Empire and Ashes, Book One
by D.L. Young
Copyright 2023 by David L. Young. All rights reserved
“Where did you get this?” the arresting officer demanded, tossing a cloth bag onto the table in front of Jeryn Lorsi. The heavy thud and bag’s shape gave away the contents: Jeryn’s kukri blade.
Leaning forward in his seat and furrowing his brow, Jeryn studied the object for a moment, then said, “Sorry, I’ve never seen that bag before.”
The officer didn’t appreciate the humor. The pale-skinned man struck Jeryn as the prim sort. He had a thin, neatly trimmed mustache and a perfectly pressed uniform with shiny brass buttons.
“Citizen, I wouldn’t make things worse by trying to be clever,” the officer said, standing and glaring down his long thin nose. “You’re in a lot of trouble.”
Jeryn didn’t disagree. He was definitely in trouble. Of the very deep variety. Hours earlier he’d been arrested—along with a dozen others—and charged with trafficking illegal goods. The police had raided a local smuggling operation, and they’d done so right when Jeryn had been unloading his illicit cargo of Tehodian whiskey from a neighboring system. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens.
The arresting officer had confiscated Jeryn’s blade and locked him inside the small, windowless interrogation room, leaving him alone and then returning after what Jeryn guessed had been about an hour.
Now the officer gingerly opened the bag, and without touching the knife poured the blade onto the table with a clank. Jeryn tried not to stare at it, tried not to let anything in his expression betray the curved blade was his most prized possession.
“This is an antique,” the officer said. “A fairly valuable one, according to our scans.”
“You’re kidding,” Jeryn said, trying his best to feign surprise. “I had no idea.”
The officer rolled his eyes. “Of course you didn’t. Now tell me, who did you steal this from? A governor? A wealthy merchant?”
“A junk bazaar,” the officer snorted. “I don’t think so.”
The officer carefully slid the kukri blade from its sheath, the bag covering his fingers to keep his bare skin from touching the handle. Then he released the weapon, its curving, forearm-length blade lustrous and shining as if it had been recently polished. The unsheathed power blade lay on the table in front of Jeryn. Within easy reach, he noted. The temptation to grab it was strong, but the officer had a holstered plasma blaster on his hip. The man could easily draw the firearm, discharge it, and burn a hole through Jeryn’s chest (and the wall behind him, if the setting was strong enough) in far less time than a blade-wielding detainee could attack. They both knew this, which was why Jeryn made no move for the kukri, and why the officer didn’t look the least bit worried.
“Did you know,” the officer said, “that someone matching your description is wanted in connection with that slave revolt a few years back in the Mutara system?”
Uh-oh, Jeryn thought. He shook his head. “No, I didn’t know that.”
Nodding at the blade, the officer said, “Someone who used a weapon very similar to this one.” The man folded his arms. “This far out in the Realm, we don’t get a lot of blademasters. Hence my curiosity.”
“I’m no blademaster,” Jeryn said with a shrug. “I just bought the thing at a bazaar, like I said.” Until now, he’d hoped he’d be able to talk his way out of his predicament. Or at least (and more likely) grease his way out, as he’d done many times in the past. Local police in remote systems like this one were notoriously underpaid and usually quite easy to bribe. But now something told him that with this particular officer on this particular planet, things might not be so easily resolved. The man looked at Jeryn with an eager, knowing stare. Like he was on to something. Like this arrest might turn out to be a lot more than a workaday smuggler’s bust.
Jeryn began to worry, really worry, about what might happen next. If the man brought in a lie-detecting wrist band to compel the truth from Jeryn, or if he managed to figure out Jeryn was using a false identity, things would go from bad to disastrous pretty quickly. Jeryn had to do something, and he had to do it now.
“It doesn’t look it,” the officer said, gesturing to the blade, “but it’s so old our scanners can’t even identify the tech it’s using.”
Jeryn swallowed, thought for a moment, then said, “It doesn’t have any tech. Your scanner was wrong. It’s just a regular blade.” He reached for the handle, then stopped halfway. “May I?”
The officer placed his hand on his blaster’s grip. “Go ahead, but watch yourself.”
