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Planet Sandreem Twenty-five years ago
SILENT AND DETERMINED adversaries, the boy and his father were locked in battle. Their foreheads nearly touched as they sat hunched over a Sech board, scrutinizing several dozen game pieces carved to resemble soldiers. The bustle and laughter of the rest of the family filled the cottage, while filets of fresh-caught river eel sizzled on the grill. A few raindrops splashed against the windows of the cottage, the last of an early evening squall.
Eriff tried to predict the result of his father's confident moves across the game board. Some endings had him invading his father's Holy Keep, but others had Eriff's goddess falling to his father's onslaught. Which would be the best move? The right move.
His father's quiet voice broke his concentration. "Life or death so it always is for you, boy."
Eriff glanced up into amused blue eyes that looked just like his, according to his mother. "As vivid as the noon sky on High-Sun Day," she'd say. "With hair as black as soot and eyes like those, my fair Eriff, you'll snare your lady's heart with a glance, just as your father won mine."
His father's chair creaked as he leaned back. He pretended to work stiffness out of his limbs. "I fear I'll grow old waiting for you to make a decision."
His father's teasing left him puzzled. Time sped by when he was stalking his preyoutside in the woods hunting, or here in a game of Sech. "Have I taken too long?"
"Let me say this. It seems the gods gifted you with infinite patience. With life so slow on this backwater planet, it'll serve you well, I think." Under his breath, he added, "Move your archer there."
"But that will openmy quadrex to your warriors!"
"Take a chance." His father's eyes sparkled.
"But, Papa, my archer, it's not logical."
"Not everything in life can be logically thought out, Eriff. Often, taking a risk brings the sweetest reward of all."
Often, but not always. And that was the part Eriff didn't like about his father's advice. As soon as a player's goddess piece was taken, the game was over. But in Sech, even the lowliest soldier could topple an empire. Eriff moved his scout, planning to inch it forward and breach his father's Holy Keep.
His father gave a shrug and captured one of Eriff's commanders, dropping the piece into a worn leather pouch. Eriff lowered his head.
Chuckling, his father reached across the table to ruffle his hair. "So serious an old soul your grandmother says. I wish for you the chance to leave this world and find your fortune, but alas, the chances of that are next to none."
Eriff perked up. "You had that chance, Papa." Maybe this time his father would tell him of the years he'd spent fighting the Drakken Horde. There were stories, oh so many stories; Eriff could see them in his eyes. But no matter how much he pleaded, the man never shared them. All Eriff knew was that his father joined the Coalition Army as a teenager and went off to see the galaxy.
At least he came back. A great-uncle on his mother's side didn't. Mangus Slipstream left to become a scientist long before Eriff was born and no one ever heard from him again.
Well, Eriff was staying put. Even if he wanted to leave, how would he? It was rare for ships to pass this way. Commerce required wormholes for the ships to speed through vast distances that would normally take months and likely years. There were no wormholes near Sandreem.
It was quiet here, and that's the way Eriff liked it. No one wasted much thought about the rest of the galaxy or the war. Why should they when nothing happened on Sandreem to remind them of it?
Eriff might have doubted there was a "somewhere else" if he hadn't seen the evidence with his own eyes: a deep-space cargo transport. But he'd been little more than a babe and remembered nothing of the crew except for the stink of their craft.
His father did, however, bring home one treasure from the far-off lands: the Sech board. It was a revered family possession. As soon as Eriff could hold a game piece in his hand, his father taught him how to play.
Boom-boom. Sudden thunder echoed down from the mountains. The table vibrated, rattling the game pieces out of position. Eriff gasped in dismay, trying to put the pieces back in order. His father's hand covered his much smaller one, stopping him. "The game's over."
Thunder rumbled on and on. Eriff joined his sisters at the windows. "I never heard a storm like this before," Kayree said.
"Me, either!" Karah sang out.
Eriff threw open the window and peeked outside. Clouds raced across a clearing sky. Thunder boomed again, roaring. Screeching.
The small house shook on its very foundation. It sounded as if the sky was tearing open. Eriff's heart bounced with the thrill of it. Then a shadow passed over the house.
"Look!" he shouted, coming up on his toes as an enormous, gleaming starship descended toward the horizon. Ribbons of white clouds trailed behind it. It was going to land! "Father! Is it Coalition?"
Eriff wasn't sure what they'd have done if the answer had been otherwise. If the Drakken had come, it would be to slaughter them all. They had no mercy, no religion. While the Coalition worshipped the Goddess and all Her descendents, the Drakken were nonbelievers. His mother told him it was why they'd split from the Coalition long ago. His father said the Horde had spent nearly every year since trying to invade the Holy Keep on Sakka and take the Goddess in a real-life game of Sech.
Eriff's mother answered a banging at the front door. Rion, chief of the planetary watch, stormed in. "Visitors, Deklan. We're mobilizing!"
Eriff's father was already pulling on his boots. "Who are they, where are they headed and what do they want?"
"Coalition deep-space patrol ship. Eastern quadrex. Don't know yet. They stopped answering questions after we exchanged the basics." Rion shrugged. "Or maybe our radios just weren't too good."
