VORTEX

(Sten No. 7)

By Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

 
 

UK Cover Of Sten 7 - Vortex
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CHAPTER ONE

The square of the Khaqans brooded under storm clouds knuckled black in the sky. A weak sun crept through those clouds, picking out flashes of gold, green, and red from the towering buildings and domes.

The square was immense: twenty-five square kilometers solid with gaudy buildings, the official heartbeat of the Altaic Cluster. On the western edge was the lace-pattern fan of the Palace of the Khaqans - home to the old and angry Jochian who had ruled over the cluster for a hundred and fifty years. For seventy-five of those years the man had labored on this square, lavishing billions of credits and being-hours. It was a monument to himself and his deeds - both real and imagined. Almost as an afterthought there was a small shrine park in a forgotten corner of the


 
 

 square in memory of his father, the first Khaqan.

The square sat in the center of Jochi’s cpital, Rurik. Everything in this city was huge; the inhabitants were forever scurrying about, reduced in scale and spirit by the size of the Khaqan’s vision.

Rurik was quiet this day. Humid streets emptied. Beings huddled in their tenements for mandatory viewing of the events about to unfold on their livie screens. All across the planet Jochi it was the same.

In fact, on all the habitable worlds of the Altaic Cluster humans and ETs alike had been cleared from the streets by loudspeaker vehicles and ordered into their dwellings to punch up the livie cast. Small red eyes at the bottom of the screens monitored their required rapt attention. Security squads were posted in every neighborhood, ready to kick in the door and haul away any being whose attention flagged.

At the Square of the Khaqans itself, three hundred thousand beings had been ordered in for public


 

 

witness. Their bodies formed a black smear around the edges of the square. The heat from the living mass rose in waves of steam and drifted up into the menacing clouds. The only movement was a constant nervous shifting. There was not one sound from the crowd. Not the cry of a child or a cough from an Old One.

Heat lightning branched over the four gilded pillars that marked each end of the square and the enormous statues honoring Altaic heroes and deeds hunched over it. Thunder boomed and echoed under the clouds. Still the crowd held its silence.

Troops were formed up in the center of the square, weapons at ready, eyes scanning the crowd for any sign of danger.

At their backs loomed the Killing Wall.


 

 

A sergeant barked orders, and the execution squad clanked forward, walking heavily under the burden of twin tanks strapped to each being’s back. Flex hose ran from the tanks to a two-meter-long tube held by each squad member.

Another order, and hands sheathed in thick fireproof gloves flexed the triggers of the flamethrowers. Molten fire dripped from the ends of the tubes. Gloved fingers tightened, and a howl rent the air as flame exploded out and against the Killing Wall.

The squad held the triggers back for a terrible moment of heat and acrid smoke. The flames hammered at the wall in heavy waves. At the sergeant’s signal, the fire stopped.

The Killing Wall was unmarked, except for the deep red glow of superheated metal. The sergeant spat. The spittle exploded as it touched the wall. He turned and smiled.


 

 

The execution squad was ready.

A sudden squall erupted, drenching the crowd and sending up hissing clouds of steam from the wall. It stopped as quickly as it had begun, leaving the crowd miserable in the humid atmosphere.

There was a nervous buzz here and there. Among so many beings, fear can keep the silence only so long.

“This is the fourth time in as many cycles,” a young Suzdal yipped to his pack mate. “Every time the Jochi police come hammering on the door to call us out to the square, I think, this time they’re coming for us.” His little snout was wrinkled back with fear, exposing sharp, chattering teeth.

“It’s nothing to do with us, dear,” his pack mate said. She rubbed the thick furred hump that protruded above her muzzle against the adolescent male, spreading soothing hormone. “They only want the black


 

 

marketers.”

“But all of us do it,” the frightened Suzdal yipped. “There’s no other way to live. We’d all starve without the black market.”

“Hush, someone will hear,” his pack mate warned. “This is human doings. As long as they’re killing Jochians or Torks, we mind our own business.”

“I can’t help it. It feels like what some humans call Judgment Day. Like we’re all doomed. Look at the weather. Everybody’s talking about it. No one’s seen anything like it. Even the Old Ones say it’s never been like this on Jochi. Freezing cold one day. Blustering hot the next. Snow storms. Then floods and cyclones. When I woke this morning, I thought it smelled like spring outside. Now look.” He pointed at the heavy black storm clouds overhead.


 

 

“Now, don’t get yourself overwrought., his pack mate said. “Not even the Khaqan can control the weather.”

