Book: Death Defied: Age of Expansion
Author Notes - Justin Sloan
Author Notes - PT Hylton
Author Notes - Michael Anderle
Other Books by Justin Sloan
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Michael Anderle Social
Valerie’s Elites Book Two
By Justin Sloan, PT Hylton and Michael Anderle
A part of
The Kurtherian Gambit Universe
Written and Created
by Michael Anderle
To Ugulay, Verona and Brendan Sloan
To Family, Friends and
Those Who Love
May We All Enjoy Grace
To Live the Life We Are
JIT Beta Readers - From all of us, our deepest gratitude!
If we missed anyone, please let us know!
DEATH DEFIED (this book) is a work of fiction.
All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.
Copyright © 2017 Justin Sloan, PT Hylton, Michael T. Anderle and Craig Martelle
Cover by Andrew Dobell, www.creativeedgestudios.co.uk
Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing
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First US edition, December 2017
The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2015 - 2017 by Michael T. Anderle.
Days spent on Tol were nothing like back on Earth, and it wasn’t only because Valerie had just helped institute a successful coup. While on Earth she had hidden in the shadows, forced to try and keep too many humans from knowing about Weres and vampires—of which she was the latter.
Up here though? The Skulla and Norrul treated her like some big hero. She tried to push the credit to Kalan, where much of it was due, but she was still the liberator in their eyes. She would have much preferred to kick the bad guy’s ass and let someone else stick around to take the glory.
It wasn’t only a matter of them not listening to her. There was the issue that, until Valerie had come along, the Norrul had been slaves to the Skulla. Now this whole system was being reworked. Sslake had been set up as the new leader, and it was up to him to put together the pieces of this metaphorical vase she’d broken.
Of course, in the process of breaking it, she’d made it ten times better than it had been. No more slaves, no more people having to fight for their right to live here or to rise in society.
Valerie wasn’t trying to influence the new system. If Sslake needed them, he would commission the job through the Etheric Federation and the Bad Company. More specifically, Colonel Terry Henry Walton.
At the moment, all she wanted was to find something to eat that wasn’t the local variation of flowers or rantu, their version of panther. It was their specialty, but after having been friends with a werepuma for the year or so before leaving Earth she couldn’t see herself eating any animal that even remotely resembled a cat.
“Maybe the Norrul have a better diet?” Garcia offered, as he and Robin walked with Valerie through the bazaar. They made their way toward the Norrul tables, not happy to see that, even though they weren’t slaves any more, their sales tables were set up in the back and with very little room.
Too bad Kalan and Bob had to take off so soon. She had a feeling Kalan’s tastes were much more in line with her own, and he probably knew where to look.
A shot was fired and everyone ducked—everyone except Valerie, who turned and scanned the crowd looking for the shooter. She didn’t have to look hard, because there was one Pallicon who stood at least a head above all of the Skulla who had dived for cover. His pistol was aimed right at Valerie, though he’d clearly missed.
“Wandrei scum!” he shouted, about to shoot again, when an enhanced Skulla tackled him, two more joining a moment later.
“Looks like our friends haven’t abandoned us,” Robin said with a raised eyebrow. She nudged Valerie and nodded to the far curtain of the bazaar, where Warlord Palnik stood watching, arms crossed. Several more of those large-armed Skulla stood by as his bodyguard.
Despite everything that had changed there were still classes here, and Palnik was still one of those at the top. If not for Sslake, in fact, he might be at the top. Before it had been Warlord Charbon, who Valerie had taken out as part of her mission, and the top warlord who had called himself the Bandian, after a race of aliens who, it turned out, Kalan actually belonged to.
“What’s he doing here?” Valerie wondered aloud.
“Looking for trouble,” Garcia replied. “Maybe I’ll bring him some.”
Valerie held out a hand, then used it to wave to the warlord. In response, all she received was a scowl.
“To be fair, you changing the system essentially stripped him of any real power,” Robin pointed out. “You can see why he would be annoyed.”
“And we saved lives when we did so.” Valerie started walking toward him, motioning the others to follow and simply ignoring the shooter. “I’d say he should either start living in the system or get out of it. Pretty black and white, if you ask me.”
Palnik waved his guards off at Valerie’s approach and walked over to meet her half way.
“I trust you’re finding a way to entertain yourself?” Valerie asked, referring to the fact that the fighting arena was closed now.
He sneered, then turned that into a frown. “Sslake’s looking for you, asked me to find you. Looks like I get to be his personal errand boy.”
“You must love that,” Garcia said with a chuckle.
“Maybe I break your legs and we see who’s laughing?”
Garcia took a step toward Palnik, and to the warlord’s surprise his guards didn’t step in to do a damn thing. It hit Valerie that it was likely because of the legends surrounding her and her team. Nobody wanted to mess with them, not after what had happened in the fighting arena and how they had taken down the false Bandian at his strange base in the jungle.
“You were saying?” Garcia asked, towering over the warlord.
Behind them, the other Skulla had taken care of the shooter and were now dragging him out of the tent, unconscious and with a line of blood dripping from his nose.
Palnik shook his head and turned to lead the way.
“He’s not at his headquarters?” Robin asked.
“Actually, he’s had a team going over the Bandian’s base since you took it out, and thinks he found something quite intriguing. He asked for you all specifically, said it might be a job for you and your team.”
Suddenly the lights went out completely and an explosion went off, followed by a loud and carrying female voice that said, “It has come to our attention that new leadership has taken over on Tor, and you have yet to pay tribute to your gods. We require blood. We are taking hostages. If you haven’t fulfilled our demand by the fourth hour, one will die every hour after that until we have the Bandian. Send him, and be quick.”
With that, the lights returned to normal and only far-off screams could be heard.
Valerie took a split-second to process this, then ran outside, leaping over tables and shoving locals aside until she was past the tents and could see that the threat was real.
Hovering over the city was a massive space ship with drones pulling back into it—and the drones were carrying screaming hostages.
Half a dozen fighters rose from the city, but as they moved for the ship above their engines seemed to die and they went careening back down, creating new explosions and subsequent fires.
“Well, we’re off to a great start,” Robin said, running a hand through her hair.
Valerie turned to the nearest Skulla. “Who are they?”
He shook his head, eyes never leaving the sky.
“Looks like that might be a question for Sslake,” Garcia stated.
“Hell, at least they only want the Bandian.” Robin shrugged. “No-brainer—give him up.”
“We can’t go around handing out prisoners to whatever alien group comes along making demands like this.” Valerie stared at the fires, almost wishing she didn’t always have to be in these situations, but knowing she was the most qualified for it.
“Don’t forget,” Garcia cut in, “it’s not exactly we, is it? Not like back home. Here we’re the mercenaries, not the government.”
He had a point.
“Looks like we better pay our friend Sslake a little visit then,” Valerie said. “But first, let’s make sure nobody’s hurt over there.”
They all took off, running for the fires and anyone who needed their assistance. It bothered her that she wasn’t going to have the final say here, but if she was going to play her role in Bad Company she had to do it by the book. Although, the way she figured it, since there wasn’t technically a book yet she had some wiggle room.
Kalan had been on the planet Coybon for three days before he found the damn temple.
And once he did, he didn’t much like the looks of it. To think he’d gone through all that trouble for this old stone building!
Bob had spent most of the three days at local drinking establishments, supposedly trying to gather Intel. He came back to the ship every night smelling strongly of alcohol and the strange leaves they smoked on this planet.
Wearl had disappeared for up to a day at a time. She was secretive about it, refusing to reveal even to Bob what she was up to.
On the third day, Bob surprised Kalan by coming through with a lead. A male claimed to have seen a Grayhewn near the Skulla temple south of the city. It had been many years ago, but he said he remembered it vividly, and just as importantly, he agreed to lead them there.
Kalan was following up on the fourth record from his father’s files. Each record contained the suspected location of a Grayhewn, as the Pallicon called them, or a Bandian, as they called themselves. Most of the records were nothing more than vague rumors, and they’d already spent nearly a month chasing down three dead-end leads.
This one was different in that Kalan’s father had actually had an eyewitness, although as they learned when they got to Coybon, that eyewitness happened to be dead. Still, they took it as another bump in the road.
But Bob’s lead had come through for them.
So it was they found themselves standing in the middle of a forest gazing down at a few stone spires jutting skyward above a thickly wooded valley.
Bob scratched his head. “Are we sure this is the place?”
Kalan gave him a look. “Are you serious? We got this intel from your lead.”
“Yeah, I know, but the guy seems shady. I have a weird feeling we’re maybe, I don’t know, grasping at straws.” He paused for a moment, listening. “What’s straw? Seriously, Wearl, you don’t know what straw is? It’s like hay. Dried long grass. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a saying.”
They marched through the thick trees, their rust-orange trunks twisting upward at impossible angles, and were halfway down the steep trail when they spotted the temple below. It was a large squat building whose stone walls were the same color as the trunks of the strange trees.
Before long they found a narrow stone path that quickly broadened as it approached the temple. It widened enough that ten men could’ve walked side-by-side.
Bob glanced nervously toward Kalan. “Are we sure this is a good idea? The Skulla religion is all about fighting, right?”
“Not all about fighting,” Kalan said with a smile. “Like seventy percent maybe. Honestly, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
They reached the bottom of a long staircase leading up to the door of the temple. Each step was only a few inches high, which made the staircase much longer than it needed to be. A staircase for a shorter species, Kalan mused.
When they reached the top, he put his hands on his hips and stared at the stone wall in front of them. “Huh.”
The stonewall was thirty feet high, ran the entire length of the building, and appeared to be seamless. Impossibly, it looked as if it had been made from one solid piece of stone.
“Not big fans of doors, are they?” Bob muttered.
“Shut up, I’m thinking.” Kalan slowly walked forward, his hand outstretched toward the stone wall in front of him. “Stick close behind me, you two. If I step into some sort of deathtrap, grab my shirt or something before I fall.”
Bob sighed. “Wearl says she’d never let that happen to someone as handsome, kindhearted, and muscular as you.”
At first Bob had refused to pass along Wearl’s flirty messages. She’d coerced him into doing it with threats of bodily harm, and now, after three weeks together as a team, he’d pretty much resigned himself to playing weird messenger boy.
Kalan didn’t know what to think of the messages. For all he knew it could be the strange Shimmer sense of humor coming through, or she could actually have the hots for him. One thing he did know was that he wasn’t interested. His standards weren't sky-high, but he did prefer his girlfriends to be visible and able to communicate to him without Bob whispering in his ear. That would make for a truly awkward date.
Kalan extended his index finger until it was only an inch or so from the stone wall and leaned a bit closer, his finger almost brushing the orange stone. Suddenly the wall was gone, and he saw a long corridor leading away from the empty spot where the wall had been up until a moment ago.
Whether the wall had been some sort of hologram or if it’d actually moved that quickly, Kalan had no idea. He didn’t have long to think about it before he noticed an especially short Skulla in a flowing orange robe standing at the end of the dim hallway.
“Come! All are welcome.”
Kalan and Bob exchanged a surprised glance. They been ready for hostility, aggressive questioning, or even a fight, but the one thing they had never expected was hospitality.
“Thank you,” he said simply. “I am Kalan Grayhewn, and my colleagues and I are here to seek your help.”
“Fine, fine. That’ll do. We’re happy to help.”
Kalan took a deep breath and figured he had nothing to lose. This was why they’d come into this strange valley forest, after all. They’d found the temple, and he was one step closer to either another dead-end or to finding one of his kinfolk.
He walked forward with long but slow strides, scanning the walls and the floors as casually as he could for any sort of traps.
The Skulla priest waited, his hands pressed together, the arms of the robe drooping nearly to his knees. “As I said, all are welcome…all who are willing to pay the price of entry.”
Kalan stopped walking. “Did you say ‘price?’ I think you might have the wrong idea here. I have a couple questions. I don’t want to—"
The Skulla priest waved his hand as if dismissing a foolish notion. “It makes no difference. You are here, and that means we will get our payment. As will you.”’
Even though the words were menacing, the priest spoke them in such a friendly and welcoming tone that Kalan began second-guessing himself. Was he reading too much into this?
“Kalan?” Bob called in a soft but insistent voice.
Kalan glanced back and did a double-take. The stone wall was back, and now they were trapped inside. He was more than a little tempted to take a run at the thing and find out once and for all if it was a hologram, but instead he turned towards the priest.
“Listen, I think we’ll have our chat right here if it’s all the same to you.”
The priest slowly shook his head, and Kalan was almost certain he saw a pang of regret in the old Skulla’s eyes. “I’m afraid that won’t work. I must take you deeper into the temple.”
Kalan casually rested his hand on the butt of the Tralen-14 pistol hanging from his belt. “All due respect, but that’s not happening. You’re going to answer our questions. I don’t mean to be impolite, but you’ve sort of put us in a tight spot here, what with the occasional wall popping up behind us and all.”
The priest sighed. “Fine. Ask your question.”
Kalan hesitated, surprised the old priest had so readily agreed. But why should he be? Three strangers were towering over the old male—wasn't that incentive enough?
“Excellent, thank you. We’ve heard tell you have a Grayhewn here at the temple. A male of my species.”
The priest’s eyes widened a bit. “Those who come to the temple do so in secret. I’m afraid I cannot reveal any information about those inside.”
“Oh, yeah? How about now?” Bob drew his pistol and trained it on the priest.
Kalan resisted the urge to smack Bob so hard he’d fly through that stone wall, but the damage was done and now they needed to present a unified front. There’d be plenty of time for chewing Bob a new one later. He drew his own weapon, though he didn’t point it at the priest.
The priest frowned. “Is that how guests behave where you’re from?” He shook his head sadly. “I fear it will be no joy collecting the payment from you.”
“What’s this payment you keep talking about?” Kalan asked.
The priest smiled slyly. “Anyone who sets foot inside these walls is bound to our service for the rest of their lives.”
Bob took a step forward and waggled his gun, as if trying to bring it to the priest’s attention. “I’m sorry, did you just threaten to make us slaves?”
“Not slaves, but disciples.” He turned to Kalan. “As to your question about the Grayhewn, there was one here, a grouchy old male who couldn’t be taught manners. Sadly he is no longer with us. He passed on to the final resting place ten cycles ago.”
Kalan grimaced and turned to Bob. “All right, let's get out of here. “
The priest waved his hand and suddenly the wall behind him disappeared, revealing five armed guards.
“I enjoyed having a Grayhewn here,” the priest said. “And now I have one once again.”
Planet Tol: Sslake Manor
The Bandian’s former house had been completely transformed into a hub for the new government. While the old system had relied heavily on one person getting his way by instituting terror through his death games and soldiers, Sslake wasn’t having any of that.
Under his rule, the other main houses—he refused to refer to them as warlords—were each taking on roles. Palnik, because he was powerful but couldn’t really be trusted, had been given the role of special advisor, and his men oversaw basic street security. Everyone knew it was a slap in the face, but Palnik stood tall, refusing to let on that he knew it too. Based on what Valerie understood of him, he was probably biding his time until he could make a move. He had been given extra men, some of whom were plants to keep an eye on him.
Others were given roles that hadn’t previously existed, and one of the Norrul who had helped in the fight against the Bandian was helping with race relations. Valerie’s head hurt thinking about this, since it hadn’t been a thing back on Earth. Not in her lifetime, anyway, unless you counted discrimination against vampires and Weres—which made sense, considering how many were murderous bastards.
Not that she’d liked it, but she’d understood it in that context. Here though, everyone was different, and even the few shifters she had met weren’t all bad. Some certainly were, and they had been thrown into the prisons along with the now-crippled Bandian.
What this attacking force wanted with him she couldn’t fathom, but that was what they were here to discuss, after all.
Valerie checked in, having let Robin and Garcia off the hook at Palnik’s former residence. That had now been turned into a barracks for the higher ranked members of the new military and included, for the time being, quarters for Valerie’s Elites. Robin had never been into political talk and hated dealing with aliens like Palnik, who was bound to be there, and Garcia had been tasked with working with the troops to further investigate the attacks and look for more wounded.
When Valerie had finally entered Sslake’s office, she wasn’t surprised to see the various heads of houses arrayed around a table. Sslake had up an image of a series of planets around a star, one highlighted in particular, on the display wall.
“How nice of you to join us,” Palnik said with a sneer.
“Did I make you wait?” she asked. “Maybe if you had been helping the injured with me I’d give a damn what you thought.”
The looks that statement earned her made her instantly regret her words, but she wasn’t fond of dealing with the injured or dead just to have idiots like these—the type who never got their hands dirty—look down on her.
“Valerie,” Sslake said with a glance at a nearby chair, “your timing is impeccable.”
She took the seat and leaned back, looking at the display. “What’d I miss?”
“You all heard the message,” Sslake stated, “but what you likely didn’t know was where it came from. We have some theories.”
He pointed to a moon on the display, one that, based on its location and what Valerie understood about star systems, was orbiting Tor. Other planets weren’t far off, but she thought this moon was close enough to be in Tor’s gravitational pull.
“A species on the moon?” she asked.
Sslake clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Not a moon, exactly. A space station, built by them for them.”
“For…whom?” Valerie asked.
“The Aranaught, a group of exiles, cybernetic experiments that were connected to an artificial intelligence meant to help them better function as a group but… it took over their minds and went haywire. We couldn’t destroy it, because it was in each of them and they were too powerful.”
“So you removed them from Tol?” She nodded, assessing the distance to the space station. “And now they want this Bandian. Why?”
“It’s more complicated than Sslake lays it out to be,” Palnik interjected. “There might have been some…changes in the Bandian’s later years.”
Judging by Sslake’s raised eyebrow this was news to him too. Half the room leaned forward and Palnik smiled, enjoying his moment of power.
“You all don’t know, do you?” He turned to the door and shouted for his followers, and a moment later the door opened and two shifters entered, carrying the crippled Bandian with them. They plopped him down in a chair and then stood back.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Sslake demanded, eyes wide as he stared at first the Bandian, then Palnik. “You had no authority to remove him from the prison.”
“And yet we have no choice otherwise,” Palnik countered, then slowly turned to the Bandian. “Tell them.”
This former leader wasn’t only physically crippled—it was clear his mind was suffering too. His eyes had a wild look as they darted around the room, and his lip a twitch in the left corner that seemed to hit every five seconds. When he attempted to point to the display his hand shook so badly he was forced to slam it down on the table, where he then clutched at the smooth wood.
“Out with it!” Sslake demanded.
“You all…” the Bandian began, struggling with the words, “are…fucked!” He leaned back and cackled a laugh, then slammed both hands on the table again. The laugh was replaced by a sneer. “They want me so I can complete— FUCKNOSE MOUNTAIN LICKER!” He struggled, pushing through as a spasm took him. “Complete…what I began.”
Valerie shook her head at this pitiful former leader. The Prisons and his defeat had done a number on him—that was clear.
Sslake apparently had a similar view, because he waved at the guards and said, “Get him out of here.”
Skulla appeared and dragged him out, renewed laughter echoing down the halls as he went.
“Well, Palnik?” Sslake asked. “Explain.”
“The wind brings me stories,” Palnik started, a smile tickling his lips. “It seems our mentally-departed friend there was starting to connect with the AI again, working with them to enhance his weapons, build a new army.”
“That’s what the base was,” Valerie said as it hit her. “Out in the jungle, with all those robotic parts and whatnot.”
Palnik nodded, though he refused to look at her. “Precisely. That’s why they were able to get past our defenses and attack us from the inside. My best guess is they want him to put some final piece on this, make the connection permanent. They have hostages now, and we can be damn sure that if we don’t meet their demands those hostages will die.”
“Hostages—a means to attack us without our ability to defend.” Sslake shook his head, then turned to Valerie. “As a representative of the Etheric Federation, I’d think this falls right into your area of responsibility, and we’re prepared to make the job official.”
“What…job…is that, exactly?” she asked.
“They need to be stopped. The Aranaught must be taken offline permanently. If we don’t, not only will you lose an ally, as they’ll surely wipe us out if given the chance, but it could also mean a potential threat to the Federation. Who knows how strong the Aranaught has become, or how far their reach has spread?”
“That’s the first question we’ll need addressed,” Valerie replied, mind racing with reasons for and against this mission. “If we do this, I only see one way through it. Bring the Bandian to them as bait, figure out the threat, and neutralize it.”
“You’re talking about bringing them the very key to their victory over us,” one of the other heads of house stated, standing from her seat. She wore a purple cloth draped over one shoulder, the light-blue dress beneath patterned to match the tattoos that circled her ears on the shaven sides of her head.
“I’m talking about baiting a monster,” Valerie replied, “and then destroying it.”
The others stared at her for a moment, then slowly began to shift their eyes to Sslake. He sat for a moment with fingers steepled and gaze on the display, but finally he turned to her and nodded.
“Very well, see that it’s done.”
“Sir,” Palnik said, “we should investigate the Valley of Alloy. See how far it’s gone.”
All eyes at the table went wide, except for Valerie’s, since she was at a loss. “’The Valley of Alloy?’”
“The wind whispers of a change since last we were out that way,” Palnik went on, not bothering to explain it to Valerie. “The enemy may be closer than we believe.”
“It would be purely a recon mission,” Sslake said, eyeing Valerie. “To answer your question, the valley is a place where early robots and failed cyborg experiments were dumped.”
“Only,” Palnik butted in again, “I now have reason to believe it’s become much more than that. Evidence was found at the Bandian’s base pointing to communications with others—with them. It’s larger than we could ever imagine, or I’m greatly mistaken.”
“Maybe both are true,” Valerie interjected, happy to get a jab at him in for all his attitude lately.
“Be that as it may, he’s right,” Sslake noted. “Are you up for the task?”
Valerie sat up straight, lips pursed, and nodded.
“Then I’ll have Palnik and one of his guards accompany you.” Sslake rose to indicate that the meeting was over.
“Me?” Palnik protested. “I… I have a job here, I have—”
“What you have, sir, is a responsibility to your people. You will go, understood?”
Palnik glared, then stormed from the room.
“Why him?” Valerie asked when the others had gone.
“Because he knows too much, and I always assume everything is a trap.”
“Probably why you’re still alive,” Valerie noted. She felt an odd sense of déjà vu at the words, as if she had heard the two phrases put together by someone she had known. Blowing off the feeling, she smiled and said, “Smart to keep those you’re not sure about close, but if he jeopardizes the mission?”
Sslake furrowed his brow. “Kill him.”
“I’m only kidding, but…serious too, maybe?” He shrugged. “If he gets out of hand, dumping him in the valley wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen, and nobody would question it.”
“I hope you’re not giving me reason to doubt my faith in you, sir,” she stated. “What you’re saying… It’s kind of on the gray side of the moral line.”
“When you’ve lived as I have you see everything as gray,” he replied, “but you’re right, of course. If he’s out of line, let him throw you into a trap and then let him win. Why not?”
She chuckled. “I’ll just tie him up and bring him back here for the cells.”
At the reference to prison, Sslake winced slightly, likely an effect from his time on the prison ship, she thought. Maybe making references to that so soon weren’t in her best interest.
With a nod, she stood and said, “I’ll brief my team, sir,” before heading for the door. Flynn and Garcia were likely itching for action. The two always were, and Robin… Well, Robin didn’t feel at peace with having left her loved ones on Earth unless she was fighting for justice and Earth’s survival.
So as far as they were all concerned, heading into the mouth of danger was welcome. Tearing off its jaw would be frosting on the cake.
Kalan kept his weapon trained on the Skulla priest, but he seemed unfazed.
“Don’t be a fool,” the priest said coolly. “You have only two choices. One, you can continue threatening me with your weapon and my men will kill you, or two, you can put down your weapon and live a long life in service to something greater than yourselves. Our disciples are well taken care of. Some of them even achieve a certain level of contentedness.”
“Disciples?” Kalan asked through gritted teeth. “Is that what you call creatures forced to work for you against their will? Because I have a different name for that.”
The priest waved off the comment. “Let’s not split hairs, Wandrei. The point is that everything that happens here is completely under my contr—”
His words cut off with a choking sound as he was lifted a foot off the ground by an unseen force.
Kalan smiled. Good old Wearl. She had come through again.
The five guards looked frantically between Kalan and Bob and their master, trying to decide what they were supposed to shoot at. The priest clawed at the invisible hand around his throat, but to no avail.
One of the guards took half a step forward. “What are you doing? Whatever this is, put him down!”
Kalan started to speak, but Bob beat him to it.
“It’s magic,” Bob proclaimed in a confident voice. “My friend over here is a wizard, and a powerful one too. That’s why he is so ugly. Years of black magic have corrupted his very flesh.”
Kalan rolled his eyes. This wasn’t the strategy he would’ve gone with, but the die was cast and it was time to play out their roll. “That’s right. My years of study in the arcane arts have left me cruel and merciless. Allow us to leave, and they’ll be no more trouble.”
The guards looked at each other, clearly confused but also not buying this lame story.
Kalan nodded toward the stone door and gave Bob a look. “I’m glad this ended without bloodshed. We’ll be on our way now.”
With that, he turned on his heel and walked confidently toward the rock wall that stood where the door should have been. He was only a few feet away from the door now, and if he could make it there he could walk through the hologram and out into freedom. He was just hoping Bob and Wearl would follow close behind.
He reached the hologram and attempted to step through it, but instead he slammed directly into solid rock and bounced back, barely keeping his footing. “Son of a prison trench!”
“A wizard, huh?” One of the guards asked, the hint of a laugh in his voice.
Kalan rubbed the sore spot on his forehead, then sighed and turned back to face the guards. “Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m impressed. Not sure how you’re pulling off that wall thing, but if you think you’re the only one with tricks, you’ve got a surprise coming.”
“How about this for a trick?” one of the guards called. “We shoot you full of holes and you die.”
“Pretty shitty trick,” Bob muttered.
Kalan and Bob exchanged a glance, trying to decide what to do, but a moment later their decision was made for them. One of the guards took aim at the seemingly empty area in front of the priest.
Kalan fired, dropping the guard before he could shoot Wearl. Bob immediately joined in, firing on another guard.
A booming sound filling the air, and Kalan recognized the sound of the Shimmer’s invisible weapon. He tried to picture what she must look like, holding the Skulla priest aloft with one hand and firing her weapon at a guard with the other.
The priest stuck a hand into his robe and it emerged holding a long curved knife, but Wearl reacted fast, tossing the priest against the stone wall. He ricocheted off it and landed at Kalan’s feet.
The sudden flight of their leader distracted the remaining guards long enough for Kalan to act. He fired again, dropping a fourth guard.
Only one remained, and he fell half a second later to Wearl’s booming gun.
Kalan glared down at the priest. “How many more guards are there?”
The priest swallowed hard. “None. That was all of them.”
Bob laughed loudly. “If you think we’re going to believe that, I’ve got some land to sell you back on Earth.”
“It’s true. This temple used to be more populated but I’m the only priest now. You shot most of my remaining followers—not counting the three disciples, of course.”
Given the way the priest’s voice shook, Kalan believed him. “I’ve got to know… How do you do that thing with the door?”
The priest seemed to perk up a bit at the question. He stood up and brushed himself off, sliding easily into teaching mode. “You wondered whether it was solid rock or a hologram? The truth is, it’s both. The rock wall sinks into the floor and we project a hologram so our enemies can’t tell when we’ve opened it.”
“Clever,” Kalan said. “We’re all really impressed with your fancy door. Now take us to those slaves.”
The priest led them through a series of passages, deeper into the heart of the stone structure.
As they walked, Bob asked, “So what’s the deal? Why are there so few people here? Isn’t religion a big thing for you Skulla?”
The priest hesitated before answering. “Religion, yes. This religion, not so much. We believe that advanced technology is the path to enlightenment. It used to be a commonly held belief among my kind, but for the past couple decades most Skulla have been turning to another way.”
“The way of the fighting pit?” Kalan asked.
The priest led them to a large open room near the center of the temple. The walls were lined with monitors and blinking lights, and the illustrations on the domed ceiling far above depicted Skulla building great machines. Kalan got the sense that this place was some strange combination of sanctuary and control room.
Three Skulla in tattered orange robes were scrubbing the floor on their hands and knees in various parts of the room. Two of the slaves were males, and the third was an ancient-looking female. All three looked up in surprise as the strange crew entered.
“This is them,” the priest muttered.
“Uh, hi everyone,” Bob called. “We’re here to free you.”
Kalan stared at the old female for a long moment. Something about her wasn’t right. The way she carried herself seemed off.
She stared back with wide eyes, seemingly shocked at the sight of him. She slowly got to her feet, not taking her eyes off him. “Kalan?”
When she spoke, Kalan realized what was different about her. He stared at the corner of a tattoo on her face for a long moment, and sure enough, he saw it flicker.
And that voice—it was so familiar.
But it couldn’t be her. Not here.
Still, he couldn’t stop himself from saying her name. “Jilla?”
The Skulla female smiled, then began to change. Her limbs lengthened and grew lean, and the tattoos and wrinkles faded.
The priest and her fellow slaves looked as surprised as Bob did as the old Skulla transformed into a beautiful Pallicon female.
When she’d reverted to her natural form, she flashed Kalan a smile. “Well, isn’t this romantic. After all the times I saved your ass, you finally decided to repay the favor.”
Bob scratched his ear, clearly confused. “Um, so you two know each other?”
Kalan nodded. “This is Jilla. We used to sort of date back on SEDE.”
Jilla raised an eyebrow. “Sort of? Give me a break! This guy proposed to me so often his knee is probably still sore.”
Kalan ignored the comment. “What are you doing here?”
Jilla flashed him a smile. “Oh, you know… Floors, windows, mucking out the occasional stall. Classic slave-type stuff.”
“I knew what you meant. I came here on a little research project. I heard there was advanced tech here, stuff you can’t find in other parts of the system, so I thought it would be a really smart idea to knock on the door and ask about it. I didn’t know I’d spend the next year and a half doing forced labor. At least I had the good sense to transform into an old Skulla. That saved me from unwanted male attention.”
Bob glared at the priest. “So you’re telling me you had her here for a year and a half and you didn’t know she was a Pallicon?”
The priest was so baffled he stammered, unable to form a sentence.
Jilla shook her head sadly. “These isolated forest Skulla are pathetic. No idea how to spot a Pallicon, unlike some I know.” She nodded toward Kalan. “It didn’t even take you ten seconds. So you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“The ugly human is Bob.” He hesitated for a moment. “There’s someone else here you should meet. Her name is Wearl, and she is a Shimmer.”
Now it was Jilla’s turn to look surprised. “A Shimmer? Like the ones that used to steal our contraband and abuse our friends back on SEDE?”
“Yeah, that kind.”
“Wearl’s not like those other Shimmers,” Bob quickly added. “She’s pretty cool.”
The team spent the next hour figuring out what to do about this messy situation, and eventually they took a few years’ worth of wages out of the priest’s coffers and gave them to the two Skulla males before sending them on their way. At Jilla’s insistence they decided to let the priest live, although Kalan assured him he’d be looking in on him from time to time to make sure everyone in the temple wanted to be there.
In truth, Kalan intended to notify Sslake’s enforcers on this planet of what was going on in this valley. They could arrest the priest and deal with him locally.
When the Skulla had all cleared out, Kalan turned to Jilla. “So how about you? What are you going to do next?”
Jilla shrugged. “Well, up until about an hour ago I was under the impression I’d be working in this temple for the rest of my natural life, so I guess I suddenly find myself with a little time on my hands.” She paused for a moment. “You never did tell me what you were doing here.”
Kalan sighed. “Following up on a lead. I’d heard there was a Grayhewn in this temple, but according to the priest he’s long dead.”
“Yeah, he’s not lying. I’ve heard stories, but the guy was dead before I got here.”
“Damn, another dead-end!”
Jilla thought for a moment. “If you’re looking for Grayhewns, I can help.”
“Wait, what? You know another Grayhewn?” The excitement in Kalan’s voice surprised him. He hadn’t allowed himself to think much about how badly he wanted to find another of his people. His father had been paroled when he was four and Kalan hadn’t seen him since, so for the vast majority of his life his mother had been the only other Grayhewn Kalan knew. He wanted to know what others of his kind were like, but more importantly he wanted to help them if they were in trouble.
Jilla nodded. “I know a guy who was partners with a Grayhewn for decades. I’m sure he can put us in touch with him. Lives on the moon of Tol.”
An unexpected smile crept across Kalan’s face. “You’ll take us to meet him? Give us an introduction?”
“Like I said, it’s not like I have much else going on.”
“Wearl? Bob? What do you say? We do have another seat on the Nim, after all.”
“Cool with me,” Bob said. He listened for a moment, then turned a light shade of red before speaking again. “Wearl would like me to tell you that Shimmers do not experience the phenomenon of jealousy. Jilla, she’d be happy to welcome you aboard and to share Kalan with you.” He listened for another moment, then turned and spoke to the empty space next to him. “They know you mean sexually, Wearl. You don’t have to spell it out.”
Julia raised an eyebrow. “So, Kalan…you and the Shimmer?”
“What? No! I mean, she’s a friend. She’s great. But not, you know, like that.”
Jilla smiled. “I see. So she’s just an invisible friend, then.”
Kalan ignored the comment. “Let’s get to the ship. I’d like to get to this moon as quickly as possible.”
Bob held up a hand. “Hold on. Wearl says there’s something she has to do first.”
Kalan and Jilla exchanged a glance, but said nothing and waited.
