Find your next favorite book

Become a member today and read free for 30 days
City Of Deceit

City Of Deceit

Read preview

City Of Deceit

Length:
519 pages
7 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jun 24, 2016
ISBN:
9781311868404
Format:
Book

Description

Raja Surya, young heir to the throne of the moon of Yuanshi, cannot stay out of trouble for long. Zotz Wak, intrepid boy inventor otherwise known as The Flying Fox, decides Earth is the place to become a man. Together they must battle the dystopian darkness of 23rd-century London: a city of deceit, under the thumb of corporations, its people barricaded behind flood walls, bewitched by the hypnotic holoverse and worse.

The United Nations is deciding the fate of Surya's world. The Que Qiao Corporation is using the threat of alien monsters to call for war. Ravana O'Brien, the heroine of their previous adventures, is stricken with a mystery illness and her hollow moon home has problems of its own. Surya never thought he would be in the captain's chair aboard the first ever interstellar battleship. Zotz never expected to find himself accused of being a spy and terrorist at the centre of political skulduggery in London. The far-flung worlds of the five systems would never be the same again. Taranis, the dark priest of destiny, has returned.

Publisher:
Released:
Jun 24, 2016
ISBN:
9781311868404
Format:
Book

About the author

Steph Bennion is a writer, musician and part-time Westminster civil servant, born and bred in the Black Country but now living in Hastings after finally escaping the black hole of London. Her stories are written as a reaction to the dearth of alternative heroes amidst bookshelves swamped by tales of the supernatural, not that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fantasy now and again. HOLLOW MOON, the first novel in her space-opera tales of mystery and adventure, was published in 2012. CITY OF DECEIT is the third, with more to come. Under the name Stephanie M Bennion, she has written speculative fiction for older readers. Her last novel was THE LUCK OF THE DEVIL, a tale of supernatural transgender angst in 1990s Ireland, published in 2018. The time-travelling romp THE BATTLES OF HASTINGS, a novella inspired by her adopted town and the 950th anniversary of the event that shaped the British Isles today, was published in 2016.


Related to City Of Deceit

Book Preview

City Of Deceit - Steph Bennion

CITY OF DECEIT

Ebook Edition

Table of contents

Title and copyright

CITY OF DECEIT

Prologue: Something beginning with 'S'

Chapter One: A message to Earth

Chapter Two: No more adventures

Chapter Three: Return to the old world

Chapter Four: On her Maharani’s secret service

Chapter Five: The prince and the paupers

Chapter Six: Gonna take my problem to the United Nations

Chapter Seven: New blood

Chapter Eight: Mercury rising

Chapter Nine: Taken to the Tower

Chapter Ten: Fate weaves a tangled web

Chapter Eleven: Return of The Flying Fox

Chapter Twelve: Brothers of invention

Chapter Thirteen: Ships that pass in the night

Chapter Fourteen: Independence day

About the Author

EBOOK EXTRAS

Illustration: Barnard’s Star system

Illustration: Epsilon Eridani system

Illustration: Solar System

Illustration: Tau Ceti system

And finally... What about fictional London?

Also available from WyrdStar

Please note that the hyperlinks within this ebook may not operate uniformly across all types of ebook reader hardware and software.

* * *

CITY OF DECEIT

[Other Titles] [Contents] [City Of Deceit]

WYRDSTAR BOOKS

www.wyrdstar.co.uk

Copyright (c) Steph Bennion 2016

All rights reserved.

SMASHWORDS EDITION

Smashwords license notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not obtained for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Smashwords publishing history

First published June 2016

Revised January 2018, November 2019 (text corrections and Ebook Extras update)

The right of Steph Bennion to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.

Cover artwork copyright (c) Victor Habbick 2016

www.victorhabbick.com

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. Except for London, which is a real place.

The Worlds of HOLLOW MOON

City Of Deceit is a sequel to Hollow Moon and Paw-Prints Of The Gods. If this is your first dip into the series, be reassured that salient plot points from earlier stories are reintroduced where necessary. If you wish to read the earlier novels and associated short stories (and I hope you do), the ebooks are available from all major online stockists. For more information on how the various stories fit together, see www.wyrdstar.co.uk/hollowmoon.html.

