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Sacred Ground

Sacred Ground

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Sacred Ground

Length:
420 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Feb 23, 2021
ISBN:
9781005438432
Format:
Book

Description

The long interstellar war between the Placers and the alien Xarrt race is over. Everyone should embrace peace, but warship captain Rakkel is battling his emotions, facing a future that is anxiously unfamiliar.
A disgruntled Xarrt warrior holds his ship in ambush, not wanting the war to end. He attacks a defenceless outpost, killing thousands. The news enrages Leader of the Placers, Izah, and he instructs that Rakkel be set to catch this traitor.
A religious leader, Ar-Bekan, rallies his followers. The end of the war gives them the opportunity to reach out into space and seek the mythical land of their forefathers. War orphan Mavina has nothing to lose and joins the daring band of stowaways.
More than one person holds a secret, more than one seeks a truth, and more than one is in denial.
Is this really peace? If it is, how many endings and how many beginnings does it nurture?

Publisher:
Released:
Feb 23, 2021
ISBN:
9781005438432
Format:
Book

About the author

I've been a multi-genre author since 1991.My favourite work to date is 2019's “Tow Away Zone”, a quirky small-town comedy drama, set in modern day Arizona. It has shades of the Coen Brothers’ film canon, and the black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank.It’s been well-received by readers, with 5* reviews on Amazon.In 2020 I published the sequel – “Go Away Zone” - which take the characters into a romcom caper with more love and livelihoods at stake. In 2021 I'm hoping to complete the trilogy.My sci-fi journey started with space opera “Scared Ground” being available on Kindle in 2012.It explores the deliberate, and accidental, casualties of a long interstellar war. It’s about uncertainty, faith, and the consequences of actions.In 2018 I self-published my 2nd sci-fi novel – “Imperfect Isolation - which embraces robotics, asteroid mining and a snowy drive in an 80-year-old Porsche. It's a wild ride for my wisecracking heroine Enna.The sequel, “Reprisals”, followed in 2019. This takes the heroes of the first book, and the consequences of their actions, and dials up the stakes for their survival.In early 2021 I released the 3rd instalment, “Trip Hazard”.I'm currently editing a reflective Western, which was developed from my 2005 screenplay script. It explores prejudice against the deaf community and the Native Americans, as a man struggles to reconnect with his lost son and come to terms with his own failings.I've written a collection of offbeat humorous stories and vignettes in the style of early Woody Allen prose - a real inspiration for me. “The Real Jamie Oliver and Other Stories” is basically a window into my nonsensical side.In 2021 I rediscovered short story writing and have released a variety of stories – most free to read – in genres of comedy, romance and drama.I also write pantomime & stage drama scripts. I’ve had 8 works performed and reached a total audience of over 5000 to date.


Related to Sacred Ground

Book Preview

Sacred Ground - Chris Towndrow

reserved.

CHAPTER ONE

I COULD GET my sidearm and end it all now. It’s so close. The locker’s just behind me.

He turned his head indolently until his gaze fell upon the three grey floor-standing cabinets. The rightmost door glared at him.

But you can see it. That’s the problem.

He faced forwards again.

You can see it. I could… I could say goodbye and let you not see it. I could say goodbye and then do it.

The silent face eyed him unchangingly.

If I could say goodbye. You’re days and days away and I can’t say goodbye. I…

His mind dried up.

Lazy eyes took in the dimly lit and expansive cabin. The two exquisite framed images on the beige wall, their haunting beauty enhanced by the subdued atmosphere. Sunrise Through Mist Over Keljan City took on an almost menacing air, the tower tips of the urban jungle were as needles sunk treacherously in a creamy deep-pile carpet. Tryn From Tryn Station was a smothering sphere, the planet’s intangible gaseous bulk reaching ever outwards to suppress the sun’s rays which foolishly sought to cascade past its askance northern polar rim.

The scenes were lessons in majesty, the photographs the epitome of perfection, the frames nothing more and nothing less than symbiotic partners for their contents and the environs.

