Land of Shadows (pt. 3) (2008)

The Goblin recovered first.

Panting, he said, “Finally . . . been pounding for . . . ten minutes. Pinged the . . . sensors . . .”

“And found a third ship keeping its distance,” Edillae finished, “I enhanced the sensors a bit, they’re still passive. The blip wasn’t much, master, ‘cause they were trying to hide. Good ECM, probably stealth hull too. Least that’s my guess . . . to get what we did, well, it’d have to be a pretty big ship, master.”

“Such as?”

“Medium cruiser or better. I’d say big freighter or small liner, but only military or crooked ships warrant that kind of stealth, master.”

Says the woman raised around ships, Durias thought. Well, a wise man knows the limits of his knowledge and when to listen to others. She was definitely the expert on the subject. Still, he glanced at Myrlun, not to question his fellow apprentice but . . . the young man silently responded in the negative. Thus, their pilot truly knew nothing of this newcomer. Although not widely advertised, there were spells that could determine the veracity of reactions and statements. A reasonably well kept secret among sorcerers.

“They’re not broadcasting any military transponder signal,” Kailis said after catching his breath, “You’re looking at covert military ops or someone else.”

“Probably someone else,” Edillae jumped in again, “We caught an ECM hole that a covert military ship wouldn’t have. At least not if it was outfitted in the last decade.”

This brought a smile to the Elf. If his most recent apprentice spent as much time on her sorcery as she did studying the latest ships . . . including the secret government projects the Arcanum was not supposed to know about, like the rest of the public. But that obsession, and her years on docks, could be useful at times. Like this one.

“Who then?” he asked.

After a few seconds, she came to a conclusion. “Some sort of organized crime or good pirates. Could be mercenaries, but I doubt it. I’d go with pirates. If so, they’ll probably attack ships within the day. Mercs could go for the station instead, depending on their ship. Crime syndicate . . . could sit and watch or might do something. I’m not sure why they’d be out here. But those three’re most likely buyers for ex-miltech and ships like that.”

“I imagine they would be capable of sabotage?”

“That’d be my guess, master.”

“And sabotage would exclude mercenaries?”

“Prob’ly.”

“Then we will, I think, have to assume one of three things. This ship is a pirate, this ship is from a syndicate, or it is unrelated to the attempt to keep us from reaching this place,” Durias decided, “I find all three plausible. The residents of the station have, I believe, sufficient cause to be concerned about potential visitors, perhaps even enough to strand ships in empty space to allow crews to starve. They may even have the means to act out such possible preventatives.

Myrlun nodded, “So, do we watch the station or the ship?”

“Both.”

The Goblin looked between them all. “I’ll move the ship a bit each time we ping the active sensors. Be in a different place in case they fire on us. And this counts as combat pay, double if I have to take on a cruiser, mister sorcerer.”

Durias just gave him a serenely innocent look. He remained still, hands folded in his lap.

“And I choose when to run away,” Kailis added with just a hint of uncertainty as he left the cabin.

With Kailis gone, the Elf looked over his apprentices. “Is there any means by which we can determine the new ship’s intentions before it acts?”

“Contact the EL-7000 about this ship,” Myrlun suggested, “They might know something. Even if they don’t, they may be willing to help track it. Since they haven’t attacked or hidden from us yet.”

Edillae, the Elf saw, nearly rolled her eyes. “The freighter can’t see us, I don’t think. Kailis’ ECM is pretty high end and has been enhanced a touch. But the freighter really hasn’t taken any moves to conceal itself. Whether it can’t or chooses not to is the question.”

“A good suggestion. Followed by a wise question,” Durias decided. “Myrlun, you can alter the hand probe to work with communications. It should have enough range. Do so and eject it from an airlock. An escape pod would be better, but I do not believe Kailis has any of those.”

He dismissed the senior apprentice with a wave of his hand, confident that the devoted Human was both capable and would do as directed.

Once Myrlun left, he turned to his other apprentice. “You, I would like to compose a message to the freighter. I think we will let Kailis’ computer read it, a neutral voice. The message will be routed through the probe. And monitor Kailis’ communications.”

The woman grinned and produced a datapad.

“I started monitoring when we left, master. He’s been pretty discrete,” she explained as she handed over the device, “Just routine chatter and broadcasts until today. About two hours ago he sent a couple suspicious messages, encrypted more than usual. I haven’t been able to break ‘em yet, master. They could just be personal messages, if he thinks we might monitor. I’m not sure where they were going.”