* * *

CITY OF DECEIT

[Copyright] [Contents] [Prologue]

A Novel by

Steph Bennion

WYRDSTAR BOOKS

www.wyrdstar.co.uk

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Karen for friendship, Friday afternoons in the pub and invaluable help in proof-reading City Of Deceit; Victor for the front cover artwork; and of course Sarah, who despite all evidence to the contrary, kept me sane in that big, bad city. We now live by the seaside.

Merciful heavens, what a city of deceit and imposture is this! – George W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, Vol. II (1845)

* * * * *

Prologue

Something beginning with ‘S’

[Title Page] [Contents] [Chapter One]

THE SHUTTLE FLEW LOW over the desert, locked in a dead heat against the shimmering delta-shaped shadow racing across the desiccated scarlet dunes beneath. The remote airstrip from which it had departed had long since slipped below the horizon. Now there was just the endless bleak sands, broken by an occasional silvery glint of water away to the east. The sun known as Tau Ceti was almost directly above, but the air was cold and unforgiving. Falsafah was not a planet that welcomed the people of Earth.

I spy with my little eye, began the pilot, something beginning with ‘S’.

Her voice carried a weary note of resignation typical of those posted to the desolate Arallu Wastes. She glanced to the sallow-faced co-pilot sat on her left, who grinned.

Sand? he suggested. The game was a feeble attempt to relieve the monotony of the flight. My turn. I spy with my little eye... something beginning with ‘S’.

More sand? she suggested. Her smile froze. Son of a bitch!

The man looked puzzled. Actually, no. You were right the first time.

The pilot cursed, ran quick dark fingers across the console and pointed to the desert contours rolling down the scanner screen. A hazy mass had appeared dead ahead, stark and defiant. Her co-pilot followed her finger and released a low whistle of surprise.

They never reported this last recon, he murmured uneasily. We’re getting a lot of heat signatures too. Running full-spectrum analysis.

I have visual, said the pilot. Five degrees to starboard. Mighty Allah, look at that!

A pale hill loomed on the horizon, rising from the dunes like a berg upon a blood-soaked sea. The shuttle sped on, closing in on the mound until it filled the windscreen. The whiteness shifted and sparkled in the sun, a dew-spotted shroud haloed by drifts of gossamer threads. Dark shapes moved within, the nature of which she dared not contemplate.

Routine surveillance, my arse, the pilot muttered. This planet is supposed...

Her words died on her lips. An ethereal mass of fibres rose from the hill, directly in their path. Mesmerised, she stared as it was joined by others, swaying like the tentacles of a sea creature fishing for prey. They were about to fly into a snare a thousand times bigger.

...Oh crap, she concluded.

Turn around! shrieked her colleague.

The pilot pulled hard on the control stick. The shuttle, engines screaming, slewed desperately to port. A towering bundle of fibres slammed into the starboard wing and the flyer crunched to a stomach-churning halt. Another crash jolted them sideways and suddenly they were tumbling to the ground. Something long and white rushed towards the windscreen.

She did not realise she was screaming until glass exploded into her face. A freezing poisonous wind ripped through the shattered windscreen, drowning her cries in fitful chokes. Trapped in the wrecked cockpit, suffocating and wracked by pain, she smacked a fist upon the distress beacon switch and closed her eyes against the oncoming rush of ground.

Her final agony as their mangled shuttle hit the ground was beyond words. When she opened her eyes, her heart thudding weak staccato beats inside her chest, her co-pilot had gone, the fuselage to her left torn away. An emergency oxygen mask dangled tantalisingly before her eyes but her arms were hopelessly pinned beneath the twisted console. Amidst her dizziness, she wondered if she should be worried about the sight of so much blood.

Her stare widened. A bulbous mass, standing shoulder-high on eight spindly legs, approached from the blur of white beyond the wreckage-strewn sands. A cluster of eyes above a pair of fierce mandibles met her own with a blank alien gaze.

I spy with my little eye, she murmured. Her pain was gone, leaving her with a sweet weariness she knew would be her last. Something beginning with ‘S’...

* * * * *

Chapter One

A message to Earth

[Prologue] [Contents] [Chapter Two]

RAJA SURYA PULLED BACK THE CURTAIN and flinched as the aircar parked in the dark courtyard beyond promptly exploded before his eyes. A rainstorm of fiery shrapnel glittered against the golden glass walls of the palace, setting fire to the ornamental shrubbery below. A split second later, the blackened stone elephant head of the Hindu deity Ganesh thudded to a rest outside the window, causing the young boy to muffle a shriek.

