Orlo Affat was dreading his return to the Palace in Tashkam. The Emperor would be waiting for him at the Gates, together with representatives of the Imperial Council, the Emperor’s Family, and the Par Garu, a highly secretive wing of the Tashkam Parliament.
Affat would have to announce his failures – not only had he failed to rescue the Princess Rizwap from the shelshek, he had also managed to lose six of his soldiers.
The wall around Tashkam was enormous. It was erected over seven hundred years ago to keep the city safe from sandstorms, invading tribes, and desert creatures. The main Gates led to the City Square and other important structures, but Orlo Affat entered by the more discreet back Gate, which led to the rear of the Imperial Palace.
Orlo Affat, and the handful of soldiers that returned with him, were surprised to find the Emperor’s messenger, Neez, waiting on his own.
Unlike the rest of the Emperor’s inner circle, Neez was not a Tashkami, but a Droobian, his wide forehead and bulging eyes partially concealed by a curtain of fabric. His tall, thin frame hidden by his dark Droobian cloak.
In contrast, Orlo Affat was short and stocky, the giwio pelt he wore revealing his dark, muscular body. His large Tashkami nose sat slightly crooked on his face, giving Affat a look of permanent irritation.
“The Emperor is waiting for you in the Par Garu Room,” said Neez.
“I was told he would be meeting me here,” grumbled Affat.
“That was the case, but the Emperor was hot and tired,” said Neez. “He was also disappointed by the outcome of your mission.”
“How could he have known what happened? “snapped Orlo Affat.
“It was a harst-rider. A group of them were staying with the shelshek when you attacked,” said Neez.
The harst-riders were a nomadic race of half-men who criss-crossed the deserts of Tashkam, trading with shelshek and Tashkami alike. The harsts they rode were six-legged beasts evolved to thrive in the desert, storing water in the bony plates along their back.
Affat snorted angrily. “Yet the riders did not help us free the Princess!”
“The riders are forbidden from fighting the battles of others,” said Neez.
“They would fight anyone if the price was right!” said Affat angrily, as he pushed past Neez and led his men through the Gate and into the Imperial Complex.
Orlo Affat stood before the Emperor Veersnoop in the Par Garu Room. On either side of the Emperor sat his many and various followers.
The Emperor was of ancient Tashkami stock, his family bloodlines going back to the Arrival and beyond. The Emperor’s physical features confirmed this – the dark skin, the hooked nose, the golden eyes. Much of this was concealed, wrapped in crimson and black robes.
“We are aware of your failure at the shelshek camp. What we would like to know is how you failed? You had more fighting men than they did. You had better weapons than they did. You left here on healthy, well-trained yoopneys, yet came back without the animals, your weapons, or the Princess,” said Emperor Veersnoop grimly.
For a moment Orlo looked as though he were about to cry. His breathing became laboured and his cheeks flushed.
“I will attempt to describe what happened,” said Affat. “Although it might seem difficult to believe.”
“Please go on,” said Veersnoop.
“The shelshek men are not good fighters and, if the fight had been with them alone, we would have won easily,” began Affat. “But it was the shelshek women that proved the greater obstacle.” Orlo Affat paused and sighed, preparing himself for the next part of the story.
“The shelshek women are witches! They were able to conjure demons and monsters out of the sand – najeri with claws like scimitars, enormous giwio worms with twin sets of fangs, huge salawrags that could fly to the sun and back,” said Orlo Affat, grimacing in horror at the memory.
“Surely these were simply illusions,” said Veersnoop, as some in the Royal entourage began to snigger at Affat’s descriptions.
“I wish it were so,” said Affat. “But these ‘illusions’ devoured our fighting men and our yoopneys! And if they were to be set upon Tashkam, the city would fall within hours.”
The Emperor was initially silent. Then his dark face hardened, and he spoke with great solemnity.
“For hundreds of years, we have lived side by side with the shelshek,” he began. “We have often had our differences, but these have generally been resolved easily. Now, we’re seeing something new – first, the kidnapping of our Princess. And now, this latest atrocity! The shelshek must be punished!”
(It had been over two weeks since the Princess Rizwap was snatched from her harst by a group of shelshek. Yet, they had not issued demands and seemed satisfied to just be holding her prisoner. There had been two attempts to rescue her, both failed.)
After this announcement, there was no more sniggering, and Orlo Affat was no longer distraught, his story having been vindicated by the Emperor.
But the Emperor Veersnoop had something else to say.
“Given these latest developments, I’ve contacted the people on EXUS and asked for assistance,” said the Emperor. “They’ll be sending one of their top officers, as well as additional soldiers, vehicles and equipment.”
“Is that really necessary?” said Orlo Affat.
