Where the Ships Die
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by William C. Dietz
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Somewhere, deep in the vast blackness of space, a wormhole waits to be found. Dorn Voss needs to find it. But, the stakes are high and he isn't the only one looking. Natural occurring wormholes are the lone means of intergalactic travel in the universe. Whoever controls them gains riches and power unimaginable. The coordinates of one such wormhole, the Mescalaro Gap, are lost, hidden behind conspiracy and murder. With a prize so great, many a man or alien would do anything to find those coordinates and control the universe. In WHERE THE SHIPS DIE, author William C. Dietz creates a dense adventure filled with complex characters and multiple storylines all crashing headlong towards one final confrontation.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1996
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [428 KB]
Reading time: 264-370 min.
It is said the warrior's is the twofold way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both ways....
A Book of Five Ring
Standard year 1643
* * * *
The Planet New Hope
The Milford Academy for Young Men was more notable for its location on the fashionable side of First Hill than for the quality of its architecture. Still, the cream-colored columns and reddish-black bricks were reminiscent of the universities the students hoped to attend, and made the institution seem more dignified.
A series of long, hill-hugging terraces had been carved out of the slope below the academy. Dorn Voss followed a flight of stairs down past the field where a soccer game swirled, past the pavilion where first-formers thrashed around the swimming pool and into the overgrown jungle that he regarded as his own private domain. The garden had been an orderly place once, rich with green foliage, colorful flowers, exotic scents, and the sound of steadily dripping water. The microhabitats, some twenty-five in all, had been designed by Mr. Halworthy and maintained by his students.
Dorn knew he'd never forget the fringe of gray-white hair, the black X where Halworthy's suspenders crossed the vast expanse of white shirt, and the old man's barely heard voice as he delivered the lecture to the plants rather than his students.
Many of the boys had disliked Halworthy, and found his subject dry and boring, but Dorn was the exception. He liked anything connected with space travel, and the scientist had been a member of a survey team in his younger days. Hal-worthy had explored virgin planets, cataloged alien life forms, and lived to tell about it. All of which added depth to his lectures, or so it seemed to Dorn, who had looked up to the older man as a surrogate father. Halworthy was gone now, killed by a plague variant with a number instead of a name, and his almost daily contacts with the slum people. How many gardens produced more vegetables because of the old man? How many children went to bed with full stomachs because of his advice? Hundreds ... maybe thousands.
That was a year ago now, a year in which two-thirds of the alien microhabs had died, and local plants had moved in to take their places. Plants that brushed Dorn's shoulders as he made his way between them and threatened to obliterate all that Halworthy had built. The hand-lettered signs were difficult to read now, and the black irrigation tubing was hard to follow as it snaked its way through the garden. There had been talk of a new botanist at first, but it seemed as if no one wanted the job, and Dorn couldn't blame them. Of the Confederacy's more than 500 worlds, New Hope was one of the most backward.
Dorn followed a path that skirted the greenhouse and made its way out onto a weed-encircled terrace. The city of Oro shimmered in the afternoon sun and stretched for as far as the eye could see. The slums, more than 300 square miles of them, started beyond the electrified fence that circled the hill, and spread out from there. Most of the buildings were one or two stories high. A lack of steel reinforcing rods made it impossible to build anything taller. What little bit of iron ore New Hope had was notoriously hard to mine, and the cost of importing finished metal was prohibitively high.
So, with the exception of a small group of extremely wealthy families, most citizens lived in grinding poverty-- poverty that stemmed from a lack of natural resources, a highly stratified society, and systemic overpopulation.
Dorn knew those things as he looked out over the endless concrete hovels, the smoke that spiraled up toward a polluted sky, and the rivers of filth that flowed toward the sea. He saw the conditions but didn't feel them. And why should he? Especially since he'd been born on another planet and sent to New Hope for an education, or as a way to get rid of him, he wasn't sure which. New Hope was little more than a prison, so far as he was concerned, having nothing to do with him or his future.
The teenager looked around, verified that he was alone, and lit a stim stick. The smoke bit into his lungs, chemicals found their way into his bloodstream, and he felt better. The voice was unexpected and caused him to jump. "Mr. Voss? Are you there, Mr. Voss?"
