An epic space adventure that holds danger at every turn...
The human cadets on the interstellar transport, Bright Star, are heading home after eight long years of military training...but things don't go according to plan.
After a bloody battle with a group of space pirates, the Bright Star and its survivors are taken prisoner with the intent of selling them into slavery...or worse.
Cadet Alec Horn, along with the captain of the Bright Star escape, taking an emperor's ransom in loot with them. Together they set out on a dangerous adventure to rescue their friends and comrades. But can they succeed without bringing forth a war that will bring death and destruction across the universe?
The human cadets on the interstellar transport, Bright Star, are heading home after eight long years of military training...but things don't go according to plan.
After a bloody battle with a group of space pirates, the Bright Star and its survivors are taken prisoner with the intent of selling them into slavery...or worse.
Cadet Alec Horn, along with the captain of the Bright Star escape, taking an emperor's ransom in loot with them. Together they set out on a dangerous adventure to rescue their friends and comrades. But can they succeed without bringing forth a war that will bring death and destruction across the universe?
Erik Martin Willén
Copyright © 2012 Erik Martin Willén
All rights reserved.
For my sister, Anna-Sofia-Charlotta Willén, who died from Lupus, SLE at the age of twenty-four in Edinburgh, Scotland,
December 20 2001.
Life is too short to be taken too seriously, and too long for you to be concerned about other people's opinions.
Nastragull: Pirates (Volume 1) has explicit language, (some) sexual situations and graphic violence.
He watched his son and daughter, ages five and seven, with love in his eyes as they argued about what bedtime story he should read. He was in his late forties, his short hair and beard perfectly trimmed. His squared-off face and deep blue eyes gave him a cold and intelligent expression; and he hardly ever smiled, except when he was with his children. At the moment he wore a thick robe, giving the impression that he also would soon go to bed.
He closed his eyes, and then he took a deep breath. Aromas from hundreds of flowers mixing with the fresh air from the open window made him think of his wife. She had placed them there, she said, to make it easier. He had to be strong, to show no fear. Tonight was the last time he would put his children to bed.
After watching them fondly for a few moments longer, he said softly, "Tonight, children, I will tell you a different story. It is a story that you have never heard before."
Instantly the two children stopped bickering and sat straight up in the large bed. Their father smiled sadly, and tucked them in. His daughter said, "I want to hear about a princess who is rescued by a beautiful knight."
"And I want to hear about a knight," the young boy countered. "He doesn't have to rescue any princess, though."
His sister stuck out her tongue at him, and he stuck out his back at her.
The man swallowed hard, holding back his tears, and then said gently, "Actually, I am going to tell you the story about creation, the Tree, and the dragons."
"If there are dragons, it must have a princess," the daughter pointed out.
"Stories with dragons always have a knight," the boy added.
He wagged his fingers at the young ones. "No more interruptions." He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, because they sounded harsher than he had intended. Reddening a bit, he cleared his throat and then smiled down at his two loved ones.
"All right, then. In the beginning, there was a place called Fantaka. It was a beautiful place, perhaps the most beautiful, wonderful place of all time. The sun shone brightly over a landscape of grassy hills covered with colorful flowers. In the far distance were the highest mountains in creation; the sky was blue, and there were no clouds. Atop a small hill in the center of a wide plain stood a solitary tree with large green leaves. It was the Tree of Life. As time grew older, so did the Tree."
"Booooring," announced the little boy, yawning.
"Quiet. I like it, Father, please continue."
Again, the man gave his two children a friendly and patient smile. He lifted his eyebrows, ignoring his young son's mutterings about girlish crap.
"There were two colorful birds playing, flying, and singing over the hills. As they chased each other through the landscape, they crossed long, clean rivers and beautiful valleys filled with flowers, heading always towards the lonely Tree. When they arrived, they landed on a branch, playing with each other, and singing in joy. Their song was interrupted by a roar, far in the distance. It echoed throughout the landscape and they knew, as the roar increased in volume and became more frightening, that something was very, very wrong. All the animals in the valley begun to run for cover. The birds were just about to take off from the lonely Tree on the hill themselves when two black shadows passed over them—and two ravens attacked without warning, killing them almost instantly. They fell like stones onto the grassy sward, while the ravens took up the same position on the branch as the original two birds had."
The father paused and looked at his children, who looked back at him, stunned. He ignored their shocked expressions and continued in a rougher, more rumbling voice, "Soon the ground broke open, and from within it came a scream, followed by a huge, monstrous arm reaching up and beginning to pull itself out of the newly-formed fracture. A huge lizard-like leg took a step out of the crack, followed by another; and with each step, the ground trembled. It was an enormous black dragon with two heads. Everywhere it went; it devoured the landscape, and any animal in its way.
"Another roar echoed from the direction opposite the first one. This one came from a cave on the largest mountain. A second dragon emerged; and unlike the first one, it had only one head and it was white."
"Is it good, Daddy? Is it a good dragon?" the young girl cried out.
"Who cares? I want to be the black dragon," the son said, crossing his arms across his thin chest.
The father only laughed quietly before continuing, "The two dragons met below the hill bearing the single lonely Tree, the Tree of Life. The creatures snorted at each, and then they attacked. It was a fight to the death. You see, children, there could only be one dragon, not two."
"Why?" they asked in unison.
"Because only one dragon can guard creation; if there are two, then a conflict will erupt, just like this one did." He smiled at them solicitously. "Do you want to hear more, my lovelies, or are you tired?"
From their eyes, it was clear that he should continue.
"Very well. As the two dragons fought their mortal battle, all the other living beings in creation ran for cover. They fled, but there was no place for them to go. Still they fled, and more of the beautiful landscape was ravaged. The two ravens flapped their wings while screaming, taunting and encouraging the battling beasts. Then something happened that wasn't supposed to happen. From behind the ravens rose a large shadow, covering them and the entire landscape—yet there were no clouds. A snorting sound was heard, and soon it turned into a loud, clear tone, similar to that of a horn. The two ravens fell silent as they looked towards the strange shadow, and then they bowed their heads—and all the fleeing animals fled no more. They were no longer afraid. United, they followed the strange shadow. From its center shone a light that was brighter than any other light in creation. Then there was the third dragon..."
His tale was interrupted by a woman's cold voice. "It is done. It is over. They are gone." He looked down to see that his children were lying where they had fallen, eyes closed, and faces pale. Their little chests did not move.
He looked up as their mother entered the bedroom. Her eyes were cold, yet there was an exquisite sadness in them. She was younger that he, in her early forties, beautiful and haughty, a dominant expression frozen on her features. Her black hair was braided behind her head, and her dark brown eyes seemed almost black in the dim light. She wore a robe similar to that of her husband, but in her left hand she held some type of helmet. She half tried to conceal it behind her back.
Her husband looked down at the two lifeless bodies of his children, and he allowed a single tear to trickle down his face before his expression turned as cold as his wife's. He stood up, and reached for his own battle helmet, which lay on the floor under the bed.
"The poison worked fast," he observed tonelessly, as he toyed with his helmet's visor.
His wife walked over to the bed and kissed her children one last time. She faced her husband. Now she, too, had a tear trickling down her face; but it was a monument to her strength, and her coldness, that she allowed herself no more than that. "It is time," she said firmly.
"Yes, my Queen, it is."
They embraced quickly, then pulled back and looked at each other; simultaneously, each reached out to brush away the other's tear. Then they clasped hands, turned, and left their children's room forever, walking away through long hallways and corridors decorated with lavish art, ornaments and large gold statues, twice life-size. There were military standards draping before every column, and hanging down from the ceiling were thousands of flags taken from hundreds of battlefields. Everything might have seemed normal if it hadn't been for the hundreds of dead bodies decorating the floor. Some of them faced each other, daggers sticking out of their chest. All the servants had committed suicide at their order. You couldn't buy loyalty like that.
When they reached the main hall, they dropped the robes. Both of them wore high-tech black battle armor underneath, similar but with different engravings and decorations telling their respective life stories. The engravings emitted a dim, bluish light, enhancing the contours of their armor. Releasing each other's hands, they put on their helmets. Each took the form of a monstrous creature out of a madman's nightmare. When they were properly caparisoned, they turned to face their troops: thousands of soldiers standing there quietly, all wearing burnished silver armor.
"Husband, where is our carpet?" she asked while donning her battle gloves. He gestured with his arm to a waiting officer.
The officer shouted, "Prepare the red carpet for our Queen!"
There were one hundred steps on the giant staircase. On each step, two prisoners faced each other, kneeling with their hands tied behind them. Each wore worn battle fatigues. Standing behind the prisoners were guards, waiting patiently. When the call went out, the eerie sound of two hundred sharp blades leaving their respective sheaths echoed through the hall. The queen walked down the one hundred steps, followed by her husband. For each step she took, guards cut the throats of the two prisoners on that step. A red carpet of blood spewed onto the white marble and onto the uncaring Queen as she descended.
When she reached the bottom of the staircase, the soldiers in the great room bowed their heads. In front of her lay an enormous beast with a saddle, waiting patiently. Its body was covered with scales and a thin fur, like silky grass. The eyes were blue, and they emitted a faint glow. The mouth was filled with long fangs; as it grunted, dark saliva dripped onto the floor, where it melted into the marble like acid. The beast used its long tongue to lick blood from the floor as it flowed into its range.
She mounted the beast. It stood up, and her husband handed up a battle standard made of white metal with a large down-pointed triangle on top. The Queen turned to her bodyguard and said, "Now, let there be thunder."
From outside, there came the din of horns and drums.
The Queen smiled coldly, then rode out, followed by her bodyguards. Her husband accompanied her on a smaller beast. They moved fast through a raging battle, ignoring friend and foe alike, headed towards a monument in the distance that had a thirty-mile radius and was as high as a mountain. Atop the monument was another beast bearing another rider, heading towards them; when the Queen dialed up the magnification of her helmet optics, she could see that the rider held a standard bearing a large eye. She nodded.
"Husband," she said after a while, "did you ever finish the story for our children?"
"No, my Queen, I did not. The end was too quick."
The Queen reined in her mount and looked at her husband. "Then let us finish the tale here and now, for all time."
