Ganwolds child, p.1
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       Ganwold's Child, p.1

           Diann Read
Ganwold's Child

  Book One of the Sergey Chronicles

  by Diann Thornley Read

  Smshwords Edition

  Copyright © 1995 by Diann Thornley

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book,

  or portions thereof, in any form.

  Cover art: © 2011 by Douglas Fakkel



  Darcie didn’t expect to live.

  With the hand she could move enough to reach them, she tore unit and command patches from her uniform shirt, leaving only her nametag, rank and combat surgeon’s insignia. She drew out the chain from around her neck, yanked off the two crystal pendants hanging with her ID tags, shoved them into the corner behind her.

  “Mama?” The child stirred on her lap, trying to push himself back. “Why are—”

  She put a finger to his lips, her other hand cupping his head to prevent its bumping the metal bulkhead. “Hush, Tris.”

  She could barely whisper. She sat on the bottom of a locker meant only for a pressure suit—one of four lockers in the maintenance compartment—with the toddler held snug between her body and her drawn-up knees.

  Outside noises reached her: the roar of engines crescendoing toward thrust into lightskip. The fourth attempt.

  She braced her head back in the corner behind the pressure suit, hugged Tristan to her breast and locked her teeth. Clumsy masuki! They won’t have a catch left if they strain the transport to disintegration first.

  Lightskip warning horns screamed through the corridor outside the maintenance compartment. The vessel shook and groaned. In its turbulence, the child threw up.

  Darcie swallowed against her own nausea at its sour odor. She wiped his mouth and the front of her uniform. “Don’t cry, little soldier,” she whispered. “Here now, hold onto me.”

  The horns wound down as they had before, and she relaxed her brace against the plasmic sensation of entering lightskip.

  She waited what seemed hours in stifling darkness. Her legs grew cramped, then numb from their position and the toddler’s weight on them. She tried to shift a little, to ease them, and pain arced up her back.

  Her thoughts tumbled over each other without any order. She thought of Lujan, her husband, waiting for them at their destination. Remembered the way he had kissed her good-bye months ago on Topawa.

  The locker had grown hotter, almost suffocating, despite the vents in its door. She wondered, in an oddly detached way, how long it would take for her and Tristan to smother. Wondered what Lujan would do when he learned they were dead.

  The tremor of explosions shattered her reverie. Shooting? She heard the transport’s minimal weaponry reply, and then running footfalls, thudding up and down the corridor beyond her hiding place.

  Another hour passed before the craft rocked at the impact of electromagnets and shuddered in a whine of winch cables. She started at volleys of light arms’ fire and bootfalls ringing through the passages. Armored bootfalls this time, not scuffing masuk footsteps.

  Catching her lower lip in her teeth, she began to stroke the child’s hair.

  The maintenance compartment’s door slammed open. Voices reached her—two or three of them, only yards away—but their words, modulated by their helmets’ electronics, weren’t understandable. Boots trod the circumference of the maintenance compartment. Over her pulse in her ears, she detected an oscillating hum.

  She pressed a hand tight over Tristan’s mouth and bit off a groan. She had used lifeform sensors before; the locker’s construction wouldn’t jam them.

  The hum shot to a sharp whine; the boots stopped outside her enclosure. She heard an order, and then banging. Metal clashed on metal until she thought her head would split and Tristan’s wail would be drowned in its clamor. When the locker door tore away, she stared up at three armored shapes silhouetted against the dull light.

  Dominion legionnaires.

  The nearest one shoved aside the pressure suit, seized her by the wrist, and hauled her to her feet. She staggered, numb legs nearly buckling, and almost lost her hold on her child. From behind tinted helmet visors the other two soldiers’ gazes roamed her body.

  Darcie jerked her wrist from her captor’s gauntlet and wrapped both arms around Tristan. “This is illegal, you know! It’s been a month since the hostilities ended at Enach, and the talks are—”

  “I don’t think so,” the squad leader said. “Where’ve you been for the last few years?”

