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Jul 17, 2012

Assignment: Marune

Agent Joole returns to Blazon spaceport
Jantiff Ravensroke was not pleased to find himself back on duty. His leave time on Zeck had been both relaxing and a practical success: Glisten was now pregnant with their second child, this one a boy.

He'd been called back to active duty before the end of what had been planned as a half-year-long sabbatical, but the emergency recall order had been cryptic. As ordered, Jantiff reported to Blazon spaceport and he was directed to await a mission briefing in Agent Joole's office. The office assistant had informed Jantiff that Joole was inbound from Numenes.

Jantiff waited, pacing around the office, gazing out at the stars and trying to guess what might constitute the basis for an emergency mission. Becoming hypnotized by the endless depths of space, Jantiff shifted his line of sight to Blazon, hanging among the stars below the orbital spaceport. He knew that it was a world spotted with impact craters and inhabited only by mining robots, but the surface of the planet was hidden under clouds.

Finally the ascensor shaft sounded its swoosh and Chief Investigative Agent Joole arrived. While the platform was still coming to a halt she quickly stepped down to the deck and slipped off her travel pack. She pulled out three large books  then tossed the empty pack to her aide. Joole turned and nodded to Jantiff, finally acknowledging his presence. She spoke, her piercing voice a rather good match to her tall bird-like body, "Sorry to keep you waiting Jantiff." Joole placed the heavy books on a desk.

Jantiff could smell ancient paper and leather, a rich aroma that reminded him of the Connatic's Library at Lusz. Jantiff had completed his advanced studies at the Connatic's Academy and had often utilized the Idite Library which held literary treasures including a large collection of ancient books from Earth. Curious about the books that Joole had brought from Numenes, Jantiff offered only a small rebuke for the early end to his sabatical, "Send all your apologies to Glisten," His voice was calm but not entirely devoid of bitterness.

Joole raised an eyebrow and frowned, but she showed no inclination for small talk. Jantiff and Glisten had previously worked in association with Agent Joole, both at the Academy and on planetary missions. Jantiff had not seen Joole since her promotion to Chief Investigative Agent, but she seemed little changed in the new role: still aristocratic and precise in her movements and speech.

Joole quickly slid her hand into a scanclasp, transferring data and activating the projection well. The room lights dimmed and images of a terrestrial planet formed before Jantiff.

For a moment Joole seemed to collect her thoughts then she gestured towards the projected image, "Marune, Alastor 933. Not exactly a tourist resort, but you are authorize to bring your family out for duty stationing."

Jantiff gazed upon the jagged continents of Marune as depicted in the relief map; obviously a world with active tectonics. "Why didn't my recall orders mention that? I would have been happy to bring Glisten here with me." Jantiff made no effort to hide the tone of exasperation that tinged his voice.

Joole zoomed into part of the projected image and Jantiff now saw a view of Port Mar, as seen from above. Joole replied, "There is no need to rush Glisten out to Marune." Pointing to the crooked maze of streets and the clots of ancient buildings that was Port Mar clinging to its ten hills, Joole continued, "The Connatic suggests that you first take some time to establish yourself in a base at Port Mar. For cover, we've arranged your appointment as a visiting scholar at the Port Mar College of Arts and Technics. As soon as you arrive on Marune, pick out a house and prepare for Glisten and...." Joole fell silent and glanced at Jantiff.

Jantiff reminded Joole of his daughter's name, "Katette."

"Yes, Katette. Have them arrive on Marune a few days after you do." Joole asked, "Are you at all familiar with Marune?

Upon entering into the Connatic's service Jantiff had gone through orientation on Numenes and been introduced to all the worlds that were then on the Cluster Watchlist. By tradition, the List was capped at 300 worlds; about one third of those being like Marune and having been on the List for centuries.

During his years of study at the Connatic's Academy, Jantiff had developed the habit of keeping himself aware of which worlds of Alastor Cluster were on the List. As a Field Agent of the Connatic's Service, Jantiff's duties concerned those worlds and the Connatic's efforts to adjust and correct their social problems.

Jantiff could not immediately recall much about Marune. "Hmm...it has long been on the List, as I recall."


Joole nodded, "Indeed." She shifted the focus of the projected image into the rugged mountains adjacent to Port Mar. Joole described what Jantiff was seeing, "These are the mountain realms of the Rhunes. And here, limned in red, the territories of Eccord."

Jantiff began to recall part of the reason why Marune was on the Watchlist. "The Rhunes are under weapons restrictions."

