Returning to the lives of Jad the disaster Court Jester, Prince Kender and the Elite of the Mothership Urba, MOTHERSHIP AWAKENING is the never-before published story that concludes the epic journey started in MOTHERSHIP.
Release date: December 29, 2020
Print pages: 192
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‘This is all your fault,’ Ken told me as we stood on the hill outside Prince Riplone’s large and lavishly appointed tent, surveying the endless sprawl below us. Smoke rose from countless camp-fires. It was a cold morning and the ground was hard with frost. It was winter in this part of Urba and reminded me of our home domain of Capelia, where it was always cold.
‘My fault?’ I said, my breath misting, ‘how exactly have you arrived at that conclusion?’
‘All that talk about botany and herbs crap. You got him fired up.’
‘Botasny was his obsession long before he met me. I wasn’t the one who told him how easy it was to renounce your regal responsibilities, become a commoner and do a runner.’
Ken didn’t say anything for a time. Then he admitted grudgingly, ‘I suppose it was both our faults.’
After another long pause Ken said, ‘Lot of people down there.’
‘We could always follow the prince’s example and do a runner ourselves,’ he said.
‘We could indeed.’
‘So shall we?’
‘The idea is tempting, but I guess I’d feel bad about it.’
‘Yeah. Me too.’
‘So what are we going to do?’
Ken shrugged. ‘Invade Teretia, I guess.’
‘With this army? It couldn’t invade an orphanage, much less a domain like Teretia.’ Unlike so many of the domains, Teretia had remained stable since the fall of the Elite. Its ruler, Lord Moran, was popular with his subjects and had kept control. He was also popular with his very large army.
‘We’d be mad to stay.’
‘Also true,’ said Ken.
It was just over two hours ago that we had both been roused from our sleep by General Balthus, a bulky, grey-bearded man in his early fifties. The general, an amiable buffoon with the military knowledge of a retarded mollusc, informed us that Prince Riplone had gone.
I had a severe hangover and felt ill as a result. My mood was foul. ‘Gone where?’ I asked him in a surly tone. ‘Gone for a walk? Gone fishing? Could you be more specific, General?’
‘I don’t know where he’s gone, Lord Jad, h‘e’s just gone. He left the camp during the night and he won’t be coming back.’
‘What do you mean he won’t be coming back?’ asked Ken. He sounded groggy. I guessed he felt as bad as I did. We had consumed a very large amount of red wine the night before – with the prince.
‘He’s abdicated, Lord Kender,’ General Balthus explained.
‘Abdicated?’ I repeated. My alcohol-frazzled brain could make little sense of the conversation. Why was he calling us ‘Lord’?
‘It’s all in here. Read it, my Lord.’ General Balthus handed Ken a rolled-up scroll. ‘The prince gave it to his manservant in the early hours of the morning with instructions to deliver it to me at seven hundred hours.’
Ken unrolled the scroll and began to read. As he read, his bleary eyes widened. Then he said, ‘Bloody hell!’ and handed the scroll to me.
By the time I’d finished reading the prince’s message I’d forgotten all about my hangover. ‘This is ridiculous,’ I muttered. ‘It’s got to be a joke. The prince is playing a practical joke on us.’
General Balthus, his expression sombre, shook his head. ‘I’m afraid it’s not a joke, my Lords.’ I got the impression he wished it were a joke as much as I did. I couldn’t really blame him, considering what the prince had written.
‘It’s completely official,’ the general continued, ‘it has his seal on it. That means it’s legally binding. You, my Lords, are now in charge of the army. Not only that, but you are also joint rulers of Catonia.’
I threw off my blanket and got up from my straw-filled mattress. Ken did the same and we exchanged a panicked look. Ken turned to the general. ‘Prince Riplone can’t have got very far yet – send out a search party for him … Quickly!’
‘He could have gone in any direction, my Lord,’ General Balthus replied. ‘And he could have travelled a considerable distance by now, especially if he’s changed horses. The manservant last saw him just before 2 a.m. By now he could be anywhere.’
‘The manservant,’ I said, desperately grasping at straws, ‘does he know where the prince was going?’
‘No, Lord Jad. I have questioned him, but he didn’t even know the prince had gone. He didn’t read the scroll. It was still sealed when he gave it to me.’
‘Damn,’ said Ken.
‘Besides,’ said the general, ‘finding the prince would be a waste of time. He is no longer our ruler. He has abdicated. You two are our rulers now. It’s—’
‘I know, I know,’ I said. ‘It’s official. But please stop calling us ‘Lord’.’
‘General, in all honesty, you can’t be happy about this situation, can you?’ Ken asked him.
