SciFi mystery. Interstellar spy befriends enemy commander in a tragic tale with a happy ending.
Shan Zennia, Senior Curator of the Archives of Galactic Culture on Lumos, plays a dangerous double role as a researcher and a spy for Solarian Intelligence. She embarks on a new mission to observe the spring festival on Harappi, a planet recently conquered by the ambitious Emperor and now governed by his niece, Domina Allia.
Zennia finds unexpected mysteries on the planet, including the enigmatic Nagari. Once a victorious commander in the Emperor’s space fleet and nicknamed the Cobra, he was forced to abandon his military career when Allia claimed him as her consort. Her abusive treatment has driven him to the brink of madness.
Intrigued by the ex-commander and aware of his value as a source of information on the enemy, Zennia agrees to meet him during the festival of rebirth. Opposing forces clash at the height of the celebrations, catalyzing deadly violence. Can Nagari and Zennia survive the chaos and win a new and happier life?
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Curator Shan Zennia gazed at the wall screen as the space shuttle zoomed toward the planet of Harappi. Her first glimpse of the location of her new mission stirred a familiar thrill of excitement. She touched the badge of office she wore on a chain around her neck. The badge, a silver sunburst around a pearlescent disk, doubled as a recorder of her observations for the Archives of Galactic Culture. This assignment promised to be especially intriguing with the potential clash of two rival parties amid the ritual celebration of Vashali.
The screen displayed the view of Harappi from high altitude above the atmosphere. White clouds drifted over dark green landmasses and blue green oceans. Colonized in the distant past, the planet was still covered in tropical jungle. Its inhabitants were concentrated in coastal cities and small settlements in the mountains and arable plains.
In the adjacent seat, Dhawal murmured, “Home.” He glanced at her, a beatific smile on his chubby face. “Mata begged me to spend Vashali with her. It’s the holiest of festivals. I’ve visited for Vashali every year since I took the job on Marina. Our family bathes together in the River Vash. We offer flowers and pray for a favorable year.”
She merely nodded. Dhawal had repeated this explanation in almost identical words at least once a day during the voyage. Despite her cool indifference, he had buzzed around her like a mosquito for the entire four days of travel. Perhaps he was lonely. Or she reminded him of his mother. Whatever his motive, she had no desire for entanglements, romantic or otherwise. She had endured his smirks and copious complements along with the other discomforts of her journey.
A frown clouded his genial face. “This year, it’s different…” Falling silent, he gripped the armrests and stared at the screen.
Glad for the respite from making a polite reply, Zennia shut her eyes and considered the dramatic change in the lives of the Harappians over the previous year.
The planet was unfortunately situated in the nebulous region of galactic space abutting the Emperor’s Sector and the smaller Sectors of Chaktagoonacott and Ptavi. In his warped ambition, Emperor Hadros deemed the planet ripe for exploitation. He had sent his battleships. After a short, fierce combat, his space fleet had defeated the poorly armed Harappian star fighters. Three months ago in standard galactic time, he had declared victory. Imperial troops had occupied the capital city of Mattapurna. They had executed the reigning monarch, Maharaja Bahadur, and killed or imprisoned the members of the royal family.
According to Imperial propaganda, the Harappians were delighted to be liberated from the Maharaja’s oppression. Zennia suspected the reality was totally opposite. She would soon learn the truth.
In a final blow, the Emperor had designated his niece, Princess Allia, as the new ruler of Harappi. Twenty-five days ago, Domina Allia and her retinue had descended on the conquered city. Plenty of time for the natives to experience the true nature of their overlord. Zennia pitied the Harappian people. Judging by her reputation, Allia would be a cruel and tyrannical ruler. She would be eager to crush its inferior inhabitants and seize the products of their farms and mines.
As senior Curator, Zennia had obtained permission to observe the spring festival of Vashali for the Archives. The ostensible goal of her mission camouflaged her covert task to probe beyond the official propaganda. She would transmit encrypted reports on the city’s residents and their conquerors to the Solarian Intelligence Service. If her instincts were correct, the jubilation of the annual festival might induce the Harappian resistance to strike at the conquerors, and in consequence, provoke violent retaliation. She had approval, if an opportunity arose, to nudge events toward a favorable outcome. Any interference must be discreet or she risked smudging her pristine reputation as an impartial observer.
The shuttle rocked in the turbulent upper airstreams. Fighting off a wave of nausea, Zennia performed her breathing exercises. Was she growing too old for interstellar travel? Her muscles were stiff after the inactivity of her journey in the cramped passenger quarters of a space freighter.
The embargo on space travel to Harappi had been lifted only ten days earlier. She had quickly negotiated passage on one of the first freighters to stop at Harappi. The ship carried a cargo of much-needed supplies. As the only unaccompanied female passenger, she rated a separate cabin for the four days of the voyage. The others had to share double berths. The freighter lacked the luxuries of a space cruiser and offered no entertainments. Passengers had meals with the crew or used the self-service galley and ate in their cabins.
