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Aki's Tale: Vodaran

A tale from the Great Northern Expedition in late 6769CE.  This is the second version of Aki's Tale, now reedited.  It's longer, about 9200 words, and has a completely new introduction.

Twin suns were setting in the west, one slightly redder and lower than its kin. Aki Yorski, Guild Master Trader (Provisional), watched the sunlight glisten on dark water. Two sets of rays cut through the scattered fog, casting light and shadow of a sailing ship moored nearby.

"This is not looking good," Yusagraen Metalli whispered aloud.

[Understatement,] Aki replied, subvocally, through implant radio. He turned back towards the city.

Two of his trading party, Kurt Blitz and Adar Teshaen, were jogging down the pier towards them, one tall and pale, the other short and dark. Behind them was an angry mob.

[I don't think they bought our explanations,] Kurt signaled to the rest of Merchant Guild team. [Seems they don't want to discuss this any further.] The two men were running faster, breaking away from the shouting and shoving mob. The crowd was growing, emptying trading houses, bars and brothels to fill the sun-lit docks.

[How much longer for the lander?] Kurt asked.

[Ten more minutes,] Aki answered.

[Crap. OK, we'll try to hold them,] Kurt replied. The two men turned to face the mob, causing a hesitation in the closing throng of natives, armed so stereotypically with haphazard implements and the occasional polearm.

Aki switched to a private channel [It's pretty inconvenient that we can jump thirty light years in the toss of a lunch, but we have to wait forty minutes for an orbital lander.]

The two men who blocked their comrades from the crowd pulled out their weapons. Their tiny concealed needlers fit in the palm of their hands. They looked at each other skeptically. The crowd was hardly intimidated and began to surge toward them.

[It's physics,] Kurt answered, calmly choosing a target and then watching a fat man fall, knee shattered by a three millimeter smart sliver. The man collapsed across the pier, but his bulk and screams hardly slowed the crowd. [The lander has to dissipate the energy of reentry. If it slows down any faster, it would burn up, no matter what it's made of. Oh, and I've never lost my lunch in a jump, Aki.]

[It's just an expression – you genetic abomination – older than space. Are you gonna stop this horde or chat?]

Another native fell, clutching a knee. Then two more. There was some hesitation in the crowd now. Something buzzed past Aki's ear. There was a crack.

[They appear to have some muskets,] Kurt added.

[So I gathered.]

Aki glanced back at the rest of his team, they'd said nothing since the mob arrived, but he saw their fear. Half had already dropped to the ground; Lysa Framoth, his economist, had lowered herself over the edge of the pier, her legs dangling in the ocean. There were slimy things that lived in that sea, but Aki wasn't sure she was making the wrong choice, hiding that way.

"How much longer?" Metalli asked aloud.

"Six minutes."

One sun had set. Aki crouched down and looked back up the pier. The two men protecting them had lowered their profiles, Kurt on one knee, Teshaen squatting. Beyond them the mob was wavering. There were at least ten people down and screaming. Aki looked up at the city, its tall towers gleaming red, its harbor a forest of masts. Sails, banners and laundry flapped in the sunset breeze. Nothing remained of the original magical settlement that had stood on the shores two thousand years earlier, before the Mech Plague and the Wars of Disintegration had destroyed the old Empire of Humanity. But it was still a beautiful old city. He was really sad that things hadn't worked out.

Another bullet whizzed past. At least the puffs of white smoke were making it easy to find the shooters, but the powder smoke and streaming mists made the crowd less distinct and more sinister.

Kurt looked back at him. [Either help or take cover.]

Aki pulled out his needler, activated it and crouched down further, squinting into the hazy crowd and wishing that his religion had allowed for enhanced eyes. A group of soldiers was approaching, pushing through the crowd. He switched his needler to advanced settings, selected a target and fired. A man fell.

[Aki, what are you aiming at? Their shins?] Kurt asked.

[Have you ever seen pre-industrial surgery? Your knee-cap shots are just a longer more painful form of death. Might as well shoot them in the head.]

[Fine. Hey, those guys with the helmets and the fire sticks back there don't look like the Longshoreman's Guild.]

On cue, that group of soldiers fired a volley. Aki heard a voiceless scream behind him.

"Nadia's hit!" someone yelled.

Aki spotted a man with a crested helmet and a short gun yelling at a second group of soldiers. That man promptly fell as three slivers hit him: one in the shin, one in the knee, the other in the head.

Aki stole a glance behind. Naida Recorza, his biologist, was bleeding from her arm. Bits of flesh and bone mixed with the blood from the ragged wound. Metalli was trying to stop the bleeding. Nobody was stopping her screams.

Two cracks echoed from sea, and Aki turned to face the new threat, but there was nothing but a lone setting sun.

"Our ride's here!" he yelled out loud.

Kurt and Teshaen were firing more indiscriminately now, and the mob was dissolving, falling back into the gathering soldiers. A marksman on a barroom rooftop fell with a three millimeter hole in his head.

Aki felt a wind and saw the second sun's last rays flicker. Then an oval of light and metal cut through the lander's active camouflage and an armored trooper appeared, a fat laser rifle in hand.

Blue light scorched the pier, burning its timbers in a smoky blaze. They fell back in disorder, scooping Lysa from the edge, pushing Naida on board. Aki stood by the hatch, letting even Kurt and Teshaen pass him before stepping off the pier.

The lander took off, circling west over the water. Its new passengers quickly pushed Naida into the autodoc and scrambled for seats. As the lander gained altitude, Aki watched the suns rise back into the sky. Then the suns froze, the lander circling back toward the east. The suns rose again, setting a final time as the lander's path leveled off. They were accelerating east over a rocky peninsula, racing back toward the orbiting starships of Task Force Fortunate. Aki cringed at how this sortie would look on his record, wondering if he would keep his provisional promotion. He began to silently dictate the mission report to his implanted guide computer. At least he hadn't lost anyone.

"Hey, look at this," Kurt broke into Aki's silent concentration. The white-haired Guardian pointed at a projected image from the autodoc. Smooth metallic fingers and implements had pulled the bullet from Nadia's arm. It was a dark round stone.