A barrage of tracer shells erupted from a nearby tower, bright against the gloomy starless sky. The corporation gunship that launched the missile, a sinister black wedge riding upon blue-tinged columns of thrust, swung its searchlights across the courtyard and moved away into the night. Through the window, the young boy watched a lone figure race through the darkness towards a nearby door, moving with the bounding lope peculiar to low-gravity worlds. A sound of footsteps reached him from the antechamber next door. Surya moved to release the curtain and paused. Reflected in the window, the worried frown etched into his own dark features betrayed the queasiness he felt within. Each attack on the palace seemed more intense than the last. He heard the door behind him open.

Surya! called an anxious female voice. Stay away from the window!

The Raja turned to the slim figure of his mother in the doorway. Maharani Uma, her long black hair fastened in a ragged plait, wore a battered flak jacket over her blue saree and there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. At her waist was a holstered plasma pistol, which Surya knew was bad news, for she only carried arms when there was a risk of a ground attack. He had heard tales of children as young as ten having guns to defend the streets of Lanka, though Surya had yet to persuade his mother that himself, fourteen years old, should also be allowed to do so. In the last decades of the twenty-third century, the domineering Que Qiao Corporation was pushing hard to impose its harsh authority once and for all across the Indian moon of Yuanshi. The anger of those who objected had never run so high.

They blew up an aircar, Surya said nervously. And my favourite statue.

Yes, I saw, the Maharani told him. No one was hurt. Come with me.

Surya heard a muffled bang and instinctively raised his forearms above his head. His mother barely batted an eyelid. He had no idea how she stayed so calm.

He grabbed her offered hand and followed her through the door into the ornate antechamber beyond. The once-magnificent Crystal Palace of Kubera, his late father’s summer palace in the city of Lanka, no longer felt like home. The stomp of countless boots had scuffed the tiled floor, there were cracks and plasma burns across the wooden panelling and black anti-blast tape at every window. Ammunition crates lay stacked in rooms where Maharaja Kashyap and family had once hosted high-class gatherings of Yuanshi’s elite.

His mother often told stories of when Que Qiao in Epsilon Eridani had been content to let the Indian settlers run their own affairs. Those days were long past. Civil war had gripped Yuanshi before he and his mother sought refuge at Barnard’s Star, back when he had been just four years old. Their recent return had seen the conflict escalate to new heights. It was ironic that it had been a peace conference on Yuanshi’s sister moon of Daode, some ten months ago now, that had convinced Maharani Uma it was time to end their exile.

Surya followed his mother along a hallway and down a flight of stairs. He guessed where they were going even before they entered the brightly-lit basement, a large barrel-roofed space that Commander Kartikeya, the Maharani’s chief military advisor, grandly called his intelligence and operations room. She in turn sneered that military intelligence was an oxymoron, not that Surya understood what she meant.

Kartikeya, a bearded young Indian man in crisp military fatigues, paced restlessly before the holographic projection table dominating the room. As he turned, Surya felt his mother’s grip tighten. She and Kartikeya rarely said a civil word to one another.

Maharani Uma, said Kartikeya, eyeing her coolly. He tilted his head imperceptibly in lieu of a proper salute. Come to join the action?

While you’ve been skulking in your basement, I’ve been with the gunner crew on the northwest tower, she responded icily. Your report, if you please.

Kartikeya held her stare for a few moments, then turned away.

Team A, Lieutenant Shakti’s unit, has secured Lanka spaceport, he said. He was trying hard to soften his Indian-accented English into something more like the educated lilt used by Surya’s mother. They neutralised a freighter, but that turned out to be carrying smuggled rice, not guns. Team B, Lieutenant Balin’s squad, ran into an armoured convoy and are returning fire. Que Qiao won’t notice our saboteurs slipping through their lines.

Her eyes narrowed. Who did you send? We have a lot riding on this.

Kartikeya hesitated. Namtar and Inari, he said.

Those blundering fools? The Maharani put a hand to her forehead and gave a sigh of both exasperation and dismay. You idiot! I asked for your best, not Team Z! What on Yuanshi possessed you to send those two numbskulls?

They were the only operatives who were free and not wounded or dead, Kartikeya replied carefully. We lost a lot of recruits when you split ties with the Church.

Your beloved Dhusarians banned music and dancing! I’m amazed Taranis ever gained the support he did, issuing such stupid rulings. We’re well rid of that dangerous fool.

