The Szuiltan Alliance (2012)

The Szuiltan Alliance cover

Synopsis

When Steve Drake, Space Trader, agreed to take on a trade to the Szuiltans, the only truly alien race ever discovered in man’s expansion across the galaxy, he had no idea it would land him in the middle of murder, intrigue and an interplanetary war!

 

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Sample

PROLOGUE

“Are we losing control?”

“I see no immediate cause for concern.”

The first speaker sat forward, ignoring the soft vibrations of the emotion-sensitive chair as it tried to massage the tension from his muscles. The room was dark, the only light flickering and shifting from an open fire that danced shadows across the faces of the two men as they faced each other across a table set with wine and two half-full glasses.

“They’re acting independently. Surely that’s cause for concern?”

The second man turned his gaze to the fireplace, an ancient anachronism on a planet that lived and breathed technology. He had granted this private audience because the man sitting opposite was an old friend, a colleague who had started alongside him in the research laboratories all those years ago, a scientist who had never seen beyond the science to the power and influence it offered. Now he saw him as a fool. Worse. A loud fool who was becoming an irritation.

“You are talking about the greatest advance in artificial intelligence ever attempted. Of course they’re acting independently. Anything less would be failure!” He made no attempt to hide the anger in his voice.

“But Thomas, we were always meant to have ultimate control, the final veto on their actions. Now they’re making contact.”

Thomas. No one else would dare call him by his first name. His title was Director and it galled him to be addressed as anything else, even in a private audience, even by an old friend.

Why do I suffer this presumptuous fool?

When he spoke his voice remained calm, detached from the anger that seethed inside him.

“Initial contact was made some years ago. It was agreed by committee. You were there.”

“But now they demand more. Not ask. Demand!”

“They’re following their programming.”

“They’re exceeding their programming. I fear they have altered the ultimate goal without consultation.”

The Director sighed. “This project has been decades in the making. It’s not surprising that elements should change. If those elements are changing themselves and others around them, then it is an even greater success than originally hoped for. I still see no cause for concern.”

“Then I regret I must take this to the committee. It must be stopped.”

Enough!

The Director leaned forward, firelight sparking off the knife that slipped from his sleeve into his hand. He drew the edge sharply across the other man’s throat.

He placed the bloody knife on the table and lifted a glass of wine to his lips. He eased himself back into the chair, smiling as the vibrations began, massaging the tension from his shoulders. Sipping the wine, he watched the final spasms of his old friend in the chair opposite, saw the darkness of blood down his tunic, on the arms of the chair, pooling on the carpet.

I can replace it tomorrow.

He savoured the taste of the wine and stared once again into the flames of the fire. He closed his eyes and fell into a light, relaxed sleep.

PART ONE

THE TREATY

CHAPTER 1

Morning sliced through the slatted window blinds, stretching across the bedroom, laying stripes of gold across the pale skin of the woman on the bed.

She was beautiful, lying asleep on top of ruffled bedclothes, blonde hair straggling across her face, tangling over her shoulders to almost cover the slight swell of her breasts, peaked by nipples soft in the warmth of the morning. She moaned softly and rolled onto her side, the light stroking up the back of her thigh, over the curve of her buttocks and along her spine, sparking highlights off the silver speared circle surgically implanted in the back of her left shoulder. It was the mark of her position. The badge of a courtesan. An official mistress.

The old man sitting opposite watched her, his eyes lingering on the silver emblem. She was his. He owned her. Yet there were times when he felt so helpless. As he watched her sleep he felt, again, the empty sensation in the pit of his stomach, the creeping melancholy that told him he could do nothing to truly have her. When they made love there was something detached inside her, closed-off to him, smothered by her words, her actions, but undeniably there. Her submission to him was an illusion, and yet he continued the charade. He needed her. He loved her.

Angrily he reached for the remote control at his side and pressed the button. The morning light switched off, the sun and clouds outside the window blinked and disappeared, the blinds rolled up into the ceiling and the overhead striplights flickered into cold harsh life. He threw the remote down.

Another illusion. My life is full of illusions.

The wallscreen flashed erratically, settling into the true image fed to it by the outer cameras. The old man stared into the depths of space and shivered. Interstellar travel unsettled him, but this was one ceremony he had to attend in person. If a treaty was finally to be signed between the warring worlds of Earth and Aks then it was only right that he, James Carlton, Leader of Aks, should be present.

