SOLACE OF MANTICORE
Chapter 4: The Light Fandango
Previously: A Tango of Words
“Solace, I heard from my father that you have been admitted to Saganami Island. Congratulations on that, and pass on to your parents my congratulations on the birth of your new brother. If anyone at the academy gives you any flack because of your age, know that they are envious and it’s no reflection upon you or your abilities. I know you’ll do your best, and, if you have any problems, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I myself struggled with mathematics, but Captain Courvosier convinced me to get a tutor and trust myself, and that got me through.
News on my front, I have been reassigned from Warmaiden to Royal Winton, a dreadnaught I’m certain you’re aware, as you’ve no doubt memorized all the ships in the fleet by now. They also promoted me to Lieutenant and have made me a Gunnery Officer Trainee. I thought things were busy under Captain Bachfisch, but the difference between Warmaiden and Winny is night and day, and my seniors are keeping me so busy that Nimitz has been doing my duty logs for me.”
Solace chuckled at the image of the treecat trying to fill out paperwork, then glanced over at where Naomi was industriously trying to beat Ruth at frisbee, a plastic throwing disk that had been a party favor from Honor and Nimitz two years earlier at the fete following Honor’s graduation ceremony. It wasn’t that Naomi was bad at frisbee, but Ruth was lighter and more agile and better at throwing things than Naomi was at catching.
She finished reading Honor’s letter and folded it up, smoothing out the faint wrinkles in the paper and slid it back into her sidecase. She and Honor had become occasional, if infrequent penpals, though Honor was terribly busy with her studies and Solace had been all but compulsive in finishing the prepwork required to qualify for the Academy. Mary, justifiably distracted with her pregnancy, was around more often, and if she was annoyed with Solace finding a loophole in her ‘No joining the Marine Corps until after College’ injunction, she was equally supportive of her daughter’s drive to become the youngest Naval cadet in 226 years.
Of course, the fact that her commendations to the Island had come from her uncle, the king, and one of her father’s friends who happened to be the Member of the House of Commons for the borough in which she lived meant that almost everyone at the school thought she’d gotten her admission (at age 14 instead of the normal 16) on the basis of connections rather than talent. When they discovered how good she actually was, some of them revised their opinion of her for the better… but all too often, it was for the worse.
She was head of her class, acing every class by dint of constant study and a reduced need for sleep, courtesy of her makers. If they’d done it to be generous, she’d have thanked them for it, and for her eidetic memory, inhumanly fast reflexes, incredible hand eye coordination and all the other advantages that came from being the product of genetic engineering. But they hadn’t. They’d almost certainly meant her to be breeding stock for some rich monster, to give him sons and daughters that had these gifts. She had merely been intended as a method of transmission. But now she was going to use those advantages to acquire the skills she’d need to hunt down those like her creators who thought of human lives as merely marks on a scoreboard.
She checked her chrono. There was another twenty minutes before her afternoon military theory class began, so she recorded a message for Mary and Hope and the one year old baby Duty-and-Honour. Frankly, if she hadn’t already been planning to attend the academy, she might have run away from home just to escape the presence of her baby brother. Loyal had been more than grateful to accept early admission to Queen’s College to escape the incessant screaming and, without his presence, Solace had found the house suddenly too small. She loved being with Mary, but felt overwhelming guilt every time Duty started crying and she found herself resenting the sudden co-opting of Mary-Solace time.
More than once, she’d found herself plotting against the infant, and that realization had made her start crying hysterically and taking refuge in her treehouse until the violent shaking subsided under the crooning of the ‘cats. When Hope dropped her off at the Academy on her first day, she’d been practically giddy to be away from the child she had absolutely no idea how to deal with. Compared to that, the scorn shown her by judgemental staff and envious cadets barely registered. And with that distance, she was able to admit that she’d been jealous… and a brat… and so, everyday, she sent Mary and Duty a message promising them, and herself, that she was missing them terribly and would see them come break.
As she gathered her ‘cats and their toy and headed towards class, she began mentally composing a response to Honor’s letter with one train of conscious while she reviewed her notes for class with another… and it was in that distracted state that she ran right into Paul.
