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       The Real Story: The Gap Into Conflict, p.1

           Stephen R. Donaldson
 
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The Real Story: The Gap Into Conflict


  THE GAP INTO CONFLICT

  Author of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, one of the most acclaimed fantasy series of all time, master storyteller Stephen R. Donaldson returns with this exciting and long-awaited new series that takes us into a stunningly imagined future to tell a timeless story of adventure and the implacable conflict of good and evil within each of us.

  THE REAL STORY

  Angus Thermopyle was an ore pirate and a murderer; even the most disreputable asteroid pilots of Delta Sector stayed out of his way. Those who didn’t ended up in the lockup—or dead. But when Thermopyle arrived at Mallorys Bar & Sleep with a gorgeous woman by his side the regulars had to take notice. Her name was Morn Hyland, and she had been a police officer—until she met up with Thermopyle.

  But one person in Mallorys Bar wasn’t intimidated. Nick Succorso had his own reputation as a bold pirate and he had a sleek frigate fitted for deep space. Everyone knew that Thermopyle and Succorso were on a collision course. What nobody expected was how quickly it would all be over—or how devastating the victory would be. It was a common enough example of rivalry and revenge—or so everyone thought. The real story was something entirely different….

  In The Real Story, Stephen R. Donaldson takes us to a remarkably detailed world of faster-than-light travel, politics, betrayal, and a shadowy presence just outside our view to tell the fiercest, most profound story he has ever written.

  BOOKS BY STEPHEN R. DONALDSON

  THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT

  Book One: Lord Foul’s Bane

  Book Two: The Illearth War

  Book Three: The Power That Preserves

  THE SECOND CHRONICLES OF

  THOMAS COVENANT

  Book One: The Wounded Land

  Book Two: The One Tree

  Book Three: White Gold Wielder

  DAUGHTER OF REGALS AND OTHER TALES

  MORDANTS NEED

  Volume One: The Mirror of Her Dreams

  Volume Two: A Man Rides Through

  THE GAP INTO CONFLICT: The Real Story

  THE GAP INTO VISION: Forbidden Knowledge

  THE GAP INTO POWER: A Dark and Hungry God Arises

  THE GAP INTO MADNESS: Chaos and Order

  Table of Contents

  Other Books By This Author

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Afterword

  About the Author

  Copyright

  TO LOU AND DENNIS LIBERTY

  who encouraged me

  when it counted

  CHAPTER

  1

  Most of the crowd at Mallorys Bar & Sleep over in Delta Sector had no idea what was really going on. As far as they were concerned, it was just another example of animal passion, men and women driven together by lust—the kind of thing everybody understood, or at least dreamed about. The only uncommon feature was that in this case the passion included some common sense. Only a few people knew there was more to it.

  Curiosity wasn’t a survival trait in DelSec; it certainly wasn’t the pleasure it might have been in Alpha, Com-Mine Station’s alternative entertainment/lodging Sector. Laidover miners, discredited asteroid pilots, drunks and dreamers, and a number of men who never admitted to being ore pirates—the people who either didn’t fit or weren’t welcome in Alpha—all had learned incuriosity the hard way. They considered themselves too smart to ask the wrong questions in the wrong places, to notice the wrong things at the wrong times. None of them wanted trouble.

  For them, the story was basically simple.

  It began when Morn Hyland came into Mallorys with Angus Thermopyle.

  Those two called attention to themselves because they obviously didn’t belong together. Except for her ill-fitting and outdated shipsuit, which she must have scrounged from someone else’s locker, she was gorgeous, with a body that made drunks groan in lost yearning and a pale, delicate beauty of face that twisted dreamers’ hearts. In contrast, he was dark and disreputable, probably the most disreputable man who still had docking-rights at the Station. His swarthy features were broad and stretched, a frog-face with stiff whiskers and streaks of grease. Between his powerful arms and scrawny legs, his middle bulged like a tire, inflated with bile and malice.

  In fact, no one knew how he had been able to keep his docking-rights—or his tincan freighter, for that matter—as long as he had. According to his reputation, anyone who ever became his companion, crew, or enemy ended up either dead or in lockup. Most people who knew him predicted he would end up that way himself—dead, or in lockup until he rotted.

  He and Morn looked so grotesque together—she staying with him despite the clear disgust on her face, he ordering her around like a slavey while his yellowish eyes gleaming—that none of the men nearby could resist a little harmless scheming, a bit of gap-eyed speculation. If I could get her away from him—If she were mine—But the story was just beginning. No one was surprised by the nearly tangible current which sparked across the crowd when she and Nick Succorso spotted each other for the first time.

  In a number of ways, Nick Succorso was the most desirable man in DelSec. He had his own ship, a sleek little frigate with a gap drive and an experienced crew. He had the kind of piratical reputation that allowed him to seem bold rather than bloodthirsty. His personal magnetism made men do what he asked and women offer what he wanted. And the only flaws in his cavalier handsomeness were the scars under his eyes, the cuts which underlined everything he saw and grew dark whenever he saw something he intended to have. Some people said he’d inflicted those cuts himself, just for effect—but that was merely envy and spite. No one could be as desirable as Nick without inspiring a few snide remarks.

