Book: Search for Honor
Search for Honor
Copyright © 2017 by Tripp Ellis
All rights reserved. Worldwide.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.
No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, uploaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter devised, without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
The Galactic Wars Series
Connect With Me
The cold steel barrel of a plasma pistol pressed firmly against a young girl’s forehead. Her body trembled with fear, and tears streamed down her cheek.
Zack watched in horror as the alien tormented the young girl. The Tarvaax were marching prisoners aboard a transport ship. There were thousands of them. It was anyone's guess what they were going to do with them. A range of horrendous thoughts flooded through Zack's mind. Perhaps they would be used as slaves. Perhaps food. Maybe they were to be used as human shields to aid in the Tarvaax escape? Or perhaps the aliens had some other, more nefarious purpose.
Armed guards kept the prisoners in line. They hurried the captives along, trying to evacuate before the UPDF forces advanced. Zack and Diesel were atop a roof, not quite a thousand yards away from the internment camp. Zack’s optical zoom and tactical visor gave him a pristine view of the compound. With a 100x magnification, he could see the name tag of the enemy soldier who had the gun pointed at the girl.
The soldier was irritated and yelling at her. It was clear she didn't understand what he was saying, which only further seemed to enrage him.
“Let me see your rifle," Zack said.
"What are you going to do?" Diesel had a concerned look on her face. Zack tended to be a little impulsive at times.
"I'm not going to let him shoot that little girl."
“You're going to give away our position. We'll lose the element of surprise."
“Just give me the weapon."
She handed him the M7.
He took the rifle and lined up the enemy soldier in his sights. A thousand yards was a long way. But Zack had qualified as an expert marksman at this range. Plus, the M7 had a stabilization feature and a targeting assist.
Zack watched as the soldier’s finger gripped the trigger. It was clear the alien was moments away from putting a sizable hole in the little girl’s head.
From the corner of his eye, Zack caught a glimpse of someone who looked a lot like Honor. Same dark hair, same body type. But he couldn't be sure from this angle. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Finally, the person standing in front of her moved, and Zack could see her sparkling eyes. It was her, alright. Terrified and hungry, but alive.
Diesel was right. Taking the shot would give away their position and ruin any element of surprise that they may have had. But Zack couldn't just sit by and watch the little girl die. He lined up the reticle of his sights on the alien's ugly head. Zack took a deep breath and held it. He remained perfectly still. He could hear his pulse thump in his ears. It was like the rest of the world faded into nothingness, and all he felt was the tip of his finger. All he could see was the spot on the alien's forehead that was soon to be incinerated.
Zack squeezed the trigger, and the glowing plasma bolt rifled through the air. A moment later, the alien’s head vaporized. His body flopped to the ground, still twitching.
The prisoners looked stunned. They weren't sure what had just happened.
The guards scrambled, looking for the sniper. Before long, plasma bolts were whizzing through the air at Zack and Diesel. They both crouched low, taking cover behind the low wall at the edge of the rooftop. Plasma strikes exploded on the other side, chipping away at the concrete, showering debris and dust into the air.
“What was I supposed to do? Let her die?"
Diesel didn't have an answer for that. Truth be told, she would have done the same thing, and she knew it.
“Come on. Let's get out of here." Zack scrambled to the roof access point, and Diesel followed after him. They spiraled down the tenuous staircase and weaved through the dilapidated structure to the street.
Just setting foot in a building like that was taking your life in your hands. The entire city had been reduced to brittle fragments of its former self. Once great structures were reduced to piles of concrete and rebar. The streets were pocked and scarred with bomb blasts. Shards of glass, and twisted carcasses of vehicles, lined the streets. The air was thick with dust and haze. Plumes of black smoke rose into the sky. The air had a charred smell to it. Breathing in all the noxious fumes and particles couldn't be good for you, Zack thought. But respiratory problems later in life were the least of his concerns at the moment.
He could hear the sound of fighting draw closer as the UPDF forces pushed deeper into the city. With any luck, they'd arrive in time to liberate the POWs. But Zack wasn't just going to sit around and wait.
They weaved their way through the war-torn streets, snaking through alleyways and ruins.
“Do you have some kind of plan?" Diesel asked.
Zack shrugged. "Not really."
Diesel huffed. "So, what are we going to do? Run in, guns blazing, and hope for the best?"
Zack shrugged again.
“How about you give me my rifle back?"
Zack had almost forgotten he had borrowed it. He glanced down to the weapon, then handed it to her. “Thanks.”
“Still feel like going in guns blazing?" She said smugly.
Zack didn’t look quite as enthusiastic without a weapon. Before he had a chance to respond, more plasma bolts whizzed at them.
Zack and Diesel ducked for cover behind a pile of concrete. Plasma bolts streaked through the air. Diesel angled her weapon over the berm and fired back at the Tarvaax patrol.
Zack felt useless without a weapon.
Diesel unleashed a few bursts, then crouched down for cover. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I'm running low on ammo."
Bits of concrete and debris rained down on them as plasma bolts exploded nearby, impacting the piles of concrete.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all."
"Good ideas are not your strong point." She sprang up and fired off a few more rounds, then ducked back down. "I'll put down some cover fire as you make a run for the building." She nodded to a dilapidated structure across the street.
Diesel angled her weapon over the berm and fired off a few more rounds. Zack dashed across the street. Plasma bolts hammered all around him erupting geysers of debris from the asphalt. He disappeared into the structure and crouched down behind a wall. He peered through a window frame then watched Diesel take off running.
Brilliant beams of ionized plasma sliced all around her. She ran as fast as she could. Zack's whole body tensed with dread. It was almost worse watching someone run the gauntlet than doing it yourself.
A glowing burst of plasma streaked in front of her face. It was a near miss, but the intense heat was enough to instantly blister her skin. She winced with pain as she continued to run to the dilapidated structure. She dove inside as another bolt erupted at her feet.
"Are you okay?" Zack asked.
Diesel grimaced as she staggered to her feet. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just got an instant sunburn."
"Yeah, that's definitely going to leave a mark."
She frowned. "Great. I'm going to end up spending my combat bonus on skin resurfacing."
"It doesn't look that bad," Zack said, trying to reassure her.
She knew he was full of it. "Let's keep moving."
They weaved through the building and emerged on Hawthorne Street. They cut through an alley, then continued north. The duo had managed to escape the patrol, for now.
"How many were there?" Diesel asked.
"I don't know. I counted four."
"They must be pulling back to the camp. They didn't seem too interested in coming after us."
Zack saw one of the alien transports rise above the skyline. Its massive thrusters engaged, and the big behemoth rocketed toward the upper atmosphere, leaving only a wake of ion wash.
Zack's heart sank. He had no idea if Honor was aboard that transport.
Several more lumbered into the sky. By the time Zack and Diesel made it to the internment camp, the last ship was lifting off and retracting its landing gear. It was maybe 50 feet off the ground. The rest of the compound was empty. All the enemy soldiers were gone, except for the body of the soldier Zack had sniped from the rooftop. The alien carcass lay in a pool of blood.
The place was a wreck. There were garbage and empty storage crates. There were the remains of less fortunate prisoners that had fallen victim to the wrath of the Tarvaax. It was like the aftermath of a rock concert, or any other venue where large amounts of people gathered. The show was over, and everyone was gone. It was the Global Devastation Intergalactic Tour, brought to you by the Tarvaax.
Zack looked crestfallen as he watched the ship vanish into the hazy sky. Was Honor on that ship? His foster parents? How would he ever find them again?
Diesel could see his obvious distress.
Flies were buzzing all around the area, congregating on the corpses of the fallen prisoners. It was a horrid site. And every now and then, the breeze would blow just right, and the stench would smack you in the face like a wet sock. It was almost enough to make you gag.
Zack began the unpleasant task of sifting through the remains, looking for his loved ones. He was praying he wouldn't see a familiar face. Diesel watched with empathy as he surveyed the area.
Zack could hear the unmistakable sound of a mechanized Marine unit approaching. Walker-tanks clattered against the concrete as they marched into the area with several platoons of Marine infantry.
The hatch of one of the walker-tanks lifted, and a 1st Lieutenant poked his head out, and scanned the carnage.
"It's about time you guys showed up," Zack said, then added, "Lieutenant.”
“We’d have been here a lot sooner if that damn shield had been down when we landed. I tell you, that landing was a massive Charlie Foxtrot,” the lieutenant said. "I don't know who brought that shield down, but I could kiss them."
"Sorry, Lieutenant. You're not my type."
The LT looked impressed. "So that was you two?"
"Along with Major Malone. She's the real hero."
"Now that doesn't surprise me at all. Where is the major?"
"Zack just shook his head. "She didn't make it."
The LT deflated. It was easy to see that he knew Major Malone well and was crushed at the loss.
A voice in the distance broke the silence. "Holy shit! Salvator, is that you?"
Zack recognized the voice instantly. A grin curled up on his face. He looked to see a Marine making his way toward him. But the face, and body, didn't match the voice. Zack's eyes went wide with surprise. "Matt?"
"I wondered if I'd ever see you again," Matt said with a sly grin. The two clasped hands and bro-hugged each other.
"Damn, son! Look at you."
Matt displayed his new physique. "Lost the baby fat,” he said with a grin. "Courtesy of the Donut Brigade."
His formerly round face was now square, and his chest was bigger than his belly. It was a remarkable transformation.
"I hardly recognized you."
"And look at you, you don't look like the wimpy kid anymore."
Zack's eyes narrowed at him. "I was never wimpy."
Matt scoffed. "Oh, okay."
The two chuckled.
"Hey, maybe Dean Dully will think twice about messing with you now."
Zack's smile faded a little. "Dean is probably dead. Along with just about everyone else we knew."
Matt's smile faded too. "Way to bring the mood down."
Matt leaned in to Zack and whispered, nodding at Diesel, “So, who's the babe?"
"She definitely has DSL."
"I thought you and Evelyn were a thing?"
"I have a girlfriend. I'm not dead. Besides, she doesn't care where I gain my appetite, as long as I dine with her." Matt smiled in the charming, disarming way that only he could.
"I think my parents, and Honor were on one of those transports."
Matt deflated. "I'm sorry, buddy. My parents didn’t make it through this either. I got word that they were killed during the initial attack. At least they didn't have to suffer through the occupation."
“That’s one way of looking at it." Zack was crestfallen. "We gotta get some payback."
General Loktar’s eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. His face was red, and the veins in his forehead bulged. He gasped for breath as Emperor Vuul’s fist tightened around his throat. The general pawed at Vuul’s grasp to no avail. It didn't matter how much he struggled, he wasn't going to free himself from the tyrant’s grip.
The Emperor's eyes blazed with rage. His snarling face looked fearsome, like a rabid animal about to devour its prey. "I'm holding you personally accountable, General Loktar.”
The general tried to scratch out a few words, but he couldn't manage to pass any air across his vocal chords. He had been in the unfortunate position of informing the Emperor that his son, Xorgon, was dead.
The Emperor's massive hands were like a vice. A hideous crack echoed off the palace walls as Loktar’s spine snapped. Vuul finally released his grip, and the general flopped to the marble floor, nothing more than a limp sack of bones.
The Emperor’s courtiers looked on in horror. There was a momentary pause, and a few audible gasps, then they hurriedly returned to business as usual.
The Emperor's palace was opulent. High vaulted ceilings and towering Doric columns. Elaborate carvings adorned the shaft and capital of the pillars. His throne was ornate, made entirely of one of the rarest metals in the galaxy—trilvaltium. It sat atop a stepped riser shrouded by a canopy. The thing probably cost more than the gross domestic product of some of the colonies. It was decorated with priceless gems and crystals. The hall was adorned with all the pomp and majesty befitting a ruler with the power that Vuul possessed.
The chancellor motioned for a few courtiers to take the body away. He knew the Emperor would fly into a rage about the clutter before too long. The courtiers scooped up the dead alien and carted him out of the chamber.
The Emperor's hateful eyes scanned the hall looking for his next victim to take his frustrations out on.
None of the courtiers wanted to make eye contact.
The general had given Emperor Vuul footage retrieved from Xorgon's camera crew—multiple angles of his last battle with Zack. He watched it on the display near his throne over and over again. Vuul seethed with anger.
Chancellor Grava, watched with trepidation. He knew the Emperor could snap at any moment
Vuul freeze-framed on a close-up of Zack's face. He burned the image into his memory. "I want this human brought before me. He must die by my own hands."
"Yes, my Lord,” Grava said.
"It would be an honor to avenge my brother’s death,” Aarnok said.
The Emperor's eyes shifted to his only remaining son. "I will not risk your life. You are as foolish as your brother, and do not possess the necessary skills for battle."
"I can assure you, Father, I am more than capable."
“You suffer from the same problem as Xorgon. His arrogance was his undoing.”
Aarnok's face tensed. "I can assure you, I will use caution and good judgment. Let me find this human, and bring him to you."
The Emperor was silent for a long moment. "You are the last remaining heir to the throne. And I am too old to start over."
"Nothing is going to happen to me." Aarnok assured him. "Consult with the oracles."
"Believe me. I intend to."
"I am beginning to doubt your ability," the Emperor said. He occupied the oracle’s chamber like a dark cloud. It didn't take a fortuneteller to see a storm was brewing behind his eyes. His furious thunder was going to rain down on her if she didn't tread cautiously.
"I have given counsel to your father, and your father's father. And his father before him. In all that time, my ability has never been questioned."
The oracle was well over 300 years old. She was a pureblood Asarian, and didn't show any signs of aging beyond that of a mature adult. There was no telling how long she would live, especially given Vuul's temper, but the natural course of her life could take her well beyond 8000 years.
"You made no mention of Xorgon’s death. In all the times I came to you for guidance, you never said a word. Yet, my son is no more. Killed by a feeble human, no less.”
The oracle paused for a moment, thinking of the proper way to handle the situation. “The threat to you was imminent. I focused all of my energy and power on seeing matters that pertained to you."
"I would say that my son’s destiny pertains to me."
"Matters of your safety,” the oracle clarified. She proceeded in a cautious tone. ”However, I take full responsibility. I should have seen the danger faced by your son. I should have seen the failure on Crylos 9.”
Vuul said nothing.
She humbled herself before him. "I will accept whatever punishment you choose to inflict. Including death." She knew how to play the Emperor. Instead of making excuses, it was better to accept responsibility. Vuul tended to respect those willing to suffer the consequences of their actions.
"What do you see now?" He asked.
The oracle breathed a slight sigh of relief. "You are still in danger." She was going to say that whether he was or not. Like all soothsayers, she knew how to hook a client—tell them something bad might happen, then get them to depend on you to tell them how to avoid it. But this time, she was telling the truth. "The visions are just that—visions. They are not immutable. The one who destroyed your son is the one who seeks to destroy you. He is the one from the prophecy. He must not fulfill his destiny."
"And how can he be stopped?"
The oracle took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She cleared her mind and let visions of the future flood in. "Right now I see two possible futures. One where you rule the galaxy, and another…" She stopped herself, not wanting to give too dire of a prediction. Vuul tended to be extremely superstitious. “Let's just say outcome two is highly undesirable."
There was a long pause.
"If I send my son to dispatch the threat, will he return?"
The oracle took a deep breath again and closed her eyes. She strained to see the future. “There is no need to look for this human. Be patient, and he will come to you.”
It was like a raucous frat party. They had transported in kegs of beer. There was a fully stocked bar with the finest liquor from all across the galaxy—Antarian whiskey, Veluzian gin, Ravnarian vodka. There was a band playing live music. Marines were hooting and hollering and guzzling down beverages as fast as they could swallow them. Barbecue grills were smoking brisket, ribs, chicken—you name it. The sweet smell wafted through the forward operating base. It was a victory celebration, and everyone was cutting loose.
It was well-deserved, and Colonel McLean pulled out all the stops. The war was far from over, but for the moment, victory belonged to the UPDF.
Matt, Zack, and Diesel clinked glasses and tossed back a shot of tequila.
"I'm standing in the presence of greatness," Matt said. "You guys are heroes."
Zack shrugged the complement off. "I don't know about that."
Diesel feigned modesty. “Well, I’m perfectly fine with the title."
Zack had a sullen look on his face.
"Cheer up," Matt said. "We pushed the scumbags out and took back our planet. That's worth celebrating."
"Then act like it."
“But nothing. You've got to take these moments when they come. You know we're going to be back in the thick of it before too long."
"Look around, man. Almost everyone we knew and loved is gone. This place is never going to be the same. I don't see how you can be so chipper at this particular moment."
"You think it doesn't tear me up? I lost just as much as you did. But I can't do anything to change it. Today's a good day. I'm alive. I’ve got all my fingers and toes. I'm with my best friend. I'm enjoying a fine beverage, and am about to have a delectable meal. In the infantry, we call that a reason to celebrate. You need to start looking on the bright side of things."
"Matt is right," Diesel said. "It's way too depressing otherwise."
Zack forced a smile. "All right. Fun. We’ll have fun tonight."
Matt grinned. "That's more like it." He ordered another shot from the makeshift bar, and the three of them slugged the tequila down. It burned as it slid down Zack's throat and heated Zack's belly.
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting some brisket," Matt said. “It's not every day we get real barbecue."
They stepped out of the tent and marched toward the pits. There was a sizable line. It took about half an hour to make their way through, and just as they were about to dish up, Sergeant Tindall called out to them. "Lance Corporal Salvator… Corporal Dawson…”
Colonel McLean wants to see you."
“Yes, Sergeant,” Zack said. "Mind if we finish eating?"
"Make it snappy."
Usually when the colonel wanted to see you, it meant ASAP. But on a night like this, everything seemed less formal.
Zack got a plate full of brisket with beans and coleslaw. He sat at a table and scarfed the meal down like he hadn't eaten in a month. He couldn't remember the last time he had real barbecued brisket, and it tasted like the best thing ever.
Afterward, they made their way to the colonel's tent.
"Lance Corporal Salvator and Corporal Dawson reporting as ordered, sir." Zack and Diesel stood at attention.
"At ease." Colonel McLean was sitting at his desk. There was an open bottle of whiskey that was halfway through the label. "Can I offer you two a drink?"
Zack hesitated for a moment.
"Now you're not going to deny me the privilege of having a drink with two outstanding Marines, are you?"
"No, sir," Zack said.
"Good." He poured two glasses and handed them to Zack and Diesel. "It’s Antarian. The finest in the galaxy," he said with a grin.
"Thank you, sir," Zack and Diesel said in unison.
"It's my understanding that you two are responsible for bringing down the shield generator. Is that correct?"
"Yes, sir," Diesel said. "With the help of Major Malone."
The sparkle faded from the colonel's eyes. "Major Malone was a fine Marine. She will be sorely missed." He paused for a moment, as if to honor Major Malone, then proceeded. "I'm putting you two in for a commendation. Today's victory is solely your responsibility."
"Thank you, sir," they replied.
"I know you've got better things to do this evening than hang out with the old man, but I just wanted to congratulate you personally. I'll have you assigned to a new platoon shortly. In the meantime, have some fun... You earned it."
Zack grinned. "Yes sir. Thank you, sir." Zack hesitated, then asked, “What about the POWs, sir?"
McLean frowned. "I'm sure we’ll launch a rescue mission once we have proper intel." The colonel could see that Zack wasn't satisfied with his answer. "I wish I could tell you more. Currently I cannot allocate any resources toward search and rescue. We are in a very tenuous position. The Tarvaax could return at any moment, with greater numbers. I'm sure the UIA is working diligently to gather as much intel as possible. Let them do their job, and when the time is right, we can do ours."
"Yes, sir," Zack said.
The two filed out of the colonel's tent, and rejoined the festivities. The next morning came entirely too soon. A sergeant was hovering over Zack's rack, screaming at him. "Rise and shine, Lance Corporal!"
Zack's head was throbbing. He peeled his eyes open. It was like they were glued shut. His mouth felt like a desert, devoid of any saliva. He had lost count of how many tequila shots he had the night before.
"Looks like you two idiots are going to meet the president. Your transport leaves in 15 minutes."
It took a moment to comprehend what the sergeant had said. "Why are we going to meet the president?"
The sergeant shook his head at Zack’s apparent stupidity. "Why do you think?"
Zack shrugged and glanced over at Diesel who was pulling herself out of her rack.
The USS Intrepid was the most technologically advanced warship in the fleet. It was twice the size of the largest super-carrier and had the latest composite armor and shield technology. It was a fortress in space. And like a ghost ship, it never appeared in the same place twice. It was, in essence, The Federation. It housed every major branch of government, including the executive branch. It was the strategic headquarters for the Joint Planetary Operations Command, the United Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Department.
The port and starboard sides of the ship were lined with 16 inch, Mark 60 plasma cannons. There were an array of tactical nuclear weapons. And the six flight decks could launch thousands of fighters into space within moments.
It was a fearsome piece of equipment.
The location of the Intrepid was classified. Any unauthorized vehicles entering into the restricted space around the warship were immediately destroyed—shoot first, ask questions later. It was protocol for approaching ships to emerge from quantum space outside the restricted zone, then establish contact and provide a security clearance code. Even though all Federation ships had IFF (identify friend or foe) transponders, without a proper authorization code even friendly vessels would be shot down.
After the assassination of President Sutherland by radicals within the Federation, security had been stepped up a few notches.
Zack and Diesel emerged from slide-space just outside the restricted zone. They were strapped into their seats in the cargo hold of an SB 120 Raptor. It was a state-of-the-art dropship, and the preferred method of troop deployment for the Space Corps. It was fast and lethal, but it wasn't built for comfort. Six hours in a seat affixed to the bulkhead that didn't recline wasn't exactly doing wonders for Zack's lower back.
The pilot made contact with the Intrepid and provided the authorization code.
A voice crackled back over the comm line. “Raptor 227, this is Federation One, you are cleared to land on flight deck C."
"Roger that." The pilot proceeded slowly.
A squadron of fighters patrolled the space around the Intrepid. The Raptor was quickly met with an escort which guided them to the flight deck.
The Raptor pilot nosed the vehicle around and made his approach toward the middle bay on the port side of the Intrepid.
A landing signal operator crackled over the comm line. “Raptor 227, this is Eagle Eye, I have you on approach. Call the ball."
Eagle Eye, Raptor 227… 3.7, Viper 65, ball." It was common procedure to give the LSO the amount of remaining fuel, and squadron identification when calling the ball.
"Roger that. You're on glide."
The fighter escort broke off as the Raptor approached the flight deck. The pilot was in the groove for a perfect landing.
There was a fine art to a space carrier landing. Managing the transition from Zero G to full gravity could trip up even the most seasoned pilots. It required initiating vertical thrust at the precise moment the vehicle crossed the threshold of the flight deck. Lieutenant Welling handled the landing with aplomb. He set the wrapper down like he was landing on a marshmallow. There wasn't so much as a jolt. The guy was good.
Zack unbuckled his safety harness, stood up, and grabbed his gear. The hydraulics whirred as the back ramp lowered. Zack grabbed his duffel and slung it over his shoulder. He and Diesel marched down to the flight deck. As they stepped to the quarterdeck, they were greeted by the officer of the deck.
"Lance Corporal Zack Salvator and Corporal Dawson, reporting as ordered, sir.” Zack realized he didn't even know Diesel’s first name. "Permission to come aboard, sir?”
The OOD looked over his roster. His eyes glimmered with recognition when he realized who they were. "Permission granted. It's an honor to meet you both. Welcome aboard the Intrepid."
"Thank you, sir,” they responded in unison.
"If you'll follow me, I'll be happy to show you to your quarters." He led them through a maze of passageways.
The ship was enormous. Crews scurried about, and the drone of the engines rumbled. But the OOD didn't lead them to the standard crew quarters. Instead, they had been given staterooms.
Zack and Diesel tried to contain their glee at the discovery of their posh accommodations.
"If you need anything else while you're aboard the Intrepid, please don't hesitate to ask."
"Thank you, sir,” the two Marines said.
The OOD spun around and marched down the corridor.
Zack and Diesel pushed into their respective staterooms. As far as accommodations went on Navy ships, the staterooms were luxurious. Each one had a double bed, a small living area, a galley, and a private head, complete with shower.
It was insane. You just didn't get these kinds of accommodations aboard a Navy warship. There was even a fully stocked minibar with snacks, sodas, and liquor.
Zack was still getting over the indulgences of the previous evening. Part of him thought a shot of whiskey might even things out. The other part of him never wanted to touch the stuff again.
He threw his duffel bag on the bed and flopped onto his back. It felt like heaven. He let out an audible sigh of pleasure. He lay there for a few moments, basking in his newfound luxury. But he was soon interrupted by a knock on the hatch
The hatch slid open, and Lieutenant Commander Garrick appeared in the doorway. "Lance Corporal Salvator?"
Zack snapped to attention.
"At ease, son,” the commander said. "I trust you had a good flight?"
"And the accommodations meet with your approval?"
Zack thought the question was ludicrous. Of course they met with his approval. "It's a little small, but I think I could get used to it."
Garrick chuckled. "Enjoy yourself, Lance Corporal. The president will see you in 20 minutes. If there's anything I can get you in the meantime, please let me know. Welcome aboard."
Garrick spun around and left the compartment.
Zack wasn't used to this kind of preferential treatment. It felt odd. But he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Zack put on his dress blues and prepared to meet with the Commander-in-Chief. He was a little nervous. And he hoped he wouldn't say something stupid.
He looked at himself in the mirror as he adjusted his uniform. He looked sharp. The uniform was tailored to perfection. The anti-wrinkle fabric didn't have a crease anywhere. He looked just like the Marine recruitment poster that he had seen as a child. He wore the uniform with pride.
Zack stepped across the hall and knocked on the hatch to Diesel’s state room.
"I'll be right there," she said, her muffled voice filtering through the hatch.
A few moments later she appeared, looking stunning. Her eyes glimmered as she took in Zack in his uniform. "Wow! You clean up well."
Zack grinned. "So do you."
Diesel rolled her eyes, feigning modesty. "Yeah, except for this rash on my face." Her cheek was still red and raw from the plasma burn. "I really wish I could've gotten skin resurfacing before I met with the president. It's not every day a girl gets to do that kind of thing."
"You look fine."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "I'd like to look more than fine."
"It's a figure of speech. You look amazing."
"Much better." Diesel basked in the compliment.
Commander Garrick returned. “Are you ready to meet with the president?"
"I guess I can spare a few minutes," Zack said, jovially.
"How does it feel to be famous?” President Parnell asked. He looked shorter in person than he did on TV. He was young—not yet 40. He was well dressed and wore custom tailored Zangari suits. They were made of the finest fabric, and hand-sewn. Each one costs about 100,000 credits. He had hundreds of them. He had amassed his fortune in the tech industry before moving into public service.
Zack shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think I'm famous at all."
The president smiled. "You're about to be."
Zack and Diesel exchanged a curious glance.
"The medal ceremony is going to be broadcast into every home across the Federation. By this afternoon, there won't be a citizen of the colony that doesn't know your name."
"I thought we were just getting a commendation, sir?" Zack said.
"No one's told you?"
The two Marines shook their heads.
"You two are getting the Medal of Honor. The Federation's highest award for valor. Going above and beyond the call of duty at great personal risk. Demonstrating conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in the face of grave danger."
“We were just doing our job, sir. Nothing more than any other Marine would do."
"Nonsense. You two are heroes. And the galaxy needs to know about it. You two are going to be the face of the UPDF. I'm talking posters, commercials, interactive game characters. You will inspire the next generation to serve the Federation. Now, more than ever, we need fresh recruits with a willingness to fight, and die if necessary, to save this great Federation"
Zack and Diesel were silent a moment as it all sank in.
"Sorry, I get a little excited about this kind of thing. It's the CEO in me coming out again. You two are a product, and I want to sell you to the citizens of the Federation. Your faces will be on lunch-boxes, and kids will be playing with your action figures. Of course, all proceeds will go to fund the military. I want our fighting men and women in the best plasma-resistant armor, with the best weaponry."
The whole commercialization of their image seemed a little odd, but better gear for the troops was a sentiment that Zack and Diesel could get on board with.
