Wed
Feb 20 2013 6:00am

The Matrix (Excerpt)

Jo Bannister

From Jo Bannister, take a look at The Matrix, now released in ebook format:

Dak Hamiko had never even heard of the Matrix. Nobody had, not for millennia, but The Matrix was not gone, only waiting. It had a purpose, in pursuit of which it was prepared to be every bit as ruthless as the imperialists of Tok-ai-Do. It was Dak’s misfortune to be caught between two such irresistible forces, yet ultimately it was his plight which stirred the conscience of the Alliance and his flight which set the Twelve Circles afire with controversy.

The Matrix is a fantasy of the far future in which everything is different except the people. Generous, ingenious, obstinate, optimistic, brilliant, brutal and brave, it is the people – in the widest sense of the word – who are the heroes of this tale. There are no villains.

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Chapter One

 

He moved through the spaceport as unconsciously at ease amid its complexities and confusion as if he owned it. In fact he had never been there before, but spaceports differed little from the hub of the galaxy to its outermost ring and he had seen a lot of them in the last few years. Sometimes it felt as if he had seen nothing else.

His luggage comprised two items: a soft grip that was more an overnight bag than a weekender, and a guitar. The occasional head turned as he passed, the eyes following him with idle curiosity, the brows wrinkled in stillborn recognition. Many or most of the people in the building would have seen him at some time on their videos, but very few could have put a name to his face or even explained their sense of familiarity.

Familiar or not, he was an arresting figure. In one of the oldest segments of the Alliance, peopled mainly by short, broad Slavs, he was tall and slender, his skin had a golden cast and his eyes tilted upwards at their outer corners. His eyes were dark but not black; smoky brown, very calm beneath the slanted lids. Above the widely spaced eyes the forehead was broad and unlined, shaded by a thick fringe of fine dark hair which fell almost as far as his thin, upswept eyebrows. High cheekbones and a narrow jaw gave his face a pointed shape. His lips were thin, but an upward curve suggested that an accident of nature rather than a mean disposition was responsible. You would have said he was Japanese but for his height, and his eyes and some abstract air about him that was not wholly oriental. He was a Eurasian, a child of mixed races, mixed traditions.

Even his clothes set him apart. They were not remarkable in themselves, being black, plain except for a soft rippling shimmer as he moved, and comfortably loose; but they contrasted markedly with the gay, gaudy colours flaring all around him. Like a black swan gliding through a cackle of flamingoes he moved purposefully, alone and self-contained, through the weary, querulous, waiting bands of transit travellers.

They were mostly holidaymakers. Virtually no one was staying here: they were waiting for transfer flights somewhere brighter, somewhere gayer. The young man in black was not on holiday, and had reached his destination. There was no way of knowing what he was doing here, except that he was not a commercial traveller. The only impression he gave was a personal one: of an intelligent, thoughtful, confident young man whose mixed ancestry was no more important to him than the careless stares of his fellow travellers.

The guitar was one clue to what he was and his strange dark eyes, seeing both clearly and deeply, were another. He was a poet, and his name was Dak Hamiko.

He located the information bureau, which was sited where spaceport information bureaux are always sited, and identified himself. “Have you a message for me?”

The girl, in regulation magenta pseudosilk, consulted her console. “No, sir.”

Dak frowned, taken aback. “Are you sure?”

The girl looked at him for the first time. “Quite sure.” The resentment at having her efficiency questioned, which she managed to keep out of her voice, showed in her eyes.

Dak felt in his pocket for the slip of paper but the mistake was not his. This was the place, he had arrived on the specified flight – he must be expected. He looked from the slip to the girl again and smiled, not apologetically but with something which disposed her to feel more warmly towards him. “Could you check it for me? In case there’s been some hold-up somewhere.”

She did and the result was as before. “I’m sorry, Mr Hamiko, there really is nothing for you. Who were you expecting? – I could always call them for you.”

Dak’s smile went impish around the corners. “I’m afraid I don’t know.”

The girl’s warmth, which was not wholly native to her, faded quickly with the suspicion that she was being taken advantage of. “I beg your pardon.”

“Absurd, isn’t it? I’ve come from the Twelfth Circle and it’s taken me three months, following a trail of anonymous messages I don’t even understand, and now I’m here there’s no one to meet me. Thank you for your trouble.”

He turned away, still smiling, but suddenly he felt inestimably weary. Even his scant luggage bore him down, so that he hefted the guitar on to his back and switched the grip to his other hand. Weeks of spacelag which he had resolutely refused to acknowledge, too many days among crowds, too many nights in transit lounges; all the fatigue which he had been able to control because always when he arrived there was another message drawing him on: all of that caught up with him when the anticipated adrenalin failed to flow. For a moment the bright lights danced; he may actually have swayed. When they cleared he bought a hot drink from a dispenser and found somewhere to sit down.

It had begun in a hotel room on Scapula. He did not remember the name of the hotel, or even of the city. He had been singing in the night-palaces. Returning late one evening he found an envelope containing a teleprinted message and a spaceflight ticket. The message was short and cryptic and made no sense. The ticket was for a one-way trip to Epho, a dusty staging-post for the older vessels which could not make the starjumps, leaving the next morning.

