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The Corsair Uprising #1: The Azure Key

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corsair Uprising #1:

 

The Azure Key

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collected Works of Trevor Schmidt

The Corsair Uprising Space Opera Series:

The Corsair Uprising #1: The Azure Key

The Corsair Uprising #2: Nightstalkers

The Corsair Uprising #3: Death Wish

The Corsair Uprising #4: The Lost Corsair

 

Collections:

The Corsair Uprising Collection: Books #1-3

 

Science Fiction Novels:

Symbiote

Memory Leak

 

Short Fiction:

The Chosen (A Novelette)

Replica (A Short Story)

(Replica is Always Free on Amazon, BN.com, and Shakespir)

Nonfiction:

Your Time: 10 Principles for Managing Time Before Time Manages You

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Azure Key

 

Trevor Schmidt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

United States of America

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this novel are fictitious and not intended to represent real people or places. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the publisher.

 

The Corsair Uprising #1: The Azure Key

Copyright © 2014 by Trevor Schmidt

 

Cover iStock Photo by duncan1890

 

 

Contact the Author

 

Trevorschmidtauthor.com

Twitter: @TrevorSSchmidt

Facebook: facebook.com/trevorschmidtauthor

 

Table of Contents

1 1

2 7

3 15

4 20

5 27

6 31

7 38

8 44

9 52

10 59

11 64

12 69

13 75

14 81

15 88

16 93

17 97

18 103

19 111

20 118

21 125

22 131

23 137

24 143

25 153

26 161

27 168

28 175

29 182

30 189

31 194

32 201

33 209

34 216

EPILOGUE 224

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]1

2144 A.D. – Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Liam Kidd stood in an alley surveying the bustling street, making sure to check the sky for surveillance drones. A bead of sweat rolled down his scarred face, which he quickly wiped with a gloved hand before it froze in the cold Toronto winter. His bright blue eyes darted between passersby as he searched for his pursuer. They wanted credits, and if he didn’t pay, he’d end up paying a different kind of price.

Takara was a corporate enforcer and sometimes assassin working for Vesta Corporation, the largest asteroid mining company and the first one to hit one trillion credits in valuation. They were an old corporation with ties to every political office on the planet. Earth needed the precious metals and minerals for manufacturing and some fat cats at Vesta had found a way to deliver them from the Asteroid Belt, holding a tight grip on the supply. Even more frightening was their mafia-like tactics that left countless people missing and presumed dead.

Agents like Takara, a former Yakuza member, practically had immunity from prosecution. The system was corrupt, but Liam had never had a problem with it. Until now. He’d done a few freelance jobs for Vesta Corporation in the past. Nothing big. A smuggling job here and a protection detail there. It was easy money. That is, until millions of Vesta Corporation’s credits went missing and he was the prime suspect.

Liam poked his head out from the alley and decided to take his chances. He pulled the brim of his winter hat low over his long blond hair and pulled his blue jacket close. A gust of wind made his thick Norse jaw quiver, his short stubble doing little to warm his face. The fibers of his clothing were engineered to keep heat in, a necessity during the winters up North, but hardly a panacea for the frigid climate. He kept close to the buildings as he walked toward a growing crowd. It was New Year’s Eve and people were already showing up for the festivities. Liam had never been a big fan of crowds, but he would make an exception, just this once.

When he was intermingled in the mass of people he chanced a backward glance. His heart raced as he searched for her face. Takara was hard to miss. She was heavily tattooed and had cybernetic implants on her arms and parts of her face, her normally graceful lines interrupted by cold, sharp alloys. He didn’t know exactly what the implants did, but he was sure it was all to make her a more efficient killing machine.

There was no sign of her. Liam let himself relax a bit. He needed to sort through this mess before he ended up dead, or worse. Liam imagined being sent to the asteroid mines. Though spider bots did most of the hard labor, they needed workers to maintain their systems and to start the refining process. He’d been on smuggling runs to the Mars Colonies in the past, but disliked the cramped quarters and extended length of the mission. Even with the latest ship upgrades it took about three weeks one way. Too long in cramped quarters for Liam Kidd.

The New Year’s celebration had a number of musical acts lined up for the afternoon leading up to the midnight countdown. Kim-Yoon, a Korean pop star, was singing live on the stage. What passed for ‘live’ was a hologram of them singing live in another location. To be fair, the holograms were so lifelike it was hard to tell the difference, apart from the occasional glitch. The same performance was being broadcast in New York, Rio, Los Angeles and everywhere else. It was almost midnight in Korea, which meant their headline act was about to perform.

The song ended and the air was filled with the screams of teenage girls. Video of cheering crowds from around the world lined the screens on the metal frame of the stage. He couldn’t stay there. Now was his chance. Liam made his way through the cheering crowd, keeping low and using the cover of the masses to shield his face. Any minute a drone could recognize him and he’d be done. Facial recognition would only take a moment.

After a few minutes he reached the edge of the crowd and decided to try to make it to his apartment on Fifth Street. It was only three blocks, but it seemed much farther in the waning light of the sun. He was going against the grain as more people began to show up. He cursed. Liam would look out of place to any trained observer, but he had to give it a shot.

He pulled the brim of his hat down and walked along the smooth grey facades of the downtown buildings. Liam only made it a block before he heard the familiar robotic chirp. It was the unmistakable sound of information being sent from a drone to a user. He looked up and saw a spherical drone hovering above him, a small jet distorting the air below it. Its smooth metallic exterior was interrupted by several camera lenses pointed in every direction. Red OLEDs flashed, making the drone appear to glow in the fading light.

Liam ran. The drone followed closely, continuing to chirp frantically as he tried to lose it down a side street. If Liam didn’t get away fast, he didn’t like his odds. He’d been on the other end before and knew that the more time that passed, the less likely he was to live.

He came out on Third Street, the drone trailing by a few feet as he weaved in and out of passing people on their way to the concert, bumping shoulders with several of them and prompting a slurry of snide remarks. The sound of heavily electronic music filled the air once more and a laser-light show began behind him, sending colored beams of light into the cloudy, darkening sky.

Liam passed a side street that was filling up with food carts for the New Year’s celebration. Alley parties were finally catching on in Toronto, though Liam never saw the point. He couldn’t remember one good experience that occurred in an alley. Yet, dozens of vendors were already set up and serving while a DJ erected his speakers. The smell of countless spices floated over to him along with the brief feeling of heat against his face. When he ran past the alley another gust of cold air hit his face and the long scar on his right cheek seemed to tighten.

He was sprinting now, clear of the bulk of the crowds and in a straightaway to his apartment. Liam was in fairly good shape, not too bulky or too skinny, athletic despite his generally poor nutrition. He thanked his genetics for that. As his speed increased the drone started to trail a bit, unable to match his pace. Still, Liam continued to turn his head every so often to make sure he was losing the robotic nuisance. After taking one final glance backward he turned his head back to his front, where he saw a flash of something metal.

Whatever hit him made him lose his balance on the snowy ground so that his feet dug in and found only ice beneath. He lost his footing and flew backward, landing hard on the sidewalk. His eyes unfocused as he stared up into the dusk, until there was nothing left but a dark grey blotch with sprinkles of white fluttering down casually. The buildings and the sky were indistinguishable to him.

“Takara,” Liam breathed, the wind knocked out of him.

“Liam Kidd. Always making trouble.”

Takara straddled him and put her laser weapon up to his head just below his cap so he could feel the freezing metal tip. He squinted, focusing his eyes on her face. He’d never seen her this close before. She might have been very pretty before all of her modifications. Her dark brown eyes now looked like the leads of a circuit, her fine black hair tied back behind heavily pierced ears. She was dressed from head to toe in form-fitting black leather, itself a testament to her moxie since most countries banned the tanning of leather in the 2070s.

Takara gripped his jacket tight and brought Liam’s face close to hers. “Where’s my money, Gaijin?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]2

Liam Kidd was not a pushover, but he knew when he was in a bad situation. Takara’s goons would be around any minute negating any chance he would have of a fair fight. It didn’t help that he had a gun pointed to his head and the technological travesty above him had an itchy trigger finger.

“I told you before, Takara, I didn’t take the money,” Liam said, keeping an air of calm about him. She frightened him, mostly because he knew what she was capable of, but he didn’t have to let her know that. Liam had a feeling any sign of weakness might hurt his case.

Takara scrunched her nose and spat inches from his head, her thick, dark makeup obscuring her eyes as she did. The cybernetic implants on her face caused her skin to appear pinched whenever she held an expression other than neutral.

“We hired you to protect our money, and you have the nerve to steal from Vesta Corp? Surely you know better.”

Liam had been hired to smuggle a load of ore from the Martian Colonies back to Earth. Vesta Corporation received subsidies from the government to supply the colonies with ore, but the colonists had more than they needed; government mismanagement at its finest. They turned around and smuggled it back to Earth, pocketing the subsidy and selling metals and minerals to manufacturers on Earth. Liam performed his job as well as he always did, but when he reached Earth, his payload was missing.

“I swear this is all a big misunderstanding. Vesta checked my hold, they know I’m innocent.”

Takara’s fingers dug into his neck, her long fingernails drawing tiny streams of blood that trailed down his throat, warm in contrast to the cold air. Most of what Liam knew about Takara was from her reputation. She wasn’t known for taking no for an answer and he’d heard stories from other smugglers and mercenaries; something about a collection of trophies.

“1,000 tons of ore missing, worth more than your life. Why should I listen to you, a pawn?”

“I was stopped at the lunar checkpoint. There were inspectors. They didn’t flag me, I came through clean.”

“Then where’s the ore?”

“I don’t know,” Liam choked out. “The inspectors let me pass but when I reached the surface it was gone. My hold was empty.”

“Baka,” Takara cursed in Japanese before smashing his face with the butt of her gun.

Liam reeled in pain, his cheekbone on fire. She hit with more force that most men and the metal implants on her hand cut deep into his skin. That was going to leave a mark.

“I can pay you back, but you’ve got to give me more time,” Liam said.

“I don’t take the word of thieves. My orders from Vesta were clear.”

Takara charged her laser weapon, a faint whir spinning up within the pistol-like device and creating a blue glow down several slits in the shaft.

“24 hours. Just give me 24 hours and the money’s yours.”

Takara considered his request. He could see her eyes flash onto his. Liam had heard stories, but he never believed they were true. The tales went that the circuits in her eyes were a lie detector, sensing his facial movements and ticks to determine if he was trustworthy. Liam wondered how deep the implants went. How much of Takara was automated and how much was real?

“Vesta Corporation isn’t merciless. Deposit five thousand credits to my account in one hour as a sign of good faith. If you do this, we will work out a payment plan that will serve both of our interests.”

Takara put extra emphasis on the word interest. Whatever deal she was proposing was going to cost him. She knew as well as him it would take a hundred years for him to pay off the debt. A thousand tons of ore could be worth millions of credits depending on the buyer.

“If you cross me, Kidd, I’ll add your head to my wall.”

Takara rose slowly, keeping her weapon leveled at his chest and took a step back. Liam stood and brushed off his jacket, and then checked his cheek with the back of his hand. Even on the darkening street corner he could see it stained red. Takara knew five thousand credits was his life savings. He didn’t know how, but Vesta Corporation always knew. They always had something on him to make him take the next job. He wanted out.

He started to walk past Takara toward his apartment, brushing her shoulder as he went, when she grasped his forearm tight, her fingers bearing down on him with incredible power. Liam winced.

“One hour.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll have it,” Liam said jovially, hiding his frustration.

 

 

Liam’s apartment was on the twenty-eighth floor of a forty-story complex. It was one of the larger buildings in Toronto, housing thousands of residents. The living quarters were small, but affordable. Something that was a necessity for Liam. Being the Jack-of-all-trades that he was, scraping together enough money for rent wasn’t always easy. Often his jobs were paid for in favors. The average Joe in Toronto, or anywhere really, didn’t have a dime. Government subsidies accounted for the bulk of their income. The common man was reduced to a barter system just to get by.

He pressed his thumb against a panel, opening the door to Unit 2804. When the door slid open on its track he entered the dark apartment. The sun had set completely, despite the early hour, and the windows were fogged. Liam shut the door behind him and moved through the entryway to the window on the far side of the room. He touched a pad on the windowsill and the dark glass defogged, revealing the hectic cityscape. Liam checked the sky for drones, hoping to avoid a repeat of before. It’s not like it would have mattered, Takara knew where he lived.

A thousand drones filled the sky, moving in an orderly fashion from place to place. Some carried packages and cargo, some carried people, and some bore the black and grey insignia of a government drone, no doubt used for surveillance and police pursuits. None, however, were focused on him. Liam touched the button again and the window fogged up, blurring the outside world once more.

“Lights,” he said.

His apartment’s computer responded by illuminating the room, slowly increasing the light to his favorite preset level. The apartment was fairly bare. He didn’t have much use for furniture if he was never there. Besides, he only really had room for a bed, a kitchen, and a bathroom anyway.

The walls had originally been beige, but some of the paint had chipped off over the years and Liam had never felt compelled to fix it. Underneath the beige was the light gray of concrete. His kitchen originally matched the paint. Now, the countertops were faded and the tiny fridge’s door hung open. Liam had turned that thing off years ago when the hinge broke. With food prices what they were it was easier to just eat at a dispensary.

There was a groan from underneath his bed sheets. Liam cursed, he’d forgotten about her.

“Zeke?” the redhead under his covers asked. “Is that you?”

Liam crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. He tried to remember the night before but the pictures came in muddled and sparse. He’d met her at a dance club down the street. She asked him to buy her a drink and he obliged. She’d made it hard to say no. He always found it hard to say no. Her name was Amber? No. Ashley?

“I thought I said you could let yourself out.”

When he’d left her that morning he’d had a feeling she would be a clinger. She had that look in her eye the whole night. Relationship eyes. Still, he had way too much on his plate to be dealing with a relationship. They’d had their fun and now he had to deal with his own issues, without dragging anyone else into it. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his sweaty blond hair, pulling his shoulder-length tangles behind his ears.

The redhead eyed him in a sultry manner. “I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye. You left in such a hurry this morning.”

“I got a call. Business.”

She took off the covers and Liam cautioned a glance. The redhead was wearing one of his old shirts and black panties that offset against her pale white thighs. He couldn’t help but be aroused, despite his objections to her wearing his favorite shirt. She tilted her head and examined his face in the light.

“What happened to you?”

“It’s nothing. Were you napping?” Liam redirected. “It’s five in the afternoon.”

“Give yourself more credit, last night took a lot out of me,” she said with a smirk across her lightly freckled face.

She sat up, hugging her knees, and toyed with a few strands of her long red hair. A part of Liam wanted to jump back into bed with her, but it would be his last act if he didn’t wire that money soon. Besides, he’d already given her the wrong idea once. He wasn’t a monster.

“You should go,” he said, snapping out of his arousal. “It isn’t safe for you here.”

“What are you talking about? I have you. You’re a cop. How much safer could I be?”

Shit, Liam thought.

Of course he had to use the cop line last night, preying on a girl who desired an authority figure. Sometimes it was so easy it wasn’t even worth it. He stood up and scratched the back of his head.

“Right, but I’m working a big case,” Liam lied, unsure if he sounded convincing. “I’m undercover. It could be really dangerous for you, so you’ve got to go. I might have been followed back here.”

The redhead got out of bed and began searching for her pants. Her face flushed pink. Liam had a feeling his face had betrayed him. He never was a very good liar, a fact that made his jobs with Vesta far more difficult than they had to be.

“You know, you don’t have to lie to me,” she said as she slipped into her skin-tight black pants.

“What? I don’t—”

“I’m so stupid. Your name probably isn’t even Zeke. What the hell kind of name is Zeke, anyway?”

She took off his old shirt, revealing her small bare breasts, and fidgeted with her bra, which matched her lacy black underwear. The redhead knelt down and reached under the bed for her purple tee, which she pulled over her head, fixing her hair afterward.

“Come on, you’re not stupid,” Liam assured her.

She grabbed her mismatched bag from the nightstand and stormed off toward the door, stopping before her hand reached the pad. She turned and crossed her arms, glaring at him intensely.

“You don’t even know my name, do you?”

Liam’s hands found his hips and he tilted his head to the side. It had been a long time since a woman had called him out like that. It wasn’t a feeling he enjoyed.

“Of course I do…Ashley?” Liam guessed.

“Tiffany. God!”

She turned and pressed the button on the wall and the door quickly slid aside on its track. When she looked up she was face to face with the tip of a gun. Tiffany dropped her leopard print bag and backed herself into the apartment. She made a number of sounds, including a few curses directed toward Liam.

In the doorway stood Takara along with two of her lackeys. She checked the sub-dermal implant in her hand, which projected up a spinning red hologram of the current time.

“Tick-tock, lover boy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]3

“What are you doing here, Takara? I still have plenty of time.”

Takara entered the apartment with two thugs following closely behind her. They each stood a whole head taller than her and were dressed in stylish suits. They were what Liam thought of as the classy mob; agents of Vesta Corporation come to collect their credits. The one to her left was completely bald, eyebrows and all, with an implant covering one of his eyes. The other was a burly black man with a close-cropped haircut and a scowl that said it all. Liam couldn’t make out any implants, but somehow he doubted the guy needed any.

“I grow impatient, thief. Transfer it now.”

Liam put up his hands defensively and said, “Okay, Takara, you win. It’ll just take me a minute.”

He walked to his plain, beige kitchen and opened a drawer, reaching inside. The cracked wood inside the drawer gave him a splinter as he rustled his hand around until he found what he was looking for. Takara stepped closer to Tiffany and pressed the tip of the barrel to her head. “Ah, ah, Kidd. Don’t cross me.”

Liam released the handle of his gun and grabbed his chip reader instead, closing the drawer and holding it up for her to see. He walked toward her, scanning a chip in his forearm with the reader as he did. The reader was a skinny device with a small screen and an infrared sensor at the tip. It read his ID chip, which linked to his bank account, displaying his account balance on the screen. It read just a few credits over five thousand.

“Give it to me,” Takara ordered.

He handed her the device and she scanned the chip in her gun-wielding arm with her free hand. She handed the device back to him and said, “Fingerprint.”

Liam pressed his thumb down on the screen and the money transferred. He showed her the screen until she was satisfied.

“So, about that payment plan,” Liam began.

“Let’s start with a down payment,” Takara said, pulling her trigger and sending a concentrated burst of energy through Tiffany’s skull. Her thin, lifeless body crashed to the ground, the sound from the blast echoing out into the hall.

Liam was mortified. Tiffany might not have meant anything to him romantically, but she was still a person. Takara had gone too far. The redhead had nothing to do with this. Liam never meant for anyone else to get in the middle of his backwards affairs. He felt bad enough about the previous night, and now this. She didn’t deserve it.

“You have two choices, Kidd,” Takara said while stepping over Tiffany’s body with a sultry walk that would turn heads in a gay bar. “I have my boys knock you out while I call the police, telling them I heard you arguing with your girlfriend, or you can come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“I hear they need help on the Asteroid Belt.”

“Are you crazy?”

“It’s that or you go down for murder, your choice,” Takara said with a sinister smile. “Choose quickly.”

Takara signaled her henchmen, who advanced on Liam. He took a step back, glancing down at Tiffany’s body. Vesta Corporation had enough power to rig a murder trial. Takara wasn’t lying. They could even produce false witnesses from the building. Neighbors he’d known for years. Everyone had a price. Everyone.

Liam nodded, more to himself than to anyone else.

“All right. What are your terms?”

“Ten years on the mine. Your pay will be reabsorbed by Vesta Corporation, for tax reasons of course. After which, you’ll work for Vesta for free in any manner we see fit. You’ll be provided the basics to live, of course, nothing more.”

“For how long?”

“Until you’re deemed fit to enjoy the perks of being on payroll. You don’t know what you’ve squandered, thief.”

Liam looked around his apartment in disgust. It was one of the oldest buildings in the city and in disrepair. His ‘perks’ amounted to poverty. Still, a first-degree murder sentence would be for life, and the prisons were no better than the mine. At least he’d have a chance at the mine.

“All right, Takara.”

Her henchmen took his arms behind his back and led him out of the apartment. Takara closed the door behind them and led the way to the elevator. As they walked down the hall, Liam noticed a tattoo creeping up Takara’s back, revealed beneath the straps of her leather top. A tiger and dragon were locked in battle on the intricately detailed but monotone artwork. Takara turned her head and caught him looking.

“In Japan its meaning is known even to children.”

“Yakuza,” Liam mumbled.

“Once, and always.”

Liam let himself smirk. “But Vesta owns you now.”

Takara spun around and grabbed Liam’s neck, forcing him into the wall. Her fingernails dug in, reopening her claw marks from the street and sending drops of blood down his neck where they quickly soaked into his shirt. She was too powerful for her size with a glare forming across her face that was at least as frightening as her disproportionate strength.

“Nobody owns me,” she declared. “You’d do well to remember that.”

She released Liam’s throat and took off toward the elevator. The larger black henchman shoved him forward, pointing for him to follow her. Once inside the lift, Takara turned to Liam and smiled, her cybernetic implants scrunching to the side of her cheeks unnaturally, contorting her otherwise beautiful face. “You’ll learn your place, Kidd. You’re going to enjoy the Belt.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]4

2145 A.D. – One Year Later – Vesta Mining Craft, The Asteroid Belt

Liam Kidd sat in the mess hall devouring his lunch, which consisted of miscellaneous meatballs and a kind of pasta made from soy. The fare was always strange on the Belt, but he’d learned to eat it quickly to get by the questionable taste. He spun his fork around, picking up a bundle of pasta, and took a big bite, swallowing more than he would have liked while avoiding chewing.

The mess hall was fairly tight given the number of miners present. It was just a half dozen tables and a wall of screens capable of projecting hundreds of scenes from Earth. Today was a green forest rife with moss and morning dew. Liam preferred the cityscapes.

The mining craft was nearly a two kilometers long and had attached itself to one of the larger asteroids in the belt, its gravity field acting on the ship and providing at least a partial sensation of Earth-like gravity. The ship was able to produce its own field, but the technology wasn’t nearly as effective as the real thing. The combination of the two forces left Liam feeling a little lighter than on Earth, but not too far off. He’d stopped noticing after a few weeks on the mine.

Across the table sat a pretty Latina woman named Saturn Vera, poking at her meatballs with a disgusted look on her face. She was dressed in a tight grey jumpsuit, similar to his own, the zipper pulled halfway down her chest revealing a low-cut white tank top underneath. Her honey caramel skin was flawless and she wore little makeup as it was hard to come by on the Belt. She was in her late twenties but retained the figure she had when she was in her late teens. They’d known each other for a few years doing various freelance jobs for Vesta Corporation. Meeting her on the mining craft was a stroke of luck to say the least.

Saturn regarded him with warm brown eyes and gave him a small smirk. Her high cheekbones became even more pronounced when she smiled, her voluminous lips curving seductively whether she wanted them to or not. Saturn kept her dark brown hair pulled back tight while on the mine, but Liam remembered a time when she spent put a lot more care into it. Personal appearances tended to go out the window when working long shifts at the mine.

Saturn held up a forkful of unclassified pinkish meat and asked, “What do you think this is?”

“I’m sure it’s some kind of nutritional goldmine. Just eat it.”

Saturn frowned and took a mouthful, swallowing it only after making a face. Her dark brown hair had been about shoulder length when she arrived six months before, but it had grown fast. She generally kept it back during duty hours. The last thing she wanted was to get it caught in the machinery.

“In Argentina we would never eat something so bland.”

“How would you know?” Liam replied. “Weren’t you born on Mars?”

Saturn huffed and returned to her meal, spinning her fork around to avoid putting another bite in her mouth. The fork stopped and she regarded Liam. “You know, the Vera women have resided on the Martian Colonies for generations, but we’re still proud Latinas. I am Argentinian first.”

“And I’m a Viking,” Liam said with a smirk.

Saturn clenched her jaw and stabbed a meatball violently.

Liam remembered the lunar run they made a few years back. If it was possible, she was even more beautiful now. He tried to remember what went wrong between them before. She could be an abrasive person, but he liked that about her. Saturn was a mercenary who had a bit of a reputation at all of the seedier locations on Earth. She took any job if the money was right and didn’t take sides. Saturn was looked at as more of a force of nature than anything. She had a way of staying off people’s hit list that Liam envied. Looking at her now, he had a feeling why.

“You know,” Liam began, “You never did tell me how you got stuck here.”

“Some things are better left unsaid.”

Liam took a sip of water from his silver mug, setting down the cup and shooting her a goading look. “It’s been six months, Saturn. We’ve worked twelve hour days in the same section of the factory, ate all of our meals at the same table, and we even sleep in nearby bunks. Whatever darkness you’ve got in your past you can tell me. In fact, I’m sure I can top it. You remember some of the runs we’ve been on together.”

“Leave it, Liam.”

Saturn stabbed another meatball with her fork and shoved it in her mouth, chomping angrily. Seeing her mad wasn’t much of a shock. She’d been on edge since she arrived. She was completely different than their time together freelancing. Over the course of a few jobs they’d spent months cooped up in a small spacecraft. Back then she was cheerful, telling jokes and flirting back and forth. Now she was a shell, going through the motions as though for posterity’s sake.

That said, Liam wasn’t in much of a position to talk. Being on the mine for a year had certainly changed him. He often woke up in cold sweats, the same recurring dream etched into his mind. Tiffany was standing before him, bleeding from the head where the energy pulse had hit her. She kept asking him why he’d let her die. Liam never had an answer for that.

“Do you think we’ll finish programming the Spider Bot today?” Liam asked, changing the subject.

Saturn briefly looked up from her meal and grunted. She wasn’t exactly the face of eloquence at the moment. After the noncommittal grunt she was back to her meal, picking at it more than anything else.

A beefy Asian man sat his tray down at their table and plopped down next to Liam. The top half of his grey jumpsuit hung down past his waist, his grease-stained white tank top stretched to its limit to accommodate his muscles. He turned his thick neck and acknowledged Liam before focusing his attention on Saturn, his eyes moving back and forth from her face to her ample breasts unabashedly.

“Hey, Saturn,” the beefcake said. “How about you meet me on the observation deck tonight? Midnight sound good?”

“Piss off, Ju-Long.”

“Is she always this shrill?” he asked Liam.

Ju-Long Ma was an engineer, though he didn’t look it. He worked on the mining craft’s engines and was supposed to be a genius. For the most part, Liam had only seen him hitting on women and fermenting alcohol under his bunk. He called it Starlight, which was a stupid name because it was just moonshine. Still, he must have had some success with it or he wouldn’t have kept making it.

“Now’s not the best time,” Liam replied making a shooing motion with his hand. “Run along.”

“Ah, that time, I get it,” Ju-Long said, reaching his hands flat across the table to get Saturn’s attention. “If you need anything, Ju-Long is here for you. My grandfather taught me an ancient Chinese remedy just for this type of occasion.”

Saturn raised her fork and stabbed his hand, simultaneously flipping her tray over on him and covering him with the goopy soy pasta. Ju-Long cried out, standing up and cradling his hand in horror.

“Bitch!” he yelled.

Saturn got up and moved around the table, approaching him as though apologetic. Liam could see right through her farce. She gripped the fork, which was still lodged in the back of his hand, and yanked, sending a spurt of blood onto the table. The droplets barely missed Liam’s jumpsuit.

“Sorry,” Saturn said shamelessly, flipping her ponytail as she turned around and returned to the table.

Liam couldn’t help but laugh. Saturn wasn’t a person he wanted to piss off, but he found himself far too pleased when it was someone else bearing the brunt of her wrath. The workers at the other tables mumbled amongst themselves. It was displays like this that kept the two of them sitting at their own table most of the time.

Liam jeered, “You see Saturn, this is why we don’t have any friends.”

They were interrupted by a crashing noise. The mess hall was quickly silenced as the whole room pricked their ears in anticipation. It was different than the dull sound of a minor asteroid collision. The mining craft had a deflector array that softened the blow. This was something else. It sounded like an explosion that rumbled and then was quickly silenced by the vacuum of space.

Liam stood up and crossed the room to the screens, pressing a button on the control pad when he reached it. The forest images faded, revealing a bay of windows. Outside the ship he could see the dark surface of the asteroid, illuminated only by the outer spotlights from the ship and the countless stars in the distance. He inched closer to the window and looked up.

Liam backed away from the window in awe.

“What is it?” Saturn asked, making her way to the windows and gazing up. “My God.”

It was a ship unlike any Liam had seen before. It appeared to be pieced together from fragments of scrap, propelled by an unknown force. How it stayed together and resisted the vacuum of space he couldn’t say. Behind the ship was a vortex, making the stars behind it swirl in a spiral. Whatever the ship was, Liam was sure it wasn’t from Earth. Even the Terran Military didn’t have anything that big.

The room lit up green, causing everyone near the window to cover their eyes. There was another explosion inside the ship, this time closer than before. Red lights popped out of the ceiling and spun around. An alarm came to life and filled the small room with an ear-piercing noise. Liam knew what the alarms meant. They meant the computer was going to shut the airlocks, sealing them in ever-tighter corners of the ship, trying to maintain life support in as many areas as possible. This wasn’t one of their countless drills. They were under attack.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]5

A voice rang out over the loudspeaker, “This is Captain Truong speaking. All hands, man the mining lasers. We’re under attack. I repeat, we’re under attack.”

Liam looked around the mess hall, where miners sat in shock. There had never been a battle in space before. Whoever or whatever was out there couldn’t have been from Earth. The miners scrambled out the door, making their way to the mining lasers. They weren’t a fraction as powerful as what was coming at them, but maybe they would do something.

“Come on,” Liam said. “We need to go.”

He grabbed Saturn’s arm and led her down the corridor, stepping over metal grates and dodging hanging ductwork disrupted during the explosions. Ju-Long Ma followed close behind, still putting pressure on his wound and yelling obscenities over the alarms.

“We’re going to die,” Ju-Long cried.

“No we’re not,” Liam replied. “We’re getting out of here.”

“Captain said to man the lasers.”

An explosion rang out overhead before being muffled by the vacuum of space. They didn’t have long before life support gave out and Liam wasn’t about to die there. Not without a fight and definitely not in space.

“If you want to stay no one’s stopping you,” Saturn said, turning to Ju-Long with the hint of a smile.

They made a right and descended a metal ladder to Cargo Bay One. The mining craft had several small ships suited to scouting asteroids, none much larger than the shuttle with which he used to freelance. It might have measured twenty-five meters wide by fifty meters long and was a piece of crap, hardly capable of two hundred thousand KPH on a good day. It had a sleek shape with wings that curved down almost to the landing gear, fitted with hooks along with the nose to attach to an asteroid on three points.

Liam pressed his thumb on a panel attached to the landing gear and a ramp descended, unfolding like a drawbridge. They climbed up the platform into the small craft’s hold. The ship was not meant for carrying cargo per se, more like small samples, not leaving much room to move around. Ahead was a passage that led to the cockpit while the engine room was situated toward the back of the craft.

“Ju-Long, do you mind?”

He shook his head. His face looked a little pale but he said with a serious voice, “No, I’m on it.”

Ju-Long jogged toward the rear of the ship to the engine room, for once not making a crude remark or losing his cool.

“You remember how to fly one of these?” Saturn asked.

“We’re about to find out.”

