THE SEARCH FOR SHARLA
CHAPTER ONE: EXTERNAL INTERFERENCE
"Les oreilles ennemies vous ecoutent."
ANON, France 1915
Rup Standish stepped out of the main control centre into a bitter wind and immediately pulled the warm collar of his coat tighter about his neck. He hurriedly opened and entered the protective interior of his comsphere. He punched in the co-ordinates of his home and leaned back into the comfortable padding of the seat. It rose silently and smoothly into the air, impervious to the effects of the wind.
Rup began to relax as the familiar sights of his daily route swept past and the tensions from yet another disappointing day slowly ebbed. The signals they were monitoring were as enigmatic now as when they had first discovered them. They had to have an intelligent source, but the expected variations had never come. Just the same regular signal, which, although complex, could possibly be from a natural source and they didn't dare publish their findings without some conclusive evidence.
The BIGEAR project that Rup was a major part of, had been designed to search for other civilisations in the many parts of the galaxy that remained unexplored. Although normal territorial expansion would eventually encompass the entire Spiral, experience had shown that the addition of other intelligent partners increased the rate at which they could map the galaxy. There was also the possibility that they might be able to detect the more antagonistic races before Scouts, stumbling blindly forward, created a possibly dire situation.
Rup felt certain that the signals they had detected were from an intelligent source, but they would have to rely on the Scouts for proof.
A small biped knelt at the edge of the small lake and, after briefly checking the surrounding area for the last time, drank hurriedly from cupped hands. A moving light, reflected in the disturbed water, made it look up into the sky and it saw what looked like a slow, falling star. As it watched, the star darted to one side and then disappeared as the sun peeked above the horizon, filling the sky with the orange light of dawn.
A light breeze momentarily chilled its hands as it wiped them dry on rough leggings and it caught the slight scent of something putrid. The puzzling light was immediately forgotten.
The biped rose slowly and debated with itself about tracking down the smell. Death normally held advantages for the quick and sure, but the light was growing and the sand lizards were craftier during the day
It removed a short sword from a scabbard strapped to its back and examined it judiciously. In a language older than the land upon which it stood, it said, "Well, lizards is lizards, and profits is profits." It sniffed at the air confidently, trying to gauge distance and direction.
Terror Orbit 43.10.01
This is undoubtedly the planet that has been emitting the signals received by the BIGEAR project on Relonia. To be more precise, the signals are being generated by rather sophisticated equipment on two of the planet's nine satellites.
The equipment should be referred to the DSAA for investigation, as it is more than the equal of some of our finest and has continued to function long after the demise of the civilisation that created it. Its primary purpose, which it continues to fulfil, is to regulate the orbit of each satellite, but the method it employs is also used to control the satellite gravitational and magnetic fields, and, to a degree, atmospheric behaviour.
It is the energy stations specifically controlling the latter that are malfunctioning. three appear to be running-down, which is having little effect apart from a raising of air temperatures, but two appear to be over-loading, which, as well as lowering the temperatures, is causing the signals noted by BIGEAR.
As the plane of the ecliptic is almost directly in line with the Relonian system, the eclipsing of the two offending satellites by other bodies in the system (but primarily by the mother planet) is causing the complex and consistent fluctuations in the signals that BIGEAR thought indicated intelligence.
As I mentioned earlier the civilisation that created the equipment appears to have collapsed a very long time ago, so there is no need to contact the Dip Corp. Sensors indicate that the collapse wasn't due to the usual misuse of nuclear energy and there is intelligent life on both the planet and its satellites, but there isn't anything remotely resembling a civilisation.
A cursory examination of the planet and its satellites and fairly intensive interviews of inhabitants of both, has revealed the following information:
The planet is called Terror (this is apparently a mutation of an earlier name which, as is usual for home planets, means ground or dirt).
The satellites are called Gobackoff, Baggage, Column, Curry, Eyesty, Faraway, Newt, Strongarm and Sugaring.
The inhabitants would appear to conform to classification type G2H4NQ.
The primary language is rich and complex, apparently suffering alteration, but little deterioration, since the collapse of the planet's civilisation. It is spoken in all areas, if only as a trade language, with only minor differences in dialect. Some small groups retain a local language that they use for internal communication.
There used to be a tenth satellite, called Petal, that crashed into an area of water called Indosan. Analysis of plant growth in the affected area shows that this occurred at least a half mark ago and both the local area and the atmosphere have fully adjusted.
There is a belief amongst the planets inhabitants that the number ten is unlucky and this probably stems from this event. Also, any excursions to the satellites are strongly discouraged.
The inhabitants of the planet have a tendency to cluster close to the old centres of civilisation. They venture out purely for hunting purposes and due to the distances involved there is little interaction between the separate groups.
It is probable that these groups will eventually form the bedrock of a new civilisation and should therefore be periodically monitored so as to save them from any future collapse. Also, as they occupy a system in the least explored arm of the Spiral, they may prove to be extremely useful to us.
The inhabitants of the satellites are extraordinarily nomadic, rarely stopping anywhere for more than a few days and rarely travelling in groups of more than five. They have developed a very strange and complex social structure that appears to be highly self-destructive.
It is a personal opinion that the satellites will shortly be uninhabited due to either further deterioration of the energy stations or due to the aggression of the inhabitants.
Terror Orbit 48.02.03
Unfortunately, the report added to the aforementioned BIGEAR file by Scout WXCJHG/617F4 (dated 43.10.01), suffered from the usual zealousness and inexperience generally displayed by the very young. The report lacked the detached objectivity required by the Dip Corp.
However, my colleague was right in stating that the Dip Corp. need not bother with this particular system until periodic monitoring indicates a change in the technological level of either of the evolving societies.
It is at this point that the general ideological naiveté of the young must be used to excuse my colleagues offhand dismissal of the possibility of any society forming on the satellites.
A more mature and seasoned investigator will know from experience that an aggressive nature will often assist the survival of a young society.
I am leaving the signal-suppresser supplied by the DSAA in orbit around the planet to clear the area for the BIGEAR project.
The five satellites suffering from deterioration of their atmospheric energy stations have suffered further and preventative action should be taken if further study of, or interaction with, the inhabitants of this system is intended.
On a personal note, I am surprised at the lack of any interest in this system from the scientific community. The discovery of a new inhabited system may not rate the great excitement it once did, but any idiot reading the data supplied by WXCJHG/617F4 could tell that these satellites have been constructed and placed ARTIFICIALLY. I do not keep up with all of the latest technological advancements of our own society, but I feel fairly sure we could NOT manage this, at present.
Terror Orbit 54.09.23
Deterioration of operating energy stations forestalled on all satellites. No alteration to existing atmospheric conditions undertaken. Low voltage electrical fields erected about all installations to forestall any tampering or vandalism by inhabitants.
The original report from Scout WXCJHG/617F4 (dated 43.10.01) indicated that we would find the equipment of interest. This was an incredible understatement. We also discovered other operational equipment including local and interplanetary teleportation devices, terrariums and ecological monitoring stations. It is envisaged that we will shortly adopt some of the techniques employed in the operation of these devices.
Suggest cross-reference to DEEAS and DED, who may be interested in ascertaining the cause of the collapse of this civilisation. It certainly seems unusual for a civilisation to disappear with such little damage to its structures. The only possibilities I can imagine are either a highly contagious and deadly virus, or EXTERNAL intervention.
Terror Orbit 57.01.17
No cause for alarm. No sign of any virulent bacteria or external interference, although neither can be positively ruled out due to the passage of time involved. Actual cause of civilisation's disappearance is unknown. None of the possibilities outweighs the others. Suggest infiltration of planet and satellite societies to find conclusive answer to enigma.
Quarantine of all personnel reported to have been on the surface or in contact with said personnel may now end. Suggest compensation for inconvenience to forestall later heavier claims or possible information media interference.
Terror Orbit 62.04.16
I really wish the Scouts would listen to their training tapes, as the inhabitants are of the far more common classification type G2H6FM.
Furthermore, there appears to be quite a considerable amount of interaction between the planet and its satellites.
Anyway, there appears to be no need for action on behalf of the DEEAS, as the conditions now pertaining are not beyond the adaptive capabilities of the inhabitants.
CHAPTER TWO: MISSION
"...But who can be drowsy at that hour
which freed us from everlasting sleep?
or have slumbering thoughts at that time,
when sleep itself must end, and,
as some conjecture, all shall awake again?"
Sir Thomas Browne 1605-1682
ICFT Aran 84.02.14
Fariman heard a faint hissing as the cubicle door swung back, most of the sound obscured by the helmet covering his head. He felt the slight sting of cold air rushing into the exposed interior and involuntarily shivered. The speakers inside the helmet spluttered momentarily and the familiar lilting tones of Nagging Annie explained, "There may be some discomfort as your body adjusts to normal temperatures. This is to be expected and will temporarily increase your awareness of your body and surroundings. This has been planned to be of benefit to you."
Fariman cursed Annie for the millionth time since his re-awakening. For two weeks he had endured the pokes and prods of the machinery around him, as his body was massaged back to life after the long period of inactivity enforced by cryogenic sleep. At first, the pain had been almost unendurable, and each brief respite had seemed heavenly. He had imagined that certain muscles were being rewarded and would lie there praising his left calf for responding quickly enough, or congratulating his nape for recognising the correct stimulus.
Fortunately, the pain had dulled to an endurable level, but then Nagging Annie had started. The training manuals stated, "After physical awakening comes mental awakening." Obviously, the department that had written the manual had never bothered to undergo the treatment. A week of extreme physical discomfort does quite enough to sharpen the mental processes. If the patient isn't fully conscious by then, they must be dead.
He couldn't remember precisely how long it had been before he had mentally given a name to Nagging Annie, but he knew it was around the same time he had managed to use his throat for something more than an unintelligible gargle.
It had been quite frustrating at first, as the only exercise his vocal cords had endured had been the odd involuntary scream, and the continual demands for a recognisable answer had evoked a few voluntary ones. Surely those responsible could have programmed the equipment to recognise vocal patterns distorted by the ravages of cryogenics.
Fariman amused himself for a moment by imagining the whole crew as a lynch mob hunting down the original owner of Nagging Annie's voice. Another shiver distracted him and Annie spluttered into life again, "Please remove your helmet carefully." He felt the bands restraining his upper arms slowly relax their grip, and then they were gone.
"Some loss of hair is unavoidable, but new hair should have replaced the old during the period of recuperation. We hope your journey has been a pleasant one."
Fariman startled himself with a short bark of laughter. The sound of laughter seemed oddly unfamiliar, somehow not his own. He reached up and unclipped the chin strap, and even such simple, automatic motions felt strange to him.
He removed the helmet with exaggerated care and, despite the warning, flinched as his old hair showered onto his shoulders. A fine dusting of old dry skin joined it. His body had been regularly bathed, but his head, being encased, hadn't benefited from quite the same degree of attention. The removal of the helmet was a signal to the waiting equipment, which promptly released the restraining bands from his body. His body sank inexorably to the floor, his legs first buckling, then kicking out from under him, so that he found himself sitting on the padded floor of the cubicle with his legs sticking out into the corridor.