He did not know now why he had taken it. He knew no one on Epho. The message was not an offer of work; not an offer of any kind. There was no money in the envelope – indeed, he might have found it easier to ignore if there had been. But the enigma of an incomprehensible message and the uncompromising challenge of a space ticket in his name proved irresistible.

His imagination, sparked in a seedy hotel room on strobe-and-plastic Scapula, remained afire with curiosity throughout the five-day hop to Epho. He envisaged all manner of ends to his strange odyssey. Reality was a bitter disappointment. All that awaited him was another envelope, another message, another ticket pushing him on to Tyxl in the Tenth Circle. After that the journeys became longer. It made sense psychologically. No man could be expected to commit himself to a three-month journey at the whim of a total stranger; but the right man might hazard five days on the chance of an interesting experience. Five days from home he might be prepared to travel another week rather than return unsatisfied; and after that a fortnight; and after that whatever was demanded of him. So Dak travelled between envelopes through the uncaring infinity of space.

There had been eight of them. Eight strips of teleprinter tape, eight space tickets. Eight nights spent curled on flabby spaceport couches, his head pillowed on his bag, waiting for early morning flights to places he had hardly heard of and Zen knew where beyond. Eight stewardesses welcoming him aboard, eight life-and-souls-of-the-party petitioning him for entertainment on the long flights and not understanding his songs; eight sets of male passengers mystified by his disinterest in gambling and eight sets of female passengers resenting his polite disinterest in them. Young men travelling the space lanes alone were traditionally after one or the other, often both.

And now it had ended: here on Ganymede, in the dead old heart of the Alliance, in a spaceport he could not have distinguished from a dozen others except that this one held no waiting message. As the hot, tasteless liquid from the plastic cup revived him, Dak began to grow angry at the unseen decoyman who had lured him so far, at such cost to his time and energy, only to abandon him parsecs from anywhere, on a grotty little moon circling an exhausted planet circling a diminishing sun of only historic importance. Had it been no more than an expensive prank, a rich man’s practical joke? Was someone sitting out there somewhere behind a spy-viewer, giggling helplessly as he stumbled from solar system to solar system at the random bidding of a teleprinter? And for why? Because he had fancied a note of yearning in that first meaningless message, and because he had once promised on his honour as a poet to take everything life threw at him.

So here he was, on Ganymede, with no message, no money, no friends, nowhere to go, nothing to do and no strength left with which to do it. Lost, lonely, mentally and physically exhausted, Dak Hamiko wanted nothing so much as to crawl into a dark hole and hibernate. With his head resting on his arms on the table and his dark hair spilling on to its plastic surface, he lapsed into sleep.

He woke to the sound of his name, unsubtly distorted by the public address system, to a rawness as of carbolic in his eyes and a taste like a tannery in his mouth. Groping for awareness he knocked the plastic cup to the floor. It bounced once and rolled away. He gathered his senses loosely about him and, leaving his belongings, went to the information desk.

It was a different girl in the same near-fluorescent magenta. “Mr Hamiko? Phone call for you.”

Dak stiffened, instantly alert, nerves tense. Under the tangled hair his eyes brightened with hope. He made a conscious effort to relax the muscles that were clamping his chest and followed the girl’s gesture to a booth.

There was a video-screen but the caller had chosen not to use it. In the blank grey glass Dak could see a faint reflection of himself and behind him the desultory movement of people who wished they were in bed. He said, “I am Dak Hamiko.”

“You have come a long way, Dak Hamiko.” The voice sounded remote: possibly because of great distance, but more like over a great gulf. It was cold, mechanical. The words could have been a welcome. The tone could not.

Striving against disappointment, Dak said simply, “I got your message.”

“And understood it?” For a moment the cool voice seemed to kindle. Dak wished there was a face to go with it.

“Not really.”

“Then why did you come?”

“Space travel is expensive. I assumed it was important.”

“It is. You should have understood the message. It was specifically designed to be read by a person of your intellect and experience.”

“Then perhaps you overestimated me.” The least edge was creeping into Dak’s voice. He had imagined this ultimate encounter a hundred times. Not once had it gone anything like this.

“You were the optimum choice. That is not to say the perfect choice.”

“Perfection is a concept which exists only inside the brain of a computer.”

Again Dak sensed rather than heard a quickening of interest. “Why do you say that?”

“Because it’s true. I should know. All poets seek perfection, and at the same time know they are as incapable of attaining it, of even approaching it with their outstretched fingers, as a spastic is of dancing Swan Lake; as a nettle is of breeding with a rose.”

“You are the one. I was right.” It might have been Dak’s imagination, or it could have been a fractional satisfaction in the distant voice. Dak felt a sudden inexplicable chill.

“What one? What do you want with me? Why have you brought me here?”

“You are where you are of your own free will. Remain, or return, or continue, as you choose.”

“Continue to where?” Dak was vaguely aware that his voice was unsteady. “Where are you? Who are you? What do you want with me?”

“No passenger ships travel deeper into this system than Ganymede,” stated the other, obliquely. “But the day after tomorrow a helium miner will call en route to Sol. Be on board when it leaves. Have them land you on Terra.” The connection broke abruptly, finally, leaving Dak staring at the blank screen, mentally if not actually open-mouthed.

