These are the opening pages of the first novel of my Inspector of the Cross series published by MuseItUp Publishing. Inspector Turtan is over 3500 years old and travels in suspended animation to distant planets seeking a device or weapon which can defeat the Cen, vicious aliens who have brought humanity to the brink of ruin. Turtan is our greatest hero and our only hope.
INSPECTOR OF THE CROSS
What a godforsaken hole, Turtan thought.
Tall and lean, he stood in his cloak and bright purple tunic gazing hopelessly out a window of the Overlord’s palace at the sand-blasted terrain of Sircon IV. The centuries-old scouting report he had read hadn’t lied. If anything, the deadness of the planet exceeded even official expectations. It was a barren husk, an exhausted relic of a dim, glorious past when its traders had spanned the stars and forged a vast federation of merchants. Now the traders were gone, doubtless to greener galaxies, and only the burned-out embers of a legend remained behind.
He turned, hearing footsteps. The white-robed figure approaching with a staff differed from the holos he’d seen of other Sirconians only in being more wizened. Barely four feet tall, the alien’s impassive features reminded him of a monkey’s. Only the eyes, bright with intelligence, belied the simian effect.
“His Imperial Majesty, Overlord Lucan the Four Thousand, Three Hundred and Tenth, has graciously consented to give you an audience.”
Before Turtan could answer, the alien turned and shuffled off. Turtan hesitated before following, amused by the other’s pomposity. His Majesty has graciously consented… Yet the number of past Overlords gave him pause. Over four thousand? Even the imperial line in ancient Japan amounted to only a tiny fraction of such a number.
Though he was nearly two meters tall, Turtan had to hurry to keep up with the small messenger. He passed through a maze of corridors winding around and around. For some reason, he felt he was retracing his past, perhaps to visit women he had loved in other centuries. An elusive perfume quickened his pulse. He remembered a dark-haired girl slipping into his room, her eyes bright with excitement.
Turtan forced the past down and focused on the present. As he followed the twists and turns, he caught signs of decay no protocol could conceal. Crumbling ancient walls…an omnipresent smell of dust… His guide stopped so abruptly, Turtan almost ran into him.
Turtan found himself in a vaulted, brightly lit chamber. Behind a massive, elaborate desk sat the diminutive Overlord, stroking his whiskers. On all sides, volumes of old-style books rose along the walls to an ornamented ceiling, which featured Sirconian warriors fighting reptilian foes. Though the place was impressive, it was not the throne room.
The messenger cleared his throat with an air of importance and raised his staff, which he rapped three times against the stone floor.
“His Imperial Majesty, Overlord Lucan the Four…”
“Ah, fine, Pinyot. You may go now.”
The Overlord, a beaming, younger version of the messenger, rose from his desk. He came forward in an ancient robe covered with faded symbols. “Inspector Turtan? Welcome to Sircon IV.”
A tiny, fur-covered paw vigorously pumped Turtan’s hand, and he started to kneel. “Overlord Lucan, it gives me great—”
“Now, there’ll be no ceremony,” the other piped, stopping him halfway to the floor. “No pomp or circumstance, if you don’t mind.” He guided Turtan to an ancient, padded chair. “I’m afraid you must forgive Pinyot,” the Overlord said. “His ancestors have been members of the Kurat Zeruston for nine kuans, and old habits die hard. Apparently, he thinks our empire’s coffers still ring with the sound of tribute. Or there is even an empire worthy of respect.”
Turtan was surprised. From his experience, fallen potentates tended to gild their decline with ego and show; this one seemed impish, even self-mocking. He explored the Sirconian words for hidden meanings; however, Hypno-knowledge had its limitations. Kurat Zeruston referred only to the Overlord’s guards with a dash of mythical-religious significance thrown in. And a kuan was, let’s see…
Twelve hundred standard years.
“Please, do sit,” Lucan said, nearly hidden behind the ornate desk. Turtan smiled and complied, finding when he had done so, his view of his host was restricted to his face. Yes, indeed. Lucan looks like a regular little monkey. The chair—not a Vellian alloy as he had thought—molded itself closely to Turtan’s form. He stiffened.
“Rest easily, my friend.” The Overlord chuckled. “Your chair is only an En-Zoid. I assure you, it’s quite harmless.”
An En-Zoid. Ah yes, of course. The En-Zoid was a life form unique to Sircon IV and shaped itself around any object placed upon it. Hypno-knowledge did not take Turtan any further. Nervously he felt the chair’s dark, stirring surface, which was faintly warm.
