Al Lancaster is a shipwrecked tech scavenger who wakes up from Suspense on the auction block of Hercules Station in the alien-run Markan star system, light years distant from Earth. The only human in a star-traveling culture where ancient Guilds of Trade, Assassins and Spies train solo beings to serve alien masters, Al finds that survival depends on his human predatory instincts. He becomes an industrial thief, bounty hunter and sometimes “hit man” for alien merchants, a job that deeply troubles him as a Zen Buddhist. Hope flares briefly when he falls in love with the alien cat-woman Delo Quar Anken, only to see her kidnapped by a sadistic alien merchant. But Al vows to survive, even when he is faced with his greatest challenge—to carry out a “hit” on the Messiah of Death, a plasma cloud alien that literally cannot be killed. This is Book 1 in the Assassin series. Book 2 is Alien Assassin.
Al Lancaster walked slowly down the dimly-lit tubeway of a star place called Hercules Station, a predator tracking his prey. Prey that thought, felt and hoped—like him. The tubeway lay inside an asteroid space station built long ago, in a star system called Markan by aliens and b2 Carinae by Humans, about 85 light years from long-lost Earth. Feeling predator-alert, he hunted the hunt of a paid assassin.
And hated it.
The only Human in a planetary system full of harshly competing alien nightmares, Al was shipwrecked, alone, and desperate. But he had survived.
The question of whether he should do more than just survive still tortured his dreams, adding spice to his nightmares. He cursed the question. Why shouldn’t he be selfish, on the lookout just for himself? Base self-interest ruled the ancient Guild of Trade, just as it ruled the other guilds that dominated the galactic society of the Forty-Seventh Florescence. That alien-run society had been around for six million years. The Newcomer species of Humans had a long ways to go before they could challenge a galactic cultural system that predated Humans. A flash of color stopped his scanning gaze.
His prey scuttled along ahead of him, a hundred meters distant. Resembling an obsidian black beetle festooned with jade green tentacles, the physical appearance matched the data given him by his Methman employer. Al looked up and down the trash-littered tubeway, alert for other aliens paying attention to him. Nothing moved except service robots. But foul odors clogged his nose, cold air raised chill bumps on his skin, and the air’s sourness coated his tongue. He ignored wall slashmarks that passed for alien writing, the dark ovals of side tubeways, and listened intently to a low, stomach-turning, background vibration. Easing his predatory alertness, Al sighed. It seemed his locality was a normal ghetto, a place common to Hercules or any other touchpoint station scattered among the indifferent stars. Leaning forward, he walked quickly after the Naxen, recalling a cross-tube that lay just ahead. The alley-like cross-tube was a better place in which to conduct his business than a main arterial tubeway. His pace gained speed as the tubeway spiraled downward into the dimly-lit lower depths of ancient Hercules Station.
As he neared the Naxen, Al picked out more details of the memory crystal courier. The Naxen skittered along on six stumpy, chitin-armored legs that supported a midbody thorax. Soft mantle skin atop the thorax sprouted a clumping of green tentacles. Two black, beady eyes lay to either side of its cranium. The alien looked about half his size and body weight. The local gravfield felt like six-tenths gee. Good. Al’s confidence grew.
Walking hurriedly down the deserted tubeway, a red-haired Human dressed in brown coveralls, boots and a hungry look, Al fondled the glass knife hidden in his right side thigh-pocket. The cold curves and sharp edges of something so basic, so primitive, reassured him. He eyed the Naxen; its scuttle had picked up speed, and the tentacles waved agitatedly. It turned off at the cross-tube, just as he had hoped. Briefly, he wondered what it felt like to be a Naxen. And he wondered once more if he’d feel guilt this time.
Anything more than the dull numbness that traveled within him day and night.
Courier Fourth Class nick-Ank Sessss looked back quickly at the predator that followed. Curses flowed through his mind. Hercules Station was overrun with omnivore predators of all sizes, shapes and hungers. It was not a safe place for a simple unarmed herder/browser who wished only to deliver the bag of memory crystals stored under his mantle to a contact on the nearby moon of Thixen. To do that he must find transport off Hercules Station—and quickly. Sessss recalled the parting tentacle pattern and infrared message of Broodmother Maaa allinon.
