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The Hidden Treasure of Darfor

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The Hidden Treasure

Of Darfor

By

David Shewring

Copyright © David Shewring 2017

Shakespir Edition

Cover illustration by David Shewring

This e-book is a work of fiction. Any similarities to any events, places or persons (living or dead) are purely coincidental.

This e-book is licenced for your own personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold, copied or redistributed without prior permission.

Thank you for respecting the work of the author.

Table of Contents:

Front Matter

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Epilogue

Prologue:

USA, Planet Earth

Earth Date: 2153 AD

Dr Somers yawned and stretched his hands towards the ceiling as he did so. His work had been preoccupying him of late and it was starting to affect his private life. He had been at home less and he had even slept a few times in his office rather than in his own bed. His wife had, of course, managed to mention this only a few dozen times to him over the last month with visibly growing irritation. He couldn’t blame her, he thought as he finished his yawn and lowered his hands.

I have been exceptionally busy lately. But then again, this is an extremely important matter which could affect everyone on the whole planet. It deserves my undivided attention, he thought to himself.

For a moment he believed himself, then doubt began to slowly creep back into his mind.

Or am I just rationalizing my recent behaviour? I suppose I have been somewhat neglectful lately…

He eventually decided that no good would come from ruminating any further, so he returned his attention to the computer in front of him. He resumed entering data into the program that was currently running. His fingers danced over the keyboard with an agility that only comes from having done it a thousand times before. He tried to concentrate on the task at hand but he was dreading a vidphone call that was due any minute now. He had received data outputs from all the other teams under his supervision and there was just one team left to report in. Then, once that last data was entered, the program would run the simulation and give him the answer to the question he had been tasked with answering. He stared at the numbers on the screen in front of him as a wave of tiredness began to wash over him. His eyelids were growing heavy now and he fought to stay awake. Suddenly the vidphone on his desk made a loud, harsh ringing noise. He reluctantly pressed the “accept call” button and the screen flashed white, then resolved to a plain grey background with the words “No video signal. Audio only” in red letters.

‘Hello?’ he said expectantly.

‘Hello, is that Dr Somers?’ inquired a soft, feminine voice.

‘Speaking.’

‘Ah, hello Dr Somers. This is Dr Radlick. Sorry to bother you at this late hour but you said you wanted the data as soon as possible. And I’m additionally sorry that it took so long to collect, we had a bit of trouble getting everything set up here.’

Despite being apologetic she sounded surprisingly bright and cheerful, which was in direct contrast to Dr Somers’ mood.

‘Do you have the data for me?’

‘Yes, Doctor.’

‘Then let’s have it.’

She reeled off a long list of numbers relating to environmental conditions and atmospheric composition, including data on soil composition and the presence or absence of microscopic organisms as well. If not prompt, her team had at least been extremely thorough.

‘That’s the last of it,’ she reported with a slight sigh.

She felt as if she had been talking without stopping to take a breath for the last five minutes.

‘Fine. Thank you for your work. And…thank your team for me as well.’

‘I will, Doctor. Thank you. Good night.’

The screen flickered and the red letters vanished for a moment, before being replaced with the words “No signal” in blue letters. The room was once again quiet. She had hung up. Sighing, Dr Somers pressed a button and the screen of the vidphone switched off.

He slowly returned his gaze to the computer screen on his desk. He had typed the numbers into the program as Dr Radlick had been reading them out to him but had yet to press the “start” button, which would begin the simulation. For several long minutes he just sat there, the luminescent glare of the screen glinting off his glasses. He was afraid what the answer would be if he ran the simulation. All of a sudden, he was gripped by fear.

Then, in a low voice, he said to himself, ‘I’ve got no choice. I have to report these findings directly to the President himself as soon as I have them. The last thing I need right now is the White House breathing down my neck. I might as well get this over with,’ and with that, he pressed the ‘start’ button on the computer program.

The next day, a vidphone rang in the White House.

‘Yes?’ said a woman dressed in a business suit from behind her desk.

‘H-Hello. I-I need to speak to the President of the United States, please,’ said the pale and rather haggard-looking man on the screen of the vidphone.

‘I’m afraid he is unavailable at the moment. Who is calling, please?’

‘This is Dr…Dr Somers. I really need to speak with him as soon as possible. I’m afraid I have some bad news to report…’

UK, Planet Earth

Earth Date: 2215 AD

Approximately one kilometre above the ground, two men walked along a large gantry at a gentle pace. One was relatively short and rather tubby, with a bad comb-over advertising the fact that he was balding rather than concealing it; the other was taller and thinner who had a habit of pushing his glasses higher up his nose every few seconds, regardless of what he was doing.

The shorter man said, ‘So how many ships are we talking about?’

The bespectacled man replied, ‘Two “deep space class” vessels are being constructed. The term that the engineers are using is “Mega-ship”, which I think is probably a more accurate description of what we are trying to build. Quite frankly, we have never tried building anything this big before. No one has.’

‘And how many people will each Mega-ship hold?’ inquired the tubby man as he walked, his eyes wandering all over the skeleton of one of these ships that was currently being constructed.

The gantry upon which the two men walked snaked all around the enormous structure, allowing them to observe progress from any angle they desired.

‘Around five hundred thousand people,’ came the reply from the tall man.

The shorter man’s forehead creased and his eyes narrowed at this news.

‘But…that means that we can only transport a million people from the whole of the UK!’ he spat incredulously.

‘That’s correct,’ said the taller man with a hint of regret creeping into his voice.

‘But the population of the UK is now over eighty million people! What will happen to the rest of them?’

‘I suppose they will be left behind. We simply do not have the resources left to build any more ships.’

The tubby man considered this for a few moments before shrugging and saying, ‘Oh well, as long as me and my family are taken care of, it doesn’t really matter. What about the other countries? What are they doing?’

‘Most are doing exactly what we are doing – building giant ships to take people away from the Earth and off into deep space in search of habitable planets to colonise. The Americans, for example, are building seven Mega-ships if my sources are accurate. They currently have a population of over four hundred million. At that rate, they will barely be able to save one percent of their people when the time comes to launch the ships.’

‘You say that as if they’re inferior. We’re only doing slightly better than they are, if you are simply talking about percentages of people saved.’

‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’

The two men continued to walk in silence for a few minutes, before the short man looked forlornly at the partly constructed ship below and said, ‘Is there no other solution? Is this the only way to save ourselves – to leave everything behind forever?’

The taller man pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a single finger and replied, ‘The only viable solution that the world’s greatest minds can come up with. We have gone past the point of no return, we have used up all the planet’s fossil fuels and polluted the environment past recovery with the thoughtless dumping of waste materials and the like. Our population has exploded out of control and the planet simply cannot cope with this number of human beings on it – the soil is now increasingly infertile, the plants are dying and the oceans are largely lifeless. One way or another, millions and millions of humans are going to have to die to restore some kind of balance in nature. Perhaps in time, the planet will be able to heal itself – but not any time soon and certainly not with all these humans on it.’

‘That seems a bit cold….and that’s coming from me!’ said the shorter man, slightly taken aback by the words that the taller man spoke.

‘Some people regard science as cold. I am a scientist so it is in my nature to be analytical. I am merely stating the known facts – I am in no way happy about it. I am just as upset as anyone else about all the suffering and death which is occurring now and will continue to occur for the next few centuries on this planet, if the human race even survives that long without us.’

Another pause, again broken by the short man.

‘I take it public unrest is increasing?’

‘Yes and I’m sure it will become widespread violent rioting when people find out that most of them are not going to be saved.’

‘I see.’

The short man stared at the skeleton of the ship below and uncharacteristically shed a tear as he thought about what he, and others like him, had helped to do to the planet which had given birth to his very race. Thinking about what the future held for himself and for the poor people who would be left behind on a dying planet, he said in a voice no louder than a whisper, ‘May God help us all.’

Aboard the Mega-ship “Intrepid” in deep space

Earth Date: 2303 AD

It was night time aboard the Intrepid, at least it was according to the ship’s internal clock. In fact, the clock said it was 23:37 to be exact. The lights throughout the entire ship had either dimmed or turned off completely in order to simulate the darkness of night, as if the darkness of space was not foreboding enough. Throughout the huge vessel, many thousands of people slept in cramped quarters, sometimes two or even three people crammed into a space originally designed for only one occupant. All was quiet aboard the craft apart from the humming of various systems busily working away in the background to keep the air circulating and the temperature sufficiently warm.

A single, solitary figure stood on the bridge section of the ship as the enormous vessel continued onwards through the vast emptiness of space. She looked out of the main window and peered at the stars. When she was a child, she used to look out of the ship’s windows and see endless possibilities – all the stars and planets out there. She gave every one of them a different story complete with different characters living on them or in them. Now she was all by herself, she allowed a sigh to escape her ruby lips. She couldn’t have been more wrong. Space was actually filled mostly with nothingness – just empty space. There were many planets but it took an almost incalculable amount of energy for humans to get to the nearest solar system with their current technology, much less to a habitable planet on the other side of the galaxy. It was far tougher than any of them had ever imagined to travel through the blackness of space and unfortunately, there were none of her imagined friends and characters out there waiting to welcome the human race to a new age of prosperity with open arms.

Suddenly she became aware of somebody walking onto the bridge.

‘Olivia? Is that you?’ The voice sounded both tired and caring.

The woman did not turn around as a stocky man with a closely cropped haircut of salt and pepper slowly walked up to her, nor did she move a muscle as he stood directly beside her. She simply continued to stare out blankly through the window in silence.

‘Hey,’ said the man as he put an arm around her to try and offer comfort, ‘what are you doing up? You should be in bed like everybody else. The ship can fly herself – look, autopilot is engaged and working perfectly. Why are you here?’

The woman took a deep breath and absent-mindedly ran her fingers through her thick mop of shoulder-length blonde hair.

‘I’m not sure I can take this much longer,’ she said quietly.

‘What are you talking about?’ said the man, eyeing her with concern.

‘We’ve been out here for years and for what? Nothing. The light from the stars feeds our solar generators and keeps us running but for what purpose? We haven’t found a single suitable planet that we could colonise yet and those that we have….well, it would take us a century or longer to reach at our current speed. We won’t last that long…’

The man’s eyes narrowed.

‘What are you talking about? Do you know something that the rest of us don’t?’

Olivia turned to look at him with watery eyes and a trembling lower lip.

‘What is it?’ the man asked quietly with his arm still around her.

‘I’ve been told by the technicians that the airponics and hydroponics bays are operating at falling levels of efficiency. We aren’t producing as much food as we used to be able to. In several months we might not be able to feed everyone…’

‘Oh…’ was all that the man could utter with a stunned look on his face.

‘I’m so sorry, Paul.’

‘Hey, it’s OK. It’s not your fault. Now that we know what the problem is, we can find a solution. We always find a solution. It’ll be OK, you’ll see,’ said Paul in an effort to convince himself as much as convince the blonde woman in his arms.

A few tears streaked down Olivia’s smooth cheeks as she nuzzled in her friend’s chest. Paul responded by snaking his other arm around her and holding her tightly. They stayed like that for several minutes before being interrupted by a repetitive beeping sound emanating from the main computer.

‘What is it?’ asked Olivia as she used the back of her hand to wipe away the tears that had tumbled down her cheeks.

‘I’m not sure,’ replied Paul as he let go of her and started tapping various controls. Soon he began to get excited and started to type faster and faster.

‘What is it? What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all,’ said Paul, beaming from ear to ear. ‘Our computerised telescopes have found a habitable planet, in fact they have found several, but most importantly the nearest one is only about eighteen months travel away! I think we’ve finally found what we’re looking for!’

‘Really? Are you sure?’ asked Olivia excitedly, the tears now completely forgotten and replaced with a new sense of purpose and anticipation.

‘Yes, the main computer has confirmed all the readings. I think we’ve finally done it! Quick, open a communications channel to the nearest ship and tell them the good news. We’ve finally found a new home!’

Exploration Vessel “Plaizar”, In orbit around undesignated planet, Outer Fringes of the Galactic Network

Earth Date: Unknown

Galactic Network Date: 5732.19

‘Have all preparations been completed?’ asked a male figure who was standing on the bridge of the craft.

He was around five feet five inches tall in human measurements and he had scarlet skin that contrasted surprisingly well with the crisp white of the uniform that he wore.

‘Yes, commander,’ responded a female of the same species who was sat at a computer terminal at the front of the bridge. ‘We have downloaded all the information from the initial probe to our data banks and the computer has analyzed it. We are now capable of communicating in their native language through the automatic translator. Furthermore, we have completed the required five days of observation of the beings below. I believe we are sufficiently prepared to make contact.’

The male figure crossed all four of his arms and looked at the images being displayed on the holograph in the centre of the room. Sections of the planet below were shown from various angles whilst information about the detected life-forms was also displayed.

‘What about potential hostile reactions? Are we prepared to defend against that?’ he asked, mildly worried.

He had been on plenty of exploration missions before and he had seen many things and collected much data but he had never before been the one responsible for making first contact with a sentient alien race. He silently cursed the fact that they were the closest ship to the probe which had first discovered unusual activity on this planet and thus were the ones dispatched to investigate it by their superiors.

‘Threat analysis has already been completed,’ announced the female as she used her eye movements to enter commands into the computer at which she sat. ‘The beings on the planet surface do not possess advanced weapons of any kind. I am detecting short range intra-atmosphere craft and high levels of construction across several continents but nothing that would constitute a threat. In any event, I suggest we raise our energy shield as a matter of prudence as we enter the atmosphere, just in case.’

‘Agreed. Do it,’ concurred the male as he unfolded his arms.

‘All commands entered, flight path plotted and engines ready. Do you wish to proceed with making contact, commander?’ asked the female without taking her eyes off the screen of the computer terminal.

The male paused before inquiring, ‘What do these beings call themselves again?’

‘The term they use is hoo-mann, commander.’

The male figure nodded and prepared himself.

‘Very well. Open a communications channel to the beings on the planet surface. Override all their transmissions and replace them with our communication. Begin descent into the planet’s atmosphere,’ he ordered. ‘And do it as slowly as you can. We don’t want to alarm them any more than we have to.’

‘As you command,’ said the female as her eyes darted this way and that as she gave instructions to the craft’s main computer. ‘Communication channel secured. You are free to speak whenever you wish, commander.’

The male took a deep breath and then spoke loudly and clearly as the computer instantly translated his words into English with the transmission reaching across the entire planet.

‘Attention, all humans. Attention, all humans,’ he said. ‘Do not be alarmed. I repeat, do not be alarmed. I represent the Hoth’Maral race of the Galactic Network. We mean you no harm. We come in peace.’

The female couldn’t help but snigger at some of the clichés coming from her commander’s mouth. The male heard this and frowned but decided to ignore her and continue. What exactly were the right words to say to an alien species who probably still thought they were alone in the universe anyway?

‘You are on the edge of a galaxy that is teeming with other life-forms and we wish to be the first to offer greetings. We hope that we can learn from each other, form relationships with one another and extend the reach of the Galactic Network across the stars. We are preparing to land in the central landmass on your planet’s equator. Do not be afraid. I say again, we come in peace….’

Chapter 1

Aboard a transport shuttle near the planet Nexus One

Two hundred and sixty years later

As the giant planet came into focus on the view screen in front of him, Patrick couldn’t help but gape in awe and wonder at it. He had heard stories of course, but being from a planet so far from the central core systems he had never been anywhere near it. Until now.

Patrick was used to the outlying star systems on the fringes of colonised space. That meant very little space traffic, very few people, very few space stations or probes or anything of interest. Here, there were a multitude of sights and sounds to take in and he found it all a little overwhelming. There were many space stations dotted all around the planet, each a hive of activity with countless numbers of both large and small spacecraft entering and leaving them. Probes flew through the chaos, darting this way and that, nimbly managing to find a path through the miasma of ships and orbital stations that stretched as far as the eye could see. Autonomous robots scurried over the surfaces of the larger space stations, fixing burnt out conduits, replacing sections of hull and carrying out other repairs. And that was nothing compared to the sight of the planet itself.

Nexus One was the official designation of the planet now but for many centuries it had simply been known as Darfor, the name given by the indigenous people who once lived there. That, however, was long ago and the original inhabitants had long since been driven from their homeland. Legends claim that the planet was once lush and green, filled with forests, lakes, oceans and fertile land. However, today the story could not be more different. The entire planet was a sprawling metropolis. Every square metre of it was covered by something synthetic, something created by various species of sentient aliens. Towers and enormous skyscrapers reached high into the sky, clearly visible from space, while huge factories belched out smoke and other waste products into the atmosphere. As the transport shuttle moved into a low orbit and neatly found a position in between two orbiting freighters, Patrick looked out of a porthole to his left and peered at the huge planet below. Staring at the sight beneath him he could see swaths of commercial blocks turn into swaths of residential blocks and back again, the various yellow-green lights twinkling on and off as power was diverted to where it was needed.

The whole planet and surrounding space were pulsating with life and activity and for a moment, Patrick had to switch off the view screen and look away from the porthole to escape from the enormity of it all. He quietly put his head between his legs and fought back the urge to retch as a wave of anxiety came over him.

Who was I kidding? He thought. I don’t belong in a place like this, I’ll never fit in here!

But here he was, and now there was no turning back as the pilot gently manoeuvred the craft in which Patrick sat into its final descent pattern, ready for landing at the nearest space port.

***

The first thing that struck Patrick as he disembarked the aging spacecraft and stepped onto the gangway heading into the main spaceport was the smell. It hit him like a ton of bricks and he had to stop for a moment as others jostled around him and half-pushed him out of their way as they hurriedly marched towards the pass-check point, obviously having done this journey a hundred times before. The second thing that struck Patrick (literally) was a loud, obnoxious creature that was clearly late for something and was in a foul mood. He whacked into Patrick’s shoulder and snarled at the human for a second, before remembering he was late and hurrying off again.

Patrick was in somewhat of a daze, but he mumbled an apology – which the creature ignored – then leaned against a nearby barrier to catch his breath and compose himself. He gazed at the alien as he left. The creature was very tall, a good ten inches taller than Patrick, and had dark blue, slightly mottled skin. He also had a long – mane? – for lack of a better word, running from the top of his head down to the backs of his knees. Patrick wondered how he didn’t constantly trip up or get tangled in that thick mane of purple hair, before suddenly realising he was the only person still on the gangway. He quickly checked his pockets to make sure he had everything then grabbed his bag and walked purposely towards the pass-check point.

He made it to the check point and joined the end of a large queue which was filled with creatures from a dozen different worlds. As the line slowly moved forwards, Patrick sneaked glances at some of his fellow passengers. There was a large, bird-like creature just in front of him, with a body almost entirely covered with feathers and long, supple, multi-jointed arms that carried a multitude of bags, hand-held computers and other devices which Patrick didn’t recognise. A little further down the line was a medium-height alien that was covered in reddish fur, then further along still was a tall creature with silvery, slimy skin that glistened as he/she/it fidgeted and blinked his/her/its big, black eyes rapidly. At the front of the line was a small alien, probably around three feet tall, who appeared to be remonstrating with an official over something. Eventually the little alien got tired of arguing, reluctantly took a ticket with an indecipherable symbol printed on it from the official, then waddled away looking somewhat dejected.

Even though this was a nerve-wracking experience for Patrick, the sense of fear he initially felt was slowly abating and was being replaced by a kind of excitable, anticipatory energy. He felt his lips curve upwards in a smile, then suddenly it became a full open-mouthed grin of excitement. He was here. He was finally here! The capital planet of the whole galaxy! A world with a million places to explore, a million treasures to be discovered and billions of different people to meet, each with their own stories and cultures from their own planets! A wave of exhilaration washed over Patrick and he started fidgeting, suddenly desperate to get past the check point and into the world beyond, eager to explore.

When it was finally Patrick’s turn, he walked up to the official who was manning the pass-check point with a big smile on his face. The official regarded him with a stare that, if not exactly icy, definitely showed complete disinterest. ‘Hi, here are my documents,’ Patrick said pleasantly as he handed over a small data chip. The official simply grunted a response as he took the chip from Patrick, swiped it over a machine, then handed it back. ‘Thanks,’ Patrick said, his smile beginning to fade.

Not exactly a warm welcome, he thought absently.

The official then turned and began typing away at something on a nearby terminal as Patrick was the last of the line of travellers queuing to enter the main spaceport.

With a small shrug, Patrick pocketed the data chip, slung his bag over his shoulder and marched onwards. He turned right then left, this way and that, through a veritable maze of corridors, walkways and escalators. Eventually, he stepped through some large doors into an enormous room. It might have been originally designed as a waiting area, but now it had expanded to include numerous shops, eating establishments, computer terminals, communications booths and many other things besides. Once more, Patrick found himself standing still in shock as he took in the sight. There were more people here in this large room (if it could even be called a “room”. That word was a definite understatement) than Patrick would typically see in a whole month back on the rural settlements of his home planet. There must have been thousands of creatures milling around, chatting, walking, eating and engaging in various other activities. There were so many different species that Patrick stopped trying to count them after a while. Some were tall, some were small, some were scaly, others were furry, some had two eyes, others as many as six! Or was it eight? Patrick closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his temples, which were starting to throb. This was just too much to absorb and process in one go. He walked over to a nearby bench and sat down, using his hands to steady himself as his legs began to go a bit wobbly. There must have been at least a dozen different conversations going on within Patrick’s earshot. He tried to tune them out and focus on his next move. Ok, he had got here safe and sound. What next? He fished a crumpled magazine out of his bag and studied the pages on Nexus One. It was more of an attempt to lure tourists to the planet than a thorough, informative guide but it would help him get his bearings. At least, he thought it would. Minutes passed as he studied some of the simplified maps of the main city adjacent to the spaceport. Patrick squinted as he tried to make some sense out of it, but he was struggling to understand the labels. Suddenly, he became aware of an individual standing over him. The creature was a couple of inches taller than the human – probably six feet or six feet one and of medium build. It was rather humanoid in general appearance: it had one head, two eyes, two arms and two legs. However, there were many things about it that were very alien to Patrick: the creature had bright green skin that was mottled with shades of brown, rather pointy ears and various spiky protrusions sticking out of its hairless head. He (Patrick assumed it was a “he”, anyway) was wearing thin, shiny, silver material over the top part of his body and light blue trousers of another material over his legs. His arms, hands and head were the only parts of his body exposed. Patrick, in contrast, was clad in relatively dark (some might say drab) colours – his murky-coloured jacket and deep red shirt were well-worn, as were his dark blue jeans. His look was completed with grey, thick laced boots and even thicker, tousled brown hair atop his youthful face.

If shiny fabrics and light colours are the fashion here on Nexus One, I won’t have to tell anyone I’m from another planet. They’ll know just by looking at me, thought Patrick.

The tall, spiky creature beamed at him and drawled ‘Hay mann, how yuu doe-eeng?’

Patrick blinked several times and then understood what the alien meant.

‘Oh, you meant to say “How are you doing”, didn’t you? I-I’m fine, how are you?’ Patrick spoke with a stilted accent but was undeniably fluent in the common language used throughout the galaxy, commonly known as simply “Standard”.

He had studied hard at the main university on his home planet and had been told by many teachers he had an unusually high aptitude for learning languages. The alien was somewhat less capable in comparison but seemed to have boundless enthusiasm to make up for it.

‘Sorry, my mistake buddy,’ he replied in a casual, friendly manner. ‘Welcome to Nexus One! I’m Saleek, by the way,’ he held his hand out as he said this.

Patrick was surprised, but he stood up and shook the alien’s hand.

‘My name is Patrick. I’m impressed, I was told not many species know of our customs,’ he said.

‘You’re a hoo-mann, right? I could tell, you know, plain as day. You do kinda stand out around here, not that that’s a bad thing – some people would give anythin’ to stand out from the crowd. In any case, it’s really great to meet you, dude!’

Saleek was shaking Patrick’s hand with much vigour. He was using a mixture of Standard and old American English in his sentences.

‘It’s actually pronounced “human”,’ corrected Patrick as he withdrew his hand from the alien’s grip. ‘You seem to know an awful lot about human customs and…how did you know some of those words?’

‘Well, I have a bit of a hobby. Well, to be honest, some might say obsession. I like to say passion!’ Saleek replied, grinning. ‘I just love learning about different languages and cultures. I particularly enjoy learning about you humans. You were the last major sentient species to join this particular galaxy. I know loads about every other species that are part of the Galactic Network. But you humans, you’re like an enigma! You tend to keep to yourselves and no one knows much about you. So I made it my mission to learn!’ Saleek seemed quite pleased with himself as he said this.

‘Well, it’s nice to meet you. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get in a place like this. I take it that not many of these people here have seen a human before?’

‘That’s true, that’s true. However, there are so many thousands of different species on this planet and everywhere is so busy all the time that I don’t think anyone has even noticed yet! Except for me, obviously. Must be my keen observational skills, huh?’ Saleek explained, still smiling.

‘Sure, I guess.’

‘So, what are you here for, stranger? Can I help you out with anything?’

Patrick’s mind instantly went back to a time when he was younger. He was travelling to the main university to start his studies and he had just disembarked from a transport in an unfamiliar town on his home planet. People were bustling around and rushing everywhere, some knocking into him as he tried to get his bearings. A stranger with a warm smile and a thick coat came up to him and shepherded him away from the heaving throng of people and offered to help him with his belongings. Patrick, being young and naive, didn’t think anything of it at the time. He was stressed, tired and desperate to get to his accommodation at the university, so he instantly accepted the help and before long the two were chatting and walking along. Cutting a long story short, that evening ended with Patrick being mugged and having his belongings stolen from him by the guy with the thick coat and some of his friends. Patrick learned that day to think twice about accepting anything from a total stranger, especially when it’s obvious that you don’t know where you are or what you’re doing. Being the only confused-looking human in a spaceport full of other species probably, as Saleek had said, made Patrick stand out by a mile. It would also make him a prime target for any would-be muggers or pickpockets. Patrick quickly weighed up his options in his head. On the one hand, this alien called “Saleek” (if that was even his real name) could be a potential mugger, or worse. It was possible that he and his friends made a living out of hustling, mugging and picking the pockets of the many travellers and tourists that would come through this spaceport on a daily basis. It was also possible that he was just a very friendly person who had a genuine interest in learning about the cultures of other species.

And I sure could use a guide to navigate this city. Even this spaceport is set out like a maze, thought Patrick. What the hell? I’m pretty sure I can handle myself and there is no way this guy would try and mug me in a place as crowded as this. I’ll play along for a while and see what happens. If things start to turn suspicious, I’ll bail. First things first…

‘Well, I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. I’m coming here to find work. Everyone knows about the poor jobs market on the human colonies, right? I mean, with all this advanced technology, automation and personal robots, the human race has never had it so good but that also means no jobs for the majority of people there. Hence,’- Patrick spread his arms out wide, as if to display himself - ’why I’m here on Nexus One. Hell, I’ve hardly got a credit to my name. These clothes and my bag here on the only things I’ve got at the moment,’ he half-lied.

Patrick did have a few thousand credits stored on a secret account, but that was only for emergencies. And the real reason that he had left his home planet? Well, no one on Nexus One knew that right now and he was determined to keep it that way. There was no way he was going to tell the first alien he met.

‘Gee, I wish I could tell you that you’ve come to the right place, buddy, but I’m afraid there ain’t many jobs goin’ round here. The sheer number of people that are on this planet means any vacancy gets filled within days, sometimes hours of being advertised. Still, no worries, if you get into any serious trouble, you could always crash at my place. It’s not far from the port. It ain’t exactly fancy, but it’s a roof over ya head anyways!’ Saleek was still beaming, and the offer appeared genuine.

Does this guy ever stop smiling? Patrick thought to himself.

Still, he couldn’t help himself and he cracked a small smile too. It was nice to feel like he had a friend, even if he wasn’t 100% sure he could trust him just yet. It was easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed on a planet this enormous and so heavily populated, especially as Patrick had been born and raised on the much quieter, much smaller outer colonies. He decided he would let his guard down, just a little.

Besides, even conmen don’t smile as much as this guy, he reasoned. He seems harmless enough.

Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a group of aggressive-looking aliens walking up to them. There were four of the creatures – three were of medium height and build and were all of the same species. They looked vaguely like bipedal rats and stood slightly behind the fourth, who was an altogether different species. He was very large, around six foot six and extremely heavily built. Apart from the lack of foliage sprouting from his body and nearby clouds circling his head, he could easily have been mistaken for a mountain. His overdeveloped muscles were seemingly an attempt to hide an underdeveloped brain however. This became apparent when he opened his mouth to speak.

‘What we got here then? What kinda species are you?’

He was addressing Patrick with a sneer and barely even looking at Saleek.

‘I’m a human. And you are?’ Patrick replied, attempting to be polite.

It’s typical. The last thing I want here on Nexus One is trouble. I thought I’d come here to get away from stuff like this, not walk straight into it, he thought.

He could instantly sense that these four were trouble and if he wasn’t careful, things could get ugly rather quickly. Generally Patrick could handle himself, but he didn’t like the odds he was facing. Four on one was impossible, especially with the big guy to take care of. He quickly glanced at Saleek, as if to silently ask ‘Can I count on you?’ The spiky alien gave an almost imperceptible nod, signalling the affirmative, then turned away from Patrick to fully face the newcomers.

‘A what? A hoo-mann? Never heard of ya!’ came the response from the large alien.

‘That’s not surprising. Patrick ain’t from round here, are ya buddy?’ said Saleek, entering the conversation.

‘An’ who asked you, ya spiky little lyan?’ boomed the large alien, regarding Saleek with a hostile glare.

‘Yeah, who asked ya?’ shrieked one of the three who were standing just behind the enormous mountain on legs.

‘I’m from the outer colonies. Most of my people don’t come to the inner core systems very often, so it’s understandable that you don’t recognise my species,’ explained Patrick diplomatically. ‘What’s the name of your species?’

‘I’m a Trantik. You musta heard o’ my species! We’re some o’ the foremost athletes and soldiers this side o’ the Parses Nebula!’ said the large alien, flexing his ample arm muscles as he did so.

Whilst he was undeniably impressive in size, his vain behaviour betrayed the truth of someone who was actually very insecure about his comparably small intellect and frequently tried to overcompensate. When that didn’t work, Patrick assumed he simply beat the offending party into a pulp and dragged them back to his cave somewhere to hang up as a trophy.

‘Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration,’ interjected Saleek, much to the chagrin of the enormous Trantik standing in front of him. ‘Your species are capable athletes and reasonable warriors. But then again, you’ve still lost more than your fair share of conflicts. What about the Waldoran rebellion, eh? That was a pretty one-sided and short-lived war, huh?’

While Saleek was grinning from pointy ear to pointy ear, the Trantik was getting more and more riled by the second. His three friends began hopping from one leg to the other and produced a low hissing sound, apparently their species’ form of nervous behaviour, alternating glances at Saleek and the giant Trantik. Some of the nearby people walking past started to give this group a wide berth and others retreated altogether, as if sensing what was about to happen.

‘An’ what kinda wars have your pathetic species won, lyan?’ spat the large alien, his voice dripping with venom.

‘Well, one or two. The thing is, we don’t go to war that often, ‘cause we’re smart enough to be able to negotiate and come to agreements with other species. A skill that seems to be lacking in Trantiks, wouldn’t ya say?’ answered Saleek, still smiling.

The large Trantik started to move slowly and deliberately towards Saleek, his jaw clenched in anger. Patrick shot a glance at Saleek, as if to say ‘What the hell are you doing?’ but the spiky lyan didn’t see it. Saleek darted towards the big alien and closed a distance of several metres in less than a second. He paused momentarily as he bent his knees, then Saleek launched himself upwards in a kind of uppercut motion. He struck the Trantik on the chest and jaw and the impact sent the large creature backpedalling rapidly. Patrick was stunned into inaction for a moment, before he noticed one of the three rat-like aliens starting to edge towards him, hands raised and yellowish teeth bared in anger. Patrick instinctively brought his hands up to protect his face and neck from attack. Without further warning, the rat-like alien leapt towards Patrick, jaws snapping violently. Such a large motion was easy to spot however, and Patrick ducked out of the way. The flying rat hit nothing but thin air before landing in a crumpled heap about a metre and a half away. The human sprang back to his feet, took one large stride and then introduced his boot to the alien’s chest with alacrity. The rat-like creature coughed a large pool of dark purple fluid onto the floor and then wheezed in pain. One of the remaining rat-like aliens looked scared and stood stock still several metres away, but his friend was either too angry or too stupid to think clearly about what had just happened. He rushed at Patrick, hands slashing, aiming for the human’s eyes. Patrick spun out of the way of the first attack, dodged the second then parried the third. The adrenaline was coursing through his veins now and his breathing quickened in response. Patrick planted his feet firmly, raised his arms and tensed his muscles. The rat-like alien was only an inch or two shorter than the human, but he had to be giving up at least thirty pounds in weight, possibly more. He slammed into Patrick’s guard with full force and, stunned, began to stagger backwards. Patrick stepped forwards and rammed his fist into the alien’s face, before unleashing his heavy boot once more, this time connecting with the alien’s stomach. The unfortunate alien was sent flying backwards and landed unceremoniously on his friend which Patrick had floored mere moments earlier. As Patrick turned to face the final rat-like creature, all he saw were the alien’s heels as it made a hasty getaway, obviously deciding that trying to avenge his pals was not worth a stay in the local hospital. Patrick then turned and started to move to help Saleek, before he realised that the spiky alien needed no assistance at all. In fact, he seemed like a surprisingly gifted fighter. The large Trantik was incredibly strong but he was no match for Saleek’s amazing speed. Every time the huge alien made an attempt to grab Saleek or punch him, Saleek was no longer there. In fact, every time Patrick blinked, the spiky lyan seemed to be in a different place. Eventually, after much ducking and weaving, Saleek jumped into the air and hung there for a moment, before launching a snap kick into the Trantik’s chest, which was now severely bruised. The Trantik stumbled backwards and clutched his chest, before deciding that continuing the fight was pointless. He stood up and stretched his spine while unleashing an almighty roar. Saleek instantly darted backwards and within seconds was standing next to Patrick again.

‘Fine!’ the huge Trantik shouted. ‘We’re done here. But this ain’t over, ya little Ketchwa!’ and with that, he marched over to his two friends who were still dazed and in a heap on the floor.

Showing impressive strength, he picked up first one of them, then the other, before walking away, essentially holding a large rat under each arm as he departed. The sight was a little surreal, to say the least. Seconds later, the heaving throng of people returned, as all the aliens who had backed off in order to avoid the fight resumed their journeys and duties. If you hadn’t been there, you never would have known any fight had occurred at all.

‘You OK?’ said Saleek to Patrick. The spiky alien did not even appear to be out of breath, the human noted.

‘I’m fine,’ answered Patrick as he trotted over to the nearby bench and grabbed his bag of belongings. ‘Thanks for that. I really couldn’t have handled all those guys on my own,’ he added.

‘No problem, buddy. To be honest, anything you said was going to result in a fight anyway.’

’It sure looked that way. This wasn’t exactly the welcome I had imagined when I decided to come to Nexus One.’

‘Yeah, I’ll bet they never mentioned any of this in the travel brochure, right?’

‘That’s certainly true.’

‘The thing is, I know that Trantik although he doesn’t know me. I have a friend who works for the police and he’s told me many times about this guy, who is easily recognisable ‘cause he’s so tall and belligerent. He’s constantly gettin’ into fights in this city with all kindsa different species. My guess is he likes tryin’ to prove his species is the strongest in the galaxy. He’s been cautioned many times but they’ve never been able to do anything further ‘cause none of the witnesses will testify against him.’

‘I guess that makes sense. He is pretty intimidating. What was that word he called you? A “Ketchwa”?’ Patrick pronounced the unfamiliar word slowly, unsure if he had heard it correctly.

‘Yeah. The guy’s classy to the end, ain’t he?’

‘What does it mean?’

‘It means a rather unpleasant act done to a person’s Barrabol,’ came the reply.

Patrick was none the wiser and decided not to pursue that particular line of conversation.

What would my family think if the only words I picked up whilst on Nexus One were various swear words? He thought to himself, chuckling slightly. Still, I guess I can trust this guy after all. I mean, who is willing to fight for a total stranger unless he really is one of those goodie-goodie types?

‘Well, as I said, thanks for the help,’ said Patrick, slinging his bag over his shoulder.

‘Are you sure you’re gonna be okay?’

‘Yeah, sure. I’ve just got to find my hotel.’ Patrick once more retrieved the crumpled magazine from his bag and began to study it.

‘Where are you going, then?’ asked Saleek, peering at the map from over Patrick’s shoulder.

‘Um…over…here, I think…’ the human said uncertainly, his finger hovering over an area of the map that was a light blue colour.

‘The Rezwani district? Are you sure? That’s mostly industrial – plants, factories and stuff like that,’ said Saleek with a brow furrowed in confusion.

‘Well, I do have the address written down here somewhere,’ Patrick added, as he checked his pockets for a scrap of paper upon which the address was scrawled.

‘Well, how ‘bout you tell me what it’s called and I’ll help ya find it. Plus, I can keep an eye on you – we don’t want you causing trouble and startin’ any more fights now do we?’ said Saleek, winking.

Patrick laughed and nodded in agreement.

Boy, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that this guy was in the scouts, trying to get his merit badge for “helping a stranger” or something…

Chapter 2

‘Seriously man, you gotta try this! It’s delicious!’ insisted Saleek as he manoeuvred a large spoon loaded with…something…into his mouth.

The warm and friendly alien had offered to show Patrick how to get to his hotel, but first he had insisted that they have something to eat. In all fairness, Patrick was hungry and Saleek obviously knew his way around the city, so the human eagerly agreed. Plus, as Saleek bought Patrick’s story about not having much money, the spiky alien offered to pay for the human’s meal as well. However, Saleek’s idea of food was somewhat different to what Patrick was used to eating back on his home world.

‘Mmm!’ Saleek commented as he chewed.

Patrick watched as the alien gorged on the food on his plate, if “food” was the correct word. In appearance, it bore a rather unpleasant resemblance to worms and oddly-shaped flowers with long petals, all cooked in a slightly slimy, greenish sauce. The strange thing was that it smelled really appetising, and Patrick was thrown by the clash between the two. Eventually, after much poking and prodding the stuff, Patrick put a small amount on the tip of his spoon and gingerly tasted it. He was very surprised – it tasted even better than it smelled! He quickly dug in with his spoon, loading mounds of the stuff onto it and proceeded to eat heartily. However, he still tried not to look at it while he was putting it in his mouth. Instead, he chose to look around the restaurant in which they were eating. It was beginning to dawn on Patrick just how far away from home he really was. The place was vaguely similar in layout to a Japanese sushi bar from ancient Earth, however the décor was bright, garish colours that seemed to glow in the dim fluorescent lighting and various alien knick-knacks were hung on the walls, none of which the human recognised. He assumed they were supposed to be ornaments, but many resembled old engine parts. If that had some kind of significance to the locals, it was completely lost on Patrick. The entire restaurant was populated by at least fifteen different species, all engaged in eating heartily, chatting loudly and occasionally laughing uproariously.

‘That is damn good food. You wanna know something? I used to live on these back when I was an adolescent!’ said Saleek, snapping Patrick out of his wandering gaze.

‘You know, I have to admit it is delicious. I’ve never had anything quite like this before. What did you say it was called again?’ asked Patrick.

Trefarli. Pronounced tray-farr-lee. It’s somewhere between the really greasy junk they call fast food in this place and the slightly less greasy junk they call haute-cuisine! Ha!’

Patrick blinked a couple of times, before having another spoonful of his meal. Not only did Saleek know old American English, undoubtedly the most common of the old Earth languages, he also knew a little old French as well. It seemed odd to Patrick that he would meet someone who knew so much about humans and their cultures as soon as he stepped off the shuttle transport.

And in a place this big, with so many different people here, what are the odds that I would meet him? Patrick thought, beginning to get a little suspicious, although not so suspicious that he was going to stop eating. He did, however, decide to raise his guard a bit again.

‘Well, you certainly seem to like it! Isn’t that your second helping?’ asked Patrick.

‘Actually, it’s my third!’ admitted Saleek as he hungrily licked his plate clean. The alien’s tongue was reminiscent of a lizard’s, and it darted out of his mouth as fast as a lightning bolt strikes the ground during a storm. Within seconds the plate was so clean, you’d swear it had never had food on it.

‘You sure like your food,’ Patrick observed, using his spoon to gather the remaining puddles of sauce on his plate before eating them.

‘Well, it’s really down to my species, you see. I’m a lyan. We have very fast metabolisms and we can consume loadsa food every day. We need to eat so often ‘cause we usually move at high speeds, whether we’re talking, working, exercising, piloting – you name it! If we don’t eat enough, we get really sluggish and slow. Although maybe I do eat a little too much. My sister always said I had a big appetite when we were younger. Heh, she used to complain that when I was done with my meal, I’d try and scavenge a few more bites from hers!’

‘Do you still see your sister now?’

Saleek was suddenly quiet, and his smile disappeared. ‘It’s, um, kind of a long story. It’s personal so, er, I don’t really want to talk about it right now.’

Patrick realised he must have hit a nerve with that question, although he wasn’t to know it was a bad topic because it was Saleek who brought up his sister in conversation in the first place.

‘So, what is it that you do? You know, your job?’ inquired Patrick, attempting to change the subject.

‘Well, I’m kind of…in between jobs at the moment,’ said Saleek, taking a pause mid-sentence to choose his words carefully. He took a gulp of his drink, which had come free with the food. He set the bottle back down on the table and continued, ‘I used to work for a major transport company – logistics, cargo shipments, the whole deal. I used to pilot cargo ships from Nexus One to a dozen different planets within the core star systems, but the pay was terrible and the hours were long, so I figured, ‘hey, why not do a little of my own business on the side?’ It wasn’t like I was hurtin’ anyone or anything, but for some reason the company didn’t like it when they found out that I was using one of their ships to do some off-duty cargo runs. Imagine that, eh?’

The spiky alien grinned and slapped Patrick on the back. Patrick, somewhat uneasily, offered a ‘well, what are you gonna do?’ gesture with his palms open and his arms spread apart. Saleek just shrugged.

‘Well, to be honest, I’ve never been one for playing exactly by the rules. My bosses always used to say that I had a problem with authority or something. I just get bored easily, y’know? My species always moves fast and we can work so fast that I think it sometimes makes other species feel inadequate or whatever. As soon as something piques my interest, I’m there, I wanna learn everything there is to know about it and do it as fast as possible. Then I can move onto the next thing and do that. And then the next. And so on.’

‘Maybe you’d like it better if you were your own boss. You know, work freelance, set up your own company or something,’ suggested Patrick.

‘Yeah, that’d be awesome! But I’d only need around, oh I don’t know, say thirty thousand credits to set everything up. I don’t have that kind of money, man.’

Patrick decided not to mention his secret account, however he began to feel guilty for making the alien pay for his meal when it sounded like Saleek was worse off than he was.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Saleek, standing up. ‘This place is boring and it’s getting busier by the second. Must be the end of shift for some of the workers in the local businesses ‘round here. You finished?’ He indicated Patrick’s nearly empty plate.

‘Uh, yeah,’ replied the human.

‘Let’s go to this bar I know. It ain’t far from here. And it does a really good sandakk too!’

Saleek wore his familiar beaming grin on his face as he said this.

‘What’s a sandakk?’

‘Wow, you really are from the outer colonies aren’t you? It’s alcohol, similar to what you humans call “beer”, I think. But, there are some subtle differences in the way it’s prepared. I think you’re gonna like it!’

***

Saleek certainly has a gift for understatement, thought Patrick as he took another swig from his bottle of sandakk.

It tasted almost nothing like the beers he used to drink back on his home world. About the only similarity between the two was that they were both carbonated. The sandakk he was drinking was a deep crimson in colour, and was slightly more viscous than most drinks that the human was used to. It also had a peculiar sweetness to it and an intriguing aftertaste. In spite of this, it was a very satisfying beverage and the more Patrick drank, the more he began to like it. At his insistence, Patrick had paid for the first round of drinks, although Saleek had taken some convincing initially. The human put down his sandakk on a nearby table and looked around. The bar was noisy and full of patrons. Most were drinking and chatting, but a few were gathered around triangular shaped tables towards the back of the room, playing a game of alien origin which Patrick recognised as Yollunvass. He didn’t know all the intricacies of the game as it wasn’t very popular back on the human colonies but he knew the basic rules. It was a pastime that encouraged gambling and in drinking establishments such as this, it was an unspoken rule that you had to bet credits when you were playing others. Or anything else that you could wager. He could see one alien pushing a load of credits into the middle of the table, signifying his bet for this round, and all the other aliens around the table displayed various expressions of frustration and disappointment in response.

Those guys really need to work on their poker faces, thought Patrick idly.

He had considered bailing when Saleek had suggested moving to ‘somewhere quieter’. Alarm bells started ringing in his head and he considered the possibility that the spiky alien was about to try something, but in the end, nothing happened. Plus, it wasn’t exactly quiet in the bar. Or the streets leading to it. It appeared that nowhere was truly quiet on Nexus One – every street, every back alley, every shop, every bar, every restaurant was teeming with people. In fairness, it was the most heavily populated of the core worlds and it was the capital planet for the whole star system, so it was to be expected. Patrick felt reasonably safe as long as there were plenty of other people around, so he kept going. Also, it turned out that Saleek really did know the best spots to eat and drink around the city. The food, while visually unappealing, was delicious, as was the local ‘beer’.

I could get used to eating and drinking like this, thought Patrick as he took one more swig from his bottle.

He didn’t feel homesick in the slightest. In fact, as time went on, he was enjoying himself more and more. Perhaps it was partly the alcohol, but it was mostly the ever-present energy and enthusiasm of his “guide”, Saleek. After eating, it seemed as if the lyan was even more energetic, more bubbly and more jokey than before, if that was even possible. Patrick sank into his comfortable chair and relaxed his muscles, exhaling as he did so. It was then that Saleek returned to the table with more bottles, these ones containing a bright blue liquid instead of the red ones that they had both been drinking.

‘Hey man, you ready for round two?’ he asked, grinning.

He plonked the bottles down on the table, spilling a few drops of blue liquid as he did so.

‘Already? But I’ve barely finished this one!’ Patrick half-protested, but he wasn’t really serious.

It turned out that the crimson coloured Sandakks were pretty strong, and the alcohol was already starting to insidiously affect him. He began to relax more and, as anyone who has ever been drunk will know, he began to think that trying absolutely anything was a good idea, no matter how foolish it might seem with hindsight. In short, it made him extremely suggestible and Saleek kept a close eye on how much Patrick was drinking. For every drink that the lyan had, he made sure the human had consumed two or three. Within an hour or so, the drinks were flowing freely and before long, Patrick forgot he even had a hotel room to get to. Or that he had a bag containing his belongings. In fact, he had almost forgotten why he had left his home planet and come to Nexus One in the first place, such was his state of inebriation.

‘Man, I could so get used to this!’ exclaimed Patrick, grinning like a Cheshire cat who had just found a winning lottery ticket. He took a long swig from the bottle (this one containing a purplish liquid) and when he was done, he slammed down the empty container onto the table, which was littered with empty glasses and bottles. Saleek slowly sipped a small glass of colourless liquid which smelled faintly of paint stripper.

As he put the glass down onto the table, he said, ‘Well, now I think we’ve tried just about every single type of sandakk there is! I gotta hand it to ya, buddy. You humans sure can drink!’

‘Damn right we can!’ came the slightly slurred reply.

Patrick automatically reached for another bottle, but as he pressed it to his lips and knocked his head back, he realised that it was empty. He grunted in annoyance and put the empty container back on the table.

‘So listen,’ said Saleek. ‘I’ve shown you the food and drink of some the finer eating establishments this side of Nexus One. Are you up for a little sight-seeing tour tomorrow? Maybe a visit to an historical site? Or perhaps an archaeological dig? I can show you really amazing things you know, there are some brilliant spots for tourists round here.’

At this point, if Saleek had said it was a good idea for Patrick to give him all his worldly possessions in exchange for some magic beans, the human would have thought it was the offer of the century. Groggily, Patrick looked at Saleek and smiled broadly.

‘That sounds awesome, man! I’m totally there! Let’s do it!’

‘Excellent! Well, I’ll make the arrangements and sort everything out. Trust me, you’re gonna have a great time here on Nexus One,’ said Saleek, moving to stand up.

‘You goin’ for the next round?’ inquired Patrick, barely managing to stay in his seat as he fished around in his pockets for some loose credits.

‘I think we’d better be getting you back to your hotel, buddy. C’mon, I’ll give you a hand,’ said Saleek as he helped Patrick stand up.

Chapter 3

The first thing that Patrick became aware of was a bright lining shining in his eyes. The second thing he became aware of was a pounding pain in his head. Finally, the third thing he became aware of was an irritating, dry and scratchy sensation starting in his mouth, running all the way through his throat and ending in his chest. Blinking rapidly, he slowly managed to open his eyes. He sat up in bed gingerly and looked around. He was in his hotel room. How he had gotten there was a mystery, and most of the night before was either a fuzzy blur or a total blank.

Oh, what did I have to drink last night? Thought Patrick as he struggled to get up.

He got out of bed, stumbled to the ensuite bathroom and promptly threw up. Minutes later, when it felt like his throat was no longer housing a miniature volcano, he returned to the bedroom and sat on the edge of his bed. He sighed deeply and ran his fingers through his thick, brown hair. The sunlight coming in through the window was bathing half of his face in heat and it began to make Patrick’s skin crawl in irritation.

‘Ah, damn it,’ the human muttered as he got up and pressed the nearby wall contact.

He breathed a sigh of relief as the window tint became darker and darker until it almost looked as if it were night time outside.

‘Hangovers and bright light really don’t mix well,’ he said to himself as he walked back into the bathroom to pour himself a glass of water.

Patrick guzzled the water thirstily and let the cool liquid soothe his irritated mouth and throat.

‘Much better,’ he commented as he sat the empty glass down on a nearby table.

He went over to his bag and started to rifle through it, checking that everything was still there – it was.

At least that guy didn’t mug me, he thought. Then, come to think of it, I don’t even remember getting here last night. I probably have Saleek to thank for helping me to find this place. Well, I’m here now. I’d better try and work out my next move.

Patrick once more sat down on the edge of his bed. The human checked the time on his mini-computer, which he wore on his wrist like an old-fashioned watch. The display read “10:47”, it was getting on for late morning. Nexus One had a standard twenty six hour day, to which Patrick was still adjusting. His home planet on the outer colonies was relatively small and it rotated quite quickly on its axis, meaning that each day only lasted nineteen hours. Still, it turned out that humans were quite resilient creatures and, given enough time, they could successfully adapt to changes in their environment and daily routines quite well. He began to consider his options, but was hindered by the incessant throbbing of his temples. The cold water had helped his throat and chest but he still felt a bit sick and he still had a raging headache.

Maybe I should just take it easy for a while. Perhaps I’ll grab a bite to eat at a nearby place and scout out the local area. I’d better make sure I can navigate all the main routes and know where all the transport links are, thought Patrick.

Suddenly, his train of thought was derailed by a triple beeping sound emanating from the hotel door.

What could that be?

He stood up and looked around. There was a pause, then the three beeps sounded again. Perhaps it was the hangover, but it took Patrick nearly a full minute to realise that it was someone pressing the wall contact just outside the hotel door, indicating that they wanted to come in.

I keep forgetting people don’t knock on doors on other planets, the locals here must think I’m a total rube or something!

Patrick went over to the door and activated the holographic display. The display showed the view from the other side of the door and there was a rather tall, spiky, green/brown alien standing there, his perpetual grin still fixed on his face. Patrick smiled and shook his head, then opened the door.

‘Hey man, how you doing?’ greeted Saleek, showing that he had now perfected that particular phrase in old American English.

He looked bright and alert, as if his particular species did not suffer the after-effects of alcohol intake at all.

‘I’ve…been better, but I’m okay,’ replied Patrick, motioning for Saleek to enter the hotel room, which the alien did.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever drunk that much in one night! I’m still feeling the effects.’ Patrick winced as the throbbing in his temples increased then moments later subsided.

He felt, and was sure that he looked, very rough indeed.

‘I think that’s about right. For your first night on Nexus One, I mean. Most tourists hit the bars and restaurants as soon as they get off their transports. The food, drink and entertainment are probably some of the main attractions that draw people to this planet. And speaking of attractions’ – Saleek reached into an inner pocket on his shiny jacket and produced two small, amber-coloured chits – ‘I got us tickets to go to the foremost archaeological dig site this side of Nexus One! How cool is that?’

Patrick blinked dumbly a few times, his brow furrowing in confusion.

‘Um, what dig site is this?’ he asked, bewildered.

The last thing he remembered before he woke up in his hotel room was ordering two red bottles of sandakk.

‘The Spay’Ar dig site that we talked about last night. Don’t you remember?’ said Saleek with an innocent expression on his face.

Patrick rubbed his forehead then replied, ‘I’m sorry, I…don’t remember much about last night. Must be all the sandakks!’

Saleek laughed and said, ‘I kept telling you to slow down, but you were having such a good time you just wouldn’t listen.’

The human made a mental note to never get that inebriated again, especially around people he didn’t know and in a place that was unfamiliar to him.

‘So…what’s the deal with the tickets?’ he asked.

Saleek brandished them proudly.

‘It’s a very popular attraction, especially to anyone who is interested in alien cultures. They say that some of the artefacts and ruins are from the indigenous people of Nexus One! We’re going back thousands and thousands of years here. Most of the stuff from the Spay’Ar dig site is extremely well preserved, some of the best specimens ever uncovered on this planet. Researchers are calling it the find of the century! Since you’re here, you’ve got to check it out! It’s only about an hour away by mag-train.’ The spiky alien stopped for a moment, trying to judge if he was over-selling the trip.

‘You agreed to go. You said you were really looking forward to it as well!’ Saleek half-lied, attempting to play on Patrick’s guilt.

‘Well, it all sounds very interesting…but I’m not sure I’m up for it today. I am feeling pretty rough after last night,’ said Patrick truthfully. ‘Any chance we could do it another day?’

The spiky alien seemed to lose his composure for half a second, before quickly regaining it.

‘I’m afraid the tickets are only valid for one day, and that day is today,’ said Saleek.

The human then regarded the spiky alien with a mildly confused stare.

‘Really? That seems a bit weird…’ said Patrick, thinking aloud.

‘As I said, it’s a very popular attraction. This is the only way to ensure overcrowding is kept to a minimum.’

After considering this for a moment, the human accepted that explanation.

‘Come on, man, I’ve paid for both the tickets,’ added Saleek, attempting to guilt Patrick into coming one more time.

Patrick paused for a second before replying, ‘Well, if you’ve already paid for them, I guess we can’t let them go to waste. I’m sure I’ll feel better once I’ve grabbed a bite to eat. Plus, I am kind of curious to see some of these artefacts. I’ve heard stories and legends about this planet – everyone has – but I’m probably going to be one of the first humans ever to actually lay eyes on these ancient ruins. This is pretty exciting!’

‘Sure, man, sure. Whatever you need. Hey, I know a nice little cafe that does a killer breakfast…’

***

The ride on the mag-train was relatively short and completely uneventful. Mag-trains used magnetic levitation technology to suspend the metal train carriages in mid-air. This allowed them to zip around the “tracks” at a phenomenal speed, ensuring efficient transportation of people and goods all around the planet. Patrick passed some of the time by chatting to Saleek, but mostly he spent it gazing out of the window of the mag-train. He was still getting used to the sights and sounds of such a busy planet and he never ceased to be amazed by what he saw. They whizzed past shops, bars and restaurants packed with people. They sped past residential areas with tower blocks so high that they almost seemed to stretch into the stratosphere. They zoomed by industrial areas with large, heavy-duty pipes carrying multi-coloured fluids from one factory to another. They even raced by a big building which, at a glance, appeared to be constructed entirely of glass and housed many different types of animals and plants. Patrick wasn’t sure if it was some kind of zoo, botanical greenhouse, pet shop, or something else all together. He loved the wonder; he really enjoyed seeing everything for the first time with such naivety and such innocent eyes. He tried to guess what some of the buildings were for – it didn’t matter if he was wrong, he just enjoyed letting his imagination run wild inside his head. He felt like a kid again, like he was seeing things for the very first time. And, while it was a little scary, it also felt good.

The mag-train eventually came to a stop at a small station where Patrick and Saleek disembarked. They made their way past various tall buildings, until they came to a rather large area that seemed to be the dig site. While Patrick could quite happily converse in Standard for hours, he still struggled to read some of the characters in the written form of the language. He just about made out the word “site” on the large sign that was gleaming overhead but the other words could have been anything. It could have passed for an archaeological site at a glance, but there were a multitude of strange-looking machines around and very few actual people. Still, Patrick just stood there, marvelling at the sand that covered the majority of the site. So far, every single area on Nexus One that he had stepped foot on had been made of metallic alloys, rubber, types of cement or strengthened glass. It was very unusual to see something which appeared natural on such an unnatural, synthetic planet. The sand was a pale orange colour and seemed to cover the whole region, and in the middle of the dig site was a large hole that had been bored into the ground by machines. The sides of the chasm were a vibrant red colour, and the human briefly wondered what type of rock it was made of. Patrick craned his neck to try and get a better look but he couldn’t see much beyond the outer edge of the hole.

