Free fiction from the author of “The Golden Odyssey”
Beyond The Underworld
Galt flew low from the Triamese border, his backpack-sized, trans-unit carrying him fast and sure. It meant he was exposed to the elements, but at nightfall in the tropics this was little to be troubled about.
The exhilaration of eluding his enemies wrath soon faded after several hours of sustained flight. Now the hard-slog of surviving as a renegade began.
He made multiple direction changes to satisfy a random escape vector, reducing his chances of being tracked. Those he had fled from had a small air force, but were not likely to have time to bring it to bear. Although his Trans-Helm hid his head the Pathfinder was pale, with rugged-looks. The look in his eyes was wild and dangerous.
The Fell Ryders he’d clashed with were on the warpath though. He’d killed one of their number and that meant a blood-feud was likely from them. They were unbound by local laws which meant he’d have to be careful how he surfaced and moved.
He had to land at a dusty clearing after nearly fifty miles of travel. After quickly making some trim and ballast adjustments he headed deeper into the jungle interior.
He waited a week to weather any storm of retribution. As he existed on his stored ‘essence’ and cached food supplies no sign of the Fell Ryder’s materialized.
The boredom of nothing but existing, along with the eerie jungle-nights soon set in. By the end of the week, the strange night beasts, creeping biters and fliers that bit at exposed flesh were taking their toll. One sleepless night in the jungle too many he summoned up the will to return to the border of Triam, which he did without incident.
Once he reached the river that he’d fled across the previous week he detected no hostile signs from the city of Parohm. Even so he proceeded carefully.
As it was the early hours of the morning he held off for a while, that way even the most hardened Triamese drinkers were nowhere near his former abode. For he knew from experience the girly-houses and sing-bars were less than a few hundred yards adjacent on the waterfront.
When he felt the time was right he moved in, taking extra care that no enforcers were lurking about. None were present, no doubt asleep in their police-quarters as they usually were whilst on night-shift. From the outskirts of the riverside it was a quick infiltration inside.
As Galt had expected, his once-thriving workshop was now a blackened ruin with debris and broken furnishings everywhere. The stacked oil drums outside facing the waste ground were still intact though. Exiting the workshop through the northern facing-window Galt flew down to them, all the while his optimism climbing.
He now took his time as these contained his hoarded supplies and equipment.
Tech-relic’s or techrels as they were referred to in the Saken slang was a better way of describing them. One by one he removed each ring-clamp and all was how it had been when he’d last closed it up.
He’d sealed most of the cache inside evacuation bags months before Stenman’s raid. It was environmentally-sealed, which was just as well, for the drum he’d stashed it inside was filled with waste hydrax oil.
The spare flight-unit was inside another drum, also oil-filled. It was a sky-soar variant, fast enough to keep up with his own type but would need a major overhaul when he had time. For there had been no time for sealing it during the confusion and chaos of the raid. The concealment oil from the drum would undoubtedly have gummed up the nano-mechanism from within. Once he removed the unit, Galt used a spare poly-bag to prevent the oil-ridden unit from contaminating any of his other gear.
Minutes later he was airborne with both the evac-bag and the poly-bundle netted and suspended on a glider line below him. Now he was ready to pick himself up and start anew elsewhere.
A vengeful part of him mulled over hunting down Stenman and wringing the little wretch’s neck for what he’d done to his dreams of power within Triam. Yet deep down his soul knew it was time to move on, he’d danced long enough here and with the son of a Pathfinder’s uncanny intuition, he knew the land of Triam was now unfavorable to The Galt. It had the influences of both Indus and Jade ruling castes upon a native population, making him a second or third-best competitor anyway. His chances at success in the Oriental fringes now depended on places elsewhere.
Galt flew northwards, following the mighty Ghong River as it wended and divided Triam from the bandit lands to the east and north.
When the great river meandered westwards, Galt kept abreast of it. After about a hundred miles, he’d taxed his search suit and trans-pack to the limit. Towing the bundle was cutting down his range but he pushed the envelope and rested only once at the midnight hour. The moon was strong that night and helped re-power his flight-unit for use once more.
By dawn the next day he’d arrived at the fringes of the House Saken base. It was the only active one within a realistic range and one he’d been to many months previously. It was just over the Triamese border in the shady disputed lands between Jade Empire and Triam. He espied it from afar at first to gauge the place and take its measure.
Galt was something of a rogue, verging on a renegade from House Saken.
As an apprentice Pathfinder he still had some status and rights within the ways of his ancestral people The Saken. Indeed he still wore wrist badge of Saken-Sign; for some part of him held to his faction even being an outcast. He looked at it briefly, the checked his bundles contents.
They contained his gold reserve in both hard and monoss forms, spare ammunition for his fallien revolver plus nine encrypted data-slates. The last item were crowning jewels compared to the rest for these were the data-slates. For they had an ocean-like capacity of details and gnosis peculiar to the Pathfinders. He resisted the urge to delve into them further, for his pressing goal of the moment was to get to the Saken base.
A roving patrol, called an Outwatch, went about the exterior, their movements were predicable enough though and Galt easily dodged past them.
His Trans-helm interpreted and analyzed the data and after about five minutes showed some favorable sign’s. Eyes that were long accustomed to the images and scripts beamed onto his eyes now saw that the commander of the base, a Saken Watcher named Kharseg ruled from the complex, but he was absent.
A dozen or so of his Craiven-Elite were gone with him but a resident Pathfinder, Mar-Wek remained inside along with a small garrison force of mostly Sindle troopers. This was fortune for Galt knew him of old, back when he was a struggling trail-finder still learning his way.