Jeryn wrapped his fingers around the handle and lifted the blade, feeling its familiar weight and balance. He gripped it, turned it over a couple times, and said, “See, no tech. It’s just an old knife.” He set it down again, then shrugged. “Maybe it is worth something. Maybe that dealer on Galaway Prime didn’t know what he had. Sometimes valuable stuff falls through the cracks and ends up in a junk bazaar. It happens.” He pushed the blade toward the officer. “If this is my ticket out of here, that’s fine by me.” Pick it up, buddy, come on.
The man smiled, shook his head. “It’s funny you think you have some leverage here, citizen.” He glanced down at the blade. “But I think I’ll wait for those reports to come in from Mutara 3 before I cut a deal with you.”
“I have a cousin who’s a fellow officer in the Mutara system,” the man said. “Just got off a hypercast with him. According to him, they have a few geneprints from that slave revolt that have never been identified. Sourced from a few drops of blood left on the scene, apparently. He’s having the reports sent to me, and they’ll be here any minute now. And if your geneprint turns out to match one on the report…” He shook his head ruefully. “You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.”
Jeryn tried to slow his thrumming heartbeat. “I don’t know anything about a slave revolt,” he lied, then dropped his gaze to the blade. “And I’ve only had that knife for three months. I don’t even know how to use it. I just saw it at a bazaar and liked the way it looked.”
The officer pondered the blade. “It’s a beautiful weapon, I’ll give you that.”
Pick it up already, Jeryn pleaded silently. He imagined the reports from the Mutaran authorities traveling through subspace, traversing lights years almost instantaneously and arriving at the police precinct where he sat now, all but helpless.
Then the officer reached for the weapon’s handle. Jeryn held his breath in anticipation.
“It is quite a piece of weaponry, isn’t—”
Every muscle in the officer’s body stiffened. His face froze, features contorted into a mask of agonizing pain. Immobilized except for a jerking twitch jolting his entire body, the man looked as if a reactor’s worth of energy were passing through him. The pain had to be excruciating.
The officer’s geneprint didn’t match the blade’s owner’s, and his bare-skinned grasp on the weapon’s handle had triggered the kukri’s nerve induction countermeasure. Jeryn had seen the defensive capability activated only a few times over the years. It was an easy one to avoid since just about any glove could thwart it. The officer, seeing Jeryn handle the weapon, had assumed it was safe for him to do the same. A tremendous blunder.
Jeryn reached for the blade. The kukri’s countermeasure instantly deactivated to his touch, and to his great relief he felt no trace of the defensive tech. He snatched the blade from the officer’s grip, and the man collapsed limply to the floor. The countermeasure didn’t kill, it only incapacitated.
The officer’s lights would be out for several minutes, and afterward he’d have one heck of a headache. Jeryn returned the blade to its sheath, then tucked the weapon into an oversized pocket in his jacket’s lining.
He took a moment to gather himself. All right, now how do I get out of here?
He left the room, closing the door behind him and finding the corridor empty. He turned right and walked, expecting an alarm to blare at any second or a stampede of officers to round the corner with their blasters drawn. If the room he’d just exited had been monitored, one or both of those things would happen in pretty short order.
Thankfully, neither did. The officer must have switched off whatever monitoring tech the room had in place. A pretty common practice, in Jeryn’s experience. For a variety of reasons (none of them good ones), backwater police often took measures to make sure their dealings with detainees weren’t recorded for posterity.
Jeryn spotted the restroom he’d noticed earlier at the end of the corridor. He entered, found it empty. And better still, on the far wall there was a pane of frosted glass at head height. An outer window just large enough for him to crawl through. As he approached, he realized the glass wasn’t a proper window you could open and close. There were no latches or opening mechanisms.
He’d have to cut his way out.
Removing the kukri from his jacket, he pressed a sequence into the finger grooves. A familiar vibration briefly tickled his palm as the blade took on a glowing red sheen. He approached the window, running his eyes over the outer casing where the glass and wall came together.
His kukri made short work of the casing, cutting it neatly along all four sides. He then carefully pried out the glass and placed it on the floor. Deactivating the blade, he sheathed the weapon and shimmied up and out of the building’s newest exit, dropping down into an alleyway. Still no alarms, no sign he’d been noticed. He headed toward the open-air bazaar at the end of the alley. He could lose himself in the crowded marketplace, but he wouldn’t breathe any easier until he was out of the city and off the planet.
