(scroll down for the prologue, following the cover art...)
© 2011 Eric Diehl
“You would ask of us then, my lord… a mass genocide?”
Though Cronon spoke softly he projected his voice throughout the chamber, coyly lacing accusation through a cadence of wonder, and Kal stiffened visibly. Lord Kal sa’n Alar, Zemplar of the House Alliance, stood at the viewing portal, his black mood reflected in the sweeping pane of glass. Chancellor Cronon, second of the Council, stood high center of the loggia, while the quorum of Advisors sat throughout the curved tiers of the gallery; fidgeting, posturing, or brooding disconsolate.
A secret smile twitched at Cronon’s lips as he regarded Lord Kal’s rigid pose, and while the Zemplar stood stiffly silent he allowed his gaze to drift to the landscape visible through the clouded portal. Scattered clusters of trees crouched in a grimy shroud of haze, stunted and misshapen. A single moon festered dirty-grey on the horizon—somewhat mindful of a necrotic cyst. The moon’s dull aura faded fast across the murky night sky, and just as quickly Cronon’s perverse amusement fell away.
The poisoned landscape beyond called stark reminder to the Council’s purpose in meeting tonight.
Kal turned to face the assembly, and his gaze came to rest upon Cronon. A fleeting shadow, near indiscernible, crossed Kal’s face. The Zemplar’s veiled contempt came as no surprise to Cronon.
“Council Advisors…” Lord Kal drew his words out long and weighty. “The time for vacillation is long past. Tonight we must agree upon some means to salvage whatever remains of our future. Simply put; today we take aggressive action to reclaim our homeworld, or we do nothing—and leave ourselves less than that.” His eyes came round to lock on Cronon. “You have heard the Chancellor condemn my tactic. He labels it barbaric; he would have you quail from it.” Kal pressed his lips thin. “It is no surprise that the Chancellor exaggerates his point, but I will concede some merit to his warning, if not to his purpose.”
Cronon’s eyes widened and he leaned forward to study Kal, combing knobby fingers through his scraggly beard. The thick-skulled Zemplar openly acknowledges my dire omen? What gambit does he play tonight?
Kal released Cronon’s gaze to sweep the Council with his own. “We have no choice, gathered Advisors, but to come to terms with reality. The harsh and cruel truth is that severe casualties are inevitable. But then…” he shrugged; an oddly dismissive gesture, “is that not already the case? We—our families, our friends—continue to fall like so many splintered trunks in a freeze-broken forest.”
Kal extended a culpatory finger toward Cronon. “The Chancellor casts his sage wisdom—he advises that we merely decree additional, more severe, restrictions by which the lunar depots must abide. Surely you see the futility in that? What might we expect should the Council simply advise the lunar colonies that, from this day forward, all Harvest is forbidden? Current allotments are ignored, and so we would further restrict them?”
Kal began his agitated pace. “Some of the lunar collectives are little more than loosely-bound gangs. Misfits; pirates even—those who follow no code of ethic. Many have developed an exceptional talent for misappropriating resource to suit their purpose.” He stopped to face the quorum, nodding grimly. “The sad truth of it is this: the colonies’ need for water looms as desperate as does our need to deny them. One faction must fail. I would sacrifice the lunar territories to spare the home world!”
Cronon turned to watch the Council stir. This was the crux of it; whatever decision was made, some harsh consequence would ensue.
Kal resumed his pace, the thud of his heels echoing through the half-empty chamber. “Know this, Advisors. Once apprised of our intentions the colonists would scatter like leaves on the wind, their Harvest fleets secreted away beyond our grasp. The vessels would be fitted with armor and armament, and the colonies would become the dire enemy that we have not the time, nor the resource, to endure. I see no option but to destroy as much of their fleet as we are able—and with no warning.”
Cronon swiveled to watch short, bulbous Pakat come to his feet, and he nodded encouragement to the Advisor.
“But what of our recent findings, my lord?” said Pakat. “Do they not suggest a plausible alternative?”
