In the Shadow of Death is a fascinating read with a conclusion that justifies the journey. I don't need to tell you the ending because once you start reading you won't be able to stop until you discover it for yourself.Midnight Scribe Reviews
In the Shadow of Deathby Stefan Vucak
A backwater system in the Deklan Oligarchy, the Four Suns hides a sinister plot to destabilize the Serrll Combine government. An Envoy is sent to uncover the scheme before the Serrll explodes into factional warfare. Having ‘volunteered’ as a military aide to the Envoy, Second Scout Terrllss-rr uncovers a link between slavery and local government’s
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A backwater system in the Deklan Oligarchy, the Four Suns hides a sinister plot to destabilize the Serrll Combine government. An Envoy is sent to uncover the scheme before the Serrll explodes into factional warfare. Having ‘volunteered’ as a military aide to the Envoy, Second Scout Terrllss-rr uncovers a link between slavery and local government’s plans to cede the Four Suns. That knowledge marks him for death. Fleeing, his survival blister crashes on Anar’on, the fabled world of the Wanderer nomads. Terr is found in the deep desert, lost, without memory, without a past. To restore himself, Terr undergoes training in the Discipline. Facing the god of Death, he receives more than he bargained for.
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Prologue and First Chapter
Wispy tendrils of mist hung in the deep hollows between the dunes.Bathed by the early morning glow the fog softened the harsh yellows and browns of the desert sands. Tarad grass snuggled against the steep dune walls, their tall stems already turned away from the sun. A deep, breathless silence held time in check.
A tall solitary figure stood on the crest of a towering dune, his cape limp on his back. His face was a mass of deeply wrinkled lines worked on by time. The years may have laid their heavy hands on his shoulders, but the sparkle in his eyes was still bright. The eyes, with their vertical slits, used to be orange and the slits red. Now they were faded like the rest of his body. A thin membrane protected the eyes against fine, abrasive sand. They were up now while he gazed absently at the stillness of the desert. His once ocher hair was brown and streaked with gray. It spilled around his shoulders in thick braids. He wore a plain surtaf robe with a brown hood. It was a sign of humility and an acceptance of his own failings.
Tolikin was old, and some claimed not without wisdom. The young showed him respect as was his due. Sometimes he would debate manifold questions with the other Rahtir. The way of the Discipline made for few arguments and the rulings of the village elders were absolute.
Staring absently into the pale amber of the sky, he recalled the days of his first trial before the gods that lived in the escarpment of Athal Than. A youth was not considered complete, or able to call himself a Saddish-aa Wanderer without facing the trial. The trial was a culmination of years of intensive training, and a test of faith and mortality.
It also gave him a voice in the Rahtir council. He had endured the judgment of the gods, forever changed. Afterwards, strong with power from the god of Death, he had proudly worn a yellow hood. Years later came the second trial where his soul hung in mortal danger. His youth had been wild and he had misused his power. It was a time of harsh appraisal, but the gods forgave him his transgressions. Surviving the trial, humbled, he wore a red hood then. Afterwards, he was seen as a sober man of maturity and dignity.
The gods called him late in life to walk in their shadow for the third time. By then, he had outgrown the rashness of his youth, abandoning the hollow victories of dominance over other men. The trial was but a confirmation; another step into the mysteries of the Discipline. He had worn a purple hood then, and was a figure of reverence and respect. After ten years, he discarded the outward trappings of his power for the plain brown hood and the cycle was complete.
Now women brought their newborn to him and men listened attentively when he spoke. He spent his days in contemplation trying to understand the terrible relationship the gods had with the people of the Saffal -- and the power of Death that lay in their hands.
With the mist squirming about him, Tolikin was troubled, pondering the meaning of an unsettling dream. It was an alien, cloaked in the shadow of the god of Death: suspended in space, arms upraised, two stars adorning his feet. Before him a painted world hung against the tapestry of night and there was lightning in his eyes. He leveled his arms and the lightning went forth and lashed at the world. Tolikin heard the cry of billions and the alien laughed, his laughter shaking the heavens. When the world exploded around him, there was only the sound of thunder.
The alien was alone, suspended in night with two stars at his feet.
Tolikin had wakened badly disturbed. He sought solitude beneath the cold of the stars, trying to fathom the dream. He had been standing there, waiting for the dawn, knowing that only time and an acceptance of fate would reveal all.
"Tah, the gods will tell," he rumbled heavily and made his way slowly to the village below.
The combie slewed beneath her, corkscrewing into a savage starboard turn that pressed her into the padding of her seat. She grunted from the pressure of the restraining field and twisted her head to follow the orange beam as it tracked past. Her skin prickled and her hair tried to stand on end from the near-field effect of the beam.
Despite the loud thudding of her heart, the clamminess of her hands, she wasn't afraid any more. Death would be a welcome release now. She had known a flash of real terror -- terror that had gripped her chest in a vice of pain that made every breath a shuddering gasp. Earlier, with the incriminating intelligence safely recorded, she had extracted herself from Kapel's executive offices as smoothly as she had come in, just as her training had taught her. Waiting for the cable-tube to bring her up to the small landing ramp on the roof, she allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction. Garner's vaunted security had been easier to penetrate than Kapel's lies. Or so she had thought.
The power plant spooled up and the combie gently lifted, then surged into the cold night sky. Raman's sprawl blazed with light beneath her. Above her, lines of traffic streamed in all directions. She activated the comms system and requested a voice-transmit-only link with Talia. Anonymity in her line of work was just one of the minimal requirements. As she expected the link was made quickly. The comms plate cleared, revealing Talia's quizzical half smile.
"Dama, I've got it all! I am ready to transmit."
Talia frowned and her smile faded. Her oval yellow eyes clouded with a strange, almost mocking regret. "That will no longer be necessary...Kadreen," she said softly.
A jolt of panic ran through Kadreen's body. She stared at Talia's image in confusion, feeling the blood drain from her face. Cold terror froze her.
