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Excerpt for Unlikely Prophet by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

UNLIKELY PROPHET


by

L. S. King




Copyright 2018 L. S. King, Loriendil Publishing


http://loriendil.com


License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



Cover: C.K. Volnek © 2018

http://ckvolnek.com



This book is available in print at most online retailers.


Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight


Acknowledgements

About the Author

Map

Pronunciation Guide


UNLIKELY PROPHET



Chapter One




The door of the maglev opened, and Avadhron emerged to semidarkness. Behind him, the railcar slid past along the guideway. Before him, the platform and boarding area appeared vacant, as did the street that led away from the tube station. Not too unusual, for this dome anyway, as the world cycled toward the end of day, but still...

His eyes narrowed, Avadhron stepped down slowly, checking the few spots capable of hiding assailants. He thumbed the comm behind his ear. “Elites. All clear for now, but be ready.”

“Right, Chief.”

His team had wanted to travel in the same railcar, but the two clan thanes would suspect a trap. He ordered them to follow in the next car.

Thanes Linsar and Camven had both agreed to a secret, peaceful meeting to put an end to their clans’ feuding. Trusted men from each clan should be at the station. This did not bode well. If he found no one at the first common area, he would withdraw.

The diffused reddish-orange glow of the dome faded to indicate to its inhabitants that sunset yielded to night. One hand on the half-staff on his hip, Avadhron strode down the narrow, trash-strewn street between the two tall buildings, glancing about and listening. Lights should brighten as night fell, but most of the ones along this street did not work at all. The clan thanes blamed the government—and the king—for such problems, citing lack of funds provided, even though each dome’s council was allocated proportionate amounts based on size and population. The problem could not possibly be dome council mismanagement, no.

He slowed his pace as he reached the small common area at this first intersection. A few people lounged near the working lights, talking and laughing, and several hurried along with carry bags, probably heading home after work.

One man stepped forward, jerking his head to indicate Avadhron should follow, then turned toward a side street. He had seen this man before with Thane Camven of Rach’adar clan, one of his chiefs. With another glance around the area, he started across the commons.

Two men stepped forward, arms crossed, to block the clan chief. “And where are you going?”

“None of your business.”

“Think you’re so much, Rach'adar?” the one sneered.

“More than your pathetic clan, you Galadar scum.”

Avadhron caught up to the three and stepped between the members of the two clans. “Enough. Back away. All of you.”

The second of the men from Galadar clan spat, “You’ve sunk lower than low to be with a Ch’shalna Sec. Betraying your kin, are you? Or our whole dome?”

Men in the common area now walked toward them, and more appeared from side streets, shouting rude names and hurling insults at each other.

Avadhron thumbed his comm. “Elites, I need you on site. Possible riot imminent.”

“On our way, Chief.”

More people swarmed into the bare stone of the commons—too many gathered too quickly. This was not spontaneous. Had Camven and Linsar been detained, victims of their angry clans, or had they been on the planning of this tumult? Blast it, all their intelligence had ensured this meeting was legitimate! He swung his half-staff onto his shoulder, not believing his weapon might cause these men to think twice, not if they didn’t already respect the security jerkin he wore, or the emblem of his rank.

A man in front bellowed, “Out of the way, Sec!”

Both sides took up the cry, shouting threats to each other and Avadhron, waving their fists, and shaking their various ersatz weapons, mostly long-handled tools. So their grievances appeared to be with each other, not necessarily against him; he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was he?

Avadhron planted his feet, eyeing the crowd in the dim evening light cast by the dome and the few working streetlights. Shadows blurred their angry faces, and their cries echoed off the glimmering, silent stone of the surrounding buildings. Blackened windows hid onlookers. Not willing to be involved, but willing to watch, out of curiosity, boredom, to cheer their clan, or perhaps eager to see a Ch’shalna security chief go down.

He shifted the grip on the half-staff, his mind whirling. So much was at stake; if this situation came to blows, the fighting could easily spread into a riot. King Janadhan would use that as an excuse to make an example of these clans and seal East Valley Dome Six to contain the violence. If that happened, too many would die.

The clamor grew until the sound was deafening.

He thumbed the activation switch, and the tip of his half-staff hummed, emitting a blue glow. Swinging the business end first at one clan, then the other, he ordered, “Disperse.”

The two groups approached, closing the distance, faces angry, snarling. He whirled the staff in a tight circle as a warning, leaned forward slightly onto the balls of his feet, and waited. He knew he wouldn’t be able to take them all down before they overwhelmed him, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying.

The nearest man swung a crudely made metal baton at Avadhron’s head. He ducked the blow and spun the half-staff in, striking the man’s forearm with a sharp crack. The assailant grabbed his arm, dropping to his knees with a cry.

Avadhron twirled the security weapon again. The half-staff was effective against individuals, but wasn’t designed for crowd-control. Secs did not use any projectile weapons in-dome, due to unlikely-but-potential damage.

Three men bore down on him at once with tools held high. He ducked one and kicked the other in the knee. He lunged at the first, swinging his staff into the attacker’s midsection. The man fell with a howl. He took out the third with a kick to the ribs, then a staff-strike to the man’s head. Four men now lay sprawled at his feet, groaning. That should have been enough to give most people pause, but this was now a mob, whose only goal was pointless, thoughtless, stupid violence. Growling and shouting threats, they closed in.

Avadhron remained in a fighting stance. “Disperse!”

Several attacked him at once. He swung his weapon, shocking one after another. Some fell to their knees with cries of pain or wailed, writhing on the ground. A pile of bodies grew around him, the aggressors not caring if they stepped on the downed men to get to the Sec Chief. Hands grabbed his shoulders and arms from behind. Two men, fists clenched, dove at him. He lifted both his legs and kicked, falling backward, pulling his attackers down atop of him.

Lights flashed, and the air crisped with the smell of burning ozone. Screams of pain from the rioters echoed in his ears. The crush of bodies relaxed. Armored hands stretched down toward him and hauled Avadhron to his feet. His Elites clouted him on the back.

Avadhron sized them up with a critical eye, hiding his relief with a scowl. “Took your time, you lazy louts.”

