The Price of the Elite

(c) 2000 Simon Challands

Chapter 2 - Passing the Burden

     Standing to pull a curtain across the narrow slit of a window, Sura Elleran dropped back onto a chair to continue watching the video without the sunlight glaring on the screen hanging on the wall. The lounge appeared tatty to an outsider, a threadbare carpet on the floor, covered in dust, plain and battered furniture standing here and there, but luxuries were uncommon here.
     Sura knew Qudira well, and had no illusions about the attractiveness of the place. The desert she lived on the edge of covered vast areas of this continent; the others were much the same. Patches of jungle, a relic of a more fertile past, were scattered across the higher latitudes, and where they climbed the Farbreak Mountain range were replaced with a more open, temperate climate. There the spectacular landscape of the mountains was enhanced by the exotic flora, and during the brief stable period in the planet's political history a much-welcomed tourist trade had began to emerge.
     Now the world was officially listed as being in a state of anarchy. Communities were mostly isolated, contact between them usually consisted of raids for supplies. Many of the desert settlements were originally mining towns, but most of the industry had left or been destroyed within a hundred years of being set up.
     There was also indigenous intelligent life present, a primitive humanoid form. Understandably resentful of the impact of humanity on their homeworld, but fearful of it as well, they kept to themselves most of the time. Occasionally they were known to attack lone travellers or to try to play one settlement off against another, less frequently they turned up to barter for goods in return for their mildly infamous "nasty juice". The humans mostly ignored them, more concerned with the problems caused by others of their own species.
     Not a welcoming place to the outsider, and the large number of pirate craft that hung around the system, safe from police interference, was a further deterrent to sensible people.
     Knowing all of this, and living in the middle of it, made little difference to Sura. Her town was the largest for some distance, and well enough able to defend itself against attacks by others. The people in it looked after each other - a result of no particular virtue of theirs but a necessity of survival. They were also as self- sufficient as anyone on Qudira could be, fortunately located on the shores of a lake at the desert's edge. Life inside was reasonably safe, and it was home.
     The video flickered and went dead, and the hum from the other electrical equipment died out. Sura swore under her breath. She rose in annoyance, and ducked through to the small kitchen area. A fridge held a jug of cold water; she poured herself a glass and drunk it before it had a chance to warm up. Returning the jug to the fridge, she ventured outside.
     The heat of the sun was uncomfortable at this time of day, but it was a discomfort she was used to and capable of ignoring. The house was a simple single story building of sand-like stone, rising about six feet above the ground and with another couple beneath it. A metal ladder clung to the wall near the door, shaded for most of the day by the south facing wall. Sura climbed the ladder to her roof, hoping to see what was wrong with the solar generator unit that sat there.
     As soon as she gained the roof she could see the problem. Somehow the solar panel had stopped tracking the sun, and was pointing away from it, in the shade. Without it generating she had been unknowingly draining the battery intended for night use. The roof reflected the heat back from it, and spending any time on it was unpleasant. Sura hoped that whatever was wrong with the unit was simple enough for her to repair, and quickly. It did not take her long to locate the cause of the problem; the casing of the gearing had broken and half of it was hanging loose from the other. The bottom half had filled with sand blown from the desert, clogging the machinery.
     She assumed that if the sand was cleared out it might work again. The casing could wait until later, in the mean time it could be temporarily tied in place with some string. When she took hold of the metal it was almost burning hot, and grimacing in pain at it she yanked hard with both hands. The metal stayed put, but Sura's hand slipped and caught the teeth of a wheel. She yelped and grabbed the injured hand with her other one. The skin had been torn and the wound was bleeding slowly.
     As she made her way across the roof back to the ladder a movement in the distance caught her attention, several patrol vehicles tearing out from the town. In response to raiders? Her stomach turned with an accustomed knot of fear, quickly ignored.
     Descending the ladder with the use of only one hand did not prove difficult, and she was soon back indoors. Locking the door behind her she rinsed her injured hand and dressed the cut. She tossed the discarded dressing wrapper into a bin and sat down in her office, intent on finding out what was happening.
     The terminal screen was dark. Of course, the power was out. Sura shook her head in disgust at her memory. Abandoning that idea, she helped herself to another drink and returned to her lounge. Throwing the curtain back to provide light, she picked up a half-finished book and tried to settle down, but she only managed to read a couple of pages before dropping it back down. Not knowing the situation was, she decided, worse than venturing outside. There was no sound of any trouble and no alarms had been sounded, after all. Her life was based around keeping track of everything that was going on.
     Sitting in a cupboard was a jumble of a toolkit, containing various things useful and otherwise. On top of the pile was a heavy mallet, and somewhere in its midst she found a chisel.
     Outside things were the same as ever, quiet, but most people stayed indoors out of the heat. With her good hand Sura pushed the tools up onto the roof, then climbed up to retrieve them. The injury was not serious, and she was able to hold the chisel despite it as she placed the tool under the damaged casing. After several strikes of the mallet the chisel was through. She wrenched it around, widening the hole, until sand started trickling out.
