The sixth novel in Cherryh’s Foreigner space opera series, a groundbreaking tale of first contact and its consequences…
It has been nearly ten years since the starship Phoenix returned to Alpha, the station orbiting the world of the atevi, which had been abandoned following a rift between a faction of the station's inhabitants and the spacers' Pilot's Guild. The unexpected return of the Phoenix has forever changed the lives of both atevi and Mospheirans, for over the ensuing decade, the captains of the Phoenix have brought both species into space. Their motivation seemed simple: Reunion Station, a human station in another sector of space, had been destroyed by aliens.
But on his deathbed, the senior captain of the Phoenix admits that he lied to the crew—that Reunion was merely damaged, not destroyed, and many people may have survived. At this disclosure, the crew rebels and forces the Phoenix to undertake a rescue mission to Reunion.
Onboard the rescue mission are Bren Cameron, brilliant human paidhi representing the atevi ruler Tabini-aiji, and Tabini's grandmother Ilisidi, a fearsome and ambitious atevi leader with an agenda of her own. Trapped in a distant star system with little fuel left, facing a bellicose alien ship, how can Bren help to avoid interspecies war when the notoriously secretive Pilot's Guild aboard Reunion Station refuse to cooperate, and may have kept the inhabitants of their own station ignorant of their true situation?
The long-running Foreigner series can also be enjoyed by more casual genre readers in sub-trilogy installments. Explorer is the 6th Foreigner novel, and the 3rd book in the second subtrilogy.
Release date: November 4, 2003
Print pages: 528
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C. J. CHERRYH
A Foreigner Novel
DAW Titles by C.J. CHERRYH
THE FOREIGNER UNIVERSE
THE ALLIANCE-UNION UNIVERSE
THE DEEP BEYOND:
Serpent’s Reach |Cuckoo’s Egg
Merchanter’s Luck | 40,000 in Gehenna
AT THE EDGE OF SPACE:
Brothers of Earth | Hunter of Worlds
THE FADED SUN:
Kesrith | Shon’jir | Kutath
THE CHANUR NOVELS
THE CHANUR SAGA:
The Pride Of Chanur | Chanur’s Venture | The Kif Strike Back
Chanur’s Homecoming | Chanur’s Legacy
THE MORGAINE CYCLE
THE MORGAINE SAGA:
Gate of Ivrel | Well of Shiuan | Fires of Azeroth
THE DREAMING TREE Omnibus:
The Tree of Swords and Jewels | The Dreamstone
ALTERNATE REALITIES Omnibus:
Port Eternity | Wave Without a Shore | Voyager in Night
THE COLLECTED SHORT FICTION OF CJ CHERRYH
ANGEL WITH THE SWORD
Table of Contents
Steam went up as the shower needled Bren’s back—a moment of blissful content in a voyage neither that blissful nor content.
And considering the call he’d just gotten in the middle of his night, he stayed, head against the wall, longer than his habit, eyes shut, letting the steam make a warm, blind cocoon around him, letting the shower run on recycle for uncounted warm minutes. Complex input was suspended, output temporarily unnecessary.
But a brain habituated to adrenaline could stand tranquility only so long before worry tunneled its way back.
What’s Jase want?—followed closely by—We’re not that far from moving—and:
This could be the big move. Natural, wouldn’t it be, if that’s what the navigators are doing up there, setting up the final move, that Jase would want to talk now?
It’s my night. He knew he’d wake me up. Jase could come here.
Couldn’t be any ship-problem, could it? Nothing mechanical. Mechanical problems surely couldn’t be at issue.
That was it. Now he’d done it. He’d thought about the ship itself . . . about the frail bubble of metal and ceramics around his cabin, beyond the shower, beyond the diplomatic enclave of passengers on five-deck.
Said ship had already endured, be it centuries ago, one spectacular and notorious navigational failure, stranding the original colonial mission in the great uncharted nowhere of the universe—after which everything else had happened: escaping a nearly lethal star, reaching an inhabited planet. The survivors had built Alpha Station, in orbit about that planet—and developed a bitter rift between those who wanted to stay in space and serve the ship, and those who wanted to go down to the green planet, take their fortunes and their lives in their hands and cast their lot with the steam-age locals.