Wincing at the pain shot through him by arthritic fingers and knees as he pushed himself to his feet, he wondered once again whether he should reconsider and take his doctors’ advice. They told him to have replacement surgery, that robotic knees and fingers were so commonplace in men of his age and the operation so routine that there was no danger and no stigma attached.

He was 75 years old and was grateful for the medical science that gave him at least another forty years before old age really set in, but he balked at the idea of sacrificing parts of himself to robotics. He believed that he would be somehow less of a man if he allowed the surgery to take place. He believed that once he took the first step, it would not be long before he was more machine than Aksian.

He suffered for his beliefs.

Catching the unwelcome sight of himself in the full-length mirror, he sighed. The face was old and wrinkled, older than his age would suggest. It was a face that had borne much stress and worry over the years. There had been no easy route for him to the position of Leader. He had struggled and fought every step of the way and he was proud to have succeeded, but the struggle showed in the prematurely grey hair and the heavily gouged lines of his face. Most with his power and wealth would have opted for surgery, but he was determined to remain true to his humanity, even through the depression it brought him.

He was less unhappy with his body. He exercised regularly, ate the healthy diet prescribed by his doctors, drank infrequently and, when he did, only a little. He had not even succumbed to the various Dream Enhancement drugs that so many of his people used to escape the rigours of every day life. As a consequence, there was only a trace of fat beginning to show around his middle, and everywhere else was trim and muscular. He was happy with his physique and, glancing back towards his sleeping mistress, he was happy with his potency.

He pushed a veined hand through his hair, stepping towards the wall at the side of the mirror, the concealed door sliding open, allowing him into the bathroom alcove. The overhead light flickered on as the door closed with a gentle hiss behind him.

Carina Burfield yawned, opened her eyes and pushed herself up on her elbows. She was alone. It took a moment for that to register in her tired mind. He was gone. She fell back onto the bed and smiled.

She had made him happy last night, submitting to his every whim, his every fantasy, with an enthusiasm that was as pleasing to him as it had been false to her. She would do anything to keep him happy. The luxury and security her position afforded were worth the hours of sexual drudgery and frustration.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed, noted absently that the wallscreen was showing space and not its usual image of home, shrugged and crossed to the full-length wall mirror. Her skin was smooth, pale, unblemished. Expensive cosmetic procedures ensured her perfection, as they had done from an early age. She had never suffered acne, oily skin, embarrassing spots. Her parents had prepared her for this role from birth, knowing it provided a future for their daughter. All their savings, grown through years of backbreaking menial work, had paid for the medical and scientific processes that ensured superficial attractiveness, muscular tone, fitness and high mental alertness. Private tutors had schooled her in politics, diplomacy and sexual technique. Her parents had died from poverty and exhaustion before she had achieved her full potential, but they did so confident that their daughter would never have to work as they had, struggle as they had, die as they had. She fingered the silver speared circle implanted in her shoulder, knowing that her parents would be proud of her, and that one small surgical imperfection was a small price to pay for being the official mistress of the Leader of Aks.

She was startled as the bathroom door slid open, recovering her poise quickly and smiling as Leader Carlton stepped out.

“I thought you’d left. You made me jump.”

Carlton glanced at the light above the concealed door.

“Isn’t that thing working again? I’ll get maintenance onto it as soon as I leave.”

She kissed him and gently placed her palm against his cheek.

“Don’t worry about it. Get it fixed later.”

He twisted his fingers in her tousled hair as she bent her head to his ear.

“Thank you for last night,” she whispered, “It was wonderful.”

He smiled. He had thought the same but it was pleasing and exciting to hear her say it.

“Thank you Carina. It was nice to be able to forget about this treaty for a short while.”

She eased away from him and reached for the brush on a small shelf by the mirror. As she pulled the brush through her hair she smiled at his reflection.

“That’s why I’m here Jimmy. If you never get a break from thinking about work it’s not good for you. You know what the doctors said.”

“I know what the doctors said,” he snapped, cutting in on her irritably.

She stopped brushing her hair and turned to him, an expression of hurt sculpted on her face.

