Antares Fiction by Tim Bancroft
See The Shamasai Saga complete
Continuing from Part 2, Questions, in which Shaltok is given a probably impossible task by Commander Karg…
‘I warned you guys that you were too close to Ghar space.’ The Freeborn guide slumped back and threw his legs over the side of the frigate’s command chair. He was colourfully dressed in hues of red, purple and burgundy, a vibrant contrast to the functional greys of the bridge. Gold accessories liberally adorned his limbs, ears and any part of his clothing that might even look as if it needed a fastening. A single broach sat on his left lapel, however: the mark of his Vardos, the Delhren.
The Algoryn Captain glared, jerked a thumb over one shoulder. ‘Batu Delhren – out of my chair.’
‘Fine, fine.’ Batu Delhren stood, wrapped his cloak around him. ‘It’s too big for humans anyway. Uncomfortable.’
The Captain him. ‘We don’t know it’s Ghar work.’
‘Three surveillance sats taken out simultaneously? Ripples in space-time? Come on, Karef. You know better than that.’
‘It’s Captain Karef, whilst you’re aboard this ship.’ Karef sat in his command chair.
‘Sure, sure, whatever. Sar Karef. Captain.’ Batu straightened his sleeves, leaned against a console. ‘The planet’s too tempting for Ghar to ignore.’ He waved his hand through the physical interface; a projection appeared before him.
‘Those animals don’t care about bionanosphere interfaces,’ said Karef. And stop playing with my bridge equipment.’
The Delhren threw the projection onto the main screen. It showed a planetary surface map keyed to elements, quantities, depths. ‘Look at the heavy metal content – way off the charts for any normal planetary formation.’
Karef studied the screen. ‘So why did you not use it yourself? The Ghar would buy from you.’
Batu looked alarmed. ‘A human? Selling to Ghar? What…’ He stopped, grinned. ‘Ha, ha. Very funny. I never realised you guys had a sense of humour.’ He brushed an imaginary speck of dust from a shoulder. ‘To use it I need assistance, a ship. So you’re paying me, remember – I show you and I get a complete copy of any and all research.’
‘Exactly. You need us. So behave.’ Karef pulled up an orbital holo to replace the mineral survey data. He examined it intently. ‘They probably expect us to move into a higher orbit, go hunting for whatever took out the satellites. Tactical Officer, see what we can do with decelerating, a lower orbit.’
‘Risky, sir. Especially if they’re that much bigger than us. Doctrine says higher is safer.’
‘Precisely. Do it.’ Batu laughed and Karef glared at the flamboyant Freeborn. ‘What?’
‘You guys. You call yourself Freeborn, the exiled House Ma’req, yet you stick to your Algoryn roots like nobody else I know. ’
Sar Karef stood, grabbed the Delhren trader’s shoulders, slammed him up against a bulkhead. Batu struggled fruitlessly, realised too late the strength, speed and size of an Algoryn optimate.
For a moment the Captain was silent, stared down at his guide. ‘You will cease your insubordination. We know how to handle Ghar. We are still warriors and could easily wipe you and your struggling, minor vardos from the face of the universe.’ He shook the trader. ‘You will stop insulting me, my crew and my House. Understand?’ Batu swallowed nervously. ‘I said: do you understand, Batu Delhren?’
‘Yes, sir. Understood.’ Batu pointed to his ornate jacket. ‘Umm… Could you put me down, please? This is very difficult to fabricate.’
* * *
The Sensors Officer called quietly across the bridge. ‘Captain, there’s no sign of any other ship, either on-planet or orbit.’
Captain Karef grunted. ‘The satellites?’
The Tactical Officer responded. ‘Fading signs of disruptor weaponry, Captain.’
‘Told you it was Ghar,’ said Batu Delhren. Karef glared at him and he held up his hands. ‘Sorry.’
‘Your opinion, Tactics?’
‘Probably a small ship, sir. Possibly an assault lander. No sign of any Ghar dirtside, though.’
‘There must be a larger ship somewhere, then. Perhaps contra-orbital or behind the moons. So why don’t they attack? And what do they want?’
‘Perhaps a minor troopship, sir? One that would struggle against a frigate our size?’
‘An obvious assessment, Officer Ceahray, but it does not explain what they are doing here.’
‘Of course, sir.’ Ceahray’s fingers danced over her console. ‘There are a set of ruins below, Captain. One of the three ruins survey stated might be of interest.’
‘So what do Ghar want with it?’
There was no response. Karef glanced at Batu Delhren. The trader shrugged, shook his head. ‘I’d ask ImTel.’ His smile faded when he saw Karef’s expression. ‘A joke. Not funny. No ImTel. Sorry.’
‘We have no choice but to investigate. Put the ship on alert. Take us back to a stable orbit. Recall the survey; send down a transmat lander to those ruins; ready an escort to accompany the survey team. Tactical Officer Ceahray – you are to accompany the ground team.’
There was a chorus of replies, repeated orders. The bridge lights dimmed, alert warnings flashed; Tactical and Weapons Officers began speaking quickly into their mics. At other stations – comms, sensors, navigation, engineering – personnel responded quietly but intently.
The external view changed as the nimble frigate responded efficiently to its Captain’s orders. It may be a Freeborn vessel, but it was of the House Ma’req. Exiled or not, Freeborn or Prosperate, every Algoryn on board had a reputation to maintain.
* * *
His cabin door chimed, opened. Captain Sar Karef looked up in surprise. ‘Officer Ceahray. Why are you reporting in person?’
‘A storm, Captain. A big one. It’s howling through the canyons making a noise like a Mhagris banshee – and it’s deteriorating. Transmat ended up being easier.’
‘So. No Ghar. Status?’
‘We’ve scouted round the site as well we could but there were no signs of Ghar. Infiltrators swept ahead of the main search – nothing. If they were there they were acting untypically, sir, covered up their traces well.’
‘The ruins?’ The Sar Karef beckoned to a chair. ‘Sit, please.’
Ceahray sat. ‘Haven’t had time to examine them, sir. My squads are assisting the survey team in building storm shelters.’ She rubbed the back of her hand where it was raw, the chitin abraded away. ‘The nanobuilders are having to fuse local dust and stone to come up with a fabric strong enough.’
‘A dust storm capable of abrading armour and chitin? An unexpected turn of events.’
‘Yes, sir. Meteorological and Geo teams are onto it.’ Ceahray raised her injured hand. ‘I’m having this treated, taking more medical supplies down with me. The storm should blow over by morning – we can examine the ruins then – but the transmat lander will have to lift until then.’
‘When all trace of imposters will be erased by the storm.’
‘Yes, sir. If there was anybody there, they are excellent tacticians or extraordinarily lucky.’
‘Either is a problem. My thoughts are with you, Officer. Good hunting.’