"Well that pretty much demonstrates how rare metal is on Vodaran," Aki observed.

"Rocks can't be too dense," Adar Tashean piped in from the row behind them. "Do you think that's why the slugs were flying supersonic? They're light?"

"Probably, especially given the thick air – higher sound barrier. A lot less range though," Kurt observed.

"I would have thought potassium was rare too, so I was surprised by the black powder," Aki added.

Kurt looked at him sideways, "Akihito Yorski, I didn't think you knew that much about antique weaponry."

"Not by choice," Aki replied. He turned toward the lander's hull, staring out the virtual window, and getting back to his report. Outside, the world was a darkened limb, only scattered settlements and lightning marking the scene. He wasn't looking forward to explaining this to the Fleet Captain.

* * *

"At least you didn't lose anyone, though that may have been luck," Fleet Captain Stuar Torvalt said.

Aki was standing in Torvalt's cramped office aboard the Fortune Favors the Rich. The task force's commander, a short stout man sporting long red hair and an unruly fiery beard, frowned up at Aki from a crowded desk.

Torvalt was a normal Sapien, a Human with no genetic or significant cybernetic modifications, like Aki a minority on this expedition. His office was crammed with plaques, pictures and shelves of memorabilia from Torvalt's century plus of Guild service and from his previous career as a Defender lancer pilot. Above the door, just over Aki's head, the Fleet Captain had mounted the mangled head of a Dragon elder, its elaborate top-knot singed, one multifaceted eye shattered. The grisly trophy was a prize from the Battle of Two Dark Suns, lest Torvalt forget to mention his crowning glory, a century and a half past. A plaque with his old call sign, "Barbarrosa", sat half buried on the desk.

"The other teams are still down on the surface," Torvalt continued. "But they're not having much better luck. Nobody else started a riot though," he added.

Aki was pointedly looking over the Fleet Captain's head, focusing on a shelf of collectables. There was a red wood carving of erotically intertwined bodies sitting next to what Aki was certain had to be the detailed model of a clipper ship, sails done in some exotic ivory.

"We made some conclusions," Torvalt continued. "Seems like all the scattered cultures are run by Variants and former Servant Races. They killed off all the genetic Nobilis – but that's not too unusual. But us unmodified Sapiens – 'Norms' they call us – are second class citizens or worse."

Aki nodded. "I got that impression from the way our negotiations were going."

"Yeah," Torvalt sighed. "I'm beginning to think this world's not going to be profitable after all. You would have though it was a no-brainer. We could import metal – hell even plain iron or tin – from Sella, twenty light-years back, and still make a good deal buying some local handicrafts or something. But it's not coming together."

"No, sir," Aki added, just to make it clear he was listening. He noticed that the model of the clipper ship had tiny little figures on the deck. The figures had two too many arms.

"And I have another problem," the Fleet Captain added. "Tom Rusvek's team's been out of contact for seventy-two hours."

Aki finally made eye contact with Torvalt. "What was the last message?" he asked.

"Routine. They had a meeting set up with local big-wigs in Chibati, a city up on that big basalt plateau halfway around the world from where you were. Then nothing."

Aki bit his lip. Rusvek was a full Guild Master who had run Development trade missions for decades. He had led a team to each of the worlds this task force had visited on the Great Northern Expedition. But Rusvek and, if Aki recalled, all of his team, were Sapiens.

"I need you to get a team down there and find out what's going on," Torvalt said.

"I, uh," Aki began.

"You thought I was going to knock you back down to Journeyman?"

"Well, yeah, and – "

"You thought as a Sapien, you shouldn't lead a mission back down there?" the Fleet Captain suggested.

Aki nodded.

"Well, here's the deal," Torvalt continued. "First, rioting townsfolk or not, your team is the only team that's back up here now. Second, well, I need you to lead the team, because the other alternatives aren't so ideal. I mean, Kurt Blitz is good at what he does, but frankly, his idea of 'subtlety' is to obliquely imply that alternatives to his suggestion will result in violence. And Yusa...gev?"

"Yusagraen", Aki corrected.

"Right. Metalli. Metalli is a bit of a flake. I mean," Torvalt looked at Aki slightly conspiratorially, "Having one of those Metamorphs aboard can be useful, even if it takes 'em months to change around their organs, breathe methane, grow gills and all. But did you know that that Metamorph is changing his – its – I mean 'ones' sex? Shrinking up the nutsack and reversing the whole – well, you get the idea. H- One should be called Plast...tiki, not Metalli. Anyway, I don't think either of those are suitable team leaders. So it's you."

Aki started to give his thanks for the less than overwhelming endorsement, but the Fleet Captain held up a finger and continued, "But you can't go as yourself. I want you to go down to the med bay and get yourself a pigment injection – something nice and Futaris golden. They can take a cell culture and grow you a nice oversized head prosthetic by the morning. Then you'll fit in."

Aki hoped his displeasure wasn't too obvious. "Anything else, sir?"

"Yeah, your team. The rest should all be Variants. Blitz and Metalli are assets, despite what I said. And Teshaen, like Blitz, is another Development guy who never got all the Security Branch training out of his head. The rest of your people should stay home for now, but I'll give you Latrea Frendra, she's Security and a Mesomorph, so she should fit in and give you more firepower. And, do you know Anton Karsh?"

"The planetologist?"

"Yeah, well he's Meso, and I promised him that he'd be able to get a look at the rocks up on the plateau if we had a chance. He shouldn't be too much trouble."

"Anything else, sir?" Aki repeated.

Torvalt grinned. "No, that should do it. We've already dropped down six loads of mites, so we have thousands of tiny cameras crawling though the city. Hopefully they should find something before you get there. Get some sleep and we'll drop you down in twelve hours. And don't forget to get your forehead fixed up."

* * *

Vodaran was a big world, nearly 15,000 kilometers in diameter, but the eight billion-year-old planet was less dense than Mars, and even though the world was a tenth more massive than Terra, gravity was only eighty percent of standard. The air was thick and the distant horizon hazy.

