Cygnus Five Series
Lioness of Cygnus Five – Blurb
Aurora Campos’s days of heroism are behind her. Deemed a shameful failure, she now captains Froward, a prison transport filled with criminals sent out to colonise new worlds for the Kingdom.
Bryant Jones, technocrat and falsely accused ‘murderer’, is not going to let his future be taken away by this low-tech luddite of a woman and her backward society. He’s staging a break out from Aurora’s brig when the Froward is shot down around them.
Cygnus Five is a failing colony. Starving convicts have taken over and found themselves a spaceship wrecker among the ruins of an abandoned alien city. The only way off-world is the Governor’s launch, sealed in its silo beneath the convicts’ headquarters. But as they team up to capture it, Aurora and Bryant discover love, institutional betrayal and the lurking remnants of a self-destructive alien civilization. Soon they have bigger problems on their hands than their own survival.
When they arrived, Aurora thought she had only her crew to rescue. As it turns out, she has to save the whole world.
Lioness of Cygnus Five – an excerpt
Meal times always gave Aurora a lift of the spirit, even now, when her spirit’s wings had been broken and she’d fallen face down into the quagmire of disgrace and despair.
She gave a short, internal snort of self-mockery at that thought and looked around. Still romanticising herself, then? You’d have thought she would have learned. Neither her triumphs nor her disgraces were uniquely important. She shared this humiliating post with all of these people. No one here was the Kingdom’s finest, she’d found a resting place surrounded by the dregs and although she was still coming to terms with that, they were not so bad.
On the Resadiye, she used to have a captain’s table at the head of the mess. It would have been clad in linen as white as water-clouds, seen from above. Four lieutenants and twelve midshipmen all in shiny uniforms, would have sat poker-backed there, alongside the master and the engineer and the science chief, the chaplain and the doctor. There woud have been a sense that dinner was a solemn ceremony. That they ate beneath the canopy of a great civilization, and above that, beneath the gaze of God the merciful.
The crew would have looked up at the officer’s table and gauged their mood for signs of how well the latest campaign was going. So it was habit now to smile and eat heartily, and encourage free and positive conversation, even if what you really wanted to do was to lie down and cry.
On the Resadiye, one entire wall had been a viewscreen, and she and her people would sit and eat from silver plates as if they were floating in the glories of space, lit by whatever sun or planet or nebula they were fighting over today.
The Froward‘s mess was six grey metal tables bolted to the floor in lines of three. She sat where she could find a space and ate from a billy can like everyone else. This was supposed to humble her, perhaps, but in practice it threw her back to her days in the midshipman’s berth, when the only way to go was up.
Truthfully, the clash of forks against cheap tin and the din of voices threw her further back, all the way to Novocasa and family meals on the cool verandah of her grandmother’s house. Novocasa was a hot, semi-tropical world, and her people had a culture of eating as communally as possible, and also as often.
The kitchen and the dinner table soothed all wounds. Upset? Come, come into the kitchen and Ama will give you something. Then she would sit at the great table, or be handed an onion to chop to cover the tears, and they would rustle up farofa or empanada while they talked it over. Usually by the time they sat down with plates of hot food and mouths full of spices, sweating in the hot kitchen with the wind streaming through all the open doors, whatever problem it was didn’t seem so insurmountable any more.
Aurora’s family… well, in common with everyone else in the kingdom, they had been very disappointed in her, but she clung to the belief that if she went home, plates might be broken, and everyone might shout themselves raw, but afterwards… afterwards they’d make brigadeiro and eat them with coffee, and she would get to weep in her mother’s arms.
Damn it. That train of thought led nowhere she could afford to go, here where she was still newly in command and trying to prove that one mistake, no matter how huge, did not negate two decades worth of excellence.
She passed a surreptitious hand over her eyes, making sure they were still dry, and looked around the Froward‘s small mess. The cross-Kingdom habit of a daily shared meal was a good one, letting the crew see each other as family. And these were her family now, all of them as disgraced or as just plain useless as she was, God bless them.
She leaned a little closer to her second in command, Felix Mboge, trying to pretend she had been listening to his story about the cage fighting gambling ring he had been invited to join on Yari Yari, and how he had instead reported it and had it broken up by the authorities. Chances were the authorities had already known and given tacit permission, chances were that it had started up again the moment Mboge had left, but she didn’t say so, just nodded at his satisfaction and said “That was well done, Mr Mboge.”
They were a week into the voyage, and he’d told the story three times already. He was proud of it and she knew better than to trample on a fellow officer’s pride.