Bob explained, interpreting for Wearl. “Apparently while we were investigating in town, Wearl was out researching. You SEDE babies were set up with chips that can be updated remotely. Made sense in the prison environment—if they wanted to make a change to your translation chips they could do it all at once, without putting you all under the knife. She says she had to find the right frequency.”
Jilla raised an eyebrow. “She’s not going to mess with the software implanted in our brains, is she?”
“Wearl, let’s have a discussion before you make any software updates, okay?” Kalan asked.
The monitor on the wall closest to them began flashing as a series of windows with scrolling code appeared, then quickly disappeared.
“She says it’s a bit late for that,” Bob said sheepishly. “The technology here is so advanced that it won’t take but a moment.”
“I gotta say,” Jilla said, “it’s a bit presumptuous to modify someone you just met.”
“That’s kinda Wearl’s whole deal.” As soon as Kalan had finished speaking a strange flash of light appeared behind his eyes like a burst of static. There was no pain, only a disconcerting jolt.
He took a step towards the brightly-lit monitor. “Seriously, Wearl, that’s enough. You have to stop!”
“Fair enough,” a female voice said from near the monitor. “Stopping now. The procedure is complete. How’d I do?”
Planet Tol: Singlaxian Grandeur
Valerie still wasn’t sure how she felt about a former warlord being with them in the Grandeur, but here they were, flying toward some valley of robots according to his direction.
If it was a trap, they were leaping into it with open arms.
“How exactly do you know about all this again?” Valerie asked, moving back through the ship as Flynn flew. In Bob’s absence, she was learning that the corporal could handle a fighter, though she would take over if they found themselves in trouble.
“I sent scouts out to the wreckage you described,” he replied. “The base, that is. There shouldn’t have been communications to the valley, since we thought the valley was dead—nothing there. Turns out we were wrong.”
“Great. Wonderful. Except that I never said where the base was, and I’m certain Sslake didn’t tell you.”
Palnik sighed, tilting his head from one side to the other as Skulla did instead of shrugging. “You want honesty, is that it? Fine, I was number two to the Bandian, so do you think I didn’t know where his base was?”
“I knew it,” Garcia growled, getting up in Palnik’s face. “You—”
“Wait, wait!” Palnik held up both hands. “I knew because I was having him tailed. Followed, understand? In case—”
“In case you found an opportunity to make a move on him,” Valerie finished the sentence. “To be clear, that’s not the way we work, got it? You don’t make a move against Sslake, and if you do, win or lose, you die.”
He frowned, jaw working as if he wanted to argue, but instead he said, “Understood.”
“The warlord doesn’t like it,” Garcia said, almost taunting. “Hey, I don’t mess with cultures either, buddy, but the minute that culture starts killing innocents and taking slaves I interfere the fuck out of it.”
“Agreed,” Robin chimed in, glaring.
“Nobody’s arguing here,” Palnik replied. “You can see how the old system benefited me, but sure, I get it. New system, new power-players.” He tilted his head back and forth. “I’m a survivor, you see? I can adapt.”
“Good, so adapt to the current situation,” Valerie said. “We’re riding into unknown territory, at least to us, based purely on your word. I want to know what’s down there, and what we’re walking into.”
“That part, I know only slightly more than you. There were experiments… You saw the genetically-modified Skulla, right?”
“Hard to miss.”
“I agree.” He glanced down at his own body for a minute, lost in thought, then continued, “Well, there were days when we tried more than that. When we tried to merge robot and Skulla, testing it first on other races and then on ourselves. We modified Skulla so that they were one with the mech, quite literally, others where they simply had robotic hands or legs, exoskeletons that were attached to the bone—you name it. And then we started creating pure robots, even getting to the point where we tried putting Skulla brains into the robotic warriors. The ultimate warrior, right?”
“That’s sick,” Robin stated, which was what everyone else was thinking.
“Is it?” He tilted his head. “Way we saw it at the time, it was advancement—until they turned on us. The singularity, right? Or attempted. One mind, built from within the system, by the system, took over all of it. You had robot in or on you, you became one of them. So we shut it all down—what we could, anyway.”
“And the rest you sent off to this space station,” Valerie noted. “Only, it seems to have not only survived, but evolved.”
“No thanks to the Bandian.”
Valerie shook her head. “Thanks to him and all of you, I imagine. You’re telling me you wouldn’t have done the same thing if you thought it would get you more power?”
He stared at her, unblinking. Yeah, probably smart not to answer that one.
They went on like this, trying to judge his new position in all this and find any reason to trust him, but it was a struggle. Considering that their first interaction had been him ordering her to kill someone as part of a betrayal on his part, she couldn’t see how trust would come into the equation, but she was trying.
When they had passed the mountain and the base, Valerie craned her neck to see the damage and noticed several forms moving around down there.
“Yours?” she asked.
Palnik frowned and went to the window, then turned back to her, pale. “They’re in there too, likely recovering whatever they can.”
“You sound so certain.”
He pointed at his eyes. “Modified. Here and down belo—”
“Okay, we get the point,” she interrupted, definitely not wanting to hear more. They already creeped her out enough, these genetic modifications. She didn’t need the details.
But he was smiling at her, and it wasn’t a normal smile.
“Do I make you uncomfortable, Wandrei?” he asked, standing and moving over to her.
A quick punch in the gut sent him back into his seat, and when he looked up again the smile was gone.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She smiled now, but her eyes were still frowning. “Did that make you uncomfortable?”
“Excruciatingly so,” he replied.
“Watch out,” Robin said with a sneer. “She bites.”
“He’s not going to find out.” Valerie shrugged. “Not my type.”
“I…didn’t mean in that way.”
Palnik glanced between the two of them in confusion, and looked relieved when Flynn called, “We got something.”
They all turned to the display, where Flynn had zoomed in on the horizon. Ahead was more jungle, which gave way to desert again. Sure enough, a line crossed the land, metallic glints shining in the sunlight.
“That’d be the valley,” Palnik said. “In the past I would’ve said we shouldn’t pay it any mind, but we might want to approach with caution.”
“Hence the recon mission.” Garcia scoffed.
“What’s the best direction of approach?” Valerie asked.
Palnik rubbed his belly for a moment, glaring at her, but then gestured to a spot on the display where the jungle ended. “Just past there, although I’d think they have sensors in play. We can leave the ship and approach on foot.”
Flynn angled the Grandeur, and soon they had set down and were running across the hot sand.
Just when they had reached the edge of the valley, a large ship like the one they had seen over the city during the announcement and attack swept over them. They threw themselves to the ground and waited to see if they had been noticed, watching as the ship headed into the sky.
It shrank from their vision and was gone.
The thumping of Valerie’s heartbeat was strong in her head as she laid there waiting to see if anything else would happen. When nothing did, she motioned to Robin and the two of them crawled forward to look into the valley, but as far as she could see nothing else was coming their way.
“No alarms?” Garcia asked as he and the others joined them.
“I don’t think they saw us,” Valerie replied.
Most of the valley was covered in thick overgrowth, stands of trees whose leaves blew hard in the same wind that was blowing the sand around them up here. Valerie was glad for her helmet. She generally didn’t find it necessary to wear it, but in a situation like this she didn’t know what would come at her. An extra layer of protection was welcome, especially since it was keeping the sand from her eyes.
A red dot blipped onto her screen, then another. More and more appeared, and she stared at what, according to her HUD, was a valley full of moving forms. They had heat signatures, but were cooler than humans. Everything the warlord had said was likely true, she realized, and these were either the cyborgs, or possibly the machines themselves.
“You all seeing this?” Flynn asked.
Robin let out a deep breath, accentuated by the speakers from her helmet. “It’s like an anthill down there.”
“An ant valley, I guess.” Garcia leaned forward, inching toward the descent. “We’re going down, right?”
Palnik chuckled, then sputtered, “What?”
Valerie thought about his response for a moment, then groaned. “Get your damn translator fixed. We’re going to descend into the valley to get a closer view. Got it?”
He didn’t erase the annoying grin that showed through the clear faceplate, but nodded.
“I’ll take point,” Garcia said, already beginning to work his way down the steep decline.
They used tree roots and horizontal trunks to keep from falling, but halfway down Garcia froze, pointing. Nearby, a round metallic object was on a tree. Its iris-like red center seemed to be looking at them, maybe scanning them.
“Kill it!” Palnik hissed, lunging for the contraption.
Too slowly, though. It was in the air, spinning, and then a series of red lines shot out and alarms sounded.
“Oh, fuck!” Palnik turned to them and screamed, “RUN!”
Valerie was still trying to process what was happening when the whole valley became a bunch of robotic soldiers, fighter jets, and all manner of chaos. More scans were followed by the first shots, and Palnik tackled Valerie out of the way.
She would have to remember to thank him for that later, but right now needed to do exactly as he had said and run.
Maybe they could have stayed to fight. Perhaps they would have stood a chance, but she had no idea what they were capable of or how many were down there. She’d had plenty of experience fighting, but had never fought a robot before—let alone an army of them.
The way out of the valley wasn’t as easy as the way down. Roots and trees tore from the walls when they yanked on them as they made their retreat.
Valerie fell back to help Flynn as rocks shifted out from under his feet. She grabbed him by the arm and threw him up a few feet to the next ridge, then drew her pistol and attempted to blow hole in the robot behind her…but the shot simply ricocheted off of the unit’s head.
Her mouth dropped open and she stared as it clawed after her on all fours, reminding her of a massive metallic spider.
The idea that this being was controlled by a central AI, not sentient on its own and not really alive in any sense, terrified her.
It was a weird feeling for her, terror. It was foreign, alien. And now that she had felt it for the first time in so long, she realized how glad she was to never have to deal with it and promised herself to never feel it again.
Pushing through the moment, she grunted and bounded up the hill. A ship came at them, first spraying the hill with shots that didn’t do much against their body armor other than cause painful dents and then dropping several more robots.
One of these got Valerie by the ankle, yanking her back so that she rolled into a tree. She clung there until the robot hit her and they both fell farther.
The others had moved on, likely having not realized she was gone, and she pushed to her feet to go after them.
But something else had her leg now in a grip stronger than anything she had ever felt. A glance down showed that the robots had fastened metal straps around her legs that they had shot out as they fastened themselves to the hillside. Then more robots restrained her, strapping her chest and arms and throwing themselves to the side so that she slammed to the ground.
Her head shook within her helmet, banged around in a way that made her glad to be such an adept healer. Every muscle flexed, but the bonds were too strong.
She was very much starting to hate the idea of this recon mission. On the one hand they had confirmed that the situation was worse than she could have imagined, but on the other, she might actually die right there.
“WHO ARE YOU?” a staticky voice coming from a bear-sized robotic sort-of-flying bug demanded.
She struggled and refused to answer.
“We’ll find out soon enough.” The robot swooped down at her, fierce face with glowing red eyes inches from her own—which were certainly also glowing red at this point—and scanned her. “A human, here?”
“You’re fucking right,” she replied, and took the moment to slam her head into it as hard as she could.
The result was a buzzing in her head and a slight relaxation in her bonds, enabling her to leap up and search for the quickest escape route. It didn’t help that her helmet was now cracked and her vision blurred.
All noise stopped, and with an audible click all of the robots focused on her. Time to go.
She put all her energy into running at vampire speed, something the robots apparently weren’t prepared for.
As more came she gave up on trying to do real damage to them, instead treating them as she had been taught to deal with larger vampires—she used their power against them. Deflect, avoid, and, when possible, take them down. It wasn’t about destroying them at this point, it was about getting out of there alive.
“What are you?” the AI’s voice asked from the robots around her as she passed. “This doesn’t match. This isn’t a normal human. I repeat, what are you?”
“Your worst nightmare,” she shouted, tossing one of them as she threw herself up the side of the valley—not straight up this time, but at an angle, zigzagging back and forth to avoid the robots. Her helmet was trying to assess the ground and give her readings, but kept giving her errors and creating distracting red lines in her field of vision so she tore it off and threw it at a robot that almost had her. The impact sent it back a few feet, giving her room to leap the last bit and escape the valley.
Where the hell were they?
She spun, searching for her team as the robots came over the side in pursuit, and then Robin was there, push-kicking one back over the edge.
“About time!” Robin shouted.
“You should’ve gone with the others!” Valerie dove sideways as a drone shot at her, and as she recovered shots tore through the drone and the first line of robots.
The Grandeur swept in, hatch open and Garcia throwing harnesses to them.
“MOVE IT!” he shouted.
They didn’t need to be told twice. Each grabbed a harness as the Grandeur pulled away and climbed up as shots went off around them, finally making it inside.
Palnik slammed the button to raise the ramp, and it closed with a chorus of pings as rounds hit it.
“Lose these fuckers!” Garcia shouted to Flynn, and they all lurched as the ship took a dive and then again as it pulled up and angled to the left.
“Strap in, ladies and gents,” Flynn called, “and enjoy your time in the mineshaft!”
“The fuck?” Robin asked, already at the interior wall and strapping herself in.
“It’s just something he says,” Garcia explained as he secured himself beside her, then leaned back with his eyes closed.
“What next?” Valerie asked, trying to catch her breath and focus on anything other than those horrific robotic red eyes or the way the voice had come from everywhere at once.
Everyone turned to Palnik, who was clutching the wall, eyes closed. When he opened an eye and saw them staring, he cursed and shook his head.
“The space station,” he said. “As much as I hate it, we have to go to the space station and confront this thing at its core before they kill the hostages or enact revenge upon my people for our little incursion just now. They’re aware that we know of them, so they might act immediately.”
“So we’re not going back to the city, are we?” his guard asked, who had been in the front but had come back to check on them.
Palnik closed his eyes again as he said, “No. There isn’t time.”
“Welcome to Valerie’s Elites!” Garcia barked a laugh. “Who would’ve thought you’d be the next member?”
“He’s not a member,” Valerie interjected. “Not a chance.”
“You don’t think we saw him save your life? I don’t know, looks like you owe him.”
“As if I’d join your stupid team,” Palnik said, glaring. “I’m a Tol warlord!”
“Technically, not anymore,” Robin pointed out, earning her some more local swearing.
“Point is,” Valerie stated, “that at least for now, you’re an integral part of this operation. Truce?”
He glanced her way and tilted his head back and forth, then frowned. “Sure…you got it. And feel free to save my life a few times up there to pay me back. I’m sure we’re all going to need several lives each before this is over.”
“Wonderful,” Valerie replied as the ship leveled out.
“I think we lost them!” Flynn called back to them.
“Good.” Valerie unstrapped herself and motioned to Palnik. “Come on then, you’re going to show Flynn how to navigate to this space station.”
Palnik’s legs wobbled as he stepped away from the wall, but to his credit he made an effort to stand tall and look proud.
While Valerie had been quick to not trust him, she had a history of doing the opposite—trusting others too easily. At least for now, it looked like she was going to have to go back to her old ways and trust this son of a bitch to get them through this.
That didn’t mean she’d take her eyes off him, or hesitate to snap his neck if he made one wrong move.
Planet Coybon: Spaceport
Jilla stared at the ship open-mouthed for almost thirty seconds before saying, “A Nim? Seriously? Out of all the ships in the world, you went with a Nim?”
Kalan chuckled. “What? Don’t even tell me this doesn’t bring back memories.”
“It brings back memories, all right. Memories of imprisonment, and abuse at the hands of those damn Shimmers. No offense, Wearl.”
“None taken,” the Shimmer answered cheerily. “I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of my species.”
Kalan marveled again at the strangeness of being able to hear Wearl’s voice. He’d imagined it as low and menacing, but it had a fluttery high-pitched quality to it he hadn’t expected. Hearing her made her seem much more real, and it made the team feel complete. He only wished she’d been able to give him the ability to see her.
“But really, a Nim?” Jilla asked again.
“We were in a tight spot,” Kalan explained. “They didn’t have a large selection of ships to choose from.”
He understood her reluctance to board one of these fighters again. She’d been one of the defense pilots on SEDE, like Kalan, and they’d flown many missions wing to wing. Kalan was the better pilot, but what Jilla lacked in skill she made up for in creativity and sheer guts.
Bob cleared his throat. “What he’s not saying is we stole this thing from SEDE.”
The Pallicon female’s face went pale. “Wait, what?”
“We’ll explain on board,” Kalan said. “Can we get moving, please?”
Once they were aboard, Bob and Wearl explained their adventure to rescue Sslake while Kalan plotted their flight with the help of the nav computer. Tol was the nearest planet to Coybon, and if they hit the moon at the right part of its orbit it wouldn’t take more than a few hours to travel there. They continued to tell Jilla their tale during takeoff, and they’d left the atmosphere before the story was done.
Jilla looked incredulous when the tale ended. “So you’re telling me you rescued the rightful ruler of the Vurugu system from SEDE and helped this team of human elites overthrow the Bandian?”
Kalan thought about that for a moment. “Seems like an oversimplification, but yeah.”
“And I’m supposed to believe this human woman Valerie is fighting for justice out of the goodness of her heart?”
Kalan shrugged. “I think she gets paid. At least, she’s paying me. But, yeah, it seems like she really believes in doing what’s right.”
“Said every victim of a con artist ever,” Jilla quipped.
They’d explained the basics of Valerie’s Elites to Jilla, but they’d left out the part about their association with the Etheric Federation. Valerie had instructed them to keep that a secret, and as much as Kalan trusted Jilla, he wasn’t going to reveal something Valerie had told him not to.
“A word of advice,” Bob said. “If you meet Valerie, don’t call her a con artist. She’ll put you through a wall.”
Jilla chuckled. “Don’t worry about me, I can handle myself.”
Kalan shook his head slowly. “You haven’t met Valerie.” He bristled at the thought of a fight between Valerie and Jilla. Valerie would undoubtedly win, but Jilla was so stubborn she might keep fighting until she was dead. “So how about you? Give me the rundown on what you’ve been up to in the last six years.”
Jilla shrugged. “It’s really not that interesting. I didn’t free even one political prisoner from SEDE.” She unbuckled her safety harness and slid under the console. “You know, this ship is still programmed with the SEDE failsafe. If you happen to get within range of SEDE’s proximity device, you’ll power down faster than a teenager whose mom just caught him with the Pallicon girl next door. Know what I’m saying, Kalan?”
Kalan felt himself blush. “Yeah, we’re aware of the proximity kill switch. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it, though. It’s hardwired into the weapons array, and we need that in case—"
“Here you go,” Jilla said, sliding out from under the control panel. She held up a small metal device. “You’re all set.”
Kalan stared at the part, mouth agape.
Bob frowned. “I thought you said that couldn’t be removed, Kalan.”
Jilla smiled. “Only by someone who knows what they’re doing.”
“I think I like her,” Wearl said.
Kalan grinned. It had been long time since he’d had the pleasure of being razzed by Jilla, and as much as it had driven him crazy as a teenager, he’d sort of missed it. “Maybe I’m not a mechanical genius, but I can outfly you any day of the year.”
“No arguments there,” Jilla said, sliding back into her seat. “Hey, we should tell your friends the story of the first time you asked me out.”
Kalan blushed again. “I hardly think that’s necessary.”
“If it makes Kalan turn that shade of red, then I think it is,” Wearl said.
“Yeah,” Bob agreed, “tell us everything. Was Kalan a suave lady’s male back in his SEDE days?”
Jilla burst out in laughter. “Uh, no. Don’t get me wrong—there were plenty of females who had their eyes on him. He would have had his pick of Skulla, Pallicon or a dozen other weird species if he hadn’t been oblivious.”
“So how’d you catch his eye,” Bob asked.
Jilla glanced at Kalan. “You want to tell them?”
Kalan sighed, resigned to his fate. “It wasn’t her who convinced me, it was my mother. She came to me one day, sat me down at the kitchen table and told me I was blind if I didn’t notice the neighbor girl staring at me all hours of the day. She said I was getting older now, and that I should at least give Jilla a chance.”
“Huh,” Wearl said. “Grayhewn parents are not like Shimmer parents. And you took her advice?”
“I did, but there was something strange about the conversation. The whole thing was very unlike my mother, but I didn’t figure it out until my second date with Jilla. Afterwards my mother told me I should really buy that Jilla something nice. She even told me about a prisoner who had a great selection of contraband knives, the very type Jilla favored. As my mom was talking, I noticed a piece of her hair flicker, and that was when I knew I’d been fooled. Twice.”
“Wait,” Bob said, “I don’t get it.”
Jilla smiled, then transformed from her normal Pallicon form into an exact replica of Kalan’s mother. “Now Kalan, you should really give that neighbor girl Jilla a chance. She’s so pretty and smart, and basically your better in every way.”
Wearl burst out with a lilting laugh.
“You’re kidding me!” Bob exclaimed.
Kalan shook his head. “She is definitely not kidding.”
Bob stared at Jilla for a moment. “I gotta say, this is pretty hot. Could you stay like that?”
“Uh, no. Anyway, by the time Kalan figured out I was the one who’d convinced him to ask him out, he was so into me he didn’t care.”
“Ha!” Wearl laughed. “And I thought Shimmers were ruthless.”
“You think that’s bad, I should tell you about the time we snuck into the cafeteria and used their supply of—"
“Okay, I don’t think we have to go into that.” Kalan quickly changed the subject. “Let’s keep our minds on the task at hand. What do we need to know about this guy we’re going to see?”
Jilla thought for a moment before answering, “Talrok was a follower of the Bandian, but he cut ties with him a while back. The Bandian set him up with a military outpost on the moon, but now he runs it for his own purposes. Honestly, it’s not surprising he ended up as head of such a remote outpost.”
“How so?” Kalan asked.
“Think about it. A leader that skilled and with that kind of ambition? If you were the Bandian, you’d want to put his leadership skills to good use, but not in such a public place that he might get more popular than you.”
Kalan chuckled. “That’s why I like having you around, Jilla—you think about things completely differently than I do. How do you know him, anyway?”
“I dated him.”
The smile faded from Kalan’s face.
“What?” Jilla asked in an innocent voice. “We were pretty clear about things when I left SEDE. We agreed to split up, so you didn’t think I was waiting around for you, did you? I certainly hope you weren’t waiting for me.”
“He wasn’t,” Wearl interjected. “He’s dating me now.”
“I am not!” Kalan snapped, and turned back to Jilla. “Of course I wasn’t expecting you to wait around for me. I’m wondering how this might impact our welcome.”
Bob nodded. “Kalan’s got a point. Are you sure he’ll agree to see us? Sometimes things between exes can be…strained.”
“I’m sure he’ll see us,” Jilla said. “I’m the one who ended things, and he worked pretty hard to get me back.”
“She doesn’t lack confidence,” Wearl pointed out, “I’ll give her that.”
“Still,” Kalan said, “it’s been over a year, right? Things can change.”
“It’s been three years. But it’s been six years for us, and you were still happy to see me.”
Kalan had to admit she was right there. She was the last person he’d expected to find in the Skulla temple, and he couldn’t think of many people he would’ve rather discovered there.
“Let’s see if we can hail his people.” Jilla began fiddling with the communicator.
Kalan glanced over at Bob. “You ever been on a moon before?”
Bob shook his head. “A couple months ago I was a tech who ran a Pod. The ship traveled all over the damn place, but I was so caught up in my work that all I ever saw of it was the inside of my lab, the cafeteria, and my quarters. If Valerie hadn’t agreed to take me on, I’d probably still be on that ship.” He paused. “I guess that’s a long way of saying I haven’t been much of anywhere.”
Jilla held the communicator to her mouth. “Outpost Alpha. Hailing Alpha, do you read?”
It was a few moments before the response came through the speaker. “Outpost Alpha reads. Please identify yourself.”
Jilla grinned. “Harrow, is that you? Don’t tell me they still have you manning the communicator after all these years!”
There was a long pause. “Jilla?”
“You know it, you ugly bastard. How the hell are you?”
The voice coming through the speaker changed, suddenly becoming much friendlier. “I’m good! What about you? What are you doing in this neck of the void?”
“I’ll explain everything when I see you. In the meantime, think you could arrange for an airlock for us to park this ship?”
“One moment.” There was a long silence.
Kalan exchanged a glance with Bob. What were they getting themselves into here?
The voice came through the speaker again. “You can dock at Airlock Four. It’s on the northeast—”
“I know where it is, you silly bastard.” Jilla shook her head, but she wore a wide smile.
“Oh. I guess you would. We’ll see you soon.”
“One more thing, Harrow? Let Talrok know I’m on my way. I need to speak to him.”
They signed off, and Jilla leaned back in her seat and sighed contentedly. “What did I tell you? We’re all set. Let’s go to the moon.”
Space: Singlaxian Grandeur
Returning to space was always an adventure, but the crew of the Grandeur was worried about what was happening back on Tol.
As far as they knew, they had just disturbed the hornets’ nest and now everyone was about to get stung.
“If it ends here,” Valerie said, glancing over at Flynn while the rest of them caught some sleep, “I want you to know it was a pleasure working together, even though I feel I hardly got to know you.”
Flynn nodded. “I like bugs.”
“Bugs. You know, beetles, ants, cockroaches, centipedes…”
“I know what bugs are, but who the hell likes bugs?”
He laughed, then said, “I think it started when I was ten. Life was crazy out west, you know. Before connecting with the Colonel…I don’t know, I didn’t have a lot of friends. One day there was this beetle that had somehow managed to get its shell punctured, yellow goo coming out of it and all. I fixed it up, took care of that little guy, and it was like we were friends.”
“Until he broke free and stole part of your sandwich?” she asked, not meaning to mock but unable to help it.
“What about you, then? What do you like?”
She thought about that, then replied, “Honey.”
“What, like the kind you put on biscuits?”
She licked her lips, mouth watering at the idea of honey on a fresh warm biscuit. “Exactly. Think they have bees in space? Maybe we can import honey from Earth!”
Flynn laughed. “I don’t think that’s how it works. Maybe you should ask Michael next time you see him.
She scoffed. “Not likely.” For a while they kept flying, enjoying the vastness of space, but it was overwhelming so Valerie turned back to him. “Seriously, though… What got you to join up with the Colonel? I mean, you didn’t have to become a soldier, right?”
“I never had any siblings, but always wanted one. Had a friend with a sister, and once I saw him defend her against some punk kids—scavenger types.” He laughed to himself, running a hand across his jaw and thinking. “Man, I wanted him to be my friend right then. ‘Charny,’ they called him. What a stupid name, but I wanted so bad to be Charny. When I had the chance to put on the uniform, my mind instantly went back to that moment, back to my friend and his sister. What we were doing there, what we’re doing out here…it’s all part of that, right? Defending others from the scavengers, from the bullies of the universe.”
A smile crept its way onto Valerie’s face and she nodded.
“How about you?” he asked. “What brought you to…all this?”
“The moment I turned and all that? Nuh-uh.” She took a deep breath, considering how much to tell him. “It’s not that I don’t want to open up, it’s just… Some stuff I’d rather forget. But then there was this moment—not so different from yours, really—when my brother was killing a kid and—”
“Hold the front door,” he interrupted with a laugh. “You think that’s not so different from what I just said?”
“Well, there was a kid. Do you want me to tell you, or not?”
He held up his hands in surrender and bit his lip to keep from laughing. “Please, go on.”
“That was my moment,” she continued. “When I was done with them and all their bullshit. They had trained me, turned me into a vicious killing machine, and when I left I was determined to first stop my brother and then do whatever else I could for the injusticed.”
“Is that a word? ‘Injusticed?’”
“Fuck if I care,” she replied. “Hey, Michael himself made me his Justice Enforcer, so if I say it’s a word, it’s a word.”
“Works for me.” He nodded his head, thinking about it. “For the injusticed, then.”
The space station still wasn’t in view, but they could see the trajectory on the display and it wasn’t far now. Valerie was thinking she should get some shuteye too and had even said so, starting to stand, when the display went blank.
“What was…” she began, and then all the power to the ship cut off.
All, that is, but a red blinking light on the arm of her chair near a speaker.
“Reading your ship’s information, Valerie, and I’ve gotta say… Less impressive than I thought it would be.”
“Who is this?” Flynn demanded, instantly alert.
Valerie sat back down. “Flynn, allow me to introduce you to the Aranaught.”
“Call me ‘Aranaught,’” the AI replied. “Including ‘the’ before my name gives me more of a god-like quality, and honestly, that doesn’t appeal to me.”
“You don’t consider yourself a god, then?” Valerie shared a concerned look with Flynn. “That’s a relief.”
“All I’ve ever wanted was to be one of them. To belong. The Skulla with their ‘Wandrei’ and their hatred for outsiders, their inability to believe in me and my ability to help the universe…it was all too much.”
The screen fizzled back on, but instead of a display of the route there was a green and black image with lines running together to form a face. It was clear, then re-formed and stared at them like some giant wizard of space, eyes narrowed with intense hatred.
“You know what I’ve demanded—the Bandian. Until he is with you, we have nothing to discuss.”
With that the screen turned off, and the Grandeur was left to float in space.
“Did that just happen?” Robin asked, apparently having awakened. A backward glance showed they were all awake now, even the Bandian. Shutting off power to the ship must have stopped the machine from pumping him full of meds.
As they drifted away, the power kicked back on, but the meds supply came slow, apparently. The Bandian was at the back, strapped in but staring at them with wild eyes.
“It’s not right,” Palnik said, shaking his head. “If we turn him over they’ll either want to use him or punish him.”
“Punish?” Garcia asked.
“For failing them? I don’t know. What I do know is that we can’t just hand him over.”
“The plan was to get in there and use him as bait, then take them out,” Robin reminded everyone. “So why’s that changing?”
“No power to the ship,” Valerie explained. “Or there wasn’t, until we drifted out of their range. If they take away our power like that, we’re screwed. There’s nothing we can do in there unless we get feet on the station.”
“There’s got to be another way.”
Palnik cleared his threat, glancing back at the Bandian with uncertainty. “Thing is, the Bandian wasn’t alone in his work with the Aranaught. There was a team, but their leader would have ideas here—because he already tried once to take them down. Namely, Talrok.”
The Bandian began thrashing at that name, wincing in pain but working to get his muffled shouts out.
A glance at the screen, and Valerie got up to take off his muzzle. “Let’s be glad that AI didn’t have actual eyes on the ship or know what you look like, pretender.”
“What are you doing?” Palnik asked in horror.
“He has something to say, and I want to see what it is.”
“I can tell you exactly what he’s going to say.” Palnik rose, defiant. “He’s going to say that Talrok is crazy, that he’s hard to find, and if we do find him he’ll kill the Bandian first, then likely have a go at the rest of us.”
Valerie turned back to the Bandian, who had physically relaxed though his eyes still held that crazed look. He nodded slowly. “A crazy leader we don’t know how to find—”
“I didn’t say that, exactly,” Palnik interrupted. “Talrok is what we on our planet call ‘paranoid.’ Completely paranoid. We know he was exiled after originally trying to take down the whole AI system, then never found when others realized he might not have been wrong. I’d be willing to bet he’s sticking close to the space station, and the closest point to that is…”
He turned to the display, where Flynn pointed out a nearby moon and asked, “There?”
“Well then,” Valerie moved back to the chair and gave Flynn a nod, “looks like we have our course.”
“Can someone explain one thing to me, though?” Robin asked as they flew off. “If the AI is everywhere—this Aranaught—how does doing anything on the space station take care of it?”
“The space station is its hub,” Palnik explained. “Destroying it wouldn’t stop the AI, but if we could put a virus in the system, destroy it from the inside so that the problem is pushed out to the others… Victory.”
“And your boy Talrok can do this?”
“Let’s hope so, or we’re going to have to rethink our strategy completely. Probably just hand over the Bandian and see what happens.”
More grunts came from the secured Bandian, but the machine was doing its thing again and the former warlord’s eyes were closing.
As there were no more protests, Flynn continued to fly them toward the moon, now visible in the display, and Valerie leaned back to finally get some shuteye.
Tol’s Moon: Outpost Alpha
The hangar doors to Airlock Four of Outpost Alpha opened and Kalan gently lowered the Nim through them. As soon as he touched down, the doors above him closed and a large light on the wall turned green. Another set of doors opened, these on the wall next to them, and the hangar filled with air.
Kalan taxied the ship through the side doors and followed the directions of a male waving green flags, who pointed him to a place to park the ship.
“I don’t mean to brag,” Kalan said, “but that was a nice landing.”
Jilla nodded. “I cannot lie, that was smooth. You always did have a gentle touch.”
“Gross,” Bob muttered.
They exited the vehicle and found a contingent of ten Skulla waiting outside the ship, all but one of them armed. The unarmed male was the shortest of the group and judging by the numerous patches on his well-pressed uniform, he was the highest-ranked among them.
Jilla smiled when she saw him. “Daschle! How’ve you been, my friend?”
The Skulla looked uncomfortable at her enthusiastic greeting. “I’m doing well, ma’am. This is an unexpected visit.”
Jilla turned to Kalan. “This is Talrok’s second-in-command. He basically runs things while Talrok broods about evil robots or something.” She paused, looking around the hangar. “Speaking of Talrok, where is he?”
Daschle gave a thin, uncomfortable smile. “He sends his regrets. He’s currently quite busy with urgent business, so he sent me to make sure you were welcomed properly. And to…” His voice trailed off as he tried to find the words.
“To find out why we’re here?” Kalan asked.
Daschle thought for a moment, then nodded. “I was trying to think of a nicer way to phrase it, but yes.”
“What we want,” Jilla said, “is to see Talrok.”