"It's a great story. I mean, you're fresh out of boot camp, and you save the planet. An entire alien fleet decimated by a small unit of scrappy Marines. That is marketing gold. It has mini-series written all over it. I'm already in negotiations with one of the major studios." President Parnell had an almost mischievous grin. You could tell he missed the private sector, but he was applying his skills to the Executive Branch. He had given the office a flare and style not seen before. He was young and vibrant, and for the first time in almost half a century, the government was operating at a surplus. He had turned the presidency into a profitable Fortune 500 company. "How does all that sound?"
"Overwhelming,” Zack said, half joking.
"I have no doubt that you two can handle anything that comes your way."
"Thank you, sir." They said in unison.
"Of course, there are a plethora of other perks that come along with being a Medal of Honor recipient," the president said. "You get a lifetime pay increase. Full medical for you and your family. Pre-approved loans at discounted rates. Commander Garrick can fill you in on all the details. Not to mention, you won't be in a combat position anymore. You will be serving the Federation in a PR position. Interfacing with the citizens. Being war heroes."
Their faces went blank. It wasn't what they wanted to hear.
"But, sir,” Zack said, “combat is what we trained for. Being in the field is where we can do the most good for the Federation.”
"You can do the most good for the Federation by being a positive role model."
Zack's face tensed, but he bit his tongue. A lance corporal didn't argue with the president of the Federation.
"I can assure you, you'll enjoy your new role. You'll always sleep in a comfortable bed, and you'll never have to eat another MRE again."
Zack and Diesel exchanged another wary glance.
"Sir, what about the prisoners of war?" Zack asked.
Parnell took a solemn pause "I know you're from Crylos 9. I want to assure you that I am doing everything in my power to locate, and arrange for the swift return of, those hostages. I've got the best people in the UIA looking into it. I will not rest until those innocent civilians are returned." He sounded sincere enough.
"I'd like to be involved in the rescue effort,” Zack said.
"I promise you, I will keep you in the loop. But you two are going to be too busy with your new duties to focus on much else.”
Zack was getting frustrated. He didn't want to travel around the galaxy as a recruitment tool for the Space Corps. He wanted to find the POWs and bring them home.
"But don't worry," the president said. "I've arranged for you both to have several weeks of R&R to recharge your batteries before you start out on your new missions."
Zack held his tongue.
"Well, if you're ready, the press corps is waiting. We need to get you into hair and make up first. Those cameras pick up everything, and that lighting can be brutal."
Zack's brow crinkled up. It all sounded so bizarre.
Zack felt weird about receiving the Medal of Honor. He kept thinking about the rest of his platoon. They deserved the award more than he did, he thought. They paid the ultimate price, and had earned some type of posthumous recognition.
After the award ceremony, it was a media frenzy. Cameras and microphones were shoved in front of their faces. The studio lights were blinding. Reporters were hurling questions at Zack and Diesel.
Cyrus Cole weaved his way through the crowd. Zack snapped to attention and saluted the Gunnery Sergeant.
“At ease, son.” Cole had a huge grin on his face. He gave Zack an enthusiastic handshake, then slung his arm around Zack's shoulder, like a proud parent. The two posed for the cameras. “I discovered this boy. He is my recruit. Six months ago, he was a sad pile of clay. Now he's forged of steel."
It seemed like Cole was making a last grasp for the spotlight before he was pushed out as the face of the Space Corps.
“Damn fine work, son. Damn fine. I knew you were going to make an outstanding Marine. You've made me proud."
“Thank you, Gunny,” Zack said.
The media onslaught lasted about 15 minutes, then security personnel ushered Zack and Diesel away. Cole stayed behind to get his last bit of camera time. Zack was relieved to escape. The swarm of reporters crowding around him had felt claustrophobic.
"Is it just me, or do you feel drained?" Zack asked.
Commander Garrick laughed. "Those vampires can suck the life out of you, that's for sure. Don't worry, you'll learn to handle it. The publicity tour we set up for you won't be near as chaotic. Mostly one-on-one interviews with various news networks. You’ll be making public appearances, and of course recruiting."
“I thought Cyrus Cole was the face of the Space Corps.”
“He is,” Garrick said tentatively. " The president feels like you two will appeal to a different demographic. In a way, you two are more relatable. You are just average, everyday citizens who served their Federation and saved a free planet."
Diesel and Zack exchanged a skeptical glance.
“I don't know if ordinary, and average, are terms that I would use," Diesel said with a cocksure grin.
Garrick chuckled. “Okay above average. How's that?"
“I can deal with above average.”
Garrick escorted them back to their compartments. "The president wants you to take a few weeks of R&R before you start your publicity tour. He wants you fresh and energized.”
Zack hesitated a moment. "Sir, I'd really rather be back in a forward position."
Garrick's congenial manner vanished. “It doesn't really matter what you want, Lance Corporal. You will serve in the position that best suits the needs of the Federation. Right now the president feels your special skills are best utilized in a publicity capacity. Most Marines would kill to be in your shoes."
“Yes, Commander,” Zack muttered.
Garrick seemed perturbed at Zack's less than enthusiastic response. "Perhaps you don't understand the delicate political situation the president is in? The Federation currently has the lowest number of active-duty troops of any time during the last century. Thanks to the previous administration's cutbacks, defense spending is at an all-time low. The operational readiness of UPDF forces are abysmal. In case you hadn't noticed, we face an existential threat that could destroy all human life in the galaxy. The president is working diligently to push through his new budget proposals for defense spending, and re-instituting the draft would be a highly unpopular measure. Are you beginning to follow me?"
"Good. If the president wants to get re-elected, he's going to need to keep an all volunteer defense force. It's your job to help get the numbers up. And I would dare say that's equally as important as saving Crylos 9. Perhaps more so. The entire Federation is at stake. Have I made myself clear?"
“Good. Now, you two just need to pick where you want to go on R&R and I'll make all the arrangements." He was a little agitated with Zack, but Garrick forced a smile.
“Thank you sir,” Zack said.
Garrett marched away, grumbling to himself—something to the effect of, “Ungrateful little bastards."
Diesel shrugged. "Don't look so dejected. Things could be a lot worse.”
“At least nobody is shooting at us right now.”
“Give it time.”
Diesel chuckled. "So, where are you planning on taking your R&R?”
“I don't know. You?"
“I have a few ideas." Diesel let it hang there for a moment.
“Well, are you going to share your ideas? Or is it a secret?”
“I might tell you… If you’re lucky." She smiled. "But I don't really want to go on R&R alone. Kind of defeats the purpose.”
“Is that an invitation?"
Diesel became suddenly shy. "I mean, unless you’d rather go off somewhere by yourself." Then she quickly added, “Totally as friends. I know you’ve got a girlfriend. I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes."
Zack pondered this for a moment. If he didn’t know better, he'd think Diesel was flirting with him.
Diesel could see the hesitation on his face. "You don't have to answer me right away. Think about it.”
“This is going to sound a little crazy, but I don't think I can go relax on a beach somewhere while thousands of innocent civilians are being held captive somewhere in the galaxy.” Zack sighed. "Nobody seems to be doing anything about it."
“You want to spend your vacation time going on a search and rescue mission?"
Zack nodded hesitantly. “The president said we could go wherever we wanted to go.”
“I don’t think that’s exactly what he had in mind.”
“Well, you go where you like. I know how I’m spending my R&R.”
"Is that him?" Fester asked. He had dark hair, and dark, shifty eyes. He was a short, thick, musclebound guy with a thin, high-pitched voice. He had been given a lot of shit over the years for the tone and timbre of his voice, but more often than not, anyone who harassed him about it regretted it.
Rex held up his mobile device and inconspicuously captured the image of a man who was leaning against the bar, ordering a drink. The man's nervous eyes glanced around. He was a thin, dark haired guy with a few days of stubble. He wore a leather jacket and his hair looked a little greasy.
The bar was like any other found on a private space station. Mostly unremarkable, with overpriced drinks. There was a moderate crowd, and a constant ebb and flow. Classic rock from the 2560s filtered out from the juke-bot. The robot milled about the bar, taking requests in exchange for credits.
The station was an intergalactic truck stop. It had a mix of pilots, flight crews, and deck hands from all across the galaxy. There were a couple regulars at the bar—station workers spending their hard-earned paycheck. And like any intergalactic way-station, there were ladies looking to separate the men from their hard-earned credits.
Rex was a big guy, maybe 6’2”, 250 pounds. Nothing but muscle. He was sleeved in tattoos and wore dark sunglasses, despite being inside a dim bar. He had short blonde hair, cut high and tight. He was with Fester and two other gentlemen, Cyclops and Ash. Former military types. They carried themselves with confidence and swagger.
Within a few seconds, the facial recognition software on Rex's mobile matched the man's image against a grainy surveillance photo. The display on Rex's mobile read positive match. "That's him all right."
An instant later, the software ID’d the man as Vic Vargas.
"That has got to be the dumbest mother fucker in the galaxy," Fester said. "Who in their right mind steals from Tommy Meatballs?”
"Apparently that guy," Cyclops said.
Cyclops had one eye that was gray and milky. It was easy to see where he had gotten his nickname. He was almost completely blind in that eye, and had only a vague perception of light and dark with it. His good eye, on the other hand, was another story altogether. He was a big hulking behemoth of a man. He was nearly 7 feet tall, and looked like he had been injecting steroids since birth. He made Rex look tiny, and Rex was anything but tiny. His smooth bald head reflected the lights of the bar. He had a low, deep voice that you could feel resonating in your own chest when he spoke.
“Why do they call him Tommy Meatballs anyway?" Ash asked.
Cyclops gave him a look. "Don't ask."
"What do you think he stole from Meatballs?” Fester asked.
"I don't care," Rex said. "And it's none of our business. Let's just make sure we get it back to Tommy Meatballs like we're paid to do."
“I got a bad feeling about this,” Cyclops said. "We never should have gotten involved with Tommy Meatballs."
"Too late now," Rex said. He kept his eyes on Vargas.
It wasn't long before Vic met another shady character at the bar. He had long gray hair that was pulled back in a ponytail.
Rex took a picture of him on his mobile device and tried to get a facial recognition match. The man with the ponytail was not in the system. That was highly unusual. Next to impossible. Either he had surgically altered his appearance, was wearing some kind of cloaking technology, or he had managed to escape any type of interaction with the Federation government for his entire adult life, which was unlikely.
After some small talk, the two men left together.
Rex nodded to the rest of his team, and they followed the men out of the bar. They tried to keep their distance as they weaved their way through the corridors of the space station.
Vargas and the man navigated their way to docking Bay 63. There were hundreds of bays aboard the space station that served as glorified parking spaces for intergalactic vehicles. Smaller ships could land directly in the contained bays. Larger freighters docked at piers that extended from the hub of the space station.
The ship perched on the deck of Bay 63 was a Spitfire P-630. It was an ancient relic compared to modern ships. A pre-war workhorse that looked like it could barely fly. It was pocked and scarred from decades of combat. There were rust stains and carbon scoring on the hull. You could pick them up pretty cheap on the secondhand market. One day they would be considered a classic, but today they were just junk.
Vargas sealed the hatch to the docking bay to keep out prying eyes. Rex was relatively sure that Vargas hadn’t picked up on the fact that he was being followed. But the kind of transaction Vargas was about to make was best done in private.
Rex and his team surrounded the hatch. He peered through the viewport and could see Vargas unloading a container from the Spitfire. It was on a hover pallet, and Vargas eased it down the back loading ramp of the transport ship. It glided above the deck for a moment, then Vargas lowered it down. He punched in a key-code atop the container and opened the lid.
The ponytail reached in the container and pulled out a small package that was wrapped tight like a brick. It was unmistakable.
“Is that what I think it is?" Cyclops asked.
"More than likely," Rex said.
“Man, I don't get involved in that stuff."
"We got hired by a mob boss to retrieve some merchandise. Was anybody under any illusions of what we were recovering?" Rex said.
The rest of the team was silent.
Rex and his team had a standard policy of not asking questions. A client would hire them, they’d perform the work, then get paid. That was the extent of it.
"Ash, override the locking mechanism," Rex commanded as he pulled a plasma pistol from his shoulder holster.
The rest of the team readied their weapons as well.
Ash placed a smart membrane over the biometric entry pad. It scanned Vic’s fingerprint that was left on the pad, then created a 3D likeness. When Ash pressed his own finger over the membrane, the hatch opened.
They burst into the docking bay, moving with tactical precision.
Vic and the guy with the ponytail both grabbed for their weapons.
"Don't even think about it," Rex shouted.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure they were outnumbered. With the barrels of four plasma pistols aimed at them, Vargas and his cohort decided against using their weapons. They let go of their pistols and raised their hands in the air.
"You guys are making a big mistake. Do you know who you're stealing from?" Vargas asked. He was trying to talk tough.
"I know who you stole this from," Rex said. "And Tommy Meatballs isn't very happy with you."
The gray-haired guy with the ponytail freaked out. “Whoa, wait a minute? This belongs to Tommy Meatballs?"
“That’s right,” Rex said.
“I didn't know that. I don't want nothing to do with that. I thought I was making a legit transaction." He glared at Vargas.
"Both of you, get down on the floor and put your hands behind your head.”
“Do it! Now!" Rex yelled. The barrel of his plasma pistol made a convincing argument.
They both complied.
Fester sealed the cargo container and activated the hover pallet. Rex motioned for him to push the container back up the ramp of the Spitfire.
“You don't mind if we take your vehicle, do you?" Rex asked.
“I swear to God, I'm gonna find you bastards. You’re gonna regret this."
Rex chuckled. "If I were you, I'd worry about finding a place in the galaxy where Mr. Meatballs can't find you. Good luck with that."
“Please tell Mr. Meatballs that I had no involvement and no knowledge of this," the ponytail yelled.
“What do I look like? Your personal messenger?" Rex snapped. "Now I suggest you both get out of here before I change my mind and decide to bring your heads back to Tommy Meatballs as well."
The two scampered from the floor and scurried out of the bay. Rex sealed the hatch behind them, and marched up the loading ramp of the Spitfire.
Ash slid into the pilot seat and powered up the vehicle. The instrument clusters lit up and flickered. He ran a preflight check, and all systems came back green. The fuel-cell had a full power charge, and despite the external appearance, everything seemed to be functioning. Ash depressurized the bay, then opened the outer doors. A million stars flickered in the distance. Ash throttled up the Spitfire and lifted off the deck, then rocketed out of the landing bay.
The Spitfire was surprisingly fast and nimble. The controls felt perfectly balanced in Ash’s hands. He had flown several Spitfires before, but he didn't remember them handling this well. Vargas must have made several aftermarket modifications. Ash had spent time as a maintenance technician, and was pretty familiar with the Spitfires. They were cheap and took modifications well. There was a sizable community who liked to hotrod them. Every now and then, you'd run into a Spitfire that could outmaneuver a Scarab or an Osprey.
Ash programmed in jump coordinates, and moments later Spitfire vanished into the inky blackness of space. They were heading back to Vega Lotrix. Mission accomplished. Almost. Hauling a container full of illicit drugs was making everyone on board a little uneasy.
The space around Vega Lotrix was hardly ever patrolled by Federation agents. But today was an exception. As Rex and his crew emerged from slide-space, they saw dozens of Federation Customs Enforcement ships doing random checks of incoming transports.
Rex grimaced at the sight. “Everybody just relax.”
“I say we jump out of here," Fester said. "Try re-entry tomorrow.”
“It's too late,” Rex said. “They're using some type of quantum disruption field. We can't jump away. Plus, if we run, it will make it obvious we've got something to hide."
A voice crackled over the comm line. “Spitfire P-630, this is Customs Enforcement. Prepare for boarding an inspection. Be advised that non-compliance could result in fines and/or incarceration.”
“Copy that," Ash said.
Rex sprang from his seat and marched down to the cargo bay. Fester and Cyclops followed him.
Rex stared at the container for a moment.
“This much Hervoxin is gonna put us all away for a lifetime," Cyclops said.
“What the hell are we going to do with this stuff?" Fester asked. His eyes were wide, and he fidgeted nervously. He was a high strung kind of guy.
Rex surveyed the cargo hold and caught sight of several EVA suits hanging on the bulkhead. "I've got an idea."
"You want to do what?" Gunnery Sergeant Cole asked. His face was twisted up like the idea was the most ludicrous thing he had ever heard—and it was.
Cole sat in a booth with Zack and Diesel. Anchors Away was an enlisted bar on the 2nd Deck of the Intrepid. Panoramic windows offered a stunning view of the cosmos, and the booth they were sitting in was prime real estate.
Gunnery Sergeant Cole was the kind of guy who always got the best seat in the house. Everyone in the Federation knew who he was—just like Zack and Diesel were about to become household names.
"I want to rescue the hostages. Or at least try," Zack said.
"Never happen." Cole said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“You'll never get approval. "
“I’m not talking about getting approval,” Zack said.
"Let me get this straight. You two are going to trek across the galaxy, face off against a vastly superior force, and liberate the civilian prisoners?"
“I keep telling him, he’s crazy,” Diesel said.
Zack had to admit, when Sergeant Cole put it in those terms, it did sound rather impossible.
"You don't have the resources,” Cole said.
"You said yourself, the Federation is not actively planning a rescue mission,” Zack protested.
"They're not,” Cole said. “One, we don't pay ransoms, or negotiate with hostile forces. Two, it would take a full-scale invasion force. And when that happens, the objective is going to be the complete and utter annihilation of the Tarvaax. The liberation of the hostages will be incidental."
"That sounds pretty crappy,” Zack said.
"It's all about picking your battles,” said Cole. “And while I can sympathize, I think you're picking the wrong one right now."
"Zeplovia is still occupied. Right now there is great debate on how to handle that situation among the inner circle.” Cole looked around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned in and whispered, "I have it on good authority that we’ll be moving on Zeplovia soon." Then he added, "Of course, that's top-secret. I shouldn't be telling you, so keep your mouth shut."
The waitress stopped by the booth, and Cole ordered another round of drinks. She smiled at him, and his eyes lingered on her as she strutted away.
"There's got to be something we can do," Zack said.
Cole's eyes flicked back to Zack. "If… and that's a big if… you could find out where they were located, the best you could hope for would be to sneak into whatever compound they're being held at and possibly liberate a small handful.“
"A handful is better than nothing."
Cole exhaled. "I know you had family and friends on Utonia. I'm just going to be real blunt. Do you have any evidence that they are still alive?"
Zack nodded. "I saw Honor boarding one of the transports."
"And you're sure it was her?"
Cole was silent a moment. "Well, I guess sometimes a good woman is worth risking everything."
There was a glint of hope in Zack's eyes. "So, you'll help us?"
"I didn't say that." Cole shook his head in dismay. "You two save one planet, and you think you're invincible."
Diesel and Zack exchanged a glance and shrugged confidently.
Cole took pity on the young Marines. “Well, hell. They're putting me out to pasture anyway. What do you need from me? I'm not going to get involved, but maybe I can help facilitate things."
The two grinned from ear-to-ear.
"Transportation and a team of special operators?” Zack said, hopeful.
Cole lifted an eyebrow. "Why don't you ask for a star destroyer while you're at it?"
"Sure, if you think you can round one of those up." Zack was only half joking.
Cole sneered at him. "Let's keep it realistic." He paused a moment. "You realize, if this goes wrong, we're all going to be doing hard time in a super-max prison somewhere."
"Then let's keep it from going wrong," Zack said
“You're going to have to hire contractors to get the job done,” Cole said.
"Mercenaries?" Diesel said with disdain.
"Have you got a better idea?"
Diesel didn't say anything.
"You'll need to find a pilot and a ship as well. You got any money to pay for this, kid?"
“I've got my enlistment bonus.”
“That’s a start.”
The cute waitress returned with their drinks. She served them up with a smile.
“What do I owe you, darling?" Cole asked
“Now, Gunny… You know your drinks are on the house.”
Cole dug into his pocket and handed her a handful of credits.
She smiled. "Never necessary, but always appreciated."
Cole’s steel blue eyes sparkled at her.
“You know, I'm about to clock out,” she said with an inviting tone. Her words were soft and velvety.
“What a coincidence. My friends were just leaving, and I hate to drink alone.”
"I'll see you in a few.” She spun around and sashayed away.
Cole watched for a moment, then turned his gaze back to Zack and Diesel. "Well, looks like tonight is my lucky night."
“I get the impression that every night is your lucky night," Diesel said.
Cole flashed a guilty smile. “I’ll make some calls, see what I can drum up. I'll talk to some of my buddies at UIA and fish around for intel. We’ll reconvene on this matter tomorrow."
“Thank you, Gunny,” Zack said.
He and Diesel took their cue to leave and slid out of the booth.
The customs ship attached to the Spitfire via a magnetic umbilical. A squad of agents moved through the crosswalk and entered into the Spitfire’s airlock. They were accompanied by an automated detection bot that hovered in the air. It was a black and gray orb, with two ocular lenses and a speaker grill that gave it features resembling a human face. It was jam packed with sensors that could detect even the smallest quantity of airborne particles. If there were any illicit substances on board, this thing would smell it. The customs agents had affectionately named it Sniffles. It had a plethora of uses in other disciplines with the ability to detect chemicals, gases, and volatile organic compounds.
The customs agents carried M7 assault rifles. They were decked out in full tactical gear, similar to what was used by the military, although the customs agents’ gear was black.
Once they were inside the airlock, Rex opened the inner airlock hatch, then stepped back as the agents filtered in. One of them spouted off the standard procedural disclaimer used when boarding all ships without a warrant. "Under Title VII, Section 384 of the Intergalactic Convention on Space Travel, and the Federation Security Act, we do hereby assert our privilege to board and inspect your vessel. Non-compliance or interference with Federation Agents is a criminal offense and may result in fines or incarceration, up to and including life imprisonment.”
Rex smiled. "Come on in. My ship is your ship. Make yourself at home."
The customs agents had stern, expressionless faces. They didn't seem amused by Rex in the least.
“Where are you coming from?" The squad leader asked.
Rex lied. “Epsilon Majoris 9.”
"And where is your destination?”
“Isn’t it obvious?"
“Answer the question, please."
“Are you traveling on business or pleasure?"
“We're just trying to get home, sir." Rex said, dryly.
“I need to perform an identification check on your entire crew. Is there anything you would like to tell me first? Save me the time and trouble?”
Rex played innocent. "I'm not sure what you mean, sir."
“Do any of you have any outstanding warrants? Is there any illegal contraband aboard the ship?”
Rex smiled again. "Nope. No outstanding warrants. No illegal contraband. Feel free to search until your heart’s content."
The agent pulled out his PDU and scanned Rex's face. A moment later, his full dossier appeared on the screen. It listed his real name, military background, and just about every other personally identifying detail you could imagine. The agent scanned the rest of the crew as well. All former military. No outstanding warrants.
“This vehicle is registered to a Milton Jeffries,” the squad leader said. “Is he on board?"
“No,” Rex said, forcing a smile. Either Vic Vargas had stolen the vehicle, or was registered under a fake name. “Milton is a buddy. He's letting us borrow the vehicle. Nothing illegal about that, is there?"
The squad leader's eyes fixed on his PDU as he ran the registration.
Rex's body tensed in anticipation of the worst.
The squad leader seemed displeased with the results of his query. “The vehicle hasn’t been reported stolen. Yet.”
Rex smiled and exhaled with relief.
"What type of work is it that you do?" the agent asked. He knew damn good and well they were mercenaries. They fit the profile.
“A little of this, little of that,” Rex said.
“I am detecting trace quantities of Diacetylmorvox consistent with commercial grade Hervoxin.”
“This and that, huh?” the squad leader said, sneering at Rex.
The customs agents proceeded to sweep through the Spitfire, going over it with a fine tooth comb. They searched the cockpit, the staterooms, the galley, engineering, and the cargo bay. They found hidden compartments in the bulkheads that Rex and the crew didn't know about.
The customs agents didn't find anything, though there was no doubt the container sitting in the cargo bay once held an illicit substance. Now it was empty.
The squad leader was furious. "There's enough trace residue in this container that I can put you all away for a lifetime."
"Maybe you should go back and re-read the statute," Rex said.
“I am well aware of the statute."
Sniffles interjected. "According to Section 43.11a, a person is guilty of an offense if he or she is in possession of a usable quantity of a prohibited substance. According to my analysis, the residue within this container does not equate to a usable quantity for an average human being."
The squad leader scowled at the robot.
Rex beamed another wide smile. "Well now, seeing as we’ve complied with your search, which has not resulted in any offense, you no longer have the authority to board my ship. I believe your robot here can verify the actual statute on that."
“When I want your input, Sniffles, I will ask for it!” The squad leader glared at Rex and the rest of his crew. Then he barked at his team, "Let's move out."
The agents fell back to the airlock, and Rex sealed the hatch behind them. He waved through the viewport as he opened the outer airlock hatch. The agents disappeared down the umbilical, back to their own ship. Then the umbilical retracted, and their vehicle maneuvered away to harass someone else.
Rex and his crew breathed a sigh of relief. Once he was sure the customs agents were out of visual range he suited up in one of the EVA suits, then stepped into the airlock. He sealed the inner airlock hatch, depressurized the chamber, then opened the exterior hatch. He tethered his EVA suit to a safety line, then climbed down onto the exterior bulkhead. He activated his magnetic boots and marched across the hull to the underbelly of the ship. He had tethered an EVA suit full of the Hervoxin to an engine cowling at the bottom of the ship. The curvaceous nature of the vehicle had obscured it from view.
Rex retrieved the suit and made his way back to the airlock. It was a lucky break that the customs agents hadn’t searched the exterior of the ship.
Once the airlock was secure, Rex activated his comm link, "Ash, get us out of here."
Ash angled the vehicle towards Vega Lotrix. With any luck, they'd be on the planet surface and could return the merchandise to Tommy Meatballs, get paid, and be done with it, then sell the Spitfire for a little extra cash. Rex knew plenty of people that could chop up a spaceship and get it retitled.
The knocking on the hatch sounded like someone was hammering it with a mallet. Sergeant Cole peeled his eyes open and wiped the sleep from the corners. His temples pulsed. His mouth was as dry as the Pluutova desert. What the hell time is it anyway, he thought? It felt like he had just gotten to sleep. He glanced at the clock—it was 0700 hrs.
The waitress from the bar was passed out in the bed next to him. The banging on the hatch didn't seem to disturb her at all. Cole took a quick glance to see if she was still as good-looking as he remembered her being the night before. He shrugged—not bad. He’d done a lot worse.
The rapping on the hatch continued. Each knock rattled his skull.
“Alright, alright. I’m coming." Cole staggered out of bed and ambled to the hatch in his skivvies.
He mashed a button on the bulkhead, and the hatch slid open. A gorgeous woman, early 30s, auburn hair, stood in the corridor. Felicia Phelps. She wore a white blouse and a navy pantsuit. She arched an eyebrow and looked Cole up and down. "Rough night last night?"
Cole smiled. "The usual."
Felicia looked past him, catching a glimpse of the woman in his bed. "How old is this one?"
“Why? Are you jealous?”
She scoffed. “No. I stopped being a masochist a long time ago."
Cole smiled. "So, you're jealous."
"You wanted to talk, let's talk.”
“Now is not exactly a good—“
“Take it or leave it. There's not going to be a later.”
Cole's eyes narrowed at her.
“Are you going to invite me in?"
Cole stepped aside.
She brushed past him and marched into the compartment. "The bimbo has got to go."
Cole feigned indignation. "I'm astonished. She is not a bimbo. She is a highly skilled professional.” He grasped for a lofty title. “She's a fluid delivery engineer."
“She’s a waitress at Anchors Away.”
Felicia kicked the bed, rattling the waitress awake. "Bar’s closed, honey. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
The waitress looked flustered. She clutched the sheet, covering her endowments.
“No need for modesty,” Felicia said. “I've got a pair myself."
The waitress glared at her, then fumbled for her clothes on the floor. She slipped into her frilly lace panties and pulled on her skirt. Then she put on her shirt and stormed toward the hatch. She glared at Felicia, then Sergeant Cole. "You didn't tell me you had a girlfriend."
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Cole said innocently. “Not currently.”
“Thank God," Felicia muttered.
“I'll call you," Cole said.
“Don't bother," the waitress said as she slinked out of the compartment. It was easy to see she wasn't thrilled about doing the walk of shame.
Cole huffed and scowled at Felicia. “Thanks. That's just great. Now I can’t drink at Anchors Away anymore.
“Shouldn’t piss where you eat,” she said in condescending singsong.
“I need your help."
“I figured. You only call when you want something."
