Musketeer Space Part 20: Pieces of Athos

34944_340Another month gone! Is your year fleeing as fast as mine?

I’m gearing up for my Perth trip next week – I hope to see some of you at CrimeSceneWA! Very sad I won’t be getting to Conflux this year, as most of my friends will be there without me. My new Livia Day novel, Drowned Vanilla, will be out soon. I can almost smell the affogato!

I also have a new short story out this weekend, with the new Fablecroft anthology Phantazein launching at Conflux. My contribution, “The Love Letters of Swans,” is a story that takes the mythological romance of Paris and Helen and kicks it in the teeth. You’re welcome!

An exciting package also arrived on my doorstep last week, containing author copies of the anthology Clockwork Universe: Steampunk Vs Aliens from brand new publisher Zombies Need Brains. My story in this one is “Of War and Wings,” about the women who volunteer after Victorian London runs short of young men to fly their clockwork war apparatus during the alien invasion.

That’s my news, now back to our battered and flightworn pilots. It’s going to get worse before it gets better!

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Missed the last installment? Track back to Part 19.
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PREVIOUSLY IN MUSKETEER SPACE: Dana D’Artagnan is on a quest to take an urgent letter to the Duchess of Buckingham on the planet Valour, and request the return of a set of compromising diamond studs that could bring down their government. Separated from their fellow pilots and close friends Porthos and Aramis, it’s up to Athos and Dana now. And… it’s not going well.

NOW READ ON!

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This chapter is dedicated to Laura Goodin, who appreciates the value of footwork.

20. Pieces of Athos

Dana checked her comm stud for the twentieth time. No one had made contact – not Aramis or Bazin or Porthos or Bonnie. At this stage, she would almost welcome a notification that she was about to be personally arrested by Cardinal Richelieu.

“Stop it,” Athos said in a low voice. “You’re driving yourself crazy. It won’t help.”

“Can I just -”

“No.” He had refused to let her make contact over the last few hours.

“But -”

“They know how to get in touch if they can. You filling their comms with anxious queries is not going to help anyone, and it will provide far too much information to anyone who might have them in custody.”

“You think they’re under arrest, then?”

“It’s a not unlikely scenario.”

“Aramis was wounded,” Dana moaned beneath her breath. “And Bonnie hadn’t even found Porthos…”
“I know, all right? Shut up about it.”

“Athos,” she said, knowing she was whining like a child but unable to stop herself.

“I can’t fly if I’m frantic,” he snapped at her. “So stop talking about them. Think of something calming.”

That was the most ridiculous thing Dana had ever heard. “Calming? Who can be calm at a time like this? How do you do it?”

“Fencing,” said Athos. “Fencing is calming. Do those footwork routines I showed you. In your head, if you please, I don’t want you prancing around the cockpit.”

“You want me to do footwork in my head?” Dana said incredulously. Then another thought occurred to her. “Hang on, is that what you’re doing when you get that pained expression on your face because we’ve been talking too much and you’re longing for us to leave you in peace?”

“You answered your own question there. If I say yes, will you stop talking?” He looked so tense, and his hands were shaking slightly on the controls.

Dana subsided, feeling guilty. He was right, he needed a calm frame of mind to pilot the ship. The least she could do was not sabotage him. “Footwork, got it,” she muttered.

She filled her mind with fencing exercises, her feet wriggling as she took herself through her paces. To her surprise, after doing it for a while, it actually did make her feel as if she could finally relax…

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Dana blinked rapidly, looking around the small cockpit in alarm. “What was – hey, was I asleep? What the hell happened?”

The stars were different. She hadn’t just blinked or zoned out for a moment. She had been properly asleep. She could see the bright circle of Valour up ahead, and the blur of orbiting stations in orbit around her. They were a lot closer than they had been.

“That was some good calm right there,” drawled Athos. “It was so quiet, I might as well have been alone at the helm. You even gave Grimaud a run for her money, except for the snoring.”

Dana gave him a suspicious look. “Did you drug me because I was talking too much?”

“No, you genuinely fell asleep,” he assured her. “It was a beautiful thing. When I am old I will look back on that time with genuine fondness.”

She couldn’t believe it. Asleep. While they were on the run. It was almost embarrassing. “I don’t even have Grimaud’s excuse.”

“Could you check on her? I’m concerned she hasn’t come to yet.”

Dana nodded and let herself out of the seat. Grimaud still sat strapped against the far wall, her head drifting to one side and her eyes firmly closed. Dana ran through the usual response checks, everything short of putting a medipatch on her chest. “Her vitals are fine,” she reported finally. “She’s just – stunned.” It was rare for a dose from a pearl stunner to last more than an hour or so on a victim, but Grimaud had received a glaring blast from both Athos and Dana. They were lucky she hadn’t gone into coldshock.

