Seth Kada, a deep-cover agent working for the Commonwealth, has tracked a group of rebels to the remote Tayako Orbiter. But before he can seize them, the rebels are captured by a powerful rival faction and spirited away.
Seth manages to re-capture one of the rebels, a subspace navigator named Ciela, and soon realizes that her crew’s origin and purpose are far more pivotal than anyone could have suspected.
Caught up in a violent clash between rebel factions, Seth and Ciela’s divergent loyalties must be put aside to prevent the destruction of a peaceful civilization – and find her people before their ultimate destiny is realized.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Do rebels and terrorists know that they’re evil? Are we the good guys? Do they believe that they’re the “bad guys”? The Targon Tales series pits a galactic empire against bands of ruthless rebels. And so this time I wanted to see what happens when one of my “good guys” is thrown together with one of these rebels.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The female lead character is a rebel whose people appear in other stories. She is unlike them because she was raised in a different culture, among her people’s enemies.
Chapter One – Terminus Shift
“How dare you delay me! I am a representative of the Imperial Majestic Over-Vizier of the Third Royal Family of Gramor on an urgent mission to Pelion. Move aside at once or face the wrath of our Lord Olas.”
“Gramor has no royal family. How about you send some ID before you face my wrath, pilot?”
Sethran Kada slipped into his pilot bench, a little surprised to find Air Command hailing him out here. He scanned for more unwelcome escorts and found another military cruiser between him and the jumpsite. Of course they had collapsed the gate as soon they emerged, making a quick exit impossible.
“Did I say Gramor? I meant Callas.” He shifted his attention to the markers for two more ships approaching rapidly from the planet behind him, armed, fully shielded and definitely not belonging to Air Command. Those he did expect. Since eluding them on the Aikhor airfield he had kept well ahead of them but this encounter with the patrol was whittling away his head start by the second.
“Sethran Kada, it says here,” the officer said. “Quite the sheet you have. Visual, please. What are you doing out here?”
An audible signal alerted Seth to the Union ship’s scanners taking a closer look at the Dutchman, easily poking through the cruising shields to look at the interesting bits. He kept his eyes on the few compartments liberally doused with sensor-scattering filaments. Their content remained invisible on the screens.
“That shouldn’t be a mystery.” Seth activated a camera to let the officer make a visual confirmation of his identity: Centauri, black haired and long-limbed like all of them, violet eyes that reflected nearby light, and a friendly grin that often charmed even the most bad-tempered of cops. The Human taking a snap of his irises didn’t seem charmed. “Since I’m currently traveling on a mathematically correct trajectory away from the only two habitable planets in this sector and the only other point of interest here is this jumpsite, the astute observer would conclude that I am about to enter subspace.”
He heard a sigh, followed by a dead silence suggesting some unheard conversation between the two military ships. Seth kept busy. The Dutchman confirmed the switch from auto-pilot to Seth’s neural interface, giving him both mental and tactile control of all systems. He drifted toward the jumpsite aptly named Pelion Gate. It appeared on his monitors as an empty bit of space ringed by a set of Union-owned beacons waiting for him to align and activate.
Sites like these channeled commercial and military traffic among populated sectors of this small, crowded piece of their galaxy along easily monitored shipping lanes with great efficiency. The beacons enabled even the most untried of navigators to find a way through the dead nothing of subspace and emerge unscathed at the intended destination. Stable and accessible, allowing no deviation between entry and exit, these conduits provided safety as well as close surveillance of all those who passed through the ring of beacons. Seth usually had the means to counter their soulless intrusion, but not the Union patrol intent on waylaying him today.
“You’re not actually supposed to be on Pelion, are you, Kada?”
“That’s still before the ministry,” Seth said, wondering when his contacts would get around to expunging that particular misdemeanor. “Besides, I’m not going to Pelion. Just passing through.”
“Maybe.” Seth’s scanners picked up the patrol cruiser’s request for identification of the two other ships. It now broadcasted on a variety of channels; clearly their initial hail had gone unanswered. “What’s going on? Never seen this gate manned before.”
“Just the usual chatter among rebels.”
“If it were usual you wouldn’t be out here harassing tourists.”
