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by Steph Bennion

CITY OF DECEIT is the third novel in the HOLLOW MOON series. The story is largely set in London, England on 23rd-century Earth but starts on Yuanshi, Epsilon Eridani and sees the return of Raja Surya, Maharani Uma and their band of royalist rebels...

A message to Earth

ebookRAJA SURYA PULLED BACK THE CURTAIN and flinched as the aircar parked in the dark courtyard beyond promptly exploded before his eyes. A rainstorm of fiery shrapnel glittered against the golden glass walls of the palace, setting fire to the ornamental shrubbery below. A split second later, the blackened stone elephant head of the Hindu deity Ganesh thudded to a rest outside the window, causing the young boy to muffle a shriek.

A barrage of tracer shells erupted from a nearby tower, bright against the gloomy starless sky. The corporation gunship that launched the missile, a sinister black wedge riding upon blue-tinged columns of thrust, swung its searchlights across the courtyard and moved away into the night. Through the window, the young boy watched a lone figure race through the darkness towards a nearby door, moving with the bounding lope peculiar to low-gravity worlds. A sound of footsteps reached him from the antechamber next door. Surya moved to release the curtain and paused. Reflected in the window, the worried frown etched into his own dark features betrayed the queasiness he felt within. Each attack on the palace seemed more intense than the last. He heard the door behind him open.

“Surya!” called an anxious female voice. “Stay away from the window!”

The Raja turned to the slim figure of his mother in the doorway. Maharani Uma, her long black hair fastened in a ragged plait, wore a battered flak jacket over her blue saree and there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. At her waist was a holstered plasma pistol, which Surya knew was bad news, for she only carried arms when there was a risk of a ground attack. He had heard tales of children as young as ten having guns to defend the streets of Lanka, though Surya had yet to persuade his mother that himself, fourteen years old, should also be allowed to do so. In the last decades of the twenty-third century, the domineering Que Qiao Corporation was pushing hard to impose its harsh authority once and for all across the Indian moon of Yuanshi. The anger of those who objected had never run so high.

“They blew up an aircar,” Surya said nervously. “And my favourite statue.”

“Yes, I saw,” the Maharani told him. “No one was hurt. Come with me.”

Surya heard a muffled bang and instinctively raised his forearms above his head. His mother barely batted an eyelid. He had no idea how she stayed so calm.

He grabbed her offered hand and followed her through the door into the ornate antechamber beyond. The once-magnificent Crystal Palace of Kubera, his late father’s summer palace in the city of Lanka, no longer felt like home. The stomp of countless boots had scuffed the tiled floor, there were cracks and plasma burns across the wooden panelling and black anti-blast tape at every window. Ammunition crates lay stacked in rooms where Maharaja Kashyap and family had once hosted high-class gatherings of Yuanshi’s elite.

His mother often told stories of when Que Qiao in Epsilon Eridani had been content to let the Indian settlers run their own affairs. Those days were long past. Those days were long past. Civil war had gripped Yuanshi before he and his mother sought refuge at Barnard’s Star, back when he had been just four years old. Their recent return had seen the conflict escalate to new heights. It was ironic that it had been a peace conference on Yuanshi’s sister moon of Daode, some ten months ago now, that had convinced Maharani Uma it was time to end their exile.

Surya followed his mother along a hallway and down a flight of stairs. He guessed where they were going even before they entered the brightly-lit basement, a large barrel-roofed space that Commander Kartikeya, the Maharani’s chief military advisor, grandly called his intelligence and operations room. She in turn sneered that military intelligence was an oxymoron, not that Surya understood what she meant.

Kartikeya, a bearded young Indian man in crisp military fatigues, paced restlessly before the holographic projection table dominating the room. As he turned, Surya felt his mother’s grip tighten. She and Kartikeya rarely said a civil word to one another.

“Maharani Uma,” said Kartikeya, eyeing her coolly. He tilted his head imperceptibly in lieu of a proper salute. “Come to join the action?”

“While you’ve been skulking in your basement, I’ve been with the gunner crew on the northwest tower,” she responded icily. “Your report, if you please.”

Kartikeya held her stare for a few moments, then turned away.