It was the most ludicrous thing he had heard in his life. Terra? Terra was a desert, a burnt-up dustbowl. Centuries of over-population and over-exploitation had reduced it to a sterile cinder. Some people, the rich and the clever, had got away in time, joined their second cousins on the colonised worlds of the Alliance. Those who remained ended their days all together, in an ultimate holocaust.

He did not know if there was a spaceport, even a staging depot. He had never heard of people going there. He could not ask a crew of hard-headed helium miners to take him there for the pittance that was all he could offer. They’d kick his head in.

Ganymede itself was not exactly the hub of the space-lanes. The next flight anywhere he cared to go was three days hence: three days in which to make the money to ride it. Enough, on the pleasure planets circling Deneb or in the cultural cities of the Antares cluster. But on dull and dusty Ganymede, the last remaining outpost of a degenerate system, the locus of transients, ageing spacecrew on the beach and those who preyed on either – how would a poet fare here? He booked into the cheapest room he could find, sat down on the bed to think about it, and fell asleep in his clothes.

He spent forty-eight hours in limbo. Nobody was interested in his songs or in him. For the first time in his life he went hungry, conserving his slender resources against a passage off Ganymede, back to some world he knew. He could find no work, not as a poet or anything else. On Ganymede what was not done by computers was done by robots: there was no casual labour for a man. He understood why the bars here were filled with washed-up old greasers off the starships: paid off as past their usefulness, they drank or gambled away their severance pay and could never afterward make enough money to leave. Dak was young, healthy, master of a certain talent, but still seemed unable to earn his ticket out. All he had worth selling was his guitar. He would as soon have sold his right arm.

He walked. Away from the spaceport, beyond the shops and bars, until the street became a lane and then a track, running through nothing but the dust of former fields. There was nothing out here but the occasional untidy cluster of derelict prefab sheds, but away from the perennial glare of the neon city a man could look up and see the stars. Dak Hamiko never tired of looking at the stars. He supposed it was because he was a poet. Or else why.

As he watched, the stars began to pale, as though with impending dawn. But Sol was a long way away, so that even full in the sky the best she gave to Ganymede was a kind of nacrous twilight, and now that pearly zone was on the far side of the little moon. The glowering rim which rose above the horizon was ochre, leprous and vast: malignant Jupiter, whose light fell so ominously on civilised eyes that the incomers of the Alliance preferred to make their own, as they made their own atmosphere.

Back at the rooming-house he found two men waiting for him. One wore the uniform of the Security Corps: it was the same all over the Twelve Circles, only the insignia on the buttons varied. The other showed an egophotic plaque identifying him as an officer of the same body. They approached as Dak came in off the street, at a nod from the proprietor, who disappeared immediately into a back office.

“Hamiko?”

“I am Dak Hamiko.”

“You’re to come with us. To Security Centre. We have some questions for you.”

“In what connection?”

The officer scowled. The other man hefted the weapon that was part of his uniform as if hoping for a chance to use it. “Don’t get clever with us, sonny. You know your rights. You should know ours too. You refuse to help us in our enquiries, we’re entitled to blast you all over the ceiling.”

“Only if I offer to use arms or violence to resist arrest,” Dak countered calmly. He was not versed in customary law, but he had travelled enough and read enough to know that nowhere in the Alliance – not even on benighted Ganymede – had state servants the power of autonomous murder.

The man’s scowl deepened. “Are you resisting?”

“Are you arresting me?”

“Yes.”

“Then no.” He went quickly, without further protest either verbal or physical. There was no need for them to manacle his wrists behind his back and manhandle him out to their vehicle like a dangerous felon. He submitted with as much tranquil dignity as he could muster, in the hope of making them feel silly, but the tactic was lost on them. In the flivver he asked what he was accused of. The uniformed man, who was driving, told him to shut up and the other said he’d find out soon enough. Dak suspected they didn’t know.

At Security Centre they stripped him, searching for contraband. After his clothes had been examined they were returned, silently, and he was locked in a dark cell. He was not told why or for how long. A practising pacifist since adolescence, Dak knew precisely how to turn their physical victory over him into a psychological defeat. He lay on the cold floor, began to regulate his breathing, deliberately relaxed every muscle in his body – working from his toes upwards – until he slipped painlessly into a sleep-trance. So far as an observer could know he had blithely fallen asleep; but the cortex, the new logical part of his brain, remained conscious and functioning. The inducement of sleep-trance was the most effective way he knew of gaining a breathing-space for meditation free from interference.

Whatever offence the Security Corps had arrested him for he was innocent. He had committed no crime, either here recently or anywhere else at any time. He knew no one who led so indecently blameless a life as he. So his arrest was a mistake or a put-up job. In the latter case, and also possibly in the former, someone had gone out of his way to make Dak’s life difficult. Because people did not involve the Security Corps in small matters of disagreement and dislike, he had to assume it was someone with a serious grudge against him. He did not remember offending anyone that much. Unless the anonymous voice on the phone, the enigmatic composer of obscure messages, had some way of knowing that he did not intend to go to Terra. The thought was alarming, because the decision existed only in his own mind. But it was also compelling, because he knew no one on Ganymede, no one else knew of his presence here, and no one else had reason to care whether he was here or not.