“Is that what you are? A tourist? You might as well wait for that incoming traffic and share the load.”
“I’m expected. No time to waste.” The two approaching ships were not the sort looking to hook up for the subspace leap. Entering a gate in a convoy significantly reduced the strain on each ship’s processors as they worked together with the beacons but these two would have other priorities. For the most part, he supposed, blowing the Dutchman to bits was at the top of their list. Two bored Air Command patrol crews would not discourage them today. Perhaps it was better to just get out of everyone’s way. “So I’ll just get jumping, then.”
“You’re vacationing on Callas, another three days away, and you can’t wait a few more minutes to get there?” The voice of the officer aboard the patrol ship took on a less genial tone. Perhaps the continued silence from the heavily armed new arrivals was a little more worrisome than a minor felon entering Pelion Gate. “You’ll want to stop at the station, Dutchman. That’s not negotiable.”
Seth cursed silently. The massive Union station on the Pelion side of this breach was, indeed, his destination but he had hoped to get there unannounced. Now his presence in the sector would no doubt be reported to the management of Pelion Gate as soon as he opened the jumpsite. The patrol’s message packet sent through with him would arrive at the ring before he did. “Need service anyway,” he said blithely. “You folks have yourself a lovely day.”
“Whatever.” Seth sent a mental signal to the ship’s chronometer to adjust the time to Pelion’s rotation. The Union cruisers moved away and turned their attention to the incoming private vessels. Relieved, Seth began to feed the jumpsite, using the beacons to conserve energy. Instead of taxing his own systems, he let the site’s processors work with the Dutchman’s to calculate the traverse through the Big Empty. A slight tremor moved through the ship in preparation for launch.
And then a forceful and all too familiar blow struck the ship. His hands gripped the armrests of his bench when the Dutchman switched into a defensive configuration without warning. The shields were already at full service for the jump but now the weapons systems came online as well. Power routed from the gravity spinners and all components signaled combat readiness.
“Damn.” Seth dove out of the way of another volley emitting from the cruisers streaking toward them, his mental reflex faster than a physical interface could react. The Union ships, too, took up a defensive posture.
“Stand down, Air Command,” a female voice cut into their sound systems. They heard excited voices of others in the background. “This is not your fight.”
“Identify,” the officer replied. “Identify and stand down.”
“Those are Shri-Lan rebels,” Seth supplied, naming the Union’s greatest foe and the primary reason for Air Command’s presence in this sector.
No time to question, no time to explain. The two rebel ships bore down upon the cruisers near the jumpsite, now targeting the forward shields of the Air Command patrols, more as warning than to cause damage. The shots impacting the Dutchman’s shields hit home with far greater accuracy.
“We just want the Centauri,” the woman said. “Move aside or we’ll destroy you, too.”
“Get out of here, Kada!” the Union officer ordered.
“Yessir!” Seth signaled the beacons surrounding the site and accelerated toward the slowly forming aperture. He relaxed into his headset, using only his mind to direct the Dutchman into the breach.
But would those rebels give up if he left? The patrol would have alerted the Union base back on Aikhor who would have scrambled by now. This was not rebel-held territory and an attack on a military ship was not only an act of war but also damn cheeky. The only way to escape now was through the jumpsite to the Pelion sector. And the only way to the site led past the undoubtedly very irate military patrol.
“Bitch took out my fucking aft shield!” The Union pilot’s exclamation was edged in panic, betraying his lack of experience with Shri-Lan rebels bent on retribution.
Seth switched to the real vid display showing the field behind him. The rebel ships had fully engaged, no longer interested in avoiding a fight with Air Command to get at the Dutchman.
Seth allowed the newly formed field to collapse and whipped the Dutchman around to return to the Union ships, his hands flying over the tactical controls as he returned fire. He dove below the cruiser to his left and came up in time to blast one of the rebel ship’s shield seams, using his neural interface to place the charge with precision. Wounded, the Shri-Lan ship spun away to present another side to the melee only to take another hit.
