The Kelrath, insular to the point of paranoia, content to wait out the Chezbah in their wars. Something beyond a mere threat of a new weapon would have to motivate them to act. I knew just the thing.
“Oslo, I need a Free Trader. I need to do business with the Kelrath” I said.
She looked away from me and down at the ground. “That will not be easy here.” she answered.
“I know, but it’s important.” I said, taking her hand. She flinched slightly.
“I may not be able to get one. Hadolko does not think you help the tribe.” She said.
“Tell him that this will help the tribe. The trader will return with goods.” I said.
“But you won’t return.” She said.
“No, I have work to do. And no, you can’t come with me. I have to do this alone or they’ll kill us both.”
Her eyes wouldn’t lift off the ground. “Why did I save you?” She asked.
“What you did was important. Without you I would be dead and the Chezbah would win.”
“That’s not what I asked.” She buried her face in the tent cloths.
I started to realize what she asked. “You saved me so that you wouldn’t lose me.”
“Now you’re leaving.” she hissed.
I sighed. “Yes.”
She left the tent.
I was able to stand for short periods of time now. For a spine fracture and a femur snapped in two, my recovery was remarkably fast. I didn’t dare leave my tent though. Anything I saw or knew about the camp might give away it’s location to Loc. If there was a stress fracture in the walls of the hex we were in, it’s orientation and size could tip-off the Chezbah to where we were.
Any little bit of information I knew, could jeopardize the tribe. More selfishly, it could lead the Chezbah to me.
After a few hours, someone was outside the tent, scuffing their feet on the ground. This was the Scimrahn way of making their presence known.
“Come.” I said.
Hadolko entered the tent. I rose to greet him but stopped in mid motion. He was missing his right arm.
“Kelec.” He addressed me as if I was a total stranger.
“Hadolko, what happened?” I asked, gesturing to his arm.
He looked down at his shoulder and then back at me with a steely gaze. “I was sloppy. I will not be sloppy again.”
I could see that the trauma he had been through had deeply changed him. He was taller, still a child, going through a growth spurt.
“As Enforcer of this tribe, it is my duty to keep it safe. You are a danger to us as long as you’re here, so I want you gone. If I had the fuel to fly you out on a gunship I would but staying this deep in the dark means I have no resources to spare on you.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” I waved my hands in front of him. “You’re the Enforcer for the Kwi tribe?”
He huffed. “Yes.”
“And Osulo is Matriarch?”
He wouldn’t make eye contact now. “She is.”
“So you and she are. . .” I trailed off.
“Yes Kalec, we are.” he said.
“I see. Well, then, yes I understand. Let’s negotiate. You want me gone, and I need to get gone, we both agree on that. The problem is how much is getting rid of me worth to you. Do you know a free trader that can get an audience with a Rantaa’?”
“I have heard of one.” He looked at me suspiciously “A free trader is only allowed to travel by themselves into Kelrath territory. To bring you with them is a death sentence for both of you.”
“All true, but I plan to wait until the trader is gone before revealing myself.”
“They will thoroughly search the cargo, earther. You’re brain has been baked by the suns.”
“I don’t plan to be in the cargo. I plan to hide in one of their own vehicles.” I said.
“You’re mad earther. What do you know about the Kelrath?”
“You forget, I’m not an earther anymore. I’m Kelec. According to the custom of your people, I have full rights as a Kelec. Refusal to aid me could put a black mark on the Kwi tribe.” I bluffed.
Hadolko stepped back, looking up an around as if checking his memory. “That sanction is only for refusing the basic needs of a scout or minstrel! It does not apply to what you are asking for.”
“Do you want to test that? Do you want it to be known that by not helping me, you helped the Chezbah? You see, I could be dangerous by staying and by leaving. What you want is for me to leave on good terms. Then I might be able to get you enough goods to reestablish the Kwi tribe and take them in whatever direction you like.”
This upset Hadolko, but I knew I had gotten my point across. “You risk too much earther. You don’t know if what you’re trying will help us, and I think that you don’t even know if you will even survive. When I make plans, we cannot be so reckless.”
“You’re right Hadolko, but in this case I have neither the time to thoroughly plan, nor do I have the luxury. A sure plan is predictable, and that means that I will fail in my mission. A risky plan means that others will make choices for me, changing my plan along the way. My path has to be as unclear as I can make it.” I said.
