The Dedanite Consignment

Story Episodes

Darren Walker

Dean Dean, the owner, Captain, and sole crewmember of the class 4 independent galactic freighter St. Jude should have been happy, or at least not sinking ever deeper into the depths of despair. But today nobody could accuse him of being cheerful. This depression had been going on for so long that, thanks to the collision in The Fold, the interstellar superhighway, he had no way of knowing how long he’d felt that way. Sanity was still there, but it was just clinging onto his mind with the ever-weakening fingers of a grip that would soon be gone. He had started talking to himself but so far the conversations had been one-sided. Still, he felt sure it was only a matter of time before he would begin to have long, loud and aggressive arguments with different voices in his head.

Not only had the impact with an unknown object taken out his time keeping software it had also destroyed the hyper drive controls and all his space charts that had been stored in the ship’s computer. The combination of disasters had left him flying around an unidentified back water of the galaxy at sub-light speed. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. This uncertainty had not totally sapped his optimism and he kept hope  that some spaceship would happen to pass that particular sector of space and be able to pick up his weak distress signal.

At first, he’d tried to navigate by the stars but, as constellations changed when viewed from different angles, he found himself just as lost as he had been before he had looked. Then he had tried to star hop from one solar system to another in the hope that he’d find some inhabited planet but that had been a slow process and so far all he’d found were stars with mainly gas giants or lifeless balls of rock devoid of minerals that he could utilise or life forms to help him out.

As he had no idea of time, he slept when he was tired and then tried to keep his mind active when he was awake. Not an easy thing for someone who was on their own to do. Especially as the only on-board entertainment consisted of a draughts board with the red pieces missing, a pack of Astragorian playing cards with no Emperor or Double Diamond Lizard cards, and an instructional hologram demonstrating, to the viewer, how to build an emergency space shelter out of materials that he didn’t have on his ship. Thanks to the lack of stimulation, he had found two new hobbies to fill his time – eating and drinking – but that too had temporarily come to a halt when he’d found he had become too fat to get through the doors leading to the kitchen. Then, after a brief diet and an exercise regime involving wobbling walks around the ship’s corridors, he had found his normal food reserves had all gone.

Thankfully, he knew his cargo-hold had been full of food and mining supplies destined for a Dedanite colony on some remote outpost of their federation. In desperation, he had opened the first few containers and found only strange looking machinery until eventually he came across some sealed freezer units stuffed with bottles of some green slimy liquid and grey chunks of synthetic dietary supplements. The latter he had wanted to classify as food but after tasting it he decided that title would have been too generous. It might have been nutritious, but the chewy material had the texture of shoe leather that had been soaked in second-hand snot and tasted like an Elephinus XI boxer’s jockstrap after a particularly long and sweaty fight. It managed to keep him alive, however, the subsequent uncontrollable and almost non-stop flatulence ensured he could no longer don his space suit and leave the ship. On the other hand, the green liquid tasted far better than it looked and one small glass of the stuff was enough to send him into unconscious alcoholic oblivion for several hours.

Now that he was awake, and temporarily sober, he had carried out his daily check of the ship and its remaining functional operating systems and looked at the short range scanners to see if there were any chances of salvation. Finding no changes from the previous days, week, months and quite possibly years, he had decided to spend a few more hours unpacking and inspecting the ship’s cargo before, what he had come to call, ‘Eat Crap and Get Drunk’ time. It was hardly a creative term but who else was there for him to impress with urbane titles?

After opening yet more containers full of food and drink he found a one near the middle of the cargo hold that contained something unusual and unexpected. Despite having far more buttons and levers than normal, it looked suspiciously like a high-powered dual action space cannon that could easily have obliterated his vessel it he accidentally pressed the wrong button. Carefully sealing that container and painting a red X on it he moved to the next crate and, upon opening it, discovered that the hand blasters were not exactly the mining equipment that was on the manifest.

With piqued curiosity momentarily cheering him up, he began to open more of the containers and found that, along with the small blasters, there were enough laser rifles, ion grenades, atomiser mortars and assorted weaponry to start a medium sized war. He was immediately aware that, had it not been for the accident he would have inadvertently become a gunrunner and, if captured by the wrong space police force, could have found himself disintegrated or forced to spend a long prison sentence on some isolated space rock before being disintegrated. He might have smuggled some dodgy things in the past but he did have some principles and drew the lines at any cargo that was specifically designed for death and destruction.

Cursing the shipping agent, who had assured him of the innocuous nature of the cargo, Dean ensured all the boxes of weapons were marked with a large red X. Then he began to drag them by cargo truck to the nearest airlock. His intention being to fly close to the nearest sun and eject the weapons so that they would be destroyed, never to be used for their designed purpose.

Looking at the rows and rows of unopened cargo he felt sure the operation to get rid of the illegal items might keep him occupied for a while but he was beginning to get thirsty, so that project could be left for other days. But as he walked back to one of the containers that had become his spacious drinks cabinet, bar and inebriated sleeping area, something caught his eye and it took him several seconds for it to register in his mind, forcing him to back track and investigate. He knew something was unusual and out of place, but it took him a minute of studying the container for him to work out what it was. Then it came to him, and he wondered why he’d not noticed it before.

First, and most surprisingly, it was far smaller than all the other crates, boxes and assorted containers. Second, it had a coded lock on it, and finally he could see no markings or identifications symbols on it. The lack of those alone made him think that someone deliberately didn’t want it to get anyone’s attention. However, when compared to all the lettering and serial numbers on everything else, it stood out like an excited Calorian at a nudist planet.

At first he tried to drag it into an open space so that he could inspect it more closely before attempting to break it open, but he found it was deceptively heavy. So he was forced to put on a robotic exoskeleton so he could move it to a more accessible place. Then, once that was done and he’d removed his metal suit, he found the lock was not willing to give in without him having to work for it. In his time, he had been forced to ‘acquire’ things in a less than legal way and that had frequently involved lock manipulation and safecracking, but in this instance he was left feeling frustrated and aggravated that such a small and seemingly simple mechanism was outsmarting him. Every time he thought that he’d managed to beat the lock mechanism it seemed to rearrange itself and force him to start again. Being an ex-crook who had always believed in the code of honour he was disgusted that some locksmith could be so devious and dishonourable.

“What was the Galaxy coming to?” he mused.

Giving up on his first plan, he decided other methods needed to be adopted. He had learnt, long ago, that if educated skill failed then brute force and ignorance would invariably work just as well. Removing a welding rig from St. Jude’s storeroom he set it on its lowest setting and pointed the flame at the top of the container. After several minutes he turned off the blue flame, removed his goggles and stepped back to inspect the damage or, in this instance the total lack of it. The surface was not even blackened by the flame and was still cold to his touch. Determined not to be beaten by a safe, he turned the switch of the welding rig to high and tried again.

“That must work,” he thought. “After all, that flame was designed to carry out repairs on the outer hull of armoured space destroyers. So the thin wall of a box should be easy to melt.

After stepping back and triumphantly removing his goggles, he realised that his joy was short-lived, and the surface was still cold and undamaged. He wanted to think that it was impossible, yet there it was, seemingly mocking him with its refusal to melt and reveal its secrets.

Walking around it several times, like an invader inspecting a small but important castle that he’d placed under siege, Dean released a loud expletive that echoed around the hangar. Then, rubbing his chin in puzzlement, he began to look around for alternatives that would allow him to open the belligerent box. As his eyes came to rest on the airlock door he nodded slowly.

“Why not? I might as well put it to some good use before I destroy it.”

The dual action space cannon was not designed to be used inside such a confined space but after about an hour Dean had managed to modify the mechanism so it could be fired without it destroying him, his ship and everything within a mile of its vicinity. Not wanting to take any additional risks, the freighter’s captain took cover behind his giant drinks cabinet, braced himself and pressed the remote trigger.

The resultant blast of light only lasted a fraction of a second, but it was powerful enough to penetrate the welding goggles on his face and fill his brain with a white flash that was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced. Then, a moment later, there was a clang, a dull thud, and finally silence.

Once the stars, which were dancing around in his eyes, had faded Dean removed his goggles and put his head around the side of the container so he could see how successful he’d been. The results were impressive but not what he’d expected, nor aimed for. The front half of the cannon had melted and left a pool of red-hot liquid metal on the ground. Also, where the small container had been, there was now a round hole in the floor. Venturing closer he looked down into it and saw that, other than being splattered with melted flakes of hangar flooring, the container rested undamaged on the floor below the hangar.

It took him several minutes to take the lift to the lower level and get to the box but by the time he got there he was seriously contemplating giving up, when he absent mindedly flicked off a blob of solidified metal from the surface and saw something he’d not noticed before. Maybe he’d missed it, or the cannon’s blast had blasted away any covering which might have camouflaged it, but in the corner of the top panel there was a tiny circular indentation where wire mesh was visible. It looked innocuous and to anyone who was unfamiliar with its purpose they might have assumed it was some kind of air vent, but Dean knew better.

“Crafty! Oh, whoever you are you are clever but not clever enough. You are all mine now!” he said, his voice a cunning inaudible whisper.

Tapping the container, as if it were a drum, he moved his head so that his mouth was close to the newly discovered orifice. “Open.”

He held his breath, but nothing happened.

He tried again and got the same result. Exhaling deeply, he realised that his plan was right, but his language wasn’t. The consignment had originated on the planet Dedan and was destined to be delivered to a distant Dedanite outpost, so it stood to reason he should speak Dedanite. Unfortunately, his knowledge of their language was limited and rusty, so he had to rack his brain to come up with the right word and correct pronunciation.

“Karagarrenarr”.

The word reminded him of the noise he’d once heard when someone had caught their genitalia in the zipper of their space cadet uniform. The memory still sent shivers down his spine, but the container had no such issues and, with a gentle sliding sound, it unlocked itself.

“Right, you beauty, let’s see what you’re hiding in that little metal belly of yours.”

Kneeling, so that he was facing the door, Dean rubbed his hands together, gripped the tiny handle and gave it a quarter turn. There was a barely audible click that left him grinning like a small child about to open a well wrapped present. Then, with one firm movement, he pulled the door fully open.

The seconds, and minutes, that followed suddenly became vague, confused, and took the new award as the most painful thing he’d ever felt.

The burst of energy, which emanated from inside the cavity, spread out in all directions and seemed to ignore all rules relating to kinetic or potential energy — along with several other laws of physics as well. The first thing it hit was the Captain and it impacted with his internal organs so that the last thing he felt, before being thrown across the room and unconsciousness took over, was a sensation akin to being hit by a shuttle craft flying at one third lightspeed. After hitting him the single energy pulse continued its journey, passing through machinery, metal walls, flooring and the hull before it sped off into the cold and almost empty void of space.

The enforced sleep didn’t last long but when he did finally start to wake, Dean immediately regretted it and wished he could stay unconscious until the body filling agony had gone. Pushing himself upright he attempted to walk but the first few tries made him look like a drunk and he ended up flat on his face. Finally, thanks to an immense amount of concentration and the tensing of all his muscles, which caused a brief bout of flatulence, he was able to stand without falling over. Then with a lead-footed gait, he walked back to the safe, removed its contents and set off back to the hangar and his giant drinks cabinet.

“Crap!” The sight of smashed glass and an ever-spreading pool of green goo filled his already sore heart with despair. He needed a drink but lacking immediate sustenance he decided to return to the flight deck. There, he could take his time to see what was so special about the safe’s contents that it needed such elaborate and expensive security measures.

Once he had managed to make it to his precious Captain’s chair, he sat down and began to study the contents of the small metal box, which had tried so hard to keep its contents a secret. He had hoped for treasure of some kind, perhaps some rare precious stones from a distant and obscure planet or a secret weapon that would have made him invincible in any battle but the small, rectangular, grey, metallic object was far from what he’d hoped for.

It was thin, light, and if it hadn’t been for all problems he’d had trying to get his hands on it, he’d not have given it a second glance. Thinking it could be some sort of encoded memory device, he turned it around several times as he inspected it for sockets or portals but found nothing. Giving it a brief lick and sniff, in the faint hope those actions would be of use, he decided he would need to go to the tool room where a particularly hefty hammer was kept. Perhaps that could be used to make it open up and reveal its purpose or contents.

Just as he was rising from his chair, he was surprised by a deafening hiss of white noise as his long silent communication system burst into life.

“Captain Dean of the St. Jude?”

Despite the faint signal and crackling background noise that was distorting the signal, the voices still managed to sound authoritative and arrogant.

“Captain Dean, please acknowledge me or I will be forced to fire upon that pile of junk, which you laughingly call a spaceship, until you wake up and answer me.”

Activating the visual display screen and communications simultaneously, he paused as he studied what was outside his ship. There were three medium sized Dedan Empire battle cruisers directly in front of him and his rear scanners indicated there were also two more directly behind him.

“Hello there, this is Captain Dean here, I wondered how long it would be before the energy burst reached you and you came to investigate. It was faster than I expected but that is not a problem. Now that you are here you can help me fix my ship.”

“Fix your ship?” The signal was now far clearer and the voice even more imperious. “I am Admiral Dashnor Gomari of the Dedan Third Fleet not some roving space mechanic.”

Like most people throughout the galaxy Dean had heard of the General and knew he was arrogant, bad tempered, but most importantly, vain. “Apologies Admiral, it is such an honour to hear your voice. I have heard so much of your victories, courage and honour. How can I help you?”