Bloody sweat poured down Alexa's face as she ducked the mercenary's blade. She kicked out toward his groin, but it wasn't there; instead she slipped on the blood-slick floor, a bright, sharp pain in her right ankle telling her she'd twisted it as she fell. She tried to crawl away, realizing that he was coming after her to press the advantage, bent on killing her or worse. His body-stink and heavy breathing warned her that he was much too close, so she reached quickly for her ace in the hole—or in the left leg holster, to be precise. She spun, kneeled, aimed, and pulled the blaster's trigger, grinning confidently.
In that instant, she realized that she was about to die. "Oh, shit," she hissed, still grinning stiffly, and saw the bastard grinning back at her; he understood her predicament, and was more than happy to exploit it. He kicked her hard in the face with one heavy black boot, sending her crashing into the bulkhead. Alexa spat out one of her front teeth, and blood oozed out between the fingers she instinctively put to her mouth; then her eyes rolled back, and she slumped to the deck. A harsh intake of breath resulted only in eye-watering pain as the cold air impacted the nerve in the broken tooth, but she betrayed nothing; she lay where she'd fallen, apparently helpless.
Alexa stubbornly refused to feel the pain; she was better than this. Instead of fear, her mind filled with anger: an anger that had been building, futilely, for the past ten years—from the very moment she'd been forced into piracy until now, when she might just finally die.
The mercenary grabbed her hair hard, and with surgical precision he made a small, deep cut on the side of her head. "Time to die, pirate," he grunted, "but not until I get me a souvenir or two." He yanked, and there was a ripping sound as he tore off part of her scalp, complete with several dreadlocks. Alexa screamed at top of her lungs as this new pain overwhelmed her.
The man was laughing now and shouting out loud, telling her in no uncertain terms what he would do to her. He swung her around, emitting a short victory cry, then forced her neck back and raised his knife for the final cut. For a just a second, he hesitated. The attractive little brunette was young, with a fine athletic body, a picture-perfect face, and dark golden skin. That gave him other ideas.
She knew it, too, and started struggling frantically. He ignored her as best he could and looked around for a more secluded area, where he could ravish her undisturbed. He started to pull her away from the bulkhead, and every time he looked at the little vixen he was all but blinded with lust. He moved his knife closer to her neck, hoping she would stop struggling.
Alexa spat out blood and fragments of her tooth, swearing and screaming, as if fighting desperately to survive—but she was craftier than that. She had more surprises hidden away, and a man who had to handle a hysterical woman didn't have time to pat her down for weapons. She saw from the corner of her eye a sudden reflection from his knife as it approached, and in one smooth motion she dove down, pulled out her own boot knife, and thrust the blade up and behind her, sticking the bastard in the gut. She pulled herself away from him even as his knife sliced into the side of her neck. She ignored the pain and the warm stream of blood dribbling down her neck; with all her strength, she shoved the knife deeper into his belly, twisting and turning it and jerking it around to inflict as much damage as possible.
His guts slipped out in a ropy red-gray tangle, his scream rising to a terrible pitch and then trailing off as his eyes went dull with shock and he crumpled, trying to hold his viscera in.
Coup de grâce time. She jumped on top of the man, holding him down with her legs, and revealed a new surprise. She jerked her right elbow up and a foot-long blade, hidden in the seam and attached to a scabbard sewn into her battle fatigues, shot out from her sleeve like a giant switchblade. She cut the man's throat with the elbow blade even as she pulled the boot-knife from his belly.
She could feel the blood trickling down her neck as she got up, but decided she might as well continue the fight.
Alexa pushed aside a lock of hair and took a deep breath. One of the ship's passengers staggered around the corner, took one look at her, and instantly turned tail with a shriek. No surprise there. She knew she probably looked a fright, bloodied and bedraggled as she was. She knew from facing herself in the mirror that her eyes were those of a battle-worn veteran, far older than her 19 years, and her combat suit was ripped and singed. Add to that the bloody bald spot on the side of her head where the merc had ripped away his short-lived "trophy," and it was no surprise her looks scared people. Hard to believe she'd once been considered attractive. She leaned back against the cold bulkhead, catching her breath, and then slid down into a sitting position, her vision graying out for a second. When she came back to herself, she was looking at the dead man next to her. In one of his hands he still held part of her scalp. Snarling, she kicked the body sharply, then collected her scalp and tucked it under her waist belt. Her scalp would be no one's trophy but hers, dammit.
There was a crystal viewport a few feet away for the benefit of any passengers who happened to want to see what was going on in the void. Alexa levered herself to her feet, and hobbled up to it. She peered out through the foot-thick quartz and watched as the destroyer class vessel pressed the attack against the much larger transport cruiser, its missiles raising blooms of fire and destruction from the transport's hull, its X-ray lasers ablating away the ship's armor in massive clouds of metallic vapor as they poured fire into it.
Once the target had been softened up sufficiently, one of the destroyer's cargo bay doors irised opened and vomited forth hundreds of pressure-suited troops equipped with jetpacks, opening fire with handheld weapons as they closed the gap between the ships. The transport proved it wasn't quite helpless by picking off several of the troopers with its return fire, but most soon clanged down onto the hull of the transport and attached themselves to hatches, handholds, and other helpful protuberances. They soon broke through by means of tools and explosives, opening a half-dozen minor breaches in the ship's primary hull. Alexa gasped as she felt the pressure differential shift before the emergency bulkheads thudded shut, keeping the transport from depressurizing all at once. She hardly had time to catch her breath before the destroyer rammed the larger ship and attached itself with a massive cylindrical arm. That slammed her hard against the bulkhead opposite the viewport, and she went out like a light.
On the transport, yellow warning lamps were flashing, Klaxons were sounding, and the overhead lights flickered as smoke began to filter through the passageways, causing the passengers and crew to panic. They scrambled en masse for safety in the escape pods on the lower decks, as a small security detachment ran in the opposite direction, pushing their way through the crowd.
An explosion peeled back the transport's main hatch—which currently lay at the terminus of the destroyer's cylindrical connector—and hundreds of armed soldiers swarmed through, shooting and hacking their way through security personnel, passengers, and crew with equal ease. The attackers were led by an enormous figure dressed in a powered battle suit that gleamed gray in the flickering lights. In his hands were two massive particle-beam blasters, and attached to his forearms were several large blades—all of which he used to deadly effect as he sliced a bloody path through the crowd. His troops followed his example, and began to spread through the ship.
The leader pulled off his helmet and bellowed, "Don't bunch up," in a voice like thunder. Then he emitted a deep roar as he charged the room. He was over two meters tall and enormously broad; his bulging stomach was proof of his one weakness, food. His long black beard was matched in length by his hair, both reaching below his waist. His face was covered with hair and old scars. Foam and salvia poured from his mouth as he roared; and from his under jaw two pale fangs, one broken half-off, thrust out. Pure evil seeped from his eyes.
Pale yellow light pulsed through the wisps of smoke and vapor, making it difficult for Alexa to focus. She'd barely climbed back onto her feet (how many times was that so far today?) when a familiar voice cried out "Behind you!" A figure emerged from the gloom and discharged an energy weapon in her direction; Alexa ducked and glanced back in time to see a security goon topple, most of his head gone. "Thanks, Nina," she croaked.
Nina stopped long enough to help Alexa to her feet. She gave her a puzzled look that made it clear she'd noticed the bald spot on Alexa's head.
"You all right?"
"Had a little trouble." Alexa brushed dust and gray matter from her battle uniform, then quickly checked all the gizmos attached to her waist belt and combat vest. Once she realized her equipment and weapons were intact, she put her right hand on the bald spot and winced at the throbbing pain. "Little woozy, but I think I can handle it."
Nina laughed in relief, and Alexa snarled back. Best friend or not, she didn't think this was a laughing matter, and she knew she looked like hell. Well, Nina didn't look much better. If anything, her battle fatigues were in worse shape than Alexa's—most of the right half was torn clean away, exposing the huge tattoo of two monstrous fighting beasts that covered most of the petite brunette's body. "Told you, you should cut your hair short like mine," Nina said. "Gives 'em less to grab onto."
Nina jerked her head toward the fray. "C'mon, baldy, let's go!"
Alexa glanced from Nina to the dead man, and shouted back, "Where's the rest of the crew?"
Nina jerked her weapon up and fired past Alexa again; it was hard to tell if she'd gotten anything this time, because the smoke was turning the corridor into a yellow-tinged hell. "I dunno, but they better get here soon or we'll lose this prize! Who knew the bastards would put up this kind of resistance?"
There it was! Alexa snatched up her blaster from the interface of corridor and floor, checked the readouts for energy, and switched out the old magazine for a new one just in case. "Crap, if they keep it up there won't be much left to plunder," she muttered.
An explosion erupted far down the corridor, followed by shudder that all but knocked the two female pirates off their feet. That would be the second cylindrical arm breaching the transport. A howling maelstrom rushed past them as air, smoke, and loose debris rushed out of the ship; then the foam sealant that had deployed when the ships collided hardened enough to seal the air in. Now that the smoke was more or less gone, Alexa noticed, from the corner of her eye, a hint of distant movement through the viewport as several people—passengers, probably—gasped out their last few seconds, twisting in the void.
"There's your bloody reinforcement," Alexa shouted over the fighting. For a second, she forgot about the ongoing melee as she caught her reflection on a large wall mirror, placed on a pillar as décor. She snarled; she looked worse that she thought. She kicked the dead man's head hard with her boot, but it didn’t make her feel much better.
They set off carefully toward the sounds of battle, their eyes trying to take in everything at once, blasters held at the ready. As they got closer to their comrades' position, Nina cursed long and hard, as only a pirate can. "The hairy idiot Captain is late as usual," she spat, gesturing towards the end of a hallway leading into one of the ballrooms. A voice from her wrist com confirmed Nina's comment.
Alexa gave Nina a tired smile and replied, "Don't let Zuzack hear you! You can only call him Captain because you're a pending crew member."
"I know. I know, my dear owner." Sounding very sarcastic, Nina gave Alexa a short bow.
"Don't call me that," Alexa warned. "I hate it, and you know it."