A whole world of things had happened after that. The Alpha colonists, taking that dive into atmosphere, forever changed themselves, their culture and the native people in a direction no one had predicted.
Meanwhile that faction of humans who’d stayed in space had taken the ship and gone searching for their misplaced homeworld. But the fervor for that mission had come aground a second time. They’d ended up building another station in a fuel-rich system. Reunion was its name. And things had gone not so badly for them—until a hundred-odd years into that station’s existence, an unknown species had taken exception to their poking into other solar neighborhoods and attacked Reunion to make the point.
So the ship had come running frantically back to Alpha looking for fuel and help.
Which was at least the beginning of reasons why this ship now, with a sizeable delegation of concerned parties from the former Alpha colony and the indigenous government, was headed back out to that remote station—ten years late, because things at Alpha hadn’t been quite in order to jump to the ship’s commands. The captain who’d ordered the mission was dead, Alpha Station was in the hands of the atevi, the native, once steam-age species, who’d taken command of their own destiny—and the aiji, the atevi ruler, had sent his grandmother and his heir, among others, to see for themselves what sort of mess the ship-folk had made of their affairs at Reunion.
That was the quick version of ship history: a breakdown, a stranding, and local wars wherever they went. Given the ship’s run of luck at important moments, and given a “see-me-in-my-office” from a friend who also happened to be one of the ship’s two captains, well, yes, a dedicated planet-dweller, descendant of the Alpha colonists, could feel just a little bit of anxiety about this after-midnight summons.
Maybe he shouldn’t have stopped to shower. Maybe he should have pulled on a pair of pants and a sweater and gotten straight up there.
But there’d been a sense of “when-you-can” when he’d gotten the summons. It was Jase’s watch, so anything Jase wanted to say really was logically said in the middle of the night, granted the breakfast hour would have been far more convenient. “Time to dress?” he’d asked. “Yes,” Jase had said. So he’d blundered into the shower half-asleep.
And the black-skinned, pastel-clad figures that moved calmly about duties outside the steamed-over shower glass—they were fresh from their beds, too, his atevi staff, his protectors, getting his clothes ready. Hence the shower—a blast of warm water to elevate his fallen body temperature and call said brain online.
He toggled off recycle. The shower circulation, formerly parked on endless loop, sucked up the damp from the air until what blew past was dry and warm as any desert. It stopped, preset, while his past-the-shoulder hair, that dignity of an atevi lord, still retained a residual, workable damp.
His servants would have heard the shower enter final cycle. He stepped out into comparatively cold air, and immediately Bindanda—to whose stature he was about the size of a ten-year-old—flung an appropriately child-sized robe about him. Bindanda, broad as well as tall, black-skinned, golden-eyed—atevi, in short, and a somewhat plump fellow, very fond of food—lapped the belt about him with hands that could break human arms and tied it with a delicacy that required no adjustment.
Perfect. The dressing-bench awaited. Bren sat down and let Asicho, the sole female among the servant staff, comb and braid his hair in its requisite pigtail.
Lord of the province of the heavens, Tabini-aiji had named him, sending him up from the planet to manage the space program—oh so casually claiming in that action all the power that a newly named lord of the heavens could possibly lay at the aiji’s feet, a small fact which Bren wasn’t sure any of the ship’s captains had ever quite grasped. It had taken him a little time to figure it—and he’d been Tabini’s chief translator.
But it was perfectly reasonable, in the atevi view of things, to believe that where the aiji’s representative went, so went the aiji’s sphere of influence. Therefore sending the lord of the heavens to the limits of explored space expanded the aiji’s claim of power, absent some strongly dissenting power in his path. There was a space station. So of course there was now a province of the heavens. Had not the aiji sent him there and appointed a lord to rule it? Second point—had anyone contested that appointment? Had anyone else attempted to exert authority over the station? The Mospheirans, that island nation of former human colonists, couldn’t make up their minds without a committee decision and the ship-folk certainly weren’t interested in administering an orbiting province. The ship-folk as well as the Mospheirans had actually seemed glad to have some competent individual, atevi or human, handle it and see that the vending machines stayed full and the air stayed pure.