Though pride was a sin. The thought recalled Jones to her, vividly. A beanpole of a man. Black, like Mboge, but a paler shade, his oval face freckled all over like a plover’s egg and his shaggy hair, which curled naturally into tight spiralled ringlets, worn like a bouncy cloud. At a casual glance, he was no threat. A man whose armbones she could break in one hand. Yet when she looked at him, fragility was the last thing she saw. No, that was a snake. A little brown vine snake of the kind that had been harmless when it left Earth, but had developed potent venom in its new home.
Hoping that he was learning his lesson in solitary, she turned back to her meal, but she had barely eaten two spoonfuls of mamaliga when running feet in the corridor outside startled her. Citlali and Rabinovitz skidded through the mess doors and caught her eye. Citlali had made a paper flower to go behind her ear and it was barely clinging to its place, tucked beneath the edge of her veil. Rabinovitz was so scarlet in the face and breathless he couldn’t speak.
“Ma’am?” Citlali said, as if she expected some kind of command, was waiting for Aurora to speak. “You asked for us?”
“I did not.” Aurora got to her feet. As she did so, the doors to the mess whirred and clanged shut and she heard the double thud that was the sound of decompression seals slamming into place on the outside. “What the–?”
Six packed tables’ worth of crew were now scrambling up, threatening uproar. She looked sharply over their heads to the marine sergeant Ademola. In her last ship just the look would have been enough. This crew was not so sharp. Ademola’s silver brows drew down in perplexity, knowing that she wanted something, not knowing what it was.
“Sergeant. Order please.”
Ademola widened his eyes in a look of Oh yes, of course. Then he lifted two empty metal cups and bashed them together with a noise like the clanging of a cracked bell. “All right, everyone. Shut up and sit down.”
Most of them obeyed, and then Jones’ voice came over the tannoy. “I have taken your ship,” and they were back on their feet again, shouting.
Aurora had a moment of actual emotion – a bright flash of fury that made her feel almost alive again. With a tight sigh, she glared at Ademola and Mboge and said again, “Get the crew in order.”
Huh. Jones must really think she was out of it if he thought she would let him get away with this. It was a challenge! An outright god damn personal challenge. Maybe she hadn’t lost her wings after all because she could feel them stir at this, feel herself separate from the mud of her downfall for the first time this year.
He’d sent Citlali and Rabinovitz away from the bridge. The bridge was where he would be. He’d probably locked down the blast doors there too. She’d work out how he managed that later, but if he had the bridge then he had the lifesigns monitor. He would be able to follow their movements via the transmitters sewn into their uniform jackets.
The ship’s cook came to attention, tried to salute and realized with his arm half way up that he held a ladle in his hand. He aborted, but not before he had spattered marine private Silva with flying mamaliga. “Ma’am?”
“I want you to unscrew the cover of the kitchen air vent and remove any blockages.”
O’Kane hoarded food in there, and he kept a screwdriver with a ratchet head in one of the cabinets to open and close it. The hoarding of food was a punishable offence, and she had been considering how to approach letting him know it was happening, suggesting it should stop, without allowing it to go on his record. The man was so pale he looked half way to ghosthood already. She was certainly not going to frighten him over being paranoid over where his next meal might be coming from.
By his start and anxious look, she guessed he was wondering now how much she knew. She raised an eyebrow that said “I know everything,” saw him swallow and then think it through. She knew, but she was giving him time to get it cleared away. She knew, but she was offering mercy.
Finally he grinned. “Yes ma’am.”.
She was glad now that she hadn’t brought him to task for it earlier. Without that egress, this would have been more difficult. Not impossible – because the beams of their stunners could be adjusted until they were tight enough to melt metal. They could, in time, have cut a hole in the floor and dropped through to the lower level. But air vents – there was just something satisfying about doing this with the vents.
O’Kane picked up a chair to stand on and ducked back into the galley to unscrew part of the wall.
“Jackets off, everyone. Mboge, I want you to take a detail to the cage. He may be letting the other prisoners out. If so I want them stopped.”
“Yes ma’am.” Mboge saluted, called out six names, and hopping onto the chair in the galley hoisted himself up and into the ventilation system. His team followed, more or less smoothly.
The uproar in the mess had died down now, as it became clear to her crew that she had this in hand. They were still standing, but all their faces were turned to her, all of them listening out for what they should do. It was the first time she had felt them turn to her for guidance, the first time she had known that they too would come together under her hand in time, that she’d make something even of the Kingdom’s freaks and rejects, given time and challenges enough.
She could almost have thanked Jones for that. Would do, when he was back in his cell, chained hand and foot to the floor.
“Ademola, you’re with me. Crouch, take a party to the engine room to guard against sabotage. Lt. Roimata, you’ll take a detail of your own and accompany me for now.”
“Dr. Atallah? You’re in charge here in the mean time. Have someone account for the crew who were not at dinner. I want to know if anyone’s dead.”