“The civilian prisoners taken from Crylos 9… I need to know where they are."
“Your guess is as good as mine."
Cole’s piercing eyes stared her down. "Don't give me that nonsense. I know you people have ways. Track the ion wash, or quantum distortion, of their transport ships. That should narrow the playing field. Hell, I'd be surprised if your people hadn't already done that."
"I can neither confirm, nor deny, that statement." Felicia had an equally piercing stare. "And if the UIA did have that information, it would be classified. And I certainly wouldn't share it with you."
“I have top-secret clearance, in case you've forgotten."
“What's your interest anyway?” Felicia’s suspicious eyes surveyed Cole.
“I've got close friends that were on Crylos 9.”
Felicia scoffed. "You don't have any close friends. Only acquaintances and one night stands."
“I have lots of friends, thank you very much.”
She gave him a doubtful roll of the eyes.
“Look. I'm not asking for me. I'm asking for Zack Salvator. He had family on Crylos. His girlfriend was aboard one of those prison ships.”
Felicia’s eyes narrowed as she pondered this information.
“Come on, the kid’s in love. He deserves a shot at getting his girl back."
Felicia said nothing.
Cole could see that Zack’s situation was tugging at her.
“I mean, if the UPDF is planning a search and rescue mission, let me know. I'll tell the boy, and I'm sure he'll put his faith in the Federation. Is there a mission planned?”
“Not at the present time.” Felicia was silent again for a moment, then finally decided to spill the beans. "The administration is far more concerned with defending the fleet and liberating Zeplovia. Even if we knew where the prisoners were, a rescue mission would be on the back burner.”
Cole frowned. He didn't like the idea of leaving anyone behind, much less civilian prisoners. “Glad to see the Federation abandoning its own."
“They're not abandoning anyone. It's strictly a strategic decision. You know as well as I do that if the Federation goes in, it's not going to be to rescue just a few people. It would take a full scale—”
“I know what it would take."
Felicia sighed. "Okay. Supposing the UIA can track down the location of the prisoners, with some degree of certainty, and I share this information with you… what then? This kid’s going to jaunt across the galaxy and get himself killed in the process? I don't think that's going to sit well with my boss, or his boss, or anybody up the food chain."
“If you were held captive by slimy aliens halfway across the galaxy, wouldn't you want someone to come looking for you?"
Felicia’s face tensed. She knew better than to help Cole, but she just couldn't stop herself. She regretted the words before they left her mouth. “This is the last favor I do for you. You got that?"
“I got it, Chief." He gave her a mock salute.
She rolled her eyes and headed for the hatch. “I'll let you know if I can find anything."
“What's the hurry? Why don't you stick around? Let me repay your kindness, Special Agent Phelps,” he said in a smooth, suggestive manner.
She looked at Cole, standing in his skivvies, then glanced to the empty bed behind him, and laughed. "I'm far above your pay grade, Gunny.”
“You weren’t always."
She smiled and flipped him off as she stepped back into the corridor. The hatch shut behind her with a definitive clank.
Shrill screams filtered into the hallway. The rumble of some kind of power tool added to the cringe worthy sound. There was no doubt—someone was being tortured.
Rex and his crew exchanged a wary glance as they waited in the hallway. The warehouse was one of several owned by the mob boss. The place was dingy and damp and smelled like a cellar. Even if the man's screams did filter out into the street, no one would be foolish enough to report it. Getting on Tommy’s bad side was not something one aspired to do.
After 15 minutes, the sound of the power tool ceased, and the screams faded into groans and sobs.
One of Tommy's goons opened the door and poked his head into the hallway. "Tommy will see you now."
Rex and his men filed into the room, pushing the hover pallet that supported the cargo container of Hervoxin. Rex had transferred it back from the EVA suit. Otherwise it would've looked like they were carrying a dead body around. Which wouldn't have been all that unusual around here.
There was a man writhing on the floor in agony. His hands had been ground down to bloody stumps. There was a commercial grade meat grinder on a table. It was clear that Tommy had forced the man's hands into the grinder as there was a sizable pile of meat atop the table that had been spurted out of the spigot. Ash didn't have to wonder any longer how Tommy Meatballs got his name.
One of Tommy's thugs dragged the mutilated man out of the room. He left a trail of blood on the concrete. There was no telling what was going to happen to him next.
Rex and his crew tried not to pay it much attention. Expressing any kind of concern over the man might lead one to share the same fate.
Tommy's eyes lit up with joy at the sight of Rex and his crew. "I take it you have recovered my merchandise?"
“Yes, sir,” Rex said.
“Excellent." Tommy ambled to the container. He was a big barrel chested guy. He had dark hair, tanned skin, and wore obnoxious gold rings on his pinky fingers. He looked like he was on the far side of 50, but he was the kind of guy who could beat the snot out of most 20-year-olds. His face was pocked and scarred from childhood acne, and more than a few fights.
Rex opened the lid of the container, and Tommy reached a hand in, grabbing one of the bricks of Hervoxin. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket, pressed the button, and snapped the blade open. It flung out of its sheath with a click. He delicately cut into the brick and spooned out a sample of the blue powder on the tip of his blade. He licked his finger to make it sticky, then dipped it in the powder, acquiring just enough residue on the tip of his finger to taste. He dabbed it on his tongue and evaluated the quality. It was like he was tasting a fine wine. He seemed satisfied.
"It's pure,” he said with a smile. Then his eyes grew dead serious and he pointed the blade menacingly at Rex. "If I find out that you’ve stepped on any of this and kept some for your own… well, I don't need to tell you what will happen to you.”
I can assure you, we haven't cut the product,” Rex said. "It's just as it was when we found it. If anybody stepped on it, it was Vargas.”
Tommy looked deep into Rex's eyes, searching for a hint of deception. Tommy knew how to spot a liar. You didn't get to be in the position that he was in without being an expert in human nature.
"I can tell you speak the truth. For your sake, I hope you continue to be truthful with me."
Rex wasn't sure he wanted to continue his relationship with Meatballs beyond this transaction. It was like playing with fire.
"Move the product into the safe," Tommy said, pointing to a walk-in compartment that resembled a bank vault.
Rex and his crew pushed the merchandise inside. The vault was packed full of weapons, cash, and various drugs. There were machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, body armor, and an abundant supply of ammunition. Some of the ammo crates had UPDF markings on them. It was clear that Tommy had some connection that was funneling the stuff to him. These weren’t civilian weapons. They were high-grade, fully automatic, military spec weapons.
When Rex and his crew emerged from the vault, Tommy handed him a duffel bag full of credits.
“Untraceable. Just like you asked. It's all there, but feel free to count it if you like."
“That won’t be necessary,” Rex said. “I believe we have a mutual trust."
"Pleasure doing business with you," Rex said. He shook Tommy's hand, then headed toward the door. They wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
As the crew reached the door, Tommy yelled after them. "I got another job for you, if you want it?”
Rex grimaced before he turned around and put a smile on for Tommy. Mr. Meatballs wasn’t the kind of guy you said no to. "What is it?"
"Gunny, I need a word with you," Special Agent Fritz said.
Cole had just sat down at the table with his breakfast—bacon, eggs, two slices of toast, and a glass of orange juice. He was in the 2nd Deck mess hall with the rest of the enlisted men. "What are you doing down here, Special Agent Fritz? Slumming it?"
Fritz chuckled and took a seat. “Did you meet with agent Phelps this morning?"
"I'm not sure. It's been a busy morning," Cole said, crunching on a slice of bacon.
“What if I were to show you security footage of Agent Phelps entering your compartment? Would that jog your memory?"
"I'm sorry, I must be confused. When did speaking with Felicia become a crime?"
“That would depend on the subject of your conversation."
“I didn’t realize trying to get your ex girlfriend back in the sack was a matter of Federation security." Cole contemplated the many possible reasons Fritz might be asking about Felicia. “Are you banging her?”
Fritz looked exasperated. "No."
“I didn't think her standards were that low, but I had to ask."
Fritz was tired of beating around the bush. "Just exactly what do you think you're doing?"
"Cut the crap. I know you asked her for information about the Tarvaax prison camps.”
Cole put on his best poker face and tried not to show any emotion. But he was more than a little upset at the thought of the UIA listening in on private conversations. "I had a lot to drink last night. This morning was kind of hazy. I don't have a direct recollection of that."
Fritz leaned in and spoke in a stern whisper. "This is Navy One. You think I don't know everything that happens aboard this ship? The bulkheads have ears, my friend."
“Are you admitting to illegal surveillance?”
“No. Of course not. Perhaps you've forgotten, you waived your constitutional rights the minute you stepped aboard the Intrepid. My number one priority is the safety and security of the Federation government, and I am authorized to use any and all means necessary aboard this ship. There is no such thing as privacy here."
Cole finally conceded. “Those people in those prison camps are more than just names and numbers."
Fritz softened a little. "I'm aware of that. And the Federation is doing everything they can to bring them back."
"Now you're the one who needs to cut the crap."
Fritz was silent for a moment.
"Tell me you're actively pursuing a rescue operation,” Cole said.
Fritz grimaced. “A rescue mission is planned. It's just not going to happen right away. There are other more important military targets that the administration wants to pursue first.”
Cole rolled his eyes.
“Why are you getting involved? You don't have a dog in this fight."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not involved."
“Then why are you asking Felicia for intel on the prison camps?”
Cole hesitated for a moment. “I’ve got a friend who had family on Crylos 9. Is that something you can understand?"
“That wouldn't happen to be Lance Corporal Salvator, would it?"
“Who?” Cole said, playing innocent.
Fritz's eyes narrowed at him. "There's a part of me that wishes you never would've saved my ass back on Alpha Epsilon 6.”
"I'm sure your ex-wife feels the same way."
Fritz wasn't born yesterday. He knew exactly what was going on. "How's it going to look if you go and get yourself killed on a non-sanctioned rescue mission?"
"It's going to look like I actually gave a shit about the citizens of the Federation."
That shut Fritz up. He stared at Cole for a long moment. "I'm going to pretend we never had this conversation. You want to run off on some fool's errand, be my guest. But don't ply my agents for anymore intel. I don't want any blowback coming my way."
“I can honestly say, I've received no intel from anyone in the UIA.”
“You know, it's not just yourself you put in jeopardy. If Felicia helps you, she's in violation of Federation law. And the penalties for that are steep.”
“Why are you getting your feathers all ruffled over this? It's harmless back-channel information. It doesn't compromise the security of the Federation in any way.”
Fritz grumbled in a low whisper. "Because I've got a leak in the agency somewhere, and I don't know who it is."
His words hung in the air like smoke.
Cole looked surprised. "You're not implying—“
“No. Felicia’s a good agent. I just don't want to see her get caught up in a larger net, if you know what I mean. Heads are going to roll, and the agency is going to come under intense scrutiny.”
The thought of the UIA being compromised was disconcerting. A mole within the agency could do damage.
“The enemy seemed to know our every move on Crylos 9 before we made it,” Cole said. “Do you think—“
Fritz nodded. "It's a distinct possibility." He paused for a moment. “We have a major problem with operational security. The president doesn't want to take any action until we plug the leaks. Now do you understand?”
"Look, I empathize with the kid. I'll see what I can do to help you. No promises. Just stay away from my agents, for everyone’s sake.“ Fritz stood up. “And just in case you haven't realized, you're no spring chicken anymore. You ought to leave this kind of thing for the young and foolish."
Cole smiled. "I still have a lot of young foolishness left in me.”
“Vega Lotrix. That should be interesting," Commander Garrick said. "My wife won’t let me go near that place now, but when I was single I sure did have a lot of fun there. Enjoy your R&R. You are to report back to the Intrepid on Monday at 0700 hours.”
Zack's face twisted up. “That’s less than 72 hours. I thought that you said we had two weeks?”
“Change of plans. The timetable has been bumped up. The president wants to start your press tour next week.”
Zack forced a smile. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." He spun around and left the commander's office.
On the flight deck, he met Cole and Diesel. “Just FYI, we have considerably less time to pull off this operation than anticipated."
“What do you mean?” Diesel asked.
“I'll tell you all about it."
The three of them marched up the back loading ramp of a Raptor and took their seats in the cargo bay. There were a dozen other Marines and sailors headed toward Vega Lotrix on R&R—a rowdy bunch, ready to blow off some steam.
Zack secured his bag and strapped into a safety harness. "Gunny, you want to tell me why were heading to this godforsaken planet?"
“Because it's the only place in the Federation that we’ll be able to find exactly what we need. I’ve got us a meeting setup with some special operators.“
The hydraulics whirred as the back ramp raised. It clanked shut, and the cabin pressurized. The pilot flicked switches and pressed buttons. The glowing consoles came alive with activity. Zack could hear the massive thrusters rumble as the pilot powered the craft up.
When the preflight checks came back green, the Raptor lifted from the deck and angled toward the mouth of the bay. Zack felt the weightlessness of space as they crossed the threshold and lumbered into the abyss. A few moments later the bulkheads rippled and warbled. Time dilated, then snapped back to normal as the Raptor entered slide-space.
Zack was growing used to the transition. It still made his stomach feel unsettled, but he didn't have the overwhelming urge to spew—and that was a welcomed relief.
“You don't look as green as usual," Diesel said. "Just slightly pale."
The jump to Vega Lotrix took just under 9 hours. They'd almost loose a day in the transport to and from the planet. It was seriously cutting into their 72 hour window. There was no way they were going to make it back to the Intrepid by Monday morning.
Vega Lotrix was the kind of place where you could find anything. And everything had its price. It was at the edge of the colonies, and had an extremely relaxed attitude towards regulation and law enforcement. The planet never slept. There was always a party somewhere. Federation police rarely exerted their jurisdictional powers over Vega Lotrix, and the local authorities were easily bribed. It became a haven for the criminal underworld. The girls, and the nightlife, made it a compelling attraction for military personnel on leave.
The Raptor descended into the upper atmosphere and swooped toward the capital city of Sak Vela. It was shrouded in darkness for 18 hours a day, six months out of the year. The Eternal Night was the prime tourist season. The party almost never stopped. It was easy to get turned around in a place like that. One day could blend in to the next almost seamlessly. Before you knew it, you had spent several weeks in Sak Vela, and your bank account was drained.
Zack could see the glowing lights of the city from space. It was a kaleidoscope of colors and flickering points. As the Raptor drew closer, the sheer magnitude of the city became evident. It was an endless horizon of skyscrapers and high-rises. With a population of 75 million, it was one of the larger cities in the Federation. You could live your entire life in Sak Vela and still not know every nook and cranny.
The Raptor descended amid the towering marvels of steel and iron. Sleek and exotic shapes that seemingly defied the laws of physics. Masterworks of architecture. Many of the buildings were rimmed with vibrant lights. Reflective glass windows cascaded the array of colors throughout the steel canyons. It was a beautiful city at night. It was the kind of place that could be the stuff of dreams, or nightmares.
The Raptor landed at the MacArthur Spaceport, located in the heart of the city. Zack unlatched his safety harness and grabbed his gear.
The other passengers were bristling with energy. They couldn't wait to hit the town. A weekend in Sak Vela could provide you with an adventure that you’d retell for the rest of your life.
"This place is a total dump," Zack said, standing on the sidewalk gazing up at the hotel.
"It's cheap and it's clean," Cole said.
"It doesn't look clean." The exterior of the building was covered in a coat of grime.
"You need to save your money. There are going to be a lot of expenses on this adventure, and they’re all coming out of your pocket." Cole smiled and pushed through the lobby doors.
Zack exchanged an uneasy glance with Diesel.
"Sergeant Cole, so nice to see you again," the man behind the reception desk said. He had a genuine smile on his face, and his eyes lit up with excitement. He had a thick accent that was hard to place. It was a cross between Fuzartian and Narvo, with a little bit of Eshkla and Vilsanese. He wasn't entirely human. "Always a pleasure to have a distinguished guest in our hotel."
"Good to see you, Ravnark.”
The place may have been technically clean, but it didn't matter how well you scrubbed the place, it still looked dingy. The tile floor was yellowed with age and dozens of coats of floor wax. The carpet was matted and so faded that it was difficult to tell its original color. Maybe it was brown, maybe it was red, maybe it was orange—now it just looked like mud. The air was filled with a damp musty smell. It was enough to tickle the back of your throat.
"Is this business, or pleasure?" Ravnark asked.
"A little bit of both,” Cole said.
Ravnark surveyed the three of them. "I have one suite available on the 67th floor. Two bedrooms, and a sleeper sofa in the living room. It has a magnificent view. The finest in all of Sak Vela.” He was exaggerating considerably.
“We’ll take it."
"That will be 675 credits a night plus tax. That brings your total to 823 per night. I'll need a deposit."
"Pay the man," Cole said to Zack.
He grimaced. 823 credits per night for this place was intergalactic robbery. But Zack didn't have much of a choice. He placed his thumb on the pay pad.
”I’ll also need a $500 deposit for incidentals. That will be refunded at the end of your stay, provided the minibar remains fully stocked."
"I don't anticipate using the minibar," Zack said.
“If your suite mates would like keyless access, I'll need their thumb prints as well. Your biometrics will provide access to the suite for as long as you are a guest."
Diesel and Cole scanned their thumbs on the pad.
"Excellent," Ravnark said. “If there is anything I can do to make your stay more enjoyable. Please don't hesitate to ask."
Cole thanked Ravnark, and the trio ambled toward the elevators. A horrendous squeal echoed from the shaft as the lift descended to the ground floor. The bell dinged, and the door slid open.
The elevator creaked and groaned as the trio stepped inside. It didn't instill confidence. The door slid shut and Zack felt like he was being sealed in a tomb. He pressed the button for the 67th floor and took a deep breath.
Several times during the ascension, the elevator shuddered and quaked ominously. Zack had learned to manage his claustrophobia, but this elevator could challenge the nerves of just about anyone.
The bell chimed, and the door slid open at the 67th floor. Zack leapt off as soon as there was enough clearance to squeeze through the sliding doors. The lift felt like it could give way at any moment.
"No way," Zack said.
"Beggars can't be choosers, kid," Cole replied.
Zack looked across the hazy bar and surveyed the ragtag group of mercenaries. They sat in a large circular booth in the corner.
Reactor was a seedy bar on Vega Lotrix. The red accent lighting made it feel like one of the circles of hell. There was a thick crowd of all types of people from across the galaxy. There were the regulars that sat at the bar, drinking themselves into a stupor. There were tourists blowing off steam. And then there was the underbelly of Vega Lotrix. They slithered through the crowd, selling drugs, selling themselves, or selling their services.
"No offense, Gunny, but they look like convicts,” Zack said, sizing up the scrappy bunch of mercenaries.
“Most of them are," Cole muttered. "What were you expecting for a non-sanctioned mission? You'd have to be crazy to sign on to something like this. It's a suicide mission.”
“Look, kid. If you want to change your mind, that's fine. Enjoy your time on Vega Lotrix. Lord knows, there's a lot of fun to be had in this place,” Cole said as he glanced around the bar, taking in some of the curvaceous exotic sights.
"I'm not going to leave the people I care about to die in some alien gulag.”
“Then, let's go meet your new crew." Cole slugged the rest of his drink down and slammed the cup on the bar. He pushed away and strolled toward the booth in the corner.
Zack and Diesel followed after him.
Cole flashed a smile when he arrived at the table. "Gentlemen, let me introduce to you, Medal of Honor recipients, Ice Pick and Diesel.“
The crew of mercenaries looked less than impressed. They ignored Zack and went back about their business.
“Did you see the look on his face when you turned him down?” Fester said, chuckling. "I thought he was going to throw all of us in the sausage grinder."
The crew burst into laughter.
Cole introduced them. “This is Rex, Fester, Ash, and Cyclops."
Rex didn't say anything for a moment. He just looked Zack up and down. "Gunny says you’re looking to put together a team."
“You got the money?"
“The money. We’re not a charity organization. There's a 50% deposit upfront, with the rest due upon completion."
“That’s not a problem.”
“I'm not going to carry that kind of cash around on me. I don't even know what your qualifications are."
Rex scoffed. "Qualifications? Let me tell you something about qualifications, you little punk. I've had more combat deployments—"
“I think we’re all getting off on the wrong foot here," Cole said, interjecting. "Rex and the boys here are former special operators. They are highly trained and have extensive combat experience. I have no doubt in my mind they can handle any situation.”
Zack exhaled. He wasn't sure about these guys, but what choice did he have? "Okay. Let's talk."
“I'm not going to talk until I see the money,” Rex said.
Zack dug into his pocket and pulled out a smart-glass card. He swiped the face of it and pressed his thumb against the touch ID screen, unlocking it. Then he tossed it on the table in front of Rex.
"My enlistment bonus. That's an untraceable, preloaded debit card. Don't spend it all in one place." Zack’s bonus was only enough to cover the down payment. He'd figure out how to pay the rest of it later. Besides, the odds of making it back from the mission weren't too good anyway. He might not have to pay the other half.
Rex picked up the card and looked at the display, which indicated the number of credits it contained. He looked skeptical.
"Go have it verified for yourself. It's all there."
“Trust me. I will.” Rex glared at him. “Stiff me on the backend, I will personally see to it that you suffer.”
Zack swallowed hard. Rex wasn't a guy you wanted mad at you.
"And another thing. We take our orders from Sergeant Cole. Not you."
Zack's face tensed. "I'm paying for it. It's my mission."
"We are only here because of Gunny. I don't know you, and I don't give two shits about you, or these people you want rescued. You got that?” Rex sneered at him. “I don't care what kind of medal they pinned on your chest."
"I think everybody needs to relax," Cole said, trying to defuse the situation. "We're all on the same team here."
Zack could see that Rex wasn’t on anybody's team but his own.
"What are we looking at?" Zack asked.
“Sergeant Cole pointed to a grainy surveillance image on his PDU. "My contact at the UIA came through with this intel. My source tells me that is the compound where they’re holding the prisoners."
Rex poured himself a drink from the minibar. They were in Zack's hotel room which overlooked the sprawling metropolis. City lights of all colors flickered in through the windows. Rex and his buddies were going through everything in the minibar at a blistering pace.
"Hey, I gotta pay for that. Zack said, perturbed.
"Think of it as extra hazard pay,” Fester said.
Zack shook his head.
Cole cleared his throat. "If you guys wouldn't mind paying attention."
"No problem, Gunny,” Rex said. He took a sip of his newly mixed cocktail and a wide smile curled on his face. "How did you acquire these images?"
"A buddy of mine at the UIA. They were able to track the ion wash and quantum distortion of the transport ships. It led them here. I had to pull a lot of strings to get these recon photos,” Cole said.
Rex leaned in and scrutinized the image. "That's totally screwed. The area is surrounded on three sides by this mountain range. That means we have to come in through here.” He pointed to a narrow canyon. “We'll be sitting ducks in the canyon."
“We're not going in on foot," Zack said. "We drop in under cover of darkness, rescue prisoners, and get out.
"And what if something goes wrong?" Rex asked. “What if your bird goes down, and we’re forced to march on foot? This terrain is brutal. It's surrounded by desert.” He pointed to the screen. "There are guard towers here, here, and here. It looks like they've got defensive positions in the foothills near this entrance,” Rex sighed and muttered to himself. “I’m beginning to think I underbid this job."
"Sorry,” Zack said. “Time for negotiation is over."
Rex glared at him. He glanced back to the screen and continued surveying the area. "Even if we do get in and out, how are you going to find who you're looking for? There are going to be thousands of prisoners."
Fester had made his way uncomfortably close to Diesel. She gave him a sideways glance as he encroached upon her personal space.
"So, what’s your story?" Fester asked with a lascivious glint in his eyes.
"Not interested," Diesel said with authority.
Fester smiled. "Give it time, sweet thing. Give it time. I have hidden talents."
She sized him up. Her eyes lingered on his crotch. “Very hidden.”
Fester’s grin turned into a scowl.
"Personal ID chip," Cole said. Every citizen is implanted with one. Contains dental and health records, and other identifying information. If we get in range, we should be able to pick up specific chips on the tracker."
Zack looked perplexed. "How is that possible? I thought those chips were just for medical identification purposes only, not for tracking?"
"Son, don't believe everything the government tells you. The tracking chips were all part of a secret government program, Project Omniscient.”
"How do you know about this?" Zack asked.
"It pays to have friends in the UIA.”
"I don't trust the government," Rex said. "That's why I cut mine out."
"If they’re alive, and in that compound, we'll find them," Cole said. A confident grin flashed across his face.
Cyclops reclined on the bed, watching TV. It seemed as if he wasn't paying any attention at all, much to the dismay of Zack.
"Hey, aren't you going to take a look at the images?"
"No need,” Cyclops said. “I can see them from here."
Zack shook his head incredulous. There was no way he could see from the bed.
“No offense, but if he's not even gonna take a look at this, maybe you aren’t the right guys for the job," Zack said.
Rex's face hardened. "If Cyclops said he saw it, then he saw it."
"He didn't even look."
“Trust me. He can see it."
Zack glanced around the room to see Fester on the balcony hanging over the railing. "What's he doing?"
Rex craned his neck to see. "Looks like he's spitting at pedestrians on the street."
Zack shook his head, incredulous.
"Hey, if you don't think we’re the right guys for the job. We can go our separate ways now. No harm no foul."
"You know, that sounds just fine by me."
“By the way, the deposit’s non-refundable." Rex smiled.
"What exactly are we doing here?" Zack asked.
"You can't successfully carry out a raid on an enemy stronghold without weapons," Rex said.
They huddled in Rex's van outside a seedy warehouse on the east side of town.
"So what are we doing here?"
"Stocking up. We need weapons and ammunition.“
Rex hopped out of the van and surveyed the area. He pulled his pistol from a shoulder holster underneath his jacket. He checked the weapon—the plasma pistol had a full charge.
Fester looked a little nervous. "Are you sure this is such a good idea?" He muttered to Rex
Zack picked up on Fester’s discomfort. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," Rex said. "Cyclops, what do you see?"
He surveyed the building, scanning all four stories, including the rooftop. Then his eyes flicked around the surrounding area. His low voice rumbled. "It's all clear." He paused a moment. "But I'm with Fester. I don't think this is a good idea."
Zack was growing concerned. "What's not a good idea?"
Rex ignored him and tapped his earbud to activate the comm channel. "Ash, are you in position?"
A moment later, Ash’s voice crackled back in his ear. "Roger that. Everything looks good from up here."
"When I give the signal, pull the van into the alleyway,” Rex said.
Zack looked thoroughly confused.
Rex marched across the street and slipped into an alleyway behind the warehouse. Fester and Cyclops followed after him.
"Does anybody want to tell me what's going on here?"
"I don't think you want to know," Cole said.
Zack watched as Rex climbed up a pipe on the exterior of the warehouse to a second-story window that was slightly ajar. Rex reached over and swung the window open. His hands were blackened from the dirt and grime on the pipe. He gripped onto the window ledge and swung his massive frame over, dangling above the ground. Then he pulled himself up and over the window ledge. He was extremely nimble for a big guy and made the whole process look easy.
"So we are stealing weapons?" Zack said.
Cole shrugged. "It's not like you can walk into the store and buy this stuff."
Zack shook his head. He couldn't believe they were doing this. "Who does this belong to?"
Cole shrugged again.
Moments later, the warehouse door in the alleyway swung open. Rex had a devious glint in his eyes. Fester and Cyclops slipped in.
Zack fidgeted nervously in the alleyway. His eyes kept scanning the street in all directions. His concern was interrupted by the sound of a small explosion that came from within the warehouse. Several minutes later, Rex's head poked out of the doorway. He motioned to bring the van around.
Zack and the others hopped into the vehicle and cranked the engine up. He put the van into drive and mashed the accelerator. The vehicle lurched across the street, into the alleyway. Zack screeched to a halt at the warehouse door.
Diesel slung open the side door. Fester and Cyclops rushed out of the warehouse with armfuls of plasma rifles. Rex followed behind them with several crates of ammo. They loaded the weapons into the van, and went back for another run.
"Don't just sit on your ass, give me a hand with this," Rex said to Diesel. He pointed to Zack “You, stay in the van, and keep it running."
Cole and Diesel dashed into the warehouse and returned moments later with more weapons. There were rocket launchers, thermal grenades, guided surface-to-air missiles, long-range sniper rifles with smart bullets, tactical gear and body armor.
