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THE ASCENDANT STARS

1

GREG

Three long grey days after Catriona merged with the Zyradin, which took her from him, Greg saw her again.

He had been sitting on a mat-cushioned, sunlit perch overlooking Berrybow, a mid-level harvester town, studying a small Uvovo statuette, when he glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking up, he saw a hooded figure walking along a higher branch some thirty-odd yards distant. He had frowned and stared as the figure headed towards a shadowy curtain of dark leaves, hand reaching out to part the foliage. Just before disappearing from view, the hooded head had turned and a half-obscured face had glanced back down at him.

It was Catriona. Greg saw her for only a second but the sight burned into his mind.

Heart pounding, he struggled to his feet and yelled her name repeatedly until the Uvovo Listeners and elders from Berrybow came and persuaded him to calm himself. Again and again he told them what he saw and the answer was always the same – Segrana sends visions to remind the living to live.

Bowing his head in weary sorrow, he stowed the statuette away in his pack, slung it over one shoulder and left, heading downwards through the dense foliage of the great forest. For all that he’d learned about Segrana and its strange, far-flung awareness he found it hard to believe that such a vast sentience would create a mirage just for him.

And what about the Zyradin? he thought. It was created by Forerunners too, and its powers are almost beyond comprehension . . .

But that led him to wonder if it was the Zyradin rather than Segrana which had decided to torment him with the ghost of what had been taken from him. It was an awful conjecture which he tried to put aside as he concentrated on his footing on the bough’s damp, mossy steps.

An hour or more later Greg reached a small seeder village nestled in the crook of a huge branch that sprouted from the side of an immense pillar tree. Lamps glimmered softly in the eternal twilight as one of the female elders, her facial fur streaked with silver, wordlessly showed him to a vacant hut. Once he was alone, he curled up on a Uvovo-sized cot, scarcely feeling the interwoven bark slats as he slipped quickly into uneasy sleep.

He woke to the sound of rain on the hut roof and rose with creaks in his joints and an aching neck. Despite the mild humidity he shivered as he went out onto the branch and sat on a large projecting knot, just letting the fine droplets speckle his face. Greg felt rested and more relaxed than of late, but the sum total of all that had happened up to his arrival on Nivyesta still hovered over his thoughts. He glanced at his watch: he had slept for nearly seven hours, and for the colony down on Darien it was 5.20 in the afternoon.

For a few moments he was overcome by introspection, recycling events, the betrayal by Vashutkin, enslaved by Kuros’s nanodust, then his translocation first to the warpwell chamber within Giant’s Shoulder then up to the moon Nivyesta. And the maddening worry over what had happened since, what Vashutkin was up to, whether Rory and Chel were still alive, and how he could deal with the responsibility he felt for having agreed to bring the Zyradin here, and for what happened to Catriona . . .

He sighed, shook his head then ran one hand over his face, smearing the raindrops, tasting them on his tongue, fresh and clean. Some light was filtering down from above, the faded tails of sunbeams that lent a glow to the mists ghosting slowly over the forest floor.

That was when he heard the laughter, high and girlish, muffled laughter coming through the trees, Human female laughter . . .

He got to his feet, suddenly tense, turning his head this way and that, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from.

Below. It was coming from down on the forest floor.

Swiftly Greg retrieved his backpack from the hut and by way of rope ladders and worn bark steps, he descended.

For several hours he stumbled through the hazy gloom, slipping in decomposing leaf mould or tripping over concealed rocks. The poor light down here made it hard to make out details but his hearing seemed to grow sensitive in the deadening hush. He was certain he could hear a voice, Cat’s voice, muttering broken sentences. One moment it was clear enough for him to make out a few words but the next moment it was faded and indistinct and coming from another direction. As time passed he began to think that he was hearing more than one voice, blurred medleys of sibilant echoes emanating from all sides. Tension gave way to a kindof distraught despair. The echoing whispers became interspersed with sighs, gasps, hummed snatches of song, and, heartbreakingly, stifled sobs.

