Chapter 14: Many Paths
“I can’t fucking believe our luck! Do you realize who this is?”
Niurgun was biogeled but he could hear what was going on around him.
“The son of Mongke Nasan, one of the Blood Wolves, commander of the Jagun and the thrac with the second highest bounty in the fucking universe, of course I know who he is do you think I’m an idiot?”
“I don’t think you are an idiot I know you are an idiot!”
Niurgun heard muffled sounds of a scuffle and then a third voice.
“Knock it off. You are both idiots. Signal the ship and let’s get out of here before somebody else shows up.”
Niurgun felt the familiar sensation of a magbeam.
“Throw him in a cell but don’t un-wrap him until I get there,” the voice ordered. “Don’t underestimate him; he is very dangerous. I am going to get us out of this system before they come looking for him. There have to be more thracs around. He couldn’t have been out here alone, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Niurgun was tossed like a sack into a dark, cold room and he lay on the floor for what seemed like hours. Biogel is permeable so he could smell many things and none were pleasant. Wherever he was stank of urine, vomit and grease; he was pretty sure he smelled blood too. Niurgun had spent most of his life in space so he knew the feeling of moving into hyperspace and he figured that whoever had him would be back to question him now that the ship was safe.
Sure enough within a few minutes there was the sound of a heavy door opening and finally a little bit of light. Niurgun thought he could make out three different voices and then someone kicked him, hard, in the ribs. If not for his nanoleathers his ribs would have been broken.
“You asleep in there pretty boy prince?” one of the voices taunted him.
Muffled laughter followed and then he was hit with another hard kick. A fourth voice came from the direction of the door.
“Let’s not damage him too bad at least not until I get a chance to question him. The ship is in hyperspace and we have about sixty days until we meet up with Jorgas. We’ll decide what to do with him then.”
Niurgun had not panicked until that moment. He did not have sixty days; he only had three. He had to be on the Avenue of Weeping trees in three days or Rowan would be trapped in the Academy.
“Un-wrap him,” the voice that seemed to be in charge ordered.
Niurgun felt the biogel began to dissipate and then it was gone as if it had never existed. He was laying on a
filthy floor in a small holding room with only a metal bench and a bucket in the corner. There was a small light in the wall with a mesh cover over it. Niurgun sat up slowly. His hands were still bound in biogel. The man that had been standing in the doorway hit him hard in jaw with the back of his gloved hand. Niurgun felt his mouth fill with blood. He spit it on the floor.
“We know who you are,” the man said, “but what were you doing there with no guard and your shields down.”
Niurgun looked up at the man and he was huge. He had rough skin and greasy blond hair. He didn’t look to have shaven in a few days and it had been much longer since his last bath. His grey eyes were full of hate, the kind of hate one has for someone they think has been given everything. Niurgun spit out another mouth full of blood.
“You’re Stavician. I once defended your system,” Niurgun growled.
“The man hit him again, harder.
“What difference does it make to me whether fades or thracs think they rule my world? We owe our allegiance to no one but ourselves. I plan to get rich while the ‘Great Races’ kill each other off. You all are nothing but arrogant pricks.” He hit Niurgun again. “Now answer me, what were you doing there? I know your nanocytes will grow you some new teeth but that doesn’t have to be necessary. It’s up to you.”
“Same as you, I was there for the same thing as you, the new sender.” Niurgun answered.
“Well that doesn’t really make sense, Niurgun; I can call you Niurgun can’t I? My name is Pace but you can call me sir.” Pace grabbed Niurgun by the hair and slammed his head against the wall.
“You are the commander of a cruiser, the elite of the elite and not to mention son of the Empress. Why would you be sent to retrieve a new sender alone?”
Niurgun had his back pressed to the wall which gave him the leverage he needed. He kicked Pace hard in the chest sending him backwards out the open cell door. Even with his hands bound he took out two of the other men and had the third in a choke hold with his legs when he was stunned again.
“Leave him for now” Pace said rubbing his chest. Let him spend a few days in here alone and we’ll work on him again. He isn’t going anywhere.”
The heavy door slammed shut and when Niurgun woke he was in total darkness. His ribs hurt but not nearly as much as his face. His nanocytes were healing him but it would take several hours. His collar was gone as were both of his comps. He had nothing but his boots and his nanoleathers; his hands were still bound.
How long have I been out? Only three days and she will be trapped, it was all he could think about.
He fought the biogel but he knew it was useless; the stuff is unbreakable. As every hour passed he knew that his chances of getting to Rowan became less likely. There are many paths Sara had said, many paths. He wasn’t going to give up.
