Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Fist Chapter of ALARIK, Book 4 of Taxyon Space

Two people fleeing their planets discover a shared destiny.
When an alien spacecraft crashes on Mars, the repercussions sweep throughout the solar system and endanger the fragile new alliance with the Warrish mermen.  
Alarik Kenton Tallis, Eldest of three brothers, was forced to infiltrate human society on Earth as a spy to insure his injured brother receives proper medical care. But when his transmissions are detected, he must flee the planet.
On Mars, Phoebe Wong, a veterinary scientist with dubious family connections, is desperate to escape the underworld gangs terrorizing the domed city. She jumps at the chance to join the colonists bound for a distant exoplanet.
Their paths converge on a space ferry bound for the outer planets. Troubles arising from the mysterious spacecraft pursue them to Jupiter. Will their flight end on Europa, the hyperspace gateway to the stars protected by three diverse species?

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Excerpt from Chapter 1

“An alien craft was discovered on Mars earlier today.”
Alerted by the chirpy voice of the announcer, Alarik Kenton Tallis sat up and stared at the image on the news feed. Tracks in reddish brown sand led to a squat six-sided cylinder. Great holes in its pitted surface were outlined in lurid orange stains.
The reporter, a young woman with a bouffant of purple hair, embarked on an explanation, “Metal-eating microbes have eroded the ship’s hull and interior. The Martian microbes were originally engineered to oxygenate the atmosphere. Their mutant descendants have become a well-known hazard for colonists.”
The camera lowered through an irregular gap and the view switched to the interior. Yellow blotches of microbes obscured the details of inner surfaces. Under the lumpy coating, Alarik distinguished the edges of hexagonal control panels set in the stippled metal walls.
She continued in a more subdued tone, “The spacecraft was discovered by a rescue team from Mars 4. The notorious microbes had destroyed much of the hull, and the mangled remains of a crab-like creature were found inside.” 
The occupant, presumably the ship’s pilot, sprawled on the floor. Four eyestalks drooped on top of a purple carapace and the clawed tips of three jointed limbs poked from under its shell. A trail of orange ran from a clump on the floor to the shell. The microbes also ingested metals and other nutrients from living creatures.
“Eekrepisth,” Alarik breathed. What was the semi-aquatic sentient doing on Mars? Did it intend to land on the arid planet or had its ship crashed in a dust storm? In either case, his duty was clear. He must notify the Triarchs. The Watchers would receive the news once the radio signals reached Europa, but he and his brother were likely the first Warrish to hear the announcement from Mars. He and Baswin had infiltrated Earth society as covert agents. The rest of his people, a handful of legitimate envoys, would be asleep in their embassy and submarine base on the opposite hemisphere.
The purple-haired woman said, “After applying the antimicrobial spray, the local emergency force closed off the site for evaluation.” The screen reverted to an exterior view of a fountain of liquid streaming onto the spacecraft. In seconds, a bubbly white foam covered its surface. 
Recovering her buoyant manner, the reporter concluded the short announcement, “The Solar Security Agency is investigating the incident. We are working with their spokesmen and will deliver details as soon as they are released to the press.”
Alarik walked around the small room while he considered the problem. The treaty with Earth’s major governments had permitted limited access to Warrish technology, although it had not stipulated how to manage interactions with other aliens and their technology. Eekrepisth were a notoriously volatile species, unpredictable and easily upset. If the dead Eekrepisth and its ship were not handled correctly, the Earthers risked inciting a nasty interstellar complaint and possible prohibition.
Fortunately, he was in the right place to send a quantum transmission to Triarch Webale, the leader responsible for negotiating the alliance with Earth. In his role as Rick Kent, the wealthy owner of an asteroid comprised of rare metals, he was rarely alone and his rooms were bugged. He ignored the monitors, apart from blocking the one in his washroom. But yesterday, he had escaped his money-hungry fans for one of his periodic visits to the room leased to his low status alias, Al Davis. The grimy apartment blocks were home to poorer families and hid a variety of illicit activities. He maintained this place for the rare occasions when he wanted to meet his brother or needed to send a message to the Red Tridents. Or when he sought a little privacy.
Placing three fingers in the correct sequence on his wrist com, a standard Earther issue device with special modifications, he activated the hidden qtel. Quantum transmissions were virtually instantaneous and almost undetectable.
He whispered a short message in his native language to inform the Triarch about the crashed Eekrepisth ship. At the end, he added, “Will await your instructions.”