“Don’t snap Jimmy. I’m worried about you. So are the doctors. You’ve got to take things easy, try and relax, take your mind of work for a while every now and then. That’s what they said, and that’s where I hope I can help, at least a little.”

He reached out and ran a gentle finger over her shoulder and down her arm.

“You do help. I don’t think I could get through this without you.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “It’s just that so much depends on this. If this backfires then I’m lost. I’ve gambled my whole leadership on this treaty. If it fails…”

“I’m sure it won’t Jimmy.” Carina had returned to brushing her hair. “You’ve thought this through carefully. I know. I’ve been there. And I’m sure the Earth Controller has just as much resting on this. Nothing will go wrong.”

Carlton had glanced at his watch and was now pulling his clothes on.

“I’ve got a meeting with my advisors in twenty minutes, I’ll have to rush.”

Pulling her hair aside, he kissed her on the neck and smiled.

“I just wish I had your simple optimism. See you later.”

She watched him leave and then angrily threw the brush down onto the floor.

Simple optimism? The arrogant bastard! Being a courtesan does not make me some brainless whore.

She spent much of her time between his visits studying, reading every report she could access, and there were few who would deny anything to the Leader’s official mistress. She had no intention of slipping into obscurity when he tired of her or, more likely, when he was usurped as Leader. This treaty was a risk, a greater risk than even the Leader suspected. She had found that many experienced, cautious politicians, conscious of every word they spoke in front of each other or the press, would nevertheless relax and speak openly in her presence. Perhaps they all thought of her as some brainless whore? If so, it allowed her an insight into the true feelings and thoughts of those both close to and opposed to the Leader.

There was unrest and unease within the Leader’s entourage, and if that unease spilled over into open rebellion, she did not intend to follow James Carlton into obscurity.

CHAPTER 2

“Welcome to the planet Festi ladies and gentlemen. If you look out of the transparent ceiling of the spaceport you will be able to see the twin suns of Jan and Sylve, named, so legend has it, after the daughters of the planet’s founder Gregory Macintosh. You are able to look directly at these stars with the naked eye courtesy of Reagold Polarised Plastic…”

Steve Drake turned away from the ever-smiling Welcomedroid and pushed his way through the crowds that swarmed around the open foyer of Hart Spaceport. He might have been impressed by the programmed welcome speech, despite noticing the droid’s flesh coloured paint was peeling, dragging jagged scars of dull metal across its face. He might have been interested in the barely disguised adverts for the Reagold Air Conditioning, Reagold Artificial Gravity Stabilisers and Reagold Weather Control Systems, even though the voice unit crackled, sparked and eventually emitted a commendable imitation of a belch before grinding to a halt with a delicate puff of smoke that curled gently towards the ceiling. He might have been, but he wasn’t.

He had seen and heard it all before, on more planets than he cared to remember. For a Registered Trader, interplanetary travel was routine that quickly became tiresome.

This was, however, his first visit to Festi and, despite the marketing literature, it was a largely unremarkable world. There was no political unrest here, no struggle for freedom. The people were content, and the planet itself seemed to follow their example. The natural atmosphere was breathable, if a little harsh on unaccustomed lungs. The weather, the most interesting feature, was unpredictable and prone to violent storms, but no more than a thousand worlds around the known galaxy. If he had made the trip for a sightseeing holiday he would have wasted his money, but Festi had a reputation that had drawn him here, a reputation that had separated him from most of the little money he had. He hoped it proved worthwhile.

As a team of blue overalled maintenance men bustled around the still smiling, still smoking Welcomedroid, Steve grabbed his one item of luggage from the revolving luggage dispenser and strolled towards the main exit, his worldly goods slung over his shoulder in a small bag.

The spaceport was as unremarkable as the planet. He noted the pale-green walls, considered restful by the architectural psychologists all major construction projects had employed for the past two decades or more, the same marble-effect floor, the same constant stream of hologram-ads trying to sell him the latest Reagold products. He could have been in a spaceport on any one of hundreds of worlds he was familiar with. It eroded the excitement of discovering a new planet to the dull and commonplace. The cult of universalism reared around him on all sides, much of it branded Reagold.

“Excuse me sir.”

