The Galactic Empire Book One
Connect With Me
Copyright © 2016 by Tripp Ellis
All rights reserved. Worldwide.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.
No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, uploaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter devised, without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
A destroyer of the Imperial Realm was never a good thing. Especially this far out. Crysolos was too remote for any routine operations. There was no real reason to be here. The destroyer was trouble—no doubt about it. The mere sight of one usually instilled sheer panic and terror in those unfortunate enough to be in close proximity.
The Wolverine class destroyer lumbered toward the frozen planet. The ISS Excelsior was massive, seemingly stretching on forever. Plasma cannons lined the exterior hull. It had a full complement of tactical fighters and troop transports. It never needed refueling—its four reactor cores saw to that. These warships were largely self-sufficient, with enough processed foodstuffs to last years. A Wolverine could cruise around the galaxy at will, subjugating the various planetary systems that fell under the thumb of the Empress.
Crysolos was a hunk of ice at the ass end of the galaxy. It wasn’t a place you visited on vacation. It wasn’t a hotspot for R&R. The only things you'd find on this godforsaken planet were outlaws, smugglers, and the Oracles. And the Oracles kept to themselves.
Their temple was embedded into the side of an unforgiving mountain. It was surrounded by jagged snow-covered peaks that clawed at the sky. It was virtually inaccessible. It was the holiest of holy places, and stood untouched for eons. It was the same today as when the Order first came into existence. A time capsule into the ancient ways.
There were five temples scattered across the galaxy. They were keepers of the Shards of Vezmír. No outsider could ever set foot onto the temple grounds. And none had tried.
As the Excelsior slung into orbit around the frigid globe of Crysolos, sleek black tactical fighters swarmed from the flight deck. The TXR-6 Vanquish was the most technologically advanced fighter in the galaxy. Two Mark 9 plasma cannons mounted under the wings, and four Inferno missiles, combined with an optical targeting system, made them a deadly predator.
They escorted several heavily armored troop transports—ATDV StormRunners. A hulking behemoth that could deploy 20 troops into the field and provide close air support. It had higher caliber Mark 15 cannons fore and aft, as well as under the sub-wing pylons.
The cadre of ships angled down toward the planet surface, streaking through the turbulent upper atmosphere. The crafts rumbled and shook. The re-entry tiles so efficiently dissipated heat, they felt cool to the touch even when subjected to extreme temperatures.
In each of the drop ships, a platoon of Imperial Soturi readied for battle. They were the Realm’s version of Marines. The Soturi Corps, or So Corps, was a distinct branch of the service, but a component of the Department of the Navy. Platoons often found themselves under the direction of a Navy Commander. They were an elite mobile force that relied on the Navy for logistics and transportation. Decked out in head to toe body armor, these warriors were practically invulnerable. The TAA-67X (Tactical Assault Armor) was state-of-the-art. The impact resistant plating could defend against small caliber weapons and low intensity plasma rifles. The dynamic smart coating could match terrain, allowing them to blend in seamlessly to any environment. An onboard life-support system filtered biological and chemical agents, and provided the wearer with fresh air for as long as the CO2 rebreather canister would last—the duration of which would depend on the environment and physical exertion of the wearer.
As tough as the battle armor was, the men inside were tougher. Born and bred for war. An elite fighting force that had no fear, felt little pain, and followed orders unquestioningly. The Oracles may have been the keepers of an ancient religion, but these men had a religion of their own. Death. And they were spreading their ministry throughout the galaxy.
A sledgehammer of a fist careened through the air and crunched against the chiseled cheekbones of Ray Dakota. It wasn't the first punch he had received today, and it wasn't going to be the last. Small contusions opened up on his cheek and brow. Blood spattered as the fist connected. His stubbled jaw felt like it had been dislocated. He tongued one of his molars that wiggled precariously.
Ray looked up at his tormentor with his ice blue eyes and trademark grin. The scar across his chin and left eyebrow indicated that this wasn't his first encounter with an angry adversary. "Is that all you got. You hit like my sister.”
Another fist cracked his face like a cinderblock.
Ray was bound to a chair, utterly defenseless. His lip was split, and crimson blood trickled down his chin. “Wow. That’s embarrassing. You should look into testosterone supplementation.”
Ray's neck twisted in an unnatural way from the impact. He felt the pain shoot down through his shoulder blades, through his arm, and down to his pinky finger. That had to herniate a disc, he thought.
The ogre beating him was a big, thick, meathead of a guy. His shoulders were twice as wide as the average man, and his head sat upon his body like a melon. His neck disappeared into the bulging muscles of his trapezius. The goon’s knuckles were red and raw and split from scraping against Ray's face and teeth.
Ray continued to goad the meathead. “And tell your sister to stop calling me. It looks desperate.”
Ray felt another tooth loosen.
“Enough,” a voice said, emanating from the shadows of the dreary storeroom. “A dead man can’t pay his debts.”
Ray spit a pinkish mix of blood and saliva on the concrete floor.
The voice belonged to a well dressed man who emerged from the darkness. He was wearing an expensive suit and tie, probably Zangari Couture, and a fedora hat by Jean Paul Chevalier. The brim of his hat cast a long shadow over his face, obscuring it from view. A single overhead light illuminated the room.
“It was a simple task, Mr. Dakota,” the man said. “Yet you failed.”
“My friends call me Ray. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
The well dressed man glared at him.
“Circumstances beyond my control," Ray slurred with a mouthful of blood. He tried to smile.
The goon reared back, ready to hit him again. But the man in the suit waved him off. The dapper man was Salazar Nicotero—the most powerful mob boss in the galaxy. Ray knew going into business with Nicotero could mean trouble, but Ray was never one to shy away from danger.
“The cargo you were transporting was precious to me,” Nicotero said.
“Everybody loses a shipment every now and then."
"Not those who work for me." Nicotero pulled a cigar from his pocket. He pulled out a stainless steel cutter and clipped the cap of the cigar. The razor sharp blades sliced with ease. Then he used a long cedar match to warm the head of the cigar. He was very deliberate about the process.
Ray watched with trepidation.
Nicotero brought the cigar to his lips and took several puffs to stoke the cherry. It lit up with a fiery amber glow. Thick smoke wafted to the ceiling.
Ray eyed the glowing cherry. He knew it was probably going to end up against his flesh at some point. That would be Nicotero’s style. He'd probably sear the skin on his face, or burnout an eyeball. Ray knew all too well what Nicotero was capable of.
The mob boss drew closer. “It is a sign of my generosity that you are not dead yet. But I'm conflicted. Part of me wants to inflict an immeasurable amount of pain, watch you suffer until you beg for death, then let you suffer more. The other part of me wants my money back.”
“Well, that is a difficult decision, isn't it?”
“Indeed. Max is highly skilled at bringing individuals to the brink of death and keeping them there for days on end.”
The meathead smiled.
“You must be very proud.”
"I am." Nicotero puffed rapidly on the cigar. The cherry bloomed red.
“You’re going to ruin the flavor doing that,” Ray said. He enjoyed the occasional cigar, and knew that overheating the tobacco could lead to a bitter, unpleasant taste.
Nicotero didn’t seem to care. He took the cigar from his mouth and angled the glowing cherry toward one of Ray’s eyes.
Ray angled his head back, trying to escape the glowing cherry. But there was only so far he could move. He could feel the searing heat against his skin as the cigar was millimeters away from his eyeball.
“It's gonna be a lot harder for me to get your money back with just one eye."
“Who said anything about leaving you with one eye? I intend to take both of them."
Ray swallowed hard.
The glowing cigar drew closer.
Ray clenched his eyelids tight. He waited for the pain. A moment went by—he felt nothing. When he cracked his eyelid to peek out, the cigar was gone. And so was Nicotero.
Ray glanced around the room—the meathead was grinning. Ray could feel the presence of Nicotero behind him. The Mafia kingpin grabbed Ray's hand and slid the cigar cutter over his pinky finger.
“No,” Ray whined. “Not the finger.”
“I don’t see the problem. You’ve got nine others.”
“It's going to put a damper on my music career."
"Oh, I didn't know you were a musician." Nicotero almost sounded sympathetic.
“Well, you know, I get together with friends every now and then. We jam. You'd like it.”
"Why didn't you say so? I'm a big music lover."
“See, I knew we had some common ground.”
"In that case, I’ll take two fingers.”
Ray could feel the sharp metal blades against the edge of his skin. There was just enough pressure to cut the surface of the epidermis. But the blade hadn’t sliced through the fascia or the muscle yet. Right now, it was nothing more than a paper cut. But that was about to change. Ray cringed, waiting for Nicotero to clamp down.
Ava stared out the window of her chamber at the majestic peaks and snow-covered tundra. Her contemplative eyes bordered on hopelessness. Life in the temple could be… repetitive, to say the least.
Her friend, Sakah, was a believer. It’s not that Ava wasn’t, but let’s just say, she was highly skeptical. If you asked her, Sakah could recite the entire text of the sacred scrolls, line by line, with unfaltering accuracy. All 1322 pages of them. Ava didn’t really know how she did it. Ava had a hard time remembering what they had for lunch yesterday, not that there was a lot of variation in the temple.
Today was the day they were set to take their vows. Sakah had no doubts about doing so. Ava, on the other hand, was fighting the butterflies in her stomach. She had chewed her fingernails down to nubs, and she couldn’t seem to focus on a coherent thought. At least a thought other than the dread of the choice she would have to make.
At 18, Oracles must make their vow to the Order. Swearing an oath upon the crystal, bound in blood—an oath lasting until they draw their dying breath. Of course, they are free to choose their own destiny. Free to leave the temple, and pursue a normal life. But that fact was of little consolation. No one in the history of the Order had ever left—except for one, and she is never spoken of.
Ava continued to stare at the razor sharp mountains that stabbed at the sky. The frozen ridge was like a fortress that protected the temple. An infinite tundra of ice and snow. The pink hues of sunset colored the clouds, offset against the vibrant sky. The landscape was beautiful, but deadly. Needless to say, the temple didn’t get many visitors.
Ava’s mind filled with dread as she tried to make the most important decision of her life. For Sakah, and the other girls, it was easy. They were a perfect fit for this place. Everyone here had learned to channel the power of the shard, at least to some degree—except for Ava. The Great Mother said that she lacked faith, and that was why she struggled. Ava thought the reason she struggled was because she didn’t belong. Yet she had nowhere else to go. The temple was the only home Ava had ever known. As her adoptive family, the Oracles had raised her since she was an infant. They had treated her as one of their own.
“Don’t you wonder what’s out there?” Ava asked, still gazing at the magnificent sky.
“I already know what’s out there. Ice, and a lot of cold,” Sakah said.
“No. I mean, beyond this planet.”
“I know what’s out there. Evil, wickedness, and sin.” Sakah had a glint in her eye and seemed to revel in saying those words.
“That’s just what they tell us to scare us,” Ava said.
“Well it worked, didn’t it?”
Ava could see through Sakah’s outward devotion. “Are you really content to spend the rest of your life inside these walls?”
“I have no desire to ever leave.”
“None.” There wasn’t a person in the temple who didn’t at least wonder what their life could be like outside these walls.
“So, you are perfectly fine with wearing these dreadful robes, day in and day out, for the next hundred years?”
Sakah shrugged, then looked over her drab garment. “They are kind of… simple.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it.” Ava paused. “I just once want to wear something else.”
Sakah searched for a positive spin on the atrocious garments they were forced to wear—boring light grey robes. “But it is their drab nature that allows us to reflect on our inner strength and beauty. Not our fleeting and unimportant external appearance.” She smiled. It was a load of bullshit, and she knew it.
“But, you’ll never fall in love. You’ll never marry. You’ll never have children.” Sadness tugged at Ava's heart like an anchor—a reminder of all the things she would never experience if she chose to stay.
“It is the highest honor to take the vow,” Sakah said, beaming with delight. “Only the chosen ones are brought here and prepared for a life within the Sacred Order.”
“Not me. I was a charity case, remember?”
“Perhaps that was your destiny. You too were chosen, whether you want to admit it, or not.”
“I’m different than you,” Ava said. “I can’t do what you can do. What everyone else can do. I struggle with even the simplest of things.”
“Doubt clutters your mind. I think, when you take your vow, you’ll find your true strength within.”
“But what if I don’t?” Ava's question hung in the dim chamber like smoke.
“You will,” Sakah said, drawing near. A reassuring smile curled on her face. Her big hazel eyes sparkled. She was full of comfort and enthusiasm.
In all the time Ava had known Sakah, she was never angry, or sad. Always supportive. There was never a doubt in her mind about who she was, or what she should be doing with her life. And for some reason, she never had any doubts about Ava.
Sakah cupped her hands and held them out before her. "It's easy. Just focus your mind. Breathe slow and deep. Clear all of your thoughts. Feel the energy of the stone flow through you. See in your mind what you want, then create it."
A glowing ball of amber energy formed in Sakah’s cupped hands. It was magical. Sakah opened her eyes and watched it ignite into a controlled flame. Ava had seen her, and others, do it many times before. But it never ceased to be awe inspiring. After a moment, Sakah dropped her hands and the flames disappeared. "See. It's easy. You try."
Ava shook her head nervously. “I can’t.”
Ava shook her head again.
Ava cupped her hands and closed her eyes. She squeezed them tight, clearing her mind and focusing all of her energy. But her thoughts were a jumbled mix of anxiety and fear. Her body trembled slightly.
After a few minutes, nothing happened.
Ava shrugged. "See. I can't."
“You can, but you’re afraid."
Sakah was right. Ava was terrified. The others had always been able to tap into the power of the stone and control it. The times Ava had tried to access its strength, it felt like a wild animal. Unbridled. Out-of-control. She didn't want anything to do with it. That was just another factor on her list of reasons to leave. But the thought of leaving terrified her as well. She had grown up with these people. She loved them. She couldn't imagine a life without them.
Ava had come to believe that no decision should ever be made out of fear. Decisions based on fear usually lead to bad outcomes. Whether she was going to take her vow, or venture out into the unknown, she wanted to do it on her own terms.
She closed her eyes again and tried to feel the power of the stone. She took a deep breath and imagined its strength flowing through her. She envisioned energy forming between her palms. Soon, she felt the warmth of the shard, and a surge of euphoria flowed through her. Every nerve in her body felt alive, and she felt invincible.
She opened her eyes and saw the tiny sparks of energy beginning to form in her palms. Ava couldn't help but feel elated. A smile rose on her cheeks. The energy flowing through her body was intoxicating. The size of the energy ball grew. Ava's eyes darted to Sakah's with glee.
Sakah returned the smile with wide eyes. But her grin soon faded, and concern washed over her face. "Okay, I think that's enough for now."
But it was like a faucet Ava couldn't shut off. She tried to drop her hands and dissipate the energy, but she couldn't release from it. Power poured out of her. It was like a dam had burst and couldn't be stopped. The glow grew into a blinding frenzy of sparks and energy, then exploded.
The blast slammed both of them to the ground. Ava gasped for breath—the wind knocked out of her. The impact dazed her for a moment. By the time her fog of confusion wore off, the room was enveloped with roaring flames. She tried to stop them, but her attempts were futile. She didn't even know where to begin. She felt helpless. The genie was out of the bottle and there was no putting it back.
Sakah's face filled with terror. She was powerless to stop the flames. They were both going to die in the room if they didn't get out quickly. But the only way out was through the scorching fire.
Ava pulled herself from the ground. The air grew thick with smoke, and the heat was blistering. The flames burned up the oxygen in the room, making it even harder to breathe. Ava's first thought wasn’t oh, my God, we’re going to die. It was the Great Mother is going to be SO pissed.
Crimson blood dotted the white snow in the alleyway. It trailed behind Ray as he staggered from Nicotero’s warehouse, blood trickling down from his hand. He clutched his two severed fingers in his palm, along with a pile of snow to help preserve the digits. He wrapped his shirtsleeve around his wound. The fabric was soaked with blood. He clutched his hands together, keeping pressure on the wound, trying to stem the bleeding.
The blistering cold whipped his bruised face. He looked like death frozen over. A black eye, lacerations on his face, a split lip. Ray used to be a good looking man, but he wasn’t going to win any beauty contests today. Still, as mangled as he was, he seemed to maintain a glimmer in his eye. Even down and out, Ray never seemed to lose his charisma and charm.
Nicotero let him off easy this time. He had a week to come up with Nicotero’s money. Next time, Ray would lose more than just his fingers.
He stumbled into the street and hailed a cab. He slipped into the backseat of the automated hover-car and pulled the door shut behind him. The car was toasty warm, and Ray sat back against the supple leather seats and relaxed.
The automated voice of the cab spoke, “You appear to be injured. Would you like me to take you to an urgent care facility?”
“35th and Langston Avenue,” Ray muttered.
“Alright, you said 35th and Lexington Avenue, is that correct?”
“No. Langston,” Ray said, loud and deliberate.
“Okay. 35th and Langston.”
“Proceeding as instructed. You will be billed 35 credits. Please authenticate bio scan."
Ray placed his bloody thumb on the pay pad that was situated on the back of the front seat.
“Payment authenticated. Transaction complete. Thank you."
The cab weaved through the city with urgency. The heated streets of Sol Elans remained free of snow and ice, even in the harshest of conditions. And even if a section of the thermal roadway did fail, the constant traffic of hover cars would melt any snow or ice.
The Quick Fix Minor Emergency Center was located in a seedy, rundown part of town. It was the kind of place you went if you didn't want your medical history in the database. All medical conditions were deemed reportable by the Imperial government. It helped them keep tabs on the population, and was used by law enforcement to help identify criminal activity.
Ray climbed out of the cab and staggered into the emergency center. There was no one in the waiting area—never a good sign. The walls were dingy and dirty. The floor looked like it hadn’t been mopped in a decade. There was an old man sitting at a desk watching a program on a monitor, smoking a cigarette. It wasn't the kind of place that inspired confidence.
He took one look at Ray and shook his head. He spoke in broken English. “No. No. Cannot help you.”
Ray smiled. “Ah, come on, Zym. You can help an old friend, can't you?"
“I refuse right to reserve anyone."
"You mean, you reserve the right to refuse anyone."
“I'm dying here, Doc.”
“You no look dying.” He puffed on his cigarette.
Ray lifted up his bloody hand. “What do you call this?"
“What about your Hippocratic oath? You are obligated to help patients."
“I'm not real doctor,” he deadpanned.
“I’ll pay you double.”
“You no pay for last time.”
“I promise, you’ll get everything I owe you. Look at me like an investment. You want to keep your investment healthy so it can earn you money.”
“You bad investment.”
“Zym!” Ray shouted. He was through playing around.
“Okay, okay. I fix you.” Zym stood up from his desk, the cigarette still dangling from his mouth. The ash was extremely long and Ray was waiting for it to fall, but it never did.
Zym motioned Ray back toward the operating room. It was a fully automated robotic surgical center. There were dozens of robotic arms designed for various specialties. There were computer terminals and display monitors. Control interfaces. There was an operating table in the center of the room. Despite the shabby condition of the front office, the operating room was pristine.
Zym washed up and snapped on a pair of surgical gloves. “Let me see.”
Ray opened his palm—the two fingers were ensconced by melting snow.
“Look like mini sausages.” He took them from Ray’s palm and set them on a tray. With a pair of forceps, he picked up one of the fingers, and dipped it into an antiseptic solution. Then he set it on another sterile tray and repeated the process with the other digit. He had Ray sterilize his hand in the solution.
Zym guided Ray to the microsurgery station. It was a small table with several robotic arms. Ray took a seat and placed his hand on the table. Zim injected his arm with a pain numbing medication. Within a few seconds, Ray's arm felt like a lead weight. He couldn't move it at all. Then Zym injected a powerful antibiotic.
Zym positioned Ray's hand in the center of the table under the guidance of a laser tracking beam. He spread out Ray's fingers so there would be adequate room for the device to function. Then he set the two digits in line with their respective joints.
Ray had an intricate tattoo of a geometric shape on the back of his hand.
Zym eyed it with disapproval. “I can remove that. Leave no trace.”
“Why would I want to remove it?”
“It ugly. No fit with the rest of your work. Tattoo on arm, good. Tattoo on hand, bad.”
“I’ll keep it for now.”
Zym knew the significance the tattoo held for Ray. “My advice to you… move on. To live in past is to be depressed.”
“I’m not living in the past, Confucius.”
“You seek something you may never find. And if you do, it will do nothing to heal the wound in your heart.”
“I didn’t come here for spiritual guidance.”
“Okay. You no want my advice. Fine.” Zym strolled to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of vodka. He poured himself a drink into a beaker and strolled back to the microsurgery machine. Zym pressed a button, and the device scanned Ray's hand from several angles, making a 3D composite image. Then the doc initiated the replantation protocol. A flurry of robotic arms sprang into action.
Dead and damaged tissue was removed, and a regenerative gel was sprayed on the affected area. The device trimmed and fused the severed bone. Once fixation was complete, the precision micro-arms repaired the extensor and flexor tendons. Then arteries and veins were re-vascularized, and nerves were repaired. Superficial veins were repaired and the skin was sealed with a fixation gel. The process was repeated on the next finger. In less than 20 minutes, Ray's fingers were reattached.
“You owe me 10,000 credits."
Ray’s eyes bulged. “What? That's outrageous."
“Should I cut them back off?”
Ray frowned at him. “Fine.”
Zym bandaged Ray’s hand. “Take it easy for the next few days. No yank yank.” Zym pantomimed jacking off and laughed.
“I don’t need to yank yank.” Ray sneered. “Unlike you, I can get women to do that for me.”
“Only if you pay.” Zym laughed again and took a sip of vodka. Somehow he managed to do that while dangling the cigarette from his lips. The ash still hadn’t dropped.
“I never pay.” Ray smiled.
“I know.” Zym sighed. “You pay this time, or I send assassin.”
“You’ll get your money. I promise.” Ray flashed a reassuring grin.
Zym’s eyes narrowed. In his broken English, he said, “I hear that before.”
Almost the instant Ava thought of her, the Great Mother burst through the door. She waved her hand, and the flames extinguished. She was the most powerful of the Oracles, and her ability to harness the power of the stone was unrivaled.
Her eyes tightened and she scowled at both Ava and Sakah. It’s hard to say exactly how old she was. The stone can impart longevity to those in close proximity, and who can channel its power. Rumor had it that the Great Mother was over 600 years old, but she looked no more than thirty. She was beautiful, and her eyes were as blue and clear as the crystal itself. Her cheekbones were high and sculpted, and her skin was creamy and smooth, except for a hint of crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes.
The Great Mother’s eyes fell upon Sakah. “Don’t you have responsibilities to attend to?”
Sakah nodded. “Yes, Great Mother.” She scurried out of the chamber, exchanging a look of dread with Ava.
Ava spoke, trying to do damage control. “I’m sorry. This was my fault. I was irresponsible and unfocused.”
“Yes. But I’m pleased to see you try.”
Ava looked stunned. She expected a much harsher reaction. “So, you’re not mad?”
The Great Mother gestured for Ava to take a seat, then sat beside her on the bed. “I have not been strict with you for all these years because I enjoy being an authoritarian monster. I've been trying to teach you something.”
“Apparently I haven’t learned much.” Ava sulked.
“You are more than capable. Doubt is the obstacle that stands between you and success.”
“I don't know if I belong here."
“I understand this is what you believe. And you are more than free to leave.” The Great Mother paused. “For 600 years I have trained Oracles. Never have I seen one with more potential.”
Ava arched an eyebrow at her.
“I didn’t say you were the most powerful.”
“Was…?” Ava started, then stopped. She didn’t want to say the name of the one Oracle that defied the Order. But the Great Mother knew what she was asking.
The Great Mother nodded. “She was, and is, even more powerful that I. She could control the power of the shard with such ease. It seemed as though she was born to it. And for a long time, I thought she was the one who would fulfill the scriptures and protect the galaxy.” The Great Mother pondered her failure as a mentor for a moment.
“I think I will stay and take my vow.”
“Only you can make that decision. And be certain before you make it.” The Great Mother stood up. She smiled at Ava. “Take the afternoon, and meditate on your decision. The answer will come to you.” She left Ava alone to ponder her thoughts.
The Imperial squadron dove from the clouds and swooped down, flying over the desolate terrain. There was nothing out there. A vast white wasteland. Craggy peaks stabbing at the sky. Glacial masses with the under glow of blue ice. It was beautiful, but treacherous. The setting sun cast brilliant hues of pink and orange across the pillowy clouds.
The Vanquish fighters angled toward the ancient stone temple that had stood for more than a thousand years. Targeting systems locked on. Plasma cannons pumped out blistering pulses of energy.
The massive main doors to the temple shattered. Chunks of rubble and debris scattered, leaving a thick haze of dust in the air. The entire structure rumbled and quaked. The once calm and serene temple became a shrieking chaotic mess as Oracles scurried about.
The Great Mother rushed to the sacred room. Her eyes wide and her face filled with panic, she dashed to the pedestal that held the stone. A slender blue crystal was suspended in a beam above the pedestal. It was a mesmerizing sight, sparkling and glimmering, aglow with unimaginable energy.
She reached her hand out with trepidation—no one had touched the stone since it had been placed upon the pedestal eons ago. It was forbidden to touch the shard, and the Oracle wasn’t sure what would happen.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her hand penetrated the beam, and she grasped the shard. She could feel the power contained within the stone. She pulled the shard from its resting place and gazed at it in her palm. For a moment, she forgot all about the chaos that surrounded her—lost in a hypnotic trance.
Another explosion snapped her from her stupor. She dropped the shard into a leather pouch and drew it tight. Then she dashed out of the room.
As she scurried down the hallway, she saw Ava.
“What’s going on?” Ava said with a look of pure terror on her face.
“Come with me,” the Great Mother said, ushering Ava down the corridor. She could hear the sound of small arms fire, and the screams of Oracles—Imperial Soturi had breached the temple.
The two Oracles hurried down the hall, weaving through a maze of corridors. The Great Mother pressed a hidden switch on the wall, and a secret door opened. She shoved Ava into the passageway. She handed her the pouch containing the shard.
Ava looked confused. Her brow furrowed.
“Go. Find Eko Sen Zaan on Ultrava. He is in the town of Nova Serfina. He will know what to do.” Then she added, grimly, “Trust no one."