Lying down on the lumpy mattress, he shut his eyes and relaxed. Somebody would reply soon. There might be a delay if Webale were busy or asleep. He didn’t know where his transmissions ranked relative to the Red Tridents’ other interstellar affairs.
Less than a sixth of an Earth hour elapsed before the reply came. A short pulse from his qtel preceded a shimmer in the air at the foot of the bed. The hazy column resolved into the blurry figure of Triarch Webale, his contact in the Warrish base on Europa. The red trident under his left eye made a vivid contrast to his pale wrinkled face and white hair. His flowing white robes, the traditional garment of the Triarchs, seemed quaint and outmoded. Alarik’s unconscious mind must have adapted to modern customs on Earth.
Jumping off the bed, Alarik dropped onto one knee on the cold floor in the formal protocol. He bowed his head and intoned the correct greeting, “Noble Triarch, I am honored by your presence.”  
Webale said, “You may stand, Overagent Tallis.”
As Alarik obeyed, the Triarch continued, “Your message was the first to note this spacecraft. Do you have any further information before I contact the Earther authorities?” 
“The ship’s hull was badly holed and I doubt the Eekrepisth had lived for long.”  
“Did the ship crash close to an inhabited region of their red planet?”
“It landed in the desert within reach of the city of Mars-4. By ill luck, the oxygenating microorganisms had attacked the ship and destroyed large portions of the exterior and interior walls. They had also partially consumed the pilot.”
“If I recall correctly,” Webale said, “the original microbes were engineered to extract oxygen from the Martian sands. The concept succeeded in increasing the levels of oxygen, despite the problems when the microbes mutated to consume metals.”
“Urish. The city domes are surrounded by a band of plasticized cement as a barrier against the mutant microbes.”
“Did the ship have other occupants?”
“Only a single Eekrepisth was visible in the image. No others were mentioned in the brief news report. I suspect the authorities have suppressed other details.”
“We have no agents stationed on Mars. You are the operative with easiest access to the dry planet. Our staff at the embassy must request official permission to travel to their Martian colony. Can you concoct a plausible reason for a visit to learn what the authorities have done with the Eekrepisth and its ship?”       
After a moment’s thought, an idea crystallized in Alarik’s mind. “Triarch, I believe I can. My alias, Rick Kent, could propose to visit the source of his wealth, the fake asteroid. In truth, the Chief Engineer of Taxyon Space, Vasily Kopsaky, has been urging me to donate a supply of rare metals for the new colony on Zeta Three. I could stop in Mars to assess the current state of the colonization efforts. My inquiries about the alien vessel would be consistent with an interest in potential new customers.”
 “Your suggestion has merit. We also have a stake in this colony. The Earthers require our tripilots to navigate safely in hyperspace. You have permission to proceed with this plan. In the meantime, the Eekrepisth incident will be handled by our embassy staff on Earth.” 
Satisfied to leave such a delicate matter to the diplomats, Alarik gave the formal response, “I hear and obey.”
“May you dive into calm seas, Overagent Tallis.” With this blessing, the Triarch vanished as swiftly as he had appeared. 
Now Alarik was free to resume his normal activities. He heated water for a mug of coffee, an Earth drink he had learned to enjoy. Choosing a nutrient bar from the handful in the cabinet, he settled down to a simple meal. He had better keep up the appearance of living in this rented room. After dark, he would slip back to the inner city and organize his journey to Mars.  
After an hour of lounging in the small room and formulating an announcement of his trip, he grew bored with inaction and paced up and down the narrow space between his bed and the kitchen counter. As he passed the window, a motion behind the blinds caught his attention. He paused to peer between the slats. A small brown bird fluttered its wings and chirped. The sparrow, a frequent visitor, came for the seeds he scattered on the sill. Alarik was fascinated by the winged creature, especially since his home planet had no native flying animals. It cocked its little head, staring at him out of round black eyes. Amused by the cheeky bird’s persistence, he pulled the bag of seed from the shelf and raised the sash to sprinkle a few grains on the sill.
The sparrow hopped away from his hand. Its black eyes glinted, eager for the food, yet wary.
He shut the sash gently, and watched as the sparrow pounced on his offering. The seeds quickly vanished.
A prick of caution impelled him to look down.
A man dressed in casual clothes was loitering at the side of the building. He didn’t resemble any of the neighbors. The stir of caution intensified into suspicion. Had someone detected the energy perturbation produced by the virtual projection of Triarch Webale? 