The doors of the cubicle opposite swung out with a loud hiss and Fariman found himself staring at a naked female. He remembered that only four of them would be awoken initially, just to park the Aran in a safe orbit. His memory was rewarded by the sound of two more cubicles opening in quick succession.
ICFT Aran 84.02.19
Ghalinda pushed herself away from the control console and sank back gratefully into the plush padding of her chair. They had been awoken twelve watches ago, but it would be a considerable period before the toll exacted by their long sleep could be overcome. She looked across at Fariman and Barka, who still tapped away laboriously at their consoles.
Fariman hadn't fared as well as she, Barka and Tolell. They had all started with a little additional weight and, consequently, looked better for the loss of tissue, but Fariman had been thin at the outset. The loss of muscle and hair made him look incredibly skeletal.
Ghalinda smiled as she remembered removing her helmet to see Fariman sitting opposite her with his legs lying uselessly in front of him, and then the sudden release of her own restraints had left her in a similar position. They had suddenly started to laugh and, just as suddenly, stopped. Hearing the strange alien quality of the sound, as it had reverberated along the corridor, made them both feel awkward and then, just as abruptly, they had started to laugh again, as if simultaneously aware of the stupidity of their postures and self-consciousness.
Tolell appeared beside her with a tray of hot drinks. She broadened her smile, "You must be a latent telepath."
He returned her smile with a mischievous grin, "Not really. Just a lazy little switch who prefers preparing drinks to staring at computer terminals. Besides, it'll be an awfully long time before things get at all interesting and I, for one, intend to be fully stoked up before then." He patted his stomach, almost affectionately, and moved carefully over to Barka and Fariman.
"Refreshments for the poor and needy." He didn't specifically direct the statement at Fariman, but the man reacted hotly. "Not everyone is graced with the body of a wallowing Bjataan!"
Tolell grinned tolerantly, "I think you are in definite need of a short break. Better yet, I can offer a break enhanced by the rich luxury of hot skal."
Fariman grinned apologetically, "You're probably right. These switched equations have been getting the better of me." He indicated the mess of symbols on the monitor before him and then swivelled the chair to face Tolell. "Your gifts are received with the gratitude of my diminutive abdomen and the thanks of my starved taste buds." He twirled his hand above the cup, as if performing a complicated spell, before accepting it.
Barka also swung around and deftly retrieved a cup from the proffered tray. He sipped it first, and then, assured it wasn't too hot, downed the liquid with an audible gulp. Both Fariman and Tolell laughed, causing Barka to blush quickly.
ICFT Aran 84.02.19
Politely referred to as the Foetus by Fariman, less politely referred to as the Womb With A View by Ghalinda and referred to in considerably harsher ways by Barka and Tolell, the Interstellar Class Four Transporter is a highly specialised type of space vehicle.
Unlike the extremely fast Flitters used by the Scouts, the ICFT is ungainly and slow. While having the capacity for carrying over one thousand life-forms of varying types and enough equipment for a small scale colonisation, it is also capable of travelling tremendous distances whilst totally unmanned by crew.
It is, essentially, an enormous rotating sphere, connected by wires to an even larger block of frozen liquid, which houses the propulsion unit. Fariman would probably have taken the analogy further by referring to them, elegantly but inappropriately, as the Umbilical and Placenta, had he been asked.
The frozen liquid provides fuel for the comparatively minute engine, as well as protection against interstellar dust. A particle of dust can cause a surprisingly extensive amount of damage if collided with at extreme speeds. The distance between the Aran and the frozen block minimised the risk of radioactive contamination from the propulsion unit.
The ships second line of defence is an almost impervious outer shell, that provides additional protection against radiation as well as collision. The rotation provides gravity for the inner layer of the ships shell, where the cryogenic cubicles are housed. The central, almost weightless, sphere of the ship is used for storage of perishables and cargo.
Obviously, such a large amount of mass either requires a tremendous amount of energy to propel it, or, as is the case, a minor amount of energy applied over a tremendous amount of time. Which is why Fariman and his colleagues were awoken while the ship was still more than twice the distance from the target system, than the outermost satellite.
Fariman and Barka would navigate the craft into a safe orbit, utilising the information provided by Tolell and Ghalinda, who would chart the entire system, but most importantly, any and all objects approaching the orbit of the third planet. The only reason for two people at each task, was to reduce the possibility of errors. Each partner cross-checks the others methods and results. As their trainers were found of saying, "Computers are only as good as the people who use them."
Once the manoeuvres had been calculated, all four would return to the cryogenic cubicles and once again endure the little death.
ICFT Aran 84.03.01
All of them noticed, and ignored, the false joviality that each laboured to sustain, at this, their final meal. Fariman would start to toy with his utensils and then, noticing it, would stop, only to start again when his mind wandered. He had hardly slept during the last watch, due to a nightmare he had suffered during his last period of rest. He had awoken to find Barka leant over him, holding him by the shoulders.
He had dreamt that he had already been frozen and was awakening for the second time from a long cryogenic sleep. The routine had been the same as the first time, with all the same pain, the hate of Nagging Annie, the same memory lessons and inane tutorials. The door had hissed open. He removed the helmet. More hair and skin fell about him. The bands released his body and he sank to the floor. The cubicle opposite hissed open and Ghalinda once again removed her helmet and sank to the floor. Then Ghalinda looked across at him, and screamed! He held up a hand, as if to reassure her, and skeletal bones rattled in front of him! He looked down at his legs and screamed at the grotesque bones and sinew thinly stretched over them! He SCREAMED!
Fariman pushed the food around his plate, once more, and noticing, stopped, once more. He pushed himself away from the table, "No time like the present." He willed the words to hold some magic charm, something to fortify him against the ordeal. Surprisingly, they did. He felt a sudden resolve to get the process over with and, bowing once, curtly, left the others.
As if Fariman's exit was a cue, the others arose and following Fariman's lead, bowed formally to each other. Ghalinda and Tolell departed silently, while Barka was left to clear the makeshift dining table in the control room. None of them had relished the thought of using the long, grey, echoing vault of a common room, so Tolell had suggested that they place a temporary cover over the land-map table and enjoy the relative cosiness of the control room.
Barka quickly finished and threw the cover into a disposal chute. The process of finding an orbit for the ship had gone well, and, it now seemed, quickly. But their final orbit would be well within shuttle range and once the ground receivers had been installed, it would be a simple four second hop.
As he made his way towards his cubicle, the hissing sound of a cubicle closing stopped him. That would be Fariman. He continued. Just before he reached the correct ring another hiss sounded and he rushed forward, suddenly not wanting to be last away, but another hiss sounded as he rounded the corner, in time to see the cubicle door close. It had been Ghalinda.
He thought of her as the door hissed shut on him. Envying the calm, self assured air she carried with her. He carefully donned the helmet and a needle punctured his arm. Within a few breaths his head rolled forward. Ring four-south was silent for a while, until one of the cubicles folded slowly backward to lie flat against the floor. It was followed quickly, but at different intervals, by the other three. All four actions were accompanied by the standard hydraulic hiss and then the entire ship was silent once again.
ICFT Aran 86.01.19
For the second half of its journey the wires connecting the Aran to the block of frozen gas had been pulled taut, so that the coiled outer layer of the wire became rigid. This enabled the propulsion unit to reverse its direction of thrust, without turning the entire craft around, which meant the Foetus would still be afforded the protection of its Placenta. As the amount of thrust was fairly minuscule, the wires wouldn't be placed under any great stress.
By the time the ship actually entered the target system, most of the frozen gas had been used up, and many of the wires released. As it passed through the orbit of the systems outermost gas giant, the remaining wires were released and the propulsion unit slowly moved away from the ship, heading for a shallower trajectory, so as to place itself in a hyperbolic orbit that would bisect the final orbit of the ship once for every twelfth orbit of the sun by the ship.
This would mean that the highly radioactive propulsion unit would be kept safely away from the ship until such time as its services were required again. Whereupon, it could be boarded by the use of the onboard matter transceiver for replenishment and re-use. Previous surveys of the system by Scouts had shown that there were plenty of suitable gas blocks available for its use, within an asteroid belt, between the fourth and fifth planets.
The ship finally neared its destination and, after a few short corrective bursts of gas, from thrusters mounted around its outer shell, sent the signal to the cubicle control system, to allow first stage revival of the crew.
CHAPTER THREE: ARRIVAL
"So I awoke, and behold it was a dream."
John Bunyan 1628-1688
Terror Orbit 86.02.07
Fariman found that it was easier the second time around, but that did not stop him from hating Annie with all of the original fervour. Intellectual objectivity can only help if you divorce your pain receptors and your emotions.
By the time the door hissed open, his boredom had outstripped his hate and it was almost a relief to sink ludicrously to the floor. This time another hiss sounded off to his left, which he found oddly reassuring, before Ghalinda's door hissed open. She sank to the floor and her head rolled forward sharply onto her chest. She groaned. Fariman felt more concerned than alarmed, but then she lifted her head and looked at him with eyes that were unfocused. Slowly, they seemed to clear and she seemed to recognise him. Then she screamed. Fariman fainted.
Barka snapped the vial under Fariman's nose and both of them shared the same expression of disgust as the pungent aroma escaped. Fariman seemed to regain consciousness almost immediately and the first thing he did puzzled Barka. "Why are you so interested in the condition of your arm?"
Fariman didn't answer, but propped himself up on his elbows, "Ghalinda?" The tone held a galaxy of questions.
Barka looked at the hard deck beneath him, trying to draw strength from its solidity. "Temporarily mad. Not completely, but she'll require a lot of attention before she can resume her duties." He paused, "If she's ever able."
He drew a deep breath and looked back at Fariman, "You remember how quiet she was?" Fariman nodded.
"I thought it was a sign of self assured strength, but she had a bad time during awakening. She kept it locked inside. Now..." He took another deep breath and let it escape with a sigh, unsure of how to continue.
"Yet she returned for a second..." His voice trailed off.
Fariman rose carefully to his feet and waited for Barka to join him. "Where is she now?"
"Tolell was taking her to Medical, they have facilities for restraint over there. He left me with you. What happened?"
It was Fariman's turn to take a deep breath, "You remember my nightmare? Well, let's just say that I may be a budding clairvoyant, but if I am, I'm an inaccurate one and you have no idea how happy that makes me."
Barka looked confused, "I don't understand."
Fariman clapped his shoulder, "It was like watching a foggy repeat of my nightmare, but, luckily, the ending had changed. Mine was a lot worse. Well, at least, from a personal viewpoint it was."
Terror Orbit 86.02.09
Thaldoro paced the length of the control room, his long stride covering the distance all too quickly. He turned sharply at the other end and faced the waiting group, "It seems that Fariman, Barka, Tolell and Ghalinda have done an excellent job." He paused to allow everyone the chance of congratulating their colleagues. "The latter should be returning to active duty after approximately twenty watches. I have been informed by the Chief Medic that she will be allowed out of his section after the next watch and that she should be treated as normal. This should aid her complete recovery."