The compliments seemed to have had their desired affect as the voice mellowed. “Really? Well, I am sure that, in the unlikely event that I allow you to live, you can tell me all the wonderful things that you have heard about me. But you are a wanted criminal so prepare to be boarded and then tried before we find you guilty and execute you.”

When it came to Dedan diplomacy that was as subtle as they got and Dean knew it. However, he was also well aware that Dedanites, along with their inability to recognise sarcasm or irony, made terrible card players as they didn’t understand even the most basic of bluffs. “Tried before I am executed? My goodness I am honoured. May I know the charges which have made you fear me enough to dispatch five ships to arrest me?”

“Fear?” The word seemed to have been wrapped in foul tasting contempt before the Admiral spat it out. “The Dedan Third Fleet fears no one and no thing, especially not a petty space pirate, thief and gunrunner like you.”

Dean accepted being called a thief and, on occasion, had resorted to piracy. After all he had tried many legal and less than legitimate occupations after leaving The Space Federation, but was upset at being called a gunrunner, especially by the race that he suspected had paid him to transport the weapons in the first place.

“Really? That is interesting but I suspect that isn’t the reason why you have brought so many ships with you and why you arrived so swiftly. You do not want the rest of the galaxy knowing that you had been preparing for a war with the Bunda Empire, and my existence, with a hold full of your finest weaponry, is an inconvenient fact that you need to remove as quickly as possible. Also…” He deliberately paused for dramatic effect.

“Also? Your accusations are preposterous, but I am listening so please humour me with your lies.” The Admiral no longer sounding so self-assured and aloof.

“Also… I know exactly what was hidden inside your little box. Despite all your efforts to stop anyone from getting to it, I have your little toy and what is more it is hidden in a place where you will never find it.” He patted his pocket to reassure himself that it was still there. “In addition to that, I know how to destroy it and there is a booby trap that will go off if you should happen to discover its where-abouts. Therefore, if you want it then I suggest you start talking to me in a more polite way. Oh, and please send over a few engineers and mechanics to repair my ship while we talk.”

There was an uncomfortable silence which made the freighter captain begin to worry that his bluff had failed but, as the speaker crackled back to life, he released a breath of relief at the Admiral’s response.

“My dear Captain Dean, I suspect that we might have, as your species say, got off on the wrong foot. Please allow me to rephrase my original message. We are at your service and are only too happy to help with whatever repairs you need. Perhaps, while your ship is being made space worthy again, you could be a welcome guest on my flagship? You have my word that no harm will come to you. I will send my personal barge to collect you and, when you get here we can talk. I have a business proposition which I am sure you will find interesting and, perhaps more importantly, extremely profitable.”

Matthew Leather

Even if this meet and greet wasn’t something Dean wanted, it was something he was going to get. He heard the airlock seal on his ship’s hull hiss, signifying a vessel connection and subsequent atmospheric decompression. He hadn’t called or authorised this boarding so he immediately spoke to his comms system, “I am guessing this is you Admiral?”

“It is. As I said, I am sending my barge and we can speak face to face and discuss the matter at hand.”

“Why not talk like this, it seems to be doing the trick?” Dean swivelled around on his chair and logged into the security cameras on his holo-board. “Is he yours?” Dean questioned as he saw a towering, armoured man with three scurrying followers making their way through the loading bay on a beeline directly to him.

“That is my second in command Krantham Gokari of the-”

“Of the Dedan Third Fleet, yes I assumed as much. Can he fight?” Dean asked sarcastically, again with the knowledge that the Dedan race do not understand sarcasm.

“What? I would implore you to not attempt that, he is my most loyal soldier and the best fighter in my entire army. He would destroy you and I wouldn’t be able to witness it.”

“Well, if what I found in this little box of yours is what I think it is, he had better be able to fight.” Dean was never happier than when he was poking the bear and something was telling him he was getting close to some truths.

“No. Wait.” The Admiral paused. “We do not wish to fight; we need your help.” The Admiral’s voice was shakey and the plea resonated with Dean. Why do you need my help?

Dean leaned back in his chair and pushed his feet up onto the desk and through the holo boards which prompted them to close. “Well by my calculations you have fifteen seconds before they reach me and if you want my help you must have Krantham Gokari of the Dedan Third Fleet, your beloved soldier and loyal warrior, call me sir while the other three stragglers kneel.”

“I cannot.” Admiral Dashnor exhaled. “That is too much, Dedan bow to nobody but their own superiors.”

“With this in my possession what am I but superior?” Dean said. “Ten seconds.” One day all this bluffing is going to get me killed.

“They will kneel. Krantham will not address you as sir, he has stated that he would rather die in battle than address a human as anything more than food.”

“Seems excessive, but that will just have to do I suppose,” Dean said standing up from his chair to greet his guests. The moment his arse left his seat, the door seal override shutdown and Krantham prised open the door with his hands. They eat humans and he is this strong. I am definitely dead.

The echoing sound of the metallic clink against the ships rustic floor from the three Dedans that kneeled before Dean sounded like bouncing an Ugna bearing down a Flugarite metal pipe. Deafening.

“With me, now.” Krantham pointed towards Dean. “Hurry, this ship smells like stale urine and plasma drippings.”

“That is exactly the smell I was going for so, thank you.” Dean started towards the four Dedans. As he expected, the closer he got to them, the more he realised the three followers of Krantham were hulkingly big as well. They just paled in comparison to Krantham. “Where are we going, anywhere nice?”

“Admiral Dashnor Gomari of the Dedan Third Fleet’s ship.”

Of course. No Sarcasm.

* * *

The Admiral’s ship was similar to a house of mirrors. Dean thought he must have a cleaning crew polishing each reflective surface on a continuous rotating cycle. All the surfaces were immaculate. It was the complete opposite of the state of his own ship’s interior. The dulling grey and rusted sheeting didn’t offer any chance of seeing a reflection and suddenly, Dean realised he hadn’t seen his own face in what felt like an eternity.

“Wait,” Dean exclaimed as he spun in a full 360 towards the wall and pointed two finger guns at his reflection. “God damn, I still look good. What do you think Krantham?” Dean asked while maintaining complete focus on himself.

“No.” Krantham kept walking at his unbearable pace and Dean had a Dedan hand that felt like a boulder placed on his back to push him forward.

Each walkway moved on a travelator system and made the walk more bearable in terms of the distance Dean knew they were going, but he was struggling to reign in his arrogance, and continued poking the bear. “Could this guy not meet us halfway or something, I am getting tired of this now.”

There was no response except to force him to turn left and walk down another hallway and through three sets of double doors before reaching a final air lock that opened to reveal the ship’s central hub. This was where the Admiral was situated and he was sitting on his gold looming chair that was similar in shape to an ancient antique night porter’s chair from Old Earth. Dean had seen them in museum collections from his childhood. The floor was in the shape of metallic honeycombs that wove a path toward a solar array control desk.

The four Dedans and Dean walked this path and the Admiral, who was certainly not as towering as the others, stood from his throne and walked towards them. His face showed signs of wear and battle scars.

The differences between humans and Dedan’s weren’t easily visible with the four that had collected Dean, due to the immense amount of body armour and coverings, but the Admiral wasn’t in battle garments and the exo-skeleton around his throat was haunting. The exposed larynx had evolved over millennia to an amalgamation of bone and metal and the spores that ran parallel down the Dedan’s face from below his eyes to his lower jaw seemed ready to shoot the acidic blood at a moment’s command.

To most other species, any amount of Dedan blood in contact with their skin was immediate incapacitation and if the blood somehow made its way inside via orifices of any kind, it was death. Thousands upon thousands of colonies and races across the galaxy had focussed uncapped resources on finding a way to counter this, but to no avail. This made the Dedans one of the most dominant races throughout the galaxy.

“So, Captain Dean, thank you for accepting my invitation. Before we get to the matter at hand, I decided I will help you and get your ship back into working order, with a couple of little extras we can discuss once complete. But now I won’t waste any more time and will get straight to it.”

“Firstly, I had absolutely no choice and secondly… thank you, I think, for fixing my ship. I think.” Dean craned his neck around to see into the black space of the view ports to see if his beloved ship was visible. Nothing. He would just have to hope the Dedan were being kind to her. “What is this proposition you mentioned then?”

“Well, that container you opened. We weren’t expecting to have the energy feed on our signals this early, but when we did, we were fully expecting a massacre. Since the ship’s register on The Fold Authority’s database displayed your ship with a singular personal, we certainly didn’t expect to find any remains. Decimation and perhaps a misting of your innards somewhere in your ship, but not a fully intact human, and even more so not one that was alive.”

“What can I say, I am impressive,” Dean responded. The Admiral’s shaky tone was again obvious as he discussed the fact of Dean’s unexpected aliveness.

“Unfortunately, we Dedans agree. Did you at least feel anything?”

“It certainly gave me a hit and I felt like my insides were scrambled slightly, but I woke up. Groggy I must say, but I woke up nonetheless. Albeit, in part due to your beautiful voice screaming through my comms.” Dean looked around the central hub and spotted a circular padded stool, “May I?” He asked as he pointed it.

“Please,” the Admiral said, gesturing towards the stool. “The package you opened was destined for one of our many outer rim outposts. This particular outpost doubles as a research facility. Primarily, this facility works on new weaponry and defence systems.”

“Okay so you were looking at weaponising that energy blast, or whatever it was,” Dean asked as he shifted himself into a comfortable spot in the expectance of some grand monologue about the superiority of Dedans in war.

“On the contrary Captain, we wanted to find a way to stop it. The Bunda empire are the ones weaponising it. We want to counter it, to render it useless in our battle. Currently this energy blast is too volatile for containment or direct use. And it has a minimal half life when exposed to the atmosphere. In the time it is exposed it causes catastrophic damage until it withers away. That is why we cannot believe you are still breathing.”

Surprised at this revelation about wanting to prevent the use of a planet shattering weapon, Dean’s mind began turning about the upcoming proposition. “The energy blast I released is now gone and you can’t do whatever research you had intended to do on it. So, what exactly do you want me to do?”

With a recent bounty placed on Dean’s head in three of the four quadrants and one quadrant ruling a kill on sight order, he wasn’t liking the prospect of what the Admiral was leaning towards.

Edwin H Rydberg

[Wake up, Hot Shot.]

The words rang in his head. Delivered with the no-nonsense tone of a woman who had been living there too long, they cut through the dull fog of his semiconscious mind. Still, he hoped they were a dream and he ignored them, attempting to slip deeper into the comforting blanket of sleep.

[Wake up!]

Grath Danum’s eyes snapped open to an unfamiliar scene. Instead of the sharp angles and carbon fibre sheen of a spaceport, or the bluish tint surrounding the sphere of an inhabited planetoid, there was nothing but the speckled black of a deep space star field visible on the cockpit viewscreen.

“Where are we?” he asked, before attempting a crude self-diagnostic. He ached like hell but otherwise didn’t feel too bad. The Vorpal-3’s cockpit was cramped and didn’t allow much space for stretching, but he’d head below to the lounge once he’d conferred with ‘the boss’.

[Stellar orientation suggests the outer reaches of the Bundar Empire. Near the galactic rim. We’re about two light-weeks from the nearest system.]

“Phate! We’re almost two quadrants from where we should be.”

[There’s more.]

“Go on, tell me the good news.”

[The system is dark. It appears to be filled with abandoned mining colonies. The radiation readings for the star are anomalously low.]

“Great! How long until…”

[There’s still more.]

Grath leaned back in the pilot’s chair, closed his eyes, and expelled a long breath toward the ceiling before responding. “Go on.”

[The ship’s chronometers are a month behind galactic standard time.]

Of course. Why wouldn’t things keep getting worst? “You’ve found a sync beacon, then?”

[Would I have said anything if I hadn’t?]

“Fair point. So we’ve slipped back in time. I suppose that explains the extreme spatial displacement.”

The universe had a way of not allowing one to violate its natural laws. If they were displaced in time, they would have to be displaced in space far enough that they couldn’t interact with their past selves.

Well, there was no sense crying over soiled Rydian Whisky.

A perusal of the cockpit dashboard revealed that most of the ship’s systems were still in low power mode and Grath began powering them back up. “You’ve run a ship diagnostic?”

[Of course. The Fold engines are irreparable. The sublight nacelles were damaged, but there’s enough stellar dust in the area around us that the nannites were able to effect self-repair while you were healing.]

“So we’re stuck at sub-light!” He clenched his carbon alloy fist in impotent rage, afraid that if he smashed it down on the console he’d break something else. When he finally calmed down again, he asked, “Just how long was I offline?”

He noted that Life Support and Weapons systems were both fully functional. At least the ship couldn’t be taken without a fight as they hobbled to the nearest barren mining settlement.

[Five days, seven hours, twenty-six minutes.]

“And you just woke me now!”

[Like the ship, you also needed to effect self-repair. And there was nothing you could do anyway. Besides, I need my host at peak condition.]

“I’m glad to know I mean so much to you.”

[After thirteen years together, sarcasm is pointless.]

“Why did I upload you again?”

[You were lonely.]

“Really?”

[You felt guilty.]

“Ah, that’s it.”

He and MAI had been partners. And lovers. And more. On a job, he’d made a mistake and she’d paid the price. It was one regret in a long life of regrets. He shrugged and changed topics. “So, what happened, anyway? How’d we get here?”

[You don’t remember?]

Grath took a moment to wander through his recent memories, coming up blank. “Just that I lost all control and veered wildly off-beacon.”

