Liberation Of Worlds (2014)

Synopsis

One year on from the invasion of Earth and the Szuiltans are in control, effectively ruling both Earth and Aks. Martin Lichfield is leader of the largest rebel group on Earth. Steve Drake and Ursa Mirram are on the run on Aks. The traders of Sellit are preparing their navy for war and searching the galaxies for the legendary Miar Shrilor. Humanity is getting ready to fight back, but will it be too late as the Szuiltans show signs of evolving and their President instigates plans for the future survival of the Szuiltan race.

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Sample

Chapter 1

Earth Controller, he liked the sound of it. Just over a year ago he had been the Commander of a Szuiltan battle cruiser, poised above the Palace, disgorging troops onto the already defeated Earthmen below. Now he was Earth Controller.

He oozed over the chair, the desk, not bothering to levitate, preferring the feel of solid human objects against his surface. He flowed onto the window, sensing the change in texture, revelling in the variety.

On Szuilta, everything is the same: smooth, functional, designed for our use. Here it’s so different. Humans have such strange design sense, such exciting use of materials. It may be difficult to operate, but it all feels so wonderful!

He thought of his crew, still inside the battle cruiser that had now settled in the natural forest, destroying miles of foliage in the process, flattening trees, killing animals. He felt a momentary sensation of displeasure at that. He was certain that the forest would provide even more textures, even more strange feelings, but what was left was protected by the auto-security systems aboard the cruiser. He could not venture there without first notifying the ship’s crew, and that would take away the privacy he needed to truly enjoy these new sensations, these new experiences.

These things are private to me.

He found the concept strange, perhaps even frightening. Fear. It was one of many emotion he had never experienced.

Yes. Emotions. That’s what these sensations are. Real emotions. How strange!

He became aware of a flickering, a pulsing light on the desk. Someone waited outside to see him.

Duncan. Only my Personal Advisor would be allowed to approach the door.

He slithered off the glass of the window and levitated to the desk, a slight swelling on his right side lengthening into an appendage some two feet long. The end shimmered into a rough semblance of the fingers on a human hand. One ‘finger’ jabbed the Open button on the desk.

Duncan Jameson was a small man in his mid thirties, timid and submissive in nature. He entered the Controller’s office nervously. His lank black hair hung about his head, almost hiding eyes that shifted, darting here and there. Every now and then he would itch idly at a scar on his left forearm, or rub a finger over liver spots on the back of his hands, or squeeze the fingers of one hand with those of the other. He was seldom completely still.

The Controller knew this man had been a lowly clerk in the previous Controller’s offices, and he knew how he had quickly offered his services to the conquerors of his planet. It had been decided to use him, although they knew him to be untrustworthy and a coward.

“Controller,” said Duncan as he entered. “I await your instructions for the anniversary celebrations.”

Even the voice is weak, thought the Controller. Oily. Reeking of betrayal and scheming.

The Controller pulsated for a moment and the globe, which had been lying quiescent in a corner, now rose into the air, squirming within the confines of its form. It spoke.

“Yes, the celebrations. I trust all the preparations for the street parties are completed? We want the people of Earth to enjoy the anniversary of their subjugation.”

“And what of the other matter, Controller? What of the rebels in the mountains?”

Why is he so eager that we mount an operation against these rebels? Does he fear that they would kill him if they were ever successful? He is certainly a traitor to his race.

“I have not decided about the rebels yet, Duncan. They do not bother us. The most they do is steal food from small shops and market traders. They do not pose a threat to our new administration.”

“But they may turn at any moment…”

“Enough!” snapped the Controller, the translator globe distorting with the venom in the word. “I have said we will do nothing for the moment and that is the end of the matter.”

It is surely more than the fear of reprisal. I shall instigate investigations as soon as possible, after the celebrations.

“What of the priesthood?” asked the Controller.

“The Larnian priesthood was eradicated along with the Earth military after the invasion, Controller,” said Duncan.

“Please, Duncan, do not treat me like a fool.” The globe floated closer to the human advisor as the Controller pulsated more rapidly.

Duncan recognised the signs of increased agitation, perhaps even annoyance, from his Szuiltan master and sought to placate him.

