PLUS SPECIAL BONUS MATERIAL
Interview with the Author about Writing Science Fiction, Star Trek Books & Other Media Tie-Ins
Copyright 1980 by William Rotsler Reprinted courtesy The Estate of William Rotsler
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Strange Particle Press
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In the deepest chamber of the Old Place, ten young males and ten young females stood before a glowing sphere of light. The sphere pulsed slowly, growing and shrinking, changing colors and floating unsupported over the rock floor worn smooth by countless feet.
In the minds of each, a voice was heard.
I am Kaleen-ka, Mother of broods, Father of the nest. You have reached the age of testing, the time
of host survival, the time of proving. You must test yourselves as no one else can. The time of the nest awaits you. Shir-kakaloon, my father, my son, mother of us all, will be with you. Go, and be tested.
The sphere of light expanded, splashing vivid colors over the bare bodies, pulsating so rapidly that the ones who watched were blinded. A wordless fire burned briefly in their minds; then the sphere of light sank into the rock and disappeared.
The chamber was dim, lit only by torches in the passage outside. The twenty filed out, silent, apprehensive, involved in themselves and their worthiness, but their twin hearts were eager.
The time of testing was upon them, and they rejoiced. For they were the fortunate ones, the first full generation to face the supreme testers — the new ones on the surface who called themselves human.
“Where are they?” Wolf Briggs muttered angrily, his breath stirring up the dust as he lay on his stomach among the ragged, gray rocks. His blue eyes nervously watched the rocks below in a frantic search for the Kaleen warriors that had downed both his horses and sent him scurrying for shelter under a hail of sling-propelled rocks.
His palms were sweating; he pried loose his stiffened right hand from the grip of the laser and wiped it dry on his dusty shirt. He slithered to another opening between the boulders and got another angle on the downslope. His breath came in short gasps as he wiped his beardless face with his free hand.
“Damn,” he said softly, his eyes stopping on the still forms of Penny and Nickle, his two dead mounts. Sometime during the furor, Nickle’s pack had been taken, and there were marks in the sand where it had been dragged into the brush. They had been good mounts, both of them, Penny the mare and Nickle the stallion, grown from frozen sperm and ova that had come out on the early ships and trained by the scarred trappers back at Shamrock.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Briggs shifted again, wiping the sweat from his eyes and silently cursing his luck. He should have listened to the men back at Shamrock. But no, he thought bitterly, had to be the brave trapper, going out when the more experienced hands were saying stay in, at least until late summer, then go out with the others. “Damn,” he whispered again, condemning himself for the hundredth time since the Kaleen ambush. Just had to play it tougher-than-thou, didn’t you? He castigated himself mercilessly. Know-it-all. Clean-boot.
He saw a movement and thrust the laser through the cleft in the rocks to fire a ruby-beam into the brush. The bushes caught fire, but only after a hail of rocks came whistling out of nowhere to strike him and his frugal shelter. He yanked himself back, a stinging cut on his cheek and another, from a ricochet, on his right arm. Then just as quickly, he rolled to the left and aimed around the other side of the rock. He was panting, wide-eyed and scared, but he fired twice and had the satisfaction of seeing movement stop suddenly.
Wolf Briggs rolled over and looked up the low hill behind him. It was too barren to afford much camouflage, just dirt and rocks that gave shelter only if you were flat on your face behind them. He rolled back, thirsty, his throat clogged with dust and fear.
What’s it like to die? he wondered. Do the Kaleen kill fast or slowly, given the choice? Where do you go when you die, or do you just stop? He blinked his gritty eyes and glanced at the sky. Hours until dark, he thought bitterly. Probably more day than life left.
He moved again, trying not to stir up dust, his brown hair falling limply over his sweaty forehead, the cut beginning to throb. There was another movement in the brush, but he was far too slow to react. Closer each time, he thought.
He looked at the horses again. At least they didn’t seem to suffer. Not for long, anyway. Would he have that same merciful death, sudden and eternal?
Wolf Briggs gulped and looked around for a pebble to put into his mouth, something which he had read, often helped. He almost picked up a tiny, armored beetle before he found a stone of suitable size. He brushed it off against his sleeve and popped it into his mouth. It rattled against his teeth, and he held it firm with his tongue. It tasted salty and bitter.
Briggs checked the tiny ready-light on his laser. About five good bolts were left. His eyes went to his saddle on the dead Penny, where extra batteries were cached in the bags.
Five bolts, he thought. Would that mean five dead Kaleen? He doubted it. So far, he had barely seen them — only flashes of brown skin, of strong, muscular arms spinning slings and glimpses of dark hair.
