Huntedby James Alan Gardner
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In the fourth volume of the League of Peoples series, Alexander York is one of the High Council’s most iron-fisted admirals. When his children, Samantha and Edward, were born, he paid top dollar to have their DNA altered to insure they grew up perfect physical and mental specimens. But when Edward ended up with a faulty brain, his father sentenced him to join the Expendables, a band of misfits and the deformed mandated to explore the most dangerous parts of the galaxy.
Accompanying his sister on a mission to Troyen, an anguished planet and home to the Mandasar, Edward finds himself in the middle of a civil war and is ultimately exiled. As violence escalates, Edward struggles to navigate a treacherous path with the assistance of none other than Festina Ramos—the greatest Explorer of all.
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A League Of Peoples Book: 4
By James Alan Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 James Alan Gardner
All rights reserved.
GOING TO A PARTY
The first day of the flight, I was so happy to be heading home that I went to Willow's cafeteria for supper with the crew ... and it seemed as if every woman on the star-ship wanted me to try the Angoddi mushrooms, or did I listen to razzah poetry, or would I like a look at the engine-room service tunnels when the next shift was over?
I'd forgotten how bored folks get on long tours of duty. Bored with their jobs, bored with each other. One glimpse of a new face, and people go into feeding frenzy. Or breeding frenzy. Maybe I should have been flattered, but all that eager attention sort of got me terrified—I'd been stuck on a three-person moonbase for twenty whole years, so I felt way out of my depth when a dozen women wanted to make conversation with me.
"You're so cute for an Explorer!"
"And you don't smell bad!"
"Do you have a funny voice? I bet you have a funny voice. Say something."
"Urn," I said. "Urn."
"Look, he's shy!" One of the women giggled. "Can they stick you in the Explorer Corps just because you're shy? With a guy this built, I could cure his shyness real fast. Overnight!"
"He must be one of the new Explorers," another woman said. "The volunteers. The ones who don't have anything wrong with them."
"Anyone who volunteers to be an Explorer has something wrong with them. Him. Whatever." A bald-headed woman laid both hands on my wrist and stared straight into my eyes. "Come on, handsome, you can be honest with us. You're an Explorer, and Explorers are never normal. What's wrong with you?"
I took a deep breath and told them all, "I'm stupid, okay? I'm stupid." Then I went back to my cabin and locked myself in.
The whole next day I kept getting comm-messages saying, "Sorry," or "We were just teasing," or "That invitation is still on for getting together in the service tunnels." Three women actually came to apologize at my door ... and later, a man who said, "The women here are such bitches, aren't they? Forget 'em. Why don't you come down to my cabin for some sudsy VR?" I said thanks anyway, but maybe another time.
After that, when somebody knocked I pretended I wasn't home.
Just before noon on the third day, I got another visitor ... and the peep-monitor showed it was a woman wearing an admiral's gray uniform. I couldn't very well keep an admiral shut out, so I ran my fingers through my hair, then told the door to open.
The admiral woman was short and brown and young, with a big purply blotch on her cheek; I couldn't tell what the blotch was, and didn't know if I was supposed to compliment it or pretend it didn't exist. My twin sister Samantha used to yell at me, "Edward, when you see a woman has done something special with her face, for God's sake say she looks pretty." It was easy to tell Sam she looked pretty, because she was always as beautiful as sunshine on a lake. With other women though, either I sat there tongue-tied, or I'd try a compliment and the woman would just stare at me ... like maybe I was trying to be funny or something. I sure didn't want an admiral to think I was making fun of her face; so I just ignored her blotchy cheek and gave her my best salute.
It's hard to go wrong saluting. Especially with an admiral.
The woman at my door introduced herself as Lieutenant Admiral Festina Ramos, and said I had to come to the party. "What party?" I asked. Back when Samantha and I had been on active duty, I couldn't remember navy starships ever having parties. At least, none that I'd been invited to.
"We're crossing the line in fifteen minutes," the admiral woman said. "You should be there."
I didn't know what she meant, crossing the line; I was pretty sure there were no lines in outer space. When I said that, she laughed and pinched my cheek. "You're an angel." Then she took me by the arm Mid leaned against me all warm and a bit perfumed while she led me to the Willow's recreation lounge.
The perfume was in her hair.
I wasn't so used to having perfumey women take me by the arm. Part of it was just being away from human things for so long—what with escorting Samantha on her big diplomatic mission, then the long awful time after, it'd been a whole thirty-five years since I'd gone out in human company. (That made me middle-aged, I guess: fifty-seven ... though with YouthBoost treatments, I hadn't changed a whit since my twenties.)
But even when I was a teenager on New Earth, I didn't spend much time with women. My father didn't like me being seen by anyone off our estate. Dad was rich and important—Alexander York, Admiral of the Gold in the Outward Fleet—and he treated me like a big smeary stain on his personal reputation. Even though it wasn't my fault.