“Go.” The Great Mother pressed the hidden switch. The heavy stone ground against the floor, then slammed shut. Ava was left alone in the dark passageway, enveloped by inky blackness. She couldn't see an inch in front of her face.
Ava wasn’t sure what was in the pouch. But she had a good guess from the way it felt. She opened the top of the pouch and nudged out the tip of the glowing blue crystal. It illuminated the walls, casting a pale blue glow across Ava's porcelain face. She was a beautiful young girl with crystal blue eyes and blonde hair, and plush lips. Pure and innocent. She had never been outside the temple before—at least, not since she was a small child.
She gazed at the crystal, entranced. She felt her heart thunder in her chest. She had never been this close to the stone before. She wasn’t supposed to be this close. Now she was holding it in her palm.
She turned and followed the narrow tunnel as it descended through the mountain. The walls were jagged and the steps were uneven. The crystal shone brightly and lit the path that seemed to extend forever.
Ava could hear the chaos in the temple fade away. Terrified, she plunged down the steps. Everything she knew was being destroyed. Her friends, her mentors, her entire way of life. The desire she once had to see the outside world faded, turning into abject terror.
Ava finally reached the bottom of the steps at the base of the mountain. She pressed a lever on the wall, and the rocky door opened. There was nothing but frozen tundra. The bitter cold whipped at her nose. There was at least a foot of fresh snow at her feet. Ava was wearing nothing but the drab robes that all Oracles wore inside the temple. A thin, almost sheer, fabric, it did nothing to stop the freezing wind. And her feet were bare. She never had a need for shoes before.
Sol Elans, the nearest city, was over 250 miles away. Even with protective clothing, food, and water, the journey would almost be impossible.
But Ava had no choice. If the stone were to fall into the hands of the Realm, the consequences could be devastating. She closed her eyes and focused all of her energy. She could feel the power of the shard. She stepped into the snow, her bare feet sinking into the icy powder. She had to have faith that the stone would protect her. Keep her warm. Keep her from freezing.
She marched away from the mountain with the snow at her knees. Each step was an arduous task. Her body was trembling, and soon she couldn't feel her feet. She wasn't entirely sure the shard could keep her safe. She sure didn't feel warm.
Ava glanced over her shoulder, looking up the slope of the mountain. She could see flames and black smoke billowing over the ridge where the majestic temple had once stood. Imperial fighters swarmed the air. The clouds grew thick and the sky darkened. Snow flurried down. It was like the gods were angry, and perhaps they were.
Ava kept trudging through the snow, into the increasing blizzard. It didn't take long before Ava could barely take a step. Her whole body was numb. And then she went beyond cold. She stopped shivering, and she lost all coordination. She was confused. She knew she wanted to take another step, but she just couldn't make her foot move forward. With each passing moment, she grew more and more lethargic. Her eyes began to droop. Her vision began to fade. Her body stopped responding. Until finally, she collapsed, face planting into the snow. From here, it was only a matter of time. She would freeze to death.
This was the summer time on Crysolos—the warmest part of the year, and the temperature was still brutal. No one was ever going to find her body. She was going to be a frozen artifact, perhaps discovered eons later by some future race. Maybe, one day, she would end up in a museum in an exhibit of primitive species.
Dying alone in the frozen wasteland was yet another reason not to have faith in the stone, she thought. It had let her down.
Imperial Soturi flooded into the temple. They moved with tactical precision, clearing the chambers and securing the oracles. Their heavy boots crunched across the debris. The panicked screams of Oracles filled the passageways.
Lord Maldovan stormed into the temple after the platoon. He was an imposing figure, almost 7 feet tall. He wore ornate armor that was indicative of his stature within the Realm. His helmet and face mask were more reminiscent of a demon than a soldier. No one had ever seen his face, and there were rumors that he wasn't entirely human, but rather something else. A demon, perhaps. It was probably all just bullshit. But one could never be sure. He had survived the battles that no others had survived. He was impossibly difficult to kill. He seemed to have an aura about him. Some said that the Empress herself had conjured him from the depths of the underworld. Others said that he had made a pact with the dark gods in exchange for worldly protection. Whatever the case, Lord Maldovan seemed to have no fear, and he had a ruthless sensibility.
The Soturi brought the Great Mother, along with two other high ranking Oracles, before Lord Maldovan. They looked upon him with disdain.
“Bring it to me," the Dark Lord said. His voice was low and booming. You could feel it in your chest when he spoke.
“I don’t know what you mean,” the Great Mother stammered.
“Don’t play games with me. I want the shard."
"I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. There is no shard here." She forced a smile.
Lord Maldovan pulled a dagger from his belt and plunged it into the chest of one of the Oracles standing beside the Great Mother. She coughed and choked up blood. It drizzle down her chin and dropped onto the grey robe, staining it with crimson speckles.
Maldovan twisted the knife, then wrenched it upwards from her belly to her sternum. When he pulled the knife away his hand was covered in rose-red blood. The Oracle's face went pale as she collapsed to the ground, splattering in a wet heap.
The Great Mother swallowed hard and tried to remain calm.
“You would be wise to comply with my request."
“And you would be wise not to meddle with things you do not comprehend,” she said defiantly. “The shard contains a power far greater than you could possibly control."
“I will give you one more opportunity. Hand over the shard."
“We have no shard here.” She forced another grin.
Maldovan could see the fear in her eyes. Without the energy of the shard, she was powerless. He plunged his dagger into her chest. She crumpled before him.
The dagger made a sucking sound as Maldovan pulled it from her gooey insides. The Great Mother lay in an ever increasing pool of her own blood.
“Find the stone,” Maldovan commanded. “Tear this place apart.”
The blizzard raged, blanketing the ground with fresh snow. The air was a white haze. The stinging wind was brutal. Ava’s body was barely visible as the snow piled up. She wasn’t going to last long face down in the snow.
Suddenly, headlights slashed through the haze. A snow vehicle rumbled as it approached. It crunched to a stop several yards away from Ava. The door to the cab swung open. Sheets of frozen ice that lined the door crackled and fell away. A figure emerged from the cab, sinking into the knee-deep snow. Bundled in thick warm clothing, the figure trudged toward Ava. The snowy savior scooped her from the icy tundra and carried her back to the cab. The figure pulled open the passenger door and placed Ava in the seat and wrapped her in a silver thermal blanket. She swung the door shut and marched around to the driver’s side. A moment later, the engine clattered and the snow craft plowed away, disappearing into the milky haze.
The inside of the cab was toasty warm. Hot air rushed out of vents in the dash and floorboard. Visibility was down to zero. But a navigation display in the dash allowed the driver to maneuver the lumbering vehicle precisely to its destination.
Before long, a small home emerged from the snowy haze. It was a series of prefabricated containers that were popular housing structures on outer colonies. It wasn't going to win any awards in Galactic Architecture Today, but it was functional and thermally insulated.
The driver rolled the vehicle to a stop, then killed the engine. The figure hopped out the cab and marched around to the other side and carried Ava toward the structure. The figure fumbled with the entry pad—an instant later, the door slid aside.
Icy wind rushed inside the cozy home as the figure dashed in and set Ava on a couch. The door closed behind them, sealing out the elements.
The figure pulled back the hood of the puffy jacket and peeled off the face mask revealing a beautiful brunette woman with dark eyes and olive skin. She knelt down beside Ava and checked her vitals and looked for signs of frostbite. She scanned for areas of discolored or waxy skin. She checked Ava’s nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes—usually the first areas to go. Miraculously, Ava’s skin looked healthy. The woman looked somewhat perplexed by this.
The thermal smart blanket monitored Ava’s core temperature and brought it up slowly. Ava was beginning to stir. She was groggy and confused. Her heavy eyes glanced around, startled at her surroundings. It all seemed so foreign. She was trembling again.
“It’s okay, relax,” the woman said. “You’re going to be fine.
Ava settled a little.
“How long were you out there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You're lucky to be alive. You're not exactly dressed appropriately. Just FYI, it helps to wear shoes.”
“I’m Grace.” She smiled.
“Ava.” She paused. “Thank you.”
Grace smiled again. “I’ll make you some hot colaka. That will help warm you up.” Her voice was soothing.
“You’ve never had hot colaka before?” Grace arched a curious eyebrow.
Ava shook her head.
“What rock have you been hiding under?” Then it dawned on Grace—her eyes went wide and she knelt down in reverence. “You’re from the temple?”
“What are you doing outside?” Grace said with concern.
Ava clutched for the stone, realizing the shard was missing. A wave of panic rushed over her. Her heartbeat skyrocketed. She tried to sit up.
“Whoah. Take it easy.”
“I had a leather pouch. I need to go back for it.” The words spilled out in a flurry.
“It’s okay. I’ve got it,” Grace reassured her. She reached into her pocket and produced the leather pouch. She could feel the sharp contour of the shard through the supple leather. She stared at the pouch for a moment. “Is this…?”
“Give it to me,” Ava demanded.
Grace paused a moment, almost transfixed. Then she handed it to Ava.
The young Oracle clasped it tight. Her heartbeat settled and she sat back with a sigh of relief.
Grace studied her curiously. “Is that what I think it is?”
Ava nodded, hesitantly.
“I thought the stone was never to leave the temple. What are you doing with it?”
Ava told Grace about the attack. Rage brewed in Grace’s face. It was clear she had disdain for the Realm.
“I need to get to Ultrava. Can you take me?”
Grace raised an eyebrow. “That’s not exactly in the neighborhood.”
“How far is it?”
Grace grimaced. “Far. I don’t have a ship. And even if I did, it’s best I avoid regulated space.” She paused. “I can take you to Sol Elans. I know a pilot that might be able to help you.” Then she added, “Do you have any money?”
“You know, credits?”
Ava shook her head slowly.
“Something to trade?”
Ava continued to shake her head. The concept was foreign to her.
Grace realized how absurd the question was. “Of course you don’t. You Oracles have no need for material things.” Grace lost herself in thought for a moment.
“If the men who attacked the temple come into possession of the stone, it could be disastrous. You must help me,” Ava pleaded.
A grave look washed over Grace’s face as she realized what the Realm was trying to accomplish. “They are trying to reunite the five shards.” She seemed almost dazed. The result could be cataclysmic.
“In the morning, I’ll take you to Sol Elans. I promise, I’ll help you get to Ultrava.”
A slight smile curled on Ava’s lips. She felt a little relieved. But she was still shivering, and her stomach twisted with anxiety over the coming journey. The boredom of temple life didn’t seem so unappealing at the moment. But there was no going back. She wondered if the same thing had befallen the other temples. Then a horrible thought rushed through her mind—was she the last Oracle?
Grace moved to the kitchen and brewed the hot beverage. She returned with a steaming mug and handed it to Ava. The young Oracle stared at it, quizzically. She smelled the aroma. It smelled good. Her eyes flicked to Grace.
“It's good,” Grace assured her. "Take a sip. Be careful, it's hot."
Ava’s full lips blew over the steaming mug. Then she slurped a small taste. Her eyes lit up with glee.
“Told you,” Grace said.
Ava took another sip.
“What do they feed you in the temple?”
“Nothing like this.” She took another gulp. "We live a very modest life. Free from desire and material possessions.”
“Don’t you get to have any fun?"
“We try to live a life of neutral balance. Detachment from both pleasure and pain. We are keepers of the stone, and must not succumb to emotions which may lead to corruption."
“It is,” Ava said. "But that is yet another emotion that must be overcome."
“I don't know how you do it."
“Neither do I.” Ava smiled. "I don't do it very well." It didn't take long for Ava to reach the bottom of the cup.
“Want some more?”
Ava nodded with enthusiasm.
Grace took the mug and started back toward the kitchen. The tiny home began to rumble and shake. The sound of ion thrusters rippled in the air above the house.
Grace’s eyes went wide with panic. It had to be the Imperial Realm looking for Ava, and the stone.
“Hurry!” Grace hissed. She pushed aside the couch and ushered Ava into a secret compartment under the floor. “Don’t make a sound.”
Ava slipped into the darkness. The blue glow of the stone seeped out the pouch, illuminating her delicate features.
Grace sealed the compartment and pulled the couch back over the hatch.
The rumble of the dropship grew louder. The house vibrated, and cookware rattled in the kitchen. She could hear the craft crunch against the snow as it landed. The ramp lowered, and she heard the footsteps of troops marching into the snow. Soon they were pounding on her door.
A muffled voice shouted through the door. “Lieutenant Clegg, officer of the Imperial Realm. Open up, or we will take your home by force.”
Grace took a deep breath, then strode to the door. She pressed a button on the wall, and the door slid open.
The biting wind whipped in, along with a flurry of snowflakes and Soturi. With weapons in the firing position, they cleared the room quickly, with precision. Textbook moves. These guys were pros.
“Clear,” one of them yelled. Then they began to ransack the place. They looked in cabinets, storage closets, underneath the bed. The tidy home transformed into a trash heap.
Grace stood with her hands in the air, trying to remain calm. She tried to put on a pleasant face. “What can I do for you?”
Lieutenant Clegg stepped into the room. He removed his battle helmet. His cold eyes surveyed the area, then bore into Grace. “We're looking for someone. A young girl. An Oracle that has lost her way. We’d like to help return her to the temple.” He flashed an insincere grin. It made Grace’s skin crawl.
“How considerate of you. What does she look like?”
“I can't give you an accurate description. We only know that someone is missing from the temple, unfortunately." The lieutenant flashed another insincere smile. His lips curled, but his beady eyes betrayed him.
“I haven’t seen any Oracles. I don't get too many visitors out this way.”
“No. I can’t imagine that you do.” His eyes pierced into her. He didn’t believe a word Grace said. Clegg scanned the room and saw Ava’s mug on the table. “It's unusual… a beautiful young woman like yourself, living out here all alone. Very dangerous. Anything could happen out here.”
“I like the solitude.”
“Only criminals and degenerates live on these outer colonies.” He let that hang in the air for a moment. It was half statement, half insult, vaguely directed at Grace. “We find all kinds of trash. People avoiding the system for whatever reason. Everyone out here has something to hide."
Grace smiled. “I’m an open book."
"I'm sure you are.” The lieutenant eyed her suspiciously. "And you haven't seen the girl?"
"You're the first person I've seen in weeks."
Ava shivered under the floor in the hidden compartment. She could hear the muffled voices above her. Her heart was thumping in her chest. It was beating so loud she was sure the Soturi could hear.
One of the Soturi called out, “It's clear, sir. There's no one else here.”
Ava breathed a small sigh of relief. But she wasn't out of this yet.
Clegg pulled out his PDU. It was a clear piece of smart glass with multiple functions. He thumbed through a few apps and launched the retinal scanner. “You don't mind, do you?"
Grace swallowed hard. "No. Not at all."
The lieutenant held up the device, hovering millimeters from her eyeball. It only took a second to scan her retina. It cross referenced the image against the Realm’s database. A moment later it returned a profile—a young woman who looked strikingly similar to Grace, but it was hard to say with any certainty if it was actually Grace.
“Saava Rejnick,” the LT read from the device.
“That's the name they gave me.”
Clegg’s eyes flicked from Grace to the image on his PDU, then back again. “Are you sure about that?"
“No retinal transplants?"
“These are the eyes the gods gave me." Grace smiled. “Could you shut the door, it's getting cold in here.”
Clegg’s eyes narrowed at her. He studied the image once again. “We were just leaving.” He called to the rest of the squad. “Lets move out!”
The Soturi marched out of the home making a ruckus.
“I apologize for the inconvenience.” Clegg turned and followed his men. At the door, he paused and craned his neck back over his shoulder. “Your file lists you as deceased. You might want to have that information updated.”
“I'm not surprised. Have you been to the Department of Registry lately? Have you seen the people they have working there?"
Clegg almost chuckled. He marched into the snow. Grace trotted to the door and sealed the hatch. She leaned against the wall and exhaled a deep breath. She stayed there and listened to the troops load into the dropship. She listened to the engine spool up and lift off. The craft rumbled away into the snowy sky.
Soon, there was silence again. Just the way she liked it.
Grace dashed to the couch and pushed it aside. She opened the secret compartment, and Ava climbed out.
Grace gave her a hand and pulled her from the darkness. “Something tells me traveling is going to be tough. They’re going to be looking for you in all the major ports.”
“At least they don’t know what you look like. We’re going to have to find something a little less conspicuous for you to wear.”
There was a little glimmer in Ava’s eyes. “You mean, you’re going to loan me some clothes?”
“Don’t get too excited. I’m not a fashion maven.”
“Anything is better than this robe.”
Grace cringed as she looked over the garment. “True.”
The two shared a smile.
“Come on. Lets find you something to wear.”
They were somewhere in between Grace’s house and Sol Elans. The furious wind and snow made it difficult to identify landmarks. It all looked like an endless expanse of white haze. The nav display was the only thing keeping them on course.
Ava was bundled up in warm clothing. She looked like an oversized marshmallow, basking in the warm air flowing out of the heater vents. The ride was loud and bouncy. It was an old school snow craft with treads like a tank.
Ava broke the silence. “What are you hiding from?”
Grace’s brow furrowed. She tried to play it off. “What do you mean?”
Ava arched an eyebrow at her. “Saava Rejnick?”
Grace shrugged. “I like my anonymity.”
“Are you a criminal?”
Grace scoffed. “No.” She paused. “Well, I guess that depends on who’s point of view you take.” Her face grew solemn. “I fought with the resistance. It became necessary to change my identity. They execute enemy combatants on sight.”
“Did you really have your eyes swapped out?”
“No.” Grace chuckled. “Its just an implant that mimics retinal patterns.”
“Did that hurt?”
“It wasn’t pleasant.”
“Why aren’t you still fighting for the resistance?”
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”
“Sorry.” Ava grew silent. She was like a curious child.
A thunderous clunk rattled, and the vehicle swerved. Grace brought the craft to a halt.
“What was that?” Ava asked with wide eyes.
“I think the tread snapped.” Grace pushed open the door and hopped out into the blistering cold.
Sure enough, the tread was mangled, lying in the snow.
“That’s just great.” Grace stepped closer to see how bad the damage was. But she could hear the ice cracking below her feet. The fissures spread, and the ground gave way. In a flash, a section of ice calved, falling away into a massive crevasse that was hidden by the snow and ice.
Grace lunged for solid ground.
The snow craft collapsed into the abyss. Metal creaked and groaned. The craft dropped several feet, then wedged precariously between the walls of the crevasse. Chunks of ice tumbled down, shattering at the base of the fissure.
Grace clung to the edge of the crevasse, dangling over the abyss. She struggled to maintain her grip.
In the cab, Ava was afraid to move. The slightest shift could send the craft crashing down. Her eyes were like saucers as she peered through the window at the bottom of the canyon below. She swallowed hard.
The wind whistled around the cab, rocking it slightly. Each gust sent a spike of fear through Ava’s body as metal twisted and creaked. It may have been freezing outside, but Ava's skin was covered with a slick coat of nervous sweat. It was sticking to the fabric of her thermal garments.
Grace pulled herself to safety over the ledge. She peered down at the snow craft. "Ava, are you okay?"
“Yeah.” Ava’s muffled voice filtered up from the canyon.
“There is a rope and a pair of ice axes behind my seat.”
The nose of the snow craft was angled down slightly. Gravity forced Ava against the dash. She gingerly climbed toward the back seat. The vehicle shifted and groaned. Ava froze in her tracks for a moment, then continued on.
She found the climbing gear and moved back to her original position. She tied one end of the rope around her waist. Then she reached for the door handle and cautiously swung it open. The cab shifted and groaned again. Ava’s heartbeat spiked, and adrenaline coursed through her veins.
Ava eased onto the edge of the door step. The depth of the chasm was staggering, but she tried not to look down. She flung the coiled end of the rope up to Grace, who tied it around her waist. She sat down and tried to dig in her heels and brace herself.
Ava climbed across the top of the cab toward the cliff face. The boxy snow vehicle creaked with every step. Suddenly, it shifted about 6 inches. Ava's heart was in her throat. She scurried toward the cliff face, leaping as the craft plunged below. It seemed to happen in slow motion… The snow craft tumbling into the abyss. Metal shrieking and squealing. Ava arcing through the air toward a wall of ice. She hammered an ax into the ice and hung on for dear life. She dangled from the handle as the snow craft crumpled into a twisted wreck at the bottom of the crevasse. A plume of icy mist rose in its wake.
Ava swung the other axe into the ice and pulled her way up the side of the chasm. She finally reached the ledge, and Grace helped pull her to safety.
Ava heaved for breath as she lay in the icy snow. “I'm never going to complain about being bored again.”
Grace smiled. “Missing temple life already?"
Ava nodded. “Sorry about your vehicle.”
Grace shrugged. “Ah, it was a hunk of junk anyway.”
“But a warm hunk of junk.”
Grace agreed. She stood up and helped Ava to her feet. “Come on. We need to keep moving.”
“Hey. I need a ride,” Grace said into her mobile device.
“What do I look like, your own personal taxi service?” a rugged looking man said, appearing on the view screen.
“How often do I ask for favors? Besides, you owe me.”
“Still holding that over my head?”
The man grumbled for a moment, then relented. “Fine. But we’re even. No more favors.”
“Don’t act like you don’t miss me,” Grace said.
He chortled. “Like a toothache.”
Grace sneered at him.
“I’ll send a car. I expect it returned when you reach your destination.”
“I always knew you were a kind and generous person.”
“Don’t push it.”
Grace transmitted their location.
The data came through on his mobile. “Got it.”
The transmission ended.
Grace pulled a plasma pistol from her belt. She blasted several rounds into the ice, creating a divot. She kept firing until the depression was large enough to provide shelter from the wind. She and Ava scooped out the remaining debris and climbed inside for cover. Their heated thermal suits provided a great deal of warmth, but the added protection from the wind was a welcomed benefit.
“Who was that?” Ava asked.
“An old mistake.”
“The Great Mother says there are no mistakes. Only learning experiences.”
Grace grinned. “There are some things I just don’t need to learn.”
“But that mistake may be the reason we don’t freeze to death out here. So, perhaps he wasn’t a mistake after all.”
“We’re not out of this yet.”
Not quite an hour later, an automated hovercraft arrived at their coordinates. Grace and Ava climbed inside and set Sol Elans as a destination in the nav system. The craft raced along the edge of the crevasse until it narrowed to a point, then continued forward toward the city.
A hovercraft was a much safer way to travel. There was no risk of collapsing ice. But this was an expensive vehicle, and Grace was a woman of modest means.
Grace pulled out her mobile and dialed a number.
“Who are you calling?”
“You have a lot of those?”
“Enough.” Grace chuckled.
The automated car dropped them off at 6th Avenue, then proceeded to return to its owner. The area was a hotspot of social activity. Bars, restaurants, shopping centers. Ava looked around, wide-eyed. She had never seen the city before.
“Stay close and don't wander off," Grace said. "And don't talk to strangers.”
"Just take my word for it.”
Ava followed Grace as she marched along the sidewalk, her boots crunching against the dirty snow. The sidewalk was filled with people coming and going. They brushed past Ava, almost knocking her down at times. People seemed so rude and isolated. It was a far cry from the open and supportive environment of the temple.
Two Imperial Soturi loitered on the corner at the next intersection. There were troops scattered throughout the city, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the citizens. They were looking for anything unusual or out of place. They were looking for Ava.
“Just act casual and don't make eye contact with the goon squad,” Grace whispered.
Ava nodded and kept her head down. She followed Grace as they strode past the Soturi. The two goons eyed them as they walked by, then focused their attention elsewhere.
Halfway down the next block, Grace ducked into a bar. Ava followed into the seedy dive. It was a place called Photons. A thick haze of smoke filled the air. Even at midday, the place was packed. People lined the bar, filled the booths, and huddled around cocktail tables. Electronic music wafted through the air. A red glow emanated from wall sconces and strip lighting underneath the bar. Despite the weather outside, half naked girls danced on stages, writhing and undulating in the most provocative of ways.
Grace peeled off her goggles and face wrap, and slid back her fluffy hood. Ava did the same, exposing her wide eyes and slack jaw. Grace spotted an empty booth and ushered Ava to it. They slid into the seats, and the waitress approached shortly thereafter.
“What can I get you?”
“I’ll have a Red Razor, and she'll have bottled water."
“Do you want to start a tab?"
“No. I'll pay cash." Grace handed her several credits.
“I’ll be right back." The scantily clad waitress sauntered away.
“What, exactly, are we doing here?" Ava asked.
“Meeting someone,” Grace said as she looked around. “Stay here, and don't move.” She scooted out of the booth, and strode to the bar.
Ava fidgeted nervously, not comfortable in her new surroundings.
Grace surveyed the cast of sundry scoundrels at the bar. It didn’t take her long to find who she was looking for. “Ray Dakota.”
Ray glanced over his shoulder. He was leaning against the bar alongside a small bot that hovered in the air. The robot was a white orb, a little larger than a basket ball, with articulating arms on either side. The lights on its black faceplate gave it a human quality. Glowing blue eyes, and a waveform for a mouth. It could display anything it wanted on its faceplate, but it used humanoid features to convey emotion.
“Buy me a drink and tell me about this job you speak of,” Ray said.
Grace cozied up to him at the bar. She motioned to the bartender to pour Ray another drink. She looked past Ray at the hovering orb. “Hi, ZV-0.”
“Hi, Grace. You look fantastic. I swear, you never age.”
“Knock it off,” Ray interrupted. “You’re not her type.”
“I don’t know. He’s kind of cute.” Grace was trying to make Ray jealous. It was working.
ZV-0's face lit up and his eyes turned into hearts.
Ray rolled his eyes. “This better be good. I’m in high demand right now.”
Grace could see right through his bullshit. She knew him too well. Her eyes caught sight of his bandaged hand. “What happened? Been putting your fingers where they don't belong?”
Ray sneered at her.
ZV-0 ordered a stim-stick from the bartender. He handed ZV-0 a small device, about the size of a thumb drive. ZV-0 plugged it into an IO port. Almost instantaneously, he felt a rush wash over his circuitry. He swayed from side to side a little.
Grace shook her head. “Some things never change.” She sighed. “Look, I'll cut to the chase. I need transport to Ultrava.”