He was aroused from his trance by a boot in the ribs – not a kick, really, more a poke – and strong lights. After the darkness in the cell the light made him blink, and blinking made him feel defensive. He made an effort to control the reaction until his eyes adjusted to the glare. Not for the first time he blessed the tiny, gentle woman who had taught him that his body was his to command.

Barefoot, swinging his sandals by their straps, he allowed himself to be marched down a corridor to an office and stood before the broad desk like an errant schoolboy. The man behind the desk did not look up.

“I am Dak Hamiko.”

He might not have spoken. The man showed no sign of having heard; only the dark furrows between his heavy brows deepened a fraction more. His brow, bent over papers on his desk, and the top of his head were all Dak could see of him.

Dak allowed his sandals to drop on the desk. In the pregnant silence of the room the sound was shocking. The man behind the desk started as if shot at and glared furiously from Dak to his escort. The man raised his weapon, then lowered it. You could not shoot a man for dropping his sandals any more than you could for asking questions, even on Ganymede.

“I know who you are.” The reply was belated and given with a bad grace.

“I don’t know who you are.”

“I am –” He paused, frowning harder, caught between the indignity of having to introduce himself and the childishness of refusing to. “Captain Vorachenko.”

“So tell me what I can do for you,” invited Dak. His face remained inscrutable, but in the secret depths of his mind he was chuckling. There is no better way of annoying a bully than by offering to do as a favour what he wants to make you do by force. He didn’t think he was in any real danger and it amused him to bait these humourless petty autocrats.

Captain Vorachenko was building up a visible head of steam. “You are Dak Hamiko, of Tok-ai-Do in the Sixth Circle, and I have instructions to deport you aboard the first craft leaving Ganymede. I shall endeavour to ensure that you have an uncomfortable journey.”

“Why?”

The word posed two questions. Vorachenko, unable to answer the second, chose to understand by it the first. “Because you’re an undesirable alien and if we didn’t deport your sort Ganymede would become the rubbish dump of the Galaxy. There’s a ship leaving the spaceport in an hour’s time. I don’t care where you go so long as you don’t come back here.”

Dak said, “Who says I’m undesirable?”

Vorachenko stared at him, momentarily nonplussed. “Our computer, naturally. Do you suppose we’re provincial dwarfs out here, having no contact with the Alliance? We’ve got communications, you know, we’ve got computers. We know what you’ve been up to out there.”

“What?”

“Enough to qualify you as an undesirable alien, you disgusting little pervert,” snapped Vorachenko. “I doubt if you’ll ever make planetfall again: every time you land there’ll be someone waiting with a copy of your criminal record ready to shove you back into space. You might get down on Epho. I can’t promise, but they’re pretty easy there. They can afford to be, they’ve virtually no one left still capable of being corrupted.”

“I’ve been to Epho,” volunteered Dak. “But I haven’t got a criminal record.”

Captain Vorachenko looked at him. Looked at the sheet of paper uppermost before him. Shook his head disbelievingly. “Get him out of here. Get him out of my sight. Get him on that ship and off this moon, and, by God, Hamiko, if you set a foot in my province again I’ll chop it off at the ankle!”

Totally bewildered, Dak suffered his escort to drag him backwards from the office while he wondered dizzily if his sojourn on Ganymede could have had any more satisfactory conclusion than a free passage away after two days. He had only one grief. Hooking his heel around the doorpost to halt his progress he said, “What about my guitar?”

“Your belongings will be waiting at the spaceport. Go!” Dak’s sandals flew across the room and hit him in the chest, and the door slammed shut.

Dak celebrated his good fortune in silence all the way to the spaceport. He received his papers with a cheerful unregret which infuriated his guard. His first misgivings came with a view from the terminal building across the concrete desert outside to a vessel which was no passenger ship and unlike any cargo tramp he had ever seen.

It was not that it lacked size. It was bigger than all save the greatest of inter-stellar liners, but its shape was utterly alien. Most of its vast bulk was given over to tanks of some kind. The flight-deck was at the stern, over the engines: at the front was a colossal maw like nothing so much as a giant vacuum-cleaner. The streamlined star-drive was conspicuous by its absence. The whole great vessel was massively heatshielded, but charred black where the flames of a hundred suns had licked at its skin. Hunched in surpassing ugliness on its concrete pad, dwarfing the short-haul ferries which were the only other vessels on the apron that morning, it might have been a great brooding beetle.

Dak had never seen anything like it. All the same, he could have made a shrewd guess at what it was.

A shove from behind propelled him towards the exit. He lurched and staggered, off balance, and was halfway down the ramp before he got a proper look at the man who had pushed him. It was not often Dak had to look up at someone. He decided, on the whole, not to protest. “Do you know about my gear –?”

“On board. Hurry up. You’ve held us up enough already.”

“It wasn’t my idea.”

The man looked at him and something like a smile twisted his dark features. “No, I don’t suppose it was. What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

The man looked frankly unconvinced. He also looked as if he habitually tore the arms of liars. “They’re not deporting you for something to do. It costs them money to get you a passage even on a helium miner.”

“I dropped my sandals on the captain’s desk,” Dak offered lamely.

The man laughed and shook his head, and pushed Dak ahead of him down the ramp; more gently than before, but Dak was still running when he reached the bottom. There he stopped, turned and waved goodbye – to his escort, who pretended not to notice, to the spaceport, to Ganymede, and to his two days of rebellion.