[We were hit in The Fold. It knocked us through the sub-spatial manifold’s gravitational horizon. We should be dead, interstellar debris scattered across half the galaxy. But somehow we struck the horizon at the exact angle necessary to tunnel through the quantum field of the interstitial matrix and…]

“Stop! Stop it! Do I look like an astrophysicist to you?”

[I just thought you might be interested in the odds of our survival.]

“Never tell me the odds.” It did help to know how stupid, or stupid lucky, you had been.  It just prevented you from doing what might be necessary next time.

“What I would like to know is what we hit.”

[My analysis of the sensor data is consistent with an erratic ship. It appears to have been someone flying solo and off beacon.]

“What kind of idiot flies off-beacon through The Fold? Let alone without AI assistance? Was it a kid joyriding mom’s new showpiece or something?”

[The ship’s configuration was consistent with a class 4 freighter.]

“So, a smuggler’s run. Any pursuit?”

[None that I noticed before we were ejected from The Fold.]

“So, he either underbid and was cutting corners to make up the difference or he had a hot shipment and was expecting trouble. Well, nothing to be done about it now.” The rocket jockey would have ended up spit out an equal distance from that segment of The Fold on the other side of the galaxy. If he’d survived. For now, they had to worry about their own situation.

“What’s our speed?” Grath asked, noting the slow glide of stellar speckles across the black background beyond the ship.

[We’ve been running at 50% light speed while the ship affected repairs. Now that we’re ready, we can open it up to maximum.]

“Please, don’t hold back on my account.”

No sooner had Grath uttered the sarcastic statement than he felt a shiver run through the ship as he was pushed softly back into his seat.

[That’s good to know.]

“What is?”

[The inertial dampeners are working. I couldn’t get a reading on them. But you’re still in one piece, so everything is fine.]

Grath knew the universe was punishing him. Some deep corner of existence kept account of his past sins and had determined they were so bad that the only penance suitable was to have the mind of his dead wife forever locked in his head, tormenting him with her every comment.

After expelling a deep breath, he did the only thing he could – he let it go and moved on.

“Well, if we’re two weeks out from the nearest system, we might as well attempt to drum up some work while we wait. Anyone looking for a hardwired Hot Shot in these parts?”

Cybernetically enhanced bounty hunters weren’t exactly rare in the densely populated parts of the galaxy, where there was lots of business. Out near the rim, filled with settlers and lowlifes, he’d be lucky to find work escorting a cargo ship to market.

His own enhancements were old and only mid-grade. Quarter-skull cranial implant housing a local AI, carbon fibre left arm with concealed forearm-canon and standard systems interface toolkit, tweaked neurachem for faster and more accurate shooting with his dominant right hand, and subcutaneous re-enforced legs for greater durability, speed, and jumping. It sounded impressive, until he compared his kit with that of the newer generation.

Fortunately, old age and treachery still beat youth and high-tech mods.

[I can’t find the sub-net channels. Or anything other than the standard sync beacon.]

“Run another diagnostic on the communications systems. Maybe they were more damage than it appeared.”

[Already started.]

“Meanwhile, hold our course steady and let me know if anything comes up, I’m heading below to see if we have something to distract me from our reality.”

Grath swivelled the chair away from the viewscreen and stood. It felt good to stretch and he still couldn’t believe he’d been stuck in that chair more than five days.

The cockpit was small, and he reached the ladder down in only two strides. After climbing the short distance to the lounge below – that doubled as sleeping quarters – he ransacked the cupboards for something strong and alcoholic.

Fortunately, they’d just stocked up before entering The Fold. Unfortunately, most of the bottles had been smashed in the collision, leaving little more than the stale smell of evaporated dreams.

He did manage to find three bottles and settle on the lounge sofa for a little relaxation.

He had just leaned back, put his feet up, and taken his first swig, when MAI’s voice was in his head again.

[Grath, we have a problem.]

“Talk to me.”

[A ship has just dropped from the local Fold right on top of us.]

That wouldn’t have been an accident since they were still weeks out from the system.

“Configuration and size?”

[Armed and huge. It’s running dark so I can only guess from stellar interference.]

Phate! Out here that meant only one thing.

“Any docking beams yet?”

[Their graviton beams have just locked on.]

“Phate! There’s no point in resisting. Let’s put on our friendly faces.”

*   *   *

The pirate ship was indeed huge. An old Solar-class cruiser, it was a type of vessel that hadn’t been in general use since the Bundar Uprising almost fifty Standard Years ago. Its cargo bay completely dwarfed the hunter-class Vorpal-3. As Grath readied to meet his hosts, he could feel the rumble of the cruiser’s engines, through his own ship’s floorboards, as they Folded again.

Grath decided to meet the pirate crew at the entry port instead of waiting until they forced their way in. Bounty hunters elicited a certain fear, even in pirates. It was one of their greatest weapons. He dressed in blacks and greys normally, but for special meets like this, he also wore his dark body armour. As he descended in the narrow elevator to the entry port, he donned his helmet.

The fierce mask of black and red snapped magnetically onto the cranial implants on the left side of his head and across his forehead. In addition to striking fear into those who saw it, it featured an atmospheric filter, a local sensor array, and a personalized head-up-display for MAI to inhabit.

[Are you sure about this?] she asked, as the HUD came online.

“Yeah,” he answered as the main hatch of the Vorpal-3 hissed open. “It wouldn’t due for us to appear to be hiding.

[What do you want me to do?]

“Keep connection with the ship as long as you’re allowed. And stay ready if I need you.”

As the entry ramp extended, he stood tall and marched forward.

The crew that met him was a smattering of heavily armed beings that comprised a wide variety of species. Even so, Grath was surprised to see both Dedan and Bundar working together. The hatred between the two species was notorious and the Dedan were still sore about the Bundar winning their freedom. The fact that it took the aid of most of the other galactic empires did nothing to curb the Dedan’s hostile feelings, or their sense of superiority.

While the Dedan were a towering humanoid species that looked to be built for war, the Bundar were shorter than the average human. With thick muscled arms and legs, broad shoulders, and short, stocky frames, it wasn’t surprising the Dedan had used them as beasts of burden for so long. But it was the same toughness that made them great toilers that also gave them the fortitude and resilience to win their freedom on the battlefield. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were the only intelligent species in the galaxy able to resist the Dedan’s toxic blood.

“That’s far enough, Hot Shot,” a Cephaloid said, as Grath neared the end of the ramp. Its voice was rough through the old modulator strapped to it’s large, invertebrate head, although his attention was more focussed on the four tentacles holding guns pointed at him.

While Grath had enough armament, speed and accuracy to take out several of the pirates before they could get a shot off, there were almost a dozen pointing their energy rifles at him. And anyway, if he worked this right, he might be able to trade a job for repairs.

He stopped where they indicated, and slowly raised his hands, palms forward, to shoulder height. Enough to show compliance but not surrender.

“I’d like to speak with your captain,” he said with the full confidence expected of an experienced Hot Shot.

“How do you know you’re not already talking to him?” the Cephaloid said, waving its tentacles in the air and making its crewmates visibly nervous as the guns pointing in all directions.

“Because Cephaloids are notoriously bad at commanding respect and you don’t look much different.” The challenge was a calculated risk, but given this Cephaloid’s behaviour, it wasn’t a large risk.

“What about women?” a powerful voice said from behind the crew. They parted and let a small woman with a commanding presence move through them. “Have you known any female captains?”

“Many,” Grath said, as she stopped just before him. “Some of the best captains I’ve known.”

She looked him up and down and he had the feeling she knew as much about him as he did.

“Follow me,” she said, before turning to leave without a look back.

It took several minutes’ walk and two lift rides to get to the bridge. When they arrived, he was surprised at the skeleton crew running the huge ship.

As they entered and she took her place before one of the control panels, she turned to him. “Grath Danum.  I’m Captain Ari Sentro.”

He nodded at both the introduction and for recognition of the fact that she’d heard of him.

“Your reputation proceeds you,” she continued. “It’s not everyday The Rebel Adventure hosts someone of your stature.”

[Don’t let it go to your head, Hot Shot.]

“It’s not every day I find myself in the Bundar rim systems. A happy accident of fortune, then.”

“To tell you the truth, we thought you were jetsam from a cruise ship. We were hoping to trade you for some good coin,” she said, before turning and giving orders in a language he didn’t bother having translated.

“A reasonable assumption given the current state of the Venom-3. However, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to take my ship. It wouldn’t agree with either of us. But I am willing to trade my services for passage and repairs. I’m guild certified triple-S so you would be making money on the deal.”

She punched a few buttons on the control panel before turning back to him. “I’d love to trade offers with you, but we’re just back from a big haul. Crew’s looking for some downtime where they can waste their earnings.”

“From our earlier scans, I’d say they aren’t going to have much luck in this system,” Grath said, with a shrug.

The captain just smiled and pointed to the viewscreen.

The ship had dropped out of fold-space and had slowed to orbital velocity. Grath was about to ask what was happening, when a crack of light appeared in space ahead of the ship. It was followed by several others and he realised he was watching an entry port open.

[Grath, that’s not from a ship!]

The light, he soon understood, was from a sun locked inside an immense sphere. 

“A Kardeshev Colony? Out here?”

“Welcome to Kualanandar, The Pirate’s Haven.”

[That explains the mining colonies and the deserted planets.]

Indeed. Whoever built this pirate’s haven must have stripped the nearby planets of most of their minerals. The construction of such an immense structure, one that completely encompassed the system’s star, would have take a vast amount of resources. And to think it had been done essentially in secret.

While the system seemed dark and devoid of life from the outside, inside was an entirely different matter.

As they passed through the entry port the light was almost blinding to someone who’d recently been floating in the blackness of space. As his helmet adjusted the light-sensitivity Grath finally began to see more structure. Criss-crossing the interior of the sphere were vast girders that joined domed hemispheric planetoids the size of small moons. There were several levels of this substructure that repeated closer to the star.

And there were ships everywhere – entering or exiting the colony at any of a number of ports, travelling between planetoids, or docked at the cities on them.

“Tell you what,” Ari said, turning to him. We’ve got no business with you, so let’s say this rescue is on us. But you owe us one, to be called in at a time and place of our choosing.”

Being on call to a band of pirates wasn’t an ideal situation, but under the current conditions it was the best he could hope for.

“Done,” he said, extending a gloved hand. The small woman shook it with unexpected strength.

“We’ll offload you when we dock and you can pay your own way from there,” she explained. “You’ll find many quality dockyards to fix you up. And many that will scam you. Just a suggestion: look for Tal Garu. Tell him Ari sent you.”

True to her word, the cruiser was soon docked and the Venom-3 offloaded. No sooner had the pirate crew disembarked than they disappeared into the various illicit establishments of the area.

[Well, this has all been rather unexpected.]

“Indeed,” Grath said. His helmet’s sensors informed him the dome’s atmosphere was acceptable, but he felt more comfortable keeping the helmet on. “Where do you think we should start our search for this Tal Garu?”

[The pubs?]

“Sounds good. I never did get my drink.”

Darren Walker

After visiting several bars, and places that could best be described as seedy dives, Grath was suffering from mixed feelings. Firstly, thanks to the drinks he’d consumed, he was in the early stages of drunkenness, but more worryingly, was the suspicion that the name Tal Garu was not something to be spoken too loudly or too often.

Each time he’d asked a normally chatty bar-tender, or random barfly, if they knew who or where Tal was, they suddenly went silent and turned away as if he wasn’t there. Such signs were not good and he had decided to stop the search in case it led to something that he didn’t like; such as his death.

Making his way along the busy streets, thronging with creatures from all over the galaxy, his search for a cheap hotel was cut short when a hand was placed on his shoulder. The request for him to stop was not so much delivered verbally as by a grip that felt like it only needed a few more pounds of pressure and it would crush the bone.

“Grath Danum?” The voice crackled as if it was a radio transmission suffering from static and white noise.

“Nope, sorry, never heard of him.”

Whether he wanted to turn around or not Grath was spun around so that he was now facing the creature causing him so much pain. He was tempted to shoot first and ask questions much later but as he looked upwards into the face towering above him and seeing the mountain of a body covered in high density battle armour, he decided against it.

He might have got off a lucky shot and found a weak spot but the six other, similarly dressed warriors who were stood behind him, ensured he knew the odds would be against him.

“But If I should happen to meet him I would be more than happy to tell him that his friends were looking for him.”

“Mr Garu would like to see you.”

“And if I am not available to see him at the moment?”

There was a pause as he felt something being pushed into his chest. Looking down, he saw a hand blaster that, if carried by any other creature, would have looked like a war cannon pressing into his stomach.

“Mr Garu didn’t stipulate what condition you had to be in when we delivered you. So Grath Danum the choice is yours.”

“Oh, Grath Danum? I am sorry I thought you said Garath Daynim… Oh, never mind. Anyway, as it happens Tal Garu is just the person I am looking for. Please, lead the way.”

. . . . .

The journey in the hover limousine, with its blacked-out windows, had been comfortable and brief and on exiting it he found himself on a balcony overlooking the city. Then, as he watched the vehicle fly away, he gave it a nonchalant wave. “Goodbye, thanks for the lift. I am sorry I left my wallet in my other uniform, but I will give you double the tip next time.”

“Very droll Mr Danum.”

Turning around he didn’t see anyone, but he saw an open door and walked through it. 

“Please take a seat. I would offer you a drink but, after having so many during your search for me I would say you have had more than enough, and I would like to talk to you while you still have a fairly clear head.”