Paul was in her class, of course, and was by far the handsomest boy there. More than once she’d found herself staring at the back of his blond head and imagined running her fingers through his hair… and more than once she’d caught him looking at her when he thought she wasn’t paying attention. He clearly wasn’t aware how sharp her eyes were, or how reflective certain surfaces were. She yelped and fell backwards, nearly sitting on Ruth, but the ‘cat reflexes were snakelike and she leapt forward between Solace’s legs, her tail clearing the danger zone by millimeters.
“Opps. Sorry Smythe,” Paul said, his smile dazzling and confusing in equal measure. “Didn’t see you there.” He bent over and picked up her sidecase, handing it over as she stood. Part of her wanted to thank him… another part of her wanted to kick him and run. She settled for a nod and brushed her uniform tunic straight… then did it again… stupid thing didn’t hang right since her chest had started expanding again. Paul was looking at her chest and caught himself, wrenching his gaze to her face and held out the case. “Chief MacDougal’s announcing the final positions for the unarmed combat team… think you’ll make it?”
“Maybe,” she said, relieved by the sudden refocusing of their encounter. She knew the Chief doted on her ‘cats, always slipping them celery when no one was looking, but personally she found him a little grumpy. “Chief LeMoyne wants me on the flight team and Chief Prescott wants me for the shooting team…” she trailed off, worried he might think she was bragging. Mentally she kicked herself for caring what anyone thought, let alone a stupid boy with a nice smile.
“Oh dear,” he said with a chuckle. “Too many options. I can imagine. Accept all those offers and you’ll be out of free time completely. What do you want to do?”
She thought of telling him that she wanted to join the fencing team, but that was seen as effete, the kind of thing only lords and those who sucked up to them did, so instead she shrugged as he opened the door to the lecture hall. “I don’t know… coup de vitesse is kinda… sloppy, isn’t it?”
“Them’s fighting words, Smythe!” Paul said, then moved away from her to sit with his friends. She didn’t follow. Of course she didn’t. She always sat off to the side at the back with her ‘cats.
“Why didn’t you join us?”
She started, looking up from the letter she was writing. Everyone else took notes in class, but that was pointless for Solace, with her ability to instantly recall what had been said exactly as it had been said, and so she would write letters or sketch schematics for machines she’d try to build later. She didn’t even have to think about what she was writing, just held a picture in her head and let her fingers copy it down. Of course, the result was bizarre to look at, since she wrote down the page rather than across it, leaving words and letters incomplete as her hand moved.
Paul was looking down at her, smiling that annoyingly smile. “Why’d you wander off? We were right in the middle of discussing your bias against the coup and you walked away.”
“Oh… uh… you were sitting with your friends and…” she shrugged, stacking her pages for later completion. She tried not to be irritated. Once her concentration was broken like that, she’d have to write out the letter the long way or start over. If she didn’t the letters would look wrong. Part of her worried that she was too concerned with everything looking perfect, but she couldn’t help it. It was probably part of the same reason she had to straighten her tunic so often or arrange her desk just so or fold her dirty laundry before stacking it neatly in the hamper.
“You could join us,” he suggested.
“I…” she didn’t have an answer for that, and pointing out that he hadn’t invited her would make her sound clueless. “Okay.”
He laughed. “Well, class is over now. But tomorrow. Can I walk you to Tactics?”
=======10 months later======
“Paul,” Solace hissed.
“Nnnngg… too early…”
“Paul!” she hissed a little louder.
“Goway. Got another hour ‘til-” he mumbled into the pillow
“Cadet Tankersley!” she snapped, tugging on his ear. “I just got a notice. A colony ship from Gaspar that was docked at Hephaestus just had her entire forward impeller ring blow. She’s falling towards the planet and they don’t think they can stop her.”
Paul sat up at once. “What?”
She repeated herself, thrusting his skinsuit at him, ignoring how good his chest looked. Naomi was holding his helmet. Solace was already wearing hers.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because there are 160,000 civilians onboard the Tek Sing, and there’s no way some of them weren’t injured,” she said, trying to sound reasonable.
“And we should grab an academy shuttle and go help the evacuation.”
“We don’t have orders, Solace. I’m certain they’d call us if… where are you going?”
“To grab an academy shuttle and go help the evacuation!” she called, running out of his room.
