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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 50


  Rather more shaken by the artifact than she’d ever let him know, she completed her landing. One of the improvements on her ship body was the vertical cabin and a ramp directly to it, rather than the old and inconvenient lift from the stern.

  “You even have a reception party of one,” Niall remarked, as a tall figure became visible on the starboard viewers. All around the square the others turned towards that figure, heads bowing in a brief obeisance.

  “How else are you called, Ship Helva?” said the tall woman, the hood falling back and revealing the serene face of an older woman.

  “Not bad at all,” Niall murmured. “She’d look even better in something feminine.”

  Indeed, Helva agreed with him since the woman had the most amazingly attractive face. A pity she had taken up religion instead of a man and a family. The long cassock robe she wore was one of those amorphous affairs, probably woven or pounded out of indigenous fibers and strictly utilitarian.

  “I am Ship NH-834, who was once also the JH-834.”

  The woman nodded and inclined forward from her waist in a deep bow.

  “Bingo!” said Niall.

  “We have sent eternal prayers for the repose of the soul of Jennan,” the woman said in a richly melodious voice, and from the onlookers rose a murmur of “Praise ever to his name.”

  “His memory is honored,” Helva replied sincerely. “May I ask your name?”

  “I am the Helvana,” the woman replied, again with a reverent bow of her head.

  “Oh, my God, Helva, you made it to sainthood,” Niall said with complete irreverence and rolled with laughter in the pilot’s chair. “With your own priestess caste system. Wow!”

  Somehow his reaction annoyed her so much she almost erased his program. But common sense reasserted itself. If she was indeed some sort of saint to these people, she needed his irreverence more than ever—to keep her balance.

  “You lead your people?”

  “I am she who has been chosen,” the woman said. “For many decades, we have hoped that you would honor us with your appearance…”

  “Once more I come to you with bad tidings,” Helva said quickly before she could be inundated with sanctimonious sentiments or perorations.

  “That you have come is enough. What is your bidding, Ship Who Sings?”

  “They have you pegged, my dear,” Niall murmured, grinning like an idiot.

  “An enemy approaches this planet…ah…Helvana.” Helva had a bit of trouble getting that name/title out. “I have sent for assistance but it will not arrive in time to prevent the landing, nor the brutality with which these people—they are called the Kolnari—overwhelm an unprotected population.”

  A chuckle, rich and throaty, surprised Helva. She also caught smiles from those around the square.

  “It’s no laughing matter, Helvana. I have documentation of how they overwhelm resistance. How they…abuse the population.” She couldn’t quite say “rape” in the presence of girls who looked to be in their teens. “I must ask that you retreat to whatever safety the forests and mountains can provide until the Fleet arrives. Having warned you here in this fine city, I must spread the alarm to all that I can, to protect as many as I can.”

  The woman named Helvana raised one hand, a polite interruption. “Bird-keepers, send the flocks to warn our sisters. Ship Who Sings, would you know how soon they will land?”

  “I’m no more than four days ahead of them,” Helva said, wondering at her calmness. With relief, she did see quite a few women disappearing from the perimeter and doing whatever duties the bird-keepers might have. “You must gather what belongings you cherish and make for forest and mountain.”

  “Four days is plenty of time to set all in motion, Ship Who Sings.”

  This Helvana sounded not the least bit alarmed, as she bloody well should have been.

  “You don’t understand, Hel…Helvana. These men are pirates, vicious. They have no mercy on their victims…”

  “Show them the tape,” Niall said.

  “This is what they did on the planet Bethel,” she said, and activated the exterior display, using the whitewashed façade of the imposing main building as a screen.

  “That will not be necessary,” Helvana said. “Turn it off now. Please!” And, since some of the captive audience looked decidedly unnerved by the first scene of battle-armored Kolnari making mighty jumps towards screaming and panicking Bethelites, Helva found herself obeying. “There is absolutely no need to terrify. NO need at all.”

  “But there is, Helvana. Those men…”

  “May I speak to you in private, Ship Who Sings?”

  “I wouldn’t like to go against that one,” Niall said. “She’s tough.”

  “Yes, of course,” Helva said to the Helvana. And then to Niall, “Get lost!”

  “Immediately,” Niall said, rising and skittering off to his quarters.

  The Helvana was tall enough to have to duck her head to clear the lintel of the opening and stood for a moment, looking calmly around her, a little smile flickering at the corners of her mouth. Then, to Helva’s surprise, she bowed with great reverence toward the central panel behind which Helva’s titanium shell was situated.

  “I have dreamed of being granted such a moment, Ship Who Sings,” she said, her voice vibrant with exultation.

  “Please be seated in the lounge on your right,” Helva said.

  The Helvana took a second look at the raised bridge area that had been Niall’s favorite place and turned to the lounge area. With considerable grace, the heavy folds of her cassock flowing around her feet and her heavy boots grating on the metal part of the deck, she reached the first of the sectional couches. With another bow, she seated herself facing Helva’s panel.

  “I must tell you, Ship Who Sings, that the pitiful colony of the religious you rescued from Ravel’s nova learned from that basic mistake.”