“Stop right there! Get on your knees!”
He didn’t turn to look at whoever was shouting behind him. He sprinted madly for the bazaar, arms pumping, head down. A brilliant flash of yellow lit up the darkened alley and the crack-sizzle discharge of a plasma blaster filled his ears. The shot missed, but not by much. Stonework exploded near Jeryn’s head, showering him with pebble-sized debris and dust. He was out of the alley before a second shot could be fired.
The large plaza was packed and bustling with late-afternoon shoppers. A knot of locals, hearing the blaster fire, surged instinctively away from the alley’s entrance. Fear and confusion filled human and nonhuman faces, stares shifting between Jeryn and the settling debris cloud a few meters behind him.
Covering his head with his jacket hood, he quickly strode away from the onlookers. He had to lose himself in the crowd. Taking a quick backward glance, he saw no one following him. Maybe whoever had shot at him hadn’t been able to climb up and out the window.
A commotion over at the police precinct’s entryway caught his attention. Officers brandishing weapons poured from the building and fanned out into the crowded square. Wonderful, Jeryn thought. Word had gotten out. They were after him. Suddenly, losing himself in the crowd no longer seemed like a good plan.
He made a beeline for the plaza’s nearest exit, a towering red stone archway. The crowd, already reacting to the police presence, began to evacuate the plaza in a rushed frenzy. A sense of confusion growing into panic filled the air.
“What’s happening?” someone shouted. “Is it Teg terrorists?”
“Is there a bomb?” another person cried. “Did anyone see a bomb?”
The fearful clamor of human and nonhuman languages grew louder as Jeryn found himself carried along by a current of moving bodies. A Xamorian clutching her offspring to her chest stumbled into him, nearly knocking over Jeryn and a few others.
“Watch where you’re going, you stinking geck!” someone barked.
A pair of arms shoved the Xamorian from behind, sending the sentient reptile sprawling to the ground. The Xamorian lost her grip on her three younglings and the creatures tumbled away, their tiny, long-tailed bodies vulnerable beneath a blur of scrambling legs and stomping feet. The parent shrieked in panic, then nimbly dashed through the crowd on all fours and recovered two of the three. Swinging her gaze all around, the parent shrieked again, frantic to find the third youngling. Sickened by the thought of an infant trampled in front of its parent, Jeryn searched the ground around him. He spotted what looked like a small ball, then realized it was the third baby Xamorian, curled up in a defensive posture. Pressing his way through the swarm of bodies, he scooped up the tiny thing, who’d somehow managed to avoid being stepped on. A stinging bite to his finger was the only thanks he got as he returned the child to its parent, who clutched the youngling tightly and then disappeared in the crowd.
Regaining his bearings, Jeryn realized he’d been pushed back toward the center of the plaza, the opposite direction he needed to go. A few meters away, a pair of uniformed police, their weapons raised, moved in his direction. He put his head down and strode straight for the archway exit, knifing through the sea of bodies and hoping the officers hadn’t recognized him.
Seconds later, he passed under the archway. Beyond it the crowd dispersed among three broad avenues stretching away from the plaza in different directions. He risked a backward glance, relieved to find he hadn’t been spotted or followed. The panic from moments before began to dissipate into something less fearful as the crowd seemed to sense the danger in the plaza was now safely behind them. For his part, Jeryn felt far from safe. He needed to put more distance between himself and the authorities scouring the area. Looking around, he grunted in frustration. There was never a taxi around when you needed one. Maybe he could catch a ride the next block over.
He cut through a side street, his head still covered, eyes still down, trying to recall any surveillance tech he’d noticed since arriving on the planet hours earlier. Some places had every square inch of the city under constant watch. The older, core worlds usually. Other worlds monitored public places very little or not at all, depending on how robust local privacy laws were. He couldn’t remember where this world fit on the high-privacy / high-security spectrum, so he judiciously kept his head hooded and his gaze to the ground.
Reaching the next block, he gasped as a ground car abruptly stopped in front of him, blocking his path. Long and black with darkened, opaque windows, the vehicle floated on its repulsor field, gently bobbing up and down. The back door slid open.
“Get in,” an artificial voice behind Jeryn said.