The parched sandy uplands of the Valdin Plateau eventually gave way to the moist sheer slopes of the gorge at Jirbil Pass. The caravan, Aki's group of six Guilders and their dozen locally hired porters, labored down sharp switchbacks. They were mounted on zebras that were hundreds of generations removed from their ancestors, once scrounged from a dead Noble's zoo. Redomesticated gray llamas carried heavy loads of food and assorted trade goods.

In the foggy morning, the shiny black cliff sprouted waterfalls whose constant roar obscured the dull echoes of the caravan's progress. The porters constantly struggled to keep their animals from pausing to munch on the succulent mix of native and Terran ferns, a medley of green, yellow and orange foliage that sprung from the rocks and lined the narrow rutted, half washed-out road.

Other than the rare shouts and occasional chatter of the porters, the Guild group seemed silent, but they kept up a persistent subvocalized conversation, a scrambled transmission between skull-imbedded transmitters. [Hey, Aki, how's the forehead itching today?] Kurt Blitz signaled.

Aki's hand went up involuntarily to brush his oversized head prosthetic. [Tolerable,] he replied. He and Kurt had often discussed religion during these past two years of the Great Northern Expedition. Kurt proclaimed none, and his interest was historical. Aki was an occasionally devout Rhuzi Ibrahimite, but devoted enough to be annoyed at even impersonating an abomination. And Kurt knew it.

[Anything new from the mites?] Aki asked. The thousands of millimeter-sized remotes had already scoured Chibati, a sprawling pre-industrial metropolis of nearly a million people, for three days without any sign of Rusvek's missing team.

[You know, I'm supposed to be out of Security,] Kurt responded, putting irony into his subvocalization. Aki had spent these last two years training Kurt in Development trade relations, but the two meter tall Guardian often reverted to his two decades of previous experience.

[Nothing new,] Kurt answered more directly. [We're still losing hordes of them to slime worms, crows, rats and things not cataloged. I can get you a detailed street-level map of the whole city by now, but there's been no hint of a transponder signal from anyone's implants.]

Aki grunted out loud. The caravan passed around another overhanging switchback. Its ancient stone retaining wall was a crumbling pile of rubble. He was glad that they couldn't see to the bottom of the valley, nearly a kilometer down to the sharp volcanic rocks below. He looked over his shoulder to the rest of his team. Kurt Blitz, Latrea Frenda, the dour Security Apprentice, and Anton Karsh, the exultant planetologist, were actual or apparent Mesomorphs, over-muscled hulking Humans. Adar Tashean had the dark skin and nictating eye membranes of an Ion, desert dwellers originally geneered for the harsh climate of the terraformed moon Io. Yusagraen Metalli the Metamorph, had taken on the appearance of a thin Chloro, a fairly rare and obsolete Variant that could harvest some energy from the suns. Metalli's olive skin and lime hair hardly converted any energy, but the locals wouldn't notice.

Aki sighed. Karsh was currently engrossed by an outcropping of porous rock. He looked like a man who could wrestle a dozen 'Norms' to the ground, but he acted like the scientist he truly was. He wasn't helping their cover story of being 'traders from afar'.

This was their second day back on Vodaran. By now, the other six teams of traders had all returned to the task force. Their missions were all unsuccessful, and one other team had to resort to violence to cover their escape. Aki felt the guilty satisfaction of knowing his was not the only team to shoot their way out. The six starships of Task Force Fortunate remained in orbit just to support this last mission to find Rusvek's team. And maybe they could salvage some possibility of trade on this world.

Aki looked over the porters bringing up the rear. Hired from a small river town on the main caravan route, they didn't strike him as sinister and they had done their jobs well. There were nine Norms led by two Mesos and an Ion. The social hierarchy was clear. Norms did all the work. Mesos kept them in line. The Ion, a white-haired man named Kumal, handled business and communications.

Aki touched his forehead again. Futaris were rare on this world, and that afforded Aki extra status from his prosthetic disguise. But though his own Rhuzi sect was the most tolerant branch of Ibrahimism, the whole concept of genetic manipulation offended his view of Humanity, and his disguise chaffed at surfaces deeper than his scalp.

[I still say we just park a lancer over the city and demand answers,] Frenda suggested after her zebra stumbled in a particularly deep rut.

Aki shook his head and signaled back, [That would pretty much alienate the local leadership and kill off any hope for trade. Besides, we don't know if Rusvek's team ever made contact with the city elders. They could have been accosted by thugs or run into something unexpected.]

[And we don't want to force a hostage situation,] Kurt added. [We could take the city apart brick by brick, flood it with enough drones to take out every armed thug, but it still only takes a second to cut a throat with an obsidian knife. Quiet and polite is a better approach.]

Aki smiled. [See, Kurt, I knew you were trainable.]

Kurt's zebra struggled with its own deep rut, nearly knocking him from his saddle, and then Kurt signaled, [Hey cheer up, Frenda. If Plan A doesn't work, we can still call down a bunch of drones and kill every living thing. And then we could stack their skulls into a giant pyramid.]

* * *

By evening they had descended to the bottom of the gorge and they had passed between the two rugged black hills that the locals called the Gates of Urious. The fog and clouds had melted way, revealing a pale pink dusk over the still waters of Lake Harda. The water reflected the surrounding black cliffs and hills. On the far side of the long lake, the city of Chibati was dark rose patch of stone buildings. A black citadel guarded the city from a dark central crag. Behind Chibati, illuminated by the setting suns, was the near-perfect cinder cone of snowcapped Mount Huru.

With Kumal's assistance, the whole caravan party settled into a lakeside village inn at the junction of the Jirbal and Harda roads. In the morning, with the suns rising behind the dormant volcano and long double shadows at their feet, the group began the trek around the great lake.

Vodaran had a long thirty hour day. It seemed longer. Five times before noon, to humor Karsh, the whole assembly paused to examine some geology. This western section of the lake road was poorly traveled. It passed along a mixed volcanic terrain of black and greenish basaltic outcroppings, punctuated by occasional groves of hexagonal stone columns, some over fifty meters high. Occasionally, abandoned quarries paralleled the road.

