The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Two

In space, everyone can hear you scream . . .
As long, that is, as you're equipped with a RemLok survival mask.

   An instant after Alex Ryder hit the hard vacuum, a skin of PlasFibre had been shot across his body from nozzles on the face piece, keeping him warm against the cold, tightening and protecting him, securing him against the void. The oxygen flow in his body was cut off to all but his heart and brain. Needle-doses of adrenalin and somnokie were held ready, just within the skin area of his mouth, ready to alert or depress his body functions according to circumstances.
And the RemLok screamed through space for help.

   It was a standard survival device, an instantly recognizable distress call indicating that it was being sent out from a small, remotely located, dying body. The alarm screeched out on forty channels, shifting wavelength within each channel four times a second. One hundred and twenty chances to catch attention . . .

   A cumbersome Boa class cruiser, loaded down with industrial machinery, slowed its departure run from Leesti and turned to scan space for the source of the signal . . .

   Two police vipers came streaking from their patrol sector, near the sun, scanning for the body in trouble . . .

   An adapted Moray Starboat, a vast glowing yellow star on its hull—the sign of a hospital ship— came chugging out of the darkness . . .

   Messages from ships to both the planet and its ring of Coriolis stations were abruptly broken as the split second message came screaming through. TV programs were interrupted, the screen dissolving into a permanently recorded display of the space-grid location of the RemLok. Every advertising space module changed its garish display to flash, in brilliant green, the same information.

   In the orbit-space around Leesti, a million heads turned starwards. That split second of panic, that moment's cry of distress, was a sound they knew too well to ignore, and were too frightened of to take for granted.

   Within twenty seconds, two auto-remotes, tiny vessels just big enough to carry an hour's oxygen, one dose each of forty drugs, and a variety of other stimulants, were hovering around Alex Ryder's spinning body. one of them shot out a stabilizing cable and dragged itself to his corpse. Blinking through its solitary monitor, it hovered over his face like a squat, legless dachsund hound and pumped adrenalin, oxygen and glucose into his bloodstream. Alex opened his eyes and panicked slightly. The auto-remote calmed him down with a quick pump surge of tetval.

   The robot's voice whispered in his ears, 'Brandy? Scotch? Vodka? I am equipped with a full range of miniature stimulants to make the waiting easier.'

   'What . . . happened . . . ship? . . . Avalonia . . .' he gasped through the tight face mask.

   The auto-remote blinked at him sympathetically, 'Brandy, then,' and hit Alex with two shots of
Qutirian SynCognac.
An hour later he was aboard the Moray hospital vessel, in parked orbit above the green-grey face of the world of Leesti. Burns to his hands and face had been taken care of. Minor blood vessels that had ruptured in his skin had been knitted back together. He was bruised, stunned, but essentially fit physically.

   The image of the ship exploding had begun to haunt him, however. He stood by the wide, sloping window of his hospital room, staring out across the bright of space to the slowly rotating world below, watching the flash and tumble of shuttles and small freighters as they either glided up from world Down, or struck the atmosphere on their descent, leaving brief, brilliant flares of red in the thin planetary atmosphere.

   Wherever he looked he could see the shadow of the Cobra, rising up in the Witchlight, a great, killer beast, closing on its prey.
And his father's face . . .

   The sudden alarm, the sudden anger, and yet . . . and yet Jason Ryder had known.

   His grieving, mind-stunned son just knew that his father had been more aware of the danger than he had let on. It had been in his face, in the tension in the cabin, in the slow, deliberate words that he had spoken during the approach run to hyperspace.

   Jason had known that his life was in danger. He had been ready for it, ready to save his son in the event of attack . . .

   It made no sense. But for the moment Alex felt only loss, the loss of a man he had loved. Both his parents were gone, now. His home world would seem an empty, uninviting place.

   Behind him, the door opened softly and the grey-suited figure of a nurse appeared. She reproved him mildly for being out of bed, but seemed pleased by his apparently calm mental state.

   There followed what seemed like a constant stream of visitors. First the doctor, scanning him for tension and psychic repression. The medic was not pleased. He more or less said, 'Young man, your father is dead and it would do you no harm to shed a few tears. It's all there, all the grief, all the sadness. It'll do you no good to deny it.'

   'I'll grieve for my father,' Alex said back angrily, coldly. 'I'll grieve among the ashes of the pirate that killed him. And not until.'
'Will you indeed.'
'Yes,' Alex stated defiantly. 'I will. Indeed.'

