Where does one put a messianic cult of practicing cannibals? That becomes the question when Ashanti appears in Donovan's skies. She was designed for no more than four years in space. It's taken ten. The crew has sealed the transportees onto a single deckand over the years, the few survivors down there have become monsters. Led by the messiah, Batuhan, they call themselves the Unreconciled.
Supervisor Kalico Aguila settles them at remote Tyson Station. With the discovery of a wasting disease among the Unreconciled, it's up to Kalico, Dya Simonov, and Mark Talbot to try and deal with the epidemic. Only Batuhan has plans of his ownand Kalico and her people are to be the main course.
Talina Perez has brokered an uneasy truce with the quetzal molecules that float in her blood. Now, she, young Kylee Simonov, a quetzal named Flute, and a clueless nobleman named Taglioni rush to save Kalico's vanished party.
But as always, Donovan is playing its own deadly game. Lurking in the forest outside Tyson Base is an old and previously unknown terror that even quetzals fear. And it has already begun to hunt.
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Watch began at 06:00 ship's time as Ashanti continued its long deceleration into the Capella star system. For Captain Miguel Angel Galluzzi it was anything but another day in the countdown from hell. He strode down the long corridor from his cabin. Every other light panel had been removed years ago to save energy. Didn't matter, he could have walked it blindfolded.
Around him, Ashanti hummed, and he could feel the familiar vibrations of a living ship. Could feel the movement of air on his face as he passed one of the ventilators. It surprised him that he could still detect the stale odor of confinement and clogged filters.
It had been seven years, ship's time, since Ashanti's generators had ceased to maintain the fields that inverted symmetry. When they did, the ship had popped back "inside" the universe and found itself in black empty space. Low on fuel, and 0.6 light-years from the Capella system.
Since then he'd lived an eternity-one from which he wasn't certain he'd ever recover. A waking horror without end.
As if perdition began in Ashanti and would end there.
Sometimes he wondered if it wouldn't have been better to have overloaded the reactors. Blown the ship into a brilliant miniature sun. Ended it all.
He'd committed crimes against humanity, and in the process, he'd heroically saved his ship. But when one sells his soul to the Devil, the dark one will always have his due.
Galluzzi contemplated that as he passed the Captain's Lounge and hesitated at the hatch for the Astrogation Center, or AC for short. In another day and age, it would have been called the bridge. After the advent of quantum qubit computer operational systems, navigational functions had been completely removed from human control. That didn't mean that people didn't have to monitor systems, that decisions didn't have to be made.
A feeling of excitement-mixed with nervous anxiety-began to burn in his breast. And something he hadn't known for years stirred: hope.
Staring at the featureless hatch, he swallowed in an effort to still the crawling sensation in his stomach. If the conference came off as scheduled, he would be talking to a Corporate Supervisor. For the first time he would have to confess and defend his actions. Didn't matter if they hauled him out and shot him as long as his crew didn't have to pay the price for his decisions.
The sick anxiety in his stomach worsened; that damnable nervous spasm began: his right hand was twitching like a poisoned mouse. He used to function with stone-cold competence under stress. The twitch had manifested in the hard months after they'd popped back "inside" so far from Capella.
Doesn't matter what they do to me. It will all be over soon.
For the last month, his first officer, Edward Turner, had been in contact with the Corporate survey ship, Vixen. The messages had been simple photonics, which due to the difference in relativity had been a rather drawn-out affair. This morning, as Ashanti came out of its occulted position from behind the system's primary they were finally close enough for a visual conference. Entangled photonic communications would allow them an almost simultaneous transmission.
Galluzzi girded himself. Wouldn't let the others see how fragile and anxious he was. Couldn't let them know how close to tears he felt.
The trembling in his right hand was getting worse. He knotted it into a fist.
Back stiff, composed, he cycled the hatch and stepped into the Astrogation Center to find his officers already in their seats. In the rear, Benj Begay, the forty-five-year-old Corporate Advisor/Observer was seated in one of the two observation chairs. Director of Scientific Research Michaela Hailwood, from the Maritime Unit, sat in the other.
"Good morning," Galluzzi greeted, snapping out a two-fingered salute from his brow. For today he'd worn his dress uniform. It felt good, professional, to be dressed for the part. Not that there were any illusions left when it came to his crew or the scientists. Not after a decade of living in such close quarters. But today, for the first time since inverting symmetry outside of Neptune's orbit, he'd be face-to-face with total strangers. Powerful strangers. And they would judge him.
"You ready?" Begay asked wryly. "I'm so wound up I could almost scream. Half of me wants to get up and dance, another part of me wants to throw up."
