Gentleman's Agreement

The entire sand ship trembled on its massive treads as the sand crawler’s forward limbs, like the gigantic legs of some nightmarish arachnid, crushed the upper framework. Nicholas’s blood boiled. Men plummeted to their deaths from the radar mounts and gun turrets, screaming as they were smashed like insects against the buckling metal hull or swallowed up into the churning desert sands.

The writhing hydra-like organism swallowed several of the native workers even as they fired laser turrets from the overhanging gantries. Nicholas lunged for one of the upper turrets as the gunner’s scream was muffled, the man’s legs kicking in mid-air as he was seized by one of the lashing triple-pronged tongues of the great beast and sucked into one of its three-sided mouths. Nicholas roared in impotent rage as he fired and fired, hoping desperately for a lucky shot at one of the damnable titan’s neural nodes.

The crawler’s roar reminded Nicholas of a star destroyer’s atmosphere venting into space as its bulkheads gave way under a laser barrage. Feeling the support platform give way under him, Nicholas leapt from the gantry, grabbing a railing along a walkway, and slid down a support strut to the deck. He struggled to hang onto the guard rail, his boots sliding over the tilting deck. “Come, M’Lord,” the grubby little trader Bartholomew Kazira said, clutching at Nicolas’s arm. “I have a skimmer ready for launch.” Beads of sweat shined on the native’s bearded face, the man’s foul breath rapid and labored on the arid desert wind. “We must fly while we can.”

Nicholas clenched his fist. He hated running from a fight. But his survival instinct overcame his pride, and he followed. As the two men made their way down the struts of the guard rail, down the sloping deck, Nicholas forced his breathing to keep steady, cold sweat drenching his body beneath his fine silken cape and military uniform. He gritted his teeth, vowing not to display fear in the presence of a commoner. I’ve survived space battles from Aldebaran to the Pleiades, he stubbornly reminded himself. I’ve defeated fleets of star destroyers. The third heir to the Fiefdom of Saint Larouceax de Nueva Moscovia will not meet his end on some barren, insignificant dust mote of a mining colony at the edge of the galactic provinces. Not while noble blood flows through his veins!

This way, M’Lord,” Kazira said, climbing aboard the skimmer, even now hovering at the edge of the sand ship, stationary on its magnetic repulsion field.

Nicholas pulled his cloak over the rail as he swung aboard the skimmer. “Get us out of here!”

The Deltan native handled the controls expertly, gunning the magna thrusters, the skimmer cutting sharply away from the sand ship and shooting across the rippling sands. His cape rattling in the fierce, hot wind, Nicholas looked back just in time to see what was left of the sand ship crumpling like paper in the sand crawler’s grasp. The titanic animal split the metal hull like shelling a nut. Nicholas looked away in revulsion as the beast’s maws descended into the bowels of the ship, apparently seeking the human prey within.

* * *

The sand was thick as treacle, waves of it like nightmare earth filling the grave of a man still alive and screaming.

Nicholas spat out the sand filling his mouth, only to have it fill again and again. He cursed, wrapping the native shawl Kazira had given him around his head more tightly, to no avail. The sand blasted against his goggles. He looked back the way they’d come…a concept meaningless in a world that was a shifting sea of sand, a hellish pit miles deep. Everything behind them, including the spot where the skimmer had long since given out and collapsed, was indistinguishable from the rest of this damnable landscape. A shifting wash of dust under howling black and gray skies. His throat was parched as he reached for his canteen.

M’Lord, please try to conserve water,” Kazira said, pulling his hood over his face to shield himself against the sand.

I’ll do as I like!” Nicholas shouted, taking a swallow. One brief taste of sweet, soft respite, soon to be replaced, he knew with the stabbing pain of thirst, like a fire that was never quenched. He groaned and clutched a handful of sand, letting it slide through his dried, cracking fingers. This world was his, like so many others. He could buy it a thousand times over. He looked up into the howling skies and gritted his teeth. How was he an insignificant gnat in its grasp? “How did this happen?” he demanded. “How could our course have been so far off? And into a crawler’s feeding territory, no less?”