“Team A, Lieutenant Shakti’s unit, has secured Lanka spaceport,” he said. He was trying hard to soften his Indian-accented English into something more like the educated lilt used by Surya’s mother. “They neutralised a freighter, but that turned out to be carrying smuggled rice, not guns. Team B, Lieutenant Balin’s squad, ran into an armoured convoy and are returning fire. Que Qiao won’t notice our saboteurs slipping through their lines.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Who did you send? We have a lot riding on this.”

Kartikeya hesitated. “Namtar and Inari,” he said.

“Those blundering fools?” The Maharani put a hand to her forehead and gave a sigh of both exasperation and dismay. “You idiot! I asked for your best, not Team Z! What on Yuanshi possessed you to send those two numbskulls?”

“They were the only operatives who were free and not wounded or dead,” Kartikeya replied carefully. “We lost a lot of recruits when you split ties with the Church.”

“Your beloved Dhusarians banned music and dancing! I’m amazed Taranis ever gained the support he did, issuing such stupid rulings. We’re well rid of that dangerous fool.”

“Priest Taranis knew what was good for Yuanshi,” said Kartikeya, sounding hurt.

“Really?” she snapped. Surya guessed she was thinking of when he and his mother last saw the fabled mad priest of Lanka, back at their old refuge in the Barnard’s Star system. On that occasion, Taranis had been caught creating a dozen human-alien cyberclones to act as his Dhusarian disciples. “Was that before or after he kidnapped my son and tried to derail the peace conference? Your own performance was also highly questionable, I recall.”

“Some things are best left in the past,” Kartikeya said hurriedly. “As for the mission, Namtar knows what he’s doing. A fine corporal and a dedicated Dhusarian.”

The Maharani looked far from convinced. Surya gingerly approached the projection table, which he saw showed not the customary map of Lanka, but a three-dimensional schematic of Ayodhya, Yuanshi’s capital city and one firmly under Que Qiao control.

“Are they in Ayodhya?” he asked. “Namtar and Inari, I mean.”

Kartikeya glanced to the Maharani and frowned. Above them, Surya heard another muffled explosion outside the palace. A cloud of dust drifted from the ceiling.

“You can tell him,” she said. “You report to my son as well as myself.”

Kartikeya scowled, as he always did when reminded of his position. The commander had single-handedly led the royalist rebellion on Yuanshi during the Maharani’s and Surya’s long exile and had not reacted well to his demotion upon their return.

“They carry a message,” he told Surya. “A request for a ceasefire and talks, along with a threat that we will destroy the Que Qiao bio-labs at Anjayaneya if our demands are not met. It’s a bluff, of course. Capturing the plantations has been our only major victory to date and Governor Jaggarneth knows we would not dare play that hand so recklessly.”

“I am not bluffing,” snapped the Maharani. “I would happily rid the five systems of that despicable drug for good! Unfortunately, those laboratories are the only thing Que Qiao on Earth care enough about for a threat to have any effect.”

“On Earth?” asked Surya.

His mother nodded. “The holovid is not intended for that idiot Jaggarneth,” she said. “Intelligence suggests he has been lying to the Que Qiao Board in Shanghai about his failure to maintain order on Yuanshi. We aim to expose him for the war criminal he is.”

“As you know, Lanka is cut off from the servermoon network,” explained Kartikeya. “Namtar and Inari are to gain access from Ayodhya and send the message from there.”

Surya considered the magnitude of Namtar’s and Inari’s mission. Near-instantaneous interstellar communication was possible due to the wonders of servermoons, kilometre-wide satellites with huge data banks and extra-dimensional transmitters, linked in a five-systems network. Que Qiao had recently begun blocking all non-corporate transmissions: when added to the trade embargo, news blackout and a ‘shoot on sight’ policy with regard to spacecraft heading for Lanka spaceport, the corporation’s actions had left the royalist rebels on Yuanshi isolated like no others before them. Surya frowned, struck by a thought.

“I have a friend who works for Que Qiao,” he said cautiously. “He says he hates them and wants to quit his job. He could probably send the message for you.”

“What?” cried Kartikeya. His eyes blazed with fury. “Fraternizing with the enemy?”