  The truth was that he’d received those scars years ago, the only time he’d ever been bested. They’d been put on him to mar him, a sign of contempt for his upstart arrogance: the woman who gave them to him hadn’t considered him worth killing.

  But he’d learned from them. He’d learned never to be beaten again; learned to make sure that all his contests were unequal, in his favor. He’d learned to wait until he was in control of what happened. Common sense.

  Members of his crew later admitted that they’d never seen his scars go as dark as when he spotted Morn Hyland. And her pale beauty ached toward him instantly—passion or desperation—bringing brightness to eyes which were dull in Angus Thermopyle’s company. The only surprise was that neither of them did anything about it. The electricity between them was so strong that the spectators wouldn’t have been taken aback if Morn and Nick had thrown off their clothes and jumped for each other right there in the bar.

  Most of the crowd had no idea what restrained them. She was a mystery, of course. But he certainly didn’t have a reputation for restraint.

  Nearly two weeks later, however, they did what everyone was waiting for. When Com-Mine Security broke into Mallorys and charged Angus Thermopyle with a crime serious enough to make an arrest succeed even in DelSec, Morn Hyland was suddenly at Nick’s side. And just as suddenly they were gone. Lust and common sense. Their charged flesh drew them together; and she got away from Angus at just the right moment. They left to become the kind of story drunks and dreamers told each other early in the Station’s standa
rd morning, when Mallorys was quiet and the thin alloy walls seemed safe against the hard vacuum of space and the luring madness of the gap.

  The last anyone heard, Angus was rotting as predicted under a life sentence in the Station lockup.

  That, of course, was not the real story.

  CHAPTER

  2

  Some of the people who lurked in the dim light knew better. They were the ones in the corners who drank less than they appeared to, smoked less, talked less. Pushing their mugs around in the condensation which oozed off the plastic because the air processing in DelSec was never as good as it should be and nobody could sit in Mallorys without sweating, these men knew how to listen, how to ask questions, how to interpret what they saw—and when to go somewhere else for information.

  Most of them were a bit older, a bit less self-absorbed; perhaps a bit more profound in their cynicism. If they were pilots, they were here because this was the life they could afford and understand, not because drink or drugs, incompetence or misjudgment, had cost them their careers. If they were miners who couldn’t get or no longer wanted work, they were here to stay near the taste and dreams of prospecting, the vision of a strike so vast and pure that it was better than being rich. If they were born or naturalized inhabitants of the Station, they were here to keep company with the clientele for their particular goods or services—or perhaps to keep tabs on the market for the whispers and hints they purveyed.

  Such people looked at what they saw with more discerning eyes.

  When Morn Hyland and Angus Thermopyle came into Mallorys, the men in the corners noticed the way her whole body seemed to twist away even when she sat close beside him. They heard the dull, almost lifeless sound of her voice when she spoke—a tone of suppression unexpected from someone who had presumably spent weeks or months away from people and drink. And they observed that he kept one hand constantly fisted in the pocket of his grease-stained shipsuit.

  After Angus took her out, some of these men also left—but not to follow. Instead, they went to have unassuming, apparently casual conversations with people who had access to the id files in Com-Mine Station’s computers.

  The story they gleaned concerned something more interesting than animal passion and common sense.

  By one means or another, they learned that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the fact that Morn Hyland wasn’t known in DelSec. She’d never been there before. During her one previous layover on Com-Mine, she’d stayed in AlSec.

  She’d come out from Earth on one of the really wealthy independent oreliners, a family operation so successful that she and all her relatives did everything first class because they could afford it. Crossing the gap, the Hylands had docked at Com-Mine Station, not to pick up company ore for the orbiting smelters around Earth, but to buy supplies: they were headed for the belt themselves. And since they weren’t experienced miners and had never been out to the belt before, there could only be one explanation for what they were doing. Somewhere they had bought or stolen the location of an asteroid rich enough to tempt them away from their usual runs. They had caught the dream themselves and were on their way to test it against the bitter rock of the belt.

  A common tale, as far as it went. Back on Earth, civilization and political power required ore. Without the resources which stations like Com-Mine supplied, no government could maintain itself in office. By some standards, the United Mining Companies, Com-Mine’s corporate founder, was the only effective government in human space. As a natural consequence, every city or station of any size spawned at least one earnest, spurious, or reprobate dealer in belt charts, the treasure maps of space. Men and women with some kind of hunger in their bellies were forever buying “accurate,” “secret” charts and then risking everything to cross the gap and go prospecting.

  But not a successful outfit like the Hyland family. If they left a profitable ore-transportation business and converted their liner for mining, two things were certain.

  They had a chart.

  The chart was good.

  AlSec must have been on fire with that kind of news. Otherwise DelSec would never have heard about it. Specifically, Angus would never have heard about it. As a general rule, the snobs, corporate barons, government officials, intellectuals, and high-class illegals who frequented AlSec didn’t share information with the denizens of Delta Sector. And Angus Thermopyle had probably never been in AlSec in his life.