Trappings of a Captaincy, personality for an anonymous room.

The bed was cold and empty, the stark whiteness of the sheets not wanting to offer refuge from the truth. The bed was simple; it was also large and perfectly sprung. There were mornings (or afternoons or evenings, depending on the shift pattern) that it acted like a gravity well, holding him fast, cocooned, comfortable. Duty was a necessary wrench away from almost foetal contentment and a mind that wandered across open plains and not down well-trodden roads and alleyways.

Through the half-open closet door, a poorly-hangered tunic was a dark form with a glinting eye, the lapel insignia catching light from the recessed ceiling emitter and arrowing it across to the far wall like a fine sepia laser.

His gaze followed the ray’s path to where it impinged on the thick square window pane, then continued beyond, unchallenged, into infinity.

He stood and went to the aperture, naked feet feeling the cool mottled carpet.

He peered into endlessness.

Only light can survive out there.

Yet it had been home, more or less, for what seemed like forever. Not in a bad way. In a good way, he supposed. The only way.

No more.

Those who’d never seen deep space leant on inadequate images of emptiness. First timers had their notions of blackness evaporated, their concept of cold, bleak nothing shattered. Yes, interplanetary space was alien, holo-images were amazing, a cold night on a deserted hilltop seemed quiet.

They were a very poor substitute. Laughable.

Sometimes he'd go to the Observation Deck and banish all light from the room, try to make its warm safety an extension of the inhospitable universe without, try to feel lost in it.

It too was laughable. More than once he’d laughed at it. Actually laughed.

It was a blackness without surface, an all-encompassing and utterly intangible void. The fullness of three dimensions didn’t do it justice. It was everywhere and everything because it was everything.

And nothing.

Galaxies were specks. Planets within galaxies were specks inside specks. Colonies teeming with life were fractions of fractions of the specks inside specks.

Home was wherever his feet were, and he and his home were a nothingth of a speck.

He was entirely valuable and wholly insignificant.

The struggle was vital, daily, all-consuming and completely irrelevant.

He sighed.

The stars weren’t moving; the ship was stationary. Sometimes, when you were moving at a decent enough speed, there would be something amidst the nothing to catch your attention. Occasionally it was good enough for a light gasp or a reflective moment.

That was when you felt least like a speck. Or at least lucky to be a speck, witnessing the beauty.

Not now.

His mind churned.

I love this job.

The locker was eyeing him ceaselessly as he turned toward it. The vivid silver-grey door handle was calling.

Long moments.

The mute face across the room remained impassive.

He sighed. "So what now if not this? If you were here, you’d tell me. But we’d fight. I never see you, and we’d fight. You’d say I was drunk and not worth bothering with—all talk and not myself. Then I’d say I was myself and go to the locker to prove it."

He took two steps to where the laser pistol lay concealed.

"See? And tell me why not. Peace is death. Peace is nothing for me. What else? What else do I do? What else can I do? I’m Rakkel, shining star of the Fleet! Got a tough job? Get Rakkel—he’s the one. He’s dedicated. He knows where his place is. A quiet life? Never. Betray a colleague and get thrown out? Not Rakkel. Now peace? Live and breathe the Fleet, then take it all away? Go home, be nobody, do nothing, see nothing, experience nothing. How?"

He ran a few skewed steps forwards and asked her eyes, his hands wide, pleading, How?!

There was no answer. He sat down hard on the chair and winced. The half-empty glass on the desk reached for his hand, then moved away.

A single red word

RECORDING

beamed out from the terminal screen.

How to be nothing?

He ran a hand through short blonde hair, pressed his palm briefly against his skull. The jarring had given impetus to the headache which had been brewing. He rested his elbow on the desk, closed his eyes, shook his head gently.

If only you were here to tell me. But we didn’t choose that. Perhaps… perhaps…

A tinny bleep issued into the room.

Door.

He closed his eyes. Not now.