Hadolko furrowed his brow. “You are not like the stories of Kelecs I have heard. They wait, they are patient.”
“I was told that I was different by the Chezbah too. So far I think it’s been a good thing.” I said.
“Then you are determined to follow this dangerous path?” he asked.
“This dangerous Path.” I said. “It has more meaning than you know. I’m trying to head off the path so I can’t be followed. Powerful beings have plans for me and I’m not sure if I’m fighting them or falling into their hands. By letting others decide for me, I know I’m not going to be guided by Loc.”
Hadolko looked thoughtful. “Are you committed to that philosophy?”
“Yes, reluctantly, but it’s my only option.” I said.
“Then gather what supplies you’ll need for a journey.” He said as he left the tent.
I’d like to say that as frustrating as Hadolko can be, he’s really very good at what he does. What he does is find things and remember where they are.
I had almost nothing of my own. Wandering through the dessert meant that I only had some clothing that was nearly rags by now, my pistol and the Chezbah weapon I had picked up. I would need some provisions to travel and something more presentable to wear.
My mind went out to a few choice computers and communication devices that were among the tribe. In a few hours, items started showing up under my tent flaps. Scimrahn clothing really wouldn’t fit my tall frame so I waited for one delivery in particular.
“Knock knock.” Came Corporal Abraham’s voice.
“Come on in.” I answered. “Were you able to get them?”
“There aren’t that many uniforms left among the men. It looks like we’ve all gone native.” He answered. “But! I was able to get ahold of the next best thing.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Scout armor, Looks a lot like a uniform and it’ll give you some protection.” He said laying it out on the floor by me. “It might be a little tight on you, but it should fit.”
I patted him on back. “You did well my friend. Hopefully I won’t need the extra protection, but the way things have gone, I probably will. Take care of yourself, and take care of your girl.”
“You take care of yourself too. Are you sure you don’t need any firepower?” He said, looking concerned for the first time.
“Where I’m going, it would just get me into more trouble.” I answered.
“You always were a bit of a weird dude Onix, maybe that’s what’s gotten you this far, stick with that.” He laughed as he left my tent.
I had asked a lot from the Kwi tribe and they brought me everything I asked for. In particular, two Dark Tiles. Devices from the creation of The Artifact, made as a way of absorbing radiation, they soak up any ambient energies that surround them. The Scimrahn use them as camouflage as they absorb light and sound energy as two or more are brought close to each other. Each one was worth a small fortune.
My main hope was that they would weaken my connection to Loc, but when I brought them together I could still feel the ocean in my mind as strong as ever. It was disappointing to say the least.
There was one more possibility. The tiles house an array of microscopic black holes. They are arranged in a way that alter dimensions of space. When two tiles touch each other, they warp space around them and create a pocket of space, isolated from normal space.
I clapped the tiles together. I was surrounded in blackness and falling. I instinctively pulled the tiles apart. I was back where I was. I felt a little silly. I knew I would feel weightless in the distorted space, experiencing it was still surprising though.
I tried again. Again the feeling of falling, this time I held on. There was nothing. My skin felt the cold of a subzero void and there was nothing to breath. I was ready for that though. I only needed to stay in this null space for a few moments.
It was gone. The ocean was no longer in my mind. My skin might soon get frostbite and I struggled for a breath after only a few seconds. I pulled the tiles apart and it was all back.
I had a way to escape, no matter how brief, it was a way to get away. I didn’t know how to use that yet, but it was something.
In a few hours, someone was outside my tent scuffing their feet. I put on my blindfold, it had to be tight so I could not see anything of the camp as they took me out.
“Enter.” I called.
The flap of the tent rustled and a young girl’s voice spoke. “Father, I’m here to take you away.” Again, ‘Father’ is a honorific term. I was not this girl’s biological father.
“I’m ready” I answered.
She took me by the hand. In doing so, I suddenly realized just how devious Loc could be. Just the touch of her hand told me far more than it should. I instantly knew she was twelve to fourteen years old. I could feel minor calluses on her hands that told me she was one of the tribe’s freighter pilots. I could almost get a sense of how long she had been at the controls of a freighter, about two thousand hours.
None of this meant much, but Loc would be looking for more information that, when combined, could give him useful intelligence on the tribe. The small bit of information I obtained for him might also be useful for demographic purposes in general.