<<>>

Avadhron glowered as he strode down the corridor toward his office, Paldhran on his heels, ranting more like a father than head of security. The fact he was both seemed inseparable to the man; he treated his son more like an errant stripling than a highly trained security chief.

“What were you thinking letting yourself get caught in the middle of a riot? Aren’t you smart enough to sense a trap? I expect better from the Chief of the Elites. Have you detained that scoundrel Camven? He’s ever plotting something.”

“My Elites are investigating the incident, including the possibility Thanes Camven and Linsar were involved, sir,” Avadhron said over his shoulder.

“Hopefully they’ll do a better job than you did!”

Avadhron whirled. “Do you believe I was remiss? Are you going to file charges and relieve of me duty?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then what?” He was too exhausted to care about being disrespectful—to his father or his superior. “I’m Chief of the Elites, by vote of the First Table. If you think I’m incompetent, you should call Question. If not, suck sand!”

“Don’t you address me in that manner!”

“Are you speaking as my superior or my father?”

“Both.”

“You can both suck sand.”

Paldhran snatched Avadhron’s jerkin with a snarl. Avadhron struck the outside of his father’s arms just above the elbows with the heel of his palms, breaking the grip, then quickly stepped back, hands raised. “We’re both tired. I’m going home.”

“I’m not finished speaking to you!”

“Leave off, sir.”

“This is what I’m talking about. Your constant disrespect. It broke—”

“So starts another tirade of how I broke Mother’s heart.”

“You did—”

“She was ill long before I announced I was going to marry a commoner.”

“Chief!” Avadhron’s second in command, Galadhan, sprinted toward them, his face lined with worry. His Second saluted Paldhran, fist over his heart, then turned to Avadhron, data-paper in hand. “Pardon my interruption, sirs, but I need you to review this interrogation.”

His father snorted, whirled, and stalked away

Avadhron took the data-paper and walked into his office, thumbing it on. Requisitions for replacement gear for the Elite One Team. He touched the upper right corner for the contents. The paper blinked and listed various requisitions for his department. He frowned at Galadhan. “Wrong data-paper?”

His Second’s his lips pursed, hiding a smile.

Avadhron flipped the data-paper onto his desk. “What if he had decided he wanted to review the interrogation?”

Galadhan’s eyes widened with facetious innocence. “‘Oops?’”

“You’re a devious scoundrel.”

“It’s why I’m your Second.”

“Bold too. How is the investigation going? Have all the participants in the incident been interrogated?”

“Not yet. They should be by the time you return in the morning.”

Avadhron glared at his Second.

Galadhan jabbed a finger at his face before he could say anything. “Go home, Chief. Get some rest.”

“Not while my men are still here processing—”

“You’ve been here since first shift, these men are third. And this was a minor disturbance, we stopped it before it went to a full riot. Let your men finish investigating whether it was pre-planned. Go home.”

“You’ve been here since first shift as well. Are you going home?”

Galadhan stared at his feet, letting his breath out slowly in lieu of answering. Avadhron grinned and poked his Second’s chest. “Got you.”

“You have a wife to go home to. I have an empty cot in a barracks.”

“A wife has nothing to do with needing sleep, Second. If you want me to go home, I’ll demand you do the same.”

“Extortion, Chief.”

Avadhron straightened, peering down his nose at his friend. “Is it working?”

Galadhan hesitated, then sighed and nodded.



Chapter Two



The door slid open and Avadhron stepped inside. Only the dim base light near the entrance gave any illumination to his home. Jhendill must already be asleep. He hoped she hadn’t waited up long, but knowing her, she probably had. His wife wasn’t one to dramatize her worry, thank the Elders, but worry she did.

He tossed his security jerkin across the chair by the desk console in the small living area. Rubbing his aching neck, he hesitated, peering into the dark toward the kitchenette at the other end of the room. No. He was too tired to eat. He dragged into the bedroom, let his clothes drop into a pile, and stepped into the sonic shower. His eyes barely stayed open long enough to stumble out and fall into bed.

His muscles ached. He sat in that desk chair too much lately; he needed to exercise more. And get involved in dome patrol more often. His wife sighed and snuggled against his back, murmuring her relief he was home safe. Ah, more so than work-outs, he could do with more of this. He smiled and let sleep overtake him...


A cool breeze caressed Avadhron’s face as he inhaled the tangy, fragrant scent of the bushes. The sound of birds singing and chattering filled the air. To one side rose a tall mountain, and he squinted as the sun edged out from a billowy white cloud in the blue sky. A brown and grey bird streaked overhead. He turned to follow its flight and saw the downhill path in front of him. Majestic trees lined the descent. One hand strayed to touch the rough bark of a tree trunk as he ambled by—


Avadhron’s eyes snapped open, and he gasped despite himself. After taking deep breaths to quiet his aching heart, he rose and dressed, sleep driven from him. He stumbled through the dark to their living area and fell into the chair, feeling for the switch to the desk lamp. He pulled his data-paper toward him and thumbed it on, then recalled his private file. Staring at the wall, he tried to make sense of his thoughts.


The night winds do call

And I must away

To search for my heart

Before it’s full day


Oh, I long for light

For warmth from the sky

For fresh fields of grass

And birds that do—


“What are you doing?” his wife’s voice asked through a yawn.

Avadhron thumbed the close button. A flurry of nonsense characters flitted on the page as the file self-encrypted before disappearing. He spun around in the chair. Jhendill stood in the doorway of the bedroom, blinking sleepily, fetching even in the loose robe.

He gave a small shrug. “Just going over some things. I–I couldn’t sleep.”

“Never stop working, do you, Ch’shalna?”

Avadhron smiled at her use of his clan’s name. It had been an insult when they first met: a low-born commoner with no use for anyone related to the high-and-mighty king. And it hadn’t helped that he’d been in charge of an investigation in her research department. Now however, Ch’shalna was an endearment, her pet name for him.

Yawning again, Jhendill pushed her long, dark hair behind her ears and walked over. “Just can’t sleep, or do you have cases bothering you?”