   After the doctor had gone, the man from the Galactic Medical Co-operative came, fussily checking up on Alex's medical insurance, making sure that he was covered for all aspects of the treatment, including his Faraway transit home.

   Then the police, two lean-faced men, wearing the grey cloaks and silver waistcoats of the
Narcotics Investigation Department. What cargo had the Avalonia been carrying? Why would a pirate be so interested in him as to follow him to a Corporate State world? Had his father ever transported drugs?
Firearms? Slaves? What about alien substances: Manjooza, fear glands, Marswurt? What was said in the moments before destruction? Would he recognize the ship again? What were its markings?

   Alex told them everything he could remember. Everything he'd seen. Everything he'd heard . . .
Except for the fact that his father had clearly known the danger.
And except for the word Raxxla.

   The police left. They were not satisfied. Alex had just received his solo pilot's license, so he could make his own way back to his home system, but he should notify them of what route he was taking.
Raxxla . . .

   Alex watched them go, their Viper a slim, evil-looking ship as it rolled and sped away from the hospital vessel. His mood matched the dim-lit room, matched the gloom-grey of the storms that were building up on the world below. Leesti's oceans looked wild and cold, now, its clouds great charcoal colored swirls of anger above the ragged, mountainous land.

What could it be? What could it mean?

   At midnight, still resting and recuperating (care of the Leesti Medical Authority), a small green light winked on in his room. Alex, still awake, frowned then realized that he was being monitored.

   'What is it?' he asked the empty room, and a nurse's voice whispered, 'There's a holoFac message coming through for you. They've requested a tight beam. Will you receive?'

   Alex sat up in bed. No-one knew he was here. Did they? He frowned, and said, 'Sure.'
'Will you accept the charge against your CR?'

   Curiouser and curiouser. Since he was broke, and without credit until he sorted out his GMC insurance, it was easy for him to say, 'Yes.'

   In the middle of the room the air suddenly shimmered white, small bright particles flying off in all directions around the gradually defined shape of a man. He was tall, but slightly stooped. As the whiteness of the image resolved into color, the whiteness of the man stayed. His hair was long and snowy, his beard ragged. His face had a touch of color. His eyes were small, gleaming points among the wrinkles. He was smiling. He wore a tattered trader's uniform, and one arm hung limp by his side. Even his boots were worn down, and the toes were split. The hand laser at his side had seen the same better days as the rest of his equipment.

   'You the Ryder Boy?' this apparition of run-down age asked. The voice creaked, a gruff, battered tone, the voice of a man who had breathed hard vacuum.
'That's me. Alex Ryder. And you?'

   Alex climbed out of bed and went to stand before the life-sized holoFac. The old man watched him, and chewed. Then he spat. The gobbet of stained spittle seemed to fly straight towards Alex's shoulder and he winced and jerked slightly to one side, before realizing that nothing could travel into real space from the holo.

   'You don't remember me,' the old man said. 'That's clear enough. But I remember you.'
'Give me a name.'

   'Rafe Zetter. Trader of old. Traded with your father for many years, till we parted company on account of a certain issue which, you might say . . . caused a difference of opinion between us.'

   'Slaves,' Alex said quickly. He remembered Rafe, now. But what had happened to the man? He was old before his time. He was the same age as Jason Ryder would have been, but looked twenty years more.

   'Slaves is right,' Rafe said. 'I ran my life on the edge of a Viper's sting . . .' trader parlance for 'one jump ahead of the law'. 'But by the time I indulged that little whim, my ass was hard iron. I somehow made it to hell 'n back. That's where I am now.'
'In hell?'
'Broke. '

   Alex nodded, picking up slowly on the trader slang. An 'iron ass' was a ship that was well enough defended—shields, missiles and lasers—to make a skim run through any system at all, even an anarchist's paradise like Sotiqu. All hell and then some would come at you if you tried to trade in such a chaotic system. 'Hell 'n back' meant that Rafe had tasted the good life, bought with the profits of his illegal trading, but that it had all gone wrong.
It always went wrong.

   Rafe said, 'I was damn sorry to hear about Jason. A good man. A good friend of old, and a man I still respect.'

   'It didn't happen but eight hours ago,' Alex said coldly. 'How the hell do you get to hear about it.'

   Rafe Zetter chuckled, then spat again, and again Alex couldn't help ducking. The spittle vanished at the holoFac's edge, and Alex felt a chill of irritation. 'You got your father's temper, young Alex. Maybe you've even got some of his skills.'
'Answer my question, old man. How do you manage to know about my father? How did you find me?'

