chapter one: the sea of dadan
Men powered the ship, which resembled a dromon of Byzantium, but they were not the men of Earth, nor did their sweating forms strain at mighty oars. Instead, the weary slaves marched upon a treadmill that stretched the warship’s length, transmitting its motion, amplified by cunning gears, to the churning screw beneath the wooden keel.
One such slave was Zen, former Lord of Etru, one of many city-states that flourished along Mitharr’s wild coast. No pampered lord was he – rather, a man of iron – huge, powerful, overflowing with the vitality of healthful youth. But even so he was near to exhaustion, having endured since sunrise the crushing bondage of the mill; the endless climb of its creaking treads - for the fickle winds did not blow to fill the square sail of this pirate-hunting galley pursuing Kasar, the notorious Peshenti buccaneer.
Zen’s face, usually pleasant and carefree, was now a mask of anger as for the hundredth time he reflected on the circumstances that had laid him low: Only a day ago he had, upon the death of his father, Menur, ascended the golden throne of Ertu. It had been a grand ceremony, one ruined in Zen's eyes by a bloody sacrifice to Mamax, Lord of Death, and tutelary divinity of his city.
Zen had always despised these grisly rituals - the pungent incense, the sinister throb of the mighty drums; the awful screams of the girls, slit open like so many gutted fish. Such monstrous acts sickened him to the very core, and the sight of the latest victim’s horrid end hardened his resolve to crush the priesthood now that he was Lord.
It was a daring ambition, for the idol of Mamax, built in an open temple at the southern corner of Etru’s mighty piazza, often spoke in thunderous rolling tones that the priests interpreted - a convincing miracle in the eyes of many, yes. But Zen, more skeptical than the rest, felt it was a trick of some kind – an artifice of cunning priests that frightened the populace into unquestioning obedience to the dictates of a cruel theology.
That evening, during the coronation feast, Zen was still brooding, his father's death weighing heavily upon him; the girl's pleas for mercy still ringing in his ears. In a dark mood, he had eaten too many petals of the saona flower, their potent intoxicants loosening his tongue. Before the astonished audience, he had blurted out his plans, which quickly reached the sharp ears of Sadur, High Priest of Mamax.
In the dark of night cloaked figures had come in stealthy silence. He had fought them, killed several, but in the end his drunken state weighed against him, and now he was just a slave among other chattels aboard this ship of far Runim. He had thought of revealing his identity, but of what value was a fallen Lord? The High Priest’s coup was complete; no ransom would be paid, of that he could be sure.
Sadur! How he hated the man, his
audacity - selling him to the captain for 100 shetem*, the cruelty of
his parting barb: “Death is too swift for you. Better you suffer as a
worthless slave and contemplate all you have lost...”
*Footnote: The monetary unit of Etru. Coins (there are no notes) come in denominations of 1, 10, 50 & 100. All coins are square with rounded corners whose sides measure approximately 1 inch, with color denoting their value – yellow = 1, blue = 10, red = 50 & purple = 100.
These coins are unique – they are made of molded opaque glass, intricately etched with geometrical designs, whose fluorescent quality (the secret of which is closely guarded) makes them impossible to counterfeit.
The burning stroke of the lash jerked the Eturan back to the present. He turned his head, glaring at the slave master, but the man had moved on to torture some other pitiful soul.
Soon, the vessel would anchor
shoreward for the night and the slaves, chained to the treadmill, would
escape their torment for a time in exhausted sleep. A predatory smile
curved Zen’s lips at that thought, for night favored what he planned to
do. Looking up, he wondered what gods, if any, he could call upon.
No gods looked down upon this alien world of Naxor, only Doctor Linis Adur. She gazed thoughtfully at the planet displayed via night vision in the command center’s master hologram cube. The girl studied the single equatorial continent that encircled three quarters of the globe, looked upon its jungle clad immensity, the towering snow capped mountains of its vast interior, the azure sea that lapped the unknown shore, and wondered what other mysteries lay hidden from her enquiring gaze. The girl’s musings were broken by the illuminants that flickered for a moment, reminding her of the state Daedalus, her ship, was in.
The Daedalus, a masterpiece of
twenty-third century engineering, and the first interstellar ship to
cross the gulf between the stars, was now nothing more than drifting
junk. The expedition had been en route to explore a planet circling
Gliese 876*, an M4 dwarf star fifteen light years from Earth when an
energy storm in hyperspace had wrecked the ship, had hurled it into
unknown regions, and It was more by luck than skill that the Doctor
(one of only two survivors) had found this Earth-like world around
which they had been orbiting for thirty days.
*Footnote: This world actually exists, but is unlikely to harbor life. For further information see the Guide to Extrasolar Planets – www.extrasolar.net/evmain.asp
We’re lost in a wilderness of stars, she thought. The ship’s self-repair mechanisms can’t reconstruct our fused drive-coils. We can’t go home, can’t communicate with Earth. The Daedalus is slowly dying, and only this unknown world below offers any chance at life.
A door hissed open, reminding her she was not alone. Linis turned, tried not to grimace as Caris Vay, the Daedalus’ chief engineer stalked in. If only there had been some other survivors, she thought, glancing at the tall hawk-faced man. Well, better him than being alone, I suppose.
“Have you come to a decision, Doctor?” asked Vay with characteristic abruptness.
“Yes. We’re going down in the exploration module. I’ve chosen a remote area, an island to be precise. We should be able to survive, but even if we can't we must observe the Exploration Protocols and avoid all contact with the planet’s primitives.”
Vay raised his eyebrows in silent querulousness.
“You have a better idea, Mr. Vay?” was her sharp reply.
“As you know, Doctor,” he said in a
tone nearing insubordination, “our microprobes have revealed this world
harbors humanoid life and, with the aid of these and other devices,
have even learnt the language of one particular city and something of
its customs. I’d rather be Lord of a metropolis than king of some
She looked at Vay, aghast. Where was his sense of wonder at what they had discovered? Rather, he was speaking of invasion, like some modern day conquistador. To a person of Linis’ era, war and violence were savagery from the past. Vay couldn’t have shocked her more if he’d said he planned to become a cannibal.
“I’ve used the ship’s fabricators,” he continued, ignoring her open mouthed stare, and proudly held up a small black sphere. “This is a grenade, one of a number of weapons I’ve manufactured. I’ve also made armor. Together we can rule a kingdom - those savages don’t stand a chance.”
The Doctor recovered her poise. “Mr. Vay, I’ll overlook your foolishness,” she said, revulsion tingeing her reply. “But if I hear any more of this madness, I’ll administer drugs that will curb your wild thoughts. Remember, I am the senior officer here.”
Vay’s eyes narrowed. “Not any more, you’re not,” he growled, lunging at her.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)