Does Jerusalem Stand?
It was the question all human star travelers asked one another. The ancient city of Jerusalem, holy to three human religions, had become the touchstone for anyone not yet absorbed into the Na’id Empire, under its twin banner of Galactic Dominion/Human Supremacy.
A planet out of myth, whose very existence could bring down an empire.
The captain was a notorious rebel runner. To most of the known galaxy hewas a legend without a face, to the rest, a face without a name. He was called Alihahd. “He left.” It was the word Na’id enforcers heard when they demanded to know where the rebel had gone—always one step ahead—as if he knew his enemy very well. Hero, villain, coward. Three times a legend on both sides of the same war.
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
R. M. Meluch is an American science fiction writer, and published the first of her Tour of the Merrimack series of military SF/space opera novels in 2005. She can be found at rmmeluch.com.
Read an Excerpt
1. No Blaze of Glory
The captain was a notorious rebel runner. He was called Alihahd. This was his last run.
He had no real name, only a Chesite word, alihahd, which meant “he left.” He had no country, no planet, though several including Chesa claimed him. To most of the known galaxy he was a legend without a face, and to the rest a face without a name.
He was very tall, lanky. His long arms were gnarled like the ancient olive trees of Earth. He had the punished look of one at war too long. A dignity of bearing saved him from being gangly.
His eyes were splendid, expressive in their depth. His features were strong and regular, but he was too drawn to be called handsome anymore.
He’d lived over half his natural life span, which was much older than he’d ever expected to get. He was not surprised that it was to end now.
Luck and disguises had finally given out, and a Na’id squadron was in fast-closing pursuit of his runner ship Liberation. Alihahd had begun loading his refugees into Liberation’s twelve emergency shuttles. They would need to make the rest of the journey to the free planet New Triton without him.
Alihahd and a handful of volunteers would stay in the mothership to lead the Na’id on a chase in a false direction until overtaken and destroyed. Or, should the Na’id try to board the Liberation, she would self-destruct to cover the absence of her passengers and shuttles.
Alihahd stood motionless on the command deck, one large and knobby hand at his belt, one fist on the console, knuckles down as if he’d punched it and frozen there. He could overhear sounds of orderly flight drifting up from below where refugees spoke in whispers and shuffled in steadily moving lines onto the emergency craft.
He heard an air lock close, lock. The life bay thumped open. A shuttle detached and moved silently to the port side of the mothership where four other loaded shuttles were grouped in the bright oasis of the Liberation’s docking lights, waiting to depart all together in a convoy when the last of the shuttles was boarded.
Another air lock closed. Locked.
That was six.
The mind counted without passion. Alihahd hadn’t thought that the end would feel like this. He was feeling nothing.
He had planned for this contingency a long time, down to the clockwork details. The actual crisis was so like the countless times he had run it in his mind that this seemed just one more exercise.
He was fundamentally alone in this, without friends or lovers. There was no one aboard who honestly knew him as a man. To his passengers, and even to his crew, he was a distant, unfailing protector come from nowhere without selfish motive to spirit discontented subjects away from Na’id rule. His history was a blank but for a hint in his beautiful, correct voice. He would slip into high prose at times, and everyone supposed he was fugitive royalty, but his cosmopolitan accent didn’t say from where.
He kept himself remote. There was a too-gentle way he moved his hands, suggesting a tender nature—or hiding a violence that dreaded all but the lightest touch lest he destroy.
He was staring straight out the viewport without really seeing, when a pattern of lights appeared out of an unexpected quadrant, and a slow sick horror penetrated the blank space inside him.
Could he possibly be, he wondered, surrounded by Na’id ships?
But it wasn’t a Na’id ship.
It was worse.
A ghostly white image of a derelict sailing ship glided into view on the waves of a nonexistent sea. Misty at first, the frosty glow took the shape of an ancient brigantine, its shredded jibs straining from the bowsprit on fraying ropes, its topsail a fluttering rag on the splintered yard. This ship was the last sight of many a Na’id crew. “Marauder,” Alihahd breathed without voice. The Flying Dutchman of the stars.
A chill ran up Alihahd’s back, pricking at the hair along his spine and his arms. His thick lips twitched, then he resumed his habitual stone face.
The Marauder had once been only a legend, for centuries the terror of superstitious travelers. Someone in recent years had made the Marauder real and used it to destroy ships of the Na’id empire.
Marauder’s long tradition had fixed it in popular memory as a childhood fear that never went away. On sight, it was instantly recognized and instantly feared. The Marauder could scare a victim to death before firing a shot.
But the eerie brigantine was only a projection. Alihahd knew the real ship must be nearby. He found it. It hovered outside the periphery of the Liberation’s sphere of light, painted black and difficult to see, its surface albedo nil, giving the impression of something not there. The backdrop of stars allowed only glimpses of its clawlike angles. It looked like a nightmare.
The spectral hologram was the announcement: You are next. It was the lurking ship that carried the guns.