There was a rumble overhead as yellow crates of ore toppled off their pallets outside, landing near the ship. Liam cursed and made his way to the cockpit. He knew that if they took another blast like that they weren’t going anywhere. The ship’s main corridor was short and thin, with barely enough room for Liam to walk upright. The interior of the ship was utilitarian, with plain metal walls that were smooth to the touch. Everything inside was made compact for short missions.

When Liam and Saturn reached the cockpit, he sat down in the pilot’s seat and strapped himself in. He held his hand over the control panel, prompting it to wake up from hibernation. Saturn took the seat to his left, buckling in for the ride.

Liam touched a button on the panel and opened a link to the engine room. Over the din he asked, “Ju-Long, how are my engines?”

He could hear several words he knew to be Chinese curses come over the audio link.

“Almost,” Ju-Long finally said. “There. Good to go.”

Liam could hear the sound of the ion engines jumping to life, a dull hum in the cockpit but a deafening roar in the engine room. Liam cut the audio link and took hold of the joystick, pulling back and feeling the landing gear leaving the cargo bay floor. He pointed the ship toward the bay doors and sent a signal for them to open. Nothing. Through the side window Saturn pointed at Captain Truong, a squat Asian man with a stark white uniform. He spoke into a handset and his voice came through their consoles, “That’s far enough, Kidd.”

“Shit, how’d he know?” Saturn asked.

Liam shrugged, pressing a couple buttons on the control panel and opening a channel. Two lasers dropped from the bow of the craft, pointed at the bay door.

“Stand aside, Captain. Unless you want to take a spacewalk.”

“Vesta Corporation will not rest until we find you,” the Captain said viciously. “You’ll work the mines for the rest of your life.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Liam said before cutting the audio link.

Liam charged the lasers, prompting Captain Truong to scramble past the airlock to safety. That was the smartest thing Liam had ever seen him do.

“Ready?” Liam asked Saturn.

“Ready.”

Liam fired, shards of metal blasting out into space as all of the air was sucked out of the cargo bay. Crates went flying, bouncing off the hull of their ship, until a berth wide enough for them to traverse opened. Liam kept the small craft level as the objects passed them, using the reverse thrusters to keep from being pulled out of the ship. The last thing he wanted was to catch a wing on one of the side walls. Liam moved the joystick with his right hand and slid his fingers forward on the control panel with his left, accelerating as they crossed the threshold into space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]6

Liam maneuvered the small mining ship along the long edge of Vesta Corporation’s craft, cutting his hull lights and flying in the shadows between the vessel and the asteroid. In a moment they’d passed the edge, cruising over the dark asteroid. Away from the mine the artificial gravity was only sufficient enough to let them know which way was up and down, relative to the field generator. It was an odd feeling after the relative normal gravity on the mine.

He opened an audio channel to the engine room, the roar of the ionizers piercing through the speakers. “Ju-Long, what’s your status?”

“The last burst has us holding steady at two hundred thousand.”

“Can we go any faster?”

“I wouldn’t advise it, we took some superficial damage in the cargo bay, we could break up.”

Liam cut the link and looked up at the unclassified ship. Upon closer inspection, the alien craft was easily a few kilometers long. On the control panel he looked at the rear camera feeds. The mining vessel’s sparse lighting revealed countless punctures from the laser attacks. The other ship was able to pierce clean through.

He looked to Saturn, who was getting her bearings on the control panel. It was obvious that she was used to being the one flying. It was dark in the cockpit, save for the faint glow of their computer screens. Saturn pulled down her jumpsuit’s zipper and freed her arms from its embrace. The faint blue glow bounced off her toned arms. The mine had that effect on people. Though Liam didn’t often look in the mirror, he was sure he’d gotten a bit more muscular. Another jet of green flashed in front of them, piercing the hull of the Asteroid mine.

“This ship will never make it back to Earth,” Liam said. “It’s only meant for scout missions, a few days, tops.”

“Well we can’t go up against whatever that thing is,” Saturn said, pointing to the unknown ship above them.

Liam thought for a moment. He’d seen a swirl of stars behind the other ship. He’d heard about those kinds of occurrences before, but never in his own solar system and only from theories. It was a wormhole, though. He was sure of it. Where it led was the big question. If they were to make it through to the other side, would there be more of those ships waiting for them? Would they even be in the same part of the galaxy?

Liam tilted the joystick back and a burst of air from under the nose of the scout ship forced them away from the asteroid, on course for the enemy spacecraft.

“What are you doing?” Saturn asked.

“Trust me,” Liam said with a smirk. “Take the laser controls. Lock onto them and wait for my mark.”

Saturn cursed and swiped her hand over the control panel. The menu changed and a new set of commands were at her fingertips. She charged the mining lasers and held her finger over the trigger. Green lasers emanated from the other ship and glanced their bow. They were approaching the alien ship fast. Too fast.

Liam turned the joystick to the left and missed the jagged outer hull by what seemed like meters, coming about and maneuvering his vessel toward the rear of the enemy ship. A stray laser pierced their wing, the force spinning them around in a circle and veering them off course.

“Stabilizing jets!” Saturn yelled.

With great effort, Liam reached the button on the console to self-stabilize and they leveled out relative to the enemy ship. He turned to Saturn, determined. “Take aim and fire.”

Saturn pressed the trigger and two blue lasers shot out from their nose, pointed down at the enemy vessel. After a few seconds, Saturn cut the lasers. She examined the readout on the control panel.

“The sensors say we hardly made a scratch. Whatever it’s made of, the computer doesn’t recognize it. Some unknown alloy.”

“We can’t take another blast like that, I’m punching it.”

Liam used his left hand to slide along the control panel, increasing the output of the engines. Their seats began to rattle as they picked up speed. They wouldn’t be able to maintain their acceleration for long before they fell apart.

“What are you doing?” Saturn asked. “Ju-Long said—”

“I know what he said.”

Liam accelerated past three hundred thousand KPH, increasing in speed faster than he would have liked. Saturn tightened the straps around her shoulders and asked, “Where are we going?”

Liam pointed up ahead to the swirl of stars behind the enemy vessel. “There. Three thousand kilometers.”

“What is that?”

“If it’s what I think it is, we’re in for a bumpy ride.”

Ju-Long came in over the speakers.

“Are you crazy, Kidd? We’re accelerating too fast, do you want to die?”

Green lasers shot up, missing the cockpit by a meter as Liam shifted out of the way. Liam cut the audio feed and noted that the enemy lasers were far more powerful than their own, but they were hardly crack shots. If they were aliens, maybe they’d never seen another species’ spacecraft before. If that were the case, Liam wondered, why did they have such powerful weapons? Saturn examined the computer readouts on her panel and pointed to the screen.

“The computer is picking up life forms in the thousands. Whatever they are, they aren’t human.”

“Fifteen hundred kilometers,” Liam said.

“Did you hear me, Liam? Aliens.”

“Hey, if you want to get probed let’s slow down and chat about it, otherwise target their laser arrays and try to make a dent.”

Saturn clenched her jaw and slammed her finger down on the trigger, sending the dual lasers at the vessel below them. Liam cautioned a glance in her direction. Her brow was glistening with sweat, but her tan cheekbones picked up most of the light from the console, making her appear gaunt despite her normally athletic form. She turned, her dark ponytail lightly touching her shoulder as she examined Liam.

“If you want to get us out of this you’d better focus,” she said.

Liam’s gaze returned to the readings on his console. He turned the joystick sharply to avoid another laser blast. He read off the distance on his screen, “Five hundred kilometers.”

As they approached the vortex Saturn’s eyes grew. The closer they approached the more clearly they could make out the space distortions. Time seemed to slow down, as though Liam was hyper-aware of the things around him. The wormhole was massive, large enough for two of the alien spaceships abreast of each other. Saturn fumbled with the console and brought up the camera in the engine room. Ju-Long was making adjustments to the engine with a wrench, holding onto a stabilizing pole in the slight gravity field with his injured hand. She opened an audio link.

“Ju-Long, you might want to strap in.”

Ju-Long looked up at the camera and gave her the finger. “Yeah, yeah.”

“Three hundred,” Liam said.

The cabin began to rock more violently than before, making it difficult for Liam to keep the scout ship’s course true. Saturn wiped her forehead and pressed a button on the panel, projecting her image into the engine room. “Strap in, Ju-Long. Now!”

Ju-Long cursed and started toward the seat near the engine when a blast shook the room. He dropped the wrench and was pressed against the grates below.

“What was that?” Saturn asked.

“We’re hit!”

“How much farther?”

“One hundred. Fifty. Now.”

They were sucked in by the wormhole, spinning off their axis violently through what amounted to a corridor through space. There were flashes of multi-colored light as they appeared to pass countless stars and spatial phenomena. The corridor turned to a cloud of vibrant gasses, reminding Liam of the nebulas he’d seen in school. He remembered being a lot less nauseated in class.

“Can the computer tell how far it is to the other side?” Saturn asked.

“The sensors have gone haywire, we’re flying blind.”

The scout ship spun slightly off-kilter and Liam tried to correct the problem. They were losing hull integrity the farther they traveled. Up ahead he saw what looked like normal space approaching; a spot where the stars appeared to stand still. Liam’s stomach yearned for a level flight path.

It took three more minutes for them to reach the threshold. When they crossed, Liam eased off the controls and slowed the ship to two hundred thousand KPH. The cabin stopped shaking and Liam let go of the control stick.

“We made it,” Saturn said. “We’re alive.”

“You know what I say, always deliver more than expected.”

“For you that can’t be too hard.”

Liam smiled. This was the Saturn he’d missed for so long. Even in the face of danger she was cracking jokes and having a good time.

A heads-up display on the cockpit window materialized showing Ju-Long hanging onto a control panel in the engine room, bloodied from the ride and sporting a few new black and blues.

“In case anyone was wondering, I’m okay.”

He collapsed to his back on the grated engine room floor, groaning in agony. Liam smirked. Ju-Long was a tough guy, he would be all right. He tended to exaggerate to get attention anyway.

“Should we help him?” she asked.

“In a minute. I need to check something first.”

Liam brought up an orange hologram of a star map over the control panel. He put his hand out and manipulated the image, zooming out until most of the Milky Way Galaxy was in view. He pointed to one section and said, “That’s our solar system.”

“Where are we now?”

Liam fiddled with the controls and the computer examined the stars around them, searching for a point of reference. It took more than a minute for it to discern their location. The computer spun the image around and flashed their position in yellow.

“That’s impossible,” Liam said looking at Saturn in disbelief.

“What? How far?”

“If this is accurate, we’ve traveled more than ten thousand light years.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]7

“How can that be?” Saturn asked. “Nothing can travel faster than light.”

“We didn’t. It was a wormhole, connecting two points in space separated by thousands of light years.”

“Like a shortcut?”

“Like a shortcut.”

Liam sat back in his faux leather seat and took it all in. No human had ever traveled past Titan in their own solar system. It wouldn’t have been profitable. Now they were a third of the way across the galaxy in ship that could hardly go a fraction of light speed.

Saturn turned off the star map and crossed her arms. “If we never get back to Earth, I’m blaming it on you.”

Liam understood her frustration. He too was questioning his choice, but the alternative wasn’t any better. One bit of good news was that there weren’t any other ships on this side of the wormhole and the distortions behind them had ceased, closing the hole. Somehow he didn’t think Saturn would see the bright side at that moment. They sat in silence until a flashing yellow light lit up his console. He moved to press it and when he did, a hologram appeared of a beige sphere, patched with brown. Liam zoomed out and saw their flashing yellow position a couple million kilometers from the small world.

“What is that?” Saturn asked.

“A planet. And close.”

“Do you think that’s where the other ship came from?”

Liam ran his fingers through his long blond bangs, which were still sweaty from their escape. It was a tough call, but there was one thing he knew for certain. Staying there wasn’t going to do them any good. Liam made a split decision and jerked the joystick, bringing the ship about so they were on a course for the planet. The bright rays of that solar system’s star peeked out behind the planet off in the distance.

“We have to try,” he said. “Are we in scanning range yet?”

“We need to be closer than one million kilometers for an accurate reading.”

Saturn pressed one of the controls and brought some figures up on the panel’s display. Liam watched the blue glow of the screen as several columns populated with data. Saturn pointed at the screen and said, “From here all we can tell is that the atmosphere is comprised of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace amounts of other elements, but not enough to be toxic in the short term. We should be able to breathe.”

Liam locked in the auto-pilot and unbuckled his straps. The last laser hit had taken out their small gravitational field generator, leaving them weightless. He floated out of his seat and used his hands to guide himself to the back of the cockpit, where he examined a control screen. He took images from the forward camera and blew them up on the display. The surface was mostly brown but gave off a slight yellow glow from the atmosphere.

“It looks rocky. Maybe a desert.”

Saturn unstrapped herself from her seat and floated in place. She guided herself over to Liam, putting a hand on his shoulder to steady herself. “It will take almost twelve hours at our current rate of acceleration. We should try to assess the damage.”

Liam nodded and swiped his hand an inch over the panel. An image of the scout ship appeared as a grey outline with flashing orange sections where damage was present. Their nose was scraped up pretty bad and there was minor structural damage in patches around the ship. Nothing was as bad as their starboard wing. It wasn’t necessary in space, and they could get by flying on Earth, but he wasn’t so sure about entering this planet’s atmosphere. If there were windstorms or if the atmosphere was too thick, they could run into some problems. Liam pointed to the wing on the screen. “What do you think?”

“Well we don’t exactly have a replacement,” she replied.

The cockpit’s door slid open and Ju-Long floated inside the cramped area, forehead bloodied and lip split open, bruising fast. His white tank top was stained with blood from where he’d used it to wipe his mouth. Ju-Long’s muscular arms held him steady in the frame of the hatch.

“You should probably come see,” he said.

Liam and Saturn exchanged a look, then followed him out of the cockpit and into the main corridor, kicking off from the walls to gain momentum. Along the main passage were four rooms, each only a few meters square. Enough room for a bed and a small trunk for personal items. Regardless, they were more spacious than the quarters at the mine, where workers were stacked three high in rows of uncomfortable cots.

They used the railing on the ladder to descend to the cargo bay, which was the main intersection between the cockpit, the airlocks, and the engine room, forming a cross. Yellow strongboxes of cargo were strewn about the bay after their little adventure. Ju-Long led them to the starboard side, pointing vehemently toward the airlock’s window. When Liam pressed his face up against the porthole he knew why.

The starboard wing sparked and jolted violently. Chunks of the panels were missing from the frame of the wing where the laser had cut clean through. It was worse than he thought.

“What are we going to do?” Ju-Long asked.

Liam thought for a moment. The scout ship’s supplies were limited, but if they had welding equipment they could salvage some interior panels and perhaps work out a fix. Liam took a deep breath and let it out. The cargo bay smelled of stale air and sweat. Ju-Long and Saturn looked to him expectantly, though he didn’t know why. No one had made him leader, but he was beginning to feel he’d been placed in that role regardless. He went with his gut and ordered, “Start checking these boxes, we need to know what we have in inventory.”

Ju-Long and Saturn nodded in agreement and began tearing the tops off of the crates, careful not to let the contents float away. Liam searched the cargo bay for a panel that might fit, preferably something only aesthetic in nature. It took five minutes, but he finally found a wall panel near the ladder to the main passageway that could work.

“I’ve got something,” Saturn said, holding up a small cylindrical device that fit in the palm of her hand. “I think it’s a laser cutter.”

“Bring it here,” Liam said.

Saturn pushed off from the floor and met Liam at the ladder. Liam pointed to the rectangular panel.

“Try to get a clean cut along the edges. Start with a lower power so you don’t burn what’s on the other side.”

Saturn shot him a questioning look.

“What is on the other side?”

Liam didn’t know what was behind the panel, but he was sure whatever it led to was still inside the ship, so he said, pointing to the seam in the metal, “It’s a living quarters, don’t worry about it. Right here.”

Saturn reluctantly pointed the laser cutter at the panel and turned the dial to medium power. Ju-Long pushed off from the floor and met them at the ladder, interrupting Saturn before she turned on the cutter. “Forgetting something?”

He handed Liam and Saturn a pair of darkened goggles, putting a third pair over his own eyes. He jeered, “Have you guys learned nothing at the mine?”

Saturn’s mouth opened to give a retort but she stopped after the first syllable, simply nodding and pressing the button on the cutter, sending a blue laser at the seam of the metal panel. The plate turned orange around the cut as she went, a few bits of molten metal floating away. Liam hadn’t thought about cutting in the weightless environment. A small chunk flew out and caught Liam in the shoulder, burning his skin through his gray jumpsuit. He brushed it away with his hand and pressed his palm down on the burn. Liam kicked off from the wall and stayed a few meters back while she worked.

Luckily, Saturn finished quickly and punched the panel through to the other side. The orange edges of the remaining fixture faded until they retained only a small amount of color. Saturn removed her glasses and admired her work. Her expression changed from satisfaction to disdain. She moved her head close to the hole and looked inside, then turned toward Liam, fuming.

“What?” Liam asked.

“Take a look for yourself.”

Liam pushed off from the wall he was holding on to and floated to the hole in the wall. Upon inspection it was pretty obvious why she was mad. If she’d cut into one of the living quarters it would have been fine, since they had a spare. Instead, she’d cut a hole a half meter by a meter into the side of their only bathroom.

Liam smiled and said, “Come on, that’s a little funny.”

“I’m not laughing.”

Ju-Long Ma snickered in the background. “I guess this means we’re all going to get pretty chummy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]8

It took Liam and the crew an Earth hour to find and cut a second panel for the underside of the starboard wing. Now that they had the materials, the big question was how they were going to attach the panels without leaving the ship. To Liam’s surprise, it was Ju-Long who came up with the answer. What he lacked in social skills he more than made up for with his engineering prowess.

The cargo bay had a side airlock along with several small portholes with views of the wing. Under each window was a control panel, capable of projecting a hologram or displaying numerous key statistics, acting as bank of workstations for scouts looking for a new asteroid to mine. All they could see out the windows now was the front of the wing. Some of the cargo was still floating around the room, but they’d managed to tie off the bulk of them to one wall so they would be out of the way.

“Are you ready?” Liam asked.

Ju-Long nodded and waved his hand over a panel, taking control of one of the ship’s robotic arms, normally used for collecting asteroid samples. They’d placed the panels in the side airlock, depressurizing the chamber to match the outside. The two panels floated aimlessly near the airlock, bumping into each other and diverting each other’s paths slightly. Ju-Long positioned the arm near the airlock and motioned to Liam. “Now.”

Liam pressed a button near the inner airlock which opened the outer door. Ju-Long grabbed the nearest piece of scrap metal with the arm and moved it out toward the wing, which sat several meters behind the cargo bay. Liam closed the outer airlock, sealing the remaining piece in. It only took a minute for Ju-Long to position the panel over the hole in their wing, pressing down the arm’s pincers in the center of the panel.

“You’re up, killer,” Ju-Long said.

Saturn pulled her darkened goggles over her eyes and waved her hand over the control panel nearest the cargo bay window and a hologram of a joystick appeared, shimmering orange in the weightlessness of the chamber. She motioned to grab the stick and a second mechanical arm extended outside the ship. She used her free hand to move a dial on the holographic projection, “Adjusting to lowest power setting.”

Liam held his breath. If the arm’s laser cutter was too powerful, it could very well tear a new hole in the wing. All they needed was to melt the sides of the panel over the hole. It would be a temporary fix, but with any luck, it would get them through the atmosphere of that mystery planet.

Saturn pressed the trigger and light from the blue laser reflected in her mirrored goggles. She moved a magnifying lens in front of her left eye, keeping close track of her weld. Slowly, the panel’s edge turned orange, molten. Saturn kept the arm moving so it wouldn’t burn through. When she reached the other arm she released the trigger, twisting her hand so the arm she controlled spun under the first as though on a gyro. She continued welding until the panel was affixed, the orange glow quickly subsiding in the cold of space.

Ju-Long removed the first arm so they could admire their work. It wasn’t pretty, but it would have to do. Attaching the panel on the underside was going to be trickier. The robotic arms did have cameras, but when the laser cutter was engaged it would make it hard to see anything but flashes of blue and white.

Liam opened the outer airlock once more while Ju-Long clamped down on the remaining panel with his robotic arm. He moved the arm toward the wing, spinning it underneath at the last moment. Ju-Long pressed a button on the control panel and his window took on the perspective of the robotic arm, displaying the underside of the wing in vivid detail.

When the panel was in place, Saturn moved her arm around the underside of the wing, displaying her arm’s camera angle in split-screen with Ju-Long’s on her window. She positioned the laser cutter over the panel’s edge and took a breath.

“You’re sure about this?” Saturn asked.

Liam nodded, “Obviously it’s not ideal, but it has to be done. I trust you.”

Saturn blew out a breath of air and said, “Here goes.”

The laser cutter jumped to life as she bore down on the trigger. The panel quickly turned molten orange, bits of metal coming together in globs and floating off into space. Saturn moved quickly but it was getting too hot, too fast.

“Easy,” Ju-Long said, trying to keep the panel from moving under the slippery liquefied metal.

Saturn took her finger off the trigger and let the panel cool before continuing. She’d moved just as fast as the previous panel but something about this one was different.

“This panel must have a different composition,” Ju-Long said. “A different melting point.”

Liam examined Saturn’s control panel. “The laser cutter is already at the lowest setting.”

“Do we keep going?” Saturn asked.

Ju-Long pointed at his monitor. The panel was halfway attached already and the first blast hadn’t made it through the wing. “I don’t think we have a choice. We’re almost there, just work quickly.”

Saturn nodded and asked, “Ready?”

“Hit it,” Ju-Long replied.

Saturn pressed the laser cutter’s and moved it along the edge of the panel, barely giving it time to turn malleable. She stopped the laser and examined her work, moving the arm and camera around to get a good look at the seam. It seemed to be intact. “How’s that?”

Liam clapped a hand on her shoulder.

“Good job, I couldn’t have done it better.”

“Now we’re in agreement,” Saturn retorted.

 

 

Five Hours Later

“We’re within scanning range,” Saturn said, pointing at the screen behind the two pilot’s seats.

She floated there, examining the readouts as they came in. Pages of information flashed on the screen, scrolling up to make room for more, with a vibrant picture of the small world coming into focus. Liam unstrapped from the pilot’s chair and floated over to her, examining the display for himself. Liam was surprised the mining craft had sensors that detailed, but Vesta Corporation always seemed to have something up their sleeve.

The planet was smaller than the Earth, maybe only two-thirds the size. Its terrain was rocky and reminiscent of the deserts of Mars. Instead of red sand, it was a course yellow, much like the Sahara desert. The surface had only two large bodies of water, akin to the Great Lakes of Earth in size, the rest was one large expanse of nothingness. Saturn pressed her finger on the screen, stopping the flow of text.

“Do you see that?”

Liam examined the text.

“Can that be right?”

“Two million humanoid life forms located primarily around the bodies of water. This area here looks like some sort of hub,” she said, pointing just west of the larger body of water.

“Can we compare these readings with the ones from the other ship near the Asteroid Belt?”

“I’m working on it.”

Saturn swiped her hand to the left, sending the scrolling information to the left hand side of the screen while she pulled up the other ship’s details on the right.

“Here,” she said. “One thousand humanoid life forms aboard. But, this is interesting. They aren’t a match. The life forms on the planet surface don’t even match each other. We’re dealing with three distinct species.”

“Three?” Liam asked.

Less than a day ago they were under the impression that they were alone in the universe. Earth’s scientists had long posited that alien life was sure to exist, but was far beyond our reach and perhaps didn’t even exist in our current time. This proved that they were real. This proved that there were at least four species of intelligent life in the universe.

“The two species on the surface appear to be intermingled, living together in the same areas,” Saturn continued.

Images of Homo sapiens living with Neanderthal came to Liam’s mind. The thought made him laugh a little inside. He hadn’t ever thought about it, but they must have intermingled on Earth for some time.

“What kind of images can we get from the surface?”

“Not much,” Saturn replied. “We can zoom in and get a pretty good look at the topology, but remember, this thing was designed for searching for compounds on asteroids. It can tell you if there’s any palladium in the mountains, but not much beyond that.”

Liam thought for a moment. The alien ship from before was hostile, but did that mean the two species on the surface were too? Liam remembered back to his days freelancing for Vesta Corporation. It would have been nice at the time having a ship that could detect rare minerals. He could have made a lot of money that way. Now he wished he had an explorer’s ship like the ones from the Titan missions.

“But, this is interesting,” Saturn began, “There’s a single moon that’s far smaller than the planet with a few hundred inhabitants.”

Liam ran his fingers through his thick blond hair, deep in thought.

“It doesn’t change anything; we need to get to the planet surface. We don’t know how intelligent they are, so maybe it’d be better to try to set down away from the major population centers a bit.”

“Liam, we don’t know anything about these creatures. What if they’re like the ones at the Asteroid Belt?”

“If we don’t land we’ll be dead in space without direction. Plot a course for just west of the ocean there,” Liam said, pointing at the map on the screen.

“We’ll be about ten kilometers from that large mass of life forms. Shouldn’t we land a little farther away?”

Liam could tell Saturn was frustrated. She was talking with her hands and was out of breath. Her dark hair, still tied back, floated up in a ponytail behind her. Saturn didn’t like taking orders from anyone, even him, whom she’d known for years. Still, someone had to hold their little group together. They were stranded ten thousand light years from home and while there were three entire species of aliens out there somewhere there were only three of them.

“We might need them,” Liam explained. “We only have enough supplies for days, a week at most.”

Saturn softened her stare and said, “I still don’t like it.”

“We need to make repairs to the ship and it will be a lot easier when we’re on the ground.”

“Fine.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]9

Four Hours Later

“We’re passing the two hundred thousand kilometer mark,” Saturn said, waking Liam up from a nap.

Liam opened his eyes and removed his feet from the cockpit console. He unbuckled his straps and floated up out of his chair, redirecting himself so he could see better out the window. The brown planet took up most of their view now, the large lakes coming into their line of sight. Its sole moon, a small black and grey sphere was on his monitor. They’d passed it a couple of hours before. Liam matched their course to the spin of the planet so they would have a favorable angle of descent. With any luck, their makeshift repairs would hold together. Liam briefly fired the reverse thrusters until they were traveling at a steady velocity.

Saturn retrieved a packaged protein bar from a small cabinet to the left of her console. The door clicked shut and she ripped open the package. The solid brown substance floated up out of her hand where she caught it and took a large bite. The mining craft’s supplies were limited to nonperishables in which anyone familiar with spaceflight had grown accustomed. That didn’t make the supplements any more palatable, but there was some comfort in knowing that not even the president of Vesta Corporation had it any better than they did.

“One hour out,” Liam mused, “Then we see just what secrets this mystery planet holds.”

Saturn yawned, revealing chunks of her protein bar lodged in her teeth. She swallowed too much at once hit her chest with a closed fist, coughing and sending a small piece floating up out of her mouth, which she quickly grabbed and shoved back between her teeth.

Liam watched as she regained her composure. She tightened her straps so her chair was hugging her body. Liam knew it was hard to get comfortable in a weightless environment. It wasn’t just finding a comfortable position, but finding a way to support the back without waking up in pain. Liam asked, “Did you sleep at all?”

“No,” Saturn replied. “I’ve been trying to go over the readings and see if I can find out anything else about the aliens on the planet.”

“And?”

“I’ve come to a few conclusions about them, but nothing terribly useful I’m afraid.”

Liam turned his back to the cockpit’s window, floating at an odd angle above the console. “What conclusions?”

“Well, for starters, whatever species are on the planet have been attracted to the water source, which means their biology must be similar to life on Earth, probably Carbon-based.”

“We know they’re bipedal.”

“Right, but it’s more than that. On Earth, there’s human life even in some of the most desolate deserts and tundra. On this planet, apart from the life near the water, there’s nothing.”

Liam scratched his scarred right cheek, noticing he needed a good shave soon. He thought about the implications of what Saturn had just told him. Liam thought aloud, “Does that means this is some kind of colony?”

“Exactly. We’ve already seen a ship far more advanced than our own pass through a wormhole to our solar system. I think it’s possible all of these species are more advanced than us, with colonies spreading much farther than our own.”

“How far?”

“I’ve done a cursory scan of this system. There are eleven planets and hundreds of moons. Unless we got closer, there’s no way to know if they’re inhabited. But, I’m betting this is one of many.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because there are two million inhabitants. It took Earth fifty years to reach one hundred thousand on Mars. Even if they worked at a faster rate, they could have been colonizing this place for centuries.”

Another multi-planetary species. It was impossible to tell with their scanners just how far the aliens’ civilization could have spread. In a hundred more years, humans will have colonized Titan and Europa, in domed cities if nothing else. There were far more planets and moons in this system. That meant the possibilities were far greater for expansion. If most of the planets were rocky like Earth it could mean a lot of colonies.

“Have you been able to scan this planet’s moon at all?”

“There are ruins on the surface. The moon has only a few hundred inhabitants all located near a large structure that’s built into the rocks. I think our chances are better on the planet’s surface.”

Liam pushed off from the window and floated to the display behind the pilot’s chairs. He gripped a handle on the wall to steady himself and began looking at readings of the surface of the planet. Their gravity was more than ninety percent of Earth’s, which meant the difference between the two would feel negligible. The gravity on the mine worked out to be a bit more than Earth’s, between the asteroid and the artificial gravity of the ship. They weren’t weightless enough in the past day to lose much muscle. Liam was thankful that they at least had that going for them.

“Saturn, can you adjust our descent based on the gravitational parameters of the planet?”

“I did it while you were sleeping,” Saturn said with a smirk, putting her hands behind her head. “Maybe I should be the one in charge, like old times.”

Liam had been on missions where Saturn was the lead. She was a skilled leader, but was always headstrong. She couldn’t separate a grudge with the task at hand and it had almost gotten them killed on multiple occasions. Right now, their small crew needed Liam to keep things level-headed. Though, he knew there could be a time and a place for Saturn’s unique skill set.

Liam replied, “Let’s just focus, fifty-five minutes until—”

There was a crash and a flash of blue glanced off their bow. The auto-pilot adjusted the ship so it would stay on course, though the ship still tilted slightly. Liam was shaken up and banged his head on the console, cursing loudly. “What the hell was that?”

Saturn’s fingers were busy at the console, pulling up images of another ship on their view screen. It was a small ship, sleek in design and moving far faster than their scout ship. Its design was different than the other alien ship. It came about and matched their course and speed. A red light blinked on the control panel.

“It’s an external audio message,” Saturn said.

“Put it through.”

The voice that filled the cockpit was deep and silky, drawing syllables together like a master poet, far from what Liam had expected. Though, he didn’t know what he had expected, if he was being honest.

“Is there any chance our translation software will work on this?”

Saturn shook her head, still rapidly pushing buttons on the console. “It’s a learning software, so the more it hears, the more possible it will be to decipher. But right now, not a chance.”

“Open a channel.”

Saturn turned her head questioningly. “They won’t understand us.”

“Just do it.”

Saturn pressed a button on the left hand side of the console and used her right hand to raise the volume. She motioned for Liam that she was ready. Liam pushed off with his hand and floated over to her seat, resting his hand on the backrests of the two pilot’s chairs.

“My name is Liam Kidd of the Planet Earth. We mean you no harm. Our ship is damaged and we need to land on the surface.”

Liam waited for a response that didn’t come. Saturn shook her head. “I told you, they’re not going to understand.”