Jerking her chin to Ademola to give her a boost up, she wriggled into the ventilation shaft. It was a tight squeeze, full of airborne dirt now embedded in grease. Her fingers slipped in it, and the tips of her boots slid across the metal without gaining purchase, only her fabric covered knees providing any friction.
It remained level for about ten feet and then sloped downwards to where an access tube connected to the corridor on the next level down. A short crawl and then a slide, and at the bottom of it O’Kane had already opened the hatch and the first party had crawled out.
She squeezed her way out into the crew quarters, grease rubbed up her bare arms, waited for Ademola to emerge out of the wall like a strange birth – and she was not thinking about birth right now.
“Follow me,” she said, waiting for Roimata and her party to emerge. Midshipman Banks came last, snagging the sleeve of his jacket as he emerged. Aurora winced. “Banks! I said ‘jackets off’.”
“But it’s cold,” the boy whined, rubbing his elbow and then rubbing the back of his head when Roimata cuffed him there.
Aurora took two deep breaths. “You think I give orders for my own amusement, midshipman? Jones is in the bridge right now, where the lifesigns detector is. That winged scroll in your jacket is currently giving him data on your position. If he’s paying any attention at all – and I think he is, because he’s a clever man – he now knows we’ve broken out of the mess. I don’t know what reprisals he’s likely to take, but I can think of one, if not two threats to our lives that we will now be facing because you, son, decided it was a bit too chilly to do as I said.”
Banks was coming up for his fourteenth birthday. Two years older than she had been when she started in the service, but he was child enough to look like he was going to cry. “Drop it here,” she said, relenting on the full chewing out. “Maybe he won’t notice, and maybe, if we hurry, we can get to the bridge before he sends the hull repair robots after us.”
She set off at the distance devouring trot that had become second nature on ground ops, Ademola drew alongside. “This isn’t the way to the bridge.”
“No,” she agreed and gave him a side-eye that said ‘do you want a lecture too, or are you going to trust me?’ Wisely, he went for the latter, and five minutes later all nine of the party were clustered in the air refinery, where the engineers kept plastic vats of hydrofluoric acid, and an array of containers in which to carry it.
“Oh,” he said and broke out in a delighted grin. “Of course. We’ve got to get through the bridge doors. I hadn’t thought of that.”
She threw him a bottle and a pair of gloves from the nearest shelf. “Everyone load up. When you’re done, Roimata, your party will go to the armoury. I’m assuming he’s locked that down too. You will break in, arm yourself and join me at the bridge. Ademola? Since you and I have sidearms already, we’re going to make a start on the bridge.”
He had wiry silver hair and the lines on his face were so deep they might have been scraped tight with thumbnails, but his grin had a startled youthfulness, as if she’d reminded him of a time when he believed he was going to be a hero. “Yes Ma’am,” he saluted.
Another trot, the Froward’s corridors institutional and bland, like school and hospital corridors. Half of her didn’t believe anything interesting could happen at all in the scuffed, off white and olive drab monotony. The other half was listening out for the clang and clatter of robot feet, because she didn’t know what Jones could do, but she’d be damned if she underestimated him again.
Breathing hard, she turned the final corner. Ahead, where one long coverless corridor converged on the bridge, she skidded to a halt outside an unexpected barrier.
“What the hell’s this?” Ademola asked behind her, and then the pause for thought, “Ma’am.”
“He’s certainly thorough,” she allowed. “There are several sets of emergency decompression panels along this corridor in case one is breached. He must have noticed us leave the mess, figured out this would be the way we came and took steps to stop us.”
She took the vessel of acid from her pocket and dripped a viscous stripe down the centre of the steel and rubber panel, stepping back hastily as it began to smoke.
Halfway down the corridor a PA point broke the monotony with its black and yellow hornet-stripes. The crew had radios, but Jones didn’t, and she wanted to have a word with him now. A rude one by preference.
She toggled the switch. “Slamming doors on us, Jones? You know we’re going to come through them. And the more you make us work for this, the more annoyed we’re going to be when we get there.”
A hissing cloud of gas was pouring off the emergency decompression panel now, the metal bubbling and writhing. Already a fist sized hole had opened to the other side, and then a long shaving fell with a splot to the floor and they could see the bridge door. She exchanged a look with Ademola, and was surprised to find his expression uncertain, even squeamish. “Problem?”
“We ain’t going to hurt him bad, right?”
She could have laughed as she widened the hole with the hard heel of the acid resistant container. The hole was now large enough to step through, though she was going to give it a moment or two longer to avoid accidental contact.
Seriously? Was this a pacifist marine? How… how precious. She grinned a hard grin, only one more fragile barrier between herself and her quarry. “You just leave that part up to me.”
And that was when the ship exploded.