ELITE The Dark Wheel Robert Holdstock CHAPTER ONE From the moment that the trading ship, Avalonia, slipped its orbital berth above the planet Lave, and began to manoeuvre for the hyperspace jump point, its measureable life-span, and that of one of its two-man crew, was exactly eighteen minutes. The space station gently span away into the shadows and the small Ophidian class vessel shuddered as its motors angled it round towards the Faraway jump. The planet Lave, below, rotated in blue- green splendour. There were storms moving across the Paluberion Sea, six great whorls of pink and white cloud. They were approaching the continental mass that was FirstFall, and promising a bleak and wet few days to the swathes of forest and the deep, snaking valleys that cut through the rugged land. The cities of both Humankind and Lavian glittered among the verdant blanket below like bright shards of glass. Watching the lush world from his seat at the astrogation console, Alex Ryder expressed an audible sigh of regret that he had not been allowed down to the world itself. Next to him, fingers moving expertly over the keys of the trader's ManOp console, his father grinned. Jason Ryder knew well enough the frustration of only being allowed to observe a rich and fabled world like Lave from orbit. He had been planetside once, an unforgettable experience . . . But the rules and regulations of the Galactic Co-operative of Worlds were strict and sensible. Lave, like any other planet, was not a holiday resort, not a curiosity. It was a living, evolving world, and there were folk down below to whom that world was everything that Old Earth had once been to the Human race. Protection. Mother. Home. Another time, another year, Alex thought. You earned your visit to Lave, and he had hardly begun his professional life. He still had so much to learn. The Ryders had been a trading family for three generations. It had begun with Ben Ryder, who had traded almost exclusively using shot-up pirate ships. Ben had lived life on the edge, and one day, one night, one star year, he had not returned. Out in the void between the stars his grave was as remote as it was private, and would probably never be found. His son, and his grandson—who was Jason Ryder—had followed the family business. Alex would soon have to make the final decision: whether to sacrifice his life to shuttling cargo between the worlds of the Galactic Co-operative, or to train for a different profession. Let's be clear about trading. Trading between worlds is no game for a youngster with ideas of getting rich quick. You can spend a lifetime carrying food, machinery and textiles, and at the end of that life you'll have enough saved up to buy a patch of coastal land on an Earth-type world, and spend the rest of your days in quiet, isolated comfort. That's all. A lifetime of sweat and combat for an orbital shuttle, a home, and the clear blue of an alien sea at your doorstep. If you want more, there are ways of getting it: narcotics, slaves, zoo animals, weapons, political refugees . . . trade in any of these things and wealth will tumble around you. And corsairs, and privateers, and pirates . . . And the police. The strain of the years of honest trading was already telling on Jason Ryder, but he had invested wisely, and this small, cargo-carrying pleasure yacht was his pride and joy. He could get away from the trade-lanes for a while (although he always respected the trader maxim that 'an empty hold means an empty head', and never travelled freight-less; today he was carrying thrumpberry juice, an exotic flavouring). He could show his son what space was really like, and whet the lad's appetite . . . or let him see that a life in hard vacuum was one of the hardest lives of all. For his part, Alex Ryder would need a lot more convincing. He was a tall, fair-haired young man, wiry and athletic. He was atmo-surfing champion on the Ryder's homeworld, Ontiat, and very bright. Like all young men of his age he was reluctant to switch his status from that of student to professional, with all that that meant in terms of settling with one particular girl, one job, and beginning to plan for when, eventually, he would buy his own land. He still had a year to decide, a year of surfing, free-fall baseball, cloud barbecues, hi-falling, partner selection and Sim-Combat. He was in no hurry. Except that he loved space. Loved the flash of sun on duralium hulls, the clutter and confusion of the space ports. Loved the idea of other worlds, of exploration, of path-finding. The voice of SysCon, which controlled all traffic flow in Lave's orbitspace, murmured softly, 'Avalonia, make a four minute drift-flight to Faraway jump point.' 'Understood,' Alex called back, and adjusted the auto accordingly. His father sat back and smiled, his job done for the moment. SysCon said, 'Enter Faraway jump along channel two seven, at forty-five orient.' 