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Authors: Christine Pope

The Mandala Maneuver

BOOK: The Mandala Maneuver
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The Mandala Maneuver
Christine Pope
Dark Valentine Press

T
his is a work of fiction
. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

THE MANDALA MANEUVER

Copyright © 2014 by Christine Pope

Published by Dark Valentine Press

Cover design and ebook formatting by Indie Author Services.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without permission in writing from its publisher, Dark Valentine Press.

Please contact the author through the form on her website at
www.christinepope.com
if you experience any formatting or readability issues with this book.

T
o Ayanna
, who asked for more stories about the Zhore

Prologue

A
mbassador Lirzhan
, who had been given his assignment to the Zhoraani delegation on the Galactic Council’s space station in the Targus system just days earlier, intended to go directly to that remote star system upon receiving the orders for his new post. However, just prior to leaving his home world of Zhoraan, he was instead given secret communiqués for the Zhoraani ambassador on the neutral world of Eridani, missives so secret that they had been printed out in hard copy and hidden amongst Lirzhan’s heavy, concealing robes, the robes his people wore at all times, save when they were with the most immediate members of their families.

“You must destroy the papers, if anyone should approach you,” Zhelaar, his superior in the diplomatic corps on Zhoraan, told him. “A risk, but a small one. It is far safer to carry them in this manner than to have them in electronic format, what with the way the Gaians and Eridanis gleefully hack into anything that seems as if it might be remotely important.”

Although he wanted to ask more questions, that would not have been been proper. So he only inclined his head, accepted the papers, and then carefully hid them amongst the folds of his robes. Outwardly, the galaxy was a civilized enough place. None of the Zhore had ever been attacked or interfered with as they went about their travels — not that his people generally left their home world, judging it to possess a far more appealing environment than anything they might encounter out in the greater galaxy. Indeed, his own desire to learn more of alien cultures and planets had come across as strange to most of those he met, even as his government gladly took him into Zhoraan’s perpetually understaffed diplomatic service.

Honor required that he not peek at those documents, and so of course he did not look, but he thought he had an idea as to the information they contained. It was no secret among his own people that their world had been in decline for some time, with birth rates dropping at a precipitous pace, although they had managed to conceal any information regarding the tragedy from outsiders.

But then a miracle had happened — on a forlorn colony world called Lathvin IV, one of the Zhore had managed to reproduce with a Gaian female. The child was healthy.

The child was hope.

And so Lirzhan traveled to Eridani, a long-civilized world inhabited by the clever and generous humanoid race who had first given interstellar flight to his own people. He brought the papers to the Zhoraani embassy there, where he stood by as the ambassador read them and nodded. Why exactly the word had been sent here, Lirzhan did not know for sure, although he surmised that his superiors back on Zhoraan most likely guessed that if their race could interbreed with humans, then they could do the same with the Eridani, who had been intermingling with the Gaians for more than a century.

Such a leap would require a tremendous shift in mindset, for as a rule the Zhore kept to themselves out of necessity. Low-level empaths, they were often negatively affected by the emotions of those around them, despite the muffling robes they wore out of necessity. It had always been easier to keep all non-Zhore at arm’s length, except when strictly necessary.

For it was not enough to have biological compatibility — a Zhore could not reproduce until he or she found the one who resonated on all levels, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. This resonance was called
sayara
, and up until he had heard of the miraculous birth on Lathvin IV, Lirzhan had not thought such a connection was possible with anyone not a Zhore. Certainly he had been in contact with far more females of other races than most of his kind, and he had never felt such an attachment to any of them. He had seen much to admire in their intelligence, their ability, and their efficiency, but admiration was not
sayara
.

This particular state of affairs did not particularly please him, but he had become resigned to it. Better that than to rail against a universe which seemed determined to keep him alone for the rest of his days….