‘I am in no position to have an opinion one way or the other, Lord Kender,’ he said stiffly.
‘By the gods, man,’ I said, ‘you barely know us! And overnight wWe’ve become rulers of your domain, your army and you thanks to little more than a whim of your own Prince Riplone – you can’t tell me you seriously accept that!’
The general’s expression remained blank. ‘I must obey the law, my Lord. The decision made by Prince Riplone before he abdicated must be acknowledged as law.’
‘Damn it,’ said Ken, now beginning to look angry. ‘We’re simple mercenaries. Our job as advisors to Prince Riplone was a temporary one. When our contract was up we were going to resume our … our travels. We have plans of our own. Important plans.’
I knew just how important those plans were to Ken. They were just as important to me, if not more so: they involved our ongoing search for the beautiful Alucia.
The general said, ‘You can always abdicate yourselves, my Lords. But as the former Prince Riplone emphasizes in his document, it is his sincere and deepest wish that you will fulfil his promise to Lord Ortygia, his dying father, and conquer Teretia.’
‘Forgive me for highlighting the obvious, General,’ I said, ‘but it was Prince Riplone – forgive me, the former Prince Riplone – who swore an oath at his father’s deathbed to conquer Teretia, not us. We haven’t sworn such an oath to anyone, much less to the late Lord Ortygia.’
‘But you have inherited the former prince’s obligation to his late father, along with his lands and his army,’ said the general.
That may be your opinion but it’s not ours,’ Ken told him haughtily, his old regal manner showing through his guise of being a common mercenary. ‘We could simply abdicate right now.’
‘True,’ said the general. ‘Once you have decided upon a suitable successor.’
That silenced us. All of Prince Riplone’s commanders were complete incompetents – including General Balthus – which is precisely why Prince Riplone hired us as military advisors in the first place.
‘We’ll give it some thought,’ I told the general finally.
And just over two hours later we were still trying to think. Of anything …
As we continued to stare across the huge, ramshackle camp bursting with twelve thousand mainly sorry examples of humanity, Ken glanced at his watch. ‘Just half an hour before Balthus and his wretched commanders arrive to finalise the tactics for the invasion.’
‘I wasn’t aware there were any tactics to finalise.’
‘I’m beginning to suspect that the real reason the prince did a runner was because he finally realised that invading Teretia would prove fatal for him, along with everyone else.’
‘I know we kept telling him the invasion was a stupid idea but I didn’t read him as a coward,’ said Ken. ‘He was a prince, after all.’
I couldn’t help laughing. ‘Of course, a prince would never run away. You’re the perfect example of that.’
‘I didn’t run away from danger,’ he protested, ‘I ran away from Princess Petal.’
‘I’d say Princess Petal was more dangerous to your health than any battle.’
After a pause Ken began to laugh as well. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘You’re sadly right.’ Then, serious again, he said, ‘And of course I had another motive for leaving Capelia.’
Yes. His motive was the same as mine. I too wanted to find Alucia. For reasons of my own – though he still wasn’t aware of this. He thought I was just being a good friend and helping him with his quest. I’d managed to keep my secret for the year we’d been travelling together since we left Capelia for the second time. When we finally find Alucia, and I was convinced we would sooner or later, there were going to be serious problems between us, but all that lay in the future. No point in worrying about it now. Besides, there were more immediate problems to hand.
‘Perhaps we could simply disband the army,’ I said. ‘Tell them the invasion is off and they can all go home.’
‘Good idea … except that most of them don’t have homes to go back to,’ Ken pointed out. ‘The army is their home. Also, they haven’t been paid in ages. They’ve been promised loot when they invade Teretia. We tell them the invasion is off and they’ll probably lynch us.’
I gave a resigned sigh. Ken was right. ‘Why don’t they realise the whole thing is doomed to failure?’ ‘There’s not going to be any looting. It’s difficult to do looting when you’ve been sliced into small pieces.’
‘Because they’re idiots to a man. You’ll notice there are hardly any mercenaries involved in this fiasco. Mercenaries are usually smart enough to recognise a potential fiasco when they see one.’
‘Ah, yes … so exactly why are we two extremely smart mercenaries involved in this fiasco?’
‘We were hired as military advisors, not mercenaries,’ replied Ken. ‘And we were giving the prince good advice. We told him he had no hope of conquering Teretia and that he should call a truce with Lord Moran.’
‘I suppose we must have got through to him in the end. Seeing as he’s gone.’
‘And left us in the shit,’ muttered Ken.
‘I’ve just had another idea.’
‘You say those words and my heart fills with unbridled joy.’