“I assure you I intended no such thing, Controller. I was simply stating the facts…”

“The facts that we tell the populace, Duncan, but I want the real truth. I know that, just as there were soldiers who escaped our detection, there were priests who also escaped.”

The globe drifted closer to the window again and the Controller’s pulsating slowed to its normal, gentle speed.

“I know,” continued the Controller, “that the soldiers are no worry. Soldiers are paid to do a job. Take that pay away and most, if not all, will cease being soldiers. The priesthood, however, is a different matter altogether. They are fanatical men and women who follow their belief through conviction. I have no doubt that they continue to meet, in secret. That they hold their services, practise their religion.”

“There are rumours,” conceded Duncan.

“What is their strength? That is what I need to know. What is their strength and what support do they have from the populace?”

“I am not sure, Controller. I will speak to my contacts and see what they can discover.”

Contacts, thought the Controller. He means spies, but he will never say it.

Duncan paused, turned to leave, paused again.

“What is it Duncan? You seem to have something else to say.”

Duncan turned back and swallowed hard.

“Well, I know it’s not my place, but…”

He is sweating! I can actually see the sweat on his forehead. Fascinating how human secretions betray their inner emotions.

“The priesthood remains strong, it’s true. But perhaps one reason is that two of their most eminent High Priests are still alive, in captivity. They remain an inspiration to those still free.” Duncan swallowed nervously. “I have heard it said that, in their private services, they pray for the release of these High Priests.”

“I see,” said the Controller, the globe succeeding in expressing thoughtfulness. Each update to the Operating System brought more sophistication. “Obviously your spies, sorry, contacts, have already been busy. Are you suggesting I order the execution of these High Priests?”

Duncan said nothing. He scratched at the scar on his arm with renewed vigour, swapped to squeezing his fingers, his eyes always downcast.

He is afraid to say it, but the answer is yes. Was he a follower of the Larnian faith before he was my advisor? I must ask him sometime, but now would not be right.

“Prepare my transport, Duncan. We shall visit these High Priests and then we shall see.”

He floated back towards the window, looking longingly out to the remains of the forest, wondering for a moment about the strange new sensations he seemed to experience at the view. A shuffling of human feet behind him, anxious, perhaps even frightened, focussed his concentration back on the subject of the captive religious leaders.

“Remind me of their names, Duncan.”

Duncan coughed, looked up momentarily from the floor.

“High Priests Zeina and Loadra, Controller.”

The Floating Prison Fortress PC439 was less than an hour by the Controller’s car, a small tram-like shuttle that travelled a respectable two feet off the ground, high enough to avoid small obstacles and rough roads, low enough not to have to worry about air traffic clearance. As dawn broke over the mass of water, still known locally as the Irish Sea, the car skimmed over the Rees Bridge into what had once been High Priest Loadra’s official residence. It now served as barracks for the twelve thousand or so Bosen and Aksian troops stationed there.

The Fortress was anchored off the coast, clearly visible from the bridge as a great grey ghost rising out of the morning mist, sharp and angular, as violent in its design as the regime within was rumoured to have been. It had not always been anchored there. Until the invasion it sat mid-Pacific, far from any prying eyes. Orders from the new Controller had brought it to its new home. Szuiltans preferred their prisoners nearby.

“Tell me again the colloquial name for this Fortress,” said the Controller, floating centrally in the car, oblivious to acceleration and deceleration and the occasional swing round a bend.

Iron Island, Controller,” said Duncan, glancing nervously at the four Bosens seated at the rear.

The globe, undulating just above Duncan’s head, seemed to snort.

“But it is not made of Iron, nor is it an island.”

The Szuiltan rolled until Duncan had the conviction it was facing him.

“I will never fully understand the human mind,” said the globe, translating the Controller’s thoughts.

The car approached Iron Island safely, skipping over a sea that was flat and calm, courtesy of local weather control. Duncan, watching out of the front window, saw the edifice for the first time and felt a shudder trickle down his spine. It was as ugly, ghost-like and violent close up as it had been partially obscured by the mist. Most of it was low, square, squat, but spires and towers thrust upwards at random intervals, harsh and jagged.

They were guided to the Fortress and into a secure parking area beneath the surface, a great empty area, dark and cold, damp. Waiting for them was the Szuiltan governor and his party of six Bosens.

