With new followers as rare as hen’s teeth, and many of the ‘Lockdown Bloggers’ disappearing as quickly as they arrived in 2020, I am left wondering whether or not Blogging has had its day.
From limited research, it would seem that Instagram and You Tube have attracted people who might otherwise have been blogging. The instant gratification of a photo or video is a lot less work that an 700-word blog post or a fiction serial, let’s face it.
Over the past few months, I have noticed that comments on my posts are almost always from the same group of people. No complaints about that, as they are my blogging friends, and I value their input and contribution to our community more than I can say.
But casting my eye over other blogs, there is definite evidence of a ‘slowdown’. Many are receiving fewer comments, and no replies to replies…
Levene’s report that they had found survivors brought a brief moment of happiness to his masters. But now that Memnet had placed the fleet on high alert following Dranaa Nagesh’s declaration of war on the Alliance. The mood was sombre as they prepared for the inevitable clash with Drana attack fleets bent on destruction.
Seth accompanied the rescue teams down to the rock hanger. When the shuttle doors opened, he stepped out into a crowd of ragged, half-starved and exhausted individuals. Akhen made the introductions. As Seth took the hand of each in turn, he was perplexed by the makeup of the crowd around him.
“Greetings uncle,” a voice said, from the back of the group.
“Seti—is that you?” Seth could hardly contain the pleasure at finding his long lost nephew. Khan and Akhen exchanged puzzled glances. Seti, of all people, came from one of Cydon’s important families! Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about someone, he threw a curve ball like this! Now he was related to the senior Nephile general. Akhen and Khan shook their heads in disbelief. Later on board the carrier, after medical treatment and rest, the survivors were briefed on the imminent situation. Admiral Memnet declared that under the special circumstances of their survival together, any Drana among the group would be sent back down to the surface rather than be executed. He added that Levene and his raiders would return to the penal units they had come from now their task was done.
Khan and the Drana were led away to a holding area to await deportation to the planet, while the raiders were escorted to the brig. Akhen and Iset saw Seti and his uncle concluding an animated discussion in the corner of the room. “While you look on them as brothers, Seti, the Alliance does not—I’m sorry.” The general turned and left the room.
“We can’t let this happen to them, Akhen. We’ve come through too much together to let our people be ripped apart now,” Iset pleaded.
“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to let it!” he angrily replied.
The senior officers of the fleet filed out of the admiral’s cabin and departed for their respective ships. They were now primed for action. Nine heavily armoured Drana attack flotillas were rapidly narrowing the gap, heading straight for Jalnuur. The scout vessels would be in range in four hours’ time. Memnet stood poker faced on his bridge, watching the final preparation for the first action of the new war. Shuttles sped back and forth while fighters increased their patrols through the fleet. Mine layers spread a curtain of death in the path of the oncoming enemy. Particle cannon tracked the incoming icons. Plasma torpedoes stared blankly out into the void beyond the fleet in readiness for the one and only flights they would ever take. Floating above the carrier focused on the leading enemy flotilla a giant array lay in wait in the silence of space beyond the fleet, gathering the energy it needed from the cosmos to deliver the deathblow that is the Armag. With luck, a demonstration of strength would curtail Nagesh’s senseless act. Maybe not, Memnet thought to himself, The Drana had never backed down before…
A Hapi class container vessel descended to the planet with its living cargo on the first of many stops in its delivery voyage. The coming hours would dictate the path that the unwanted war would take…
Chapter Sixteen – Kallorn
The pilot nosed the large container vessel inside the hanger and gently set her down. The massive door to her hold swung out and down, locking into place. A cargo crawler towed a heavily laden trailer over to the workshop at the rear of the hanger. The driver opened the door to one of the small containers on the trailer’s deck.
“Welcome back,” Seti said, as Khan, Shansur, and the rest blinked in the bright lights of the hanger. Akhen opened the other container and shook the hand of Levene and his men, as they dropped down to the floor. In all the confusion high above their heads in the fleet, the rest of the survivors had stowed away on board the container vessel, before the Drana and raiders were loaded for the long trip back to the penal colony and to Jalnuur. As well as Levene and his five raiders, there were now four additional members of the new nation who, with a little gentle persuasion by Apis, decided to end their haulage contract with the armed forces. The mercenaries and the civilian crew of the freighter were formally made welcome that night by Akhen and Khan.
While the reunited group dined on a feast prepared by Iset, in honour of the occasion, the enlarged gathering planned their next move. “Kallorn is inside the empire, Khan,” Misakk, the civilian co-pilot, said. “Are you sure about going there?”
“We’re sure,” Akhen replied, turning the chart around on the table. “It’s only a short distance away from here – only a miniscule fraction of a light year – and of no strategic value to the empire. In fact, apart from one brief exploratory expedition by the Drana science council two thousand years ago, no one from the empire has ever been back.”
“Why?” the container vessel’s pilot Benton asked.
“Because the planet has large salt seas like Earth, and we Drana are eaten alive by salt; it melts our flesh,” Manouf explained.
“The Human-Nephiles used the Earth’s salt water oceans to destroy the Drana invasion at Earth over eight hundred years ago,” Akhen added. While preparations went ahead in the mountain hanger for the exodus, high above the planet the first act of the war had opened. From the safety of the hanger door Manesh and Nefer watched the brief flashes of light from ships being ripped apart in the vacuum of space.