The cockpit door opened and Ju-Long Ma came through, rubbing his eyes. “This had better be good, I was in the middle of a great dream,” he said, then pointed at Saturn with a smile across his face, “You were in it, Saturn.”

The silky voice returned, this time speaking something different than before.

“Earth Kidd,” it said. “Ship land on surface.”

The aliens cut the audio channel from the other side, leaving the cockpit in silence. The crew exchanged looks, unsure of whether to be frightened, thankful, or bewildered.

“Who the hell was that?” Ju-Long asked finally.

Saturn brought up the image of the alien spacecraft on the screen. It was silver and sleek, having the image of something made out of liquid rather than a solid. It was shaped like a long bullet with a single engine out the back with a blue ion trail. Liam was sure its speed would dwarf their own. Their weapons were very similar to the aliens at the Asteroid Belt. That couldn’t have been a coincidence. Something far bigger was going on.

“We’re going to the surface with these guys?” Saturn asked.

Liam watched as they slowly approached the planet. They would be entering the outer atmosphere soon. Liam looked between Saturn and Ju-Long and said, “It doesn’t look like we have much of a choice.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]10

There had been radio silence for thirty minutes as the scout ship began its approach to the planet. The sleek alien vessel trailed them closely, monitoring them the whole way. He wondered how powerful their scanners were and what they’d found out about them. Even most Earth ships had better scanners than their small scout craft. In that moment, the alien technology’s only bounds were the limits of Liam’s imagination.

A holographic map rose out of Liam’s control panel showing a gridded chart of the planet’s surface. A location blinked in a small yellow dot, growing in size as they approached. Liam turned to Saturn who gazed back, confused.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.

“These things can control our ship?” Ju-Long asked.

The aliens hadn’t adjusted their course for them, leading Liam to believe they couldn’t control all of the ship’s systems. It was still frightening that they could manipulate them as much as they had. Liam took the joystick and moved the ship to the new heading.

“Saturn, where is that on the surface?”

Saturn put her hand inside the hologram and spun it toward her, zooming in and examining it closely. “It looks like a spaceport near the water. There are strips of sand on the surface lined with hundreds of vessels.”

“Why would they take us to the heart of their colony?” Liam asked.

“They must have scanned us,” Ju-Long replied sarcastically. “Three humans with an inferior ship won’t stand much chance against whatever they’ve got on the surface.”

He was right. Their weapon systems consisted of low-powered mining lasers that were incapable of penetrating the first vessel’s armor. Their own ship was susceptible to the mining lasers, meaning whatever the aliens had would no doubt be far more effective against them. In the conventional sense of the word, they were hosed.

They descended into the upper layer of the atmosphere, the air pressure beginning to push against their vessel, heating up the visible exterior portions of the ship until they glowed orange. Gravity began to return to the cockpit, forcing Liam’s feet to hit the floor. He quickly found his seat and strapped in.

“Ju-Long, take the jump seat by the console,” Liam yelled over the increasing noise in the cabin.

Ju-Long flipped down a small seat and pulled straps over his shoulders, attaching them to a strap that he secured around his waist. The gravity was increasing now and Liam began to feel the G forces working against him. In a minute, they passed into a lower level of the atmosphere, where Liam leveled out the scout ship, using the increased surface area and backward thrusters to slow their descent. At thirty-thousand meters he noticed a problem.

A red light flashed on the console along with a warning tone. A holographic image of their ship appeared where the map once was, showing the starboard wing in a flashing red color. The graphic representation of the wing was detailed enough to show individual panels. The panel they’d fixed on the bottom buckled, slowly tearing until it flew off. The heat from their descent was having an effect on the internal wiring in the wing.

A burst of heat blew the top panel off, revealing a hole in it a half meter wide. The wiring inside the wing was fried and the hole began to widen as they went down. At ten thousand meters the wing was holding on by a single support beam. At five thousand, it snapped, sending them veering off course. Liam turned the joystick hard trying to steady the scout ship. He fired thrusters in the left wing, leveling them out to some extent.

The ground was fast approaching and the landscape began to come into view. What looked like a vast desert from far away was actually bustling with life. Around the water Liam saw a glut of purple foliage, climbing high into the air. The sky was filled with strange winged creatures neither avian nor reptilian, but something in between.

A hundred monolithic spires shot out of the ground around the water, metallic and sleek like the alien craft. Apart from a few hills in the distance, the ground was very flat and dry, even cracked in some places. The majority of the population seemed to live in much smaller buildings around the spires, creating in effect a hundred small cities in concentric circles, connected at the edges by an imaginary line.

Two thousand meters. They could clearly see the spaceport now, several kilometers of hardened sand approaching fast. Liam fired the remaining thrusters to slow their descent, but without the starboard wing they were ineffective in slowing themselves to a safe landing speed. One segment of the landing gear was stored in their right wing. Without it, their landing was going to be bumpy. Without slowing to a safe approach speed, Liam wouldn’t be able to land the craft vertically. Instead, he’d have to try to skid to a stop.

Five hundred meters. Two hundred fifty. One hundred.

“Hang on!” Liam shouted over the countless alarms blazing throughout the cockpit.

Liam pulled up hard, firing the thrusters at full blast, trying to give them a better angle on the descent, but the landing gear was still crushed under the weight of their ship. The nose hit the sand first and skidded along, throwing up dust and dirt over the cockpit windows and obstructing their view. Liam couldn’t see where they were as he tried to keep the vessel straight, though in reality it was far out of his control. They skidded three hundred meters before they came to a halt. When they stopped, the sand trickled off the cockpit’s window and Liam saw they were among a particularly dense conglomeration of starships, each more different than the last in shapes that would baffle most humans. He wondered how some of them even flew.

The alarms continued to sound as the dust cloud continued to dissipate around them, the cabin still a mess of flashing red light. Liam turned off the console, the holographic images and control lights fading to black. The hum of the ion engine slowed to a halt and the cockpit was left in silence, deafening to Liam’s ears after so much commotion. Liam looked around the cabin and asked, “Is everyone still in one piece?”

Ju-Long’s legs were shaking and he held onto his restraining straps with white knuckles. “Tā mā de,” he yelled, repeating the Chinese curse softer under his breath as he checked over his body for injuries.

Saturn breathed heavily, bracing herself on the console. Her forehead was lined with sweat, beads falling down her face and soaking into her grey jumpsuit. She shot Liam an angry look and said, “That’s the last time you drive.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]11

When the dust fully cleared, Liam could see that the scout ship was surrounded by humanoids clad in tight sand-colored suits, plated armor covering their shoulders and parts of their legs and abdomens. Their alien faces were obstructed by oblong tan helmets with black visors. Their ensembles camouflaged them well against the dunes and rocky outcrops in the distance. There were dozens of them, some manner of laser-weapons pointed at the ship, approaching cautiously.

Liam unbuckled his straps and stood up on the grated metal floor of the cockpit, clanking his feet as he grew accustomed to gravity again. He stretched his legs and raised his arms up to stretch his spine. Even a day of zero gravity took its toll. Saturn released the control panel and unstrapped her buckles. Her eyes were focused out the window intently.

“Do you think they’re hostile?” Saturn asked.

“The way they’re approaching it looks like they’re just being cautious. I think we’ll be okay.”

“You think?”

“Feel free to stay here if you like.”

Liam helped Ju-Long out of his jump seat. His muscular frame looked weak for once, his face losing color and his knees shaking. When he realized Saturn was watching he quickly stood up straight and brushed Liam’s hands away, determined to look after himself. Liam opened the cockpit door and led Ju-Long out into the cargo bay until they were standing near the airlock. Under the lights in the cargo bay Liam could see Ju-Long’s lip sporting a healthy bruise and the cut along his forehead beginning to scab up.

Parts of the cargo bay had buckled, leaving piles of coarse sand in the corners. They had no clearance so even if the ramp was in working order it would never have let them out. Instead, Liam put his hand over the control panel on the starboard airlock, opening both the inner and outer doors after a short pressurization cycle. A gust of air drew sand into Liam and Ju-Long’s eyes. Ju-Long left for a moment, returning with goggles, which Liam hastily strapped over his eyes. Saturn’s footsteps echoed in the cargo bay behind him, prompting him to turn around.

Saturn stood erect with a grimace crossing her face. “I guess if we’re going to die we might as well do it together.”

Ju-Long handed Saturn a pair of goggles and the three of them stepped through the airlock, dropping down a meter to the sandy airstrip below. The semicircle of alien soldiers closed in on them, their weapons leveled at their chests. From this close, it was clear that the aliens were each a head taller than them. Liam stepped forward with hands raised out in front of him, his empty palms facing them.

One of the aliens stepped forward, lowering his weapon. When he was a meter in front of Liam he stopped. A sudden wind threw sand over Liam’s goggles, soaking deep into his long blond hair. The alien was a little taller than the rest of them and wore a brown cape that hit the back of his knee. It was a similar shade as the sandy hills behind him. The alien removed his oblong beige helmet.

His face was mostly white and blue, but covered in soft scales like a fish. His ears were pointed back and his eyes wide set and large, as though they were orbs of black with just a border of white. Liam was struck by how remarkably human he appeared despite his odd features. He had two arms and two legs and a head and neck in similar fashion to a human. Underneath his pale skin, however, he could see purple veins crisscrossing the scales, something entirely inhuman.

When he spoke Liam heard the silky drawn out syllables from before. The alien’s speech was incomprehensible to Liam. Upon seeing his confused face, the alien held up a small device the size of a single credit. The gadget glowed as he spoke into it and Liam felt his head heat up. The feeling grew in intensity until Liam dropped to one knee. Through the pain, he heard a voice.

“Welcome to Garuda, outsider. What business have you?”

Liam’s ears still rung, but he steeled himself and got to his feet, pulling off his goggles and looking up at the fish-man. “I am Liam Kidd of Earth. This is my crew. We were attacked in our star system and a wormhole brought us here. We seek asylum.”

The alien turned his head to the others, speaking in that silky language, stringing along syllable after unintelligible syllable. There was a certain grace about the alien that was hard to put his finger on. He was not overly muscular but he clearly took care of himself. Some of his features might have been portrayed as feminine on a human, but Liam had no basis for comparison.

Saturn took a step forward and grabbed Liam’s arm, hissing into his ear, “Are you crazy? What if they’re the ones that attacked us?”

Liam turned and clenched his jaw. He spoke, hardly moving his lips, “Their technology is different than the ship that attacked us. I don’t think these are the same aliens.”

When Liam turned his head back to the alien, he was waiting, one hand on the trigger of his gun as though in preparation. He held up the device and spoke into it. This time, Liam was able to maintain his footing, though he kept his jaw tight to assuage the pain.

“Describe the ship that attacked you.”

Liam rubbed his temples with his eyes closed, regaining his composure. “It was massive, a few kilometers long and made from a patchwork of metal. Their weapons were powerful. They damaged our ship badly before we made it to this system.”

The fish-man held his head back and let out a roar, which prompted his companions to do the same. Liam was able to make out only one word as the alien spoke to his companions.

“Kraven.”

The aliens lowered their weapons and eased up their stances. The fish-man made himself look bigger by puffing out his chest and he spoke into the small circular device once more. His voice penetrated Liam’s mind. “I am Toras of House Zumora, head of security for Garuda Colony, forward outpost of the Ansara Alliance. You must come with me at once.”

As Toras turned and walked away, Saturn and Ju-Long came around in front of Liam bearing questioning glances.

“What the hell did he say?” Saturn asked.

Liam smiled. “Looks like I was right.”

“Are they going to help us?” Ju-Long asked.

“It seems like it. That device seemed to use telepathy. I get the feeling they don’t like whatever attacked us.”

“I still don’t like it,” Saturn said. “We need to find ourselves a ship and get off this rock.”

Liam spread his hands and asked, “And go where?”

For a moment Saturn seemed like she was going to speak, but she closed her mouth, crossed her arms, and reiterated, “I still don’t like it.”

Liam shrugged and started to follow Toras toward one of the large spires. The alien’s long legs made it hard for him to keep up. Soon, Ju-Long and Saturn were jogging to keep up. None of them could afford to be alone on this planet. Not when they were basically an endangered species. The other fish-men carried their weapons slung over their shoulders now, which made Liam feel a bit more at ease. After all, if they were going to kill them, they likely would have done so already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]12

The spire nearest the spaceport was taller than any building Liam had ever seen on Earth. It seemed to cut into the sky such that he couldn’t even see the top. It might as well have gone into outer space. The spire’s metallic structure spiraled around like a screw, some manner of windows lining the inner grooves. The mirrored surface of the building reflected back blinding sunlight, far brighter than Earth’s modest star. The temperature was easily forty-three degrees Celsius, as hot as Liam had ever felt.

Toras led them up to the edge of the spire, stopping before he reached the entryway and turning to face the crew. He spoke into his telepathy device and images filled Liam’s head. This time he couldn’t discern any words, only what he guessed Toras wanted him to see. Liam saw a path outlined for him; the way up the spire. They were supposed to meet someone.

The images ceased and Toras turned to leave. Liam took a few steps after him and said, “Wait.”

Toras turned, his tattered brown cape fluttering in the wind and his expression remarkably akin to confusion.

“You’re not coming with us?” Liam asked.

He shook his head, and then spoke into the device.

“It is not my place to attend this meeting. Do not stray the path or I will know it. Good Day, Liam of House Kidd.”

Toras pulled the oblong helmet over his head and walked back toward the airstrip, his henchman a shadow in his wake.

“So what then, they’re leaving us here?” Saturn asked.

Liam turned to face her, shaking his head before answering. “He showed me the way. Still, it seems a little trusting don’t you think?”

“Do we get to go to the top?” Ju-Long asked eagerly.

Saturn brushed by him on her way up to the spire’s large metal doors. “Don’t get too excited hotshot.”

As she approached, the heavy doors swung inward, revealing an open lobby with a hard floor made from some kind of smooth stone. Sand had been tracked in from countless visitors, though the foyer was empty at the moment. Saturn turned to Liam, walking backward through the open expanse. “Where to, leader?”

Liam was growing weary of Saturn’s attitude, but now was not the time to bring it up. He looked skyward. A few stories above them the ceiling was black, the only light in the room coming from the spiraling bank of windows. He could see a section of light coming around the side of the floating ceiling. The building was a marvel of old and new, leading Liam to believe the tower had been constructed over a long period of time, adding bits and pieces as they could.

Liam pointed toward the spiraling bank of windows. As he approached several images flashed in his mind, showing him the way. Liam stood on a platform of rock that was cut out from the original stone, a deep crease surrounding an area a few meters square. When both feet reached the platform a beam of purple light shot up from the crease around the rock.

“Get on,” Liam said, hurrying his crew with gesturing hands.

Saturn and Ju-Long jumped on before the rock levitated up a few meters. A moment later, it shot off, spiraling around the structure and up the building. The crew knelt down, unable to control their balance while standing. They passed several levels, each more advanced than the last as they climbed the spire. They passed living quarters, work areas, and rooms apparently devoted to worship. It was an entire city in a building. They were moving too fast to make out the many figures that populated the spire.

After several minutes, the stone elevator halted, a few floors short of what Liam expected was the top. He looked out the windows and saw the city, or cities, underneath a haze of dust. Liam liked the view, but thought it would be made better without all of the sand. He was a city kind of man. Being in a city you’re never really alone, even if you don’t know anyone.

The purple glow faded from around the stone and the crew stepped off onto a surface that reminded Liam of white marble, in steep contrast to the floors below. The room was immense, with ceilings ten meters high and walls that seemed too far apart to be possible. Several support pillars raised up from the floor, thick as tree trunks. A ways away Liam saw someone with their back turned, looking out over the airstrip so many stories below. Nearby, he had an enormous desk made of jagged rock seemingly cut out of a mountain and shaped to his whim.

Liam started towards him cautiously until Saturn put a hand around his bicep. For the first time, she didn’t look angry or headstrong or any of her usual expressions. She was scared. Her dark brown eyes darted back and forth between his as though searching for something hidden underneath.

“Liam, this doesn’t feel right,” she said.

He placed his hand over hers and nodded, putting on a confident face.

“I know, but we’ve come this far.”

Liam broke her grasp and walked toward the alien assertively while Ju-Long and Saturn followed behind cautiously. Ju-Long cracked his knuckles and turned back toward the elevator while he walked backwards, checking for anyone else in the vicinity. When they were in front of the desk a cool voice greeted them in the alien language.

The fish-man turned around and approached his desk, putting his palms down on the rocky surface. Liam noticed his hands had only four digits, but were otherwise remarkably similar to his own. Apart from the white scales that is.

“We don’t speak your language,” Liam replied.

The alien hovered his hand above the desk and a holographic image appeared. It seemed to be a scanner of some kind, taking readings on Liam and the crew. The alien touched something on the image and it disappeared. He returned to the window as though he’d lost all interest in them.

Liam turned to Saturn and Ju-Long, who were as baffled as he was. Why bring them all that way just to ignore them? It didn’t make any sense. His question was answered quickly as a noise similar to the elevator sounded on the opposite side of the room. Liam turned just as six more aliens were approaching. The fish-man looking out over the colony spoke once more in the alien language, seemingly commanding his troops.

They approached with weapons drawn, forcing them down to their knees. One of the aliens retrieved a device from his brown utility belt. It was longer and sharper than the translator Toras had used, giving Liam a sinking feeling in his stomach. Two of the aliens bent Ju-Long’s head down while one jabbed the device into the back of his neck. Liam could hear it connect with his spine with a sickening thud. Ju-Long cried out in pain before collapsing in a heap on the marble floor.

Liam and Saturn exchanged a knowing look. Before the alien made a move toward Saturn, they sprung from the ground, attacking them with everything they had. No shots were fired, but the six aliens were easily able to subdue them. The fish-man with the injector forced Saturn’s head down. Liam struggled against the two aliens who held back his arms.

“You won’t get away with this,” he cried.

“Liam!” Saturn shrieked before being injected with the device and crumpling to the ground.

It was happening so fast; Liam couldn’t believe his eyes. Were they dead? A number of scenarios played out in his head as the alien approached him with the device. Maybe they would use them in some kind of sick experiment? That thought scared him more than dying. He was nobody’s lab rat.

The fish-man grabbed Liam’s blond hair and forced his head down. When the injector pierced his skin he felt a tingling sensation down his spine. That tingling turned to fire and his vision blurred. Soon his mind was putty, too tired to think and too woozy to resist. He fell face first into the ground. The room fell to darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]13

Liam’s eyes creaked open. As he tried to focus, he realized he was still on the stone floor in the room atop the spire. Saturn and Ju-Long lay splayed out next to him, still unconscious. The six troops had given them a wide berth, their weapons now pointed at the ground, their stance non-threatening. Liam put his hands underneath his body and pushed up to one knee. His brain felt compacted, crushed by some unseen weight. Next to him, Saturn and Ju-Long began to stir.

Liam came onto both knees before trying to stand. On his way up he stumbled into the jagged desk, bracing his weight against it. The alien in charge still looked out the window, aloof. They couldn’t have been out for too long.

“What the hell did you do to us?” Liam asked him, though he knew the alien wouldn’t understand.

The alien turned to face him, hands held behind his back as he walked toward his desk and sat down in his uncomfortable-looking chair. Saturn stood up and braced herself against Liam’s shoulder, gripping it a little tighter than he would have liked. Ju-Long stumbled twice before successfully standing, though he still swayed as though he were drunk.

“You’re welcome,” the fish-man said.

Liam’s eyes grew and his mouth hung open. The alien had spoken in his native language, but Liam’s mind translated it into Earth Common. The alien’s lips didn’t match the speech Liam heard in his head, like a bad dub in a low-budget film.

“How is this possible?” Saturn asked.

“The device implanted into your spine can translate anything, sending pulses along your nerves so you can understand.”

Liam and Saturn exchanged looks. Liam spoke first, “How did you know it would work?”

“We scanned you when you entered. Your biology seemed compatible.”

“Seemed?” Saturn interjected. “What if we’d died?”

The alien gave what Liam knew was his version of a smile. The translation device must also have translated body language, because the alien’s smile would have been a look of discomfort for a human.

The alien said, “It was a risk we were willing to take.”

“You were willing,” Saturn began hastily, pointing at the alien, “Listen, buddy, no one screws with my body without my consent, got it?”

Liam lowered Saturn’s arm and shook his head. “Let me handle this.”

The alien’s smile faded. “In the future we will be more careful. I assure you we mean you no harm. Please, sit.”

Liam looked around the desk. There were no chairs. Then, a purple glow surrounded three square tiles. They each took a step back as the tile levitated up to an appropriate height. Liam took the seat in the middle without hesitation. Saturn and Ju-Long were a little more hesitant, but Ju-Long seemed to be more focused on what Liam knew was a pounding headache. Finally, they each took their seats. The alien put his elbows on the desk and put his hands together.

“Good, let me introduce myself. I am Ragnar of House Ansara. Caretaker of Garuda Colony and emissary of the Ansara Alliance.”

“That’s some title,” Saturn jeered.

Liam smacked her arm lightly. Saturn wasn’t the best at reining it in.

“I am Liam Kidd and this is my crew, Saturn Vera and Ju-Long Ma. We come from Earth.”

“I have not heard of this Earth. A planet not known to us is some feat. You must be a long way from home.”

“Ten thousand light years by our estimation.”

“Ten thousand,” Ragnar mused, his large pointed ears pricking at the sound. “How is it you are here?”

Liam explained the alien ship and the wormhole, everything up to crash-landing on the planet. The whole time, Ragnar sat with his hands together in front of him, deep in thought. Liam kept getting the feeling he knew more than he let on. When Liam was finished, Ragnar sat back in his stone chair, slumping down a bit. Liam noticed he’d shed some white scales on the jagged rock of his desk.

“The Kraven Throng,” Ragnar stated.

“Who are they?”

“To know that, you’ll have to learn about the Ansarans and our less civilized cousins, the Dinari. Thirty thousand years ago three clans lived on a planet together. Not this planet, but one far away named Ansara. We were a young race, and made war with each other over land and resources. Petty things given our knowledge now. One clan, the Kraven, were far more violent than the rest, and they were banished. It took centuries, but eventually, they were rounded up and sent to a far off planet. It was not one of our finer moments, to be sure.”

Liam took in every word. If they had the power to send an entire race of people to another planet thirty thousand years ago, how much had they grown since? Or, had they regressed to a less advanced state? Liam never was much of a history buff on Earth, but something about these new cultures invigorated him, like he was meant to know every fact and every story.

Ragnar continued, “The planet the Kraven inhabited was far colder than Ansara. Over the years, they shed their scales to survive. Their blood boiled and they grew into monsters. It took thousands of years for them to develop space flight, but when they did, they sought revenge. The Dinari, our lesser cousins you could say, helped us force back the Kraven Throng after countless generations of war. Ever since, every few hundred years or so we hear of a sighting, mostly from trade ships. They’ve become ghosts, legends even. Tales of their makeshift crafts are rife within the mercenary circles. If you’ve truly seen the Kraven Throng then we should all be frightened from the deepest parts of our hearts.”

There was silence while Liam and the crew sorted through what was said. If they’d stumbled into an old war, perhaps their presence would agitate things. Liam asked the first question that reached his tongue, “How did the Kraven Throng get to our solar system?”

“That I do not know. Perhaps it was luck that a wormhole opened between our systems. Perhaps not.”

Liam wondered if he was suggesting someone created the wormhole. The best physicists on Earth had only postulated their existence. This would be manipulation of forces unheard of by Earth standards. Though the Ansarans were far more advanced than even he’d imagined, he wasn’t sure they had the ability to open a singularity. Though, he supposed, anything was possible.

“Do the Ansarans have the kind of technology to open a wormhole?” Ju-Long asked.

“I only lead this small colony. Besides, knowledge of our latest advancements would be restricted to those who must know. Understand, you are outsiders to our race.”

“What happens now?” Liam asked.

“We have never seen your kind before. I would ask that you stay on Garuda. At least for a while longer. We would like to learn more about you, and I’m sure you have questions of us as well.”

Saturn stood up from her floating chair and paced behind the solid desk. Liam turned to her questioningly and asked, “What’s wrong.”

“This, all of this. It’s too much. I can’t do this, Liam. I didn’t sign up for this,” she said. “I’m not trying to get caught in the middle of someone else’s war. The longer we stay here the worse off we’ll be.”

Liam sighed and stood up. Though he saw Saturn’s point, they couldn’t go back. Saturn must have known that. She wasn’t the kind of person who appreciated situations that were out of her control. He’d seen it on their missions together for Vesta Corporation. Her personality was domineering at best. Liam tried to calm her down. “Even if we could get back through the wormhole, there’s no guarantee Earth still exists. This Kraven Throng might be on their way there now.”

“All the more reason we should go back. We can help.”

“With what ship?”

Saturn’s shoulders slumped. They were caught in the middle of three race’s politics whether they liked it or not. At least on this side of the wormhole, they stood a chance of finding out if the wormhole was random or manufactured. For now, they would have to take Ragnar up on his offer and play the good guest. They would have their time for action. Now was a time for learning what they could about Garuda and its strange inhabitants. Liam turned to Ragnar and said, “Where do we start?”

Ragnar motioned to one of his troops, who brought out large cups of water for them that looked more like bowls than anything else. He motioned for them to drink and Liam hesitantly obliged. When he seemed okay, Ju-Long and Saturn followed suit. Ragnar sat back in his chair once more.

“Let’s start with you telling me all about Earth,” Ragnar said with an odd smile curling up his scaled cheeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]14

“You may rest here for the night,” Ragnar said.

An hour had passed, filled with discussions of culture and customs, a comparison of Earth and Ansara. Liam was fascinated by the aliens, but redirected the conversation whenever Ragnar asked too many piercing questions about their technology. Liam was wary not to portray humans as weak or incapable, lest the aliens decide they be better off conquered. Liam felt the weight of being the first human to interact with another intelligent form of life and was determined to keep it civilized, despite his deeper inclinations.

Ragnar gestured to their sleeping quarters, a plain room with several thin mats laid out on the floor just a few stories below Ragnar’s chamber. The spiraled window crossed the quarters along the right wall, a few meters of clear material between them and a very long drop. Liam was reluctant to call the material glass. It was more of a metal with a low opacity that allowed them to see through clearly. From a certain angle, it was apparent that the window was in fact a solid wall.

Ragnar continued, “I would ask that you not leave this spire for the time being. Tomorrow night, we are hosting an event in your honor and we will have much to do in the time leading up to it. Diplomats from around the colony will want to meet you.”

Liam bowed his head slightly, mirroring Ragnar’s posture but keeping his gaze firmly planted on the alien’s mostly black eyes.

“We thank you,” he said awkwardly. It was difficult for Liam to sound high-class, but he gave it his best shot.

“Humans are the first species we’ve encountered from beyond our own system,” Ragnar said. “This is cause for celebration.”

“We are in agreement. It will be history being made.”

“A strange expression,” the Caretaker said, “But fitting.”

Ragnar turned and started down the hall, stopping after a few steps and rotating his pale face to the side, the thin scales clearly visible from Liam’s viewpoint. The alien opened his lips and said in a near whisper, “Do not fear the night.”

With that he turned and made his way down the long corridor toward the lift. Saturn leaned against the entryway to their quarters and crossed her arms. She had an expression of distrust across her face.

“What do you suppose he meant by that?” Saturn asked.

“An event in our honor?” Ju-Long mused. “It sounds like they’re going to eat us or make a sacrifice to the gods.”

“We don’t even know if they worship any gods,” Liam replied. “And Saturn, I’m sure it’s just an expression.”

Ju-Long brushed past Saturn into their room. “Well, I hope we get to eat before this event because I’m starving. What do you think they eat around here?”

“Let’s talk inside,” Liam said, ushering Saturn through the entryway and sliding the smooth metallic door closed behind them.

The room was small but adequate when compared with their sleeping arrangements on the Asteroid Belt. The mats laid out on the ground were about two meters long and much thinner than even the mattresses he was used to. Liam guessed the Ansarans didn’t require much by way of comfort. The floor was the same light marble as Ragnar’s chamber and the walls a smooth stone interspersed with a metallic support structure. It was that mix of ancient beauty and contemporary functionality that intrigued Liam.

Saturn plopped down on one of the mats, immediately complaining about the level of comfort. Liam took the mat beside hers, wriggling his body trying to get comfortable and decided it was impossible. The material had little give and was scarcely softer than the floor.

Ju-Long was at the window, or the wall disguised as a window, looking out over the city. From his mat, Liam could see the lights from the other spires, each glowing with a faint purple iridescence that was at first eerie to the eye. Ju-long pressed his nose against the wall in awe. Liam thought it a strange sight to see such a muscular man staring off in wonder like a child. Liam pondered if there was more to Ju-Long than he previously thought.

“Let’s recap,” Saturn said. “We spend an hour talking with this Ragnar guy and when we come out of it, we’re no closer to getting a ship, no closer to getting off this planet, in fact, we might as well be prisoners here.”

“We’re not prisoners,” Liam replied.

“Why wouldn’t he want us to leave the spire, then?”

“Think about it. If this was Earth and an alien species crash landed, would you let them run amok?”

“So you admit it, we’re prisoners.”

“If you see a shadow behind every corner you’re going to drive yourself crazy.”

“In our line of work I would have thought you’d learned to do the same. What were our rules back then? Always cautious. Always vigilant. What happened to you?”

Ju-Long turned around and raised his voice, “Enough. I’m tired of your bickering. Yes, Saturn, we’re probably being held here for the time being. That doesn’t mean we need to be hasty drawing conclusions. I say we learn as much as we can about these people and wait for our opportunity. And Liam, grow a pair and realize that there’s more to our situation than playing the explorer. None of us were meant for this kind of role so let’s take it down a notch and figure this out logically.”

Liam and the rest of the crew were silent for a while. Ju-Long plopped down on his mat and put an arm over his eyes, shielding them from the single orb of light floating near the ceiling. Liam imagined that what was going through Saturn’s head was similar to what was going through his own. Ju-Long made too much sense. They needed to work together and make a united front. Whatever decisions they made might have larger ramifications for their race down the road. But the moment things went south, they would have to be ready to act.

A few minutes later, Liam asked, “Ju-Long, you never told us how you came to be on the mine.”

Ju-Long kept his eyes covered with his arm, his bloodied hand hanging limply over his equally damaged face. His hand bore a crude bandage where Saturn had tried to make up for stabbing him. His jaw tightened as he prepared to speak.

“Vesta Corporation had a hand in a lot of industries back on Earth. I worked for a company that was building a new propulsion system meant for interstellar travel. Vesta bought the company and put a stop to my research.”

“Wouldn’t interstellar travel be a boon to Vesta’s bottom line?” Saturn asked.

“Yes, but they didn’t want the technology to proliferate. They stole my research and gave it to their own team to develop. I was already so close. We were running simulations with great success. Once their team had control of my research, there was no need for me. Agents from the corporation came after me, tying up loose ends I guess. I escaped for a while to the Martian Colony, but that didn’t last long. Soon, the agents found me and I was sent to the Asteroid Belt. They would have killed me, but if something went wrong with their research they needed to have me available as a backup. Captain Truong didn’t want to waste my talents, so he put me in charge of the mining ship’s engine room.”

“So, under all that muscle you actually are some kind of genius?” Liam asked.

Saturn snorted. Liam knew what she thought of Ju-Long, but underneath that ego he might not be as vapid as they had originally thought. Ju-Long might have been a chauvinist at times, but they were lucky to have him on their ship when they escaped. He’d already proven his usefulness once.

