The Phaestor, a genetically altered vampiric race, have set in motion their final plan for the complete enslavement of the galaxy. However, they will not go unopposed, for on numerous worlds, humans, androids, and bioforms have joined forces against their vampiric overlords.
A government of vampires, dragons, and mutated humans displays its galactic dominance, and while those entrusted with the wisdom of the galaxy sanction the struggle against the Phaestor, a cunning Vampire war queen, her ambitious suitor, and the fierce and invincible Dragon Lord vie for total domination . . .
The last hope for the galaxy remains in the hands of rebels from Thoska-Roole: a band of malcontents, outnumbered and pursued, fighting for their freedom, their lives, and the future of the stars.
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When they finally pulled Lee-1169 off of Sawyer, both men had multiple minor cuts and abrasions, and Lee had blood streaming from his nose.
"I can't believe your audacity!" Lee shouted as he struggled in the grip of Drin and Tahl. The two larger men held him firmly back. "The rebellion will have a death sentence put on your head. To hell with both of you —" Sawyer spat back, "A death sentence from the Alliance of Life? The same Alliance that believes in the sacredness of all life everywhere? At least, now you betray your true colors. Life only for those who believe in it your way. Now you know why we don't give our allegiance. We hate hypocrisy."
"Both of you, shut up," said William Three-Dollar, stepping between them.
Lee tried to shake free. "Don't you talk to them, goddammit! These two trackers don't even have the decency to stay bought."
William Three-Dollar reached out and grabbed Lee's throat. For the first time since they had met him, his face clouded with emotion. He looked furious. He spoke in a voice as ferocious as any Dragon's, "Don't ever again tell me what I must or must not do. I walk my own path!" He released the smaller man. Shaken, Lee fell back, his face ashen.
Three-Dollar turned away from him. He lifted his gaze to study Sawyer and Finn Markham. Finn let go of his brother then; so did the other man holding Sawyer; Tuan loomed larger than Drin and Tahl together. He shoved Sawyer quickly away, leaving the two trackers alone in the center of Three-Dollar's scrutiny. The TimeBinder approached them slowly and looked mournfully down at them.
The TimeBinder looked from one to the other, with very real disappointment in his eyes; but even though he looked as if he had volumes to speak, he remained silent. He just stared at them ruefully. He looked so disappointed that neither Sawyer nor Finn could meet his penetrating gaze for long. Finally, Three-Dollar turned his back on them and returned to the others. Sawyer and Finn felt more than dismissed; they felt discarded.
"Let me instruct you in the way," Three-Dollar spoke patiently to Lee-1169. He spread his hands wide to bring in the other three rebels as well. Drin, Tahl, and Tuan moved closer to the TimeBinder. "We might describe these two trackers who share our imprisonment as ethically retarded, except that in their case, such an appellation would serve more as compliment than epithet." He put his hand on Lee's smaller shoulder and spoke in soft gentle tones. "My son, you need to learn the compassion that extends beyond those who deserve compassion. Real compassion goes out to all, whether they deserve it or not.
"These two men seem undeserving, and so we feel justified in withholding our care. But if you could look at them from a compassionate context, you would see that these two poor assholes have simply never learned the same loyalty that you have. They have no vision larger than their stomachs. Because of that, they have no real humanity. They can never truly understand the nature of justice. So, for you to expect or demand behavior consistent with such training only demonstrates more foolishness on your part than theirs."
"Excuse me —" Sawyer started to interrupt, insulted.
Three-Dollar turned and looked at him calmly. "Please don't interrupt. This conversation doesn't concern you."
"Yes, it does!"
"Soy —" Finn grabbed his brother's arm and pulled him back. "Shut up."
"But he said —"
"I heard what he said. Shut up."
Three-Dollar turned back to the Alliance rebels. "We can only speak to them in their own language. We can only speak to them in terms they will understand."
Lee held up his clenched fists. "Then why did you stop me?"
"Because you didn't understand."
"Eh?" Lee shook his head, as if to clear it. But he closed his mouth and swallowed hard, and allowed the TimeBinder to educate him.
"Watch," he instructed. The TimeBinder turned back to Sawyer and Finn. He spread his huge bony hands out in a calming gesture — as if smoothing the troubled waters between them. "I will offer you a contract," he said. He turned his palms face up as if to demonstrate his good will. "Indeed, I'll offer you the only deal you appear capable of understanding."
"Good," said Sawyer, showing a pleased smile. "Let's talk terms. How much?"
"Your lives in exchange for your service."
Sawyer's smile collapsed. "I hate deals like that," he said.
"I have no other offer to make," the TimeBinder said. "Either take it or leave it."
Sawyer looked to his brother. Finn's expression demonstrated no more enthusiasm for the contract than Sawyer's. Finn shrugged. "It sounds like a fair deal to me," he said to Sawyer dryly. "Does it sound fair to you?"
