Home :: Science Fiction :: Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 17: The Meruk Episodes VI - X by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction/Young Adult)

Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 17: The Meruk Episodes VI - X by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction/Young Adult)

Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 17: The Meruk Episodes VI - X by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction/Young Adult)
 
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Meruk's quest to find other Hoveni continues as he heads out into the desert, following clues and legends of hiding places deep under the shifting sands.

His journey is impeded by the elements, and by the foolishness of greedy Humans who can't even be allowed to guess that Hoveni are real, much less that the remains of ancient technology and knowledge lie in the wastelands. Meruk encounters the insane, the fearful, and cruel, as well as the innocent, wise, and gentle.

His quest takes him from the desert, to an Order outpost, to an amusement park the size of a city, and back across the sea where he faces more remnants of the Hoveni's ancient enemy, the Set'ri.

Also available in print (paperback) - still with old cover currently.

Print:
ISBN/EAN13: 1922066389 / 9781922066381
Page Count: 216
Trim Size: 5" x 8"

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Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 17: The Meruk Episodes VI - X by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction/Young Adult)
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Sample Chapter

VI: DUEL

"Secure channel, Doctor." Lt. Syking moved out of the pickup field of his com-screen, to let Meruk take over. He gave the younger man a sardonic grin and an raised eyebrow as they exchanged places.

"Are you out of your mind?" Rostarius growled from his side of the communication link.

"Secure channel," Meruk repeated. "If you can't trust the head of security for Port-town, who can you trust?"

"Point," Rostarius said after a moment. He made a point of looking Meruk over, as if the viewscreen could allow an in-depth examination. "What have you found out about Joax? Your last communication was clever, full of suspicions and not enough details for anything except to make me worry."

"You haven't gotten the news yet, have you?" Meruk felt sick. Dr. Joax, head of the Gemar Natural History Museum in Hubbeston, had been Rostarius' friend. He had trusted him. Why else would his university advisor have suggested Meruk go to Dr. Joax to follow up some clues on the legend of the Shelter Cave for the Hoveni in the Gadaran desert area?

"There was some ruckus at the museum, but nothing official has come out." Rostarius sighed, "Which should be a clue, now that I think about it. Especially with you down there and the Set'ri on your tail." He snorted, offering a crooked grin. "Whatever shape of tail you've been wearing most recently."

"Skrill and qlintanillary don't have tails," Syking muttered. He sat back in his chair and put a foot up on the table in front of him when Meruk glanced over from his seat in front of the com-screen.

"What did he say?" Rostarius demanded. "You haven't been risking your life taking on complicated shapes –"

"It's been dangerous down here. You do what you have to, to protect yourself and..." Meruk sighed, feeling sick again as he remembered what had happened only a day ago.

It had been a long, strange day. The strangest part had been going into the Peacer headquarters with the officers who had responded to the alarm at the museum, and finding Lt. Syking talking with the Peacer lieutenant in charge of Hubbeston's security, laughing with him like they were old friends. Syking had taken one look at him, spattered with the blood Dr. Joax had sprayed on him when he coughed up his life, and he had taken over. Meruk still wasn't sure what would have happened to him, where he would be right this moment, if the Peacer lieutenant hadn't vouched for him. Despite the evidence of the security records at the museum, proving he hadn't been anywhere near Dr. Joax's office during the attack, and that Dr. Joax had turned off all the sensors when his visitors had come in–the same visitors who had killed him–Meruk thought he wouldn't be anywhere so comfortable as this private office, speaking on a secure Peacer channel. He knew, even though all evidence said he was innocent, he should be in a cell several stories underground, undergoing several different kinds of scans as he was questioned again and again about the events leading up to Dr. Joax's death at the hands of genocidal madmen who were either Throwbacks among the Gen'gineers, or Set'ri.