Formalities were dispensed with quickly. Duncan had realised quite early in his new position that the Szuiltans, while having a very definite hierarchical and formal culture, were nevertheless principally a functional race.

He followed the now combined party as they entered a lift and rose at a stomach churning speed into the belly of the manmade monster. For a moment he marvelled at himself, at the way he coped with being the only human in the group, at the way the cloying odour of so many Bosens in an enclosed space did not cause him to turn and vomit. Not so long ago these things would have been a matter of great will power. Now, although they still required a conscious effort, they came easily.

I suppose man is capable of almost anything with enough practice and the right motivation.

The practice had been forced upon him. The motivation was to stay alive.

He was vaguely aware that the two Szuiltans in the lift were talking in their strange, incomprehensible language. He found the sound unpleasant, his mind conjuring images of drowning men, gurgling their lives away in a desperate attempt to reach the surface. The apparent liquidity of the Szuiltans only added to the image and he shuddered.

“Are you cold?” said the globe by the Controller’s undulating form.

“N…n…no,” stammered Duncan, feeling a panic and guilt that reminded him of his compulsory military service.

Yes, this is like the army. They order. I obey. If I don’t follow the rules, I will be punished. Why didn’t I control that shiver?

“You seemed cold just then. Please ensure that you do not fall ill. I have need of you in the days to come.”

“Yes Controller,” said Duncan, relieved. He had been so afraid that he would be asked to explain his shiver, and he knew he could not lie to the Controller.

“The human seems nervous, perhaps unstable,” said the Szuiltan governor, speaking in their native tongue, a tongue whose origin in a Reagold research laboratory was all but obliterated by numerous modifications and mutations.

“He is the nervous type,” agreed the Controller. “However, I find him useful to have around. The humans I have to deal with seem more comfortable if I have a member of their race on my staff.”

“Perhaps you should find another human then? This one still seems unreliable.”

“In time I will. But for now he suits my purpose. He may be a little unreliable, but he is pliable without any great effort, and I do not feel he is in any way a danger to me or our plans.”

The governor did not answer, silently leading the group out of the lift as the doors slid open.

Duncan had expected them to head for the governor’s office. Instead, they made straight for the maximum-security cells.

I should have realised, he thought with some bitterness. Functional as always. No thought for luxuries or niceties. Just work.

He noted the swirling ‘R’ of the Reagold Corporation on the security droids they passed in the corridor. He could not help but admire a corporation who would not let the small matter of a planetary invasion and take-over interfere with a pre-formed marketing strategy. They had been determined to break the Earth market, and now it seemed they had succeeded.

Loadra and Zeina were both in meditation when the group entered their joint cell. Duncan was shocked at their gaunt appearance, both men dangerously undernourished, starved even, showing signs of weakness and sickness. They still wore their High Priest robes, but they were tattered and dirty. The smell was almost unbearable, overpowering the Bosen stink with ease. A smell of urine and faeces. It was obvious that the Szuiltans did not adhere to the previous regime’s codes of treatment and sanitation in its prisons.

“I am looking for something memorable to round off the anniversary celebrations,” said the Szuiltan Controller to the governor. “I thought perhaps that these two might provide an interesting diversion?”

“The Lord Larn will strike down the abominations before me,” said Zeina suddenly, his eyes wide, staring. “The alien spawn of the devil will be destroyed by the one true god!”

“Does he say such things often?” asked the Controller, oozing closer to Zeina.

“Yes,” said the governor. “The other one says nothing, but this one is seldom quiet. We ignore him. It seems the simplest thing to do.”

“And you,” shouted Zeina, pointing directly at Duncan. “You traitor, bastard of the devil’s spawn, defiler of all that is holy, slave to abomination! You shall suffer for all eternity in a terrifying hell of Larn’s own choosing!”

Duncan stepped back, unnerved by the High Priest’s outburst. He had never been a fanatical believer, but, like most Earthmen, he had a basic belief and a genuine respect for the priesthood. Zeina’s words frightened him.

“He seems to have upset your human,” said the governor, intrigued by the observation.

“Yes.” The Controller flowed around the High Priest. “I noted the effect. It seems to me that there would be a danger in allowing this man a public airing of his rantings. If he had a similar effect on a larger scale, it could cause some problems.”