Mar-Wek was his father’s sworn blood-brother and even in his father’s death the bond between them lived on, as the older, grizzled one looked after Galt the younger.
“Mar-Wek, what paths do you cut amidst this rabble,” Galt said softly watching those upon the base’s walls pacing about.
They were Craiven warriors and manned the wall’s crossbow emplacements. Doubtless more guards dwelled within that he could not see directly. These one’s happened to be a cruel lot for the most part. Caucus, Yellow Warrior and Twin-Race alike. Galt had found that race was a strange thing out here in the Orelta part of the Orient. Although Galt’s flesh was of the House Saken’s Caucus bloodline, their way was little in tune with his Pathfinder spirit.
As he watched his inner entity sang the Song of the Outcast in his mind, reminding him of his predicament.
‘Where he sought knowledge, there was only closed-dogma.
Where he yearned for freedom there was only control.
When made attempts to change them and their ways the path of a Renegade was his only means of survival.’
Galt listened to his inner-guiding voice briefly once more, then made his next move.
He made the secret signs and signals to Mar-Wek via his Trans-Helm and wrist-slate. Shortly thereafter Mar-Wek appeared at the walls, he looked about from the high vantage with a pair of old scry-lenses, then located Galt. Galt smiled seeing it really him and not some enemy trick to lure him into danger. With a final gesture to Galt the way into the base was clear.
Safe passage and shelter assured he was no longer apprehensive about the stronghold. The gateway’s hardened steel doors opened and a few Craiven warrior’s emerged with Mar-Wek in the middle.
Once the buzz of his arrival had died down the older Pathfinder brought Galt up to speed on the doings of Triam.
Stenman still smoldered for his head, as did Aython who now led the Fell-Ryders. However since Galts near-capture and breakout from Parohm the general chaos from it had caused a rift in attitudes. Triamese authorities had outlawed foreign mercenaries hiring themselves out. So the Fell-Ryders were themselves undone and likely to be heading to pastures anew elsewhere.
The peace treaty that was keeping things calm on the Eurasian Front between House Jade and House UNAS looked to be breaking. A UNAS recon-unit being recently captured by Jade troops had been executed, enraging the Unifier who led the UNAS.
Galt brooded on this as he rested and recovered from the ordeal of the past week.
He knew that Stenman’s shadow from Banroth had boundaries and he felt the paths of fate calling him to the north. That was where he felt the need, the pull of that which a person should follow to get the best things from life. He got to work about making it happen. He and Mar-Wek went about overhauling the oil-clogged sky-soar unit.
Next he did a discrete review of the Saken Garrison present. For his next gambit planned he’d need a bodyguard, one suitable for training as a trail-finder or at least an assistant. Previously, he’d relied on a small Triamese guard force in Parohm but they were no real use, especially on the gambit he had in mind. Thinking back to the night of his near-downfall he felt no solace with them. As Stenman’s morning attack unfolded they’d not been keen to rally to his aid, especially when the enforcer assault was underway. He put the memory aside, dwelling on what he’d lost would not bring it back.
His first choice for a bodyguard would have been from the female ranks. Unlike many of his peer’s he preferred a warrior-mistress over a casual bedding-wench. The Triamese women he’d previously known made pliant mistresses but poor fighters, although some of the upper-class could command their own warriors usually. Even then he’d have to try Ranesh City, many hundreds of miles through Triam to the south had those. So that notion was right out.
The only woman at the base belonged to Kharseg, but even if he could persuade her to join him the retaliation from Kharseg wouldn’t be worth it. He’d be harried to the ends of Terra for such an affront to the base commander. As it was Kharseg did not see eye-to-eye with Galt. He’d only been to the base once previously and the brooding Watcher had been glad to see the back of the outspoken apprentice Pathfinder.
He was next tempted to recruit one from the notable Craiven Elite, a few of which loitered around here and there. They’d been interested in Galts arrival at first but on hearing that he was not within Kharseg’s inner-circle of brethren their interest soon cooled. They were capable experts in killing and fighting as armed scouts. Some even said they were capable of besting the Ryders of House Soliter. Galt doubted that but their skill and hard-won experience counted for something with him. Yet they were too tough, brutalized and closed-minded for being under his wing, even if he’d be able to persuade one of them. He’d struggle to operate and handle one of them.
There were no low-born drone warriors or Sindle present either, these too would be difficult to train, especially in the free-wheeling ways of the trail finder. Drone-folk tended to be machine-minded in many ways.
It was from the Sindle, the foot-soldiers of the Saken that he found Roachas, recently promoted to Craiven status and something of an innocent, at least as innocent as a Saken warrior can be. Fresh-faced, with Caucus-ancestry and youthful. The lad was not quite as pale as Galt, for his hair color was much darker and showed the burn of the sun like most Sindle and Craiven did. He was not long out of the Underways and less hardened than most. He had eyes that were not the usual pure-black or red but instead were brownish-hazel. Galt’s own eyes though tended to be gray-green for he was not quite a ‘pure-blood’ red-eye according to the Saken Lords. For most Pathfinders were not Saken-born but converts from earlier times. Some like Galt’s forefathers were uneasy converts at that. Roachas though was born in the Underway bases and had spent about twenty years there. He knew little of the outside world, save for Triam.
He was reasonably well-equipped for a former Sindle trooper. He wore a functional scry-helm which gave fair spectrum detection, along with a shrouder-array integral to his Craiven uniform which gave some optical camouflage ability. It wasn’t quite a superior cloaker-class model but was better than no concealment at all. Unlike Galt he did not have a conditioner or even an active-cooling system in place to cool the body down in the sweltering tropical heat. Such an item was a luxury though and added to the weight and drag on an airborne warrior. As a newcomer to the Craiven ranks he lacked even a Glider-Unit for airborne capability, only his shrouder gave him an edge as a scout-fighter. Galt would soon remedy that short-coming though.