“Courier, it is a simple task,” the massive, bloated body of his Biogenetic broodmother had told him, light cycles ago as their small starship decelerated slowly into Markan system. “The memory crystals will buy me greater longevity, greater opportunity to mold brood hatchlings even more talented than you, dear nick-Ank.” Her black eyes glinted at him from under the High Speech of her tentacles. “You will not fail me, will you, my offspring?”
Courier nick-Ank Sessss scuttled faster down the dirty main tubeway, knowing the biped predator still followed. He wished Broodmother Maaa allinon were here. He wished for a weapon, any weapon, other than the durable strength of his tentacles. She, not a youngling of just sixty seasons, should be here in his place, running down a dim, barely-lit tubeway littered with refuse. But in his fear, Sessss had gone down into the older sections of the asteroid. Now, he was lost, and didn’t know the way back up to the outer surface where the Ports welcomed visitors and the air smelled sweet.
Fear spread outward to every tentacle tip.
Lancaster jogged along after the Naxen. He knew the inner tubeways of Hercules Station, its scores of levels, the run-down districts, and the abandoned areas deep inside, where new prosperity had abandoned old hopes. Someone in his line of business always knew the territory, always knew the layout of a new jungle. His breathing came easy. His legs felt light as he ran. Even if the station’s gravfields hadn’t been set a few points below Earth-normal, he still would have felt invigorated.
Would it be different this time? Would the Naxen possess Biogenetic defenses? Could it empath—read his emotions—like some aliens? He’d tried to wrench as much data as possible out of the Methman, but aliens rarely understood the way Humans thought and lived. Even with the help of the alien-built memorynet to read the memory crystals, and the wantonness of the Parlors where aliens moaned and groaned beneath the delicious wickedness of exotic points of view, the aliens of the Forty-Seventh Florescence didn’t understand Humans. Nor did most care—unless he had something to Trade. Then, any sapient would pay attention.
After a year spent living a hand-to-mouth existence following his escape from his former master, Al knew how to make aliens pay attention. He knew how to survive. And he knew his options to be just three—be a pet, be a slave, or adapt and survive any way he could. Being Human, he recalled from distant memories of academia, meant being adaptable.
Al slowed as the Naxen alien turned into a side-tube but paused and looked back at him. Hard-earned knowledge and images filled his mind. Nearby ran an air circulation tube that ended in a service alcove—an alcove that opened into the side-tube a long distance ahead of the side-tube’s entrance. He stopped running. He felt again the reassuring coldness of the glass knife. It was something he could count on. Something that wouldn’t fail him. As he clambered into a service entrance too narrow for the Naxen’s wide, ground-hugging body, Al pulled out the knife, admiring its beauty. The milky white glass glinted in the pale red light of the airtube, like blood on frozen snow.
Nick-Ank Sessss saw the predator turn off the main tubeway into an air-tube. Maybe it had decided to stop pursuing him? But fear curled his tentacles and made his legs scratch and scrabble at the dirt-encrusted floor of his own side-tube. This was just his third Courier run for the Broodmother, but even he knew predators were never what they seemed to be. Looking ahead, then back, he saw no other escape except to run down this side-tube, hoping a vertical gravtube would appear ahead of him.
Perhaps it was the dim light that held little infrared. Perhaps it was fear clouding the synapses of a four-lobed brain. But Sessss did not see the tall bipedal shape before it appeared suddenly in front of him.
Courier Fourth Class nick-Ank Sessss saw only glittering white brightness, moving quickly. It moved downward—into his brain. Sudden, massive pain drove out all other sensations. Then the pain ended. Everything ended.
The alien’s blood squirted yellow-green, splashing his coveralls as Lancaster killed it. He tore the bag of memory crystals from its lifeless body.
