With Shadow and Thunder [The Shadow Gods Saga #5]
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by Stefan Vucak
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy EPIC eBook Award Finalist
Description: Fifth in the Trailblazing EPPIE Finalist Space Saga! In this EPPIE Award finalist novel, first Scout Terrllss-rr uses his power over Death to thwart the schemes of the Sargon-Palean alliance. The alliance seeks to dominate the two hundred odd star systems of the Serrll Combine--by eliminating selected political figures. Bearing the power of the God of Death, which can unleash universal, Terr is thrust into a confrontation with his bond brother bond brother Dharaklin, a confrontation that will ultimately threaten Terr's very soul. The Orieli are the first aliens to contact the Serrll Combine in over two thousand years, but the Orieli are at war with the Kran, artificial constructs, creatures out of nightmare--bent on destroying all organic intelligence. The Orieli are willing to help the Serrll face the Krans, but the price is a base on the moon of one of the Serrll's protectorates, our Earth. An Orieli/Serrll appearance at the United Nations in New York and causes a world riot. Caught in a web of Serrll power plays, Terr is betrayed by Dharaklin, who sabotages his ship so that Terr crashes on Earth. After being confined at Houston, Terr realizes that no one is coming to rescue him and he escapes. The American security forces are in hot pursuit, keen to wrest the secrets he alien science from him--by any methods necessary! Beyond the Moon's orbit, a Serrll fleet confronts a lone Orieli starship and begins a battle to determine who will control Earth's solar system. Alone, pursued, wounded, little does Terr dream that even if he survives his ordeal and eludes his pursuers, Dharaklin has seized Terr's beloved wife, Teena. To save himself and her, he will once again be forced to raise the hand of Death, this time against a brother. And don't miss the other exciting novels in the Shadow Gods saga: Against the Gods of Shadow, A Whisper from Shadow, and Through the Valley of Shadow.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: July 2004
22 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [453 KB]
Reading time: 257-360 min.
"An astonishing display of craftsmanship, a must read. Stefan Vucak weaves a science fiction world of mystery and suspense. The numerous plots of the story are intricately woven together to make for a smooth and entertaining read."--Serial Science Fiction Reviews
The shuttle was waiting.
Official gatherings always gave Terr a pain, and this one was no exception. He had attached himself to a tight little group, staked out a bit of floor space and tried to appear attentive. It wasn't working. Surrounded by a throng of beribboned uniforms, thinly clad female forms, friendly chatter and lots of laughter, he suddenly felt alone.
Ornate chandeliers hung from heavy chains beneath a sculptured dome. Frescos of past deeds and valor helped fill the ceiling spaces. Tall black-veined marble columns hugged the walls. They provided a measure of relative seclusion from prying eyes. Each small group, hands waving and ample bellies heaving, claimed one. Intruders were discouraged. A surprising amount of business got done behind such pillars. Terr should know. He was about to conclude a deal of his own.
At the far end of the hall a band toiled gamely on strands of reedy music, thin and scratchy. It drifted forlornly above the noise of the party and did nothing to perk him up. But that was the kind of stuff they went for around here. He nodded sagely at some witty crack and made the usual crappy responses that go with small talk on occasions such as these. Things could have been worse. He'd had his choice; this or fill out reports.
There were all kinds of uniforms on display; dark green of the assault forces, dress blacks of the Scout Fleet and a sprinkling of deck whites. Terr was bemused to note the conspicuous absence of any working grays. Its appearance would probably have earned the unfortunate a terminal career gasper. The brass knobs from Captal wore what they damned well pleased. The local female community added the color--in eye-popping fashion. For the occasion, Terr had squeezed himself into a full-decked blue Scout uniform. On his left breast was a bordered gold oval full of little colored pins, fruit salad. A thin yellow stripe ran down the seam of his trousers, denoting a field grade officer. He looked the part, but it made him uncomfortable--a dressed up cadet!
Smiling urbanely and mumbling an excuse, he disengaged himself from the tableau and pushed his way through clearly defined demarcation lines that marked flag officer territories, senior diplomats and the rest, trying to hang some enthusiasm on his face and not making it. He figured that this whole job was a case of Anabb's twisted sense of humor, a way of getting even for past sins. Dirty, rotten old fart.
Well, the only way to beat the game was to slosh his brain or go cruising. On this occasion, he couldn't do either. Which was a damned shame, for there were enough willing females on the prowl to add interest to the hunt. He shook his head and grunted. It was time to do some paid work.
He snagged a frosted tumbler off a passing tray, wielded by one of the unobtrusive drifting waiters, and took a sip. The stuff burned on its way down and his eyes unfocused a bit. He blinked at the cloying yellow liquid and shrugged.
Life in the Diplomatic Branch was hell.
He had been told that this was a small gathering as functions usually go. The cavernous Trillian Assembly reception hall had seen bigger. Then again, this was supposed to be an informal occasion, strictly by invitation only. Looking around, he couldn't really tell the difference. Still, Trillian was just a speck in Sargon space and any excuse to hold a blowout, the locals figured, was too good to miss. Tonight the political knives were sheathed and the vitriol forgotten. Probably just diluted by a drink or two, he thought moodily.
Trillian's diplomatic community was toasting the Controller's first year in office. Seen as a rising star the local Servatory Party branch had gone all out. Terr got picked, among other things, to represent Captal's Bureau of Cultural Affairs. After all, the Controller was one of government's own and nobody was going to say that the government didn't take care of its own.
Swallowing the last of his drink, he concluded that Anabb would have fitted right in with all the other starched shirts. This would definitely be his macabre idea of a good time.