Steve stopped and turned as the Customdroid detached itself from its almost hidden alcove and trundled squeakily towards him. The swirling silver ‘R’ of the Reagold Corporation gleamed on its metal forehead. As irritatingly pervasive as that logo was in this spaceport, it at least guaranteed some respite from the paranoia of those ports involved in The War. It made no difference whether the affiliation was with Earth or Aks, a legitimate trading mission was transformed into a maze of interrogations and investigations on so many worlds on the trading routes. The Reagold Corporation’s slogan of ‘If it’s neutral it’s Reagold‘ might have been bad taste, but at least it afforded Steve some degree of relaxation.

“Is this all your luggage sir?”

Steve shrugged the bag off his shoulder and handed it to the two hinged arms that extended from the centre of the droid. He tried to ignore the smile, wondering why with all their advanced technology they could not do better than the unreal, fixed grin of so many robotic employees.

“Everything I own, just about.”

The Customdroid pulled the bag open and quickly searched through the clothes and various items packed within. It looked up from its work. Steve could have sworn the smile broadened.

“You don’t own much.”

Steve bit his lip. He wanted to ask since when Customdroids were programmed with a sense of humour, but he could not be certain what else it had been programmed for and had no wish to experiment.

“Employed?”

“Trader.”

“On a passenger flight?”

“My ship got caught in a space storm about a month ago, in orbit around Gia.”

“Gia?” The droid tapped into the spaceport’s data banks and answered its own question. “Out in the Sale system.”

“Right.”

“A space storm? Don’t get many of them near planets. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“I wasn’t aboard. I was planetside doing some trading.”

“With your ship still in orbit?” The droid’s electronic eyes blinked with apparent surprise.

“I went down by shuttle.”

“Not many traders can afford ships with shuttles.” The mechanical arms handed Steve his bag and retracted into the tubular body.

“I’m a good trader. I made money.”

“And now?”

“After a month without any work?” He swung his bag over his shoulder. “You’ve just searched what I have left.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for a good second-hand ship. We have the best dealers in the galaxy right here on Festi.”

Steve smiled. “That’s why I’m here.”

He watched the Customdroid reverse into its alcove with a wave of a metal arm in his direction. The programming was getting more sophisticated. Much more improvement and droids would be hosting chat shows on holovision. Then again, would anyone notice?

As he walked away he heard the squeaky wheels start to roll again and that pleasant but commanding voice say “Excuse me sir” as another visitor to Festi faced the apparently trivial but probing questioning of the droid’s Artificial Intelligence circuits. There could be no doubt that the Reagold Corporation believed in demonstrating its technological lead over their business rivals at every opportunity. As a trader, Steve could admire that. As a visitor, newly disembarked from a seven-hour flight aboard a crowded passenger liner, it pissed him off.

He stepped out of the spaceport into a warm summer’s day. Fishing in the pocket of his trackovers, a light but tough one-piece suit much favoured by traders and designed from a merger of tracksuit and overalls, he pulled out a pair of sunglasses, slipped them on and headed for the nearest walkway, studiously ignoring the Reagold logo emblazoned on the control panel.

The weight and heat of his body triggered the travel computer and he spoke his destination into the voice recognition unit, trying to relax as he was carried at a safe, but speedy, rate towards the outskirts of Hart, capital city of the solitary land mass on Festi, an island in the poisonous, salt encrusted ocean that covered almost three quarters of the surface.

The walkway was, in fact, hundreds of separate walkways, each able to travel independently of the others and, by means totally beyond Steve’s comprehension, to carry different people in different directions to destinations that may be miles from each other simultaneously.

Someone had once tried to explain to him over a bottle of MBP, a particularly rancorous wine with the full exotic name of Milestone’s Blossom Paradise, known colloquially as Mind Buggering Purgatory, the intricacies and inherent technical beauty of the walkway’s computer, the largest multitasking computer ever built. Steve had nodded politely while failing to understand a word, and had continued to drink until he had lost consciousness. It was something of a habit with him.

He was travelling through a grove of young trees, their leaves painting mottled patterns on the faces of the walkway riders. A warm breeze rustled overhead and he thought he heard the quiet song of a nesting bird. It almost made him forget he was inside a climate dome.