He looked down at what state he was in.

Acceptable.

Yes.

The last thing he needed was a female form—a very appealing female form—but when the door slid back, that’s what he got. It was going to be one of those evenings.

It had already been one of those evenings.

He took a breath to try and clear his head, muster the best sobriety he could. Piya.

Her captivating blue eyes noted the glass on the desk. We are standing down from Alert. The whole fleet.

As part of a show of… solitude, I guess.

Just thought I’d let you know.

You could have just called.

I was passing.

He nodded. Yes. Sorry.

I’ll leave you to… She thought better of insinuation. She corrected herself. Night.

Yes. Yet his thoughts were elsewhere.

The door slid open to receive her.

Piya? He stood.

She stopped mid-stride. Yes?

If this really is peace, what will you do?

Celebrate.

I mean, after.

I don’t know. Why?

Oh, nothing.

After an awkward pause she half-shrugged and smiled. Night.

Hmm. Night.

The door closed and Rakkel was enveloped in silence again.

He heaved a half-drunk self-piteous sigh that was too familiar of late. Only to himself. Couldn’t let this get out amongst the crew.

He pursed his lips.

If this is peace. If. And if not?

His head hurt. Still a tiny voice of reason was there, somewhere in the murk. It pulled his stubborn frame into action, as if sleepwalking.

He went to the desk and hit a key on the terminal.

OUTGOING MESSAGE DELETED.

The pretty face vanished to a point and was gone.

Rakkel Irr stretched his weary back and went to the window. He had a momentary desire to step outside, breathe deeply of the crisp air in the clear infinity and lighten his dull senses. To walk without stinting as if in a vast garden, to bound unconfined through the stars, to drink in… what was it?

Freedom.

But not freedom from travails. Not freedom from aggression. Freedom from himself.

He glanced over to the now-blank terminal.

I’m not nothing yet, he said to the room, turning his attention back to the transparent portal. But you may wish you’d been here.

CHAPTER TWO

THE UNIMAGINABLE SILENCE was wounded.

Occasionally it would be pricked, teased, but the hurt would be short and quickly repaired to perfection. The mind-less, feeling-less creation would return to complete peace.

Then rain would come again. Somewhere. It never knew where (it could never know anything) nor when.

The silence would split gently, drips becoming drops becoming pattering becoming drumming on the hard earth, the scattered rock, the ocean.

Or it would be rent asunder, the billowing grey-black pounding the air like cannon, the water lashing down as if to beat the land into submission for even its very existence. The thunder would echo, squeezing the silence within inches of its life. Daggers might pierce the curtains of water, whip-cracking when the booming drew breath, later perhaps they would duel, squabble over the silence’s survival, and, spent, retreat into non-existence. Until the next time, silence would hold sway again here.

No more. The silence was wounded, yet it could not know this was a fatal mark.

It was a calm clear day, thin high cloud smearing the blue-green sky, when the machine arrived.

Arcing out of the strong light of the binary suns, a silhouette sharpening out of black pinprick, it bore down, an arm drawing back for the sucker punch into defenceless silence. The descent steepened, the arc tightening, tightening until it vanished into nothing, the machine bearing down vertically on the surface.

Then the punch, the retro thrusters bursting into life, blue flame piercing the air with a roar as she came down. The silence shrunk back, experiencing nothing like this before.

Dust and fine grains whipped away first, then pebbles trembled under the rushing air, moved, were kicked away by the blast. Anything resisting it was warmed, heated, toasted, made red hot as the module slowed on its bellowing columns of fire, stubby legs reaching out for the ground.

Slower and slower it came, as if fearing to close the final gap, wincing from touching this strange surface, then the fire billowed the dust storm in on itself, searing the hard rock beneath as the distance evaporated and the machine touched solidity.

Fire subsided and silence took an apprehensive breath. Dust began to settle, rock to cool.