So that claim stuck. There was a province of the heavens.
And now that the ship-folk took their starship back to Reunion to deal with matters the ship had left unfinished—dangerous ones at that—the aiji in Shejidan sent out his emissaries to deal with deep space. Tabini-aiji sent his own grandmother, the aiji-dowager, and he sent his heir—a minor child—both constituting representation of the aiji’s house itself, to show the flag, so to speak—but to make that claim of a more permanent nature, he sent out his lord of the heavens to claim whatever territory seemed available. A man who’d originally hoped to add a few words to the atevi-human lexicon as the sole monument to his life, Bren Cameron had certainly gotten farther than he intended.
By various small steps accelerating to a headlong downhill rush, his life hadn’t gone as planned. Bren found himself here, wherever here was. He found himself assigned to assert a claim the aiji-dowager would . . . well, witness or bless or otherwise legitimize . . . establishing an atevi claim to presence in the universe at large. Most pointedly, he would assert the atevi right to have a major say in the diplomatic outcome of whatever they met, and the dowager would look it all over and nod politely. And he wasn’t sure the ship-folk, except Jase, remotely understood what he was doing here.
Maybe, Bren said to himself, he ought to be honest about his mission—not go on wearing the white ribbon of the neutral paidhiin, the translators. Maybe he should adopt a plain one, black, for a province of empty space—
Black, for the Assassins who watched over him. Black, for the lawyers of atevi society, the mediators of last resort. White of the paidhiin was, well, what he hoped to go on doing: translate, mediate, straighten out messes. Lord’s title and assignment to the heavens be damned, he planned to come home and ask for his old job back: more extravagantly, someday next year or so he hoped, at lordly leisure, to sit on his porch and watch the sea for three days straight. . . . granted Jase wasn’t calling him up there at the moment to give him advance warning that the ship had broken down and stranded the lot of them forever in deep space.
Asicho finished the ribbon-arranging. He stood up from the bench. Narani, his white-haired and grandfatherly head of staff, had already laid out the appropriate clothing on the bed, and Jeladi, the man of all work, assistant to everyone on staff, waited quietly to help him on with the starched, lace-cuffed shirt. The stockings and the trousers, he managed for himself. And the glove-leather, knee-high boots.
“Nadi,” he said then to Jeladi, inviting the assistance. Narani had pressed the lace to knife-edged perfection, and Jeladi moved carefully, so the all-grasping lace failed to snag his pigtail. Asicho, in turn, helped him on with his knee-length day-coat while Jeladi held the pigtail safely aside from its high collar, and Bindanda helped arrange the shirttail.
Not so much froth on the shirt sleeves as to make it necessary to put both coat and shirt on together—but not quite a one-person operation, as styles had gotten to be. His increased rank had increased the amount of lace—which had turned up in baggage: trust Narani. The lord of this household would go out the door, onto executive levels, as if he walked the halls of the Bu-javid in Shejidan.
The shirttail went in immaculately. The pigtail survived the collar. His two servants gently tugged the starched lace from under the cuffs, adjusted the prickly fichu, and pronounced him fit to face outsiders.
In no sense was a man of rank alone . . . not for a breath, not an instant. The servants, including Narani, including Bindanda, lined his doorway. The sort of subterranean signals that had permeated the traditional arrangements of his onworld apartments, that they had translated to the space station, had likewise established themselves very efficiently on the ship, in human-built rooms, rooms with a linear arrangement in—that abomination to atevi sensibilities—pairs. In their section of five-deck, in loose combination with the aiji-dowager’s staff in the rooms considerably down the hall, the staff still managed to pass their signals and work their domestic miracles outside the ship’s communications and outside his own understanding.
So it was no surprise to him at all that Banichi and Jago likewise turned up ready to go with him; his security, uniformed in black leather and silver metal, and carrying a fairly discreet array of electronics and armament for this peaceful occasion: a lord didn’t leave his quarters without his bodyguards, not on earth, not on the station, and not here in the sealed steel world of the ship, and his bodyguards never gave up their weapons, not even at their lord’s table or in his bedroom.
