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FAITH

A NOVEL

BY

JOHN LOVE

NIGHT SHADE BOOKS

SAN FRANCISCO

FAITH

© 2012 by John Love

This edition of FAITH

© 2012 by Night Shade Books

Cover Illustration by Adam Paquette

Cover design by Claudia Noble

Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich

Edited by Jeremy Lassen

All rights reserved

First Edition

ISBN: 978-1-59780-390-8

Night Shade Books

http://www.nightshadebooks.com

To Sandra, Helen and Ian

PART ONE

His pregnancy convulsions dragged him out of unconsciousness. They were stronger and more urgent. Through his delirium he perceived a drip-drip-drip of blood from something which was not even a corpse any more in the impact harness above him. He held his right hand in front of his face, unsheathed and retracted his claws, and made himself count from one thumb across four fingers to the other thumb. The convulsions went away and he slumped back.

When he woke again his head felt clearer but he couldn’t detect anything except his head; he was eyes and ears and nose and mouth, deep in an impact harness, watching and hearing and smelling and tasting the wreckage of the lifeboat around him. Hours must have passed since the crash and still the crash had not finished. The forces, counterforces, creakings and reverberations of the impact were still going on as the hull settled.

His convulsions came again, and he used the pain to make himself reinhabit his body. Consciousness returned, warily, to his arms and chest and stomach and legs, and he probed for damage. There was a dull throbbing pain in his side, quite distinct from the sharper pain of the convulsions: in view of what he had to do, both the dull pain and the fact of his pregnancy could be hindrances. The thought that his death in the lifeboat would have been a bigger hindrance gave him some ironic amusement, but not for long. Not even the foetus inside him was as important as the need to get out of the wreckage and tell someone. Thinking this, he sank back and fell asleep.

When he woke it was midday. The hulk of the lifeboat still creaked and groaned, recounting the minutiae of its crash like an old person repeating the details of a surgical operation. He got up, stretched, and wasted valuable time on a task he could not leave without performing, though he knew its result. Not only were the others dead, all seven of the people he managed to get into the lifeboat before the ship was destroyed, but they were overdead. Between them, they had enough death for seventy.

He continued checking the hulk. There was no communications equipment functioning or repairable. He considered searching the wreckage for weapons, but decided that would be a waste of time; he knew about the desert predators on Bast 3 but he was, after all, a Sakhran and should need no weapons. A voice inside him, perhaps the foetus, said You’re a pregnant Sakhran, and you aren’t made for deserts. He ignored it. Time was beginning to worry him.

He didn’t have much of a plan, but then he wasn’t in much of a situation. The lifeboat had crashed in a desert which extended for at least ninety miles in each direction; he had limited food and water, and pregnancy would impair his hunting skills; and there were no Commonwealth settlements or bases in the desert.

He would simply walk.

If he kept in a straight line, avoided the rock outcrops and stayed in the open, he might be seen by one of the patrols overflying the desert. It wasn’t much of a plan, but to survive the crash and then not give himself any chance was unthinkable. He gouged a large arrow in the sand in his chosen direction, and did a final check for supplies. Then he moved off. A few minutes later, four shadows detached themselves from the darkness of some neighbouring rocks to follow.

After he left the wreck, the sand underneath it started teeming. As in most ecologies on most planets, nothing on Bast 3 would be left to waste.

His name was Sarabt. He was a Sakhran, lately a resident of Hrissihr in the Irsirrha Hills of Sakhra, and more recently (until a few hours ago) Weapons Officer on the Pallas, a Class 091 cruiser and the guardship of Bast System. He was one of only two Sakhrans who had attained officer status on Commonwealth ships, the other being Thahl, also of Hrissihr although Sarabt only knew him slightly.

Bast was the seventh Commonwealth solar system to receive a visit from the unidentified ship which some Sakhrans called Faith. More significantly, though, it was the first of the four previously Sakhran solar systems which the Commonwealth had absorbed; the others were Horus (the system with Sakhra), Anubis and Isis. Horus was the Commonwealth’s richest and biggest solar system. It was heavily guarded already, but rumours were rife—they had even reached Bast—about steps being taken to defend it if Faith went there. It was said that an Outsider Class cruiser, the Commonwealth’s ultimate warship, was already on its way to Blentport on Sakhra.

There were nine Outsiders. One of them was the Charles Manson, commanded by Aaron Foord, with Thahl as First Officer.

Sarabt looked back. He had covered a good distance, and the wrecked lifeboat was already being heavily scavenged. The arrow he had drawn on the ground was gone, obscured by the shifting of the sand and the movement of what lived in it. Soon nothing would be visible from the air, even if a patrol did fly overhead. He had to stay in the open, but that meant he would be visible not only to patrols but predators. He had been briefed about the predators of Bast 3. Normally they would not have concerned him.

Bast was by far the smallest and poorest of the ex-Sakhran systems. The planet Bast 3 was almost uninhabited, except for a few flyblown Commonwealth military bases and some almost unviable mineral extraction plants. Bast 4 was a larger and more temperate planet, and contained most of the system’s population, but the Bast system as a whole would hardly be ranked as a major asset. The Pallas was the only warship of any size stationed in system. Everybody assumed that Faith would go first to Horus, or maybe one of the other two. Instead it had been Bast, and the Pallas didn’t have a chance.

The engagement was very short. He had heard someone in the lifeboat say that most orgasms were longer, though their outcomes were less certain. They had only got one brief sighting of the unidentified ship, but for Sarabt that was enough.

Three hundred years ago the same unidentified ship had visited Sakhra, and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognised what the ship was, and wrote the Book of Srahr, and when they read it they turned away from each other. The Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline, and was later absorbed by the Commonwealth. Sakhrans were mostly agnostic, and they called the ship Faith out of self-mockery. Faith was something they didn’t understand and didn’t want; it had come to them suddenly and without invitation; it would not be denied; and when it left them, which it did as suddenly as it came, they were ruined. They would never recover.

On balance, Faith seemed a good name.

The Commonwealth first used the term Unidentified Ship; it now used Faith as well, but for quite different reasons. The ship was often shrouded, but when it became visible, those who survived said there was something about its appearance to which recordings didn’t do justice. Only a female name seemed right, with its accompanying female derivatives. So the terms Unidentified Ship and It became Faith, and She, and Her.

Sakhrans knew what She was; the Commonwealth didn’t. The Commonwealth knew She visited civilisations and left them ruined and declining, but not why; and Why was the product of what She was. Sarabt knew this even better than most Sakhrans, for two reasons: he had read the Book himself, and now he had actually seen Her. He needed to survive, to help stop Her doing to the Commonwealth what She did to Sakhra three hundred years ago.

It was a limited ambition. He didn’t expect he alone could stop Her or save the Commonwealth. He didn’t even (he told himself) have any particular feelings for the Commonwealth. It had features he didn’t like, but it wasn’t a ravening Evil Empire; it worked tolerably well, gave him a good career, and only occasionally showed him unpleasantness or bigotry. So we should stop Her this time, he thought; stop Her doing to the Commonwealth what She did to us. It was an unusual thought for a Sakhran, at least for one born after Srahr. There was no telling where it might lead.

And that gave him another reason to survive. He wanted to contact Thahl. He wanted to know if Thahl had ever had thoughts like this.

There were four of them, each one about his own size and weight. They were reptilian: low-slung, six-legged and very muscular. Their mottled skin, like the desert, was the colour of unwashed underwear. They trotted alongside him desultorily. Their faces were expressionless. So was his.

Every time he felt a pregnancy convulsion, and they were now coming more frequently, he masked it with a sudden unsheathing of his claws which caused the four predators to break formation, but ...