 At first Greg pursued the sounds as they came to him, lurching off through clinging wet undergrowth, his own voice growing hoarse from crying out Cat’s name. Taking leave of his senses was how he would regard this experience in later, calmer hours, dislocated from reason by a paroxysm of grief and anger. Anger at the zealots of the Order of the Spiral Prophecy and their callous leaders, and at the Hegemony and an Earth that would not protect an innocent and defenceless Human colony. Anger at the warpwell, the Zyradin – which he thought would help in the struggle – and the Forerunners who made them, and anger at Segrana. He swore and cursed the forest, ripped down curtains of creeper, broke off branches and tore up bushes and saplings by the roots. By now the fragments of Catriona’s voice had melted away into the everlasting twilight, as if that was all there had ever been, just wisps and shadows.

Weary from hours of pursuit, confusion and anger, he staggered on through the dripping dark. Occasionally he passed a mass of stone with outlines too regular to be a natural feature but the old burning curiosity had waned to a mere flicker and he kept on going. Exhaustion finally overtook him as he was struggling up a bushy slope, alongside a huge fallen tree – a wave of dizziness struck and he sank down, scraping against the trunk. He rested there for a short while then realised that he would have to find somewhere to sleep up off the sodden ground, and hauled himself back upright.

Further upslope he clambered onto what seemed to be another fallen trunk, but as he walked along it he realised that it was a branch of a much larger tree. A towering shape emerged from the half-light as he mounted the sloping branch, which had cracked away from the main trunk but remained attached by a section of bark and underlying wood. At the main trunk he found some old steps hacked into the bark and followed them up to a stump-supported platform. There he made camp, wrapped himself in a blanket and drifted off into a dream where ships fell out of the skies over Nivyesta, crashing down onto the forest of Segrana . . .

Greg woke to still grey mists. It was the fifth day since losing Catriona. His face felt cold and clammy but he didn’t have the shivery weakness of a fever. By his watch it was 9.48 a.m., Darien time, while on Nivyesta it also seemed brighter. Getting to his feet, he yawned and stretched, wincing at his growing collection of aches, then tried to recall just what had happened last night.

Perhaps I did lose my mind, he thought. Aye, a fitting nadir to my career as a freedom fighter . . .

But was Catriona really dead? That was the question that bedevilled his every waking moment. The Zyradin’s main mode of attack appeared to be a kind of controlled disintegration, as Greg discovered in the two days following its transformation of Catriona. Desperate to get away, he had searched out several downed Spiral craft, even the couple that had been captured, but found that every one had been reduced to heaps of parts and components. Even hazardous materials like fuel cores and coolants had been rendered inert. It looked like he wouldn’t be leaving Nivyesta any time soon.

But there’s still the other scientists, he thought. Folk that Cat was working with – they had some communication equipment before they went into hiding. Maybe they’ve still got it, and maybe it’s still working . . .

It might be a forlorn hope, but at least it was a motivating one.

With his fine Uvovo blanket once more stored away, he pulled the pack’s straps over his shoulders and paused to consider his route back to the heights. The rain had stopped and although ragged curtains of mossy creeper obscured the view in most directions he could just see a rope bridge curving up from some way along a higher branch. A sequence of hand- and footholds in the gnarled bark of the immense tree led him up there, where he found that the branch’s upper surface had been inlaid with a line of flat stones. Moments later he reached the bridge and started across, using the damp, braided rope rail for support.

He was breathing hard by the time he reached the next tree and a circular platform from which another two bridges extended. Greg chose the steeper one and continued his ascent through heavy mist. A large forked branch with a railed platform emerged from the haze ahead and above. A pale figure was standing there, motionless, facing away. By the time he reached the midpoint he was sure that the stranger was Human, bundled up in one of those padded forest jackets with a hood that most of the researchers wore. The person’s physique seemed quite slender, the stature shorter than average. Then the upper torso turned and there was Catriona gazing down at him, face framed by the hood.

Greg stopped, hands grasping the rough rope on either side. For a moment they stared at each other in total silence, then she smiled one of her teasing half-smiles and beckoned to him. This way . . .

She moved out of sight, obviously heading for the next curve of bridge. Greg broke out of his frozen reverie and hurried after her, climbed the last steep stretch to the platform and found himself standing there alone. For a second he thought that this was a repeat of last night until he saw a solitary figure quite a distance along the next bridge, receding into misty grey. Greg followed.