The big man was Sharm, first mate of the Leviathan. The captain was a shorter individual, nearly as broad as he was tall, called Divik, who was also the majority shareholder in the vessel and her load. Leviathan was owned, as many of the older craft were, by the crew in direct proportion to their status aboard. Once in space Leviathan was a mobile autonomous state and Divik was master under God.

Dak feared Divik on sight. His squat body was as tough and hard from the hard life as Sharm’s massive frame, but where Sharm’s expression was occasionally lightened by a flicker of humour the overwhelming impulse behind Divik’s was always and only greed. Since Dak had taken his talent and his guitar and left home he had known discomfort, loneliness, depression, but never fear. He was surprised to find himself so intimidated by another human being, and attempted to rationalise the feeling. Divik was undoubtedly a malevolent presence but he had no reason to wish Dak any particular harm. But all Dak’s instincts warned him off, like nerves shrieking before they are cut. Ashamed of the panic the man engendered in him, he struggled to keep his feelings private.

Divik made no attempt to disguise his feelings about Dak. He carried no passengers, he said. Everybody aboard Leviathan worked. If Dak would not work he would be put out with the garbage. Dak believed him, but the overt threat did not worry him as much as the quiet malice lurking in Divik’s eyes.

For a week Dak fetched and carried and pulled his weight as well as any unskilled tyro could aboard something as complex and technical as a helium miner heading for helium. After the first couple of days, in which he bore their sporting patiently, he got on well enough with the crew, learning what he could and entertaining them when he had time. Sharm, with his rocklike face and saturnine humour, he positively liked. He would join the mate for the long midnight watch and, uninterrupted for hours at a time, they would trade travellers’tales and Sharm would speak of the battles he had been in, starlight sparkling in his coal-black eyes.

Divik he avoided as much as possible. Usually when he failed to take evasive action Divik found something to berate him for. Often he used his fists – casual blows, not incapacitating; Dak could have tolerated the discomfort philosophically but felt diminished by the careless brutality, which was such as a man might use against an animal, not another man. Once he lost his balance and fell during anti-meteor manoeuvres, and Divik kicked him twice in the ribs before stumping away laughing. The place hurt for days. This went on until Sharm happened to see Dak without his shirt. He said nothing then, but afterwards Divik only sneered a lot while the hatred in his eyes grew.

As Leviathan journeyed in towards Sol, Dak was watching the charts. Sharm had shown him how to plot a course four-dimensionally, so as to arrive not only at a given spot but at a time when the spot was occupied, and he knew Terra would be on the right side of its orbit when they passed, and that for a minor detour they could land him there. Still he quailed from approaching Divik with his request.

He sounded Sharm out first. Sharm looked at him as he had the first day. “Terra? You can’t be serious. It’s a desert – you couldn’t live there even if Divik put you down, which he won’t. Why by all the stars do you want to go to Terra?”

“I don’t. But somebody wants me there and I can’t seem to get away from him. He arranged for me to be arrested and put on this ship so that I could get there.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then why?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“Forget Terra,” said Sharm. “Come with us to Sol. You’ll get your share of the profits. There are worse things than a helium miner, and one of them is the surface of Terra.”

“What’s it like?”

Sharm’s eyes slipped out of focus and went distant and opaque. “Terra? Most of the time you can’t see it at all, just a big swirl of cloud racing round and never stopping. There’s white ice at the poles, and once in a while the clouds break and then the oceans are bright blue. But the land is a dustbowl: mountains and deserts and erosion, and always the sandstorms blasting on, thousands of miles long. You couldn’t live in that, Dak. If it didn’t strip the flesh from your bones the minute you stepped outside, you’d starve as soon as your rations ran out. Nothing lives down there. Nothing could.”

“Yet he wants me there – desperately, it seems. Why, if I couldn’t survive? Is it all like that?”

Sharm shrugged. It was like a mountain shrugging. “Who knows? Nobody’s looked for a very long time. I’m only telling you what I’ve seen passing by. I’ve seen some barren worlds, but none more than that one. The only successful Terrans now are going to be fishes.”

“We evolved there, Sharm.”

“A very long time ago. Before the desert, before the sandstorms. There are no Earthmen any more.”

“All the same,” said Dak, standing up, “I’m going to see Divik.”

He woke up three hours later, lying on an unfamiliar bunk with a damp cloth across one eye. Sharm was a still, silent bulk in a corner of the cabin, watching him soberly from the shadows. He had been standing there motionless for two hours, since he had finished working on the young man’s face. As first mate on a deep-space vessel for many years he had acquired considerable medical expertise. He required all of it, and a very steady hand, to remove the glass shards from Dak’s eye without lacerating the cornea irreparably.

He had answered a call to Divik’s cabin and found the captain standing over the long, terribly still form, half a crystal Sandaar unit tight clenched in his fist. He was not laughing. He thought he had killed the boy. Sharm lifted Dak wordlessly in his arms and carried him to his own cabin. At first, scrutinising the mess of ravaged flesh and gore, Sharm could not be sure whether the bloody socket still contained an eye. He spent the better part of an hour irrigating, disinfecting, drawing the tatters of skin together in a complex jigsaw. Dak would wear a network of tiny scars around that eye for the rest of his life. But his sight would be unimpaired.