  “I am pleased to hear that,” Helva began, “but you must…”

  The graceful hand raised from the deep-cuffed sleeve. “There was much to be learned if the Inner Marian Circle would survive the science of your civilization.”

  “Really?” Helva decided that this was a time to listen.

  “The satellite will have sent its preprogrammed message even as I am certain you sent messages?” Her voice ended on an upward querying note.

  “Several, with such details of the invading force as I was able to glean. But, really, Helvana, they’re going…”

  The hand raised and Helva subsided. She did have four days in hand.

  “My grandmother…”

  Well, that was unexpected.

  “…Was one of those whom you yourself rescued. A wise but older Christian sisterhood succored her and the other younger members of that community until a new planet could be found for our Order. And they acquired much wisdom during their waiting.”

  “Not, however, how to combat bloodthir…”

  The hand went up and Helva subsided again.

  “We had been children on Chloe, ignorant and kept in ignorance when knowledge would have saved us, and the Blessed Jennan. My grandmother studied much, as did her intimate circle. With prayer and research, we found that this planet was available. A stable primary was our first consideration, of course,” she said with a graceful wave of her hand. “Surveys of Ravel proved it would be adequate for our needs and our preferred style of life once we overcame its…nature. The planet has inherent dangers. Indeed we were required to devise a means whereby we could safely land the first colony expedition.” Her expression became distant with memories, but she pulled herself back to the present with a little shake of her head. “We were averse to the use of technology, but that, in the end, was what we required and what we still employ. We have maintained the landing site out of respect for the achievement of technology over rampant nature. The touch of a switch will deter any unwelcome…visitors.”

  She was talking a great deal more rationally than that rabid idiot Mother Superior at Chloe had.
But defending the broad open plains of this Ravel would be the task of an army. A much-better-equipped one than these people could possibly mount.

  “We have cultivated not only the land, but the resources of the vegetation and wildlife. There are predators on Ravel…”

  “Not anything that could overcome a battle-armed Kolnari…”

  The Helvana smiled.

  “How many are in this Kolnari battle armor?”

  Well, that was the first sensible question.

  “I’d estimate five, maybe six regiments.”

  Her well-shaped eyebrows arched in surprise. “How many are in a regiment?”

  Helva told her.

  “That many?”

  “Yes, that many, and impregnable in that battle armor, too. Unless you happen to have armor-piercing missiles hidden in your fields.”

  “Nothing to pierce armor,” the Helvana said blithely, with a light emphasis on “pierce.” “But we will defend ourselves well.”

  “Don’t even consider hand-to-hand combat, Helvana,” Helva said.

  “Oh”—and there was a lovely rippling contralto laugh—“we wouldn’t consider attacking anyone.”

  “Then HOW do you plan to deal with the Kolnari?”

  “May I surprise you?”

  “If it doesn’t lead immediately to your death and the slaughter of all those innocents out there.”

  “It won’t.”

  “Which reminds me, Helvana, I saw young children out there, and teenage girls as well as matrons your age and older.”

  Helva had been reviewing her tapes, because something had puzzled her about the composition of those calm observers.

  “Ah, yes,” the Helvana said, smiling graciously. “My grandmother also decided that our community must propagate…”

  “Parthenogenesis?”

  “Oh, no, that would have been against our precepts. We brought with us sufficient fertilized female ova, removed from our Faithful, to supply us with the necessary diverse genetic balance to ensure that our community will last for centuries.”

  “Clever,” Helva said.

  “Not the least of our…cleverness, Ship Who Sings.”

  Just then Helva’s outside sensors picked up a little cough and she became aware that a covey of girls was standing just outside the hatch.

  “I think they wish to speak to you, Helvana,” the ship said. “Come on in, girls.”

  Their faces either red with embarrassment or white with exultation, the young women entered, bowing with varying degrees of grace as the Helvana had done, towards Helva’s panel. Did the whole damned planet know where she lived?

  “The birds have flown, Helvana. And some nearby have responded.”

  Helvana nodded, pleased. “Enter the responses and report back when all have answered.”

  The girls left in a flurry, but not before a second obeisance to Helva.

  “You’ve trained avians as messengers?”

  “It seemed wise since there are such distances between our communities and decisions must be circulated when necessary.”

  “Does every community have a…Helvana?”

  “No, I am the one so honored by my peers.”

  “How long will you serve, if that is the correct phrase?”

  “It is you I serve,” the Helvana said with great dignity. “When I know myself too old to continue intelligent administration, my successor will be installed, chosen from among those who are diligent in learning the canon and tradition of our Circle.”

  “Well, yes, but let’s get to the point. DO you have some safe refuge where you can’t be found until the Fleet arrives?”

  “Ravel supplies our defense,” Helvana said, again with the confident smile.

  “Enlighten me, then, because I have every reason to fear for your safety.”

  “You must look more closely at Ravel.”

  “Don’t tell me you’ve trained the predators to defend you?”

  “No, the planet itself will.”