Back before I was born, Dad paid a doctor lots of money to make my sister and me more perfect than perfect: athletic and dazzling and smart, smart, smart. It didn't matter that gene engineering was illegal in the Technocracy—my father went to an independent world where the laws were different ... or where the police were cheaper to buy off.
The gene-splicing worked real well for Samantha, but with me it only did part of the job. I can do hundreds of push-ups without stopping, and Sam always called me devilishly handsome, but my brain chemistry didn't come out so good. Too much of some things, too little of others. So Dad kept me at home for fear his "retarded idiot son" would embarrass him in public.
I didn't mind so much. He kept Samantha at home too, with all kinds of private tutors. Sam became my private tutor, so it worked out pretty well. She taught me to be polite and brave and honest, and to think really hard about being good to people. Later, when we were teenagers, she'd take me on pretend-dates so I wouldn't feel left out: to the gazebo on the south lawn near the reflecting pool, where we'd dance and dance and dance.
Sometimes I wished I had someone else to dance with—someone who liked me, who wasn't my twin sister. But I never said that to Sam; I didn't want to hurt her feelings.
On our way to the party, the perfumey admiral woman explained that "crossing the line" meant leaving the Troyen star system for interstellar space. It was a big moment in any starship flight, the point where you cross out of your starting system ... because the League of Peoples has a law, if you've been a bad person, you aren't allowed to go from one star system to another. If you try it, they kill you. Not messily or anything like that—you just die the second you leave the system where you did the bad things. It's like magic; except that there is no magic, just superadvanced science from races millions of years older than us humans. To the League, we were as stupid as worms on a plate, and no matter how smart we thought we were, the League was a billion times smarter. No one ever fooled them.
Samantha told me the same thing years ago. "Edward, if you ever do something really awful, you'd better stay put after that. Don't go running off into space, thinking you can just sneak away without anyone knowing; because the League always knows. Always." I'd followed my sister's advice ever since ... till now.
Now I was headed for a party to celebrate leaving the Troyen system. If it weren't for the admiral pulling me along with her, I might have gone back to my cabin and tried not to cry.
The lounge was decked out like one of those old masquerade carnivals in Venice or Rome—all the walls set to starry night, with fountains and cobblestones and fancy bridges over canals that stretched far back into the distance. Now and then, the moving pictures showed people in masks and patchwork costumes, running through the streets with torches or gathering in courtyards for medieval dances.
Very pretty and classical. Unlike the real party.
Nearly everybody in Willow's crew was there ... and they sure weren't acting like sober navy personnel. Only the woman and I were in uniform, her in admiral's gray, me in Explorer Corps black. The rest were all costumed up, either in strange clothes or body paints or holo-surrounds. I couldn't tell what half of them were supposed to be—like the man just inside the door, wearing pink-silk pajamas and a big putty nose. He gave me a sloppy wet kiss on the cheek, and said, "Ooo, aren't you the fetching whelp!" ... in a high voice with an odd accent, like he was imitating a character on some broadcast. The woman on my arm laughed, and glanced to see if I'd laugh too; but it'd been so long since I'd seen any shows, I didn't know why this was supposed to be funny.
After a moment, the admiral woman gave my arm a squeeze, and said, "Come on, angel, relax, okay? You want to dance?"
I hadn't even realized there was music playing. It was soft as rainfall but tinkly-jangly, with no beat I could make out. "I don't know how to dance to this," I said. It wasn't anything like the music Sam and I listened to, back in the darkened gazebo.
"This is just Coy-Grip," the admiral woman told me. "You don't have to do anything special." Which wasn't true at all. Apparently, she and I had to wrap our arms tight together in something like a chin na submission hold I'd learned once. (Over the years, Dad's security guards gave me a heap of free martial-arts training.) I ended up hunched over like a bear, while the woman was practically on tiptoe; but she told me we fitted together perfectly, my shoulders touching hers, our arms all twined around each other, holding hands, our faces very close.
The woman murmured I could move my feet any way I wanted—the dance was the position, not the steps. She started an inch-by-inch shuffle and I followed along, doing my best to match her every motion; I was terrified if I went the wrong direction, I might accidentally snap her thin little wrists. After a few seconds, she gave a twittery laugh and whispered, "Relax, angel, relax. You look like you're at a funeral."
She gave me a quick kiss on the nose. I could smell wine on her breath: really strong. She must have been partying a fair while before she fetched me from my cabin.
In fact, everyone on the dance floor seemed tipsy. We kept getting bumped by a wobbly slobbery man wearing the holo of an alien species I didn't recognize—something brown and cockroachy with six of everything, legs, arms, eyes. The man was too drank to care about staying inside his hologram "costume" ... so I could see bare human legs kicking out from the edges of the cockroach image, and once, a hairy human rump.
Yes, it was that kind of party: where people went naked under their holos. Here and there, I could see couples squashed together against the wall. Right in front of me, a larger-than-life holo of a Roman soldier had his breastplate buried in the face of a holo-alien who looked like a walking thistle bush. The two holograms broke into jagged interference patterns where they overlapped each other, so now and then I could see through to the people underneath. It was a nude woman and a nude man; she had her legs scissored around his waist.
