The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Four

'You've got a ship,' said Rafe, 'You've got money. You've got a co-pilot who's a better shot than you, but not for long I hope. Now it's up to you, young Alex. And one thing more. If Jason were here he'd have this to say. In time of trouble, forget common sense, forget the force. Do what you god dam feel like. If it don't work, one thing's for sure. You ain't going to be around to regret it.'

   Seated at the astrogation console of the Cobra, Alex watched Rafe's home on the forward screen. It was a much modified, and quite bizarre-looking, Anaconda cruiser, its cargo bay dented, its fuel-scoop ripped open, its hull lights blinking not so much with meaning as with disrepair.

   Rafe had not invited him aboard. At 0.1 Iight years from Tionisla he was safe from detection, and here he stayed in the cold and silence of interstellar space, collecting ships, fuel, food and weapons. Three
Mambas—small fighters—were tethered to the service bay on the Anaconda's hull, robots crawling all over them as they patched-up the shot up vessels. Unlike humans, robots could work without arc-lights.

   When the graveyard ship had arrived at Rafe Zetter's private system, Rafe's holoFac had appeared in the cabin.

   'It takes a lot of effort and a lot of wile to get supplies for the sort of mission you're about to go on.
I'll fuel your ship enough to get you to Isinor. But from then on you're on your own. You're going to need missiles, operational lasers, an energy bomb, a fuel scoop . . . a whole bunch of other things.'
'An iron ass,' Alex muttered with a smile.

   'That's right. And I don't want to hear from you again until you've scalped that Cobra that killed
'Why are you doing this for me?'

   'I'm doing it for Jason,' Rafe said. 'And for others besides. And listen Alex. Don't you go worrying about Raxxla. Not yet. That comes in time . . .'
'But why did he say it?'

   'To let me know he trusted you. Your father reckoned you have it in you to become one of the
Elite. That's good enough for me.'

   Alex's head span. What was this old man saying now? Not just that Jason Ryder had been an élite combateer, but that he'd seen the same potential in his son?

   In SimCombat Alex had often built up a success and survival score that had awarded him the simulator's highest accolade: a victory roll over the mock-up of the old Earth city of London. But he had never thought that in real life he would ever achieve a combat status higher than 'dangerous'.
To be élite . . .

   A dizzying prospect. And a nerve-racking one, with all that it implied of not just fighting off free- booters, but of spending time as a bounty hunter, deliberately hyperspacing into dangerous planetary systems and waiting for pirates to come to you; looking for trouble, in other words, boosting your combat status to the maximum by advertising yourself to killers, and outgunning them.

   'One thing's for sure,' Rafe went on dryly. 'Unless you get there, unless you become élite, you'll never get to Raxxla. And you'll never know exactly what your father was searching for.'
'I don't understand.'
'Were you aware of his involvement in The Dark Wheel?'

   Shock after shock! The Dark Wheel was a semi-legendary space unit, star-riders who made it their business to seek the truth behind the plethora of myths and romantic stories that filtered back from all corners of the Universe: fabulous cities, parallel worlds, time travelers, even planets that appeared to be the old 'heaven' of Earth legend. The Dark Wheel was as mysterious and as mythical to the traders of the
Galaxy as King Arthur might have been to the first spacemen.
'It's not possible,' Alex breathed. 'He would have told us . . .'

   'The hell he would,' Rafe said, staring at the younger man from the shimmering holoFac on the bridge. 'The ship that killed Jason was no pirate. He was killed because he'd found something. Something that certain parties were deeply unhappy that he'd found.'
'What exactly?'

   Rafe laughed. 'Listen to the boy! Look at me, Alex. Do I look whole? I do? Well I ain't. One leg, some of my liver, a few brain cells—all that's left of the real me. The rest is just bionic. Trying to do what your father did, I got shot to hell'n' back. I was élite once. Now it takes me ten seconds to decide to spit. He didn't tell me because I'm not part of it anymore. Not to that degree. But I watch and I listen, and I do what
I'm told. And as sure as there's gold-flake on the skin of a Geretean, Jason Ryder told me to get you ready to follow in his footsteps.'

   Coming so soon after his father's death, with the memory of Jason's murder so vivid in his mind, it was almost too much for Alex. He didn't know whether to glow with pride, or shake with apprehension. He slowly sat down at the astrogation console and played his fingers over the controls of the Cobra.

   After a while he smiled, and shrugged away the confusion and the sadness he was feeling.

   'Right. If that's what my father wanted, then I shan't disappoint him . . .'

Chapters 12 34 56 78