Beth had dreamed up the idea of saving the ship with the gravity generator, she’d implemented it too, but that didn’t mean she was ready for the scale of devastation that came from destroying more than half of the Reilian communication ship.
Fortunately neither was anyone else.
“Just caught a really bright flash from your direction,” Starshine said. “What did you do?”
“We seem to be on the outside of the ship again,” Lagressa said over her space suits comm unit.
“I think we saved the ship!” Beth said.
“There’s a ship still there? All I’m catching glimpses of is an expanding cloud of hot gas,” Starshine said.
“That’s the part of the ship that was on fire,” Beth said. “I kind of shot it off.”
“Is that a common tactic?” Lagressa asked. “It seems odd for a ship to have weaponry designed to destroy itself like that.”
“Not many ships do,” Beth said. “Most have safeguards to prevent what I just did. Or their gravity generators aren’t built with the capacity in the first place. The Reilians though? They’re a special kind of obsessed. Blowing up their own ships is a luxury they plan for so that they can make sure none of their people are corrupted, and no one else gets their tech.”
“Magic still seems to be flowing through the ship,” Lagressa observed.
“Standard combat ship capability there,” Beth said. “Anything that’s going to be in a space battle needs to have as many alternate electrical distribution paths as they can cram into it. Otherwise one lucky shot could cripple an entire capital ship.”
“So you’ve kept the ship in one piece,” Starshine said. “Or maybe one important piece and a million bits of dust. What are the crew doing?”
“They seem to be in shock,” Lagressa said.
“Part of the ship I blew away was the long range communications node,” Beth said. “They’re hearing silence for the first time in their lives in place of the drone of the Reilian Overmind.”
“Is that good or bad?” Starshine asked.
“A little of one, a lot of the other,” Beth said. “The upside is they won’t be fighting back for a little while, or rushing off in a panic. The downside is if that main signal is interrupted for too long the other ships will quarantine this one, and we won’t be able to get our music out.”
“We have a problem then,” Lagressa said. “The console here is refusing to accept the song device you gave me.”
“It should just plug in,” Starshine said.
“The only controls seem to be impressions for a pair of hands,”
That wasn’t something that had come up in any of the Measureless Stars novels, but after a moment’s reflection had a guess as to why the communications console wasn’t constructed with a universal interface.
“They don’t want anyone but another Reilian on their Mind Web.”
“That could be. The hand sensors don’t seem to respond to me at all,” Lagressa said.
Beth wracked her brain. It had been a good plan, and they’d gone through a lot to pull it off, she wasn’t about to give up on it over a little setback like not being the correct species.
“Lagressa, how deep can your shape changing go?” Beth asked, and tried to think of how she could convey the idea of DNA to someone who came from a world that might use entirely different building blocks to construct life.
“Bones, muscles, and soft tissues,” Lagressa said. “When I change, the only part which remains my own are my eyes.”
“What about your blood?” Beth asked, seeing a possibility, “If you change into a creature would your blood count for rituals and spells that require that type of creature’s blood?”
“Rituals and what now?” Starshine asked.
“Yes, my blood would work for such things,” Lagressa said. “Most such things at least. There are some spells, I’ve been told, which can discern shapeshifted from true blood. Most often the targets I was intended to dispatch would not be that extensively protected though.”
“That might be enough then,” Beth said. “The palm controllers aren’t working for you now because you read as a human, or near human I guess. Can you grab one of the techs? The ones near me are still in a stupor. Grab one, copy them and see if you can gain access to the communications web like that.”
“Whatever you’re doing, you’ll want to do it nice and quick,” Starshine said. “The Grand Stellar Gate is starting to throw off tachyon pulses. Strong ones.”
“What? They’re sending more ships through?” Beth ground her teeth. It was out of character for the Reilians. They were all about disproportionate responses to perceived threats, but they made it a point to respond with overwhelming force on their first strike. The Reilian’s basic tactical doctrine stated that only an early decisive victory instilled the proper dread into their opponents. Reinforcements were restricted from being called in except for cases where their initial intel was faulty and they’d been baited into a conflict with a larger force than they believed they would be facing. Losing most of their communication ship wasn’t a event of that magnitude. It wouldn’t have been counted as a noteworthy event at all in fact, much less one that demanded additional resources.
But what else could it be?
Beth felt her breath catch. Not ‘what’, ‘who’.
It wasn’t them. It wasn’t Starshine, Lagressa and herself. They weren’t the ones who had goaded the Reilians into sending more troops. They hadn’t been the ones who’d stirred up the Reilian hornet nest in the first place.
It was the Burners.
The first ones to pursue her had been driven back after trying to confront her directly, but there was another batch at work. She had no idea how to find them, but she could feel them out there, could smell the kindling of the paper and binding that made up the Measureless Stars as the narrative started to smoulder.
She’d made the mistake of thinking that she was fighting beings who existed only in the context of a story, beings who couldn’t really harm her.
The Burners transcended stories though, just like she did, and they could do worse than force her from the pages of a story. Much worse.