Saleek tapped him on the shoulder (apparently this was the universal way to get someone’s attention, regardless of species or culture) and said ‘C’mon dude, this way. It’s over here.’

As they made their way towards two surly looking individuals who seemed to be guarding the entrance to the site, Saleek pulled Patrick aside for a moment and whispered ‘Listen, I have a way to get us both into the back building, where all the really rare stuff is being kept. I know some of the guys that work here. Play along and we’ll get to see some artefacts that are literally thousands of years old. I’m gonna tell ‘em you’re my off-world contact who is interested in acquiring some of these priceless specimens, ok? Just nod and smile.’

Patrick stopped and gave the lyan a look of incredulity for a moment.

‘Really? Are you sure this is a good idea?’

‘Sure, sure. It’s easy. I do this stuff all the time. Just play along and you’ll be fine,’ insisted Saleek, who began walking towards the entrance to the site.

Patrick, who remained unconvinced, sighed and followed the spiky alien. He began to feel uneasy as they approached the two men guarding the main barrier. Something about this didn’t feel quite right. Sure, Saleek had initially seemed harmless and he had also helped Patrick in that fight back at the spaceport, but he had been awfully insistent that Patrick accompany him to this place, and he was also very reluctant to do it another day. Now he was telling him that he had to act and pretend to be someone else in order to gain access to the site.

What have I gotten myself into now? Wondered Patrick as Saleek handed over the two amber-coloured tickets to the men at the barrier.

One of the two spoke into a concealed radio somewhere on his body, in a language that Patrick was unfamiliar with – it definitely wasn’t Standard. A raspy, angry-sounding voice replied in the same language.

‘OK, you can go through to the back,’ announced the first man at the barrier. ‘Go straight down towards that white dome, then turn left and keep going till you reach the big grey building with no windows.’

‘Thanks, buddy,’ said Saleek, grinning. ‘Come on, Patrick, let’s go.’

He motioned for the human to follow him. Patrick did so, but he carefully eyed up the guards as he walked past. Upon closer inspection, he could see that they were both armed with pistols of some type, which were nestled in holsters on their hips. They were wearing thick, rugged clothes and possibly body armour on their torsos too. After they had passed the barrier, Saleek picked up the pace and began to walk very quickly towards the white dome that was about one hundred metres away. Patrick had to virtually jog in order to catch up to him.

When he did, he said, ‘Saleek, what is going on here?’

The spiky lyan turned his head to face Patrick as he replied, ‘What do you mean?’

‘I thought you said this was a busy tourist attraction, but I can’t see any other tourists around here at all. And those guys weren’t a very friendly welcoming committee. In fact, they were dressed a bit like mercenaries…and did you see those pistols they were carrying?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. Must be a quiet time for them today, perhaps the crowds will arrive later on…’ offered the spiky alien casually.

They were almost upon the white dome now, it had to be no more than twenty metres away.

‘Come on, Saleek. What kind of tourist attraction has armed guards manning the entrance? If you’re setting me up for something-’

‘I promise I’m not!’ said the lyan, walking briskly onwards.

‘Then what is really going on here? I want the truth!’ exclaimed Patrick.

‘Hey, you two! Over here!’ yelled a raspy voice.

Three mercenaries, all carrying rifles, stepped out from behind the white dome structure. Saleek and Patrick both stopped in their tracks and the latter gulped in apprehension. The mercenaries were all clad in similar attire to the two guarding the main entrance. They all wore body armour on their torsos and churlish expressions on their faces.

One of them, apparently the owner of the raspy voice they had heard over the radio, stepped forwards and said curtly, ‘It’s this way. Follow us,’ and he began marching down a long path cut into the sand, at the end of which was a large, grey building with no apparent windows.

The two remaining mercenaries brandished their rifles threateningly and before he knew what he was doing, Patrick was accompanying Saleek and following the third mercenary, who seemed to be in charge.

‘Oh no…’ whispered Patrick to himself as they neared the grey building.

There were no windows of any sort and he could only spot one entrance. That meant only one way in and, more importantly, only one way out. The human glanced around frantically but he could see no obvious escape route. Truth be told, he wasn’t confident of making an escape without getting shot anyway, there was very little cover between the buildings – it was just flat land and lots of orange sand everywhere. Patrick glanced at Saleek, whose normal confidence appeared to have deserted him. The spiky alien managed a small smile in return, but he definitely looked a little uncomfortable with the current situation. All Patrick could do was swallow hard, try and ignore the lump in his throat and stay alert if he wanted to stay safe.

The human and lyan were led into the grey building, through a small foyer section and through some extremely heavy-looking double doors. Patrick could see a thick border of some hard material all around the edges of the doors and he reasoned that they must be similar to blast doors – heavy-duty, designed to withstand all manner of explosives and could be sealed air-tight for extra security.

Whatever these guys have got back here, it must be worth protecting, the human mused.

However, with those heavy doors as the only way out, escape was looking increasingly unlikely as a viable option. He was going to have to rely on his wits if he was going to get through this, and possibly rely on Saleek as well. Patrick bit his lip instinctively as he felt anger rise in his chest.

What was Saleek thinking? I thought I could trust him! If he tries to sell me out, and if I survive, I’m gonna hunt him down and kick his ass for putting me through this! All I wanted was a fresh start on Nexus One…

Patrick once more glanced at Saleek, but the spiky alien did not meet his gaze. He seemed lost in thought, or focussing on something.

I hope he’s focussing on an escape plan. And a good one at that, thought Patrick.

Beyond the heavy double doors was a long corridor. The floor and ceiling were a light beige in colour, but the walls were made entirely of some transparent material. Through the walls, Patrick could see various rooms, some large, some small, all containing people in white protective suits working at tables. There were various machines in the background and the lighting seemed extremely bright and artificial as it illuminated every inch of the rooms. Upon the tables lay many different kinds of objects. Patrick did not have time to study them in detail as he was lead through the main corridor, but they mostly seemed to be just chunks of rock, possibly from the hole that had been excavated outside. Eventually they came to another set of double doors at the end of the long corridor, but these doors appeared light in construction and were definitely not blast doors. The lead mercenary pressed a wall contact, then pulled a card from his pocket and placed it in a slot in the door. A light on the door flashed green, accompanied by a loud beep. The mercenary withdrew his card, pocketed it and stowed his weapon, before opening the double doors. Patrick and Saleek were herded into the room beyond.

Chapter 4

Patrick and Saleek found themselves in a large, square room containing no windows of any sort. There were a couple of sizeable tables and a handful of chairs. Behind one of the tables sat a small figure who was wearing an expensive looking suit. He wore dark sunglasses for some reason that was not immediately obvious and he could be heard clicking his teeth together as he watched Saleek and Patrick carefully. Behind him were two mercenaries who were dressed in body armour and armed with rifles, which they pointed lazily towards the floor. Once the human and lyan were standing in the middle of the room, the lead mercenary walked out and shut the doors, leaving his two friends in body armour to guard them.

‘Well, now,’ said the small person sat at the table. ‘What do we have here?’

He looked at Saleek, then at Patrick, then at Saleek again.

‘It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Saleek?’

He spoke in between making clicking sounds with his teeth, which Patrick found somewhat unnerving. His species was unknown to the human; he had light, yellowish skin and no hair anywhere on his head or hands, which were the only parts of his body visible. His dark glasses completely covered his eyes and his nose was rather sharp and pointy. The creature’s lips were thin and they barely concealed his dirty but sharp teeth. He looked very skinny; Patrick guessed that could not weigh any more than about eighty pounds. Whoever he was, he seemed to be the one in charge of the whole dig site.

‘Sure has. It has been far too long. And that is my fault for being away too much.’ Saleek spoke with a clipped tone and was surprisingly polite as he addressed the man in the expensive suit.

‘Well, it is of no great importance as long as you have been busy doing your work. I trust that is the case, Saleek?’

‘Of course. Absolutely.’

‘Then it matters not. Now then,’said the small person as he turned to face Patrick. ‘Who have you brought for me?’

Patrick gulped involuntarily but tried his best to maintain an air of calm and a facial expression of neutrality.

‘This is my off-world contact as promised. He is interested in acquiring some of the artefacts you have obtained,’ explained Saleek.

‘What is your name?’ asked the man in the expensive suit.

For a moment, Patrick froze. He could think on his feet reasonably well, but he wasn’t sure exactly what sort of situation this was. He didn’t know what part to play or how to act. He was caught between giving his real name or quickly trying to think of a fake name to give. He suddenly realised that he had been silent for several seconds and if he took much longer to respond, it would look suspicious.

In panic, he simply said quietly, ‘Patrick.’

Then, after clearing his throat, he repeated a bit louder, ‘Patrick. My name is Patrick.’

He attempted to convey confidence in his body language but he wasn’t sure if he was fooling anyone, or simply appearing a fool himself.

‘”Patrick”. That is an unusual name. What species are you, Patrick?’

‘I’m human.’

‘I am not familiar with your species. From which planet do you hail?’

‘I’m from a small planet in the outer fringes of colonised space. It’s called New Earth.’

The small man considered this for several moments in silence.

‘Very interesting,’ he eventually continued. ‘Apparently, news travels farther than I had ever imagined. Tell me, Patrick, have you come all the way from the outer fringes to Nexus One just for my artefacts?’

Patrick got the impression that he was being judged, his true reason for coming to Nexus One under scrutiny.

He quickly replied, ‘No. I have come to Nexus One for other business arrangements. However, after speaking with Saleek, I am very interested in acquiring your artefacts.’ Then, as his confidence grew, he added, ‘If the price is right, of course.’

Patrick did not see, but Saleek smiled as the human said this.

‘Of course, of course,’ said the man in the expensive suit. ‘Well then, shall we get down to business?’

He motioned for one of the mercenaries to bring him a black container which was resting on another table. The mercenary did so quickly and efficiently.

‘What we have here,’ said the small man, ‘is something exceedingly rare. It is rather difficult to put a price on such a fine specimen, but I will show it to you before we start discussing the finer points of this transaction. Behold…’

And like a miniature magician, he opened the container with a smooth movement of his right hand. Patrick wasn’t sure what he expected to see in the box, but what he saw was definitely not it. It resembled a large chunk of rock, with several smaller pieces of rock embedded in it. That was it. Patrick blinked a few times in surprise, then glanced at Saleek, who was smiling as always, then returned his gaze to the rock in the black container.

This is it? This is the priceless artefact that requires so much security to protect? A hunk of rock? Thought Patrick in disbelief.

‘Now, this has only recently been excavated. It is extremely well preserved and believe me, if it weren’t for the dampening field around this room, there would be thousands of people trying to get hold of it right now,’ explained the man in the expensive suit. Patrick was confused.

Does that mean that it generates some kind of signal, or electromagnetic field? Is that why the dampening field is necessary, to block the signal that the thing produces? But it’s only a rock, not a piece of technology. How can a rock produce any kind of signal or field?

Patrick suddenly felt out of his depth. He had made it this far, everyone seemed to be buying his story of being an off-world businessman, but this he did not understand. What was he supposed to do?

He became aware that everyone seemed to be waiting for him to do something, be it make a move or say something. Unable to think of anything else to do, Patrick leaned forward to get a better look at the specimen on display. He squinted as he peered down at the lump of rock. It was slightly irregularly shaped, but whether that was due to design or being buried underground for thousands of years, the human couldn’t tell. He could, however, see the small stones embedded in the rock more clearly now, and he could see tiny symbols and possibly writing of some description etched into them. They were different colours – most were red, some were blue, a few were green and the remaining ones were yellow. Upon closer inspection, he could see that it might be an intriguing artefact, if one were interested in archaeology and ancient history. Patrick doubted whether all this secrecy and security was necessary for such a small and innocuous-looking artefact though, unless he was missing something important. He had a nagging feeling that he was, and that thought frustrated him to no end.

‘May I touch it?’ asked Patrick cautiously.

The man in the expensive suit looked at him for a moment, before replying, ‘That can be arranged. One moment, please.’

Without any spoken or motioned cue from the small man, one of the guards swiftly stowed his rifle and fetched a handheld device from a nearby bag which was on one of the tables. The handle of the device was thin and was attached to a much bulkier, box-like shape at the end. The guard stepped towards Patrick, who had to control the urge to step back and retreat.

Remember, act like you belong here, thought Patrick to himself.

As the human held his ground, the guard stopped and said, ‘Hold out your hands, please.’

Patrick did so. The guard pressed a button on the back of the device and suddenly Patrick’s hands were bathed in a deep green light. There was a mild sensation of warmth but no pain whatsoever, the human noted.

‘A small precaution. This device sanitizes your hands and removes all traces of bacteria, viruses and radioactive particles. I’m sure you understand. We can’t risk contaminating the specimen with anything which might damage it or alter its properties. Well, not until after it has been sold, at any rate,’ explained the man in the expensive suit.

His thin, pale lips parted in a rather unpleasant-looking smile. Patrick wasn’t sure why but this man gave him the creeps. He felt sure that he couldn’t trust him, and since he didn’t see any way out of this situation by himself, he decided that he had no choice but to trust Saleek and hope the lyan didn’t betray him.

‘Of course. No problem,’ responded the human calmly.

The mercenary clicked off the device and the green light vanished. He set the device down on the adjacent table and returned to his original position just behind the small man, brandishing his rifle once more. Patrick carefully and slowly placed his fingers around the artefact then he gingerly lifted it out of the black container. He felt like he had been tasked with examining the most fragile and valuable fabergé egg ever to be created. He daren’t even begin to imagine what these people would do to him if he dropped it. Without even being aware of it, he held his breath as he examined the specimen. Patrick realised that the artefact was quite light, much lighter than he had imagined. It was also faintly warm, which he did not expect. The main body was course and rough to the touch, but in contrast the embedded stones were smooth and almost glossy. After a few more moments, Patrick cautiously put the artefact back in the black container.

‘So tell me. What do you think?’ asked the small man sat behind the table.

Patrick could almost feel the man’s eyes narrowing as he regarded him, although he couldn’t see them behind the sunglasses that he wore.

‘It is very impressive. Very impressive indeed,’ said Patrick, unable to think of anything else to say. The artefact was indeed interesting; he had certainly never seen anything like it before. But then again, he had never been on a proper archaeological dig site in his entire life, much less handled some ancient artefact before.

‘So I take it you are interested in purchasing this specimen?’

Patrick instantly glanced at Saleek, hoping that the alien would give him some indication of what to do. The spiky lyan nodded slightly, as if to say ‘Just do it’.

Patrick returned his gaze to the small man and said, ‘I am.’

‘Excellent. Then I will let you have it, for the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand credits.’

Saleek flinched slightly as the asking price was revealed, but quickly regained his composure. Patrick, on the other hand, nearly choked in shock.

He coughed several times and said feebly, ‘Excuse me.’

Patrick didn’t have anywhere near that amount of money, not even in his secret account.

Sensing the human’s hesitation, the small man said, ‘You have to understand how rare, and thus valuable, this item is. Plus, the amount of effort and resources it cost me to excavate it from this dig site is also significant. What I am offering is a perfectly fair price, all things considered.’

There was an awkward silence for a few seconds, then Saleek piped up.

‘Forgive me, Mr Vallan, but when last we spoke about this particular specimen, you mentioned a figure in the region of twenty thousand credits. What has changed that has resulted in the price increasing more than tenfold?’

‘Let’s just say that certain things have been brought to my attention and as a consequence, I have had to increase the price. It’s still very reasonable. Many businessmen on Nexus One alone make billions of credits in profit per year. Some even make trillions! A mere quarter of a million is not that much to pay, but if this is a little out of your league then please say so. There’s no need to be embarrassed. I have other parties who are interested in this particular item so I can simply sell it to one of them instead.’

Patrick remained silent, allowing Saleek to take the lead in this part of the conversation.

‘Well then, may I ask what things have been brought to your attention that forced you to change the price?’ asked the lyan.

The small man, who was apparently called Mr Vallan, replied, ‘You may not. I have never questioned your ways of doing things, Saleek, and you are in no position to question mine.’ Then he added, ‘The price is two hundred and fifty thousand and it is non-negotiable.’

Whereas before Mr Vallan’s demeanour was rather polite and calm, it had now turned somewhat hard and unforgiving. Patrick suddenly became very aware that the two mercenaries behind Mr Vallan had raised their rifles slightly. They weren’t pointing at anyone – yet – but they could be brought to bear within a second or less. He began to feel his muscles tense as he sensed that this conversation was not going to end well.

‘Of course,’ Mr Vallan continued, ‘there is no pressure to buy if you feel that the price is not right for you. If you so wish, you may simply turn around and leave.’

Patrick got excited, just for a moment, at the prospect of being able to leave this place while he was still breathing and ambulatory. He glanced at Saleek, who did not meet his gaze. The spiky alien was staring hard at Mr Vallan, possibly in annoyance.

‘And you are certain that you cannot sell this artefact for a credit less than two hundred and fifty thousand? Is that right?’ asked Saleek.

‘That is correct. As I have just stated.’

More awkward silence followed, with Patrick and Saleek exchanging glances with each other. After a while, Mr Vallan said, ‘I’m afraid I am going to have to rush you on this. As I have already mentioned, I have other people coming to see this specimen for themselves. Are you interested in making this purchase or not?’ It seemed like he was beginning to lose patience with his two “customers” standing in front of him. He started making more clicking sounds with his teeth, which only served to further unsettle Patrick.

Suddenly, Saleek said, ‘Come on, Patrick. This is a joke. Let’s get out of here.’

He turned on his heel and was about to make his way to the door through which they had entered the room, when the mercenaries standing behind Mr Vallan shouldered their rifles and pointed them straight at Saleek. There was a loud click sound as they both primed their weapons, which sent a shiver down Patrick’s spine. For a moment, everyone in the room froze before Mr Vallan interrupted the silence.

‘Now, now, Saleek. Don’t be hasty. We can’t simply end a business meeting like that and you know it. Patrick, I can see what Saleek wants, but what do you want? So far, you have let him speak on your behalf. Tell me, are you interested in buying this item?’

Patrick didn’t know what to do for the best. On the one hand, buying the artefact was out of the question, he simply did not have enough money and that would be found out within seconds via a quick credit check. However, he wasn’t sure how this person would react if he declined to buy it and asked to leave. He certainly did not let Saleek go when he wanted to leave.

After pondering his limited options, Patrick eventually said, ‘Interested, yes. But capable, no. I’m afraid this is rather, as you yourself said, out of my league. I am only a small-time businessman and I do not have the funds to make such a purchase.’

He was surprised by how fluidly the words came out of his mouth, and how good they sounded as well. He could have almost passed for an intergalactic business mogul spouting lines like that.

Mr Vallan brought his hands together and leaned back in his chair. He made a peculiar sound, which might have been his species’ version of a sigh.

After a few moments of silence, he said, ‘Very well. To be honest, I suspected as much from the moment you walked in here. And…,’ he paused as he turned to look at Saleek. ‘Thank you for being more professional and considerate than your spiky friend here. He could stand to learn a few things from you about dealing with people.’

The tension in the room dropped slightly and the guards both decided to lower their weapons. Patrick breathed a large sigh of relief. He suddenly felt very tired indeed.

I just want to get out of here and get back to my hotel room. Hell, I just want to go anywhere but this place! He thought to himself.

‘There is, however, one small matter that must be attended to,’ said Mr Vallan, leaning forwards and resting his arms on the table.

Patrick’s heart sank, whilst Saleek’s eyes narrowed and he said, ‘And what would that be?’

‘The matter of the non-disclosure agreement to which you must both consent.’

‘”Non-disclosure agreement”?’ repeated Saleek. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘I would have thought it was obvious to businessmen like yourselves,’ said Mr Vallan, staring hard at both Saleek and Patrick as he spoke. ‘I have an extremely valuable item for sale which is also incredibly rare. I cannot simply let everyone within thirty Galdrekks know of its existence and value, otherwise many people would try to steal it or somehow obtain it through unscrupulous methods.’

He paused for a few seconds, sighed and resumed talking whilst making clicking sounds with his teeth, possibly in irritation. Patrick shuddered as the clicking became rapid, occurring between every word that the small man spoke.

‘I am forced, therefore, to take certain precautions to protect my assets, which brings me to this non-disclosure agreement. Before I let you both leave, you must both agree to never say anything about this meeting to anyone whatsoever. The penalty for breaking this agreement is rather…harsh,’ said Mr Vallan, as he smiled and revealed foul-coloured but razor-sharp teeth.

Patrick did not like the sound of that at all. Since he had no reason to tell anyone about this, Patrick was prepared to consent to the agreement, as long as it meant he could leave immediately afterwards. Saleek had a fairly neutral expression etched onto his face but Patrick could tell he wasn’t happy with the way that things had gone down. He began to worry what the spiky alien might do – it didn’t seem like a particularly smart move to piss off the guys carrying the big guns, at any rate. The human took a deep breath and silently prayed that Saleek would not do anything foolish.

‘So, as I’m sure you can imagine, it is in your best interests to comply with such a simple request,’ finished Mr Vallan, looking smug.

There was a moment of silence, before Patrick said, ‘I am prepared to consent to this non-disclosure agreement.’ Then he added, ‘Provided I am free to leave straight afterwards.’

Mr Vallan’s thin, pale lips curved upwards into a sinister-looking smile.

The guy looks like a predator, trying to decide whether to play with his meal a while longer or dig in and swallow it whole, thought Patrick, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable indeed.

‘Of course,’ said Mr Vallan. ‘And what about you, Saleek?’

Saleek shoved his hands in his pockets, gave a sarcastic smile and replied, ‘Well, you see, I’ve been after a specimen from this site for quite some time now. After all these months, I’m finally within reaching distance of one, only to be told I must pay an exorbitant fee in order to lay my hands on it.’

Then his expression turned rather fierce as he said, ‘I think you know my answer to your question, don’t you Mr Vallan?’

Suddenly there was a muffled thump from somewhere outside the room. Moments later, this was followed by a large explosion which rocked the walls of the room and rattled the tables and chairs.

‘What was that?!’ exclaimed Mr Vallan in shock, standing up.

The mercenaries immediately shouldered their weapons and pointed them straight at Saleek, who was grinning. It was then that the lighting went out and the room was plunged into total darkness.

Patrick instinctively flung himself to the floor and covered his head with his hands in an attempt to protect himself. He could not see a thing, not even the floor in front of his face, although he could feel it – it was cold and uncomfortably hard against his cheek. Whilst he could not see a thing, he could hear numerous sounds. First of all, there was the sound of table legs and chair legs scraping against the floor. Then there were overlapping voices shouting aggressively, accompanied by weapons fire. The muzzle flashes of the rifles illuminated the room for split-seconds, before the room was once again swallowed by darkness. Patrick tried to see what was going on, but it all happened so fast it was difficult to follow. He thought he could make out Saleek running, jumping and kicking. He saw Mr Vallan apparently dive for cover behind a table. He saw the mercenaries wildly spraying shots in seemingly random directions, their faces contorted into expressions of anger or fear or perhaps a mixture of both. Suddenly there were two loud thumps and the commotion stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There was an eerie silence for the next ten seconds or so, but to Patrick it felt like an eternity. All he could hear was a ringing noise in his ears and the rapid thudding of his heart in his chest.

All of a sudden, the lighting came on again. It was muted, not as bright as it had been before, but everything was visible again. Patrick blinked several times to try and get his eyes to adjust to the change in light. He suddenly felt a hand grabbing him from behind. It was surprisingly strong and before he knew what was happening, the human was back on his feet. He spun round and saw that the hand belonged to none other than Saleek. He had a stern expression on his features and in his other hand, he held the artefact that Patrick had been examining mere minutes ago.

‘Saleek? Wha-Wha-’ stammered Patrick, unable to get his words out.

‘I know this is all a shock to ya, but we gotta get outta here right now!’ said Saleek firmly as he released his grip on Patrick. He had dropped the formal tone which he used to address Mr Vallan and was now back to speaking normally.

Patrick turned away from the spiky alien and surveyed the room. Chairs and tables had been knocked over, some flung against the walls. The two mercenaries had been knocked unconscious and were both lying on the floor, their bodies twisted into unnatural positions. Mr Vallan was cowering behind an upturned table, still making faint clicking sounds with his teeth. The black container was empty, the artefact now in Saleek’s hand.

Patrick turned back to Saleek and said, ‘What do we do?’

A voice interrupted, ‘You won’t get away with this, you two!’ It was Mr Vallan, screaming from behind his cover. ‘I’m going to hunt you both down and kill you for this treachery!’

‘Whatever, dude,’ breezed Saleek casually, seemingly unfazed by the threat. ‘We’re gonna be long gone by the time anyone realises what’s happened!’

To Patrick, he said, ‘Come on, this way,’and he lead the human to a door on the other side of the room, the one which Mr Vallan and his guards must have come through.

Patrick gingerly stepped over the unconscious mercenaries, trying not to accidently step on their outstretched limbs. The door opened with a quick push and the lyan and human darted through and were gone.

Seconds later, Saleek popped his head round the doorway and quipped, ‘Oh, by the way. Pleasure doin’ business with you!’ before leaving once more.

Mr Vallan howled and screamed various threats in frustration, but before long they faded into the background noise as Saleek and Patrick sprinted down another long corridor, heading for the nearest exit.

Chapter 5

‘Where are we going?’ asked Patrick, his feet pounding the hard floor relentlessly.

He was in good physical condition for a human but even he was slightly struggling to keep up with the lyan who ran down the corridor at a phenomenal pace.

‘You’ll see!’ shot back Saleek as he turned his head, winking at Patrick.

He held the artefact tightly under his right arm as he ran.

‘But…you have a plan, right?’

‘That would be telling!’ came the cheeky retort.

Is this all one big game to him? He’s going to get us both killed at this rate! Thought Patrick as he continued running.

At this point, he had no other options left except to trust his ally and hope that luck was on their side. They turned a corner and came to a T-junction.

‘This way!’ shouted Saleek as he turned left.

Patrick dutifully followed. Soon the corridor ended with a large door. Saleek barely even slowed down as he shoulder-charged the door at almost full force. The door was flung open and nearly knocked off its hinges as Saleek and Patrick exited the building. They found themselves back outside now, they were at the far end of the dig site. To their left was a gigantic wall with sheer sides that stretched up over a kilometre into the sky. Behind them and to their right were buildings of various shapes and sizes. The gate through which they had entered the site was many hundreds of metres away and there were several guards between them and the main exit. The guards were all rushing round seemingly in confusion, weapons raised. They looked as if they were looking for something.

Or someone. Must be something to do with that blast I heard earlier on which took out the lighting in that room, decided Patrick.

‘Which way now?’ he asked, turning to face Saleek.

‘Straight on!’ replied the spiky alien as he began to sprint again.

Patrick inhaled deeply and set off after him. Suddenly an angry-sounding, raspy voice cut through the air like a samurai sword through a watermelon.

‘Halt!’ the voice commanded sternly.

A group of five guards was advancing on Saleek and Patrick, their weapons raised and primed. The owner of the raspy voice was the mercenary that had initially lead Patrick and Saleek into the main building of the dig site. It was he who had shouted and he was now flanked by several more of his friends, all carrying heavy weapons.

‘Move!!’ instructed Saleek as he sped off, his heels kicking up a haze of orange sand as he ran.

Patrick did so, following Saleek. It was then that Mr Raspy-voice gave the order to fire. Sparks were sent into the air and sand erupted into explosions of orange-white as the guards’ weapons impacted around the fleeing human and lyan. Plasma bolts streaked across the dig site, making the air crackle evilly as they made their way towards their targets. The muzzle flashes of the guards’ weapons were almost blinding as they kept firing relentlessly. Saleek and Patrick quickly ducked behind some nearby large containers that were around two metres tall and four metres wide. The plasma blasts impacted against the containers, sending sparks and droplets of hot metal everywhere, but the human and lyan were safe, at least for a few moments.

‘Damn, I hadn’t counted on ‘em being this quick to reorganise themselves,’ said Saleek. ‘I figured that blast would’ve kept ‘em in disarray for ages and it’d be plain sailin’ to get outta this place.’

‘Speaking of that blast…’ panted Patrick, trying to get his breath back. ‘What on New Earth was it? Did you have something to do with it?’

Saleek grinned as he revealed a small metal device which he had been keeping in his pocket.

‘Just a little insurance,’ he explained. ‘I wasn’t sure if I could one hundred percent trust Mr Vallan. I’ve scouted this place out for weeks. Their security ain’t as tight as they’d like to think. I located the main power distribution node and set some remote-activated charges on it. One press of this button and bam! Instant power failure. Now all their locks, barriers, shields and computers are down. Their guns, however, are a different matter.’

‘Gee, you think?’ said Patrick sardonically, as a bolt of plasma soared over their heads, impacting on the sheer wall behind them and spraying them with hot sparks.

‘Gimme a break, will ya?’ responded Saleek. ‘Look, we’re really close to pulling this off. If we can get off this dig site, it’s just a short trip to my ship, then we can get the hell outta here.’

‘Well, they’ve got us pinned down and they’ve all got plasma weapons by the looks of it. What have we got?’

‘A used remote detonator and a bucket-load of sand in our boots,’ complained Saleek as he shook his right foot in an attempt to get rid of the orange sand.

‘In other words…nothing,’ said Patrick. ‘Do you think they’d accept our surrender?’ he asked hopefully.

Saleek gave Patrick a look which suggested the human had just said the dumbest thing he had ever heard in his life.

‘Ok, fine. Bad idea,’ admitted Patrick sheepishly. ‘Well, we do have one thing.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The artefact you took,’ said the human, pointing at the object which Saleek clung to his chest. ‘Maybe if we give them that, they’ll let us go. Or at least let us live!’

‘This artefact? You’re kidding, right? Have you any idea how much trouble I’ve been through to get hold of this thing?’

‘Is it worth your life?’ challenged Patrick.

‘Wait, hold on. Listen!’ said Saleek.

Moments passed and nothing happened.

‘What is it? I don’t hear anything,’ said Patrick.

‘Exactly!’

Saleek cautiously stuck his head out from behind one of the containers, before quickly scrambling back behind cover as a plasma bolt whizzed through the space that Saleek’s head had been occupying less than a second ago.

‘They’re slowly advancing and they’ve got their weapons trained on our position. They know we’re completely pinned down!’ said Saleek.

‘Oh shit!’ commented Patrick, his blood turning cold as fear began to grip him. ‘We’re finished!’

‘Maybe not…’ said Saleek, who had spotted something outside of Patrick’s field of vision.

The spiky alien pulled the metal detonator out of his pocket, grasped it tightly, then threw it at something. There was a high pitched clang as it bounced off something hard. This was followed by a yell, then the sound of plasma weapons firing. Then came a strange-sounding explosion which sounded a bit like metal shredding and compressed gas rushing out of a container. Suddenly the air became thick with white smoke. Saleek turned to face Patrick. He was wearing an unusually large grin on his face.

‘Dude, remember to thank me later. This is our ticket outta here!’ he said, beaming.

Patrick couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so he just grinned back.

‘Follow me, but stay close. It’ll be easy to get lost in this smokescreen!’ said Saleek as he jogged away from the containers at a medium pace.

Patrick ran after him and before long they reached what appeared to be a manhole etched into the ground. Saleek bent down, brushed away some grains of sand which half-obscured the manhole, gripped a nearby handhold with his free hand and twisted it. The manhole cover suddenly slid away, revealing a hole that lead underground. He entered it and moments later Patrick followed, closing the hatch as he did so.

As the human got below the surface, his eyes strained to make out any details. It was very dark down below; a few artificial lights dotted here and there provided the only illumination in the gloomy tunnel. After a while, Patrick’s eyes adjusted and he could see properly again. The tunnel seemed to be some kind of access shaft for maintenance of utility systems such as power and water. Large pipes were attached to the walls and they made strange noises ranging from gurgling to fizzing and crackling. There was no one else to be seen; no sentient alien nor any rodent or insect scurrying about either.

‘Oh, by the way,’ called Saleek as he lead the way, just in front of Patrick.

‘What is it?’

‘You see those red, kinda glowing cables runnin’ along the walls on both sides of us?’

‘Yeah?’ Patrick said as he moved his head closer to get a better look at them.

‘Well, try not to touch ‘em.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘’Cause they’re carryin’ enough energy to turn you into human barbeque.’

Patrick immediately wrenched his head away from the red cables.

‘Now you tell me…’ he muttered, making sure he didn’t get too close to them as he continued to walk down the narrow tunnel.

‘This is one of the underground maintenance areas for the local region. Normally people only come down here to make repairs to essential systems. Actually, I say people, that’s not true. It’s normally just robots they send down here. Since they’re protected from bein’ electrocuted and can see in almost total darkness, no one ever bothers to turn off the electricity or anythin’ like that. Or provide any decent lighting, for that matter,’ explained Saleek as he stepped over a trailing pipe that had come away from its wall mounting.

‘Makes sense, I guess,’ grumbled Patrick, still annoyed that he had nearly gotten himself electrocuted. ‘Hey, what was that back there?’

‘What was what?’

‘You know, the huge smokescreen. Where did that come from?’

‘Oh, that. Must’ve been our lucky day, buddy. There was a stack of storage units which contained compressed, cooled gas. They must use ‘em to cool their machines as they dig those big holes and excavate stuff from ‘em. I figured if I could get those dumbasses to fire at those containers, a lucky shot would rip one open and voila – instant escape route!’

Patrick couldn’t see Saleek’s face clearly in the dimly lit tunnel but the lyan was looking especially pleased with himself as he explained what had happened.

‘So…do you do this kind of thing often?’ asked Patrick curiously.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You know…con total strangers into helping you, double cross what I can only assume was a crime lord and steal things while getting shot at?’ Patrick’s voice tone hovered somewhere between indicating awe and irritation.

He felt a small pang of anger rise up within his chest as he remembered how the spiky alien had lied to him in the first place, to get him to help with his little adventure.

‘Well, not usually all in the same day, no,’ replied Saleek, smirking slightly.

‘Is everything a goddamned joke to you?’ said Patrick, beginning to get annoyed.

‘Look man, I understand this is a lot for you to process in one go, but chill out already. We’re not in the clear just yet. It won’t take ‘em long to find the access hatch to this tunnel and work out where we’ve gone. We’ve gotta get to my ship first, then I’ll answer any questions you wanna ask me. Deal?’

Patrick considered this for a few seconds, before grunting, ‘Fine. Deal.’

‘All right then, let’s keep moving. It’s not much further.’

Patrick begrudgingly followed his companion for another minute or so in silence, before the tunnel narrowed even more, if that was possible. The human had to be especially careful and agile to ensure he did not touch any of the glowing red cables which were still running along the sides of the passageway.

Eventually, the tunnel widened into an opening through which the pair went. The area beyond was enormous. They appeared to be in the middle of a gigantic vertical pipe which travelled upwards and downwards as far as the eye could see. Patrick was briefly tempted to throw a pebble or something similar down the huge shaft and see if it made a noise when it hit the bottom, giving a rough indication of depth, but he didn’t. The human and lyan trotted down a small walkway which was attached to the side of the huge pipe and this lead them to a rectangular-shaped ledge upon which Saleek’s craft was resting.

‘How on New Earth did you get the ship in here?’ asked Patrick incredulously, his mouth dropping open in wonder.

The spiky alien’s ship was larger than Patrick had been expecting; it was certainly much larger than your typical cargo vessel. It looked extremely solid and well-constructed even though the scorch marks and dents in some parts of the hull revealed its age; it was definitely not a brand new ship. It had a somewhat eclectic look to it as well; you could tell that certain equipment modules and sections of armour plating had been added to the vessel over the years, and these parts had obviously come from totally different manufacturers too.

I guess Saleek is the kind of guy who likes to tinker with technology and customise it to suit his preferences, mused Patrick as he approached the craft along with Saleek.

‘My awesome piloting skills did help,’ said Saleek, answering Patrick’s original question with typical cockiness. ‘But truth be told, it was really difficult manoeuvring through some of these pipes and passageways. I nearly dented the dorsal section of the ship as I entered this main chamber, it was kinda tricky. Still, couldn’t be helped. I needed a place that they would never find to leave my getaway vehicle.’

As the pair neared the ship, a hatch slid away to reveal a doorway and a hidden ramp simultaneously lowered to allow them access.

‘Impressive,’ commented Patrick in awe as he walked up the ramp. He had never seen a ship quite like this, not on the outer colonies.

‘Is it?’ said Saleek, slightly confused. He shrugged and nonchalantly added, ‘The tracking sensor automatically recognised me and the computer is programmed to open the door when I approach. Pretty common tech, really.’

‘Oh, right. Of course,’ said Patrick, somewhat sheepishly.

He was once again reminded of how little he knew about the workings of busy planets, coming from such a faraway colony.

As soon as they were both aboard, Saleek said aloud, ‘Seal external hatch and prepare for immediate takeoff.’

A synthesized voice grated ‘Acknowledged’ in a rather bored monotone. The source of the voice was unapparent, even though Patrick looked around carefully in an attempt to locate it as he walked. Saleek lead the human through various grey corridors to the ship’s cockpit and sat down in the main pilot’s chair. Patrick hovered just behind and to the left of him, unsure what to do.

‘Hey, you know anything ‘bout flying ships or navigation?’ asked the spiky alien without looking at Patrick, as he pressed various buttons and typed in commands.

‘Uh, not really. I mean, I can drive a ground-craft and I’ve had a few goes in a shuttle simulator but that’s about it,’ responded the human. ‘Truthfully, I’ve never really liked flying, either in a planetary atmosphere or in space,’ he admitted bashfully.

‘Okay,’ replied Saleek, his mind clearly on other things as he flicked switches and pulled various levers on a panel to his far right. ‘Just….sit down in one of the free chairs and try not to touch anything.’

Patrick looked around the cockpit. It was quite large and there were multiple stations that could be manned, all with lots of monitors, holographic displays, keyboards and control panels next to them. He wandered over to his left and sat down on a surprisingly comfortable chair. He marvelled at the colourful displays in front of him like a child being amused by something shiny before he realised that it was not a good thing that he knew so little about modern computers. Patrick suddenly felt nervous and very out of his depth indeed.

‘So…where’s the rest of your crew?’ asked Patrick, gesturing to the empty seats.

‘There is no crew,’ stated Saleek tonelessly.

Patrick blinked a few times before saying, ‘Well, what about all the empty seats?’

‘It’s just me. Well, me and you, now,’ came the reply.

Patrick wondered if there had ever been a crew to this ship and if there had been, what horrible fate had perhaps befallen them if Saleek was the only one left? He suddenly felt cold and very nervous and decided that he would rather not know, so he said nothing else. He hoped Saleek would be able to fly the ship safely all by himself and he automatically felt guilty for not being able to help. As Saleek flicked a final switch with a flourish of his right hand, a hum sounded throughout the ship. It was low-pitched at first but then it began to get higher and higher, growing steadily in both pitch and volume as power coursed throughout the craft.

‘What’s that?’ asked Patrick.

‘The main generator is feedin’ power to the ancillary propulsion systems. We’re almost ready for takeoff. Can’t risk usin’ the main engines in such a confined space so we’re limited to short-range thrusters for now,’ answered Saleek as a small holographic display flickered to life in front of him. It was various hues of blue in colour and seemed to show a three dimensional map of the surrounding area.

‘What does that mean exactly?’ said Patrick, not fully understanding.

‘It means that the ride might get a little bumpy,’ replied Saleek, winking at the puzzled human.

Given Saleek’s gift for understatement, this can’t be good, thought Patrick as he took a deep breath and held onto the arm rests on his chair.

‘Primary thrusters at maximum power. All systems functioning normally,’ announced the synthesized voice of the onboard computer.

The main view screen of the cockpit came to life, showing the sheer sides of the vertical pipe in all their glory. Various labels and diagrams were superimposed onto the image, displaying data such as distance and composition of materials. Patrick, attempting to help, glanced back and forth between the main view screen and his own monitor, which was now displaying large amounts of information and data. He sighed as he realised it made so little sense to him that it might as well be written in an ancient, long forgotten language.

‘Manual control engaged. Ready for liftoff,’ said the computer.

‘Here we go!’ declared Saleek as he gripped the main joystick with one hand and increased the throttle slowly with the other.

The ship slowly raised itself from the ledge upon which it had been resting.

‘Retracting landing struts. Retracting complete,’ announced the computer in a very stating-the-obvious kind of way.

Patrick wasn’t entirely certain, but he thought he could detect a slight hint of sarcasm or boredom in the synthesized voice.

Are they giving computers personalities now? What are they going to think of next? Wondered Patrick in disbelief.

The craft hovered in mid-air for a moment before moving away from the side of the vertical pipe until it was in the middle of the enormous chamber. Saleek pulled the joystick backwards and the nose of the ship tilted upwards. So far, the movements of the vessel had been relatively smooth and seemingly effortless. Upon realising this, Patrick breathed out the lungful of air that he had been holding in and started to relax. Now, what happened next was anyone’s guess. Perhaps Saleek was feeling particularly mischievous that day, or maybe what followed was necessary in order to overcome the pull of the planet’s gravity. Either way, with a twinkle in his eye and nary a word said to his passenger, Saleek suddenly rammed the throttle forwards. Patrick barely had time to gasp before he was pinned back into his seat with remarkable force as the ship hurtled up the vertical pipe. The sides of the pipe rushed past on the view screen as the craft zipped along at an impressive speed for thrusters-only propulsion. Suddenly, various objects came into view, and considering how quickly they were travelling, they came into view rather quickly. Pipes and support structures, large robotic arms and thick cables were just a few of the hazards which appeared with very little warning. Patrick squeezed his eyes closed, unable to watch. Fortunately, the ship was manoeuvrable and Saleek was a rather good pilot. With his quick reflexes, he almost made it look easy as he navigated the maze of obstacles, the ship rolling, turning and banking as it continued on its ascent through the pipe. Patrick eventually became brave enough to open his eyes, just in time to see the sides of the large pipe converge into a very small hole up ahead.

‘Saleek, what are you doing?’ exclaimed Patrick, unaware that he was half-yelling.

‘Gettin’ us outta here, what’s it look like?’

‘We’ll never fit through that gap!’

‘Sure we will!’

There was no further time for debate as the ship rocketed towards the hole at considerable speed. Moments later, they were inside the hole, which turned out to be part of a much, much smaller pipe than the one through which they had just been flying. Patrick held his breath as he saw a circle of bright white light approaching.

Oh God, is this the end? Have I died? Did we not make it through the tunnel? Wait a minute….What the-?

Before Patrick could even finish that thought, the ship was spat from the opening of the pipe and was now above the ground level of Nexus One. The craft quickly began to climb higher and higher as Saleek pushed the thrusters to maximum velocity. They soared faster and faster until they sped past the tips of the highest buildings, leaving them in their wake.

‘Switching to main engines….now!’ announced Saleek with a grin.

The humming noise which had filled the ship dropped to a barely-audible level and was replaced by a harsh, low rumbling sound as the main engines flared into life.

‘Speed exceeding two thousand Kelmer. Initialising Intertial Balancers to compensate,’ said the computer, interrupting the low rumble of the engines with its digitised voice.

Suddenly, Patrick was no longer pinned back into his seat. In a mild state of shock, he exhaled loudly and leaned forwards in his chair.

‘Hang on, buddy. We’ll be through the planet’s atmosphere in a couple of minutes. If I can just- whoa, that was close!’ said Saleek as he jerked the ship violently to the right to narrowly avoid colliding with another craft.

‘What the hell?!’ screamed Patrick, as the events of the day caught up with him and began to fray his very last nerve.

‘What?’

‘What are you doing, you idiot? You’re going to get us both killed!’

‘Look, since we left in a hurry, I didn’t exactly have time to file a flight plan with the authorities and wait for our turn to come round, OK? We gotta get outta here fast or Mr Vallan will try an’ make good on his threat!’

‘Still…’ Patrick spluttered as words failed him.

‘Look, chill out. We’re almost there!’ said Saleek in an attempt at mollification.

Reluctantly, Patrick ceased his protestations and folded his arms; he was furious and terrified at the same time but didn’t know what else to do.

The next two minutes or so passed without further incident and before long, the light of the sky began to fade and was replaced by the blackness of space, peppered with the twinkling lights of faraway stars.

Chapter 6

Saleek gave an uncharacteristic glimpse of his emotional state by inhaling a deep breath and then letting it out rapidly a moment later. Patrick did the same. For a while, all was quiet in the cockpit, save for the hum of various systems working and the now faint rumble of the engines pushing the craft onwards. Saleek glanced at his readouts – short range scanners revealed lots of traffic but no one on an intercept or pursuit course. That was a very good sign. It seemed as if everything had worked out okay.

‘Damn, I’m good,’ said Saleek to himself, just quietly enough that Patrick didn’t hear him.

He examined the artefact – which was now in his lap (he daren’t let it out of his sight just yet. He still couldn’t quite believe that he’d pulled it off) – with his free hand as the other gripped the pilot joystick. True, the onboard computer constantly monitored sensors and automatically made minor course adjustments to avoid any potential obstacles in the ship’s path, but Saleek always liked to have the option to make manual inputs if necessary. He liked technology just fine, he just preferred having control when it came to certain things like piloting spacecraft; some things shouldn’t be automated, he always said. The artefact appeared undamaged and perfectly intact.

Not bad, considering we were dodging plasma bolts half the time during our escape, he thought happily.

‘Is that it? Is it over? Are we okay now?’ asked Patrick tentatively.

He couldn’t bear the thought of any more heart-stopping moments and near misses. He had had his fill of adventure for the time being.

‘Sure looks that way, dude,’ replied Saleek, beaming.

‘Thank goodness,’ said Patrick, relief washing over him like an enormous wave. Then, as if suddenly regaining his senses, he added, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Where are we going?’

‘Away from Nexus One, for the time being,’ answered Saleek, swivelling in his pilot’s chair to face Patrick as he spoke.

‘What? But…all my things are back in my hotel room!’

‘Sorry man, we can’t risk heading back there any time soon. Your hotel is only an hour or so away from that dig site that we just robbed. One of Mr Vallan’s contacts is bound to see you and quickly introduce you to a torture chamber. Or worse…’

‘But…but….’

‘Maybe you can return in a few days. Maybe. Right now, we need to get out of Nexus One’s gravity well, make the super-space jump to the Antorii sector and rendez-vous with my contact. He’s eager to get his hands on this thing.’

‘And then what?’ demanded Patrick, his eyes narrowing slightly.

‘Then…we hand over the artefact, we get paid a ton of credits and then we both go our separate ways, I guess,’ explained Saleek.

Patrick stared at the spiky alien in silence and disbelief for several long seconds.

‘What?’ asked Saleek, beginning to get uncomfortable with the silent stare.

‘That’s it?’ said Patrick incredulously.

‘Well, I suppose I could give you a ride back into the Nexus system on my ship,’ offered Saleek, a little confused.

‘That’s not it…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Come on, Saleek. Are you pretending like any of this is normal?’ said Patrick.

Saleek opened his mouth to respond but Patrick hushed him by holding up his open palm.

‘Perhaps this somewhat normal for you. But this is my first time in the central core systems. This is the first time I have ever been away from my home planet and on the very first day I met you. Then on the second day, before I even know what’s happening, I’m somehow involved with stealing from a criminal organization and making my getaway aboard this ship! As much as I hate to admit it’ – Patrick paused for a moment, then continued – ‘if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not suited to life on these busy planets! You’ve got to help me get back to the outer colonies before I get into any more trouble out here.’

‘I dunno ‘bout that,’ disagreed Saleek. ‘You handled yourself really well against those guys in the spaceport fight. I was very impressed! Plus, you handled yourself fine in the room with Mr Vallan and those mercs. I was worried you were gonna panic and break down right in front of me, but in the end you acted well and fooled all of ‘em! I’m tellin’ you dude, you’re all right. You got the skills to survive. On Nexus One, or any other planet for that matter.’

Patrick stared at Saleek, who was smiling what appeared to be a genuine, warm smile.

‘And I know I kinda lied to you-’

‘”Kinda” lied?’

‘Okay, totally lied to you at first. But I promise ya, I meant what I just said. Think about it. What would I gain by lyin’ right now?’

‘So that’s it? No more lies? You’re not keeping anything else from me?’

‘I promise. Hell, once I’d got hold of the artefact, I could’ve just left ya there to face the consequences all by yourself. But I didn’t, did I? I took you with me. You helped me get into the dig site and I helped you to get out. I might be a thief, but I’m not a total Ketchwa!’

In spite of everything that had happened, the lying, being threatened by Mr Vallan, nearly getting shot by mercenaries wielding plasma weapons and the stressful escape aboard the ship, Patrick felt surprisingly okay. In a weird sort of way, he almost felt like he could trust Saleek. Now that everything was out in the open, at any rate.

That moment was interrupted by the synthesized grating of the computer announcing, ‘Alert! Alert! Unidentified vessel on an intercept course.’

‘What?!’ exclaimed Saleek loudly.

He swivelled his chair back to face his station and instantly began calling up information on his monitor display.

‘Damn it! Where the hell did that ship come from?’

His fingers began flying over the adjacent keypad, entering commands with both agility and ferocity, the latter possibly because had made a mistake. He had quickly checked short-range scans, found nothing and instantly assumed that they were in the clear. He had neglected to check mid-range and long-range scanners as well.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, Saleek reminded himself. On a cargo ship like this, the operations officer is supposed conduct all scans from their station, not the pilot. Damn, it’s at times like this I really wish I had a crew!

‘What is it? Are we being followed?’ asked Patrick.

He screwed up his features till his face was a mask of concentration; he was fed up of feeling out of his depth and was determined to do something. Even though he was no expert at flying or navigation, he was still capable of using and understanding simple computers and he was determined to find out what was going on without Saleek having to explain everything to him. His eyes searched the display in front of him until he found what he was looking for. He pressed a button and dragged his fingers downwards on a nearby panel. That did it – the display transformed from a picture of overlapping lines, numbers and shapes in apparent chaos to a much simpler, zoomed-out version of things. Patrick could make out a disc shape with some numbers on it travelling across the screen towards the centre of the read-out.

That must be the ship, he concluded.

‘Looks like we got a ship chasing us. It’s closing in on us from portside,’ said Saleek, still typing furiously on his keypad.

‘Is it definitely following us?’ asked Patrick, continuing to study his monitor display.

‘Hang on,’ replied the lyan, moving the pilot’s joystick to the right and ramping up the throttle. Their ship turned several degrees to starboard and increased speed, still moving away from Nexus One.

After several seconds, Saleek cursed in his native language.

‘Yeah, definitely tailing us. That ship just altered course to match ours and also increased its speed.’

‘Who do you think it is?’

‘I’ll give ya one guess.’

‘One of Mr Vallan’s friends?’

‘You betcha. That guy’s got contacts all over Nexus One and a few on other planets too. He must’ve sent out a communication to any of his thugs in the local area.’

‘But how do they know it’s us? Does he know your ship model or something? I mean, we could be anyone aboard this craft, right?’

‘Nope, he’s never seen my ship, I made damn sure of that. Problem is, this thing’ – Saleek gestured to the artefact that was currently in his lap – ‘gives off a unique energy signature. If you know what to scan for, this thing will stand out like a painful finger.’

‘Um, the term is “sore thumb”,’ corrected Patrick who, in spite of the current danger, could not stop himself from smiling at the lyan’s attempt to use human terms in his sentences.

‘Right, whatever. Point is, these guys were onto us way too fast for it to be coincidence. They must be workin’ for Vallan. And it also means that we got no chance of shakin’ them or hidin’. Not as long as we got this artefact aboard. They’ll be able to trace this signal and track us down,’ said Saleek.

‘So what’s the plan? You do have a plan, don’t you?’ asked Patrick, worried what the answer might be.

‘Same as what we were gonna do anyway. Get clear of Nexus One, jump to the Antorii system. They won’t be able to track us in super-space.’

‘But what if they intercept us first?’ pointed out Patrick, growing increasingly concerned.

‘Well, they won’t shoot us down as long as we have the artefact aboard,’ said Saleek confidently. Then, less assuredly, he added, ‘I hope.’

‘Can’t we go any faster?’

‘Not without risking an engine blow-out. We’re still fighting to overcome Nexus One’s massive gravitational pull. If I push the engines too hard too fast, something might overheat, break and then we’ve had it!’

‘But the other ship seems to be gaining on us,’ protested Patrick, studying his display once more.

The numbered disc had changed colour now and was much closer to an intersection of lines on the centre of the screen, which Patrick assumed represented their craft.

‘You’re right, it is,’ agreed Saleek gravely. ‘Their engines must be more powerful than ours, at least over short distances anyway.’

‘There’s got to be something you can do.’

‘Well, perhaps I can buy us a little more time till they catch up to us,’ said Saleek, typing in a flurry of commands on the control panel to his right. ‘Fire all thrusters on current setting,’ he said aloud.

‘Thrusters firing,’ stated the computer.

Patrick found the bored tone of the computer’s voice slightly calming as it was in direct contrast to the way he currently felt.

‘I’ve aligned all thrusters with the main engines. They’ll give us a small boost in speed for a while. Hopefully it’ll be enough,’ said Saleek, although he didn’t sound particularly sure.

I guess we’re both winging it at the moment, thought Patrick.

A couple of minutes elapsed with neither human nor lyan saying a word. It didn’t seem necessary in all fairness, they both knew the situation and their options were limited. All was quiet except for a few beeping sounds made by the computer and the combined hum and rumble of thrusters and engines, the sounds all overlapping to produce a peculiar soundtrack to their getaway.

Patrick started to notice that the view screen was largely clear of objects – they seemed to have passed most of the orbiting vessels, space stations and probes without incident. The blackness of space began to loom large, suddenly appearing much darker than before.

Suddenly, Saleek spoke. ‘How long until we can initiate the jump to super-space?’

‘At our current speed, it will be safe to initiate jump drive in approximately five minutes,’ came the digitised reply.

‘Disregard standard safety protocols for jump drive use. What is the absolute earliest we can jump at our current speed?’

‘At our current speed, it will be possible to initiate the jump drive in approximately two minutes. This is inadvisable, however.’

The latter part of the computer’s response carried the tone of a teacher addressing an overly-eager student on a school trip. Patrick couldn’t quite work out whether to be soothed by this or creeped out by it.

‘It’ll be fine. Begin calculations to jump to the Antorii system,’ said Saleek with the firmness of an order.

All of sudden, the image of stars on the view screen faded and was replaced by the image of what appeared to be a hologram’s face on a white background. Patrick nearly jumped out of his skin at this; he was not expecting any change in the screen nor had Saleek ordered any. The hologram’s face was round, smooth and composed almost entirely of blue lines and curves. It was somewhat androgynous but Patrick thought it was slightly more feminine than masculine in appearance.

‘I must repeat: This is extremely inadvisable,’ said the holographic face on the viewscreen, the lips moving ever so slightly out of sync with the computer’s words. ‘Safety protocols exist for a reason, Saleek. If you attempt to initiate the jump drive too close a planetary body, the gravity could, at best, throw off your calculations so you end up somewhere completely different or, at worst, cause complications that will cause the drive to explode.’

The face on the screen did not look happy at all.

‘You’re such an optimist, aren’t you?’ retorted Saleek, grinning. ‘I already told you: it’ll be fine. We’ll make it.’

‘Um…S-Saleek?’ stammered Patrick, suddenly looking as white as snow.

‘Yeah, what is it?’

‘W-What is th-that?’

‘Oh right. I guess I should’ve told you. Patrick, say hello to the ship’s computer! Call her Zeeree.’

The holographic face turned to regard Patrick. It did so with an air of ‘what have you got into now, Saleek?’ and appeared to sigh (although Patrick couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw this) before flashing the human a seemingly-forced smile and turning back to look at the spiky lyan.

‘Actually, that is incorrect. I am not just a computer,’ said Zeeree. ‘I am a sixth generation Artificial Intelligence who is pre-programmed to operate within the confines of a multi-state computer drive, such as the one aboard this vessel. To imply that I am merely a computer hurts my feelings deeply.’

‘What do you mean? You don’t have any feelings,’ said Saleek. ‘They’re just pre-programmed responses designed to simulate emotions.’

What happened next alarmed Patrick greatly.

The face seemed to narrow its eyes at Saleek and said, ‘You do know I can just open all the airlocks any time I want, right? Maybe you don’t want to upset me, Saleek…’

To this, the spiky alien simply laughed out loud.

‘Man, I miss our little chats when I’m away – you’re so easy to wind up! You know I’m only kidding, right?’

The face on the screen changed its expression, but Patrick couldn’t tell exactly what the expression was supposed to convey. If he had to guess, he would say exasperation.

‘Ah, I forget you have a warped sense of humour, Saleek.’

‘You callin’ me warped?’

‘I can call you some other names, if you’d prefer…’

Patrick couldn’t believe what he was witnessing – it appeared to be a couple of old friends arguing, except one of them was an AI construct. It was extremely strange (to say the least) to see a ship’s computer threaten to open the airlocks and kill its crew.

Nothing back on New Earth could have prepared me for this trip…

‘Guys!!’ exclaimed the human breathlessly.

The lyan and A.I. face stopped and both gave him a hard look that made him feel extremely uncomfortable.

‘What about that pursuing ship? It’s nearly caught up to us!’ explained Patrick, flustered and exasperated in equal measure.

‘Right! Good call, buddy,’ said Saleek, resuming typing on the keypad with almost comic timing.