Sitting in the proffered chair, Grath took his time to study his host. Tal was definitely not a Kardeshevian but he had no idea what species he belonged to. The form could have been loosely described as ‘humanoid’ but it was if his whole body was wrapped in some grey fog that swirled and spun like the outer surface of a giant gas planet. “Tal? It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, I am…”

His introduction was stopped by Tal raising his hand. “Yes, I know all about you Mr Danum. Your full history, your… tragedies and your subsequent existence as you try and find redemption by bringing criminals to much deserved justice, for a price of course.”

There was much in Tal’s words that made him feel uncomfortable but, thanks to his helmet still being in place, he was able to hide his discomfort. “You seem to have me at a distinct disadvantage as all I know of you is your name.”

Tal released a delicate laugh which made Grath think that he had missed some joke or, more worrying, was the butt of one.

“That is deliberate. Tal Garu is just a name which I use while I am here. I have many more pseudonyms which I adopt in different star systems. It allows me to conduct some of my less than publicity friendly business without tarnishing my other alter-ego’s reputation.”

Grath nodded. He’d been forced to adopt fake names in the past and appreciated the value of an identity that didn’t exist. “So, who are you in real life?” There was another brief silence which made him think that he had asked the wrong question.

“Good, good, I like direct questions, after all if we are to do business then there should be an element of transparency and a modicum of honesty which might eventually lead to trust. My real name is hard to pronounce in your language, but you probably know me as Nawala-ang Manlalakbay. I presume you have heard of me?”

“Heard of you? Of course, I have heard of you! Nawa… I mean Mr Manlalakbay. Who in any galaxy hasn’t heard of you? Reputed to be one of the richest creatures to have ever existed and also the most generous of philanthropists. I have encountered your orphanages, hospitals and kitchens for the poor on countless planets.”

“Yes, that is me, however I must correct you on one point. I am, by a long way, the richest creature that ever existed. But what else do you know about Nawala-ang Manlalakbay?”

Grath had heard rumours that often conflicted each other, idle gossip from people who had no money and were jealous of anyone who had some, or news reports which were simply unbelievable. But when it came to hard fact he knew absolutely nothing about his host.

“Other than money, what more is there that is important?”

“Such a shallow response. But considering your species and profession it is hardly surprising. My race possesses an intelligence that is unrivalled anywhere. We reached a point in evolution when we had the brains to invent the wheel and once that was done within the next week we had developed space travel and were all set to visit the other planets in our solar system. Then, within another month, we had discovered folded space and were visiting our more primitive neighbours in all the corners of our galaxy and others. However, it didn’t take my people long to see the lack of intellectual stimulation and most of them returned to their home planet. They then proceeded to spend the rest of their existence in a form of philosophical utopia where they sat around all day contemplating the true meaning of existence.”

“But you didn’t find that sort of life to your tastes?”

“Exactly, Mr Danum. Having tasted the pleasures other worlds had to offer I lost all desire to forego such joys and decided to live the best possible life I could.” Nawala-ang’s voice suddenly took on a passionate tone.

“Using my superior intellect, I began to ensure that I could live life to the full in the arms of luxury and comfort. I invested in, and then manipulated, stock markets. Munitions factories were procured just before intergalactic wars conveniently broke out. Gambling is fun as well, especially when I bet on races and events that I could ensure ended in my favour. There wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t do to increase my wealth and eventually I found that I had more money than I knew what to do with, so I started to spend a fraction of it to build hospitals and all those other things you mentioned.”

“Very magnanimous of you, I’m sure.”

“Magnanimous?” The cloud that surrounded Nawala-ang’s head seemed to swirl faster as if he was trying to process the word. “You could say that. After all you might think that I too have a lot to atone for, but my generosity has nothing to do with benevolence. It is, I assure you, pure pragmatism.

“Each mouthful of food, each warm bed slept in and every recuperative dose of medicine is delivered in buildings bearing my name and the recipients know that. When their own governments let them suffer, they see that I care and will ensure they can grow up without hunger or disease and, in return I get vast armies of followers on countless planets who love me. I doubt it would ever happen, but should I need their loyalty and help, they will be there and ready to come to my assistance.”

Despite the tone of his host’s voice and the openness of the conversation, Grath began to feel that he had been told a secret that he shouldn’t know, with his life depending on his eternal discretion but, despite the unease, curiosity was making him want to know more. “And this place?”

“This place? It is my little home from home. It isn’t cheap to enfold a solar system in a dome and then send it into a private fold in space, but I eventually saved up enough and here we are. I tax traders a small 3% transaction fee and in return smugglers and other dealers can come here and do business with absolutely no questions asked. Drugs, arms, slave, stolen goods – they are all traded and I get, as the saying goes, a slice of every pie. Every bar, brothel and shop also belongs to me with each employee as loyal as money can buy. They are paid well and know the punishment if they should take more from the till than they are allowed. Business was, and is, so good that I recouped the cost of my initial investment within two galactic years and I am now richer than ever.”

Grath stood up and walked to the vast window that overlooked the city below him and the skyline which seemed to be filled with the yellow glow of the trapped sun. “Alright Mr Manlalakbay,  Mr Garu, or whatever you want to be called. You are rich and powerful, which impresses me, but I am just a bounty hunter so how can I be of assistance? After all I am sure that you have ways and means of getting what you want without having to deal directly with people in my profession?”

Nawala-ang left his desk and stood next to his guest, looking out over his secret domain. “Perhaps I know more about you and your circumstances than you do. For instance I know that you are in a unique situation and are a man, quite literally, out of time. You had a collision while in the Fold and that sent you several weeks into the past and in the wrong part of the galaxy. This temporal displacement puts you in an enviable position to be able to do me a great service.”

The mercenary could tell that he was about to be made an offer, but he doubted that it was one that he could easily refuse. “What do you want from me?”

“I love temporal physics as it makes the use of tenses fun. Thanks to the fact that it hasn’t happened yet, the freighter which you hit, and are yet to hit, was, is and will be carrying a cargo meant for some remote Dedan outpost. Amongst its registered manifest will be something which shouldn’t be there, and I need you to obtain it for me. All you have to do is go to the vector in solid space adjacent to the Fold’s collision and then use whatever means to carry out your task.”

“And in return?”

“In return you can name your prices.”

“Alright.” Grath could tell that there was more to the mission than he was being told and messing about with time streams invariably led to a painful death as the universe did its best to ensure that any anomalies were removed. “One billion International Credits, half paid in advance and the rest on completion.”

The derisive laugh, which he had expected failed to appear and Nawala-ang just nodded. “That all? Okay, that is acceptable but I assure that when someone has half a Billion in their pocket they have a nasty habit of forgetting contracts and trying to hide. That would be unfortunate, for you at least. I will give you 100 million now and the balance once I have the item in my possession.”

“Alright, we have a deal. What does this item look like?”

“It is in an inconspicuous box and looks like this.” He clicked his fingers and a holographic image of a small and thin rectangular object appeared in the space above his desk. It began to slowly rotate.

“What is it? What does it do?”

“You do not need to know that, and in fact I think it is best for your longevity if you never know that. Your task is to bring it to me undamaged and for that you will receive my eternal gratitude and enough money to last you several lifetimes.”

Having not expected to have the amount agreed to so easily Grath wished that he’d had the courage to ask for more. After all it might have appeared to be a massive amount to him but to his host it appeared to be small change. “There is one slight problem, my ship.”

“Your Vorpal-3 spacecraft? It is primitive and is in a poor state but it is already in one of my docks being repaired and ungraded. Once work is completed you will feel like you have a whole new ship, faster than ever and with enough weaponry to fight a small war. The engineers have been told to complete the work by morning and you can then set off. I will ensure that your money is in the cargo hold ready for you and, until then, you are my guest and welcome to enjoy the city’s facilities free of charge. There are more than enough bars, casinos, and places to find physical comfort to keep you occupied until it is time for you to leave.”

Without any signal two armour clad and heavily armed bodyguards entered the room and stood by the doorway. They were trying to appear casual, but their guns were aimed at him and their postures made it clear it was time for him to leave. His welcome had now run out.

“Goodbye Mr Danum, I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks when your time streams have become untangled and you have my property.” Nawala-ang watched the mercenary walk to the door but before Grath could leave he spoke once more. “Oh, in case you misunderstood me, for your own sake do not fail me or you will spend the rest of your short and pain filled life regretting it. Have a nice evening.”

Matthew Leather

“I knew it, I just knew it.” Dean said to nobody.

Back on his ship, pacing around his captain’s chair, he was thinking to himself that it was nice of the admiral to have the ship cleaned as well, but, “Locate another source of the energy and capture it. It’s just as simple as that!” 

As he thought about the task at hand and the minimal amount of information given by the Admiral, he couldn’t understand why he’d agreed. Not a single being who knew of this blast could believe that Dean survived it. And who was to say that it wasn’t just a fluke and if it was to happen again it wouldn’t decimate him and mist his innards. Or however the Admiral so eloquently put it not long ago. 

Dean finally sat down on his chair, swiveled the control board towards him and got comfortable in a reclined position. “How can I locate this by randomly scanning areas for surges? Does the admiral know how big the galaxy is?”

He placed the ship into cruise once he exited the fold boundary and started the hyper scan that Dashnor had given him. Unfortunately, all previously data was rendered useless due to the erratic nature of this energy, so Dean was starting from scratch again. He’d also been told the energy immediately dispersed in deep space, with no sign of physical damage, which was confirmed by the survival of his ship. This also reduced the already finite window for detection. He was at a loss with what to do. 

He tapped on the control board and set a course to the nearest Bunda beacon. Perhaps he could somehow find a way to covertly discover some of their tactics in this energy arms race. He knew that was almost a guaranteed suicide, his freighter was about as covert as a Cephaloid’s sneeze, but he was struggling to come up with any other ideas. Maybe a sleep would help, he thought, as he shifted onto one side after setting an alert for the scanner and ships defenses.

He wasn’t going to be caught sleeping. Literally or figuratively. 

*   *   *

What felt like hours passed and Dean Dean irritably wriggled over to his other side to glance at the control board. “Only twenty minutes?” 

He looked at the ETA for the Bunda Beacon and audibly sighed. This wasn’t going to work, he thought to himself. Where could he go to find help or even just a friendly nudge towards the goal?

Kualanandar came to mind immediately. It scared him that Pirate’s Haven seemed to be his best option, but he expected somebody there would have to know something and if he shouted about it loud enough, he would get the help he needed. Or a plasma round through the skull. Either way he’d be out of his current stalemate. 

The only trouble was getting a freighter the size of his through wouldn’t be an easy feat. It would be searched high and low before being allowed to dock at any substation and that could take hours.

Surely the admiral had some sway with the transit authorities?

He started tapping, rushed and heavily on his control board, to call back to him. Once the call location was selected and Dean sent through the comms connection request it was only a matter of time before the admiral’s face popped onto his screen. 

“Ah Captain Dean, that was quicker than expected, you only left my ship one hour ago and we can still detect you on our radars. If it was that easy, I shouldn’t have paid you.” 

“I need to get into Kualanandar. There is a port two lightyears from here and it will give me a port in the South Bay Nebula, the only thing is—,” Dean didn’t want to waste time with idle chit chat. 

“You are in a class 4 independent galactic freighter; how do you think you will be let through without having the ship scrutinized to its bare chassis.”

 “Yes, you’ve put it eloquently, as always.” 

“Your ship is prepped for full scale war. It is armed more than a Jolin Fleet and could withstand an attack from multiple fighters. If you go to Pirate’s Haven, that ship will be stripped bare and you will be making this task so much harder for yourself. Why would you need to go there?” 

Dean didn’t want to admit he was already at a loss on how to find a new source, but he  didn’t think there was any other choice. “I need help. I don’t know what to do. Kualanandar is my best option for finding out more information. You know I am right. Now surely you have some sway and can get me safe, unobstructed, and unsearched passage into the South Bay Nebula?” 

“Tal Garu runs that entire sector and I haven’t spoken to him in years.” The Admiral stopped abruptly and turned away from the screen. Dean could see him talking to someone off-screen. Almost a minute passed and the Admiral looked back to Dean. “Set your coordinates for the port. You have your safe passage.”

“Well, that was easy now wasn’t it?” Dean said as he input the port coordinates into his transporter GPS. “Thank you.” 

“Easy for you perhaps. I’ll come out of your fee. Good hunting.” The Admiral cut the feed and the comms board went blank. 

Dean wanted to consider what just happened, but didn’t have time. He wasn’t sure if this safe passage had a time constraint and didn’t want to miss his window of opportunity. He sat back in his chair and confirmed the course.

Lightyears passed in mere seconds, he blinked once or twice and there he was.

The desolate open space of the Pirate’s Haven guise. He slowed his ship and let it glide gently forward. A few more seconds passed and his ship was encapsulated by a bright light causing him to shield his eyes. Once his eyes adjusted, however, he stared in wonder.

He had never passed a port like this before, but he was definitely in. There didn’t seem to be any patrols so he guided his ship toward a promising-looking docking port, passing beneath what looked to be an old cargo runway. One that clearly hadn’t been used for a long time, with cables dangling and metal sheeting warping at the edges pulling away from its housing. 

Dean hopped out of his chair and walked towards his hub station in the centre of the room to check the atmospheric analysis. He’d been here before and remembered that Kualanandar had been safe for him to be unmasked, but that had been over a decade  ago. The reading came back OK so he left his oxygen capsules and respirator on the hub station desk. He picked up his weapons, ammunition, and money. This was Pirate’s Haven after all. Nothing came cheap and nothing came easy. 