Llokk, the engineer aboard the container vessel, together with his team, stripped down the ancient Bentu freighter and began slowly rebuilding her for the journey to Kallorn. She was pathetically slow, well below sub light speed, but more than capable of the journey. Levene and others retrofitted the freighter, along with the contents of six armament containers from inside the vast hold of the Hapi class vessel, under the guidance of Kapinski and Hoetep. The outward appearance of the two civilian ships disguised their enhanced capabilities. Cursory inspection via sensors would only reveal unarmed civilian ships, either Alliance or Drana, depending on which recognition codes Temo and Raman entered into the new system they had designed.
Orz and Nemaar took a break by the force field. Orz lit one of Levene’s cigars and inhaled the smoke before setting it free in a large halo that rolling in on itself, climbed slowly toward the ceiling before disappearing. “Hard to tell who’s winning up there,” said Nemaar, sharing the cigar.
“We’ll know if the Drana won the battle soon enough,” Orz replied, spitting a wet piece of tobacco onto the floor, “when they come back to reclaim this planet, turning it into a mining hell-hole again!” Orz’ pessimistic outburst was ignored. The Alliance fleet seriously outnumbered the Drana. And the Armag array’s destructive power soon put an end to the flotillas. Nemaar and Orz witnessed the end in silence and then returned to work. Admiral Memnet’s fleet moved closer to the empire’s border, picking off retreating stragglers on the way. By the morning of the next day, Jalnuur was alone in space, free of its protectors and invaders.
Now the way was clear for the exodus to begin as soon as the ships were loaded with their precious cargo of pioneers. With Benton at the controls of the Hapi and Misakk flying the Bentu, at last the community could take their leave of Jalnuur forever. The two-day voyage to Kallorn was stretched to three. Their route took them through the tiny Mistraan nebulae and on to the Droiga asteroid belt, where all of Manouf’s navigation skills were tested to the limit. Taking a ship the size of a Hapi through it was like threading a needle blindfold. Crawling at less than half sub-light speed the giant craft narrowly missed colliding with asteroids on countless occasions.
Misakk kept his distance as he shadowed Benton through the swirling mass of rocks, seemingly bent on self-destruction. Their dangerous route, formed by the complex convergence of two stellar systems, ensured no one would follow them. When Manouf was given the navigational task, he had been in favour of shadowing the fleet. But Akhen and Khan were dead against the idea. Despite the new sensor identifications of the two ships, if they got close enough to be picked up visually, the Hapi would have been recognized immediately by the fleet’s secondary visual identification system.
They emerged from the asteroid belt mid-morning on the third day. Ahead lay the shining blue-green planet of Kallorn, waiting for them surrounded by its eight attendant moons. Bathed in the light of its three suns, one a double star, the planet was gradually emerging from an ice age. Large ice sheets covering the planet’s surface steadily retreated to the poles. In their place, forests grew to protect the land in the northern latitudes. On some of the newly exposed continents to the south, vast deserts spread their slow moving tentacles, suffocating semi fertile plains under billions of tonnes of fine sand. In other areas of the land masses, millions of square kilometres of prairies, peppered with deep ravines and long valleys between mountain ranges, extended from coast to coast. Deep freshwater lakes on most continents were filled by blue-white snow fed rivers. Nearer to the planet’s equator, several large land masses were carpeted in thick impenetrable jungles, which merged into fertile swamps, infested with insects and parasites on the shores of the oceans that surrounded them. The forests and jungles were home to a variety of small shrew like mammals. No hunting carnivores roamed Kallorn. Pockets of lizards scavenged any dead carcasses, acting as the planets cleanup detail. Best of all, the little band of pioneers who now stood on Kallorn for the first time, thought they were the only sentient inhabitants on the entire planet.
My cousin Tuluk had stowed away on board while the Hapi was still somewhere within the fleet. As part of the Khaz cerebral collective, he was another pair of ears and set of eyes of our High Council.
Benton and Misakk orbited the planet while Raman and Temo scanned each continent in turn, looking for a safe sheltered home. Eventually the two ships landed at the head of a large grassy valley surrounded on three sides by high snow-capped, forested mountain ranges in the northern hemisphere of Kallorn, well inland from the nearest salt sea to protect the health of the Drana among them. Over the next seven months, the pioneers established a small, self-sufficient community, turning parts of the valley into fields of crops to feed the new occupants of Kallorn. Akhen, Khan, and Levene organized and led exploratory expeditions around the small continent they had named New Cydon. They were hampered with incomplete ancient technologies at their disposal, with very little of the state of the art Alliance equipment. With the change of seasons, they settled down to wait out the winter months, planning new expeditions to other continents.
When the spring melt arrived, the Bentu was loaded for its journey. Khan and Hoetep put together a team to search a jungle covered continent eight thousand kilometres to the south of New Cydon. As the team made their final preparations for the journey, Akhen went over the last minute details with Khan. “Ready to go when you are,” Misakk said, climbing into the pilot’s seat. Khan and Akhen embraced. The two men were closer than brothers now. Orz and Apis loaded their field-packs into the webbed rack above their heads and took their seats, while Nemaar and Mdjat checked the securing straps on the crawler unit, and equipment in the middle of the hold. Hoetep sat in the co – pilot’s seat beside Misakk, going over his check-list prior to lift off.