Durias returned her smile. An apprentice certainly just paranoid enough to survive internal politics, but not cripplingly so. After a thought, he said, “Leave them on the table. I will endeavor to decrypt them in time. Normally, I would not test his trust, such as it is, but this discovery is far too important, if there is indeed a serious dimensional flux.”

After she left, he floated the datapad to himself and connected it to his own computer. Once the decryption program was running, with a few spells enhancing its processes, the Elf leaned back to rest as he awaited his minion’s return.

He had just slipped into a light meditative state when Sivaat rematerialized in the small room.

Durias came to full awareness in an instant and simply asked, “Well?”

“The protections are weak,” the entity began, “but the pull of the flux is great and aids them. Even the mighty Sivaat could not get too close. Even as great a being as Sivaat risked being pulled in and destroyed.”

“Into what, Great Sivaat?”

“The hold. The flux between dimensions.”

“So there is a rift? A dimensional hole or tear? Where?”

“Yes, somewhere inside. Sivaat knows not where, the station seems normal, but is made from a material that even Mighty Sivaat cannot see through. There is a village of mansions beneath the dome, though. And no entity will get close to the hole, even without the pitiful wards these people put in place.”

“Or ancient defenses that have faded,” Durias mused.

The entity blinked, “What?”

“Nothing,” the master sorcerer shook himself, “You may go, Great Sivaat. Two hours of freedom here, as promised.” He drew a symbol in the air to dismiss the being before collapsing into the cabin’s chair.

He had suspected the place bore a dimensional rift, or fault line, or some hole between dimensions. For a planar sorcerer that meant great power, especially with a stable rift. Summoning entities would be infinitely easier near such a rift. At a guess, judging by his limited knowledge of the art and this structure, probably only within the station’s walls. Even so, that would be a major hole. Powerful entities could be called up with much less effort, and possibly even bound better. And without having to expend so much energy to appear, they would be intrinsically stronger when they materialized. Not enough to be physical, of course, since all of his studies said that physically crossing the boundaries was impossible.

The location had to be protected from those who would misuse it.

He was still pondering how best to expunge the Arcanum records and track the information’s source when a double knock on the door interrupted.

The door opened to admit his apprentices and the Goblin again. Both Humans saw him and quickly covered looks of concern. They knew better than to ask. He did not generally take well to such things.

Myrlun bowed, “Apologies, master. The scanner is away. It should reach a good distance in an hour or so.”

“Speech is ready,” the other apprentice added.

“Good. Record it and send via the probe when it reaches a good distance,” he said, “Report with their reaction.”

Kailis started to speak as Durias’ computer chimed.

The Elf snatched the hybrid device and detached the datapad before their pilot could see it.

Edillae, over the Goblin’s shoulder, caught his eye and nodded. He responded with barely a flicker of his eyelids and watched her eyes close in concentration as he concealed the screen. He met Kailis’ eyes after the half-second exchange, “Sorry, friend. Arcanum business on the computer . . . you were about to say?”

“The station seems normal, aside from its scan problems,” the smuggler began, only to be interrupted by a loud repetitive beep from the cockpit.

Once he had shoved his way past the apprentices and Myrlun closed the door, Durias glanced at his screen then Edillae.

She flashed a barely sheepish grin. “Don’t worry, master. I just created a minor feedback loop in the main power line. Just enough to trigger an alarm. It’ll look like a brief malfunction.”

He really had to get her a technosorcery tutor later.

“Well, it seems our friend has made four encrypted communications since the sabotage attempt,” he said, referencing Edillae’s information, “The first to a Rinc Industries. No further contact. The other three were to a private line, and the system cannot decipher enough of a name to say who. Therefore, my supposition is that the private party’s name was coded, then encrypted.”

“Rinc makes ship parts, master,” Edillae noted.

“Ah. And he contacted them . . . while he was discovering the problem.”

“Filing a complaint?”

“A fair assumption,” he admitted, “That was also the easiest encryption, perhaps designed to decrypt itself upon receipt.”

“The other three noted our locations, didn’t they, master?”

“They did indeed, Myrlun,” the Elf smiled, “The last was sent three jumps ago. Conclusions?”

“He’s been informing someone, but not the warship,” Myrlun hastily answered, “And his next communication should then be soon. Obviously blocking or redirecting the next would be best.”

“I might be able to block his comms for a few seconds, but that’s it, with spells,” Edillae admitted.

“Can his communication be diverted to the probe and his systems fooled? Either by sorcery or more mundane methods?”

The woman considered before saying, “Maybe. If you can keep Kailis distracted and out of engineering for . . . half an hour. I should be able to do some rerouting of controls there and maybe plant some delayed spells for the computer.”