Ten minutes later, they were aloft, Paul having overridden the hangar doors while Solace overrode the authorization permissions. Reaching the slowly plummeting freighter wasn’t hard, though it was made more difficult by the fact that there were dozens of tugs trying to save the ship, or at least keep it from breaking up before the passengers could be evacuated. The Tek Sing, not in the best of condition apparently, was not cooperating, as chunks of hull were steadily ripping free whenever the tugs tugged too hard.
“There,” Paul indicated one of the docking ports that wasn’t currently playing host to an evac shuttle already, and Solace aimed for it, nudging the shuttle in close. “You know we’re going to get in so much trouble for this, right?”
“My brother always says trouble is the natural state of man. Mary says that’s not an excuse. My dad says that people shouldn’t worry so much about getting themselves into trouble and should worry more about getting others out of it,” Solace said, easing the shuttle against the hull and dogging the seal. It was at 80% and probably wouldn’t hold much longer, as this port was nearer the blown node ring than any others, but it was holding for now.
Inside the Tek Sing, the corridors were full of smoke and exposed conduits where deck plating had buckled and wall panels had given way. To make matters worse, the signs were not in standard English, but only in a simplified form of Chinese, which was in contravention of nearly universally accepted practice. Paul cursed.
“I don’t suppose you know how to read this?” he asked, holding his suit-light steady on the deck-map.
“Not a clue… but I downloaded the schematics of the Tek Sing’s class. If I’m right, there should be a passenger berthing section here,” she tapped a space two decks up.
“I hope you’re right,” he said, following her lead. In the last year, she’d caught up with him, not that he was particularly tall, and they looked of an age, even though he was probably two years older than her chronologically.
They couldn’t take the lifts, but since this was a civilian ship, it had stairs as well, and though they were full of smoke, they were relatively free of debris. In the reduced gravity, they were able to reach the passenger deck in moments only to find that some asshole had engaged the manual override latch on the bulkhead door at the top of the stairs.
Paul looked at the latch in confusion. “Why the hell is this locked?”
“To keep ignorant passengers from wandering would be my bet,” Solace responded, grabbing one end of the slightly corroded metal and heaving. “This ship is a junker. I bet they don’t do more than the minimum amount of repairs to keep the sections people see maintained… help me with this.”
Between the two of them, they barely managed to get the latch open, and the they were among the strongest in their class (not counting Simpkins who was from Sphinx and huge, or Daguerro who was, thanks to parents from San Martin, built like a wall). The likelihood of any random rescue crew managing to open the way without specialized equipment wasn’t high. Unsuited colonists on the wrong side of the door stood as much chance as a snowflake in a nuclear furnace.
Wrenching the latch open, they found a mass of humanity, the corridor beyond filled not just with people but with bedding and belongings. There wasn’t much smoke here, but it was clear these people were scared and confused. “160,000 my ass,” Solace muttered over her private channel to Paul and then triggered her suit speakers. “Does anyone here speak Standard?”
A hundred terrified faces turned to face the newcomers, and then there was a mass of babbling in a dialect Solace didn’t recognize. One of them, an older woman pushed through the mass and poked her in the chest, looking like she was telling her off. One of the others pulled the woman away and managed to explain, in very broken Standard, “She thinks you costumes man. Says we have all papers. Everything legal. Smoke? Is some wrong? No power to lifts. Lights… Grabity… not work right.”
She nodded, then swallowed hard and began to explain, hoping the younger of the two women would understand. “Ship fall towards planet. Crash soon. Break apart soon. Everyone must get off. Must get off or die.”
“Die?” the younger woman (who looked about 40) asked, dubious.
Solace sighed, then switched to Andermani Chinese, which she knew only because Loyal had studied it and she’d read his texts during a week when there wasn’t anything else she was interested in doing. She was certain her accent was terrible, but maybe the woman would be able to understand that?
“Si?” the woman asked. Damn.