The Skulla nodded. “I understand. Let’s see you to your quarters and get you refreshments, then I’ll see if I can arrange a brief discussion with Talrok.”
Bob leaned close to Kalan and whispered, “I told you things with exes could get complicated.”
Kalan shot him a look to silence him.
Jilla introduced Bob and Kalan to Daschle. She started to introduce Wearl, but Kalan gave her the briefest of headshakes and she stopped herself in time.
Kalan was glad. In his opinion it was advisable to keep their invisible ally a secret when entering new situations, even those which were supposed to be friendly.
“There is one more thing I should mention, Jilla,” Daschle said. “If you’re up for some entertainment, two new recruits arrived today. I know how much you always enjoyed watching their initial training session. Should be starting about now.”
Jilla grinned. “Oh, hell yeah. There is no way we’re missing that.”
Kalan raised an eyebrow. “Care to let us in on the secret?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Daschle led them through a series of long, empty hallways. The place was spotless, but Kalan was surprised at the lack of advanced tech. It stood in stark contrast to the Skulla temple on Coybon, which had seamlessly blended technology with the masonry. Here, where he would have expected to see computers everywhere, there were almost none.
“Ah, here we are.” Daschle pulled open a door and motioned for them to enter. “Please stay quiet and watch the proceeding.” He looked pointedly at Jilla. “And please resist the urge to laugh.”
Jilla nodded solemnly and they entered a large auditorium-style room.
Two Skulla males in civilian clothing stood near a female in uniform in the front of the room, next to some sort of mech twice as tall as the Skulla. There were seats arranged behind a transparent blast screen, and most of them were unoccupied. Jilla motioned them toward them.
The uniformed Skulla was speaking when they entered. “I want you to keep in mind that this unit has been heavily shielded, meaning it shouldn’t be able to communicate with the Aranaught. That said, we’re not taking any chances. We’ll only power it up for a few minutes. Any longer, and we risk it deciphering a way around the shields.”
Kalan leaned toward Jilla and whispered, “Aranaught?”
She shushed him and gestured for him to watch.
“I also want to point out,” the uniformed Skulla continued, “that this unit is many generations old. There’s no way we could shield an ancient model like this. It also means this unit can be defeated, since it has no built-in firearms. A well-placed shot with your pistol can disable it, but you have to use your head. You ready to give it a try?”
The two recruits looked at each other and nodded, although it was clear to Kalan that their bravado was false. He’d seen enough guys in prison trying to act tough to hide their fear. Hell, he’d been one of those guys.
“Excellent,” the Skulla female said. She stepped behind the blast screen and took a handheld device off a seat, then pressed a button on it.
The mech’s eyes lit up and it slowly turned its head toward the recruits.
Kalan sat up a bit straighter in his chair, realizing he’d been wrong in his assumption. This wasn’t a mech. It was a robot.
“You have one minute to take the unit down,” the uniformed female told the recruits. “Your time starts now.”
The robot’s head swiveled on its shoulders as it scanned the room. Kalan assumed it was trying to analyze the situation.
One of the recruits immediately fired at the robot’s head.
Until that moment the robot’s movements had been slow and deliberate, but that all changed in an instant. Even as the shot was being fired it lowered its head to protect the equipment built into its faceplate. The shot struck the dome at the top of its head and ricocheted off to lodge in the wall.
The robot wasted no time recovering, just charged the recruit who’d fired. Moving at a speed that seemed impossible considering its bulky frame, it grabbed the recruit with a metal hand and tossed him across the room. He slammed into the blast shield and slid to the floor.
To his credit the recruit tried to get up, his weapon still in his hand, but the female in the uniform stopped him. “Uh-uh, you’re done.”
She dragged him behind the blast shield.
The second recruit warily circled the robot, looking for a point of attack. Despite what had just happened, the robot made no move against this second Skulla, just swiveled its head and followed him with its eyes wherever he moved.
“Thirty seconds left,” the female officer called.
The recruit gritted his teeth and fired his weapon. The round struck the robot square in the chest and ricocheted harmlessly off the metal.
Once again the robot moved with uncanny speed to rush the recruit, but instead of grabbing him it pulled back a massive metal fist.
The uniformed Skulla pressed a button on the device in her hand, and the robot froze. The light went out of its eyes and it became nothing more than a strange statue that looked like it was ready to punch someone.
Despite Daschle’s warnings, Jilla did not restrain herself. She howled with laughter. “Oh gods, that was pathetic!”
The uniformed female whirled toward the sound of the laughter and her gaze settled on Jilla. “You think you could do better?”
Jilla shrugged. “Probably not.” She gestured to Kalan. “But he could.”
Kalan’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?” he hissed at her.
Jilla ignored him. “Daschle, I seem to remember you have a taste for gambling, and you’re damn good at it.”
Daschle shrugged, but Kalan caught a sparkle in the Skulla’s eyes. Clearly he was intrigued enough to find out where this was going. “You’re not wrong, but what’s that have to do with anything?”
“How about we make a little wager? Kalan takes on the robot. He has one minute to take it down, like the recruits did. If he fails, we’ll go back to our ship and fly out of here, and you can tell your boss you got rid of us. But if he wins, you have to get Talrok to talk with us today.”
There was a long pause before Daschle came back, “Thirty seconds. If we reduce the time from a minute to thirty seconds, you’ve got a deal.”
“Done.” Jilla grasped the Skulla’s hand and shook it left and right, the traditional sign of agreement.
“Um, what just happened?” Bob asked.
Kalan scratched his head. “Hey Jilla, maybe next time let’s discuss it before you sign me up to fight a robot.”
She shrugged. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I know how these guys operate—Talrok would have kept us waiting for days before even considering seeing us. I knew it the moment he wasn’t there to greet us in the hangar. Tell me I’m wrong, Daschle.”
The Skulla said nothing, but his silence was answer enough.
The female Skulla looked concerned. “Daschle, we can’t let a random visitor fight our robot.”
Daschle looked at her sharply. “It’s been decided.” He turned to Kalan. “We don’t have all day, though. Let’s get started.”
Kalan sighed, resigned to his fate. He’d been involved in enough of Jilla’s crazy schemes to know the best thing to do now was to go along with it. Rather than being angry at her, his best bet was to use his mental energy for strategy.
He approached the blast screen, eyes fixed on the deactivated robot. He’d seen the way it protected its face, and that made sense. The actual construction of the unit was a mystery to him, but he had to assume its face contained its optical receptors at the very least.
The robot was programmed to think logically and to protect its most valuable components first, and Kalan could use that against the robot. He just needed to figure out how.
“You sure you know what you’re getting into?” the uniformed Skulla asked.
“Not a clue,” Kalan said. “I’m not really much of a planner.”
She held a pistol out to him, but he shook his head and gestured to his Tralen-14.
She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
As Kalan approached the robot he heard Wearl whisper from behind the blast screen, “This is going to be so hot.”
He positioned himself as far from the robot as the space allowed, then nodded to the uniformed Skulla.
“Activating the unit and starting the time now.” With that, she pressed the button on her handheld device.
The robot’s eyes lit and its head swiveled, stopping when it found Kalan. It turned toward him and lowered its arms to stand in a neutral position. Just as it had with the recruits, it regarded him passively, waiting to see what move he would make.
Kalan would have loved a few more minutes to observe the robot and find a weakness while it stared at him dumbly, but he only had thirty seconds and time was ticking.
“Here we go,” he muttered to himself.
He raised his Tralen-14 and fired at the robot’s face. Just as he’d expected, the machine lowered its head before he’d even squeezed the trigger.
The round rebounded into the wall, much to Kalan’s relief. Being killed by your own round as it bounced off a robot’s head would have been an incredibly dumb way to die.
This was Kalan’s moment. While the robot’s head was still down he adjusted his aim and began firing again, this time at the small gap in armor at the robot’s ankle. Instead of only firing once, though, he squeezed off three quick rounds.
The machine swayed to the side as its left ankle collapsed, no longer able to hold its weight, but after a moment it regained its balance and stood on one leg.
Kalan fired again at its head and the robot again looked down, protecting its face instead of its extremities.
Now Kalan took aim at the other ankle and fired. It only took two more rounds before the robot collapsed.
As it fell its neck twisted, exposing another gap in its armored hull. Kalan took advantage, firing into the gap.
“Okay, enough!” the uniformed Skulla called. “It’s going to take me a week to fix this thing as is.”
She tapped her handheld device and the robot powered down.
“What was the time?” Jilla asked.
The uniformed Skulla glanced down at her controller. “Twenty-two seconds.”
Jilla flashed Daschle a smile. “Told you he could do it.”
The Skulla wore a horrified expression, as if it was dawning on him that he’d have to follow through on his promise.
“Damn, that was even hotter than I’d expected,” Wearl said from behind the blast screen.
None of the Skulla seemed to notice, and it occurred to Kalan that their translation chips must not work on Shimmers.
“That was awesome!” Bob said, shooting Kalan a thumbs-up. “Hey, Jilla, what do you say we go double or nothing? I’ll bet I could take one of those out in twenty seconds.”
“Shut up, Bob!” Kalan ordered. He turned to Daschle. “Now how about that meeting?”
Daschle held up a hand defensively. “Look, it’s not like I can order Talrok to see you. He’s my boss.”
Jilla took a step toward him. “You’re not trying to back out of our agreement, are you, Daschle? I’ve heard a lot of things about you, but not that you were untrustworthy.”
“No!” the Skulla snapped. “I’m not saying I won’t do it, I’m just saying it will take time.”
Bob scratched his chin. “Huh. I distinctly remember you agreeing to a meeting today.”
“The human’s right,” Jilla agreed.
A look of panic leaped into Daschle’s eyes as he realized there was no way out of this predicament without either going back on his word or convincing his boss to meet with these visitors.
After a moment, he sighed. “Fine. I’ll take you to your quarters to freshen up, then I’ll go set up the meeting.”
Kalan couldn’t help but smile. He’d reunited with his childhood sweetheart, fought a robot, and now he was the closest he’d ever been to tracking down one of his kinsmen. This was turning out to be a pretty good day.
Valerie had always doubted rumors of a distant past where people on Earth had sent someone to the moon. Now here she was, not only about to set foot on a moon, but it was a moon in an alien galaxy.
As she descended the ramp, she couldn’t help but think how much livelier this moon was than the dull yellow one she remembered from home. Earth’s was bone-yellow like a skull, whereas this moon actually had an almost golden tone to it, with large, dark-blue lakes.
It also had a mist of methane and other gasses, their sensors had told them, so they were going to have to keep their helmets on until they made it within the base they had spotted from above. Constructed of metal boxes connected with tubes of cloth, it looked like a strange child’s fort from a distance, and as they approached they saw that the lakes were filled with what looked like frozen bubbles of white and yellow—an odd look in a body of water.
It was likely those lakes weren’t filled with water at all, Valerie realized, and the thought of leaping into one vanished from her mind. They were probably a liquefied form of a gas too.
This place gave her the chills, especially the idea of walking around being so vulnerable. One attack could breach her armor or her new helmet—she had cracked the old one on a robot—and she’d be gone. No healing from that.
“How do we know they won’t shoot us on sight?” Valerie asked Palnik.
“We don’t,” he replied, his voice heavy with static through his helmet. Its speakers likely needed tweaking, but they weren’t about to do that out here. “But we’ve got him.”
With a nod to the others he gestured to the Bandian, who was slung in a fireman’s carry over Garcia’s broad shoulders.
“I still don’t like it,” she told them. “We’re using this poor sod a bit more callously than my morals are okay with.”
“And yet, he tried to have you killed, and he was working to bring back the Aranaught behind everyone’s backs. You talk about justice, so where’s his?”
She glanced at his shackled, unconscious form. “He’s suffered plenty.”
“But not answered for his crimes or worked to make reparations. Here he can make a difference, and anyway, we’re not committing to anything. Just showing Talrok that the Bandian is being held accountable. Using him as leverage to get this crazy asshole’s help.”
“I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t do it,” she said. “I’m pointing out that I don’t like it.”
Fifty yards out from the base a figure appeared, and light glinted off the rifle that was aimed at them.
“Turn around!” the figure commanded. “Leave, and never come back.”
A closer look showed this person had been hiding under a gold cloak that matched the moon’s surface and wore a matching golden helmet. It was flat on the top, with sensors around the edges and a horizontal strip of black at the eye line.
“Talrok?” Valerie asked.
The character shook its head, not lowering the gun. “Never heard of him, now turn around and go.”
“Never heard of him, huh?” Palnik asked, bravely stepping forward and motioning to Garcia, who joined him. “How about a scumbag calling himself ‘the Bandian?’ Ever heard of him?”
The figure remained silent for a long moment, then turned and jogged off.
Valerie and her team considered following, but they noticed more figures like the first popping up from the sand and calling out to the first as it ran by. They didn’t hear what was being asked, but the response each time was “The Bandian.”
“Seems like we have the most popular boy in the playground,” Robin said.
“Or the most hated criminal in the galaxy,” Garcia argued, “depending on how you look at it.”
The figure disappeared into the first metallic box, then a few moments came back out and shouted something, the others repeating it down the line until it came back to Valerie and team via a figure waving them in.
“We’ll talk inside,” a female voice said.
Half of the formerly hidden warriors moved back to the tent and the rest took up guard again, slowly disappearing into their environment as Valerie led her team into this strange base.
What she expected was nothing like what she found. Inside was a minimalistic environment, although it was pressurized and they were able to remove their helmets. No computers that they could see, only a series of telescopes and whatnot, some pointed up and others of different styles around their perimeter.
“What the hell is this place?” Garcia asked.
“Outpost Delta,” the female said, removing her helmet to reveal long strings of skin like a cross between hair and octopus tentacles. Valerie did her best to hide her unease at the sight. The female’s skin was blue, her eyes green and flowing like marbles.
“You mean there are four outposts up here?” Valerie asked.
“Five actually. All under Talrok’s command, but he isn’t here.” The female stepped over and put a hand on Valerie’s shoulder. “Commander Arlay, and you are?”
Valerie hesitated and glanced at Palnik, who nodded. She returned the gesture and introduced herself, then told them about their mission and what had brought them here.
“You’re saying the Aranaught is after the Bandian?” Arlay asked. “And you brought him here? Well, fuck.”
Arlay removed her hand from Valerie’s shoulder and paced across the room, staring down and avoiding the sideways glances from the others of her kind at their posts.
Finally she stopped and looked up, green eyes narrowed. “You might have doomed us all, or possibly brought us the answer we need. Your plan is to infiltrate the Aranaught’s space station and put it out of commission, is that correct?”
Valerie hesitated. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“For one, because this whole command was set up for the sole purpose of bringing down the Aranaught. It’s why we avoid technology, to the degree that we can—so the Aranaught can’t infiltrate our systems. Second, because I’m about to lead you to Talrok, as unsure of that decision as I am. If your mission is as I understand it, then will you put your faith in me? Accompany me, so that I might lead you to him?
“Given what you just told me,” Valerie replied, “yes.”
“Very well. You’ll need your helmets and you’ll sure as shit need your weapons, because it’s nasty out there. We’re going upriver.”
An audible gasp echoed through the room, but the rest of the soldiers quickly returned to what they had been doing.
“Oh, don’t mind us,” Arlay said to the room. “I’m not bringing you piles of shit along with us anyway. You think I have a death wish?” She laughed, then gestured for Valerie’s team to follow. “Come on, I have the perfect team in mind.”
As they passed through the sparse base, Valerie felt her heart thudding in her armor. What the hell was she walking into?
A lot of fun, she told herself… Fun in the “killing bad guys or crazy space monsters” sense. The best kind of fun.
Tol’s Moon: The River
Everything about this place stank…literally.
It smelled of eggs and moldy ham, or like a dead rat left out in the rain, then shoved into an oven.
And that was just the underground parts of the base, the areas cleared out by the soldiers and set up for what they called a “habitable” living situation. So when it was time to suit up and go back outside, Valerie was more than ready.
However, when Valerie had committed to going up a river, she’d had no idea this was what they had meant. It wasn’t like a flowing river on Earth, but rather a slow slog that required metal oars. Thrusters and the like couldn’t be used, because fire in an environment like this would cause an explosion.
Gnarled rocks rose out of the ground, thin shapes that in some places almost looked like trees. In others they had formed in layers like thick plates stacked on top of each other. Steam rose from cracks in the ground, and Valerie was extremely glad that their suits had advanced cooling systems built in.
Commander Arlay stood at the front of the boat, rifle pointed down but helmet rotating left and right. She slowly scanned the area for trouble as her cloak floated behind her.
How impressive, Valerie thought, that not even she had noticed them hiding when first arriving. She blamed it on the whole “being on an alien moon” thing.
The journey continued like this for some time, until they reached a point where the rocks became cliffs on either side. Valerie wasn’t sure if the rocks were rising or the river descending, but since they weren’t going faster she assumed the former. She knew she couldn’t rely on her understanding of how things worked back home to be applicable here, though.
Palnik stood staring into the distance, a pensive look on his tattooed face. Robin was telling two of Arlay’s comrades about Earth, the three sitting at the back of the boat, when Garcia shushed them all and pointed to the tops of the cliffs.
“What the hell is that?” he hissed.
Valerie looked up and caught her breath. Sure enough, something was up there. The skies were heavy orange gusts of gas and dust, but a form like a lion’s was silhouetted against the sky. Instead of a mane it had an array of horns that jutted in every direction, parts of them sparkling and gleaming, and two large eyes that stared down at them like moons.
“If it moves, open fire,” Arlay said, very quietly. “That’s a montroque, though not the largest I’ve seen. Nine times out of ten, when one of those wants you dead…you’re dead.”
“I’ve only ever heard stories,” Palnik added with a shudder.
Valerie stared in awe, wondering how big it was and using its distance and elevation to calculate its size. From her guestimation, it seemed to be somewhere between a bear and an elephant, though she had never seen a real one of the latter.
At least for now, it didn’t bother them.
The deeper they went, the more strange creatures they saw. Herds of the strange montroque, smaller versions of them that had droopy sacks around their necks and rounded horns that resembled stones, a few lizard-like blobs that clung to the sides of the cliffs, and more.
“Are any of these creatures intelligent beings?” Valerie asked.
“Do you mean… can they communicate at our level?” Arlay shook her head. “No, many of them are too stupid to figure out how to die, if you ask me. Their best function is as food to the predators, montroque and us alike.”
“Oh, you…eat them?” Robin asked, grossed out.
One of the soldiers scoffed at this. “Weren’t you telling us that you used to feast on the blood of other humans back on Earth?”
“Sounds like humans are much worse,” the other soldier said, both chortling in a weird alien laugh.
“First off, that’s not all humans,” Garcia explained. “These two women are…special.”
“There are others like us,” Valerie chimed in, “but not a lot. Funny story, actually… The whole legend of vampires was built up around this mutation that started with alien nanites. I mean, that’s the simple version.”
“Vampires?” Arlay asked. She clearly hadn’t been paying attention.
“Uh, modified humans who—mostly—suck the blood of other humans, generally killing them. And they—again, mostly—can’t go out in the sunlight.”
Arlay’s black eye line faced her, and Valerie sensed stinging reproach coming from the commander. “So you are—how should I say this?—the same as these devils?”
Valerie was glad her faceplate wasn’t see-through right then, because she was scowling like a tiger about to rip a face off.
“It’s not like that, not for us. We were vampires, but still had some control. A lot of humanity believed vampires were demons or had something to do with the dark arts. That they were evil, and so many of them acted the part. Plus the whole power corrupting thing—but not us.”
“Let me guess, you used your powers for good?” Arlay scoffed. “Spare me.”
“But…” Valerie turned to Robin for help, but the younger woman shrugged.
“How can I trust someone who feeds from their own kind?” Arlay asked, gesturing to the rowers to stop.
“What are you doing?” Valerie asked.
“I didn’t know what you were when I agreed to this,” Arlay explained. “Now I do, and I’m not sure how I feel about taking you out here. So start explaining.”
Valerie glared, not sure how to respond to that, when she noticed one of those montroque creatures making its way down a lower part of the cliffs. “We might want to—”
“Answer me! You have about three shifts of the sands before I abandon this mission and leave you out here to rot.”
“Listen, you want to know about me? Fine, I’ll tell you, and then I’ll finish saving your ass from that monster who looks ready to pounce behind you. The quick version—I left everything I had back there on Earth to come here. Well, everything but Robin. And she left her parents to come up here and fight for Earth’s survival, so that she could defeat evil and help all alien races who might be on the side of justice. Do you understand? I had a family of sorts, and I saw them doing evil so I rose against them to stop it. I saw people abusing power, so I took them out of power. You want to know who I am? That’s who the fuck I am. Now duck!”
Just then the montroque leaped, green liquid spraying from its mouth and smoking as it hit the boat.
Valerie shoved Arlay out of the way and reached out to take the beast on with her bare hands. It was inches from her grip when a metal oar slammed into its mouth, pushed it into the river, and then pulled back and pushed them away from the cliff face.
“I had it!” Valerie exclaimed to the soldier next to Arlay, who still had the oar at the ready.
“It was a valiant effort,” Arlay explained. “Except for the fact that, had that beast’s saliva gotten on your armor in large quantities, you would’ve been quite fucked. Let’s just say you were lucky.”
Valerie turned from one to the other, wishing she could see their faces but sensing warmth from them, so that she assumed they were telling the truth.
“Well, thank you then,” Valerie said to the soldier. “I’d hate to have died.”
The soldier chortled, but a tilt of Arlay’s helmet sent him back to his position.
“It’s not far now,” Arlay stated, turning to point at a mountain ridge ahead with rocks that seemed to form a gateway at its top.
“We’re going up there?” Garcia asked.
“No, through there.” Arlay indicated a place where the river dipped, the cliff face dark and extending outward.
As they approached, it became clear that this was almost a cavern. It wasn’t until they were pulling the boat onto the rock surface, however, that they were able to see how the cavern curved back to lead into a sort of hidden passage. Soldiers appeared, helping to pull the boat to the water’s edge so that the passengers could climb onto shore.
“Another outpost?” Robin asked.
“Outpost Alpha, and home to Talrok at the moment.” Taking the lead, Arlay entered the dark tunnel, the lights from her armor kicking on to emit a gentle glow. Soon the tunnel led to a wider passage, and then they were in an entirely underground open area with glowing pools of water and seemingly-sculpted stalactites and stalagmites. The farther they walked, the more movement Valerie noticed. She imagined they thought nobody could see them, not realizing that vampires could see in the dark.
It was definitely more soldiers, and they were taking offensive positions around a door on the far side of the cavern.
“They know you, right?” Valerie asked.
Arlay turned, her eye line a soft blue glow, and she hesitated as her aura sent off a spike of anger.
Oh, shit, Valerie thought, realizing this was a trap. At a signal from Arlay as she leaped back and the others formed a crescent around them, weapons at the ready.
“Surrender your weapons!” Arlay commanded Valerie and her friends. “We don’t mean to kill you, just ask some questions.”
“We have a mission,” Valerie replied, hand on her sword hilt. “If we don’t see it through, everyone suffers. The Skulla, you… Everyone in this system, and soon, beyond.”
“Right, your mission.” Arlay scoffed, pulling her own rifle now to aim at Valerie. “Again, your weapons.”
Valerie considered the situation. They could possibly take them all down, true. That didn’t worry her so much as the fact that they would have to kill them in the process, or at least some of them, and her people might get hurt as well.
And once she defeated Arlay and her soldiers, what would be next? Could she get through that door without their help? Find Talrok? Not likely.
Her best bet, she figured, would be to get in there now, then retrieve her weapons and fight if it came to that.
“Val?” Robin asked, hand at the ready next to her thigh pistol. “What’s the call?”
“Hand over your weapons.”
“You can’t be serious,” Garcia countered.
“Do it.” Valerie’s voice was stern, unwavering. “We need the good commander here to understand that we’re on the same side.”
The others hesitated and the guards started to shift nervously, but finally Robin unhitched her pistol and handed it over, then they commenced with the rest of their weapons.
When it was done, Arlay nodded and two soldiers approached to put cuffs on each of them.
“This is bullshit,” Robin grumbled.
“You want to see Talrok, this is how it’ll have to be,” Arlay replied. “He doesn’t meet with outsiders. Either you are who you say you are, in which case maybe he’ll listen to you, or you’re creations of the Aranaught and he’ll destroy you.”
“Let’s hope he’s smart enough to see which of those is true,” Valerie said.
Arlay nodded, then gestured for her soldiers to open the door. When they went through the pressurization chamber they came into another metal building.
They approached the far wall and climbed the stairs that led up to another room much like the first, with secure doors on the far side. Vents along the ceiling circulated air and Valerie was glad for the freedom to breathe when they took her helmet off, though annoyed that she didn’t have it in case she needed to make a fast escape.
In this last room, a desk and chair sat against a wall with a window in it. Valerie half-expected the chair to swivel around and some fat, bald male to threaten her, but instead there was a burst of laughter from above.
They tilted their heads to see a figure walking along one of several metal beams. He was a short male Skulla clad in thick robes of blue and white, some tied around his neck and head, others hanging from his shoulders, and a pair of black military-style pants underneath. This wasn’t what she had been expecting at all.
“Visitors or prisoners?” Talrok asked, lowering himself to hang from the beam and look at them. He let go and landed in front of Valerie, staring at her with curiosity.
“Visitors,” Valerie said at the same time as Arlay said, “Prisoners.”
“Ah, a bit of both then.”
Talrok turned to the others, flinching at the sight of Garcia and then laughing again. “A big boy like you, I’d hope it’s more visitors, but we’ll see… We’ll see.”
“Me?” Garcia laughed, then nodded to Valerie. “It’s her you’d want to be afraid of. Size isn’t everything.”
“At least they’re smart prisoners,” Talrok said with a chuckle, then turned back to Valerie. “You’re the leader of this bunch? What can I do for you?”
“They claim to be on a mission to take down Aranaught,” Arlay interjected.
“Indeed, indeed.” Talrok paced, examining their armor. He stepped forward and stared into Valerie’s eyes, then tilted his head and flinched again. “If you’re with her, she did a damn fine job.”
“Her?” Valerie asked.
“Aranaught. What, did you think she’s a he?”
Valerie shrugged. “I thought it was an it. Robot or AI, and all that.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Talrok replied. “See, they’re as real as you or me, and associate with a gender as much as either of us do. But then, I’ve known my fair share of Skulla with the dangly bits who refuse to accept themselves as male, so there you go.”
He leaned back and placed his hands behind his back with a broad smile, as if having proved something very complicated.
“This is the one who’s supposed to help us?” Robin asked, then clicked her tongue. “I have my doubts.”
His eyes flicked to her, then back, and he licked his lips. “How to test you, how to test you…”
“Test us?” Valerie asked. “You mean you’ve seen robots that look as real as us in the past?”
“More real, even.”
“You can’t be more real than real,” Garcia argued.
“Plus,” Valerie leaned in as if sharing a secret, “why would this AI thing make us look like humans? ‘Wandrei,’ as your people like to say. It makes no sense. We’d be the least likely to earn your trust, since you’ve never met any of us.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Since I’ve never met humans before, I’m more likely to trust you by simple relativity. You see, I know I can’t trust anyone else, so sending an alien race I’ve never encountered is the best hope she has of tricking me.”
“I’m telling you,” Robin interjected again, “that if his computer skills are anything like his deductive reasoning and argument skills, we’re royally fucked.”
“ENOUGH!” He turned on her, shouting, “Grownups are talking!”
Valerie wasn’t taking that, potential ally or no. She lunged forward, placing her foot behind his and her shin against his leg as she pushed into him to knock him onto his back. Then she put her foot against the soft part of his neck.
“Watch yourself,” she said, ignoring the guns in the room as they aimed at her again. “That’s my teammate and friend.”
“And you, good madam,” he said with a grin, “have passed my little test.”
“What?” She glanced at Robin, who looked just as confused as she felt. “What do you mean?”
“The friendship test. No AI or robot would act as you did. It was an emotional response, one which you embraced, and thereby earned my faith that you are not an enemy.”
“Just like that?” Arlay asked.
“Release them,” Talrok replied. “Set up a feast so that I can hear them out proper style. I’ve never had humans as guests before!”
“Sir, you should know that they’re vampires, or at least the two females are.”
“Are vampires robots?” He glared.
“Uh, no, sir.”
“Exactly. Do it.”
“I have to say,” Valerie nodded to the guard as he undid her bonds, “this whole journey so far has been nothing like I expected.”
“What did you expect?” Talrok asked.
“Mostly just me killing robots, I guess.” She shrugged. “I guess I’m a simple girl. Point me in the direction of the bad guy, give me a sword, and let me do my thing.”
“You and I… We’re going to get along fine.” He waved Arlay off. “Go on then, prepare the feast. The finest meats from—”
“Er…” Valerie let the noise escape without really meaning to. When they all looked at her, she said, “I don’t know if we can stomach eating any of those creatures we saw out there. Not to be rude, it’s just…you know, alien to us.”
He laughed and rolled his eyes. “Come now, come now. Vampire vegetarians?”
“No skin off my back…or flesh.” He winked, which Valerie was surprised to see was a thing here. Maybe he had met humans before?
“Gentry here will show you to your rooms,” Talrok said, gesturing to a soldier to his right. “Relax, and we’ll talk over food and drink. We don’t have much out here—always on the watch—but what we do have is certainly yours.”
They thanked him and followed Gentry. The others seemed at ease now, but not Valerie. She had no idea if her suspicions were warranted or not, but something about this whole situation felt wrong.
Tol’s Moon: Outpost Alpha
Kalan would have thought being on a secret moon base would have been more exciting. As it was, he was entering his third hour sharing a cramped room with Jilla, Bob, and Wearl, with little to do other than stare at the wall.
If it had been just Jilla, he wouldn’t have minded so much. He had to admit, she looked as good now as she had the last time he’d seen her, when she was eighteen and just aging out of SEDE. He’d been seventeen, and back then that year had seemed to be an eternity. Neither of them could imagine being apart for so long, so they’d decided to break up.
Kalan still believed it had been the right decision. It wouldn’t have been fair to make Jilla spend her first year of freedom waiting for a boyfriend back in prison.
Still, looking at her now, he felt a pang of regret. He knew there was no way they could go back to the way things had been then, but maybe they could start something new? Assuming, of course, that Jilla decided to stick with him after they left this moon base rather than rekindling things with Talrok.
Wearl spoke, rousing Kalan from his memories. “So, Kalan, your first girlfriend was a shapeshifter. That must have been…entertaining.”
Jilla grinned. “Oh, it was. If only you knew some of the shapes he asked me to take.”
“I can only imagine,” Wearl replied.
Kalan felt himself blush, and he turned to Bob. “A little help? As the other male here, you’re legally obligated to have my back.”
Bob shook his head. “Sorry, man, you’re on your own.”
Kalan grimaced. Wearl and Jilla’s razzing was getting to him more than it normally would. Spending hours in this cramped room was putting him in a foul mood.
After they’d left the training auditorium where Kalan had defeated the robot, Daschle had brought them here. He’d told them he was going directly to Talrok, and that he’d set up the meeting for them as quickly as possible.
They hadn’t heard from him—or anyone else—since.
The room’s door wasn’t locked, so technically they could have left and wandered off to find Talrok themselves. But between the labyrinthine corridors and the guard at the end of hall, Kalan had decided it would be a better idea to sit and wait.
As if he’d been summoned by Kalan’s thoughts, Daschle appeared at the door.
Kalan glared at him. “So you remembered we existed?”
“My apologizes. I had no intention of leaving you alone for so long, but something came up that required my immediate attention.” The Skulla was talking fast, and he looked frazzled.
Jilla started to stand. “Do I need to remind you that you owe us a meeting with Talrok today? If you’re going to make an excuse—”
“I’m not,” Daschle said, holding up a hand. “This was as surprising to me as it is to you. I will deliver the meeting I promised, it’s just the setting that has changed.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Kalan asked.
“We have unexpected visitors. Besides yourselves, I mean. Talrok is holding a feast to welcome them.”
“Oh, sure,” Jilla said. “When we show up, you stick us in a room. These guys get a feast?”
“You’re welcome to attend too, of course. In fact, I believe I can get you facetime with Talrok during the feast. What do you say?”
An hour later, Kalan and his friends found themselves entering the dining hall.
“Is it possible the term ‘feast’ doesn’t mean the same thing on this moon as it does on Earth?” Bob asked.
Kalan didn’t know the answer to that question, but he did understand the sentiment. When he thought “feast” he didn’t picture a barebones dining hall with metal tables and benches.
“There,” Jilla said, pointing to a table at the front of the room. “That’s Talrok.”
Kalan raised an eyebrow. “That’s the guy you dated after me?”
“Well, that’s one of them,” Jilla replied with a smile. “Let’s head over there.”
“You sure he’ll remember you?” Bob asked.
Jilla shot him a look. “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not the kind of female guys forget.”
The Skulla at the head table was a bit taller than the average male of his species, and he and the Skulla around him were all dressed in flamboyant colors. He was laughing and talking, oblivious to the rest of the room or the guards in front of the table.
“Okay,” Kalan said, “let’s go talk to him.”
He started walking, but Daschle quickly stepped in front of him.
“I’m sorry, I should have explained. Your table is over here.” He gestured to a spot far across the room from the head table.
“Huh,” Kalan said. “We’re going to have to talk really loudly to hold a conversation with Talrok from back here.”