  She glared at him. Forced herself not to let her breath catch when one soldier stooped to search the locker. Straightening, he handed something to his sergeant. “Look at these.”

  The crystal hologram pendants. Her wedding portrait, and a picture of Lujan with Tristan.

  The sergeant held them up to the light, and she saw his eyes widen behind his visor. “Yeah, I thought the nametag looked familiar,” he said. “The colonel will probably promote us for this!” He tucked the holodiscs into his utility belt and reached for her arm. “It’s my duty to inform you, Lieutenant Dartmuth, that at no time in the last nine years has the Sector General recognized the governments of the Unified Worlds. He sealed the Accords under duress, so it wasn’t a legitimate treaty.”

  She evaded his hand. “Nine years? Surely you can lie better . . .”

  Her voice trailed off as she remembered the futile attempts to make lightskip. The masuk slavers must have succeeded at entering a time track whether or not they had crossed space. She questioned the legionnaire with a stare.

  “The Enach Accords weren’t ratified as easily as the Unified Worlds had hoped,” he said. “They didn’t fail as completely as Sector General Renier had hoped, either. You may be able to make that up to him.”

  “Mordan Renier?” Darcie stiffened. “Sector General?”

  The squad leader smiled. “I wonder what kind of plea bargain the Unified Worlds might be willing to make in exchange for you?”

  “It won’t work, you know.”

  “We’ll see.” His smile turned grim. “Move.” He shoved her shoulder, indicating the corridor. “Maybe the war isn’t over yet.”

  She yielded, her thoughts racing ahead. This transport has a cross-corridor aft of the bridge with an emergency shield door. . . .

  Hugging the child to her body, one hand rubbing up and down his back in reassurance, she set her teeth. One soldier strode before her, two behind. They hadn’t applied restraints; they had no firearms ready to hand. They appeared to trust her feigned submission. But a glance back showed one soldier’s hand resting on the hilt of a boarding knife, one of a dozen strapped naked about his hips like armor’s tasses made of steel teeth. Boarding knives, she knew, could double as throwing weapons.

  Several members of the crew lay in the corridor. She recognized Rahb Heike, the ship’s captain, and recoiled. He lay face down in his own blood. Masuk work.

  A hand pushed her back when she paused. She stumbled, slipping in Heike’s blood before she could catch her balance, and moved around another bloodied body. Lieutenant Baraq. He had also died before the legionnaires arrived. She swallowed dryness and turned her head away.

  She felt brief satisfaction at spotting several masuki sprawled in the corridor. The Unified soldiers had died fighting. But the ship was too empty, both of military personnel and civilians.

  Light from the intersecting corridor cast a square across the concourse deck ahead. She shifted Tristan to her left arm and curled her right fist, keeping her head lowered.

  Ten paces. . . .

  She lunged left into the cross-corridor, her right fist punching the manual trigger on its bulkhead. The shield door dropped behind her with a whoosh that ended in a crunch and her pursuer’s garbled scream. S
he pressed Tristan’s face to her shoulder and forced herself not to look back.

  The cross passage opened on one parallel to the corridor she had sealed. It led to the lifepods. If they’ve not been jettisoned already.

  She pressed herself to the bulkhead to listen for pursuers and peer into the corridor. She saw nothing, up and down, but the smoke-obscured shapes of bodies on the deck. She tried to set the child on his feet, to rest her arm, but he clung to her, wide-eyed with confusion and fear. She smoothed his hair, kissed his forehead. “Come then, little soldier,” she said, collecting him again, and slipped into the passage.

  Smoke from screen grenades stung her eyes, making them run and blurring her vision. She stumbled over a body and paused, panting. One of the surface troops, a young man she didn’t recognize. An energy pistol lay in his out-flung hand. She stooped to snatch it up. Glanced at the power cell in its grip when bootfalls echoed up the corridor behind her. Its charge light still burned.