Nefer and Akhen stood in the shade of the community lodge veranda, watching the Bentu rise into the air, then turn slowly ninety degrees on its thrusters, before disappearing towards the horizon. Their greatest frustration was knowing that the lack of workable long distance communication equipment meant that the expedition could not report regularly to their home base.
As a reader you get drawn into a storyline by what its characters do or say. As a writer, the same process applies. When you are writing a story you have a vague idea where it may go. But as the story develops, it changes direction at a sometimes frightening speed.
You write a sentence or a paragraph off the top of your head, look at it, and substitute one word for another until you are satisfied. Later on in another paragraph, you realise that your original thought is no longer applicable. So you go back and rewrite it to make it lead up to the thought you had in the following paragraph, or you abandon your later notion for the former.
If your characters are strong in the sense of being well defined, you already know how they will react to any given situation. To keep your reader wanting…
Orz stopped the vehicle. The cooling system for the transmission had broken down. Temo managed to contact the fleet and Levene reported the situation to Seth. “The mine is empty general. Manesh reckons if there were any survivors they will be in an old experimental complex, which when Orz gets the transmission fixed, we’ll reach in a couple of days or so, providing the weather stays stable.”
“Were showing nothing moving on the surface, colonel,” Seth replied. “The atmosphere of the planet tends to shield the surface. Therefore, we can’t rely on our sensors. Report when you get there – out.”
The lead Armin struggled to maintain traction over the solid ice that covered the narrow pass between the mountains. The sergeant leaned forward looking over the driver’s shoulder at the track ahead. After the quakes had destroyed practically all of their attack force, killing most of the division, he was now the senior non-commissioned officer, which placed him in charge. Major Ganash and the sergeant major were killed when their Armins plunged into a crevasse after the initial quake back at the entrance to the valley.
Pashtek found himself trapped with no way back to the surface. So he had searched for a way to escape his ice tomb, and eventually he squeezed his way into one of the new fissures and back underground, close to where Akhen and the survivors were. If nothing else, we Khaz are expert at survival. The trip back to the mining complex for the commandos without firing a shot in anger would not have pleased their superiors! It would have been far better for them if they had all perished in the quakes, than a humiliating bloodless return to the barracks on Dranaa.
Orz fired up the engine and checked the temperature of the coolant for the transmission. It seemed to be all right. With any luck, the patched coolant-lines would hold out for a while. Kapinski watched the valley ahead as the transporter hugged the rock wall of the track a thousand meters above the valley floor. Manesh stuck his head up beside Kapinski from time to time, checking on reference points to gage the distance travelled. The old transporter did not have a nav system like its successor, the Armin, which made life difficult.
“Hey, colonel, get up here and check this out,” shouted Kapinski, over the roar of the engine. Trading places with him, Levene looked at what had attracted Kapinski’s attention. Someone had been this way recently. The makeshift bridge across the gap in the track, fifteen hundred meters ahead on a slight bend, only had a light covering of snow.
“Back her up, Orz, around that corner behind us, while the master sergeant and I go check out the bridge,” Levene ordered.
“Roger that boss,” Orz said, glad to be able to take a break from fighting with the transporter’s steering system for a while.
“What is it, Manesh? What have you found?” asked Levene, as the Drana stooped down and brushed the snow away.
“See this plate? It’s a manufacturing specification,” Manesh pointed out.
“Yeah, so what,” Levene said, crouching down to look for himself.
“It’s a bridging strut, one of a pair, standard issue for a type 49 Armin transporter,” Manesh continued, as he looked about nervously.
“Alright, so a transporter used it to continue its journey along the track—so what?” Levene said, standing up once more.
“The type 49 is only used by commandos. We’ve got big trouble, colonel, if they’re still about! Looking at these tracks, I’d say at least fifty, maybe more, passed this way in the last week or so,” Manesh said, sprinting forward, heading for a left hand bend up ahead on the track.
Catching up with Manesh, Levene could see the tough master sergeant was clearly rattled by what he had found. “Hey, Manesh, slow down; what’s the rush,” Levene demanded, grabbing Manesh’s field-pack.
“You don’t understand, Max,” he said nervously. “They’re the most suicidal shock troops in the empire. Even the rest of the Drana armed forces fear them! Get in his way and a commando will kill you on the spot! He gives his allegiance to the corps and that’s all! If you’re not a fellow commando then you’re his enemy. Their barracks are kept well away from the rest of Drana civilization. Not for secrecy but to protect the population!”
Levene realised it had to be a bad situation for the master sergeant to drop formal rank in favour of personal names, when addressing a superior officer. “OK, Manesh, what do you suggest?” Levene asked, as they walked on toward the bend.
“For now we scout ahead in pairs, staying at least half a kilometre from the…”
“What is it?”
“Too late—look!” About three kilometres along the valley, three Armin were slowly heading their way.
“They’re running back,” said Mdjat, who was sitting on the front of the transporter.
“Gung-ho bastards—still think they’re in the army,” growled Orz.
“They are, and so are you—dumb-ass!” Kapinski shouted from inside the turret, spitting a dark wad of tobacco onto the floor of the transport.