"Yes, the Rhunes have long been subjected to a strict energy weapons embargo, dating back to their near extermination of the Majars." Agent Joole brought to the display a set of images of the favored Rhune hand weapons. "The Rhunes feud endlessly and Eccord has recently fallen under suspicion of using forbidden technology to expand its borders. Eccord is now the largest Rhune realm, its ruler is the Kaiark Rianlle."

Observing the harsh metal and leather of the Rhune weapons, Jantiff felt a chill on his spine and cold stone-like lump in his gut. "Who has been investigating Marune? Is there a Cursar in residence on the planet?"

"Since the end of Majar-Rhune hostilities, the Connatic no longer maintains an official diplomatic office on Marune. Agent Oswouk was the most recent agent stationed on Marune." Images of Oswouk were projected and Joole continued, "He was under cover as a census worker of the Demographical Institute. We lost contact with him three years ago, not long after he reported plans to visit Eccord. Having received no further reports from Oswouk we fear that he is dead."

Jantiff stiffened, wondering why Joole had so casually suggested that he take Glisten and Katette to Marune. "Marune does not sound like a family-friendly posting."

"True, but the Connatic selected you and Glisten, specifically. I agree with the choice; you are just what we need out there."

Jantiff had to admit that Glisten was technically still an agent in the Connatic's service, but she had not been on a planetary mission since going on parental leave four years previously. Jantiff asked, "I can say no?"

"Jantiff, the Connatic asked for you. The two of you. Bringing your family to Marune will provide excellent cover for the mission. Rianlle is probably expecting additional attention from our direction, so we must be careful." Joole smiled grimly. "You must be careful."

Jantiff bristled, "You expect my daughter to be careful?"

"Glisten and Katette will not leave Port Mar." Joole suggested,  "Pick out a secure house and hire a local security team, as you see fit, install them as domestic help. If you are nervous, Glisten and your daughter need not ever leave the house."

Jantiff asked, "Can Glisten say no to this?"

"She won't say no. She owes the Connatic favors. Anyhow, she's bored on Zeck and will enjoy a change."

Jantiff could not deny that. Glisten had never adapted to the tranquil social environment of Zeck. "She's expecting our second child."

"Yes, she reported that to us. I repeat, she need do nothing on Marune. The active part of the mission is yours."

Jantiff flicked the projection back to an image of Rianlle. "And what do you expect me to do? I'd have no better luck spying inside the Rhune realms than Oswouk did. There has been no information out of Marune for the past three years?"

"We have a local correspondent on planet, a Majar, but she is quite useless for penetrating the Rhune realms. Animosity still exists between the Majars and Rhunes, an echo of their ancient wars."

"So the Connatic has taken no action to investigate the death of Oswouk?"

Joole replied, "Just possibly Oswouk has gone into deep cover and is still alive. That is not likely after such a long time, but one of your tasks is to learn what you can about Oswouk's disappearance."

Jantiff suspected that Joole was not telling everything she knew. Jantiff asked, "Why the sudden rush to investigate now?"

"We've found a way to get you into the realms," Joole slightly shifted the map image, "And due to bureaucratic inefficiency, our department almost failed to recognize the opportunity." She gestured towards the map of the Rhune realms, "Here in green, the domain of Scharrode. By a stroke of luck, the new Kaiark of Scharrode is currently a guest of the Connatic on Numenes."

Jantiff was skeptical, "A Rhune on Numenes? Do they travel so far from home? From my reading I thought that they are essentially a freakish cult, cloistered in their mountain realms."

Joole replied, "Normally the Rhunes stay close to home." Joole projected images of Efraim. "A strange case: Efraim, Eightieth Kaiark, House of Benbuphar. A couple of months ago he turned up on Bruse-Tansel, Alastor 1102. He'd been poisoned by a Fwai-chi drug."

"Fwai-chi?"

"The indigenous sapients of Marune. The Fwai-chi drug erased Efraim's declarative memories. He made his way to the Connatic's hospital and investigators there were able to trace his origins to Marune. He's now ready to return to Scharrode as the new Kaiark."

"New Kaiark?"

"Efraim's father, Jochaim, was killed in a recent battle." Joole pointed to the projected map of the Rhune realms, "As you can see, Scharrode and Eccord share a common border. Over the years, Eccord has been conquering and absorbing its neighbors. Scharrode might be the next target of Rianlle."

Jantiff asked, "Efraim has agreed to take me into Scharrode?"

Joole shook her head, "He has not. He has no conscious memory of Scharrode nor the fact that he was born on Marune. However, he will soon be leaving Numenes and returning home. So far, he's been informed only that he is a Rhune. Once at Port Mar he will be recognized. The Rhune population is small; there are only 47 Kaiarks."

"Why should Efraim take me into Scharrode?"