The emptiness still filled him, numbing every cell of his body. Only in his dreams, it seemed, could he feel. Only in his dreams could he hope. And only the dream of a long dead lover and a half-forgotten past could still move him, could still call to him. And remind him that what he did . . . .
It didn’t matter, he told himself. Doing a “wet job” for the Dorilaks was just pick-up work, not regular employment. Simply pay in advance, trace-tag the target, and he performed—or else. His bloodied coveralls would be trashed, his weapon discarded. Even though he stood out as the sole Human at Hercules Station, the prospect of pursuit or capture didn’t worry him.
Nobody cared what happened to the Naxen, a lone alien without House, Clan or species support. Including one Alastair MacDougal Lancaster, late of the Garbage Hunter starship The Great Khan. Once, he’d been a highly trained Xenosapientologist-Archaeologist helping Earth find ancient technologies on long-dead planets where archaeological salvage rights were bitterly fought over. The crew of a sublight Garbage Hunter ship might find a treasure trove of devices that would help lift Earth into a better position within the Florescence—once they used the ship’s tachyon pulse emitter to FTL transmit back home the alien tech readouts. But other species ran their own Garbage Hunter ships. With no quarter given. And all of them were in a race to loot the ruins of ancient, abandoned civilizations that predated the rise of the Forty-Seventh Florescence. Blue-green Earth had come late to the game of survival. As had he.
Al stopped at a disposal alcove, stripped off the coveralls, and stuffed them in. The glass knife followed. Naked except for boots, translator bracelet and personal memory crystal necklace, he turned to leave, once again guiltless and emotionless. So he told himself, time and again. Tasting salty blood from his much-bitten lip, he wrapped fingers tightly around the courier’s small bag of memory crystals. He felt cold, felt . . . distant. Al needed that, needed the distance. The job was done. There was nothing to feel, nothing to care about . . . except that once again he had survived. He looked up and down the deserted side-tube as he walked swiftly out of it and into the main tubeway of Tenth Level; predators stayed alert, even after the kill. Al walked silently. He ignored the sweetish-sour alien odors of the tubeway, ignored the icy cold that raised the hairs on his wiry frame. Distraction. That was what he needed to avoid recent memories. He sourly recalled the survival lessons learned a year ago. The lessons that still pushed him along in his new ‘trade’.
All he needed to buy food, shelter and attention was the necklace of yellow memory crystals hanging from his neck. He’d learned that the recorded memories of Humans—and aliens—served as barter money in the mercantile Trade society of Hercules Station. Besides curiosity, some aliens bought memories for amusement, for sexual arousal, or simply out of voyeurism brought on by too easy immortality from the Life Extend drugs. Al didn’t really care why aliens got off on the memories of other species—he just wanted to eat and to survive. So he stole crystals from those couriers foolish enough to cross his path, or from couriers assigned to him as target ‘hits’, letting them live if he could. Humans, he’d learned, could adapt to anything. Even to being paid assassins.
Al tried not to think about years of doing this. Years of being alone. Years filled with blood, death, nightmares . . . and dreams of a better time.
The dimly-lit main tubeway turned left, then upward, then opened onto a rundown plaza crowded with third-hand Garbage shops selling recycled artifacts. His boots squished through waste mud as he crossed the trash-littered plaza, aiming for a public gravtube in the center, where orange glowtubes flickered feebly. The dark cavern echoed hollowly. The smoky air smelled rank and moldy. He stayed alert as he walked, glancing around. Only a few nocturnal types still wandered about Tenth Level, looking for gods knew what. Most inhabitants of this poor laborers district were probably asleep, drunk . . . or wishing they were dead. Stepping into the transparent gravtube, he looked up as his scarred body sped upward two kilometers to the outer, ecoformed surface of an asteroid station built by the Ketchetkeel aliens, dominant species in Markan system and the local star sector.