"This is truly fascinating terrain," Karsh enthused, lingering at a massive cluster of hexagonal rock. "You know, this whole lake and valley area is a really giant caldera. We've got that perfect shield volcano in the distance, and we've descended though the edge of a giant trap complex that's at least eight hundred million years old. This whole part of the world is a textbook example of the effects of intermittent tectonics on an aging low-metal planet."

"Fascinating," Aki muttered out loud. He was too concerned about Rusvek's missing team to feign much interest, despite his promise to Torvalt to let the planetologist have some time. On the common channel, Aki added, [More interesting would be to find something worth trading. We're fairly sure metal would be worth hauling here from Sella. All we have to find is something worth hauling back.]

[Well, I'm guessing it would be cultural goods: specialty art or some locally derived pharmaceuticals,] Metalli offered. [Though I've yet to see anything spectacularly interesting.]

Aki nodded. The reports from the other trading teams were not encouraging either. And it turned out that while short of metals, the locals had adequate supplies potassium after all, and phosphorus, which explained the firearms fully. Aki should have realized all that, since most worlds without those trace biological minerals would have died off after two millennia of primitive isolation. But the chaotic end of his first foray to Vordaran had distracted him, and chemistry was no more his specialty than weaponry.

The trip around the lake exhausted the entire day. As they approached the city's gates, the pink light of dusk filtered though the damp skies enveloping Chibati. Earlier, in the afternoon they had reached the northern road junction, marked by a small tidy town of stone and slate houses. Then traffic had become heavier. They had passed motley collections of various Human genetic variants, mostly in caravans. But they had also passed a few nearly homogeneous groups of Goblins and Casaps – the two most common geneered Servant Races from the Imperial Era. Those two species, green skinned humanoids and heavily modified bipedal canoids, respectively, also appeared to have higher social status than Norms, but they didn't seem to mix as much with the Human races.

As the two suns set, they passed through a ring of shanties and farmers' stalls to reach the smooth stone walls of Chibati. The gatehouse was impressive, reinforced with bars and shutters of precious iron. But security seemed lax: a cursory set of questions at an open gate guarded by leather-clad Mesomorphs carrying obsidian-tipped pikes, and then they were inside.

Aki noticed Kurt's eyes, scanning the fortifications and guards. [Problem?] he inquired.

[No,] Kurt answered. [But let's not be too complacent. They're not obvious, but they have firearms here, too. I see gunners in the towers with some sort of muskets, and at least four cannon mounts.]

With a surreptitious glance back at the towers, Aki saw it too: dark shapes in the window slits and a few gun ports. But the tendrils of native yellow ivy had infiltrated the walls, and the cannon mounts looked long disused.

Despite the deepening dusk, the city streets were bustling. Colorful stalls and hawking merchants lined the broad boulevard beyond the gate. The slate-stoned road and the gray-black basalt-bricked buildings were hidden behind brightly colored streamers, pavilions and awnings of vividly striped cloth. The street opened into a wide market square surrounded by a low wall, painted deep burgundy. Stalls, people and animals abounded in a sea of color and clamor.

They had arrived in the middle of a month-long festival. The sights, sounds and smells were of vitality and squalor, vigor and decay. For all the activity, Aki couldn't help but notice the chipped and fading paint on the dark red wall, the smattering of shattered slate cobblestones and the muddy potholes slick with oils.

[Well, boss, what's the plan, now?] Kurt inquired.

Aki sighed. The day had been too long, and his butt and thighs ached from riding. [You seem to just tolerate my leadership, Kurt,] he said.

[Well, I've had worse bosses, and you're pretty tolerable. There's no reason not to follow orders I agree with.]


[But there's no need to be disagreeable.]

[No, I guess not.] Aki sighed. [Fine. Let's find a decent place to stay, cut loose the porters, and start snooping around in the morning.]

[I don't need sleep right now,] Kurt stated.

Aki grit his teeth. Well, at least Torvalt had made it clear to the team that Aki was still in charge, still a provisional Master. The Fleet Captain and Kurt Blitz had known each other from some previous undertaking, and he knew that they would sometimes go off drinking together, but that didn't change who was in charge. He hoped.

[If you're going to be disagreeable, go off and snoop by yourself,] Aki suggested, not sure if it would be taken as an order. [And let me know if you find anything. Stay on the common channel, and I'll let you know where we're staying. We'll meet up in the morning.]

Kurt nodded and handed his reins to one of the Norm porters. He stepped into the crowd, his white-haired head visible above most of the throng until he passed behind the high red wall.

Aki sighed as he turned to Kumal to work out the logistics of the evening while Kurt went off to play spy.

* * *

The next morning was bright and sunny. The residents of Chibati were not morning people, and the streets, washed clean by an overnight squall, remained nearly deserted an hour past dawn. Aki sat gingerly on a wooden bench on the balcony outside their inn, looking out over the quiet market square and sipping a mug of steaming sweet tea. In the corners and shadows of the square native hard-shelled octopods the size of his fist competed with invasive Terran rats for scraps and detritus.

He grimaced. Everything from his waist down was sore from three days of riding, and he refused on religious grounds to host enough nanomeds to ease the pain. The others were annoyingly more refreshed. They shared their breakfast and a silent conversation while the city slowly came to life.

Kurt apparently hadn't slept but his wide-ranging nocturnal scouting hadn't proved especially fruitful.

[Well, there's definitely a large subterranean complex, and probably natural passages – lava tubes or something similar – beneath the citadel,] he had told them. [But I've found no direct signs of Rusvek's team. They've been gone from their lodgings for a week, off to meet with some trading house, just like Tom's last report. No signs of foul play. I passed and scanned the trading house and it came up clean. Oh, and I found some guy in a bar who had a carbon knife, but he'd had it for a couple of decades, so it must have been from some earlier contact.]

[Pirates. Or maybe one of the Khalifate's Demon Hunter patrols from last couple of centuries,] Metalli offered.