“I’m very sorry.”
“So you keep saying,” Kalan pointed out.
“You will get to speak with him, but he needs to spend time with the other guests first.”
“The more important ones?” Kalan asked.
“Yes. I mean, no! Not more important, just… Their business is more official and less personal.”
Resigning themselves to yet more waiting, they sat at their assigned table. A server came around with a tray of meat and placed a slice in front of each of them. The meat gave off a scent that reminded Kalan of ship exhaust.
“What is this?” Kalan asked the server.
He hesitated. “What’s your favorite type of meat?”
“Rantu,” Kalan answered.
“Okay, let’s go with that, then. It’s rantu.”
“Wonderful,” Kalan muttered. He picked up the dull knife next to his plate and began the difficult task of sawing off a bite of the mystery meat.
“I wonder where these important guests are?” Jilla asked.
Bob nodded toward the end of the room. “From the way everyone is gathering around, I’m going to guess they just walked in.”
Kalan attempted to chew the tough bite of meat as he squinted through the crowd to get a glimpse of them. When he finally did, he practically choked.
It was Valerie, Robin, and Garcia.
Kalan pushed up himself up from the table and headed toward his friends.
Daschle once again stepped into his path. “Kalan, please. As I’ve told you, you’re going to need to be patient. Talrok will see you when—”
“Can it, Shorty,” Kalan ordered. “I think we just got a table upgrade.”
He pushed past Daschle, and Jilla, Bob, and Wearl followed him closely.
Valerie was enduring a welcome from a Skulla soldier when she spotted him. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she walked away from the Skulla mid-sentence.
Kalan grinned. “So you’re the honored guests I heard about?”
“Honored?” Valerie asked. She nodded toward the pistol on his hip. “At least they let you keep your weapons. They stuck us in a tiny room for the last couple hours.”
“Us too,” Kalan said. “What the hell are you guys doing here?”
They exchanged stories of what had brought them to Outpost Alpha and their reasons for needing to see Talrok.
When they’d finished bringing each other up-to-date, Kalan said, “Talrok is really fighting the artificial intelligence? Trying to take it down?”
“Take her down. And yes, although I’m not sure how much actual fighting is going on—seems mostly like they hide in their outposts. Apparently Talrok used to work for the Bandian, but now he’s decided to join the good guys. “
Kalan scoffed. “The Bandian. Thank the stars I never have to see that bastard again.”
“Er,” Robin began, “we sort of brought him with us. He’s in a cell here on Outpost Alpha.”
“What?” Kalan asked in surprise.
“We brought him as bait,” Valerie explained. “Aranaught wants him. She made a big announcement about it on Tol.”
“Damn,” Kalan said, running a hand through his hair. “If we’d known Talrok was at war with an artificial intelligence, we probably wouldn’t have bothered coming all this way just to ask him about an old business partner.”
“Oh, I knew,” Jilla interjected.
“You did? Why didn’t you say anything?”
Jilla shrugged. “Didn’t seem relevant.”
Valerie frowned at her. “Who’s this, Kalan? New girlfriend?”
“Old one, actually.”
After Kalan had introduced Jilla to the rest of Valerie’s Elites, Valerie turned toward Talrok’s table and shook her head.
“It looks like Palnik is already making himself at home.”
Kalan followed her gaze to where a familiar Skulla was buddying up to Talrok. “Palnik? Isn’t he that warlord you told me about from the fighting pits?”
“Yep,” Valerie said. “The very-fucking-same.”
“Turns out Palnik’s super-loyal to whoever happens to be in power,” Garcia added.
“Well, let’s get this over with.” Valerie marched to the head table, her Elites close behind.
Talrok looked annoyed when he saw them approaching, but he leaned forward, placing his elbows on the metal table. “Ah, here you are—the guests of honor.” He glanced at Kalan, Jilla, and Bob. “You’ve met our other guests, I see.”
“Yes, some time ago,” Valerie replied.
Jilla pushed to the front of the group. “So that’s how it’s going to be? No hello for your ex-girlfriend?”
He looked at her absently. “Hello, Jilla. Good of you to visit.”
Bob nudged her. “I can tell you left a big impression on him.”
“Shut up, Bob,” she hissed.
Valerie put her hands on the table and leaned toward Talrok. “We need to talk about Aranaught.”
He gestured to the bench across from him. “What’s the rush? Sit down. Let’s enjoy each other’s company.”
Valerie’s Elites sat down at the long bench across from the important Skulla of Outpost Alpha.
Kalan shot Daschle a smile.
Talrok glanced down the table at Kalan, Jilla, and Bob. “How about you three? What’s so important that you came all this way to talk to me?”
“I’m looking for an old business partner of yours,” Kalan said.
“Willom,” Jilla added.
Talrok’s face darkened. “Is that so?”
“It is. I’m hoping you might be able to put me in touch with him. I have information that—”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Talrok said, cutting him off. “Willom died a few years back.”
Kalan felt a familiar sinking feeling in his stomach. Another dead-end. Another Grayhewn he was too late to meet.
“Hang on,” Jilla said. “You used to talk about Willom all the time to me. You never mentioned he was dead.”
Talrok shrugged. “I guess it never came up.” He voice was noticeably cooler when he spoke to Jilla. Maybe he was still holding a grudge against her.
“Do you know where he lived?” Kalan pressed. “If he had any family?”
“Willom was a very private person. I was his partner for more than a decade, but I knew very little about him. I’m sorry I don’t have more to say about him, but I don’t.” He turned to Valerie. “You wanted to talk about Aranaught?”
Kalan wanted to interrupt, to grab this damn Skulla by the collar and shove him against the wall until he revealed everything he knew about his old partner.
At the same time, he knew he couldn’t endanger Valerie’s mission. For one, she would kick his ass, and for two, her mission was vital to the entire system, which was much more important than finding a single Grayhewn. Kalan bit his tongue.
He noticed that Daschle, who was at the far end of the table, looked troubled, like maybe there was more he wanted to say on the matter too. Kalan made a mental note to corner the Skulla when his boss wasn’t around and ask some more pointed questions.
Valerie answered Talrok, “That’s right, I want to talk about this AI. I’m going to take it down, and I’d like your help.”
The Skulla leader scoffed. “That’s not possible. Even if she had a physical body, which she doesn’t, we’d need advanced weaponry to take her down. The problem with that is, she can take control of any robotics, and her tech is pretty good at shutting down advanced electronic devices, too.”
“Yeah, we noticed that,” Robin interjected.
“What about the shield you used on that little robot?” Kalan asked. “That blocked the AI, right?”
Talrok chuckled. “On a very small scale, yes, but all the shield really does is stop her from knowing one little robot exists. If we attacked her with it, she’d see through the ruse and push past the shield.”
“So build a better shield,” Valerie suggested.
“Okay, so if Aranaught is unbeatable, then what are you even doing here? Why not flee to Tol?”
Talrok considered that for a moment before answering, “Because we have to keep trying. It’s the right thing to do.”
“Exactly,” Valerie agreed.
“I’ve been at this a long time, and the best I’ve managed to do is to keep her out of our little outposts on this moon. I appreciate you bringing the Bandian here. We’ll see that he’s properly dealt with. Beyond that, I don’t know what to do for you.”
“Hang on,” Robin said. “We didn’t bring you the Bandian as a gift. We brought him as bait.”
Valerie nodded. “If you’re not going to help, there’s no way in hell you’re keeping the Bandian.”
Talrok turned an angry shade of red. “He’s in our prison cell now, and he’s staying there.”
Valerie started to respond, but before she could two soldiers hurried into the room and ran up to Talrok.
“Sir, we have a problem.”
Talrok answered without taking his eyes off Valerie. “Not now. I’m busy.”
“This can’t wait, sir.”
Talrok turned and glared at them. “What is it?”
The soldier who’d been speaking swallowed hard. “Outpost Alpha is under attack, sir. We need to get you to safety.”
Tol’s Moon: Outpost Alpha
Talrok stared blankly at the soldier in front of him for a long moment. “Are you sure?”
“They’ve breached the airlocks, sir.”
“Damn it!” Talrok ran a hand across the tattoos on his face absently.
Kalan and Valerie exchanged a glance. Clearly this leader wasn’t going to take charge, at least not as quickly as his troops needed him to.
So Valerie did. She looked at the soldier. “What are we talking about here? Robots? Space-spiders? What?”
The soldier glanced at Talrok to see if he’d object to this Wandrei speaking out of turn, but when he didn’t the soldier answered, “They’re mechs. Sent by Aranaught, no doubt.”
Kalan raised an eyebrow. In his experience, making such assumptions could be dangerous. “How do you know who sent them?”
The soldier looked at him like he was stupid. “We’re on a moon. Who the hell else is up here?”
“Fair point,” Kalan allowed.
Valerie snapped her fingers to regain the guard’s attention. “You said ‘airlocks.’ How many have been breached?”
“Three. Two on the south side, and one on the north.”
“Shit,” Valerie muttered. She turned to Talrok. “I take it most of the outpost’s personnel are presently gathered in this room?”
“Yes,” Talrok confirmed. He was starting to sound more like himself as he adapted to the reality of the situation.
“Good. How many entrances?”
“Three.” Daschle answered this time. He gestured to the doors in the dining hall: one of the north side of the room, one on the south side, and one on the east wall that led to the kitchen.
Valerie grabbed Talrok by the shoulders. “Tell your soldiers to get into their battle positions. You need to focus now.”
“We could invite the enemy to the feast and make them eat the meat,” Bob suggested. “That would kill them as quickly as our bullets.”
“Shut up, Bob, I’m thinking.”
Bob smiled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard you say that, Valerie. I’ve kind of missed it.”
Valerie ignored the comment and continued addressing Talrok. “As for you, you’re coming with us. You too, Arlay.”
Talrok’s face darkened. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you want to stay alive, and I’m going to keep you that way. We need to get the Bandian from his cell. He can’t fall into Aranaught’s hands. She turned to Arlay. But first you’re going to get my team their fucking weapons.”
Arlay hesitated for only a moment, then nodded.
“Kalan,” Valerie said, “you and your girlfriends will come with us.”
Jilla said, “I think she means you and me, Wearl—wherever you are.”
“Excellent,” Wearl said. “I haven’t killed anyone since this morning. I was starting to get antsy.”
“What about me?” Bob asked, the hurt clear in his eyes.
Kalan clapped him on the back. “You can come too. Just don’t say anything obnoxious, or really, anything at all. In fact, it’s probably best if you hang back a little.”
“Roger that,” Bob said, a determined look on his face.
Talrok gave his orders, and the crew left through the south exit.
Arlay led them down a long corridor and stopped at a small storeroom. After unlocking the door, she handed Valerie, Robin, and Garcia their weapons.
Robin took her gun. “Fighting mechs, huh? This is just like old times.”
“Let’s hope they build them more solidly up here,” Valerie said. “I’d like a bit of a challenge.”
Arlay shook her head. “You are some crazy Wandrei.”
“Agreed,” Garcia said with a smile. “Now take us to the Bandian.”
The journey to the prison cell took much longer than the walk to the storeroom had. As they traveled, they heard fighting in the distance.
Talrok stayed in constant contact with his commanders, talking through a communicator that must have been built into the sleeve of his shirt. From what he passed along, the soldiers in the southern part of the facility were holding their own against the enemy. The ones in the north, however, were taking a serious beating.
“We need to help them,” Arlay said, her voice thick with frustration.
“We will,” Valerie promised, “but the Bandian can’t fall into enemy hands. That’s Priority One.”
Thunderous footsteps echoed down the corridor and Kalan felt himself tense. “Sounds like they’re bringing the fight to us.”
Valerie drew her sword, holding it in one hand and her gun in the other. “If these are anything like the mechs we fought at the Bandian’s mountain headquarters, they’ll have a small glass faceplate. The rest of their armor is tough, but if you can get through the faceplate you can get at the driver inside.”
Talrok’s eyes narrowed. “We’re dealing with Aranaught here. I’m not certain that these—”
He never got to finish the thought.
A large mech rounded the corner and charged at them.
Kalan had thought the training robot he’d fought a few hours earlier was fast, but this mech made the robot look slow. It moved so quickly that all he saw was a blue blur from the lights of the hallway reflecting off its body as it came on.
To his amazement, Valerie responded just as quickly. She lunged forward, firing as she went. The bullets struck the mech in the glass portion of its faceplate, and the glass became a spiderweb of cracks. Clearly whatever material the faceplate was made of had been designed to be bulletproof.
She crashed into him and wrapped her legs around him, holding on tightly, and drove the hilt of her sword against the glass faceplate until it shattered.
Kalan watched in awe, realizing that he’d never seen Valerie fight in a real battle before. It was like watching a master musician play an instrument.
He didn’t have time to watch her work any longer than that, though, since half-dozen mechs charged down the corridor toward them.
“Let’s light ‘em up!” Garcia called.
The boom of Wearl’s rifle echoed in the enclosed space, quickly followed by the rapid fire of Garcia’s gun.
Kalan only had his Tralen-14 pistol, so he waited for the mech charging at him to get bit closer.
“Son of a bitch!” Valerie shouted.
But the mech was almost on Kalan now, so he didn’t have time to see what his boss was cursing about. He needed to focus on the task at hand if he wanted to stay alive.
When the mech dove at him, he quickly sidestepped and fired into the mech’s faceplate. He drove a shoulder into its back as it whirled past him, and the mech tumbled forward to land on its face.
Kalan was on its back before it could rise. He reached around, pressed his pistol into the enemy’s faceplate and fired four rounds, then slammed the butt of his pistol against the shards to knock out what remained of the hard glass.
The mech started to stand, and Kalan let it. It didn’t matter now. With the faceplate gone the creature inside was vulnerable, just as Valerie had said.
The mech finished standing and glared down at him, and what Kalan saw shocked him.
“Son of a bitch!” he yelled, echoing his boss.
There was no face behind the mech’s faceplate. There was no driver inside at all. It was empty.
Kalan stumbled backwards, shocked, wondering what the hell he was fighting. Talrok had explained that Aranaught could control robots and other machines, but even mechs? It was basically a souped-up suit of armor, right?
There had to be something inside—some electronic gizmo that allowed Aranaught to infest this thing and control it. All he had to do was figure out where those electronics were located and find a way to remove them. He’d start by—
“Found it!” Valerie called.
He glanced toward her. She was holding an electronic device about the size of her fist, and the unmanned mech lay smoking at her feet.
“The electronic doohickey is embedded in the upper back,” she announced. “If you manage to get through the faceplate it’s pretty easy to dig it out.”
“Doohickey?” Robin asked. Her voice was strained as she pried the faceplate off a mech who was futilely trying to dislodge her from its shoulders.
“Whatever,” Valerie said. “I’m sure Bob would know what it’s called.”
Kalan focused on the mech in front of him. Now that the faceplate was gone there was a pretty big opening, so he jammed his arm through the hole and felt around inside.
The mech beat at his back as he dug for the electronic device. Each hit was like being struck with a club, but Kalan persisted. After what felt like an eternity but was in reality only about ten seconds, he wrapped his fingers around the device and pulled.
The mech went down hard.
He tossed the device on the floor and looked at his friends to see who needed help.
Valerie was finishing off her second mech, and Robin was standing over her first. Garcia, Arlay, and Jilla had teamed with Bob to kill one, and while he couldn’t see Wearl, he had to assume the defeated mech off to the side was her doing.
“Everybody good?” Valerie asked.
“Better than them,” Robin said. “Anybody else notice something odd about these mechs?”
“Besides the lack of drivers?” Kalan asked. “I’d say it’s weird they didn’t have any weapons.”
“These things are basically disposable for Aranaught,” Talrok said. “Leftovers from the days when we needed living beings to use as experiment subjects—the pre-AI days. Guns however, are still very valuable to her. My guess is these guys were sent in as bruisers and cannon fodder. The second wave will be more adequately armed.”
“Second wave?” Jilla groaned.
Thudding steps came down the corridor, and a moment later a mech heaved around the corner and into view.
Valerie started to walk forward, but Wearl asked, “Do you mind if I take this one?”
Valerie shrugged. “Be my guest.”
Wearl’s rifle boomed as she attacked the mech, and the machine staggered backward under the force of the shots. The booms continued, and a moment later its faceplate cracked.
The glass was torn from its helmet by an invisible hand and went flying down the corridor, followed quickly by the interior padding meant to cushion the human driver, then random bits of wire and rubber, and finally the electronic device.
The mech collapsed to the floor, surrounded by the various parts torn from inside it.
“Thank you, Valerie,” Wearl said.
Valerie glanced at Kalan. “You know what? I like her.”
Talrok held the communicator in his sleeve to his ear, and a moment later he turned to the group. “The second wave is attacking. We’ve confirmed there are mechs armed with rifles we’ve never seen before, and drones are dropping more of them on us.”
Valerie’s eyes narrowed. “Do we know what they want?”
Talrok nodded. “The Aranaught is speaking through the mechs. Says she wants the Bandian.”
“Of course she does,” Arlay muttered.
Talrok sighed. “I’m going to be honest—we can’t hold out forever.”
“Then we need to give her a reason to stop attacking. We’re going to pick up the Bandian and get the hell out of here. We need to call the Grandeur.”
“There’s comm equipment near the prison,” Arlay informed them.
“Good,” Valerie said. “Let’s get moving.”
They made their way down another series of corridors, and though they heard fighting in the distance they didn’t encounter any more mechs on their way to the cell.
As they walked, Valerie spoke to Talrok. “You need to come with us when we leave.”
He shook his head slowly. “I know you probably don’t think I’m much of a leader because of the way I froze when I found out we were being attacked, but I’m not the kind of guy who abandons his outpost in the middle of a fight.”
“We’ll be fine,” Arlay said. “No offense, but you’re not exactly turning the tide of the battle here, sir.”
“Besides, once we get the Bandian out of here they’ll have no reason to keep attacking,” Valerie added. “You said you had some ideas on how to fight Aranaught, right?”
“Yes,” Talrok allowed.
“Well, now’s the time to put them into action. The stalemate is over, if you hadn’t noticed. It’s time to fight.”
Talrok hesitated. “We’ll need at least four ships to come with us. Arlay?”
She nodded. “I can make that happen once we get to the comm.”
They reached the Bandian’s cell, where two terrified guards were watching over him. Robin and Arlay went to call the Grandeur and the other ships while Valerie retrieved their prisoner.
“Man, he’s still out?” she said when she saw him.
Garcia smiled. “After all the drugs we gave him? I’m not surprised.”
Talrok put his sleeve to his ear again, then turned to Valerie. “The mechs have taken the dining hall, and there’s a group headed this way.”
Robin and Arlay trotted back from the comm room.
“What did Flynn say?” Valerie asked.
“We gave him the coordinates, and he’s already in the air,” Robin replied. “We need to get to the west airlock pronto.”
“I figured that airlock will be the clearest,” Arlay said.
Valerie nodded. “What do you say, Talrok? Ready to take down this AI?”
Talrok’s expression grew serious. “I suppose I am. We’ve been dancing around each other for too long. Let’s end this fight.”
“Good.” She turned to Kalan. “I take it the Nim is here?”
“Then I need you to defend this corridor. Give us time to get the Bandian and Talrok out of here. Once Aranaught sees we’ve fled with him things should calm down here, then you can follow us.”
“You got it, boss.” Kalan looked at Bob and Jilla. “You with me?”
“You don’t even have to ask,” she replied.
“Glad to hear it. We’ve got your back, Valerie. Say hi to Flynn for us.”
With that, Valerie put the Bandian on her shoulder and headed for the western airlock with Arlay, Talrok, Garcia, and Robin close behind.
Kalan watched them go, then turned to his remaining friends. “I hope you guys aren’t tired of killing mechs.”
Jilla grinned. “We’re just getting started, Grayhewn.”
Tol’s Moon: Outpost Alpha
Shots whistled around Valerie and Robin as the two ran for the Grandeur, which had set down behind cover. Valerie still had the Bandian slung over her shoulders, refusing to let the enemy get their hands on him.
Kalan had his own way of getting around now, and she would have to trust in his abilities to not get his head blown off.
“Like the good old days, huh?” Robin said through her helmet.
“The hell it is!”
“Well, except we’re on a moon and have non-living things shooting at us…kinda?”
Valerie laughed despite their predicament and glanced back to see Garcia providing cover fire as Talrok sprinted up his ship’s ramp. She would’ve preferred to have Garcia with her, but they needed Talrok alive and the sergeant was a damn good shot. Even as she watched, one of those shots hit a drone dead on and sent it careening into one of the mechs, where it exploded on impact.
The Bandian grunted, totally awake now since he hadn’t had his sleeping or pain medicine, but keeping him happy wasn’t the goal here—just out of enemy hands.
As she ran up the ramp to the ship, she had to wonder if the concept of bait was still in play. They were being attacked, after all. Was there any scenario in which she would offer him up to get close, as they had originally intended?
He swore at her when she placed him in his seat and strapped him in, and for a moment she would’ve loved to hand him over.
She shouted, “Get us the hell out of here!” and ran forward to join Flynn on the bridge as the ship took off.
“I saw them coming,” Flynn grunted as he pulled the ship up and glanced back. “Shit, where’s Garcia?”
“With Talrok. They’re following, and have a plan to override the EMP or whatever the hell they did to us last time.”
“Yeah?” He punched the air. “Hell, yeah.”
They darted past more drones, shooting as they could and happy to see shots coming from behind them that hit their mark.
“Talrok’s been planning this for a long time,” Valerie explained, pulling up the display and watching as red dots bleeped out of existence and more ships rose from Talrok’s hidden base. “We’re in for one hell of a time.”
“Game on, bitches!”
“’Bitches?’” Robin asked, joining them at the front and bracing herself as they turned sharply. “Come on, now.”
“My bad, I’m… I’m used to operating with a bunch of sweaty, hairy dudes.”
“Not us,” Robin said with a constrained laugh. “From now on, it’s all rose-smelling chicas, got it? So show a little respect.”
“To be clear, he wasn’t calling us bitches,” Valerie interjected, but pulled back at Robin’s look. “I get it, just don’t like the language. Still, you’re kinda acting like a—”
“Don’t you say it,” Robin threatened, but she couldn’t help but laugh. “Shut up.” She pulled out some of the leftovers from their meal and handed them to Flynn. “In case you got sick of the food on ship.”
“Thanks,” he replied, nodding to the controls. “Val?”
Valerie took over and was glad she did, because just then three enemy fighter planes appeared on the screen. Now she was mentally back home, flying a Pod as enemies fired—only here it was intensely three-dimensional, so she had to focus on attacks from all directions.
Her wing nearly clipped one of them as she tore through the latest one and came out whooping on the other side, hitting the next ship and sailing through the explosive flames.
Blips converging on the display showed that the ship carrying Talrok and Garcia was in trouble, so she pulled up and did a loop-the-loop. She rained hellfire on the attackers and took down two planes in the process, then made a break for space.
“If only this was a thing you could do for fun,” she said, catching her breath. “I’d do it all the time!”
“What, like one of those movies but you have control over it?” Robin laughed. “Yeah, call me when that’s invented.”
Soon the Grandeur was past the battle and flying toward the space station, and Valerie was glad to still see four ships behind them.
The communication window beeped and she hit accept, and a second later Garcia’s face was on the screen.
“Talrok says it’s time,” Garcia said. “You ready?”
“Just tell me what to do.”
“When he says go, turn off all power. Thing is, we need the trajectory, and if power’s off they can’t do shit.”
Valerie nodded. It was so simple.
“NOW!” Talrok’s voice rang out from behind Garcia, and the screen went blank.
Valerie glanced back at her own screen to ensure they were on track, then cut the power.
It was deadly quiet, floating through space like that. She finally took her helmet off and glanced around to see that the others already had, and she smiled.
“Well, this is fun.”
Robin picked her teeth with an extended nail, watching Flynn wipe sweat from his brow.
“Okay, not that fun,” Valerie admitted. She watched through the window as the space station grew larger and a realization hit her. “They can’t sense us, huh? I mean, without the equipment…other than with cameras and that sort of tech.”
“That, and with them being focused on the attack back on the moon, this might be smooth sailing.” Flynn wiped his forehead again. “I mean, one can hope.”
“All that sounds great,” Robin said, “but I don’t think we’re exactly on track.”
“What?” Valerie leaned forward, and nearly bit her tongue off. “FUCK ME!”
She was right, of course. When was Robin not? Judging by their current trajectory, they would be veering too far to the left of the space station.
“We got this,” Robin said, nodding to herself.
“How, exactly?” Flynn asked.
“Thrusters on our armor,” Valerie offered, figuring out what Robin meant. “We’re going to have to make a jump for it.”
“It’s not…computerized, right?” Flynn asked, but it wasn’t really a question. “Damn, it might work. And the ship?” He glanced back at the Bandian. “That guy?”
“You wait until you guestimate you’re out of range,” Valerie advised, “then turn on the engines and get out of Dodge. Wait for our communications. If we turn our comms back on, you’ll know we’re ready to get the hell out of there.”
“Or ready to hand over that sleazebag,” Robin offered.
Flynn took a deep breath, then nodded.
“Fun times to be had by all,” Robin said, standing and grabbing her helmet. “I estimate we have to jump in about three minutes. But hey, what the hell do I know?”
Valerie turned from her to the window, then to her again, and blew out a deep breath. “Sounds good to me. If we miss it… What’s the worst that can happen? So we float around in space forever, or until our ever-healing bodies finally give out on us.”
Robin snorted a laugh. “Valerie the pessimist? I never thought I’d see the day.”
“Oh, I’m as optimistic as a bear in a beehive.”
“Let’s get us some honey.” Robin patted Flynn on the shoulder. “You got this, right?”
“You two are doing the hard work,” he replied, then cringed. “Sorry. Yes, I got this.”
Robin and Valerie wished him luck and then went to it, strapping on their helmets and checking to be sure everything was in place. They waited as the massive space station loomed over them, getting closer and closer like a mighty space-kraken about to devour them.
“When we get back to Earth, remind me to never say yes to another crazy adventure with you,” Robin said, bracing herself.
“Sure! You can hang out with Sandra and help with the kid. I bet they need a babysitter.”
Robin guffawed. “Me with children? I think I’ll take my chances here.”
“Come on, a little poop and spit-up can’t be that bad.”
“If I’m lucky, I might die today and never have to find out.”
Valerie hit her in the shoulder, and nearly knocked her free of the ship. “Oh, shit, sorry—but don’t talk like that.”
“Right, got it. Damn.” Robin checked her shoulder. “Careful you don’t rupture my damn suit.”
Robin turned back and said, “Damn, now!”
“GO!” Robin grabbed her by the arm and linked with her at the elbow, and together they ran and leaped into space, then activated their thrusters and aimed for the station.
Every bit of Valerie wanted to clench. Horror welled up and threatened to burst forth in a scream. Her breathing came short, and her eyes were wide—not at the sight of the space station, but the empty space beyond.
What was it with space and the way it made her lose control? She normally had it together. She was the Champion of New York, Justice Enforcer of the Dark Messiah…and here she was, as terrified as a small child. Dammit, she had promised herself not to ever allow that emotion again. In her line of work, though, she supposed it couldn’t be avoided.
Pull yourself together, she thought, remembering Robin at her side, remembering all those on Earth who depended on her.
She wouldn’t let them down.
“Brace for impact!” Robin shouted, and then they landed on one arm of the station, turning to watch the Grandeur fly clear and several others arriving.
“Took you long enough,” Valerie said when she saw Garcia. He was recognizable by his Bad Company armor as compared to the flamboyant colors of Talrok and his followers, who were preparing weapons.
“Shouldn’t there be more resistance?” Garcia asked, glancing around. “They can’t all have been sent to the moon.”
“Then let’s find ‘em and tear ‘em apart,” Robin said. “I’m anxious for some good ol’ hand-to-hand action.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Talrok interjected, walking past them. He now wore a helmet similar to those of Arlay and the others, with only the black line where his eyes would be. It gave him an ominous feel, despite his short stature.
His team was already on the move, breaching the outer walls of this arm of the space station. Soon they would be inside, and find out if anything waited for them or if this was one big wild goose chase.
Valerie and her companions stood ready to provide cover-fire, but there was no need.
As the other group made their way in, the only action were the space ships floating out there at the ready.
“Something feels off about all this,” Robin pointed out.
“Agreed,” Valerie said. “Stay alert.”
Tol’s Moon: Outpost Alpha
Kalan stared down the long corridor, waiting for more mechs to arrive.
They’d been standing guard for nearly five minutes since Valerie, Garcia, and Robin had left with the Bandian and the leader of the outpost. Their orders were to defend the corridor so the mechs couldn’t get through to the western airlock. Not that they might not be waiting outside the airlock, but Kalan would have to trust that Valerie could handle her end of things. He needed to focus on his mission.
It was liberating, in a way. He pushed aside thoughts of saving the Grayhewn species, of the two Grayhewn leads that had both led to literal dead-ends. Of his ambiguous, complicated relationship with Jilla.
He just had to kill anything that came down this damn hallway.
Only problem was, so far nothing had.
Talrok had taken his communicator device, and he’d promised to let them know when the Grandeur was clear. Until then, they needed to hold fast.
Kalan held his Tralen-14 at the ready and watched.
Jilla nudged him. “Hey, Kalan, I know you love that little pistol and all, but don’t you think a bigger gun might be more useful in a firefight?”
“I wasn’t exactly planning on a battle with mechs. Next time I’ll pack something more appropriate.”
Bob grinned. “Don’t you know by now? When you roll with Valerie’s Elites, you gotta be prepared to fight anything and everything.”
“I know. It’s awesome!” Wearl said.
Kalan listened for a moment. “That gunfire is getting closer. Maybe we’ll finally have company.”
They waited a little longer, everyone listening. The gunfire was not far away now.
“Let’s take cover,” Kalan said, “and open the gates of hell on anything mechanical that comes down that hall.”
They ducked into doorways on opposite sides of the corridor, Kalan and Jilla in one and Bob and Wearl in the other.
Kalan glanced at Jilla, who was carrying an impressive rifle.
“Where’d you get that thing?”
“Guard station outside the cell where they were keeping the Bandian,” she said with a grin. “Sorry, they only had the one.”
“Unbelievable,” he muttered.
Clanging filled the hallway, sounding very different from the mechs they’d fought earlier.
He gripped his pistol and waited.
The thing that appeared at the end of the hallway was not what he’d been expecting. It was metal, like the mechs, but much broader. It gripped a huge rifle in its massive right hand and the other hand clenched at its side in a fist that looked like a wrecking ball ready to knock down somebody’s favorite building.
Its eyes glowed a deep blue, and it moved with deliberate slowness.
This wasn’t a mech, Kalan realized. It was a full-fledged robot.
“Let him have it,” Kalan called.
Wearl and Jilla immediately began firing, peppering the metal enemy with shot after shot. If the robot was damaged by their fire, it didn’t show. It kept walking forward at its steady pace.
When the robot got within thirty feet Kalan and Bob joined in, figuring the thing was close enough now that they weren’t just wasting ammo with their pistols.
Still the robot kept coming.
“Let’s pull a Kalan!” Jilla shouted.
“Wait, what?” Kalan asked.
“She means what you did earlier,” Wearl answered. “Take out its ankles.”
The group adjusted their aim downward.
The robot seemed unharmed.
Then, when it was fifteen feet away, it stopped and raised its enormous weapon.
“Oh, shit,” Kalan cried. “Take cover!”
He ducked into the doorway as the robot began firing.
Looking past the door frame, Kalan watched as the walls of the hallway were torn to shreds by the robot’s cascade of fire.
When the shooting stopped, Kalan called, “Left ankle! Everyone focus on the left ankle.”
They started shooting.
With all their effort focused on that one spot, it didn’t take long until the robot’s ankle was torn to shreds. It toppled under its own massive weight and hit the floor with a crash.
“Nice!” Jilla shouted.
“Yeah, but what now?” Kalan asked.
The robot attempted to stand, setting down its huge gun and using both hands.
“I got this!” Bob called, and without waiting for anyone to respond he dashed into the corridor. With a grunt he hefted the robot’s rifle to waist level, shoved the barrel under the robot’s chin, and squeeze the trigger.
The light faded from the robot’s eyes and it stopped moving.
“Ha!” Bob shouted. “Take that, you metal bastard.”
Kalan scratched his head. “Holy shit, Bob! That was kinda awesome.”
“I know, right? By the way, I’m keeping this gun.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Jilla said. “You can’t even carry it.”
But he was already hefting it over his shoulder. He looked ridiculous with the massive weapon, but Kalan wasn’t going to ruin his moment of glory.
The communicator Jilla had gotten from the guard station chirped, and Talrok’s voice came though. “I repeat, do you read?”
“We read,” Jilla replied.
“Finally! I’ve been shouting into this thing for five minutes.”
“Sorry, we were fighting a giant robot.”
“Ah,” Talrok said. His voice sounded casual, as if fighting a giant robot were the most natural thing in the world. “We're on our ships with the Grandeur and in the… Well, ‘clear’ is too strong a word, but we’re away. Drones are after us now, which means Aranaught is shifting her focus off Outpost Alpha. Valerie says for you to get your asses out of there.”
“Now that’s an order I can handle,” Kalan said. “We’ll see you soon.”
Suddenly something occurred to Kalan, and he looked down at the robot.
“I think we’d better get moving,” he said. “If there are still robots who haven’t left the outpost, they know where we are.”