He absently touched a ragged scar above his left eyebrow. Not quite bored, he looked around counting the gun handlers. It was easy to spot them. They were the guys wearing wooden smiles, cold eyes and suspicious stares. The Controller they were guarding was chatting busily with a demurely provocative female dressed in a shimmering wisp of blue nothing. She had a sultry destructive look that always meant trouble for someone. Around them, hovering like a cloud, was the usual swarm of foreign dignitaries and hangars-on.
Gashkarali, Controller of Trillian, looked ordinary enough. Terr wondered what he did to deserve Death's wrath. A year in office didn't seem long enough to screw things up that much. He must have pissed somebody off real bad, though. Anabb had given Terr the usual glib worm crap about factional plots and Captal secrets, that kind of stuff. The way he said it the fate of the Serrll hung in the balance. Terr admitted that it sounded good at the time. It almost got him all choked up and patriotic, but he had managed to contain himself.
Still, Anabb's fancy tirade couldn't hide the blunt orders.
Gashkarali had to die.
Normally that would have been enough for Terr. So far, he'd been happy leaving the whys to Anabb. That gambit had worked for almost five years--until his last mission. That had spoiled it all and got him thinking. That was always a bad sign in his line of work. His target had been a General Assembly rep in her fist term. Her Servatory Party cell had managed to execute a level two penetration of the Diplomatic Branch's comms center, and in the process compromised two of Anabb's best operatives. The ensuing stink had resulted in another operative suddenly enjoying an extended vacation on Cantor--counting rocks. What Anabb had to say to the security people hadn't been pretty, but it was effective. She was returning to Captal when Terr caught up with her. The fact that the target was a female hadn't fazed him. There were as many bitches around as there were traitorous bastards.
It was what she had said to him just before the lightnings struck her, looking at him with fierce defiance, challenging him, that got him thinking. She had died believing in the conviction of her cause. Where was the conviction of his cause, she had demanded scornfully. Technically it had been a perfect mission, but he couldn't get her words out of his mind. The rot had set in.
Afterwards, he kept seeing the wrinkled features of his old Master set in stern disapproval. He wasn't exactly using his gift for self-enlightenment. He remembered drinking quite a lot while waiting for the liner to touch down on the transit port to Taltair.
Looking around now at the glitter and pomp of the hall, his Master didn't have to tell him that the gods wouldn't exactly approve of what he was doing with their gift. Terr allowed himself a brief frown of uncertainty. The last thing he needed right now was his conscience giving him a hard time. Anabb paid him to do a job, not to like it.
Studying the hired stiffs, he tisked and shook his head. The security here was lousy. But lousy or not, he wasn't about to rush in and fumble it. There were plenty of other beginner's tricks he could fall for.
On a job, he always worked under his official persona. That fact had saved him more than once from a compromisingly sticky predicament. Anabb had pointed out the obvious on many occasions--any cover, no matter how elaborate, can be blown. As a diplomatic attaché, Terr could move around without attracting more than his usual quota of hostile stares. If some dignitary should suddenly fade out of sight while he was around...well, it happened to the best of them.
Still, it was possible that some smart computer somewhere could build a correlation between his movements and a few untimely deaths. He was sure the ensuing result would cause someone in the Servatory Party machine to raise an eyebrow. Not that he handled a body job every time he went out. He did do legitimate work on occasions, enough to keep below the statistical threshold. Nevertheless, he knew that if he kept this up long enough, he was bound to fall for some terminal gag. Anabb didn't have to tell him that one. He sort of figured it out by himself.
Maybe it was time for him to go into a new line of business. Like conning a ship again. Right now, he reflected wistfully, he would be quite happy herding his old M-3, anything that would take him away from Anabb. The craggy old face and grating humor was beginning to get on his nerves. Psandra had been a good ship to him...
The party was getting kind of boring and people were beginning to drift away. The hall was too hot and the atmosphere cloying. The noise and chatter was a constant wash and Terr longed for a moment of silence. He was getting restless, looking for an excuse to do a fade himself.
But if he wanted to catch that shuttle, he had better finish this. Leaning against a convenient pillar, twirling his tumbler, he let the images come. The sounds of the party faded around him and the figures blurred. It was as if he was merging with the reality in his mind. Arms raised, cape fluttering behind him, he contemplated the rolling dunes and the shifting sands beneath a hot amber sky. He could almost feel the heat and the smells of the desert wash over him. The words came to him easily. When Death settled on his shoulders, he found the burden heavy. The images faded and he felt a sharp pang of loss. He badly needed the solitude and vastness of the open sands to heal himself. Someone bumped into him and mumbled an apology. Terr didn't even notice him.
He gritted his teeth, primed the Death Messenger and moved in. The security guys never even twitched. To them, he was just another minor flunky. That was all right with him. Walking past Gashkarali, Terr hesitated, tempted to let him live, then brushed his arm as he went. A small blue spark jumped between them. Gashkarali merely twitched, not breaking his gushing tirade to the pretty thing hanging on to his every word. In eighteen hours the hand of Death will collect him and no one will be able to connect it to this party, or to Terr.
He melted into the crowd, suddenly soured of the whole thing. But it was a bit late for second thoughts. He pushed his way through the grouped guests, just wanting to get out of the damned place.
Outside, the air had that clean washed smell that comes after a shower and he breathed of it deeply. It helped to clean the stale odor he had picked up inside. The guard, crisp and regulation, his power rod vertical by his side, snapped to attention when Terr appeared in the doorway. The communal driver, looking bored and sleepy, brightened as Terr descended down polished stone steps. He quickly raised the bubble canopy and climbed out. He beamed as though Terr was his long lost son returned, sketched a brief salute and opened the door. Terr settled into the upholstery with a stifled grunt. He felt Death linger, then it was gone, leaving him empty and hollow.