For a moment, I thought of plugging my ears with something so that I could not hear the goings on of the tribe. I quickly realized that the tribe had stopped making any noise that I could hear. Scimrahn were normally very quiet, but I couldn’t pick up a single sound, the air felt heavy, almost thick because of the silence. They were ready for my departure.
My guide walked me through the camp. I could almost imagine the arrangement of the tents by the distance and curves of the path. Again, Loc trying to get information from me.
We climbed aboard a Freighter. I was disappointed. A freighter would be slow and possibly take weeks to get me anywhere. A Delta gunship would only take hours. I knew that this was Hadolko’s way of altering my plan, but I had no idea how much he was still planning to alter it.
On our trip, I stayed in the cargo hold and my driver stayed in the cockpit down below. We never stopped. I’m not sure how the girl managed to pilot round the clock. Maybe in the big open hexes she’d aim for the far wall, take a cat nap and then pilot through the doorway. The freighter had no automation system on board so there was no autopilot. We just never stopped.
The nice thing about being in a Freighter was there were no windows to look out of. I couldn’t be tempted to look out and give away more about my location. I thought I still had a vague idea of where I was going because I could feel the vehicle’s turns and calculate the distance by it’s speed. The girl was good though, she made some turns very gradually and some suddenly so it wasn’t easy to always tell that we were turning.
We had traveled for three weeks when the vehicle stopped. This certainly wasn’t far enough to get me where I needed to go. Kelrath territory shouldn’t be anywhere close. On the positive side, my injuries were completely healed in that time.
The girl tapped on the door of the cargo hold. I put my blindfold on, picked up my sack of supplies and opened the door.
“Father, we’ve arrived. Come down.” She said.
I had a lot of questions but I imagined that Hadolko took precautions and didn’t give her any of the answers. I climbed down. She put a piece of leather in my hand. Although I could be sure before taking off my blindfold, I figured it was most likely a note. Scimrahn don’t have wood or facilities to make paper. Scraps of leather from making the inner layers of their armor worked well when a letter had to be carried.
“Walk in this direction.” She took my hand and turned me in the direction I should go. “In one hour, take off your blindfold and read the letter.”
The hour was to give the Freighter enough time to leave. It seemed most likely I was being stranded in the middle of nowhere.
I couldn’t carry enough provisions to make it back to the tribe even if I did have an accurate path back. I could fight, overpower the girl and force her to take me back. I could resign myself to whatever fate Hadolko had imagined for me. I could take the freighter and try to get somewhere with it’s remaining fuel.
None of those options seemed appealing or effective in furthering my efforts. Fighting against Hadolko’s plan would endanger the Kwi and on the small chance that he wasn’t just trying to get rid of me, would ruin any aid rendered so far.
He has asked me if I was dedicated to the philosophy of letting others make decisions for me. Hadolko had always been a little less than friendly to me but principled that he would do what he could to help his people. Hopefully he saw me as being enough of a annoyance to Loc that he wouldn’t just try and get rid of me.
I would have to trust him. As I started walking and heard the freighter take off and leave in a different direction than we came, I regretted my choice to go along with the plan.
I started counting to three thousand six hundred. I really didn’t need to, the time stamp on the mainframe I was connected to could tell me when an hour was up but I found the ease of counting so high amusing.
My count finished, I was a minute and thirty one seconds early according to the mainframe time stamp, but it was close enough. I took off my blindfold but found myself in pitch black anyway so I rummaged in my supplies to find a small flashlight.
Opening the leather, I found it written in En. Symbolic language that Chezbah have a hard time deciphering. I found it curious that Loc was unable to interpret these messages that the Scimrahn have developed. Earth forces had studied the language and learned to interpret them. If Loc knows what I know, he should now know how to read the symbols, especially Hadolko’s En which I knew very well. I immediately found out why the priests can’t sort them out.
I looked at the symbols and my mind was flooded with interpretations and a hazy static that made it hard to even look at them. I couldn’t read it no matter how hard I tried. Even reciting some basic rules of En interpretation didn’t help reduce the variables that screamed in my head.
Was there some flaw in Loc’s programming that made him unable to do something that a regular human brain could manage? Did this mean I would never be able to read the En again? Was this just Hadolko’s way of kicking me after stranding me in the darkness?
There was one possibility. The dark tiles. If I could use them to cut off Loc’s input, I might be able to read the message on my own. Was Hadolko really that clever to anticipate that I could use the tiles to read his message? If he was, the Kwi tribe is in very good hands.