As a further distraction from her queasiness, Zennia surveyed her fellow passengers in the shuttle. The majority, like Dhawal, planned to celebrate the festival with their relatives. Seated immediately in front of her, Amrita and Tamish, a quiet old couple, were looking forward to meeting their new grandchild. Big blonde Olaf Ivanov, a journalist with Galnews, had seized two adjacent seats in the front of the cabin. He refused to be parted from his bulky recording equipment. Paval and Kavish sat on the opposite side of the aisle. She knew little about the two men. Unlike the other passengers, they had declined to discuss the nature of their business on Harappi.
She had recorded her fellow travelers during the journey and cataloged their foibles for the public records of the Archives. No, she decided. She was not yet ready to retire from her position as traveling curator. People and their interactions still fascinated her.
She looked up at the display. Her destination, the City of Mattapurna, was marked by an arrow in the southern region of a large continent. She had arrived near the end of the rainy season and dense clouds obscured the landscape. Ominous bands of thunderclouds spread across the continent from the white peaks of mountains in the north to the southern ocean. At this altitude, no evidence was visible of the battle with the Emperor’s space fleet.
Dropping into the layer of clouds, the shuttle dived into a clear space between adjacent dark bands of cloud. The capital city lay below. The old city, its streets flooded by monsoon rains, nestled within a gleaming loop of the River Vash. Clusters of newer buildings sprawled across the plain farther west of the river. The shuttle descended toward the spaceport on the western border of the city. Mounds of rubble, toppled sky towers, and gaps among the buildings marked the destruction wrought by the Imperial fleet. If she recalled correctly, the original spaceport had also been demolished in the invasion.
The space shuttle decelerated in a raucous shudder and glided to land in the newly constructed spaceport. Clouds of steam hovered above the large puddles left on the concrete by recent rainstorms. Three of the Emperor’s star fighters, black as space itself, stood at the far side of the airfield. Several space tugs and scouters were parked in the public section. A space tug lifted skywards from an adjacent runway. Interstellar travel had resumed, although sparser than normal for a thriving community.
The shuttle taxied to a spot by a large awning erected over the entrance to the passenger terminal. The standard Quickset block of the terminal with a row of narrow windows signaled its hasty construction after the war.
Zennia slipped the strap of her bag over a shoulder and filed out of the shuttle with the other passengers. Stepping outside into the sweltering heat, she inhaled and exhaled in slow breaths to acclimatize her body. A curator must endure the same conditions as the subjects of her observations. Ignoring the blasts of hot air from the scorching concrete, she activated the iridescent disk of her badge to record the surroundings. A lush green jungle flourished outside the barrier fence enclosing the spaceport. To the north, gloomy clouds reared as a backdrop to the jungle and concealed the mountains. In the eastern direction, heat haze blurred the city buildings.
She joined the passengers at the edge of the canopy. As they looked around uncertainly, four guards in the somber black uniforms of the conquerors marched out of the terminal. Their stern expressions and hand weapons were far from welcoming.
“Get in line,” the leader shouted. “All incoming travelers must show their credentials.”
Paval muttered a protest at the delay. Amrita sobbed and mopped her eyes, impatient to see her family.
Unsurprised by the officious interrogation, Zennia waited for her turn with the serenity of her vocation.
Olaf Ivanov shoved to the front of the line and broke into a loud dispute with the guard about his luggage.
Zennia quashed a smile. The argument was so typical of the brash journalist. He ought to know better than to squabble with the security guard, especially with one of the imperial troops. Their combat training left no place for compassion.
Still protesting vociferously, Ivanov was dragged inside the building for further interrogation.
Dhawal glanced at Zennia and gave a faint smile. “Shan Zennia, I cannot express the depth of my enjoyment of your delightful company. It has been a true honor.” He bowed and offered her a place in front of him in the line. “Please go ahead. I’m waiting for my bags.”
She declined with a shake of her head. She had no reason for haste. Behind the windows of the Quickset terminal, people in white or vividly colored garments were waiting for the new arrivals. Her hosts would be among them.
When she reached the front of the line, the guard inspected her identity chip and barked, “Curator Shan Zennia, what is your business on Harappi?”
“I have come to record the celebration of Vashali for the Archives of Galactic Culture on Lumos.” Amused by his confusion, she held out her sunburst pendant, her insignia as a traveling curator. Her title and badge of office granted her access to inhabited planets throughout the galaxy to record the local culture.
Scrolling through a list of names on his tablet, he looked up. “Curator, your visa is valid. But the city is under martial law. Where will you stay? None of the hotels are open.”
She replied in a calm tone, “My welcome is assured. Arrangements have been made for me to reside with a host family.” She flashed a smile. “A curator must mingle with the local residents to fully experience the cultural event she is observing.”
“If you are content…” His voice trailed away. Recovering his bravado, he jabbed a finger at her. “Where is your luggage?”
She patted her bag. “Everything I need is in here.” The bag held her tablet, toiletries, a change of clothes and a formal outfit. Her hosts would help her to procure traditional dress for the festival.
“It must be scanned.” He took her bag and handed it to the guard with the probe. A minute later, he returned the bag to her. He gestured to the gate in the barrier. “Curator, you are free to enter the city.”