"The Ambassador, sir?" the driver asked, rich with experience, used to carrying the movers and the powerful. The bubble snicked shut around them. Terr thumbed the mike pad and the driver's face glowed in the plate.
"Yeah," he said impatiently. He touched another pad and the bubble became opaque. A thin ribbon of green, softly glowing around the bubble boundary, remained. The communal rose with a faint hum of power and he felt himself sag.
He must have dozed off, for the next thing he heard was the incessant buzz from the mike. The bubble was transparent and they were approaching one of the landing ramps of the Ambassador hotel. The ramp protruded like a rude tongue near the top of the glittering column of ceramic and color-reactive panels. The communal hovered briefly then settled to the spooling down sound of the power plant.
The charge pad glowed brown, pulsing gently as it waited. Terr pressed his palm against it and it changed to dull yellow. The door opened. The driver stood beside it still beaming. Terr climbed out and the driver gave him another one of his home-made salutes. Terr nodded as the driver wished him a pleasant night. He waited as the communal took off, then following it with his eyes as it disappeared into the traffic stream. Shoulders drooping, he walked slowly toward the entrance. Reaction had set in and he was beginning to feel fragile and moody. The job had set him thinking again and he didn't want to do any thinking just then.
There wasn't much to pack. The hotel management was sorry to see him go--at least they pretended. A chorus of 'Have a good flight, sir', and 'We hope that you will visit the Ambassador again, sir', and crap like that followed him to the cable-tube. He hated good-byes!
The tube deposited him at the civilian end of the Field inter-star terminus. The departure lounge was relatively empty and his footsteps echoed faintly on the hard polished floor. Trillian wasn't exactly on the beaten tourist path. He cleared customs without having to wade through packed queues, snarling children and harassed parents. He was thankful for that. Twenty minutes later the shuttle punched through the atmosphere bound for Taltair.
* * * *
Anatol Keller simmered. His attention was focused on the main holoview plot as it followed the trace of the Orieli ship slowly moving toward him. Thick stubby fingers tapped the armrest of his command couch, the only evidence of his restlessness. Unconsciously, he pulled back his purple-red lips into a silent snarl of frustration.
Perdition on the aliens!
His skin was deepest black. His head was perfectly round, covered by a faint oily sheen. Normally thin and pinched, his nostrils now flared, as they tended to do in moments of tension. His thick heavy-set form shifted restlessly as he clutched the armrest.
Unwelcome or not, he had to deal with them.
"Plot? Talk to me," he demanded without turning his head. His deep throaty voice reflected his heaviness.
"Target now showing two point eight million talans indicated. No course deviations. No anomalous power emissions. Detecting primary shield configuration only. Scan matches previously recorded ident curve. Profile confirmed," the tactical plot officer announced briskly. His eyes flicked briefly at Anatol, not wishing to draw further attention from his irascible commander.
Profile confirmed. As though there was any doubt, Anatol mused bitterly.
In the plot display the image of the Orieli cruiser rotated through various multi-dimensional position schematics. Columns of figures flashed and faded beside each image. The images or the figures didn't tell Anatol anything that he didn't already know. His eyes probed the plot officer.
"The other two M-4s maintaining relativity?"
"In position. Tandem link established and in standby mode. All systems read nominal. Tactical available on command."
"Mmm," Anatol said with a noncommittal grunt. At least the crew was with it.
The M-4 6/A Sofam-built main battle cruiser was the mainstay of the Serrll Scout Fleet and a front line presence of the General Assembly's authority. It had a better part of nine tetalans grade C composite armor on top of the four-tetalan thick polymer hull construct. Even without secondary shields, it could withstand several twenty-four millisecond bursts of up to one hundred and twenty-eight TeV at close range. Hopefully, it gave it enough time to get away or press an attack.
It mounted two Koyami 3/C phased array generators; their power channeled through a single projector dome beneath its belly. An M-4 was capable of pouring almost continuous twenty-four millisecond, 128 TeV bursts to a maximum range of one 140,000 talans. It carried a crew of 240. Formed into a triad with two other ships, their fire control systems slaved to the command unit, the M-4 was a formidable weapons platform.
Sofam Industries built them well, but they didn't have the Orieli in mind when they did it.
Unable to contain his irritation, Anatol slapped the armrest with the flat of his hand and sprang out of the formchair. Everyone suddenly found themselves preoccupied, conscious of Anatol's discomfort. He started pacing along the raised tactical platform that overlooked the main control stations two steps down. He shot a withering glance at his executive officer, standing apparently unconcerned behind the tactical station console, hands clasped casually behind his back. It irritated him that the exec could be so unmoved by the irony of the situation. Then again, it wasn't his ass on the line! Anatol paced up and down, his eyes flicking from time to time at the main plot.
Beneath the transparent navigation bubble the darkened command deck was deceptively quiet. The silence distracted only by the muted whisper of status reports, inter-deck comms and tactical computer readiness notices. Blocking a full quarter of the bubble, the Moon was a brilliant wedge of grays, whites and blacks--a smooth, sickle-shaped chasm of darkness drilled through the stars. Above it, almost within touching distance, hung the blue and white of Earth.
The nav dome ringed the deck above them. Beneath it, display plates, sensor stations and touch-sensitive, color-reactive control panels arrayed the inward sloping frame. A full-dimensional holograph node occupied the center of the deck. If necessary the tactical plot it now showed could be replicated on the bubble above them. Officers and crew unobtrusively monitored the automated operation of the warship.