“Call me what you want, but I always thought of myself as more of a mechanic anyway.”

Ju-Long turned his head toward Saturn and added with a smile, “I’m good with my hands.”

Liam tried to stifle a laugh and was rewarded with a solid punch on the arm from Saturn. She was stronger than he remembered. “Hey, he said it, not me.”

Saturn cracked a smile and they all shared a brief laugh that marked the first time they’d all been cheerful since they left the Asteroid Belt. It felt good for Liam to laugh again. Even Saturn seemed to be in a better mood. However, their moment was interrupted by a series of quiet knocks on the door. Liam’s eyes shot across the room and he rose up from the mat and padded toward the door, looking back at his crew over his shoulder. The night had come for Garuda quickly, leaving Liam wondering how many hours there were in a day on the planet, or even how time was measured on Garuda.

As Liam approached the door, he tripped some sort of security measure and the door became nearly transparent like the windows. Through the door Liam saw a manner of creature he could only describe as lizard-like. The alien was the same height as Liam and covered in tan scales more coarse than the Ansarans. His eyes were smaller than the other aliens and bore vertical slits and a golden hue like a snake. His head was bald like the Ansarans, but with more pronounced cheekbones and ears that were just holes off to the side of his eyes.

The alien seemed to know he was being watched, because his thin mouth curled up at the edge, much farther than a human’s could, which somehow made him appear more predatory. Over his hardened tan scales he wore a dark cloak that was hard to make out in the low light of the hallway.

Liam’s hand hovered over the panel for a moment before pressing down on it. The door opened and Liam subconsciously puffed out his chest to make himself appear bigger. The alien folded his scaled hands together. His pupils grew when they made contact with Liam, giving him the feeling he was being examined by a doctor.

“Inside, quickly,” the alien implored. “Before we’re seen.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]15

Liam closed the door behind the alien and got a better look at him under the orb of light floating several centimeters from the ceiling. He wore a rough cloth cloak that hung like a V over his chest and down to his waist in front and knees in the back, the cloak’s brown hood hanging behind his head. His pants were tight and done up with white string at the waist. The alien’s feet were bare and looked the most primeval of all. They had yellow hooked claws at the tips and a strong, muscular shape.

“My name is Nix, I’m one of the Dinari servants for this spire.”

“Tell me your parents didn’t name you Nix,” Saturn asked.

Liam shot her a glance and she looked away, embarrassed. The last thing they needed was to make enemies in a foreign land.

“It was given to me by the Caretaker. The Dinari are not supposed to question the Caretaker.”

“Why are you here?” Liam asked.

“I come to warn you. Ragnar is not what he seems.”

Saturn stood up, pointing at Liam, and said, “I told you.”

Liam held up a hand in response.

“Hold on. Nix, what do you mean?”

Nix unfolded his hands, standing tall under the single light of the room, deep shadows arising in the crevices of his many scales. “Tomorrow night, the Ansarans plan to give you over to the Kraven Throng.”

“The Kraven Throng?” Ju-Long said. “I thought they were enemies of the Ansarans? How did you come by this information?”

“They are enemies, but your presence grants a unique opportunity for Ragnar. He is a low-ranking member of House Ansara, but if he were able to broker a peace with the Kraven Throng he would greatly increase his status. These are things I hear when serving in the chambers. They think me stupid and say things they ought not to in front of me.”

Liam scratched the long scar on his right cheek and thought about the meeting with Ragnar. He was searching for something. It struck him that Ragnar may not have known why the Throng wanted his crew, but the fact that they did was off-putting to him. Ragnar seemed like someone who wanted control over all aspects of a situation, and whatever deal he was making with the Throng must have been out of his comfort zone. “What does the Kraven Throng want with us anyway?”

“I don’t know, but if I were you, I wouldn’t want to find out.”

Ju-Long sat up on his mat and crossed his legs, leaning his elbows down on his knees. “Ragnar spoke of the Ansara Alliance. He said the Dinari were their cousins.”

“He would say that,” Nix replied. “Don’t be fooled, the name is a misnomer. The Dinari have served the Ansarans for thousands of years. The proof is in our skin. The Dinari have evolved rough scales over dozens of millennia working outdoors; every form of manual labor imaginable. The Ansarans can’t even go outside on most worlds without protecting their skin. The Dinari have grown much stronger over the generations.”

“If that’s so,” Ju-Long said, “Why don’t the Dinari fight for their independence?”

“Most Dinari have been brought up to be subservient. We are taught in our schools to serve and our parents have known no other way. There are some among us that think differently, but their divergent mindset is rare, their numbers small.”

“Are you one of those few?” Saturn asked, intrigued.

Nix appeared uncomfortable, shifting his gaze between each of the crew.

“At the moment my only concern is for your safety.”

“Why help us?” Liam asked.

“I will not stand by and watch another race be used as bartering chips as we have been. I warn you to give you the chance my race never had, at least in recent memory. If the stories are true, the Kraven Throng will be a far worse evil than the Ansarans. An alliance between them cannot come to exist.”

“What will that mean for this world?” Saturn asked.

“If peace is garnered between Ansarans and Kraven, the Dinari stand to suffer. But not only would the Dinari be in danger. The Ansarans would become an unstoppable force, free to take over system after system. I do not know where your world is, but this alliance could not be good for your race either.”

“Do the Ansarans or the Kraven have the ability to open a wormhole?” Saturn asked.

At the mention of a wormhole Nix backed against the far wall, pressing his shoulders into the smooth surface. Nix was skittish, showing minor twitches along his face. “There are stories,” he began, adjusting the hood on his cloak nervously. “But I worry they are just that. There is a Dinari in the city below who knows things. He is a collector of information and he distributes it as he sees fit. I will not lie, he is not friendly, but he’s helped me before and under the right circumstances he’ll help me again.”

Liam didn’t like the sound of this Dinari already. He sounded like any one of the countless mercenary leaders he’d dealt with in his time freelancing. They would do anything for a credit and cared only for themselves. It wasn’t so long ago Liam felt the same way. Being on the mine, even just for a year, could change a person’s perspective.

Saturn shot Liam a frightened look. “If the Ansarans or the Kraven Throng have ability to open a wormhole, we need to put a stop to it. Earth wouldn’t stand a chance. Even if they’re stories, we need to follow up on this.”

Liam put a hand against the cold wall and leaned his weight against it. He brushed aside his long blond hair, still stained with sweat and caked with sand from the day that wouldn’t seem to end. He looked between Saturn, Ju-Long, and Nix. “The first order of business is getting out of here. We’re no use to anyone if we get handed over to the Throng. Nix, can you get us out?”

Nix pushed away from the wall and raised his thick brown hood over the top portion of his face. Deep shadows cut under his eyes and a smile curved up from his long mouth revealing many pointed teeth. For the first time, he spoke confidently, “I know the way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]16

Nix led the crew down the long corridor in the opposite direction of the elevator. His long cloak fluttered behind him from a strange wind traveling down the hallway. He jogged down the passage, his clawed feet clicking on the stone with every step and echoing between the stone walls. Liam followed close behind hugging the wall and using his hands to help guide his way in the dimly lit passageway.

“Where is he leading us?” Saturn whispered over Liam’s shoulder.

“Through the servant’s quarters to a separate entryway,” Nix replied.

Saturn bore a look of surprise. Her voice had been low, hardly loud enough for Liam to hear. Despite this, Nix seemed to pick it up just fine with his non-existent external ears. He was a strange creature, full of ticks and habits that made him appear more like an abused animal than a person. Liam felt for him. Even with all of the problems on Earth, the plight of the Dinari stood out as an injustice.

The long corridor ended abruptly, capped by an angled window jutting up at an angle from the ground, spiraling toward the top of the tower. Nix stepped on a specific tile and the wall to their left turned transparent, as though it were never there. Before them was a set of stairs leading down and around the spire. Liam made a note to ask Nix how their technology was capable of such a feat. Though, with the things he’d seen in the past day, parlor tricks of the walls seemed of small concern.

Nix shifted his head under his hood and whispered with a quiver of his mouth, “Servants take the stairs.”

He disappeared down the dark steps, his cloak floating up behind him with an unfelt wind. Liam and Saturn exchanged a concerned look before following him through the passage. Ju-Long kept checking their tail as though certain they were being followed. Liam was starting to get that feeling too. Toras’ words kept coming back to haunt his mind, “Do not stray the path or I will know it.”

“Nix, wait,” Liam said.

The cloaked alien stopped several steps ahead of him and peered back at Liam, his face obstructed by the hood, only his point of a nose showing out from under. “What is it? We must hurry.”

“Toras said something to me on our way in. He said if I strayed the path, he would know.”

Nix removed his hood, his golden eyes wide even in the half-light. “Did he show you a path? Telepathically I mean.”

“He used a device to communicate. It showed me images of where to go.”

Nix cursed in a way that Liam’s translator couldn’t understand. It made him wonder how close the Dinari and Ansaran languages were and just how good the translators could be. Nix approached him, climbing a few steps before speaking.

“The link could well be active. Toras would be able to see everything you see if he liked.”

“Then he would have heard us talking?” Ju-Long asked.

“No, he would see only what Liam sees. It’s enough. We don’t have time. Toras will realize what we’re up to soon and sound the alarms. I cannot break the link here, we must move quickly.”

Nix took off down the stairs much faster than before. The occasional sliver of window lighting up the passage with a faint purple glow from outside the spire. It was barely enough to keep their footing as they descended. Liam understood now why Nix was so muscular in his legs. If the Dinari never used the elevator, every step would have been torture on the feet.

Liam looked out the next window as they passed and noted they were far closer to the ground than before. By Earth standards they were still remarkably high. Working on the mine was a great source of physical activity, but it was nothing compared to descending hundreds of stories of stairs. He couldn’t imagine going back up.

“You really climb all of these every day?” Liam asked Nix.

“Gods no,” he replied. “There are servants responsible for each floor, hundreds of Dinari living here. I haven’t left the spire in ages and rarely leave my floor.”

Nix seemed to deflate after saying that last part, as though going outside was a source of pride for a Dinari. They continued their controlled descent down the stairs for ten more minutes before they neared the bottom. Nix slowed down until he only took one stair per step. Finally he stopped, raising his hand to signal Liam and his crew to stop.

“The servant’s entrance is just below.”

“What are we waiting for?” Ju-Long huffed.

Nix turned his calm gaze to Ju-Long and replied, “Outside I’ve procured transportation, but when we reach them, I must cover his eyes. He cannot see where we are going or Toras will see.”

While they spoke, Liam placed his hands on his knees and sucked in air. He, Saturn, and Ju-Long were each breathing hard from the long descent, though Nix still seemed collected, if a little spastic. Nix reminded Liam of a gecko. Quick and a little odd by nature.

Ju-Long tugged at the material of his grey jumpsuit, his biceps bulging before ripping the sleeve clean off. He handed the piece of cloth to Liam and said, breathing heavily, “This should do.”

Nix nodded and continued down the stairs. As they rounded the corner they came out into a large, open area where supplies were stored in crates made from a white polymer. Liam imagined it was where all of the supplies were delivered to the spire. The four of them continued to the bottom of the stairs, where the orbs of light that lit the room changed from a soft white to purple. The abrupt change threw light into every crevice, the light showering each of their faces with brilliant intensity.

Nix’s face contorted as he yelled, “They’re going to lock down the spire, move!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]17

The massive metal doors slowly began to close as Liam, Nix, and the crew slipped through. Outside, a faint purple glow encapsulated the spire, almost liquid in nature and obstructing their view of the other spires and the rest of the city. Nix dug his feet into the gravelly sand and pushed off through the barrier. It didn’t seem to hold him back at all, so Liam and the others followed suit. The purple barrier made Liam tingle but it was anything but painful.

Twenty meters away were four vehicles that hovered half a meter off the ground, similar to the hover bikes of Earth. Nix ran to the first one and made it jump to life, numerous controls lighting up blue and displaying information in an unknown writing system. The body of the vehicle was otherwise black against the night.

“Hurry,” Nix said, gesturing with a clawed hand before instructing, “Put on the blindfold.”

Liam took the piece of grey cloth and covered his eyes, tying a knot over the back of his damp hair. Saturn took his arm and led him to the back of one of the bikes, getting him situated before hopping on in front of him.

“What about the fourth bike?” Ju-Long asked as he powered on his vehicle.

“Leave it,” Nix replied. “It can’t be traced back to us.”

Liam felt the vehicle zip off and he grabbed hold of Saturn’s waist to keep himself steady. Saturn’s ponytail blew back into his face, her smell wafting into his nostrils. Her curves were intoxicating and he found his hands sliding down, unconcerned with anything else happening around him. Saturn took one hand off the controls and placed it on his, gentle for a moment, before peeling it off and placing it higher on her waist.

From the rush of the warm air around him he could tell they were traveling at blistering speeds, perhaps two or three hundred kilometers per hour. Liam heard Nix’s voice come over their radio, somehow loud enough to hear over the din of noise from the whooshing air. “Veer left at the next spire and be prepared to stop.”

Liam had lost track of time, but they could easily have been traveling for several minutes. Whatever link he still had with Toras needed to be severed immediately, if only so Liam could enjoy the landscape in peace. Liam felt the hover bike turn to the left and Saturn’s abdominal muscles tightening as she maneuvered past what must have been the next spire. A minute later Saturn eased back on the throttle, slowing them down until finally they reached a stop.

“Are we there?” Liam asked.

“We’re close,” Nix replied from his left, “But we need to take care of your little problem first.”

Saturn got off the bike and helped Liam find his way to solid ground. He immediately noticed that the ground was more compacted there. Liam was led into some kind of structure. He could hear Nix and Ju-Long chatting quietly behind him, their footsteps changing from the crunch of compacted soil to an echo off of smooth stone. Saturn stopped him after taking several paces over the stone. He heard a door slam closed behind him before someone loosened the knot of his blindfold and tore it off.

Even the dimly lit room made Liam’s eyes strain after becoming accustomed to darkness. They were inside a small shop of some sort, broken devices littered all around in a half-hearted attempt at order. Saturn’s hand found its way to his shoulder in comfort, though Liam wasn’t sure why. Nix stepped up to the glass counter and touched a broken square device. It popped up on tiny metal legs and danced around, spitting out an obnoxious sound at far too high a volume. Nix too was taken aback and started hitting the device frantically.

A Dinari came in from a back room and touched the device lightly on its underbelly, silencing it and returning it to its previous state. The Dinari’s features were softer than Nix’s, but the scales were far darker, appearing burnt by a persistent sun. It held out a hand, which Nix promptly took and kissed.

“Sestra,” Nix said, bowing his head, “I’d like you to meet my new friends.”

She put up her nose and sniffed the air, her nostrils widening along with her golden eyes. “They are not Ansaran, nor Dinari or Kraven. So what are they?”

“The Caretaker called them human. They’ve come from afar and need our help.”

“What help could a lowly shopkeeper such as myself provide?” she asked in a tone that suggested she was neither lowly nor really a shopkeeper.

“This one,” Nix said while pointing at Liam, “Has seen the Inner Eye.”

Sestra hissed and raised her cowl until it obscured her face. “Fool! Why bring them here? Close your eyes outsider.”

Liam looked to Saturn and Ju-Long, who both nodded silently. Saturn’s grip on Liam’s shoulder tightened. “Go ahead, we’ve got your back.”

Liam closed his eyes and Sestra’s hissing ceased. There were a few hushed whispers before Nix spoke to him. Several moments passed and Liam was about to say something, when Nix said, “Sestra has agreed to help, but for her assistance, she will require payment.”

“We don’t have anything to trade, our ship crashed and is in Ansaran custody as we speak.”

“Oh, but you do,” Sestra replied.

Saturn’s grip on Liam’s shoulder tightened even more and she asked in a piercing tone, “What do you want?”

“What every Dinari wants. To be owed.”

There was silence while Liam thought about the implications of the proposal. “What do you mean exactly?”

Nix spoke up first. “In our culture, and with the outer colonies of the Ansara Alliance lacking in currency, most of our trade is predicated on favors. The level of service provided dictates what kind of favor will be requested.”

“What did you have in mind?” Liam asked Sestra, perplexed.

“You may be right that you have nothing I need at the moment, but it is my guess that you will. I would require one favor to be given at my pleasure in the future. You would be honor-bound to oblige.”

“We don’t have to listen to this,” Ju-Long said. “A favor without limits is a blank check.”

“Nix, what do you think?” Liam asked.

“This kind of contract is common among my people. By taking away Toras’ sight over you, she is saving your life. It is likely her favor would entail a similar arrangement.”

Liam opened his eyes, prompting Sestra to cower behind the glass counter. Liam had spent most of his life in debt to someone and he didn’t want to start a new life in a new solar system the same way. But if Toras found Liam and the crew because of him and turned them over to the Kraven, their escape from the Asteroid Belt would have been for nothing. Once again, it looked like Liam didn’t have much of a choice. He needed Sestra’s help, and a promise to save her life at some unknown point in the future didn’t seem so bad, for now. At least he couldn’t be charged interest on an intangible debt.

“Done,” Liam said. “You’ll have your favor if you can break the link between Toras and myself.”

Sestra’s eyes widened, revealing a line of black around the gold. She covered her mouth with one clawed hand. “Toras is your link? Gods.”

Nix explained, “Toras’ exploits are legend among my people. Many Dinari have died by his hand for trifling matters.” Nix turned to Sestra and continued, “He is but a tool for the Caretaker, though, we must remember that.”

Liam took note of Nix’s words. He didn’t seem as skittish as he did in the spire.

“Let’s be done with this,” Sestra said, interrupting Liam’s thoughts.

Sestra turned and disappeared behind a tattered cloth curtain to the back of the shop.

Nix followed her back. Saturn frowned, releasing Liam’s shoulder and taking a few steps toward the counter. “This is a bad idea, Liam.”

“If we don’t break the link I’ll endanger all of you. They’ll find us eventually and we’ll be traded to the Kraven Throng.”

Saturn stopped when she reached the counter and put a hand on the glass surface. “What if there is no link and Nix is full of crap? Even if he’s right, Sestra might be able to help us now, but someday this is going to come back to bite us.”

“One step at a time,” Liam said as he walked past her toward the back room.

Ju-Long joined Saturn at the counter, putting his elbows down on the glass and checking out his reflection. “For the record, you’re right,” he told her. “But if it’s the way things work in this system, it’s better we owe a friend of a friend than a stranger.”

Ju-Long walked around the counter to join Liam in the entryway to the back room. Saturn drew a figure of a tree in the dust of the glass surface and said under her breath, “You forget, they’re both strangers really.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]18

Nix waved his clawed hand, leading Liam down a tight, winding corridor to a back room lined with a wall of gizmos and gadgets. Liam couldn’t begin to guess at their many uses because they looked nothing like Earth technology. Some of them were oddly-shaped and appeared to be meant to be worn solely by a Dinari. Sestra searched the racks for something specific, her claws rolling over what looked similar to their welding goggles.

They had an adjustable strap and two eyepieces, but they were made from a coppery metal Liam couldn’t place. It had a natural matte finish and a copper and rust color that was not due to oxidation. Sestra dropped them in his hands and he immediately noticed that they were at once remarkably strong and incredibly light. The glass lenses were tinted black and tiny pinpricks of light denoted some technological mysteries along the edges of the darkened viewports.

“What’s this for?” Liam asked.

Sestra approached him and took his hands, raising them up with the goggles until they were atop his head. “Put them on and they will break the telepathic connection. Toras’ Inner Eye will falter, confused, and simply give up.”

“Just like that?”

Liam had thought the process of breaking the connection would be difficult, perhaps painful. His stomach had been tied in knots since the spire’s stairwell. Sestra’s eyes narrowed and the corner of her scaled mouth curved upward at a sharp angle. Liam wasn’t sure if she was smiling at him or mocking him, and the translator wasn’t giving him much help. She said curtly, “Just like that, outsider.”

Liam took the frame of the goggles in his hand and began to pull them down over his eyes, but was stopped by Saturn’s cautious hand.

Saturn stepped up to Sestra and asked, “Are you sure this is going to work?”

Sestra’s cowl curled around her face, obstructing part of her visage. Liam thought she was a shady person to begin with, and the gadgets in the room looked more like torture devices than anything that would help his condition. Sestra shook her head. “You are outsiders. Your biology is unknown to us. This device was meant for a Dinari, but it is the only known way to release him from the eye. Be strong, we all have our burdens to bear.”

“I don’t feel good about this, Liam.”

Ju-Long spoke up, “She’s right, it’s too risky.”

Liam clenched his jaw and looked to each of them in turn. It was his choice and he had to do whatever he could for his crew as their de facto leader. He ignored them and pulled the goggles down over his azure eyes. They had to trust someone sometime or they weren’t going to get very far in this new world.

The outer edges of the goggles lit up and Liam’s vision turned to white as the bright lights shined back on his eyes. He felt a burning sensation in the back of his brain that made him collapse to his knees. A hand tried to steady him but he was thrashing now, unable to take off the coppery goggles. A searing heat burned his eyes, making him cry out in the tiny room.

Images flashed in his mind, vivid and bright. Images of the spire, of Ragnar through Toras’ eyes. They were connected but the roles were reversed. Was this how Toras saw through his eyes? Would he feel such pain? Liam’s thoughts were cut short as the light began to fade. His hands fell from the sides of the goggles and onto the smooth stone floor beneath him, cold against his sweaty palms.

Liam felt a hand tear the goggles off his head, peeling off a portion of skin with them, leaving deep red marks around his temples and eyes like a bad sunburn. Try as he might, he was unable to get his eyes to focus. Nix, Sestra and his crew knelt down around him, keeping him from toppling over.

“What did it do to him?” Saturn asked frantically.

“It was meant for a Dinari,” Nix replied. “Our scales protect us from heat as well as the sun. Our eyes are used to the brightness.”

“Are you okay?” Ju-Long asked with a hand on Liam’s back.

Liam was breathing heavy, sweat pouring down his face and soaking into his grey jumpsuit. His blue eyes were wide with fear, though he might have tried to label it surprise. The whites around the blue were crimson now, more bloodshot than they’d ever been. Liam brushed Ju-Long’s hand away and came up on one knee, attempting to stand and swaying a bit before catching his balance.

“I’ll be fine. Sestra, how do we know it worked?”

She picked up the goggles and examined the inside of the lenses. At various angles they showed images of the spire, their escape, and Sestra’s shop, as though a cheap hologram were emblazoned over the tinted glass. She smiled, slightly more surprised than Liam had hoped. “It worked. The process might have been a little rougher than usual, but the connection is broken.”

“How often does this happen?” Ju-Long asked.

Sestra gave him a muddled look and said, “Not often. But it has come in handy before.”

Nix reached into his cloak, pulled out a star-shaped piece of fruit, and handed it to Sestra. “You have my thanks.”

Sestra waved away the piece of fruit. “This is too much, Nix, I cannot accept.”

“Take it.”

She hesitated a moment before snatching it from his hand and forcing it into her mouth. Garuda was a very dry planet and Liam imagined certain foods were hard to come by. Liam hadn’t thought about what kinds of food the aliens might eat. With such similar features as creatures on Earth, regardless of how odd, surely they ate similar fare. His stomach growled. None of them had eaten since they landed and lack of sustenance was beginning to catch up with him.

“We must go,” Nix said. “They may not be able to find this place quickly, but it’s only a matter of time. Sestra, I suggest you stay out of sight for a few days until this blows over.”

Sestra nodded, pushing through a door to an adjacent room. Liam rubbed at his eyes, squinting and trying to collect himself. His sight still hadn’t returned to normal. He seemed to be chasing specs of light around his field of vision, never quite able to catch one. Moments later, Sestra returned with a black leather bag strapped to her back. She took a few items from the racks and began handing them out to everyone.

The device Sestra put in Liam’s hand had a coppery handle and two sections that jutted out in a thick point at either end, looking vaguely like a pointed horseshoe. When he gripped the handle, the tips lit up with a blue energy that connected between the two points. Sestra quickly pulled it from his hand. “Do not grip it so hard if you do not wish to destroy my home.”

Sestra passed out brown leather straps to accompany the weapons, showing Liam how to attach it to his leg. When she was done, the energy weapon slid snugly into the holster at his side. It was lighter than he expected, but its slight weight felt good hanging there, a comforting feeling he’d not felt since his last job with Vesta Corporation. He never felt safe without his gun at his side and he feared a year spent weaponless on the Asteroid Belt had made him tamer. He rejected that thought. He was back and he was ready to take on anything in his way. He rubbed his eyes. As soon as his vision cleared up.

 

 

Liam extended his toes, pushing down on the hover bike’s accelerator. The shabby buildings that made up the bulk of Garuda Colony were pinpricks in comparison with the massive spires sprinkled around them in the distance. The Dinari settlements were only a few stories tall and made from materials likely made or mined on the planet: stone, clay, jagged rock and glass. Liam marveled at the endless expanse, occasionally lit by glowing orbs hanging in the building entrances, melding together as he zipped by. The night was at its darkest and he began to have tunnel vision through his already clouded eyes, the lights merging in his peripheral vision to become a solid stream, lighting the path.

Saturn tightened her thighs around him and gripped the back of his jumpsuit as they went around a bend. She said over the whooshing air, “Are you sure you can see alright? Maybe I should drive.”

“I’m fine,” Liam called over his shoulder. He took one hand away from the handle and rubbed his eyes with the back side.

Nix and Sestra were leading the way in front of them, the blue glow of the hover bike illuminating their tan scales and dark cloaks. Ju-Long accelerated until he was side by side with Liam. He fiddled with the foreign controls on his bike which make Liam’s dash buzz. Liam put a hand over the screen and Ju-Long’s face appeared, his voice coming through the speakers.

“Do you see that to the left?”

Liam broke Ju-Long’s gaze and looked to the left. One of the spires’ faint purple glow turned more vivid for a moment. The energy pulsed from the base until it shot out a beam of violet light from the top, up into the atmosphere. Liam looked back at the screen. “What was that?”

“A signal of some kind?”

Several of the other spires also sent up bolts of light, dozens of them in a row, until nearly every spire was lit up in the night. The beams curved until they connected with each other in a web over the colony, illuminating the streets like daylight. If the Ansarans were trying to find them they would have a much easier time of it now. Liam couldn’t help but think the light had another purpose. That thought would have to wait.

Nix’s bike began to slow and he pulled into an alley ahead of them. Liam broke hard and followed him in. They stopped a block ahead, parking their black hover bikes against a clay wall. They powered down the bikes and the blue light faded until they were left only with the purple glow emanating from the sky. Nix got off his bike first, both him and Sestra shielding their eyes from the light. It seemed to affect the Dinari far more than Liam and his crew.

Nix pointed at the back entrance of a building and said, “We must get inside. Quickly, move.”

Nix was visibly frightened, even with most of his face obscured by a hood and his shielding hands, his tone of voice betrayed all. Whatever was happening with the spires was taking its toll on the Dinari. Liam nodded and followed them inside, Saturn and Ju-Long close behind.

“What was that, Liam?” Saturn asked. “It looked like a web. Does that mean we’re trapped inside?”

“I don’t know.”

Ju-Long scratched his short black hair and said, “At first it looked like signal fires, then it seemed to become more of a crowd control device. On Earth, the police use bright lights to disperse crowds.”

“Or maybe dissuade the Dinari from leaving their homes,” Liam replied.

Nix was a few paces ahead of them in the dark clay corridor. He didn’t give their conjectures any acknowledgement. He only led them through the passage to a rounded wood door with soft light seeping under the frame. Nix turned to them, his golden eyes reflecting what little light filled the corridor. “I warn you, this place is not the friendliest of establishments.”

“That’s an understatement,” Sestra said.

“Regardless, if you’re looking for answers, you go to The Sand’s Edge.”

Nix pushed open the door and stepped through the entrance. Soft yellow light poured down from many hanging orbs of all shapes and sizes. There were several tables and a long stone bar, glass bottles lining the shelves behind it filled with multicolored liquid. A dozen Dinari occupied the tavern, talking in boisterous voices over their drinks. When Liam and his crew entered their voices trailed away until every head was turned in their direction. After a few moments of silence, the Dinari patrons pulled out all manner of weapons from their cloaks, bolts of electricity balling up at their tips as they pointed them at Liam and the crew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]19

Nix stepped forward with his hands raised defensively. He pulled down the hood of his cloak to show his face. Sestra stepped in front of Liam and crossed her arms, her expression defiant. There was a moment of tension before some of the patrons began lowering their weapons and returning to their conversations. Nix spoke to everyone in the room, “The outsiders are with me. They are no friends of the Ansarans.”

The tavern slowly returned to its raucous laughter and loud conversations and Nix led them to the bar. Liam could feel several pairs of eyes on him as he walked. His right hand remained close to his weapon in case someone decided they didn’t want to play nice. Nix stepped up to the bar and began speaking with the bartender. “We request an audience with him. We will not waste his time.”

The bartender, a muscular Dinari with dark scales that were charred black in some sections, nodded and stepped away from the bar. Liam came up beside Nix and asked, “What the hell are we doing here? Is this going to help us off this planet?”

Nix’s eyes darted between Liam and the others, his clawed hands fidgety. “Patience, we’re meeting an old friend who may be able to give us some answers.”

Ju-Long put his hands on his hips, stretching and popping his back. “This place is shady, but maybe we can get a good drink.”

Liam’s stomach growled audibly, making him rub his hand over his belly to calm it. Saturn let out a short laugh. “You too?”

The bartender returned, scratching one of the charred sections on his face and letting one of his scales fall to the stone floor. His dark yellow eyes moved between Liam, Saturn, and Ju-Long, observing their features curiously. He stood a whole head taller than Liam and looked like he’d been in one too many fights. He wasn’t someone with whom Liam would want to tussle.

“He’ll see you now,” the bartender said. “Down the stairs at the end of the bar.”

“Thanks Riken, those marks are looking better by the way,” Nix said.

The bartender shook his head and returned to cleaning glasses with a dirty piece of cloth. Nix led them to the end of the bar, where a set of earthen steps led down, curving into darkness. Before descending, Nix turned to Liam, his eyes serious, and said, “When we get down there, let me do the talking. He doesn’t take kindly to strangers.”

Nix didn’t wait for Liam to agree before starting down the stairs. He seemed more confident than he was in the spire, despite his occasional ticks. It was as though he was more at home the seedier the setting they encountered. At the bottom of the stairs, Nix pushed through another wood door and led them into a room with a large stone table and curious etchings adorning every inch of its grey surface. Most of the room was taken up by the table and the three large orbs that hung from the ceiling by unseen threads.

At the opposite end of the table sat a fat Dinari with lightly tanned scales and a thick neck. He had vacant eyes that rolled back as he bit into a slab of dark meat with his many pointed teeth. The large Dinari didn’t acknowledge them as they came in. Instead, he finished the last bites of his meal and picked his teeth with a single clawed finger. Juice from the moist piece of meat seeped out of the corner of his mouth and down his neck. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. The fat Dinari wore pants and a cloak that were adorned with colorful jewels, in sharp contrast to the other Dinari whose garments were quite plain.

When he was finished with his meal, he gestured to the long benches on either side of the table. “Nix, it’s been a long time. Sit. Tell me why you bring outsiders into my place of business. Are you trying to scare off all of my customers?”