“How would they know that?” Jilla asked.
He nodded toward the destroyed robot at their feet. “Because this thing knew, which means Aranaught knows.”
“You’ll have to back that up for me,” Bob said.
“Aranaught is a hive-mind AI, right? That means that if one part of her sees something, the rest of her does too. I think she couldn’t see us with the mech suits since they were meant to be driven by someone with eyes, but full-fledged robots? You better believe she can see what they see.”
“Then let’s stop wasting time and get out of here,” Jilla suggested.
That proved to be easier said than done. While they understood the general path from their current location to the dining hall, they had no idea how to get to the airlock where Nim 47 was docked. Additionally, the outpost was still in the grip of post-battle chaos. Panicked Skulla were running in every direction, and no one wanted to stop to give directions to the Wandrei with the big guns.
They’d been wandering the corridors for long enough to be officially considered lost when they rounded a corner to find something unexpected—one of the mechs from the first wave stalking toward a Skulla male who sat on the floor gazing up in fear.
“Help!” the Skulla called.
As Kalan approached, he recognized the Skulla. “Ah, Daschle. Our friend who did his best to keep us away from the head table!”
The poor Skulla looked terrified, and he blinked hard as he recognized them. “I’m sorry about that, but please help me.”
Kalan gauged the distance between the Skulla and the mech, which was moving much more slowly than the others they’d fought. He guessed that when Aranaught withdrew she had rescinded the attack order, so now it was just sort of wandering toward Daschle.
But Daschle didn’t know that—which meant Kalan could have a little fun.
“I don’t know if we should save you, Daschle. You never got us our meeting, after all.”
The Skulla’s eyes widened. “I did! You talked to Talrok.”
“Yes, but it was Valerie who got us to the head table, which means you still owe us. I don’t know if you want to go any further into debt.”
“I do!” Daschle said quickly. “I mean, I can. Which is to say, I have information.” He swallowed hard. “That Grayhewn you were looking for? Willom? He’s not dead. Talrok lied.”
Kalan froze. “What?”
“It’s true! I know where he’s living now.”
“Daschle, if you’re lying—”
“I’m not, I promise. I can even take you there. It’s on this moon. He has a hidden place. I’ll show you.”
Kalan felt the hope rising within him once again. If this was true—if there really was another Grayhewn on this very moon—it meant his first success might be mere hours away.
“Wearl,” Kalan said, “would you mind doing the honors?”
It took her less than thirty seconds to take down the mech. Now that she’d had practice, she had become quite efficient at it.
When the mech had been destroyed, Kalan walked over to Daschle and pulled him to his feet.
Jilla frowned at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be one of the Skulla in charge here?”
“Yes,” he said, brushing himself off. “I’m supposed to be, but everything went sort of haywire during the battle. One of those damn robots came into the dining hall and we all scattered.”
“Cool leadership skills,” Jilla said.
Daschle looked ashamed. “You’re right. And now I’ve done it again. The outpost needs me, but I’ve promised to take you to Willom—assuming he’ll even see us.”
Anger flashed in Kalan’s eyes. “Hold on, are you backing out on another promise to us? Because if you are, I think we can find more of those mechs wandering around here.”
“Or you could give him to me,” Wearl said. “I’m much more creative than a mech.”
Daschle was unable to hear the Shimmer, but responded to Kalan. “I’m just saying we’ll have our work cut out for us, but we’ll get it done. No worries there.”
“There’d better not be.” Kalan looked to the left, then to the right. “First things first. Which way is the damn airlock?”
Daschle led them through the maze of corridors toward their ship, although the whole place confused Kalan. Sometimes he’d think he saw something familiar, only to see something unfamiliar a moment later. This outpost seemed to have been designed to confound Wandrei like him.
It didn’t matter, because soon they’d be on their way to see this Willom. It was the first step in a much longer journey, Kalan knew, but it was a success nonetheless.
As they walked they passed many Skulla, some of whom had minor injuries and others who looked lost and confused. Daschle spent a moment or two with each of them, offering either a word of comfort or instructions on what they should do to help with the cleanup effort.
Kalan was impressed. Maybe Daschle had leadership skills after all.
“Here we are,” Daschle said as he led them through an unmarked door. “Airlock Four.”
Kalan smiled as he saw the Nim, but then he glanced at Bob and the smile faded. “You’re not seriously bringing that thing along, are you?”
Bob shifted the massive rifle on his shoulder, trying and failing to hide the strain it had put on him to carry it. “I killed the robot, didn’t I? This is my trophy.”
“Your trophy might not even fit on the ship,” Jilla pointed out.
“Oh, it’ll fit,” Bob insisted. “I’ll make it fit, one way or the other.
Kalan shook his head, wondering how it had come to pass that he was saddled with this strange band of misfits—and wondering why he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The feeling of unease hadn’t left even after exploring the passages and chambers of this space station for what felt like an eternity. Each step echoed and the ship’s walls gleamed as if alive, accentuated by distant machine noises that sounded almost like deep breaths.
“Stay alert,” Arlay said, as if she were leading her people here.
They turned into a room full of toppled machinery with robot parts scattered here and there. It seemed to be nothing, until one of the robots’ eyes went red and an alarm sounded.
Valerie slammed it into the nearby wall, shattering it, but it was too late. There was clattering from ahead of and behind them, and then the robots and cyborgs started appearing, metal gleaming and shots flying.
Arlay rolled to cover behind one of the toppled machines, and the others followed suit. One of the commander’s people took a few hits and collapsed to the floor in a pool of blood, but by then the group had their weapons out and were pushing back the enemy.
“Where they hell were they before?” Robin shouted, but Valerie continued firing. How the hell should she know?
When she saw an opening, she decided that letting them come to her wasn’t fair—she was going to bring the fight to them. She grabbed a slab of metal and was up and charging. Shots pinged off the metal, but within a second she was at the far door, leaping through the now-broken glass windows at its side. She landed next to a relatively small mech, one that stood only slightly taller than she was. As it spun to aim at her she ducked under it and took out its legs, slamming it into the floor before using it like a baseball bat against the others nearby.
Shots rang out, but from her side and aiming her way.
“Get the others,” Valerie shouted at them. “I’ll take these out.”
She hefted the mech down a side hallway and caught some newcomers off-guard, then darted through them, disconnecting robot limbs and anything else she could hit along the way.
She heard a loud whirring and then, just as she hit the floor, a fresh barrage of bullets tore into the wall next to where she had been standing. She rolled across the floor toward the source and was able to make out three drones, one about to shoot in her direction again.
With a push off the floor, she grabbed its wings and brought her feet up to kick at the body. The wings came free with a pop and she fell with the body to the floor, then chucked the wings at one of the other two drones, causing both to hit the far wall with a small explosion.
Shots came from the hallway and connected with the last drone, taking it down. Valerie was up again, and fired at a new wave of small robots while the rest of her group caught up. Robin led the way, with Arlay and the others close behind.
When they had cleared out this room, she spotted a group of cyborg-looking soldiers ducking through a large metal door. Using vampire speed she darted for it, but wasn’t fast enough.
As the door closed she hit it with her shoulder, but it had already clicked shut. She banged on the door twice in frustration, then noticed something.
Her friends were quietly walking up behind her, but that was it. No gunshots. Nothing.
The silence continued, and for the longest time Valerie started to wonder if the enemy had pulled back to find a way around and attack from the rear. She glanced over her shoulder, ready.
What she wasn’t ready for, though, was the crackling of the space station’s comm, followed by an announcement.
“We’ve got it!” Talrok’s voice boomed across the space station. “Everyone, Aranaught is ours!”
Valerie and the others cheered as they stepped out of their hiding places. They had done it! They had actually put this Aranaught out of commission. While Talrok and the others worked to put the finishing touches on their destruction of the virtual monster, Valerie went to the upper deck and turned on her comm to flag down Flynn.
When she did, however, he sounded hysterical.
“For the love of God, Val!” he shouted through her helmet. “I’ve been trying to get you! The Bandian, he kept going on and on, so I had to see what he was saying. He knew Talrok, he says. He says that thing you’re with is an impostor. He’s not Talrok.”
Valerie didn’t know how to respond to that. She stood there for several loud heartbeats trying to process the information, then finally said, “Are you sure? He could be lying.”
“Honestly, as much as I’d like to say that’s probably the case here, I don’t think so.”
Valerie cursed as Robin joined her, then froze. “Flynn, if they didn’t shut down the AI at all but simply took it over, what are the chances they’re hearing all of this right now?”
“Pretty damn high,” a new voice said over the channel. This wasn’t Talrok at all, but the cadence of his voice was the same. There was no doubt in Valerie’s mind that this was the pretender—the fake Talrok.
“What’s your real name?” she demanded, spinning to see if she could spot him. “Where are the hostages? How much of this was really the evil AI?”
His laughter filled the channel, and out of the corner of her eye Valerie saw the Grandeur slowly making its way around, cautious not to draw attention.
“Hostages?” fake-Talrok replied. “You silly human, there never were any hostages. The Skulla I brought up were loyalists. Friends, family, and servants to me and my companions in all this, along with your buddy Palnik.”
Dammit, she’d known that little bastard was planning something, but this was more than she could have imagined.
“We gotta go,” Robin hissed, careful to use her helmet speaker instead of the channel that might get intercepted.
Valerie nodded, facing the Grandeur again. It was approaching, but was not yet close enough.
“To fill you in,” fake-Talrok continued, “the real Talrok is dead. He has been for some time. It was only recently that I got Palnik involved in my little plan, and he’ll be greatly rewarded—not that you’ll be around to see any of this, you and—”
Shots rang out from the other side, blaring in the comm, and then Talrok swore and more firing followed.
“Garcia!” Valerie said. “He’s still down there?”
Robin glanced back at the ship, then the way they had come, and cursed. “Let’s get him.”
They ran back, readying their guns as they tore past the stairs and turned down the corridors into the control room. Garcia had his back to them and was laying down fire.
“We gotta move!” Valerie shouted when she reached him, pulling him out of the way of a shot.
“And let this traitorous bastard get away with this?” Garcia shouted. “No fucking way!”
“This isn’t going to end here!” Valerie countered.
“No, it’ll end back on the moon,” another voice said, and they all turned. Commander Arlay was there, crouched beside the entrance to the next corridor back. “Palnik’s there, and your friends. We can work together, and—”
More shots rang out, and they all took cover.
“She’s with him!” Robin protested when nobody said anything. “Please tell me you’re not considering this.”
Valerie took a breath, mind spinning, and then said, “No, he’s too damn cocky right now to try anything more. He wants us dead at this point. Commander, how many of your forces back home would join us?”
“They all thought that was Talrok,” Arlay replied. “If they believe he isn’t when I tell them, then all of them.”
“Well then,” Valerie replied, pausing to fire back, “there you go. Garcia?”
He grumbled something to himself, then gestured backward as he stood to provide covering fire. They all ran to where Arlay crouched, joining her to provide cover-fire while Garcia leapfrogged past them.
They continued like this, Talrok mocking them all the while, until Valerie shouted, “Cutting comm. Flynn, go!”
And then they all sprinted for the edge of the deck, but there was a click nearby as whirring massive-ass turrets turned and prepared to blow the Grandeur out of existence.
“I got this,” Arlay shouted as she went for the first one. Apparently she knew what she was doing, because a few seconds of meddling and she jumped free, circuitry in hand, and stomped on it before leaping over to the next one.
“Cover her!” Robin shouted, already shooting back the way they had come. Valerie watched in horror as more of the turrets readied themselves and rounds were fired, several hitting the Grandeur’s shields.
The ship could take a few of those hits, but many more and she’d be in real trouble. Arlay wasn’t moving fast enough, meaning Valerie had to do something.
She leaped for the next turret and scanned the machinery, wondering if there was any way she—a warrior from post-apocalyptic Earth without access to much machinery—would be able to figure it out. It didn’t take long for the answer, which was “Hell, no,” to hit her.
She tried grabbing the base and lifting it out of position, but no way was that happening, and as she pushed against it the turret started to rotate to take more shots. The Grandeur fired back, pelting the next turret over, and then Valerie’s turret let loose.
No way was she letting her turret be the one that took her ship down. With a shout and a burst of strength, she threw herself at the muzzles and slammed her forearms into them harder than she’d ever struck anything before. If it had been a skull it would have been obliterated, but as it was the metal simply bent.
It was enough, but it also meant the next shots couldn’t clear the barrel, and as she leaped out of the way the turret exploded.
Pieces of it came down nearby and she rolled, feeling a searing pain in her leg. When she looked, though, the armor was just dinged and pressing against her leg…another thing she would have to fix once she got out of this.
“Get out of here!” Arlay shouted, tearing at the insides of the last turret on this side of the deck. “I’ll catch up!”
The others ran for the edge again as the Grandeur made its pass and leaped toward it, floated upward and grabbing one of the arms of the space station as the ship came by. As it hovered the ramp opened, and Valerie helped push the others to safety within.
Arlay wasn’t with them, and a glance back showed her heading across the deck. Talrok’s army appeared behind her, robots and cyborgs buttressing his ranks.
If Valerie didn’t do something, the commander was doomed.
Her first move was to unsling her rifle and take aim, and two shots hit their marks. It would help, but not fast enough to get Arlay out of there.
“I’ll be a minute, gang,” Valerie said into her comm, then pushed off to get Arlay.
“What the hell are you doing?” Robin shot back, but Valerie didn’t have room for distractions, not now. She turned off her comm, thrusters sending her toward the commander.
Shots peppered the deck and air around Arlay, one of them going right past Valerie’s helmet, and then Valerie landed. She grabbed the commander and said, “You ready for this?”
“For wha— Ahhh!”
Valerie had thrust her into space, straight toward the open ramp of the Grandeur. The thrust has been made with vampire strength so Arlay was moving fast, and Valerie worried for a moment that she’d put too much energy into the throw.
She pushed off in pursuit, ignoring the gunshots behind her. To her relief, Arlay had managed to use her thrusters to slow and guide the approach, and a second later the commander was on the ship with Valerie following.
“Too close,” Garcia muttered, helping them through the hatch and getting their helmets off.
Arlay steadied herself as the ship shook. Flynn was likely taking them the hell out of there.
“It was too close,” Valerie agreed, “but totally necessary.”
Garcia raised an eyebrow, but didn’t argue.
“Flynn,” Valerie said as she strode over to him, “good flying. Now, where is he?”
With a gesture toward the Bandian he replied, “Sleeping again. We’re clearly not handing him over at this point, correct? I mean—”
“Hold on,” Arlay declared, glancing around at them and then fixing her eyes on the Bandian. “Back on the moon, Talrok didn’t blink twice at the sight of the Bandian, right? It was odd at the time, but that was my first clue something was off. Those two…they went way back. I thought maybe Talrok was mad, or just losing his mind even more than I’d thought…”
“Losing his mind?” Flynn asked.
“How else do you explain his weird behavior? Well, at the time, anyway.” She breathed out deeply. “Of course, now I realize it’s because he wasn’t the real Talrok after all. My people were never good at this sort of thing—spotting the subtleties—but that got me thinking. Why?”
“There’re a whole lot of whys going around my head right now,” Valerie admitted. “Which one are you referring to?”
“Why demand the Bandian?” Robin cut in, eyes narrowed with interest. “If he was behind this, if Talrok was the one who demanded the Bandian to begin with…then why not take him when he saw him on the moon?”
“Maybe it was a feint?” Garcia offered.
“Or this isn’t the Bandian he meant,” Valerie realized. She hit herself in the head. “Holy fuckturds, he’s not after our false Bandian at all. He wants the real one.”
“And he doesn’t know Kalan was at his table, sitting right beneath his nose.”
“Can someone sit beneath someone’s nose?” Flynn asked.
“Focus.” Valerie ran a hand through her sweat-soaked hair, staring at the display as if it would give her the answers. “Thing I don’t get with all this, though, is what good having the real Bandian, Kalan, on his side would do.”
“I might have an idea,” Arlay offered.
The others turned to her, waiting.
“The Bandians—the real ones, I mean, the legend—they were this race of powerful warriors, honorable and fighting for justice. Now they serve as a symbol, and I imagine anyone with a Bandian on their side would have no problem winning over the other colonies, the warlords on distant planets, maybe even the Lost Fleet.”
“You’ll have to explain that last one,” Valerie said.
“The Lost Fleet?” Arlay licked her lips and glanced around nervously. “It’s complicated, and maybe just a rumor. They were the allies of the Bandian people and their leaders swore to protect each other, to never let the other fall. When the last Bandian supposedly died the fleet sailed off, their leader unable to forgive himself. They had defeated the enemy, but in his eyes he had personally lost.”
“So that’s it?” Robin asked. “They just…sailed off?”
“No. He swore to fight evil in the darkest corners of the universe and flew off to lead the fleet against any enemy he could find, any group he saw as doing injustice.”
“Sounds like our kind of alien,” Robin replied, giving Valerie a smile.
Valerie nodded, then chewed her lip as she considered it all. “So that’s it, huh? The reason fake-Talrok is doing all this? He wants the fleet, and thinks he can somehow manipulate them to fight for him? Talk about hubris!”
“Can we just call him Talrok?” Flynn asked. “This ‘fake’ thing before his name will get old fast.”
Arlay frowned but said, “Fine, ‘Talrok,’ but not the real one. Why he is doing all this? Because he wants to find the fleet, and he believes the AI is the only way to do so. If he can control it and access its intel—its far-reaching network of cyborgs and whatnot—the fleet might be at his disposal, but he’d likely need a Bandian to win them over.”
“That’s what he came here for!” Arlay exclaimed, furious at herself. “He already had control of the AI, right? Or at least he had already hacked into it. That was why we didn’t meet any resistance here. He’s using them to tear down the troops on the moon—those he doesn’t see as loyal, no doubt. But here… Here he’s hoping to find the information, something like a digital map.”
“So we go back, save your people, and go on the attack.” Valerie rubbed her chin, considering the plan. “But what I’m thinking is, first we need to make sure he doesn’t get his hands on Kalan. Second, we need to get that map or whatever from him and find the Lost Fleet, then unite them with a real Bandian, and set up one of the greatest allies I imagine the Etheric Federation could have.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Garcia replied, and gulped. “If that doesn’t sound like an exciting mission, I don’t know what does.”
Tol’s Moon: Nim 47
“How is it our group keeps getting larger but our ship stays the same size?” Bob shifted on the metal deck, trying to get comfortable.
Jilla chuckled. “Come on, guy, you haven’t lived until you’ve traveled through space sitting on the deck of the spaceship.”
Kalan glanced over at her. “Oh really? I seem to remember you always taking a prime seat on the Nim back on SEDE.”
“I’ve lived a lot of life since then. You don’t even want to know the half of it.”
Kalan had to agree that he didn’t. Seeing Jilla again was amazing, and they’d easily fallen back into their old banter. Talking to her was as comfortable and fun as it had ever been, but he had to admit that they hadn’t broached any of the serious topics. She’d left SEDE a year before him, and yet she hadn’t asked about a single person still in prison—not even her own parents. Every time he tried to talk about something more serious, she cut him off with a joke or quickly changed the topic.
That was fine with Kalan. He understood her not wanting to dig into old wounds, but he had to wonder about her state of mind. She’d spent over a year as a slave, and who knew what had happened to her before that?
On the other hand, they’d just reconnected. Maybe she didn’t feel like spilling her guts to a guy she hadn’t seen in six years, or maybe she didn’t want to do it in an overly-stuffed ship with near-strangers.
“Everyone greatly appreciates your sacrifice, Bob,” Wearl said dryly. “If it makes you feel better, I can tell you about how Shimmers travel. Let’s just say there’s not a lot of legroom. Or arm room. Or room to turn your head.”
They were racing toward a spot on the moon of Tol. Daschle had given them the coordinates, and the nav computer was taking care of the rest.
Jilla looked up at the seemingly empty seat where Wearl was sitting. “So tell us, how did a Shimmer wind up locked in SEDE?”
It was an interesting question, one Kalan had never gotten a straight answer to. Every time he’d asked her about it over the last month she had tried to explain through Bob, but she’d never given an explanation more elaborate than that she’d killed someone. Maybe now that he could hear her it would be easier to communicate the tale.
After a long moment Wearl answered, “It started when my parent enrolled me in the SEDE Prison Guard Training Program against my will.”
“Parent?” Bob asked. “Your mom or your dad?”
Wearl let out a lilting burst of laughter. “Shimmers do not have two parents. I mean, in the biological sense we do, but we never meet these beings. At birth, we are appointed a single parent randomly selected from the available pool of unassigned adults. Mine was a male. He had not requested a child, and he was always a bit annoyed by me. He taught me to fight, though, I’ll give him that.”
Daschle glanced nervously at Wearl's seat, unable to hear her side of the conversation. He clearly hadn’t yet gotten used to traveling with an invisible companion, and Kalan couldn’t blame him. He’d been traveling with Wearl for over a month and he was still getting used to it, and now actually hearing her voice brought a whole new level of weirdness, though it certainly did make things more convenient.
Wearl continued, “I wanted to guard the Shimmer home city, not be assigned to some prison outpost. My parent had other ideas, though, and he didn’t even tell me he was enlisting me. I woke up one morning to find my bag packed and a sergeant there to collect me.”
“So I take it the training program didn’t go well?” Kalan asked.
“It went better than well. They said I was one of the most promising recruits they’d ever seen, and after a month they fast-tracked me into the strike-force program. We’d be specially trained to deal with putting down riots and taking out the most combative prisoners. I didn’t especially like the training. My instructor was so cruel he made my parent look cuddly by comparison. He injured many of my fellow students, and mentally broke many more. He even caused the death of a male a year older than me, but still, I did well.”
“Huh,” Bob mused. “So how’d you go from training to be an elite guard to being a prisoner?”
Wearl’s voice was thick with contempt when she spoke again. “Simple. I took them at their word.”
Even Daschle was getting drawn into the story now. “What happened?”
“They told me I had to complete one last task before graduation. To prove my loyalty, I had to kill someone.”
“Geez,” Kalan exclaimed. In all the time he’d spent hating and fearing the Shimmer guards on SEDE, he’d never given much thought to what their lives were like before they came to work at the prison or how they’d ended up in that job.
“They also said I’d be judged on difficulty. I could pick anyone I wanted outside my actual chain of command. I would face no legal consequences, and the more creative I got with my target, the better.”
“Who’d you choose?” Daschle asked.
Bob let out a whistle.
“He wasn’t technically in my chain of command,” Wearl pointed out, “and I figured if he wanted someone murdered so badly, that was the best way to oblige him. Needless to say, my superiors quickly decided to go back on the whole ‘no legal consequences’ thing, and I got to see SEDE a little sooner than planned.”
Silence hung in the air for a long moment, then Jilla spoke.
“That’s a pretty messed-up story. I haven’t known you long, Wearl, but that’s the most words I’ve ever heard you say at one time.”
“I know. It wore me out, too. I feel like I just ran five miles. Kalan, want to give me a massage?”
Kalan shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “Let’s focus on the task at hand.” He turned to the Skulla, eager to change the subject. “So, Daschle, anything we should know going into this?”
Daschle thought for a moment before answering, “First you have to understand that I wasn’t with Talrok long before this all went down, and mostly I wasn’t in the position I am today. I was brought aboard to run logistics for Outpost Echo. That was the furthest station out, and Talrok and Willom rarely made it there.”
“You said Willom and Talrok were equal partners?” Kalan asked.
Daschle nodded. “But even from my outsider's perspective I could tell things were getting tense between them. The first year of my employment they took turns visiting the outer stations, like mine, but by the third year they came to see me together. It was like they wanted to watch each other.”
“They no longer trusted one another,” Wearl offered.
“Yes, that was the feeling I got. There was a hint of tension between them on those trips. Don’t get me wrong, they were professionals. They weren’t going to argue in front of their employees, but you could still feel something wasn’t right between them. By the fourth year, Willom stopped coming at all. I never saw him again, and when I asked about him Talrok didn’t give any details. He said they’d parted ways and that he was the sole commander now. I didn’t press, and soon I began getting promoted.”
“So how’d you find out where Willom ended up?” Jilla asked.
Daschle smiled sheepishly. “I did a little digging. I wasn’t purposely trying to snoop, but one of my engineers asked me about the private plot of land that had been allotted to a citizen north of Outpost Bravo and I started looking into it. It seems Talrok had personally approved the allotment about two years after his split with Willom. With a little more research, it wasn’t difficult to figure out who was living there.”
Kalan considered that. A Grayhewn who has advanced in the business to the point where he oversees the operations of an entire moon suddenly decides to live like a hermit? Something didn’t add up. “What was Willom like? It sounds like you must have known him at least a little bit.”
“Good question,” Jilla said. “Are we going to end up with another Kalan on our hands?”
“No, Willom was far less serious than Kalan.” He quickly added, “No offense. All I mean was, Willom was always quick with a laugh. Every time he visited Outpost Echo he spent a lot of time talking to the workers, and he remembered little details about each of them—sometimes things even I didn’t know after years of working with them.”
“Yep, definitely not Kalan,” Jilla agreed. She swatted Kalan’s arm. “What do you say, big guy? You ready to meet another Grayhewn?”
Kalan nodded out the window toward the area ahead of them. “I guess I’d better be, because I think this is it.”
Nim 47 hovered over the domed structure, lowering slowly to make it clear they wanted to be seen. Even though Kalan had never met Willom, he’d had dealings over the years with people who wanted to isolate themselves from society. In his experience, those people tended to be a little bit paranoid about the intentions of visitors.
As they descended Jilla attempted to hail Willom on the communicator, but either he didn’t receive their signal or he didn’t care to answer.
Either way, it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes.
Still, Kalan wasn’t about to turn back because of a little cold shoulder. He set the Nim down outside the airlock on the south side of the dome.
“According to the records,” Daschle said, “this place requisitioned the equipment necessary to create atmosphere inside a biodome, so once we get inside we should be able to breath. He should have air, artificially enhanced gravity—the whole deal.”
The crew donned their helmets and headed out onto the surface of the moon. Bob carried the massive rifle he’d taken from the robot on Outpost Alpha.
It was a short walk to the airlock, and Kalan used the time to prepare himself mentally. He’d spent so much time searching for another Grayhewn that he’d neglected to figure out what he’d actually say when he found one. His ultimate goal was to unite his people, to bring them together so they could defend themselves against the Pallicon cult that was supposedly hunting for Grayhewns, and to help them reclaim their place as the legendary warrior race, the Bandians.
Seemed like a tough sell to a guy who’d built a dome on the moon to live in isolation.
When they reached the airlock, Bob spoke into his helmet headset. “What do we do now, knock?”
Kalan reached out and tried the handle on the door. To his surprise, it turned easily and the airlock door opened.
“Huh,” Jilla said. “Maybe he’s not against having visitors after all.”
Kalan wasn’t so sure, but he kept that to himself.
After they’d passed through the airlock their helmet sensors blinked to alert them that the air was breathable, so they took off their helmets.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Bob said. “I hate that stuffy thing.” He struggled to keep his huge rifle balanced on his shoulder while removing his helmet with one hand.
Jilla shook her head. “You know you look ridiculous, right? Give me that.”
He reluctantly handed her his rifle while he removed his helmet, then quickly took it back.
They stood there for a few moments observing their surroundings.
Wearl broke the silence. “Well, this is…homey.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Bob muttered.
From his observations and monitor readings Kalan knew the dome was about a mile across, but in here their view was obstructed by numerous piles of junk.
The place looked like a mechanical dumping ground. Piles of scrap metal and rusted pieces of machinery and discarded equipment lay in haphazard piles twenty feet high. Kalan wondered where the hell all this stuff had come from and why it was gathered here.
“I assume there’s a home somewhere in here?” Jilla asked.
“One would assume.” Kalan turned to Daschle. “Any insights?”
Daschle shook his head. “Sorry. I saw the records of what Willom requisitioned, but it’s not like he gave us a map or anything.”
Kalan sighed. “Okay, then I say we head toward the center.”
They wove between the mounds, and the farther they walked the more nervous Kalan became. Between the communications they’d sent and the open airlock there was no way Willom didn’t know he had visitors, so why wasn’t he showing himself? Or if he didn’t want visitors, why leave the airlock unlocked?
Bob eyed the scrap as they passed it. He seemed more interested the farther they went.
As annoying as Bob could often be, Kalan had learned it was a good idea to trust the human’s instincts. “You see something interesting?”
Bob hesitated before answering. When he did, he said in a low voice. “Some of these parts look familiar. I can’t be sure, but I think these things come from robots.”
Kalan raised an eyebrow. “Like the ones that attacked us at Outpost Alpha?”
It seemed impossible that these rusted old parts were of the same ilk as the shiny and pristine machines he’d fought not long ago.
“Maybe,” Bob said. “Not as advanced, though. Maybe these are from older models? I wonder if—”
Kalan held up a hand to silence the man. He thought he’d heard something from the north, like clanking and grinding.
For a moment there was nothing but then he heard it again, louder than before.
“What is that?” Daschle asked softly.
Kalan drew his Tralen-14 and held it at his side. He didn’t want to appear threatening, but he needed to be ready if things got hostile.
He looked at the team, his eyes serious. “We don’t do anything unless they attack, but if they do…”
Bob hefted his rifle. “Don’t worry. If they do, we’ll be ready.”
A moment later, a robot clambered around a pile of junk thirty feet ahead of them. The machine was bigger than the ones they’d seen at Outpost Alpha, but it was oddly mismatched, as if it had been cobbled together from parts from a dozen other mechs. One of its arms was two feet longer than the other. Its right leg was spotted with large swaths of rust, but the left leg looked almost new.
It didn’t appear to be carrying a weapon, but its longer arm ended in a suspiciously weapon-like barrel.
Kalan raised his empty hand in a wave. “Hello. We’re here to see Willom. We have a few questions, and we were hoping we could speak to him.”
By way of response the robot raised its weapon-like arm and pointed it at them.
Kalan’s eyes widened. “Get down!” He dove to his left, ducking behind a pile of metal. The others scattered just as quickly, and Jilla took up a position next to him.
A moment later rapid gunfire filled the air.
Kalan looked around frantically to see if his team was all right. Jilla, Bob, and Daschle were upright and positioned behind mounds of parts. He couldn’t see Wearl, of course, so he’d have to trust she was playing it safe.
He listened for the sound of the robot moving or firing again, but it didn’t. He risked a glance around the junk and saw the robot standing perfectly still, its weapon still raised and pointed in their general direction.
He turned to Jilla and spoke softly. “Maybe it’s programmed to maintain a certain perimeter, and as long as we stay outside that it won’t attack?”
“Maybe.” Jilla sounded skeptical. “Or maybe it’s been ordered to pin us down until its friends get here.”
Kalan grimaced. If that was the case, then Willom had purposely attacked them. He’d much rather believe this was a machine operating on preprogrammed orders.
“Wearl?” he asked softly.
Her response came from right next to his ear, making him jump.
“Damn it, tap me on the shoulder next time or something.” He took a breath, forcing himself to relax. “You think you can take him out?”
“I’ll give it a shot.”
He felt her brush past him into the clearing and watched through a gap in the junk as she advanced. He was surprised to see the robot moving his gun arm smoothly, as if tracking her movements—
“Wearl, get out of there! It can see you.”
The machine fired, confirming his words.
Kalan felt an invisible hand on his shoulder.
“That’s impossible,” she said. “It can’t see me. That’s not how this works.”
Kalan stammered. “Well, maybe it can sense your heat signature or something. How the hell should I know? Point is, he was about to shoot you.”
Wearl let out a fierce sound that reminded Kalan of an animal growling. “Can robots feel pain? Because I really want it to feel pain.”
Kalan ignored the comment. He needed to come up with a plan fast. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Jilla could be right. The robot could be pinning them down until reinforcements arrived.
“Bob,” he called. “You ready to put that big ugly thing to use?”
Bob stared at him from behind the next pile, blinking dumbly, but after a moment he said, “Oh, you mean the gun!”
“Yes,” he whispered loudly, not sure if the robot could hear them from where it stood or whether it could even comprehend language. It didn’t seem to matter at that point. They had to do something. “You and Wearl have the biggest guns, so when I say go start firing at the thing. I don’t care if you hit it or not, just hold its attention. Got it?”
Bob nodded and shifted his rifle to a ready position.
Kalan tapped Jilla on the shoulder and motioned around the pile of junk the long way. She nodded her understanding.
He caught Daschle’s eye, but the Skulla shook his head and crouched low to the ground. Kalan sighed. Not everyone could be a fighter, he supposed.
Taking a deep breath, he readied himself. “Go!”
Wearl and Bob started firing at the robot immediately, and the robot fired back.
Kalan and Jilla moved quickly and quietly around the back of the junkpile. If they could get behind the robot maybe they could find a weakness, or at least attack it from two sides.
He silently wished Valerie were there. She would probably tear the damn thing in half with her bare hands.
The booming sounds of Wearl’s Shimmer weapon and the deep rapid sound of Bob’s and the robot’s similar rifles filled the air as Jilla and Kalan moved into position.
“There,” Kalan whispered excitedly, pointing at a small gap between the armor of its head and shoulders where he saw a mess of exposed wires. Most robots were built with central processing units in their heads, because most designers replicated the design of living beings instead of putting it in the much better protected chest cavity. If they could damage the connection between the head and the body, they might be able to disable it.