He shot her a wry grin. “Oh, various things.” The dream wove across his sight, and he stood, willing himself to dismiss it. His jaw clenched against the despair of knowing his dream could never be a reality. In this foul mood, he couldn’t stay. He snagged his black Sec jerkin off the back of his seat. “I need to leave.” He shrugged the long, sleeveless garment over his shoulders and belted it.

She crossed her arms across her robe, her eyebrows lifted. “Already?”

“I...” He looked at his hands as he pulled on his black gloves, avoiding her eyes. “I thought of something. I want to check it out.”

“You are nothing if not dedicated.” She rose on tiptoe and kissed him. “Be careful.”

He wrapped his arms around her slender waist and drew her close, returning the kiss. Her arms threaded around his neck, her fingers tangling in his long hair. Mm, perhaps she could help drive that blasted dream from his mind. But slowly, she pulled away with an apologetic pout. “I need to get to work early myself, but I’ll make it up to you tonight. Promise.” She gave him another kiss, a long one: a down payment. He was definitely not working late today.

When they finally ended the kiss, he brushed a strand of hair out of her face and asked, “So what are you doing that has you going in so early?”

Her eyes lit up. “We’re testing the new atmospheric scrubber modules. They’re promising.”

Avadhron nodded and, with reluctance, let his arms drop from her. Between both their jobs, they spent too little time together. And he dare not tell her that her life’s work of trying to clear the atmosphere didn’t give him hope. He understood little of it, and possibly her enthusiasm and optimism weren’t misplaced. Perhaps in some future generation Teledhar’s surface might truly be habitable again. Perhaps. But without the biodiversity of flora and fauna necessary to populate it and create a proper ecosystem? The agri-domes had saved only a fraction of plant life, and most of that was, naturally, food crops and herbs, not many flowers, or trees for that matter. No animal life or insects lived, save the vermin thriving in the sewers and underground areas of the domes and some small types of pets.

He murmured goodbye, dropped a quick kiss on her forehead, and left. As the lift took him down to ground level, his thoughts sank as well to a deeper depression.

Palace Dome, besides being the center of their government’s administration, housed all the families of Ch’shalna, the royal clan. The king lived sumptuously in a large suite of rooms which took up an entire floor in the palace complex itself above the council chambers and security headquarters.

With only the illumination of the walkway lights, the residential buildings loomed darkly on each side as Avadhron walked toward the rail station. The shadowy structures housed level upon level of families, each one living in a tiny abode similar to his, two rooms plus sonic shower and priv.

In some clans, whole families lived in cramped one-room quarters; in the older domes many were even housed underground. Avadhron could not comprehend such an existence. Obviously neither could some of the more unfortunate clans, or they wouldn’t be revolting. But what could be done? Domes were difficult to build and maintain, especially with the increasing frequency of earthquakes. Their world continued to spiral down into a whirlpool of despair.

The opaque dome slowly illuminated, signaling the start of another day. The synthetic stone of the walkways and buildings began to shimmer as the light grew. Avadhron found no beauty in the glittery surfaces, only a sense of confinement. Greenery in raised beds graced these narrow streets, but no insect or animal life flitted or scurried.

What would it be like to feel wind? Rain?

As he took the rail-tube to the nearest agri-dome, he stared out the window at the forlorn ash-grey wasteland, tinted red with the rising of the sun. What would his wife think of his amateurish attempts at poetry? No, Jhendill didn’t even understand his obsession with nature; he had better not let her see that side of her tough, Sec-guard husband.

The rail stopped, and Avadhron stepped onto the platform inside the edge of the enormous agri-dome. The guards nodded to him in recognition and allowed him to enter. He breathed in the humid air, his eyes sweeping the greenery. What had it been like when their whole planet had looked like this? He walked among the plants with reverence, touching leaves, memories of his dream—always the same dream, of the same place—flooding back over him.

The path of flat stones wound down, taking Avadhron to a small clearing. A stream trickled into a pool, then bubbled away downhill. Little yellow flowers with elongated petals curving into slender cups sprouted among the rocks and grass, their dark leaves rising from the ground. An aromatic shrub grew all around, filling the air with sweet perfume...

With a sharp inhale, Avadhron shook off the reverie. He leaned over and closed his eyes, breathing in the fragrant scent of a blossom, trying to ease the torment of knowing he would never experience such things while awake. Why did his mind torture him so?

He turned and strode back to the rail-tube. Time to get to work.

<<>>

Avadhron tapped the update pad on the data-paper, and the surface blinked as the day’s reports downloaded. He gazed at the paper, trying to not hear the inane chatter of Petill, Merdhil, and Emadhrel nearby, discussing their rankings in one of the more popular Grid-games. He didn’t blame them for spending time in some imaginary world accessed through holographic and sensory inputs; many of his people did. A way to escape, like his forays to the agri-dome.

His gaze flicked to them, and he asked in a low tone, “Are you Elites on duty?”

They scattered, which answered his question. He returned his attention to the data-paper. Last night’s riot was still in the investigative stage. Two other reports, however, flagged orange.

The first, an earthquake had hit East Valley Domes Three and Four with minimal damage. Avadhron paused to breathe a sigh of thanks to the Maker; he remembered all too well the devastation of the South Plain earthquake—every dome demolished, thousands of lives lost, entire clans all but eradicated.

The worst damage to East Valley seemed to be a few of the rail-tubes. Some of the residents had, in a dangerously foolish move, used the ones still in service to try to escape to other domes. Wisely, most stayed, either in their homes with enviro-suits at the ready, or at hastily erected mini-dome shelters.

Neither dome had been breached, although Four’s had minute cracks, for which repair crews had already been dispatched. Evac teams and their shuttles waited in preparation for any aftershocks. Under control then. Good.

Avadhron continued to the second report and stiffened in alarm—an attempt to plant bombs in the Palace Dome within the last hour, thwarted by his own Elites. Three suspects had been apprehended.

They could not have carried the bombs in-dome intact. Either they were repeat visitors who smuggled parts in, or they had conspirators within the dome. And did that trio have the knowledge themselves of where to place the bombs to fracture the dome, or had someone instructed them? Their positions when captured were frighteningly accurate.