Ray looked taken aback. "Why the hell do you want to go there?"
“It’s not for me. It’s for the girl.” She pointed to the booth where Ava was sitting. She was taking a sip of Grace's Red Razor.
“She’s cute. Who is she?”
“This job requires a lot of discretion,” Grace said, trying to imply the gravity of the situation.
“Discretion is my middle name."
“55,000 credits,” Ray said.
“What?” Grace’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets.
Ray shrugged. "That's the going rate.”
“That’s five times the going rate."
“Then find somebody else. It's not exactly a cakewalk out there. The Imperial Realm is muscling into every system. Random security checks at foreign ports. I don't need that kind of hassle.”
“She's just a girl who needs to get to see her… uncle. He's dying. She wants to say goodbye.”
Now Ray wasn’t the one who was smelling bullshit. “Really? The dying uncle bit? You can do better than that, can't you?"
“Her speech and facial patterns indicate a 99.274% chance of deception,” ZV-0 added.
“Stay out of this, tin can,” Grace said dryly.
“What’s your stake in this anyway?” Ray asked.
“I’m just trying to help the girl out.”
“I know you. You don’t help anybody out unless there’s something in it for you.”
Grace balked. “You’re one to talk.”
Ray grimaced. “I’m getting a bad vibe about this. Besides, we've got better offers.” He leaned aside to ZV-0 and added, “Don’t we?”
ZV-0 was silent.
“I can give you 10,000 credits," Grace said. “It’s everything I have.”
Ray frowned. The bartender slid another drink up to him.
“Please,” she begged.
“Why is it so important to you? Who is that girl?"
Grace leaned into his ear and whispered, “She's from the temple."
“An Oracle?” he said in full voice.
Grace shushed him. Her eyes darted about the bar to see if anyone had heard. “What did I say about discretion?”
Ray leaned in and whispered back to her. "That's the girl that all these Imperial thugs are looking for?”
“She has the shard.”
“The sacred stone.”
“Oh, come on. You don't really believe in that nonsense, do you?"
Grace looked appalled. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
Ray lifted his brow, surprised. "When did you become a believer?"
“I don't know. It just kind of happened. I've had a lot of time to think about things.”
“You know, helping this girl is not going to absolve you of your sins.” His smug, condescending tone enraged Grace.
“Maybe not. All I know is that the Empress wants what she has. Maybe this is my chance to make a difference. Maybe this is our chance.”
“We both walked away from the resistance for a reason,” Ray said. “I’m done fighting the Realm.”
“Well, maybe I’m not.” She gulped down the drink she bought for Ray. “I don’t know what I was thinking. You’re the same old self-serving, egotistical jackass you always were. I’m gonna go find a pilot who's got balls.”
Grace stormed away.
“She’s cute when she’s angry,” Ray muttered.
“I like this place,” Ava said, finishing off the red liquid. The words slurred from her lips, and her eyes were bloodshot.
“How many of those have you had?” Grace asked.
“Two.” Ava smiled. “Maybe three.” She thought about it for a moment, counting on her fingers. “Possibly four.”
“Oh, boy,” Grace sighed. “You’ve never had alcohol before, have you?”
“I think you’ve had enough for now.”
Grace saw two Imperial Soturi enter the bar. “Alright. I think we’ve outstayed our welcome. Can you stand?”
Grace tried to help Ava to her feet, but that wasn’t working out too well. Her legs were like wet noodles. She plopped back down on the seat.
The Imperial goons were milling through the crowd, asking questions. One of the patrons pointed in Grace’s direction as the goons interrogated him.
“Come on, lets try again,” Grace said.
Ava staggered to her feet. Her knees wobbled, and she looked like she was about to face plant on the concrete floor.
Ray swooped in to grab her before she fell. He propped her up, slinging her arm over his shoulder. Ava now had one arm around Ray, and one arm around Grace.
“Okay. I'm in,” Ray said. “I'm probably going to regret this, but…”
“I think it's best if we go out through the service entrance." Ray ushered them to the back of the bar, into the storeroom. ZV-0 followed along. They moved past boxes of liquor to an exit that led into an alleyway behind the row of establishments. The biting wind outside was an abrupt change from the stuffy atmosphere of Photons.
“Meet me at Hathaway Spaceport in an hour,” Ray said. “Can you manage with her?”
Ray scurried down the alleyway with ZV-0 following close behind.
Ava clung to Grace, and the two listed down the alleyway. They took the first passage back to 6th Avenue.
“That was fun. We should hang out more often," Ava slurred.
The spaceport was run down and shabby. It was a place to park your vehicle, and that was about it. You were charged by the hour, and there was a maintenance facility on site—though replacement parts were charged at an exorbitant fee. There was no real security to speak of, and it was relatively easy to come and go.
At one point in time, the Valkyrie was a state-of-the-art vehicle. It was that sports car that you always wanted in high school, and finally bought when you were 40, and could afford it used. It had been surpassed in technology, but there was a thriving community of aficionados that modded the Valkyries to exceed expectations. They were simpler in design and construction than some of the newer, more sporty, spaceships. But one thing you couldn't argue about the Valkyries was their quality of construction. They just didn't make them like this anymore. It was engineered to perfection, and there were a host of aftermarket parts available. With enough money, and passion, you could turn a Valkyrie into something that would rival even the most expensive of super-ships.
ZV-0 made last-minute adjustments to the external shields. Ray interviewed two new deck hands that were applying for a position. They weren't human. Reptilian creatures from Cirus Major.
Vlaax was a little over 6 feet tall, and Nard barely broke 5 feet. They each had large yellow offset eyes and green scaly skin. They resembled walking iguanas.
“You have experience with Valkyries?" Ray asked.
"Of course,” Vlaax said. “Our last contract was on a Valkyrie. We both have extensive knowledge of propulsion systems and navigation."
“I need someone who can think on their feet, troubleshoot problems, and keep this thing running.”
“I can keep your ship in the air for as long as you want to fly”
“And I need strong backs to move cargo."
“I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty and doing a little heavy lifting."
“ZV-0 talked to you about the rate?"
“Yes. That’s acceptable to us."
“One last thing. As the captain of this ship, my word is law. You follow every order without question. Is that understood?"
"I wouldn't serve under a Captain who thought differently,” Vlaax said.
Ray eyed them cautiously. He rubbed the stubble on his jaw as he pondered the decision. Vlaax took note of the tattoo on the back of Ray's hand.
“That’s an interesting tattoo,” Vlaax said.
Ray's eyes widened. Suddenly, the reptile had his full attention. "Have you seen it before?"
Vlaax hesitated. "No."
“Are you sure?"
"It's just a unique design."
Ray paused for a moment. He wasn’t totally sold on hiring these guys, but he needed the extra hands. “All right. You're hired—on a probationary basis." Ray extended his hand and clasped the tall reptile’s scaly palm.
“You won’t be disappointed, sir.”
Ray shook hands with the little guy.
“It's a pleasure, sir,” Nard said.
“Get your gear stowed,” Ray said. “We move out in 15 minutes."
“Aye, sir,” Vlaax replied.
The two aliens scurried up the loading ramp, lugging their gear in duffel bags slung over their shoulders.
Ray yelled up to ZV-0 atop the Valkyrie. "You got those shields sorted out?"
“Quit screwing around. We don’t have all day.”
“This hunk of shit still flies?” Grace said as she entered the bay with Ava clinging to her.
“Yes, she still flies. And I’ll take her over a Stingray or an Osprey any day.”
“It’s a pretty ship,” Ava slurred.
“See. It meets with her approval.” Ray grinned smugly.
“She’s never seen a space ship before,” Grace countered.
“If you can find something better, by all means, go ahead. Otherwise, I suggest you get on board before I change my mind.”
Grace shot him a look, then proceeded to help Ava as she stumbled up the ramp.
Ray watched them disappear into the craft, then his eyes darted up to ZV-0. Sparks showered down as he welded a section of the hull.
Ray heard footsteps and looked back toward the entrance to the landing bay. A squad of Imperial Soturi filed in, weapons drawn.
“Don’t move. Put your hands in the air. We need to see your registration and transport permits. Your ship must be inspected!” the squad leader yelled.
“Alright, alright. No need to get excited. I’m just going to grab my registration card.” Ray slowly moved his hand toward his pocket. Like lightning, he snatched his sidearm and blasted several plasma rounds at the goons, taking one out.
A flurry of pulses came streaking back at him. Sparks showered down as the blasts erupted against the hull of the Valkyrie. The plasma pulses left behind black smoldering score marks.
ZV-0 looked perturbed—they were ruining all of his work. He fired at the squad from one of his articulating arms. Blue plasma pulses streaked through the air, vaporizing one of the squad member’s skull. The Soturi’s headless body crumpled to the ground. No blood oozed out since the wound was instantly cauterized.
Ray zigzagged up the ramp, narrowly escaping steaks of plasma. ZV-0 followed behind and remotely activated the ship’s cannons. They auto-targeted the Soturi and incinerated them with massive blasts. Body parts and broken armor scattered everywhere.
ZV-0 flew up the ramp as it was closing.
Ray sprinted to the cockpit and slid into the pilot’s seat. He flicked switches and pressed buttons. The dash came alive with a glowing array of digital gauges and instrumentation. The massive engines powered up, and what started as a low pitched rumble grew to a high-frequency hum.
ZV-0 joined him in the cockpit. He hovered over the copilot seat.
More troops were piling into the bay, blasting at the Valkyrie.
“Are those shields going to hold?” Ray asked.
“I hope so,” ZV-0 said.
Ray gave him a sideways glance. “That’s not a yes.”
“That’s not a no either.”
Ray throttled up, and the craft lumbered off the ground. Within a few seconds, it cleared the walls of the bay. Ray pulled back on the flight controls and angled the craft toward the sky. He fully engaged the thrusters, sending a scalding wave of thruster wash into the bay. It knocked the platoon of Soturi off their feet. The Valkyrie soon became a small speck, disappearing into the clouds.
The Valkyrie quaked as it rocketed through the turbulent upper atmosphere. Buckled into her safety harness, Ava hung on for dear life. She looked green, struggling to hold onto the contents of her stomach. Four Red Razors combined with her first space flight wasn’t a good mix. “I don’t feel so good.”
“She’s not going to hurl, is she?” Ray asked, concerned.
“I don't know, Ray. We'll just have to wait and see." Grace smiled at him.
Ava’s cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk. She managed to hang on and stifle it back down. The sour acidic taste burned in the back of her throat and in her nostrils.
The vibration settled as the Valkyrie escaped the atmosphere and entered space. Ava felt light in her seat, and the only thing holding her into place was the safety harness. The odd sensation of weightlessness wasn't helping settle her stomach. It wasn't long before the contents of her stomach decided to make their own escape. What was left of the four Red Razors came spewing out. The red liquid formed multiple orbs, floating in the air like its own galaxy.
Ray engaged the artificial gravity, and the liquid splashed against the deck. “You’re cleaning that up."
Ava nodded. "I feel much better now." The words slurred from her lips. She still looked like hell. She wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her coat, leaving a red trail.
“ZV-0, plot jump coordinates and make it quick,” Ray barked.
They may have escaped the Imperial troops on Crysolos, but the Wolverine class destroyer in orbit around the planet was another matter entirely.
Imperial fighters swarmed from the destroyer. They quickly closed in on the aging Valkyrie. The Wolverine’s massive cannons blasted at the scrappy little ship. Ray twirled through space, trying to dodge the streaks of plasma. A charge impacted the hull, shuddering the Valkyrie. The energy dissipated over the shields with an electrostatic glow.
In the cockpit, an alarm sounded. Ray flipped a switch silencing the alarm.
“We lost a transducer,” ZV-0 said.
“I can see that,” Ray grumbled. “Can you hurry up with those jump coordinates?”
“Calculating jump coordinates is a complex process that requires attention to detail and careful processing.“
“I’ve met automated dishwashers that process faster than you. Get us out of here.”
The Imperial fighters swooped into position, unleashing a torrent of plasma bursts. The Valkyrie’s defensive cannons swung into position, targeting the inbound threats. Plasma bolts blasted at the fighters, exploding one of them into a brilliant amber ball. Bits of the fuselage and avionics tumbled into space.
The other fighters continued to pepper the Valkyrie with weapons fire. Ray pulled hard on the controls, trying to evade the attackers.
“Jump coordinates programed,” ZV-0 said.
Ray engaged the slide-space drive. The bulkheads warbled as a quantum distortion washed through the ship. The Valkyrie vanished from Crysolos, leaving the TXR-6 Vanquish fighters in its wake.
Ray leaned back in his seat with a grin. “Now that’s how it’s done.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “You took multiple direct hits. Your shields are down to 40%. And it took numbnuts here way to long to program simple coordinates.”
“We’re still alive, aren’t we?”
“Barely. And if your sidekick hadn’t fried his neural processor with stim-sticks he might function better.”
"I am operating at 105% of capacity.”
"You can get off this ship any time,” Ray said forcing a smile. He climbed out of his seat and marched out of the cockpit, mindful not to step in the mess that Ava had made. He was perturbed by the whole situation. He was confronted in the corridor by Vlaax, one of the newly hired deck hands.
“Can I have a word with you, Captain?”
“What is it?” Ray was in no mood. He kept striding down the passageway.
“There was no mention of Imperial conflict when we signed on.”
“We negotiated compensation based on standard cargo rates, not combat situations.”
Ray stopped and stared at him. "Every cargo ship in the galaxy comes under fire at one time or another. Don't tell me you're scared of a little Imperial harassment from time to time?”
Vlaax scowled at him. “I am afraid of nothing.”
“Good. So we’re all on the same page.” Ray strolled away, leaving Vlaax less than satisfied.
Grace asked Ava how she was feeling.
“I don’t think I want any more Red Razors.” Ava had seen better days.
Grace laughed. She unbuckled her safety harness and helped Ava out of her seat. “Let’s get you to a cabin so you can lie down.”
“I’ll clean up the mess.”
“Thank you,” Ava mumbled.
“I assume you’ve got an empty compartment for us?” Grace asked ZV-0.
“Deck 2, port side. The Quasar Suite.”
“Sounds luxurious,” Grace snarked.
Ava staggered down the hallway, clinging to Grace. Vlaax eyed them as they passed. His intense gaze and demeanor didn’t exactly make them feel comfortable.
The Quasar Suite wasn’t as bad as Grace anticipated. It wasn’t a 5 star luxury accommodation, but it was spacious—all things considered. There were two bunks, a desk, a display panel and a private bath.
Grace helped Ava to one of the bunks. “Try to sleep it off.”
Ava pealed off her thermal garments and curled up on the bunk. But just as she was getting comfortable, a wave of panic washed over her face. She lunged for her coat, digging into the pocket that contained the shard. She relaxed as she gripped the crystal. It was just where she had left it. She breathed a sigh of relief and held it close as she reclined on the rack.
Grace watched her nod off, then eased out of the compartment, trying not to wake her. She strolled the corridors until she found Ray. He was replacing a shield oscillator that had been damaged during the attack.
“Do you need a hand with anything?”
He didn’t acknowledge her. He just kept working on the oscillator.
“Thank you for doing this," Grace said.
Ray was silent a moment. “I guess I'm just a nice guy.” His voice was laced with more than a tinge of sarcasm.
“You have your moments. Few and far between, but…”
He gave her a sideways glance over his shoulder. “Every Imperial ship in the fleet is going to be looking for us."
“It wouldn’t be any fun if there wasn’t a challenge,“ Grace said.
“I’ll remind you of that when we’re captured and tortured as traitors to the Realm.”
“That's what I like about you. Always a positive attitude."
“I'm practical. I try to anticipate situations so I can react to them appropriately,” he said smugly.
“Really? Did you anticipate this?" Vlaax stood at the hatch aiming an assault rifle at Ray.
Ray scowled at him.
“Get your hands up, and keep them up. Both of you,” Vlaax said.
Ray dropped his tools on the deck, then lifted his hands in the air. He turned around to face the reptilian deck hand. “If this is about the pay, I guess I can bump you up by ten percent.”
“I’m afraid you’d have to come up with quite a bit more than that." Vlaax motioned to Nard, who rushed in and grabbed both of their pistols.
Nard took aim, holding a pistol in each hand.
“What do you want?” Ray asked.
“The Realm is looking for an Oracle who is in possession of the shard. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. They're looking for Ava. And that stone she carries will fetch a handsome price."
Ray chuckled. “That’s a good one. If that girl was an Oracle carrying the Shard of Vezmir, I'd sell her out myself."
“Move,” Vlaax yelled. He motioned toward the hatch with the barrel of his rifle.
Ray scowled at him, but complied. Vlaax marched them down the corridor to a holding cell. He pressed the button on the bulkhead and the hatch slid open. Again, he motioned with his weapon for them to step inside. Once Ray and Grace stepped into the cell, Vlaax closed the hatch behind them, sealing them in.
Vlaax peered in through the polycarbonate glass viewport and gave Ray a smug grin. Then he addressed Nard. “Stay here and keep an eye on them. I'm going to take care of that robot."
"Sure thing,” Nard said. “Just so were straight on this… we're splitting this 50-50, right?"
“Of course,” he said in a reassuring tone. But something in his eyes said otherwise.
“What are we going to do with them?”
“Once we don't need them anymore, we’ll space them and keep the ship.” Vlaax marched down the corridor, heading toward the cockpit.
ZV-0 reclined in the co-pilot’s seat, listening to music, holding a stim-stick in his hand like a joint. He was taking casual hits from it by briefly inserting it into his I/O port. A wave of euphoria rushed through his neural processor, settling into a nice full body high. The stimulant affected his sensory inputs, dulling his response time. It seemed even robots liked to alter their consciousness.
“How are those working out for you?" Vlaax said as he entered the cockpit.
“Not bad. Smooth and mellow, but it fades pretty quick.”
Vlaax pulled out a stim-stick from his pocket and handed it to ZV-0. “Try this."
“Holding out the good stuff on me, eh?”
“Not at all. I just thought you might like the first batch. Everybody’s different. No two neural processors are the same.”
“What do I owe you for this one?”
“It's on the house. A token of my appreciation for helping us get the job,” Vlaax smiled.
“Hey, I only introduced you to Ray. He makes all the decisions,” ZV-0 said. “Besides, you’ve been a solid dealer for the last 6 months. You seem trustworthy.” ZV-0 smiled. The effects of the stimulant were distorting the presentation of his facial features on the display panel. His eyes were narrow, and he looked thoroughly baked.
ZV-0 inserted the new stim-stick. Within seconds, his face completely distorted. A tremor ran through his body, then he powered off completely. His arms fell limp, and his display panel was blank. Like some kind of virus, the tainted stim-stick ran a forced shutdown protocol.
“You’re a terrible judge of character.” Vlaax smirked and left the cockpit.
Ava woke with throbbing temples, feeling like an ice pick had been jammed into her skull. Her mouth felt like glue, and the room was still spinning. She was learning all about hangovers—the hard way. She also woke to a plasma rifle staring at her. The wide barrel was inches from her face. She instinctively clutched for the shard, but it was gone.
Vlaax was holding both the stone and the weapon. “Move!”
Ava crawled from the bunk and staggered to her feet. Vlaax motioned toward the hatch and Ava listed from the compartment. She stepped into the hallway, and Vlaax marched her through the maze of passageways to the holding cell.
Nard opened the hatch, and Vlaax shoved Ava inside. Ray caught her as she tumbled toward the deck. The hatch snapped shut before he had chance to do anything.
Ray helped Ava lay down. She was still feeling woozy.
Grace knelt beside her. “How you feeling?”
Ava just shook her head. She still had an unnatural pallor about her skin.
Ray strode for the hatch and glared through the viewport. He forced a smile. “Look. Just let us go, and I'm willing to forget about this little incident. We can renegotiate a more equitable rate.”
"I'm sorry,” Vlaax said. “The time for negotiation is over. Your cargo is far more valuable to me than anything you could offer.”
Vlaax grinned at Ray, then strolled back to the cockpit. Ray could hear his heavy footsteps clanking down the corridor.
Nard stood guard outside the hatch.
“You don't really think you're going to get a fair shake out of all this, do you?" Ray said, trying to undermine their relationship.
Nard stood on his tiptoes and peered at Ray through the viewport. “Nobody gave you permission to talk. Keep your mouth shut, or I’m gonna shut it for you."
Ray chuckled. "I'd like to see you try, little man."
The small alien clenched his jaw. It was easy to see he was sensitive about his height, or lack thereof. Ray grinned, amused. Perhaps he could get under Nard’s reptilian skin. Get him to do something stupid.
Vlaax sat in the pilot’s seat as the Valkyrie raced through slide-space. ZV-0 was still deactivated. There was no telling when, or if, he would come back online.
“You’re sure this is the Shard of Vezmir?” a man who appeared on Vlaax's mobile display said.
“Positive,” Vlaax said, stroking the glowing crystal in his palm. “It matches the description perfectly. The girl who carried it is an Oracle. I’m certain of it.”
The man on the call was Dietrich Beck. He was a gray haired man with a square jaw and impeccable taste. He was a well established intergalactic dealer of just about anything. If you needed something, and had the money to pay for it, D-Beck could get it. He was in bed with the Realm and often supplied them with hard to acquire items, at a handsome profit.
Dietrich pondered his offer a moment. “1,000,000 credits.”
Vlaax laughed. “Insulting.”
“2,000,000,” D-Beck quickly added.
“It’s been nice speaking with you, but I can see we will be unable to reach a satisfactory arrangement.” Vlaax's thumb hovered over the end call button.
There was a long pause. Vlaax indulged Dietrich for a moment.
“What's to stop me from doing a deal with the Realm directly?”
“By all means, if you think you can navigate the intricacies of the Realm, be my guest. But you'll likely find their offer not near as generous as mine. Besides, they may be inclined to simply take it from you.”
“You run the same risk.”
“A person like you comes and goes. I have been a long time provider for the Realm. A valuable asset. One that cannot be discarded easily."
Vlaax considered this. He knew dealing with the Realm could be treacherous. And if he could avoid it, he'd rather steer clear of the Empress, and her lapdog Maldovan. “10,000,000.”
“Take it, or leave it. There are other buyers."
Dietrich huffed. "Fine. We’ll rendezvous at Toscoga. Do not disappoint me.”
The transmission ended.
Vlaax grinned. He’d have settled for a million credits. But 10? He could make 10 million stretch a lifetime. No more picking up odd jobs. No more shady dealings. No heavy lifting. No more getting shot at. He could settle on one of the resort colonies, like Kordalia. Drink Siva Tronadas on the beach all day. Chase green Kordalian women. He could live the good life, or so he thought.
“No, I’m not going to do that,” Grace said.
"Do you want to get out of here, or not?" Ray countered.
"Unlike you, Ray, I have standards. A sense of dignity."
Ray scoffed. “Please, I’ve seen some of the men you’ve dated. Your standards are pretty low."
Grace's eyes narrowed as she scowled at him. “I stooped to an all-time low with you. That’s for sure.”
Ray glowered back at her. "Look, I've been trying to get under that little bastard’s skin for the last half hour. He's not taking the bait. I need to get him to open the hatch and step inside. I think you have a much better chance of doing that than I do."
“And how, exactly, am I going to get him to open the hatch?”
“Use your charm.” Ray winked.
She arched an eyebrow at him. “I’m not taking off my top.”
“I didn’t ask you to… exactly,” Ray said.
Grace’s eyes narrowed at him.
“Create a distraction. Fabricate an emergency.” Ray nodded to Ava, who was still lying on the deck.
Grace caught his meaning and stepped to Ava. Ray moved to the corner near the door, out of Nard’s sight.
Grace knelt beside Ava and whispered in her ear. Ava began convulsing and writhing.
“Help!” Grace yelled. “She needs medical attention.” Grace ran to the hatch with a look of panic on her face. “She’s having a seizure.”
Nard stood on his tiptoes again and peered in through the porthole. “Tough shit."
“She needs her medication. She is having some type of reaction.”
“Not my problem.”
"It's going to be your problem if she dies."
“How is she going to die?”
Grace was making this up as she went along. “Because if she doesn't get her medication, she's going to go into a coma, and die.” Grace pleaded. "I need to get her to the med center before it's too late."
Nard pondered this. “I need to check with Vlaax."
"So, he's the boss of you? You can't think for yourself?"
Nard scowled at her. "I can think for myself. And no, he's not the boss of me. We are partners."
Grace shrugged. "Sure doesn't seem like it."
Nard eyed Ava, who was still spasming on the deck.
“If she dies, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. Think of all the money you'll lose. An Oracle has got to be worth a pretty penny on the open market.”
Nard grimaced. "Stand back from the hatch."
Grace complied. She stepped back slowly and gave a subtle glance to Ray waiting in the corner ready to pounce.
Nard readied his weapon, then pressed the button on the bulkhead, opening the hatch. He cautiously stepped into the compartment.
As soon as Nard cleared the threshold, Ray lunged for the barrel. He grabbed it, pushing it aside. Several plasma rounds blasted into the bulkhead. The two struggled for moment, then Ray stripped the weapon from the little alien. In a flash, Nard was on the ground, and the barrel of the weapon was pointing at his head.
“Do exactly as I say, or I'm going to vaporize that ugly little face of yours.”
Grace helped Ava to her feet. They snuck out of the compartment while Ray forced Nard to the back bulkhead. Ray backed out of the compartment, then mashed the button on the bulkhead. The hatch snapped shut, sealing Nard inside. Ray yelled through the viewport, “Enjoy your stay at Casa Dakota.”
Nard muttered something back at him, but it was indiscernible.
Ray programed a custom code into the keypad. There was no getting out of the holding cell without it.
“I feel bad that we deceived him," Ava said.
“You feel bad?" Ray asked, incredulous.
“Deception is wrong."
"Not when it saves our ass." Ray’s eyes found Grace. “Get to engineering and lock yourself in. I’ll take care of Vlaax.”
Grace nodded and scurried down the hallway with Ava. Ray crept toward the cockpit, looking for Vlaax. He kept the weapon in the firing position, ready to blast a flurry of plasma bursts.