For the next hour and a half she led him on a winding, wordless, strangely unhurried chase up through the branchways of the forest. Sometimes he would call out to her, usually when he lost track of her, and she would step into view, finger raised to her lips, then point the way. Or she would somehow move from one level of walkways to a higher one, and wave at him, indicating the stairs or ladders he would have to take.

The higher he went, the cooler and fresher the air became, as the light steadily brightened. He also noticed that her route bypassed any Uvovo settlements they came near, which implied secrecy or reluctance or both. But he persisted in his pursuit despite aches, bumps, bruises, splinters, and a cut in his forehead from a thorny creeper.

The zenith was a sturdy wooden platform vine-lashed to the crook of three leaf-heavy branches, the uppermost limbs of one of the forest’s mightiest giants. Catriona was waiting for him when he finished his climb, and having at last got this close he could see that she was a ghost. Her eyes regarded him calmly yet he could see through her shimmering form.

‘So you’re . . . well, a spirit?’ he said, masking his sorrow. ‘A spectre, maybe?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not dead! – this is just the best that Segrana and the Zyradin can manage just now. There’s a lot of repair work going on, and not just in the places damaged by the fighting . . . and me. Every root and branch is being made ready for war.’

 ‘War,’ Greg echoed. ‘You mean when the Brolts send in their reinforcements?’

‘The Brolturans?’ She shook her head. ‘No, no, I’m talking about the Legion of Avatars, remember? Did ye not know that their agent finally got to Giant’s Shoulder? Powered up the warpwell, reversed its flow, and basically turned it into one big escape hatch to let the Legion of Avatars out of their hyperspace prison.’

Greg was appalled. ‘My God – so it’s happened. The Sentinel once told me that there could be over a million of those things still down there . . . ’

‘Aye, and maybe the rest. Don’t think they’ll be in a good mood when they get out. Which brings us to you.’ She paused to glance up at the sky where Darien hung, a shining blue-white orb. ‘When they arrive, the first hammerblows will fall here. After realising that Darien presents no threat, they’ll look further afield and find this moon and Segrana and the Zyradin and come straight for us.’ She looked him in the eye. ‘Which is why you’ve got to leave. Won’t be long before it’s too dangerous for ye here.’

He was taken aback but still smiled at her.

‘I can see that there might be a bit of a stramash, but if you think I’m gonnae scarper and leave you here . . . ’

‘Greg, ye don’t understand! – it’s not going to be as civilised as a battle in space. This moon will be a target – the forest and Segrana could burn.’ She sighed and started to reach out to him, then stopped. ‘Ye canna stay here, my love. There’s too much for you to do . . . no, please don’t ask, I can’t explain what I’ve seen but you have to trust me, Greg. Please, I’m begging you.’

Greg breathed in deep, trying to steady himself, then let it out.

‘Is this some kind o’ second-sight, seeing-the-future thing?’

‘I don’t even know how to answer . . . ’

‘Okay, but how can I get off Nivyesta?’ he said. ‘Every craft of every kind is lying about the forest in a million pieces.’

‘That’s not a problem,’ Catriona said, glancing over her shoulder.

‘Your lift’ll be here pretty soon . . . ’

He followed her gaze and saw a dark speck descending steeply from the sky then flattening out into a curved trajectory that came round about ten miles away and headed straight for them.

‘Who are they?’ he said. ‘How do they know that I’m here?’

‘They’re allies of your Uncle Theo, a faction of the Tygran military opposed to the pro-Hegemony hierarchy. As for how they know where to pick you up – your uncle sent a message via the Forerunner platform at Tusk Mountain, trying to find out if you were still alive, and we told him where you’d be and when . . . ’

‘Uncle Theo sent a . . . but how can anyone be sending messages from Darien?’ he said. ‘The Sentinel’s dead, isn’t it?’

‘Oh aye, it got scrambled and wiped when the Legion Knight took control of the warpwell,’ Catriona said. ‘But when the Zyradin entered Segrana’s great web of being through me, they began cooperating on a few things and were able to reactivate a few of the Tusk Mountain platform functions. When they work together, their abilities are astonishing. They’re greater than the sum of their parts, far greater.’