I gave him a dirty look. ‘You sound more like your father with every passing day. You’ve definitely inherited his talent for heavy sarcasm.’
‘Please don’t mention my father..’
‘So what’s your idea?’
‘We exploit the prince’s sudden departure. Pay some people to spread it through the army that the prince has fled because he knows the invasion of Teretia will end in disaster.’
Ken frowned. ‘Might work,’ he said, but he sounded doubtful. ‘It’s just that I don’t think that the prince’s absence is going to mean much to the army. He wasn’t exactly regarded as an inspirational leader. And don’t forget it’s only been two months since his father died. As far as the average soldier is concerned, this is still Lord Ortygia’s campaign. I’m afraid Prince Riplone was seen as a token replacement. He won’t be missed.’
I thought it over. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’ The prince was a likeable enough young man, but hardly leader/conqueror material. The fact that he’d decided to wash his hands of the whole warlord role and run away shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He must have been considering such a move even before we inadvertently encouraged him to do just that during our long, drunken conversation last night. He had been very impressed with us and held us in a kind of awe. He was fascinated by our stories of past exploits, especially our description of accompanying Lord Camarra’s forces into the Citadel. He was particularly impressed that we were among the very few survivors of that ill-fated expedition.
Naturally, we perpetuated the lie that Camarra’s army had been wiped out by Elite killer machines. If we’d told him the truth, we’d also have had to tell him that Urba was actually a giant spaceship, not a world in a cave in a universe of solid rock, which was what almost everyone else on Urba believed. If we’d told him that little nugget of truth we’d have lost all credibility with him. The prince may have had an open and enquiring mind, but it wasn’t that open and enquiring.
Anyway, we’d clearly influenced him in his decision to take the plunge, run off and leave his old life behind—
‘Tactics,’ said Ken.
‘Pardon? I thought you said there weren’t any.’
‘There aren’t any – now. But maybe we can come up with some clever tactics that will give this sad shower of useless shits some kind of military advantage.’
‘The only tactic that would be of any help would be to retreat,’ I said.
‘I know. But we’ve got to try and think of something.’
‘We still have the option of retreating by ourselves. Throwing our lives away on a futile and empty cause doesn’t figure in our Grand Plan.’
Ken took a deep breath, let it out slowly and then said, ‘You’re right, of course. We run, but only as a last resort. First we try and see if we can come up with a way of salvaging the situation. Agreed?’
I suppose so. But we’d better not leave it too late to abandon shiptherwise we’ll be going under with the rest of this lot.’
The meeting with General Balthus and his fellow commanders was a depressing affair. It began badly, with the announcement from one of the commanders that an advance party he’d sent on a reconnaissance mission to the border had returned with the news that an army twenty thousand-strong was massed on the Terentian side.
‘Twenty thousand?’ said Ken, sounding as alarmed as I felt.
‘Give or take a thousand, my Lord,’ said the commander, presumably trying to soften the blow.
‘Well, that settles it,’ said Ken. ‘We don’t stand a chance. We must call the invasion off.’
There was a chorus of gasps from the dozen commanders assembled around the map table. Then General Balthus said, in a shocked voice, ‘But my Lord, we can’t cancel the invasion – that’s out of the question!’
‘Why?’ Ken asked him.
‘Because it was Lord Ortygia’s dying wish that we invade Teretia,’ said the general.
There were murmurs of assent from the other commanders. They were all of a similar age to General Balthus: old men with old ideas, I reflected cynically. ‘Lord Ortygia is dead,’ I said. ‘Invading Teretia is no longer a matter of concern to him.’
‘But it is, my Lord,’ said one of the commanders. ‘He’s in the Great Hall of the Gods looking over us!’
I groaned inwardly. ‘I’m sure he is, but if we attack a force of twenty thousand with an army of eight thousand, many of whom are patently incompetent as soldiers, we’re all going to end up in the Great Latrine of the Gods.’
More shocked gasps from all quarters.
‘With all due respect, my Lord,’ said General Balthus, ‘I find your words offensive.’
‘No doubt you do,’ I replied. ‘But, sadly, I speak the truth. We have no hope of defeating Lord Moran’s army. We’ll be massacred to a man if we try.’
‘Again with all due respect, my Lord,’ said the general, ‘I have to disagree with you.’
Ken looked surprised. ‘Surely you have to admit that a frontal attack on Lord Moran’s army would be suicidal. But if we used different tactics, perhaps we might stand a chance—’
The General frowned. ‘Different tactics, my Lord? How do you mean?’