He edged forward through the passageways until he hovered just outside the cockpit. He moved with tactical precision. It was easy to see that he had formal training. He had been a spec-war operator in the Imperial Realm, until he decided to fight for the resistance. Wanted for treason by the Realm, he was forced into the galactic underworld. Fighting for the resistance had doomed him to a shadowy, off grid, existence.
Ray threw his back against the bulkhead, then angled the barrel of his weapon around the corner. He stared through the sights into the cockpit, but it was empty—except for ZV-0.
Ray lowered the weapon, then rushed into the compartment. He glanced over the lifeless robot. Ray’s face washed with panic. His stomach twisted, and he felt a lump in his throat. ZV-0 was his best friend. Perhaps his only friend.
Ray’s eyes found the stim-stick, still stuck into ZV-0’s I/O port. He pulled it out and tossed it aside. Within a few moments, ZV-0 rebooted. His display flickered, then filled with an array of lights and patterns—a psychedelic kaleidoscope, finally assuming his standard face.
ZV-0 was slow to respond. "Wow, that was a bad trip." The robot shivered.
Ray shook his head. “Double check our heading. Something tells me we’ve been rerouted.”
ZV-0 perked up and looked over the controls. His blue eyes widened. “We’re on a course for Toscoga.”
“No. Were not going there. Change course."
ZV-0 stroked a few keys on the input terminal. “I'm locked out of the system."
"What do you mean you're locked out of the system? Override it."
The robot tried again. "I can't. Not until we come out of slide-space at our destination."
Ray clenched his jaw. "I'm really starting to get pissed off. See what you can do. I'm going to go find Vlaax.”
Ray marched out of the cockpit and sealed the hatch behind him. He crept down the corridor, weapon in the firing position. The Valkyrie wasn't a huge ship, but it was big enough to get lost in. There were plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in.
Ray marched aft, clearing compartments as he went—the med center, crew quarters, storage compartments. He entered the cargo bay, which was mostly empty. He moved through the cavernous compartment and into the reactor room. It was dimly lit, with shafts of light peering through from above. The duel, X-core reactors were self-contained and needed little maintenance. A dedicated processing unit monitored all controls and kept the reactors functioning at optimal performance. There was no chance of meltdown with the fusion reactor. The safety protocols were in place to ensure safe shutdown. You didn't have the same type of catastrophe with system failure as you did with traditional fission reactors. But still, if one were to explode, there would be enough radiation to kill the entire crew. And subsequent explosions in the cooling system and engine compartments would be enough to destroy the ship.
Ray looked over the controls to make sure everything was still in order. The steady drone of the ship’s engines rumbled through the Valkyrie.
Ray eased his way between the large cylindrical tokamaks of the reactors, toward the heat exchangers in the next compartment. Behind them was the engine room.
But Ray didn't make it to the next hatch. Vlaax lunged from the shadows, tackling Ray. The plasma rifle clattered against the deck, sliding out of reach.
Vlaax's scaly fist pummeled Ray in the face like a wrecking ball. His abrasive knuckles gouged Ray's skin. The force was bone crunching. His lip split, spewing blood. His molars suddenly felt loose. Vlaax was bigger, stronger, and faster. This was going to be a hell of a fight.
A flurry of punches pummeled Ray, like cinderblocks falling from a skyscraper. Ray’s back was against the deck, and the reptile was on top of him. Ray brought his forearms up to guard his face, trying to avoid the blows. Vlaax swung, and Ray shoved the reptile’s forearm aside, causing the alien to miss. Vlaax's fist slammed into the metal grating on the deck.
Ray knew it had to hurt. He took the split second opportunity to reach out and grab Vlaax around the torso and pull him down. Vlaax was no longer able to throw punches from this position. Ray planted his right foot to the side, then hooked his right arm over Vlaax's shoulder. Ray bridged up with his left, and rolled over. In a flash he was on top of Vlaax, pummeling the reptile’s green mug.
Ray hit him as hard as he could, but Vlaax's razor sharp teeth were slicing Ray's knuckles. Blood splatter covered the deck, but it was hard to tell who was bleeding the most. Both of them had red blood running through their veins.
Ray clobbered Vlaax in the jaw, wrenching his neck sideways, momentarily dazing the alien. Ray took this opportunity to lunge for the weapon that had scattered across the deck. Like a sprinter out of the starting block, Ray dashed for the rifle. But Vlaax's fast reflexes allowed him to snap a hand out, catching Ray's ankle. Ray toppled to the ground, reaching for the weapon. Ray managed to wrap his fingers around the pistol grip and he swung the weapon around, aiming the barrel at the bloodied green face snarling at him.
“Down, boy,” Ray said.
Vlaax backed off, putting his hands in the air.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t vaporize you right now?”
“Because I’ve placed a thermal grenade somewhere in the ship. If you kill me, you'll never find it.”
Ray pondered this a moment. “You’re full of shit.”
“I think I’ll take my chances.” Ray gripped the weapon tight, ready to squeeze the trigger.
“Wait,” Vlaax conceded. "I'll show you where it is, on one condition.”
"You're in no position to negotiate."
“Think of it as a compromise. You let Nard and I off at the next planet, and we call it even. No harm, no foul."
Ray's eyes narrowed at him. "Give me the shard.”
“Do we have a deal?”
“Give me the shard, then I’ll think about it.”
Vlaax frowned, then reached for his pocket.
Vlaax eased into his pocket and pulled out the glowing crystal. He tossed it on the deck. It illuminated their faces with an under-glow. It gave each of them an ominous look as they gazed at it, almost transfixed.
The shard had an undeniable power. Even a non-believer could see that.
Ray snapped away his gaze while Vlaax was still mesmerized.
“Step away,” Ray commanded.
Vlaax stood up and eased back.
Ray climbed to his feet and stepped to the shard. He kept the rifle aimed at Vlaax as he knelt down and scooped up the shard. Ray could feel the energy rush through his body. It was a sudden burst of euphoria, almost like a drug. He stuffed it into his pocket. Then gripped the weapon firmly. “Now, how about we find that thermal grenade?"
Ray marched the reptilian freak through a labyrinth of corridors. “Try anything funny and I won't hesitate to waste you.”
Vlaax nodded and led him to an exterior bulkhead near the engineering compartment.
The grenade was tucked away against one of the strakes. It was good placement, Ray thought. The explosion would rip through the exterior hull and take out the starboard engine. If it didn't destroy the ship completely, it would surely cripple it.
Ray stepped to the device and glanced over its glowing red display panel. There were 15 minutes left on the timer. “Is it code locked?”
Ray punched in the code, deactivating the device. The display lingered red for a moment, causing Ray's heartbeat to skyrocket. Punching in the wrong code could cause the device to spontaneously detonate, or lockout future attempts to deactivate it. Finally, the display switched to green.
Ray exhaled and took aim at Vlaax. The reticle hovered on the alien's head.
“Hey, wait a minute. We had a deal.”
“I never agreed to the deal. I said I’d think about it.”
“Ah, come on. You can’t blame a guy for trying.” Vlaax shrugged and flashed a smile.
“Yes, I can.” Ray probably wasn't going to kill the reptile, but he didn't want to let him off the hook too easily. Might as well make the slimy bastard sweat.
“Kill me and you'll never find out."
“Find out what?”
“Where the last place I saw that tattoo was.” Vlaax eyed the tattoo on the back of Ray's palm.
Ray perked up. "Where?"
“Do we have a deal, or don’t we?"
“Fine. I'll drop you off at the next stop. Now where have you seen this tattoo before?”
Vlaax smiled. “You don't really think I'm gonna tell you before you deliver us to safety, do you?"
Ray grumbled under his breath. "Move along." He waved the barrel of the weapon, motioning Vlaax down the corridor. He marched the reptile back to the holding cell and sealed him in with Nard.
Vlaax wasn’t too happy with the little guy and proceeded to give him an ear full.
Ray watched through the viewport for a moment, amused. Then he jogged aft toward the engine compartment. He knocked on the hatch when he arrived. “Hey, you both okay?”
Grace unlocked the compartment and opened the hatch. She looked happy to see him, for a moment.
“The two troublemakers are all locked up,” Ray said with pride. He stood there waiting to be congratulated. But the praise never came.
“You want some kind of medal?” Grace asked. “If you'd have properly vetted them before you hired them, this whole situation might have been avoided."
“If I'd have properly vetted my passengers, this whole situation wouldn't have happened.” He said, mocking her in a whiny voice. If they were kids, he’d have stuck his tongue out at her.
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” Grace marched out of the compartment.
Ray called after her. “I’m not even getting paid for this.”
“Oh, I'm paying all right. In pain and suffering." She rounded the corner and disappeared.
Ava paused at the entrance and gazed at Ray curiously. “Why do you both fight so much? You clearly like each other?”
Ray scoffed. “No. We do not like each other. I mean, she’s probably still into me, but…”
“Sure. Whatever you say.” Ava rolled her eyes and strolled toward the cockpit.
The bulkheads warbled as a quantum distortion washed through the ship—the Valkyrie was emerging from slide-space. Ray ran through the hallway to the cockpit. The barren planet of Toscoga was in clear view through the front window.
A proximity alert sounded—three ships appeared on the scanners. The system quickly identified them as Osprey XR-9s. They were state-of-the-art, commercially available, warships. Comparable in size to a Corvette class Navy ship. They were fast, nimble, and heavily armored. And they weren’t cheap either. They had become popular among the ultra-rich for their defensive capabilities. Intergalactic raiders would think twice before attacking an Osprey. And for those raiders who could afford it, they were the ideal tool for marauding around the galaxy.
“I don't like the looks of this," Ray said. “Plot jump coordinates. Take us to Ultrava.”
“Aye, sir,” ZV-0 said, attempting to sound professional. He was just as anxious to vacate the area as Ray. He frantically typed on the keypad, his mechanical fingers moving with precision.
The Ospreys moved into a combat spread and flanked the Valkyrie.
“If you were going to try and sell an illicit object that was in high demand by the Realm, who would you sell it to?" Ray asked.
He exchanged a glance with ZV-0. Then the two answered in unison, “D-Beck.”
"He's the only one who can afford Ospreys,” Ray said.
Ray activated the comm system. “Dietrich, are you out there?"
There was no response.
“Oh, Dietrich… Come in, please."
Within a few moments, Dietrich's refined features appeared on the display. He looked somewhat disappointed to see Ray.
“D-Beck, so good to see you.” Ray despised the man.
“Not who you were expecting?” Ray asked.
Dietrich forced a smile. "I don't care who I do business with, as long as we can do business."
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I've got nothing for sale. And even if I did, I wouldn't sell it to you.”
"Then you leave me no choice but to take it from you."
“Give it your best shot." Ray flashed a smile. "Hit it, ZV-0.” He waited for the robot to engage the jump drive, but nothing happened.
Ray's smile began to fade. His eyes shifted to ZV-0. “Any day now,” he muttered out the side of his mouth.
ZV-0 stuttered, “Uh, slight technical difficulty.”
Ray cut the transmission. "What is it?"
A proximity alert sounded. Several tactical missiles streaked across the star field toward the Valkyrie.
“I’m not sure,” ZV-0 said.
“Well, get back to the engine room and figure it out!”
Ray throttled the thrusters up to full power. He pulled hard on the controls and banked the Valkyrie, taking evasive action.
ZV-0 flew out of the cockpit and buzzed down the corridor.
Ray deployed electronic countermeasures. Several ECM's jettisoned from the stern. They glowed blue, simulating ion emissions. But they did nothing to distract the tactical missiles—they were locked onto the Valkyrie, and no electronic countermeasures were going to dissuade them. The scanner system finally identified them as Prometheus VI tactical thermonuclear weapons. They had a yield of 20 megatons each. More than enough to incinerate a ship the size of the Valkyrie.
The nukes weren’t the only thing Ray had to worry about. Plasma bolts streaked through space at the Valkyrie from the Ospreys’ massive cannons.
Ray spiraled through space, dodging the incoming threats, trying to outrun the missiles. The Valkyrie’s rear cannons swung into action. The auto targeting system locked onto the nukes and blasted away. Streaks of plasma pulses rifled at the missiles, incinerating them in brilliant bursts. But one of the nukes slipped through and impacted the hull.
The explosion rocked the ship. The bulkheads shook and rumbled. Ray felt his safety harness cut sharply against his collar bone as he was thrust forward. It was a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling quake.
ZV-0 did his best to avoid slamming into a bulkhead. He fired stabilizing thrusters as he weaved through the corridor.
In the cockpit, klaxons blared. The shields had held, but they were down to 10 percent. Another hit would finish the Valkyrie.
Ray kept weaving through space, trying to evade the onslaught. The Valkyrie was fast, but the Ospreys were faster, and they were closing in.
Ray angled toward an asteroid field ahead. It was a risky proposition, but he knew it would give the Ospreys something else to consider, besides the Valkyrie.
A flurry of plasma bolts impacted the stern of the ship, sending another rumbling quake through the bulkheads. The shields were now down to 5 percent.
Ray banked the vehicle around and plunged into the fray. Asteroids tumbled in all directions. Some were mammoth, almost the size of small moons. Those were usually the easiest to deal with, and the slowest moving. It was the small and medium-size asteroids, tumbling through space from all angles, that would give you real trouble. They'd seemingly come out of nowhere.
Ray's eyes darted about as he dove the ship and weaved through the treacherous space rocks. Smaller asteroids, ranging in size from pebbles to bricks impacted the hull. There was a constant pinging and clanking that reverberated through the Valkyrie. Ray banked and twisted and whirled.
Two of the Ospreys chased after the Valkyrie. The one that stayed behind, out of harms way, presumably carried Dietrich himself. He knew better than to plunge into an asteroid field. But he had no problem sending in his minions.
ZV-0 frantically worked on the quantum drive. It was a cylindrical tower in the center of the room with multiple processors, circuits, couplers, vents, wiring, and conduit. The diagnostic had returned a fault with the quantum oscillator—the device had shorted out. ZV-0 removed the oscillator and inserted a new one into the slot, then powered up the system. Lights flickered, and the drive spun up. The core emitted a blue glow of increasing intensity as it hummed to life.
ZV-0 messaged Ray over the comm link as he zipped out of the compartment, heading back to the cockpit. “We’re good to go!”
“Nice work, Egghead.”
The news was more than welcome. But there was one slight problem—a jump from an asteroid field was dangerous. Too dangerous. You might drag a chunk of space rock with you, and that could be catastrophic. It was never a good idea to make slide-space jumps near large objects. The gravitational mass could affect any number of processes and calculations. Ray would have to navigate his way out of the asteroid field before he could jump away.
So far, he was holding his own. He steered clear of the larger asteroids and avoided any major collisions. But the twisting and spiraling wasn't sitting well with Ava, and she looked like she was about to hurl again.
The Ospreys weren’t far behind, and they were slinging plasma pulses in Ray’s general direction. Though, they were having their own trouble with the asteroids.
The Valkyrie twisted through the field of space rocks, narrowly avoiding collisions, heading toward the edge of the belt of asteroids. One thing was for certain, Ray knew how to fly. He maneuvered the craft with technical precision, almost as if he was anticipating the placement of the asteroids. It was like a deadly ballet.
There weren't many pilots that could do what Ray did, as evidenced by the fate of one of the Ospreys as it impacted a massive tumbling planetoid. It erupted in a series of explosions, splintering into bits. Chunks of metal and debris scattered into space.
The remaining Osprey in the asteroid field was still in fresh pursuit, and it wasn't showing any signs of letting up.
An alarm sounded. As the Valkyrie reached the edge of the asteroid field, two more nukes streaked toward it. A hailstorm of cannon fire blazed across the star field. The Valkyrie couldn't take much more abuse.
The tactical nukes streaked toward the craft, spewing a trail of propellant.
“I don’t care where you take us, just get us out of here," Ray said.
ZV-0 programed the jump coordinates. His fingers raced across the keypad.
The nukes streaked closer.
"Done,” ZV-0 shouted.
Ray engaged the slide-space drive, and the Valkyrie vanished seconds before the nukes would have impacted. They rocketed through the distorted space of the Valkyrie’s quantum wash, detonating into nothingness.
Ray leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head, grinning. "Now that is what I call flying."
“I’ll concede the fact that you have some skill as a pilot,” Grace said.
Ava looked green. The world was spinning for her, but somehow she managed to hold her stomach. There wasn't much left in it anyway.
"ZV-0, go to the med center and grab some Liquinox,” Ray said.
ZV-0 scurried out of the cockpit and returned a few moments later. He hovered beside Ava, holding an injection gun. "Roll up your sleeve.”
Her skeptical eyes gazed at the injector. "What is that?”
“It’s really good for hangovers, or so I'm told."
Ava bared her arm, and ZV-0 pressed the nozzle against her flesh. He pulled the trigger, and a quick rush of medication entered her body. She flinched a little, but it was mostly painless.
Within a few minutes, her head cleared and her stomach settled. The throbbing in her temples was gone. Her cottonmouth vanished, replaced by a generous amount of saliva. Her whole body suddenly felt rehydrated. The color returned to her skin, and her eyes once again looked bright and vibrant.
“I can see you’re feeling much better,” ZV-0 said. “Ray uses it quite frequently, and it has always worked wonders for him.”
Ray scowled at the robot. "I don't use it all the time.”
“Right,” ZV-0 said.
“I may overindulge from time to time, but I know my limits.”
Ray furrowed his brow at her. He stood up and strolled toward the hatch. "I don't know about anybody else, but I'm hungry. He looked at Ava.
“Follow me, kid." Ray strolled out of the cockpit. Grace and Ava trailed after him.
In the galley, Ray punched a few keys on the food fabricator and scrolled through the menu. The device had storage tanks with an array of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, flavoring, and coloring. On command, it would mix the appropriate ingredients, then 3D print the meal. Ray made his selection, and the device activated. The ingredients were pushed through actuators and mixed, then forced through nozzles, until finally a juicy hamburger appeared on the serving tray. It looked indistinguishable from the real thing. The taste wasn't too bad either.
Ava never had a hamburger before. It looked and smelled pretty good. “I'll have what he had.”
Grace helped her navigate the menu, and within a few moments she had a hot burger of her own.
Ray got a soda from the drink dispenser and sat down at a table.
Grace and Ava joined him. The Oracle’s eyes lit up as she bit into the burger. An explosion of culinary delights danced across her tastebuds.
Ray and Grace watched, astounded at the speed she inhaled the meal.
“Guess they don’t feed you burgers in the temple?” Ray said.
Ava shook her head, cheeks puffed out as she gobbled down the last of the hamburger. Then, remembering, she shrieked, “The stone!” The muffled words were barely audible.
“I've got it,” Ray said.
“I’d like it back,” Ava said, swallowing a bite.
"I think it's safer with me.”
Ava tensed. "That's not wise."
“You didn’t do such a good job hanging onto it before,” Ray said.
“The stone is powerful. It should only be handled by those of a certain virtue."
Ray lifted his brow and snickered. "Are you implying that I'm not virtuous?"
Grace scoffed. "Give her the stone."
“I don't think that’s such a good idea,” Ray said.
“Just give it to her. You certainly can’t handle the responsibility."
Ray’s eyes narrowed at Grace. “I think it's safer with me than it is anywhere else. Besides, I don't believe any of that hocus-pocus nonsense. End of discussion."
Ava exchanged a concerned glance with Grace.
“Will the two of you relax. I've got us this far. Have a little faith," Ray said, grinning.
Grace shook her head.
Ray grimaced as he rubbed his neck. It was still stiff and sore from the beatings he had taken.
Ava saw that he was in pain. She stood up and walked around the table and began to massage his neck.
“You don’t have to do that,” Ray said.
“Just relax.” Ava closed her eyes and focused the energy of the shard. She placed her hands flat against his neck. Ray began to feel his skin tingle and heat up. After a few moments, the pain seemed to dissolve.
Ava removed her hands and stepped away. She took a seat and went back to her burger. Ray moved his neck from side to side freely. It was no longer sore, and he had the full range of movement back. He looked perplexed. “How did you do that?”
Ava smiled. “Perhaps you shouldn't be so quick to disregard things you don't understand.”
Ray’s eyes narrowed at her, playfully. “So you’re going to say the rock healed my neck?”
Ava shrugged. “Instead of seeking answers, just be grateful it doesn't hurt anymore."
Ray still looked skeptical.
Ava studied him for a moment. “Can I ask you a question?”
“I’m an open book.” Ray smiled.
Ray gave her a sideways glance, then took another bite of his hamburger.
“What are you looking for?" Ava asked.
Ray shrugged. "What are you looking for?"
“Eko Sen Zaan. But that's not what I meant. What are you seeking? You seem lost. Empty."
“I was empty, but this hamburger is fixing that. I'm not lost. I know exactly where I am. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to finish the rest of my meal without being psycho analyzed.”
“Open book,” Grace snarked.
Ray finished his meal and headed back to the cockpit as they were emerging at Ultrava. The bulkheads bulged and warbled, and Ray felt his stomach twist in the usual way. He was used to the sensation. But on a full stomach, it wasn't exactly pleasant.
Even less pleasant were the squadron of Wolverine class destroyers orbiting Ultrava. The Valkyrie’s sensors immediately sounded the alarm.
“It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?” Ray said, dismayed at the opposition. “I think we might want to make a quick exit."
“I'm detecting a quantum field disruptor,” ZV-0 said. “We won't be able to jump. They’re jamming all outbound traffic. Looks like were not going anywhere.”
An incoming transmission from one of the Wolverines boomed over the comm system. “Unidentified Valkyrie, this is Commander Shavo of the ISS Cronus. Prepare for boarding and inspection.”
“Transmit your registration and identification,” the commander said. His thin voice crackled over the comm system.
The Valkyrie hovered motionless in space as a Wolverine drew near.
“I can assure you, I’m a licensed pilot, and this ship is registered,” Ray said.
“A Valkyrie matching this ship’s description is wanted in connection with an altercation on Crysolos.”
“We are in route from Hyperion 7.”
“I hope, for your sake, that is the truth." The transmission ended.
Ray complied with the request, and sent the registration. He had multiple sets of fake registrations and IDs. He paid a lot of money for them, and he was crossing his fingers that they would check out with the Realm’s database.
“What’s going on?” Grace asked as she entered the cockpit with Ava.
“Nothing I can't handle."
Grace’s eyes widened as she saw the destroyers.
“Come on. We don't have much time." Ray took her by the arm and pulled her out of the cockpit. Ava followed along.
“Where we going?" Grace asked.
“You two have to hide." Ray jogged through the passageways to the cargo hold. Against the far wall he activated a hidden panel that slid open. “Get inside. This compartment is shielded. Their sensors shouldn't be able to detect you.”
"As long as they haven't updated their scanner technology.”
“Don't you think the Realm is aware of all the little hidden compartments on Valkyries?"
“Not this one,” Ray smiled, cocksure. “I custom-made it myself."
Grace grumbled under her breath and crawled into the tiny compartment along with Ava.
Ray pulled the shard out of his pocket and handed it to the young Oracle. “I think it's best if you hang onto this now."
Ray pressed the button on the bulkhead and the hatch slid shut. At a casual glance, it looked like an ordinary panel.
An incoming message came in on his earbud from ZV-0. “A boarding vessel is in route. They'll be docking soon.”
“Hold them off.”
“I don’t know. Be creative.” Ray sprinted from the cargo hold to the detention cell. He was huffing and puffing by the time he arrived. Ray peered in through the viewport.
Vlaax and Nard were sitting in the corner.
Ray knocked on the polycarbonate glass portal. “I've got another deal for you.”
Vlaax stood up and moved to the hatch. “I’m listening."
"We're about to have unexpected company. It’s going to raise a lot of questions if I’m transporting prisoners. I’m willing to let you out of this cell, if you will go along with whatever story I make up in the next few seconds."
“And what if we refuse?”
“I'll shoot you both right now and run you through the garbage grinder."
Vlaax contemplated this for a moment. The look in Ray's eyes signaled that he wasn't bluffing. “What's the story?"
"We stay as close to the truth as possible. I hired you as deckhands out of Hyperion, and we’re on contract to pick up freight from a private client on Ultrava. That's all you know."
Ray could hear the Imperial vessel connecting its umbilical to the airlock. It clattered with a metallic rumble that reverberated throughout the ship.
“Do we have a deal?”
“Good. Because were all dead if anything goes wrong." Ray's fingers danced across the keypad as he entered the access code. The hatch slid open. He stepped back, keeping his weapon aimed at the two aliens. “And the less you speak, the better.”
Ray tapped his earbud. "Talk to me.”
"I tried to stall them,” ZV-0 said. “I told them we had a reactor leak. I don't think they bought it.”
Ray backed away from Vlaax and Nard, and dashed down the corridor. He stowed his weapon in a locker near the cockpit. He figured it was best to remain unarmed since a platoon of Imperial Soturi were about to step aboard. There would likely be too many of them to fight off, and there was no sense in getting accidentally shot because someone got trigger-happy.
Ray ran to the airlock. The control panel indicated the external umbilical had formed a hard seal and was airtight. Ray peered through the portal. He could see the troops on the other side. He opened the inner airlock hatch, then stepped into the airlock. He put on a big smile and waved through the portal at the Soturi. Then he open the outer airlock hatch.
The disagreeable end of several assault rifles bore down on him. He tried to maintain his smile, though it became considerably more difficult.
Ray stood with his hands in the air as the troops flowed into the airlock. Commander Shavo marched in behind them. He looked at his PDU, which displayed Ray's picture and information—only the name listed wasn't Ray Dakota.
"Malcolm Blackburn?" the commander said.
“That’s me,” Ray answered, his smile growing more tenuous.
There was a long pause. The commander didn't look pleased, or maybe that was just his usual expression. "Your paperwork seems to be in order and the registration checks out." The commander sighed, disappointed. Then he flashed an insincere smile. "You don't mind if we have a look around, do you?"
Ray knew it wasn't a question at all. "Go right ahead. Me gava tu gava, as they say on Rylos 3.”
The troops fanned out, advancing through the ship with tactical precision. They cleared the hallways and compartments.
Ray could feel his heartbeat elevate, and a thin mist of sweat formed in the small of his back. But he maintained a cool exterior. He hated the fact that these jackasses were rummaging through the ship, but he kept a smile—until he heard one of the Soturi shout, “I think we’ve found something, sir.”