“Given what you’ve been through, Orlo Affat, I would have thought you the first to approve.” said the Emperor.
“Yes…well…er…of course, I think it is a good thing,” stammered Affat. “I’ve had a long, difficult day. Forgive me.”
But as he walked away from the gathering, he cursed the Emperor. “Fuck the Emperor! Fuck EXUS! Once again, he humiliates me! We do not need EXUS and their foolishness! We do not need their machines and false magic!”
The EXUS contingent arrived within a couple of days, and immediately set up camp in a corner of the City Square. Most of the soldiers appeared to be cyborgs, although Affat noticed that the Chief Officer was a ten-foot-tall Escopian. And everywhere the Escopian went, a large Marmorean jungle cat followed him.
“Freaks and machines! They won’t last five minutes against the shelshek witches,” grumbled Orlo Affat, as he looked on from a distance.
The following night, the Emperor held a formal banquet to welcome the visitors. The Escopian and his cat sat with the Emperor’s family. Orlo noticed two other visitors sitting further down the table – a half-man with the features of a wolf, and a jellomorph in human form.
“Are they all freaks on EXUS?” sneered Orlo Affat to himself, as he finished off another mug of yeesh.
Later in the night, Affat was introduced to the visitors. By that time, he was quite drunk, and barely in control of his thoughts.
The Escopian’s name was Zeezar Boot, while his cat was called Wex. When Orlo Affat bent down to pet the cat, it hissed at him. Affat drew back so violently that he almost fell over. People nearby giggled at his clumsiness. “Stupid fuckin’ cat!” muttered Orlo Affat.
The half-man was called Arly, while the jellomorph was Riko. They were not fighters, but Boot’s support team, looking after the cyborgs, weapons, and vehicles. Orlo Affat’s response to their introduction was nasty. “We have banned all lower forms of life on Tashkam! No half-men! No jellies!”
“Er…we have banned all rude people from EXUS,” said Arly. “And drunk people!” added Riko.
Orlo Affat did not know how to respond, and just wandered away, in search of more yeesh.
The following morning, Orlo Affat led a group of his soldiers out into the City Square. He wore his giwio pelt and carried a heavy laser cannon. Zeezar Boot had gathered a dozen of his cyborgs. As usual, the jungle cat, Wex, walked by his side, while the half-man and jellomorph walked towards the rear of the group. Also at the rear were six yoopneys, long-legged desert animals carrying supplies for the journey.
After some brief words of farewell from the Emperor, the soldiers passed through the City Gates and headed East towards the river and the shelshek encampment. Zeezar Boot asked Orlo Affat about his previous attempt to rescue Princess Rizwap.
“We drew the warriors out from their encampment and into the surrounding dunes where we began to slaughter them. The shelshek men are not fighters,” he began.
“We were about to invade their camp, when demon creatures rose up from the sand and attacked us – najeri, giwio worms, salawrags – all of them twice the size and twice as strong as regular creatures.”
“And you say these creatures were conjured by shelshek witches?” said Zeezar Boot.
“I do not doubt it,” said Orlo Affat. “I have seen their work before.”
The road took them along the top of a high ridge, at the bottom of which was the Ishiko River, the longest river in Tashkam, and the site of several shelshek settlements. It was possible to see one of the smaller settlements from the ridge they were crossing.
“The shelshek are a simple folk,” said Affat, as he pointed out the village to Zeezar Boot. “They are also known as Crab People, as their skin has a shell-like covering.”
“Come with me, Boot,” he added. “I’d like to show you something else.”
A narrow track split from road they were travelling on, and veered away towards the river. Orlo Affat led Boot down this track, the jungle cat, Wex, followed along behind.
“The cat better stay here,” said Orlo Affat. “The track is dangerous.”
“Go back, Wex!” said Zeezar Boot firmly. Wex hesitated, then turned and padded back up the track.
“Just in case,” shrugged Orlo Affat, as he resumed the downward trail.
Zeezar Boot, who was much taller and heavier than Affat, followed at a slower pace, for the track was littered with tiny shards of rock, making it slippery and difficult to negotiate.
Boot looked ahead, and was concerned to note that the track seemed to disappear.
“Hey, where are you taking me, Affat?” yelled Zeezar Boot.
“Nearly there!” replied Orlo Affat.
The track ended at a point where the ridge overhung the cliff below. When Orlo Affat and Zeezar Boot looked over the edge, they could see the piles of rubble at the bottom, where time had eroded the cliff face.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?” asked Zeezar Boot, puzzled.
“Not exactly,” said Orlo Affat. “I want to challenge you to a Tashkami duel. This is the traditional location. As you can see, the loser does not easily recover.”