[Yeah, apparently 'space visitors' aren't unheard of in these parts, but nobody mentioned any recent contact,] Kurt added.

[But people just don't disappear,] Aki countered. [Especially half a dozen contact specialists with modern communications and hidden weapons.]

[I bet they're beneath the citadel,] Kurt suggested. [Enough basalt would block transmissions. But whatever happened must have been sudden and unexpected: ambush, tunnel collapse, lava flow.]

[Nothing's happened volcanically for ten thousand years plus,] Karsh said. [So, based on your suggestions, I'd assume hostile action, since a natural tunnel collapse would be very rare.]

They all turned to look toward Aki for leadership. [OK, here's my plan. If we assume hostile action, we're less likely to be surprised. Let's get the fleet to drop a couple of drones into the city for backup, then go up to the citadel to look for our people.]

To Aki's annoyance, everyone glanced at Kurt for his reaction.

After a brief silence and a frown Kurt said, [Well, it has the advantage of being direct. Are we still going to pretend to be from somewhere out west or are we going to cop to being starfarers?]

[Standard guidelines call for covert trading in pre-industrial societies,] Teshaen reminded them. [Centuries of statistics show a clearly better margin when the natives don't know they're dealing with a starfaring culture.]

[That depends on whether we're here for profits or for our people,] Kurt interjected.

[It's not a binary equation, Kurt,] Aki reminded him. A Norm serving girl came to collect their plates, but Aki held onto his half-full mug of tea, wondering what she thought of them: a group of silent strangers, gathered in the double light of morning.

[You could call up to the Fortune for advice,] Metalli suggested.

Aki shook his head. He wasn't going to let Torvalt think he couldn't handle this. [No. Provisional or not, I am a Master, and I'm authorized to make these decisions.]

[But you can always advise Torvalt of your decision before you've done anything irrevocable,] Kurt suggested on a private channel.

[You've got to watch those flashes of discretion, Kurt, or you'll turn into a diplomat,] Aki retorted. Kurt's face ticked.

[Let's go in clean, tell them who we are, but stay humble and non-accusatory,] Aki announced to them all. [Kurt, call up for a half dozen drones for backup and see if they can keep a tactical team and a lander on standby for us.]

They all got up from their seats. Aki grimaced again.

[What?] Kurt asked on private.

[Well, shit. If we were going to come clean, why the hell did I spend the last three days on the back of a damn zebra?]

The Great City of Chibati was a typical pre-industrial warren of meandering streets and narrow alleys. It was basically an oval, bounded by the lake and the rising black hills and centered on the domineering citadel atop a crumbling lava crag. Main boulevards ran inward like spokes from the city's outer gates and suburban walled estates. These broad streets converged on an open plaza dotted with monuments, parklands and the stalls of countless merchants. A ten meter wall of black stone ringed the base of the citadel crag.

Aki led his team on foot, passing through the plaza, ignoring the hawkers and heading straight for the main gatehouse. The forehead prosthetic itched again, but despite his determination to approach openly, he doubted that appearing as a standard Human would enhance his position on this world. He and his band of Guilders, traveling now without their porters, still wore the short robes and baggy trousers of Highland traders, but their stride was longer now, their bearing more confident.

Aki was the shortest member of his group, and the longer stride did little to ease his muscle pains.

Kurt chided him in private, [You know, you're not religiously proscribed from better nanomeds or old fashioned painkillers.]

[Let not the wonders of technology remove you from the experience of living,] he quoted back from the Golden Book of Ibrahim.

[Life is more than suffering,] Kurt replied in turn.

[What is that? Some Technologist crap?]

[No, Disentropism. Herio Baen: Fallacies of the Old Myths. A slam directed against Buddhism, actually,] Kurt answered.

Aki ignored his pain and his compatriot. They were approaching the gate.

The gatehouse was similar to the fortress at the outer wall entrance, but much better maintained. Cannon were clearly visible in protected mounts. The guards, mostly hulking Mesomorphs, wore armor of metal mixed with leather, their crested helmets polished to reflect the suns.

A guard officer as tall as Kurt, but much wider – some of it muscle, some not – stepped out to intercept them before they passed through the open iron portcullis.

"Your business?" he asked, looking both firm and bored.

Aki nodded, presented open palms and said, "We wish to meet with the City Elders. We are starfarers looking to establish dialogue and trade with the Great City of Chibati." He spoke in double-talk, his guide aiding him to express his subvocalized words into the local tongue, so divergent from old Anglic to be incomprehensible. The near instantaneous translation didn't help overcome divergences of grammar, but it got the meaning across.

The guard officer looked unconvinced. "All appointments are scheduled by the Council Office. It would be at least two weeks until anyone could see you. And if you want my advice, making fantastic claims won't aid your cause."

"If we provided proof of our claim, will that expedite our audience?"

The officer frowned. "Nobody has come from the stars since my grandfather was a boy. And they came in flying ships." He waved dismissively at them. "Not dressed like cheap desert traders."

Aki raised a handed and pointed off over his left shoulder. In orbit five hundred kilometers above, the freighter Better Bargains Abound III fired up a single laser blister set to a defuse focus. A radiance nearly as bright as both suns lit the gatehouse for just a second, then faded.

The guard officer bit his lip, blinked and broke into a polite grin. "I see. Well, I'll send a runner ahead to the High Hall. We... we have a guest room in the gatehouse where you can make yourself at home while we make arrangements for your audience. Ah, have you fine people had breakfast yet this morning?"

The High Hall was the central room of the great fortress. Aki turned down the fawning offer of a litter, and struggled painfully up the winding stone stairs that brought them two hundred meters above the plaza. When they finally reached the citadel's ornate entrance arch, he was short of breath and nearly numbed by leg pain. He greeted Kurt's smug look with a glare, but he was well aware that none of the others were at all winded. Not even Metalli.

Aki caught his breath while they waited in a well-appointed anteroom. [What do we have on these Elders?] he asked.

