Talos III / neutral territory in the Earth–K-Chaan war
Volmar sprinted across the hangar and up the short ramp into the waiting shuttle.
Antwer glared at him. “It puts us on the back foot if we’re late.”
“Pardon, Consul.” Volmar delivered a brief bow and strapped himself into the only seat left in the cramped cabin. “I was awaiting confirmation from Earthforce Command. The K-Chaan ships have indeed broken off on all fronts. The ceasefire is complete.”
Antwer grunted. “For the moment.” He turned to his wife as if Volmar had ceased to exist. “I still don’t think you should come. The situation’s too volatile.”
Ellan, Antwer’s wife, was beautiful and far more personable than the consul, who’d shut himself away in their cabin for the trip. She’d gone out of her way to introduce herself, and Volmar had been disarmed by her grace and friendliness. It wasn’t something he was used to.
She smiled briefly at him, then shifted her focus to her husband. “You think I should be back home with our boys? This is the best way I know to keep them safe. A bad situation needs faultless communication if it’s going to improve.”
The pilot seated at the control bank completed pre-flight checks and swivelled in his chair to face Antwer. “The K-Chaan shuttle is heading for the planet surface, Consul.”
Antwer clasped his wife’s hand on the armrest between them. “Then let’s go,” he said.
Volmar watched the viewscreen above the pilot’s head as the ship lifted from the deck and moved slowly through the opening hangar doors. They were running beneath the belly of the Earthforce Heavy Carrier Lincoln. The long hull was studded with more weapons pods than he could count, and it was just one of twelve heavy-carrier-class ships, twenty battlecruiser-class vessels and countless single-fighter craft facing off against an equally impressive battle force of K-Chaan Empire vessels, all of them floating above the barren rock of Talos III.
The war had been raging for almost three years now, with neither side gaining the upper hand. It would go on forever if nothing changed, Volmar thought. Then out of nowhere the K-Chaan had offered a ceasefire, and Earthforce Command had dispatched Varic Antwer – a consummate diplomat – to parlay it into a more prolonged peace. It had been relatively simple for Volmar to be assigned as his aide.
The shuttle cleared the bulk of the Lincoln and the pilot set them on a descent to the planet. Talos III had no value other than its location in territory unclaimed by either Earth or the K-Chaan. There were no oceans, little in the way of worthwhile mineral deposits, and the only life detected was a purple lichen that grew on the red calciferous rocks strewn across the landscape, the remnants of a sustained meteorite bombardment in the planet’s pre-history.
They hit atmosphere and the shuttle vibrated. Volmar saw Antwer grip his wife’s hand more tightly. For all his gruffness, it was clear the consul loved his wife. What must it be like to have that kind of relationship, Volmar wondered. Was it a source of strength or of weakness? Both perhaps.
The vibration smoothed out as the shuttle descended. It was difficult to gauge height against the unbroken rock-filled panorama, but they were heading for the only structure on the planet: a prefabricated plascrete pavilion set up by remote drones operated by the engineer corps. The K-Chaan had insisted they be allowed to enter the structure first, to ensure it was free of booby traps. Earth had insisted the room be studded with remote camera and sensor feeds broadcasting to both sides to ensure the K-Chaan didn’t plant their own devices during their examination.
“Do you feel nervous, Mr Volmar?” It was Ellan, leaning past her husband.
“I have very little to be nervous about. You and Consul Antwer are essential to the talks. I’m simply your aide.”
“No human has seen a K-Chaan in the flesh and lived. We could all be travelling to our deaths.”
“Fear won’t help us now,” Antwer said. “There have been wrongs on both sides.”
“My husband has to keep perspective,” Ellan said. “I don’t.”
“I am nervous,” Volmar admitted, but it wasn’t for the reasons Ellan assumed. Earthforce’s generals and admirals were competent, but their minds were constrained by strict rules of engagement and cold military logic. A ceasefire or even a peace would still leave Earth vulnerable to the next threat that came along. Passion, imagination and ruthless commitment were what was required if the tide was to be turned convincingly. Volmar’s colleagues were in position on the Lincoln and in Command HQ and EarthGov. It was almost time to act.
“Thank you,” Ellan said. “I don’t think we’d be human if we weren’t.”
The shuttle dipped.
“There’s the K-Chaan ship,” the pilot said.
The enemy vessel sat close to the centre of a dusky red and barren plateau surrounded by nubby hills worn down by millennia of sandstorms, the only weather the planet knew. The vessel was starfish-shaped, a much smaller version of the K-Chaan Annihilator Class ships currently hovering above the planet as part of their escort.
The Earthforce shuttle traversed the plateau, banking round the pavilion and turning to land so the structure was between it and the K-Chaan vessel. The landing skids settled gently and the pilot cut the engines, then spun again in his chair.
“Lincoln reports the feeds show three K-Chaan in the pavilion. Nothing hidden and no weapons.”
The consul stood, exhaling loudly. “Then let’s do what we came here for.”
Volmar exited the shuttle behind Antwer and Ellan and walked with them across the rocky red plain. The shuttle hissed, reconfiguring its hull plates into a protective skirt around the landing skids and hatch.
Volmar saw three figures standing under the broad hexagonal roof of the pavilion, watching them approach. The K-Chaan were borderline humanoid: bipedal and three metres tall, their bodies all corded muscle beneath a thick, deep blue and mottled black hide. They wore partial armour, almost indistinguishable from their skin, and their heads were dominated by a curving tusk or horn sprouting from where a nose might have been. Their faces were blank, except for a band of mottling at the base of the horn that indicated sensory organs. Volmar thought it was impossible to tell any of them apart.
He placed Ellan’s case on the circular plascrete meeting table and stood to the consul’s other side. Ellan opened the case slowly – to avoid startling the K-Chaan – and activated the translator instruments. She nodded to her husband.
“I am Consul Antwer of the Earth Government,” Antwer began. “This is my aide, Troels Volmar, and our translator link operator, Ellan Summers. I welcome you to this meeting. Can I confirm the translation device is functioning and adequate for understanding?”
Antwer may as well not have spoken. The K-Chaan stood together like statues.
The consul looked at his wife. She checked the equipment, running a practised hand over the contacts and tabs. “It’s working perfectly,” she said.
“Can you understand me?” Antwer asked the K-Chaan.
Again, no response.