The Dutchman shuddered when a projectile rammed into its undercarriage. He reached up to slap a few internal shields into place when a containment warning appeared on the holo representation of his ship beside him. He moved back to let the Air Command cruiser take a shot at their enemy and grinned when it disintegrated over their heads. A few solid chunks of hull slammed into his shields, barely raising a note of concern from his monitors. He came around and lobbed a missile at the remaining rebels’ left crossdrive, watching it crumble with a burst of quickly-extinguished sparks.
“Pretty!” he said.
“Remaining bogey’s disabled,” one of the officers transmitted. “I’m lame, too.”
“Backup coming in from Aikhor,” his colleague reported. “Should be here in a few hours. No other unidentifieds in the vicinity.”
“Tourist, eh, Kada? What are you packing on that boat? You cut through that shield like churry lard.”
“Lucky hit,” Seth said and turned the Dutchman back to the jumpsite.
“I’d thank you for saving my ass but I think we have to thank you for starting all this to begin with.”
“I have to go.”
“Negative, Kada. You’re staying here till we know what’s so important about you.”
“No, really. I’m expected.” Seth moved into position. “I had fun, though. Thanks.”
“Let Pelion deal with him,” the officer on the undamaged ship said. “We’ll know soon enough what had this Shri-Lan scum so excited.”
“Unlikely,” Seth said to himself after shutting down their com link. Unfortunately, whatever story the surviving rebels had to offer Air Command investigators was surely worse than the truth. They’d not pass up an opportunity to create more trouble.
He returned his attention to the jumpsite. A pleasant tone rang through the ship to announce the imminent jump. The Dutchman accelerated correctly, steadily, while ramping up all shields for the assault about to be unleashed upon it. The shields would form a small bubble of safety for pilot and cargo, allowing him to pass from one sector to the other in mere moments. He breathed deeply, steeling himself, before placing his hand on the control panel, confirming what his mind had already conveyed to the processor.
The ship slipped into the breach, immediately out of sight, immediately just simply erased from Seth’s senses. Only a growing dread remained when all light and sound disappeared, gravity did not exist; engines and neurons ceased their work. They would never know the many other worlds that existed in real-space between this point and the site’s terminus at Pelion. Mere notations on astronomical charts, they were without interest until someone discovered the correct, microscopic rupture in space to span the way there. Seth often thought that many of those worlds should consider themselves fortunate to remain unexplored by Union interests.
Then he was out. He gasped for air, as always, even though he had been deprived of it for mere seconds. He groped for his mental control of the ship to decelerate and adjust its course, aided by the matching beacons that greeted him here. A quick systems check assured him that, despite the tremendous strain of the traverse, the Dutchman had once again delivered him safely.
“Someday I’ll get used to this,” he told his ship. Then again, as uncomfortable as these jaunts felt, they were nothing compared to those made by the true subspace navigators. Those rare talents, the Level Three spanners, needed no pre-defined charts or Union-controlled beacons to guide them through raw keyholes, tiny fissures in space, to feel their way to a distant destination. Highly valued and highly paid, they worked for Air Command and the larger shipping companies. The more enterprising among them also made deep space exploration possible and led the way to new destinations. Alive, if at all possible. Their work turned simple keyholes into jumpsites, providing the maps for chartjumpers like Seth.
He sometimes considered going into business with such a navigator to help him get around more easily, if not more cheaply. But the one he knew comfortably enough to want to share his small ship preferred to hear about Seth’s adventures from a safe distance. Given that last time he served as navigator he had lost a hand, it was probably just as well. For the most part, Seth was quite content to avail himself to the charted jumpsites, even if that meant being harassed by patrols with tedious regularity.
An automated guide signal arrived from the station and he responded without demur this time. Pelion Gate, just ahead of him now, formed a traffic hub linking the busy Targon sub-sector with the more remote Magra-Aikhor corridor. The massive station, ring-shaped like many of its generation, hosted a town’s worth of residents, traders, service depots and, of course, a full complement of Air Command personnel.
“Welcome to Pelion, Mister Kada,” he was eventually greeted.
“Thank you,” Seth said, his attention on the approach to the station. Without the jumpsite in its active state, the ring seemed to float purposelessly in the inky nothing of space, too far removed from the Pelion system to seem to belong anywhere. Still, it was lit dramatically on one side by the system’s single star and illuminated by hundreds of windows on the other. An impressive sight, as always swarmed by vessels of all sizes and configurations, surrounded by satellites and solar collectors, and protectively patrolled by Air Command fighter planes.
