After their meeting at the Moradesh slave bar, Shikrajan and Ghandula left and made their way back to the senator’s flat. The bar was in the centre of the city of Anhovrep and the ex-general found himself being led through narrow winding streets thronging with Brahmin-Ra and slaves going about their business. They passed other slave bars, some upmarket, some downmarket compared to the one they’d just been to and Ghandula found himself looking into the faces of the inhabited slave bodies sitting on bench seats outside, wondering who was behind the sometimes vacant stares that came back at him. Anyone of them could be a Senate spy or assassin as Shikrajan had himself feared only moments ago. Through some of the darkened windows of some of these establishments he could see writhing organic bodies resembling a kind of surreal Bacchanalian rite as the machine life forms lost themselves in organic pleasures they were not normally privy to. He felt himself in need of such pleasures himself, but there wasn’t time; there was important business to attend to, business that would really put the wind up the Senate once and for all. This time it would be different. This time he would win, and win for good, for the benefit of the whole of the Continuum Sphere.
The ex-senator’s flat was a ramshackle first floor affair. The wooden window frames were cracked with peeling, blistering paint and weathered, stained facades and dirty window panes. The main door looked hardly secure with warped planks and panels and more than one broken window glass. Shikrajan took out a bright shiny key that looked, to Ghandula’s eyes, worth more than the building itself, inserted it into a pitted brass lock and struggled to get the lock cylinder to rotate. Repeated forcing caused it to suddenly click open and they entered.
A dark, dank stairwell led up to the front door of the apartment. Another key and they were inside a small space with few adornments; it was obvious that Shikrajan was trying to keep a low profile by avoiding ostentation or perhaps he was just strapped for funds. After the rise of Virishpotep as First Senator, there had been a bit of a crackdown on Ghandula’s allies and many were no doubt now hiding under proverbial stones just like this flat. He suddenly realised that this could make his proposal to the ex-senator all the more alluring for there was nothing as persuasive as the promise of a better life. For security reasons, he switched to voice communication despite the supposed impenetrability of net comms.
“It seems you have fallen on hard times, senator,” the general began. “So unfortunate that a loyal and capable individual such as yourself should be reduced to such circumstances. Most unfortunate indeed.” He scanned his look around the room not to familiarise himself with its contents but to amplify his dismay.
“Can’t complain too much,” Shikrajan said. “At least I’m still alive.”
“If you can call this living.”
“Nonetheless, it’s good to have you back, general, despite the circumstances. But I’m curious. How did you manage to come back from the dead?”
“Oh that’s easy,” Ghandula told him, “mainly because I wasn’t dead to start with.”
“But Virishpotep managed to kill the human body you were inhabiting at the time.”
“Yes he did. However, I knew he might try something like that. After all, it was a plan I’d used on Indulesh previously. So I had contingencies in place. I had a pocket transference device on me and when I saw the attack looming I jumped to another slave body. Virishpotep killed a slave that was already a corpse.”
“My only regret is that my dear wife did not survive the assault.” The general’s tone was one of sadness, and the ex-senator had never seen him like this before.
“How unfortunate,” Shikrajan offered. “You must be heart broken.”
The tone now became a little menacing. “You’ve no idea. But that’s not the only reason for which revenge will be exacted.”
“You mean against Virishpotep?”
“And all his supporters. Not only did they take my spouse from me but also my rightful rise to power. It’s time, once again to restore things as they should be. Weakness will be swept aside and replaced with strong rule.”
“I agree, but – but how? You have no cohorts.”
“Yes, and that’s the first thing we are going to correct.”
“Yes ‘we’, Shikrajan. Do you want to spend the rest of your days frittering time away in a backwater like this?”
“I guess not.”
“If you help me, I can offer a position of power and influence in the new regime. Interested?”
There was a pause. Then, “Yes. Guess I can’t hide from the Senate for ever.”
“Good. Very good. Now, tell me about the Veshwana.”
