Another Death for Laura Brandt
When it hit the planet’s upper atmosphere, the starship Vermillion was still traveling at an appreciable fraction of orbital velocity. Like the majority of its onboard systems, the colony vessel’s ingrav and regrav drives were glitching badly in the Void, leaving them unable to suspend the titanic bulk against gravity and lower it to a gentle landing as they were designed. But they could still exert some resistance against the planet’s hungry gravity, so they strained to slow the starship’s otherwise-catastrophic speed. On the bridge, Captain Cornelius and the ten remaining volunteers from the crew did what they could to mitigate the impending disaster. Force fields, normally tough enough to deflect nuclear blasts with ease, headed toward breakdown as they expanded out from the hull. Redline instability warnings bloomed in Cornelius’s exovision as they held Vermillion secure at the center of a bubble of incandescent plasma five kilometers in diameter.
Vermillion curved around the planet, tearing a screaming hole through the atmosphere as it aerobraked to a manageable speed, its fiery hypersonic wake scoring a terrible furrow of destruction across every landmass it zoomed over. After seventy-two minutes of this torment it finally dropped to subsonic. They were still traveling at eighty kilometers an hour when their altitude reached zero. A last desperate burst of power was pumped into the fading drive units to brake their speed further. The force fields collapsed on impact, and Vermillion’s unprotected hull struck the ground.
Their wild flight had brought them to a rumpled stretch of ground just beyond a massive river where the humidity was a constant mist twisting among the verdant trees. This was jungle territory, with a soft loamy ground. But soft was a relative term for a transgalactic colony ship more than a kilometer and a half long and massing hundreds of thousands of tons.
It hit at the foot of a small incline, pulverizing vegetation and ripping out a deep gorge. Modules and compartments never designed to withstand such forces broke off, tumbling away to their ruin through the trees. But the main section kept surging onward and upward until it, too, came to rest.
Seventy-five percent of Vermillion remained intact through a miraculous combination of good luck and steely nerves. Captain Cornelius was justifiably lauded by the passengers who’d flown down to the planet earlier in much safer shuttles with good old-fashioned solid wings. That hero-worship enabled him to retain his authority as the lost survivors slowly built their civilization in the strange environment of the Void. The threat of the Fallers who began to invade their world from space justified the formation of defensive regiments, of which Cornelius became commander in chief. The machines Vermillion had brought from the Commonwealth were largely useless in the Void, where electrical current was inhibited, and anything more complex than a steam engine was subject to constant glitches. The resources that did work, especially the precious medical capsules, were guarded and restricted to the captain and his immediate family, enhancing his power and authority.
Vermillion’s remains became the seat of power on the new, and somewhat ironically named, world of Bienvenido. To protect their declining technological advantage, the Captain’s family incorporated the starship’s original sections into a working residence, then extended that to embrace an executive complex and military headquarters as well as their private clinic. As the palace grew in size and splendor, so more and more of the ship was built around, but mainly on top of.
After three thousand years, nothing of the Vermillion was visible from outside. But by then it was no longer relevant; the nature of the Void had incapacitated even the simplest artifact of Commonwealth technology. The rule of the Captain’s family had become established by law, political power, and a brutally effective secret police force.
Then—somehow—Nigel Sheldon arrived on Bienvenido. A quantumbuster was detonated, and the Void responded with the Great Transition, flinging Bienvenido out into the deepest Gulf of intergalactic space. Technology worked again.
The great, gloomy warrens of vaults underneath the ancient palace, built by the flickering light of valseed oil lamps, were now illuminated by new electric bulbs. It was just as well, Laura Brandt thought as she hurried toward the crypt that housed the wormhole gateway she’d managed to renovate. So many people were rushing around down here, and all of them wearing a look of suppressed fear. Aboveground, Fall alert sirens were shrieking a warning across the city of Varlan. That wasn’t strictly accurate. Those new lights in the sky above Bienvenido weren’t a Fall, at least not in the usual sense. But it would do, warning people of an impending threat from space.
Marine guards in their smart black uniforms stood outside the big wooden doors that led into the wormhole crypt. For once the doors were wide open, allowing dozens of freshly laid telephone cables to snake inside. It also enabled technicians from the Manhattan Project to wheel in large metal trolleys. Whyever did I call it that? Laura wondered. Probably the mental equivalent of comfort food.