Desperate, and seeing that the woman was wearing a crucifix instead of a cross, she switched to liturgical latin, which she’d learned just to prove to Loyal that she really could if she wanted to. It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t a language nerd. Standard and Hebrew and Spanish were more than enough for her. She didn’t need to know nine different languages just because the books she was interested in reading weren’t written 4,000 years ago by a bunch of people who couldn’t agree on how many arms god had. When was she going to need Latin or Sanskrit or Aramaic or Arabic or German…
Well, apparently now, because the woman’s eyes opened wide and she began shouting at the others and soon there were many more people out in the hall as others joined them. A crowd of what had to be elders was allowed through. between the sixteen of them, they looked to have a collective age of nearly two thousand.
“What’s going on?” Paul asked. “They’re grabbing their stuff.”
Solace waved him off, not having the time to explain in two different languages at once. “Respected Elders,” she began, flipping through the insanely complicated grammatical rules of latin in her mind and knowing she was butchering cases and tenses. “This ship is crashing. You must have your people come with us, only your people. Bring nothing besides medicine and children and any breathing equipment you have. This ship will enter atmosphere soon.”
That got them moving without their stuff, and soon they were streaming down the stairs, covering their faces with rags wet with water that looked none too clean and Solace had a hard time believing anyone would willing drink it. She imagined the stench of humanity was horrible in the compartment and was grateful she couldn’t smell it. Paul led the first group onto the shuttle, and she insisted he take four more children rather than having her as his copilot. “Radio the other rescue shuttles. Tell them that there are another ten thousand evacuees still needing lift off… at least.”
Part of the reason she stayed behind was to assure the extremely worried parents that their children would be fine. She’d hated breaking up families, but loading the pregnant women, nursing women, and just a tithe of the smallest children had loaded the shuttle to its limit and a little over.
Over the next hour, shuttles of all descriptions docked again and again, pulling off more and more of the huddled masses, but it scarcely seemed to be making a dent as the passengers unlocked other decks that were supposed to be reserved for bulk cargo, ones that turned out to be loaded with more and more people… where were they all from? Some part of her mind kept right on counting and each time she hit another thousand, she would flinch a little. Finally, Paul was back and she hugged him fiercely… then sent him off with another batch of kids.
“Officer?” A voice said at her elbow. She turned to look at the figure, a girl of maybe 12 but undernourished and short for her age, standing only a meter and a half or a little less.
“The fire is spreading and momma cannot move grandmama.”
Solace cursed. The last time she’d asked the people around her to help her in a case like this two of them had been badly burned and now the crowd looked sulky and would almost certainly refuse to assist. She gave one of the elders her communicator and followed the girl. Grandma was unconscious and Solace had no idea what was wrong with her, though her lips were bluish from lack of air and Solace realized that the oxygen level must be pretty low as everyone was moving slower and had a blue tinge to their lips. She grabbed the elderly woman and pulled her over her shoulder, turning to make her way back towards the docking port… just as the ship lurched, slamming her and the woman hard into a wall. The old woman slipped from Solace’s shoulder and right into an exposed cluster of wires.
The old woman screamed, flailing, suddenly awake as the electricity grounded through her and into the deckhead and, without thinking, Solace grabbed up the girl and lifted her from the floor as everyone else within 20 meters just… died. A second later a fuse somewhere blew and the entire corridor went dark, leaving only the smoke of charred flesh drifting in her suit-lights. The suit which had, thanks to its insulated soles, protected Solace and the girl. The girl was shaking violently, stunned by even the split second of shock she’d received, and thankfully wasn’t likely to be able to see the horror that surrounded them.
She loaded the girl aboard the next transport, collected her communicator, and mentally subtracted the nearly 200 dead from the tally she still needed to get off the ship, even as she brushed the smudges of human ash and debris from her skinsuit, trying very hard not to think about what it was. 11,906. 11,341. 11,007. 10,428. She wondered how much longer the ship could be kept out of the atmosphere. 9,840. 9,601. 9.152. Paul should be nearly back again. Should she go with him or wait until…
The world cracked around her and suddenly she was flipping end over end, the walls of the ship pulling away from her and bodies were all around her… not bodies… living people… dying people, dying as they asphyxiated in the near vacuum. Her mind screamed for her to do something, anything, to save them, but she couldn’t… she couldn’t even save herself.
