The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Three

The best way to see the wreck place at Tionisla is to approach it from the Sun (a reasonably safe thing to do since Tionisla, being a Democracy has few pirates in its system). Tionisla itself is a bright yellow world, and the cemetery is always between the planet and its star. As you fly close, the whole strange graveyard seems to be expanding from the circle of the world behind.

   The first thing you see is a shimmering, silver disc, a double spiral of tiny bright points. It slowly turns: it's a galaxy in miniature, with the same intense blur of light at its centre, because here is where the biggest tombs are to be found.

   Come closer and soon you can see that the stars in this galaxy are markers, great lumps of metal, heavily inscribed with the words and symbols of a thousand religions. The cemetery is a bizarre and moving sight. The markers are rarely less than a thousand feet across. There are chrome-alloy crosses, titanium
Stars of David, duralium hinges, and all the strange symbolic shapes of the worlds, and the minds and the faiths that have come to die in this Star traveler's special place.

   Tethered below this vast, rotating mausoleum is the dodecahedral shape of a 'Dodo' class space station, the home of the Cemetery Authorities. Here you go through security checks and get your visitor's visa. And as you stand in the queue, staring up through the translucent ceiling of the Customs Hall, you can see the battered, broken ships of many of the dead, still attached to the silent tomb that contains the body.

   It's a good enough reason to come to Tionisla. There are pickings aplenty among the wrecks. The treasures of centuries might be revealed by pressing the right panel on the right cube of black, alien metal as it floats silently by.
Or maybe not treasure, just the tomb's defenses . . .
A pit with a laser.
A robot guardian with knives where its hands should be.

   A hyperspace vacuum that sucks you in and throws you out into another time.

   You tread carefully among the wrecks in orbit about Tionisla. The creatures buried here—human and alien—had money enough to buy these prized resting places, and more than enough wealth to protect their property after death from the mercenary fingers of bounty hunters.

   Formalities completed, his newly issued pilot's license checked, Alex Ryder was given a small tour-ship, an oddly shaped and cumbersome vessel. He drifted quickly among the tombs, seeking the resting place of Starpilot Fleischer, following co-ordinates on the ship's cemetery plan.
He soon found what he was looking for. Whoever Fleischer had been, he was monstrously egocentric: his tomb was a great crystalline structure, a puff-ball of diamond-bright needles, literally hundreds of feet across. His body, dressed in the red uniform of an elite combateer, hovered in stasis at the centre of this great construct, illuminated by focused light from the sun.

   Tethered to the simple monument of the grave next to this was the battered, blistered shape of a
Cobra class ship, its insignia still proudly displayed, but all its vital equipment, its fuel-scoop, its extra cargo bays, its aft missile and laser banks removed.

   Alex stared at it. It looked nothing like the Cobra that had destroyed his father's ship. That vessel had been bristling with all the extra things that good money could buy, to defend and to attack, and to make the trading game an easier prospect for the elite trader.
A light on the Cobra winked at him.

   Alex blinked, then looked again. Sure enough, a small, red light was flashing on and off, a brief sequence of code.
'Land on the dorsal plate'—That was clear enough.

   Alex maneuvered his tiny craft above the arrow shape of the Cobra, and touched it gently onto the heat-blistered hull. He looked around guiltily. Touching monuments wasn't permitted and the cemetery was patrolled by Kraits, small and deadly security craft, with instructions to blast away any man, woman or child seen tampering with a mausoleum . . .

   But the graveyard was huge, and the shadows of the great tombs transferred this miniature world of the dead into a place of hide-outs, and shifting, occasional safety.

   An entry port opened, and a green light quickly blinked the message 'Come aboard'. Alex flew the tour-ship into the hull space and when he got the 'pressure green' signal stepped out and walked cautiously towards the main control area. He opened the sliding door and blinked for a moment at the bright control displays and scanners. Ahead of him, the main screen was wide, and filled with a view of Fleischer's crystal tomb.

   Silhouetted against the gleaming brightness of the crystal was the shape of a man, wearing full space suit. One hand rested on the navigation console, the other hovered above the laser button.

   'I'm aboard,' Alex said, and walked up behind the silent pilot. The man made no movement, said nothing.

   For a moment Alex stood beside him, staring out into the wreck place, at the slowly shifting monuments, at the stars glimpsed in the background.
Then he turned to greet his host.
And nearly died of shock, taking a quick, horrified step backwards!
It was the drawn, mummified face of a corpse that half looked up at him from behind its visor, the rictus smile of death stretching wide across its lips.