Anatol paused in his stride and glowered at his executive officer.
"And what are you so damned smug about? Never mind, I don't want to know," he growled and jerked his head at the plot. "What do you make of all this?"
The exec was used to these bursts of vitriolic behavior from Anatol and ignored them. He raised a quizzical eyebrow and pointed at the repeater plate beside them.
"They're already in the inner system. Doctrine calls for a standard defensive posture."
"A standard defensive posture, eh?" Anatol pierced his exec with eyes of ebony, expressionless buttons that reflected no light or the individual within. "Is that your recommendation?"
Sensitive to his commander's frustration the exec shrugged.
"Tactically there is nothing to be gained by going farther out," he said.
Anatol planted his hands on his hips. "Who said that this was a tactical situation, anyway?"
"It isn't? Five years ago?"
"One of those damned things from the pit almost put three of my ships in the junk yard. I haven't forgotten."
"I didn't mean it that way?"
Anatol shook his head in disgust and stomped away. With a surly glance at the plot, he lowered himself stiffly into the command couch.
It was silent rage that kept his tall two katalan-high frame coiled in his seat. The alien ship out there represented everything that had gone wrong with his career. With the precision of a well-planned campaign, he had positioned himself on track for Prima Scout rank and a coveted post at CAPFLTCOM, Captal's Fleet Command headquarters. Tactical command had never appealed to him. He saw himself as a strategist, a thinker, above the mundane minutiae of ship routine. With the cultivation of a few carefully chosen Servatory Party luminaries, his future seemed assured.
Like a cup from which he was about to drink, that future had been dashed by a single encounter with a ship just like the one whose plot he was staring at now. It might even be the very one. Even now the memory of that brief exchange made him cringe.
On a routine mission to Earth to destroy an old C-32 scoutship that the locals had managed to dig up in a Mayan ruin, First Scout Terrllss-rr first encountered the enigmatic Orieli. There was a brief exchange of information and the Orieli went on their way after first checking out Earth. A month later, they made another unexpected appearance. Anatol wasn't about to let them into the Sol system. When the Orieli began moving, he fired on the alien ship.
Refusing to withdraw, the Orieli ship had just stood there, taking everything that Anatol could throw at it. He had been so confident at interdicting the alien that he hadn't even bothered to slave in the firepower of his two supporting M-4s. That had turned out to be a tactical mistake. When the alien finally tired of his game and fired back, its single burst had crashed through his shields as though they weren't there. It took the Orieli ship two more shots to disable his other ships. Three bursts. That was all it took to take out the Serrll ships. That kind of firepower had chilled him.
With the ships of his triad crippled, shields down, Anatol had waited for the fire that would have reduced his M-4s to slag. It might have been better that way, but the Orieli ship did not fire. It just moved past his wallowing M-4s.
He had survived the ensuing political furrow, but even his powerful friends could not remove the official reprimand that now blotted his record. CAPFLTCOM had cited his action as an exemplary lack of command judgment. No matter what they called it, it was a career stopper. That reprimand ensured that he would never make Prima Scout.
The knowledge was galling.
What in perdition was he supposed to do? Allow those Orieli sons of bitches to breach Serrll's territorial integrity? The Rules of Engagement had left him little option. If he hadn't stood his ground those bureaucratic bastards on Captal would have had him on charges of dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming, even cowardice. To cover their embarrassment at having three line warships dismissed so easily, CAPFLTCOM had looked around for someone to carry the drip. It was his bad luck that he got picked.
Since then, he'd had a series of dead-end assed commands. His current tour as commander of the Serrll Moon Base was a case in point. The Sol system was the crappy end of nowhere. The posting was for losers who couldn't otherwise make it. Still, no matter what the worm shitters at CAPFLTCOM may otherwise think, he had done his duty as he saw it.
To the pit with them all!
But the exec was right, of course. Whether he liked it or not, and he didn't, he had to face the oncoming ship--and his own nightmare.
And if the Orieli demurred?
Against the backdrop of two worlds the alien ship slowed and stopped...and waited. Energy discharge lines barely flickered within the net of its primary shield grid.
"Better start telling me what is going on, Plot," Anatol growled.
"Target is outside the firing envelope, sir. Range now showing one point six-three million talans," the plot operator said hastily. "No relative momentum. No weapons status indicated. Secondary shields are still down. Their interceptor net is extended to twenty-two talans."
Not taking any chances with warm Serrll hospitality, eh? Anatol's smile was grim.
Cloaked in black, running at half secondary boost, his M-4 blotted out the stars as it closed to intercept. The covering M-4s maintained relativity. One of them took a high port, the other a starboard low position in a classic triad maneuver, for all the good it did.
The exec strode up from the comms station, his round features grim. "We've got a priority three message from Serrll Moon Base," he said.
"Not now! Close to six hundred thousand talans and stop."
"Six hundred thousand talans indicated. Relativity in two point three minutes."
"You need to look at this one," the exec insisted and Anatol bit off an angry retort.
"What in perdition do they want? Can't it wait?"
"They reported cascade failure on all screens?"
"That new survey bird that Earth sent up the other day? It just happened to be overhead at the time."
Anatol took a few seconds to digest the information, then his face contorted in weary resignation.
"Oh, that's just great! That's all we need now."
"SMB thinks that they might be compromised."
The comms officer looked up. "Sir, the Orieli have opened a channel."
"Just hold your water!" Torn between two problems Anatol pulled at his chin. "That satellite. What kind of TLM it's got? Real-time or passive?"
"Real-time," the exec said.
