Musketeer Space Part 42: Communications in Outer Space

headphonesIt’s Musketeer Day!

I’m at home with two sick, cranky children, but there’s always Musketeers to keep me company.

I had a jetsetting weekend, flying into Canberra for a fantastic launch of new book Cranky Ladies of History, the first book I have edited (co-edited) in twelve years, now available from Fablecroft.

Thank you so much to the extraordinary Karen Middleton for joining us to launch this wonderful book that I regularly hug to my chest. You can check out the amazing array of Cat Sparks photos from the event here on Flickr. So proud of this book, and I was so glad to hang out with so many of my East Coast friends on Sunday.

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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE: The Sun-kissed besieged the planet of Truth some time ago, and now Dana and her Three Musketeer best friends have shipped out to war as reinforcements for the Royal Fleet. Also, remember when Conrad Su got himself kidnapped for messing with palace politics? Fun times.

NOW READ ON!

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Chapter 42: Communications in Outer Space

The jump system was only legal for military operations within Crown Space, on the grounds that they were the ones with robust enough comms frequencies to be trusted with the technology. No one wanted to be part of an interstellar pileup after civilian spaceships had literally materialised inside each other.

The Frenzy Kenzie and other arquebus-class venturers (like the Church Fleet’s own St Konstantina, chugging alongside them) were too large and antiquated to be fitted for jump engines, but their own steady pace of star travel was roughly equivalent to the recharging time that dart engines required between jumps.

As systems went, it worked fine, except for the high boredom factor of pilots in general, and Musketeers in particular.

Dana was on constant rotation, flying the support transport, while her friends were stuck in their own darts with literally nothing to do between jumps but use Fleetnet to message her, and each other, about the most trivial things.

It would take six jumps and eight days for the Second Wave of the Combined Royal Fleet to reach Truth Space. By the third time Dana had caught up with the Musketeers, she was amazed that they had not yet started challenging the Sabres to dogfights out of sheer boredom.

FRENZYKENZIE3: Porthos, for the last time, I don’t want to hear about your stomach.

HOYDEN: Jump always makes me feel so sick. 🙁 🙁 🙁

FRENZYKENZIE3: Considering you and Athos just woke up from a twelve hour sleep rotation while I got to be the only person fielding Aramis’ insecurities about her girlfriend for did I mention twelve hours, I’m going to go with no. No pity. None left.

MORNINGSTAR: No one is insecure, who said I was insecure?

FRENZYKENZIE3: Porthos, is this a group chat??? Warn a person first.

HOYDEN: It’s not my fault you started talking about our friends behind their backs.

FRENZYKENZIE3: Nothing I haven’t said to their faces.

PISTACHIOGRUMPYFACE: I believe I already requested to be taken off any and all discussions about anything short of war-related emergencies.

PISTACHIOGRUMPYFACE: Right, who changed my username?

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When the message from ‘unknown user’ clicked through her comm, containing only a set of spacial co-ordinates, Dana assumed it was Aramis or Porthos pissing about, stripping their ID from the message for a practical joke.

But it wasn’t obvious or funny enough, especially when Dana checked the pre-programmed flightpath to discover that they were already due to cross the co-ordinates in question – and none of the Musket-class Captains Lieutenant were cleared to know the exact nature of the Frenzy Kenzie’s flight path.

Should she divert to avoid those co-ordinates? A diversion would show up on her daily report, and she wasn’t sure if this message constituted a threat, or a promise.

In the end, she did an extra scan on the area ahead shortly before allowing the arquebus to continue on the route as planned.

Five minutes before she reached that point in space, the main screen above her dashboard filled briefly with static, picking up a signal from a local transmitter. There were no satellites in their path, suggesting that if there was a transmitter it was tiny, and had been left here like a message in a bottle.

After a minute of static, the screen dissolved into footage from an old fleur-de-lis game. Dana knew it was old, because it showed the original Emerald Knights team: Prince Alek, Conrad Su and Chevreuse opposite a team called the Burly Lions.