‘Of course,’ agreed Zeeree, slightly embarrassed.

The white background faded, as did the A.I. face, and was replaced by the sight of stars with overlaid labels and numbers flashing into existence once more.

‘Priming jump drive. Jump drive is at forty per cent power and rising. Estimated time to full charge: one minute,’ announced Zeeree.

‘OK, that pursuing ship is only one million Drekkma away from us. We gotta do this fast!’ said Saleek as he grasped the pilot’s joystick and called up navigational data on his holographic mini-display at virtually the same time.

‘So what’s the plan?’ asked Patrick from his station.

‘In one word: guile,’ replied Saleek as he tilted the joystick, slightly altering the ship’s heading. ‘There are no obstacles to slow ‘em down such as asteroid fields or places to hide in like nebulas round here. We gotta try and outrun that ship for the next minute and then we can jump.’

Suddenly, Zeeree’s voice cut in, ‘Alert. Pursuing ship is closing in on our position rapidly.’

‘What?’ exclaimed Saleek, half in shock, half in annoyance.

Patrick studied his display.

This can’t be right, he thought in disbelief. If I’m reading this correctly, they’ll be level with us in about ten seconds. How can any ship move that fast?

Truth be told, Patrick was not at all familiar with the specifications and capabilities of modern spacecraft. The pursuing vessel was simply much newer than Saleek’s ship and consequently was capable of much greater acceleration.

‘Damn it!’ cursed the spiky alien from the pilot’s chair, suddenly at a loss for what to do next.

The pursuing ship pulled up alongside Saleek’s vessel and matched its speed and course. Then it slowly began to edge closer and closer.

‘Incoming transmission,’ stated Zeeree.

‘Let’s hear it,’ said Saleek.

A voice crackled over the main cockpit speakers but there was no accompanying video signal to the transmission.

The voice was hostile and sounded rather pissed off as it said, ‘It’s over, Saleek. We’re taking back what you’ve stolen from Mr Vallan. Shut down your engines and prepare to be boarded.’ Then, as if for extra emphasis, it added with venomous aggression, ‘NOW.’

‘What do we do?’ asked Patrick, feeling helpless as he glanced frantically back and forth between his display and control panel, wondering if mindlessly punching some buttons would somehow help matters.

Saleek looked surprisingly laid-back as he answered, ‘You heard the man. We’ll just do as we’re told and shut down our engines.’

Patrick looked up from his display and shot Saleek a worried glance before the lyan said, ‘Zeeree, you know what to do….now!’

In one incredibly smooth movement (proving that Zeeree was just as capable a pilot as Saleek), Zeeree shut down their engines and powered up their braking thrusters simultaneously. The resulting deceleration could be felt even though the ship’s inertial balancers were fully engaged. As the hostile craft shot off at full speed in one direction, Saleek’s ship slowly turned ninety degrees to starboard as it continued to slow down.

‘Hang on!’ warned Saleek as he checked his safety harness in the pilot’s chair while Patrick clung desperately onto the arm rests of his own chair and shut his eyes, unable to watch what was happening.

‘Initiating main engines….now,’ said Zeeree calmly.

The thrust was incredible as Saleek’s ship was catapulted forwards along its new trajectory. Patrick and Saleek were both pinned back in their seats as they were overcome by the massive G-forces involved. They began to put more and more distance between them and the pursuing vessel, which had only just decelerated and started to turn around.

‘Z….Zeeree….’ Saleek ground out through gritted teeth. ‘What is the status of the jump drive?’

‘Jump drive at eighty percent power. Approximately twenty five seconds until we are jump-capable,’ replied the A.I.

Just a few more seconds… thought Patrick as he once more opened his eyes.

He was tensed from head to toe and his blood pressure had to be higher than a craft breaking through a planet’s stratosphere. He couldn’t take much more of this. Suddenly, a harsh alarm sounded throughout the cockpit.

‘Warning. Incoming projectiles detected. Time to impact-’ began Zeeree.

‘Activate energy shield!’ interrupted Saleek frantically.

‘-two seconds,’ finished Zeeree.

The blast was felt a moment later. The impact made the ship roll several times before they regained their attitude but the ship still rocked from side to side for several seconds due to the severity of the impact. Alarms began blaring and warning lights flashed rapidly in a cacophony of noise and light which numbed the senses such was its intensity. Reports began scrolling down displays with great speed and the smell of acrid smoke began to seep into the cockpit.

‘Damage report!’ yelled Saleek as he struggled to get the craft under control, both hands firmly grasping the pilot joystick.

It was all Patrick could do to hold onto the nearby control panel and avoid being thrown from his chair by the rocking motion.

‘We’ve been hit,’ said Zeeree helpfully.

‘No shit! Has anything been badly damaged?!’ shouted Saleek as he finally won the battle to stop the ship rocking from side to side.

‘Impact occurred on our port quarter. Moderate damage to armour in that section. Several pipes have ruptured and we are leaking hydraulic fluids and engine coolant. Repairbots have been dispatched to tend to the damaged areas. However, the engines are still functioning within acceptable parameters.’

Then she said words which could not possibly have sounded any sweeter to Saleek’s pointy ears.

‘Jump drive is now at full power and ready. Course to the Antorii system has been plotted and laid in to the navigational systems.’

‘Then secure all systems and jump. Now!!’ said Saleek, yelling the last word with every last bit of air from his lungs.

‘Systems secure. Jump drive initiated. Jump in three…two…one…now.’

Chapter 7

For a moment, the entire cockpit was bathed in a harsh, blinding light emanating from the main view screen which forced Patrick to shut his eyes as he turned his head away instinctively. When he reopened his eyes after several seconds had passed, the light in the cockpit had returned to normal and the view screen displayed the most hypnotic image he had ever seen in his life. Brightly glowing strips of light twirled here and there, almost dancing around clouds of various colours and sizes, with images of unrecognisable objects appearing and disappearing with great rapidity. The whole swirling miasma seemed to sway and rotate as Patrick tried to take it all in. He suddenly realised that he was feeling somewhat sick looking at the view screen but that in no way deterred him from continuing to stare at it in awe and wonder. His thoughts were interrupted by Saleek exhaling loudly to his right.

‘Whew! Finally….we actually made it!’

‘Saleek…what is that on the view screen?’

‘Oh right, you’re probably not used to it, are you? No probs, I’ve got it,’ said the spiky lyan as he flipped a switch on a control panel and the view screen went completely blank.

‘Hey, what are you doing?’ asked Patrick, unaware that he was pulling a face as he did so.

‘Sorry, I thought you didn’t wanna have to look at it anymore. Most species can’t stand it…’

‘What was it?’

‘That is super-space, my friend. Or at least, your version of it.’

Patrick’s brow creased in confusion as he said, ‘Wait….what??’

‘I thought you knew. You’ve travelled through super-space before, haven’t you?’

‘Yeah. Well, only once and that was aboard that deep space transport to get to Nexus One in the first place.’

‘You mean you’ve never actually looked at super-space as you were passing through it?’ asked Saleek, a smile creeping onto his lips.

‘No, never.’

‘Oh man, how can I explain it? Well, here goes. Basically, super-space exists parallel to normal space and time but sort of….underneath it. Or is it above it? Anyway, it seems to be infinite but no one really knows, since the normal laws of physics don’t actually apply to it, which is why it is separate from what we call normal space in the first place.’

Saleek stopped for a while, unsure if his explanation was making any sense to his passenger who was looking completely lost.

After a deep breath, he continued, ‘Anyway, our jump drives allow us to jump from normal space to super-space and back again, hence the name. It takes a lot of power to make the jump drive work though. If you lose power while you’re travelling through super-space, you can’t get back to normal space and you’ll be stuck in super-space forever. Exactly how the tech works is a bit beyond me, it ain’t like I got an advanced qualification in science or anythin’, but essentially the jump drive slices a small hole in normal space and we pop through, then the universe seals up the hole all by itself. We can use our normal engines in super-space but our speed is increased massively ‘cause we hitch a ride on all the faster-than-light waves which constantly flow through here. This allows us to travel between local star systems in a matter of hours, whereas with regular engines it would take months and months to get there. Then, we use the jump drive one more time to cut open a hole in super-space and we pop out the other side, right where we wanted to be.’

‘But what about the images I saw on the view screen? Where does all that come from?’

‘Like I said, nobody really understands super-space, except that we know it’s home to faster-than-light waves as well as particles we can’t accurately measure or see properly. The view screen is designed to convert whatever is around the ship into visual data and display it on the screen so we can see what’s out there. Whatever is out there is way beyond the spectrum of visible light, so far beyond the known laws of physics that our brains just interpret it any way they can. That’s why I said it’s your version of super-space – since everyone’s brain is different, everyone sees different things when they look at it. It’s seriously freaky stuff though, if you ask me. It really weirds out most people, since it doesn’t look like anything they can make sense of. I don’t mind it one way or the other though.’

‘Huh…’ breathed Patrick, his eyes looking glazed as he stared at Saleek.

His mind had been pushed to the limit due to the events of the last few hours and now this….it was just too much to take in.

In a sort of haze, Patrick mumbled ‘I thought it was kind of cool…’ and trailed off.

‘Well, one of the perks of havin’ your own jump drive. Life as a thief ain’t just danger and nail-biting tension, there are some good bits to it as well. Such as the view,’ Saleek flicked a switch and the view screen flashed into life once more, ‘and picking up your reward when your client gets his package. All in a day’s work, my friend.’

He was again grinning and appeared to be back to his old self – the way he had been when he first met Patrick back at the spaceport. Patrick found himself once more drawn to the vibrant, ever-changing images on the view screen, as he took in all that travelling through super-space had to offer. Saleek let his companion enjoy the view for a while as he tapped various commands into the computer terminal adjacent to the pilot’s chair.

After a while longer, the spiky alien turned to Patrick and said, ‘Hey, dude. Listen, we’re in the clear for the moment; we can’t be tracked while we’re travelling through super-space. Why don’t you get some rest? You look like you’re about to have a nervous breakdown or somethin’…’

Patrick had to admit that he did feel nauseated, extremely tired and bit shaken up by everything that had transpired over the last few hours. Now that they were back in space, his body clock had been shot to hell and he had no idea if it was time for lunch or time for bed. A tad reluctantly, he lifted his body out of the comfy chair in which he had been sitting. Patrick suddenly realised that his muscles were aching and his body felt very heavy indeed.

After everything that’s happened, maybe a rest is exactly what I need…

‘Okay, sure. Um…is there anywhere I can go to lie down for a bit?’ the human asked, yawning involuntarily.

It was as if his body had decided it was time to sleep and if he didn’t lie down soon, he was liable to fall asleep standing up somewhere.

‘Yeah, I’ll show you. Zeeree, engage autopilot,’ commanded Saleek as he swiftly got up from the pilot’s chair and, cradling the artefact under one of his arms, lead Patrick to the door leading out of the cockpit.

The frantic, garbled images of super-space faded and were replaced by the calm features of Zeeree, set against a white background on the main view screen.

‘Autopilot engaged,’ she said to no one in particular as the human and lyan had already exited the cockpit, leaving her in charge.

The corners of her lips curled upwards into a satisfied smile; she enjoyed having people onboard but one of her favourite things was simply piloting the ship all by herself, no one to give her orders, no one to control her, just her and the vastness of space in which to play and explore. She gave a satisfied sigh and turned her attention to making minor course adjustments as the craft sped through super-space at a phenomenal velocity.

Saleek lead Patrick through several corridors before they arrived at a grey door marked with Standard characters representing “Crew Quarters. Room Three” in large black symbols.

‘Just press this wall contact to get in,’ explained Saleek as he tapped a rectangular glowing panel on the wall adjacent to the large grey door.

The door instantly slid to the right and retracted into the wall, allowing the pair to enter the small room beyond.

‘There’s a contact here,’ said Saleek as he pointed, ‘which will open the door when you’re ready to come out. Till then, you won’t be disturbed, I promise. There’s the bed. If you need anything, just call Zeeree – she monitors every part of the ship constantly.’

‘Thanks…’ mumbled Patrick as he collapsed onto the bed, unable to stand or keep his eyes open any longer.

He was so utterly exhausted from being alert and tensing his body for so long that within seconds he had drifted into a deep sleep.

Chapter 8

As he looked up, Sergeant Joval couldn’t help but feel a sensation of trepidation clawing at him from within his stomach. The light was fading fast from the sky above the north-western part of Nexus One as the sun had nearly finished setting. It was almost time for his team to make their move. It wasn’t as if he was inexperienced; he had done raids many, many times before and they almost always came off without a hitch. The trouble was, he got nervous every time he did them without fail. He had learned to control his emotions so that they were no longer intolerably uncomfortable and they rarely affected his performance; if anything they heightened his senses and sped up his reaction times so as to make him even more effective. This, however, in no way lessened the uncomfortable sensation he was currently experiencing. He gritted his teeth and swallowed hard, deliberately slowing his breathing in an attempt to stay calm. Joval glanced at his fellow team members, of which there were three. The first was tall, even taller than him which was impressive considering that Joval himself was around six foot three inches in height. He was always serious and rarely smiled or laughed. Having said that, he never seemed to panic either; he always maintained an air of cool detachment from situations and his face was usually a blank mask of no particular expression. He was extremely reliable and almost never made any mistakes so Joval was grateful to have him on his team. The second team member was a capable officer but she was still fairly young and relatively inexperienced at conducting raids; he would have to keep an eye on her to ensure that she didn’t get into any trouble during the op. The third team member was the resident joker of the group. He was short but strong, very solidly built and seemed to have a grin perpetually fixed on his face. Joval didn’t mind the odd bit of tomfoolery and the occasional joke was always helpful to maintain morale in any team, but he just wished that the joker would take things more seriously more often. In any case, thinking about it would not change anything, these were the officers assigned to his team so he had no choice but to work with them.

‘Is it almost time, sir?’ asked the female officer.

She was fidgeting a lot which Joval judged to be a sign of nervousness about the raid.

At least I’m not the only one, he thought with a humourless smile on his dark blue, almost purple lips.

He glanced at his departmentally-issued mini-computer attached to his left wrist which displayed the time and also acted as a com link, recording device, GPS beacon and many other things besides.

‘It’s not almost time. It is time. We move now. Everybody get ready,’ whispered Joval as he silently removed his sidearm from a holster on his hip. ‘Everybody form up on me and prime your weapons.’

As everyone did so, he added, ‘Stun setting only. We want to be able to interrogate these people after we’ve caught them, not give the medical examiners more work to do on their autopsy tables.’

‘Good call, Sarge. Especially with Le’Mi on our team. I heard the morgue guys are pulling double shifts ‘cause of her itchy trigger finger,’ teased the joker, smiling as always.

‘Screw you, Tylorran,’ hissed an agitated Le’Mi, clearly not in the mood for jokes right now.

If anything, this simply made the joker’s smile even bigger. The tall one remained quiet, gripping his weapon tightly, ready for action.

‘Enough, you two,’ chided Joval as his anxiety levels began increasing again. ‘Take this seriously, will you?’

He moved to the side of a closed door as the rest of his team dutifully formed a line behind him.

‘Everybody set?’ he asked.

‘I’m ready, Sergeant,’ replied Le’Mi.

‘All set, boss,’ answered Tylorran.

‘Affirmative,’ stated the tall one.

‘On my count,’ said Joval as he checked his mini-computer one last time. ‘Three…two…one…Go, go, go!’

Sergeant Joval brought his leg up and thrashed it towards the door with astounding speed. The door was flung open wildly and without even pausing Joval dived in to the room beyond, quickly followed by the rest of his team.

‘Galactic police! Nobody move!’ bellowed Joval as he moved into the centre of the room, pistol primed and pointing at a group of shady-looking characters sat around a large table with multiple bags of something scattered across it.

The rest of his team moved into position: Le’Mi stood alongside the Sergeant to give him support in controlling the suspects, Tylorran watched their six and the tall officer moved swiftly and silently around the room, checking every nook and cranny for any potential threats. Moments later, the tall one took up a position behind the suspects, weapon ready.

‘All clear, sir. No immediate threats,’ he said to Joval.

‘Tylorran?’ asked the Sergeant.

‘Clear, boss. No sign of anyone else.’

‘What the hell is this?’ demanded an annoyed-looking alien. With his reddish-orange fur, large ears and small tail poking out from behind his oversized loud shirt, he looked like an anthropomorphised fox with exceedingly bad fashion sense.

‘You are all under arrest on suspicion of possessing and distributing an illegal substance,’ explained Joval as calmly as he could manage as he felt his two hearts beating rapidly, one in his chest and one in his right flank.

The irate fox creature stood up.

‘This is bullshit! You guys ain’t go no warrant or nothin’. Get the hell outta my property!’ he yelled angrily, waving a balled-up furry fist at the police officers for emphasis.

‘Settle down, sir!’ said Le’Mi, her voice quivering ever so slightly around the edges as nerves got the better of her. Her hands started to shake a little, which was less than ideal considering that she was holding a weapon in them.

‘Don’t tell me to settle down, bitch!’ the fox-like alien exclaimed, taking a step towards her.

‘Don’t move!’ boomed Joval, his voice carrying the weight of an order.

The annoyed alien took another step forwards.

‘Make me,’ he said provokingly, sneering at the Sergeant as he did so.

Joval tightened his grip on his weapon and clenched his teeth. Some people just didn’t know when to quit, and he had a feeling this guy was going to be one of them. The Sergeant had no problem with squeezing the trigger and stunning the hostile suspect, however he did not want to start any trouble and he feared for the safety of his team if things turned into a fire-fight in the confines of the relatively small room. The fox creature took another step forwards, this time towards Joval.

He’s trying to see how far he can push me. I can’t let him get away with this or he’ll completely undermine my authority in this situation, thought Joval quickly.

‘Don’t take another step closer! This is your final warning!’ said the Sergeant firmly.

The hostile alien scoffed and replied, ‘You mean….like this?’ as he slowly and deliberately took one more step forwards.

Suddenly there was a muzzle flash and the fox-like creature yelped in surprise, pain, or possibly both as he fell to the ground and started twitching uncontrollably. Joval merely blinked in disbelief as he had not fired his weapon. He glanced to his right and saw Le’Mi breathing heavily and shaking in her boots, the muzzle of her weapon glowing white-hot after having just fired.

The next few moments appeared to happen in slow motion to Joval. He saw the suspects all stand up from their chairs in unison and begin to pull out weapons from pockets, holsters and bags. He had a feeling that they would not be firing stun rounds. He yelled out ‘Code Black!’ as a signal to the rest of his team and half-pushed Le’Mi away from the centre of the room and towards a messy pile of boxes stacked against the wall several metres away. With one hand he continued to push Le’Mi and with the other he raised his weapon and fired a three-round burst. The first two stun rounds missed everyone but the third struck a suspect in the face and he almost did a back-flip due to the force of the impact as he landed on the ground in a daze, limbs twitching. Joval and Le’Mi both scrambled behind the heap of boxes for cover as ballistic rounds whizzed through the air just behind them, making pinging sounds as they bounced off the hard surface of the walls. Joval leaned out from cover with his arm outstretched. He squeezed the trigger of his weapon and a bright white burst of stun energy shot from the barrel and erupted into a shower of shimmering sparks as it hit another suspect squarely in the chest. He doubled over then fell to the ground, unconscious.

Joval saw Tylorran drop to a knee and fire a burst of stun rounds into a fat, rather slimy alien with slippery-looking skin who promptly fell onto the table then slid off it and landed on the floor with a wet thud. The quietest member of the raid team was also the coolest and calmest of all of them. Joval watched in awe as he fired single shot after single shot, each round placed with a frightening degree of precision into the centre mass of each suspect. Within moments all the suspects were on the ground, either twitching and groaning or still and unconscious.

Joval stepped out from behind cover and said, ‘Everyone OK?’

‘Still alive, Sarge. Can’t complain,’ said Tylorran who, incredibly, still had a smile on his face.

‘I’m fine, sir,’ said the tall one, his face a blank mask of neutrality.

‘Damn, Hazir. Don’t you ever make an expression?’ asked Tylorran, grinning.

Hazir said nothing as he began checking his weapon, ignoring his teammate’s comment.

Tylorran shrugged and said, ‘Well, whatever. Fine shooting though, my friend,’ as he trotted over to the table in the centre of the room.

‘Tylorran – check what’s in those bags on the table. Hazir – check the suspects for any weapons or dangerous objects. If they have any, relieve them of them,’ commanded Joval.

He holstered his weapon and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, before walking over to check on Le’Mi. She had somehow wedged herself between the boxes and the wall and was still shaking.

‘Are you all right?’ asked Joval.

Le’Mi’s lips were trembling as she nodded a silent affirmative. She was clearly shaken up by the exchange of fire that had just taken place.

Joval dropped to a knee and said, ‘It’s okay, we got them all. Don’t worry, everyone’s fine. We did it.’

Le’Mi nodded again and sniffled. Joval couldn’t help but smile. He didn’t have any children but in some ways the young officers under his command felt like his children; he felt like it was his job to protect them, guide them and help them – just like any parent would do for their own child.

‘I….I didn’t mean to fire…’ mumbled Le’Mi as she wiped away a tear which had rolled half-way down her smooth cheek.

Joval looked her straight in the eye as he said, ‘I’m glad you did fire. I’m glad you pulled the trigger. These guys were trouble and unfortunately, it was always going to happen like this. Some criminals just don’t give up, even when it’s clear they are going to be arrested. You made the right call.’

Le’Mi sniffled again.

‘I….did?’

Joval’s smile broadened.

‘Without doubt.’

With Le’Mi placated for the moment, Joval stood up and called out, ‘What have you found, guys?’

‘Two of the suspects were carrying knives which I have confiscated. No other threats found,’ reported Hazir.

‘You were right, boss. The bags are full of nimzeek. I’d say this probably has a street value of around seventy five thousand credits. Score one for the police, zero for the bad guys!’ said Tylorran happily.

‘Start bagging the nimzeek as evidence. I’ll com dispatch and get them to send some drones over to take our sleeping suspects to lock-up,’ said Joval as he walked towards the doorway and stepped outside.

The evening air was cool and refreshing against his skin as he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

‘Hopefully the Lieutenant will be happy with this bust. Now all we need to do is interrogate them and find out where the shipments of nimzeek are coming from, thought Joval as he activated his mini-computer and put out the required call to dispatch.

Chapter 9

Sometime later, Patrick opened his eyes and blinked a few times to adjust to the extremely dim lighting of the small room in which he slept. He yawned loudly and absent-mindedly scratched his head at the same time. He was a little bit groggy but he felt a lot more relaxed now than he did before his nap. He swung his feet off the bed and his boots hit the hard, metal floor with a soft thud, making Patrick realise that he had slept in his clothes. In an attempt to wake up properly, the human smoothed out the creases in his thick, red shirt with one hand and ran his other hand through his wild, brown locks of hair which mostly refused to be tamed. After one more yawn and some light stretching, Patrick stood up and felt a lot more awake as he suddenly remembered where he was.

Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m aboard Saleek’s ship and travelling through super-space, aren’t I? He thought. If only this was a dream and I was about to wake up lying on some sunny beach on a holiday planet, being served ice cold drinks by lovely ladies in bikinis…

Patrick closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

He opened them several seconds later and, upon realising that his beach dream was destined to remain a fantasy, he sighed disappointedly and said, ‘Zeeree, can you hear me?’

Zeeree’s digital voice cut through the air and replied, ‘Of course, I am constantly monitoring the entirety of the ship with my internal sensors.’

‘That’s great…um, how long have I been asleep?’

‘You were asleep for eight hours and fourteen minutes.’

‘That’s very…specific. Thank you, Zeeree. Where is Saleek?’

‘Saleek is currently is the mess chamber, would you like me to open a com channel so you can talk to him?’

‘No, no, that’s not necessary. Just tell me how to get to the mess chamber and I’ll talk to him face to face.’

‘Very well. Exit your room, turn right, then left, then left again,’ instructed Zeeree. Then, she made what appeared to be a sighing sound and added, ‘If you get lost, just call for help.’

Once more, Patrick was unsure whether to be creeped out or soothed by Zeeree’s voice tone; she sounded as if she was addressing a particularly unintelligent distant relative that she was being forced to look after. Patrick touched a wall contact and the door to his room instantly opened, bathing him in the harsh, yellow artificial light of the ship’s corridors. The human initially shielded his eyes as he walked and followed Zeeree’s instructions, then his eyes adjusted to the harsh lighting as he walked into the mess chamber to see Saleek sat at a large, rectangular table, shovelling food into his mouth at a colossal speed. The spiky alien looked up and managed half a smile, which was impressive considering that his cheeks were almost full to the point of bursting.

The guy looks like a giant, spiky hamster, thought Patrick with a small chuckle as he sat down at the table, directly opposite Saleek and his mountain of food that was quickly being demolished.

‘Hey, Patrick,’ mumbled Saleek as he chewed.

‘Hey,’ replied Patrick as he fiddled with his thumbs in awkwardness.

They both sat in silence for a moment, both wondering exactly how to begin. Patrick was about to say something but was cut off by Saleek speaking first.

He said, ‘Listen, I just wanted to say sorry.’

Patrick was taken aback by that.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m sorry for gettin’ you involved in all this. I usually try an’ avoid gettin’ innocent people mixed up in what I do…’

‘So what happened this time?’

‘Truthfully, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, buddy. I had planned to go see Mr Vallan with this guy that I’d been gettin’ to know at a bar in the local spaceport. I didn’t trust him but he was clearly experienced at doing illegal things, so I figured he would be a good patsy; you know, someone I could count on to get me in to do the deal, then cut loose and leave behind when I needed to. I didn’t need him to escape – I knew how to do that already. I just needed somebody to get me into the dig site, ‘cause I’d already told Vallan that I knew someone who wanted to buy artefacts from him. Anyway, this guy cancelled on me and I needed to do something fast ‘cause I’d already told my contact that I’d be bringin’ the artefact to him in a couple days. Fortunately for me, I saw you looking extremely lost and out of place at the spaceport and I figured I’d try and get you to help me.’

‘By the way,’ interjected Patrick, ‘That reminds me, how on New Earth were you planning to get Mr Vallan to part with his precious artefact anyway? Were you planning to blow up the dig site all along with your explosive charges?’

Saleek replied, ‘Actually, the remote detonator was just a little insurance, like I said. I had it all worked out – I was gonna pay Mr Vallan with an account full of fake credits. As soon as you said that you’d buy it, I was gonna step in as your subordinate and handle the payment and everything else. By the time they verified the credits and realised that they were no good, you and I’d be long gone with the artefact. Trouble was, I only had forty thousand fake credits in the account. I had no idea he was gonna hike up the price at the last minute.’ Then he added with a look of disgust, ‘Bastard.’

‘Well, I suppose the rest, as they say, is history,’ said Patrick, half-smiling.

His life had been turned upside down by the events of the last day or so and he was partly still in shock; he didn’t know whether to enjoy the adventure or have a nervous breakdown because of the stress involved.

‘Yup,’ said Saleek as he inserted another chunk of food into his seemingly endless mouth. ‘Thing is, I was desperate. I took a big risk using you – I barely knew you! Still, you came through for me and I appreciate that.’

‘Um…you’re welcome?’ replied Patrick, uncertain what to say. ‘So…this is your new career choice then? Stealing things and then selling them to the highest bidder?’

‘Not exactly,’ said Saleek. ‘I slightly exaggerated when I said that I had a job working for a cargo shipping company a while back…’

‘Okay. Go on.’

‘I’ve not had the easiest life, Patrick. I’m not lookin’ for sympathy and I ain’t tryin’ to justify some of the things I’ve done but I always did what I had to do in order to survive.’

Patrick did not like where this conversation was going. Who was Saleek and what else was he not telling him?

‘And…what exactly have you been forced to do in order to survive?’

Saleek’s eyes met Patrick’s and his gaze burned into the human with the intensity of a nuclear explosion.

‘Just things. I haven’t killed anyone, if that’s what you’re wondering. You can relax, I ain’t gonna harm you. It was mostly stealing and some hustling as well. When I was really young I survived by begging and taking people’s handouts.’

Patrick’s eyes softened as he couldn’t help but feel sorry for Saleek. In comparison, Patrick had had an upbringing that was virtually worthy of a prince, he never wanted for anything back on his home planet. It seemed that all the hype and blurb surrounding Nexus One was very misleading – the information brochures told of a bustling planet with a thriving economy, the best schools in the galaxy and a vibrant cornucopia of different species and cultures living there. They certainly never mentioned anything about underground criminal organizations and poverty-stricken people living on the streets.

‘That sounds terrible,’ Patrick said.

‘Well, it sure as hell wasn’t a picnic. Did I say that right? You humans have got some really strange words in your languages…’

‘Surprisingly, you said it perfectly,’ said Patrick with a grin.

Saleek smiled back at him.

‘So anyway, to cut a long story short – me and my sister were both orphans at a young age and we were forced to survive on our wits on the busy streets of Nexus One. I’ve never really had a proper home. This ship is the closest thing I’ve had to a home; I won it in a high-stakes gambling game at an underground casino where all the criminals go to wager their ill-gotten gains. That was years ago and a lot has happened since then, but I’m still here and so is Zeeree. We just keep on goin’, that’s all we can do.’ Then, after a pause, Saleek added, ‘Hey, now you’ve had a rest, why don’t you grab something to eat? You must be starving.’

Patrick suddenly became aware of his stomach agreeing with a low growl.

He chuckled and said, ‘That sounds like a good idea. Where do you keep your food?’

‘The main food store is in Cargo Hold One, although there’s nothing there but crumbs at the moment. All the food I have left is inside the automated food dispenser on the wall over there.’

He pointed to the far wall with his right hand.

‘You can just press the contact and tell it what you want, then it will automatically prepare it for you and serve it on a plate. Alternatively, you can talk to Zeeree and get her to do it for you.’

‘Oh sure, like I haven’t got enough to do already,’ came Zeeree’s voice out of nowhere.

‘Just checkin’ you’re still alert,’ said Saleek, smiling. ‘What’s our ETA to the Antorii system?’

‘Engines are currently running at twelve percent power to conserve fuel. We will reach the outskirts of the Antorii system in approximately twenty minutes.’

‘Thanks, Zeeree.’

Patrick wandered over to the food dispenser and hesitated, wondering what to order.

‘I don’t suppose you have any human food? Or any human recipes programmed into the dispenser?’

‘That would be a “no”,’ replied Saleek, munching on a particularly crunchy piece of food. ‘I don’t normally invite guests onboard my ship, so most of it is to suit my own tastes.’

‘Figures,’ muttered Patrick. He considered his options for a few seconds before saying aloud, ‘Computer – one serving of trefarli.’

Saleek grinned as Patrick said this. The food dispenser grated ‘Please wait. Working’ in a heavily digitised voice and began to make various noises as the meal was prepared.

‘Didn’t know you had such good taste,’ said Saleek, still grinning.

‘What can I say? You’ve converted me into a trefarli fan.’

The food dispenser finished making noises and a steaming hot plate of trefarli appeared through a small slit in the wall. As Patrick took the plate and went to sit back down, the food dispenser grated ‘Notification. Current ingredients are now down to fourteen percent of maximum capacity. Restock required.’

‘What’s that all about?’ inquired Patrick as he placed the plate down on the rectangular table and took his seat.

‘Don’t worry ‘bout it.’

‘Are you running low on the ingredients to make trefarli or something?’

Saleek did not meet Patrick’s gaze as he answered, ‘Not just trefarli. I’m running low on food, period.’

The spiky alien tore off a chunk of something that resembled orange coloured bread and popped the morsel into his mouth.

‘Oh…’ said Patrick.

It suddenly occurred to him that Saleek must have been very hard up to take a risk like trying to con him and use him to pull off a heist a day later. Things began to make a bit more sense as the human continued to think – the ship’s engines only running at low power in order to conserve fuel, the lack of food in his “home” and risking stealing from a crime lord who employed mercenaries with heavy weaponry…These were the actions of a desperate person who barely had enough resources to feed himself and keep his ship running.

Damn…I don’t know anything about the worlds outside the outer colonies. If stuff like this goes on in the allegedly successful capital planet of the core systems, what other things happen that I don’t know about across the galaxy? Is Saleek’s hardship typical of lots of other people who live on Nexus One, and if so, how am I going to make a new start there? I barely know my way around modern tech and I doubt many employers will have much use for a lone human. Plus, my supply of credits from my account won’t last forever. Still, it could be worse, I suppose. I at least have enough credits to buy transport back to the outer colonies if I can’t make it here, which is more than Saleek has…

Slowly, Patrick gently pushed his plate to one side.

After a while, Saleek grunted, ‘Aren’t you gonna eat that?’

Patrick remained silent for a moment, before saying, ‘No, I’d feel bad if I took your food since you don’t have much left. You need it more than me. You have it.’

Saleek stopped chewing and looked up, his eyes narrowing in confusion.

‘It’s no big deal. Go on, go ahead,’ said Patrick.

‘Are you seriously saying you’d rather go hungry than eat my food?’

‘I…guess that’s what I’m saying, yeah.’

Saleek laughed a little and pushed the plate of trefarli back towards Patrick.

‘Don’t be a fool, Patrick. Eat it. C’mon, I can hear your stomach complaining from here! I don’t wanna have to listen to that.’

Patrick felt a sharp pang of hunger in his belly and reluctantly decided to eat his meal.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the thought,’ said Saleek. ‘But that kinda charity will just let people take of advantage of ya.’

Which is exactly how I wound up here, thought Patrick. I’m so naive…

‘You should try an’ work on that. If you and me are gonna be partners, I’m gonna need to know you won’t get fooled again so easily.’

Patrick half-swallowed and nearly choked on his food. Spluttering, he said, ‘What do you mean, ‘partners’?’

Saleek’s lips widened into a broad grin once more.

‘I’ve been thinkin’ about what ya said, y’know about how this is your first time in the core systems and all that. And I kinda regret the way we met – with me takin’ advantage of ya like that. If I was to give you a few credits and leave you stranded somewhere in the core systems, it ain’t exactly what a decent guy would do. You still want a new start here in the core systems?’

‘Well yeah, of course I do. But I had something else in mind…like a proper job for instance! And a place of my own!’ Patrick protested.

‘Dude, trust me. Proper jobs are overrated,’ said Saleek with a wink.

‘But…’

‘All right, let’s lay it all out there. The way I see it, you got no sought-after skills, you can’t navigate or fly craft and you can barely use computers. I dunno where you’re gonna find a job in a place that’s as competitive as Nexus One for starters.’

Patrick’s heart sank as Saleek said this, the lyan’s words stinging as they hit uncomfortably close to the truth.

Maybe I didn’t think this whole “new start” thing through. I wish I’d considered this before I got on that deep space transport and headed here, he thought sadly.

‘While I can’t exactly offer a good salary and your own apartment, I can offer you your own personal quarters and the run of the whole ship. Plus, if you help me with any deals, you’ll get a cut of the profits. And I promise you, life with me would never be boring!’

Saleek’s words carried the confidence of a slick, used-ship salesman who had convinced people to do something a thousand times before. Patrick remained unconvinced.

‘I’m not sure about this,’ he stated honestly.

‘Well, you don’t have to decide right now,’ said Saleek as he finished off the last of his food. ‘We’ll arrive in the Antorii system, go to Antorii Two, meet my contact, give him the artefact and then pick up the reward. We should be safe enough to hang around on Antorii Two for a few days before we head back to the Nexus system. You can use that time to think about it.’

‘What would you get out of it?’ asked Patrick, eyeing Saleek carefully to try and discern if he was hiding something else from him. ‘The way I see it,’ the human said, deliberately using the same expression that Saleek had used, ‘if I stay on this ship then there are two mouths to feed instead of just one. You’d be making it doubly harder to survive with what little you’ve got. So what’s in it for you?’

‘Well, believe it or not, stealing and hustling are much easier when you have someone to back you up, instead of having to do everything yourself. If you and me worked together, we’d be able to make way more than I can at the moment,’ explained Saleek as he pushed his empty plates to one side and stood up.

A modified, largely spherical robot suddenly emerged from a small crevice in the far wall of the room. It scanned the room whilst hovering, made a few beeping sounds and then flew over to the empty plates on the table. A thin, metal arm ending in a claw extended from the robot’s belly and picked up the nearest plate before the bot hurried back to the wall and disappeared into the crevice. It then reappeared (without that plate) and proceeded to remove the other empty plates from the room one by one, beeping a happy little tune as it did so.

As the spiky alien walked away from the table, he turned back to look at Patrick and added, ‘Oh, and there’s another simple reason it’d be cool if you stayed. I could really do with a friend,’ before leaving the mess chamber through a nearby doorway.

Patrick blinked dumbly in shock and stared at the open doorway for a while. He then returned to his food and continued to eat as he watched the little robot clear the table, marvelling at how different Saleek’s utility bot was to the ones he was used to seeing on his home planet. He wasn’t expecting Saleek to say that at all.

The guy seems so cocky and acts like he knows it all. Is it possible he’s actually lonely and he’s telling the truth?

Patrick’s thoughts were interrupted by Zeeree.

‘I realise you do not know Saleek very well,’ she said, her disembodied voice floating down from the ceiling of the mess chamber, ‘but he isn’t all bad. Not really.’ Then she quipped, ‘Don’t tell him I said that, will you?’

If Patrick could have seen Zeeree’s face, he would have seen her smiling as she said that.

‘I don’t know, Zeeree. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea what to do. I never thought anything like this would happen to me when I came to Nexus One. Saleek has obviously had a totally different life to me so far, we’re very different people. I don’t know whether I can trust him or not. I don’t know if I’ll be able to even survive in the core systems, I feel like I don’t know anything. Life was much simpler back on New Earth. Here it seems like anything can happen at any time.’

‘I think that’s part of the fun,’ said Zeeree.

‘”Fun”?’ repeated Patrick, finding it difficult to believe that an AI would have an appreciation of the concept.

‘Yes, fun. I realise it must be scary for you, but another way to look at it is how exciting it can be, not knowing what is going to happen. When you’ve been around for as long as I have, when you’ve seen so much, you realise that where other people see confusion and chaos, there are actually patterns and order.’

‘Maybe that’s because you’re – forgive me – essentially an advanced computer, so you naturally analyse information and think that way.’

‘I don’t think so. I think it is simply down to inexorability. There are trillions upon trillions upon trillions of people in the core star systems alone, each going about their lives and making decisions every single day. Inevitably, complex patterns form and connections arise, often without people becoming aware of them. I think you and Saleek were meant to meet; I think you were meant to become friends. He has been alone for so long and you are naive but young and willing to learn. I think you can be good for each other. I believe the commonly used word to describe you two meeting is “fate”.’

Patrick was astonished by the eloquence of Zeeree’s argument. He was finding it more and more difficult to think of her as merely an advanced computer, or even an AI. It was as if she was a living, sentient person with great wisdom and knowledge.

‘You’ve made some interesting points, Zeeree,’ admitted Patrick as he shovelled the last of his meal down his throat with gusto. ‘Even though I could technically buy a return trip back to the outer colonies, there’s nothing waiting for me there but a life on the run anyway. By the way, please don’t mention that to Saleek.’

‘My lips are sealed, so to speak.’

‘At least if I’m here, I’m open to new opportunities and experiences. Plus, living life on the edge has to be more fun if there’s someone there to do it with you.’

‘So you have decided to stay?’ asked Zeeree.

Taking a leaf out of Saleek’s book, Patrick replied, ‘I’ll let you know,’ and winked at the ceiling (where he assumed Zeeree was monitoring him from) before walking out of the mess chamber.

‘Great, now there are two of them that like to mess with me,’ said Zeeree to herself.

***

Patrick trotted back up to the cockpit at a leisurely pace. When he got there he saw Saleek looking equally relaxed as he was leaning back in the pilot’s chair with his feet resting on a control panel. The spiky alien nodded a silent greeting, which Patrick returned before moving to sit down on a nearby chair.

‘Are you ready for this then, Patrick?’ asked Saleek as he removed his feet from the control panel and sat up properly in his seat.

‘As ready as I’ll ever be,’ came the honest reply.

Saleek smiled and flicked a switch on his console.

‘OK Zeeree, we’ve travelled far enough, we should be in the Antorii system by now. Bring us back into normal space.’

‘Acknowledged,’ said Zeeree as her face popped up on a monitor at the rear of the cockpit. ‘Charging jump drive for return to normal space.’

Patrick was not sure exactly what he was looking at on his station monitor, but several red lines were moving upwards and a set of numbers next to them were growing too.

That must be power being diverted to the jump drive, he thought to himself. I’m going to learn how to use modern tech, even if I have to teach myself aboard this ship, he decided.

‘Jump drive ready. All systems secured. Engaging drive. Returning to normal space in three…two…one…now.’

Once more the main view screen was filled with white light so intense Patrick feared his retinas were going to be burnt to a crisp by the time this whole adventure was over. Just as suddenly as the light had flashed into existence, it disappeared, leaving the view screen to resolve an image of bright starry dots in a sea of black.

‘We made it, dude. You can relax now,’ said Saleek.

Patrick looked at him quizzically, then exhaled loudly and realised that he had been holding his breath the whole time.

I’ve got to stop doing that.

‘Zeeree, what’s our position?’ asked Saleek as he began tapping away at the pilot’s controls, his eyes focussed on his mini-holographic display.

‘Calculating,’ replied Zeeree. A few moments later, she said, ‘We are in the outskirts of the Antorii system, approximately five hundred million Drekkma from Antorii Seven.’

Saleek whistled. ‘I guess we’ll be taking the scenic route to Antorii Two then.’

‘What do you mean?’ queried Patrick.

‘It’s possible to jump back into normal space anywhere in a star system, but ‘cause we were in a rush to make the jump thanks to that pursuing ship, we couldn’t be any more accurate with our calculations. I guess the outskirts of the system are better than coming back into normal space in the middle of nowhere.’

‘If I did not know better, I’d have thought that was a comment on my navigational skills,’ said Zeeree in a huff.

‘You know what? I couldn’t have done any better myself,’ said Saleek with a confident smirk on his features.

A large image of Zeeree’s face appeared on the main view screen, fixing a hard stare at Saleek.

‘OK, fine. If I had to do the maths, I’d probably have brought us back into normal space in the middle of Antorii’s sun! You happy now?’

‘I’m not entirely unhappy,’ said Zeeree with a slight smile as her face faded from view.

Saleek turned to Patrick and whispered, ‘Dude, do yourself a favour. If you ever get your own ship, stick with the standard onboard computer. Don’t get an AI’

‘I heard that,’ said Zeeree, her voice coming from the rear of the cockpit.

Saleek and Patrick shared a laugh as the craft flew onwards into the Antorii system, the main engines reliably pushing the ship forwards with a low rumble.

Chapter 10

Approximately six hours later, Saleek and Patrick’s craft was nearing their destination – the planet Antorii Two.

‘So what’s the deal with this handover? How are we going to make the trade?’ asked Patrick, somewhat excitedly.

As much as he hated to admit it, he was actually rather enjoying the adventure that he was currently part of. He had never been to the Antorii system before so he had no idea what to expect with regards to the native species that populated the planets or their customs or cultures.

‘Dude, chill out, it’s nothing to get excited about,’ replied Saleek as he slowly tilted the joystick to make a minor course correction. ‘I do this kinda stuff all the time. We’ll dock at a small spaceport on the south side of the planet. From there, I’m gonna call my contact with the ship’s com link and tell him his package has arrived. Then we’ll wait for him to come in a ground-vehicle, we hand over the artefact, he hands us a chip filled to the brim with credits, then I say we hit the local bars for some drinks and work out how we’re gonna spend it all!’

The spiky lyan’s grin was especially wide as he said this.

‘You make it sound so simple,’ commented Patrick, slightly in awe of the green alien’s relaxed demeanour.

‘Trust me, it’ll be a breeze.’

‘Saleek is neglecting to mention the other occasions when delivery of certain clients’ packages has proved to be rather problematic,’ interrupted Zeeree, her face flickering slightly on one of the rear monitors as she spoke.

‘Yeah, but this won’t be one of those times,’ said Saleek casually.

Patrick paused for a moment, before venturing, ‘Should I even ask what has happened at these “problematic” deliveries?’

‘Just ignore her, Patrick. She delights in pointing out my mistakes. It’s her only hobby.’

‘That’s not true. I also enjoy doing puzzles,’ quipped Zeeree with a broad smile on her blue lips.

Patrick couldn’t help but laugh at Zeeree’s comment, which earned him a hard look from Saleek. Slightly embarrassed, Patrick stifled his laughter as best he could.

‘OK, we’re comin’ up to Antorii Two now,’ announced Saleek as he returned to looking at the view screen, which showed a large globe covered in sliver and blue which was getting larger by the second.

The planet actually looks really beautiful from this distance, thought Patrick as he gazed at the image.

‘Receiving Transmission from Antorii ground control,’ stated Zeeree.

‘I’ve got it,’ said Saleek as he read the message on his pilot’s monitor. ‘We’ll be clear to land in thirty minutes. Till then, we’ve gotta make synchronous orbit over the southern hemisphere. Zeeree, if you’ll do the honours?’

‘Engaging autopilot. Plotting orbital course and descent.’

The craft smoothly began to decelerate and gently moved into orbit around Antorii Two.

‘Well, I guess we’ve got some time to kill while we wait for clearance to land,’ said Saleek as he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on a nearby console. ‘You know any good stories to pass the time, Patrick? Why don’t you tell me and Zeeree ‘bout where you’re from?’

‘I wouldn’t say I’m much of a storyteller, really,’ replied the human. ‘Having said that…’

‘Yeah?’ said Saleek, raising a green eyebrow.

‘There is one thing I’d like to know about you that’s been bothering me for some time now.’

‘Really? Well, shoot. Just hope it ain’t too personal!’

Patrick chuckled and said, ‘I don’t think so. I just want to know how you seem to know all these expressions and words from human languages? I first noticed it when you introduced yourself back at the spaceport on Nexus One. I thought most of the species in this galaxy didn’t bother much with learning about humans, especially seeing as we’re generally thought of as being fairly primitive.’

‘Well, there’s a reason why I’ve learned about languages and cultures so much,’ explained Saleek. ‘It all started back when I was livin’ on the streets of Nexus One as a kid. Aside from sleeping and scoring food to eat, there wasn’t much to do for fun when ya got no money. Anyway, one day I was going through some bins looking for food when I found something I didn’t expect to see – an electronic notepad. I dunno why someone had thrown it out – the screen was cracked but that was all, it seemed to work just fine. It could even connect to the local data-stream network but it turned out that it could only display dictionaries, encyclopaedias and stuff like that. I ain’t no brainiac but I liked reading things and since there was nothin’ else to do, I often passed the time by using the notepad. I learned about practices and rituals from a hundred different cultures and I learned a load of basic expressions from just as many languages. I really liked the human stuff though, ‘cause it just seemed so different to all the others.’

The lyan paused before smiling and saying, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way dude, but humans sure are weird!’

Patrick laughed and a moment later, so did Saleek.

‘Yeah, I guess we are in some ways,’ admitted Patrick with a grin. ‘Maybe it’s because most of the other species in this galaxy evolved in close proximity to each other and became influenced by each other, so you all have a lot of similarities in your rituals and things like that. We humans had to travel many Galdrekks just to get from our home galaxy to the very edge of yours. Maybe that’s why we’re so different.’

‘You seem different in some ways, but underneath it all, we’re all the same,’ said Saleek. ‘Don’t care if you’re human, lyan or whatever – we’re all creatures of this universe together.’

Patrick looked at Saleek and smiled, wishing that other aliens in the galaxy shared his views regarding different creatures and cultures – sadly many did not.

***

Fifty five minutes later, Zeeree declared, ‘Transmission from Antorii ground control. We’re now clear to begin our descent pattern.’

‘About damn time,’ grumbled Saleek irritably.

‘Getting a little impatient, are we?’ asked Zeeree.

‘Just anxious to unload this cargo and be done with the whole deal,’ explained Saleek as he leaned back in the pilot’s chair and exhaled loudly.

‘I thought you said it would be a breeze?’ said Patrick, noticing Saleek’s sudden nervousness.

‘It usually is…well, some of the time…’ came the reply. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing. It’ll be fine.’

‘Saleek,’ Patrick said with a certain steeliness to his gaze, ‘the last time you were acting like this, we wound up getting shot at by mercenaries working for a crime lord. Please tell me this isn’t going to happen again as soon as we get planetside.’

‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ repeated Saleek, as if he was trying to convince himself as well as Patrick, ‘but the delay with getting permission to land has been bugging me. Antorii ground controllers are usually so efficient and there isn’t much traffic today either.’ He gestured to the main view screen, which showed only two other craft in orbit just ahead of them, atop a background of jet black space with a crescent of silver-blue in the corner.

‘It might be nothing. Maybe one of the ships on the surface has broken down and needs to be moved before anyone else can land,’ suggested Patrick.

‘Yeah, I guess,’ replied Saleek, who did not look entirely convinced. ‘Zeeree? Anything unusual on coms?’

‘I have monitored one thousand, eight hundred and fifty two separate communication channels over the last hour. None have been suspicious. Most are just routine – the usual mundane conversations that occur on any planet,’ reported Zeeree, slight hints of boredom creeping into her voice as she spoke.

‘I guess we really got no choice. We gotta do this deal – we need the credits to buy food and fuel,’ said Saleek. ‘OK, let’s do this. Zeeree, land the ship.’

‘Activating thrusters. Beginning descent,’ said Zeeree as the ship began to arc downwards through the atmosphere, the resulting friction generating massive amounts of heat and leaving a trail in Antorii Two’s sky.

The ship made it to the spaceport without incident and hovered for a few seconds about five metres from the ground, directly over the designated landing bay. The craft’s landing struts suddenly extended with a hiss as various mechanisms activated and the ship slowly but steadily descended until the struts made contact with the charcoal-coloured tarmac of the landing bay. As Saleek began to shut down the main engines and give a few final commands to Zeeree, Patrick thought about how smooth this particular landing had been, and how relatively rough the takeoff had been from Nexus One.

I hope the next takeoff is as smooth as this landing, the human mused.

‘Everything OK?’ he asked.

‘No issues so far, apart from the delay in gettin’ here,’ replied Saleek as he flicked several switches and turned off pieces of equipment throughout the ship.

Whines could be heard all over the craft and even in the cockpit as various systems turned off and processes were shut down. The landing struts creaked ever so slightly as the thrusters powered down and the entire weight of the ship rested on several spindly metal legs which jutted out from beneath the main body of the craft.

‘All ship’s systems have been secured, with all non-essential systems now in standby mode,’ reported Zeeree. ‘We have landed successfully. Shall I contact our client over the com link and tell him we have arrived and are ready to conduct the transaction?’

‘Go for it,’ confirmed Saleek.

A few moments passed in silence before Zeeree said, ‘Communication sent. Receipt of message confirmed.’

‘I guess now all we can do is wait. Although we can always prepare while we’re waiting. Patrick, follow me, there’s something I wanna show you,’ said Saleek as he got up from the pilot’s chair and walked towards the doorway leading away from the cockpit.

Slightly puzzled, Patrick wordlessly got up from his own chair and followed his companion. Saleek lead Patrick down several small corridors before stopping in front of a plain door. The lyan pressed a nearby wall contact and the door slid away, revealing a rather small room inside. The walls were bare and so was the floor except for a few tiny sealed containers and what looked like a collection of cleaning supplies. At first glance it looked like a small storage closet. Saleek stepped inside and motioned for Patrick to join him, which the human did. As the door slid shut, Patrick felt somewhat awkward, standing so close to Saleek that he could barely turn around without knocking into him.

Nervously, he asked, ‘Um, why are we in here?’

‘Computer – This is Saleek. Recognise my voice print and confirm my identity,’ whispered Saleek quietly.

A faint, digitised voice that definitely did not belong to Zeeree said, ‘Voice print confirmed. Identification accepted.’

While Patrick was glancing around the closet looking for the source of the voice, Saleek added, ‘Open Compartment Turrilik Five.’

Suddenly, the rear wall of the closet retracted into the ground and revealed a hidden room beyond. Patrick gasped in shock and then followed Saleek into the newly-revealed chamber.

The room was about six metres by four metres in size and contained many shelves and racks with various pieces of equipment, spacesuits and weapons stored on them. Patrick suddenly furrowed his brow in confusion and stood still, his gaze burning a hole in Saleek’s back.

‘Saleek, what in the galaxy is this?’ he demanded.

‘This,’ the lyan said as he turned around to face Patrick, ‘is a secret compartment aboard the ship. It’s normally sealed shut and only I have the authority to access it. The subroutine which controls the door is linked to a small computer that is totally separate to the rest of the ship, which means it cannot be tampered with.’

‘And this is all necessary….because?’

‘Because of what I keep here,’ said Saleek as he gestured to all the equipment and weapons around him. ‘I’d have thought that was obvious.’

Patrick sheepishly nodded and felt a little embarrassed for asking.

‘Why do you keep all this stuff down here anyway?’

‘I do what I gotta do to survive. Unfortunately, that sometimes means using these weapons to protect myself against unscrupulous traders, opportunist thugs or anyone else who wants to try and take my belongings or my ship.’

Patrick nodded in understanding. ‘So why are we down here? Are you just giving me a tour of the ship or something?’

‘I’m afraid that’s not it,’ replied Saleek, looking serious all of a sudden. ‘I hope this handoff is easy and simple. But in case it ain’t, I wanna be prepared for anything.’

He picked up what looked like an oversized vest and threw it at a surprised Patrick, who caught it reflexively.

‘Put that on,’ said Saleek as he picked up a smaller, more streamlined vest and slipped it on over his head with ease (making sure he didn’t mess up his cranial spikes as he did so).

He then moved to examine some of the weapons on a nearby wall rack.

‘What is this? I thought you said we weren’t going to get shot at. It looks like you’re preparing for war or something!’ said Patrick incredulously, frowning as he studied the vest which he currently held.

‘Look, what is it you humans say? It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? As I’m sure you know from our encounter with Mr Vallan, I always like to have a little insurance, just in case things go south on us.’

Patrick was about to protest further but stopped himself at the last moment. After carefully examining the vest in his hands, he gingerly slipped it on. He was surprised by how heavy it was – it felt like it weighed a ton. The vest consisted of several panels on the front and back which were made of some very hard material and the lining made a slight crinkling sound as Patrick moved, indicating some other kind of protective material woven inside the vest. Some of the panels had scars and small puncture marks in them, revealing that they had been worn before.

‘Sorry it doesn’t fit right but it wasn’t designed for your species and this is the only standard armour-vest I have onboard,’ explained Saleek without looking at Patrick.

He was busy checking various parts of a pistol constructed of some incredibly shiny material. It was so glossy that the light reflected off it and it appeared to glow in the brightly lit interior of the compartment.

‘It weighs a ton,’ complained Patrick as he tugged at the seams of the vest, struggling to get comfortable.

‘I’d rather you were wearing it than wearing nothin’,’ said Saleek as he put the pistol down and started to examine a slender-looking rifle next to it. ‘That armour-vest might not look like much, but it can stop any calibre of ballistic projectile and it deflects most laser blasts too.’

‘Yeah, I believe you. It looks like it’s seen some action already,’ replied Patrick as he ran his fingers over the scarred panels to check their integrity. Thinking back to their earlier encounter with Mr Vallan’s mercenaries, the human queried, ‘What about plasma bolts? Does it deflect them too?’

Saleek tried to be casual as he answered, ‘Nope. But I’m sure we won’t be facing any plasma-based weapons this time.’

Patrick stared hard at the spiky alien. ‘So you’re saying the vest is useless against plasma rifles?’

‘Well, you can’t expect one single piece of armour to protect against every known weapon in the galaxy, can you?’ argued Saleek as he put the slender rifle down and decided on the shiny pistol. He grabbed it and stuffed it in a concealed pouch at the back of his own armour-vest.

‘That’s very reassuring,’ said Patrick sarcastically as he tightened the too-large vest in an attempt to make it a closer fit.

‘It’ll be fine,’ insisted Saleek as he continued to search through the weapons racks like he was looking for something specific that he couldn’t find. ‘Trust me,’ he added with a broad grin and a wink.

‘Do I have to remind you what happened the last time I trusted you?’ retorted Patrick as he finished adjusting the armour-vest.

It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do, he decided.

‘No need, I remember what happened. You made a friend and then I took you on a wild adventure!’ said Saleek as he pulled out a drawer from a silver cabinet built into the wall. ‘Aha!’ he exclaimed as he located what he was looking for.

‘Yeah and don’t forget the part about being shot at by those mercenaries,’ said Patrick.

‘You’re never gonna let that go, are ya?’ came the reply.

Saleek handed Patrick a small metal sphere with some kind of rigid appendage attached to the top of it. There were several buttons running down the side of the sphere and the whole thing was covered in tiny, tiny spikes. Patrick tossed the sphere from one hand to the other and back again, briefly wondering why it didn’t hurt when he grasped it since it was covered in spikes.

‘Hey, hey. Be careful with that thing, it ain’t a toy!’ chided Saleek as he pocketed a couple more small devices and finished suiting up for the coming encounter.

‘Well, what is it then?’ asked a confused Patrick.

It didn’t resemble any technology he had ever seen before, he was at a loss as to its true purpose.

‘It’s an old Vercurian weapon.’

‘A weapon?’ Patrick’s eyes narrowed. ‘I don’t want to kill anyone!’

Saleek smiled.

