The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Seven

They had been set up, of course.

   And in a way, they went into the set-up gamely. Alex checked up on the planet Cirag and discovered that it was not listed with the Official Planetary Register. That was the reason for its unfamiliar name. Not to be registered was not in itself unusual. Only inhabited worlds were listed. There were millions of inhabited star systems of use to miners, traders and explorers, which could only be located by reference to the Galactic Gazateer of Worlds.
But Cirag was inhabited by intelligent beings.

   That meant just one thing: Cirag was an independent world, had refused Federation status, was dangerous, probably deadly, most likely the haven for freebooters and criminals, and almost certainly a system in which the general principle of 'laser first, talk second' was applied.
We've got to be crazy . . .' Elyssia said.

   Alex agreed. 'Could Cirag be Raxxla? Could it be the world my father mentioned before he died?'

   'No way. Cirag is Cirag, and Raxxla—if it exists—is in another Galaxy; you know the legends.

Cirag is just a hell-hole of a world, by the sounds of it. Give the guy his turtles back. Let's trade life-bones.'

   But Alex said no. Something about the whole deal, about the way he felt manipulated, guided, had whet his appetite for this venture. There was good money to be made, and the Nemesis could finally equip itself to perfection.
And the hunt could begin. Vengeance could begin.

   'It's hit or miss, right? And in Rafe's eloquent language, we'll not know a god dam about any failure.'
'We've got to be crazy . . .' Elyssia repeated.
'Let's not talk to any strangers, at least . . .'
Out of Witch-Space.

   The planet Cirag floated before them, a pastel yellow world, the dark markings upon its surface— mountains, probably, or deserts—forming a pattern that reminded Alex of bones. At nineteen light years from Xezaor, the Nemesis had made two refueling stops, and as they came into System Space they had energy enough for a two-light-year jump only. The nearest world, Alex knew, was more than twice that distance away.

   No matter With their new fuel scoop they would simply transit the sun's corona, and recharge the fuel cells.

   Cirag's sun was a large, yellow star, old, but with much life left in it yet. It was active, too. As
Elyssia—at the astrogation console—turned towards it, so two immense streamers of fire were erupting from its surface, whirlpools of plasma that were spectacular when seen through the Nemesis's polarizing filters.

   'Let's catch some of that heat,' Elyssia said, and punched for top speed. The Nemesis surged forward.
But they flew for no more than a minute.
'Holy Mother of the Stars!'

   Alex stared at the scanner screens and felt his stomach turn over. The bright marks there were so large that they could only be Boa or Anaconda class cruisers. They had formed an attack pattern, four large ships, surrounded by the darting points of light that was its fighter escort.

   On the viewscreen, against the glowing sun, the assault group were dark smears, rapidly closing.

   'Boas,' Elyssia said. 'They're set up as fighter cruisers, by the look of it. At least they're slow. Hang on . . .'
Alex gripped his seat, then grimaced as he fell for the same trap that his father had always set for him. But this time it was as well that he secured himself. The universe shifted; his body organs did somersaults.
Elyssia feigned an escape loop, and the fighters—Mambas by the looks of them—broke formation and went into the scatter mode that meant pursuit. But Elyssia completed the loop to come full back against the looming pirate craft.

   She sailed under the belly of the leader with as much calm and cheek as you please. It belly-shot at them, and she rolled the Cobra so that she could side-strafe back. All along the Boa's under-belly, shards and sparks flew brightly where the shields were lowered around the laser housings.

   'Markings are unfamiliar . . .' Alex said. There had been black and green flags with bright sunbursts on them, and non-terrestrial ideographs on the sides.

   'Intentions very familiar . . .' Elyssia breathed. Behind them, two of the Mambas were closing fast.
Pulses of laser fire made eerie streaks in the dark circle of space around the glowing sun ahead of them.

   The huge ships had turned too, and were accelerating towards them. Elyssia made it clear, without speaking, that they'd never reach the star and have time to refuel. Alex, never taking his eyes from the scanners, knew as much.

   Elyssia rolled the Cobra and turned to fight. She targeted a missile and dispatched it on the turn, and the nearest fighter became a glittering dust cloud. The other streaked fire across the forward shields, and the Nemesis shuddered and whined. Two stabs of her finger on the sidefire button, and the second
Mamba tumbled, its shields still up, its pilot disorientated by the unexpected hit. Elyssia closed in for the kill . . .

   One of the Boas loamed large from the darkness. It was rolling slowly, and beams of light played from its spike nose. Elyssia targeted a missile. Sweat ran freely from her face, and her hands were white with tension. Alex, feeling helpless, gripped the sides of his chair, leaning forward, jumping and starting in sympathy with every sudden movement, every avoiding action.

