There was this about garden worlds; they looked so damn pretty from outside... up close they were a lot messier, of course.
Chief Petty Officer Michael Logan spun neatly in his hard-suit away from the world below and back to the business of old warship hulk. It was all that was left of the USASF Corpus Christie, named for the city. Her crew had called her, affectionately, CeeCee, and she had disappeared early in Humanity's long war with the Dragons. They now knew where, and were working on why.
How was self-evident. The nacelles which had pulled the starship into and through some other space, faster than light, were gone. That and the fact that this star system lay at the center of the expanding region of troubled otherspace, the leading wave of which ate stardrives and starships, suggested that 'Columbia' and her crew were about to discover the reason why. Why humanity lay behind a wall, within a safe volume of space where stardrives just barely worked once more, and the species' last starship had gone looking for other survivors.
The Dragons had all but won the war, all but wiped out Humanity a dozen years ago, on the second 'Day of Dragons'. Then the Wave had passed through, effectively ending the war. Columbia had been ordered to stand down and shut down, and her engines had survived. Her crew had survived, a very bittersweet thing. They and regular space craft had helped pick up the pieces. Evacuated refugees from Earth, to the habitats in GEO, the Lunatic Republics, Venus, Mars and the Jovian League... seven billion dead on Earth, something less than a billion left alive.
Jessica Carter was a newbie, spacer-recruit, signed on last time they'd made port in the Verge, the Venus Industrial Region, or Republic of Venus, as they now styled themselves. The kid came from Earth originally, a refugee from just north of Atlanta. How that had happened never came up; Logan did know she'd had a mother who'd also come through and then died in the food riots, later. The Verge was not for the weak or faint of heart.
"Looks like they scuttled the stardrive; it was running hot, they crashed the shutdown sequence, very nearly in time..."
"And the wave carried off the drive, but left most of the ship behind?"
"Yeah..." She pointed at the power conduit. It was melted, but very obviously physically cut. "Somebody had to come out here and do that. Guessed right, they can't have known what was happening, not for sure. Got carried away or fried-"
"But they saved their ship, most of her crew."
"Yeah." Jessica was very quiet, reached out an armored gloved hand to touch the cut. Then she turned to face Logan. "Where did they go, Chief?"
Ma Hei Bai sat his horse a little stiffly. He was a city boy from down by the sea and Hannah, or 'Huck', short for her favorite nickname, Huckleberry, teased him mercilessly for all of his 'prissy' ways. Up in the North Country they did things very differently from down in Shanghai, the most populous settlement and only true city on Tien Shan, the Heavenly Mountain.
Now she was riding circles around him. Then she stopped and she and Red, a red velvet colored gelding, walked carefully backwards. Red wagged his head up and down and whinnied.
"The horse is laughing at me." Hei Bai commented tightly to Jules.
"Yep." Jules looked sideways down at his young charge. The 'Little Master' didn't like being laughed at. "Y'know, she only teases you because she likes you..."
Hei Bai gave him a look and Jules couldn't help but chuckle. Then the boy spurred his horse, a pretty iridescent green mare named Dragonfly, forward. She kicked up a little spiritedly, galloping away, and Red and his rider raced after.
Jules remembered to thank God for his life, again, watching the two kids; his all-but-grandson and his Captain's granddaughter. It hadn't always been so good, which is why you treasured these moments all the more...
Jules turned in his saddle and asked George Clinkenbeard, the girl's father, "Shall we go chase'm down, Hoss?"
Half a lifetime ago, the two men had been like father and son. Years had passed since, but there was still a bond, the love of the Mother-Captain who had died last winter, and a rock bottom trust.
George shrugged. "I say, let them work it out..." The boy, Hei Bai, and his Hannah, had been much in each other's company since the disastrous wedding of his nephew Bruce and the boy's older half-sister. The wedding guests had been held up at gun-point and then Hei Bai, Hannah and her little sister Melody had been carried off as hostages. Jules had been the one to go after and rescue them with their own assistance... Hannah, Huck, had killed three men to protect her little sister, and Hei Bai had also killed a man. And then Huck had shot another, when, on the way out of Shanghai for the slightly delayed Honeymoon, someone had tried to have the crippled Bruce murdered. Both men were a little worried about the two. That much blood on their young hands could not be good for them, but really, you had to be much more afraid for anyone foolish enough to cross their path and threaten either one.
"Down to the planet, of course." Captain Barnes told Logan a little while later, when he made his report.
Barnes laughed, then had to cough and clear his throat. He was getting over a cold, some bug they'd picked up back in the Solar system, which had worked its way through the crew. Logan had had it first, to his chagrin; had brought it onboard, he was sure, although the doc had told him not to be so hard on himself. "Somebody was going to pass the love along and it just happened to be you, y'see... actually, my money is on Jessie, but you didn't hear that from me, understand?" Logan had laughed and felt a little better.
"Less with the stiff 'sirs', Chief. Been a long time since we were a military ship..." Captain Barnes frowned and his eyes got that faraway look. The one you got when you knew a lot of dead people. Logan saw that one in the mirror from time to time.
"Well, I need a steady, responsible hand to lead the team we send down there... that'd be you, old son!" The Captain pulled up some scans of the most interesting sea coast, thermal signatures, particulate and chemical traces indicating dirty old-fashioned industries. "Substantial numbers, if this means what we think it means."
"Or it could be a colony of dragons."
