This is the last chapter I’m posting on the blog. I may be able to publish the novel on Amazon this week, I’m tentatively aiming for the 20th, and the two others will also start a free promo which will last until the 24th on that day. I’ll need to see how my final edits will go (or if I decide I will need to edit more).
So, next week perhaps more art, for a change, since at least right now the problems I have been having with my hand seem to be in control – it shakes, sometimes, but not so often and not so badly I can’t finish pieces. Or finish them well enough to keep them, I did draw during the last nine to ten months, and paint occasionally too but most of the resulting pieces went straight to trash. As I have said before the main problem seems to be with my shoulder, which got badly inflamed last spring, but while that was work related so it’s not completely sure it wont happen again, I can’t exactly stop working, maybe I can keep it at least from getting as bad as it did then. Last winter and spring I’m afraid I just kept hoping it would heal on its own, or go away if I ignored it, until it finally got bad enough that I needed cortisone injections, and even after that weeks of work before I started to get where I could again do fine motor tasks well with that hand.
It took them a while to get there, but when they did the fortress turned out to be quite impressive.
The flyers were hid in a natural cave outside the walls. Wide and just high enough that they could be flown in, very slow and very carefully. Rahan noted that. He was a good enough pilot, but with that parking place he would not be able to make any kind of fast exit. If he ran he’d have to make sure nobody was right at his heels when he got here.
The rebels didn’t seem to leave any guards in place. Not human ones anyway. But it was always possible there was something automated, or that somebody or several somebodies would come back here later.
The route from the cave to the fortress showed no marks of having been used previously. There were only a couple of large trees here, but plenty of young saplings, and it was bit of a fight to push through the thicket to the fallen gates of the huge building.
The fortress seemed to be made completely of stone, huge, smooth blocks fitted seamlessly together with no signs of mortar between them. Rahan gawked until he nearly tripped on a small bush, after which he concentrated more on his feet than on sightseeing.
“Lida, this was built soon after the colonists landed, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. “The stories tell of magic.”
“Yep, that’s what the construction robots are, pretty much. Or were. The ones in use now aren’t any more advanced than the ones these people had. Probably quite a bit less so.”
So much had been lost during the dark centuries. They still were in many ways much less advanced, technologically anyway, than their ancestors had been. The only magic uniquely belonging to their time was the FTL drive, their grav and stasis machines, all offsprings of the same scientific discovery.
There was a big courtyard, surrounded by massive walls with turrets on the corners and on both sides of the main gates. The living and working quarters, as well as storage, had probably been in the two keeps standing on both sides of that courtyard. There were also some smaller buildings there, less well constructed, made of much smaller stones and with the help of mortar, and in a more ruined state, looking kind of embarrassed standing in the shadows of the older and much superior versions. A new, smaller group of people met them when they got to a door leading in, and the people from the flyers started to disperse. A man, taller than most of the locals Rahan had seen so far, seemed to be in charge here.
So another group had gotten here first.
Lida didn’t seem to be particularly fond of of this new Maasvat leader, she just nodded curtly to him before turning to Rahan.
“I’ll take you to your room. It’s probably better if you stay there, I’ll see that everything you might need will be brought to you.”
Rahan glanced at her, but she seemed to be wholly concentrated on her feet and the ground just ahead. Here it was mostly covered in stone, with occasional tuffs of grass, some stray saplings and small bushes growing here and there, but the ancient paving was rather uneven and there were fallen stone blocks, from the newer buildings, here and there.
“So what am I, a prisoner or a guest?”
“It’s better, for both you and us, if you don’t know all that much about us.”
He was forced to admit that made sense.
The room she led him to was a bare cubicle of stone, with no windows. But there was a door. Old, made of thick, sturdy planks reinforced with steel bars.
And with a lock.
Old, mechanical one.
When Lida left she said somebody would be coming soon to bring him bedding, water for both a little washing and drinking, and some food. She also asked him to stay inside and wait.
As soon as she was out he went to the door to listen, then when the echoes of her steps had died down he slipped out.
The corridor was empty.
He spend a little examining the lock, then made a quick survey of the nearby rooms and the corridor. In one room there was a newer looking pile of trash in one corner. Rahan sorted through it and found some short lengths of rusted, thick wire, of which he pocketed a couple of pieces, plus a badly rusted but still serviceable knife. Well, it wasn’t sharp anymore, but he figured it would probably not snap under pressure, at least not immediately.
He secured it under the waist of his trousers, then returned to his room to wait.
The Ytjar program found the heat signatures of the two flyers and reported it to the human controllers. They eyeballed the bits available at first, then gave the data to another program in hopes that it might be able to find out what the actual destination of the flyers might have been.
No such luck. All they could get was the general area, and that was several tens of square klicks wide.
Their supervisor did get a permission to airborne surveillance of the area and four armed drones were launched. He would have needed about twice that number to have some sort of surety of getting results.
The man decided to send yet another request for a higher budget even though he was fairly sure that would lead to nothing – of it it did the end result would most likely be new personal flyers, or maybe vacations, to some higher ups. Or maybe some nice jewelry to their wives or mistresses.
