The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Six

They had been trading now for three standard months, and their Cobra craft, the Nemesis, was scarcely recognizable as the battered tomb-place of Trader Henry Bell. With new insignia, new welding, new color and the pods and swellings of the armaments housings, it began to look like a fighter.

   Three months a trader. And not for one hour of one day of those months had Alex forgotten the reason behind this way of life. Something—someone—disguised as a trader had killed his father, and done its best to kill him. His father had led a double life, and accordingly to the oldest relic in the Galaxy, had deputized his son to follow in his star path.
Alex Ryder was not about to fail his father in that wish.

   There were so many questions, so much grief, so much anger. And for Elyssia too, although the
Teorgian woman rarely showed the emotion that Alex sensed was bubbling just below the surface of her cool, wisecracking exterior.
They were facing a task together, a task of growing, of becoming strong. There would have to be a time of waiting, and both were accepting that time with as much silent patience as they could muster.
But it was not easy, not easy for either of them.
And for Alex, with blood on his hands at last . . . not easy at all . . .

   The skirmish with the two pirate ships had scraped the paint a little, and loosened several hull plates, necessitating a trip to a service satellite where, because of their bounty hunting, the work would almost certainly be performed free of charge. Though this had been Alex's first solo combat, it had not been their first battle. Elyssia would have qualified for 'dangerous' status had she been eligible for a rating. As it was, her rating—on the evidence of the Nemesis's skirmishing—had been assigned to Alex. Now, for the first time, Alex felt he had taken a substantial step towards proving that he genuinely deserved that particular classification.

   Still at the astrogation console, he guided the ship to within a thousand kilometers of the surface of the dying world, so close that the planet filled everything in the forward vision screen. At dead slow approach speed he finally looped around and there, slowly spinning before them—a glittering metal cube— was the space station, its access bay a wide, rotating mouth.

   'Oh for a docking computer . . .' Alex murmured as he began to match rotation and slowly approached.

   'Waste of money . . .' Elyssia chided. 'If you can't dock without losing your paintwork, you shouldn't be in space.'

   Alex was a great flier. But snaking neatly into the reception bay of a Coriolis station was his greatest weakness.

   He made it, though, and once inside the vast hanger space, magnetic traction drew the Nemesis slowly to a vacant berth. AutoCom links snaked out and clamped to its hull. Alex watched the bustle in the great, brightly-lit void, the customs ships, the police Vipers, the advertising modules, the repair modules, all moving slowly in the cube-space, touting for business. Elyssia hid in the escape pod as usual. Alex declared his cargo, and received confirmation of his bounty killings, and notification of his bonus: thirty credits!
That exactly covered the cost of a new missile.

   When all the check-ins, log-ins and identity verifications had been run, Elyssia emerged from hiding. The escape capsule had been their first priority, and they had bought one second-hand for four hundred credits. They didn't intend to use it anyway, except to screen off Elyssia's unfortunate and unwelcome origins.

   Now began the routine of business. Selling, then deciding where to trade next, and what to buy to take with them.

   Trading is very much a hit and miss profession. With certain high demand, high turnover products, a small profit can usually be guaranteed—foodstuffs, textiles, simple machinery, simple luxuries.
But the ship's running costs, and an occasional space skirmish, can soon eat up such profits, making the whole exercise essentially worthless. There is no way of knowing trade prices at other systems. Each planetary state jealously guards its stock-market information, and there are heavy penalties for Faxing the market prices of any item beyond orbit-space.

   Prices change, too. Speculators lurk in every system, no matter how poor. That ton of frozen bladderlash that would have fetched eight credits a month ago at Ceinzala, against a buying price of three from its homeworld Reorte, will suddenly be worth only two. The demand for bladderlash had not lessened.
The speculators have made a secret killing, and fixed up the market.
Hit and miss.

   Alex and Elyssia had been lucky so far. They had carried Vargorn mind-silk between Rexebe and
Inera and doubled their initial hundred credits. They had ferried the gold-flake scales of Geretean reptiles and only just covered their costs. They had supplied twenty tons of sunflower seeds to the grotesque amphibioid inhabitants of Bierle, to whom sunflower seeds were a particular delicacy, only to find that a mass, mind-induced mutation had occurred throughout the entire planetary population, changing their taste buds . . . The search was now on for the new delicacy to delight the palates of the Bierleans. Lubrication oil had come close, and lavender scented tissue paper. But somewhere there was a real profit to be made. One day. One year.