“Approach denied. Drop your shields and prepare for boarding.”
“I’m starting to think people don’t trust me,” Seth grumbled, but what had he expected after his run-in with the patrol back near Aikhor? As he’d assumed, their message packet had come through the gate in his wake and found receptive ears aboard the station. After a moment’s hesitation, he returned a coded message, as always reluctant to use his key unless he absolutely had to. Sometimes it was better to be thought of as a tourist.
Minutes passed during which one or two of the agile Air Command Kites swooped around him as if a closer look somehow told them anything about the plain, tired-looking cruiser with the plain and unoriginal name. His was a ship like thousands of others that came through here and even their careful scans showed little of what the Dutchman really had to offer.
Then a different voice: “Boarding pass accepted. You’re cleared for docking, small craft ring, bay nineteen.”
“Aren’t you going to wish me a nice day?”
“Don’t push it, Kada. Whatever you’re doing here, do it quietly.”
Seth decided to forego further response and brought the Dutchman around to the assigned dock. He nudged the ship gently into its berth and felt the docking rings slide over the entrance to his small cargo bay which also served as air lock. The gently pulsing indicator beside him reminded him that his ship needed attention after the hit he’d taken from the Shri-Lan cruiser. A minor thorium leak in the area he had shielded off. Hoping for a reasonably priced repair, he chatted with the station’s service department before powering the ship down.
He left the cockpit to enter the cluttered main cabin, the only place he called his home. This also needed attention. A cleaning company could probably restore some order in here although he’d wait until he returned to Magra to hire crews he trusted with his ship’s secrets. He slipped into his boots and faded flight jacket and ran his fingers through his hair. Before he reached the pressure door to the cargo bay, he stopped by the tiny crew quarters to place a hand onto its key plate and then used his foot to push the door open.
“On your feet,” he said.
The Caspian female curled up on the lower of the two bunks peered out at him with unblinking yellow eyes. “They caught us,” she said, using her native tongue. “The Shri-Lan.”
“They tried. Come on, get up. I don’t want to spend any more time here than I have to.” He took a step into the cramped space, careful to stay out of her reach. Unclothed, as was their custom, she had no weapon other than the fierce talons on her three-toed feet. Seth had been on the receiving end of a vicious kick from her only this morning and had learned to stay clear. Still, he did not draw his gun to move her from her bed.
She unfolded herself slowly, without expression on her narrow face. Her gleaming hide bore the pale spots of Caspia’s coastal plains where Shri-Lan rebels recruited most successfully from among her people. “You got away.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed. We’re at Pelion Gate.” He snatched one of his shirts from the tangled pile on the upper bunk and handed it to her. Although she was barely distinguishable from the males of her species, custom aboard most Union stations decreed some sort of attire. “Put this on.”
“It smells of Centauri.”
“Yeah, but we smell good. Are you going to behave or are you planning to slice my other leg open?”
She lifted a thin upper lip to snarl at him with sharpened teeth.
“This was your choice,” he reminded her. “Take one step out of line and I’ll hand you to Air Command instead. I don’t care who takes over from here. Are we clear on that?”
“Your bounty is greater if you don’t.”
He shrugged. “Let’s go. Keep your mouth shut and stay close.”
She shuffled ahead of him through the cargo bay and then outside for the mandatory decon process. A scan of his violet iris confirmed the access code he sent earlier. The burly guards at the entrance to the concourse didn’t seem to care when the Caspian in Seth’s care ignored the scanner altogether.
This ring contained docks and flight services crowded with workers and travelers and echoing with a noise level to match the bustle. The ring above this one offered just about any amenity a weary traveler could want and Seth resolved to head up that way in search of a long, hot bath, even as he nudged his passenger into a lift leading to the lower tier. He wondered if the friend he had made last time he passed through here still worked at the transfer station. He smiled at the memory of a few nights they had shared. But first he’d get rid of the rebel.
The brilliant sunshine flooding the bottom ring caused both Seth and the Caspian to squint and hesitate before stepping out of the elevator. He gripped her arm as they accustomed themselves, not having seen daylight for a while. Even Aikhor’s sun rarely made it through the dense shroud of fog that forever obscured the skies there.