His stomach complained suddenly and loudly, bringing disapproving glances from several of his fellow riders and serving to remind him that he had not eaten well since the loss of his ship. Food had taken on a secondary importance as he saved his money and, as a result, his already slim figure had taken on a thin gauntness that, coupled with the loose fitting, oil stained trackovers, gave him the appearance of the hungry poor still common on so many worlds, despite their high technological status.

Steve smiled broadly at one young woman whose eyes had remained on him longer than any other, and pressed a hand against his stomach, willing it to be still. He could eat after he had found a ship, if he had any money left.

It only took about ten minutes on the walkway to the first dealer on his list, but it felt like hours. He didn’t like the walkways, he never felt safe on them. He knew they were overflowing with safety devices and that, since the introduction of this particular model some seven years ago, there had been no fatalities, but he could never get used to not having to walk.

Steve had spent his early life on the planet Earth, a planet where Reagold had failed to gain any significant market. When you travelled by foot on Earth you walked, just like they did centuries ago. And Earth was not alone in clinging to the old ways. Many of the planets Steve visited had either failed or refused to keep up with the new technologies, and just as many had over-invested in every technological marvel available. Steve was searching for a compromise. He liked technology, he trusted it, he made much of his living from it, but there were times when it went too far. The walkways were a good example. If he wanted to be in the open, he wanted to walk. If he was in a hurry, he wanted to sit in a vehicle. What he did not want to do was stand on a moving walkway that carried him too fast for it to be pleasurable but too slow for it to be urgent.

Someone should have spoken up against the excesses, the examples of technology for technology’s sake, but no one, including Steve, wanted to take on the Reagold Corporation.

The walkway delivered him to the entrance of “Hart’s New And Used Transport” where he was met by the fixed smile and slack handshake of one of a dozen sales staff lurking on the broad lot.

Fifteen minutes later he was back on the walkway. There had been nothing he could afford, not even on the “easy” credit terms the salesman had been trying to sell him. His stomach continued to grumble and he continued to try and ignore it.

Two hours and three more dealers later, and he found he couldn’t ignore it any longer. He felt weak, he felt sick, and a pounding in his head joined his grumbling stomach to pass on the message. Eat something!

He asked the walkway to find the nearest cafe.

CHAPTER 3

The black wedge of the scanner resistant troop carrier scythed through the thick atmosphere of Milos IV, diving with unstoppable ferocity towards the hostile surface.

Locked into his harness, pressed back in his seat by the acceleration towards ground, Lieutenant Martin Lichfield of the Terramarine Corp., veteran of countless raids and battles, proud wearer of a dozen gallantry medals and, at thirty-five, youngest owner of the Diamond Service Award presented for bravery and leadership above and beyond the call of duty, closed his eyes and wished fervently that it would all end and he could be home on Earth with Sharon, his wife of twelve years.

He glanced down at the photo-wallet in his fist. It lay open at an image of Sharon smiling at the camera. In her arms she held a baby girl, just four months old. His daughter, Samantha. Seven years and one month after that photograph had been taken, his daughter had died of Meningitis. It was a disease that had been eradicated centuries ago on most of the colony worlds, but the billions put into the war effort on Earth had to be taken from somewhere, and the only healthcare the government were willing to fund was that which treated the injuries of war. There were always enough surviving children to provide the military machine with its next generation of soldiers.

He gripped his rifle, praying to Larn that the treaty they had all heard rumours about would finally finish this seemingly eternal war between themselves and the ex-colony world of Aks.

His pre-military studies told him that the exact cause, the spark that ignited the hostilities, was unclear but dated some hundred years previous, at the end of the Great Cultural Collapse that had spread like a barbaric plague through most of the known galaxy. Aks had gained independence almost two hundred years before, but as the relatively peaceful reign of the academics and artists had fallen and the might of the military, politicians and priesthood had risen, effectively smothering the Galactic Renaissance in its all embracing fist, a general antipathy between the two worlds had deteriorated into all out war. His military tutors during training pointed to Aks as the aggressor, but Martin had been in the minority of academics attending one of the few universities left standing by the religious, political and military machine before his compulsory five year term in the armed forces, and his own studies indicated a much more even-handed sharing of blame.

He missed the freedom of academic life, hated military routine, but was far too smart to show anything other than complete obedience and patriotic devotion to his duty. He had three months of his term left. He just hoped he could survive them.

