Fiction by Tim Bancroft
The Batu saga all started with the Claiming of Shamasai, but what caused Batu to be on such a wilderness planet in the first place? In a prologue to the saga of Batu and Baray, we are introduced to Batu and the dives and wines he owns on Delhren III – and to his majordomo, the Boromite Dirag.
The cellar was quiet, the lines of casks stretching back into the gloom: a perfect place for Batu Delhren’s much-anticipated private tasting. He held a crystal goblet up to a clear glowlight and admired the colour of his new wine. The liquid had a depth of colour that was almost burgundy and even from an arm’s length he could smell its rich, spicy aroma. It looks like I might have finally bred a winner, here. He held the glass to his nose, sniffed gently, savoured the overtones of fellberry, vanilla and cinnamon, the undertones of other spices. He held it up to the light again, turning to marvel at way the lights were caught within the translucent, burgundy liquid.
Then his admiration faltered. As he moved the glass he saw through it to the commemorative plaque and picture of the vineyard’s founders, his parents. He lowered the goblet to bow to the picture, his mother seated, wearing the robes and insignia of a Delhren princess, his father standing behind her in the uniform of a fleet captain. Batu proffered the glass to them in a silent toast. I have brought your vineyards to fruition. He felt a catch in his throat. Though you never lived to see them become a success.
He raised the glass to his lips, anticipating the taste, but the cellar door burst open. The vineyard manager, a battle-scarred Boromite, stooped to avoid banging his head against the lintel. Always when I’m beginning to relax. “Yes?” sighed Batu. He placed the glass on top of the cask beside the decanter from which it was poured and looked at it lovingly: I’ll enjoy you later.
“You asked for defaulters to be brought before you as soon as possible,” growled the manager.
Batu stood. “Thank you, Dirag.” He looked around the cellar, the dim light fading into the gloom, the racks of marked casks, and the solid stone walls. It may provide a usefully sinister setting. He nodded to a bare wall. “Bring them on one at a time and stand them there.”
“There’s only one, at the moment.”
“I’ll see him, then. Hold on.” Batu switched to talk to his implant, spoke as if shaping his words without using his vocal folds. “MyShard, direct the light against the wall and dim it elsewhere.”
“Certainly, Batu.” MyShard transferred the request to the cellar’s control systems and the lights in the cellar dimmed, leaving a single spotlight shining against the bare stone wall. “Anything else?”
“Just monitor whoever is brought in, please, MyShard.”
“Of course, Batu.” Like other Freeborn houses, the Delhren nanosphere was sparse, typically focused on individuals and technological items, providing basic surveillance, power for devices and connectivity to the core databanks of each house. Anyone using and accessing the data needed a comm device and a virtual assistant to sift the information. Most people used a hand-held, head- or helmet-mounted comm, but Batu had a more efficient and secure interface to the Delhren’s nanosphere: a MyShard implant surgically inserted into his cranium. Though MyShard interfaces were common amongst the senior ranks of the Delhren hierarchy, many other Freeborn felt they were too much of an intrusion by making the user an extension of the core shard: IMTel-like connectivity was not appreciated amongst Freeborn.
To Batu, though, the comprehensive integration but lack of full AI functionality in his MyShard interface was immensely useful. Rather than becoming an extension of the Delhren, he used it to nurture his independence. It had been a vital component of his work in building a small mercantile operation, a business shard partially separated from the Vardos Delhren.
Dirag eyed the interrogation area and coughed politely. “Are you with us, Mr Batu?”
“Yes. And will you ever get it right, Dirag? It’s, “Batu, sire”, or “Prince Delhren” or even “Mr Tsulmar Delhren” if you really must.”
The Boromite grinned. “Certainly, Mr Batu.” He turned and reached through the doorway, pulled in a small off-worlder dressed in the uniform of a Concord scout. “The first is Concord Scout Enrik Manam,” said Dirag. “He ran up a 200 thou debt in the casino attached to the Spyker’s Rub. He reckons he can pay it off with information.” Dirag carefully placed the scout against the wall and the diminutive scout blinked against the light. “Stay there.” Dirag clumped backwards into the edge of the spotlight where the shadows glinted off his plates of hide and emphasised his bulk.
Well positioned, Dirag. Batu allowed the silence to stretch until the delicate figure began to shift from foot to foot. “What information is possibly worth your debt?”
The scout swallowed. He was a small human phenotype, pale, with a green tinge to his skin. His slender body and thin arms and legs looked diminutive when compared with the hulking Boromite in the shadows. “I can give you all the data from our last survey.”