'Affirmed,' Alex said, and his father rolled the ship along its central axis, ready for the dangerous hyperspace transit. Everything looked good. On the rear monitor, where the planet shone brilliantly as it slowly moved through the heavens, a dark shadow drifted into vision: another ship, lining up for the Faraway jump. It was quite normal. Alex took no notice, more concerned about the impending transit through hyperspace. His father scrutinised the other vessel for a moment, then relaxed. He had no way of knowing that he only had fourteen minutes left alive. Making a Faraway jump in a system as complex and crowded as Lave is no simple business. A hundred eyes are watching you for the slightest mistake. Make a mistake in orbit-space and the next time you go to dock at one of the world's Coriolis space stations a big NOT WELCOME sign might flash in the vacuum before you. You slip your C-berth under the instruction of Station Space Monitor. Perhaps twenty ships are doing the same. You go when it's safe. You rotate, accelerate, decelerate and spin to the absolute second, both of time and arc. That way you get clear without two thousand tons of duralium trader rammed into your hyperspace jets. It isn't over. Now you're under the supervision of HSA, Home Space Authority, and they'll jockey you safely about among the traders, and the yachts, and the ferries, and the shuttles, and the star-liners, and the arrow- shaped police patrol ships. All of these vessels slip and slide about you, streaks of silver in the darkness, flashing green and blue lights, sudden walls of grey metal that pass across your bows, winking yellow warning beacons. You move through this chaos and a new voice begins to call for attention. Now you're with the Faraway Orientation Systems Controller; FOSC—or SysCon—sets you up for the big jump. You're going to cover maybe seven light years in a few minutes, and you might think that's a lot of space to get lost in, but that isn't how it works. Faraway is a tunnel, like any other tunnel. Inside that tunnel is the realm called Witch-Space, a magic place, a place where the normal rules of the Universe don't necessarily work. And every few thousand parsecs along the Witch-Space tunnel there are monitoring satellites, and branch lines, and stop points, and rescue stations; and passing by all of these are perhaps a hundred channels, a hundred 'lines' for ships to travel, each one protected against the two big dangers of hyperspace travel: atomic reorganisation, and time displacement. Jump on your own through hyperspace, across more than half a light year, and you'll be lucky to make the same Universe, let alone your destination. You might emerge from Witch-Space turned inside out (which is not a pretty sight). You might be stretched in all the wrong angles, and although the ship keeps travelling, that jelly mass of broken bone and flesh inside the cabin is you. According to legend, you might come through okay and breathe a sigh of relief, only to go into Earth orbit and wonder why that big lizard, with the teeth and the long tail and the green scales is roaring up at you, and warning you off of his nice Jurassic patch of prehistoric desert. To go Faraway is a killer, unless you obey the rules. So for a few minutes, on that fateful day, Alex Ryder was content to let the robot voices of SysCon guide his family's ship through the space lanes, towards the jump point for the planet Leesti. He relaxed, beside his father, and watched the bussle of the space port. The shadow behind them, the ship that was following their path towards Faraway, was a Cobra class cargo freighter. No-one knew how or when the designation of space-going vessels had been linked to the names of snakes. The Ryder's own vessel was a relatively harmless Ophidion, capable of two hyperspace jumps, armed very basically, set up, really, only to destroy imminent dangers, like asteroids, meteoroids, or 'crazy craft', the name given to vessels that were out of control, or ridden by juveniles out for kicks. The Cobra was a bigger vessel by far. A common trading ship, most Cobras are buried beneath the weaponry and defences that their hard-bitten, tough-talking captains have accrued. And with good reason . . . To be a trader is to be two things: dangerous, and at risk. Dangerous because to survive as a trader you have to know your weapons and how to use them in space combat; you need to be able to recognise a pirate, or an anarchist, or a Thargoid invader, or a police trap when you might be carrying any one of the thousands of prohibited materials. And at risk for the same reason. A juicy Cobra, weighed down with minerals, or rare textiles, or furs, or ore, is as tasty a target for a freebooter as any in the Galaxy. To be a trader means to shoot first and pray that you've read the warning signs alright, and that your victim was a pirate. Make a mistake and not even two shells of time-stressed duralium and a belly full of missiles is going to save you from the vipers. Vipers. Police ships. Small, fast, deadly. And most particularly, tenacious. The pilot is a man, certainly, but kill the man and the ship will keep coming at you. Kill the ship and its missile will keep coming at you. Kill the missile, and watch for the shadow. When a viper bites, it clings. Eleven minutes . . . 