"Hard to believe. I know," Galluzzi replied. "But we're still not out of the shit. We've got a couple of months left before we're in Cap III orbit. And there's no telling what's going to happen when we finally inform the Unreconciled that we're closing on the planet."
"Do we have to tell them, Cap?" Second Officer Paul Smart sat at the com console and worked the photonic data.
"Might be better," Turner said, "if we just established orbit first. Shut most of the ship down. Then, when there was nothing left to go wrong, we could let them know."
Begay shifted uneasily. "Just leave them in the dark? Then spring it on them? Surprise! We're here."
Galluzzi, who'd been wrestling with the problem for days, raised a worried brow. "We're in uncharted depths. And remember, it's not our sole decision. There's Supervisor Aguila to consider. She's the Corporate authority here."
"Captain?" Second Officer Turner called, voice tense. "Might have been our synch that's off, but the signal's coming in." He bent to his projected holo data, using his hands and implants to manipulate the photonic gear and refine the signal.
Shit on a shoe. I'm not ready for this.
Galluzzi gritted his teeth, slipped into the command chair. Fought to control his trembling hand. He stared at the communications holo, dark now for a decade. The realization that he was about to face a strange superior sent an eerie chill down his spine.
The image formed up, faces magically appearing as if out of empty air. Then, under Paul Smart's and the Vixen com officer's competent control, the photonics linked and the projection seemed to solidify.
Galluzzi was looking at a raven-haired woman, perhaps in her thirties-though with the benefits of Corporate med, who knew? What would have been a very attractive face was lined with fine white scars. Scars? On a Corporate Supervisor? The piercing blue of her eyes had a laser-like intensity. In her form-fitting black suit, the woman exuded a sense of command, had to be Supervisor Kalico Aguila.
A small brown man sat at her side. Looked Indian, with a round face and flat-mashed nose. His unruly shock of thick black hair-graying at the sides-rose a couple of inches above his head. Curious brown eyes and an amused smile suggested an amicable nature. The biggest incongruity was the man's dress. Like he was some peasant in a homespun brown shirt embroidered with yellow flowers, and a sort of shimmering rainbow-colored cloak hung around his shoulders.
"Do we have sound?" the blue-eyed woman asked.
"We can hear you on our side, Supervisor." Galluzzi fought a tightness in his throat. "I'm Captain Miguel Angel Galluzzi, of The Corporation's Ashanti. IS-C-18. Behind me is Corporate Advisor/Observer Benj Begay. Seated to his left is Scientific Director Michaela Hailwood."
"I'm Corporate Supervisor Kalico Aguila, in charge of all Corporate property and activity on Donovan. What you probably know as Capella III. With me is Shig Mosadek, one of the administrators of the independent town of Port Authority."
An independent town? What the hell was that?
An eyebrow lifted, rearranging the woman's scars. "Welcome to Donovan, Captain. From what I gather, you've had a much longer and vexatious journey than you anticipated. I've reviewed your communications with Vixen. Somehow, I suspect there's a lot more to your story."
His hand began to jerk spastically. He stuffed it into his belt. Hoped Aguila hadn't noticed. Forced himself to begin damage control. "We've had to make some difficult choices. Ashanti wouldn't be here were it not for my crew, ma'am. No matter what, I want it on the record that they have acted with the utmost professionalism under difficult and soul-trying circumstances. We're anxious for the day we can set foot on Donovan."
"I suspect that you will find conditions on Donovan somewhat, shall we say, unique."
Galluzzi felt like he was choking. Okay, get it over with. "Supervisor, we've got our own 'unique' problem. One of the reasons we've been looking forward to this conversation."
Was that a lie, or what?
From behind, Begay said, "Ma'am, as the Corporation's Advisor/Observer, I want you to know that I backed every one of Captain Galluzzi's decisions when it came to the Unreconciled." He paused at her blank look. "Um, the transportees, Supervisor. They also call themselves the Irredenta to signify their difference and isolation from normal human beings."
Galluzzi quickly added, "Given circumstances, we've had to take some rather distasteful and unorthodox actions. While I appreciate the Advisor/Observer's support, ultimately the responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Under no circumstances did my crew do anything but follow orders. They exhibited the most professional-"
The Supervisor cut him short with a raised a hand. "Start at the beginning, Captain."
Like a man condemned, Galluzzi took a deep breath. "After a two-and-a-half-year transit, Ashanti popped back into our universe. For the first couple of days, we hadn't a clue as to where we were. Just lost in the black. The reaction among the crew and transportees was dismayed to say the least.
