Trust me, I’m a doctor. Some people need killing.
OK, yeah, Doctor of Archaeology but that gives me the long view. (Professor James Brandistock Ph.D. at your service, by the way, but you can call me “Jim”.)
Where was I?
Some people need killing.
It’s true! History turns out better when certain individuals are removed from it.
Case in point? His Royal Highness Prince George, galactic playboy and hereditary ruler of the Planetary Principality of Badland. Now he was a man who’d make your trigger finger tense even if you’d never fired a blaster.
I can tell you this because I was groundside during the ’34 Badland Revolution, avoiding looters and opportunists as I negotiated the streets of Fortunata — that’s the planetary capital.
The smug little f–ker popped up on every TV screen in every bar and cafe, and — I assume — every home. He called for calm, promised to see justice done and grievances met.
And he didn’t bother to keep the smirk off of his jowly face.
Prince George didn’t need to. His bullshit was just box-ticking in case the Empire was paying attention: “I reached out to them, Your Excellency, truly I did. Mass murder was a last resort. I wept when I gave the order…”
See, the real message — the reason for Prince George’s smirk — was the Devastator. They’d set up the TV camera so you had a good view of it through the Prince’s study window. The alien super weapon has its own pinnacle above the Citadel Rock — imagine a clenched fist making a thumbs up — so I guess the study was built with that view in mind. They’d also taped the speech at the right time of day so that harsh white sunlight flashed off the thing’s weird tubes and dishes as the gun crew swept it left and right, showing off its field of fire.
Look, Prince George was saying, I have a literal gun to the city’s head.
The revolutionaries — young agitators with access to printing presses — were professionally unimpressed. Fliers, posters and kerbside speeches all pushed the same logic: Dead men don’t work the mines or pay tax. Swamp the capital! He won’t dare to use the Devastator.
Unfortunately, not everybody was angry enough — or desperate enough — to believe they could be their own human shield. So it kicked off with the usual: firebrands, students, and urban workers. However, there were no truckloads of miners from the hinterland.
Even so, you could barely move around the city centre for demonstrators.
Couldn’t breathe, either. In low-G, dust hangs in the air like a lost nebula.
Sensible people stayed indoors behind their air curtains. The rest donned filter masks and coiled through the crumbling concrete streets, raising yet more dust as they gathered strength of numbers.
The revolution’s leaders took their time. The head of the march snaked slowly towards the Citadel, packing as many people into the city as possible before the inevitable clash with the Royal Guard lines.
Which is why I was cutting through alleys and backstreets. I figured if I was quick, I could get in and out of Mr Terris’s antique shop before the mob arrived. It would be nice if I also lost my police tail.
Truth is, I was too old for this.
You know that feeling when your assault shuttle takes a hit and the pilot tells you everything will be OK, but there’s a new wobble in the grav drive that makes you want to barf and you just know you’re about to go through a crash landing?
That’s how the city of Fortunata felt.
I’d spent a month on this damned backworld, failing to get permission to study the Devastator. Now there was a risk of being in the kill zone when it was used.
I’d lived too long, had come too far, to meet such an ironic end in such a piss poor place, especially when it wasn’t billable.
And then there was the bloody shard seer.
I was navigating a small crowd who filled a shady courtyard. From up ahead came the chant of the revolutionaries, only slightly muffled by their dust masks: “What do we want? The rule of the people! How do we get it? Down with the Prince!”
Clearly, I needed to get a move on. However, the tall natives didn’t deign to see the stocky little offworlder trying to sidle amongst them.
Muttering “excuse me”, I wove through the human forest, doing my best not to get a face-full of bosom or become too cosy with the men.
I was about halfway across when somebody cried, “The dead! The dead!”
The crowd parted to reveal a wild-eyed man with a halo of crazy grey hair. One bony hand clutched the shard of a dead universe to his chest. The other pointed at me, or — more accurately — past me.
Despite the heat, a shiver went down my spine.
Bloody seers. Bloody shards.
Our ancestors didn’t have to put up with this crap. (Mind you, they didn’t get to walk the stars either.)
The seer’s audience turned to follow his gesture. He pushed between them and left the shade. The glare cast his shadow at my boots. His eyes widened until they were red-veined orbs. He cried, “Him! He walks with the dead!” He broke off into a coughing fit — should have worn his dust mask.
The natives stared down at me as if I were a dirty child, despite the fact that they were the ones who’d stopped off on the way to a revolution to listen to a shard seer who’d long ago been driven mad by too many possible truths.
I shrugged. “I get this a lot,” I said. “Archaeologist.”
Which was true as far as it went. However, it was not my new profession that had littered my dreams with corpses.
“He walks with the dead!” repeated the seer, now shrieking the words.
“Yeah, we all heard that bit,” I said. “Mind you, he might have a point.” I grinned and waved my arm over everybody’s heads.