Al landed on his feet as the gravtube spit him out into an open-air plaza. A clean one, this time, well-lit by the white light of Markan’s F2 main sequence star. But the clean plaza was crowded with alien monsters. Predator always, he scanned the vicinity, alert to any sign of special notice. Encircled by tightly-clustered commercial buildings, the crowded plaza seethed with crawling, flowing, hopping and rolling aliens. But the nightmare bodies were just the usual late-shift crew, commuting down from the orbiting helium three and antimatter synthesis plants as their work shift ended. Except . . . yes! In the far distance, heading for a drop gravtube, walked the tall, full-breasted form of a woman! Not a Human woman, but a red-furred, cat-evolved, woman of . . . of the Norge species he decided as earlier memory crystal studies paid off.
Arrogance and confidence showed in every stride of her long-muscled legs, the set of her ear-tips and the richness of her green robe. She wore the sigil of the House of Ketchetkeel, carried a Security valise, and bore the earrings of a Courier Second Class. Too soon the crowd separated them. And yet, not soon enough. His groin ached with a feeling nearly forgotten and his heart thumped to something other than combat adrenaline. Dizziness touched him. He swayed, ignoring the jostling alien crowd, caught up in memory flashes, needs, yearnings, and hopes.
At last . . . a very humanoid woman was on station! She must be newly arrived—he knew all the Hercules Station-based Couriers. Did she hail from a Ketchetkeel base in-system? Biting his lip again, torn between wanting to follow the Norge woman and sensible security actions like dropping out of sight, Al chose security. The memory of the woman would be a treat saved for later, when any search for his target was canceled. Still naked and holding the memory crystal bag in one hand, he stepped onto a nearby glideway strip, lost among other omnivores, herbivores, some carnivores, and even a photovore bush or two. He moved automatically, his mind lost among thoughts about the woman who looked so Human. So like Bismillah . . . .
“Almaclancaster, is it done?”
He spun around, teeth bared. But it was only the Methman stringer for his pick-up employer.
“Yes! Damn it! Why were you watching for me?” Al stared with distaste at the caterpillar-tracked habitat globe of something he called Methman. A methane-breathing, blue-scaled monitor dragon looked back from under the tracglobe’s quartz crystal dome. The alien stared at him with four black beady eyes—each overshadowed by a horn. Six limbs, sharp red claws and a long tail completed the alien’s morphoform.
Lancaster didn’t like to think anyone kept watch on him. Such attention could be fatal. He preferred to “disappear” among the nine thousand other aliens from forty-two species who shared the Ketchetkeel company asteroid with him. Methman finally spoke.
“My employer does not take chances when it pays in advance . . . it seeks to know whether you kept your bondword.”
“The blood of a Naxen is yellow-green. Here’s the memcrystal bag,” he said, putting the Naxen’s bag on a tray sticking out from the tracglobe’s front. “Satisfied?”
The tracglobe clattered after him as he walked swiftly down the glideway, moving for the sake of something to do. The other sapients on the five meter wide strip made way for an obvious predator.
“Satisfied,” said the translator comdisk stuck to the outside of Methman’s tracglobe. “How may we contact you if your services are again required?”
“You don’t, dammit! I work freelance. I’ll contact dix-Ethel-morkan when I want more work. Leave me!”
The grey tracglobe slowed to a stop as the glideway carried them further around the asteroid’s ecoformed outer surface. Al saw Dock Nine coming up. One of them would have to leave.
“This one complies—but you should arrange to forget the name-sigil you just spoke. Such knowledge is dangerous.”
He laughed harshly. “I’ll do my best.”
The Methman’s tail curled in wry acknowledgment. Its tracglobe clanked off the glideway, heading for the Merchant’s Refuge at the spacedock. Lancaster felt a chill crawl up his spine. He looked up at a black sky sprinkled with the distant stars of the Orion Arm. The Milky Way looked too beautiful to be so dangerous. He sighed, depression returning.
It had been a year—he thought—since he’d escaped indentured service to the deep ocean sapient who’d bought him on the auction block of Dock Seven. His price had been modest—only enough barter credit to pay the salvage costs for a block of stasis-held meat stuck in a Suspense canister. A block of meat that might, or might not, yield a sapient with enough undamaged brain cells to work off the buyer’s purchase price.