Batu yawned. “We”ll get that eventually, anyway. Your IMTel shares potential navigation hazards with most Freeborn houses in case we’re transporting a Concord citizen.” The scout narrowed his eyes and glanced from left to right. What is he doing? thought Batu. “There is no one else here, and this cellar is shielded. I repeat: what is worth so much in that data.”
The scout squinted into the spotlight, trying to see Batu beyond its glare. “A system the IMTel won’t share. A deep one, just beyond the limit at depth negative nine, so it’s unlikely to be a hazard.”
Batu tried not to show his interest. Knowledge of a deep gate might be suppressed, I guess. Such a gate would rarely pose a hazard to travel, most ships preferring to rise to safer, higher levels rather than travel far at depths in the strange an dangerous, Antares photosphere. Batu yawned, folded his arms and leant against the opposite wall. “Why won’t your precious IMTel share this one?”
“We scanned it but didn’t go closer. It’s a new gate—”
“Obviously,” observed Batu, drily.
“No, you misunderstand. We think it’s a new gate.”
Batu straightened, unfolded his arms. “A brand new gate? To a brand-new system?”
“Yeah.” The scout bobbed his head, eager to please. “Brand new. Signs of an extinct civilisation on a planet in the liquid-water zone, too. Other signs of intra-system travel and asteroid mining.”
The scout shrugged. “We didn’t stay long enough. Our probes towards the planet didn’t come back so the IMTel said not to risk it, classified it as potentially hazardous.”
“But it was flagged for subsequent investigation. Why?”
The scout smirked. “There are signs of part biological, part artificial nanospore – a bionanosphere.” He paused for effect. “And possible Gatebuilder ruins.”
Batu could not help but take a deep breath. Gatebuilder ruins! That will certainly earn me some status in the clan, perhaps the whole vardos. There were few enough confirmed Gatebuilder ruins amongst the whole of the gate network. They probably aren’t, but the potential… “Hand over a data chip and I’ll consider it in payment.”
The scout’s expressive face turned shifty. “No. Immediate payment, one-for-one.” Batu glanced at Dirag, who growled and stepped forward. The scout quailed. “It’s true, it’s true. Run a truth-scan on me.”
“I always have one running.” Batu watched the scout for signs of fear: there were none. “MyShard, any signs of autonomic conflict?”
“No, Batu. The monitoring systems state that everything is in order. The subject is frightened of Dirag, but his tone, heart rate, micro-expressions and sweat responses do not vary when he talked about his prize. These are signs that he is concealing more information.”
Batu remained silent, waited for the scout’s expression of hope to fade. “Very well, Enrik Manam.” He nodded to Dirag. “Have the accountant sort it. I’ll examine the data later.”
“Yes, Mr Batu.” Dirag grabbed the scout’s scrawny arm and led him from the cellar.
Batu waited until the scout was almost out the door. “Hold on, there’s something else.” The scout twisted in Dirag’s arms, a smirk still on his face. “I can’t but feel there’s something else,” said Batu.
Batu tutted and waved at the cellar walls. “It may look primitive, but do you really think we don’t have surveillance nanospore in this place?” He watched the smirk fade. “I know you’re lying.”
Dirag slowly turned the scout round to face Batu. “This is Prince Batu Delhren, Scout Manam. He really doesn’t want to hurt you.”
You have that right, thought Batu. “Dirag’s correct. I really don’t want either of us to have to hurt you.”
Manam glanced from Batu’s stern expression to the arms of the massive Boromite. He slumped. “There might be Ghar. We saw them on the way out, but they couldn’t catch us.”
Ghar. Batu sighed, wearily. “You should have mentioned that earlier, Scout Manam. Your information is far less useful, now.”
“At least I told you!”
“Yes. But not without effort. You know the rules of the house, Scout: you play fair, then we play fair.” He turned away and picked up the glass. “Dirag, clear half his debt, instead. Put him on the next liner out and leave the rest on file, just in case he ever returns.” Batu waved his hand and the scout’s protests faded as the huge Boromite dragged him out by the collar. Batu reached for his glass but a barely-heard conversation stopped him. Dirag’s voice boomed down the passage. “Wait upstairs!” There was a a rock-like thud as the massive body – perhaps that of the Boromite – hit something solid.
Batu drew his plasma pistol. Whilst it looked as decorative as the rest of his attire it was fully functional, with added targeting intelligence; it was also the one weapon with which he was competent. More than competent, he reassured himself. He back away into the shadows by the casks and aimed his pistol at the doorway.