His eyes widened as he read their backgrounds; the three were from Jonasel clan. Why would one of the noble clans stoop to do their own dirty work? Were they that desperate to destroy the king? Palace Dome? His kin?

Avadhron rubbed his eyes. Much of the dissension was directly the fault of King Janadhan, as well as his advisors in both their own clan and in Viltara clan. Greedy sand-suckers. He dared not say it aloud, but he despised his supercilious scoundrel of a cousin.

He needed to increase security measures to keep insurgents from gaining access to the dome in the first place. This could not be allowed to happen again. He punched in codes to give his men new orders, his thoughts still racing. Yes, it was his job to protect the king, but just as important—and to his mind even more important, although he dare not speak such treason—he had to protect Ch’shalna’s dome.

“Daydreaming, son?”

Avadhron gave a cursory glance up at his father, then tapped the data-paper. “No. Sir. Just thinking about this attack by Jonasel clan. Such an overt strike is alarming.” He paused and made certain his face and voice didn’t betray his disaffection for Janadhan. “Has the king been notified?”

“Yes. He’s expecting a report.” Paldhran nodded toward the console. “You had better get busy. Increase security and perimeter patrols—”

“I know my job!” he barked. Other guards in the office turned, and he modulated his voice. “I have taken care of all that already. Sir.”

“I hope so. I don’t want Janadhan breathing down my neck.” His father glared at him, grey eyes flashing. “He’s going to visit the prisoners and wants us along.” He spun and marched out.

Avadhron suppressed a sigh as he rose.


Chapter Three



“I am not impressed by your son’s efforts, Paldhran.” The king stared straight ahead as they walked down the dim, narrow hallway. Avadhron eyed Janadhan as he and his father trailed behind. Their monarch turned, tilting his head to gaze up at him with a scowl. “Sloppy. You should dismiss him from service. Let him putter among flowers instead, or play with his commoner wife.”

He unclenched his jaw. “I am present, Your Majesty. If you have a complaint about me or my men, say it to my face.”

“Those traitors got into our dome, didn’t they?” Janadhan’s blue eyes closed to feral slits. “And you watch your tone with your king.”

“He meant no offense, Sire,” Paldhran interjected. “He merely desires clarification of your dissatisfaction—”

“Don’t claim to know what I mean!”

“Bicker amongst yourselves later.” Janadhan stopped in front of one of the cells and spun to face it, making his blue and silver robes whirl with a dramatic flair. “Let me see the prisoners.”

The guard opened the door, and Avadhron stepped inside behind his father and the king, his stomach churning.

When new to Security, he had nearly been executed for his outrage and outcries of how prisoners were treated. His first cousin, the king’s half-brother, Zaidhron, begged Janadhan for mercy. And convinced Avadhron that martyring himself would be of no benefit. The prince insisted Avadhron bore a unique, intense will and could help strengthen the voices of those trying to make a difference. That to live, and try to lessen injustice and bring about changes, was a worthy goal.

He still often wrestled with that rationale within himself, but he had to admit, he had saved victims, and been instrumental in modifying how prisoners were treated most of the time, unless the king personally got involved. He and Zaidhron did all they could to hinder Janadhan, but nonetheless, Avadhron had limited ability to stop his depraved liege.

The attempted-bombing suspects sat manacled to chairs in the small, bare room. From their similar appearance, he would have guessed the two were brother and sister even without having seen the identity check: red hair and high cheekbones. The third, a ruddy-faced blond man, was a cousin.

Janadhan lifted his head slightly and took a step toward the girl. “Bring her to my chambers. The others, take out-dome and leave them there.”

“You filthy beast!” the brother spat.

The girl and cousin both yelled obscenities at them all, cursing Ch’shalna clan.

Avadhron stepped between the suspects and his king. “Your Majesty, these are not some low-born or clanless. You cannot do as you please without repercussions. They must stand trial.”

“And if they were low-born,” retorted the king, “you would be crying for mercy due to their pitiful status and lack of opportunities.”

Ah no, he would not be diverted from the topic. “Jonasel clan is too powerful to ignore. If you—”

Janadhan shoved his lined face up into Avadhron’s, his long teeth bared. “Don’t go too far, puppet. Your father can’t protect you if you irritate me overmuch. And neither can Zaidhron.”

Paldhran pulled on his son’s arm. “These rebels are not worth it. They tried to kill the king, destroy our dome. They want to murder us all!”

“Regardless, they should stand trial.” He raised his voice to be heard over both men’s protests. “They are Jonasel clan! High nobility!”

Shouldering between the two, his father held his hands up in a warding motion. “Your Majesty. Avadhron, please!”

Ignoring his obsequious parent, he locked eyes with the king, willing himself to not show his hatred of the man, or his anger, as Paldhran whispered for him to calm down.

Their monarch pulled himself up and straightened his robes, glaring at Avadhron. “Then we shall have a trial.” With a disdainful smirk, Janadhan stomped out.

The outcome of the trial was automatic, since any attack against a dome was considered an attempt at mass murder, but at least while in his custody, it appeared, the prisoners would not be mistreated. He took long breaths to bring his anger under control as he and his father left the cell.

Paldhran gripped his shoulder and whirled him around. “Wake up, son. Strip that idealism from your eyes. Live in the now and learn from me, or you will never survive politics.”

<<>>

“I hear the king had at you again,” Prince Zaidhron said.

Avadhron pushed away the interim report of the ambush/failed meeting of the night before and sat back in his chair with a glower at his cousin.

Zaidhron sauntered over and perched on the edge of the Sec Chief’s desk, his eyes mocking. He adjusted his royal robes, then flicked his blond hair over his shoulder. “I hear he called you your father’s puppet to both your faces, too.”

“He tried to treat the prisoners as refuse. Jonasel clan! Dome above us, can you imagine the results?”

“I know.” The prince frowned. “But you did succeed in getting them a trial.”

He snorted but refrained from replying; Janadhan had listening devices in his office. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had Ears in his home too, although he did periodic sweeps to assure his privacy. Jhendill didn’t deserve to be preyed upon.