"That tears it then. The damned thing probably dumped its data bank as soon as it got out of the Moon's LOS zone. We should have vaporized that piece of junk before it achieved orbital insertion. Another example of Captal's idiotic policy that pandered to Earth's primitive space efforts. Well, there is nothing we can do about it from here. Tell SMB to advise COMSAROPS. Let them deal with it. You know the form. Let's go to tactical."
"Full alert?" the exec queried, his face impassive, but his eyes twinkled.
"What's the matter? You anxious to see the Orieli in action?" Anatol rasped, ignoring the implied impertinence.
Under increased readiness some of the sensitized control panels immediately changed from soft yellow to pulsing amber. Previously inactive action contact pads rippled to life in arrays of colored strips and squares. The cable-tube doors opened and two additional watch officers quietly took up their control stations.
In the engineering spaces below, almost directly above the projector dome, there wasn't much to do except monitor the procedures as the computer increased the level of energy management readiness. Stripped helium nuclei plasma powered the primary fusion chamber that fed the artificial antimatter convergence point and kept it from collapsing. The energy surge from particle annihilation was channeled through the containment field directly into the shield grid.
The M-4's secondary shields extended to eight talans beyond the primaries along almost spherical lines of force. With both shield grids in place a cocoon of energy extending sixteen talans enclosed the M-4.
In a separate reaction chamber, energy flooded the twin Koyami 3/C generators. Coils fully powered up, the computer waited for the command to synchronize the firing pulses with the shield management system and the ship would be ready to do business.
The M-4 slid to a stop. At six hundred thousand talans the sensors could just make out the flowing rectangular shape of the Orieli ship. Its edges curved down, tapered like drooping wings. The obsidian shape wasn't showing any lights. Nothing about it suggested menace, but its power was palpable.
Anatol had forgotten how big the bastard was. According to plot the ship was over 800 katalans long--almost twice the size and three times the mass of the M-4.
He stared at the deceptive simplicity of the alien ship's design and slowly clenched his fists. This time, he wasn't about to repeat his mistake. If the Orieli wanted Earth, they could have the damned place.
"Comms? Let's see what they have to say," he said, unaware that his teeth were grinding.
* * * *
READ ALL ABOUT IT! MOON AN ALIEN SPY STATION.
NASA PROBE DISCOVERS EXTRATERRESTRIAL BASE.
EXTRA! EARTH SCRUTINIZED BY LITTLE GREEN MEN.
DO WE FACE AN INVASION FROM SPACE, PEOPLE ASK.
MOON STORY A VIRTUAL REALITY GAME HOAX.
"Jack Willison reporting from the CNN center in New York. This afternoon in building two-sixty-four of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, a routine press conference erupted into several minutes of total confusion, excitement, fear and disbelief. A live data feed from one of the two SIR-E, Spaceborne Imaging Radar satellites, revealed what appeared to be artificial structures nestled deep in the permanent shadow of the Moon's northern pole. From its almost circular twenty-six kilometer orbit the satellite was intended to provide a definitive topographical and mineralogical survey of the Moon. It is one of a series of steps being taken to define the site for the U.N. sponsored permanently manned base.
"Even as the sensational images were being flashed around the world, the White House spokesman refused to offer a comment. He said that the President would be making a measured statement once the implications of a possible extraterrestrial presence on the Moon have been fully evaluated. Asked whether the Administration will consider sending a manned mission to the Moon to further investigate the sighting, the response was a flat 'No comment'. Meanwhile, NASA officials emphatically denied that the transmission was nothing more than an elaborately staged publicity stunt as has already been suggested by some commentators. Someone pointed out that the White House may get more than a 'No comment' from its Area 51 facility at Groom Lake in Nevada and the MJ-12 program. The remark earned the unfortunate a withering glance. We will flash you the latest developments in this electrifying event as they occur. Stay tuned."
"In New York today, Archbishop Waller stated calmly that if extraterrestrials do exist, and he wasn't postulating that they didn't, that they too must be creatures of God. After all, He created the universe and everything in it. Archbishop Waller was asked whether that meant the aliens must look like us since God created man in his own image. After a pause the Cardinal said that he saw the image of God reflected in the soul and not necessarily in the physical vessel that it inhabits. That remark, I am sure, will raise a few theological eyebrows in Vatican tonight.
"There is one question which all Christian denominations will have to come to grips with. If Christ is seen as man's redeemer, has He repeated the passion, in all its unpleasant variations, on every alien world? In this respect the other major world's religions feel comfortable with the notion of spreading their faith to the stars. On the other hand, what if the aliens sitting nonchalantly on our Moon are missionaries? Are our beliefs as outmoded as the ones held by the Africans or the great South American civilizations before the Europeans brought them enlightenment with fire and sword? This is Mark Rown for NBC news."
"It is not a request," Enllss-rr corrected firmly, allowing a touch of irritation to creep into his voice.
"Then I assume, sir, that this has been cleared by Commissioner Sill-Anais?" Dharaklin inquired gravely, his voice cavernous, rumbling like dying thunder.
"Assume? Now you listen to me." Enllss pierced Dhar with eyes that had suddenly turned frigid. "I am having a real lousy day, and it's only morning. I've had junior Assemblymen jerking me off with their endless petitions and world saving schemes. They mean well, and who knows? One of them just might have a germ of an idea that'll make sense. So I got to listen to them. Illeran has been pissing in my ear wanting to know what the blazes I'm doing about that damned Orieli ship that's hanging off Sol. He's an Executive Director and my boss, so I got to explain myself to him. Son, the only good thing about this day is that I don't have to explain myself to junior Scout officers. While you're detached to my Bureau, you take your orders from me. Without question. Do I make myself clear?"