After finally managing to drag himself out of the ship and onto a mostly solid surface he set towards the noise and lights. He could see way off in the distance the massive structures of Haven Central, all housing bars, gambling establishments, and shady lounges for any illegal dealings. The area was always abuzz and the sheer amount of people made it a task in itself to navigate the place. He could already feel every shoulder barge and knock he was inevitably going to take whilst attempting to walk through the bustling crowd swarmed with drunkards and ne’er-do-wells. 

Although years had passed since Dean’s last time in Kualanandar the same old-timey dive bars he frequented before were still standing and as busy as ever. He edged his way towards the front entrance of the second bar he passed — the first was currently in the middle of a bar fight he wanted no part of. When he made it past the crowd of onlookers next door he was confronted by what appeared to be a Dedan rebel that was acting as doorman to the bar. 

“Please wait there, we are currently at business capacity.” The Dedan said.

“I am not here to conduct business, only here for some information.” Dean replied not wanting to show any signs of argument. A conflict with this Dedan wouldn’t be a good move on his part.

“Information is business and therefore you must wait.”

“Look, I just need to ask somebody a question.” Dean said not knowing who he needed to ask or what he needed to ask.

“Questions cost around here and they often lead to bad blood. What is it you want to know? Perhaps I could point you in the direction of where to go.” The Dedan said unwavering and steadfast in the doorway.

 “I’m pretty sure you’re not the guy I need to be speaking to and besides you’re just a doorman.” Dean immediately regretted his choice of phrasing as the Dedan’s entire body shifted forward towards him, but before he could react aggressively, there was a quiet yet assertive female voice from inside the bar. 

“Lomik, let our guest in, I have just seen two of our misbehaving patrons out the back, yet again doing your job for you.” She walked past Lomik, the doorman, and placed her hand on Dean’s shoulder and beckoned him forward. “Please come in. I think we have someting to talk about. Lomik, do your job please or go back to begging for scraps to wager on the Axil tables.” 

“Yes Miss Yadnee. Sorry Miss Yadnee.” Lomik replied like a scorned child.

Dean walked alongside Miss Yadnee, she was almost as tall as Dean, but with a much slimmer build. Her hair fell to just past shoulder length and her skin was dark and glistening. She led Dean into and through the main bar area and entered a private lounge with nobody else around. The walls were covered in a gleaming royal blue sheet metal and countless trinkets all appearing to be from the old, long-extinct clan The Vazin. 

“Interesting place you got here Miss Yadnee. I am assuming from the name that it is yours?” Dean said as he sat with effortless ease.

“What gave it away Mr Dean, perhaps the Name Yadnee’s Bar or was it that I talked down to a massive Dedan and didn’t get torn to pieces?” She replied as she grabbed two tankards and began pouring an unknown drink into them both.

“Well, yes both are really good signs,” Dean stopped in confusion, “wait I never said my name how do you know it?”

“Practically everyone knows who you are around here Mr Dean.” Yadnee handed Dean the tankard. “You have become quite the sought-after person.”

“What do you mean, sought-after how?” Dean replied as he took a drink. The drink was slightly tangy with a strong beer taste. It had a strange mint like aftertaste that seemed to stick to Dean’s tongue.

“Well, you see, a very powerful man has put a bounty on your head.” She said also taking a sip of the drink.

“Fantastic, so you have just killed me with whatever is in this drink then, I guess. Now you’re just waiting for me to collapse and you collect your bounty.” Dean began drinking from the tankard again and took three large gulps to rid it of the remaining contents. “Might as well make it a bit quicker for you, huh?” Dean continued as he turned the tankard upside down above his head to show it was fully empty. Only a few drips left that found their way onto his shoulder. 

“Don’t be absurd and dramatic Mr Dean, the contract was exclusive to a one Grath Danum. Otherwise, that big lump Lomik out there would’ve torn your head from your body without a second thought and carried your lifeless decapitated corpse all the way to Tal Garu himself.” 

“Wait, it was Tal Garu that placed the bounty on me. Why?” Dean slumped backwards in his chair growing even more confused at the situation. “And when?” 

“Both good questions, firstly because it is Tal Garu and he does what he wants and secondly. Well, secondly is a bit harder to explain. Technically it was almost four weeks ago.” 

“Technically? What do you mean technically?” Dean stood up from the comfort of the chair and stared straight through Miss Yandee. “I need to know exactly what is going on so I can avoid dying and get back to finding some information about where to—” Dean stopped himself. “Look I have to do something for the Dedan and I’d like to get back to living my life.”

“Unfortunately, as of the moment this contract was set, your life is not yours to live.” Miss Yandee placed her tankard down after also finishing its entire contents in a few large mouthfuls. “Just know that I am here to help.” 

“You’re here to help me? How, how exactly are you going to do that? I have an exclusive contract on my head, given to what I can only assume is a very effective Hot Shot, this Grath fella, and I have this stupid task for the Dedan. Now you may have all these items and past historic pieces of the long past extinct Vazin Clan, but you are definitely not one.” Dean started towards the door. 

“That is where you are wrong Mr Dean.” Miss Yandee said as she lifted up her shirt to reveal the Vazin scripture etched into her dark skin. 

“Wow, you really are a fan girl huh?” Dean said as he began to turn back to the exit. 

“Test me then.” She said, throwing a Plasma pistol on the floor by Dean’s feet. 

He looked at the gun and considered all his options. If this woman was crazy, he was certainly going to kill her, then comes the matter of leaving Pirate’s Haven without being caught. But if she is somehow Vazin or of a descended lineage and has even a small percentage of their ability then she would be a vital asset. Pros versus cons weighed up, his mind was set. “Here goes nothing.” He said, picking the gun up and instantly turning, pointing and shooting.

Edwin H Rydberg

Dean’s eyes never left his target’s slender, etched ebony torso and his aim was true. He didn’t know what he expected but it wasn’t the gentle disbursement of the plasma pulse as it contacted Miss Yadnee’s skin. If his eye’s hadn’t deceived him, the symbols on her skin glowed faintly as contact was made.

The only other sign anything might have happened was a deep, satisfied breath from the bar’s proprietor as she stood a little taller.

“Did that satisfy you, Mr. Dean?” she asked, when he’d recovered from some of the shock.

“Nice trick,” he said, tossing her the pistol.

She caught it in one hand and, in a single graceful movement, twisted it in her palm then aimed and shot. The vase behind him exploded.

Dean hadn’t even had time to contemplate moving.

“Okay,” he said, “perhaps a bit more than a trick. Those are real, then?” he asked, nodding toward her torso.

“Each one of them I etched myself, after a decade of contemplation.”

The text was foreign to him. Symbols that he’d never seen. They appeared to be formed of a material that glowed in the right light. He drew his gaze away from them, to look directly into her yellow eyes. “But the Vizin are gone. Extinct. Hunted to oblivion. How can you be here? How many more of you are there?”

“We were hunted, yes. To our shame, it took us too long to believe it was true and too many of our number were lost before we did. We’ve been in hiding since before the rise of The Bunda’s League. But even hidden, we are no longer safe. We need your help.”

“Well, that’s quite flattering, but why me?”

“I’m beginning to ask myself the same question.”

She steepled her fingers and closed her eyes for a moment before speaking again.

“Information moves fast, Mr. Dean. Faster even than The Fold. Your encounter with the artifact has not escaped our attention. So when the illustrious Admiral Gomari of the Third Dedan Fleet made what would otherwise be an absurd request — one does not just ask to dock at Kualanandar — I stepped in to make it happen.”

“But why?” Dean asked, wondering just how deep this wormhole he’d found himself in might be. “I’m just a dashingly handsome smuggler who’s run into a little Dedan trouble.”

When she smiled, her eyes sparkled and for a moment Dean allowed himself to see her as a beautiful woman instead of the frighteningly powerful member of a near-extinct religion. Then the moment passed.

“You are much more than you know, Mr. Dean. And you are in much more trouble than you can understand. Even we who have studied millennia of ancient myths and lore do not know the full truth. But what we do know is that the artifact you opened was not what it seemed.”

“Well, I figured that much…”

“You have awakened forces that should not have been awakened.”

“…okay…”

“And you are now at the centre of a struggle between immense galactic powers.”

“Who, the Dedan? The Bunda’s League? So far I’ve been okay dealing with them.”

“Governments?” Her eyes almost blazed with a fire of the same strength as her voice and Dean stepped back, startled. “Is this the extent of your vision? Is this the limit of your awareness?”

Miss Yadnee waved a hand dismissively. “Governments are nothing. Petty bureaucrats manipulating a system they created for their own benefit. A system of wheels and cogs to maintain the illusion of control. True power does not bend to such systems. Your vision is that of an insect who can’t see above the blade of grass while I’m describing a creature whose foot will flatten it.”

The room became uncomfortably quiet as the energy in her demeanor faded. Dean was about to break the silence when Miss Yadnee spoke again.

“I’m sorry,” she said, quietly, “I sometimes get overwhelmed by how little the average person sees. Or cares.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Dean said, breaking out his infamous charm.

Miss Yadnee just smiled and shook her head.

“So, what is it to you?” Dean asked. “Why do you care what happens to me?”

She looked at him a moment, as if deciding whether to tell him anything else. Then, decision made, she spoke while collecting items from her desk.

“The truth, Mr. Dean, is that I have no choice. I am at risk of being discovered. If I’m right in my understanding of recent events, then we have a common enemy and so a shared goal.”

“To find a Bundar energy box?”

“To survive, Mr. Dean. You do value your life, don’t you?”

“It’s the only one I’ve got.”

“Precisely. So, I suggest, for the present, we are allies,” she said, extending a hand across the desk.

He thought for a moment longer, before shaking it. What did he have to lose? There was already a threat on his life. And to have a Vizin as an ally!

“Excellent,” Miss Yadnee said, “now help me sequester a few valuables I will need to bring with us. And hurry.”

At her direction, he took a few small items off the wall and passed them to her. “Why, are you expecting someone?” he asked. “How long do we have?”

“They’re already here.”

At that moment, the door to her office shuddered from a powerful impact. Miss Yadnee, apparently satisfied with all the items, which she’d somehow sequestered in her clothes, turned from her desk to the wall in one corner.

“Stand behind me. Quickly!”

“Is this a fake wall? Awesome!” Dean said, waiting for the panel to lift or the wall to turn. Anything but the loss of footing as the floor disappeared beneath him.

They fell into a short tunnel which they slid down for a few seconds before being dumped into what was clearly a personal docking bay hollowed out from the asteroid fragment under the bar. A sleek fighter of a design he wasn’t familiar with sat ready but Dean couldn’t see any bay doors.

“Inside. Now,” Miss Yadnee yelled.

“But what about my ship?” he asked, racing up the boarding ramp after her.

“I’ve left instructions for its care. It should be safe as long as we’re not gone too long.”

“Why, what happens then?”

“Lomik will probably sell it to a junker for parts. Now take a seat and strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

It felt strange to be riding support-chair after spending decades in the pilot’s seat but Dean didn’t have time to worry about it. He could hear the engines firing up even before Miss Yadnee had strapped in. As soon as she was set at the controls, the ship lifted from the floor of the launch bay and crept forward.

“But where…?” He was about to ask how they could exit with no bay doors visible, when the forward canons opened fire, vapourizing the rock wall in front of them. The ship sped forward, shooting out into the interior space of the Kardeshevian sphere.

Miss Yadnee stayed close to the platform shadows trying to stay inconspicuous, but it wasn’t long before they had company on their tail. A half-dozen drone fighters dogged their exhaust, which usually meant they were being guided toward an ambush.

Apparently, Miss Yadnee realized this also and began maneuvering more erratically, veering unpredictably in an attempt to shake the drone’s herding pattern. “Man the turrets,” she yelled.

Dean stood to rush for a side gun box, when she yelled again. “The screen on the console in front of you. They’re point and shoot. Literally. Just touch the screen when the target is in the firing window and the canons will do the rest.”

“Well, where’s the fun in that?” Dean said, settling back into his seat to watch the digital representations of ships fly around the screen.

The layout was simple, an elongated shape in the middle of the display represented their ship. Surrounding the ship were a series of conical boxes extending away from the centre. He quickly discovered that his job was to stab a box whenever an enemy image entered it. Soon he was immersed in the game.

The drones were fast and nimble, but he quickly learned to anticipate their movements and in short time they had all been destroyed.

“All gone. You’re welcome,” Dean said, spinning the chair toward Miss Yadnee.

She pointed back to his screen without taking her eye from the navigation panel. “That was only the first wave,” she said. “Those drones are cheap and effective. And someone doesn’t want us to leave.”

“Your pursuers are very persistent,” Dean said, turning back to the screen to resume the game. This time there were twice as many, including two that looked larger than the rest.

“They’re not after me,” Miss Yadnee answered, guiding their fighter into a complex series of maneuvers between the platforms. The two large ships fell away from the rest and were no longer in Dean’s targeting sights. The other ships stayed tight to their exhaust port, moving quickly and erratically. “Not directly, anyway.”

“What? You can’t mean I’m their target.”

“My agents reported increased activity in certain areas of Kualanadar just before your arrival. Someone knew you were coming and prepared a welcome for you. That it corresponded to my own troubles may, or may not, be coincidence.”

Their ship dodged to port under a cluster of support cables before Miss Yadnee flipped the ship with a nice controlled-burn retro-boost and they sped off at ninety-degrees to their original direction.

“So, does that mean I was compromised? Or set-up?” Dean asked. Wondering if Admiral Gomari had been as forthcoming as he’d originally thought. He’d known from the beginning that the Dedan weren’t being honest. But he’d genuinely believed they wanted him to do this job for them. Could he have been wrong? Or was this ambush solely the work of the Hot Shot and whoever he was working for?