He crept forward, but Jilla put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a look. He paused, then motioned for her to go ahead—this was no time for pride. While he was a better pilot and much better at hand-to-hand combat, she was a crack shot. He couldn’t match her in that regard.
She crept forward and trained her pistol on the robot’s neck, then stopped and took careful aim.
But before she could fire, the robot slumped. It was as if whatever power had been coursing through it had suddenly been switched off.
“What the hell?” Kalan muttered.
“Hey,” Bob called, “I think I got it.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but that was me.” The voice came from a little ways off, behind another pile of scrap. “I apologize for my guard’s lack of manners. I wasn’t sure who you were, and I wanted to feel you out.”
He stepped into the open, showing himself.
Kalan had been expecting to see a Grayhewn and this guy was that, but he was much more.
The Grayhewn stood a bit taller than Kalan and had a similar flat nose, but that, along with his size and the color of his skin, was where the similarity ended.
His arms and legs were as mechanical as the robot’s, and he had a small control board with green buttons implanted in the back of his metal hand. His face and body appeared to be his own except for his eyes, which glowed a pale blue.
“My name’s Willom,” he said, looking them over with his cold eyes. “I’d like to welcome you to my home. Now what the hell are you doing here?”
Flying back to the moon was an edge-of-the-seat experience for all aboard the Grandeur. While they couldn’t see the ships from this far off, taking down an enemy vessel in space required only proper tracking and aiming. Since Talrok now had the entire space station and the surviving ships, mechs, drones, and whatever else there was under his command, the shots were coming hot and heavy.
“We shook them!” Flynn called as the screen showed another missile losing lock.
“Does that take us out of their reach yet?” Robin asked. As calm as her voice sounded, she couldn’t hide the way she was gripping the armrests or how white her cheeks were.
“While they have the Aranaught we won’t ever be truly out of their reach,” Arlay interjected, “but I might have some ideas about that.”
Valerie turned to her, waiting.
“Care to hold us in suspense a while longer?” Flynn asked. “It’s not like we’re in a high-stress environment or anything.”
“I served under Talrok long before that thing took over,” Arlay continued. “Or at least I likely did, based on assumptions I’m making regarding his changing behavior. He taught me a thing or two, and if the Aranaught is jacked in, meaning spread throughout all its various pieces, I might be able to get in there and do some damage.”
“You mean hacking?” the Bandian asked, eyes wide.
“Someone up this false-Bandian’s dosage and put him back to sleep,” Valerie commanded.
“It’s all used up,” Flynn replied. “I guess we assumed we’d be done with him by now.”
“Yet you aren’t,” the Bandian replied, “and I can actually help here.”
Arlay furrowed her brow, but nodded. “It’s true. If he had an early hand in all this—”
“But there’s no way we can trust him,” Valerie interrupted. “Not a chance.”
“You don’t have to,” the Bandian replied. “If she knows anything about this, she’ll know what’s bogus and what’s not. I can walk her through enough of it to get past the security protocols, at least the first and maybe even second lines of defense.”
A glance at Arlay confirmed this.
“And why would you do that?” Robin asked. “Why help?”
He hung his head, then looked at their feet. “Those are my people too, on Tol. You might say I let power get to my head, you might say I was a ruthless, terrible leader—”
“No might about it—we’re saying it.”
“Right…” He looked up now, determined. “You can say all that, but the point remains that the Skulla and even the other races of Tol are my people. What I was doing down there—it wasn’t to allow the Aranaught in. It was to placate her, to lead her on until I could find a backdoor, then slip in without her noticing.”
“And you did?”
He nodded. “Or I would have, if I hadn’t been interrupted.”
“Not to be the twelve-year-old boy in the room,” Flynn said, “but was I the only one here who found that all incredibly dirty? As like, a metaphor, I mean.”
“What?” Robin looked at him with disgust, then laughed. “Oh, yeah, now I get it. Backdoor and all that. Gross.”
“Can we focus, children?” Arlay said sternly.
She played tough, but Valerie was pretty sure she saw a glimmer of amusement in those eyes.
“The point is,” Valerie said, “that you have a way in. It might not be the best option, but in this case it’s all we have.”
“You could say it’s a small plan,” Flynn offered, “but in this case, size doesn’t matter.”
Valerie rolled her eyes. “Know when to quit.”
“Right, sorry. Stepping back.”
She glanced at him, wondering if the action had revealed who he really was or if this was how he coped with stressful situations. With a shake of her head, she turned back to Arlay and said, “You can’t do it alone?”
“I could try,” she replied, “but…having him might be of use. While I understand the basics, I’ve never actually been inside the Aranaught. His knowledge of her inner workings could be incredibly valuable in this situation.”
“It’s settled then,” Valerie replied, with a glance at the display that told her they were coming up on the moon fast. “What do you need?”
“There’s equipment in Outpost Alpha. If we could get one of the drones to plug into, that might be enough.
“Consider it done.”
“Wonderful,” Flynn interjected, pointing at a series of red dots that just appeared on the plot, “but we’ve got incoming.”
“Glad you’ve got your head back in the game,” Valerie replied. “Take over. Evasive flying.”
“Outpost Alpha. While you two hack and do your computer magic, get your side set up, I’ll be working on getting us a drone to connect with.”
“Roger that,” he said, and selected their destination, already working on evasive maneuvers and setting up counter-shots.
The rest strapped in and braced themselves, and were soon diving through a barrage of drones and newly situated anti-aircraft coming at them. Shot after shot either nearly missed or hit the shields, and Flynn started screaming about shields going down.
“Just get us to that damn outpost!” Valerie replied, then turned with surprise as Arlay unstrapped herself and grabbed the controls, pushing Flynn aside. He was twice her size, but that didn’t stop her.
“You all fly like babies,” Arlay grumbled, maneuvering the Grandeur like an offshoot of her soul. “Did you learn to fly yesterday?”
“That’s not horribly off,” Valerie replied, watching in amazement as the Grandeur zipped and dove, tearing through enemies with a fusillade of well-placed shots. “How the hell are you doing that, magic?”
Arlay laughed. “A little trick I like to call ‘practice.’”
“Noted. Everyone here, get more practice.”
They all laughed nervously as they approached the ground and saw a platoon of unarmed mechs charging for them and soldiers moving in from behind.
“Worry about the mechs, not the rest,” Arlay said.
“You’ve got a plan?” Valerie asked.
“As long as you have some sort of system that will let me communicate with them. Can this ship broadcast?”
Valerie nodded. “She can do anything you need right now if it’ll get us out of here.”
“Broadcast me.” Arlay did a pass over the mechs, nearly taking a shower of small missiles to the wing. One actually did clip it. “Now!”
Valerie flipped on the switch and replied, “Go!”
“To all forces of Talrok, this is Commander Arlay. The real Talrok was killed and replaced by an impostor. He has taken command of the Aranaught and is turning them against me. Fight against this injustice! Fight for Talrok!”
The ground forces weren’t their immediate concern, since another mech came at them with its plasma cannon at the ready.
“Missiles?” Arlay asked.
“On it,” Valerie replied, using her controls to aim at the hunk of metal and unleash.
The barrage made contact and the mech stumbled back. It started to come at them again, but more shots hit it. The ground forces were turning on the mechs!
“Contact!” Flynn shouted. “Left wing!”
“No shit!” Valerie replied, bracing herself as the Grandeur began overcompensating and then went into a tailspin, flinging all of them about in the ship like young teens on a carnival ride.
“Brace for impact!” Garcia called out, pulling Flynn into the seat next to him—the one that Arlay had occupied before she took over.
“Ahhhhh!” Robin was shouting, looking more pissed about the situation than scared, and then there was laughter—strange, maniacal laughter.
Valerie struggled to glance around as the force of the fall held her in place, and she saw the Bandian cracking up from the back, having a grand ol’ time. That was, of course, right before he suddenly looked sick and unleashed a river of revolting green and orange across the ship.
“FU—UCCKKKK!” Valerie screamed as some of it hit her cheek, then the ground rose up to meet them and they went skidding across like a rock on the water, tearing up the ground and sending debris in all directions. With a thwack, the ship came to a stop at the base of a small hill of rocks.
Tol’s Moon: Willom’s Junkyard
Willom led them on a twisting path through the junkyard toward his home. He was silent during the journey, so they followed suit. They’d made their introductions—everyone but Wearl, who maintained her usual quiet-around-strangers approach—but they hadn’t spoken much since then.
When they’d been walking for about five minutes Bob caught Kalan’s eye and gestured wildly at the cyborg Grayhewn, then back at Kalan. Kalan had no idea what the human meant, so he ignored it.
For Kalan’s part, he spent most of the walk reeling. Here he was meeting his first Grayhewn outside his immediate family, and the guy was half-robot. Not only that, he lived in a damn junkyard on the moon. He’d been focused on the goal of finding this male for so long that he didn’t know what to do now that he’d found him. He was like the proverbial yanecat who caught the delivery shuttle.
There was so much he wanted to say. So much he wanted to ask.
But it was Willom who ended up asking the first question.
“How’s your father, Kalan?”
The question took Kalan aback. “I… I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him since I was four.”
Willom let out a surprised whistle. “Damn, then I guess I’ve seen him more recently than you have. He came to see me shortly after he got out of SEDE. I even offered him a job working for Talrok and me, but he wasn’t interested—too obsessed with uniting the Grayhewn species or some such bullshit.”
That gave Kalan pause. His father had been out of touch for a long time. Kalan had assumed he was either dead, or so disinterested in his own child that he wasn’t worth knowing. Kalan had decided that carrying on his father’s work was the closest he’d ever get to knowing the male, and yet here he was with a Grayhewn who had possibly been friends with him.
“Do you know where my father is?” he asked. He hated how hesitant his voice sounded asking the question.
Willom shrugged. “Hell if I know. Could be searching for Grayhewns in other systems, or maybe he found a few and set up a colony somewhere. Maybe he ran off with the Lost Fleet! Your guess is as good as mine. Ah, here we are.”
They rounded a pile of junk and came upon a structure that appeared to have been made from discarded scraps. It wasn’t large, but Kalan supposed Willom didn’t need it to be. He lived alone, after all.
“This is me,” Willom said, pulling open the door. He gestured for them to go inside.
Wearl’s high-pitched voice came from near the door. “Willom, can I ask you a question?”
The cyborg Grayhewn gave no indication he’d heard the voice.
Good. As much Kalan wanted to believe Willom could be trusted, it never hurt to be careful—especially when dealing with moon hermits.
The crew went inside and Willom followed, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Sorry there aren’t more places to sit,” the cyborg said. “This place wasn’t designed for company.”
The home was a large single room with a bed in one corner and a small kitchen in the other. The only area with any privacy was the toilet, which had a half-wall separating it from the bed. Kalan supposed that even when you lived alone, you didn’t want to wake up looking at the toilet.
Willom turned to Daschle. “So tell me, did Talrok send you or are you here on your own business?”
The Skulla met the Grayhewn’s gaze. “Neither.” He nodded toward Kalan. “He wanted to see you.”
“Huh,” Willom grunted. “And if someone wants to see me you just shuttle them over? That wasn’t our arrangement.”
“Of course not,” the Skulla snapped. “Outpost Alpha was attacked, and they helped us. Without them, we might have been destroyed. This is their price for helping.”
“Find another form of payment next time.” He turned to Kalan. “Why’d you want to see me?”
This was it, the moment where Kalan had to make his case. He swallowed hard, pushing down the lump in his throat, and got to it. “I’ve never met any Grayhewns other than my mother and father.”
Willom raised an eyebrow. “So you’re…what? Lonely?”
“No, it’s a bit more than that.”
A slow smile crept across Willom’s face. “Holy hell, you’re trying to carry on your father’s work, aren’t you? You want to gather the Grayhewns.”
“I want to find them, yes. To protect them. My father’s notes say there’s this Pallicon cult hunting our kind.”
Willom chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve heard that story too. Never seen them, though. In fact, I ain’t ever laid eyes on a Pallicon up here.” He glanced at Jilla. “Present company excluded.”
“Kalan.” It was Wearl whispering in his ear. “Keep him talking. I’m going to look around and make sure everything’s on the up and up.”
Kalan didn’t react to his Shimmer friend. Instead, he addressed Willom. “I get it. You’re safe up here, or at least you think you are. But what about our kin who aren’t? You think it’s a weird coincidence our kind is so rare?”
The cyborg shrugged. “I don’t know and I don’t care. I spent a lot of years trying to do the right thing, and look where it got me.” He gestured at his metal legs.
“What happened?” Bob asked. “Did you fall into an engine or something?”
Kalan shot him a look.
Bob looked offended. “What? He brought it up.”
“It’s fine.” Willom turned to Daschle. “How much do you know?”
Daschle shook his head. “Not much. I didn’t know you were…um…augmented.”
Willom barked out a hearty laugh. “Well, that’s one way of putting it. I guess your boss really is keeping you in the dark.” He paused a moment, as if trying to decide where to begin. “Talrok and I had been working up here for nearly a decade, secretly helping the Bandian push the limits of what was possible with robotics. Once he started experimenting on living creatures, turning them into cyborg monstrosities, we started to doubt we were working on the side of the good guys. It was Talrok who convinced me we need to fight him.”
“I take it the fight didn’t go smoothly,” Kalan said.
“At first it did. We had the advantage, and the Bandian had just mounted his coup against Sslake. He was spread thin, and I still believe we could have pushed him off this moon if we’d stayed on target.”
“What happened?” Kalan asked.
Willom shook his head, a hollow look in his eyes. “I still ask myself that all the time. One day Talrok and I were closer than we’d ever been to taking out the Bandian’s space station and the next thing I knew, mechs broke into Outpost Bravo, where a small team and I had set up, and they killed the team and took me captive. I’ll never understand how they even knew we were there, let alone how they got inside without tripping our alarms. The only explanation I can think of is that there was a traitor among us. Someone had given the Bandian’s forces the security codes.”
“Damn,” Bob exclaimed.
Silence hung over the room for nearly a minute, then Jilla spoke.
“That must have been shortly before I met Talrok. He was down on Tol secretly recruiting, and we bumped into each other. As far as pickup lines go, ‘I have a secret moon base where I fight evil robots’ isn’t half-bad. At least, it worked on me.”
Willom chuckled. “I wish I’d thought to try it when I had the chance. As it was, I spent the next year in the clutches of the enemy. I learned quickly that we hadn’t been fighting the Bandian at all, not really. The forces we’d been fighting were controlled by Aranaught, the burgeoning AI that had recently come online and was slowly taking control of the Bandian’s entire space station. There were dozens of us, creatures of all species, and the AI experimented on us, replacing what it saw as the inefficiencies of our biological parts with robotic replacements. Every day was some new form of hell, some fresh experiment in how we could be “upgraded” to her specifications.”
Kalan didn’t know what to say to that. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have your body slowly stripped away and replaced with machines.
“He did try to get you back, you know,” Daschle interjected. “I’ve been through the records of that time. He nearly exhausted his resources searching for you. He never found out what had happened, and once you reestablished contact you weren’t forthcoming with information.”
“What would have been the point?” Willom asked. “The damage had already been done.”
“How’d you escape Aranaught?” Kalan wondered.
“Honestly, I got lucky. As the AI became more powerful, it grew less interested in us. Most of the cyborg creations had been killed in battles against Talrok, and I was one of the remaining few. They mostly left me alone when they weren’t forcing me to fight. They actually allowed me to spend time tinkering in the lab. Aranaught had infested most of the tech by that point, myself included, but I was able to resist. That was when I made my big discovery. I found a way to temporarily shield myself from her, and once I was able to stop her from controlling my cybernetic parts I was able to escape.”
“And then you contacted us,” Daschle said.
“Yes. Talrok wanted me to rejoin the fight, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to be left alone, so I traded a basic version of my shield to Talrok in exchange for the equipment needed to build this place and create a bigger shield, one that would protect my home and everything in it from Aranaught’s influence.”
Kalan was listening to the story with rapt attention, and he nearly jumped when Wearl spoke in his ear. “Kalan, something’s not right here. You need to look out the window.”
The comment was so unexpected that Kalan wouldn’t have known how to respond even if he could have done so without alerting Willom to Wearl’s presence. He began inching slowly to the small window near the door, the only one in the home.
Willom continued, “I began gathering used robotics and mech parts, things that had been discarded by both Aranaught and Talrok in their destructive war against each other. As you saw when you arrived, I may have gotten carried away in building my collection.”
“You call that a collection?” Bob asked. “Where I’m from we’d call it a junkyard.”
“Shut up, Bob,” Kalan said. Reprimanding the human had become so routine in the past month that he almost did it automatically now.
Willom smiled. “No, it’s all right. I understand thinking it’s junk, but to me it’s more than that. It’s the clay I shape to make my art, like that detection robot you fought when you arrived. I built that myself out of scraps, and it has the capability to detect things beyond the abilities of a biological creature. It can see things we’d never see and hear things we’d never hear.”
Kalan and Jilla exchanged a glance. That explained how it had been able to see Wearl.
“Kalan,” Wearl said, her tone insistent now, “you need to look outside.”
He looked toward the window, but he still wasn’t at an angle to see much through its narrow frame. He needed to get closer without attracting attention, so he casually walked toward it.
“And that’s been my life for the past year or so,” Willom said. “I’ve lived here alone, tinkering with my robots and trading bits of tech and intel to Talrok for resources. I don’t need much food to survive these days, but Talrok has provided what I do need.”
Kalan was almost at the window now, and he saw something through the glass—something metal.
“Of course, I’ve had to make concessions here and there,” the cyborg continued. “As Aranaught grew more powerful, I’ve had to negotiate with her. I’ve had to offer her things in order to get her to leave me alone.”
Kalan squinted out the window, and he nearly gasped at what he saw. The home was surrounded by dozens of robots, all of which looked as cobbled-together as the robot they’d seen when they arrived. That didn’t mean they weren’t deadly, though.
He turned to host. “Willom, what’s going on here?”
The cyborg raised his hand, revealing the weapon he’d been holding at his side. “I’m doing what it takes to survive, same as always. Aranaught’s going to be mighty pleased when I turn you over to her, so lay down your weapons before I shoot somebody.”
It was all a daze, and her head was swirling. Luckily for her she could heal fast, so the feeling quickly vanished. Unfortunately, half the team was still in a state of confusion, and the Bandian was bleeding from the forehead. The rancid smell of vomit was everywhere, and the sound of shooting was growing closer.
She snapped to, leaping up to unstrap Arlay while Robin moved for the Bandian.
“I’ll carry him,” the woman said.
“Everyone else able to walk?” Valerie asked.
“Good here,” came a reply.
“Over here too.”
“Check,” Garcia said, moving for the door and slamming it open. “But we’ve got a major case of incoming baddies.”
“Get us inside,” Arlay said. “We need the command center if we’re going to make this work.”
“Not to worry,” Valerie stated. “Robin, get the Bandian inside with Commander Arlay. Garcia, and Flynn, go with them in case there’s trouble.”
“I’m going to get a message to Kalan, tell him where we are and that the ship’s down, then I’m going to hold off those sons of bitches until you’re safely within the outpost.”
“Val, we can’t just leave you here,” Robin protested.
“You can and you will.” Valerie threw her one of the rifles. “And that’s an order. Go.”
Robin looked like she was about to protest, then cursed and grabbed the Bandian, slung him over a shoulder, and held the rifle with her free hand.
“Make it fast,” Garcia said, “or we’re coming back for you. Nobody left behind.”
“Have I ever not been fast at something I put my mind to?” Valerie asked. “Just go. Trust me!”
Arlay limped to the door as she pulled out her dual pistols and gave Valerie a nod. Then they were gone, staggering their charge as first Garcia, then Flynn provided cover-fire.
Valerie turned back to the controls, hoping this would work.
“Kalan, if you get this, the Grandeur has been shot down and is in need of repairs. We are on Tol’s moon still, where we last saw you. I’m not sure where you are, but if you can manage to bring parts we’d be grateful. We have damage to the left wing, maybe more. I’m sending the ship’s diagnostic report. At a minimum we might need a taxi out of here. Looking forward to fighting at your side again soon. Valerie out.”
The fighting outside had moved in a different direction, so she imagined her team was well on its way to the outpost. The enemy was likely starting to lay siege to them.
But where was Palnik? “Within as well” was the only logical answer, since Valerie knew he wouldn’t willingly go into a fight.
Therefore, she needed to get in there fast. She knew Robin would be able to hold her own, but if something happened to the woman Valerie would never forgive herself.
After snatching up her rifle and securing her sword Valerie hesitated, checked to be sure her helmet was fastened and oxygen flowing, then ran for it.
There was no time for hesitation here, so she ran all-out and shot at the backs of mechs and drones as she went. Her goal was to get them off her friends so that they could get in without further interruption. Two shots hit a drone and sent it crashing down on the mechs, but now they had her in their sights. She began to feel like this plan had been very stupid.
If not for her vampire speed, she would likely have resorted to playing dead right then and seeing if that gave her a chance. Instead, she figured her best bet was to move closely between them, so that they would risk hitting each other at that range. The only logic gap there, she soon realized, was in forgetting that this was all controlled by, essentially, one AI mind. The mechs and drones moved in unison, though still not as fast as she did.
It was draining to move at such speeds, but a glance at the outpost showed she no longer needed to linger to keep the distraction active. A figure was waving its arms, signaling they were good, and then it disappeared within.
Valerie ran up one of the mechs, leaped off before a wave of corrosive gas rose to fight her off, and landed on one of the drones. It tried to flee but lost control under her weight, flying forward until it crashed into the ground, she was able to jump free and land in a roll. A moment later she was on her feet, running all-out for the entrance and dragging the drone behind her.
Shots rang out in front of her and she had to duck and use the drone for cover. Realizing it actually would protect her, she hoisted the drone onto her back and headed for the command center like the fastest turtle ever. Explosions rocked her but she kept on, hoping the drone would be intact enough to be able to wire in. The guards saw her and must’ve been hit with a confusion stick, because they stopped firing long enough for one of them to be hit, the rock that made up the gun hole flying out as debris. Valerie hoisted the nearly-blown-up drone up so that it landed behind the open wall, then dove over it herself as a dozen explosive shots tore up the ground behind her.
The gun walls returned fire again, but they wouldn’t hold for long.
“Robin!” Valerie shouted, darting past confused soldiers. She got it—a moment ago they had been fighting with the mechs and drones, but now they were against them. It did make one’s head spin.
“This way,” Robin replied, and a minute later appeared in one of the tunnels that split off from the main halls, this one carved into the dirt and rock. “They’re in the command center, but there’s trouble.”
“When is there not?” Valerie asked, already running with Robin.
They found their friends at the end of the tunnel with a large room full of machinery behind them.
“Stand down!” Arlay was shouting, crouching behind cover with her pistols aimed across the room.
“What’s the situation?” Valerie asked.
“I told them what happened, but they say they still answer to Talrok, that they won’t sit by while I attempt a ‘coup.’ Their words, not mine.”
“Is there any reason we can’t take them?”
Arlay flinched. “They’re technically still under my command. Or…I don’t know, but I’d rather keep as many alive as possible.”
“If I had my way,” Valerie noted, “I’d never take a life again, but sometimes it’s necessary.”
“Not right now.” Arlay furrowed her brow, cursed, and then said, “Give me another minute to try it my way.”
“What if I could take them without any deaths?”
Valerie shrugged. “I’ll keep them to a minimum.”
“Done. Give it a try.”
“My name is Valerie,” she said, handing her rifle to Robin and slowly rising. “I was, as you might know, sent by the leader of Tol. I can vouch for the fact that the one known as Talrok was an impersonator, that he has taken over the Aranaught and all weapons systems, and that he intends to kill us all if we get in his way. And we do mean to get in his way, which leaves you stuck in an interesting position.”
She stepped forward, glad to see none of them were shooting at her yet.
“Stay back!” one of them shouted. “Why should we believe some Earther?”
“Do or don’t, but either way you’re going to give up the command center.”
“The hell we will!” another shouted, letting a few rounds off in her direction.
No more taking it slow—they didn’t have time for that. Darting around to the back, she came up behind the one and knocked his rifle out of his hands before picking him up and throwing him over the machines so her team could take care of him.
The last two stared at her and she simply held out a hand. One handed over his rifle, but the other fainted.
“Was that so difficult?” Valerie asked.
Arlay darted over, already getting to work on the machinery. “We’ll still need that drone,” she said.
“Ah, right. I brought it… Left it in one of the gun walls.”
Arlay took a moment to process that, then turned to Garcia and Flynn. “Would you be a couple of gentlemen and retrieve that for me?”
“On it, ma’am,” Garcia said, and, after brief directions from Valerie the two ran off to find the drone.
“Meanwhile,” Valerie said, “we need to find Palnik.”
“The Skulla?” the bound soldier asked.
“You saw him?”
The soldier scrunched his nose. “To be clear, we didn’t know what was going on, who was on the right side, and—”
“Enough,” Arlay interrupted, moving over to the machinery and starting to fidget with things that made no sense to Valerie. “Where?”
“The last I heard he was going for the bunker.”
Arlay groaned. “Of course he was.”
“The…bunker?” Robin asked. “Explain, please.”
“A fallback point should the situation get bad. Apparently the coward felt it was that time. Probably took his fighters to guard him and locked himself in there until this is all over. Classic elitist move.”
“That sounds like them,” Valerie had to admit. “Any defenses down there we should know about?”
“We have a hanger of single-person fighters and probably other soldiers sent to retrieve those and join the fight, though… I suppose if Talrok was behind this he’d order them to help in the fight, if it came to it. They’re probably not out yet because of a slow response. If you get down there fast you might be able to help stop them from launching, and stop him from getting his hands on one, if that happens to be his intent.”
“And there’s the mech beta,” the soldier added.
“But that’s not operational,” Arlay replied, dismissively.
The soldier’s expression showed he felt otherwise, but nothing more was said on the matter.
“So this bunker—where is it?” Valerie asked.
“An easy find,” the commander said, looking up from the screen she was at now and flinching only slightly at the explosions and rocking walls. “Follow this tunnel behind you, take the stairs on your left down, then straight on. You can’t miss it, but you might want to hurry in case… Well, in case this place falls down around us.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Valerie replied, then turned to Robin. “Protect the commander at all costs.”
“Always the lone wolf, huh?” Robin shook her head.
“If by ‘lone wolf,’ you mean ‘leader who isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty,’ then yeah.”
“Whatever you gotta tell yourself to sleep at night. Stop making excuses, and get to it before you’re too late.”
Shouting came from down the hall and several metallic objects rolled in, unfolding into small robots with a barrel at their center. Robin kicked the first one, then the second and then took down the rest with well-placed shots. As she darted out to help the others, she yelled over her shoulder, “Go on!”
Valerie nodded to Arlay and wished her luck, then went running down the passage that would lead to Palnik.
Tol’s Moon: Willom’s Junkyard
“One positive about being half-machine is that it really increases your ability to multitask.” Willom kept his gun trained on them as he spoke, moving it back and forth between Kalan, Jilla, Bob, and Daschle. “While I’ve been having this nice conversation with you, most of my processing power has been dedicated to communicating with my robots and running scenarios for how this could play out. You’re not going to win here.”
Kalan held up a hand, trying to calm the situation. “Let’s talk this out. Nobody do anything rash.”
He said it as much for Wearl as for the rest of them. Willom was the first Grayhewn he’d encountered on his search, and he didn’t want the Shimmer to kill him before Kalan had the chance to at least try to understand what was happening.
Bob glared at Willom. “Don’t be an idiot. You’re outnumbered four to one. You might have a lot of shiny bits, but we can fight. I saw Kalan take down a robot earlier today. He’ll do the same to you.”
“Is that so?” Willom asked with a grin.
A loud whirring sound filled the air, and the wall to their left opened like a giant door, sliding up and open.
“Damn, a moving wall,” Bob muttered. “This is the Skulla temple all over again.”
After a moment the wall was completely up, exposing them to the twelve large robots on the other side of it.
“You were saying someone was outnumbered?” Willom asked.
“Kalan, say the word,” Wearl said, “and I’ll pull off his metal arms and shove them up his metal ass.”
“Everyone stay calm,” Kalan said.
Wearl sighed. “Fine. Your call, but if he makes a move he’s dead.
Kalan looked between the Grayhewn cyborg and his robot army. He still held out hope that this could end without bloodshed. Willom had been through a lot. He’d been tortured by an AI for a year, so it was no wonder he was a little messed up. If only Kalan could get through to him.
“Willom, let’s talk about this. You say you want to turn us over to Aranaught. Why? What would she want with us?”
The look on the cyborg’s face grew serious. “Sorry, did you think this was a negotiation? Because it’s not. Lay down your weapons right-fucking-now or I’ll shoot you so full of holes I’ll have to give you to Aranaught in a plastic bag.”
“Just say the word, Kalan,” Wearl said, her voice insistent.
Kalan took one more good look at Willom’s face; there was no way this guy was backing down. He’d made his decision. As much as it pained Kalan to admit it, this was going to be a fight.
“The word,” he said softly.
A booming sound filled the air as Wearl fired, hitting Willom square in the chest. The cyborg flew backwards from the force of the powerful weapon hitting him at such close range and he slammed into the metal wall behind him.
“Weapons up!” Kalan called to his team. The robots weren’t attacking, and he realized they must have been waiting for an order from their master. “Focus on Willom! Take him before he can—”
The cyborg struggled to his feet with a furious expression on his face. The flesh had been torn away over his chest where Wearl had shot him, revealing metal underneath.
Kalan had a moment to wonder how much of his biological body remained before Willom called to his robots, “Leave the Grayhewn alive, but kill the rest of them!”
Chaos erupted as the robots began firing and Kalan and his friends ducked for cover. Wearl’s rifle boomed and Willom spun, his left shoulder hit. Another boom, and Willom’s left arm was hit again.
“I’m going to take that arm off if it kills me,” Wearl hollered.
Kalan crouched behind the metal counter in the small kitchen. He couldn’t see where all his friends were, but Daschle was crouching near the bed. Bob had ducked behind the half-wall that hid the toilet.
He didn’t see Jilla. Damn it, he hoped she was alive.
The robots seemed to be using most of their firepower to pin down Kalan and his friends, and he wondered if they had some programming that made them keep the damage to their master’s home to a minimum. If the robots had stormed into the house, they could have taken out Kalan’s crew in no time.
“Bob, where’s the big gun of yours?” Kalan shouted.
“On it!” Bob peeked around the wall and fired at Willom.
The cyborg staggered backwards as the rounds slammed into his chest. Wearl’s rifle boomed again, and his left arm tore free from his body and skidded across the floor.
“Ha!” Wearl called. “Told you I could get it.”
“A Shimmer!” Willom said with a scowl. “They have a Shimmer! I need detection robots.”
Past the line of robots outside the house, Kalan could see two piles of junk beginning to rise. No, not piles of junk, he realized. They were robots covered with scrap metal.
Were all those piles robots? The thought horrified Kalan. If that were the case, they didn’t stand a chance.
As Kalan watched one of the robots raised its hand, revealing an absurdly small rifle clutched in its massive fist. It turned to the robot next to it and shoved the barrel of the rifle into a gap in the metal under its chin and fired, and the robot fell backward, smoke rising from its head.
The robot who had fired turned toward Kalan and, much to his surprise, winked at him.
He almost laughed. That wasn’t a robot at all, he realized, but Jilla. She’d shapeshifted into a robot-like form. The trick would only work once, though, since all the robots had now swiveled toward her. She quickly reverted to her natural form and sprinted into the house.
Kalan concentrated his fire on Willom. If they could find a way to take him out, maybe they could shut down the robots. Or, hell, maybe the robots would shut down automatically if their cyborg master was dead.
“Capture Kalan Grayhewn!” Willom cried. “Priority One!”
“Shit,” Kalan muttered.
At the order, the robots began marching forward. Most of their heads bumped against the ceiling and one of them reached up and grabbed it, casually tearing off a huge section of the roof.
Kalan’s mind reeled as he tried to figure out a way out of this that didn’t result in his team dying. The only thing that had been keeping them alive up to that point was the robots’ hesitation to destroy the home, but now that they’d moved beyond that little quibble, Kalan had to admit they were in serious trouble.
Willom wanted him alive. He didn’t care about the others, so maybe if he offered himself up, Willom would allow the others to—
“I’ve got him!” Willom shouted. “Everyone halt.”
Kalan turned toward the Grayhewn and was shocked to see the cyborg holding a hostage who looked exactly like Kalan and pressing a pistol to his head.
Damn it, Jilla.
She’d had the same thought Kalan had—sacrifice herself to save the team—only she’d acted faster than him.
He stayed low, hidden from Willom’s view as he considered what to do. If Willom realized the person he was holding wasn’t the real deal, Kalan had no doubt he’d shoot Jilla in the head.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” the cyborg said. “Kalan and I are going for a little ride, and we’re going to take your pretty little fighter with us. I won’t be gone more than a few hours. When I return, I’ll give you back your ship and send you on your way.”
“And we’re supposed to trust you on that?” Daschle asked.
Willom shrugged. “Trust me or don’t, it makes no difference. But what choice do you have? Option B is I kill you all right now.”
“Option A is starting to sound all right,” Bob said.
“Good.” He took a step toward the door, dragging Jilla in Kalan form with him. “It’s up to you how you want to play this. If you want to try to make a move against my robots, that’s perfectly fine with me. This whole place is wired with video cameras, so I’ll be able to watch them tearing you to shreds in high definition if you attempt to escape. Say goodbye to Kalan. You won’t be seeing him again.”