Dhar held his sinewy two-point-three katalan frame at attention. The vertical red slits of his large orange eyes betrayed nothing. The thin membranes designed to protect the eyes from fine sand were now slid shut in pique. His yellow skin was dry, drawn tight over the bony ridges of his long face. His nose, broad and flat with flared nostrils, added to his skeletal appearance.
He felt the Commissioner's intimidating presence crush his spirit and his righteous protest died stillborn. Enllss radiated an almost visible aura of authority and self-assurance. It may not have been the strength of the Discipline. Nevertheless, it was a force he couldn't ignore. Breathing deeply, he summoned the words from the Saftara that would calm him. Adversity strengthens the spirit, he reminded himself.
He studied the bulky figure framed against a floor-to-ceiling window screen. The Captal sky was dark and threatening, lit by an ugly furnace glow from the west. Enllss was muscular and powerful with a hint of a bulge around his middle. The jaw line was square and determined, used to command and instant obedience. Dark gray eyes burned with opaque anger. Beneath the almost pure white hair the aquiline nose stood out sharp above a firm full mouth.
"My concern wasn't personal, sir," Dhar said without expression, betraying nothing of his inner turmoil.
Enllss gave an impatient flick of his hand.
"I don't give a crap what your concern was, son. The only thing I want from you is your compliance."
"When I exposed Gashkarali's clandestine activities, I didn't envisage that he would be sanctioned?"
"I wouldn't be so damned sympathetic if I were you. His antics have caused us a lot of grief...and lives. You better than anyone should know that."
Dhar took a deep breath. "I still submit that the Bureau of Administrative Affairs should have stripped him of his authority. He would have been neutralized just as effectively."
Enllss slammed his fist against the desk.
"Enough! I'm not here to debate this with you."
"I meant no disrespect, Mr. Commissioner."
"The blazes you didn't. Parading your moral outrage may give you a measure of personal satisfaction, but don't let your indignation blind you to the job at hand. Clear?"
Dhar couldn't keep his resentment bottled up any longer.
"I would suggest, Mr. Commissioner, that the job at hand has more to do with the one vote the Unified Independent Front will hold in the Executive Council than the threat posed by Gashkarali's activities--or Sargon's vision of another empire."
Enllss looked startled then laughed outright.
"By damn, if you're not right there. But I never doubted your capability, or your intelligence. You should know then why it is so important that you continue to maintain your cover as a Servatory Party operative. Terchran already suspects your loyalty?"
"As you do, sir," Dhar said flatly, his eyes impenetrable.
Enllss snorted and shook his head. Was the boy deliberately goading him? Dhar would be playing an extremely dangerous game if he were. It would only take a word and Dhar would be counting worm fuzz for the rest of his career. No, what Dhar wanted was out. Out of a messy assignment. Well, son, it is not going to be that easy. You started this and now you've got to finish it.
Looking at him, Enllss could easily imagine Dhar clad in brown robes, cape flying behind him, standing on a dune with the desert as his only friend. There was power held in check behind those eyes, eyes that could rip through a soul. He shuddered at the thought of Wanderers bursting from Anar'on, flooding the Serrll with death in one hand and their hellish Discipline in another. He wasn't ready to submit to that kind of justice.
"As a Scout Fleet officer, your loyalty to the Serrll is not in question," he said harshly. "However, as a Wanderer, I would be less than wise to ignore your allegiance to Anar'on and its formative influence on the Unified Independent Front. The Captal government supports the objectives of the UIF, and your actions will further its interests, however unclear that may seem to you at the moment."
"What is clear to me, sir, is that through my actions a life was taken and I have violated the teachings of the Discipline."
Enllss nodded, his eyes suddenly bleak.
"Before this is over, son, more than one life will be taken. If that presents you with a problem, take your damned whining and get the blazes out of my sight!" he roared and pointed at the doors.
Dhar blanched, shaken by the strength of emotions that churned around Enllss like coiled lightning. Confused, he sought comfort in the words of his Master, and found them strangely unhelpful. Everything he knew, everything that he was taught, protested at the taking of life. Even the life of his enemy.
But it was a two-dimensional perspective.
Faced with a multi-faceted environment of Serrll politics, his precepts were taking a severe beating. He saw himself being drawn inexorably into a web of action whose end was far from clear. No, that wasn't quite true. He frowned, not prepared to face the brutal reality.
He knew all too well where his actions would lead. Back on Anar'on, did the Rahtir Council count the cost of shattered lives while they coldly plotted the formation of the Unified Independent Front? Could they afford to care? The cause had no room for an individual's feelings. He didn't believe that. The Rahtir and the UIF had faced that very dilemma five years ago. The individual always mattered, but was he prepared to bury his own misgivings for the greater goal?
He set his mouth and lifted his head. He tensed, forcing himself to say the words.
"I apologize, sir."
"Humph! Then shut your mouth and stop pissing in my ear," Enllss said gruffly and shifted in the formchair. "As I was saying, Terchran suspects your loyalty. You are going to allay his suspicions by revealing to him Terr's mission."
Dhar stared, taken completely by surprise.
"But...Terchran will retaliate!"
"I'm counting on it."
"He will want Terr killed. And it is probable that he will order me to do it."
"If he doesn't, suggest it."
"Terr is my bond brother!" Dhar protested in outrage.
"Do you want someone else to get the job--and possibly succeed? This way you can control the situation. One more thing," Enllss went on remorselessly. "Whatever your relationship with Terr, you are not to discuss any of this with him. Is that clearly understood?"
Dhar looked helplessly at Enllss, realizing how cleverly he'd been manipulated.
"For my actions to be credible, Terr will have to believe that I really intend to kill him. Mr. Commissioner, you are asking me to deliberately destroy his trust in me. I urge you to reconsider."