"Joax was working with Set'ri." Meruk knew in the final analysis, anyone who wanted to capture and destroy Hoveni was a Set'ri, no matter what label they wore, no matter what the history books said about the ancient enemies of his race. "I destroyed some bone fragments reputedly taken from the graves of Hoveni from before Humans came to Gemar. Joax was supposed to help them get DNA samples from the bones and build up a pattern to use with scanners, to detect us. No matter how diluted by Human blood and genetics."

"That could be ugly. Destroying artifacts? I can't see you doing it except in dire circumstances." His teacher nodded, his expression becoming graver under his disreputable, bushy black beard, his eyes half-shuttered. "Was the ruckus from him discovering the artifacts were destroyed, or when his Set'ri friends found out?"

"His work with the Set'ri was unofficial. He turned all security systems and pickups off and worked after hours when his contacts came in. As far as I could tell, the officials didn't know what was going on." Meruk swallowed hard. "Until now. They're going through all his private files. I pointed out to them the Set'ri and radical Gen'gineer symbols on the communications Dr. Joax received and they..."

He wanted to put his head down on the desk where he sat, close his eyes, and go to sleep–and maybe when he woke up this would all be a bad dream. Meruk wondered if some of the really outrageous fables about Hovenu psionic powers were true somewhere, and they were able, with individuals, to travel through time. He would give anything to go back to the dig last summer and prevent that moment when he had shifted shape for the first time in front of witnesses. He could be sitting in a lecture hall at the university right this moment, or meeting with Dr. Rostarius after classes to get more lessons in what it meant to be a Hoven. Not fearing for his life.

"Meruk?" Dr. Rostarius' voice softened and he leaned as close to the com-screen pickup as possible without touching it.

"Dr. Joax is dead." Meruk felt as if he forced the words past a thick, sharp-edged blockage in his throat. "His Set'ri friends killed him for treachery. Over the bone fragments I destroyed. And I killed them."

"How?" Rostarius' gaze flicked over to the area off-screen where Syking had stepped.

"I confessed to him, first," Meruk offered. He glanced at the lieutenant, who nodded, his expression just as grave as Rostarius'.

"We're at war, Doctor," Syking offered, not stepping into the pickup range of the screen. "Self-defense, justice, preventive action. My small network of contacts includes some friends among the Order of Kilvordi, several of them advocates at the highest level of the judiciary system, and we've had discussions about things like this. The bottom line is that we Hoveni are living, sentient beings with souls granted by Fi'in, and those who want to reduce us to the level of animals and destroy us because we don't fit their narrow definition of Human...they've lost their souls. They are guilty of crimes against the entire universe, just as much as if they stood with their philosophical ancestors and brought on the purges and genocidal waves that brought on the Downfall Wars. For the sake of defending the innocent and the future, and when there is no other choice...killing is not a sin, but a necessary evil."

Dr. Rostarius thought for a moment. "Does that reasoning help you feel any better?"

"No," Meruk said, again feeling that drop in his stomach, when the images of what he had seen the Set'ri do, and the things he had done, the risks he had taken with his own life and the security of all Hoveni on the planet, almost without thinking, came back to haunt him.

"Good. You're still Human in all the ways that matter. So...tell me what happened, and then tell me what you're going to do next. Since you lost your job at the museum, obviously."

Meruk realized later that the old saying was true, that he had learned in devotionals with a sweet-voiced little Sister from the Order–sharing a burden reduced it. He felt a little lighter, a little less dirtied by evil necessity, once he had told Dr. Rostarius about the time he had spent with Dr. Joax at the museum, the things he had learned, and the information he had managed to dig out of the doctor's secret files with Lt. Syking's help–right under the noses of the Peacers they were ostensibly helping to gather information on the doctor's murder. The growing network of Hoveni had a little more ammunition to use in their defense, a little more information to help them avoid the ancient enemy who still hadn't given up on their unholy quest to eradicate the 'impure' blood of the Hoveni race.

* * * * *

"I know the old saying is that innocent men don't have to run away, and running away only proves I'm guilty or I have something to fear, but..." Meruk sighed, rubbed his eyes, and slouched in the chair in the surprisingly large room where the authorities investigating Dr. Joax's murder and the destruction in the museum had been questioning him for the past five days.

