Fiction by Tim Bancroft
The Batu saga all started with the Claiming of Shamasai, but what caused Batu to be on such a wilderness planet in the first place? In a never-before-seen prologue to the saga of Batu and Baray, we are introduced to Batu and the dives and wines he owns on Delhren III.
The cellar was quiet, the lines of casks stretching back into the gloom: a perfect place for Batu Delhren’s much-anticipated private tasting. He held a crystal goblet up to a clear glowlight and admired the colour of his new wine. The liquid had a depth of colour that was almost burgundy and even from an arm’s length he could smell its rich, spicy aroma. It looks like I might have finally bred a winner, here. He held the glass to his nose, sniffed gently, savoured the overtones of fellberry, vanilla and cinnamon, the undertones of other spices. He held it up to the light again, turning to marvel at way the lights were caught within the translucent, burgundy liquid.
Then his admiration faltered. As he moved the glass he saw through it to the commemorative plaque and picture of the vineyard’s founders, his parents. He lowered the goblet to bow to the picture, his mother seated, wearing the robes and insignia of a Delhren princess, his father standing behind her in the uniform of a fleet captain. Batu proffered the glass to them in a silent toast. I have brought your vineyards to fruition. He felt a catch in his throat. Though you never lived to see them become a success.
He raised the glass to his lips, anticipating the taste, but the cellar door burst open. The vineyard manager, a battle-scarred Boromite, stooped to avoid banging his head against the lintel. Always when I’m beginning to relax. “Yes?” sighed Batu. He placed the glass on top of the cask beside the decanter from which it was poured and looked at it lovingly: I’ll enjoy you later.
“You asked for defaulters to be brought before you as soon as possible,” growled the manager.
Batu stood. “Thank you, Dirag.” He looked around the cellar, the dim light fading into the gloom, the racks of marked casks, and the solid stone walls. It may provide a usefully sinister setting. He nodded to a bare wall. “Bring them on one at a time and stand them there.”
“There’s only one, at the moment.”
“I’ll see him, then. Hold on.” Batu switched to talk to his implant, spoke as if shaping his words without using his vocal folds. “MyShard, direct the light against the wall and dim it elsewhere.”
“Certainly, Batu.” MyShard transferred the request to the cellar’s control systems and the lights in the cellar dimmed, leaving a single spotlight shining against the bare stone wall. “Anything else?”
“Just monitor whoever is brought in, please, MyShard.”
“Of course, Batu.” Like other Freeborn houses, the Delhren nanosphere was sparse, typically focused on individuals and technological items, providing basic surveillance, power for devices and connectivity to the core databanks of each house. Anyone using and accessing the data needed a comm device and a virtual assistant to sift the information. Most people used a hand-held, head- or helmet-mounted comm, but Batu had a more efficient and secure interface to the Delhren’s nanosphere: a MyShard implant surgically inserted into his cranium. Though MyShard interfaces were common amongst the senior ranks of the Delhren hierarchy, many other Freeborn felt they were too much of an intrusion by making the user an extension of the core shard: IMTel-like connectivity was not appreciated amongst Freeborn.
To Batu, though, his the lack of full AI functionality in his MyShard interface was immensely useful. Rather than becoming an extension of the Delhren, he used it to nurture his independence. It had been a vital component of his work in building a small mercantile operation, a shard partially separated from the Vardos Delhren.
Dirag eyed the interrogation area and coughed politely. “Are you with us, Mr Batu?”
“Yes. And will you ever get it right, Dirag? It’s, “Batu, sire”, or “Prince Delhren” or even “Mr Tsulmar Delhren” if you really must.”
The Boromite grinned. “Certainly, Mr Batu.” He turned and reached through the doorway, pulled in a small off-worlder dressed in the uniform of a Concord scout. “The first is Concord Scout Enrik Manam,” said Dirag. “He ran up a 200 thou” debt in the casino attached to the Spyker’s Rub. He reckons he can pay it off with information.” Dirag carefully placed the scout against the wall and the diminutive scout blinked against the light. “Stay there.” Dirage clumped backwards into the edge of the spotlight where the shadows set off his grey-green plates of hide and emphasised his bulk.
Well positioned, Dirag. Batu allowed the silence to stretch until the delicate figure began to shift from foot to foot. “What information is possibly worth your debt?”
The scout swallowed. He was a small human phenotype, pale, with a green tinge to his skin. His slender body and thin arms and legs looked diminutive when compared with the hulking Boromite in the shadows. “I can give you all the data from our last survey.”
Batu yawned. “We”ll get that eventually, anyway. Your IMTel shares potential navigation hazards with most Freeborn houses in case we’re transporting a Concord citizen.” The scout narrowed his eyes and glanced from left to right. What is he doing? thought Batu. “There is no one else here, and this cellar is shielded. I repeat: what is worth so much in that data.”