Enllss thrust out his jaw. "You have your orders. Carry them out."
Left with few choices, Dhar seemed to sag. His soul was heavy as he walked out. The translucent panels closed behind him with a soft click.
Staring at the panels, Enllss swore, pushed back the formchair and stood up. He clasped his hands behind his back and turned. Heavy bleak clouds smeared the sky, matching his mood. The rain was falling heavily. Lightning strikes ripped the sky into jagged tears. A watery haze obscured the towers of the Center. Endless lines of communals, combies and private sled-pads crossed above the city in controlled patterns. The tubeways linking the towers were blurred outlines of pearly light. Far below, the avenues were alive with the throng from nameless worlds of the Serrll Combine.
He stood there and watched the rain.
Raw power radiated from the city, almost tangible in its substance. After more than two decades learning how to wield that power, Enllss had few illusions as to its use. Power got things done. To hold it you had to dominate. In comparison, Dhar's moral misgivings hardly merited consideration.
Or did they?
He sighed and sank back into the formchair. With the smooth leather molded around him, he rubbed the ache behind his eyes. He needed to get away for a while. He needed to get back to Kaplan and touch base with some of the more influential constituency groups and the Party machinery. He badly needed some quiet time with his partner. His job was consuming too much of his time. Or was it that he didn't have a strong enough reason to spend more time at home? No, his partner had been the only woman he had ever deeply loved. Without her quiet uncomplaining support, he would have given up long ago. It was just that he liked his work so much. It...consumed him.
In the gathering gloom the ceiling automatically compensated, turning brighter blue. The walls of his spacious office glowed subdued orange. Before him, a full-dimensional holographic Wall communications extension took up a whole wall. It was cycling through random color gyrations, pooling into each other in complex patterns. On his right, in a little L shaped alcove, stood an oval table. Its patterned wooden surface had been lovingly hand-polished into hues of deep reds. Elaborately carved matching padded chairs were arranged around the table with mathematical precision.
A thin-necked rock vase occupied the center of the table. Dry flowers arched from its neck. They gave off a subtle mixture of redolent scents, reminding him of deep forests and rolling fields of his native Kaplan.
He leaned back and ordered his special blend of herbal tea. Waiting, he told the computer to dim the lights. A panel slid away in his desk from which rose the tea set. Steam snaked lazily from the fragile delicacy of the porcelain. He inhaled deeply of the aroma and closed his eyes. After a moment, he poured himself a cup and sipped, savoring the tangy flavor. He held the cup in both hands, allowing its warmth to seep through his hands.
The comms alert beeped, flashing for attention. The lighting flared to full intensity. Muttering, he laid the cup down with a click. He reached across the desk and touched a pad on the inlaid console array.
"Yes, what is it?" he demanded as the image of his personal aide cleared in the Wall.
"Commissioner Sill-Anais is here to see you, sir," she said breathlessly in a low contralto deliberately designed to disturb. Now, it only irritated.
His previous aide had lasted six years, something of a record. With his backing, she was now a director of one of the Branches in the Bureau of Administrative Affairs. This one, on the other hand, if she didn't stop her amorous advances was likely to end up as Warden on Cantor. He knew that his office staff were running a pool on how long she was likely to last. He wondered what the odds were.
"Very well, show him in will you?"
The door panels slid away with a hiss and Sill walked through. He carried himself with ease, moving with quick short strides. Tall and thin, Sill had a dry pinched face beneath an olive complexion that was traced with lines of age and responsibility. Wiry white eyebrows outlined large, liquid wide-set eyes, now dark with hidden humor.
Managing an easy grin, Sill slid one hand quickly down the side of his head. His hair was streaked with twin bands of dark gray of a mature male, worn in traditional Deklan fashion. Running the Bureau of Cultural Affairs under Bakral, Sofam's senior Executive Director, Sill had grown into power and carried it well.
He bowed quickly and inclined his head at the door. "I saw Dharaklin a moment ago," he piped in high treble and thrust out a massive barrel chest. "He looked very unhappy. Your doing?"
"Being happy is not part of his job description," Enllss said callously. He raised his cup and took a sip. "Want some?"
Sill twisted his face into a grimace. "Ach! I can't stand watching you drink those dried lawn clippings."
Enllss shrugged. "Suit yourself." He stood and extended his hand at the soft cushions. Sill sprawled down with a grunt and cast a speculative eye over the office. The trappings of power may appear flashy to the uninitiated, but in their respective positions neither he nor Enllss had time to wallow in the luxury. Responsibility far outweighed the privileges.
On his left the wall was lined with uneven shelves crowded with memorabilia, data cubes, hand tooled leather books and oddly carved objects; probably gifts from innumerable diplomatic missions. Battle honors, he mused. Beneath his feet, etched into the carpet, was a yellow-orange circle containing the crest of the Bureau for Colonial and Protectorate Affairs, symbol of Enllss' bureaucratic empire.
For a moment, Sill contemplated the storm clouds outside.
"Winter is early in Captal and I miss the still, drowsy days of Deklan," he said musingly. "It's been over a year since I last set foot there. Can you believe it?"
"There is nothing there that you want to see, anyway," Enllss quipped. "I heard that one of your boys made grade three Second Scout."
"Ach! Off on an M-4 somewhere in the Sargon Directorate."
"And the other one? Still in the Diplomatic Corps?"
Sill's eyes lit up. "He is a Senior Councilor in Anall-Marr's own administrative department."
"That's not bad for someone so young."
"Sinful, but you will allow some father's pride. Pride in both of them, despite the fact that my eldest chose the Fleet. He tells me that I don't understand him," Sill added plaintively.
