Authors: Eric Brown
Tags: #Space Opera, #Science Fiction
Also by Eric Brown
The Serene Invasion
Murder by the Book
The Devil’s Nebula
The Kings of Eternity
Guardians of the Phoenix
New York Dreams
New York Blues
New York Nights
Gilbert and Edgar on Mars
The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne
A Writer’s Life
The Angels of Life and Death
The Fall of Tartarus
(with Keith Brooke)
The Time-Lapsed Man
An Abaddon Books™ Publication
First published in 2013 by Abaddon Books™, Rebellion Intellectual Property Limited, Riverside House, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK.
Editor-in Chief: Jonathan Oliver
Commissioning Editor: David Moore
Cover Art: Adam Tredowski
Design: Simon Parr & Sam Gretton
Marketing and PR: Michael Molcher
Publishing Manager: Ben Smith
Creative Director and CEO: Jason Kingsley
Chief Technical Officer: Chris Kingsley
Weird Space™ created by Eric Brown
Copyright © 2013 Rebellion. All rights reserved.
Abaddon Books and Abaddon Books logo are trademarks owned or used exclusively by Rebellion Intellectual Property Limited. The trademarks have been registered or protection sought in all member states of the European Union and other countries around the world. All right reserved.
ISBN (epub): 978-1-84997-634-3
ISBN (mobi): 978-1-84997-635-0
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
To Nick Throup and Kate Ryan.
never before visited the world of Ajanta in the star cluster known as Satan’s Reach – he’d heard so many horror stories that he’d decided to keep well away – but a commission to deliver a steamboat engine had proved too lucrative to turn down. He just hoped he wouldn’t regret his decision.
He instructed his ship, the
, to phase from void-space and sat before the viewscreen as the grey swirl of the void was replaced by a resplendent starscape. At its centre rolled the jade-banded planet of Ajanta attended by its seven moons. ‘By the Seven Moons of Ajanta’ was a well-known space shanty. It told of how the colony ship
crash-landed on the planet five centuries earlier, and how the colonists survived inimical conditions in the equatorial jungles only to fall victim to the planet’s inhabitants. Now the two races lived alongside each other in macabre symbiosis.
Harper lay back in his sling and said, “The last verse again.”
A soothing female voice sang, “
It’s a harsh life ’neath the seven moons, in thrall to Ajantans and dhoor alike. / Visitors beware of their basilisk stare and the threat of the dhoorish spike...
The ‘basilisk stare’ referred to the gaze of the reptilian aliens, the Ajantans, who resembled tree frogs the size of ten year-old children. A ‘dhoorish spike’ was the drug to which the human population was addicted.
Harper had once met a star captain in a bar on Murchison’s Landfall, with a terrifying tale to tell of a close shave on Ajanta. He’d come to trade machine parts for Ajantan fruits which were a delicacy across the Reach. “But a double-dealing merchant spiked my mash and that was me, bound for a tree-frog brothel.”
“What saved you?”
“Only the fast thinking of my engineer. He slit the throat of the merchant and dragged me from the bar.” The captain had shaken his head with retrospective dread. “If not for his actions I’d’ve been meat, and then dead meat, in an alien orgy.”
“Dead meat...?” Harper echoed.
“The Ajantans take their pleasure with you when you’re living, and then when you succumb to the poisons in their... secretions, let’s say... you go into painful paralysis. This lasts a week, during which you still suffer the indignity of the aliens’ lust. Then, mercifully, you expire. But, you see, there’s a preservative in the Ajantan’s jism that keeps you fresh for a month while they continue to take their pleasure. After that... well, the heat and humidity of the hell-hole has its way, and the Ajantans feed you to the bellyfish.”
Harper had finished his drink and thanked the captain. “In which case I’ll heed your words and steer well clear, sir.”
Yet here he was, a year later, commanding his ship to spiraldown to the planet’s only spaceport. It would be a quick transaction, he told himself – deliver the engine to the spaceport warehouse, fill in the requisite chits, receive his fee and take off. Six hours at most – and he’d never even leave the ’port.
And he’d be eight thousand units the richer, his average wage for six months. He’d reward his enterprise with a few weeks off, maybe even visit the sequestered atolls of Amahla.
He enjoyed the view as Ajanta swelled in the screen. It was a magnificent sight, with its ripped chiffon cloud cover ranging through varied shades of green. He tried not to dwell on the depravity concealed by the clouds and the plight of the human colonists enslaved by the Ajantans.
“Have you found images of the aliens yet?” he asked.
replied, “The Ajantans proscribe the taking of images of themselves, Den. It is, they say, against their religion.”