Ken leaned forward and pointed at the area on the other side of the border where the Teretian army was reported to be waiting. ‘We split our army into two sections and cross the border here and here, nowhere near Lord Moran’s army. We go round his army. Pass it by. We make a dash for his capitol, Parane, and attack it and lay siege to the castle. We should take both his capital and his castle easily. There will only be a minimal number of defenders … we’ll capture Lord Moran’s entire family and hold them as hostages. He’ll be forced to negotiate with us and the terms will be, of course, in our favour.’
Ken waited expectantly for a response to the plan we’d hastily devised before the meeting. There was silence around the table. I slowly realised it was a stunned silence. Eventually General Balthus said, in a strangled voice, ‘We couldn’t do that. My Lord.’
‘Yes we can,’ said Ken, misunderstanding the general. ‘It’ll be risky, true, and we’ll need some luck, but I believe we can pull it off successfully.’
‘No, no, no, my Lord!’ protested the general. ‘I don’t mean we couldn’t; I mean we can’t: such a plan of action is completely unthinkable!’
‘Why?’ asked Ken, looking puzzled.
‘Because it would be dishonourable,’ said the general. ‘We could never condone it. Lord Ortygia’s name would be forever smeared if we did.’
Ken glanced at me and muttered, ‘Give me strength …’
I shrugged helplessly.
‘We must do the honourable thing and confront Lord Moran’s army in the traditional manner, my Lord Kender,’ said the general.
‘And get slaughtered in the traditional manner,’ said Ken.
‘I don’t want to be picky, boys,’ I said, ‘but aren’t Lord Kender and I in charge here? I mean, if we say jump, aren’t you all supposed to jump?’
The general looked confused. ‘You want us all to jump, my Lord?’
‘No, you twat!’ I said sharply. ‘I was speaking metaphorically. What I meant was that as we are your new rulers, aren’t you obliged to follow our orders?’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ replied the general.
‘Then you are obliged to follow our battle plan, right?’
‘Uh, no, my Lord. We are duty-bound follow Lord Ortygia’s battle plan. It is his campaign, my Lord, not yours or Lord Kender’s.’
Frustrated, I muttered, ‘This is ridiculous.’
‘How long did Lord Ortygia rule Catonia?’ Ken asked the general.
‘Nearly twenty-five years, my Lord.’
‘And during that period, how many times did he try and invade Teretia?’
The general’s face flushed. ‘Twelve times, my Lord.’
‘And were any of these invasions successful?’ asked Ken.
The general’s flush became a deeper shade of red. ‘Uh, none, my Lord.’
‘Did Lord Ortygia’s armies ever win any battle against the Teretian forces?’ asked Ken, twisting the knife. We’d already heard the history of Lord Ortygia’s failed campaigns from his son, the crucially absent Prince Riplone.
‘No, my Lord,’ chorused the officers. Reluctantly.
‘During Lord Ortygia’s reign, were any of the military campaigns he launched against any other domains successful?’
General Balthus looked like he was having a tooth pulled as he said, ‘No, my Lord.’
‘Doesn’t that tell you something about the late Lord Ortygia’s basic grasp of the art of warfare?’ Ken asked him.
General Balthus looked at his colleagues for help – but in vain; they remained silent, appearing as uncomfortable as he did. Finally he said, ‘The gods were not on our side on those occasions. It wasn’t Lord Ortygia’s fault.’
‘Not one victory, in all that time? Against anyone?’
The general now seemed as if he was about to choke. ‘No, my Lord.’
‘The gods must have been really pissed off with him,’ said Ken.
The General said nothing.
Ken stood there thinking for about half a minute. Then he said, ‘Alright. Do you have any objection if, instead of attacking Lord Moran’s army head-on, our forces divided into two and attacked his army’s flanks?’
The general said, ‘It would be unorthodox, my Lord. I would have to discuss the matter with my fellow commanders.’
‘You do that,’ said Ken. ‘Let us know when you’ve made a decision.’ He beckoned to me and I followed him out of the section of the tent that was laughingly referred to as the ‘war room’. We went to the former Prince Riplone’s quarters where Ken opened a bottle of red wine and filled two jewel-encrusted goblets. He handed one to me.
I drank deeply and said, ‘That settles it. We’re out of here. We declare General Brainless Balthus the new warlord and then we follow in the hoof-prints of the prince.’
Ken sat down on the prince’s bed and looked pensive. Earlier that morning, after General Balthus had delivered the unwelcome news about the prince’s disappearance and our sudden ascendance, we’d searched the prince’s quarters. Under one of the pillows on his bed we found a note, addressed personally to us. It simply read, ‘Dear Kender and Jad, Sorry about all this but I had to go. I’m sure you both understand. Good luck, and thanks for the advice – Best Wishes, Prince Rip.’