He paused for a moment and then looked directly at Fariman as he said, "As for Pilot Fariman. I have been informed that his reaction was one of shock, and was wholly natural. Any aspersions by any other officer that he is incapable of performing his assigned duties, will be dealt with severely."
A general murmur of approval made Fariman feel a little easier. There had been some odd comments about his faint, and he had worried that Thaldoro might hear and believe them.
"Returning to my original point," he waited for the muttering to die, "I am pleased to note that our parking spot is completely vacant and will remain so. The nearest object is a derelict communications satellite and it poses no threat or problem. So," he swept his gaze across all of them, "I would suggest we instigate second stage revival and while waiting for our companions, see what we can discover about our destination that the Scouts failed to put in their,” he paused for effect, “comprehensive reports. Dismissed." The group left, chuckling.
CHAPTER FOUR: DISPERSAL
"Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on them,
a rottenness begins in his conduct."
President Thomas Jefferson 1743-1826
Terror Orbit 86.02.26
Gryx hated every single second of his awakening with the sort of hate that can only come from someone who has never known discomfort, let alone pain. The torture of unused muscles being massaged back to life left him gasping for breath. By the time his cubicle hissed open he had finished pleading with the equipment and was into the abusive stage.
The officer overseeing the revival of fourth stage investigators heard the expletives the instant the cubicle hissed open. Curiosity, more than anything else, prompted him to locate the source and he made his way along the ring past the opening cubicles. He found Gryx, sat in the classic pose, hitting the padded sides of the cubicle with his clenched fists.
"And what the switch do you think you're doing..." he studied the man's lapel, "Serviceman Gryx!"
Gryx opened his mouth, ready to flay the impertinent wretch with deserved invective, and noticed the star beside the man's name on his lapel. His mouth closed sharply. Insulting an officer was dangerous. He had learnt that much at the training camp. The same place that had taught him that his family's wealth and titles counted for little in the Service. He had his revenge by having the Camp Commander assassinated, but it hadn't eased the pain of the bruises he'd initially suffered.
Here, in the relative seclusion of space, his name and civil rank would mean less than nothing. He looked up at the officer, "Serviceman Gryx offers his apologies for his destructive behaviour, sah!" Belatedly, he remembered to salute, but the man had already turned and was making his way back along the ring towards the corridor intersection. Gryx felt slightly abused, for they had surely woken him just to inform him of the death of his family. This wasn't the way to gently break the tragic news.
Gryx memorised the officers name and filed it in that part of his memory reserved for people he intended to get even with. That file was currently empty, as he'd decided at the outset of this trip that revenge on anyone at home would be pointless, as he'd outlive them all and exacting revenge on their descendants, when he returned, might be taking things to the extreme. Even for Gryx.
Gryx suddenly became more aware of his surroundings and noticed the other open or opening cubicles. The realisation slowly penetrated that he wasn't the only person being awoken. Something had gone wrong. Very wrong.
He felt the urgent need to check his electronic mail.
Terror Orbit 86.02.27
Gryx lounged comfortably in a padded chair in the recreation area set aside for ordinary Service personnel and toyed with the edges of the letter he held. He decided he would retrieve the original when he returned home and have it framed and mounted in his private study, but this one he'd destroy, as a final act of divorce from his subservient past.
A major flaw had occurred in his plans, but things hadn't worked out too badly. He would now have to spend more time with these idiotic military types than he'd originally planned, but at least he would return home in triumph.
He couldn't resist reading the letter one last time and avidly savoured each word detailing the deaths of his brothers and parents.
Each had died in apparently unrelated incidents, that all mysteriously occurred at the same instant, prompting a major investigation by the League of Barons. Now, upon his return, he would be invested with the full, uncontested title, of Lord Gryx, Baron High Tors.
There were three other documents, two relating to how the League of Barons, and their descendants, would care for and protect his title and lands. The more astute among them might wonder about his sudden and unexpected fortune, but let them wonder, they would be dead before he returned. The third was from his eldest sister, offering condolences over the deaths of their relatives and praying for his safe return. He gave all three little more than a cursory glance. They had been expected.
All around him, others were reading their own personal mail, from relatives, friends and lovers. Some had tears in their eyes. A few were openly crying. All held their computer print-outs as if they had been individually penned.
Everyone had known, at the outset, that all of the people they knew would probably be dead before they returned. That knowledge was always the hardest thing for sleep-mission personnel to face, and only the most ambitious or adventurous would accept such missions.
Gryx had actually volunteered for this mission as part of a long term plan to dramatically alter his social position. He had enjoyed quite a rewarding life as the son of a Baron and had been most upset when his father had announced his impending retirement. This would have meant his brother Hotto would have cleared them all out of the main Keep to make room for his own children.
Gryx had fretted for weeks over the best methods for retaining his lifestyle and had come to the decision that only by becoming the Baron himself would he be secure. Assassination was not uncommon, but Gryx had six older brothers to remove, and the League of Barons might readily unite to usurp an uncommonly ambitious upstart. Also, his father might readily disown him for such a slaughter, so he would have to be removed as well, and the League would definitely react if an actual member was killed.
Gryx finally realised that there was no way of removing them all without somebody pointing an accusing finger at him, and that might prove very unhealthy.
The DEEAS had provided the answer with their request for volunteers for a sleep-mission, lasting for seventy eight local years. Gryx was the third to sign up for the mission, much to the proud delight of his parents and disguised consternation of the rest of his family. Gryx was jubilant and basked in the local publicity.
While arrangements were made for the departure, Gryx made all of the necessary contracts to remove his family. His eldest brother Hotto had planned a hunting trip for early spring and would suffer an accident with his favourite laser rifle. At the same time, his brother Foxil, at university on another continent, would be caught in the crossfire as his room-mate D'Gil, first son of Baron Wolpiere, was assassinated. Joviar, the second eldest, would be found hanging from the metal ceiling of his factory with a note in his pocket explaining his suicide due to murdering his partner and second youngest brother, Jhan, by strangulation. The bruises on Jhan's neck would match the size of Joviar's hands exactly.
The third eldest, Killian, would apparently slip off the expressway platform on his way to work and be crushed to death. The last brother, Fermantlee, would be openly assassinated, with rumours circulated shortly after concerning unpaid gambling debts. His parents, and a good number of the staff, would be poisoned by gas when the security system of the Keep was accidentally triggered.
Although it might appear as a tragic coincidence of misfortunate events, the League would view it as a successful attempt to wipe out the High Tors family and would therefore investigate, which is why Gryx set up a two tier assassination. His families assassins would be dead within a week.
Evidence would point to his brother Foxil as the likely culprit and his death would be marked as a definite accident. The first tier assassin used to kill both Foxil and D'Gil was an old retainer of D'Gils father who had been dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct and petty theft.
Gryx would be safely asleep aboard the DEEAS ship, somewhere between the fifth and sixth planets of his own system, steadily accelerating towards interstellar space. He had envisaged that the League would demand his return, as the sole heir to the High Tors title, and that he would be awoken within a year of his departure and returned to the safety, comfort and wealth of the main Keep. He looked at the papers again, briefly, and concluded that, all said and done, things hadn't worked out too atrociously.
Gryx threw all four papers into the disposal chute and left the area with a jaunty step that surprised the few who noticed.
Terror Orbit 86.03.26
Group three-eight, of which Gryx was a member, was assigned to the satellite Estovadon (pronounced ess-toe-var-den by the inhabitants). They assembled beside the shuttle launch on ring twelve-north at the appointed time and the Group Leader handed out commissions and instructions.
Gryx hadn't expected a commission and so wasn't disappointed when he didn't receive one. He knew his natural abilities as a leader would be ignored after the common-room incident with Pilot Fariman.
He'd only expressed the opinion that Navigator Ghalinda was too neurotic to command a pack of performing Bjataans, let alone being made a Group Leader, especially his Group Leader. Unfortunately, Pilot Fariman had been passing and had taken exception to his derogatory remark about a fellow officer. The blow knocked Gryx sideways off of his chair, which placed Fariman at the top of his revenge list.
Gryx broke his reverie to discover he had been assigned to the newly appointed Scout Leader, Hollisan. He smiled politely at her, noting that she came from his own planet, and wondered if she would be easy to intimidate and control.
CHAPTER FIVE: FATALITIES
"He is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs
of his tribe and island are the laws of nature."
George Bernard Shaw 1856-1950
Gryx blinked the sand out of his eyes and checked the compass on his forearm unit to ensure he was still heading for the teleport. The sand had got into some of his wounds and every movement made him wince. He pulled himself painfully forward, praying that the teleport would be just over this dune or the next. The cold of the night and the drugs were keeping his head clear, but loss of blood would eventually stop him and he had to get back to the safety of the ship.
He knew the shuttle was beyond his reach, but if he could reach the interplanetary teleport they'd passed earlier and get to the main planet, his personal signalling devices would be in reach of the many groups stationed there.
He fervently hoped that the locals that had attacked them were crawling all over the shuttle when he teleported to Terror. The shuttle would be monitoring the teams personnel signals and would know that only Gryx's was still operational. The minute he teleported and was out of the shuttles range it would assume him dead and self-destruct, hopefully taking the locals with it.
The group landed safely on Estovadon and split into a number of smaller teams. Each of which were assigned a variety of duties. Hollisandra's team, of which Gryx was part, were set to searching and securing the local area. This suited Gryx admirably, as observation required little in the way of effort.
The group soon established themselves and fell into a comfortable routine. Interaction with the natives was limited and, on the whole, uneventful. Hollisandra's team soon began to explore further afield, utilising the shuttle once the matter transmission plates had been fully installed.
Hollisandra's team was allowed to take the shuttle so that they could explore further afield. They discovered a likely site near a forest, that contained one of the indigenous teleportation devices and promptly landed near it.
They had been at the site for only four watches when an abortive attempt at trade, with a small native named Shupto, had resulted in tragedy. They should have kidnapped and interrogated a savage first and ascertained the local rules governing trade, instead of relying on the report from the main investigative unit on Terror, but then, things are always obvious in hindsight.
The sun had just started to set, causing strange atmospheric effects, when the shabby little man had approached the team with his arms held wide in a gesture of greeting. He had seemed willing to trade information for a variety of goods.
Some slight error by one of the team had caused Shupto to fly into a rage and attack Hollisandra. She might have been able to handle the sudden onslaught, but Jora had reacted without thinking and put a neat hole in Shupto's skull.
Unknown to the team, Shupto hadn't been travelling alone and his companion, an old lady named Whatsa had viewed the incident from behind a dune with considerable alarm. Deaths during trade negotiations were not uncommon, but it was an unspoken law that others present at such times shouldn't interfere with the proceedings, even if violence did become inevitable.