   Moving machinery from high-tech worlds to middle-tech worlds was also unexpectedly profitable, and demand for luxuries was always high on evolving industrial worlds. But on Xezaor the Shanaskilk furs (bought at thirty galactic credits the ton) were likely to be their best bet yet. Alex nervously called up the buying price at Xezaor.

   He whooped with triumph as he saw that he and Elyssia had tripled their money.
This time, in the hit and miss game, they had hit lucky.

   They sold the furs without trouble. Then Alex called up the price list at Xezaor of ship and armaments equipment. The new missile was the standard thirty credits. He ordered one and a small robot scuttled off to fetch the permitted weaponry. Beam lasers were one thousand credits, and the temptation to invest in one was strong. The price of the fuel and cargo scoop which the Nemesis so badly needed was extortionately high, at five hundred and twenty-five credits. But an energy bomb cost nearly twice as much!

   Of course a fuel scoop could be used for salvage, as well as topping up their fuel banks by sun- skimming, so it was a good investment, even at one hundred credits over the odds.

   Alex ordered one. Delivery and fitting would take twenty hours, a standard day. Alex fuelled the ship, next, and stocked up with Xezaorian delicacies.

They had three hundred and twenty galactic credits left with which to buy trade stock, an uncomfortably low sum. On the other hand, their ship now had extra defensive shields, four- directional targeting of lasers and missiles, an anti-missile system and a fuel scoop.
They were more than half way to becoming a battle cruiser.

   Elyssia scanned the planet's market list with Alex. For all that Xezaorians liked exotic things, they had precious little to offer. Two narcotics were available—arcturan burstweed and, strangely, tobacco-— and Alex thought hard about them.
'Surely we could get away with tobacco . . .'

   'Uh-huh.' Elyssia murmured. 'No way. Nicotine is deadly, even in low doses, to many races.'
'If we carried it to a human world?'
'Still too risky.'

   Minerals were on offer, but were pricy. Durassion—one of the ores that could be refined and 'time- stressed' to give duralium for ship's hulls—was available at eight credits the ton, and that would sell exceptionally well at Lave . . . but Lave was many light years away, now, and any dura-ore could bottom- out on a standard day when a richer ore was found.
Too risky.

   Gemstones? There were maroon and silver spectonals for sale, and red-green emeronds. A pirate convoy would smell such booty from two light years away.

   As for the curiosity market there were two hundred fossilized Dironothaxaurian life-bones on offer, at forty credits each.
'Ever heard of them?' Elyssia asked.

   Alex said, 'I've seen one. And heard one. In a museum on my homeworld. They sing. They're over forty million years old, and still they sing; waiting for something, a hatching, or a change of climate. They're bones from the pelvic region, so they could be incubation pods. Nobody knows . . .'
'Are they valuable?'
'Very. Exactly by how much I don't know.'
'Check it for restrictions . . .'

   Alex did so. There were no known import restrictions, or potential legal violations involved in trading in these fossilized animal bones.
'Better than food—' Alex said.
'Any day,' Elyssia agreed.
'So we go for it . . .'
'I suppose so.'

   But as Alex began to key into the trade-centre to purchase the goods, the console flashed the words, 'Incoming message . . .'
'Rafe!' Alex said. And Elyssia too seemed excited at the prospect of seeing and talking with Rafe Zetter again.

   But it was not the wizened, crusty old space trader who appeared on the screen as Alex accepted the call.
Nothing like.

   It was a human being, and not a humanoid alien that faced them. But what had happened to its face was beyond description. There were many ways to change ordinary human looks to nightmarish caricatures of the same: flying too close to certain stars, being exposed to the interstellar vacuum too often, working in certain ore and mineral mines . . . But Alex, as he stared at the lumpy, grey swellings that swathed this person's flesh, could not imagine what grotesque disaster had befallen the caller.