It didn't take long to fill the van to the brim with gear.
"Let's move out," Rex barked as he jumped into the van with the others. Zack threw the vehicle into gear and stomped the accelerator. The van raced forward, and Zack turned onto 32nd Street.
"Circle back around, and we’ll pick up Ash,” Rex commanded.
Cole tried to hold back a grin, but it broke through anyway. "I haven't had that much fun since Sumatara. Reminds me of that time we stole three cases of the colonel's Antarian vodka. Ah, the good old days."
Zack made a left on Leeland Street, then another left on Crawford. Ash was waiting for them on the sidewalk in front of the S&P manufacturing building.
Diesel slung open the side door, but before Ash could hop in the van, plasma bolts exploded all around him. The rear window of the van shattered, spraying shards of glass throughout the interior. Glowing beams of plasma sizzled through the van, and exited through the front windshield. The bolt threaded the needle perfectly. It was a miracle no one was hit.
Apparently someone wasn't too happy about their little heist.
Rex moved to the rear window of the van and knocked out the remaining shards of glass. He poked his plasma pistol through the window frame and took aim at the black sedan that was chasing after them. He squeezed off several plasma bursts. The sedan dodged and weaved while the passenger hung out of the window firing back at the van.
Beams of plasma streaked through the sky in both directions. Blistering bolts pierced through the sheet-metal and rocketed through the van.
Zack crouched low as he sliced his way through traffic. "Anybody want to tell me who we just ripped off?"
Cyclops grabbed an M-679 machine gun and slapped in a magazine. He pulled the charging handle back and loaded the projectile into the chamber. It was a massive plasma rifle, capable of firing over 200 rounds per minute. The magazine held 1000 rounds. They were the size of toothpicks, and when fired, the superheated plasma charges burned at a temperature of over 1 million degrees. Even a near miss would be enough to seriously wound a person.
Cyclops punched the barrel of the weapon through the remaining shards of glass in the window next to Rex. He unleashed a flurry of weapons fire at the pursuing vehicle. The air lit up with a steady stream of plasma charges. He sprayed the weapon from side to side, forming a continuous wall of hell. It tore the sedan in half. The car tumbled and twisted in a flaming ball of metal. The passenger’s mutilated body was thrown from the vehicle. The man's soft flesh hit the concrete and splattered open like a pumpkin. Blood and brains oozed out on the asphalt.
The van sped away, leaving a trail of chaos behind them. But it wasn't over yet. Another vehicle was several car lengths back.
Zack glanced in his rearview mirror and saw someone emerge through the sunroof with a machine gun. A stream of plasma bolts rifled toward the van, peppering it with holes. The vehicle was beginning to look like Swiss cheese. The air inside the van had a charged, ionized smell from the plasma bolts. It was sharp and bitter. You could almost taste it.
Zack swerved the van onto Lamar, then turned right on McKinney. Tires squealed and horns honked. He traded paint with several vehicles as he snaked his way through the traffic. The scraping sound of metal on metal was piercing. Sideview mirrors were obliterated. Zack could hear a stream of obscenities fade into the distance as angry motorists cursed at him.
"RPG!" Rex yelled. He ducked down and hit the deck.
Zack could see the man in the chase car fire the rocket launcher from the sunroof. The missile spit fire and propellant from its tail, slicing down the avenue towards the van. It looked like certain doom.
Zack swung a hard right into an alleyway. The van teetered on two wheels, then slammed back down to the ground on all four. Amber sparks showered as the quarter panel scraped against the wall. Rex's van was getting beat to hell.
Most of the paint on both sides had been scraped away, revealing bare-metal. Zack plowed through several trash cans and piles of garbage. He weaved around larger dumpsters, then turned left on Sherman Street.
The van launched out of the alley into a steady stream of traffic. Brakes squealed and horns honked as cars swerved to avoid the van.
The rear of the van fishtailed around the corner, but Zack managed to bring it back in line. The tires were smoking.
The chase car emerged from the alley behind them. Zack kept one eye on the road, and one eye on the rearview mirror. It looked like the passenger was about to fire another RPG.
Zack could hear the rumble of an aerial vehicle overhead. He tried to get an angle on the vehicle. He ducked down, peering out the window at the sky. An instant later, a spotlight beam bathed the van in white light. It seemed they had attracted the attention of the police.
You had to do a lot to get the attention of the authorities on Vega Lotrix. Firing machine guns and rocket propelled grenades would definitely do the trick.
Once an aerial vehicle had locked on to you, there was no escaping. You couldn't out run it, so it was only a matter of time before you were caught.
Zack glanced in the mirror again, but the sedan chasing them was gone. They had decided to cut bait and avoid the authorities.
The brilliant beam of light from the aerial vehicle stayed on the van. It didn't matter how many turns or alleyways Zack took, it was always right there, highlighting them for all to see. He could hear the sound of sirens approaching in the distance. It wasn't going to be long before a slew of squad cars would be chasing after them. This was not how he had envisioned things. So far, the mission wasn't going according to plan.
"Pull into that parking garage there," Rex said, pointing at the high-rise parking facility that was attached to a luxury shopping center.
"Just do it!"
Zack swerved into the garage. His foot slammed the accelerator against the floor. The van roared up several levels, the squealing tires echoing off the concrete walls.
"Take that parking space," Rex yelled.
Zack's face twisted up perplexed. "What are we going to do? Go shopping in the mall?"
"Park the van. Now."
Zack whipped into the space, threw the van in park, and cut the engine. He could hear the sound of sirens approaching from all directions. There had to be a dozen patrol cars on the way. The rumble of the aerial vehicle echoed overhead. Zack just knew this was going to end badly.
Rex hopped out of the van and marched into the lane of traffic. An SUV was plunging down the ramp toward him. It slammed on its brakes as Rex took aim at the driver with his plasma pistol. "Out of the car. Now!"
The wide-eyed driver flung open the door and jumped out of the vehicle. She held her hands high in the air.
Rex marched to the vehicle as the woman watched with a mix of terror and anger on her face.
“Do you mind if I get my bags out of the car? I just spent my entire afternoon looking for the perfect dress, and I seriously doubt you’re a size 6."
Rex shoved the barrel of his pistol in her face as he entered the vehicle. "Back off, lady, or you're going to have a size 12 hole in your head."
She stepped away, trembling.
Zack and the others filed into the SUV with all the weapons and ammunition they could carry. Rex pulled his door shut and threw the car into gear. He casually drove down the ramp, spiraling his way out of the parking garage. He pulled onto the street just as several patrol cars were turning in.
Zack’s heart was pounding. It was almost more intense than being in actual combat. At least he could justify that. This seemed completely out of the bounds of appropriate behavior. This would definitely qualify as conduct unbecoming a Marine.
Rex fumbled with the radio and tuned it to an easy listening station. Soft saxophone music filtered out of the speakers. He had a calm peaceful look on his face, and was driving down the street like an old lady. He watched in his rearview mirror as blue and red lights bathed the area near the parking garage.
"You stole that woman's car!" Zack admonished Rex.
"She'll get it back. Would you rather we got a ride with the police?"
Zack's face tensed with mixed feelings.
"Didn't think so."
“Whose weapons are these? Who owns that warehouse?"
A sly smirk curled up on Rex's lips. “Tommy Meatballs.”
"Who's Tommy Meatballs?"
"The biggest crime boss in the city." Cyclops said.
"Somebody we shouldn't have stolen from," Fester said.
"Would you guys relax," Rex said without the slightest trace of concern in his voice. "Nobody's gonna trace this back to us."
"What about your van?" Zack asked. "The cops are going to find it. Trace it back to you."
Rex had that devious smirk again. "It's not my van. You think I'm stupid enough to go do shit like this in my own car?"
"You have got to be kidding me?" Zack said. He had a look of utter dismay on his face as he stared at the ancient rust bucket.
"She may not look like much, but she’ll get the job done,” Rex said.
"That's an old Spitfire. It's from before the Second Veskan War."
"Time-tested. Battle hardened."
"Does the cabin even pressurize?" Zack's tone was thick with sarcasm. But by the looks of it, the space-worthiness was definitely in question. It was more curvaceous than modern gunships. It certainly had the style and flair of a bygone era. Just hopefully not too bygone, Zack thought.
“This thing has taken me to the edge of the galaxy and back," Rex said, growing frustrated. It was a blatant lie. "If you'd rather walk, be my guest."
Zack's eyes narrowed at him.
Rex and his crew marched up the loading ramp. Zack, Cole, and Diesel followed after them.
"Tell me again where you found these guys?" Zack muttered to Sergeant Cole.
"You'd be surprised how well these old Spitfires fly. There's a reason they dominated the Veskan War. Hell, most of the gadgets on modern ships are just gimmicks. Nothing beats powerful engines, a solid chassis, and a good pilot." Cole wasn't about to admit that he had doubts about Rex's crew. He wasn't the type of guy to second guess himself, and he certainly wasn't about to show anyone else his doubts or insecurities.
Zack and Diesel exchanged a wary glance.
The inside of the ship smelled like metal, grease, and ion exhaust. There were dust bunnies in nooks and crannies. The thing belonged in a museum. It was like stepping back in time. Zack hoped that the vehicle was well-maintained. He didn't want to think about the number of hoses and gaskets that were brittle and about to fail. About the hydraulic fluid that needed changing. About the quantum coils that were on the brink of burning out. So many things could go wrong on a ship this old.
Cyclops and Fester stowed the weapons and ammunition. Ash slipped into the pilot seat, and Rex buckled into the copilot’s chair.
Ash flicked switches and pressed buttons, and the instrument clusters came alive. The massive thrusters coughed and sputtered as he fired them up. The whole vehicle rumbled and shook for a moment. It was like when the pipes in an old house stuttered.
Zack's leery eyes glanced around.
"Might want to buckle up," Ash said. "This thing can get a little rough in the upper atmosphere."
Just as Zack was about to head into the cargo area and take a seat the engines died. The high-pitched whine of the engines lowered, until they were finally silent.
Ash’s face twisted up, perplexed. "What the hell?" He ran the system diagnostic. A moment ago, everything had come back green.
"What's the matter?" Zack asked.
"Nothing. She's just a little temperamental sometimes," Rex said, trying to dismiss the situation.
"Slight problem with one of the modulator coils," Ash said. "It's not a big deal."
Ash pushed out of his seat and marched out of the cockpit. There was a roof access hatch in the cargo hold. Ash needed to get atop the vehicle to access the maintenance panel of the port side thruster. He grabbed a replacement coil from a parts bin. Then he climbed up a ladder, pressed a button on the bulkhead, and the top hatch slid open. It was like the aperture of a camera lens.
Ash climbed atop the vehicle. He made his way to the access panel and opened it. Sure enough, one of the modulator coils was burned out. It was charred and brittle. He tried to remove it, but jerked his hand away the moment he touched the searing hot metal. He shook his hand, trying to dissipate the pain. His fingertips were already starting to blister. He cursed under his breath. He knew better than to touch one of the modulator coils before the engines cooled down. But the modulator coil was the least of his worries. The plasma bolts that zipped past his head were more problematic.
Ash took cover atop the Spitfire. Plasma projectiles streaked above him. Blasts impacted the side of the hull, showering sparks and blooming tufts of black smoke.
Ash unholstered his pistol and returned fire. He recognized the attackers as underlings that worked for Tommy Meatballs.
In the cockpit, Rex activated the weapons control system. He swung the turrets of the plasma cannons into action. The heavy cannons blasted at the thugs. The sizzling beams incinerated everything in their path, and most things nearby. Even at a foot away, flesh would melt off the bone. Screams of agony filled the hangar bay. Debris and sparks sprayed from the bulkheads as plasma bursts impacted. The thugs’ small arms fire was no match for the heavy cannons of the Spitfire.
The surviving goons retreated out of the hangar bay. They took cover behind the door frame, angling their weapons back at the Spitfire. They continued to pepper the ship with plasma bolts.
Ash crawled back to the maintenance access panel. He pulled the cuff of his shirt sleeve over his fingertips then yanked the burned out coil from its seat. The heat singed the fabric of his shirt. Small wisps of smoke wafted from the fibers. He tossed the blistering coil aside and replaced it. He kept his head low as plasma projectiles streaked overhead. He tugged on the coil to make sure it was secure in its seat and had a good connection. Then he closed the access panel and secured it. Ash scampered for the hatch. By this time, Rex had incinerated the remaining thugs.
Ash crawled down into the Spitfire and sealed the hatch behind him. He raced to the cockpit and hopped into the pilot’s seat. Once again, he went through the preflight checks, and everything came back green. He powered up the Spitfire, and the engines rumbled to life.
“I guess Tommy isn't too happy about us borrowing his weapons?" Rex said, innocently.
“Whatever gave you that impression?" Ash said. He throttled up the engines, and the Spitfire rattled.
The air beneath the massive thrusters rippled from heat distortion. The heavy craft lumbered into the air, pitching and rolling slightly.
A voice crackled over the comm line, "Spitfire P-630, you have not been cleared for takeoff."
"Copy that, control. Cleared for takeoff. Thank you," Ash said. He exchanged a grin with Rex.
“Repeat. Spitfire P-630, you are not clear for takeoff. I say, you are not clear."
“I'm sorry, you're breaking up," Ash said, making static noises with his mouth. He switched off the comm line. He engaged the thrusters, pulled the controls, and angled the vehicle skyward. The force of the massive Hughes & Kessler engines mashed him against his seat. His face was drawn tight against his skull as the Spitfire rocketed toward space at full throttle.
The old ship rattled and quaked as it hit a patch of turbulence. It made your teeth chatter so hard, you risked a chipped tooth. It lasted a few moments, then settled down.
Ash knew they were going to run into trouble once they left the atmosphere. There was no doubt traffic control had reported them to either the Federation Space Guard, or the Customs & Planetary Protection Agency.
The bumpy ride became smooth as glass, and all of the rattles ceased. The weightlessness of space was calming. The quiet was a stark contrast from the deafening roar of the launch.
Zack glanced around the cabin. So far, the old bird was holding together. It didn't seem to be leaking atmosphere. But he hadn't quite placed his full trust in the vehicle.
Ash huddled over the control console, meticulously plotting jump coordinates. His intense gaze studied the calculations. You could almost see his brain straining. It looked painful.
“You might want to hurry up with that," Rex said.
“These things can’t be rushed."
“Well, we’ve got company. And I don't think we're going to make the rest of the journey if we don't get out of here now.”
"If I screw up on this, we’re not going to make the journey at all."
Two customs enforcement ships harassed the Spitfire. They were ready to shoot it down. An officer's voice crackled over the comm line. It was the same agent that had searched the vehicle before. "Spitfire P-630, you are engaged in an unauthorized flight. Return immediately to your point of departure and surrender yourself to the local authorities.”
Ash was too busy making calculations to respond.
“Say again?" Rex said, stalling for time.
"I think you heard me the first time," the officer said. "Now turn around, or we’re going to shoot you down."
“I don't see what the problem is. Tower cleared us for takeoff. There must be some kind of mixup."
“Look, smart-ass. I'm looking at surveillance footage of your ship discharging its weapons within the city limits and killing five civilians. I think that qualifies as a violation of Federation law. I knew you weasels were up to no good. I should've arrested you when I had the chance."
"But they were really, really bad people," Rex said in a lighthearted tone.
The officer didn't respond.
An alarm sounded. Rex surveyed the scanner. "I think they're moving into attack position. How are the jump coordinates coming along?"
“I need a few more minutes."
"We don't have a few more minutes."
“Stall for more time.”
Rex paused for a moment, contemplating his next move. He could swing the turrets into position and fire at the customs agents, but he didn't really think that was the best plan of action. “Okay. We are returning to the spaceport. We’re having a slight malfunction of our navigation oscillator. Give us a moment to sort the situation out."
Ash gave him a sideways glance. "What the hell is a navigation oscillator?”
Rex shrugged. “I don’t know.”
A steady tone emitted from the scanner system.
“He's arming missiles and has a target lock," Rex warned. "Perhaps you could speed things up a bit?"
The customs agent launched the missile. It blasted from underneath the sub-wing pylon of the patrol vehicle and rocketed across the star field.
“Brace for impact!" Rex shouted.
The missile was rocketing straight toward them. Within seconds, it would slam into the hull and explode in a brilliant amber glow, scattering bits of the old rust bucket into space. But Ash engaged the slide-space drive in the nick of time. The bulkheads rippled and warbled, and the Spitfire vanished.
The rocket sped through the Spitfire’s quantum wash and continued into the inky abyss of space.
Zack's stomach clenched like a fist. The quantum jump was more abrupt than with modern ships. It exacerbated the sensation of vertigo. Zack clutched his safety harness and took a deep breath. He tried to straighten out his sense of balance and fight the queasy feeling in his gut. His heart was thumping in his throat, and his skin was slick with a fine mist of sweat. All the color drained from his face.
“Are you all right?" Diesel asked.
Zack mustered an unconvincing nod.
"That was a rough one, wasn't it?" She grinned.
Zack carefully nodded again, attempting not to jar his compromised equilibrium. He was hanging on by a thread. He had the look on his face of someone who wasn't sure if they were going to hurl or not. He prepared for the worst.
Diesel grabbed a bag from underneath the seat and handed it to him.
Zack was ready to fill it, but after a few moments the uneasiness began to fade. His heartbeat settled. He leaned back in his chair and tried to relax. “Just when I thought I was getting used to quantum jumps.”
"Nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to the best of us. I know guys who go their entire career without so much as a twinge in their gut, then one day, out of the blue, bam, spew time. Something just hits them the wrong way."
The mere mention of spew made Zack’s stomach rumble again. He clutched the bag, anticipating its imminent usefulness. But he took slow, steady breaths and was able to maintain equilibrium.
Fester snickered. "Guess you guys aren’t so tough after all."
Diesel glared at him.
“Oh, baby, keep staring at me like that,” Fester said. “You're turning me on."
“Now I feel nauseous," Diesel said.
Fester lost his grin. "I bet you wouldn't know a good time if it hit you in the face."
“Shit, when have you ever shown a woman a good time?" Cyclops snarked.
Fester scowled at the big guy.
Rex stepped into the cargo hold, his face stern. He was all business. "Alright, listen up. We’ve got 12 hours until we reach Dracarta Major. And when we hit the ground, we hit the ground running. Everyone needs to be prepped and ready before we emerge from slide-space. Is that clear?"
There were nods of agreement amongst the crew.
"How are we going to avoid detection?" Zack asked. "We can't just jump into the middle of Tarvaax territory and expect to be left alone."
"That's why Ash had to carefully plot jump coordinates. We’re going to have to come out of the quantum jump within the planet’s atmosphere.”
Zack's eyes widened. There were incredulous gasps among the crew.
“Whoa, hang on a minute," Fester said. "Did you say within the planet’s atmosphere?”
“You heard me," Rex said.
“That's suicide," Diesel remarked. "Do you have any idea how accurate calculations have to be in order to pull that off?”
“I don't. But Ash seems to think he does."
“If he's off by a fraction, we could materialize within the mantle,” Diesel said. “I don't know about you, but that would put a damper on my day."
“Well then, he better not be off on his calculations." Rex didn't seem concerned in the least.
The air was thick with uneasy tension.
“Look, if anybody else has a better idea, I’m all ears," Rex said.
The compartment was silent for a moment.
“It's settled then." Rex spun around and marched back into the cockpit.
“Has anybody ever successfully made an in-atmosphere jump?" Diesel asked.
"I was aboard an old Vantage that did once," Sergeant Cole said.
"Well, you're still around," Zack said. "How did that work out?"
Cole had a look on his face that implied it wasn't all sunshine and roses.
Zack shrugged with resignation. “I guess materializing in the middle of solid rock might not be all that bad. As it stands, we are guilty of several felonies. We have a ruthless mob boss pursuing us. And I'm sure we’ll be AWOL Monday morning."
“Welcome to the life of a mercenary, kid," Cyclops said.
It felt like jumping off a skyscraper. Zack's stomach was once again in his throat. Coming out of slide-space within the planet’s atmosphere was far more jarring than a typical re-entry. But somehow it didn't make Zack nauseous. Just terrified.
The Spitfire rumbled and shook. A proximity alert blared through the klaxon. It was a grating intermittent sound, warning that the planetary surface was fast approaching. At least they hadn’t materialized inside a mountain, or in scalding molten magma.
The Spitfire was quaking enough to cause brain trauma as gray matter rattled around in Zack’s skull. At least, that's what it felt like. To make matters worse, the engines had stalled out during re-entry, and the dropship was plummeting like a stone.
The system diagnostic said everything was normal. No fault found. Ash rebooted the system. The controls went blank. An instant later they flickered back to life as the system came back online. Ash tried to start the engines again to no avail. He cursed and banged on the dash, but it didn't help.
In a frenzy, Ash flicked switches and pressed buttons. Panic washed over his face, and the color drained from his skin. He and his crew had been in a lot of tight scrapes, but if he didn't get the engines cranked up, this was going to be the last one.
"Next time you recommend a team of contractors, remind me to ignore you," Zack muttered to Cole.
“At this rate, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that." Cole was as cool as a cucumber. They were either going to smack into the ground, or they weren't. There was no sense worrying about it.
Zack heard the starboard engine sputter and cough, then spin up. The whine of the engine increased in pitch, filling the cabin. It was a welcome sound, and Zack breathed a slight sigh of relief. Though, they weren't out of it yet.
Ash pulled hard on the controls, trying to level out the vehicle. The spitfire was plummeting toward the ground at a slightly less disastrous angle. But the craggy mountain range ahead was going to cause problems. Ash’s eyes widened at the realization that they might not clear the ridge-line. He made a desperate attempt to fire up the port-side thruster. It choked and spit a few times, but wouldn't power up.
Rex's typically calm demeanor began to evaporate. The concern in his eyes grew as he fixed his gaze on the approaching mountain range. The reddish jagged rock stabbed into the sky. "I'm going to say we should probably brace for impact again." This time there was an audible unease in his voice.
“I'm going to say you're correct," Ash said. He cringed as the Spitfire plowed toward the mountain. His biceps flexed as he pulled hard on the controls. His skin was dotted with beads of sweat. He kept trying to start the port thruster, but it was still non-responsive. He fired the landing thrusters to give a little additional boost.
Sparks flew and metal squealed as the Spitfire scraped the ridge, narrowly clearing it. The sound was horrendous, like nails on a chalkboard, only a thousand times worse. The Spitfire quaked. The fuselage pitched and yawed. Then the starboard thruster clipped another peak.
The engine exploded in a brilliant ball of flame. Bits of metal and debris showered down. Wiring, conduit, hydraulic fluid, and machined parts erupted. The impact sent the Spitfire spiraling.
There was no controlling the vehicle now. They were spinning like a roulette wheel. Where they were going to land was anyone's guess.
The Spitfire careened down the side of the mountain, slamming into the slope. Metal twisted and crumpled. The heavy dropship carved a groove into the rock, then began to roll. It was like being inside a tumble dryer, only there wasn’t a delicate setting. With each impact, Zack’s safety harness dug into his shoulders, collarbones, and pelvis. It was spine jolting.
If the Spitfire wasn't a hunk of junk before, it was now. It tumbled and rolled, finally crashing to a heap of twisted metal at the base of the mountain. It had set off a small avalanche of gravel and boulders that followed behind. The debris trickled down the mountainside and piled up against the carcass of the Spitfire.
If anybody survived this, it was going to be a miracle.
The cockpit was painted with crimson blood. It speckled the dials and gauges. Ash slumped forward in his harness. Red goo dripped down his chin, splattering on his shirt. A sharp piece of steel had punched through his forehead and was protruding through the back of his skull. Bits of brain matter clung to the shard of metal. It had a pinkish, spongy consistency.
The Spitfire creaked and hissed, settling after the calamity. The gauges were still lit up, powered by the battery. But the Spitfire had seen the last of its flying days. Dracarta Major was going to be the old rust bucket's final resting place.
Rex began to stir. He winced with pain from muscle stiffness and soreness, but he checked himself over and didn't seem to have any life-threatening injuries—a few cuts and scrapes here and there. Some bruising. He took a groggy glance over to Ash. His face tensed when he saw the brutal injury Ash had sustained. Rex looked crestfallen at the loss. They had been a close-knit group for a long time.
In the cargo cabin, Zack and the others were coming around. Zack's shoulder and neck ached. It was that deep, dull kind of pain that you just knew was going to get worse later on. His heart was pounding, and his veins coursed with adrenaline. His worried eyes found Diesel. "Are you okay?"
She nodded tentatively, not quite sure if she was okay or not. She unlatched her safety harness and tried to stand. She moved like an old woman, clutching her back. She finally straightened out and stretched, and didn't seem any worse for the wear.
“Don't worry about me," Cole said. "I'm fine."
"Remind me to take public transportation next time," Cyclops said. “Anything’s gotta be safer than this.”
"Well, I know I'm not dead…” Fester said as he glanced around at the ragged survivors, “all you assholes are still here.”
“I got news for you,” Cyclops said. "When you die, you're going to have a lot of company in hell."
Fester's face crinkled up. "What are you talking about? I'm damn near a saint. When I die, I'm going to paradise. And there will be margaritas waiting."
"Knock it off," Rex said. His agitated voice filtered into the cargo area. "Ash didn't make it."
Fester and Cyclops deflated. Their gaze snapped to the cockpit and they cringed.
“Man, that just ain’t right," Cyclops muttered in a somber tone.
"Get ready to move out," Rex said. "We're Oscar Mike in five."
Zack glanced around the compartment. It was in shambles. It was hard to imagine that this group of individuals could be an effective fighting force in this condition. They looked like a haggard bunch of refugees, not the knights in shining armor that they had hoped to be.
Black smoke billowed into the amber sky from the smoldering wreckage. Rex glanced up at the plume and shook his head. "We should have just notified the Tarvaax that we were coming."
“How far are we from the compound?" Zack asked.
Cole looked at his PDU and studied the map. “We're about 30 klicks out.”
There was a slight groan amongst the squad. The last thing anybody wanted to do right now was hump 30 kilometers across rugged terrain. The planet’s surface was craggy and inhospitable. The flatlands were an uneven mix of spiky rock formations and loose sand. There wasn't much for vegetation, but there were these angry looking thorn bushes. The base resembled the exterior of a cantaloupe. Sharp quills like a porcupine jutted skyward. They seemed to grow mostly near the rocky outcroppings. They didn't look inviting, but in a bind, you might be able to wring a few drops of water from the root system—if you could get to it.
"Let's get a move on before the Tarvaax send someone to investigate the crash site," Cole said.
The squad loaded up with gear, water, and MREs. Rex led the way, marching down the base of the mountain to the flatlands. The rest of the team followed behind. The ringed planet of Faazev was cresting on the horizon.
The binary suns baked the surface of Dracarta Major. Combined with the atmosphere’s lower oxygen density, it made for a grueling march. It didn't take long for Zack's fatigues to become soaked with sweat. His chest heaved for breath, but it was never quite enough. It left him a little lightheaded. It was like marching around at 9000 feet back on Crylos 9. Just enough to give you a headache.
The Tarvaax needed relatively the same concentration of oxygen as humans, though they were slightly more adaptable to fluctuations.
From the surveillance photos, Zack had noticed terraforming stations. They were presumably still operational, but the planet had a long way to go before it would become a lush, tropical habitat. For now, it made it the ideal place to house prisoners. Even if you managed to escape the compound, where would you go? The arid desert was hardly survivable for more than a few days.
There didn't seem to be much life in this dry desert. But Zack kept seeing small thorny lizard-like creatures around the porcupine bushes. They were probably feeding off smaller insects. And something larger was probably feeding off of them.
The lizards were a sandy rust color, and blended in perfectly with their surroundings. Zack would catch sight of them from his peripheral vision when they moved. But when they were still, you could look right at them and not see them. It made Zack wonder what else was out there that had such perfect camouflage.
The binary suns felt like a blowtorch blasting down on Zack's back. They were high in the sky and the shadows were short. There was no shade. No place to hide. Zack's PDU indicated the temperature was 129 degrees. But it had been sitting in the relative cool of his pocket. It hadn't been the subject of the intense hatred of the burning orbs in the sky like the back of his neck had been.
The sand beneath his boots was blistering. It was like walking on hot coals. This was a helluva march to make in full battle rattle.
