Authors: Gillian Andrews
(The Ammonite Galaxy, Books#1-3)
(BOOK ONE IN THE AMMONITE GALAXY SERIES)
This book is dedicated to Lisi, with thanks.
THE SKINNY BOY pushed his chin out and faced the Elders, who were gathered in a semi-circle around him.
“I won’t!” he shouted defiantly at them. “You can’t make me!”
This provoked some raised eyebrows on the part of some of the Elders and smiles on the rest.
The boy felt fury overtake him at their condescension. “You’re all just a lot of old dodderers, close to collapse into dust,” he said. “There is nothing you can do to me that would make me go to Valhai in company of a Sellite. Nothing.”
Because of the Elders he had been left to forage for himself on the edge of the habitable zone … and now they needed something from him? It must be some kind of sick joke. He had had to learn to take care of himself, just because his mother hadn’t been one of them and had died in childbirth. But now he was fourteen years old, now he could take care of himself and his two sisters. Now it would be much more difficult for them to harm him, to intimidate him, to make him feel the lowest form of life on the unprepossessing planet of Kwaide.
He looked slowly round at the Elders, and forced a grin onto his face, knowing that it would annoy them, that they would see it as lack of respect, lack of due repentance for the form of his birth.
“You will go to Valhai.” The oldest of the Elders had moved slightly towards him. “You are the indicated candidate for apprenticeship; the test we gave you was quite conclusive.”
The boy’s body, honed after the long hard years of survival, told him to fly. His muscles tensed and in the split second before he was gone he felt a tiny pinprick at the back of his neck, and slumped onto the ground. Try as he might, he was unable to move a muscle in his legs. The sleeping dart had paralyzed his speech too, so he was helpless in the conversation which followed.
“You have no mother,” the ancient’s thready voice went on. Sly rheumy eyes met hot young ones. “But you have siblings.” He drew a few photographs out of an inner pocket.
The boy spotted the ragged clothes of the only two people he cared about in the whole rotten universe: his twin sisters – five and eleven minutes younger than him, respectively.
The old man warbled on, “It would be a very simple matter to find out their whereabouts …”
A red haze flashed in front of Six. They had been ejected from the birth shelter at four, and taken forcibly to the edge of the habitable zone. Six had survived purely because of his determination to protect his younger sisters. The constant ignominies of his struggling life over the previous ten years had only been bearable because of the girls. All his life he had tried to take care of them and now they would be waiting for him, wondering where he was. He had no idea how they would cope on their own. He thought of the countless freezing nights their three huddling figures had shared, and cursed Kwaide, his home planet. And all Kwaidians. He swore, at that moment, that one day he would get even with them, would find his sisters again and make these teetering toothless puppets rue the day they had sent him away.
The Elder nodded slowly. “I see that we understand each other. Good. All you have to do is sign the apprenticeship papers when the Sellite arrives. I am sure you won’t break that oath at any time in the future. After all, you won’t want to cause your sisters any … discomfort.”
May Sacras burn your tongue out! thought Six. Sacras didn’t oblige, and the man droned on. “We have filled out your indenture under your Kwaide birth registration number, as we have found no reference that you were ever given a name.”
All his life Six had been referred to by pointing, or by the number 31245.56, which had been the number he was known by at the birth shelter. There, it had normally been shortened to .56 (Point five six), which was the first word he had spoken – obliged to do so by the matron at age three. Until that moment his younger self had carefully kept a reserved and prudent silence.
“You will be shipped out on the Sellite craft within twenty-four hours.” The subject thus closed, the Elder turned away.
DIVA STOOD TALL between her tall and elegant mother, and the rounded figure of her father as they waited for the Sellite to step down onto Coriolan soil. It was a great triumph for her family. Out of all the aspirants on Coriolis, she had been the one to score the most. It was, she thought, only fitting. Her father was the most important Elder on the planet; she had been brought up to know her place in their society. At the top. Where she was this day.
Aware of her mother’s scrutiny beside her, Diva tried to breathe in and out calmly. A succession of educators had tried to drum protocol and a sense of her own importance into her. Had tried to teach her to be serene and dignified, like her mother. They had met with only limited success, because Diva had somewhere inherited a crispy, edgy character which reacted badly to impositions. Many an educator had thrown up his hands in despair at the Lady Divina when she had slipped away to spar with one of her male cousins rather than study protocol. Few of them had known how to keep their defiant charge in check, which is why Diva’s mother felt concerned about this latest development and gave a slight sigh. On this occasion her husband had proved resistant to her wishes.
The Sellite was now making his way down the ramp of his space shuttle. Diva was surprised to note that this Xenon was very much younger than the man they had been expecting. His father must have passed away. She knew that all the male heads of the Sell houses inherited both their jobs and their names. Which would make this tall stranger Xenon 49, and not the Xenon 48 they had been expecting.
Her father stepped forward smoothly, his ceremonial robes brushing the floor. “May your sun never flare.” He bowed.
“May our suns never meet,” the Sellite replied curtly, in Coriolan. “Is this your candidate for apprenticeship?”