He didn’t know how long he had been in the dark when the door finally opened again but even with his nanocytes trying to maintain his functions he was going to die soon without water. Someone held up his head and poured water in his mouth. He swallowed what he could but his throat didn’t seem to want to work. More water poured down his throat. The light came on. It was a very dim light behind a dirty cover but it seemed as bright as a sun. Niurgun squinted as he sat up on the metal bench.
“I thought we could start over again. We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot,” an unpleasantly familiar voice stated.
Pace was back and he had a young boy with him. The boy was holding a container of water. He stood pressed against the wall with his eyes looking down at the floor. The side of his face was bruised and swollen, dried blood was crusted on his filthy shirt. He wants less to do with Pace than I do, Niurgun thought.
I can hear you if you want to talk to me but don’t let him know. The boy thought to Niurgun.
Niurgun instantly closed his mind. Now I must control my thoughts. Surely Pace had brought the boy to try intercept any unguarded thoughts, but why then would the boy have let me know he was Thracian? Niurgun shot the boy a quick glance. Pace thumped Niurgun’s chest with his giant hand.
“Now once again what were you doing on earth alone?” he demanded.
Niurgun let out a long breath. “I will tell you if you will tell me how long I have been here.”
Pace seemed to be in a somewhat more agreeable mood.
“Fair enough, I can’t imagine why that matters but you have been here seven days.”
Is that true? He thought to the boy.
Yes he speaks the truth, the boy thought back.
. Niurgun’s heart sank. He had known he was too late but somehow hearing it made it real. Many paths, many paths, he said to himself. He had spent a lot of the last few days thinking about what he should or shouldn’t tell Pace but in the end he had decided that once Rowan got to Titania Cali would know what she was, at least that she was an incredibly powerful sender, so he didn’t think that telling Pace most of the truth would be endangering her more.
“The sender that I went for is probably the most powerful one ever born. My mother chose me because I was the only person she could trust to bring her back to Erdene. The bounty for her was enormous. I had my shields down because I did not want the Fades that had her to know I was there. I thought you had jumped into the conservatory
Pace smiled. His teeth were crooked.
“Now that wasn’t so difficult but why did you want to know how long you had been here?”
Niurgun looked up at the big man.
“I knew where they were taking her once they left earth and I had three days to get her back. Now that the time has passed it doesn’t matter if I tell you. Cali has her and no one can get to her now.”
The group of Thracians sent by Mongke jumped from the Callinish stones to the conservatory in Pittsburgh despite the fact that Niurgun had insisted no one else go. Mongke didn’t want them near where Niurgun was meeting Rowan but she couldn’t just let him go it alone. A short time after Niurgun jumped she sent four soldiers and two arach to follow him.
Once they arrived at the conservatory they began to search for Niurgun but they never found him. There were several jump signatures and they traced Niurgun’s last jump signature to outside the conservatory. The arachs are trained to follow scent and they took them to a street behind the building but from there they lost track of him. There were residual traces of stunner fire and magbeam activity but no other clue as to who had him. After about an hour earth time they jumped back to Erdene to report to Mongke.”
“No trace, you found nothing? Could you determine what kind of magbeam was used? “
“We found very little Empress, I am sorry. The magbeam is a Quill Type II generally used on very high end commercial craft but bounty hunters often purchase salvaged equipment so we can’t say for sure. If it is on its original vessel it will be a Vega Star-Craft usually owned by planetary leaders and very wealthy merchants. It’s a pretty pricy ship, all the bells and whistles, including a BCC system and fast, those things will give a Cruiser a run for the money. Only a handful has ever been built.”
Mongke was pacing up and down the throne room.
“I want you to find out where every one of those ships is and who owns them. Look for salvage records and the possible sales of any magbeams. Use all contacts we have with bounty hunters for any talk about the capture of a high profile prisoner. What is Cali’s present bounty on Niurgun?”
“Twelve Million Gold Lats”
Mongke sat down hard on the Throne of Tegus.
“Great Creators of our ancestors, no one could match that amount.”
“She is offering even more for Fleet Commander Unegen, she really hates Unegen,” one of the soldiers added and they all nodded. Unegen was a legend among the troops.
“She cannot possibly be serious about paying such an amount. She will just kill them and make abominations out of their parts. They have to know that. We could make a counter offer. They will know that we will honor our offer but we don’t even know who has him and to make an offer would be tantamount to informing Cali that he is in enemy hands. Make the inquiries about the ships and discreetly question our bounty hunter contacts and then get back to me with whatever you find out.”
“Yes Empress we will see to it immediately.”
Mongke was at a total loss of what to do. She was not even sure that bounty hunters had Niurgun, the Fadians might have him and if so if she could not risk the rescue of Rowan, it could cost Niurgun his life, all she could do was wait.
