A little communication breakdown goes a long way.
"That was him?" Said Alexander, staring good and hard at the telltale signature on his instruments. "He can make a vortice!"
Alexander’s surprise took him to his feet. Nothing in his experience, in a career at the very centre of the superlight industry, even hinted that such a thing was possible. But then he had never studied Andalans, wittingly at least; as the red flash through the cockpit then reminded him.
"Apparently so," said Katerina, now behind Alexander, "it’s news to me, too. No one has before."
“Or this brute power, I presume?” He said, waving at the dying nebula all around them. “We were very nearly torn quite akimbo, you know.”
Alexander turned to her, and saw Jocaster’s men loitering in the room behind.
"They need a lift. So we’re taking them home." She shrugged.
“You bet we are. Last thing we need is more boarders on this ship.” Said Alexander, ending with a wince. “Excepting Carl, of course.”
Carl could see better than Alexander how dazed she was. He offered her a hug.
"I’m so glad you’re safe!"
“Me too.” She told him, rubbing the spot between his eyes.
“So I imagine he finished off the lot of them?” Said Alexander, as his wife cuddled his nephew, who almost purred with delight. “All those jinn fellows?”
“I think so.” She said. “It’s hard to tell for all the residual energy. See anything on the computer?”
“Not that I can tell. Neither man nor machine.” Alexander studied the hazy projections. “About time we scarper then?”
“Yes!” She smiled. “Let’s get out of here.”
Carl held her, quite adamant, around her waist. She slid her fingers between his arms, to break away. And as he moved, she felt that most earnest expression of his admiration for her press against her thigh.
"Sit down." She whispered to him, grinning, as he looked at her in fright.
“Sorry!” He said, almost without breathing.
"To Andala, post haste." Declared Alexander as he pressed the risen button. And they slipped through lightspeed.
“If he left faster than light, we don’t know where he’s going.” Said Christopher, correctly.
“True. But the entry trail lines up.” Said Alexander. “Besides, where else would he go?”
Katerina’s silence on this point caught all their ears.
"The old boy wants to be king." Alexander continued. "That’s where he goes to get it. Right?"
“Yes. He must be there.” She said, in a haze, looking out along the line they were flying. “It’s only minutes away.”
Once again, they did not rush their journey. Katerina seemed anything but certain she even wanted to go there. And Alexander did not press the point. They weren’t here to demonstrate their speed. Indeed, they weren’t here through their own choice at all.
"You guys saved us?" Said Carl to the two men sprawled across a sofa in the lounge. Both lifted their heads to look at him, bemused.
“Madala says you saved her brother.” Atarchus smiled. “I must ask Jocaster about this sometime!” He then said something to Samean, who duly burst out laughing.
“Brah! Voh!” Said Samean, triumphant, grabbing Carl and shaking him by the hand.
“You are laiyeen now, too.” Atarchus told Carl. “You are honoured.”
Carl wasn’t quite sure how to take this. He looked aside, rather desperately, to Christopher.
"Was Jocaster always this powerful?" Asked the young prince, still in his battle costume.
“No.” Said Atarchus.
“So Andalans can change their power over time?”
“Yes.” Said Atarchus, with a grin, as he could see where Christopher was going.
“Could you ever do what he did out there?”
“Could Samean?” Christopher pronounced the Katani’s name slightly wrong, which made his brows twitch.
“No. He is young, so he can try. But Jocaster is far ahead.”
Carl looked at Christopher with horror. How could he ask such a thing?
"Hard to tell." Said Atarchus. "You have no experience. You must work harder than most Ana in a lifetime." Then he grinned. "But I think you could."
Christopher flinched. Atarchus had no reason to lie to him. And the old warrior seemed to know his stuff. He was covered in bruises, and his skin shone with the same brutal mess Christopher had washed from his hands once he returned to the ship. It wouldn’t easily come off. And now, here he was, commending Christopher’s ability.
"I could do that?" He stammered.
“Yes.” Said Atarchus. “If you want it.”
“Hey buddy,” said Carl, “we’re people, from Earth! This vicious Andalan stuff is fine for you guys. But why would we want a piece of that?”
“Why would you?” Said Katerina, standing in the doorway.