Volmar studied the three figures. They didn’t need weapons. Any one of them could rip a human in half with its bare hands.
Antwer tried again. “Please. We must communicate. Can you confirm our translator is working?”
The silence drew out.
“There’s nothing wrong with the equipment.” Ellan sounded frustrated.
“Perhaps we should send for another unit, just in case,” Antwer said.
“I checked it a hundred times. It’s not the machine.”
“I’m afraid this is down to me,” Volmar said. “I’m blocking the translator.”
The disc he pulled from his pocket everted at his touch, the metal flowing to regain its memoryform. He levelled the weapon’s barrel at the nearest K-Chaan even as Antwer grabbed for his arm. A bolt of incandescent energy lashed out, punching through the K-Chaan’s chest. It dropped to the floor. The two other aliens drew weapons from their armour.
So much for the scans, Volmar thought as he grasped Antwer by the shoulders, pivoting to put the consul between him and the K-Chaan. There was a shriek. A searing wave of heat. The consul’s head exploded, blood, brains and bone fragments spraying across Volmar as the dead weight of the body slammed into him and he fell.
In the sudden silence, he pushed Antwer’s corpse off him and rolled to the side, coming up on all fours. Ellan crouched beneath the table, a look of horror on her face as she stared at Volmar.
“I’m sorry,” he said and pushed off the floor.
Another heat blast hit a pillar as he ran and a rock fragment sliced deep across his cheek. The ceiling slumped dangerously but he didn’t stop and he didn’t look back.
He was outside, his lungs on fire in the thin air. The shuttle was powering up, the hull plates sliding away from the ramp. There was no cover and the K-Chaan could fire again at any moment.
Volmar fell through the hatch, covered in blood and dust. The pilot stared at him.
“Go!” Volmar shouted.
“What about the consul? His wife?”
“They’re dead. The K-Chaan killed them.”
The pilot hesitated. Through the hatch, Volmar could see movement in the ruined pavilion. A slab of plascrete fell to the ground and a K-Chaan rose out of the debris.
The hatch closed and Volmar got to his seat.
The view forward bucked as the pilot engaged emergency engines, the landscape slewing around at a sickening angle as they gained altitude. Above the planet, the sky was on fire.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
Elysem City, Telsus IV / Telsan Sector / Lenticular
“You’re not worried about us being seen together?” I asked.
Emba paused, a still-live worm skewered on his claw halfway to his mouth. Then he sucked at the worm’s tail and swallowed it whole.
“I have no reason to be,” he said, the voder translating his growls and barks instantly. “But you are.”
He was trying to put me off balance by choosing such a public space to dine together. It was working. I didn’t like being toyed with.
“You know the risks Hierarch Czerag took sending me here.”
Emba laid down the thin hook he was using to pry the worms from their coral tubes. “My only motivation is a love of good food. And this is the best restaurant under the dome. With the best views.”
The room was nestled high up against the sloping crystal wall of Elysem and I could see beyond the strengthened crust plate the city sat on to the dull red planet-spanning ocean of lava bubbling and popping in glutinous slow motion. Plumes of molten rock erupted in the distance, and further out the manufactories, their hulls built completely of fabricated tekla, skimmed off the mineral wealth that floated to the surface of this tortured world.
“Besides, the clientele here is select and very discreet,” Emba continued. “News of our meeting will not find its way back to your Homeworld.”
It was true I wasn’t the only non-Telsan in the room. And the diners seemed singularly uninterested in Ambassador Emba and his guest. Perhaps he did this all the time. But I knew he still wanted me at a disadvantage. Emba was a senior ambassador in the xeno trade and relations branch of the Telsan government and I was a messenger from Hierarch Czerag here to make a deal. In secret.
I held a woody vegetable in my mandible, tasting the sweetness of its bark while my feeder claws picked at its bitter innards. This whole journey had been one of contrasts, and now I was experiencing another: anxiety at the public nature of our meeting and the negotiations to come, and fresh exhilaration at being away from the Kresz worldmind and experiencing everything here, even the bad, solely for myself.
Emba was in no hurry to get to business. After the first course, there was a smoky broth that bubbled as we ate. It tasted like dirt, but I finished it all the same. I was determined to eat everything and show the ambassador I was happy to wait as long as he was. Longer even.
The next course was more of a challenge. It was live again, but more so: a long creature, with a dark spine-covered skin and five legs. It was served in a high-sided bowl, its legs skittering at the slippery sides as it tried to escape. Emba skewered the beast expertly with a sharp pick and pulled off its legs and crunched them between his teeth as the creature writhed around. I preferred to rip its head off and deal with it in less ambulatory fashion.
Finally Emba pushed back his plate and dabbed at his hairy muzzle with the square of cloth lying beside his glass. “And so to business,” he said. He raised a paw and his grey-furred aide, who had escorted me here, joined us at the table, a thin square device clutched in its clawed paw.
“Here?” I said.
“Under ambassadorial seal, of course.”
The aide tapped at the device and a force wall surrounded us. I could see the washed-out colours of the room beyond, but the dull murmur of other conversations was gone.
Emba was looking at me with his small dark brown eyes. “You start.”
Here it was then. My chance to change my life completely.
“Your industries have an inexhaustible hunger for tekla and my hierarch has an inexhaustible supply,” I said. “The highest quality, which we can provide at a price below the tariff you pay through our Merchants Lodge.”
Emba raised a claw. “Yes, yes. The sample you provided is very pure. I’m sure you vouch it a fair representation of what you have to offer, but what happens when the lodge finds out about this? They’ll cut off trade with us.”
“The only commodity you buy from Homeworld is tekla. You’ll have no further need for them.”
Emba crinkled his snout, showing sharp incisors. “It’s still a risk for us. If your supply dries up. If the quality falters. If your hierarch changes his mind because of … pressure brought to bear by the lodge, what then?”
There was truth in what he said. But it wasn’t the lodge that posed danger for Hierarch Czerag; it was Hierarch Kergis. He controlled the Merchants despite the supposed separation of house and lodge and had grown rich and powerful as a result. The only way my hierarch could get a bigger share of trade profits was to go outside the existing arrangements and set up our own house’s parallel agreements. If Czerag was successful, it could blow the house/lodge system wide apart. But if he was discovered before he could demonstrate to the other hierarchs that direct trade was not just possible but an attractive proposition … well, at best we’d be squeezed by Kergis and the Merchants to stop trading immediately. At worst, our house might need a new hierarch, no matter the natural and ethical barriers to assassination.