The landing module had made fall on a rocky vista in the planet’s northern hemisphere at about thirty degrees longitude. The plain lay on the western edge of the largest of the nine island continents, in the shadow of the imposing ridged mountains and bordering the green-blue ocean. Occupying a tenth of the plain’s area was a great lake, almost an impossibly perfect circle, over which the summer breezes rushed and cooled. Winter rarely let ice take any grip, but storms whipped the waves into a fervour, while high summer sucked at the moisture, drawing down the level, before the storms lashed it back with hearty interest repaid.

Silence was breathing easier, head above the covers, hands away from its ears. Sunshine rippled on the lake’s undulating waters, careered off the sharp slants and verticals of the craft, warmed the mid-day plain into the slightest heat haze. Hardly anything moved except dust and a few leaves on the exiguous brownish shrubs that were the only flora this empty planet mustered.

Land covered only ten percent of the surface, irregular stains floating on an endless liquid canvas, the island shores losing—slowly, interminably slowly—a battle against the waves.

Third of the binary system’s seven planets, it span almost vertically on its axis. No moons kept it company on its endless journey through the unwalled blackness. No visitors came here to the edge of the spiral rim. No otherworldly sound stumbled in on the ancient war between nature and silence.

Until now.

With a low whine, a door in the side of the module slid back. Alien air escaped onto the plain, mixing invisibly in the mass, contaminating. Now a humming, and the module grew a protrusion, a short narrow ramp stabbing out from the aperture, reaching for the earth, touching it, compressing it, stopping.

Nothing for a little while (silence held its breath), then a figure appeared in the doorway, paused briefly, then swung a leg onto the ramp. Into the suns’ glare it walked, down the short metal strip and—no fear, no excitement, no ceremony—took its first steps on the virgin soil.

It came to a stand, surveyed the land for a few moments, then crunched away in a circle to the left, looking about, keeping the module at its shoulder, until it returned to halt again at the foot of the ramp.

All good.

Invisibly, inaudibly, something left the figure, bound for the otherwhere.

- Continue.

the otherwhere replied.

The figure turned to the module and ascended the ramp, disappeared inside the stark shape on the stretching landscape. When it returned, it had company, a wheeled vehicle following obediently, a puppy behind its master. On reaching the dust and stones they stopped briefly.

An invisible, inaudible burst of something pricked the quiet air and the wheels set in motion again, trundling away from the figure, bobbing gently on the rocky scars and humps.

The figure seemed to watch it go.

Go West, young man.

- Go West young man?

I was talking to the EnviroProbe.

- Go West young man?

I picked it up from the Archive.

- Oh, the Archive again.

There are worse ways to pass the time. There is a lot of time.

- I know there has been a lot of time. You were not alone. The EnviroProbe will not understand anyway. It is just a machine.

I did not imply it understood.

- Do you have anything useful to say?

It is pleasant here. The lake is interesting.

- Interesting.

Ninety-seven percent a perfect circle.

- So many impact craters, the average of probability is…

I know. But it’s the darn tootin’-est thing.

- Darn tootinest. Oh dear. I think we had better get back to the business at hand.

Yes. I will go for a walk.

- You do that.

The robot returned its gaze to the distant EnviroProbe. It was taking a surface sample with a tiny sucking, scraping mechanism rooted in its underbelly.

At least you don’t answer back.

- I heard that.

Ignored.

The robot walked away from the foot of the craft towards the lake’s edge. It initiated its mercury clock timer (because it felt like doing so).

Behind it, the non-sentient wanderer completed its first task, emitted a low hum, rose into the air a short way, and accelerated towards the mountains. It was barely visible in the distance, a grey blob against the grey range, still a long way from the foothills when it stopped, lowered itself gracefully to the earth and began seeking more answers from the alien rock.

Ad-Sar felt the gentle on-shore breeze brush the tiny synthetic hairs on his face as he strode, calmly but purposefully across the plain. His immense mind was in constant harness, analysing every scrap of data that visual, aural and tactile sensors imbibed.

