Yso Nakema (The Lion), famed and feared Earth agent, is on Androcles, an old colony world now ruled by the alien Kerexz. His mission is unknown, even to himself. He will learn of it as he meets his contacts on his journey. It’s a tried and trusted mission technique, but this time things are going wrong. Unexpected obstacles rise in his way, the enemy seem to be everywhere they shouldn’t be, he fails to make contacts and, worst of all, he finds himself getting involved with the problems of people he meets on the way.
With aliens, space cruisers, desert nomads, pirates and much more, The Lion On Androcles is a must-read Science Fiction Adventure.
A TRAVELLERS’ REST ON ANDROCLES
Lieutenant Walker shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and urged his horse further up the steep rocky trail. The back hooves of his partner’s horse momentarily lost traction, scrabbled, and kicked up sand and pebbles, stinging Walker’s face. He spat dirt from his mouth and wished the patrol were over.
They had been travelling for almost three weeks through the searing Benita desert. The last oasis marked on the map was almost two days back, and their canteens were still half full, but the growths of beard itched with sand and crawling insects that not even the water of the oasis could dislodge. Not far ahead lay the small town of Pyre, and from there it was another four-day trek to the Garrison.
Private Burton, riding point, was only on his second patrol and still retained some enthusiasm for the long trek, even in the face of his superior officer’s obvious cynicism. Nevertheless, he would be glad when this one was over and he could sleep in a proper bed for a few nights. Then he would be ready for the next one. Being part of the mercenary force on Androcles was not a glamorous life, but it paid well.
Up ahead, Pyre appeared ghost-like through the waves of shimmering heat, buildings seeming to float above the sand. The ironworks that had birthed the town lay deserted to the west, almost lost beneath the drifts of a hundred sandstorms, but some people remained, scraping a living off travellers and the regular mercenary patrols who detoured to refresh themselves before the final push to the Garrison.
Walker and Burton slowed their horses as they entered the town’s main street. When the ironworks had died so had the residents’ civic pride. What was left of Pyre was ramshackle and ugly, and much of it centred on the tavern, where travellers were solicited by the townspeople, tempted to spend their money on whatever the town could offer: Guides; labourers; whores. And it was where weary mercenaries nearing the end of their patrols could find refreshment and respite from the heat of the desert.
With their horses tied near a half-empty horse-trough, Walker and Burton pushed their way through the tavern’s old wooden door and into the dark interior.
The room was busy, a bustling crowd surrounding the bar, others sitting at the small round tables placed haphazardly about the floor. Walker elbowed his way through, followed by Burton, who revelled in the sidelong glances, the fearful whisperings. It was a high greater than any he had found through artificial means, this feeling of power. The power of fear. The power of hatred.
“Two beers. And make sure they’re cold.”
Walker watched as the Landlord hurried to fulfil his order, leaving others who had stood at the bar much longer waiting for their drinks. No one complained. There were definite advantages in wearing the mercenary uniform.
He looked around the room, taking in the faces, the expressions, with an eye used to identifying those who felt guilt and those who posed a threat. Scratching at his beard, he dragged a dead insect from its tangles and dropped it to the floor. As the beer arrived he threw a few coins onto the bar, not knowing if it was enough and not caring. The landlord wouldn’t argue.
He swallowed two gulps of the tepid beer, grimacing slightly at the bitter taste. Served in one of the larger towns, or even at the Garrison, this would have been thrown back in disgust. But here, towards the end of a long patrol, it was as welcome as the best drink money could buy. He made no complaint.
A heavily shadowed alcove in the far wall drew his attention. A solitary drinker sat there nursing a half full glass of beer, head down, a mess of black hair straggling across his face. He looked tired, unwashed, a traveller too poor to own a horse or travel by coach. He looked like many others in the tavern that day, but something tugged at Walker’s memory. Something important.
“What is it?” said Burton, noting his partner’s intent interest even as he pulled thirstily at his own beer.