Diva’s father drew air in sharply through his nostrils, causing them to dilate. This was not the way of the Coriolans at such an important moment. The Coriolans had prepared a long feast table laden with succulent food, and a not inconsiderable quantity of best Mesteta wine, something Coriolis was famous for throughout the system. Such events as these should, in the Elder’s opinion, be savoured. Speeches should be made. “Indeed,” the Elder said, indicating the table with a sweep of his ample hand. “we are honoured t—”
“Yes, yes,” the Sellite interrupted him, “but I am afraid that there is no time for all that now. It is essential that we leave almost immediately before it becomes necessary to recalculate the journey back from the Sacras system to Almagest.” He made some attempt to bow in the Elder’s direction. “As I am sure you understand.”
“Quite.” Diva’s father was pleased at least to have his powers of comprehension lauded in front of the whole city. “As you say.” He signed for his wife and daughter to approach them. “This,” he said proudly, “is Divina, my daughter, and your new candidate.”
“Your daughter?” For a moment the stranger sounded surprised.
The Elder puffed out his chest. “The scorer of the highest mark in the apprentice test,” he proclaimed, aware that the hanging microphone would transmit his mellow voice to the many Coriolans who were hanging onto every word. “I am humbled to say.”
It was evident to the Sellite that the humility was for the benefit of the crowd. The man could hardly contain his inordinate pride. Xenon thought him laughable. Dressed up in his best clothes and parading about like a Xianthan turkey bird. Putting his own daughter in the program. The fool!
The girl was stepping forward now, to take her oath. “I, Divina Senate Magmus of Coriolis, do hereby agree to all the stipulations of charter 1/450987, and understand this oath is irrevocable,” she said with dignity as she signed the papers.
Xenon gave a faint sigh, anxious to get all this pomp and ceremony over. “You understand that, under the laws of the race I represent here, this is a binding contract, which, if broken by the candidate at any time in the future, would entail the cancelation of all contractual agreements between the Sell people and the Coriolan people?
Diva nodded. “I understand.”
XENON WAS SITTING in the pilot’s chair of the spaceship as it came slowly out of orbit from around Coriolis, and onto a heading to take them away from the orbital docking station. It would take him three months to navigate across the distance from Sacras to Almagest, the two binary stars which, together with a distant failed sun, Nomus, made up the system. Their destination: the small planet Valhai, in orbit around Almagest.
He wished his father hadn’t been killed in a freak space-station accident just before he was due to undertake this trip. He hadn’t expected to have to step into his father’s shoes so soon. And now the news from home was worrying. His mother had been causing some concern recently with her eccentric behaviour, and he was wondering what to do about her, when one of the lights on the panel in front of him lit up, showing that the occupants of cell two were awake. He moved his right hand to turn on the interscreen.
The two occupants were staring at each other in disbelief.
“You’re a no-name!” said Diva, and took a step back.
“And?” said Six, and took a step forward.
“Don’t come near me!”
“I was only going to offer you my hand!” Six said, plaintively.
“I wouldn’t touch your grubby hand if I were drowning in a sea of Xianthan crocodiles!” snapped Diva.
“Oh, So sorry, your mulchiness. If I could I would instantly remove my presence, but you
have noticed this cabin is for two, and we happen to be locked in.”
“There must be some mistake. Kindly stay on your own side of the cabin!”
“Listen, lady muck,”—the boy had the nerve to say—“if I want orders I shall give them myself, right? You might have lorded it over all and sundry on Coriolis, but that means nothing here, see?”
“How dare you speak to me like that … you … you … nomus!”
The boy laughed in her face. “You are just an apprentice, like me, my lady, and you are going to have to get used to it.”
Diva looked aghast. “Surely they wouldn’t expect me to share a cabin with a no-name? They couldn’t!”
“You haven’t heard me complaining about having to put up with you, now have you?” said the boy. “And you are not exactly my idea of a pleasant traveling companion.”
Diva drew herself up to her full height, a trick which usually served to intimidate.
The boy laughed again. “You remind me of a puffer eel faced with a giant crab! Nothing but air!” He moved his hands in front of him with a fake scared look. “Ooooooh!”
“I,” she said with huge dignity, “am Divina Senate Magmus of Coriolis.”
Six executed a bow. “I,” he said, “guessed you would have some silly sort of name like that. Only have to look at you.”
“My father is chief Elder of Mesteta on Coriolis!”
“Well, he would be, wouldn’t he?”
She stared at him.
“I mean,” he elaborated, “with you dressing like that … he would have to be.”
She frowned. “What is wrong with my garment? It is a Coriolan Ceremonious Robe.”
“Bet you said that with capitals!”
“I don’t understand you, boy!” she said haughtily.
“My name is Six.”
“What kind of a name is that?”
“Well it sure beats yours,” he said. “At least nobody named me ‘Divine’!”
“It’s ‘Divina’,” she told him severely.
“You are insufferable.”
“Thank you.” He bowed again.
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
“I know. I’m just happy not to be like you.”
“You are an obnoxious person, and I won’t stay here any longer with you!”
“Oooh! Is your daddy going to come after me with a horsewhip because of my affrontery?” He pretended to think for a moment. “Oh, no, that’s right, I forgot. Daddy is back on Coriolis, isn’t he?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Be careful what you say, boy!”
“Oh, I am being.”
Diva stormed to the iron bars which served as a door, and began to shout. “Captain! Captain!”
A metallic voice answered her. “What is the matter?” At first they couldn’t identify where the sound was emanating from, but then Six pointed to what was clearly a camera high above them. There were speakers on either side of it.