“He seems to serve little purpose in that case,” said the governor. “There is no point in keeping him locked up in here.”

“I agree,” said the Controller. “May I?”

“Certainly.” The governor backed away, as did the Bosens in the room.

Duncan’s eyes darted uncertainly. What was happening? What had they been saying?

The Szuiltan Controller erupted, a sudden flow of viscous, semi-liquid splashing into High Priest Zeina’s face. It spread, solidifying, oozing over his head, his shoulders, so rapidly that the movement was barely visible.

Duncan screamed, involuntarily, clamping his hand over his mouth to prevent a further outburst.

What is he doing? He’s killing him! Larn forgive me, but there’s nothing I can do.

He looked towards the other High Priest, but Loadra’s eyes were closed and his meditation seemed, if anything, deeper than before. If he knew what was happening, he refused to acknowledge it.

In seconds, Zeina’s struggles ceased and he slumped to the floor, completely encased in the Szuiltan Controller’s gelatinous form.

Duncan stepped closer, thinking the horror was, at last, finished. He was mesmerised by Zeina’s dead body, quite visible through the stretched, translucent form of the Controller. Then, as he watched, the High Priest’s face seemed to de-focus, become fuzzy, making it difficult to distinguish the individual features. Duncan rubbed his eyes, looked again, but it was no illusion. Zeina’s face was melting, slowly perhaps, but undoubtedly melting, globules of flesh dripping, as he watched, down onto the priestly robes. He tried to look away but found he could not. The rest of the body shrivelled, collapsing in on itself.

Duncan finally turned and vomited in the corner of the cell as the Szuiltan Controller’s digestive juices continued their work.

Chapter 2

“You have disappointed me Jason,” said Braben, sitting forward in his chair, speaking quietly into the communicator. There was no visual. The call was private and scrambled.

Jason Rawlings, sitting among the rubble of a building in one of the outer suburbs of Akasian, took a deep breath to calm his nerves. It was necessary to be cautious with Braben. The man had influence and power. He glanced around the dark street, towards the opening of the half-ruin that was the home of his particular rebel group for the night. No one in sight. It was safe to talk.

“I’m sorry sir.” He swallowed, coughed to clear his throat. “I really have tried, but things got messy here after the Szuiltans took over.”

“A whole year, Jason. One whole year. Yet Drake is still alive.”

“Agent Mirram and Drake disappeared in the night.” Jason spoke quickly, aware he was rushing his words but unable to control the nerve induced babble. “They left me and the other two without a word. I had no warning or I would have followed.”

He paused. There was no response from the communicator. Perhaps he needed to explain further?

“Mirram didn’t like me, maybe didn’t trust me. Plus, I think this John character forced things a bit. The jealous type. Mirram and Drake were spending more and more time together.” He felt so hot, although the night had seemed pleasantly cool when he stepped out into it. “I’ve tried to find out where they went. That’s why I left the other two and started moving round the various rebel groups. But they’re so tight on security here, so paranoid about traitors…”

“Stop,” said Braben, his voice sharp and angry even through the distortion of the communicator.

In his private quarters on Sellit, Braben leaned back into his chair and took the offered glass from Baxter. He closed his eyes for a moment, tried to relax. The delay had seemed unimportant at first, but now…

“I understand the problems Jason.” His voice was calm, controlled. There was nothing to be gained from losing his temper with this Agent. “I have not pursued this matter earlier because the initial need for my orders seemed to have abated. However, circumstances have changed once again and I need you to carry out my instructions, immediately.”

“I don’t even know where Drake is right now,” said Jason. “He could be with any of the groups scattered around, or they could be out on their own somewhere.”

“I don’t care about the difficulties Agent Rawlings,” said Braben, his tone once again sharp, officious. “It was your failure to carry out my order originally that has led you to these difficulties. I suggest you solve them and complete your mission before I have to send someone else to do it for you.”

Jason wiped a hand over his face, slick with sweat. The meaning in Braben’s words was clear. If he sent another Agent to do the job, that job would include the elimination of him too.

“Yes sir. I will see to it immediately. This time Drake will die, I promise.”

Braben clicked the communicator off without another word.

“Do you think he’ll do it?” asked Baxter, taking the seat opposite Braben.

