Total absence of light… as always. Before him, the steady drip… drip… drip of water into the upper pool gave him something to focus on. As it had for generations of his kin before him. The first to come here had been a grandmother so great, one must tick them off on their fingers. He had no need to do so. The names, both female and male, rested in memory.
This recalling, speaking each name from the first to his tenure, grounded him, a thing he needed desperately. Change coming woke something in him, a quivering in his soul which warned them all. A bird in a gilded cage, he sensed that which could harm them and sought it out.
For this purpose, he sat cross-legged on the cool rocks which ringed the lower pool. A natural cube of metal warned one palm; a crystal chilled the other. Extending his open right hand, he held the crystal with two fingers and balanced its point on the top of the cube.
The resulting light always caused him to jerk. No matter that he knew what must come, it startled him each time. His eyes went straight to the still pool of water before him. The first image on the dark surface was no surprise—a ship bearing the markings of the Mercenary’s Union. The next image, a woman in command of the ship, froze him in place.
His fingers trembled. Tightening his hold so he wouldn’t drop the precious crystal into the bottomless pool, his breath whistled out of him. Why hadn’t he taken a consort? The answer to the question had eluded him for years. A face as light as he was dark stared at him from the placid surface and gave the answer. He waited for her.
Change was coming for them. She would bring it, along with much strife and trouble. It would be his task to win her. To add her genes to the bloodline. Better yet, if he succeeded, all the fierce pride he saw in her face would be his. A worthy quest for the king of the Distani.
The vision vanished. The light died when he separated the crystal and its energizer, the cube. Left in complete darkness again, he still sat in the same place. The steady drip of water seemed louder as he tried to calm his mind and chart a course to save Nizad and his kin. She would see through subterfuge. What he planned must have a kernel of truth to it.
Soon, the light of day would come to the crags above. It would cascade down to the foothills and the guards he left below would wake and wonder when he would return. There were advisors he must take his vision to. There would be days of discussion—a given. He didn’t need it.
The commander of the vessel would make her own rules when she and the warriors on the ship arrived. He could see no way to defeat them. The Union would call in reinforcements if attacked. They didn’t know this planet had a resident life form. No one in the sector did. His distant ancestors had made sure of it.
They had taken over the planet ages past and the colonists agreed to hide. The world they chose could supply all their needs. No reason existed to broadcast the seizure of a prime planet.
Standing in the mouth of the cavern, he watched the morning light creep down from the peaks to where he stood. Three quarters to the top of the mountain, he stood above the extensive forest which went far past the horizon.
On arriving at this planet, the elders named this continent Sdacen Land, the forest near the river. Either side of the mountain range which roughly divided the mass in half, thick forest covered the slopes below the tree line.
Nestled near the base of the ancient cliff which continued several hundred feet into the sky before forming a rocky pinnacle above him, the cave mouth lay hidden. A ledge held a large boulder the elders had moved into place to shield the entrance long years before.
The climb to the ledge would never be easy. One queen had lost her footing and tumbled to her death. All queens and kings from that time forward made sure to keep fighting trim. Not that the people fought, arguments were frowned on. Talking the matter out was the expected way. Expectations for others meant long hours of discussion for him. Cajoling, pleading, explaining and perhaps begging would be his lot for the next few days once off the mountain.
He waited until the light touched the ledge. The trek down to the camp at the edge of the tree line would be made with the morning star bright behind him. No one would see him until he quit the trail.
When he reached the camp, he must begin the transition from Tsela, Stars-Lying-Down, to the youth name of Sosyan. When they reached Aiyana, the woman and her warriors need not know who to hold hostage if that was their aim.
He glimpsed several paths this first meeting might take. One possible future had him working in the mine on Metal Island. Someone wanted what lay in the mountains on the island. What they would do to get it was the question he hadn’t seen an answer to. He would know soon. She wasn’t far away.
Everything depended on her.
Commander Eirson nodded to her second as they dropped into the sector exactly where she wanted to land.
DeLus sighed internally. He had been training a new recruit and prayed the girl would get it right. Eirson’s high-cheeked face turned his way and the brief lift of the corner of her mouth indicated exceptional pleasure at the achievement. The commander, known by the nickname Silver Dagger in certain circles, hadn’t wanted to take on the young Selvian.
DeLus had practically gone down on his knees. He had faith in the girl. Selvians had a difficult time. Female when young, as soon as their fecund years passed, they reverted to males. Males which could turn testy without a female to mate.
Idelta was young and had many more years ahead of her before that happened. In the meanwhile, she had a talent which could be of great use. She could slip into seduction in a nanosecond and out again as fast. He saw no reason to not put her talents to use if necessary.
He met Sesh Idelta in a bar. Cursing bitterly over having made it through Mercenary Union basic near the head of her class, once graduated, no one would take a chance on her. When he learned why—she was a Selvian—he took contact information and went to work on his commander.
Now they sat exactly where and when the commander demanded. Yes, their AI would never let them get too far off, but some manual skills should be polished in case. DeLus did a little I told you so jig in his head, something he would never allow to happen out loud. Silver Eirson would gut him and wrap the remains around something on the outside of the ship then allow him to rot away.
When they did well, they celebrated; the commander saw to it. When they fucked up, punishment came swift and sure. No one ever forgot who commanded the Poignard. If a member of the crew got on the bad side of the Silver Dagger, they learned how the woman got her nickname.
“We’re near our destination. All crew is to assemble in the mess hall for duty assignment with the exception of Idelta. She may take a short rest.” Clear and sharp like the antique blade she carried, Commander Eirson’s first words brought all to attention. The instant she stopped speaking, everyone hopped to, including DeLus.
“Top speed to the target Commander?”
The instant she nodded, the Poignard made it happen. It should be an in-and-out affair. The contract called for a small mining job. They were to locate the vein of metal on the planet, take a sample, and do a rough assay. The results were to be conveyed to the client as soon as they had something.
With no life forms on the planet, nothing to pay special attention to, a couple of SUN days should have them in and out with the money deposited. DeLus kept his eyes on the target while the commander took care of the men in the mess hall.
Suddenly he noticed something. There were clearings on the land masses.
“Why the hell are there clearings?” He commanded the Poignard to expand the view for a closer look. “Fuck!”
The ship’s second, Mannel deLus activated the commander’s private channel. “Commander, we’ve got problems.”
“Such as?” Her cool tones rippled through the implants into his mind. He’d always been a little in love with the blonde beauty who fought like a demon from the seventh hell, but it would never come to anything. He’d done well for himself because he chose to be realistic. The Selvian he cohabed with met his every need.
“Clearings on planet SW-858. And they have houses in the middle of each one. The planet has life on it.”
“Fuck that researcher. May he end his life in a bottom-feeding bar covered in lice! Let me disburse the men. I’ll be right there.”