   'Do you think we should take him with us?' a voice asked from across the cabin. Alex started again with surprise and watched the figure which emerged from the shadows. 'As a sort of totem. A lucky charm.'

   Alex tried to smile, but neither relief nor the new arrival's charming grin could relax him enough.
Too much had happened too fast, and he stood rooted to the spot, watching as the woman came over to him.

   She was quite small. Her skin was olive, her eyes dark. She wore her hair in a fashionable series of spikes, like a porcupine. Dressed in the light green coveralls that most traders sported, she seemed swamped by clothes. Her hand-touch was cool and confident, and she kept the contact as she looked up at Alex
Ryder, still smiling disarmingly.

   'So you're the man that Rafe has chosen. Well, Alex. So far it seems that star-riding with you is at least going to be quiet. You do . . . er . . .' she frowned. 'You do have a speech function?' She turned him slightly and felt up his back for the switch. 'Or are you one of the early 'semaphore and gormless grin' models?'
'Sorry,' Alex said. 'You took me by surprise.'

   'Oh God,' the woman said. 'Where's the off-switch? I think I prefer you silent . . .'

   'Who are you?' Alex asked, irritated by her levity and keen to find out why Rafe Zetter had summoned him here? Where was the old man?

   'Trader Fields', she said, and touched the heel of her right hand to her left shoulder by way of salute. 'My given name is Elyssia. Elyssia Fields.' She smiled again. 'My brood mother's little joke. She discovered Greek mythology at age 9 when she was incubating her first cluster.'

   Brood mother? Greek? Incubating clusters? That meant that Elyssia Fields was from Teorge, the so-called 'clone-world'. Alex struggled to remember what he'd been taught about Teorge . . . an inhabited world. . . settled by two colony ships that had proceeded to clone a select few of the crew and colonists, killing the others. For centuries Teorge had been a world apart, cut off from the normal flow of trade and commerce, and banned from sending representatives into space.
Elyssia Fields was clearly a fugitive.
'I'm Alex Ryder,' Alex said.

   'I know,' the woman said back, breaking the gaze with which she'd been fixing him. She patted the corpse on the shoulder, an oddly affectionate gesture. 'This is—or rather was—Space Trader Henry Bell.
We're going to purloin Mister Bell's coffin. Of all the people who are going to object, he's going to be the most objectionable. This rust bucket is set up with holo-projections of our man here, warning of dire consequences for invading his sanctity. I've turned most of them off, but I expect I've missed a few.'
'We're going to steal this ship?' Alex said quietly, checking the flickering control display panel. Witchlight fuel registered enough for a 0.1 light-year jump, hardly sufficient to clear the Tionisla system.

   Elyssia stared at him, a half smile on her lips. 'We could pass the time chatting if you'd prefer.
Plant some flowers, clean the tomb up . . .'

   'I meant,' Alex said dryly, 'How the hell are we going to get away with it?' He found himself staring at the pert features of the humanoid female. The shadow of gloom and grief that had haunted him for the last few hours seemed to fade a little. The girl interested him. He added, 'And just why are you helping me, anyway? Where's Rafe?'

   With a quick laugh, Elyssia said, 'Funny thing about Rafe. Wherever you go in the galaxy, he's always there, a shimmering white holoFac . . . but where he really is . . . that's something you're about to find out.' she glanced up at Alex. 'Why am I helping you? Who says I am. We'll be helping each other, in fact. You have a father to avenge. I have some things to avenge too. Maybe I'll tell you about them one day.
But without you I cannot fly this ship.'
Surprised, Alex said, 'Cobras were made to be flown by a single pilot.'

   'But I'm a single Teorgeon. I'm not supposed to be here. I can fly this bucket with my eyes closed, but your face fits. Listen, Alex, this craft wouldn't survive the first attack by a pirate with a peashooter, no matter how good we are behind the laser button. We need shields, missiles, defenses and cargo space. How d'you think we're going to get them? They don't grow on silvery moons, you know.'

   'Trade for them,' Alex said gloomily, and the vista of his family's long life trading through the stars swept before his eyes.

   Elyssia was right. He couldn't go hunting a Cobra without the proper equipment, and it would take too long to sort out his inheritance, bearing in mind the circumstances of his father's death.

   He felt utterly overwhelmed with frustration. A part of him wanted to kill right now. A part of him wanted to rip out onto the space-lanes, and hunt his father's killer. But the best part of him knew that would be a recipe for disaster, that patience was called for, that a tactical appraisal of how he would set about the hunt was essential . . . and that a protected ship was the barest necessity!