Shansur steadied the imagers and stared in disbelief at what he had just seen. The two figures at the bridge briefly turned and looked up, giving him time to make out the unmistakable features of Manesh! The other was some kind of Nephile in Drana uniform unknown to him. Akhen took the imagers from Shansur and watched as the two men walk along the track, while the transporter backed around the corner out of site. Handing the imagers to Khan, he went to check on Tosar’s progress below. “Better tell him to hurry,” Khan said. “The Armins are getting closer and the men below have just seen them!”
Tosar reassembled the firing mechanism and closed the panel just as Akhen arrived. “It’s ready to be tested. I’ve re-calibrated the lenses, narrowing the cutting beam down to barely half a millimetre. It should at least reach the bridge. “ he replied with a degree of uncertainty in his voice.
“But will it cut through the bridge Tosar?” Akhen asked, impatiently.
“I don’t know—I really don’t,” he said, sighing.
“Well it’s too late for any more alterations. Let’s get it set up!” The machine was passed up the ladder to waiting hands above, where Tosar quickly assembled it at the entrance to the hanger. The targeting lasers were turned on. As the machine began to warm up Khan saw the tell-tale spots from the lasers on the bridge. Tosar secured the clamps holding the plasma-meridium torch in place. Everything was ready. Only time would tell if the readjustments and tinkering with the ancient drilling tool had worked.
“What are they doing down there?” Akhen asked, as he saw four Drana troopers working on the bridge.
“Looks like they’re laying charges under it,” replied Shansur, shifting the focus of the imagers.
Mdjat and Levene followed Manesh and Orz back to the relative safety of the transporter, hidden from view by the corner in the track. “See any movement yet?” Temo’s voice inquired, inside Kapinski’s helmet.
From his precarious vantage point above the transporter, on a narrow ledge, Kapinski watched the turn in the track beyond the bridge. “Nope nothing yet,” he said, shifting his weight against the rock.
Manesh and Levene checked and rechecked their arms and ammunition. Chances were they would have to fight on foot even if the bridge was blown. The commandos would soon find a way of crossing the gap, and from what Manesh had told him and the rest of the raiders, they could forget any thoughts of escape. The damned commandos will hunt us down, one by one. They never give up—never! “Colonel, I hear engines,” Kapinski said. Within thirty seconds, the nose of the leading Armin was visible at the corner of the track.
The tiny circles of light from the targeting lasers shifted slightly as Tosar adjusted the aim of the plasma-meridium torch onto one of the explosive charges under the bridge. The three tiny circles gradually came together to form one clear intense blue circle of light. “Ready,” he said.
“Wait till the last Armin’s tracks are clear of the bridge,” Shansur spoke quietly. The lead Armin stopped a hundred meters short of the bridge with its twin disrupter cannon tracking from side to side like the antenna on an ant searching for prey. The rear hatch opened and a lone commando jumped down onto the track. He walked past the Armin toward the bridge, checking the track and the sheer walls of the valley. He stood for a moment at the edge of the bridge looking over the side, down to the valley floor below. Tosar’s heart pounded so much he thought the commando, thousands of meters below on the bridge, would hear it. “Steady now,” Shansur said. “Be calm; be patient; breathe gently.”
The commando moved on across the bridge then bent down. “Sergeant, trooper tracks—four sets heading back the way we’re going,” the commando reported. “Very well, track them—we’ll follow on behind.” Then to the driver he said, “Maintain one hundred meters behind him.” The skin on the back of the sergeant’s neck started to itch; a sure sign trouble was close by. If it was renegade troopers there was no problem. If it was something bigger… still he hadn’t gained his stripes by being overcautious.
“The bastards are about to round the bend!” Kapinski said, lowering himself down from the ledge. Orz steadied himself, pressing his body hard into the small crevice in the track wall, with his assault knife at the ready.
As the lone commando disappeared from view around the bend into oblivion, the bridge disintegrated in a shower of sparkling confetti, which gently floated down the side of the valley. The track boiled and erupted twenty meters in front of the lead Armin, leaving the three transporters stranded on a two hundred-meter long ledge, precariously suspended on the valley wall. Their disrupter cannon turrets scoured the valley looking for a target.
Levene, hidden by the corner, and the side of the transporter, searched the mountains high above the valley through his imagers. “Well I’ll be…,” he readjusted the focus. “We’ve found the survivors, ladies,” his voice said over his raiders’ headsets. Tosar scribed an arc across the valley wall below the Armin transporters and watched with satisfaction as the ledge released its precarious hold on the wall, before sliding down in a headlong rush to destruction on the valley floor far below. The battle was won – but not the war.
Pashtek would find himself trapped on Jalnuur after the survivors had moved on, since the Alliance had little time for my kind.
It is not often I am summoned to appear before the Autocephalous Patriarch and frankly the less often it happens, the happier I am. I have noticed that it is rare for such worthies to send me a note saying something along the lines of, “Tallis, old chap, drop round for a spot of lunch and we can discuss publishing your next collection of verse.” No, they only ever notice you when, frankly, the great and the good would serve us better by glancing elsewhere.
The cause of my summons was the dung rolling of Tullon Splart. Now to be fair, whilst I had not lobbied for his dung rolling, or even so much as touched the barrel, I fully approved of the action, and in all candour, still do. Lying as poorly as he did verges on casual disrespect.