"How...how did you find out?" she managed to choke out.
Talia winced. "I am sorry, my dear. I really am."
The plate turned dull gray, leaving Kadreen shaken. It had all been a plot - - to catch her!
That had been less than an hour ago.
The night was cold and the city lights below did not give her any comfort. Kadreen gave a rueful smile. Such was the price for playing the Family intrigues.
Another beam brushed past the combie, neatly slicing through the starboard impeller. The air smelled of ozone. Blue sparks arced at her from the bubble frame. She yelped with pain, coughing from the acrid fumes filling the cabin. Some of the nav control pads were flashing brown, warning of imminent failure. The power management system flickered between green and orange-white of total shutdown. The combie flipped over on its belly and nosed down.
Kadreen knew that she had seconds at most. She glanced behind her, but there was no sign of her pursuer. Fighting g-forces, she hurriedly punched in the transmission code, her breath a strangled hiss of frustration. The combie shuddered beneath her, beginning to tumble in its dive. The comms screen acknowledged her code and waited for the command to transmit. Grimly, she jabbed the commit pad.
She felt a silent explosion and the air around her flared with light. She didn't even have time to scream as the combie disintegrated around her. It all happened so slowly, like watching a scene in a Wall. Her last thought was of her message. Had it gone through? For a split second she had an image of her body being torn apart.
Glowing wreckage fell silently on the dark countryside below.
With absent dignity, Alasi twitched the crude garments around his stringy body and moved in for the kill.
Two of the paired binary suns peeked over the stalls. Fat and orange they leaked feeble warmth. Thin wisps of ragged cloud marred the intense blue of the sky. The wind sent dust and trash swirling among the vendor stands and pavilions, making the awnings flap. Despite the keen morning chill the soukh was crowded and noisy; full of strolling, sometimes hurrying buyers from nameless worlds.
Smells of cooking from the food stalls were strong in the air. It made his stomach rumble. He ignored it. Somewhere in one of the rows of stalls a wail rose above the noise of bartering, yelling and swearing. A thud nearby cut off hysterical laughter. Nobody paid any attention. Huddled in a corner of rough bricks a bent figure gazed absently at nothing. Beside him a chipped enameled bowl held a few coins. Insects buzzed around his tattered and soiled garments. Alasi hardly noticed him. It was a common sight.
Leaning against a worn support beam, Alasi studied the activity around the stand he had chosen to hit. Pavlir and his two boys had their hands full. They were busy serving odd fried tidbits to the waiting customers shoving each other for attention. One of the boys hurriedly scraped burned bits off a large hotplate above the burner, then threw on fresh meats, vegetables and slices of various breads. Aromatic steam gushed up and the plate hissed and crackled. Beside the stall, stacked tins, biscuit packs and piles of dried fruit stood deserted.
Alasi allowed himself a grin. This one was going to be easy.
The noise of the soukh was like the warm feel of a familiar blanket. The only thing that could spoil his breakfast now was Pavlir's wife. Waiting for the right moment to strike, he watched her tending the credit register. Stern and formidable, she dispensed justice with a rough and heavy hand.
Like so many of the stray kids, Alasi ate at the soukh at the expense of unwary entrepreneurs. Not all traders could keep their eyes both on their goods and the crowds. Alasi remembered well the few who managed.
Despite the Proctor's laws, casual thieving was prevalent and impossible to curb. If caught, the priesthood guards exacted immediate revenge by whipping the luckless victim -- to the gleeful hooting of the onlookers.
He'd been lucky so far despite Maw's disapproval. "I run an honest farm, neh? We don't starve and I won't have you hauling in useless trash, hear?"
"Yes, Maw," he would say, not hearing her.
Not that he spent all of his time prowling around with his gang. He had chores that his Paw demanded be done. Herding a tractor around the farm wasn't his idea of honest labor. Besides, he did bring in plunder from his enterprises.
A highborn Dama walked by. A hired attendant followed behind her, towing two squirming girls. One of the brats tugged at his hand and pointed at the stalls of steaming food. The lady turned and scolded her sharply. The girl pouted and kicked at a pile of stacked tins.
It was beautiful to watch.
The whole array came down with a clatter and a scream of indignation from the highborn lady. Surrounded by strewn merchandise the little girl burst into a howl. Pavlir's wife threw up her hands with a curse. The whole scene became an immediate attraction for the bystanders. While the attendant hurried to pick her up, Alasi bent down and helped himself to a few of the choicest packs.
"Gotcha!" A meaty hand grabbed his collar.
He aged ten years and almost dropped his plunder. Pavlir's wife shook him like a rag and swung her broad hand. He ducked and jerked free.
"Stop, you ruffian!" She hurled a piece of rock-hard bread at him.
Alasi laughed and sprinted into the crowd. He scrambled around the grinning onlookers and disappeared among the stands. There was a lot of commotion and shouting behind him. He beamed hugely; it made him feel appreciated.
Maybe it would be a good idea if he avoided Pavlir's for a while.
It was a typical market day in the city of Raman, planet Elexi of the Four Suns.
Munching, undecided, Alasi rubbernecked through the soukh. Pockets bulging, he wandered past the slave section. It wasn't his favorite haunt and he didn't want to linger long. There was too much chance of becoming one of the trade items.
The two suns had climbed higher and the wind had died down, but it was still crisp. The sky had developed a gray heavy haze. People muttered and shook their heads. Another dust storm.
Alasi didn't let it worry him. He checked his torn trouser leg and the grimy shirt-sleeve. Maybe it was time he liberated something more appropriate. He had to be careful not to overdo it -- the mendicant business being touchy at best. Raising his status would cramp his style. Who'd drop an odd coin to someone dressed almost as well as the potential donor?
Sticking to the broader avenues, he sauntered past the slave stands and the joy houses. The owners who could afford it had gaudy holoviews of unholy pleasures waiting inside. Behind windows festooned with flickering lights, women, girls and an odd boy, stood on display for the perceptive connoisseur.