“He’s going to get to us eventually. And then . . .” The young Suzdal shuddered. “Do you know one being who has been executed yet who was really guilty? Of anything . . . big?”

“Of course not, dear. Now, bet quiet. It’ll be over with . . . soon.” And she rubbed more hormone into his fur. Soon the chattering teeth were still.

There was a crash and a boom and howl of music over the great loudspeakers, so loud that the foliage in the scattered parks of the square shivered with the beat. The gold-robed Khaqan Guard trotted, spear formation, out of the palace. At the apex of the spear was a floating platform bearing the Khaqan on his high-back, gilded throne.


 
 

The whole group quick-marched to a position just near the Killing Wall. The platform settled to the ground.

The old Khaqan peered about him with suspicious, rheumy eyes. He wrinkled his nose at the close smell of the crowd. An ever-attentive privy aide caught the gesture and sprayed the Khaqan with his favorite sweet-scented incense. The old man pulled a decorated flask of methquill from his belt, uncorked it, and took a long drink. It quick-fired through his veins. His heart raced and his eyes cleared along with his enthusiasm.

“Bring them out,” he barked. In front of the Killing Wall, metal hissed on oiled bearings, and a dark hole yawned. There was a hum of machinery, and a wide platform rose up to fill the hole.

There was a long, audible shudder from the crowd when they saw the prisoners standing there in their chains, blinking in the dim light. Soldiers hustled forward and prodded the forty-five men and women


 
  to the wall. Metal bands emerged from the wall and clamped them into place.

The prisoners looked at the Khaqan with stunned eyes. He took another pull on his flask and giggled with the heat of the methquill.

“Get on with it,” he said.

The black-robed inquisitor stepped forward and began reading the names and confessions of each of the assembled felons. Their list of crimes boomed over the loudspeakers: Conspiracy to profit . . . Hoarding of rationed goods . . . Theft from the markets of the Jochi elite . . . Abuse of office to profit . . . On and on it went.

The old Khaqan frowned at each charge, then nodded and smiled at each disposition of guilt.


 
 

Finally it was done. The Inquisitor slid the charge fiche into its sleeve and turned to await the Khaqan’s decision.

The old man sipped at his flask, then keyed his throat mike. His shrill, raspy voice filled the square and buzzed on the livies in the billions of homes in the Altaic Cluster.

“As I look at your faces, my heart is moved with pity,” he said. “But I am also ashamed. All of you are Jochians . . . like myself. As the majority race in the Altaics, it is for the Jochians to point the way. By good example. What are our fellow humans, the Tork, to think when they hear of your evil deeds. Much less our ET subjects, with their looser grip of morality. Yes . . What do the Suzdal and the Bogazi think when you Jochians - my most prized subjects - flaunt the law and endanger our society by your greed?

“These are terrible times, I know. All those long years of war with the filthy Tahn. We suffered and sacrificed - and yes, died - in that war. But no matter how heavy our burden, we stood by the Eternal Emperor.

“And later - when we believed him slain by his enemies - we struggled on, despite the unfair burdens placed on us by the beings who conspired to assassinate him and rule in his place.

“During each of these emergencies, I asked your help and your sacrifice to keep our lovely cluster safe and secure until the Emperor’s return. As I believed he would, all the time.

“Finally, he came. He disposed of the evil privy council. Then he looked around to see who had remained steadfast in his absence. He found me - your Khaqan. As strong and loyal a servant as I have been for nearly two centuries. And he saw you - my children. And he smiled. From that moment on, the Anti-Matter Two flowed again. Our factories were alight once more. Our starships soared to the great market places of the Empire.

“But all is still not well. The Tahn wars and the actions of the traitorous privy council have sorely tested the Eternal Emperor’s resources. And ours as well. We have years of hard work ahead of us before life can be normal and prosperous.

“Until that time comes, we must all continue to sacrifice the comforts of the present for the glorious life of the future. All of us are hungry now. But at least there is food enough to sustain. Our AM2 allotment is more than most, thanks to my close friendship with the Emperor. But it is only enough to keep commerce alive.”

The Khaqan paused to wet his throat with methquill. “Greed is the greatest crime in our small kingdom now. For in these times, isn’t greed nothing more than murder on a mass scale?

“Every grain you steal, every drop of drink you sell on the black market, comes from the mouths of children, who will certainly starve if greed is left unchecked. The same for our precious AM2 supplies. Or the minerals for tools to rebuild our industry, and the synthcloth that keeps us from the elements.