Ray’s secret compartment wasn't very secret. The Soturi surrounded it with their weapons drawn. You could tell they were just itching to shoot something.
Commander Shavo marched into the cargo hold. Ray was forced to follow along. The Soturi had rounded up Vlaax, Nard, and ZV-0 as well.
Ray had a gnarly feeling in his gut the second he stepped into the bay. He saw the Soturi surrounding the secret panel, and his heart sunk.
"There's a false compartment here," one of the Soturi shouted.
The commander glanced to Ray. "Care to open this for us?”
Ray grimaced and stepped to the panel. He activated the hidden switch, and the hatch slid open. Ray closed his eyes—he couldn't bear to look.
“That is quite the find," the commander said. But there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Ray opened his eyes to see the compartment was empty—Grace and Ava were nowhere to be found. Ray looked stunned for a moment. Then he tried to cover his amazement with a grin. But his mind was racing, wondering where the hell they were.
“Keep searching,” the commander barked. “No telling what will turn up on this hunk of junk."
The Soturi spread out, heading aft.
Shavo eyed ZV-0. He was contained in a restraining field emanating from a handheld device operated by one of the Soturi. It looked like a small remote control and projected a beam of energy that restrained the robot. The force field kept him from utilizing any of his weaponry. He could only move as directed by the controller.
“You,” Shavo said. “You’re a standard navigational bot, correct? Limited AI.” He glanced at his PDU looking over ZV-0’s information, which was all falsified. “VX-7 is your operating name?”
“Where you coming from?”
Shavo’s eyes narrowed at the bot. “What if I download your memory banks? I wonder what your ocular recorder will show me."
The robot’s entire experience had been recorded. It wouldn't be difficult to download ZV-0’s memory banks and replay everything that had happened in the last 24 hours.
ZV-0 could wipe his memory banks and reboot himself—but that would be the equivalent of robot death. He would have no recollection of his life, relationships, or personality traits that he had developed over the course of his existence. He would be reset to standard protocol—good as new, except for the damage he had done to his neural processor from his addiction to stim-sticks. Though, ZV-0 would argue it wasn't damage, just a change of perspective.
“If you have a drive handy, I’d be happy to download the relevant data,” ZV-0 said casually.
The commander's eyes shifted to Vlaax. "What about these two?”
"They don't speak the language so well," Ray said.
Vlaax shot him a subtle look.
“What’s your purpose on Ultrava?”
Vlaax stared at him dumbly.
Shavo spoke slowly and loudly, as if that would make it clearer. "Why are you going to Ultrava?”
Vlaax just shrugged.
The commander was getting frustrated. Several Soturi returned, interrupting him as he was about to press on with his line of questioning.
"The ship is clean,” the Soturi said. “There's nothing here."
Shavo’s face tensed. His eyes shifted back to Ray, but he wasn't pleased. A commander who recovered the shard would be handsomely rewarded. But it wasn’t going to be Shavo. At least not today. “It seems you are free to go. Other than a few minor violations, your vessel seems to be in order." His eyes narrowed, giving Ray one last look over, then he conceded. "The Realm thanks you for your cooperation.”
“Move out!" the commander shouted.
The Soturi withdrew from the cargo bay, flowing through the corridors, back to the airlock.
Ray breathed a sigh of relief. He glanced at Vlaax and Nard, contemplating what to do with them.
“I’m not going back in that cell,” Vlaax muttered.
“Yeah, me neither,” Nard added.
“Fine. But if I get any trouble from you two…”
“No trouble,” Vlaax assured him. He sounded sincere, but Ray had a healthy dose of skepticism. He figured Vlaax wasn’t going to do anything to draw the attention of the Realm after such a narrow escape.
Ray marched out of the cargo bay and followed the Soturi to the airlock. He watched them leave. Once the outer airlock hatch was sealed, he peered through the port as they scurried down the umbilical. They loaded into their ship and retracted the connection. Their ship drifted away toward the Wolverine.
ZV-0 hovered next to Ray.
“Were you really going to download your consciousness and give it to them?" Ray asked.
“They wouldn't have been able to decipher the jumbled mess that is my brain. My neural processors have been… altered… so to speak.” ZV-0's electronic face smiled.
“Well, I guess being a junkie has its benefits."
“I am not a junkie. I can quit at any time.”
Ray snorted, and marched out of the airlock. “Any idea where Grace and Ava are?” he asked, ZV-0 trailing after him.
“Yes. They are outside.”
“They took two EVA suits and exited through the aft maintenance hatch.”
Ray frowned. “Why didn't she tell me about this?"
“I’m sure she didn’t want to argue.”
Ray spun around and marched in the opposite direction. “Are you implying that I'm argumentative?"
ZV-0 was silent. He twirled around and followed.
Ray tapped his earbud. “Grace? Can you hear me?”
A moment later, her voice crackled back over the comm link. “Yep.”
“It's all clear. You can come back inside now.”
When Ray reached the aft maintenance hatch, Grace and Ava were climbing down the ladder from the small airlock.
Grace's boots clanked against the deck as she jumped down. She twisted off her helmet releasing it from the metal ring. She took a deep breath and shook out her long black hair. “What did I miss?"
“Oh, not much. We just had a few friends over. Had a little party,” Ray said.
Ava climbed down to the deck, and the two of them peeled out of their spacesuits.
“They found the compartment, didn't they?” Grace said.
Ray scowled at her, sheepishly.
Grace smiled. “Thought so.” She strutted away.
Ray shook his head and watched her saunter toward the cockpit.
Ava hung her suit on the rack. She shrugged and followed after Grace.
“It seems they made a wise choice," ZV-0 said.
Ray scowled at the robot, playfully. “Go ahead. Rub it in."
“Who are we looking for?” Ray asked. Ava had mentioned it before, but the name seemed hazy in his memory. Too many distractions.
“Eko Sen Zaan,” she said.
“Where do we find this Eko Sen Zaan?” Ray was sitting in the pilot’s seat. Ultrava loomed large through the forward window.
“The Great Mother said Nova Serfina on Ultrava,” Ava said. “That’s all I know.”
“Well, that really narrows it down doesn't it?"
Ray angled the Valkyrie toward the planet and plunged through the upper atmosphere. The craft rumbled through the turbulence, then settled as it slipped through the clouds.
Ultrava was one of the most densely populated planets in the sector. The once lush green planet with vast oceans was now predominantly covered by cityscapes. Sure, there were still rural areas, but enormous megacities stretched far and wide, and sometimes it was hard to tell where one began and another ended. There were even floating cities at sea. They were so massive, and had such sophisticated stabilizing technology, that you never felt the ground sway beneath your feet.
Ray soared the Valkyrie high over the massive continent of Urpona. As he drew near Nova Serfina, he contacted air traffic control and secured a landing pad at the city's largest spaceport. He grumbled about the cost, it had gone up 20% since his last visit, but then so had Imperial taxes.
Ava stared out the window as they cruised over the mega-city. Towering skyscrapers that rose in the clouds, spacecraft coming and going, streets lined with hover cars and pedestrians. "How many people live in the city?"
“About 150 million, give or take," Ray said.
It was the kind of city where you had to live near your place of employment. It took nearly a full day to commute from one side of the city to the other.
Ray banked the Valkyrie around and landed in Bay 279 of the Nova Serfina Interstellar Spaceway. The massive thrusters rumbled, and the air distorted beneath the landing thrusters as it floated gently to the ground. The hydraulic landing pylons absorbed the shock, cushioning the weighty craft.
“How exactly are we going to find this Eko Sen Zaan?” Grace asked.
"I'll figure something out,” Ray said. "Maybe he's listed?"
"I'm scanning the known database of persons in Nova Serfina,” ZV-0 said. “There is no Eko Sen Zaan.”
“He might not even be on this planet," Ray said. "Do you know if he's even still alive? How old is the guy?"
“So, we’ve got a lot to go on," Ray said in jest. He climbed out of the pilot seat and pulled his pistol from its holster. He checked the power charge—it was practically full. He re-holstered it.
Grace did the same.
“Stay close, and don't wander off,” Ray said. "The city is unlike anything you've ever seen before.” Then he added, “And try not to draw attention to yourselves.”
Ray strolled out of the cockpit. He weaved through the corridors to the main entrance and lowered the ramp. The thick polluted air of Nova Serfina wafted into the ship. You could smell the exhaust of millions of vehicles. The air was filled with sweat, fear, and excitement. The city was everything and nothing. You could find anything you wanted, if you had the money. And if you didn't have money, it was a wasteland.
At the bottom of the ramp, Ray was greeted by a porter. “Good afternoon, and welcome to Nova Serfina.” He spoke in a monotone voice. There was nothing warm or friendly about his demeanor. He had said the greeting a thousand times, and it no longer meant anything. “Do you have any baggage?”
The porter looked disappointed, like he wasn't going to get a tip. “How long do you plan to stay?”
“A day. Maybe two."
“Check out time is noon. Departures after noon will be billed for an additional day.” The porter held out his PDU. “Sign here.”
Ray placed his thumb on the pad to authenticate and accept the terms.
“Do you need me to arrange ground transportation?”
“No, thank you." Ray dug into his pocket and handed the man a few credits.
“Thank you, sir." The porter strolled away.
The rest of the gang had made their way down the ramp. Ava’s nose curled up. “What’s that smell?”
“Progress,” Ray said sardonically. He craned his neck back up the ramp to see Vlaax and Nard exiting.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Vlaax said as he reached the landing. He and Nard kept walking toward the terminal.
“You’re forgetting something,” Ray called after them.
Vlaax glanced back with a quizzical look on his face. Ray displayed the tattoo on the back of his hand.
“Yeah. About that. I lied,” Vlaax smiled and strolled away.
Ray’s face tensed. He muttered to himself , “I’m really beginning to dislike that guy.”
“What was that about?” Ava asked.
“It’s nothing,” Ray mumbled. He marched from the bay into the terminal. A swarm of people scurried about. Ray, and the others, navigated the horde, making their way to the ground transportation area. It was like swimming upstream.
They hopped into an automated shuttle van.
“Take us to the Cat Scratch Club on 163rd Street,” Ray said.
Grace arched an eyebrow at him. “Do you think now is really the time to be indulging in your fantasies?”
Ray sneered at her. "I have a friend there. He can help us.”
“You have friends?” Grace said.
Ray didn't dignify it with a response. The hovercraft sped away. It raced around the spaceport loop, then onto the main thoroughfare. Traffic in Nova Serfina was beyond insane. A dizzying rush of vehicles on, and above, the roadway. It was one thing to drive on ground level, quite another to drive in one of the designated elevated tiers above the roadway.
There wasn't an official demarcation between vertical lanes, though they were technically 12 feet high, each. Most of the cars on, or near, the roadway were automated. You had to be either extremely talented, or slightly insane, to try and navigate the roadways manually. Hover-cars dipped and weaved and dodged and turned with technical precision, changing lanes and elevations with pinpoint accuracy.
It took almost an hour to reach the Cat Scratch Club. The name was in lights above the entrance. An animated image of a provocative bombshell in a tight leather catsuit, wearing an angular eye mask, seductively invited patrons inside. Get the fever, was the subtitle. The place oozed sensuality, and was known the galaxy over. If kittens weren't your thing, Matadors was just down the street. And if you were looking for something else, you could find it a block over at Transitions.
Ray, and company, filed out of the cab. They stood on the bustling sidewalk admiring the garish sights of the red light district.
Ray strolled into the establishment. There was a girl behind the register, and a bouncer twice the size of Ray.
“It's 35 credits each," the cashier said.
“I’m here to see Nero," Ray replied.
“I don’t give a shit who you are here to see. It’s 35 credits each."
Ray grimaced. He took one look at the size of the bouncer and didn't want to tumble with him, so he reluctantly placed his thumb on the pay pad.
“Do you know where I can find him?" Ray asked.
“I’m not his secretary,” the bouncer said.
“Is he in the building?”
Ray shook his head and muttered to himself. The bouncer stepped aside, and Ray and the crew filed into the sleazy establishment.
There were several stages, atop which the most exotic of women twirled around poles, spotlit by stage lights that slashed the hazy air. Electronic music pumped in through massive speakers. You could feel the beat in your chest. The girls writhed and undulated in rhythm.
"Always leave it to you to keep it classy," Grace muttered.
“We’re here strictly on business. I swear." Race stopped a waitress as she passed by. "I'm looking for Nero. He's an old friend. Have you seen him?"
She glanced back over the crowded club and pointed toward the corner. “Yeah, he's right over there."
The waitress sauntered away and delivered a tray of cocktails to a nearby table.
Nero was sitting at a table in a roped off area. He was with several other men. A plethora of gorgeous women surrounded them. There was a bottle of liquor, ice, and several glasses on the table, along with carafes of various mixers.
A bouncer stood at the velvet rope, prohibiting access to this VIP area that only Nero was allowed to occupy. He held out his hand and stopped Ray as he approached. He wore a double-breasted suit and had his hair slicked back, pulled into a ponytail. He had a trimmed black mustache. His shoulders were twice as wide as Ray's, but he had short narrow legs.
“Ray Dakota, here to see Nero."
The bouncer turned back and signaled to the boss.
Nero caught sight of Ray. A wide smile beamed across his face and he stood up. He waved Ray, and the group, back. The bouncer unlatched the velvet rope and pulled it aside.
Ray smiled and strolled toward Nero. He reached out his hand to greet his old friend. But instead of responding with a handshake, Nero swung a right cross that connected perfectly with Ray's jaw. Maybe Nero wasn't so happy to see him after all?
Nero wasn't an exceptionally big guy, but his fist connected with Ray’s face like a sledgehammer. It wrenched his neck to the side and caused Ray to stumble. He almost hit the ground, but he recovered his balance at the last second. His lip split and blood sprayed onto the well-worn carpet.
Ava’s eyes grew wide. “Is that a standard greeting?” she whispered into Grace’s ear.
Grace fumbled for words. “Um, sure. Sometimes when old friends are excited to see each other, they exchange punches… I guess.”
Ray clenched his fist, instinctually wanting to return the punch. But he knew assaulting Nero in his own club wasn't going to be a good idea. Instead, he took the pain and smiled, then stood tall. “I take it you're still pissed?"
Nero might have gotten in a cheap shot, but it didn't come without a price. His knuckles were split from Ray's teeth, and his metacarpals ached. Nero tried to shake out the pain.
Ray might not have been a prizefighter, but he could take a punch. And it's easier to break your fist than you think.
“No, I'm not pissed.” Nero smiled. “Not anymore. Now we’re even.”
Ray rubbed his jaw. "Well, that's good, because I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“I don’t do favors."
“I’m looking for somebody."
“Well, then. You've come to the right place. Everyone you'd ever want to meet is here." Nero gestured across the club.
"Is there somewhere we can talk, in private?"
“This is my office, Ray.”
“It's a little loud,” he said, yelling over the thumping music.
“You're getting old, my friend."
Ray shot him a look.
Nero motioned for Ray to have a seat on the plush couch, then sat beside him.
ZV-0 was taking full advantage of all the opportunities the club had to offer. He was chatting up a scantily clad blonde and a brunette.
“Eko Sen Zaan,” Ray said. “He’s some type of religious figure.”
“You'd be surprised, but I get a lot of religious figures that come through here. I get senators and congressmen too. You know, I even thought about setting up a confessional near the exit so you can leave with a clear conscience.”
“Do you know him?”
“It’s a big city, Ray.”
“I thought you knew everyone?”
"I know people who know people. I'll make some calls.”
“Do it discreetly,” Ray said. “Unless you want the Realm creeping up your ass.”
“I don't like the Realm anymore than you do. Trust me, my contacts are loyal.” The way he said it carried a certain weight. The look in his eyes implied that those who were disloyal were dealt with appropriately. Nero wasn't a man to be trifled with. “Have a drink. Enjoy yourself.”
Grace gave Ray a look that said don’t even think about it.
“Thanks, but we’ve got to stay focused,” Ray said.
ZV-0 had already taken it upon himself to enjoy the amenities. He was getting an exotic dance from the two girls. What little clothing they were wearing had come off quickly. The visual processing center of his neural network was definitely stimulated.
“Where are you staying?” Nero asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Ray said. “We’ll grab a hotel nearby.”
“Nonsense. Stay at one of my properties. The penthouse on Fairfax is empty.” Nero dug into his pocket and handed Ray a key.
“That’s very generous of you.”
“It’s the least I could do for an old friend,” Nero smiled. “I hope the jaw is okay.”
“I’ll live,” Ray said, moving his jaw from side to side, feeling a tinge of pain.
“You have to admit, you deserved it.” He paused, waiting for an acknowledgment that never came.
“If you think about it, I did you a favor. She was no good for you anyway.”
Nero pondered this for a moment. “Maybe you’re right.” He paused. “I’ll let you know as soon as I find out something.”
“Thanks.” Ray stood up. He looked over at ZV-0 and shook his head. “Hey, Buddy. It’s time to go.”
“But… But… But…” The robot’s eyes pleaded to stay.
“Sorry ladies,” ZV-0 said.
They made pouty faces and kissed him on his cheeks, leaving lip prints on his glossy exterior. His eyes lit up with glee.
ZV-0 followed Ray and the others toward the exit.
“Did you program him to be this way?” Grace asked.
"Hey, sometimes I need a wing man. And that little egghead is a chick magnet. He’s better than a dog. Women love him.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Please explain to me how in the world I ever found you attractive?”
“You apparently had good taste at one point in time," he zinged back at her.
Outside the club, there was a blind beggar on the sidewalk. He held up a cardboard sign that read: It's a beautiful day, and I can't see it.
Ava stopped on the sidewalk. Her sad eyes gazed at the man. She knelt down beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. She closed her eyes and focused on the energy of the shard. She could feel the healing power flow through her hand and into the blind man.
A moment later, she stood up. The man pulled off his sunglasses and looked up at her in disbelief. Tears of joy streamed down his face. Ava was the first image he had seen in over a decade. It took a moment to sink in.
“I must be dreaming,” he said. The sights of the city filled his eyes. Everything was sharp and vibrant. He now had the eyes of a twenty year old, even though he was well on in years.
“It’s not a dream,” Ava assured him, smiling.
“You’re an angel,” he praised her. “That’s what you are.”
“No. I’m not.”
He bowed at her feet, thanking her over and over again. “I can see! I can see!”
A crowd was beginning to gather.
“She cured me,” the man exclaimed. He continued to extol Ava, shouting about the miracle.
Ray looked back over his shoulder, taking note of the commotion. He stormed back to Ava and pulled her along. “What part of don't draw attention to yourself did you not understand?"
“What was I supposed to do? Let him continue to suffer?"
Ray sighed. “If you are going to go around healing the blind, just do it discreetly.”
“I didn't do anything,” Ava said. “It's the stone.”
“Just try to keep a low profile from here on out."
Nero’s penthouse was on the 57th floor of Skyline Plaza. Floor to ceiling windows provided a panoramic view of the city, and it had a 2500 square foot private terrace. The place had marble floors, and was lavishly decorated. No expense had been spared.
Ava stepped onto the terrace, taking in the magnificent view. The dual suns hung low in the sky, casting brilliant hues of pink and purple across the clouds. She stepped to the railing and peered down at the bustling street below. This was a far cry from the temple.
Inside, Ray surveyed the amenities.
“You’re friend does pretty well for himself,” Grace said.
“Yeah, he does okay,” Ray replied.
“I don’t like it.”
“What, this place isn’t good enough for you?”
“No. I don’t like this whole thing. I don’t trust him.”
“Relax. Nero and I go way back.” Ray looked over the fully stocked wet bar. “Besides, what’s wrong with living the high life for a few days?”
“Looks like you guys had some bad blood?"
“Water under the bridge. What you need is a drink and a little time in the hot tub.”
"Not a chance, Ray.”
Ray shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“She’s special," Grace said, eyeing Ava on the balcony. “This isn't to be taken lightly."
“I’m not taking anything lightly."
“She healed a blind guy, Ray. You saw that, didn't you? I mean, you were standing right there."
“That guy could have been faking it the whole time. Probably was. You know how these people are.”
“I don't think he was faking it."
“There’s a sucker born every minute."
“Tell me you don’t think there’s something to this.”
Ray shrugged again. "Look, I don't know anymore. You asked me to help you, so I’m helping you. And, on the off chance that the stone is something special, I'd rather not let the Empress have it.”
The two stared at each other for a moment.
Ray took off his jacket, then peeled off his shirt. Grace watched his biceps bulge, and his scalloped abs flex. She was almost transfixed. Ray was a handsome man, and carved out of stone. Grace caught herself staring and shook it off. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going to take a shower. Then I'm going to take a power nap. Then I'm going to get my drink on. Is that okay with you?"
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What am I doing?"
“You think that I've been living in a frozen ice hut for so long that I'm just going to fall all over you."
“Actually, I hadn't given that a second thought." Ray grinned.
Grace growled in frustration.
Ray knew exactly how to press her buttons. He strolled to the master bedroom, then turned around and hung in the doorway. “Don't even think about trying to sneak into the shower with me."
“I can’t think of anything more nauseating.”
Ray smiled and closed the door.
Grace huffed and muttered something under her breath.
“Can you give me a description of what she looked like?” an Imperial Soturi asked. He stood on the sidewalk, interrogating the man who was once blind.
“She looked like an angel.”
The Soturi slammed him against the wall. “What did she look like?”
The man’s eyes widened. His face tensed with fear. “Blonde. Blue eyes. Good looking. Maybe 19 or 20,” he stammered.
“Was she with anyone?”
The man gave him accurate descriptions of Ray, Grace, and ZV-0.
Ray emerged from the shower, toweled off, and got dressed. He stepped into the living room and eyed the wet bar. Then he glanced around the apartment. He noticed Grace and ZV-0 were on the terrace, chatting. A look of concern washed over his face. He scurried through the rest of the apartment, calling out for Ava. But she was no where to be found.
He ran to the terrace. "Where is she?"
Grace looked perplexed for a moment, then realized Ava was missing. “I don't know. She was here just a minute ago."
Ray grimaced. He raced to the front door and flung it open, then peered down the hall in both directions.
Grace and ZV-0 followed him to the doorway.
“Did she say anything?” Ray asked.
Grace shook her head. “I should have been keeping an eye on her.”
Ray sprinted down the hall to the elevators and mashed the call button. Even with high-speed elevators, it seemed like it took forever for the lift to arrive.
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open. Ray hopped inside with Grace and ZV-0 and plunged to the lobby. Of course, it seemed like they had to stop on every other floor on the way down.
Ray dashed through the lobby, onto the sidewalk. His eyes flicked in all directions. The sidewalks were filled with an anonymous sea of people. But he didn't catch sight of the young blonde Oracle.
"I'll head this way," Ray said, pointing north. "You go that way,” he said to Grace, pointing south. “And you go down Fulton Ave.,” he said to ZV-0.
They dispersed like a grenade, barreling in their respective directions.
Ray dodged and weaved through pedestrians, almost knocking a few of them down, and pissing off quite a large number. There were plenty of obscenities shouted in his direction, along with the occasional “Hey, watch it, Buddy.”
He must have sprinted for five solid blocks before he found her. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Ava in an alleyway as he was running by. He stopped and backtracked. She was talking to another homeless person that was huddled against a dumpster.
“What are you doing?”
Ava shrugged. “I don't know. I thought maybe there were more people I could help." She gestured to the homeless woman.
Ray stared at her in disbelief.
“She's got cancer. Well, she had cancer. She couldn't afford conventional treatment.”
"But she's all better now, right?” There was a trace of skepticism in Ray’s voice. But, in truth, he wouldn't have bet against the woman being cured.
“Great. Now we can go back to the apartment.” Ray smiled.
“I guess. But it just seems like there are so many people in need here.”
Ray sighed. “Yes. There are. But right now, we need to focus on getting you to where you're supposed to be."
“What if I’m supposed to be right here? What if the stone brought me to this city to help people?”
“The stone didn’t bring you anywhere. I think you’re forgetting the bigger picture here.”
“And I think you underestimate that sometimes the Universe has plans for you that you cannot see."
Ray rolled his eyes. "So, you mean to tell me that the Universe conspired for both of us to be in this alleyway at this exact moment?”
“For what greater purpose?"
Ava contemplated this for a moment. "That has yet to be revealed."
Ray wasn’t buying into it. One thing was for certain, the Universe had definitely conspired against them, or so it seemed. Several ominous figures closed in on them from either end of the alleyway.
The homeless woman got up and scurried away. The thugs let her pass without issue.
Ray's hand clutched the grip of his pistol. But the goons had already drawn their weapons. As good a shot as Ray was, he couldn't take out all of them. He clenched his jaw and scowled at them. "Is there something I can help you with?"
“Give us the shard," one of them said.
“I don't know what you're talking about. I've got 50 credits in my wallet. You can have that.”
“You seem to be under the mistaken impression that you have a choice. If you want to live, you hand over the stone. If not, I'll shoot you both and take it.”
“You work for Dietrich?"
“He's very disappointed with you. Your shenanigans cost him a very expensive Osprey class starship."
“I didn't cost him anything. It's the shitty pilots that he hires."
The goon scowled at Ray. “Shoot him,” he commanded to the others.
“Wait, wait,” Ray shouted. “All right. I'll give it to you.” Ray reached into his pocket.
“Slowly,” the goon yelled.
Ava looked at him perplexed. She knew he didn't have the shard.
Ray grinned as he eased his hand out of his pocket. He was holding a small, cylindrical device. “Thermal grenade. Back off, or we all go boom. It's on a dead man switch, so if my finger comes off this button…”
“You wouldn't kill the girl. And you certainly wouldn't kill yourself."
The air was thick with tension. Ray could smell the rotten garbage in the dumpster and the stale, urine stained walls. The sounds of the city echoed off the narrow alley walls. A thermal detonation in a confined space like this would easily take all of them out. It would be quick and painless. Probably not a bad way to go, all things considered. But Ray wasn't ready to die.
The goons tightened their grip on their weapons. Everyone was sweating a little, and getting anxious. But the goons weren’t backing down.
“Okay. Fine. I'm disarming it.” Ray clicked the grenade. From this point on, they could shoot him with no repercussions.
“Set the grenade down,” the goon commanded.