An Algoryn in full reflex armour strode through the doorway and stopped. His helmet was retracted into the armour leaving his keratin spines and green-tinged facial features in view. “Batu Delhren?” His voice has sharp, an officer used to being obeyed.
Probably Founder leger, thought Batu. He remained silent. Dirag appeared in the doorway behind the Algoryn, a compactor maul held in his beefy hands: in the hands of a skilled Boromite the mining tool would as easily compact flesh as it would rock. Batu holstered his pistol.
“I would negotiate with Batu Delhren of the Spyker Corporation.” The Algoryn snapped his helmet into place and immediately turned to face Batu in the shadows.
Probably using IR or image enhancement. Batu asked for the cellar lighting to be raised. “You are speaking to him.” He thought about Algoryn attitudes. Best be direct. “What do you need?”
The helmet retracted once more. “I need drive components and fuel for my ship.”
“And the Home Fleet or Algoryn Consulate won’t supply them?” The Algoryn did not reply and Batu relaxed. “You’re Ma’req, then. Exiles from the Prosperate.”
“Yes,” admitted the Algoryn. “I am the Chief Engineer for a House Ma’req frigate, the Ma’req Tirailleur.”
Batu smiled at the claim to be a Freeborn house: few Freeborn would accept them as such and the regular Algoryn would not deal with the exiled Ma’req at all. “You had a bad trip?”
“We had an unfortunate encounter with Ghar on our last voyage through the Antares Nexus. We destroyed them, but our main drive was damaged.”
“Ghar are ramping up their activity since this Krug character came to power.”
“It’s Karg. And Fartok,” corrected the Algoryn.
“Thank you for correcting me. No doubt once they damaged your ship you limped as far you could to the nearest civilised system.”
“Limped?” The Algoryn engineer bridled, his hand moving towards his mag pistol before catching control of himself. His expression turned grim. “I see your strategy: you demean us on purpose to press an advantage. Would you dare cross House Ma’req?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” insisted Batu. “After all, we may be of assistance to each other in the future.” The Algoryn relaxed. Batu thought for a moment. “I can provide any parts you need – within reason, of course.”
The Algoryn growled. “And what would you want in return?”
Batu smiled. “A favour. An open favour to be redeemed by your captain at a time of my choosing. Sworn on your captain’s honour.”
“Ridiculous. We can exchange weapons—”
Batu shrugged. “Algoryn mag-weapons are useless: we have extensive fabricator plants. And no one else has the authority to provide such parts.”
The engineer snarled. “You ask too much!”
“I think not,” said Batu. “Let’s be clear: the Prosperate has demanded that the Delhren not trade with House Ma’req. So the Delhren cannot officially deal with you – but I can.” He could keep a smug smile of satisfaction from his face.
“But an undischarged favour on the honour of an optimate?” The Algoryn’s head crests flattened in dismay.
“It seems reasonable to me,” said Batu, eyeing the Algoryn for signs of pending violence. “If it’s not possible, then we have no further business.” He raised his voice. “Dirag, show the Chief Engineer out—”
“Stop!” The words hissed out from between clenched teeth and the engineer clenched his fists. “I must contact my captain to confirm he will accept such a request.”
A favour from an Algoryn frigate captain. Batu smiled. “Then once he has confirmed his part of the bargain, have the deal recorded and give the site manager your list of parts. My corporation will requisition them on your behalf: the Delhren will not have dealt with you, but you will have what you need.”
The chief engineer stared at Batu for a moment, then tossed his head. “My captain was right: you Freeborn have no honour.”
Batu allowed his smile to broaden. “Where profit is concerned, it’s purely relative.” The Algoryn growled, turned on his heel and almost barged straight into Dirag’s mass compactor. The Boromite grinned, pulled his mining tool out of the way and followed the Algoryn up the passage.
Batu closed the cellar door behind them and returned to his glass. He washed the wine around the glass then sipped, savouring the scent as he did so and allowed the liquid to run over his tongue. Few tannins, rich in fellberry, spice – beautiful. Once more he held the glass up to the hologram of his parents. I finished your work. You would be proud of me, if you were alive. His eyes watered as he remembered their loss: a foolish accident, his rescue…
Dirag knocked on the cellar door and pushed it open. “Mr Batu?” he rumbled. “A message has arrived.”
Batu scowled. “I thought I had screened them all.”
“It’s from the Vard of the Delhren.”
Batu sighed. “What does my uncle want, now?”
“You are recalled to the Home Fleet for an audience. In person.”