But one needed to keep up appearances. If there was trouble due to unfulfilled duties he needed to be able to show that he had done his best.
A woman Rahan had not seen before brought him the bedding and food Lida had promised. He waited, obediently, until she had set them down and thanked her as she left and closed the door behind her.
He was not exactly surprised to hear the click of the key being turned in that lock.
The food was a loaf of drying bread and hard cheese, but at least the water was clear and there was plenty of it. Rahan contemplated them for a moment, a bit worried that the rebels might try to drug him to make sure he’d stay where he was supposed, then carefully tasted just a little bit of everything. When he still felt quite normal about half an hour later he ate and drank some more.
The sun was up by then.
Which time would be safer to do some sneaking around, day or night? Would he dare to wait until the next night?
Maybe not. The rebels had spend most of last night on the run. They had to be at least as tired as he himself was. They would probably sleep at least part of the day, and perhaps be more active again during the night. Dark would not offer much of a cover from the Ytjar, or from the police, but at least it mostly eliminated the risk of being seen by some ordinary citizen who might then alert the authorities.
The peons of this planet might not like their overlords, but in this type of systems the ones who squealed about suspicious people or activities – much less gave them people who really were up to no good, from the lords’ point of view – tended to be well rewarded by their masters, so as long as peons could do that without being caught by their fellow peons the temptation would be great. And while this area was not permanently inhabited, he had gotten the impression that it was still used quite a bit – sometimes by people on the run, but also by hunters, loggers, people gathering berries or mushrooms or tending the half wild pigs the peons kept, and to great extent depended on for their meat…
Yes, day might really be more likely time for the rebels to rest, and for him to take a look around.
Rahan ate a little bit more but drank a lot on his third mini meal, then decided to risk a short nap, confident that he would be able to wake up after an hour or two. He was scared enough by now that his internal alarm clock should be well primed to go off when he wanted it to.
He profoundly regretted the fact that before landing he had spend a lot more time looking up potentially fun things to do close to the port rather than trying to get any kind of real overview of the local system and its parts, and how they worked. What kind of resources the officials had, what kind of surveillance systems, or weaponry, how many men, what the individual nobles might have access to… and it was highly likely that if he had really dug into those Corps databases the AI had onboard – which was most of the not secret ones – he might have even found some snippets of Lida’s Maasvat.
As it was he was forced to plan almost completely without any real information. Just lots of presumptions and guesses. Not good.
As he lay down on the makeshift bed he wondered what Ryn was right then doing
He really missed the big guy.
Rahan woke around midday. The room was getting a bit warm then, but when the picked the lock and opened the door he was met with a blast of heat which almost reminded him of the equatorial deserts of the larger continent on the Shemasharra home planet.
The clothes he had were not particularly well suited to this kind of weather, the cheap synthetic cloth did neither breathe nor let moisture through well, so after only a few minutes he was drenched, the fabric clinging to his skin in a most unpleasant manner.
After some thought he went back to his room, took off his garish orange tunic and used the knife he had picked up earlier to cut a hole in the very thin and nicely dark grey blanket he had been given.
Well, ‘cut’ was perhaps an exaggeration since the knife had no edge to cut with. But the point was still pointy enough that he managed to push it through the blanket on several spots, after which he could tear the fabric between those holes until he had a big enough a hole to fit his head through.
As a poncho the blanket was ugly, and still something too warm for today, but he hoped it might make him at least a little bit less visible as it was also long enough to cover the lime colored trousers nearly down to his knees. Not to mention covering his pale torso and arms – he had spend a lot of time outdoors during the previous months, but since he had been quite well covered in both UV proof clothing and sunblock during those times he didn’t have a tan worth mentioning. The best one could have said that he was pale rather than pasty white.
He wondered briefly what would happen if he ran into any of the rebels, then shrugged. Most likely they would just drag him back here. If not… by now he doubted he would gain anything by being nice and obedient to them.
The first thing he did was to check rest of the floor he was in, but the rooms and corridors of the place were empty, empty of people and empty of anything potentially useful. So next he headed towards the ground floors. His room was on the third floor of the smaller keep. He figured the rebels would be inside the same building, most of them anyway, when Lida had been bringing him here he had seen a couple of men carrying things in.
Possibly ground floor.
The place was eerily quiet. Only thing he heard was the slight sound of the gentle wind from the outside. No birds sang, no rodents flitted across the floor anywhere.
And no humans.
Rahan reached the ground floor and found himself in a larger, long and narrow hallway about two stories high, with lots of mostly doorless doorways dotting the walls – some up the wall on the level of what would have been the second floor which meant there had originally been a floor there, made of something which had since either decayed to the point that there was nothing left, or maybe been reused for something else.
He turned towards the direction he thought the main gate was in. He’d need to find the door which led out. The stairs he had taken down were not the same ones Lida had used when she had led him to the room. He had thought he’d have a better chance not to be discovered if he used the other staircase he had found. Only now he was somewhat confused over exactly where he was in relation to what he had seen on the way in.
When he was about halfway through he heard a slight sound coming from a narrow side corridor.
Some more sneaking and he found a room where five men were sleeping.