  Five or six armored figures emerged through the haze. She leveled the E-gun, squeezed the trigger. Its energy burst seared off the bulkhead into the knot of oncoming men. A cry rang back to her as one of them crumpled. Another, too close to avoid, sprawled over him as the rest sprang for cover. Darcie turned for the lift.

  Its door stood jammed open, its platform suspended between decks. She glanced over her shoulder. Two armored shapes advanced on her, steel glinting in their hands. One drew his arm back, balancing blade and haft for the throw. She lifted the pistol.

  Her shot went wide but her foes cowed, weapons still poised. She found the firearm’s grip and weight too large for her small hand, and her other arm ached from carrying Tristan, but she fired until the power light began to dim. With her back to the bulkhead, she slid toward the door to the emergency ladder. Its portal yielded to her shoulder’s pressure and she ducked into darkness, onto a clanging platform at the top of a spiraling stair. One shot through the door mechanism sealed her off from the legionnaires.

  She stood still for several moments, panting and letting her eyes adjust to the dark. The toddler’s weight shot fire through her arm. She tried to put him down and fumbled the pistol, almost dropping it.

  Her breath caught at scraping sounds below her, several yards away. She stiffened, listening.


  Nothing but her heartbeat, and Tristan sniffling on her shoulder.

  Nothing but darkness, and the lifepods only yards away. . . .

  Finger on the pistol trigger, she stretched out a foot, probing for the platform’s edge and the first step. There would be twelve, she knew. She picked her way down slowly, leaning on the rail, eyes and ears and weapon searching the blackness.

  Three . . . four . . . five . . .

  She nearly missed a step when pounding began at the door above.

  Eight . . . nine . . . ten . . .

  Something tall and odorous clamped bulky hands onto her shoulders, dragging her off the step and into its hirsute frame. A masuk slaver. She didn’t scream. Even the gasp died at the pressure of cold steel against her throat. The masuk snarled a command, but the child’s crying rendered it inaudible.

  Darcie didn’t struggle. She only had to twist her weapon hand a fraction, only had to squeeze the trigger once.

  Her captor’s blade grazed the side of her neck and clattered unseen to the deck as he lurched backward. She felt a warm trickle roll across the base of her throat and into the neck of her uniform shirt as she steadied herself.

  It’s not serious. He missed the carotid and jugular. It’ll stop. Ignore it; it’ll stop.

  She stepped around the corpse, reached the first lifepod bay. A red light glowed above its sealed entry hatch. Jettisoned.

  Red lights burned over the second and third and fourth bays also.

  “No!” she whispered. “He couldn’t have launched them all yet!”

  A green ready light beckoned above the fifth. She dropped the pistol, set Tristan on his feet. He reached up to her, sobbing for the security of her arms, but she ignored him. Her hands shook, searing muscles refusing to obey when she gripped the hatch handle. She tugged several times before it turned and the hatch shot open.

  She had to duck through the low entry lock. She retrieved the pistol, took the child by the hand, and guided him ahead of her. “Come now, Tris. I’m right here behind you.”

  Inside, she pulled the hatch closed. Heard the cover suck into its seal and its three bolts slam into place.

  Sinking into the nearest passenger seat, she gathered the toddler onto her lap and didn’t move for several minutes. She just sat until the adrenaline receded and its quivering gave way to limpness. She stroked Tristan’s hair and let him sniffle out his trauma on her breast.

  When he relaxed she rose stiffly, still cradling him, and moved forward to the control console.

  It consisted of three screens and an ignition switch. Two lines of text glowed on the center screen:



  Darcie placed the child in the seat beside hers.

  “Hold me, mama!” he begged, stretching up his arms to her.

  She shook her head. “You’re quite safe there,” she said, and closed the acceleration bars about him. “Just sit still for a bit.”

  Secured in the command chair, she steadied herself with a few deep breaths. Recalling flying tours with Lujan, she reached for the ignition switch.

  “Mama?” said Tristan.

  She patted him. “Sit tight, little one. We’re going now.”

