Micheal Cobley

Interstellar Tactics




The Orphaned Worlds, 1st Draft, 1st Excerpt

Yes indeedy, here for your delectation, consideration, apoplexitation (okay, made up the last one), I present an excerpt from chapter one of The Orphaned Worlds. And yes, it is entirely possible that this brief chunk may turn out differently by the final edit, so read and wonder!


Greg climbed out of the notch and crouched in a nearby clump of beadberry bushes for a moment, plotting in his head a route across the wooded slope. Then he crept forward, heading towards the closest tree, and was four paces away when he was grabbed from behind and thrust to the ground. Gasping in fear, he struggled against the weight on his back and fought with one hand through garment layers for the pistol sitting in an inside pocket. Amid all this effort, he almost failed to hear his assailant hoarsely repeating his name.

            “Greg…Greg! – it’s me, Alexei…!”

            Suddenly hearing and recognising the voice, he ceased moving and the weight shifted off his back. Breathing heavily, he half sat up as a grinning Alexei Firmanov sprawled down on the grass next to him. He was a lanky, dark-haired Rus with prominent cheekbones and a narrow chin, and was garbed in a green forest coat over dark grey hunter fatigues.

            “What…the hell…are you doing here?” Greg said.

            “They’ve got lookouts posted all along the trail to Belskirnir, my friend,” Alexei said. “They would have had you like that.”

            “I see,” Greg said, glancing round at the busy slope. “Any idea who they are?”

            “Zhoolikes and nattjegers from the Eastern Towns, we reckoned. Just after you left Taloway, a carrier pinbeak arrived from High Lochiel with word that a local Brolturan lackey was hiring toughs for a journey into the wilds. Later that same day, one of Chel’s high-crag watchers spotted a dirij coming in from the Crystal River boundary quite far off and heading for these hills. Less than half an hour later it was aloft and swinging back towards the coast. Rory and Chel assumed that the worst might happen…”

            “And here ye are.”

            “Nikolai is here, too,” Alexei said. “He went after the ones who dragged Kao Chih away. He’s safe, by the way.”

            Greg breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank god.”

            “Or whoever’s in charge, da? Well, there were only two captors – for Nikolai this is no problem. But we have many problems, sitting out there, waiting for us, so we must go the scenic route, yes?”

            “How scenic?” said Greg. “D’ye mean doubling back around they hills?”

            “I mean go over them.” Alexei grinned. “Is not so bad, and quicker too.”

            Greg frowned. The hills to the south might be comparatively low but they were steep and craggy. Scaling them would be demanding and risky.

            “Okay then, aye,” he said. “But we`ll have to keep an eye out for any scissortails – a bite from one of those wee buggers and you’ll never play the balalaika again.”

            After a stealthy, wary progress back through the forest, following the upward slope, it took well over an hour to climb to the hill’s rocky summit. By then the sun was out and they were sweating as they stopped to rest on a hot stone ledge facing north. Alexei produced a small battered wooden telescope and surveyed the woods they’d left behind. After a few moments he gave a satisfied grunt and turned to look north, where the dark, dense canopy of the Forest of Arawn closed in again and swept onwards and away, swathing every dip and rise of the land before fetching up against the Utgard Barricades, two hundred miles of imposing, sheer cliffs which were just visible as a dark grey line on the horizon. Beyond, the peaks of an immense mountain range faded way into purple opacity.

            And as Greg stared out at the vast forest he suddenly realised that you could lose entire armies beneath its dark green canopy, battalions, regiments, legions, hordes, completely hidden from the eye, their movements a mystery, their tactics clandestine, their strategy covert.

            Now all we need is an army.

            Alexei lowered the telescope and pointed to a nearer landmark, a flat-topped hill protruding from the forest a couple of miles to the north, one of a group of hills.

            “There is Osip’s Hat – under it is Belskirnir. Nikolai said to meet him at the top of a waterfall near the eastern slope.” He looked at Greg. “Are you ready?”

            “Well, I’ve no’ had much sleep and nothing to eat but we’re kind of short on choices so…aye, let’s go.”

            Alexei laughed and gave his shoulder a comradely punch. “You will be fine – Rory says you are tough and I believe him.”