Sawyer scratched his head. "I don't suppose we could discuss the hazardous duty allotment ...? I didn't think so." He sighed and put on his bravest smile. "Okay, we accept." He held out his hand to the TimeBinder. So did Finn.
"Done," said the TimeBinder, clasping both Sawyer's and Finn's smaller hands in both of his.
"All right," said Sawyer Markham. "Now, we go to Plan B."
"Plan B?" Lee-1169 approached the two suspiciously. Despite his smoldering anger, he had not forgotten the peril of their circumstance; they still remained guests of the Lady Zillabar's dangerous hospitality.
"We always have a Plan B," Finn said. "You can't trust anybody."
Three-Dollar laughed aloud at that. Lee looked at the TimeBinder, puzzled — then he too got the joke and snorted in amusement. Finally, he turned back to the brothers Markham and said, "All right, tell us your Plan B."
Sawyer held up a hand for silence. "Shh, I have to make it up."CHAPTER 2
Abruptly, the floor shifted under their feet. It shuddered and began to tilt. The men looked at each other, alarmed. Only Three-Dollar remained placid. "We've lifted off," he said. "Whatever the Lady plans for us, she wants to keep us close."
To observers on the outside, the liftoff of the Lady's vessel presented an astonishing sight. First, the great sprawling structure of the palace lit up like a beacon. It became a gaudy confection of light. It glistened like a jeweled crown perched on the highest peak of MesaPort. Its gleaming spires sparkled and shone. It dazzled brighter than the Eye of God.
Then ... a great deep note began to resonate through the city. It swelled and ebbed as a grand tide of sound, vibrating up through the rock itself. Now, the entire top section of the palace lit up in frosty beams of light. Glimmering in the night, the upper half of the palace detached from the framework of light that held it. It lifted off its golden cradle and rose gently into the sky above the city.
The people poured out into the streets, gasping, shouting, and pointing. Even the normally stolid Dragons stopped to stare upward. Shouts of celebration and joy rose into the air, rising like the Lady's bright vessel. The ship slid gracefully out over the desert and began gathering speed. It swung around in a great arc and pointed itself eastward. Then, it began rising straight up into the night.
Kernel d'Vashti watched the Lady leave without visible expression. He stood on the highest balcony of his tower at the opposite end of the city and watched as the pebble of light streaked away toward the stars. At last, a faint smile appeared on his face. His mouth tightened, his eyes narrowed. He understood the Lady's retreat better than she did. The males of his species knew this dance much better than the females — because the males had a lifetime of practice.
She danced away, thinking she danced in anger — even she believed it. But in truth, her actions sent a much more tantalizing message. She dared him to follow and prove his worthiness. He would have to demonstrate his ferocity before she would surrender to his triumph.
d'Vashti allowed his outer face to wear the same expression as his inner one — a grin of happy expectation. He had the strength, he had the will, and he had a clear track toward his victory. He had eliminated everyone who might have challenged him for the Lady's bed. The inevitability of his victory gave him a surging feeling of pride. He would topple the arrogant Lady Zillabar into his nest, and he would shortly father the next generation of Zashti children.
He waited until the distant mote had disappeared into the Eye of God, then he turned crisply about and reentered his tower, shouting as he hurried down the corridors, summoning his aides, and spitting a stream of ominous orders.
Far above, far away — the great vessel climbed majestically above the sea of air, climbed out of the well of gravity, and headed toward an enormous spired web that wheeled proudly in high orbit. It sparkled even brighter than its counterpart on the crown of MesaPort. From a distance it seemed as graceful as a dandelion drifting on the wind, but as Zillabar's vessel approached its details became clearer and more deadly-looking. It gleamed like a golden weapon, all daggers and spears. Among its many towers stood many projectors, accelerators, launchers, and disruptors. The Lady had built a warship for her chariot and dubbed it The Golden Fury. Others, less respectful, called it simply, the Zillabarge — but not in the Lady's hearing, of course.
Now, the part of Zillabar's palace that served as shuttlecraft slid into its final docking maneuver. It fitted itself gracefully into the center of the great turning web of light and power. Once again complete, The Golden Fury glowed in readiness.CHAPTER 3
Inside the vessel, inside her hold, inside her prison, her human cargo felt the final thump of the docking. The men looked at each other's eyes, searching for a reason to hope.
Sawyer Markham quashed the impulse. "Burihatin," he said grimly. "We go to Burihatin 14." He saw the TimeBinder react sharply to this information.
"How do you know this?" asked Lee-1169.
"The Lady herself said so. She told d'Vashti. She did this in our presence, then she dismissed him. I don't think she likes him very much."