Saken arsenal’s had improved since the early years of their emergence on the surface. No longer were they relying on bolt-guns and revolvers, even the low-middle rank of Craiven had decent weaponry and Roachas was no exception. He was lightly-armed but carried an excellent combat-pistol that had select-fire capability. A weapon known as a Ceezeck in the Saken tongue. As a scout-class Craiven front-line fighting was not his role though, although some types preferred folding-stock carbines.
Galt knew he was making a good choice with this one. First he spoke with Mar-wek who, as acting-base commander gave his consent. He confirmed that the lad had nothing outstanding against him, no disease picked up from the local pleasure girls nor blood-debt incurred during his lifetime.
With the flight-unit as payment to Roachas he traded it for six season’s worth of services, along with some basic, if unofficial training in the ways of Pathfindership. According to Saken law this was a gray area. A Pathfinder could, in theory, recruit for accepted bonded-payment’s another Saken warrior’s services. Yet Galt was only an apprentice officially, albeit a highly experienced one. So this was a debatable practice, especially given Kharseg’s fiery and abrasive personality. With the Base Commander absent and Mar-Wek in charge the way was open for Galt to operate in his maverick fashion regardless.
The following day was preparation. He consulted his devices, deciding that outside of Triam would be best, no doubt where his doing’s and deeds were less well-known.
He had Roachas overhaul and service the drained and cleaned sky-soar flight-unit, plus bartered with Mar-Wek a spare canister of fuel for a just a pinch of powdery gold monoss.
Fuel would be available in other lands, but having a spare reserve would be handy in case of trouble. By mid-day he began his work servicing his own flight-unit, which had long been lacking in attention. It was a difficult procedure, but one Galt had become a near-savant at making it look easy. By the evening he had finished. As had Roachas, who had customized and configured it to his body with help from Mar-Wek.
After this was done the Craiven flew about the base like a freed-slave from the Underways. Apart from a few hours on a borrowed glider unit Roachas had no real flight time to speak of until now.
Galt was mindful of Roachas’ flight unit once belonging to little Perep, the warrior who he’d slain. He was not one to brood but Galt considered the passing on of the unit closure of the violent show-down in Parohm. The loss of his workshop there was a fading memory now, as was the violent clash that took place. Watching Roachas fly around the base made him think of the Fell-Ryders assault days earlier against him though.
“At least now your flight pack is seeing good use little air-bird,” Galt said in prayer to the fallen Fell-Ryder he’s slain in the previously.
His new companion made a final pass before landing nearby to speak to some of his friends. He was proud as punch and there was some envy from his Craiven peers. They tended to suffer from a dearth of flight-equipment in comparison.
Galt smiled, Roachas had some skill at the aerial-way and this reassured him that his bodyguard was a handy one.
Snapping shut his own dyna-sealed flight unit he had time for a quick meal before retiring to the third floor for a good night’s sleep. With the tinny buzz of the jungle humming in his ears Galt slept well for the night hours.
Just after dawn he was shaken awake by chubby Mar-Wek with Roachas at his side.
“You need to get going! Kharsek is coming back,” he muttered with an urgent manner, much less than his usual jovial self.
“So soon? I thought evening-time was his return,” Galt blurted, astonished at the suddenness of Kharsek’s return.
“Nay, the Outwatch glimmered his approaching presence. He’ll be here within the hour, now get going. Hurry now, I have to prepare this place and the Sindle fools are drunken all over the place,” he warned, stomping outside to shout at someone.
There was no time for delay and within ten minutes, he and Roachas were away, flying over the eastern walls before turning to the north. Galt suppressed a notion to wait on the periphery and spy out the arrival of the Watcher, but then thought better of it. Kharseg’s scouts were likely to be ahead of him and would report on them if they caught a glimpse.
He pushed his trans-unit to the limit and Roachas kept pace admirably without complaint. The sky-soar unit was built for sustained speed and needed only infrequent refueling. When such instances arose the land-based hydrax stations all sold compatible fuel-mixtures for a few coins.
The Jade Empire was their destination. It was a vast, decentralized realm along the southern border. The rest of it was busy warring with the UNAS faction far to the west. To the Pathfinder that meant an opening, for where there was a distraction, there could be opportunity.
Once again Galt was on the move, at least this time he was prepared, ready and a-fire with a plans for the future.
The Blue Serpent
Chientze was a small and industrious town, a mere thirty miles or so north of the Triamese border. From the mountainous terrain that separated the nation of Triam from the Jade Empire it flattened out around Chientze for a few dozen miles. Away from it to the north and east it became undulating hills with a few mountains. Beyond them lay vast mountain ranges with many more narrow valleys between. Great jutting and ugly brown things for the most part, not like the lush terrain further south Galt thought.
Trade was big business in Chientze and not all of it was above board and lawful in the eyes of the Jade Overseers. Inside more than one of the bustling casinos, gambling dens and warehouses. The latter of which tended to have plentiful trading rooms with a thriving black-market trade in smuggling. Heavy trucks, belching black fumes roared out with fresh wares for smaller markets and factory’s across the vast Empire. Leading and following the heavy trucks were smaller escort wagons and scout cars with armed men inside, ensuring that any who wished to intercept the cargo wagon would have to brave the escort-guard first.