Kal clicked his tongue. “I have read your studies, Pakat; I understand what this theoretical purification procedure would entail. How can we believe that such an improbable process has even the slightest chance of proving viable?” He stared blankly at the squat advisor. “What I believe, Pakat, is that yours is simply one more diversion—a veil of misdirection tailored for no purpose but to forestall action.”
Pakat spluttered. “N... Now see here! We are well beyond the theoretical stage! We’ve conducted innumerable simulations, and we’ve actually performed the Rejen procedure in a controlled environment!”
“Your simulation is an artificial contrivance, fully contained. There are no complicating variables extant, and your model is a fraction of a fraction in size. How comparable to the full planet and its biosphere might that be?”
Pakat huffed. “We can hardly conduct the procedure in planetary proportion before we’ve proven it on a lesser scale,” he replied stiffly. “That is scientific procedure.”
Kal sighed. “And that is all well and good, but we have no time for your group of learned men to ramp up their science project.” His voice took a steeled edge. “Who among us would be so willing to give over the planet? With every passing day the blight tightens its coil, claiming our habitat as its own.” He slammed a palm on the podium. “The pestilence must be purged, now! The Chancellor warns of genocide, I warn of extinction in a biosphere forever ruined!” Kal took a deep breath and calmed his voice.
“We have launched genetic and biological attacks on the microbe, but it always proves capable of sufficient mutation to survive our efforts. It recovers, ever more resilient. Does it not go without saying that before we can reverse the blight’s incursion, we must first halt its growth? We know that a drying atmosphere, resulting from excessive Harvest, contributes greatly to the microbe’s ability to propagate. I daresay that our course of action is plainly writ—we must stop the pillaging of the planet’s atmospheric moisture. We must halt… all… Harvest.”
Pakat opened his mouth, and Kal raised both hands.
“Enough. As mediator of the Council, I call for a binding vote on my resolution.”
Bloody mothers! Cronon smacked his palms against the forward railing, shaking his head angrily.
Kal opened his arms to the gathering. “At first light on the morrow, we meet here to cast lots. Take time now to argue your points, to resolve your concerns as best you’re able. I will take my leave; you’ve heard my arguments oft enough. My vote will be needed only in the case of a locked quorum.”
Kal turned and strode for the door, and Cronon sank back into his chair, his squinted eyes scanning the assembly. Which way would the vote go? Truthfully, he could not say. Kal wielded considerable influence—some would follow him because he was Zemplar, others because he was Elder of House Alar. Many actually agreed with him on principal. Cronon exhaled a deep breath, his eyes fixed, unseeing, on the dais.
Kal must believe that he has the tally to prevail, else he’d not have called the vote.
He sat frowning. Cronon had separate issues with the colonies, issues related to the Harvest only by circumstance. If the Zemplar were to prevail tomorrow, Cronon was sure that his life’s work would be finished. He harbored little doubt that the fledgling Guild situated on Suaron would be quashed; trampled over incidentally—like a grub under a footman’s boot. The Suaron settlements were, after all, the most developed of the lunar depots. They would surely be primary targets in a military purge of the Harvest fleet, and that would destroy all that Cronon had labored so long to achieve.
And that simply would not do…
Intent upon displaying no emotion, Cronon fumbled furtively within the loose folds of his robe. He found the small emitter located there and he turned it in his fingers, seeking the recessed trigger. His forefinger idly circled the button as he sat frowning some moments, and then an odd smile crossed his face. With the release of a breath unknowingly held long, Cronon pressed the button.
He sat a few minutes; silent, introspective, and then his communicator buzzed. With a puzzled expression he drew it out and held it to his ear, and his eyes went very wide.
* * *
Guron’s eyes darted to the receiver in his palm—a faint light flashed there, its green throb vivid in the dark. He cursed silently, stifling a grunt as he pushed up from his squat position. He slipped forward through the chill shadows to peer round the corner of the alcove. A string of bulbs spaced widely down the center of the corridor cast a spotted pattern, and Guron squinted down the fading trail of light. In short time he became aware of faint footsteps approaching. Soon he was able to pick a vague figure out from the darkness, and he took note of the golden skullcap.