The scout squinted into the spotlight, trying to see Batu beyond its glare. “A system the IMTel won’t share. A deep one, just beyond the limit at depth negative nine, so it’s unlikely to be a hazard.”
Batu tried not to show his interest. Knowledge of a deep gate might be suppressed, I guess. Such a gate would rarely pose a hazard to travel, most ships preferring to rise to safer, higher levels rather than travel far at depths in the strange an dangerous, Antares photosphere. Batu yawned, folded his arms and leant against the opposite wall. “Why won’t your precious IMTel share this one?”
“We scanned it but didn’t go closer. It’s a new gate—”
“Obviously,” observed Batu, drily.
“No, you misunderstand. We think it’s a new gate.”
Batu straightened, unfolded his arms. “A brand new gate? To a brand-new system?”
“Yeah.” The scout bobbed his head, eager to please. “Brand new. Signs of an extinct civilisation on a planet in the liquid-water zone, too. Other signs of intra-system travel and asteroid mining.”
The scout shrugged. “We didn’t stay long enough. Our probes towards the planet didn’t come back so the IMTel said not to risk it, classified it as potentially hazardous.”
“But it was flagged for subsequent investigation. Why?”
The scout smirked. “There are signs of part biological, part artificial nanospore – a bionanosphere.” He paused for effect. “And possible Builder ruins.”
Batu could not help but take a deep breath. Builder ruins! That will certainly earn me some status in the clan, perhaps the whole vardos. There were few enough confirmed Builder ruins amongst the whole of the gate network. They probably aren’t, but the potential… “Hand over a data chip and I’ll consider it in payment.”
The scout’s expressive face turned shifty. “No. Immediate payment, one-for-one.” Batu glanced at Dirag, who growled and stepped forward. The scout quailed. “It’s true, it’s true. Run a truth-scan on me.”
“I always have one running.” Batu watched the scout for signs of fear: there were none. “MyShard, any signs of autonomic conflict?”
“No, Batu. The monitoring systems state that everything is in order. The subject is frightened of Dirag, but his tone, heart rate, micro-expressions and sweat responses do not vary when he talked about his prize. These are signs that he is concealing more information.”
Batu remained silent, waited for the scout’s expression of hope to fade. “Very well, Enrik Manam.” He nodded to Dirag. “Have the accountant sort it. I’ll examine the data later.”
“Yes, Mr Batu.” Dirag grabbed the scout’s scrawny arm and led him from the cellar.
Batu waited until the scout was almost out the door. “Hold on, there’s something else.” The scout twisted in Dirag’s arms, a smirk still on his face. “I can’t but feel there’s something else,” said Batu.
Batu tutted and waved at the cellar walls. “It may look primitive, but do you really think we don’t have surveillance nanospore in this place?” He watched the smirk fade. “I know you’re lying.”
Dirag slowly turned the scout round to face Batu. “This is Prince Batu Delhren, Scout Manam. He really doesn’t want to hurt you.”
You have that right, thought Batu. “Dirag’s correct. I really don’t want either of us to have to hurt you.”
Manam glanced from Batu’s stern expression to the arms of the massive Boromite. He slumped. “There might be Ghar. We saw them on the way out, but they couldn’t catch us.”
Ghar. Batu sighed, wearily. “You should have mentioned that earlier, Scout Manam. Your information is far less useful, now.”
“At least I told you!”
“Yes. But not without effort. You know the rules of the house, Scout: you play fair then we play fair.” He turned away and picked up the glass. “Dirag, clear half his debt, instead. Put him on the next liner out and leave the rest on file, just in case he ever returns.” Batu waved his hand and the scout’s protests faded as the huge Boromite dragged him out by the collar. Batu reached for his glass but a barely-heard conversation stopped him. Dirag’s voice boomed down the passage. “Wait upstairs!” There was a a rock-like thud as the massive body – perhaps that of the Boromite – hit something solid.
Batu drew his plasma pistol. Whilst it looked as decorative as the rest of his attire it was fully functional, with added targeting intelligence; it was also the one weapon with which he was competent. More than competent, he reassured himself. He back away into the shadows by the casks and aimed his pistol at the doorway.
An Algoryn in full reflex armour strode through the doorway and stopped. His helmet was retracted into the armour leaving his keratin spines and green-tinged facial features in view. “Batu Delhren?” His voice has sharp, an officer used to being obeyed.
Probably Founder leger, thought Batu. He remained silent. Dirag appeared in the doorway behind the Algoryn, a mass compactor held in his beefy hands: in the hands of a skilled Boromite the mining tool would as easily compact flesh as it would rock. Batu holstered his pistol.
“I would negotiate with Batu Delhren of the Spyker Corporation.” The Algoryn snapped his helmet into place and immediately turned to face Batu in the shadows.