‘Let’s give it awhile longer,’ Ken said. ‘I think I may have a solution to the problem.’
I sat in one of the ex-prince’s softly upholstered armchairs. ‘So do I. It involves two horses galloping very fast. With us on their backs.’
‘You want the slaughter of all those idiots out there on your conscience?’
‘It wouldn’t be for long. My conscience isn’t what it used to be.’
‘Let me think through my idea. There may be a way out of this mess that doesn’t involve everyone getting killed. Including us.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. I’m beginning to feel very, very nervous.’
‘Hey, remember, we’re battle-hardened mercenaries. We don’t know the meaning of fear.’
‘Oh, right. It momentarily slipped my mind.’ I drank more of the wine and stared at Ken. He certainly looked like a battle-hardened mercenary – but then, I suppose I did too. I’d put on weight during the last year, much of it muscle. I was no longer the tall, thin, gangling fool with the mop of red hair that I had been. For one thing, my hair was cropped so short I appeared almost bald. I now sported a broken nose – acquired in an air car crash in the base created by aliens beneath the Citadel – and more recently, in a minor skirmish between two disintegrating domains, I’d managed to acquire an interestingly jagged scar down the left side of my face. I definitely no longer looked like a court jester, thank the gods. While I wasn’t as proficient as Ken in the manly art of combat – he, after all, was a natural-born warrior, I had improved impressively in this area. We may have started out as pretend mercenaries, but we had both grown into our parts for real.
Unlike the average mercenary, Ken and I possessed a secret advantage: we both carried concealed Elite hand-weapons. There were a lot of these Elite hand-weapons still in circulation, but not many of them worked any more. Their new owners lacked the all-important belts with the holster and the small black box that were attached to them: without the belt and its attachments you couldn’t recharge the weapons. The mysterious little box was a receiver; it picked up the invisible energy in the air and, via filaments in the belt and holster, fed it into the weapon. But most of these belts were destroyed, along with so much else, on the Day of Wonder and during the aftermath, when the Elite lost their powers and were massacred in a worldwide uprising. The Elite, descendants of the people who had been in control of the giant vessel known as Urba, had ruled the world with cruelty and ruthlessness for centuries. One could say they ruled the masses with an iron fist inside a velvet glove … except that the Elite had skipped the velvet glove bit. They’d been quite happy with the unadorned iron fist.
The Elite were still feared and hated, even though they’d been virtually wiped out. It was generally believed that the giant war machines that had emerged from the Citadel, their former stronghold, had been an attempt by the Elite to regain control of Urba. In reality the machines had been the creation of the alien beings whose giant space ship had been shadowing Urba for a quarter of a century. The alien beings who’d corrupted Urba’s intelligent computers and cut off the Elite’s source of energy. As far as I knew, only three humans were aware of the truth: me, Ken … and Alucia.
Alucia. Alucia: the woman was my overwhelming obsession in life. Just as she was Ken’s. I was in love with her. So was Ken. But, as I had to keep reminding myself in order not to make a fatal slip of the tongue; he didn’t know that I too was in love with her. A situation ripe with farcical potential. And one full of irony too.
But the really ironical component in all this was that Alucia was one of the universally hated Elite.
On a freezing morning three days later I was definitely not feeling like a battle-hardened mercenary: on the contrary, I was shitting bricks. Ken and I were on the border between Catonia and Terestia. Behind us was Catonia’s rag-bag army. In front of us were Lord Moran’s twenty thousand men (give or take a thousand). His actually looked like a real army, unlike ours.
‘This is very silly,’ I told Ken. ‘We shouldn’t be here. We should be miles away. Many, many miles away.’
‘Trust me,’ said Ken.
‘Oh shit. You’re supposed to say something that will instil confidence in me. Make me feel optimistic. ‘Trust me’ doesn’t do the trick, I keep telling you that.’
‘Just keep waving that white flag.’
I kept waving the white flag that I’d tied to the end of my lance. ‘This isn’t going to work. And if you tell me to trust you again I may burst into a fit of uncontrollable weeping.’
‘Hah.’ We weren’t dressed for battle: no chain-mail shirts or helmets. We were wearing our ordinary mercenary garb, black leather jackets, leggings, boots and hooded black cloaks. I think there must be an unwritten law somewhere that says mercenaries have to dress in this way.
But, despite the icy weather, our jackets were open – so that we could draw our Elite guns easily if the need arose.
Ken’s plan was a simple one. In the jargon we professionals in the military trade use, it’s called surrender. Yes, unbeknownst to General Balthus and his fellow i. . .
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