“I’ve heard rumours that they’re itching for some action. Since Yashwani’s revolt there have been no further uprisings and the other Brahmin-Ra factions have decided that challenging the Senate is out of the question too. All the soldiers have had is endless drills and exercises and, as you know, the Veshwana lust for real battle.”
“And what of their numbers?” Ghandula wanted to know.
“Things have changed, Ghandula. They have more powerful weaponry and even better shielding. The virus loophole that the slaves exploited has been plugged. Combine all this with better senses and targeting and they are at least five times more powerful than in your own day.”
“Is it? Five times more effective means five times less needed. This has allowed the Senate to reduce the number of cohorts required drastically. This has many benefits as far as the government is concerned; lower costs and less generals.”
Ghandula was shocked. Almost in a trance he asked, “How many are stationed here on Moradesh?”
If Shikrajan had been organic he would have swallowed nervously, fearing the fate of so many messengers of bad tidings. “Three.”
“Three? Three! See why now is the right time for my return? Virishpotep is an idiot like his predecessor. He seeks safety not in strength but in weakness. And this will be to our advantage.”
“First we will commandeer the cohorts on Moradesh without his knowing. Then we will take over the military factories and make more, a lot more until he is totally outnumbered.”
“Despite the best secrecy, he’ll eventually find out.”
“By then, my dear senator, it will be too late.”
Khoreshtep was in the barracks of the Caracal Cohort after conducting that morning’s military exercises. It was a day like any other; the same routine with soldiers that were bored with a lack of combat. He was running out of new exercise ideas and sensed that his days as a general could be numbered if his ingenuity ran out. There was no question of mutiny but things had a way of getting back to the ears of the Senate. He went over to the window and looked out at the Veshwana milling about and wondered what to do next.
Suddenly a call came in over his wide area net – it was Lashahotep, one of his staff officers. “Yes?” he asked.
“We’ve got someone at the gate who wants to see you.”
“Get rid of him.” The general was in no mood to see strangers.
“Says he knows you. Calls himself Shikrajan.”
Khoreshtep did know the senator but that had been a long time ago. Still… “Ask him what he wants.”
There was a pause, then, “He won’t say but says you’d be foolish to not hear what he has to say in person.”
“Okay, send him up.”
Moments later Lashahotep arrived with another Brahmin-Ra. “Well?” the general asked.
“I’d rather discuss this in private, alone.” Shikrajan indicated the staff officer standing behind him.
“That’ll be all, Lashahotep,” Khoreshtep said. He waited for the officer to leave before turning back to his visitor. “You call yourself Shikrajan.”
“I knew of such a person many years ago. But I notice you have had your idents removed. You could be anyone.”
“A necessary precaution, general. My political support for Ghandula put me in danger from the Senate.”
“And you’ve been hiding here on Moradesh ever since?”
“Yes. If proof of identity worries you, I can furnish evidence of who I am.”
“I’m sure you can. In the meantime, what is it that I’d be foolish not to hear from you?”
“This may seem fantastic, general, but I come with an offer from Ghandula himself.”
“Ghandula? Are you out of your mind? He died two centuries ago.”
“Not so, Khoreshtep. He wasn’t in the slave body when it was killed. He’d suspected that the remnants of the defeated Senate would try an under handed trick like that. And now he has come back to us to crush that weak and ineffective body once and for all. And he has a grandiose plan which involves not just destroying the Senate but conquering the Universe of the Seven too, to place it under single, strong rule and to place himself in supreme command over all. But to do so he needs cohorts and generals, like yourself.”
“Very commendable, but what’s in it for me? What do I gain by taking part in this coup of his?”
“Far, far more than the Senate has done so far. You’ve been left to rot in this backwater with little to do and I know the Veshwana are restless. Is this the just reward for loyalty to Virishpotep and his cronies? In comparison, Ghandula can offer glory, riches and victory in battle.”