She stopped to let the trolleys clank past, staring at the black iron casing of the big cylinders they carried. The atom bombs weren’t streamlined, but then she’d never intended for them to be dropped in the planet’s atmosphere.
Inside the crypt, the sound of frantic voices dipped as technicians and officers from the People’s Air Defense Force gave the weapons fearful glances. Their arrival was the final confirmation that the threat was terrifyingly real.
The marine guards suddenly snapped off salutes. Laura turned to see Prime Minister Slvasta arriving behind her. He was wearing some kind of yellow-and-blue regimental dress tunic; she never could be bothered to remember which regiment had which colors. As always, Slvasta’s empty sleeve was pinned prominently across his chest, the result of an encounter with a Faller. Of all Bienvenido’s anachronisms, that was the oddest to Laura. She’d spent the first three hundred years of her life in the Commonwealth, where the concept of people walking around with missing limbs was unheard of. Even if some gross fluke accident did somehow maim a citizen, a replacement clone limb would be grown and attached within weeks. But not here. Here Slvasta was a physical reminder of how vigilance should never be allowed to falter.
She detested him, but needed his authority to instigate her desperate rescue plan for this benighted world. So the oppressive downside of his dictatorial rule had to be quietly overlooked. And her biononics—including full-body force field function—meant that he couldn’t eliminate her. They were stuck with each other.
Slvasta’s usual entourage of cronies formed a phalanx around him. Javier, a fellow leader of the revolution who’d slid smoothly into his role of Slvasta’s political adviser, was a huge man who looked as sullen and angry as always; not even the emergency had broken his constant suspicion of Laura. Yannrith stood beside him—Slvasta’s bodyguard during the revolution, and now the head of the People’s Security Regiment. His appearance matched his job, stiff and forbidding, with a vivid scar on his throat giving his voice a sharp rasping quality. He remained ever alert for Faller nests and even more alert to counter-revolutionary forces—of which there were, apparently, never-ending processions. Andricea completed the trio: a tall lean woman with a face Laura judged too cruel to be genuinely pretty. She was officially Slvasta’s chief bodyguard, though rumor around the People’s Congress said that she also shared his bed now that his wife had been sentenced to twenty years in the Pidrui Mines.
“Laura, is everything working?” Slvasta asked.
“Seems to be,” she said grumpily. Fatigue was starting to take its toll, even on her biononics-enriched body.
“The floaters,” he said urgently. “Did you repair the floaters?”
“Yes. They’re working.” She closed her eyes, allowing the last five crazy days to flash past like a dream. Biononics had allowed her to keep going without sleep, but she could feel that body-debt lying in wait now. Nonetheless, she and her exhausted team of assistants had managed to refurbish two of the floaters, cannibalizing the others for spare parts. Her earlier experience rebuilding the gateway had provided plenty of insight to the procedure.
“If there’s anything else you need, anything at all, just tell me,” he said sincerely. “I’ll make sure you get it.”
Democracy. Civil rights. Trial by jury. “Sure.”
They walked into the crypt together. It was one of the largest chambers beneath the palace, with dusty brick walls curving up to an arched roof, supported by metal ribs that had come from Vermillion. Looking around it, Laura was always struck by the resemblance to a European-style church, albeit with a dark gothic quality. It had been abandoned for centuries before she found the ancient machines it housed.
Standing at the far end, instead of an altar, the circular gateway shimmered with the purple ghostlight of Cherenkov radiation. It was a CST BC5800d2 model, intended to create small-scale planetary and interplanetary wormhole connections that would transport bulk material about while a new settlement established its manufacturing base. Vermillion had carried five of them, all of which were still sealed in their transit shells when Laura had landed on Bienvenido eight years earlier. As the last survivor of the Vermillion, she was the only one who understood Commonwealth technology. Even so, getting the wormhole gateway to work had been a devilishly tricky job, especially given everything else she’d had to do.