The title "Mr." combined with the high, piping voice was a dead giveaway. A first- or second-year student had been sent to find him. Dorn considered extinguishing the stim stick and decided against it. An underclassman wouldn't dare report him, and the news that he'd been smoking would enhance his already seedy reputation, a reputation that kept both students and faculty at bay.
The "rat," as the younger boys were known, was about ten years old. He burst out of the undergrowth as if shot from a cannon. His hair was wet from the pool, his swimsuit was at least one size too large, and blood oozed from scratches on his arms and legs. His name was Wiley or some such, and he looked scared. "Mr. Voss! Come quick! The uppers grabbed Mr. Mundulo, and they're killing him!"
Dorn was seventeen years old and towered over the little boy. He took a drag from his stim stick and released the smoke the same way his favorite holo hero always did. He didn't like the way the younger students were treated but saw no reason to get involved. "Mr. Mundulo gets the crap beat out of him every day, so what's the big deal?"
"The blood," the little boy said earnestly. "It's all over the place and they keep hitting him."
Dorn sighed, tried to convince himself to let the matter drop, and failed. He could have asked, "Why me?" but he already knew the answer. Wiley and his fellow rodents couldn't go to the faculty, not with a hundred years' worth of tradition staring them in the face, so, since Dorn had been nice to them, well, not nice, exactly, but not mean either, they hoped he'd intervene.
The senior added the stim stick to the collection of butts already scattered around the terrace and gestured toward the bushes. "Lead the way, rat, and you'd better be right."
The little boy dashed away, and Dorn followed at a more dignified pace. What if the little shit was exaggerating the way rats tended to do? Appearances were important, and he had an image to protect. His peers wouldn't appreciate meddling and could make his life miserable if they chose to.
It took the better part of five minutes for Dorn to climb the stairs and make his way into the swim pavilion. He heard the beating before he saw it. The voice was loud and echoed off interior walls. "Hey, rat, take it like a man ... What, you think I'm stupid? Faking won't work."
Dorn smelled chlorine and noted the water-slicked tiles as he passed through a gauntlet of frightened faces. The room had locker-lined walls and a bench that ran down the middle. Mist thickened the air. The rats came in all colors, shapes, and sizes. They stood in front of their lockers and shivered when the outside air hit them.
Dora took them in with a single glance, along with the pitiful, nearly unrecognizable creature who occupied the center of the room. Mundulo had been tied to a pillar, beaten senseless, and beaten again. His eyes were swollen shut, his lips were pulped, and contusions covered his torso. Dorn saw blood bubble as air passed between the boy's lips and gave thanks that he was alive. A pool of vomit mixed with urine surrounded the rat's feet and added to the room's already funky smell.
The boy's tormentors, a group of uppers that the rats referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, turned toward Dorn. Confident smirks confirmed what Dorn had surmised. The coach was away and wouldn't return soon. Their leader, a sallow-faced youth named Cramer, waved a bloodstained hand. "Well, this is a surprise, the Voss-man himself. What's up, Dorn? Come to join the fun?"
Dorn shook his head. "No, a few laps, that's all. Are you finished here? I'd like to change."
Cramer looked skeptical. "You? Work out? Since when? No, I think it was something else that brought you here, something that looks and smells like a rat." The upperclassman's hand shot out and grabbed Wiley's hair. The little boy twisted free and started to run. An upper named Havlick grabbed the youth and held him off the floor.
Dorn frowned. "That's enough. Put him down."
"So," Cramer said softly, "the rumors are true. The Voss-man is a rat lover. Well, come on, rat lover, show the rodents how you love them."
Havlick looked doubtful. "I don't know, Cramer..."
"You don't know what?" Cramer demanded sarcastically. "Who your father was? Get real, Havlick ... You don't believe that crap, do you? Have you ever seen Voss fight? No? Well, neither have I. Voss invented that martial arts crap to scare idiots like you."
Havlick licked thick, meaty lips and shrugged. "Sure, Cramer, whatever you say."