Despite not being in politics, Khoreshtep was aware of the ever present traps for the unwary that could threaten a person in his position. The offer was certainly tempting – if true. But he disliked subterfuge and so decided to tackle this individual head on.
“You come here with a ridiculous story that Ghandula is still alive and make an equally fantastic offer. How do I know you’re not from the Senate itself, sent to test my loyalty? I’ve a good mind to have you arrested and dealt with in the harshest way possible, just to be on the safe side.”
“Ghandula is going to achieve his aims with or without our help. When he does so, do you want to be the one who spurned him? When he’s gained control over the Brahmin-Ra there will be a day of reckoning against all of his enemies. Now, Khoreshtep, are you a friend or an enemy?”
“Before I make that decision, I will need to speak with Ghandula himself. Face to face.”
“That can be arranged.”
“I take it you can do that from here?”
“Then you’ll remain here as our guest until the deal is done, if it checks out.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Pray that it does.”
Praying, it turned out, was unnecessary. Days later Khoreshtep and the other generals on Moradesh had sworn allegiance to Ghandula whilst still appearing to remain loyal to the Senate. And now, on a dark rainy evening, Shikrajan and Ghandula arrived with a platoon of Caracal Veshwana at the biggest military factory on the planet. The facility was in a shallow valley with a road leading to it from the south so from their vantage point in the hills, the two of them surveyed the compound for signs of life but all was quiet apart from a few militia patrolling the perimeter fences and a few more in towers. Inwardly, Ghandula scoffed; this was going to be like taking candy from a baby but the main concern was keeping everything secret from the Senate. The trouble was, these factories had a constant link to their masters back on Rapula Prime. Ghandula scanned the scene then spied the array of antennae and dishes that constituted that link. First order of business was to break it. He addressed the senator.
“Has Khoreshtep got the block in place yet?”
Shikrajan consulted the general over his long range net link. “Yes.”
Ghandula gave the order and the Veshwana advanced on the factory. He watched as their intimidating black forms marched down the side of the hill towards the buildings, rain silhouetting them in a silvery halo as it danced off their heads and shoulders. The guards noticed them earlier than he thought possible but they did not open fire and just stopped and watched the approaching soldiers. The platoon, however, had no such reservations. They immediately opened fire and mercilessly slaughtered the militia before breaking through the perimeter to enter the grounds of the factory. As they did so, one of the guards in one of the towers offered resistance; a beam of energy shot out and hit the shields of the Veshwana in the rear but with no effect at all. One of the black forms turned and used a single cannon to shoot the guard dead with a bright beam that flew through the darkness into the tower, eliminating its occupant who fell dead with a clump to the ground. Although it wasn’t really necessary, the other Caracals did the same to the remaining defence towers. That met with Ghandula’s approval; thoroughness and not leaving anything to chance. The soldiers continued unopposed. After a while Ghandula received a message from the platoon commander that the plant was under their control and that the factory manager was being held captive in the main manufacturing area.
“Right,” he said to his companion. “Time to do business.”
After a walk down the valley slope past trees and bushes they came to the break in the fence. They passed through and walked past the bodies of the slayed militia, their plastic and metal still smoking from the Veshwana’s weapons. They came to a building that was obviously being used as a slave bar; bewildered humans watched them and he became a little concerned – anyone of these could harbour a Brahmin-Ra mind which could easily swap back into a machine body but then he noticed that the place had been secured; there was a Veshwana just inside keeping an eye on things. He’d also noticed that even Veshwana bases had their own such bars whereas in his day the soldiers had to leave camp and visit a civilian run establishment. It was obvious that Virishpotep was using all means at his disposal to provide the cohorts with sufficient distractions to keep them happy.
They were now at a large concrete building that he knew was the main manufacturing centre. He allowed Shikrajan to enter the large building first then followed to be met with a rather sad looking Brahmin-Ra on his knees with his hands on his head surrounded by Veshwana. He approached and looked down at their captive before speaking.
The manager complied and looked at the person addressing him. “Who are you?”