Flipping to the back of his photo-wallet, he smiled at another image, older than the first, reviving memories of an earlier, less troubled time in his life.

Three boys on the edge of their teens, standing, arm in arm, on the bank of a river. Sharon had taken that picture, that’s how long he had known her. He looked at the faces and remembered the names easily. They had been friends almost since they were born. How could he ever forget?

Martin stood in the middle, in love with Sharon even then but too shy to tell her. His smile broadened as he remembered how he had refused to swim in the river, not because he was afraid of the water but because he was embarrassed to reveal his slowly developing body in front of Sharon. On his left, looking serious as always, was Jack Holt. He, too, had refused to swim in the river, but they had always just put that down to him being a miserable sod. On his right, laughing at the camera and dressed only in swimming trunks, was Steve Drake. Steve and Sharon always swam together and Martin had been insanely jealous. But Steve was his best friend, had been right through school, and nothing, not even Sharon, could change that.

It was funny, looking back on it, but he had always assumed that Steve and Sharon would get together, but then Steve and Jack had left Earth for the romance of the Traders and he had headed for academia. No one had been more surprised than he was when Sharon followed him, although, he remembered with a quiet laugh, it had still taken him more than three years to pluck up the courage to ask her to be something more than just a friend.

“Prepare to disembark.”

The metallic voice snapped through the whine of the engines and Martin closed the wallet and fastened it into his breast pocket.

Around him, the thirty men and women under his command were performing last minute checks on weaponry and the air masks they needed to breath the thick atmosphere. He hurriedly checked his own. Everything seemed in working order. That at least gave him an edge in surviving this raid.

A screen above his head crackled and flashed and showed him brief glimpses of their target.

Milos IV was the poor relation of the Milos system. There were no cities on its inhospitable surface, it’s thick atmosphere made it financially inadvisable for civilian settlements. In fact, it had almost been overlooked by the Earth Fleet in its ponderous journey through this sector of neutral space, until the faint signal had been intercepted.

At first the origin of the transmission had been thought to be Milos III, a fertile and heavily populated planet and therefore protected under the 4009 Agreement, but further investigation had revealed Milos III to be merely a relay station and the origin was traced to Milos IV. The signal was in a known Aksian code. The Commanders needed no other proof. The Terramarines were sent in.

Now, as Martin rested his hand on the quick release button of the safety harness and tried to steady his nerves, ready for disembarkation, he cursed the careless operator who had sent the signal with the Earth fleet so nearby. He had been on R&R aboard the leisure ship and looking forward to a peaceful journey, feeling happier with each new rumour about the approaching treaty. He had not been ready to go on yet another raid.

The troop carrier hit the ground hard, sliding to a bone juddering halt at the end of a four hundred yard trough. The braking distance was short for something moving so fast, but then the braking power of the machine was immense and showed little regard for those strapped inside.

Even before the carrier had finally settled its weight into the marshy ground, the rear door had unhinged itself and splashed down into the surrounding water, forming a ramp for the troops to disembark.

Martin was first, as was only right given his senior position. There was always a moment after the landing when he sat there, stunned and aching from the impact, but then the adrenaline kicked in and his training screamed at him to move.

He hit the quick release button and his safety harness snapped back, retracting into the seat behind him. All around he was aware of the others doing the same, and the resulting sound was like a flock of birds taking flight.

He headed down the ramp at a trot, sinking into the marsh without hesitation, dragging his feet through the water until he found a small patch of more solid ground. He didn’t look behind him. He didn’t have to. He knew implicitly that his Unit would be following him.

The first to reach his side were the Trailbreakers, two men and one woman who had been extensively trained in tracking, observation and silent killing skills. The cold, emotionless professionalism in the eyes of a Trailbreaker far surpassed anything Martin had ever seen in any other soldier, however dedicated, and it always unnerved him. Were Trailbreakers born that way or could human beings really be trained to be that ruthless?

Without a word, the Trailbreakers indicated the direction they would head and had soon disappeared into the mists. Martin didn’t argue. The Trailbreakers would have studied the maps carefully. If they thought the target was in that direction then Martin had no hesitation in following them.

He signalled for the rest of his Unit to fall-in and acknowledged the thumbs up from the troop carrier pilot. She would be waiting there for them when they had finished the job.