He’d come awake to horror.
Junjiro, Jane, Leila, Bismillah and Jamsuren the Mongol—all dead. They’d all been in Suspense, heading for the F5 main sequence star B Carinae at the slow sublight speed used by every space-going species. His canister alone had survived Khan’s collision with a marble-sized rock moving at one-half lightspeed—according to the canister’s expert system, which had kicked in with backup power for his Suspense condition. The next thing he knew he was light years off course, salvaged by unnamed aliens who consigned him to the indentured service block of something called Hercules Station. The aliens sold him at a discount to a local Trade Factor and then left, unlikely ever to return.
Al looked down at the green plastic glideway, not-seeing the nightmare lifeforms and surrounding buildings. The rank smells repelled him. The grumbling, cackling, keening sounds of alien speech mystified him unless his translator bracelet locked onto them. The touch of cold air chilled him. And the sight of sapience in nightmare shapes going about incomprehensible tasks bewildered him. In the early days he’d developed a kind of tunnel-vision, a means of filtering out too much stimulus overload. One, two or three alien species he could deal with. Scores of them—smelling, feeling and acting so different from Humans—were a culture shock he still coped with. But everyone had to eat. And no one had any use for a Human expert in xenosapientology—it wasn’t even a proper Guild organized under the millennia-old Traditions of the Florescence. Nor did anyone care for the EMT-nursing work he’d done on fellow Humans. So, his new trade. Since his escape, he’d murdered five times, left many more alive, stolen and sold scores of memcrystals, and been so alone . . . .
He would have been a skid-row alcoholic if there was any booze around. But there wasn’t. And the stubbornness that had kept a Catholic ghetto kid studying his homework late into the night even after his father went to bed, that stubbornness kept him going. Along with a spark of defiance, of anger at the unfairness of it all. Still, he felt like a robot going through the motions of living.
But what about the Norge woman? Maybe, maybe, she might be enough like Humans to be company for him, to be someone who could fill the lonely, empty hours. He hoped so. He yearned for Human contact. Even with an alien humanoid. And he feared what he might become if he did paid assassin work year after year after year.
Halfway around the forty kilometer-wide asteroid, Al arrived near his single room occupancy hostel. He stepped off the glideway, walked a few hundred meters through crowded industrial district buildings, and banged on the bronze portal of the sro-hostel dome. The blue monitor eye of Gorlanien the algor computer that ran the place looked down at him from above the portal.
“Money,” it said.
“Goddamn it, chip-brains, I already paid you for tonight. In advance! Check account 437 blue-Y.”
Sometimes the self-aware algor that ran the sro-hostel took a break from entry duty and let a molecule-brained subprogram run it. That part didn’t think, so it sometimes lost track of pre-paid customers. Al thought that was too damned convenient. But at least the inorganic asked no questions of its boarders—the doings of short-lived organics were not of interest to something that had been around since the galaxy’s Forty-Seventh Florescence multi-civilization began six million years ago.
“Verified. Enter. You may return to cubicle 437 blue-Y.”
He glared up at the monitor eye. “About time!”
The bronze portal hissed open. Al stepped into another tubeway. This one at least had good lighting, even if the purple and yellow stripes on its plastic walls turned his stomach. He shuffled along to cubicle 437 blue-Y, palm-touched it open, and stepped into luxury.
In the foreground stood a simulacrum of an A-frame cabin from deep in the Marin County redwood country of northern California, while the dark green waves of the seacoast off Ireland’s Ballycastle curved around behind the cabin. The cabin was real—the product of simple positron emission tomography reading of memories from two places he remembered well, impressed into electromorph flooring that flowed and shaped itself according to his programming and his memories. The waves were just a holo, nicely done. A minor room service. But they comforted him. Al entered the cabin, stretched out on the waterbed, and fell asleep.
She came to him in his dreams.