Every day since she’d landed, Laura mused that she’d committed some terrible crime back in the Commonwealth and this was her punishment: first trapped in a weird temporal loop in the Void, then liberated by Nigel Sheldon, only to fall into this hell populated by people she regarded as psychotic half savages. She’d spent those last eight years trying to educate the mistrustful citizens of Bienvenido, whose society had leveled out to something equivalent to Earth, circa 1850. That education had focused on raising their technology and engineering base by almost a century to combat the Fallers—a mission that had to be approached carefully. Bienvenido was fighting for its life against the alien invaders, and the machines she showed them how to build needed to be reliable, something their very basic factories could produce dependably. So far they had aircraft powered by simple V12 engines, better guns, electricity, and radio. The planes of the new People’s Air Force had proved sufficient to hold the Fallers at bay while she got to work renovating the wormholes stored below the palace. The idea behind that was to reach out to the Ring of Trees orbiting high above Bienvenido—crystalline alien biotechnology hive spaceships, as near as she could determine, which produced the lethal eggs that Fell as a plague across the planet. Her plan was that once she could open a wormhole amid the Trees, she could nuke them with the primitive fission bombs that the Manhattan Project was painstakingly assembling under her direction. Once the Fallers were eliminated, Bienvenido could finally start to progress along standard socioeconomic lines and hopefully one day reestablish contact with the Commonwealth. It was always a desperate notion, but it was all she had.
Now even that fantastical daydream was dying around her. The threat she’d uncovered on Ursell was closing fast on Bienvenido, and it was potent enough to obliterate humans and Fallers alike.
A row of trestle tables had been set up along one side of the crypt. Senior officers from various regiments sat there, talking into the black Bakelite telephone handsets linking them to their various headquarters, their babbling voices rich with suppressed panic.
“Ma’am,” one of the officers called. “The Space Vigilance Office has confirmed approach tracking. The first invasion fleet is going to reach the atmosphere above Fanrith in seven minutes.”
“Thank you,” Laura said as calmly as she could manage. She knew if she showed any weakness in front of these people, everything would be lost. They were all depending on her to save them. “Can someone get me confirmation on the second fleet?”
“Estimated atmosphere entry over Tothland in twenty-eight minutes,” another of the officers announced.
“Okay. Chief Air Marshal, are you ready?”
“Our squadrons are over Fanrith, ma’am,” the marshal said, her face grim. “We won’t let you down.”
Laura gave her a quick nod, fighting to prevent tears from forming. They’d deployed just over four hundred IA-505 air-interceptor planes to the uninhabited Fanrith continent—two-thirds of the planet’s entire Air Force. The IA-505s were her own design, cobbled together out of her storage lacuna’s basic encyclopedia files of the Second World War: terribly flimsy things made from an alloy monocoque structure, with the skin riveted on. The V12 engines powering the props were just supercharged pistons; she hadn’t gotten around to introducing turbines yet. Control surfaces moved when the pilot pulled on a joystick, which tugged wires connected to hydraulics. The planes were armed with four powerful pneumatic Gatling guns in the fore and aft turrets. And the crews, seven to a plane, were all proud and eager kids, fiercely loyal to their world, and determined to protect it no matter what. They were delighted with their radical flying war machines, smiling gamely when she went to meet squadrons at their aerodromes, promising her they’d do her proud when they took to the air to blast the Faller eggs apart with their guns.
And now she’d sent them into battle against interplanetary spaceships, crewed by the vilest aliens humans had ever encountered. She’d told Slvasta and the Air Force regiment marshals it was almost certain suicide, but they’d ordered the squadrons into the air anyway. If they hadn’t, all Bienvenido would be lost.
Laura blamed herself for that.
It was a mere six months ago when she’d gotten the wormhole functioning again. After the utterly hellish time she’d endured since arriving on Bienvenido—desperately upgrading its primitive military technology to cope with the Fallers, struggling against a paranoid Slvasta’s authoritarian regime—she had finally found the time to repair it. Her hope was that, by exploring the other planets that shared this terrible exile with them, she might find an ally against the Fallers. And for those brief months it looked as if the dream had come true.
She’d opened the wormhole five hundred kilometers above Aqueous—the most promising-looking of the nine other planets in orbit around this lonely sun. A beautiful oceanic world of deep turquoise scuffed by long white clouds, and possessing a standard oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. If it weren’t for the complete absence of any landmass, it could have been another Earth. It was only when the wormhole opened just above the atmosphere that they saw the green and pink dots of tiny coral islands, not one of which was more than a hundred meters in diameter.
They’d made contact with the Vatni, who lived on and around the islands—a semi-aquatic species who, for all their willingness to be allies, didn’t have any technological ability. However, thanks to the finite number of islands, they did have a considerable population pressure problem, which gave Slvasta’s diplomatic team an easy time during negotiations. It was agreed that Vatni families could come and live on Lamaran’s coastline in exchange for dealing with any marine threat posed by the Fallers in a way humans never could.
From the Hardcover edition.