For a moment, she allowed herself to become caught up in the game – the fluid movements of the athletes powering through the zero gravity tank. The glee on their faces as they racked up points between the three of them.

And oh – Conrad. His hair was longer in this footage, spiking low into his eyes. He and the Prince and Chevreuse moved together as if they were a single unit, sharing a brain as well as matched green uniforms.

At one point, he practically fell face-first into the vid screen, and threw a flirtatious grin directly at the viewer – at Dana – before spinning backwards in a series of somersaults that took his opponent by surprise and allowed Chevreuse to bodyslam that player halfway across the tank.

Why would someone send her this?

Dana checked her instruments – the Frenzy Kenzie would move out of range of the transmission shortly, based on when the connection had been made. Quickly, she flexed her fingers and her thoughts into the ship’s engines, powering down to slow drift. She sent a message to Bass with an excuse:

GETTING ODD READINGS FROM POWER SPHERES, CAN YOU CHECK THE COUPLINGS? WE CAN STILL MAKE THE RENDEZVOUS ON TIME IF WE DRIFT FOR 15 MINS.

The part about the time buffer, at least, was true. She didn’t want to risk missing any important information from this transmission, but she wasn’t willing to risk making the entire Second Wave of the Combined Royal Fleet late for a battle.

Bass’ response was a series of exclamation marks, and an emoji that looked like either a thumb’s up or a dick joke. She was going to assume it was a thumb.

The game footage ran to static, and Dana’s first thought was that she had slowed the Frenzy Kenzie too late, but then the screen cleared again, and she saw what looked very much like a timestamped live feed of a dark, stone-walled cell.

“Do you have nothing to say to your wife?” a voice said from behind the cam. A familiar voice, Dana realised with a chill down her spine. Those smooth tones belonged to Milord.

A dark shape shifted and turned towards the screen. Dana bit her lip as she recognised the tired, pissed-off face of Conrad Su. Now, according to the date and time numbers running along the bottom of the screen. Wherever he was, right now, he was alive.

He stood slowly, stretching his legs, showing no sign of injury, and then began to walk towards the cam. There was no sign of that gorgeous grin of his now. He stared into the screen, head tilted slightly, eyes blazing into it. “Whoever’s benefit you’re doing this for, Slate, I know one thing. It’s not my wife.”

“Oh, but that’s interesting,” purred Milord. “Which of my many enemies is it that you think you’re talking to?”

Dana clenched her fists, because otherwise she would be reaching out for the screen like an idiot, as if she could actually drag Conrad through it to safety.

“I’m friends with the Prince Consort,” Conrad said fiercely. “It’s not difficult to work out why you might think you can use me to hurt the royal family.”

“Ah, and here I was hoping you had more than muscle between those ears of yours,” said Milord, sounding bored.

Conrad turned the full force of his glare into the screen. “Luckily Alek knows better than to make stupid risks just because he doesn’t want to audition a new pole attack.”

Dana rolled her eyes at his bravado, and her own foolishness. She forgot sometimes that Conrad had been wrapped up in court intrigue long before she breezed into Paris.

He probably didn’t even remember her name.

“You’d be surprised how many enemies I have who think you’re worth rescuing,” said that hateful voice behind the cam. “Say hello to Sergeant D’Artagnan.”

Conrad’s head flicked up and away, his face registering something – surprise? Irritation? Dana barely got a chance to see before static overwhelmed the screen all over again. This time, the footage did not return.

“All clear, Sarge!” Bass said cheerfully through her comm. “The ship’s security also picked up a magnetic transmitter-bot in the area, probably some new spyware thing trying to register our location. Zapped it good, so it won’t be able to trace us.”

“Good,” said Dana, more calmly than she felt. “That’s good work, Bass.”

Spyware. Damn it all. She should have steered clear of this location, avoiding the co-ordinates. She couldn’t risk the Fleet for one man, especially when Conrad had made it very clear that he valued loyalty to Crown and Solar System above all things.