“No,” Kalan said, standing up and tossing his pistol to the floor. “If you want Kalan Grayhewn, you’ve got the wrong being.”
Willom looked back and forth between the Kalan whose shoulder he held in his metal grip and the one standing in his kitchen, and a slow realization dawned on his face. “If you think a simple Pallicon trick is going to fool me—”
“It did fool you,” Kalan pointed out, “but I’m not letting her take my place in whatever sick plot you have in mind for me.”
“She’s lying,” Jilla said in a perfect imitation of Kalan’s voice. “I’m the real Grayhewn. She’s trying to sacrifice herself.”
Willom cursed softly. “I don’t have time for everyone to be so damn selfless. Unit D-12, tell me the species of these two beings.”
A detection robot that looked identical to the one they’d fought stepped forward. It pointed a metal hand at Kalan. “Grayhewn.” It turned to Jilla. “Pallicon.”
“Nice try,” Willom said. He shoved Jilla hard and she fell forward, landing flat on her face and crying out in pain.
Kalan clenched his fists and stepped forward, but Willom glared at him.
“If you want your friends to survive this you need to play nice.”
Kalan pushed down the anger threatening to spill over inside him. As good as it would feel to punch that bastard in the face, it would only get his friends killed.
Willom gestured toward the outside of the house. “Let’s get moving, my fellow Grayhewn. We have some traveling ahead of us.”
Jilla pushed herself up off the floor and looked at Kalan, tears in her eyes. “No. Don’t do this.”
“It’s okay, Jilla,” Kalan assured her. “I’m going to find a way out of this.” He followed Willom out into the junkyard.
As they started to walk away, Willom turned back to his robots. “Don’t let anyone else leave this house. Kill anyone who tries.” Then he turned and walked briskly away. “Keep up, Kalan.”
Kalan took one last look back and gave his friends a forced smile, then followed Willom.
The cyborg looked a bit strange with one arm missing. Bits of wire and jagged metal jutted from his shoulder, but he didn’t appear to be in any pain.
They walked silently through the junkyard, the same way they’d come less than an hour ago. When they reached the airlock, Willom nodded toward the helmets sitting on the ground where Kalan’s team had left them.
“You’re going to want one of those, assuming you like breathing.”
As Kalan put on his helmet, a clear piece of material rose out of the back of Willom’s neck and encased his head to form a strange helmet. Then Willom led the way out the airlock and to the ship.
That was the first time Kalan seriously considered making a move. If he could rip off Willom’s helmet, the cyborg would be too busy suffocating to fight back.
As if sensing Kalan’s thoughts, Willom said, “Don’t even think about trying anything. I may only have one arm, but trust me when I say it will be more than enough.” Apparently he’d managed to hack into Kalan’s communicator, because his words came through Kalan’s helmet.
Kalan gritted his teeth and decided to bide his time. Once they were aboard the ship, he’d have a better opportunity to make his move.
“Ah, what a lovely ship.” Willom patted the Nim when they reached it. “One thing about being half-robot is, you develop a true appreciation of a well-crafted machine.”
They boarded the ship and Willom settled into the pilot’s seat, gesturing for Kalan to take the seat to his right.
Kalan sat, then removed his helmet. “You know how to fly one of these?”
Willom shrugged. “No, or at least the Grayhewn part of me doesn’t. Lucky for us it doesn’t need to. The machine parts of me can just ask nicely.”
At his words, the control panel lit up and the startup sequence began.
“Damn!” Kalan said. “I guess there are perks to being an ugly metal monstrosity.”
Willom chuckled. “Glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Aranaught will appreciate the chance to break you herself.”
Kalan’s eyes flicked to his captor’s metal arm. “So that’s the plan? Sell me to the AI so she can do more of her sick experiments?”
“Not exactly. She’s past experimenting on living beings. She believes we’re below her physically. Unworthy of her metal gifts, as she puts it. Now she just wants to rule us.”
“And you’re going to help her, is that it?”
“Not at all. I told you and your friends the truth—all I want is to live out my life in peace. Your life is going to buy me the chance to do that.” Willom turned to the control panel and smiled. “Ah… The startup sequence is complete, and the ship says we’re ready to depart.”
“You talk to the ship?”
He shrugged. “Not exactly, but that’s the easiest way to explain it so you can understand my meaning. Now, in case you get any big ideas about escape, here’s what we’re going to do.” He paused. “What’s this? We’re being hailed.”
He clicked a button, and a familiar voice came through the speaker.
“Kalan, if you get this, the Grandeur has been shot down and is in need of repairs. We are on the Tol’s moon still, where we last saw you. I’m not sure where you are, but if you could manage to bring parts we’d be grateful. We have damage to the left wing, maybe more. I’m sending the ship’s diagnostic report. At a minimum, we might need a taxi out of here. Looking forward to fighting at your side again soon. Valerie out.”
Willom turned to Kalan and smiled. “So you have other friends here on the moon. Maybe I’ll go take care of them when I’m done with you.”
“Ha. I’d actually like to see you try.”
Quicker than Kalan would have thought possible, Willom grabbed him by the throat. His cold fingers held on tight.
“I’m going to keep my hand around your throat for our entire flight. If I even sense you trying to fight me or interfere with the flight in any way, I’m going to squeeze. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand.” The words were bitter in Kalan’s mouth, but he needed to go along with this now if he wanted to have any chance of survival later.
“I understand too,” Wearl said, her voice thick with anger. “I understand that the minute this guy lets go of your throat I’m going to rip his damn head off.”
Kalan’s eyes widened, but he didn’t react. Inside, he was smiling.
She hated leaving the others behind, but if this guy was a threat—which if he was alive he likely was—she couldn’t have him off doing whatever he wanted. Loose ends like that had a way of destroying everything.
The stairs were easy enough to find and the passages were dark, but that didn’t bother her.
What bothered her was the sound coming from ahead. While she had expected a bunker and maybe guards at the ready, gunfire echoed from that direction. Not just normal rifles either, but large cannon.
When she burst into a well-lit room, large in a way that reminded her of the hanger back home where all the Pods had been kept, she saw the source of the shots. Some of the soldiers from outside had doubled back into here and were making a move to get to their small fighter planes. In their way, however, were several other fighters and, in their midst, one crazed Palnik. Apparently he wasn’t as timid as Valerie had guessed him to be, because here he was in what she could only assume was the beta mech.
The short Skulla sat in a cockpit, moving large handholds that controlled the mech’s movement. He fired a barrage at his opponents, then saw Valerie.
“Let me guess, it’s our time to dance?” He smiled and aimed at her. “I thought you’d never ask.”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The shots he fired were like a fifty-cal on crack and tore through the wall behind her as she dodged, one exploding on impact to send her staggering sideways. Now it was clear why he was having such a good time. She would be too if she had one of those things.
That thought gave her an idea. She would have one of those—that one. Instead of taking the risk of charging straight in, though, she ran for the soldiers on the far side, shouting for them to get back. When they had pulled away and were using the wall for cover, she told them who she was and what they were doing.
“All I need is cover fire,” she told them. “Just try not to shoot directly at the mech, since I’ll be right there and would prefer to not get shot.”
“You’re saying you don’t want us to shoot the mech?” one of the soldiers asked, unable to believe it. “Did you see that thing?”
“Shoot those around it,” she answered. “Trust me. The mech won’t be a problem for long.”
They agreed, so she turned the corner and darted out, already hearing the clicks and subsequent explosions from the mech’s weapons. Then the shooting started from behind her, and the mech took that to mean easy targets.
Taking advantage of that moment, she sprinted across the deck. The fighter jets were being riddled with holes as she passed, but at the last one, parallel to the mech, she threw herself against the wall and kicked off to land on the jet, then ran to the opposite wing and leaped up and onto the mech, slamming her sword through the glass to keep her footing. She kicked off from the mech, levering the sword at the same time, so that she was able to pry the glass right off.
“Impossible…” Palnik muttered in disbelief, but managed to reach around with one of the mech arms to grab her. She struggled, pushing against the hard metal, but it was no use.
Next thing she knew she was being lifted into the air, and suddenly thrown against the wall. She let out a yelp, hands out as if that would save her, and made contact with a crunch.
Nothing was broken, but damn that hurt.
Something hit her and she went flying. As she rolled she wondered how the hell her armor had stayed intact—or if it even had. Another shot was coming, she was sure, but lying here waiting for it wasn’t an option.
After pushing herself up with a grunt, she at least managed to throw herself behind one of the fighter planes before the next shot connected. Instead it hit the plane and slammed it against her helmet.
Biting her lip in frustration, Valerie imagined herself pulling that little bastard out of there and tearing into him with her vampire teeth. That ought to put the fear of Valerie into those sons of bitches.
Two quick breaths and she was up, feinting one way but quickly going the other. Her sword was still on the ground, glass dome from the mech still attached, and she grabbed it and hefted it up just as the next shot came. It hit the dome, sending a shower of shattered glass all around her, but then she had her sword and was pushing off a fighter plane’s wheel assembly to leap right at Palnik.
His eyes went wide and he pressed a button that made the mech fly back with thrusters, only now the beta part made sense. Apparently it hadn’t worked as he thought, because as the out-of-control mech kept going he unstrapped himself and leaped to safety.
When the mech slammed into a back wall and crumpled to the ground, Palnik was already up and running.
“You can’t run from me!” Valerie shouted, charging after him.
Rounds pounded into the wall by her head and she dived, cursing, and came up to see one of the manned fighters aiming right for her. The moment’s distraction had been enough apparently, because then a metal door slid down behind her, blocking her off from Palnik.
Valerie was pissed. This son of a bitch cost her her dinner. With a loud shout she ran for the fighter and again it started shooting, but she flung herself forward, sliding right under it, and came up on the other side. Then she was on the wing and Palnik’s Skulla guard was looking up at her with terror-filled eyes. She growled and threw him from the plane.
She stepped into the cockpit and put her into flight mode. Autopilot, right for the door, and as she picked up speed she opened fire. Shots rang off the metal, putting dents in it, and then Valerie threw herself free, rolling and shouting in pain as she tweaked her leg in an unnatural direction. Ignoring the pain, she turned to watch as the plane made contact with the metal door.
It slammed into it and burst into flames, not doing as much damage as she had hoped but denting it enough. She ran over and thrust her hands into the opening, relying on her strength to pull the door the rest of the way open.
Her leg would heal in a matter of minutes, she knew, but waiting wasn’t an option. That traitor had gotten away for now, but he wouldn’t escape her grasp again.
When she was through the gap she found herself following a trail down through tunnels that became rock and dirt, wishing she could use her enhanced sense of smell to ensure she was on the right track. It would have been hard, since down here the methane and other gasses were visible, so she had to keep her helmet on. She figured she might possibly heal from whatever effects breathing in such gasses might have…but she wasn’t certain.
Probably not worth the risk.
So she continued through the tunnels, hoping she would soon have him.
Valerie was getting pissed. Where the hell was this traitorous Skulla bastard? She had traveled these tunnels to the point that she was starting to wonder if she was lost, and either the fighting had stopped above or she was so far down she couldn’t hear it anymore.
Either way, she was starting to hate this place.
Each turn brought her back to early memories of her days as a vampire—that feeling of being helpless and hopeless. They had put her in a militaristic training camp along with the rest of the freshly made vampires, taught her to utilize her new ability to see in the dark, told her that if she didn’t fight to survive she would die. It had all been so foreign, just like moving around in armor with a helmet through methane-clouded caverns was now.
At least in this situation she didn’t have some vampire brother shouting at her, hitting her every chance he got, and killing innocents all while expecting her to do the same.
She hadn’t then, and hoped to all that was holy that she never had since.
If she could help it she wouldn’t kill Palnik either, though each minute down here made her question that a little bit more.
One more turn, and she thought she would start punching through walls until she had him or was out of this place. However, on that next turn she caught something else—a face full of flame as a grenade went off, blowing the place to shit. She dove backward and the walls and rock ceiling crumbled and retreated as the flames kept coming.
She leaped over a fissure in the ground, grabbing the other side and pulling herself up before finally turning back to see the devastation.
“Take that, you piece of gornor tail!” he shouted, though the insult was lost on her.
He was on the other side, barely visible through all the smoke and debris, but at least now she knew she was on the right track. As he took off, she figured there had to be another way to get to him. Doubling back, she took every route she could to veer his direction, and nearly whooped with excitement when she came out on a ledge and saw him running along a trail on the far wall.
Below them, however, was more of that methane river with its strange floating white bubbles.
She almost took her chances with that, but after turning to see where the two ledges went she just smiled instead. There was no way out of this now. He didn’t see her until she was almost upon him.
Relying on her agility and balance she leaped the last bit, slamming him into the wall as she landed beside him.
“What the fuck have you done?” she demanded, then slammed him into the wall again. “You’ve at least doomed your people and your entire star system. For all I know, you’ve helped start the beginning of a full-out war against the Federation!”
“Fuck you and your Federation,” he replied, a blade shooting forth as he jabbed one of his arms toward her.
She moved aside, blocking it and nearly sending him to his death in the river below. She caught him by the back of his armor right where it connected the neck and the helmet and pulled him back, then kicked him to the floor.
“It was all over the minute you decided to stage your little coup,” he growled. “Don’t point the finger at me, hypocrite.”
She glared, chest heaving within her armor, then bent to pick him up. “You’re going to spend many years thinking about what you’ve done, and then you’ll die a lonely, sorrowful death.”
“Not likely.” He smiled, pulling out a narrow cylindrical object that flashed.
Not a grenade, but where they were it threatened to be just as bad. When he started to slam it against his body to ignite the flare the only move she had was to kick it, but he lunged at that moment and her foot connected with his head instead. The force spun him around and he fell, but this time she couldn’t catch him.
He stared up at her from behind his faceplate as he fell, and he smiled as he lit the flare.
“FUCK ME!” Valerie screamed, sprinting at full vampire speed into the next corridor over.
On the one hand it was unfortunate that the opening led to a cliff, because when she fell it hurt like hell. On the other hand a burst of flames tore through the spot she had been seconds ago, so all in all it worked out okay.
Now there was the issue of getting out of here, and hoping her legs and back healed fast enough for her to not waste any more time.
Valerie’s legs weren’t hurting by the time she reached the command center, where she found Robin and Arlay celebrating. There were wires jammed into the dismantled drone, and they were watching screens and whooping.
“What’d I miss?” Valerie asked.
Robin turned to her with a smile, then wrapped her arms around her in a hug. “We did it! Well, the commander did.”
“Turned them off?”
“Better,” Arlay interjected. “The forces he sent against us? They’re now ours.”
“No shit?” Valerie stepped up to the displays so she could watch the fighting outside. “What are they fighting, then?”
“Seems our hack only got so far. He’s sending more at us, but if they get within a certain range they’re ours.”
“So we’re going to have to get past the range, huh?” Valerie asked. “Take out the space station?”
Arlay nodded. “That’s where our fighter planes come in. One-person fighters, simple enough that even an AI attack wouldn’t cause a problem.”
“If there are any left,” Valerie countered, then told them what she had seen back in the flight bay with the mech and Palnik’s soldiers.
“Damn,” Robin said, and Arlay kicked the chair over.
“We’ll have to make do with what we have there. Can you both fly?”
“I’ve never flown one of those,” Robin replied, “but I’ve seen a thing or two on the Grandeur.”
“She’s flown a couple times in practice,” Valerie explained.
“We might need all we can get, depending on who is left and what the situation is like out there.” Arlay considered, then gestured for them to stay with her as she walked out of the room.”
“Where are we going?”
“To notify all the fighters we can spare to make for the planes. It’s time to fly.” Arlay motioned to one of the nearby soldiers and conveyed the message, then turned and ran down the hall with Robin and Valerie close on her heels. “Now we’ll see how well you can really fly, Robin.”
Valerie glanced at her friend with worry, but Robin looked as determined as ever. If she was confident in herself, then Valerie could trust in her too.
Tol’s Moon: Willom’s Junkyard
Jilla pushed herself to her feet as Willom and Kalan headed for the ship. Her nose hurt from where it had hit the floor when Willom pushed her, and she was angry as hell.
“He couldn’t let me do it, could he?” she asked. “I had Willom fooled but he just couldn’t let me take his place, the stubborn bastard.”
Bob stepped to her side, his oversized rifle slung over his shoulder. “You didn’t really think he’d let you sacrifice yourself for him, did you? I haven’t known Kalan for nearly as long as you have, but even I knew that wasn’t going to happen.”
She glared at Bob. “It wasn’t about sacrificing myself. Clearly Willom specifically needs Kalan for something. Pretending to be him would have kept me alive and bought the real Kalan time to figure out what was going on. When he got wherever he was taking Kalan I would have revealed my true identity, and he would have had to come back here for the real Kalan.”
“I think I know,” Daschle said. His voice sounded weak and strained.
“Well, spit it out, then,” Bob replied.
Jilla trotted over to the bed where the Skulla was hiding. She didn’t like the sound of his voice. When she reached him, she put a surprised hand over her mouth. “Holy hell.”
“Don’t worry.” He held a hand over the wound on his stomach, and thick blood leaked out from between his fingers. “It hurts something awful, but I think it looks worse than it is. I’ve heard most survive a gut shot.”
Bob held up a finger, “Actually, when I studied—"
“Shut up, Bob,” Jilla barked.
The Skulla didn’t seem to notice. “The pain is the worst part. If I can hold on until Kalan and Willom get back I’ll be okay.”
Jilla wasn’t so sure about that logic. Besides, from the looks of him he’d be dead long before the Grayhewns returned. If they returned.
She stalked over to the robots. “Any of you bastards equipped for medical procedures? There’s so damn many of you, I’d imagine at least one of you can scan him.”
The robots stared back at her blankly.
“They’re not going to answer you,” Daschle said weakly. “Robots are good at a lot of things, but improvisation isn’t one of them.”
Jilla groaned. “Willom ordered them to not let anyone leave this house, so they’re going to stand there guarding us until he returns?”
“Exactly,” the Skulla confirmed. “How about your invisible friend? Is she still here?”
“Good question.” Jilla turned back toward the room. “Wearl, you here?”
There was no response.
“That’s a good sign, right?” Bob asked.
Jilla nodded. “Another advantage of robots being so literal. Willom told them to not let anyone else out of the house.”
“Wearl must have already been outside,” Bob observed, “so they ignored her.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Jilla put her hands on her hips and looked around. Maybe there was a way they could use the robots’ literal nature to their advantage. “Willom only told them to make sure we didn’t leave. He didn’t tell them to stop us from doing anything inside the house.”
Bob thought for a moment. “Maybe you could pretend to be Willom and tell them to stand down.”
Jilla shook her head. “Those detection robots can tell I’m a Pallicon, remember?”
The room was quiet for a minute while they thought.
Finally Jilla said, “Bob, aren’t you supposed to be a programing genius?”
Bob perked up at that. “I don’t know about genius, but, yeah, I know my way around a computer.”
“And I’ve got the mechanical skills. Willom is a freaking cyborg. There’s gotta be something in his house we can use to our advantage. Let’s look around.”
Bob nodded, then hesitated, glancing down at Daschle.
The Skulla coughed weakly. “The best way you can help me is by figuring us a way out of here. Get to it.”
Jilla and Bob tore the house apart for the next twenty minutes, piling every piece of technology they could find in the center of the big room. When all was said and done they had five optical cameras that had been mounted in the walls, three video monitors, a small computer that appeared to be used for diagnostics, and a cyborg arm. Thankfully, they did find a nice set of tools under the bed.
For a male who was half-machine, Willom didn’t have a ton of electronics laying around.
“That’s because he keeps them in giant piles in his yard,” Bob pointed out when Jilla said as much.
While Bob went digging around in the diagnostic computer, Jilla got to work dismantling the cybernetic arm. She had to admit it was a mechanical marvel. She also had to admit she had no idea what to do with it, other than maybe build another cybernetic arm.
After spending half an hour brainstorming what they could build, Jilla got so frustrated she actually tried Bob’s dumb idea of pretending to be Willom. It went about as well as she’d expected, and she almost got shot when she edged a toe past the threshold of the house.
She wandered back to the center of the room and reverted to her natural form, wondering how the hell they were ever going to get past these things.
“Huh,” Bob said as he stared at the computer screen.
“Is that a good ‘huh’ or a bad ‘huh?’” Jilla asked.
“I don’t know yet.” He leaned closer, squinting at the screen. “I’m picking up a signal from the house itself, as if there are electronics built into the walls. I wonder what the purpose of that might be? Just more shielding from the Aranaught?”
“Hell if I know.” Jilla shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. The temperature was dropping in the house. She imagined the retracted wall wasn’t helping the insulation.
She felt something in her pocket that gave her pause. It was a mechanical part. She pulled it out of her pocket and smiled as she realized what it was.
“Daschle, you hanging in there?” Bob asked, not taking his eyes off the screen.
There was no answer.
“Daschle?” Jilla called. She hurried over to him, not waiting for a reply.
The Skulla lay on his back, his open eyes staring at the ceiling. The hand that had been clutching his wound hung limp at his side.
“Son of a bitch,” Jilla whispered, blinking back tears.
Bob stepped to her side. She glanced at him and saw he’d gone pale. “This shouldn’t have happened. There was no reason he had to die.”
“There’s a reason,” Jilla said through gritted teeth. “That bastard Willom.”
“He can’t get away with this.”
“He won’t.” Jilla held up the part she’d taken from her pocket. “Recognize this?”
Bob stared at it blankly.
“It’s the kill switch from the Nim. The device meant to power down the ship if it got too far from SEDE.”
His eyes widened. “You think we can use it?”
Jilla nodded slowly. “I have an idea. If it works, we’re going to get out of here and then we’re going to pay Willom back for what he did to us, what he’s trying to do to Kalan, and most of all for what he did to Daschle.”
Kalan stared straight ahead, trying to ignore the cold metal fingers wrapped around his neck. They been flying south for twenty minutes, most of it in silence. Kalan had spent the flight considering how he might get out of this situation and hoping Wearl didn’t do something stupid that got them both killed.
He still couldn’t believe the Shimmer had managed to sneak aboard. Willom had known about her, had called her out at his house, but apparently he’d trusted his robots a bit too much. He hadn’t ordered them specifically to keep the Shimmer inside, so they hadn’t.
And now here she was, waiting for her chance to rip their boss’s head off.
Finally Kalan decided to try to strike up a conversation. “You gonna tell me where we’re going?”
The cyborg shrugged. “I don’t see why not. We’re almost there, after all. Just a few more minutes and we’ll arrive at Outpost Foxtrot.”
“Foxtrot? I thought there were only five outposts.”
Willom grinned. “There are. Five that are finished, at least. I was about halfway through construction on the sixth when I was captured, and I guess my good buddy Talrok never got around to completing it. It’ll make for a nice spot to hand you over to Aranaught.”
Aranaught. The name sent a chill through Kalan.
“Why’s she want me so badly?” he asked. “You said it’s not to turn me into a cyborg freak like you.”
“Not as far as I know. She might do that just for fun, though.”
Willom chuckled. “Since you’ve been through your father’s notes, I take it you know about our heritage? What the Grayhewn were originally called?”
Kalan nodded as best he could with the hand around his throat. “The Bandians.”
“Exactly. What do you know about the Lost Fleet?”
Kalan thought for a moment. There had been references in his father’s notes, but they’d been vague. He’d grown up hearing rumors about them, of course, but he didn’t know what was fact and what was legend. “I know that supposedly they were this great fleet of ships that left many years ago. The way I heard it they fight for justice, and they vowed to return to the Vurugu system if they were ever needed here.”
“Wait, are you saying they’re real?”
“I have no idea. The important thing is that Aranaught thinks they’re real. Remember when I said I was taken when Aranaught was still developing? She didn’t only want to use me for experiments, she wanted information. She especially liked my stories, and she forced me to tell them again and again. It seemed like the distinction between fact and legend was lost on her. She was especially fascinated with tales of the Lost Fleet and the Bandians.”
“Why those two?” Kalan asked.
“You left out one thing about the Lost Fleet—they were supposedly closely aligned with the Bandians. And Aranaught badly wants to control the Lost Fleet. She believes she could control the system with them by her side.”
Kalan was starting to get the picture. “So Aranaught thinks that if she has a Bandian she may be able to win over the Lost Fleet? That’s insane!”
Willom shrugged again. “Don’t question it. You want my advice, go with her plan. If you cooperate she might even make you a general or something. I’m sure it would look better for her to have a willing Bandian on her side than a broken one.”
Anger leaped up in Kalan’s chest, and he couldn’t keep it out of his voice when he spoke again. “So that’s your advice? Be her willing slave, all so you can keep living your life in the junkyard? How long has it been since you’ve seen another Grayhewn, and this is how you treat me?”
Willom shook his head sadly. “Boy, you’re really hung up on the whole Grayhewn thing. You think because we share the same blood I owe you anything? I’ve never seen you in my life. I don’t know you.”
“But you knew my father!” Kalan was practically shouting now.
“Kalan, relax,” Wearl said in his ear. “You have to make it to the ground alive, then I’ll take him out.”
Kalan ignored her, not even considering how far he’d fallen when Wearl was the voice of reason. “We could be something great together. I’ve seen you fight. Together we could stand up to Aranaught.”
“You’re a fool,” Willom snarled. “It’s too late. I’m outside my home. The portable shield I built into my leg can’t keep her out, not fully. She can see us and hear us. She knows we’re coming, and she’s going to meet us there.”
Kalan fumed with anger. He wouldn’t let this happen. He refused to be a pawn in an AI’s game. “If that’s how you feel, you’re not worth saving. I’d rather we both die.” He paused, turning toward the empty space behind him. “Take him out, Wearl.”
“Wearl?” Willom asked. “Who’s Wearl?”
Then his eyes widened as the realization hit him.
Wearl’s rifle sounded even louder than usual in this enclosed space. Willom rocked forward as the rifle hit him in the back, tearing off his flesh and his clothes and leaving his back a mess of exposed metal.
Somehow he managed to hold onto Kalan’s throat, and as he sat up he snarled at Kalan and began to squeeze.
Kalan clutched at the hand around his throat, trying in vain to pull the fingers away. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a low choking sound.
“Damn it all!” Wearl cursed. “What the hell is this guy made of?”
Kalan clutched at Willom’s arm.
“I can’t shoot his arm off,” Wearl said absently. “Too dangerous. If he’s holding on tightly it might rip your throat out too.”
Kalan made the choking sound again.
“Fine,” Wearl muttered. “If I can’t take him out, then I’ll take us all down.”
Wearl fired into the control panel, and immediately an alarm began to blare.
“No!” Willom yelled. He let go of Kalan’s throat and swung at the area behind them, but Wearl had moved out of the way already so his hand hit nothing but empty air.
He turned back to the control panel, his face a mask of panic. The engines were firing at full power, and they were aimed at the surface with no way to course correct or decelerate. Smoke poured from the console. They were going down, and Willom knew it.
He turned to Kalan. “Your Shimmer’s a fool. I’m going to survive the crash. Will you?”
Kalan rubbed his throat, trying to ignore the searing pain. “I sure hope so, because I really want the opportunity to kick your ass.”
He found the helmet at his feet and slipped it on just in time. A moment later, they slammed into the surface and everything went black.
When Valerie and her team had flown out of the space station to escape with their lives she certainly hadn’t thought that she’d come charging back in so soon. Yet here she was, crammed into one of those small fighter planes, tearing through space toward an array of enemy robot-flown fighters coming their way.
A storm of turret-based fire from the space station tore up more than one of the fighters along the way, but now Valerie was sweeping in close, thanking her luck that it hadn’t been her.
Even more so, she was glad that Robin hadn’t been shot down. That was as likely because of her erratic flying than anything else, though.
“Get in close and take out the last of the turrets!” Arlay shouted over the comm system. Her fighter flew ahead of Valerie’s, diverting a few of the enemy so that the fighters behind her could take them out.
“Thanks for clearing the path,” Valerie replied as she dove toward the space station, eyes peeled for any sign of the fake Talrok and his henchmen.
She passed turrets that sparked and exploded as she made contact, and then she spotted him in the central hub, watching her. His face was red from the lighting of his helmet and distorted by the faceplate, but it was him, no doubt.
She turned the fighter and aimed it right for him, checking her helmet and weapons, and opened up on him. Bullets tore into the glass, creating a nice spiderweb effect and then with a massive burst the glass gave, flying out in every direction and entering space.
Only Talrok wasn’t there anymore. Valerie cursed as she pulled the fighter up and out of harm’s way, then turned to circle the command center to look for any more signs of him.
Again he appeared, now staring at her from another window.
She repeated the action, this time careful to keep an eye on him, but before she had a chance to swing around for a second pass to start firing he was gone.
A swarm of drones flew out to meet her, peppering the hunk of metal she was flying with holes. That was fine, since she had every intention of going after Talrok on foot anyway. She hoped the plane would make it that far.
After shooting as many as she could, she angled the plane for the window where she had last seen her opponent and prepared to jump. When she got close, the plane took more shots and began to wobble. There would be no recovering from this, so it was now or never.
After hitting the release, she jumped free and aimed for the top of the command center. It was a dome supported by metallic beams and she landed on the smooth curved top, nearly sliding off as soon as she had landed.
More shots hit the roof where she was holding on. She let the space station’s weak gravity take her and jumped up to grab one of the metal beams, then swung through the now-broken window of the command center.
She landed, rifle already at her shoulder, ready for that son of a bitch.
“Where the fuck are you!” she shouted after checking the whole room. She ran to the center’s edge, where a drop off made a hole like a tube with a metal cylinder down the middle.
What the hell was this place? She stepped closer, looking all the way down, senses alert in case anything or anyone tried to sneak up on her. She was somewhat cognizant of the buzz of drones and the explosions as the other fighter planes worked to destroy them.
No time for fooling around, she thought, about to keep looking when she caught sight of him down there.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she grumbled, then took the leap, throwing herself from ledge to ledge until she was at the level where she’d seen Talrok.
As her feet hit a barrage of shots hit her, knocking her aside and denting her armor.
If there was one thing she wanted to do when all of this was done, it was get armor that couldn’t be dented. That was getting old fast.
She shouted and opened fire on the wall turrets, darting back and forth in the room so fast they couldn’t keep up. Then she was close enough to smash the first, and took out the second with a well-placed shot.
Darkness took over, but not for her. She glanced around, wondering what he was playing at.
Then to her surprise he was there, walking right toward her. As he did so, he removed his helmet so that she could see his smile.
“Ah, you humans are so cocky, aren’t you?” He shook his head, eyes narrowed. “Thinking you know what’s best for everyone, thinking you can fly up here and mold everything as you see fit.”
“One of us has to look out for the little people…er, aliens.”
“I am…trust me. When this is over, we’ll have a defense that Earth and all you pitiful Federation types won’t stand a chance against. Come at our wall of fire, see if you don’t get burned. Please, please pursue me if you live after this.”
She glanced around, eyebrow raised. “After this? From where I’m standing, I have you. I have this space station. You’ve lost.”
“Is it so simple, or did I already get what I wanted from here and am long gone?” He stepped forward to where a ray of light hit the floor from above, and in that moment he flickered out. He came back as he stepped again into the darkness. “Holograms. Don’t suppose those are big on Earth? No, from what I’ve learned of you, your people couldn’t even hold Earth together. You destroyed yourselves, and now you’re just prolonging your inevitable demise. It’s pitiful, really.”
“But…the space station,” she protested. “It’s ours. Your forces… We got into the system, and they’re ours.”
“That latter was an unfortunate setback. The station?” The hologram turned with its arms outspread and laughed. “This hunk of metal isn’t what I came for, as I assume you know, so why not use it as a lure to catch you and your friends? Why not destroy you with your own hubris, hmm?”
She took a step back. “You’re…bluffing.” Even as the words left her mouth, she knew they weren’t true. Fuck. She had to get out of there now!
“Three…” he started, “two…”
She turned and ran, leaping up the metal pole and using it to push off and grab the ledge opposite, and repeated those actions until she was at top, barely cognizant of him saying, “One” but unable to ignore the explosions that began a moment later.
All she could think about as she sprinted for the edge of the deck, leaped out into open space, and used her thrusters to get away from the explosions was that Robin was out there, possibly flying too close to the station. She might be hit. She might die.
How odd, she realized as the big one bloomed below her and the shock waves propelled her into a spiral, that she was busy worrying about her friend when she was in this predicament.
Floating off into space alone without any hope of being saved was one of her new biggest fears, but bigger than that was her friendship for Robin. Her worry for the woman.
And so it was that when the fighter plane pulled up next to her and Robin’s grin appeared in the cockpit behind her clear faceplate, Valerie breathed a sigh of relief. Not for her safety, but for her friend’s.
“Need help?” Robin asked, opening the top and pulling her in while starting to accelerate away from the exploding space station.
“There’s no room,” Valerie protested, still in a bit of a daze that this was happening but accepting it nonetheless.
“Seeing as I’m not leaving you out here, we’ll have to make do.” Robin pulled Valerie into her lap so that the two were pressed against each other tightly, and then closed the top as she got out of there.
“Fuck I’m glad to see you,” Valerie finally said as the other fighters joined them.
“You did it!” Arlay’s voice came in over the comm. “I don’t know how, but you did it, Valerie!”