Few of the slave pens had any shelter. The merchandise here was low rent; mature males suitable for heavy labor only. Most were illegals and aliens with a few locals among them who had tasted her Benevolence's mercy. There was a lot of shouting and waving of arms as factors tried to encourage buyers to stop and examine. Alasi knew that if a mark stopped, chances were that he'd walk away with a chattel he never knew he wanted.
Many of the beggars, pickpockets, and part-time muggers favored this area. It was a popular tourist trap. Curiously, some of the offworlders felt flattered when ripped off buying a worthless trinket. The priesthood guards made sure that such fleecing didn't get out of hand. Bad for business.
The stands changed as Alasi moved into the up-market area. Open platforms and simple corrals gave way to elaborate pavilions, viewing stands and observation lounges. The rarefied prices reflected the needs of the gentile clientele. Unobtrusive hunched individuals slinked among the strolling citizenry, sweeping the paving clean.
A sale was in progress at Tarad's Circle. Alasi pulled up his hood and stopped to watch the Tridan factor at work. Tarad was all heavy bones and knobby muscle. He was a short, stocky runt, powerful around shoulders and legs; a good indicator of high gravity habits, if an unreliable one. He wore a long leather kilt, a narrow jeweled belt and soft ship's boots. Despite the rawness in the air, his muscled upper body was bare beneath a thin maroon cape. A jeweled armband adorned each thick wrist.
Alasi fingered the dull ceramic of the identification band around his own wrist. Tarad had a large hairless head, a broad nose and small piercing eyes. His ears were vast black-veined flaps that sagged to his shoulders.
A burly keeper, hands crossed before his chest, glowered at the slaves. A vicious knobby whip hung at his belt. Standing in twos and threes, ignoring the waiting buyer in the paved lane, the slaves gossiped among themselves.
The Palean, dressed in the working grays of a Master Scout, gazed blankly at the stock arrayed on the viewing stand. Tall and thin, he exuded an impalpable air of superiority. His hands twined in a characteristic gesture, the long fingers twitching. His delicate button nose glistened on a small triangular face. He had a pointed chin and enormous black eyes that almost protruded beneath a high forehead. A thin cruel mouth had a droop at one corner.
Two rented attendants hovered behind the officer.
A muscled youth, dressed in a fine green tunic, stood aloof from the other slaves on the stand. Tarad pointed at him and jerked his head. The boy was a bit slow and the keeper snarled.
Tarad flicked his bony wrist. The thin leather baton cracked against the youth's shoulder, staggering him. His eyes darted hate at the factor and he bowed slowly. The baton whistled again -- another grunt. The muscles on his back twitched but the youth remained bowed.
Tarad's mouth twisted into a scowl. "That'll teach you obedience, animal." He glared at the other slaves. "Anybody else, neh?"
He shoved the baton into his belt, fixed on an ingratiating smile and hunched in supplication. Clutching his cape, he turned to face the Palean.
"Your pardon, most excellent Tal." His eyes skimmed over the officer's pressed uniform and the well-filled features with their certainty of fat Serrll credits. He ignored the hired help as beneath his attention.
To him the Paleans were nothing more than another form of scum; strutting around like they owned the universe. He regarded them as an arrogant, haughty people. But he was a pragmatist and never allowed personal feelings to interfere with business. He'll just charge more -- his hands twitched in anticipation.
"The boy is one of the best I have and tractable with a bit of discipline. Tarad's Circle is reputed for the finest in living merchandise. If we don't have it, no one has it. That's my motto." Tarad cackled.
The Palean's enormous eyes roamed over the pitiful assembly of flesh. He shook his head in resignation. Not much of a choice, but this was the best of a bad pick. The other lots had only brutes, fit for heavy work and not much else.
"I can see how you administer your discipline. No matter, he'll do. I'll take him. And I'll have that one as well," he said, pointing a slender finger at a resigned specimen.
"A wise choice, gentle Tal." Tarad nodded eagerly, his ears flaring. "It's a pleasure to do business with a professional who knows his merchandise. Both are in top condition and only one owner. At least twenty years in each of them."
"If that turns out not to be the case, you can rely on me to be back," the Palean said smoothly. His smile was thin, without humor.
"Ah, the Excellency jests, neh?"
"This is your lucky day indeed, Tal. I've got a new consignment from Saiam, and you can understand that I'm anxious to get rid of my current stock. Practically giving them away." Tarad wrung his hands in despair.
"Do you have any locals?"
Tarad looked around quickly then shrugged apologetically.
"That's illegal, worthy Tal. Why, the Benevolent Proctor would have me strung up on the altar just for thinking of such a thing."
"Might not be such a bad idea, seeing the kind of starved trash you're trying to push on unwary customers."
"Don't tempt the fates, your Excellency. Her priests are everywhere and it's not wise to antagonize the powerful."
It wasn't always easy to do business on Elexi. The way to stay off the sacrificial altar was to hand over the squeeze to the guards with a smile. Pay your altar dues to the priests and pray for forgiveness from her Benevolence. He'd dealt with this in one form or another on many worlds. Elexi may be a hole, but one still had to be careful.
The Palean dismissed Tarad's concerns with a twitch of his hand. His position as Chief of Staff to Prima Scout Cannan carried with it some privileges. "I'm not interested with legality. What I am interested in is a female." It would make a welcome change to wake up, among other things, to a pretty face rather than the churlish expression of one of his servants.
"To brighten your dawns. I understand perfectly, eminent Tal," Tarad said with a knowing smile and drew closer to the Palean. "Just the other day I got a perky little wench, part of my last Saiam consignment. She was the Praetor's fourth. You must know, worthy Tal, a Saiam courtesan is worth her weight in kerner stones." He grinned, showing a row of uneven blackened teeth. "Wait, I'll fetch her!"
The Palean scowled. "Hurry it up. I'm freezing out here!"