“Well, they hold certain primitive beliefs. They worships an apocryphal giant bellyfish – the Destroyer of Everything, they call it, which will consume their world and the entire universe at the end of time.”
“And their morality, or lack of?”
“They are solipsistic. According to their beliefs, all living beings in the universe were created their inferior. Therefore, they can do as they wish with those they meet. If they dwelled within the jurisdiction of the Expansion, then the human authorities would decree their world out of bounds. But as they’re in the core of Satan’s Reach...”
The Expansion had no authority here, which made the Reach a haven for all manner of reprobates, ne’er-do-wells and free thinkers – and Den Harper himself, for that matter.
“But to answer your original question. I have managed to locate a single low quality 3D of an Ajantan. Here it is.”
Harper leaned forward as the bottom quadrant of the screen showed a squat, bulbous creature with spindly limbs. He had expected the aliens to facially resemble terrestrial frogs or toads, but their faces were flattened and fish-like at the same time, with great glaucous eyes and mouths revealing two rows of spiked teeth.
“I’ve seen enough.”
The image vanished. “The chances are,”
said, “that you won’t come across the natives. They do not frequent the ’port, but stay hidden in their underground jungle lairs.”
“But they’re a space-faring race?”
“Correct. They have inhabited three of their moons, and centuries ago made hostile forays on the neighbouring world of Pharray, where they subjugated the inhabitants and plundered the planet’s minimal riches. They withdrew after a couple of decades, leaving a dead world behind them, and haven’t ventured forth since.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Harper said. “Very well, I think a little music while we descend, and if you would care to sing...”
“An aria from Grenville’s Fourth, perhaps?”
He leaned back in his sling and closed his eyes. “And if I fall asleep, wake me when we land.”
The music swelled around him, followed by the singer’s sweet contralto.
He drifted off. He had only vague memories of his mother, singing in the house where they lived on the world of Denby. She had sold him to the Expansion shortly after he’d tested psi-positive at the age of four. Sixteen years later, when he’d graduated from college as a certified Grade I telepath, he’d taken the leave due to him and gone in search of his mother. He harboured little resentment towards her for selling him into what was effectively a life of servitude to the state – she’d no doubt had her pressing reasons, but he’d wanted to know those reasons.
He’d returned to Denby to find that she’d moved on. Following rumours and scant leads, he’d traced her last known whereabouts to the world of Ixxeria. For a month he trawled the records of the planet’s major city and discovered that she’d worked as a singer in a bar in the sea port of Nova Cadiz. He’d found the bar and sat nervously in the shadows as three singers entertained the drinkers one by one. He’d left his ferronnière – the device that would amplify his tele-ability – back at the hotel, not wanting to intrude upon his mother’s mind... if he should have the good fortune to find her. He would reserve the right to read her later, if she proved unforthcoming with her reasons for giving him up.
He reckoned she’d be in her fifties now, but the singers were all in their twenties. Later, drunk and downhearted, he’d approached one of the singers, introduced himself and asked her if she knew the whereabouts of one Salina Sanchez.
The look in the woman’s eyes prepared him for disappointment – but not for the tragic tale that ensued. Salina, she reported, had passed away just one month earlier, beaten to death by a drunken punter.
Harper had kept his emotions in check – something he’d been well taught to do during his telepath’s training – and did not enquire too closely about his mother’s last profession. The reference to a ‘punter’ was ominous, and he preferred to think of his mother as a singer, an entertainer.
He’d asked the singer about his mother, and perhaps out of kindness the singer had painted a glowing picture of a kind-hearted soul, the life of the party, who would help anyone in times of trouble. She added, with a smile, that she had never forgotten about the son she’d sold to the Expansion.
“And she had other children?” Harper asked, thinking of possible brothers and sisters...
She shook her head. “You were her only child.” And he had been unable to work out whether he should be thankful for that, or not.
She had excused herself, slipped through a door behind the stage, and emerged a minute later bearing a data-pin. She passed him the pin and said, “You might like this. A few years ago we recorded a jazz duo. Your mother is the contralto...”
“Do you have any pix?”
“I’m sorry, no. Only her voice...”
Harper had listened to the three songs on the pin, over and over, the pin becoming his most treasured possession. Five years ago, at the age of twenty-five, Harper absconded from his duties as a Grade I telepath. He would have fled anyway: the work had become too much, the pressure mentally crushing – privy to the private thoughts, the psychoses and neuroses, of criminals and psychopaths day after day – but then he’d been pushed into fleeing by an incident that still pained him, and which proved the barbarity of the ruling regime.