One

A
mbassador Alexa Craig
shifted in her seat and stared out the window at the roiling colors of subspace as the small ship defied conventional physics to make the journey from Eridani to the Targus system in hours instead of centuries. Her sole companion on the cramped shuttle, Ambassador Lirzhan of Zhoraan, sat still and quiet in the seat cater-corner from her. She hadn’t been overly thrilled with his presence here, since she’d thought she would have the shuttle to herself, but she’d made herself exchange a quiet greeting with him when he boarded. Anything else would have been rude.

He seemed to sense her mood, or at least appeared to have had no more wish for conversation than she did, because he’d taken out his tablet computer and begun working away on it almost as soon as the shuttle lifted from Eridani’s surface. She’d caught a glimpse of the screen once as he shifted the tablet, but as it was covered in odd, elegant symbols, obviously Zhoraani script, she had no idea what had kept him occupied this whole time.

For herself, she’d shifted in her seat, stared out the window, tried to work, but she couldn’t focus for some reason. Now, six hours into the voyage, her right foot was beginning to fall asleep. She adjusted her position, and cursed the stinginess of the Consortium’s engineers, who couldn’t even make a simple shuttle comfortable for a voyage of more than a few hours. And if she was uncomfortable, she didn’t even want to think of how Ambassador Lirzhan must be feeling. He topped her by almost a foot, and was proportionately broad-shouldered. Or perhaps that was all his robes and not actually him, as she had no clear idea of a Zhore’s body conformation. Even so, these cramped seats must be taking their toll.

Her chronometer told her they were barely halfway to their destination. Time to try getting some work done, since she knew she couldn’t possibly sit here and stare out the window for another six hours. The seat next to her was empty, and she’d set her satchel down there. As she reached inside it, fingertips drifting over the smooth titanium surface of the tablet inside, she felt the little ship shudder. At once she sat up, frowning. Ships traveling through subspace were not supposed to do that. It was only in realspace that one might encounter the kinds of physical hazards that would impact a vessel’s flight.

But then she felt the ship shake again. Although she couldn’t imagine how such a thing might happen, it almost seemed as if it had hit a physical barrier. Outside the windows, the shivering colors of subspace disappeared, to be replaced by utter black, broken by a few twinkling points of light, distant and scattered stars. At the same time, the ship jolted, and Alexa felt her head snap forward. It was only reflex that made her fling out her hands to keep her forehead from impacting on the seatback in front of her.

The pilot’s voice blared from the speakers. “We are under attack! Passengers to escape capsules! This is not a drill! I repeat — ”

His voice broke off just as another blow struck the ship. Whether he’d been hit directly in the cockpit or had simply been knocked out, she didn’t know and didn’t have time to guess. This time she saw harsh orange light flare outside the window, even as Lirzhan rose from his seat and stumbled back toward her.

“Door to your left!” she gasped. “Mine’s directly opposite.”

He nodded, but then the vessel shuddered again. Whoever was out there wasn’t taking any chances. They wanted to make sure this ship didn’t get where it was going.

How they could have tracked its course, or pulled it from subspace, when such a thing was supposed to be impossible, she couldn’t say. No time to think about that — no time to think about anything except grabbing her satchel and lurching toward the capsule’s hatch, all the while praying she could get there before the fragile shuttle was stuck by a killing blow. All diplomatic vessels had shields, but they weren’t military grade. Another hit or two, and the thing would fold up like crumpled aluminum foil.

A blur of black out of the corner of her eyes told her Lirzhan had gone to work the controls of his capsule. The ship was a four-seater, which meant there were four of the little escape pods. Her own fingers scrabbled at the buttons to open the door and allow her entry, but even when she stabbed her thumb into the button a second and a third time, nothing happened.

“It’s jammed!” she cried out, unable to keep a note of panic from her voice.

“Leave it,” Lirzhan said, his voice calm and deep, despite the situation. “Come with me.”

She wanted to protest, to say the capsules weren’t designed for more than one person, but his was only two paces away, while the remaining escape pods were located aft, a good three meters away. Besides, there was no guarantee that those capsules or their respective hatches hadn’t also been damaged. Better to take a chance on doubling up in Lirzhan’s pod.