‘I had a feeling you were gonna say that, that’s why I gave you this. Like I said, I’m sure this’ll be a real simple handoff. But just in case it ain’t, I want you to have this orb. Besides, you can’t kill anyone with that thing anyway. It’s an immobiliser weapon.’

‘An immobiliser? How does it work?’

Saleek pulled a face which suggested he was feeling a little exasperated.

‘Wow, you’re really full of questions, aren’t ya Patrick? All you need to know is, it generates an energy pulse which fires from the targeting spine on top of the orb. Press the orange button to charge the pulse and release it to fire. The target will be down instantly. Couldn’t be any easier!’

Saleek checked everything was secure in the room before walking out and motioning for Patrick to accompany him. Patrick cradled the immobiliser orb in his right hand for a while, before pocketing it and following Saleek out of the secret compartment.

‘Seal compartment,’ commanded Saleek.

The door to the chamber shot upwards out of the ground and slammed shut against the ceiling with a faint hiss.

‘C’mon, let’s get back to the cockpit,’ suggested the spiky lyan.

Patrick was about to say something but was interrupted by Zeeree’s voice floating down from the corridor ceiling.

‘Saleek, I think you had better get outside right away.’

‘What is it, Zeeree?’

‘We have some guests who are waiting outside about a quarter Drekkma from the ship. I assume they are here to collect the artefact and give you your reward for obtaining it.’

‘That was fast. And what do you mean, you “assume”? How come you don’t know?’

‘Because I have tried to ask and they keep ignoring my communications,’ she explained, sounding rather irritated.

‘Is that bad?’ asked Patrick, looking concerned.

‘It’s hard to tell,’ replied Saleek. ‘Some people just don’t like dealing with AIs and feel more comfortable dealing with organics. That’s actually a pretty common attitude in these parts of the galaxy; we’re not in the core systems anymore. We’d better get out there and meet them at any rate.’

‘OK,’ the human agreed.

‘I just gotta get the artefact from my quarters. I won’t be long, you go out there an’ meet ‘em.’

‘What? Me? By myself?’ spluttered Patrick, suddenly feeling panicky at the prospect of having to meet and greet several total strangers of unknown species and unknown intent.

‘I’ll just be a moment. We can’t keep ‘em waiting too long or they might start to get impatient or suspicious or something. Just go! I’ll be right behind you,’ said Saleek as he sprinted off down the corridor towards his personal quarters.

‘You’d better be,’ whispered Patrick under his breath as he turned on his heels and marched towards the ship’s main exit hatch.

As he neared the hatch, Patrick stopped to compose himself and slow down his heart which was currently thudding an up-tempo rhythm in his chest like a heavy metal drummer on amphetamines.

After taking a deep breath, he quietly said, ‘Zeeree, open the main exit hatch please.’

‘Opening hatch and extending ramp,’ replied Zeeree in her digitised tone. Then, she quickly added, ‘Good luck,’ as the hatch slid away and the bright light of Antorii Two’s sun flooded into the ship, illuminating every inch of the internal metal corridors.

Patrick tried to remain composed as he walked down the ramp, his heavy-duty boots making clanging sounds with every step. He was greeted with the sight of no fewer than five ground-craft parked in a loose inverted U shape about two hundred metres away from the ship. In the middle of this formation was a group of seven individuals, most of which appeared to be carrying dark boxes which Patrick assumed were probably weapons of some sort, although he did not recognise them at this distance. As the human stepped off the ramp and stood still on the faintly warm tarmac of the landing bay, the seven individuals began to walk purposefully towards his position. When they were approximately three metres away from him, they stopped and stood stock-still, saying nothing. Patrick eyed them carefully while trying to maintain some air of authority to create the illusion that he was not to be messed with. All of the aliens were clad in dark, more or less black clothes with blocky shapes around their arms and legs (he couldn’t tell if these shapes were part of their clothing, added ornamentation or something else entirely). They all wore what appeared to be capes, draped from their left shoulder and they all wore black sunglasses too. Their species was unknown to the human; he assumed they were natives of the Antorii system. They had bright blue skin and a single strip of shocking red hair which ran from their foreheads to the backs of their necks, otherwise they looked almost human in appearance. Patrick was unsure exactly how to proceed and he hoped Saleek would come down the ramp and join him as soon as possible – he didn’t want these guys to get any funny ideas about roughing him up or anything.

As Saleek entered his personal quarters and retrieved the precious artefact from a dark brown container located underneath his bed, Zeeree called out to him.

‘Saleek, there is something you need to know about what is going on outside.’

‘Can’t you see I’m busy? I’ll be there in a moment,’ replied Saleek irritably as he removed the artefact from its container and turned around to begin his sprint to the ship’s main exit hatch to rejoin Patrick.

‘This is important,’ insisted Zeeree, sounding increasingly concerned.

Saleek stopped and said, ‘All right, you’ve got ten seconds. Spit it out, quickly.’

‘As you may or may not know, this ship’s passive sensors are not designed to conduct in-depth scans of biological material while in standby mode, so-’

‘What are you babbling on about? I gotta get out there right away,’ interrupted Saleek, taking a stride out of his quarters and into the adjacent corridor.

‘Saleek, stop! I think Patrick might be in danger!’

That did it.

Saleek froze on the spot and said slowly, ‘What do you mean?’

‘I decided to run a quick external scan since no one would respond to my communications. There are currently seven people around Patrick and a further thirteen still inside the parked ground-craft near the ship. I can’t be certain but they seem to be registering as oomlocks,’ explained Zeeree hurriedly.

Saleek’s blood started running colder than usual as he heard this.

‘But…the person I made the arrangement with was the leader of a gang of semloids…’

‘I am aware of that fact. Which leads to the only obvious conclusion at this time: something is very wrong out there. Patrick won’t know any of this, you have to help him get back inside the ship and quickly!’

Without saying another word, Saleek darted back inside his quarters, shoved the artefact back in its dark brown container and half-threw it underneath his bed. He then leapt out of his quarters in one bound (showing a surprising amount of athleticism) and shot off down the metal floor of the corridor at full speed, his legs virtually becoming a blur as he ran.

‘Can’t you just activate the ship’s energy shield and extend it around Patrick to protect him? At least till I get there?’ asked Saleek as he skidded to a halt at a junction and sped off again once he had regained his balance.

‘Negative. The seven people are standing too close to him for that to be effective,’ answered Zeeree, sounding rather agitated.

‘Figures,’ muttered the spiky lyan as he continued running.

‘Hurry, Saleek, you have to help him.’

‘I’m almost there,’ said Saleek, panting ever so slightly as he pushed his speed to the limit.

He rounded the last corner and could see the bright light of the Antorii sun pouring into the craft through the open exit hatch.

Patrick was getting somewhat nervous in Saleek’s absence. He had tried a friendly greeting in Standard but that got him nothing, not even a turn of one of the blue aliens’ heads. The silent treatment was seriously starting to unnerve him. He swallowed hard and tried to get rid of the lump in his throat which steadfastly refused to go away.

Come on, Saleek. Where the hell are you?

As if playing the hero character in a cheesy action film, Saleek chose that exact moment to appear in the hatchway. He quickly descended half-way down the ramp and stopped. Patrick relaxed for a moment upon seeing his companion, before suddenly getting nervous again as he spotted the expression of panic on his green features, the spiky alien’s usual wide grin nowhere to be seen.

‘Saleek, wha-’ began the confused human.

‘Patrick, move away from them. Come back up the ramp. Now!’ commanded Saleek, raising his voice a little as he said the last word. For a few seconds, Patrick didn’t move.

‘What is going on?’ he asked, worried and confused in equal measure.

‘I’ll explain later. Come back aboard the ship. Hurry!’

Patrick took half a step backwards before one of the blue-skinned figures dressed in black lurched forwards with startling speed and grabbed the human’s wrist. Patrick tried to free his arm but couldn’t move at all – the blue-skinned alien had a grip stronger than a vice. All the human could do was manage a weak ‘What the hell?’ as he continued struggling but to no avail.

Upon seeing this, Saleek reached around to his back pocket and produced the shiny pistol he had been examining earlier.

‘Let him go!’ he exclaimed as he started to slowly walk down the ramp, his weapon pointing directly at the alien which currently held Patrick.

This, as it turned out, was not the smartest move in the world. As Saleek did this, the remaining six oomlocks brandished their boxes and pointed them right at him. The boxy casings fell away to reveal submachine pistols, their targeting beads resting on various vulnerable parts of Saleek’s head and body. Realising that one false move would result in being filled with more holes than a Swiss cheese factory, Saleek did the only thing he could and dropped his weapon, which fell to the ground with a clatter.

‘Good, you’re not completely stupid then,’ said a gruff voice.

It belonged to the oomlock which still held a writhing Patrick in a vice-like grip with one hand.

Saleek put his hands up as if to show that he was not aggressive and said, ‘Let him go. This has nothing to do with him.’

The gruff-voiced oomlock, whose mouth slowly twisted into a snarling sneer, replied, ‘He was aboard your ship. Of course he has something to do with this. Now, step off the ramp and join us.’

Saleek hesitated briefly, until the remaining oomlocks made a deliberate show of priming their weapons and tightening their aim, which quickly forced him to comply with the request. His feet hit the ground of Antorii Two and he simultaneously sighed in frustration.

‘I believe you have a package for me. Where is it?’ asked the snarling oomlock as Patrick continued to struggle and writhe in vain.

‘I dunno what you’re talking ‘bout,’ answered Saleek with a surprising amount of flippancy considering the current circumstances.

The spiky alien shrugged his shoulders and tried to look nonchalant. Suddenly Patrick began howling in pain as the lead oomlock tightened his grip on the human’s wrist and started to twist.

‘You know exactly what I’m talking about. Now, don’t lie to me or I will break your friend’s arm. The artefact from Nexus One. Where is it?’

‘How do you know ‘bout that? And where are the semloids I contacted earlier on?’ demanded Saleek, although he had a pretty good idea of what the answer would be.

‘We had a slight altercation with those semloid friends of yours. They began encroaching into our territory, so we were forced to remind them of the boundaries that exist between our gangs and the results were unfortunate. For them, anyway…’

The oomlock’s snarl transformed into a hideous-looking evil smile as he said this, which made Saleek’s stomach turn.

‘Needless to say, we found their communications records when we attacked their hideout and saw this golden opportunity to make a tidy profit for almost no work whatsoever. Now, I have said more than enough. It is safe to assume that the artefact is not on you, correct?’

Saleek said nothing.

‘So the artefact must be aboard your ship somewhere. Now, are you going to tell me where it is? Or do I have to get my boys here to go through the ship chamber by chamber? It’s your call, spiky.’

‘You’ll never find it,’ bluffed Saleek, trying his hardest to appear unworried.

‘Oh really? Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we? Boys?’

As soon as the lead oomlock finished speaking, he swung his free hand up and downward in a large arc, ending in a powerful blow to Patrick’s face. The human instantly fell to the ground having been knocked unconscious in one strike from the powerful alien. Somewhat unexpectedly, Saleek suddenly lost control and launched himself at the oomlock that had just decked Patrick. The momentum knocked the blue alien to the ground and Saleek pounced on him, punching his face repeatedly with strikes as fast as gunshots. The remaining oomlocks held their fire for fear of shooting their leader but three of them discarded their weapons and ran to help the helpless creature. The three of them together managed to prise an irate Saleek off the lead oomlock, whose face had now become stained with light green coloured blood and who was coughing and spluttering. As the three blue-skinned aliens held Saleek tightly, two more discarded their weapons, stepped forwards and punched the lyan in the face until he blacked out from the pain.

‘Korrol, are you OK?’ asked one of the oomlocks as he put his arm around his leader and attempted to help him stand.

‘I’m fine!’ roared the bloodied alien as he swatted away the helping hand and got to his feet on his own. ‘That little spiky rat caught me by surprise, that’s all!’ he added angrily as he stepped forwards and planted his boot in Saleek’s mid-section.

The other oomlocks that had been holding the lyan released their grip and the already-unconscious Saleek dropped to the ground from the kick, landing in a crumpled heap on the tarmac.

‘Well, what are you waiting for? Get aboard that ship! The artefact has to be there somewhere. Go and find it. Now!’ commanded Korrol as he wiped away some blood from his nostrils.

He flicked his wrist, sending the droplets of blood flying through the air and when they landed, they created a spatter pattern on the ground that was reminiscent of a firework explosion in pale green.

‘Yes, Korrol. Right away!’ chimed the other oomlocks in unison.

They were about to start heading up the ramp and into the ship when suddenly the ramp began retracting.

‘What the hell?’ bellowed Korrol in rage and confusion.

The ramp retracted out of sight into the hull of the ship and the main hatch slammed shut with a loud CLAMP sound.

‘Did someone press something? Who triggered that?’ demanded the lead oomlock, his blood boiling with frustration and anger.

‘That would be me,’ crackled a digitised voice through Korrol’s personal com unit, which was attached to a gauntlet that he wore around his left forearm. ‘You?!’ he spluttered incredulously at the com unit. ‘It’s that damn AI that kept pinging us when we first got here!’ Korrol announced to the rest of the oomlocks, who were standing around in shock, unsure what to do next.

‘That is correct,’ came Zeeree’s voice once more over the com unit. ‘As you can probably tell, I have locked down the ship; no one can get in or out without my permission. Now, unless you want me to alert the local authorities about what has just happened here, I strongly suggest you leave those two where they are and leave at once.’

The lead oomlock’s mouth twisted into a hideous evil smile again as he replied, ‘It seems you don’t know much about how things work on this planet, AI. A glorified computer program such as yourself has no legal rights and will typically be ignored by any organic that you try and contact. I doubt you’ll get any response whatsoever, no matter who you try and contact. As for getting into the ship…well I guess we’ll just have to do it the hard way.’

He turned and looked at his fellow gang members.

‘Boys, get the explosive charges from the vehicles. We’ll just have to blast our way into the ship.’

The remaining oomlocks dutifully obeyed their leader and began trotting over to the ground craft parked near the ship. As they did so, a hum started to emanate from the ship. It got louder and louder for several seconds.

‘What is that noise?’ demanded an already annoyed Korrol as he stared hard at the ship, his brow furrowed in confusion.

Suddenly the hum reached a plateau and ship became engulfed in a faint yellow ball of shimmering light.

The lead oomlock’s jaw dropped open as he exclaimed, ‘An energy shield?! How the hell did it activate that while the ship was parked? This AI is really starting to piss me off now!’

‘What do we do?’ asked one of the other oomlocks, waiting for his leader’s instructions.

‘We can’t get to the ship while that energy shield is active,’ explained Korrol. ‘And we can’t just wait around waiting for the ship to run out of power, someone at this spaceport is bound to get suspicious eventually. It’s too strange for our ground vehicles to be parked right next to a spacecraft without moving for hours on end.’

‘So what’s our next move?’

‘We’ll have to take these two’ – he gestured to the unconscious human and lyan that lay sprawled on the tarmac a few metres away – ‘back to our place for now. We’ll make them tell us how to deactivate that damn AI and then we can get into the ship and take what we came for.’

‘You really think they’ll just tell us?’

Korrol’s evil smile broadened as he said, ‘Trust me, after I’m through with them, not only will they tell us everything but they’ll also be begging us to kill them just to end the pain!’

Chapter 11

Lieutenant Tuk was in a bad mood today, Sergeant Joval could tell. The loudness of his footsteps and the pace of his walk were directly related to how pissed off he was. This morning, the Lieutenant moved at a very brisk pace, his shoes creating loud CLACK sounds with each stride. His heavy footsteps created an ominous rhythm which reverberated around the corridors and offices of the precinct building. As he entered the main office, he stopped and scanned the room, before spotting the Sergeant and marching straight towards him. Joval pretended to be busy typing a report, but he knew what was coming next. It had happened many, many times before: every time something went wrong, every time a major case was left unsolved, every time a suspect escaped capture, the Lieutenant vented his frustration at those under his command. Unfortunately for Joval, his computer terminal was close to Tuk’s office and he frequently bore the brunt of the Lieutenant’s outbursts.

‘Sergeant Joval!’ Tuk spat out, virtually spraying him with saliva as he did so.

The Lieutenant’s species was well suited to administration and organisational tasks thanks to their extremely large brains, but being short and round, they were ill suited to any physical tasks at all. Apart from, say, setting a new record for the amount of snacks they could cram in their cheeks whilst watching videos on the entertainment channels. This made it a little awkward for Joval – whose species was tall, lightly muscular and athletic – to take such abuse from the Lieutenant without bursting out laughing. There was something about standing there and taking the frequent dressing-downs from the diminutive Lieutenant which was almost comical. This was made especially so due to the overly dramatic rants which Tuk frequently yelled, his eyes almost bugging out of his head as he did so. However, Joval knew that any disrespectful sniggering on his part would result in an immediate demotion, so he had learned long ago to control his laughter.

‘Lieutenant!’ the Sergeant replied, standing up from his desk.

The difference in size became instantly apparent – the Sergeant had to be at least thirteen or fourteen inches taller than his boss.

‘Where are we with the Zalnar raid?’ demanded Tuk, eyes narrowed.

Joval took a deep breath before answering, ‘All suspects were apprehended successfully and processed at the booking station. We have conducted a preliminary round of questioning for all suspects at this time.’

The sergeant stopped talking for a moment upon realising that he sounded like he was giving a statement to the press, not talking to a fellow officer. Realising this, he relaxed slightly. However, that relaxed state only lasted for a couple of seconds, as Tuk started talking again.

‘Is that so?’ the Lieutenant mused, pacing back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back.

This can’t be good. He looks like he’s gearing up to say something, thought Joval as he quickly tried to think of a reason that would allow him to be excused.

Unfortunately for him, Tuk began to reach boiling point quicker than he could think of a pretext that would allow him to slip away.

‘Sit down, Sergeant,’ commanded Tuk as he paced.

Joval reluctantly did so.

‘Mind telling me why a complaint has been filed against you and your squad?’ the Lieutenant asked, his voice tinged with anger around the edges.

Joval was taken aback for a moment, his mouth opening in shock.

‘Sir?’ was all he could mumble in confusion.

‘A complaint has been filed by not one, but every single suspect that you have brought in from the Zalnar raid.’

‘What’s the complaint?’

‘They’re saying that you used unnecessary force to apprehend them. They’re claiming police brutality!’ Tuk’s voice rose sharply as he delivered that last sentence.

Joval was dumbfounded by this.

‘That’s crazy,’ he began, before being cut off by an incensed Tuk.

‘No, what’s crazy is that if their lawyers manage to prove it, we might have to drop the charges and let them walk!’

Joval decided to fight his corner over this.

‘But sir, we didn’t use live rounds or physically beat them. They were all being extremely threatening and we were forced to respond and contain the situation or risk it escalating uncontrollably. We did what we had to do.’

This, as it turned out, was probably a mistake. Tuk didn’t reply right away, but he was seething and Joval noticed that his eyes were bulging and his cheeks changing colour to an angry red. He was about to explode.

‘”What you had to do?” “What you had to do?!” Don’t speak such garbage! They teach you fifty different ways to immobilise potential threats back at the academy; it covers every type of species in the known galaxy and by following these techniques you can apprehend any suspect unharmed.’

I’d like to see you apprehend any suspect at all without using a weapon, you trumped up little squirt, thought Joval in irritation as the lieutenant continued his tirade of abuse.

The rant was beginning to attract the attention of everyone else in the main office – everyone had turned to watch what was happening. Joval tried his best to keep calm as the shouting continued.

‘It was a fiasco, that’s what it was!’ spat Tuk. ‘Sounds like you were starting a war rather than conducting a stealth raid! You do know that at close range, even stun rounds can occasionally cause adverse reactions or even death amongst targets! Who fired the first shot?’

‘Sir?’

‘Who started this whole damn mess?’

Joval bit his lip, stopping himself from angrily telling the Lieutenant to back the hell off and calm down.

With great restraint, he replied in a very low voice, ‘It was me, sir. I was the one who opened fire on the suspects.’

Tuk seemed to have reached his boiling point and vented as much as he needed to. From this point on, he slowly became quieter and quieter until he was virtually back to normal.

‘Really? I expected better from you, Joval,’ he said, shaking his head disappointedly.

Joval wasn’t sincere but he apologised anyway, sensing that it would help to diffuse the situation.

‘I’m sorry, sir. I guess things just got out of hand.’ Then he added, ‘It won’t happen again.’

That did it. Tuk sucked in a huge lungful of air and let it out noisily in a very loud sigh.

‘Make sure that it doesn’t. I need you to lead your squad and set a good example for them to follow. Everyone looks up to their superiors for guidance on how to behave. We are one of the top precincts in this district,’ Tuk leaned in towards the Sergeant and said in a low whisper, ‘and we need to keep it that way. Our crime rate has been going up for months now and I’m catching heat from the higher-ups. We need to turn things around – quickly.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll try my best,’ Joval replied.

‘Good,’ said Tuk, nodding enthusiastically. ‘Good. So we understand each other?’

‘Perfectly, sir,’ agreed Joval, well aware that it was his boss’s head on the chopping block and not his, even though the Lieutenant might try and make out otherwise.

He smiled silently at that thought. Tuk stood up straight again and smoothed his shirt, the buttons straining to stay closed as they fought against his rather massive girth.

‘Well, now that that’s sorted, give me some more details on the case. Did the suspects give up any useful information under questioning?’

‘Unfortunately not much,’ Joval reluctantly reported. ‘They did make reference to a particular club which is used to move the drugs. I checked and the place is apparently owned by an off-worlder.’

‘Which planet is he from?’

‘Loballon.’

‘Have you checked with the police force there?’

‘Yes, and the person who allegedly owns the club does not exist in their records. It is likely a fake name in order to hide who is really behind it.’

‘Hmm,’ pondered Tuk as he attempted to cross his arms over his large stomach.

He failed and eventually settled for simply clasping his hands together. ‘That certainly is suspicious, which means that they are likely up to no good, possibly something even more serious than selling illicit substances.’

‘Agreed.’

‘Have you tried checking their known associates?’

‘Yes, sir. Just your regular dealers, some extortionists and a couple of prostitutes. Nothing that would constitute a higher-up. We don’t know who is behind the importing of this illegal substance and, unsurprisingly, the suspects won’t name names.’

Tuk paused for a while, seemingly lost in thought.

Just as Joval was beginning to get uncomfortable, the Lieutenant suddenly said, ‘You have their personal com units don’t you?’

‘Yes, sir. They were bagged as evidence when we arrested the suspects.’

Tuk sighed loudly before leaning in towards Joval and saying quietly, ‘Check the ID codes on their com chips. Search for who they have been calling and when.’

Joval’s brow furrowed slightly.

‘Sir? Are you talking about checking their communication logs?’

Tuk said nothing.

‘But that’s impossible without permission from an Arbiter. We can’t just check without-’

‘I know the law, Sergeant,’ interrupted Tuk swiftly and softly. ‘But tell me this. Do you have any leads on this case at the moment?’

‘Well, not as such…’

‘Then do as I say, but keep it off the record.’

Joval simply stared as his boss in apparent disbelief.

‘Listen, we can’t afford any more unsolved cases right now. They’re using fake names so they must be up to something seriously illegal. Check their com records and see what turns up.’

And with that Tuk turned on his heels and walked off, his shiny shoes making loud CLACK sounds as he departed. Joval watched Tuk leave and then slowly turned round in his chair to face his computer terminal again.

Did that really just happen? He thought to himself.

He shrugged and began searching the evidence log on his computer screen, hunting for the appropriate com units. Joval wasn’t entirely comfortable doing this – he knew that it would be better for all the citizens in the local district if the drugs were off the streets and the dealers all in a correctional institute but still, doing it whilst ignoring the law seemed hypocritical to say the least.

I wonder if the pressures of command force you to reconsider your morals if things aren’t going your way…he wondered as he searched.

The sergeant then found what he was looking for and brought up the communication records of the five devices that were confiscated when the suspects were arrested. He stared at the list of numbers that seemed to stretch on forever down the long screen of the terminal and couldn’t stop a small sigh from escaping his lips. It would take him hours to go through every single one and check the conversations that had taken place over the coms. Frustrated but seeing no alternative, he quickly scanned the list of locations and names to see if anything stood out before he began going through each one methodically.

These guys sure have been busy on their coms, thought Joval. They’ve contacted shops, personal residences, offices, nightclubs, restaurants, even something called a ‘Spay’Ar site’…

His thoughts were interrupted by an officer walking up to him.

‘Excuse me, Sergeant?’

Joval quickly swiped his hand over one of the controls and the screen went back to its default setting, the list of numbers quickly vanishing. He turned in his chair to face a slim, young woman wearing an immaculately pressed uniform.

‘Hi Le’Mi. What’s up?’

‘I just…wanted to thank you,’ said Le’Mi, blushing ever so slightly as she did so.

Joval relaxed, leaned back in his chair and smiled warmly.

‘For what?’ he asked innocently.

‘For telling the Lieutenant that it was you who fired the first shot during the stealth raid,’ she explained, lowering her voice to a whisper so no one else could hear her.

Joval was slightly taken aback by that. Not that Le’Mi would express such a sentiment, but that she had heard his whisper from so far away – her desk was on the other side of the room. Joval glanced at her thin, elongated and slightly pointy ears and marvelled at her hearing ability. He knew that Le’Mi’s species had excellent hearing but that was still very impressive, even by her standards.

‘Don’t mention it,’ breezed Joval casually.

‘How can I not mention it? You saved my butt!’ Le’Mi was insistent. ‘I thought Tuk was going to find out it was me who discharged my weapon and fire me on the spot.’

‘Honestly, it’s nothing. And by the way, don’t worry too much about the Lieutenant. He just needs to vent every now and then but he doesn’t mean anything by it.’

Le’Mi regarded her squad leader with a sceptical look.

‘You’re too understanding, Joval. There’s no excuse for behaving like he did, yelling at you in front of the whole office like that.’

Joval simply smiled warmly again.

‘I’m telling you, it’s fine. Forget about it.’

Le’Mi’s expression softened as she couldn’t help but smile too.

‘And another thing, you’re far too nice, Sergeant Joval. I wish you were our Lieutenant and not Tuk!’

Then she began to blush and fidget, worrying that perhaps she had said too much. Joval laughed just a little. So did Le’Mi.

‘Well, I have to fly the flag for nice guys, so to speak. It’s tough ‘cause there aren’t many of us left in the galaxy,’ the Sergeant replied with a sly smile.

‘You’re right about that,’ said Le’Mi as she stared deep into Joval’s dark eyes, her gaze lingering just a little too long.

Just as Joval was starting to detect a hint of sexual tension in the air, he and Le’Mi were interrupted by a fairly short yet extremely stocky officer walking up to them with strong, steady steps.

‘Hey guys,’ greeted Tylorran as he approached.

He was cradling a box of what looked like savoury snacks in one hand and popping them in his mouth at regular intervals with the other.

‘Tylorran,’ said Joval as he responded with a nod.

Le’Mi mostly succeeded in stifling an exasperated sigh.

‘What’s up, Le’Mi?’ asked Tylorran through mouthfuls of pastry.

‘Hm?’ Le’Mi glanced quickly at Tylorran, then Joval, then her shoes, then back to Tylorran again. ‘What? Oh, nothing, no, nothing. Nothing’s up at all. Not a thing.’

Upon realising she was behaving very awkwardly and worried that her colleague might suspect something, she made a hasty exit.

‘I have to go. Excuse me,’ said Le’Mi as she quickly walked back to her desk on the other side of the main office.

‘What’s up with her?’ asked Tylorran, watching Le’Mi walk away with a confused expression on his features.

‘Beats me,’ replied Joval, smiling as he turned in his chair and resumed typing on his computer terminal.

Tylorran simply shrugged, brushed some crumbs off his slightly crumpled uniform that had clearly not seen a clothes presser in days and casually walked off, munching as he did so. Joval checked that no one else was about to interrupt him and brought up the list of com contacts on his terminal screen once more.

Chapter 12

Patrick fought to open his eyes as he regained consciousness. It felt as if someone had placed great weights on his eyelids, or perhaps sealed them shut with industrial-strength adhesive. Straining, he eventually managed to open them. Patrick’s head was spinning and he felt a bit nauseated. After blinking a lot and forcing himself to concentrate, he began to slowly come round. He tried to move his hands but couldn’t, his arms were tied to something above him and he had thick cuffs on his wrists. The human looked to his right and saw Saleek. The lyan looked to be in bad shape, his face was bruised and cut and his head had dropped so that his chin was virtually touching his chest. The poor alien was unconscious and had his arms tied to a chain suspended from the ceiling above him, just like Patrick had. The human frantically glanced around the room as some of the grogginess faded from his mind and he realised that they were both in serious trouble. The room they were in was fairly small and appeared to be constructed entirely of metal. Filthy stains streaked the walls and the whole place seemed to be encrusted with dirt and grime. There didn’t appear to be anything in the room except for a couple of aging, battered plastic chairs in the corner. Set into the corner of the far wall was a door that had probably once been solid but was now being devoured by rust. Thin beams of artificial light lanced through tiny holes in the door’s material. People laughing, objects clinking and something banging could be heard – there were definitely people on the other side of the door.

Probably our captors, Patrick thought grimly.

He tried to free his hands and strained with all the might he could muster in his present condition. It was no use. The chains shackling him to the ceiling barely moved, there was no chance he could break them even if he was at full strength.

It’s too bad the chains aren’t in the same condition as the rest of this room, or even the door…

Patrick turned to his right to look at Saleek.

‘Psst! Hey, Saleek! Saleek, wake up!’ he called out desperately.

There was no response at all from the spiky lyan, his head still hanging low and his breathing shallow.

‘Damn it!’ exclaimed the human in frustration.

With no other options presenting themselves, Patrick tried again and again to break free of his restraints, or at least loosen them. Grunting due to the force of exertion, he tried on and off for about twenty minutes before stopping. The human’s head dropped and he panted rapidly to get his breath back. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and dropped onto the dirty metal floor as his whole torso heaved to suck in big breaths. It was no good. His restraints were unmoving and his only ally completely unresponsive, still unconscious. He was in big trouble – they both were.

Suddenly the rusty door to the room was opened, the ancient hinges making an ear-splitting creaking sound as they moved. A fairly tall, strong-looking figure with blue skin and a surly expression on his features walked into the room, closing the door shut again once he was inside. He turned and regarded Patrick with what might have been a condescending sneer, or maybe a sadistic smile. Either way it made Patrick shiver as his blood ran cold.

‘Ah, our other guest is now awake. What is your name?’ asked Korrol as he eyed up Patrick.

Patrick looked at Korrol then looked away and said nothing.

‘I must say,’ continued Korrol as he started to pace slowly around the room, circling Patrick repeatedly, ‘you were unconscious for quite some time there. To be honest, I was beginning to worry that I’d completely broken your face and smashed in your vocal cords. That wouldn’t have been any good at all, since you need those intact to answer the questions I am about to ask you.’

Patrick watched Korrol as the Oomlock circled him but continued to stay silent. Korrol stopped briefly, staring hard at the tired and bruised human, before starting to circle him again.

‘Make no mistake, you are my prisoner here. Believe me, no one is coming for you. In fact, the only reason you are still alive is because you have information that I need. So it is in your best interests to start talking – and quickly.’

‘And if you don’t like the answers I give?’ asked Patrick, steeling himself for what was almost certainly coming, judging by the bruises and cuts on Saleek’s head and body.

‘I think you can work that one out for yourself – just take a look at your spiky little friend over there,’ replied Korrol, gesturing to a still-unconscious Saleek whose body was only upright because he was chained to the ceiling.

Patrick glanced at Saleek and swallowed hard, his muscles tensing as fear began to grip him.

‘Now then,’ said Korrol as he stopped pacing around the room and looked hard at Patrick. ‘Question one: what kind of creature are you? I’ve never seen your species before. You do vaguely resemble my kind, in a pale and odd-looking sort of way.’

Patrick forced himself to meet his captor’s gaze and concentrated hard to ensure he did not waver nor let his lower lip tremble, lest he reveal that he was terrified and give the Oomlock the upper hand in the interrogation.

‘I’m a human,’ he stated simply.

‘A hoo-mann?’ repeated Korrol, looking a little confused. ‘That’s such a weird name you can’t possibly have made that one up. Which planet are you from?’

‘I’m from a small planet called New Earth.’

Korrol’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Patrick.

‘Never heard of it. Where is it?’

Patrick swallowed and replied, ‘It’s on the edge of the populated galaxy, part of the outer colonies.’

Korrol paused for a while, as if trying to determine how plausible Patrick’s story was.

Eventually, he continued, ‘I’ve still never heard of it but then again, I’ve never been to the outer colonies before. Backwater hellholes, that’s what most people call the little planets out there. I guess you might be telling the truth…’

‘I am telling the truth,’ insisted Patrick, perhaps slightly too loudly for his own good.

Korrol looked at him, wrinkled his nose and twisted his lips into a kind of sneer, before stepping forwards and backhanding the restrained human hard in the face. Patrick felt like one of those ancient bobble-head toys as his head rocked back and forth with great speed, his neck barely managing to keep his head attached to his body. Patrick’s vision went a little cloudy before slowly returning to normal. The human recognised the metallic-tinged taste of blood in his mouth and spat it out onto the floor, much to the disgust of the oomlock who felt it necessary to inform him of his displeasure by booting him in the ribs. Patrick coughed, spluttered and wheezed. He instinctively tried to grab the sides of his body with his hands to protect himself but the metal restraints kept his hands above his head.

‘I will decide if you are telling the truth or not, hoo-man,’ Korrol boomed as he tightened the straps on his gloved hands and started to pace around the room once more, circling Patrick like a shark that had injured its prey and just tasted its blood.

‘Answer me this: how did you end up here in the Antorii System?’

Patrick gritted his teeth as pain continued to course through his torso like he was being stabbed in the ribs repeatedly with tiny blades.

‘I came…on Saleek’s…ship…’ the human panted as he grimaced.

‘But you came from the Nexus system, if I remember correctly. At least, that was what was detailed in the communications we took from your semloid friends. How did you end up in the Nexus system? It’s the centre of the galaxy; about as far from the outer colonies as you can get. Why did you make such a huge journey?’

‘I came…to Nexus One…looking for…work…’

This earned Patrick another backhand. Dark blood trickled from his nostrils and his cheeks were starting to turn a rather unattractive shade of purple as his skin began to bruise.

‘There are hundreds of planets between the outer colonies and the Nexus system, each with jobs available on them. No one makes such a massive journey across the galaxy for that reason. Now, tell me the truth!’

Patrick glanced to his right and saw that Saleek was still unconscious.

I guess I might as well tell this guy the truth. It’s not like Saleek will ever find out. Hell, I’m not even sure it matters anymore. We might not even get out of this place alive. What have I got to lose?

Patrick looked at Korrol and said, ‘OK, I’ll tell you the real reason I came to the Nexus system. About a year ago, back on my home planet, I was very naive and I got mixed up with some bad people. I mean, I didn’t know they were bad at first. There was this one person, a girl, who I really liked and we really hit it off. We dated and things were going great. Then, one day, she asked me to carry her bags when we went on a little trip. It was such a simple request that I never even questioned it. To cut a long story short, we went through a security checkpoint at an airport and I got pulled aside and searched. They found tons of drugs in one of the bags – the girl’s drugs. I protested that they weren’t mine but the security staff didn’t believe me. I was arrested, tried and thrown in prison. I got beaten to within an inch of my life several times in that place. You see, the guys that owned the drugs – the really bad guys – they were pissed at me for losing hundreds of thousands of credits’ worth of their drugs. They had friends inside the prison and they let them know what happened, hence the beatings. Since the guards didn’t seem to care or even try and protect me, I knew I had to get out of there or I’d wind up dead within a few more weeks. So, I worked together with my cellmate and we worked out a plan to escape. We did so but he wound up getting caught – I was the only one who managed to escape. Since the police were looking for me to put me back in prison and these bad guys were looking for me to get some revenge for losing their drugs, I thought the only solution was to skip the planet. I wanted to get as far away from them as possible, so I bought a one-way ticket to Nexus One.’

Korrol stopped pacing directly in front of Patrick, bent forwards slightly and looked at him, his gaze burning into the human’s eyes, as if trying to determine if this was another lie. Patrick remained surprisingly stoic as he stared back at his captor, unblinking and unflinching. Truth be told, he even surprised himself with this impressive show of strength and determination. After a few moments, Korrol straightened up and started pacing once more.

‘Well, that certainly does make more sense than your other story,’ he muttered as he walked. ‘So it looks like I have two fugitives from the law in this room at the moment.’

Patrick looked at Saleek in mild shock, before reminding himself of the things the lyan told him he did when he was younger in order to survive. Puzzled by his own reaction, Patrick shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe the thought that Saleek might have a criminal record would shock him so much.

‘So tell me,’ continued Korrol. ‘How do you know Saleek?’

Patrick took a deep breath and half-lied, ‘We met on Nexus One. We spent time together and we got talking about things. Eventually he asked me to help him with some jobs and I agreed.’

‘And I take it transporting this valuable artefact is one of those jobs?’

Patrick silently nodded an affirmative.

‘That brings me to my next question. That damn AI of yours has erected an energy shield around your ship, making it impossible for us to get inside. How do we deactivate it so we can board the ship and take what we came for?’

Patrick suddenly realised why he was still alive, and more specifically he realised the information that his captor needed so badly – he couldn’t get past Zeeree’s defences, so he needed a way to bypass them entirely!

That also explains why Saleek is unconscious and so badly beaten. This guy must have asked Saleek the same thing and Saleek probably told the guy where to go, so he got angry and beat him to within an inch of his life, thought Patrick.

Then, he quietly mumbled ‘Oh shit…’ as he realised that the same thing was likely going to happen to him when he didn’t give his captor the answer he wanted.

‘Well?’ prompted Korrol, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the chained human.

Patrick’s mind raced, desperately trying to come up with an answer that would not result in him taking a beating. He didn’t know how to deactivate Zeeree and even if he did, he wasn’t sure if he was willing to sell her and Saleek out for his own freedom. In a crazy sort of way, he was starting to get quite fond of them both and almost think of them as his friends.

After losing patience with his seemingly tongue-tied prisoner, Korrol sighed angrily, approached Patrick from the left-hand side and grabbed the poor human’s throat with his gloved fingers. He began to squeeze – not hard enough to crush the human’s windpipe but certainly enough to cut off the air flow to his lungs. Patrick gasped as he tried to get enough oxygen into his body and his muscles tensed as he tried to get free but he could barely even move his tired arms. Korrol then suddenly released his grip. Patrick’s head dropped slightly and he panted to try and get his breath back, making pained wheezing sounds as he did so.

‘Feel like talking now?’ demanded Korrol, becoming tired of his prisoner’s silence.

He unconsciously clenched and unclenched his fists in aggravation. His eyes became almost slits as he regarded the gasping human with a venomous glare. Patrick strained to raise his head and meet his captor’s gaze with steely determination.

Having regained his breath, Patrick said, ‘I don’t know how to deactivate Zeeree. I don’t know how to do anything on that ship apart from use the food dispenser.’

Without hesitating in the slightest, Korrol stepped forwards and punched the human squarely in the face. Once again, Patrick’s head snapped backwards with frightening speed under the force of the blow. Somehow, he barely managed to keep from passing out from the beating he was receiving. He locked eyes with Korrol again.

‘I’m telling you the truth!’ protested Patrick.

‘You seriously expect me to believe that?’ said Korrol heatedly. ‘You know the AI’s name! You’re friends with Saleek and you flew to this planet together! Of course you know how to operate that ship! How could you get by without knowing?’

‘But it’s true…’ said Patrick, instantly regretting opening his mouth one more time.

Korrol had clearly had enough. Showing remarkable strength, he delivered a body blow to the chained human’s gut and Patrick would have doubled over violently in pain had his restraints not held him stubbornly upright. A fraction of a second later he launched another strike to the side of Patrick’s head and the human’s vision faded to black as he passed out from the pain.

After realising that he would not be getting any more information out of Patrick for the time being, Korrol howled a frustrated scream which echoed off the grimy metal walls of the small room. He stormed out of the room and slammed the rusty door shut with all his might, stomping loudly as he walked away.

Chapter 13

Back at the spaceport on Antorii Two, Saleek’s cargo ship sat on its assigned docking pad, the glowing sphere of energy shielding the craft from any and all would-be intruders. Aboard the ship, Zeeree couldn’t work out whether to sigh in exasperation, scream in frustration or cry in sorrow (assuming her programmers had enabled her to cry digitally created tears). She was alone. She had never been alone before, not that she could remember. Her earliest memories were working alongside hundreds of other AIs and as soon as that was over, she was travelling with Saleek in the memory banks of his ship. Although she had dreamed of having the ship all to herself and being able to travel anywhere in the galaxy she desired, she had not anticipated growing this attached to company and thus feeling so lonely now she was by herself. She had never been truly by herself before and the emotions she currently felt were not ones she was keen to experience often. She had done everything she could have done and yet she felt terrible as she was powerless to stop the oomlocks from taking her crew and she felt just as powerless to save them now. She had tried to contact various people including the police but most people ignored her and those that listened to her did not listen for long before hanging up.

‘What is it with the people on this planet? Why won’t anyone talk to me?’ Zeeree said aloud, her digitised words echoing throughout the empty corridors of the ship with no one there to hear them. ‘They act like I’m not even sentient, like I’m some kind of pet creature that no one can be bothered to take care of!’

Zeeree ran a quick check of her vital systems. All checked out OK, except that she only had around twenty five percent battery power left. With the engines offline, the ship’s internal battery was the sole way of powering not only her, but the shield as well. Once that was drained, the shield would fail and she would automatically go offline.

‘I have to do something,’ she said to herself. ‘But what?’

Zeeree began to think of all the possible courses of action she could take in the present situation. About two seconds later, a list of forty one options popped into her head. After eliminating useless ideas such as “go offline to conserve power” and “take off and leave Saleek and Patrick stranded on the planet”, she narrowed her list down to twelve choices. Then she started to correlate these options with all the available data she had about the planet Antorii Two, its culture, its organisations and its people. Slowly but surely, an idea began to form in Zeeree’s head which made her lips curl upwards into a small smile.

‘That just might work…’ she said as she busily got to work hacking into the local data-stream network, ready to put her plan into action.

***

For a while Patrick was unsure if he was awake or unconscious, or even if he was alive or dead. He seemed to sense things such as muffled sounds and blurry shapes but as soon as he tried to focus and make sense of them they were swallowed by an expanding darkness and he lost them. Eventually though, he was able to concentrate more and more until he could just about make out words and objects. He thought he heard someone calling his name, but everything was still so fuzzy and muddled in his head that he couldn’t be certain. Slowly, the blackness receded and the blurry objects became clearer, as did the muffled words. Patrick squinted in displeasure as his eyes recognised the bright artificial light of his current surroundings. Turning away from the light source, he looked around the room he was in. The walls were varying shades of dirty grey and the air was cold, almost bitter. He thought he heard someone call his name again. The human tried to turn around but he felt hard metal restraints prevent him from moving at all. He gradually began to remember what had happened to him and where he was. He softly groaned at the realisation that he was still a prisoner in the cold, metal room with filthy walls and floor. He suddenly awakened properly with a jolt.

‘Patrick!’

The slightly stunned human snapped his head to the right and instantly winced; his face and neck were incredibly sore, the former throbbed and the latter ached. He could see Saleek to his right, still chained up but thankfully conscious again.

‘Are you OK?’ asked the spiky alien, looking genuinely concerned.

Patrick blinked a few times and replied, ‘Yeah, I think so. You?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Saleek. ‘I’m glad you’re awake again. You had me seriously worried, dude. I’ve been calling you for the past hour but you wouldn’t wake up. I was beginning to fear the worst.’

Even though his whole face ached, Patrick managed a small smile.

‘You’d be surprised what I can put up with. Humans are pretty tough cookies, you know.’

Saleek looked confused.

‘Fairly strong biscuits?’ he repeated, thoroughly misunderstanding.

Patrick chuckled a little.

‘It’s English idiom. I guess it doesn’t translate very well into Standard. Let’s just say I’m tougher than I appear.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ said Saleek, smiling at his fellow battered and bruised prisoner. ‘I take it that bastard beat you while I was out?’

‘The big blue guy with serious anger issues?’

‘That’s the one. And ugly too.’

‘Yeah, he asked me some fairly innocent questions. Then it became clear what he wanted – to be able to deactivate Zeeree and get onboard the ship. When I wouldn’t tell him how to do that he got really annoyed.’

‘I’m sorry I’ve put you through this, Patrick. Really, I am,’ apologised Saleek.

Patrick looked at the spiky alien.

‘You know what? After everything that’s happened to me lately, this is pretty much just a regular day for me now.’

And with that the human burst out laughing, as did the lyan. They laughed for about a full minute then took another minute to get their breath back and compose themselves.

Once he had recovered, Saleek said, ‘What do you say, dude? Are you ready to get outta here, get back to the ship and get as far away from this planet as possible?’

Patrick had missed the lyan’s constant optimism and energy.

Feeling somewhat renewed, he answered, ‘Definitely. Let’s do it! What’s the plan?’

Saleek opened his mouth to speak but said nothing.

After a few seconds, he admitted, ‘I’m still workin’ on it…’

Patrick looked crestfallen as he was unable to hide his disappointment. After a short silence, the human decided it was time he pulled his weight a bit more and instead of waiting for Saleek to do everything, he decided to at least help him come up with a plan.

‘Well, let’s see what we’ve got,’ said Patrick. ‘Is there any way to contact Zeeree and let her know where we are?’

‘Unfortunately, no. I always keep a com unit on me so I can contact her if I need anything but those oomlocks took it off me when they captured us and brought us here.’

Patrick considered this for a moment.

‘Any chance of you getting out of those restraints?’ he asked hopefully.

Saleek shook his head.

‘Believe me, I’ve tried. I’m quite flexible but I can’t twist my wrist enough to slide it outta the chains. I don’t suppose you can get free either?’

This time it was Patrick’s turn to shake his head.

‘There’s got to be something we can do. There’s got to be some way out of here,’ the human insisted, refusing to give up.

‘Stay calm, Patrick. I promise you we’ll both get outta here. The way I see it, our only option is to try and talk our way out of this.’

Patrick did not look particularly convinced.

‘They really don’t seem like the type to negotiate. I don’t think that will work.’

‘I’m not gonna negotiate with ‘em,’ said Saleek with a sly grin. ‘I’ve got something else planned.’

Before Patrick could reply, the rusty door was flung open and once more, Korrol stepped into the room, slamming the door shut again once he was inside.

‘What are you going to do?’ whispered Patrick, concern etched onto his bruised face.

‘You’ll see,’ replied Saleek with a wink before turning his head to lock eyes with Korrol.

‘So I see you two are awake again,’ observed Korrol as he began to pace around the room.

Does this guy never stand still? Thought Patrick absently as his captor circled him.

‘I must warn you, I am becoming tired of these games,’ said the oomlock as he paced. ‘I want to know how to deactivate that damn AI of yours and I want to know now. If you keep refusing to tell me what I want to know, then I will be forced to kill you both.’

A shiver crawled up Patrick’s spine automatically as Korrol said that, but Saleek looked remarkably composed and completely unfazed by the threat.

‘So, who wants to answer me first?’ said the large blue alien, eyeing both his prisoners with a stern expression on his face.

The room was silent for a moment, before Saleek piped up.

‘OK, I’ll tell you the truth.’

Patrick looked shocked and confused, while Korrol’s mouth widened into an unpleasant smile.

‘Go on,’ said the Oomlock expectantly.

‘The truth is…,’ began Saleek, pausing to look at Patrick and Korrol before continuing,’…you’re never gonna find out how to deactivate Zeeree, ‘cause Patrick and I ain’t gonna tell you anything.’

This earned the spiky lyan a punch in the face. Patrick couldn’t help but cringe as he watched Saleek being attacked.

‘I strongly advise you to reconsider,’ said Korrol as he secured a strap which had come loose on one of his black gloves.

‘Must be hard…’ said Saleek after spitting out some blood from his mouth onto the grimy floor.

‘What must be hard?’ demanded Korrol, eyes narrowed.

He was focussing solely on Saleek and completely ignoring the shackled human.

‘Must be hard…to face your boys at the moment, huh?’ responded Saleek.

Korrol looked confused.

Saleek continued, ‘I mean, you ordered them to find us at the spaceport and take us prisoner. But you can’t deliver on your promise to ‘em can you? No valuable artefact to sell means no credits for you or for them. Can’t help but wonder if they might be losing some confidence in you as their leader…’

‘What a load of crap,’ dismissed Korrol with a shake of his head. ‘I’m the best leader our gang has ever had. There’s no way they would lose confidence in me over this.’

Saleek tilted his head, eyes still locked with the big blue alien.

‘You sure about that?’

Even though it didn’t seem possible, Korrol’s eyes became even narrower as he stared intently at his prisoner. Without warning, Korrol suddenly lashed out a kick which struck Saleek in his abdomen. Patrick could do nothing but look on in silence as Saleek coughed and spluttered. After a few seconds, Saleek recovered from the attack and met his captor’s gaze with a cocky smile. This only served to annoy the already maddened oomlock even further.

‘You know something?’ said Saleek.

‘What?’ replied Korrol abruptly.

‘You can only beat me ‘cause I’m tied up. You know in a real fight you can’t take me!’

Korrol lashed out with a backhand which struck the spiky lyan hard on his right cheek.

‘Is that so?’ he replied, seething. The oomlock began clenching and unclenching his fists again, obviously a sign that his patience was wearing very thin indeed.

‘You remember what happened between us at the spaceport don’t you? If I remember right, you were on the floor being pounded by my fists and it took several guys to rescue you. Oh, and I’m pretty sure you were also crying like a little girl and begging me to stop…’

That did it. Korrol dashed forwards until he was mere inches from Saleek’s face and grabbed the lyan by the throat with a gloved hand. Teeth clenched and staring hard at Saleek, Korrol began to punch his prisoner in the gut with his free hand whilst choking him with the other. Patrick couldn’t take it anymore.

‘Stop it! Stop it right now! Let him go, you bastard!’

Korrol instantly let go of Saleek and marched over to Patrick.

‘Shut up, hoo-man!’ he growled in his gruff voice, his face practically touching Patrick’s as he spoke. ‘Or you’ll be next!’

At that point, Patrick no longer had any concerns for his own safety, he was consumed by anger over the beating Saleek was currently receiving. The human gritted his teeth and said nothing but silently considered attacking his captor with a kick, as his legs were not bound together like his arms. Ultimately he decided against it but to say he was riled was most definitely an understatement. Deciding that he still had the upper hand in the situation, Korrol casually sauntered back over to Saleek (if one could saunter menacingly, the oomlock somehow managed to do so) and regarded him with a look as cold as ice. Saleek tentatively raised his head and met his captor’s gaze.

‘You know, the more you hit me like this, the more you’re proving my point, soon-to-be-former-leader,’ said the lyan with an impossibly cheeky grin on his bruised face.

Korrol’s eyes narrowed as his patience ran so thin it was barely hanging on by a single loose thread. His face twisted into an unpleasant expression as frustration and rage melted into a volatile cocktail and began to bubble just underneath the surface of the oomlock’s eyes. Patrick was not sure what Saleek’s plan was so he just remained quietly nonplussed and stayed out of the whole thing. Saleek held the oomlock’s gaze and stayed strong.

Korrol remained silent and stationary for a few moments, then he took a step towards Saleek and said in a low voice, ‘You really want to fight me?’

‘I will. You’re just scared you’re gonna lose, that’s all,’ said Saleek.

One more step towards the chained lyan.

‘You sure you want to fight me, you spiky piece of shit?’ Korrol’s voice began to get louder and filled with venom.

‘I said I’d fight you, didn’t I?’ came the calm reply. ‘Any time. Anywhere.’

‘Well, that’s it. Don’t say I didn’t fuckin’ warn you!’ screamed Korrol as he drove his fist into Saleek’s gut.

While the spiky lyan was reeling from the blow, Korrol quickly untied the chains and released Saleek from his bonds.

Patrick couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. Saleek’s body fell into a heap on the floor before he just about managed to get back to his feet.

‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now I really am gonna kill you, motherfucker!’ bellowed Korrol in anger.

He had completely lost it and given in to the rage that was coursing through his veins. The oomlock stood in a loose fighting stance with his hands up and was motioning for Saleek to come at him. In contrast, Saleek looked as if he could barely stand on his own. He was shaky, his legs looked like they were made of jelly and his hands were down at his sides, unable to protect his face from attack. Patrick gulped involuntarily and feared the worst for his companion. All of a sudden, several loud bangs pierced the air like a thousand guns going off at once. This was followed by a series of yells and screams amid more piercing bangs and thumps. The noise was coming from outside the room but it was hard to tell exactly where it was coming from. Korrol stood still, frozen to the spot, his brow creased in confusion.

‘What the hell is that?’ he muttered to himself in a low voice.

Just at that moment, the rusty door to the room came crashing open and impacted against the adjacent wall with a loud SMACK. A thin, blue-skinned oomlock half-stumbled into the room, a panicked looked on his face. His eyes darted nervously from Saleek to Patrick and then finally to Korrol.

‘What the hell is going on out there?’ demanded Korrol brusquely.

He was in no mood for any interruptions right now.

‘B-Boss, i-it’s the semloids!’ stammered the panicked oomlock.

The words did not register with the gang leader at first.

‘What?’

‘It’s the semloids! We’re being attacked! They have weapons!’ the thin oomlock hurriedly explained.

Realisation slowly dawned on Korrol, who half-sighed and half-growled at the news.

‘W-What should we do, boss?’

Korrol marched over to the open doorway.

‘What do you think we should do? Fight back, idiot!’ he exclaimed as he pushed aside the panicked alien.

‘Watch those prisoners!’ commanded Korrol. ‘I’ll sort out these semloids myself!’ and with that he stormed out of the room, not even stopping to shut the door on his way out.

The panicked oomlock watched his leader stomp off down the corridor, then slowly turned around, just in time to see Saleek’s fist hurtling towards him. The oomlock tried to duck and avoid the punch but he was far too slow. Saleek connected with his attack and the strike sent the oomlock backpedalling rapidly. He backpedalled into the nearest wall, hit the back of his head hard on the metal surface and slid down until he was sitting on the floor with his legs outstretched, head down, unconscious.

Saleek gingerly made his way over to Patrick, moving as if each step caused him great pain. Patrick was a little beaten up too but he distinctly got the impression that Saleek had taken the brunt of their captor’s rage-fuelled outbursts and for that he couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty. Saleek could barely manage a smile as he reached upwards to untie the human. After fumbling a bit, the lyan eventually managed to free his fellow prisoner. Patrick’s arms suddenly fell to his sides and he too dropped to the floor unceremoniously before picking himself up again. Saleek, however, was struggling to stand, as evidenced by the way he fell over onto the ground moments later.

‘Saleek, are you OK?’ asked a worried Patrick as he knelt beside the lyan and half-cradled him in his arms, which were tingling after being held aloft in chains for so long.

‘I’ll be all right,’ replied Saleek weakly. ‘Takin’ those hits took a lot outta me.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ said Patrick. ‘What do you think is happening?’

‘If what that guy said is true, then the semloids’ timing couldn’t have been any better. If the oomlocks are under attack, they’ll be disorganised and scattered. This is our best chance to escape.’

‘So,’ said Patrick as he helped Saleek to gradually stand up, ‘was this your plan? Did you contact the semloids somehow?’

‘It wasn’t me,’ came the reply. ‘My plan was just to get free of those chains somehow then work out the rest from there. Listen, we can talk ‘bout this later. Right now, we gotta get outta here.’

‘Good idea. Let’s go,’ agreed Patrick.

He let go of Saleek and started to walk towards the open doorway when the spiky lyan stumbled and dropped to a knee.

‘Damn it,’ cursed Saleek in equal parts exhaustion and frustration.

Patrick rushed back to his companion and helped him to stand once more.

‘Don’t worry, I won’t leave you here. We’re getting out of this place together,’ reassured Patrick. ‘Here, put your arm over my shoulder, that’s it. Now, walk with me.’

Supported by Patrick, Saleek slowly walked past the unconscious oomlock that was propped up against the wall and out of the filthy, grime-streaked walls of their prison.

Together the human and lyan made their way down the corridors of the old building they found themselves in. Apparently no one had taken care of this place for years, possibly even decades. The poor conditions of the grimy room they had been imprisoned inside were not limited to that room alone. The corridors too were made of old metal that was streaked with dirt and being slowly consumed by rust and decay. The closed doors that they passed were similarly rusty and filled with tiny holes. He couldn’t be sure, but Patrick thought he caught sight of some kind of alien rodent scurrying away down one of the corridors as he and Saleek continued to walk.

Lovely place for a secret hideout, thought Patrick sarcastically as they rounded another corner.

As they continued to walk, they could hear the cacophony of banging, thumping and shouting getting fainter.

‘Saleek, where are we going?’ asked the human.

‘I dunno. All these corridors look the same. I don’t even know what this place is or where we are.’

The pair kept walking for another few minutes before they reached a dead end and stopped. Patrick helped Saleek sit down and then he joined him. They both sat in silence for a few minutes, Saleek rubbing his aching body to try and dull the pain and Patrick breathing heavily to get his breath back. Finally Patrick spoke.

‘I think we’re lost.’