He turned to find two Thracites towering over him. The two-meter tall insectoid bipeds stared at him through luminescent honeycombed eyes. Each sported a universal translator on their left shoulder, or what a human would call a left shoulder. Jeryn wasn’t sure what it was called on a Thracite.
The nearest one uttered a series of clicks, and a moment later the artificial voice from the translator said, “Please enter the vehicle and make no attempt to flee.”
Jeryn’s instinct was to make a run for it, but he realized that would be pointless. Thracites were far faster than humans. The pair would be on top of him before he could take three steps.
He turned again to the ground car, a sudden curiosity striking him. The long sleek machine looked more like a private vehicle than something you’d see in a police fleet. And then there were the Thracites. They surely weren’t police. Every world Jeryn had been to didn’t allow Thracites to be employed by law enforcement. Their hive-oriented minds didn’t adapt very well to police work, he’d heard somewhere.
But if not the police, then who exactly had caught him?
He felt a sharp nudge in his back. “Surrender your weapon,” the translator’s voice said. When Jeryn didn’t comply right away, the Thracite nudged him again, this time more roughly.
“All right, all right,” he said, unfastening the sheath, deactivating the kukri’s countermeasures, and handing over the blade. He then climbed into the car, and the door closed behind him. He found himself sinking into a cushioned seat that wrapped around a spacious passenger area. Whether the vehicle was automated or operated by a driver, he didn’t know. A solid divider separated the back from the front cabin.
The only other occupant sat across from him, an ebony-skinned human with short-cropped, dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, both gone partly gray. The man appeared to be in his late sixties if Jeryn had to guess. You could never be too sure about a person’s age, especially someone older. Gene-based rejuvenation therapies were banned, just like any other genetech, but there were still tons of legal rejoo treatments around. The man wore elegant clothes, a smart business suit with a matching cloak folded neatly and lying on the seat beside him. The garb wasn’t local, Jeryn noticed immediately. The man was from a core world. What could a stranger from the core possibly want with him?
“I’m not with the local authorities, as you’ve no doubt surmised by now,” the man said, his voice as relaxed as his posture. “And you’re not under arrest.”
Jeryn didn’t know what to think. “I’m not?”
“I must say I’m impressed,” the man said with an approving nod. “I’d very much like to learn how you managed to escape. I was only moments away from having you released.”
“Yes, in the event you didn’t manage to free yourself. I thought it might be interesting to wait a while, see if you could find your own way out. And here you are. Well done.”
Jeryn couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this thoroughly confused. What exactly was happening here?
“Sorry, you were waiting for me to escape?”
“Of course,” the man said. “You’ve absconded from custody seven times in the last five years, and from much more seasoned police forces than this lot. It was reasonable to assume they wouldn’t be able to detain you for long.”
This strange man, whoever he was, struck Jeryn as someone born to wealth and privilege. His manner had the relaxed confidence Jeryn associated with the rich and powerful. Upper crust poise, he’d once heard someone say, was as solid and unbreakable as the hardest stone.
“So what is this?” Jeryn asked.
“This,” the man said, “is…an interview of sorts, I suppose.”
“Interview? What kind of interview?”
The man leaned forward a bit. “Tell me, Jeryn, are you enjoying your chosen profession?”
Jeryn wasn’t sure which surprised him more: the odd question or the fact that this stranger knew his name. Who in the stars was this man?
Before he could answer, the man continued. “It can’t be a very rewarding existence, living hand to mouth, always on the move, trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Correct me if I’m wrong.”
Jeryn shook his head, his confusion mounting with each word the man spoke. “Let’s back up for a minute. First of all, who are you? And what exactly do you want with me?”
The man smiled patiently. “You like to get right to the point, don’t you? I envy that. If only I could be so blunt in my profession. It would save so much time and effort. But I’m afraid in my world tact and discretion are the necessary forms of engagement.”
“And what exactly is your world?” Jeryn asked.
“If things proceed as I hope them to, you’ll find out soon enough.” The man smiled again and nodded. “I’m being vague, forgive me. It’s no easy thing to speak candidly when you’re so accustomed to the opposite. Let me try to be more clear.”
The man fixed Jeryn with a steady, unblinking gaze. “My name is Whitmere Everfeld. I manage the largest intelligence operation in the Realm, and I’d like you to come work for me.”
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