Dorn looked at the others, saw the hunger in their eyes, and knew there was no escape. None of the Horsemen had been present during the single fight that marked his first year at the academy. He remembered the long hours spent with his sister and the sound of her voice. "No, your other left, dummy ... Start face forward, feet apart, arms hanging at your sides. Now, move your right foot back and out at a forty-five-degree angle. Okay ... not bad for a geek. All right, bend your knees a little, rotate your hips to the right, and try to look scary. No, I said 'scary,' not 'stupid.' Good. Now, bend your left arm, keep your elbow low, and raise your fist. See? That protects your face and chest. In the meantime, you need to pull your right hand back to your hip, and hold your palm up. Perfect, or as perfect as a little turd like you is likely to get."
The stance came naturally, as did the three commandments that went with it: Strike the target, snap back, and hit hard. The Horsemen came all at once, the way bullies tend to do, hoping to overwhelm Dorn with brute force. Dorn hit Cramer with the heel of his right hand. The boy fell and skidded. Havlick tripped on the body. The rats cheered as he went down.
The third upper, a weight lifter known as Malo, blocked a throat chop, threw a right, and connected with Dorn's chin. Dorn staggered, reset his stance, and threw a spin kick. Something crunched and Malo fell. He started to cry.
Cramer was back, as was Havlick, cautious now--but determined to hurt him. Dorn felt angry. Angry about what the uppers had done, angry about the way his parents dumped him on a piece-of-shit planet, and angry that he couldn't do anything about it.
He lashed out, felt his fists connect with flesh, and gloried in the contact. He took blows, channeled the pain into his anger, and fought even harder. It became a dance, a whirling, ducking, kicking, twisting dervish in which each move seemed to have been choreographed in advance and he knew exactly what to do. Blood spurted from Cramer's nose, vomit erupted from Havlick's mouth, and Malo rolled on the floor. But wait ... where was--?
No sooner had he formulated the question than the fourth Horseman, a zit-faced troublemaker generally known as Pestilence, or the Pest, slipped a belt over Dorn's head, and pulled the ends in opposite directions.
Dorn's next move was completely unexpected, and he could almost hear his sister laughing as he threw a reverse elbow strike. It connected, and the Pest coughed, but hung on. Dorn pulled at the belt, struggled to breathe, and stomped on his opponent's foot. It made no difference. His vision blurred, the light started to fade, and darkness beckoned.
That was when George Albert Wiley III screwed up his courage, took six running steps, and launched himself into the air. The Pest staggered under the boy's weight and screamed as small fingers found his eyes.
Dorn nearly fell as the upperclassman let go of the belt. He gasped for air, saw Cramer start to rise, and kicked him in the head. He turned, left fist up, right fist back. The attack never came. The Pest was down and nearly invisible under ten squirming rats, each one of whom was determined to deliver five blows for every one received during the past year. Their arms moved with the regularity of pistons, and the Pest begged for mercy, but the rats weren't about to give him any. But, suddenly, a whistle blew.
At the sound, the rats jumped back, saw what they'd accomplished, and regarded each other with horror. What had they done? Fear replaced momentary jubilation. Payback is a bitch, and the uppers would exact a terrible revenge. Headmaster Tull entered, followed by Coach Mahowski. They were big men and radiated authority. Dorn relaxed his stance, tried to look casual, and found it hard to do. Not with a rat roped to the pillar, blood all over the place, and four of his classmates laid out on the floor.
Coach Mahowski hurried to Mundulo, cut the little boy down, and carried him away. Tull had piercing green eyes, and they swept the room like lasers. ' 'Every single one of you will be sorry this happened. The first form is restricted to their dorm. Those upperclassman who need medical attention will get it and report to their rooms. Mr. Voss, you know where the detention room is ... Go there."
Headmaster Tull kept Dorn waiting for two hours. Plenty of time to think, sweat, and wonder. But finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Dorn was ushered into a sparsely furnished office. Holo stats of dead headmasters stared from paneled walls, and the school's motto, "Learn that you might serve," had been carved into a ceiling beam. Hazy sunlight filtered down through a skylight and pooled on the surface of Tull's desk. It was bare except for an antique clock, a pen set, and a single pile of hardcopy. The printout looked like a school record, and it didn't take a genius to figure out who it belonged to.