Ray knelt down and set it on the concrete, then stood back up.
“Now let’s see the stone.”
“Give it to him,” Ray muttered.
“No,” Ava said.
“Give it to him or we die.”
“I don’t care. Oracles are sworn to protect the shard.”
“I thought you hadn’t taken your oath.”
“Well, maybe I should have.”
"Enough of this nonsense," the goon said.
Ava’s face tensed. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the glowing crystal. She held it firmly in her hand and gazed at it with solemn eyes. “If you want it, come and take it."
Ray's eyes widened. He had to admire her spunk. But now was not exactly the appropriate time to be defiant.
The goon growled.
Plasma bolts filled the air. But they didn't come from the thugs. Not at first. Someone else was firing.
The first blast eviscerated the leader. His chest erupted, spewing a gooey mix of blood and bone. His body crumpled and splattered against the concrete.
Ray took the opportunity to draw his weapon, and he fired at anyone left standing.
Plasma pulses whizzed through the air. It all happened in a flash. Within seconds, the crowd of thugs were nothing more than a smoldering pile of bodies, steaming in the alleyway.
Ray surveyed Ava. She was unharmed. Then he gave himself a look over and realized that he too was still in one piece. It seemed like a miracle. The sheer volume of weapons fire that had filled the alleyway dictated that the two of them should have been dead.
A cloaked figure stood at the end of the alleyway with a smoldering pistol in his hand. He looked like a gunslinger, straight out of a spaghetti western. He wore a leather hat, and a small cigar hung from the corner of his mouth. Smoke wafted from the barrel as he re-holstered it.
Ray couldn't make out his features in the shadows. But as he stepped closer, the gunslinger’s lined face came into view, caught in the rays of an overhead streetlamp. He was older. Probably in his late 60s, but it was hard to tell. Modern medicine could add centuries to your life. He had a short grey beard and piercing narrow eyes that looked like they’d seen the galaxy twice over. He had a permanent scowl on his face.
"You're pretty handy with that thing," Ray said.
“Lucky for you,” he said dryly. His voice was deep and gruff. “I understand you are looking for me."
“I don’t know, who are you?” Ray asked.
The man scowled at him. “Don’t be a smart ass.”
“You’re Eko Sen Zaan,” Ava said with amazement.
Ray looked stunned. “Are all religious leaders that handy with a pistol?”
“I am not a religious leader.”
“What are you then?”
“A guardian, of sorts.”
Ava looked elated. “How did you find us?"
“The stone led me here. As it did you.”
“Oh, no,” Ray said. “Not this nonsense again.”
“Do not underestimate the power of the shard. It has a will, and it wants to be reunited.”
“Reunited?” Ray asked.
“Come. We have much to talk about. I’ve been expecting you.”
“How?” Ava asked. “Everyone in the temple was killed.”
“For decades, I have anticipated the unfolding of these events,” Eko said, gravely. He glanced at the glowing crystal in Ava’s hand. “You should put that away before it draws more unwanted attention.”
Eko stood at the wet bar and kicked back a shot of Alnitakian whiskey. Then he poured another. “Nice place you got here.”
“It belongs to a friend.” Ray was getting frustrated.
“This Alnitakian whiskey is hard to come by.”
“We didn't come halfway across the galaxy to discuss the finer points of whiskey."
“That’s too bad. There is quite a collection here, it seems." Eko surveyed the rows of fine liquor on the shelves.
Ray’s faced tensed.
Eko could see his frustration. “I'm afraid you may have come all this way for nothing.”
“The Great Mother said you would know what to do,” Ava said, her face crinkled with worry.
“I know what to do. I don't know if it can be done."
“Quit speaking in riddles,” Ray demanded. “Get to the point.”
“There are five shards that come together to form the Crystal of Creation. The Empress has the other four. Your stone is the only thing stopping her from reuniting the shards.”
“Aren't they just rocks?" Ray said.
“I think you know by now that they’re not.” Eko’s eyes narrowed at him.
It was hard for Ray to deny it any longer. There was something mystical about the shard. “What is the Crystal of Creation?"
“Before the dawn of time, when Velkor created this universe, he created several higher beings to assist him—the Naazelem. The highest of which was Malenex. Velkor poured his powers into the Crystal of Creation, and bestowed it upon Malenex to finish creating this universe while Velkor went on to establish other universes. But Malenex used the crystal to create a malevolent race of beings that destroyed the Naazelem, leaving him in control of the universe. When Velkor returned, he was understandably displeased. He banished Malenex and shattered the crystal into five shards, leaving each in the care of the Oracles.”
Ray wasn’t buying it. “Okay, lets just say I suspend my disbelief for a moment… What are we supposed to do with this thing?”
“The crystal is neither good, nor evil. In the wrong hands, it could wield unimaginably destructive power.” Eko’s eyes fell on Ava. “That’s why it had been entrusted to the Oracles, the most pure of spirit. Only the most pure of heart can remain unaffected by its powers.” Eko’s eyes fell on Ava. “You, young lady, have been chosen to be the shard’s keeper. You must keep it safe.”
Ava looked conflicted. “I don’t know if I’m really the person for the job. I wasn’t a very good Oracle. I never even took my vows.”
“You’ve made it this far without succumbing to your darker nature. All of you have.”
“Why can’t you be its keeper? You seem much better suited than I.”
Eko chuckled. “Oh, no. I am far from virtuous. I would too easily be corrupted by its power.”
“But aren’t you a guardian, of sorts?” She threw his words back at him.
“There was a time, eons ago, when I fought to protect the Oracles.”
“You’re one of the ancients… a Zeviki Warrior,” Ava said.
“Was,” Eko said. “Now I’m just an old man with aching joints, and fading skill.”
“You seemed pretty good in the alleyway,” Ray said.
“A fraction of my former glory.”
“How old are you?” Ava quickly retracted the statement. “I’m sorry. That was a rude question.”
Eko grinned. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. At last count, I’m 1,763 years old. Give or take. I’ve spent a few years here and there lost in a bottle.”
Ava’s jaw dropped.
“Impossible,” Ray quipped. “Even with enhancements.”
Ava was still staring at Eko in awe. “In return for their service, the Zeviki were gifted with exceptionally long life.”
Ray rolled his eyes again.
“Actually there have been documented cases of extended longevity,” ZV-0 said.
“Can’t we just destroy it and be done with it?” Ray asked.
“There is nothing in this universe that can destroy the crystal,” Eko said.
“So, she’s got to protect it forever?”
“I said there was nothing in this universe that could destroy the shard. But there is something outside of the universe.”
The front door splintered into pieces with a thunderous crack. A squad of goons poured into the apartment, weapons in the firing position. Plasma bolts streaked through the air, scarring the walls and filling the apartment with haze. The floor to ceiling windows shattered, spraying shards of glass. It was chaos. The apartment was getting destroyed.
Nero wasn't going to be happy.
Eko drew his pistol in a flash and returned fire as he dashed for cover behind a support pylon.
Ray grabbed Ava and pulled her to safety behind a couch. “Stay down.”
ZV-0 rocketed onto the terrace through what used to be a window, disappearing over the railing. There was no telling where he went, but it seemed like he didn’t want any part of this.
Ray drew his weapon, then popped up and blasted at the goons. Grace huddled beside him. The sounds of the city filtered in through the broken windows.
Eko angled his pistol around the pylon and blasted several bolts, eviscerating one of the goons. They were trying to advance down the foyer. As soon as one fell, it seemed another took its place. Eko ducked behind the pylon as several bolts whizzed toward his face. He narrowly avoided the searing bolts, but he could feel the heat as they passed.
Ray popped up, fired a few shots, then ducked back down. Grace did the same thing. They repeated this process over and over again. These weren't Imperial Soturi. They had to be more of Dietrich's thugs. Imperial Soturi would have stormed in wearing full battle armor, popped several canisters of VX-40 nerve gas, and taken the shard. They would have attacked from two angles as well. A squad would have rappelled onto the terrace from an IDX-60 dropship.
Ray was thankful these weren’t Soturi, but they weren’t going to be able to hold the goons off forever.
A delivery van appeared hovering by the terrace. ZV-0 had stolen it. It was highly illegal to operate a hovercraft this high above the roadway, but that was the least of anyone's concerns. ZV-0 pressed a button on the dash, and the side door slid open.
Ray grinned as he saw the escape vehicle. “I’ll put down some suppressive fire,” Ray said to Grace. “Make a run for it.”
Grace nodded. She grabbed Ava’s arm and sprinted toward the terrace as Ray popped up and blasted at the goons. Eko was still holding his own, firing from behind the pylon.
Ava was first onto the terrace with Grace following right behind her, trying to shield her. Grace slung her weapon back and fired awkwardly as she ran. Plasma bolts zinged past the two of them—impacting the tile at their feet, whizzing past their ears, pelting the sides of the van.
Grace and Ava leapt over the railing, into the cargo area of the van.
“Eko, fall back!” Ray shouted.
“Right behind you."
The apartment was thick with smoke. Some of the plasma hits had ignited, and the air was milky.
Ray dashed for the terrace, broken glass crunching under his boots. His heart was pounding. He ran as fast as he could. He blazed across the terrace in a few strides and dove into the van. He spun around to see Eko sprint onto the terrace. But he only made it a few steps before a plasma bolt to the back took him down. His body crumpled amid the shards of broken glass.
Ray lunged from the van, onto the terrace, firing incessantly into the milky haze of the apartment. Grace put down a stream of plasma pulses to cover him.
Ray reached Eko’s limp body and dragged him back to the van. He heaved Eko over the railing, and Ava helped pull him into the van. Ray climbed in as the goons advanced to the terrace.
ZV-0 sped away, plunging the van down toward street level. Plasma bolts shattered the rear windows. The sides of the van were riddled with holes.
Ray tried to provide aid to Eko, but there wasn't much he could do. The plasma hit had incinerated a large part of his lung, liver, and the right ventricle of his heart. His spine was severed. There wasn't much bleeding since the intense heat cauterized the wound.
“Ain’t that just bad luck,” Eko choked out.
“Where do we take the shard? How do we destroy it?"
Eko struggled to say something, but he was gone before he could mouth the words. His jaw went slack and his eyes fixed on the ceiling of the van. The color drained from his face and lips.
“I think we’ve got company,” ZV-0 said, glancing in the rearview mirror.
A car was weaving in and out of traffic, trying to catch up with the van. Soon, a thug was hanging out the window, blasting away.
Plasma pulses streaked past the vehicle. One blasted through the open back window and raced through the van, piercing the front window.
Ray and the others ducked for cover. “Lose them!”
“I’m trying,” ZV-0 shouted.
The robot had managed to break the encryption and was able to wirelessly access functions such as acceleration and braking. He should have been more technically proficient than a human driver, but with all the enhancements he had done to his neural processors, he was less than perfect. Still, he was navigating the vehicle with precision, darting in and out of traffic, and elevations, with pinpoint accuracy.
ZV-0 took a left on Charleston, cutting across five lanes of traffic. Then a quick right on Preston, and another left on Polk.
The chase car was still hanging in there.
ZV-0 took another right, then ducked the van into an alley, hoping to get out of view before the thugs in the black Lexa sedan chasing them rounded the corner. But there was a problem with the alleyway. Ahead, it narrowed to an impassable sliver. There was an offset from where one building ended and the new building began, slimming the alley to only a few feet. No amount of fancy maneuvering was going to allow the van to squeeze through.
ZV-0 throttled up the vertical thrusters. The van skyrocketed like an express elevator. The ground became a distant memory.
The black Lexa turned into the alleyway below. Then they gave chase vertically.
The shortest building comprising the alley was 50 stories tall. ZV-0 barreled the van over the rooftop, hovering over HVAC units and dodging exhaust vents.
The Lexa crested the roof, chasing after them.
Ray slung his weapon out of the broken rear window and took aim. He tried to steady himself. He fired off several rounds, trying to take out the driver of the Lexa.
The van crested the edge of the roof and plummeted down to street level. ZV-0 reentered the flow of traffic. However, his antics had drawn the attention of a police officer. Sirens blared and lights flashed.
The Lexa backed off at the sight.
“Don’t you dare pull over,” Ray yelled. “We've got a dead body in a stolen van, several unregistered weapons, and your driver’s license is suspended."
“What should I do?” ZV-0 asked.
ZV-0 accelerated, weaving through traffic.
It wasn’t long before another patrol car joined the chase. At least the cops weren’t shooting at them.
ZV-0 made a series of quick turns and tried his luck in an alleyway again, this time making it through to Franklin Street. He took a right, then streaked across five lanes, making a left on 7th Avenue. There were three cops in pursuit now, and more were coming.
ZV-0 was ascending to the top lane of traffic when the thrusters cut out and the controls went dead. The van plummeted toward the roadway, smacking into the concrete, tumbling end over end.
The occupants were slammed in all directions. The packages in the cargo area became projectiles. Metal twisted and crumpled. The windows that were left in the vehicle shattered. Sparks flew as metal screeched across the concrete. The twisted carcass finally squealed to a halt in the middle of the roadway.
Ray could hear the sirens draw closer as the patrol cars surrounded the wreckage. His head was pounding, and his lower back ached. He grimaced with pain as he tried to sit up. He glanced around the disheveled delivery van. "Is everyone okay?”
There were mumbles and groans all around. Minor abrasions and bruises. Tousled hair and headaches. But nobody seemed critically wounded. ZV-0 had some minor scuffs on his outer shell.
“What happened?" Ava asked.
“My guess is that they ran the license plate, searched the database, then remotely killed the engine,” ZV-0 said.
Ray could hear boots against concrete as the cops surrounded the van. Assault rifles poked in through the broken windows.
A gruff voice yelled, "Come out slowly with your hands in the air.”
The side door to the van was stuck. Ray crawled to the back and kicked open the rear doors—they squealed and flopped open with a clank. Ray eased out of the vehicle and was quickly thrown to the concrete. A heavy boot planted in the middle of his back, making it hard to breathe. His cheek pressed against the hot roadway as an officer slapped cuffs around his wrist, then wrenched his arm behind his back and cuffed the other wrist. He was fully expecting to get a few boots to the ribs, but surprisingly they didn't kick the shit out of him. Not yet, anyway.
Ray sat in a small interrogation room, his hands still cuffed behind his back. The room was bleak. Dingy gray walls, a single overhead light, and a table at the center of the room. There was a two way mirror, and the entire session was being recorded from multiple angles. Software interpolation would create a 3D replication of it for future analysis, if need be. Voice stress analyzers and behavioral analysis software monitored the video feed in real time. The software could detect false statements with 99.978% accuracy. All of it could be used in a court of law. But Ray wasn't going to make it to trial. It was only a matter of time before Imperial Soturi showed up.
They left Ray alone in the room for what seemed like hours. He knew it was all part of the interrogation tactic. Isolate him, starve him, then come in and act like his best friend. Offer to get him a cheeseburger and a soda, or some coffee. Just have a little chat, like old friends.
A pudgy round faced detective wearing a tweed sport coat entered the room. “Detective O’Malley. Can I get you anything?”
“You sure? Water? Soda? A cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke.”
"Might be the only chance you get for a long time. Once I'm done with you, they'll take you down to processing, could be up to 48 hours before you get a meal or glass of water."
O’Malley sighed. “Suit yourself.”
There was a long silence as the two men stared at each other.
“Maybe you can help me out with something. You want to tell me why your biometrics match up with five other individuals?”
“Either you’re a clone, or you know someone who is damn good at forging identification.”
“It’s a big galaxy. A lot of people look the same. It's easy to get confused. You know, one time I dated this girl—she and her sister looked exactly alike. It was an honest mistake—“
“Can it, scumbag!” O'Malley's eyes narrowed at him. "I want answers, and I want them now. You're in a stolen van, driven by a robot on a suspended license, with the body of a man who was born over a thousand years ago, and a young girl that I can't find any records on.”
“We were just trying to be good Samaritans…”
O’Malley raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“See, the dead guy in our van got shot… He was dying on the sidewalk. He needed medical attention. So, we took the nearest vehicle and were racing to the hospital when your boys started chasing us. That man would be alive right now if it weren't for this mindless interference.” Ray said with righteous indignation.
O'Malley's face tensed. "Okay smart ass. I'm inclined to turn those cameras off and beat the answers out of you.”
“You’d be wasting your time.”
O’Malley craned his neck back toward the two way mirror and motioned to someone on the other side to cut the video feed. “Okay, scumbag. You don't want to play ball with me? Fine. The Imperial Realm is sending a squad of Soturi to pick you up right now. For some reason, they believe you fall under their jurisdiction—enemies of the state. Trust me, you'd rather deal with me then them."
“I have no love for the Realm.”
“Then tell me what this is." O'Malley pulled the shard out of his pocket and slammed it on the table.
Ray's eyes widened at the glowing crystal. “That belongs to the girl. She's got nothing to do with this. Why don’t you just let her go?”
“See, that’s what strikes me as odd. The Realm commander specifically instructed me to hang onto the girl and the crystal and turn them both over to him when he arrives. Now this is my town, and my jurisdiction, and I don't like those galactic jerkoffs telling me what to do.” He leaned back and folded his arms, his eyes piercing into Ray. “Tell me what's so special about that rock."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you,” Ray said.
“You've got about 20 minutes before the Soturi arrive.” O'Malley paused. “One of the five profiles that came up for you was Ray Dakota. Sound familiar?”
"Interesting guy.” O'Malley looked over his PDU and read from the dossier on Ray. “Joined the Imperial Navy at 18, applied to Special Operations Galactic Command, graduated top of the class at Spec Ops Combat Training, served two years in the elite Navy Raiders, received the Galactic Realm’s Medal of Valor, then goes AWOL and fights for the resistance.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that.”
“Something tells me you really don't want to fall into the hands of the Realm. It won't go well for you."
O'Malley looked into Ray's eyes. He had sat across the table from thousands of men in Ray’s position, and he knew how to see past someone's bullshit. He eyed the tattoo on the back of Ray's hand. “I'll bet you've got a spec-war tattoo somewhere on that arm. Am I right?”
Ray said nothing.
“That's something I can easily find out. Don't make me go to the trouble."
“Says here you were SOCT class 234. Is that correct?"
“I was 202.”
O’Malley had Ray’s full attention now.
“Was Master Chief Worthington still there?”
Ray chuckled. “The Worm.”
The two men had a moment of recognition. SOCT wasn't anything like basic recruit training. Only the toughest of the tough made it through. 80% of applicants dropped the program within the first week. By the third grueling week, 90% were gone. Everyone who graduated SOCT shared a bond that lasted a lifetime.
The Realm hadn’t always been evil. It was originally a free republic of planetary systems with open and honest elections. But the government was infiltrated from within. And as the Empress rose to power, she eliminated her political opposition and instituted a totalitarian regime.
O’Malley pulled up his sleeve and moved aside his watch. On the inside of his wrist was a secret resistance tattoo. O'Malley covered it quickly, and pulled his sleeve back down. “Now, do you want to tell me about this stone?”
Commander Shavo marched into the precinct with a squad of Imperial Soturi. Detective O’Malley greeted them, but Shavo was short on pleasantries.
“Where are the prisoners?”
“This way.” O’Malley led them down a corridor to the interrogation rooms. “I must say, I was surprised at your interest. This was a routine stolen car.”
“The description matches a group of wanted intergalactic criminals. Very dangerous. We’ll take them from here.”
O’Malley twisted through the hallways, then pushed open the door to one of the interrogation rooms—it was empty.
O’Malley’s eyes went wide. “I don’t understand. He was here just a minute ago.” He frantically rushed to the other rooms, pushing open the doors. They were all empty.
Shavo glared at him.
“They must be in the building somewhere.” O’Malley pressed a button on the wall and the alarm sounded.
“Incompetent fool!” Shavo shouted, the veins in his neck protruding. “I want copies of your surveillance video.”
Officers scurried about in the chaos.
“Certainly,” O’Malley said. But the surveillance video had been mysteriously deleted.
Ray, and the others, huddled in the back of a police transport van. They weaved through the city for several minutes, then the van pulled into an alleyway and came to a stop. Ray heard the driver exit from the cab and slam the door. He heard his boots against the concrete as he marched around to the back of the van. The lock released, and the rear doors flung open, revealing a gruff looking officer.
Ray stared at him a moment.
“This is the end of the free ride,” the officer said. “Get out.”
Ray didn't hesitate to crawl out of the van.
The officer un-cuffed him, and the others. The officer handed back their weapons and personal items, and gave Ray the shard. “Disappear. Get off the planet. You get picked up again, O’Malley can’t save you.”
“Thanks,” Ray said.
“Don’t thank me. Just stick it to those Imperial scumbags.” He closed the doors to the van, marched back to the cab, and drove away.
“How did we get out of that one?” Grace asked.
“It seems some people are still fighting for the resistance, in their own way.” Ray grinned, thinking of O’Malley. Thinking there might still be hope to someday bring the Realm down.
“What do we do now?” Ava asked.
“We get back to the Valkyrie and get off this rock,” Ray said.
“Then what? Keep running from the Realm?”
“If we have to.”
“Do you really think there is a place outside the universe where the shard can be destroyed?” Grace asked.
Ray shrugged. “I don’t know if there’s anything out there or not. I’ve never met anyone who’s gone beyond the bounds of this universe.”
“If there is something beyond, we have no guarantee the same laws of physics would even apply,” ZV-0 added. “There are infinite possibilities.” He paused a moment. “Instead of trying to keep the shard from the Empress, why don’t we steal the other four shards from her? The one who possesses all five shards is invincible, or so the legend goes.”
There was a glimmer in Ray’s eyes. “Not a bad idea, Egghead.”
ZV-0’s display flashed a digital smile.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Grace said. “You can’t be serious?”
“Think about what you’re suggesting,” Grace said. “That’s insane.”
“What, you scared?”
“No. Just not suicidal. You’re talking about infiltrating the Empress’s flagship. Stealing her most coveted possessions and escaping. Dream on.”
A wave of concern washed over Ava’s face. “The stones should never be reunited. It’s too much power for any mortal to handle. It corrupted a demigod.”
“I’m not a demigod, so no worries there. We’re just going to collect them and keep them safe,” Ray assured her.
“Sometimes I think both of you are brain damaged,” Grace quipped.
“No, just him,” Ray said, motioning to ZV-0. “I was born this way.” He smiled.
Ray’s mobile buzzed. He pulled the slim device from his pocket. Nero’s angry face appeared on the display.
“Do you have any idea what happened to my apartment?"
“Yeah, about that. Sorry. Circumstances beyond my control.”
“It’s a disaster. The Picazio is destroyed. That painting is over 600 years old. Do you know how much I paid for that at auction?”
“But hey, we're still alive. Most of us, anyway.”
“I don't know if that's a good thing.”
“Dietrich is the one that you should be mad at. It was his men.”
“I’ll make it up to you, I swear."
“No, listen, Ray… don't bother. Call it severance pay. I don't ever want to hear from you again. You try to come around any one of my establishments, I'll have you shot on site. Go crawl off to some other part of the galaxy and live a miserable existence.”
“Hey, now, that’s no way to talk to a friend…”
But Nero was gone. The transmission had ended.
“He'll cool down,” Ray said. “He's a little hotheaded sometimes.”
“I was beginning to worry it was just me that got so infuriated with you,” Grace said. "Good to know it's everyone." She strolled down the alley toward Thackston Avenue. Ava followed after her.
“You love to hate me. Admit it,” Ray called to her, his voice echoing off the brick walls. He turned to ZV-0 and muttered, “She’s crazy about me, really. She just can't admit it to herself."
“My sensors detect she was being truthful when she said she can’t stand you.”
Ray scowled at the robot. “Well, your sensors suck.”
“Actually, they are functioning properly.”
Ray sneered at him.
The robot tried to appease him. “There is an off chance that I could be malfunctioning.”
Ray smiled. But his grin quickly faded. Ava and Grace had reached the sidewalk. A black Cadismo Escavante pulled alongside them. Two goons jumped out and threw them into the SUV, then sped away.
Ray cursed and sprinted down the alleyway. It had to be Dietrich's men, he thought. By the time he reached the sidewalk, the Escavante was already a few blocks down Thackston Avenue.
Ray glanced around, looking for a method of transportation. He drew his weapon and stepped into a lane of traffic, aiming his weapon at an oncoming hover-cycle. “Off. Now!”
The rider jumped off, and Ray commandeered the vehicle. He sped into traffic, weaving through the swarm of hover cars.
The cycle was faster and more nimble. Ray twisted the throttle and the cycle lurched forward. The acceleration was so intense, Ray almost fell off the back. He clung to the handlebars for dear life. Wind blasted him in the face as he sliced through narrow gaps in the traffic, zigging and zagging. He flew through the air, ascending several lanes. His heart was pounding in his chest. Riding one of these cycles was the thrill of a lifetime, if you were brave enough to get on one. There was nothing as exhilarating or fast, in terms of street-level vehicles. Ray threaded the traffic, narrowly missing several collisions. The cycle would occasionally scrape a door panel. Clipping a side mirror could send you tumbling to the pavement. It was controlled chaos as he chased after the SUV.
He was gaining ground until the streetlight changed ahead. The SUV slipped through at the last moment as the light flashed from yellow to red. Ray tried to push his luck. But this time he pushed it a little too far.
He rocketed through the intersection on a solid red light, just as a car barreled through the intersection. Ray swerved and pulled up on the controls, but it was too little too late. The front end of the bike clipped the vehicle, sending Ray tumbling through the air. The cycle spiraled in one direction, and Ray in the other.
He was traveling well over 100 miles an hour, and the fall was equivalent to three stories. Ray hit the pavement with a bone crunching smack. No pads, no helmet, no protective gear whatsoever. The impact knocked the wind from his lungs, and it seemed like a minute before he could take a breath. Ribs cracked. His elbow shattered. His femur and tibia cracked. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. His skin burned with abrasions from the concrete.
Ray had taken plenty of falls in his life, but this was the worst.
The traffic ground to a halt. Ray lay in the street, trying to regain his composure. His vision was blurred and looked like a kaleidoscope of lights and colors. Horns honked. Nobody gave a shit about him, only that he was blocking traffic.