“I am Ghandula, former Supreme Commander of the Veshwana.”
“Ghandula is dead.”
“Whether or not I am is largely irrelevant as far as you’re concerned. Your factory complex is now under my control.”
“Not for long ‘Ghandula’. The moment you attacked the Senate was informed. Within the hour a Cohort stationed on this planet will be arriving.”
“Actually, they won’t; you see, I control all three armies.”
“Then a force will be dispatched from Rapula Prime.”
“Also not so. Your signal was blocked.”
“Then they still know. Any break in signal will alert them to the possibility of interference.”
“Well, when I say ‘blocked’ I should have said ‘substituted’ instead. They’re currently being fed a fake stream.” Seeing that the manager had nothing more to say, he continued with, “Which means you have no choice now but to follow my orders.”
“Well, Ghandula, I choose to not comply. What have you got to say to that?”
Ghandula ‘sighed’. “What is it with people when confronted with a checkmate situation that they think they can resist the inevitable? If you don’t work for me, I’ll have you killed and place one of my own people in charge.” The manager looked at the soldier standing closest to him. The Veshwana snarled menacingly at him.
“So,” asked the manager, “why don’t you do that anyway?”
“Because I’m not totally unreasonable. I like to give people a chance, and it would mean not wasting time on one of my own learning the ropes.”
“How do you know you can trust me?”
“Oh, I don’t. Someone with a squad of Veshwana will be present at all times, watching your every move. One false one and the results will not be pleasant. I don’t give second chances.”
“Apart from saving my life, what else is in it for me?”
“Everybody asks that question, even my loyal friend Shikrajan here. And so you should. People who don’t are not to be trusted. So let’s see. How about playing a small but important part in my quest to conquer not just the Forbidden Zone worlds but also the Universe of the Seven? Plus riches, a possible position in the new government if you prove to be loyal enough – in fact anything your heart desires – within reason, of course.”
“What do you want me to do here?”
“This is a Veshwana factory, is it not?”
“Then make them, lots and lots of them. I’ll need numbers to utterly crush the Senate on the battlefield. Shikrajan here will furnish you with the exact requirements. So?”
“Eh? Oh, well yes. Because of the Senate’s policy of idleness this place has hardly seen any action at all. Will be a pleasure to actually use it to full capacity.”
“Very good,” Ghandula said. “Welcome aboard.”
The manager wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be some kind of joke. He’d heard that a similar phrase was used by humans when hiring staff. He followed Shikrajan to receive his orders and Ghandula watched his retreating back before organising the security.
Zavrash was summoned. He was attached to the Caracal Cohort as an intelligence officer and had since become Ghandula’s head of security. He had so far proved very useful; the planning of the capture of this facility had involved considerable intelligence gathering, especially concerning the link with Rapula Prime. Now there was further work for him.
“As you know,” Ghandula began, “tight security is paramount to our success.” Zavrash said nothing so the general continued. “If the Senate find out too early what’s going on, we’ll fail, do you understand.”
“Naturally. So far we’ve managed to acquire this factory without them knowing.”
“Yes, but there’s a looming problem. If we start pumping out Veshwana, someone may notice. And the Senate’s spies we can only assume are everywhere, agreed?”
“So, your task is to find these agents.” Ghandula stopped for a moment not sure if this individual was up to the task in hand. “And then eliminate them.”
“As you wish. I’ll start right away.” He turned to go.
“Just one thing, Zavrash.”
The security chief turned back. “Yes?”
“When I say ‘eliminate’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘kill’. Indiscriminate slaughter will run the risk of alerting the Senate another way.”
“But then how - “
“Kill if you have no choice, oh and make it look like an accident in such cases. Perhaps I should have said ‘substitute’ or ‘control’. In fact, consider bribery, to bring them over to our side so they can feed false, comforting reports to Virishpotep. Yes, that would be much more effective, and safe.”
“Anything else before I go?”
“Yes be quick. We begin manufacture of new cohorts in a few days’ time.”