep, reverberating roar of the ventilation system going into maximum overdrive, blasting the contents of Mordin's vial into every nook and cranny and corner of the vessel.
The presence at the other end of the link to Tali's control console seemed to hesitate as the sound of salvation echoed through the ship; then, a moment later, he logged off.
Tali wasted no time in taking control of the doors again and signaling her confederates to withdraw.
Unspeakably relieved to see the blast doors open again, Utena got the hell out of Dodge. Her fatigue and the weight of her suit were forgotten as she sprinted back to the ladderway, put her hands and feet on the outside of the ladder, and let herself slide all the way down without touching any of the rungs.
She and Tali met up just outside the main maintenance trunk, where they'd parted from Corwin a few minutes before. A moment later he appeared, sporting a couple of interesting scorch marks on his spacesuit but apparently unharmed.
"There's another group on the way down," he reported, out of breath, as the three of them beat it back toward the airlock, "and they are -mad.-"
"What happened to the first group?" Tali asked.
"The first and second groups," Corwin replied, "are having a little nap. Don't worry, I didn't compromise anybody's suit. A few of their ribs, possibly, but..."
She nodded and lapsed into a thoughtful silence as they ran, reaching the airlock in moments. Corwin went to the control panel and activated the inner door.
"C'mon," he said, "that third group was right behind me, I could hear them getting off the lift."
Tali stood in silent thought for a moment, then said, "Go. I'll stay here."
"Stay here, are you crazy?" Utena demanded. "We just flouted every security policy in the Fleet, they'll crucify you. If the guards don't just beat you to death when they catch you."
"If I run now I'll have to leave the Union altogether," Tali replied. "I'll be an exile."
Utena looked for a moment like she might try to persuade her that exile didn't strike her as so bad compared to the alternative, but she kept silent. Something in the young quarian's tone told her that it would be useless to argue.
She sounds like me, Utena realized with a wry internal smile, when I get my head down.
"If I stay and face the music, Mordin will speak for me... and my grandparents, who aren't without influence," Tali went on. "At worst, I may spend some time in the brig... and I can't abandon my people now. But you two," she went on, "have to get out of here. Fast." She glanced over her shoulder at the corridor they'd come from; they could all hear the clatter of the security troops approaching. "Go!" she insisted. "Thank you so much for your help. I owe you more than I can ever repay—but that won't stop me from trying. Someday. I'll see you both again."
Corwin gave her a hug, touched his helmet to hers, and said privately, "You're welcome, Tali'Zorah. I wish it could've been more."
"It was enough," she replied. "It was good to see you again, even... considering. Tayyôr, Corwin."
«Live with courage, dear one,» he told her in Norse, then disengaged and stepped into the airlock, beckoning for Utena to follow.
Utena gave Tali a long look, then followed him. Tali went to the panel, sealed the inner door, and set the lock to autocycle, then shut off the panel and turned to face the hallway. When the guards arrived a moment later, she raised her hands and let it be known that she would go without a fight.
The last Corwin and Utena saw of her, through the inner airlock window before they closed the outer door and disengaged the One-Hit Wonder's docking clamps, was a pair of them taking her into custody.
"C'mon," Corwin repeated, pulling off his helmet and abandoning it by the Wonder's inner hatch. "We're not out of this yet."
They ran to the cockpit, cramming into their seats despite the bulky suits; both stripped off their gloves and started preflighting with all the speed they could muster, bringing the ship up from standby to full power in moments. Sensor alarms immediately started sounding, informing them that quarian interceptors with powerful search radars were out there, probing the darkness for them. The quarians knew the intruders aboard the Rayya must have come from a docked spacecraft, and they had a pretty good general idea where that spacecraft must be, given where it must've been docked; and if the Wonder's IES kept her from showing up on their passive sensors, well, it was only a matter of time before one of these active scans nailed them. That black lo-vis hull coating helped a bit against active sensors, but it was no replacement for an active cloak, which they didn't have.
What they did have was speed, and it was this Corwin now banked on as he turned the Wonder on her heel and headed out of the Formation at full power.