Lord Kal sa’n Alar strode past at a brisk pace and Guron began to move in his wake, shielded from view by the thick columns lining the shadowy corridor. Suddenly Zalar, the short, rotund scientist who was Prime on the Rejen project, rounded the corner in front of Lord Kal. Guron faded into deeper shadow as the scientist bustled purposefully forward, his billowing lab coat flapping wide with each waddling stride. He carried a large green folder under one arm.
“My Lord! I must speak with you!” Zalar exclaimed breathlessly. “We’ve recorded a significant success today—a major breakthrough!” Zalar stopped a few paces away from Kal, his expression of exuberance fading to puzzlement. “Zemplar? You are not attending the Council? I must present my findings to the gathered Advisors.”
Taken aback by the appearance of Zalar, Guron wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. Could this be a chance foul–up? He’d expected another of his allegiance—Cronon’s deep-cover Security Guard—to be his foil on this blind-operations action. Certainly not the pompous and bungling Zalar. Unsure of himself, Guron listened carefully.
“The Council is formally adjourned for the evening, Zalar.” The Zemplar’s tone suggested distracted impatience. “Many of the Advisors have likely departed by now. What is it that you wish to present?”
“I must present to the entire council, my Lord.” Zalar spoke warily, and Guron nodded to himself—it was no secret that the Zemplar was no ally of the Rejen project.
“Ahh, Zalar. I suspect that you exaggerate? I’ll not reconvene the Council without good cause.” From the shadows Guron watched the large man straighten to his full height as he spoke in an officious tone. “I should advise you, Zalar, that a vote will take place at first light. It is my intent that our decision will mark the end of your project.”
Zalar’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a full span. “M… my Lord!” he spluttered. “No! What I say is true—a breakthrough! I must present to the Council! Look! I will show you a summary!” Zalar motioned frantically for the Zemplar to join him under the modest light of a hanging bulb.
This is it! Guron was suddenly sure. There was to be a diversion to allow me to close unnoticed. Even inept Zalar is capable of diversion.
Zalar began to scrabble with his paperwork while Kal bent forward to look on, and Guron surged forward from his spot in the dark shadows. As he closed swiftly, silently, Zalar chanced to glance up. Realization dawned in his eyes, and he screamed “No!” just as Guron pounced.
The Zemplar had started to turn just as Guron slammed the injector against his neck and triggered it. Kal stiffened immediately, but still managed to catch Guron’s right arm in both hands. Guron stifled a cry of pain as the larger man fell to his knees, fingers tightening like bands of steel around his wrist and forearm. Guron’s mind reeled.
How can this be?No man can withstand such a toxin!
Lord Kal’s grip forced Guron to his knees, hunched over, his right arm pressed awkwardly to the floor. Guron fought to keep balance while scrabbling at his right side with his free hand, and he snatched free the d’arkblade sheathed there and thrust sideways in a gawky lunge at the Zemplar. Zalar, who stood frozen with a horrified expression, chose just that moment to intercede. The scientist darted in, shouting “It’s OFF! I—” but his words choked off as Guron’s clumsily thrust blade sank deep into his lower belly. Guron spat out a curse as Zalar peered down at the protruding weapon, his eyes wide in astonishment.
With his arms windmilling to either side Zalar screeched and fell backwards as Guron wrenched the blade free. A terrible weight pinned Guron’s arm to the floor at an excruciating angle, and there was a distinct snap as the bone finally yielded. Guron screamed and again thrust the d’arkblade.
The blade sunk deep, and with a spastic muscle contraction Lord Kal dragged Guron inward. Now face to face on their knees Guron saw the briefest glimmer of understanding in the Zemplar’s eyes, and then Lord Kal’s head wrenched forward like a steam-driven piston. Guron’s nose burst in a spray of blood and his head snapped backwards, his vision flashing dark and bright. He collapsed limp to the stone floor, only vaguely aware of the single hand still clamped around his ruined arm.