The grubby little man shrugged. “I don’t know, M’Lord. Magnetic storms play havoc with instruments. Even the most skilled of navigators go astray at times, especially now, when the moons are at their closest this time of year and the storms are at their worst. And, with the offworld mining combines sinking their drill shafts deeper and deeper into Delta, sometimes the crawlers move and breed and hunt along paths Mother Gaia never intended.”

A plague on this hell pit of a world. Save for the one rare gem he’d plucked from its vile depths. “Do you even know where we are?”

Even my compass is useless in this magnetic storm, M’Lord. But this old trader’s nose has never steered him wrong,” the old man said through a smile of rotted gray teeth. “If we stay on this course, straight and true by the twisting of the blue wraiths,” he said, pointing at the shifting, silky blue fiery streaks of static electricity playing across the horizon, “We’ll reach Dorsett Ridge. We can follow it west, to the mining camps at the base of Mount Smythe.”

Nicholas groaned and followed the old sand rat, pulling his pack onto his shoulder with an irritated grumble. That his life should depend on such a one was cruel irony enough. But stranger a fate still was that a gem as rare and beautiful as his wife Estrella could spring from the genes of this frontier jackal. Bartholomew Kazira had sold his daughter with no more emotion than he would a load of ore or a mineral extractor unit. A gentleman’s agreement. Money and mining rights in exchange for a man’s only daughter. Nicholas shook his head. These frontier savages were all alike, he thought with a mixture of pity and disgust. Descendants of long-forgotten human tribes spawned from stragglers and cast-offs left behind during the early galactic explorative periods of centuries past. The Royal Alliance had fought long and hard to bring civilization to these outlying worlds, but it was a losing battle.

He would save Estrella from all that. His heart lifted and danced with the twisting blue fires in the sky as he thought of her. Her eyes like that blue fire. Her hair shining like black silk, flowing in waves like the calm and beautiful sable blackness of the galactic night. Her delicacy and refinement…a treasure he’d thought possible only through generations of breeding. Yet, from the moment he’d seen her, he’d found her more desirable than all the soft heiresses he had to choose from in the rich merchant systems of the core sectors. He owned her now, as he owned Delta. Yet, like Delta…he felt she held him in a deadly trap he couldn’t escape. The marriage license was already notarized, and legally accepted. Soon, it would be recorded even on the base worlds. His allies were stunned, his enemies gleefully anticipating the scandal soon to come, he knew. His uncle the Baron Klaus Du Morgaine, his closest adviser, had counseled him to keep her discreetly out of sight, a convenient concubine while selecting a proper wife from among the gentry. Much to his own amazement, Nicholas had come dangerously close to challenging his uncle to a duel at such a suggestion.

What hold did Estrella have over him? Beautiful she was, but Nicholas had his pick of the most beautiful and cultured concubines in the core sectors. But she held a magic and a uniqueness that had enslaved his soul. The barbaric traditions of her people would not accept the dishonor of anything less than marriage. Tradition compelled her to commit suicide had he not honored the rite of marriage. He could not have lived with that, he knew. What is happening to me? His mind cried out. How many others had he used and cast aside?

That way, M’Lord,” Kazira called through the shrieking winds, pointing at a row of jagged scarps ahead. “The storm’s getting worse. We’ll have to camp here and wait it out.”

* * *

Delta IV’s innermost moon cast a silvery wash over the shifting desert sands, shadows coiling like snakes in the night. Nicholas and Kazira huddled in a cleft of jagged rocks, the sand shrieking over them, carving the stones as they had for eons.

Nicholas shifted in and out of a fitful sleep, nightmare maddeningly indistinguishable from the fluidic patterns of the desert night. Landscapes of hell he’d imagined as a boy came back to him. He pulled his half of the rough, stinking blanket from Kazira, wrapping it around himself and curling into a fetal position, trying to keep out the damned icy cold. “The storm won’t last much longer, M’Lord,” Kazira said. “If we keep heading east along the scarps, we’ll hit Dorsett Ridge by morning.”

Never had the thought of filthy mining camps seemed so sweet. He licked his dry, cracked lips. He dreamt of tomorrow. Soon, he would be back in the luxury of his palaces in the core sectors, Estrella beside him. Her soft, brown skin sweetly perfumed and adorned with jewels and silks. He dreamed of her soft lips, of her sensuous body glistening in the scented baths of Aldebaran…

* * *

Nicholas screamed, white-hot pain like a thousand needles shooting through him as the razor-sharp fangs of the sand slither took a chunk out of his forearm.