“I hate stunners,” Athos growled.

“She wouldn’t have got a double dose if you’d trusted me to hit my marks,” Dana couldn’t help pointing out again. She was still annoyed by that. For all that her friends agreed this was her mission, they didn’t always treat her like an equal.

“I know,” he admitted, to Dana’s surprise. “Sorry. I don’t trust easily.”

“I’m shocked by that revelation,” she said lightly. She hadn’t expected him to actually apologise for it. “Shocked, I tell you.”

Athos’ hands might be busy at the helm, but he still took a moment to give her the finger.

Dana grinned.

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Valour loomed larger and larger ahead of them, and still there were no messages from Porthos, Aramis or their engies.

Not even mental footwork calmed Dana down this time, as she checked and rechecked her comm. She found herself reaching out for Athos’ wrist, just to check if anything had come in on his comm without him noticing, and he pulled his arm away from her with a growl.

“They’re fine, D’Artagnan. They’ll get in touch when they can. And if not – if they can’t get to a communicator because they’ve been taken, we’ll just have to go collect them when we’re done with this mission of yours.”

This mission of yours. That stung harder than it should have done. Dana didn’t need reminding that she was the one who had brought them here.

Athos sighed impatiently. His eyes were still on the screens, his hands busy on the controls, but Dana knew that sigh. It was closely related to the ‘Porthos wants us to talk about our feelings’ huff from the other day.

“Do you really need me to tell you why they’re going to be all right?” he said finally.

“Yes,” said Dana, knowing that she sounded angry and that she was being ridiculous. She couldn’t help either of those things.

“Fine. Years ago, not long after the war when I still lived on Valour, I was – in a bad way. A drunk, for the most part, and don’t interrupt to tell me what a drunk I am now.”

“I didn’t say a word,” she murmured.

“Worse then, if you can imagine it. I travelled halfway around the damned planet until I was as far from home as I could possibly be, I bought a bar in the middle of nowhere on the side of a fucking mountain, and I climbed so far inside a bottle that I couldn’t even remember my name. Which was fine, because I’d left that behind with everything else.”

Athos was silent for a while, his fingers dancing across the dashboard as he made minute manual adjustments. He used his hands more than any other pilot Dana knew. Almost as if he didn’t trust his brain.

She thought for a moment he might have lost his place, but after a few minutes of concentration he returned to his story. “A woman walked into the bar, and I knew she was a spy. The war was over, but the Sun-kissed had still infiltrated most of the solar system with covert agents. I had – experience at recognising them. I was less than impressed with how the local militia handled that first instance, so after that I contacted the Fleet directly.”

“Treville?” Dana asked in a low voice.

Athos smiled briefly, and she saw the warmth in his eyes. “Treville. It’s amazing what information passes through a bar, especially one at the crossroads of several travel routes. I forwarded everything I learned directly on to her over the next couple of years. It was quite a game – I started drinking less and listening more. Then one day, a local criminal gang who had been profiting by kickbacks from the enemy figured out what I was doing.”

Dana winced.

Athos nodded. “Not good. I was abducted, and carted halfway up that damned mountain so they could decide whether they were going to ransom me or simply make me disappear. I convinced them that I was worthless.”

Dana gave him a dirty look. “Did you have a death wish?”

“Something like that. I certainly had no desire to reveal who I used to be. There was no one to miss me. The thought of disappearing so thoroughly was – something of a relief.”

He did not look at her, and she did not dare try to meet his eyes, and not only because they might end up crashing into an asteroid. Athos had never revealed so much of himself before, and she did not want it to stop. “What happened? Obviously you survived.”

“The Musketeers happened,” Athos said flatly. “Two darts arrived in the nick of time. My abductors were arrested, and taken to Paris Satellite for questioning. I wasn’t given a lot of choice in coming along. As for my rescuers, they patched me up, fed me, talked nonstop until I enlisted formally, and I haven’t got rid of them since.” He offered Dana a brief, biting grin. “It’s going to take more than a compromised solarcrawler and a handful of Sabres to get Porthos and Aramis off my back, believe me.”

Dana considered his story in silence. It was comforting to know how confident he felt in their friends and their ability to survive. But more than that – it meant something that he had been willing to share these pieces of his history in order to comfort her.

“Isn’t there a mountain in Valour called Athos?” she said finally, picking up on a detail of the story that he might not have wanted her to notice.

“It’s entirely possible,” he grunted.

“You named yourself after a mountain?” She turned to him, alight with curiosity. “What was your name before?”

But that was one question too many, and she saw his face close over. “Story time is over, D’Artagnan.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Life is unfair.”