If Milord wanted her to see that transmission, then nothing good would come from it.

“Get a grip, D’Artagan,” she muttered to herself. “Milord is just trying to screw with you. War before boys.”

But she couldn’t erase that image of the stone-walled cell from her mind, no matter how much she tried to focus on the job at hand.

Conrad Su was still alive, for now. But he was in Milord’s custody, and Milord wanted revenge on Dana. All she could hope for was that he had some other use for Conrad, something that would keep him alive a little longer.

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The second last rendezvous before the final jump to Truth Space was an otherwise empty part of space, halfway between Peace and Truth. As Dana approached, she was alarmed to discover that the usual heat signatures of 80 or so darts was not registering on her dash.

That was also the point that she realised a whole three hours had passed without any trivial Fleetnet message pinging her screen from Aramis, Athos or Porthos.

FRENZYKENZIE3: Is there an issue with the rendezvous?

STKONSTANTINA1: Have received no alerts.

FRENZYKENZIE3: The Fleet’s not where it’s supposed to be. How far out are you?

STKONSTANTINA1: Twenty minutes ahead of you. Looks like they jumped early – update coming through shortly.

Dana waited and tried not to fret. Chantal came up to join her on the bridge, which she appreciated, because the silence of the comms was unnerving.

“This happened to me on a long haul mission once before,” said the Printing and Inventory Specialist, in a voice that was probably supposed to be motherly and comforting, but mostly set Dana’s teeth on edge. “Usual protocol is that they leave one pilot behind in stealth mode, to deliver new co-ordinates in person.”

“But our next rendezvous is Truth,” Dana argued. “I mean, it’s a planet. It’s not like it can have moved anywhere else in the meantime.

Chantal gave her an almost-pitying look. “If our orders have changed, maybe we’re not heading to Truth any more.”

When the stealth ship connected to the Frenzy Kenzie, it was with a clang that reverberated across the whole ship.

“Official protocol, you say,” Dana said, swallowing hard.

“Either that, or we’ve just been boarded by the enemy,” said Chantal.

“That’s not as comforting as you think it is.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be comforting!”

Bass spoke quietly to them both over the comms. “It’s a silver moth-fighter. One of ours.”

“You can tell that from the noise it made?” said Dana, impressed.

Bass covered a laugh with a snort. “Oh, honey, no. The main airlock has a plexi-glass window. I can see it from here. Hang on, bringing our visitor on board.”

The next ten minutes felt like an hour, punctuated only by a short message from Bass confirming that their messenger’s ID checked out; she represented Cardinal Richelieu and the Church Fleet.

That was even less reassuring than anything Chantal had to say.

Dana managed to unhook herself from helm and harness, to greet the Church pilot as she entered the cockpit. There were a quarter of a million Moth fighters in the solar system, and yet Dana was completely unsurprised when her stealth visitor removed her helmet, and a long fall of black hair swung out.

“Hey, you,” said Agent Rosnay Cho.

“Are you even in the Fleet?” Dana blurted. She was used to seeing the special agent in ridiculous candy pastel colours, far too cutesy for her vivid looks and sharp tongue. She looked good in red, with the Church Fleet jacket of scarlet and gold over a matching flight suit.

“I am now,” Ro said with a smirk. She held up a small clamshell. “Eyes only, Captain D’Artagnan. Especially for you.”

“Arms-Sergeant,” Dana corrected, but gave Chantal and Bass a firm nod to clear out.

Ro shook her head with a devastating smile. “You know the code, Dana. When you’re steering the ship, you’re the Captain, regardless of rank.”

Dana was tired. Tired of hiding and secrets and not knowing who to trust. Tired of worrying about Conrad and her friends and the whole fucking solar system. “Where the hell is the Fleet, Ro?” she asked, and didn’t even care that the nickname had slipped out.