The horizon shimmered like the reflection from a lake. It was a mirage. But there was no oasis in this desert.
There was a large rock formation ahead with an overhang. It was the first patch of shade that anyone had seen in several miles.
"Let's catch a little break here," Cole said. "Who knows when we'll find another patch of this stuff. It's like gold in this place."
The squad crammed under the overhang and took a seat. The relative cool was a welcome relief.
“Keep hydrated,” Cole said. “But don’t drink too much."
Zack took a sip from his canteen. His lips were cracked, and his throat felt dry again the moment after he swallowed the water down. It was like the atmosphere sucked all the moisture out of your skin and membranes. His eyes burned and felt like there were microscopic particles of sand underneath his lids. Every blink of the eye was like rubbing sandpaper across his cornea.
A small scorpion like creature emerged from the sand and crawled across the tip of his boot. He jerked his foot and kicked the creature away. The thing sent a shiver down his spine. It had four pincers and two tails.
The rest of the squad laughed at him.
“Go ahead. Laugh it up. You get bit by one of those bastards, don't come crying to me. Who knows what kind of venom they have inside of them?”
“I think you just earned a new callsign, Scorpion," Diesel said, playfully teasing him.
“It’s better than Ice Pick." He chuckled. He unwrapped a leftover portion of a nutrition bar that he had been saving and scarfed it down. He had a couple of MREs remaining, and he was going to be conservative with those.
"How are we going to get off this damn rock anyway?" Fester asked. "I mean, what's the point of rescuing the prisoners if we've got no way to transport them?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Cole said. He grinned as he repeated the often used phrase when situations were less than ideal. "We'll improvise, adapt, and overcome."
"I'd like to adapt to a resort location poolside," Fester said. "You know, this place might be bearable with a swim up bar and a cold margarita."
There were nods of agreement amongst the squad.
“Does anyone find it odd that they haven't sent out an aerial patrol to investigate the crash site?" Cyclops said. "Surely someone noticed the tower of smoke billowing into the sky"
“Maybe shit crashes on this planet all the time," Rex joked.
“Count your blessings,” Fester said.
“Hey, I’m not complaining,” Cyclops replied.
“It's a prison camp. Not a high value asset. The crash was probably out of visual range. And we weren’t in the air long enough to be more than a blip on their sensors. They probably shrugged it off as a glitch. Who knows."
An ominous screech from high above echoed off the canyon walls. Zack had heard the hideous sound before. He figured it was some type of vulture or other predator circling in the air, waiting for members of the squad to drop dead. In a place like this, a human carcass would make a tasty morsel for the local wildlife. It was a disconcerting thought. The vision of some scrappy vulture picking your eyeballs out as your carcass rotted was motivation not to drop dead in the middle of this godforsaken desert.
"Well, that's enough sitting on our asses. Let's keep it moving," Cole said.
Zack stood up and marched back into the sunlight. It was like stepping into a furnace. The team plodded along, marching toward the horizon. It didn't take long until Zack's lungs were on fire again. They weren't even halfway to the compound yet.
The scorching desert and thin air had no mercy on the unaccustomed. And the local inhabitants knew it. The predator circling high above was biding its time, waiting for the opportune moment. On a long enough timeline, the desert brought everyone to their knees. And that was the time to strike.
The shadows were getting longer. The squad had made it through the hottest part of the day, taking refuge from time to time in slivers of shade. They marched in a single file line with Rex on point and Fester bringing up the rear.
From above, Fester must have looked like a tasty treat. The creature plunged down like a dive bomber. It swooped behind Fester and latched onto his shoulders. The creature’s talons pierced his skin, puncturing his thoracic cavity.
This was no mere vulture.
The beast was easily twice the size of a man. It had bat-like wings that spanned 30 feet across, which cast a large shadow on the sand.
Fester’s left arm was limp—one of the nerve branches underneath the collarbone had been severed.
The beast’s teeth were like razors. It had narrow, viper like eyes. It's reddish, scaly skin blended perfectly with the rust colored mountains. It was the closest thing to a dragon that Zack had ever seen, though this beast didn't seem to breathe fire.
With the flap of its wings, it lifted Fester from the ground. He was screaming in agony. His feet dangled in the air, kicking and flailing. His rifle fell from his grip and plummeted to the sand. He tried to move his hands, but the median and radial nerve had been severed by the beast’s talons.
The creature flapped its wings, and Fester dangled 20 feet above the ground. Soon he was going to be a speck in the sky, and the angry flying lizard was going to be enjoying a nice meal.
Zack snapped his weapon into the firing position and took aim at the beast’s head. He blasted off several quick bursts. Brilliant beams of plasma raced across the sky, eviscerating the creature's skull. Its wings kept flapping, but without rhythm or purpose. It's long scaly neck wiggled in all directions, spewing green blood. It rained down, dotting the red sand.
Fester fell from the talons and smacked the ground in a soft patch of sand. The beast crashed down a moment later in a chaotic spiral. Nerve impulses kept the creature twitching and the wings flapping. It kicked and clawed and almost seemed like it was trying to stand. After a few moments, the last shiver rippled through its body.
Zack and the others rushed to Fester’s aid. He was in bad shape. Blood oozed from the puncture wounds around his collar bones.
Diesel used her palms to put pressure on the lesions to stem the bleeding, while Zack dug in his pack for a med-kit. He pulled out a tube of GS gel and squeezed it in the wound. It was an expandable biopolymer foam that was extremely effective at controlling bleeding from puncture wounds. It contained an analgesic, antibiotic, and a regenerative compound that sped up healing.
"I can't feel my hands," Fester said. He had a panicked look on his face. "I think my leg is broken.”
Zack injected a pain medication into Fester's arm, then examined his leg. Zack pulled out his PDU and scanned the injury site. A three-dimensional image appeared on the PDU’s display, clearly showing a fractured fibula. Zack also noticed there was some swelling in Fester’s ankle and a torn ligament.
Fester’s face relaxed as the pain medication began to take effect. His eyes grew droopy, and his speech slowed.
“Just take it easy," Zack said. "You're going to be okay. We'll get you to a med facility and they'll be able to re-attach those nerves. I've seen guys lose an arm, have it reattached, and get full function back."
"Don't fill me full of shit, kid," Fester said.
“Would I lie to you?”
Fester squinted at him. "Probably."
Zack chuckled. He grabbed an elastic smart bandage from his med kit and wrapped it around Fester’s broken leg. There was a small control tab on the end of the roll, and once activated, the bandage became rigid. It would serve as a cast until they got him proper medical attention.
"Alright, we've got to get you up and moving. I know, this is going to suck," Zack said.
Diesel helped Zack hoist Fester up on one leg.
"Don't put any weight on that right leg," Zack cautioned. "You won't feel any pain right now because of the medication, so just be careful."
Fester tried to balance. He had a blissful grin on his face, fully peaking on the pain meds. "This ain't so bad."
"I got this." Cyclops grabbed Fester and heaved him over his shoulder.
“Put me down, you big buffoon," Fester protested. "I can walk just fine."
"Shut up and enjoy the ride," Cyclops said.
The squad continued their march across the blistering terrain. But from here on out, they were more watchful of the skies above them.
"I'm impressed," Diesel said, admiring Zack.
"It seems like you paid attention during medical training and field care."
“The life you save could be your own." Zack grinned.
“It’s nice to have someone that knows what they're doing since we don’t have a corpsman on this op."
The sun was dipping down on the horizon, and the intense heat was beginning to relent.
Cyclops marched along with Fester on his shoulder like it was no big deal. He didn't show any additional signs of fatigue.
“Hey, put me down. I don't feel so good," Fester said. It was more than understandable. Hanging over Cyclops’s shoulder with the blood rushing to his head would be enough to make anyone dizzy. But there was something more going on.
Cyclops gently set Fester down and propped him against a rock. His skin was pale and he was drenched in sweat. The veins in his neck were darkened and accentuated. They spidered up into his jawline. His skin was covered in what resembled infected boils.
Fester looked grotesque.
Zack examined Fester’s wounds. The skin surrounding them looked black and necrotic.
Fester could see the concern on Zack's face when he surveyed the trauma. "What is it?"
Zack hesitated for a moment. "Nothing. Just looks like minor irritation."
Cyclops exchanged a glance with Zack. He knew it was more than a minor irritation, but kept his mouth shut.
Fester wasn't a moron. "You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. What is it?"
"It might be some type of infection," Zack said, trying to sound optimistic.
“There could have been any number of bacteria on the creature’s talons," Zack stammered. "Perhaps the strain is resistant to the antibiotic."
Rex and Cole surveyed the situation. They both had grim looks on their faces.
“You guys have really crappy poker faces, you know that?" Fester said.
The squad was silent. Fester was in bad shape, and everyone knew it.
"I can't move either of my legs," Fester said. Terror washed over his face. He grimaced as he struggled to move, but nothing budged. "Could this be a side effect of the numbing medication?"
Zack shook his head.
"It's poison," Diesel said. "I've encountered predatory species before that had poison delivery mechanisms in their talons, like fangs. It's probably how it neutralizes its prey."
Fester's eyes widened and his voice shrieked as he saw a scorpion crawl across his leg. "Hey, get off me!”
Cyclops swatted it away and mashed it with his boot, grinding it into the sand.
Cole pulled Zack aside and muttered in his ear. "Is there any kind of antidote we can give him?"
Zack shook his head. “I got stuff for standard bites and stings. But judging by the size of that creature, there's going to be more poison in his system than we could possibly counteract."
“Give him a shot. Try it anyway.”
Zack nodded and dug into his med kit. He loaded his injection gun with a standard anti-venom. He shot it into Fester's arm, then tossed the vial aside and loaded another cartridge. He repeated the process several times, giving Fester the maximum allowable dosage. “That will make you good as new.”
“What did I tell you about lying, kid?”
Zack tried to flash a reassuring smile, but they both knew the odds were slim.
“Why don't you dose me up with some more of that pain medication?”
"You're not due for another shot for another hour.”
“I might not be here in another hour.”
At the rate things were going, Fester was right. Zack grabbed another vial of pain reliever and injected it into Fester's arm. His body relaxed and his eyelids grew heavy again.
"Might as well dig in here for the night," Cole said. "At the rate the temperature is dropping, we could be in for a helluva freeze come nightfall."
Zack couldn't stop his teeth from chattering. It was the kind of cold that you felt deep in your bones. The temperature had been a pleasant 70° for maybe 15 minutes as the sun dropped below the horizon. Now, several hours later, the temperature was below freezing, and continuing to drop.
The team had dug out a large hole in the ground, and they all huddled together, utilizing each other's body heat to stay warm. The terrain still contained some warmth. It wasn't unusual to find large temperature swings in arid regions.
Zack checked on Fester routinely to monitor his condition. "You hanging in there?"
Most of the time Fester would grumble back or curse at Zack, but this time he was silent.
Zack reached over and nudged him. There wasn't the slightest response. Fester’s body felt stiff. His muscles had seized up, and it wasn't from the cold.
Fester’s gaze was fixed into space. His jaw hung open.
There were solemn faces all around as they gazed at Fester’s rigid corpse.
Cyclops’s eyes welled with tears. He wiped them dry and tried to act unaffected, but he and Fester were best friends.
There wasn't any time to grieve. Zack could hear movement out in the darkness, not far away. Snarls and growls echoed off the canyon walls.
Cyclops perked up and scanned the darkness. His face tensed, then he brought his weapon into the firing position. "Better take a look through your night vision."
Zack put on his tactical goggles and powered them up. They were equipped with night vision, optical zoom, thermal imaging, and a host of other features. The goggles were networked with the rest of the squad, each team member could share targeting information, status, and location data—all of which was available on the heads-up display.
The night vision illuminated the terrain as plain as day. There were several creatures approaching from all directions. The first thing Zack noticed was their protruding fangs. They looked like saber-toothed tigers, only more fearsome. Instead of fur, they had rough scaly skin, and an exoskeleton on their backs made of sectional, armored plates. They resembled an ankylosaur with a tail like a sledgehammer. If these were anything like the flying lizard that had killed Fester, Zack wanted nothing to do with them.
Zack angled his weapon over the ridge of the pit and took aim at one of the approaching creatures. The rest of the squad followed suit.
"They look hungry," Diesel said.
"Yeah, well I got something they can eat," Cyclops muttered. He squeezed off several rounds. The plasma bursts lit up the night and incinerated one of the creatures. The carcass of the beast flopped to the ground, flickering with flame. It popped and crackled. Smoke wafted into the sky.
The other monsters recoiled in fear.
But the fear didn't last. As soon as the flames began to die down, the horde of creatures resumed their approach.
The squad opened fire as the beasts attacked from all angles. Soon, dozens of carcasses lay smoldering amid the jagged terrain. Sensing their assault was futile, the remaining creatures turned tail and ran. But like any predator, they would re-evaluate and come back.
"I'm beginning to not like this place very much," Cyclops said.
Without the snarling beasts, the night air grew quiet. Only the crackling sound of burning corpses remained. And eventually that sound died away. The breeze shifted direction, blowing the putrid stench toward Zack and the squad. It was enough to make you gag.
"Damn, that is some unpleasant barbecue," Cyclops quipped.
Zack heard the disconcerting sound of wings flapping overhead. It sounded reminiscent of the familiar large wingspan of the flying lizard. It sent a chill down his spine. He crouched low in the pit and aimed his weapon toward the black sky. His night vision illuminated several deadly vultures as they swooped down and snatched the carcasses of the saber-toothed creatures. Two of the dragon-like beasts fought over the last remaining carcass. They clawed and snapped at each other, finally tearing the carcass in two. Each fluttered off with half of the charred beast.
Zack breathed a sigh of relief when they were all gone. At least they seemed more interested in the easy meat than the members of the squad.
Zack didn't get any sleep for the rest of the night. He huddled in a corner with his weapon pointed toward the stars. He continually scanned the heavens for any sign of those hideous demons.
"What are we going to do with him?" Cyclops asked.
"We'll come back and get him on the way out," Rex said.
"Oh, hell no. He'll be buzzard food," Cyclops protested. "I am not leaving him out here for that."
"Does he have any next of kin?", Rex asked.
Cyclops shook his head.
"Then we bury him here," Rex said.
"He deserves a real burial in the Federation Cemetery."
"Well, we're all going to end up in a cemetery if we drag his corpse around the rest of the mission," Rex grumbled.
Cyclops reluctantly agreed. The squad placed Fester's body in the pit at rest with his arms folded across his chest. Then they covered him over with red dirt and sand.
The sky was transitioning from black to gray. The sun would be peeking over the horizon within moments. The frigid temperature had thawed to a more comfortable 40°. Just like the previous evening, there would be a small window of 70° before the blistering heat of the sun baked the rugged terrain.
"Anybody want to say anything?" Cole said.
Cyclops looked like he wanted to say something, but he couldn't find the right words. The squad observed a moment of silence, then marched on.
It didn't take long to feel like they were in a furnace again. Zack's fatigues were soaked through and through. It was as if he had jumped into the deep end of a pool, only without the refreshing sensation. It was midday by the time they reached the prison compound. They surveyed the grounds from an elevated ridge-line.
Zack used the optical zoom feature on his tactical goggles to scan the prison camp. The sprawling complex was surrounded by a perimeter shield. The glowing red beam was 20 feet tall and spanned the entire circumference of the compound. There were guard towers every hundred yards or so on the exterior perimeter. There was a central administration area and several housing barracks. There was a centrally located landing area, and a massive transport was perched on the tarmac. But there wasn't a trace of a living soul. There were no guards in the tower, no guards in the compound. No activity whatsoever.
"Don't tell me we just went through all that and nobody's here," Rex said. "Cyclops, what do you see?"
Cyclops had an intense look on his face as he examined the compound with his good eye. "I don't see anything. But the buildings are thermally shielded. I can’t get a look inside."
"You have a synthetic eye?” Zack asked.
“A Visodyne S7," Cyclops said.
“Makes sense. It's a nice piece of hardware," Zack replied. "They supposedly have five times the visual acuity of a normal human eye. Expensive."
"Tell me about it. I could only afford one."
"I don't like the looks of this," Rex said. "Where did you get this intel from?"
"From my contact at the UIA,” Cole said.
"And you trust this person?"
"Absolutely. She's one of the best agents in the firm."
"And the intel is recent?"
"Within the last few days."
"With terrain like this, they don't need many guards,” Cyclops said. “No one is going to survive in that desert on their own."
The squad continued to survey the compound. An hour had gone by, and still no sign of anyone.
"There's nobody here," Rex said, his voice thick with frustration.
"We need to be sure," Zack said.
"Be my guest," Rex said. " Why don't you run down there and find out for yourself?"
"I just might." But Zack never got the chance. Several Tarvaax warriors emerged from behind boulders and surrounded the squad.
"Drop your weapons," one of the Tarvaax NCOs said. He spoke in the unified language of the Federation, albeit broken and with a funny accent.
The squad reluctantly set down their weapons and raised their hands in the air. The platoon of Tarvaax soldiers marched them down the hillside toward the compound. A small portal in the force-shield deactivated and the aliens pushed Zack and the others through. They forced them into the main administration building where Aarnok was waiting for them.
His eyes lit up with glee at the sight of Zack. "We've been expecting you. So glad you could make it."
Zack's face tensed. He wanted to rip the ugly alien’s throat out.
"You really ought to do better research," Aarnok said. His Federation speak was perfect. The benefits of a privileged education. "This facility hasn't been in use in over 30 years." He had a devious grin on his slimy face.
Sergeant Cole's face looked grim as he put the pieces together.
Aarnok seemed to enjoy watching him come to the realization he had been betrayed. “Yes, we have spies within your UIA. We know your every move before you make it."
“That can't be,” Cole muttered to himself. He had a look of utter disbelief on his face. He was having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that Felicia had betrayed him.
"If you know so much, why did you lose on Crylos 9?" Zack asked with a defiant tone.
Aarnok scowled at him. "Unforeseen events. Don't confuse luck with skill. What is the saying you have…? Even a broken clock is right twice a day?" He flashed a smug grin.
Zack glared back at the pompous alien.
"Take all of them to the prison camp on Ka’avsur. Except for this one," Aarnok said, pointing at Zack. "Take him to my ship. He will be brought before the Emperor, and will face punishment for the death of my brother."
Aarnok's royal guards marched Zack across the tarmac toward a cruiser. Zack could see the others as they were escorted to another transport ship. He wondered if it was the last time he would see Diesel and Sergeant Cole. Zack lost sight of them as he was forced up the ramp, into the cruiser.
It was more like a luxury space liner than a warship, though it had state-of-the-art armor plating, and a full complement of weapons. It was a one-of-a-kind vehicle designed to Aarnok's specifications. It was sleek and elegant. It had every amenity imaginable. A pool, a fitness area, a holodeck, a recreation room, a movie theater, and there was even a small bar. There were guest accommodations for 50 of Aarnok's closest friends. Though, he only had one guest aboard at the moment.
The craft was pure opulence. Stepping aboard the ship was like entering a luxury resort. Even mundane details on bulkheads were elegantly adorned with precious metals and gems. It must have cost a fortune. But when you are the Emperor's son, money is no object.
The guards pushed Zack through a maze of corridors. At the end of one of the passageways, he caught a glance of Honor. He was stunned for a moment. The sight of her almost didn't register. How did she get here? What was she doing here? She was surrounded by royal guards.
His brain finally processed the information, and he was able to speak. He emptied his lungs as he screamed her name. His voice echoed off the bulkheads.
Her gaze snapped in his direction, and she screamed, "Zack!”
Honor’s terrified gaze was the last thing Zack saw or heard, besides the crack of the weapon against the back of his head. One of the guards had smacked him with the stock of his rifle. Pain shot through Zack's skull, and his body crashed to the ground, unconscious.
Zack woke up in a holding cell sometime later. He wasn't sure how long he had been out. He peeled his groggy eyes open and tried to focus on his surroundings. The grated pattern in the floor had left an indention across his cheek. He had almost forgotten where he was, or what he'd been doing. But it all came rushing back an instant later. His face tensed and flushed with rage.
Zack took a moment to survey his new accommodations. It was a rectangular cell 10 feet long and 5 feet wide. There was a foldout rack affixed to the bulkhead. There was a sink and a toilet, and that was the extent of the amenities. Despite its Spartan appearance, everything was crafted from the finest materials.
Zack spun around to face the hatch and peered through the viewport. He planted several swift kicks into the metal, but it wasn't going anywhere. He was just kicking it to vent his frustration.
He turned around and rested his back against the hatch and slid down into a seated position. Zack had never been in any type of holding cell before, but he figured this was one of the nicer ones in the galaxy.
He had been stripped of his weapons, armor, and gear. He was left with only his fatigues and boots. He sat there, slumped against the hatch, trying to process everything that had happened. He had really botched this rescue operation up, he thought. But at least he knew where Honor was. She was alive, and that gave him a small degree of comfort.
He pushed himself off the deck and examined the holding cell for weaknesses, looking for a way out. But the only way out was through the main hatch.
"How are your accommodations?" Aarnok muttered through the hatch with devilish delight. "I trust everything meets with your approval?"
Zack spun around to see his hideous face peering through the polycarbonate viewport in the hatch. "You can do whatever you want to me, but let Honor go!”
"Why would I let such an adorable creature go?"
Zack clenched his jaw, and the veins in his neck bulged. "I swear to God, if you hurt her, I will kill you like I did your brother."
The grin on Aarnok's face faded. "I have no intention of harming her. In fact, I'm quite fond of her. I have decided to make her one of my brides."
Zack's heart sank. His stomach twisted. It was a sickening thought. Zack charged the hatch and kicked it again. The sound clamored off the bulkheads and made Aarnok flinch.
The alien took a step back and regained his composure. He smiled as if nothing happened. "Try to enjoy your last moments. I'm sure my father will dispose of you in a most painful manner. And I will enjoy every moment of it."
An alarm beeped, and an orange light flickered on the control console. Flur exchanged a concerned glance with Gerbov.
Flur was a reptilian frog-like creature with slick green skin that faded into patches of blue. He had orange offset eyes, and his long slender fingers were orange as well. The Valasion anatomy wasn't all that different from a human’s, except that they had three fingers. They were, in general, a little shorter than human males. Svelte, nimble creatures.
Flur ran a system diagnostic to confirm the fault. Quite often in these situations it was just a sensor malfunction. A simple diagnostic and re-check would eliminate the problem.
Not this time.
The orange light on the control terminal kept flashing.
Flur cringed. He knew any delay was going to upset the Prince. Traveling in slide-space, they were several hours away from Balasbar station. Flur felt like it was too risky to chance continuing without a repair. He re-calculated an exit point, and brought the ship out of quantum space.
The bulkheads bulged and distorted. Flur felt an uncomfortable quantum wave wash through his body.
The ship emerged in the middle of nowhere. The dim light of distant stars flickered on the horizon. Flur did a quick scan of the area to make sure there were no enemy ships in range. Although not technically at war with the Federation, the Valasions were allied with the Tarvaax, and that could spell trouble if they encountered UPDF forces.
When Flur was satisfied the sector was clear, he unlatched his safety harness and stood up from the pilot’s seat. "Keep an eye on things while I check this out," he told Gerbov.
His copilot looked a little skittish. He didn't want to be the one to explain to Prince Iloba about the delay. But before Flur could make it out of the cockpit the Prince was standing in the hatch. He had a perturbed scowl on his face "Why has our journey been interrupted?"
Flur swallowed hard. "It looks like a malfunction with the Xerco frequency modulator."
"And this couldn't wait until we reached port?"
"I thought it best to address the situation now. These things have been known to result in a catastrophic failure."
"First, you should stop thinking. It seems like something you are incapable of."
Flur tried to hide a scowl.
"If you hadn't noticed, I am on a deadline,” Iloba said. “I have duties to perform. Obligations to fulfill. Not to mention the fact that we are without a fighter escort. Did you even give any consideration to what sector we are in?”
"I ran a scan –"
"I don't care about your scan. It is believed the Federation could have cloaking technology.”
“I will resume our journey, and we can make repairs when we reach Balasbar Station.”
The Prince sighed. "You've already interrupted our journey. Might as well fix the problem now."
"Yes, my Lord."
Flur made his way to the engineering department. He rummaged through several bins until he found a spare modulator. But this wasn't something he could repair from inside the ship. He was going to have to do an EVA walk.
Flur hated leaving the ship. All kinds of things could go wrong once you were outside of the protective confines of the hull. Cosmic radiation, space debris, or a mag boot failure could make things go south real quick.
In the airlock, there were several spacesuits hanging on the bulkhead. Flur took one down and suited up. He latched the helmet on and powered the suit up. The heads-up-display gave him a full diagnostic reading of the suit’s life-support system. The battery pack was fully charged, and there was enough oxygen for several days.
The suit was sleek and minimalist in design. It wasn't bulky or restrictive like most other suits. Nothing but the best for Prince Iloba. There were small navigational thrusters in the palm and boots, as well as on the main power pack. There were several pouches on the front of the suit that contained tools, and each one was tethered to the suit. There was nothing worse than being on the outside of the hull trying to fix a broken modulator and having a wrench drift off into the void of space.
Flur put the spare modulator in one of the empty pouches, then closed the inner airlock hatch. He depressurized the chamber and activated his mag boots. His feet stuck to the floor. It was like walking with heavy ankle weights on, and if you weren't used to it, your hip flexors would be sore as hell the next day.
Flur opened the outer airlock hatch and moved to the edge. He peered out over the star field and took a deep breath. He attached a tether to his belt, then deactivated his mag boots and drifted out into space. He used his thrusters to adjust his trajectory. He angled toward the top of the ship and glided a few feet above the hull, constantly adjusting his vector with the thrusters.
When he neared the access panel atop the ship, he swung his body into a vertical position and activated the mag boots. He used his palm thrusters to push him toward the roof-deck. As his feet drew near, they snapped into place against the hull. From there he walked to the maintenance hatch.
Flur slid the cover open, revealing a row of modulators. He pulled a specialized wrench from the pouch on his chest and began to release the seat that held the modulator.
His clothes were thermally coated, but even still, he could feel the heat through his glove, radiating from the damaged unit.
The process wasn't all that complicated. It seemed like it was going to be a straightforward repair. It should have taken a few minutes to remove the modulator and replace it. Flur was going to be in and out in no time, but then a small meteoroid slammed into the hull less than a foot away.
The thing couldn't have been larger than a golf ball, but it sounded as if a cannon had gone off. He felt the shockwave ripple through the hull, vibrating the soles of his feet.
Flur flinched and accidentally let go of the frequency modulator. It tumbled away toward the inky blackness. Flur swiped at it, but missed. He deactivated his mag boots and lunged for as it spiraled away. He grabbed for it again, but just barely nicked it with the tip of his glove. It sent the modulator spinning in another direction.
Flur used his thrusters to re-adjust his trajectory. The device was no more than 6 inches long. It was getting away from him, and soon it would vanish into oblivion. He angled around and glided toward it. He was catching up to it, but the modulator was nearing the edge of the ship. Soon it would be gone forever. Just as he got within reach, the tether attached to his belt jerked him to a halt. Flur had literally reached the end of his rope. He swung his hand out, trying to make a last desperate grasp for the modulator. His fingertips raked the device, and he somehow managed to snag it between his fingertips. But he barely had a grasp on it, and he gingerly pulled it close to his body and clinched it with his other fist.
Flur breathed a sigh of relief. Prince Iloba would have been furious with him if he had lost the modulator. They would have been stuck in the middle of nowhere until a rescue vehicle arrived. Most likely, Flur would have been punished by public decapitation. Prince Iloba did not suffer failure lightly.
Another meteoroid impacted the hull. Then another.
Gerbov crackled over the comm line. "What's going on out there?"
"Small meteoroids. Nothing to worry about. I'm almost finished."
“Iloba is getting pissed off about the damage to his ship."
"I'm worried about damage to me. You try getting hit with space rocks traveling at 10,000 miles an hour."
Flur navigated his way back to the access panel. The number of meteoroids hitting the ship had increased. It was almost like being in the middle of a hailstorm. They were impacting all around him.
He tried to keep his hands steady as he inserted the modulator into the slot, but he couldn't help but tremble a little. It was like standing downrange during target practice. Even a microscopic fragment of rock could puncture his suit and tear through his flesh.