Many horrified people fired at the hologram. Then died.
Alihahd wouldn’t be thrown by the unreal—though he’d been accused of the tendency. He kept his eyes on the black ship.
He should’ve been relieved to meet the archfoe of his enemy—
—except that his own ship bore Na’id markings. Liberation was disguised to travel in Na’id space as a Na’id vessel, so how could the Marauder know that it wasn’t?
The command deck had become still. His crew looked at Alihahd the way they always looked at him—as if he could perform miracles. He could see a ghost of his own reflection in the viewport—a rangy, underfed man, old beyond his years—and he wondered what it was they saw.
He was conscious still of the unwary shuffling of refugees below deck.
On the Marauder’s blank surface appeared the ragged outline of mandibles opening to a red furnace within. The thing was about to open fire.
Alihahd moved to his ship’s transmitter, intending to get out an order for the six waiting shuttles to scatter and run. At least one might escape. But he froze at the switch—not from fear or indecision, but from instinct.
He drew his hand away from the switch—and braced for the fire when his instincts proved wrong.
But the Marauder didn’t fire. It held its position and observed, as if sensing something not right, something different, maybe curious as to why a sound vessel was being evacuated. Or maybe the Marauder had instincts, too.
An air lock closed. Locked. A shuttle detached, oblivious to the threat. Shuttles had no viewports.
Still the Marauder watched.
Alihahd moved his hand back to the transmitter. He masked out the shuttle channel, and opened all others. In what code did one attempt contact with the Marauder?
He decided on a voice message. “Alihahd,” he said. He did not know if the Marauder understood the Universal tongue, but maybe he would recognize the name of his enemy’s enemy if nothing else. “This is Alihahd. We are not—not—Na’id.”
There was no movement on the command platform save for the silent shifting of panel lights that washed pale red and green across bloodless faces, some of them terribly young.
There was no acknowledgment from the Marauder. But neither was there an attack.
The phantom ship menaced with its red maw gaping, a ticking bomb to be defused before the caprice of a moment turned the decision. There had to be a way to get through. With every second, the Marauder could imagine deception in a blinking bow light and open fire.
Without taking his eyes from the viewport, Alihahd spoke to his bridge crew in a quietly urgent whisper. “Close that hatch.”
They scuttled across the deck to obey, sealing off the hatch to the shuttle bay before someone could come up and catch sight of the shimmering sails of the ancient derelict and scream its name.
The command console had lighted up all over with hailing signals from perplexed shuttles, which could detect but not see or identify the presence of an extra ship near them. They could only tell that the configuration was not Na’id. Alihahd clicked off all the demanding lights with his long fingers and glanced at the chronometer. The Na’id—real ones—would be closing in soon. Six minutes.
He leaned straight-armed over the console, glowering at the black ship, his mouth drawn taut. His dusky face darkened. He lowered his chin and glared. The gaunt muscles of his arms stood out in high relief as he grew angry over a sudden suspicion. An instinct.
The bomb was not ticking. It was chuckling.
Alihahd touched the transmitter again. “I think you are reading me, Marauder,” he said in a sharp voice that made his crew gasp and cringe and brace for explosions. “I also think you know Universal. So understand this: A Na’id squadron is due here to destroy us in five minutes Earth standard. Now I have to assume, since you are playing the Dutchman, that you also mean to destroy us, but if you want me to grovel for my passengers’ lives, you will have to inform me soon or forfeit the pleasure to the Na’id. But then you would have to break your precious silence, would you not? For myself, by you or by them, I will be equally dead. I don’t very much care. So please either shoot, talk, or go away. Or you may go to hell, where I am bound with or without you.” Then he added crisply, “Do you want me to repeat any of that?”
Again the Marauder gave no acknowledgment—except to pull away and vanish.
The crew stared at Alihahd with reverent, startled wonder. He had pulled off the required miracle.
No miracle, thought Alihahd. He had lived long enough to know the smell of a player of deadly games.
An air lock closed. Locked.
That was eight.
There was still time. The boarding continued smoothly, the refugees unaware that the ghost ship had brushed so close and passed them by.
The last shuttle was loaded but not launched when Alihahd saw glances and nods pass between the muscular crewmen to either side of him. Alihahd backed out from his spot in between them to look at them—one then the other—straight into their guilty eyes. The rest of the bridge crew froze like dogs caught chewing the carpet. There were too many people on the command platform.
“What? What is this?” Alihhad spoke levelly, even gently. “Is this a mutiny?”
There was another exchange of glances. Whatever it was, they were all in on it. If they had turned against him, he was alone.
The handsome crewman to Alihahd’s left shifted his weight, pushed an auburn curl off his forehead, cleared his throat. “Please, sir,” he said. “Get on the shuttle. You don’t have to die. Let us take the ship by ourselves.”
After a grim, intimidating pause, Alihahd shook his head and said gravely, “You know better.”