One of these trading-room in particular was the Blue Serpent. Like most of the warehouse and trading rooms it was of rough concrete construction with wooden fascia’s for the trading room’s, lending it an aspect of traditional surroundings. On the upper floor was where the leader and inner-clique of theBlue Serpent lived, while he ruled his smuggling business concealed with a veneer of trading machine-bearings below.
The occupier of the Blue Serpent was a short and conniving easterner known as Tong Paeng and was a typical-looking denizen of Chientze. A wispy moustache and a faint beard on wrinkled feature’s showed experience and a mind keenly honed to the cut-throat business of the smuggler’s world.
The euphoric fumes of the olume leaves, deadly in concentrated amounts and the precious fluids of human blood were the Blue Serpent’s specialty. The olume crops were harvested in the fields not far from the town. While the life-giving fluid of blood was siphoned off from the Triamese and Jader’s desperate enough to sell that part of themselves. It was also rumored that some originated from harvested murder victims. Like most smuggler-lords Paeng asked no questions on those making such trades with his fledgling faction.
Thick and heavy with chelg fumes Paeng’s business headquarters was a murky place indeed. The smoke shrouding the periphery as the two figures now entered the Smuggler’s lair. Those at the entranceway dispersed somewhat at their arrival inside.
The two entering figures were of the Caucus race, as they stepped into the light they became noticeable. One was tall and lean, the other stocky and broad. The former was helmeted and wore a gray and black skin-suit with an active cooling system that whirred faintly. His trans-helm was open and raised but the auxiliary glass over one eyeball gave him a measure of their intent. All seemed neutral, for now.
On his back was a roughly square-shaped back-pack which helped his suit perform wonders. Armed only with a holstered pistol at his side he radiated assurance with what he carried. The latter one was just as exotically attired, with pad-armor clothing, a holstered side-arm and a back-pack slightly smaller than his companions.
Behind Paeng were two hired warriors. Both Jaders of some means and they eyed the two warily. Paeng’s men were equipped to a higher standard than ordinary foots-soldiers of the Jade Empire. Both had Aker carbines pointed off to one-side and Galt subtly kept his hand only inches away from his serch-suits defensive switch. One that would send a velocity-field enveloping around him. Caucus folk were seldom seen in the Jade Empire. The immigration restrictions on them coming and going meant either serious connection’s had to be made, or the border check-point’s had to be ignored entirely.
“So who are you white man and how is it you come to us?” Paeng said addressing the taller one and taking the measure of them both.
“I am Galt Pathfinder,” The tall one responded ignoring the last part of Paeng’s question. He spoke with the helm’s built-in I-trans device, it was capable of a variety of language translations and synthesized his words into the Jade tongue.
“I’ve heard that name before, something on the Nex-news of trouble by that name,” Paeng stated shrewdly.
“The Nex often makes mention of trivial-nothings. I have rivals who foster dissent on the news-net. Being a Pathfinder has its own hazards you must understand,” Galt smoothed.
“Hmmm, what is it that brings you to the Jade Empire?” The old one asked, knowing this was no passer-by.
“Opportunity, travel and profit,” Galt smiled as he spoke the last word, knowing that it would be an ice-breaker. In response the rheumy eyed one now nodded and smiled, showing cracked and herb-stained teeth.
“I am listening, what is it you offer?” Paeng said, narrowing his eye’s now. The hard-nosed businessman in him was flowing into being as he listened for the response.
“As you know, the war between the UNAS and the Jade Empire rage’s onwards, supplies are ever required for the war-machine and on the front-lines.”
Galt paused to let the words sink in slightly. These yellow folk were no fool’s though and they made no attempt at enjoining word’s but instead typically would stay completely silent until the speaker had fully finished what he wanted to say. Galt continued.
“I am a veteran Pathfinder, trained in the arcane arts by my father who is no longer of this world,” Galt said in his best Jade tongue. Exaggerating his status and standing. This was absorbed at first but after a few moments Paeng responded.
“Who is this one?” The Jader said, pointing at his companion who, in response looked wary at the suddenness of it.
“This is Roachas, my apprentice,” Galt responded smoothly, but slightly annoyed at the interjection.
The Jader took a slight inhalation on his chelg pot then bade Galt continue.
“You are a contraband smuggler, one who specializes in blood-packs and narcotics, the latter of which the Jade Council have officially outlawed for many years now.
“The largest cities and troop garrisons are paying a premium for your wares though. For the most part though, these are nearly two thousand miles away to the Tarim Basin plains. With the UNAS front lines being contained just beyond the Nuklun mountain ranges further north-west, it’s a lucrative business.
So you require subterfuge from the mainstream avenues of passage. Yet to sell your wares at a profit you must often risk such a route,” Galt spoke fluidly, without hesitation and the elder smuggler-lord bade him continue, impressed at his knowledge.
“The mainland routes are risky though, patrolled by Jade Warriors who have orders to slay any suspected smuggler they capture. You could try to make a way across the Koralle Mountains, thus avoiding most Jade Enforcer and military patrols but that’s mostly infested with drone-warriors, skraegcreature’s and mercenary-marksman.”
Paeng now began to realize this one was no mere chancing scoundrel, intelligence radiated from him. Galt carried on in full flow.
“The small and narrow trails would delay you at least three to four months anyway,” Galt raved the lengthy appraisal and oversight of Paeng’s smuggling plans quite smoothly. “Assuming your convoy made it through relatively unscathed.” His I-trans device conveying his words into sing-song Jade language with only the slightest of delays. It was something he’d taken great care to fashion into his Trans-Helm so it was not obtrusive to the eye. Roachas also had one of these also, but it was a more basic and bulky model encased in a small square hollow of his helmet.