Probably using IR or image enhancement. Batu asked for the cellar lighting to be raised. “You are speaking to him.” He thought about Algoryn attitudes. Best be direct. “What do you need?”
The helmet retracted once more. “I need drive components and fuel for my ship.”
“And the Home Fleet or Algoryn Consulate won’t supply them?” The Algoryn did not reply and Batu relaxed. “You’re Ma’req, then. Exiles from the Prosperate.”
“Yes,” admitted the Algoryn. “I am the Chief Engineer for a House Ma’req frigate, the Ma’req Tirailleur.”
Batu smiled at the claim to be a Freeborn house: few Freeborn would accept them as such and the regular Algoryn would not deal with the exiled Ma’req at all. “You had a bad trip?”
“We had an unfortunate encounter with Ghar on our last voyage through the Antares Nexus. We destroyed them, but our main drive was damaged.”
“Ghar are ramping up their activity since this Krug character came to power.”
“It’s Karg. And Fartok,” corrected the Algoryn.
“Thank you for correcting me. No doubt once they damaged your ship you limped as far you could to the nearest civilised system.”
“Limped?” The Algoryn engineer bridled, his hand moving towards his mag pistol before catching control of himself. His expression turned grim. “I see your strategy: you demean us on purpose to press an advantage. Would you dare cross House Ma’req?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” insisted Batu. “After all, we may be of assistance to each other in the future.” The Algoryn relaxed. Batu thought for a moment. “I can provide any parts you need – within reason, of course.”
The Algoryn growled. “And what would you want in return?”
Batu smiled. “A favour. An open favour to be redeemed by your captain at a time of my choosing. Sworn on your captain’s honour.”
“Ridiculous. We can exchange weapons—”
Batu shrugged. “Algoryn mag-weapons are useless: we have extensive fabricator plants. And no one else has the authority to provide such parts.”
The engineer snarled. “You ask too much!”
“I think not,” said Batu. “Let’s be clear: the Prosperate has demanded that the Delhren not trade with House Ma’req. So the Delhren cannot officially deal with you – but I can.” He could keep a smug smile of satisfaction from his face.
“But an undischarged favour on the honour of an optimate?” The Algoryn’s head crests flattened in dismay.
“It seems reasonable to me,” said Batu, eyeing the Algoryn for signs of pending violence. “If it’s not possible, then we have no further business.” He raised his voice. “Dirag, show the Chief Engineer out—”
“Stop!” The words hissed out from between clenched teeth and the engineer clenched his fists. “I must contact my captain to confirm he will accept such a request.”
A favour from an Algoryn frigate captain. Batu smiled. “Then once he has confirmed his part of the bargain, have the deal recorded and give the site manager your list of parts. My corporation will requisition them on your behalf: the Delhren will not have dealt with you, but you will have what you need.”
The chief engineer stared at Batu for a moment, then tossed his head. “My captain was right: you Freeborn have no honour.”
Batu allowed his smile to broaden. “Where profit is concerned, it’s purely relative.” The Algoryn growled, turned on his heel and almost barged straight into Dirag’s mass compactor. The Boromite grinned, pulled his mining tool out of the way and followed the Algoryn up the passage.
Batu closed the cellar door behind them and returned to his glass. He washed the wine around the glass then sipped, savouring the scent as he did so and allowed the liquid to run over his tongue. Few tannins, rich in fellberry, spice – beautiful. Once more he held the glass up to the hologram of his parents. I finished your work. You would be proud of me, if you were alive. His eyes watered as he remembered their loss: a foolish accident, his rescue…
Dirag knocked on the cellar door and pushed it open. “Mr Batu?” he rumbled. “A message has arrived.”
Batu scowled. “I thought I had screened them all.”
“It’s from the Vard of the Delhren.”
Batu sighed. “What does my uncle want, now?”
“You are recalled to the Home Fleet for an audience. In person.”
Batu made a face. The Delhren Home Fleet was several light-hours away, making face-to-face interaction impossible. The fact his uncle had called him for an audience did not bode well. What have I done, now, to arouse his ire? “Send an acknowledgement and book a seat on the next shuttle run.”
“Sure, boss.” Dirag turned and left.
Batu reluctantly placed the glass back on the cask beside the decanter. “MyShard, a mirror projection of me, please.” A hologram appeared and Batu checked his clothes and appearance: swept-back dark hair, perfectly groomed; the aquiline, tsulmari nose; a smart moustache, perfect, olive skin; a velvet, purple cloak and blue tunic trimmed with orange – all Delhren colours. The cloth was the best he could find, the gold accessories there for effect rather than a statement of monetary wealth, gold ornaments, after all, being easily manufactured in the Home Fleet’s fabricators. I look good, smart.
He closed the cellar door behind him with a lingering glance at the wine. Later, he promised himself. Later.