   The Boa ECM'd the missile before it had gone a tenth of the distance between the two ships. The
Nemesis slid smoothly along its belly and again turned side on, strafing the sensitive underparts as it matched the giant's slow roll.

   And then it happened. From somewhere, out of nowwhere, pulsing laser fire made a direct aft hit on them. The Nemesis shuddered and stuttered and was forced into a rapid, dizzying roll. Alex swore, feeling his body wrenched by the seat harness. The shock had nearly taken his head off. He straightened up, assessing the situation: there were two Mambas behind, and they were closing rapidly on the maw of an
Anaconda; it hovered there in the void, like a giant net waiting to swallow them.

   'Let's see you get out of this . . .' Alex said loudly, and glanced at Elyssia to see why she was running so straight.

   She was slumped in her chair. Blood flowed freely from her scalp and nose. Her eyes were closed.
She must have had her seat belt too loosely fastened, and had struck the console when the cobra had bucked.

   Alex leapt from his co-pilot's seat and literally wrenched the woman free, throwing her to the floor.
This was no time for courtesy. He buckled in, stabbed fire at the Anaconda's ram-scoop, then overflew, dodging laser and outrunning a missile, which then closed on him with alarming speed before he was able to destroy it.

   The planet Cirag was ahead of them once more. He began to run for safety, and then thought an alarming thought: what guarantees did he have that the Coriolis network would protect him if he got in range? He had no such guarantee. The space stations were as likely to be against him as the ships that pursued him.

   But if he could let them know what he carried, if he could communicate that he carried their god creatures, perhaps they would send their fighters to keep the freebooters at bay.

   To his right a Mamba appeared out of nowhere. He rolled the Nemesis and shot from his rear laser, then slowed speed, span and strafed the killer vessel from his port gun, watching the Mamba tumble out of control, not destroyed, just dead.

   If only he could release the cargo, jettison the canisters containing the Mymurth life-systems, perhaps the pursuit would end. He and Elyssia would be out of pocket by three hundred credits, but so what? Neither he nor Elyssia were élite, yet. He might feel like an élite combateer, but faced with this sort of—

   A Mamba strafed him. Shields screamed. He targeted a missile, but used side-fire to battle with the attacker . . . —faced with this sort of pressure, neither of them could survive.

   Elyssia came round, staggered to her feet and stared, through blood-encrusted eyes, at the combat.
Cirag came closer. A tiny spinning point of silver light winked and beckoned to them, but the sight of it did not fill Alex with joy.

   'There must be more than Mymurth in those canisters . . .' Elyssia said quietly.

   'Let's discuss it later,' Alex retorted, as he rolled and veered to escape the fire coming from the closest of the big ships.

   The woman left the bridge. Hanging on for dear life, she went down to the cargo bay . . .
And suddenly the attack finished.

   Alex nearly jumped with surprise. One moment his tail had been hot, and his port laser almost at exploding point. The next: nothing. The heavy lights of the massive pirate ships dropped away into the background. Two of the Mambas continued to dog his tail for a moment, firing last, optimistic bursts of fire.
Then they vanished, streaking away into darkness, away from the sun.

   Alex slowed the Nemesis and checked damage levels. They were not seriously hurt, but two missiles were gone, and energy levels were low. Their cargo was intact, however, and if the pirates had backed off, this close to the world, it could only mean that Cirag would defend its visitors.

   Elyssia came back onto the bridge, holding the small, black box that was a Thru-Vis camera. 'They look like turtles. They stink like turtles. They're as boring as turtles. But I've taken a couple of Thru-V shots, just to see if anything else is hiding in there . . .'
'Good idea. Let's see?'
'Two or three minutes . . .'

   She placed the camera down, sat back in the co-pilot's seat and looked at him. 'You okay?'
Alex nodded. 'Shaken. How about you?'
'Bruised, bloody but unbowed. We in the safe zone?'
'Looks that way.'

   The Coriolis station span gently before them, bright with sunlight, casting its shadow on the patchy grey and yellow of the huge world below. Several ships were tethered to buoys close by. They looked safe enough. Lights flashed on the Station. Everything gleamed, everything welcomed.

   Alex sailed gracefully past the immense flying city, then turned to face the entrance.
But there was no entrance. 'What in God's . . .?'

   He sat there, motionless in space, rotation matched with the Coriolis, facing blank metal. By zooming in he could see the shape of the entrance, closed, now, protectively.
'Afraid of strangers?' Elyssia suggested.
'We need fuel badly. They'd better not be too afraid . . .'

