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[In the year of Elnyin 6080.]
“I wish I could have a real adventure instead of just reading about it. My life is so boring,” complained the sixteen-year-old Carl, shutting his book, Strikemaster In The House Of Doom, an adventure of spine-tingling action and intricately spun mysteries that fascinated him.
Wearing the formal blue and white uniform of the prestigious Reman Academy, Carl relaxed in a cushioned chair pulled up to a glass-topped, chrome-framed conference table. A glass of ruby-coloured Rago juice sat chilling beside him, its many circular imprints scaring the transparent tabletop. Savouring each tart sip, he leaned back in this chair and let his warm hazelnut eyes wander around the room.
The rectangular room had a solemn aura of authority and majesty; it was as if decisions that changed the destiny of planets were made there. Intricate drapes in regal scarlet, white and royal purple hung grandly against the walls, punctuated by portraits of the revered Emperor and other dignitaries. To the left, a bar counter welcomed guests with various non-alcoholic refreshments. Five plush chairs flanked Carl around the conference table, each with a computer screen below the glass top. Painted on the ceiling was the symbol of the El Empire - two gigantic hands holding a galaxy. Despite its relatively small size, no one would guess this was the central room on a spaceship.
“Pardon?” A masculine voice behind him interrupted his thoughts.
Swivelling his chair, Carl faced the skinny man who had just entered the room. The thirty-something man was wearing the uniform of the Security Elite - a scarlet shirt with a gold stripe on the sleeve and neatly pressed black pants. Carl’s gaze briefly fell on the pistol strapped to his right hip. It was a Piecer V, capable of boring a hole in man 100 yards away, although not many could hit a target at that range. Being solar-powered, it never ran out of ammunition. The man’s name was Scott Anderson, and he was Carl’s pilot and bodyguard on a journey that would forever change Carl’s life.
“Just mumbling to myself.”
Smiling, Scott said, “Adventures sound fun when they’re in books. In real life, not so much. Believe me.”
Carl gave him an unconvinced look as he said, “How long ’til we get to Yekin?”
“That’s why I’m here. Unfortunately, our solar converter malfunctioned. We’re dead in space. A towship is on its way from Hesnorter. Once it gets us there, it’ll be about six hours before we are underway again.
“How could the solar converter malfunction?” There was a touch of irruption in Carl’s tone. “The Emperor’s fleet is supposed to always be in top working order.”
“The Pure Delight was checked over. It’s a mystery, but I’ll find out what happened when I return it to base.” Scott laughed at Carl’s disappointed face. “You look like you’re in a hurry to return to school.”
“It’s my last time. Three more months of boarding school, and I’ll be free.” Sighing, Carl added, “Well, not really free. I go back to work in Uncle Nelson’s construction company.” He paused thoughtfully, then went on, “That reminds me, you work closely with Uncle Nelson, don’t you?”
Scott shrugged, “I’m frequently assigned as his bodyguard if that’s what you mean.”
“Has he been… differently lately?”
Scott arched an eyebrow in surprise, “Different, how?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Carl, groping for words to describe a vague inner feeling. “He just seems more grumpy than he used to be.”
Grunting, Scott replied,” I’m sure the Emperor’s top advisor has more than enough problems and worries to make him a little irritable at times.”
“He seems more distant somehow.” Carl paused, then admitted reluctantly, “You’re probably right. My imagination is running wild… too many Strikemaster novels.”
Scott laughed as he turned to go.
“While you’re getting The Pure Delight repaired, I’m going to walk through the spaceport. Some of these out-of-the-way places can have rare treasures. I might find a Strikemaster book that I’m missing.”
“Why? Every one ever written is available at your fingertips.” Scott nodded to the computer screens.
Shaking his head, Carl said, “It’s just not the same. I like the feel of a book in my hands. Besides, I am trying to complete my hardcover collection.”
“I wish you wouldn’t go,” said Scott, frowning. “I’m responsible for your safety until you return to school.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t fail in your duty. Nobody is going to kidnap me. Even if someone wanted to, they wouldn’t choose a barren piece of rock like Hesnortor.”
Scott tapped a communicator on his belt. “You be sure to stay in touch. I’ll catch up with you when the repairs are underway.”
Carl nodded, blissfully unaware that his secure world was about to be shattered.
