Chapter 02 Pirates Hunt Pirate Hunter
1. A Vision in Silver
Athos heard the sounds of cutting rays tearing at the surface of the pressure doors. It sounded like the action of more than one rig, indicating a squad of men were waiting to rush the bridge, or even a platoon.
He stepped toward the pilot’s board, wondering if he could delay the pirates with another high-gee maneuver like the one that the pilot had used to pin him down. But no: the status lights on the board showed that someone had already disconnected the engine controls from the bridge. The reactor and drive tubes were under manual control of a gang on the engineering deck at the moment.
He wondered what he could do to hinder them that would not hinder him moreso? Sabotaging the life support? By now, it would be crazy to think the crew were not suited up. Cutting off the lights or the artificial gravity? Such tricks were useful only so long as they seemed to be accidents. Those already wary could stand by the cut-off switches, or reroute power. The doubly redundant engineering of these old vessels was designed to failover any system to local deck or cabin control if the bridge started acting haywire.
There was no central computer to sabotage. For reasons learned thousands of years before mankind learned star travel, the ancient races of the commonwealth allowed artificial brains inside man-sized frames or smaller, but forbade them from ever having direct control of vehicles, weapons, or warships. That is why robots, with a few clearly-defined exceptions, were built with hands and claws and required to push buttons and flip switches human fingers could also push. Even policebots had to carry pistols in human-shaped gauntlets.
At the First Mate’s station, Athos called up the deck schematics again. Lines for water, air, sewerage, and power ran to and from the bridge. Nothing large enough to admit a man his size. No sneaking away through an air vent for him.
He already knew the maze of maintenance access shafts were big enough for him, but they extended only a little way beyond the engineering decks. The schematic showed the nearest entry point was amidships. It was the one he had used to exit: a blinking red dot showed that the janitor-bot he had sabotaged was still offline. Beyond the engineering decks, the pipes, lines and cabals shed no dangerous radiation, and so they were fixed to naked bulkheads and overheads in plain sight and easy reach, to allow repair teams easy access.
Athos turned his eyes to the star-filled panels of the bridge. Strange to see how few and scattered the stars seemed here. On core planets, or in globular clusters, the stars were thick and close and bright. Here in the far ring territory, beyond the frontier, heaven was dark.
That was the other option. His spacecloak could protect him from vacuum, and he could crawl, hand over hand, along the hull back to the spot near the drive tubes were he had anchored his small, streamlined one-man stealth flier made of anti-radar alloy.
But how to get out? There was no airlock on the bridge, nor one anywhere in pressure section one, the officer's country of the Devil’s Delight.
That left cutting through the hull with his hand-held cutter. The pirates at the door had heavier cutters, powered by the ship's reactor, and the door was thinner.
His eye fell on the hatch leading into the navigation tower. Surely a spot where instruments were poking through the hull would be a weaker place to break through?
The hatch had been left open by the pilot. The tower beyond had been re-pressurized. There was no gravity, however. Athos weightlessly sailed up the cramped channel of the shaft, astronomical equipment and recording boxes brushing both his elbows. The end of the shaft was not an observation deck, but merely a cup-shaped socket for a robot to plug in its skullbox. This was one of the few exceptions to the ancient law that robots use hand-friendly controls: when it was a system a human would only use by plugging in a mike or keyboard, there was no reason not to let a robot could plug in directly.
In any case, the whole tower was coated with even more armored than the bridge, since this tower’s shaft extended beyond the protection of the ship’s radiation shielding.
There was almost no room to turn around. Head first, he floated back down the shaft and through the hatch, landing on his belly with a grunt when he passed back into the grip of the artificial gravity plates lining the deck.
Perhaps because he was prone, the vision in silver seemed not to see him at first.
Athos saw her when she was outside the hull, ghostly and enormous.
She was moving serenely among the bright cloud of the core stars, strolling along the coruscating band of light formed by the thin disk of the galaxy when seen edge on, as if down a road.
In appearance, she was a fair young maiden with slanting eyes, serene countenance, flawless skin, and lips as red as shining rubies. She walked gracefully among the stars, long robes of silvery white trailing through the nebulas. Her jet-black hair was a swaying cloud tangled in the stars, drifting about her silvery glowing face like misty stormclouds parting before an unvisited mountain peak of purest snow.