Emba took the device from his aide and tapped at the screen. He handed it to me. “For all these considerations, we think this is a reasonable price for a standard podule load.”
I looked at the figure. It was low.
“My hierarch’s word is unbreakable. And it’s worth more than that.” My feeder claws stretched wide and I tapped in a considerably higher counter offer, then handed back the screen.
Emba looked at the figure, then scrutinised me. “That’s not a reasonable price.”
“It is reasonable. And a lot less than you’re paying now.”
He laid the device on the table, took up his glass and drank, watching me over the rim. “If I were a Kresz, I’d know if you thought it was a good price, wouldn’t I?”
“We’re empaths, Ambassador. We sense feelings. You might feel that I was nervous and – given the context – infer I was lying. But it’s not telepathy.”
But I was lying. Czerag had said I could go lower. The truth was I didn’t want to. Partly because I wanted to make the best deal I could, to prove I was worth more out here than hidden away in a dusty records hall. But I was also lying because I could. I wasn’t surrounded by empaths, and that was liberating. At home, that feeling would mark me as a deviant. Here it was my strength.
“I suppose we could pay a little more, but not what you’re asking,” Emba said.
“I’m not authorised to go lower.” The lie thrilled me again. “That’s the deal. And at that price, the only risk you run is to become embarrassingly rich.”
Emba rubbed the end of his muzzle and glanced at his aide.
“Let’s make the agreement,” I said.
Emba slapped the crystal table. “Hah.” He turned to his aide. “Confirm the trade.”
The other Telsan ran its paw over the device then held it out to me. I made a show of checking the figure was still the same, then I pressed the end of one claw against the port. The screen was passed to Emba, who looked over it, paused, looked at me, then flashed his teeth again and added his genetic imprint.
“Your Merchants Lodge is going to be furious when they discover Czerag’s cut them out.”
“Nothing for you to worry about. We have it under control.”
Another lie. Delivery would be difficult. Ensuring my own departure from Homeworld was undetected had presented enough problems. Not even Czerag could conceal a large off-world shipment of tekla with no lodge certification. Kergis would be alerted immediately, and he had strong links with the Defenders Lodge as well. But if Czerag had a plan to ensure delivery and keep Kergis occupied, he hadn’t shared it with me. It was the way of all house hierarchs to keep that kind of information compartmentalised.
“A deal this big calls for a celebration,” Emba said as the privacy screen around us fell away. He waved a paw and one of the wait staff came close. “Arga. Bring the bottle. And two glasses.” He looked at his aide. “You can file those, Gratch. I won’t need you any more this evening.”
My feeders opened wide again and I felt my whole body relax. I’d done it. Czerag would see how useful it could be to have a Kresz off-planet.
The single sun of Telsus IV was sinking to the horizon now and the glow from the lava ocean reflected off the chairs and tables, the crystal jugs and glasses, and turned the red of my exoskeleton black.
One of the wait staff brought the liquor Emba had ordered.
“I like you, Udun,” Emba said, pouring a glass and handing it to me. “You’re much friendlier than the few other Kresz I’ve met. They’re as hard to get to know as the shell they’re wrapped in.”
“Kresz prefer to deal purely with their own kind,” I said. “By and large they see interaction with aliens as a necessary evil. And it’s the same with any travel that takes them away from the worldmind.”
“But you’re not like that.”
I replaced my glass on the table. “When I was very young, I was always running off from the escarpment to find out what was beyond the next dune. The grown-ups would catch me, bring me back and scold me. The proper place for a Kresz was in his house, they’d say. But it didn’t stop me. Finally they locked me in the records hall during the day and set me to work helping the old Scholar there. They thought it was a punishment and that I’d grow out of my unKreszlike behaviour. But in among the catalogues I found documents and images that taught me about all the strange worlds spinning around the nearby stars of the Lenticular, and the even stranger beings that inhabited them. The more I learned, the more I wanted to experience them for myself. And the more the others saw that as a rejection of their way of life. In time, they came to resent me for it. With few exceptions, they still do.” My mandibles stretched open. “I never thought I’d get the chance to leave Homeworld, and now …”
“Now I’m here, I don’t think I’d ever go home if I had the choice.”
Emba grunted. “I understand duty. But if you come back this way, my home is yours.”
He refilled my glass and I took another sip. The arga was sweet, sticky and left a pleasant buzz.
“Even if I told you I’d have accepted a lower price if you’d held out?”
Emba drained his glass and slammed it down on the table. “Especially then!”
There was a bright flare through the window and Emba turned to look, then raised his paw to beckon someone, a creature I’d never seen before. Its head was oddly shaped, the brow ridge tapering and extending up and forward in an arc, mirrored by another bony projection below the mouth slit. The light shattered across its iridescent skin but its eyes were pure black.
It saw Emba and walked stiffly over, one of its legs refusing to bend. There were burn scars at its neck and running across what I could see of its chest through the opening of the tunic it wore. It took the empty seat at our table, breath whistling through oblique flaps cut into its cheeks.
“Udun, this is Atalna,” Emba said. “Another friend from afar.”
The black eyes regarded me. “You’re a Kresz. I’ve never seen one in the flesh. Or shell I should say.”
“And I’ve never met anyone that looks like you.” The arga pushed my curiosity past my usual reserve.
“That’s because I come from somewhere far beyond your local Lenticular Space.”
One of the wait staff brought another glass and Emba filled it. “Atalna, a drink. We’re celebrating.”
Atalna took the glass and raised it. “Celebrations are few and far between. We must cherish them.”
Emba’s aide appeared and bent low beside the ambassador, muttering something I couldn’t catch.
“Consul Lintal,” Emba said. “Now?”
Atalna shifted in his seat and I noticed the skin on the leg he favoured was brittle and cracked. His past seemed written painfully across his body and I looked away. On Homeworld, someone with such extensive injuries would be euthanised. My culture had decided long ago they had no need of medicine. The sick got better or died. It was the will of Sakat.
Emba stood. “I’m sorry. An ambassador is never off duty it seems. Please enjoy yourselves. Udun, I’ll see you tomorrow at the spaceport.” And he hurried away, his aide scurrying to keep up.
Atalna reached for the bottle. The movement wasn’t easy for him and I imagined scorched skin protesting at the motion. He poured more arga for me and for himself, and took a sip, relaxing back into the seat.