They ducked into a niche that, until recently, had apparently been an inset display case for some kind of ceramic art; it was just so much crushed powder now. As they caught their breath, the sounds of minor explosions and blaster fire ripped through the cramped space, accompanied by ragged shouts and screams from the injured or dying. The smoke was becoming dense again, hurting the eyes and making it almost impossible to tell friend from foe. Alexa knew from experience that some of the dead and injured on both sides of the battle would be the result of friendly fire accidents; but that was the fog of war for you. A strange stench spread throughout the ship; probably some kind of coolant, or possibly burning insulation. Probably the odors of blood and burning people were mixed in there, too.
Zuzack and his followers charged through the ship, herding several species of people ahead of them, shooting and cutting down anyone putting up resistance. The security goons and mercs were all but gone by now. There was little doubt who had the upper hand; the story was told by the corpses, fragmentary and whole, that littered the corridors. Very few wore the gray of the pirates' battle fatigues.
Still the magma rifles and blasters pounded away, taking out the last of the resistance. Small fires sprang up as volatiles took hits, and in a few cases even the metal burned; magma rifles weren't exactly subtle, precision weapons. They were made to destroy and kill in as little time as possible. The smoke grew thicker and, combined with the incessant honking of the Klaxons, made it almost impossible for anyone without the right imaging equipment (which of course Nina and Alexa didn't have) to know stem from stern. To make matters worse, the emergency sprinkler systems finally kicked in, dousing the women with water as they emerged from their alcove.
Cursing fluently, Alexa slogged back to the crystal viewport and pressed her face against its chilly surface, holding her breath against the smoke. The sprinklers were starting to put out the fire, so the smoke was dissipating, but it was being replaced with steam. Dammit, the port was fogging up. Rubbing the side of her hand against the quartz, she cleared it off enough to peer through into space. A few escape pods were vectoring away from the transport, only to be intercepted and captured by several small unmanned cutters, which were radio controlled by crewmembers inside the destroyers.
Nina joined her at the port. "Alexa, let's go. We gotta hurry, it's not over yet." She shot Alexa a concerned look.
Alexa stepped back, fingering her bald spot, still pissed at the mercenary she'd killed. She looked at her own ghostly reflection in the port until the steam fogged it over and finally replied. "Yeah, I know, it's just..." She grinned. "You know, I kicked the guy's head as hard as I could, and you wouldn't believe how much I hurt my foot..."
Nina was confused by her friend's remark. "It's just what, Alexa?" She laid her hand on her friend's arm, eyes narrowing with concern. "C'mon, now, we need to hurry or we'll lose some of our share. You know how the hairy bast...I mean, our Captain gets. He's gonna take all the good stuff for himself." She gently shoved Alexa toward the action, and once she was moving, they both started to run towards the fighting.
By the time they got there, there wasn't much resistance left. The two women moved through the ship with the rest of the pirates, collecting anything of value and gathering up prisoners. They brought their loot to one of the ship's largest rooms, the main ballroom. It was itself a work of art, decorated beautifully in gold and silver, offering the impression of a palace. Like most of the spaces inside the ship, the ballroom was more or less intact; the less damage there was to the ornate rooms, the less damage they'd have to repair later— and the more money the ship would bring when it was sold. Alexa and Nina marked their spoil with small patches that both kept in pouches hanging from their shoulders. When they were done, they hurried away to find more loot.
They avoided elevators, and soon found themselves approaching the living quarters for the first class passengers. Along the way, however, they ran into several surviving members of the security team.
Alexa fired her blaster a split-second after Nina opened fire with hers. The blasts cut down three of the enemy soldiers. After a short firefight, the rest of them took off toward an elevator. Alexa motioned to Nina for her to ignore them, and then gestured towards one of the VIP hatches next to her. Alexa positioned herself with her back next to the hatch, while Nina blew the lock and forced it open. Alexa tossed in a concussion grenade; and once its blast had shaken the walls, they jumped into the exclusive suite with their weapons held ready.
There were seven of them, all civilians: a well-dressed man, woman, and boy, and four others, probably their servants. They were down on their knees, trembling, with their hands held high in surrender. There was naked fear in their eyes, something Alexa and Nina were used to. Alexa felt for the frightened passengers, but she hid her own personal feelings behind a cold mask, as Nina did. It was something they both had to do in order to survive in the situation they found themselves in. So neither one of the girls' eyes displayed any emotion or mercy, only hard, cold ice.
The civilian woman covered her face with her hands, weeping openly, collapsing in a trembling ball onto the floor. Covering them with her weapon, Alexa motioned to Nina, who produced several tag collars from a pouch and quickly moved toward the group.
"Spare us, please," the man said, "My name is Af De'Lac. I am a colonial governor from the Florencia Federation."
"Shut up, you annoying toad," Nina said harshly. She locked a collar about the man's neck.
"Don't do this," the man cried, his voice sounding more desperate by the second. "I can make you wealthy. I'm worth millions of Galactic credits. Leave us alone...help us, and you will be set up for life."
"Don't bother Master," one of the servants said coldly. He showed no sign of fear, and stood up in defiance when Nina reached out towards him with a collar. Alexa aimed and fired one round at the man, separating his head from his neck. The head bounced off the ceiling and bulkhead, hitting Nina on her head.
"Watch it, bitch, that really hurt," Nina complained, rubbing her forehead. Alexa only rolled her eyes and gestured for Nina to hurry.
"I beg of you," the Governor pleaded. "Spare me and my wife; you can have our servants..." For a moment there was an eerie silence in the room. Governor Af De'Lac looked around and then continued, "And my son."
Alexa looked at the kneeling man in disbelief, and a sudden anger washed over her. Nina noticed her friend's reaction and stepped between them. "Alexa, let it go, we need them."
"Bullshit!" Alexa whispered threateningly. "That one hit too close to home. Step aside, Nina."
The Governor's wife had stopped crying when she heard what her husband had said, and looked at him now in disbelief. A loud argument erupted as she let her husband know in no uncertain terms what she thought of his base cowardice. Their son's eyeballs seemed ready to pop out from their sockets.
The Governor seemed to shrink down into the floor. "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me!" he wailed. "Take my wife too!"
Nina kicked the man hard in the face, causing a stream of blood to jet from his nose. That shut him up: his eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the floor unconscious. The boy cried out, and the woman screamed and wept even louder. Nina never took her eyes off Alexa, and didn't stop staring until she had calmed down. She glanced threateningly towards the rest of the prisoners. "You shut up too, or you get worse."
Alexa stood there watching the prisoners with professional detachment, letting Nina affix the slave collars to the rest of them one at a time. The servants didn't appear discomfited—they were probably used to being chattel—but the boy and woman looked as if they might faint when the locks clicked home. When Nina was finished, she nodded to Alexa, who activated the collars from her wrist computer. Each of the five hostages who were still awake immediately passed out.
"Should have done that right away," Alexa mumbled.
The two young pirates proceeded down the long corridor, capturing fifteen more VIP prisoners and about twice as many servants. When they returned to the first suite, they noticed a small group of male pirates attempting to remove their slave collars. Nina shouted, "What the hell are you doing, you bastards?"
She and Alexa knew exactly what was happening. Stealing from each other was the worst thing any pirate could ever do, but it happened all the time. Nina glanced at Alexa, who gave her a hard look back. Even though the two were still teenagers, their looks could have turned a blue-white star to ice.
A small, ugly pirate with large flapping ears turned around with an angry grimace on his face and shouted back, "Mind you own business, bitch, and we'll mind ours." His comment was supported by laughter from the other four pirates with him.
Nina tilted her head and looked at the pirate questioningly, then shot him in the face. The head exploded over his friends, who only stood there staring, stunned from shock. Alexa raised her own gun and fired—but nothing happened. Cursing, she dropped it immediately and yanked a small cord on her sleeve, sending one of her elbow blades flying into the group of claim-jumpers. It hit one in the gut, and he went down immediately.
One of the pirates leaped forward before Nina could react and slashed at her gun hand with a machete, sending pieces of two fingers flying. Nina screeched and dropped the gun, then grabbed her injured hand, looking more angry than upset. Alexa dived onto one of the pirates and bit down hard on his throat.
A high-pitched squeal overrode the sound of the fray, drilling into the eardrums of the battling pirates. They all stopped fighting immediately and looked toward the hatch, rooted to the deck in fear. In the doorway stood a huge man, a boson's pipe in his mouth: Zuzack, the Captain. "What's going on here?" he demanded.
Nina held onto her bleeding hand and attempted to stand at attention while giving a brief report. Alexa spat out part of an Adam's apple and wiped a sleeve across her bloody mouth. Before Nina could get more than a few words into her explanation, Alexa blurted out, "We were protecting our investment, Captain! These prisoners have our collars, and Lebba and his friends attempted to remove them, sir!"
Zuzack looked suspiciously at Alexa, and then at Nina, who nodded vigorously. He turned cold eyes to the surviving group of male pirates, now pared down to two. "Is this true?"
The men shifted, uncomfortable. The Captain walked up to one of them, then glanced down to where a tool set lay on the floor, next to one of the prisoners. It was clearly marked with Lebba's sigil. Zuzack smiled at the pirates and said, "Weapons, please."
Lebba and his surviving helper, sweating profusely, meekly handed over their various guns and blades to their Captain, who stalked over to where the girls stood, nodded, and said to Alexa, "Carry on, my dear."
Nina and Alexa walked up to the last two pirates and cut them down with their own knives. Neither dared resist; they died helpless, staring at their Captain with horror.
The Captain smiled like a proud father at the two young girls. "Ah, I should have known that the two of you would have gone for the VIP section, while the rest of the idiots went to the dock and the cargo hold to make their claims! Now get back to work. There's much more that needs to be done."
He gave each of the girls a hard slap on their buttocks. Alexa and Nina saluted their Captain as he left the stateroom ahead of them. They struggled past a clutter of Zuzack's personal bodyguards and staff officers, most of whom smiled approvingly at the girls. Some of the older pirates even made some positive remarks about taking care of thieves.