Carl wasn’t wrong when he had described Hesnortor as a barren piece of rock. Its only virtue was that it held one of the few spaceports and dockyards in the Middle Zone, a vast and sparsely populated region between the Gractor and Neborn star systems. As there was no breathable atmosphere, the four million residents lived in three domed towns linked to the spaceport’s various terminals by enclosed tubes and underground tunnels. The tunnels were the original means of getting to the different terminals. They had been blasted out of the rock over 300 years ago and had remained virtually unchanged.
After navigating down several wide aisles, Carl stood in front of the Reach Out Bookstore. Book promotions, which included 3D scenes from books, author’s readings, reader's reviews and more, scrolled through the two large promotional windows. Between the windows were two swinging doors carved to look like books. One was wooden, the other polished metal of some kind. They were set into the palm of a hand reaching out into the aisle.
Pushing the doors open, Carl stepped inside. The divided appearance continued. On the right side were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves loaded with books. A few high-backed, cushioned chairs were spread on a hardwood floor. Almost everything was in white on the left side, from the soft seats in front of computer consoles to the walls that held exquisite art. From the computers, a person could browse an extensive digital library. A dividing line ran down the middle of the room as the two separate worlds merged.
The only man visible rose from a red-cushioned chair on the book side of the room and approached Carl. His hair was like a cap as white as the wisps of nebulas from far-distant galaxies sitting on a pedestal of time-tightened wrinkles, although his grey eyes held a shifty, greedy look. Carl correctly assumed that he owned this unique bookshop where ancient and modern literary endeavours fused.
“Can I help you?” The voice was gravelly with a slight whine to it. “I have more exclusive book contracts than anyone in this galaxy. I even have customers in the Central Planets.”
Carl raised a skeptical eyebrow, “On Hestnotor?”
“Surprising, isn’t it? Hesnorter has some… advantages.”
Glancing at the computer consoles, Carl could well imagine some of the advantages, like pirated books with their download and copyright locks stripped. With a shrug, Carl looked back at the man, “I am searching for a 1st Edition copy of Strikemaster And The Palace Murder and Strikemaster Submerged.”
A low whistle escaped the man’s cracked lips, “Those are two of the rarest Strikemaster books. I’ve never even seen them come up on auction.” He paused, then said, “But I’ve got something better.” He strolled to a computer console on the other side of the room and punched in a code. The entire list of Strikemaster books appeared on an invisible board before him. He swiped at the list to scroll down and then selected Strikemaster And The Palace Murder, saying, “I have the entire collection in immersive 3D with audio options.”
The book’s text began scrolling on the invisible screen before them while 3D semi-translucent scenes from the book played all around them.
Carl was impressed, “And audio options?”
“Male voice, female voice, various accents and languages.”
“I must admit I don’t have anything as elaborate as this,” said Carl, turning in different directions to see the 3D effects. Then, with the determination of someone reluctantly making a difficult decision, he said, “But I do have the complete series digitally. I want the original hard copies, 1st Edition if possible.”
Disappointed, the store owner collapsed the program and said, “I have a friend in Terminal 5 who specializes in hard-to-get books. I’ll see if he has them.”
The man walked to the back wall and passed through a hologram of books to enter his backroom. A few minutes later, he reemerged.
“Good news! Alfred has the Submerged title, but it is the 2nd Edition. Not quite as rare, but still valuable.”
Carl’s eyes lit up. “You said he was in Terminal 5?”
The man nodded as he said, “But the Rapid Transport Tube is down. You’ll have to go through the tunnel. It’s about a five-minute walk.”
Something about the poorly concealed eagerness in the man’s tone made Carl suspicious, “Not a forgery? Because I will have it tested.”
A shocked look flashed across the man’s face, “Of course not! Alfred is as honest… as honest… as I am!”
Somehow, Carl didn’t find that encouraging, but all he said was “Thank You” as he hurried out of the store. Imagine finding a 2nd Edition of Strikemaster Submerged! It would still have the original pen illustrations of Delorous Gilford, too. If only it weren’t a fake.
As the swinging doors slowed from Carl’s exit, another man emerged from behind the hologram. His cold, black eyes were set in a weather-beaten face. Short, gray hair framed a dark-tanned face with a cruel scar running across one cheek. A Revolt revolver was slung low on his hip in gunslinger fashion. With its rotating chamber and explosive projectiles, the Revolt was considered obsolete, but it was highly prized by those who prided themselves on deadly marksmanship.