So she nodded dumbly and followed him into the cramped little capsule, letting him take the seat first so she could collapse onto his lap. With one hand he wrestled the harness around them as he reached out with the other to punch the control that would shut the hatch.

The door shut, enclosing them in a tiny bubble of air and warmth. At once the capsule’s rockets flared, pushing them away from the beleaguered shuttle. From this angle she couldn’t see through the tiny window to get an idea of who was attacking the ship.

Not that it mattered. A second later, a flash of brilliant white light glared, driving back the blackness of space for a few seconds. The shuttle was gone, and they were alone in the darkness, falling toward the blue-green crescent of a planet which revealed itself through that same window as the capsule’s automated systems honed in on the closest possibility of refuge.

If they even made it that far. For the first time she was aware of Lirzhan’s arms around her, clutching her tightly against him, as if he feared the safety harness was not sufficient to keep her in place during reentry and landing. Maybe it wasn’t. She’d never heard of an escape capsule holding two people at once, so who knows what its designers had engineered as the outer limits of its capability.

What she did know was that the Zhore’s body felt human enough beneath her, two arms holding her, two strong legs beneath her own. Had the xenobiologists gathered even that much information about this alien race? His breath was warm against her neck as he murmured, “It will be all right.”

She wanted to laugh but didn’t quite dare. No, she didn’t think it was going to be right at all, not as they plummeted toward a strange planet with only the fragile shell of the capsule between them and oblivion.

“If you say so,” she managed, even as she shook her head. Funny; she’d always thought somehow she would die alone.

Well, she might be about to die, but she certainly wouldn’t be alone. Not that she’d ever imagined it would be an alien Zhore who ended up being her companion on her journey to the afterlife. Then again, she really didn’t believe in such things. Her time here might be almost over, but she didn’t think anything would follow, save a long black sleep.

They hit the upper atmosphere of the strange world, a red-hot glow building up along the capsule’s hull as the metal super-heated with the friction of re-entry. At the same time the window blacked out, an intentional safety feature designed to protect the occupants of the escape pod from the blinding light outside.

Lirzhan’s arms tightened around her, but Alexa found she didn’t mind as much as she’d thought she would. His presence assured her that she was not alone, that at least someone was here with her in the dark.

He breathed something in her ear, but she couldn’t make out the words. His own language, she supposed. She had never heard it spoken before, but there was something sibilant and flowing and lovely about it.

“What was that?” she asked, her voice sounding tiny and scared, almost drowned out by the screech of the super-heated winds outside the capsule.

“A prayer,” he replied. “A wish for the hand of Irzhaan to guide us safely to our destination.”

She didn’t bother to ask who or what this Irzhaan was. The Zhore equivalent of God, she supposed. She didn’t believe in God and never had, but if uttering such an invocation made Lirzhan feel better, she certainly wasn’t going to deny him such comfort now.

The rattling grew louder, and she shrank against him, even as his arms tightened further. “Almost there,” he said quietly. “Hang on.”

Oh, how her colleagues would laugh if they could see her now, burrowing into this alien male for comfort instead of bravely facing her fate. But she didn’t care. She just wanted some reminder that she was not alone, here at the end.

“Almost there,” she repeated, although she wasn’t sure she believed the words.

Pale gray-white light blazed into the capsule as the blackout film on the window retracted. Outside she couldn’t see much except the pale streaks of clouds passing by. They dropped lower, and the capsule jolted as its retro-rockets began to fire.

Relief coursed through her. If the rockets had been activated, it meant they were safely through to the planet’s atmosphere, and that the automated systems on the capsule were honing in on a more or less safe place to land.

It seemed she wasn’t going to die after all. At least, not here and now.

A thump, and then the pod came to rest. She and Lirzhan both sat quietly for a few seconds, not speaking, as if neither one of them was quite sure what to do next.

Then he murmured in her ear, “Are you all right?”

“A little jarred, but that’s all,” she told him. “I’m fine.”