When they were gone, an officer who looked like a skinny, furless rat with an unnaturally large nose walked up to Zuzack and reported, "Captain, the ship is under our control. Major Grotech also reports that we can fly this ship with no problem. The Captain apparently surrendered at the bridge."
"Good! Have all prisoners assembled in the main ballroom; the ones in the coolers can remain with the ship. Then have a prize crew take command and follow us later. By the way, I would like a word with you in private, Hughes." Zuzack motioned to his guards and other officers to remove the unconscious prisoners in the suite and then to give him the room. When they were alone, he turned to Hughes and said casually, "My friend, next time we ram a ship, you'd better have the shield coordinates right."
Hughes opened his mouth as if to say something, then intelligently thought better of it when he saw the way the Captain was looking at him. He started to tremble, but the Captain only motioned for him to continue.
"Captain. Sir. Umm, to calculate the velocity and match trajectory while closing in on a ship while both ships are firing is extremely hazardous and difficult." Voice wavering slightly, Hughes said, "Again, sir, I must recommend that we stop ramming our intended targets and go back to the old method, where we used infiltrators and hijacked the ships. The slightest error when calibrating the shields on a target ship while traveling at superluminal speeds..."
Zuzack gave his lieutenant a warning look. "Whatever, Mr. Hughes. We will stick to the ramming-and-boarding method. All that infiltration crap takes too long, and time is something we don't have." He walked over to a large crystal viewport on the far wall of the suite and looked out into space and down at his own ship, the Bitch. "This tour has taken too much time, and we must hurry back to my brother—or there will be hell to pay." Oddly enough, a tear trickled down Zuzack's hairy dark face when he mentioned his brother. He kept looking out into space, making sure Hughes wouldn't notice the tear. With his back still turned, he motioned with one of his large muscular arms for Hughes to move on. Brother, I miss you so, Zuzack thought, while peering into the Big Dark.
The girls hobbled along the large balcony that encircled the ballroom. "Look! Look at this shit, Alexa!" Nina held up her left hand, displaying only three complete digits. She looked more pissed than hurt, which made sense, since Alexa could see an emergency pain-block bracelet wrapped round her wrist.
Alexa smirked. "You always put your fingers where they don't belong. That's why you keep losing them." She shook her head when Nina thrust her hand toward her.
"They grow back. Eventually."
Alexa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and what if they didn't? What if the Ancestors hadn't fixed that before they first headed into the Big Dark?"
"Then I'd be in deep shit, wouldn't I?" Nina muttered around a couple of pain pills. An emergency p-block never lasted more than a few minutes. "Now, are you gonna fix 'em up, or not?" She waggled the stumps at Alexa.
Shaking her head, Alexa removed a first aid pack from a pocket on Nina's right leg and began to wrap the damaged hand. Nina winced, and Alexa commented, "Be cool, it's only a few fingers. Have Doc do a cloning stim later."
Nina sniffed, "Well, actually, the right term would be regenerate, because cloning is only when you... Fuck, that hurt, bitch!" Alexa ignored Nina as she administrated the first aid. When she'd finished she looked at her friend with pride. "All done. And damned well, if I say so myself."
Nina sighed. "Thanks. You know, if I keep this up, I'll have more regenerated parts than originals."
"And what's your point? As long as you have your original head and brain you're fine, right?" Alexa smiled at her friend—but she still looked sad.
Nina was biting down hard, obviously trying to ignore the pain from her hand; and in her eyes, Alexa could see the shadows of a sadness that mirrored her own. But all she said was, "Right."
Nodding, Alexa injected Nina with a hypo from the pack, then dosed herself with the same drug. Both shivered and smiled, their eyes glassy, as the drug hit their systems. Once they felt they could go on, they continued out onto a second level above the ballroom, and smiled as they headed toward a very wide spiral staircase. By then, the sounds of fighting had more or less ceased, and someone had silenced the alarms, too. The lights kept flickering on and off, like distant heat lightning, but at least it was normal-spectrum; someone had turned off the yellow warning lights.
As they swept out onto a landing, Nina glanced at her companion and said, "Where's your blaster?"
Alexa's cheeks turned red, and she frowned. "Um, don't ask. I'll get a new one later. By the way, Nina, do you have any more charger mags? All of mine are useless...must have charged them wrong or something." Nina nodded and tossed Alexa a couple of power charge magazines with her good hand.
"You're welcome," Nina mumbled back as she checked her own weapon for any damage. She glanced up and let out a snort of amusement. "Look. The Twins from Hell." She gestured toward two female aliens who appeared, at first glance, to be identical to each other. Both wore battle fatigues like Alexa and Nina, and carried enormous magma rifles. Their purple skins were stippled with small yellow dots, and they both had long, prehensile tails. At the moment, those tails secured a young prisoner between them.
"Mohama and Miska, what do you have there?" Alexa called.
"Just a young brat," Miska replied haughtily. "Thinks it is Oman like the two of you, but it has a pale skin."
"We figure we could kill some time until General Assembly," Mohama added happily. "Care to join us as we ravish him over there?" She nodded towards a secluded area.
"Sure!" Nina grinned. She moved close to the prisoner and yanked up his head. "He's just a boy," she exclaimed. She started to fumble between his legs. When she found his private parts she looked at him, impressed. "I'm in." She glanced at Alexa. "What about you?"
Alexa rolled her eyes and said firmly, "I like my men past puberty, thanks." The boy looked at her pleadingly for help, but Alexa deliberately misinterpreted his look and said, "In your dreams, kid, in your dreams." Wasn't her responsibility to protect little lost boys.
"Still waiting for your knight in shining armor?" Nina smirked.
Suddenly irritated, Alexa stopped and turned around. She walked back to her friends and glared at the prisoner. "How old is he?"
"Who cares? He's as tall as we are, and check this out." Miska sliced through the boy's trunks with her razor-sharp nails, exposing his privates. Alexa raised her eyebrows but failed to whistle, given her missing front tooth. "Hell, he's still too young. He'll explode before we can have any fun with him."
"Not if you do that nerve thing you so happily brag about," Nina mused, while looking over the boy and licking her lips.
Alexa shook her head and said, "It's just waste of time. Besides, he's obviously an Orchid Oman, since he's been circumcised. His end nerves are ruined, and that would block the impulses from his sexual nerve."
"He better be worth it, girl, or you'll be out of power batteries for the next galactic year."
Everyone but Nina started to laugh, including the victim. The victim! Nina stuck out her tongue at Alexa and the twins.
The girls went wild around their young trophy, and hurried him away toward a small, secluded area behind a staircase while they danced around him and tore off his clothes. The boy's eyes grow larger and larger as the four girls informed him what each one of them would do to him. He didn't really look that scared; it was obvious, in fact, that he was quite excited. They hurried towards a hatch near the staircase, leaving a long trail of equipment and clothing behind them.
But their fun wasn't to be. Suddenly, unexpected, the bulkhead erupted with a deafening roar right beside them, tossing them all head-over-heels from the pressure wave and filling the air with debris and billowing smoke. The boy's body acted as a shield, protecting the girls; Miska and Mohama fell back, with the boy on top of them. Nina fell down the stairs and Alexa slammed hard, head first, into a bulkhead, losing another tooth.
After a dizzying moment she looked up, holding her head in both hands as she cursed with a bloody mouth. She was disoriented, and she could feel blood oozing out of her ears. She tried to get back on her feet and into the fight, and then time stopped.
She looked up into a pair of dark blue eyes staring down at her. There he was. The knight—her knight.
Ever since Alexa had been sold to the pirates at the age of ten, she'd had only one dream: To be rescued by a knight in shining armor. That dream was silly, and it hadn't really lasted long. Once she'd turned fifteen she'd been adopted by the Captain as his daughter, and automatically received second crew shares. Now she was looting for her freedom, to get enough credits to manumit herself. She hated piracy with a passion, but she had no choice in the matter: so she dove into the life with a vengeance. Still, every time a shot was fired, her heart clenched and her soul was forever scarred. She knew she had to leave this horrible life, or she would end it herself.
Alexa stared, paralyzed, at the most handsome young man she had ever seen—and she let her guard down in the process. An iron-hard fist struck her in the face, followed by another in the gut. She went down like a poleaxed sheep, crashing into the bulkhead she'd just crawled up from and breaking her third tooth of the day. She hit the deck in a still heap, dead to the world.
A dozen young men and women, all dressed in light blue formal uniforms, charged out of a hallway armed with slug-throwing handguns and blasters. They quickly removed the girls' weapons, and made sure they stayed unconscious for a while with their own version of the pirates' slave collars. Then they began to advance against the pirate positions in two-by-two formations. Unlike the pirates, who had been reveling in their victory and were shocked by the unexpected attack, the newcomers were very organized, very professional, and very well-disciplined. They fired short, controlled bursts and advanced fearlessly against their enemy, who substantially outnumbered them. Their facial expressions were invariably ironclad masks of hatred.
It was a suicide mission, and they all knew it. But they didn't let that stop them for a moment.
The word send cold chills down many of the pirates' spines, and confusion erupted among them.
Zuzack stood at the center of the ballroom shouting out orders to his pirates. "Get them, lads and tramps, give them all you got, and don't damage them too much! They're worth more alive than dead!"
Laser and magma bolts rained down like a hailstorm all around, but Zuzack just stood there as if he were immortal, displaying no sign of fear. The pirates advanced, unorganized, and several of them were killed or injured from the effective fire laid down by the cadets from the Nastasturus Federation. Lieutenant Hughes grabbed his weapon and aimed it at the oncoming threat, but Zuzack only laid his large hand on his lieutenant's shoulder and said calmly, "Fewer crew members means more spoil for the survivors. Remember, we're done in this sector and heading home." Hughes gave his Captain a strange and questioning look, and after a few moments he lowered his weapon and smiled uncertainly.
The fight was bloody but short, for the Nastasturus soldiers soon began to run out of ammunition. At that point, Zuzack ordered his troops to charge in and capture them alive. The pirates swarmed the cadets, and the hand-to-hand fighting was fierce.
One of the pirates aimed her rifle at one of the cadets' backs and was about to press the trigger when her head was separated messily from her body. Zuzack wiped his sword on her quivering form and snarled, "I told you, fools, I want them all alive!"