“All I’m certain of is that he’ll try. Have another Agent lined up, just in case. Chivers is beginning to kick up a fuss again, pushing for a reopening of this Drake matter. If the Council agree, I don’t want Drake around to answer questions.”

“What about Agent Mirram?” said Baxter. “It would seem that she and this Drake are together. What if she tries to interfere?”

Braben took a drink, thought for a moment.

“Who does she report to?”

“As far as we’re aware, she doesn’t report directly to anyone,” said Baxter. “She lost her own equipment when she went on the run. Any communications have been either through Agent Rawlings or through contacts with the rebel leaders.”

“Good. I don’t want Chivers getting to talk to her either.”

“Do we eliminate her too?”

“No.” Braben took another drink, savouring the flavour, the slight buzz in his head that told him it was beginning to take effect, gently soothing his mind towards more pleasant thoughts. “She doesn’t know anything. Her death would create more problems than it would solve.”

“But if she should get in the way?”

Braben shrugged. “Then there is no alternative.”

“There was definitely a two-way communication from Councillor Braben’s room, Councillor.”

Chivers looked at the young man who spoke, lifting a finger to her scar. It ached today. A sure sign of stress.

“Anything else?”

The man shook his head. “Sorry Councillor. It was scrambled, not one of our standard scramblers. I can’t tell you what they said or even who was talking…”

“But you’re certain there was a two-way conversation via a scrambled communicator from Councillor Braben’s room just now?”

“Without any doubt Councillor.”

Chivers tried to relax. She sat on a tall stool at a long window in her private quarters, overlooking the Central Park of Sellit, the only area of concentrated greenery on the planet. The location was a sign of the respect and honour she received for her years of service, first as a trader, then as a Councillor. She turned to look at the young comms-specialist once again, noting how he stood calmly and, apparently, without nerves in the centre of this opulent room, surely worth beyond a lifetime’s salary to him.

“Can you tell me where the other end of that communication was?”

“Sorry…”

“Don’t tell us,” interrupted Jareth, sitting in an easy chair on the far side of the room. “It was scrambled.” There was a sneer in his voice that Chivers found unnecessary and offensive.

“No Councillor.” The young man turned, the faint trace of a smile on his lips. “I was going to say I was sorry that I could not be any more precise than a general location.”

Chivers suppressed a smile of her own. This young man was bright and seemed unimpressed by their rank and seniority. Although there was nothing illegal in what she was doing, as all communications on Sellit were monitored as a matter of course, she was bending the rules by asking for specific intelligence on an individual’s calls without full Council approval. Fortunately, the comms-specialist she had been directed to was a young man unlikely to panic should other members of the Council question him. She had been assured by her contact that the promised bonus in his pay packet would more than buy his discretion.

Unless someone offers him a bigger bonus, she thought, smothering the idea as soon as it arose. One can never cover all the possibilities nor second-guess an opponent’s every move. But I get a damn sight closer than most!

“Can you tell us the general location?” she said, a glance at Jareth telling him to hold the barbed comment she was sure was poised to strike.

“Certainly Councillor,” said the comms-specialist. “The location was tracked to Aks.”

“Aks!” exclaimed Jareth. “I wouldn’t have thought he’d take the risk, not with our investigation…”

Chivers held up a hand to silence him.

“Thank you for your help,” she said to the young man, whose name she had not asked for and who had not volunteered the information.

“Happy to be of service Councillor.” He nodded courteously to them both, the only sign of deference to their rank he had shown throughout the interview, and left the room.

“Surely he’s taking a big risk with this communication now?” said Jareth, standing up from his chair and crossing to the window, beside Chivers.

“There are no rules against communicating with Aks, any more than there are rules prohibiting the use of an individual scrambler.”

“But surely, with our investigation, he must realise how this looks?”

“Perhaps,” said Chivers. “But what does it prove? He has admitted sending Drake and Agent Rawlings to Aks. There is nothing overly suspicious about his contacting his Agent there.”

“But if Drake dies, as we suspect, then surely that makes Braben a suspect?”

“There will be no proof, unless Rawlings is unusually sloppy.” Chivers shook her head. “Braben knows that, whatever he does, we shall know his guilt and his supporters on the Council will be equally convinced of his innocence. This doesn’t really change anything.”

