Richard Baker continues the adventures of Sikander North in Restless Lightning, the second book in his new military science fiction series Breaker of Empires and sequel to Valiant Dust.
Lieutenant Sikander North has avoided an outright court martial and finds himself assigned to a remote outpost in the crumbling, alien Tzoru Empirewhere the navy sends trouble-makers to be forgotten. When Sikander finds himself in the middle of an alien uprising, he, once again, must do the impossible: smuggle an alien ambassador off-world, break a siege, and fight the irrational prejudice of his superior officers. The odds are against his success, and his choices could mean disgraceor redemption.
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Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime
"This is a damned peculiar way to travel," remarked Commodore William Abernathy in a sour tone. He waved one hand to indicate the open-sided carriage in which they rode, the elaborately dressed Tzoru driver with his — or her? — painted dermal patterns, and the alliksisu yoked to the boatlike prow. The Aquilan flag officer fidgeted in a vain effort to find a comfortable posture for his seat. Short and slight of frame, with iron-gray hair and a stiff terrier's mustache, Abernathy disliked sitting still, especially on a cold and damp day. "It'll take us half an hour to reach the embassy at this pace, and I'll be damned if it isn't snowing by the time we get there."
Lieutenant Commander Sikander Singh North, Commonwealth Navy, noted that his new commanding officer's favorite word appeared to be "damned" and carefully hid a smile. He found the cold, clammy weather uncomfortable too, but he had about thirty kilos on Abernathy, all of it muscle. Most people from his homeworld — Jaipur, in the Kashmir system — possessed the stocky, broad-shouldered frames common among natives of planets a little over standard gravity. If he felt the chill through his Navy overcoat, the commodore probably felt like he was sitting in a freezer.
"It's tradition, sir," he told the commodore. "At least the ride is smooth." Maglev rails buried under the avenue powered every street in the Tzoru capital, providing a wheelless suspension for the carriage. The transportation network had been installed around the same time ancient humans had first figured out agriculture. Time and again during Sikander's tour of duty in the squadron posted on the Navy's Helix Station he'd started to believe he might actually understand something about the culture or psychology of the alien Tzoru — and time and again he'd been confronted by some new piece of evidence that humans didn't really understand the Tzoru at all. For example, powering the roads but not the vehicles. Leave it to the Tzoru to come up with that one!
"Tradition? A damned stupid one, I suppose," Abernathy muttered, confirming Sikander's suspicion about his favorite word.
"Powered ground cars would challenge the place held by the carriage-driver sebetu, sir," Captain Francine Reyes explained to Abernathy. Tall and poised in comparison to her wiry, energetic superior, she wore a more or less permanent frown of disapproval at the various idiosyncrasies of the Tzoru. Abernathy had taken command of the squadron patrolling Helix Station only a week ago, but she'd served as deputy commodore under his predecessor for more than a year. Like Sikander, she'd had plenty of time to experience the peculiarities of Tzoru customs.
"Sebetu — those are the Tzoru clans, right?"
"Something about halfway between a clan, a guild, and a caste, yes." Reyes had anticipated that the weather might be cold; she at least had dressed warmly for the carriage ride. She continued her explanation: "Taking away the role of the carriage-driver sebetu would upset the harmony of things. The Tzoru simply don't do that unless they must."
"Are you serious, D-Com?" said Abernathy. "In ten thousand years no one's convinced the taxi drivers to retire their ridiculous draft beasts? So why couldn't we just land at the embassy grounds and skip the whole thing?"
Sikander took that as his cue. "Sir, no one flies over Bagal-Dindir except for members of the aristocratic sebetu or their soldiers. If it's any consolation, the privilege of an official carriage is a sign of Tzoru deference to your rank. Otherwise we'd have to take the trolley or walk." He'd learned more than a few hard lessons about Tzoru inflexibility during nineteen months as Helix Squadron's intelligence officer, especially when it came to Tzoru military protocols. Sikander was a line officer by trade, but not even a career intelligence specialist could be expected to make sense of the contradictions and challenges every Commonwealth officer who rotated through Helix Squadron encountered. In fact, the Admiralty staggered relief assignments specifically to ensure that the squadron staff always included at least a few officers who'd been on Helix Station for some time.