   Then the crackle of an audio message coming in. On the screen, only the space station, with stars and the sun behind.
'Identify, identify. This is Craig Orbit Space.'

   'Cobra class trader, the Nemesis,' Alex said. 'We have a cargo of Mymurth. Open the gates.'

   There was silence for a while, though the channel remained open because it continued to hiss and crackle. Then:

   'Attention, Nemesis. Mymurth trade in Coriolis stations is prohibited. '
'What? '

   'Release your cargo before coming aboard. Release cargo. You will be compensated.'
Alex glanced at Elyssia. 'What the hell do we do?'

   'Sounds unprofessional to me,' the woman said. 'Sounds a little fishy . . .'

   She picked up the camera and removed the developed and printed film. Staring at the two prints for a moment, she suddenly seemed to realize what she was looking at and gasped.

   'Oh my Sweet World . . .' she said slowly, and passed the prints to Alex.

   On the screen, the entrance to the space station began to open slowly. Two lights shone there, like eyes, tiny in the dark void space beyond.

   Alex looked at the Thru-V pictures, and for a second couldn't comprehend the grotesque sights he saw. Looking through the bodies of the Mymurth, the camera had picked up the spider-like life-forms that were living inside the shuffling, harmless turtle-forms. The sight was discomforting. Jointed legs seemed to be reaching out into every limb, and every body space. The central black body was shiny, and from it peered a number of bloated, faceted eyes. Two long, bristly tendrils stretched into the Mymurth's brains from each of these hideous parasites.
'What are they?' Alex whispered, and Elyssia said,
'Trouble. They're immature Thargoids'

   Alex felt his heart quicken. Tharglets! He was transporting Tharglets, the larval forms of one of the most deadly life-forms in the known Galaxy!

   Set-up? Being set-up hardly began to describe the way they'd been duped on Xezaor!
No wonder the pirates had closed so ravenously . . .

   'There's good bounty on Tharglets. The Navy pay well, for research purposes.'

   'They're also deadly; and they make ideal mercenary fighters if trained and developed. We've been carrying fighters for Cirag. Pirate fighters. No wonder they want to destroy us. They won't want any evidence left of this . . .'

   Alex stared at the space station. For a moment Elyssia's words just went in and didn't register. He was thinking of the pirates who had attacked, and who had been beaten back . . .

   He was thinking that the danger was over . . . they were at a Coriolis station, and the only danger now was illegal trading . . .
He was thinking safety . . .

   He watched as the bright eyes slid forward, out of the space port. Behind the eyes came the bulky shape of the ship to which they were attached. Behind the ship came light, bright light, a gleaming yellow beam that cast the shadow of the ship across the Nemesis . . .
The shadow of a snake.
The Cobra!
He would have known that ship anywhere. It was months since he had seen it, but not a night had passed when the shape of it, when the evil of it, had not infested his dreams.

The ship that had destroyed the Avalonia came slowly towards him, and he had no doubt at all as to its identity.
And nor had Elyssia.

   She sucked in her breath and moved towards the console. 'I want him. Let me take the controls . . .'
'Sit down,' Alex said coldly, and Elyssia turned angrily on him.
'I have as much stake in this as you . . .'

   'Luck of the draw,' Alex said. 'The pilot of that ship killed my father . . .'

   'Killed my whole family! We were escaping from Teorge, and we asked that ship for help, for supplies. It took my sister and myself as slaves, and blasted my family's vessel to pieces. I escaped. My sister didn't. Alex, I want that bastard!'
'Too late . . .'

   Fire blossomed from the front of the Cobra. The Nemesis rocked and rattled. Alex targeted a missile, then stabbed laser fire back. The energy spread over the Cobra's screens like a bright yellow flower.

   It accelerated towards them. Alex accelerated too, but rose over the killer, and over the space station.

   We can't fight it! We've not got the weapons, nor the defenses. Not yet. Damn! What should we do?

   On the rear screen, Alex saw the somber shape of the killer rising above the Coriolis station. A flash of light presaged the warning INCOMING MISSILE, and Alex targeted the ECM to destroy it. As he did so, he turned. The two ships tore past each other, majestic metal galleons, raking each other with fire before turning and approaching again.

   Twice they dueled in this way. The Nemesis groaned beneath the weight of the laser strikes on its hull; the energy in its storage cells began to drain away. In Alex's mind there was only confusion. The Cobra knew him, and wanted him, and wouldn't let go. And this was the ship he wanted to kill . . .
But he wasn't equipped to kill it . . . Not yet. Not yet!
So despite Elyssia's objections, Alex turned and ran for the sun.