[There's a council of three,] Metalli answered. [A military, judicial and religious leader. It's no surprise that the military leader is a Meso, but what's more interesting is that the Chief Adjudicator is an Eternal. I think it's a fairly significant coincidence that this world has adopted the use of Eternals as judges, just as the Bengali Dominions have, with essentially no possibility of a culture contact – ]

[He's as bad as Karsh is with the rocks,] Kurt interjected. [Since Eternals are sterile, they all predate the fall of the Empire. This judge is two thousand plus years old and probably pretty crafty to still be alive.]

Metalli nodded. [And I'm sure it's exactly that sterility that makes them such good judges. They have no family relations to influence – ]

Glares from both Aki and Kurt cut off Metalli's subvocal commentary.

A Chimeratic chamberlain, face set to an unnatural pale featurelessness, entered and politely led them to their audience.

The High Hall was not well lit, its narrow windows passing thin bands of light to play on the gray marbled floor and carved walls. The three Elders held court at the far end of the cavernous, mostly empty chamber. They sat on gem-bedecked iron thrones atop a raised dais, looking more bored than impressed by their interstellar visitors.

With no local protocol background to guide him, Aki approached the three with a moderate bow. That seemed to work, and the middle of the three, the only male and clearly the aged Eternal, responded with a slight nod.

"We have not had a formal visitation from the stars in over eighty years. Not since the warrior priests came and called us abominations," the Eternal Elder stated.

[That would be the Khalifate's Demon Hunters on their last documented penetration this far north,] Metalli blathered.

The Elder's voice was gravely; his face was lined and topped by a scattering of fine gray hairs. He continued, "I am Auducha Nos Vapneran, Chief Adjudicator for the Great City of Chibati. I am the senior member of the caste of Adjudicating Eternals and the third Chief Adjudicator of this city since its reestablishment just five years after the Plaguefall."

He indicated the stern graying Meso woman seated to his right, her fine linens topped by engraved metal breastplate and shin guards. "I will introduce General Kallara Brejen Iola, who commands our Guard Brigades and who is responsible for the defense of our city." The general nodded, very slightly.

To Vapneran's left sat a fancifully-robed dark woman with prominent cheekbones, extended jeweled earlobes and intricate tattooing. "And this is Zefania, High Priestess Arbitrator of the city cults and castes."

Zefania's tattoos moved as she nodded politely toward Aki. He figured that the High Priestess was either a Chimera or a highly nano-enhanced Human, but the latter was exceeding unlikely on this world. Aki returned the introductions, presenting himself as Guild Master of the starship Fortunate, a convenient fabrication, but the ship's real name was not conducive to negotiations and its real Master was unlikely to contradict him. He introduced all his companions as traders, carefully mentioning their particular – actual or assumed – Variant status.

High Priestess Zefania spoke, her voice languid and almost musical, "Master Akihito, we have seen so few Futaris since Plaguefall, when we cast down the Nobilis. But we do honor your kind as High Born."

Aki nodded a silent acknowledgement.

General Iola spoke more crisply. "I for one will dispense with the pleasantries. My Guard tells me that you are searching for a group from you ship, six other traders that vanished some seven days ago."

Aki nodded. "Yes General, any information that – "

"I have none," she interrupted. "We have over twenty thousand visitors in the City for the Festival of Becoming, and many hundreds have come to the attention of the Guard for one reason or another, but none claiming to be starfarers."

"They wouldn't have made that claim," Kurt explained. "And they would have appeared to be Norms."

Aki glanced over to Kurt. [Appeared was clever,] he subvocalized. [But let's stick to the script, unless we discuss it.]

[Sure, boss.]

Chief Adjudicator Vapneran spoke up. "Well, perhaps they went to the Festival itself. Today is the twelfth day of tournaments in the Heart of Vodaran. The Heart, if you are unfamiliar, is a vast extinct lava chamber far beneath the Esolia Hills.

"I'm sure that whatever communication devices your cohorts may have had with them would be unable to signal through so much rock. I expect you may find them there, and once reunited with your associates, I'm sure we can enter into some very profitable trade negotiations."

Aki gave a slow affirmative nod and hid his suspicions. It wasn't likely to be this easy.

"The Festival of Becoming lasts for sixteen full days and occurs just once every three years," High Priestess Zefania intoned. She smiled at them all, "We would be so honored if you were to attend the Festival as our guests at the High Pavilion."

Aki nodded, smiled and gave his thanks. And with proper pleasantries, they were ushered to another room to await escort to the VIP pavilion in the magma chamber.

[Too straightforward,] Kurt remarked.

[True,] Aki agreed. [I can't imagine Tom Rusvek would let his whole team get out of comm without some sort of notice. There's no way they'd stay off-line for this long. Why don't you make sure you've got fully stealthed drones following us into this chamber, and I'll make sure that everyone upstairs is up to date and tracking us.]

* * *

The main passage to the ceremonial magma chamber was an ancient lava tube below the citadel. After descending down spiral stairways that ringed a broad pit over a hundred meters deep, Aki's team, escorted by a pair of Chimeratic courtiers and a dozen Meso and Hobgoblin guards, passed through an open portcullis to reach a fairly busy subterranean thoroughfare.

The lava tube was flat bottomed. Aki saw obvious signs of patching and paving in some stretches. The tube's rough ceiling was near twice Kurt's height, and its walls, obviously worked and buttressed in places, were half again as wide. Groups of often raucous festival-goers of various castes and backgrounds passed through the underground tunnel. Most were heading toward the Heart.

Karsh continually wanted to stop and examine the walls and the rare stalactite, and Metalli dithered and commented over various groups and outfits. The others encouraged them to move along. Overlaying all of their visual interfaces was a video feed that Kurt forwarded from the drones that trailed their party at a discrete distance, hovering high in the passage, invisible behind its optical chameleon surface.

Before they had begun this trip toward the High Pavilion, they had spent nearly two hours in the citadel. The excuse had been to provide them all with a light meal and to allow them to arrive just in time for the main events of the day's festivities and tournaments. Aki figured the delay was orchestrated so the city elites could put whatever happened to Rusvek's group in the best possible light. He was far from hopeful about the outcome of their search or any trade deal on this world. And the prosthetic, the pains in his thighs and the constant company of high caste abominations was wearying him.