Even so, such interference was not unheard of. Whatsa was mainly alarmed by the way the large group that Shupto had approached reacted to his death. Usually a body would be left to rot until members of the same clan found and buried it, the sand shifted to swallow it, or sand lizards fed upon it, but the group had immediately set to burying it as if laying claim to the region.
Whatsa scouted around the group, always keeping them within tracking range and located six other members of her clan. After a brief description of what she'd seen, each agreed to join her in dealing with the strange intruders. She also located a strange building that appeared to be a new construction, but utilising the skills and style of the ancients.
The two strangers found in the building reacted rather badly to Whatsa's presence and had to be killed. Whatsa's party examined the strange erection and quickly removed any objects that looked like either a good trade item or weapon. They agreed to attack the intruders at sunrise and three of the party then scouted to the south of the intruders and found two other locals near an oasis, while Whatsa and the others circumnavigated to the north of the intruders, also locating two young clansmen sheltered in a ruined building.
By the time the team had finished holding the burial ceremony for Shupto, that Hollisandra insisted was necessary, and after some heated discussions between the members, they agreed to return to the shuttle for the remainder of the night.
One of Whatsa's party argued that the intruders appeared to be heading towards the strange building and that the element of surprise would be lost if the intruders discovered their earlier ransacking of it. Whatsa agreed, and sent one of her party to join those to the south and inform them that the attack would occur just before the intruders reached the building.
Gryx pulled himself up to the central column of the interplanetary teleport, sheltered by the large support columns and placed his hand on the thermal lock. The door in the column glided open as if it had been installed a few hours earlier, but Gryx had no time to marvel at the technology that could create such things.
They had all been briefed on the automatic mechanisms that controlled the teleports from a report by a member of the DSAA and knew that after entering the column he would only have to select his destination to be transported to the nearest operating teleport station on the surface of Terror, but still he hesitated. It was one thing to know what something would do, but altogether different to let it do it. Especially when that something was an alien artefact.
He knew that when he arrived on Terror, it would be a matter of minutes before assistance arrived and his survival came before anything else. The thought of his own mortality finally convinced him and he fell through the opening. The column whirred as he was raised to the central control room.
He quickly found the equipment he had been instructed about and set the main planet as his destination. He crawled onto the transmitter platform, thinking of the monitor equipment onboard the shuttle and faded with a strange, strained grin.
Whatsa and the others had finished stripping the corpses just as the sun began to rise over the horizon and the reddish-orange glow from the sky cast an eerie light upon the scene.
Whatsa jumped involuntarily as a large explosion ripped through the air from where the strange building was located and then flinched as she and the rest of the party were suddenly showered with sand. This, like many of the last days events, was something totally outside of their previous experience.
As they slowly dispersed, Whatsa passed the place where Shupto had been buried and after briefly examining the strange object left there by the intruders, ascertaining that it had no value, moved off towards the nearest ruins looking for shelter.
She would be glad to get some rest, out of the coming heat.
CHAPTER SIX: FATAL ASSISTANCE
"Dieu n'est pas pour les gross bataillons,
mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux."
Terror 86.04.04 (allowing for time zones)
Chyando, of the Burman clan, was too old to hunt anymore and so spent his time foraging with the youngsters in the ruins of their area. He had been using the afternoon to teach the youngest children how to trap rats in case of a poor summer and hard winter. Engrossed as he was in setting a sprung noose between bricks near a rat hole, the scream from a nearby girl took him by surprise.
Suddenly remembering that they were near a telestat, he sprang to his feet with a speed that would have amazed him, if he'd had time to think about it. Fearing a raid by Moonmen, he sprinted to where the girl stood transfixed and following the line of her pointing hand, saw the bloodied bundle that was staggering towards them.
He almost whooped in exaltation at the sight of the injured Moonman. This would give him great standing within the clan for quite a time, especially after he suitably embellished the tale.
Laying his crude staff on the ground and unstrapping his old fighting axe from his back, he strode lightly to where the man stood supporting himself on the remains of a wall.
Gryx almost fell as he stumbled out of the teleport and onto the surface of Terror. He slowly raised himself fully erect. Nothing could, or would, stop him from claiming his title. He stopped, swaying, as he saw a young bedraggled female staring at him with the locked, wide eyed gaze of one who is paralysed with fear. She broke the paralysis and the sudden scream nearly rocked him backwards.
"Don't be scared..." The words ripped, almost incoherently, from his tortured throat. He felt extremely odd. Even his thoughts seemed slow and muddled. His feet felt as if they were dragging through mud. He staggered to a nearby derelict wall and placed a hand upon it to steady himself.
An old man appeared with alarming speed from behind some rubble and quickly swapped the staff he was carrying, for an axe.
Gryx was surprised, but not unduly worried. After all, an old, dirty peasant presented a bigger threat to his nose than his life. The poor could always be bribed or conned.
"My name is Gryx. I am Baron High Tors. I will reward you..."
Chyando struck the man once, heavily, removing most of his throat. He stood confused for a time, looking at the dishevelled corpse, before stooping to collect his new possessions. The man must have been in shock or mad. He had offered no defence whatsoever.
The children gathered around as he stripped the man of anything useful, poking and kicking the corpse. He waved them away, but allowed them to taunt it. It would be good for them to learn that the Moonmen weren't gods or devils, just malicious individuals who raided Terror for women or wealth.
He received a shock when he started to remove the clothing, for the man had used the telestat without a Travel Crystal. It was something he'd heard of, but never witnessed. He hurriedly shooed the children back toward the centre of Burman, looking over his shoulder occasionally, as if he worried that the corpse might follow them. His fear had a genuine reason, however. Any Moonman who would use a telestat without a Crystal was either forced into it, mad, or extremely scared of his pursuers.
Chyando had probably done someone a great favour, but he'd rather not meet them and discuss it. The sight of the slowly dissolving Moonman body would haunt him for a long time, as well as adding to the tales of the strange behaviour of those people from the sky.
That night, Chyando was the toast of the fire-circle as he recounted the tale of his brave fight with the mighty Moonman, Gryx, brandishing his new possessions for all to marvel at. It didn't matter that they were purely decorative. It would give the clan great standing at the next trade day, that an old toothless warrior, fit only for instructing the young, had despatched a younger invader.
ICFT Aran 86.06.14
Currently unable to ascertain location of missing civilisation. Require considerable additional time to sift through various local fables concerning a possible migration. Unhappy to report failure of three of the four groups sent to satellites and loss of two shuttle craft. Fourth team making some headway, despite initial losses, but far more success on main planet.
Request dispatch of additional personnel and equipment as detailed on requisition 47834/WC09.
CHAPTER SEVEN: RITE OF PASSAGE
"No, there's nothing half so sweet in life
As love's young dream."
Thomas Moore 1779-1852
Owls hooted intermittently from their hidden niches in nearby buildings. The soft rustle of scavenging rats could be heard intermingled with the sharp popping of the embers that still glowed in the centre of the clearing. Sharla and Agatan sat closely huddled together just outside of the glow cast by the slowly dying fire and discussed their hopes and plans for the future. The soft muttering of other couples mixed with their own to create a languid sense of intimacy and so they stayed until the cold began to encroach.
Agatan accompanied Sharla back to the room she shared with three other unattached girls, holding her hand possessively all the way. As they approached the doorway, Agatan had a sudden urge to swirl Sharla around into his arms, but didn't have the courage to take the risk. Sharla offered her cheek before they parted and he dutifully pecked at it in just the correct manner.
He replayed the whole evening in his mind as he returned to his own room, totally oblivious to the now bitter night air. He entered the room with the stealth of an experienced hunter, carefully avoiding the still forms of his room-mates and sank silently onto his furs. There was a gentle rustle as he arranged them about him. He lay there for a long time, thinking about Sharla and trying to ignore the pervasive hollow sighing of his friends sleeping breath. Eventually, he joined in the chorus.
Agatan awoke slowly, stretching repeatedly within his furs to bring some life to his limbs. As usual his room-mates were already abroad, but they hadn't woken him with their usual taunts, grudgingly showing respect for his new standing. Agatan chuckled to himself, his eyes still closed and full of sleepy cement.
Once he and Sharla were linked, they would be given their own quarters, but the fact that Sharla had chosen him was good enough to confirm his promotion from Cub to full Hunter. The ceremony of betrothal had developed into something bordering an initiation of manhood and subsequently, there were a lot of very old boys trying to catch a womans eye.
The council decided when a promotion had been earnt, but a Cub couldn't become a Hunter without being chosen for marriage and a Hunter couldn't become a Warrior without being married. So the actual fact of his promotion had been delayed for three years, while he waited to be selected.
He slowly opened his eyes and rubbed them with his knuckles, giving them time to adjust to the light. He started to roll out of his furs and the books he had hidden beneath them dug painfully into his ribs. He looked about quickly to ensure nobody was watching and then quickly wrapped the books in some loose rags.
Minutes later he stood outside the rooms of Chakta, the Headman of the Wolven clan, awaiting an audience. The bundle of books under his arm was a suspicious looking package and Freela, Chakta's mate, eyed it with obvious disapproval.
The clan knew that Chakta was able to interpret the markings of the ancients, but only Freela knew that Agatan had been favoured with his tutelage. She felt her mate was too young to be passing on his knowledge to a possible future rival and often ensured that Agatan had extra hunting duties or warrior training so as to increase the possibility of an accident and keep the men apart.
Chakta had explained that Agatan would have to endure the mistaken attentions of his mate and that it would reduce any jealousy over his obvious choice as the next Headman if people thought the choice carried such heavy penalties, as well as increasing the skills that Agatan would need in such a position.
Chakta held back the furs covering the doorway to his study and beckoned Agatan to enter, noting the obvious excitement of the young man. He indicated the furs by his workspace and waited for Agatan to seat himself, trying unsuccessfully, to keep a serious expression. Eventually he grinned, "Okay, Hunter, what have you found this time?".
Agatan missed the oblique reference to his new standing, which would have pleased him, due to his eagerness to show Chakta his new find. He rapidly removed the rag covering and proffered the top book to his tutor. "This is it, the most important one yet. I found it in the caretakers room of the Wolven Library." He thrust the book at Chakta, who took it carefully and after reading the title said softly, "Yes, I believe you're right."
Chakta stroked the rotting cover with a tenderness close to reverence. "A Synopsis Of The Creation Of The Garden Satellites." He whispered the title like a powerful spell.
CHAPTER EIGHT: TRADE DAY
"Experience is the child of Thought,
and Thought is the child of Action.
We cannot learn men from books."
Benjamin Disraeli 1804-1881
Agatan, now that he was a Hunter, was the obvious choice as personal escort to Chakta for Trade Day, the annual meeting of Headmen, but the timing clashed with his linking to Sharla. He wanted to stay, but Chakta decided his attendance was more important and that a short delay to his and Sharla's union wouldn't actually do any harm. In fact, it might do some good, as certain members of the clan were a little upset at Agatan's rapid advancement to Warrior.