“So it is with a heavy heart that I sentence you. I have read the letters from your friends and loved ones, begging my mercy. I wept over each one, I really did. They told a sad tale of beings gone wrong. Beings who have listened to the lies of our enemies, or fell into callous company.”

The Khaqan wiped a nonexistent tear from rimless eyelids. “I have mercy enough for all of you. But it is a mercy I must withhold. To do otherwise would be criminally selfish of me.

“Therefore I am forced to sentence you to the most disgraceful death known, as an example to any others who are foolish enough to be tempted by greed.

“I can allow only one small concession to self-weakness. And I hope my subjects forgive me this, for I am very old and easily moved to pity.”

He leaned forward in his chair as the livie camera dollied in until his face filled one side of the screen for the viewers at home. It was a mask of compassion. On the other side of the screen were the forty-five doomed beings.

The Khaqan’s voice whispered harshly. “To each and every one of you . . . I’m sorry.”

He cut the throat mike and turned to his privy aide. “Now, get this over with quick. I don’t want to be out here when the storm breaks.” And he eased his old bones back into the throne to watch.

Orders were shouted, and the execution squad took up position. Flamethrower barrels were raised. The crowd drew a long breath. The prisoners hung dully against their bonds. Thunder crashed overhead from the clouds.

“Do it,” the Khaqan snarled.

The flamethrowers roared into life. Solid sheets of fire burst out at the Killing Wall.

In the crowd some beings turned away.

A Suzdal pack leader named Youtang barked in disgust. “It’s the smell that gets me most,” she yipped. “Puts me off my rations. Everything tastes like cooked Jochians.”

“Humans smell bad enough without being parboiled,” her assistant leader agreed.

“When the Khaqan started these purges,” Youtang said, “I thought, so what? There’s too many Jochians, maybe it’ll thin their ranks some. Leave more for us Suzdal. But he kept at it. And I got worried. Pretty soon, he’s going to have to start looking elsewhere for his examples.”

“He thinks the Bogazi are stupidest, so they’ll probably be last,” her assistant said. “We’ll be purged just before them. The Torks are human, so if he sticks to whatever it is he calls logic, they’re probably next.”

“Speaking of Torks,” Youtang said, “I see one worried-looking friend of ours over there.” She said “friend of ours” with disgust. “Look. It’s Baron Menynder. Jabbering at some other human. Jochian, by the cut of his clothes.”

“It’s General Douw,” her assistant yipped, excited.

The Suzdal pack leader pondered for a moment. The human she was looking at was a short, squat being with a bald head. The beefy face was ugly enough to belong to a thug, but Baron Menynder affected spectacles that made his brown eyes large, wide, and innocent.

“Now, what would the Khaqan’s defense secretary be doing talking with Menynder? Couldn’t be professional advice, even though Menynder had the same job once. But he’s past it now. His time was four or five defense secretaries back. The Khaqan fired or killed all the rest. Clot, that Menynder is a canny old being,” Youtang mused almost to herself. “Got out just in time. And he sticks to his own business and keeps his head low.”

She studied the situation a little longer, getting a closer look at General Douw. The Jochian appeared an ideal general, well over two and a half meters high. He was sleek and athletic, at least next to the tubby Menynder. His silver-gray locks fitted his head like a tight helmet, in stark contrast to Menynder’s bald pate.

“Douw must be liking what he’s hearing,” the Suzdal pack leader finally said. “Menynder’s been going nonstop since we started watching.”

“Maybe the old Tork is feeling extra mortal these days,” her assistant said. “Maybe he has a plan. Maybe that’s what the discussion is all about.”

The work at the Killing Wall was done. There were only ashes where the condemned had once stood. At the western edge of the square, the Suzdals could see the Khaqan and his guards disappearing into the lacy palace. In the center, the soldiers were being formed up and marched off a platoon at a time.

Youtang watched the two humans in deep discussion. An idea stirred. “I think we should join them,” she said. “One thing about Menynder is that he’s a clotting great survivor. Come on. If there’s a way out of this alive, I don’t want the Suzdal to be left behind.”

The two beings edged through the crowd.

The storm broke. Shouts of pain and terror echoed across the square as hailstones hammered out of the clouds, bursting like shrapnel.

The loudspeakers blared dismissal, and the crowd erupted out of the square.

Menynder and General Douw hurried away together. But by the time they reached the main gate, the two Suzdals had caught up with them. The four paused in the shelter of an enormous statue of the Khaqan at the edge of the gate. A few words were exchanged. Then nods of agreement. A moment later the four hurried off together.

The conspiracy had been launched

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Last Revised: January 29, 2011