He roared in agony as he drew his blaster, firing wildly into the sand, explosions shattering the rocks.

Higher, M’Lord,” Kazira shouted, grabbing Nicholas by his jacket and pulling him across the scarps. “We must get higher, where the slithers can’t reach us!” The jagged rocks cut into his knees as he tried to balance on the crest. The wind-scorched desert night swayed around him, shadows skirting the rocks below like demon wraiths in the moonlight. He fought to stay conscious, the blaster nearly slipping from his fingers.  “Stay awake, M’Lord,” Kazira urged, shaking him. Nicholas winced, grinding his teeth as Kazira bound his wounded arm, the tourniquet cutting in. He used the pain to stay conscious, screaming as he blasted at the slithering shadows, again and again. “Best to save the power cell, M’Lord,” Kazira warned. “And best be rid of this,” he said, pulling off Nicholas’s jacket and cutting away the blood-soaked sleeve of Nicholas’s shirt and tossing it aside. “It’s the blood that draws them, sire.”

The pain settled into a steady throbbing as his head slowly cleared. Pulling his jacket and shawl over himself, he let Kazira lead him higher into the scarps. First, my heart. Now, Delta takes my blood, he thought, wincing at the pain. What had he left? His life. And that he would keep!

* * *

By morning’s faint light, they had reached Dorsett Ridge, as Kazira had promised. But following it west proved harder than anticipated, the sand and the damnable slithers with it rising like a shark-infested sea swallowing the stony hills, until they found themselves cut off, unable to go forward or back.

You said the storm would pass by now!” Nicholas shouted over the shrieking winds.

The worst of it has, M’Lord,” Kazira answered, scanning the landscape with a long-range viewer. “But the mining shafts have caused the whole foundation of this volcanic basin to shift. The sand tide spills in and covers everything, the mountains that once shielded this ridge no longer stable. It’s gotten far worse since this area was last mapped.” He adjusted the viewer, apparently looking over the high stony ridge further east.

Not like this, damn it, Nicholas thought, clenching his eyes tight. Not like this.

We’ll have to risk making a run for it, sire,” Kazira said, pointing at the eastern ridge.

Are you mad?” Nicholas shouted. “We can’t make that distance in sand that deep. The sand’s thick with slithers!”

If we stay here, the sand tide will rise and we’ll have nowhere to run, M’Lord. This is our only hope.” Surveying the shifting terrain, Nicholas grimly admitted to himself that Kazira was right. “Leave your gear. Our best chance is to separate and confuse them, sire. I’ll circle to the left, you to the right. Keep your track parallel with mine, and wind a serpentine course, intersecting with mine every ten strides. You’ll want to push hard, but don’t. Keep a steady pace, but save your strength for the final sprint. All right?” Nicholas nodded. His heart was slamming his chest, his blood coursing hot and swift. Use the fear, he reminded himself, a lesson learned on a hundred battlefields across half the galaxy. “Now, sire!” Kazira shouted as he bound out across the sand towards the eastern ridge. Nicholas shouted the spacer’s cry of battle as he followed.

The sand shrieked around him like an undulating veil of cruelly cutting diamond silk. His breathing was harsh, his throat bitter salt. He was bathed in sweat, tossing layers of protective clothing aside as he ran. The eastern ridge remained infuriatingly, stubbornly distant. If only he could tell how quickly they were closing the distance. But did he want to know? His mind reeled wildly as he glanced left and right, Kazira spiraling around him and all around, the rising and falling ripples in the sand. The slithers.

His vision began to blur. His strength faltered. How much further? The fear was no longer an ally. It dragged at him like an anchor as his body grew numb. He focused his thoughts on Estrella, and felt a new burst of strength rising within. For her, he would survive. To possess her, he would win. He roared in defiance as he drove on. The ridge loomed high, a wall of shadow through the howling sand. Through the obscuring veil of sand and the grime on his goggles he glimpsed something in the distance like a faint beacon of hope. Was he imagining it? A light at the base of the ridge. His heart throbbed. Could it be?