Chakta also felt that Agatan needed some exposure to people from outside his own clan. It was always far too easy to feel that the Wolven clan was the centre of the universe and the trade day was a good reminder that other clans danced to other tunes.
Agatan was noticeably disappointed, but Sharla's obvious disapproval of the new arrangements did a lot to hearten him. Chakta was eventually forced to ask Freela to quell Sharla's vociferous complaints. He was willing to endure Agatan's surly acquiescence, but that could easily revert to stubborn opposition if fuelled by Sharla's petulant jibes.
They eventually set off, leaving before dawn on a cold spring morning, dragging their sleds, laden with trade items behind them. They maintained a comfortable silence throughout the morning, until they stopped for lunch. They had covered ten miles and were now close to the Burman area, the centre of which was their destination. Their lunch consisted of raw vegetables and they chatted amiably while eating and resting and then set off again.
They were three miles into the Burman area before being challenged by a sentry who then escorted them into the centre of the ancient city, where they were assigned quarters and a guide.
The guide was a young Cub called Stopik, who chattered incessantly about the prestigious position held by his uncle Tropol, who would be acting as arbiter during the coming days negotiations. Chakta and Agatan exchanged frequent looks of disbelief behind Stopik's back, frankly dubious of any one person being capable of all the things that Stopik claimed for Tropol.
Chakta had been to the Burman centre on many occasions and was able to point out places of interest to Agatan that their guide obviously took for granted or didn't consider important. Chakta was privately amused when Agatan became noticeably agitated at being so close to the largest public library within ten days travel, without being allowed access to it.
Chakta knew he was not the only Headman able to read, but the Burman clan frowned on any investigation of the ancients or interest in technology, which Chakta felt was due primarily to Fortel's lack of reading skills. It certainly didn't stop them from using guns when they could get them, but any approach on Agatan's behalf to gain him entry to the library, would be instantly rebuffed.
Chakta soon became bored with the tour but endured it for Agatan's benefit, as the young man might one day traverse the area as Headman and familiarity would forestall any feelings of inferiority that might otherwise infringe on future negotiations with the Burmans. Such feelings are understandable when one considers that the Burman clan controls an area thirty times larger than any of its near neighbours.
They finished the tour before sunset and were served a satisfactory meal of cooked meat and vegetables in their quarters.
Chakta pushed his plates to one side and, using the side of a chest to support him, pushed himself off of the floor, "Well. So what did you think of the grand tour?" he asked.
Agatan finished chewing a rather stringy piece of beef before answering. "The Burman clan seems rather large, like its territory."
Chakta chuckled, "Yes, it's certainly different seeing them all together, rather than just bumping into a few of them in the border areas while hunting."
He pushed the window shutters right back and stood looking out upon the outer trade area. Some of the local children had been given the task of building the night fires and he watched them running back and forth with their piles of wood. Two of them, he couldn't determine their sex in the failing light, had stopped beside a fire and were using sticks as makeshift swords in a mock battle.
"Children are the same everywhere, it's their parents who ruin them." He looked back quickly at Agatan, "Sorry, I was just reminded of something I read in one of those books you brought me. Those children live and play next to the largest collection of preserved knowledge for miles around and yet, if one of them showed an interest in books, Fortel would probably burn the child and the books."
"You don't have to remind me," Agatan said with feeling, "I can almost smell the bindings."
Chakta raised an admonishing finger, "You must swear to me, you'll not try to sneak in there at any time!"
Agatan nodded dejectedly, "It's just damned annoying. All those books, just rotting!"
Chakta turned back to the window. A small figure was hurrying from fire to fire, lighting them with his torch.
"I think it's about time I renewed a few old friendships."
Chakta and Agatan moved fairly quickly between the groups warming themselves at the fires. Chakta's greetings ranged from a perfunctory nod to a warm arm clasp. He only introduced Agatan to three of the people they met, which was an agreed signal between them. Chakta had explained before they left their quarters, that certain people they would meet were important trade links for the Wolven clan and should be committed to memory, if possible.
As they approached the fifth fire of the evening, Chakta was hailed loudly by a voice that Agatan thought he recognised, but the figure was outlined against the fire and therefore obscured by its light. Chakta however, had no hesitation.
"Drelan!" he shouted.
The large figure detached itself from the edge of the fire and strode quickly to Chakta and gripped his forearm in the traditional greeting. "Chakta, you Wolven dog!"
Drelan was the Headman of the Awsle clan, which held the territory to the east of the Wolven clan. He and Chakta visited each other fairly regularly and their clans had once united to repel incursions on their lands by the Elfod clan to the north.
"Agatan! Well travelled, young Cub?" He gripped Agatan's forearm and slapped his shoulder with his free hand.
"He's a Hunter," said Chakta, grinning broadly, "and would be a Warrior if I hadn't demanded his service."
"Sharla?" He gave an explosive bark of laughter when Agatan nodded. "Finally convinced her to make an honest Warrior of you, eh? Well done. Yes, very well done." He released Agatan's arm and took a step back, "I hear you've been wrecking our libraries again!"
"No sir, I'm always..." he trailed off when he saw the Headman's wry grin.
"Leave poor Agatan alone. I've brought him along to gain experience in dealing with the likes of you, not to have him intimidated and bullied." He took Drelan's arm in his, "Now, what lies can you amuse me with?"
It was more than an hour later that they parted and Chakta and Agatan continued on their way. Chakta soon finished his circuit of the fires and declared himself too tired to stand, so they retired to their quarters. They both fell asleep within minutes of arranging their furs.
Both Chakta and Agatan were awake just before dawn and after checking their goods and rolling their furs, they headed for the main trade arena. It was a large area of grass surrounded by thin stepped plateau's that they knew had been the arena for friendly contests between the most athletic of the ancients.
Once Chakta's goods had been properly set out on display on their sleds, they looked positively minuscule in comparison to the other displays being erected by other clans, but Chakta knew his small display would attract more attention than any other.
Agatan's frequent exploratory forays deep into the ancient urban centre of Wolven and other old towns had resulted in his finding a lot more than his precious books. Part of that find was displayed before them now. Electric pistols with solar charge packs, chemical pistols and rifles with sealed ammunition boxes, binoculars, telescopes and lightly oiled metal rods, that would be perfect as either arrow shafts or spears.
Chakta was primarily hoping to trade for young girls without having to deplete his own clans stock. A recent acquisition of Agatan's had warned of the perils of inbreeding and small gene pools, which might explain the increased number of stillborn pregnancies and the increased ratio of boys to girls born.
Trading went well for Chakta, though many complained that the Wolven clan must have a few ancients hidden away. Not all of the complainants were good natured and Agatan was involved in a brief scuffle while Chakta was away settling an agreement.
Agatan had stayed with the goods as Chakta had asked and was keeping a bored eye on those perusing through them. A thin wiry man with pockmarked skin who had been lightly fingering one of the chemical rifles and muttering quietly to his female companion, now said loudly, "This is the third year that the Wolven clan has had too many weapons."
Several heads turned to listen to him. "I'm wondering if maybe they have too many old men free to scrabble in the dirt, instead of hunting for food. But then why should they be wanting young girls for trade? Young girls take feeding, they do." He looked pointedly at Agatan, "Yet, they obviously lack real Hunters!".
Agatan's inexperience in dealing with people from outside of his own clan and the sudden snickering from several sources caused his cheeks to flush with anger and embarrassment. But he held his place, not wishing to cause any loss of face to Chakta who had ordered him to stay out of trouble.
The man looked first at his female companion and then faced Agatan while addressing her, "What say you, my pretty? Would you like a Wolven Cub?".
Agatan felt a restraining hand on his arm and was about to shake it loose when he saw who it was. Drelan pressed close to him and whispered in his ear, "Wait him out, he can't back down now and if you start he can claim the rifle for damage. Fighting isn't allowed on trade day. No one will think badly of you if you defend your goods, but your honour and pride mean nothing to those here."
Agatan had slowly cooled down while Drelan's quiet voice droned calmly in his ear and he was able to face his protagonist with a steady gaze, realising that although the insult had been very personal, the mans intentions had nothing to do with hurting Agatan's feelings, just with the cheap acquisition of a chemical rifle.
Drelan turned to his companion and instructed him to find Chakta quickly. The thin man turned to Drelan, his face suffused with anger, "Since when have the Awsle's been bed-mates of Wolven Cubs, Drelan?"
Drelan's right hand shot to the hilt of a knife in his belt, "Do you insult a member of the Awsle clan, Meekur?" His voice was calm and steady, but his eyes flashed with contained violence.
Meekur laughed, slightly nervously, "Don't be silly, Drelan. My argument is with the Cub!"
Agatan spoke very softly, "There was an argument?" and smiled. There was open laughter at this and Meekur reacted hotly, drawing his knife and lunging at Agatan in one smooth movement. Agatan caught Meekur's wrist in his left hand and deflected the strike to his left, while dropping to his knees and bringing his right elbow sharply down on the back of Meekur's extended and twisted arm.
Everyone heard Meekur's right elbow pop, followed by his scream. Only Agatan heard Drelan's muttered exclamation.
His female companion dropped to her knees at his side and cradling his head shouted, "The Cub has injured a Headman on the trade day!"
Drelan stepped forward, "I'm stood beside this Hunter," he stressed the title slightly, "yet I neither heard nor saw any injury!" and two others voiced denials.
Agatan was surprised to find Chakta at his side, "What, in the name of Bull, is going on ?!"
Drelan turned quickly to Chakta, "No cause for alarm my friend. Meekur has let the days heady atmosphere and potent ale affect him. There was a slight accident." This brought more laughter from those nearby, but forestalled any further outbursts from Chakta, although he turned a look upon Agatan that demanded a full and private report later.
Drelan waved his arms expressively at those still lingering nearby and pleaded, "Come, my fellows, help this poor unfortunate to the Witch, so that we may continue with our endeavours to free Chakta of the burden of so much wealth." More laughter followed Drelan and Chakta as the latter was steered toward a wine dispenser.
Agatan would have been flattered if he'd heard Drelan's aside to Chakta. "This will have done him no disservice. I swear, when the drink's worn off, some will remember his speed. You've trained him well, Chakta. He'll be a credit to you one day, if he lives long enough!".
CHAPTER NINE: CHYANDO'S LEGACY
"Namque tu solebas
Meas esse aliquid putare nugas."
Catullus 87-54? B.C.
Chakta had completed his trade arrangements and agreed to stay with the remaining goods while Agatan went with Drelan to view the goods being displayed by other clans. Agatan was a little piqued that Chakta wouldn't allow him to wander on his own, but after his recent experience with Meekur, he wasn't overly surprised.
During their perusal of the largest display, that put on by the Burman's, Agatan's eye was caught by a small complex looking object that had the style of an ancient artefact, but not the usual weathered appearance.
He prompted Drelan to ask Fortel if they might view some of the objects more closely and Fortel readily agreed, turning quickly back to his disturbed discussion with two unfamiliar Headmen. Agatan picked up the object and turned it repeatedly in his hands, pressing some of the studs that protruded from the short hollow cylinder.