Flur finally secured the modulator, then sealed the maintenance hatch. He deactivated his mag boots and leapt into space. He used the tether to pull himself back toward the airlock. Fist over fist, he yanked his way down the line. With any luck he'd make it back to the ship without getting peppered by space rocks.
A guard strolled by Zack's cell and peered in through the viewport to check on him. His face twisted up, perplexed. The cell was empty. But that was impossible.
The guard pressed his face against the polycarbonate glass and tried to get an angle on the near corners of the compartment.
There was no sign of Zack.
The guard readied his weapon and pressed a button on the bulkhead. The hatch slid open, and the guard marched into the compartment with his weapon in the firing position. He scanned from corner to corner, but the compartment was empty. By the time he glanced up, it was too late.
Zack had suspended himself above the hatch, pressing his hands against one bulkhead and his feet against the other. It was just narrow enough for him to support himself.
Zack dropped down onto the alien’s back and slung his arm around the creatures neck. He had the alien in a chokehold. The thing clawed at him, but Zack maintained a vice like grip. With a violent twist, he snapped the guard’s neck, and the oafish creature flopped to the deck.
Zack pulled his carcass aside and grabbed the alien’s weapon. He rummaged through the guard’s tactical vest, pilfering a few thermal grenades, a tactical knife, and a few mags of ammunition. He wedged the knife in between his belt and pants, and stuffed the magazines and grenades in his cargo pockets. Then he poked his head through the hatch and surveyed the hallway. It was empty.
Zack stepped into the corridor and closed the hatch behind him. He snuck down the hallway and threw his back against the bulkhead, hiding behind a pilaster as two guards crossed at the next junction. They continued on without noticing him.
Zack made his way to the junction, then peered around the corner. He saw the guards turn on another passageway. He had no idea where they were keeping Honor, but she probably wasn't far from Aarnok's quarters. Most likely on one of the upper decks.
Zack was pretty sure that the writing on the bulkhead indicated that this was a lower deck. You wouldn't keep prisoners on the same level as esteemed guests. He could read a little bit of the Tarvaax language.
He made his way toward the engineering department. The first thing he needed to do was buy himself a little time before reaching the Emperor's palace. He had no idea what sector the Tarvaax home world was located in, or how long it would take to get there.
The dull drone of the engines rumbled through the ship. The sound of the engines grew louder as he moved farther aft.
Compared to a destroyer or super carrier, the ship was tiny. Aarnok had maybe a dozen guards. There were probably a handful of flight crew. A small number of servants, cooks, custodians, etc. Probably a few engineers, some machinist mates, a number of deckhands, and a few reactor technicians. Zack was definitely outnumbered, but at least he wasn't up against a crew of 2000.
Zack could hear a few guards approaching behind him. Their boots clinked against the deck. Zack pressed a button on the bulkhead and dashed into a nearby compartment. He closed the hatch behind him and waited for the guards to pass by. Once they were gone, Zack pushed back into the hallway and proceeded aft. He snaked through the corridors and finally reached the engineering compartment. He peered through the viewport and saw two engineers at control terminals. The quantum field generator was in the next compartment. If he could destroy that, the ship wasn't going to reach its destination anytime soon.
Zack opened the hatch and pushed into the compartment. He moved with tactical precision and fired two shots. Plasma bolts rifled through the air, piercing through both engineers. Their bodies flopped to the deck. One of them was dead instantly. The other was groaning and wallowing on the deck in a pool of his own blood. Zack rushed to him and knelt down beside him. He jammed the barrel of his weapon under the alien’s chin. "Where is she?"
He gurgled out something indecipherable.
"The human girl. Where is she?"
The creature muttered something in its native language.
"Don't give me that bullshit. I know you slugs learn basic Federation-speak. If you don't tell me where she is, I'm going to incinerate that ugly head of yours."
The alien said nothing.
Zack's finger gripped tight around the trigger, ready to blast the alien’s head off. "I'm going to ask you one last time?"
"Alright," the thing muttered. "She's near the Emperor's quarters on the top deck, port-side." His Federation-speak was pretty good.
"Thank you. You've been helpful." Zack stood up and took a step back. He aimed his weapon at the creature and put him out of his misery. The plasma bolt vaporized the slug’s head. Smoke wafted from the carcass, and a putrid stench filled the compartment.
Zack moved to the aft hatch. Through the viewport he could see the quantum field generator in the next compartment. It emitted a teal blue glow and had a mesmerizing quality to it. It was, after all, affecting the very fabric of the universe.
The compartment was shielded, and Zack knew better than to enter the site of an active quantum generator without adequate protection. He fixed the thermal grenades to the hatch and set the timer. He hoped the explosion would be enough to disrupt the generator beyond repair. It was a bit of a gamble. There was always the possibility of a secondary explosion. And abruptly dropping the ship out of quantum space was risky.
Zack armed the device and ran back to the main hatch. Several guards were approaching from either side of the corridor. Their weapons were in the firing position. No doubt they had been alerted to his escape. The loss of communication with the engineers had tipped them off to his location. It was clear they were coming for him.
It looked like Zack was going to be in for a firefight.
The timer on the thermal grenades ticked down.
Zack locked the hatch to the engineering compartment. He figured he was going to make the guards work for it. If they wanted him, they were going to have to come and get him the hard way.
Zack took cover behind one of the control terminals and aimed his weapon at the hatch.
The guards kicked and banged on the hatch to no avail. The stocks of their rifles clamored against the metal. They had to call in a technician to override the locking mechanism. All of this was eating up precious time. If this went on any longer, Zack was going to have to disarm the thermal grenades he planted.
Even the technicians couldn't override the locking mechanism. A few minutes after they gave up, sparks showered into the compartment as the guards cut through the hatch with a plasma torch.
Zack watched the beam slice a rectangular shape in the hatch. Amber sparks bounced off the deck then faded to black. When the rectangle was complete, the metal hatch dangled by a few threads. One of the guards kicked it to the deck. It slammed down, clamoring like thunder.
Zack opened fire, blasting at the guards as they tried to squeeze through the narrow passageway. One body flopped to the deck, then another. They were starting to pile up. It was almost like shooting fish in a barrel. Then the guards got a little smarter and stopped trying to storm their way in. They angled their weapons through the breach and fired back at Zack.
The control console exploded with sparks, showering debris. Zack ducked for cover. He angled his weapon around the base of the console and fired several shots through the hole in the hatch, taking out another one of the guards. Then Zack lobbed a grenade through the opening.
It was a precarious toss. If he missed the opening, the grenade would bounce back off the bulkhead and explode within the engineering compartment. Zack wasn't too keen on getting a face full of shrapnel.
Fortunately, he lobbed the grenade with perfect accuracy. It passed through the opening, bounced off the deck, and rattled around in the exterior corridor.
A moment later, the deafening blast shredded everything in the vicinity. The hallway was thick with haze. Smoke and debris rushed into the engineering compartment through the opening.
Zack leapt to his feet and rushed toward the hatch. He dove for the opening and rolled onto the deck and sprang back to his feet. He swept the hallway with the barrel of his weapon, but all the guards were dead.
Zack took off running down the hallway as more would soon be coming. He rounded the corner at the next junction when the thermal grenades exploded in the engineering compartment.
The blast rocked the ship. Zack almost lost his balance as the passageway quaked. He felt the bulkheads ripple and warble, and his stomach twisted in knots as the ship dropped out of slide-space. The quantum generator had definitely been damaged.
Klaxons blared as alarms sounded.
A slight grin curled up on Zack's lips. He could hear the clatter of boots against the deck as guards scurried toward the source of the explosion. Zack ducked into a nearby compartment, hiding as the guards raced through the corridors.
When the passageway was clear, he dashed out of the compartment and climbed a ladder toward the next level. He poked his head through the upper hatch and scanned the hallway. All of the guards had rushed to engineering. Zack continued up to the next level.
Technicians were frantically trying to deal with the damaged quantum drive. The rest of the ship was like a ghost town.
Zack emerged on the top deck. Alarms were still blaring, and he could hear the chaos echo up from the bowels of the ship. He peered through the viewports of various compartments, looking for Honor. There were a plethora of decadent guest staterooms on this level, but he found no sign of Honor.
He continued down the hallway, pausing at the next junction. He peered around the corner and saw two guards standing outside one of the compartments. They were chatting back and forth, distracted by the commotion below.
Zack angled the barrel of his rifle around the corner and lined one of the creatures up in the reticle of his sights. His finger gripped the trigger, and he squeezed off two quick rounds. Brilliant bolts of plasma streaked down the passageway, incinerating the two guards. Their bodies crumbled, and their weapons clattered against the deck. Wisps of smoke wafted from the gaping holes in their chests.
Zack advanced down the passageway to the bodies. He stepped over them and peered into the viewport of the hatch. His heart pounded as he caught a glimpse of Honor. Her beauty took his breath away. It broke his heart to see her caged and sad. But he was about to change all that.
He glanced around the hallway to make sure no one was coming. Then he pressed the button on the access pad, and the hatch slid open.
Zack stepped into the compartment. Honor craned her neck worriedly to see who was invading her space. Her terrified gaze turned to relief when she saw Zack. She ran into his arms and squeezed him tight. She planted a fat kiss on his lips. They melted into one another. For a brief moment, the chaos of the galaxy faded away. Holding her in his arms was pure heaven. It was everything he wanted. But it wasn't going to last.
“Are you okay?"
"Have you heard anything about Mom, or Bob?" Zack asked.
Honor’s face grew solemn. She didn't have to say anything, her expression said it all. Zack knew by the grim look in her eyes that his foster parents were dead.
Zack’s eyes brimmed with tears. His lip quivered as he tried to hold his emotions back. But now was not the time to grieve. He stifled his feelings and put them in a dark place in the corner of his mind. He’d deal with them later.
"Come on. Let's get out of here." Zack grabbed her hand and pulled her to the hatch. He scanned the passageway.
"There's an escape shuttle on this level toward the front of the ship," Honor said.
Zack pulled the bodies of the guards into the compartment.
Honor cringed at the sight of the alien corpses.
Zack brought his weapon into the firing position and advanced into the hallway. Honor crouched behind him and followed. They moved forward, stopping at each junction, making sure the coast was clear. The alarms had stopped buzzing, but Zack could still hear the commotion on the lower decks. The ship wasn’t moving at all. It was just drifting through space.
Zack turned a corner and headed for the escape shuttle. There was no one guarding it, and the upper deck was still empty. But he could hear the sound of guards climbing the ladders. There was no doubt that they had sifted through the bodies in engineering and discovered Zack was still alive. Now the guards were scouring the ship for him.
There was no time to waste. Zack ran for the escape shuttle. He pressed the access button on the bulkhead, and the hatch slid open.
Zack and Honor were met with angry barrels of plasma rifles staring them in the face.
Guards flooded into the hallway, flanking them on either side. They were completely surrounded.
Zack found himself back in a holding cell. This time, two guards were posted out front, and they had been given instructions not to open the hatch under any circumstances, unless under the direct command of Aarnok himself.
The ship was dead in space. It wasn't going anywhere. Zack waited in the cell for several hours. The hull clamored as a rescue ship docked. After the crew had migrated to the rescue ship, the hatch to Zack’s cell slid open. Plasma rifles stared him in the face. They weren't taking any chances this time. There were at least a half-dozen armed guards ready to escort him from one ship to the other. Zack was shackled with his hands behind his back. They shoved him into the hallway.
One of the guards jabbed the barrel of his plasma rifle into Zack's back. It dug into his skin between his shoulder blades and hit one of the bony protrusions on the back of the vertebrae. It sent a jolt down his spine.
Zack clinched his jaw, and his nostrils flared. He was growing weary of these aliens.
They marched him aboard a Corvette Class warship and placed him in another holding cell. This one wasn't nearly as nice. It had an awful stench of sweaty socks and rotten eggs. Zack couldn't imagine what had created the smell, but it was nauseating. He hoped that his olfactory glands would adjust, and the smell wouldn't seem as pungent.
It wasn't long before he felt the quantum distortion wash through the ship. The Tarvaax warships had smoother transitions in their jumps to slide-space. It didn't seem to be as jarring. As barbaric as the Tarvaax were, some of their technology was clearly more advanced.
The only thing Zack could do now was sit back and wait. Time spent in the cell was mind numbing. There must have been a short in one of the lighting fixtures because it emitted an incessant buzz that grated on his nerves.
Zack lost all sense of time in the cell. There was no variation in lighting, and no way to turn the lights off. He hadn't been fed since he'd been captured, and he wasn't sure he was ever going to get any food again. His stomach began to growl and grumble.
Zack guessed it had been about 12 hours when the ship finally emerged from slide-space. They must have reached the Tarvaax home world. The ship rumbled and shook as it descended through the upper atmosphere.
Zack grew anxious as the ship drew closer to its final destination. The future was highly uncertain. The best that he could hope for was to spend the rest of his life in a cell somewhere. But it was more than likely he'd be killed the minute the Emperor set eyes on him.
The lumbering behemoth finally touched down on the palace tarmac. Sometime later, guards opened the hatch. More plasma rifles menaced him. This time, Aarnok accompanied the guards. His beady eyes glared at Zack. "I really want to kill you myself, but we've come this far. I will let my father do the honors. You've destroyed my beloved Ardent. Do you know how much that ship cost? It will take months to repair the damage you’ve caused."
Zack realized that Aarnok couldn't hurt him without incurring the wrath of his father. "Are you kidding me? That thing was a hunk of junk. You ought to thank me for blowing it up. I'd be embarrassed to fly around in the galaxy in a clunker like that."
Aarnok clenched his jaw.
"It is the finest ship in the entire Tarvaax navy."
"Was. It's not anymore."
Aarnok was furious. "Take him to my father!"
Two of the guards grabbed Zack by his arms and yanked him out of the cell.
"Take it easy. I'm cooperating."
One of the guards jammed the stock of his rifle into Zack's thigh. His leg collapsed beneath him, and he crashed to the deck. Zack pushed himself up and hobbled along. His quadricep was going to be sore for a while, and be bruised to hell by tomorrow.
Zack scowled at the alien.
The ugly slug shoved him forward. "Keep moving," the thing muttered. "And keep your mouth shut."
The guards marched Zack through a maze of passageways, then down the loading ramp. He caught his first glimpse of the Tarvaax home world, Lusova. Their blue sun was setting on the horizon and cascaded an array of colors against the clouds. Hues of purple, violet, cyan, and magenta. It was nothing like he had anticipated. It wasn’t the dark, dreary place that he had envisioned. It was quite beautiful.
Emperor Vuul's eyes blazed into Zack as the guards ushered him into the throne room. Vuul stood up from the throne and marched down the steps. The fearsome ruler surveyed his new prize. His massive frame towered over Zack. "Hard to believe a creature so puny could defeat a warrior as great as Xorgon."
Zack said nothing.
Vuul's eyes gazed to Aarnok. "You have done excellent work, my son."
"Thank you, Father. It has been my great honor to serve you."
Vuul unsheathed his sword and activated the plasma beam that lined the blade. It crackled and buzzed. He thrust the blade inches from Zack's neck.
Zack sucked his throat in, and his eyes went wide, staring at the deadly blue beam.
"I should slice your head off and eat your corpse for dinner. Then have your brain for dessert."
Vuul’s face twisted up perplexed. "You find that amusing?"
"What I find amusing is how pathetic your species is."
Vuul snarled at him. "Pathetic?"
"You're going to kill me while I'm in handcuffs, held by your guards? That shows no courage. At least your son had the guts to fight fair." Zack figured that would get a rise out of him.
Vuul clenched his jaw and the veins in his neck bulged. He was on the spot now. He couldn't just back down in front of his courtiers. "So, it's a fair fight you want? Then a fair fight you will get." Vuul raised his voice for his courtiers to hear. "Let no one say that I am not a fair and merciful ruler."
There were nods of agreement among the courtiers. They all feared him, and would agree with anything he said. A bunch of timid ass-kissers.
Vuul turned his gaze back to Zack. "What skill have you with a blade?"
Vuul chuckled. "Well, tomorrow we shall find out." The Emperor addressed his guards. "Take him to the dungeon. Give him a last meal. Whatever he requests. Tomorrow I shall kill him in this room for all to see."
The guards dragged Zack away. At least he bought himself a little time, he thought.
Aarnok approached his father and muttered in his ear, "Kill him now and be done with it."
"He will be dead in good time. I am not opposed to prolonging his suffering."
"Every moment that he lives is a risk to your empire. Have you forgotten the oracle’s prophecy? "
Vuul grew irritated with Aarnok's badgering. "I have forgotten nothing."
"He is a menace. He destroyed my ship in a matter of moments. He is not to be underestimated."
"When I want your counsel, I will ask for it." Vuul glared at Aarnok. It was the end of the discussion, and Aarnok knew not to push it any further.
The guards threw Zack in a holding cell in the bowels of the Imperial Palace. The heavy metal door clanked shut behind him.
It was like an old-school dungeon. Dark and dank. It didn't have fancy force-shields or electronic restriction devices. If the power grid went down, the prisoners would stay safe and sound in their containers. It was low-maintenance. Vuul believed in good old-fashioned lock and key.
Zack wasn't alone in his cell. In the corner was a hulking Tarvaax. The alien’s wary eyes surveyed the new addition to his domain. By the look in his eyes, he didn’t seem pleased.
The alien stood up and marched towards Zack, grabbing him by the throat. The creature slammed Zack against the wall. It knocked the wind from Zack’s lungs, and he gasped for breath as the alien’s hand squeezed tight around his throat.
The creature's eyes narrowed and surveyed Zack. "You are a spy, sent by the Emperor."
The creature’s rancid breath smacked Zack in the face. He shook his head and choked out, “No. I'm not a spy."
"Of course a spy would deny being a spy."
"Why would I want to spy on you?" Zack had a slightly condescending tone.
The alien clenched his jaw. "You tell the Emperor I will divulge no information whatsoever."
"Does he think me a fool that I would confide in a cellmate?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about. If you haven't noticed, I'm not from around here."
The alien’s intense eyes stared at Zack a moment. He gripped Zack's throat even tighter.
"Newsflash. The Federation is at war with the Tarvaax. I'm not a spy for the Emperor." Zack's scratchy voice was barely audible. His face was beginning to turn blue.
After a moment, the alien released his grip.
Zack sucked in several huge breaths. He clutched his throat, rubbing it gently. It was sore and felt like his trachea had almost been crushed.
“Why are you here? Why aren’t you working in the slave camps, or being harvested?"
The alien had a devious glint in his eyes. "Human brains are a delicacy. They are said to give life extending properties to our species.” The gruesome creature licked its lips.
Zack swallowed hard, and his eyes bulged with fear. The statement didn't make him feel any better about being cooped up in a cell with this beast. "I'm here because I killed the Emperor's son.”
The alien scoffed. "Doubtful."
"Have you not heard? Xorgon is dead, and the Tarvaax were defeated on Crylos 9.”
The alien's eyes narrowed at him, trying to discern if he was telling the truth.
"I have no reason to lie to you,” Zack added.
The alien said nothing. The two stared at each other in silence for a moment.
"How long have you been in here?" Zack asked.
"289 days, give or take. It's hard to keep track. But I try to judge time by the meals and changing of the guards."
"I take it you haven't figured a way out of here yet?"
The alien chuckled. "Even if you make it out of the cell, you'll need to take down the force-shield that surrounds the palace. There is only one access portal, and it is heavily guarded. You no doubt passed through it on your way in."
“Why are you here?” Zack asked.
"The Emperor would say that I masterminded a failed coup. I would say that I have not succeeded yet." He smiled.
"Why didn't the Emperor just put you to death if you pose such a threat."
"Death would be too swift. It would deprive the Emperor of the pleasure of seeing me suffer."
"He sounds like a nice guy."
"At first, the beatings and torture were more frequent. But over time, I think he has grown bored with me. I fear my time may soon be coming to an end."
"I think my number is up tomorrow. He plans to kill me in a duel for all to see."
The alien's eyes perked up. "A duel?"
"Supposedly I will be given a plasma sword to defend myself. But I have my doubts."
The alien was green with envy. "I would kill to be in the same room as Vuul with a blade of my own."
“I’d offer to trade places, but…”
“Vuul’s reign has brought nothing but death and destruction to my people. You must kill him."
“I intend to. Then I’m going to kill Aarnok.”
“That ineffectual fool is not worth the effort.”
“He has my girlfriend captive and intends to make her his bride. One of many, I assume."
The alien made a face. “I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.”
“You're not making me feel any better."
“Sorry.” The alien surveyed Zack, sizing him up. He had a skeptical look in his eyes. “Have you ever even held a sword before?"
Zack shook his head. "Give me a plasma rifle and Vuul’s one dead slug." Zack realized his faux pas the minute the slur slipped from his mouth. “Sorry. No offense."
"None taken. I'll be the first to call him a slug."
The tension between them had dissipated, and the alien took a seat.
Zack relaxed and followed suit. The two kept an eye on each other though.
“What's your name?" Zack asked.
“Chuukvanishaka’ar Tovark. But you can call me Charlie."
“When I studied in the colonies, that's what everyone called me.”
"You studied in the colonies?"
"Briefly. A year as an exchange student, back when our species were on better terms."
“That's why you don't have an accent," Zack said.
"I never had an accent to begin with. When I learned Federation-speak, I learned it properly." He seemed to get a little offended.
“Well, either way, you speak perfectly."
“Do you speak Tarvaax?”
“Te puva,” Zack said. It meant a little. “We are taught essential phrases and words during basic training."
Charlie shook his head. "You humans think the galaxy revolves around you. There are hundreds of species out there that coexist peacefully, yet your kind is constantly in turmoil.“
Zack rolled his eyes. "You guys invaded us, remember?”
“I had nothing to do with it. I lobbied against it. That's half the reason why I'm here.”
Zack looked surprised. “Did you hold a position in government?”
“I was Admiral of the fleet.”
Diesel felt a quantum distortion wash through the ship. She guessed they had been in slide-space for roughly 12 hours, but it was hard to gauge. There was no way to tell time in the holding cell.
Cole, Cyclops, and Rex had all dozed off. But the transition had disturbed their slumber. Their eyes snapped open, alert.
Cyclops rubbed his neck, sore from the awkward position that he had been sleeping in. The cell wasn't very accommodating. There was barely enough room for all four of them to fit. There weren't any racks to sleep on. The compartment was just an empty rectangle with a sink and a toilet in the corner.
They had all surveyed the compartment when they were first incarcerated. But the cell was solid, there was no way out. Any fantasies of escape had vanished quickly. The only way they were going to get out of this place was by overtaking one of the guards. Short of that, they had resigned themselves to sit back and enjoy the ride. The destination was uncertain. Aarnok had instructed them to be taken to the prison camp, but it was anyone's guess where that was located.
Diesel heard a loud clamor and felt a shudder ripple through the ship. She was sure the vessel had docked to something in space. She wondered if they were going to be transferred to a larger ship.
A few moments later, several guards positioned themselves outside the hatch. Twitchy rifles took aim as the hatch slid open.
"On your feet," one of the guard’s yelled. "Turn around and place your hands on the bulkheads.”
The prisoners complied.
Several guards rushed into the compartment, while the others maintained their aim on the targets from the hallway. One false move and Diesel and her comrades would be incinerated.
A guard grabbed Diesel’s wrist and wrenched it behind her back. Then he grabbed the other one and tweaked it with the same maneuver. He used such force that it felt like her shoulder was going to dislocate. Within seconds, he hammered cuffs on her wrists. He pulled her by the arm and shoved her into the corridor.
The process was repeated with all the prisoners. The guards marched them single file down the hallway. As they weaved through the passageways, they passed a series of external windows. Diesel could see that the ship was in fact docked with a mega structure floating in the inky blackness of space. It was bigger than any space station she had ever seen. There were several docking ports, and transport ships were moored to the structure. It was a modular with several large geometric pods. The entire station had a diameter of over a mile.
The guards pushed the prisoners toward one of the airlocks. The ship was secured to a space-bridge that connected it with the station. The guards marched the prisoners through the gangway and crossed into the station’s terminal. From there they weaved through a series of corridors and entered the facility’s prisoner processing station.
Several station guards were waiting to take custody of the prisoners. They were dressed in black tactical armor and helmets. Their faces were obscured from view. They looked ominous and imposing—even more so when they jammed their weapons into the prisoners’ faces.
Diesel stared at the menacing barrels. It was like an angry sewer pipe had been shoved in her face.
The guards from the transport ship removed the prisoners’ handcuffs and headed back to their vessel. The hatch to the processing room slammed shut behind them. The prisoners’ fates were now in the hands of their new masters.
Diesel and her comrades were put through a full body scanner. It was high-resolution and left nothing to the imagination. Some of the guards ogled Diesel’s perfect form as they scanned for weapons and contraband.
Afterwards, the prisoners’ images and biometric information was entered into the system. It seemed the Tarvaax were meticulous about keeping track of their captives.
From there, they were scanned for disease, and inoculated against potential infection.
Diesel wasn't too thrilled about having some alien needle jammed into her arm and filled full of a chemical she knew nothing about. But she didn't have much choice.
Once they had made it through basic processing, they were evaluated by a prison administrator. He was a snooty little alien that looked down his nose at the prisoners. “I am Captain Lytok. Welcome to Balasbar Station. My job is to execute the will of the warden. Comply with his will, and your life will be considerably less uncomfortable."
Diesel and her crew were lined up for the administrator to scrutinize. His bug eyes looked the prisoners up and down. Cyclops and Rex towered over him. Lytok was small by Tarvaax standards. "These two will make excellent workers in the mines. Take them to the workers area."
Two guards advanced with weapons in the firing position, motioning for Rex and Cyclops to start moving.
Lytok moved down the row and stood before Diesel. She scowled at the little creature.
“This one will fetch an excellent price on the market. Hold her with the other females."
Two more guards marched her away.
The administrator surveyed Cole. His eyes seemed to linger on the gunnery sergeant’s gray hair. "This one is too old to be of use. Take him for harvesting."
Cole's face twisted up. "Too old? Look you little runt, I’m not too old to kick your ass."
Lytok flinched as Cole lurched at him. But the war hero was kept at bay by the barrels of plasma rifles.
The administrator smiled at him. "Enjoy your last few moments of life. I hear the harvesting process is exceedingly painful."
"I guess you got lucky," the guard said, his voice filtering in through the bars on the cell door. "The Emperor has decided to postpone your duel. It seems you will live for another day."
It wasn't good news at all, Zack thought. It was just delaying his chance to kill the Emperor and rescue Honor. Zack had been pacing back and forth all night, so wired up with adrenaline that he couldn't sleep. Not that the cell was conducive to a good night sleep anyway. It was cold and uncomfortable. There was a spigot to get the water from, and a place to relieve yourself—those were the extent of the amenities.
“Sounds like the Emperor had second thoughts," Charlie said. "I think you better get used to this cell. You'll probably grow old in here like I will."
"I have no intention of growing old in this cell." Zack was furious.
"Neither do I, but some things are beyond our control."
Zack kicked and rattled the door.
"You're wasting your energy,” Charlie said.
Zack ignored him and kept banging until the guard came back.
"Knock it off, or I will come in there and silence you."
"You can't kill me. The Emperor wants the pleasure for himself."
The guard sneered at him. "Perhaps. But I can beat you within an inch of your life. I suggest you keep it down." The guard strolled away.
Zack kept kicking at the door.
"You must like trouble," Charlie said.
"I seem to have a way of finding it."
The guard was back at the door in an instant, and he didn't look too happy. "I told you to knock it off."
"Make me, you ugly slug!"
The guard clenched his jaw and muttered something in Tarvaax.
"What did he say?" Zack asked.
"You don't want to know."
The guard readied his stun wand. It was a 2 foot long rod with prongs on the end of it. Once it contacted with flesh, it would send enough volts through a body to drop even the largest of Tarvaax.
The guard called over a couple of his buddies to assist him. They huddled around him as he fumbled for the keys to the cell. "Move back against the wall," he commanded.
Zack didn't budge.
This only served to further enrage the guard. He unlocked the door and stormed into the room with the two other guards. He charged Zack and stabbed at him with the end of the stun wand.
Zack sidestepped, blocked the wand, and kicked the alien in the nuts. He hoped the beast shared the same anatomy. Apparently he did, because he doubled over and dropped to his knees. Zack stripped the wand from the guard’s hand, spun it around, and was ready to attack the other two goons.