"Are they ever? We'd better cobble together a welcome delegation and hightail it out to the landing site. Otherwise they'll think we're a bunch of backward rimmers."
"We are backward rimmers," Eriff's mother pointed out.
His father pulled her close for a quick kiss. "No need to shout that fact." He tucked a hunting knife into his belt, and a flashlight. Then he forked a slab of grilled eel into a piece of flatbread, splashed on some hot sauce, rolled it all up and stuck it in his hip pouch. "I'll be back later with all the news."
Eriff grabbed his bow and arrows and ran to the door.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm off to hunt." And hunt he would. He'd hunt the off-worlders. He wanted to see what they were made of, these ship-dwellers, these folk from the central worlds. The land of Sech and goddesses. And he'd do it all without their knowing. No one on Sandreem could move through the forest as silently as he could.
"You haven't eaten dinner." Suppressing a smile, his mother set a plate of food under his nose. With one whiff of the aroma, all thoughts of starships vanished. He sat down hard and dug in.
There was only one thing Eriff loved more than Sech, and that was food. Each bite was its own wonder: the contrasting tang of the spices and the textures; the crunch of cuttle-squash, the moist, smoky flesh of the grilled eel; the sweetness of grass ale with the sour aftertaste that made his cheeks ache.
When he was finished, he made the sign of the Goddess over his heart, thanking Her. "And you, too, Mama." Then he grabbed his gear and ran outside.
This time of year the sun hung low in the sky all night. Everything was bathed in soft, pink-orange light. Eriff's feet bounced soundlessly off the spongy forest floor as he raced along narrow, shadowy paths secret to everyone else but him. Drowsy tree barrets chirruped. Water left over from the rains fell from huge, furry icquit leaves high above, landing with a plop, plop, plop sound that soon drowned in the noise coming from the spaceship in the clearing.
He stopped short. The craft was hugebigger than twenty or thirty cottages. Impossible that it could get off the ground! But he'd seen it fly. It was white, blinding white, and triangular: heavy-looking with stubby wings. But in the air it had looked so graceful. It reminded him of the ancient rays that glided below the waves of the inland sea but that flopped clumsily when stranded on the beach.
Something stankmetallic and hot. The cooling engines. A sneeze pushed up his nose but he swallowed it, his eyes watering. To get a better view, he shimmied up the trunk of a tree, springing from branch to branch like a whip-tailed conifox. Crouched low, he waited for the ship's crew to greet the group of Sandreemers just now arriving at the ship.
His father and the others nervously smoothed their clothing, running fingers through their hair. The ship's hatch opened and a tall, strong man with short, bright orange hair, a tall fair-haired woman and a bald, dark-skinned man strode down the ramp, looking impressive in their crisp Coalition uniforms and gleaming insignia.
The groups greeted each other. "My apologies for intruding," the orange-haired man said. He seemed to be in charge. Probably the captain. "A balky fusion drive necessitated we put down for some repairs." He stopped himself. "Engine working bad," he said, explaining with simpler words, as if Eriff's father and the other Sandreem party were stupid rather than technologically backward compared to the rest of the galaxy. "We won't be here long, a few standard hours. My crew will remain onboard."
"Then please accept these blessings of our planet." The disappointed Sandreemers presented the off-worlders with baskets of fruits, nuts, vegetables and ready-to-cook game. Another basket contained local handicrafts.
As soon as Eriff's father and the rest left, the fiery-haired captain reached into a basket and pulled out a thick, limp, skinned eel. He showed it to the crew, and they all burst into laughter. He threw it into the underbrush with obvious distaste.
The fools! That was a female river eel, prized for its tender meat. One that size would have made rich, sweet filets for a dozen people or more.
Anger simmered in Eriff's belly. The strangers thought they were better than the Sandreemers.
Better than his father. Nothing was more important to Eriff than his family. To insult his world and his people was to insult him!
"Stay onboard," the captain told his companions. He checked for a weapon on his belt. "I'll have a look around."
"I don't recommend it, sir," the bald man said.
"I saw a few small life forms around the perimeter. I don't think there's anything dangerous, but better not to take a chance."
"The only thing dangerous around here is the natives' idea of fine cuisine. Did you see that thing? Gods, a snake!"
"Sir, I believe it was an eel."
"Whatever. It's not going in my mouth. But this is." He showed them a lumpy pouch. Eriff couldn't see what was inside.
The bald man's brow went up. "Picnic, sir?" "You could call it that. I've been on this ship too damned long. Give me a secured perimeter, say one click, all the way around. That way you're happy and I'm happy."
The captain strolled away from the ship like he owned every square inch of ground. For a long time, Eriff mirrored his exploration from high in the trees. At several points during the man's stroll, Eriff took aim with his bow. Stupid off-worlder, don't you know I've got you in my sights?
By the stream, the captain stopped, closing his eyes and inhaling, as if Sandreem was the most beautiful place he'd even seen.
It is, off-worlder. No place in the galaxy equaled Sandreem in beauty; of that Eriff was sure.