The guns tempted him for a moment, but right now he was still unsure as to what would be his best course – was he going to run now, or still wait a little while to see how things might develop – so he didn’t try to steal any of them.
The other rebels were probably somewhere close.
Once he got out he noticed a small twisting corridor running next to what he thought might be the outer wall – it was not straight, but neither had the outer walls of the keep been when he had seen them from the outside – and took it. The outer wall guess turned out to be right when he first found a few very narrow window holes opening to the courtyard, and then a door – not just a doorway, the door was there too, and in relatively good condition – and, when he tried it, it opened into the courtyard.
And at the same moment he heard the sounds of fast approaching conversation. Two people talking in that corridor, just around the corner.
There was no place to hide. Except outside.
This part of the courtyard was a mess. It seemed there had been a lot newer, small building – or possibly buildings – made most of brick here once, and it or they had fallen almost completely apart with time so there were a few low walls and a whole lot of fallen masonry, some as piles including some more intact bricks and as a harsh gravel formed from the disintegrated bricks and occasional larger pieces, and as the the brick gravel which covered most of the ground between them.
Rahan ran to a slightly higher nearby wall and crouched behind it as the speakers got to the window holes and approached the door. He hoped they hadn’t heard his steps on the gravel. He had not been exactly noiseless.
But they, whoever they were, seemed to be too absorbed in their discussion to have noticed anything.
When they got closer Rahan started to make out some snatches of the discussion. Something about a ship coming.
Had they been honest to him after all, and were now talking about his ship?
He could hear their voices clearly when they passed one of the windows, but between them their conversation was just noise. Both speakers seemed to be men, and he thought he maybe recognized one of the voices as one of the men who had met them on the courtyard, the one who had seemed to be as much in charge as Lida was. What had been that name he had heard… Kerrin? The other was unknown, but they were speaking in Kinagt, which might mean he was also an offworlder.
Something about a…
The rebels meant to sell something? Something illegal and highly valuable.
To an offworld buyer. The probable offworlder mentioned something about… his boss? Who was going to land somewhere near here in their ship. The next word he heard well enough to be sure of it was ‘the jumper’, a word often used of ships which had the FTL drive.
Some sort of… container? Cold. Rahan was sure one of the used words was something about cold.
A cellar. In a cellar?
It kind of sounded like that. Something in a container of some sort stored in a cellar. Either a container which needed to stay cold, or a contained which needed to be kept in cold. Here, somewhere in this old fortress.
Then they were gone.
The sun beat on Rahan, making him uncomfortably hot underneath the makeshift poncho and most probably burning the exposed parts of his skin while he sat behind the wall and thought.
He had a bad feeling about that snatch of a conversation.
Now where would a cellar, or cellars, be in this place… Close to the kitchens, maybe? Or did ‘a cellar’ mean something like a dungeon rather than food storage…?
He looked at the buildings around him.
The original keeps or the newer ones?
Originals. They were much better build. If the rebels were using this cellar for storage it was probably in good enough shape that they didn’t worry it might collapse on top of them, or this valuable merchandise.
Would the entrance be inside, or outside?
He would not be able to figure this out while sitting here.
Rahan got up and peered at the keep he had been in. He’d just have to start looking. It perhaps raised the risk he’d be caught by them… well, he’d just play clueless and spin. Some pressing need had made him force the lock open, maybe he had gotten thirsty, or had needed to relieve himself – that might be a good one, nobody had provided him with a bucket this time, and anything left in a corner in a small room like that would have started to stink in no time in this weather – something, anything which would keep them thinking he was maybe still not suspecting anything. Spin, appear sincere and friendly and wounded, deeply wounded by the fact that they had locked him in, ask nicely not to be imprisoned again and who knew, maybe they wouldn’t – well, one could hope – or at least the might still stay less than completely vigilant and he’d still get a chance to run.
Try to make them believe he was stupid. Shouldn’t be that hard. He had walked right into this – whatever this was – like a lamb to a slaughter, hadn’t he? Just because the girl was pretty…
By now he was quite sure he’d better run. Maybe he still was not completely sure that the rebels were up to no good towards him, but he had enough doubts that taking the risk of trusting them any further seemed rather foolhardy. Trust your instincts. That’s what the Shemasharra he knew were always telling him. That if he thought the people he was dealing with were concealing something from him, he was probably right.
And now he had finally figured out one potential reason these people might have had for kidnapping him. A reason he very, very much hoped he was completely wrong about, because if he was right he was in the middle of a nightmare.
Now, realistically speaking it was a very unlikely potential reason. It was the stuff of sensations, a subject most only ever saw in over the top action, or sometimes weepy drama type of stories told in games or vids or novels, meant to entertain rather than to tell anything more than marginally related to reality. Something most people assumed was just a good, scary fairy tale.
The problem was that those stories were based on something that actually did exist. Perhaps not in the more civilized parts of space, and it was something rare even in the frontier, but still, something that did exist and was a big, lucrative business to a very small portion of human criminals.
And Tekmar was not exactly in the center of civilization.
So no matter how far fetched his guess might be, the problem this presented to him was that now he had to find that… container before he ran.
Find it and see what was in it.