She watched, horrified, as the ship broke apart completely, and saw that at least one of the tugs had been smashed apart as, for a second, the rear impellers had come back on line and the ship’s wedge had tried to form. She didn’t know for certain, but she had a sneaking suspicion that the fools manning the bridge had tried a last ditch gamble to save the ship. She didn’t know if it had been idiotic or just desperate, but it had failed and cost the lives of pretty much everyone onboard… including probably her.
The remaining tugs were latching on to larger sections, tugging them up to higher orbits, but the bottom half of the ship was plunging downwards now and soon the planetary defenses would have no choice but to open fire on it, rather than allow it to impact in anything like solid pieces. She watched the planet growing slowly larger under her and sighed. “It’s been a good life,” she said.
“Sandy?” her comm crackled. It was Paul’s voice.
“Yeah. I’m here… just hanging about.”
“Are you still inside a chunk of the ship?”
“Nooo… I’m right above Jason Bay. I think I’ll go for a swim.”
“Christ… are you in freefall?” He sounded worried. Should she be worried? She felt she probably should be.
“That would be the situation that obtains, yes,” she confirmed.
“Well turn on your bloody transmitter so I can find you!”
“I would, but it looks smashed. My comm’s pretty beat up too… tell you what… I’m about a kilometer from a shuttle marked ‘Hauptman 895-N’ and about three from a tug named… I can’t tell… it’s too blurry… it’s 8 letters long.”
“Slackhand or Breakneck?”
“I think Breakneck.”
“Okay… I think I’ve found you… Give me 90 seconds…”
They were the longest 90 seconds of her life, but soon enough, drifting beneath her, was the shuttle they’d stolen from the school. Relief washed through her as she triggered her comm… nothing… it was dead. She screamed wordless imprecations against the uncaring universe for a good ten seconds, then checked her suit readouts… one by one, they too were going offline. She tried to point her suit-light at the shuttle to give him a clue he might use, but of course, it too was gone.
She twisted around, looking for anything that was nearby, knowing her window was rapidly dwindling. Beneath her, and falling just a little slower, was a chunk of ship decking that had been ripped away from the ship when she’d torn apart. Hoping against hope that Paul would stay roughly where he was, she angled her descent towards the chunk, stretching her hands out to maximize her chance of grabbing it squarely, knowing she’d have exactly one chance at this.
She held her breath and waited. 10 seconds. 5 seconds. 1 second. Contact. The impact was like slamming into a wall at twelve klicks and she gasped in pain, hands scrabbling for a hold, legs swinging around the bottom of the chunk and she started to slip… and then she caught… on both sides of the chunk. Her hands had caught on a fold.. And she had no idea what her leg had caught on but she could feel the metal digging into her flesh and knew it had punctured her suit.
Gingerly, she pulled her leg free, feeling at least three centimeters of whatever it was sliding out of her calf and tried not hyperventilate. It wasn’t as if she had the air to spare, though thankfully it didn’t seem her suit was leaking that fast. Taking her bearings, she spotted the shuttle, slowly rotating in place, searching for her. She knew Paul was probably getting frantic right now, but hoped he wouldn’t move in the next two minutes.
With a prayer to the most holy, and a curse to uncaring physics, she pushed off the chunk, arrowing through space like a javelin. Well, if this didn’t work, at least she wasn’t going to have to listen to a lecture from Commandant Hartley. If this did work… well, she was in free fall going at least 60 kilometers per hour relative to the shuttle… this was going to hurt! Flipping onto her back at the very last moment, knowing that there was no way in hell she could grab hold of the shuttle at this speed even if it had had external handles and hoping the spinal armor of her suit held, she went totally limp… and bounced wildly off the shuttle, every coherent thought driven from her mind as the impact rattled her almost unconscious.
Some time later, she became aware that she was laying in the passenger bay of the shuttle, her suit helmet sliding off and Paul was looking down at her, concern in his bright eyes.
“N… nnng…” she grunted.
“Are you okay?”
“Goway… nother hour…” she mumbled, her everything hurting.
“I thought you were dead for a second when I saw you falling past the view screen… Good thing I caught you before you hit atmo… don’t move. I’ve got her on a course for Bassingford Medical now and she’s on autopilot. I put a pressure bandage on your leg.”
“Yeah, next time you stay in the shuttle.”
“Nnnn Noo… next time… we sleep in my quarters.”
Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 5
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