   Lips like quivering gossamer wings trembled in the grey flesh. A hand, skeletal and crippled, shot through with bright red blood vessels, touched the wispy ginger hair that grew in a bizarre floral circle around the deformed head.
'Are you Ryder?'
The voice, at least, was normal. And male.
'Identify yourself, caller.'

   Ignoring the question the other man went on, 'What're you trading in this time? Minerals?
'What's it to you?'
'Whatever it is you're thinking of buying, I can do you a better deal.'
'I wouldn't trade with you if I was running hot from a supernova.'
The human grinned (or so it seemed).
'Rafe Zetter would. How come you're so fussy?'

   'You know Rafe?' Alex asked, perturbed and puzzled by the grotesque man's invocation of the friendly name.

   'Me and half the Universe.' The deformed man leaned closer to the monitor. His features filled the screen totally. 'Parasites.'
'I'm sorry?'

   'These things. This . . .' tapping his face. 'Parasites. Spider worms. I did a stint in the pen. on
Dykstra's world, and the little buggers took a liking to me. These are the larvae, about two million of them.
They'll hatch out in about ten years, and that'll be the end of me. I sort of hope I'm at a dinner party with someone I don't like, at the time, but you can't plan for these things. I don't blame you for not trusting me . . .' Pale eyes glittered from beneath the heavy, pulsating folds of grey flesh. 'But don't judge by appearances.
Alex—it is Alex, isn't it? I mean, for hell's sake tell me if I've got the wrong number . . .'
'I'm Alex Ryder.'

   'And I'm Patrick McGreavy. I'll say just two things to you. The first is this: when you kill the snake, you'll lay a ghost that's haunted me for more than five years. I'm not a flier. What I am doesn't matter.
There are more people like me than all the sunflower seeds you've traded in your life. People who need vengeance. People who can't do it for themselves. Kill the snake and you'll do a service to us all.'

Alex couldn't help the wry smile that touched his lips, even though he had rarely felt less like smiling. He felt as if he was being maneuvered, manipulated, like a robot ship, an autoremote, programmed to fly in endless, mindless circles. What the hell was going on? He was Jason Ryder's son, and until three months ago his best combat experience had been in a SimCombat trainer. His pilot's license had hardly dried. And somehow, despite all of this, he had been chosen as nemesis to exact a savage vengeance from a ship that was certainly far more than a simple—and simply deadly—pirate.

   There were people watching him, and waiting on him, their fingers crossed, their breath held.
Why him? Why him? (And Elyssia . . .)
'Okay,' he said quietly. 'I get the message. You said "two things".'

   'Right. Rafe told you to trade in Shanaskilk fur, as soon as you could afford it. Am I right?'

   He was right. It was one of Rafe's last pieces of advice to Alex, and Alex had not forgotten it.

   McGreavy went on, 'When Rafe told you to do that he was sending you to me. You've got to get an iron ass. You've got to trade in something really worthwhile. Unship and fly across to South City, to the private traders' centre in the Magellan Building.'
'I've already got an "iron ass",' Alex said.
'You think so, do you? Do it anyway. Take a chance. Make your way to the Magellan building, South City . . .'

   After a moment's hesitation, and with a glance at Elyssia, who just shrugged and nodded, Alex agreed.
A Coriolis station is nothing less than a vast city built on six planes and spread, around the wide empty sky of its interior, facing inwards. From South City, the roof on the world is North City. At night, the lights that glow above your head are the lights of streets and buildings.

   Alex checked out of the ship's berth and took a sky taxi across the void. The tiny automatic ship slid delicately and smoothly between the incoming and outgoing ships. Alex watched in fascination as the towering buildings of South City dropped away below and the grey sky edged closer. To his left, he could see the pattern of streets and parklands on the inhabited plane known as Commander City. Facing the entrance to the station, on that particular level lived the high ranking officials and various planetary envoys and ambassadors. They enjoyed a landscape which included lakes, rivers and ski-slopes with real snow.

   Below him, the Nemesis became a tiny dart-shape on the broad landing pad. Above him, the towering offices and living blocks reached down towards him like geometrical stalactites.