The alley was aligned right to give us a view of the Devastator. Thanks to its pinnacle, you could see the damn thing from just about anywhere in Fortunata, or at least some of it. The alien weapon had a human-built turret built around its workings, with just the barrel exposed to the curious scholars like myself.
The weapon’s shiny metal rods and disks would conceal another bloody shard of course. Those things don’t simply predict human destiny, they shape it. This one had already had its effect on me. I was trying to discover which alien forerunner culture built it, which was why I was trying to get to Mr Terris’s shop before the revolution trashed it.
Once I had the information, I would write the mother of all papers and rescue my academic career. Or perhaps I’d tell academia to go f–k itself and sell the information to an arms manufacturer and retire on the proceeds because that Devastator was a hell of a weapon. With it, the Prince of Badland — or to be precise, his minions — could knock out any hostile space ships stupid enough to come into its arc of fire. He could also cauterise great swathes of his own capital city and the surrounding landscape.
It was probably that thought that had the seer’s audience exchanging nervous glances. One woman took a step into a doorway — not that cover would do her any good. A man grabbed his wife and dragged her off back down the alley — probably a better idea.
And suddenly the little crowd was scurrying away from the gaze of the Devastator and away from the brewing riot.
Me? I went the opposite direction. I left behind the cackling seer and pushed out into the crowded street.
From up ahead, a PA system spewed the revolutionary leader’s voice. The sound ricocheted around the dusty urban canyon. The distortions and feedback squeals combined to set my teeth on edge, but his words made the crowd cheer as they marched toward the Royal Guard lines.
I took advantage of the low-G and hopped onto an abandoned skimmer. Its grav shards must have been flat because my weight made its skids bump the street.
The crowd flowed around me, jostling the weightless vehicle so it was like standing up in a row boat. I struggled to keep my footing but now I could see over the heads of the tall locals. That meant that the secret policemen on my heels would see me, but it didn’t matter. I was damned if I was going back to soldiering. I blinked away sweat, raised my little field glasses, and peered through the haze of dust.
Four clicks away, Citadel Rock and its mysterious super weapon loomed over the city.
Nearer to, at the far end of the boulevard, I picked out the transparent riot shields of the Royal Guard. Then closer, at a safe distance from any action, the rebel leader perched on a balcony overlooking the street. It was a wonder nobody had taken him out.
“Brothers and sisters,” he continued — his name, by the way, was Jago, and already I hated him –, “we will build a new paradise here, now, on Badland!”
Yeah. Another person who just needed killing.
The crowd started yelling and pointing.
I turned to look back and up, squinting against the glare.
Further up the street, a Guard grav raft dropped like a stone. It would strike a hundred or so metres away, right in the heart of the crowd.
I jumped off the skimmer — best to get some human shields in case the pilot screwed up and the thing fire-balled into the deck.
I should have also crouched behind the vehicle, but I couldn’t make myself look away. I’d seen squelching used for crowd control before, and it was never pretty. Those who weren’t hit would trample the people around them, setting off a chain reaction of suffocation and crushing injuries.
Sure, this was a low-G world, but that merely gave the fall a slightly-too-slow nightmare quality as the raft pancaked toward where the street walls corralled thousands of people.
The mob yelled and flinched away. The shockwave of jostling reached me. A stray elbow bumped my nose. Another tall local didn’t notice me and stepped on my booted toe.
Jago continued as if his followers weren’t already dying within earshot of his voice: “We can return to how things were in the old days, but better!”
I held my breath, anticipating the screams.
At the last instant, the raft braked and zoomed up the street over the heads of the mob. Its fans howled, drowning out Jago’s speech. It headed up the street toward the Royal Guard lines.
I exhaled. The Prince of Badland wasn’t quite ready to massacre his own people yet. His men were trying intimidation first.
I clenched my fists and wished for a nice heavy blast cannon to swat that thing out of the sky.
But I was done with all that.
The flier dipped lower and moved side to side across the street like a broken vacuum cleaner. They’d dialled back the anti-grav so they could blast us with the blowers without gaining altitude. The downdraft kicked up dust. The wash from its blue shards made the illuminated shop displays spark and flicker and the hair on the back of my neck prickle.
The shadow passed overhead. The stream of hot air plastered down the headdresses of the people around me.
A woman’s turban came unwrapped. Her long blond hair whipped around in the turbulence. She clutched at it demurely and screamed very undemure abuse up at the raft crew.
The man beside her clamped his own headdress in place, stooped then rose, now clutching a chunk of what passed for road in these parts. He yelled, “Defilers!” His arm whipped forward. The lump of concrete arced high and struck the rear of the low flying Guard raft.
It bounced and fell back on the crowd. It must have hit somebody, but crowds are never wise and all around me, people stooped to grab bits of crumbling road surface and heft them at the vehicle.
Any moment and the Guards would start shooting back.
I ran for it, weaving between the taller folk like a forest racer back home. I wasn’t scared, I was outraged. I’d survived hundreds of firefights, led entire armies to victory, and I was going to get gunned down by some two-bit cop and the newspaper back home would note, “Yewtree Archaeology Professor killed in backworld riots.”
