The Man from Far Cloud

PROLOGUE

AS UMBER TRREGGEVTHANN moved among the racks of clear cocoons containing his charges, a bored, guttural voice from the command room announced over an all-ship speaker, “Approaching Landsdrum system. Occupied planet. Will pass above system plane, three hundred million kizzdroggz off. Stage seven alert.”

Umber sighed and turned to Atel, who glided down the far aisle of the vital cargo bay checking life supports. “What’s wrong?” she called across to him.

“A feeling. I wish Alayynr was awake. I wish it were a full alert.”

“Stage one? Why? These feelings of yours—ever since Klluum. Droc pile. Put steel in your backbone again, Umber. You once were—”

“Yes. You’ve said,” he snapped, turning to the monitor as she pushed off and glided across the pod to him. She stopped herself by grasping his massive shoulders and slowly settled in the faint gravity produced by the slow rotation of the chamber. Umber covered her hand with one of his as he touched in an information code on the console and examined the commonly known data on Landsdrum. The studied it in silence for some time.

“Another droc planet,” Atel said.

Umber nodded. “I wish we could tell them,” he murmured.

“They’ve been raided. They wouldn’t listen now.”

“Klluum will find a way. They have a long year. Seven hundred twenty-two point six-eight days. Must be almost two Esstrremadrrian years. Even so, looks like it’s late in the plague cycle.”

“You said it was hard to tell.”

“It is. But it has to be late. Look. Native life is almost all in the sea. Poor land biology and massive erosion. They’ve made no attempt to check it. That’s the problem with drocs; they’re too easy a food supply. Those people don’t even know how bad things are. They were too long in space and forgot about planetary life, or perhaps just don’t care. What some grrrazz would do for them.” Umber moved his finger across the Landsdrum holo floating in the hazescreen.

“Typical droc planet,” Atel said flatly. “You can’t save them all. Think of saving us, maybe.”

“I think of what we could do even with the few species on board,” Umber returned. “It’s a largish colony. Must be five million. Miners. Look at that list of metals. They make freight hulls, too, and it looks like they mine elsewhere in the system—moons and asteroids. Religious music is an export industry. That’s got to be the last stages of decadence.”

“Decadence?”

“Religious decadence. Look. They’re Starstream Emigrants. They’ve got some variation of Godworship.”

“Too bad. Stuffy bigots. Every colony a variation of the same, and every one thinking it’s got the only ultimate truth.”

“Some of it’s not bad. Says here they patrol the system and might even have passive buoy monitors. What’s wrong with the captain, cutting through here?”

“Fuel, Umber. And our speed is necessary because of the droc cycle. Don’t be nervous. It’s only an alien-monitoring system for trade.”

“Not only. Look at that coding. It’s early warning for Dark Sector Raiders. Droc pile! We’d better veer off.”

The speaker clicked. “Stage three alert,” a voice said, less bored. “We are being monitored by a Landsdrum vessel. Enlarging. Armed patrol ship, Whank class, Starstream type. Attention. Attention. Stage two. They have locked on us.”

Umber and Atel stared at each other. “Alayynr,” she gasped. “He’s in cool sleep. We’d never wake him.”

“Dazzrrnn,” Umber swore. “This bag of old metal’ll never make it through an attack. Any at all and Alayynr’s done, Atel.” They stared at each other.

“Umber touched the command center code. “Yes?” a voice replied.

“Commander Trreggevthann,” Umber said. “I know it’s not in regulations, but if we send them a standard routing and basic lading, we may prevent an attack.”

After a pause, they heard a subdued growl. “Trrreggevthann,” a voice bellowed, rolling the guttural “r” to show his anger. “I’ll see to your trial when we get home. The code is clear. Gorboducs choose their contacts. No one forces us. I despise you for a Fantine swamp and all its pestilence.”

Umber shrugged. “Yes, Captain, I would not have suggested it but for the enormous importance of the vital cargo. Can that not be in your considerations? I request it.”

“Stuff it. We’re busy, slime. At your trial.”

“We have to survive to have a trial. I welcome any trial and will demand it be by combat.”

“With pleasure,” came a curt reply. “Droc pile. Do your duty in silence.”

“Certainly, Captain,” Umber said. “And may your warts multiply and so improve your face.”

Atel looked at him in horror. Umber shrugged. “It’s talk,” he said. “It’ll fire him up. Do his job better.”

“Spying on Klluum has ruined you. Dazzrrnn, I’m so ashamed.”

“You could be right. But the cargo. And the numbers.”

“Gllatts Burgiinn, Umber, the numbers! Should we send them?”

“No. Never. Better it’s all lost than the Dark Sector gets it. But . . .”

“What?”

“If there’s an attack, I’m going to make for the landing pod and try to get to the planet surface. You should come.”

“Never. That would be dishonorable. There would be no chance of survival and even if you did survive, what if they captured you?”

“I’d endure it.”

“Your honor. Your basic honor. I—I’d renounce you. I’d have to. Everything would demand it.”

Umber stared at her. “At that point it’d make little difference. The numbers, Atel. They’re the best chance for Esstrremadrr. The best yet.”

“They’d tap your memory and draw them out. That’s vile.”

Umber laughed. “No. I erased the memory plant. I’ve memorized it the ancient way, and—”

“The whole list? Impossible.”

“I did it, Atel, while you were in cool sleep, and I put a block on it. If they did draw it out, it’d be so full of chance images and dreck they’d never sort it out.”

“You’ll forget.”

“Never, I—”

“Attention all personnel,” the speaker barked. “This is the captain. We are under attack—beams and missiles. Our calculations show we cannot respond successfully to such massive fire. This is the end for us. It remains only to expend ourselves dearly. We are now at stage one. Off-watch crew report to your stations. Abandon cargo pods. I expect all citizens to perform their duty to the fullest and act with absolute resolve. We are true Gorboducs. We have our honor. Somehow we will make the scum feel the bitterness of their act. I regret the loss of the mission, but our duty is clear. I salute you all—except the slime, Trreggevthann. Farewell.”

Atel cried out. “Alayynr. He’s lost.”

Umber tightened his mouth. “And the specimens,” he shot back. “Stick the duty station. Come on. The landing pod. I’ll grab a few species.”

“What’s the matter with you? We can’t do that to a planet!”

Umber glared. “I won’t hurt the planet. It’s a mess now anyway with species from at least five systems on it. I . . . want to save—” The huge cargo pod suddenly rocked and twisted. They glanced at each other and raced for space gear. “Just food plants and some ancient mammals . . .” Umber yelled as they ran, his voice fading in the thinning atmosphere.