An insect bodyguard receives a summons that will change his life.
|Lash marched through the smooth stone streets of Shalnazur, his two insect legs swinging long strides. The sun blazed overhead in the purple sky. He picked up a yellow tangy fruit from a nearby stall and sliced it open with his claw. He sucked at the sweet juices as he walked.
What could the Ashkalian Ambassador want? he wondered. Lash had hardly heard from her since he had completed his eight year assignment as her bodyguard – a role for which his lengthy martial training had been almost entirely unnecessary. Now the Ambassador had invited him unexpectedly for a visit, interrupting his regular leisure activity of a simulated wargame against his fellow guards. At least it gave him good reason to leave the barracks where he whiled away his days.
He passed the spaceport, where a colony ship had recently landed. Hundreds of Humans were stumbling around inside the fence, still unsteady after centuries of hibernation. Lash envied them. The new arrivals to Greenhaven would be offered a choice between a farm on the vast continental plain or an apartment in Shalnazur. When Lash had arrived he was not given such a choice. Before he even landed, he had been assigned a role as a bodyguard because of his training, and what a waste of time that had been.
Lash graduated from the military academy on his homeworld and like many young hopefuls he chose to fly to one of the thriving outer colonies to start life on a new world. His flight took nearly two hundred years, so most of his friends and family were long dead by the time he arrived. His close friend Agavar had gone to a world not too far away, but he couldn't contact him easily as it would take decades to get a response. It was a strange choice he had made, now that he thought about it. Would it have been better to remain at home but never see another planet?
He wondered why so many made the decision to fly to a new world and leave everything behind. Of course, the vast majority of people on Earth and Ascalia never flew anywhere. Even so, there was a continuous flow of people streaming outwards from those worlds – a never-ending tide to land on the new worlds.
Most people flew once or twice in their lifetime at most. Hibernation was risky and the strain of starting a new life was not something anyone wanted to do often. Every star system was like a remote island, with communication signals taking years to cross the vast distances between the stars.
Greenhaven was an abundant oxygen-rich world of twenty million people, mostly Humans and Ashkalians. It had grown rapidly in the last few decades. Vast plains and forests provided plenty of empty lands to settle and farm. Before the colony was built, the world had its own ecosystem of plants but no animals, which led to it being labelled a paradise planet. The capital city was even named after a fabled paradise in Ashkalian mythology.
As Lash walked, his thoughts returned to why the Ambassador might want to speak to him. Perhaps his skills as an assassin were finally required. He knew the thirty seven ways to kill an Ashkalian according to the ancient lore of Narash Gar. Most of those methods worked on Humans as well. But he thought it unlikely. Humans and Ashkalians hadn't been at war for nearly eight thousand years, although tensions were ever present. During his time working for the Ambassador he was never asked to do as much as strike another person. More likely she wanted his advice.
The Ashkalian embassy was a grand building of silvery stone near the centre of Shalnazur. Atop its high roof flew the red and black flag of Ascalia. The guards nodded to him at the gate in recognition and let him through without a word.
At the top of the great steps, the High Secretary greeted him with an insincere smile, and asked him to come to the Ambassador's quarters. Lash followed him down the labyrinthine corridors and was asked to wait on one of the comfortable recliners outside the Ambassador's room.
He didn't like waiting, but he had many years practice in hiding his impatience. Thankfully he only had to wait a few minutes before he was called in.
“Ambassador Zanash Zhu Zakar will see you now,” said a servant, opening the door to the main chamber.
Lash stepped into the enormous hall, his claws brushing over the dark green carpet. The room was painted reddish brown so that its colours simulated the atmosphere on Ascalia.
“Welcome back, Lash,” said the Ambassador, standing up. She was incredibly tall, and wore a ceremonial hat that added another head to her height. Beside her two guards stood silent and unmoving. “May your eyes see the glory,” she said, in the standard ritual greeting.
“They are open and willing,” Lash responded. He sat down across the red table from her.
“It has been some time since we spoke,” said the Ambassador, smiling. She relaxed into an informal pose. “I hope you are well.”
“Well enough, although I have a lot of spare time these days.”
“That is good. The wise need time for contemplation.”
“True.” Lash lied. He tired of the pleasantries. He wanted to get to the point, but it would be rude to ask directly.
As if sensing his wish she asked, “What would you say if I asked you to travel to another world?”