He looked ready to strike Surya. The Raja stepped back in alarm, taken aback by the commander’s reaction. His mother too looked startled, but more shocked than annoyed.

“Surya!” she exclaimed. “What friend?”

“I met him online,” he replied meekly. “We play Battlefield Earth together,” he added, referring to a popular virtual-reality combat game which saw heavily-armed troops battling marauding aliens, unless players preferred being xenophobic extra-terrestrials out to crush humankind. “He works in a warehouse in Ayodhya but hates his boss and wants to leave.”

“And does this friend have a name?” she asked carefully.

“Master Blaster,” Surya replied meekly.

“Well, that sounds genuine,” scoffed Kartikeya. “Honestly! What’s the point of security training if the Raja here goes off and talks to corporation lackeys over the net? What is the world coming to? I despair! I really do.”

“Shut up,” the Maharani retorted. She turned to Surya. “You’re not to play that game again,” she said firmly. “You can’t trust anyone. Especially those who work for Que Qiao.”

Surya opened his mouth to protest, caught her stern glare and decided to keep quiet.

“Leave the winning of this war to adults, okay?” Kartikeya said. Surya scowled. The commander sounded like he was addressing a four-year-old.

“He meant well,” the Maharani said, putting an arm around her son’s shoulder.

Kartikeya snorted. “Only Namtar and Inari can help us now.”

Surya looked at his mother as she sighed. If there was anyone who irritated her more than Commander Kartikeya, it was the dynamic duo of Namtar and Inari.

“Wonderful,” she murmured. “Things are worse than I thought.”

* * *

Inari stared up at the roof of the four-storey office block, silhouetted against the star-spangled sky. The alley in which he and Namtar stood had no street lamps and the only light came from the pale blue crescent of Daode upon the horizon. The rain threatened for Lanka had not followed them to Ayodhya and it was a cool, clear night. Inari was nevertheless drenched in sweat, for Namtar had somehow persuaded him that his pale and portly frame was ideal for carrying all their equipment. Inari slipped on his night-vision goggles, turned to where his tall colleague waited in the shadows, looked up again and frowned.

“I’m not climbing up there,” he grumbled. “What’s wrong with the front door?”

“Our adversaries will naturally expect our ingression by conventional means,” Namtar replied smoothly. “Breaching the perimeter at the uppermost level will facilitate the element of surprise and support us in the need to avoid detection.”

“Whatever,” he grumbled. Namtar’s condescending Russian lilt made his own clumsy Greek attack on the English tongue appear distinctly working class, which he knew was his colleague’s intention. “Don’t blame me if I fall and squash you flat.”

Inari slipped the heavy backpack from his shoulders to the ground, opened the flap and removed a gun-shaped device with a grappling hook protruding from the barrel. Next came a canister of compressed air and a coil of wire rope, both of which he dutifully attached to the device. Once done, Inari put the gun to his shoulder and pointed it at the roof.

“Stand back,” he advised. Hearing no response, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Namtar cowering behind a large recycling bin at the end of the street. Inari snorted in disgust. “Coward,” he muttered. “My aim ain’t that bad.”

He returned his focus to the roof, lined up the shot and squeezed the trigger. There was a muffled pop and suddenly the hook was flying through the air, a stretched spiral of wire unravelling in its wake. Moments later, he heard a muted thump as the hook passed over the safety railings and landed on the roof. Inari reached for the hanging cable and slowly took up the slack until it became taut. The wire seemed incredibly thin in his gloved fingers, but the weight it had to carry on Yuanshi was against gravity just a quarter of that on Earth. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Namtar had emerged from hiding. Inari turned his back and busied himself fitting the first of the powered pulleys to the rope.

Namtar came to his side and stared up at the roof. “You got it right first time?” he asked, sounding surprised. “Things are looking up.”

“Yeah, four storeys,” retorted Inari. “You go first.”

Namtar calmly clipped the safety line to his belt, gripped the handles attached to the pulley and thumbed the switch. The motor buzzed and suddenly he was racing up the wall, his feet launching him into one vertical stride after another like a dimensionally-challenged triple jumper. Inari scowled, knowing his own ascent would be far less graceful. He got the second pulley ready, tied the end of the rope to the backpack and stepped up to the wire.