Utena didn't even bother turning on her comm panel. Nobody out there was saying anything she was interested in hearing. Instead, she applied her attention to the astrogation computer, putting all her recent training to its first real stress test as she sought out the hyperspace vector that would get them out of the Scandia system fastest.
"Will they chase us once we're out of their territory?" she wondered.
"Doubt it," Corwin replied. "If they do, we can lose them." Another alarm sounded, this one more strident. "There's our first active paint. Three or four more of those and we might start seeing missiles next."
"Outbound vector computed and locked," Utena reported after two more sensor alerts. "Twenty seconds to optimum jump point."
Corwin said nothing, just made a low murmuring sound that might have been a prayer, or might just have been the sort of entreaty a man who tended to personify machinery might make to his car. Actually, with Corwin, those two things were pretty much the same.
"Ten seconds to jump," Utena reported.
Another paint alarm, then another, and then a whole new sound, the hair-raising double whoop of the incoming-fire siren.
"Guess there's no point in leaving this on," Corwin muttered, switching off the IES. The cabin temperature almost immediately dropped as the Wonder started venting excess heat to space again. With a twist of another knob, he powered up the deflector array—just in time, as a moment later the ship jerked with the solid impact of a warhead, probably a light air-to-air missile. The siren howled twice more.
Some detached part of Utena was very pleased with herself as she counted calmly down the last few seconds. "Three. Two. One. Lightspeed!"
At the call, Corwin squeezed the One-Hit Wonder's grouped throttle levers together and pushed them all to the final stop. The sky blurred, the stars stretched, and they were away.
"We're gone. Negative pursuit, my scope is clear." Corwin looked over at his copilot and smiled tiredly. "Looks like we got away with it."
Utena sat back in her seat and let out a long breath. "Until we get wherever we're going next and the cops are waiting for us," she said resignedly. "Still, it was worth it."
"There won't be any cops," Corwin said. "Tali's father is a real jerk? But he's not the vengeful type. It's over now. He's just going to want to put the whole thing behind him. And besides," he added soberly, "he's got other things on his mind."
Utena frowned. "Yeah. I suppose you have a point there." She shook her head. "Hell of a day."
"Yeah. Be a long time before I hear 'welcome to the Quarian Union' again."
"What'll happen to Tali?" Utena wondered.
"She'll land on her feet," Corwin said positively. "She always does." He smiled fondly. "All quarians are tough and most of them are stubborn, and then there's Tali'Zorah."
"She seemed like a good kid," Utena agreed. "I wish we'd had more time, so I could've gotten to know her better."
Corwin smiled. "You'll have other chances," he said. "We haven't seen the last of that girl, not by a long, long way. See, when quarians finish school, they have this tradition they call the pilgrimage..."
Tali'Zorah was lying on the bunk in her cell, listening to the Electric Light Orchestra cover of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor on her omni-tool and thinking, when the forcefield sealing her cell suddenly winked out and Vedik'Zorah entered the room.
"Grandfather," Tali said, getting to her feet.
"Tali'Zorah," Vedik replied, hugging his granddaughter. "I'm glad to see you're safe. I'm so sorry about Zira."
"Thank you, Grandfather," said Tali in a subdued voice. "They tell me that at least she suffered little. The fever... took her quickly." She sniffled, then mastered herself and asked, "But why are you here?"
"I came to take you away from this place," Vedik replied. "Your grandmother is up on the bridge, having... words... with Rael. We decided that was the best division of labor," the old soldier added with faint wryness. "Captain Sarna agrees that you should spend a few days on the Archangel with us before returning to your studies."
Tali looked around the cell in puzzlement. "Am I not charged with mutiny, then?"
"No, of course not," said Vedik, leading her out of the cell. The two security officers on duty in the outer brig office came to attention as he entered; they weren't under his command, but it was a rare member of the Quarian Marine Corps who didn't salute Colonel Vedik'Zorah vas Archangel.