Nix slid into the seat closest to the gorged Dinari. Sestra took the seat next to him while Liam and the crew went around the other side and sat opposite them. Nix put his hands on the stone table in front of him and let a brief smile cross his face. “Zega, this is Liam Kidd, Saturn Vera, and Ju-Long Ma. They were attacked by the Kraven Throng in their system and have found their way here.”

Zega appeared intrigued. “Found their way how?”

“A wormhole. Liam estimates they traveled ten thousand light years.”

Zega grew silent. He examined Liam and his crew with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. “They are squishy, like our meat.”

Saturn spoke up first, “I assure you, we are not food.”

“It speaks! A pity, I prefer my food not speak.”

“This wormhole,” Nix said changing the subject. “What do you know of it?”

“The wormhole,” Zega repeated, drifting off into wonder. “It is true, then.”

“You’ve heard of it before?” Liam asked.

Zega made a face like he had a bad taste in his mouth, his cheeks puffing out in anger. Nix shook his head subtly, his face bearing an expression of warning. Nix turned to the fat Dinari and said “Zega, any information you have could be helpful to us.”

“I may know something, but my knowledge will require one favor.”

“I don’t like where this is going,” Ju-Long said.

Zega laughed at Ju-Long’s remark. “I like this one, he catches on quick.”

“What favor do you ask?” Nix asked.

Zega smiled wide, each of his yellow pointed teeth showing proudly. He let out a throaty laugh once again. “You are lucky, Nix. Our goals align.”

Nix’s jaw clenched tight. Their Dinari guide knew something that he wasn’t telling Liam and the crew but he was keeping that information closely guarded. Liam looked Zega up and down. He was far more affluent than the other Dinari he’d seen. He could have been a mob boss, maybe no better than the cronies at Vesta Corporation. However, from experience, Liam knew sometimes he had to deal with the devil he knew to accomplish lofty goals.

Zega continued, his voice growing darker by the word, “This wormhole you speak of; I have heard whispers of the Ansarans devising a machine that can create this anomaly. The machine would not be small, though if my information is correct, a key component of it is.”

“The Ansarans have that power?” Liam interrupted.

Zega’s mouth contorted and he turned toward Nix, speaking directly to him. “Go to Garuda’s moon to the Disciples of Re. There you will find your answers.”

“The Disciples of Re?” Nix asked. “What would that cult know?”

“My sources say they came upon a Gift of Re, the God of the Sun. This gift is said to bridge the farthest reaches of the galaxy.”

The room was silent while Nix processed this new information. Ragnar had flatly denied to Liam that the Ansarans knew anything about the wormhole. Though, if the Ansarans really did create a device capable of producing a singularity, they would surely lie about it to an outsider, as they’d called him.

“Is your source reliable?” Nix asked.

Zega laughed from his belly. “Of course they’re reliable, Nix, if they weren’t they would be dead.”

Liam could feel the sweat seeping through the back of his grey jumpsuit. Zega was sounding more and more like a crime boss, and not the kind Liam liked to work for. His tone as he spoke of death was too casual. There was no paying him back or performing extra favors if a job went south. Zega was not the kind of person he wanted to owe.

“What favor do you ask?” Nix asked.

“I will provide you with my fastest ship. She can make the journey to the moon in a matter of hours.”

“What favor?”

Zega’s eyes traveled down the row from Liam to Saturn, and finally landed on Ju-Long. He looked him up and down with a petulant grin. Zega pointed a clawed finger at Ju-Long and said, “He will be a formidable contender.”

“Contender for what?” Ju-Long asked.

Nix replied first, his head shaking as he spoke. “The Dinari hold a series of fights every year. Zega would ask that you fight for his sector. Sector Seven.”

“What exactly does that entail?” Liam probed.

“Each of the sectors in Garuda Colony, twenty-four in all, put forth two fighters. The fighters wear gloves that deliver small shocks to the opponent, who fight one-on-one until there is a winner. It can be a brutal sport, with the last man standing reigning over the sectors until the following year. It’s a fiat title, but a lot of notoriety comes from it. Zega’s fighters represent Sector Seven. This year’s fights aren’t starting for a couple of months.”

Liam remembered the bartender upstairs. His scales had been burned to a crisp all over his face and body. Without scales for protection, he wondered how Ju-Long would fare in such a contest. Liam eyed Ju-Long, who sat stolid. He said, “I’ll leave this to you, Ju-Long. You don’t have to agree. I’m sure we can come to another arrangement if need be.”

“No,” Zega said. “No other arrangements. One of you will fight. I have already provided you the favor of information, so choose, outsider.”

“It’s okay, Liam. I can handle it.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Saturn said.

“Enough,” Ju-Long replied. “I’ve been waiting for a good fight. I accept.”

Zega’s smile creaked even wider, his puffy cheeks curling up toward his sinister eyes. His thin tongue licked at his horrible yellowed teeth. The cantankerous Dinari clasped his hands together, still wet with the juice from his meal. Zega’s dark voice slipped out into his dining room, deeper than before. “It will be a fight to remember.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]20

Nix waved his hand and an orb of light slowly illuminated the guest room. Liam entered the small room above the bar and looked out the window to the colony. Purple light still emanated from the web overhead, pouring through the window with blinding intensity. On the street he saw groups of Ansaran soldiers searching the streets.

“Step away from the window,” Nix warned.

Liam clenched his jaw before collapsing on the nearby mat. He didn’t like taking orders and he felt like he was losing control of his little group with each passing moment. Downstairs, Nix had given them a small piece of what tasted like compact bread. It was dense and sparsely flavored, but it did calm his stomach a bit.

“You moved the bikes, right?” Saturn asked the shifty Dinari.

“Taken care of. They were moved into the loading bay. Sestra is down there with them now.”

“How long until light?”

“A few hours,” Nix replied, finding his own mat and lying down. “We’re going to need the rest.”

Saturn and Ju-Long laid down on their mats and were quiet for several minutes. Saturn spoke up first. “Nix, how do you know Zega? Are you sure we can trust him?”

Nix’s face was motionless, seemingly sleeping with his eyes open. Liam watched for several moments, waiting for his chest to move, but it never did. Finally, Nix put his hands behind his head and spoke, staring at the ceiling. “Zega is an important man in this sector of Garuda Colony. When I was a child he saved my life from an Ansaran soldier who was trying to make an example out of me for disobedience. Zega’s ways are not always eloquent, but he does put the interests of his people first. It is because of him that I came to work in the spire, an upper class position for a Dinari.”

“He put you there to spy,” Ju-Long stated.

“Yes. But I could have been lying in a ditch. Instead, I helped the cause.”

Liam moved his eyes up to the purple web in the sky outside the window, its brilliant energy flowing through the air like so many fireflies. Nix had probably given up more than anyone to get them out of the spire. He hadn’t even asked for a favor like the others. Nix was different somehow. Maybe some things were more important than compensation. Liam was conditioned to think in terms of reward. Being a freelancer will do that. At least now he knew that Earth wasn’t the only planet hung up on money and power and status. It was a small comfort.

“Thank you,” Liam said. “You gave up a lot for us.”

“It was a small price to pay.”

Ju-Long turned his head and asked, “What do you mean?”

Nix tilted his head to make eye contact with Ju-Long and spoke soft enough that the whole room had to prick their ears to hear him. When he spoke, he did so without any of his prior ticks, as though they were part of some elaborate ruse for the Ansarans’ benefit.

“You do not yet realize your importance. For thirty thousand years the three intelligent races of this system have traveled this system. We’ve been to other stars too, but ultimately decided to stay in this one, settling every planet and every moon in some fashion. The best technology we could muster couldn’t detect your species all that distance away. The fact that you’re here at all is a testament to how little we really know.”

“What are you implying?” Liam asked.

“The Ansarans will remain in power as long as they hold the best technology, the means to stay on top. Your presence mocks them and their knowledge of the galaxy. They would use you as a bargaining chip to broker peace with the Kraven, and if that fails, they would kill you themselves, anything to keep you from the public’s knowledge. They will search this colony top to bottom to protect their illusion as the all-knowing leaders of the alliance.”

“What would happen if our presence didn’t remain a secret?” Saturn asked.

“Who knows?” Nix replied. “It’s unprecedented. They may still kill you, or maybe they would let you live as a testament to their benevolence.”

“If our options are to be killed or possibly be killed, I’ll take the latter,” Ju-Long said, sinking back to his mat.

“I thought you’d say that. That’s one reason Zega asked you to fight. Your face would be immortalized as the first outsider to fight in our ring. Every Dinari in this colony will know your name.”

“And the Ansarans wouldn’t try to kill a celebrity of the Dinari,” Liam mused. “Too much bad publicity.”

Saturn let out a sharp laugh and said, “Even on the other side of the galaxy it comes down to appearances. I feel right at home.”

Nix rolled over onto his side, the purple light from the web of energy piercing the window and bathing him in violet. His golden eyes now seemed dark and faded, colored with sadness. “You’ll find much of what happens here is under the surface, hidden from view.”

Liam nodded and said, “Let’s get some sleep. We’ve got a long road ahead.”

 

 

Liam tossed in the night, vivid images flooding his mind. Tiffany stood before him in the small room above The Sand’s Edge, dressed in her tight jeans and purple T-shirt, a thin hole piercing her skull so Liam could see through to the other side. As she stared at him, blood began to drip from her wound and down the bridge of her nose. She looked so sad standing there, her tousled red hair blowing with a nonexistent breeze.

She opened her mouth to speak and only managed to say, “Why?”

Liam’s eyes opened and he shot up to a seated position on his mat. Sweat seeped through his gray jumpsuit and down his clenched jaw, merging on his chin. He ran a hand through his blond hair, darkened with sweat, and slicked it back away from his eyes. His gaze moved to the window, where Nix stood examining the purple web enveloping the colony. Nix turned with a solemn look that didn’t suit him.

“Can’t sleep?” Liam asked him.

“My work at the spire has made me more nocturnal than I’m used to, but I have always enjoyed the night. Bad dream?”

“You could say that,” Liam said, lying back down on his mat.

Nix turned his gaze back out the window. Softly, he said, “We all have our burdens to bear.”

Liam’s eyelids began to droop and once again he fell into darkness. Nix’s words remained at the forefront of his mind. He wondered what secrets their Dinari friend held. Surely they were no worse than Liam’s destructive past.

 

 

“Take these,” Nix said, passing Liam and the crew rough brown cloaks similar to his own. “Keep your hands in the pockets and your hoods up, you’ll blend in better on our way to the hangar. The last thing we want is attention from the Ansarans.”

It was early morning when Liam unzipped his grey jumpsuit and stepped out of it, putting the cloak on over his head, its long brown fabric hanging down to his knees and curling around him like a cape. The loading bay had just about anything Liam could think of. More and more, Zega was starting to remind him of some of his old contacts at Vesta Corporation. They were never short of supplies and were found in places just as seedy as The Sand’s Edge.

Liam pulled on a matching pair of pants and pulled the ashen drawstring tight. Last, he strapped the energy weapon to his thigh. Liam felt odd wearing the Dinari outfit, but the oddest part about it wasn’t what he was wearing, but what he wasn’t. Even in this sandy environment, most Dinari didn’t wear shoes. Liam found himself thinking about how hot the sand was going to be on his toes.

As though reading his mind, Nix reached into a crate and pulled out a pair of thin boots. “These are meant for a Dinari teenager, but they might fit you.”

Liam tried on the tan boots, which conformed nicely to his feet and looked like something out of an ancient history book from Earth. They had several leather straps and made their way almost to his knees. There was a little extra room at the end where a Dinari’s claws would probably have fit. All in all they fit well, considering they weren’t even made for his species. Liam pulled the hood over his head, the tip of which hung down past his eyebrows.

Saturn and Ju-Long finished strapping on their boots while Nix checked them all over. Anyone getting a close look would know they weren’t Dinari, but the disguises were good enough that on a speeding hover bike they shouldn’t be noticed. Nix smiled in admiration of his work. “I think we’ll be fine. Let’s go.”

“What about Sestra?” Liam asked.

“She’s got other priorities. Besides, this kind of mission isn’t her style.”

Without offering any more explanation, Nix pressed a button on the wall and a corrugated metal garage door opened, morning light flooding the loading bay. Liam took the nearest hover bike, expecting Saturn to hop on the back. Instead, she took one of the other bikes, shooing Ju-Long away when he tried to get on with her. Dejected, Ju-Long walked up to Liam’s bike and got on. When Liam powered on the bike, Ju-Long put a hand awkwardly on his shoulder to steady himself. The hover bikes made whirring noises, quiet at first, but rising in volume until the loading bay was filled with their deafening hum.

Nix powered on his bike and fiddled with his console, projecting his face as a hologram on Liam and Saturn’s bikes. “When we get out there, if a patrol catches wind of us, split up. I’ll send a map with the location of the hangar. Don’t let them follow you, though. We can’t afford an open fight.”

Nix pointed his clawed toes, pressing down on the accelerator and quickly turned left out of the loading bay followed closely by Saturn. A holographic map appeared on Liam’s control panel, hovering above the display in a yellow outline, their destination flashing in red. Liam turned a copper knob, increasing power to his engine until the whir became a steady but deafening hum. He pointed the toe of his boot and sped out into the morning light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[][]21

 

In steep contrast to the night, the streets of Sector Seven were bustling with Dinari, open air markets littering the side streets. Ansaran guards clad in their tan camouflage patrolled the street in pairs, their eyes obstructed by dark visors. Liam saw some Ansaran guards shaking down a teenage Dinari male, punching his scaled face with sickening force. The purple web that owned the night was gone, replaced by a sun that seemed far closer than the sun on Earth. Its position in the sky was still low, but it took up far more of the yellowed atmosphere than Liam had expected.

Nix led them around a deep bend in the dirt road. Liam had to maneuver out of the way of a cart filled with foreign produce, purple in color and spherical in shape. The road was wide and there were few vehicles to clog it. Most Dinari seemed to travel on foot and there was only an occasional Ansaran craft, but they generally flew over the tops of the buildings. Their sleek vehicles were as wide as four of their bikes abreast and had two large fans on the sides which tilted back to accelerate the ship. Each held two Ansaran guards crammed tight in the clear glass cockpit.

Whenever they saw one Liam instinctively pressed down his foot and accelerated. There didn’t seem to be any speed laws on Garuda, though if there were, somehow he doubted Nix would follow them. Liam and Ju-Long caught up to Nix and Saturn’s bikes after a while. Watching Nix’s back, Liam thought that there must be a lot more to their Dinari guide. His persona from the day before was far different from the confident Dinari before him. It made Liam wonder how much truth there was in Nix’s words.

The Ansaran guards didn’t take any interest in them until they passed into Sector Eight. Two pillars on either side of the street illuminated as they approached, sending out a field of red gridded lasers in their path. Ju-Long grabbed both of Liam’s shoulders tight, crying out for him to stop. Liam tried to decelerate but ended up plowing right through the field of lasers.

He didn’t feel a thing as they passed through. Liam realized too late that they had been scanned. Two Ansaran crafts were on them in moments, their large rotors tilted forward, and the ships hovering ten meters off the ground. A wall of sand plumed up behind them as they pursued the three hover bikes. Up ahead, Nix broke hard and turned down a side street off to the right, far too small for the Ansarans but perfect for their small bikes. Saturn accelerated to her top speed, leaving Liam in her wake of dust.

On Liam’s dash the yellow holographic map gleamed, a red dot flashing straight ahead where the warehouse would be. From behind, a blue laser cut into the dirt road a meter to his right, blasting out a perfect line in the sand a half meter deep. Out of Liam’s peripheral vision, he saw Ju-Long’s hand pointing to the left. Liam turned hard, neglecting his brake and the hover bike shot up a few meters into the turn, sparking off the side of a clay building before Liam could level it out in the alleyway.

The Ansaran ships slowed, rising vertically into the air to get their bearings. Soon, they adjusted and followed him over the top of the buildings, their loud fans propelling them forward far faster than Liam’s bike was capable of moving. Liam knew he’d have to lose them in the alleys if he were to have any chance of getting rid of them before he reached the hangar.

“Hang on,” Liam shouted over his shoulder.

Ju-Long gripped Liam’s cloak tighter in response.

Liam broke hard and twisted the handles of the bike to the right, spinning the back end wide as he made the turn. He pressed his foot down on the accelerator, quickly accelerating until he started to get tunnel vision. The alley was becoming thinner, too thin to safely get the bike through. Above him the Ansarans had adjusted and were hot on his trail. Liam pressed the brake and turned to the left, the bike coming off the ground again and flipping upside down in a roll before finding the ground and hovering there once more, flying down the alley with blazing speed.

Liam made two more turns and checked over his shoulder. He’d lost them. A hundred meters ahead Liam could see where the alley dumped out into the main road. It looked like they were going to come out in the middle of one of the open air markets. Liam tilted his toe and the hover bike accelerated through the thin alley, the clay walls narrowing until less than a meter remained on either side. They burst out of the alley, making a quick turn. Out of the sky an Ansaran ship dropped down, sending a cloud of dust into Liam’s eyes and forcing him to brake hard. He lost control of the hover bike and it skidded across the sand, sending Ju-Long and Liam rolling to the side of the street. They tumbled to a stop and lay there, motionless.

Liam’s body ached as he began to check himself over for injuries. Remarkably, the sand was fairly forgiving and his rough cloak took the brunt of the impact. Its brown earthy color had become beige, the fine grains of sand seemingly woven into his cloak. Liam lay on his back shielding his eyes from the sun. The Ansaran ship had landed and the soldiers approached, dressed in their usual beige garb with an oblong helmet and a black slit to see. Their weapons were drawn and pointed at Liam and Ju-Long, who lay to his left, cradling the hand where Saturn had stabbed him. Apparently sand didn’t agree with his wound.

The street, once bustling with Dinari, was now empty. The doors of the clay buildings shut behind them as they took cover inside. Liam saw numerous pairs of eyes watching the scene through their windows. The Dinari he’d met didn’t suggest they were a meek race, but maybe Liam’s sample was skewed. The average Dinari looked terrified of the Ansaran soldiers.

“Halt, outsider,” one of the soldiers said. “You’re coming with us.”

Liam and Ju-long’s eyes met and they seemed to be on the same page. Ju-Long slowly sat up, his hands raised, and said, “What was our crime?”

The Ansaran soldiers both turned to Ju-Long with weapons leveled at his chest. “Hold it, don’t move.”

Liam’s hand traveled down his side and found his energy weapon. He put a hand on the grip and squeezed. He could feel it pulsate as it built up energy at the tip.

Ju-Long held his hands out defensively. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re here at the behest of the Caretaker.”

“Shut up, outsider. Put your hands behind your head and turn onto your stomach.”

Ju-Long complied and the Ansaran soldiers approached Ju-Long, but before they could reach him Liam pulled his weapon from its holster and released the pressure that had been building up at the tip. A ball of electricity hit the nearest guard square in the chest and he toppled over, convulsing on the sand.

Liam quickly gripped the weapon hard once more and released a smaller blast at the second soldier. It was enough to knock him to the ground and drop his weapon, but it hardly stunned him. Soon the soldier was reaching for his gun, his fingers wrapping around its handle and suddenly going limp. Ju-Long landed a crushing blow to the soldier’s helmet with his good hand, cracking the visor and sending the Ansaran’s head into the compacted sand.

Ju-Long fell to one knee with both hands hanging limp at his sides. The crushing blow he’d dealt sounded like it hurt Ju-Long as much as the other guy. Liam holstered his weapon and dragged Ju-Long to his feet by his forearm. He felt the eyes of dozens of Dinari on him as he led Ju-Long away.

“Let’s get out of here,” Liam said. “More will be on their way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]22

With Ju-Long’s help, Liam raised the hover bike upright and powered it on. The bike sputtered before raising itself up half a meter. The two of them mounted it, Ju-Long grasping Liam’s cloak, and the hand he’d used to punch the soldier hanging uselessly at his side. The hologram of the Garuda Colony map flickered in and out, the red dot that marked the hangar jumped around to several locations, trying to get its bearings. Liam swung his hand through the image and hit the dash with a closed fist. The transparent lines of the map turned solid, clearly visible once again in the bright morning sun.

“Hold on,” Liam said before pressing down his toes and accelerating down the dirt road.

Liam veered the hover bike right along a bend and the street was once again full of Dinari. They were headed through the middle of a street market with countless carts and booths blocking their way. Liam slowed the bike and maneuvered around the stands. As he approached, the Dinari wisely moved out of his way. They were going slow enough that several of the Dinari stopped and stared at Liam’s face under his hood. A few of them pointed and spoke amongst themselves. Liam imagined seeing an alien roaming the streets of Toronto during the New Year’s Festival. The news would have traveled far faster on Earth, where the technology was primarily concerned with sharing information fast rather than more useful pursuits like feeding its people.

Liam broke through the far edge of the street market and accelerated once more, making a few turns through alleys out of caution. In five minutes they were approaching the red dot on their map. Liam came to a halt at the edge of an alley looking out onto one of the main streets. The red dot was flashing straight ahead. He looked across the street and saw a massive structure that was five stories tall and stretched for a few city blocks. The structure was metal with tendrils of clay creeping up from the bottom, as though it was being eaten by the sand. In front of them there was a large hangar door that was open several meters. Enough room for a hover bike.

“What are you waiting for?” Ju-Long asked.

Liam turned his head over his shoulder and replied, “I’m making sure we weren’t followed.”

They waited a couple of minutes without hearing any Ansaran ships in their vicinity. Liam nodded and pressed his foot down, jetting across the street and through the open hangar door. When they made it through the corrugated metal door dropped behind them, slamming on the ground with a thud that reverberated throughout the building. The sound caught Liam off guard and he broke hard.

The hangar was lit mostly by two rows of skylights several stories above them. Liam looked down the row of ships, unable to see the end. In front of them was a large craft with sharp wings that folded back over its frame like a bug. The body was rounded on the bottom and terminated at a sharp point where the cockpit would be. It was easily seventy-five meters long and twenty-five wide when the wings were back. The ship was a copper color, but made from an alloy unknown to Liam. Instead of being smooth like the Ansaran vessels, this ship was asymmetrical, with bits and pieces thrown together on the outside hodgepodge as though repairs had been frequent over the years. Sand was caked in the crevices making it appear even older.

A voice greeted them from behind.

“What took you so long?”

Nix stood with arms crossed, Saturn to his right and their bikes pushed into a corner behind them. His hood was down and the light from the skylights bore down on his tan scales. Liam and Ju-Long got off the hover bike and faced him.

“We got held up, but we took care of it,” Liam replied.

Nix’s expression turned grave and he dropped his hands to his side.

“You took care of it? Were you seen?”

“We’re here and we weren’t followed, so can we get on with this?”

Nix’s gaze moved to Ju-Long’s broken hand and he seemed to understand. He walked toward the craft and started pushing buttons on a control panel off its starboard side. The computer terminal came out of the ground and appeared to control the hangar doors and the clamps that held the landing gear in place. When Nix pressed a button on the console a hologram appeared over it. Nix swiped his hand and the clamps were released. With another swipe, the doors opposite them began to open.

“Get inside,” Nix said. “We haven’t got much time.”

When Liam approached the ship a ramp came down from its underbelly and clanked against the concrete floors. Liam made his way up the ramp and was quickly joined by the others. At the top of the ramp, Nix pressed a red button on the wall and it retracted, the air compressing around it as they were sealed inside.

They were in a cargo area with several metal boxes strapped to the floor along the wall. The room was rectangular but rounded at the edges to conform to the ship. The walls curved up like the abdomen of a beetle. On either side of the cargo area were circular doorways. Nix immediately went to the right corridor and walked toward the front of the ship. Liam and the crew followed along the curved dimly lit path, looking to the left through several doorways as they passed. They passed a kitchen and some sort of meeting area on their way forward. The path curved in toward the center before a circular entryway marked the cockpit.

Inside there were four seats upholstered with cracked leather made from an unfamiliar animal. It was harder than cow leather and dried out from the desert planet. What would have been high quality at one time was now broken and uncomfortable. The cockpit was a good size with two chairs facing the front and two behind them facing each other, each with a console of their own. A center aisle a meter wide separated the pilot’s chairs.

Nix sat down in the pilot’s seat and powered on the craft. Above his console was a holographic image of the vessel in a soft orange color which grew brighter as the ship came to life. Liam could hear the whir of the engines and wondered how they were powered. Were they made with the same technology that powered the lifts in the spire? The alien technology was so foreign at times that it hardly seemed possible.

Through the glass window of the cockpit Liam could see the hangar doors open wide, the busy street bustling on the other side. Nix put his hand through a circular metal rung and grabbed a handle on the other side. It was like no controls he’d ever seen, but it somehow felt familiar.

The handle came up off the console and the circular piece of metal clamped down lightly on his arm. When he tilted his hand up the engine groaned and the vessel was lifted up into the air a few meters. Nix pushed his arm forward and the ship moved through the hangar doors and out into the bright yellow sun.

Nix used his free hand to make a gesture over the holographic image of the ship. Liam heard a loud sound from behind them and the wings of the ship spread out. Their wingspan was now almost as long as the ship itself.

Liam looked up through the cockpit window at the sun. The window was wide at the front and tapered off into a half meter sliver which ran most of the length of the cockpit above them. Liam looked at Saturn and Ju-Long who were bathed in yellow-orange light. They stood behind Nix watching him maneuver the vessel up above the spires.

“You might want to take your seats,” Nix suggested.

Liam sat down in the seat beside him while Saturn and Ju-Long strapped themselves into the seats behind them. Liam turned to Nix and asked, “Are the Ansarans going to try to block our path?”

“It’s taken care of, though I may owe a favor to a friend at the shipping authority after this.”

As if on cue, two Ansaran vessels came up on either side of them. A channel opened and a voice came through. “Dinari vessel. Transmit your port codes now or be shot from the sky.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]23

Nix flipped a thin metal switch on the console and pressed a finger down on one of the screens. The screen filled up with an encoded message. Several seconds passed with Liam and the crew holding their breath. Finally, the Ansaran voice came back.

“Your flight plan has been cleared. Godspeed.”

The voice cut out and Nix closed the channel. Liam breathed out a sigh of relief. He asked, “What did you send them?”

“I arranged for us to deliver goods to the Disciples on Garuda’s moon. Even the least pious Ansaran wouldn’t want to risk angering the gods.”

Nix was hiding a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Without warning, Nix pulled back on the control handle and the ship shot up toward the sky. On their way up, Nix retracted the wings until they were once again facing the rear of the ship, conforming to the lines of the vessel. Through the window of the cockpit Liam could see the craft heating up, though the metal didn’t turn orange like the mining craft. Whatever hardy material it was made from was meant to go in and out of an atmosphere at will. The vessel hardly shook at all as they breached the upper atmosphere into outer space.

Liam felt the familiar feeling of weightlessness creep over his insides. Nix seemed to feel the same sensation, because he quickly said, “Sorry, I almost forgot.”

He flipped a copper switch and Liam’s feet hit the floor, his insides feeling like they just hit the bottom of a roller coaster. The Dinari’s artificial gravity technology was far beyond their own, though Liam couldn’t discern how it worked. It was indistinguishable from being on the surface of Garuda, still just ninety percent of Earth’s gravity, but at least enough to know which way was up.

Nix accelerated the craft as they left the atmosphere, gaining speed until they were traveling far faster than their old mining craft was capable. Liam read the numbers on Nix’s screen, which through his translation chip he knew meant they were traveling seven hundred and fifty thousand kilometers an hour and gaining. Nix released his grip on the handle and pulled his arm out of the loop. He pressed a few commands on the screen and sat back in his chair. “It will be about an hour until she reaches the moon.”

Liam examined the star charts on his screen and nodded. “Enough time for breakfast. Where do we eat on this thing?”

“Follow me,” Nix replied. “I’ll make you the dish of my people.”

 

 

The galley was a compact room with sturdy metal cabinets along the wall across from the entrance and a single table with a cook-top in the center, positioned in the middle of the chamber. Nix was feverishly adding ingredients to a pan with no regard for measurements while Liam, Ju-Long, and Saturn looked on in awe. The ingredients he was using bore similarities to vegetation on Earth, but with striking differences. The colors were mostly a deep purple that Liam remembered seeing on the surface of the planet.

Nix turned off the flame at the center of the table and removed the copper pan from the heat. Inside, several plants swirled in a creamy broth. The odor was pungent in Liam’s nostrils, prompting him to cover his nose with the back of his hand, his eyes watering. Liam watched Nix continue to add all manner of ingredients while stirring the concoction steadily to mix in the spices. It looked appetizing enough, but smelled like feet mixed with curry and mold.

“This is Leguma,” Nix said while dishing up four bowls and passing one to each of them.

The mixture didn’t cook for long, but it was bubbling from the heat even after it was poured in a bowl. Nix didn’t provide any utensils so Liam waited to see how Nix planned to eat it. The dish was more of a stew, with bits of meat and vegetables and a long plant that looked like purple seaweed churning around the creamy orange broth. Nix picked up his bowl and said “Dinevra.” For a moment Liam thought his translator had broken before realizing there must not have been a translation for the phrase. Nix raised the bowl up to his tilted head and poured from several centimeters above his mouth, the stew boiling as it touched his tongue but not phasing him in the slightest.

Liam looked around at Saturn and Ju-Long, who each were fussing with the heat coming off the soup, blowing continuously to cool it down. Liam raised the bowl to his lips and took a sip of the broth, slurping loudly to cool it as it went down his throat. The taste was sharp, several spices dancing on his tongue as he tried to decide whether it was a pleasant or repulsive flavor. To his surprise, the spices overpowered any of the less enticing smells and the effect was a delicious, albeit scalding, dish.

Liam took a sip of water to cool down his mouth and watched Nix smile with his set of pointed teeth. His bowl was already empty and he was patting his stomach, slightly rounded from the meal. Liam had never seen him so elated or relaxed.

“What do you think?” Nix asked Liam.

“I think I need to let it cool down, but it’s delicious. It’s not what I would have expected. How’d this dish come about?”

“A long time ago, the Dinari ate mostly meat. Animals were plentiful on Ansara. Thousands of species to eat. On Garuda, very few plants grow and they are usually found along the water. This dish represents everything we could find on Garuda. Our resources might be scarce, but our imaginations are anything but.”

Saturn and Ju-Long each tried a sip and their expressions turned from skeptical to that of surprise. Ju-Long seemed to like it the best, because he slurped down most of the broth in a single sip and started picking out the vegetables and forcing them in his mouth. Ju-Long was about to put the long purple seaweed into his mouth when Nix stopped him.

“The Nerva plant has many benefits when eaten, but that’s not its only use. Give me your hand.”

Ju-Long put the hand Saturn had stabbed with a fork on the table, Nerva plant still in his grasp. Nix removed the makeshift bandage he wore and wrapped the purple length of vegetation around Ju-Long’s scabbed hand. Liam watched as the purple plant took on a darker and darker shade until it was withered and black. It took only a minute to shrivel to half its size, the plant’s moisture absorbing into Ju-Long’s hand.

“It feels hot,” Ju-Long said.

“It will fade,” Nix replied. “The Nerva Plant’s oils are a stimulant to cell repair.”

Saturn looked confused and asked Nix, “What happens when it’s eaten?”

“I assure you it will do no harm. It’s mild on the stomach and it helps with digestion.”