Priest Taranis knew what was good for Yuanshi, said Kartikeya, sounding hurt.

Really? she snapped. Surya guessed she was thinking of when he and his mother last saw the fabled mad priest of Lanka, back at their old refuge in the Barnard’s Star system. On that occasion, Taranis had been caught creating a dozen human-alien cyberclones to act as his Dhusarian disciples. Was that before or after he kidnapped my son and tried to derail the peace conference? Your own performance was also highly questionable, I recall.

Some things are best left in the past, Kartikeya said hurriedly. As for the mission, Namtar knows what he’s doing. A fine corporal and a dedicated Dhusarian.

The Maharani looked far from convinced. Surya gingerly approached the projection table, which he saw showed not the customary map of Lanka, but a three-dimensional schematic of Ayodhya, Yuanshi’s capital city and one firmly under Que Qiao control.

Are they in Ayodhya? he asked. Namtar and Inari, I mean.

Kartikeya glanced to the Maharani and frowned. Above them, Surya heard another muffled explosion outside the palace. A cloud of dust drifted from the ceiling.

You can tell him, she said. You report to my son as well as myself.

Kartikeya scowled, as he always did when reminded of his position. The commander had single-handedly led the royalist rebellion on Yuanshi during the Maharani’s and Surya’s long exile and had not reacted well to his demotion upon their return.

They carry a message, he told Surya. A request for a ceasefire and talks, along with a threat that we will destroy the Que Qiao bio-labs at Anjayaneya if our demands are not met. It’s a bluff, of course. Capturing the plantations has been our only major victory to date and Governor Jaggarneth knows we would not dare play that hand so recklessly.

I am not bluffing, snapped the Maharani. I would happily rid the five systems of that despicable drug for good! Unfortunately, those laboratories are the only thing Que Qiao on Earth care enough about for a threat to have any effect.

On Earth? asked Surya.

His mother nodded. The holovid is not intended for that idiot Jaggarneth, she said. Intelligence suggests he has been lying to the Que Qiao Board in Shanghai about his failure to maintain order on Yuanshi. We aim to expose him for the war criminal he is.

As you know, Lanka is cut off from the servermoon network, explained Kartikeya. Namtar and Inari are to gain access from Ayodhya and send the message from there.

Surya considered the magnitude of Namtar’s and Inari’s mission. Near-instantaneous interstellar communication was possible due to the wonders of servermoons, kilometre-wide satellites with huge data banks and extra-dimensional transmitters, linked in a five-systems network. Que Qiao had recently begun blocking all non-corporate transmissions: when added to the trade embargo, news blackout and a ‘shoot on sight’ policy with regard to spacecraft heading for Lanka spaceport, the corporation’s actions had left the royalist rebels on Yuanshi isolated like no others before them. Surya frowned, struck by a thought.

I have a friend who works for Que Qiao, he said cautiously. He says he hates them and wants to quit his job. He could probably send the message for you.

What? cried Kartikeya. His eyes blazed with fury. Fraternizing with the enemy?

He looked ready to strike Surya. The Raja stepped back in alarm, taken aback by the commander’s reaction. His mother too looked startled, but more shocked than annoyed.

Surya! she exclaimed. What friend?

I met him online, he replied meekly. "We play Battlefield Earth together, he added, referring to a popular virtual-reality combat game which saw heavily-armed troops battling marauding aliens, unless players preferred being xenophobic extra-terrestrials out to crush humankind. He works in a warehouse in Ayodhya but hates his boss and wants to leave."

And does this friend have a name? she asked carefully.

Master Blaster, Surya replied meekly.

Well, that sounds genuine, scoffed Kartikeya. Honestly! What’s the point of security training if the Raja here goes off and talks to corporation lackeys over the net? What is the world coming to? I despair! I really do.

Shut up, the Maharani retorted. She turned to Surya. You’re not to play that game again, she said firmly. You can’t trust anyone. Especially those who work for Que Qiao.

Surya opened his mouth to protest, caught her stern glare and decided to keep quiet.

Leave the winning of this war to adults, okay? Kartikeya said. Surya scowled. The commander sounded like he was addressing a four-year-old.

He meant well, the Maharani said, putting an arm around her son’s shoulder.

Kartikeya snorted. Only Namtar and Inari can help us now.