Unegen and the Blood Wolves had left the relative safety of Thracian space and joined with another fleet to retake the Narubian System. It was a very large system with thirty planetary bodies. None of the planets were habitable but the mining on almost every one of the planets was very profitable. The colonies were located on moons and space platforms. The Thracians had received Intel that half of the Fadian ships in this system had been sent to defend the trading corridor in the Delgas Sector so they believed the fades to be at half strength.
The Thracian fleet came out of hyperspace on the outer edge of the system. Two very large ice worlds called the Blue Twins were the most distant planets. The Thracian fleet positioned themselves with the Twins between them and the center of the system.
“We will move out in teams.” Unegen said as she briefed the other commanders before the battle. “Each cruiser and its four subs will take on the talons stationed around the six main mining planets. I am transmitting the coordinates of your targets. Our sensors indicate only twelve talons in system. As soon as we move from the dark side of the Twins we will be detected so go in firing with shields at maximum.”
They moved as one from their hidden position. Unegen’s target was the mining platform on the planet nearest the center of the system. Gal followed her in the Arban Enq; his targets were the two talons positioned near a large space platform orbiting the third planet and the Tabin Suren headed for the two talons orbiting the largest moon of the same planet.
Niurgun’s ship the Jagun Dash had flown out with the fleet; Niurgun’s second in command had the helm. The Jagun Dash’s mission was to handle any weapons fire from the space defense platforms that were orbiting the fourth planet.
All the ships had reached their targets and engaged. The Juchin Sara made quick work of both talons and she had turned away from the systems star to assist the Arban Enq when six mindships and their complement of talons jumped into the system, it was a trap. Three of the four cruisers in Unegens fleet were close together around the third planet but the Jagun Dash was separated from the fleet. Unegen ordered her sub cruisers away immediately. Their shields were not as strong as the cruiser shields and they stood no chance against the mindships.
“All subs retreat towards the system star,” she ordered. “Head directly towards the star until you have to skim around it, then sling shot out and enter hyperspace. Hopefully you will draw away at least one mindship; you can take a lower faster approach around the star and it should give you the time you need. We will meet you at the prearranged coordinates. Good luck and get out of here. Gal and Qourchi concentrate fire on the nearest mindship. Keep it busy until your shields are at forty percent then follow the subs and get out of here. I am going to get the Jagun Dash.”
Unegen took Sara around the moon of the third planet and moved out fast past the mindship that Gal and Qourchi were engaging. Sara was taking heavy fire but her shields were still at one hundred percent. No ship could maintain shields like Sara could. The other three mindships had turned to attack the other Thracian fleet further out in the system. Unegen hoped that their sub cruisers had been ordered away as well.
As Unegen approached the fourth planet she was attempting to raise the Jagun Dash but she got no response. She rounded the huge planet in such a low orbit that the ship disappeared down into the boiling red atmosphere. They emerged on the other side right under the noses of two mindships and Unegen saw that she was too late. The Jagun Dash had been caught between the two ships and the planet and the particle beam fire from both ships had deleted her shields. Only pieces remained. Two hundred lives lost, Sara cried out for Dash but there was no answer.
Unegen had to think fast to avoid being caught in the same position. She dove back into the atmosphere and practically skimmed the molten seas that lurked beneath the seething clouds of gases. The mindships were firing blindly into the red clouds as Unegen went around the planets south pole and headed back toward the Narubian system’s star.
“Unegen to Fleet Commander Ceren,” she tried to reach the commander of the other fleet. “Retreat from the system. Disengage immediately and meet us at the rendezvous point.”
The Juchin Sara passed the mindship that was pursuing Gal and Qourchi but not before she put several well placed hits on the rear sensor array. They gained speed as they went around the system sun and then entered hyperspace. Unegen only hoped that the rest of the fleet would be there when she arrived.
When they came out of hyperspace at the rendezvous point all of Unegen’s sub cruisers were there as well as the Arban Enq and the Tabin Suren but only three sub cruisers and one cruiser made it back from the second fleet. The loss of three cruisers, nine subs and all hands aboard was a devastating blow.
“I am going to find the person responsible for the information that brought us here and I will rip their throat out myself.” Unegen was in an uncharacteristic rage. “We were set up. The talons arrived with the mindship so we know this plan was months in the making.”
Unegen wore the hearing device so she could communicate directly with Sara. She could hear Sara singing the most mournful song. “I am so sorry Sara,” she said, “Dash was very young and I promise someone will pay for this.”
“Sara is sorry too Unegen. Sara did not even hear her final song. My sister’s death was quick of that I am sure but my pain will be long. Sara will miss her but this is the path I see it now.”