Suddenly, a tiny voice spoke from within the object, "It may be surmised from his reaction, that approaching holding a weapon is...", The Voice stopped suddenly as his shaking hands depressed another stud.
He looked at Drelan, who appeared engrossed in eavesdropping on Fortel's conversation. Agatan replaced the object and, trying to keep his excitement from his voice, excused himself to Drelan and rushed back to Chakta.
He quickly explained what he'd found to Chakta who was equally excited and after demanding a thorough description of the object, rushed off with the last remaining electric pistol and charge pack. Agatan was left to guard the other remaining goods.
He kicked at some loose stones in excited agitation.
Chakta slowed down before he reached the main Burman display and walked the rest of the way, allowing his breath and pulse to slow. He slipped the pistol inside his belt, knowing that he would look overly ostentatious, but hoping to use that as part of his strategy.
Fortel was in conversation with Jestry, the Headman of Contry, who was obviously trying to tempt him with the pretty young girl at his side. Chakta couldn't see Fortel's mate anywhere nearby and chuckled quietly as he approached. He moved up beside the display, just behind Fortel and quickly perused the items on offer. "Now that's what I call a ceremonial sword," he exclaimed, loudly enough for Fortel to overhear. "It'd look damned fine, with the right scabbard."
Fortel, turned to see who it was and quickly shook off Jestry, "Why, Chakta. So nice to see you. I understand you've had a good days trade." His eyes flicked across the electric pistol in Chakta's belt and his brows furrowed with distaste.
"Yes. I've not done badly." He turned back to the display, "Is that a real ruby in the pommel of that pig-sticker? It would certainly look better tapping a new Warrior on the shoulder with that, than this." He indicated the pistol.
"Well, I certainly wouldn't say no to a fair exchange."
Chakta looked aggrieved, "Fair? Even if the ruby is real..."
"It is," Fortel interrupted, "and the setting is pure gold."
"Even so..." Chakta left it unfinished.
"We may be able to find something else of value."
"At the end of a trade day? Surely, all the valuable items will have been snapped up by my astute neighbours?"
Fortel grinned and wrapped his arm about Chakta's shoulder in a conspiratorial manner, "It may be that they didn't recognise the value of an object, or weren't told of it. Now, take this little bauble here," He lightly fingered a gaudy necklace, "Just over two hundred years ago, this was..."
Chakta returned as the light was fading, a large grin on his face and an ornate sword and the object in his hands. Agatan was close to screaming with impatience and almost swamped his leader with questions. Chakta interrupted him quickly, "We can't talk now. Later."
Chakta ignored Agatan's pained expression and instructed him to start packing the remaining goods on to one of the sleds while he dismantled and packed the remaining sled. This accomplished, they returned the sled to their quarters and prepared to return to the trade arena for the evenings festivities. Chakta strapped on the sword he'd returned with.
Agatan was becoming increasingly impatient with Chakta's silence and by the time they were ready to leave was close to bursting.
Chakta pulled Agatan close and said with quiet urgency, "Don't ask anything just now. This is not the place for a full discussion. As I've told you before, the Burman clan has an unhealthy dislike of anyone who appears too interested in the ancient ways or their belongings. I believe I may have misdirected Fortel enough during the bargaining, but he's since had time to think."
He clapped Agatan smartly on the back, "Patience and wisdom are frequent bed-mates, so show me how wise you can be. Now, lets join the melee." Agatan sighed and followed Chakta out of their quarters. Stopik was waiting for them outside, saying quickly that Fortel had reserved a space for them at his table and that they should follow him. Agatan was surprised by Stopik's subdued manner as he led them back to the arena. He didn't mention Tropol's name once. In fact, his few comments consisted only of explanations of the activity around them.
Chakta awoke relatively late the next morning, groaning as he rolled from his furs. The evenings agenda had seemed to consist mainly of drinking bouts, with the occasional snack thrown in to break the monotony. He watched with sympathetic amusement as Agatan rose, shielding his eyes from the light.
He had monitored their drinking quite carefully once he'd realised that Fortel was indeed suspicious about his reasons for selecting the ancient object to make up the deficit in his trade for the sword. But despite his care, they'd both drunk more heavily than he'd intended. Still, he might not have allayed Fortel's suspicions, but they'd certainly done nothing to increase them. Agatan definitely felt as if he'd drunk too much. His head pounded with an unrelenting frequency.
"Get yourself tidied up," said Chakta, "and collect the Burman girls. We might as well take them back with us, as send for them later. And, in the name of Bull, try and smile occasionally. They'll be nervous enough as it is, without a grimacing ogre collecting them!"
Agatan nodded agreement and immediately wished he hadn't.
"What about," he paused for effect, "it?"
"Later. I want to have a word with Drelan before we leave. I'll meet you back here."
Agatan shuffled through the door. He used a nearby trough to wash in. The water was icy and left him feeling fully awake.
Tropol was arguing rather energetically with a red-faced Headman when Agatan entered the arena. They both stopped when they finally noticed his presence and the Headman stormed off.
"If you think you can claim more than the struck bargain, you can think again!" exclaimed Tropol, still looking harassed.
"Good day to you, too, Tropol."
Tropol gave an exaggerated sigh, "My apologies, but I'm sick of people trying to claim more than their mark allows." He gave Agatan a scrutinising look, "You're the Wolven escort, aren't you?" When Agatan nodded, he searched through a pile of paper and skins, "This is the Wolven mark. Eight young girls, each with the Wolven nip in the lobe, right?" His expression almost dared Agatan to disagree.
He gave another exaggerated sigh, but this one was full of relief, as Agatan nodded.
They were half way back to Wolven and well within their home territory before Agatan asked Chakta to tell him exactly what had occurred the previous night. They had already agreed not to discuss or inspect the strange object until they were home and alone, but he still felt quite confused about the unexplained odd behaviour of both Chakta and Stopik. The latter spent the entire evening watching them as if he expected them to attack his Headman at any moment. Such had been his degree of concentration.
Chakta gave an exaggerated sigh, hooked his thumbs in the sled straps and slipped them from his shoulders, "We'll rest and eat as we talk. Your turn to pull when we leave."
Agatan nodded and dragged the sled to a nearby tree. Chakta followed him, "Good idea. Pointless sweating in the sun when there's no need."
The girls arranged themselves quietly about the sleds and waited while their new clansmen sorted through the available vegetables and shared them out. Chakta had been quite pleased with the quality of the women he'd traded for, although some were slightly older than he'd wished. But he'd primarily wanted women for their intelligence, not their youth. He'd read that intelligence was hereditary and these women would one day provide the clan with children, as well as controlling, either directly or through their mates, the general welfare of the clan.
Agatan and Chakta, without consciously considering it, stationed themselves on opposite sides of the tree, as experienced warriors will.
Chakta chuckled at his companions impatience, "Well! Now you've had first-hand experience of the fear and hostility of the ignorant."
Agatan tore at a tough root with his teeth and mumbled, "You mean...", he swallowed, "...Stopik?"
Chakta nodded and then realised Agatan couldn't see him, "Yes. And Fortel. In fact, most of the Burman clan."
When Agatan didn't answer, Chakta assumed he was either thinking, or chewing. "It's actually quite a serious matter." He turned his head away from the new girls and lowered his voice, "Every Headman has the fear that his enemies will learn something that will give them too much power. With people like Fortel, that fear is accentuated. Fortel is that rare breed of man who knows his own ignorance and knows he can do little about it. It makes people like us appear very frightening."
He waited for Agatan to comment, but Agatan was considering the implications of a stupid Headman. No, not stupid, but uneducated. Before the trade day, he'd always assumed that all Headmen were like his own, or Drelan. The thought of a whole clan, especially one as large as the Burman, being led by somebody who was scared of knowledge or those who possessed it, was just incredible.
Finally, he said, "They too, appear very frightening."
Chakta nodded, but said nothing.
Agatan was startled and gratified by the intensity of Sharla's welcome. As soon as a sentry reported their immanent arrival, she ran down the track and physically threw herself at him. He caught her in his arms, too surprised to do or say anything.
Chakta chuckled, "I think I'd better link the pair of you before you take matters into your own hands."
Agatan looked across sharply, "I never would..."
"No, you probably wouldn't." A frown creased his brow and he added, cryptically, "That may be a problem in itself."
CHAPTER TEN: LEARNING PROCESS
"You would play upon me;
You would seem to know my stops;
You would pluck out the heart of my mystery;
You would sound me from my lowest note
to the top of my compass."
William Shakespeare 1564-1616
The whole clan wanted to know everything concerning the Trade Day and pressed Chakta and Agatan mercilessly for details. As Hunters returned from their trips, they too wanted a complete recital. Chakta casually let slip some details about the incident with Meekur and then stealthily withdrew as everyone focused on Agatan for information. Sharla started to scold him for taking risks, but subsided under the laughter of the others.
Chakta grabbed Freela by the hand, "Come on, Agatan can manage. I'll tell you what happened. In private." She giggled, suddenly reminding Chakta of when they'd first courted, and skipped happily back to their quarters. Chakta pulled the furs across the windows as a tacit sign to his clansmen that he didn't wish to be disturbed.
Agatan, watching from near the fire, realised he'd been abandoned and groaned.
It was very late before Sharla's obvious yawns gave him the excuse to escape and this time, encouraged by her earlier reception, he said "Good night", in a most improper manner.
Chakta was up early the next morning and while Freela saw to the needs of their new clan members, he went in search of Agatan. He found him just outside his quarters, binding arrowheads to thin metal shafts, "So, you're up then. Good. Sorry to abandon you last night, but it was too good a chance to miss."
He jumped back, laughing, to avoid Agatan's half-hearted swipe at his legs. "I'll make it up to you. Freela's off introducing the new girls and all the Hunters are preparing to set out, so we can spend the morning looking over our latest acquisition."
Agatan leapt to his feet, spilling the arrowheads into the dirt, "Damn." He quickly recovered them and threw them through the door in the approximate direction of his furs, "Ready when you are."
After three hours of fruitless effort, they took a break, chewing on strips of salted, dried beef. "Well," Agatan mumbled between bites, "whatever I did before, I can't seem to do it now."
He tossed the object to Chakta, who caught it neatly, "If it was simple, someone else would have stumbled on it by now." He looked thoughtful for a moment, "I've just had a nasty idea. What if the combination of actions needed to activate it were half done when you picked it up."
Agatan looked forlorn, "And I just enacted the last part of a sequence. By the Bull, we may never find it."
"Fortel told me that they got it from a Moonman only forty years ago. He was part of the last attack they suffered and was struck down by one of Fortel's own ancestors. If Fortel's predecessors had the same general attitudes he has, then it's likely that no one has really examined it properly." He tossed it back to Agatan, who had to drop his beef in order to catch it.
"...an indication of violent intent. Therefore it is advisable to keep all weaponry concealed, but easily accessible."
Agatan and Chakta had frozen, their expressions incredulous, as the tiny voice spoke. Agatan remained that way, not moving, scared of accidentally turning it off again.