Ju-Long removed the shriveled black plant from his hand and observed his palm. The punctures where the fork had struck looked like they’d progressed several days in the healing process in a matter of minutes. Most of the scabbing had flaked off and the punctures were red around the edges. Ju-Long flexed his hand and made a fist. “Most of the pain is gone,” he said, smiling wide.

Liam picked up his bowl of Leguma and slurped down the rest of the broth, chewing the chunks of vegetables last. To his surprise, the taste continued to grow on him as he ate it. When he was down to the purple seaweed Ju-Long reached into his bowl and snatched the long piece of vegetation, wrapping his broken hand.

“Really, Ju-Long?”

“Hey, I need it. If you want some maybe you should lift a finger in this operation.”

Liam scowled. Despite the progress he seemed to have made, Ju-Long was still as ill-mannered as ever.

Nix was the first to stand up from the table. He collected the bowls into the empty pot and put them in one of the metal cabinets, sealing it tight behind them. Nix pressed a button on a panel next to the cabinet and then it began to shake, slowly at first and then growing in intensity until it was vibrating at such a high frequency the movement was hardly noticeable. Reading Liam’s confused face, Nix said, “Sonic washer. No use wasting water in space.”

A red light flashed on the ceiling, pulsing along with a soft tone. Nix regarded the light and his expression changed. He turned serious and moved quickly toward the doorway. At the edge he turned and said, “We’re approaching Garuda’s moon.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]24

The cockpit was awash in crimson light when Liam entered and took his seat to the left of Nix. Ahead of them a dark planetary body steadily grew in size as they approached. The system’s sun was behind Garuda, leaving the moon in darkness. Few lights danced on the surface where the ruins must have been. Liam squinted, trying to make out the outline of the ruins, but was unable to see anything but the blackness of the surface and a serrated rocky landscape.

Nix fired the reverse thrusters, slowing down their craft so they could make their descent. For a moment, the window of the cockpit was flooded with the pressure of the thin atmosphere, but the effect quickly dissipated. Liam swiped his hand along the control panel in front of him and read the readouts. The moon had a far thinner atmosphere than Garuda but had enough air pressure so their heads wouldn’t explode. Always good news. The temperature was negative fifty degrees Celsius and there was hardly any oxygen in the air.

Nix noticed Liam fussing over the display and put a hand on his arm. “Don’t worry, friend. Sunrise is coming and you’ll find the temperature much more suitable.”

“With the thin atmosphere, how are we supposed to breathe?” Saturn asked.

Liam felt the air resistance build as they descended. Nix leveled out the ship and let the drag slow them down further.

“There are breathing apparatuses in the cargo hold. The temperature should rise above freezing within minutes of sunrise.”

Ju-Long put a hand on the back of Nix’s seat and asked, “How hot will it get?”

“Due to the rotation of the moon and constant heating and cooling cycles it won’t get nearly as hot as Garuda.”

Nix slipped his arm through the ring on the console and grabbed the control handle. With his left hand he pressed the release for the wings and there was a rumble as they extended. They were only ten kilometers from the surface now and the ground was fast approaching. Nix fired a controlled burst of the thrusters and they slowed even further.

The sun began to creep around the surface of the moon and lit up the surface. The moon was rocky, with jagged monoliths jutting violently out of the surface in all directions. Nix maneuvered the ship to a flat area ahead of them just wide enough for the craft to land. Nix seemed to know exactly where he was going as he twisted his arm and moved the ship into landing position. When they reached the flat area Nix fired all thrusters and they hovered directly over the rocky plain. Nix slowly twisted his arm down and Liam felt a crunch as the landing gear flattened some small rocks.

The sun was peeking up over the monolithic rocks and piercing the cockpit window, blinding Liam and the crew. Nix removed his arm from the control handle and flipped a switch to his right. The cockpit window polarized and the light abated. He flipped another switch and the red warning lights ceased. Nix turned around and said, “Welcome to Garuda’s moon, home of the Disciples of Re and very little besides.”

Nix unbuckled his straps and Liam and the crew followed suit. When Liam stood up he saw a light out in the distance among a particularly jagged collection of rocks. Liam pointed it out and asked Nix, “What is that?”

“Our welcoming committee.”

Nix powered down the engines and led the way out of the cockpit, past the dining area, and into the cargo hold. When they reached the hold, Nix flipped a switch on the wall and two copper hull plates opened, revealing a deep cabinet with gear for seemingly any occasion. He began pulling out breathing masks and handing them around.

Liam lifted the metal and rubber mask to his face but the edges wouldn’t form a seal around his mouth and nose. Nix reached over and twisted a rusted metal knob under Liam’s chin. The mask adjusted and Liam could feel the rubber clamp down snugly over his skin. The ancient mask made Liam uneasy. Some of the technology on the ship looked too old to function, though admittedly their landing on Garuda’s moon had been a lot smoother than their previous attempt on Garuda. There was something to be said about tech that just plain worked.

Nix helped Saturn and Ju-Long adjust their masks and then affixed his own, which went on much more smoothly. When Nix spoke, his voice was metallic like he was speaking through a fan. “Ready to go?”

“Ready,” Liam said, marveling at the sound of his own voice through the apparatus.

Saturn moved over to the ramp and slammed a fist against the large release switch. When the ramp lowered a burst of cold air came rushing up at the crew, blowing their cloaks up behind them. Liam blocked the rush as best he could with his arm but he still had to catch himself on his back foot to keep from being blown away. After a moment the gusts subsided and Nix motioned for them to follow as he descended the ramp.

“How are you able to handle this cold?” Saturn called down to Nix, her voice tinny through the mask.

“Generally the Dinari do not like the cold, but this is not my first journey here. Zega used to send me on these runs every month. Once the sun rises it will be fine.”

Nix was right. Liam hadn’t checked the monitors before he left the ship, but the temperature was a far cry from negative fifty degrees Celsius. In ten minutes it had raised perhaps to negative twenty. The sun was rising over the jagged spires of rock and the thin rays which pierced the monoliths beat down on his face, a welcome refrain from the cold breeze.

The ground was covered in a thin layer of frost, though there was no snow or bodies of water to be seen. The air itself seemed to be chilled with the strong humidity surrounding them. The moon’s black soil crunched under Liam’s feet as he followed after Nix, who walked with deep strides away from the ship and toward the distant light. Liam turned to look back at the ship and the ramp had raised up behind them, its lights fading until only the sporadic rays of sunlight could distinguish it from the darkness.

The crew walked for fifteen minutes until they reached the edge of the flat landing area and came upon the dramatic rock faces. Nix pointed out a small path between them. Liam slowed, gazing up at the angled pillars, black even in the light of the sun. Despite the rising sun he could make out countless stars in the sky behind him. Liam had never seen stars from Earth’s surface. The feeling was humbling.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” Saturn asked him.

“Yeah,” Liam replied.

Ju-Long stopped behind them, heavy metallic breaths emanating from his breathing apparatus. He looked up at the stars and commented, “I guess it beats the mine.”

Saturn rolled her eyes and then continued walking at a brisk pace in an attempt to catch up to Nix.

“You’re real smooth, you know that?” Liam chided.

Ju-Long’s cheeks moved with what Liam assumed was a smile. “Because you’re a real charmer.”

Ju-Long didn’t wait for a reply before starting off after Saturn and Nix. Liam shook his head and continued on. He tried not to let Ju-Long get to him. So he wasn’t the best with his words; of the two human males in that part of the galaxy, Liam was a veritable Casanova.

The light up ahead split into two distinct orbs much like the orbs of light Liam had seen on Garuda. They were only a hundred meters away now and Liam began to make out the two figures carrying the orbs. They wore masks that obscured their faces and dark cloaks that matched the color of the rocky soil. From their height and stature Liam could tell they were Ansaran and he instinctively moved a hand down to his energy weapon.

When they were twenty meters apart Nix raised a hand in greeting. The two Ansarans bowed their heads in response, stopping five meters shy of the crew. From up close, Liam got a better look at the masks. They were mirrored, he assumed to reflect the sun, and came to a point over the nose. One of them removed the top portion of their mask, revealing stark white scales that were smoother than any fish he’d ever seen. He was far paler than the Ansarans on Garuda and had piercing ice blue eyes to match. A deep steely voice spoke through the lower portion of the shiny metal mask, his eyes squinting as he spoke, “You have some nerve coming back here, Nix.”

Liam’s gaze quickly turned to their Dinari guide, who stood frozen with his arms at his side. Liam kept his hand by his weapon, his fingers slowly finding their way to the grip. Nix took a step forward and pulled down the hood of his cloak, eyes trained on the Disciple. “I would not be here if it were not important.”

“We have seen your coming,” the Disciple said, breaking eye contact with Nix. “Your presence does not bode well for us. You bring darkness in your wake.”

“Then all the better I’m with the worshippers of the sun,” Nix quipped.

“So it is,” the Disciple said with hesitation. “Why have you come?”

“I have brought outsiders who have seen a terrible omen. The Kraven attacked them and they lived to speak of it.”

For the first time the Disciple seemed to notice Liam, Saturn, and Ju-Long. His eyes squinted and deep lines appeared on his brow. If he was surprised to see a new species in his galaxy he hid it well. After giving Liam a prolonged look he turned to Nix and said, “Why bring that kind of trouble here, young one?”

“I come regarding the Gift of Re.”

The Disciple’s eyes widened and he exchanged a hurried glance with his companion. He replaced the top portion of his reflective mask and bowed his head. “We will speak of this inside.”

The Disciple turned and made off toward a particularly massive rock face. It took them another ten minutes of walking to reach the ruins. Dozens of black pillars jutted out of the ground lining the path to the temple. Each was several meters in circumference and chipped from countless years of erosion. Liam couldn’t quite see the sun over the top of the temple, which seemed to grow more ominous with every approaching step.

The temple itself was built into the side of what seemed to be the largest piece of rock on the moon. The stone came out of the ground at an angle to Liam’s right, lit up by the reflection of the sun off the surface of Garuda. The black rock extended back farther than he could see. Bits of the walls were crumbling along the sides and a faint glow emanated from within.

The entryway alone was twice Liam’s height and four times as wide. There was no door; instead, the entryway led into a courtyard with skylights blasted through the rock overhead in consummate squares. The Disciples led them through the courtyard, past several monuments and statues of creatures unfamiliar to Liam. There were at least a hundred carvings, each of them unique, depicting a different life form. Liam had to admit a few looked downright monstrous.

One stone carving spanned the length of the wall; a mural of a flying creature with scales and wings that looked too patchwork to remain aloft. The creature was incredibly long and had a dozen beefy legs with as many faces. It occurred to Liam that the creature might not have existed at all, like dragons on Earth. Despite the lack of physical evidence, Liam had always been a believer in dragons. He wondered how nearly every culture on Earth had at least one story of a dragon, even if their descriptions were far different from one another. Surely it was not a coincidence.

“What is that?” Liam asked Nix, pointing at the carved mural.

Nix glanced at the carving and smiled. “It’s nothing. A children’s story. On Garuda there is a myth of a terrifying creature which would come for the weakest of the Ansaran and Dinari children. The faces represent the many ways the creature has been described. The only consistency is that it is flying and terrifying. In fact, the stories were so pervasive, the planet itself was named for the creature.”

As they continued to follow the Disciples, Saturn asked, “Why would the subject of a myth be here with the Disciples? Don’t they worship your sun?”

The Disciple that had spoken with Nix stopped and turned around. He tucked his hands into the sleeves of his cloak. “We do not worship only our sun. Re is the god of all suns, even yours. The Garuda is said to be his instrument.”

The Disciple turned and continued walking, leaving Saturn looking browbeaten. Ju-Long walked past her and said, “Looks like a dragon to me.”

“Shut up, Ju-Long,” she retorted.

At the end of the courtyard the Disciples stopped at a round metal door. The stone frame of the door was connected to one of the carvings, its round tentacles encapsulating the rim. Liam’s eyes were drawn to the right where an animal with six legs and a muscular horse-like body was drawn up on its four hind legs, its sharply angled face bearing an expression of ire. A dozen tentacles shot out from its eyes toward the entryway. Liam clenched his jaw. He wondered if such horrifying creatures actually existed in this part of the galaxy. However, despite its frightening qualities, the creature’s face bore similarities to the Ansarans.

One of their Ansaran guides took their hand out of their cloak and pulled a lever on the door’s complicated surface. A mess of gears churned and the door swung toward them, sighing as the pressure was released. The Disciples of Re stepped through into the passageway, which was lit only by the orbs of light they carried with them.

Liam moved to follow them but Nix turned and stopped him, a hand placed flat across his chest. He bore a serious look in his eyes, which was confirmed when he spoke softly through the breathing apparatus. “Tread lightly inside the temple. The Disciples are easily offended and do not take kindly to outside points of view. We must find what we are after and take our leave. We mustn’t dawdle.”

Liam nodded and Nix looked to Saturn and Ju-Long for similar looks of acknowledgement. Nix removed his hand from Liam’s chest and strode through the circular doorway after the Disciples. Liam and Ju-Long followed after him but stopped when Saturn didn’t follow.

“What’s wrong?” Liam asked her.

“This place creeps me out. I feel like we’re walking into some kind of weird sacrificial ritual.”

“We have to trust Nix. We’ve come this far.”

Saturn’s eyes closed and she nodded in agreement, walking up the steps past them and through the doorway into the dark. Ju-Long’s face bore a sign of hesitation as well. Liam wasn’t surprised. The Ansarans had proven to be less than trustworthy throughout their journey and despite the differences between the Ansarans on Garuda and the Disciples on its moon, Liam was skeptical of their motives. He clenched his jaw tight beneath his mask and walked through the doorway, mentally preparing himself for whatever he might see inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]25

The dark passage wound along the outer wall of the temple, the only light coming from the orbs carried by the Disciples far in front of Liam. The ground was a smooth stone that clicked and clacked as his feet shuffled along through the shadows. The temperature rose the farther they walked toward the temple’s core, the passage spiraling inward as they went. The Disciple’s lights were dim by the time they reached the walls around Liam, but he still got the feeling the ceiling was rising up, making the passage appear even darker. Liam bumped into Saturn, prompting a cry of protest. “Watch your hands, buddy.”

The slim passage began to widen and the echoes of their footsteps sounded farther away. They scuffled into what appeared to be a very large chamber somewhere near the center of the temple. The Disciples stopped several meters in front of Liam and approached a pedestal which rose out of the ground, in one piece with the stone on the ground. One of the Disciples put his orb on the pedestal and it grew to three times its normal size, rising into the air unsupported. The orb became so bright it hurt Liam’s eyes to look in its direction.

When he looked away the chamber walls were illuminated, covered with carvings of beasts and countless Ansarans and Dinari. Some were in the heat of battle while others shook hands with figures that could only have depicted gods. The Disciple that had spoken to Nix before removed the reflective top portion of his mask once more.

In the bright light it was apparent just how pale his skin really was. He removed the hood of his cloak and unbuckled the strap on his breathing apparatus. Once removed, Liam saw that he had a thin mouth that curved down at the edges and a nose that sloped into a point. Purple veins crawled up his cheeks, plainly visible underneath nearly translucent skin. The Disciple took a deep breath of the musty air and slowly let it out. With his mask off he seemed to relax a bit. “I have not yet introduced myself. I am Xara, High Priest of this temple and a Disciple of Re. Pray, tell me what you know about the Gift of Re.”

His voice was deep and cutting at the same time. He was calm as he spoke but maintained an air of dominance and authority. Nix pulled on the strap of his breathing apparatus and twisted the copper knob on his chin. The mask came off and rested in his clawed hand. “I am told it is a wonder that has the power to transport the bearer to a far off land.”

Liam remembered different language being used in The Sand’s Edge, but kept quiet despite his usual inclination to speak first. He wasn’t used to sitting in the passenger seat and traveling across the galaxy seemed to have taken him down a peg. He was a stranger in a new land with no concept of Dinari and Ansaran customs but what little the chip in his head could tell him. For instance, he knew Xara’s sloped nose was indicative of his high position, that genetics played a role in his selection, but he wouldn’t have known that if he hadn’t seen Xara’s nose in the first place. It was a strange feeling for him to know so little about what was going on around him.

The further they delved into unknown territory the more he felt adrift. Despite Nix’s knowledge of the area, Liam was still in charge of his crew. He watched Nix closely as he spoke to Xara, listening for any hint of betrayal. It wasn’t like him to be so paranoid, but he had his crew to look after and their lives were more important than anything else.

Xara’s pale hands clenched together in front of his cloak, the cracks from his knuckles resounding off the walls. His frown deepened and his blue eyes shifted between each of the crew. With his deep voice he said, “So you do know of it.”

Xara turned his back to them and walked up to the pedestal where the orb was hovering. When he was in front of it Liam could only see his sturdy outline. He bowed his head and placed his hands out on top of the small stone pedestal, his shoulders hunched over it as his small claws dug into the rock.

“Two months ago by the days of Garuda, we received a shipment of goods from the High Council on Ansara. Ours is not the most visible temple in the colonies, but the council rarely forgets we are here. In this shipment, placed among the containers of food and water, was a small case. No matter the measure of strength, we could not open it as there were no seams. The box remained in storage for a month while we decided what to do with it.”

Xara’s booming voice grew softer and he turned around to face the crew, hands clenched together in front of him.

“The answer came to Brother Fayn during his prayers. He placed it on this pedestal as he spoke to the Disciples. Fayn said that Re spoke to him. Re told him that the box would open when all of the brothers were together in this room and when a true test of their faith was measured. The contents of the box would be His gift.”

Liam took a step toward Xara and asked, “Were you able to open it?”

“We were,” Xara replied, coming back to the moment. “Much to my dismay.”

“I thought you said it was a gift.” Ju-Long interjected.

Xara’s face was solemn, his perpetual frown evened out for the first time and he stared up at the ceiling with a tear welling up in his eye. The orb spun around above him, the light pounding down on the room, though no heat reached Liam. Xara regarded Ju-Long for a moment before replying, “Everything is a gift, really.”

“You speak now in riddles,” Nix said harshly. “What happened with the box?”

Xara grimaced, pacing around the pedestal as though examining it for a reason for its existence. He spread his hands and gestured at the floor around them.

“We stood around the pedestal here, fourteen of us in all. Together we chanted the words of the Book of Re until His spirit filled all of us. The black box shivered with our sound, resonating along with the words. Soon, the box cracked, blue light pouring out into the room. A hidden seal revealed itself and the box transformed, a thousand cubes collapsing outward until there was nothing but a flat black surface on top of the pedestal. But the orb! That blue orb of light hidden inside was too powerful to regard. Soon, it too changed. The light swirled above the pedestal, flattening out before us and creating a passage, ever larger.”

“The wormhole,” Liam suggested.

Xara appeared offended, dropping his outstretched hands before correcting Liam, “The Gift of Re.”

Liam didn’t want to get into an argument over semantics. Instead, he replied with his tinny voice, “Do you know where the passage led?”

“No,” Xara said, disappointment crossing his voice. “The vortex was strong. Fayn was the closest to the pedestal and was pulled through.”

“What happened to him?” Saturn asked with concern.

“Re measured his faith and he was deemed worthy. Fayn was taken to the Realm of the Gods.”

Silence fell over the chamber as Xara’s words sunk in. The pale Ansaran seemed to be jealous of Fayn’s disappearance. Xara’s companion shook his head solemnly when Fayn’s name had come up. At least one of the Disciples wasn’t enthused over Fayn’s miraculous journey.

Liam scratched his head and thought hard. What little Liam knew about wormholes was being challenged. The vortex that took them across the galaxy was far larger than what could have fit in that room. But if the box could somehow be amplified…

“Where is the box now?” Liam asked, his voice betraying a sense of urgency.

“Gone. Stolen by a wretched thief; a blasphemer no less.”

Before Liam could get out the words, Nix asked, “A Disciple?”

Xara nodded. “Yes. Several disciples saw an unfamiliar man dressed in our garb enter the temple.”

“Sounds like you could use better security,” Ju-Long chimed in. “Did he just walk out with it?”

“This is a place of worship. All are welcome. The thief came while most of us were asleep. Only when he was in the courtyard did the brothers see him flee with the box. The fact that someone would steal an artifact such as this is what baffles me. I do not know what purpose the thief could have for it. The bearer would surely be taken from this land like Fayn, though their destination could hardly be the same.”

Liam adjusted his breathing apparatus, which was chafing his chin, and asked, “What else can you tell us about the thief?”

“Based on his build, I would say he was Ansaran. More than that, I could not say as he wore a mask of the Disciples.”

“Not an awful lot to go on,” Saturn said under her breath.

“Careful outsider,” Xara’s deep voice boomed. “Mind your surroundings. An insult to the Disciples is an insult to Re as we are his vessels.”

Nix took her arm and started leading her away, giving a slight bow to Xara as he did. His golden eyes reflected the orb’s light so his pupils were hardly visible. Still, it was apparent to Liam that Nix was making for the door. They had found out all they were going to from the Disciples of Re and staying any longer might prove troublesome. Liam nodded to Ju-Long, who followed him as he started toward the passageway.

Nix waved a clawed hand to Xara and said, “We thank you for your hospitality and your insights. Until next time, old friend.”

When Nix turned he was face to face with two Disciples of Re, barring his path from the passage to the exit. He and Saturn took a few steps back, bumping into Liam and Ju-Long. Nix turned to confront Xara. “You would defy the laws of hospitality? We are guests in this temple.”

Xara smiled, revealing numerous pointed teeth like needles in his mouth. “The laws also state that a gift to the gods will be rendered upon entry to the temple. No one has ever brought outsiders to our midst. Surely our laws apply to them as well.”

“Our ship,” Nix said quickly. “Zega sends his regards with supplies from Sector Seven. When we reach our ship, you’ll have them.”

Xara eyed Liam, Saturn, and Ju-Long. His long tongue caressed the inside of his pointed teeth, peeking through the cracks with its slimy tip. Three more Disciples entered the chamber from the opposite side. They were surrounded. Xara shifted his gaze to Nix and spat, “For your arrogance, Re requires flesh. The outsiders for your life, rake.”

Nix released Saturn’s arm and looked to Liam as though appraising his options. Liam noticed Nix’s fingers slowly crawling down his leg to his energy weapon. His eyes communicated everything Liam needed to know. Several things happened all at once. Nix gripped his weapon and drew it on Xara, a ball of lightning forming at its tip. Liam drew his crescent-shaped gun and pointed it at the guards behind them. It took only a second for Saturn and Ju-Long to realize what was happening and have their weapons in hand as well. They stood there with their backs against one another, weapons pointed at the Disciples of Re, charged with enough energy to kill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]26

“Blasphemy,” Xara’s voice boomed throughout the chamber. “You would defile this house of the gods?”

“You’ve done a fine job of that yourself,” Liam remarked.

Liam and the crew began inching toward the exit, but the Disciples wouldn’t budge. Xara stepped forward and released a bellow that shook the chamber. His long pointed teeth an afterthought as his muscles bulged under his cloak. Liam could see his body growing, filling out his robes until he no longer looked like a Disciple of Re at all, but some monstrous thing, an embodiment of the frightening creatures carved into the stone of the temple.

“What did I say about pissing off the Disciples?” Nix asked Liam over the din.

The Disciples advanced, pouncing with the ferocity of so many predators. Nix shot first, a burst of energy cascading out of the tip of his weapon, scorching a hole clean through one of the Disciples. Liam and the rest of the crew fired their weapons and disabled three more. Xara’s two remaining brothers were on them, slashing Nix across his forearm as he blocked their attacks. Liam’s weapon wasn’t fully charged but he let a bolt go at the nearest Disciple. The Ansaran fell to the ground in convulsions, a circle of charred cloth melted into his flesh.

Nix took the remaining Disciple to the ground, grappling with him as Ju-Long tried to pry him away. Saturn turned her weapon to Xara, the ball of energy at its tip swirling intensely. Xara’s pale eyes stared back at her, saliva dripping from his open mouth. His hands curled into fists and his forearms split the once loose-hanging cloth. Liam heard a sickening crack and turned his gaze to Nix, who’d just finished his fight with the Disciple, the Ansaran’s neck twisted at a horrible angle.

Xara’s face was nearly unrecognizable. His purple veins pulsed under his translucent skin, blood pumping furiously. When the last Disciple was taken out he let out a piercing scream. Saturn loosed her bolt of energy, hitting Xara square in the chest. His cloak was immediately charred and he stepped back to keep his balance. Though his skin was burned he was otherwise unfazed.

“What the hell?” Saturn said to herself, readying another charge.

More Disciples had heard Xara’s screams and entered from the far side of the chamber. When they saw what was happening they started toward them with surprising speed.

“Run!” Nix yelled.

They took off down the winding black corridor, lit only by the tips of their weapons, blue light swirling against the walls like a glut of jellyfish. Liam heard terrible noises behind him but he didn’t dare turn around for fear of losing momentum. There were crashes along the passage to his rear. Liam imagined Xara’s huge frame barreling down the corridor after them. For a moment he wondered if all Ansarans were monsters under lanky facades or if Xara was somehow different than the others. It didn’t matter. They needed to get back to the ship and get the hell off that moon.

Liam took up the rear, firing a shot backwards down the long hallway, which was promptly met with a scream and the sound of stumbling bodies. Liam didn’t wait for the weapon to charge completely. Instead, he just let a bolt go as soon as it was the size of his fist. Enough to stun a normal Ansaran.

Up ahead Liam caught sight of the courtyard. Nix was ahead of him struggling to put his mask back on before going outside. When he finally got the straps pulled tight he let out a large gust of air. Liam checked his own mask with his off hand, ensuring it was still secured in place.

The hallway funneled out into the collection of carved figures, the sun hanging over their heads along with the giant planet Garuda, so large in the sky above. Nix fired his weapon ahead of them, taking out a Disciple hiding among the ruins. Liam hadn’t even seen him, but the Disciple had been in the perfect position to ambush.

They passed through the courtyard quickly, reaching the far end just as more Disciples, led by Xara, breached the corridor, pouring into the dilapidated ruins. Xara loosed a terrible roar that reverberated through the statues of unknown creatures, causing some of them to crumble around Liam and the crew. Liam avoided a shard of stone and shot a blast of energy behind him without looking. A high-pitched yelp told him that he’d hit his mark.

Liam sprinted past the entrance to the temple and through the many monolithic pillars lining the path before him. Saturn loosed a bolt of energy behind her, the shot missing and hitting a column. The bolt cracked the base of the pillar and it slowly began to tilt until all Liam could do was watch as it fell, obstructing the path behind them. Xara and three more Disciples leapt over the fallen stone post with ease. Fortunately, Xara’s larger frame slowed him down and he was losing ground on the crew.

Liam was running out of breath. On the mine he’d never had to run and he’d lost a lot of his stamina. Now he was wishing he’d joined Saturn for laps around the mine. She ran alongside him, her mouth closed, breathing silently through her nose. Even with the sun bearing down overhead she hadn’t broken a sweat. Ju-Long on the other hand looked far more winded than Liam. He’d spent most of his time lifting weights at the mine. Since coming through the wormhole Liam had spotted him lifting crates to stay in shape, which was hardly helpful in that situation.

Nix jammed his hand inside the pocket of hi cloak and pulled out a flat circular object with a brushed metallic look to it. With his weapon hand he pressed a button in the center and the image of a rotating eye was projected out several centimeters. The image was golden, as though it belonged to another Dinari.

“I need a pickup,” Nix said with labored breath, voice tinny through his mask. “Bring it in hot.”

“What are you…talking to?” Liam managed to say in between strides.

Nix looked back over his shoulder, his eyes betraying a smile. He continued to surprise Liam. Everyone had their secrets. Some more than most. Being one of the latter, Liam could guess there was far more to the scrappy Dinari than he knew.

Before Nix could answer, the deafening sound of their ship’s engines filled the thin air around them. Liam’s eyes traveled up the ridge in front of him to the white searchlights scanning the ground around him. Liam chanced a glance over his shoulder. Xara’s Disciples were twenty meters behind them and Xara was not much farther back.

Nix spoke into the circular object once more, but Liam’s ears must have deceived him. He thought Nix had said ‘fire.’

Out of the sky, a thousand blue pellets of light rained down behind them, cutting through the three Disciples and eating holes into the black soil around them. Xara stopped in his tracks, releasing a howl that resounded against the jagged rocks around them. Liam and the crew stopped, their ship descending in front of them, dwarfing their presence among the rocks and creating a shadow only broken by the dual searchlights.

Xara’s translucent skin bubbled with the flow of his blood, which rushed to his head until he was blue in the face. He was breathing the limited air of the moon, undeterred by the low oxygen levels. Liam wondered if he’d needed the mask before at all. Could the Disciples have adapted to the barren environment?

The ship’s copper gun barrel was spinning slowly, winding down after its barrage. Small puffs of smoke floated up from the tip as the metal sizzled. Xara took one look at the weapon and his stance eased up. He stood up straight and retracted his teeth back to their normal length. His deep voice had no trouble reaching Liam and the crew. “I should have expected as much, rake.”

Nix holstered his energy weapon and adjusted his breathing mask, making it easier for him to speak. “It’s always a pleasure Xara. Until we meet again, then.”

“Pray we do not,” Xara replied with a sadistic tone.

Behind him, Liam heard the ship’s landing gear touch down and the ramp lower, cutting into the dark soil as it did. Saturn returned her weapon to its holster and started off toward the ship. Nix turned his back to Xara and raised the hood of his cloak as though disrespecting the Disciple by turning his back to him. The rough brown cloth quivered softly in the breeze. Liam took one more look at Xara before turning and following the crew up the ramp. Ju-Long hovered for a moment at the bottom of the incline.

“We made another enemy today,” Ju-Long said to Liam through his antiquated mask.

“It looks like this part of the galaxy is no different than ours.”

Ju-Long nodded and made his way up the ramp to the cargo hold. Liam took one last look at Xara, so stoic among the dark dust cloud rising from the bullet holes in the ground. His long purple tongue slimed its way through the gaps of his pointed teeth. His face had returned to its normal translucent state, but his eyes were angrier than ever. They hadn’t seen the last of Xara, Liam was sure of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]27

Liam continued up the ship’s ramp, which began to close when he reached the top. The crew stood around the cargo hold waiting for the hatch to close. Upon hearing the satisfying clanks of the airlock clamping shut, Nix flipped a switch on the wall and the atmosphere of the cargo hold changed. Oxygen and Nitrogen poured through the vents overhead until they reached levels on par with Garuda.

When the indicator next to the switch turned green, Nix turned the handle downward once more, removing his mask to test the air with a long whiff. When he seemed alright the rest of the crew followed suit. Liam found it hard to place his trust in technology with which he was unfamiliar. Then again, it wasn’t as though he had much choice in the matter. All of the technology in this new part of the galaxy was unfamiliar to him. He kept coming back in his mind to the purple energy of the spires. What drove it? How did it work?

Liam started undoing the chin strap of his mask. Nix kept surprising him with his wit. He wondered how many more tricks Nix had up his sleeve. Liam was determined to get answers one way or another. Nix may have proven himself a friend, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have some things to explain.

“When were you going to tell us this ship was voice automated?” Liam asked Nix after removing his mask.

Nix appeared to be in deep thought for a moment, before replying with a shrug, “When it became relevant.”

Liam and Nix stared at each other for a several seconds. Finally, Liam cracked a smile and patted the Dinari on his shoulder.

“Did you see his face?” Liam asked with a broad smile.