Much to his relief, he made it to the roof without the cable snapping and unscathed apart from a couple of grazed knees. Once over the safety rail, he wasted no time in drawing up the rope and returning everything to the backpack. Namtar had removed his night-vision goggles and was waiting at the open door of the roof-top air-conditioning plant. Inari slipped off his own goggles, slung the pack on his shoulders and went to join him.

“Standard lock and proximity sensors only,” Namtar whispered. He pulled free the short cable running from his wristpad to the control panel at the doorway. “All of which I have neutralised. It seems the information provided by our mole was correct.”

Inari peered into the space beyond. An ageing air-conditioning unit sat within a caged area that took up most of the floor. A half-full bucket of water stood beneath a dripping overhead pipe. Beyond the rusty cage was another door.

“That way?” he suggested.

Namtar nodded. “Intelligence suggests it leads to the building’s central stairwell.”

Inari followed him past the silent machinery. The door on the far side was locked, but quickly opened by Namtar as before. Beyond, a narrow stairway descended to a brightly-lit landing. Inari was not in the least bit surprised when Namtar gestured for him to go first.

They found themselves in the lift lobby for the fourth floor. Opposite the closed metal sheaths of silent elevators was another wider staircase heading down. Glass-panelled double doors led off to the left and right. Inari moved towards the stairs and paused. Namtar’s reluctance to lead the way was not helping his nerves.

“Which way?” Inari hissed. His whisper came out far louder than expected.

“Try the doors to the left,” whispered Namtar. “We need to find some secluded terminal where we can complete our mission undisturbed. It is unlikely we have this establishment to ourselves even at this inhospitable hour. Vigilance is key.”

“You mean there’s security guards?”

“Is that not what I said?” snapped Namtar. “Are you purposely obtuse?”

“I’m standing as straight as I can,” muttered Inari. “There’s no need to be so angry all the time, you know,” he added. “I’m in a good mood today. Remember that jigsaw you got me? I finished it this morning.”

“That silly puzzle with camels and pyramids? You started that two years ago!”

“Yeah, but on the box it said four to six years,” Inari declared proudly.

Namtar buried his face in his hands. “Can we get on?” he asked.

Inari nodded. Leaving his colleague crouching in the shadows, he crept towards the nearby doorway. His attempt at stealth was ruined when the glass doors, triggered by automatic sensors, opened wide with a loud creak. Inari stifled a shout, scurried through and dropped to his knees behind a bank of desks, which as luck would have it were the tall versions that kept users standing as they worked. Peering out, he saw the room was some sort of office, one thankfully empty of anyone burning the midnight oil. Namtar poked his head through the doorway and gazed across the rows of desks and cabinets.

“Is it safe?” he whispered.

“There’s no one here,” Inari said tartly. “What is this place?”

“Comrade, this is a lair of the utmost capitalistic evil,” Namtar declared, creeping to his side. “The Epsilon Eridani headquarters of possibly the most heartless, back-stabbing commercial insurance broker throughout the five systems. These people are the leeches of interstellar trade, sucking the lifeblood from free commerce and offering hazy promises in return. Insurance companies are scum.”

Inari grinned. “Still waiting for that payout?”

“All that matters is that this company has a special arrangement with Que Qiao that grants it unrestricted access to the servermoon network,” Namtar replied frostily. “Breaking and entering here carries far fewer risks than infiltrating a corporation establishment.”

“You are good at not taking risks,” Inari acknowledged.

Namtar scowled. Keeping low, he scurried past rows of desks until he came to an area sheltered from the rest by privacy screens. By the time Inari caught up, Namtar had powered up a terminal and put on a headset plucked from the desk, the polarised eyepieces of which looked like cheap sunglasses. Inari was not a gifted user of network terminals and watched in rapt admiration as his colleague opened the navigation tool for the five-systems network. Only then did Namtar reach into a pocket and withdraw a thin plastic tube a few centimetres long, the data rod upon which was stored Maharani Uma’s message to Earth.

Inari heard a creak somewhere behind him and glanced over his shoulder, but saw nothing. By now, Namtar had found the public portal for Que Qiao’s head office and called up the virtual receptionist. The on-screen rendering of the computer-generated young woman undoubtedly looked better through Namtar’s glasses than the blur Inari saw on screen. All he could hear of what she was saying was a tinny murmur from Namtar’s headset.