“It’s peaceful here,” he said.
“Emba has been a very gracious host.”
“We all deserve a little kindness.” His black eyes focused on me. “There’s far too much of the opposite in the galaxy. I think you’ve experienced some of that.”
“Why do you say that?”
The slits on the side of his cheeks whistled, sending the light running across the mosaic scales of his face. “I may be a guest in the Lenticular, but I know enough to see how unusual you are – a lone, wandering Kresz. You’re different, and people who are different are not always welcomed by those who consider themselves ‘normal’.”
“I know something about being misunderstood and facing the judgement of those doing the misunderstanding,” I said.
“And yet here you are, out amongst the stars, and there they sit, huddled in their ignorance, never lifting their eyes above the horizon.” It was as if he could read my thoughts. “To be normal is to be complacent. What you have is a gift.”
“It doesn’t feel like that. Mostly people at home are suspicious of me.”
“But I’m not talking about the perceptions of others. Your presence here proves you are special. It means you see things that others of your kind don’t. You think thoughts they never could. Hold onto that. It’s what will keep you safe.”
“Safe?” This conversation seemed to vibrate with some resonance for him, something I was missing. Again, I wondered about his past.
“Emba would say I’m scaremongering again. But he hasn’t experienced what I have.” He put his glass down. “You’ve seen the marks on my body. They were inflicted by my own people. Better they had taken my life. It would have left me easily enough.”
I felt the skin tighten around my skull plate. The room was suddenly less comfortable. Less safe.
“Where do you come from?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper.
“In another life I was Atalna, prime minister of Betlaan. You wouldn’t have heard of that world. I fled many light years before Emba took me in.”
“Why?” I said. “I mean why did your people hurt you?”
He looked around, but we were quite alone. Still his voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Betlaan was a good world. We had our cities and our parklands. We had our devotions. One day we were contacted by a federation of worlds called the Hegemony. We knew of them, of course. They control an area of space out towards the rim, but we’d had no dealings with them. They sent a vessel to our world. We greeted them, set up diplomatic relations and welcomed their embassy – just one of their diplomats and a small staff. Life went on as normal.
“Then, six months later, a new political party arose. They spread many lies about the government, saying we were hoarding the planet’s wealth for the elite and mismanaging what little we allowed to flow into services for the general population. The party didn’t receive much support though it was well-funded. Elections were held and the government was returned, but a few days later there was a revolt – a thing unheard of on Betlaan. This same group, but with many, strange weapons, seized the parliament and the cabinet fled into hiding. An interim cabinet was appointed by the rebels, entirely unlawfully, and requested aid from the Hegemony embassy to quell further ‘civil disorder’. The Hegemony ships and soldiers arrived mere hours later, putting any who questioned their presence to the atom blast,” Atalna said bitterly. “And they have been there ever since. I was lucky to escape our world with my life. Others were not so lucky.”
“So you believe this Hegemony orchestrated events?” I asked.
“I know it. I have evidence. Tri-D pictures of meetings held between members of the new party and the Hegemony diplomat before the elections. Much good that it does me now. The Hegemony has our world in its grasp, and nothing will loosen its fingers.”
“But you’re here now. You’re safe.”
He straightened in his seat. “I am not safe. None of us are. I have seen the Hegemony’s ships lay waste to innocents, seen my own people turned into sadistic murderers. Since then I’ve made a study of the Hegemony, as much as I can. They move secretly wherever possible. They stay strong by driving outwards and sweeping aside all who might challenge them. They will never stop. And no others I have met possess their single-minded ruthlessness. Eventually, even this part of space will belong to them.
“That’s the reason I survived, to spread the warning. The Hegemony always come in friendship, one hand extended but the other clutching a weapon behind their back. Now you know about them, Udun. And because you are different, because you are not complacent, I hope the knowledge will save your life one day.”
Atalna sat back in his seat, watching me, and I became aware again of the conversations of others around us. I felt like I was emerging from a sharing. Or perhaps a nightmare.
“Tell me more about the Hegemony,” I said.
Elysem Spaceport, Telsus IV / Telsan Sector / Lenticular
“He told you his tale then?” Emba said. “I’m sorry. If I hadn’t been called away I could have spared you the detail. He tells everyone he can. But Betlaan is so far away it’s hard to really know what happened there.”
“Are you questioning his story?” I asked.
It was early the next morning and Emba and I stood together in a private room in the government section of the spaceport, a building well away from the civil and commercial halls. Through the bubble window the landscape was dark and smouldering, with only a hint of the coming sunrise far out, through thick cloud.
Emba rocked back on his stout legs, the fur on his chest sticking out. “No, but you’ve seen his scars. An experience like that, it colours a person’s whole view on life. He’d latch onto you if you let him. You’d be reliving war stories for cycles.”
“Fortunate for me I’m going home then.”
Emba grunted. “I’m not an empath, but even I can tell you don’t mean that. Is it really so bad there?”
My delicate feeder claws stretched wide. “Now I’ve experienced what it’s like out here, it’s worse.”
It wasn’t just the thought of returning to a place where my sense of self was sometimes hard to separate from the opinions of others. Telsus IV was a wondrous contrast of technologically advanced luxury and harshly beautiful landscapes and being here was beyond anything I’d imagined when I dreamt of travelling to other worlds. But I didn’t want to stop here. I wanted to see Telsus Prime, and the moons round the methane worlds of Svesta, even the radioactive landscapes of Jantri’va if I could arrange entry. There was so much to see in the Lenticular, I could spend a lifetime just travelling. Instead I was going home.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Emba said. “It’s not good to feel out of place in your home.”
I felt embarrassed receiving kindness from this alien who was still a stranger to me. My problems weren’t his.
“I still need the details for the shipment,” I said. “Location, timings, code channels …”
“Yes, and that’s not something your hierarch would like to fall into the wrong hands. We must protect all our interests in this.”
He walked to a table near the window and pressed a control stud. The door opened and an even shorter Telsan entered, silver-haired and carrying a small pouch. The door closed behind him as he crossed to the table and placed the pouch on the surface, then pulled out a metal instrument with a pistol grip and a thick, cylindrical body topped with a tapering tube as long as a clawspan.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The information,” Emba said. “We’re going to put it in your blood. Or what passes for blood in your physiology. It’s a coded genetic sequence. Inert but persistent. When we know you’re safely back on Homeworld, we’ll communicate the structure of a particular chemical to your hierarch. That chemical, applied to a sample of your blood, will cause the sequence to express the information, decoding the data it holds.”