“We intended to force you,” the crewman said softly.
For a moment Alihahd was too surprised to react. Not that they should conceive of such a plot—his crew were addicted to dreams of daring valor—but that they still, even faced with his disapproval, seriously intended to go through with it.
The mind assimilated this new development without the body giving sign of the panic quailing at his core. Alihahd maintained his perfect outer calm—it maintained itself out of habit—while inside he was struggling to hold his guts in. Only his fragile dignity was still keeping his crew at bay. There was really nothing else to keep them from laying hands on him and ingloriously dragging him down to the loading platform, depositing him in the last lifecraft, and shuttling him away to safety.
There was not one of them he could best if it came down to a physical pull, grab, and wrestle. They had chosen their beef for this task, knowing he would object for all he was worth. He was taller than the tallest and had the bone structure to match the strongest, but he hadn’t the flesh. Age and abuse had taken much from him. He felt suddenly exposed and powerless in their midst, nothing useful within his grasp. He was clad in a pocketless red tunic, a holsterless belt, and rubbery-soled deck boots that would not even let him deliver a convincing kick.
And his mutinous worshippers were determined to save him against his will, at the cost of their own lives. They would stumble over each other to be first in selfless heroism—they had learned it from him. They wanted to be like him. Now he had to confront these heroic monsters of his own creation.
But in their bright-eyed enthusiasm—which they had not imitated from him—they oversimplified, overstepped, and overlooked, and did not realize that even selflessness had its selfish reasons, and Alihahd would not be turned.
He preserved his quiet poise, making no quick desperate motion that would bring them all lunging toward him at once. Liquid eyes cast a spell, and he cloaked himself in his lordly mystique, too stately to be touched.
But awe was a feeble barrier against a dwindling countdown. The chronometer read three minutes. Someone needed to act quickly or every one of them would fall to the Na’id.
With deceptive casualness, all his apprehension contained, Alihahd walked across the deck—ten steps was suddenly an eternal length—passing between two mutineers, to reach under the command console and take out a gun hidden there. He pointed the gun to his own temple, and said, “Very well, then. Force me.”
By the time any of them even thought about stopping him, it was too late to do anything. The crew continued to stare—now completely stumped.
Alihahd gave them a few long seconds to realize defeat, then said, “Move. We are running out of time. You will jeopardize everyone with your ill-timed heroics. The thought is not unappreciated, yet it remains very foolish.”
The crewman who had spoken for the others moved first, backing off. And because there was nothing else to do, the rest returned to the duties of the original plan of evacuation—Alihahd’s plan.
Alone, Alihahd held the gun close across his chest, one hand around its barrel, trying not to shake and trying to hold inside what must remain inside.
They were going to admire him to death, his crew. They wanted him to live. But at what cost? He pictured himself aboard the shuttle, staying apart like a leper, meeting no one’s eyes, reaching haven, and answering the question, “Where is your crew?” He felt sick. He knew this feeling. He breathed with his mouth open as if there were no air left in the ship. A slickness filmed palms that never sweated. He did not relinquish the gun until the last shuttle was launched.
The little fleet of twelve shuttles separated from the mothership, moved off, and disappeared. Alihahd turned off the bright docking lights and leaned back against the bulkhead, his head back, hands loose at his sides. From here there were few decisions, and few mistakes that could bring worse results than success.
An odd elation came over him along with the first peace of mind he could remember.
He put on his spacesuit, secured himself into his seat at the ship’s controls, and waited. One minute.
The countdown was still at thirty seconds when blips appeared on the computer tracker with simultaneous visual contact. Six ships of metallic blue sublighted for attack, their hulls ablaze with the red twin symbols of Galactic Dominion/Human Supremacy.
The computer pilot engaged, and the Liberation shot away past the Na’id ships. The stars disappeared.
Before leaving the squadron behind in the sublight universe, Alihahd had recognized the flagship, Jerusalem.
I am being chased by Jerusalem. He found that thought horribly funny. Horribly.
Alihahd knew who commanded the flagship Jerusalem. That man was not a mindless destroyer. General Atta”id would try to catch Alihahd if he could. A high price had been put on Alihahd’s head—something the Na’id did not do as a rule, but how else to combat someone they could not recognize on sight and who left no tracks and tripped no alarms? And, in the end, the price had done it. Alihahd’s fall had come through no mistake of his own. He had been betrayed.
Six ships they sent after him. They had greatly overestimated him, the reputation grown bigger than the man. They thought him capable of anything.
At length the pursuit ships became visible again, gradually closing the million-mile gap their second’s hesitation had made between them. They came into range for weapons. None of the ships flew directly behind the Liberation, fearing what might be dropped back in its wake. They never guessed that the rogue ship might possibly be unarmed. Their caution threw off the accuracy of their fire, and the Liberation was able to lure them farther and farther away from the shuttle convoy.
Excerpted from "Jerusalem Fire"
Copyright © 2016 R. M. Meluch.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
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