Dorn had been standing there for a full five minutes before Tull entered. The headmaster gestured toward some guest chairs. Dorn waited till Tull was seated before accepting the invitation. A shaft of sunlight caressed the administrator's shoulders and gave the impression that he was on good terms with the local gods. He sorted through some hardcopy, found what he was looking for, and cleared his throat. "You've had quite an afternoon, Mr. Voss. You scored a C on your history exam, skipped fourth period, and fought a rather one-sided duel in the swimming pavilion. The dispensary hasn't been this busy in a long, long time."
Dorn couldn't think of anything to say. So he didn't speak. Tull nodded as if agreeing with his decision. "Yours is a difficult case, Mr. Voss ... made more so by the rather complex circumstances. While I can never endorse physical violence as a solution for problems, especially when faculty are available to deal with such situations, I'm not so old, nor so out of touch that I've lost track of the social pressures fostered by an institution such as ours, or the fact that your actions stemmed from the most honorable of intentions." Tull paused. Dorn shifted in his seat. "In fact, the sad truth of the matter is that Mr. Cramer and his friends were overdue for a lesson in humility, and received their just deserts. Mr. Wiley and the other members of the first form had high praise for your courage and resolve, although I'm not sure that I believe you were in the botanical garden for the purposes of meditation, or that you suggested faculty mediation prior to beating the crap out of Mr. Cramer. However, all's well that ends well, assuming that you will refrain from such episodes in the future."
Dorn swallowed to clear his throat. "How's Mr. Mundulo?"
"Not very well," Tull answered darkly, "but he'll recover, and his assailants will be expelled from the school. And that brings us to you."
Dorn was puzzled. It seemed as if Tull had accepted the necessity of what he'd done, so what remained? Tull looked at the hardcopy as if checking to make sure that the text hadn't changed somehow. "Tell me, Mr. Voss, when was the last time you heard from your parents?"
Dorn felt a sudden queasiness in the pit of his stomach. "My parents? Gee, I don't know, six, maybe seven months ago?"
Tull nodded. "Is that unusual?"
Dorn became defensive. "A little. They usually send a package of stuff every couple of months, but they're busy."
Tull stood and looked out the window. His hands were clasped behind his back. ''Yes, Milford parents are busy people." There was silence for a moment before the headmaster turned. He looked concerned, almost kindly. "Look, Mr. Voss, I'm terribly sorry to trouble you with what may be a false alarm, but we haven't heard from your parents in a long time. Simply put, that means the last installment of your tuition wasn't paid, and no deposit was made to your personal expense account."
Dorn frowned and tried to square the words with reality as he knew it. "But that's impossible... I bought some school supplies yesterday."
"Yes," Tull replied sympathetically. "I took the liberty of loaning you some of my funds. After all, your father was a student here, as was his father, and it's the least I could do."
Momentarily speechless, Dorn was numb with shock. His parents were worth millions, maybe billions, since they owned their own company, a fleet of ships, and a wormhole. One of only four gaps in the space-time continuum through which most of the Confederacy's fast freight was forced to go. That meant his tuition and expenses were little more than pocket change. Unless something awful had happened, and his parents were what? Dead? The teenager remembered his anger at being dumped on New Hope and felt a sudden sense of guilt.
In spite of the fact that lots of sentients had tried, no means of faster than ship communication had been discovered yet. If Dorn wanted to find out what, in fact, had happened, he had only one choice. "I need to find my parents, sir. I'll pack and leave on the next ship."
Tull raised a hand in protest. "I understand how you feel, son, and I wish it were that easy, but there are laws that govern what minors can and can't do. It's impossible for you to lift without your parent's permission. Not to mention the fact that a deep-space ticket costs a great deal of money, more than I can afford to loan you. No, we'll wait. A number of ships are scheduled to land soon, and I wouldn't be surprised if we hear something during the next couple of weeks."
Dorn tried to take comfort from the headmaster's words but found it hard to do. "And if we don't hear? What then?"
Tull looked away, then back again. ''Eventually, if I receive no answer to the urgent letters already sent, you'll be asked to leave the academy. But let's cross that bridge when we come to it. School is the most important thing right now ... and you're pulling a C in history."
Dorn nodded, mumbled his thanks, and left the office. Little more than fifteen minutes had passed, and his whole life had changed.