Paeng absorbed the words and now regarded Galt with a combination of suspicion and intrigue. Unofficially the UNAS were allied to the Shadow House of Saken making them the enemy of his homeland. Yet as a smuggler he was part of the criminal underworld and this Galt seemed a wise snake to converse with.
“Times are hard now Pathfinder. The last two shipment’s sent out have not been… fortunate. I cannot afford a third loss! What is it you have for me? Stating the facts does not change them.”
Now Galt smiled as he unfolded his master plan that would set him up for the future.
“I can navigate a safe way, one which has no meddling Jade authorities or treacherous mountain’s to cross. As a Pathfinder I have access and knowledge of the Underways.”
The I-trans speech translation came across somewhat sketchy and Paeng frowned a little. Galt explained further.
“These are great stretches of tunnel that run across much of Terra. One of these exists not far from this border-town. It goes far across the empire to the central plains and valleys you so dearly seek to sell your wares in,” Galt concluded, laying out his scheme.
Taking all this in the Blood Trader’s mind now weighed up the options. Galt in his own mind was taking a gamble. For what he was attempting was risky. As an experienced, albeit apprentice-level of Pathfinder, he had only the rudiments of finding and tracking through an Underway, much less leading a supply caravan.
Yet he allowed himself a smile, his data-slates gave him an edge for they were rife with detailed files, plans and charts of the Underways. Normally even a veteran Pathfinder would struggle to acquire more than three, but Galt had managed to purloin nine. The crowning jewel of which was a comprehensive travel map of the Underway network. It wasn’t complete, but covered much of the Jade Empire, all the way to the west, stopping at the central mountains and plains, where the Eurasian borders began.
It was his trump card and he intended to play it well.
“The underworld is too dangerous Caucas man. Those entranceways are hidden, sealed, guarded. They are said to be infested with demon-beasts and impossible to navigate.” A dismissive tone showed in Paeng. He too was intelligent and not altogether unknowing of the hidden knowledge of the world.
“Not for a Pathfinder!” Galt inadvertently raised his voice more than Jade etiquette allowed and the guards behind Paeng shifted uneasily. “I am an expert on safe travel through such places, no demon-beasts will assail us if I am trusted to lead the way. I can assure safe-passage.”
A silence set in.
The narrow-eyed one briefly regarded the white-eye with a baleful look. Who was he to state that tunnels underneath the Jade People’s feet was Sakens?Yet the previous two attempts at a smuggling run had ended in abject failure, a third loss of merchandise would see both his standing and his fortune’s destroyed. He had already had to pay the money lenders a visit to cover his losses.
Now a chance was before him to set his fledgling smuggling house back as credible smuggling operation.
Galt smiled his best with gray eye’s twinkling a conspiratorial gleam. “Name your term’s Master Paeng,” he concluded, smoothing over the jagged moment of transgression.
“The Pathfinder can speak first, as is the custom in doing business with outsiders,” Paeng countered, the merchant-class roots of Paeng’s Jade ancestry manifested.
Galt expected this and was ready for hard-nosed negotiating. “We can lead your supply convoy into and to the end of the Underways. That is all the way across the Jade Empire westwards to arrive not far from Uzbez at the western fringe valley,” Galt said firmly. Uzbez was just twenty miles from the Jade border and within range for distribution up and down the frontier.
“How much for this service?” Paeng said carefully.
“Four centires of gold,” Galt said positively with a fair smile. A centire being roughly equivalent to six ounces of gold monoss, which in turn could buy plentiful goods, even advanced equipment.
A pause as Paeng’s minded spun the numbers. Centires were a Europan and Eurasian standard he was aware of but Paeng was more used to Jade specific weights and measures. These tended to be somewhat less than a Centire. When he’d worked out their worth he answered.
“For such a mission one is all I can spare,” Paeng said firmly.
Galt said nothing in answer, forcing the Jade one to speak on.
“Hydrax is a high price these days especially since the UNAS resumed their blockade,” Paeng said, feigning regret now.
“Is there not plenty of bio-hydrax to spare? The way through the Underways is a straighter road than the overpasses and mountain routes, less expense and time from your gold-box. A single fuel-tank of hydrax will be required plus a reserve for emergencies,” Galt responded shrewdly, before repeating his original offer.
“You push your luck outlander, the Jade Warrior’s garrisoned outside this town would be keen to know of strange Caucus people here.”
Galt’s hand subtly rested onto his velocity-field switch. It wouldn’t stop a bullet dead in it’s tracks but would slow it down or turn it well enough.
Roachas tensed for action. He had no protection from a shield-barrier himself and would have to hope Galt’s own field-projection from his would shield him if it deployed.
“Trying to harm or have us captured won’t change your problem,” Galt said slowly and deliberately. “If you want a way out and your merchandise sold for a safe, tidy profit then I can be the key. All other suppliers of your wares will flock to the Blue Serpent once more, for you will be the one with what you smugglers call ‘The Golden Route.’” Galt let his words sink in carefully. He wasn’t one for schmoozing about but it had its place in negotiations and he wasn’t shifting on his offer either. He’d be taking a calculated risk bringing outsider’s into the Underways, especially for profit and his own end’s. Yet in the Galt’s eye’s it was worth it.
“With I, Galt Pathfinder steering the way your former glory as Smuggling Lord can be had once again. The offer stands at four centires. You are the best in Chientze, I know you can afford this risk.”
“Three centires then, but for that I expect no problems Galt!” the Jader hissed loudly, he did not like to be hard-bargained with, especially by an Outlander Caucus.
Galt nodded with a grin. Things were going to plan and he listened as Paeng laid out the arrangements.