Did Zaidhron ever suppose their king might spy on him? He never acted as if he did. He seemed too naïve, but in spite of that stood in charge of most administrative duties. One could be intelligent yet ingenuous.

“Well, you can tell him you talked to me and set me straight.” Avadhron picked up the report and thumbed the corner to switch the page on display. “Now I have work to do.”

The prince bent close, his face earnest. “Just a reminder that you have an ally.”

“Thank you. But beware of our king if he knows you are too good a friend to me.”

One side of the prince’s mouth twitched. “He already knows, cousin.”

Avadhron frowned. “You can find humor in what would make most men quail? Few stand close to me, much less claim friendship.”

“The king knows my fealty rests at the foot of his throne.”

Avadhron met his cousin’s eyes, wondering, as he had many times, about the relationship between the half-brothers. Zaidhron, the loyal subject of the king, and Janadhan who relied on Zaidhron so heavily. “Does he really?”

Zaidhron’s genial expression faded. “He does, and it does. Don’t worry about me.”

A vibration by his ear stopped Avadhron before he could reply. He thumbed his comm.

“Yes?”

Paldhran’s voice filtered through the earpiece. “Get battle and surface gear. We have detected power fluctuations emanating from the Elders’ mountain.”

“Elders’ mountain? What sort of power?”

The prince stood, his expression anxious.

“A high amplitude, periodic electromagnetic pulse,” his father said. “Take Zaidhron with you. He’s studied that place and knows it better than anyone.”

Avadhron rose with a scowl, thumbing off the comm. “You’re to come with me to investigate.”

His cousin’s face lit up.

He shook his head. “This could be dangerous. You stay back and obey me.” He headed out the door, his cousin following on his heels.

“You can’t order me. I rank you.”

Elders, he sounds like he did when we were children. “I can if it poses possible danger.”

The prince seized his arm. “You know I am as keen about our history as you are about plant life. If someone has broken into the complex and destroyed anything, I want—”

“There’s nothing left to destroy. That place was breached long ago. It’s an empty shell.” Avadhron spun to his stubborn cousin and stabbed a finger in his face. “You listen to me while we’re out there!”

Zaidhron blinked innocently.

Avadhron pressed his lips together and turned away. “If you don’t obey me and get killed, at least I won’t have you nagging me anymore!”

<<>>

“Who could be out there?” Avadhron muttered, hunching his back in a futile effort to relieve the insistent itching between his shoulder blades that plagued him every time he wore full body armor. He glanced over at the second skiff as they both skimmed toward the foothills in the north.

The Elders’ mountain grew nearer and darker as the minutes ticked by. Bare ground stretched to the horizon at Avadhron’s left and right, dotted by dull red gleams as shallow pools of dead water reflected the sky, and the two skiffs occasionally changed course to swing wide of fumaroles, an ever-increasing navigational hazard.

“I don’t know,” Zaidhron said, his voice slightly muffled through the breathing gear in his face mask. Avadhron had suggested armor for him as well, but the prince merely donned an enviro-suit used by scientists when working out-dome. If this wasn’t a false alarm, the environment wasn’t what his cousin would need protection against.

“Only scientists and Secs are normally allowed out-dome,” Zaidhron continued, “and then they require clearance. What could anyone want at the Elders’ mountain?”

“You tell me. I think it’s an error, equipment malfunction, perhaps caused by a recent earthquake. The mountain is too far away to reach on foot, even with the best gear. And no skiffs are checked out or reported missing. Who would have any interest in that forsaken site?” Avadhron cut his eyes to his cousin. “Except history fanatics with strange theories.”

Zaidhron sniffed. “You truly think the Elders just dumped our ancestors on this planet and left? As if we were criminals or outcasts?”

“Teledhar: this planet’s name means ‘Abandoned.’ You have a better explanation?” He held up a hand. “Never mind. I don’t want to get into an argument about your precious Elders.” What else did make sense though? Why leave thousands of children with only a handful of advisors—Elders—to give minimal guidance on an unstable planet, then forsake them?

Zaidhron pointed ahead. “We’re here.” His voice cracked, betraying his elation.

Fallen rock scattered here and there, but for the most part, the huge landing platform before the ruined entrance to the Elders’ mountain remained clear.

Avadhron pulled his skiff along the other one, and his Elites piled out in full gear, weapons at ready. He snagged the prince’s arm as his cousin started toward the smashed door set into the stone wall. “Let my men go first.”

Zaidhron hesitated, frustration apparent in his frown. He obeyed though, hanging back as the guards positioned themselves on each side of the entrance. Avadhron gazed up at the sheer face of the mountain as he approached, bare, dark rock, tinged with red from the sun glowing through particulate matter in the atmosphere.

He took a deep breath, adjusted his visor, and thumbed the activation switch on his rifle. A quick glance at the display assured him that the magnetic acceleration system functioned normally. He nodded at his men.

The broken doors would not slide, and one of his guards kicked at the glass to make enough room for them to enter. Another joined him, using the butt of her weapon. He carefully stepped through, as did each of his Elites, and he cautioned Zaidhron to be certain he avoided any contact with the jagged edges which could damage his enviro-suit. Avadhron’s boots crunched on the black glass as he peered into the darkness, everything turning green as his visor automatically switched to night-vision mode.

Nothing. Avadhron straightened slightly as he scanned the huge, domed chamber, rifle still at fore. No movement. No noise save their own breathing. On the far side of the room three doors faced them. A small light flashed beside the center one. He took a step toward it, and the place brightened. His visor switched modes again, and he blinked, heart thudding. Sconces high on the walls had lit up. Must be sensors—the lights go on when motion is detected. He let his breath out in a sharp exhale and strode forward again.

The center door slid open, and a man stepped out of what appeared to be a lift. One of the guards gave a small gasp. Avadhron’s held up an arm to halt his people from any action, although if any of them had been the type to shoot without cause, they wouldn’t be a member of his Elites.

This man wore what Avadhron assumed was an enviro-suit, but it fit like a clear second skin allowing one to see his loose-fitting clothing—a tunic and pants made of an off-white, open-weave fabric. Short, straight black hair swept back from his forehead, and his rich, dark complexion was like nothing he had ever seen. Only a small breathing apparatus covered his nose and mouth. He spoke, but Avadhron couldn’t understand him.