When the pattern of his breathing changed and his good eye finally glinted open ill the gentle half-light, Sharm said roughly, “Keep still unless you want your eyeball to go rolling across the deck.”

Memory returned slowly. Dak tried to smile but found that his face was not functioning properly. “I guess he said no.”

Sharm did not reply. “Stay where you are. Don’t move about and don’t touch your face. I shan’t be long.” He moved towards the hatch.

“Where are you going?”

The big miner paused, considering. “I’m going to thump Divik.”

Dak laughed – a weak, unsteady sound born as much of lightheadedness as of humour. “That’s not necessary. I’ll be all right.”

Sharm nodded. “I know you will. That’s why I’m going to thump him. If you hadn’t woken up I was going to kill him.”

“Compromise, and thump him later,” suggested Dak. “Tell me where we are.”

Sharm, frowning, consulted a monitor on his wall. “Just passing through the orbit of Mars.”

Dak had jacked himself up on his elbows to see. “And Terra’s the next one in?” Sharm nodded. “Something will happen,” Dak said with conviction.

“That’s what you told Divik, and why he hit you with the spare Sandaar in spite of the fact that the one in the shaft at the moment is five months old and we can’t mine without it. What sort of something?”

“I don’t know. I’m only sure that whoever brought me here won’t let me get away now. He’ll – intervene – in some way if I’m not put down on that planet.”

“I’ve told you, you couldn’t live down there. And where would we put you down? There’s no spacefield and the damn thing’s thirty thousand miles round. Do you know where to go?” Dak shook his head, very slightly. “What continent? What hemisphere, even? It’s crazy. Forget about it, come with us.”

“It is crazy,” Dak agreed, “and I’d willingly forget about it, but I don’t think he will. Look. Why do you think I’m here at all? It wasn’t my doing, it was his. He had me picked up by the police on Ganymede and deported on to probably the only ship in the galaxy actually travelling towards Terra. I don’t know how he did that, but he did. I don’t know what he’ll do next, but I’ll take any odds you’re offering that he somehow persuades, coerces or compels Divik to put me down.”

After what seemed a long pause Sharm asked, “Are you afraid?”

“I don’t think he means me any harm.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“No. I’m – confused. Apprehensive. I wish I knew what it was all about, what to expect. But no, I don’t think I’m afraid.” He grinned. “Not the way I am of Divik, anyway.”

“Because – well, this is a pretty tough ship. People have tried to take cargos from us before. We haven’t lost one yet. If you don’t want to go, we can give him a hard time taking you –” Sharm’s voice, which had grown low and hesitant with embarrassment, now tailed off altogether.

Dak smiled. “I’m grateful for the offer. But Sharm, I’ve come a long way for this meeting, mostly of my own free will. If I get scared and run now, I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering what it was about.”

“Down there the rest of your life may be negligible.”

“Somebody wants me there badly enough to bring me from the Twelfth Circle. That’s a long way and it’s taken a long time. It had to be important. I’m a poet, right? – my job is turning emotions into words. I may not understand the messages I got but I felt the urgency, like an electric current. Like a magnet.”

“Like a flame to a moth. You’re going to your death.”

“I don’t believe so.”

Neither saw any point in continuing the argument. Sharm knew Divik would brook no interference with his schedule, and knew what Leviathan’s armaments were capable of. Dak knew what he was capable of, the other. He thought it possible that the coercion when it came would be psychological rather than tangible. He had persuaded the Security Corps on Ganymede to carry out his plan without giving them any idea that they were being manipulated. If Divik should get a sudden overwhelming urge to see Terra for himself, or alternatively to rid his ship of its Jonah by marooning him on the nearest desert planet, Dak would not have been in the least surprised,

Sharm took the long night watch as Leviathan homed in towards the ageing star and, before that, a rendezvous with the orbit of Terra. No one came to bother him or disturb his thoughts. Once he checked on Dak and found him sleeping restlessly, whimpering with pain, actual or remembered, fretful with dreams. Sharm bathed his face without waking him and stayed with him until he slipped into quieter sleep. He went off duty as the ship began its day.

Dak awoke refreshed from his long sleep, feeling in fact better than he had any right to. He washed gingerly, carefully avoiding the bandage someone – presumably Sharm – had replaced during the night. He smiled at the thought of Sharm, the mountain man of deep space, appointing himself nursemaid to a wandering poet.

He found the flight-deck in a state of unformed but barely suppressed tension, and himself the focus of it. Divik eyed him with hatred, the others with mistrust. It wasn’t rational, they could not have said what they were afraid of – certainly none of them would have admitted to being afraid of Dak. Yet they felt themselves instinctively, as he did intuitively, to be in the grip of forces they did not understand, and while he associated the sensation with a toneless voice and a blank video-screen they associated it with him. As he passed between them they shot him sidelong glances and shifted away. Sharm was not among them.

He had wondered whether to make any reference to the previous day’s events. Now it seemed he had no choice. Hands in pockets, with unconscious grace, he leaned one shoulder against a stanchion and said, “I’m sorry to have caused you concern. This situation is not of my making: I am as much a victim of it as you feel yourselves to be. What I said to Divik was not intended as a threat. Still, I believe you will be obliged to do as I ask. I think it would save a lot of trouble if you’d agree to land me on Terra. It’s hardly out of your way: the time it would take surely isn’t worth the worry.”

