Chapter 14: The Shibboleth delivers the stones to Caelia station, located inside a system-wide debris field. Once there, Vernon introduces himself to Jaren as a member of the Arcana Divines. The Divines are building an experimental ship, the Exodus, from a design made by Jaren’s father. Vernon offers Jaren employment in the hopes he can clarify some of his father’s notes. Additionally, they want Navkin and Deim to helm the ship.
Unlike the conventional ether-runners of the Middle Stratum, the Exodus is designed to explore the uncharted realms of the Fire and Stone Strata. Which sounds great until we learn that the ship is built using forbidden Guild knowledge. The Arcana Divines rely on the ancient Mysteries from which the measured science of the Guild developed.
The strata are different dimensions. At the “top” of the multiverse is the White Well, source of all prana and thought to be divine. Below it is the Fire Stratum, followed by the Middle Stratum, where all the action in Nethereal has occurred. The Stone Stratum lies below that, and at the bottom, there is the Void. For the first time, we see an opposite to the gods.
Chapter 15: Jaren’s crew eats breakfast with Mithgar Navy sailors. Mithgar also chafes under Guild rules, and the navy wishes to be explorers instead of Guild heavies. During the conversation, Deim grows infatuated with a sixteen year old girl named Elena, who none of the sailors or pirates can see. He also claims the girl visited him in the night.
To man the Exodus, Jaren need his crew. The Divines give him coordinates to a prison ship that holds old shipmates that had been captured by Marshal Malachi. During the raid on the prison ship, Malachi springs a trap. Surrounding the Shibboleth with courier ships, he demands that Jaren surrender, using the captured pirates as hostages.
Using Workings and the Wheel have long been stated to cause madness. Deim appears to be showing the first signs of insanity. However, Elena actually exists, and is not a figure of Deim’s imagination, even if her presence around him might be.
Chapter 16: Aboard the prison ship, Jaren and Deim consider their options. Impulsively, Deim takes control of the ship and attempts to ram Malachi’s courier. The Guild ships disable the prison ships engines, but an old hauler appears and rams Malachi’s vessel instead. While directing repair and boarding operations, Malachi realizes that his crew is vanishing into the air around him. He runs to his ship’s bridge, chased by the screams of men dying around him. A masked figure looms near the Wheel and offers Malachi a chance to “gather in the dark with us.” Instead, Malachi uses Guild Workings to transport himself, and only himself, through the ether.
Mordechai has returned, revealing himself as the handiwork of the Guild from five generations earlier. And whatever he’s doing to the Guildsmen, besides the head splitting and the mutilation, he isn’t just killing them. The harvest imagery in “gather in the dark with us” is an unsettling clue, as “gather in” is synonymous with “reap”. The purpose of Mordechai’s harvest has yet to be explained. While the gods abandoned Nethereal’s universe, whatever embodiment the Void might have walks among it.
As mentioned in the previous post, Nethereal has been filled with action. However, instead of focusing on the corkscrewing of ships through space and the spray of bullets piercing flesh, as is common in the milSF of the present, instead the action focuses instead on mood. It use the techniques of implied horror, where monsters are hidden because no image can be scarier that that imagined by the audience, and applies the lessons to action. If Nethereal ever becomes a TV or film series, there will be time to develop the action sequences into the harrowing chases that space pirates deserve. Meanwhile, the book will worry more about suspense.
Chapter 17: While Malachi’s ship dies, Teg boards a second Guild courier. He rescued his imprisoned shipmate, sparing – but not forgiving – the gunner who had almost killed him back during the Guild’s Tharis raid. Meanwhile, Jaren decides to tow the surviving courier and the prison ship back to Caelia station. At the asteroid base, Vernon inspect the hauler, muttering about Teth. Jaren ignores the mutterings, and asks instead for his father’s notes.
Teth is an evil force opposite to the prana of the White Well. Worse, it is considered to be Pure Evil, capable of corrupting a man. Back in Chapter 5, Mordechai mentions using it to fuel whatever happened in the darkness of the freighter. (Nethereal does not reward careful reading, it demands it.) Teth is also the ninth letter of the Gen alphabet. Since Nethereal relies on metered revelation, usually over the course of three chapters, I wonder if the Gen alphabet will become significant.
Chapter 18: For four months, Jaren has been kept from the shipyards building the Exodus, despite a growing involvement in the design and procurement of the ship’s experimental systems. Two Mithgar navy ships arrive, bringing supplies and naval crew for the Exodus. Captain Craighan, an officer with anti-Gen prejudice, convenes the military and pirate crews, and gives a speech marking the upcoming maiden voyage.
Craighan and Jaren are jockeying for position. Neither has the upper hand. While Craighan claims military command, it is Jaren and his navigators who can actually fly the Exodus. This creates a system where, like the Spanish navy of old, the authority and the expertise needed to command a vessel are split into two persons. But while the military man and the space pirate fight, their conflict is rooted in a clash of personalities. Instead of a conflict between military regimen and cavalier smuggling, both men want to be in charge. Craighan cannot fire his annoying contractor, and Jaren cannot claim the authority to be master and commander of the Exodus.
It surprises me that the Exodus, a ship that relies on experimental systems and propulsion, is going straight into a maiden voyage, and not a shakedown cruise or operational test. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud. Well, at least if they haven’t abandoned the universe first.
Chapter 19: Compelled by a sense of foreboding, Jaren gathers his crew and boards the Exodus. There, they find Craighan preparing the ship for combat, manning the Wheel himself. Out in the asteroid field, a fleet of Guild ships led by the massive Serapis is attacking the shipyard. Amidst the Mithgar Navy’s crumbling defense, Jaren orders broadsides against the Serapis, but is overruled by Craighan, who opts for warning shots instead. Aboard the Serapis, Malachi scoffs at the response and directs his fleet to destroy Exodus’s escorts. Meanwhile, the Exodus tries to flee to the hyperlimit.
During the prison ship fight, Marshal Malachi managed to fashion a sort of prana thread to Jaren’s ship. This allowed the Guild minister to follow the thread to the shipyards. Notice that it required months to track the thread to its end. There are limits to prana Workings, but more implied than explicitly stated.
I am unimpressed by the Mithgar Navy. Perhaps malcontents and mutineers might not make the best fighters. But they were outgunned by the Serapis, and, on the Exodus, Craighan was suffering from the effects of too much time on the Wheel. But the use of warning shots against a foe killing your men is unforgivable poor judgement, almost cowardice.
Notice also that Craighan’s overexposure to the Wheel manifested itself as poor judgement, lost composure, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Nowhere among these symptoms is Deim’s strange girl that only he can see.
Chapter 20: Marshal Malachi orders the Guild pursuit of the Exodus. Frustrated by Craighan’s actions on the Wheel, Navkin fires orbital bombardment weapons at the Guild fleet, committing a war crime. The Guild counters by shutting down every Working aboard the Exodus. In that darkness, Mordechai appears on the bridge and points out the Deim has seized control of the Wheel. As the junior steersman activates the Exodus’s inter-strata engines, he glows a sickly yellow. Darkness falls over the Exodus once more.
Another chapter better experienced than described.
In the next post: Hell.