Tarad bobbed his head and disappeared through an ornately carved triangular doorway set into a stone wall behind the viewing platform. He had spent a lot of his own money turning the pavilion into a major attraction -- to the envy of some of the factors around him. Not that he cared overmuch what they thought. He would have been happy having any of them as part of his sales stock.
He appeared in the doorway, beamed and stepped aside. A tall girl, almost a woman, stood beside him and looked regally around her. Her sleeveless dress, sides cut to the hip, clung to her body outlining a supple form. A simple strap crossed firm breasts. Her fine delicate features were expressionless beneath large green eyes. Copper hair fell in thick braids to her waist. The Palean hissed in appreciation and licked his lips.
Some of the males strolling down the line of pavilions stopped and nodded in admiration. Most of the women hardly paid any attention. The highborn Damas had their chins in the air and daintily moved on.
The girl glanced at the Palean and raised her head in defiance. Wearing a smug grin, Tarad gestured with his arm and the girl walked with mincing steps to the front of the viewing stand. She stopped and turned her back. Tarad's features clouded and his baton rose. The Palean's long arm flashed out and clutched the factor's thick wrist. Tarad's head snapped around in surprise.
"Can't have the merchandise spoiled, can we, neh?" the Palean said easily. He watched the play of emotions on Tarad's face with cold amusement, then released the hand.
"Heh? Certainly not, your worship. Certainly not." Tarad cackled, tapping the baton against his thigh.
"An exceptional item indeed." The Palean's eyes roamed greedily over the girl's figure. Tarad nodded with satisfaction and jerked his head at the girl. She turned reluctantly.
"Now..." His hand moved sensuously along the girl's arm. "Just look at that alabaster skin, the high features and the vibrant shine of her hair. Believe me, Tal, she's no phony. Only the finest from Tarad's, neh?"
"How much?" the Palean demanded, suddenly feeling warm.
"Oh, very cheap, heroic Tal. I am being most reasonable for one of our Fleet heroes. You understand, she's the best I have. I can -- "
"Couldn't go lower than six hundred," Tarad said, all cold business. The Palean chuckled.
"I appreciate your sense of humor. Especially on a day like this."
"I'll take twelve hundred for all three. My last offer. I can't give them away."
"One thousand. Take it or leave it."
"Oh, yes, noble Tal. I'll take it. You're most generous." Tarad grinned then flashed a look at the keeper. "Guard her!" The keeper merely blinked.
Tarad jumped off the viewing stand and extended his hand.
The Palean rummaged in his pocket and brought out a handful of colored rectangular sticks. He counted out the money with maddening slowness while Tarad simpered with impatience. He would have preferred a credit transaction, but money was money. The officer placed the last finger-long stick into Tarad's hand and looked up.
"There, that should do it."
"Worthy Tal?" Tarad coughed self-consciously. "I think that you're twenty short."
"What? You question me?" The hard glare stopped Tarad's outburst. He swallowed and bowed quickly, ears drooping.
"Oh, no, kind Tal. It's just..." The Palean scowled, towering over the little factor. Tarad cringed. "Must have been my mistake, Lord. I couldn't think -- "
"Fool!" The Palean turned to the attendants waiting behind him. "Take them to the estate and see that they're taken care of. Especially her!"
"Tal," one of them murmured and bowed low.
With a last glare at Tarad, the Palean stalked into the crowd.
"May a thousand canal worms feed on his stinking carcass," Tarad grumbled after the retreating figure. Even for a lousy twenty credits, he felt sore at having a fast one pulled on him by one of the marks. He grunted in resignation and pocketed the proceeds.
He jerked his head at the keeper. The three slaves shuffled into Tarad's office. Working from hand to hand, he touched the identification band on each wrist with a small rod. Thin wafers slid out of the register console on the dealing table. He motioned with a hooked finger at one of the attendants who hurriedly collected the wafers -- copies of the sales contracts.
"Off, off!" He waved at them impatiently. The three slaves scrambled off the display stand and gathered around the two attendants. After a whispered conference, all of them disappeared into the crowd.
For Tarad it was just another sale. He swiveled on his toes and raised his baton.
"Here, here! Tarad's Circle, specialized dealer in slaves, houses of joy and all the imaginable delights to suit everyone, rich or poor..." His voice was lost in the clamor of the market.
"Second Scout Terrllss-rr, reporting as ordered, sir!"
He was screwed and he knew it.
Not daring to move, he allowed his eyes to flicker over the silent figure sitting behind a gray-bordered, matte-black desk. Prima Scout Anabb Karr was bulky and not all that tall, but his presence dominated the office. His olive skin was a wrinkled parchment on which the years had etched deep lines. The chiseled narrow face was stamped into a prominent scowl of disapproval. A ragged blue-veined burn from a power rod creased his left cheek. They said that it tended to turn a mottled red when he got angry.
Terr figured he'll probably have a chance find that out.
The way he heard it, Anabb had made his reputation by being one crusty son of a bitch. Terr kind of hoped that it was only a rumor.
Maybe he would find that out too.
Anabb looked up, pulled back his shoulders and gave Terr a slow, measured look.
Everything about Anabb was ordinary, except for the eyes. Close-set ovals, they were brown pools smeared with flecks of amber. Hidden beneath ridges of narrow white eyebrows, they cut where they stared. If there was any sympathy in those eyes, Terr sure as hell couldn't see it.
"Sit down, Second Scout," Anabb said, his voice cold and gravely, without emotion -- like stones being rolled in a barrel.
"Thank you, sir." Terr picked one of the formchairs and made himself comfortable. The thing squirmed as it molded itself around him.
Behind the wide expanse of Anabb's desk a window screen took up the whole wall. Tall slim towers of the Center reached toward low dark clouds. It only needed one bad thought and the rain would come down.
On Terr's left a floor-to-ceiling full-dimensional Wall display cycled through random color patterns. Uneven levels of transparent shelving crowded the opposite wall, holding an assortment of campaign memorabilia -- scalps more likely, he thought.