Saleek looked up at him.

‘Yeah, it sure looks that way.’

‘Do you have any idea what this place is?’ queried the tired human.

‘Not really. It’s obviously been abandoned for ages. Maybe it used to be some kind of administration building, or maybe a hospital or something. Hard to tell. All we’ve seen so far are these damn corridors that all look the same.’

Patrick took a deep breath and looked all around him, hoping to locate some kind of clue, anything that would indicate where they were or how to get out of the place. After finding none, he sighed despondently and looked at Saleek, who was flicking bits of rust off his clothes with a look of displeasure on his face.

‘Well, we can’t just sit here. We’ve got to keep going,’ decided Patrick as he got to his feet.

‘Dude, I’m gonna be honest with you. I’m way beyond tired and I’m in a lotta pain right now,’ confessed Saleek, a grimace crossing his lips as he spoke. ‘I dunno how much longer I can keep going. I need to rest, or at least eat something.’

‘How can you think about eating at a time like this?’ asked Patrick incredulously, kneeling down so he was at the same level as the lyan.

Saleek smiled.

‘I’ve told you before, haven’t I? My species has a really fast metabolism. I can keep going for days on end without any sleep at all, as long as I have plenty of food to eat. Eating also helps me heal faster.’

‘Remarkable,’ said Patrick in genuine astonishment.

‘No need to look so impressed,’ said Saleek. ‘Other species in this galaxy have similar attributes to mine. I ain’t special or anything.’

This time Patrick smiled.

‘I don’t know about that. You seem pretty special to me.’

‘You’re not gonna get all gushy on me, are ya?’ teased Saleek. ‘’Cause I gotta warn you, I ain’t in the mood right now.’

Patrick simply laughed.

‘OK sure, no ‘gushiness’. I promise. Come on, let’s get out of here.’

‘How are we gonna do that? It feels like we’ve been everywhere in this hellhole. Still no way out.’

‘There’s one way we haven’t tried yet.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The semloids came into this place and attacked the oomlocks, right?’

‘Yeah, so?’

‘Well, where they came in, there must be a way out.’

‘You’re not suggestin’ what I think you’re suggestin’, are you?’ asked Saleek, wide-eyed.

‘It might be our only way to get out of here and get you back to the ship before you pass out or something,’ insisted Patrick gently but firmly.

‘So, lemme get this straight. Your plan is to go towards all the screaming, banging and fighting instead of away from it?’

‘Yep.’

Saleek paused for a second, before grinning and saying, ‘Sounds like one of my plans! What have we got to lose? OK, help me up.’

Patrick did so.

Saleek slipped his arm over Patrick’s shoulder again and said, ‘All right, let’s go!’

The pair slowly made their way back through the seemingly endless series of corridors in the old, dilapidated building. The corridors turned into halls and back to corridors again, each hall having multiple pathways leading off from it.

‘Whoever designed this place should be shot,’ muttered Saleek humourlessly as he walked with Patrick’s help.

The human smiled and strengthened his resolve to find an escape route although he too was beginning to feel tired and was unsure as to how much longer he could keep going. Realising that he had little choice if he wanted to avoid being recaptured or worse, Patrick gritted his teeth and kept on walking through the cold, dimly lit corridors. After another ten minutes, Saleek and Patrick could just about make out the faint echoes of banging sounds floating down the corridors.

‘We must be gettin’ closer,’ reasoned Saleek.

‘Yeah. Let’s keep going,’ agreed Patrick.

The two turned left at the next junction and kept walking. About two minutes later, the banging sounds had intensified and now screaming could be heard as well.

‘Can I be honest with you, Patrick?’

‘Go ahead.’

‘I’m liking this plan less and less,’ confessed Saleek, before a particularly loud bang, possibly an explosion of some sort, reverberated along the walls of the corridor through which they walked.

Patrick paused for a moment, before shaking his head and saying firmly, ‘If there was another option, I’d be open to it. We’re both tired and we’re still in danger here so we have to get to safety as soon as possible. This is the quickest way out of here as far as I can tell.’

‘If only we had a weapon or something…’ said Saleek, tailing off.

‘We don’t want to get in a fire-fight, we just want to get out of here. Come on, it’s not much farther,’ replied Patrick as he set off again.

About a minute later, they reached the source of the commotion. They knew they had found what they were looking for because as they walked down the corridor, an oomlock came flying through a large pair of double doors just ahead of them.

Chapter 14

The blue-skinned alien hit the wall of the corridor hard and landed in a heap on the floor, groaning loudly. Patrick audibly gulped as he wondered what kind of creature had done that to him.

‘This is it,’ said Saleek. ‘Let’s do it.’

Patrick wordlessly agreed with a nod and the two walked forwards quickly with a new sense of purpose. They came through the double doors and the sight that greeted them was not a particularly pleasant one. They found themselves in a very large open room that was in absolute chaos. The oomlocks were engaged in a ferocious battle with the semloids and what little furniture was in the room had been upturned and transformed into makeshift cover as the fighting raged on. Bolts of energy streaked through the air and made ominous sizzling sounds as they struck their targets with explosions of bright sparks. Some of the aliens were engaged in protracted fire-fights, leaning out of cover to hurl a barrage of rounds at their targets before hiding again, while others were engaged in brutal hand to hand combat. If you listened carefully, you could hear the sounds of bones snapping and teeth being sent flying but this was barely audible over the din of weapons fire and screaming that filled the air. Patrick glanced to his right and saw a battered table that had been turned on its side. Thinking fast, he half-helped and half-dragged Saleek over to it. Once safely there, Patrick carefully peered out from behind cover to try and make sense of what was going on.

The oomlocks and the semloids clearly hated each other, that much was obvious as they fought fiercely. While the oomlocks were relatively tall, blue-skinned and very humanoid in appearance, the semloids were quite different. For a start, they had tails. Patrick wasn’t sure why this feature stuck out the most to him but he instantly noticed it. As evolution progressed, most species lost their tails and other ancillary appendages as they became redundant. By the time a species became civilized and especially by the time their technology had progressed to the point of allowing them to explore space, most had become relatively humanoid in appearance. As a result of this, most of the species that Patrick had seen so far had been similar to humans and also completely tailless. Their tails were rather short and stocky, just like the rest of the semloids’ bodies. They were all a few inches smaller than their oomlock counterparts but they were much stockier and very thickly built. It seemed like they were stronger than their blue-skinned foes too, as they almost always seemed to win in hand to hand combat, Patrick observed as a nearby semloid decked an oomlock with a balled up fist and the blue alien fell to the ground instantly. The semloids had green and orange scaly skin and they also had long claws and long snouts. They seemed to make excellent fighters, noted the human as he made a mental note never to knock over a semloid’s drink in a bar. At least, not without apologising profusely and buying him two more straight after. Patrick couldn’t see any way out though, so he leaned out from cover a little more. Craning his neck, he could just about see a rectangle of orange light at the far end of the room and adjacent to that was a door that had been ripped from its hinges.

That’s our way out of here, thought Patrick.

The fighting was everywhere and there didn’t seem to be a totally clear path from their cover to the open doorway. Patrick slipped back behind the up-turned table.

‘I can see a way out,’ he said. ‘But I have no idea how we’re going to get to it from here.’

Saleek, who had been sitting, got up and poked his head over the top of the table, just enough to see what was going on. He very quickly sat down again after only a second or two.

‘This ain’t how I saw this plan workin’ out,’ he muttered. ‘There’s no decent cover from here to the doorway. That means stealth is out.’

‘Well, we’re in no shape to fight anyone. Especially those semloids. My God, they look really strong,’ commented Patrick as he peered out from behind the table and saw an enraged semloid pounce on a helpless oomlock and start viciously biting his throat and slashing his torso at the same time.

Patrick shot a worried glance at Saleek, who exhaled slowly and looked like he was about to lose consciousness. His eyelids began to drop over his glazed eyes.

‘Hey,’ said Patrick as he gave the spiky lyan a gentle shove. ‘Don’t you dare pass out on me. You hear?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. Don’t get your eshells in a twist,’ replied Saleek, suddenly appearing much more awake again as he waved a dismissive hand at the human.

Just as it appeared they had no choice but to try and half-sneak and half-fight their way out of the chaotic room, an oomlock came flying through the air over Patrick’s and Saleek’s heads. He landed awkwardly with a clatter on the hard floor about two metres away from them. Saleek crawled forwards (ignoring Patrick’s hissed protests) and grabbed the oomlock’s weapon. He prised the alien’s limp fingers off the handle and scrambled back behind the up-turned table once more.

‘Relax, he’s out cold,’ said Saleek as he showed Patrick the weapon he had recovered.

It was jet-black in colour and slender in design. The slim handle turned into a blocky shape which had two thin barrels extruding from it.

‘What is that?’ asked Patrick.

‘An energy pistol,’ explained Saleek as he checked that the weapon was still functional.

It was.

‘Here,’ said the lyan as he offered the pistol to Patrick.

‘What? Nuh-uh. No way.’

‘What is your problem? Why not?’

‘I’ve told you before. I don’t want to hurt anyone if I can help it. I certainly don’t want to kill anyone!’

Saleek rolled his eyes before priming the weapon himself.

‘What are you doing?’ hissed Patrick.

‘Look buddy, I’m tired and I’m in no mood for your superior human morals, or whatever it is. I don’t wanna kill anyone if I can help it, but I’m interested in one thing: survival. It’s us or them. If they try an’ stop us, they’re gettin’ shot.’

Saleek got up to a crouch, the tips of his spikes just poking out from over the top of the table. Patrick kneeled beside him.

‘We’re gettin’ outta here,’ declared Saleek confidently. ‘You help me walk. I’ll take care of anyone who gets in our way.’

Patrick swallowed hard. He wasn’t entirely happy with this way of escaping, but at that moment he could think of no other alternative.

‘Fine,’ the human reluctantly agreed as he helped Saleek put his arm around his shoulder. ‘Let’s go!’

Stumbling slightly, the pair came out from behind the upturned table and began walking to their left. It turned out that this was excellent timing, as seconds later the table was split in two by an oomlock and semloid locked in vicious combat falling onto it. The two seemed oblivious to splinters of wood becoming lodged in their skin as they continued to wrestle on the remains of the table, each trying desperately to gain an advantage in the heated struggle.

Patrick and Saleek kept walking and reached a wall. Staying as low as they could, they attempted to creep quietly along the perimeter of the room and attract as little attention as possible. However, being the only lyan and human in the whole room made them about as conspicuous as two hippies at a bankers’ convention. They made it another few metres before they were noticed by a couple of oomlocks engaged in a fire-fight with some semloids. As one of the oomlocks started to turn around and bring his weapon to bear, Saleek aimed and, with a shaky finger, squeezed the trigger contact on the energy pistol. A lance of yellow-orange energy shot out of the barrels and struck the oomlock on his chest. Whimpering quietly, the oomlock clutched his now blackened chest and fell forwards onto the ground face-first. The second oomlock began to point his weapon at Saleek but he was far too slow. The lyan again pressed the trigger contact on his pistol and seconds later the threat had been neutralized with both blue aliens sprawled on the floor, unmoving.

Patrick swallowed hard and forced himself to look away from the two bodies on the ground. He knew how dangerous the situation was and knew that he could not afford to get distracted. That being said, he was shocked at being so close when Saleek fired his weapon and he could not get the image of the charred, faintly smoking torso of the first oomlock out of his mind. Pushing aside the tumult of emotions he currently felt, the human concentrated on the task at hand: staying alive. He and Saleek walked onwards. They made it another few metres before crouching behind some nearby cover for a quick breather, then setting off again. Surprisingly, they made it almost all the way to the doorway without further incident. Unfortunately, it appeared as if fate was toying with them that particular day. The human and lyan stopped by a collection of smashed chairs around fifteen metres away from the exit. Standing behind a pile of rubble and screaming whilst firing his pistol into the chaos before him was none other than Korrol, the oomlock who had imprisoned and tortured them both. As Korrol got back behind cover and started to reload his weapon, he laid eyes on the fleeing human and lyan. His initial reaction was one of shock which very quickly turned into fear as he saw Saleek aiming the energy pistol at his head. Patrick squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the sound of Korrol hitting the ground, dead. Instead, all he heard was a whine and a sputtering sound. The human opened his eyes again to see Saleek frantically trying to fix whatever had gone wrong with the energy pistol in his hands. Patrick glanced at Korrol and saw the oomlock’s expression transition smoothly from fear into an evil, sadistic smile. The blue alien calmly and slowly reloaded his own weapon, priming it with a flourish as Saleek continued in vain to fix his energy pistol which refused to work. Patrick gulped and was about to accept the inevitable when he laid eyes on a spiky ball that was resting on a pile of twisted metal about a metre to his right. Instantly recognizing the object, Patrick knew what he had to do. The human quickly flung himself to the right and landed by the pile of metal. Korrol, mistaking the human’s actions as a pathetic attempt to avoid being shot, actually laughed out loud and didn’t even move, as if he was sadistically enjoying seeing his prey in terror, supremely confident in his own superiority. Big mistake. As the oomlock took a single step forwards and casually brought his weapon to bear, aiming squarely at Saleek, Patrick grabbed the orb from the wreckage. Suddenly a bolt of electric-blue energy arced through the air and enveloped a shocked Korrol where he stood. The energy crackled and hissed violently as it coursed through the oomlock’s body, dancing along his now-glowing skin and making his joints lock up. Seconds later, an unconscious Korrol dropped his weapon and fell to the ground hard. He would have one hell of a headache when he woke up, but he was still alive.

Staring at the panting human in disbelief, Saleek whispered, ‘Patrick? Did you do that?’

All Patrick could do was nod. His heart was pounding and he was in shock. He instinctively pocketed the immobiliser orb without thinking and made his way over to Saleek.

‘Are you OK?’ asked Patrick automatically.

Saleek looked at the human with a concerned gaze.

‘That’s my line, buddy. I’m okay. Are you all right? You look really pale.’

‘Y-yeah, I’ll be fine,’ replied Patrick unconvincingly.

He helped Saleek stand up and the two of them made their way over to the exit that had been ripped into the wall of the building when the semloids first attacked. Just for good measure, as they walked past Korrol’s limp body Saleek threw the malfunctioning pistol at him. It bounced off the unconscious oomlock’s face and landed on the ground with a clatter. Now when he woke up, Korrol would have a huge bruise on his face in addition to a pounding headache. The human and lyan stepped through the exit and into the cool air beyond. It was night-time outside and there was very little street lighting around. What light there was bathed the edges of nearby buildings in an eerie orange glow that only served to make their surroundings appear all the more alien to Patrick. With no idea where they were, Patrick turned left and started walking down the street, helping Saleek to walk as he did so. Mercifully, the clamour of voices and weapons fire began to die down the farther away from the building they travelled. After a couple of minutes, Patrick stopped and dropped to a knee, tiredness washing over him and rendering his muscles virtually useless. Saleek removed his arm from the human’s shoulder and sat down on the cold pavement. The streets appeared totally deserted – there was no one around and most of the buildings were either shut, abandoned or in even worse condition than the one from which they had just escaped.

Breathing heavily, Patrick glanced at Saleek and said, ‘What do we do now?’

The lyan suddenly looked very tired indeed, like he was fighting to keep his eyes open.

‘We gotta…get back…to the ship,’ he mumbled weakly.

‘Yeah, I know. But how?’ said Patrick as he joined the spiky alien and sat down on the floor. ‘Where are we?’

‘I…dunno…’ came the reply.

Patrick looked all around him but there was nothing that could tell him their current location except for a single neon sign that was attached to the side of a nearby building and was flickering on and off. He tried to read the characters but he struggled to read Standard on a good day, and this was most definitely not one of his best days. The bright shapes of the characters began to move and swim around the human’s vision, making it even harder to make sense of them.

‘Oh God…’ whispered Patrick, on the verge of giving up.

He looked at Saleek one more time. The lyan’s head had dropped and he looked just about ready to pass out. The human took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. He looked up at the night sky which was a very dark purple colour, streaked with black clouds and dotted with shining stars. He was about to give in to his body, which was begging him to let it rest for a while, when suddenly something caught his eye. At first he thought it was just another star, albeit a tad brighter than the others in the sky. Then, when he saw it moving out of the corner of his vision, he realised it couldn’t be a celestial object. Patrick peered hard at the bright dot of light moving through the night sky. It seemed to be getting closer. If he strained his ears, he could just about detect a faint humming sound. As the light got nearer, Patrick could tell it was some kind of flying craft.

Summoning his remaining strength, Patrick sucked in a huge lungful of air and screamed out, ‘HEY! Over here! Over here! Help!’

This, as it turned out, was completely unnecessary. Watching in disbelief, Patrick’s jaw dropped as the craft slowed down, dropped in altitude and parked on the pavement a few metres away from them.

Just when the human was convinced that he couldn’t possibly get any luckier, one of the craft’s doors opened and a digitised voice could be heard saying, ‘Hover-taxi for Saleek and Patrick. Hover-taxi for Saleek and Patrick. Please enter the vehicle.’

Without questioning how or why this had happened, Patrick helped Saleek to stand and they both walked over to the craft and got inside. Once they were sitting in the surprisingly comfortable padded seats of the hover-taxi, the door automatically closed and the engine began to whine loudly. Patrick was about to try and decipher the controls of the craft when all of a sudden, it took off of its own accord. The human looked out of the rear window and saw the orange-tinged edges of the black buildings fade away into the darkness below as the craft continued to gain altitude. He looked across at Saleek, who had passed out but was at least comfortable and safe in the passenger seat of the hover-taxi. Patrick leaned forwards and spoke to the control panel at the front of the craft’s interior.

‘Um…taxi?’ he ventured, feeling slightly stupid as he did so.

‘Please state inquiry or request,’ came a digitised voice through concealed speakers somewhere on the control panel.

Feeling slightly less stupid, Patrick asked, ‘Where are we going?’

‘This taxi has been booked to take you to the nearest spaceport. You will arrive at your destination in approximately thirty five minutes.’

Without even bothering to ask who had booked the taxi or how they knew where he was, Patrick simply accepted the superlative good fortune that fate had just handed him. Sinking into the faintly warm, padded cushioning of the hover-taxi seat, Patrick closed his eyes and within seconds was fast asleep.

Chapter 15

Sometime later, Patrick woke to the sounds of the hover-taxi politely but repeatedly insisting that he get out.

‘You have reached your destination. Please exit the vehicle. Please exit the vehicle,’ chimed the computerised voice from the hidden speakers on the taxi’s front control panel.

This was repeated again and again with virtually no pause, and started to give Patrick a splitting headache within about five seconds of being conscious again. Groggily, the human turned his head to the left and then to the right, taking in his surroundings with tired eyes. The hover-taxi (with he and Saleek in it) was parked on the tarmac of what seemed to be a spacious spaceport. There were large expanses of charcoal-coloured tarmac stretching off into the distance and these were punctuated with small patches of grass for no apparent reason. Hastily drawn lines on the ground that were probably there to indicate parking bays, walkways and runways could be seen but they were fading as the paint had begun to peel away in great pieces, perhaps due to neglect. It seemed to be approaching dawn – the dark sky was becoming lighter by the second as rays of sunshine crept over the horizon, casting long, thin shadows on the ground as they struck various objects.

Patrick, somewhat on autopilot, muttered, ‘All right, all right. I’m up. We’re going,’ in an attempt to quieten the relentless pestering of the hover-taxi.

He nudged Saleek awake and they both slowly climbed out of the taxi. As soon as they were both out, the hover-taxi wasted no time at all in shutting the door and starting its engine. Within seconds, the whine of the vehicle’s engine had reached a crescendo and it took off, darting away at lightning speed. A few moments later it was no more than a speck of black on the horizon, moving quickly to its next destination, wherever that was. Saleek half-stumbled as he tried to walk but Patrick caught him before he hit the ground.

‘Thanks, man,’ mumbled Saleek, looking drained of energy. ‘Hey, are we back at the spaceport?’

Patrick looked around.

‘Looks like it.’

‘How did we get here?’

‘You know, I’m not really sure. This taxi thing appeared from out of nowhere and said it was for us. We got in and the next thing I know is we’re here.’

The human looked around some more and laid eyes on a bright ball of energy about five hundred metres away. Upon further inspection it seemed as if there was a craft of some sort inside the shimmering bubble of light.

‘Hey, Saleek?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Is…is that your ship over there?’

The spiky alien squinted and leaned forwards to try and get a better look at whatever Patrick was pointing at. Suddenly he let out a surprised gasp and his jaw dropped open.

‘Whoa! It is. Wait, why is the energy shield up? What’s going on?’

‘Can we ask Zeeree?’ suggested Patrick.

‘Good idea! Help me walk,’ agreed Saleek as Patrick duly obliged.

Together the duo walked over to the ball of energy. As they got closer, they could see the lines and shapes that comprised Saleek’s ship more clearly, although they were still somewhat distorted and fuzzy when viewed from outside the shield looking in. Just as they got within touching distance of the energy shield, it disappeared with a peculiar popping sound. Patrick felt the air crackle quietly with static electricity, which also made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Tingling slightly, he helped Saleek to walk onwards. Suddenly, a ramp began extending from a concealed compartment on the hull and once it had fully lowered, the main hatch opened with a hiss. Patrick’s mouth hung open in disbelief, while Saleek managed a tired smile.

‘Looks like she’s rolled out the welcome mat for us. We’d better get inside. Come on,’ said the spiky lyan.

Together the pair walked up the ramp and into the ship. Once safely inside, the ramp started to retract and the hatch shut automatically.

‘Saleek, Patrick. Are you two OK?’ came a digitised voice which floated down from the ceiling.

It sounded full of genuine concern.

‘You’ve no idea how good it is to hear your voice again, Zeeree,’ said Saleek with a broad grin.

‘I think we’ll be okay,’ said Patrick as he helped Saleek to walk through the metal corridors of the ship, their footsteps faintly echoing off the walls as they walked.

‘Patrick…’ mumbled Saleek weakly as the two of them continued through the ship.

‘What is it?’ asked the tired human.

‘Take me…to the…mess chamber,’ requested the spiky alien who was clearly in need of medical attention thanks to the beatings he had received from the oomlocks.

‘The mess chamber? Why?’

‘Just…please…’ murmured Saleek, his legs beginning to turn to jelly.

He stopped for a moment and rested his hand on the nearest wall while he took a few deep breaths. It suddenly occurred to Patrick that if anything happened to Saleek, he had no idea how to operate the ship in the slightest. He silently prayed that it wouldn’t come to that, and if it did, that Zeeree was capable of running the ship by herself.

‘Saleek, even I can see that you are in no shape to be doing anything other than resting right now,’ commented Zeeree.

Even though there were no monitors in the corridor to display her expression, it was pretty clear what she was thinking.

‘You should go to your quarters right now and lie down,’ she added gently, with the hint of an order in her voice.

‘I don’t need to be told what to do, mother,’ said Saleek sarcastically as he addressed Zeeree’s comments.

A faint digitised sigh could be heard in the otherwise silent corridor.

‘I know what I’m doin’,’ insisted Saleek. ‘Trust me, we ain’t out of the woods yet. I need to be ready.’

‘Ready for what, exactly?’ asked Patrick, suddenly feeling worried what the answer might be.

‘For someone else to come after us. Or, more specifically, for the artefact that’s onboard the ship,’ explained Saleek. ‘First it was the oomlocks. Next it could be some trantiks. Or worse.’

Patrick gulped and felt a shiver run down the back of his spine which made every single muscle in his body tense up. He cast his mind back to his first encounter with Saleek at the spaceport on Nexus One and recalled the rather massive and aggressive trantik who had picked a fight with him. Thinking about anything that could be considered worse than a trantik made the human’s stomach tie itself in knots and attempt to do back-flips all at the same time.

‘You really think someone else will come after us?’ asked Patrick, his voice wobbling around the edges as he failed to hide his nervousness at the prospect of more trouble heading their way.

‘It’s possible. I was countin’ on giving the artefact to the semloids and bein’ done with the whole thing real quick once we landed. Now we’ve been here too long and that thing gives off a signal which can be tracked across star systems if you know what to look for. We can’t stay here much longer, we’ve gotta get back into space. If anyone catches up with us here on the ground, we’re screwed. Lemme go.’

The spiky alien gently pushed Patrick’s supporting arm away and started to walk in the direction of the mess chamber. He made it about three metres before his legs surrendered to gravity and his knees buckled, sending him to the floor in an ungainly fashion.

‘Saleek!’

Patrick was by the lyan’s side in an instant and helped him get back up to his feet as it became clear that Saleek could not continue. The lyan took a deep breath and let out a loud sigh in frustration.

‘Fine, you two win,’ he admitted reluctantly. ‘I’ll go to my quarters and recover. I’ll leave the rest up to you.’

Patrick’s eyes widened.

‘Um, Saleek?’

‘Yeah?’

‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t have a clue how to operate a ship like this. I’m fine with standard computers and basic tech but I don’t know the first thing about using interactive holographic displays or flying craft through space!’ The human looked slightly panicked as he spoke. ‘How am I going to take care of things?’

Saleek looked straight into Patrick’s eyes and said, ‘Remember what I said when we first escaped from Mr Vallan and left Nexus One?’

Patrick’s brow furrowed as he remembered.

‘You mean all that stuff about me being able to handle myself in the core systems, or anywhere else for that matter?’

‘Yeah. I meant it, I wasn’t messin’ with you or anything. I’ve seen some of the skills you got firsthand. You ain’t got to do anything fancy, just take off from this spaceport and get the ship into space. We can work out the rest later.’

Patrick looked sceptical as he replied, ‘You make it sound so simple. I already told you, I don’t know the-’

‘And I already told you,’ interrupted Saleek. ‘I wasn’t lyin’ when I said those things. You said you can use simple computers, right? Operating this ship is the same principle as using ‘em, just with more buttons to press. Damn, dude, when are you gonna believe in yourself and show me some of that fighting spirit you humans claim to have? I need your help right now, so just do it.’

Patrick wasn’t certain exactly what it was that made him change his mind at that point. Maybe it was Saleek’s reassurance that he could do it, that he did have the necessary skills. Or perhaps it was the mention of his species’ great talent for learning and exploring that inspired him to take action. Or maybe it was neither of those and Patrick simply needed to be told to “just do it”. In any case, Patrick nodded determinedly and suddenly felt like he had a bit more confidence.

‘Zeeree?’ he said aloud.

‘Yes, Patrick?’

‘Tell me how to get to Saleek’s quarters from here. I’ll help him get there and make sure he’s okay.’

‘Understood. But what are we going to do about any further attacks against us?’

‘Then I’ll need you to tell me how to get to the cockpit,’ said Patrick decisively, an idea forming in his head. ‘I assume this ship has an autopilot feature, correct? I’ve heard Saleek use that term in the cockpit before.’

‘Essentially, yes. I am the autopilot,’ explained Zeeree. ‘But there is more to it than that. The ship has been shut down and placed in standby mode. In order for me to access navigation and propulsion systems the ship must be manually started and I am unable to do that.’

‘Okay,’ replied Patrick. ‘Then you’ll just have to walk me through how to perform the manual start procedure once I’m in the cockpit. Let’s go!’

***

Several minutes later, Patrick had successfully gotten Saleek to his quarters and helped him lie down and he was now standing on the rear section of the cockpit, looking around. With no Saleek to do everything, all the stations looked somewhat imposing.

I’m sure there were never this many buttons and controls when I was here before, lamented Patrick internally as he surveyed the array of consoles, screens and chairs in front of him.

The human briefly felt a pang of anxiety clawing its way up his throat, before he shook his head and got rid of it. He was determined to do this, no matter how long it took him. He only prayed that he could start the ship and get back into space before any enraged semloids, oomlocks or worse decided to show up and attack them.

‘Patrick?’ said Zeeree, her face popping up on the main view screen and looming large at the front of the cockpit.

‘Yes?’ replied the human from the rear section of the cockpit.

‘Are you ready?’ she asked, almost tentatively.

Patrick got the distinct impression that she had less confidence in him than Saleek had, as he caught her studying him carefully with her big, blue eyes.

The human took a deep breath and said, ‘I’m ready. What do I have to do first?’

‘OK. First of all, you need to come over to the pilot’s station.’

‘Right,’ said Patrick.

He took a step forwards and hesitated.

‘And, um…which one is that again?’

Zeeree rolled her eyes.

‘The station right at the front of the cockpit, just a couple of Drekks from the main view screen.’

As Patrick slowly made his way down to the front of the cockpit and tried to decide which of the two stations there was the correct one, Zeeree sighed impatiently and said, ‘The one with the joystick on the control panel.’

‘Right, right, of course,’ mumbled Patrick in embarrassment.

For just a moment, he began to worry that he was not up to this task. He sat down in the pilot’s chair and nervously looked around the controls, wondering what each of them did.

‘OK, you need to switch on your main panel. Press the large yellow button to your left,’ instructed Zeeree.

After a couple of seconds, Patrick found the button and pressed it. Several screens suddenly lit up throughout the cockpit and some of the buttons on the control panels started to glow.

‘Now, press the green button just above that one. That will connect your station to the network relay.’

Patrick did so, not understanding in the slightest what he was doing.

‘Good. Now you need to begin priming the main systems. Once we’ve got those up and running, I can take over the start-up procedure and get the engines primed and ready for takeoff.’

‘Sounds simple enough,’ commented Patrick, before adding, ‘You and Saleek seem to make everything sound so easy, come to think of it.’

‘Well, that’s because I am a fully functioning AI that can process a million bits of data per second at top speed,’ said Zeeree, looking very pleased with herself as she did so, ‘and Saleek has been from the core systems to the remote Zarwellian asteroid belts and back again. He’s seen much more than your average traveller and has been forced to learn how everything works in order to survive.’

Then she paused for a few moments and added, ‘Don’t worry, Patrick. You’re doing fine for your first time away from your home planet.’

The right corner of Patrick’s mouth curved upwards.

‘You can praise me when I’ve managed to start the ship and got us back into space. OK, what do I do next? How do I begin priming the main systems?’

He was eager to show both Saleek and Zeeree that their faith in him had not been misplaced.

Zeeree smiled and although she tried not to show it, she couldn’t fully hide the curving of her blue lips as her face was currently plastered all over the large main view screen.

‘Very well. Do you see the grey lever to your right?’

‘Um…’ muttered Patrick as he scanned the entire control panel for the required lever.

He reached out with a tentative hand.

‘No, to your right a little more. That’s it, that one. Now pull it down.’

Patrick obliged.

‘Now, push the other lever to the left of that one, upwards.’

The human did so. A holographic interface suddenly popped into existence to Patrick’s right. He swivelled in his chair to face it fully.

‘This next part is going to be a little awkward, seeing as you’ve never done this before,’ admitted Zeeree from the main view screen.

Patrick stared at the myriad shapes and symbols on the holographic interface, not understanding what they represented or their function. They were all bathed in a deep orange glow, emanating from the bulbous holo-beamer beneath them.

‘OK,’ said Zeeree. ‘You see how all the symbols are presently orange in colour?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, that means that they are either offline or in standby mode. We need to get them started again. I’ve linked to the subroutines which control your display. You’re going to need to tap each one of these symbols in a specific sequence. There are quite a lot of them to manually activate…’

‘How many is “quite a lot”?’ asked Patrick.

‘Enough,’ came the vague answer from Zeeree.

Patrick did not particularly like the sound of that, especially if speed was of the essence in this situation which, knowing his luck, it probably was. The thought of any more irate oomlocks or semloids making their way to the spaceport as they worked made Patrick shiver.

‘OK. How do I know which ones to press?’

‘I’m going to highlight the next required symbol in blue,’ explained Zeeree.

As she said this, a small symbol near to the top of the holographic display changed colour from orange to blue.

‘When you press it, the symbol will change colour to green to indicate that the process is now active. When you’re done with this, I’ll be able to handle the rest. I will power up the engines and take off as soon as it is safe to do so.’

‘All right. Let’s get started then,’ said Patrick as he tapped the first symbol.

It instantly changed to a rich green colour and the whole set of symbols moved and new ones appeared in their place. Patrick gulped and tapped the next symbol, followed by the next. After a while of symbol-tapping in total silence, Patrick spoke up.

‘Hey, Zeeree?’

‘Yes, Patrick?’

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘As long as it does not delay starting the ship’s systems, by all means.’

‘No, it’s fine. I’ll keep working but I want to know some things,’ said Patrick as he kept jabbing blue symbols with his right index finger.

‘Very well. What do you wish to know?’ inquired Zeeree as, unbeknownst to Patrick, she continued to work in the background, constantly entering commands and sorting start-up files through her storage banks.

‘I’ve been wondering…’ began Patrick. ‘I mean, I’m still running on autopilot basically. I haven’t fully processed everything that’s happened over the last day or so and I really need to catch up on some sleep, but…’

‘Yes?’

‘Do you know anything about the hover-taxi that collected Saleek and I then brought us back here?’

‘Of course I do,’ came the reply. ‘I ordered it.’

‘What?’

‘As you have already mentioned, you require rest and as soon as we are safely in space, I recommend that you go to bed and recover. However, if you wish to discuss this now, I will.’

‘So…what happened then?’

‘Well, I am ashamed to admit that I experienced something akin to panic when you and Saleek were kidnapped. After a while of being ignored by the police on this planet solely because I am an AI, I realised that the only productive course of action was to locate you both and plan a rescue attempt. This, however, was easier said than done. I have no physical body to go anywhere and, with the ship in standby mode, I was unable to take off and fly anywhere. So, I went through all the files and communication records that I have and came up with an idea. I hacked into more computer systems than I can count-’

‘Really?’ interrupted Patrick in surprise.

‘Actually that is just an expression. I hacked into nine hundred and thirty five separate computers and networks, if you must know,’ said Zeeree, ever so slightly annoyed at her story being interrupted.

‘Then I found security footage of the vehicles in which you had been kidnapped. I tracked them to what I assumed was the oomlock’s base of operations. I then trawled through various news items about gang activity over the last few months and located the base of operations for the semloid gang. I sent them an anonymous text-only message which detailed the location of the oomlock’s base. The rest was simple. I knew that the semloids would be extremely annoyed at having been attacked by the oomlocks and that they would want some revenge. Once I had sent the message, I hacked into a local security subsystem and constantly monitored the building which I knew you were inside. Once I saw you both leave the building, I monitored your progress and instantly arranged for a hover-taxi to take you both back to this spaceport and that brings us to the present.’

Zeeree let out a large breath (do AIs even need to breathe air?) like she had seen many organic creatures do after telling a long tale and smiled, looking extremely proud of herself.

‘Wow,’ breathed Patrick in part disbelief and part awe. ‘You did all that?’

‘Indeed I did.’

‘Then you saved our lives. How can I ever repay you?’

‘No need,’ said Zeeree. ‘You are one of Saleek’s companions and I extend to you the same rights and courtesies as I do Saleek. Given that Saleek and I are even, that makes you and I even too, Patrick.’

‘Huh?’ blinked Patrick dumbly as his brow furrowed in confusion. ‘You and Saleek are even? What does that mean?’

Zeeree then realised that perhaps she had said a little too much.

‘That is a story for another time,’ she said hastily. ‘I recommend that for now, we focus on starting the ship. There are not many more processes remaining for you to activate.’

‘Has Saleek saved your life before? Is that what you mean?’ asked Patrick, wanting to understand.

‘Please, let us discuss this another time,’ insisted Zeeree, right before her face vanished from the main view screen.

Weird…thought Patrick as he continued to press symbols on the holographic display.

Chapter 16

After a while longer, Patrick had finally finished pressing the last of the symbols on the pilot’s display and Zeeree had taken over priming the main systems.

‘How much longer till we can take off?’ asked Patrick.

He had nothing left to do now and although he was a bit tired and sore, he didn’t like the idea of just leaving Zeeree all by herself and going back to his quarters. At least, not until the ship was back in the relative safety of space.

‘We will be able to take off momentarily,’ replied Zeeree in her calm tone. ‘I am bringing the short-range thrusters online now.’

As soon as she said this, a low hum began to fill the cockpit.

‘Primary thrusters at seventy percent. Ninety percent. Primary thrusters are now at full power. Initiating Lift-Off.’

The ride was so smooth that Patrick couldn’t even feel any motion but he could tell that they were moving because he peered at the main view screen which showed the ground falling away and getting farther and farther away by the second. Around ten minutes later, Zeeree had switched to the ship’s main engines and they had successfully made it back into space, moving slowly away from the planet Antorii Two on a random trajectory.

‘So is that it? Are we safe now?’ ventured Patrick tentatively, well aware that the last time he asked this question it turned out that they were in danger but they just didn’t know it yet.

‘That depends on your definition of “safe”,’ responded Zeeree with a certain degree of evasiveness.

Patrick sighed. He was not in the mood for playing any games.

‘Is anybody coming after us?’ he asked, mildly irritated.

‘It is a possibility given that we have the artefact from Nexus One onboard and it can be tracked from very far away with the right scanners. However, I do not believe anyone with hostile intentions is closing in on our current position.’

‘I guess that will have to do for now,’ said Patrick glumly.

He didn’t like the thought of constantly being chased around the galaxy for some stupid hunk of rock, no matter how valuable it might be to some people. As far as the human was concerned, the sooner that they managed to get rid of that thing the better. Patrick leaned back in his chair and let out a loud yawn.

‘I believe you require some rest,’ observed Zeeree as she studied the tired human with her bio-sensors.

Patrick let out a loud breath and blinked a few times as he fought to keep his heavy eyelids from closing. He could feel tiredness catching up with him, as well as his stomach rumble in protest at not having seen any food for hours and hours. At that moment, he longed to slip into a nice warm bath in a peaceful room and just go to sleep for a while. Sadly, he knew that this was another fantasy that was not to be fulfilled.

‘I think you’re right, Zeeree,’ Patrick admitted as he slowly got out of his chair.

He unconsciously ran a hand through his thick mop of dark brown hair and yawned a second time as he trotted over to the cockpit exit hatch.

‘I’m going to go and lie down for a while. Can you handle running the ship for a few hours by yourself?’

‘Of course I can. Rest well, Patrick,’ said Zeeree in as soothing a voice as she could manage.

Despite at times preferring solitude and being left alone to do whatever she wished, a large part of Zeeree actually longed for company and organics such as Saleek and Patrick provided her with interactions that she most definitely enjoyed (apart from the odd joke or comment that went over her head). Despite other AIs’ distinct lack of empathy, Zeeree herself had plenty of it and she felt a strong desire within her to form connections with others. She had always felt slightly different to most AIs and she didn’t fully understand why. In any case, her caring for Patrick and Saleek was completely genuine and although it was sometimes difficult to get that across, she wanted them to realise that.

Patrick responded with a warm yet tired smile and said, ‘Thanks, Zeeree. Wake me if you need anything.’

‘Understood.’

Patrick had made it almost all the way to his quarters when Zeeree’s voice came floating down the corridor. It appeared to be laced with nervousness this time, rather than caring.

‘Patrick?’

The human stopped and sighed.

‘And I was so close to my bed as well,’ he muttered quietly. Then, loud enough for Zeeree to hear him, he added, ‘What is it?’

‘I did not wish to alarm you at first, which is why I did not say anything. However, I believe we are being followed by a vessel.’

Whilst such news would typically make Patrick’s blood run cold and his adrenaline levels spike, at this point he was too tired for even that response. He only wanted to be left alone so that he could sleep and recover.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked, stifling a yawn.

‘Affirmative. When we were leaving Antorii Two, there were multiple ships arriving and leaving the planet, in addition to several more ships in orbit. Several ships were on intercept vectors with us but as we were so close to the planet I simply assumed that they were coming in to land. However, now we are some distance away from the planet and all but one of the ships have entered orbit around Antorii Two. That remaining ship is on a direct collision course with us and is accelerating rapidly.

‘Figures,’ murmured Patrick morosely. ‘OK, I’m coming back up to the cockpit. Hang on.’

Around forty five seconds later, Patrick once more entered the cockpit.

‘All right, what have we got?’ he demanded.

He had no idea what to do, he had never been in command of a ship before (he hated flying for goodness’ sake!) so he had no choice but to play it by ear.

‘The ship appears to be a freshellion short-range attack craft. I do not know where it has come from. It has a top speed way in excess of our own. It is also far more manoeuvrable than this vessel and its armament appears to consist of medium lasers and missiles with unknown warheads.’

Patrick was shocked and also a little confused.

‘Wait a minute…what is an attack craft like that doing coming after us? We haven’t done anything to the freshellions…’

Patrick tailed off as he remembered that he did not know everything about Saleek’s past dealings, not by a long shot.

‘…have we?’ he finished. ‘Zeeree, has Saleek pissed off many people?’

‘In a word, yes,’ answered Zeeree with a small digital chuckle. ‘However, he has never had any dealings with the freshellions of which I am aware. I am now detecting a larger freshellion ship on long range scans; it is likely the mother ship to which this attack craft belongs.’

‘Great. Just great. Any reason why they might want to attack us?’

Zeeree was silent for a moment as she considered this.

‘The only rational reason I can think of is that they have somehow found out that we have a valuable artefact on board and they are coming to take it from us. The freshellions are not a particularly well liked species in the galaxy – they are opportunists, scavengers and double crossers. They are very selfish and think only in terms of what positives they can obtain from situations. If they think they can steal a valuable artefact from a poorly armed ship and subsequently sell it for great profit, they wouldn’t think twice about attacking it.’

‘Well, what are our options then?’

‘In this situation, very limited,’ confessed Zeeree. ‘We are unable to outrun that craft given its superior manoeuvrability and speed. We do have some weapons onboard but as an AI I am prevented from firing them by failsafe protocols and I assume you are not trained in using them?’

‘No, I am not!’ exclaimed Patrick almost indignantly as he began to get worried. ‘So, we can’t outrun them and we can’t fire any weapons. What can we do? Can we go back to the planet and land?’

‘We could. However, we would be a much easier target for them to find and attack if we were on the planet’s surface. They could easily track our descent and monitor where we landed with their scanners.’

‘So, are you telling me there is nothing we can do at all? Do we just sit here and wait for them to attack us?’

Patrick’s voice was getting shriller and louder as panic started to take hold. He badly wished that Saleek was here instead of him.

‘There is one option available to us. We have the ability to make a jump to super-space.’

‘OK, fine. Well then, let’s do that!’

An alarm began beeping in the cockpit, sounding approximately once a second.

‘Priming jump drive. Beginning charge. Jump drive currently at five percent power and rising,’ stated Zeeree coolly. ‘There is one other matter which must be attended to, Patrick.’

‘What is that?’ asked Patrick.

‘The jump drive is useless without designated coordinates for a destination. I need to know where to bring the ship back into normal space, otherwise we could wind up in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle of a star.’

‘Well, I can’t do the calculations!’ protested Patrick. ‘And what is that beeping sound anyway?’

‘That alarm is indicating that the pursuing ship will be upon us within approximately thirty seconds.’

‘Oh, shit. Well, what can we do?’ panicked Patrick, wishing that Saleek was here to take care of things.

‘Tell me a destination to calculate!’ insisted Zeeree, beginning to get seriously nervous.

She said nothing to the human, but her sensors told her that the incoming ship had charged its weapons and was now mere seconds away from them. With Saleek in charge, she was usually confident in the lyan’s ability to get them both out of sticky situations. With the inexperienced human in charge however, she was far less confident.

‘I…I don’t know most of the systems around this part of the galaxy…’ stammered Patrick.

‘Just pick one!’ hurried Zeeree.

The alarm ringing throughout the cockpit started to beep very rapidly.

‘I….uh….’

Suddenly there was a loud CRACK sound and the ship rocked slightly from side to side. Patrick instinctively held onto the armrests on his chair to keep from being thrown from it.

‘What the hell was that?’ exclaimed the human in shock.

‘Weapon impact on our hull. They are firing lasers at us,’ reported Zeeree. ‘Hold on. Incoming transmission.’

The image of a pink-coloured, flabby alien with large teeth and hairy snout for a nose appeared on the main viewscreen. It was wearing a helmet and appeared to be in the cockpit of the attack craft, surrounded by lots of flashing screens and controls.

‘I represent the Freshellian Confect. You have an artefact aboard your ship that we want. Power down your engines and prepare to be boarded,’ the pink alien commanded in a wobbly, somehow slimy voice.

The view screen suddenly returned to the blackness of space stretching out in all directions and the audio cut out.

‘That was the entire transmission. Not very chatty, are they?’ commented Zeeree as her face popped up in the bottom-right corner of the main screen.

‘What do we do now?’ asked Patrick, his eyes darting from Zeeree to his station’s control panel and back again.

‘We make a choice and we make it now. I’ve been in plenty of chases and conflicts,’ Zeeree said, pausing momentarily as she wondered if she had again said too much, before continuing regardless, ‘and if we wait for them to make the first move, it puts us at a tremendous disadvantage. We must act now, Patrick.’

Patrick stared hard at the buttons and flashing lights of his control panel.

She’s right. This is it, he thought as his tired muscles tensed up again and he mustered his remaining strength.

The human’s face became a picture of pure concentration as he focussed on what was about to happen.

Suddenly remembering another thing Saleek had said before in the cockpit, Patrick said, ‘Zeeree, activate the ship’s energy shield.’

‘Shield activated,’ replied the AI. ‘Now that they know we have some defensive capabilities, they will attack us in an attempt to disable them. We should change course and accelerate to confuse them,’ she added.

‘Good idea. Do it!’ agreed Patrick from the pilot’s chair. The human felt an unseen force tugging him backwards into his seat as the craft changed direction and began to go faster.

‘We’re moving away from the attack craft, but it won’t take them long to realise what we’ve done. I anticipate they will catch up to us in approximately thirty five seconds,’ announced Zeeree.

‘OK,’ said Patrick as he tried to think of a nearby system that they could jump to.

Alas, his tired brain refused to cooperate and his mind went blank. All of a sudden, the human desperately wished he had paid more attention in galactic geography class back at school.

‘Main engines are at one hundred percent power and stable,’ reported Zeeree. ‘This is as fast as we can go in normal space. The attack craft is pursuing us. I estimate they will catch up in about twenty five seconds.’

‘What is the status of the jump drive?’ asked Patrick, raising his voice to be heard over the loud rumble of the main engines, which were being pushed to their limit as they propelled the ship forwards.

‘Jump drive is at fifty percent power and rising,’ answered Zeeree.

‘Damn it, there’s no way the jump drive will finish charging in another twenty seconds. We’re not going to make it, are we?’

‘It is not over yet. The energy shield should protect us from a few direct hits.’

‘How many is a “few”?’

‘Difficult to say,’ said Zeeree honestly. ‘The ship’s internal battery is down to eighteen percent power because both I and the shield were active on Antorii Two for quite some time. That power drain means that the energy shield is currently operating at only forty one percent of normal strength.’

‘This day just keeps on getting better and better,’ muttered Patrick sarcastically.

Saleek’s ship rocketed through space at considerable speed, but it was no match for the nimble, quicker and smaller attack craft. Moments later, the smaller ship had caught up to the larger one and maintained a distance of a few kilometres. The edges of the attack craft’s wings began to glow a deep crimson colour as its weapons reached full charge. A split second later, a brilliant beam of red energy lanced through space and struck Saleek’s ship just above the engine exhausts. The glowing shield of yellow energy surrounding Saleek’s craft wobbled and flickered as the crimson beam dissipated harmlessly with an angry crackling sound.

‘They are attacking again. Our shield is holding,’ reported Zeeree.

‘How long till we can jump?’ asked Patrick desperately, holding onto his chair for dear life as another impact was felt in the cockpit.

‘Jump drive is at seventy five percent power and rising. However, this craft is badly in need of a recharge and refuel. The main battery is now down to nine percent charge and the engine’s fuel injectors are operating at temperatures above maximum tolerance. We can only maintain our current speed for another few seconds before we risk causing serious damage to the engine.’

‘Damn it!’ cursed Patrick as he slammed a clenched fist into the nearest control panel like he had seen Saleek do earlier.

He found himself instantly regretting that action as the control panel was as hard as solid rock. The human winced and gingerly cradled his now-throbbing hand in his other. Another beam of bright scarlet light streaked through the blackness of space, homing in on its target. A moment later it found it and erupted in a flash of red-white energy which, for a moment, completely engulfed Saleek’s ship. The blast rocked the ship again and this time Patrick felt the temperature in the cockpit rise noticeably.

‘The shield has failed. Any more impacts will result in damage to the hull,’ announced Zeeree.

Patrick realised he had to try something, anything that would give them a fighting chance of not becoming a floating debris field over the next few minutes. Relying heavily on what he had observed Saleek doing and what little he had gleaned from watching action holo-films as a teenager, he commanded Zeeree to bring the throttle down to zero.

‘Are you certain?’ queried Zeeree as she cocked a delicate blue eyebrow in surprise.

‘Yes, do it! It might be the only way to save our engines and if they go offline, we’re toast!’

Zeeree looked a little confused.

‘I fail to see what grilled bread products have to do with our current situation…’

Patrick shook his head violently in exasperation.

‘It’s…it’s an English expression, god damn it! Just do it!’

‘Throttling down,’ said Zeeree.

The loud roar of the main engines stopped almost immediately and the resulting silence was just as defeaning. Saleek’s craft suddenly slowed down and the attack craft, which had been zig-zagging behind them whilst firing, shot off past them at full speed.

‘Bring us about,’ said Patrick.

‘To what heading?’

‘I…don’t know, just change our trajectory!’

Saleek’s ship turned about one hundred and twenty degrees to starboard.

‘Now, bring the throttle back up to seventy five percent,’ commanded Patrick.

‘Main engines now at seventy five percent power,’ informed Zeeree. ‘The attack craft is turning around and is manoeuvring to intercept. Estimated time till they are in weapons’ range: twenty seconds.’

‘Do you know any evasive manoeuvres?’ asked Patrick hopefully.

‘I am programmed with a database of over one thousand different space-combat scenarios.’

‘Great. Then use them! Shake off that pursuing craft!’

Patrick felt the ship move to the left, then to the right, then he felt his stomach rising in his chest as the ship dove downwards all of a sudden.

‘I have initiated evasive manoeuvres but I think we have upset the Freshellians piloting the attack craft in our attempts to evade them. They are flying more aggressively now and they appear to be throwing everything they have at us. I am detecting multiple missile launches and they are firing their laser weapons too.’

Patrick looked at the main view screen but there were so many moving images and so much information scrolling across it that it made him feel quite sick, so he returned to looking at the blinking lights of his control panel and tightened his grip on the chair’s armrests. Several bolts of crimson energy impacted on Saleek’s ship with an angry crackle and a bright eruption of sparks.

‘We’re taking damage from their lasers,’ reported Zeeree. ‘Their missiles have locked onto our exhaust signature. I am unable to shake them.’

‘How much longer till those missiles hit us?’ cried Patrick.

‘Approximately fifteen seconds,’ came the reply.

Patrick’s blood pressure skyrocketed and his eyes widened as adrenaline coursed through his body.

‘Status of jump drive?!’ he yelled desperately.

‘Jump drive now at ninety percent power,’ said Zeeree. After a few moments pause, she said, ‘Jump drive at ninety five percent power….jump drive now fully charged and ready.’

‘How long to missile impacts?’

‘Eight seconds.’

‘Then use the jump drive! Jump! Now!’ screamed Patrick as a shrill alarm began beeping rapidly throughout the cockpit.

Zeeree weighed up her options in a fraction of a second. She hated doing this, it went against her safety protocols to protect the ship and those who travelled aboard her but she saw no other option. Even though she was risking potential death and destruction at a later time, right now it was preferable to immediate destruction within the next six seconds.

After a faint digitised sigh, Zeeree said aloud, ‘All systems secured. Initiating blind jump to super-space…..now!’

There was a huge flash of blinding white light and all of a sudden, Saleek’s craft disappeared from normal space, leaving the missiles to shoot through space aimlessly at no target.

Chapter 17

Back on Nexus One, Sergeant Joval walked through the corridors of his police station at a brisk pace with a computer tablet in his hand and a new sense of purpose bringing a smile to his lips. He was full of confidence and in a rather good mood as he entered his commander’s office. Unfortunately, this was not destined to last. As soon as Joval stepped foot into the room he could sense the hostile mood in the air, it was almost palpable. The sliding door to the Lieutenant’s office silently slid shut and Joval stood politely still, waiting for Tuk to say something. The Lieutenant was going through some files on his large desk and his face was a picture of displeasure. Something had clearly upset him. Tuk continued his task without acknowledging Joval for some twenty seconds before he eventually looked up and spoke. Joval simply stood still as he respected the chain of command and passed the time by casually scrutinising the commander’s office. For a mere Lieutenant in the Galactic Police Force, Tuk had done very well for himself. His office was big – as large as the offices which were normally given to Captains and above. It was also extremely messy; there were files, computer tablets and mini-computers strewn everywhere with large piles of boxes stacked in the corners. His bin was overflowing with empty packets and wrappers which used to contain an assortment of fried foods and sweet snacks – Tuk obviously consumed them at a faster rate than the automated garbage disposal system emptied the bins in the station. His desk was an exercise in organised chaos – there were no fewer than three separate computer displays on it and these were surrounded by notepads, files and more files, with the odd smear on the desk surface from previously spilled drinks. Joval’s train of thought was interrupted by Tuk breaking the silence.

‘Sergeant Joval, I’m rather busy….what do you have for me?’

‘I’m sorry sir, this won’t take a moment. I have information regarding the “Zalnar raid” case.’

This made Tuk stop what he was doing. He put the files down, leaned back in his ample chair and gave the Sergeant his full attention.

‘Go on, tell me more.’

‘I checked all the communications records from the personal com units that were confiscated. Most aren’t worth mentioning but one is – one of the suspects made a two minute call to something called a “Spay’Ar dig site”. Check this out – the owner of that piece of land is listed as a Mr Vallan,’ said Joval as he handed Tuk the computer tablet he had been carrying.

The Lieutenant’s eyes narrowed as he studied the information on the tablet’s display.

‘Vallan? As in, head of the Vallan Organisation?’ he asked.

‘That’s right – the one that we believe has links to criminal activity all over the planet and probably beyond too.’

Tuk sighed deeply as he thumbed the tablet’s screen, flicking through the information at a swift speed.

‘Well, we’ve known about him for years but no police force has ever been able to collect enough evidence to prosecute him. That man is extremely careful about destroying anything that could be traced back to him and he usually gets someone else to do the dirty work so he can appear clean, at least in the public eye. In any case, Mr Vallan’s personal residence is not in our precinct, it’s not even in this district! Our department has no jurisdiction in investigating him,’ said Tuk.

He tossed the tablet carelessly in Joval’s general direction with an air of impudence about him. Thanks to his quick reflexes, Joval snatched the tablet out of the air without even trying, but he was confused by his superior’s attitude. The smile had long since faded from his dark blue lips.

‘Even if that is the case, I could contact the relevant precinct and together we could stage a joint investigation that could finally bring the Vallan organization down! Or at least shine a light on Mr Vallan’s dodgy dealings. With this exposed, perhaps people will be less inclined to do business with him and maybe he will be forced to leave Nexus One.’

‘That is a very big leap, Sergeant,’ said Tuk, eyeing Joval with a somewhat cold stare. ‘How exactly do you go from linking Vallan with narcotics to making him leave the planet?’

Joval shifted his weight uneasily in his stance. He didn’t understand why Tuk wasn’t happy that he had found a lead at all.

‘Well sir, I admit perhaps that was an exaggeration on my part. Nevertheless, this is a definite link to the Vallan Organisation and I strongly feel it is worth pursuing. Trust me, my team and I can do this.’

Tuk sighed again and leaned back in his chair, as if he was considering something in his head.

A few moments later, he said, ‘Even if you can do this, which I seriously doubt, the other department will get the credit, not us. It won’t help us bring down the crime rate in our own precinct. If that’s the only lead on this case then forget about it, it’s only drugs.’

Joval was dumbfounded.

‘Sir?’ he said quietly in disbelief.

‘Stop working on the Zalnar raid case. Work some other cases instead and get them solved, Joval. That’s an order!’ Tuk’s voice had risen in volume and it seemed like he was starting to get annoyed. When the Sergeant hesitated, the Lieutenant added, ‘That means now, Sergeant! Leave, I have work to do.’

Tuk went back to ignoring his subordinate and picked up the files on his desk and resumed going through them.

In a combination of bewilderment and shock, Joval mumbled ‘Right away, sir,’ and clumsily turned on his heels and walked out of the office. Once he was outside and the door had slid shut, he said to himself, ‘What in the galaxy was that all about?’

As he walked back to his own desk in the main office area, Joval tried to fathom what had just taken place in Tuk’s office but he could not do so.

‘This whole thing is so weird,’ he muttered under his breath as he sat back down at his station and placed the tablet on his own desk. ‘First, Tuk is so determined to solve this case he asks me to break regulations and perform a personal communications record search. Then, as soon as I turn up a solid lead, he berates me, tells me to forget about it and work another case. What made him change his mind so quickly?’

For a few minutes, Joval tried to work at his computer, but his brain nagged him and refused to the let the matter go. After a small sigh, Joval decided to keep doing some more digging into the Vallan Organisation and see what he could turn up, no matter what his Lieutenant had said. Tuk had been hostile and unreasonable once too often and Joval was sick of it. He was determined to be a good Galactic Police Sergeant and follow his leads until he could crack the case. He quickly glanced around the office to make sure no one was paying attention to him then he got to work.