Nix turned giddy at Xara’s mention. Liam had never seen so much emotion cross his face. For once, there seemed to be parity between customs. Across a galaxy and across species, Liam guessed some things were just funny anywhere.

Nix gushed, “I thought I’d made him mad the last time, but this? Zega’s going to die when he hears!”

Saturn uncrossed her arms and strode past them toward the cockpit, brushing Liam’s arm as she did. “Children.”

Ju-Long rolled his eyes and followed her. Though he seemed to be playing it cool, Liam thought he heard Ju-Long mumble, “That was pretty funny.”

Liam and Nix continued to recount their harrowing escape as they made their way to the front of the ship. Nix entered the cockpit last and sat in the seat farthest back, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in the chair. “Liam, why don’t you take a crack at it?”

Liam examined the foreign buttons and switches on the console. Unlike most spaceships from Earth, a lot of the controls were manual switches rather than touchscreens or holographic projections. Many of the switches were old with bits of copper showing through the tarnish. Most were labeled with a foreign script that made sense to him the more he looked at it. He took a seat in the pilot’s chair and placed his hands on the console, running them along the smooth metal to get a feel for the vessel.

“Are you sure you want to fly this piece of junk?” Saturn asked.

Liam responded by putting his arm through the loop of metal on the console and grabbing the handle on the other side. The circular rung tightened around his forearm. Saturn quickly found her seat and strapped herself in, ever uneasy when Liam flew. Liam flipped three manual switches to his left out of instinct and hovered his free hand over the accelerator. “Hold on.”

“I don’t know if it’ll help,” Saturn jeered.

Liam tilted his forearm up and the ship took off from the ground, a few meters at first, and then accelerating up over the jagged landscape. As he turned the ship he looked out the cockpit window and saw Xara standing there, bellowing a cry that couldn’t pierce the noise of the engines. Liam imagined it was enough to shake the surface.

“Watch the rocks,” Ju-Long said, pointing to their left out the cockpit window.

“What are you doing?” Saturn scolded him. “Strap in, you fool.”

Ju-Long seemed to snap back to the moment and tried to make it to his seat, but a sudden updraft forced him to the ground. Liam couldn’t help but think Ju-Long was bad at this whole flying thing. Nix sat behind him silently, utterly confident in Liam’s abilities as a pilot. That was either encouraging or remarkably foolish of him. Nix didn’t know his track record. Liam had been called reckless on more than one occasion.

Liam tilted the nose of the ship upward and punched the accelerator. They sped over the top of the gigantic serrated rocks, leaving behind the cold dead surface. The ship gained altitude until they broke through the outer reaches of the thin atmosphere. Once the ship breached the threshold, Liam redirected the ship to Garuda’s surface. Liam instinctively pressed a few switches and toggled a circular knob to the left of the accelerator, adjusting their velocity to match the spin of the planet ahead so they would reach their target at their intended time.

The ship seemed to know what he wanted before he pressed the buttons. Liam wondered if the ship would have performed those tasks even if he hadn’t pressed anything. Was Nix playing him? The ship seemed aware somehow. It was too responsive to his will.

“How’s she handle?” Nix asked.

Liam turned and regarded him, pressing a button to hold the course and slipping his arm out of the loop at the same time. “It’s more responsive than I would’ve imagined. Are there more ships like this on Garuda?”

Nix dropped his gaze. “Once. But that was a long time ago. As far as I know, she’s the last of her kind.”

“The last?” Ju-Long asked. “What happened to the others?”

Nix’s eyes closed as though he was remembering back to another time. “War. The War of a Thousand Years, to be exact.”

“Just how old is this thing?”

“She’s seen her share of battles. And it prefers to be called ‘She.’”

“Prefers?” Liam asked.

Nix appeared to get a little worked up, defending what he considered his friend. “She has seen countless battles and endured them all. She is the pride of the once feared Dinari fleet.”

“Does ‘She’ have a name?” Saturn probed.

Nix seemed to deflate a little, coming back into the moment. “Yes, but that kind of information is…privileged.”

Nix read Liam’s questioning gaze and continued, “She had a bit of a reputation during the war. If the Ansarans realized this was that vessel they would bring their entire fleet down on her. In the ten years since the war’s end, the stories have begun to fade as fewer Dinari remember the war. It pains me that the Dinari have so quickly become complacent under a rule that does not benefit them.”

Ju-Long scratched his head, ruffling his short black hair in the process. “Ragnar made it sound like the relationship between the Ansarans and Dinari had always been this way.”

“The victors write the history books. The War of a Thousand Years had been fizzling out for decades before I was born. Colony after colony fell until the Ansarans ruled it all. In colonies like Garuda the reeducation began when I was a child. It was only through my relationship with Zega that I learned the truth.”

“Where does this ship come into play?” Liam asked.

Nix hesitated. Liam sensed he’d touched a nerve. The information Nix had given him was purposely vague. Liam got the feeling they still weren’t trusted. After everything Liam and the crew had been through since passing through the wormhole, he wasn’t surprised trust had to be earned. Already he’d seen at least as much betrayal in this part of the galaxy as he’d seen on Earth.

Nix chose his words carefully as he spoke. “The Dinari held their own for centuries, controlling several worlds and keeping the Ansarans and, to a lesser extent, the Kraven at bay. There was an escalation of arms as the Ansarans brokered a shaky alliance with the Kraven to share technology and defeat a common enemy. The Dinari had no choice but to escalate as well.

“This ship, and nearly a hundred like it, were the result. The Kraven attacked first and were defeated handily. They retreated to their home world where they stewed in silence for generations, their pitiful alliance with the Ansarans broken. But the Dinari commanders got greedy, and decided that instead of waiting for the Ansarans to attack one of their colonies, they would strike at the head of the beast. The fleet was sent to Ansara.”

“The battle was said to be like nothing seen in this system before or since. The azure sky of Ansara burned red. Countless millions turned to ash. The Dinari thought we were winning, but it was a farce. The Ansarans had a fleet that dwarfed our own, hiding around the many moons of our Mother World. When they attacked, our fleet was decimated. A handful of ships were able to get away, though the records do not reflect how. After that, the war was theirs, with only the occasional skirmish fueling the war. Time seemed to have lost track of the other ships until only this one remained.

Liam tried to understand how so much stock could be placed in a single ship. If a hundred could not destroy the enemy fleet, what use was one ship? She was fast and had performed admirably thus far, but she hardly seemed noteworthy as vessels went. “You hide a ship that important in the middle of the colony? Surely the Ansarans would figure it out?”

“Her reputation is based mostly on rumors. The shape of the ship itself is pretty typical of many Dinari vessels, save for a few additions.”

Saturn crossed her arms and asked, “What makes this ship so different, then? Why would the Ansarans fear it if they beat a fleet of them?”

A red indicator light started to blink on the control console before Nix could answer. Nix uncrossed his legs and stood, making his way across the cockpit until he could lean over the console. “Incoming message. It’s Zega’s frequency.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]28

“Open a channel,” Nix ordered.

Liam’s hand found its way to the proper switch and flipped it up. Zega’s image appeared on the cockpit’s window, projecting up from somewhere behind the console. His image was translucent, the growing yellow surface of Garuda shining through him. Zega looked tired, heavy bags forming under his eyes even visible in the poor projection. Liam heard a crash from somewhere on the other end and Zega’s image sputtered before regaining its clarity.

“Nix!” Zega yelled through the intermittent feed, “We’re under attack. It’s the Kraven. They mustn’t find her.”

Nix held his hands up in front of him and said, “Zega, slow down. Our sensors haven’t picked up any other vessels.”

“They masked their signatures somehow. The Ansarans didn’t know they were coming until the Kraven were already on us.”

Liam peered out the cockpit’s window to his left, trying to make out the settlement on the horizon. It took only a moment before a faint green light shined in the distance, lighting up the surface. Liam recognized those laser blasts anywhere. Those were Kraven weapons.

“Have they breached the city?”

Zega shook his head. “The spires hold. For now. Tell me you have news from the Disciples.”

Liam and Nix exchanged glances.

“The Gift of Re was indeed real,” Nix began. “It was a device with the power to create a wormhole.”

“What do you mean was?” Zega snapped, his eyes narrowing as though he was used to Nix disappointing him.

“It was recently stolen by an Ansaran. That’s all we found out before…”

Another crash on the other end shook Zega’s projection. He stammered, “Before what?”

“Before the Disciples attacked us,” Liam stated flatly. “Xara sends his regards by the way.”

Zega was silent. He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “I knew that Xara was no good. Still, this information is more important than you realize.”

“How do you mean?” Liam asked.

“It means that the rumors are true. It’s as bad as I feared. Our spies know that Ragnar has been trying to broker an alliance with the Kraven. The device we spoke of really does exist, and its power could change everything.”

“Why would the Ansarans want a device that could open a wormhole?” Ju-Long asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Zega derided him. “The Ansarans planned to use the Kraven to gain resources and territory. After the War of a Thousand Years, most of the planets and moons in this system had been mined dry. Even today, most of the Ansaran ships are made from melted down debris from the war. But that doesn’t mean the cowards would want to take all the risk themselves.”

“The Disciples said they received the device as a gift from the Ansaran High Council,” Saturn said. “Why would they involve the Disciples?”

Nix crossed his arms and said, “One of Ragnar’s supporters must have sent the device to the Disciples so it would be easier to access. There’s no way he could have gotten to it on Ansara. Their security is far too tight.”

Liam was confused. He tried to organize his thoughts aloud, “So Ragnar has the device sent to the Disciples, steals it, and then hands it directly over to the Kraven? He’d have no cards on the table.”

Nix and Zega looked confused. Something must have been lost in translation.

Liam continued, “Ragnar would have no reason to hand the device over if he didn’t have a guarantee that the Kraven would stay true to their word.”

The cockpit was silent, the crew appearing to be deep in thought. Finally, Nix spoke up, “Ragnar would have had a reason. While working in the spire, I overheard him speaking to the High Council on Ansara. The council told him they’d lost faith in his ability to lead. He was desperate.”

Liam stared once more at the surface of Garuda, growing larger by the minute. “If that’s true, then Ragnar wasn’t brokering peace with the Kraven, he was changing sides.”

Zega cursed. “That means he intends for Garuda to fall.”

In his shaky projection Zega looked frightened rather than his usual displeased demeanor. He rung his hands together, claws digging into his rough scales. “I have given you more information, and so I call in this one, rather large favor.”

Liam’s jaw tightened and the scar running along his face felt taut along his cheekbone.

Nix seemed surprised. “I have known you many years, but never have you called in a favor from me. The spires are in lockdown, I’m not sure what you expect us to do from out here.”

Zega’s eyes narrowed and he seethed, “Get me off this planet and consider your slate clean. All of you. I don’t care how it’s done.”

“There are more than a million Dinari down there,” Saturn argued. “What about them?”

Zega’s nose scrunched up, the scales seeming to lift up at odd angles. He spat, “What’s done is done. The Kraven have the taste of blood and nothing will stop that now. The Ansarans will fight and they will die. The Kraven won’t stop there. In their eyes the Dinari are just as culpable for their misfortunes as the Ansarans.”

Nix ground his teeth and slammed a clawed fist down on the console, temporarily disrupting the feed. “Enough!” he shouted. “Garuda has been my family’s home for generations and I will not stand by and watch it fall to ash. If the Kraven want a war, they’ve got one.”

Liam’s eyes grew as he watched their Dinari guide defend his homeland. He knew if it were Earth he’d feel the same way. For as often as he scorned the corruption and flaws of his home planet, it would always be the place he grew up. Before the wormhole, before the mine, and before traipsing around the solar system looking to make a credit, he was a citizen of Earth and damn proud of it.

“What do you think you can accomplish?” Zega asked. “You’ve got one ship and a crew incapable of flying her.”

“You of all people should know her capabilities. This is the ship that survived the massacre on Ansara. The ship that single-handedly destroyed a Kraven Nightstalker, the fabled hunter-killers themselves.”

“That was a long time ago. She’s old, falling apart. The pilots of that age are long since dead and you haven’t got a sliver of their talents.”

“You don’t know her like I do.”

“I won’t say it again whelp, a deal’s a deal. Honor my favor and get me off this rock or…”

“Or what? You’ll sick Riken on me? Your prized fighter won’t do you much good from the inside of the spire’s energy field.”

“You would deny me the right to call in a favor? You would go against the ancient ways of our people?”

Nix looked to Liam as if to apologize for what he was about to say. “I have a counterproposal.”

A large blast shook Zega’s projection once more and he braced himself against the table in front of him. His expression was becoming increasingly desperate. “I’m listening,” he huffed.

“We will stop the Kraven attack. After they’ve disbanded if you’d like to leave the planet I’d be happy to fly you wherever you wish, provided we’re still alive, that is.”

“If you succeed I’ll have no need of your favor, and if you fail I’ll have no recompense. You’ve learned from the best, Nix.”

“So you agree?”

“If I don’t I suspect you’ll do it anyway,” Zega said, defeated. “But if you survive this, don’t expect me to sing your praise. If you put a scratch on that ship, I’ll—”

Nix flipped a switch on the control console and Zega’s projection dissipated, his voice along with it. Garuda’s massive surface filled their viewport. Its brilliant light growing in size before them. Liam looked to Saturn and Ju-Long who sat in their chairs silently. If their thoughts were anything like his, they were unsure what exactly had just happened.

Nix hovered over the control panel, shoulders hunched, staring off into the sandy abyss ahead. When his temper flared he could be as frightening as Xara, something Liam was surprised to see out of the normally collected Dinari. He turned his back to the cockpit’s window and faced the crew.

“I wouldn’t ask this if there were any other choice. There might have been a way to get past the Kraven and get Zega out of the spire’s energy field, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Where would we go? Where would you go now for that matter?”

Ju-Long stood up, spreading his hands wide as he spoke. “Regardless of where we go, it’s Ragnar and the Kraven who hold the answers to getting us home.”

“But even if we were capable, we can’t go home yet,” Liam reasoned. “The Kraven could simply follow us. Earth’s weapons would be no match.”

Saturn unstrapped her harness and stood tall, balling her fists and cracking her knuckles, “Then we fight. The Kraven have to be stopped.”

Liam nodded solemnly and stood up from the pilot’s chair. He eyed each of the crew in turn, stopping on Nix. “If you’re asking for our help, you have it.”

Nix’s cool manner shifted and he bore a devious grin, as though he’d been waiting for this opportunity all his life. His gaze turned upward to a maze of pulsing purple lines Liam hadn’t noticed before, glowing intensely like the strange energy from the spires. “How about it? Do you have it in you to go one more round?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]29

Over Garuda’s horizon Liam could see the Kraven ships massing above the colony. The purple energy field acted as a dome over the many sectors, linking together into an enormous web that shined brightly even from beyond the atmosphere. The Kraven vessels had begun their descent. An orange glow from the burning metal lit the underbellies of the ships, fourteen in all. Liam recognized the flagship as the ship that attacked the asteroid mine. Its mammoth frame dwarfed the thirteen ships at its side.

Liam’s ship was even smaller than the tiniest Kraven vessel, but what it lacked in size it made up for with speed. Nix gripped the control handle tight and said, “Brace yourselves. I’m taking us in.”

The ship jolted, forcing Liam to hold onto his console for balance. He felt the controls vibrate up his arms to his jaw, which chattered together beyond his control. Nix was taking a much steeper angle of descent than Liam’s first encounter with Garuda’s atmosphere, making the vibrations come and go quickly. Liam yelled to Saturn over the din. “Get on the main gun and hold for my mark.”

A warning indicator flashed red overhead. Liam could hear Ju-Long cursing at his console. “Starboard engine’s fried,” he said. “Nix, you’re pushing her too hard.”

Nix calmly patted the dash with his free hand as though soothing the ship. Instead of easing off the accelerator, Nix forced the throttle to full, pushing their descent to an even more extreme angle. More warning lights flashed. Liam could hear Nix laughing over the sound, a crazed look coming over him. He yelled, “She can take it. This is what she was made for.”

It didn’t take long for the ship to pierce the upper atmosphere. The resistance slowed them down but the Kraven fleet was growing closer and closer. The orange glow around the cockpit turned to rushing air guiding itself along the curves of the spacecraft.

“Are you crazy?” Liam shouted.

“We’re avoiding their sensors. This way we’ll have the element of surprise.”

Nix had a point, but Liam knew the surprise would be short-lived. They were about to find themselves in the middle of a fleet of enemy ships and he didn’t even know what kind of firepower they had on board. Liam wasn’t the type of person to go into a fight without knowing he could win. Still, he felt a feeling inside that drove him onward, like he was pursuing some noble cause. This fight could mean more than any other mission he’d undertaken.

They were almost on top of the Kraven fleet now. Green lasers lit up the air below them as the Kraven attempted to breach Garuda Colony’s energy shield below. Their attacks were absorbed into the purple field, rippling out to the farthest reaches and spreading the energy over its surface area. Nix flipped a hard switch and their ship’s wings spread wide. Liam thought they must have looked like one of the carved figures at the temple’s courtyard.

He could just see the wingtips out the side of the cockpit’s window and they were truly a sight to see. Despite the metal framework the wings appeared almost organic, colored with greens and purples not visible when the wings were retracted. Liam had never seen anything that was at the same time so beautiful and so strange.

An updraft caught Liam’s ship, providing lift and maneuverability where the Kraven ships had none. Nix pointed to a spot just in front of the engines on one of the smaller Kraven vessels. “There, fire!”

Saturn rolled her fingertips over the rounded surface of her targeting computer, locking on. Her right hand bore down on the trigger, an oddly-shaped lever that she pulled toward her to fire. Thousands of blue pellets of light rained down on the Kraven vessel. The energy blasts found their way between the thick hull panels, lighting the ship from within until the engines overloaded. One of its engines threw out a mass of sparks and the turbine blew, exploding bits of the ship into the adjacent vessel and throwing both ships off course to compensate.

The Kraven fleet was on to their presence now, firing volley after volley of lasers but unable to find their mark. Their ship was too fast. Still, Liam knew even the slightest misstep could spell their doom. There were far too many enemy ships firing at them and one of them was bound to get lucky sooner rather than later.

Nix pulled up and spun the craft around a nearby ship, drawing the fire of another and making the Kraven fleet fire on their own ship. The Kraven ships moved with confusion, trying to maneuver their slow vessels away from one another. Nix pointed out another ship and Saturn fired as they flew along its underside, gutting it like a fish.

The largest ship ignored Liam’s vessel, entirely focused on the colony’s energy shield. The Kraven ship lit up in a brilliant shade of green, light pouring out from beneath the heavy plates of its shielding. At its nose it collected a large amount of energy, balling it up at the tip like the energy weapon hanging on Liam’s hip. When it had reached a large enough size, the Kraven released it toward the nearest spire, the tip of which was barely visible and poking out of the shield.

The green blast struck and rippled down several hundred stories of metal, splintering it until it finally gave way and exploded outward in all directions. The energy shield over that sector of the city failed, flickering out until the surface was visible beneath. One of the smaller Kraven vessels broke off, firing all eight of its rear engines and increasing its speed formidably.

“After it!” Liam yelled.

“We’ll be exposed,” Nix replied, performing a tricky maneuver that looped them around the largest ship. “We need to take out the leader. Fire along those weapon ports.”

Nix pointed to a series of metal obelisks which jutted out from the sides of the ship. They seemed to be harnessing energy, perhaps from the sky itself, and funneling it toward the front of the ship. Saturn took aim and fired along the starboard ports. Three of the structures broke off as they passed, falling to the surface below. The main structure of the ship appeared unharmed.

The smaller ship that broke off from the fleet was nearing the opening of the energy shield. From the surface, Liam saw a series of blue flashes rise up from the colony and strike the Kraven ship. The energy pulsed around the outside of the ship but didn’t pierce the hull. The Kraven vessel fired several shots through the opening to one of the other spires below. With their combined power, the spire severed near its highest point. The purple shield was disrupted, the effect rippling between the sectors and causing blackouts all over the colony. Soon, every shield was down and the colony was vulnerable.

“We’re out of time,” Nix declared.

The lead Kraven ship prepared its large blast once more, collecting energy toward the front of the ship, only marginally disrupted by Saturn’s attack. Liam held his breath. If that blast struck the surface there was no telling what kind of damage it would do. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something that was impossible to his mind.

Dozens of Ansaran vessels were approaching from the surface, small but furiously fast. They opened fire on the Kraven fleet, a hundred blue lasers coloring the sky. Their weapons weren’t nearly as effective as their own, but working together several Ansaran ships were able to take down one of the Kraven vessels.

The Kraven flagship fired. As the massive blast hurtled toward the surface Liam could hear Nix scream out. Before it could strike its target an Ansaran ship got in the way. The flash enveloped the craft, taking the brunt of its power. A fraction of the laser managed to hit the ground and caused a massive explosion on the surface that swelled for blocks around, seemingly erupting from the surface like an earthquake marked with fireflies in the cracks it created. Liam watched in horror, wondering what the full blast could have done to the colony.

An indicator flashed overhead in the ship’s cockpit. They had an incoming message. Out the starboard window Liam could see an Ansaran vessel matching their maneuvers through the Kraven ships. Saturn continued to take shots at any Kraven vessel that came under her scope, bearing down on the trigger with all of her might.

“Open a channel,” Nix said.

Liam flipped a switch and a voice-only feed came through.

“This is Toras, Caretaker of Garuda Colony. Help us rout these Kraven scum and earn your place among us.”

“Caretaker?” Liam asked. “So Ragnar did defect.”

“Speak not of that heretic. His betrayal will spell his death. Now, fight, or stay out of our way.”

Toras severed the audio link.

“Well that was rude,” Ju-Long remarked. “He could have at least thanked us.”

Nix called over his shoulder, “Never mind him. Focus on the leader. How’s your aim Ju-Long?”

Ju-Long let a smile creep up his lip. He turned his chair so it was facing the front of the ship and a curved holographic image appeared over his console. It was an exact representation of the area outside the ship along with a target overlaid on top of it. A slim metal joystick that curved ergonomically where a clawed hand should rest rose out of the console in front of the image. Liam had only seen the one gun on the outside of the ship, so he didn’t know what Nix expected him to fire. Ju-Long took a second to get locked on to the lead ship and then pulled the trigger on the joystick.

A terrible rumble coursed through the ship. After a second of hesitation, the ship spewed blue light from somewhere under the cockpit. It was not a laser, nor was it fire, but it had elements of both. Liam imagined they must look like a dragon up there in the yellowing sky. The blast struck the Kraven ship and reflected off the surface. It was only as Nix moved the ship away that he saw the true damage of their attack.

The hull of the Kraven vessel was covered with electric blue fluid, pulsing along the metal struts and disintegrating the metal as it spread. Bits and pieces of the ship began to fall out of the sky. One large piece crashed into an Ansaran vessel, destroying it on impact.

“What the hell was that?” Liam asked.

“The reason this ship is one of the feared. One hundred Corsair-Class ships, stolen from the beasts of legend. This is the king of all creatures. The Garuda.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]30

Liam regarded Nix incredulously. “You mean this ship is modeled after the carvings at the temple, the creature of myth?”

“No. She is the creature of myth. Every myth has an origin.”

Once Liam came to understand the ship seemed to gurgle from within, perhaps the sound of building up more of the napalm-like mixture. In between the metal panels overhead Liam saw purple light flowing along the seams. The more he looked at it the more it looked like blood coursing through the ship. His heart began to race. All at once he felt a sense of claustrophobia as he came to the realization that he was inside some manner of creature.

“Pay attention,” Nix shouted, jarring Liam from his thoughts.

Liam focused out the window at the Kraven flagship. Nix spun The Garuda around over the top of it, yelling at Saturn and Ju-Long to continue their fire. His eyes snapped back to the console in front of him and he examined the readouts. The engines, which were nearly fried on their descent, were running at optimal efficiency. The ship seemed to grow faster and stronger the more they flew. A warning light shined down from up above his console.

“What is it?” Nix asked, focusing on avoiding Kraven laser blasts.

“Several Kraven vessels are moving to defend the leader,” Liam said.

“Tell those Ansaran ships to distract them!”

Liam opened a channel and ordered the closest group of Ansaran fighters to get between the leader and the approaching Kraven vessels. A grouping of five Ansaran ships swung around to help. Laser bursts tinted the sky as hundreds of shots clashed. The Ansaran vessels focused their beams on a single Kraven ship, slicing it clean down the center with a chorus of explosions erupting out from the long gash. The five Ansaran fighters passed by the broken ship and were quickly cut down by the crossfire.

Nix used this time to approach the leader from underneath. The flagship could easily have fit five of the other Kraven ships inside of it. Its massive hull was held aloft by countless thrusters, burning blue even under the yellowed sky. When they were right under the ship Nix pushed his control handle forward putting Garuda into a dive. Liam braced himself against his console, cursing after the sudden maneuver.

“Ju-Long, power up your weapon and standby to fire,” Nix instructed.

Ju-Long toggled his controls and said, “Ready.”

Nix slowly leveled off the ship and began a rapid ascent. This time the whole of the Kraven flagship’s underbelly was in their sights. Green flashes of light rained down on them from the enemy vessel. Nix spun The Garuda around, taking several of the hits in the wings but seemingly coming out all right. Nix called over his shoulder, “Target the thrusters toward the front of the ship. Fire!”

Ju-Long held down on the trigger. The next few seconds passed far too slowly for Liam. As the ship built up its power the bulkheads seemed to creak, in danger of buckling. Nix straightened out The Garuda and the blast was released. The electric fire was released with such force that the stream was far thinner than the previous one, but when it hit the Kraven ship it spattered over a dozen thrusters. The mixture corroded the jets until the turbines broke off from the ship, igniting the fuel in a chain reaction of explosions.

A whole deck of the ship was left bare under the ship. Small figures fell out of the sky, too small in the distance for Liam to clearly see. Nix turned the ship to avoid the backsplash of their blast. The Kraven ship tilted downward as the rear thrusters continued to fire despite the loss of the ones in front. The Kraven flagship hurtled through the sky, falling quickly toward the sandy surface below.

Nix turned The Garuda around and accelerated toward the remaining Kraven ships. To Liam’s surprise, the Kraven ships had begun to ascend back into outer space. The Ansaran fighters broke off their attack and formed up in groups circling over the colony at ten thousand meters. Liam peered out the window and saw several smoke trails coming out of the ground where the Kraven ships had crashed along with the flagship still falling, the rest of its engines faltering.

“It appears the Kraven lose their spine without their leader,” Nix observed.

Liam pointed toward the crashing ship, “The flagship is the one that came through the wormhole. We need to board it and find that device.”

Nix hesitated with his mouth ajar. Finally, he nodded and said, “I’m taking us in.”

He pointed the ship downward, The Garuda’s wings creating an updraft that let them glide toward the Kraven leader. The lead ship skidded across the sand toward the rocky projection just outside of Garuda Colony. Sand wafted up hundreds of meters when the Kraven ship hit the surface, clouding Liam’s vision of the crash site. Through the dust he could see parts of the broken ship fly past them.

The Kraven vessel hit the rocky outcropping at low speed, creating a boom that echoed all around them. Nix moved their ship toward the surface and prepared to set down fifty meters away. Liam toggled a switch and released their landing gear. A few moments later they were on the ground, their landing struts sinking into the loose sand. Most of The Garudas systems shut down automatically, though Saturn kept her finger on the trigger of her gun, light still shining through her console.

“Saturn, it’s fine,” Liam assured her. “There’s no way anyone survived that.”

“You sure about that?” she replied.

Nix unstrapped himself from his chair and stood up, steeling himself for what lay ahead. His hesitation appeared to be gone for the moment, as confidence once again filled his broad chest. He reached for the gun on his hip and began charging it. “There’s only one way to find out.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]31

Liam pulled his weapon from its holster as he and the crew approached the crashed Kraven ship. He pulled a pair of goggles down over his eyes to avoid the settling dust. Through the darkened lenses he could make out the coarse metal hull, bits of jagged metal splintering out everywhere he looked. He turned his gaze skyward. He was beginning to see the top of the ship come into view through the sandy haze.

The Kraven vessel was easily a hundred meters tall and a couple kilometers long. The ship was alive with sparks as wires and power conduits lay broken and stripped. Fires sprung up along Liam’s left where the rear engines had crumpled. Liam and the crew approached the side of the ship near closer to the front, where an opening two stories tall was cut out from the hull. His auburn cloak swayed in the breeze, flapping around his knees when he stopped to marvel at the impressive vessel.

Nix pointed a claw toward the front of the ship and said, “If we’re going to find anything, I think the bridge would be a good place to start.”

Liam nodded and started toward a massive opening in the side of the hull. Bars of metal jutted down from the top of the hole like a broken cage with tendrils of steel bent awkwardly up and away from the hull. Liam stepped through the opening, avoiding all manner of debris on the ground, and entered the dilapidated ship. Saturn, Ju-Long and Nix followed close behind him, their weapons pointed out in front of them.

The opening led into a cavernous center hallway that ended abruptly where they’d blown out the lower levels. Their footsteps echoed against the cold metal walls as they stepped across thick grates that served as the flooring. The metal was dark, nearly black in color. It was hard to say whether it was made that color or if it had seen too many years of use. Liam removed his goggles and kept his eyes peeled for bodies. So far there’d been none. A fact that worried him.

He moved cautiously toward the front of the ship, winding his way through corridors that seemed unnecessarily tall and wide. Liam remembered the figures falling from the vessel. From so far away it was hard to say just how big they were.

Liam stopped and turned to Nix. “What do you know about the Kraven? Have you ever seen one?”

Nix swallowed hard, showing far more fear now than his earlier confidence would suggest. “Not exactly,” he replied. “Only stories.”

Liam continued to walk down the dank hall, lit only by the energy pulsing at the end of his weapon. He asked quietly over his shoulder, “How do the stories go?”

“It is said that the Kraven were an offshoot of the Ansaran and Dinari races, but they were cruel, horrid creatures. Their tribe was banished to a faraway world where they evolved over tens of thousands of years into what they are today. Monsters. Seven meters tall with flesh suited for their cold and dismal world, hardened against the frozen tundra. There are tales of them eating the Ansarans and Dinari alike, ripping their flesh from the bone in their fury.”

“Lovely,” Ju-Long remarked.

Saturn turned toward their rear and shined the light from her weapon down the enormous hallway. “Is there any truth to these tales?”

“Who knows,” Nix said with a shaky voice, tightening his grip on his weapon. “But if anything is left alive in here I suggest you shoot first and spare yourself a painful death.”

For the next several minutes, the only sounds in the corridor were their footsteps and the pulsing of their energy weapons. Liam stopped at the head of the hallway. The hull was crumpled all around, blocking their path. The grated floors were now covered in sand seeping up from the surface.

Nix stepped up to what Liam guessed was a ladder, only it was far too large for that to be possible. Each rung was the size of Liam’s biceps. The hands that would have to grip those would be bigger than his head. Nix pointed his weapon up the shaft, lighting it with its faint blue glow. “I guess we go up.”

Liam moved toward the ladder but stopped short. He heard a noise behind him; the sound of dripping water. When he turned around his eyes widened. He lit up the wall with his weapon’s glow to confirm it. Deep purple fluid dripped down the wall, emanating from the grates above. Now that he was aware of it, Liam noticed the metallic scent of blood wafting down from the ceiling.

Ju-Long made a high-pitched noise and mumbled, “Great. Just great.”

Liam put a hand on his shoulder, making him jump. “Stay focused.”