"Don't let her anger fool you," Three-Dollar said. "Vampire women like to torture their mates before they eat them. They don't have the same kind of emotions as humans. They don't have love; they have a form of intense hatred for that which attracts them. It produces terrible frenzied matings. Sometimes the male survives, more often not."
"It sounds dreadful. Why would anyone want such a goal as desperately as d'Vashti seems to?"
Three-Dollar smiled gently. "In ancient days, humans practiced much the same kind of mating. And desired it every bit as desperately."
"I find that difficult to believe."
The TimeBinder nodded gently. "I remember it well. Before the Phaestor began licensing wombs, humans numbered as many females as males."
"No — you joke with us. I can't imagine that," Sawyer said.
"Whether you can imagine it or not, it happened." Three-Dollar said calmly. The men in the room listened, fascinated. Even Drin, Tahl, and Tuan, who normally kept to themselves, came closer to hear this history. "Any man and any woman who chose to mate could do so, simply by publicly declaring their commitment to each other and signing a formal contract which guaranteed their responsibility for any resulting offspring. The female actually carried the children within her own body, within her own organic womb. She grew the children one at a time. Sometimes she gave birth to male children, sometimes female. Without selection, the process remained totally random."
"It sounds ... very haphazard," said Finn. "And dangerous."
The TimeBinder nodded. "Indeed it does sound haphazard and dangerous, but it worked. It worked for humans, at least. Most of the time. Apparently, it didn't work for the Phaestor. The Vampires don't like to have this fact known, but human scientists created them. Apparently, they created them too well — too aggressive. After destroying the predators, the Vampires began uncreating their progenitors.
"Using their authority on the worlds they controlled, they began licensing all breeding to keep the resident populations from getting out of control. Over a period of many centuries, they have drastically reduced the populations of their subject worlds. Now, if a human wants a child, a Vampire has to approve it, and the child — almost always male — will come from a synthetic womb. The Vampires only allow female births where their control of the child remains assured. They fear unlicensed breeding, because their enemies could grow an army that way."
"Well, we would —" said Lee. "Wouldn't we?"
"You really don't know, do you?" said Three-Dollar. "They've even taken that away from you. Try to imagine," he continued, intensely, "what it means to hold your own child in your hands, the product of your loins, a laughing infant, so pink and delicate and so utterly helpless and dependent on you. Try to imagine the surge of emotion you would feel every time you look at your baby, the overpowering need to shelter and protect it from all harm. Try to imagine the love. Humans don't breed children like Vampires. We don't raise our offspring as weapons. We raise them as family — as pieces of ourselves. Your children become your way of achieving immortality.
"What you feel for your brothers, Lee — what Sawyer and Finn feel for each other, what Ibaka and Kask felt for their families — that same emotion grows even stronger for your mate and your children. The Vampires don't have that emotion. Because of the way they breed, they can never know it. But they know we have these feelings and they fear us because of it. In the calculations of their minds, they might know that we don't think like they do; but in their moment-to-moment hormone- maddened existence, they can only see us as reflections of themselves. Because humans never act as they expect us too, we trouble them immensely." He smiled wickedly. "The poor Vampires. They imagine themselves the warriors of the Cluster, but in truth, they remain trapped in their inability to imagine."
The men fell silent for a while, each one examining in his own soul the meaning of the freedoms that William Three-Dollar had described. Such concepts had never before occurred to them, and the visions they produced had a disturbing quality. "When we defeat the Vampires," Tuan said, with an almost reverent awe for the possibilities that Three-Dollar had evoked, "we really will live differently."
"Your children will benefit from your victory," Three-Dollar said wisely. "If you follow in the path of every rebellion before you, you yourselves will probably have a great deal of trouble appreciating the fruits of your victory."
"Do you think we'll win, TimeBinder?" Drin asked.
"I predict the past," Three-Dollar said. "Not the future."
"Burihatin," Sawyer said. "What does that mean to you?" Sawyer pressed him. "I saw you react to it before. Why?"
The tall man allowed his concern to show. "We've known for some time that d'Vashti had sent his Marauder squadrons to Burihatin 14. We knew that they searched for the TimeBinder, but hadn't yet found him. Zillabar must know something. She wants that headband in particular. It has much more interesting knowledge than this one —" He tapped his forehead. "Much of the history of the creation of the Phaestor rests in the Burihatin memories. If she gains that knowledge, who knows what power it could give her?" He added grimly, "The fact that we go there now could indicate several things. Perhaps she's become too impatient to wait for d'Vashti's agents. Perhaps she doesn't trust d'Vashti. Perhaps her own people have located the headband. If the latter case, then they may have already killed the TimeBinder." He looked around at the others. "And if the latter has occurred, then she will have the power to destroy the Gathering and all the TimeBinders."
Excerpted from "A Covenant of Justice: Trackers, Book Two"
Copyright © 2014 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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