Zuzack gestured towards his third officer, Major Grotech, who snapped out an order through his helmet communicator.
A moment later, four huge lizard-like dogs charged from the boarding tube into the civilian ship. The Tilters rushed the young cadets before they noticed the new threat from behind, and it was all they could do to fend off the huge animals. Meanwhile, pirates approached with net-throwers, discharging the weapons when they got within range and capturing several of the cadets that way. The Tilter dogs themselves spat a web-like substance that immobilized the remaining cadets, and suddenly it was over.
Alexa and Nina helped each other to their feet, and supported each other as they picked their way through the cadets. They stopped long enough to kick a couple, but not too hard, so they wouldn't piss off the Captain too much. The twins Miska and Mohama followed angrily, after they noticed the bloody emasculated mess their fun-toy had become. Along the way, they took back their weapons from the captured cadets.
"What a waste," Miska growled. "The poor thing could at least have been allowed to die with a smile on his face."
Alexa ignored her; her attention was elsewhere. There he was again: her Knight. No shining armor, though. He was a young man in his early twenties, with short dark brown hair, his face bruised up from the fight. Knight or not, he needed to be taught who was in charge. She smirked. Time to break him in. Then her gaze snagged on his deep blue eyes, and an odd weakness seemed to overcome her. Dammit, knees, don't you mutiny on me now!
Alexa kicked towards his face, coming as close as she could without actually touching him, and lisped through her broken teeth, "Anybody ever told you it's not nice to hit a lady?"
"You are no lady. You are a whore and a pirate." He said it through clenched teeth, a menacing gleam in his eyes.
Alexa glared down at him, frustration and anger roiling inside her. Bastard. Her long-lost knight had made her feel weak, something no male was allowed to do. This was no way for a knight to treat his damsel in distress. She aimed another kick at the young soldier's pretty face, and her toes struck the wall hard when he jerked his head away. Pissed, her foot throbbing, Alexa lost her cool. Knight or not, it was time to kick some serious ass. Literally. She was about to kick him again when something snagged her ankle from behind and, to her horror, lifted her up in the air upside-down.
Hanging helplessly, she twisted around to see what had her. The large saurian woman holding her up shook her head, the razor blades woven into the ends of her long dreads clinking and rattling. The saurian grunted, "Cap'n said no damage, Brat."
"Let me down, Myra, or I'll turn you into a pair of boots."
Hissing in laughter, Myra tossed Alexa over her shoulder and smacked her buttocks a few times. "Now, now, my little princess, you are no longer a member of your Royalist Clan. You will obey, or Cap'n will have his way with you—again."
Alexa started screaming and protesting, her legs kicking holes into the air and fists punching Myra's back hard. The saurian barely noticed. "Like hell he will, you lizard bitch!" she screamed. "Like hell he will! Let me down, I'm warning you! I mean it, Myra, you'll be the start of the next fashion statement to sweep the galaxy—and dammit, stop spanking my ass!" She was not going to put up with this crap. Imagine, being treated like this in front of her knight!
But the more she struggled and shouted threats, the harder the smacks fell on her firm, unprotected buttocks. A few of the pirates standing nearby started to laugh at the display. Instead of breaking up the fight, they started cheering Myra and Alexa on.
But soon the cheering stopped like someone had cut it off with a switch, and so did the spanking. A large, strong hand grabbed hold of Alexa's dreadlocks, pulling her head back, interrupting her complaints.
"You again. Let her go, Myra," Zuzack ordered. He held Alexa up by hair, with her legs kicking several feet from the ground. It hurt amazingly badly, so she shut up. "Now, young lady," Zuzack growled, "you will obey me, or I'll sell you—but only after the entire crew has had their way with you. Is that understood, Brat?"
Alexa looked at him in horror. She tried to nod as she grabbed onto her hair and the Captain's long, muscular arm in a futile attempt to stop the pain and pressure from her scalp and hairline. She felt more than heard the sound of tearing flesh near her newly-acquired bald spot, and she realized that if she didn't respond quickly, she was about to lose her whole scalp.
"Yes, Captain, I swear I will never do wrong again, I swear!" Alexa shouted sincerely. She didn't plead or ask for any mercy, even when he gave her a little shake. Dammit, would she lose all her hair? She ground her teeth. Well, be that as it may. She would at least be alive, and it could be fixed. But she felt sure that if she begged for any mercy, she would die for sure—or worse, be scalped alive.
Zuzack stared at Alexa, and there was madness in his eyes. The ripping sound of Alexa's scalp giving away turned him on, apparently. Well, she knew that other people's fears turned him on more than sex did. But there could be, no fear in Alexa's eyes. She bit down hard on her lower lip, preparing for the excruciating pain that would soon follow, when her entire scalp and all her hair would be lost forever. She figured Zuzack would never allow her to have it regenerated. He and most of the other older pirates treasured their battle scars almost as much as any normal treasure.
To her amazement, Zuzack's expression changed and he begun to laugh, as he put Alexa down very slowly. Then he was patting her on top of her head like some animal. "Kids!" he roared. "That's my little princess! Be nice, and I might reclaim you as my daughter again!"
Zuzack laughed hard, and bore the look of a proud father as he walked over to the Nastasturus cadets. "You boys and girls better be officers from wealthy families or Clans," he told them brightly, "because if you're not, you will be sold off as food. Hell, I might just let you have dinner with some of my crew later." He laughed loudly, rubbing his large belly. The cadets only stared back at him hatefully—except for one, who was trembling and covering his face, trying to conceal his tears from his friends.
Zuzack ignored the whimpering young cadet, his eye caught by another young man with red hair who stood out from the rest and glared defiantly at him. More hatred radiated from the redhead than from any one of the other cadets, or even any of the prisoners in general. "I take it you're the leader of this little group?" Zuzack asked coolly.
The young cadet didn't answer; he just continued to glare at the enormous pirate Captain with defiant eyes. His stare made Zuzack feel a bit of unease; but hell—no fear, no fun. He walked up to the cadet, grabbed his arm, and pulled him to his feet, ignoring the boy's struggles.
"I don't like the look in your eyes, boy. I think it's time to teach you and your fine friends a valuable lesson in manners and respect toward your new owner."
Zuzack looked more or less human—but he wasn't, not entirely. He smiled and opened his mouth wide, lifted his tongue, and a barbed feeding tendril flashed out with lightning speed. It struck the cadet in the left eyeball, and before the kid could even feel it, had yanked out his eye and disappeared back into the Captain's mouth. The cadet dropped, screaming, blood oozing from the black hole where his eye had been. He screamed and cursed, threatening the pirate and all his followers with vile fates that he had no means of carrying out.
After crunching up and swallowing his prize, Zuzack assured the prisoner, "I know what you're thinking, lad: that we'll clone it back. But we won't. I see by your insignia that you're a cadet pilot. Well, you can never pilot a craft with only one eye—at least, not a military craft. By the time you reach a safe port, it will be too late to clone it back...if you make it back alive, that is."
Lieutenant Hughes sidled up to his Captain and whispered, "Sir, with all due respect, he is worth more intact."
The Captain pulled Hughes aside and whispered, "Listen, Lieutenant, they're all officer cadets. Remember last time we had some, and what they did to my old ship? The damages and the loss of good fellow pirates' lives weren't worth all the trouble. Not again! This time, I intend to make sure they don't start anything funny."
"Don't worry. If he is, then we'll fix him up as good as new. But if he's just an everyday cadet, or no one of importance, then..."
Zuzack leered at Hughes and murmured, "Wait till supper." He turned back to the prisoners. "In the meantime, put them on the slave blocks, just in case they get creative." The two pirates looked at each other and began laughing.
The prisoners were rounded up like cattle, and most of the pirates gathered with them in the huge main ballroom. There were over three thousand people present, and at least half of them were prisoners. The prisoners, exhausted in mind and body, sat and lay down on the floor. Many of them were injured, and most were bruised from the fight. Some of the prisoners were in shackles, but most were not. What they all had in common was the collar each had around his or her neck, engraved with a number or sigil that represented the individual pirate or clan who had claimed the prisoner for further trade.
Zuzack snapped out an order and the wall on the far end of the ballroom peeled back, revealing two large airlocks flanked by wide viewports. No doubt they had been used to load large items and passengers directly into the ballroom. Visible through the ports were the long barrels of the anti-fighter guns attached to the ship's hull. Zuzack stepped forward and pressed a control on a computer console, and two sets of controls morphed out of the wall. He took up station at one while the saurian woman, Myra, took the other. Both grasped a joystick with a pistol handle, while peering through the port into space.
Two pirates pushed a well-dressed elderly man into the airlock and slammed the hatch shut on his screams. He pounded on the inside of the hatch, and his face, bright red and contorted with fear, was visible through a small window near the top. A pirate turned a knob on the wall, and the old man grabbed his head and seemed to be screaming from pain. A whisper of horror swept through the crowd.
One of the pirates by the airlock pulled down a handle, and the old man was spat out into space as the remaining air went screaming onto the void. He was still alive, kicking and screaming, as Zuzack and Myra opened fire, cutting him into pieces. During the entire atrocity most of the pirates cheered the events, though some looked on with less enthusiasm. Bets were made, and money, jewelry and prisoners exchanged hands.
The crew began to chant, "One more, one more."
The Captain looked at Myra, who shrugged, and then pointed at an old woman wearing a dress that would have cost a normal person a year's salary. "That was your old man, wasn't it?" Zuzack asked innocently. The woman, crying silently, simply nodded. "I take it would be to cruel of me to part two loved ones."
For a long moment no one spoke; then the old woman lifted her head high and said proudly, "Do what you will, monster."
Zuzack gestured sharply, and two pirates moved on the woman. In seconds they had her shackles off, and had forced her into the airlock; the entire time she fought as hard as her husband had. Her face twisted in fury, she pounded on the port so hard that her fist left smears of blood across the thick crystal.
The pirate crowd had a frisson of extra amusement when a little boy leapt up off the ballroom floor, escaping the clutches of his mother, and rand toward the hatch shouting, shouting, "Grandmother, grandmother! No, NO, I'm coming!"