Ray managed to crawl to the side of the road and pull himself over the curb. The traffic moved on like nothing had happened. Ray crawled onto the sidewalk, and pedestrians stepped over him. He left behind a trail of blood from the roadway. It was an impersonal city. Nobody wanted to stop. Nobody wanted to get involved. So what if this guy died on the sidewalk? There were too many people in the city already—that was the general opinion.
He spit a mix of pinkish blood and saliva onto the sidewalk. He tongued the row of upper teeth, several of which had been cracked in half and were now jagged and sharp.
The dull numbness was beginning to fade, and the true pain of his injuries became apparent. A throbbing, stabbing, aching, burning, kill me now type of pain. He really screwed up this time, he thought.
Ray was no stranger to injury. He had been shot and stabbed before. He had been on the brink of death many times, but something always pulled him through. He had always been lucky. There was a time on Renvir, when the outpost had been overrun, and his entire company had been slaughtered. Somehow, Ray managed to emerge as the only man standing after an evening of intense combat. Long after the plasma charges had been drained and all the thermal grenades exploded, Ray had continued fighting with nothing more than an old-fashioned blade.
Every close call in his past flashed through his mind—every time that he had walked away from an incident unscathed, when he knew that he shouldn't have. All those narrow escapes. For a moment, he wondered if this was it? Had his luck really run out?
The impact had caused massive internal bleeding. His thoracic cavity was filling with fluid. A broken rib had punctured his lung. He was going to die without immediate medical attention.
His attention focused on the shard, radiating in his pocket. With his left arm, the only one still working, he dug awkwardly into his pocket and pulled out the crystal. It was glowing blue. He gripped it tight, and could feel its energy flowing into his hand, down his forearm, and up to his shoulder. The energy flowed into his chest. It felt warm and his skin tingled. It was a sensation unlike anything he had ever felt before. A thousand times more powerful than any narcotic.
As the energy expanded, the pain evaporated. It flowed down his right arm and leg, erasing the pain as it advanced. He felt his face grow flush, and his scalp tingle. The tinny, metallic taste of blood in his mouth disappeared. And when he tongued the row of upper teeth again, they were unbroken.
His eyes grew wide as he stared at the glowing shard. If he hadn't experienced the transformation himself, he would never have believed it. He still wasn't sure he believed it. All he knew was that he wasn't feeling pain anymore. He pushed himself off the concrete and staggered to his feet. He looked over his once mangled body—it was now pristine.
The concrete had worn holes in his pants and sleeves. The skin underneath had been covered in road rash. But now it was smooth and fresh.
People on the sidewalk began to stare. Traffic accidents and death were a part of routine life. But seeing a man stand up and walk away after something like that was unheard of.
Ray glanced around at the crowd, then stuffed the shard into his pocket. He took a step, putting his full weight on his right leg. It was fine. No broken bones. He made a fist with his right hand, and bent his elbow, then opened his fist again. It was like nothing had ever happened. Like the crash hadn't taken place.
Perhaps the crystal did have some power after all, he thought. Perhaps now, he was a believer.
ZV-0 floated along the sidewalk, finally catching up to him. “What happened?”
“I’m not exactly sure."
“You let them get away?”
Ray’s eyes narrowed at him.
“No, I didn’t let them get away. If you would have seen the fall that I just took, you’d have a little more sympathy."
“You look fine to me.”
Ray growled at him.
“What?” ZV-0 shrugged.
“Come on. Let's get out of here before we get arrested again."
A blue sports coupe whipped around the corner and double parked in the roadway alongside Ray. A burly guy hopped out with a scowl on his face, pointing at Ray. “You. Dipshit. You trashed my quarter panel. You’re gonna pay for that.”
"Give me your info, and I'll make sure you get taken care of."
"Where'd you learn to drive?” The man’s face was red, and the veins in his neck were bulging.
By this time, the owner of the bike had arrived on the scene. He had a look of horror on his face as he saw bits and pieces of his cycle scattered across the roadway. He looked like he was going to cry. "What did you do to my bike?"
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Ray said, trying to be optimistic.
The burly guy was seething. “You stole this guy’s bike?"
“Borrowed. It was an emergency."
“It's jackasses like you that give this city a bad name." The burly guy stomped toward Ray.
"No need for hostilities,”Ray said, easing backwards along the sidewalk. “Just give me your information, and I'll make sure you both get compensated.”
“Bullshit,” the burly guy said. “I’m calling the cops, and your ass is going to jail.”
The burly guy grabbed for his mobile, but Ray had already drawn his pistol. "I didn't want to have to do this. Put the phone down."
The burly guy grimaced, then knelt down and set his phone on the concrete. After he stood up, Ray blasted the device with a plasma bolt.
"Nobody's calling the cops today. Tell me your name and ID number, and I promise I will transfer credits into your account when I have the funds available."
“Right,” the burly guy scoffed. "A guy like you is never going to have enough money to cover this fiasco."
“Fine,” Ray said. “Don’t believe me. It's your call."
The owner of the cycle spoke up. "Jake Fisher. 179763851.”
ZV-0 entered the information in his database.
The burly guy grumbled, then relented. "John Vacon. 183659382."
"Now get back in your car and drive away,” Ray said.
John scowled at him, then stomped to his car and sped away. Jake Fisher backed off and disappeared down the street.
Ray holstered his weapon and sprinted down the block. He ducked into an alleyway and cut across to the next street.
ZV-0 followed behind. “Are you really going to reimburse those guys?"
“I said I would, didn't I?"
ZV-0 looked skeptical.
“Don’t look at me like that."
“So you’re gonna do that after you pay back Nicotero?” ZV-0 looked at him with skeptical eyes.
“Yeah, something like that." Ray sneered at him, then hailed a cab. An automated car pulled to the curb and the two got in. "Take us to the spaceway."
“What are we doing?”
“Were going back to the Valkyrie, and were going to figure out how to get Grace and Ava back."
The cab zipped into the flow of traffic and sped down the street. As they moved through the intersection, Ray could see cop cars pulling up to the scene of his accident the next block over. The wreckage of the cycle still lay in the street.
Ray’s mobile buzzed. He pulled it from his pocket and swiped the screen. Dietrich appeared on the display. Ray’s face tensed. “If you hurt either one of them, I will make it my life’s mission to see you suffer.”
“Relax, Ray. They’re fine, and they’ll stay that way, provided you cooperate.”
Ray glared at him.
"You know what I want, and you will deliver it to me in exchange for the girls. It's very simple."
“GCT in an hour."
“That’s going to be tough with traffic.”
“If you are late, I’ll kill one of the girls.” The transmission ended.
“I really hate that guy,” Ray muttered.
“What are we going to do? We can't just give him the shard. He's going to sell it to the Realm."
“I’ve got a plan."
“What is it?”
Ray shrugged. “I’m still working on it."
The southeast side of town was an industrial wasteland. It was its own incorporated sub-city with the aspirational name of Galexa Park. But it was anything but a park. The landscape was dotted with refineries, power plants, intergalactic docks, and low rent housing. It was the kind of place where you didn't drink the tap water. Toxic waste from the refineries seeped into the groundwater. There were large cancer clusters among the residents. They were a population that couldn't afford treatment. The refineries pumped out clouds of smoke. The air was filled with a perpetual fart smell from the chemical processes.
The Galexa Container Terminal was the largest freighter port on the planet. They could handle the big behemoths and unload their cargo in record time. There wasn't a commercial shipping vehicle built that was too big for the GCT. The facility could handle space, air, and seafaring vessels.
There were giant automated gantry cranes, state-of-the-art maintenance facilities, and climate controlled warehouses. Rows of shipping containers lined the dock, stacked on top of each other, towering into the sky.
The facility ran 24 hours a day, but was mostly automated. This time of night, the place was pretty empty. Ray proceeded to bay 64 as instructed.
Ray stepped out of the cab, but ZV-0 wasn’t with him. He looked around at the stacks of cargo containers. Dietrich emerged with a couple of goons. Vlaax and Nard were with him. They were obviously how Dietrich was able to track Ray to Ultrava.
“Where are the girls?" Ray asked.
“Where is the shard?" Dietrich replied.
“It's close by."
“So are the girls."
Ray could see Dietrich’s Osprey docked behind the rows of cargo containers. “Enough games,” Ray shouted.
Dietrich nodded to a goon who dragged the girls into the open from behind a stack of containers. They looked scared and frazzled, but unharmed.
“Let's see the stone," Dietrich said.
Ray pointed to the sky. ZV-0 hovered high above, clutching the stone in one of his appendages.
“Very clever, Ray.”
“Let the girls go, and ZV-0 will drop the stone."
"I'll release one as a gesture of good faith.” Dietrich shoved Grace free.
She ran across the dock, embracing Ray. She flung her arms around his neck, clinging tight. It was an unusual display of emotion. “Don’t get any funny ideas,” she said as she let go.
Ray winked at her. “Of course not.”
The reunion was interrupted by Dietrich’s sleazy voice. “Now you must make good on your end, or the girl dies.”
Ray looked up to the sky. ZV-0 hovered overhead. Ray nodded and the robot released the shard. It dropped to the concrete and bounced at Dietrich’s feet.
He knelt down and scooped it up, his eyes mesmerized by its glow. Dietrich grinned like a fiend. Like a drug addict who had found a tiny morsel, lost in the carpet or seat cushions.
“Release the girl,” Ray demanded.
“You’re a man of your word, Ray. And that is your undoing.”
Ava screeched as the goons dragged her away. Dietrich’s men opened fire on Ray.
He dashed with Grace for cover behind a container, plasma bolts exploding at their feet. Bits of concrete showered from the craters.
Ray drew his weapon and returned fire. ZV-0 pelted the dock with plasma pulses. He dodged and weaved as they returned fire.
Dietrich snaked his way through the containers, back to the Osprey. Two of his goons stayed behind to ward off Ray. They blasted a steady stream of plasma in his direction. The bolts pitted and scarred the cargo container that Ray was crouching behind.
Ray slung his pistol around the edge of the container, firing back at the goons. He blasted one in the head. The goon’s body fell against the concrete. His companion seemed frazzled, but kept firing at Ray.
The goon was taking fire from two directions. And despite his faults, ZV-0 was a hell of a shot. Not only that, but the little egghead was difficult to hit. His advanced tracking and maneuvering capabilities made him lithe and nimble. It didn't take long for ZV-0 to score a direct hit. The goon slumped against the container, his chest smoldering from the blast.
Ray dashed for the Osprey, running between the rows of cargo containers. As he emerged onto the landing pad, he saw the Osprey's loading ramp close and seal shut. The ship’s engines were throttling up.
Ray sprinted across the tarmac, running with all his might. His heart thundered, and his chest heaved for breath. He reached the craft just as it lifted from the ground. He lunged into the air and grabbed a hold of the base of the landing gear. He hung on for dear life as the Osprey elevated.
10 feet off the ground… 20… 30… Soon, he was too far above the ground to let go. He was losing grip, and his fingers were sliding down the grimy metal pads. The container terminal below looked like a child's toy, set out in miniature. The Osprey flew over the water. But at this height, a fall into the harbor would kill him.
Ray swung his arm up and grabbed onto a strut, pulling himself farther up the landing pylon.
The Osprey accelerated, and the wind blasted him, tousling his hair. The craft soared toward the upper atmosphere as he climbed up the pylon. His footing slipped and he plunged down. He managed to snag a hydraulic line at the last second, then grabbed an actuator and pulled himself back up. The landing gear began to retract, and Ray advanced higher up the pylon. It was going to be a tight fit. He wasn't sure if there was enough room in the gear stowage compartment for him and the landing gear. This could go wrong in so many ways. He could get crushed as the gear retracted. He could fall. He could run out of oxygen as the craft ascended. He could freeze to death in the upper atmosphere. He could get caught in the hatch that sealed the stowage compartment.
He was beginning to think this was a really bad idea.
Grace watched in terror as Ray disappeared into the night sky, clinging to the landing gear of the Osprey. Her heart fluttered in her throat. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she had feelings for the man. It was something that was never going to change, no matter how hard she tried to forget about him.
“Don't worry, he’ll be okay,” ZV-0 said.
“I'm not worried." It was a blatant lie and ZV-0 could see it.
"In that case, he's probably going to die."
Grace looked mortified.
“Come on. We need to get back to the Valkyrie.”
"Don't move," an overzealous security guard yelled. He stood behind his hover-cart with his weapon drawn. He was the only guard on duty in the entire terminal. He looked like he didn't see a lot of action, and had enjoyed one too many pastries. "Drop your weapon."
"We don't want any trouble," Grace said. "Our friend was kidnapped."
The guard could see the dead bodies of Dietrich's thugs between containers. His nerves were frazzled. "Drop the weapon. Now!”
“Okay. Just relax." Grace knelt to the ground and set her pistol down.
"Get on the ground. Face down. Put your hands behind your head, interlocking your fingers."
"I'm trying to tell you, our friend was kidnapped.”
“Tell it to the cops.”
Grace had her fill of the police for the evening.
“Lady, get down, or I'm going to blow that pretty little face off." The guard’s eyes flicked to ZV-0. "And you, robot. Don't try anything funny.“
"I'm not going back to jail," Grace mumbled to ZV-0.
As Grace started to kneel, ZV-0 took aim at the security guard’s pistol. With precision accuracy, he fired a single shot, blasting it out of the pudgy man's hand. It spun away and clattered to the ground several yards behind him—a molten heap of metal.
Grace scooped her weapon from the concrete and dashed in between the rows of containers.
The security guard made for his cart, but ZV-0 blasted at his feet, keeping him at bay. The guard waddled in the opposite direction, running for cover.
ZV-0 swooped down to the cart and slipped into the driver's seat. He threw it into reverse. He wirelessly accessed the acceleration and deceleration functions, and gripped the steering wheel. He backed down the alley between the containers. He sped into the clearing, activated the brakes, and threw the cart in drive.
Grace emerged from between another row of containers and hopped into the passenger seat. The two sped away as the security guard chased after them. They raced to the container terminal exit, turning onto Clarkson Avenue. In a few blocks, they hit the Norfolk Freeway and headed north to downtown.
ZV-0 had the vehicle maxed out, but it was little more than a glorified golf cart, hovering above the roadway. Cars blazed past them, and horns honked.
“I think you should stay on the service road,” Grace said.
People flipped ZV-0 off as they passed by.
“But this is the fastest route.”
"Not if we don't make it there alive."
"I see your point."
Another horn warbled by, and a burly man hung out the window of a truck, giving ZV-0 the finger.
ZV-0 waved and made a smiley face on his display panel. But by the time he made it to the next exit, red and blue flashing lights were behind him. ZV-0 pulled off the highway and stopped on the service road. The cart was far from street legal.
The officer stepped out of his vehicle and approached the cart. His weapon wasn't drawn, and he didn't look particularly alarmed. So that was a good sign.
Grace adjusted the girls, propping them up, and pulling her neckline down.
“License and registration please?”
ZV-0 smiled. "I seem to have left the house without my wallet."
The officer wasn’t amused. “Transfer the information to my PDU.”
“This is my fault, officer. I'm training him to drive this vehicle, and he accidentally made a wrong turn onto the freeway,” she said in a soft, sultry voice. The words slipped off her tongue like velvet. It was enough to distract any man.
The officer looked her over. Grace smiled flirtatiously and flipped her raven black hair. She arched her chest out, accentuating her perfect curves.
“This cart has no business on the roadway. He could have caused a major accident back there. You're lucky to be alive, ma'am."
"You're right. I understand if you need to arrest me and impound the vehicle.” She thought it might be a little over-the-top emphasizing the word pound in such a sexual manner, but go big or go home, she thought. In this case, it was go big or possibly go to jail.
The officer smiled at her. "That won't be necessary. There are bigger fish to fry in the city. Just be more careful from here on out, ma’am.”
“Thank you, officer…” Grace’s eyes found his nameplate, “Carter.” She smiled again with a sparkle in her eyes.
“I’m at Precinct 227, if you ever need assistance, ma'am. Just ask for Sergeant Carter." He had a hopeful smile.
“I'm sure I will," Grace said.
The officer strolled back to his vehicle with an extra skip in his step. He got into the driver seat, flipped off the flashing red and blue lights, and drove away.
“It's so not fair. Girls always get out of tickets." ZV-0 put the cart in gear and drove away.
ZV-0 stayed on the service road for a little while, then they dumped the cart and caught a cab. At the spaceport, they made their way to the Valkyrie. The ship was just as they left her.
Grace and ZV-0 boarded the Valkyrie, and prepared for takeoff. Grace slipped into the pilot's seat and began the preflight checks.
“Where are we headed?" ZV-0 asked.
Grace shrugged. “What's the odds of picking up an emission trail from the Osprey?"
“Slim to none."
Hydraulics whirred, and the landing pads folded up. When the gear fully retracted into the well, Ray was left with about an inch of clearance. His hands were growing numb from holding on so tight. Below him, Ultrava was becoming a distant memory. Wind whistled into the compartment. Ray's body was coated in nervous sweat, even though the air at this altitude was freezing. It was getting hard to breathe. He hoped to God the hatch to the stowage compartment would close before they left breathable atmosphere.
Finally, he heard the mechanism activate, and the hatch slide shut. The deafening wind grew silent. All he could hear was the rumble of the engines, and the creaking of the airframe in the turbulence.
Ray let go of the strut, and his hands were stiff. It was almost hard to straighten them out. They ached for a moment. The compartment smelled like grease and hydraulic fluid, and his hands were black and grimy. He wiped them on his pants. But he wasn't going to complain about a little dirt.
He squeezed around the gear and wormed his way to the maintenance access panel, but it was locked. He was stuck in the stowage compartment.
Lord Maldovan’s menacing visage appeared on the display.
Dietrich forced a nervous smile as he stood in the cockpit of the Osprey. Even he didn't like dealing with the Dark Lord. Maldovan’s temper could flare erratically.
“My Lord, I have the shard,” Dietrich stammered.
"Show it to me,” Maldovan’s voice rumbled.
Dietrich held up the glowing crystal.
Maldovan’s mask hid any expression he may have had. “Bring it to me at once."
“Yes, my Lord. Send your coordinates.” Dietrich hesitated, then cleared his throat. “The terms, my Lord… they remain the same?"
“You will be fairly compensated."
"Of course." Dietrich forced a smile again. Bringing up price, or attempting to negotiate, was a risky proposition with the Realm.
The transmission ended.
Two goons clutched Ava by the arms. “Please. You can’t give him the shard. You have no idea of the consequences.”
“Take her to one of the holding cells,” Dietrich barked.
Ray unholstered his pistol and aimed it at the locking mechanism. He blasted off a round, incinerating the lock. Then he pried the door open.
He fell out into the underbelly of the ship. It was a small, dimly lit crawlspace. The bulkheads were lined with piping and wiring. He made his way to a hatch that led to a corridor on the lower level.
The bulkheads warbled, and Ray could feel the ship jumped into slide-space. He pushed into the hallway and crept forward. With his pistol drawn, he hugged the wall as he advanced. He was familiar with the basic layout of Ospreys. He’d flown them a couple times in the past.
Ray could hear boots clinking against the deck ahead, moving toward him. He ducked into an alcove and flattened himself against the bulkhead. Vlaax stormed passed him without noticing.
Ray lurched from the shadows, pouncing on Vlaax from behind. In a flash, Ray had him in a choke hold. Vlaax flailed his arms, trying to disengage, but it was too late. Vlaax quickly passed out and his body flopped to the ground. Ray dragged the body into a nearby storage compartment. He tied him up and took Vlaax's assault rifle.
Ray stepped back into the corridor and made his way toward engineering. He found the quantum drive and moved to the control terminal. Then he initiated the emergency shutdown sequence.
You couldn't just shut off a quantum drive in midstream. The results could be catastrophic. Instead, the system had a defined protocol where it would recalculate the nearest safe exit point, then disengage and shut down.
Within a few minutes, the Osprey emerged from slide-space. Ray dashed to the towering quantum-core and removed several power couplers. The ship wouldn't be making any slide-space jumps without them.
There was no doubt Dietrich was sending someone to check on the drive. Ray waited patiently for the tech to arrive. Within a few minutes, Nard entered the compartment. Ray took aim. "Don't move. Drop the weapon."
Nard’s rifle clattered against the deck.
Ray motioned to the control terminal. "Move."
“Contact the flight deck, tell them it's a burned out power coupler. You'll need 30 minutes to repair it. Say anything else, and I'll vaporize that ugly face of yours. Got it?"
Nard nodded. He activated the comm link and said exactly what Ray had told him to. Then Ray cracked him in the back of the skull with the stock of his rifle. Nard flopped to the ground, unconscious. Ray pulled the body aside, hiding Nard behind a large coolant tank.
The Osprey was drifting through space in the middle of nowhere. Without the quantum drive, they were a thousand years from the nearest outpost, even traveling at full thrusters.
Ray slipped into the corridor and snaked through the ship, looking for Ava. He peered through the polycarbonate glass portals in several compartments until he found her. She was locked in a compartment amidships. He pressed the access button on the bulkhead and the hatch slid open.
Her blue eyes sparkled. “How did you get on the ship?”
"I latched on at the last minute." He unholstered his pistol and handed it to her.
She looked at it awkwardly. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Shoot bad people."
“It is against our vows to take another life.”
“You didn't take your vows, remember?”
She handed the weapon back to him.
Ray re-holstered it. "Suit yourself. Where's the shard?"
“Dietrich has it.”
Ray led her down the hall and shoved her into a berthing compartment. “Hide in here until I come and get you.”
“What kind of control do you have over the shard?”
“I thought Oracle's were masters of its power?”
“That was the part I was never so great at.” Ava looked sullen. "I'm not like the rest of them. I wasn't born to be an Oracle. I was just some orphan adopted by the elders. I never really belonged.”
Ray knew all too well this feeling of alienation and abandonment. He looked at her with sympathetic eyes. “Well, you're part of our family now. If you’ll have us."
Ava smiled at him.
Ray closed the hatch and crept down the hallway. He swept forward, weapon in the firing position. He held up just outside the cockpit, his back against the bulkhead. There was a pilot, copilot, and a navigator. Dietrich stood on the deck.
Ray swung the barrel of his weapon around the corner, taking aim at D-Beck. He cleared his throat to get their attention.
Dietrich rolled his eyes. “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”
“Newsflash. Your ship belongs to me now.”
The navigator made a move for his sidearm, but Ray dissuaded him of the notion. “Don’t even think about it.”
The navigator backed off and raised his hands in the air.
“Let’s see the shard,” Ray demanded.
Dietrich pulled it from his pocket.
“Set it on the ground and kick it over to me,” Ray commanded.
Dietrich smiled. “No.”
“You must like the idea of getting shot.”
“Not particularly. But I’m not really the one who has to worry about that.”
As he said the words, Ray could feel the cold steel of a plasma rifle press against the back of his head. One of the goons had crept up behind him.
“Ray, you should know by now, you can’t win against me,” Dietrich boasted.
Ray dropped his weapon. It clattered against the deck.
“I suppose I have you to thank for the malfunctioning quantum drive?" Dietrich asked.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that."
“He removed the power couplers,” Nard said, staggering down the hallway. He was rubbing the back of his head where Ray had cracked him. His hand came away from his scalp tinged with blood.
“Search him, then lock him up,” Dietrich said.
The goons dragged Ray away. Nard clocked him in the jaw as he passed by. Turnabout was fair play, Ray thought.
The goons took the power couplers and locked Ray in the compartment where Ava had been held. Discovering that she was missing, the goons began to search the Osprey.
Within several minutes, the bulkheads rippled, and Ray could feel the ship jump to slide-space. It wasn't long after that when the hatch slid open, and a goon shoved Ava into the compartment.
Ava shrugged. “Sorry.”
"What are you sorry about?"
“I didn't do a very good job of hiding.”
Ray chuckled. "It's okay, this wasn't exactly a successful rescue operation."
“It's not over yet," she said optimistically.
Ray surveyed the compartment, looking for a way out. The air vent was too small to crawl through. There was an access panel next to the hatch, but without a screwdriver there was no way to pry off the panel and get to the wiring.
Ray sat down and leaned against the bulkhead. There was no obvious way out of the cell.
The Osprey emerged from slide-space in the Geminoria sector. Maldovan’s Wolverine was waiting. The destroyer dwarfed the tiny Osprey, and its defensive targeting systems automatically locked onto the approaching craft. A small squadron of fighters launched from the flight deck and approached the Osprey in a combat spread. It was impossible to get close to a Realm destroyer without proper authentication.
A voice crackled over the comm system. “Osprey, this is the ISS Excelsior. Please identify."
Dietrich nervously responded. Even if you were a guest of the Realm, approaching a destroyer was always a nerve-racking proposition. "Dietrich Beck. I’m here at the request of Lord Maldovan.”
There was a long pause. The squadron surrounded the ship, but they didn't fire.
A moment later, the voice crackled back over the radio. "You are cleared to land. The fighters will escort you to flight deck A.”
The pilot angled the Osprey toward the flight deck and made his approach. There was a fine art to managing the transition between Zero G and the artificial gravity of the flight deck. It was easy to misjudge the conversion point and wind up smacking the edge of the flight deck—a common occurrence among rookie pilots. But Dietrich's crew knew what they were doing. He only hired the best.
The pilot pressed a button on the console and lowered the landing gear. The hydraulics whirred, and the gear locked into place. The Osprey floated into the massive bay and touched down like a feather floating to the ground. The shocks compressed under the massive weight of the Osprey. The ship was quickly surrounded by a platoon of Imperial Soturi.
Aboard the Osprey, Vlaax and Nard rousted Ray and Ava from their cell and marched them to the flight deck.
Dietrich was greeted by Commander Vasko. He wore the standard black service uniform of the upper echelon officers in the Imperial Navy. There was a row of service ribbons and medals on his chest. He was square jawed, with a high and tight haircut, knee high boots, and gunmetal-grey eyes.
“Permission to come aboard, sir?” Dietrich said.
“Permission granted. I trust you have the item?”
“Yes,” Dietrich said.
“Excellent. I will bring you to Lord Maldovan at once. Turn your prisoners over to my men.”
“Of course,” Dietrich stammered.