   The Cobra followed. The two ships maneuvered and looped, slowed and speeded up. Whenever possible, Alex rear-lasered, and this had the effect of driving the pirate back a little. It targeted and dispatched three more missiles, and Alex shot them down. He was tempted to think that that represented the full missile load of the Cobra, but he wisely avoided such complacency. His own missile remained targeted, ready to fly, but he imagined that it would meet a quick and pointless fate.

   The sun edged closer. It grew in size and majesty. The cabin temperature of the Nemesis rose.
Immense arms of plasma curled out from the surface, like weird creatures rising above a molten sea. Alex flew towards one, fuel-scoop ready.
The Cobra fired at him. Shields screeched.
The dueling ships entered the realm of the Inferno . . .
Alex said, 'It's working. Look . . .'

   The fuel gauge was edging up as the scoop sucked in raw plasma and converted it to the energy form needed for Witch-Space transit. He skimmed the Nemesis along the edge of the great ocean of fire. The arms of the corona was millions of miles long, thousands wide, and curling round, like a whirlpool. At its centre, then, there was a calm place, a place away from the heat and danger.

   Alex headed towards it. The cabin filled with an eerie brilliance in which shadows seemed to writhe and beckon. The sun was an unbearable glare. The temperature of the ship rose dramatically. Fire played about the hull, and the shields moaned and creaked.

   'Not long,' Elyssia said. At last she too had come to realize that they were just not ready to fight the
Cobra. They had to get out of here, and fast. The nearest star was six light years distant, their fuel gauge showed a jump capability of four, and rising . . .

   In the calm sea, wrapped around by sunfire, the Nemesis hovered, and waited. Somewhere in the brilliant glow of the plasma arm the Cobra searched for them, but perhaps they were safe, now, safe from scanning, or from probing, since no electronic eye or ear could pierce the intense radiation field of the corona.

   'Five light years and climbing. Get ready to go, we're already targeted . . . '

   'I'm ready,' Alex said. He tried not to think of the consequences of such a long, unsupervised jump . . . in the first instance they would just jump small distances, but the hyperdrive mechanism wouldn't tolerate too many such feeble movements.

   Alex turned the Nemesis so that it gently span in a circle, searching the flickering, shadowy fire for danger.
'Five point five light years. A minute more. Just sixty seconds . . .
'Just thirty seconds . . . we're filling up lovely . . .
The ship hummed. Alex dripped with sweat.
'Just twenty seconds more, Alex, and we can fly like star seed . . .'

   On the scanners the merest flicker of light hinted at the presence of the Cobra. It was on the other side of the strand of plasma; a curtain of fire separated them. Nemesis and killer stood motionless in space, facing each other through the great erupting wave of sunfire.
'We're ready to go,' Elyssia said. 'Alex. Go! Now!'
Alex Ryder shrugged her off. 'No,' he said. 'Not yet . . .'
'Alex! '

   He pushed the ship towards the fire. The flickering, ghostly image on the scanners moved too.

   And with a sudden cry, Alex stabbed speed into the Nemesis' engines, and raced towards the veil of flame and plasma. All vision had gone. All he could see was his father's face; and the white ball of flame that had been the Avalonia . . .
All he could feel was grief, and anger, and hate . . .

   All he knew was that he had a missile targeted on the Cobra, and that he had one last, desperate chance . . .

   The ships closed. The distance between them was the distance of the plasma veil. It played on the hull of the Nemesis, and the shields screamed and complained. He could not go too deep . . .
Not too far in . . .
Too dangerous . . .
He fired the missile.

   The tiny vessel sped into the sunfire, weaving and ducking as it homed on the Cobra. It didn't show on Alex's scanner. It didn't show on the Cobra's scanner. Not until it was too late . . .

   The Cobra triggered its ECM. Alex saw the burst of brightness, the sudden detonation . . . and then he saw the great fireball that gyrated around the destroyed missile.

   Momentum, heat, plasma, fire . . . all gathered together into a ball of death that swept from the corona and engulfed the Cobra.

   No shield known could stand against such intense energy, the raw energy of the sun, stung and screaming, blown into a great tidal wave of explosive terror.

   The Cobra bathed in light and fire. Alex watched the scanner, and suddenly . . .
The light was gone.

The Cobra was dead. Destroyed. Gone forever.
The Nemesis slowed and turned, went back to safety.

   No-one on its bridge said a word. But in the bright light of the ageing sun, tears glistened on two faces.

Chapters 12 34 56 78