I’m too young to die, he thought, then laughed at himself. What would his brother say? “You’re too ugly to die,” Aram would say; or maybe, “You’re too dumb to die.” Nothing very original — but with most of his meaning lying below the words, in the tone and context. “I wish you were here,” Briggs muttered to his brother, then immediately changed his mind. “No, stay there. Take care of Frederic and Mum.” He blinked away the sweat in his eyes, suddenly frantic. There had been movement, and he hadn’t reacted at all. They’d think him dead and come at once.
Briggs edged around the short barrier of rocks, letting dust rise, then backtracked toward his original position, letting the dust cover his movements.
The sun was hot. A summer day on Zikkala, way out at the end of the Orion spur of the Perseus arm, umpteen light-years from Gauguin III, his home planet of Matisse. A distance not long in time, subjective-time, he realized. Less than seven months, with all but seconds of it involved in running in and out of a system to where the null-space drive could operate. But back on Matisse, hundreds of years had passed. Frederic Chopin, Aram Khachaturian, his mother Ermine, even Handy, the pet Moloch — all dead. Briggs blinked away the sweat and tears and prepared to die — and to take some of his killers with him.
Rader stopped his horse just below the edge of the rusty stone ridge and stood up in the saddle. His eyes moved in a swift search pattern from the near to the far, from the foothills of the Redpaws just ahead to the green savannah around Shamrock’s domes, and glimpsed through the passes. Beyond were the blue-gray Marble Mountains and the blue sky above, cloudless and powerfully azure.
The big, dark-haired man took his time, standing easily in the stirrups of the tawny animal. Everything seemed quiet, but Rader had not lived on the vast Marengo continent of untamed Zikkala for almost four years without being very cautious, very smart — and very fast. He kept his hand on the butt of his laser, now at rest in its well-worn bolster, for it was certain that between him and the fortress trading post of Shamrock, at least one party of Kaleen waited to attack.
Rader directed his steed to a higher location on the ridge and sat down in the big command saddle, his eyes still scanning back and forth, probing and seeking. He shifted his weight in the stirrups and felt the comforting bulk of the laser rifle in its saddle scabbard. The sensation of it against his leg brought a grim smile to his lips. Early every summer, in the domes and bars of Blackbull and Shamrock, and over in Nuevo Monterey, they kidded themselves ruthlessly and self-consciously about injuns and cowboys and the winning of the Out. But beneath the jibes and laughter, beneath the repeated jokes and oft-told tales, there was the very real knowledge that living on Zikkala was not a job for the slow, the stupid, or the clean-boot. Wearing lasers and carrying knives were not picaresque, outdated customs to delight the tourist trade, like the fancied-up pirates of Hammurabi or the dragonshirts on Zinzir. For one thing, there was no tourist trade on Loki IV. It was hundreds of light-years to Coronation and even further to Terra-Sol, back along the Perseus arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Even with n-drive, which sent ships through null-space in subjective nano-seconds, there was a terrible price to pay not only in centuries but in social disorientation.
To the passengers on an n-drive ship, they seemed to leap light-years instantaneously, but to the outside observer — if there could be such a creature — it took the ship 24.8 standard-years per light-year. A ten light-year jump to a planet and back brought the ship home five hundred years after departure, but to the subjective experience of the passengers and crew it had been only moments.
Thus only a few trader ships arrived at Zikkala, one or two a year, sometimes more, depending upon the faith of the ship’s owners, who gambled that, hundreds of years after they dispatched a vessel, it would return with a payload that would make it worthwhile. Thus, governments — planetary, regional, great federations of starworlds, or guilds — were the only ones that traveled the stars for profit. These few ships were Zikkala’s only contact with other inhabited worlds, as inadequate as they were.
Rader turned in his saddle and looked back down the dusty trail at Liana and Korda, who were sitting patiently on their mounts at either ends of the pack train, scanning the brush and the back trail with restless eyes. He signaled them to wait, slid off his mount, and crept to the ridge. He was a dark, tall, lean man in soft, leather clothes and a wide-brimmed black hat, well-armed and cautious.
He saw a plume of dust, faint and gone in an instant. He narrowed his eyes, saw the two distant lumps that were dead horses, and cursed, silently. He lay motionless for several minutes, well hidden behind a dark serif bush, his sharp eyes picking out the probable routes of attack and the probable hiding places of the Kaleen blades. Then he moved back, raising no dust, until he could get to his feet. His face was grim as he motioned Korda and Liana forward with a warning sign. As they rose cautiously toward him, Rader thought about the situation, his eyes still searching the brush around them.