Greg eyed the approaching craft. It was only minutes away. ‘You don’t want me here when the big event kicks off,’ he said, looking back at her. ‘So what is my part in all this?’

‘My love, you could be . . . well, pretty important. To a lot of folk down on Darien. Maybe no one knows what really happenedon Giant’s Shoulder, or what Vashutkin really is.’

‘Uncle Theo might,’ he said. ‘Wouldna put it past the wily old fox to have sniffed out flaws in whatever Vashutkin’s been saying about the fight on Giant’s Shoulder.’

In his mind’s eye he saw again the combat droids that had cornered him, converging on his lone position, recalled perfectly how his passenger the Zyradin had, in the blink of an eye, turned them into cascades of disassembled parts. A precursor to the cleansing of the moon Nivyesta.

‘But if Theo’s gone to the trouble of trying to find me,’ he went on, ‘then he might have put himself in danger. Aye, you’re right –I’ve got tae get back to Darien.’

Catriona regarded him somewhat sadly, her form shimmering and spectral, and nodded.

‘Trust your reason, Greg, and your compassion – keep a tight grip on them both in the days ahead.’ She retreated into the shadows of enclosing foliage. ‘You should wave to them . . . ’

Greg was torn. ‘Are you really . . . ’

‘It’s me, Greg, only me. Now stand in the open, will ye? Right where they can see ye . . . ’

‘Will I see you again?’

Her face was composed but there was anguish in her eyes.

‘I don’t know, Greg, I just don’t . . . look, they’re nearly here! Wave, go on . . . ’

Turning, he leaned out, waving both arms. A small vessel resembling a stubby flattened delta was gliding past a hundred metres away, the air beneath it rippling and twisting. As he yelled and gesticulated wildly it banked in his direction. Slowing, it turned and sideslipped towards him, its blue and silver hull gleaming the light of dawn. A side hatch slid aside while a thin-looking gangway extruded tonguelike beneath. Inside, a fair-haired man in familiar dark blue body armour raised a hand in greeting.

‘Mr Cameron?’

‘That’s me, all right!’

‘I am Lieutenant Berg – we’re here on Major Karlsson’s recommendation to offer you passage to Darien. If you step on the footway I’ll guide you across . . . ’

He glanced round at Catriona, half-hidden in the shadows, from which she blew him a kiss, before he lifted one foot onto the gangway. Moments later Greg was inside the shuttlecraft, forced to crouch by the cramped interior. He paused to gaze back out at the leaf-shrouded branch platform but Cat was gone.

‘Did you forget something, sir?’

‘No, just wanted one last look.’

The hatch slid shut, enclosing him in a small passenger compartment, its interior smoothly panelled in grey and pale mauve. Berg helped him into one of the couches and showed him how the webby strapping worked. This was Greg’s first sight of a Tygran Human and he was both fascinated and reassured to see a certain normality in the man’s demeanour. Once he was secure the Tygran clambered into the right-side command pilot couch – another man occupied the left-side one, prodding or rapid-fingering a holoconsole while muttering into a lip-bead mike. The craft was already under way, going by the just-discernible effects of inertia on his stomach.

‘Sit tight, Mr Cameron,’ Berg said. ‘We’ll be back at our ship in no time.’

‘Sounds good, aye. So you’re all Tygran soldiers, eh? And you’ve rebelled against your government, I hear.’

‘A fair summary, sir,’ Berg said over his shoulder. ‘Although the situation is a bit more complex in the detail. Commander Ash said that he’ll brief you on the background soon as we’re aboard the Starfire.’

Greg nodded and sat back, trying to suppress his growing flight anxiety. He breathed in deep. It was an odd feeling, stepping from Segrana’s bio-organic surroundings into this high-tech vessel – the air was different, as were the textures, the sounds and the smells. And suddenly he was aware that he was in considerable need of a bath. Well, not much in the way of showers and soap down in Nivyesta.

The journey to orbit took less than half an hour. Both Berg and the pilot wore shaded data goggles of some kind but otherwise there were no displays showing exterior views. The first indication that they were docking with the Tygran ship was a few seconds of deceleration followed by thuds against the hull and a sideways lurch.

‘Retrieval achieved,’ Berg said. ‘Bay sealed.’