The Smuggler’s Road
The next morning Galt and Roachas walked among the smuggler-folk. The morning cool was sharp and crisp this high in the mountain valley. Inside the compound of the Blue Serpent numerous support elements scurried about in the large warehouse yard. They busied themselves with loading up the convoy and making last minute checks. Several of the smuggler-troops had arrived the previous evening and brought with them victuals and other supplies for the journey.
There were three vehicles: Two small vehicles and a larger wagon that would be transporting the ‘wares.’
The road to where Galt had said they could enter the Underways was fairy intact but the doors themselves were a challenge. From scouring the data-slates The Pathman knew it would be a tight fit.
He’d flown out earlier in twilight hours to personally check the concealed, great gate-like doors where in order. Removing the shroud-plate with an access template from his wrist unit he’d exposed the unlocking mechanism and set about operating it. Even with the data-slate as a guide it took him nearly twenty minutes to align and unlock the complex rotary dials. Then another five to check the metal lock-pins retracted before re-locking them.
Galt had had Roachas lurk in the shadows at the town while he did all this to covertly eavesdrop in and around the Blue Serpent. It wasn’t likely, but there was a chance Paeng was plotting their downfall, having had second thoughts about the whole thing. On returning to meet with his Craiven, he was assured there was no treachery afoot, Roachas had eavesdropped on Paeng’s advisers. Aside from them being critical of Paeng’s trust in letting Galt lead the way there was no skullduggery planned.
The usual Jade convoy-leader, Genlee, was absent during the night-hours. He was a tough and shrewd Jader and had a sallow-face that seemed permanently angry. A distinct fighting scar across his left-cheek showed he was no stranger to violence. The hard drinking and heavy chelg smoking habits made him no less healthy. Roachas gathered that he liked hard-drink, smoking Chelg and wenching pleasure-girls when he wasn’t transporting wares for Paeng. Galt briefly met and was introduced to the man earlier that morning, all what Roachas had told him certainly matched the man whose gnarled hands he firmly shook. The Pathfinder had known worse examples of humanity and Genlee, while not the worse certainly was not companion material.
The Jade-built wagon they were using was an older ‘turtle-giant’ model with a noisy hydrax-fired engine. Stenciled on the side was the image of a turtle and a name in Jade script. Galt’s trans-helm made a rough translation of ‘Loper.’
Which was the name given to a lumbering beast of burden still bred in parts of the Jade Empire. The Loper was slightly wider than he’d envisaged and accommodating it through both ends of the Underway would be tricky. After double-checking his Intel and measuring the actual dimension’s his fears abated slightly, for it would still be a near-squeeze.
Three of the smuggler guards regarded Galt warily as he did this. His wrist-unit, the climate-controlled skin-suit and his flight-unit were all regarded jealously.
Galt was seen on a murky level as that of a favored guide. As well as the obvious racial difference he and his companion’s technos was far superior any in Chientze. Even in the capital cities all but the wealthiest Jade nobles would have anything close to their equipment and abilities.
The passage through the Underways also concerned the Yellow folk. Many rumors and half-truths were whispered of them, mostly dark and foreboding.
“This bunch aren’t a friendly lot Galt. We’ll have to be on our guard,” Roachas said, faintly.
“I know it, I had to choose the best of what was available my friend. While they are less friendly than the Triamese folk I’ve known, I doubt any treachery from them telling of us to the Jade authorities. They are of the criminal class remember,” Galt said, checking his complete panoply of equipment as he did so.
Any irony of what Galt said was ignored to himself, for he did not consider smuggling a criminal endeavor and felt fully liberated in what he was planning to do. The Jade Emperor did exactly the same thing in his dealings, only it had others to do the dirty work via the insidious Delman clerks.
Roachas was more uneasy about this, although the adventure and tales Galt had told him of his time in Triam was appealing, away from his comfort zone of the Saken surface base the fear of the unknown lingered. Yet he felt confident enough to join Galt making a brief display of low, concealed airborne flight around the tiny convoy. Both concealed with their stealth fields meant little issue from prying eyes nearby.
The Loper was open-topped, with thick steel sides. Being a rigid chassis with a long forty foot cargo ‘bin’.
There was no articulating lynch-pin like that of the massive cargo-haulers. Thus it lacked maneuverability at slow speeds and tight spaces. It was easier to drive though and had more stability.
“How much do you think its worth?” Roachas asked Galt, as they eyed the last of the blood-bags being loaded.
“The entire cargo? About thirty to thirty-five centires I reckon. It’d be worth more but the blood bags aren’t being cooled so they’ll have added stilsis to preserve it instead. Yet doing that will lower its purity and market value.”
“Do the para-serpents really need that much blood?” Roachas said, referencing the cyborg-creatures used in Jade armies.
“No, they are only part organic. I suspect that the traders on the other end of the route sell it on to the black-market, the medical houses. Plus any elite fighters that use sustain modules,” Galt said, referencing the way combat-effectiveness was boosted. Sustain units were scarce though and led to deadly toxic-effects unless used carefully.
“There’s not much Olume on board though,” The Craiven said referring to the intoxicating opiate drug. Only a few bags had been loaded, nearly all of these into the main crew-cab where the driver and two passengers sat.
“There won’t be, it’ll be for the officers and Jade Elites who like that sort of thing. Foot soldiers are usually forbidden from taking it,” Galt said wistfully before continuing.
“Most Olume from these parts is sent either south through to Triam or east to the Jade sea-ports. I believe the other smuggler guilds in this town tend to focus on Olume more than this one.”
“Where does it go to after that?” Roachas was indeed curious, for the most part he was clueless about Europa, ISTAR and the Black Lands.