Unegen did not quite understand all Sara’s talk of paths but Niurgun had assured her that it was important to listen to Sara so Unegen did just that.
“What path is that Sara?”
“It is the path to the Eki of course.”
“We have found some information for you Empress and I believe we have the name of the ship that has Niurgun.”
Mongke was sitting at her desk in her office overlooking the Royal Gardens. It was a beautiful room paneled in light colored wood with dark swirly grains. She remembered how Niurgun used to look for shapes in the grain patterns for hours when he was a small boy. She rose up from the desk and went to greet the Captain who had brought the information she had waited almost a month to hear.
“Please sit Captain and tell me everything.”
She motioned to several large red leather chairs positioned to overlook the garden. She sat and motioned for him to sit down across from her.
“Our contacts with the bounty hunters have told us that a very high profile prisoner is being delivered to Jorgas in the Stavic system in about thirty days. No one has a name but security around Jorgas’s space platform is already being beefed up and we believe the ship that is coming in is the Belstar. The Belstar is a top of the line Vega Star-craft complete with a Quill Type II magbeam. It belongs to Jorgas Longi but it is captained by a man named Pace Renaut.” The captain smiled, “I think we have them.”
The Empress didn’t know whether to be relieved that the Fadians did not have Niurgun or more worried.
“I have dealt with Jorgas before. She is a tough negotiator and I don’t have any doubt she would deliver Niurgun up to Cali for the right price but I think she would realize the dangers of dealing with Cali. Has there been any word yet from Unegen? I want her to be there when the Belstar arrives.”
“No Empress but we expect to hear from her at any time.”
“Contact me immediately when you do.”
The Empress stood and looked out on the garden. The sun was setting as the sky faded from lavender to flaming red. The blooming Altan trees were vibrant orange in the setting sunlight; their beauty doubled in the reflecting pool. Flocks of bright blue Koke birds were circling in the sky before going to roost and the magnificent white Chagan birds glided across the surface of the pool shattering the orange reflections as they stretched their long necks whistling to the coming night.
“I used to stand here and watch him run through the garden, you know,” the Empress said softly. “He chased the Chagans, he broke the limbs of trees, he fell in the fountain and once he picked the rare bloom of the Millennium Rose that only blooms once every one hundred years; and do you know what he did with it?”
“No, Empress,” the captain answered.
“He brought it straight to me and said he had found the most beautiful flower in the world and that only I should have it… We must get him back Captain.”
Unegen’s holographic image stood before the Empress in the throne room and the news was not good. The loss of the men and ships was devastating but the change of tactics by the Fadians was cause for real concern and the fact that they had been led into a trap meant that there was a traitor to deal with. All of this was laid in Mongke’s lap at a time when Niurgun’s safety was all she could think about. The two talked for a long time protected from any prying ears by the glowing red columns that shielded their transmissions.
“Considering what has happened what are your recommendations Commander Unegen,” the Empress asked?
“I believe that you should increase the number of cruisers in the Thracian system. The willingness to send so many mindships, half their fleet to one location means that they will do it again. I have a terrible feeling that what we just experienced was a practice run before the invasion of our own system. Pull out of all un-necessary colonies and systems and protect Erdene.”
“I am afraid that I could not agree with you more,” the Empress admitted, “but what of Niurgun?”
“The Blood Wolves will retrieve their own.” Unegen assured her.” Jorgas Longi will be more than glad to return my cousin unharmed since that is the only thing that will keep me from killing her with my bare hands. We will leave now for the Stavic system, handle Jorgas and wait for the arrival of the Belstar. I swear to you on the blood of my
ancestors I will get Niurgun back.”
“Thank you Unegen,” the Empress said feeling more confident about Niurgun’s return than she had in weeks. “I almost feel sorry for Jorgas. I know you would prefer to kill her but Jorgas has been useful in the past and it is entirely possible that she did not sanction the capture of Niurgun. I always thought her smarter than that. You are authorized to offer one million gold lats for his safe return if necessary.”
“I don’t believe my negotiations will involve lats but thank you for the option,” Unegen said with a smile, “and one more thing Empress, when you find out who betrayed us I claim the right to execute him or her. I lost many good people and one very special ship and I claim the right.”
“Your claim is recognized and accepted,” the Empress said as she slightly bowed her head.
“Thank you, Empress.”
“Good Luck to you Unegen, bring my son back to me.”
The red columns dropped and the holographic Unegen faded. Mongke touched a hovering communications orb and called her staff into the throne room to discuss the defense strategy for the Thracian solar system. She knew in her heart that the thousand years of battles were nothing compared to the great battle that was soon to come. This battle would determine their very existence.