Anabb tapped a pad on the reactive surface of his desk. A plate lit up in the lower right corner. He glanced at the display then turned to scrutinize the officer sitting rigidly before him.
Handsome young rouge, Anabb decided. With a pang of memory, he realized how much the boy looked like his father.
"Going over your record I've been," he said heavily. "Young you are to be commanding an M-3. Mmm, just twenty-eight. Busy enough you've been nevertheless. Two single ship actions against Palean smugglers. A survey flight beyond the Rolan Group and a stint at the Serrll Moon Base, Sol. Mentioned in dispatches twice. Independent you are and a low opinion you have of high command. Well, at your age that's not necessarily a bad thing. Providing you keep it in check...How do you like command?" Anabb demanded suddenly.
"I prefer making the decisions that count, sir," Terr said cautiously, not sure what all this was leading to.
Impertinent young scamp, Anabb reflected, holding back a smile.
"So I've heard. Of my own first command you remind me. A converted M- 2 it was. I learned a lot then. About men and ships. What makes them and what breaks them. A long time ago that was -- after your father was killed. But I suppose your family told you all that."
"They've talked about it."
"Just old enough you must have been to remember him. His commanding officer I was, on an M-3 not all that different from yours. And like you a low opinion he had of high command. But a good officer...and a friend."
Terr had been a boy of six when he learned of his father's death. Some sort of undercover deal that had gone sour in some nameless corner of the Serrll. They never told him the details and he never found out. If he believed the rumor, his father's ship had been sabotaged and he had augured into Anar'on when the plasma impellers failed. Terr's memory of his father was of laughter and games and glittering uniforms. Even now, he had trouble recalling his father's face.
"Your parents, well they are?"
"It's been some time since I had the opportunity to see them, sir. But they're all well, thank you."
"They forgiven you yet for joining the Fleet?"
"Resigned, if not forgiven," Terr said with a trace of bitterness and a rush of unpleasant memories. Parents can't help managing their children's lives, he decided.
Ever since his father's death, his mother had tried to argue him out of his juvenile romance with the Fleet, as she called it. The House of
Llss-rr was powerful and Kaplan needed her best at home. Although never voiced, he knew the underlying motives for her pressure. Instead of hunting for glory, he had a higher duty to continue the line. She never said it like that but it was implied. The other thing was of course, his mother didn't want to lose him as well. His stubbornness and refusal to bow to the family's wishes had been a source of ongoing acerbity ever since.
Then it hit him. The old fossil was setting him up, hoping to sidetrack him with sentimental family crap before jumping down his throat. Crafty old bastard.
"A different time it was," Anabb said moodily and cleared his throat. "A better time, some would say. But enough of that. Now, getting everything you need from Maintenance? I understand that problems you are having with your phased array projector."
Terr tried to keep his dismay from showing.
"A minor altercation -- "
"A minor altercation?" Anabb exploded. "Is that what you call it? Let me list them for you. Haranguing Maintenance you've been. Refusing compliance clearance. Insubordination. Conduct unbecoming. It goes on. The base commander has been bending my ear all morning. Is that what you call making decisions that count, boy?"
Terr admitted to himself that getting into a shouting match with Maintenance may not have been exactly politic. Still, he never expected to be hauled before the Old Man himself about it. But if he was going to have his butt raked, exemplary in it's severity as it seemed, it may as well be for the right reason.
"In my opinion, sir," he said forcefully, throwing caution to the wind, "Maintenance is more interested in polishing the wheels of bureaucratic machinery than paying attention to my log reports. They've ignored two of them for that projector."
Anabb grunted. "I gather you don't approve of channels."
"Well, sir, you know what they say runs down channels," Terr said, his mouth doing his thinking.
Anabb bit his lip to stop himself from laughing. The boy had spirit and that was what he wanted to confirm. Fitness reports just didn't give the measure of the person behind them. Nevertheless, this was a matter of discipline. He couldn't dismiss Terr's insubordination out of hand.
"I won't tolerate any impertinence from you, boy." His eyebrows drew together into a thundercloud and he felt the burn on his cheek beginning to color.
"Own that M-3 you don't, and you certainly don't own this base. Yours is not the only ship Maintenance has to service. In case certain you weren't, bitching about your problems isn't exactly a career enhancing move. An attitude adjustment would be more in order. You cut across channels again and more than crap you'll find flowing down. Am I getting through to you, Second Scout?"
Terr squirmed in his seat. Maybe making that crack about channels hadn't been such a great idea.
"Copy that, sir!"
"Kick your butt I should. On the other hand, Maintenance exists to service my ships." Anabb drummed his stubby fingers against the desk. "All right, son. Out with it. What's your gripe?"
The old father figure gambit now, is it? Confess all, fall at his feet and plead for mercy. Since he'd already stepped in it, might as well go all the way. Terr sighed.
"I know I shouldn't have blown my pad with Maintenance, sir. But hell! They've been dragging their feet over that weapons pod for days. I wasn't about to lift off this damned...I mean -- "
"You mean damned rock, don't you?" Anabb glared but his eyes twinkled.
"I meant Talon, sir," Terr said with a straight face.
"I know what you meant, boy. It's a damned rock all right. Go on."
"Well, sir, I won't accept clearance until that projector is in full operating mode. I would rather be ticked off for giving Maintenance a hard time than have my weaponry fail in some sticky situation."
Anabb sat back and gave the boy a long stare. Terr had firm strong features, matured by the burden of command. The shock of brown-black hair needed some cutting, he mused. The face was finely molded without appearing chiseled. A ragged scar above the left eyebrow added a touch of rakishness. There was a hint of a cleft in the chin. The skin was pink, somewhat pale and drawn.
Cold gray eyes stared back at Anabb above an aquiline, slightly twisted nose. It wasn't the first time he'd heard complaints about Maintenance. But, holy smoke, there were procedures!
"Tell you what. I'll see to it that the base commander tells Maintenance to read your logged incident reports. How about that?"
