Robert Holdstock

The Dark Wheel

Elite: The Dark Wheel Novella (c) 1985 Firebird Software Ltd

Chapter one

From the moment that the trading ship, Avalonia, slipped its orbital berth above the planet Lave, and began to manoeuvre for the hyperspace jump point, its measureable life-span, and that of one of its two-man crew, was exactly eighteen minutes.

The space station gently span away into the shadows and the small Ophidian class vessel shuddered as its motors angled it round towards the Faraway jump. The planet Lave, below, rotated in blue-green splendour. There were storms moving across the Paluberion Sea, six great whorls of pink and white cloud. They were approaching the continental mass that was FirstFall, and promising a bleak and wet few days to the swathes of forest and the deep, snaking valleys that cut through the rugged land. The cities of both Humankind and Lavian glittered among the verdant blanket below like bright shards of glass.

Watching the lush world from his seat at the astrogation console, Alex Ryder expressed an audible sigh of regret that he had not been allowed down to the world itself. Next to him, fingers moving expertly over the keys of the trader's ManOp console, his father grinned. Jason Ryder knew well enough the frustration of only being allowed to observe a rich and fabled world like Lave from orbit. He had been planetside once, an unforgettable experience…But the rules and regulations of the Galactic Co-operative of Worlds were strict and sensible. Lave, like any other planet, was not a holiday resort, not a curiosity. It was a living, evolving world, and there were folk down below to whom that world was everything that Old

Earth had once been to the Human race. Protection. Mother. Home.

Another time, another year, Alex thought. You earned your visit to Lave, and he had hardly begun his professional life. He still had so much to learn.

The Ryders had been a trading family for three generations. It had begun with Ben Ryder, who had traded almost exclusively using shot-up pirate ships. Ben had lived life on the edge, and one day, one night, one star year, he had not returned. Out in the void between the stars his grave was as remote as it was private, and would probably never be found. His son, and his grandson — who was Jason Ryder — had followed the family business. Alex would soon have to make the final decision: whether to sacrifice his life to shuttling cargo between the worlds of the Galactic Co-operative, or to train for a different profession.

Let's be clear about trading. Trading between worlds is no game for a youngster with ideas of getting rich quick. You can spend a lifetime carrying food, machinery and textiles, and at the end of that life you'll have enough saved up to buy a patch of coastal land on an Earth-type world, and spend the rest of your days in quiet, isolated comfort.

That's all.

A lifetime of sweat and combat for an orbital shuttle, a home, and the clear blue of an alien sea at your doorstep. If you want more, there are ways of getting it: narcotics, slaves, zoo animals, weapons, political refugees…trade in any of these things and wealth will tumble around you.

And corsairs, and privateers, and pirates…

And the police.

The strain of the years of honest trading was already telling on Jason

Ryder, but he had invested wisely, and this small, cargo-carrying pleasure yacht was his pride and joy. He could get away from the trade-lanes for a while (although he always respected the trader maxim that 'an empty hold means an empty head', and never travelled freight-less; today he was carrying thrumpberry juice, an exotic flavouring). He could show his son what space was really like, and whet the lad's appetite… or let him see that a life in hard vacuum was one of the hardest lives of all.

For his part, Alex Ryder would need a lot more convincing. He was a tall, fair-haired young man, wiry and athletic. He was atmo-surfing champion on the Ryder's homeworld, Ontiat, and very bright. Like all young men of his age he was reluctant to switch his status from that of student to professional, with all that that meant in terms of settling with one particular girl, one job, and beginning to plan for when, eventually, he would buy his own land.

He still had a year to decide, a year of surfing, free-fall baseball, cloud barbecues, hi-falling, partner selection and Sim-Combat.

He was in no hurry.

Except that he loved space. Loved the flash of sun on duralium hulls, the clutter and confusion of the space ports.

Loved the idea of other worlds, of exploration, of path-finding.

The voice of SysCon, which controlled all traffic flow in Lave's orbitspace, murmured softly, 'Avalonia, make a four minute drift-flight to Faraway jump point.'

'Understood,' Alex called back, and adjusted the auto accordingly. His father sat back and smiled, his job done for the moment.

SysCon said, 'Enter Faraway jump along channel two seven, at forty-five orient.'

'Affirmed,' Alex said, and his father rolled the ship along its central axis, ready for the dangerous hyperspace transit.

Everything looked good.

On the rear monitor, where the planet shone brilliantly as it slowly moved through the heavens, a dark shadow drifted into vision: another ship, lining up for the Faraway jump.

It was quite normal. Alex took no notice, more concerned about the impending transit through hyperspace. His father scrutinised the other vessel for a moment, then relaxed.

He had no way of knowing that he only had fourteen minutes left alive.

Making a Faraway jump in a system as complex and crowded as Lave is no simple business. A hundred eyes are watching you for the slightest mistake. Make a mistake in orbit-space and the next time you go to dock at one of the world's Coriolis space stations a big NOT WELCOME sign might flash in the vacuum before you.

You slip your C-berth under the instruction of Station Space Monitor.

Perhaps twenty ships are doing the same. You go when it's safe. You rotate, accelerate, decelerate and spin to the absolute second, both of time and arc. That way you get clear without two thousand tons of duralium trader rammed into your hyperspace jets.

It isn't over.

Now you're under the supervision of HSA, Home Space Authority, and they'll jockey you safely about among the traders, and the yachts, and the ferries, and the shuttles, and the star-liners, and the arrow-shaped police patrol ships. All of these vessels slip and slide about you, streaks of silver in the darkness, flashing green and blue lights, sudden walls of grey metal that pass across your bows, winking yellow warning beacons.

You move through this chaos and a new voice begins to call for attention.

Now you're with the Faraway Orientation Systems Controller; FOSC — or SysCon — sets you up for the big jump. You're going to cover maybe seven light years in a few minutes, and you might think that's a lot of space to get lost in, but that isn't how it works. Faraway is a tunnel, like any other tunnel. Inside that tunnel is the realm called Witch-Space, a magic place, a place where the normal rules of the Universe don't necessarily work. And every few thousand parsecs along the Witch-Space tunnel there are monitoring satellites, and branch lines, and stop points, and rescue stations; and passing by all of these are perhaps a hundred channels, a hundred 'lines' for ships to travel, each one protected against the two big dangers of hyperspace travel: atomic reorganisation, and time displacement.

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