In the middle of the day. On a navy ship. And they all had to be crew members, because I was the only passenger.
"Is something wrong here?" I whispered to the woman Coy-Gripping my arms.
"Nothing's wrong, angel. You're fucking gorgeous. Relax." She pressed herself harder against me. It had to be hurting her wrists, but she didn't seem to care.
Maybe she'd been taking more than just wine.
The music stopped. I got ready to untangle myself, but the woman held on tight. "Wait," she whispered. "Wait. It's time."
"Time for what?"
Before she could answer, a gong sounded over the ship's speaker system: like a clock bell tolling the hour in some fairy tale. The woman whispered, "It'll strike thirteen ... melodramatic bastards. We cross the line on the last stroke. Hold me till then, angel, would you? Please?"
All around the room, lots of other people were pairing off too—the drunk in the cockroach hologram stumbled up against the man in pink pajamas and they grabbed each other in a tight hug, the drunk's arms reaching out of the roach's chest, the pajama man's head disappearing through the roach's mandibles. He must have been leaning in to rest his cheek on the drunk's shoulder.
Four seconds of silence.
Everyone had stopped talking, but I could hear somebody sniffling back tears. And somebody else praying. And somebody whispering, "Please, please, please ..."
Then I gasped as someone new came through the door: someone wearing the holo of a Mandasar hive-queen, sulphur yellow, four meters long, built like a four-clawed lobster with a huge brain-hump on her back. Her venom glands were fat and inflamed—days past the time she should have been milked. Even though I could tell it was only a holo, the sight still made me flinch.
Remembering what happened to Samantha.
The man in silk pajamas saw the queen and screamed. He wasn't the only one: people shouted and wailed all over the room, till a voice inside the queen said, "At ease, damn it, it's only me."
"Christ Almighty!" the man in pajamas said, pressing a hand against his chest. "You nearly gave us a heart attack, Captain."
"He should have worn something different," whispered the woman in my arms. "He's the captain; he should know better."
"What's the count?" she asked suddenly.
"I don't know." My mind had shut down for a moment when I saw the hive-queen. I might have missed a gong or two.
"What's the count?" my admiral called to the room.
No one answered. Faces looked wildly at each other, some of them going pale ... as if no one had kept track of the tolling.
"Shit," the woman muttered to no one in particular. Then she looked up into my eyes, and said, "Kiss me. Now."
She didn't answer; she just bent her elbows, twisting my wrists so I was levered down close to her. Pushing up hard on tiptoe, she jammed her mouth against mine. Open. And her tongue swept inside urgently, moving fast, her eyes closed tight.
I closed my eyes too. Feeling strange and fizzy, as if I'd been drinking myself: the taste of the woman who tasted like wine, the touch of her pressing against me. I knew this wasn't a love kiss, or even a sex kiss—it was fear, pure fear, some awful terror that made her want to be holding someone as tight as her arms and heart could squeeze. Like a little girl who felt better for hugging her brother, when the lightning and thunder rattled outside. I held the woman and let her kiss me as desperately as she wanted, while the clock continued toward thirteen.
The woman's tongue stopped. Her grip on my arms loosened and her lips eased back. When I opened my eyes, I saw her head loll to one side. A string of saliva trailed across the purple-red splotch on her cheek.
Her eyes hadn't opened.
As I unwrapped myself from the Coy-Grip position, the woman's weight slumped away from me. Trying to hold her up, I called to the rest of the room, "Can somebody help here? I think ..."
But by then, I'd had time to look around.
The man in pink pajamas had fallen on his face. The drunk he'd been holding was on the floor too, lying half-in/half-out of his hologram. The hologram was tilted at an odd angle.
Over against the wall, the soldier and the thistle bush had sagged straight down, still connected to each other. Their holos had gone askew, so that the head of the longest thistle stuck out of the Roman's back like the hilt of a sword.
People all around the room sprawled limply over the furniture or spread-eagled on the carpet. Even the captain. One of his hands lay on the ground, poking out through the edge of the hive-queen's shell.
Silence. No more gongs.
We had crossed the line, and the whole crew was dead. Even the woman who called me angel.
It made my eyes sting: that she died kissing a complete stranger.
I laid her body onto the floor as gently as I could. "I'm sorry," I said. "If the League of Peoples wanted to kill someone for being bad ..." I looked around the room at the corpses. "Sorry," I told them all. "I thought it would be me."
Excerpted from Hunted by James Alan Gardner. Copyright © 2000 James Alan Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James A. Gardner is the author of seven science fiction novels and one collection of short stories. Gardner lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
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But half elves r a desgrace to elf kind
Beginning and middle were very good, had a great build up for a disappointing end. He could have done so much more with the end. It was like he got tired or needed to meet a deadline and just ended the book.