For those who don’t know what dung rolling involves, the…
“I never knew about this place.” Khan said, as the group explored the spacious interior of a long forgotten supply room.
“It must have been on the surface originally,” Delal murmured. The windows now looked out onto solid rock.
“Seti, go to work—check everything,” Akhen ordered, while the rest took it easy.
“Manouf, go with him, and take Tosar, Hoetep, and Raman with you” Khan ordered.
“Besal, Nemaar, see where that shaft over there, leads to,” Akhen added, as he sat down exhausted beside Nefer and closed his eyes.
“You’re not going to believe it; you just have to see it for yourselves!” Besal said excitedly, when he returned. He led the way along the shaft. Twenty minutes later, Akhen and Khan stood looking up at the night sky through a small dome high above them. Nemaar beckoned them to follow as he disappeared up a ladder. Reaching the top, Khan walked around a large old abandoned freighter, which sat facing a force field sealing the entrance to a hanger carved from the rock. Akhen looked out at the cloud-covered mountain range bathed in moonlight stretching off into the distance.
In the valley far below the mountain, three Armin transports ground to a halt on their way up the steep incline to a high dangerously narrow pass in the range. By this time, my cousin Pashtek had long ago left the safety of the Armins and was now close to the survivors, following them and hiding in the roof of the hanger, watching their every move. The surviving commandos were on a collision course with Levene’s raiders.
“So, Seti, have you found anything useful?” Manouf asked, as they worked their way through the stacks of containers and crates.
“No, nothing much here; what about you?” Seti replied, from inside the container he was in.
“Maybe, I’m not sure.” Manouf dragged a long purpose-built sealed carrying case out into the main room. “What do you think?” This drew a larger crowd of onlookers.
“Let’s get it open.” Seti began fiddling with the tamper-proof locks. With two faint clicks, the old locks gave up their secret.
“It’s a core driller using a plasma-meridium source as the principal cutter, guided by these three adjustable lasers,” Tosar explained, as he lovingly turned the tool over in his arms. No one could remember Tosar getting quite this excited before.
‘Not to worry about it,’ Besal thought. ‘It was probably the rarefied air or something.’ Hoetep came across some food and medical supplies in sealed containers inside an old exploration vehicle, buried behind crates of drilling equipment, while Raman, checking some lockers inside a caged off enclosure, found what looked like pressure suits and helmets.
Poor Seti came up empty handed for the first time in his life. Iset sat beside him with her arm around his neck trying to console him. He could not believe he had found nothing. He always found something! “I must be losing my touch,” he said glumly.
With the medical supplies, Nefer, Iset, and Jamal went to work on Shansur’s broken leg. The operation was done in less than clinical surroundings but it was successful. In a few days, he was able to take a few tentative steps across the supply room aided by crutches made from core sample rods.
Akhen and Khan spoke to Shansur at length over the days it took his leg to heal. His older brother had served under Khan in the old imperial guard years before. When the guard was broken up, he had been killed while serving on Andras when the Nephile were sabotaging Drana depots and observation posts across the planet. Khan and Akhen sat in silence, reminded for a brief moment that their people had at one time been mortal enemies, and given the chance, would have killed each other without a second thought. Now they were the seeds of a new beginning. Shansur watched the way in which the survivors helped and cared for each other. It went against everything he had been taught but here they were Nephile, Drana, and Andrasian, Baktarr, even Selian, all one people working together. Although he still found it strange that he should have been shown mercy by his former enemies, and restored back to health by them, he felt that he somehow belonged now, and that he was part of this embryo new multicultural nation.
Orz drove the transporter at a snail’s pace through the blizzard on the path that took them through the foothills of the mountain range. Temo scanned the bands on the transceiver trying to make contact with the fleet above, but the storm had cut them off for the moment. Kapinski peered out of the turret then climbed back inside the warm red-lit belly of the transport. Manesh was propped against the hatch snoring peacefully. Levene and Mdjat were making the final adjustments to some home-made explosive charges. The transporter’s engine roared as Orz shifted to a lower gear ratio to negotiate the incline under its tracks.
On the other side of the range, the lead Armin pushed steadily through the blizzard along a high pass. Inside the three transporters, the commandos sat expressionless at attention with disrupter rifles at the ready. In less than twenty-six hours from now, both sides would meet on the treacherous mountain track, three thousand meters below the forgotten hanger where Khan stood looking out at the storm. In twenty-seven hours, the track would be gone forever. In twenty-eight hours, there would be peace once more in the high mountain valley.
Khan looked at the track through brief gaps in the thick cloud. He was sure he had seen movement but it must have been a trick of the light caused by the blizzard below. Tosar checked the plasma-meridium source of the core driller. The targeting lasers needed a bit of work but they would soon be serviceable once more. The power source was still fully charged despite the centuries since its manufacture. Its containment field showed signs of leakage but he could fix that. The tripod support was in bad shape. Most of the hinges and locks were worn out. If he were going to put it back in full working order, he would have to manufacture a completely new support frame. With this tool, he could carve out enough rooms in the surrounding rock to give everyone a space of their own. Khan had a different use in mind for the old drilling tool. “See that, Shansur—what do you make of it,” Khan asked, handing the battered mechanical stereo-imagers to him and pointing to the mountain pass.