I looked at the other Telsan holding the tube end of the device towards me. “It’s safe?”
“For you personally, yes. And it’s the safest way we’ve found to deliver the necessary information. We’ve used it a few times before. Mainly to circumvent our neighbours, the Svestans. It hasn’t been discovered.”
“All right. Then where …?”
“Somewhere in your chest,” Emba said.
I kneeled in front of the small Telsan and pulled at my left pectoral plate, clearing it below the neck guard to show the hide underneath. The Telsan placed the end of the tube there. I heard a hiss and felt warmth spreading beneath my skin, but nothing else.
“There,” Emba said. “It’s done. Time to go home.”
I stood again and we walked together into the embarkation area. The hall was completely empty.
“I had the facility cleared of non-essential personnel,” Emba said. “We want this venture to be successful as much as you do.”
A Telsan freighter hunkered low on the glassy apron of the spaceport field. It was covered in articulated tekla that could be reconfigured to adapt the cargo space inside to different loads. The main bulk spread up and back from the control deck in a curved hump. Both turbines were already spinning, shredding the smoky atmosphere, and the control surfaces on the rear ventrals moved with quick, insect-like flicks. The ship lock stood open for me at the end of a pressurised gantry.
“I hope to see you again, Udun. I hope you get what you want.” Emba extended one paw and brushed it over the metacarpal guard above my right claws.
“Thank you. Remember me to Atalna. Tell him I hope he finds peace.”
“I will. And I’ll keep him safe. You have no need to worry about him.”
I walked down the gantry, my hoof plates clicking on the hard decking, and entered the airlock, cycling through. On the other side, the corridor was cramped and open cabling hung from the roof, not low enough to hinder the crew member waiting to show me to my cabin, but I had to walk bent over in a shuffling gait, scraping along the metal decking and scratching my shin plates as I went. The cabin was equally confined and even though the acceleration couch was large by Telsan standards, it was a tight fit for me and the strapping barely stretched across my shell.
When I was secured, the Telsan left and I watched the smoky atmosphere through the cabin’s small port as the turbine noise grew. The ship angled, balancing now on thrusters, and began to rise, accelerating away into the brown and yellow clouds above. A jump in the turbine noise and we were going faster still, the force pushing down on me like the weight of my old life reasserting itself.
I’d go home, subject myself to everything that meant and deliver the information I carried. I’d promised that much. And in return, Czerag had promised I could leave again. That was the only thing that sustained me now.
The agony of transit shocked me awake and my arm spasmed with the pain, ripping free of the couch strapping. A Telsan flight-tech was in the cabin with me. He looked wide-eyed at the broken strap, then fixed his gaze on me as if I were about to attack.
“Where are we?” I asked.
I could see through the port we were in realspace, but far out-system because djel, sura and ataz, the suns of Homeworld, were almost lost in the background of stars.
“The captain got a message to transit here instead of the Point,” the Telsan said.
“Who from?” I unfastened the remaining strapping and pushed up to a sitting position.
The Telsan flashed pointed teeth. But before he could speak, the captain’s voice came over the intra-ship. “Hey, Kresz. Come to the control deck. We have company.”
I stood, wide awake now. My knee joints protested as I crouched in the low cabin. Had Czerag’s plan been discovered?
I followed the Telsan down the cramped corridor and onto the control deck, where I could stand properly. The captain grunted at me and pointed through the curved port at an approaching ship. I’d expected a Defender Lodge striker or maybe even a battlecruiser, but this was a mining tug. The hull was rugged and angular, a squat, ugly expression of brute strength with massive double turbines hanging from the front and equally large reaction tubes running along either side. Behind it, in tow, was a mountain of ice, studded with rock. It was coming too close.
“Tell them to stop,” I said. “Don’t let them come any nearer.”
“Open a channel,” the captain said.
“No vision. Sound only,” I added, but it was too late. The tug came within range and I felt the unmistakable presence of other Kresz. An ar’tet, the smallest functional group for off-world operations. They knew I was here too. I felt the sudden recognition, and then confusion when they realised only a single Kresz consciousness was on board.
A voice speaking in Kresz came over the channel. “Telsan ship. I am Bvak. I’m here to transfer your cargo.”
This didn’t make any sense.
“I’m near enough to your hull, so let’s not play games,” Bvak said. “Even close beam transmissions like this can be monitored. I’m following my orders, cargo. And you should too.” He cut the transmission.
“What do you want to do, Kresz?” the captain said. “I’m not starting a war.”
I didn’t feel any immediate hostility from the minds in the other ship. But the strong feeling of confusion persisted. They hadn’t expected to find me here. I walked closer to the port, trying to go deeper and get a true sense of what was happening on board. The strongest presence, possibly the one who spoke – Bvak – he felt … annoyed more than anything else.
The captain watched me, waiting. If anyone other than Czerag had found out I was here, they’d have sent more than a mining tug. And those on board would have known what to expect. This felt more like Czerag’s doing, which meant something had changed on Homeworld.
“Signal Bvak to come alongside for cargo transfer,” I said. “I think your voyage is over, Captain.”
A ring of jets flared briefly from the other ship as it disengaged from its ice mountain for close manoeuvres.
I made my way back along the corridor to my cabin and grabbed my travel pouch, then retraced my steps to the lock. The inner door was open and through the port in the external hatch I saw the mining tug turn, halt and then move closer.
The floor shook as the docking ring engaged. The Telsan captain was still on his control deck and no one had followed me down. No doubt they’d be glad to get back to Telsus ahead of time. If Emba’s deal fell through it was no great loss to them.
The lock closed behind me and even before the outer hatch opened I felt the common sending that meant both “well met” and “farewell”.
A Kresz stood in the other lock, waiting for me. He was the same body type as me but his plates were a deeper red, and he was dressed in flight skins with the bronze square in a clasp at his neck. An Adept pilot then. And from my own house judging by the length of brown cloth woven through the flight-skin strapping at his neck guard, but I didn’t recognise him. Still I didn’t feel threatened.
The annoyance I’d sensed was washed away by renewed astonishment as the evidence of his eyes confirmed I was completely alone.