Dak thought he had got to know the crew quite well. He thought of several of them as friends of a kind. Now they looked at him with the blank, guarded eyes of strangers. They saw him as something more than a stranger: an alien. Dak felt more conscious of his slanting eyes, of his yellow skin, than at any time since leaving home. He was sorry, because he thought their mistrust could bring them grief. He did not know it would also bring him grief.

He felt the circle around him tighten and moved fractionally to put the stanchion at his back. With a calm that was more apparent than actual he scanned the tense faces, searching for the one less hostile one that he could use as a key to the others. He found no chink in the armoured wall around him.

“Trust me,” he said. “I mean you no harm.”

Divik had moved through the circle and stood now before Dak like an accuser. Dak looked down at him and finally understood why of all of them Divik, short and without greatness, was master of Leviathan. Whatever the rest of them felt, Divik was unafraid, even of the unknown. Savagely intolerant of any challenge to his command, his sovereignty or his profit, an unreasonable and implacable enemy, he was none the less twice as much a man as any member of his crew except Sharm. Oddly, Dak’s prime reaction was a clearer, kinder understanding of his own fear of the man.

“Who are you?” Divik’s voice was low with venom. “What are you? What are you doing on my ship?”

“I am what I told you. Nothing more. My name is Dak Hamiko, of Tok-ai-Do in the Sixth Circle, and I am a poet. I am on your ship because the police on Ganymede thought I was something else. They were mistaken.”

“You’re a spy. Have you got friends out here, waiting to board us?”

“You have nothing worth stealing.”

Divik paused momentarily, frowning, remembering that the tanks were empty. “The ship herself, then.”

“Privateers take passenger ships, not miners. They’re not interested in working for a living.”

Divik did not answer. His eyes strayed away from Dak’s face, and when they returned his dark features had gone hard and blank. The atypical softness in his voice only confirmed the suspicion in the pit of Dak’s stomach that Divik had reached a decision, and it was nothing for Dak to celebrate. He wished desperately that Sharm was here, but was too proud to call out his name.

A knife had appeared in Divik’s hand. He stood very close to Dak and touched its point to his throat. Dak felt it plucking at the skin and the sudden sensation that was more warmth than pain when the skin parted and the blood began to flow. “I think perhaps, for safety’s sake,” said Divik, “I should kill you now.”

Dak’s tone was still calm, but all his self-control was not enough to keep the hoarseness from his voice. “It would be safer still to do as I ask.”

“You think your friends will avenge you? They need a saboteur on board to take this ship – that’s why you’re here. They’ll keep clear of us after we throw them your carcass.”

“You’re wrong about me.”

Divik smiled. Dak had not seen him smile before. It was an experience he could have borne to miss. “Nowhere near as wrong as you were about us.”

He barked orders. The miners fell on Dak as if he were a dangerous animal, pinning his limbs, rendering him helpless. Surging panic made him want to struggle but he resisted, knowing struggle to be pointless and detrimental to whatever clear thinking he might yet be capable of.

One of them lashed his wrists tightly before him. Another slung a length of cable over an overhead beam. He thought they were going to hang him, but they looped the line between his hands and drew it tight until he hung suspended, his toes brushing the deck. The pain in his wrists was severe. He hardly noticed it.

Cool air washed against his skin as Divik tore the shirt from his back. Then he swung him round and, grinning, shook a metal rod in his face. “It’s a tension screw. It’s actually a long, thin spring.” Probably unconsciously, Divik was licking his lips. “Very thin, very flexible. It’ll rip the hide from your back like barbed wire. You’re thin, kid, we’ll be down to bare bone in no time. I give you two minutes at the most, and then you’ll tell me everything you know.”

“I’ve already told you everything I know.”

Divik spun him back against the stanchion. The metal was cold against his hot cheek. He had never known real pain. Neither his parents nor anyone he had encountered on Tok-ai-Do had believed in physical punishment. It had made it easy to be a pacifist. He wondered bleakly how long his command, his oriental inscrutability, would last with Divik tearing his skin from him in strips.

The first cut was so shocking, so surprising in its profound effect on his flesh, that he was not tempted to cry out. As well protest a volcano or a bolt of lightning. The rod seared him from shoulder to waist, like a fine-honed blade of fire, sending duller petals of flame licking up into his head and down his legs. His good eye flew wide and his clenched teeth parted with amazement that anything could hurt so much. His stunned mind reeled between wishing it could give Divik something to make him stop and relief that nothing vital hung on his endurance. He did not know how much of this he could have taken for the worthiest principle in the universe.

Shock gave him no protection from subsequent blows. He felt the resilient coil slice through his skin and thunder against his bones – shoulder, spine and ribs. Repetition made the blows echo in his brain while his whole body responded with a dull ache. The pain across his back was white, the resonance in his head scarlet, the ache in his limbs maroon. Sweat broke out all over him, mingling on his face with tears squeezed from his tight-shut eye, on his back with the blood beginning to trickle from diagonal lacerations two feet long. Blood thundered in his ears and his breath came in gasps. After the first time he wasn’t sure if he cried out or not.