“Looks like Armin transporters,” Shansur replied. Panning along the valley wall, he saw the makeshift bridge that had been built weeks before where the track had slipped. Switching his gaze to the other end of the valley, several kilometres away the glint of sunlight on metal caught his eye. Changing the magnification, he could just pick out the slow movement of another vehicle heading towards the Armin transporters. “Seems as if the commandos aren’t the only ones out for a drive,” Shansur said, handing the imagers to Akhen, who had joined them.
As he looked at the slow progress of the other transporter, Akhen finally recognized its outline and unmistakable dome turret. “They’re going to need our help,” he said. “The Armin is better equipped for battle!”
“Yes, but the track is so narrow they’ll have to travel in single file making the other two redundant in a fire fight,” Shansur replied, taking back the imagers.
“Where are you going Khan?” Akhen yelled, as Khan ran toward the ladder.
“I’ll be back,” was the reply, as he vanished from view.
Tosar shook his head at the idea. “I don’t know Khan. It may be possible. It would mean narrowing the field to a pinpoint. It was never designed for what you have in mind—and I’m not sure it’s powerful enough to do the job.”
“They need our help. In a few hours from now both sides will be directly below the hanger. Come and see for yourself—please!” Khan pleaded.
Tosar had never seen Khan act this way before. He was actually showing concern for others. Khan had changed. “Alright I’ll look.” From where Pashtek hid he watched Tosar read the distance and angle scales as he focused on the makeshift bridge, writing down the results before handing the imagers to Shansur. “How long have I got?” he asked.
“At their present speed—eight hours before they sight each other,” Shansur said, checking the progress.
“Six hours—you have to have it up here in place and ready to go in six hours, Tosar!” Akhen declared.
“I’m going to need help.”
“You’ll get it. Grab anyone you need,” Khan said, now back to his old self once more.
Well, I’ve started thinking about my next Scifi WIP. At the moment it has no title. That will occur to me much later as the story gradually unfolds. So far all I have is the vague preamble below.
There was a time when mankind’s only means of exploring the Universe meant either sending unmanned probes to various locations across our solar system, or exploring beyond its borders by using powerful telescopes, parked in stationary orbit above the Earth and dotted across the planet. That all changed in the twenty-second century when fusion propulsion became a reality, and a way of keeping a human being alive for the duration of any flight, further than the inner limits of our solar system, was finally worked out.
Out of those few words will come the story itself. How it starts, where it goes, who and how many characters are involved…
The delegation sat in the luxurious anteroom of the palace. Ambassador Miclas looked at each member of the delegation in turn. The Alliance had chosen well from among over thirty thousand leading diplomats from the twenty-five systems within its borders. They had been waiting here for eight days now and still Dranaa Nagesh refused to see them. The situation was intolerable to him. Truly, the Alliance’s decision five hundred years ago not to admit the Drana into its fold was justified by the contemptuous way in which they were now being treated! The empire was a pariah in the Alliance’s eyes. This latest example of its complete disregard for the rules governing deliberate annexation of territory was highly unacceptable. And as for the despicable use Jalnuur had been put to…
The ornate doors of the anteroom opened. “Ambassador Miclas, the Dranaa regrets he cannot see you today. He has matters of state which must take priority over your cultural…”
Miclas protested, trying hard stay in control. “Imperial consul Omar, must I remind you yet again this is not a cultural visit! We are here representing the Suraa over your deliberate annexation of their planet Jalnuur.”
“I’m sorry ambassador the Dranaa still cannot see you today – perhaps tomorrow,” the consul smiled, as he left the room.
Wearily, Miclas sunk back into the chair behind him. “Perhaps tomorrow—hah!” he muttered to himself. Within the hour, the delegation was escorted back to their apartments in a leafy diplomatic suburb of Dranaa’s capital city.
The passage had been rising towards the surface for days now. Apis and Nemaar looked across the fissure that had cut off their progress to where it continued on the opposite side. “Well we’re not going back,” Akhen said, after being informed of the roadblock. “It’s too far and our rations are nearly gone. If we don’t get out of here soon we’ll be too weak to go on.”
“Tosar give me a hand,” Nemaar asked.
Above the opening, across the fissure, a small outcrop stuck out from its sheer sides. “Think we could get to it?” Tosar asked, checking their side of the fissure for hand holds.
“Let’s try,” Nemaar said, as he began tying one end of the rope around his waist. “If I can climb up maybe I can throw the rope over it.” After several anxious minutes, Nemaar climbed opposite the outcrop and drove a spike into the fissure wall. Belaying to the small spike, he fixed another to the free end of the rope and gathering it into a coil; he threw it across the fissure. On the sixth attempt the rope finally caught. Carefully pulling it, he watched the spike as it drew nearer towards the outcrop. The rope stiffened in his hands as the spike jammed into a crack in the rock. Nemaar climbed back down to where Tosar and the others stood watching in the passage below.
“All right—now what?” said Khan.
“Now someone has to swing across taking a rope with him – someone light, that is,” Nemaar said, untying himself and fastening the rope to a spike driven into the passage wall. Jamal volunteered for the task and after some last minute advice from Nemaar and Tosar, prepared himself. He stood at the edge of the fissure trying not to look down. Taking a deep breath, he carefully took three long paces back, and then ran forward, jumping at the last possible moment into the air. The rope swung back and forth across the fissure increasing momentum each time by the addition of Jamal’s weight at the end of it. On the third swing, Jamal released his grip and landed on the floor of the passage opposite. The construction of a rope bridge immediately began. Several hours later everyone had crossed in safety.