'There's a sight you'll not often see . . .' His father's words broke through Alex's silent, concentrated study of the planet they were leaving. To the right, running a parallel course towards the Faraway tunnel, was an odd-shaped ship, with poweful lights flickering on and off. It was catching the sun and Alex could see how it was slowly spinning about its central axis. Fish-like fins opened and closed. Across its sleek hull a rapid pattern of coloured lights rippled. A Moray. A subaqua vessel, designed for both space and undersea voyaging. The Moray was a rare ship indeed to see in space, especially about to undertake a hyperspace transit. On worlds like Regiti and Aona, where the only land was the tips of volcanoes, rising al oceans, the Moray was both freighter and public transport, a vital ship-link between the undersea cities that were developing in such hostile environments . The Moray's frantic colour signalling ceased. Alex noticed that his father was watching the animalistic display (the coding had been developed from the signalling of a terrestrial aquatic creature, the squid) with a frown on his face.'Something up?'Jason shrugged. 'Not sure. Probably not.' Alex watched the Moray with renewed interest, then turned back to the rear view, where the Cobra had nudged a few kilometres closer. 'Shall we warn him to stay back?' Jason shook his head. For the first time Alex realised that his father had been as aware of the trader as he, and had been studying it curiously for some minutes. There was a tension on the Avalonia's bridge that was unusual, and unpleasant. Something wasn't right. Alex had no idea what, but he sensed it powerfully. Something was not going according to routine. Then the go-signal for entry to the Faraway tunnel flashed on, accompanied by a gentle audio prompt. And as it did so, the Avalonia's life expectancy had shrunk to just nine minutes. Around the entry point to Witch-Space is always to be found the biggest cluster of transit vessels, most of them moored in groups at orbital buoys while mechanics and repairmen crawl over them, checking and servicing their external systems. At such a point in any advanced system like Lave you'll see every ship of the line, every type, subtype and artificially mocked-up version of every snake-ship ever built. As they approached the jump, Alex practised ship identification, a crucial talent in any space-faring profession. The unarmed, unmanned orbit shuttles were easy enough to spot, as they ferried cargo all around the system. He noticed two Asps, Navy ships, small, manouevrable and deadly, well protected against attack, and with highly advanced military weapons systems. He also saw a single Krait, the so-called StarStriker, a small, one-man ship much favoured by pathfinders and mercenaries. To his right, space-docked and still unloading her passengers, was the immense, cylindrical mass of an Anaconda, a massive freighter that had been adapted to passenger transport. It was an ugly ship, and its yawning ram-scoop gave it the appearance of being a squat, blind creature with its mouth disgustingly agape. The catalogue was endless. Boa class cruisers; Pythons; the bounty hunters' favourite, the Fer-de- lance, packed out with weapons, and no doubt decked out inside like a palace; landing craft called Worms; Mambas; Sidewinders . . . large craft and small, all winking brightly and reflecting sunlight in brilliant blue- grey sheens. And of course, there were advertising Droidships, their catchy light displays blinking out information about ROHAN'S REAL EARTH ALE WITH HONEY, or KETTLE'S CLONE-YOUR-OWN FUNGAL CURES. Or even offering the 'last real food before Witch-Space', small restaurant ships designed to dock and supply instant nourishment (PRIEST'S PERFECT PROTOPOLYPS, TUTTLE'S TASTY THERAPSABLADDERS) to space-weary travelers.'Here we go . . . Hang on to your seat . . .' Jason Ryder always said this, and Alex always fell for it. He tensed up as if the ship was about to plunge over a gravity-roller. In fact, the entry to Witch-Space was accompanied by an almost negligible accelerative surge, a moment's dizziness, and then the spectacular sight of the stars brightening, spreading out and suddenly streaking in multi-coloured circular patterns, so that the ship seemed to be passing down a spinning tube. Almost as soon as the surge of acceleration had come it had gone. The ship drifted in 'Witch Light', in the non-place in space and time. It was crossing the void between stars in seconds, but for those seconds it was in a twilight world whose existence was beyond imagination. They say that Witch-Space is haunted. Maybe that's why they call it 'witch'. Time turns all around, and atoms turn inside out, and gravity waves billow up, and things move there, lifeforms, or shadows, or atoms, or galaxies, who knows? No-one has ever stopped and gone outside to find out. Only robot remotes exist there, switching stations, monitors, rescue Droids and the like. Whatever lives in Witch-Space, in the Faraway tunnels, will remain a mystery always. But there are ghosts there. The ghosts of the early ships that went in to Faraway, and didn't come out again. Ghosts . . . And shadows. The shadow of a snake. A Cobra . . . Rising over them . . . 