Joole laughed, "As to that, the Connatic is counting on your cleverness and your charming personality. You will reach Port Mar a few days before Efraim. It might take him a while to get oriented and discover his connection to Scharrode. During that time, track his movements and make contact." Joole now picked up one of the three books that she had brought with her from Numenes. "These are three precious manuscripts from the Connatic's Library. This one is the Book of Deeds for a baron of Scharrode." Joole handed the large book to Jantiff.

Benbuphar Strange
Jantiff took the heavy book and looked inside, squinting at the impenetrable calligraphy and marveling at the illustrations. "I've heard of such books. Look at this artwork!" There were painted landscapes of Scharrode and numerous depictions of Benbuphar Strange.

Joole continued, "By the way, you are now the Cluster's foremost expert in Rhune Books of Deeds; thus your visiting professorship at Port Mar. While on Marune you will use the name Jantiff Fersten. It is our hope that you might be able to strike a bargain with Efraim and trade this book for a chance to visit Scharrode. At least the book might provide you with a chance to contact Efraim."

Jantiff was skeptical, "If he has no memories of Scharrode will he value the book?"

Joole explained, "The damage to Efraim's memories was selective for people, places and specific objects of his experience. However, much of his memory is intact, including the broad conceptual foundations of Rhune life and customs. Many of these memories have already been awakened at Numenes; Efraim is behaviorally recognizable as a Rhune." Joole handed the other two Books of Deeds to Jantiff. "Upon your return from Marune the Connatic wants these two books returned to his Library."

Jantiff nodded, "I'll take care of them."

Joole allowed herself a moment of personal digression,  "It has been years since you and Glisten spent time with me on my houseboat. Upon your return we'll cruise around the Solana Isles."

Jantiff nodded politely, but he much preferred the quieter expanses of the Shard Sea on Zeck. Thinking of the wealth of information about Marune available on Nemenes, he asked, "How much time do I have to prepare for duty on Marune?"

"None at all. Efraim will soon return to Scharrode." Joole deactivated the image projector and handed Jantiff a set of mission intags. "A fast spaceship, the Tressian, is waiting at dock 23 to take you directly to Marune. A librarian from Numenes is on board and will brief you on Rhune customs during the trip. You can take 5 minutes to send a message to Zeck, then be on your way. Efraim is departing from Numenes tomorrow, traveling by commercial liner."

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This (above) is a fanfiction complement to Jack Vance's science fiction novel Marune: Alastor 933.

It is my intention that the story line of Assignment: Marune parallel that of Vance's story until Chapter 6.

Events in Assignment: Marune will diverge when Jantiff  discovers that the hired aircar pilot, Tiber Flaussig, has received orders to dispose of Efraim and Lorcas by stranding them deep in the high mountains. Jantiff will rescue Efraim and Lorcas from a snow storm and introduce himself to Efraim as the Connatic's agent. Jantiff will then fly Efraim and Lorcas to Scharrode, introducing himself to Singhalissa using his cover identity as a scholarly visitor to Port Mar. The story is under construction...if you want to help write it, let me know!

the Arches star cluster
Alastor Cluster. It was more than 30 years ago when I first picked up a copy of Trullion: Alastor 2262.

"Alastor Cluster, a whorl of thirty thousand live starts in an irregular volume twenty to thirty light-years in diameter."

I liked the idea of compact collection of 3,000 Earth-like worlds, but exactly what kind of star cluster is Alastor Cluster? Vance wrote:

"To the exterior view, Alastor presents a flamboyant display of star-streams, luminous webs, sparkling nodes. Dust clouds hang across the brightness..."

Some star clusters are young and represent relatively recent sites of star formation. Typically these clusters fall apart before they have time to mature and form planets with Earth-like atmospheres. Other star clusters are ancient, having formed many billions of years ago, their stars being metal-poor and possibly without Earth-like planets. Are there intermediate-type star clusters that might contain a mixture old stars with terrestrial planets and a romantic veil of dust clouds?

Possibly an ancient globular cluster passed through our galaxy, shedding most of its Population II stars. I imagine that the intermediate size black hole from that cluster recently emerged from the disc of our galaxy, now with a new group of 30,000 Population I stars. Now at the rim of the Milky Way, Alastor Cluster recently swept into a molecular cloud, creating the conditions similar to those described by Vance.

Gharks and Hoos
Chapter One - Blazon spaceport
Chapter Two - Port Mar
Chapter Three - Glisten
Chapter Four - Efraim
Chapter Five - Lorcas
Chapter Six - Flaussig

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Related Reading: Jack Vance's Alastor Cluster series in the Ekcolir Reality.
The League of Yrinna
Another adventure of Efraim

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