Barnes nodded. "That's exactly what I'm dreading. Not that they're any threat to us. No chance they're building starships or even spaceships."
"Could have something left over, scraps. A shuttle, a missile or something."
"Maybe. Walk soft and come back to us with a few answers, Chief."
"You know, you're a big baby," the girl observed. Those startling green eyes sparkled.
Huck and Hei Bai had stopped to water the horses and eat their lunch by a little stream. Earthly willows grew here, somewhere on the edges of the Outfit's range. Orange-furred cattle grazed across the water.
"You know, you're a brat."
"Ooh, you've really upset me now..."
The boy shut his mouth tightly against the words that would further betray his dignity, and breathed, in, out, in, out... she was infuriating! He centered himself, looked over-
She was holding her breath, turning red... then she fell over, giggling.
"Brat!" Hei Bai walked away and the horses stared, ears twitching. He picked up a long straight willow branch and used it to begin practicing his forms. It left something to be desired as a substitute sword. The horses turned back to their grass and Red nipped playfully at the mare.
Huck sat back against a willow, chewing on a grass stem and watching him practice. After a while she spit the stem out, stood up and ambled over.
"What's the deal with the sword? Jules taught you how to shoot, right?"
Jules finished the form and stood up straight, the branch held straight up and at the ready. He opened his mouth to speak and then thought the better of it.
"You can't call back a bullet. But a blow, a swing or a thrust of the blade, you have more control and you can take it back at any point up until the blade falls, or the point pierces flesh. And you can parry, defend."
"No use in a gun fight..." She saw the look on his face. "Oh yeah?"
"I saw Jules block a bullet with his sword- it shattered the blade and the bullet fragmented, hit him in the shoulder... but the bullet was aimed at his heart."
"I don't miss what I aim for."
"I know this."
Huck didn't seem to be listening to him. "That man in the City, he was holding a gun on Melody- he shouldn't have done that..."
"No, he shouldn't have."
"We didn't need to say anything out loud. She knew, and I knew, and Melody dropped through his grasp when he turned his gun on me... he..."
"He didn't stand a chance."
"What if I didn't need to kill him? He was after Bruce, not us-"
"You did the right thing, based on what you knew."
"So you say!"
"Bruce agrees; my sister agrees. Jules... he's talked to you, right?"
"There you go-"
"Did you ever, once, doubt the wisdom of Jules Le Croix, or... the Star People? The first ones, our grandparents?"
Hei Bai blinked. Of course he didn't understand them, he never really had, but he shook his head.
"No? Why not?"
Now there was solid ground under his feet and he felt his confidence return. He had an answer for this.
"They brought their war here with them; man and dragon, and they made peace. Captain Cee and General Ma and the freed Dragons chose survival, chose The Hundred Year Plan."
She did not disagree, but he realized as they mounted up again, she had not agreed with him, either.
Logan could pilot in a pinch, but since he needed to be the leader on what was certain to be a contact mission, with who knew what variables, he picked Wayne Nunios for his pilot, Spacer-Recruit Carter for his engineer over spacers with years of experience, notably because she needed some, and a few solid ratings, all originally from Earth. He wondered if that was wise; there might be dragons.
He shrugged that particular worry off. If there were, there were, and he was not inclined to cry over a dead dragon or three- or thirty, for that matter. Seven billion dead... nine out of ten humans on Earth or in the Solar system. An ocean of blood cried out for blood-
"You ready, Chief?"
"Yeah, let's go."
The city was not really a good idea. For the initial recon they would stick to the river valley which lay north and northwest of that city. There was a settlement on the river and outlying lesser settlements, clusters of buildings, crops and animals. There were people, horses and cattle, the horses in several startling hues and the cattle in day-glow orange. The city held humans and dragons as well, and whatever that meant, Logan was glad not to have to worry about it on this first drop. Wayne flew them low and slow and came down on the shuttle's vertical thrusters just behind a hill a few klicks from one of the lesser settlements, about twenty from the major one.
Logan got up and looked around at his team. "Everybody remember where we parked..."
They laughed, all but Carter, who looked lost as she often did. "Chief?"
"Star Trek, recruit; we gotta get you up to speed," he added, to more laughter. Columbia was older than any of them, almost a contemporary of the Corpus Christie, but a US Navy starship, from after the squids had built their high port in GEO and revisited the argument they had originally lost to the Air Force. Air Force had had lunar L1, but despite having the high ground they had lost out to superior navy logistics. Logan smiled. The press called the combined star forces of humanity 'Starfleet', of course.
Hannah saw that the strange man had a strange weapon pointed at both Meng the River Dragon… and her sister Melody. Certain doors in her mind closed and certain other ones opened and she felt her fingers touching her revolver- She stopped her hand, willed it to pull away.
Question- did she need to kill this man?
Hei Bai had gone white, and a distant part of her mind noted the ironic play on the Chinese words of his name, ‘Black-White’. He was light to her shadow…
“Please put that away, sir-“
The stranger looked curiously at Hei Bai, hearing the fear in the boy’s voice and not understanding, business end of the weapon wavering in the air just a little so that it was very nearly pointing at the little girl instead of the monster. He quickly put the blaster up, but found himself staring over the sights of a local revolver which the older girl so suddenly had pointed at base of his Adam’s apple, her eyes like green chips of ice.
The boy was breathing hard- “Sweet Christ, sweet Buddha…”