So that's what she wants, thought Lash. I am to be sent away. He smiled. “If you command it then I will go. I have few ties on this world.”
“Good. I hoped you would say that. You served me excellently for eight seasons, I will always remember that.”
“It was an honour.”
“There were never any problems during the years when you led my guard. Some would say that was good fortune, and that we live on a peaceful world. I prefer to think that you did your duty effectively.”
“Thank you, Ambassador.”
“Many colonies suffer from growing problems – riots, rebellions – but never here. Yet it is likely we might see such problems on Greenhaven soon. We are reaching a stage of development where we must move from being a rapidly growing colony to a stable settlement. Much will change in the coming decades – we will no longer be able to give so much land to newcomers, and we will need to introduce food prices."
She sat up and continued. “But I won't bore you with our future plans. Much though we would like you to stay to help with our security, there are more important matters. Momentous events have occurred. Have you heard about the colony of Ariadne?”
Lash searched his memory for a few seconds. “That was the Human colony that disappeared a few years ago. Did they ever find out what happened?”
“There were theories – a powerful solar flare, or a natural disaster. But the mystery was never solved. And now it has happened again."
The Ambassador lowered her voice. “You must understand that this is highly secret information. I know I can trust you.”
“I won't tell anyone.”
“Good. About a year ago, there was an apparent accident around a neutron star not far from Ariadne – in a military installation that the Humans were building. It vanished without a trace. The Humans only revealed this to us very recently, and they suspect it may not have been an accident at all.
“Then just over a month ago, the small Ashkalian colony of Calnax disappeared. This time there was a distress call. Only a few words were received but it was clear that they were under attack from some thing, or some force.”
“Do you think that the three incidents are connected?”
“Yes. And here is the important part. To us it appears as though these disappearances all occurred years apart, but if you factor in the time it takes for us to hear from each of those worlds, at the speed of light, then you realise the disturbing fact that all three events happened on the same day around twenty-three years ago.”
Lash opened his mandibles. He could not believe what he had just heard. “But they're years apart.”
“Yes. It is seven light years from Calnax to Ariadne. The military base was somewhere in between. Something happened. If it is a coincidence then it is an extremely unlikely one.”
“Who would have the power to do that?”
“We do not know. It may be a natural phenomenon, or it may be a deliberate attack – an attack which could originate from within the Alliance, or from outside. The stars are still there - we can see them, although they are too distant for us to examine the planets.”
“So this is what you want me for?”
“When Ariadne disappeared, the Humans sent out a drone to investigate but there is only so much a robot probe can achieve. Now we know this is far more serious than first thought. We must act. You realise of course that the people on Ascalia and Earth will not have heard of any of this yet. By the time word reaches them – in around a hundred years from now – they will expect us to have taken action. We are responsible for this sector, at least as much as we can be given the distances involved.”
“What can we do? Won't the attackers have gone by the time we get there.”
“Governor Jaxon is assembling a team of scientists, engineers and military experts. They will leave from here in one month and fly to Ariadne to find out what is going on. You're right, whatever has caused this may have moved on by then, but we have no choice.”
“And you want me to be part of that team?”
“The Governor asked for you personally. Your knowledge of military theory will come in useful should we be facing a hostile threat.”
Lash felt surprised. He had met the Governor on multiple occasions but had not realised he held him in such high regard.
“So do you accept?” the Ambassador asked.
“Yes,” Lash answered without hesitation. “It will be an honour.”
“Good. I will be long dead by the time you return but I will ensure that messages are sent to all Ashkalian worlds that you should be well rewarded wherever you decide to go once this is all over.”
If I survive it, thought Lash, but he said nothing.
“That is all the information I have. I will ask the Governor to contact you with further details. I am glad you have agreed to do this.”
Lash smiled. “No, thank you.” He was reminded of how he felt before his posting to Greenhaven, except that this assignment might actually live up to his expectations.
“I will see you again before you depart, of course. Please contact me if you have any more questions. You should begin your preparations to leave and start to say your goodbyes. The ship is due to fly on the forty-third day of summer.”
The Ambassador rose and bowed, and Lash stood up. “May the luck of Narash Gar bring you victory,” she said.
“May you walk with me on the way.” Lash bowed to the Ambassador and marched out of the building.
He smiled at the guards at the gate as he passed them again. A thrill of excitement rushed through him.
At last, he thought. He would no longer wait out his days in peaceful boredom. This was what he had been waiting for.