With a gleam of satisfaction, the bookstore owner turned to the newcomer, “He’s taking the tunnel to Terminal 5 just like you wanted.”
To this, the man simply nodded. His piercing gaze followed Carl’s retreating figure through the window before turning and retracing his steps into the backroom. The owner followed him, expecting to be paid for a well-done job. He had done work with this man before and knew the rewards were generous.
Once behind the hologram, the man drew his Revolt and spun the chamber. Then he turned his eyes to his companion and said harshly, “Sorry, Jake. This is a top security job. No witnesses.”
Fear tore through the store owner’s chest like the claws of a vicious animal as he comprehended the man’s statement. “We’ve done business for years,” he rasped. “I never talk. You know that.”
Without another word, the gunman’s trigger finger tightened, and the bullet sped to its target.
Looking at the corpse on the floor with blood flowing from its chest, the gunman commented, “Nothing personal.” Then he went in pursuit of Carl.
As Carl headed for the entrance to the tunnel to Terminal 5, he was blissfully unaware of the pair of calculating eyes observing his every move. As Carl descended the steps into the tunnel, he noticed he had lost his communicator signal. Since it was only a five-minute walk, he wasn’t concerned. When he got to Terminal 5, he would call Scott to let him know where he was. Scott wouldn’t be happy, but for a chance to get his hands on a 2nd Edition, it was worth it. Still, he picked up his pace—no sense in being out of touch longer than necessary.
The tunnel was about twenty feet wide, and its walls were rough rock with the occasional graffiti sprayed on it. When the Rapid Transport Tubes were installed above ground, the tunnels fell out of use. This probably explained why Carl saw no security cameras, although it was well-lit with bright lights in the ceiling. An occasional rat scurried past him, but he saw no other signs of life. Carl thought it was strange that there weren’t at least a few people in the tunnel with the Tube being inoperative.
Suddenly, as he rounded a corner, he took in a scene that stopped him dead in his tracks. He had just entered a straight stretch about midway between the two terminals. Halfway down the corridor, five youths had a man who looked to be in his forties surrounded. Terror radiated from the man’s eyes, but he kept a tight grip on his briefcase.
The leader shoved the man against the drought rock wall, causing a grimace of pain. “We’ve seen you using our tunnel before, but you’ve never paid the toll. You gotta pay.”
“Sorry… I… I didn’t know. I’ll pay. How much?” With his free hand, the man reached under his jacket.
“We’ll take whatever you’ve been keeping in that briefcase.”
“No. I can’t give you that. But I’ll pay anything.”
“Anything is not what I want.”
The mocking laughter and faint pleading mingled in Carl’s mind, tugging at his compassion even as fear gripped his heart. He knew no one had seen him. He knew he could slip back around the corner and disappear without risk. Then he could call the police. Who was he fooling? The man would be dead long before the police arrived. But there was nothing he could do. He was unarmed. Untrained. If he tried to intervene, there would be two dead bodies. But his feet refused to budge as his mind raged with conflicting emotions. Sweat broke out on his forehead as his eyes remained captured by the scene.
With a look of hopeless resignation, the man dropped the briefcase.
If I slip away, I’ll never be able to live with myself… and if I don’t, they’ll tell me too, thought Carl. Sometimes, you have to do what is right no matter what, but is this one of those times? No matter what I do, I won’t be able to help him…
Carl saw the leader reach into his pants pocket and draw out a small cylinder. A sick feeling rose in Carl’s stomach as he realized what it was. A small button was pushed, and a six-inch slicer blade glowed at the end of the cylinder. Its powerful, focused beam could cut through flesh, bone and even some metals.
With a grin, the leader turned to the youngest member of the group, who did not appear to be more than fifteen years old. “Brenton now is the time to see if you have what it takes to run with our family.” He handed the knife to Brenton.
Brenton’s face showed no hesitation, only a grim satisfaction, as his fingers closed around the cylinder. He stepped up to the man.
Something snapped inside of Carl. Without thinking, he yelled, “NO!” And charged toward the group, expecting to die a useless but honourable death.
Go to Chapter Two.
Go back to Prologue.
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Feb 21, 24 01:20 PM
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