Hidden behind the blinds, Alarik focused his scope on the face of the man at the corner of the building. Luckily, the man’s mouth was visible. The special translator converted the movements of his lips into words, “Alien signals originated in this block. Above ground level. Maybe third to fifth floors.”
From his room on the fourth floor, Alarik grimaced and swore under his breath. He had to escape and warn his triad brother. Once their covert presence was detected, Earth was no longer safe.
The man standing below paused, evidently listening to instructions. He whispered, “Yeah. Wait for reinforcements. Got it.”
Anxious to leave before the Earthers arrived to investigate, Alarik clipped his toolkit on his belt and stuffed his belongings into a small pack. He looked around the dingy room. He wore gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, but he couldn’t remove all traces of his presence. DNA extracted from strands of hair and flakes of skin could be analyzed to reveal his alien identity.
The front door and fire escape staircase would be watched, but they might not think of the roof. He had chosen this apartment in a dowdy suburban district precisely because of its convenient escape routes. Entering the tiny washroom, he raised the window and leaned over to check for observers. Seeing nobody, he fired a hooked line at the edge of the roof, four stories above him. On his second attempt, the clawed end caught on the projection he had aimed for. He gave a tug to test its strength. Satisfied the line would hold his weight, he clipped the line to his belt and wriggled onto the windowsill. Balanced awkwardly on the narrow ledge, he managed to shut the window. His pursuers might not notice at first, giving him enough time to escape into the city.
After another scan of the vicinity, he rappelled up and scrambled onto the flat roof. He unhooked the line, which rewound silently into its tube. Crouching to avoid being spotted from below, he ran along the length of the building and leaped across to the adjacent block of apartments. The enemy might have pinpointed his room and the fake identity he had used to rent the place was forfeit, but they did not know his real identity. His other alias of Rick Kent, the wealthy Belter, was secure for the moment. Kent’s credit was still good and he could take advantage of the upscale apartment he owned in the city. 
Five minutes later, he reached the third of the eight-story blocks of apartments. He glanced to the west. The sun had descended below the tops of the distant skyscrapers in the center of the city. He disliked many aspects of this planet, yet the sunsets were glorious. An orange band like a streak of flame stretched across the horizon. The brightness would soon dim, giving him the advantage of dusk.
A hovercar zoomed into sight, heading toward the building he had abandoned. Guessing it carried the reinforcements, Alarik slipped into the shadow of the cooler stack and leaned, motionless, against the steel surface. The drone of the hovercar grew louder, then faded as it coasted to the ground on the far side of the buildings.
He shrugged the pack into a more comfortable position on his back. Hooking his line on a steel rod, he gripped the rope, edged over the eaves, and descended seven meters onto the upper level of the fire escape. By luck, nobody was in the room opening onto the staircase. He descended swiftly. Most of the rooms he passed on the stairs were also empty. One or two had occupants, engrossed in the triD entertainment and oblivious to his quiet descent.
At the bottom of the stairs, he hurried past the dumpsters to reach the public streets. Soon he had traveled a kilometer away from his abandoned room into a commercial area. He halted outside a small cafĂ© and pulled out his com. Instead of activating the Warrish transmission, he made a regular call. His younger brother, Baswin, had a similar multifunctional com.  
“Al?” Baswin’s hesitant reply suggested wariness.
He spoke in the standard Earther lingo, “Bas, can we meet? It’s important.”
“The usual place?”
“Second street.” He gave their code name for one of their prearranged locations for meeting safely.
“How soon?”
Estimating he would need tomorrow morning at a minimum to arrange his trip to Mars, Alarik said, “In five sixth of a cycle.” In standard Warrish usage, a cycle was one planetary day.   
“Okay.” Bas ended the call.
Checking he was free of pursuers, Alarik walked to the nearest subway station. He hunched his shoulders and slowed his pace to meld with the other pedestrians on the sidewalk, while he mulled over his conversation with the Triarch. In retrospect, he ought to have advised Webale about the risk of using his virtual projection. However, any warning might have been ignored. Triarchs were often reluctant to accept suggestions from their underlings.
He rubbed the knuckles of his fingers. The absent sixth digit itched as often happened when he came under stress. Desperate to save their youngest brother, he and Baswin had submitted to voluntary amputation for this covert mission. The lenses concealing the unearthly color of his irises and the skin patch over his triad tattoo could be removed. Alas, the mutilation of his hands was irreversible.  
Descending into the gloomy subway, he kept his hand on his knife. Once he reached the inner city, he would shed these garments and don a sleek business suit to resume his alias of Rick Kent, wealthy Belter.