A whirlwind exploded onto the flight-deck, scattering the crew like leaves, sending Divik sprawling into one corner, the metal rod clattering into another. Sharm’s monstrous anger filled the room, so that a dozen strong men drew back. With one slash of his hand he clove the taut cable, catching Dak as he fell, thrusting his knife into Dak’s bound hands. Then he turned back to deal with Divik.

If, bursting on to the flight-deck in response to a clamour as of a hunting-pack, Sharm had let Dak hang the extra moment it would have taken him to rip out Divik’s throat, which was what he intended to do now, in all likelihood that would have been the end of it. But Sharm himself had taken such a beating once, as a young man many years before, and long after the scars subsided and time had softened the memory of pain the humiliation remained. So he left Divik alive long enough to cut Dak down, and now Divik had his own knife out. Weapons had sprouted from the hands of his crewmen too, including laser pistols whose effects on the insides of the spaceship would be at least as dreadful as on the human body.

Himself unarmed, Sharm backed up slowly. Powerful hands extended before him in a pose of self-defence, he looked as dangerous as any three of his former friends and colleagues.

Dak had given up trying to free his wrists with Sharm’s knife and had turned it outward upon the crew, holding it determinedly in both hands, crouching instinctively although the strain stretched his wounds cruelly wide. When they were back to back Sharm stopped, waiting for Divik to launch his attack. He said, “Sorry, kid.” Dak did not reply, for fear that his voice would crack on his pain. In a last, absurd gesture of defiance he tore the bandage from his damaged eye in the hope of seeing that little sooner, that little clearer, the advent of his death.

It didn’t happen. Over the husky sibilance of irregular male breathing came the flat, clear monotone of a reporting system. “Unidentified craft approaching on the port flank. Three hundred miles and closing.”

Fear and anticipation in the room pulsed like a giant heart lurching. Nobody spoke, or moved, or breathed, for a space of seconds. Then Divik was diving for the command console, searching the visualiser for the first positive trace, ordering his men to Leviathan’s guns. Slowly, suspiciously, surrounded by a guard suddenly shrunk to half its size and with its attention diverted elsewhere, Sharm and Dak Hamiko straightened up in the centre of the room. After a moment, uncertainly, Dak offered Sharm the knife and Sharm freed his hands.

Despite the fact that Divik had not opened a communications channel a voice bludgeoned into the room through the radio grid. The words as much as the imperious monotone struck Dak with forceful familiarity.

“You have arrived, Dak Hamiko. Prepare to embark on the lander which is approaching you.”

Dak found Sharm staring at him as if he had not heard, or not believed, anything he had said since leaving Ganymede. Weak and dizzy with trauma, he looked around him, took a few steps towards the console and then stumbled. Sharm reached for him but other hands caught him first.

“Bring him over here.” With a sweep of his hand up a bank of switches Divik opened a broad band of channels and spoke into the microphone. “All right, you out there, listen to me. You pull back or you get this one without the benefit of a suit. Come after this ship and we’ll blast you to kingdom come. We’ve no cargo and a hell of a lot of guns.”

There was a fractional, assimilatory pause. The voice when it spoke again was a tone lower and sounded guarded. “I do not want your ship or your cargo. I have no use for them. I require Dak Hamiko to be put aboard the lander which is closing with your craft. When he is safely aboard you will be allowed to proceed without further hindrance.”

“You’re not hearing me,” sneered Divik. “Hamiko stays with me. You try to interfere with us, I’ll carve him up – here, so you can hear him.”

Again the tone of voice altered slightly, though there was no knowing what it meant. “Dak Hamiko, are you hurt?”

Dak saw no point in lying. “Yes.”

“Nothing to how he’s going to be if you don’t butt out of here.”

The impossible happened. Leviathan, which had been travelling at thousands of miles an hour, stopped dead. All her impulsion vanished, dissipated in a split second, absorbed by some incalculable power. Incredibly she did not pull herself apart with the left-over velocity; yet more remarkably, the men inside her were neither crushed nor dismembered by the colossal forces invoked. They felt nothing other than a jerk and the curious sensation of hanging immobile in space. It was as if the vessel’s momentum had been instantly and painlessly converted into entropy.

Sharm moved. Taking advantage of the total disorientation of the crew he hurled himself at Divik, grabbing a laser, grabbing Dak. Divik screamed with fury; others shouted – whether with fear or excitement it was impossible to tell; lasers flared with a chilling disregard for Leviathan’s life-support systems; and the primary warning siren shrieked its awful message, that the flight-deck was depressurising.

Dak felt Sharm’s forearm lock like a band of iron across his chest; heard the shouting, saw the wash of light from the lasers; heard the siren begin its banshee wail of coming death. Then Sharm pulled him hard against his own body, covering them with his weapon. Dak felt the metal studs of Sharm’s clothing grind into his ravaged back, saw the lights begin to twinkle and then to bloom, heard a concentrate of every sound on the flight-deck pounding inside his head, and knew nothing more.

 

The Matrix © Jo Bannister 2012

1 comment
WOL
1. WOL
It is extremely cruel of you to give us a teaser for an ebook that is only for sale in the UK. Thanks for the slap in the face.

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