Did the man’s sudden appearance, strange looks, or short hair shock him more? A man’s long locks were a sign of his strength. What did the lack of length signify then?

Zaidhron stepped forward and said something slowly. The man answered.

“What’s going on?” Avadhron eyed the stranger. “Who is he?”

The prince grinned, his eyes shining with tears. His voice wavering slightly, he whispered, “He’s an Elder.”

Avadhron opened his mouth to laugh, then reconsidered. “He’s a what?”

Several of his Elites gasped or snickered. He waved an arm to silence them. “How did he get here?”

His cousin cleared his throat. “Our legends say they can walk through air from world to world—”

Muttering a short, crude opinion of that theory, he replied, “I want to see where he came from. Are there any others here?”

Zaidhron and the stranger talked back and forth with some stammering and gesturing; then the dark-skinned man waved for them to come toward him, into the lift. Avadhron pointed at two of his guards. They joined him and the prince in the small circular chamber, and the door slid shut.

A slight vibration and his stomach both indicated they had shot downward. Avadhron kept his rifle ready, his teeth clenched so tightly that his jaw ached. Zaidhron still wore a silly, stunned expression.

When the door opened, he nudged the “Elder” with his rifle. The man stepped out and turned to point. On the far side of the large room, a glowing, pale blue ring took up the wall from floor to ceiling, and the inside shimmered and had a...a depth to it, as if stretching beyond the frame into a vast blackness. Avadhron had to stop his mouth from dropping open.

“What is it?” he asked, even as the stranger began talking.

“He says they call it a door—no, a portal,” Zaidhron said.

“Like a wormhole?”

“I suppose. We can’t communicate well enough to ask technical questions.” The prince smiled. “Yet.”

He resisted the urge to grab his cousin and pound sense into him. The man was just too trusting. He kept his mind on his job. “How many could come through? Are they here to invade?”

Zaidhron again talked to the alien, then frowned at the reply. Avadhron quelled his impatience as the two tried to communicate. After several minutes, they smiled and nodded at each other.

“I think he’s saying he found coordinates for this planet—I can’t understand much. He says he has friends, but they are not invaders. They will not visit unless invited.”

He snorted. “Who invited him?”

The alien spoke again. Zaidhron quirked a wry smile at Avadhron. “I cannot be certain, but I think, I think he wants us to take him to our leader.”




Chapter Four



As he piloted the skiff, Avadhron listened to the halting discussion between this ‘Elder’ and Zaidhron. Occasionally, he heard what seemed to be a familiar word or phrase.

“What’s he saying?” he asked. “What is the language you’re speaking?”

“It’s actually an ancient dialect of our clan’s language. He seems to speak something similar. We’re just trying to work on communication. His name is Mattan, by the way.”

Avadhron let his gaze slide to the dark stranger, his doubts growing. He couldn’t get a fix on this alien, but some thing, some desire, pulled at him to want to like the intruder, and perhaps it was merely Avadhron’s own contrariness, but that desire drove him to suspicion and increased distrust instead.

Mattan’s deep brown eyes met his with a knowing look, then said something that seemed almost understandable, words familiar yet not familiar, scratching at the edges of Avadhron’s comprehension.

Zaidhron chuckled and answered before saying to Avadhron, “He says you don’t like him. I told him you don’t like anyone.”

Avadhron sniffed and turned his attention back to piloting. Wait until this “Elder” and the king met. The thought brought a small smile to his lips.

<<>>

Janadhan swept into the audience chamber with pomp and seated himself on the throne without regarding anyone in attendance. When he looked up, his gaze lit on the alien, and his mouth gaped. Avadhron hid a smirk. For once, the king was speechless.

No one could speak at a formal audience save by their ruler’s permission, so they all merely bowed and waited. Finally, Janadhan’s lips peeled back from his teeth, then he spoke. “What is this? Who is he?”

“Your Majesty.” Zaidhron bowed a second time. “This is a visitor to our planet. His name is Mattan, and he came through a portal in the Elders’ mountain.”

“Portal?” The king’s long face scrunched with confusion. “What are you talking about, man?”

Zaidhron hesitated with a bemused expression and spread his hands in apology. “I am not a scientist, Your Majesty, but from what I understand this portal allows one to walk from world to world.”

“Walk from world to...” Janadhan blinked. “So this is some alien?”

“An Elder, Sire, come back to us.” Zaidhron held a hand out toward the newcomer. The dark-skinned man stepped forward and spoke, bowing deeply from the waist.

“His name is Mattan. He says he is most honored to be in the presence of our king.”

Avadhron rolled his eyes.

“You understand him?” Janadhan’s gaze darted from Zaidhron to the alien.

“More or less. Our languages seem to have a common root, and as Your Majesty knows, history and ancient tongues are a hobby of mine.”

The king sniffed. He stared at Mattan with a blank expression, probably trying to find some personal gain in this situation. Avadhron got the impression his monarch was truly baffled and sucked at his cheeks to keep from grinning.

“What is this Elder’s intention?” Janadhan asked.

“He is an explorer and wishes to be friends, Sire. I have suggested that, with your permission”—Zaidhron inclined his head—“he and I first try to learn more of each other’s languages.”

Janadhan hesitated. “Hm, yes, a sound idea.”

Avadhron knew the king well enough to know his thoughts: it would give him time to discover ways to use the alien to his advantage, likely a dangerous advantage.

And who knew the dangers this alien brought? Avadhron stepped forward, bowing. When his liege nodded permission to speak, Avadhron said, “Your Majesty, as a security precaution, I suggest that two of my Elites be assigned to accompany the al—Elder.”

Zaidhron spun with rounded eyes. “You think he poses a threat?” He flushed and turned to the king with a bow. “Apologies, Sire.”

Ignoring his cousin, Avadhron addressed the Janadhan directly, as dictated by protocol. “I think that erring on the side of caution is wise.”

“Mattan is no threat, Your Majesty!”