“Asicho will take the security station,” Jago said, pro forma. Jago and Banichi were now off that station. Of course Asicho would. In this place with only a handful of staff, they all did double and triple duty, and even Asicho managed, somehow, despite the language barrier, to know a great deal that went on in ship’s business.
But not everything. Not middle-of-the-night summonses from the second captain.
Guards they passed in the corridor marked Ilisidi’s residency—her security office, her kitchen, her personal rooms. No more than polite acknowledgment from that quarter attended their passage: but that they were awake and about, the dowager’s staff now knew. Ilisidi’s security, perhaps Cenedi himself, given the unusual nature of this call, would be in constant touch with Asicho—not the dowager’s idle curiosity. It was Cenedi’s job, at whatever hour.
Two more of Ilisidi’s young men guarded the section door. Beyond that, at a three-way intersection of the curving corridors, on the Mospheirans’ collective doorstep (meaning Ginny Kroger and her aides and technicians, their robotics and refueling operations specialists) was the short alcove of the so-named personnel lift. They walked in and Banichi immediately pushed the requisite buttons.
The lift this time lifted fairly well straight up, where it stopped and opened its doors onto the bridge with a pressurized wheeze. They exited in that short transverse walkway at the aft end of the bridge. Beyond it, banks of consoles and near a hundred techs and seniors stayed at work by shifts—half a hundred tightly arranged consoles, the real running of the ship. The walkway aimed at the short corridor on the far side of the bridge, where the executive offices, as well as the captains’ private cabins—and Jase’s security guards on duty in that corridor—were found.
If those two were there, Jase was there. On Jase’s watch, the senior captain, Sabin, was likely snug abed at the moment—a favorable circumstance, since Sabin had a curious, suspicious nature and wasn’t wholly reconciled to atevi wandering through her operations. She was bound to have an opinion on the matter—but at the moment it was all Jase’s show.
So they walked straight through, keeping to that designated passage-zone where they weren’t in the way of the techs—not even a couple of towering dark atevi or a human in atevi court dress rated notice from navigators trying to figure where they were. Business proceeded. And the two men, Kaplan and Polano, on a let-down bench at Jase’s office door, stood up calmly, men as wired-in as Jago and Banichi. No question Jase had known the moment the lift moved. No question Jase, like his bodyguards, was waiting for him. No question Jase had expected Banichi and Jago to come up here with him when he called, and no question Jase knew they’d be armed and wired.
“Sir.” Kaplan opened the office door for him.
Jase looked up from his desk and waved him toward a seat, there being no formality between them. And since it was a meeting of intimates, Banichi and Jago automatically lagged to talk to Kaplan and Polano outside, such as they could. Atevi security regularly socialized during their lords’ personal meetings, if they were of compatible allegiances—as Kaplan and Polano indisputably were; so Bren discreetly touched the on-button of his pocket com as he went in, being sure by that means that Asicho, on five-deck, would have a record for staff review.
The door shut. Bren dragged one of the interview chairs around on its track. Sat.
Unlike Sabin’s office, which had a lifetime accumulation of storage cabinets, Jase’s office was new and barren: a desk, two interview chairs—no books, in all those bookcases and cabinets—and only one framed photo, a slightly tilted picture of Jase holding up a spiny, striped fish. It was his most predatory moment on the planet.
What would you do with it? shipmates might ask; and if Jase wanted to unsettle them, he might say, truthfully, horrifying most of them, that they had had it for supper that night—a rather fine supper, too.
They shared that memory. They shared a great many things, not least of which was joint experience in the aiji’s court, with all that entailed, before Jase had gotten an unwanted captaincy.
“Good you came,” Jase said. “Sorry about the midnight hour. But I’ve got something for you.”
“Got something.” He had niggling second thoughts about the pocket-com, and confessed it. “I’m wired.”
“I’m always sure you are.” Jase two-sided the console at a keystroke and gave him a confusing semi-transparent view of a split screen.