Oxygen nineteen percent. Carbon dioxide four percent. Hydrogen ten percent. Nitrogen fifty-eight percent. Helium eight percent. Sulphur dioxide one percent…

Ad-Sar already knew this. This was redundant confirmation. But pleasant redundant confirmation. And necessary, gave the Dictate.

He—they—already knew most things that were needed, even answers the EnviroProbe was seeking. Most was old data, but they didn’t have the heart to tell it (not that it understood—it was just The EnviroProbe).

(Sometimes he thought about calling it ‘EP’ for a change, so they could talk about it behind its back using a term it wouldn’t understand, then he realised the EnviroProbe wouldn’t care either way—because it couldn’t—so he didn’t bother. Even so, there were moments when he’d considered having it as a private joke. It had been a long voyage…).

The temperature of the breeze had dropped by 0.84 of a degree; the lake was close now. It was calm near the water, barely a wave rubbing at the sloping shore. Looking along the curving shoreline, he focussed on sporadic plant life, simple water weeds which carved out their lives over the millennia of the planet’s existence.

On the shale of the shoreline he paused. The EnviroProbe was gone from normal sight. He magnified up—it was in the foothills, doing its bidding.

74,687,098,228,100,827 mercury atom oscillations between here and the module.

Call it 75,000,000,000,000—that makes it easy. No-one will know.

- I will know.

We need a basis of time. And don’t you have better things to do than eavesdrop?

- Why does that make it easy? And no, I don’t.

Divisible by three. Three minutes from there to here, twenty-five seconds a minute. We have to start somewhere.

- And the planetary rotation period?

70,040,541,669,231,754 oscillations.

- Well lucky you. Twenty-eight hours of a hundred minutes. No-one will know about the rounding.

For a while.

- But priorities. The lake.

Darn right.

- Oh dear.

Tiny micromotors whirred apertures closed, and Ad-Sar moved off, ten paces down the sloping shore before a foot splashed water. Then another, and another, both feet, both legs, torso, head, then gone. The green-blueness closed over him and the surface fell clear again.

At a depth of five metres he stopped, feet barely sunken into the firm lake bed. Overhead, he watched the countless shades of water dance in shadows of the rippling surface as light tried to force its way into the depths. Down, the dark shroud flushed and swirled with the storm kicked up by a stranger’s inroads into equilibrium, then slowly settled around its torturer.

Very silent here, even more silent than the plain.

An aperture in his torso opened and closed quickly over a small water sample. He bent down and drew in a little of the lake bed through a finger. He straightened, and looked around, magnified up, ten metres, a hundred metres, a thousand metres in the heavy colour.

Not too much to see.

Very soon he was standing on the shoreline again, water evaporating quickly from skin membrane, feeling the heat return to it.

The miniature laboratory within him yielded secrets, and the hundreds of autonomous subroutines went about their work.

We were wrong.

- We are not the first?

Three distinct single-celled organisms here alone.

- It could be expected.

But it does not change things.

- No.

I feel like a walk to the ocean. I estimate about six hours to return. EP should be finished by then.

- EP?

Forget it.

CHAPTER THREE

GALLA FTH HQIR.

Izah winced beneath the smile, head bowed almost diagonally to the shoulder. The gesture was simple enough to master; the language, by contrast, a minefield all too easy to stumble in.

Hqir? Hqirr? Hqir.

His mind made the back of his throat silently try it over, still showing the outward expression of reverence and platitude, willing the moments past, wanting them rewound for a better reach at the rehearsed mot juste.

Hoping. Needing. Unseen eyes on him, their future at his command.

Hqir. Hqirr? Hqir.

Peace and prosperity.—that’s what he’d been aiming at. Just a modicum of laziness with the tongue and a frown (what was the Xarrt equivalent of a frown—had he ever seen one?) would be the least he could expect from his opposite number. The most…?