The king rose. “Save your bickering for each other. Let Avadhron have his way, or we shall have to endure his brooding and grumbling.” He swept out of the chamber.

Zaidhron glared at Avadhron. “We have to endure that, regardless.”

Magnanimous in his victory, Avadhron inclined his head at his cousin with a smile. He pointed at two Elites who stepped forward and took positions near the alien.

Zaidhron spoke in slow, stumbling words and Mattan replied with a shrug. His cousin gave a sigh of relief and said, “Despite your lack of circumspection, he doesn’t seem insulted by your suspicion. That’s one good thing, anyway.”

Avadhron met Mattan’s placid gaze with a hard look. “Then I’ll have to try harder next time.”

<<>>

The data-paper blinked as reports downloaded. Avadhron scanned the list. Three days that alien had been here, and his men could give him no solid intel. He ground his teeth. He glanced at the file Galadhan submitted and frowned. He called out to his Second, who ambled over.

“I see that Lewsin has an engineering background, and his was definitely the mind behind the attempted bombing. Does it appear there are more involved? An ongoing conspiracy or merely those three?”

Galadhan hesitated. “Considering they are of Jonasel clan, I would not rule out a wider circle.”

“‘You would not rule out?’” Avadhron frowned. “That’s no answer, man!”

“It’s all I can give you. Chief Paldhran took over their interrogation on orders from the king.”

Avadhron cursed under his breath, and Galadhan lifted both hands. “Prince Zaidhron is attending.” His Second pursed his lips in amusement. “He...stated bluntly that he wanted to ensure the prisoners were alive for their trial.”

“I would have loved to have seen my father’s face—wait. If Zaidhron is with my father in interrogation, then where is that alien?”

“In the Prince’s office, reading on his console.”

“That console is unmonitored and has the highest security clearance.”

“Chief.” Heavy chastisement filled Galadhan’s voice.

Avadhron tipped his head in apology. Yes, he should trust his men to know what to do. “I want a list of every file, every document that alien accesses.”

A smile spread on his Second’s face. “Already taken care of, sir.” He crossed back to his own console station.

Avadhron read over the various reports and sat back, smiling. “Have you seen this morning’s Beyond the Domes nonsense?”

Galadhan rolled his eyes. “Which story? The one which states we created the report of an Elder to take the populace’s sights off the real issues of our domination, or the one which states there really is an Elder, and he’s working with us in subjugating the people?”

“At least you’d think they’d choose one theory and stick with it,” Avadhron said, grinning.

“I don’t know why you let these kooks publish on the media Grid in the first place.”

“Oh, I’ll shut them down in a few weeks, so they’ll think we’re chasing them down, then hook up to wherever their new hack is. The occasional intel we get is good, as is the humor.”

Galadhan shrugged. “You’re the Chief.”

“You’re just still incensed over that one report.”

“The one which stated I wear a leash tethered to you?”

Avadhron chuckled. “Don’t you?”

Galadhan glared, but the glint in his eyes betrayed his amusement. “If you’ll loosen the tether a bit, I’ll get to my duties. Sir.”

Avadhron waved a dismissal, chortling, and turned his attention to the morning’s reports. His men had concluded their investigation of the incident in East Valley Dome Six. The mob appeared to be malcontents of various clans who didn’t want their thanes to meet and resolve differences. For once, Camven wasn’t involved. Linsar, despite being told to keep the meeting secret, had told all his clan’s chiefs, one of whom in turn had spread word. The king had threatened if there were more disturbances, he would seal the dome. Avadhron sighed.

The rest of the reports were minor; overviews of events from various domes. Nothing requiring the attention of his Elites.

He leaned back in a spine-cracking stretch, rose, and crossed to the dispenser. He punched the code for his favorite hot drink, a strong blend of teas, well, a synthetic version, since none of those plants actually existed any longer save in the agri-domes, but those weren’t used for bulk food preparation.

He sat back down at his console, a new report blinking for attention on the report data-paper. Avadhron ticked the corner to download it. A fight just erupted in East Valley Dome Six resulting in significant injuries, and three deaths. One of the Secs was in Medical with a broken collar bone. Avadhron slammed his fist on his desk with an explosive oath. They’d sealed their fate, figuratively and literally. Wait, maybe if they worked fast enough—

“Galadhan.” Avadhron downloaded the newest report to his Second. “Get on this. Find the cause for the fight and which clans were involved. I want details and the guilty parties apprehended, if not already. We have to act quickly to forestall a dome lock-down.”

“Yes, sir.”

Galadhan shot out of the room, data-paper in one hand, barking orders into his ear comm.

Avadhron sent a query to Medical asking for updates on the Sec. It wasn’t someone he knew personally, but it didn’t matter. She was clan, and in Security.

The hopeless frustration hit him afresh in the stomach. Regardless of his efforts, what difference could he make? This was all futile. He let his breath out in a hiss, then flipped the data-paper onto the desk. It whisked across the smooth surface, and a hand caught it as it tipped off the edge. Zaidhron set the offending object back on the desk with a grin.

Avadhron glowered at him. “I thought you were in interrogation.”

“We are through. For now.”

“And how did you enjoy keeping my father in check?”

“I do much more with the king, thank you.”

“You may have something new to stay.”

“Oh?”

Avadhron nodded at the data-paper. “Violence in East Valley Dome Six. Three deaths.”

Zaidhron groaned, closing his eyes. He gave a long, slow exhale and said, “My thanks for the warning.”

“I doubt we can forestall the dome being sealed. I have Galadhan working on finding the instigators of the riots. If we can apprehend them, perhaps we can...” Avadhron stopped and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his face.

His cousin eyed him, his expression one of compassion and empathy. After a long pause, he said, “You, my friend, need respite. Dinner at my home tonight.”

“With that alien there? No, thank you.”

“Mariss has already talked to Jhendill, and they won’t be happy if you refuse.”

Avadhron glowered at his cousin. “Conspiracy. Of the blackest kind.”

Zaidhron smiled and turned to the door. “Don’t be late.”