“I’m Bvak,” he said. “I’m here to take you home.”
“Why should I come with you?” I asked and felt his annoyance flare again.
“You could stay with the Telsans, but you already know that’s a bad idea. Otherwise why would I have been sent?”
Still I didn’t move. I wanted to understand why he was here, but it was possible he didn’t know either.
“Are you working for the house or the lodge?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
“My shell’s hard enough, you know. And I don’t like people who trade questions with more questions.”
He’d have felt my anger in those words but I sensed only amusement from him.
“You’ve a suspicious nature,” he said. “Good. Nurture it. But we all do what we’re told. Your shell’s hard enough to understand that, I hope. Come or don’t. It’s up to you. If you won’t, I can get back to my mining.”
I walked into Bvak’s lock and the hatch sealed behind me. The inner door swung aside and I followed him into the ship. It was old but built to Kresz dimensions at least.
“I’m Udun,” I said.
“I’m sure I shouldn’t know that,” Bvak said. He stopped and turned. “One look at you and I can tell I won’t be getting back to mining anytime soon. I shouldn’t ask, but I’m going to anyway. How is it you’ve been on that ship by yourself?”
I sensed the same suspicions I’d endured most of my life welling up in him. I was more sick of it now than I’d ever been before. I’d borne the opinions of other Kresz because I’d accepted they were right about me. But things were different now. I’d been out amongst others who took me at face value and I’d been successful in my mission, so far at least. Why should I accept less from my own kind?
“I’m different,” I said.
He blinked slowly, tasting my anger. “That you are. Come aft. There’s no need for the rest of the crew to see you.”
I followed him to the end of the dim corridor, into a narrower one and up a flight of steps into a broad mess room, then through that to another corridor and finally a small cabin with a single sling that looked far more comfortable than the Telsan couch I’d endured.
I sat up into the sling and Bvak leaned against the wall, watching me.
“Why are you here?” I said.
“I told you. Orders.” The breath hissed through his spiracles. “We’ve been out here mining for the best part of two cycles, when an outbound prospector comes alongside, invites himself onboard and tells us to come to these coordinates to pick up some cargo and deliver it directly to Czerag without any outside interference. So, we drop everything because that’s what the hierarch wants. Only when we get up close to the Telsans, we realise the cargo is not what we expected.”
He was deeply puzzled. I could feel it. He was as much a puppet of Czerag’s will as I was. And he wasn’t happy about it either.
“You could ask me what I’m doing out here,” I said.
His feeder claws stretched wide. “Now you’re just being cruel.”
That much was true. Only the hierarch and his closest advisors were allowed to see the whole picture. Everyone else knew only what they were told and didn’t ask questions. It wasn’t often I was in a position to know more than another member of my house. But I still didn’t know why my return trip had been interrupted.
“Has anything happened on Homeworld?” I asked.
“I told you, we’ve been in the outer system for two cycles.”
The thrusters started up and I was pushed gently back into the sling. We were accelerating. Presumably the Telsans were already gone.
“How long till we make planetfall?” I asked. This ship looked considerably slower than the Telsan craft.
“Five days,” Bvak said. “We could go quicker, but that would look unusual.”
Five days stuck on a ship with a group of Kresz who didn’t have much to think about except the stranger they’d picked up. A Kresz that was obviously odd and not to be trusted. There was no way I could block those feelings out for the duration. But it was only a taste of how it would be in the escarpment. Distrust bred fear and suspicion. It was all depressingly familiar. I was trapped in a feedback loop from which there was no escape, and I was headed back to a planet full of Kresz who couldn’t help but react the same way to me. I’d accepted it before, but I couldn’t now.
I should have forgotten my mission and stayed with Emba. But Czerag had given me this chance and I felt that debt. It made me angry at him and angry at myself. But it was anger without purpose. It wouldn’t change anything.
Rings of Neptune / Sol System / Hegemony
Rhees feathered the throttle on the Typhoon ramcraft to hold formation. Petar was visible through the canopy to starboard. Jute flanked her port nacelle. The tac display spread over her forward view showed the rest of the force in textbook formation, a tight pyramid, the apex pointing towards the trailing Trojan moon on the dark side of the ring.
Comms chatter was hushed and sporadic. Everyone was keyed up, looking for signs of the opposition force, wanting to get the first shot. Well, they could have it. It was all very well being the first. But Rhees planned on being the best. Ace this last training flight and she’d have her pick of postings, and she could insist Petar come along with her.
The chat spiked and the flight commander spoke up, silencing the others. “Settle! We have them.”
It was faint on tac – the barest of contacts – but there was definite movement near the Trojan. The moon was big enough to conceal a fair few ships; the Typhoons were barely twice as long and wide as the gee capsule that held Rhees rigid. Of course, it could be a trick.
“Gamma Wing,” the commander said, and Rhees caught her breath. “Peel off and do your thing. I want to see some real damage out there.”
“Aye, sir,” Rhees said.
Petar gave a thumbs-up through the bubble and Rhees punched for full thrust, turning tight and leaving the formation far below, with Petar and Jute trailing her all the way. They flew up out of the orbital plane, looping over and away from the Trojan moon, and then diving towards Neptune.
Petar was keeping close watch on the tac feed from the main force. “Definitely contact,” he said. “Showing a sizeable force. Pretty much all of them. Looks like they want to make a stand. Very old school.”
“Very stupid,” Jute said.
“Wouldn’t count on it,” Rhees said. “They want to win as much as we do.”
They were tracking down to the ring, but significantly behind the main force now. Rhees wanted to go further, brush the cloud deck and shake any contact the enemy tac might still have on them. She wanted them to be ghosts.
They passed beneath the twisted ring and paced for a hundred or so klicks, skimming atmosphere.
“Lost contact,” Petar said.
“Which means we’re gone too,” Rhees said.
“So how much damage do you want to do?” Petar asked.
“All of it,” Rhees said.
“Leave some for us,” Jute said. “It’s rude not to share.”
Rhees kicked the thruster up another notch. The craft shot forward.
“Partial,” Petar said.
“Got nothing but the main force. What’s your calibration?” Jute asked.
“Closer than you’re looking,” Petar said.
Rhees accepted a feed from Petar’s ship. Pattern was degraded this close to the magnetosphere, but it looked right. Six singleships, bogies for sure. She pulled back almost to coasting. Sons of fuckers … They were stationary. Buried in the ring.