“Alright master sergeant, you’ve been down here before, lead the way,” Levene ordered, as the transport returned to the fleet. Manesh was glad to be out of the sickbay, but to be back on this lousy rock, and with Alliance mercenaries… When he saw a chance to get rid of them he decided he would take it. In the meantime, he would make use of them in the search. With luck, some of his brother Drana were left alive somewhere on the planet. With Manesh taking point, Levene’s team worked their way through the tangled ruins of the mining complex until they came to the entrance to the turbo-car tunnel, which was now blocked by a solid plug of lava. Back tracking, they found the turbo-lift shaft.
Kapinski dropped a flare down it and watched its progress until it disappeared from sight. “Nothing down below, colonel,” he said, spitting into the void.
“Let’s take another look at the plan,” Mdjat suggested.
“With all the recent seismic activity this map is virtually worthless,” Levene said, screwing it up and throwing it away in disgust.
“Sir, there is another facility south of the mine. It’s where the rebels based themselves before the quakes. Perhaps the survivors are there,” Manesh offered, from the shadows.
“Temo, make the call and get us some transport,” Levene ordered. “Let’s get back to the surface.”
“Good morning, ambassador,” Nagesh said. “Why does your Alliance send you so far from your homes?” he asked, as he surveyed the delegation standing before him.
“Dranaa Nagesh, I bring you greetings from the Ruling Council of the Alliance of Planets,” Miclas began. “We are here at the request of the Suraa whose territory you have invaded.”
“Invaded—you’re mistaken, ambassador. The Drana Empire has not expanded for centuries but you know this already,” Nagesh sneered.
“Dranaa, the planet in question, Jalnuur, lies well within the Suron system. You have been illegally mining there for decades using slave labour, both from your empire and from beyond!” Miclas insisted.
Nagesh sat for a long time saying nothing. “And now your Alliance has surrounded the planet in question with an invasion fleet, ambassador. To what end I wonder!” he said, his eyes blazing with anger. Calming himself, Nagesh flashed a brief smile before rising from his throne. “Forgive me ambassador. I have much to do. You shall have my answer to your preposterous allegations by sunrise tomorrow. I bid you farewell for now.”
“Where did the Alliance find this pile of junk?” Mdjat asked, as their transporter was unloaded from the ship.
“So long as it gets us where we want to go, who gives a damn!” Orz replied, climbing inside the ancient Drana troop transport.
“Kapinski, man the turret. Temo, fire-up the comms quickly. Mdjat, check our ordinance and quit bellyaching! Orz, you drive. Master sergeant, you navigate. Keep your eyes and ears open ladies!” Levene warned, as he slammed the hatch shut and took off his Drana helmet. ‘This is going to be a real fun assignment,’ he thought to himself.
“You’re Arnasian, not Drana,” Levene said to Manesh later, as they checked their route on the map.
“My mother was, colonel, but my father was Drana,” Manesh replied.
“So why have you never tried to get back home?” Levene wondered, lighting one of the cigars from his shoulder pocket.
“My home is Janus Omega. It’s where I was born. It’s where my mother is buried. It’s where I will be too,” Manesh said, quietly.
Admiral Memnet sat at his desk going over the communications between the fleet and the Alliance. The light on the panel in front of him flashed.
“Sir, senior surgeon’s compliments. Will you go to the hanger, we have a problem!” The note of alarm in the officer of the watch’s voice made Memnet tense. Teams of medical staff loaded the bodies of the delegation onto stretchers and took them to the morgue for autopsy. There would be hell to pay when the Alliance ruling council was informed! Memnet observed. The shuttle now sat empty in the vast hanger space. The time for diplomacy was over…
But anyway, Friday was a busy day, we sorted a lot of heifers out, moved them about, and had the vet check that those who’d been running with the bull were in calf.
So far so normal.
Then next morning I went round checking and feeding them, and put one back who had decided that a fence so low obviously wasn’t meant as a barrier. Again, so far, so normal.
Then on Sunday morning I found two different groups had tested the limits of their current boundaries and found them significantly more permeable than I had previously thought. Certainly the previous occupants of the fields hadn’t seen any opportunities.
Luckily we have domesticated cattle. One lot followed me back to their mates. The other lot (fourteen little ones of whom five had escaped) watched me feed those who hadn’t got out (the feed was placed in sight of the escapees…
Max Levene lay on the uncomfortable cot in the darkened confines of the destroyer’s brig. He cursed his luck at being captured on that damned rock in the back of nowhere in the Droag cluster six month ago. Since he had been drummed out of the Earth Defence Force for annihilating the population of a peaceful settlement in the middle of the Hadjet campaign, in the autumn of 2720, he had wandered aimlessly throughout the Alliance trying to make a few credits here and there. When the offer of the only real work he understood was made, the old Levene was once more back in command of his destiny. Being a mercenary paid well. Some of the benefits were worth having, like that Najim female he won in a card game back on Molaat Nine.