I imagined Elayne shedding an ostentatious tear and savouring the drama. I was well out of that relationship.
Above, the howl of the blowers receded and the stone throwing ceased.
I stopped and turned back.
The Guard raft now hovered eight stories up, just in the shade of the urban canyon. It rested on its grav bubble, fans idling.
Unfortunately, that meant I could now hear Jago’s semi-hypnotic ravings: “New order… Year On… a return to the good old days but better…” No, the shard wash hadn’t burned out his PA system.
However on the upside, there was no shooting… yet.
A movement caught my eye.
Off right, high above the stench of sweat and the fog of airborne grime, a sniper slid over the ornamental balustrade of a temple belfry.
I turned away and let the crowd of demonstrators carry me along toward the barricades.
He must be a sniper: lumpy duffel bag that was hard to lug despite the low gravity; and nondescript clothing that wasn’t quite camouflage dress but, in the glare of the system’s white-blue primary, somehow merged with the crumbling sandstone masonry of the temple that would give him a good shot down into the grav raft. He — might be a she, but the local culture was patriarchal and anyway he moved like a he — and actually a professional he – vanished behind the stonework.
Vanished for now, that is. He would be assembling his blaster. I’d have guessed a hunting needler since that was as good as an insurgent could hope to get. However – yes – he’d felt like a professional. So perhaps he worked for Prince George’s “government”. Mercenary contractor, or Royal Guard?
And the Royal Guard?
They turned up their tannoy and bellowed, “Disperse! Disperse!” while the mob yelled back abuse that was a cliche when humans first settled the stars.
I kept watch on the raft and tried to calculate where it might come down if it were actually the target — once a soldier, eh?
But it was not my insurgency.
Not my counterinsurgency contract either.
I really was done with all that. Doctor Brandistock, that’s me.
The angry people jostled and shoved me along.
I gave up trying to hide. I put on my hat and made myself broad: “Look at me, just a stocky-looking off’der — offworlder — caught up in the demonstration. See how out of place I am in my white hat and jacket! Not somebody you’d want to shoot. Questions would be asked.”
Now, Jago came into sight perched on his balcony, mask off, above the dust and danger of the street. He was a typical scrawny low-graver. He was young also, but not as young as the student types who stood behind him looking serious. One of them was a girl with unbelievably big eyes.
Jago moved, blocking my view of her, and leaned over the concrete balustrade. The silks of his headdress floated around him like a halo as he waved his arms and ranted about “Interstellar commercial hegemonies” and “the exploited workers.”
He was right, of course.
I can tell you that both as a man who’s read some history and also seen it made around the galaxy.
These insurgent types usually are right about what’s wrong.
The snag is that leaders like Jago believe that the better world they’re going to make is so much better than what we have now, that any collateral damage is acceptable.
Right on cue, he declared, “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs!”
Neither recognising a cliche nor the possibility that they themselves might look like eggs when viewed from the wrong angle, the crowd cheered and surged down the street to where the Guard waited, no doubt itching to try out their newly imported batons and stunners.
I kept my own head down and blinked sweat from my eyes. It seemed too public a place for an assassination, but maybe that sniper was going to do everybody a favour… everybody but me. It wouldn’t do to be an offworlder when somebody put a blaster bolt into Jago’s head.
At last I spotted a traditional antique shop sign hung out over the heaving street: a cutout representing an Ancient spaceship complete with its mysterious double-helix outriggers.
Now I dropped my weight a little and shoved sideways.
One local rounded on me. He stooped to scream in my face. “Cursed off’ders! Your money supports the government!”
I punched him hard in the gut. “Not my money, friend.”
The gangly local buckled over as if shot.
I caught him as he fell. He didn’t weigh much. “Sniper!” I bellowed. “Sniper!”
Well it was true as far as it went. There was a sniper, only he hadn’t fired yet. Oh yes, and yelling a warning cleared me of any suspicion, right?
I shoved the winded man into a knot of his spidery compatriots and made off just as the demonstration became chaotic.
Jago and his chums vanished from the balcony.
The sensible people in the mob wanted to flee but couldn’t. The stupid — angry — ones scooped up stones, or broke off bits of building and tossed them overhead at the Guard cordon.
Hand-hurled missiles can really travel in low gravity. I hoped the Guards had good shields, otherwise they might start shooting.
I wove through the mayhem and at last made it to the shop doorway.
A scrawny middle-aged man in a purple headdress was frantically turning the handle of the roll-down shutter.
I put a hand on his elbow. “Mr Terris? I’m Brandistock. You phoned?”
He twisted. The look of fear in his eyes turned into irritation. I could tell he was scowling behind his dust mask. “Not now, Doctor Brandistock. Can’t you see we’re having a revolution?”
“Not yet, you aren’t,” I said. “Not until you guys manage to neutralise the Devastator.”
The sniper on the belfry chose that moment to open fire.
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with local difficulties as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)