“In Kualanadar, it’s difficult to say,” Miss Yadnee offered. Her concentration never wavered from the bank of screens and controls before her. “But I suggest we plan to solve that question after we escape.”

“Speaking of which,” Dean said. “Shouldn’t  we be trying to get to the gate?”

“I’m not flying around, dodging drones for my health,” Miss Yadnee said, uncharacteristically snapping at him. “My official port code is not being recognized. Apparently, the enemy you’ve attracted is dangerous and powerful, Mr. Dean.”

“So, we’re trapped in the sphere?”

“Not exactly. You don’t cater to the whims of high-class clientele for as many years as I have without taking advantage of a few favours along the way.” In addition to the usual cluster of controls, Miss Yadnee began stabbing at a new set on her left. “I’ve got a back door but it will take me a few moments to properly configure the authorisation signal. When I do, I’ll need a destination fast. Preferably somewhere we can lay low to plan our next move.”

“I’m on it,” Dean answered, doing his own share of stabbing as a third wave of drones began to thin. In truth, he had no idea where they should go next. He was at a loss.

This entire situation had gone to a place he was having difficulty processing. A super box that might be a powerful weapon, a bounty placed on his head several weeks before he even acquired the box, a member of an ancient mystical clan helping him run from more hunter-killer drones than he’d seen in a lifetime, and possible double crosses everywhere.

And this job had started so well. 

“I could really use a drink,” he said. The thought triggered old memories and the faces of his former friends and cohorts. He could use their help on this one. They were a skilled bunch with the added bonus that only a few of them wanted to see him dead.

Miss Yadnee flipped the ship once more, sending them hurtling past the final layer of platforms before the gate. Dean anticipated what that meant and sure enough…

“The port gate is disengaged. We’ve got clearance but we need to jump. Where are we going?”

“Bhakurah Starport. D-Jinn IV. I know a bar there…”

“Hubward? Are you sure? It’ll be hard to hide among so many developed systems.” Even as she asked,  she was already punching in the data.

“I know some people. We’ll be fine,” Dean said with a wide smile, attempting to fill his voice with a confidence he didn’t feel.”

“It’ll have to do, we don’t have time to run another set of calculations. Fold engines engaging in 3…”

They raced toward the gate, which had already begun to close. Presumably the false override code had been discovered.

“2.”

Dean blasted the final remaining drones and they were free and clear.

“1.”

They surged through the gate, past a few small ships waiting for clearance and out into the empty space beyond the pirates haven. 

“Folding.”

“Hey, Jude,” Dean whispered to his faithful freighter, now at the mercy of Lomik the Dedan, “I won’t let you down. I’ll  be back to get you.”

As the Fold engines activated, the starless shadow of the receding Kualanadar disappeared from their rear viewscreen, replaced by the multicoloured streaks of the surrounding starfield as they entered the local Fold.

In a system with so many demolished planets, the Fold was a straight shot to the main highway. From there, the ship’s computer would set them on the exacting trajectory needed to reach their destination near the centre of the galaxy. 

D-Jinn IV. Dean was going home.

Darren Walker

Having just spent time with the richest creature in the galaxy Grath had expected the upgrade of his beloved Vorpal-3 craft to be spectacular and he hadn’t been disappointed. Although the external structure had been altered it had retained enough of its original physical features to ensure that it rediscovered a modicum of the original mixture of grace and power which had been lost, over the years, to battle damage and asteroid collisions. The increased armour made it look fatter and the visible weaponry ensured that it could never be mistaken for a peaceful craft. However that didn’t bother the mercenary as his mission didn’t require covert subterfuge.

Internally the improvements had also been impressive. Every corridor and room had been cleaned and where there had once been outmoded, faulty or barely functioning technology there were now state of the art consoles which left him wondering what they were all for. To add to the joy, the strange noise in his control room chair had been removed so that it no longer sounded like a Caroobian hog breaking wind any time he got up from it too fast.

Having chatted with MAI, Grath was happy she had not been tampered with but there was one addition to his ship that he was certainly not happy about. Tal Garu had provided him with a couple of extra crew members that didn’t fit his requirements and he could do without. He had tried to tell the two Miceand robots that they were surplus to requirements, but they had simply responded in cold, emotionless, electronic voices that they had been programmed to be his bodyguards and, contradictorily, that if he tried to remove, or somehow deactivate, them they would be forced to kill him.

During a couple of gangster wars Grath had seen the robots in action and despite their unimaginatively simple squat humanoid appearance he knew that the dark blue forms were packed with enough weaponry to take on a small army. Also, as their sensors could monitor his heartbeat from anywhere on his craft he couldn’t easily run and hide from them if things went wrong.

If their purpose was solely one of protection, then that wouldn’t be a problem, but he felt sure that his employer would have added plenty of other instructions to ensure his life would soon become less of a priority if he appeared to be neglecting his mission.

There had been several futile attempts to contact his employer as he tried to remonstrate and get rid of the unwelcome crew members but each message, and request for a meeting, had been met with an automated response informing him that ‘Mr Garu is busy at the moment and isn’t taking calls’.

Being a pragmatist, who didn’t like being killed by his own automated bodyguards, Grath reluctantly had to accept the situation. He didn’t trust any robot he’d not programmed. For now, however, there was little he could do about them. Anyway, he felt sure they weren’t likely to become a threat to his safety, at least not until he’d completed his mission.

Despite having a few weeks until the timelines converged, so that he could earn his money, Grath had no desire to hang around Kualanandar for longer than was absolutely necessary. Money tended to attract the wrong sort of friends and he had no desire to be the target of some opportunistic thief or kidnapper.

The exit from the smuggler’s paradise had been swift and he wasted no time in getting to the right coordinates. To anyone who didn’t understand what he was waiting for, it would have seemed to be a strange place to stop and just hang around, but other people’s thoughts didn’t bother Grath. Now that he had plenty of time until the future collision, he just passed the day, until he caught up with his own timeline, by trying to work out what all the new systems did.

There had been a moment when he’d contemplated contacting himself in the current timeline and trying to warn the other Grath to avoid the Fold, but he quickly realised that messing with the past was complicated and could cause anomalies which were dangerous and unpredictable. He could end up sending himself along an alternative timeline which resulted in his death. Also, more importantly, it would mean that he’d end up missing out on a fortune.  So he concluded that he should keep quiet and let himself crash.

Eventually the time came when his astral chronometer started sending alarms throughout his ship telling him the appearance of his prey was only hours away and he needed to prepare for whatever happened.

Ensuring that he was facing the position of the imminent rip in space, and the target’s sudden exit from the Fold, he raised his shields, activated the vast array of weapons and sat waiting for his target to appear.

Up until that moment the Miceand robots had kept out of Grath’s way and remained in a room next to the cockpit, but now that he was preparing for action they had become more animated and had silently taken positions behind him. A situation that left the mercenary feeling distinctly uncomfortable. However, as he had more important things to think about, he simply ignored them.

Before any ripples in time or space became visible to Grath, and his two deadly companions, MAI registered the occasion on her sensors and, with the simple word ‘NOW!’, she’d issued the warning.

Tensing, he clenched the weapon’s controller as he prepared to fire. But things didn’t go quite as he had planned, or practised for.

As the rip in the Fold opened up, he briefly saw the convergence of timelines as his own craft was there one millisecond before it disappeared into a past that he had just lived through. Then there was a blast that hurt his eyes as the other craft shot out of the space anomaly like a cork out of a bottle of the finest Creekan wine.

There was no time to react, or get out of its way, so the impact with his beloved spacecraft was unavoidable. Being in the vacuum of space the noise of the collision was inaudible to anyone who might have witnessed it from a distance but inside the Vorpal-3 craft the sounds of buckling metal, exploding systems and the wailing of alarms, redundantly telling him that he’d been hit by another ship, all merged into a deafening cacophony.

The only noise that seemed to be missing was that of his chair imitating some exotic beast with flatulence, but as Grath had been ejected from his seat in such a way that his head contacted the control panel, sending him into instant unconsciousness, such things were of little importance to him.

Oblivious to the damage and all the fire control systems which had suddenly sprung to life, he remained slumped on the floor. The two mechanical bodyguards who had been monitoring his vital signs saw he was in a stable condition and remained where they were. Leaving him  on the floor. After all, they had only been programmed to keep him alive so his general comfort and minor injuries were none of their concern.

Eventually, with a headache that made him feel like he’d been hit in the head by a battle cruiser, Grath came to and started to pick himself up. “MAI, what happened?” Thanks to his dry throat the voice was raspy and barely audible.

[It seems that the coordinates of our prey were spot on, but our positioning was…,] she paused as if she was searching for the right words, [… rubbish.]

“Rubbish? Is that the correct technical term for it?”

[Technical? No, but it is the most appropriate one without me using profanity.] The giggle that accompanied MAI’s words did nothing to improve Grath’s mood. [We ended up in its way and as it shot into real space it hit us head on.]

“Ouch. So where is it now and how long before self-repair systems finish, allowing us to catch up with it?”

[Aargh…]

“MAI, what does ‘Aargh’ mean?”

[Well, Grath, there is good news, and bad news, and some really good news.]

“Alright, that doesn’t sound too bad. Feel free to tell me the score in your own words.” Sitting back in his chair he tried to focus on MAI’s visual screen but as the green lights were just a blur, he closed his eyes as waited for her to give him more information.

[Okay, you’re the boss. Whether it was our original collision with it in the Fold or our subsequent one when it was ejected into real space, the freighter appears to have sustained severe damage to its engines. I have been monitoring it and, although it is now at the edge of our scanners, it seems to be unable to reach light speed or re-enter the Fold.]

Opening his eyes Grath smiled and clenched his fist as if he were celebrating a victory. “Fantastic, let’s go get our prize before it repairs its systems and we have to start hopping around the galaxy in pursuit.”

[However…,] MAI’s words instantly stopped the Captain’s premature celebrations. [I said there was bad news. We have been damaged too and are in a similar predicament as they are.]

“You mean…”

[Yes, we also seem to be stuck when it comes to going fast. I have been following them, as best I can, but we are not able to do anything other than shadow them from a great distance. They haven’t tried to manoeuvre to lose us, so I think we are out of their sensor range, but that doesn’t matter as we can’t get near them anyway.]

“What about the auto-repair systems?”

MAI paused, the green light on her display panel flashing as she contemplated her response. [They were damaged in the collision and are offline.]

“Okay, so we are dead in space and, to all intents and purposes, have no way of catching up with that ship?”

[I have calculated that, with the aid of the two robots, we can carry out physical repairs on the engines so that we should be back online in three weeks, two day, seven hours, twelve minutes and one second. But if we do that it will mean that our weapons would still be offline and without them we would remain unable to capture our bounty.”

Garth rubbed his face in frustration and instantly regretted it as a jolt of pain reminded him about his recent head injury. “So… if we divert one of the robots to weaponry repairs, how much extra time would that take? But please keep it to weeks and days. I think we can ignore the hours, minutes and seconds.”

[Add another ten days and we will be fully functional. We will be able to outrun any ship in the quadrant and also be able to outgun them too. Until then we are vulnerable.]

Turning to face the Miceand robots he gave them a weak smile. “So, you tin boxes. I know you can fight but are you able to help with the repairs?”

Emotion, to the machines, was an anathema. They were like simple iron bars which could be used as paperweights, door stops or as a tool to beat someone’s brain’s out. They had no opinions or feelings about what they did and there was no joy or sadness if they had to destroy anyone. However, despite that, the flat monotone reply still sounded as if it had been dipped in a vat of sticky sarcasm and come out covered in it.

“Of course. Amongst our design parameters there are engineering functions that far surpass any biological being’s, or basic artificial intelligence’s, capabilities. Any repairs to this craft can be completed as long as the materials are available to allow us to do the work.”

Grath felt that his, and MAI’s, honour and capabilities had been attacked but knew that arguing with a metal bulkhead would be less of a waste of time. Releasing a sigh that seemed to fill the room he stood up.

“Alright, I suppose that as long as it is still on our monitors and we can maintain our distance in this slow chase, we will have to be patient. Get the boastful robots working. I am going to the medical room and then, once my head feels like it isn’t going to fall off, I will get some sleep. Wake me in six hours.” He started to walk to the door then stopped. “Oh, earlier you said that there was some ‘really good news’, what is it?”

[Errm, I lied about that, I wanted to keep your spirits up.]

*   *   *

Much to Grath’s consternation, MAI’s calculations relating to repair timescales had been accurate and no matter what he did, or how many hours he worked, he had been unable to improve on them.  Days had seemingly merged into each other as severed circuitry was reconnected, panels were patched up and weapons were recharged, recalibrated, and brought back on-line. But, finally, the time had come for him to press the blue button on the control panel. Tucked away in the bottom corner it looked insignificant, but it was the final indication that all the hard work had been worth it, and they were able to get on with business.

“Ignition in 10, 9, oh, to hell with it, here it goes.” With a quick jab, the button was pressed and the whole ship was filled with a faint buzz as systems re-activated and the craft sprung back into fully functional life.

“Fantastic!” Garth’s was full of relief “MAI, set coordinates for that craft. I am sick and tired of floating in space, watching it on the long-range scanners and wanting to…” His sentence was cut short as the whole craft was hit by a wave of energy that seemed to sweep through every inch of metal and air before it finally left the spacecraft and carried on with its journey through space.