            “Must have a word with him when we get back,” Greg said as he clambered after his companion, heading down the other side of the craggy hill. As they approached the tree line, a flock of fowics came down to investigate, landing heavily on thin upper branches and scrambling along on all fours. Fowics were like flying squirrels back on Earth, except that their forelimb wings were more fully adapted for flying rather than gliding, and their heads, ears and snouts had a distinctly feline appearance. Alexei dug some hard tack out of a waist pouch and held out a few fragments. One of them calmly sauntered down its branch, tiny beady eyes fixed on the prize, snatched it with its teeth then leapt and wriggled up into the leafy shadows.

            Greg laughed. “If they can get any sustenance out of that stuff, they’re probably evolving faster than we are!”

            Not all forest denizens were as harmless. During the 2 hour trudge through an increasingly swampy forest, they saw a tree nest of pepper-wasps, around which they detoured, and more than once hurried past yellow sniperviles, bulge-eyed lizards that could spit poison lethal to Humans. By the time they crossed a brook to dry, rising terrain, Greg felt edgy and twitchy and was longing to return to the high valleys of the Kentigerns.

            “This had better be worth it,” he muttered, following Alexei over a fallen tree. “When we walk in there, Vashutkin’s guy better have, I don’t know, a vial of babble dust made especially for Kuros, or plans for that compound they’re building at Port Gagarin, or….well, something.”

            Alexei was puzzled. “You don’t know what this meeting is for?”

            “No idea, just that Vashutkin said it was so vital that I had to be there in person.”

            “Ah! – I know, is a surprise birthday party, perhaps!”

            Greg smiled and shook his head. “Not for another four months but nice try.”

            At the crest of the slope they suddenly heard a rushing sound above the breeze which rustled through the trees. The ground ahead rose in large, rocky steps, mossy stairs for a giant. Overhead, the dense canopy of the Forest of Arawn continued unbroken in all directions as Alexei led the way around a steep bluff, pointing out the rippervine which hung down it from above. Pushing through a tangle of bushes, they emerged near the rocky bank of a stream, several dozen yards from where it poured over a cliff edge, a waterfall plunging to the forest below. Then two figures stepped out of the vegetation on the other side and minutes later Greg was shaking hands with a grinning Kao Chih while Nikolai Firmanov explained.

            “What a pair of daruki,” he said. “Some of them know their way through woods, but those two must be coastal boys. But Kao Chih? – there is more here than the eye sees.”

            “I was … fortunate,” Kao Chih said. “I knock out one with my skull -” He mimed with an backward jerk of the head, “ – get free, take his gun and knock out the other, then I think I will rescue you and I put on the guns and knives, then I tie up those kwai, then….Nikolai arrives and we go spying.”

            Nikolai, the older but shorter of the Firmanov brothers, smiled and patted Kao Chih on the shoulder. “Steady nerves, this one. All ready to go to war. So I told him that my brother had gone to fetch you and meet later by waterfall but on way here we get close to main gate to Belskirnir, at night.” He shook his head. “Not good, Greg – they are watching gate, around clock. Only other way in is through one of Van Krieger’s private doors.”

            Peter Van Krieger’s father was one of the original founders of Belskirnir and the son had maintained and increased that position of authority by buying out the descendants of the other two founders. Rory had told Greg that Van Krieger was now an ageing, piratical figure who relied on lieutenants to run the camp, having no offspring of his own.

            “Will that be a problem?” Greg said.

            Nikolai gave an amused half-shrug. “Diehards have had dealings with him in past – should be okay.”

            “Should?” Greg said.

            “Will be okay,” said Nikolai. “Van Krieger makes a point of being even-handed, and makes sure his men are too.”

            Greg remained unconvinced but when they reached the bushy summit of Osip’s Hill after a two-hour forest trek, the welcome they received from the three guards there seemed to bear out Nikolai’s words. All wore similar medleys of camouflage, leather and hessian, and carried ageing breech-loaders sporting this or that modification. The eldest, a bald man with a tattooed scalp, greeted the Firmanovs with sardonic familiarity and after hearing Nikolai’s brief hints at some kind of trouble with bandits out in the forest, he beckoned them all to follow as he opened the door into the hill.


I`ll post another excerpt in a day or two.

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2 Comments already, do join in...

  1. Robert Grant Says:

    August 5th, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Make it quick will you, I was enjoying that……

  2. rockitboy Says:

    August 5th, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Ah, yes, if only. I think publication date is provisionally set for mebbe May next year. Anyway, I`ll soon be coping with the first round of editing – pity me!

    Glad you like it so far, but watch this space. Oh, and nice website, btw.

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