"That's just great, sir. He'll just take it out on me in some other way and I'll never get off this rock."
"Worry not about repercussions. Leave you can those details to me. But you'll be counting rocks on Cantor if you're insubordinate again. Patience for it I haven't. You read me, boy?"
"Copy that, sir."
Anabb nodded, making up his mind.
"Very well. But I didn't ask you here to chew over your problems with Maintenance. And I don't want to hear again that bitching you've been -- whatever the reason. Now, I want to show you something." He reached across the desk and tapped a panel on the inlaid console pad. The Wall cleared into a full-dimensional tactical grid of a paired binary system.
Terr should. It had been part of his last patrol sector.
"It's the Four Suns. Kapel Pen is the current Controller. It's one of four systems belonging to the Third Prefecture ruled by Anall-Marr," Terr told him crisply. He'd heard that the Old Man expected his commanders to know their areas of patrol. More than one luckless officer had his head handed to him in a basket because the unfortunate had failed to do his homework.
"What else about it you know?"
"Well, sir, Elexi is the major settled planet and contains the bulk of the system's population. The place is somewhat backward, specializing in agricultural commodities. Raman is the capital city and houses the system's administrative center. Their culture is a matriarchy, and officially at least, has been fully integrated into the Deklan Ecumenical Order. The religious dogma is enforced by priesthood guards who are accountable to the Controller, not the Order as is the norm in other systems of the Deklan Oligarchy. This has been an ongoing source of irritation to the Ecumenical Synod on Deklan."
"That all you got?" Anabb demanded, tapping the table with stubby fingers.
"As you know, sir, what makes the Four Suns invaluable is Anulus, the fourth planet. It has the most extensive mining and refining operations of strategic metals and minerals in the whole Deklan Oligarchy. Elexi provides some of the more sophisticated post-processing and acts as a marketing and distribution center. It's a strategic and very lucrative economic asset for the Deklans. That accounts for the Synod's tolerance of the local administration's treatment of its priests."
"Not bad," Anabb said grudgingly. The boy had given a pretty good thumbnail sketch of the situation. "You've been there, of course?"
"Find it handy you will," Anabb said and cleared his throat. Terr raised an eyebrow at that. "Aware you are that ever since the Deklans got hold of the Four Suns from the Karkan Hegemony, an open wound it's been. Lately, it's begun to fester. The ruling matriarchy has never acknowledged Deklan's dominion and see them as a foreign occupation. Kapel Pen, the latest in her line, particularly vocal she has been in her opposition, to the extent of inciting other border systems to revolt. Without success, naturally. Given up she hasn't her plan to see the Four Suns independent of Deklan rule.
"However, waste my sympathy on her I wouldn't. The matriarchy has kept the population in virtual serfdom despite the enormous wealth Anulus brings in. What's got Captal interested in the Four Suns is that Elexi in slavery is engaged and the Bureau of Administrative Affairs is sending an Envoy to investigate."
"Under Ecumenical law, sir, slavery in the Deklan Oligarchy is not illegal."
"That I know." Anabb waved his hand in dismissal. "The problem, though, is that local Elexi citizens are being enslaved to meet the alleged labor needs of Anulus. That in itself our concern is not. Anulus has been a convenient penal colony for many of the Oligarchy systems. However, when supposedly free families are forcibly relocated, of corruption it smacks and possible sanction at official levels."
"Surely, sir, that's a local matter. This should fall under Anall-Marr's jurisdiction. Or at most, handled by the Ecumenical Order on Deklan."
"Ordinarily that would be the case," Anabb agreed, pleased at Terr's perceptiveness. "Unfortunately for Elexi, the Deklans are more interested in maintaining output from Anulus than what happens to the local populace."
"If I understand correctly, sir, Captal cannot act without a complaint from the Four Suns government. Why would Kapel invite Captal to rummage through her operations?"
Anabb gave Terr an appraising glance. "Some penetrating questions you ask...for a Second Scout. But not quite right. It wasn't Kapel, son, who made that complaint," he said and grinned savagely. "It was her General Assembly rep."
"Her own representative?"
"We need to shake lose some of that idealism. Don't think that she was overcome with remorse for the plight of her people. Means it does that someone brought pressure to bear on her."
"I don't get it, sir. Why has Captal developed a sudden rash about slavery in a backwater system like the Four Suns?"
"Ah, not so clever after all. Remember you do who owned the Four Suns?" Anabb tapped the inlaid console pad and turned to the Wall.
The grid expanded to include the border between the Karkan Hegemony and the Deklan Oligarchy. At a tangent another line indicated the border with the small independent nonaligned Kaleen Group.
"Show the Four Suns," Anabb ordered the computer.
In the Wall, a bright blue dot began to flash near the Karkan border. "There you have it, the Four Suns. Caught between Deklan's economic expansion and the covert territorial ambitions of the Karkans."
Terr understood. The Karkans wanted the Four Suns back -- along with the other border systems they were forced to give up in a political deal that had obviously not been to their liking. Gaining the Anulus mining concession was a step in the right direction. If they couldn't own the system politically, they would dominate it economically.
It probably wasn't that simple, but it covered the facts.
"Anulus is being mined by Kunoid Minerals, isn't it?"
"One of the most powerful mining conglomerates in the Karkan Hegemony."
"Sir, is Captal worried that the Karkans will flood the Serrll Combine with cheap metals?"
Anabb gave a sour chuckle.
"Economic blackmail, that's what I'd call it. However, Anall-Marr, too careful he is to allow any such thing. At any rate, the political implications of Karkan presence in Deklan space is not part of the Envoy's terms of reference...or yours, for that matter."
"That's right. Handled through other channels that is."
That meant the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Serrll's intelligence arm. Terr would rather have fights with Maintenance any day. Obviously the Revisionist dominated Captal government didn't relish the idea of Karkans muscling in on their territory. A shadow fell across the window screen. Dark clouds had gathered and soft rain blurred the Center's skyline.