He reached the door and tried to open it as the pirates roared in laughter; when it became clear he had absolutely no chance of succeeding, he, too, pounded hard on the glass, his face a mask of fear and pain. His grandmother mouthed "I love you" from the other side of the port.
Zuzack grabbed the boy from behind. "What is this, a mutiny?" He smiled at the young boy, reveling in his fear. "Say goodbye to your granny, lad. PULL!"
The old woman shot out into the darkness and Myra opened up, cutting her into pieces with .50 caliber slugs.
Zuzack turned to his jolly crew and hollered, "Enough! Start processing the prisoners. Never mind cleaning this old ship of anything of value and supplies—we'll do that later. We'll have our regular auction over any unclaimed spoil when we return to base, so finish up here as quickly as you can." He turned to his officers. All saluted him and nodded; they needed no further details or instructions. Everyone knew what needed to be done.
The crew cheered their Captain and their success and then went back to looting the ship, despite their Captain's orders. The officers and the more experienced pirates concentrated on processing the prisoners.
Zuzack held up the young boy who had just lost his grandparents. The boy tried to hit Zuzack, but to no avail. Zuzack crowed with delight. "As for you, my little mutineer, I'm going to have me some fun with you." Zuzack tossed the boy over his shoulder, laughing, and walked down the corridor toward an empty stateroom. Soon, a hatch clicked shut behind them, and the boy's horrible screams cut off.
Two starships hurtled through space, leaving debris and bodies floating behind. The first ship was the Bitch, an old, modified destroyer—class vessel from the trading wars that could carry a crew up to three thousand. The Bitch had been upgraded and repaired several times, and far more weapons had been attached to her than were normally used. When she was underway, the cannons and missile turrets were lowered back into the deck, and hatches covered their emplacements.
The Bitch was followed by a vessel ten times larger. It was a more modern vessel and quite beautiful, except for some hastily repaired hull damage. She was the Bright Star, a vast Transport Cruiser that could handle over twenty thousand passengers in comfort. Five thousand were active at any one time, while another fifteen thousand people were stored in the coolers. The crew was—had been—about fifteen hundred strong, and less than two hundred were security and officers.
The coolers made the trip inexpensive for the people who chose to ride that way; they were frozen in stasis and basically stacked like cordwood in the hull. On the Bright Star, four types of berths were available: First Class, Diplomatic, Second Class, and Third Class, which were the coolers. Nearly all the money was made from the first three classes; the cooler travelers were just gravy. Most Civilian Transport Cruisers were owned and operated by The Federated Merchants (T.F.M.) or The Commercial Traders (T.C.T.). The Federated Merchants happened to own the Bright Star.
The Bitch was as busy as a kicked beehive. Most of the crew was repairing the ship, while others were busy locking down and guarding the prisoners, now that they'd been processed and selected for the different types of Blocks. Males were parted from females; different species and families were also selected into different blocks.
The slave block was the preferred tool of slave traffickers and prisoner transporters throughout the galaxy; it made transporting unwilling humanoid cargo a lot easier. A smaller version was a very popular toy item among children on several worlds; they used it when they played games like Traders and Slaves, or Prisoner and Warden.
To Zuzack's surprise, Alexa and Nina volunteered to take care of all unclaimed prisoners—something most pirates couldn't care less about. Alexa did it to keep herself near her fallen knight. With help from Nina, she removed his uniform and placed him on a block, sitting him gently down on a bench. They put his ankles onto two half holes in the center of the stock device, and his wrists on the sides at the same level. The upper part of the stock was placed on top, locking him down. When they were done, they pushed a button on the stock, and air filled the rubber bladders lining the arm and leg holes, rendering the wrists and ankles immobile. Alexa attached a controller to her sleeping knight's neck—it logged information about the prisoner's health status into a computer built into one side of the stock—while Nina lowered the bench. It was now impossible to escape without help.
After they'd finished with Alexa's knight, they did the same thing with the rest of the Nastasturus cadets, though perhaps less gently. Later, they moved on to the other unclaimed prisoners. For some of the larger aliens they altered the block, aided in their work by colorless little androids.
The limousine sped through an exotic mélange of sculpted parks, sparkling waterfalls, tiny gem-like pools, calm woodlands, and thousands of palaces in various sizes, colors, and architectural styles. The structures stood many kilometers apart, rising up like individual dreams in the exquisite landscape. Small shuttles and hovercoupes passed the limo occasionally, but the traffic was very light, barely enough to disturb the delicate animal life that grazed the greenswards below. Clouds of flutterbirds graced the upper reaches of the airspace, their bright colors sharp against the cerulean skies. Were one to look in that direction, far to the north was a dazzling cityscape constructed of countless enormous skyscrapers, their elaborate designs as varied and competitive as their heights.
The hovercraft came lightly to rest in front of an enormous place constructed of dark green marble veined with convoluted gold designs, next to a large fountain that sprayed water fifty meters into the air. As a wing door in the back of the car slid open, several servants standing next to the fountain hurried forward, only to stop as a curt voice bid them halt. A pair of black, shiny boots hit the marble of the entry court, and their owner stood with a poise that was almost feline in its elegance.
The boots belonged to Admiral Hadrian Cook, the commanding officer of the 11th Galactic Fleet of the Nastasturus Federation. Cook was in his early sixties, though his body was that of an athletic thirty-year-old; he paid plenty to keep it that way, too. The Admiral waved away the servants as he placed his forage hat on his shiny, bald head. His facial expression was carefully controlled, concealing any emotions he might have been feeling; and several battle scars stood out from his pale white skin, reminders that he was a survivor. He could have had them removed very easily, had he chosen to do so. But he wore them, as he wore his perfectly tailored, sharply pressed uniform, with the grace of a king.
Trailed by the servants, he strode briskly up the flagstone walk and climbed the wide stairway to the main entrance. As he reached it, two guards in old-fashioned colorful uniforms saluted him. They might have been ancient Colonial Marines, given their clothing and accoutrements, except for their thoroughly modern plasma rifles. Cook ignored them as he entered the palace, and was greeted by an old man wearing a servant's uniform with a distinctive patch on his chest, informing every one of his exalted station.
The Chamberlain bowed his head and said, "This way, Admiral," while gesturing cordially with one hand.
Admiral Cook followed his escort through the enormous palace, passing several guards and servants on the way. He ignored his magnificent surroundings, moving forward as if programmed. His frustration at having to leave his Fleet in this time of need was tightly reined in, and entirely concealed from any who didn't know him very well indeed.
His aplomb was shaken somewhat when they passed a large chamber, where several people were arguing vociferously. Hearing the upset voices, some of which he recognized, he paused in the entryway as the Chamberlain continued on a few steps. When the servant realized his charge had abandoned him, he stopped and fixed the Admiral with an irritated stare. "This way, Admiral," the Chamberlain repeated firmly.
Eyes narrowed to slits, Cook ignored his escort and strode purposefully into a vast, exquisitely-appointed drawing room. A cluster of Elites were gathered inside, some still shouting as others wept. The weepers were two elegantly dressed women, who sat on individual divans grouped strategically next to a fireplace, surrounded by a score of civilians. The older woman was about Cook's age; she was dressed in a lavish white dress with a décor of green and gold leaves, her gray-peppered dark hair coiled atop her head in a fashion a decade out of date. Her name was Lady Beala Hornet.
The younger woman, who sported loose, long curly blonde hair, was more up to date in the fashion department, but the expensive jewelry that dripped from her neck, wrists, and ankles failed to make her look like anything more than she was: a moderately pretty, very wealthy young woman. Cook recognized her as an Oranii, the daughter of a local Elite business baron and his nephew's most recent squeeze.
On closer inspection, Cook noted the occasional military uniform scattered among the clutter of ornate civilian dress. Elites, of course, of various ranks; along with the civilians, they were offering comfort and support to the ladies on the divans. A short, stocky man in pseudo-military civilian dress paced the floor nearby, cursing and punching the air with a clenched fist.
Several individuals in less-martial uniforms stood apart from the clot of Elites; it took him a moment to recognize them as the local constabulary. He scowled, puzzled, as a tremulous voice shouted, "Hadrian! Oh, Hadrian, thank heavens!"
Lady Hornet pushed her friends away and spread her arms wide, making no move to stand. Cook did his best to erase his frown as he removed his hat and walked over to give Beala an awkward hug; she was family, after all. As he stepped back, the lady fought to compose herself, drying her eyes with a small cloth provided by an attendant.
When she looked up at Cook at last, her face was bleak. In a trembling voice, she stated, "They took him...they took my son." Then her face twisted in fury and she screamed out her frustration: "Those bloody pirates took my only child! Hadrian! I want them dead, dead, dead! Do you hear me?"
He nodded graciously. "I hear and understand, milady," he said, careful not to promise anything.
Those words were followed by an explosion of comments and shouts from everyone surrounding Lady Hornet. Meanwhile, Lady Oranii apparently concluded that she was being left too much alone, and that she required more attention than the old hag next to her. She screamed theatrically and cried louder, her face glistening with tears.
At that moment, Cook was reminded of why he had chosen to become a soldier, and wished that he was on some calm battlefield very, very far away from all this civilian commotion. He could make no sense of anything that was said amidst all the shouts and screams. He embraced Beala again, and was just about to say something comforting to her when he heard a cough from behind. He saw his opportunity to regroup and took it. He gently but firmly disengaged himself from milady's arms and, without a word, turned around and placed his cap back in its proper place, on his head.
The Chamberlain was pointing in the direction of the hallway, a tight little small smirk on his face. Cook stepped forward and gave the jumped-up servant a glare that quickly made him spin around and scuttle forward, with Cook following in his wake. The Admiral manfully ignored the cries from the weeping ladies as he left the drawing room and continued his tour through the palace. His mind was a welter of thoughts, most of them personal; he had to force himself to ignore them and focus on his mission, which currently was to report to the Supreme Military Commander of the Nastasturus Federation.
He shouldn't have taken the detour in the first place, dammit.
Five minutes later the Chamberlain paused in front of two huge doors, which slid open at his gesture. Cook swept off his cover, handed it to the Chamberlain, and entered.