She considered pouting, but that would just annoy both of them. “How long until we reach Valour?”

“We should be passing Meung Station in an hour or so. Entering Valour atmosphere shortly after that, if we make it in one piece.”

She looked at him in alarm. “Why wouldn’t we make it in one piece?”

“Largely because of the six pursuit ships that have been gaining on us for a while now. But we also have to consider the possibility that there might be more lying in wait for us, when we reach the planet.”

”Porthos and Aramis really aren’t the ones I should be worried about, are they?”

“Nope.”

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Grimaud woke up when they were about twenty minutes out from Meung Station, and Athos slowed the ship down for planetary approach. She didn’t speak, but coughed and shifted uncomfortably in her harness.

“Stay where you are,” Athos barked at Dana, but she slipped her own harness and went to check on Grimaud, taking her a flask of water.

“How do you feel, engie?”

Grimaud swallowed down some water with shaky lips, her reflexes slower than usual. “Like someone shot me.”

“They’re vile, those Sabres!” Athos called from the front of the cockpit. “Can’t trust them an inch.”

Dana gave him a dirty look. “You’re not going to wriggle out of it that easily.”

“You don’t have to live with her!” he protested.

Dana continued to glare. It had no effect on Athos, as he was facing the other way, but he gave in anyway.

“Oh, fine. Grimaud, sweetness, you were caught in a friendly fire of pearl stunners. I will make it up to you, if we survive this. Speaking of which, D’Artagnan, get the fuck back in your harness before I flip you through the view screen. Things are about to get a lot less smooth around here.”

Dana had barely made it back to her seat before the Parry Riposte jolted violently, and Athos spun them off into a hard spin, then straightened them. “What is it?” she asked, fastening the last snaps of her harness.

“Those pursuit ships I mentioned some time ago ago? The ones that have been closing in over the last couple of hours but haven’t otherwise given us any trouble?”

Bright flashes of laser light exploded across the right side of the view screen, and the Parry Riposte shuddered around them.

“Never mind, I get it,” Dana said breathlessly. “Trouble.”

Three shots rang across the sky in quick succession; Athos managed to get the dart under two of them, but the third skimmed the hull with a vibration that made Dana’s teeth rattle.

Athos swore twice. “Damage?”

Dana thought at first that he was talking to her, but then Grimaud started rapping out specs from behind them and she realised that the engie had access to a diagnostics panel from the rear seat.
There was one here, as well, right by Dana’s hand. She called it up without asking permission. “There’s another three pursuit ships approaching from behind Meung Station.”

“Of course there are,” Athos bit out. He wiped something from the other side of his face and she saw a spatter of blood on his hand. Was that coming from his ear? “We know what they’re after. We’ve got to get you down to that planet.”

Another burst of light crossed Dana’s field of vision, but Athos slung the ship through a series of fast manoeuvres, avoiding the blast. “If we get close enough to the station, they’ll stop shooting,” he said. “There are three cathedrals on Meung, and twelve more across the other orbital stations and satellites.”

“We still have to lose them.”

“That I can do.”

Dana stared at the blood on his hand. “Athos… how deeply are you tapped into this ship?” It was different for different pilots and ship combinations. The better a pilot, the longer they had been flying the same ship, the more intimately woven their brain was into the controls. The more likely they were to take actual damage when their ship did.

“It’s just flashburn,” he said dismissively.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Grimaud cleared her throat, and said nothing, but the nothing she said was big enough to fill the cockpit.

Dana concentrated on the pursuit ships, the pattern they made across the diagnostics panel. Another wave of blasts came at them, from two different angles. Athos ducked and rolled the dart, but she shuddered under them with the force of another impact.

“The good news is they’re not actually trying to destroy us,” Athos said under his breath. His eyes were glassy with pain. “Probably have orders to take us alive, or we’d be in pieces already.”

“That’s not very comforting right now.”

“Hold on to something, both of you.” With that, the Parry Riposte took on a turn of speed that Dana didn’t know this generation of dart was capable of. They weaved around the pursuit ships and skimmed directly under Meung Station, then punched directly into Valour space, breaking through the atmosphere with a blinding flash of light.

“It rains a lot on Valour, I hear,” said Dana, using the diagnostics panel to search their region more widely.

“That’s what they say,” said Athos flatly, his hands and eyes busy on the controls.

“So,” she said, navigating a fast route and skimming the panel over to his central screen. “Cloud cover. Lots of it. Get there.”

He gave her a biting smile, and followed the route she had given.

“We’re draining the power spheres badly. Ten more minutes of this speed and we’re in real trouble,” Grimaud warned.

“I know,” Athos told her. “We’ve got other problems. D’Artagnan, ever flown doubles before?”