Chapter Five



Jhendill’s hand shook in his. Avadhron’s taciturn responses kept her from bubbling with talk about Mattan, but it didn’t dampen her own awe at meeting an “Elder.” He sighed in resignation at spending several hours with the intruder as they approached the building housing Zaidhron’s home. This was “respite”?

His cousin lived in a modest two-room abode the same as the rest of his kin. He could, as half-brother of their monarch, live in the palace. But although heir, since Janadhan had no children, Zaidhron called himself liegeman and servant of the king. His lifestyle reflected this.

The two Elites assigned to the alien saluted as Avadhron and Jhendill exited the lift and crossed to Zaidhron’s door. He nodded to them. “Your monitors are active?”

“Yes, sir.” The one guard, Petill, touched the tiny, curved rod that ran from the comm at her ear around to her eye. “His Highness Prince Zaidhron is not happy about it.”

He snorted and thumbed the chime.

The door slid open to reveal a smiling Tarnill, her long blonde hair falling in curls about her face. Her head was shoulder high to Avadhron. Dome above, that child was almost a woman now! In not too many years she would be of Age and Confirmed as her father’s heir. Would the planet still support life by the time Janadhan and Zaidhron were gone? Would there be a throne for his young cousin to inherit?

Her blue eyes danced. “Come in! Come in! Have you met Mattan?”

Mariss rushed forward, all smiles, and took over, introducing Jhendill to the intruder.

The alien stood and bowed. “You are involved in the planet reclamation project. You design atmospheric scrubbers, I understand.” His voice had only the slightest tinge of an accent. “I’m anxious to discuss this with you. We may be able to offer ways to help.”

“That would be wonderful!”

Tarnill hung on Avadhron’s arm as Mattan and Jhendill went to the two chairs in the small living area. “He’s amazing, Avadhron! Don’t you think so?”

“Cousin, I’m the one who ordered those Elites outside to accompany him everywhere to monitor his movements. What do you think?”

Her face fell. “Oh. I thought they were to protect him.”

As naïve as her father. At least she had the excuse of youth. Tarnill mumbled something about helping her parents and left him standing alone.

The prince’s home was identical to his own: a living area with padded chairs and a desk console on one end and kitchenette at the other, and dividing the one wall, the door to the bedroom and priv. Six people allowed little room to move. Zaidhron, Mariss, and Tarnill set up a small table and pulled chairs around it.

The formed protein cutlets were only a slight extravagance, but rest of the meal was exorbitant: two kinds of real vegetables, which probably used up a week’s worth of their kitchenette’s garden wall, and tea steeped from actual plant leaves, not synthetics. The confection served was one of the rare, expensive ones that Avadhron had only seen at the palace gatherings for the high nobility. Yes, Zaidhron could easily acquire such a delicacy, but this was not the fare Zaidhron’s family would normally eat. Was it acquiescing to demands of the intruder, an attempt to cultivate his favor, or some other reason?

As they ate, he tried to keep abreast of the conversation of his cousins while listening to the animated discussion between Jhendill and the alien. Most of it involved technical terminology about atmospheric scrubbers that flew above his head. So, was Mattan a scientist then? He claimed to be an explorer.

Avadhron paused for a moment as something else occurred to him, the alien conversed fluently with a scientist, not only in her own language, but in the nomenclature of her profession. He didn’t hear one slip in grammar either. Such proficiency in only three days, it bespoke secrets, layers, to the man. Avadhron’s suspicions rose sharply.

After the meal, Zaidhron and Mariss whisked the food and dishes away while Tarnill and Jhendill folded the table and arranged the chairs for central discussion. Avadhron resisted the urge to scream at the idiotic expressions of adoration on everyone’s faces as they seated themselves. Tarnill sat at Mattan’s feet, staring up with eyes alight.

The alien met Avadhron’s gaze with a smile, at least it was an ironic one, not the sweet amentia everyone else wore. “So you are still as displeased with me as ever.” A statement, not a question.

“Just so.”

“I hope I may satisfy you as to my intentions.”

“Not likely.”

Zaidhron waved a hand in Avadhron’s direction. “Pay no attention to him. He’s happiest when being skeptical and suspicious.”

“It’s kept you, the king, and many others alive.”

The prince inclined his head. “I grant you that. In your occupation distrust is advantageous.”

“Yet you never heed me.”

“You never give me credit for having any sagacity,” Zaidhron snapped. His lips thinned a moment, but his expression mellowed, and he smiled in hesitant apology.

Mattan cleared his throat, and Avadhron returned his gaze to the object of his displeasure.

“I’m sorry my presence causes you such vexation.”

“What would you know of my vexations?”

“It is easy to see. You don’t trust me, and you don’t want me here.”

Avadhron grinned, teeth clenched. “Quite straight!”

“Why? Why do you dislike me so intensely?”

“It isn’t dislike. It’s distrust. What have you done to earn my confidence? Come through your portal and smile and dote on us Teldheri like long-lost friends? Tell me about your people. What makes you different than us, other than skin color? How can you have learned our language so proficiently in only a few days?”

“We have a...talent for languages.”

“What a dome heist!”

“No, it’s true. Your language and ours have a common root. That makes it easier—”

“All of our clans’ languages have the same common root. However, the complexities of say, Keladar, not to mention the various idioms and idiosyncratic syntax of some of the dialects, make full proficiency difficult.” Avadhron turned to the prince. “Yet this alien”—he waved at hand toward Mattan—“has mastered our tongue with barely an accent and makes no grammatical errors whatsoever. I want to know how.”

Zaidhron lifted his shoulders. “This is not your concern, Security Chief.”

“Suck sand, Your Highness,” Avadhron shot back. “You know it is.”

“It isn’t if I say so. I know the reasons why, and I am satisfied. Therefore, so are you.”

Avadhron exhaled through his teeth and dropped his head for a moment to regain his composure, then bored into Mattan’s eyes. “Answer this, then. Who are we to you? And why won’t you tell us about our history? Why are we here? Why did your ancestors just leave us?”

“I don’t know! I have no answers for you.” Mattan looked down, his hands splayed on his knees. “I wish I did. I am merely an explorer. If I was aware of your past, I would tell you.”


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