Charlie saw this as his opportunity. He lunged for one of the guards and tackled him to the ground. They scuffled over the stun rod.
Zack squared off against the remaining guard.
The goon charged him, leading with his stun rod. Zack swung his wand, batting the goon’s rod away.
The guard took another swing with the wand. Zack ducked below the wand as it whooshed overhead.
Zack jabbed the prongs of his wand into the goon’s belly and pulled the trigger. A massive charge of energy jolted the alien. He twitched and shook uncontrollably, then slammed to the ground.
Zack kicked the goon’s rod away and gave him another zap to the small of the back. The alien wasn't going to get up anytime soon.
Charlie was still scuffling with the other guard.
Zack dashed across the cell and planted the prongs into the guard’s rib cage. He squeezed the trigger and the guard flopped against the wall then crashed down.
Charlie climbed to his feet and planted his boot in the guard’s ribs for good measure.
The two prisoners surveyed their handiwork, quite pleased with themselves.
“You're pretty handy with that thing," Charlie said.
Zack admired the wand. "I kinda like it." His gaze turned to the bodies on the floor.
"How long will they be out for?" Zack asked.
"Maybe 30 minutes. We need to move quickly.” Charlie knelt down and stripped one of the bigger guards of his uniform and armor. Then he put the gear on. It barely fit, but it was better than nothing.
"What are you doing?"
"You'll never make it up to Aarnok's chamber on your own. That's most likely where your girlfriend is being held. But if I march you up there as my prisoner, we might not draw much attention.”
“What about the force shield?"
“The reactor will have to be destroyed."
The guards removed Diesel’s handcuffs and shoved her into a holding tank. The force-shield containing the cell flickered orange as she passed through, then returned to red. It apparently allowed for a one-way transfer.
Diesel glanced around at her new surroundings as the guards marched away. The cell was maybe 20 x 30. There were a handful of other women in a compartment. Scared faces stared at Diesel for a moment, then went back to minding their own business. They looked hopeless. Emotionally devastated.
Diesel took a seat, resting her back against the bulkhead. One of the inmates came over and introduced herself. She was a young blonde girl, no more than 22 years old. She had short hair, cut just above her shoulders, and brown eyes. She had soft features and a friendly smile. "Hi. I'm Casey. What's your name?" She asked, extending her hand.
"Dawn Dawson. But my friends call me Diesel."
The two shook hands.
“You're not from Crylos 9, are you? You’re military?"
Casey looked hopeful. "Is the UPDF planning on rescuing us?"
Diesel shrugged. "We were trying, but it didn't turn out so well."
"There were hundreds of thousands of people taken from Crylos 9. Where is everyone?"
Casey had a sullen look on her face. "The sick were destroyed immediately. Those who can work are shipped off to the mines or utilized as hard labor. All of the elderly have already been harvested."
“What do you mean harvested?”
Casey shuddered just thinking about it. "The Tarvaax believe human brains can extend longevity. They suck out the gray matter and—“
The hairs on the back of Diesel’s neck stood tall. “Nevermind. I don't need to hear any more about it."
"They put everyone else in cryo-storage, and they keep a handful of women here to trade or sell on the open market."
All of the women in the cell were young and pretty. Diesel’s face tensed at the thought that she was going to be sold, or bartered, off.
“How many prisoners are left?”
Diesel stood up and moved to the force-field. Casey followed her. Diesel probed the beam with her fingertips. It felt like glass. There was no give in the beam whatsoever. She hammered her fist against the beam a few times, but it was like banging a wall.
“There's no getting out of the cell. We've all tried,” Casey said.
“How often do they feed you here?”
“We typically get two meals a day. But trust me, it's nothing to write home about."
Diesel returned a grim smile. She didn't like being in a confined space one bit. She was worried about Cole. She knew the clock was running out for him—if he hadn’t been harvested already.
Diesel surveyed the holding cell, then took a seat against the bulkhead again. An hour later, the guards returned to the cell.
A look of terror washed over Casey's face. She tousled her hair. “Mess up your hair. When they line us up, slouch and try to look ugly—which is going to be difficult for you."
Diesel wasn't sure what was going on, but she did as Casey suggested.
Several of the guards marched into the compartment with their weapons in the firing position. They made the girls line up against the far bulkhead.
Prince Iloba strolled into the compartment with two body guards in full body armor, carrying plasma rifles. Their helmets and tinted visors obscured their faces. The prison administrator accompanied Iloba.
Iloba’s garments were elegantly adorned, and he carried himself with an air of superiority. He spoke to the administrator in a language that Diesel did not understand. Iloba surveyed the prisoners, strolling up and down the line. His orange eyes carefully scrutinized each of the girls.
Diesel tried to make herself look as dumpy and unattractive as possible, but even with messed up hair and bad posture she was still hot.
After Iloba had studied the girls for a few minutes, his face tensed and he stroked his chin in deep contemplation. His indecision seemed to cause him great discomfort.
He blinked his eyes several times, then finally curled out an orange finger and pointed at Diesel.
Lytok nodded in approval.
The walking frog’s bodyguards grabbed Diesel by the arms and dragged her out of the compartment. She looked back at Casey and the two exchanged a solemn glance. It seemed that she was now the property of the Prince.
Charlie marched Zack through the maze of passageways, then took a stairwell up to the ground floor of the palace. Courtiers scurried about, carrying on with their usual business. No one paid them any attention. Most of the courtiers were too self obsessed to give a second glance to anyone else.
Charlie was familiar with the layout of the palace, having been one of Vuul’s top military advisors. He navigated his way to the armory and punched in a code on the security keypad. Charlie gave a quick glance around to make sure no one had been watching them, then the two ducked into the compartment.
The walls were lined with plasma rifles, grenades, plasma swords, tactical knives, and a variety of pistols.
Zack grabbed a plasma rifle and several extra magazines. He powered up the device and press-checked the weapon.
"I think you're going to draw a little attention to yourself carrying a plasma rifle, don't you?"
Zack tossed the weapon to Charlie. "That's why you're going to carry it."
Charlie grabbed a pistol and a plasma sword. Zack grabbed a pistol and stuffed it in his waistline, then pulled his shirttail over to hide it. He stuffed grenades in his cargo pockets.
Once they had stocked up on toys, they headed back into the hallway and headed toward the elevators.
A small squad of royal guards turned the corner, marching straight toward them.
Charlie shoved the barrel of his plasma rifle into Zack's back, causing him to stumble a few steps. "Keep moving, dirt bag!”
Neither Charlie nor Zack made eye contact with the guards. Charlie coughed and turned his head away as they passed to obscure his face. He hoped they would keep on marching.
They both breathed a sigh of relief as they passed by without incident.
"Do you have to keep pointing that weapon at me," Zack muttered.
"I've got to sell the illusion,” Charlie whispered.
Charlie pressed a button and waited for the elevator. A few moments later, the doors slid open and the two stepped on board. It whisked them up the tower to the top level, and they stepped into the long hallway leading to Aarnok’s chamber.
The hallway had high vaulted ceilings, marble floors and columns, and opulent adornments. The design cues were similar to Aarnok's ship. You could tell he liked the style, and he was going to apply it to everything in his domain.
Two guards stood outside the door to Aarnok’s chamber at the end of the hall. They eyed Zack and Charlie curiously. “Where are you taking him?”
"Aarnok wishes to see him," Charlie said as the two approached.
“We were not informed of this," one of the guards said.
"I didn't realize Aarnok needed your permission to receive visitors," Charlie said. There was an implied threat in his tone.
The guards hesitated for a moment and exchanged a glance. "The prince is not in his chamber. You will have to wait until he returns."
"Then we will wait," Charlie said. He gave Zack a subtle nod. It was time to take action.
Zack pulled the pistol from his waistband as Charlie took aim with his rifle. They moved with lightning speed and had blasted off several rounds before the guards had a chance to react. Plasma bolts burned through the torsos of the two guards, and their carcasses crumpled to the ground.
Zack pushed into the royal chamber and cleared the corners with tactical precision. Charlie was right behind him. The room was empty, except for Honor. She was suspended in a beam—a glowing blue cylinder of light that seemed to contain her like a cage. The beam was located atop a riser. It was almost like she was a piece of art on display.
Charlie pulled the bodies of the guards into the chamber. Their absence would draw immediate attention, but less so than bodies lying in the hallway. "Meet me on the tarmac. With any luck, we can steal one of the transport ships."
"Where are you going?" Zack asked.
"To destroy the palace reactor and bring down the force field. We're not going to be able to escape while that is still active."
"Good luck," Zack said.
Charlie nodded and dashed back into the hallway.
Zack rushed to Honor. She floated within the beam, unconscious. Zack searched for the controls to deactivate it. He flipped a switch, and the beam gradually dissipated, lowering Honor to her feet. Still unconscious, and without the support of the beam, she collapsed. Zack caught her, and she fell into his arms. Her groggy eyes peeled open. She stared at Zack blankly. There was no hint of recognition in her eyes.
“Honor, it's me. I'm going to get you out of here."
She still didn't recognize him.
"It's me. Zack." He wasn't sure if they had wiped her memory, or if she was experiencing temporary amnesia from the suspension beam.
“I'm going to get you out of here."
“You’re not going anywhere," Aarnok said. He had entered the chamber and had his weapon aimed at Zack.
Iloba’s bodyguards marched Diesel through a maze of passageways to a docking area. Through the windows of the terminal, Diesel could see a small transport ship attached to a space-bridge.
Her new owner followed behind, muttering something in Valasion that she didn't understand.
The guards marched Diesel down the gateway at gunpoint. She strolled down the ramp and stepped into the airlock. The Valasions followed behind her and sealed the hatch. One of the guards leaned forward and opened the hatch to the transport and Diesel saw this as a prime opportunity.
The guard’s first mistake was not handcuffing her. The second mistake was underestimating her capabilities.
Diesel sidestepped and spun around, grabbing the barrel of one of the guard’s weapons. She pushed the barrel aside as the weapon fired. A brilliant burst of plasma zipped past her and slammed into the bulkhead. It pitted the metal, and smoke rose from the crater.
Diesel moved with lightning speed. She stripped the weapon from the guard and blasted a plasma bolt into his chest. His body fell back and flopped to the deck, taking the royal frog with him. Prince Iloba was buried under the guard’s carcass.
Diesel spun around and fired another round at the other guard. His body crashed against the bulkhead, then slid to the deck.
Iloba crawled out from underneath the body of his guard with his hands in the air as Diesel took aim at him. Suddenly, he spoke very good Federation-speak. "Don't shoot."
Diesel chuckled. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't waste your ugly ass right now."
“I have money. I can pay you handsomely. I am the Prince of Tevla.”
Diesel shrugged. “I don't think you have enough money to keep me from pulling this trigger."
“I can assure you, I have more than you could possibly imagine.”
“And you think it's okay to take slaves?"
“In my care, you would have lived a life of opulence. You would have been treated to the finest food and accommodations. You would have lived like royalty."
“I don’t like cages of any kind. Your money is no good to me." Diesel gripped the trigger and squeezed off two rounds into the talking frog. Then put a nice sized hole in his head. His body lingered upright for a few seconds, then collapsed, squishing against the deck.
Diesel pushed into the transport with the weapon in the firing position. She crept down a hallway to the cockpit. There were two pilots. One grabbed for a pistol, but Diesel put a plasma bolt in his chest before he could get a shot off. It was Gerbov, and his body crashed against the control console.
Flur had his orange hands high in the air. He attempted to smile. "I just fly the ship. That's it.”
“Keep your hands where I can see them. You're going to fly me wherever I want to go, aren’t you?”
"Of course. What do I look, stupid?"
“Move away from the controls.”
“Alright, take it easy.” He stepped away from the instrument cluster and Diesel motioned him toward the hatch with the barrel of her rifle. She pushed him through the corridor toward the airlock.
“My name is Flur. What's your name?”
“My name is shut the fuck up."
Flur paused for a moment. “That's a nice name.”
Diesel rolled her eyes.
Flur's eyes widened at the sight of the dead bodies in the airlock. “Just for the record, I never liked those guys.”
"Put on the Prince’s clothes."
Flur flashed her a skeptical look.
“Don't be modest. Do it!"
Flur stripped the Prince of his royal garb and dressed in the airlock. "Do you really think I'm going to pass for Prince Iloba?”
"You both look like ugly frogs. I don't see why not?”
“Hey, hey. I'll have you know, where I come from, I'm considered much more attractive than the Prince.”
Diesel had a doubtful expression on her face.
Diesel still looked doubtful.
Flur dressed in Iloba’s Royal garb.
“Strip the armor from the guard."
Flur complied and before long there were two naked alien bodies in the airlock.
"Turn around and put your hands on the bulkhead.” Diesel commanded. “If you so much as twitch, I'm putting a plasma bolt through your skull."
"You seem high strung.”
"Okay, okay." Flur complied.
With her weapon aimed at Flur, Diesel carefully suited up in the body armor. It had a hole in the chest plate, but with any luck no one would notice. At least not until Diesel had the opportunity to get a shot off.
“Pull the bodies on board,” Diesel said.
Flur dragged the corpses onto the ship, then returned to the airlock.
Diesel closed the hatch behind him, then motioned him onto the space-bridge.
“What exactly are we doing?”
“Rescuing my friends.”
"Drop your weapon, or I kill the girl," Aarnok said.
Zack grimaced. He stared down the barrel of his plasma pistol and had the alien lined up in his sights. He was tempted to squeeze the trigger, but there was the off chance that Aarnok could get off a shot and hit Honor. Zack wasn't about to risk that.
Zack let his pistol go slack and it swung upside down, dangling on his finger from the trigger guard. "Okay. I'm going to set the weapon down."
Aarnok kept his weapon aimed at the target.
Zack knelt down and set the weapon on the floor in a slow, deliberate movement. He didn't want to startle the alien. Once the weapon was on the ground, Zack stood up and kept his hands in the air.
"Kick the weapon over to me."
Zack complied. The weapon scraped and spun across the floor. It came to rest outside of Aarnok's reach. Aarnok's face twisted with displeasure. Zack had purposely kicked it out of reach.
Aarnok’s eyes glanced to the weapon, then back to Zack. "My father was foolish not to dispense with you upon your arrival. I, however, am going to rectify that mistake. I will deal with his wrath later." Aarnok opened fire at Zack.
Plasma bursts sliced through the air.
Zack dove for cover behind a pillar.
Aarnok kept firing as he advanced towards Zack. Bits of the pillar exploded with each burst, showering chips of marble and debris.
Zack sprinted across the chamber to the next pillar. Plasma bolts zipped all around him, exploding at his feet, and cratering the far wall. Priceless artifacts were destroyed in the process. The bust of a 22nd century Epysian ruler. An original Mala’var oil painting. An exquisite vase from the Zong Dynasty. Since money was no object, Aarnok had little concern for material possessions. He would acquire more artwork, and have his chamber refurbished.
Aarnok blasted at the pillar Zack hid behind, chipping away bit by bit.
An ornate plasma sword rested on a tabletop stand across the room between two Zong vases. Just one of the vases was worth more than all the wealth in the Federation. They had been a gift from the Trevaxians, along with the sword. Legend has it that the sword had once belonged to Avulon the Great, and was the blade that killed the king, ending the Proxima war.
Zack didn't care where it came from, or what its history was. It was a weapon, and anything was better than nothing.
Aarnok fired his last shot. The charge magazine was empty. He pressed the mag release button, dropped the magazine out, and slammed another one in.
Zack took the opportunity to sprint across the chamber. He dove across the table, grabbing the sword from the stand. He tumbled to the ground on the other side, shattering both of the Zong vases. They crashed against the floor, shattering into a million pieces. Tiny shards chimed as they danced across the marble. They were, perhaps, one of the few artifacts that had any value to Aarnok.
The alien clenched his jaw, and his nostrils flared. He screamed with rage as he opened fire on Zack, who was cowering behind the heavy table. Zack sprinted across the chamber to another pillar, narrowly escaping the bolts of plasma as they zipped past his flesh.
It didn't take long before Aarnok had emptied another magazine. Out of ammunition, he tossed the pistol aside and drew his sword. He activated the plasma beams that lined the edge of the blade.
Zack peered around the pillar. He could see that Aarnok was armed with only a sword. Zack activated the plasma beam on the blade and stepped out from behind the pillar to face the alien.
Aarnok snarled at him. Swords clanked and plasma beams sizzled. Zack and Aarnok hacked and slashed at each other. Swords whooshed through the air.
Aarnok was bigger, faster, stronger, and more adept with the blade. He drove Zack back toward the wall. It was everything Zack could do to hold the big alien off. Aarnok had grown up training with a sword. Zack had never held one before in his life.
Aarnok stabbed at him, and Zack deflected the sword away. He spun around and moved away from the wall.
Aarnok continued the dance, trying to push Zack back into the corner.
The two lunged and parried, exchanging attacks. The plasma swords shone brilliantly as they swished through the air. Zack made a valiant effort, but he was no match for Aarnok's size and skill.
Zack hacked at the slimy alien, but Aarnok deflected his blow. The swing had left Zack exposed, and Aarnok slashed at Zack's torso. The tip of his blade raked across his rib cage.
Zack could smell his own searing flesh. He tumbled back, doubling over with intense pain. It felt as if he'd been branded by the sun itself. With the plasma at a temperature of a million degrees, the slightest nick could make even the toughest warrior cower in agony.
Aarnok wasted no time attacking in Zack's weakened state. He hammered down furious blows.
Their swords clamored against one another. Zack tumbled to the ground. With an expert move, Aarnok managed to strip Zack's sword from his hand. It clattered against the floor and slid out of reach.
Aarnok reached back and angled the tip of his blade at Zack's heart. He prepared to stab through Zack's chest and finish the pesky human off once and for all.
Honor, still in a trance, stared at the two warriors blankly.
Flur marched down the corridor, doing his best impression of the Prince. He seemed like he was almost enjoying himself, putting on a regal air. He held his nose high in the air and gave off a snooty vibe.
Diesel marched behind him covered head to toe in battle armor. At a quick glance, the disguise wouldn't cause suspicion.
"What's the plan?" Flur asked.
"I don't know. I'm making it up as I go along."
"Improvisation is good."
Ahead, Lytok entered into the hallway. His eyes widened with concern the moment he saw the two approaching. "Is there something wrong? A problem with the merchandise perhaps?"
Flur hesitated a moment. "No. No problems at all." There was a long pause as he contemplated his next thought. "I just figured if one's good, two is better."
The administrator smiled. "Excellent idea. How about a 10 percent discount on the second one?
"20," Flur said, beginning to enjoy the role.
"15," the administrator said.
"You drive a hard bargain," Flur said.
The administrator smiled. He was so preoccupied with making a sale, he didn't notice that Flur was a few inches shorter than the Prince. Diesel couldn't determine if selling prisoners was standard operating procedure for the Tarvaax, or if Lytok was just industrious, acting on his own behalf.
“Come this way." Lytok spun around and marched down the corridor.
Diesel took this opportunity to crack him in the back of his head with the stock of her rifle. The weasel crashed to the ground.
Flur winced at the site. "That looked like it hurt."
"I hope so,” Diesel said. She moved to a nearby compartment and opened the hatch. "Pull him in here."
Flur knelt down and grabbed Lytok by his collar and dragged him into the storage compartment. Diesel closed and locked the hatch.
"Just so we're on the same page here… What's in this for me?" Flur asked.
"You help me get what I want. I don't kill you. It's pretty simple."
"Yeah, that sounds great, but I'd like some kind of guarantee."
"There are no guarantees in life. You should know that."
Flur arched an eyebrow at her.
"You have my word. Help me rescue the prisoners, and get off the station, and I will not harm you."
Flur gave her a skeptical stare.
"I promise." Diesel said. "Now get moving."
Flur sighed. He didn't have much choice. "Where are we going?"
“To find the harvest station."
"I think I know where that is."
The two marched through the corridors and weaved their way to the forward compartments. They passed guards here and there without incident.
Diesel peered through viewports of various compartments until she found the extraction room. She watched as a flexible arm descended from the ceiling gripping onto the cranium of a prisoner strapped into a chair. The prisoner's eyes bulged with fear. Without any pain medication, or localized numbing agent, the robotic arm drilled through the prisoner’s skull. Chips of flesh and skull splattered as the bit bore through, then extracted the brain matter. The old man screamed in agony, and his body twitched during the procedure. Then he slumped in the chair.
Two guards unstrapped him and dragged him away.
Diesel mashed a button on the bulkhead, and the hatch slid open. She pushed into the extraction room, blasting at the guards. She eviscerated them with two precise bolts. Their bodies crashed to the deck. Smoke wafted from the pock marks in their chests. A small flame flickered in the crater, then burned out. The pungent stench of burning Tarvaax flesh filled the compartment.
Fear washed over the faces of the two extraction technicians. They were dumbstruck by the assault. One of them finally lunged for the alarm button, but Diesel fired a shot, incinerating the creature’s hand. A second shot blew a hole in his chest. His body slumped against the control console.
The other technician raised his hands in the air.
"Sergeant Cole. Where is he?" Diesel asked.
The technician shrugged.
"Cyrus Cole! Where is he?" She asked in a slow, deliberate tone. Diesel pushed the barrel of her weapon into the technician's face.
The creature pointed to a temporary holding cell.
Diesel moved across the compartment and opened the hatch. She pulled off her helmet and shook out her flowing hair.
Cole's bright eyes looked up at her with relief. "It's about time you got here. I was next in line for brain soup." He scowled at the technician who was trembling by the console.
Diesel motioned for the technician to take a seat in the extraction chair.
The creature hesitated, but Diesel was insistent. The technician finally moved to the chair and Cole strapped him into the seat.
Diesel moved to the control console. Her hand hovered over the button to activate the extraction process.
The technician’s eyes filled with terror. His shaky voice muttered a few words in Federation-speak. "No. Please don't."
Aarnok stabbed his sword down toward Zack's chest. But an explosion rumbled the entire palace, knocking Aarnok off balance. The power went out, and the only illumination was coming from the plasma swords and the light cascading in the window.
Aarnok’s evil face was bathed in the blue glow from his sword.
Zack rolled aside as Aarnok's plasma sword stabbed into the marble floor. The blade pierced the stone like it were soft cake.
Zack scampered for his sword. He grabbed the handle, launched to his feet, and slung the blade around to deflect another blow from Aarnok’s sword.
The alien's eyes blazed with rage as he slashed at Zack. Aarnok took a wild swing, and Zack ducked underneath the blade. Aarnok's momentum carried him forward. Zack whirled around and stabbed his sword deep into Aarnok’s side. The searing hot blade incinerated part of his lung and the right ventricle of his heart.
Zack pulled the blade from Aarnok's torso and prepared to strike again, but the fatal wound had already been inflicted. It would just take a moment for the damage to settle in.
Aarnok's eyes were wide with disbelief. He glimpsed at Zack for a moment, then collapsed to the ground. His sword clinked against the marble and deactivated. The last gasp of air seeped from his lungs.
The Prince was dead.
Zack deactivated his plasma sword and moved to Honor. He winced with pain, clutching his side as he moved. The heat cauterized the wound, so there wasn't any bleeding. But it still felt like someone had pressed a hot iron against his flesh.
Another explosion rumbled through the building. Marble cracked and debris fell from the ceiling. Charlie had blown up the reactor. The palace was beginning to crumble. It was like an earthquake had hit the structure.
Zack glanced out the window and saw the protective force-shield evaporate.
"Come on. We have to go." He took Honor’s hand and pulled her toward the door. She was still in a daze.
Zack pushed into the hallway and marched toward the stairs next to the elevator. He spiraled down to the ground floor with Honor in tow.
The building was in chaos. Terrified courtiers scurried about, screaming. The air was filled with smoke and haze. Zack coughed as his lungs filled with dust. Shattered pillars and debris lay strewn about. Sections of the palace were on fire. There was no telling how much radiation had escaped into the atmosphere from the blast.
Zack made his way down the corridor, dragging Honor with him. He navigated the maze of debris, heading toward the landing pad.
A guard caught sight of him and tried to stop him, but Zack slashed at him with the plasma blade before the alien had a chance to react. The beam severed the creature in two. Both halves splattered against the floor.
Zack pushed through the smoke and haze to emerge on the other side of the palace. He wasn't far from the exit that led onto the tarmac. He hoped Charlie would be there. He wasn't a pilot, and he had no idea how to fly one of these Tarvaax ships. But that wasn't his biggest concern at the moment.
Vuul was blocking his path to the tarmac. He was going to have to get through the Emperor first.
“Let me do the honors," Cole said. He had a devious glint in his eyes as he pressed the button on the console that activated the extraction device. The flexible arm descended from the ceiling and latched onto the technician’s skull. The drill-bit spun up. A high-pitched whine filled the room. The jagged teeth of the hole-saw tore through the alien’s soft flesh, splattering blood on the cranial guard. It bore down into the skull, debriding away fine chips of bone. The device lifted the circular plate of bone, then began to suck out the contents of the alien’s skull.
The creature screeched and screamed.
Cole delighted in watching the creature get a taste of his own medicine.
The gunnery sergeant grabbed a plasma rifle from one of the dead guards. He checked the plasma charge and readied the weapon.
“Hey, can I get one of those?" Flur asked.
"No," Diesel snapped.
“Who is this?" Cole asked, curiously surveying the green little alien.
"This is our way out of here," Diesel said. "He's got a ship, and he's going to take us wherever we want to go.” She glanced to Flur. “Aren't you?"
Flur shrugged. "Yeah sure. No problem."
“Let's get Rex and Cyclops and get the hell out of this place,” Cole said.
“There are thousands of people in cryo-stasis,” Diesel said. "I'm not leaving them behind."
“And how exactly do you plan on getting them out of here?” Cole asked.
Cole's eyes narrowed at her. "You're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you?"
"You want to take over this entire station?"
“We’ll infiltrate the CIC, jump the entire station back to Federation space, then destroy the quantum drive. It's a no-brainer."
"Yeah, you've got to have no brain to attempt it." Cole said.
“Flur said that there were several hundred prisoners waiting to be transported to one of the mining colonies. If we can release them, we’ll have our own little army."
“And what if this thing is lying to you?”
"Flur's not dumb enough to lie to me, are you, Flur?" Diesel eye’d him with a deadly stare.
"Look at her,” Flur said. “This woman is psycho. Do you think I want to mess with that?"
Cole wasn't going to argue with him.
“Between you and me, I'm not a big fan of the Tarvaax. They smell bad. They’re pushy. And they’re making a mess of our planet."
Cole contemplated this. "Where are the prisoners located?"
“I can take you there," Flur said.
Cole gave a reluctant nod of agreement. He moved to the hatch and peered through the viewport. The hallway was empty. He opened the hatch, and the trio pushed into the corridor.
Diesel put on her helmet, and marched Cole forward at gunpoint. Flur led the way, strolling along as if he owned the place.
Cole craned his neck back and muttered to Diesel, "What's with this guy?"
"He's impersonating a Prince."
They snaked through a maze of passageways, mostly unnoticed until a Tarvaax officer stopped them.
“Where are you taking this prisoner?”
Flur hesitated. "I may have gotten a little turned around."
"Which docking bay is your ship located at?"
“32," Flur said.
The officer let out a heavy sigh. It was clear he was getting tired of giving directions to lost aliens. He turned away slightly as he pointed down the corridor. "Go to the end of this hallway, take a right, then your first left, then take the third right and follow that all the way to the terminal—“
Diesel cracked him in the back of the head with the butt of her rifle. Cole pounced on the alien and snapped its neck.
“Remind me not to get on your bad side,” Flur said.
Cole grabbed the dead alien by his collar and dragged him aside. But two other guards turned the corner before he could hide the officer in a nearby compartment. They drew their weapons and spewed a stream of plasma bolts down the corridor.
Diesel flattened her back against the bulkhead, taking cover behind a pilaster. Flur followed suit. Cole grabbed the officer’s pistol and ducked behind a support structure. The two returned fire while Flur tried to make himself as small, and as obscure, as possible.
Blazing bolts of plasma rocketed through the corridor. Smoke and haze filled the air as blasts impacted the bulkheads, leaving smoldering craters behind.
Alarms sounded, blaring through klaxons. More guards flooded in the hallway, and soon they were cut off with a squad of guards on either end.
“Maybe we should have just gotten out of here when we had the chance,” Diesel said.