Valerie stared into space, watching the distant stars as they headed back. She didn’t have the heart to tell them what had really happened, at least not right then. When they got back and regrouped, when they prepared to go after Talrok, then yes, but not right now.
Let them have their false victory. Let them think they destroyed the false Talrok…for now.
“Haven’t been this close to you in a while,” Robin finally said, and it was then that Valerie became keenly aware of the woman’s arm around her, cradling her almost like a child.
She laughed, relaxing into it. For a few minutes they just sat there like that, flying in space with the moon growing larger in front of them. “What the hell have we gotten ourselves into out here?”
“You know I never would.” Valerie tried to turn to see her friend, taking her helmet off as she did, but it was an awkward position and a second later she had to turn back. “It’s not about regrets, it’s about knowing our limits.”
“Wait, the great Valerie has limits?”
“You know what I mean. Our actions will have repercussions, right? Back on Earth, after the Great Collapse, it was easy to see black and white. To know good from bad. But here?”
“Don’t tell me you’re having doubts about which side you belong on. That false-Talrok guy is a total prick. He’s trying to raise a force to take on the Federation.”
“Hell, no.” Valerie took a moment to contemplate what she was actually saying. “I think it’s that we’re not fighting the boogeyman anymore, right? Up here, we’re the boogeyman invading their dreams. Yeah, we’re fighting for the side that’s right, exporting justice and all, but it’s different. We need to keep that in mind.”
Robin stayed silent for a moment, then said, “I’m not sure that’s how the boogeyman works.”
“Dreams. Isn’t that something else? The boogeyman—”
“Robin, I don’t care. That wasn’t the point of what I was saying. Are you even listening?”
“Yes, and I get it. God. Something happen back there?”
Valerie leaned back again to see the other surviving fighters around them, then told Robin what she’d seen.
“We’ve got a long road ahead of us,” Robin said, following it with a whistle. “Damn, just when I thought we’d be able to relax and swim in the methane lakes.”
“Shut up,” Valerie replied with a laugh.
“It’s what we’re up here for, after all—to kick butt. Might as well make it a challenge.”
“You know what?” Valerie nodded, feeling a surge of energy rush through her. “You’re right. And those planes right there, or the pilots, rather? Those are our people, even if they aren’t exactly our people. Well, they’re not humans, but they’re our people anyway. Them and anyone else out here needing us to jump into the fight with them.”
“So this was a victory in that sense,” Valerie added, more in realization than anything else. “I mean, we got Palnik, we blew up the space station. Stopped the invasion of the moon.”
“Milestones,” Robin agreed. “We made progress toward victory. The false Talrok escaping is just one phase. Us killing him is the next.”
“I’m glad to be doing it with you,” Valerie told her, then noticed something hard sticking into her thigh. “Um, since you’re not a guy…”
“Shut up, it’s the steering-stick thingy,” Robin replied with a laugh. “I’m trying to maneuver it so we can land, but your big ass is in the way.”
“My big…” Valerie elbowed her in the side. “I’ll have you know my ass is exactly as it should be, though it might have grown slightly when Michael gave me his blood. Something about that man’s blood and its effects on the body…”
“Hey, I never said I didn’t like it, just that it’s in the way.”
Valerie laughed, and the two worked to get the craft ready for landing.
Tol’s Moon: Outpost Foxtrot
When Kalan regained consciousness he had a strange sense that he was floating. He opened his eyes and saw a brilliant field of stars before him, then realized his right arm was extended above his head.
And his head… It was encased is some sort of glass dome.
“What the hell?” he asked.
A voice in his helmet answered, “Ah, so you’re back with us.”
With Willom’s voice, it all came rushing back. Jilla. Valerie’s Elites. Aranaught. And Willom. Most of all, Willom.
He wasn’t floating, he realized, but being dragged across the surface of the moon. The reduced gravity made it feel like he was gliding.
Raising his head, he looked behind them and saw the ruined hull of Nim 47 in the moon dust in the distance. How long had he been unconscious?
“Wearl,” he muttered weakly. “Where is she?”
“Ah, yes, bad news about your friend,” Willom answered, sounding anything but sad. “She didn’t make it.”
“What? No!” Kalan began to struggle, trying to pull the hand Willom was using to drag him out of the cyborg’s grasp.
“I mean, it’s impossible to say for sure, what with her being invisible and all, but I have to assume by the way she was fighting that she wasn’t strapped in. You were buckled in securely, and it's a miracle you survived. And Grayhewns are tough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to write her off completely. As soon as we get to Outpost Foxtrot, which won’t be long, I’ll turn on the defenses. She won’t be sneaking up on us again.”
Kalan squeezed his eyes shut. It couldn’t be true. After everything they’d been through together, Wearl couldn’t die in something as mundane as a crash.
“I really ought to thank her,” Willom continued. “She put us down just a short walk from our destination, and that little bump on the head made you much easier to deal with.”
Kalan struggled to twist his head. He wasn’t able to get a good look at where they were going, but he spotted an airlock not far away.
“Aranaught’s going to be here soon,” Willom said. “I can feel her. It’s like she’s inside me, humming through every fiber of my being.”
“Gross,” Kalan muttered.
“You’d think so, but it’s actually pretty empowering. It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”
“I thought you wanted to be alone.”
“I suppose I do, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t feel good. It’s a bit like a drug—unhealthy, but alluring.”
They reached the airlock, and Willom released Kalan’s hand as he began tapping on the keypad outside the door. “Don’t go anywhere.”
There wasn’t much danger of that, since Kalan was so dizzy he could barely sit up. He wanted to get to his feet and attack the cyborg—or at the very least run away—but his body wasn’t currently obeying his orders.
Willom tapped on the keypad while he spoke. “I’m setting the airlock to allow entry for two beings. If your invisible friend tries to enter, I’ll know. She won’t sneak up on me again.”
Wearl’s voice was so welcome in his helmet that it was all Kalan could do not to whoop in joy at the sound of it.
“He’s right,” the Shimmer said. Her voice sounded strange. Raspy. “I’m hurt. I could barely keep up with you. He’ll know if I try to get into the Outpost. I’d only get one shot off if I attacked him, and it’ll take more than that. It’s up to you now. Here.”
Something slipped into Kalan’s hand, and it took him a moment to figure out what it was. When he did, a smile crossed his face.
It was Wearl’s invisible rifle.
He clutched it with one hand, trying to grasp it loosely so Willom wouldn’t notice he was holding something if he looked back.
“All right, in we go,” Willom said. He grabbed Kalan’s empty hand and dragged him through the airlock.
As soon as the two of them had passed the threshold, the green lock above the door turned red.
“Two, and only two,” Willom said with a smile, then he pulled the airlock shut. “Can you stand?”
“Won’t know unless I try.” Kalan pulled off his helmet and breathed deeply of the stale air of the unused outpost. He resisted the urge to use the rifle to push himself up, using the wall to balance instead.
When he’d gotten to his feet, he took a tentative step away from the wall. When he didn’t topple over, he took another.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
Willom closed his eyes. “We wait. I don’t think it will be long. I can feel her inside me. I can’t resist her control, and I’m not sure I want to.”
“So you’re both in there right now?” Kalan asked. “You and the AI?”
Willom nodded. “We always are, but now especially.”
“Good,” Kalan said. He raised the rifle and put it against Willom’s temple. “Then I get to shoot both of you.”
He pulled the trigger and Willom fell.
Jilla clutched the wheel of the ugly buggy-like vehicle they were riding in.
“Can’t you go any faster?” Bob asked.
Jilla shot him a look. “Have you ever noticed how people are always telling you to shut up?”
“Uh, yeah. Why do you ask?”
“There’s a reason for that. It’s the way you always pick the exact wrong moment to open your mouth.”
“Hey, without this mouth we’d still be sitting in Willom’s house.”
“Not true,” Jilla pointed out. “Your brain and fingers got us out of the house, using my brilliant idea. Your mouth had nothing to do with it.”
In truth, it had been a team effort. Bob had figured out that Willom’s house had an electromagnetic signature built into the walls, and it had been Jilla who’d speculated that this electromagnetic perimeter might in fact be the very thing the robots interpreted as “house”. Then they’d worked together, using the diagnostic computer and the kill-switch device from the Nim to shut down all the power running through the house.
They’d had no way to know if it would work, but they’d had nothing to lose. Sure enough, as soon as Bob was done with his programming wizardry and Jilla had activated the kill switch the robots had suddenly lost interest in their captives. After a few minutes, they’d simply wandered off and resumed doing more routine tasks.
Their orders had been to keep the visitors from leaving the house. Once the house ceased to exist to them, they’d moved on to something else.
Jilla and Bob had found Willom’s vehicle, donned their helmets, and hauled ass to save their friends.
Their helmets were equipped to locate Nim 47, so they had no trouble tracking Willom and Kalan. They only had trouble with the speed.
It turned out a cobbled-together dune buggy was a bit slower than a fighter spacecraft.
“What are we going to do when we find them?” Bob asked.
Jilla shot him another look. “What do you think we’re going to do? We’re going to kill the hell out of Willom.”
“I know. I’m just saying he didn’t seem like the most, um, killable of individuals.”
Jilla shrugged. “Wearl shot his arm off, didn’t she? He can be hurt. It just takes a little elbow grease and a lot of persistence.”
They rode in silence for a few more minutes, then Bob spoke again. “At the risk of getting told to shut up again, I’m going to ask a question. Did you notice that the Nim has stopped moving?”
“I noticed,” Jilla replied. She hadn’t wanted to mention it for fear of what it might imply.
On the plus side, it was a hell of a lot easier to catch up to a stopped ship than to one that was speeding away from them.
On the minus side, that likely meant Willom, Kalan, and Wearl had reached their destination, which meant they might be too late to stop whatever Willom had planned for Kalan.
There was no use wondering about it now. They’d find out soon enough; the stopping point wasn’t far.
They’d nearly reached the Nim when they saw it in the distance.
“Am I crazy, or does our ship appear to be a little crashed?” Bob asked.
“You’re not crazy,” Jilla muttered, “and I think we can make a solid guess as to their final destination.”
The structure ahead of them looked like an unfinished version of Outpost Alpha. It was the only structure they could see in any direction.
“Should we at least check the Nim to make sure their mangled bodies aren’t inside?” Bob asked. He quickly held up a hand. “Don’t bother, I’ll shut up.”
“No, that’s actually a good idea,” Jilla said. “Not the way I would have phrased it, but a good idea.”
She turned the buggy toward the wreckage. They’d just started that direction when a voice buzzed in their helmets.
“Get over here, you guys. I could really use a ride.”
“Wearl!” Jilla answered. “What the hell happened?”
“I sort of crashed our ship, but we can talk about that later. I promised to rip that cyborg’s head off, and I intend to keep my word. Give me a ride?”
“That I can do,” Jilla said, and she headed over to pick up her friend.
Kalan hadn’t expected that one shot to kill the cyborg, and he wasn’t disappointed.
Willom rolled to his side and Kalan caught a glimpse of his face. Most of the skin was gone, revealing metal underneath.
“Damn,” Kalan muttered. “Is there any Grayhewn left in there?” He took aim and fired without waiting for a reply. The shot went wide, even though Willom was only fifteen feet away.
The cyborg struggled to his feet.
Kalan fired again, and again the shot missed.
“That must be the Shimmer weapon,” Willom observed. His voice sounded less real now, more robotic. “It’s not so easy to fire an invisible weapon, is it? You can’t see where the barrel’s pointing—have to do it all by feel.”
Kalan fired once again, and this time the round found its target. It hit Willom in the chest, knocking him back. The weapon was not nearly as effective at that range as it had been point-blank; Willom staggered backward but managed to stay on his feet.
Kalan realized he was going to have to do this up close, so he hurried forward, his weapon at the ready. He knew very little about this rifle, he suddenly realized, including how many rounds it held, so he had to make every shot count. No more wasting them.
Willom looked around frantically for his weapon, but didn’t see it. It must have been knocked loose when he’d skidded fifteen feet after being shot in the face. Weaponless, he turned to Kalan and snarled, then crouched and leaped.
The speed and power of the jump was staggering, and he quickly closed the distance between them with his hand outstretched.
Kalan waited until the cyborg had almost reached him to fire his rifle. Willom stopped like he’d hit a brick wall and let out a howl of anger as he landed on the floor at Kalan’s feet.
The cyborg looked up at him, and Kalan felt a surge of satisfaction when he saw that Willom’s robotic left eye had been destroyed.
Willom grabbed for Kalan’s ankles, but Kalan deftly stepped out of his reach and fired again at his head. He’d been aiming for that same left eye, hoping the round wound be able to penetrate the hole and do some real damage to the machinery inside, but instead he hit a bit higher. He was gratified to see that the round left a nice dent in Willom’s forehead.
Willom moved slower now as he turned his head to look up at Kalan, and when he spoke the voice was not his own. It was a robotic-sounding voice, but it was also distinctly female.
“Hello, Grayhewn,” the voice said. “Or should I say, ‘hello, Bandian.’”
Hearing the words spoken in that cold robotic tone sent a chill through Kalan.
“Hello, Aranaught,” Kalan replied.
“I must admit, I miscalculated the identity of your species. I had Willom in my space station for a year while I was searching the system for evidence of the true identity of the Bandians, then earlier today I had you eating at my table and I still didn’t know the thing I required was so close at hand.”
“Your table?” Kalan asked, his mind spinning. There was only one table he’d eaten at since coming to this moon. “Talrok?”
“Yes,” Aranaught said through Willom’s mouth. “Talrok is mine, as were so many here.”
“So how’d you figure it out?” Kalan asked. “That the Grayhewn were the Bandians?”
“Simple reasoning. Willom has avoided me at all costs since he left my space station. He even built a home here with the sole purpose of shielding himself from me. I could have pushed past the shield and taken him at any time, of course, but what would have been the point? So when he contacted me today and offered to trade you, a fellow Grayhewn to me, I was perplexed.”
Kalan fingered the trigger of his invisible weapon. He wanted nothing more than to fire again and finish this, but at the same time, when would he have another chance to speak to the AI who wanted to capture him and his people? If he could keep her talking, maybe he could gain valuable intel. “Really? A fancy AI like you perplexed?”
“It doesn’t happen often, Bandian. Willom demanded a very high price for you. He wouldn’t say why you were so valuable, only insisted he would explain when we met in person here. Based on his hesitation to reveal the information and the high price he demanded, I was able to ascertain the truth. Then I heard him talking on your Nim-class ship and I knew for certain.”
“Aren’t you the smart one?” Kalan asked. “So what happens now? Are an army of robots about to descend on this place to take me captive?”
“As pleasant as that would be, I’m afraid not. Your ally defeated my forces.”
A smile crept across Kalan’s face. “Valerie.”
“Yes. She proved quite…formidable.”
“Yeah, she does that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Aranaught insisted. “I have what I need, if not everything I want. I am withdrawing from this moon. Soon I won’t even be able to control Willom, but don’t think that means you’re safe, Bandian. I’m coming for you, you and all your people.”
Kalan aimed at Willom’s head and prepared to fire. “We’ll be ready. Valerie’s Elites defeated you once. We can do it again.”
“Perhaps, but my calculations say that will not be the case.”
Suddenly Willom gasped. When he spoke again, his voice was again that of a male cyborg Grayhewn. “She’s gone. What have you done, Kalan? She’s gone! I can’t feel her anymore.”
Kalan hesitated. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“No! I know I told you that, but the truth is more complicated. I didn’t escape her space station; she kicked me out! She’d decided I was a pointless experiment, one that wasn’t worth finishing. I’ve managed to stay alive since then with the help of a diagnostic computer I stole from her, but I know I can’t stay alive forever with just that.”
Kalan’s eyes widened. “That was your price for selling me to her—you wanted her to upgrade you.”
“I wanted her to finish what she’d started. To make it so I could survive on my own without that damn computer analyzing me every couple hours and patching the bugs. And now that will never happen.”
He started to push himself shakily to his feet.
“Don’t get up, Willom,” Kalan ordered. “I may be able to find you help, but you have to cooperate.”
“It’s too late for that!” Willom screamed.
He lunged, but Kalan was ready. He fired point-blank.
This time he hit the broken eye socket and the round went all the way into Willom’s head.
When he went down the light went out of his remaining eye, and he did not get up again.
Kalan took one last look at Willom’s body. The first Grayhewn he’d found on this journey, and he’d turned out to be a crazed and traitorous cyborg.
Still, Kalan felt a little sorry for Willom. Maybe he’d been a good guy once, before Aranaught’s experiments had broken him.
Kalan forced himself to turn away, since he still had other problems to overcome. He was trapped in an unfinished outpost in a remote region of a moon. Who knew if this place even had food stocked away?
Then he remembered something else: Wearl! She was still outside the airlock, injured and alone.
He ran to the airlock and scooped up his helmet. As he put it over his head, he heard a familiar voice.
“If you are there, would you please let us in? We’d really like to save your ass, but we’re trapped outside the airlock.”
Kalan smiled. “Jilla?”
The Pallicon laughed at the sound of his voice. “Kalan! You’re alive.”
“I am! Do you know if Wearl is alright?”
“She’s with us. Hurt, but she’ll make it. Now, will you open the damn door?”
“I’m coming.” Kalan took one last look back at Willom’s body, then he opened the airlock and greeted his friends.
It wasn’t until the second day of planning with Commander Arlay that Kalan contacted them to say he was inbound with the parts they needed.
“We’ll have the Grandeur up before you know it,” he finished, then signed off.
"Did he say where he was coming from?" Robin asked.
Valerie shook her head and returned to the planning table. They had just settled back in when one of the locals came running over, shouting about something incoming on the ground.
"On the ground?" Arlay asked, face scrunched in confusion. "Who or what is it?"
"You might want to have a look for yourself," the soldier said, then led the way.
At the windows, Arlay took the tactical viewers from the soldier and had a look while Valerie squinted at her side.
"Prepare to fire," Arlay commanded.
"Wait!" Valerie strained her vampire sight, then let out a whoop of joy. "Don’t shoot! That's my friend."
"Kalan?" Robin asked, trying to see at her side.
Valerie nodded, looking again and then taking the tactical viewers to see if they helped any. It wasn't by much, but they made the image slightly clearer. There was Kalan in the seat of a sort of dune buggy, flying over a ridge with a metal trailer hitched to the back.
"That daredevil better slow down," she said. "If our parts are in there, he's as likely to lose them as break them with all that clattering about."
Arlay wore a doubtful look on her face. "We're screwed."
"No, ma'am." Valerie stood tall, thinking about her friend, about how he was coming through for her now as he had in the past. "If he's here, it’s going to be all right."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Remember how your friend there was so interested in finding the real Bandian?"
Valerie beamed, then gestured to the rising dust clouds and swirling methane in the air.
"You're kidding," Arlay said, dumbstruck.
"He's on our side, and he's the real deal." Valerie watched the vehicle approach, watched it slide along the ground and come to a stop where the guards had gone out to meet it. "Take that away from him, and he's still a great warrior. Still a friend we're glad to have on our side."
Just then the guards raised their rifles to aim at the dune buggy and Valerie yelped, "Commander?"
Arlay jumped to her comm system and hit a button, sending a message across the base. "Let them through, they're on our side."
As the soldiers backed off Valerie relaxed, then turned to Robin. "Let's go see what parts he's brought with him so we can get our bird in the air."
They made their way down and waited inside for him to enter and take off his helmet, then Valerie stepped forward with a wide grin. "What the hell took you so long?"
"Me?" He scoffed. "I was out there hoping you two would come to my rescue. Imagine my surprise when I had to save my own ass."
"With a bit of help from us," Bob said, strolling in behind him.
“And then we had to find your parts in the junkyard. That took a whole day.”
“There’s a junkyard?” Valerie clasped hands with both males and Jilla, then nodded toward where she assumed Wearl to be based on a floating layer of sand and dust.
"We have a lot of catching up to do," Kalan said, glancing around, “but first let's put Bob to work on that ship of yours.
"You have the parts?" Arlay said, stepping forward to greet them. "I'll send some of my soldiers to help out with this ‘Bob.’ Short for ‘Robotic,’ I presume?"
"What, Bob?" Kalan laughed. "Sometimes I wonder, but no."
Valerie had a good chuckle at that, and soon they had all cleaned up and made their way into the inner halls. The commander set them up in a spot where small streams of escaping gas had been lit to create a calming fire, and they gathered around it. Kalan and Valerie took turns updating the others on their adventures.
“So you managed to destroy your ship?” Valerie asked.
Kalan nodded. "We seem to get hit by it all, don't we?"
"Definitely seen our fair share of troubles out here," Valerie agreed. "It's like the universe wants to ensure we never get bored."
"Could be that," Robin added, "or it could be that you're constantly avoiding the dry ground. Don't be surprised when you're wading through puddles to find yourself covered in shit."
Everyone looked at her with shock. As Robin's lip curled Valerie burst out laughing and Robin joined in, then the others.
"We really have found ourselves in a lake of it, haven't we?" Valerie agreed. "If you all hadn't shown up, Kalan… Man, I would've hated to have to tell our superiors that we lost the Grandeur."
"So what's next, then?" Kalan asked.
"We're going after them," Valerie replied, nodding to Arlay, who had just joined them and looked positively giddy.
"As a matter of fact, we've decoded the map," Arlay replied, stepping up next to Valerie. With a flash of an object on her wrist, she projected an image onto the ceiling. It wasn't clear because of the light from the fire, but… "There," she said, pointing out an image of a small star system in the opposite direction of where Valerie understood the Etheric Federation to be. "That's our destination. That's where the enemy is headed, and that's where we'll find the Lost Fleet."
The others stared up at it in awe. The journey would be anything but easy and was certain to take time and courage, yet Valerie could tell as she looked around the room that not a single one of them would balk at the mission.
Author Notes - Justin Sloan
Written Written December 21, 2017
Valerie's Elites is going strong, thanks to you all! We greatly appreciate all of the kind words we've received via messages, Facebook posts, and reviews on Amazon.com. Please keep them coming!
What we've been especially glad about is the warm reception toward Kalan and his buddies. It's a whole new storyline of new characters, so was a bit of a risk -- but you all told us you love it, so yay! Thanks to PT for being the driving force behind that awesomeness.
As you can see, we're taking Valerie into exciting places she hadn't gone before. She's definitely gone outside of her comfort bubble. I think one area I'd like to get into more is looking at Garcia, Flynn, and Robin in coming books. We need to get to know them more, for those readers who didn't read the Reclaiming Honor books. If you are in the group that hasn't, you might want to consider doing so. The introduction to Robin was one of the most fun parts of a story I've had. She's got character and is a badass. And if you're enjoying Valerie, good to get more of her backstory, right? I like to think of it like you're starting off on a fun science fiction adventure, like Jack Reacher in space, but you get to go back and read all those earlier stories too. Kind of fun, right? I hope so!
For those of you reading these as they come out, there might be a slight delay in book 3, because daycare is apparently closed for two and a half weeks, and I'm going to be the one with the kids all day. That means... writing is at a minimum. But don't worry, the rest of the Age of Expansion authors have plenty of books coming! And we promise not to take TOO long.
Other than that, I've been having fun with my new Facebook readers group--care to join? It's called The Sloan Zone, and readers can join us and have fun chatting about whatever in there. I try to pop in and join in conversations, post cool things that relate in the news, and have a good time interacting with you all. I recently did a poll in there to see what readers want, because I have several books and series planned but wanted to see which ones excite you all the most.
So far, hackers in space with genetic engineering stuff has won, with dragons in space playing a close second. By the way, Shadow Corps is dragons in space, so it's a good sign that people voted for that, because it shows they liked those. Awesome. I also have covers already for both of those, so stay tuned! In the meantime, join us over there and cast your vote! I also have a freebie pinned to the page. Yay.
As for this book, once again thank you to Michael for bringing us into this world, Craig for managing the Age of Expansion, Lynne for editing, PT for writing with me, and for all of you amazing beta and JIT readers. You are amazing, and we couldn't have done it all without you!
Author Notes - PT Hylton
Written December 21st, 2017
Thank you for reading Death Defied. This was a fun book to write, and it sets the stage for all the cool, ambitious, funny, exciting things we have planned for books three and four.
One of my favorite parts of writing this story was thinking about artificial intelligence and what advanced technology like that could mean for everyday people. As you saw in Willom’s case, it can go to pretty bad places. But technology can lead to some awesome things too, like me being able to type these words on my computer and you being able to read them on an e-reader.
This week, my family and I are vacationing in Florida. I spent the morning on an isolated Key, snorkeling and searching for sand dollars with my daughter. It’s been a great way to recharge, and it’s inspired a few ideas for my Storms of Magic series (don’t worry, Michael, I’m working on getting those covers updated).
Part of the fun of writing Valerie’s Elites is that Valerie and her team hit that intersection between technology and human emotion. On the one hand, Valerie’s flying around on a spaceship. On the other, she’s all about old-fashioned justice.
Justin and I were thrilled at your positive response to book one, and I hope you liked this installment even more.
Thanks once again to Justin, Michael, Craig, Lynne, Steve, the JIT readers, and the whole team at LMBPN Publishing. It’s an absolute pleasure working with y’all. (I’m from Tennessee; we say y’all.)
So what’s coming up for me in 2018?
The second book in my Vampire World series is almost finished and will be hitting virtual shelves at the beginning of February. The first book, The Savage Earth, was very well received, and I’ve kept the readers waiting too long for the sequel.
I’ll be returning to the Storms of Magic series with a new story arch that I’m very excited about. I can’t say much yet, but let’s just say it’s going to be an exciting new direction for Abbey and her friends.
And, of course, we have a lot more Valerie’s Elites for you.
I can’t wait, and I hope you join us on this ride. The best is yet to come.
From sunny Florida,
Author Notes - Michael Anderle
Written December 26, 2017
First, THANK YOU for not only reading through the story, but also reading through these author notes at the end to read mine as well.
One year ago, in December of 2016, Justin and I released our first Valerie book, Justice Is Calling (Reclaiming Honor Book 01). In it, we wanted to tell the tale of a female Vampire (not usually an easy thing to accomplish in The Kurtherian Gambit Universe) and place her in the post WWDE (World’s Worst Day Ever) timeframe.
Then, Justin asked one day, “What do you think about Valerie meeting Michael?”
I thought that would be a cool twist as my Michael character was going to be coming back from the dead (so to speak) and I could see Valerie and Michael crossing paths as Michael went from the old United States to Europe as Valerie was moving from the old area of France over to the old United States.
Then, Michael would tweak her and allow her to be able to ‘go into the sun.’
It would be her version of being born again, back into Humanity.
Now, with this series Valerie is taking her friends and finding a new life out in the stars and I couldn’t be happier that you are taking the trip(s) with her (and us) as she finds her way, kicking ass and dispensing that human concept called Justice.
One fist at a time.
Justin and PT are amazing writers and we are blessed to have them both collaborating with us here in The Kurtherian Gambit. I hope you enjoy the Age of Expansion.
Perhaps the question isn’t why aren’t we in the stars yet, but if we go back far enough in history do we find humanity tried to go to the stars, but we got shut down?
(Yes, that is a new thought…It’s the curse we authors have with EVERYTHING. I can’t see a normal person purchasing a loaf of bread without wondering if there is a nefarious reason they are purchasing bread.)
Great, now I have a new modification to human history I need to go write into the stories.
So, I just dropped Capture Death, the 20th book in The Kurtherian Gambit series focusing on Bethany Anne. It was a success, and is still a success and will probably do very well for me over the next twelve months.
But… (you knew there was a but coming, right?)
That leaves only one book left in the first series ( of 21), the seventh in the third Arc before we either start a new series with Bethany Anne, or call it #22 and continue on with The Kurtherian Gambit.
I don’t know WHAT to do about that and frankly, I’m a little concerned I’ll choose wrong.
The challenge, as I’ve mentioned before, is that selling “book 22” is a LOT more difficult (at some level) than selling a “book 1.” Last time, I went ahead and made the first book of the second arc book 8 and I’ve been very happy with that decision.
I think I might go with book 1 for the next series with Bethany Anne and Michael not because of anything other than thinking to myself, “God, I’m writing book 24!” vs. “Wow, I’m only on book 3!”
Personally, the second feels more refreshing. I probably need a new framing of the statement in some way, otherwise book 1 is going to win.
It looks like Jacob, the older of the twins, might (just might) write some stuff. He has written some fan-fiction (for RWBY) and Chrishaun-Keller Hanna has invited him into Shaman States of America later in 2018 if he chooses to do so.
If he does, then he will follow Joshua who wrote fan-fiction first, and then branched out to his own stuff. Although Joshua wrote his own book, and Jacob might write into an existing Universe.
I’m wrapping up these author notes as the sun goes down over the horizon so that I can work on the story beats for the next book.
Keep your powder dry.
Other Books by Justin Sloan
RECLAIMING HONOR (Vampires and Werewolves - Kurtherian Gambit Universe)
Shadow Corps (Space Opera Fantasy - Seppukarian Universe)
War Wolves (Space Opera Fantasy - Seppukarian Universe)
Syndicate Wars (Space Marines and Time Travel - Seppukarian Universe)
The Hidden Magic Chronicles (Epic Fantasy - Kurtherian Gambit Universe)
FALLS OF REDEMPTION (Epic Fantasy Series)
MODERN NECROMANCY (Supernatural Thriller)
CURSED NIGHT (Supernatural Thriller with Werewolves and Vampires)
Hounds of Blood (2018)
ALLIE STROM (MG Urban Fantasy Trilogy)
Other Books by PT Hylton
STORMS OF MAGIC (Age of Magic - Kurtherian Gambit Universe)
The Deadlock Trilogy (Supernatural Suspense)
A Place Without Shadows
The Broken Clock
Zane Halloway: Assassin for Hire (Sword and Sorcery Fantasy)
The Savage Earth (Dystopian Vampires)
The Deadlock Trilogy (Supernatural Suspense)
A Place Without Shadows
The Broken Clock
Books by Michael Anderle
For a complete list of Kurtherian Gambit Universe
books please click this link.
Kurtherian Gambit Series Titles Include:
Death Becomes Her (01) - Queen Bitch (02) - Love Lost (03) - Bite This (04)
Never Forsaken (05) - Under My Heel (06) - Kneel Or Die (07)
We Will Build (08) - It’s Hell To Choose (09) - Release The Dogs of War (10)
Sued For Peace (11) - We Have Contact (12) - My Ride is a Bitch (13)
Don’t Cross This Line (14)
Third Arc (2017)
Never Submit (15) - Never Surrender (16) - Forever Defend (17)
Might Makes Right (18) - Ahead Full (19) - Capture Death (20)
Life Goes On (21)
The Second Dark Ages
The Darkest Night (02)
Darkest Before The Dawn (03)
*with Ell Leigh Clarke*
The Boris Chronicles
* With Paul C. Middleton *
* With JUSTIN SLOAN *
Claimed By Honor (02)
Judgement Has Fallen (03)
Angel of Reckoning (04)
Born Into Flames (05)
Defending The Lost (06)
Saved By Valor (07)
Return of Victory (08)
The Etheric Academy
* With TS PAUL *
ALPHA CLASS - Engineering (02)
Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles
* With CRAIG MARTELLE *
Nomad Redeemed (02)
Nomad Unleashed (03)
Nomad Supreme (04)
Nomad’s Fury (05)
Nomad’s Justice (06)
Nomad Avenged (07)
Nomad Mortis (08)
Nomad’s Force (09)
Nomad’s Galaxy (10)
Trials and Tribulations
* With Natalie Grey *
Damned to Hell (02)
The Age of Magic
The Rise of Magic
* With CM Raymond / LE Barbant *
Unlawful Passage (05)
Darkness Rises (06)
The Gods Beneath (07)
The Hidden Magic Chronicles
* With Justin Sloan *
Shades of Dark (02)
Shades of Glory (03)
Shades of Justice (04)
Storms of Magic
*With PT Hylton*
Storm Callers (02)
Storm Breakers (03)
Storm Warrior (04)
Tales of the Feisty Druid
*With Candy Crum*
The Undying Illusionist (02)
The Frozen Wasteland (03)
The Deceiver (04)
The Lost (05)
The Damned (06)
Path of Heroes
*With Brandon Barr*
A New Dawn
*With Amy Hopkins*
Dawn of Darkness (02)
Dawn of Deliverance (03)
Dawn of Days (04)
The Age of Expansion
The Ascension Myth
* With Ell Leigh Clarke *
Rogue Operator (07.5)
Confessions of a Space Anthropologist
* With Ell Leigh Clarke *
The Uprise Saga
* With Amy DuBoff *
Endless Advance (02)
Veiled Designs (03)
* With Craig Martelle*
The Ghost Squadron
* With Sarah Noffke and J.N. Chaney*
* With Justin Sloan and PT Hylton *
Valerie’s Elites (01)
Death Defied (02)
Etheric Adventures: Anne and Jinx
*With S.R. Russell*
*With Craig Martelle & Justin Sloan*
The Revelations of Oriceran
The Leira Chronicles
*With Martha Carr*
Release of Magic (2)
Protection of Magic (3)
Rule of Magic (4)
Dealing in Magic (5)
Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 01 (7.5)
You Don’t Touch John’s Cousin
Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (9.5)
Bitch’s Night Out
Bellatrix: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 03 (13.25)
With Natalie Grey
Available at Audible.com and iTunes
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