“I’ve never seen anything similar,” he said.
His host smiled, obviously pleased. “It is unique, and if you let yourself relax, I believe you’ll find there’s nothing more comfortable in the universe. It’s a symbiotic life form, eons-old, and plays an important part in our planet’s ecology, harsh though it may be. I might add, it has a few miraculous traits.
Ah, here’s Pinyot with refreshments!”
Startled, Turtan saw Pinyot appear soundlessly beside him with a tray he placed on a small table. Where the hell did he come from? Opening an elaborate decanter, Pinyot filled two goblets, which he delivered first to the Overlord and then to Turtan.
Lucan raised his glass. “I toast you, Inspector Turtan. In the words of my ancestors, ‘May there always be two moons in your sky!’”
Turtan smiled warily and studied his glass. He loved wine, even considered himself a connoisseur. What, though, if this was poison? The shimmering green liquid dazzled the eye, and his mouth went dry. Pinyot was watching him. Had he poisoned it? No, Pinyot was only staring at him in outrage because he had defiled the Overlord’s dignity by sitting in his presence. It was foolish of him even to consider the possibility of betrayal. The Overlord would never dare kill an Inspector of the Cross. Such treachery would only bring other ships and the destruction of whatever empire he still had.
The Overlord gazed at him in amusement. “Would you care to trade glasses, Inspector Turtan?”
“No, Your Majesty.” Turtan raised the goblet and sipped while Pinyot departed. At first there was no effect. Soon, though, a soft fire seized his palate and spread outward. He relaxed, stretching his long legs.
“Is it acceptable?” the Overlord asked.
“Acceptable?” Hell, yes! “It’s exquisite.” He paused, determined to restrain himself. “Tell me, is it a Sirconian wine?”
Lucan bowed his tiny brown head. “You honor me, sir. No, I regret it’s not from our planet. If it were, perhaps Sircon IV would still be the heart of an empire, rather than …” He waved at the arched chamber, his chin trembling.
“Rather than a derelict, a bit of flotsam in space.”
Turtan hesitated at the other’s emotion. “Where did the wine come from, Your Majesty?” he asked.
Small, glittering eyes met his. “From one of the worlds we conquered and colonized long ago, only to have it leave us behind forever.”
Shifting his weight, Turtan realized his “chair” was still molding itself to his body as if learning it. He took another sip of wine.
“I’m afraid I’ve been a poor host,” the Overlord said. “Did you have a pleasant trip? No difficulties, I hope?”
“None at all. There were a few meteor storms and a misbehaving reactor. The computer handled those easily.”
“The computers handle everything?” the Overlord asked. “You don’t even have a skeleton crew?”
“Skeleton crew? What for?”
“Why, to insure nothing goes wrong.”
“Your Majesty,” Turtan said, “we haven’t used crews since the Regency. Since only Inspectors travel in stasis, other personnel wouldn’t live long enough for protracted journeys. Besides, computers are far more efficient because they preclude human error. My voyage here was uneventful.” He smiled, wishing he were back on the Argo, programming it for his next destination. The ship, though, complete with camouflage screens, had gone into orbit two hundred klicks up, and he would not leave for two Terran weeks. Except for a personal override order, not even a direct strike on the planet itself by the enemy would make it descend. Dr. Glitch, the AI computer he had programmed, would never permit it.
“Uneventful.” The Overlord smiled.
“Forgive me,” Lucan replied. “You see, I know starships intellectually. Indeed, the Sirconian Empire could not have been established without them. I must confess, though, the concept of interstellar travel has always boggled my imagination. Your port of departure for Sircon IV, for example, was Alpha Encenalon. This is fifty light-years away!”
“And even at maximum velocity, it must take…” Nictitating membranes rolled across his eyes as he computed.
Turtan crossed his legs, feeling more comfortable in the chair. “It took one hundred and sixteen standard years to reach you.” He touched the communications band on his wrist, remembering Dr. Glitch’s soft voice giving him the time of transit.
“I see. Pardon me, isn’t it all an awful strain? Imagine, to leave a place all alone, knowing everyone you know and love will be long dead before you even reach your destination. To know you’ll never see them again.”