Ro’s smile softened for a second – brief enough that Dana later thought she must have imagined it – and then she was all business. “Three hours ago, the teardrop armada made their move.” She clicked open the clamshell to show a series of images: the now iconic picture of the grey “teardrop” ships of the Sun-kissed hanging in orbit around Truth, then the shocking development of the ships replicating in twos and threes, until there was nothing but a cloud of grey wrapping around the entire planet.

“That’s -” said Dana, and swallowed hard.

“You can swear for a while if you like,” Ro said helpfully. “The Captain of the St Konstantina is still thinking up new synonyms for ‘fuck’ – I left her to it after the first ten minutes.”

“Have they still not fired any shots?”

“It depends what you mean by shots and fired,” Ro said grimly. “This particular manoeuvre coincided with some kind of power wave that knocked about forty Fleet ships out of their orbital position, and sent all electronics screwy. They managed to get a subsonic message through to the incoming reinforcements, warning that all systems had been compromised. That’s why the Cardinal and the Regent moved the rendezvous. And that’s why you’re about to make a serious course correction.”

Ro passed over a new set of co-ordinates and Dana returned to her helm and harness, programming in the new flight path. Her radar picked up the St Konstantina, already tracking ahead of the Frenzy Kenzie.

When Dana finally looked up, Ro was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat beside her, looking remarkably comfortable. “Moth’s spheres need recharging,” she said. “You don’t mind if I hang around for a few hours?”

“Do I have a choice?” said Dana sharply.

Ro grinned. “Nope.”

Dana gave herself over to the navigation of the ship, ignoring the intruder for ten minutes that felt more like an hour. When she darted a look under her eyelashes at Ro, the other woman appeared to be napping.

“The Cardinal is in league with the Sun-kissed, you know,” Dana said in a low, conversational tone, to see if she was awake.

Ro’s eyes flew open. It was the first time Dana had ever seen her remotely ruffled. “Damn it, D’Artagnan, you can’t say things like that,” she snapped.

“Can’t I? It’s true.”

“I know you Musketeers are basically children who think it’s all about taking sides in the playground,” Ro said after a long, strangled pause. “But this is ridiculous. Her Eminence has always done what she thinks is best for the Crown and the whole fucking Solar System, that’s the entire remit of the Church – to protect humanity. The Sun-kissed have no part in that.”

“She’s compromised, and so are you,” said Dana, managing to keep her hands steady on the controls despite the anger that flooded her whole system. “How many of the Cardinal’s plots involved the agent called Milord De Winter?”

Ro narrowed her eyes. “I warned you he was dangerous,” she reminded Dana.

“You didn’t tell me he was Sun-kissed.”

And there, she had surprised her. The special agent sat there in silence for a few minutes, while Dana steered the smooth metal tube that was the Frenzy Kenzie on towards their new rendezvous.

“How exactly did he compromise you, Dana?” Rosnay Cho asked after a long moment. “How deeply did you have to dig, to find out that particular secret?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ro huffed to herself, looking almost amused. “Yeah, that’s about what I thought.”

“Did you know?” Dana asked, after a silence had fallen between them.

Ro looked at her from beneath her sweeping fringe and long, dark eyelashes. “Of course I didn’t bloody know. Just because the Cardinal doesn’t gambol around covering up evidence of royal adultery like some people doesn’t mean she would betray the human race.” She scowled darkly. “And neither would I.”

“You know now,” said Dana. It was odd, having the upper hand. She did not have the faintest idea how to use it to her advantage. It felt refreshing, though, to speak honestly. “What are you going to do about it?”

Ro shook her head, thoroughly pissed off. “Give me more than two minutes to assimilate this upsetting piece of intelligence. I’ll let you know.”

It took Dana a little while to realise what she felt in that moment – a warmth similar to when she had confessed to Athos, Aramis and Porthos about Milord.

She was no longer alone with this terrible news, and she would not have to work out what to do with that knowledge, without help.

What on earth did it mean, that she was feeling this way about Agent Rosnay Cho?

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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 “Seven Days of Joyeux,” a special Christmas prequel novella which was released in December 2014. My next funding milestone will unlock GORGEOUS COVER ART.

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