Chapter 18

In the swirling vortex of super-space, a battered cargo craft flew ever onwards. Saleek’s ship had been damaged during the escape from Antorii Two and its energy levels were dangerously low. Inside the vessel, Patrick walked up to the cockpit and entered through the main hatch located at the rear. He found Saleek sat in the pilot’s chair and the main view screen was filled with an image of Zeeree’s face rather than the ever-changing miasma of super-space.

‘Hi Saleek,’ greeted the human as he sat down at a station to the left of the lyan. ‘How are you feeling?’

Saleek swivelled in his chair to face Patrick.

‘I’m feelin’ better thanks. I’ve had a long rest, eaten some food in the mess chamber and taken some painkillers and healer meds. I’ll be fine.’ The spiky lyan had a rather large bruise on the left side of his face but apart from that he looked in remarkably good condition, all things considered.

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ replied the human with a smile.

‘How about you?’

‘I’m OK I guess. I’ve had a rest in my quarters and grabbed a few hours sleep. As soon as I finished eating some food in the mess chamber I came up here. By the way, you’re seriously going to have to show me how to order different meals from that dispenser. As much as I like the taste, there are only so many servings of trefarli I can take!’

Saleek chuckled softly.

‘Zeeree, remind me to show Patrick how to use the dispenser some time, will ya?’

‘I will endeavour to remember,’ said Zeeree in a somewhat bored voice. ‘However, if we do not stock up on ingredients soon, there will not be anything left to make any meals at all.’

‘You’re all business today, aren’t you Zeeree?’ commented Saleek as he put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his comfortable chair.

‘I just feel that sometimes you do not take situations seriously enough,’ retorted Zeeree in a bit of a huff. ‘Need I remind you that we are running low on food, fuel and energy? And that is to say nothing of the damage done to our hull during our escape from Antorii Two which needs repair-’

‘By the way, nice work on that one, Patrick,’ interrupted Saleek with a grin, knowing full well how much it annoyed Zeeree when she was interrupted.

Patrick smiled sheepishly as Zeeree said, ‘I did have a little something to do with it as well. Without my piloting skills we would not have made it to super-space.’

‘You know I’m only kiddin’, Zeeree. Gee, lighten up a little,’ said Saleek as he leaned forwards and sat up properly in the pilot’s chair. ‘You both know how much I appreciate your help, right? Then there’s no need to say it all the time, is there? Now, let’s get down to it. We need a place to set the ship down for a full refuel and repair. Zeeree? Where are we heading at the moment?’

‘It has been fifteen hours and twenty one minutes since we jumped to super-space and our speed has been constant. Based on our trajectory and position when we jumped, I have calculated a number of possible systems we could be in at the moment. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is to jump back into normal space and see for ourselves. I only hope we materialize back in the middle of a populated system and not in the middle of a black hole or star.’

‘Yeah, I think we’re all in agreement on that one,’ said Saleek.

He tapped a few buttons on the pilot’s control panel.

‘Well, there’s no sense in putting it off any longer. Zeeree, prepare to bring the ship back into normal space.’

‘Are you certain, Saleek?’

‘Absolutely. We can’t stay in super-space forever. There’s no supply stations or space-docks out here for starters. Let’s do it.’

‘Very well,’ said Zeeree. ‘I would just like it on record that according to my calculations, we have a roughly one in five chance of materializing in the path of a hazard when we make the jump back to normal space.’

Patrick gulped. Those odds did not sound very good at all.

‘That can’t be right,’ said Saleek. ‘I’m sure you just make up these things to scare me.’

‘Sometimes I feel that you need to be scared into taking things seriously,’ replied Zeeree. ‘And, just so you know, I’m not making up those odds. By my reckoning, we will be materializing in the middle of some densely populated systems full of planets, moons, asteroids, space stations and ships.’

‘Well, there’s only one way to find out!’ exclaimed Saleek whilst wearing his trademark grin, seemingly unworried about the AI’s predictions. ‘Zeeree, prep the jump drive and bring us back into normal space.’

Patrick said nothing but unconsciously held his breath and gripped the armrests on his chair in anticipation of the jump.

‘Priming jump drive. Jump drive at full power and ready. All systems secured. Returning to normal space in three…two…one….now!’

With a huge flash of light and a slight fizzling sound as energy dispersed from around the craft, Saleek’s ship popped back into normal space. For a moment, the lights went out in the cockpit before coming on again. Everything appeared to be all right – all systems were functioning and all the ship’s occupants were still alive. The main view screen, however, was blank.

‘Well, we haven’t slammed into anything and we’re still in one piece. I’d say that’s a win,’ said Saleek from the pilot’s station as he checked the readouts on his console. ‘Where are we, anyway? Zeeree, can you get the screen workin’ and show us what’s out there?’

Patrick let his breath out in a long sigh and relaxed his grip on his chair.

‘Currently computing our location based on local star constellations. I…don’t believe this…’ uttered Zeeree in disbelief, tailing off. ‘We’re in the middle of the Barren Lands. Something must have thrown us off-course during our flight through super-space – we are nowhere near where I thought we would be.’

An image finally resolved on the main view screen which showed a rich black colour with a tiny handful of stars scattered across the periphery. To the bottom-left of the screen was a small reddish-orange blob that looked like a planet composed entirely of sand or perhaps rock. Patrick was confused as he squinted at the screen.

‘The “Barren Lands”? What are they?’ he asked.

‘The Barren Lands are a collection of star systems which contain nothing but asteroids, bare hunks of rock for planets and very few natural resources. Those few planets that can support life are full of nothing but drifters, peasants, homeless people and criminals,’ explained Saleek.

‘You should fit right in then, Saleek,’ said Zeeree dryly.

The spiky lyan shot her a glare before returning to studying the holographic display to his right.

‘However, you are also correct in your statements. The barren lands are very aptly named. There is virtually nothing in these systems apart from some asteroid fields, a few gas giants and lots of barren desert planets with very little indigenous life or natural resources. We may not find anywhere that can help us refuel and recharge the ship in these parts – we certainly won’t find any space-docks out here,’ said Zeeree somewhat disappointedly.

‘Well, we won’t know for sure until we try, will we?’ suggested Patrick, trying to stay positive.

‘Good point dude,’ agreed Saleek. ‘We’re approaching the third planet in this solar system now. Zeeree, scan the planet’s surface for any towns or settlements that might contain service depots. Hell, even a local mechanic shop would be better than nothing!’

‘Understood. Scanning…’ said Zeeree.

Around five minutes later, she had completed a full scan of the small planet’s surface.

‘Well, any good news?’ asked Saleek hopefully.

Patrick was not particularly superstitious but he crossed his fingers anyway, hoping that Zeeree would find something that could help them. If not, it wouldn’t be long before they ran out of fuel and if they couldn’t get to a more populated star system by then, they were done for.

‘I have completed a thorough scan,’ reported Zeeree as her face popped up on the main screen.

‘And?’ prompted Saleek, impatient to learn what the AI had found.

‘And I was correct in my initial assumption – there are no service depots that match any known configurations on the planet’s surface. I doubt any of the larger companies would have sufficient reason to open and maintain a service depot in these parts anyway. However, I have located a large settlement twenty seven point four Drekkmas north of the equator. There are a number of buildings and constructions present and I believe one of them is a mechanic shop of sorts.’

Saleek sighed.

‘Well, I guess we really got no choice, do we?’ he said bitterly. ‘Zeeree, how much fuel do we have left?’

‘Fuel levels are down to six percent of maximum capacity. We have enough remaining to explore this solar system and the surrounding ones. Beyond that, we are unable to travel any farther. Also, you should know that we do not have enough energy to make any more jumps to super-space, at least not without recharging the internal battery first.’ After a pause, the AI added, ‘I strongly recommend we land on this planet and see if the locals can help us. I do not believe we will find anything better on any other planets nearby.’

‘I agree,’ said Saleek as he typed commands on his console. ‘Zeeree, take us down into the atmosphere and hover above that settlement. Then, get someone on the com from that mechanic shop. Let’s hope they can help.’

***

An hour and a half later, Saleek had landed the ship at the mechanic and service shop in the east part of the settlement and had explained his predicament to the owner. However, the owner was most definitely lacking any sympathy for the lyan’s current situation.

‘I already told ya,’ said the head mechanic as he walked away from Saleek’s ship and towards the main workshop building, ‘that’s the best we can do.’

‘Are you kiddin’ me?’ spluttered Saleek in exasperation. ‘I know replacement parts don’t come cheap but even so, six thousand credits to fix the hole in my ship’s armour is ridiculous! I could buy a new engine cooling system for that amount.’

The spiky lyan jogged to catch up with the head mechanic, who was just over four foot tall and very heavy set. The light from the powerful sun reflected off his smooth bald head as he walked and Saleek had to be careful not to look directly at it for too long lest he risk blinding himself. The desert planet was not welcoming in the slightest – it was extremely hot and dry with winds that whipped up the sand on a regular basis. If you weren’t careful, you could get dehydrated and die very quickly out in these parts.

‘Do we look like some fancy service depot run by a rich guy? I already told ya: we only got so many spare parts and the amount of hyper-steel ya want to fix the hole in your ship is worth a lot of money to us. Ya want it? Ya gotta pay, same as everyone else,’ insisted the mechanic.

‘OK, OK,’ said Saleek as he stopped the guy in his tracks. ‘I’ll tell you what – forget about the armour repair. How about just an engine refuel and full recharge for my ship’s battery? What’ll that cost me?’

The mechanic sighed. He looked around at the collection of battered ships that littered the sandy grounds of the shop and then looked back into Saleek’s desperate eyes.

‘All right. We can do that for twenty thousand credits,’ he said.

Saleek tried to control his reactions but he couldn’t. His eyes bulged as he received the news.

‘What? That’s daylight robbery! How can you justify charging that much?’ he asked incredulously.

‘I’m not sure ya realise just how bad a state your ship is in,’ answered the mechanic. ‘Your fuel levels are almost zero. We gotta purge the remaining fuel, reset the engine and fill the tank again from scratch. That’ll take ‘bout three hours. Then there’s the battery, which is almost dead. We ain’t got no huge power plants providing energy for the masses out here. Energy is highly sought after, which is why it’s so valuable and also expensive.’ He paused for a few seconds to let the lyan digest those facts, then he added, ‘If ya want, ya can try your luck somewhere else, but between ya and me, that ship of yours ain’t gonna get very far if ya try and fly away.’

Saleek was frustrated and upset as he saw no way out of his current predicament. He had a few hundred credits left and that was it. He couldn’t possibly afford the asking price and without more fuel and energy, his ship couldn’t fly. He looked down at his feet and then brought himself to meet the mechanic’s gaze once more.

‘OK, I’m gonna level with ya,’ whispered Saleek quietly. ‘I ain’t got that kind of money on me. But how ‘bout some kind of trade?’

‘Sorry, no deal,’ replied the mechanic brusquely as he pushed Saleek aside and began to walk away again.

‘Wait!’ protested Saleek. He jogged after the small alien. ‘You haven’t even heard what I got to offer you!’

‘We don’t do deals with customers. We tried that a few years ago and people kept swindling us, so we stopped. It’s either cold, hard credits or nothing,’ explained the mechanic, who was beginning to get fed up with Saleek. ‘We can refuel and recharge your ship for twenty thousand credits or ya can go somewhere else for ya repairs. It’s ya choice.’

Saleek watched helplessly as the mechanic walked away. He sombrely turned around and trudged back to the ship.

‘Well, what did they say?’ asked Patrick as Saleek entered the main cockpit.

The human and AI both looked at him with hopeful expressions on their faces. Saleek hesitated for a moment before reluctantly telling them the bad news.

‘Really? That is a rather inordinate amount of money for such a relatively simple job,’ commented Zeeree.

The blue lines and curves that composed her face twisted and transformed into an expression of sadness that took up the whole of the main view screen. Patrick had never seen her appear upset before and he found her expression eerily real for a holographic image.

‘Is there anything we can do?’ asked Zeeree hopefully.

‘I’m not sure,’ replied Saleek, looking downcast. ‘I only got around two hundred credits left in my quarters. I can’t pay the guy, at any rate.’

Patrick considered his options and decided that if this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was.

‘Well, actually…’ the human began.

Saleek turned around to look at him.

‘Actually what?’ said the spiky alien.

‘…I do have some credits stored in a secret account for emergencies. Well, I’d say that this qualifies as an emergency, wouldn’t you?’ finished Patrick.

Saleek’s mouth dropped open in surprise.

‘Wait, I thought you said you didn’t have any money when we met back on Nexus One? Have you been holdin’ out on us?’

Patrick guiltily looked around the cockpit and pretended to be fascinated by the different displays and consoles in an attempt to avoid meeting either Saleek’s or Zeeree’s gaze. Eventually he ran out of places to stare. The human slowly looked up at Saleek, who wore an expression of confusion or possibly disappointment on his green features.

‘Well….yeah, I suppose I have….’ mumbled Patrick in embarrassment.

Suddenly Saleek’s face transformed from a picture of disappointment to a picture of happiness. His lips curled into a smile which quickly became a full, open-mouthed grin.

‘Dude! I can’t believe it!’ he said, beaming.

Patrick blinked a few times in confusion, his brow furrowed.

‘W-What?’

‘I’m proud of ya! I guess we’re more alike than I thought, huh?’

Patrick didn’t fully understand how the lyan could jump from one emotion to the other so rapidly but he decided to just accept it and grinned as well.

‘Yeah, I guess,’ said the human.

‘So, how much do you have in this secret account?’ asked Saleek eagerly.

‘Just over twenty two thousand credits,’ revealed Patrick.

Saleek’s smile grew so wide that the human feared he might pull a muscle if he kept this up much longer.

‘Are you kiddin’ me? That’s brilliant!’ exclaimed the lyan in a combination of happiness and relief.

‘That certainly is serendipitous,’ piped up Zeeree. ‘Just the amount we require for the ship’s refuel and recharge.’

Saleek walked over to Patrick and threw his arm around the human’s shoulder.

‘I’m tellin’ you, man. It must be fate, you and me meeting like we did on Nexus One. How weird is it that you have almost the exact amount of money we need right now?’

Patrick simply shrugged and smiled.

‘OK, do you have the account details?’ asked Saleek.

Patrick reached into his trouser pocket and produced a small, egg-shaped data chip.

‘It’s all on this memory chip,’ he explained.

‘All right then!’ exclaimed Saleek. ‘Let’s go pay the man and get this ship ready to fly again!’

Chapter 19

Around an hour later, Saleek and Patrick were wandering through the dusty, sand-filled streets of the settlement.

‘So how long is this going to take?’ asked Patrick as they walked.

‘Well, the guy said it would be at least three hours to reset and refuel the engine, plus another hour to charge the internal battery. It’s been ‘bout an hour already, so I say we head back in ‘bout three more hours, check the ship then take off and get away from this dustbowl of a planet,’ answered Saleek.

He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the powerful sun in the cloudless sky.

‘OK,’ said Patrick. ‘What do you want to do until then?’

‘How ‘bout something to eat?’ suggested the spiky lyan.

‘Are you serious? I thought you said you ate a couple of hours ago?’

‘I did. And now I’m gettin’ hungry again. What’s the big deal?’

‘No big deal. Sometimes I forget different species have different dietary requirements.’

Saleek smiled and shot a glance at Patrick.

‘Is that a polite way of saying I’m greedy?’

Patrick smiled back.

‘I didn’t say a word.’

Saleek laughed.

‘You didn’t have to. C’mon, let’s check this place out.’

Together they walked over to a large market stall that was stocked full of odd-looking vegetables and local meat products. Patrick examined the items on the stall while Saleek conversed with the owner, a relatively elderly female of a species that the human did not recognise. Patrick saw small, ovoid things that resembled nuts; large, purple-coloured cylinders with green tops; peculiar-shaped carcasses of some local fauna that was giving off an even more peculiar odour and many more things besides. For a moment, Patrick longed for the familiarity of his home planet, including all the luxuries and food to which he was accustomed. He wasn’t even particularly hungry but he suddenly felt a craving for an old Earth-style snack – slivers of potato that were fried in fat and covered in salt. Quite unhealthy for you, but delicious nonetheless. Patrick let out a small sigh as he realised it would likely be a long time before he ever tasted familiar food like that again – if he ever did. He certainly was a long way away from the outer colonies while he was stuck in the Barren Lands.

Saleek handed over a couple of credits to the woman, who inspected them closely to make sure that they were real and not counterfeit. Satisfied that they were indeed real, the woman then hastily pocketed them and handed Saleek several items while Patrick looked on. Saleek then turned and started walking away from the market stall as Patrick followed.

‘What have you got there?’ inquired the human as he studied the items cradled in Saleek’s arms.

‘A couple of different things. These ain’t like the meals you had on Nexus One, or even the ones made by the ship’s dispenser. This is all raw and natural,’ explained the lyan. He sniffed one of the items he carried and pulled a face. ‘If you ask me, all this stuff about goin’ natural ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.’

Saleek handed Patrick a small, round fruit. The human took it and bit into it, before quickly spitting it out again.

‘Urrgh!’ he commented as he wiped the remains of juice away from his lips with a dirty sleeve. ‘That’s so bitter!’

Patrick was about to throw away the unwanted fruit over his shoulder before Saleek stopped him.

‘Hey! Whoa, what are you doin’?’

Patrick stopped mid-throw and looked at his companion.

‘Um…getting rid of this thing? It’s horrible. Wait, do you want it?’

He held out his hand and offered the blue fruit to the lyan.

‘It’s not that. Can’t you see how valuable any food must be to these poor people? Don’t just throw it away ‘cause you ain’t a fan,’ said Saleek as he looked over to his left. A few metres away there was a group of filthy-looking children, huddled together in the shade of a nearby tent. There didn’t seem to be any adults or guardians nearby and they all looked rather dishevelled, dirty and, quite frankly, depressed. Saleek wandered over to them as Patrick stood and watched in surprise before coming to his senses and following the spiky alien.

‘Hey kids,’ greeted Saleek as he approached the group of children.

As soon as he spoke, most of the children got up to their feet and scrambled to run away as quickly as possible.

‘Hey, hold on! Wait! I’ve got something for you!’ exclaimed Saleek but it was to no avail.

All the children had run off, apart from one – a young girl whose messy hair was matted and stuck together due to the sandy environment. She was clad in dirty rags for clothes and she was very, very thin. She almost looked too weak to run away or say anything as Saleek stood over her. It was then that Patrick caught up to the lyan.

‘Hey, I don’t mean to criticize but I think you’re scaring them,’ explained the human.

‘Yeah, I worked that one out,’ replied Saleek. ‘Here, hold these,’ he said as he handed Patrick the entirety of his collection of food.

Patrick struggled to hold all of the items, nearly dropping something twice as Saleek piled on more food into his already-full arms. The lyan then proceeded to take a large purple cylinder with a green top from the heap of food and knelt down in front of the girl.

‘Here you go,’ offered Saleek. ‘Take it.’

The girl looked away and did not move.

‘Hey…do you speak Standard, little girl?’ prompted Saleek patiently.

The girl slowly looked back at the lyan and mumbled something in an unknown language.

‘I don’t think she understands you,’ said Patrick from behind the mountain of food.

‘It’s okay. Look, you can eat it.’

Saleek took a bite from the purple flesh of the vegetable that he held in his hands. A few droplets of moisture dripped from the lyan’s lips and decorated the sand below with wet patches as he munched on the mouthful.

‘See?’ he said, once again offering the purple vegetable to the young girl.

The dishevelled girl moved slightly closer and sniffed. Saleek’s arms remained outstretched, his hands holding the purple cylinder. Suddenly the young girl smiled in excitement and quickly snatched the vegetable out of Saleek’s hands. For a moment, she held the food tightly to her chest before taking a large mouthful of purple flesh from the cylinder. She beamed at Saleek whilst chewing. Her friends, who had been watching from afar, suddenly ran over and all looked expectantly at Saleek, arms outstretched and hands open.

‘Don’t worry, there’s more where that came from,’ said Saleek.

He then took item after item from Patrick and handed them out until every single child had something in their hands. After a few shrieks of delight from some of the younger ones, all that could be heard was a steady munching as the children proceeded to feast on the free food.

‘Well, I guess this is the last one left,’ said Saleek as he took the last fruit (which had human teeth marks around the edges) from Patrick’s arms. The spiky alien paused for a second before kneeling down and handing the small, round ball to the young girl to whom he had already given the purple cylinder.

As her mouth dropped open in surprise, he added, ‘This one is for trusting me. Enjoy it.’

‘So…what? You’re a thief with a conscience now, is that it?’ asked Patrick, bewildered.

‘Something like that,’ replied Saleek, before standing up and marching off.

Patrick stood still in surprise for a few seconds then he chased after the spiky alien.

‘Hey! Hey!’ called the human. ‘Hey, Saleek. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m sorry.’

The lyan stopped and allowed Patrick to catch up with him.

‘It’s just…how come you gave away all your food? I thought you said you were hungry?’ asked the confused human.

Saleek shrugged.

‘I’m kinda peckish, but I don’t really need to eat. Those poor kids clearly need it more than me or you, so I gave it to ‘em.’

Saleek then shoved his hands in his pockets and started to slowly wander onwards down the sandy street. Patrick walked alongside him.

‘Surprised?’ asked Saleek as he looked at his companion.

‘Well, sort of, yeah,’ answered Patrick, meeting the lyan’s gaze. ‘With you having so little money and so little food onboard your ship, I just never thought that you would give away something like that.’

Saleek smiled and looked away from Patrick, watching his feet kick through mounds of thick sand as he walked.

‘I guess seeing those helpless kids reminds me of how life used to be for me back on Nexus One when I was younger.’

Patrick nodded as he remembered.

‘That’s right, you mentioned that you had to survive by begging for handouts when you were a child, didn’t you?’

‘The thing is, I remember how tough it was. Sometimes I went for days on end without eating anything. And Nexus One is a busy metropolis of a planet with millions and millions of people on it. There was always some back alley full of bins to rifle through for food. This place is a sandy hunk of rock in comparison. Those poor kids ain’t got anyone, by the looks of it. I just feel so sorry for ‘em – I hate seeing people suffer…’ said the lyan, looking a little downcast.

Patrick suddenly felt like he had newfound respect for Saleek. Sure, the guy did some dodgy things but it was only in order to survive – quite frankly, any other sentient being would do the same thing if they were in Saleek’s shoes. Giving away what little he had to those even less fortunate than himself showed what kind of person the lyan was, and it was one that Patrick was now happy to call a friend. The human quickly glanced behind him and saw the children ravenously tucking into the food that Saleek had given them.

‘Well, they certainly seem to be enjoying what you gave them,’ said Patrick.

‘Yeah,’ said Saleek, managing a small smile.

The two walked onwards for a while without saying another word.

Chapter 20

Sergeant Joval nodded a quick greeting to a fellow police officer as he made his way along the trans-path. The officer returned the acknowledgement with a silent nod and a smile and moments later was gone, already several metres behind Joval as he travelled in the opposite direction. The trans-paths were short for “transportation pathways” and they were a common sight in large buildings on Nexus One and most other heavily populated planets in the core systems as well. The pathways were grey in colour and plain in texture but had glowing pale green lines running along the sides. The pathways moved constantly with very little friction and at top speed they could propel a person forwards at quite some velocity. It was all done so well however that you rarely felt like you were moving at all. The pathways could split into sections and move at different speeds seamlessly – they always started slowly when you first stepped on them, moved faster when you were in the middle to cover more ground quicker and then slowed down again when they neared the end so as to ensure the user didn’t fall off when he or she was suddenly met with immobile flooring. Joval was on his way to a section of his police precinct’s building to make a private call. Soon after disembarking from the trans-path, he walked through a set of double doors and turned right. He made his way through several corridors before arriving at the room he sought. Joval pressed a nearby wall contact and the door slid open. The sergeant stepped through into the room beyond and the door automatically closed with a slight scratching sound ending with a loud hiss.

I wish they would keep up to date with the maintenance in this building – the doors are awful and they’re not the only things which need attention, thought Joval as he entered a private cubicle and sealed the door.

He sat down at the video terminal and switched it on. The screen flickered to life and displayed the words “Please state or type number or address to contact” in blocky red letters.

‘Call Taijar precinct police station,’ instructed Joval, the light of the video monitor reflected in his dark eyes.

‘Connected. With whom do you wish to speak?’ said the computer in a digitised, very artificial-sounding voice.

‘Put me through to Lieutenant Miriami.’

‘Done. Waiting for someone to answer the call request.’

Around sixty seconds passed and the screen remained stubbornly blank. Joval was on the verge of giving up when suddenly the screen burst into life once more, displaying a female alien with a warm smile on her feathery features. She was relatively round, covered completely in feathers and, like Joval, had large, dark eyes. She wore the rank insignia of Lieutenant on a chain which hung around her neck like a huge, clunky necklace.

‘Well now, this is a surprise,’ the feathered alien purred in a warm voice.

‘A pleasant one, I hope?’ said Joval.

‘Of course!’ the Lieutenant replied, her smile growing even wider. ‘I haven’t heard from you in months and months. How is everything? How are you doing?’

‘I’m well, thank you Miriami. How is everything with you?’

‘Oh fine, fine. Still overworked and underappreciated, you know how it is. Still, everything considered I’m doing fine. Well, I’m doing a lot better than my friend Aralufia. You remember her, don’t you? Well, she’s just lost her job and feels down and so she’s leaning on me more than I’d like but I suppose you just have to be there for people when they need you most, right? Which reminds me of another thing that has happened-’

‘Miriami, I’m afraid this call is about business rather than pleasure,’ interjected Joval, aware that if he did not stop her talking he would be unable to get a word in edgeways for at least the next twenty minutes.

She certainly enjoyed telling stories to anyone that would sit there and listen to her. The Lieutenant paused and looked at Joval through the screen.

‘Always so serious. You know Joval, it wouldn’t do you any harm to lighten up a bit. You work far too hard and you’re always thinking about work as well. It doesn’t do you any good at all. In fact, I once knew this one young officer who was a bit like you, and-’

‘Miriami, please,’ interrupted Joval with pleading eyes begging her to stop.

Miriami sighed deeply and folded her feathery arms over her chest, making the necklace she wore bounce around and jingle.

‘All right, all right. I know I can talk too much sometimes and I also know when you have your serious face on. OK, spit it out. What is it?’

Joval paused for a moment before saying, ‘I’m calling to ask you a favour. Quite a big favour actually.’

Miriami said nothing but raised a thick eyebrow as she regarded the sergeant carefully.

‘Normally I like mystery and intrigue as much as the next girl but I sense I’m not going to like what you have to say,’ she said. ‘Go on.’

Joval avoided her gaze and began to fidget with his fingers. Even after all this time away from her, she still had a way of cutting through his defences like a blowtorch cutting through an ice-cube.

‘I was wondering if you could do a background check on somebody for me. Your precinct has access to more data than mine does.’

‘Is that the only reason you called me on a secure com link? That kind of request can be submitted electronically and dealt with by the automatic computer system.’

Joval smiled – it was useless trying to keep anything from this woman.

‘You know, you really are wasted spending your time sitting behind a desk, Miriami. You should be in the field coordinating ops – your detective skills are still as sharp as ever.’

‘Resorting to flattery now are you, Sergeant?’ said Miriami as she tried and failed to stop her lips from curving into a smile.

‘No, ma’am. I only ever speak the truth.’

‘If that is so, you can drop the act. Tell me why you’re asking me to do this.’

‘All right, I’ll tell you. I have a potential lead in a narcotics bust and the name that keeps cropping up is Mr Vallan.’ Joval paused for a second to let that sink in. ‘The weird thing is, my boss was extremely intent on me solving as many cases as I could, including this narcotics case. Then after I mentioned Mr Vallan’s name, he suddenly changed his mind and told me to drop it.’

‘Hmm, that is rather strange,’ commented Miriami as she leaned back in her chair with her arms still folded. ‘So I assume the reason you are asking me for help is because your boss explicitly gave you a direct order to stop pursuing the case?’

Joval couldn’t help but wish that she was on the case with him – with her incredible skills he was certain they would be able to crack the whole case in mere days.

‘You assume correctly.’

‘Hmm,’ Miriami repeated, lost in thought. Eventually, she said, ‘Well, there are many people in my precinct who have tried, and failed I might add, to bring down that slimy little man for many crimes in the past. He always seems to be one step ahead of us in our investigations and any piece of evidence that we could use to press charges always seems to go missing…’

Joval’s eyes lit up.

‘Does that mean…’

Miriami unfolded her arms and grinned.

‘All right, I’ll help you look into this. I can’t promise any results, but I’ll see what I can turn up in our database.’

Joval beamed back at her.

‘Just…one more thing…’

‘Don’t worry. Of course I will keep all this off the record until I have some solid evidence to present to the higher-ups.’

Joval breathed a sigh of relief.

‘Thank you, Miriami. I really appreciate what you’re doing for me.’

‘In that case then, you can show your appreciation by buying me dinner sometime. It’s been far too long since we last saw each other.’

Joval wasn’t quite sure whether to be excited by this proposal or to simply feel awkward because of it. In any event, he was just happy that he was getting somewhere with his investigation.

He smiled broadly and said, ‘Sure thing, Miriami, I’ll buy you dinner. But I get to pick the place.’

The Lieutenant smiled back.

‘You’ve got yourself a deal, Sergeant Joval. Oh, just one more thing before you go.’

‘What is it?’ asked Joval, his hand hovering over the “end transmission” button.

‘Who was it who told you to stop pursuing the investigation?’

‘Lieutenant Tuk.’

‘Tuk, eh? I’ve met him a couple of times at interdepartmental meetings. Never liked him much.’

Joval’s brow creased in slight confusion.

‘Hold on, you’re not doing what I think you’re doing are you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you think that Tuk has something to do with all this? Are you going to investigate him as well?’

‘Like I said already, I can’t promise any concrete evidence or anything but it certainly warrants looking into. It certainly is highly unusual behaviour for a Lieutenant in the Galactic Police to tell one of their subordinates to stop investigating a case, especially when they have just found a potential lead.’

Miriami looked off screen to her left, then quickly said, ‘I’m sorry but I have to go now. I’ll be in touch.’

The screen turned black and went back to its default setting with blocky red letters on it. Joval leaned back in his chair, thinking about what had just happened. He had never particularly liked lieutenant Tuk either but he had never suspected him of impropriety. After a few minutes gathering his thoughts, Joval switched off the monitor, exited the private cubicle and headed back to the main precinct building to continue with his work.

Chapter 21

Back on the small, sandy planet in the heart of the Barren Lands, Saleek and Patrick wandered along the dusty streets of the settlement. The human glanced at his mini-computer on his left wrist and checked the local time.

‘Hey, Saleek?’

‘Yeah?’

‘It’s been about three and a half hours since we paid that mechanic and my legs are getting tired now from all this walking around. Shall we head back to the ship and see if they’re done with the repairs?’

‘I was just thinkin’ the same, buddy. I think we’ve been round this whole place and there’s nothing interesting here at all, plus the heat from the sun is beginning to make my spikes itch. Let’s go back and check the ship.’

The pair changed direction and started to head east, walking in the general direction of the mechanic shop. Suddenly, a group of angry-looking aliens appeared from behind a large tent structure about fifty metres away from their current position. They looked rather threatening and advanced towards Saleek and Patrick, some of them wielding clubs for weapons.

‘Uh…Saleek?’ said Patrick worriedly.

‘C’mon, let’s turn around. We’ll take the long way back to the ship. We don’t want any trouble,’ the lyan said sensibly.

The two turned around only to be confronted by a second group of angry aliens who had appeared from out of nowhere and were also advancing towards them.

‘Shit…’ breathed Patrick as the reality of the situation dawned on him. ‘They’ve got us trapped.’

‘What do you want?’ bellowed Saleek in a voice loud enough that both parties could hear him.

No response from either group.

‘If it’s money, you’re outta luck. We ain’t got any!’

Still no response. The first group of aliens were only around twenty metres away from the duo now.

‘Saleek, what do we do?’ asked Patrick in a panicked voice.

He glanced from one group to the other, trying to determine which advancing party looked the least threatening. Sadly, they were both as unpleasant-looking as each other.

‘See that narrow alley over there, between the two huts to your right?’ said Saleek quietly so as not to announce his plan to the oncoming thugs. Patrick looked.

‘Yeah?’ responded the human.

‘I’ll try and distract them. You make a break for it – head for that alley and get to safety. I’ll join you as soon as I can.’

‘You’re not going to try and fight them are you? We’re completely outnumbered! There must be at least twenty of them altogether,’ pointed out Patrick concernedly.

Saleek glanced at the worried human.

‘No time to argue, here they come! Go, Patrick! Go!’ he hissed as he shoved the human in the direction of the alley.

Patrick glanced back at Saleek before putting his head down and sprinting for the nearest alley.

‘Hey, check this out!’ yelled Saleek loudly as he darted towards the closest group of aliens and kicked up a huge cloud of sand with his right foot.

The wind picked up and whipped the grains of sand into the aliens’ faces with great speed, temporarily blinding them. As they cried out and clawed their eyes with their hands, paws and other appendages, Saleek changed direction and ran towards the other group of aliens who were now mere metres away. The lyan screamed something incoherent and launched a flying kick into the nearest alien’s torso. The unfortunate creature took the kick full force in his chest and was catapulted several metres backwards, knocking a number of other aliens off their feet in the process.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s feet pounded the sandy ground hard. He tried to run quickly to safety but the sand kept giving way as he placed his heavy boots on it and this slowed him down considerably. He had almost made it to the narrow alley when one of the aliens caught up to him and lashed a kick at the human’s ankles. Patrick lost his balance and fell over onto the ground. He quickly picked himself up and spat out the sand which had unfortunately got into his mouth when he had fallen. Alas he was not quite quick enough scrambling back to his feet.

Now he was surrounded by a group of five aliens of varying heights and builds, all of whom looked menacing. Left with no choice, the human reluctantly raised his hands into a fighting stance and got ready. One of the aliens to the left of Patrick raised a club with his right hand and jumped at the human, thrashing about wildly with his weapon. Patrick backpedalled to get out of the way, right into another alien who threw his arms around him and clasped his hands together tightly in a bear hug. Patrick dug his heels into the ground and pushed off, forcing the alien who held him to lean back. The human then drove those heels into the club-wielding alien, who took the blow in his abdomen. Spluttering and coughing, he dropped his club and fell to the ground, clutching his body. Patrick then freed one of his hands and grabbed his other assailant’s right wrist. Straining with all his might, Patrick managed to twist the wrist, forcing the alien to let go and making him howl in pain. The human then shifted his bodyweight, grabbed the alien’s arms and threw him to the ground with a hip-toss. Adrenaline flowing freely around his body and his heart rate quickening, Patrick looked around to see who would try and attack him next.

A tall, strong-looking alien with four large arms (instead of the usual two) bounded forward, snarling a vicious battle cry of sorts. For a moment, Patrick was frozen to the spot as he took in the sight of the enormous creature coming towards him before he suddenly regained his awareness. He bent his knees and darted forwards. The alien made a peculiar snorting sound in surprise as he obviously expected Patrick to either cower in fear or run away as fast as his legs could carry him. The clever human did neither – he bent low and ducked under the oncoming creature’s arms and performed a slightly clumsy yet undeniably effective forward roll, grabbing the dropped club from the sandy ground as he landed. Grasping the basic weapon tightly with both hands, Patrick swung it at a nearby alien. The alien was caught off-guard and was knocked off his feet by the impact of the club on his jaw. Patrick was starting to grow in confidence now and in a strange sort of way, he was almost having fun as he wielded the weapon aggressively, knocking over another alien with ease and making the rest take several steps backwards to get out of range of the human’s swings. It was all going well until Patrick made the fateful mistake of becoming overconfident. He actually grinned as he held the club aloft with his right hand as if he was proclaiming victory over the hostile aliens. Unfortunately, this did not last long.

An odd-looking alien stepped towards Patrick. It had a tall and thin body with awkward-looking, spindly limbs. The whole structure of its physique didn’t look strong enough to support its gigantic head but somehow it managed to do so. The creature’s jaw was wide and its mouth was at least as wide as the human’s shoulders, if not bigger. The alien smiled and exposed humongous teeth but Patrick was not worried. The human confidently took up a stance reminiscent of the baseball players he used to watch back on the outer colonies when he was younger, holding his club high, ready to strike. All of a sudden, a long tongue lashed out of the alien’s mouth and wrapped around the tip of the human’s weapon. Before Patrick even realised what was going on, the tongue had retracted and the creature now held the club in between its massive teeth. The alien appeared to grin sadistically before closing his mouth and shattering the club with ease. Patrick gulped as hard, brown splinters fell to the floor and became lost in the sand. As the alien stepped forwards, now flanked by many others, Patrick took several involuntary steps backwards to try and maintain some distance between him and them. It was then that no fewer than four aliens pounced on the human from behind and both sides all at once. Patrick was quickly immobilised but he continued to struggle desperately even as the aliens picked him up and carted him off like he was a crate full of food that was late being delivered to a banquet.

Saleek, on the other hand, was faring better than his human counterpart. Thanks to his impressive natural agility, speed and lightning-fast reflexes, the lyan barely had a scratch on him. He ducked under yet another attempted punch and retaliated with a quick hook to what he assumed was his attacker’s ribs. There was a sickening cracking sound as something in the alien’s body gave way and the poor creature howled in pain before falling to the ground. Saleek then had to move fast in order to evade a grab attempt by a large, slimy creature coming at him from his left. This particular creature was strong but painfully slow by Saleek’s standards. The lyan spun out of the way before launching into a spinning tornado kick which connected with the right side of his attacker’s face. The impact somehow travelled through the alien’s whole body, causing a ripple effect to move back and forth over its slimy, shiny skin. This creature too fell to the ground groaning in pain. Saleek stopped momentarily to weigh up his options and decide on his next move and it was then that he noticed Patrick being unceremoniously carried away by four aliens.

‘Hey! Hey!! What are you doing? Let him go!’ yelled Saleek in vain.

The four aliens ignored his pleas and continued to carry a still-struggling Patrick away from the fight. Saleek started to run after them but he swiftly had to skid to a halt after no fewer than ten aliens quickly stepped in front of him, blocking his way.

‘Damn it,’ cursed the lyan as he realised that there was no way he could beat all ten of them – at least, not before the other aliens were long gone with his friend and to make matters worse, he had no way to track them.

I really don’t wanna do this, but I don’t see any other way outta this one, thought Saleek bitterly.

He cursed in frustration one more time before turning around and running away from the group of now-scattered aliens as fast as he could. Some of them simply stood still and shouted after him waving their balled-up fists in the air while others attempted to pursue him, but it was no use – Saleek was far faster than any of them. Within seconds he had put some considerable distance between himself and the following aliens and within a few more seconds he had darted behind a nearby tent and was gone.

***

Back aboard the ship, Zeeree was passing the time by going through some simple puzzles. She would set the ship’s built-in computer some parameters and random values and create a problem then she would try and beat it in getting to the solution. The basic computer though was no match for her superior problem-solving capabilities and vast intellect – she won easily every time. Truth be told, she was bored. The ship had been refuelled and recharged and she had gone over every system, subsystem and sensor to which she was connected no less than three times. Everything checked out OK and the ship was ready to fly again. She was mildly irritated with Saleek and Patrick for just leaving her alone for so many hours. With the ship grounded she could not move anywhere; there was insufficient technology on the planet to connect to any data-stream whatsoever and all the sand flying around everywhere was playing havoc with her sensors – she could barely register the life-signs in the mechanic shop a couple of hundred metres away. She was a highly intelligent artificial construct and she needed stimulation to keep active. Add all this up and you had a considerably ticked-off AI. However, for better or worse, she did not have long to wait for a new problem to present itself. Seconds after she had beaten the computer for the seven hundredth and thirty ninth time, her sensors registered a lyan sprinting towards the ship at top speed. Saleek, for it was he, ran up the already-lowered ramp, through the hatch and into the corridors of the craft. Moments later, he burst into the cockpit, breathing very heavily indeed. Zeeree’s face popped up on the main view screen against a backdrop of pure white

‘Saleek, what is wrong? Are you all right?’

The spiky alien rested a hand on a nearby chair to steady himself. For several seconds he did not reply, his chest was heaving and he was making very loud panting sounds.

After he had recovered enough to speak again, the lyan raised his head to meet Zeeree’s blue eyes and said, ‘Get the ship ready for takeoff. Now!’

Zeeree instantly began priming the launch systems but looked at Saleek with a quizzical expression on her features.

‘Would you mind telling me exactly what is going on? Where is Patrick?’

‘That’s…the problem,’ said Saleek in between sucking in great lungfuls of the ship’s somewhat stale air.

He made his way to the pilot’s chair, sat down and started pressing buttons on the control panel.

‘He’s been taken,’ finished Saleek.

‘What? By whom?’ demanded Zeeree.

‘By a bunch of aliens who were pissed off ‘bout something,’ came the reply. ‘I barely managed to get away myself. And I have a feelin’ I know who they’re workin’ for.’

‘Who?’

‘Mr Vallan.’

Zeeree’s eyes widened, then she regained her confused expression and shook her head from side to side.

‘Saleek, are you sure about this? How could Mr Vallan possibly have sent anyone after you? He doesn’t even know where you are.’

‘I’m guessin’ he does now,’ replied the spiky lyan. ‘Those aliens that jumped us came outta nowhere and headed straight for us. They didn’t try and rob us or kill us – they captured Patrick and they tried to take me too. That means that they’re workin’ for someone else. There ain’t no reason to keep us imprisoned somewhere on this dustbowl of a planet that I can think of. This is the first time I’ve ever set foot on this hunk of sandy rock and I haven’t had time to piss anyone off yet. It’s gotta be Vallan tryin’ to get revenge for being double-crossed.’

Zeeree’s rich blue eyes narrowed just a little as she still remained unconvinced.

‘But how would they even know who you are? There must be hundreds of different species of washed-up aliens on this planet. You and Patrick wouldn’t even stand out in a place like this.’

‘I don’t have all the answers, Zeeree,’ said Saleek, getting a touch fed up with the AI’s constant questions. ‘Maybe he sent out a galaxy-wide message to all the thugs on his payroll and told ‘em who to look out for. Maybe he offered them a big reward or something. I dunno, just trust me on this. I got a feelin’.’

‘So you’re sure it is Mr Vallan that is behind this?’

‘Either him or someone who’s workin’ for him,’ said Saleek as he finished typing commands into the console on his left. ‘I honestly thought we’d be safe out here in the Barren Lands of all places. Can’t believe that guy’s got contacts everywhere. Close the main hatch, power up the thrusters and retract the landing struts once we’re airborne.’

‘Aren’t you forgetting about Patrick? Are you just going to leave him here?’ asked Zeeree in disbelief, her eyes widening once again.

Saleek managed a small smile.

‘I’m not a total asshole, Zeeree. Of course I’m gonna rescue him.’

‘And you’re going to accomplish this by flying away?’

‘Look, there must’ve been at least twenty people that attacked us and there may be more wherever they’re takin’ Patrick to. I can’t possibly beat ‘em all by myself and get him outta there in one piece.’

‘So where are we going then?’ asked a thoroughly confused Zeeree.

Saleek’s smile broadened.

‘To get some help.’

Chapter 22

Lieutenant Tuk walked at a brisk pace along the corridors of his precinct building. He stepped into his office and jabbed the wall contact with a stubby thumb, which caused the door to slide shut and lock with a low clunk sound. Satisfied that he would not be interrupted, Tuk marched over to his desk and put the pile of files that he had been carrying down on the somewhat grimy surface.

He sat down in his large, comfortable chair and whispered to the computer in a quiet voice, ‘Suspend all monitoring sensors in this room. Authorisation Tuk, pass-code Gurrilan seven seven two.’

The computer beeped in response and a message flashed up on the screen confirming that all sensors and recording devices had been turned off. Satisfied that the room was secure, Tuk then proceeded to lean back into the padding of the chair and put his feet up on the desk. He grabbed a nearby container and downed the contents, slurping noisily as he drank. The container was soon empty and after giving it a gentle shake to make sure there wasn’t any more of the beverage left inside, the lieutenant tossed it towards a large, overflowing bin adjacent to the desk. He missed and the container bounced off the wall and landed on the carpeted floor with a soft bump. Sighing, Tuk put his hands behind his rather bulbous head and closed his eyes. Before he could drift off and enjoy his nap however, he was startled into sitting up straight by a beeping sound coming from the computer.

‘Computer, what is it?’ he snapped angrily.

‘Incoming transmission on a secure com channel,’ answered the computer in a monotone voice.

Suddenly, Tuk sat bolt upright and his eyes widened.

‘Source of the transmission?’ he asked nervously.

‘Unable to trace transmission source. Com channel has been secured with quad-level encryption,’ replied the computer.

The Lieutenant gulped audibly. There was only one person who would ever contact him using that level of secrecy.

Tuk scrambled to clear various empty packets and messy files out of the way as he said, ‘Computer, display transmission immediately.’

One of the monitors on Tuk’s desk suddenly burst into life and showed a small man with a bald head and dark glasses resting on his sharp, slightly pointy nose. The creature was dressed in an immaculate and clearly expensive suit and was sitting in a fairly dark room with the only illumination provided by monitor screens and beeping lights which were just about visible in the background.

‘Lieutenant Tuk,’ said the man on the screen.

‘M-Mr Vallan,’ stammered Tuk as he attempted to smooth out the wrinkles in his shirt with sweaty hands. ‘H-How are you?’

‘I’ve been better but I shan’t complain,’ answered Mr Vallan as he clasped his bony hands together. ‘Let me get straight down to business.’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Tuk.

‘I have another shipment of product coming in on the south side of your precinct tonight. I expect you to route patrols away from this area for three hours, starting at 21:00 local time.’

‘It will be done. And I take it you will be moving some of the slave girls from your club in the Zalnar district as per usual?’

One could not be certain but it seemed as if Mr Vallan’s eyes narrowed behind his dark glasses. His body certainly tightened up after Tuk said this.

‘Do not presume to tell me my business arrangements or movements of my products, Tuk.’

‘I was only trying to-’

‘I know, you were trying to both impress me as well as distract my attention from the disgusting mess of empty food packets you have hidden in your pockets. There is no need for either. Just do what I tell you.’

The Lieutenant’s face fell.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And yes, I will be moving some of the older slave girls from the club to make room for some of the younger ones I have recently acquired from the pleasure resorts in the Lyquatraz system. Put your usual men on that task, will you?’

‘Yes, Mr Vallan. Oh, there is one thing that I have to mention.’

‘What is it?’

‘Your name turned up in one of our investigations into drug running but don’t worry, I put an end to that line of inquiry. You have nothing to worry about.’

‘Good, good. I would hate for any unwanted police attention to force me to delay or even cancel certain discreet payments that I make every month.’

‘Of course, Mr Vallan,’ said Tuk, understanding that that was an indirect reference to the thousands of credits of payoffs that he received every month for turning a blind eye to Vallan’s less than legal activities.

‘Fine, then we understand each other. I have to go now Lieutenant but I will be in contact within the week to organise the next series of shipments and drop-offs. Goodbye.’

Before Tuk could say anything else, Mr Vallan made a signal to somebody off-screen and the monitor on the Lieutenant’s desk went blank as the transmission ended. Tuk sat there staring at the black screen in silence for a while, before taking a deep breath and letting it out all in one go.

‘That guy thinks he’s so much better than me,’ he grumbled as he pressed a button on his computer terminal and several monitors all flashed into life. ‘I’d like to show him one of these days…’ he muttered as he reluctantly began altering the patrol schedule for 21:00 that evening.

Meanwhile in the dark room filled with screens and flashing lights, Mr Vallan used a spindly finger that was reminiscent of a spider’s leg to push his glasses further up on his nose. He was reading various messages that had been sent to him regarding various jobs – drugs, blackmail, theft, slavery – the list was endless (it certainly was hard work being a crime lord in this day and age). Suddenly he was interrupted by one of his underlings.

‘Sir?’ said a young male alien cautiously.

He was not much older than your average adolescent – his body was slim and his skin smooth. He was dressed in a light-coloured shirt and wore expensive trousers that complimented his equally expensive shiny shoes (Mr Vallan did not like to look at unattractive things so he made sure that his “associates” as he called them were always well dressed in the finest clothes). His eyes were bright and intelligent but mostly they remained fixed to the floor or a computer screen – he rarely made eye contact with anyone.

‘What?’ barked Mr Vallan without taking his eyes off the messages he was reading.

‘I, uh, have some information that I think you would like to know,’ said the underling somewhat nervously.

His eyes made their way up to look at Mr Vallan for a moment before quickly darting downwards to stare at the floor again.

‘Do I have to do everything myself around here? Am I the only one capable of making decisions?’ muttered Mr Vallan as he turned around in his chair. ‘Go on then, tell me,’ he demanded brusquely.

‘We have received a message from one of your cells in another system.’

‘So what? We receive messages from all over the galaxy – we have spies in every government and people on every planet that do work for us.’ Mr Vallan was about to turn around in his chair and resume checking his messages until the underling spoke again.

‘But sir, you asked to be notified if anyone brought you information about the lyan known as Saleek.’

That did it. Mr Vallan gave the boy his full attention and one side of his mouth began to curve upwards into a half-smile. Or perhaps half-sneer would be a more accurate description.

‘And?’ he prompted.

The underling gulped before hastily continuing, ‘He has been spotted on a remote planet in the Barren Lands. Your people report that they have captured his companion and are pursuing the lyan.’

Mr Vallan did not say anything but his sneer grew and contorted into a grotesque-looking smile.

After a while of extremely uncomfortable silence, the underling ventured, ‘Um, sir?’

‘Good. Very good. I was wondering when that spiky troublemaker would show up again,’ said Mr Vallan, rubbing his hands together as he imagined various ways he could torture Saleek and his human friend.

‘What do you want to do, sir?’

Mr Vallan’s thin lips parted and exposed his filthy, sharp teeth.

‘I’m going to take care of this personally. I want to show people what happens when they steal from me – ready my ship and prep for takeoff immediately! Plot a jump to the Barren Lands at once!’

***

After setting down his ship on the industrial and commerce planet Keldra Four, Saleek made his way from bar to bar in the biggest red light district of the northernmost continent. However, oiled-up flesh and gyrating body parts were not his reason for coming here, although he would admit that they were a bonus. He was looking for some people and he knew that they often hung around this region of this planet. Not that they were there for the beautiful, young bodies on display, but the drinks and entertainment were dirt cheap so that was their number one motivation for going there frequently on their downtime. Plus it was only a short journey from where they lived – a place on the outskirts of a nearby major city. The spiky lyan walked into yet another “entertainment outfit” that would be better described as “yet another dive bar”. The smell of body odour from more than a dozen different species combined with the smell of dried alcohol stuck to the floor and all topped off with thumping, incessant music was an unpleasant assault on the senses. Saleek wrinkled his nose with disgust as he tried to hold his breath and avoid breathing in too much of the air. He quickly made his way from the entrance to the back of the bar and then, after not finding who he was looking for, he returned to the entrance again, pausing only briefly to admire a very drunk (and very topless) female lyan dancing on top of a table and calling out for him to join her. As much as he loved a good party, this one would have to wait – he had bigger things to sort out, including getting rid of an artefact that constantly attracted the wrong sort of company and rescuing a new friend from a criminal hideout.

‘Same old, same old. One of these days these days I really am gonna have to get away from all this and take a proper vacation,’ said Saleek to nobody in particular as he exited the bar and walked onwards down the street.

He tried another ten bars and clubs but it was to no avail. Just as he was beginning to think that he would never find them, Saleek walked into a large bar and as his keen eyes scanned the room, he found the pair he was looking for – they were sat at a table towards the rear of the bar and drinking bottles of sandakk. A confident smirk fixed on his face, Saleek straightened his clothes and bounded over to them with a large helping of enthusiasm.

‘Hey, I don’t believe who it is! Kracht, Ellu, how are things guys?’ said the lyan as he approached.

The two people who were sat at the table turned around slowly to see who was talking to them. One of them was a very large individual who had to be at least six feet four inches in height and probably a good few feet in width as well. If this suggested he was overweight, that was not the case at all – he was a mountain constructed almost entirely of muscles and rock-hard reddish skin. His large head was bald and rather plain expect for a few strips of tattoos on the top of his skull and a couple of beady eyes that observed all around him with dark intensity. His arm rested on the table and he had a big, meaty hand clasped around a bottle of sandakk and there was a small mountain of empty bottles just by his elbow. Saleek couldn’t tell if it was his entrance or not, but the rather massive alien looked considerably pissed off as he looked at the lyan.

The second alien who was sitting at the table was quite different from the first. She was female for starters, and the first thing you noticed when you looked at her was her gorgeous mane of thick, luxurious hair that was blue in colour and worn in a very long plaited ponytail which reached the small of her back. She was around five feet ten inches tall and her body was lean, toned muscle which somehow retained an air of femininity about it. Her skin was lightly tanned orange and she had large, attractive eyes and lips on a slightly thin face with very high cheekbones. She was clad in tight-fitting pants and wore a halter-neck top which exposed her supple shoulders and lightly muscular arms. On her upper left arm there was a tattoo of what looked to be a lightning bolt. The female alien did not look pissed off like her friend did, but she didn’t exactly appear pleased either, as a look of surprise formed on her attractive features.

‘Well, well, well. Look who it is, Ellu. I ain’t seen ya in months, Saleek. Kinda surprised to see ya here actually. Shouldn’t ya be runnin’ away from someone?’ said the large alien as he turned back to his drink, giving the lyan the cold shoulder.

Saleek tried to brush off the hostility with a light-hearted chuckle as he looked at Ellu.

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Ellu, her brow furrowed in confusion.

‘Well, it’s kinda a long story really, but the upshot of it is-’

‘Here it comes,’ interrupted the large alien, still nursing his drink.

‘I sorta need your help,’ finished Saleek, looking a little embarrassed.

‘Bingo!’ said the large alien before taking a swig from his bottle and plonking it back down on the table.

He turned away slightly from Saleek, as if to emphasise his current feelings towards the lyan.

Saleek sighed.

‘Listen Kracht, I’m sorry about how things went down last time and you have every right to be pissed at me. I know I shoulda stayed with you but at the time I assumed you were already back at the ship. How was I to know you were still fightin’ those guyzorks?’

‘Hmph,’ snorted Kracht before downing his current drink.

He shoved it to the side with the rest of the mountain of empty bottles and reached forwards to grab a fresh one. Whereas most people would have had to use a bottle opener of some description, Kracht simply removed the cap with a deft flick of his strong thumb which sent it flying across the room, narrowly missing hitting a customer sat at the bar. Saleek looked pleadingly at Ellu. She was not as hostile as Kracht, but she did not look impressed with Saleek asking for something as soon as he had arrived and greeted them.

‘What is it this time, Saleek?’ she said, large eyes regarding him carefully.

‘Am I really that bad?’ said the spiky alien, genuinely a little surprised at the reception he was getting.

Ellu crossed her legs and fiddled with her drink, her eyes still burning into Saleek’s.

‘Well, you do have a habit of only turning up when you want something.’

‘That’s cold, Ellu,’ said Saleek with an expression of mock-hurt on his face. ‘And here I thought we were friends.’

Kracht snorted loudly in derision at that statement but said nothing.

‘Friendship requires a bit of give and take, Saleek,’ explained Ellu as she took a sip of her drink. ‘You mostly just take.’

Saleek sucked in a large breath and let it out in a deep sigh. He didn’t have time for this, he had been away from the Barren Lands for nearly a full day now. There was no telling what Patrick’s kidnappers might be doing to the poor human, especially now that they had surely worked out that Saleek was no longer on the planet. The spiky lyan looked at his shoes for a few moments, gathering his thoughts. This served to intrigue Ellu, as she was used to him blurting things out with nary a second thought. The look of concentration on his features was not one she was used to seeing and this made her consider the possibility that he was either in deeper trouble than usual or, just maybe, he had actually changed since they last saw one another. She patiently waited for Saleek to break the silence, which he did a few seconds later.

Staring deeply into Ellu’s eyes, the lyan said, ‘Look, for the first time in, well, ever I suppose, I’m gonna be completely honest with you. A little while ago, I met a human at a spaceport on Nexus One.’

‘A hoo-mann? What’s that? Sounds like somethin’ you find at the bottom of a dirty engine on a deep-space freighter…’ commented Kracht without looking up from his drink.

‘I think I’ve heard of that word before,’ said Ellu. ‘Isn’t it the name of a species that almost exclusively live on the outskirts of the galaxy?’

‘The outer colonies, yeah that’s right,’ confirmed Saleek before continuing. ‘Well, I kinda got involved in a bit of trouble and right now this poor human has been kidnapped by a bunch of guys who are only doin’ it to try and get to me. If I just leave him where he is, I’m afraid they’ll torture him then kill him and he’s innocent in all this. It wouldn’t be right, this ain’t his fault. It’s mine.’

‘So you got him into trouble and left him all by himself. Gee, where have I heard that one before?’ said Kracht before taking yet another swig of alcohol.

‘Look, I already said I was sorry ‘bout that,’ said Saleek, sensing that the big alien would rather do anything other than help him at that moment.

Desperately, he turned to look back into Ellu’s large eyes. If he was going to convince them to help him, he would have to do it by convincing her first.