“Except that we can reasonably presume that Drake’s life is now in imminent danger.”

Chivers nodded. “A fair presumption I think.”

They paused, both looking down at the park.

They were above the highest treetops, and much of the ground was obscured by thick tangles of leaves and branches, but here and there they could see people walking, sitting, talking.

Sometimes I wish I could be like them, thought Chivers. I wish I could unload my troubles, forget my position and just enjoy what’s left of my life.

But she knew, even as she thought it, that it could never be. The Council’s work was vital. Many people’s lives were affected by its decisions, although they might never even know of its existence. She felt she had an important part to play in the Council’s life. She feared what would happen if people like Braben were allowed too much say in its decisions. Above all, it was her conscience that would not let her retire.

“We do have another Agent out there,” she said presently.

“We have several,” answered Jareth.

“I mean close to Drake. Agent Mirram.”

“But we have no idea whose side she’s on. She may be another one of Braben’s people.”

Chivers shook her head.

“I think Drake would be dead by now if that were the case. No, I think she is loyal to the full Council and probably ignorant of all this. Perhaps it’s time we removed that ignorance?”

Chapter 3

There was nothing left but the rubble, a few half walls, the charred remains of personal possessions, almost unrecognisable.

This was my home!

Martin Lichfield stood among the ruins on the edge of the Old Swiss Earth Park, uncaring about the rain that poured from a leaden sky, the thunder that rolled through the air above him, the stabs of lightning picking at the distant hills like hungry fingers. He stood, lost in his thoughts, the memory of a similar storm on a similar night over a year ago filling his mind. He could almost hear Sharon’s footsteps behind him, feel her body press against his. At the time it had meant so little, now it would mean so much. Now, when it was no longer possible.

Sharon had died, along with every other resident in the surrounding miles, when the combined Aks and Szuiltan fleet had invaded Earth. Tears welled in his eyes. That they had died, not through the indiscriminate aerial attack of fighter craft, but by the systematic, premeditated actions of the ground troops, brought rage storming back to the surface.

He looked to the sky, closing his eyes against the rain, opening his mouth to scream. No sound came, only more tears, more frustration, more anger.

On the mountains beyond the hills, the first faint glow of dawn caressed the jagged peaks. He looked around at the dozen or so men and women who stood with him. They were nervous, a little agitated, holding their stolen guns at readiness.

It was a risk coming down here, even at night, and all for my own selfish reasons.

Tina Harrison stepped to his side, turning up the collar of the heavy overcoat she wore over a pair of trackovers. He looked down at his own similar attire and broke into a broad smile.

“There was a time when you wouldn’t have been seen dead in the same clothes as someone like me,” he said, slipping an arm around her shoulders.

“One must move with the times.” She nodded towards the others in the group, all in similarly utilitarian clothing. “It’s all the rage around here.”

He laughed and stroked a wet hand around her cheek, under her chin.

She wears no makeup these days, and her hair is usually tied back and often unwashed, yet she seems more attractive than ever.

He felt a moment of guilt at thinking such thoughts while standing at the site of his wife’s murder.

I’ll never forget you Sharon, he thought, fighting to control the spasm of grief that filled his chest, his throat. In my way, I’ll always love you even though we were drifting apart. But time moves on, and I have a new life, so very different from the one I struggled to live before.

Tina saw the distant look in his eyes, felt the tension in his muscles. She snuggled closer, whispered “It’s okay to feel sad. She was your wife, whatever else might have happened. She’ll always be your wife.” And I will always love you, she added silently.

“Dawn will be here soon,” he said, turning to look towards the glow on the horizon, shutting out the painful memories, the feelings of guilt.

“A year ago to the day,” said Tina, following his gaze. “They’re bound to mark the occasion in some way.”

“Something major,” nodded Martin.

Ian Rogers, ex-Terramarine and Martin’s second-in-command, stepped forward, his eyes also on the approaching daylight. He still wore his uniform, although it was ripped and stained by a year of rough living.

“We’d best be moving, before it gets too light,” he said anxiously.

Yes, thought Martin, back into the mountains. The Szuiltans seem reluctant to stage any major operations there, leaving us more or less alone.

He signalled to the group that they were moving, noting the relief evident on several faces.