Turtan gazed out an oval casement window at a violent dust storm. How many friends had he left forever in his endless quest to find a weapon the Cross could use to win the war? How many times had he faded off into frozen sleep on board some missile to the stars, knowing while he slept, forever young, they would age and think of him with ancient memories? How many tearful women had he left, and how many infant sons and daughters had he kissed and cuddled for the last time, knowing he would never see them again? Indeed, how old was he now, not subjectively but in objective time?
Three thousand, five hundred, seventy-three years.
“It isn’t easy being an Inspector of the Cross, is it?” the Overlord said softly.
Turtan snapped back, aware of his lapse and instantly suspicious. Was the Overlord trying to undermine his resolve and demoralize him? And if so, why? He steeled himself.
“My position has its compensations,” he said.
“Yes.” The Overlord nodded. “There’s immense wealth and fame, I’m sure, not to mention the patriotic satisfaction of knowing you’re serving your emperor. Still, I wonder. How must it feel to be forever out of time? To say goodbye to father, mother, and loved ones?”
“As I said, there are compensations.” Turtan declined to mention Inspectors who took drugs or killed themselves to escape the great loneliness. Despite the assurances of imperial scientists, they were as far now as ever from creating a faster-than-light drive, and the consequences of sub-light speed treks over vast distances were staggering: few Inspectors lasted a millennium and a half. Why, he himself had already endured… He forced the pain away, remembering he had an assignment to perform. Hadn’t “wild goose chases” such as this (to use an archaic phrase) occasionally borne unexpected fruit? For example, five hundred years before, Inspector Hendon had discovered a plant on Anton that could be used to synthesize a supremely toxic nerve gas. Hadn’t it turned the tide against the Cenknife and brought victory after victory to the empire? True, the enemy had countered with a lethal discovery of their own, yet continued setbacks did not excuse Turtan’s slackness. Whether Sircon IV was a dust bowl or not, he was still an Inspector of the Cross.
Turtan leaned forward, the En-Zoid adjusting to his new position. “Your Majesty, I’ve been sent to your world on an important matter.”
“And what might it be?”
“According to a report, Sircon IV harbors an artifact of unusual properties. I speak of the Tinwajeh Pillar or Monolith.”
“The Godstone?” His host’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “My dear guest, I’m afraid you’ve wasted over a century for no purpose.”
“Yes. The Godstone or Tinwajeh Pillar, Monolith, as you call it, is merely a superstitious relic, a myth fostered by a race of religious barbarians who have long since died out.” He spread his furry hands. “I’m afraid your empire has been misled.”
Turtan took a sip of wine. Prolonged training and longer experience told him the Overlord was lying. His responses concerning the pillar had been too prompt, suggesting he had expected it to be mentioned. What was he hiding? And why had he called it ‘The Godstone’?
The Overlord scoffed when asked. “Godstone? It’s purely a local term, Inspector Turtan. The barbarians worshipped it for some miraculous powers it was alleged to possess. Sheer fantasy.”
“What kind of powers?” C’mon, you little monkey. Tell me.
“I’m afraid I can’t say. As I said, it’s mere superstition.”
And you, my friend, Turtan thought, are a damn poor liar. The scouting report on Sircon IV had said nothing concerning a dead race of barbarians.He decided to be more direct.
“If it’s as frivolous as you say, Your Majesty, you should have no objections to my seeing it.”
It was silent in the chamber. Through the palace window, whirlwinds of dust spun across the desert.
“I’m afraid it’s not possible,” the Overlord said.
“I don’t mean to be discourteous,” Lucan replied, “especially since I am your host, and you’ve come such a long way. However, a visit to the pillar would be disadvantageous at this time for several reasons. I’m afraid I can’t be more explicit.”
Turtan set his goblet down. “Your Majesty, as an Inspector of the Cross, I am obligated to honor your sovereignty here and not intrude, except for when circumstances call for stern measures.” He let the threat simmer before continuing. “I don’t want to engage in any unpleasantness…as long as I can be assured Sircon IV is still loyal to the Cross.”
His host scowled. “Inspector Turtan, are you implying—”
“You’ve sold out to the Cenknife?” Turtan smiled. “No, Your Majesty. One has only to tour your palace to see you haven’t profited by treason. I see no enemy gifts, no sign of Cenknife technology. What I do fear, however, is your allegiance to the Cross has eroded and become mere neutrality.”
For a moment, he thought the Overlord would rise in haughty rage and dismiss him. Instead, his host looked merely hurt. “You offend me, Inspector Turtan. My Great Grand Sire seven times removed swore his allegiance to the Cross. Do you have any idea how deeply my people value our word and honor?”