Saturn snickered and approached the ladder, putting a small hand on the giant rung. After she’d begun her ascent she asked the crew in a denigrating tone, “Are you boys coming?”

Nix looked distraught in the half-light. Liam wondered what had changed since they were on The Garuda. Ever since The Sand’s Edge Nix had seemed confident in his surroundings. Now he was visibly terrified. The contrast was palpable.

Liam put a hand over a pipe-like rung of the ladder and said to Nix, “Look on the bright side.”

“What bright side?”

“We could have been eaten by Xara. At least if we run into the Kraven our deaths will be quick.”

Liam started up the ladder before Nix had a chance to contradict him. Ju-Long tried to crack a smile and commented, “I guess that’s staying positive.”

Ju-Long climbed up after Liam with Nix close behind, clearly not wanting to be left alone in the dark Kraven vessel. When Liam reached the next level he saw Saturn cautiously peering down the hallway in each direction. The dripping blood was louder on this level, echoing off the cold steel around them. Liam could hardly hear his own footsteps over the sound as he stepped away from the top of the ladder.

When Nix made it up to the top the crew continued on toward the front of the ship. Nix continually checked the rear, growing more edgy the farther they walked. The corridor bent around several times, becoming smaller as they approached the bridge. Finally, the hallway straightened out and they were faced with a circular hatch more than twice Liam’s height.

Liam used his weapon’s blue glow to check the outside of the door for a way in. Saturn used her free hand to feel around the frame of the hatch. When she touched it the door reacted with a shooting burst of orange light that made its way around the frame and then penetrated the center forming a dozen thin triangles in a wheel and spoke pattern. In an instant, they broke apart and retreated into the frame, folding away like they were never there.

Saturn held her hand aloft for several seconds after the door opened, fascinated by the unfamiliar technology. Through the hatch the bridge was black save for a few blinking green lights on a few of the consoles. The glow of their energy weapons weren’t very useful in the room due to the high ceilings and the distance between the walls. There were a dozen platforms with consoles for the Kraven crew, raised to varying heights around a central circle that was raised a meter off the floor.

Liam stepped through the doorway with his weapon pointed out in front of him, treading cautiously, his eyes alert for any sign of movement. Saturn and Ju-Long fanned out to the left and right while Nix followed close behind Liam, watching his rear. When Nix was a few meters past the hatch the frame glowed orange once more and the dozen metal triangles shot toward the center point, fusing together when the light faded.

Saturn approached one of the workstations and tried powering on the console. The screen flickered and then slowly grew in brightness until the light shined on her face. Liam’s eyes hovered on her figure for a moment, until she matched his gaze and he quickly looked away, becoming occupied with another console.

“I think I found something,” Saturn said more to herself than to anyone else.

“What is it?”

Saturn pointed to her console and said, “Here.”

Saturn toggled a hard switch and the circular pedestal in the center of the room lit up, projecting a holographic image of a planet above it. With its tan color and sparse topography Liam was sure it was the planet Garuda. Saturn fiddled with a few of the settings and the image zoomed in, several smaller images populating. They were ships. Dozens of them swarmed around Garuda Colony as though unsure of another attack. She zoomed in again and they saw The Garuda perched close to the downed Kraven ship, dwarfed by its massive size.

Nix and Ju-Long made their way toward the center projection, examining it closely. Nix was particularly interested in the image. Liam wondered if the Kraven technology was as foreign to him as it was to them. His golden eyes glowed in the light from the projection, like two golden orbs of sunlight.

The image was zoomed in enough now to see the actual cross-section of the Kraven vessel, nearly true to life with its holographic representation. Liam walked over to Saturn and took a look at the console. There were dozens of commands with indicators written in a language that seemed oddly familiar, clearly related to the writing system of the Ansarans and Dinari. He tapped a button on the touchscreen that looked like a ‘T’ with four notches up the stem.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Saturn asked him.

“Do you?”

Saturn tightened her jaw and looked up at the projection. The holographic image zoomed in toward the front of the ship, only fifty meters in any direction of the bridge. Four orange dots populated where the bridge would be, followed by a fifth, blinking along with a faint beep to match. Liam thought it must be broken, so he hit the side of the console and a sixth appeared. Soon there were ten. Twenty. A hundred pulsing dots all around the bridge, the beeping noise growing in intensity with every new dot. Liam’s heart pumped harder and adrenaline shot through his veins.

“Shit,” Liam cursed, raising his weapon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]32

Liam scanned the bridge for any sign of movement. Through the relative darkness he saw none. Nix and Ju-Long stood back to back near the center projection, eyes wide in anticipation. If Nix could sweat he would have been drenched by now based on his jittery demeanor. Ju-Long meanwhile glistened in the yellow glow of the hologram. He rubbed at his eyes with one hand while keeping his weapon aloft. The beeping had reached its peak intensity, the only noise left in the room.

The dots stopped moving on the projection, hovering there, all around them. Saturn was focused on the console, mashing several buttons fruitlessly.

“What are you doing?” Liam asked over the beeps, keeping his head on the swivel for the Kraven.

“I’m trying to get some light in here,” she replied. “Wait, I think I’ve got it.”

Dozens of small lights lit up the workstations while overhead pot lights rained down from the ceiling. The coarse material of the bridge was far too industrial to be considered elegant. In contrast, the workstation’s tech was impressive. Despite the lights, the bridge remained fairly dim, the dark metals of the room doing little to reflect the beams. Along the walls Liam could see that the room was damaged, but the many thick supports cradled that section of the ship, so its ruin couldn’t compare with the rest of the ship. Only a few workstations were affected and they shot blue sparks from the consoles.

Liam turned around several times, taking in every inch of the room. The bridge was empty. He lowered his weapon slightly. “Do you think that machine is busted?”

Ju-Long eased up his shoulders and dropped his weapon to his side. “Had me going there.”

Saturn tightened her grip on her weapon and backed away from the console, keeping her back toward the side wall. The many dots on the image began to move once again as though writhing all around the bridge. She began to charge a mass of energy at the tip of her weapon. She whispered, “Why is it still beeping?”

“This doesn’t feel right,” Nix declared.

Ju-Long nodded, regaining his defensive stance. “I’m with Nix, this place creeps me out.”

“You know Ju-Long, with all that muscle you’re still afraid of your own shadow.”

“Don’t start, Saturn. You weren’t so collected when faced with Xara and the Disciples.”

Saturn raised her voice, “For good reason.”
“Quiet. All of you!” Liam called. He put a hand up in the air and said, “Listen.”

Over the monotone beeps of the holographic projection Liam could hear a faint hiss, growing in volume until it began to sound like a growl. What started as one became a dozen, two dozen, more, until the bridge was filled with the reverberations of the guttural sound. The crew gathered near the center of the room, back to back with their weapons facing out.

Liam still couldn’t make out any movement and could not place the sound over the echoes. A thought struck him and his legs froze in place, filling with ice as he came to the realization. His eyes, shaking with adrenaline, began to crawl toward the ceiling. Liam’s jaw clenched as he beheld the unfathomable.

He nudged Saturn in the side and held a shaking finger up to the ceiling. After a short protest Saturn followed his eyes up. She cursed under her breath. Countless yellow eyes stared back at them. Nix and Ju-Long soon saw what the commotion was about and pointed their weapons up toward the ceiling.

The stories didn’t do them justice. Though they were bunched together as they hung from exposed pipes on the ceiling, Liam could tell they were at least four meters tall and made mostly of muscle. They wore sparse garments that were tight against their hardened bodies. The angular faces were reminiscent of the Ansarans, though far removed from millennia of evolution. The only feature that truly remained of the Mother World were the eyes. Golden orbs of light so much like Nix’s, though so far apart in intentions.

One of the Kraven dropped from the roof, slamming down on the grated floor ten meters from the crew and raising himself up to his full height. His muscular chest puffed out, purple veins pulsing along his tight physique and lining his body. The hair on his head was matted and black, slicked to the back with the sweat and grease gained only by neglecting to bathe. Purple brands marked his body, countless symbols burned into his flesh. Liam noticed that he favored his right leg, the other was deeply scarred.

The Kraven giant starred directly at Liam, his golden eyes locked on and his brow turning downward with fury. His jaw clenched together and he ground his pointed teeth together. The Kraven’s boxy chest was ornamented with dermal implants and red war paint adorned his face that just as well could have been blood.

One by one the rest of the Kraven began to drop from the ceiling until the center area was surrounded. When the last of them landed, the crimson-faced Kraven let out a war cry that incited the others. He held himself with the confidence of a leader. Liam raised his energy weapon up toward his chest, a small ball of blue light pulsing at its tip. The Kraven leader didn’t seem to be concerned, his expression unwavering.

Before Liam could pull the trigger something flew through the air and knocked his weapon from his hands, clanking and sliding along the floor. Liam’s eyes turned to follow it. A jagged blade was sticking out of the side and had absorbed all of the energy, dissipating it into the air. His eyes returned up to the leader, whose glare had intensified.

He spoke with a deep voice that easily filled the massive bridge. “Coward. You would fire on an unarmed opponent? What weak species are you, outsider?”

“I am Liam Kidd of Earth,” Liam said, feigning confidence though his moxie was fading fast. “Do you have a name?”

The Kraven leader spat at Liam’s feet, prompting an eruption of laughter from the Kraven Throng. He slapped his large chest with his flat palm and said “Crius, Lord of the Throng. You are unwise to come here, Liam of House Kidd.”

“We’ve come for the device.”

Crius looked around and shrugged his shoulders, showing two rows of yellowed teeth as the corners of his mouth edged up into a grin. “The Azure Key. You’ll find its power is beyond your puny reach.”

Some of the Kraven continued their laughter. Their enormous frames easily filled up most of the room and their broad shoulders often touched. Crius dropped his chin to get a better look at Liam, sizing him up curiously. Liam tightened his jaw and made himself look as big as he could, a wasted effort by comparison to the brute before him.

Liam took one small step forward. His head was about as far back as it could go so he could still see Crius’ face. “Ragnar must have promised you a handsome deal for you to come out of hiding.”

His smile distorted and Crius bellowed a grunt that elicited angry roars from the other Kraven. “The Kraven hide from nothing. We fight for honor alone.”

“It was honorable to attack this colony without provocation? It was honorable to attack our asteroid mine? No, there’s no honor in that. It was cowardly.”

Every one of the Kraven roared with rage. Liam began to think he had touched a nerve. Nix grabbed at Liam’s cloak from behind and whispered, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”

He put a hand up over his shoulder to signal to Nix that he knew what he was doing. Crius raised his hand as though he was going to strike at Liam, but when the other Kraven protested he lowered it. Liam took notice and stepped forward once more. “We’re taking the Key. One way or another.”

Crius looked around to the other Kraven and laughed from his belly. “You are a fool, Liam Kidd. Look around you. You are in no position to make threats.”

“Your attack on this colony has failed. Your leadership of the Kraven is in question, I can see it in the faces of the brave warriors around you. If you are a man of honor you will prove you are fit to lead by using diplomacy.”

“I will give my people your head, outsider!”

“I am unarmed. I doubt your people would respect a murderer.”

The Kraven on the bridge grew restless. It was clear that the longer the conversation went on the less they thought of their leader. Liam could see that Crius appeared weak to them. A man half his size was speaking down to him. Crius’ rule was hanging by a thread.

Crius grunted and spat, “Single combat. Your death will be swift, but honorable.”

“A duel?” Liam asked. “What are your terms?”

“Terms? We fight for honor.”

“No,” Liam said, provoking snarls of outrage from the Kraven. He continued, “If I best you, I require safe passage for myself and my crew as well as the Azure Key.”

Crius considered the offer. The Kraven watched on in silence, the tension in the room mounting. The Kraven leader had countless scars across his body from innumerable fights. Liam couldn’t imagine Crius would see him as much of a challenge. Crius put his hand across his chest and said, “By the gods I swear it. However, when I kill you, your companions will feed the Throng, starting with your puny Dinari friend.”

Nix’s eyes widened. He was quivering under his thick cloak, having trouble holding onto his weapon. Liam got the impression that eating their foes was a form of disrespect more than anything else. Still, Liam had a plan and it was their only way off the ship. He nodded and said, “Then we are agreed.”

“Choose your weapon, whelp.”

A half-dozen Kraven approached them and laid out several weapons, from blades to spears, all far too crude for their level of technological prowess. Each was meant for a Kraven hand, far too large for Liam to wield, save for one. It would have been a dagger to the Kraven, but to Liam it might as well have been a sword. It had a smooth curve to it like a scimitar, but with strange lines in the metal that made Liam question how it was forged and from what exactly it was made.

Liam bent down and picked up the blade, which was surprisingly light in his hand. Crius nodded and chose a large jagged blade, seemingly made from a broken part of the ship, but sharpened into a devastating weapon. Liam knew if he were hit by that, Tetanus would be the least of his worries.

Crius made a motion with his hand and the Kraven scooped up the remaining weapons and gave them a wide berth. Several of the Kraven took back to the rafters or climbed on top of the suspended workstations to leave room for the duel. They were restless now, clamoring over each other to get the best view.

Saturn’s weapon was raised at Crius and she said, “Liam, you don’t have to do this. There’s got to be another way.”

Liam turned to her and smiled confidently. “Trust me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]33

Crius made the first move. He lifted the heavy piece of metal over his head with both hands and swung down with brutal force. Liam rolled forward and to the right dragging his sword across the side of Crius’ kneecap as he did. It was a glancing blow but it quieted the Kraven onlookers momentarily and led to several gasps. His purple blood trickled slowly from the wound. Crius looked at his bleeding knee but didn’t let a sound escape his lips. He only turned and readied his next blow.

With the Kraven onlookers out of their way, there was a good ten meters square with few obstructions to mar the fight. Liam planned to use every inch. Crius’ sheer size meant that he could only take a few steps before running into his brethren. Liam would have to use every ounce of his cunning to get out of this fight alive.

Crius swung across his body. Liam hopped backward, the blade missing his face by mere centimeters. The Kraven warlord fumed, blood rushing to his face. He bared his two rows of pointed teeth and growled from his belly, a horrible sound that resonated inside Liam’s eardrums. Crius’ yellow eyes reflected the holographic image of Garuda as they squinted down at him. The Kraven took another swing and hit only air as his jagged blade flew through the image of the planet, disrupting the projection briefly.

Liam tried to roll around the Kraven warlord again but was kicked by his massive leg. Liam tumbled onto his face, his sword sliding a meter away from his fingertips. His ribs felt crushed from the force of the blow, but Liam clenched his teeth and hardened his muscles in anticipation. Crius didn’t waste any time and swung down with both hands on his gruesome blade. Liam rolled to his right, grabbed his blade, and barely got it up in time to meet the Kraven blade. Liam struggled against Crius’ serrated blade using his spare hand on the back of his sword as leverage.

Liam’s scimitar began to bend under the pressure, the jagged edges of Crius’ blade splintering his curved blade. Liam’s eyes widened when they shot to the tiny fissure. He shifted his weight and Crius’ blade slid down Liam’s sword and into the grated floor to Liam’s left, where it became lodged. As Crius struggled to break his sword free from the seam between the grates, Liam found his feet and glanced another blow off the Kraven’s knee, crossing his previous cut. Crius swung his elbow back at him but Liam was able to back away to the corner of the open area, putting as much distance between him and the Kraven leader as possible.

A steady stream of dark purple flowed down Crius’ calf. The Kraven leader howled. Liam couldn’t say for sure whether it was a howl of pain or anger, but he guessed his approach was working. If he was lucky the Warlord would begin to slow down. Then again, he had a lot more blood to lose than Liam.

Crius stomped his good leg over the grate and yanked his grisly sword from its clutches. He took two labored steps toward Liam, crossing much of the distance between them, and said, “You have lasted longer than I expected, outsider, but your time has come.”

He swung his massive blade with reach Liam couldn’t match. Liam squatted down to one knee. The Kraven blade missed his skull but severed a few strands of his blond hair. Liam saw them floating down as he looked up at the titan before him. At the end of his swing Crius twirled the blade behind his head and came down with it, aiming to cut Liam in half. Despite his large frame and heavy weapon, Crius swung the blade fast. It took everything Liam had to get out of the way of the sword in time.

Somehow, he found himself between the Kraven’s legs. He felt Crius looking around for him. Liam used the opportunity to lift up his blade and stab downward through the back of Crius’ bad kneecap. The Kraven dagger became wedged between flesh and bone. Crius fell to his knees, his arms swinging wildly behind him. The warlord’s arm caught Liam and flung him ten meters through the air, into a group of Kraven, who quickly muscled him back into the tiny arena.

Liam’s blade was still stuck in the Kraven’s knee, irretrievable. Now he was unarmed and about all he’d accomplished was piss off the Kraven giant. Crius lifted himself onto his good leg and yanked the dagger from the back of his knee, tossing it into the crowd. A jet of purple spurted out from the wound, eliciting a wail of rage from the warlord. He tried putting pressure on his left leg and stumbled back to his knees. Liam may have hit an artery because the Kraven’s blood was flowing freely now, dripping down into the grated floor.

The Kraven onlookers became hushed, watching in silence as their leader suffered. Even on his knees Crius was a couple heads taller than Liam and frightening to behold. Liam skirted around the edge of their makeshift ring, searching around him for any kind of weapon. Crius lifted himself up again to one foot and gritted his teeth. He was determined now to remain upright. Crius’ jaw tightened as he forced himself to stand on both feet, crying out in pain as his bad leg straightened.

Crius began to limp toward Liam, slow at first, but with increasing speed. He dragged his sword along the ground creating a slew of sparks, raising it up as he neared his target. When Crius tried to swing Liam leaped toward the titan’s wounded side. The Kraven warlord tried to turn on his bad knee in pursuit but it was too much for him. He plummeted to the ground.

Nix cried out to Liam, who turned to see the Dinari’s weapon flying through the air toward him. He caught it and turned in time to see Crius readying his next strike from one knee. The two of them froze, a ball of energy readied at the tip of Liam’s weapon. Crius sneered, “You would break the ancient rules of combat?”

Liam lowered his weapon. The grate under the Kraven leader was coated with blood, dripping down into the floor so there was no way to tell how much had been spilt. Crius’ face had begun to lose color. His eyes were having trouble keeping focused. Liam made a snap decision and tossed aside his energy weapon. It clanked as it slid across the grates.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Liam said, praying he would be right.

Crius steadied himself with one hand and let his sword fall to the floor. His yellow eyes found Liam’s and his gaze softened. “You are a worthy opponent Liam of House Kidd. Finish it, and let me die gloriously in battle.”

Liam shook his head. “I’ve beaten you. Give me the key and my crew and I will be on our way. Nobody needs to die today.”

Crius’ expression hardened. “Perhaps you’re not as worthy as I thought. You would dishonor me with mercy,” Crius said, spitting at Liam’s feet.

Liam shook off his boot and turned his back to the Kraven leader, rejoining his crew. He approached Ju-Long, whose face contorted as he advanced. His hand was pointed past Liam. Crius was on his feet, sword in hand, coming down with his blade with one last ditch effort. Liam’s eyes widened. He didn’t have time to get out of the way.

Mere meters away, Crius stopped in his tracks, sword falling to the grated floors. He collapsed to his knees with a dazed look in his eyes. Finally he fell onto his face and Liam’s suspicions were confirmed. Six metal spears were sticking out of his back. He was killed by his own people.

A rather large Kraven advanced on Liam, his face adorned with blue face paint that covered countless scars. He might have been even taller than Crius. The Kraven looked down at Liam and the crew and said, “Crius dishonored the Throng, he was unfit to lead. Your battle is honored outsider. Take the Azure Key and leave quickly.”

Another Kraven stepped forward holding a small black box. It appeared dense like lead, but when he placed it in Liam’s hands it was far lighter than he expected. It was hard to imagine such a small thing was responsible for their presence on Garuda, for traveling across the galaxy.

The blue-faced warrior continued, “Without this ship, the Key is meaningless. It is but a small part of a much larger whole. This ship itself was designed to integrate with it.”

The Kraven giant moved his eyes around the ship, examining the damage and the occasional spark. “I cannot imagine what you plan to do with it, but take it far from here. It has brought us nothing but trouble. The Ansarans will pay for what they’ve done this day.”

Several of the other Kraven yelled out “Liars” and “Cowards” at the mention of the Ansarans. The blue-faced Kraven had sad eyes. Liam imagined he was weary from far too many battles. The other Kraven seemed to respect him as an elder, though he looked no older than Crius.

“Thank you,” Liam said. “Your integrity will not be forgotten.”

“Pray it is not, outsider.”

Liam knew the Ansarans would not leave the crashed vessel unsearched for long. The new Kraven leader must have known this too, because he picked up Crius’ sword and began barking orders to his warriors.

“What will you do now?” Liam asked.

The Kraven titan looked down at Liam with a glint in his eye that was almost hopeful. “We will fight, as Kraven do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]34

Liam jumped off the opening of the Kraven vessel to the sand a meter below. His brown boots quickly became yellowed with the fine grains of sand. The breeze picked up and several specs found their way into his eyes. He held the device in his left arm and he blocked the wind with his right.

Saturn was the next down from the ship and jogged to catch up to him. She undid her ponytail and her dark brown locks became tousled in the breeze. Liam glanced over casually, noting that the look suited her. She turned to him and said, “Back there, that was incredible.”

Liam’s ego inflated a little with pride and he let himself smile, his mouth curling up at the side and causing the scar on his cheek to tighten up.

“Incredibly stupid,” she added, punching his arm and throwing him off balance. “You could have gotten us all killed, what were you thinking?”

Liam’s smile faded and he defended, “Well I had to do something, didn’t I?”

Saturn looked away and said, “You had me worried there.”

When she turned back to him she wore a small smile. “Remind me to never get in a fight with you,” she said before taking off toward The Garuda.

Liam knew Saturn wasn’t the best at displaying her emotions, making what she said even more uplifting. Ju-Long clapped a hand on his shoulder. Liam hadn’t even heard him approaching because he was in such a stupor.

“Maybe we should reserve you two a private room.”

Liam brushed his hand away and replied, “Ha, ha. Very funny. Hey, where’s Nix?”

The Dinari was right behind them a moment ago, but wasn’t anywhere in sight. Liam and Ju-Long stopped and examined the wreckage with hands cupped around their eyes to block the rays of the sun. Several flashes of blue cut through the air, sparking off the metal debris. In the distance, Liam once again heard the howls of the Kraven Throng, easily penetrating the broken hull of the ship. Nix appeared at the hole in the side of the ship, firing several shots backward before jumping off the edge to the sand below. He sprinted toward them, firing back shots as he went.

Ju-Long raised his weapon and fired randomly at the wreckage, hoping to hit something. Bolts of blue filled the air, sending up plumes of sand as they hit all around the Dinari. Liam reached for the weapon at his side and remembered it had been destroyed by the Kraven. Saturn had heard the commotion and began firing shots from the ship’s ramp. Nix was just ten meters away when Liam realized the source of the shots.

Dozens of Ansaran vessels rose up over the Kraven vessel and moved to surround them. Several fired warning shots into the sand, clouding Liam’s vision and forcing him to cover his eyes with his free hand. A voice came out over a loudspeaker. “Don’t move. Lower your weapons or we’ll open fire.”

Liam recognized the voice and grimaced. It was Toras, the new Caretaker of Garuda Colony and former head of security. Nix stopped a meter shy of Liam and Ju-Long, holding his knees to catch his breath. Ju-Long and Liam exchanged glances. Ju-Long tightened his jaw and lowered his weapon to his side bitterly.

One of the Ansaran vessels landed and through the dust Liam could make out five figures disembarking. Toras approached quickly, his frayed brown cape fluttering violently in the wind, wrapping around his sandy armor. Liam noticed he wasn’t wearing his oblong helmet, letting his white scales take on the yellow hue of the sky. His entourage came up to them with weapons raised. One of them snatched Ju-Long’s weapon right out of his hand. Liam felt like he was watching the scene in slow motion, helpless.

Liam chanced a look back at The Garuda and four more Ansarans were wrestling Saturn’s weapon from her hands, one using the butt of his weapon to clock her on her cheekbone. Liam cursed under his breath and approached Toras. His four lackeys attempted to restrain him but let go when Toras raised a hand. In the distance, more shots were fired and the Kraven howls ceased. Toras looked off at the wreckage in the distance and smiled.

The new Caretaker then turned his attention to the box in Liam’s hands. “That device you hold is too powerful. Give it to me and your lives will be spared.”

“Because you’ve proven yourself so trustworthy,” Liam said sarcastically.

“I intend to destroy it.”

Liam’s eyes widened. He wondered from whom Toras was taking his orders. Regardless, they couldn’t let him destroy it. He, Saturn and Ju-Long needed it to get back to their own solar system.

“You can’t. Who’s putting you up to this?”

“After Ragnar showed his true colors, the High Council deemed this device too dangerous to exist. It will be dealt with by our people. I will ask only once more. Give it to me.”

Toras’ entourage all raised their weapons at Liam. He looked down at the black cube, so unassuming, so light in his hands. He wondered how something so small could have caused all of this. Liam held the Azure Key up to examine its matted black surface closer. A gust of wind blew sand over him and the device and when he opened his eyes, his heart stopped.

The surface of the cube was not entirely smooth as the Disciples had described. Etched ever so lightly on one of the sides were two words he never thought he’d see again. The sand hung there for a second before blowing away. Liam could feel adrenaline flow to his extremities and his heart rate quicken. In that moment he began to question everything he knew.

In his daze, he hardly noticed one of the Ansaran soldiers take the device from his hands. Liam continued to stare at his empty outstretched palms for several seconds, until finally they balled up into fists, shaking with the pressure of a fury he’d never known before.

The soldier put the cube in Toras’ hands, who examined it briefly before tucking it under one arm. He smiled and said, “Your cooperation is appreciated. With respect to your efforts today, and assuming you don’t start any trouble, you may come and go as you please.”

With that, Toras turned, his cape whipping around behind him, and took off toward his ship. The Ansaran soldiers had neglected to give Ju-Long and Nix their weapons back.

Ju-Long whispered to them, “Was that a thank you?”

Nix shook his head with disappointment. “It’s as good as you could hope to get from the likes of him.”

Saturn joined them just as the Ansaran ships lifted off, leaving them in a swath of dust. Saturn was cradling her cheek as she looked to the downtrodden Liam and asked, “What the hell happened?”

“It’s the box,” Liam began.

“I know,” Saturn replied, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll get it back or we’ll find another way home. This isn’t over.”

“No. The box, it can’t be right. It’s impossible.”

Ju-Long eyed him closely. “What is it?”

“The device wasn’t how the Disciples described. Sand blew onto the side and it said…It just couldn’t be.”

The crew waited expectantly while Liam found the words. Finally, Ju-Long said, “Spit it out.”

“Vesta Corp. The box read Vesta Corp.”

Saturn’s jaw dropped. “No, that’s not possible. We’re the first humans in this system.”

She turned to Nix expectantly. Nix pointed to himself and said, “Don’t look at me, I’ve never seen a human before I met you.”

The Ansaran ships faded into the distance, becoming absorbed by the yellow horizon. Liam stared off at the sky, still so foreign to him with its almost permanent sunset. Ju-Long stamped at the sand with his boot in frustration. “Where do we go from here?”

Nix spoke first, “I know of someone who may be able to help, but it will require we work with Zega again.”

“I forgot about him,” Liam admitted. “I guess you could say we’ve done what he’s asked, which means we’re even.”

“If we go to him for this, he may require more than just a favor.”

Liam thought about Zega’s last favor request while looking at the Kraven wreckage. What he’d asked for was hardly a small feat. Zega was hardly the kind of person to whom Liam wanted to be indebted. Nix crossed his arms and said, “Zega will help us because he has no choice, but that doesn’t mean the price won’t be steep.”

Liam motioned toward The Garuda, “What about that? Isn’t that Zega’s ship?”

“She is no one’s ship. She flies where she wishes. Zega may be the technical owner, but she’s never let him ride her.”

“How can a ship reject a passenger?”

“She fakes an engine malfunction.”

Liam shook his head, letting a smile form across his face. “Well then, Captain Nix, lead the way.”

“Actually, that reminds me,” Nix said, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. If this mess with the Kraven has taught me anything it’s that I have a lot to learn.”

“What are you saying?”

“You are the first to best a Kraven in single combat. I’ve never even heard stories of such a thing. You should lead this…whatever we are.”

Saturn mused, “Captain Liam Kidd. It does have a nice ring to it.”

“Me? I can’t even place us on a map. I don’t know what use I’ll be.”

“I know this system better than any Dinari. I will be your guide. All you have to do is lead.”

Liam turned to Saturn and Ju-Long. “And both of you agree with this?”

Saturn nodded and said, “But don’t expect me to blindly follow your orders though. Don’t forget, I used to boss you around.”

Ju-Long looked Liam up and down and then pointed to his biceps. “If we’re going to be fighting any more Kraven I think we’ll have to work on packing on a little muscle in this area.”

“I’ll work on that,” Liam said sardonically.

Ju-Long smiled. “You might also want to try some growth hormones.”

Liam stood up straight to make himself appear taller. “For a human I’m pretty tall.”

“If you say so.”

Nix and Saturn began walking toward The Garuda, shaking their heads. Saturn said loud enough for Liam to hear, “Maybe this was a bad idea.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]EPILOGUE

Smoke curled around the wrecked bridge, up and out through the massive hole left by the Ansaran vessels. The jagged circle that was cut from the ceiling dropped hundreds of tons of metal on countless Kraven. Their purple blood now adorned the broken pieces of steel jutting from the grated floor of the bridge. Bodies lay all around, burned with the Ansaran laser blasts. The cowards did not even entertain a hand-to-hand fight. Instead, a dozen ships fired in on them, cutting through them ruthlessly.

He heard the last breaths around him cease. He was alone now. One hundred Kraven dead and he was the only survivor. What a pity. But he did not have the will to die. As a commander of the Throng he had certain obligations. He remembered the words of his father.

‘If you cannot live to seek honor, live to seek revenge.’

The Kraven wiped blue war paint from his face using the back of his hand. On his hand he saw purple swirls within the blue. A small wound. He made his way to his feet, cradling his left arm where a laser blast had cut into his shoulder. His gaze traveled up to the setting sun and he squinted his golden eyes. Though it would not be this day, Garrick would have his revenge. Of that, he was sure.

 

 

Note from the Author

 

I hope you liked the first installment of The Corsair Uprising Space Opera Series! If you enjoyed it, please consider telling your friends or posting a short review at your favorite retailer. Word of mouth is an author’s best friend and is much appreciated.

 

The Corsair Uprising #2: Nightstalkers is available now in ebook and in paperback!

 


The Corsair Uprising #1: The Azure Key

Liam Kidd was a freelancer for Vesta Corporation, Earth’s largest and most corrupt asteroid mining company. Through a series of events he finds himself working the mines, a fate worse than death. When an opportunity presents itself, he and two other miners escape through a nearby wormhole. They find themselves across the galaxy in the middle of a conflict between three alien species. Liam’s only chance of getting home lies in finding a device rumored to be capable of opening a singularity. Now, he and his crew must face the horrors of war to return to their own system, a challenge that might prove deadly.

  • Author: Trevor Schmidt
  • Published: 2016-12-30 17:50:22
  • Words: 53821
The Corsair Uprising #1: The Azure Key The Corsair Uprising #1: The Azure Key