As the Tygrans put away the pilot goggles, Greg’s couch released him from the strap-web, which retracted into the right-hand raised edge. The hatch was open, Berg waved him through and moments later he was climbing a narrow companionway out of the shuttlecraft bay. He was met at the top by a burly, dark-haired man in a charcoal-grey uniform.

‘Mr Cameron, my name is Malachi Ash and I am the commander of this vessel,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Your uncle, Major Karlsson, is quite a character, very persuasive.’

‘You’re not the first to notice,’ Greg said as they shook hands.

‘If you come with me, I’ll show you your quarters.’

Greg was led down a narrow corridor, past crew bunkers, with Ash talking as they went.

‘The major and my superior, Captain Franklyn, want you back on Darien without delay so we’ve already broken orbit and locked into a return trajectory. We should be entering Darien’s orbital shell in less than an hour.’

Not knowing how much the Tygran knew about the warpwell and the Legion of Avatars, he decided to avoid the topic.

‘Commander, your man Berg said you’d be filling me in on some of the background, especially regarding your own part in all of this. Also I was wondering how soon I’ll be able to speak with my uncle.’

‘If you like, we can go straight to the bridge now and I can have the tac officer try to raise our planetside operator. And he’ll see if the major is available.’

Greg nodded. ‘That sounds great. Let’s do it.’

‘Very well. Your sleeping rack is just along there, second on the right, if you want to rest before Darien.’ Ash indicated a narrow side passage, then led Greg back to a junction and down a steep set of steps. ‘As to how we came to be here, well, it’s a tale and a half and your uncle played a big role in it.’

‘Why am I not surprised?’

As they headed forward and then up more stairs, Greg heard how several days ago Ash was carrying out a stealth mission on Nivyesta when he was captured by the Uvovo. Greg remembered hearing about this from the Sentinel, details which Ash confirmed, how the Uvovo scholars had neutralised the binary bomb in his chest. Ash gave a brief account of how he and Uncle Theo were rescued from pro-Hegemony Tygrans by Franklyn Gideon, captain of the renegade Stormlion troopers. It ended with the encounter with the Tygran Marshal Becker aboard his flagship, and the intervention by a bizarre vessel sent by the Roug, an ancient and mysterious species.

Ash finished up as they entered the bridge, a split-level space narrowing towards the forward viewport. Its curved transparency glimmered at the edges with data feeds and system graphics of one kind or another, but it was the view of Darien that held Greg’s attention, a bright blue and white orb set against the hazy swirls of interstellar dust which blurred the stars into glimmering haloed jewels.

Home. The pang of yearning he felt was unexpected, and conflicted with his thoughts of Catriona and an instinctive reluctance to leave her behind. But leave he must.

Commander Ash settled into the captain’s chair and attached comm devices to ear and mouth. A moment later he was in conversation with one of the other two bridge officers whose stations sat on the lower level. He nodded and turned back to Greg.

‘We’re still out of the effective range of the portable communicator back on Darien. Another twenty minutes and we’ll be able to establish a secure link.’

‘Thanks,’ Greg said. ‘I appreciate your efforts. In the meantime, there’s a wee gap or two in my understanding . . . ’

‘You mean how we came to be here?

Greg nodded. ‘Was it the result of a clash of politics?’

Ash frowned. ‘On Tygra we don’t have your kind of political debate. We have been a military society for so long that many aspects of public provision – health, education, or power supplies, for example – have remained universal due to a consensus of necessity. Resources are not plentiful, which has led to restrictions on market influences. Our energies are instead directed towards improvements in our combat abilities and readiness. There is honour in battle and the love and litany of battle forces certain responsibilities on every Tygran soldier.

‘But our principles are only as strong as the men and women who live by them. Marshal Becker was corrupted by the Hegemony and in turn he has corrupted the commanderies, the Bund and Tygran society . . . ’

The Bund was the semi-elected council governing Tygran society, and the commanderies were like regiments, each with its own history, tales, axioms and heroes.