 

CHAPTER 4

The Earth Controller left the Church of Larn refreshed. He always found the half hour service relaxing and peaceful, the antithesis of the world he ruled. Was it too much to ask that they could live without the ever-present threat of planetary genocide hanging over them? The Agreement of 4009, signed by one of his predecessors some fifty years ago, forbidding deliberate attacks on civilian targets, had kept the number of non-combatant casualties relatively low, but its hold was tenuous. There had been increasing pressure in the last four years or so to break The Agreement and launch a full scale invasion of Aks, much of it from unnamed but undoubtedly high ranking officers in the military. He thought it strangely fitting that it had been their growing militaristic rumblings that had pushed him even further along the road he had already falteringly set foot on. The road to peace. A complete cessation of hostilities with Aks.

He looked back to the warmly lit room he had just come from, The Church of Larn, specially commissioned by himself when this great Controller’s Space Cruiser was first built. Through the open door he could see the mihrab, the pointed niche in the wall, moving to his right. The ship was turning and the mihrab’s computer automatically tracked the quibla, the direction of prayer. This had been the greatest innovation of all for the Controller. It was vital that he faced the correct way when in prayer, towards the holy planet of Earth.

He turned back to face the long corridor, not attempting to conceal his heavy sigh as Loadra, High Priest of Larn and Religious Advisor to the Controller, stepped from the door at the far end. The Controller’s entourage of lesser advisors and armed security parted as the grey robed figure strode through them, long black hair flowing behind him like the tail of a wild beast, equally black eyes flashing above a long straight nose.

Loadra stopped before the portly form of the Controller, his mane of hair in stark contrast to the Controller’s bald head, effectively blocking the way forward. The Controller creased a smile across his face, his many years in politics lending the expression a sincerity he did not feel.

“Loadra. I didn’t see you at the service?”

The High Priest’s voice was a snarl of contempt. “I have no need of these shallow rituals for the masses. I pray to Larn in my own, deeper way and he warns me of the foolishness of your actions.”

The Controller’s smile faded. “We are on the course to peace Loadra, and nothing you can say will change that.”

“This war is a Holy War!” Loadra raised his fist in anger. “The Aksian heathen must be crushed!”

“The Aksian heathen, as you call them, are followers of Larn just as we are. It is the official religion of the whole galaxy.”

“They have perverted the true religion with their own laws and rituals. They sanction whores for their leaders. They twist the words of Larn for their own ends. It is a blasphemy that must be rooted out and destroyed.”

The Controller shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, holding back the building headache.

“There’s no use in talking, Loadra. The Treaty is prepared. It just waits for our signatures. Hostilities must cease.”

He looked for some understanding, some acceptance in the other’s eyes but found none.

“You know I am a true believer, but the safety of my people must come before these religious differences.” He pushed his way past the High Priest. “We can discuss this further in my quarters if you wish. I will not discuss policy in a ship’s corridor with a man more full of anger than sense!”

Surrounded by his ever-present entourage the Controller stormed off towards the door at the far end of the corridor.

Loadra turned to watch him go. He was sworn to advise and follow the Earth Controller, but he was also a High Priest of Larn and equally sworn to follow his faith. There was much to think about.

 

CHAPTER 5

Steve felt better after a quick meal of Festi’s homegrown egg, bacon and mushrooms. It was unlikely that the eggs came from chickens, or that the bacon came from pigs, and the mushrooms had produced a not unpleasant tingling sensation at the base of his neck, but he didn’t care. It was food and it was edible.

He didn’t really take much notice of his surroundings until he had finished eating, but as he sat back and sipped at some local hot beverage he had not even asked the name of, he glanced around the small, dark cafe.

There were few other people at the tables. An elderly couple sat in a far corner, drinking whatever Steve was drinking. A middle aged man in a suit, strangely out of place in the surroundings, smoked a cigarette and idly watched the table’s extractors suck the smoke away in a fascinating spiral. The man who had served him his food and drink stood behind the counter and behind him, narrow windows looked out onto the walkway. Steve suddenly remembered his reason for being on Festi.

He rose from his table, leaving the drink unfinished, and walked to the counter.

“You’re looking better than when you walked in,” said the man as he took Steve’s money.

“I feel better as well,” said Steve, taking his change.

“You’re not from here.”