"We didn't have enough fuel to invert symmetry, restart the qubit computers, and run the math backwards in a bid to return to Solar System. Not only that, we were so far out in the empty black, the figures were pretty grim when it came to hydrogen/oxygen scavenging."
"I can well imagine, Captain. Go on."
"After Astrogation Officer Tuulikki finally established our position, it turned out that we were zero-point-six of a light-year from the Capella star system. We made the decision to run for it. Used what was left of the fuel for a burn, fully aware of how long it would take to reach Capella. But we were moving, which increased hydroxy scavenging. Had a couple of months where we weren't sure we were going to make it. At least until we hit the break-even point."
Call that a mild understatement.
Aguila's expression remained inscrutable, and in association with the scars, it suggested that he was dealing with one hard and tough woman.
"Of course, as we got closer to the Capella system, scavenging increased, which increased our thrust. Bootstrapping, you see. Then, two and a half years ago, we reversed thrust. Began the process of deceleration."
"Doesn't sound like anything but prudent and competent spacing, Captain."
"Yes, ma'am. The problem was the transportees. The hydroponics system had an operational life of four years. We were looking at ten. The only way to extend the hydroponics to last ten years was to reduce the demand put upon the system."
Aguila's face might have been carved from cold stone. No trace of emotion showed in her glacial-blue stare.
Galluzzi's heart began to pound. His mouth had gone dry. "I gave first priority to my crew. If they died, the ship died. We survived the cut in rations because we had a command structure. Discipline. A purpose. A bond that went deeper than mere shared humanity. But the transportees . . ."
Aguila's eyes narrowed the least bit, her lips pursed. "Did you euthanize them all?"
"No, ma'am!" Galluzzi choked down a swallow. "They were panicked. Desperate. They could do the math as well as we could. Enough of them worked in hydroponics that it was common knowledge: Over time, feeding that many people, the vats were going to break down. Didn't matter that we didn't have enough fuel to invert symmetry in an attempt to return to Solar System, some of them decided they were going to seize the ship, space for Solar System. They made a violent try for the AC."
Galluzzi winced, remembering the bodies in the corridors. Blood pooling on the sialon.
"We held the ship, ma'am. Beat them back. They withdrew to Deck Three. Before they could reorganize and try for the command deck again, I had the hatches sealed. Welded. But for that, we'd never have saved Ashanti. Or the crew. Or any of the transportees."
"But you saved some?" she asked thoughtfully.
He couldn't stop the shiver that ran through him. Tried to still the memories. His hand was jerking despite being stuffed under his belt. The images that lurked behind his every thought drifted up like vaporous apparitions. To tell it to another person, someone who hadn't lived the horror, left him on the verge of tears.
How did he explain?
"What they did to each other down there? We saw, ma'am. At least in the beginning before they blacked out the cameras. It was . . . It . . ."
He couldn't stop the shakes.
Stop it! You're the captain!
He sucked in a breath, flexed every muscle in his body.
"I take it they turned on each other?" Aguila asked softly.
"With the critical ship's systems isolated from the transportees' deck, Ashanti continued to function as best she could. A food ration, insufficient as it was, was delivered to them by conveyor from the hydroponics, air and water circulated. Yes, we isolated the transportees, sealed them into Deck Three, but we gave them every support we could. Those were human beings in there. Families. Men, and women, and children."
"How many are still alive, Captain?"
"Not sure, ma'am. We inverted symmetry off Neptune with four hundred and fifty-two aboard. Eighty-seven were crew. Three hundred and sixty-five transportees, including the Maritime Unit. As of today, I have sixty-three crew. Counting the children born since transit began, there are thirty-two in the Maritime Unit. We estimate the population of the Irredenta at around ninety to a hundred."
"So, they're still sealed in your Deck Three?" Aguila's expression betrayed nothing. She seemed to be taking the news with an almost stoic acceptance. Why?
"Yes, well . . ."
After the "rats" had devoured themselves, they had "evolved" to be such . . . what? How did he describe the Irredenta without sounding like he'd lost his mind?
"Supervisor, we have a voice com still linked to Deck Three, and on occasion messages are passed. The Irredenta-the word refers to a culturally autonomous region existing under foreign control. Well, they don't exactly carry on sophisticated conversations. Mostly it's just propaganda about their Prophets. Their leader is a man named Batuhan. Thinks he's some sort of messiah. They say he interprets for the Prophets, whoever they are. What they send us sounds like raving. Supposed prophecies about what they call the coming 'Annihilation.' Some sort of violent spiritual cleansing of the universe."