"...and that is the last report we have received," a nervous police inspector was saying as he approached. The officer was addressing a huge man's back. Said man stood before a large window, gazing at a floral clock that dominated the park outside. Currently it stood at half past three, the Admiral noted absently. He approached the big man's dais and stopped, waiting until he was noticed.
It didn't take long. The man by the window turned abruptly, his eyes locking briefly with Cook's. Like Cook, he wore a tailored, light-blue uniform with white trousers and shiny black boots. He too was bald; but unlike Cook, he retained a fringe of gray hair. He was in his early seventies.
Marshal Guss Villette von Hornet, the Supreme Commander of the armed forces of the Nastasturus Federation—and Lady Beala's husband—looked as calm as he ever did, as if nothing untoward had happened.
Cook stood at perfect attention, clicking the heels of his spotless boots together. "Admiral Hadrian Cook reporting as ordered, sir!"
"Stand easy, Admiral." Pushing past the police inspector, the Marshal made his way toward the seat of his battered granitewood desk, nodding for Cook to take the visitor's chair. The policeman remained standing.
Hornet said crisply to Cook, "Admiral, are you aware of the fate of the civilian cruiser Bright Star, late of the Federated Merchants?"
"You may not be aware that my son was aboard. Along with the rest of his cadet squad."
Cook regarded Marshal Hornet with a cool expression and replied, "That is most unfortunate, sir, but what does that have to do with me?"
At first, Hornet looked stunned; and then, slowly, his face suffused with anger and he growled, "Nothing, Admiral, except that Alec is your nephew, and I need your help."
Cook scowled and snapped, more sharply than perhaps he should have, "Sir, this is a civilian police matter. It shouldn't be, but it is. It's all laid out in the Constitution, and if you'll recall your history it's something that the police themselves fought very hard for. I don't like it any better than you do, but the separation of powers is considered inviolable."
"That's exactly what I have been explaining, sir," the police inspector said anxiously. "We are handling this, and we will..."
Marshal Hornet stood up abruptly and smashed a ham-sized fist down on the scarred black surface of the desk. "Silence, the both of you!" He took a long moment to calm down before he eased back down into his chair, and looked at them each in turn. "What you fail to understand is that it is my son in danger...and neither of you is married to his mother."
He drummed his fingers on the desk and then said, "Admiral Cook. I need you because of all the senior officers in service, either within the military or the police ranks, you have the best track record when it comes to tracking down pirates. You started out with the Federal Police and spent more than ten years as a Commissioned Pirate Hunter, as I recall."
"Protest noted. However, you were the best, and I believe that your knowledge can be of great use to both the FPs and the CPH Authority." The Marshal leaned forward, his eyes blazing. "Moreover, you have a singular qualification that places you at the head of my rather short list of candidates: you are family. It was, in fact, you more than I who inspired my son to join the military."
The Marshal leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, allowing a taut silence to grow between them. When he spoke again, his voice was devoid of emotion. "Admiral Cook, you will deploy the Eleventh Fleet to the last known coordinates of the Bright Star. You will track down the pirates who took the liner, engage them, and rescue the surviving passengers, including my son. You will not return until your orders are countermanded by an officer with the appropriate authority, or until you are successful."
"The entire fleet, sir?" Cook was stunned. "You want me to take the entire Eleventh, several thousand vessels carrying more than two million crew members, to look for one person?"
"I do not. There were thousands of people aboard the Bright Star. Repatriate as many as you can." He took a deep breath and looked down at the desk, his eyes haunted. "I will admit that, yes, my thoughts are primarily with Alec and his squad mates."
Cook nodded. "Well, how many of them are they?" He looked at the police officer.
Cook interrupted the inspector: "And one Dealer has a better chance of finding them than ten galactic fleets will ever have."
The policeman nodded eagerly. "Yessir, that's what I've been saying to the Marshal, sir. Our investigators have already appointed several Dealers to this particular task."
"Are the two of you finished?" Marshal Hornet looked up at the policeman and Admiral Cook with tired eyes. "Admiral, it's not just that I want you to find my son and his mates. Your orders go beyond even finding the thousands of other people the pirates took off the Bright Star. I want you to do nothing less than obliterate the pirate clan responsible, to wipe them from the face of the universe. I want to send the pirates in all the inhabited galaxies a very clear message. I also mean to send a severe warning to the Merchants and Traders, making it clear that I will not allow these depredations to continue on their watch without severe repercussions."
Cook's eyes widened. "You cannot mean for me to bring military force to bear on the Merchants and Traders, sir. That might spark a civil war."
"I doubt it will come to that, but I'll do what's necessary to excise this cancer of piracy before it destroys us all."
"At the expense of the rule of law, sir?" Cook asked stiffly, his outrage obvious. "Your orders as they stand would be illegal without the Government's consent. It would be tantamount to a coup d'etat."
Marshal Hornet looked at him calmly. "I will get the Government's permission, Admiral. Even if I do not, I will activate the override clause in the Military Compact so that my order stands for one full year. In any case, the consequences will be upon my head. You cannot legally ignore a lawful order I give you, and I order you to do this."
"And what if I construe it as an unlawful order, which it obviously is?"
"In that case, I would have you removed, broken in rank, and replaced with a more willing officer, Admiral. You would be exonerated at court martial, but almost certainly retired from service, while I most certainly would be hanged."
"I see." The admiral fiddled with his gig line, an uncharacteristic gesture that shouted out his inner turmoil to any who knew him well. He looked up suddenly. "Marshal, even if the Merchants and Traders accede without a fight, this could turn very ugly if we use the military instead of the CPH Authority. It might force a constitutional challenge that could tear our Federation apart, sir. Please reconsider. Allow me exclusive use of the CPH in this, not the military. I can plan the mission and even take temporary leave of absence so that I can lead this expedition. I ask you—no, I beg you—to reconsider."
Marshal Hornet shook his head slowly, his fingers drumming on the desktop. After a long moment, he waved his hand and ordered, "Inspector, leave us."
When they were alone, Admiral Cook continued, "Guss, we don't even know what clan took them—and for all we know, they may be already be dead or sold off. In the latter case, it's only a matter of time before a Dealer finds them and buys them back."
"That process can take years of negotiation," Hornet replied in a tired voice. "Besides, Admiral, we know exactly who took them. There were survivors." He gestured toward the fireplace.
For the first time since Admiral Cook had entered the Marshal's office, he paid attention to the other people in the room. He recognized most of the men and women as high officials in the Nastasturus government, Federal Police, Commissioned Traders, and so forth. Cook's eyes stopped on two uniformed military officers who stood at ease beside the fire, conducting a quiet conversation. As he watched, the younger of the two glanced out the window and laughed. The other man nudged him, and they immediately stood stiffly at attention. When the Marshal beckoned to them, they marched in unison up to the desk and threw perfect salutes. Cook returned them perfunctorily, as did the Marshal.
Hornet made the introductions. "Admiral Hadrian Cook, you know our cousin, Major Thore Nesbit. With him is officer cadet Andrew Bow." Both young men stared straight ahead, still standing at attention.
Admiral Cook looked at them suspiciously. "The two of you got away?"
Cook noticed that Bow glanced nervously at the Major, who replied loudly, "No, Admiral! We escaped after being held prisoner for three weeks, sir!"
Cook glared at Nesbit; he didn't care for the man, relative or not. Perhaps it was because of his naked ambition, or his popularity among both the military and the masses. Maybe it was because of his good looks; a man had no right to look so beautiful, or to be built so perfectly. Perhaps it was because of his stated sexual preferences; Cook had no doubt that the boy with Nesbit was his current catamite. None of those things cut any ice with Hadrian Cook; despite Nesbit's beautiful face and perfect body, Cook knew that he was looking into the eyes of an experienced killer...or worse, a murderer.
Cook turned slowly towards the Marshal and hissed through clenched teeth, "Everyone. Leave us."
No one moved except for Major Nesbit and Cadet Bow, who looked at each other questioningly.
"Leave us!" shouted Admiral Cook, as he stared at his superior officer.
This time it worked. With the exception of the two young officers, no one waited for the Marshal's consent; they scuttled out the exit and were gone. Nesbit and Bow remained, uncertain of what to do, until Hornet nodded towards the door. They saluted sharply, turned around, and walked quickly out the door, the sound of their boot heels echoing down the hall.
The atmosphere was taut with emotion as the two officers stared at each other. Finally, Admiral Hadrian Cook af Hornet spoke. "I warned you that something like this might happen eight years ago, when you sent Alec away for his schooling."
He glared at his brother, who stood slowly and strode toward the office's north wall, where a huge painting of the founding of the Federation extended from floor to ceiling. He pressed a spot on the ornate frame, and it flashed twice before disappearing, revealing a large wet bar and several computer monitors on a low credenza.
Cook continued, "Guss, I told you it would never work. You should have trained him here, where it was safe."
The Marshal filled two glasses made of vaporous ice with a thick, dark-blue liquid. He attached handles to the glasses, to protect hands from the tremendous cold, and exited the bar. The painted nano-wall faded back into place behind him. Not looking at the Admiral, he gestured with his head for his brother to follow.
They walked out onto a terrace surrounded by lush green growth, and seated themselves on a pair of overstuffed all-weather armchairs. Without a word, the Marshal made a tiny gesture; the balcony doors slammed shut behind them, and the entire terrace started to slowly move upward towards the roof. When it reached the top, it slid sideways along the battlements before stopping inside a large opening in one of the towers, giving the two men a fabulous view of the landscape.
The Marshal frowned and continued. "Without Alec marrying into the House of Oranii, and strengthening the House of Hornet—not to mention insuring its survival—our clan's future looks dark. Brother. You realize that Nesbit would do anything to marry Michelle Oranii."
"You're referring to the spoiled blonde tramp downstairs?"
Cook snorted. "Right. Nesbit has no interest in anything female."
Hornet shook his head in disagreement. "He does if they can give him status and recognition."
"You're saying he might try to join our House with hers? If Alec is gone, that would give him enough power to claim his inheritance, and immediately ascend to the main branch."
"Indeed it would."