“Just arrived.” Steve did not really feel inclined to embark on a long conversation with this stranger, but he had no wish to offend him by walking away either.

“Trader by the look of your clothes.”

“I was, and I will be again if I can find a ship.”

“Plenty of dealers here on Festi. Best…”

“I know, ” interrupted Steve. “Best dealers in the galaxy. Unfortunately they’re all out of my league where price is concerned.”

“Have you been outside the dome yet?”

“What? Outside the climate control area? Why would I do that?”

“Because the weather might be shit, but that’s where you’ll find the real second-hand bargains. I can give you a name if you like?”

By the time Steve had finished following the man’s directions, night was beginning to threaten. Festi’s bright twin suns, Jan and Sylve, hung low in a lurid evening sky, pushing long fingers of shadows from the spaceyard’s decaying circle of buildings, shadows that clawed their way across the dull concrete of the sales lot to grasp the squat, unattractive ship crouched, almost ashamedly, at its corner.

The two men standing before it looked from the ship to each other, both thoughtful and mildly nervous.

The salesman, a middle-aged retired space trader, now settled into an ordered, almost tedious, lifestyle, bit his lower lip and waited. This ship had plagued him for several months, squatting like some ugly malevolent goblin that no one wanted to buy. Perhaps this time…

Steve shifted his slight weight from foot to foot, hands on hips, unable to decide whether he should buy. Not for the first time he caught sight of the heavy indentation in the bow of the ship, relic of some long forgotten, and apparently unreported, accident.

“What did you say she was called?” He searched swiftly, but unsuccessfully, for the nameplate.

“The last owner called her The Seven Deadly Sins. Of course, we could change that for you if you wished. Wouldn’t take long.”

The salesman clasped his hands together, a feeling of imminent sale coming over him and warming him against what was turning into a cold night. Out here, beyond the limits of the city’s climate dome, the land rental was cheap but you had to contend with Festi’s natural weather.

“The Seven Deadly Sins.” Steve spoke the name softly, almost in reverence. It appealed to his, some would say twisted, sense of humour. The ship did have a certain sinful look and the interior, which he had inspected earlier, had done little to alleviate the atmosphere of squalor and mischievous evil. He knew he was talking himself into buying the ship, romanticising the shit out of his reasons, but underlying it all was the simple, cold and uncomfortable truth. The Seven Deadly Sins was about all he could afford.

He scratched at his head through thick, long, untidy brown hair and smiled wryly. “Ok,” he turned to the salesman. “I’ll take it.”

“A good decision, if I may say so sir. She’s a fine ship.”

“She’s shit, but I’m not in a position to argue.” It was also more affordable shit than he had found in the numerous other spaceyards he had tried that day.

The salesman shrugged, his jaw aching grin refusing to slip. “I’m sure you’ll feel differently after you’ve flown her for a while.”

Steve smiled. “You could be right. Now, could we complete the details? I’d like to get going. It’s cold out here.”

The salesman nodded, looking to the east where storm clouds were boiling in the ever-darkening sky. Violent electrical storms came and went with equal rapidity beyond the city’s controlled limits. He shivered involuntarily and led Steve to the small office.

Steve filled in the necessary on-screen forms swiftly, his eyes also on the approaching storm, and transferred them to the salesman’s display allowing him to read them through and place his own electronic signature at the bottom. Neither man said a word as Steve gave clearance, via the computer, to the Galactic Bank to transfer the agreed amount from his account into the spaceyard’s account. Once confirmed, the salesman handed over the wallet of card locks and ignition combinations and glanced once again out of the office window to the east.

“Storm’s getting close sir. If you take my advice you’ll hurry off right away. You don’t want to be grounded here for its duration, however short. Festi’s bad enough without the eccentricities of its weather.”

Steve nodded and shook hands with the salesman. For a moment the older man’s eyes misted over and the false smile slipped. He was no longer a salesman. He was an old trader, reminiscing about years spent travelling between worlds and cultures. When he spoke there was a crack of sad regret in his voice.

“Good trading son. Treat her gently and she’ll serve you well.”

Steve smiled and, with a final wave of goodbye to the salesman, hurried out of the office. He ran to The Seven Deadly Sins as the first snap of lightning ripped across the horizon.

He was back in business.

*******

End Of Sample

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