  “Well, if your defense is classified, I assure you I won’t disclose your methods but the Kolnari are the most effective and ruthless fighting force of all humanoids. They…”

  “Against other humans, quite likely…”

  “They have weaponry”—and Helva was getting a bit tired of this woman’s self-confident denial of any threat—“that could turn this settlement into a cinder…”

  “From the air?” And there was just a touch of fear in this Helvana’s voice.

  “You’re lucky,” Helva said dryly, “the Kolnari strategy is based more on overwhelming their target with ground forces. Of course, your satellite warning system’ll be blasted out of space as soon as they spot it, but the bunch that’s headed here don’t have any assault ships, unless they’ve modified some of the bigger yachts. And all of them seem so full of bodies that I doubt they are armed with space-to-surface missiles, too. Though,” Helva added thoughtfully, “they could be. However, they think they have total surprise as an advantage to a quick rout.”

  The Helvana crossed her arms and said, not quite smugly, “Then we shall not be harmed.”

  “Look, their ships are crammed with bodies, bodies which intend to take over this planet for their purposes which, I assure you, you won’t like. You have no armament…”

  “We need none…”

  “So you say, but you’ve never seen the Kolnari take over a planet. Let me just show you how they conquered…”

  Helvana held up her hand. “God forfend.”

  “He’s not in a position to forfend anything. Look, you’ve got to take precautions.”

  “They are already in place.”

  “What?”

  “The planet itself.”

  “And round and round we go,” Helva said, irked. “This is Chloe all over again with a slightly different scenario,” she said, allowing her irritation to show in her voice. “You won’t be fried by the sun this time but by…”

  “No.” And Helvana held up a hand with such authority that Helva broke off. “You will have noticed that our settlements, large and small, are walled…”

  “Not much good against Kolnari battle-armored troops…”

  “Who will not get close enough to our walls…Nor do we go beyond them very often, for it is the vegetation of Ravel that is dangerous to all. Even the predators venture out only on cold nights when the planet sleeps.”

  “Come again?”

  Helvana’s smile just missed being a smirk and she cocked her head slightly at Helva. “How much would these Kolnari know about our planet?”

  “Only what is in the Galactic Atlas.”

  “May I see that entry?”

  Helva brought it up on the main-lounge screen and the Helvana read it swiftly, smiling her smile as she finished.

  “There have been no additions. As promised.”

  “I do wish I could be as confident as you are,” Helva said.

  The Helvana rose. “The last time it was the primary which would destroy us. This time the planet will work for us. One question: since the entry indicates a spaceport, will the Kolnari land there first? To organize their invasion?”

  Helva thought of that battered collection of ships. “They use whatever’s available. They’ve enough ships to use all the space the landing field offers. Though, in my judgment,” she added grimly, “some of them may not make a controlled landing.” She paused, wondering if in those dilapidated buildings there were any emergency vehicles or equipment. Then she ruthlessly decided that a few Kolnari would not be missed. “Some are barely spaceworthy, and one was leaking oxygen. You must realize that this is the Kolnari’s last-gasp attempt to resettle. They’ll fight whatever you have in mind to put against them. They must know this planet is a walkover.”

  “Not…” Helvana paused with an inscrutable twist to her lips. “…an easy walkover. Not by any means.”

  “They do have arsenals of some pretty sophisticated weapons,” Helva reminded her guest. “Don’t discount the possi
bility of an air-to-surface barrage to soften you up.”

  Helvana actually chuckled. “What? Bomb our fields and settlements? If their object is to settle here, they wouldn’t destroy available housing or crops.”

  “You don’t know the Kolnari as I do, Helvana. Don’t treat this lightly.”

  “I assure you I do not,” the woman said, and her face assumed a concerned and serious expression. “Our fields, our homes would be targeted?”

  “Very likely, although it is equally likely that, fearing no resistance, they may just land and march…”

  “Oh, I do hope so,” said the Helvana, one moment her face brightening with something akin to triumph, instantly fading to self-recrimination. “We do not take pleasure in destruction of any kind on Ravel.”

  “Even to save your lives?”

  “Your presence, and your warning, is sufficient.” The Helvana rose.

  “I have no weapons, no way to defend you,” Helva said, unable to keep the frustration and anger out of her voice.

  The woman turned, inclining her head. “That is known, so you must seek safety yourself. I know little of what transpires in other sections of the Universe, and your pictures showed us it is not a safe place in which to reside, so you are at risk. You have warned us. We are advised. We shall be safe. Go you to be safe, too, Ship Who Sings.”

  “I can’t JUST LEAVE YOU!” Helva’s voice rose and she could hear it resounding outside, causing some of the women still gathered in groups in the plaza to turn around.

  “As you cannot defend yourself,” Helvana said in a tone that implied Helva was indeed more at risk than her adherents were, “you must depart. I have much to organize.”

  “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” Helva said in a caustic tone.

  The woman turned at the airlock, made a deep and respectful obeisance, and strode down the ramp. Immediately she began issuing commands that had all the onlookers scurrying to obey. In moments the plaza was empty and the Helvana had reentered the church or administration building or whatever it was.

  “Well, well.” And Niall peered around the edge of the corridor that led to his quarters. “That one has style!”