“MAI, what the phate was that?”

[Some sort of high energy pulse emanated from our target. Although it has damaged a few circuits I don’t think it is a weapon as it was sent in all directions through space and time and wasn’t aimed specifically at us.]

“So, can we still get after the ship?”

[Yes, but I would advise caution.]

“Caution? I thought you said that it wasn’t a weapon?”

[That is correct, but things seem to have become a little more complicated. My sensors are picking up the approach of what looks like three Meekian Cruisers. They are in the Fold but it appears that they are heading straight for our target and will get there before us. Perhaps it would be best if we wait until they appear and see what they do.]

“Meekian’s? Those blobs of flesh are hardly much of a threat. But knowing them, they are probably after the same thing as me. I suggest we get there as quickly as possible. We can easily handle a few lightly armed freighters.”

Although, up to that point, the Miceand robots had never spoken without first being spoken to, one of them stepped forward, raised an arm and pointed a metal digit at the monitor screen. “Incorrect. The spatial matter signatures are designed to look like Meekian freighters but those readings are false.”

“False? What are you talking about?”

“They are Dedan Empire battle cruisers. Heavily armed. This craft would be no match against them. As your bodyguards, we would highly recommend not engaging in a suicidal confrontation with the Dedan. Doing so would mean that we would have failed in our primary objective.”

Chewing, pensively, on his lip, Grath stared at the robots. “I am touched by your concern for my welfare, I’d hate for you to have failed with your primary objective, it would be terrible if anything happened to you two.”

“Correct, your death would be unfortunate, but our armour would ensure we survived any battle so your humanoid emotional concern for our safety is unnecessary.”

Resisting the urge to add additional sarcasm to the conversation, which would have been lost on them anyway, Grath turned to the viewscreen preparing to address MAI.

“Damn it.” Taking a deep breath Garth punched a button so the freighter was visible on the main view screen, and watched as the battle cruisers dropped out of the Fold, becoming visible.

“Alright, I have no desire to go head-to-head with the Dedan so we keep our distance and see what happens. Hopefully they will not see us and will move on soon.” Turning slightly he saw that the Miceand robots had positioned themselves behind him. “And, MAI, I will hope our two metallic guests have not been programmed with the concept of impatience, or I am in big trouble.”

*   *   *

As the hours turned into days Grath became increasingly intrigued with the goings on that he was witnessing on his monitors. At such a great distance the resolution was not brilliant so he had to swallow his pride and ask one or other of the Miceand robots to identify the space signatures of each craft that flew back and forth between the freighter and lead battle cruiser. At first the Imperial barge went back and forth then other, smaller, service craft seemed to hover over it like flies on a corpse. They seemed to be carrying out repairs and once the work had been completed they returned to their respective cruisers, leaving the freighter alone and unmoving.

Tired of just sitting in his chair and watching four blurred shapes on his monitor Garth had decided to concentrate on something else, so, having left instructions to contact him if anything changed, he went to his cabin to search the databases for information which might enable him to switch off his bodyguards. He had just started reading a rather gruesome article about what happened to the last person who tried it, when MAI’s voice filled his head.

[Grath, the cruisers have just entered the Fold. It looks like the freighter is powering up and is about to set off as well. Do you want to follow it?]

“About bloody time. Of course, don’t wait for me to hit any buttons. Let’s go get him!”

Matthew  Leather

The monitor chirped as Grath highlighted the freighter for a potential weak spot. They were a good enough distance behind, but if they could see them, perhaps Dedan repairs and improvements could have made the Vorpal visible too.

“What do you think MAI?”

[Well from here it looks like they have certainly upgraded the ships offensive output.]

“Yes, but do you think they can see us?”

[If you saw a hunter class ship tailing you with overall positional advantage you would leave quickly.]

MAI was cut off by some further rumbling from the Miceand robots.

“There would be no reason to leave. We are far superior to any captain and crew from a hunter vessel.”

“There must be an off switch somewhere.” Grath leaned back in the chair, thinking of his next move. “Okay, so we have to wait for him to leave the ship or get him in a more vulnerable spot.”

[Yes].

“Affirmative.” MAI and the robots responded immediately.

[I have actually managed to intercept the end of a message from the freighter. Would you like to hear it?]

“Does it say where they’re going?”

[Erm, well, yes. You’re not going to like it]

“Phate. Kualanandar?” Grath’s hand crunched into the metal of his chair arm.

 

Set your coordinates for the port. You have your safe passage.”

“Well, that was easy now wasn’t it?”

“Easy for you perhaps. It’ll come out of your fee. Good hunting.”

 “So, he is working for the Dedan. What for?” Grath tapped on his screen. “He must be Folding soon. We need to get a lock. It is the only way we can follow. MAI help.”

They weren’t close enough to get a full trailing lock on the freighter, but Grath managed to get a hit on any Fold parameters within a certain distance of the Vorpal-3. Nothing else was on the scanners, so the only Fold would be from their target.

As the freighter started to Fold, its thrusters slowed to almost a complete stop in mere seconds and then fired fully. The effect jolted the ship forward until it warped through space seeming to sink into a black hole.

The beep from the control panel was obnoxiously loud, but Grath knew it was needed. It was highlighting that they had the Fold locked on. 

“We need the lock for ten seconds.” This was the time it took to gather and follow the coordinates. By this time Garth knew the freighter was definitely gone from the Fold path and he just hoped they didn’t Fold again. The control panel beeped four more times until MAI confirmed they had the lock.

[Shall we Fold?]

“Go.”

The ship took a second to prep and three seconds to Fold space around them.

*     *    *

When they exited the Fold, Grath noted Pirate’s Haven once again on their sensors. He couldn’t figure which port he was outside of and couldn’t see any traffic flow in or out.

“MAI, where are we?”

[It would appear we are at an abandoned loading dock port for the South Bay Nebula.]

“I thought these ports were sealed years ago. That place is a desolate wasteland. Nobody goes there.”

[I am detecting a large energy spike from the readings. It was five seconds before we got here. They must’ve got through.]

“I am not going back in there. No chance. Can we skirt the outer perimeter and intercept some messages? If something goes down, we can react then.”

[Perhaps we could contact Tal Garu. Tell him his target has entered his home. Let him deal with it?]

Grath scoffed at the thought.

“One, I am not losing my money for this job. And two, he never answers my calls.”

*     *      *

The Vorpal-3 floated on the perimeter for what felt like an eternity. MAI was working hard trying to intercept any communications leaving the sphere while Grath was walking around the centre console testing whether the two Miceand robots would continue to follow him.

“You know you don’t have to stay behind me constantly when we are in the ship. Right?” He stopped and looked at the pair.

“Although this is correct, we have analysed the situation and Kualanandar poses a significant threat. We will stay close until this threat reduces.” The pair of robots crept closer, shortening the distance.

They weren’t in a battle-ready stance, but that switch never took long. Grath tested this as he pulled out his plasma pistol, fired a shot at the sealed door and dived into a forward roll to get behind cover. The two robots immediately switched into weapons forward mode and scanned the area.

“There is nothing there, you idiots. You would’ve sensed it long before me. Just want to see how efficient you actually are.”

[We could potentially find out for real.] MAI pinged three fast moving ships from a distant port. [They are heading straight towards us.]

“I’ll man the guns, you two hold the bay doors.” Grath spun round on his chair and lifted the target lens to his eye. Clicking on the screen, he highlighted the two smaller ships; however, both were still larger than the Vorpal-3, he was ready to start firing. “Those things are not hunters, but they will take some destroying.”

He charged the three turret blasters and readied to fire. They were closing in quickly so the lock on was struggling to target. They were in a straight line and not faltering off course, he could freehand fire and hit them enough to either escape or fight to the end.

[WAIT.]

The unusual urgency of her tone caught Grath off guard. He looked away from the centre console and pulled up her likeness on the screen. “What is it?”

[Perhaps those calls to him had an effect. It is Tal Garu. I have received this communication.]

Grath, sorry I missed your calls I have been extremely busy as you can understand.

We have changed our plan slightly. May I come on board to discuss this? Don’t worry about letting me on, my Miceand robots have already released the airlock on the bay doors and are waiting for me to link. See you soon, HotShot.

Oh, it involves a Vazin.

When the message finished, Grath heard the unmistakable noise of a ship’s thrusters readying for docking. The alarm sounded as the doors opened. The two Miceand robots were stationed at either side, forming a welcome party. They looked like eager hosts at hotels searching for an extra Kunga coin as a tip. Tal Garu walked through the airlock bubble formed between the two ships, closely followed by two of his soldiers.

Grath watched on his screens waiting to hear what this was about while considering what he’d meant about a Vazin.

The centre hub door opened and Tal walked in, “Grath, buddy, good to see you again. It appears you missed the easiest chance to get this guy, huh?”

Grath opened his mouth to defend himself but was cut off by the sniggering of Tal’s men.

“Not to worry, as you perhaps figured from my message, something a bit juicier has arisen.”

“The Vazin?”

“That is right. She has been somewhat of a thorn in my side and now she has teamed up with our boy Dean.”

Tal Garu walked towards Grath and linked to his console. “May I?” He rhetorically asked as he already started logging into another system. “This just happened, before the two escaped my town.”

The screen switched to a groggy CCTV feed from inside a bar and showed Dean firing a clean shot directly at a nearby woman. One that she absorbed without taking any damage.

“How is that possible?” Grath slumped back in his chair. “The Vazin have been extinct for decades.”

“Not all of them, it would appear. This one goes by the name of Miss Yadnee,” Tal said, smiling. “Now, as I have said, she has joined forces with Dean. So perhaps we could come to a further agreement. Vazin’s were always good business, dead or alive.”

“Not a chance.” Grath finally stood and his sudden movements made Tal’s guards step forward. “I would be wiped out by a Vazin. It is suicide. I will forfeit any money given for this contract and head on my way.”

“Don’t be so brash Mr Danum. If you manage to bring me both Dean and Miss Yadnee, I will triple my payment.”

“And triple it twice more. Paid in advance. Then maybe I will consider it.”

“Deal, but I want them both alive.” Tal turned to leave, he didn’t want to give Grath a chance to argue or try to negotiate. “Oh, by the way, you will have some help. I have also enlisted the services of Ari Sentro for this job. She is already on the trail now heading to D-Jinn IV. Rendezvous with her there and finish the job. Simple.”

“Why would they be going to that urban wasteland?”

“Who cares, just bring them to me.” Tal didn’t even bother to turn around and just kept walking through the bay doors and into the airlock bubble.

[Well, that was interesting. We will need a few minor improvements to our cybernetics before entering D-Jinn IV atmosphere never mind taking on a Vazin. Shall I set our course for a reputable Julko workshop between here and D-Jinn IV?]

“Yes.”

MAI could feel the reluctance from Grath. [We have more than enough credits to buy whatever enhancements you want. If my calculations are correct with some lock on modifications and a new lung capacitor, we will have a 53.67% chance of beating a Vazin in a direct fight.] MAI could sense she wasn’t easing Grath’s mind. [That is just the bare minimum, we can do more to bump that percentage up.]

“Great, I’m going to look like one of those wunderkinds.”

The trajectory was set and they entered the Fold, heading towards the outer rim Julko workshop orbiting Pilz.

*     *     *

The Vorpal-3 drifted into the closest loading bay for the Julko workshop. Grath could hear the rumblings of metalwork and the whirring of circular saws before he even opened the door.

“You two stay here. I’ll be okay on my own.” He pointed at the two miceand robots. “I don’t want you two getting jumpy and costing me more money.” He quickly sealed the door behind him and set off to the workshop.

All Julko workshops were set out exactly the same. They had five ship loading bays, all big enough to repair a class 2 freighter or sometimes a galactic warship if the price was right. Inside was where they made their money with Hotshot cybernetic enhancements and healing. There was anywhere from four to twenty-four rooms all equipped with any required equipment and a surgery bot for assisting. The main work was done by a highly qualified and vetted doctor.

Julko was founded by one of the original Hotshots, Julian Kondra, and he used his resources to develop and implement a wide array of cybernetics. All with the aim of making his job easier and it didn’t take long for other Hotshots to take notice. Originally when he started selling the products he was using, he added slight quality reductions. He often increased the zero-locking range by a factor of three on his over eye lenses, always making them slightly less efficient than his own. Those days were long gone however, and he was a clean businessman with multiple chains of Julko workshops across all four quadrants. It was rare for him to be spotted in a workshop, so Grath was shocked when it was the man himself who greeted him at the front desk.

“Hello sir, what can we do for you today?” Julian looked up at Grath and pulled down his lens. “Well, I’ll be, that is some retro Julko gear you have fitted. You must’ve been around a while.” Julian’s age had never been determined, but the wrinkles around his eyes and the white flecking in his hair was giving it away.

“I guess you could say that. Not as long as you, Mr Kondra.” Grath spoke with an admiration to the original, but also thought buttering him up might be a good way to get a discount. Not that it was needed, especially with Tal’s job money in his bank account.

Julian laughed as he pushed over the standard waiver form all Hotshots getting enhancements had to sign. It removed all liability from Julko.

“You have certainly been around some time if you know who I am Mr?”

“Danum. Grath Danum.”

“Well, how about you call me Julian and I’ll call you Grath?”

“Sounds good to me, Julian.”

“So, what is it we can do for you here at Julko, Grath?”

“I have a job in D-Jinn IV, so I will need…”

Julian interrupted him. “You will need a lot of weaponry and armour improvements if you’re heading there.” Julian took another long look over Grath’s body. “And this isn’t me trying to make money here. This old Julko equipment may have served you well up to now, but D-Jinn will deteriorate it to nothingness.”