The entire damned Droag episode had been a dog’s breakfast from the start. Tigroth, the warlord who hired the mercenary group he was a part of, handed them over to the Alliance to escape paying for their services—the scum bag! Now here he was enjoying the delights of Alliance ‘hospitality’ once more.
“Get up!” the guard ordered, jabbing him with his electric nightstick.
“Where are we going?” Levene asked, as the lift climbed to the flight deck.
“Shut your mouth,” growled the master-at-arms, viciously jabbing Levene in the ribs with the barrel of his pistol. He hated mercenaries. They were the scum of the universe in his eyes. Levene stared out through the shuttle’s force field windows as it flew towards the flagship. With each ship the shuttle passed, he saw practically every planet in the Alliance represented within the fleet. Something real big is going on—but what?
When the shuttle landed inside the docking bay aboard the carrier, Levene and his escorts were taken to the admiral’s day cabin, where he stood silently between the master-at-arms and the guard, his eyes taking in every detail of the cabin. The admiral closed the copy of Levene’s service record and stared at the disgraced former colonel. Until the massacre, Levene’s record had been exemplary. On more than one occasion he had been awarded medals and citations for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. It was hard to reconcile what he read with the mercenary standing before him. But then again, he never really understood the human part of the Human-Nephile make-up. Memnet looked past Levene to where Seth was seated in the corner of the room. “Are you sure he’s the man for the job?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” Seth replied, standing up and walking over to where Levene stood.
“Release him,” commanded Memnet. He left the cabin with the escort party.
Seth gestured towards a comfortable seat. “Drink?” he asked, pouring two glasses of Kalak and passing one to Levene.
“Thanks,” snarled Levene, as Seth offered a cigar from the box on the admiral’s desk. He took a long drag savouring the taste before releasing the spent smoke into the air in a series of small clouds.
“How are you, Max?” Seth asked.
“Oh considering I’m persona non-grata—not bad,” he replied, bitterly.
“You brought it on yourself. No one else put you where you are right now!” Seth replied, angrily.
“Why in hell didn’t you back me?” Levene growled.
“How could I? What you did was unforgivable. Killing innocent civilians because you were frustrated by their lack of help – it’s worse than unforgivable. We’re not Drana!” Seth was beginning to think this was not such a good idea after all.
“OK, so why am I here, general?” Levene asked.
“We need you—I need you, to organize a search and rescue mission,” Seth said. “The mine on the planet below was worked by prisoners sent there by the Drana. Because the air search has drawn a blank, we need to know if anyone is trapped below ground level. You used to explore caves for recreation—right? That makes you ideal for the job,” the general concluded.
“Expendable, you mean, don’t you!” Levene replied contemptuously.
Seth ignored the outburst. “Consider yourself lucky you’re back in uniform, colonel,” Seth said. “Anything you require for the mission, draw from supply. Pick your team and report here at 1400 hours tomorrow.”
Levene felt better after his sonic shower and a change of clothes. He peered out of the window of his quarters watching the activity within the fleet. Fighter squadrons constantly patrolled. Troop transports ferried personnel to the mining complex. With his reinstatement came all the privileges of his rank. The security level the general had authorized for him meant he could go anywhere, ask any questions and access any information he needed to get the job done. He sat at his small desk carefully working his way through the list of names retrieved from the fleet records. Finally after several hours, his team was ready.
“You have to be joking, Max!” Seth said, shaking his head as he slammed the list down on the desk. “You want this lot—why, for pity’s sake?”
“You told me to assemble the best, general, and that’s the team I want!” Levene snarled.
Seth sat in silence and reread the list. Kapinski (Human) weapons specialist. Status—currently awaiting death sentence on Absolum in the Andromedan Galaxy for mass murder on Baneer. Mdjat (Noreean) explosives specialist. Status – sentenced to double life on the Dregan penal colony for killing innocent civilians in a bar brawl while on leave on Gimen Alpha. Orz (Kaltaarian) interrogation specialist. Status – sentenced to fifty years hard labour on army penal colony in the Axaar cluster for murdering his family while under the influence of Kavorgian weed on Vilargo. Temo (Bhakturian) communications specialist. Status – sentenced to thirty years hard labour on the combined forces penal colony in the Benna system for contributing to the destruction of two Hadit class battle cruisers, killing all aboard while on live fire exercise in the Taygo nebulae.
Seth shook his head. “And you want the Drana as well?”
“You got it,” Levene said, with a contemptuous smile. “Well general, do we have a green light or do I just go back to the brig right now?”
“Huh—all right!” Seth reluctantly replied.
Levene snapped to attention, saluted, turned on his heel, and left. The irony of the act was not lost on Seth as Levene disappeared down the corridor. Even when he saluted a superior officer, he always managed to somehow or other inject a measure of contempt. The team assembled in the hanger deck twelve days later. Around them lay the boxes Levene had appropriated. “Pack your equipment and check your weapons, ladies, we move out as soon as the final member of our team arrives.”
“Kapinski—catch,” Mdjat grinned, as he tossed him a stun grenade. Temo carefully folded the communications dish and its attendant equipment stowing it in his field-pack. Orz shaved the top layer of skin from his forearm with the razor sharp edge of his knife. Satisfied, he pushed it into the concealed sheath between his shoulder blades. All eyes focused on the figure approaching them. He stopped in front of Levene and reported. “Master sergeant Manesh reporting for duty, sir.”