Freela returned to her quarters just as the sun dropped below the eastern trees. She'd had a busy day, trying to ascertain the differing abilities and potentials of the new girls. It couldn't be done in a single day, but she'd made some initial progress and was, once again, pleased with her mates selection.
But then, she couldn't really complain about Chakta's choice in women without appearing a little foolish. She realised she was smiling as she drew back the furs at the entrance. The smile faded rapidly as she recognised Agatan's voice raised in argument with her mates. When would he understand that the clan could only have one Headman? Training a replacement was prudent, but Agatan was already quite popular and had the grudging respect of both Warriors and Hunters. A few years of linkage to Sharla and he would be considered a fit Headman.
If Agatan was as ambitious, or as conniving, as the majority of clansfolk she had to deal with as Headwoman, she might have a serious problem to deal with, but, as it was, if anyone approached Agatan with the thought of usurping Chakta, he would be the first to frog-march them out of the clan.
Her real worry lay with Sharla. Freela had managed to dissuade her from choosing Agatan for too long and now Sharla was quite bitter about the delay. If she instilled the ambition that Agatan currently lacked...
Chakta heard his mate arrive and signalled Agatan to turn off the Scoutmaster. They had learnt much about the device during the day, most of it confusing and worrying. The message they had activated eventually looped and progressed through a tutorial on its own operation. It included details of the organisation and operation of clans on Terror and the Garden Satellites.
Once it became obvious that many of the references made concerned current or recent topics, they had thought it a device belonging to some ancients who had survived the ages in hiding. However, the briefing, as it called itself, stressed that the main purpose of the owners mission, was to ascertain the reason for the disappearance of the old civilisation and, if applicable, their whereabouts.
The concept of aliens was not unfamiliar, but had always appeared fanciful and irrelevant, and had therefore been ignored. Now it appeared to be a fact. One that would take quite a lot of getting used to. They didn't just exist, they were actively trying to infiltrate the societies here and above.
Chakta's announcement that he and Agatan would be going on a private hunting trip came as a complete surprise to both Freela and Agatan.
"How long will you be gone?", she asked.
"I'm not sure. No more than three days. We'll leave in the morning. Agatan, I suggest you get some rest." It was an obvious dismissal.
They set out early the next morning and Chakta cut all conversations short until they reached the border lands.
"I'm sorry if my behaviour seemed odd, but Freela's arrival made me realise that being overheard could be dangerous. These aliens may have already come and gone. It's obvious, from the message, that they didn't expect or intend, to stay too long. But its possible they're still here and, if Fortel was telling the truth, they've had at least forty years to establish themselves."
He gripped Agatan's upper arm, "Think about it. People don't just come and go within the clans, but the loser of a love contest, or the failed contender for Headman, or... anything!"
Agatan's eyes widened as he finally comprehended what Chakta meant, "That's right. We take them in from other clans and they take ours." He sat down heavily, "By the Bull, half of the clan could be alien."
Chakta chuckled, "That's what I thought yesterday, but I've had time to think about it overnight. It's much more likely that they'd infiltrate the larger clans in the old cities, where there are better libraries, but we aren't too small and we have someone who is well known for his rather clever ability of digging up information."
Agatan looked shocked, "You mean, they could be in our clan because of me! By the Bull, I... I..." he spluttered into silence as Chakta placed a quieting hand on his arm.
"We know the technology they have is as good as anything the ancients had. We also know they'd like to keep a low profile. What worried me, was the thought of how much trouble they might go to, to retain that low profile."
Agatan nodded, "If we started bleating about aliens..."
Tropol slipped silently between the buildings in the early morning light, his footing sure, due to familiarity with the route. He entered a rarely frequented area of the Burman territory and slowed to a sedate pace.
"Well, the plan was a dismal failure. The first time Gryx's Scoutmaster appears on display and it gets traded to the wrong person." He spoke very quietly, his lips barely moving.
Only he could hear the response when it came. "We know, Jestry gave a full report." The Voice was blurred slightly due to being transmitted through Tropol's bones. The vibrations reaching his ears as sound.
"I should get someone to check on the Wolven clan, if I were you. That boy of Chakta's is supposed to be very intelligent and it may be that Chakta himself, is just very good at dissimulating."
"We have no one in that area. You'll have to do it yourself."
"No chance. It would be totally out of character. You know what happened to Parvis. Fortel still wears his skin to linkings. I'm not risking that."
"Well, it may not matter anyway. One of the teams in Floorda has unearthed more evidence supporting the Doomsday Theory, so we might be out of here shortly."
"About time. We've already been here twelve years more than we signed on for. The pay might make up for it, but only if we get back to spend it." He stopped and turned, ready to start back.
"Hold it. Bad news, I'm afraid. I've just been checking my mail and there's a memo from TerSec. Your little boyfriends have been playing with the Scoutmaster."
"Yes, they monitored a seven hour signal. It took them that long to ascertain it wasn't a genuine agent. Just north of you."
"Chakta. By the Bull, I can't just walk in there!"
"Well, something will have to be done."
"I know, but Chakta is popular. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to set up a clan war. And, it would take too long."
"Okay. I'll see what we can set up from this end. You see what you can do. Report in two days. Out."
CHAPTER ELEVEN: A WARRIORS LINKING
"And what is bettre than wisedoom?
And what is bettre than a good womman?
Geoffrey Chaucer 1340?-1400
Agatan paced incessantly, up and down the length of Chakta's quarters, wringing his hands. "How much longer," he asked Chakta.
"They'll call you as soon as they're ready." Chakta stood and placed his arm around Agatan's shoulder, "If you don't slow down, you'll be of no use to your mate tonight," he exclaimed. "Come. Sit with me and we'll finish the last of the wine. Besides, I'll have a neck ache if don't stop pacing." He drew him towards the furs and firmly pushed him down, "Now stay there and quit worrying. You're not the first to link and you won't be the last."
Chakta smiled, remembering having heard the same words on his own link day. Had he been this nervous, he wondered. He couldn't remember, but felt that no one had ever been this nervous. It seemed such a short time since they had sat in the wooded hills of the north-eastern territories, nervously discussing aliens. It all seemed so, unreal. Especially on days like this.
A rustle of furs at the doorway behind him, had Agatan leaping to his feet. Chakta turned to see Freela approaching and felt momentarily annoyed with his mate. Surely she could have given Agatan a smile, on this of all days. But, no, she wore the same disapproving look she always had in his presence.
"Ready?" he asked.
"In a few moments. I just came to see if you two were."
Chakta snorted, "Ready! This poor lads been dressed and raring to go since dawn. I thought last night would slow him down, but he's got the constitution of a..." he searched for the right word, "...Bull!"
"Okay, wait for the summoning gong." She turned to leave and then looked back over her shoulder and favoured Agatan with a sympathetic grin. Chakta, warmed by the exchange, silently admonished himself for his earlier thoughts.
Chakta stood facing the nervous couple, with the link stone between them and the whole clan behind them. His voice, unusually soft, intoned, "Do you, Agatan, and you, Sharla, agree to be linked in accordance with the customs and rules of the Wolven clan?"
"We do." There was a ripple of amusement as Agatan's voice responded at almost the same pitch as Sharla's.
Chakta unwound the chain from about his waist and passed it to Freela, who gave one end to Agatan and, passing behind them, the other to Sharla. "I call upon the young and the old, all of the clan. Does anyone here object to this linking?" He waited the customary few heartbeats and continued, "Then hereafter, hold your tongues. Now, who vouches for the capabilities of this Hunter?"
Another ripple of amusement sounded as he moved across to stand beside Agatan, "I, Chakta, Headman of the Wolven clan, vouch for Agatan, would-be Warrior of the Wolven clan." He moved back to his original position and with a stern gaze, to still those who still tittered, said, "Does any person here doubt the word of Chakta, or object to Agatan's rise to Warrior?"
He waited, once again, "So be it. Now, who vouches for the capabilities of this woman?"
Demart stepped forward to stand at Sharla's elbow, "I, Demart, Witch of the Wolven clan, vouch for Sharla, would-be Keeper of the Wolven clan."
Chakta's eyes flicked across to those of his mate, which were twinkling with laughter. She'd sprung a neat little surprise and rid herself of the one duty she hated.
"Does any person here doubt the word of Demart, or object to Sharla's rise to Keeper?" He barely paused, "So be it. Who carries the link for this couple?"
A small lad, barely old enough to be considered a Cub, stepped forward, his shoulders back and chest out, "I, Steff, child of the Wolven Clan, carry the link for Agatan and Sharla." His face shone with the pride he felt and Chakta wondered about the story behind his selection.
Chakta took the proffered link and placing it on the stone, looked up at them, "Do you swear to always honour your clan and each other," he asked.
"We do," they responded. This time Agatan had control of his voice.
Chakta nodded to them as a sign that they should now place their ends of chain within the link and bent to lift the ceremonial hammer from beside the stone. "I call on the Wolven clan to witness the linking of two of its members." He swung the hammer overhead and brought it down on the open link. "May your bond be as strong as the link that joins this chain."
The clan members crowded in to offer their congratulations and Agatan took Sharla into his arms for the traditional kiss.
Tropol, returning from his customary morning walk, greeted those he passed. He appeared to be deep in thought as he entered the outer chamber of Fortel's quarters.
He struck the gong that requested an audience and sat on the furs, waiting patiently.
Fortel eventually appeared, looking quite flustered, "What do you want, at this unearthly hour," he exclaimed.
"I have heard disturbing things about Chakta of the Wolven clan. He and that Hunter of his have reportedly found a large number of ancient weapons."
"So. We know they always have a goodly number for trade."
"No. I mean a very large number. Enough to arm all of his warriors. Enough to be a threat."
"Don't be stupid. We outnumber them five to one and we have ancient weapons too."
Tropol shook his head, "Not enough to repel a large scale assault. We barely have enough for you to use while hunting. We'd run out before next Trade Day."
Fortel shook his own head, in negation and disbelief, "What is this, Tropol? Chakta has always been friendly. An ally. What reason would they have for attacking us?"
Tropol sighed, "Isn't it obvious? This city has never been properly explored for its ancient wealth."
The Headman looked decidedly thoughtful.
Chakta sat on top of the wall of an old ruin, his dangling feet kicking at the bricks beneath him. The linking party had been a success and the young couple had retired to their new quarters, still entwined in their chain. Tomorrow, Agatan would fix furs to the chain and hang them over the entrance, as custom demanded.
The sentries were changing for a new watch. The two to the east of him waved a greeting, which he returned. He always pitied sentries on the night of a linking. Every other couple would be cosily wrapped in furs, thinking back to their own special day.
He jumped down from the wall, landing heavily on the cracked concrete and went in search of Freela. The last he'd seen of her was when she was shepherding the new girls to their quarters.
Quebimblo, Leader of the Farriman clan on Faraway, sat listening to the mumblings of the strange servant. It was said, by others of his clan, that the lowly servant was a witch who could interpret dreams, call demons and see into the future.