   'I've got a hundred credits in all the world,' Alex said, referring to the Galactic Emergency Services loan that he had been given to get him home.

   'It's a start,' Elyssia said. 'It's a start in the trading business. As Rafe would say, we'll give this old lass an iron ass.' Her face darkened though the flickering lights from the console were bright in her eyes.
'Then we'll go to a place that I suspect only Rafe Zetter knows, and we'll watch a lot of heartache burn up courtesy of some fine shooting by the both of us. 'We'll get the ship that put an end to your father. It's a ship that has a lot to answer for . . .'
But she would say no more than that.

   For anyone reckoning on beginning a space trading career from scratch the hardest task is finding a ship. Each planetary system has its floating junk yards, its second-hand craft, its impounded vessels, eventually auctioned by the police. Most places advertise for co-pilots, to work without pay for four years with the guarantee of a ship at the end of it—if they're still alive.
But ships are expensive, even if they're from the scrap heap.

   Alex was impressed and startled by the audacity of the theft that was being proposed. In response to Rafe's plan, the fugitive, who had been hiding out in the dead craft for nearly a year, had managed to accumulate the fuel, food and power to make the brief hyperspace jump to the interstellar junk yard. All that had been missing was the right co-pilot, someone who could actually do the trading without arousing suspicion.

   They hauled the mummified body of Henry Bell to the small tour-ship and set the craft adrift.

   'Whatever happens now,' Elyssia said as they took positions at the bridge consoles, 'You're going to get an "offender" status tag. But Rafe thinks if you respect the body they'll just post it at Tionisla itself.
Destroy the body and they'll probably notify most worlds in the vicinity, and we can't afford that. Here goes . . .'

   On the screen, the small tour-ship drifted away, and the crowded monuments of the cemetery swung past in a dizzying array of bright and shadowy surfaces. Alex studied the scanners and monitors carefully. They had only tiny energy supply to fore and aft screens. A blast or two of laser power. No missiles, of course. The craft was still locked on to the Dodo space station, whose position was shown by the darting bright point in the tri-axial grid map.

   Slowly the Cobra turned, and began to move gently, silently towards the edge of the spiral grave- field.

   The scanner scanned, and Alex watched it hard, alert and apprehensive for the tell-tale wink of its moving green light. The duller-colors of the tombs and stationary craft crowded the scanning screen, moving slowly past.

   'There's something I ought to tell you about uncontrolled Witch Space jumps . . .' Elyssia said, and
Alex felt a moment's irritation.

   'I already know. Thanks. Besides, wherever we're going we're only going a tenth of an LY. And that's reasonably safe.'
Elyssia sniggered. 'What god or goddess do you believe in?'
'Randomius Factoria . . .' Alex muttered.
'Me too . . .'
They looked at each other.

   Alex laughed and said, 'Repeat after me: Lady of Fate, we adore you . . . '
'Get us to Rafe's, we implore you . . .'

   The monuments and monoliths drifted by. The star field widened ahead of them.
'Nearly there,' Elyssia breathed. 'Get ready for the jump . . .'
Alex watched the scanner.

   And two bright points of light appeared, moving rapidly towards them.
'Company!' he said, and Elyssia swore loudly.
'We've not got much laser power,' Alex said.

   'Use our laser, and any chance of trading goes. Those are police. They may not be Vipers, but they're police nevertheless. Damn!'

   Ahead of them the star field was almost clear. The two security craft veered apart, to close in from the sides. Elyssia began to count down, finger resting on the simple trigger that would dispatch them
Faraway. 'Ten seconds . . .'

   The Cobra vibrated and whined, unused to activity after many years in stasis.
'They're closing—fire coming in!'
'Five seconds.'

   The Cobra screeched as a laser shot glanced off its hull. The shield energy, low as it was, vanished! The attacking craft overshot. It's colleague fired and missed, maneuvering with difficulty around a large, hinge monument that slowly revolved at the edge of the cemetery.
'Three . . . '
'Lining up . . . fire coming in!'

   The two craft were together again. Their laser fire played in the void around the Cobra.
'Two . . . '

   There was a strike, a scream of pain, the vessel almost rocked out of control. And then—
Star tunnel!

   Elyssia flopped back in her chair. Alex cheered. When he looked at the woman he saw that she was drenched with sweat. When he reached a hand towards her, his fingers were shaking uncontrollably.

Chapters 12 34 56 78