“What’s this all about, Affat?” said Boot. “If you kill me, Tashkam’s relationship with EXUS will end. You’ll have to deal with the shelshek, and anyone else, on your own. You will also probably be sent to Xota to serve out a prison sentence.”
“That might concern the Emperor, but it doesn’t worry me,” said Orlo Affat. “I’m tired of doing the Emperor’s bidding. Even when the opportunity arises for me to shine, I am treated like an idiot and a failure.”
Neither Boot nor Affat had noticed that Wex the jungle cat had joined them, and was sitting a little way up the track, his tail twitching threateningly.
“I don’t understand what your unhappiness has to do with me” said Zeezar Boot.
“You are strong and highly regarded as a fighter,” said Orlo. “According to Tashkami rules, if I defeat you, I take your place.”
“We have to remove any armour,” he added. “And we fight with Tashkami blades called zayzors.”
“This isn’t armour,” said Zeezar, indicating the metallic components on his shoulders, elbows, and knees. “These are mechanical implants added after a serious injury.”
Orlo Affat shifted uneasily, suddenly unsure of himself. He reached inside a small bag that hung from his pelt and withdrew two zayzor blades. They had short curved handles, and blades that twisted like a corkscrew. The crude shapes of giwio worms were carved into the handles.
Affat gave one of the blades to Zeezar Boot. “These are ugly things,” said Boot, as he turned the blade in his hands.
“Enough chatter, Boot, let’s get to it,” said Orlo Affat, as he adopted a fighting pose that saw him crouch, holding the zayzor away from his body.
Zeezar Boot reluctantly assumed a similar pose. He was that much taller than Affat, and his arms that much longer, that he could have slashed the Tashkami across the face without any great effort.
Affat lunged at him. Boot easily evaded the blow, and smacked Orlo Affat across the back of the head before ducking back away from the Tashkami.
Affat followed through with a second lunge. His blade missed Boot altogether, and Boot was able to elbow Affat in the back, causing him to fall sprawling into the dust. Orlo Affat growled and threw himself at Boot’s legs.
The Escopian danced sideways out of Affat’s grasp, and Affat slid across the ground, filling his pelt with pebbles. He growled some more, becoming increasingly angry.
“Keep still, you fuckin’ freak,” he hissed.
Zeezar Boot ignored the abuse, and stood well away from the cliff’s edge, waiting for Affat’s next move.
When Orlo Affat finally stood up, he was holding his laser cannon and aiming it at Boot’s chest. Wex hissed at Affat, and the Tashkami momentarily pointed it at the jungle cat.
“What is going on, Affat? I’m guessing that this has nothing to do with the Tashkami duel?” said Zeezar Boot.
“This duel is not fair,” grumbled Affat. “You are too tall and your limbs too long. I don’t stand a chance.”
“You chose to fight me,” said Zeezar Boot. “Look, if you give up this nonsense, I’ll forget all about it.”
Orlo Affat charged at Boot, wielding his laser cannon like a club. The blow hit Boot on the upper arm, but did not hurt him. Zeezar Boot grabbed the arm holding the cannon, and twisted it until Affat dropped the weapon. The cannon rolled to Boot’s feet. He picked it up and threw it over the cliff.
Affat cursed and hurled himself at Zeezar Boot – zayzor held in his fist like a dagger. Once again, Boot grabbed his arm and flipped Affat onto his back. The Tashkami slid across the pebble-strewn ground and disappeared over the edge of the cliff without a sound.
Wex joined Zeezar Boot at the cliff’s edge and they both looked over, expecting to see Orlo Affat’s broken body on the rocks below. But just two metres from the edge was a tongue of stone. Orlo Affat’s pelt had caught on the stone and saved him from certain death.
“Hey Affat! Need any help?” called Boot. The Tashkami did not reply, but turned to Zeezar Boot with a desperate look on his face.
Wex was able to climb down onto the tongue of stone, and using his strong jaws, drag Orlo Affat to safety, Zeezar Boot helping to lift Affat over the final section of the cliff. The Tashkami lay on the ground for several minutes while recovering from his fall – he was not hurt, just shocked.
Meanwhile, Arly, Riko and a few of the Tashkamis had come to see why they had been delayed.
“Orlo has had a bit of a scare, that’s all,” explained Zeezar Boot.
“Can I get a couple of volunteers to take him back to the City?” he added.
Two of the Tashkami soldiers lifted a still shaken Orlo Affat onto one of the yoopneys.
As they began the walk back to Tashkam, Orlo Affat turned to Boot and muttered angrily, “I fuckin’ hate you, Zeezar Boot.”
Boot shook his head in disbelief, then turned to the others.
“Let’s go and rescue this Princess!” he said.
from Galactic Gangsters, Cosmic Crooks © Graham Catt 2018