Surya looked at his mother as she sighed. If there was anyone who irritated her more than Commander Kartikeya, it was the dynamic duo of Namtar and Inari.

Wonderful, she murmured. Things are worse than I thought.

* * *

Inari stared up at the roof of the four-storey office block, silhouetted against the star-spangled sky. The alley in which he and Namtar stood had no street lamps and the only light came from the pale blue crescent of Daode upon the horizon. The rain threatened for Lanka had not followed them to Ayodhya and it was a cool, clear night. Inari was nevertheless drenched in sweat, for Namtar had somehow persuaded him that his pale and portly frame was ideal for carrying all their equipment. Inari slipped on his night-vision goggles, turned to where his tall colleague waited in the shadows, looked up again and frowned.

I’m not climbing up there, he grumbled. What’s wrong with the front door?

Our adversaries will naturally expect our ingression by conventional means, Namtar replied smoothly. Breaching the perimeter at the uppermost level will facilitate the element of surprise and support us in the need to avoid detection.

Whatever, he grumbled. Namtar’s condescending Russian lilt made his own clumsy Greek attack on the English tongue appear distinctly working class, which he knew was his colleague’s intention. Don’t blame me if I fall and squash you flat.

Inari slipped the heavy backpack from his shoulders to the ground, opened the flap and removed a gun-shaped device with a grappling hook protruding from the barrel. Next came a canister of compressed air and a coil of wire rope, both of which he dutifully attached to the device. Once done, Inari put the gun to his shoulder and pointed it at the roof.

Stand back, he advised. Hearing no response, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Namtar cowering behind a large recycling bin at the end of the street. Inari snorted in disgust. Coward, he muttered. My aim ain’t that bad.

He returned his focus to the roof, lined up the shot and squeezed the trigger. There was a muffled pop and suddenly the hook was flying through the air, a stretched spiral of wire unravelling in its wake. Moments later, he heard a muted thump as the hook passed over the safety railings and landed on the roof. Inari reached for the hanging cable and slowly took up the slack until it became taut. The wire seemed incredibly thin in his gloved fingers, but the weight it had to carry on Yuanshi was against gravity just a quarter of that on Earth. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Namtar had emerged from hiding. Inari turned his back and busied himself fitting the first of the powered pulleys to the rope.

Namtar came to his side and stared up at the roof. You got it right first time? he asked, sounding surprised. Things are looking up.

Yeah, four storeys, retorted Inari. You go first.

Namtar calmly clipped the safety line to his belt, gripped the handles attached to the pulley and thumbed the switch. The motor buzzed and suddenly he was racing up the wall, his feet launching him into one vertical stride after another like a dimensionally-challenged triple jumper. Inari scowled, knowing his own ascent would be far less graceful. He got the second pulley ready, tied the end of the rope to the backpack and stepped up to the wire.

Much to his relief, he made it to the roof without the cable snapping and unscathed apart from a couple of grazed knees. Once over the safety rail, he wasted no time in drawing up the rope and returning everything to the backpack. Namtar had removed his night-vision goggles and was waiting at the open door of the roof-top air-conditioning plant. Inari slipped off his own goggles, slung the pack on his shoulders and went to join him.

Standard lock and proximity sensors only, Namtar whispered. He pulled free the short cable running from his wristpad to the control panel at the doorway. All of which I have neutralised. It seems the information provided by our mole was correct.

Inari peered into the space beyond. An ageing air-conditioning unit sat within a caged area that took up most of the floor. A half-full bucket of water stood beneath a dripping overhead pipe. Beyond the rusty cage was another door.

That way? he suggested.

Namtar nodded. Intelligence suggests it leads to the building’s central stairwell.

Inari followed him past the silent machinery. The door on the far side was locked, but quickly opened by Namtar as before. Beyond, a narrow stairway descended to a brightly-lit landing. Inari was not in the least bit surprised when Namtar gestured for him to go first.

They found themselves in the lift lobby for the fourth floor. Opposite the closed metal sheaths of silent elevators was another wider staircase heading down. Glass-panelled double doors led off to the left and right. Inari moved towards the stairs and paused. Namtar’s reluctance to lead the way was not helping his nerves.

Which way? Inari hissed. His whisper came out far louder than expected.

Try the doors to the left, whispered Namtar. We need to find some secluded terminal where we can complete our mission undisturbed. It is unlikely we have this establishment to ourselves even at this inhospitable hour. Vigilance is key.