“What’s going on here?” asked a terse voice in his ear.

“Maharani Uma has a message for Que Qiao,” said Inari, without turning round. “We can’t send it from Lanka so we broke in here.”

He gulped. Moving slowly, he turned his head and stared in dismay at the muscular, black-clad security guard standing behind him. The expression on her face suggested an interest beyond mere curiosity. The electro-bolt gun in her hand removed any doubt.

Inari felt the blood draining from his face. “Namtar...!”

“Do not interrupt me with your feeble ramblings!” Namtar retorted. He slotted the data rod into the side of the terminal screen. “No, I’m not talking to you,” he added hastily, gesturing at the screen. “I have an urgent communication for the President of the Board, an unencrypted holovid report regarding Que Qiao operations on Yuanshi.”

Inari reached across and tugged his sleeve. “But...!”

“Be quiet!” snapped Namtar. “Apologies; my outburst was not directed at your good self,” he said quickly, addressing the animated receptionist. “The file is...”

“Namtar!” cried Inari. “Behind you!”

The guard’s eyes narrowed. In a sudden blur of motion, she pushed Inari aside and shoved her gun hard against Namtar’s head, dislodging the headset. Namtar shrieked, spun around and in a panic caught the edge of the desk and fell backwards to the floor. The guard’s other hand whipped to the terminal and deftly plucked the data rod free. Inari darted behind a desk and slipped the backpack from his shoulders.

“Don’t move!” the guard growled, as Namtar tried to crawl away. Pocketing the rod, she tapped her wristpad, taking care to keep her gun aimed at the petrified figure on the floor. “Where’s that idiot friend of yours?”

“Right behind you,” Inari said roughly. His outstretched hand held the grappling hook gun. The guard turned her head and stared in disbelief at the barbed projectile aimed her way. “Getting ready to zap you and your electro-thingy with something far more pointy.”

The guard laughed. “That is a terrible action-hero quip.”

She whirled around and shot an electro-bolt square into his chest. Inari howled and reeled backwards, his hand closing upon his own gun’s trigger as he fell. With a whoosh the harpoon-like hook shot across the room, missing the guard by centimetres.

The air filled with terrible cries of pain. Namtar leapt from hiding, clutching the grappling hook stuck in his buttocks. Inari scrambled to his feet and in a panic threw his gun at the guard, unexpectedly landing a blow to her head that sent her crashing unconscious to the floor. Namtar hurtled towards the doors like a man possessed, his face twisted in agony, his hands wrapped around the projectile in his rear.

“You’ll pay for this!” he shrieked. “Get me to hospital!”

Inari glanced at the terminal, which showed a blurry warning about an incomplete file transfer. A groan from the fallen guard was enough to make him grab his backpack and run after Namtar, who judging by his echoing screams was now halfway down the stairs.

At the main entrance, the security guards at the front door were too stunned by the sight of Namtar dashing by with a grappling hook in his backside to give chase. Inari even managed a wry grin as he raced after him. He knew in his heart that Namtar would never, ever forgive him for this. Against all odds, they escaped into the night.

* * *

[End of excerpt from the novel CITY OF DECEIT.]

Raja Surya, young heir to the moon of Yuanshi, cannot stay out of trouble for long. Zotz Wak, intrepid boy inventor, decides Earth is the place to become a man. He never expected to be accused of spying. Surya never dreamed he would take the captain's chair of a proper battleship in space. In London, the United Nations is deciding humankind's fate. Taranis, dark priest of destiny, has returned...

THE WORLDS OF HOLLOW MOON came about through my love of space opera and science fiction. I enjoyed writing these books so much that more are sure to follow!

> The Worlds Of Hollow Moon overview.
> Hollow Moon (novel) book page.
> Paw-Prints Of The Gods (novel) book page.
> City Of Deceit (novel) book page.
> The Avalon Job (novel) book page.
To Dance Amongst The Stars (prequel short stories) book page.
> Merry Christmas, Mister Wolf (main-sequence short stories) book page.
> Three Tales For Christmas (free introductory anthology) book page.

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