"Listen to me, crazy little man. I have a strange dream. You," and he prodded him with a finger, to add emphasis, "will explain it to me."
Thartenter lowered his hood and smoothed down the white tufts of hair above his ears, "Whatever my Lord commands."
CHAPTER TWELVE: THE INVADERS
"Ay, now the plot thickens very much upon us."
George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham 1628-1687
Agatan spent the whole morning carefully threading the furs he'd chosen onto their chain, while Sharla arranged the furnishings and ornaments they'd received from friends. They worked in an amiable silence, just enjoying each others company and the feeling of independence.
They were excused from all normal duties, due to being newly linked, for five days and had made many plans for their free time.
Tropol skirted around the rubble of a recently collapsed wall on his usual morning route. "I think," he said quietly, "I've managed to plant the seeds of aggression in the Headman's mind. I'll spend the next few days working on it. Luckily for us, Fortel was suspicious of Chakta's acquisition of the Scoutmaster on Trade Day, so I should be able to fan the flames a little."
"One of our people, on Faraway, has had reasonable success in controlling a clan Leader. We've developed a nice scenario that can be executed quite quickly."
Tropol smiled. "I need details..."
Thartenter scattered the stones and leant forward to examine them, smiling beneath his hood, "I see a clan of Terrorists. They are the source of your bad luck. Your ancestors fought them once before and during the battle a lucky token was lost. You must retrieve it."
He pointed to a particular stone, "This tells us that the clan live to the north of the ground teleport."
"Where is Grand Teleport," asked Quebimblo.
Realising his error, Thartenter quickly replied, "It is where the Intaport takes you."
The northern sentries, posted near the telestat, ran like madmen through the outskirts of the Burman territory, shouting, "Moonmen! To arms!"
Fortel heard the commotion before the sentries arrived, their message relayed by voice and signal. He stumbled from his furs, strapping his axe and sword to his back, and was mustering Warriors by the time they reached him.
The first, a tall gangly youth, recently raised to Hunter, stood panting, trying to catch his breath as he spoke. "Fifty... Maybe sixty... Moonmen... By the... Telestat."
"But it's daytime," Fortel exclaimed. "Our ancestors always fought them at night. What, the Bull, is going on!"
Tropol appeared beside him and, grabbing the arm of the young man, demanded, "Are they attacking?"
"Well," he looked confused, "they started heading north, but they'll probably swing around and come at us from an unexpected direction."
"North." Fortel looked totally dumbfounded. "North," he repeated.
Tropol released the sentry and moved up close to Fortel, "Maybe they intend to attack Wolven territory, not ours. That would be," he paused to ensure he had his Headman's full attention, "unlucky for the Moonmen, considering how many weapons Chakta's people have." He let it sink in for a moment, "They would have to use up a lot of ammunition, but then, as we were saying, they can afford it."
Fortel nodded. "Raphel," he commanded, "gather twenty Hunters and set an ambush to the east. Marvik, you do the same to the west. Pol, you call in the rest of the Hunters and gather them here. I'll take the Warriors here, north. The first of us to see them can send a messenger to the others." He turned to Tropol, "If they are heading north, we'll let them fight Chakta and then mop up the stragglers who try to get back to the telestat."
Fortel looked puzzled, "What do mean, no."
"I just thought..." Tropol seemed flustered. "We might lose people."
Fortel looked shocked, "By the Bull, they're Moonmen! Damn it, what are you thinking of!" He looked around at all the Warriors clustered about him, "We'll kill them all and our children will dance on their entrails!"
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: BATTLE OF PENN
"...we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender."
Winston Churchill 1874-1965
Agatan was busy following fresh deer track when he heard the mournful note of the clans War Horn blow across the treetops. The birds were momentarily silenced, which made their noise seem all the louder when it returned. Agatan was frozen with disbelief for a moment and then he started sprinting through the forest. He had only heard the sound of the War Horn once before, when Chakta and Drelan had joined forces against the Elfod clan. He had been considered too young and inexperienced to be a part of the punitive expedition.
He was breathing hard by the time he reached the northern outskirts. The lack of a challenge from sentries, or any sounds of battle, told him that the fight was probably to the south. Surely not the Burman clan, he wondered.
People were milling around chaotically when he reached the central area. Freela stood on the roof of a single storey structure, the War Horn clasped firmly in her hand, shouting instructions to the young and old below. She caught sight of Agatan and shouted, "Moonmen to the south! Look after my mate, if you value your skin!"
Agatan, his mind reeling, raced automatically towards his old, shared quarters, before he remembered and veered off. Sharla was waiting for him with a chemical pistol, longbow and sword. She was silent as she helped him strap on his weapons and slipped the, already strung, longbow over his head and then whispered, "Go quickly and safely. Be brave and return."
The traditional litany did much to restore his calm and he gave the expected response, "For you, and for the clan," and kissed her quickly.
Agatan dropped the longbow as he approached the battling figures. It was of no use in close quarter combat. The odds looked to be two to one against them, which meant the majority of the clan had been abroad when the alarm was sounded.
The sight of Chakta, bloodied and dishevelled, but swinging his favourite axe with the vigour of a Cub, lifted his spirits considerably. As he ran, he drew the sword with his right hand and the pistol with his left and yelled, "Wolven!" as he entered the melee.
He fired rapidly as he continued to run headlong through the arena of the battle, not bothering to check if the shots wounded or killed, and when the pistols clip was empty, hurled the gun at the Moonman ahead of him.
Instead of ducking, the man raised his arm to protect himself and, in so doing, left himself blind to Agatan's approach. Without slowing, Agatan skewered him and, continuing on past, spun him around with the force of removing the sword.
He immediately headed straight for another opponent who, with sword raised high above his head, was preparing to split Agatan in two. He threw himself forward into a rolling dive, curling around his sword.
As he started to come out of the roll, he had the hilt in one hand and the blade in the other. The Moonman's sword struck his with enough force to throw him onto his back, the blade of his own weapon cutting into his palm.
He kicked out with his right foot, straight into the mans groin. With a strangled gasp, the man doubled over on top of him. He shoved the man off and then rolled over the top of him, to avoid the swinging axe of yet another Moonman.
Chakta sat on the floor, trying to stanch the flow of blood from his injured leg, surrounded by Agatan and three other Warriors, who were doing everything they could to protect their Headman.
"We're winning," he shouted.
The continual influx of relatively fresh Wolven Warriors and Hunters, was beginning to take its toll on the Moonmen. They had made Chakta the main target of their attack in an effort to demoralise the Wolven fighters.
Agatan had fought well, only suffering light injuries, but was starting to tire and found it was all he could manage just to fight defensively. His opponent swung at him, yet again, and the ease with which he parried the blow convinced him that he wasn't the only one who was exhausted.
"Women don't fight," argued Chakta, "they're too important." He was angry with Freela, but also, incredibly proud of her.
"And Moonmen don't attack during the day," Freela retorted. She pulled the bandage tighter about his thigh, causing him to wince.
Agatan, sat back-to-back with his Headman, said, placatingly, "Be fair, Chakta. We'd still be fighting now, if the women hadn't run in, screaming and firing pistols. And you shouting, we're winning, every other moment, didn't make it so."
Chakta grinned maliciously as he replied, "I don't know who was scared the most. Us, or them. I was on the floor, but I still ducked lower when those pellets started flying."
Freela awarded him a tight-lipped grimace and said, "If your mouth was injured, you'd bleed to death."
Sharla finished applying the medicinal oil to Agatan's left palm and started to bandage it. She looked at him tenderly, "I was so scared. I.." She darted a look at her Headwoman, "I thought Freela must be mad. But when we got here, I was more scared for you."
Agatan smiled and stroked her cheek with his good hand, "I shall never forget the look on that Moonman's face. He must have thought we'd been breeding demons!"
The Wolven clan fight off the invaders on their southern border
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE ABDUCTION
"Those whom God hath joined together
let no man put asunder."
The Moonmen return on a night time raid to restore their self-respect
Sharla is one of the women abducted
Agatan fights an alien agent to retain the Scoutmaster
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: A WARRIORS LOSS
"As our life is very short,
so it is very miserable,
and therefore it is well it is short."
Bishop Jeremy Taylor 1613-1667
Agatan gets into fights, broods, is surly with Chakta
Freela feels guilty
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: DEPARTURE
"A vaincre sans peril, on triomphe sans gloire."
Pierre Corneille 1606-1684
AGATAN STEALS A CRYSTAL AND LEAVES THE PLANET IN HIS SEARCH
DIP CORP Diplomatic Corp.
DEEAS Department for Extraterrestrial Ecological and Anatomical Studies
DED Department of Exterior Defence
Selected excerpts from:
A Synopsis of The Creation of The Garden Satellites
by J. Udithlee.
"After much intercontinental dispute, the following names were decided upon (listed alphabetically): ARMSTRONG, BABBAGE, COLUMBUS, CURIE, EINSTEIN, FARADAY, GAGARIN, GORBACHOV, NEWTON and PATEL.
The decisions were made much simpler by the passing of UN-67936, which forbade the use of religious figures or deities. Although the failure of Clause 12, forbidding the use of historically important political figures, was viewed with barely disguised cynicism."
Chapter entitled "Naming of the Few".
"Many still viewed the satellites as a potential threat and formed a variety of politically active groups. One of these, Protectors of the Earth, attempted to destroy all of the stabilising units of Lincoln. Their argument was, A dinosaur-killer is always a threat, no matter how pretty the packaging.
They were forcibly disbanded by UNS and some members were given character modification treatment."
Chapter entitled "A question of security".
"With almost all installations switched to automatic running and maintenance, there was no longer any excuse for non-scientific personnel to remain on any of the satellites, but a special UN decree required that each satellite should have a small security contingent to oversee the scientific communities."
Chapter entitled "Automation".
"The extreme political pressures from the sub-continents of India and China to open the satellites to colonists, resulted in the unexpected and nearly catastrophic World Population Control Act. Only hindsight allows us to view that turbulent period with detached objectivity."
Chapter entitled "Virgin Fields".
"Once the worlds population growth rate had been lowered to what many UN agencies considered as a reasonable level, the fact of over-population had to be faced. Mars could not be considered as a serious outlet, despite the rapid progress of the DAWN project, and the DAEDALUS projects had still failed to bear any fruits."
Chapter entitled "The Privileged Minority".
"The installation of SAGE caused quite a stir amongst the scientific communities. The displaced were vociferous in their opposition, calling it a micro-monstrosity, whilst those remaining choose a lower profile of opposition. They were well aware of the time to be saved both in the development of the eco-system and in further experimentation, but felt a social debt of loyalty to their evicted fellows."
Chapter entitled "S.A.G.E.".
"It is still uncertain what further effect population pressures will have. The dissolution of the World Congress, a return to National Economics and the partitioning of the Garden Satellites are just the most obvious examples."
Chapter entitled "The Lost Dreams".
The Search For Sharla