How long she — they — would be fine remained to be seen. She guessed they did not have a great deal of time. Although she hadn’t seen who had attacked the shuttle, and had no way of knowing whether their assailants had spied the lone escape capsule falling away from the main ship, she and Lirzhan couldn’t take the risk of remaining in one place for very long, just in case those unknown attackers had managed to track the pod’s escape trajectory.

As to who those assailant were, and why they’d gone after an unarmed shuttle carrying a couple of low-level diplomats, she had no idea. Certainly Alexa Craig, junior ambassador to the Galactic Council, was not important enough to warrant this kind of deadly attention. In Lirzhan’s case, she didn’t know enough about him to decide if he were a likely assassination target, but she somehow doubted not. She’d seen his name on the personnel roster for Targus Station, and, like her, he was only an assistant ambassador, not someone who held a key enough position to be attacked in such a way.

For now, though, she needed to stop speculating and get moving. Alexa shifted, pulling against the alien’s strong grasp. It seemed for a second that he would not release her, as if he almost wanted to remain seated there with her in his arms. Foolish, of course — he was probably just attempting to determine that she really had survived the landing more or less unscathed, even though she’d just told him she was fine.

“I need to check where we are,” she said, and at once his arms fell away, even as he replied,

“Of course.”

She wriggled off his lap, her legs more than a little weak beneath her. That was to be expected, of course. Luckily she didn’t have to do much more than stand, as the capsule’s control panel was less than an arm’s length away. As she did so, she paused, getting a feel for this world’s gravity. Good. Close to Gaian normal, maybe a little lower.

Her fingers shook slightly as she accessed the onboard computer and pulled up their coordinates. Out in the middle of nowhere, off the main space lanes, in a backwater system that only had a numerical designation — GSC 2897. The world itself, however, had been named by its discoverers.

Mandala.

“So where are we?” the Zhore asked, undoing the safety harness and sitting up in his seat, although she noted he did not attempt to rise. Good idea, as there really wasn’t room for him anywhere except in that chair.

“A world called Mandala, a few thousand light-years from where we were headed. Good news is that it’s been catalogued.” She squinted down at the information scrolling past on the computer screen. “Looks like there’s an automated science station about a hundred kilometers from where we are now. I think that’s our best bet — even if it’s unmanned, it’ll still have communications equipment.”

“And this capsule does not?”

“Not subspace comms. It would’ve sent out an automatic distress signal, but I don’t know how helpful that is, since the closest people to receive it would have been the ones trying to shoot us down.”

A pause, and then Lirzhan replied, “I see your point. Then I would suggest that we salvage what we can here and remove ourselves from the vicinity as soon as possible.”

“I agree
.”
She bent down and retrieved her satchel from the floor of the capsule, pulling out her tablet as she did so. A second or two to hook it up to the onboard computer, and then a few seconds more to dump the data onto the small handheld processor. “Okay, I’ve got everything useful off the computer,” she said. “There should be an emergency kit in that panel directly behind you.”

The Zhore nodded and used his gloved fingers to pry open the small metal panel, then retrieved the waterproof bag containing a week’s worth of water and rations, as well as survival gear such as a thermal blanket and emergency lighting. Never mind that the kit had been designed to keep one person alive for a week, not two full-grown adults.

Maybe she should’ve pushed to get to that other escape pod. Then they would have had double their current supplies. On the other hand, there was a very good chance the two pods would have landed kilometers apart, and that would’ve been even worse. She had no idea who or what was after them, or why they’d been shot down. It was better to be with the Zhore than alone. She’d just have to hope they could find some potable water on this world. The survival gear would have a testing kit for that. As for the rest….

Well, it shouldn’t take them a week to hike a hundred kilometers, even if the terrain proved to be difficult. Her brief scan of Mandala’s data had told her that the world was classified as “unimprovable, with no exploitable resources,” which meant that it had too much native flora and fauna to be worth colonizing without a massive sterilization and replanting. The Consortium tended to leave such worlds alone, as the costs of making them over in Gaia’s image were actually higher than terraforming a planet from scratch. The atmosphere was breathable, though, and she’d already determined that the gravity would not be a problem. As for that flora and fauna —

BOOK: The Mandala Maneuver
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