Rader had no desire to meet any war party of Kaleen, and he bore several scars to prove that he had met them before. The tough Kaleen were formidable warriors, and Rader knew them to be complex entities, with much of their lives kept very hidden from the byworlders who had come there.
“Ambush?” Korda said, his deep voice rumbling.
Rader nodded and pointed at their pack animals.
“Liana, you guard the treasure and—”
“Goddamnit, Rader!” The slant-eyed, honey-skinned woman snapped at him. Korda laughed, a deep, slow chuckle, and she punched him in a beefy black shoulder. “Stop that, you bonehead! I’m tired of people with testicles expecting those without to be helpless.” There was a lot of suppressed fury in her voice, and Rader’s grin faded.
“There’s someone out there, pinned down,” he said. “Just one pack horse, so either he or she lost them earlier or it’s some tourist.” The last word dripped with sarcasm. None of those who put their lives on the line for the way they lived had much concern about sightseers, usually spacers off a guild ship who were contemptuous of any danger that didn’t take place in a vacuum.
“So?” Liana said, bristling. The big black man started to speak, and her eyes flared at him. “If you say one more time that I’m beautiful when I’m angry, I’ll make you a eunuch!”
Rader looked at Korda, and they both shrugged. “All right,” he said mildly. “Korda, you get the train together and ready to run at my signal. We may have to make an ungraceful exit from this bit of territory.” He looked at the beautiful oriental woman. “That better?’
“It’ll be better when you learn to think of me first, not after a little persuasion!” She drew her handlaser with expert smoothness, checked the ready-light at full, and put it back, all in one swift movement. “Do we go in on foot or a-horse, noble leader?”
“Horse, I think. If that’s a cleanboot out there, he might not recognize us as friends until the burial.” He looked at Korda and scratched his jaw. “Maybe we should all go in noisy as hell, except we detour toward the rocks and—”
“What rocks?” the burly, black man asked.
Rader knelt and quickly drew a map in the sand. “He, she, or it — is here. The Kaleen are probably here and along here. Korda, you go this way, as if you were circling, but actually, you just ride like hell to reconnect to the trail here. No use waiting for us, just keep on going to Shamrock.”
“We go this way?” Liana asked. “Sweep through here, collect the cleanboot, and join up with m’man here.”
“Uh-huh,” Rader said, grinning. “Not exactly book generalship, but it will do. Mount up,” he said. But Liana was already swinging into her saddle, the taba-cloth loin-covering whipping in the wind of her passage. She settled the equipment-belt on her hips, tugged at her short vest of soft leather, and touched the long knife at her left hip.
Rader and Korda exchanged another look, and there was a stern warning in the black man’s eyes. Normally Korda was gentle, except when decided ungentleness was needed to survive; and as Rader had learned on several worlds, Korda was a survival type. In his way, he was reminding his friend Rader of Liana’s impetuousness, which more than once had gotten her in trouble.
“Come on, let’s do it,” Liana said.
Rader shrugged and swung aboard his mount. Stroking the neck of his horse, he looked around, then walked the horse to where he could again survey the land on the other side.
Nothing much had changed. Just then, a rock unexpectedly arched up from the brush and plinked against a boulder, but there was no answering fire. Either the person trapped was dead or dying — or was conserving his bolts. The rock rolled back down the slope and came to rest. Rader looked over at Liana, nodded, and dug his heels into his horse’s flanks.
The animal lunged forward, and Rader pulled the heavy Excalibur laser rifle from the boot and thumbed it on. He rose in the saddle as they went down the slope and put a series of millisecond pulses into the brush where the last rock had come from, sweeping it in a figure-eight pattern.
Liana let out a terrifying scream, her bloodthirsty battle cry, and fired several times into likely hiding places. Rader quickly shifted the long, powerful weapon across the saddle and fired in the other direction, aiming not from the shoulder but by instinct. Something thrashed in the brush; an arm went up, whirling a sling, and let fly a shot as Rader brought the ruby-beam sweeping across the gray-green Zikkala scrit. The sling’s stone thumped against the horse’s neck even before the severed arm hit the sand.
Rader’s horse bucked but straightened out and galloped on. The ruby-sword of the Excalibur flamed again, slicing through a half-grown pungi tree and two Kaleen blades that had leaped up. They fell back with strangled cries, spurting blood. The brush was set ablaze in several places, and thick, oily smoke billowed up from the fire-swept vegetation. Another Kaleen charged through the smoke, brandishing a polished spear, throwing it while Rader was engaged in shifting the heavy weapon back across the saddle. But Liana acted, cutting the Kaleen down, and the victors’ horses thundered on.