Bren leaned forward in the chair, arm on the desk edge. With a better light angle, he figured it out for a view through a helmet-cam on one side and, on the other, a diagram of the walking route among rooms and corridors.
His heart went thump. He knew what it was, then. And he’d expected this revelation eight moves and eleven months ago.
Now they had it? Close to the end of their journey, this showed up?
“Sabin knows?” he asked, regarding the extraction of this particular segment out of the log records.
“Not exactly,” Jase said.
There was the timing. There was the non-cooperation of the senior captain. That Jase called him up here to see it, instead of bringing it down to five-deck . . . he wasn’t sure what that meant. Relations between the two on-board captains had been uneasily cordial since—well, since the unfortunate incident at undock, Sabin having insulted the dowager within the first few hours and the dowager having poisoned the captain in retaliation. The two women had gotten along since, wary as fighting fish in a tank. The two captains had gotten along because they had to: the ship regularly had four, and ran now on part of its crew, part of its population, and two of the three surviving captains.
And despite his conviction this tape existed and despite the dowager’s demands and Jase’s requests for the senior captain to locate it in log and produce it—Sabin hadn’t acknowledged it existed, hadn’t cooperated, hadn’t acknowledged the situation they suspected lay behind the tape. In short, no, Sabin hadn’t helped find it in the last number of months, and now that it had turned up, didn’t know Jase had it. And what was the object of their long search? The mission-tape from the ship’s last visit, the record none of the crew had seen, the record that Ramirez, the late senior captain, had deliberately held secret from the crew. A man named Jenrette, chief of Ramirez’s personal bodyguard, had entered that station and met survivors—and those survivors had allegedly refused to be taken off the station.
Those survivors included, one suspected, the hierarchy of the old Pilots’ Guild, an organization whose management had caused the original schism between colonists and crew—and managed the contact with aliens who’d already taken offense and launched an attack. Not a sterling record. Not a record that inspired confidence. Or love.
Captain Ramirez, during that strange port-call, had told his own crew that Reunion was dead . . . destroyed by the alien attack. He’d refueled off the supposedly dead station, and run back to Alpha, where that lie about Reunion’s condition had held firm and credible for nearly a decade—until Ramirez’ deathbed confession had blown matters wide.
But secrecy hadn’t ended with one deathbed revelation. His suspicion of other facts withheld had made this particular tape an item of contention between Sabin, who’d been one of the captains nine years ago, and Jase, Ramirez’s appointee, whose assignment to a captaincy had nothing to do with knowledge of ship’s operations. Jase had been aboard that day they’d found Reunion in ruins, but he hadn’t been on the bridge—he’d been twenty-odd, junior, and not consulted, far from it. Sabin wouldn’t talk about that time at dock; no member of the bridge crews had talked to anyone they could access. Every member of Ramirez’ personal security team except Jenrette was dead—killed in a mutiny against Ramirez—and Sabin had snatched Jenrette into her security team immediately after Ramirez’ death, the very day, in fact, that Jase had wanted to ask him questions about this tape.
That was the state of relations between the ship’s captains—Sabin, very senior, and Jase, appointed by the late senior captain, very junior—and a lot of data not shared between them.
“Anything entirely astonishing about the tape?” Bren asked. “I trust you’ve reviewed it to the end.”
“The match-up with station plans is my work,” Jase muttered, keying while the tape proceeded. The screen afforded them a helmet-cam view of airless, ravaged halls picked out in portable lights as Jase skipped through the venues, freezing key scenes. “For a long stretch, things go pretty much as you’d expect to see. Fire damage. Explosion damage. Outwardly, the kind of thing you’d expect of a station in ruins. But the boarding team doesn’t wander around much. No exploring. Straight on.”
“As if they knew where they were going?”
“Exactly.” Jase skipped ahead through the record, and now, in motion, the exploration reached a section that looked far less ravaged. “Their entry into the station, which is a long, tedious sequence, was through the hole in the mast; but after they got in, the lift worked on emergency power, which saved them quite a bit of effort. Piece of luck, eh? Emergency generators back up a lot of functions. Fuel port. Critical accesses. No questions there. Now we’re in the C corridor, section. . . . about 10. Notice anything really odd here?”