The passageway had no torches or any normal ancient technological light sources. Instead, drapes of some yellow phosphorescent organism hung in long sagging strands from the ceiling. They marched on for about three kilometers at a slight upward grade until the tunnel finally ended in the Heart of Vodaran.

When they finally arrived, he was impressed, despite himself. . The magma chamber was nearly five hundred meters wide and half again as high. Its flat sandy floor was the work of Human labor. Encircling the tournament field were stone terraces of viewing stands, occasional towers and overhanging pavilions. Aki guessed the entire complex could seat hundreds of thousands of people.

Illumination came from pillars coated with phosphorescent goo and from rectangular spotlight beams that lit large areas of the unobstructed tournament floor.

[Mirrors,] Kurt proposed.

[Doubtful they're silvered,] Karsh added. [I don't know what they're using for backing.]

[Well at least we know there's another way in and out, if we have to call for backup or fight our way out,] Kurt said.

[Yeah, you might want to send one drone up and see if you can use it as a comm relay,] Aki suggested.

The chameleon drone zipped silently past them, soaring up toward the reflected sunlight, giving them all a birds-eye view of the dimly illuminated tournament field and the vast encircling amphitheater, just half-filled but still teeming with spectators.

[Getting anything on Tom's people?] Aki asked. Carefully but politely herded by their local escort, the Guilders kept up their silent conversations as they passed concession stands, climbed a steep stairway and made their way toward an overhanging pavilion.

Both Kurt and Frendra shook their heads. [There are a lot of voids – empty spaces – under the grandstands and beneath the floor,] Frendra reported. She was busily controlling an army of sensory mites while Kurt directed his drones.

[It's like a sunken version of the Coliseum,] Kurt noted. Met with blank stares even though half the group had consulted their guides' library entries, he added. [Um, Rome on Terra, pre-industrial – way pre-industrial, like six or seven thousand years ago. Gladiatorial combats to the death, animals eating Christians, staged naval battles, that sort of thing.]

[Lovely. Do you think that's what we'll see here?] Metalli asked.

[You're the cultural guy,] Kurt retorted. [I don't know. May it'll be a circus. Maybe a giant orgy.]

[Well, I've got both parts right now, so that would be fine with me.] Metalli smiled.

Aki grimaced.

They reached the High Pavilion, a large overhanging platform about twenty meters above the sandy floor. Tapestries and a clutch of city guardsmen isolated them from the growing native crowd. Chief Adjudicator Vapneran and General Iola were already present, along with a dozen city dignitaries, soon introduced as the heads of various guilds and castes. All were Variants of one type or another. The whole crowd was mostly Variant, with the occasional clutch of Goblins and Casaps, though countless Norms worked as ushers and concessionaires.

Vapneran's chamberlain guided them to comfortably padded seats and offered them gilded but barely effective spyglasses to better view the field below. A tray of delicacies and a carafe of wine circulated among the dignities. Aki tried the wine. Bitter.

Finally the mirror 'spotlights' shifted in unison to focus on a pavilion at the far side of the amphitheater. High Priestess Zefania stood in the focus of reflected light, dressed in fine robes and wearing a lofty feathery headdress. Other colorfully robed figures, perhaps lesser priests, surrounded her.

The crowd's din dropped to a murmur and Zefania's melodious voice carried across the vast cavity. Aki turned down his guide's echo-talk to enjoy her sonorous tones in her native dialect.

"And it came to be the twelfth day of our Becoming," she intoned. "The hosts of Osheria and Ballantin gathered together to unite the Altered People in common cause. In the valley of Surromon, they elected Varshan to lead the hosts to challenge the Baron Valdik. And Valdik came upon them."

Then the spotlights went out, leaving the chamber dimly lit by yellow phosphorescence. Aki, who along with Teshaen, the Ion, probably had the worst night vision, could only see monochrome in the dimness. He heard the grating sound of opening gates, and saw faint gray shapes of people emerging from opposite sides of the tournament field. Then the mirrors reflected sunlight onto the field once again, revealing two assemblies, each composed of hundreds of individuals. One group was a collection of Variants, Casaps and Goblins: ragtag, their clothes torn, arms affixed with crude red armbands, hands brandishing spears, swords and wooden crossbows that looked carved to symbolize long-gone energy weapons. The other group was a mix of mostly Norms: well dressed, some bald – to symbolize the hairless Nobilis of Baron Valdik and his family, Aki guessed – and some Goblins, dressed in a livery of green and blue.

"Reenactment," Kurt muttered audibly. Continuing subvocally, [Not too uncommon in some cultures, but I suspect this is going to be a little more realistic than normal.]

A tall Meso strode forth among the red-banded rebels, encircled by his troops and highlighted by mirrored light. Varshan, they presumed. He bellowed a short speech, essentially: Down with the Nobility; Power to the Great People; Victory or Death.

Then the combat began. It was real.

Crossbows whirred; people fell, clearly wounded, dead or dying. After a few minute, as if on cue, with a synchronized shout, the Goblin guards turned on their Noble masters. As the combatants closed to fight with clubs and spears, the faux Baron Valdik's diminished band began to collapse into a defensive ring.

The battle raged towards its envisioned conclusion, but then, even as the outcome seemed certain, a well-dressed Norm fighter broke through the encircling attackers to strike at the Varshan reenactor. The man shouted in triumph and raised his club. And then he fell back. A loud crack echoed across the chamber.

Kurt pointed into the stands. [Sharpshooters. There's at least eight in the lower pavilions. I guess they have to make sure the battle comes out right.]

Aki nodded, absorbed by spectacle below. The surviving Norms were falling under the onslaught of the Variant host. The crowd was roaring now, cheering above the dozens of combatants dying on the field. Finally a wedge of red arm-banded fighters and Goblin turncoats fought their way through the defensive circle and struck at the protected bald-headed Norms. Eight men, women, children were beaten to death. The few surviving Norm fighters fled back toward the open gates, routed and bleeding.