“From the ports it’s shipped off to the rest of Terra. Where it’s refined, blended and cut into the noxious stuff the skankers’ shoot up their veins. Like many things in this world my apprentice, the original product tends to be not so bad, but further away from the source it becomes less pure and vile. In the old day’s it was a lot easier for making money narc-running that than it is now. America was ripe for the plucking back then and the smugglers had a field day. Now though, the ISTAR Militia’s, especially the Northern League make infiltration difficult and Europa is as fickle as always.”
“Did you smuggle—” Roachas started to speak but Galt held up his hand and pointed.
Below them the convoy was almost ready to move. Both men deactivated their stealth fields and descended into the buzz of activity.
Genlee didn’t like Galt and his already narrow eyes viewed the Saken-pair balefully. For the smuggler Captain had been keen to try one last attempt at the mountain trails. Now though, this gray-eyed one had convinced his master to try for the mythical Underways. The Caucus pair did not declare themselves for any faction allegiance, but to Genlee’s bitter and cunning intuition that told him they were an unpredictable factor, especially when war raged against his people far to the north-west.
The agreement that was sealed earlier saw that Galt as the Pathfinder would be convoy master and Genlee would in limited control as convoy commander. The former being in charge of the journey and destination, while the latter was in charge of the guards, convoy vehicle and precious wares. To Genlee it was he who ought to have outright control with Galt accompanying them as advisor only.
Galt had briefly conversed with him earlier on the initial departure time but nothing for the route itself. The first impressions of one another were jagged. Galt was adamant that any details of the Underways were to remain under his control while Genlee wanted a map to study and scrutinize. The division right from the start was worrying, but it could not be any other way. Even if Genlee could understand the elder-Saken tongue it would be foolhardy to let such a person learn the secrets of just a single data-slate. Galt tactfully stressed that as the Underways were the domain of his shadowy faction it was safer for him to be overall commander.
Thus grudgingly Genlee allowed Galt and his companion to lead the convoy from the front in the scout car He would command the Loper that followed on behind. The extra smuggler troops designated as the Escort Guard followed in a tougher rumble-rover class of vehicle leading behind theLoper. This, along with the outlanders being outnumbered, kept Genlee’s delicate sense of superiority balanced.
Galt landed alongside Roachas at the car and they loaded three bags of provisions, spare clothing plus their evacuation gear bags. The latter item being the first thing to be grabbed in an emergency prior to escape.
The Underways were one of the best kept secrets of House Saken and Galt knew that he’d have to have his wits about him, not only for external threats, but the danger from within as well. Genlee had the slight energy pattern of jeopardy about him for this mission. From discretely further scanning Galt could see he was a controller-type matrix persona. His men were firmly under his thumb and the Pathman was glad he had Roachas to watch his back.
“Mr Galt we go now OK?” Genlee called out in rough-caucus language, he wore the drab-tan camouflage fatigues as did the other smugglers.
A flash of a ‘thumbs up’ came from Galt and the rest of them now scurried about into their vehicles. The whole convoy was disguised as a military expedition, with forged manifest’s and papers. It had served Paeng fairly well over the years since the Border Wars had broken out between the UNAS and his people several years before. Galt, with his gray and white pattern serch-suit looked like an officer-class type to all but the highly experienced eye. While Roachas in mostly light blue-black-pattern Craiven uniform roughly corresponded to that of a foreign mercenary. It was almost nondescript but still soldier-like.
Inside the large transport Loper was where Genlee and now climbed, aside from Genlee, was the driver, a chubby-looking smuggler and Genlee’s own personal bodyguard Yan. Yan being another one Galt was wary of, one who seemed something of a deviant in his ways and manner. A couple of the lower-ranking guards had the dubious honor of riding on the trucks upper cargo hold, they’d be exposed to hazards and the elements, but such was the cargos value Genlee insisted on it being babysat.
He heard fumbling to his left and saw it was Roachas now fiddling with the ignition mechanism.
“Nice and easy driving one of these things Roachy,” Galt said breezily, behind them engines were being started and revved. “Not too far ahead of them yet keep it so Genlee isn’t creeping up our backs either,” he ordered his warrior who nodded.
Roachas had some experience with vehicles and got familiar with such things fairly quickly. It was manual transmission but lacked a fully-functioning power-steering accessory. The Craiven now turned the key and the battery sparked, firing up the hydrax-engine. In a corner of the compound, almost fully ignored by the occupants, was the wrecked hulk of a computer-engined vehicle. It was from before the days of the Blue Sun which had destroyed the delicate technos on Terra. Only the rugged, crude engines without fancy computer controls had survived and could be rebuilt. Such things were a fairly crude way of propelling vehicles Galt reckoned, compared to his back-pack attached Trans-Unit that was. Most of House Saken lacked artifact technology such as his though and so hydro-carbon tended to predominate both on the surface of Terra and in the well ventilated bases beneath the surface.
Behind the Loper the Escort Guard of four smugglers mounted up into the rumble-rover, they were tougher-featured than the rest, Mongust-looking and wearing light body-armor. Their vehicle was bigger than Galt’s scouting vehicle, being a sightly longer, bulkier rumble-rover class of machine. It was brown painted and military-framed and imported from far-flung Albion with a Jade-engineered engine. The Escort Guard now crammed inside after loading their weapons and supplies. They were the fighters of Genlee’s troops Galt critically surmised. Their added heavy firepower of a single belt-fed machine-gun augmenting the more lightly armed nature of the others. Along with extra provisions and supplies the Escort Guard would be the main tool of Genlee to fend off any danger as any serious opposition would see them be a bulwark of defense. Galt knew though that with a good forward plan and advanced scouting the heavy-weaponry was purely secondary. He wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with the set up though and nodded at things overall.