“Not sure yet. Possibly nothing.”
Walker pulled the communicator from his belt, tapped in his access code, rolled his finger over the scanner and waited. It took less than a second for the machine to verify his identity and flash the menu onto the small display. All the time he kept glancing back at the figure in the alcove. He began flicking through the Kerexz’s most wanted, smiled as he found the image he was looking for and turned the screen to Burton.
Burton read the entry beneath the picture.
Yso Nakema. Earth operative. Top priority. Apprehend.
The last bore the seal of the Kerexz High Command.
“We take him alive then,” said Burton, a confident smile on his face. “Shouldn’t be hard. He doesn’t look like much trouble.”
Walker said nothing, a slight frown on his face, almost invisible behind the beard. While it was true this Yso Nakema was smaller than both he and Burton, the loose jacket he wore could hide any kind of physique, scrawny, muscular… it was impossible to tell. He was certain his experience and Burton’s natural roughness and street fighting ability weighed things heavily in their favour, but he refused to allow himself the dubious comfort of overconfidence.
“Let’s just get this over with. Maybe the Garrison will send out some transport once we have him, if he’s so important.”
Burton nodded agreement. “I wouldn’t say no to a nice comfortable flight back just now. Too many days in the saddle.”
Walker almost smiled, wondering how Burton would feel when he’d been on as many patrols as he had. He supposed he had been like Burton once, but it was too far back to remember.
He put down his beer and began to make his way through the tables towards the alcove. Burton, after a moment’s hesitation and one last drink, followed him.
The man in the alcove did not move and showed no awareness of the two mercenaries as they approached him. Not until they stood above him, almost filling the remaining space in the alcove, did he raise his head and look at them through tired, emotionless grey eyes.
Burton was the first to speak.
“Yso Nakema. We are placing you under arrest on order of the Kerexz High Command.”
His voice was loud, rising above the babble of the tavern.
Walker said nothing, waiting for the denial or the sudden burst for freedom. Neither came. The man sitting before them continued to stare coldly, unblinking.
The rest of the tavern had fallen silent, the other travellers and staff watching apprehensively, many wondering whether they were next on the mercenaries’ list.
Burton drew his gun, an old fashioned revolver, standard issue among mercenaries.
He felt his wrist twist and snap, saw the gun slip from fingers that seared with sudden pain. He hit the floor, landing heavily on his back, with no idea how he had got there. Agony burst through his body.
As soon as he saw the stranger move towards Burton, Walker reached for his weapon. It was only halfway out of the holster when something thudded into his groin. He instinctively doubled over, aware his gun was removed from its holster and tossed aside. As he fell to one knee he saw Burton trying to push himself back up and wanted to shout at him to stay down.
The stranger’s hands moved, the fingers almost casually snapping into Burton’s throat. The young mercenary was dead before his head hit the floor.
Driven by rage, Walker forced himself to his feet, trying to ignore the ache in his groin, pulling out his 12 inch serrated hunting knife. Fuck the orders! He was going to kill this Yso Nakema.
He lunged, knew his blade was going to plunge deep into the man’s chest and was surprised when the point hit nothing but the wooden seatback. How could he have missed? Where had the man gone?
There was sudden sharp pain from a blow to his face, the crack of bone breaking as a foot stamped into the side of his knee, the bolt of agony that shot upwards through his body. He fell, saw the stranger back away, the other occupants of the tavern crowd around. Voices faded in and out around him. He could barely make out the words as he struggled to stay conscious.
“Can’t leave him alive…. The soldiers will come…. Best to remove the evidence… kill him.”
Those last two words focussed his concentration, his effort, and he tried, desperately, to remember where his gun had been thrown.
Looking up, he found it in the hands of the barman who had served him just a few minutes earlier. The barrel was pointed at Walker’s head.
He felt no more pain as the gun was fired, the bullet slamming into his forehead and exploding from the back of his skull to lodge deep in the floor of the tavern.