Somewhat appropriate, he felt.
"As of now, temporarily relieved of your command you are and to the Envoy attached as one of his two military aides for the duration of his mission on Elexi."
"But, sir!" Terr protested in dismay. "I have an M-3 undergoing critical repairs."
"Your executive officer handle it he will." Anabb dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand.
"I'm a Fleet line officer, sir. Not some creepy intelligence spook."
"I know what you are, Second Scout," Anabb said sharply. "The Bureau of Cultural Affairs has requested that the Envoy be supported by two military aides. You're one of them, got that?"
"And my duties?"
"Up to the Envoy that is. Distract Kapel's own intelligence machinery while the Envoy gets on with his slavery investigation."
"The only way I can distract them, sir, is by finding something that I'm not supposed to. You can use up a lot of officers that way."
"And I'm about to lose one right now if careful he isn't," Anabb said with plenty of snap as he leaned forward. The power burn on his cheek began to color again. "Now to me you listen. The government's motives your concern are not. The Envoy has a mission and so have you. While a Fleet officer you are, and that may not be much longer given your impertinence, orders you carry out. Is that clear?"
Anabb glared at Terr, then relented. "I know you're sore and your ship you want to look after. Outside your comfort zone this may be, but an important assignment this is and a great opportunity for you to gain valuable experience. It's only a fifteen-day tour. Plenty of time for you to get back and check up on Maintenance."
Terr didn't trust him. Anabb was smooth and glib like a Wall ad. Too many things can happen when you start digging into other people's business -- unpleasant things.
"When do I start?"
"Have started already. An M-1 has been made available to you for the duration. I don't have to tell you to bend it not. Soft copy of your orders are in the ship's computer. Study them on your way to Elexi. And, Terr..."
"Do your homework, son. Routine this may be, but I don't want one of my officers getting caught by a low one because his head was stuck up his ass sightseeing. Stay focused."
"I'll take care of myself, sir," Terr said with more conviction than he felt.
"Spare you I can, but I can't spare the M-1," Anabb said gruffly.
For a minute there, Terr thought the heartless old bastard actually cared. He stalked out thinking evil black thoughts.
Twirling his identification band around his wrist, Alasi watched the Palean officer vanish into the crowd. He spat on the ground. Glaring hate beneath his tattered hood, he mumbled obscenities and bad wishes.
Twitching the thin garment around his shoulders, he ambled through the crowd. Undecided, he headed toward the outskirts of the city; toward the winding delta, the hilly grain fields and his home. He loved to drop in whenever he felt the city start to crowd him. Besides, he had to unload the pickings that were making a bulge in his spacious pockets. There was also a matter of some unfinished chores. Paw wasn't likely to be amused by his lengthy absence, he thought gloomily.
Against the backdrop of Raman's towers, Alasi walked along the narrow meandering path that followed the riverbank. The wind had picked up, sighing through the tall grass. He stopped beneath the drooping branches of an old mud gum and glanced back at the city.
Bush clicks chattered among the gray branches of a nearby gum. In a flash of mud-colored feathers, they swooped in a graceful curve toward the heaving grass. Alasi hummed some nameless tune that he had picked up at the soukh. His long hair whipped around his eyes. He ignored it.
A glint in the sky stopped his humming. Instinctively, he pressed himself against the gnarled bark of a mud gum. He watched as two combies, flat pebble-shapes, skimmed low over the fields, their dark blue inverted triangle emblems flashing. A Serrll Fleet patrol -- lackeys to their Deklan masters. Alasi spat and wished pestilence on the scum. The combies vanished in low cloud leaving him cold and alone with the setting suns.
Far to the north a brown wall of dust drifted across the dark sky. The storm will blanket the city, grounding the communals and the little commuter sled-pads. The Deklans will curse the damned planet and the refrigerated climate. Alasi smiled happily.
He rounded a curve in the river, cut across a grass field and clambered up a steep hill. Breathing hard, he pushed through a thick clump of jeer brush and stopped beside an old rotten trunk. Tall paper gums bordered the narrow valley below. Nestled against the hillside stood a small stone straw-roofed cottage. Gray smoke rose tall out of a blackened chimney. Poultry fluttered around the yard, cackling in alarm. In the stalls, two cows stomped impatiently. On the yellow grass in front of the cottage rested the polished shape of a flat oval M-1 personal scout. Brandishing an energy staff, a priesthood guard stood beside the extended landing strip.
Alasi stared at the guard and his lip curled in distaste. To him the man was a pariah who had sold his soul to the Deklans in return for decent food and lodging. Alasi might foresee a remote possibility of being polite to a native Deklan, but there was a special kind of hate reserved for the slimy traitors of his own kind.
He was about to walk down when his father staggered out of the cottage. A guard stood in the doorway laughing, his energy staff held over his shoulder. Alasi stared, stunned by the scene. He felt the blood drain from his face and his mouth go dry. His mother ran out and flung herself at the guard. The goon backhanded her and she fell. His father rushed the guard and Alasi wanted to shout a warning. Standing beside the landing ramp of the M-1, the other goon leveled his staff and a thin beam of ruby light lanced out. Alasi's father fell in mid-stride.
"Paw!" he yelped in helpless panic. He knew what was going on. He had heard it described often. In the soukh the gangs would get together and talk. They would talk about late night calls where whole families vanished, never to be seen again. They dreamed about killing the Deklans, the slave traders and the corrupt city Proctors, sleek from their profiteering. It was just talk and they knew it, something to cheer them up. The priesthood guards kept things too tight to allow open dissent.
One of the guards motioned his mother toward the ship. The other tried to get his father to stand. Alasi's two sisters followed uncertainly. He gulped and clenched his fists. In a huddled procession he watched his family being marched into captivity. He couldn't understand it. They held their farm outright and didn't owe anybody anything. The farm wasn't much, but Maw managed to bring in valuable cash and his father worked hard.