  She felt a tremor when she pulled the switch, heard a muffled roar as rockets fired, and sudden acceleration shoved her hard into the contoured chair. Then the thunder fell behind, the swoon passed, the pressure lifted. Darcie opened her eyes and glanced over at Tristan.

  She smiled at his expression. “It’s all right now, Tris,” she said. “We’ve escaped.”

  She looked forward, and her breath caught. Before the viewpanes, a half-shadowed world hung in an unfamiliar starfield. “My word, what’s this?”

  She eyed the astrogation screen at her right.

  Data appeared line by line down its right margin. Green characters and graphics displayed the coordinates of the mothership at the pod’s launch, the pod’s present velocity and trajectory, the distance to and characteristics of its projected landing site.

  “Korot system,” she murmured. The masuki had crossed more than time, then—and small wonder they’d been boarded. They practically orbited Korot’s only inhabitable planet, filled with Dominion exploration and agriculture colonies.

  Her gaze rested on the emergency locator transponder. Slipped back to the astrogation screen. “A nine year timeskip.” She rested her chin in her hands, kneaded forehead and temples with her fingertips. “Nine years! We’re legally lost by now! And the legionnaires are tracking us, most likely.”

  She drew the energy pistol from the stowage bin under the command chair.

  She fingered the transponder’s case for catches, fumbled it open to bare its microcircuitry. Taking the pistol by the barrel, she smashed its handgrip over and over into gauzy components. Sparks leaped at her fingers; a bitter tendril of smoke coiled out.

  Beside her, Tristan said, “Mama! You broke it!”

  “Yes, I did,” she said. “Now the legionnaires won’t be able to follow us.”

  Not so easily, at least.

  When Tristan fell asleep, Darcie inventoried the lifepod’s equipage. Releasing her acceleration bars, she pushed herself from the seat and maneuvered in zero G. In overhead compartments and beneath the seats she found lightweight thermal blankets, water containers and food packets, a medical case, a large-display survival manual, and tools. She estimated she had enough supplies to support ten adults for about ten days.

  She paused once, orienting herself to look out beyond the cockpit. Korot’s inhabitable world, all beige and blue, filled
the viewpanes. Ganwold. The astrogation screen showed the lifepod almost half a million miles from the planet. At its present velocity, the pod would begin its landing cycle in approximately twenty-eight standard hours and touch down near the equator about an hour after that.

  * *

  Darcie woke in dimness when the beeping started. She turned her head and saw an amber light blinking for her attention. A message glowed on the center screen:



  She took two pairs from stowage under the seats and pulled on her own before dressing her child. The trousers dwarfed him, but she cinched the waistband snug enough to serve the purpose.

  “It’s too big!” Tristan said, kicking feet lost in the legs.

  “It won’t be when we begin to land,” Darcie said. “It’ll puff up like a bubble and squeeze you so that you won’t faint.”

  “What’s faint, mama?”

  She smiled as she secured his acceleration bars. “It’s when you become very dizzy and fall asleep for a bit.”

  A new message flashed on the screen:




  Braking rockets fired.

  Bracing herself in the chair, Darcie felt the initial deceleration, a mounting pressure from beneath. The astrogation screen’s graphics vanished, to be replaced by digital readouts: altitude, speed, and time until touchdown. She watched the numerals change, watched velocity drop from seventeen thousand miles an hour to fifteen, twelve, ten, eight . . .

  The roar of the brake rockets crescendoed as the pod passed from the outer atmosphere into denser layers. The elements embraced the craft, screamed at its heat, and shook it.

  “Mama, hold me?” The toddler tried to reach out to her, his blue eyes very round.

  “Not just now, Tris. You’re safer right there.” Darcie slid out a hand for him to grip and said, “Look at the panes. Watch now.”

  They blazed with the faint red of heat made visible, and they brightened, paling through pink to orange-red and finally white. Like riding the tide of the dawn, she thought, with a sense of awe that something beautiful could come from this horror.

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