'What in God's name . . .?' Jason Ryder had gone whiter than white light. Trapped in Witch-Space, there was nothing he could do to outmanoeuvre the other vessel. Alex said, 'He doesn't know the rules. Perhaps it's a rookie pilot—' 'Perhaps,' his father said. Jason Ryder's eyes never left the scanners. His face had beaded with sweat. Alex watched the shadow of the Cobra . . . Well-equipped . . . a fuel-scoop, missile silos, extra cargo holds, the squat dome of an energy bomb housing . . . a rich ship indeed and a deadly one . . . 'They can't be intending to attack us.' 'The hell they can't!' Three minutes . . . And they came out of Witch-Space! Immediately, Jason's hands began to fly over the key console. The Avalonia surged forward, rotating on its long axis. The planet Leesti was a small, greenish disc in the far distance. Alex saw his father arm the two missiles that the Avalonia carried, then reached to rest his hand on the multiple laser-trigger. It was a pirate, then. And as Alex came to accept the inevitability of combat, his mouth went dry and his mind sharpened. He had never been in combat before, not for real, only in the SimTrainer. He had heard his father talk about it, of course. And combat did not sound glorious . . . A pirate ship, disguised as a trader, pursuing its victim into Witch-Space itself . . . for their cargo of . . . Thrumpberry flavouring? An uneasy voice whispered in Alex's mind. This was untypical behaviour for a freebooter. They normally waited at the edge of planetary systems, watching for their prey with long-distance scanners, picking and choosing carefully. Pirates could be found everywhere, of course, though rarely in space around Corporate State worlds, or Democracies (the police were too efficient). Planets run by anarchistic or feudal governments were a pirate's favourite haunt. This behaviour was wrong . . . Not a pirate. Alex looked from the slowly rotating planet to the grim, grey features of his father. They were a long way from safety. 'What the hell are we up against?' 'Put on a RemLok and get to the escape pod,' Jason Ryder murmured. 'Do it!' 'I'll stay and fight ' 'The hell you will. Do as I say.' As he spoke, Jason thrust a small, black face-mask—the remote- space locator—at his son. The first missiles struck the Avalonia's shields, and Jason punched the launch buttons on his own defences. The small ship veered and strained as he looped it in an escape run, activating its ECM as the Cobra launched a second wave of missiles.The rear screen exploded with light . . . But through the brightness the sombre grey shape of the killer came on . . . It happened so fast, then, that afterwards Alex was uncertain as to what exactly had happened. The duelling ships span and circled in towards the planet. Space around them blazed silently as their weapons struck and were deflected. Then the whole Universe rocked. Air screeched into the void. The lights in the Avalonia blinked and dimmed. Warning lights shot on across the console: lazer temperature in the red, screens down, energy low, cargo jettisoned, cabin temperature dropping . . . In the same moment of the Avalonia's death, Alex Ryder found himself being struck by his father, the remlok mask forced into place about his eyes, nose and mouth. Then his whole body was physically manhandled into the escape pod. The ship shuddered and screamed. Fuel spilled into the void. Father and son faced each other for a last moment, each watching the other through a mist of tears and confusion— 'I don't understand . . .' Alex screamed above the noise of the dying ship, meaning: Who's trying to kill us? 'Raxxla!' Jason said. 'Remember: Raxxla!' Then, as he pushed Alex back into the cramped escape pod, he shouted, 'Remember me, Alex! I wouldn't have wished this on you. Raxxla!' The escape pod was jettisoned. Alex tumbled. The sleek shape of the Avalonia was above him, and then just white light— White heat. Cold space! In a second it had gone, the ship, his father, a part of his life—obliterated by a single burst of fire from the hovering shape of the pirate. And as Alex watched, so a yellow tongue of fire licked towards the tumbling escape pod. He felt heat, then pain, then cold . . . The tiny survival vehicle was blasted apart, sparkling fragments falling towards the green world of Leesti. Alex hit space, arms flailing, mouth opened, consciousness and life draining from him with every second . . .