You mean there’s security guards?

Is that not what I said? snapped Namtar. Are you purposely obtuse?

I’m standing as straight as I can, muttered Inari. There’s no need to be so angry all the time, you know, he added. I’m in a good mood today. Remember that jigsaw you got me? I finished it this morning.

That silly puzzle with camels and pyramids? You started that two years ago!

Yeah, but on the box it said four to six years, Inari declared proudly.

Namtar buried his face in his hands. Can we get on? he asked.

Inari nodded. Leaving his colleague crouching in the shadows, he crept towards the nearby doorway. His attempt at stealth was ruined when the glass doors, triggered by automatic sensors, opened wide with a loud creak. Inari stifled a shout, scurried through and dropped to his knees behind a bank of desks, which as luck would have it were the tall versions that kept users standing as they worked. Peering out, he saw the room was some sort of office, one thankfully empty of anyone burning the midnight oil. Namtar poked his head through the doorway and gazed across the rows of desks and cabinets.

Is it safe? he whispered.

There’s no one here, Inari said tartly. What is this place?

Comrade, this is a lair of the utmost capitalistic evil, Namtar declared, creeping to his side. The Epsilon Eridani headquarters of possibly the most heartless, back-stabbing commercial insurance broker throughout the five systems. These people are the leeches of interstellar trade, sucking the lifeblood from free commerce and offering hazy promises in return. Insurance companies are scum.

Inari grinned. Still waiting for that payout?

All that matters is that this company has a special arrangement with Que Qiao that grants it unrestricted access to the servermoon network, Namtar replied frostily. Breaking and entering here carries far fewer risks than infiltrating a corporation establishment.

You are good at not taking risks, Inari acknowledged.

Namtar scowled. Keeping low, he scurried past rows of desks until he came to an area sheltered from the rest by privacy screens. By the time Inari caught up, Namtar had powered up a terminal and put on a headset plucked from the desk, the polarised eyepieces of which looked like cheap sunglasses. Inari was not a gifted user of network terminals and watched in rapt admiration as his colleague opened the navigation tool for the five-systems network. Only then did Namtar reach into a pocket and withdraw a thin plastic tube a few centimetres long, the data rod upon which was stored Maharani Uma’s message to Earth.

Inari heard a creak somewhere behind him and glanced over his shoulder, but saw nothing. By now, Namtar had found the public portal for Que Qiao’s head office and called up the virtual receptionist. The on-screen rendering of the computer-generated young woman undoubtedly looked better through Namtar’s glasses than the blur Inari saw on screen. All he could hear of what she was saying was a tinny murmur from Namtar’s headset.

What’s going on here? asked a terse voice in his ear.

Maharani Uma has a message for Que Qiao, said Inari, without turning round. We can’t send it from Lanka so we broke in here.

He gulped. Moving slowly, he turned his head and stared in dismay at the muscular, black-clad security guard standing behind him. The expression on her face suggested an interest beyond mere curiosity. The electro-bolt gun in her hand removed any doubt.

Inari felt the blood draining from his face. Namtar...!

Do not interrupt me with your feeble ramblings! Namtar retorted. He slotted the data rod into the side of the terminal screen. No, I’m not talking to you, he added hastily, gesturing at the screen. I have an urgent communication for the President of the Board, an unencrypted holovid report regarding Que Qiao operations on Yuanshi.

Inari reached across and tugged his sleeve. But...!

Be quiet! snapped Namtar. Apologies; my outburst was not directed at your good self, he said quickly, addressing the animated receptionist. The file is...

Namtar! cried Inari. Behind you!

The guard’s eyes narrowed. In a sudden blur of motion, she pushed Inari aside and shoved her gun hard against Namtar’s head, dislodging the headset. Namtar shrieked, spun around and in a panic caught the edge of the desk and fell backwards to the floor. The guard’s other hand whipped to the terminal and deftly plucked the data rod free. Inari darted behind a desk and slipped the backpack from his shoulders.

Don’t move! the guard growled, as Namtar tried to crawl away. Pocketing the rod, she tapped her wristpad, taking care to keep her gun aimed at the petrified figure on the floor. Where’s that idiot friend of yours?

Right behind you, Inari said roughly. His outstretched hand held the grappling hook gun. The guard turned her head and stared in disbelief at the barbed projectile aimed her way. Getting ready to zap you and your electro-thingy with something far more pointy.