She switched to sector view. Their group was still moving in pyramid formation, more than halfway to the moon now and closing. These bogies were well behind the action. Their intention was clear. Wait until main engagement and then swoop down behind and start picking off ships. The formation would break up, trying to cover two fronts at once, and the bogies would win.
“They haven’t seen us, I’m sure of it,” Petar said. “If we wait till they break and start their run we can come in behind. We’ll be covered in glory.”
“If we wait,” Rhees said, “they’ll be in open space and there’s six of them.”
“So?” Petar said.
“If we go in after them we’ll still have the element of surprise. More so, and they won’t be able to manoeuvre.”
“I don’t think –” Jute began.
“What?” Rhees said.
“It’s risky. We won’t have room to manoeuvre either,” Jute finished.
“Yeah, well, we won’t need room. We’re the better pilots.”
“C’mon, Jute,” Petar said. “We can do this. The bigger the risk, the bigger the party afterwards. Those guys won’t know what hit them.”
“Form up on me,” Rhees said, already plotting an insertion. “And heat up your cannons.”
Neptune’s ring – more like a twisted necklace – was skinny compared to Saturn’s, and packed with icy debris. But it was stable and the comp could handle it. The cannons were primed with hollow alloy pellets for the training run, not deuterium, but they still vibrated the gee capsule as they powered up. The shots would be enough to rattle the ramcraft, and onboard comps would tally damage, deactivating “dead” bogies.
Tac showed countdown to commit. She flicked the abort option aside.
“We’re gonna be heroes,” Petar said.
The counter reached zero. Even through the gee capsule she felt the push of maximum burn as the ramcraft leaped up and twisted together into the transient gaps in the ring. The hull rang with minuscule hits, dust-sized debris creating a rainfall of impacts. Larger rocks speed-blurred past the canopy.
The bogies showed red, centre screen and closing. Holding position.
Petar and Jute pulled close in the tight space, noses to Rhees’s nacelle tips. One klick and closing.
The ships veered as one, missing larger debris as microwave processors continued to plot the optimal path. Five hundred metres.
“Weapons hot!” Rhees said.
Still no visual. Space ahead was too crowded. Should be something soon.
Another dip. A twist. The debris cleared. Bogies dead ahead. But facing them. They must have turned. Massed cannons.
Pellets peppered her hull. Not enough for real damage, but the sudden barrage tipped her. A shriek of tortured metal from starboard. The nacelle.
She looked through the canopy. Saw Petar staring at her. Shock on his face. His ship veered. Hit rock. Spun.
Her own ship registered the final hit that deactivated her engines. Safeties kicked in to keep her stable.
Petar was still spinning. Then he ran out of room. Silent flash. Ramcraft breaking up and the gee capsule smacked down. Straight into a big rock.
Dead eyes stared at her through a broken faceplate.
Rhees screamed and sat bolt upright in bed.
The sheets wound around her were slick with sweat. She cradled her head in her hands, breathing heavily. “Fuck,” she rasped.
Her breathing slowed, but that didn’t ease the pain in her chest. Petar was dead. She should be in jail. She would be if her father wasn’t an admiral, hadn’t interceded even as he made it clear how disappointed he was in her.
She took a long shuddering breath and wiped the sweat-slicked hair from her forehead. The image floating above the holodisc on the bedside table showed her and Petar, hugging, laughing, alive.
She went to the head and washed her face in the basin, cinched her blonde hair back. In the mirror, her eyes showed dark rings beneath. She and Petar had been on the fast track. Good career ahead of them; everything starting to make sense. All over in the blink of an eye and nothing made sense to her now. Her life was playing out around her and she didn’t have the power to change it.
Today was the first day of the “new start” her father had brokered for her. The past was to be laid to rest. No chance of that. But she had to do one thing before she at least tried to move on.
Throwing on a fresh skivvy, she walked back into the main room – the only room – and sat on the couch, pulling her legs up off the floor.
“Open call,” she said.
A holo dilated at eye level and she selected the call-matrix on her wristband. It was a sequence she hadn’t used since Petar had given it to her three years ago for “just in case”.
Lines of numbers rolled across the holo as the comps searched Voss Space comms connections for the unique codestring. He might be unavailable and that would be fine. She would know that she’d tried.
There was a flash. The screen blanked again, then the number scroll continued. She waited.
The Hegemony Diplomatic Corps badge – the infinity symbol – faded in. A light blinked in the corner of the image. There was no location ident. It could have been anywhere in Hegemony space. A man sat in a darkened room looking sleep weary. It was Petar’s face: the same sharp nose, strong dimpled chin. But the hair was straight, not curly. And the eyes were different, older. Denev, Petar’s brother. He looked as shocked as Rhees felt.
“Rhees …” he said, but seemed unsure what to say next.
“Denev. I’m sorry to disturb you. I … I’ve been meaning to call. Since … I’m sorry I haven’t. Been too much of a coward.”
Denev’s dark eyes were fixed on her. She wished he’d look away.
“I just wanted to say …” Her throat felt like it was closing up. She pushed on. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Petar. What happened. It was my fault. I killed him.”
She stopped. It was done.
“I know,” Denev said.
She tried to see the emotion behind his words, but his face was unreadable.
“I always tried to keep him safe,” he said softly. “You put him in harm’s way and now he’s gone.”
“You must hate me,” she said.
“At least you know what you’ve done. At least you admit it to yourself.”
The holo blanked.
She felt empty inside. Sixty-seven days since Petar died. She’d been back on Earth for eight of those. And every night was the same.
She pulled off the skivvy and climbed into the shower booth. The water was tepid but it washed away her tears.
Back in the main room, she opened her wardrobe and hesitated. Did she really want to do this? She dismissed the thought. She should wear the patterned onepiece, but she’d never felt comfortable in civilian clothes. She’d be Fleet right up until she was HDC. There was nothing in-between. She took out her dress uniform pants and jacket and dressed quickly.
Her apartment was on the 916th floor of a building in the Twenty Thousand Block. The buildings this far out from the centre grew close together and the blue sky, peppered with flyers, was shrunk to a thin ribbon directly overhead. As she stood on the smooth plascrete outside her building, people passed her by as if she were barely there – a ghost. She needed to prove that she still existed. That after Neptune, she wasn’t broken.