  Human nature being what it was, greed and a casual indifference to scruple would have inspired any number of mine jumpers or pirates to follow the Hyland ship, Starmaster, when she left Com-Mine Station. But jumpers and pirates had harried Com-Mine’s legitimate prospectors and liners for so long—and the battles which took place as outgoing ships fought to keep from being followed had become so fierce—that now the Station itself as a matter of policy fired on any ship which tried to pursue any other ship out of dock. To all appearances, the Hylands got away safely.

  Appearances must have deceived them, however. Or else they were simply outsmarted. They had no experience with the belt, or mining, or jumpers, or pirates. And Angus Thermopyle had become as rich as the stars without ever doing a lick of honest work—and without ever having to share his wealth with any partners, backers, or crew. The Hyland ship never came back.

  But Morn Hyland came back.

  She came back with Angus. With a dull, almost lifeless tone to her voice, and an air of being repulsed by his physical closeness.

  And he kept one fist knotted like a threat in the pocket of his shipsuit.

  The men who observed these things had no other way to account for them, so they jumped to the one conclusion which made sense to them; a conclusion which suited both Angus’ reputation and their own cynicism.

  Without any viable external evidence, they chose to believe that he’d given her a zone implant. He had the control in his pocket.

  Zone implants were illegal, of course. They were so illegal that unauthorized use carried the death penalty. But—also of course—mere questions of legality didn’t stop people who worked the belt from having them on hand for emergencies.

  In essence, a zone implant was a radio electrode which could be slipped between one of the skull sutures and installed in the brain, where its emissions were remarkably effective. It had been invented by a doctor trying to control grand mal epileptic seizures: its emissions blanked out the neural storm of the seizure. People thought that was where the name “zone” came from: an active implant gave an epileptic the look of being “completely zoned.” But in fact medical research had quickly discovered that a variety of results could be obtained by varying the implant’s emissions—by tuning the implant to different zones of the brain. Violent insanities could be tamed. Manic behaviors could be moderated. Catatonia could be relieved—or induced. Recalcitrance could be turned into cooperation. Pain could be reinterpreted as pleasure.

  Volition could be suppressed. Without interrupting consciousness or coordination.

  Given a broad-spectrum zone implant, which employed several electrodes, and an unscrupulous control operator, independent human beings could be transformed into intelligent, effective, and loyal slaves. Even the more common, narrower-spectrum implants could achieve comparable results by turning people into physical puppets, or by applying intense neural punishments and rewards.

  Unauthorized use of a zone implant carried the death penalty automatically, inevitably; without appeal.

  But despite the law—and the possibilities of abuse—even otherwise reputable miners and pilots, orehaulers and -handlers, considered zone implants necessary medical equipment.

  The reason was simple. Medical science had developed ways for complete idiots to diagnose and treat complex diseases; ways for lost or vision-struck belt pilots to repair the damage done to their bodies by faulty or inadequate equipment; ways for crushed limbs and even crushed organs to be prosthetically restored. Unfortunately, however, no amount of research had discovered a cure for gap-sickne
ss, that strange breakdown of the mind which took perhaps one out of every hundred people who crossed the dimensional gap and reduced him or her to a psychotic killer or a null-wave transmitter, a raving bulimic or a gleeful self-flagellant, a pedophiliac or a pill-junkie. Apparently, one out of every hundred people had some kind of undetectable vulnerability in the tissue of the brain; and when that vulnerability was translated across light-years of space through the imponderable physics of the gap, something happened to it. Otherwise healthy individuals lost command of their lives in invariably startling, often grotesque, and sometimes murderous fashions.

  There was no cure for gap-sickness. But there was a way to cope with it.

  The zone implant.

  Ships and prospecting and mining operations were too fragile: every individual’s life depended on everybody else. For that reason, perfectly sane and law-abiding people considered it an unacceptable risk to cross the gap or ride dark space without access to zone implants. Just in case the person standing right over there suddenly picked up a hose and started to spray mineral acid in all directions.

  “Authorized use” of a zone implant occurred when the whole crew of a ship or the entire population of a mining camp testified that they would all have died if they hadn’t used the implant to control a case of gap-sickness—and when the person with the implant confirmed that he or she hadn’t been deprived of volition in any other situations.

  The UMC Police enforced the principle of “authorized use” with almost gleeful impartiality.

  In part for that reason, actual, proven cases of abuse were rare. But there were always stories. So-and-so hit a rich strike on an asteroid so far away that it was off the charts, so far away that he and his crew didn’t have enough provisions to stay and mine it—a problem he solved by giving everyone else zone implants and making them work without food or water or sleep until they died. Such-and-such was prospecting alone and contrived to smash his leg with his ship’s cargo boom; in pain and delirious, he neglected normal medical treatment and instead supplied himself with a zone implant in order to change the pain into pleasure—with the result that he became so happy he lost his mind and bled to death.

 
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