The Death Ship (Ch. 7, Gathering Storm) by Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams is author of the Okal Rel Saga, an addictive character-driven exploration of the themes and moral challenges of our era set in a distant future where the cultures of Sevildom and Rire have found very different answers to the question of how to live with powerful technology without empowering self-destruction.

The Okal Rel Saga is a ten novel series published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy. Lynda also edits the Okal Rel Legacies series from sister press Absolute XPress.

Illustrations for this excerpt are by artist Richard Bartrop.

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Amel felt oddly serene as he approached the ward ships weaving lazy patterns in space between him and the Nesak death ship. He was thinking about Zer Herver, a man he didn’t know, but one who had pitted his life against a great wrong and stood to die, unheralded, without even knowing his action had moved an enemy to offer help. Most of all, Amel dared to hope that Herver might be the means to prevent another Nesak war.

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On a more personal level, Amel couldn’t bear to disappoint the Nesak’s faith. Not that Herver necessarily expected to be rescued by a Soul of Light. But Axel could all too easily imagine a younger version of himself in the death ship, surrounded by terrified children, telling them to believe in the strength of the pol virtues — while doubting their power in his heart of hearts because it sometimes felt as if he was alone in his belief.

Three ships were flying ward around the death ship when Amel picked them up on the forward nervecloth display of his envoy ship. He pushed his skim’facs hard, coming up on them in a blaze of hot blue on their nervecloth. His sudden acceleration was the signal to Dan’s transport and the three fighters, led by Alivda. Their job was to slip through to the death ship while he led the warders on a merry chase.

The battlewheel was already fielding more rel-fighters to meet the unknown threat.

Alone, Amel shot forward. He had to touch and influence the first ships before too many reached him. The white blaze of his certainty intimidated. The startled relsha scattered. The ease of it exhilarated him.

Curling upward, Amel halted to dance Soul of Light, making a blue-white flower on the nervecloth of his enemies that proved he had the grip to waste on making his calling card beautiful.
Come get me, he thought, and dove down again, planning to come back and herd them if he couldn’t make them chase him.

~***~

Alivda and her two paladins were left to deal with six relsha barring Dan’s transport vessel.

Still bad odds, she thought, thinking of Amel, but I’ll take my six if you take your nine.

She was past being angry with Amel and quietly impressed by his performance. It was mad to think he could charm nine enemies out of killing him, but if anyone could do it, he could.

The six ships opposing Alivda seemed to take her for a Vrellish intruder. They spread out in a formation good for picking off wild assailants unable to counter with a fat deck of memorized strategies cued by signals from a wily handleader.

Alivda launched her first attack, and grinned at the starburst patterns of her paladins’ dance on either side of her that flared like fireworks at a garden party.

“Let’s bag us some Nesaks,” she said, as she threw open gap.

~***~

Herver closed his eyes to block out the pathos of the children surrounding him. He was bound into a whipping frame, his robes torn and hanging from one shoulder, his torso naked on the other side, and his wrists extended overhead, arms streaked with blood from his earlier efforts to free himself. He had been in this position now for twelve hours. His legs were tired. He could shift a little to relieve his muscles, but he tried not to do it too often because the youngest boys and girls had settled in heaps about his feet, and were dozing lightly after hours of listening to him sing.
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Mayfly and the older children were in nearby rooms, bound to old bunks. There were enough open sections in the walls between, left abandoned in mid-repair, for them to hear each other if she shouted and he used his performing voice to reach her. In this way, she had let him know that they could hear his singing, so he had roused his powers of projection to be loud enough to reach her and the others.

He stopped singing to conserve his strength for the end.

Opening his eyes again, he struggled to ignore his body’s needs and concentrate on the music of the universe surrounding them. Herver possessed the mental skills to end his own life through an act of meditation — at least he did in theory, since it was impossible to test the final step of the discipline of Sekant meditation in which he had been trained since birth. More than once the idea had occurred to him that a terminal trance would be the most dignified way to die. But the children needed him with them. And so he had determined that his soul would join his ancestors when the ship fell into the sun. In his songs, he had tried to assure the children clustered around him that theirs would do the same, but some of them had doubts, and many were simply too young and too afraid to care. He’d tried to get the older ones to look after the youngest among them, and under his guidance they had improvised a toilet in one corner of the empty, half-dismantled room, using a workman’s box with a sealing lid that could be closed securely after each use. Even so, there had been a few accidents and the room smelled unpleasantly of urine. His own full bladder made him impatient for the end to come.

So ridiculous, he thought, that I cannot ask Nizi to help me. But he couldn’t even pull down his own underpants — exposed by the assault on his robes — to help her, and he refused to have his last act be asking a frightened girl-child to undress him. Four of the children with him were boys, but the oldest was barely five years old. The best scenario he could imagine would be to rouse all the children, to tell them to go to the other side of the room, then ask the oldest boy to help him relieve himself.

One of the six little girls lifted her head to look up at him with big, sad eyes, and settled herself again beside nine-year-old Nizi, who was the oldest of those with him. Nizi snuffled in her sleep, her tear-stained face relaxed, and put an arm around the smaller girl.

Asleep, the children could escape the doom awaiting them a little longer.

One more hour, Herver bargained with his bladder. I can last another hour, at least. Let them sleep.

His mouth was dry. It troubled him because he knew he had to sing them to their deaths at the very end. His body had always pleased him. It was long limbed, able and strong. He’d been good at gymnastics. Good at the vocal arts. Good at everything necessary to be a priest. Why couldn’t his body reabsorb water from his bladder to make him less thirsty? He only needed to cope a few hours more and his soul would be free. Why was such a small, ugly detail defeating him?

~***~

“Damn you to Nesak hell!” Alivda screamed at the uncaring universe as she bore down on the ship that had cost her one of her paladins. The paladin may or may not be gone for good. You never knew during a shakeup when someone got dunked. He might have disappeared forever, to be Soul Lost, or do no more than time slip a few hours. The point was, he wasn’t going to be any use to her right now!

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The Soul Touch Alivda inflicted on the Nesak pilot was nothing like the kind Amel was striving to perform. Her hate burned with a killing lust.

It was only when she came around and took stock that she realized she and her surviving paladin commanded space around the death ship, and no additional ships were forthcoming from the battlewheel. Most of the guard had followed Amel, lured by his provocative display.

Fear for him stabbed her in the gut. But she had her orders, and until she knew otherwise she would assume she was still obliged to follow them.

She signaled Dan to move toward the death ship, leaving her lone paladin to keep an eye on the undefended battlewheel. Then she followed Dan in.

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