The landing strip withdrew into the craft. Its crimson nav shield pulsed and it climbed quickly into a dull sky.
Alasi watched for a long time the point into which the M-1 had vanished. He felt strange, light-headed. There was no feeling of disbelief, just a dull ache of loss. His family was gone. Deep down he knew that. They could be anywhere, dragged off to some nameless labor camp, even Anulus. Life was bleak and unforgiving. If this was Serrll justice, he wanted no part of it.
Through gathering clouds the stars winked bright. Low on the east horizon a thick band of stars that was The Arch, stretched across the sky.
The wind was frigid, keening through the grass and the creaking branches of the gums. Alasi clutched the tattered garments around his body and gave a strangled sob. A heavy weight rolled over his heart and he whimpered at the pain. He hadn't cried in a long time, but hot tears of bitterness and rage slid down his cheeks now.
"Maw," He lay face down in the grass and sobbed.
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Meet the Author
Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of eight techno sci-fi novels, including With Shadow and Thunder which was a 2002 EPPIE finalist. His political thriller Cry of Eagles won the coveted 2011 Readers’ Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist and Readers’ Favorite silver medal winner. Strike for Honor won the gold medal. Stefan leveraged a successful career in the Information Technology industry and applied that discipline to create realistic, highly believable storylines for his books. To learn more about Stefan, visit his: Website: www.stefanvucak.com Facebook: www.facebook.com/StefanVucak Twitter: @stefanvucak
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“Fantastic World Building.” Second Scout Terr is relieved of command of an M-3 ship, and suddenly assigned to an envoy looking into slavery on Elexi. Unfortunately, there is more going on than slavery, and much of it involves politics. Terr is almost killed, and must face the god of Death. This was a very interesting piece of work by a master storyteller who has built a universe as fascinating as STAR WARS or STAR TREK. There are interesting characters, and plenty of action, but my main problem with the story is the long drawn out politics that fuel the story as well as the action. Because of politics, it left me often confused and trying to keep everything straight in my mind, causing the pace to slow for me. The author is exceedingly good with creating political systems, and this is to his credit. But as a reader that prefers more action, and less politics in a story, it just wasn’t for me. That should not stop readers from buying this book. It is well crafted, and the writing is good. I highly recommend it to science fiction readers who like political intrigue in their reads.
All that really need be said about this novel is this: it's simply gorgeous. There is no coveted goal in novel writing it doesn't attain: an intriguing plot, well-drawn characters, atmospheric descriptions, pacing attuned to storytelling... Any one of these elements could be picked out and without exception the praise of its full implementation has to be sung for „In the Shadow of Death“. There is, however, no complete review without critique. In consequence two aspects shall be highlighted and put to exalted scrutiny: descriptions and plot construction. Descriptions tend to a certain density by the generous use of adjectives and adverbs. Such density accrues the charge of the atmosphere. Such density accrues the charge of the atmosphere and this is of particular benefit to the novel when the pace is set down a gear, when Terr, stranded with the desert nomads, initiates his training in the spiritual track of the Discipline. The desert landscape is vividly represented before the reader's eye and its influence on Terr becomes palpable. But a few times throughout the whole of the book I felt that descriptions were compressed to the point of information-overload, like in this sentence: „Fractal tendrils reached in jagged fingers from the southern polar cap to vanish in faded muddy patches of green and flashes of azure from the small shallow seas.“ As for the plot, it is a pure joy for anyone who cherishes a complex societal and political backdrop in sci-fi. The criss-crossing pathways of diplomatic manoeuvring are outspread in subtle conversations between characters playing daringly their double-handed game. As rarely happens in unison, the development of the plot results both complex and thrilling. But I think it is arguable whether the plot has not become a little lost in its own complexity. To summarise the basic tenet: Kapel Pen rules a planet to which a lucrative mining colony is attached. She has to respond to the overarching rule of the Deklans. The Karkans can be seen as a competitor state to the Deklans. As already the blurb reveals, Kapel Pen plans to „cede the Four Suns“ system, of which her own planet forms a part. That is, she wants to cede it to the Karkans. While the blurb makes this known to the reader from the start, it is supposed to be unknown to the principal players of the Serrll Combine, a sort of super-government including both the Deklans and the Karkans. But really it is hard to understand why the final divulging of Kapel Pen's plan appears such a surprise to the officials of the Serrll Combine. They themselves spell it out from the beginning, only with a lesser reach than it finally assumes. Enllss, one of these officials, envisages from early on the idea that the Karkans strive to increase their political pull in the Serrll Combine by way of “territorial acquisition”. He remarks that attention should concentrate on “Kapel Pen and the other three Controllers“ of the Four Suns System. He says, „I need to know what Kapel and the Karkans are plotting“. However, when Kapel's plan becomes known in explicit form to Enllss, he exclaims that „[w]e've been pounding our brains worrying about market monopolies“ while Kapel's dealings with the Karkans really were aiming for territorial acquisition. But this is no news at all. As can be seen above, Enllss had already calculated the possibility. Thus, I would be inclined to see an inconsistency here. But it is of pivotal importance to clarify that this doesn't undermine the quality of the plot construction. To the contrary, I'm ready to admit that my above critique is somewhat sophisticated. That I could have formulated it at all has only been possible because of the complexity and finery that the construction of the plot carries. Therefore, what might appear as a point against the novel really is a strong point in its favour. Ambiguity in details can only show up in a story development that is remarkable for its richly layered and craftily detailed outlay. Beyond any sophistication: the book just makes for a marvellous sci-fi experience. What's the more, it is not for an isolated story that the author has expended so much creative wit in the representation of characters and socio-political background. They are further fleshed out in six consecutive novels that, judging by the quality of this one, must sum up to an enthralling saga about the rise and fall of gods and empires. At the same time a focus will be held on personality growth as Terr advances in the way of the Discipline. „In the Shadow of Death“ calls for a resounding recommendation. [This is a shortened version of the full review, to be found on the reviewer's blog.]