     To her satisfaction it poured through when she pulled the chisel out, gradually revealing the machinery inside. Sura blew into it a few times to clear any remaining dust from the wheels. Lying on the roof next to generator was a crank that could be used to manually turn the panel. She slid it onto its bolt and pushed. Slowly at first, the gears began to turn, and the panel shuddered round. Squinting at the sun to judge the angle she continued to turn it until it was facing the sun, although it was pointing too low. Another bolt adjusted the elevation until it was facing square on.
     For a few minutes nothing happened, and Sura waited, starting to grow impatient. At last there was a hum as the motors started up, tracking the sun of its own accord. Cheering to herself, Sura started back to the ladder, but suddenly paused, looking around. In the success of repairing the generator she had forgotten the patrol. There was no sign of it, although there was still a wisp of dust in the air in the direction it had gone. It might be out of sight, or it might have stopped. Sura shook her head and went back indoors.
     The terminal was now working, sitting on standby mode. As she sat down in front of it the screen came on, presenting the familiar custom setup. A light touch brought up a list of names, one of which she selected by tapping it. The message "Ringing" flashed on the screen.
     It was answered by an untidy-looking middle-aged man, his hair cut only so as to keep it out of his eyes, and a messy, bushy beard hiding the rest of his face. A couple of other people were sat at a table behind him, clearly arguing.
     "Hey, Scruffy!" Sura called out to the man before he had a chance to speak. "Is there something going on?"
     "What do you mean?" he snapped back at her.
     "I saw a patrol go out about fifteen minutes ago," she said. "I want to know what's up."
     The man rolled his eyes. "Poking your nose in, again," he muttered.
     "Come on, not much happens around here that isn't useful to me."
     "So? Why should I care less about that?"
     "No reason. Let's put it down to our wonderful friendship."
     "Getting you to leave me alone would be a better motive," the man replied sourly. "A couple of Gerijkls were spotted heading this way."
     The man was trying to wind her up, Sura thought. The Gerijkls, the indigenous inhabitants of Qudira, refused to attempt to talk to anyone other than one person unless the circumstances were extremely unusual, and that person was Sura, apparently because she was the first person who spoke to them after their previous contact died. Sometimes they would announce their intentions to someone else, which usually only consisted of an order for Sura to come to them.
     "I would have thought you would be letting me know straight away," Sura said in exasperation.
     "Why?" the man grunted. "Two of them isn't enough for a trade party. Don't know if there's any point in talking to them yet, do we?"
     Sura waited for a second, calming herself down, before replying. The man always irritated her, and he seemed to enjoy it, as if he thought of it as some kind of game, or a petty revenge for ignoring his advances. A quick hint of a grimace crossed her face. He was ugly, untidy, unpleasant, and quite a bit older than her, but an important person in the town, which he seemed to think made him desirable.
     "I'm sure I'll be seeing them when they arrive," she guessed, smiling sweetly, sarcastically, at him. "If you ask nicely I might even tell you what they say. Goodbye." Sura gratefully closed the communication, and pausing only to put on a wide-brimmed sun hat ambled outside.
     Still in the distance, something was moving, the patrol returning, this time travelling quite slowly. As they drew closer she could see two large beasts with them. So, it was the Gerijkls, and as she had been informed it was obviously not a trading party. Sura frowned in confusion. This was atypical behaviour for them. Did they just want to talk about something? On the rare occasions they did that it was usually at the same time they traded, an obvious attempt at trying to show themselves to be honest in what they were saying.
     Sura waited in the shade of a building as they approached. Two beasts, two of the small humanoids on the first of them, beings that always unkindly reminded her of childhood fairytales of goblins. The beasts were jittery with the noise of the patrol vehicles' engines, and the lead Gerijkl was attempting to shoo them off. The drivers ignored it and kept in close convoy until they had passed the gates in the dirt wall that surrounded the landward side of the town.
     Most of the patrol left them at this point, but one car, a jeep with a roof-mounted pulse laser that was kept pointed on the visitors, continued to follow them. They started to turn towards the centre of the town, but Sura stepped out of the shade and hailed them.
     "Looking for me?" she called out. The edgy beasts jumped a little at the unexpected noise, and the jeep stopped in a puff of dust.
     "They demanded to see you," the jeep's gunner called out. "No explanation, just orders, the cheeky little sods."
     "You're the soul of diplomacy," Sura shouted back. "No wonder you've never left the planet."
     "It's the only flaw in my character," he replied cheerfully. "A place like this suits me. We'll be off now?"
     "Right." The gunner waved to her as the vehicle sped off towards the town centre.
     The Gerijkls dismounted and lead their mounts over to Sura. She recognised one of them, more smartly dressed than most of them, and with a vicious scar crossing his serrated landscape of his wrinkled skin. Whatever his role amongst his own people to have given him that mark, he served as a translator when they had dealings with humans.