"Walking might be warmer," Abernathy said with a snort. He shivered inside his overcoat, and leaned forward to address the driver. "You, there. Can we go a little faster? I want to beat the snowstorm." The translation device clipped to his collar emitted a string of guttural Tzoqabu a moment after he finished.
The driver turned to regard the small party reclining in the open carriage, twisting easily in a motion that would have tested a human contortionist. He (or so Sikander guessed, since humans could have a difficult time telling Tzoru of different sexes apart) replied to Abernathy in Tzoqabu; Sikander's own translation device fed the interpretation into his ears: "The alliksisu has no interest in hurrying, honored friends, but if you are cold I can activate the heating plates."
"There is a heater?" Abernathy asked in a flat tone.
"Yes, honored friend. I shall activate it." The Tzoru adjusted controls on a small panel near his left hand, then returned to the task of directing the alliksisu — a creature that looked like a blue, scaly rhinoceros with long legs and three wide toes on each foot. A moment later, a pleasant warmth enveloped Sikander's legs and began to well upward from the floor.
"Could've used that ten minutes ago," said Lieutenant Mason Barnes, leaving his translator off. The fourth in Abernathy's small party, Barnes — Sikander's roommate in their Academy days, and one of the closest friends he had in the Navy — served as Helix Squadron's communications officer. He had the pale complexion, red hair, and rural accent of a Hibernian. People who evinced characteristics of the old Terran races were somewhat unusual in the metropolitan worlds of the Aquilan Commonwealth, or any of the other great powers in the Coalition of Humanity. Noticeably distinct traits like the fair skin of the Hibernians, or the coppery complexion and wavy black hair common in Kashmir, indicated descent from populations that had been isolated at some point or other during humanity's expansion to the stars. Mason caught Sikander's eye and nodded at the driver's back as if to say, A Tzoru being Tzoru, what can you do?
Sikander answered with a small shrug. Humans had encountered only four other starfaring species and the long-dead ruins of a few others in nine centuries of interstellar travel. Of the living four species, Tzoru were perhaps the most humanlike, but despite bipedal morphology and technology comparable to human technology, Tzoru were indeed alien. They had evolved from semiaquatic pack hunters millions of years ago; a sort of stiff cartilage made up their skeletons, and they had tough rubbery crests with breathing apertures instead of noses. In place of skin, Tzoru had a gray, leathery dermis with patterns of scales — broad and thick on the back and shoulders, finer and more colorful around the face. Their eyes were large and dark and set almost on the sides of their bullet-shaped heads, and their wide, lipless mouths were filled with serrated teeth. Tzoru dressed themselves in kilts and sleeveless tunics for everyday wear, layered robes in cold weather, or elaborately ornate robes when they wished to demonstrate their social status ... which was at every opportunity, in Sikander's experience.
Tzoru thought processes and emotions likewise ranged from near-human to coldly pragmatic and uncompassionate. They had nothing like the human drives of romantic love, ambition, restlessness, or a craving for thrills, but they showed great affection for friends and relatives. And they had exactly zero empathy for strangers, which meant that a carriage driver bundled up against the chill of a cold day would never even begin to imagine that his passengers might be cold if they didn't bring it to his attention.
"I knew it. Now it's snowing," Abernathy observed. Sikander glanced up; sure enough, wet, heavy flakes drifted down from the gray clouds overhead. The commodore drew his overcoat more snugly over his chest and settled back in his seat with a sigh of resignation.
"If you'll look over thataway, sir, you can see the Anshar's Palace," Mason said, perhaps hoping to distract Abernathy's attention from the cold, wet ride. "Just through that gap in the treeferns, there. Those're the monuments of the Royal Ward." Slender spires, mighty domes, and steep-sided ziggurats loomed a kilometer or two from the boulevard down which they rode. Bagal-Dindir had the population of any large human city, but Tzoru built few high-rise buildings; as a result the capital sprawled over a vast area. In some neighborhoods one could hardly tell that one was in a city at all, but the Thousand Worlds ward — the city's "Embassy Row" — stood in an old temple district not far from the seat of the Dominion's government. The drive from the spaceport to the Aquilan embassy offered some of the better views to be found in the city.