Carl smiled at her. He didn’t know what it was, but he could hardly keep his senses together around her today.
"Because I am like them." Said Christopher, holding Atarchus by the arm. His biceps were too large for Christopher’s hand to fit half way around.
“Perhaps.” Said his mother, her lips tight and a tear forcing its way to her eye. “It’s up to you.”
As they neared Aira and its little Andala, Alexander brought them down from lightspeed for a gentle approach. The world shone as a blue jewel, so unlike the murky hours they’d spent in Kanan before. Kai, Andala’s mother planet, was as serene as always. Alexander watched them, easily amused, as he waited for the com link.
"Haven’t they heard of bloody space traffic control out here?"
“What’s up?” Said Katerina, looking over him and his console.
“Is there really no protocol for new arrivals?”
“Why would there be?” She shrugged. “Visitors are fairly rare.”
“So we just radio, then?”
“Right. Let me do it.”
Down on Andala, in the house of Ayana, in the middle of her city, an alarm bleeped. One of the laiyeen, an Ana man by the name of Naisan, wandered into the room to check the sound, as it was fairly rare. A little console, with words written out in English, blinked and shone as the alarm chimed again. He bopped a few buttons until it quietened. Then came a woman’s voice.
"Hello? Anyone listening?"
“Hello! Andala speaking.” Said Naisan. “What do you want?”
“Requesting permission to visit.” Said Katerina.
“Oh? You do not already have permission? You know that you need this.”
“Yes, I do. We are returning the knights Atarchus and Samean.”
“What!” Naisan leapt in surprise.
“And I need to come down with them.”
“But who are you? How do you have kasteer Atarchus? And kasteer Samean?”
Katerina sighed. Alexander found this exchange quite amusing.
"You don’t recognise my voice?"
“Perhaps they need video.” Said Alexander, toggling the controls.
“Ah!” Said an astonished Andalan fellow at the sight on his screen. Alexander grinned as he saw him back.
“It’s me.” Said Katerina, with a well practiced droll look on her face.
“Madala kalikaleh!” Chanted the man on the screen. “Kai Madala kalikaleh!”
“Kai?” She said. “No, no. I am not Kai.” She turned and muttered to Alexander. “And I have no intention to be.”
“Kai Madala!” Cried the man on the screen. “Kai Madala kalikaleh!” And he ran off, shouting along the way.
Alexander really had to laugh.
"Fairly rare indeed!"
“I am not their fucking queen!” Katerina decreed. “What’s gotten into him?”
“The old boy’s not shown up, methinks, majesty.” Said Alexander, grinning from ear to ear.
“He really hasn’t, has he?” She said. “But how long could he take?”
“Depends, I guess.” Said Alexander, poking at numbers. “If he wanted to be oldschool, then Proteus would have taken a couple of days to do that little charabang, for instance.”
“He saw us go quicker than that. He has the wherewithal to go much faster.”
“You’d think, eh.” Said Alexander, swiping around the console, distracted. “Huh.”
“So far no good on the interstellar network.” Said Alexander. “We’ve missed a dozen packets now.”
“You’re trying to call home?”
“Well, I’d like to see what we’ve missed. Out here at the furthest reaches of civilisation’s tentative web. But the trouble is on their end.”
Katerina looked at the same network chart that caught Alexander. The closer it got to Earth, the deader things went.
"Oh god, you think?" She gasped.
“Pretty quick, isn’t he?” He sighed. “Something’s really given them the shits. Reckon we should hurry on over?”
This was a fun one. Madala’s reaction to her regal elevation and Carl’s salute are a couple of tricks I’ve had lined up for some time. In fact, put like that, perhaps I should rearrange them?
Communication is a tricky matter out in space. I’m playing by the rules I laid out whereby superlight is an exclusive for ships and other matter. To carry a signal faster than slowpoke light, you have to put it aboard a physical carrier. Interstellar sneakernet is all they’ve got.
This has obvious limitations. You can’t just communicate arbitrarily, between random points in space. The network Alexander’s connecting to has fixed nodes at Andala and Earth, among other places. This is the problem he’s seeing: around Earth, it’s all locked up. There’s only so much bandwidth the superlight carrier pigeons can take.