She wore a simple, unadorned garb in a style older than recorded history. It had flowing sleeves that hung to her knee. The leggings of her split skirts were wide and pleated and fell to her ankles. The waist was cinched with a sash tied in an oversized bow.
In her sash were tucked a folding fan, a twig of leaves, and a chime made of a cluster of tiny ceramic bells. Nothing metallic, nothing inorganic, was on or about her person. Her garments were shut with ties, and sported no snaps, buckles, or buttons. Even fasteners or eyelets were pearl or amber, shell or horn.
In her three-fingered glove was a longbow of cherry-birch wood laminated with bamboo strips, and lacquered in black and gold, and bound in rattan. The whole stood three feet taller than the archeress. It was strung, but no arrow was to the string. She carried no quiver. On her other hand was a thumb ring for drawing the bowstring.
At first, she seemed larger than a Titaness. When she passed behind the crescent of the blood-red planet (for the pilot's wild gyrations had carried them to the nightside of the world) the black disk covered no more of her than a round shield.
She approached on silent steps through the heavens as if on a carpet of blackest velvet set with diamonds and sparks. When she paused to peer thoughtfully in through the clear panels of the bridge, she seemed no taller than a giantess, and her fair face filled the forward plates alarmingly. Her eyes were dark and deep, sad as those of a wise old widow, but when she squinted with joy, they lit up like a young girl's eyes.
When she passed through the clear section of hull, it was as if the transparent metal was no more solid than the surface of a lake. When she touched her toe of her white stockinged foot to the deck, now the top of her head looked to be less than shoulder-high to Athos.
The ship’s gravity was no more real to her than the hull had been solid. Her jet-black hair and snow-white sleeves and ruby-red skirts continued to drift and sway like clouds seen in dream.
The silvery girl drifted over to where the pilot robot had fallen. She knelt gracefully, her knees floating an inch above the deck, holding her longbow upright in one hand.
She plucked the string so that it made a soft hum — Athos heard the noise distinctly, even though it was soft. Suddenly he saw that there was in her hand an arrow. The shaft was as long as her arm, but the arrowhead was made of a luminous, clear crystal, like something made of solidified starlight.
When the girl closed her eyes, the light trapped in the crystal of the arrowhead grew not only brighter but warmer.
Yet this was not a warmth Athos felt it not on his skin, but in his mind and soul. It was the same sensation he felt when stepping into a cathedral, or onto the grounds of the great cemetery-moon of Merope, whose whole surface was dedicated to the monuments and relics the naval servicemen fallen in ten thousand years of military actions, great and small.
Now the maiden used the arrow to prod the fallen flybot. The arrowhead was solid, and could bite into the round metal body of the motionless bot. When she tilted the shaft, the robot rolled over. She bent her head down.
Athos, awed, rose to his feet. What was she doing? Was she weeping?
Perhaps she was praying. Athos never heard of anyone praying for dead robots, but, if anyone would, it would be one of her order.
This was not an imposter, after all, nor merely someone dressed in a uniform from ages long ago. She was the real deal. The arrowhead proved it.
As a child, he had been allowed to touch and handle Sir Jaywind’s legendary ghostblade Galadrang. The arrowhead was made of the same ghostly spirit-alloy, an impossible admixture of base matter and higher-dimensional substance solidified into a stable amalgam.
Once, as a youth, he had visited the campus Sir Jaywind had established to train novices and squires. There he had seen the cadre of maidens and matrons, training with their mystic gifts to serve the long-lost Temple of the Stars, that same place the Knights Templar were sworn to protect, if only it were found again.
So he knew what she was. She was a Shrine Maiden: a girl possessed of strange powers and a strange destiny.
But who in the heavens was she? How did she come here? If she were here.
A clattering and banging came from the pressure door. Athos, through the eyes of his mask, could see the heat radiating from the door joints. The pirates evidently had cut to a nice depth, and now were battering the door, using a well-anchored presser beam as a ram. Athos could tell from the sound of the ram that not much time remained.
The girl turned her head suddenly at the sound from the door. Athos was surprised: she could hear air vibrations. That meant she was here, or nearly so.
He stepped toward the glowing silver image of the kneeling girl. "Shrine Maiden! Can you hear me?"
Next Installment: Legend Meets Legend