   Watching him from the holo, Rafe chewed, smiled and considered. Alex tensed, waiting for the next high velocity spit-transmission.

   Rafe said, 'I repeat, Alex. I had great respect for Jason Ryder. For what he was, and what he was doing.'
'He was a good man,' Alex said. 'And an honest trader.'

   'He was a damn sight more than that,' Rafe said loudly, and spat. Alex dodged. The ghostly holoFac image shimmered and blurred slightly.
'What does that mean?'

   Rafe Zetter leaned forward so that his grizzled features seemed almost able to kiss the younger man. 'He was a combateer, Alex. One of the best. No way should he have died like he did . . .'

   'My father was a trader, not a combateer,' Alex said, startled and disturbed by what Rafe was implying.
'Guess again, sonny.'
'But it sickened him to fire shots in anger.'

   'Maybe,' Rafe said drily. 'But it didn't stop him. How else do you think he made it as a trader all those years? Damn it, Alex, even if your cargo is sour-cream and pickles there's someone's going to try and take it from you. Your father was a combateer of the highest caliber . . .?'

   Alex swallowed heavily, staring at the quizzical features of old Rafe Zetter. 'The highest caliber . . .?'

   Rafe nodded. 'That's right, Alex,' he said softly. 'You can be deadly, you can be dangerous, and you can end up as pet food in orbit around a dog's ass-of-a-world like Isveve. But if you're élite, and you die, then there's a reason for your death . . .'

   What was this old man saying? Elite? An élite combateer? Alex's head span. He knew all about the space pilots who'd earned that title, of course. Few of them did. To be élite in combat was to be . . . well, as near invincible as made no odds. A great many pilots were 'dangerous'; you didn't last long as a trader if you weren't. Many more had earned the classification 'deadly'. So had a lot of mercenaries. So had a lot of pirates.
But élites. Few and far between.

   And his father, Jason Ryder, had been élite, and none of his family had known!

   'Jason was one of the very best. You probably never saw his ship, but it was like a fortress. He traded places that most of us would have had nightmares about.' Rafe shook his head admiringly. 'One of the best. A man of the highest caliber...' His gaze hardened on Alex. 'The question is . . . Can you be the same?'
'What makes you doubt it?'

   'Jason never said anything about you. I guess he was trying to protect you. The trouble is that it gives me nothing to go on: you're going to avenge your father's death—I can tell that from the look of you, and your tone, and your anger—but for all I know, that'll just mean one more Ryder will be stardust before he even manages to target a missile.'

   Not liking Rafe Zetter's tone, Alex said bitterly, 'I've done hours of SimCombat. I score highly . . .'
Rafe laughed and spat voluminously, then became serious.

   'Alex, there's something I've got to know. Maybe you're going to end up—'
'Pet food in orbit around Isveve!'

   'Yeah. Maybe that. The only person who knew your talents was your father. Tell me, Alex, and tell me true, now . . . Did he say anything to you . . . you know . . . in the moments before he died? Did he indicate anything, or say anything?'

   'He said a lot,' Alex murmured, and felt a strong pang of grief as he remembered the look in his father's eyes, the greyness of his cheeks, and his desperate words, remember me, Alex . . . 'I think he knew he was going to die. The last thing he said was the word Raxxla. I don't know what that is. An alien, I guess . . .'

   Rafe smiled, shaking his head. Suddenly there was a brilliant sparkle in his eyes: 'Raxxla's no alien,
Alex. It's a ghost world. A planet. A legend . . .' He hesitated, staring quizzically at the younger man through the distant link between them, 'Jason really said that to you?'
Alex nodded. 'Moments before . . . It was the last thing he said.'

   'Then he knew,' Rafe said with a nod. 'And that's good enough for me. Alex, get your frail shell to
Tionisla and take a visitor's shuttle to the orbital cemetery there. Say you've come to see the grave of
Starpilot Fleischer. And take a good look around. You do that, boy. Tomorrow. I'll be waiting for you.'
'Waiting to do what?'

   Rafe chuckled. 'How're you going to hunt a Cobra? You going to hitch-hike? Or use a big stick?
You'll need a ship. Hunt like with like. Get to the wreck place at Tionisla. I know just the vehicle you need.
Don't speak to anyone. Just get to Tionisla.'
'Au'voir, Alex!'
And Rafe Zetter spat for the last time before the holoFac faded.

   Alex didn't flinch. Something whistled past his ear and struck the wall behind him.

Chapters 12 34 56 78