She stepped onto the band that looped up from the entranceway to her building, and skipped through a series of accel strips onto the main slidewalk that carved its way through the apartment block canyon. The strip was close to empty this early and she walked along the fastest band, quickly leaving the residential sector behind.
The sky above widened through the business sector and finally opened up above Vigilance Plaza, which was lined with faceless, low-rise buildings that led to the Hegemony Diplomatic Corps Datahive: an unbroken grey egg supported on a single oblique column of plasteel.
Rhees positioned herself for the next split, then took the slidewalk down, stepping quickly onto the decel strips until she disembarked at ground level and the entrance to the Datahive. She pulled at her uniform jacket to straighten out the wrinkles, took a last look at the cloudless sky, and walked into the reception area.
A single slab of obsidian formed a desk running the full length of the foyer. Just as large and floating above it near the ceiling was a silver infinity symbol. The shape shifted as she approached the desk, looking from this angle like a moebius strip – two dimensions twisted into a third – and then a snake swallowing its own tail.
The young man behind the desk wore a standard Diplomatic Corps onepiece, black and nondescript except for the same infinity symbol embroidered above the left breast. He was concentrating on the obsidian surface and Rhees knew she was being subjected to a broad spectrum of security scans. Finally he looked up at her, taking in her uniform, the brass clasp on the jacket and the broken threads circling a darker patch of blue cloth on her upper arm, where her squadron badge had been.
“Rhees Lowrans,” she said. “I have an appointment.”
“Come this way, please.”
She followed him into a waiting elevator, but instead of going up, they went a long way down.
The doors opened directly onto a vast chamber. The floor was polished plascrete, a perfect circle, maybe a couple of hundred metres in diameter; the walls receded into the darkness above, lined with walkways and shadowy figures. The space was filled with a layering of hushed voices like an ocean tide.
A man stood waiting for her. Thin. Old but not feeble. Silver hair swept back in a receding peak. His cheeks were sunken, and the right one carried a long scar – a straight line of puckered white skin from just below his earlobe to the edge of his thin lips. His eyes were in deep shadow. This was Troels Volmar, Comptroller of the Hegemony Diplomatic Corps. Her father had made it very clear: do not fuck with this man.
“I expected you nine minutes ago,” he said.
Rhees stepped onto the hard floor. The click of her boot heels echoed in the emptiness as she crossed the distance between them and snapped to attention.
“Rhees Lowrans reporting for duty, sir.” She didn’t offer an apology. She almost hadn’t come.
“Duty is it?” Shadows flowed across Volmar’s face as he shifted. His eyes were the blue of an iceberg. “I’m not sure you understand the meaning of the word.” He looked her up and down. “What use will you be to me, Lowrans? What use will you be to Earth?”
After Neptune, she wasn’t sure she had an answer.
But Volmar didn’t wait for one. “I have no time for dead weight here. Your record shows you’re insubordinate and lack discipline. And people around you die.”
She looked down sharply, biting hard on the inside of her mouth, tasting blood. Don’t give him the satisfaction. When she looked up again her face was impassive.
Volmar was still watching her. If he was enjoying this, he didn’t show it.
“Everyone in this facility has been hand-picked by me after rigorous and lengthy training. Because the work we do here is of the utmost importance to the continued survival of Earth. This,” he looked up into the darkness, “is where the real power of the Hegemony lies.”
She couldn’t control her expression this time.
“You don’t believe me?”
She was still standing at parade attention. With a brief nod from Volmar she stood at ease.
“I don’t recall the K-Chaan war machines being turned back by a terse diplomatic memo,” she said. “And it took the Fleet to vaporise every one of their colonies afterwards.”
She expected Volmar to explode, to send her packing, and that would be fine. Nihilism was very attractive right now. But the comptroller’s lips thinned into the approximation of a smile, and on the walkways circling above them, the quiet murmur of data interpolation faded to silence. Rhees wondered how many of the staff working above had unplugged from their datanooks to listen.
“I was on the front line when the K-Chaan almost overwhelmed us,” Volmar said. “You were probably busy getting born then. And I know if HDC had been active then as we are now, that situation would never have been allowed to develop the way it did.”
He strode towards the centre of the chamber, where a safety rail circled a deep pit set in the floor. “Come here.”
Rhees looked up. White faces spiralled above her. Some pulled back from her gaze; others continued to stare down. She joined the comptroller.
Below them, a holotank displayed the galactic spiral arm and, out near the tip, the hazy border marking Hegemony space. The stars close in to galactic centre were rendered simulations – placeholders at best – but the suns in and around the Hegemony were displayed in realtime, or as close to it as the network of Voss Space relays allowed.
“Look at how small we are,” Volmar said, gesturing towards Hegemony space. “A tiny island of order in the midst of unending chaos. It’s no small feat that we’ve survived and flourished despite what almost happened with the K-Chaan. But it’s not because we have a strong fleet.”
Rhees glanced at him, but Volmar’s eyes were focused on infinity.
“The Fleet you served has its uses, but they are very limited,” he said. “Confined to pitched battles or intra-system disputes. The real struggle for survival takes place without a shot being fired and it’s the Corps that makes it happen. We don’t just collect data here. We use it. We use it on a thousand worlds through a network of countless operatives. A thousand tiny wars are waged and won every day, each one in plain view of an unsuspecting citizenry.” He cleared his throat, straightening again. “It’s the only way to ensure our continued survival. And it’s not something the Fleet is well suited for.”
He took her by the upper arm and turned her to face him. It was such an unexpected move she didn’t know what to do. He stepped closer until he towered over her, his gaunt features illuminated by the faint glow from the holotank. His grip was firm, but she didn’t pull away, refusing to be cowed.
He bent his head to her ear and his voice dropped to a whisper. “I know you don’t want to be here. I don’t want you here either. It’s only because your father has pull with Central Administration that you’re not rotting in a stockade where you belong.”
She pulled back then, breaking his grip, but Volmar’s face remained unreadable.
“However,” he continued, “talk to me again as you just did and you’ll wish it was you splattered across the rings of Neptune. Understand?”
It took everything she had, but she took a step back and saluted. “Yes, sir.”
Volmar’s thin lips pursed and he gave the slightest of nods. “Not so much as a sparrow falls in the Hegemony without our express permission. You could be a part of that. But first, get rid of that Fleet uniform. You’re HDC now. God help us.”
God help me, she thought. This was her life now.