The guard laughed. That is a terrible action-hero quip.

She whirled around and shot an electro-bolt square into his chest. Inari howled and reeled backwards, his hand closing upon his own gun’s trigger as he fell. With a whoosh the harpoon-like hook shot across the room, missing the guard by centimetres.

The air filled with terrible cries of pain. Namtar leapt from hiding, clutching the grappling hook stuck in his buttocks. Inari scrambled to his feet and in a panic threw his gun at the guard, unexpectedly landing a blow to her head that sent her crashing unconscious to the floor. Namtar hurtled towards the doors like a man possessed, his face twisted in agony, his hands wrapped around the projectile in his rear.

You’ll pay for this! he shrieked. Get me to hospital!

Inari glanced at the terminal, which showed a blurry warning about an incomplete file transfer. A groan from the fallen guard was enough to make him grab his backpack and run after Namtar, who judging by his echoing screams was now halfway down the stairs.

At the main entrance, the security guards at the front door were too stunned by the sight of Namtar dashing by with a grappling hook in his backside to give chase. Inari even managed a wry grin as he raced after him. He knew in his heart that Namtar would never, ever forgive him for this. Against all odds, they escaped into the night.

* * *

The gunship attacks eventually ceased and Raja Surya retreated to his suite of rooms, tired yet unable to sleep. He was curious about his mother’s message to Earth and it did not take him long to find a copy of the holovid on the palace network. Wary of being disturbed, Surya used his cranium implant to secretly view the recording of his mother’s statement of demands. He understood little of what he heard. A holovid signal straight into his optic and auditory nerves could never make his head hurt as much as people talking politics.

Surya called up his implant’s communications application and sent a request to the kitchen for a glass of hot milk. Ten minutes later there came a knock on his door, but instead of one of the palace’s android butlers, a grey-haired Indian woman dressed in a green saree stood there, holding a tray with his bedtime drink.

Yaksha! said Surya, surprised. I thought you were in bed.

The woman managed a smile. Us oldies never rest, she remarked lightly. She passed him the tray. I stole this from the robot coming up. Can’t you sleep?

Surya shook his head glumly. Have you heard from Namtar and Inari?

There’s been no word as yet, she told him. There was a tinge of despondency in her voice. I’d usually say no news is good news, but with those two...

Surya grinned. He liked Namtar and especially Inari, who had both been nice to him, even when they had been charged with the mission of kidnapping him from his mother’s place of exile the year before. During the adventures that followed, Namtar had let Surya fire a missile at Que Qiao headquarters, though in the end the only thing that got destroyed was their own getaway vehicle. It was the thought that counted.

They delivered the message, he said confidentially. I am sure of it.

I do hope so, she said sadly. His smile of encouragement had not cheered her. You should get some sleep, Surya. Tomorrow is another day.

She turned from the door and was gone, leaving him standing in the doorway holding the tray. He retreated into his suite and sat for a while on the edge of his huge four-poster bed, idly sipping his hot milk. Yaksha often spoke of the suffering people were going through and the injustices done in Que Qiao’s name. The old woman had a long association with Lanka and on occasion had taken him to visit her friends and family who lived in the poorer parts of the city, to remind him of what life was like outside their glittering glass castle. It was no secret that the rebellion against Que Qiao was not going well. There was more riding on Namtar’s and Inari’s mission than anyone let on.

Surya finished his milk and yawned. His gaze fell upon the terminal on the nearby desk and he remembered what his mother had said about him playing Battlefield Earth. It suddenly seemed wrong to play combat games with an actual civil war going on outside.

He went to the desk and thumbed the switch to wake the terminal. He would post his resignation from Battlefield Earth, delete his avatar, then go to bed. The least he could do for the people of Lanka was listen to his mother. His late father had been a respected figurehead for a real rebellion. It was time Surya lived up to his legacy.

A deft jab at the quick-start options on the screen brought up the regimented rows of bunks of the alliance forces barracks. Surya dropped into his chair, slotted his feet into the terminal’s footplate, then picked up his virtual-reality helmet and gloves and slipped them on. Fingerprint sensors in his gloves registered his arrival and his game avatar sprang into life. Suddenly he had virtual arms and legs, clad in black armour stained with the blood of alien hordes. Lieutenant Ironfist, feared warrior of the alliance with over three hundred confirmed kills to his name, had returned to the battlefront and was ready to engage.