“I should have come on my own,” he said to Tina as they began the march towards the hills, then on to the mountains. “It was selfish to bring everyone with me.”

“Do you think they would have let you?” She shook her head, answering her own question. “Each one of these here has pledged to protect you at all costs. They’re your personal bodyguards, although they don’t call themselves that. You’re their Commander, their leader. They won’t risk losing you.”

But I never wanted to be a leader, he thought, a trace of bitterness in his mind at the way circumstances and the wishes of others had taken over his life. I was a soldier, an officer, and I never had aspirations for anything beyond that. I doubt I even had any capability beyond that. Now here I am. The great rebel leader.

He almost laughed out loud, suppressing it at the last moment. It would not be fair to display his cynicism so openly.

It was over an hour’s journey to their base camp, high in the cold mountains, and the near silent procession gave him time to think.

The storm was winding down, sunlight glowing round the edge of black clouds. It would be another fine day in the Global Park, even though the weather control station stood empty, deserted after the occupation, only the automatic programme left running.

I wonder how long before it crashes?

The park itself was showing signs of neglect: weeds among the carefully planted flower beds; paths overgrown; animal carcasses left to rot until not even the carrion eaters would approach them. There were no park rangers anymore, only occasional patrols by Aksian soldiers and Bosens.

He looked once more towards the growing light behind the mountains. It would be unusual for a patrol to appear before mid-morning, but there was always a danger.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Tina, walking at his side. She limped slightly, still unaccustomed to the weight and discomfort of the gun holstered on her left thigh. Martin had tried to dissuade her from carrying it, but she had insisted. She was as much a rebel as any other, despite her off-world origins, and as such she had the same responsibility to protect the group should the occasion arise.

“What’s our future?” he said. “The group. Where do we go from here? Do we continue to live as we are now? Running away, hiding, surviving? We’re more like refugees than rebels. Only a few of us have any military experience, and the training programmes I’ve set up aren’t turning them out fast enough. What do we do?”

She did not answer, knowing that nothing she could say would help. He had argued this point with himself many times over the past year and had never reached a satisfactory solution. He was so afraid of leading those who looked to him for guidance to their deaths. She suspected he had never come to terms with not being there for Sharon when she needed him. Perhaps he felt he could have saved her?

By the time they reached the camp, their legs aching from the steep trails up the mountainside, the sun was high, watery from the aftermath of the storm but brightening to a hot day.

The sounds and smells of camp-life met them as they passed the outer guard posts. The chattering of men and women, children playing among the tents and makeshift shelters. The smells of cooking wafted on the slight breeze, a myriad of tastes and cultures from the breakfast fires of the numerous subgroups within the immensity of the camp.

At the last count there had been just under four thousand people.

And all of them look to me for leadership!

Martin felt the weight of that responsibility as he returned the called greetings, the waves, the smiles. Sometimes he tried to remember how it had all happened, but he knew it was wasteful to contemplate such things. It had happened, and now he had to deal with it.

Chapter 4

The old man stirred in his sleep, shifting in his armchair. The music of a newscast drifted into his dreams, broke them, lifted him towards consciousness.

“One year ago this week, Earth fell to the combined forces of Aks and Szuilta, united under what has become known as the Szuiltan Alliance.”

The words seemed to finally wake him and he opened tired, rheumy, vaguely sad eyes. He remembered Earth. He had visited it once early in his career and the memory had stayed with him. The mother planet of them all. He remembered it as old fashioned and dirty.

I’m sure it’s changed since then. It was so long ago.

He pushed himself upright, cursing the ache in his lower back. It was always a mistake to fall asleep in the chair. He really should try harder not to.

“I’m sorry, did the news disturb you? I can turn it off if you wish?” The young woman lying naked on the floor at his feet looked concerned.

He smiled, shook his head. “It’s fine, leave it on. I needed to wake up anyway. Sometimes I forget that sleeping’s best done in bed.”

His voice, despite his age, was clear and strong. He lifted a hand to his thinning grey hair, scratched at an irritation in his scalp. He looked again at the woman, who had turned back to the newscast.

I can’t remember her name. I think we only met last night, and I think we agreed that this was a temporary arrangement. I think. I hope.