Batu made a face. The Delhren Home Fleet was several light-hours away, making face-to-face interaction impossible. The fact his uncle had called him for an audience did not bode well. What have I done, now, to arouse his ire? “Send an acknowledgement and book a seat on the next shuttle run.”
“Sure, boss.” Dirag turned and left.
Batu reluctantly placed the glass back on the cask beside the decanter. “MyShard, a mirror projection of me, please.” A hologram appeared and Batu checked his clothes and appearance: swept-back dark hair, perfectly groomed; the aquiline, tsulmari nose; a smart moustache, perfect, olive skin; a velvet, purple cloak and blue tunic trimmed with orange – all Delhren colours. The cloth was the best he could find, the gold accessories there for effect rather than a statement of monetary wealth, gold ornaments, after all, being easily manufactured in the Home Fleet’s fabricators. I look good, smart.
He closed the cellar door behind him with a lingering glance at the wine. Later, he promised himself. Later.
Aboard the Vard of Delhren, Batu was directed to his uncle’s lesser audience chamber. When he entered, the Vard Ordaichen Delhren was seated on his raised throne, examining a complex holo of intertwining lines and annotated points: a trading map. The holo disappeared as Batu approached the dais and the vard turned his full attention to his nephew.
“Uncle Ordaichen,” said Batu, bowing deep and deferentially. It’s all in the bow, he thought.
“Today, I am your Vard,” snapped his uncle. “What have you done, Batu Delhren?”
Batu put on an expression of injured innocence. “Nothing I am aware of to arouse your ire, my lord.”
“Don’t try and act innocent with me,” said the Vard. He steepled his fingers, rested his chin on his fingertips. “You requisitioned Algoryn ship components, fuel.”
He discovered that, quickly! “The Spyker’s Corporation may well have done so, my Vard, and merely went to their regular supplier.”
The vard snorted. “A twisting of the rules! The Algoryn consul will be incensed.”
“But will be unable to actively harm House Delhren, Uncle. I mean, my Vard. And records will show my corporation acted without—”
“Without your knowledge,” said the vard with a look of distaste. “I’ll give you that, Batu: you are careful in covering your tracks.” He tapped his fingers against his lips. “It doesn’t stop the fact that you are a disgrace to your domas. In fact, not only to our clan, Tsulmar, but to the whole of the House Delhren.” He drummed his fingers on the arms of his throne. “A dilettante, they say. An effete. ”
What have I done now? thought Batu. Stand up for yourself. “Uncle, I govern an independent corporation which has made a range of profitable investments. They do quite well.” Batu rested a foot on the bottom step of the dais, removed it quickly when the Vard glared at his foot. “Not universe-shattering, I grant you, but profitable, nonetheless. How can you criticise such behaviour?”
“Profitable investments?” growled the vard. “You mean the string of taverns, gambling dens and holovid dives you run and own? You are a Prince, an heir to this throne – and probably the most likely heir, at that – yet you deal with the basest temptations of humanity!”
“They are high-class casinos, clubs and entertainment establishments, uncle. The wine is the best in the sector. Wine from real plants, such as my parents’ neograpes, is quite the rage – as my mother predicted. I am set to make a substantial profit.” Batu stroked his moustache. “Besides, you are well aware that I am unlikely to gain a voting majority from the seniors across all the domas.”
“And whose fault is that?” snapped the vard. “You have wasted your life on that planet, neglected your vardo!”
Where does this anger come from? Batu stepped back. Perhaps contrition might be better. “I am sorry if my money-making and research upsets you, uncle. However, they are activities and research for which I have passion and in which I have experience. I am good at it, and the vineyards are something established by my parents – your sister and brother-in law.”
The vard grimaced at the mention of his sister. “Abikay would not have wanted to see you wasting your life in such fashion.”
Batu flared at the mention of his mother’s name. “I carry on her work, uncle.”
“You neglect what is needed for the continuation of your house and clan. You neglect your duty.”
“I am not interested in my ‘duty’ to House Delhren.”
“You are my only heir!”
“And whose fault was that?”
One look at the vard’s face and Batu realised he had overstepped the mark. The vard stood and advanced towards Batu, his nostrils flaring in anger. “I lost my son and my sister!”