The gravity spinners resided in the central spool of the station and so they walked with their feet pointed that way. The high ceiling bowed outward, almost entirely transparent and now facing Pelion’s sun, allowing natural light to turn this segment of the station into a verdant space of multi-level gardens and pleasant little parks.
Seth admired the pretty sights created here even as he scanned the area for signs that not all was as charmingly bucolic as it appeared. No one seemed to be in a hurry here, vendors were not allowed, neither were vehicles nor, apparently, anything above a whisper. They passed a small pool of liquid home to a swarm of round, spinning sea creatures. He felt oddly out of place here, armed and decidedly scruffier-looking than the other visitors to this place.
The Caspian stopped. She tilted her head in puzzlement as she gazed out of the panoramic ceiling to see a dozen or so individuals drifting about in pressure suits out there. Thin scaffolding held nearly invisible carbon fiber netting in place, offering the illusion of floating in space. “What are they doing?”
Seth watched some of the figures bounce a large ring around in some contest. “Playing,” he said. She just stared at him until he shrugged. “Good exercise, too.”
He felt the tension in her arm when they finally approached a group of Caspians waiting by the numbered column designated as their meeting spot. They stood silently, their yellow eyes on the woman. The hides on all of them bore the same pattern as hers. He tightened his grip when she looked around, perhaps for one more chance to escape.
A tall female raised a hand in greeting but her face remained immobile. Within moments, the others with her had surrounded his captive, quick to remove the wrinkled shirt from her to replace it with an elaborately embroidered kilt. Someone handed the shirt back to him with a slight nod of dismissal.
The tight knot of Caspians move away. No one had spoken. “What will happen to her?” Seth asked the elder male who remained behind, using their language. It was probably far too late to ask this now. Although fiercely loyal to their complex clans, the coastal tribes of Caspia were not known for their empathy toward anyone. Perhaps it would have been kinder to turn her over to Air Command after all.
“She’ll live,” the Caspian replied, using Union mainvoice. The rippling tones that accompanied their language were not easily mastered by other species and Seth was glad for the switch. “We cannot continue to allow our people to join the Shri-Lan. She is fortunate that her clan wants to see her returned. Others have paid a heavier price for their treason.”
Seth’s eyes shifted to the elder. “She’s young, Ton Kedi. She’s lost.” He didn’t mention that he had found her in the bed of a Caspian Shri-Lan rebel. She had enough trouble.
“She embarrassed her family by joining that rabble of thieves. She’ll not leave Caspia again. Perhaps she’ll come to see the wisdom of that.”
“She won’t be hurt?”
Ton Kedi began to stroll along the cobbled path and Seth fell into step. “I think not. Her clan’s pride is not irreparable and she is a minor, if treasured, daughter. But she has forfeit some freedoms, I’m sure of it.”
“The Shri-Lan weren’t happy about her leaving. They’re worried about what she knows.” Seth had doubts, given the rebels’ vicious attack on him and the patrol, that the girl’s paramour was still among the living. Whatever secrets he had whispered to his young lover now rested with her. Seth’s own, non-invasive attempts to pry those secrets from her had netted him a claw in the shin.
The elder Caspian nodded. “And in time she will reveal that to us, have no doubt. I will share if it matters.”
“You mentioned you had something for me now?”
“Indeed. The girl in exchange for information.” Ton Kedi lowered his ancient frame onto a curved bench and stretched his clawed feet out in front of him with a grateful sigh. “The body gets tired after all these years, even with gravity as light as it is here. I sometimes wish I could move my clan to a place such as this.”
Seth nodded and waited politely. He didn’t really need the fee paid for the girl’s return, nor was her capture of much consequence to anyone but her family. But Ton Kedi had promised greater value in exchange for her. Seth hoped it was worth nearly getting an Air Command cruiser destroyed.
The Caspian turned his raptor-like eyes to Seth. “Arawaj spanners,” he said. “Four of them, fleeing Tadonna before the Union takes over there. You’ll find them on Tayako.”