"That big ziggurat with all the gold on it?" Abernathy asked, craning for a better look.
"Yes, sir. They say that one building covers almost three square kilometers."
"Impressive," Abernathy admitted. "Have any of you been there?"
"No, sir," said Sikander. "Only a handful of humans have ever set foot in the palace."
Reyes gave a small snort of disgust. "The Anshar's attendants almost never permit non-Tzoru to sully the grounds with our presence. It's rather insulting, if you ask me."
"Hmmph." Abernathy grunted and looked away, turning his attention to their immediate surroundings. Private homes, workshops, and small businesses dotted both sides of the boulevard, interspersed with open spaces that allowed longer views. Tzoru dressed in the colors of many different sebetu hurried from one establishment to another or rode along in carriages and carts that cluttered the street. Quite terran in many ways, Tamabuqq Prime had breathable air, oceans filled with water, natural flora dominated by green plants, and more or less Earthlike seasons and weather. But even after a year and a half stationed in the heart of the Tzoru Dominion, Sikander still found it disconcertingly alien. The sounds and smells were all wrong: the avians hissed and clicked instead of singing, overpowering spice-like scents filled the air, and the sky on a sunny day was a pale green hue.
Five more months, Sikander told himself. His tour in Helix Squadron would soon be over. The Tzoru frontier lay more than a month from Aquila's core systems; it was the sort of place where ambitious officers went to make names for themselves without the oversight of their superiors, and superiors who didn't want to deal with troublesome subordinates could send them out of sight and out of mind. Sikander belonged to the latter group: Very few Kashmiris served in the Aquilan navy, fewer still came from families as pedigreed or powerful as the Norths of Jaipur, and exactly one had taken command of an Aquilan warship in the middle of a battle, fighting through to victory in the face of orders to withdraw. After the prominent role Sikander had played in the Gadira incident, half the Admiralty had wanted to commend him, and the other half had wanted to court-martial him. The compromise that had eventually won out was evidently to hide him in the most remote post they could think of. But which side of the debate does Abernathy favor? The new commodore hadn't bothered to tell Sikander whether he approved or disapproved of his actions at Gadira.
A snowflake slipped past the visor of his cap, narrowly missing his eye. Sikander brushed at his face, noting that the flurry seemed to be growing heavier. He hadn't seen snow in years, a simple accident of assignments to bases in temperate climes and periods of leave that never seemed to align with the cold season at home. Now that he thought of it, it had been snowing the first time he met William Abernathy. Fourteen years ago, back at the Academy, a day filled with heavy flurries —
* * *
— dancing outside the high windows of Powell Hall's formal hearing room. The afternoon is cold and gray; the furnishings are dark, old wood, massive as battlements. Sikander, a freshman, faces the Disciplinary Committee: five senior midshipmen with faces that might have been carved from stone. A dozen of Sikander's classmates and upperclassmen from his company sit behind him; he can't see them, but their silence is a tangible weight at his back. At the side of the room, Commander Abernathy, staff advisor to the committee, sits with his head leaning on his hand, watching the scene. His posture suggests he is falling asleep.
The committee chairperson, a senior named Adelaide Wallace, reads from a document: "Midshipman Fourth Class North, you have been placed on report for the infraction of striking a superior officer. Your company commander states that on the evening of February tenth, he found you engaged in a fistfight with Midshipman Second Class Gray. During this altercation he saw you throw several punches at Mr. Gray, and that you continued to do so even after you were ordered to stop. The purpose of this proceeding is to examine the facts of the report, provide you an opportunity to make answer, and then determine the appropriate punishment. This is an administrative proceeding and is not a hearing under the military justice code, but any statements you make here are considered to be in the public record and you are expected to be truthful under the Academy honor code. Do you understand?" "I do, ma'am," Sikander answers.