“My Soturi will escort your men to the lounge where they can relax while we conduct our business.” The commander spun around and marched away. Dietrich struggled to keep up with him. “What do you plan to do with the girl? She is an Oracle, and will fetch a nice price on the market."
“The compensation you receive will be more than sufficient. Lord Maldovan wants the girl. She may have a connection to the stone. The other prisoner will be interrogated, then killed.”
The Soturi hauled Ray and Ava away, escorting them to the detention center. They were each locked in a separate cell—spartan compartments with a set of bunks, a sink, and a toilet. An impenetrable force field contained the room. As with the Osprey, the air vent was much too small to be a viable route of escape.
The compartment was surprisingly clean, compared to some of the dungeons Ray had the joy of inhabiting in the past. There was that time on Proxima Ceti 9—Ray got into a bar fight with what turned out to be the mayor's son. He was locked up in a watery hole in the ground for three months and fed nothing but Suva Beetles. Not very tasty. Or the time on Ursula 6, when he got caught in a compromising position with the local magistrate’s daughter, the day before her wedding to a prominent senator. That cost him two months in solitary confinement on a bogus trespassing charge—depending on how you define trespassing.
The Realm didn't like to house prisoners for longer terms. They were expensive to maintain. You had to feed them, exercise them, and take care of their health. It was much more efficient just to incinerate them quickly.
Ray pressed his hands against the translucent force shield. It was like pressing against a glass barrier, only there was a slight vibration under his fingertips, and the shield indented ever so slightly under pressure.
Some of the older generation force fields were permeable. They were excellent at stopping blunt force, but slow steady pressure could permeate the membrane. If you had the patience, you could slowly push your way through them, but one aggressive move could be catastrophic. You might get cut in half, or lose a limb, if you inadvertently re-activated its connectivity matrix. It was a flaw that was addressed by newer generation technology.
Ray tried to push his fingertips through the beam, but there wasn't any permeability to this force field. He sighed. It was worth a try.
Dietrich waited for Lord Maldovan in a conference room. Two Soturi stood guard outside the hatch. Dietrich sat at the table and reclined in a plush leather chair. He fidgeted nervously, almost feeling like a prisoner himself.
The hatch finally slid open, and Maldovan stormed into the compartment.
Dietrich stood up to greet him.
"We ran into some technical difficulties along the way. But I have the shard." Dietrich grinned. He pulled the crystal from his pocket and handed it to Maldovan.
“The Empress is in route. She will be most pleased.”
Dietrich couldn't see the expression behind Maldovan's mask, but the Dark Lord seemed to regard the stone with awe.
“About our arrangement…”
Maldovan broke from his trance. "My guards will escort you back to your ship and compensate you."
“Thank you. You've been most gracious."
Maldovan spun around and exited the compartment. The Soturi outside waited for Dietrich. He stepped into the corridor, and they escorted him through the labyrinth of passageways. None of it looked familiar, though all of the hallways seemed to blend together. It was easy to get turned around on a destroyer. You could spend days wandering the corridors. There were hangar bays, maintenance facilities, living quarters, munitions depots, storage compartments, recreational facilities, command centers. Each compartment was coded and numbered, and if you knew what the string of numbers stenciled on the strakes above the hatches meant, you could find your way around. The first set of letters indicated the deck. The second set indicated how far aft you were. The third set told you what side of the ship you were on—even numbers for port, odd numbers for starboard. The string of numbers were followed by a letter indicating the compartment usage code—“L” for living, “A” for supply and storage, “C” for ship control, and so on.
Anything above the flight deck was indicated with a zero before the deck number—01, 02, 03, etc. Decks below were listed in descending order—1, 2, 3, etc.
It all meant nothing to Dietrich. He had no military training or experience. He was just a criminal who had a knack for getting his hands on the things that people were willing to pay large amounts for. But he couldn't help shake the feeling that the Soturi weren't leading him back to the flight deck.
Dietrich knew the deal had gone south when the Soturi stopped at an airlock on the 2nd deck on the port side of the Wolverine.
One of the Soturi aimed his weapon at Dietrich, while the other mashed a button on the bulkhead, opening the inner airlock hatch.
“Wait a minute. You can’t do this.” Dietrich's face was creased with panic. Sweat was beginning to bead on his forehead. His heart was in his throat. “We had an arrangement."
“Your services are no longer required.” The Soturi’s gruff voice was cold and unemotional.
"There must be some kind of mistake. I provide a great deal of value to the Realm."
“Lord Maldovan doesn’t make mistakes."
“He still needs me. The stones must be combined in a way that only I know.” He was lying, trying to stay alive.
“I have my orders." With the barrel of the weapon, the Soturi motioned toward the airlock.
"I will not take another step toward my own death,” Dietrich said defiantly, standing tall, puffing his chest out.
“Suit yourself," the Soturi said. He squeezed the trigger, and a bolt of plasma blasted from the barrel of his weapon. It vaporized Dietrich's head. His body crumpled to the deck. The other Soturi grabbed Dietrich's collar and dragged him into the airlock, then closed the hatch. Once the seal had been confirmed, the Soturi opened the outer airlock hatch and Dietrich's body was whisked into the vacuum of space. It tumbled away, end over end, disappearing into the inky blackness.
Lord Maldovan had agreed to pay Dietrich the tidy sum of 1.2 billion credits in exchange for the shard. The money had already been approved and transferred from the Realm treasury. No expense was to be spared in the acquisition of the shard, by order of the Empress. But that fee was now going into the Dark Lord's personal coffers.
“Lord Maldovan, Dietrich is dead,” Commander Vasko said. “What do you want me to do with the other prisoners?”
Maldovan stood at the command station in the CIC of the Excelsior. It was bustling with activity. Sailors manned their stations, keeping the massive ship operational. It may have technically been Captain Renmeer’s ship, but Maldovan was in control. He was the right hand of the Empress, and the highest ranking authority in the fleet.
“The girl may be of some use to us. Discard the rest.”
“Yes, my Lord. How long before the Empress arrives?" Vasko almost seemed nervous.
“Soon,” Maldovan said.
“I will make sure everything is in order." Vasko clicked his heels together, spun around, and marched out of the CIC.
Ray was slightly amused to see Vlaax and Nard thrown into a cell. There was no telling what happened to the rest of Dietrich’s goons. Ray waved and smiled at Vlaax as the Soturi ushered him into a cell across the hall. But when two Soturi returned twenty minutes later to take Ray to his execution, he wasn’t so amused.
“Do you want to do it here?” the lance corporal asked.
“No, then we’d have to carry the body to the airlock. Make him walk,” the sergeant said, grinning at Ray. “Back away from the force field!”
Ray took a few steps back. The sergeant deactivated the beam while the lance corporal kept his rifle aimed at Ray.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your head,” the sergeant said, pulling a pair of cuffs from his duty belt.
Ray complied, and the sergeant stepped into the cell. As the sergeant reached for his arm, Ray spun around, grabbing his wrist. In a flash, he had the sergeant’s wrist locked. He struck the sergeant’s elbow, snapping his arm.
The lance corporal watched, trying to line up Ray in his sights, but he didn’t have a clear shot.
Ray grabbed the sergeant’s sidearm, unholstered it, and blasted the lance corporal. The plasma bolt tore through his chest, knocking the Soturi to the ground. Ray’s finger squeezed the trigger, blasting off another round, vaporizing the sergeant’s skull.
Ray holstered the pistol and dashed into the corridor, scooping up the lance corporal’s assault rifle.
Two more Soturi rounded the corner at the far end of the hallway, coming from the command station. Plasma bolts streaked through the air, zinging past Ray. He could feel the searing heat as they blazed inches from his skin.
Ray dropped to his knee, lined one of the Soturi up in the reticle and double tapped him. Then he moved his sights to the second Soturi and repeated the process. He moved with technical precision. He was a pro—no doubt about it.
The Soturi flopped to the deck, their weapons clattering beside them. Smoke wafted from the charred craters in their flesh. The air was ripe with the pungent smell of seared skin, and the distinct smell of plasma bolts.
Ray looked over to the lance corporal. There was a big gaping hole in his chest. His uniform was useless. Ray stepped back in the cell and stripped the sergeant of his duty uniform and put it on. He stocked up with thermal grenades, extra charge magazines, and a tactical knife. Then he stepped back into the hallway, stooped down, and grabbed the lance corporal's cover. He placed it on his head, and even under the most discerning eyes, Ray looked like an Imperial Soturi.
He dragged the lance corporal's body into the cell, as well as the other fallen Soturi in the corridor. At least it wouldn't be painfully obvious that someone escaped at first glance. The detention center would just look suspiciously empty.
Ray found Ava’s cell and deactivated the beam.
“That's a new look for you," Ava said, surveying his uniform. Then she hauled off and punched him in the face. She connected like a champ.
Ray was stunned, and his jaw was throbbing. “What the hell did you do that for?”
Ava’s bright smile transitioned to a look of deep concern. She stammered, confused, “But that’s what you do when you are excited to see someone, isn’t it?”
Ray looked at her like she was crazy. “Where did you get that from?”
“Your friend Nero punched you. And that’s what Grace said people do when they are happy to see each other.”
“Oh, is that what Grace said?”
Ray rubbed his jaw. “Well, I’m excited to see you to. But, I’m not going to punch you. That’s not how people express affection.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointedly.
“Let's get out of here.” Ray led her down the corridor to the command center. He could hear Vlaax shouting at him, begging to be released. Ray ignored him. He moved to the hatch and peered through the viewport, into the hallway.
“Aren't we going to do something?" Ava asked.
“We're going to walk out of here with you as my prisoner," Ray said with air quotes, “steal back the shard, and escape on the Osprey."
“I mean, about them?"
“Who cares about them?”
“News flash. We wouldn't be in this mess if it weren’t for them.”
"You know they'll be killed."
“And that’s a bad thing?"
Ava arched an eyebrow at him. She wasn't going to take no for an answer.
“Okay. Fine,” Ray said, exasperated. He jogged back down the hallway to the cell that held Vlaax and Nard. He deactivated the force field to their cell. “You owe me one."
Vlaax nodded. The two aliens stepped into the corridor and moved to the main entrance hatch.
“What are we going to do?” Vlaax asked. “Just stroll down to the flight deck and board the Osprey?"
“After we get the shard back,” Ray said.
“Lord Maldovan has it by now. How do you expect to accomplish that?"
Ray shrugged. “I’m working on it."
"You're running out of time. I overheard one of the Soturi talking… the Empress will be here shortly,” Nard said.
“A few thermal grenades in the reactor core, and this whole ship becomes space debris,” Vlaax said. “Preferably when the Empress is aboard.”
Ray’s eyes narrowed at him, wondering if he could trust him. He didn’t have much of a choice. He handed Vlaax a couple of thermal grenades. “Set the charges to detonate in 30 minutes. We’ll meet back at the Osprey. Don’t leave without us.”
Commander Vasko’s voice blared over the 1MC. “Attention all personnel. The Empress is arriving momentarily on the flight deck A. Echo company, prepare to render honors.”
Ray opened the hatch and pushed into the corridor with Ava. He marched her down the hallway twisting through the labyrinth of passageways. They strolled past enlisted and officers without a second glance.
They held up in the hallway at the edge of the flight deck. Ray had a clear view of the Osprey. It was just as they'd left it. An entire company of troops stood in formation, awaiting the arrival of the Empress. There was no way to get to the Osprey without drawing a great deal of unwanted attention.
"All the good uniforms are taken," Nard said, looking over the pile of dead guards in the holding cell.
“We’ll just have to make do,” Vlaax said. They pilfered what was left of the uniforms and got dressed.
They looked somewhat out of place dressed as Imperial Soturi. It was rare to see an alien species in uniform, though it wasn't specifically against regulation.
The uniform Nard put on was three sizes too big and had a gaping hole in the chest. "I look ridiculous."
“And that's unusual, how?"
“You're a funny guy. You ever think about doing standup?” Nard's voice was thick with sarcasm.
“Grab a rifle and let's get out of here," Vlaax said.
They exited the cell and moved to the main hatch. They slipped into the hallway and marched down the corridor, weaving through the maze of passageways.
“Do you even know where you are going?" Nard asked.
"I've been on a destroyer before."
They passed by other sailors, getting odd stares every now and again. They headed aft toward the reactor compartment. As they turned the corner, they passed by a lieutenant commander who scowled at them. His face crinkled up like he had smelled something foul. He stopped in his tracks as Vlaax and Nard kept moving. He watched them take a few steps, then called out, “Excuse me, Corporal."
Vlaax and Nard kept marching, oblivious.
“Excuse me, Corporal," the Lieutenant Commander shouted, annoyed. He was a tall skinny guy, with a long Roman nose and dark hair.
Vlaax finally realized the officer was addressing them. They both stopped and spun around to face the Lieutenant Commander. His name tag read M. Wilcox.
The commander approached them slowly, his eyes fixed on Nard's uniform. He stared at the hole in Nard's shirt. He looked like he was going to have a conniption fit. He reached his arm out and hooked his finger into the gaping hole, pulling the fabric toward him. “Do you mind explaining this to me, Corporal?"
Nard swallowed hard and shrugged.
“There was a mixup with the laundry,” Vlaax interjected. "They brought back the wrong uniform and it was torn up like that."
“Thank you, Sergeant. That was informative. But I asked the Corporal.”
“Yes, sir. Like he said, there was a mixup with the laundry,” Nard said.
“Any self-respecting Soturi wouldn't be caught dead in a uniform in this condition. You are a disgrace to the Soturi Corps, and by default, the Navy.”
“Find an appropriate uniform immediately, or I swear to God, I will space you. Have I made myself clear, Corporal?"
“Yes, sir," Nard said, doing his best impression of a Soturi.
“Carry on,” the Lieutenant Commander said. He spun around and marched away down the corridor, muttering under his breath, “Damn So Corps.”
Nard muttered to Vlaax. "I told you I looked ridiculous."
Vlaax and Nard reached the reactor room and stepped inside. The control technician glanced up at them from a console.
“Routine security check," Vlaax said, trying to sound official.
The reactor tech nodded and brought his attention back to the control panel.
The room was a cavernous space, three decks high. Four tokamaks filled the area. They looked like giant steel doughnuts—electromagnetic containers for the plasma that was heated to over a million degrees. Piping and conduit cluttered the compartment. The heat exchangers and turbines were in the next compartment, as well as the cooling system. The engine compartment was beyond that.
Vlaax didn't know a lot about plasma physics, but he knew blowing up one of these reactor cores would be catastrophic. He circled one of the units, pretending to inspect it. As he strolled around the far side of the reactor, out of sight of the technician, he placed one of the thermal charges. He set the timer for 30 minutes, then strolled to the next reactor and placed another charge. As he set the timer, he felt the barrel of an assault rifle press against the back of his head.
"You want to tell me exactly what kind of security inspection this is, Sergeant?" the technician asked.
Vlaax turned around slowly and smiled. "Excellent work, Petty Officer Bowen," he said, looking at the technician's name tag.
The petty officer looked confused.
“While I commend you on your instinct to follow up on my inspection, I must note in my report that you failed to obtain the proper authentication for my inspection when we first arrived. You didn't ask to see any paperwork, and you didn't make any attempts to contact your superior officer. I was able to place these dummy charges with ease. If this had been a real terrorist plot, the ship could be destroyed by now. And it would be your responsibility. I can say that Lieutenant Commander Wilcox will not be pleased with your ineptitude.”
The technician looked worried. He knew what an anal-retentive, uptight jackass Wilcox was.
“You’ll probably be demoted,” Vlaax said.
The petty officer clenched his jaw, frustrated with himself. He lowered his weapon. “Is there any way you could leave that out of your report? I just got promoted, and the extra pay is coming in handy. My wife's expecting again and—“
“Your personal matters are not of my concern. You jeopardized this ship, and potentially the entire Navy." Vlaax sighed. He eyed the petty officer for a moment. “I suppose I could leave that out of my report and let you off with a warning.”
“I would appreciate that, Sergeant." The technician smiled.
Vlaax put a hand on the man's shoulder and walked him toward the control terminal. "We can't be too careful in this day and age. Potential terrorists are everywhere. And they will likely try to infiltrate Navy ships disguised as sailors or Soturi.”
Vlaax let the man walk several paces ahead. Then he shot him in the back with his plasma rifle. The technician flopped to the deck with a smoldering crater in his back. Vlaax had no compunction about wasting the technician. Vlaax was a borderline sociopath. Besides, it needed to be done, and he had no love for the Imperial Realm.
He grabbed the technician’s body and dragged him into a nearby storage compartment. It was time to get out of there. In less than half an hour, the Excelsior would be space debris.
Lord Maldovan waited on the flight deck for the Empress to arrive. When the Royal shuttle landed on the deck, the Empress descended the ramp, surrounded by her personal praetorian guards. She was a striking woman. High cheekbones, brilliant eyes, and short dark hair that framed her square jaw. She looked ageless. She wore black battle armor, adorned with gold filigree, and a flowing red cape trailed behind her. In her left hand she carried a case that presumably held the other shards.
Maldovan knelt before her. "My Lady, it is an honor to once again be in your presence."
She motioned for him to rise. “You may dispense with the pleasantries. Give it to me.”
Maldovan produced the glowing shard and handed it to the Empress. Her eyes widened as she clasped it. She stared at it, transfixed for a moment—a look of elation on her face.
Ray watched from the edge the flight deck. He was sure that he could get off at least one shot, sniping at the Empress. But with several hundred troops on the flight deck, one shot was all he was going to get.
Ava could see in his eyes what he was thinking. "Don't."
"Why not? This might be the only chance we get. And don't go getting all sanctimonious on me."
“For one, it's suicide. And two, she has all five crystals. She is incredibly powerful."
“Not more powerful than a plasma bolt.” Ray began to lift his weapon, but Ava put a hand on the barrel, stopping him.
“Yes. More powerful than a plasma bolt.” She was once a very powerful Oracle. The only person to ever leave the order after taking her vow.
Ray heard the clatter of boots against the deck, echoing behind him. He craned his neck to see several assault rifles aimed at his head. He forced a smile. “Lord Maldovan asked me to escort the prisoner to the flight deck.”
“Did he?” a Soturi said. “Funny how he gave me the same order.”
Ray’s grin faded. He handed over his assault rifle, and another Soturi took his pistol.
“Move!” The squad leader shouted, nudging him onto the flight deck.
As they arrived before the Empress, she took great delight in Ava’s presence. “You must be the Oracle.”
Ava said nothing.
“You are truly gifted to have come this far,” the Empress said. “Don't feel bad about your inability to protect the shard. You made a valiant effort. But you cannot fight destiny.” The Empress's piercing eyes surveyed Ava. “I sense that you could become very powerful indeed, under my guidance.”
Ava just glared back at her.
"I can see the disapproval in your eyes. But soon you will come to realize the true power of the Crystal. A power that the Oracles squandered for eons. One that I have been destined to control.”
The Empress handed the case to one of her guards, who opened it and held it out to her. The other four shards had been assembled. Their luminescent glow shone over the Empress’s face and twinkled in her eyes. Only one piece of the puzzle was missing—the shard she held in her right hand.
The Empress grasped the nearly complete Crystal from the case and lifted it high overhead. She shouted to the troops that filled the cavernous flight deck. “Behold. The Crystal of Creation. The supreme power in the Universe.”
Her ominous voice reverberated throughout the chamber, almost like some kind of deity. She slipped the shard into the slot, completing the Crystal. The shards seemed to fuse into place, seamlessly with a spark of energy. The Crystal glowed brighter than it ever had before. The Empress held it overhead, focusing on its energy.
Ava eyed the Crystal with trepidation. She knew the only way to stop the Empress was to control the stone. But the power contained within the Crystal was an order of magnitude greater than anything she had ever experienced before.
Ava closed her eyes and tried to channel the energy of the Crystal. The amount of energy she felt was overwhelming, all-consuming, and euphoric. It was easy to see how a person could become intoxicated by the power of the Crystal.
The lucent gem glowed with increasing intensity. The light became blinding, washing out the faces of those who stood on the flight deck.
Ava could feel the mental tug-of-war between her and the Empress as they each fought to control the power of the Crystal. But it was a force that was uncontrollable. It contained all of the power in the Universe. It was like holding the origin of the cosmos in the palm of your hand. The energy of a billion suns.
Ava felt like she was losing the battle. Doubt crept into her mind, the power of the Crystal began to consume her.
“Doubt is the obstacle that stands between you and success.” The words of the Great Mother echoed in Ava’s mind. Doubt is a distraction. It leads to fear and worry. It robs the mind of focus.
Ava pushed all traces of doubt and insecurity from her mind. She trusted in her ability and the teachings of the Oracles. She refocused and gradually took control of the Crystal.
Soon, it was the Empress who was overwhelmed. The glowing Crystal peaked in intensity, like the explosion of a thermonuclear device. Bolts of energy arced from the Crystal as it exploded, striking almost every living thing on the flight deck. The troops toppled to the ground, smoke wafting from their bodies.
The Crystal shattered back into the five shards. The once blinding light faded. The Empress and Lord Maldovan lay on the deck, motionless. Ray and Ava were the only two who remained standing.
“Nice work, kid,” Ray said. He knelt down and scooped up the five shards from the deck. He tossed them into the case that lay nearby and sealed it.
He could see Vlaax and Nard race onto the flight deck from a nearby hallway. Ray looked at his watch—if Vlaax had been successful, the reactors were going to detonate any minute. “I think it's time to get out of here."
Ray took her hand and they raced toward the Osprey, stepping over the smoldering bodies of the troops. They sprinted up the ramp, and Vlaax and Nard followed behind.
Ray dashed into the cockpit and slipped into the pilot seat. He flipped switches and pressed buttons on the console. The Osprey powered up and the control panel came to life. The massive thrusters wound up, distorting the air behind them. Ray engaged the vertical thrusters, and the Osprey lifted off the deck. Ray throttled up and blasted out of the bay.
Lord Maldovan stirred, sitting up, dazed. Somehow, he had survived. The Excelsior rumbled as the thermal detonators exploded deep in the belly of the ship. The destroyer went black without power. A moment later, the emergency lighting came up. Alarms sounded. An automated voice blared over the klaxons. “Warning: reactor core damaged. Coolant system malfunction. Temperature critical. Explosion imminent. All hands evacuate ship." The warning repeated over and over again.
Maldovan staggered to his feet. He stepped to the Empress and knelt down, scooping up her motionless body. He hobbled across the flight deck to the Royal shuttle. He trudged up the ramp, closing it behind him. He set the Empress in a seat and strapped her in, then stumbled to the cockpit. He powered up the shuttle, and within moments the craft was gliding out of the bay.
From the Osprey, the ISS Excelsior was a small speck in the star field as it exploded. A billion pieces of debris showered into space. Twisted, mangled bits of bulkheads, body parts, and avionics. The wreckage would tumble into space for all eternity.
Even at a distance, the blast nearly enveloped the Osprey. Ray rocketed away at full thrusters. “This thing is fast," he said impressed, and slightly disappointed. “Faster than the Valkyrie.”
“Don't worry,” Ava said. “The Valkyrie has a certain charm that this thing will never have."
“But it did save our life,” she added.
“I think you had more to do with that than anything." Ray winked at her.
“What about us?” Vlaax asked. “Don’t we get some credit?”
“I had my doubts, but you came through,” Ray said. He opened a comm channel and sent an encrypted transmission to the Valkyrie.
Grace appeared on the display and looked pleasantly surprised. “I thought we were going to have to come save your ass."
Ray smiled. “Now why would you think something like that? We handled things just fine. Piece of cake. No trouble whatsoever, right?"
Ray looked to his ragtag crew for agreement. They all took his side.
“We've got all five shards. The Empress is dead. Just an average day of saving the galaxy,” Ray said, feigning modesty.
Grace's eyes narrowed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Honest,” Ray said.
Grace looked like she still needed proof.
“Meet us at Gamma Epsilon 9. I'll tell you all about it."
The transmission ended. Ray leaned back in his seat. “Gamma Epsilon 9 has a good market. I’m going to sell the Osprey. We can all split the proceeds equally, if that's agreeable? That ought to leave me with plenty enough to pay off Nicotero, pay for the damages to Nero’s apartment, and settle up with my traffic altercations. ”
Vlaax looked stunned. He and Nard nodded excitedly. “It seems I owe you an apology. It was a pretty crappy thing for us to turn on you like we did.”
“You blew up the Excelsior,” Ray said. “I figure we’re even.”
“You broke us out of jail. You didn't have to do that.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Ava.”
Vlaax gave her a nod of appreciation. Ava smiled back at him. “If memory serves, I saw a man on Alpha Draconis with the same tattoo you have on your hand.”
Ray perked up.
“Older guy. Long gray hair. Went by the name Stryker.”
“You’re not messing with me, are you?" Ray asked.
“How long ago?”
“Maybe six months ago?" Vlaax shrugged.
Ray was visibly affected by the information. His face flushed and he was seething with anger.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the significance?” Vlaax asked. “Did this guy steal from you?”
“In a manner of speaking. When I was a boy on Caster Andromeda, my parents were slaughtered, and my little sister kidnapped. The man responsible had this tattoo on his hand." Ray displayed the back of his hand. “I've been looking for him ever since. I got this tattoo so I’d never forget it. It's also a convenient way to show people.”
Ava’s eyes brimmed as she listened to Ray tell his story.
“I don’t know if my sister is even still alive, but I promised myself I'd find her and kill the man who did this."
Vlaax and Nard were moved. They actually seemed to empathize with Ray.
“You are an honorable man, Ray Dakota,” Vlaax said. “If I can help you exact revenge on your foe, then I am at your service.”
Ava had a pensive look on her face. “I know I should probably encourage an attitude of forgiveness, but I say we make a trip to Alpha Draconis.”
Ray chuckled. He programmed in the jump coordinates to Gamma Epsilon 9, then he engaged the slide-space drive. Within a few hours, they’d reach their destination. But they had an even greater journey ahead of them to hide the Crystal from those who would use its power for evil.
The Empress was still alive. The Realm was far from defeated. Ray couldn’t turn his back on the fight any longer. He knew if the galaxy was ever to be free again, it would take a strong resistance. And he was ready to do his part.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please consider reviewing on Amazon—a simple “Loved it,” or, “Hated it,” would be appreciated.
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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!