"You did the right thing, staying there instead of shifting shape and fleeing. You are innocent and you're upset over what happened, and you're blaming yourself because you knew he turned off the security systems when he had his private meetings. It's all truth." Syking toyed with the light green recorder wand that also doubled as a jammer, so no one could listen in on their conversations.

"Preventable truth. And he's dead because of what I did."

"You didn't agree to work with those men, knowing how dangerous and unstable they were. You didn't carry an illegal needler gun through security scanners that had been turned off to let you into the building. And you didn't shoot Dr. Joax just because he said the wrong words and hurt your feelings."

"No matter how many times you tell me it wasn't my fault, I still feel like it was. Because I destroyed those bone fragments. I did, didn't I? Enough that someone else from the Set'ri can't come in and get hold of the dust and take it to another scientist to get DNA?" Meruk nearly leaped from his seat as that thought occurred to him.

"One of my contacts here in Hubbeston's crime analysis lab got to work on it, as soon as you told me that part of the story. He verifies that the skrill's sonics tear organic material apart down to the molecular level, when the blast is concentrated like that." Syking grinned, his teeth a bright slash against the dark cinnamon of his skin. "Not bad for a first try."

"Desperation gives you a lot of skills and accuracy you wouldn't have if you could think and really mess yourself up," Meruk offered. His smile in return didn't last long. "My biggest worry now is that being associated with me will get you in trouble. You could be in the gun-sights along with me."

"If anyone is suspicious, our names are already linked, since that maneuver at Megavissy. Before the murder, I had already established with my counterpart here that I came over here deliberately on my vacation to see if you had made any headway in your search. Lucky timing? I don't think so."

"Fi'in's grace," he whispered, nodding.

"It's already been established that Hovenu history is a hobby of mine," Syking added. "People would be suspicious if I didn't follow up on a new contact I made. Especially when a cursory check shows you're an archeology student, and you were working here. We made friends when those people attacked your parents. Nobody suspects anything deeper." He shrugged again. Then he tipped his head to one side and grinned crookedly. "Will it make you feel any better to know that the evidence we uncovered, indicating we're dealing with a radical sect of Gen'gineers, has made this such a high priority issue, your identity as a witness has become part of sealed records?"

"Sealed?" Meruk knew what that meant, just from watching adventure drama serials on the Tri-V, but he had a hard time applying it to his situation. For about two heartbeats, he felt giddy with hope. Then all the things he had learned about sealed records and witnesses involved in high-level security crimes crashed down on him. "So I'm pretty much living in a cage for the rest of my life, or until the case closes. No real difference from being accused of the murders myself." He spread his hands, which had been spattered with Dr. Joax's blood when he came into the Peacer headquarters five days ago. He could still feel the heat and warmth, the strange stickiness as the blood dried, and smelled the copper tang of it.

"People are only put in protective custody in adventure dramas. It's boring to say someone got their identity changed, sometimes even their faces and fingerprints and retinas, and were dropped in another location halfway around the planet to be someone else. We're very good at what we do, and we also have an agreement with the various writers at the networks across the planet not to give details of how we change people to protect them. As soon as you and I found that Set'ri glyph in Dr. Joax's communication file, your situation got upgraded to highest priority and all records and documents were limited to physical–no crystal or silicon data storage, which can't be entirely wiped clean no matter what those bad writers might try to tell you in the adventure serials."

"So except for the officers who brought me in and escorted us...I haven't been here?" Meruk felt something hard and knotted inside his chest loosen. He breathed a little easier for the first time in days. "Am I getting a new face?"

"That's not so easy with Hoveni. We have a tendency to over-write any kind of cosmetic surgery. The genetic memory that lets you return to your own true shape will make any work we would do to change your appearance a waste of time."

"That wasn't in Dr. Rostarius' lessons," Meruk muttered.

"He probably never had to know. Besides, you're your own cosmetic surgeon." Syking stood and gestured for Meruk to do the same. "Dinnertime. Hungry?"