‘They’ll do.’ His inner-entity murmured.
Then the entire convoy moved off.
The first hazard lay just five miles north from Chientze. Here, there was a check-point manned by a detachment of Jade soldiers. Galt had Roachas slow right down while he zoomed in and analyzed the approaching obstacle. His artifact-level of technology, scanned and analyzed to a precise level of outcomes and dangers, with suggestions and alternatives.
They were some way off but the way the check-point was built there was no driving through with ease. Steep slopes on either side would challenge his off-road vehicle and the Loper would stand no chance, unless it built up speed to smash through it.
Even that would be suicide, for a small mandrake tank was emplaced next to the barrier building. It was a on a raised mound for increased elevation and was a quick-firer; capable of slamming a narrow cannon-shell rapidly into an opponent in succession.
Galt brooded few a few seconds weighing up in his mind how to proceed. The Mandrake would be an issue if they had to fight, but Galt wasn’t one to be intimidated by Terran technology.
“Is your ‘I-trans’ receiver working properly?” Galt asked his companion. “Last night you seemed a bit concerned about it.”
“It’s a bit fragile, but it can hear and sqwark Jader pretty well.”
“Good, if they stop you, try your ID, then the papers. You know the cover-tale on them?”
“Yeah, it’s supplies for General…” Roachas spoke haltingly, stumbling for the name.
“Zhang,” Galt inserted helpfully.
“Right, got it,” Roachas nodded.
“Zhang uses Caucus mercenaries, so with the ID and the manifest papers you should be ok with them. However if that fails, play it cool but watch for my lead,” Galt spoke the orders carefully and deliberately.
Roachas nodded and focused on the road. In some ways Roachas was a fatalist, either his way would carry him or it would not. It allowed his to put worries aside, indeed he was a gentle soul when the mood took him but was capable of incredible violence if the need arose.
Galt activated his trans-pack. As he ascended into the morning sky his stealth field bloomed, matching the gray and colorless hue of the morning. Then he was like a shimmering ghost in the sky.
Minutes later the convoy, minus Galt who Roachas assumed was now on overwatch, had reached the barricade.
Two large armored cars formed a ‘V’ blocked the roadway completely. Together they formed an obstacle that even the Loper would struggle to shunt clear. Behind them the mandrake crew sat away from the check-point. Two watched a vid-screen which a Jade dolly-girl sang love laments while a third was busy finishing a breakfast snack. A Jade overseer was inside judging by the plain-green uniformed man that peered casually out at them approaching.
The Jade sentry thrust up his hand in a crude way while another nearby moved towards him. The Craiven noticed that their camouflage uniform was different compared to that of the imagery he’d been shown during his training days. It was darker, with a simpler pattern matrix. The sentry’s carried AK rifles, a weapon type that was awash within the Jade Empires forces. Reliable with generous machine tolerances for the working parts. Yet much cruder than the new SCAR carbines being issued out to western forces. The Akers tended to be somewhat inaccurate at any range over 150 yards.
Roachas slowed down and halted just before the pair and held out the papers for the sentry. These were the manifest documents Paeng had given them. He had no idea how they would stand up to the guard’s scrutiny though. While he could hear and speak Jade with his I-Trans, no amount of fine tuning his scry-lenses’ lynex interface could translate the strange script they wrote in.
The soldier took them from him with a scowl. Noting his non-Jade features. He perused them while his partner went along the convoy to the main supply vehicle.
Once at the Loper he exchanged words with the driver there, asking him questions.
Roachas turned up his i-trans feedback unit and the translated words filtered through in a neutral Caucus accent.
“What you carrying?” A pinch-faced soldier said.
“Supplies for General Zhang’s army,” Roachas said carefully, passing the papers to the weasel-faced guard who looked at the embossed and colored manifest.
This seemed to have an effect as the guard nodded, the details on the manifest sinking in.
“You are Caucus, why are you here in my world Outlander?” The guard asked, his caution mixed with arrogance, his caution still noticeable.
“The General pay’s well for outlanders with UNAS forces’ experience.” Roachas said, glossing over his own faction identity, but figuring that as he was allied to the UNAS the statement had some truth.
“Your UNAS people fight against mine outlander.”
“Not I,” replied Roachas. “I am fighting for the Jade Emperor now. Zhang trusts those he chooses.”
This seemed to convince the man, who nodded then spoke rapid Jade-speech with the guard who’d spoken to the Loper smugglers. Roachas surmised he was confirming with him their stories matched up. Galt had taken pains with Genlee earlier to get this in place, so if it didn’t match Roachas tensed for calling out for Galt the instant he felt threatened.
The danger passed and the scrutiny-guard called out for the barrier to be raised.
As he drove through the Loper slowed down for the checkpoint. The Craiven saw in his side mirror the guard beckon them through without being searched.
After they’d gone another few miles Galt uncloaked and brought himself alongside the passenger door. Unlocking it Roachas began to ease off the accelerator.
“Don’t slow down and stop, keep going,” Galt shouted, his voice distorted behind the trans-helm. He then opened the door himself, propped it open with his foot before lowering himself across and down into the seat next to Roachas. All while reducing the throttle to his flight unit.
Roachas was impressed, had he tried a similar move with his own hydrax-fired machine the seats would be on fire, Galt’s Trans-unit utilised arcane-forces beyond his understanding, save that its ‘cold-burn’ emissions were safer than his own sky-soar unit.
“Follow this road straight then wait for a right turn on my mark. We’ll make a trail-finder of you yet young Craiven.”
Only the Underways awaited them now.
That’s the end of the excerpt.
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