Batu stepped back, slowly. “And I lost my parents.” He swallowed. “And I was left adrift for six weeks in a lifeboat. Alone, at six years old. And all because of Ordake’s arrogance!” The vard closed his eyes at the mention of his son’s name. Damn contrition. Batu stepped forward until he was face-to-face with the older man. “Do you really appreciate how terrifying that was for a six year old? Alone with a malfunctioning stasis pod in a half-wrecked lifeboat? Watching my parents’ ship torn apart by the Vorl? Ordake commanded my father to take his ship into Vorl space. He overrode your orders. He lost my father’s ship. Ordake – your son – killed my parents.” Batu was now shouting. “Three hundred died just to save me!”
The vard studied Batu for a moment, took a deep breath and turned away. He sat back in his thrown but his face was still grim. “That may be true,” he began, but choked. He tried again. “I did not realise it weighed so heavily on you.” He was quiet a moment and his expression slowly softened. “I cannot change the past, Batu. You should receive help for that survivor’s guilt.”
“It keeps me going,” growled Batu. “I continue my parents’ work. And I do it well.”
“You can be as good as you want at anything you choose. You choose not to.” The vard let out a deep breath. “Batu, nephew mine, you could have done so much more. You were the most gifted of all the youngsters. Even” —his voice caught— “compared to Ordake.” He rubbed his forehead. “I should have enforced my orders.”
I’ve gone too far, thought Batu. He blames himself. “You are not to blame for the Vorl expansion in the Determinate, uncle.” He swallowed. “No-one could have foresaw the devastation at Letchann.”
“No, my son should have seen it. Ordake ignored a direct order from me. I told him to leave that second age orbital alone.”
Is this true? “I heard my mother argue with him.”
“She was right. But she felt she owed it to me to support her husband.” The vard looked weary. “Batu, Ordake blocked their formal protest to me.” He stared Batu in the face. “He was foolish.” He sighed. “There, I’ve said it.” He searched Batu’s face for a response.
Batu remained quiet, confused and scared by the vard’s admission. Why admit this now? I knew Ordake had messed up. They remained in silence for a few moments, each trying to read the other’s emotions. Finally, the vard ran a hand over his face and leaned forward again. “Batu, we must leave the past where it is. We – you – have no option but to accept and face the reality of what is happening now.”
“To be frank, Batu, you are regarded as something of a joke in the Home Fleet. You are seen as an empty dilettante, a Prince in name only.” Batu bridled but the vard held up a hand to stop him speaking. “Face reality, nephew. You’ve been hiding on the planet for too long. There are few in Clan Tsulmar who have your credentials and breeding, yet security chief Jarain Tridethe has declared it a waste of effort to keep you under anything more than light surveillance. Your petty activities have made you a laughing stock and, now, Clan Tridethe is spreading discontent amongst the other clans: Jarain wishes to use your lack of reputation and activity against me.” The vard looked at Batu steadily. “We, that is Clan Tsulmar, may well have been the leading domas in the Vardos Delhren for over 800 years, but I fear it is coming to an end, that I will be the last of our clan.
“And all because of you.”
Batu was speechless. “Because of me? I do not want the title—”
“It’s not up to what you want!” the vard flared. “Batu, I have allowed you to wallow in self-pity for too long – far too long. You cannot do so any more and it’s time you faced the truth. If a tsulmari heir fails to retain the title of Vard, then our whole clan will collapse. With such a demotion, the other doma will destroy us merely by making sure they retain their current influence and status: Clan Tsulmar will cease to exist.” He paused to allow the impact of his words to sink home. “Batu, you have no option but to make a name for yourself in the vardos, set yourself up as a successor or a power broker. I don’t care how you do it: claim a new planet for us, open up a radically advantageous trade route, broker a lucrative trade deal with the Vorl… It doesn’t matter as long as you achieve something dramatic that benefits the house and brings the Tsulmar name back to the fore.” The vard took a deep breath. “Without such fame then, when I die, the clan dies with me… and you’ll be exiled. Or worse.”
“And you’re saying it will be my fault? What you ask is—”
“I ask only what is necessary, so do not argue with me, Prince Batu tsulmari delhreni.” The vard’s voice turned cold as he used the formal nomenclature. “Remember who you are. This is not a request, but an order from your vard. Fail and I will disown you.” Batu opened his mouth to protest but the vard raised a hand. “Make peace with your ghosts and do something to bring fame to our name.”
The doors to the audience chamber hissed open. Batu suppressed his anger and bowed stiffly. “Thank you for the audience, uncle.” As he strode towards the open doors he imagined he felt the vard’s stare boring into his back.
Save the clan? Make a name for myself? How? Then the interviews that morning came to mind and he smiled. Maybe that Ma’req engineer will come in use, after all.
The rest of the saga of Batu and Baray can be found in the Batu and Baray storyline index.