Immersed in his computer-generated world, he scanned the room. No other players were present, but the mission status screen on the wall next to the quartermaster’s desk showed half a dozen skirmishes in progress on the battlefields outside. With a sigh, Surya directed his avatar to the desk. He would miss his virtual buddies.

Quartermaster, I have a notice to post, he declared.

A bushy-moustached, khaki-clad officer appeared from a door and sat down at the desk. Surya took one last look at the mission board and saw his friend Master Blaster was online, but he generally always was. Surya had never known anyone spend so much time in virtual reality. His guilt over having neglected his own real-world duties for so long rested heavily on his mind and several moments passed before he caught the irritable glare of the seated quartermaster. Though computer-generated, the officer was modelled on a famous Russian actor and his look of impatience was convincingly fierce.

Lieutenant Ironfist? asked the quartermaster. You wish to post a message?

Surya thought about his mother’s holovid to Que Qiao and her reaction on hearing it was in the hands of Namtar and Inari. Here, things were different.

Make that two, said Surya. His mind was made up. The first is a private note to Corporal Master Blaster. I have a job for him back in the real world.

* * *

Governor Jaggarneth stared levelly into the monitor on his desk and tried not to squirm. The blond woman on the other end of the holovid conference returned his gaze with more than a hint of disgust. She sat at a large mahogany desk, flanked by two nondescript men who like herself were groomed to perfection and clad in the latest dark suits of corporate finery. Behind where they sat, the weak sunlight of Earth glinted at the half-open blinds of a rain-splattered window. The governor glanced at the small inset in the corner of his screen and cringed at the sight of what they were seeing of him: a crumpled bureaucrat with pallid Eastern European colouring, dark thinning hair and a shadow of stubble.

It was the early hours of the morning in Ayodhya and most sensible people were in bed. His own office, an ornately-furnished study in the Palace of Sumitra, had been Maharani Uma’s back when her late husband had authority. He reassured himself that despite the efforts of her royalist supporters, the balance of power on Yuanshi remained firmly on the side of Que Qiao. The conflict had allowed him to deploy armed agents and impose corporate martial law. It was a messy way to do business, but until now few people had cared.

Governor, the woman said slowly. Her measured American drawl was cold and devoid of regional inflections. You’ve been rather economical with the truth regarding operations on Yuanshi. Why were we not informed about the loss of the plantations? Here you are, held to ransom by the widow of the upstart Maharaja and you didn’t think to escalate this to senior management? This is bad, Jaggarneth. Very bad.

Agent Laverna, my people are pro-actively escalating neutralisation tactics to get space boots on the ground, Jaggarneth said nervously. These terrorists have lasered off more than they can synth. The bio-labs will soon be back in Que Qiao hands, I assure you.

You slipped up! the woman snapped. Count yourself lucky that we intercepted Uma’s transmission before it hit the wider network. You’d better have a plan by the time I file my report if you are to persuade the Board you’re still the best man for the job. Laverna leaned forward and fixed him with a steely glare. Shareholders will expect heads to roll.

Jaggarneth gulped. You say the Maharani’s message was blocked? he asked cautiously. He glanced at the caller identification code in the corner of the screen and realised it was that of Que Qiao’s office in London, which confused him. His immediate superiors were in Mumbai; last time Laverna called, she had been in New York. I regret that not all capsules of data have fallen in my splash-down area.

Operation Playmate, she told him. The men either side of her had yet to speak, not that Jaggarneth cared. Intelligence revealed that Uma’s son is keen on certain online games, so we created an AI avatar to befriend him. A few hours ago, the young Raja passed a holovid to this supposed online friend, with a request to forward it on to Que Qiao headquarters. These games appear to be a loophole missed by your communications clampdown. Needless to say, the message did not reach the servermoon network.

Thank the stars for that, murmured Jaggarneth. He still puzzled over her earlier reference to him being held to ransom. May I see it?

Laverna hesitated, then nodded. You may. But no one else. The bio-labs are vital to several government initiatives here on Earth and corporation contracts will be lost if Yuanshi does not deliver. My head is on the chopping block. I don’t like that one bit, she said. "As for your own

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

Reviews

What people think about City Of Deceit

0
0 ratings / 0 Reviews
What did you think?
Rating: 0 out of 5 stars

Reader reviews