‘Becker is unhesitating in his compliance with the Hegemony’s needs,’ Ash went on, ‘no matter how cruel and ignoble, even if it means Tygran troopers using the all-enclosing Ezgara armour when deployed in Human-centric environments. Captain Gideon and the Stormlions are implacably opposed to Becker’s poison, thus we have become outlaws, criminals to be hunted down. It was in the captain’s mind to head for the Earthsphere to find commercial security work, but then he met your uncle. He convinced Captain Gideon and the rest of us that Darien was worth fighting for, especially after . . . ’

Ash fell silent, sentence incomplete, his face clouded by some underlying anger which Greg decided to avoid for the time being.

 ‘Darien is certainly worth fighting for,’ he said. ‘But it’s my people that are worth dying for.’

Ash gave him a look of faintly surprised approval, then pointed at an auxiliary console to the right of his own. ‘Mr Cameron, there’s a seat there which swings down . . . that’s it. Now, are you hungry? I can have some food and drink brought for you. It is only rations and recyc, however.’

‘That would be great,’ Greg said. ‘All I’ve had for the last four days has been berries and nuts . . . ’

‘Contact! – a vessel has just exited hyperspace 1850 kiloms off our stern,’ said one of the bridge officers. ‘It emerged on a high-vee course and tracked us almost immediately. And now they’re ramping up their acceleration.’

‘Go to combat-ready,’ Ash said. ‘And ID it! – get me a config, anything.’

‘No ident signals,’ rapped out the other bridge officer. ‘Profile is of an Imisil heavy trader.’

Ash, staring at his holoplane, gave a derisive snort.

‘Not with that emission curve. Ready battle systems, generate target points, all crew on standby . . . ’

‘Wait, it’s gone,’ broke in the first officer. ‘Off the sensors, just vanished—’ Suddenly there was an insistent beeping and readouts bordering the main viewport flickered. The officer sat back, stunned. ‘And it’s back . . . ’

Less than a kilometre ahead a ship swung into view, course converging on the Tygran ship. Insets on the viewport showed magnified, enhanced images of a blunt-prowed vessel with no apparent insignia.

‘Bring up partial shields,’ said Ash. ‘What’s their weapon status?’

‘Two heavy beam projectors, three pulse cannons, a multi-missile battery, and a well-shielded launcher of some kind,’ the helm officer said.

‘Has to be an Imisil expedition of some sort,’ Ash muttered.

‘But with that firepower they must have been expecting a rougher reception . . . ’

Greg had observed the unfolding crisis with an odd steadiness of nerve. Part of him was wishing he was back on Nivyesta, safe in the shadows of Segrana, while another part was, perversely, enjoying the edgy adrenalin thrill of it. And a further thread of thought was privately glad that he wasn’t the one giving the orders. He also recalled a little about the Imisil, one of several civilisations at the far side of the Huvuun Deepzone, who had been on the receiving end of a Hegemony punitive campaign several decades ago, a remorseless attack which had left several worlds near-uninhabitable. Was it too much to imagine that they might come to see themselves on the same side as Darien?

‘Incoming communication, Commander,’ said the tactical officer. ‘Full vid.’

 ‘Screen it,’ Ash said. ‘One-way.’

A frame appeared on the viewport, as well as the holopanel Greg was sitting at. A strange, hairless humanoid in white and grey garments gazed out. Its face was adorned with clusters of spots that changed colour as it spoke.

‘I am Presignifier Remosca. You have intruded upon the exclusion zone of a world currently under interdict by the Imisil Mergence. Your vessel bears close resemblance to ones used by a certain mercenary cohort known to be contracted to the Sendrukan Hegemony. Identify yourselves.’

The picture vanished, revealing Darien, the hazy stars and the approaching ship. Ash snorted in irritation.

‘Hardly mercenaries.’ He frowned at the now vacant monitor.

‘If we try to convince them that we are actually the Ezgara and Human as well, they’ll assume that it’s part of some devious Hegemony plot – and if we then tell them that we’re from a planet called Tygra, that’ll make things worse . . . ’

The Tygran paused, eyes widening as he looked round at Greg. An odd smile came over him.

‘Mr Cameron, I have an idea.’

‘You do?’ Greg said with a sense of premonition.

‘Yes, although I’m not sure how you’ll feel about it.’ Ash grinned. ‘But I am sure that your uncle would approve!’

‘Hmm – does it involve life-endangering peril and heroic levels of deceit?’

‘I regret to say that it does.’

‘Then what are we waiting for?’