“Your people’s integrity is legendary,” Turtan said. “I don’t mean to impugn it in any way. Your Majesty, for over four thousand years, the Cross and Cenknife have waged war, putting the universe at stake. It would take only a minute advantage to tip the balance and plunge us toward ruin.” The Overlord sighed. “So elite agents such as you must investigate potential weapons.”
“Yes,” Turtan said, “and with all due respect, those are not idle words. Only two centuries ago, a Cenknife agent discovered a new form of thought control. Sound waves, which when focused in a beam paralyzed the will. At the Engagement of New Jupiter, where it was used against us for the first time, whole crews committed suicide. And the advantage gained by the Cenknife proved an irresistible force for many years.”
“Until,” the Overlord said, “the Vortex Screen redressed the imbalance by deflecting the beam.” He sighed. “Inspector Turtan, we may be a dying planet at the edge of nowhere; however, I assure you, we haven’t lost touch completely. Of course, it wouldn’t make any difference if we had.”
Turtan frowned. “Not make any difference? How so?”
“My dear Turtan,” Lucan said, “while the war to you is of cosmic importance, we have a different perspective. Our civilization spanned galaxies when yours was gas and debris. We have seen our empire rise and crumble, and even our fall has lasted ten times longer than the whole of your history. From all this, we have learned.”
A sad smile. “I believe one of your prophets said it best. ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’”
“So you won’t help us?” Turtan asked. He thought of the Cenknife, a brutal combat weapon that had given the enemy its name. “You’ll simply sit by and watch these marauders consume the universe?”
“Please, none of your propaganda.” The Overlord rose and came around his desk. “From the standpoint of eternity, Inspector Turtan, any cause rings hollow.”
“Your Majesty, if you don’t cooperate, I’m afraid I’ll have to inform my superiors.”
His threat didn’t have the result he wanted. “Do you value your life?” Lucan asked.
Turtan didn’t reply. Some instinct screamed he had missed something.
“Permit me to tell you more concerning the En-Zoid,” his host said. “As I mentioned before, it’s a life form with remarkable properties evidently not mentioned in your reports. For example, it contains needles that inject a deadly poison directly into the body. They are triggered by the thought waves of a symbiont such as myself, who in turn nurtures and tends them.”
“You’re controlling this thing with your mind?” Turtan glanced at the “chair” he sat in. “Ridiculous!”
“You think I’m lying, Inspector Turtan?”
Against him, skin-close, the En-Zoid started to throb and squirm. It was a feeling unlike anything Turtan had experienced before—alive and horribly repellant.
Turtan touched the small laser inside his tunic. “I could kill you, even now.”
“Even if I cared, it wouldn’t save your life,” the Overlord said.
Turtan sensed he was right. Against his cloak and tunic, the En-Zoid writhed, intensely alive and waiting only for the Overlord’s psychic order. A tentacle appeared from nowhere, its spiky tip poised directly above Turtan’s carotid artery. He wet his lips. Damn it, despite his experience, he had underestimated this little alien.
“Is this how the honorable Lucan welcomes his guests, by slaughtering them without warning?”
A cold stare. “It is…when the guest violates my hospitality with threats.”
“Violates? It’s your sworn duty to support the Cross. My mission—”
“Change it. Report you found nothing.”
“You know what will happen, don’t you?” Turtan said. “When I don’t report, they’ll send a whole squadron of ships to find out why.”
For the first time, the Overlord laughed. “My dear Turtan, by the time they arrive, both you and I will be long dead.”
“Not your world, though, at least not quite.” Turtan stared back, probing for a weakness. “Is destruction what the honorable Lucan wants? Do you wish to expose your grandchildren to hostile invaders who will land suspecting treason? Believe me, they will ruin whatever remains of this world, pulverize even its dust. And Sircon IV’s long decline will culminate in a single, bright explosion!”
Their eyes locked. Outside, the wind howled.
“What is your proposal?” the Overlord said at last.
“You’re hiding something. I don’t know what it is, but I must find out. Take me to this Godstone of yours, and I promise I’ll confer with you before sending my report.”
“It isn’t much of a choice.”
“It’s the only one you have.”
The Overlord stroked his whiskers and sighed. As he did, the spiked tentacle near Turtan’s neck withdrew, and the surface against him relaxed.
“For the first time, Inspector Turtan, I’m afraid we agree.”
* * * *
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