A sand rig, M’Lord,” Kazira shouted breathlessly, jubilation in his voice. “We might make it.”

Nicholas smiled, his heart straining with new hope. He screamed in rage as the dark form of a slither thrust up through the sand in front of him, its many fangs gnashing in its vertical maw like some monstrous centipede. He roared in hatred as he blasted the animal apart, charred bits of it scattering in the wind. More of the devils swarmed, rising from the sand. For each one he incinerated, three more seemed to swarm. His heart throbbed in despair as the red light on his blaster began flashing, its power cell exhausted.

He glanced at Kazira, just in time to see the native slice cleanly through the writhing body of a slither with a soni-blade even as the beast rose to encircle him. The slither’s sundered halves twisted grotesquely on the sand, its dark blood dripping from the blade shimmering like iridescent silver light in Kazira’s hand. It’s the blood that draws them, sire.

Seeing his chance, Nicholas ran straight at Kazira. Before the older man could react, Nicholas clubbed him over the head with the butt of his blaster, knocking him half-senseless. Wresting the soni-blade from Kazira’s hand, he turned in a backhanded slash, slicing cleanly through Kazira’s ribs. Kazira clutched his side, the blood flowing over his hands in rivers, drenching his clothing. The native looked up at Nicholas. Their eyes locked for a split second before Nicholas broke and ran. He resolved he would not look back. As the sound of tearing flesh and muffled screams reached his ears over the howling wind, he reflexively glanced over his shoulder. Just in time to see a cluster of black shapes, like gargantuan cancerous growths coiling around each other in a grotesque mass, a human hand protruding from the intertwining serpentine trunks. A dark stain spread across the sand as the slithers devoured Kazira—and each other, fighting over him.

Nicholas fought off the numbness and ran. Looking only forward now. Forward, forward towards the light, the last of his strength concentrated into one last burst of effort, as…as he must. Dim silhouetted shapes formed from the rippling veils. A large shape. A sand rig, all right. And several dim gray shapes standing around it. Men. A smile spread across his face. He laughed, even as he tasted the salty tang of his own blood, his face cut and bleeding from the sand.

His head swam as he found himself crawling, gasping for breath. Strong hands grabbed him by both arms, pulling him through a hatch. Sweat streamed down his face in torrents as he gulped greedily from a canteen. He licked his lips and gasped, his vision spinning as he studied the rough, bearded faces all around him in the dimly lit interior of the sand rig. Men in battered protective clothing. “Now, who do we have here?” one man asked, pulling off his scarf and goggles, revealing a weather-beaten face and gray, tired eyes.

I…I am Lord Admiral Nicholas Caldane of the Royal Alliance,” he forced out breathlessly, holding up his signet ring. “You…” He took another swallow of water, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “You are commanded to take me to the nearest outpost of civilization. You will be handsomely rewarded, of course,” he amended, noticing a man’s hand reach for the blaster at his belt.

Why, of course, noble sire,” the gray-eyed man said with a crooked smile. “We humble prospectors are proud to serve any gentleman of the great estates, especially a venerated warrior such as yourself. You must be famished after your terrible ordeal, sire. Come…partake of our humble rations.”

Nicholas rose stiffly, his legs wobbling as he stepped forward. He barely felt their hands seize him from behind as a vice-like mechanism clamped around his skull, something like a crown of steel spikes penetrating his brain. An anguished scream caught in his throat as a shock blasted through him. It was at that moment the thought occurred to him. Had that been cruel delight he’d seen in Kazira’s eyes? His final thought…


* * *

Estrella stood at the bay window overlooking the capital city of Aldebaran V. Its buzzing pneumatic transit tubes, gleaming towers and glass domes shone brightly in the setting sun.

She sighed, clutching the gilded medallion her father had left her. The memories of her last few days on Delta IV were still vivid. She had done her best to feign surprise when informed that her husband Nicholas had been found dead in the desert wastes by a prospecting team. The condition of his damaged brain had left no doubt what had happened to him. He’d been killed by a memory extractor. The memories of a wealthy noble, a battle-seasoned military officer at that, would fetch a high price on the offworld black market, they’d told her.