“It seems that there is a plan then,” Durias agreed, “We will distract Kailis at need. If long range communications can be isolated from short, do it before sending the message to the freighter. Otherwise, wait for a better chance.”

“I’ll draw attention first, master.”

The Elf nodded, already drifting into thought. He genuinely liked the Goblin smuggler and usually did not mind his opportunistic, often conniving, nature. It went with the territory. But this time, the stakes were too high. Therefore, determine a means of erasing the ship’s and pilot’s memories, and destroy the ship. Second, devise an escape plan before initiating the Breath’s destruction. The second was easier than the first. With a container and air, he could live indefinitely even with minimal initial air. One way or another they could drift or be propelled somewhere, if there was time to get to it.

By the time his apprentices returned with news of the work and communication a little over an hour later, he had the skeleton of a plan. Myrlun was sent to the cargo hold, ostensibly to find something in his master’s baggage. He actually sought an empty container for three and some food. Once he was gone, Durias listened to his other student.

“Turns out the freighter’s run by mercenaries out of . . . well, they weren’t too clear on that,” she reported. “I got the sense they knew but were trying to hold back. Which is probably a smart move. All they would say was that some criminal syndicate was after them, they didn’t name any names. Probably didn’t know for certain, master. There was something about being taken on some delivery deal and data leading here. I said we were explorers, from the Republic. That seemed safe enough at the time and isn’t too far from the truth.”

Lost in thought, making connections between data, the Elf was silent for a few minutes.

“I wonder,” he mused aloud. “Could this deal be the source of our own information?”

“I thought about that, master. They did not seem surprised by the warship info, but I don’t think they detected it on their own. So the possibility of a connection seems strong.”

“Lacking any other data, I agree. Now, here is what we will do about the situation . . .”

After a quarter hour, Edillae left the cabin and went about her assigned tasks. Meanwhile, her master sat upon his bunk witnessing the play of energy around him. Every so often he muttered a word or waved a pattern that twisted the strands of energy, rearranging them. In time, his subtle manipulations wove several spells around his person in such a way that they remained ready yet incomplete. A few simple gestures would activate all of them at once, perhaps buying enough time to reach the cargo hold, depending on many variables. He had never been good at reading the future, but seeing variables and attempting to minimize them took no oracular skill, just a pragmatic and possibly pessimistic mind, he reflected. Ultimately, the spells were the best he could do for himself and his apprentices. Perhaps if his natural talent had been above average, like Edillae’s appeared to be, rather than at the high end of average . . . no, there was no point in thinking like that. What was, was. Not even the most talented, powerful, and experienced sorcerers in the galaxy had yet figured out how to change that basic truth.

He was very nearly prepared when the ship’s warning lights and alarms went off an hour later.

Everything was bathed in red as the three sorcerers rushed to the bridge, Edillae giving her master the briefest of nods on the way.

Only the ship’s artificial gravity kept them upright as they watched Kailis twisting and turning the ship in any direction he could. The ship rocked, independent of his commands, every few seconds as something collided with its shields or hull.

Busy as he was, it took Kailis a couple seconds to notice his passengers.

“Warship spotted us and opened fire,” he shouted over the alarms. Another blast rocked the ship. “They got comms before I got the shields back up. And FTL’s not responding.”

Edillae took a standing station. “Drive’s got a power problem, probably secondary explosion. Shield’s at . . . twenty percent,” she told the others. “The freighter’s holding position. No, it’s moving off.”

“Weapons?” Myrlun glanced around as the ship went into a torturous turn that nearly overtaxed the artgrav.

“Minimal,” Kailis replied, teeth gritted as he pulled out of a dive, “Wouldn’t scratch milspec shields.”

A rapid succession of blasts hit the ship.

“Shields are gone,” Edillae reported, “Damage to outer armor, probably a pulse laser.”

“Escape pods?” Durias did not look like he expected a positive answer.

“None, lighter and faster without.”

“Outrun them?”

“They’ve got good engines and long range weapons.”

The Elf seemed to consider.

“Go toward the station, maybe they will assist us,” he said as Edillae reported the dorsal armor’s failure.

Kailis grunted, “Better’n nothing.”

“We will get out of your way and see what we can do,” the master decided, gesturing for his apprentices to leave.

Instead of heading to their cabins, all three ran down the corridor as fast as they could.

Halfway to the cargo bay, they met a headwind before a pressure door slammed shut behind them. Apparently there was a hull breech.

The trio had just reached the cargo bay when a series of explosions ripped through the ship, seemingly from every direction.

The station, freighter, and warship instantly watched a short lived fireball consume the Breath as its oxygen ignited and the whole vessel burst under the internal pressure and weakened hull.

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