“Did you say Arawaj?” Seth had expected some bit of news about a Shri-Lan base, perhaps, or yet another tedious plot against the Union’s governors, but what was this about spanners?
The Arawaj rebel faction, a smaller but far more ideological organization than the profit-driven Shri-Lan, infiltrated every segment of Commonwealth society. Their opposition to the Union’s expansion here in Trans-Targon often approached religious zeal. While Shri-Lan robbed, extorted and smuggled, the Arawaj assassinated, spread malcontent, and sabotaged. It was fortunate, Seth thought, that their ideals didn’t attract a greater following.
A large number of Caspians, including this girl’s family, belonged to the faction, but Ton Kedi was not one of them. “What are they doing all the way out on Tayako?”
“They’re working for a smuggler. A Centauri named Velen Phar. Tayako is as far as he can go without getting arrested. Or so he says. The Union is taking over his home planet so he’s decided to give up his gunrunning operation. He’s not the only Arawaj leaving the planet. They’re all being driven away by the locals before Air Command even lands there to do it for them. I told him you’d come and pick them up. You have a talent for slipping past Air Command eyes.”
“It’s a gift,” Seth agreed, not quite comfortable under the Caspian’s unwavering stare.
Ton Kedi glanced around the sun-dappled arbor before leaning closer to Seth. “Meet the captain of the Othani on Tayako. You know where. He’ll have the spanners with him and he will hand them over to you. He won’t want uniforms around. Not if he still wants to live among his own.”
“I’m starting to feel like a shuttle pilot,” Seth sighed. Four spanners! The single greatest advantage the Union had over any of the rebel factions was their team of spanners who travelled where chartjumpers like him could not, coming and going as needed. Most of them were Delphian, an aloof species whose mental abilities set them apart from other navigators. Their matchless talents and utter disinterest in wealth allowed them to choose assignments that fed their interest in space exploration, whether for civilian or military aims. Siding with the Commonwealth only out of loathing for the rebels, no Delphian stooped to working with either Shri-Lan or Arawaj. Without them, the rebels were left with inferior navigators who often needed pharmaceutical support to achieve the Delphians’ legendary abilities.
But any spanners working for the rebels, even the lesser talents, were of the highest priority to Air Command. Much effort was expended to locate and appropriate, by force if necessary, these navigators. They were known to Air Command intelligence and their moves carefully tracked until they could be seized.
“Air Command doesn’t know about them?” Seth asked.
“Not only that, but from what I learned, these spanners are of a special breed.”
“Big talents. Maybe even greater talents than Delphians. Velen Phar has a way of crossing subspace that others haven’t even begun to figure out. Always works two spanners at once but that still doesn’t account for how fast he gets around.”
“Better than Delphians? You’re talking GenMods.”
Ton Kedi shrugged. “Possible. You don’t do that kind of work without some sort of brain adjustment. But what do I know about such things.”
What, indeed, Seth thought. He suspected that the old spy knew a whole lot more about a great many things.
“He’s been keeping his team busy and his flight plans to himself,” the Caspian continued. “Stays out of everyone’s sight. But it won’t be long before our friends the Shri-Lan take notice. See if you can get there before they do and you stand to make a large sum upon delivery.”
Seth nodded. If these four were not yet identified and if they were even remotely as talented as Ton Kedi believed, their value to any interstellar operation, military or civilian, was incalculable. It was definitely worth taking a closer look. Bringing these four in for some decompression and attitude adjustment would gloss over the little incident with the patrol at the gate. And even if they could not be rehabilitated, keeping them out of rebel hands was paramount.
“Give him this.” Ton Kedi removed a broad leather band from his wrist. “It’ll let him know who you are. He’ll hand his crew over to you.”
Seth peered at the thin datasheet on the inside of the bracelet. “How do the spanners feel about that?”
The Caspian tilted his head as if not understanding the question; his expression looked quite like the Caspian girl’s had when seeing people at play outside. “They are Arawaj. Who cares?”
Living in Canada, it is inevitable that those who lack enthusiasm for snow-related activities tend to stay indoors for a good portion of the year.
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I’ve always loved fantasy worlds and writing about what might be possible, given a certain suspension of disbelief and a rude assault upon the laws of physics.
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