The matching map had the numbers. If one could assume the station architecture as similar to the atevi earth station’s structure, the investigating crew was on second level near the cargo offices at the moment. Lights were out. Power was down. Helmet lights still picked out walls and closed doors. Intact doors.
“It’s not that badly damaged here,” Bren observed.
“No, it’s not.” A small pause. “But we did see part of the station survived. What else do you notice? For God’s sake, Bren . . .”
He was entirely puzzled. After a silence, Jase had to prompt him:
God. God. Of course. They were walking. Walking was so ordinary. But he’d helped revive a space station. He knew better. Walking, in space, was a carefully managed miracle . . . and on a station with an altered center of mass? Not easy, was it?
He felt like a fool. “The station’s rotating.”
“As good as put out a neon sign,” Jase said. “To anyone born in space.”
A sign to tell more than the investigating ship. A sign to advise any alien enemies that this station wasn’t utterly destroyed. That much beyond any small pocket of light or heat where a handful of surviving tenants might cling to life, as they’d assumed all through this voyage was the case—this huge structure was rotating and managing its damage in ways very suggestive of life, intact systems, and sufficient internal energy to hold itself in trim.
“Computer couldn’t manage this on auto,” he said to Jase, “could it?”
“Less than likely. A dumb system—possible, I suppose, but I don’t believe it. I don’t think crew will.”
“But you can see rotation from outside,” Bren said, confused. “The ship docked, didn’t they? How can crew not have seen it?”
Jase gave him a dark look. “We’ve never left home. We’re still sitting at dock at Alpha. The atevi world’s below us. Can you prove differently? Can you prove we’ve ever traveled at all?”
Once he thought of it, no, he couldn’t. There was no view of outside . . . except what the cameras provided the viewing screens. They underwent periods of inconvenience and strangeness that made it credible they moved, but there was no visual proof that didn’t come through the cameras.
And had Ramirez somehow ordered a lie fed to those cameras? A simple still image, that crew would take for the station’s lifeless hulk, when the truth was moving, lively, self-adjusting?
From when? God, from how early in the ship’s approach had Ramirez faked that output?
“If Ramirez faked the camera images,” he asked Jase, “how early did he? Did he come into Reunion system expecting disaster in the first place?”
“I’ll tell you that niggling suspicion did occur to me. But long-range optics might have seen there was a problem, way far off. Down below, I assure you, we didn’t get an image . . . we don’t, routinely until bridge has time to key it to belowdecks. It’s not often important. It’s protocols. And if bridge is busy, if a captain’s too busy, or off-shift, or in a meeting, we sometimes don’t get image for a while. For a long while, in this case. We saw the still image. We saw the team entering the mast.”
“Where it’s always null-gee.”
“No feed from helmet cam beyond that. This section went straight into the log’s black box and nobody belowdecks ever saw it.”
Anger. No wonder this particular tape had stayed buried for nine years. No wonder the current senior captain had silenced the last living member of the group that had made that tape and challenged the technically untrained junior captain to find the log record—if he could.
“But the captains all knew,” Bren surmised. “Sabin was there. She had to know the station wasn’t dead. Anybody on the bridge, any of the techs, they had to know, all along, didn’t they?” That had been a question before they launched on this mission. It loomed darker and darker now, damning all chance of honesty between executive and crew.
“It’s all numbers readout on those screens,” Jase said. “You get what the station transmits. Or doesn’t transmit. Or if it feeds you a lie—you’d have that on your screen, wouldn’t you? I’m not sure that all the ops techs on the bridge knew. Some had to. But it’s possible some didn’t.”
More and more sinister, Bren thought, wishing that at some time, at any convenient time, the late captain Ramirez had leveled with his atevi allies . . . and his own crew.
“I’ll imagine, too,” Jase went on, “that the minute we got into the solar system and got any initial visual inkling there was trouble, bridge showed a succession of still images from then on out—in space, you can’t always tell live from still. I’ll imagine, for charity’s sake, that Ramirez ran the whole thi
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