"Your father said some things to you that you'll find hard to forgive," Vedik said quietly as he and Tali navigated the corridors toward the main hangar deck. "I've seen the records of your arrest. Whether you do forgive him is your own business, but... I hope you do. Remember, he's suffered a terrible loss today as well. He may be a pigheaded, inflexible martinet... but he's still your father."
Tali made a sound that might have been a chuckle or might have been a snort, then answered honestly, "I don't know whether I can do that, Grandfather. And if I do, it won't be right away." She looked pensively around at the hallway they were walking through. "It'll be a long time before I ever come back to this ship again."
"That's understandable," Vedik told her. Then he put his arm around her shoulders, gave her a squeeze, and said, "In the meantime, regardless of what your father may have said in the heat of the moment, know this, Tali'Zorah: You and your friends did a great thing today. You saved hundreds of lives. Your grandmother and I are very, very proud of you."
Tali tried her best not to let on how hollow a victory she felt that was, under the circumstances, as she thanked her grandfather; most likely she did not succeed, but he said nothing about it.
Corwin and Utena were in the unnamed diner on Zelfina Station's whimsically named "promenade deck", treating themselves to some surprisingly good pie after a hard day on the spacelanes, when Corwin's wrist computer emitted the three musical tones that meant he had mail. He checked it, smiled, and switched up the projection field so that Utena could read it too.
From: "Tali'Zorah nar Rayya" <tali.zorah!archangel.navy.qu>
Subject: all clear.
To: "Corwin Ravenhair" <corwin!ohw.ravenhairlabs.zc>
Date: Tue Jul 28 2405 19:11:48 -0000 (GST)
My grandparents and Mordin have intervened with Father and the rest of the Admiralty - as has Captain Kar'Danna of the Rayya, who is apparently less enamored of the Migrant-era quarantine protocol. As a result, Father's charges against me of mutiny and unauthorized tampering with the ship's systems have been dropped. I still have a charge of insubordination against my name, but under the circumstances I can't really bring myself to care.
You two are in the clear. The security officers Corwin tangled with all acknowledge that they were not entirely rational at the time of the incident - in fact, a couple of them asked me to pass on their thanks for not being any rougher with them than you had to be. Apart from that there's no evidence that either of you was ever there, and the vessel that was fired upon by Perimeter Patrol is officially unidentified.
All the same, perhaps it would be best if you didn't return to the Scandia system right away.
As I told you before we parted, I owe the two of you more than I may ever be able to repay. Thank you so much. I could not have made what happened today happen all on my own.
Utena smiled a little sadly. "She doesn't owe me anything," she said. "I was happy to help. It's not like we could just let all those people die when we had the means to save them."
Corwin nodded. "I'll try and explain that to her sometime when it's all less... raw. For now it's probably best to just give her time."
Utena sighed. "Yeah. So what's next for us, then?"
"We're headed back to Tomodachi. Time to do some warp-drive work. Dad's lined us up one of the IPO's runabouts; we're going to ferry it to Zeta C for him, then stargate back to Nekomikoka." Corwin grinned. "Should be a milk run."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Symphony of the Sword № 2
Sonata № 1 ("Quarantena")
in order of appearance
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya
Naren'Sarma vas Hekademos
Adev'Tal vas Rayya
Rael'Zorah vas Rayya
Vedik'Zorah vas Archangel
QNV Rayya Security Service
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
The EPU Usual Suspects
with reasonably evident bits based on
Mass Effect by BioWare
and all the other usual sources
The Symphony will return
Don't you ever be sad
Lean on me when times are bad
When the day comes
And you're in doubt
In a river of trouble
About to drown
Hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
I'm on my way, your lover
When you get cold, yeah
I will be your cover
Don't have to worry
'Cause I'm here
Don't need to suffer, baby
'Cause I'm here
Just hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
Reach out to me
Call my name
For quick reaction
Now don't you ever be sad
Lean on me when times are bad
When the day comes
And you're in doubt, baby
In a river of trouble
And about to drown
Just hold on! I'm comin'
Hold on! I'm comin'
E P U (colour) 2022