Rader ducked some stones and thrust the heavy-duty laser back into its scabbard, drawing his hand-weapon quickly. Another of the red-brown humanoids leaped up, his muscular tail slapping the thick scrit as be leaped toward Rader, a long knife in his bony hand. Rader fired point-blank into his face, and the headless body fell away.
Looking back, Rader sate Liana firing and Korda whooping and waving as the pack train came over the ridge. There were screams and smoke, the acrid odor of burning pungi, dust and sweat. Liana veered toward him, pounding by upon her steed, low over her saddle, firing coolly. Her ruby-beam sliced a long, low swath through the pungi and scrit. Splatters of thick red fluid plopped and slithered to the ground from severed body parts as the beginning of a Kaleen battle cry was cut off in mid-scream.
Rader galloped out of the last of the thick brush, and the horse slowed as they went up the rocky hillside. Rader saw movement behind the rocks and cried out to the figure, “Climb aboard!”
A slender figure jumped up, half fell over the rocks and ran toward Rader’s horse. The dark-haired man in the saddle looked quickly around, saw a ruby-beam blink from behind some rocks, and Liana’s horse stumbled and fell, screaming shrilly, his front legs gone, pumping blood in sudden amputation. Rader’s laser splashed flame over the rock, then suddenly stopped. Cursing, be thrust it back into his holster and stuck his hand into the saddle bags, groping for the extra batteries.
The ambush victim cried out and clawed at Rader, trying to get aboard — and almost caused him to drop the battery. He pulled the slender youth on behind him, then drew his laser again and quickly replaced the battery as they started down the hill.
Liana was on her feet, running toward Korda and the last of the pack animals. Rader stood in his stirrups and fired quickly into the several likely spots. He galloped into the brush, forcing his animal to get between Liana and where he thought the Kaleen were. She was dusty and unkempt, but her dark eyes flashed wickedly, her laser readied.
Rader grinned through the sweat and fear. Liana ran like a cat, leaping, dodging. She caught up to the last of the pack animals and holstered her weapon long enough to slash the straps on its bulky load, letting it thump into the dust. Then she leaped lithely astride and whooped at the horse to move.
The rest of the pack train shied at the noise and sudden movements and were straining to break loose from the tough plastic line that held them together. Liana rode to the middle of the train, reached out and grabbed the ear of a rearing animal and twisted it. Almost at once, the animal calmed and the train started moving again.
“Hawww!” Liana yelled, and it was echoed by Korda at the head of the line.
Rader rode hard, the youth holding on behind, until he had caught up to Korda. He stopped, shouting at the extra rider to get off. “Jump on that second horse! Don’t drop the pack unless you start falling behind!” The stranger staggered on weak legs until he had caught the animal and pulled himself up.
Rader was already galloping ahead, hearing Liana cursing at the pack train in four languages to keep them on the trail. But his attention was keen for the next potential ambush point, the spot where the Kaleen would attempt to cut down the panicked trappers running from the fight, scrambling toward the safety of the Shamrock guns.
That grove there, he thought and fired the Excalibur into it. A tree slowly toppled as a flight of startled chandthruts winged into the air. Two of the ancient trees burst into flame. Rader looked back and saw Korda and Liana bringing up the string of frightened animals, and the stranger swaying as he clung awkwardly to the pack.
Ahead of them was Kilometer Rock. The Kaleen ambushers rarely went beyond it, for that was too close to the telescope-equipped weapons mounted in the watchtowers. The lasers were backed by the pile beneath Dome One and could far outdistance anything portable. Rader felt their safety from the long-tailed ambushers was almost at hand.
A flicker of movement at the base of the red-stone monolith caused the Excalibur to swing to target. His finger hit the firing stud as three more Kaleen rose up. Two were swinging slings, but the third was aiming a weapon with both hands. In a second, Kilometer Rock had another black, melting scar, as it became the grave for three more of the Zikkala natives.
Rader swung his mount around, pointing the laser to where he looked, as he searched the underbrush. The pack train galloped past, and Rader fired at another clump of brush. Then he kicked his heels into the horse and went galloping up the loose talus slope toward Kilometer Rock. He jumped off long enough to yank the partially melted needle-gun from the grip of a dead Kaleen, then swung onto his horse again and rode like hell down the trail toward Shamrock.