   There was an abrupt moment's disorientation and suddenly the roof was the ground and now the
Nemesis was a single, winking light in the heavens. The taxi dropped swiftly to street level, between the grey and black monolithic structures. Lights of different colors blinked and shone, and when the atmosphere began, a strange dusty shimmer seemed to envelop the city.

   The streets were crowded here and it took Alex only moments to realize that the South City of this particular Coriolis station was the 'down town' area. Illegal trade abounded, in narcotics, robots, slaves, sensuastims, prostitution and frozen organs. Spacers walked slowly, cautiously, most of them still wearing near-full suit, a certain sign that this was the rough quarter. Hookers, of all sexes (the Galaxy counted seventeen at this time) and races, but mostly humanoid, solicited from hovering platforms, ready to escape fast from any over-welcoming, unwelcome client. Advertising hoardings here were almost completely devoted to proclaiming the illicit pleasures which were available in South City. Police cars and remotes roared overhead, as did med-ships. The streets were alive with noise and bustle and filth.

   The Magellan building, a dark, squat cube, sat amongst this confusion like a great, brooding monster. It had no visible windows. Lifts rose and fell on its outer walls, slow-moving green lights that gave it an uncanny sense of being alive.

   Alex had come without a hand weapon, and now began to regret it. Practically everyone—and everything—he saw carried a gun, in contradiction of orbit-space law. He walked cautiously through the crowds of reptilioids, cloaked amphibioids, armored insectoids, squat, bristling felines, and the grotesque robo-tanks in which things that looked like giant mollusks, or worms, or branches of heather, moved within the safety of their own environment.

   He entered the Magellan building and noticed the stench for the first time, the combined body odors of a thousand alien life-forms; surprisingly some—those who drank raw methane gas—managed to excrete sweat that smelled as sweet as apple blossom.
But most did not.

   The private trading centre was a vast hall, surrounded by the entrances to offices and warehouses.
What was sold in this crowded, noisy place, was anything that was considered too risky, or bizarre, or commonplace to sell on the open market. The trader who loaded up his cargo bay from a private purchase had better check with the planet's export monitoring system before leaving, or his reception, at the other end, might be a little more violent than he'd expected.

   Alex scanned the high walls for a hint of McGreavy's warehouse. As he did so he found himself standing behind two tall, violent-looking insect-forms, their bodies armored in light grey, their facetted eyes swiveling to stare at him as they talked together, chelicerae clashing and clacking in their peculiar mode of communication.

   Alex stepped away, heart beating, blood rushing to his head. Compound eyes, jointed limbs, head antennae, double cutting jaws . . .
Here, on a space station!

   Thargoids were deadly. Thargoid spacers had their fear-glands removed, and were considered to be the most effective and potent of humankind's enemies. The bounty for killing a Thargoid was huge, and for capturing and delivering the juvenile form, the Tharglet, to any Space Navy research centre, even greater.
What were they doing here?

   The Thargoids chatted together and watched Alex coldly. Alex noticed that each had an appendage resting on its thoracic plate, where they holstered their hand-lasers.

   'Back off,' a voice whispered, and Alex turned. McGreavy stood there blinking through his deformities. Alex had not grasped how short the man was; he only came up as far as Alex's chest.
'Thargoids . . .' he whispered.

   'Bullshit,' McGreavy said, and dragged Alex away. 'They're Oresrians, and the one thing that can make an Oresrian deadly is being confused the way you've just confused them, with their deadly enemies the Thargoids. Check the thorax markings and the shape of the fourth joint on each hind leg before you jump to conclusions again . . .'

   Alex followed McGreavy gratefully, away from the whispering insects.

   McGreavy's warehouse was small, cramped and smelly. Alex followed him through into the dimly lit interior, and felt a pang of discomfort as the grotesque little man closed the doors behind them. In several large, transparent crates, peculiar creatures shuffled and murmured, excited at the sudden disturbance.

   'Are these what you have to offer?' Alex asked in a low voice. McGreavy chuckled. He walked over to the nearest crate and brought up the light, to illuminate more clearly the odd creature within.

   Alex stared. The creature was vaguely familiar, but the memory refused to come. It had a thick shell, patterned neatly, and limb holes at regular intervals around this bony house. For the moment the beast was securely hidden within its protective environment.
'What are they?'

