The Dark Wheel
by Robert Holdstock

Chapters 12 34 56 78

Chapter Eight

The holoFac of Rafe Zetter gleamed and shimmered on the bridge of the Nemesis, as if with pride. Behind it, the full face of Lave was a welcome and relaxing sight. The last of the Mymurth and their precious parasites had been off-loaded into two Navy Asp-type ships. The final payment had not yet been agreed, but the figure would not be less than one hundred credits per creature.

   'I knew you could do it,' Rafe said, chewing happily and stroking his wispy sid ewhiskers. 'Had to be sure. But was confident enough to get you to Cirag before you were ready.'

   'We could have been killed,' Alex muttered. 'That system was crawling . . . '

   'But a good combateer, even an élite combateer, knows when to run, and how to run. I'm proud of you . . . you ran and scored.'

   And as he spoke, so on the screen a message came through from the Galactic Police HQ on Lave
Coriolis 6.

   Congratulations to Alex Ryder, and thanks on behalf of the Galactic Co-operative of Worlds for your efforts and skill in destroying pirate vessels as documented by you, and verified by on-board V-film.
We have pleasure in assigning to you the Combat Status of 'Deadly'. Your legal status of 'Offender' has been negated. Your new rating as Deadly will be lodged in the GalNetwork within a standard day.
'Select wisely in battle, and be strong.'
So there it was. Alex was not yet twenty earth years of age, had come within one step of being rated more highly as a combateer than most people would even dream about.

   He was deadly; he had killed the Cobra; why the Cobra had killed his father Alex hadn't thought to ask . . . of the ship's pilot, at least. He had guessed that the ship and its bounty killer pilot had simply been earning a wage.
Instead, he said to Rafe, 'Did you know the ship was at Cirag?'

   'Had a good idea of it, Alex. That's why we sent the Tharglets with you. Nobody, but nobody—if they're a tad evil—can resist booty like that. I knew it would bring every freebooter for a light year after you, but I reckoned you could handle them. Most importantly, I was damn sure that your cargo would bring out the Cobra.

   'You fought well. You showed the sort of instinct for combat that I remember in Jason. He was right. You are the man to follow him.'
'Follow him where?'

   Rafe chuckled and shook his head. 'You see, that's the big question. Your father was chasing the mythical plant Raxxla. Does it exist, or does it not? If it does, then on Raxxla there's an alien construct that's a gateway to other Universes, and all that's in those Universes in the way of bounty, and treasures, and aliens, and life . . .

   'Jason Ryder was convinced that Raxxla existed. That's why he trained for, and became a part of, the Dark Wheel, the legend-seekers. I hadn't heard much from him or about him for some time until just before he died, when he told me he'd found evidence for the real existence of Raxxla. He came back from
Deep Space to get a proper team together . . . ' Rafe smiled bitterly. 'But just before he was due to go back, he decided to take a safe-worlds holiday jaunt with his son . . . and an assassin was waiting for him.'
'But why?' Alex asked. 'Why kill him for finding Raxxla?'

   'Because there are people on Raxxla already. This is only a guess, mind you, but from what happened to Jason I'd say it was close to being right. We've long suspected that a corps of élites lives there, and are exploiting the gateway. They're powerful, twisted men. Powerful enough to hire an assassin to kill the threat to their dominance.'

   Rafe leaned a little closer to Alex, his bright eyes gleaming, an intense look on his grizzled face.

   'I've put you through your paces, Alex, you and Elyssia both. The Dark Wheel needs you. Both of you. But believe me, what you've just been through is nothing to what you face now. You've got to become élite, Alex. And that means a lot of training, and a lot of fighting, and maybe a lot of months, even years.
But then the Universe will open up before you in a way you never imagined possible.'

   Alex stood silent, thoughtful, watching the old man. In the corner, half in shadows, Elyssia stood and watched too, frightened by what she was hearing.

   'Has the grief gone?' Rafe asked, and Alex nodded. The old trader smiled.
'How does it feel to be rich?'
'Empty,' Alex said, and Rafe Zetter laughed.
'You'll do for the Dark Wheel, Alex. You'll do . . .'

The Dark Wheel is a novella written by Robert Holdstock, and inspired by the intergalactic space trading adventure program ELITE, by David Braben and Ian Bell.

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Chapters 12 34 56 78