Meruk grinned. For the first time in days, he actually was hungry.

"So, how much longer are we stuck here? When do I get my new life? And who's my contact, if they need to call me back for more testimony?" he asked as he followed Syking to the door.

"That's a stupid question. I'll blame it on the stress of the last few days." Syking grinned and tapped his chest. "But learn to do better, Meruk Syrus. Your life depends on it." The lieutenant raised the recorder wand and thumbed the jammer control. The secondary green light went off, meaning the security recorders around them could now pick up their faces and voices again.

Except in Meruk's case, the identification bracelet he had been given the moment he walked into Peacer headquarters had tagged him for the security computers. His features and voice were blurred by every visual and audio sensor that caught him while he was anywhere near or inside the building, the moment that high-level security classification was put on him. He had learned that from the adventure drama serials, too.

At least, he thought that was true. He couldn't ask Syking about that until later, when they were outside of pickup range of the security systems.

It comforted him to know that Syking would be his contact, someone he could turn to no matter where he went on Gemar. He didn't feel quite so adrift as he had in the last few lunars since he started his quest.

* * * * *

Syking checked the docks of Gadara where Meruk had disembarked from the Hurricane just under a lunar ago. Cayn Trevvor and the remainder of his crew were still there, preparing for their return voyage. The Peacer lieutenant chose not to make contact with Meruk's friends. He shifted to a kreeghee, a shore bird that got its name from its soft, incessant cry, and flew to the Hurricane just after nightfall to deliver Meruk's written message, telling his friends to go home to Romblu without him, that he had made other arrangements. Meruk suspected Syking enjoyed playing little tricks like that, mystifying people, getting into places unseen–because no one noticed animals, especially animals that belonged there.

Meruk wondered, though, if Pike and Cayn weren't a little more alert, especially when it came to animals that belonged in the area, now that they had proof that Hoveni were real and still inhabited Gemar.

"Now what?" he asked Syking, when his ally returned to the safe house the Hubbeston Peacers had given them while they made arrangements for Meruk's new identity papers and entry in the system.

"Vacation."

"You're on vacation. Or do you get time credit for being involved in a murder?"

"Unsolvable murder." He stretched out his legs on the long couch and toed off his shoes. "Don't you have research to do?" he asked as he tipped his back and closed his eyes.

"Speaking of..."

"There is no machine known to Humankind that can do that kind of damage to a body without destroying half the building around it–portable, that can be brought in and removed without the rest of the museum's security catching it. No one could ever pin the execution of those Set'ri on you."

"If there's no known machine, what can they blame?"

"Someone will eventually hypothesize a qlintanillary...but what are the chances of one coming all that distance from the jungles where it lives, to kill three men in a sealed laboratory high above the museum, and kill no one else, coming or going–and not be seen?" Syking opened one eye again. "No one will ever figure out what's obvious to us, until Hoveni someday reveal we're still alive. So stop worrying about it."

"How much have you done, shifting, that is still classified as unsolvable?" Meruk asked softly.

"We're at war, son. Keep that in mind. Ninety percent of the population of this world doesn't know there's a war on, and the other ten percent will do all they can to make sure they never learn. Too much is at risk, for both sides."

"What happens when there are enough of us gathered together, we've made enough contact, found the ones who escaped to the stars, and we're strong enough to reveal we exist?"

"Will we ever be that strong?" Syking shook his head and crossed his arms under his head to pillow it. "One day at a time. That's the only way we can survive without going insane."

Meruk wondered what Syking's idea of sanity was. Since the murders at the museum, he woke at least once every night from dreams about Dr. Joax's death, where he dropped down in front of the Set'ri in Human shape and they realized who he was and captured him. Now he settled down at the table on the other side of the comfortable common room of the safe house and picked up the first book chip to try to study--not that he thought he could. Instead he stared unseeing at the table of contents on his reading screen and thought about Syking's words. He seriously doubted his sanity, from the moment he first involuntarily shifted shape.

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