"Truncated and out of sync," Enllss agreed.
Sill shook a finger at him. "Ach! Just be glad you don't have my problems."
"I was sympathizing, not criticizing. And who says I don't?"
"Ah, your nephew. I heard that the funeral was quite a spectacle. Got everybody on Trillian all sentimental."
"Gashkarali was a fool," Enllss said and snorted. "With Terchran as his mentor, his career in the Servatory Party was made. But that wasn't enough for him. Oh, no. He had to get involved with Sargon's grand unification scheme."
"So why is Dhar pissed? I would have thought that he'd be glad to see Gashkarali gone."
Enllss took a sip, eyeing Sill above the rim of the cup.
"I ordered him to expose Terr," he said.
Sill's thin eyebrows converged in a frown and his eyes turned cold. "I don't like this operation, Enllss. And I like it less the longer it continues. You're not running the Bureau of Cultural Affairs any more, you know. And I don't like your interference in my department, or my men," he said, annoyed that the situation was threatening to get out of hand.
"Bit late for second thoughts, isn't it?" Enllss said easily, looking at his friend with amusement.
Sill pursed his lips and glared.
"Ach! Your preoccupation with the Unified Independent Front is turning into a fixation."
"You sanctimonious son of a bitch! You're actually enjoying this, aren't you?"
"If you mean whether it would be nice to see the Servatory Party and the Revisionists come crawling cap in hand to the UIF for support, then you can say that I'm enjoying this."
"Enjoy yourself then," Enllss grunted and sipped his tea.
"Face it, Enllss. In two short years, come the next elections, the Unified Independent Front will hold more than five percent of all systems in the Serrll Combine, allowing them to take a seat in the Executive. The irony is that we have only ourselves to blame for this mess. We have always treated the independent nonaligned systems with irritation and indifference. The only reason why we haven't absorbed them is that neither major block was prepared to make the first move for fear what the other would do in retaliation."
"Maybe. But the UIF will never hold that seat if Sargon and the Paleans pull off their merger," Enllss pointed out meditatively.
Sill shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. They've had a serious embarrassment five years ago when the raider bases at Lemos and Italan were uncovered. But the reason I think the merger may succeed now is that under Karkan dominance the Servatory Party has been more preoccupied with gaining the government majority than meeting the coalition's needs."
"You don't know how much I appreciate your in-depth analysis of the situation," Enllss said with heavy irony.
"Ach! Screw yourself, Mr. Commissioner."
"It's been tried."
"The problem with you and me, my friend, is that we've been fighting the same old weary battles for too long. Our political enemies are now almost friends. Time for new challenges. Ach!"
"I have enough challenges, thank you. Until I know what the UIF will do, I'll sleep better knowing that every Wanderer has been removed from an intelligence sensitive area."
"Like Dhar and your nephew?"
Sill stood up and walked to the window screen. The rain was driving hard and the sky was dark and heavy. He turned and folded his hands before his chest.
"I hate it when it rains. Ach! But I didn't come here to talk about the cursed Unified Independent Front or your grand policy schemes."
"Then why the blazes did you come?"
"Temper. It's about that infernal Orieli ship."
Enllss nodded, looking glum. "Don't tell me that Anatol has jumped them?"
Sill smiled. "The last I heard is that he's escorting them to Salina with two of his M-4s."
"Hah! Fat lot of good that'll do him if the Orieli decide to get cute. I presume that Trianon's been advised? Who's heading the formal Mission?"
Enllss nodded. "Good enough," he said and pointed a finger at Sill. "If Trianon even thinks of talking to them, I'll have his butt."
"Don't worry. He's been given the word. There is something else, though. The cover on our Moon Base may have been compromised," Sill said and Enllss looked at him sharply.
"Its screens collapsed for about six minutes just as one of Earth's survey birds happened to be overhead."
"How could they collapse? The system is supposed to be foolproof, layered backups."
"Just one of those unpleasant coincidences, I guess. It was bound to happen sooner or later."
"By damn! And you think the base was scanned?"
"The thing was over twenty-three talans high and has no direct imaging hardware. At least we don't think it has. There is no way it could have seen the base."
"But that probe was packed with other sensor arrays, I bet."
"Count on it. Still, even if they detected anomalous energy readings, their imaging will need to be pretty fancy to generate a visible resolution. The point is, what are you going to do about it? Earth is a protectorate and this falls under your jurisdiction."
Enllss winced as if in pain.
"Nothing much I can do. If they've seen us, they've seen us."
"Any word from the American government?"
"Nothing. The PLATO and SIGMA channels are silent. They are probably resigned to the situation as we are. I would expect them to send up a special bird and do a low orbital to get a visual just to make sure. Maybe even a manned mission. Despite the screens they'll see the surface installations. No way to hide that. After all the centuries..."
"Ach! That means we may have to go down to Earth and formally reveal ourselves. It'll cause hell. Here and on Earth."
Enllss spent a few seconds in silent musing. When he looked up, his eyes were mischievous.
"Maybe not. Not for a while, at least."
"Enllss, you know as well as I do that no matter what kind of government Earth's got, they won't be able to keep the lid on a thing like this. We were lucky five years ago with that C-32 at Comalcalco. This time, we'll have Earth crawling all over that base within a year and our clandestine deals with them will be blown."
"Can't see how we can avoid that."
"From unfounded speculation the general population will be faced with hard evidence. It could cause massive cultural dislocation."
"They've had enough time to get used to the idea of extraterrestrials. On the other hand, why not let the Orieli take the heat for us?" Enllss mused and pulled at his chin.