Cole sneered at her. He inched along the bulkhead and pressed a button, opening a hatch to a nearby compartment. Cole fired several blasts down the hallway, then spun his barrel around 180° and fired a few quick bursts in the opposite direction. He ducked into the compartment.
Diesel waited for a lull in the action, then sprinted across the corridor and dove into the compartment.
Flur cowered in the hallway amid the streaking bolts of plasma. The air was so thick with smoke, you could barely see the guards at the end of the hallway. Flur closed his eyes and ran across the hallway into the compartment as plasma projectiles blazed all around him. He could feel the heat on his skin as they sizzled past.
Once Flur was inside, Cole closed and locked the hatch. It was only going to be a matter of time until the Tarvaax broke through.
The Emperor twirled his sword in a dazzling display of his prowess, then brought the weapon to the ready position. "Perhaps my son was right. I should've killed you when you first arrived."
"Aarnok might still be alive if you had," Zack said, trying to enrage the beast.
Vuul snarled and charged at Zack. His eyes burned with hatred. He swung the blade down at Zack with all his might. The power in his strike was immense.
Zack slung his sword overhead to block the blow. The impact rattled Zack's hand and sent a jolt through his arm, up to his shoulder, and down into his rib cage. The flexion of his muscles reignited the burning sensation of his wound.
The plasma beams crackled against one another.
Zack was face-to-face with this tyrant, trying to hold his blade back. Both of their faces were illuminated by the glow of their swords.
Zack pushed off and circled around the beast. If he had learned anything about fighting larger opponents, it was to keep moving. Wear them down. Let them do all the work.
Vuul charged at Zack again, hacking his blade at the tiny human. Zack stepped aside, and the massive sword sliced into the marble floor, missing its target. Vuul twisted around to face Zack, slashing the blade inches from Zack's torso.
Zack stepped back and circled around.
Vuul hacked at him again, and Zack blocked overhead. Their swords clanked and sparks flew. Zack spun away and slashed Vuul's thigh. The blade dug a canyon in his quadricep. The Emperor's leg buckled, and he growled in pain. But it only seemed to energize him. He attacked Zack with even more fury, hacking and slashing. He had a crazed look in his eyes. Nothing was going to stop him. He was going to get his revenge.
Zack defended against the blows, dodging and circling. Zack's heart was in his throat. His chest heaved for breath and his lungs were on fire. The smoky haze made it difficult to breathe. The dust tickled the back of his throat.
Vuul didn't seem to be slowing down at all.
Zack felt like he was wearing himself out more than he was the Emperor. But he certainly couldn't stand toe to toe with this beast.
The swords clamored and clanked. The sound echoed through the halls of the palace. The plasma blades crackled and sparked.
Vuul kept hammering at the little human. Each strike rattled Zack’s bones. It was getting harder and harder to defend against Vuul's attacks. Zack’s hand was almost numb from the constant battering. Each hit sent a shockwave through his metacarpals. The previous damage to his torso made it hard and painful to even hold up his arm in defense. He wasn't going to be able to keep this up for long.
Vuul struck down with all his might. Zack's sword rattled from his hand and slid across the floor. Vuul struck down with another blow, severing Zack's arm.
Zack screamed in agony as he crashed to the floor. The searing pain jolted through his body, he could feel it all the way into his toes. His eyes brimmed with tears, and his face was beet red. He could still feel sensation in the arm, even though it was across the room. It was phantom impulses from the severed nerves. His heart was racing, and adrenaline coursed through his body. He looked up at Vuul as the alien towered over him with a victorious smirk on his foul face.
"You disappoint me," the Emperor said. "I expected more. And I so wanted to prolong your suffering."
Vuul gripped the handle of his sword with both hands and raised it high overhead, ready to stab down ending Zack once and for all.
Zack looked up at the glowing blade and contemplated his final moments.
The guards swarmed around the hatch, frantically trying to override the locking mechanism.
Diesel, Cole, and Flur were trapped in a small birthing compartment. There were four racks, two on either side with a narrow space between them, a minuscule storage closet, and a tiny desk.
Diesel pulled off her helmet and tossed it aside. She handed her plasma rifle to Cole, then unholstered her pistol. She grabbed Flur and put the pistol to his head. "Play along, or I will blow your head off."
"You should really look into meditation. You seem too aggressive for your own good," Flur said. "By the way, is that pistol on safety?”
“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the safety was on. You seem a bit twitchy."
Diesel nudge the barrel against his temple, giving Flur the signal to shut up.
The guards finally bypassed the lock, and the hatch slid open. Furious plasma rifles poked into the compartment.
"Back off, or I'll blow the Prince’s head off,” Diesel yelled.
The guards didn't budge.
"I mean it, or frog-boy dies. You'll have an intergalactic incident on your hands."
The guards weren’t sure what to make of the situation. They hesitated for a moment, then finally backed away from the hatch.
Diesel had no idea how important the Prince was, or if the Tarvaax cared one way or another if he died.
She could hear the guards communicating with their superiors, getting clarification on how to proceed. A few moments later, the guards fell back.
Diesel pushed forward to the hatch. "Clear the hallway," she yelled.
She could hear footsteps clink against the deck as the guards retreated. Cole peered around the corner and watched the troops back into a nearby junction.
"What's your plan?" Cole asked.
“We get back to his ship and barter for the rest of the hostages in exchange for his release."
Cole had a look on his face that said this is never going to work. But they didn't have much choice.
Diesel eased into the hallway using Flur as a shield. Cole was right behind her, keeping an eye on their flank.
Diesel marched forward attempting to navigate the maze of passageways back to Flur's ship. She yelled ahead to the guards lurking around the corner. "Keep the hallways clear. If I so much as see a guard, or sense any hostile action, froggy dies."
“Do you have to keep calling me that,” Flur said. “It’s kind of insulting.”
The guards scampered to clear a path.
Diesel turned the corner with her hostage and saw Lytok standing in the corridor. Her eyes narrowed at him, and her grip on the pistol tensed.
"I see someone let you out of the storage compartment. I should have killed you when I had the chance."
“Your kind has never been known for its intellect,” Lytok said.
Diesel clenched her jaw. “I said clear the hallway."
The administrator smirked.
Diesel wondered how long it would take him to figure out that Flur wasn't the Prince, if he hadn't already.
"I don't think you're really in a position to make demands,” Lytok said.
"I beg to differ,” Diesel responded.
“Do as she says," Flur said in a commanding, regal tone. "You are needlessly putting my life in jeopardy. The consequences of my death could be catastrophic for our two species. Decades of peace between us could suddenly vanish."
“I am sure the relationship between our kind will endure for quite some time,” the administrator said. He motioned to several guards waiting in an adjacent corridor. They marched Rex and Cyclops into the hallway.
Diesel’s face tensed. She knew what the administrator was up to.
"Let the Prince go, or your friends die," Lytok said.
Diesel hesitated a moment. It was a moment too long. The administrator aimed his pistol at Rex's head and pulled the trigger. A glowing bolt of plasma blasted from the handgun, incinerating Rex's skull. His lifeless body crashed to the deck.
Cyclops watched in terror.
Diesel's stomach twisted in knots. She felt nauseous. Her hesitation had gotten the man killed.
The administrator adjusted his aim, sighting in on Cyclops. "You are quickly running out of friends. What's it going to be?"
Diesel gritted her teeth. She watched as the administrator tightened his grip, ready to squeeze the trigger. She moved her pistol away from Flur's head and raised her hands in the air.
"Smart choice," Lytok said. "Set the weapon on the deck.”
Diesel knelt down and slowly set the weapon down.
Flur scurried away from her and stood beside Lytok. "Thank God. These barbarians killed my crew. I can assure you, you will be handsomely rewarded."
The administrator beamed with pride. "I'm glad you are unharmed. I would not have wanted to explain your demise to your father."
The guards quickly surrounded Diesel and Cole. Plasma rifles took aim.
”Take them away,” Lytok said. “Let them spend the rest of their lives working in the mines. It is most assuredly a fate worse than death."
The guards marched Diesel, Cole, and Cyclops back to the holding cell with the other would-be miners. Several hundred prisoners were contained in a large hall. The living conditions were appalling. It smelled like stale body odor and excrement. There were no showers or toilets—just slop buckets that were rarely emptied. They would be housed in this area until the next transport ship came to take them to a work colony.
Vuul's eyes widened with shock and disbelief. He glanced down to see the tip of a plasma sword protruding from his chest. The glowing blue edges of the blade sizzled.
Honor had stabbed him in the back.
She withdrew the blade and was ready to strike again, but the hulking Emperor dropped to his knees, then flopped to the ground.
Honor deactivated the sword and raced to Zack. She helped him stand, and he staggered to his feet.
"I owe you one."
She smiled at him. "I think we’re even."
Honor helped him over to his severed appendage. Zack never imagined that he would be staring at his arm lying on the floor. He reached down and picked it up. If he got to a medical facility in time there was a chance it could be reattached. He tried to look on the bright side of things. At least the heat from the plasma blade cauterized the wound. Otherwise he would have bled out on the palace floor.
Another explosion rocked the structure. The ground quaked, and the walls shook. Debris fell from the ceiling.
Zack and Honor scurried out of the structure onto the tarmac. There were no ships left on the landing pad. They had all been used to evacuate the palace.
Zack's heart sank. Charlie had left them behind. They were most likely going to be stuck on this planet, and Zack didn't imagine that he’d find too many allies.
“What are we going to do?" Honor asked.
Zack scanned the area. There was a small utility vehicle on the far side of the landing area. There was no way this vehicle had a quantum drive, and Zack wasn't even sure if it would make it past the atmosphere. There was likely a reason that had been left behind. Combined with the fact that he didn't know how to fly, it didn't make for a promising option.
Zack and Honor didn't have much choice. They headed across the tarmac for the vehicle and hoped for the best.
They had made it halfway across the tarmac when Zack felt a rush of hot air blast over him. He looked overhead to see a dropship swooping down. Heat distorted the air below the thrusters as the ship landed on the tarmac. An instant later, the back ramp opened and Charlie appeared. He waved them on.
Zack and Honor ran up the back ramp and into the cargo area.
Charlie pressed the button on the bulkhead and hydraulics whirred as the back ramp raised shut.
"I thought you left us." Zack said.
"I took out some of the palace’s defensive cannons from the air," Charlie said. "It will make my job easier when I return with resistance fighters to overthrow the Emperor."
"No need to worry about that. Vuul is dead."
Charlie looked pleasantly surprised. He rushed to a storage locker and pulled out a med kit. He took out an ampule and loaded it into an injection gun. "This will help with the pain. At least, I think it will help with the pain. I've never used it on a human before."
Zack gave him a skeptical glance.
"Or you could grin and bear it?"
Zack pondered this for a moment. "Give me the shot."
Charlie injected the medication into Zack's remaining arm. He instantly felt warmth expand from the injection site. A wave of euphoria washed over his body. Within moments, he felt no pain whatsoever. Everything was perfect. The deep trauma of losing a limb faded. A dumb smile curled up on his lips.
"This stuff is pretty good," Zack slurred as he struggled to get the words out. He found himself having a hard time forming sentences.
"I'm impressed. You killed Vuul. That was no easy task!” Charlie said.
"Not me," Zack said. He motioned to Honor with a proud grin. "She killed him.”
"So, you are the one the prophecy spoke of?”
Honor shrugged. "I don't know anything about any prophecy."
"Well, it's nice to meet you,” Charlie said. "You've made my life a lot easier."
Charlie climbed into the pilot seat and throttled the engines up. The vehicle lifted from the ground. Honor helped Zack strap into a safety harness, then she buckled in as well.
Zack held his arm on his lap. It was a surreal sensation. He held it up and jiggled it like some kind of rubber toy. He chuckled with amusement. Whatever the pain medication was that Charlie gave him, it made Zack high as a kite.
Charlie pulled back on the controls and angled the vehicle toward space. He throttled up and blasted through the upper atmosphere. The vehicle rumbled and shook as it climbed through the clouds. The ride became smooth and Zack felt himself lift from his seat as they entered the weightlessness of space. In his drug-induced stupor, he had let go of his arm and it was now floating about the cabin. Zack pointed and laughed.
Honor released herself from her safety harness and floated across the cabin to retrieve it. She grabbed his arm, then pushed off the opposite bulkhead and returned to her seat. She figured it was best if she kept track of the arm from here on out.
"Hey, give it back," Zack said.
"Later," she said.
"It's my arm, and I want it back."
"You're just going to lose it again."
"No I'm not."
Honor rolled her eyes. There was no arguing with him in this condition. "Trust me. I'll look after it."
Zack shrugged. "Okay. Whatever you say."
Charlie plotted jump coordinates, then engaged the slide-space drive. The bulkheads rippled and distorted and the ship vanished from the orbit around the planet.
"Where are we going?" Honor asked, calling up to the cockpit.
Charlie craned his neck back to the cargo area, “He needs immediate medical attention. We need to get him to resistance forces."
A few minutes later the dropship emerged from slide-space in an empty region of space. Charlie needed to make a quick jump away from Lusova before the Navy was on top of them. Vuul had many loyalists within the fleet, and they would no doubt be scrutinizing space traffic closely. It was only a matter of time before someone attempted to fill Vuul’s void.
Charlie sent and encoded subspace communication to resistance forces. He apprised them of the situation and was given coordinates to their current location. He programmed the coordinates and then made another quantum jump.
45 minutes later, the ship emerged from slide-space in the Beta Helion sector. There was a large destroyer hovering in the inky blackness of space, surrounded by several other warships.
Honor grew concerned at the site. "Are you sure those are friendly ships?”
"It's Captain Vesplata. He belongs to the resistance. He and his followers defected and took control of these ships.”
A voice crackled over the comm line, requesting identification. Charlie responded and was authorized to land. He angled the vehicle towards the flight deck and adjusted his speed. He had a perfect trajectory, and within moments he landed the dropship on the flight deck.
Charlie sprang out of his seat and marched to the back ramp and opened the hatch. Hydraulics whirred as the ramp lowered, and Charlie assisted Zack down to the flight deck.
They were greeted by a cadre of armed guards and medical technicians. Their faces twisted up, perplexed at the site of Zack and Honor.
“He needs medical attention immediately," Charlie said.
"You want to help humans?" One of the soldiers said.
"This human facilitated my escape," Charlie said in a stern tone. His intense gaze was enough to make the guards back down and cower in fear.
The medical technicians heaved Zack onto a floating gurney, then pushed him through a maze of corridors to the med center. The sailors aboard the ship gawked at the humans. Most of them had never seen a human in person.
Honor tried to smile at the strange aliens, but the discomfort on her face was evident.
Zack didn't feel a thing. He just pointed and laughed at the creatures as they passed them by. They looked even stranger to him in his altered state of mind.
The doctor had a look of horror on his face as they entered. He saw Honor holding the severed arm and cringed. "I don't have the resources to deal with this kind of injury. Not to mention, our machines are not calibrated for humans."
Charlie glared at the doctor. He wasn't buying it. The anatomy wasn't all that different. He figured it was more likely that the doctor didn't want to help a human. "You will do everything in your power to help them. Is that clear?"
The doc stammered. “Yes, sir. I can inject the appendage with the compound that may help preserve the tissue. Apply some disinfectant. Perhaps that will hold him over until he can get to a facility that is more experienced in treating his kind."
Charlie clenched his jaw. He unholstered his plasma pistol and placed it against the doctor’s head. Nothing more needed to be said.
"There may be something I can do," the doctor said.
"Re-attach his arm. If it doesn't function at 100%, you're going to need to learn how to re-attach your own head."
The doc swallowed hard.
Cyclops slumped against the bulkhead with a solemn look on his face. His eyes fixed at a point and he just stared into space. He looked devastated.
"I'm sorry," Diesel said, sitting beside him. "It's my fault. I feel terrible."
"It ain't your fault." The muscles in Cyclops’s jaw flexed and twitched. "But let me tell you, I get a hold of that weaselly little alien, he's going to wish he was never born."
There was nothing Diesel could say to make the situation any better.
The sea of prisoners moped about the containment hall. It was a dismal and depressing place. With no hope of salvation, most of them were just counting down the days until their demise. This was no way to live. And the conditions on the mining colonies were likely even worse.
"I don't have any friends left," Cyclops said.
Diesel frowned. "It probably doesn't count for much, but I'd like you to consider me a friend."
Cyclops's stoic face remained expressionless for a moment. Then a sly grin curled on his lips, and he arched an eyebrow at Diesel. "Friends with benefits?"
Diesel rolled her eyes.
"Just checking. You can't blame a guy for trying."
The containment area had a circular shape. The exterior bulkhead had small viewports that offered a glimpse of space. Groups of prisoners conglomerated around the small windows. It was the only form of entertainment, short of the occasional fight amongst inmates. It was more than just a window to the cosmos—it was a window to hope. Staring out into the blackness of space offered a chance to fantasize about a potential future—about a life outside of confinement.
Diesel observed more than one shoving match occur as prisoners vied for an optimal view. Under normal circumstances, none of these prisoners would have glanced out of the window for more than a passing second. But now, some felt compelled to stand for hours, daydreaming.
Diesel heard the muffled sound of two plasma bursts in the corridor. Seconds later, the red force field that blocked the entranceway deactivated.
The inmates stared for a moment, expecting guards to flood into the compartment—but none entered.
Diesel saw Flur poke his head into the compartment and wave the prisoners on. "Come on. Hurry!"
Diesel sprang to her feet and ran to the entrance. "What are you doing?"
“Isn't it obvious? I'm rescuing you." Flur said. He tossed her a plasma rifle.
"Why are you helping me?"
"Flur shrugged. "I told you. I don't really like these assholes. Now let's hurry before they figure out what's going on."
Cole grabbed a plasma rifle from one of the dead guards.
"The armory is this way," Flur said. Diesel and the others followed him. The swarm of prisoners flooded into the corridor and weaved through the passageways.
At the armory, they snatched every last plasma rifle, pistol, and grenade. The angry mob then barreled through the corridors, heading toward the CIC. Now armed, they made a formidable force.
The first Tarvaax patrol that had the misfortune of crossing their path was eviscerated by a flurry of plasma bolts. The prisoners scavenged their weapons and moved on.
It wasn't long before an alarm sounded and guards filled the hallway. But the vengeful mob made short work of the overwhelmed Tarvaax guards.
By the time they reached the CIC, it was locked down. The hatch was thermally shielded, and it wasn't going to be easy to override the locking mechanism.
Plasma bolts streaked through the corridors as guards advanced from either end of the hallway.
The mob of prisoners returned fire. Glowing projectiles streaked in all directions. The corridors filled with haze, and the sharp smell of ionized plasma.
Cyclops ripped the access panel from the bulkhead and fumbled with the wiring, trying to gain entry to the CIC.
The mob of prisoners made short work of the unprepared Tarvaax.
Cyclops rewired the locking mechanism, and the hatch slid open. The angry mob flooded into the CIC.
A flurry of plasma bolts erupted from within the compartment as the command crew defended their position. It was chaos. Several sizzling bolts zipped past Diesel. She peppered the enemy targets. Sparks showered from control terminals and bulkheads as plasma projectiles impacted.
Several prisoners crashed to the deck with gaping wounds. But the firefight only lasted a few seconds. The mob overwhelmed the command crew. Every Tarvaax with a weapon was now dead. Thick smoke filled the air. Consoles crackled and popped as they smoldered. The remaining Tarvaax sailors had their hands high in the air.
"Face down, on the ground, now!" Diesel yelled.
The frightened sailors complied.
Diesel and her ragtag warriors took control. They rounded up the sailors, forced the helmsmen back to their positions.
“Plot jump coordinates for the Gamma Epsilon sector,” Diesel commanded.
The helmsman shrugged and acted like he didn't understand.
"Flur, tell this slug if he doesn't jump the station now, I'm going to paint the console with his brains,” Diesel growled.
Within a few minutes, the helmsman had programmed in the coordinates. Flur double checked that they were correct and gave a nod of approval to Diesel.
Gamma Epsilon was the home of one of the largest UPDF bases. The sudden appearance of a Tarvaax space station would definitely draw some attention. Once they had arrived, they would need to maintain control of the CIC until Federation forces could infiltrate the space station and take control.
"Engage the slide-space drive," Diesel commanded.
"I was beginning to think I was never going to see you again, Admiral Tovark,” Captain Vesplata said.
Charlie grinned and shook the captain’s hand. The two greeted each other in the CIC of the TWS Expa. It was bustling with activity, and the amber glow of the instrument clusters lit the faces of the Tarvaax sailors.
"I'll send word to the rest the resistance that you’re reassuming command of the fleet."
"How many ships do we have?"
"13, with the addition of the Culvasa.”
Charlie grimaced. "That's not enough."
"When news of the Emperor's demise spreads, more captains might be persuaded to defect.”
“Half the fleet is loyal to the Emperor, the other half has designs on the throne. Admiral Nevansk and Admiral Bluvaar will be our biggest challenges. "
“The Federation will sense this weakness and strike. They are foolish if they don't."
"Perhaps now is the time for an alliance with the Federation."
Captain Vesplata furrowed his brow. "You can't be serious? The humans cannot be trusted, and their hunger for power and control is insatiable. "
"I owe my freedom to a human. I think, perhaps, negotiations may be possible. They are not so different than we are. They want to live in peace. They want to see their children grow up in a safe environment and have a promising future. An alliance could ensure freedom for both our kind. This war was the Emperor's doing."
The captain still wasn't sold on the idea.
Zack clenched his fist and gazed down at his new arm. It was a shiny, metallic prosthetic. He was still a little groggy from the anesthesia, but at least he was feeling no pain. The Tarvaax doctor had jacked him up with some pretty heavy duty pain meds. It seemed like a strange dream, like it was happening to someone else. Almost like an out of body experience—watching the movie of someone else's life.
Zack lay in a bed in the recovery room. Wireless electrodes on his chest monitored vital signs. The results displayed on a vibrant monitor next to the bed. Nerve conductivity impulses were monitored on the display as well.
Honor stood at his side, holding his natural hand.
“Wiggle your fingers," the doctor said.
Zack opened and closed his fingers, gazing at the articulation in amazement. The nerve impulses displayed on the monitor.
"Flex your arm?"
Zack curled and extended his arm a few times. The prosthetic moved effortlessly, gliding on smooth hinges. He could hear the subtle noises of servos and actuators.
The arm looked like it belonged to a robotic bodybuilder. It was much bigger and thicker than his natural arm. He regarded it with curiosity. He might feel differently about it once he came down off the pain medication, but for now, he was just glad to have a functional prosthetic.
The doctor ran his finger along the prosthetic’s forearm. "Can you feel that?"
The doc took a needle and poked at the metal surface. "How about that?"
"I can feel the sensation, but it doesn't hurt."
"Good." The doctor grabbed a glass beaker and handed it to Zack. "Hold this as you would normally."
Zack took the glass in his synthetic hand. There were sensor pads on his palm and fingertips. It gave him tactile sensation. He could feel the glass and sense the correct amount of pressure to use without shattering the beaker into a million shards.
Charlie entered the compartment and his eyes grew wide at the sight of the prosthetic. His face tensed with anger. "You were supposed to reattach his natural arm."
"I didn't feel comfortable making the attachment. I'm much more familiar with synthetic replacements. I put his arm in a preservation solution, so that when he returns to his kind, there's a possibility they could reattach it. In the meantime I fitted him with a prosthetic."
"I don't know if I would call that a fit."
"It's the best I could do."
Charlie glared at the doc, then his eyes flicked to Zack. "How are you feeling?"
“I feel great," Zack said. "But you might want to ask me that tomorrow. I have a feeling I'm going to be in for a pretty rude awakening once I come down off these meds."
"You may notice some tingling and burning at the attachment site over the next several weeks as the nerves adjust to the interface,” the doctor said. "Before long, you won't even notice that it's a prosthetic."
"I think it's always going to stick out a little bit," Zack said.
"I don't know. I kind of like it,” Honor said. "It's unique."
"Well, she likes it, I guess it's a keeper," Zack said with a grin.
Charlie smiled. "I've spoken with your president. I feel confident we can form a coalition and secure control of Lusova. After which, I expect peace between our species for the foreseeable future."
“That sounds good to me,” Zack said.
“They are anxious for you’re return. I have informed them that the demise of the Emperor is you're doing. They tell me that you are a hero among your people, and you will return even more so."
“So, the president didn't say anything about being absent without leave, did he?"
Charlie chuckled. "I think they'll let that slide. I'll have a transport take you back to the Federation as soon as you're well enough to travel.”
Zack had a solemn look on his face. “My friends are still out there. They were taken captive by Aarnok's guards. I can't go home without them."
Charlie gave him a reassuring smile. "Your friends are just fine. Sergeant Cole and Corporal Dawson have apparently liberated an entire prison facility.”
Zack raised his brow, surprised. "How did they pull that off?”
“You’ll have to ask them when you see them," Charlie said
“Thank you," Zack said, extending his new robotic hand. "For everything."
Charlie clasped Zack's prosthetic. "The thanks belongs to you. And to Honor.”
Cole, Diesel, and Cyclops waited anxiously on the flight deck of the USS Intrepid. Diesel’s eyes lit up as the Tarvaax dropship cruised into the bay. Flight crews scurried about, and a platoon of Marines stood ready.
The air distorted beneath the thrusters as it landed on the deck. A few moments later, the loading ramp lowered, and Zack emerged hand-in-hand with Honor.
Diesel was excited to see him, and she was thrilled he found Honor. But she couldn't help feel a twinge in her gut. There was no denying she had feelings for Zack, and she knew now there wasn't a possibility of ever having a relationship. She put on a big smile and tried to be happy for her friend.
Charlie followed behind Zack and Honor. The three of them were greeted by the officer of the deck.
Zack snapped to attention and saluted. “Permission to come aboard, sir.”
“Permission granted,” the OOD said with a grin.
Diesel and Cole raced to greet them.
Cameras flashed, and the press pool shouted questions. They were cordoned off in a section on the quarterdeck. There were lights and video cameras and microphones. They leaned over the stanchions, trying to get closer. It was a good thing they were sectioned off, or Zack would've been swarmed with them.
Diesel wanted to throw her arms around Zack and give him a big hug, but she restrained herself and extended her hand. She shouted over the rumble of the noisy flight deck. “That's a fancy piece of hardware you have there.”
"I'm getting used to it,” Zack said, admiring his prosthetic limb. “Plus, you wouldn't believe how strong it is.”
“Really? Do you think you're going to keep it?"
Zack shrugged. "I don't know. I'll tell you this, I'll never lose another arm wrestling match with this thing.”
There were laughs all around.
Zack shook hands with Cole and Cyclops and made the introductions to Honor and Charlie.
“You’re a very lucky girl,” Diesel said to Honor.
Honor smiled. “Yes, I am.” She kissed Zack on the cheek.
“What happened to Rex?” Zack asked.
Cyclops shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” Zack said with a solemn look on his face.
“Admiral Tovark, the president is waiting and ready to see you now,” the OOD said.
Charlie excused himself, and was led away to meet with the president and hammer out the terms of their newfound alliance. If all went according to plan, the UPDF and the Tarvaax resistance would join forces to crush the remaining Tarvaax Navy and install Admiral Tovark as the new ruler.
“I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a real vacation," Cole said.
“Something tells me a vacation is going to have to wait until after the invasion,” Diesel said.
“Just in case anyone forgot, there is the matter of payment,” Cyclops said. “50% was due upon completion of the job."
Zack cringed. “Yeah, about that. Can we work out some kind of payment plan?”
Cyclops arched an eyebrow at him. “I guess you can start with buying me a beer.”
“Deal,” Zack said.
“May I suggest Landlubbers,” Cole said. I'd like to avoid Anchors Away if possible.”
Diesel laughed. "What happened, did you leave an unsatisfied customer?"
“All my customers are very satisfied, I'll have you know." Cole puffed up his chest.
Diesel rolled her eyes. “I’ll take your word for it.”
The group strolled off the flight deck and into the horde of reporters. Zack braced himself for the onslaught.
“How does it feel to be the savior of the Federation?" a reporter shouted.
“I don’t know,” Zack said. He motioned to Honor. “Ask her.”
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please consider reviewing the series on Amazon—a simple “Loved it,” or, “Hated it,” would be appreciated.
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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!