Or Peace and (a small ocean-dwelling creature, quite ‘inert and cylindrical’—as it had been described by the Xarrt Ambassador) Hqirr. Not flattering. Not appropriate. Though surely not something to jeopardise all this?

Hoping. Needing. Waiting.

The Ambassador had assured him that the Sdall had equal trouble during rehearsal.

Maybe the Sdall was sensibly going over it in his mind-throat before letting forth. Maybe he was considering whether it was worth picking up Peace and Hqirr at such an auspicious moment? Maybe marshalling his forces with a pre-ordained telepathic order, the alien fleet straining at his single command to resume hostility. Maybe…

Freedom and longevitay.

The Xarrt Ambassador, behind and to the left of Sdall Klui-Y-Rgalsek, shifted his gaze from his premier to the figure opposite them both.

The figure bowed his head again.

So they’re not perfect. Call it evens.

The Sdall brought his three-fingered hands together as (approximations of) fists and bowed his flat scaly face its diagonal bow.

Leader Izah Sens did likewise—better fists but not quite the perfect bow.

Freedom and longevitay. Polite not to correct the pronunciation—better to prolong the dance.

Galla fth hqir, rumbled his opposite number.

Hqir! So you did get it right!

Or perhaps the Sdall was being polite as well—not mentioning Izah’s own tripping tongue? Of course, polite was not one of the first words you would use to describe these aliens. The deep voices and limited expressions, relatively cold eyes and seemingly colder hearts…

No matter. It is done.

The unseen eyes drew breath again. It was done. Izah had done it.

All down to this—the necessity of ceremony, of respecting each side’s behavioural idiosyncrasies, necessary (but unnecessary) gestures to speaking the other’s tongue.

Peace.

Finally, brokered of a desire to end the war that threatened to bring each race to extinction, peace.

Izah imagined the scattered colonies of the Placer Empire let out a collective and long-held breath. He however would not be so foolish as to think the conflict’s sarcophagus sealed shut just yet, even with signatures on treaties and pleasantries replacing war cries.

War breeds hate and a self-generating momentum. A thirty-eight year war spanning hundreds of cubic light years of space breeds the hate and a military machine that become the cornerstones of a civilisation, almost its raison d’être. To bring such a machine to a halt was one thing; to move it into reverse gear was another. This was only the beginning of a long end—a blessed start—and he still missed a heartbeat every hour or few for the rogue elements which were at play in nascent fields of peace.

To the best of his knowledge (and hopefully the best of his Advisors’ knowledge too), the cogs in the Placer military machine were all aligned in a commitment to end hostilities. All the warship Captains had reported in, ready to stand down arms, return the hardware to its homeworld, and face the prospect of impending unemployment.

Yet the universe is big. Easily big enough to get lost in, willingly or unwittingly.

Easy enough to hide in.

No machine is flawless, not least a military machine, and it was easy to speculate that a lost ship was lost out of convenience, for a Captain unwilling to follow orders or bent on an agenda of his own. Rumours came and went, the occasional search was made, but to a great degree the numbers tallied. Nothing was ever certain in the chaos of war; there were always delays, inaccuracies, surprises. Now, though, he felt confident in what he’d been told.

However this was only among the Placers.

Could he believe that the unashamedly aggressive Xarrt were all as one mind? Even by the Ambassador’s admission, a loose cannon was not unheard of in the Xarrt fleet. Here lay the weak knot in the coffin through which war could punch its way out.

There was only so much faith he placed in the Sdall’s assurances, and beyond seeking them there was little he could do, lest he compromise the peace process through insinuation. He hoped the Xarrt were as good at dealing with uncooperative members of their own kind as they had been at slaughtering Placers.

(And then he regretted the word. And whatever term he chose, he couldn’t argue that his race has been any less assertive in defending itself, whatever word you used for the killing.)

The quiet arena pushed in on him again, reminding.

The building was strangely empty, given the circumstance.

Keljan City Civic Lodge was located a full two kilometres from the diametric centre of the metropolis—not what one might expect for a building of such importance.