He had not attempted, nor felt inclined to attempt, anything more than flirtatious brief encounters with women since the death of his much loved wife ten years ago. At first there had been nothing, too much grief inside to contemplate anything other than a life of loneliness or even death. But gradually he had changed, never forgetting but learning to cope. The young woman turned, looking back at him and smiling.

“My name’s Sarah. I don’t expect you remember, with everything moving as quickly as it did.”

He smiled apologetically, relieved that she understood.

“At my age you tend to forget…” he stopped himself before he said things that aren’t important, realising it would suggest an insult he did not intend.

Sarah studied him for a moment. His face, although heavily lined, was strong and handsome, bold features that seemed firm under the covering of ageing skin. She did not normally indulge in one-night contracts, but he was so handsome, and so famous.

“I have to be leaving soon,” she said. “I’ve already overstayed my contract. I hope you’ll forgive that slight indiscretion, but I wanted to catch the start of the news.”

She jumped lithely to her feet and crossed to the small bathroom in a screened alcove behind his chair.

Watching her go, he felt faint stirrings at her undoubted attractiveness and wished he could remember more detail about what had happened last night. One drink too many, just like the old days.

“You can stay until the end of the programme if you wish,” he said as the shower ran, first the water, then the drying warm air.

“I only wanted to catch the summaries. I never find the in-depth part that interesting.” She stepped back into the living room, dry and fully dressed. “I’m never in one place long enough to need that much detail.”

He stared at her, at the stained trackover she wore.

“A trader,” he said, surprised and a little concerned.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It was all in the contract. Your secret is safe. I could no more divulge your whereabouts than I could break a trading contract.”

He nodded, satisfied. A trader could give no stronger assurance.

“It was an honour to meet you,” she said, smiling. “And the rest was a pleasure.”

She bowed slightly to him, turned and left through the automatic door.

Gradually, he smiled.

It’s nice to meet with traders every now and again, he thought, and despite my initial dislike of these damn contracts, the one my lawyers drew up has proved useful yet again. One day, maybe, I’ll have that clause taken out and return to the fold. One day.

Retirement suited him, or so he thought. He was aware that he frequently changed his mind on the subject. It had, after all, been a voluntary retirement.

More of a disappearance than a retirement.

He had faced as much as he could. Had seen and done things he did not feel any person should have to see or do. But he did not regret it. Everything had seemed necessary and justifiable at the time. His loyalty was never in question. He would always do what the Council asked.

In the end it was politics that changed it for him. A new regime. Fewer old traders, more career politicians. It was time to get out, to find a new life, a calmer, more peaceful life. But his job was not one you could simply choose to retire from. So he had decided to disappear, leaving only the shortest and most vague of messages.

He turned his attention to the newscast, still playing in the background. There were views of Earth, looking much like he remembered it, and the voiceover droning on about Szuiltan control, Aksian and Bosen patrols and minor incidences of rebel activity.

They took everyone by surprise with that invasion, he thought as he watched. An audacious plan with complete disregard for previous agreements and generally accepted morals and conventions. I would not have thought anyone existed in power with such nerve.

The Szuiltans had been the unknown quantity, the catalyst in what had occurred, he had little doubt of that. But the sheer ‘couldn’t give a damn’ flavour of the whole thing had stirred uncomfortable memories in him, and made him follow the news closer than he otherwise might have.

“Meanwhile, on Aks itself there is still no sign of the promised new Aksian Leader. The Szuiltan President continues to hold power, supported by senior Szuiltan and Aksian officials.”

The picture had changed now to show a view of Akasian, that great, over populated city, and then an interior of the Aksian government chambers. The Szuiltans themselves seldom, if ever, appeared in such pictures, preferring to stay in the background, but there were Bosens and Aksians there, putting on a good show of going about the business of government.

The military uniform caught his eye. The long hair, the face, the scar, the wicked smile that told of some private joke, made him sit forward.

I know that face!

He felt a shiver start at his upper back and slide downwards. It had been so long, but now it came flooding back. There could be no mistake.

Suzex! He knows I’ll see this. He’s teasing me, tempting me back. Well… I’d hate to disappoint him.

His old body was lithe and supple as he pushed himself to his feet. He felt strong, despite his age. He was ready for this.

It was time for Miar Shrilor to come out of hiding.

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