“Sure, once or twice in training,” Dana said without thinking. And then – “What?” He couldn’t be serious.

“I wouldn’t ask,” he said, and for the first time she realised that there was an uneven quality to his voice that had nothing to do with the vibrations of the damaged ship around them. “But there’s a good chance I’m going to lose consciousness in the next five minutes. Care to hop aboard?”

Doubling was a dangerous technique, only hauled out in training and dire emergencies. Having a second pilot keyed directly into the ship provided backup, yes, and in the best cases a merging of skills. But it meant merging thoughts, too, and it had never occurred to Dana in a million years that Athos of all people would be willing to open himself up like that.

Bloody hell. He had to be dying.

“Come on, D’Artagnan,” Athos roared, eyes fixed firmly ahead. “I can use Grimaud if I have to, but you’re the better pilot. Make a decision.”

“I will. Of course I will.” Dana glanced back, but Grimaud was already in motion, dragging a secondary helm and cables out of a panel in the side of the ship.

Dana had doubled with her mother, once or twice, before she was old enough to fly solo. It had been a strange, dissociative experience, to touch the mind and memories of a woman she thought she knew better than anyone. The first time did it, her mind was assaulted by the memories of Mama’s first battle. It had taken years before she could go near a spaceship helm without thinking of corpses floating in space.

This helm fitted snugly over her head, and the snap of the cables plugging into the base of her neck felt like home.

“Why is this affecting you so badly?” she asked Athos, because there was something about this that didn’t add up.

“Because he’s on nexus,” said Grimaud, leaning around Dana’s chest to make the last few connections.

Dana blinked. Nexus was one of the most powerful of the psychic drugs – it was used for gaming and other civilian cocktails most of the time because only a complete idiot would use it as a pilot drug. It was too bloody strong. “All the time?” she demanded. “Why?”

“Because I drink too much,” Athos muttered. “And there comes a time when all the Sobriety patches in the world don’t stop your hands trembling at the helm and harness.”

“Fuck,” Dana breathed. That meant he wasn’t just directly wired into the Parry Riposte, his mind was wrapped in and around herr. Every shot on target was hitting his system directly. She remembered the pain of the flashburn she had experienced during the Duel with Rosnay Cho. It had been nearly unbearable, and that didn’t even involve real ships.

“Hence the need for a co-pilot right now. Which, by the way, is one of the most humiliating requests I have ever had to make.” Athos wasn’t looking at her. His eyes and hands were all over the controls. Not a tremor in sight.

She wouldn’t have known he was in trouble until the last moment, not if he hadn’t confessed. Even with him bleeding from the ear. Dana was used to thinking of Athos as invulnerable.

“We don’t have to mention it again,” she said, shrugging her shoulders into the harness and making a mental check as the cables and connections stung her synapses. There she was, the Parry Riposte, ready and waiting for her. “Though I reserve the right to yell at you unreservedly once we’re on the ground. Ten minutes should do it. After that we’ll never mention it again. Grimaud, I hope there’s another ampoule left.”

“No,” Athos snapped. “You don’t need it.”

“We’ve never practiced this together, Athos, this isn’t fencing footwork,” Dana snarled back at him. “Do you really think we’re going to hold it together raw? I’d prefer a controlled dose of something milder like Flight but something tells me you don’t have it in stock.”

Grimaud hadn’t even hesitated. She already had the ampoule out, which she now placed on Dana’s tongue.

She hadn’t taken psychic drugs since that ridiculous time on Meung Station. What goes around comes around. For a moment, as the nexus swamped her tongue, Dana wondered if Rosnay Cho was captaining one of those bloody pursuit ships.

“Now,” she said quietly. “Let’s do this.”

Grimaud made the final connection, and the Parry Riposte reached out to Dana, pulling her roughly into the mind of the ship.

Thoughts and memories flooded her, a jumble of dream images and impulses. Dana clawed through it all, resisting the urge to stop and sift through what belonged to Athos and what was her own. She had a ship to save.

She was the ship, the ship was her. Dana’s mind reached out to her co-pilot, and she felt his thoughts brushing hesitantly against her.

The screens filled suddenly with a fierce, blinding purple light, and Dana felt her tenuous connection to the ship and Athos shatter into a million pieces.

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You have been reading Musketeer Space, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tune in next week for another chapter! Please comment, share and link. Musketeer Space is free to read, but if you’d like to support the project for as little as $1 per month, please visit my Patreon page. Pledges can earn rewards such as ebooks, extra content, dedications and the naming of spaceships. Milestones already unlocked include the Musketeer Media Monday posts, the Robotech Rewatch posts, and a special Yuletide prequel story to be released in December. My next funding milestone ($300 a month) will unlock ART.

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