And, sure enough, as the royal executor of her dear husband’s estate had informed her, an anonymous tip received by the authorities from one of the many remote space port towns on Delta IV had led to the recovery of those stolen memories, on positronic storage crystals. The executor had bowed graciously, informing her that the analysis of those recorded memories had left no doubt that her late father had played absolutely no role in her husband’s murder. “In fact, quite to the contrary,” the royal bureaucrat had said quietly, averting his eyes, a strained expression of unease on his lined features.

Estrella stared into the waning sunset, its soft orange light washing across her delicate features. She stroked her hand across her face. A face that was not her own. A face she could barely stand to see in the mirror, for it was only the realization of a man’s fantasy. A lie. She still winced at the memory of those long months of torture. The nano-surgery. The cellular alterations. The neurological realignment. The memory implants. Every line, every contour, every twitch, every false smile…the smallest tonal inflection of her voice. It was all created for his benefit.

She wrinkled her face in disgust, imagining Nicholas reclining in a concubine’s bed chamber on one of the orbiting pleasure stations. His wine drugged, his brain had been scanned without his knowledge, and from his dreams and memories, the psych drones had designed for him a woman to mirror his innermost subconscious desires. A woman the robo-docs had created. From her. A construct. A falsehood. Like her emotional reactions to the executor’s “news.” She’d had to feign grief at the death of a man she had only pretended to love. A man she despised. And she’d had to hold back her tears for her father, a man she’d pretended to hate. As he had pretended to sell her.

She opened the medallion and activated the recording device inside. Her father’s holographic image appeared, shimmering on the air before her. “My dearest Estrella,” he said, his noble face burdened with guilt. “I pray you are now where I wished you to be. Safe, offworld, in wealth and splendor, the estates and holdings of your late husband now yours.” He sighed and shook his head. “How you have suffered, my brave daughter. How much you have sacrificed for your people. I have no words to express my pride in you, or my gratitude. Or my guilt, for all I have done.” His eyes closed, his head bowed. He continued, with visible effort. “I had to make Nicholas Caldane believe I had sold you, to sever all visible connection between you and me, to bury all possible suspicion of collusion. It was not a difficult lie to perpetrate. These offworld royals know so little about us. They think us all savages who sell their own children.” He smacked his lips in distaste. “They are so arrogant in their imagined superiority. For centuries, they have basked in the privileged lives they have enjoyed after stealing the worlds of our ancestors, pillaging and despoiling our lands and leaving us to scavenge for our meagre sustenance, while they grow fat and decadent. Their society has even reverted into backward royalist traditions not lived since the dark ages of man’s half-remembered Terran past.”

He looked so old and tired, this man who had told her stories of their people’s noble past. Who had died for her. She clenched her eyes in pain. “I have so much to repent, my dear child. Those men who died on the sand ship after I reprogrammed the navigation system. But…they were collaborators who have killed so many of our brave freedom fighters in their service to their offworld royal masters. My deepest regret is in abandoning you, my baby girl. If you are hearing this, then the psychological profile constructed on Caldane will have proved correct, and he will have killed me, to save himself. This, too, was necessary, I assure you. The memory recording will prove that I risked my life to save your husband’s, and that he repaid me with betrayal and murder. The scandal that would surely erupt if this information were made public will ensure that Caldane’s family will not contest your inheritance or demand any investigation into the circumstances of your late husband’s death. Your position as heiress to his vast fortune and all the worlds he controlled is secure, Estrella.

I pray, my daughter, that Mother Gaia grants you the wisdom to use your newfound power to the betterment of our people. Remember me, dear Estrella. If I am forgiven, I await you in paradise. If not…hold me in your heart, as I hold you in mine.” The image faded. She collapsed to a silken divan, clutching the medallion to her heart and crying. Remembering her father’s sacrifice and his strength, she collected herself, and stood tall. She forced herself to erase the message, removing the last shred of evidence.

Your sacrifice will not be in vain, father, she thought, looking out at the first twinkling stars in the dark blue blanket of descending night. Stars that were now hers. The long desert crossing is over. My people’s chains are broken. We will leave our filthy hovels and return to the stars. The starlight reflected in one last tear. Her upraised fists clenched.

The sands of Delta will run red with royal blood.

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