Taking them from my pack, I got ready to put the tiles together and read the message. Once again, I felt the feeling of falling, the cold and the vacuum around me. I studied the symbols and started making progress.
There was something about death, the Kelrath, a safe house? I needed to take the tiles apart and get a breath. I made the mistake of looking at the symbols and Loc’s input scrambled my thoughts on them. I almost had to start all over again. I’d be more careful next time.
It took several attempts to interpret the message but it got more and more intriguing as I studied it. It pointed to a tomb of kings, a Kelrath Rantaa’ crypt. A storehouse for hidden treasures. More than that, a mention of the Tanroc Fredar. Takoog’s people may be here. The link was unclear but it seemed that Hadolko suspected that I could find one here.
I felt much better. Hadolko was helping me and in a way that was better than my original plan. The Kelrath look to the Tanroc Fredar as the founders of their culture. If I could just talk to one of them I’d have a chance to get the help of a Rantaa’.
I continued walking for a day in the direction on the map. I started to wonder if I had read the heading wrong. Then I started to feel them. Complex computers moving to encircle me. They were Kerdi, ancient autonomous robots that the Kelrath use. Physically I was no match for a single one of them. Thankfully I would not have to engage them physically.
In a matter of a minute I had breached their security protocols and made a virus that rewrote their control structures making me their master.
I could read their somewhat limited memory but as more and more of them fell under the influence of my virus, I could see the full extent of the tomb. The structure took up an entire hex, ten kilometers across. It was highly fortified, with the Kerdi’s protection, it could hold off an army. Unfortunately the Kerdi were going to let me right in.
There were dozens and dozens of booby traps, all very deadly, that they would lead me past.
There were stockpiles of jewels and artwork. Caches of weapons for a Rantaa’ to draw on if needed. The Kerdi could lead me right to them. That wasn’t what I was looking for though.
The design of the tomb was still ingenious. There was a blank spot in what I could see. It was relatively small, only a few hundred meters across. Even the Kerdi didn’t know what was in it. If there was anything in this tomb that I wanted, it would be there.
Even with the help of the Kerdi, through immense doors and around huge ornately carved walls, it took me nearly another day to wind my way around deadly safeguards hidden in the floor and walls and get to the inner sanctum of the tomb.
There was no noticeable entrance. Thankfully the Kerdi are equipped with very sensitive audio detection equipment. All the time I was approaching I had the Kerdi studying the walls as closely as they could and found one spot that they heard sounds from inside. They could not find the door on their own though.
The designers of the sanctum were exceedingly clever. When I arrived at the outer wall I found that they had employed a carving pattern that exploited the same bug that made reading En impossible. The carving’s weren’t even a message like the En, the patterns just did something to Loc’s visual interpretation software that made them very hard to look at.
I tried several times to feel my way around. I still could not find any way to access what I assumed to be a door. I could look through the Kerdi’s eyes, but their vision is based on an inferometry system that I didn’t have time to decode. Individual inputs from their eyes were too low quality to pick out details.
I could have the Kerdi try and blast their way through the door but I don’t think I’d endear myself to the occupants if I had done that.
The only thing left for me to do was knock and see who would answer.
I pounded on the door. “I am Onix Concade, friend of Takoog. I seek an audience.”
At first there was no reply. I didn’t expect there to be one really. When the wall opened up to reveal passage way covered in a chalky white material and a Kelrath man standing in the opening, it startled me.
“I have heard your request Onix Concade. I am Djah master librarian here. Your name has been sung by Takoog and is known to us.” He said.
I hadn’t expected that to actually work. I didn’t even prepare what I was going to say if someone opened the door. I looked around nervously for a moment.
“I have information that will be important to the Kelrath. I will give you this information in return for transportation to a place of my choosing.” I said.
He laughed “No, do not give it to me. Give it to my master. I warn you though, the moment you step into this temple, you will be at my master’s mercy. If you oppose him in any way and you will die.” He beckoned me to enter.
Looking at the walls and floor, they seemed to be covered in white spoor, a destructive microbe that eats anything it spreads to. Just touching it would lead to my death in a matter of weeks.
“You’ve noticed the spoor.” He commented “This spoor is tame. It will infect you but my master can control it. If you honor him, you do not need to fear.”
The point seemed non-negotiable. I couldn’t gain an audience without entering but by entering, I was putting myself at a severe bargaining disadvantage.