   'Mymurths,' McGreavy said. 'If they seem familiar it's because they're astonishingly like an animal of Old Earth: the tortus, as I believe it was called. These things have two heads, four legs, and two anterior organelles that seem to serve no purpose. They're named for the planet of their origin. Mymurth. But you'll be shipping them to Cirag. The Ciragians have a special relationship with the Mymurth.'
'They eat them?' Alex guessed.

   They worship them,' McGreavy corrected with a twitch of his flimsy lips.

   McGreavy nodded. 'To the Cirag race, the Mymurth are the reincarnations of gods. A particular sort of god, called an 'avatar'. The animal form of a god. The Mymurth look very like the legendary avatars of Ciragian religion and mythology. They're from another world, of course, and have no connection with
Cirag at all. But any Ciragian family will give a small fortune to have a living Mymurth in its temple.'

   Alex was fascinated and intrigued. The bulky creatures moved sluggishly about, their fleshy pink limbs emerging from the shells to propel them through the slush that filled their cages. 'How much is a small fortune?'

   'Each of these will fetch a hundred credits. Maybe more. And I have twenty-eight. Twenty-eight hundred credits. That'll buy you all the shields and weaponry you need . . .'
'Why not trade them yourself?'

   McGreavy laughed sourly. 'With my record? You must be joking. No thanks. It takes me half a standard year to get a pen full of these things, and Rafe Zetter usually has a customer for me, someone like yourself who needs credit fast, to perform a certain act . . . of violence . . .'

   Alex found himself staring at the bright eyes of the hideous face before him. He was no longer overly conscious of the deformities, or of the pulsating life that existed just below the man's skin. He was aware only of the fact that he wanted—needed—to trust this acquaintance of Rafe, and yet didn't.

   'Make me an offer I can't refuse,' McGreavy said, and hard reality hit Alex again.
He said, 'Three hundred.'

   McGreavy chuckled and shook his head. 'The idea is that you make the profit. You won't do that offering me three times what you're likely to make for a Mymurth.'
'I meant . . . three hundred for the lot.'

   For a second McGreavy stood in silence, staring at the younger man. 'Is this a joke?'

   'No joke. I have three hundred credits in the world. You've got the wrong boy, McGreavy.'
'You just sold a cargo load of Shanaskilk fur!'

   'And bought weapons and a fuel scoop. I bought the furs at a loss to begin with. I'm no trader,
McGreavy. I'm a combateer. I did tell you.' Alex looked down at the Mymurth. 'I'll buy eight off you. How's that?'

   'I sell the lot, or not at all. I want fifteen hundred credits for them. Rafe said you'd come through . . .'
'Rafe was wrong. Shift them through some other sucker . . .'
Alex turned to go. McGreavy's whimper of panic was almost funny to hear. 'I save these things up for Rafe.
Who else is going to trade in Mymurth?'

   'I'll take ten off your hands, for three hundred credits. The more you stall, the less I'll offer.'
Alex was enjoying this.
'I need to shift the lot. To Cirag.'

   Where was Cirag, Alex wondered. It was not a name that rang any bells.

   'Then you'll have to trust me,' he said. 'Like you trust Rafe. I'll give you a down payment of three hundred against one third of what I get at Cirag. I'll come back and pay you off.'

   McGreavy stared at him in silence; the man's breathing was labored. 'One third will hardly cover my outlay. Fifty percent.'
'Forty percent,' Alex said. 'And no further bargaining.'

   The Mymurth shuffled anxiously. McGreavy shrugged with defeat. He summoned the vid-witness, and the two men signed the agreement. Twenty-eight Mymurth for sale to Cirag, forty percent of the proceeds to be returned to Pat McGreavy at South City, Coriolis 7, Xezaor.

   If McGreavy was right, and the money was forthcoming from the religious nutcases on Cirag . . .
Where was Cirag?

   . . . the Nemesis could be equipped with beam lasers, extra missiles, extra shield energy units, and an energy bomb, and the hunt could begin in earnest.
Alex returned to his ship to report on the day's trading.

Chapters 12 34 56 78