They sat silently for a long moment. Nesbit Thore af Hornet was the child of their sister Lywellyn, dead these two decades. As firstborn of his generation, Guss was the head of the main branch of the powerful House of Hornet; leadership of the clan was by primogeniture, and had been for untold centuries. The clan head's younger siblings automatically became heads of their own cadet branches of the family, hence the "af Hornet" cognomen. Only Guss, his wife, and his eldest child—his only child, thus far—could be considered true Hornets, with all the Elite privileges that implied. Having been born to Lywellyn, Nesbit's privileges were more limited. However, if Alec were dead or incapacitated, Nesbit could ascend to the main branch of the family as the eldest survivor of his generation.
The Marshal took a sip from his ice glass, licking his lips from the cold before he spoke again. "Yes. If Alec is dead, Nesbit is free to marry Michelle Oranii, whereupon he will demand his birthright and be the next person to inherent the House of Hornet. This is something we must prevent at all costs. He is still a member of our House, but he wants to start his own."
Admiral Cook nodded. "And that's the real reason behind your decision to send the Eleventh out to look for him. I understand that, but why give me that order in front of everyone? Now your actions will be challenged by the Senate."
"That's precisely why I did it. If that happens, I'll activate the override clause, so that no one can question any of my orders the first year. After that, of course, I will be forced by the Senate to stand down the order and bring you back home. But it will give you one year to find him."
"What about sending a message to the Merchants and the Traders? Did you say that just for show?"
"Hell no. They've been too lax too long; if they want to keep policing the spacelanes themselves in conjunction with the FPs and the CPHA, they need to do a better job than this. Things are falling apart out there; it's not even safe to take a hop from here to the far moon. It's beginning to look like their organizations are riddled with corruption from top to bottom—that they're actually allowing some of these depredations. I won't have that. I expect they're currently receiving that message loud and clear from their representatives. Hopefully, it will frighten them enough to start searching for Alec and his friends."
"You don't think there's any risk that they'll try to sweep certain evidence under the rug?"
The Marshal shook his head. "I don't see that happening, as long as Alec is still alive."
Cook peered at him over the rim of his melting glass, and realized that he'd best finish his drink before it ended up on his trousers. He took a deep chug and smacked his lips. "Guss, it'll still be like looking for a needle in a haystack. A very big haystack."
"I don't agree. Two CPH ships attacked the very same pirates not long ago. They weren't hard to find, and I think we can do so again."
"What class of commission?" Cook wondered, curling his hands around the glass. He stared moodily into the thick bluish liquid inside.
Cook's hand clenched convulsively; the ice-glass shattered, spilling sticky fluid over his hands and staining his perfect uniform. He rose slowly, ignoring his discomfort, and strode to the railing, looking out unseeing at the landscape. After a long moment, the Marshal joined him at the rail.
Finally, Cook turned back to his brother and commanding officer. "Dammit, Guss, the First Class Frigates are the best the CPH has," he said gruffly. "No average pirate vessel could stand a chance against one of them, much less two. That would require either a fleet or, at bare minimum, a very large cruiser. No pirate known uses a cruiser; they're not nimble enough. Guss, why don't you just arrest that little bastard Nesbit and his lover? This whole thing stinks worse than the ass-end of a bluttercow!"
The admiral lifted an eyebrow. "Arrest him? On what charges, with what evidence? He's a bloody hero. I take it you haven't followed the news lately."
Marshal Hornet looked at his younger brother coldly and said, "I know we have our differences, Hadrian, but I will not have anyone of my family slander the Federation. Anyone."
Cook nodded sharply. "Of course. My apologies. Now, what rules of engagement must I follow during this little pirate-hunting expedition?"
Hornet chose not to notice Cook's tone. "You are to use your own professional judgment at all times. However, I advise you to avoid the direct use of force if at all possible. Do not destroy anything belonging to the Traders or Merchants."
"In that case, you may consider this expedition an act of defense, and you may engage that foreign power, but only in space."
"Details like that don't concern me, Hadrian. Just find Alec and the other prisoners. If you feel that you must, you may ask your Order for help."
Cook gave his brother a puzzled look. "I thought you disliked the Grisamm."
Cook nodded, and decided to throw caution to the wind. He wrapped his brother in a fierce embrace and said softly. "Let's do it."
Guss whispered, "Just find him as fast as you can. I'll have your orders sent to your flagship."
Cook pulled back and said, "Do you remember that one time when Alec didn't speak to me for almost a year?"
"I'll make a long story short. It all started when Nesbit challenged Alec to a game of HoloSquares."
Guss frowned and said, "Yes. That was very embarrassing for me...er, Alec."
"Well, brother, not really. You see, there's something you never knew."
"Nesbit made the challenge the day before Alec's tenth birthday."
"The following day, in front of all the guests at his birthday party, he made a bet with me."
Cook rolled his eyes. "Yes. He gambled. He bet me one credit that the game would be over in five minutes. Needless to say, I took the bet. Both Alec and Nesbit were very good at HoloSquares, and I really wanted to see who was best. Well, we both know what happened."
"That we do. It was the one and only time my son embarrassed me in my own house. He lost the game in less than five minutes."
Cook nodded and fell silent for a moment before he said, "I just now realized why he was upset with me for almost a year. I never paid Alec that credit."
"And why should you? The spoiled brat lost the game."
Cook looked at his brother and said coldly, "True, but he won the bet. I was angry at him for doing so, but that was no reason to dishonor myself by not keeping my word."
"Ah." After a moment, Hornet raised his head towards the sky and muttered, "Guess you owe him a credit then."
The two brothers looked at each other, and for an instant Cook thought that his older brother wanted to say something more—something he was hiding. Neither one of them noticed when the balcony began to move back toward its original position.
Captain Joss Urrack tugged opened the massive double wooden doors; they were ancient, three times his height, but so perfectly balanced that they opened with a touch. Inside was a large stone-walled chamber, hewn from the living rock of the mountain. The chill walls were decorated with thousands of strange-looking animal horns, in various shapes and sizes. Set into the center of the floor was a large, bronze-colored metal disk, with a strange beast carved into the surface. Along the rounded walls were twenty enormous drums; at the end of the chamber was an altar, with musical notations carved into the stone. A very old, dust-covered basket sat in the center of the altar; next to it were arranged a number of ancient artifacts. No one remembered their use.
For thousands of years, Urrack's people had guarded this ancient chamber, which they know only as the Hall of Gall. Perhaps it was a tomb; in any case, they had forgotten what it was, and why they guarded it. They knew only that to do so was important. It had become a custom, part of their culture. It had no religious or political significance; it simply was a tradition, something that linked the new generations of Urrack's people with those that had come before.
Occasionally Urrack wondered: was the Hall in fact a tomb, with the bones of ancient Elites laid beneath the flagstones? Or was it a place his people had used for sacrificial rituals, or perhaps a temple for prayer? He had long since decided that it didn’t really matter; ultimately, it was just something that was important to his people.
One thing was certain: the place was creepy. The darkness lay thick as cobwebs across the chamber, and the only light came from torches in sconces along the walls. Powered lighting was not allowed in the chamber, which made no sense to Urrack; surely the torches, with their soot and heat, did more damage than modern lighting ever could. He himself had taken part in the yearly scrubbing of the soot from walls and ceilings.
No matter. All he wanted to do was to get his guard shift over with.
The twenty guards who had accompanied him were lined up outside in strict formation. For two days and two nights, they would remain outside the large wooden doors unless ordered inside. There could be no communication between them, nor could they drink or eat anything until the next guard shift replaced them. Again, tradition. It was an honor for any of his people to stand guard at the Hall of Gall.
This responsibility fell only to select, mature individuals of the very best and brightest, those who had performed something extraordinary during his or her lifetime. That person could be anyone: a scientist, a reporter, a soldier, a factory worker. It was the last thing they were required to do before retirement from seventy five years of service either in the private or governmental sectors.
The torches inside the Hall sparked strange reflections from the engraving on the dusty floor. It would soon be time to put together a work detail to clean the place, Captain Urrack reflected. He had almost finished his rounds and had started for the exit when a wave of cold swept over him, causing him to shiver. Goose-bumps rose on his exposed flesh as he realized that something unnatural was happening—and that thought sent more cold chills down his spine. Something was wrong, very wrong. He turned around very slowly, and saw a strange bluish glow emanating from the altar. There was no power source in the Hall of Gall to generate that light, and yet it was there.
Without waiting for a response, he cautiously approached the strange light. He noted that the Hall was growing colder as he went, and darker. He glanced at his torch, puzzled. It was as bright as usual, guttering slightly in the draft from the door, and still the room was becoming darker. It was almost as if the shadows were thickening, trying to smother the light.
When he was within a few meters of the altar, the bluish glow vanished. He stopped, then shook his head and squinted. Could it have been his imagination, or the first sign of age?
Captain Urrack turned and looked quizzically at the two guards who had joined him. Clearly, they too could sense that something wasn't right. He was sure that their disquiet was brought on by the same thing as his: fear, an emotion all but unknown to his race. The guards raised the edged, forked sticks of their Yahariias lances; Captain Urrack nodded to them. Fighting the alien emotion, this fear, he turned back towards the altar—and that's when he saw it. Some sort of pale liquid, seemingly made of living light, now filled the ancient basket almost to the brim.
It shuddered and danced, and that's when the throbbing began.
Urrack's people lived on a well-tamed, tectonically-dead world with no large predators, and little worry from the weather. They had lived in peace for at least as long as the Hall of Gall had been quiescent; they had no need to fear anything. But soon all that would change. From the deep, silent caves at the center of the largest mountain on their world's single continent pulsed a sound no one had heard for ten thousand years. It was felt more than heard, and spread from its focus through the caves into the surrounding valleys, and thence to the open plains and coastal jungles. Every member of Urrack's people, from the least to the greatest, became instantly aware of the throbbing's meaning and purpose. It left no one unaffected; those who slept awoke, and all over the continent people put aside what they were doing and turned toward the Mountain of Gall. What once had been blessedly forgotten now was remembered by the Samari, as something in their collective racial memory stirred, stretched, and raised its behorned head. Drums: drums that brought only one message.
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