"Midshipman Second Class Gray and your company commander have already stated that they agree with the facts as stated in the report. Do you dispute any part of the report?"
Sikander hesitates before he speaks. "No, ma'am. The report is correct."
Midshipman Wallace looks up at that. "You are admitting that you are guilty of striking Mr. Gray? The customary punishment is expulsion, Mr. North."
"Ma'am, Midshipman-Commander Farrell accurately reported what he observed when he arrived on the scene and what Mr. Gray said to him at that time. But the report says nothing about what happened before Mr. Farrell got there, or whether Mr. Gray was telling the truth."
"You dare to call me a liar, Snottie?" an angry voice snarls behind Sikander. A clatter of scraping chairs follows.
Sikander can't help it; he turns around. Midshipman Victor Gray, a junior in Sikander's own company, knocks his chair over as he springs to his feet. He is a tall, sandy-haired young man, stocky and strong for an Aquilan, and his face is twisted in fury.
Sikander looks him right in the eye. "Yes, sir. I do."
Gray takes a half step toward him and balls his fists. The midshipmen that make up the Disciplinary Committee look at each other in confusion. Several people start to speak at once. But Commander Abernathy sits up straight and slaps his open hand on the tabletop in front of him so loudly everybody in the room jumps. "Strike that from the record!" he snaps. "And Gray's remark too. We will have no such insinuations on the transcript, is that clear?"
Adelaide Wallace stares at Abernathy in surprise before nodding to the underclassman who serves as the committee clerk. "As Mr. Abernathy requests," she says to him. "Strike the last two remarks, please."
"Ms. Wallace, I suggest a brief recess," Abernathy continues. Without waiting for her reply, he stands and marches over to where Sikander stands. He's easily ten centimeters shorter than Sikander or any of the other midshipmen, but in that moment the only commissioned officer in the room seems to tower over everyone. It's all Sikander can do to stand his ground without flinching. "North, come with me. I need a word with you."
He spins on his heel and strides away as the midshipmen watch. Sikander stares after him for a moment, then hurries after him —
* * *
"What's going on here?" Abernathy asked suddenly, rousing Sikander from the old memories. The commodore had a little more gray in his hair and gold braid on his uniform than the officer Sikander remembered from his Academy days, but seemed otherwise unmarked by the passage of fourteen years.
Sikander turned to see what had caught the commodore's attention. Scores of agitated Tzoru crowded together in front of an open-sided shelter or hall a short distance up the street. Many wore green, double-pointed caps of a design he hadn't seen before, and one individual standing on a parked cart led a responsive chant. At each pause, the Tzoru in the crowd raised their hands in the air and shouted wildly in response: "Ebneghirz! Ebneghirz!"
"Some kind of religious procession," said Deputy Commodore Reyes with a scowl of disapproval. Like many Aquilans, Reyes had no use for religious beliefs of any sort, human or alien. "There's some such nonsense every day in Bagal-Dindir. That building behind the crowd is a shrine — they're all over the capital."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Restless Lightning"
Copyright © 2018 Richard Baker.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
2. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
3. Kadingir, Tamabuqq Prime,
4. Durzinzer, Tamabuqq Prime,
5. CSS Exeter, Tamabuqq System,
6. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
7. Magan Kahnar, Kahnar-Sag System,
8. CSS Exeter, Kahnar-Sag System,
9. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
10. CSS Exeter, Warp Transit,
11. CSS Exeter, Tamabuqq System,
12. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
13. CSS Exeter, Warp Transit,
14. CSS Vendaval, Tamabuqq System,
15. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
16. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
17. CSS Vendaval, Warp Transit,
18. Muqur-Ba, Latzari System,
19. CSS Exeter, Tamabuqq System,
20. CSS Exeter, Tamabuqq System,
21. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
22. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
23. Kadingir, Tamabuqq Prime,
24. Bagal-Dindir, Tamabuqq Prime,
25. Durzinzer, Tamabuqq Prime,
Tor Books by Richard Baker,
About the Author,