From where he lay, dazed, Guron willed his fluttering eyes to see, and through blurred vision and a film of blood he saw the Zemplar tottering, head drooped forward, blood coursing around the slender dagger lodged in his chest. And then Guron felt the living strength of the man’s grip go limp as he toppled forward. Guron screamed as the hilt of the d’arkblade jammed into his pelvis and the fallen deadweight shoved the blade on through the Zemplar’s torso. Struggling to draw breath, Guron raised his head to peer fuzzily over the lifeless bulk that pinned him. He blinked senselessly at the shiv, gleaming dull red, which protruded from the dead man’s back.
Guron’s vision faded from grey to black and the corridor fell silent, save the faint hammering of boots approaching at a dead run and the soft blubbering of Zalar, who lay splayed against the wall in a spreading pool of blood.
“I... I thought you were told.” Zalar gurgled softly as he sobbed. “It…. the plan… it was changed…. Rejen…………....”
The wooden mallet thokked, once, twice, and yet again; gradually calling quiet the bedlam of the Council chamber. The magistrate waved the Advisors down into their seats, and he turned his eyes to the Council Executors.
Cronon stood before the bench, watching helpless, feeling his wits spin like water down a drain. He tugged listlessly at the cable that bound his wrists, knowing too well that there was no point to it.
The magistrate extended a finger toward him, and Cronon watched it bob, hypnotically, like a viper priming to strike. He disjointedly pondered how odd that it was—the resemblance between himself and the magistrate; long white hair, thin bony stature, sallow complexion.
Would that our positions were reversed…
Still holding the attention of the Executors, the magistrate placed an open palm to his chest and swept his hand downward. The deputies nodded and moved in. Cronon felt himself gripped and manhandled in a brusque, purposeful manner, and he cringed at the sound of tearing and shredding as the Executors stripped away his raiment.
The magistrate spoke. “The evidence is undeniable. Cronon sa’n Ka’eltan, you are found to have committed a particularly heinous act of treason against the House Alliance. The defense argues that your purpose was humane; the prevention of massive bloodshed among the colonies and the provision of time for development of the Rejen project.” He nodded grimly. “It is an oddly appealing defense, and though it has no basis in jurisprudence, there may be some perverse truth to it.” He shook his head. “But it is equally plausible that the Council would have voted against military intercession, and in whichever case you could not have known the outcome that would ultimately derive from your action.” He smiled a thin, cold, line. “Other than, of course, the death of the Zemplar.”
Cronon shivered, both from the chill draft on his prickly bare skin and from the panicked surety of what was to follow. The magistrate straightened to full height and raised his voice to make his officious pronouncement.
“Cronon sa’n Ka’eltan. You are herewith stripped of all rank, privilege, and endowment, and you are banished, with no means beyond what you might fashion with your wits and bare hands, to fare as you will on the blighted Flat of Galtar.” The magistrate’s gaze strayed away, and he spoke softly. “In spite of myself, I pity you.”
The magistrate nodded curtly to the executors, and calloused hands gripped Cronon’s arms. He was brusquely turned to face the air-lock that opened onto the murk beyond, and his legs turned to water. As he was drug away, limp and unresisting, Cronon fought to fashion words of protest; to beg for penance, or for mercy.
But only gibberish burbled from his lips.
With his legs splayed outward and his fingers laced behind his head, Cairn shifted one way and squirmed another, seeking out the familiar curvature of his old acquaintance. But try as he might he could not find a proper fit against the weathered profile of the rocky crag, and soon enough his puzzled frown turned up in a rueful smile. A decade past he might have hunkered low in this hollow at the outcropping’s base—commander of his bastion, hidden and secure but still daring and adventurous. He chuckled softly. The landscape remained virtually unchanged, yet everything felt so very different. The matter of it was—he had since grown up. Cairn sa’n Alar leaned forward, arching his back, stretching his arms and rolling his head side to side. Tight muscles grudgingly relaxed, and he let his gaze wander absently.
Abruptly he caught his breath, pursing his lips as he
squinted a distance out….