Bismillah of the Deccan Plains. Her long black hair curled and flowed over sari-clad brown skin. The purple of kohl powder around brown eyes highlighted her serious look. Her bare ankles chimed to an anklet chain of temple bells blessed on a trip to holy Varanasi years ago. She seemed concerned for him, settling down on the foot of his bed aboard their ship. Canting her head to one side, she smiled encouragingly.
“Alastair, what is wrong?”
His dreamself evaded her. “Nothing.”
She frowned, lips curving in beauty. “Something’s wrong. I always know. What?”
Turning his head away, unable to face her, he confessed. “I survive by killing other sapients. I know it’s wrong, but it’s the only way to survive—here.”
Bismillah shook long black curls, her expression thoughtful. “You kill? Junjiro would not approve, though in the Deccan we accept reincarnation. There is no real death—but evil follows you into the next life. Why do you sully your karma?”
“I told you! To survive.” He cried hot tears, his head pushed into the pillow, the pillow crammed into the corner where his bed met the room wall.
Her warm hand touched his bare shoulder, sliding down his back and ribs, soothing him, comforting him, consoling him. Her weight shifted on the bed as she leaned closer to him. “I cannot absolve you. You know that. Only you, yourself, can cleanse your soul.” But how? Squeezing his dream eyes tight, he yelled it out. “How!”
“Perhaps by doing a greater good than the evil you now do?” she suggested. “Perhaps by repaying the lost lives with saved new lives? I do not know—I am not Brahmin caste, only Kshatriya.”
Numb, he turned over, finally meeting her gaze. She looked back solemnly, aware of his pain, his need and his desperateness. Reaching out, he took her long-fingered hand in his, pulled it to his lips, kissed the sharp-nailed fingertips, and buried his forehead against her hand. He wished useless hopes.
“In my place, what would you do?”
She laughed musically, the warm vibrato in her long throat bubbling out with deep amusement at his Western obsession over fixing things, rather than just accepting karma.
“I would do the best I could to bring no harm to another, while bringing honor to my family. But I do not walk in your shoes, do I?”
He grimaced, feeling like a skeleton newly risen from the graveyard. “No, you don’t. Who is my family now? You are all gone from me.”
Bismillah gave him her Command look, the look of a ship Captain used to making hard decisions, used to the pitfalls of trap-ridden ancient worlds and crumbling civilizations. She knew how to avoid the scavenging buzzards of other Garbage Hunters, while still getting them their share of ancient tech and getting off world with their skins intact. She had been a good ship Captain.
“Your family is now the rest of humanity. And eventually, perhaps, all the aliens of the Florescence, though that may be hard for you to understand.”
“Damn right it is!” He enjoyed their arguments almost as much as he had enjoyed their love-making. They were so different, and yet—compared to aliens such as the praying mantis-like Ketchetkeel—all Human cultural differences were but minor variations on a grand symphony. Bismillah leaned forward, kissing him on the lips. She pulled back, concern still present in her deep brown eyes.
“I must go now. Other lives call me.” “No!” “Yes.” She turned, her form already losing substance. He watched as she passed through the cabin wall without opening the slidedoor.
It was that which reminded him he was dreaming. That, and something else . . . .
Whispers awoke him. Chittering sounds just on the edge of his dreamworld. Dimly, the memory of the dream he had dreamed every night for over a year receded, taking Bismillah’s image with it. He opened his eyes.
Al inspected the A-frame’s interior, wondering. He hadn’t ordered any music. The chittering became intelligible words.
“Here the great one said . . . must find . . . simple job . . . bribe the algor.”
Now fully alert, Al walked swiftly to the back of the room, palm-touched the bolt-hole exit he’d paid extra for and stepped naked into an adjacent street. He wondered why the algor had piped him the voices of the assassins. Perhaps it expected a big tip, if he survived. Perhaps it only rolled its mental dice and threw a random factor into the doings of organics, just to watch the mice run around. Whatever the reason, it was time for an omnivore predator to go on the run, get a weapon, buy clothes, and then pay for a backwater inquiry. Who was trying to kill him?