The designers of the Lodge had eschewed glitz in their specifications, opting for a simple yet imposing look that he liked to think was borne out of more than just the constraint on resources during the early years.

The stage was of smooth unpolished stone in a hundred natural shades of charcoal. Counterpointing the large dark expanse, the wings were quality fabricated board in silver-grey, the backdrop and ceiling a dusky indigo. The ceiling reached forwards out over the stalls and circle, terminating where the windowed boxes for press and watching dignitaries were sited. Both stalls and circle were raked, the circle more so, and the seating described two-thirds of a semicircle.

Only the stall seats were filled today—Izah didn’t want more security and rigmarole than was necessary. Yes, it was a unique occasion, but the System allowed anyone who wanted to view the proceedings to do so in their own home anyway, hence the audience was strictly limited to senior notables—Council, Fleet brass and visiting Xarrt dignitaries. It was very odd to see the imposing reptilian figures perched awkwardly on the comfortable chairs. He didn’t envy the Lodge cleaners that night—the Xarrt were prone to scaly secretions of unfathomable design.

Izah thought he heard a cough, and snapped back into role.

In a domestic ceremony, the two parties might touch both fists as a gesture of reconciliation, but he fought that momentary urge. He doubted the Sdall felt similarly inclined, although it was a moot point—the Xarrt President (their best translation of the Xarrt term for their race’s Leader) would at least be gracious enough not to force Izah to touch him. When the first few Placer–Xarrt skin contacts resulted in alarming blisters for Izah’s race, both sides reined in the small amount of comradeship which might fleetingly surface between them.

Still, this needed something to conclude it, and the only gesture that came to mind was his own—so he brought his fists together, gave a gentle nod to the Sdall, then turned to where the System was picking up its transmissions, and paused.

Klui-Y-Rgalsek bowed the Xarrt bow, and turned to be beside Izah.

Now they were back onto an agenda item after the brief ad-lib; the address. Izah spoke in tone and volume as if he were addressing the Sdall, and the System made sure that (what remained of) the Empire saw and heard him. By translation, the worlds of the Xarrt Dominion, billions upon billions of kilometres away, witnessed him too.

The Placer Leader had cordially offered to have the Sdall speak first, but the other had—almost graciously—declined. So it was that after Izah’s brief oration, Klui-Y-Rgalsek rumbled his incomprehensible rumble out to both races and then fell silent.

Another bow apiece, and it was over.

Signalled that the System’s gaze had disappeared from them (doubtless to be replaced by fanfare and punditry), Izah turned to see Advisor Noer coming to greet him. Glancing across, he saw the Xarrt Ambassador also joining his premier.

The small audience began to chatter and melt away, Placers with smiles, Xarrt with nods.

Well, it’s over.

The Advisor fingered the tight collar of his ceremonial robe frustratedly. This was only its second time of wearing and he’d gained a little weight in belly and neck since Izah’s induction into Leadership those many years ago. He’d never liked the damn thing even then. Luckily its wearing was not a regular necessity, otherwise it would have needed altering. It still wouldn’t flatter his personage, though.

The ceremony, or the war? Izah asked with deliberate ambiguity.

I should say both. But I can’t, Noer replied.

How are the masses to have faith if we don’t?

You have faith?

I have hope.

Then I have hope the System isn’t listening any more. For your sake. Noer glanced over Izah’s shoulder in the direction of the Xarrt twosome. They didn’t appear to be listening.

Izah looked restless.

You want to slink away, Noer said.

"Not slink…" Izah corrected.

"While the going’s good? And I’m the one without faith?"

There are hard hearts behind those hard eyes.

Hearts is right. I wonder at what design created that.

A different one. That’s all.

Hmmm. A moment. So, let’s slink.

They were two paces forward when a voice boomed. Leader Izah. The Ambassador was approaching. The Sdall had stood his ground. I will join you while the Sdall’s ship is prepared.

For most, it was

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