     The other was tall by their standards, and was standing ill at ease in the strange surroundings, watching its companion. Judging their gender or position by looks alone was a skill Sura did not possess, and she knew she would have to wait until introductions were made before they knew anything.
     "Sura Elleran," the translator greeted her formally.
     "Injit Nah," she replied.
     Both parties stood silently, watching each other, trying to guess at an alien species' body language. Sura knew she wasn't hiding her curiosity, although whether they recognised that or not was unknown. In her turn she thought the second one was nervous, which might be due simply to being in the presence of the race who had taken over their planet and ruined much of it with their fighting. Injit Nah was completely unreadable.
     Sura broke the silence. "Come with me, please," she asked, but Injit Nah held up his hands and crossed them over, a sign she had learned to mean meant disagreement.
     "Private discussion," he declared.
     "My house?"
     She walked off without saying another word, knowing that they would follow her, and that they disliked unnecessary discussion. At the house they tethered their mounts to the ladder and followed her inside. Sura tossed her hat out of the way and showed them through to the lounge.
     As usual the Gerijkl refused a seat, or any form of refreshments. Out of vague sense of deference to their ways Sura also stood, facing them across a table.
     "This is Palkrk Mah," Injit Nah stated, pointing with both hands at his companion. "He discovered an object in the desert."
     Expecting them to explain the entire story at once was futile. To Sura the Gerijkl's habit of telling a small part of the story and then discussing that, before moving on to the rest, was extremely frustrating, but they refused to proceed any other way. It was a small wonder that they talk to us at all, she mused.
     "A human object, I assume?" she asked.
     Injit Nah's face twisted as he spoke flatly. "Of course. If it was not it would not be your concern."
     "How did he find it?" Sura replied, trying to put the reproach behind her.
     Injit Nah spoke to Palkrk Mah in his own language, and translated the response as it came.
     "We were in the desert. One of the faraghs tripped over something. It was a human corpse, not dead for very many days. Around its neck was a chain with a pendant on, and on that pendant was a symbol of significance."
     A flash of pain crossed Sura's mind. Lost, dead, in the desert. Knowing that you were going to die, and helpless to prevent it? She had known people who had left the town, and never returned, and were never seen or heard from again. This world could be a harsh one, even without mankind's interference. Nature proved itself the greatest predator the universe over.
     "What kind of person was it?" she asked, with a hint of pity in her voice.
     "Please elaborate."
     "Could you describe the appearance?"
     "Dressed in rags, such as some of you seem to at your smaller habitations. Hair all over the face, like the human Gerring." Her unpleasant contact in the town hall. "I do not know if it was the effect of death or the natural state, but the skin was coarser than most of your race's, but not as much as ours. The chest was flat, unlike you."
     "Yes, thank you. He was a man, then." Sura cringed inwardly as she felt a hint of embarrassment. It wasn't much of a ribald comment in the first place, and in any case was just a meaningless observation.
     "If that is what the description means," Injit Nah said, oblivious to her brief distraction. He continued with the brief narrative. "We brought the pendant back, and decided that it was best passed on to another human, lest it cause us trouble." When Injit Nah spoke again it was to Palkrk Mah. He reached into a pocket and removed the disc, laying it down on the table.
     A small gold-coloured metal disc, with some markings on it. Sura picked it up, angling the circle to catch the light. And gasped.
     "Oh, shit," she breathed.
     "It is of significance?" Injit Nah asked.
     "Very definitely so!" Seeing the pattern on its surface made it seem unreal, like a drop from a different universe intruding into reality. Sura was holding something in her hand that almost certainly meant the wider galaxy had, for whatever reason, noticed Qudira. Or at least one small but very important part of it had.
     "The emblem of an Elite pilot." She shook her head. "And no longer with that pilot." The body it had been found on was probably not the original owner. Theft? It hardly seemed likely. The Elite were not to be trifled with that easily. Proof from a bounty hunter of a prized kill? Then why had it ended up on a corpse in the desert.
     "I don't know whether to thank you or swear at you for this," Sura said quietly, all the while staring at the disc in her hand. "Something like this does not go missing without a reason, and someone is going to want to know what happened to it."
     "Then we are well rid of it," Injit Nah replied. "Throw it in the desert for all it matters to us. We will not take it back."
     At that remark something went in Sura. "This is the symbol of dedicated, and lethal, people!" she shouted at them. "Whether they are good or bad, we're now going to be caught in the middle of it!" The wretched goblins! This might be what's required to tip the precariously balanced scales over into ruin! Safe from their neighbours at the moment, any outside interference could be the spark in the powder that drives them to charge.
     Sura did not even notice when the two Gerijkls left. She just stood in her house, watching the pendant and wondering what it might bring.

Chapter 3 - Uncertainty
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