A retching sound tore Aki's attention from the bloody spectacle. Karsh was bent over the pavilion, losing his lunch onto the field below. Or maybe onto the edge of the crowd – there were shouts from below. Metalli looked a ghostly shade of green. Frendra and Teshaen were grim. Kurt still scanned the field, absorbed by the action.

The crowd was on its feet, roaring enthusiastic approval. The Varshan reenactor strode into the carnage, stepping over dead and dying. With a long obsidian blade, he cut the head from the fallen mock Valdik, holding it up to the delight of the cheering onlookers. With a shout, he flung the severed head after the fleeing Norms.

As the roar of the crowd finally died down, the sounds of the wounded and dying reached their pavilion. Aki counted over sixty fallen on the field. All but ten were Norms.

The spotlights focused back on Zefania's pavilion, she began a long benediction. On the darkened ground below, attendants scurried onto the field with stretchers. Aki watched them first administer to the fallen Variants and Goblins. Then they looked through the Norms, dispatching the worst wounded, throwing those that would live onto stretchers, and dragging away the dead. Karsh vomited again, drawing disapproving stares from the gathered dignitaries.

[There's a crematorium under the field,] Frendra announced, her mites following the attendants into the catacombs under sandy floor.

Aki and Kurt exchanged glances. [I'm thinking that too,] Aki stated. Frendra nodded understandingly, driving her mites toward the crematoria ovens.

The benediction continued with Zefania proclaiming the superiority of the Altered. Chief Adjudicator Vapneran glanced disapprovingly over at Karsh, and then quietly addressed Aki, "Normally, there's a feast after the tournament, and I was hoping to discuss trade then. But if your people are not hungry…"

Aki nodded noncommittally.

[I've got traces of nanomeds and cybernetics in a still hot oven,] Frendra reported.

[We have to assume they got rid of them all,]Kurt added. [That's why they stalled us.]

"Is there any word on our colleagues?" Aki asked the Chief Adjudicator with forced politeness.

"I'm afraid we've found no trace of them," Vapneran replied, looking properly troubled at the development.

Aki nodded again. [Can that drone up there get a clear signal to upstairs?]

[Almost there,] Kurt replied.

[Tell Torvalt that Rusvek's team's lost,] Aki ordered. [I think we should get ourselves out of here as soon as decorum allows.]

The light on Zefania wavered, as if from a wobbly mirror.

"Whoops," Kurt muttered.

Vapneran and General Iola looked up at the light shaft then towards Aki's group. The general was signaling her guards.

[Kurt,] Aki subvocalized.

[Yes, boss?]

[You know, in my professional opinion, I've seen nothing here worth hauling twenty light-years.]


Kurt brought his other five drones to combat positions. The drone in the light shaft smashed through a mirror. The light flickered and faded. The crowd was beginning to notice.

General Iola shouted at her guards and reached for a flintlock sidearm. Frendra drew a palm-sized needler and shot the General though the eye; the sliver-sized entry hole no match for a ragged exit wound that brought Aki's lunch into his throat. Kurt's drones, still chameleoned to near invisibility, were methodically eliminating sharpshooters. Aki fumbled for his needler.

[Reinforcement drones are twenty minutes out; combat team about forty,] Kurt announced. Drawing his own needler, Kurt leaped across overturned chairs and grabbed Vapneran by the throat, pulling the Chief Adjudicator before him like a shield and almost casually shooting down two guardsmen. Teshaen shot another guard and yelled at Karsh and Metalli to help him barricade the pavilion's entrance.

A bullet snapped past Aki's head and he dropped to a crouch below the pavilion's rim. The crowd was in chaos now, the chamber echoing with shots and screams. Aki looked up at the Chief Adjudicator, now reduced to a human shield. He ripped the Futaris prosthetic from his forehead, mouthing abomination at the Eternal Elder.

Kurt looked distracted. [I've got a drone down in the pens. Hundreds of Norms locked up down there. What'd you say we start a little revolution?]

Aki nodded. They were under sporadic fire from well-protected guards shooting across the field from Zefania's pavilion. [Sure. A diversion would be handy right now.]

Kurt smiled. He still had the Chief Adjudicator in a headlock and with his free hand, Kurt absently shot down the last guard in their own pavilion. [Good news is that there's so many screaming fans leaving the stadium that there's no way to get reinforcements in.]

Aki's memories of the next half hour were always fragmentary. They held their position, waiting for more drones to cover their retreat. There was some fighting near them, but mostly it was a confused melee in the stands and the pens below. The released Norms stormed across the field and into the stands, picking weapons off drone-killed guards. Norm concessionaries joined the fight, pummeling spectators, scrounging weapons, adding to the chaos. It was turning into the start of a real revolution, or at least a general uprising. The remaining mirrored lights went out one by one, shattered by Kurt's drones. The entire chamber fell into a dim twilight. Shouts, screams and the occasional gunshot echoed.

The carnage made the reenactment seem tame. The dignitaries trapped in Aki's pavilion cowered, living barricades against a guard counter-attack that never came. The shadowy Heart of Vodaran echoed with the din of chaos. The tunnels filled with bodies.

The wait seemed longer than twenty minutes, but then combat drones dove in through cleared mirror shafts and secured their small corner of the chamber. Kurt shouted out loud for them to hurry, and they all strapped themselves to the hulls of stubby fighting drones, leaving their hostages behind to face their fate against the uprising. They ascended from the dark chamber and back into the light.

The mirror shaft exited out over wooded hills behind the city.

[Well, so much for this world.] Teshaen announced.

[The next one might be better,] Metalli added. [One or two more systems and we'll start making the loop back south.]

Sharp sonic booms signaled the arrival of the Security lander. High above the city, still suspended by drones, Aki's team boarded the vessel, taking cramped seats beside hyped troopers. They strafed the citadel for good measure on the way out and left a sonic shock across the lake. And then they were gone, blue sky fading to black, two suns setting fast.




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