‘You were pretty vague on the details of how you got in trouble. Before we even consider helping you out on this one, I want to know more about what you’ve done,’ said Ellu as she leaned back in her chair.

‘Could you say that without soundin’ like I get into trouble all the time?’ asked Saleek, getting a little tired of being treated like the lowest criminal in the galaxy.

‘Let’s see….nope, I don’t think I can,’ replied Ellu, her face deadpan.

Saleek let out a small chuckle and said, ‘OK, fair enough. Well, times have been hard lately and I didn’t have much money or fuel left, so I got a little…desperate. I double-crossed a fairly powerful guy with contacts all over the galaxy. One of his groups of thugs found us in the Barren Lands and they captured the human, and nearly captured me as well.’

Ellu’s forehead creased in confusion.

‘What in the galaxy were you doing in the Barren Lands? And how did you double-cross this guy?’ she inquired.

‘It’s kinda a long story,’ answered Saleek. ‘The short version is: I stole an ancient artefact from the guy. He’d been diggin’ ‘em up from the centre of Nexus One. Dunno how he knew they were there or who he got permission from to do that, but he did. Anyway, these things he dug up are really rare so they’re worth a ton of credits. Then, after we got the artefact and made our escape, things got gnarly. I wound up in the Barren Lands, got jumped by some thugs, escaped and came straight away to find you two and ask for your help. So…I’m goin’ back to rescue the human and I need some backup…what do you say?’

Before Ellu could reply, Kracht got annoyed and slammed his half-full bottle down on the table. He stood up, turned around and started to storm out.

‘You want my help? You got some nerve askin’ me after what happened last time!’ Kracht said as he stomped away.

He was stopped in his tracks when Saleek ran around to cut him off, holding up his hands.

‘Look, I did wrong last time and I made a mistake. I know that, OK? And I promise I’ll make it up to you, I really mean that this time. Once I’ve rescued this human I’ll be able to sell the artefact and I’ll give you forty percent of what I get for it.’

As soon as the spiky lyan mentioned money, Kracht’s expression changed. He started to consider his options.

‘Forty percent of how much?’ he asked bluntly.

‘Who knows? I should get at least twenty five thousand credits for it. Maybe as much as fifty thousand credits! Think of all that money, Kracht,’ said Saleek, deliberately trying to persuade the big alien to change his mind. ‘Think about what you could buy with all that.’

After the large alien hesitated, the lyan decided to press him on it.

‘Please Kracht, you’re my only hope! This poor human is innocent and he’s only involved because of me. He doesn’t know anything about the artefact but they’ll torture him to find out any information he has,’ Saleek pleaded, making his eyes wide in an attempt to convince the big alien to assist.

‘Don’t you think it’s more like “the human doesn’t know much about the artefact but he is more than capable of identifying Saleek and his transport ship and revealing everywhere the little thief has been over the last few days. This could land him in a whole lot of trouble with the authorities or a local crime boss, whichever find him first”?’ accused Ellu as she stood up and put her hands on her hips.

‘Well…perhaps there’s an element of that as well…’ Saleek admitted sheepishly. ‘But seriously, guys. I need help – I can’t do this without you. Ellu, remember all those jobs I did for your uncle last season? And remember when I got him that exceedingly rare cargo, and he only gave me a few credits for all my troubles?’

‘”A few credits” was somewhere in the region of eight thousand, if I remember correctly. And it was the amount that was agreed upon in advance,’ replied Ellu flatly.

‘I was attacked by pirates trying to loot my cargo and kill me in the process! Plus I burned out half the fuel injectors in order to get away and trust me, replacement parts for my ship don’t come cheap!’ Saleek protested.

‘Maybe if you got a new ship it’d be easier, instead of tryin’ to always fix that hunk o’ junk you fly round in,’ offered Kracht.

‘The only reason I had to push the engines so hard to escape was ‘cause that “trade dealer” your uncle spoke so highly of was definitely working for one criminal gang or another, and he never intended to let me leave with the cargo he just sold me! Your uncle knew it was risky, that’s why he never sent you guys, only me!’

Ellu seemed to soften slightly as Saleek said this.

‘Look…I admit that my uncle can sometimes be a little…flexible with his morals in certain situations, but I’m sure he didn’t know the risk was that great. If he did, he never would have sent anyone to try and make that deal in the first place,’ she said.

Saleek was no fool, however. He caught the slight change in her demeanour and his razor-sharp instincts told him he had found the right button to press.

‘Come on, Ellu. You know how I barely made it outta that one in one piece, with all my limbs attached and everything. I really trusted your uncle and look where it got me…’ he turned away from the two aliens and added, ‘I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. No one looks out for Saleek anymore, right? I guess I’ll have to try and make the rescue attempt myself, although I doubt the results will be pretty. This poor, innocent little human may not mean anything to you, but he does to me.’

Since he was facing away, Saleek couldn’t see, but Ellu visibly reacted when he said that and looked extremely uncomfortable.

‘And I guess it was foolish’ – Saleek continued as he turned back to face them – ‘to think that you could help me accomplish this. I mean, you’re only two people, right? What difference could you possibly make if we even attempted a rescue?’

‘Hey, hey, hey!’ exclaimed Kracht. ‘You tryin’ to say I couldn’t handle it?’

Saleek kept a straight face but grinned inwardly. He knew how aggressive the big guy got when he’d had a few drinks and it looked like he’d pressed the right buttons after all.

‘Well, I know you’re good in combat and everything-’ Saleek began.

‘”Good”? What the hell?! I’m great in combat and you know it! You’ve seen me in action and you know what I can do. Hell, it beats hanging round here in some dive bar waiting for the com to ring anyway!’ Kracht marched back to his table, grabbed his drink, downed it and plonked it back on the table with so much force that the bottle shattered upon impact, spraying the local patrons with shards of glass and droplets of sandakk in the process.

The bartender looked up for a moment upon hearing the glass shatter, before shrugging and continuing with his work. It was obviously the sort of place where trouble happened on an almost nightly basis, so no one looked twice at the commotion Kracht was creating.

‘I say let’s do it! I’ve been itchin’ for some action for weeks. All we gotta do is get in, crack some skulls, grab the hoo-mann and get outta there, right? Should be an easy way to make a few thousand credits! Let’s go!’

He seemed very pumped up and excited at the prospect of being able to kill some people and earn some money at the same time.

‘Hang on, Kracht. I’d like to help but I’m not sure we should be doing this…it sounds pretty dangerous. We don’t know exactly what we’re getting into,’ cautioned Ellu as she tried to calm him down.

‘Ah, c’mon, loosen up a little. The market’s been dead for ages. Hardly any work goin’ round or anything. Plus, we can always change our mind if your uncle contacts us on the com with a job. What else we gonna do round here anyway? Keep drinking all night till we run outta credits and they throw us out?’

She seemed to consider this for a moment, before replying,’ All right, we’ll see how we can help. After all, I’m sure this human is innocent and it’s not his fault he had the misfortune of running into Saleek and getting involved in one of his cons. Plus, it sure beats acting as your babysitter and making sure you don’t do any more damage in the local bars, Kracht. I take it you have a plan, Saleek?’

‘Well, now that you mention it…’ he said.

‘I knew you were scheming something all along. You’ll never change, will you?’ Ellu said, smiling as they all sat back down at their table.

‘Yeah, but that’s why you love me, right?’ answered Saleek with a wide grin plastered on his face.

‘You think that’s love? Oh, you poor thing. I tolerate you. Just barely,’ she said, teasing.

With his allies now prepared to help, Saleek laid out his plan for them. After he had explained his idea in full, Ellu looked at him in disbelief.

‘That’s your plan?’ she asked incredulously.

‘Yup,’ replied Saleek honestly.

‘It’s not even a proper plan! So, you’re basically just planning a frontal assault and expect us to get away with it?’

‘There’s a little more to it than that but….basically yeah. And trust me, we will get away with it!’

‘It sounds like my kinda plan!’ enthused Kracht. ‘I especially like the bit where I get to lead the assault!’

‘Rescue mission, Kracht. Not “assault”!’ corrected Ellu.

‘Heh, my mistake,’ chuckled Kracht with a grin on his face that indicated he didn’t really care what sort of mission it was as long as he got to fight someone.

Ellu look into Saleek’s eyes.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’

‘No, but that’s never stopped me before!’ quipped Saleek with a cocky smirk.

Ellu laughed before shaking her head in defeat as she was clearly outnumbered on this one.

‘I’ll say one thing about you, Saleek,’ she said as she stood up and got ready to leave.

‘What’s that?’ asked the lyan as he stood too.

‘Things are never boring when you’re around! Come on, let’s get going.’

Ellu finished her drink, set it back down on the table and started to make her way to the exit.

‘Just one more thing I gotta do first,’ said Saleek as he reached into his pocket and produced a small communications device which fitted neatly in the palm of his hand.

‘What is it?’ asked Ellu with one hand on her hip.

‘Just gotta make a quick call on the comlink before we leave. Won’t be long. You guys go on ahead, I’ll catch you up.’

Chapter 23

Restrained by two large, aggressive beings and flanked by two more, Patrick was led through the sandy streets of the settlement. As he was taken, the human attempted to spot any obvious landmarks or junctions and commit them to memory, so that if and when he was free, he would be able to find his way back to the centre of town and then back to the mechanic shop which he assumed was still fixing Saleek’s ship. At least, that was the plan he had formed when he realised that he was being captured again. However, it brought him little comfort as he struggled pointlessly against the two strong, unflinching aliens which currently held him, one on each arm. It didn’t seem very likely that he was going to be able to just wriggle free of their iron grips and make a quick break for it, so for now he played along. Patrick had always considered himself and his species to be reasonably intelligent, strong and fast but after spending a little time away from the outer colonies he had been forced to radically alter this view. Sure, humans were apparently famous throughout this Galactic Network of planets for their intrepid, indomitable spirit, their thirst for knowledge and their desire to better themselves. However, it was rapidly becoming clear to Patrick that humans had a long way to go if they were ever to be considered anything more than a minor curiosity to the majority of aliens who lived in this galaxy. He had spent a little time observing trantiks, semloids, oomlocks and also lyans and Patrick was forced to admit that every single one of those species was either taller, stronger or faster than humans. In some cases, all three. He cursed his naivety and his arrogance for not researching more about other species before he left New Earth to journey into the core systems. For one reason or another, alien biology and cultures were not taught much in the schools in the human outer colonies. Patrick now had an inkling as to why this might be: because humans were no longer alone in the universe, they could no longer pretend that they were the strongest, most intelligent life-form to ever evolve. Therefore, this was the only way to avoid the unpalatable truth that while humans were adaptable and creative they actually had much more to learn from their alien counterparts than they had to teach them.

The two heavy thugs led Patrick away from the main settlement and into the sandy dunes beyond. After braving wicked winds which whipped up the sand into a frenzy so that it danced and played on the hills and seared the human’s eyes as he watched, Patrick was eventually led into a camp of sorts, built into the side of a very large sand dune. He was half-dragged into a cave, then into one tunnel and through another. After another minute or so, he arrived at his new accommodation, which left rather a lot to be desired. This particular chamber was fairly large, but the smell was almost overwhelming – the putrid odour of decaying flesh and decomposing bodies was nauseating. Patrick gagged and just about managed to stop himself from showing his captors what he had eaten earlier on that day. There were several cages in the roughly circular chamber. The one nearest to the entrance was the largest and there were about six or seven other, smaller cages which were dotted around the rest of the room. The cages were all devoid of life except for one, which had what appeared to be some kind of alien that resembled a hybrid dog/bird creature trapped inside. The trapped alien flapped its stubby wings and made a guttural barking sound as Patrick and the others entered the chamber. Before he could say a word, Patrick was flung with some force into the nearest and largest cage, where he landed in a heap on the floor. By the time he had picked himself up, the thugs that had been escorting him had slammed the cage door shut and locked it.

‘Hey, wait a minute. Hey!’ called out Patrick as the aliens began to leave.

They paid him no attention and quickly left the chamber, leaving Patrick with nothing other than the angry dog/bird creature several cages away from him for company.

‘What the hell?’ muttered Patrick under his breath. This was quickly followed by a ‘How do I get myself into these messes?’ as he wandered up to the cage door and tried to open it.

Unsurprisingly, the door barely budged and the lock seemed pretty robust and secure.

‘Damn it!’ the human cursed.

He was fed up with being treated like a piece of meat that didn’t even warrant any kind of respect at all. He slowly started to pace around his cage, which was around two and a half metres high and about six metres by six metres in area. The floor was just hard rock that was scratched and slightly uneven. The only decoration in the cage, if one could call it that, was a pile of bones in the corner which had probably belonged to a previous occupant. Patrick briefly inspected the pile before starting to pace once again. He didn’t know what the creature had been, but it had quite a large skull with a few big teeth still present in the mandibles so he didn’t want to get too close to it. After a while, he realised that he was just wasting energy pacing around, so he found the least uncomfortable patch of rocky floor and gingerly sat down on it. Patrick took a deep breath and tried to think of a way out. After about ten minutes of coming up with nothing, emotion got the better of him and he let out a frustrated scream which echoed off the walls of the chamber and did nothing except start the dog/bird creature barking again. His efforts at escaping thwarted, the human put his head in his hands and closed his eyes, feeling very alone and very vulnerable.

Chapter 24

Sergeant Joval took a deep breath and let it out rather forcefully as he put on his thick combat gloves and began suiting up. He was in the police station’s armoury and sat on a cold, grey bench, getting ready for his upcoming mission. Actually, perhaps mission wasn’t quite the right word. It wasn’t like it had been sanctioned by his commander or anything. Joval was acting of his own accord and whilst the spoils would be many if he succeeded, he feared he might lose his job or worse if he failed. The resulting turmoil swam around in his stomach and made him feel nauseated whilst simultaneously gnawing at the back of his mind. He genuinely wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing in this situation. It was a risk but he wasn’t sure it was one he should be taking – he had a steady job in the Galactic Police and a flawless service record to date. Why should he risk that for something he had been told to leave well alone by his Lieutenant? The thing was, the system did not always work and the more criminals that got away when it was clear they should be punished or incarcerated, the more Joval got a feeling that his day to day job didn’t always matter. Sure, he put away some low-level criminals but they usually got out again after a few months of incarceration and the bigger criminals almost never got caught. Not in his precinct at any rate. He wanted to feel like he mattered, to truly make a difference to the local area and make it safer for good, law-abiding citizens and to do that, he felt like it was his moral duty to not do his actual duty – to try and put away a true criminal, even if that meant going against a direct order from his superior.

As he wrestled with the potential consequences of his decision to apprehend this particular criminal, Joval didn’t even realise he had stopped getting ready and started to just stare off into space.

He was suddenly brought back to reality by a female voice to his left saying gently, ‘Sergeant? Sergeant Joval?’

The tall, strong alien snapped his neck to his left a little too quickly in the direction of the voice and grimaced as he felt a pang of pain shoot up the side of his neck. As he rubbed his neck with a gloved hand, Joval laid eyes on the owner of the voice. It was Le’Mi, flanked by Tylorran on one side and Hazir on the other.

‘Uh…yes, Le’mi? What is it?’

The slender female looked at the Sergeant carefully with scrutinizing eyes.

‘What are you doing, sir?’ she asked.

‘I…um…’ started Joval, before taking a little too long to think of a convincing lie.

‘You off somewhere, sarge?’ interrupted Tylorran.

He was chewing something in his slightly chubby cheeks but Joval could not see a packet or container of food anywhere about his person. The Sergeant sighed softly.

‘How did you know I was down here?’ he asked, avoiding the questions from his squad-mates.

‘Does it really matter?’ said Le’Mi, taking a step closer.

She was about to take another step towards Joval but he looked directly at her with a somewhat stern expression on his face and she thought better of it.

‘I was very careful to make sure that no one saw me come down to the armoury,’ explained Joval as he stood up, stretching his back to reach his full height of six feet three inches. ‘So why are the three of you now standing here in front of me?’

If he managed to intimidate Le’Mi – who took a small step backwards at this – he did not succeed in affecting either Tylorran or Hazir, the latter maintaining his trademark blank expression on his features as he stood perfectly still.

After a few moments of silence, Hazir piped up and said, ‘We were concerned about you, sir.’

Joval blinked a couple of times, staring at Hazir. ‘What? Why?’ he asked, somewhat confused.

‘Your behaviour over the last few days has been….uncharacteristic of you,’ explained Hazir, struggling to find the right words.

‘Yeah, you ain’t been quite yourself lately, sarge. You’ve been real secretive about stuff and haven’t talked to anyone much,’ added Tylorran.

Le’Mi clasped her willowy hands together and brought them up to her chest, looking at Joval under large eyelashes. She wanted to say something but didn’t. Joval sighed again and his head dropped. Feeling a little silly for reacting with such hostility, he turned around and sat back down on the bench.

‘I apologise. I know you are all simply looking out for me. And I also know now that it is harder than I thought to fool fellow police officers – you’ve all got excellent instincts, so I suppose I should commend you on finding me.’

Tylorran stepped forwards.

‘Although we are all worried ‘bout you sarge, to be completely honest we didn’t really notice at first. It was Le’Mi who pointed it out to us.’

Le’Mi’s eyes suddenly became very wide and she glanced at Tylorran with a look on her face that said, ‘Why are you telling him it was me?’

However, Joval simply smiled as he said, ‘Not only do you have excellent hearing but you also have a very sharp mind, Le’Mi. I’m clearly going to have to keep an eye on you in future.’

The slender female’s mouth dropped open in surprise, before forming an attractive-looking smile on her lips as her expression softened.

‘Thank you, Sergeant,’ she said.

‘So, you gonna tell us what this is all ‘bout, sarge?’ said Tylorran.

‘I suppose there is no point in trying to maintain secrecy anymore,’ said Joval. ‘I have received some intelligence regarding a suspect. I am preparing to take a flyer and meet up with some fellow officers. From there we are moving to a certain location to try and apprehend this suspect.’

‘That’s it?’ asked Le’Mi, surprise written all over her face. ‘Well, that’s simple enough. Why did you try and hide it?’

‘Come closer, all of you,’ instructed Joval.

The three did so, standing around the Sergeant as he remained seated.

‘Look, the reason I was so secretive was because I didn’t want to involve you in this. It might be dangerous and it definitely isn’t a sanctioned mission so I didn’t want to jeopardise either your lives or your careers by getting you caught up in this,’ explained Joval in a low voice.

‘You are about to conduct an unauthorised mission? That is very unlike you, sir,’ commented Hazir.

‘Surely it would be safer if you had as many people with you as possible for support?’ said Le’Mi. ‘Why don’t we all go with you?’

‘No,’ replied Joval firmly. When Le’Mi looked a bit upset, he elaborated, ‘As I said, I am disregarding an order by doing this. You are all bright, capable officers and the Galactic Police needs people like you. I don’t want this precinct to lose several talented individuals because of my actions.’

‘If I may, sir, you are one of the brightest and most capable officers with whom I have ever worked. What if the Galactic Police lost only you? That would still be a tragic loss,’ said Hazir.

‘I’ve never ever seen the sarge break the rules before. If he is, then it must be a big case. If so, I want in,’ said Tylorran with a grin.

Before Joval could say anything, Hazir added, ‘I too. I believe the success of this mission, whatever it is, would be far more likely with the whole squad on it working together. I propose we all go with you, sir.’

Then Le’Mi chimed in with, ‘Then it’s settled! Sergeant Joval, we’ve all got your back. We’re going with you.’

Joval looked from Le’Mi to Tylorran to Hazir and then back again. He couldn’t believe what his squadmates were willing to do for him and he did have to admit that he didn’t know how many people he would be facing when he attempted this arrest, so the more help he had, the better.

He couldn’t stop himself from smiling as he said, ‘All right then. I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could convince you otherwise?’

This was met with three people shaking their heads vigorously in a resounding ‘no’.

Joval’s smile grew.

‘OK, then you’d all better hurry and get suited up. We leave ASAP.’

All three proceeded to move to the armoury lockers and began to remove equipment and weapons.

‘So, who is the target that you want to apprehend, Sergeant?’ asked Le’Mi as she slipped on her gloves.

Joval looked up from lacing his heavy boots and replied, ‘A known criminal called Mr Vallan.’

Chapter 25

With a bright flash of light and a harsh crackling sound, Saleek’s vessel ripped a temporary hole in the fabric of the universe and flew back into normal space. The energy surrounding the craft hissed and popped as it dissipated, forming long lines and arcs of white which clawed and danced their way across the blackness of space till they were no more.

In the pilot’s chair at the front of the ship’s cockpit, Saleek said, ‘Report, Zeeree.’

‘All systems functioning normally. I am calculating our current position based on local star constellations,’ announced Zeeree, her face looming large on the main view screen.

‘Well, I’m glad that’s over,’ muttered Kracht from his chair.

Ellu glanced across at him from her station, which was several metres behind Saleek and a metre or so to the left of where Kracht was sitting.

‘Something wrong, Kracht?’ she asked playfully.

The big alien scowled as he looked back at her.

‘You know damn well what’s wrong. You know I hate flyin’ through super-space,’ he replied as he crossed his massive arms defensively.

‘I don’t believe you sometimes,’ said Ellu with a smile on her lips. ‘You make out that you’re the toughest, nastiest guy around who would just as soon kill someone as look at them and when it comes right down to it, you’re afraid of a little thing like flying.’

‘I ain’t afraid of nothing. And it ain’t flyin’ that bothers me, it’s when we temporarily pop into another part of the universe when we fly through super-space. It weirds me out,’ insisted Kracht.

That particular conversation was interrupted by Zeeree announcing, ‘Position check complete. We are right where we’re supposed to be. Coming up on the third planet in the local solar system…now.’

The AI’s blue face faded away and the view screen turned to black with an orange blob in the centre, getting bigger by the second.

‘That’s our planet,’ said Saleek determinedly.

‘That little hunk of rock? Hardly call that a planet,’ commented Kracht as he leaned back in his chair.

The chair responded by creaking and whining as it struggled to support the large alien’s massive frame and weight.

‘That’s where Patrick is being held. OK Zeeree, scan for human life-signs,’ instructed the lyan.

Ellu looked at Saleek with wide eyes.

‘You mean you aren’t even sure where he is being kept prisoner? What kind of rescue attempt is this?’ she asked in disbelief.

‘The kind that will work,’ insisted Saleek as he typed instructions into the pilot’s console. ‘Humans are rare in every part of the galaxy ‘cept the outer colonies. They’re pretty much unheard of in the Barren Lands so I’m willing to bet that right now Patrick is the only human down there on that planet.’

The spiky alien turned his head to look back at Ellu. ‘Happy now?’

‘Not exactly,’ answered the blue-haired girl a little uneasily. ‘But you’re the boss. This rescue mission is your idea so we’ll just follow your lead.’

‘I just hope it doesn’t take too long. I’m dyin’ for some action,’ said Kracht, cracking his knuckles in anticipation of a good fight.

‘You’ll get your chance soon enough,’ said Saleek. ‘Zeeree? Any luck locating Patrick?’

‘I have located a human life-sign. Actually, I have located three,’ said Zeeree.

‘What?’ asked Saleek in confusion.

‘Now I make it four. No, five. Definitely five.’

‘What’s going on?’ inquired Ellu.

‘I am picking up several faint human life-signs in a region of the planet approximately one Drekkma in diameter but they are very erratic. I can think of two explanations for this. The first is that somebody down there has a penchant for kidnapping humans and Patrick is the latest addition to their collection. The alternative is that Patrick is being kept underground and the rock is interfering with my scans,’ said Zeeree.

‘If you’re going to keep someone prisoner on a barren desert planet, it would make sense to keep them underground. It would be cooler and safer there than on the surface. It will also make our job harder,’ said Ellu as she studied various read-outs on her station monitor.

‘Zeeree, prepare to descend into the planet’s atmosphere and take us to within twenty Drekkmas of the human life-signs. That’ll be close enough to run some more detailed scans and far away enough that we shouldn’t attract any attention,’ said Saleek hopefully.

‘Understood. Preparing for descent,’ responded Zeeree as she took control of the craft’s navigational systems.

‘Kracht, you’d better get suited up and ready for action,’ said Saleek. ‘I’ll join you as soon as Zeeree has completed her more detailed scan so that we know what we’re up against.’

‘Finally!’ exclaimed Kracht as he got up and clapped his hands together in excitement.

He turned on his heels and marched quickly towards the exit from the cockpit.

‘All my gear is in Cargo Hold One. Meet me down there and then we’ll get this show on the road,’ called Kracht over his shoulder as he walked through the exit.

‘When we do this I’m leaving the ship, and Zeeree, in your hands, Ellu,’ said Saleek. ‘Take good care of ‘em.’

‘Do I need to remind you that I am perfectly capable of looking after both myself and the ship without any babysitters?’ said Zeeree in a slightly hurt voice. She turned her head, which had popped up on the main view screen, to look at Ellu. ‘No offence, Ellu,’ she added.

‘None taken, Zeeree,’ replied Ellu with a small smile. ‘But do I need to remind you that as an AI you are incapable of using any of this ship’s weapon systems? If things get ugly as we get near the surface, we need to be able to defend ourselves. That means I’m staying right here with you.’

‘I can’t wait,’ said Zeeree sarcastically.

‘Now, now, Zeeree,’ intervened Saleek. ‘I know you two aren’t the best of friends but you gotta get along till this rescue mission is wrapped up and we’re all safely back aboard, OK?’

‘Not a problem for me,’ said Ellu.

Saleek looked hard at Zeeree.

The AI seemed to sigh before reluctantly saying, ‘Fine. I apologise. We’ll work together. I’ll be in charge of sensors, navigation, flying, monitoring and everything else. Ellu, you can be in charge of pressing the trigger.’

‘Oh, you’re so kind. How about I dump your memory files into the engine room computer and then you won’t be able to bother me while I’m up here in the cockpit, saving the day?’ retorted Ellu in a voice that hovered between sarcasm and seriousness.

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ said Zeeree, her blue eyes turning darker than usual and narrowing as they looked hard at Ellu.

Saleek looked at Zeeree, then at Ellu, then back at Zeeree again, before sighing in exasperation.

‘Great. Just great. If the thugs down there don’t kill us, you two’ll probably wind up crashing the ship or something over one of your stupid arguments.’

‘Sorry, Saleek. If she’ll stop provoking me, I promise I’ll keep it together and provide covering fire for you while you’re planetside,’ said Ellu.

Zeeree simply said ‘Hmph!’ and rolled her eyes which was the AI’s equivalent of folding her arms and turning away.

‘If you two can stop trying to kill each other for five minutes, maybe we can actually pull this one off. Work it out, will ya?’ said Saleek.

***

Around fifteen minutes later, the craft was hovering above a barren, lifeless stretch of desert about twenty kilometres away from where Patrick was being kept prisoner.

‘Well?’ prompted Saleek, wishing that Zeeree would hurry up a bit.

He was a quick thinker and an even quicker doer, some might say he was impulsive and that was probably true at times but he would rather take action and live with the consequences than sit around and plan things for days on end. As such, his plans were usually simple and straight to the point (although he did usually have a plan B as insurance as well) and the lyan was desperate to get this particular one underway.

‘I’m afraid my scans are still somewhat inconclusive,’ admitted Zeeree, looking ever so slightly embarrassed as her face popped up in the bottom-right corner of the main view screen.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Ellu curiously.

With Zeeree’s face still in the corner, the screen flickered and changed to a view of computer generated blueprints of a structure set into a large sand dune, complete with a vast network of tunnels and rooms underground.

‘As you can see,’ said the AI as the blueprints became three dimensional and began to rotate on the screen, ‘this is where I am picking up the human life-signs, as shown by the glowing white dots on the map. However, this structure is a veritable labyrinth of passageways, tunnels and rooms. It will be difficult for you to navigate this maze safely and, once they know we are here, time will be of the essence. I doubt you will have long to find Patrick and make your escape.’

‘And who are “they”, exactly?’ asked Saleek, his face a mask of concentration as he studied the screen intently.

The glowing white dots, of which there were five, vanished and were replaced by forty red dots, scattered throughout the whole structure.

‘I am picking up approximately forty non-human life-signs in and around the structure. I can’t be certain but there appears to be at least a dozen different species here, perhaps more. The material in the support structures and the rock below the surface are making it impossible to be sure. There may be fewer than forty hostile people down there. On the other hand….there could be more than forty,’ said Zeeree, looking a tiny bit nervous as she revealed this information.

If Saleek was getting nervous too, he was remarkably good at hiding it – he didn’t move a single muscle as Zeeree said this.

‘Those aren’t great odds, Saleek. You and Kracht against forty people, maybe more?’ said Ellu, looking concerned from her station.

‘I’ve faced worse than this before,’ said Saleek casually. ‘So has Kracht. We’re both still here so we must be doing something right.’

‘I only hope you aren’t pushing your luck on this one.’

‘Well, we’ll find out when it’s all over, won’t we?’ said Saleek confidently.

Ellu let out a small, humourless laugh. ‘Very comforting,’ she replied, returning her attention to the read-outs in front of her.

‘OK, let’s do this,’ said Saleek as he stood up from the pilot’s chair. ‘Ellu, you know the plan. Zeeree, do you remember what I told you to do?’

‘Of course I remember. I am incapable of forgetting anything,’ said Zeeree very matter-of-factly.

The lyan sucked in a large amount of air and let it out rather explosively, as if trying to prepare himself for what was about to happen.

‘OK, this is it. Warm up the engines and get ready. When I give the signal, we start the rescue!’

***

In the emptiness of Cargo Hold One, Saleek and Kracht stood by the main hatchway. The lyan was wearing a thin yet strong armour-vest of some shiny material which would allow for maximum mobility whilst providing a reasonable degree of protection from attacks. In his back pockets he carried twin energy pistols and in his left hand he cradled a medium sized brown disc with flashing lights on it. Saleek held onto a hand-grip with his right hand to stop himself from falling over as the ship flew through the atmosphere of the barren desert planet at considerable speed. If the spiky lyan was an aerodynamically built, manoeuvrable sports car then Kracht had to be the biggest and heaviest battle tank ever constructed. The large alien was enmeshed in a suit of thick armour which covered everything from his neck to his feet. He even wore a thin helmet with a retractable visor built into it. He had a series of stun grenades attached to his armour’s back storage compartment and in his right hand he hefted a large laser rifle, while his left hand held onto the nearest hand-grip to the hatch.

‘Can’t believe I let you talk me into only bringin’ stun grenades. We don’t know if these guys are armed or not,’ complained Kracht as he looked across at Saleek.

‘I told you before,’ said the lyan, ‘we can’t just start throwing explosive grenades into the tunnels once we’re inside. At best we run the risk of killing Patrick by accident and at worst we could start a cave-in that would bury us alive.’

‘I’d still feel more comfortable with more firepower,’ insisted Kracht. ‘A few stun grenades, a couple of energy pistols and a laser rifle aren’t much when we could be facing more than forty hostiles down there.’

‘Don’t forget about this drone I’ve got here,’ said Saleek as he held up the brown, flashing disc. ‘This’ll distract them and help us to get inside without being seen.’

‘I’d take a platoon of warriors over drones, robots and tricks any day,’ said Kracht.

‘Well, right now it’s just us so I’ll take any help I can get,’ replied Saleek.

‘Zeeree to Saleek. We are approaching the target destination. You must hold on tightly. I am beginning fly-past….now!’ informed Zeeree, her digital voice echoing around the empty cargo bay.

Saleek and Kracht barely had time to strengthen their grasps on the hand-grips before they felt the ship lurch forwards, propelled by a combination of thrusters and the main engines on a low setting. The craft cut through the thin atmosphere of the desert planet with ease – the engines making a distinctive rumbling sound as the ship zipped past their intended target.

‘That’s the first pass,’ said Ellu over the com, her voice filling the otherwise empty cargo hold. ‘Brace for two more. Hang on guys,’ she added moments later.

‘You all right, Kracht?’ asked Saleek as he looked across at the big alien clad in heavy armour.

Kracht looked decidedly uncomfortable as he held onto the hand-grip for dear life, his clenched fingers almost warping the thin metal rod such was his strength.

‘I’ll be OK when I’m on the ground,’ he ground out through gritted teeth and squinted eyes.

The spiky lyan could do nothing more than hope everything was going to be all right as he tightened his own grasp on the hand-grip.

‘Here we go again,’ warned Ellu over the com.

The ship turned around one hundred and eighty degrees before rocketing back the way it had just come, shooting past the structure built into the side of the large sand dune. The ship passed so low that it almost touched the tip of the sand dune and the resulting air pressure caused a large quantity of sand to erupt upwards before being carried off by the wind to land somewhere nearby. The ship travelled a kilometre or two in seconds before turning around once more. As they approached for a third pass over the structure, Ellu could see on the sensor read-outs that a dozen aliens had come out of the structure to see what was going on.

‘Twelve hostiles now outside the structure, Ellu,’ informed Zeeree.

‘I see them,’ replied Ellu as she simultaneously checked the read-outs and frantically typed commands into a nearby console. ‘Let’s make sure we get their full attention, shall we?’ she said as she flicked a switch with her right index finger.

On the dorsal section of the main body of the craft, a hatch retracted. A metal sphere rose up into view and a thin barrel extended about a metre and a half from its centre.

‘Dorsal laser cannon activated,’ announced Zeeree somewhat unnecessarily.

Ellu wrapped her delicate fingers around a nearby joystick on her station’s control panel.

‘Firing,’ she declared calmly as she pressed the trigger.

A beam of greenish-white energy lanced through the air and struck an area of sand about ten metres away from the aliens. The impact caused an explosion which rattled the nearby supports of the structure, as well as the aliens’ teeth, and sent sand flying in all directions. The sand glided to the ground like orange rain and reddish smoke began to billow upwards from the impact crater. The aliens scattered to look for cover as the ship shot past one more time.

‘You missed,’ observed Zeeree.

Ellu ignored this comment and said over the com, ‘All right guys, get ready. I’m going to open the hatch any second now.’

Down in the cargo hold, Saleek said, ‘OK, this is it. Get ready to jump.’

Kracht nodded an affirmative but said nothing as his jaw was clenched shut. The ship turned around one hundred and eighty degrees again and slowed down considerably on its return approach. The craft dropped in altitude until it was barely two or three metres above the sandy ground. Without any further warning, the main hatch to the cargo bay opened and the dry desert air rushed in.

‘OK, follow me! Go, go, go!’ shouted Saleek as he let go of the hand-grip and jumped through the open hatch.

He landed on the soft ground, rolled three times and came to a stop. A second later, Kracht joined him.

‘They are both on the ground. Retracting hatch,’ reported Zeeree.

‘Taking her up,’ said Ellu as she typed in more commands on the console.

The nose of the ship pointed towards the sky and the ship gained altitude as it flew past the structure again, this time missing by a good ten metres. However, by now the aliens had had enough of this commotion. Whilst some ran back inside to warn the others what was happening, a handful stayed outside the structure and began to move a mobile cannon into position.

‘Ellu, I believe those hostiles are now attempting to ready that weapon and fire at us,’ said Zeeree. ‘We should destroy them before they can do so.’

‘I see them on sensors,’ replied Ellu as her fingers danced fluidly over the controls like she was playing a musical instrument. ‘I’ll take care of it.’

The aliens pushed and heaved until they had moved the heavy cannon from right behind a load of crates near the entrance of the structure to about twenty metres away from the sand dune. Now clear of any obstructions, they started to aim the long, thick barrel of the mobile weapon, searching for Saleek’s ship in the bright blue sky.

Ellu’s fingers hovered over the joystick but did not touch it.

As the seconds passed, Zeeree eventually said, ‘Do you intend to fire any time soon, or should I just tell Saleek that we won’t be able to pick him up as we’ve been blow apart by that cannon?’

‘Enough with the attitude or I’ll do as I promised and transfer you to the engine room computer,’ replied Ellu before squeezing the joystick trigger moments later.

Once more a lance of bright green energy streaked through the sky and struck the sand a couple of metres away from the mobile cannon. For a split-second the cannon, the ground and the nearby aliens were all bathed in an eerie green glow before the beam made the sand explode with a loud roar. The aliens ran away from the cannon and tried to scramble back behind cover near the entrance to the structure as reddish smoke rose steadily into the sky from the second impact crater. The ship hovered just above the sandy ground about two hundred metres away from the structure and the aliens surrounding it.

‘It seems you missed again,’ said Zeeree, attempting to speak without sounding too sarcastic or irritated by Ellu’s behaviour.

She only partially managed to do so and Ellu, sensing the hostility, began to get fed up with her. The blue-haired alien took in a deep breath and let it out gradually. She slowly but surely got her emotions under control thanks to some mental techniques she had learned back on her home planet when she was a child.

The aliens poked their heads out from behind cover and upon seeing that the ship had stopped firing decided to make a break for the cannon again. Ellu squeezed the trigger one more time, sending a green pulse of energy into the ground. It exploded in a fountain of sparks, sending sand flying in all directions and the nearby aliens scurrying away once more.

‘If I may offer an observation, Ellu,’ said Zeeree. ‘You do not appear to be trying to hit them.’

‘That’s right, Zeeree,’ replied Ellu.

The blue-haired girl did not notice, but Zeeree rolled her eyes at this.

‘If I may ask a rather obvious question…why? Would it not be more prudent to permanently immobilise them and remove them as a potential threat to the ship?’

Ellu smiled as she said, ‘It’s not that simple, Zeeree. I don’t want to kill anyone unless I absolutely have to. Preventing them from regrouping and reaching their weapons is good enough for now.’

Zeeree was confused and this was reflected in her facial expression.

‘Curious,’ she commented. ‘I have also heard Saleek espouse the same concept many times, even in the middle of an escape from a hostile situation. What difference does it make?’

‘Because if we just disregard the law any time we want to and start murdering anyone who gets in our way, then we’re no better than savages. There are some nasty people in this galaxy and someone has to stand up for what is right and be the good guys.’

‘If your generosity results in those people retaliating at a later time and hurting you, I am not sure I understand your reasoning for being so lenient with them,’ admitted Zeeree.

Ellu simply smiled again. ‘Maybe one day you will,’ she said as she squeezed the trigger one more time.

***

Behind the sand dune, Kracht and Saleek slowly made their way towards the rear of the structure.

‘C’mon Kracht, keep up. We gotta get in and out as soon as possible!’ said Saleek as he looked back at his companion.

‘That’s easy for you to say. You ain’t carrying a heavy weapon, all the grenades and wearin’ a suit of armour! Man, I hate this planet already. I’m gonna be cleaning sand outta my armour for weeks!’ replied Kracht as he continued to trudge through the fine grains of sand which kept giving way as he placed his enormous boots on them.

‘You’re the one who wanted to wear the armour in the first place. I told you this was a quick, hopefully stealthy, rescue mission. Why’d you need it anyway? We’re not goin’ into a pitched battle,’ said Saleek.

‘We ain’t all as fast as you, spiky,’ retorted Kracht, huffing a little as he struggled against the sand. ‘I ain’t built for movin’ around real quick and doin’ somersaults like you can. My defence is my tough body and unrivalled strength but in case these guys are armed, I wanna be protected against weapons fire.’

‘Just…please try and hurry,’ pleaded Saleek as he jogged onwards.

Sixty seconds later they were at the rear of the structure.

‘Sounds like Ellu is havin’ fun with the ship’s laser cannon,’ said Saleek as another explosion could be heard from the other side of the sand dune.

‘Why wouldn’t she be? She’s got the best seat in the house for this mission while I gotta trudge through more sand than I’ve ever seen just to make it to the place.’

‘Just hang in there, big guy. You’ll get to have your fun real soon,’ said Saleek as he patted the large, armoured alien on the shoulder.

Kracht exposed his teeth in a wide grin and laughed a little evilly.

‘Now you’re talkin’. Let’s get inside, quick!’

‘Hold on,’ said Saleek as he held out a hand which stopped Kracht from moving past him.

‘What is it?’ hissed Kracht in irritation.

He was eager to get going and get into the heart of the battle.

‘I can’t see the rear entrance to the structure for all this sand everywhere. Damn, it looked so simple when it was on the screen back on the ship,’ confessed Saleek, his hands trying to dig away the mounds of sand which covered most of the structure.

‘So…let’s just go in the front entrance. What difference does it make?’ suggested Kracht as he primed his laser rifle which let out a high pitched whine to indicate that it was charged and ready to fire.

‘I was hoping to avoid directly attacking them if I could help it. The whole point of Ellu getting their attention with the ship was so we could slip into the structure through another entrance,’ explained Saleek as he continued to dig with his hands.

It was then that the lyan accidently pressed something with his fingertips as he plunged his right hand into the sand once more. Masses of sand gave way as a hatch suddenly opened outwards and upwards about three metres to the left of Saleek and Kracht, revealing a small room containing two creatures who were clearly not expecting the hatch to open.

As the two shocked aliens began to yell and scrambled to grab their weapons they were interrupted by a shot from Kracht’s laser rifle. The blast of pure energy exploded in a flash of yellow above their heads, sending the pair tumbling forwards out of the structure in an attempt to avoid being showered with sparks. It was then that Saleek darted towards them and connected with a leaping forearm smash to the first alien’s neck. The poor creature bounced twice and rolled a bit before stopping in a crumpled heap, half-buried in the sand. Kracht marched briskly over to the second alien who was slowly trying to get back to his feet. The alien looked up at the huge, armour-clad being standing over him and let out a whimper of terror. Kracht responded by grinning a sadistic smile and smashing the butt of his rifle down on the scared alien’s head before booting him in the chest. The powerful kick sent the already-unconscious creature flying several metres through the air before landing on the sand with a soft ‘fwump’ sound.

Saleek turned around to look at his ally.

‘Havin’ fun yet?’ he asked.

‘Just warming up,’ answered Kracht with a smile.

‘Well, at least we found a way in. Follow me!’ said Saleek as he jumped through the open hatch and into the room beyond.

‘Looks empty to me,’ commented Kracht as he stepped through the hatchway and joined Saleek.

‘Yeah, it does. Do me a favour and keep this in your armour’s storage compartment, will ya?’ said the lyan as he held out a hand containing the flashing brown disc.

This was met with a look of displeasure on the large warrior’s face.

‘Why have I gotta carry your shit? You brought it, you carry it!’ insisted Kracht defiantly.

Saleek sighed in exasperation.

‘Look, I thought we’d be facing more hostiles than this. This little drone was our ticket into this place by distracting the guards for us. Maybe we can use it to help us escape once we’ve got Patrick but I can’t wield a weapon and carry this thing at the same time. You can!’

Kracht scoffed and reluctantly snatched the drone from Saleek’s outstretched hand before stashing it in his armour’s rear storage compartment.

‘Fine! Let’s just get moving! Those two were barely a warm-up back there. You promised me a good fight and I intend to get one before this mission is over,’ said Kracht as he stomped past Saleek and walked out of the room and into the tunnel beyond.

‘Man, I almost feel bad for the people who are gonna get it when he lets loose and goes into full-on fight mode,’ said Saleek to nobody in particular as he jogged after the big alien.

The pair navigated the maze of tunnels and rooms as best they could, with Saleek making frequent glances to a mini-computer that he had strapped to his wrist. However, after a while all the tunnels began to look the same – they all had featureless walls of brown earth which contained stale air and a rather unpleasant smell.

‘Well?’ said Kracht impatiently as the two of them paused by a T-junction.

Saleek furrowed his brow and studied the mini-computer with every ounce of concentration he could muster but it was no use – he couldn’t make head nor tail of the tiny map on the display.

‘I dunno,’ he said bitterly.

‘What do you mean you dunno? Which way do we go?’ asked Kracht, beginning to get frustrated.

He had been promised a proper fight and so far all he had done was trek through mounds of sand and get lost in underground tunnels. Thinking was not his strong suit so when things didn’t go according to plan, he tended to just get angry and break things. Sadly the big creature sensed that that was not going to help their current situation.

‘This map doesn’t make any sense to me. Maybe Zeeree’s scans were wrong, I dunno,’ said Saleek.

Kracht let out a snort of derision. ‘So what the hell do we do now?’ he demanded.

‘Only one thing for it…we’re gonna have to try and track down where Patrick is being held by ourselves.’

Kracht glanced at Saleek with a look that suggested he did not think much of that idea.

‘And how are we gonna do that? All these tunnels look the same.’

‘Well, I’ve got pretty good hearing and you’re always going on about how good your species’ natural hunting instincts are – I’d say it’s time to prove it!’

Kracht sighed but couldn’t think of anything else they could do. At the moment, even finding their way out of the tunnels and out of the structure was going to be difficult.

‘Fine,’ said the big alien as he closed his eyes to help him concentrate.

He stepped forwards and smelled the air repeatedly. Saleek kneeled down on the rocky floor, pressed one of his ears to the ground and strained his hearing in an attempt to pick up a sound, no matter how faint. After several seconds of doing this, the spiky alien got back to his feet.

‘I’m pretty sure I hear noises coming from the right-hand tunnel,’ offered the lyan.

‘I agree. The stench of wulstarks is definitely coming from over there,’ said Kracht.

‘Anything else?’

‘Yeah, scents from a whole bunch of other species that I don’t even recognise. There’s too many of them to be sure exactly what they are. Plus, I don’t even know what hoo-manns smell like, so I couldn’t pinpoint your friend if I tried.’

‘Anyway, it’s a start. Let’s go this way and get ready for some action,’ decided Saleek as he bounded off down the right-hand corridor, eager to get Patrick and get the hell out of the tunnel network.

‘Works for me. I’m tired of all this sneakin’ round anyway. Time to crack some skulls,’ said Kracht excitedly as he hurried after Saleek.

Fortunately the big warrior did not have to wait long to get his wish. The pair continued on their path for about twenty seconds before turning a corner and unwittingly walking straight into a large room that contained a group of eight aliens. Two of the aliens were carrying weapons and the rest were unarmed yet very aggressive-looking. One of the aliens, a creature of medium height with silver skin and dark slits for eyes yelled something in a language that was definitely not Standard. Whatever he yelled, it soon became apparent that it was not a friendly greeting. The two armed aliens shouldered their weapons and started to aim at Saleek and Kracht, while the other six all ran at the pair at once with balled-up fists and sharp claws raised.

Saleek barely had time to bend his knees and catapult himself out of the way before the six aliens rushed into Kracht. Unfortunately for them, it was like running into a brick wall. The large warrior did not budge a single inch and the first two aliens got crushed against his solid armour as the other four slammed into their backs. For a split second, all you could see was a mass of bodies and Kracht’s head and shoulders poking out from above them. Then Kracht changed his stance and bellowed something unintelligible as he pushed out with his arms. This sent all six aliens flying backwards a couple of metres, such was his formidable strength. As the six aliens got back to their feet and tried to attack Kracht again, the two armed creatures turned their weapons on Saleek. They fired and laser blasts filled the room, making hot sizzling noises as they shot through the air. However, the spiky lyan was far too quick for them. He ducked, spun and ran to avoid being riddled with holes before leaping a tremendous distance in a single bound and connecting with an athletic flying kick to the nearest alien. The laser gun was knocked from his hands as the creature was sent backwards, knocking the other armed alien off his feet. Seconds later, Saleek had gone from one floored alien to the other, rabbit-punching them both in the face until they lost consciousness. Breathing heavily as his species’ equivalent of adrenaline flowed through his veins, the lyan looked up at Kracht, who seemed to be in no danger. In fact, he seemed to be having the time of his life as he took his time eliminating each alien in turn. First he knocked the nearest threat down to the floor by swinging his laser rifle at him. The poor creature was introduced to the floor with a thud, quickly followed by Kracht stamping on his back. As the heavy warrior bent his knee and pushed all of his weight downwards onto his leg, the floored alien let out a strangled gasp of pain. Suddenly there was a sickening popping sound as various parts of the creature’s spine were crushed underneath Kracht’s large foot. Kracht then stepped forwards and lashed out with a kick to an alien who was trying to attack him from the side. The kick caught the alien squarely in his mid-section and sent him hurtling through the air before slamming into the rocky wall of the room.

The armour-clad warrior was beginning to enjoy himself now and his lips parted and widened until they formed a sadistic open-mouthed grin which stayed on his face the whole way through the fight.

The next creature leapt on Kracht from behind and attempted to apply a chokehold to him, or at the very least pry his helmet off and expose his head to further attacks. Kracht nonchalantly reached up with a single hand, grabbed the alien by the scruff of his neck and threw him the way a baseball pitcher might throw a marble. It was as if the being weighed virtually nothing as Kracht threw him with ease – he shot through the air before being compressed rapidly against the rock-solid wall of the room. He made no noise at all as his twisted body slumped to the ground, obviously dead. Kracht then raised his rifle menacingly. The remaining three hostiles that were still standing backed away nervously before Kracht pressed the trigger. He was surprisingly accurate as his military training kicked in and he let loose a barrage of laser pulses. Four blasts impaled each one of the creatures until there were only two beings still alive and conscious in the room – a triumphant Kracht and a slightly shocked Saleek.

Kracht glanced around in case there were any more threats that required neutralising but, sadly for him, there were none. He slowly calmed down and lowered his laser rifle, which was Saleek’s cue to walk up to him and speak.

‘You OK, Kracht? You ain’t gonna attack me too, are you?’ he asked, somewhat concerned that his ally had come down with a serious case of bloodlust and might decide to go nuts and trash the entire place with him and Patrick still inside.

‘Not unless you get in my way,’ replied Kracht as he looked intensely at the lyan.

‘Well, at least you’re honest,’ said Saleek. He took a deep breath and let it out explosively.

‘I know what you’re thinking. I’m fine, I got it under control. Man, that was fun!’ exclaimed Kracht as he grinned again and slapped a surprised Saleek on his back.

This sent the lyan stumbling forwards several paces and coughing, such was the big alien’s strength.

‘What next?’ asked Kracht eagerly.

‘No Patrick here. We gotta keep going. Let’s head out and try somewhere else!’ said Saleek as he darted out of the room with his companion in hot pursuit.

Chapter 26

Patrick awoke with a start to the sound of yelling. He quickly picked himself up and stood in his cage. With a grimace on his face he used his right hand to rub his aching back – how he had managed to fall asleep on the rocky, uneven floor of his prison was anyone’s guess, and no one was more surprised than Patrick himself. He made his way to the edge of his cage and grabbed the bars with his dirty hands. He turned his head so that his ear was nearest to the entrance of the room and listened hard. There was a commotion coming from outside the room and he did not know what was causing it. People were running around and shouting but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Then he felt it – a blast rocked the walls of the room and a few particles of earth trickled down from the ceiling. The human gulped – he did not like the thought of being buried alive if the ceiling were to cave in. What had caused the explosion? Patrick didn’t know but he felt his blood running cold and unfortunately he was getting rather used to that sensation as of late. The human’s first instinct was to escape and get away from the danger but as he tried to open the door to his cage once more he remembered how strong the lock was and how it refused to budge. Cursing under his breath, Patrick gave up fiddling with the lock and started to pace around the cage. Then another explosion could be heard which caused the ground to tremble and more dirt to fall from the ceiling. The last time he had been captured by the oomlocks, it was the semloids who had attacked them and caused the chaos and carnage that Patrick had witnessed back on Antorii Two. He only hoped that a similar situation was not occurring now. Just then, a couple of aliens ran into the room, looked around quickly and darted back outside again.

‘Hey! Wait! What’s going on? Please let me out!’ called Patrick to no avail.

No reply. Patrick strained his hearing and just about made out parts of a conversation between the two aliens just outside the room.

‘Who do you think it is?’ said one alien.

‘Dunno. Might be Saleek tryin’ to rescue his friend,’ said another.

‘Vallan never said he had this much firepower! What are we gonna do? We can’t compete with a ship like that.’

‘We don’t have to. He can’t get inside ‘cause we got people guarding the entrance. And Saleek can’t rescue his friend from out there. If he’s stupid enough to try and come in here and take him, we’ll kill him and capture Saleek instead. The lyan is the bigger prize, not the hoo-mann.’

‘But still-’

‘I said don’t worry. Yuloffi has called his friends in the next town over. Should be sendin’ a ship any time now to help us.’

‘Man, I sure hope this Saleek is worth all the trouble.’

‘He’d better be. Just as long as Vallan pays us what he promised, I don’t care. C’mon, let’s head back up.’

Patrick was shocked, excited and scared all at the same time after hearing that conversation. He was excited that he might actually be rescued and relieved that Saleek had not forgotten about him. However, he was scared that if Saleek got close to rescuing him, the other aliens might march in and kill him with their weapons at point-blank range. Locked in a cage, he had nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. Patrick took a deep breath, closed his eyes and prayed that somehow Saleek could get him out of there safely.

***

Back aboard the ship, Ellu was getting a bit bored. Wait a while, press the trigger. Wait a while longer, ignore Zeeree’s comments, press the trigger again. The aliens around the front entrance to the structure were both highly unimaginative and annoyingly persistent. They could seem to think of nothing other than trying to make it to the mobile cannon and use it but every time they ran out from behind their limited cover at the front entrance, Ellu fired the ship’s laser cannon and sent them scurrying back again. Ellu silently willed Saleek to hurry up and give her the signal so that she could pick them up, fly off and get back into space again, away from this barren planet.

Suddenly Zeeree interrupted her thoughts by saying, ‘Ellu, I am picking up two small craft on mid-range scans. They appear to be heading in our direction.’

Ellu’s forehead creased as she thought about this. ‘Can you give me any more info?’ she asked.

‘They are approximately forty Drekkmas away from our current position and they are moving quickly. Switching to short-range scanners,’ said Zeeree. A few moments later, she added, ‘They appear to be intra-atmosphere fighter craft. They are clearly very old – their exhaust emissions indicate that they are using a type of fuel which has not been in common use for years. I am not certain as to their armament but it is safe to assume that at the very least they have rapid-fire ballistic weapons.’

‘That would make sense if they are old fighter jets,’ mused Ellu as her fingers flew over the controls, inputting commands on her station’s console. ‘Any reason they might be heading our way? Do you think perhaps our friends down there have called for help?’

‘I would guess the latter,’ said Zeeree. ‘This planet has no organised military and there are no bases around here.’

‘Time till they get here?’

‘Approximately forty seconds. Correction…fifteen seconds.’

‘What?’ exclaimed Ellu in surprise.

‘They have suddenly increased speed,’ explained Zeeree sheepishly.

‘That’s just great. No time to lose, take us up!’ commanded Ellu.

‘Increasing throttle. Gaining altitude,’ said Zeeree as the ship moved away from the structure built into the sand dune.

Ellu didn’t have time to say anything else as the two fighter craft zipped past them at rapid velocity. They slowed down slightly and began to circle back, heading straight for the ship.

‘Evasive manoeuvres!’ she yelled but it was too late.

Before either she or Zeeree could do anything, the two craft opened fire. White-hot projectiles streaked through the cerulean desert sky leaving thin grey trails in their wake. The projectiles peppered the hull of the cargo ship, causing dents along both the port and starboard sides.

‘We have been hit,’ announced Zeeree. ‘Minimal damage to port and starboard armour. The ships are coming around for another pass.’

‘Screw this!’ exclaimed Ellu as she vaulted over her station and leapt into the pilot’s chair.

She grabbed the pilot joystick and yanked it hard. The ship suddenly banked left sharply and the two fighter jets flew past, the rounds from their weapons passing harmlessly through a nearby cloud.

‘Activate energy shield!’ commanded Ellu as she held the joystick with one hand and typed instructions into the computer with another.

‘Shield active and stable at one hundred percent power,’ informed Zeeree. ‘Those low-level ballistic rounds cannot penetrate our defences. If that’s the best they have, we don’t have a thing to worry about.’

‘Please tell me you did not just say that,’ said Ellu.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you know what a jinx is?’

‘Of course I do. Jinx. Noun. A person or thing that brings bad-’

‘I don’t mean a definition, you glorified dictionary!’ exclaimed Ellu as she pushed the joystick hard to the right to avoid another barrage of weapons fire from the two attacking craft. ‘Any time anyone says, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse”, it always does! You’ve just jinxed us!’

‘Perhaps you have been watching too many holo-films with bad writing,’ said Zeeree. ‘This is real life, Ellu. That kind of thing does not occur in reality. Those craft must be at least eighty years old. They cannot possibly get through our shield with those weapons.’

Ellu sighed in frustration. ‘You had to say it, didn’t you? You just had to.’

The cargo ship sped on through the desert sky, banking, climbing and zigzagging to avoid as much incoming fire as they could. However, in spite of their advanced age, the two fighter jets were remarkably agile and also faster in the confines of a planet’s atmosphere than the cargo ship, which was designed to operate mostly in space. They continued to fire white-hot projectiles at the craft, most of which missed. The ones that hit bounced harmlessly off the shimmering yellow energy shield. After a while longer, the pilots must have realised that their current tactics were wholly ineffective so they decided to change tack. The two pursuing craft initially decelerated, before climbing high into the sky, gaining altitude and accelerating rapidly.

‘What are they doing? They’ve stopped firing at us,’ said Ellu as she studied the read-outs on the display just in front of her. ‘Why are they climbing?’

‘They must have realised that their strategy was fundamentally flawed. Perhaps they are giving up and are preparing to return to wherever they came from,’ suggested Zeeree confidently.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Ellu. ‘I’m not that lucky.’

The pair did not have to wait long to discover the reason for the change in tactics. On the underside of one of the fighter craft’s chassis, a small hatch opened. Seconds later a bulbous, shining object was released which fell through the air rapidly. The sphere rocketed towards the cargo ship below and as it made contact with the protective energy shield, it detonated in a brilliant flash of pale blue. The explosion sent waves of silver energy washing over the shield, making it undulate and flicker as the warhead dispersed.

‘What was that?’ inquired Ellu nervously as she looked upwards towards the sound of the explosion.

‘I believe it was some kind of weapon detonation,’ answered Zeeree, although she didn’t sound too sure.

‘How come the sensors didn’t detect any weapons launch?’

‘I am not certain,’ said Zeeree honestly. A moment later she added, ‘Ellu, there….may be cause for concern.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘The energy shield surrounding this craft is down to sixty seven percent power. It must have something to do with that detonation we just detected.’

All of a sudden realisation dawned on Ellu’s face.

‘They’re bombing us!’ she exclaimed as another blast could be heard, this one louder than the previous one.

Without another word, Ellu grabbed the pilot joystick and yanked it hard to the right. The ship duly obeyed and turned sharply to the right, narrowly missing being hit by another bomb as it plummeted through the sky.

‘Energy shield now down to fifty three percent. Whatever they are using it is undetectable by my tracking sensors. I strongly suggest we retreat as there is no telling what those weapons may do to our hull once the shield fails,’ said Zeeree.

‘We can’t just leave Saleek and Kracht down there by themselves. They might need picking up at any moment!’ said Ellu defiantly.

‘If those weapons cause critical damage to our systems we will be unable to fly away even if we stay here and pick them up. I advise that we retreat and formulate a strategy to deal with these fighter craft properly.’

‘No, we’re not leaving them, we can’t!’ protested Ellu.

***

Meanwhile deep in the underground tunnel network, things were not looking particularly good for Saleek and Kracht either. They had unwittingly walked into a very large chamber which possibly served as some kind of equipment storage room for the aliens that lived and worked there. Regardless of its intended function, it was very large with a surprisingly high ceiling for an underground chamber. It was also full of both hiding places and hostile creatures with weapons.

‘Damn it!’ cursed Saleek as he slid back behind cover to avoid an incoming burst of laser fire.

He and Kracht were both hiding behind a collection of stacked heavy boxes on one side of the huge room. Dotted around the rest of the chamber were multiple hostiles, seemingly all with a firearm of some description. They would lean out from behind cover, unload a barrage of rounds and get back behind cover again before Saleek or Kracht could return fire.

‘Raaaaa!’ yelled the lyan as he stretched out his arm and fired blindly around the corner, hoping that a blast from his pistol would get lucky and take at least one of them out.

The resulting barrage of plasma bolts, laser blasts and ballistic rounds seemed to indicate that he had not been so lucky. They impacted around and behind the pair, causing sparks and pieces of crate to fly around like miniature missiles. Before long, the air in the chamber was becoming thick and hot due to the prolonged weapons fire. Saleek glanced at his companion.

‘Any ideas?’ he asked hopefully.

‘Just one: next time you ask me for help, I say “no”,’ replied Kracht wryly.

‘We must be gettin’ close to Patrick if they’re defending this place so heavily. That’s gotta be good, right?’

‘What good is it if we can’t move from behind these crates?’ said Kracht as he sidestepped out from behind cover, fired a volley of laser blasts from his rifle and ducked back behind cover again.

One of the blasts caught an unsuspecting creature on the shoulder and he performed half a somersault before landing on the ground, clutching his smouldering shoulder in agony.

‘There’s gotta be something we can do,’ said Saleek determinedly.

He glanced around but could see nothing which they could use to their advantage.

‘I could take ‘em all out, one by one,’ offered Kracht as he fired his weapon again, ‘but it’ll take a while.’

‘We don’t have time for that. There’s gotta be something…’ said Saleek, his voice trailing off. Suddenly his eyes lit up.

‘Wait a minute!’ he exclaimed excitedly. ‘I’ve got it!’

‘Got what?’ demanded Kracht in confusion.

‘We’re goin’ about this all wrong. Like I said, this was supposed to be a stealthy rescue mission, not walkin’ straight into a full blown fire-fight, right?’

‘Yeah, try tellin’ them that!’ said Kracht as a bolt of plasma exploded a few metres away.

‘Here’s the plan: we’re gonna stop firing at them and instead we’re gonna sneak through this chamber and take ‘em out at close range from behind their cover.’

‘Are you nuts? How are we gonna do that? We can’t even get to the next bit of cover from here. As soon as we step out from behind these boxes, we’ll be shot!’

‘We’ll do it with a little help from something I prepared earlier,’ said Saleek, grinning from pointy ear to pointy ear.

He quickly opened the storage compartment on Kracht’s armour and removed the drone he had put there earlier.

‘That little thing? How’s that gonna help?’ asked Kracht, totally bewildered by Saleek’s attitude.

‘You’ll see,’ came the confident retort as the lyan pressed several buttons on the sleek brown disc that was the drone.

The lights on it soon began to flash much more rapidly than before.

‘OK, whatever happens next, just remember that it’s all for show and none of it’s real,’ said Saleek before pressing a final button and throwing the disc up into the air.

Kracht was about to say something but before he could open his mouth to speak, the drone activated. The chamber was suddenly filled with a deafening cacophony of noise which sounded like overlapping explosions and about twenty spacecraft taking off at once. After Kracht recovered from the initial shock of that, he poked his head out from behind cover and gawped at what he saw. There were attack drones everywhere, flying at great speed throughout the whole room. He could also make out bright flashes and explosions which sent sparks and smoke flying through the air.

‘What the hell is that?’ asked Kracht as he looked back at Saleek, who was still grinning.

‘That drone is a countermeasures device designed to confuse the enemy. It projects holographic images of attack drones and explosions along with some pretty convincing sound effects, but none of it’s real,’ explained the lyan, looking exceptionally pleased with himself.

‘Seems real enough to me,’ said Kracht as he looked out from behind cover again.

He watched carefully as he saw another explosion which appeared to send thick black smoke billowing upwards towards the high ceiling of the chamber. Seconds later, the smoke faded before vanishing. Remarkably, there was no visible damage at the point where the explosion appeared to occur. Kracht suddenly understood what was going on and a slightly evil smile crossed his lips.

‘That’s fiendish,’ he said, nodding his approval. ‘I’ve gotta get me one of those.’

‘That thing won’t distract them forever. We gotta get from here to that exit on the far side of the room. Come on, let’s go!’ said Saleek as he darted out from behind the stack of crates and ran towards some free-standing shelves packed with spare parts.

‘Remember to leave some for me!’ insisted Kracht as he followed his spiky companion as quickly as he could manage.

The hostile aliens were thoroughly confused and scared – some ran away, others cowered behind cover, whimpering in fright while a handful tried to fire at the drones and shoot them down. In the chaos of noise and light, none of them noticed that their blasts did not miss their targets, they simply passed straight through them. As Saleek carefully yet briskly made his way from cover to cover, he soon found himself standing in front of three shocked creatures, all of them sat on the floor and cowering. For a few seconds, Saleek was caught in two minds. On the one hand, if he ignored them and kept going then they might choose to follow him and attack from behind. On the other hand, they didn’t seem like any threat at the moment so it seemed unnecessary to hurt them.

Just as Saleek was wrestling with this moral dilemma, Kracht caught up to him. Upon seeing the three aliens the big warrior lurched forwards with a surprising amount of agility considering his size and clobbered them all with the butt of his laser rifle. Moments later they were all laid out unconscious on the floor.

‘What was that for? They weren’t attacking us,’ said Saleek, his mouth open in disbelief at his companion’s actions.

‘You’re too soft, Saleek,’ replied Kracht. ‘Any of these guys could attack us without warning. Did you think this was gonna be a nice, easy rescue with no casualties at all? Look around you. We’ve created an underground warzone down here!’

Saleek swallowed hard – he realised that his ally was right.

‘C’mon, let’s keep goin’! Before they realise what’s really happening,’ said Kracht as he stepped in front of Saleek and moved off.

Somewhat reluctantly, Saleek followed him. As Kracht rounded a pile of stacked machinery, he came face to face with a group of four aliens who were all wildly spraying rounds into the air in a futile attempt to destroy the holographic drones. They didn’t even notice the armour-clad warrior sneak soundlessly up to them until it was too late. Kracht slung his rifle over his shoulder which freed up both his hands then he grabbed the first alien and lifted him off the floor with ease. The poor creature yelped in surprise before being unceremoniously thrown at the second alien. They both fell to the ground in a surprised heap. Kracht then stepped forwards and kicked the third alien in his chest. The attack was so powerful that the creature’s ribs cracked instantly and he was catapulted over a nearby pile of metal sheeting to land somewhere out of sight. Just as the fourth alien was backing away and bringing his weapon to bear, Kracht calmly and smoothly took back control of his laser rifle and fired a burst of three blasts before the other alien could get off a single shot. Sparks flew and the unpleasant odour of burning flesh began to fill the immediate vicinity as the alien fell to the ground, dead.

Kracht quickly lowered his rifle and moved onwards. It was then that Saleek arrived at that point in the chamber and automatically let out a low whistle. Even though he didn’t like all this unnecessary violence, he had to admit that Kracht was one unstoppable fighting machine when he got going.

‘I’m so glad he’s on my side,’ said Saleek in a low voice before continuing on.

Kracht moved smoothly and methodically through every remaining part of the large storage room, clearing out resistance wherever he found it until he and Saleek were both standing at the exit and there were piles of unconscious or dead bodies littering the ground.

‘Aren’t you gonna call back the drone before we get outta here? We might need to use it again sometime,’ pointed out Kracht as he looked at Saleek.

‘Can’t,’ the lyan said simply. ‘The guy who sold it to me didn’t have the remote control for giving it commands.’

Kracht looked incredulous as he said, ‘Then why the hell did you buy it from him?’

Saleek gave Kracht a look which suggested he thought the reason was obvious. ‘Do I look like the owner of a private military organisation? I can’t just shop at military hardware stores, I’m a civilian. I bought it cheap on the black market ages ago. Thought it’d be useful if I ever needed a distraction to make an escape from somewhere.’

‘Whatever,’ said Kracht dismissively as he began to sniff the air.

He could just about make out the scent of more aliens – and they were close by.

‘I can smell more hostiles. Follow me!’ he said as he took off once more.

Saleek took one last look at the carnage he had helped to create before turning on his heels and following his companion out of the large room.

***

Patrick thought he could hear something, so he strained his hearing to try and make out what the sound was. It was someone – or something – heading towards his current location. The human quickly glanced around but there was nowhere he could go even if he wanted to hide. Out of desperation he tried to open the door to his cage one more time but the lock steadfastly refused to budge. He took a deep breath and then gulped as he decided that a series of rapid footsteps was definitely getting closer. Patrick’s eyes widened in fear as an alien raced into the room, holding a pistol in one hand. The creature laid eyes on Patrick before raising his weapon and pointing it straight at the imprisoned human. With his heart thudding powerfully in his chest and adrenaline flowing all around his body, Patrick squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. Except that it didn’t happen. Instead of feeling searing pain as the rounds from the creature’s weapon penetrated his skin, Patrick felt nothing at all. He heard a loud squeal of shock so he opened his eyes again and nearly had a heart attack. A large creature clad entirely in some kind of armour loomed ominously over everything in the room. The being’s head and face were totally masked by a helmet and it carried what appeared to be a large rifle of some description. Patrick’s jaw dropped in shock and he backed away from the sight of the enormous creature in pure terror. The armoured monstrosity’s boots made heavy booming sounds as it walked forwards towards the rapidly backpedalling alien holding the pistol. With a visibly shaking hand, the comparatively tiny creature raised and fired his weapon, sending thin beams of red laser energy at the oncoming monster. The beams erupted in a burst of sparks that did nothing to either damage the armour or slow the being down. Seconds later the armour-clad giant had closed the gap and now stood virtually toe to toe with the terrified alien. It raised its weapon and brought it down hard on the smaller creature’s head, knocking him out instantly. The alien fell to the ground and landed in a heap on the rocky floor. This set off the dog/bird creature barking and racing around its tiny cage, either in fear, aggression or both at the sight of the newcomer.

The huge creature turned around and quickly surveyed the room with its weapon raised threateningly. Upon noticing Patrick, it began stomping over to the cage in which he was imprisoned. The human breathed rapidly and backed away as far as he could until he was standing in the pile of bones and skeletal remains that he swore he would never go near. This was it. He was totally trapped and had some kind of armoured monster aiming a large weapon at him as it stood a metre or so from the cage door. For what felt like forever, the armour-clad creature stood perfectly still with its weapon raised and pointing directly at Patrick, however it did not fire. After a few moments (which felt infinitely longer to the terrified human) it lowered its weapon before removing its helmet. Patrick gulped as he laid eyes on the alien face that he saw. He did not know the creature’s species, but it had a large head with reddish skin and was smoothly bald all over. It had a somewhat round nose that sat below two dark eyes that did not appear to blink as they stared at him. The alien’s head was rather bare except for its eyes, nose, mouth, small ears and three strips of tattooed symbols which ran from the creature’s forehead down to the back of its head.

The huge alien sniffed several times before opening its mouth and shouting in a version of Standard even more badly pronounced than Saleek’s, ‘Hey Saleek! Get in ‘ere. Think I’ve found somethin’!’

Patrick blinked and furrowed his brow before looking at the entrance to the chamber.

It couldn’t be….could it?

As if on cue, the spiky lyan himself entered the room and laid eyes on the armoured creature before turning to look at Patrick.

His green lips parted and formed his trademark grin as he said, ‘Patrick! There you are!’

The lyan rushed over to the cage.

‘Are you OK? Are you hurt?’ he asked a visibly shaken Patrick.

After a few moments, Patrick stammered, ‘Y-yeah, I-I think I’m O-OK…’

The human looked over Saleek’s shoulder at the big alien behind him. The lyan glanced over his shoulder to see what Patrick was looking at, before turning around again and chuckling.

‘Oh, that? Don’t worry ‘bout him, he’s with me. Relax, he ain’t gonna hurt you. His name is Kracht. He’s a Buskpod. He’s helping me to rescue you.’

‘H-He is?’ stammered the human, eyes fixed on the colossal shape of the armoured alien.

‘He sure is. C’mon, let’s get you outta there. Stay where you are and don’t move,’ instructed Saleek as he took two paces backwards and grabbed one of his pistols from his back pocket.

He raised the gun, pointed it at the lock on the cage door and pressed the trigger contact. A beam shot from the pistol and bathed the lock in a yellow glow. The lock twisted and buckled before melting away completely under the intense heat generated by the weapon.

‘That takes care of the lock. I’ll take care of the door,’ said Kracht as he strode past Saleek and grabbed the cage door with an armoured hand.

He pulled and accidently ripped the entire door from its mountings before shrugging and tossing it aside the way most people would discard an empty crisp packet. The door hit the rocky ground with a clatter which made the dog/bird creature yelp in surprise.

‘C’mon Patrick, come with us,’ said Saleek as he motioned for the human to hurry up.

Still somewhat shaken, Patrick tentatively walked out of the remains of the front part of the cage and stood beside the lyan.

‘Can you walk?’ asked Saleek.

‘I should be OK to walk,’ replied Patrick, his voice calming down a little.

‘Can we leave already?’ asked Kracht, looking bored.

He was itching to either get out of the underground tunnel network or have another fight, whichever happened first.

‘All right, we’ve got what we came for, let’s get outta here!’ said Saleek.

‘Finally,’ muttered Kracht impatiently as he put on his helmet again.

‘OK, I’ll lead the way. Kracht, you bring up the rear. Patrick, stay in the middle and keep behind me,’ said the lyan.

‘OK,’ said Patrick as he nodded in understanding.

‘All right, follow me!’ exclaimed Saleek as he darted out of the chamber and headed for the surface.

***

The cargo ship rocketed through the desert sky, the thrusters making a loud noise which sounded a bit like a huge waterfall crashing violently on rocks as they propelled the craft forwards at maximum power. The two fighter craft continued their bombing assault from above, trying desperately to disable the ship’s defences.

‘I assume it is pointless to try and convince you that your choice of action is both illogical and likely futile?’ asked Zeeree as her face appeared in the bottom-right corner of the main view screen.

‘This is no time to argue, Zeeree,’ said Ellu as she pulled the joystick this way and that in an attempt to evade the incoming attacks.

She gently pushed a lever forwards and added a small amount of the main engine’s power to augment the thrusters propulsion. This made the ship accelerate and pull away from the two attacking craft.

‘Just help me come up with a plan to deal with these two ships….and fast! Then we’ll go straight back for Saleek and the others,’ said Ellu.

Zeeree let out a digital sigh which sounded faintly distorted through the cockpit’s main speakers.

‘Very well. I have an idea,’ said the AI.

‘Well, what is it? Tell me!’

‘Link me to the ship’s weapons computer. Then I can control all targeting functions myself.’

‘But you can’t fire the weapons. The system won’t let you,’ pointed out Ellu.

‘I know. Although the ethical implications for an artificial intelligence being able to kill people by controlling weapons is understandably a sensitive subject for you organics, I still loathe that particular failsafe protocol built into all modern weapons.’

‘Zeeree, quit babbling and get to the point!’ shouted Ellu as another explosion sounded which rattled the interior of the cockpit.

‘Whilst various failsafes render me incapable of firing these weapons, I am capable of calibrating them and aiming them with far greater efficiency and accuracy than anyone else. So you fly the ship and I’ll do the rest. When I have locked on to the hostile craft all you have to do is press the trigger.’

‘You’re suggesting teamwork? We don’t always work well together,’ said Ellu.

‘Then let us hope that today is the exception that proves the rule,’ replied Zeeree.

Ellu couldn’t help herself and smiled at that comment.

‘It’s as good a plan as any. I am transferring aiming control to you….now!’ said the blue-haired girl emphatically as she flicked a switch with her left hand.

‘Connection made. I am assuming control of the dorsal laser cannon,’ said Zeeree as her eyes glazed over in concentration. ‘Tracking…’

‘How long will it take you to lock onto the ships?’

‘A matter of seconds, once we are in range.’

‘Then get ready!’ exclaimed Ellu as she made the ship bank to the left.

Moments later the cargo ship had completed a one hundred and eighty degree turn and had begun to gain altitude.

‘Heading right for the ships!’ said Ellu.

‘Acquiring targets….’ said Zeeree in a monotone voice, all effort focussed on calculating the trajectory of the attacking craft as the cargo ship zipped through the air at considerable speed.

The two fighter craft were only about ten kilometres away. Then it became seven. Then Five.

‘Zeeree?’ called out Ellu hopefully with her thumb resting on the joystick trigger.

Zeeree paused for what felt like an eternity to Ellu, before saying ‘Locked on target. Fire when ready.’

The blue-haired girl depressed the trigger, sending a bolt of green laser energy streaking through the sky. It struck the ventral side of the nearest fighter jet, causing that particular part of the chassis to explode in a shower of molten metal. The craft lost control of its propulsion systems and, with fuel leaking the whole way, corkscrewed downwards at great speed. Seconds later it plummeted straight into the ground and became engulfed in a rather large explosion which could be heard for kilometres around.

The second fighter craft avoided any further laser blasts and sped past the cargo ship. Once clear, it began to gradually turn around.

‘Damn that must have been volatile fuel,’ commented Ellu as she heard the explosion in the cockpit despite being many kilometres above the ground. ‘One down, one to go,’ she added as her slim fingers grasped the controls one more time.

‘Tracking second target,’ announced Zeeree.

Ellu’s face was a picture of concentration as she turned the ship around again. Without thinking, she held her breath and tensed her muscles as she watched the hostile craft fly towards them on her sensor read-outs.

‘Target Acquired. Fire at will,’ said the AI.

‘Firing!’ exclaimed Ellu as she let her breath out and pressed the trigger simultaneously.

Another bolt lanced across the blue background of the desert sky before hitting the remaining fighter craft squarely in its bow. The craft detonated in a flash of bright green and a thunderous explosion which sent pieces of metal and rubber streaking through the air. Almost by accident, Ellu sent the cargo ship hurtling through the aftermath of the explosion, the energy shield flickering as it barely managed to protect the craft from the high heat and shards of jagged metal flying around.

‘Oops…’ she mouthed as she realised what she just had done. ‘Zeeree? Are we in the clear now?’

Zeeree’s face grew from the bottom-right corner of the view screen until it was taking up the whole display.

‘I can detect no further aerial threats,’ she said. ‘However, that little stunt of yours has drained the rest of our energy shield. The shield is now offline.’

‘It wasn’t a….oh forget it,’ said Ellu as she gently pushed the joystick to the right and brought the craft around. ‘Let’s head back for Saleek and Kracht. And hopefully Patrick too.’

***

For a while, a certain amount of calm descended on the structure built into the side of the large sand dune. From the outside, at any rate. The cargo ship was nowhere to be seen and most of the aliens who had been outside had gone back into the structure. Somewhere nearby, a native bird called out to another with a shrill noise. The plumes of smoke which had risen from the impact craters around the sand dune had dispersed and all was quiet.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a loud crash noise as an explosion from inside the structure sent pieces of metal and large quantities of sand flying outwards from the sand dune.

Saleek leapt out of the still smoking hole in the side of the structure and landed on the soft sand outside. He steadied himself and looked around with raised pistols before deciding that it was safe for the moment. Patrick cautiously climbed out of the hole whilst trying not to burn himself on the super-hot jagged edges which had been created by the explosion. Finally, Kracht clambered out of the structure to join them both. He nonchalantly tossed a stun grenade back into the structure, as well as a few rounds from his laser rifle for good measure.

‘Well, that’s one way to find an exit!’ exclaimed Saleek breathlessly as he pocketed his pistols and made sure that Patrick was all right.

‘You were takin’ too long to find a way out,’ said Kracht casually. ‘Plus those guys were gainin’ on us. What was I supposed to do?’

‘Never mind that. I’m sure they all heard that blast so everyone in the place is probably comin’ this way right now,’ said Saleek.

‘Let ‘em come. I say bring it on!’ said Kracht as he raised his rifle and grinned.

‘We can’t stay out here in the open for long. There’s no cover so we’ll be easy targets to hit,’ said the spiky lyan as he helped Patrick walk away from the sand dune.

‘Yeah, but so will they,’ pointed out the big warrior as he aimed his weapon at the smouldering hole in the side of the structure.

One of the aliens climbed gingerly out but his feet had barely touched the sand before a blast from Kracht’s rifle sent him flying back into the building.

‘Kracht, we’ve gotta go! Come on!’ insisted Saleek as he and Patrick continued to walk as fast as they could.

‘Ahh, you never let me have any fun,’ grumbled Kracht as he reluctantly began walking backwards away from the sand dune, rifle still pointing at the hole in case any more aliens decided to climb out and tried to pursue them.

Saleek tapped his mini-computer strapped to his wrist.

‘Ellu? Zeeree? Do you read me?’ he spoke aloud.

‘Receiving you loud and clear,’ came Zeeree’s digitised voice over the mini-computer’s tinny speaker. ‘Where are you?’

‘On the south side of the sand dune. We’ve got Patrick and are heading away from the structure as fast as we can. We need pickin’ up ASAP,’ said Saleek.

‘Understood. We will be with you momentarily,’ said Zeeree.

‘See? I told you they’d make it,’ said Ellu as she sat in the cockpit of the cargo ship with a smile on her lips.

‘That you did,’ admitted Zeeree, her face on the main view screen. ‘I will never cease to be amazed by Saleek’s ability to defy odds. No matter what the situation, he has a way of always coming out on top.’

‘Increasing speed,’ announced Ellu as she pressed a button on the control panel. ‘Let’s go pick up our friends.’

Forty seconds later, the cargo ship was approaching the structure built into the sand dune.

‘Ellu, I am detecting eight people down there who appear to be armed and pursuing one lyan, one human and one buskpod on foot.’

‘I think I can discourage them from doing that,’ said Ellu as she grabbed a nearby joystick.

Moments later, a volley of green-white energy bolts streaked through the air and exploded near to the pursuing creatures. They all dropped to the ground and became covered with sand from the nearby detonation.

‘They are no longer pursuing,’ stated Zeeree flatly.

‘Good. Throttling back and descending. Ready for pick-up,’ said Ellu.

‘Man, that’s a view for aching eyes, eh Patrick?’ said Saleek as he gestured up at the cargo ship that was slowly descending about fifty metres away from them.

Patrick chuckled and said, ‘You mean, “that’s a sight for sore eyes”!’

Saleek laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

‘Whaddya say, Kracht? Ready to go?’ asked the lyan as he looked at his armour-clad companion.

‘’bout time. I think some sand got in my suit somehow. This is all your fault, Saleek!’ complained Kracht.

The human and lyan just continued to laugh whilst Kracht looked at them quizzically, not understanding what they found funny.

Chapter 27

Ten minutes later, the cargo ship had just finished breaking through the sandy planet’s thin atmosphere and was on a course away from it at a gentle speed.

‘Well, I’m glad that’s over. Now I can finally breathe!’ said Ellu as she put her hands behind her head and leaned back in the pilot’s chair in the cockpit.

‘I too,’ added Zeeree from the main view screen.

The blue-haired girl gave the blue-faced AI a quizzical look.

‘What do you mean? I didn’t think AIs were capable of feeling emotions like fear and getting stressed out by things.’

If Zeeree had shoulders, she would have shrugged them at that comment from Ellu.

‘I cannot speak for all Artificial Intelligences throughout this galaxy but I believe I feel something akin to the basic fear reaction present in all organic life in response to certain environmental stressors. I am quite capable of getting “stressed out” as you put it.’

‘Really? I wonder why,’ Ellu wondered aloud. ‘What purpose could it serve? I suppose your programmer must have had their reasons for giving you the ability to feel certain things.’

‘I do not know. I am uncertain as to who my creator is.’

‘Well, that’s a question for a different time,’ said Ellu as she heard Saleek make a noisy entrance into the cockpit with Patrick not far behind.

She swivelled in her chair to face the lyan and human.

‘I’m tellin’ ya man, it was that close…’ said Saleek as he quickly finished whatever anecdote he had been telling Patrick and met Ellu’s stare. ‘Hey, look who it is, it’s the number two pilot in the Barren Lands! That was some nice flyin’ out there, Ellu. Oh, and thanks for the assist with those guys who were chasin’ us. Y’know, some people just don’t know when to quit!’

Patrick glanced at Saleek and was about to make a comment involving a pot, a kettle and the colour black but ultimately decided against it as the idiom would be lost on the spiky alien. Ellu simply cocked an eyebrow and looked at the lyan.

‘Second best pilot?’ she paraphrased, looking both a little hurt and a little confused at Saleek’s comment.

‘Well, only second to me,’ came the cocky reply. ‘If I wasn’t here, you’d totally be number one!’

Ellu giggled. ‘I suppose that’s as close to a “thank you” as I’m going to get from you, so I’ll begrudgingly take it,’ she said as she stood from the pilot’s chair. ‘Where’s Kracht?’

‘He’s still gettin’ outta his suit of armour in Cargo Hold One. He might be a while,’ explained Saleek as he pointed over his shoulder in the general direction of the rest of the ship.

Patrick walked to the middle of the cockpit, stopped and looked around. It wasn’t exactly home but it felt safe and comfortably familiar as he looked around at all the screens, consoles and chairs that filled the room. It was a lot better than his previous accommodation down on the desert planet at any rate. The human sucked in a lungful of the ships slightly stale air and breathed out with a smile on his face.

‘I take it you’re the cause of all this trouble,’ said Ellu as she tilted her head to one side and looked at Patrick.

‘Hm?’ the human mumbled as he realised he had not been paying much attention.

He looked at the blue-haired girl with a startled expression on his features. She appeared to be roughly his height with a long mane of beautiful, thick blue hair which was tied in a plaited ponytail which ran all the way down her back. He couldn’t accurately guess her age – her tanned, light orange skin was flawless and wrinkle-free yet her large eyes seemed to be the eyes of someone who had experienced quite a lot in life. She was slender yet lightly muscled (he imagined she was fairly strong when she needed to be) and she was wearing rather tight-fitting clothes which showed off her attractive body well. She was staring intently at him and one corner of her full lips was curling upwards in a half-smile. Patrick gulped as he realised he had been staring at her for quite some time without uttering a single word.

‘I’m…sorry…?’ he said in a low voice, somewhat embarrassed.

Ellu simply laughed. ‘I’m only kidding. My name is Ellu. It’s nice to meet you, Patrick.’

‘It’s…nice to meet you too,’ replied the human as his cheeks began to get hot and turn a rosy colour.

Saleek thought he detected some kind of spark between Patrick and Ellu and he was going to tease the human about it before figuring that he had probably been through enough for one day without having jokes made at his expense, so instead he said, ‘Don’t worry, Patrick. She’s a saldorian – they have a notoriously weird sense of humour.’

Ellu shot a glance at the spiky lyan. ‘Look who’s talking,’ she said with a playful grin.

‘Fair point,’ conceded Saleek with a slight chuckle. ‘I suppose some parts of lyan culture would seem weird to outsiders.’

‘Then it’s settled – I guess we’re all weird here, right?’ said Ellu before laughing loudly.

Saleek began laughing too and then Patrick joined in.

‘No argument from me,’ piped up Zeeree with an unusually laconic comment which only served to make the others laugh harder.

The cargo ship gradually made its way across the vast blackness of space and its crew were in good spirits after a successful rescue mission. However, this did not last long. Around six hundred million kilometres away from the desert planet, something stirred. At first it just appeared to be a single spark of something that began flashing rapidly. Then more sparks joined it, making the resulting pulse bigger and brighter. Seconds later there was an enormous flash of bright white light and with an ominous crackling sound a large ship re-entered normal space.

‘I do not wish to spoil the mood-’ started Zeeree.

‘Then don’t!’ interrupted Ellu with a giggle.

The stress of conducting a rescue mission had gone and she was now feeling extremely relaxed, almost a bit giddy in fact, now that they were in the clear.

‘I have just detected a ship re-entering normal space approximately six hundred million Drekkmas from our current position,’ explained the AI, her face taking up the entirety of the main view screen.

‘So?’ said Saleek casually, lounging comfortably in one of the chairs in the cockpit along with Ellu and Patrick.

‘I think you should see for yourselves,’ said Zeeree and with that her face slowly disappeared and was replaced by a magnified version of the new ship as seen from the cargo ship’s optical sensors.

‘My goodness,’ whispered Ellu, her mouth open in shock.

The ship that had just re-entered normal space from super-space was large. Very large. In fact, words like huge, gigantic and enormous didn’t really do it justice. It was many, many times larger than Saleek’s vessel and if that wasn’t enough, it boasted enormously powerful engines and an array of deadly weapons all over its hull. The craft was sleek and streamlined in spite of its huge size and it was painted as black as space itself with trim an angry red colour.

Patrick gulped as he tried to take in the ship currently taking up the whole of the main view screen.

‘What…what the hell is that?’ asked Ellu as she stared unblinkingly at the main screen.

‘I am uncertain as to the exact designation of the ship, however it is comparable in size and armament to a Destroyer and a Battlecruiser combined,’ explained Zeeree. ‘I do not believe it is an official military vessel however.’

‘You’re telling us that thing belongs to someone? Who in the galaxy would need….or who could even afford a ship like that?’ said Ellu as she stared at the screen in disbelief.

‘Please tell me that’s not who I think it is….’ said Saleek, desperately hoping that he was wrong.

As if on cue, an audio transmission crackled over the main speakers in the cockpit.

‘Greetings, Saleek. Or should I call you “traitor”?’ spat an angry voice.

‘Oh boy,’ muttered the lyan, shaking his head. ‘Hey there, Vallan. How’s life treatin’ ya?’

‘I suppose I cannot complain. The fates have seen fit to lead me right to you!’ exclaimed Mr Vallan over the com.

‘That’s just great,’ said Saleek sarcastically in a low voice.

‘Allow me to make this as simple as I can, so that even a simpleton like you can understand my words. You have stolen from me, Saleek. As you can imagine, that upset me. Now I am here to reclaim what is mine and exact some revenge! Power down your craft’s engines and prepare to be brought aboard my vessel. Get ready for the worst torture you have ever experienced – when I’m through with you, there won’t be enough pieces of your body left for the authorities to identify you! That goes for all your friends aboard your little ship too. And don’t even think about trying to run – my ship is capable of disabling your engines with a single shot. I’ll see you soon, Saleek,’ said Mr Vallan before the communication ended abruptly.

‘What do we do?’ asked Patrick.

He had just escaped from one form of captivity and he was not about to go straight into another without a fight.

‘There’s nothin’ we can do,’ said Saleek as he hung his head despondently.

‘What? There’s got to be something we can do! There’s always something we can do!’ exclaimed Ellu defiantly. ‘Zeeree, what are our options?’

‘Extremely limited,’ admitted the AI. ‘That vessel is equipped with very powerful engines and as a result its speed is far greater than ours. We cannot outrun it. It has thick armour and most likely several overlapping energy shields so I doubt that our weapons can do much damage. And his assertion is unfortunately correct – that craft has many weapons that are military grade and thus are capable of immobilising us with a direct hit and possibly destroying us altogether with another two.’

‘So what are you saying? We’re just going to give up? Nuts to that!’ said Patrick in an uncharacteristic display of boldness.

‘I’m with Patrick,’ said Ellu, nodding vigorously. ‘What about evasive manoeuvres? We’re much smaller than that ship so we have to be much more agile. Maybe we can use that to escape somehow.’

‘It won’t do any good,’ said Saleek as he shook his head. ‘If we had more time, maybe we could have charged the jump drive and made it to super-space before that ship was in weapons range but they’ll be within range in about ten seconds. We’re outta options.’

The lyan looked at Patrick, then Ellu then finally at Zeeree. The silence that had descended on the cockpit was deafening; it was almost smothering. Patrick and Ellu stared intensely at Saleek with expressions of desperation on their faces whilst Zeeree almost looked like she was holding back digital tears in her deep blue eyes. The lyan sighed and prepared to give himself up.

‘I’m so sorry, guys. Looks like this is it.’

Aboard the gigantic black and red ship, Mr Vallan licked his pale lips with a snake-like tongue. He could not help himself from rubbing his bony hands together repeatedly as he tried to plan what he was going to do the traitor once he was aboard his craft.

He glanced to his right and told a nearby underling, ‘Contact the prison deck. Have them ready all the torture chambers. Oh, and tell them to also prepare a wide variety of stimulants and healer medicines – I don’t want Saleek to pass out from the pain, I want him wide awake the whole time so I can watch his face as he suffers.’

‘Yes, Mr Vallan. Right away,’ responded the underling as he quickly began tapping commands into the computer at which he sat.

Mr Vallan turned his attention back to the main screen on the bridge which showed a magnified version of Saleek’s ship and started to rub his hands together again.

For a few moments, all was quiet aboard both ships apart from the beeping of computer systems and the occasional tapping of keys, before a voice suddenly cut through the air.

It was rich and authoritative and it said over the com, ‘This is the Galactic Police. All craft are to power down their engines at once and prepare for questioning.’

Another moment of silence passed before everyone started looking around rapidly in confusion.

‘What the hell was that? Who said that?’ demanded Mr Vallan as he looked around the bridge frantically. ‘Who is monitoring sensors? What is happening out there? Somebody talk to me!’

Back aboard the cargo ship, Ellu said, ‘What in the galaxy is happening now? Zeeree, are you picking up any ships nearby?’

‘Nothing on short-range scanners,’ replied Zeeree, looking as nonplussed as the saldorian girl.

The lines that composed the AI’s forehead changed and seemed to indicate a furrowed brow. Saleek, on the other hand, let out a loud breath before leaning back in his chair and looking remarkably relaxed.

‘I never thought I’d be so glad to hear that guy’s voice. His timing could be better though.’

For a moment, Ellu and Patrick gave Saleek looks that suggested they were totally confused before Zeeree piped up and announced, ‘I am picking up a ship on mid-range scans. Correction, now I am detecting three ships.’

Saleek just grinned whilst Patrick’s mouth hung open in shock and Ellu spluttered, ‘But….But where did they come from?’

‘What do you mean, you don’t know where they came from?’ snarled Mr Vallan in a voice growing in volume and anger.

‘I…don’t know, Sir,’ spluttered an underling who was standing at the sensor station on the large craft’s bridge. ‘They came out of nowhere. It….It’s possible they have some kind of stealth generators or cloaking fields….’

‘Can you confirm that they are indeed police craft?’ demanded Mr Vallan.

The underling frantically tapped controls as beads of sweat began to form on his brow.

A few seconds later, he nervously replied, ‘Y-Yes, Sir. They are definitely Galactic Police ships…’

‘Damn it all to hell!’ screamed Mr Vallan in frustration.

He could not believe that he was so close to getting revenge on Saleek and it was about to be ripped from his grasp at the last moment by an unanticipated interruption.

The underling at the sensor station then said, “Sir, those three ships are scanning our vessel. If they can penetrate our armour and detect what we’re carrying, we won’t just be brought in for questioning, they will arrest us right here and now!”

Mr Vallan clenched his jaw and ground his filthy teeth together. He knew the underling was correct – there were currently a few hundred slave girls, several tonnes of narcotics, many crates of banned weapons and more things aboard the ship which were very, very illegal. If the police detected them, they would all be arrested. For a second or two, Mr Vallan considered the option of destroying the three police craft. It would be easily done with his ship’s massive firepower. However, he quickly realised that would be a foolish course of action to take – if he murdered many police officers in cold blood then the entire galaxy would be after him to try and arrest him. He knew what he had to do.

Reluctantly, he said, ‘Charge all engines and secure all systems. Prepare for emergency randomised jump to super-space. Now! We’ve got to get away from here!’

The huge black and red ship turned about ninety degrees to starboard as its main engines flared. It began to move away from Saleek’s ship as well as the three police craft.

‘Any attempt to escape will result in a charge of resisting arrest which carries its own penalty. I repeat: power down your engines at once,’ said the commanding voice over the com.

‘Saleek, would you mind explaining to us all how you knew this would happen?’ demanded Ellu as she pressed several buttons and the rumble of the ship’s engines suddenly vanished.

The saldorian proceeded to methodically shut down the craft’s propulsion systems as per the police’s request.

‘I always like to have a plan B just in case. As Patrick knows, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?’ said the grinning lyan in reply.

As the looks from Zeeree and Ellu intensified, Saleek said, ‘All right, all right, I’ll explain. I wanted to rescue Patrick but I knew I couldn’t do it alone-’

‘That’s why you asked Kracht and me for help,’ interrupted Ellu.

‘Yeah, but here’s the thing: I knew that even with you guys helpin’ me, it’d be nearly impossible to pull this off and escape without a hitch,’ continued Saleek. ‘I know Vallan – I’ve done small jobs for him for a while and I know what kind of scumbag he is. He’s the toughest guy in the world when the odds are in his favour. When he thought it was just him and his gigantic ship and little ol’ me, he was overconfident. I knew he’d want revenge for what I stole from him and I figured that when those guys kidnapped Patrick and tried to take me too, they’d tell Vallan exactly where I was. I knew he’d come lookin’ for me and I knew we needed a sure-fire escape route, which is why I contacted my buddy in the police.’

‘So….just to be clear here,’ said Ellu, still looking unconvinced, ’your big plan was to save us from being tortured to death by getting us all arrested and put in prison instead?’

‘It won’t be like that,’ insisted Saleek. ‘Me and my buddy go way back – we can cut a deal. We’ll give him info ‘bout Vallan and he’ll let us go as long as we stay in touch with him as criminal informants. Trust me, everything’ll be fine!’

Ellu tucked a stray strand of blue hair behind her ear with a delicate motion of her slender fingers. Staring hard at Saleek, she replied, ‘You’ve done this sort of thing before, haven’t you?’

Feeling uncomfortable with Ellu’s gaze burning into him, the lyan looked away as he said, ‘Yeah….’

‘How many times?’

No response.

‘How many times, Saleek?’ demanded the blue-haired girl. She was getting annoyed now.

‘A few….OK, more than a few times,’ admitted Saleek.

‘My God, Saleek,’ said Ellu angrily. ‘Your criminal record must be so long it needs its own section in the police databanks! Did you even think what you were dragging us into before you came up with this ridiculous plan?’

The lyan said, ‘Actually, unusually for me, I did.’

Ellu’s mouth dropped open in disbelief.

Saleek continued, ‘But I did it anyway. I couldn’t let Patrick suffer and die ‘cause of me. The biggest mistake I made was swiping that damn artefact in the first place. Once I’d done that, there was no goin’ back. The only thing to do now is keep movin’ forwards. Sorry if not having a tiny blip on your record is more important than saving an innocent life.’ He paused before saying, ‘Man, I seem to be sayin’ this a lot lately but trust me Ellu, I will make it up to you somehow. The important thing is that Patrick is rescued, we’re all safe and Vallan is gone. I reckon that’s a win.’

Chapter 28

In the confines of a police station back on the giant hub planet of Nexus One, Joval was talking to Saleek. They were not alone, however – in the same room were Patrick, Kracht, Ellu and the police officers Le’Mi, Tylorran and Hazir too.

Joval started off by saying, ‘Well, you’ve done some pretty wild things Saleek, but this has to be the craziest thing you’ve ever been involved with.’

‘So far. Gimme a ship with a full tank of fuel and a couple of weeks and I’m sure I could top it,’ replied the lyan who was looking at Joval with a cheeky grin on his face.

Joval let out a small sigh in exasperation before continuing. ‘This might be a game to you my friend, but it’s not to me. This is my job – I follow the law and I have to act accordingly if I catch someone who has broken it.’

Ellu shared a worried glance with Patrick at this but kept her lips sealed and said nothing. Saleek appeared unfazed and leaned back in the chair in which he was currently sitting.

‘C’mon, man,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to gimme this speech every time you pull me in here. You know the deal as much as I do, so let’s get down to it.’

Joval now let out a louder sigh and clenched his jaw in irritation at the lyan’s flippant behaviour. He looked hard at Saleek before pointing at his fellow police officers, who were standing patiently behind and to the right of him.

‘You see these people behind me, Saleek?’

The spiky alien nodded once.

‘They are good, honest, hard-working police officers who operate under my command. We are a squad, I am their leader and as such I have to set an example for them to follow. I cannot allow them to see me turning a blind eye to those who break the law, no matter how close to them I may be.’

Saleek snorted. ‘Man, you’ve really gotten uptight since you made Sergeant, haven’t you?’

Joval rolled his eyes at this. ‘Saleek, I want you to take this seriously for just a few seconds. Do you think you can manage that?’

Saleek looked at the floor, then at Kracht, then at Ellu, then at Patrick before turning back to look at Joval once more.

He said, ‘OK fine. Lay it on me.’

Joval paused before saying, ‘All right. You have become mixed up in something that is so big and shrouded in so much secrecy that I don’t even understand it all myself.’

Saleek’s forehead creased and he leaned forwards in his chair before saying, ‘Huh? What are you talkin’ ‘bout?’

‘I do not have any charges, as such, to press against any of you,’ explained Joval, hoping that this would make Saleek and the others relax and become more cooperative. ‘The only thing that I know is that you have stolen an item from Mr Vallan. However, that item does not even belong to Mr Vallan in the first place so you can’t really have stolen it from him. You were in a fairly remote star system aboard your own ship and minding your own business as far as I can tell. So, once all this is over, I am going to let you go. Just drop the attitude in future, will you Saleek? Then we won’t have any problems.’

The lyan was slightly taken aback by this but upon reflection he considered Joval’s request to be perfectly reasonable and so he said, ‘OK, that’s fair. No problem. But what were you talkin’ about when you said, “we’re mixed up in something big”? ‘

Joval smiled.

‘Now, allow me to explain a little more. Mr Vallan is up to no good and we have known that for years. Unfortunately, the Galactic Police have never been able to arrest him and charge him with any offences because he is always one step ahead of our investigations and so he always appears clean, at least in the public eye. Now, after conducting an off-the-record investigation into various people, including Vallan, we know why.’

‘What did you find out?’ piped up Ellu, becoming more interested in the conversation.

Joval looked at her with big, dark eyes. ‘Mr Vallan has paid off a lot of people to help him cover his tracks. When I say “a lot”, I mean a lot. From what we can gather, Vallan has paid off many people in the Galactic Police, people who work for Justice Centres and many more besides. That is why he has never been arrested – he has contacts and moles within the Galactic Police ourselves.’

‘Really?’ said Ellu.

‘Unfortunately, that is not all,’ said Hazir. He remained stony-faced with his arms folded as he said, ‘We believe he also has contacts in multiple governments across multiple star systems. To say his influence is great is a considerable understatement.’

‘So….what? You think Vallan is up to something big? I dunno,’ said Saleek, shaking his head. ‘I’ve known the guy for a little while and he’s a textbook creep but I doubt he has plans that are above running his criminal gangs and rakin’ in some credits.’

‘One does not need contacts in governments across half the populated galaxy if one is merely a local crime boss,’ stated Joval very matter-of-factly. ‘I suspected Vallan might have been up to something before all this even started but I had no idea that so many people were involved. The fact is, I believe he is working for someone else and I believe that they are planning something big – something that at the very least, could change the political landscape across the galaxy and, at worst, could result in large-scale conflicts across the galaxy.’

Saleek considered this for a while in silence, whilst Kracht looked bored, Ellu looked thoughtful and Patrick looked like he had no idea what was going on at all.

Eventually, the lyan spoke again. ‘You guys got any hard proof of any plans?’ he asked.

‘We don’t have much…at the moment,’ admitted Joval. ‘However, we have recovered some limited information from the settlement you showed us on that planet in the Barren Lands. From this information we have been able to decode some encrypted messages that Vallan has sent to people, and we have acquired information from some other sources as well. Suffice it to say that I am rather worried about what might happen, unless we do something.’

‘I’m almost afraid to ask this question,’ said Saleek as held Joval’s gaze, ‘but what does all this have to do with us? What can we do about it?’

‘Right now, I am not certain. However, here is what I propose: I am going to let you go but I want you all to remain in contact with me and my team as criminal informants. You will have no blemishes on your records from this incident. I am confiscating the artefact that you took from Mr Vallan and I am giving it to the Natural History Museum of Nexus One-’

‘Hey, you can’t take that artefact! That’s my ticket to gettin’ paid! You think I rescued the human for the good of my health or somethin’?’ exclaimed Kracht suddenly. After a few moments of awkward silence with everybody looking at him, the large buskpod reluctantly sank back into his chair and muttered, ‘Ah, forget it.’

He crossed his muscular arms and sulked quietly on his own as the conversation continued.

‘I’m sure that the archaeologists in the museum will be thrilled to have an actual specimen of Darforian culture. That should keep them busy for months,’ continued Joval. ‘The area of land known as the Spay’Ar dig site, where Mr Vallan originally excavated the artefact, has been abandoned. I have ordered some junior officers to patrol the region and maintain a continuous presence there in case anybody such as Vallan decides to come back and visit the site again.’

‘Why a handful of junior officers and not full teams with tactical support?’ asked Ellu with a confused look on her face.

‘I think I know the reason,’ said Saleek as Joval paused for a moment. ‘You’re still doing things off the record, aren’t you?’

Joval sighed and replied, ‘Unfortunately, that is the case. With Mr Vallan having so many contacts in so many different organisations across so many different systems, I don’t know who to trust. Right now, the only people who know about this are the people in this room and few other officers from another precinct. That’s it.’

‘While I understand you’re being cautious, I fail to see how a handful of people like us could make a difference against someone like Vallan,’ said Ellu.

‘As much as I hate to say it, Joval,’ said Saleek, ‘Me, Patrick and the others ain’t police officers like you guys. We don’t have to investigate criminals and bring ‘em to justice. This all sounds really dangerous and not worth all the hassle, to be honest. I have enough trouble keeping my ship fully fuelled and my belly full of food these days.’

‘You never seemed to have a problem with danger before,’ challenged Joval.

‘That was when I knew what I was gettin’ myself into,’ argued Saleek. ‘I like havin’ a pre-planned escape route and I hate not knowing what I’m involved in. I’m not gonna spy on Vallan or any of his cronies for you – Vallan is seriously pissed at me and wants me either dead or locked in one of his torture chambers. Sorry dude, but the answer is no.’

Joval was briefly taken aback by the human slang with which he was unfamiliar but quickly regained his composure.

‘All right, Saleek. All right,’ he said. ‘I get your point. You don’t want to put yourself at risk without me doing the same. I get that. OK fine, I’ll move on the info that I already have. I will publically arrest those police officers and others that I know to have received payoffs from Vallan and I will make this all public. Everyone will know.’

Everyone in the room remained silent at that until Saleek piped up one last time. ‘And?’ he prompted with an arched green eyebrow.

Joval let out a small chuckle and said, ‘And I promise I’ll try to be a better friend in future. I have been too wrapped up in my work and neglected too many aspects of my life because of it – including my friends. So I will try to change that. And the first thing I’m going to do is give you access to a credit account – whenever you need money for food or fuel or anything like that, you can take it from that. I don’t want you pulling ridiculous stunts like this just to scrape together enough credits to refuel your ship. No matter what crazy things you do or how you live your life, we are still friends. Agreed?’

Saleek couldn’t help himself and grinned. ‘Agreed, good buddy. Let’s shake on it!’

The lyan held out his hand. Joval looked quizzically at it before holding his own hand out. Saleek grabbed it and shook it forcefully.

‘It’s a human custom. Somethin’ they do when they reach an agreement,’ explained Saleek with a smile.

‘Curious,’ commented Joval. ‘But oddly enjoyable. So we understand each other? No more double-crossing crime lords from now on? If you ever need help, come to me first, OK?’

‘Can’t promise “forever”,’ said Saleek with a wink as he withdrew his hand from Joval’s grip and ended the handshake. ‘But “for now” sounds about right. I’ve had enough excitement for a while. Think I’ll lay low for a bit.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ said Joval as he stood up from his chair and motioned for everyone else to do the same. ‘Come on everybody. Let’s get you signed out and then you’re free to go.’

***

An hour or so later, Saleek and Patrick were walking together along a grey metal walkway that connected two very tall buildings. However, the walkway had no visible barriers at either side and this made the human rather nervous as he peered over the edge of the pathway and looked downwards. He didn’t know exactly how high up they were from the ground but it had to be at least a couple of kilometres as he could not see the ground-level walkways and people scurrying to and fro – instead he laid his eyes on large numbers of hover taxis and the like whizzing this way and that atop a cloud of industrially generated smoke. Patrick inhaled a lungful of air and coughed – the consequence of such a busy planet full of industry, people and vehicles was poor air quality in most sectors. Saleek glanced at his companion and saw him looking over the edge.

‘Are you OK, dude?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, I’m all right,’ replied Patrick as he stopped looking downwards and continued walking along the walkway. ‘I’m just not crazy about heights, that’s all,’ he added a few seconds later.

The lyan smiled.

‘It’s totally safe – they have repulsor fields that activate whenever anyone steps over the edge. It’s impossible to fall. Don’t you have this kinda thing back on your home planet?’

Patrick chuckled and said, ‘Not exactly. We have more technology now than we could have dreamed of several centuries ago but most of it has come from mimicking alien tech. There’s still a lot that we don’t know. In fact, I think a lot of humans are still having trouble adjusting to the fact that we are not the brightest, strongest, most advanced bunch of people in the universe.’

‘Sounds kinda like my species a thousand years ago. It’s cool, you’ll all adjust – you’ve only been part of the Galactic Network for about two hundred and fifty years. You’re still growing.’

‘Yeah, I suppose you’re right,’ said Patrick as he gazed at the sunset in the distance.

The sky was darkening but there were strands of clouds decorating the vanishing sun and the result was sunbeams bouncing off the metal buildings of Nexus One, reflecting different colours as they passed through various clouds of smoke rising into the atmosphere. The sun itself was still large and powerful as it began to dip below the horizon which made the sky look like a painting of crimson, bronze and orange which was turning slowly to the black of night.

‘Beautiful sunset,’ commented the human as he stared in awe at the vista before him.

‘Yeah, it is,’ agreed Saleek.

‘So…what happens now? What do we do next?’

‘Well, remember when I said life with me would never be boring?’

‘Yeah?’

‘I wasn’t lyin’, was I?’ said the lyan with a grin.

Patrick laughed.

‘That’s true. Where are Ellu and Kracht, by the way?’

‘They’ve been contacted on the com with a job so they’re gettin’ ready to leave Nexus One and head for the Barrion system.’

‘Do you think we’ll see them again?’

‘Oh definitely. Wherever there’s trouble, Kracht is usually not far behind. Then Ellu will be there to try and keep him from gettin’ into more trouble….you get the idea.’

‘If that’s true, it sounds like we won’t be strangers to trouble ourselves.’

‘I guess you’re right. Hey, trouble is what makes life interesting!’

‘What do you think about all this stuff with Mr Vallan though?’

Saleek took a deep breath and sighed.

‘To be honest, I dunno. I’ve always been happy just doin’ my own thing and livin’ my life from day to day but I think that might be about to change.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’ said a confused Patrick.

The lyan turned to look directly at the human as they both stopped walking and stood still on the walkway.

‘You said it yourself – there’s still a lot you don’t know. The relative stability and peace we have now has only existed in this galaxy for ‘bout three hundred years and even then, it’s touch and go at times. Before you humans arrived there were countless arguments and wars big and small. There’s a lotta beauty and resources in this galaxy and some people don’t like sharing so they wanna take it for themselves and they’re quite happy to start a war in order to get what they want.’

‘Sounds a lot like the history of my own people – they warred and argued over resources and different ideas until they had polluted and destroyed the planet so much that it could no longer support life. That’s why we had to leave and come to your galaxy,’ said Patrick.

‘Problem is: this galaxy is full of planets and people and it’s like a zillion times the size of your old planet with a hundred times the technology and destructive weapons. I have this horrible feeling that Vallan or someone like him will try and start a huge conflict again and plunge this galaxy into constant war for his own benefit. After talkin’ with Joval, I reckon it’s gonna happen soon as well…’

Patrick looked at Saleek and was surprised by the expression on his green features. The lyan seemed deadly serious in his words and his face looked forlorn. The expression looked wrong on him somehow – Patrick was not used to seeing the lyan without his trademark grin and a twinkle in his eye.

‘It might not happen,’ said the human.

‘Hm?’

‘What you just described. Perhaps someone will stop this potential conflict before it even begins. Maybe you and Joval are worrying over nothing.’

Saleek looked at Patrick and smiled.

‘Y’know what, man? You’re absolutely right. This is a worry for another day, eh? C’mon, let’s get goin’. I know I place not far from here that serves a killer sandakk! Time to see if Joval’s account chip really works!’

Patrick chuckled and with a smile on his lips he followed Saleek as the lyan bounded off down the walkway with his usual amount of enthusiasm firmly etched on his face in the shape of a huge grin.

Epilogue

Deep in the heart of super-space, an extremely large and sleek-looking ship sped onwards. Its engines generated little noise as the huge craft achieved most of its rapid velocity by hitching a ride on the ubiquitous faster-than-light waves of energy which continuously moved throughout the dimension. On the bridge of this ship, a small and yellow-skinned individual sat in silence, seemingly lost in thought.

His train of thought was interrupted by one of his ship’s crew walking up to him and saying, ‘It should be safe to re-enter normal space soon, sir.’

Mr Vallan turned slightly to his right to see who was talking before silently turning back again.

‘It’s about time. Make the necessary preparations and do it,’ he growled.

Rather than simply walk away, the crew member then boldly asked, ‘What should we do about Saleek and the Galactic Police?’

Mr Vallan was in a foul mood so his instinctive reaction to being bothered when he wanted to be left alone was to imagine how many ways he could discipline this member of his ship’s crew in a torture chamber.

However, he managed to calm himself quickly before replying, ‘I will sort out those particular annoyances later.’

‘He will not be happy that the police are now involved.’

Without turning around, Mr Vallan’s face contorted into an expression of rage.

‘Don’t you think I know that?’ he snapped angrily. ‘Still, it matters not. I already bribe many officers in the Galactic Police, having to bribe a few more to ensure their silence on this matter will make little difference. And if these investigators have the misfortune to be the honest type of police officer that cannot be bribed or coerced….’

He made a cutting motion at his throat with a bony index finger to indicate what would happen to the poor officers if they did not cooperate with his demands.

‘I see, sir. In that case I will leave you while I make the preparations to return to normal space.’

The crew member turned smartly on his heels and marched off.

Mr Vallan turned his attention to the main screen on the bridge, which currently showed an array of charts and numbers as the large spacecraft zipped through super-space.

With an evil scowl crossing his face as he clasped his hands together, Mr Vallan stared at the main screen and said in a low voice, ‘You will pay for this disruption, Saleek. You will pay.’

###

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The Hidden Treasure of Darfor

In the far future, humans have abandoned a dying Earth and colonised planets on the edge of another galaxy. Once there, they discover this galaxy is teeming with various species of alien life that have created a huge galactic network of planets which the humans become part of. This is the story of a human who journeys from the outer colonies to the bustling, cosmopolitan centre of the galaxy to start a new life. After befriending a cheeky alien, he unwittingly becomes entangled in a web of crime and adventure far beyond his wildest imagination. Can he stay ahead of the people who are determined to hunt him down?

  • ISBN: 9781370512461
  • Author: David Shewring
  • Published: 2017-02-15 17:50:22
  • Words: 97021
The Hidden Treasure of Darfor The Hidden Treasure of Darfor