“That’s why I am here. What can you do for me?” Grath handed back the waiver. “MAI has given me some stats for a lock on mod and a new lung capacitor.”

“Well, that is a start. If you have the credits, I would look at a completely new armour set with a utilised lung capacitor and a linked internal biometric scanner.” Julian keyed into his computer and swiped up, revealing a holographic 3D image. “Regarding any lock on modification, we could use our new singularity lens with a re-calibrating zero. Meaning you are always on lock, no matter where you.”

“Can I have the upgrade linked to my current lens? I have become accustomed to my focal points and can’t afford that changing now. Plus, I like to keep some of the Hotshot element alive. These enhancements make it so anybody can do this job.”

“Perhaps, but only the strong survive in this job, no matter how good the gear might be.” Julian laughed and zoomed into the image on the lens. “What factor are you running currently, three, four?”

“Seven.”

“Sev-, How are you still hitting your mark?” Julian again looked at Grath in disbelief.

“I told you. I like to keep some of the Hotshot in me.” Grath widened his stance and puffed his chest out.

[Let’s stay focussed here, Mr Seven.]

“Wow. Just Wow Grath. I will add that to your list. I am going to assume you don’t want one of our newest items, the trigger finger mod. It will shoot up to ten times faster than standard and can be linked to your scanners to shoot when your aim crosses over a target in a gunfight.”

“How does that get fit?”

“Okay, well first off we need to remove your index finger.”

“Not a chance.” Grath cut him off before he could explain.

“Wait, it is a simple procedure and takes no time at all. It is only the tip of your finger and the replacement is made of the same material as your armour. It has an inbuilt neuro chip and works immediately. Fully calibrated. With any gun. It will take the shots you don’t even have a chance to see.”

[If you’re facing a Vazin, with their abilities that could be a useful upgrade.]

“On my left hand I will have one. My right stays untouched.”

“That is affirmative. I assume you have an onboard AI. Do you need any upgrades to it?”

“No, she is fine.”

[Yeah, I am.]

“Okay, so here is your full list of upgrades and the price.” Julian twisted his screen around.

50,000’

“Throw in a MK II Plasma rifle with an extended magazine and a case of pulse grenades and that price is acceptable,” Grath said, starting to take off his ammo belt. “Oh, and do something with this if you can.” He placed his phase pistol on the desk.

“This relic should be in a museum; do you want a new one at no extra cost?”

“Just a clean and calibration. Thank you.”

“Of course. Room three is ready for you Grath. See you soon.”

The procedure didn’t take as long as Grath expected and the only discomfort he felt was when his new armour was integrated with his lung plating. But that was only minor and the instant it connected he felt like he had never known how to breathe. He had to look away when his fingertip was removed and replaced, but this was seamless.

[Everything looks good. I think we should set off immediately for D-Jinn IV.]

Grath agreed as he picked up his last remaining things from the table.

The airlock on the operating room door released and the doors opened allowing Julian to walk in.

“Well, I’ll be. You look like a new man. How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling good. I do need to get going on, however. Are my MK II and phase pistol ready to go?”

“They are waiting at the desk for collection. It has been a pleasure doing this work for you Grath, take this.” Julian handed him a hologram comms beacon. “I might not be able to move as well as I could before, but if you ever need me, fire up this beacon and I’ll see what I can do. It’d be nice to knock the rust off my rifles.”

“Thanks, Julian, I will keep it in mind.” Grath took the holotag and set off back to his ship.

[I don’t think a Vazin would be a good first comeback fight for him.]

“Don’t worry MAI I’m not deranged.”

[No, of course not.]

Edwin H Rydberg

Their ship exited the Primary Galactic TRailing Fold, or PGTRF (known casually as pig trough), transitioning gracefully into the D-Jinn Interplanetary Fold, the DIF, and the most crowded local space Dean had seen in many years. He’d forgotten how long it had been since he’d travelled this far hubward; or how busy it was among the Central Systems. Despite the vastness of space, he felt positively claustrophobic with so many ships in view and even more on the  scanner.

The D-Jinn system was much like any other. It had three inner rocky planets that were well-developed centres of commerce and politics. Military outposts that protected the Fold routes were on moons of the fifth and seventh planets, which were gas giants. The sixth planet had almost been mined to oblivion and its once rich gaseous atmosphere was now only a thin layer surrounding a compact iron core.

“We’ve transitioned to the DIF,” Miss Yadnee informed him. “I haven’t detected anyone following us, but hidden will be much more difficult with all the military scanners embedded in the Fold paths here. If someone powerful  wants to find us, they will.”

“Yes,” Dean said, remembering some of the issues with operating hubward and why he’d started taking jobs closer to the rim. “And you have an unusual ship. Which class is it?”

“I’m spoofing a family-cruiser to cover our unique signature,” Miss Yadnee said, obviously avoiding his question. “Hopefully it will keep us off the scanners for long enough to do what needs to be done.”

So  far, it seemed to be working. They’d just cleared the second security checkpoint and  were free to travel to the inner systems.

“Dean, I’m not seeing a Fold path to D-Jinn IV on the standard map.”

The fourth planet of the system was not like most in this, or other systems. The orbit of D-Jinn IV was almost thirty-degrees from the solar plane. As such, the planet was above the solar ecliptic during half its orbit, and below it the other half. This also meant it wasn’t as protected from the harsh solar radiation of D-Jinn and the neighbouring stars as the other planets in the system were.

“Oh, yeah. Maybe it’s best if I fly the rest of the way,” Dean answered.

Miss Yadnee glanced at him, gave a slight shrug and stood, freeing the pilot chair.

It wasn’t until Dean sat, taking in the sea of switches and dials on the control panel before him that he realized this ship had slightly more complex controls than his old reliable St. Jude.

“On second thought,” he said, abandoning the pilot’s seat, “you fly and I’ll guide you in.”

“Bring up the local Fold map,” he said, as Miss Yadnee settled herself back in the pilot’s chair. Moments later a holographic map of the D-Jinn system, complete with the gravitational troughs that formed the Fold, appeared before them.

“Okay, because of its strange orbit, the Fold path to D-Jinn IV changes continuously. Right now the planet is just below the averaged system ecliptic and climbing. That means a new Fold path is forming between it and its neighbours. Our best chance to catch it will be a shallow exit from the DIF just starward of V’s orbit. We come in at a shallow angle and it’ll be hard to miss.”

Everything he’d just said would be common knowledge, had D-Jinn IV been a place anyone sane cared to visit. Instead, alone among the inner planets, it was a toxic wasteland, an intentionally ignored secret that served as a magnet to the less reputable.

“Or, we could run the calculations and let the ship do the work,” Miss Yadnee answered. “When’s the last time you upgraded your ship’s nav-computers Mr. Dean?”

He didn’t answer. In truth, St. Jude’s computer was like an old friend and he was reluctant to part with it. Also, where was the fun in having the computer do all the work? He enjoyed the thrill of a manual challenge from time to time. It kept life interesting.

Sure enough, Miss Yadnee made the transition to the developing Fold path with disappointing ease and D-Jinn IV was soon growing in their viewscreen.

Dean hadn’t expected to feel so nostalgic. From the scrap-gangs to the mech-houses, the memories of this hell-hole were hardly the kind to inspire longing.

“We’ve just passed the warning beacon. Do you have a favourite landmass to touch down on, or would you like me to choose one randomly?” Miss Yadnee pressed a button and a rotating image of the planet appeared between them.

“Oh, yeah,” Dean said, pulling himself from the memories of his youth. He spun the image a few times before pointing to a spot on the western edge of a continent-sized island. “There. Paradise Point.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Miss Yadnee said with only a touch of sarcasm in her voice.

“It isn’t,” Dean assured her.

*     *     *

The docking fee was much higher than Dean remembered it, but the cost didn’t seem to bother Miss Yadnee. He’d have to ask about her finances later. For now, he had to prepare to meet an old acquaintance who was quickly closing the gap to the ship.

“We’re settled. Boarding ramp down,” Miss Yadnee said, before adding, “Perhaps you’ll do the honours?”

But Dean was already halfway to the ship’s exit.

“I’ll stay aboard. I have a feeling we may need to depart quickly,” Miss Yadnee called to him. He waved his hand in acknowledgement, too lost in thoughts and memories to answer.

He’d left D-Jinn IV in a hurry, eager to finally make his mark on the galaxy with his new ship. A ship that he’d retrofitted with stolen parts after buying the chassis from a junker. It’s entirely possible he hadn’t returned for fear someone here knew what he’d done and still held a grudge.

“Let’s hope I’m still popular,” he said, under his breath as the man who never seemed to get old—well, older—stopped before him. The man sported a patch over his left eye, was cloaked in a worn brown  trenchcoat, and walked with a limp on account of his right cybernetic leg being seized up a the knee. Willie One-Eye looked exactly as Dean remembered him.

“Well I’ll be. Dean Dean. Ain’t seen you back this way in many a year. I see ye got yurself a fancy new ship. That’s quite an upgrade from the last hunk o’ junk I remembering ye blasting outta here with. Best be careful with that, son. Lotsa folk ‘round here be happy to take it off yur hands.”

“Thanks, but don’t worry. It’s got some surprises in it.”

“I’m sure it do,” Willie said, before falling silent. He looked Dean up and down for a long, awkward moment before he turned and started hobbling back to the port buildings.

“Well, ain’t ye coming?” he said over his shoulder. “I reckon ye got some catching up to do. And besides, rain’s a comin’.”

Outside of the landing stations, the surface of the planet was desolate. Most of it was desert wastelands and the rest was deep, wide crevices. Mining sites dotted the landscape wherever there was stable ground, and acid rain fell almost constantly. The ultra-hardened surface of ships was protection from the harmful precipitation, but most other materials dissolve quickly if left more than a few minutes outside. For that reason it wasn’t a location that saw many hardwired hotshots. And for that reason, it was a location that had a flourishing underground. Exactly what he needed to help him find out who was chasing him and how to find a new magic Bundar box.

Willie was deceptively fast and Dean rushed to catch up with him.

“So.” He let the word hang in the air. After all this time, it was difficult to act as if nothing had changed. Apparently, none of that mattered to Willie.

“So, what? Come on, spit it out, boy. Yer obviously here for a reason. I don’t think ye just missed my good looks,” he said with a wry smile.

“So… how’s the old crew?”

Willie paused at the entrance to the port. “Tread lightly, son. There’s still plenty o’ bad blood goin’ ‘round.”

Then he pulled open the door and urged Dean inside.

As Dean stepped through the doorway he was struck by how little the place had changed in the last several decades. And he breathed a sigh of relief that there was no one waiting for him.

He’d half been expecting old acquaintances to jump from the shadows and stab him in the back. Instead, the port foyer was empty apart from a closed Deli, a sleeping customs clerk, and the remnants of a ransacked electronics store. Leading off into the distance between the sparse facilities were three corridors stretching out from the central hub. All of them seemed empty also.

“You arrived at rush hour,” Willie joked. “Where ye looking to visit first?”

The blank look on his face made Willie laugh. “Haven’t decided yet, eh? Well, nothing’s changed. The bar,” Willie said, pointing down the corridor to the left. “Mech shop,” he added, indicating the centre passage. “And… ya… her.” Willie finished, jerking his thumb down the final corridor.

Dean took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “How’s she been? You know. Since I left.”

“Ornery. But a bird don’t change its feathers ‘cause its chick leaves the nest.”

“She knows I’m here, doesn’t she?”

“Probably. Not much happens on this rock she doesn’t know about.”

“I should see her first, shouldn’t I?”

“Probably.”

Dean took another deep breath, held it until his vision started blacking out, then expelled it long and slow.

“Can’t say I’d want to be in your shoes, son. Anyway,” Willie said, patting him on the shoulder, “I got prior business. Yur on yur own.”

“Great. Thanks,” he said as Willie turned and left the same way they’d come. “Nice seeing you again!” he  yelled to the retreating form.

He  could  really use a  drink about now, but if he didn’t see her first, he’d keep finding ways to avoid her. And then he’d really be in trouble. Steeling himself, he strode down the right-hand corridor.

The experience was like something from a nightmare. Never had a corridor seemed so long or his footfalls so loud.

When he’d thought to return to D-Jinn IV he’d been thinking about the old crew. The friends he’d worked odd jobs and hustles with. Somehow she’d slipped his mind. Now he was questioning his own sanity for returning. If it wasn’t for the seriousness of his situation, he would have turned around and headed straight back to the ship.

As it was, he came to the end of the corridor sooner than he was ready for. To one side were crumbled walls of rubble, sealed with acid-resistant epoxy. To the other, a curtain leading to a room. Dean paused only a moment before stepping through the curtain.

The room was small, with a desk and an open door on the far wall. The guy at the desk was vaguely familiar as he looked up. Either he was expecting Dean or he hid his surprise well because he barely reacted other than to say, “She’s waiting. Go on in.”

He forced his jelly legs to carry him forward, through the open door and into an office that looked exactly as he remembered. The room was small and dark, bathed in the glow of security monitors on three walls that constantly flickered through images of the surrounding area. He caught a glimpse of Miss Yadnee’s ship on one screen before the image shifted.

In the middle of the screen-glow was a large office desk covered with stacks of paper. The woman buried behind the papers looked up and he could just see her eyes.

“Well, well. Look who’s decided to return.”

“Hi mom,” he said, sheepishly. “How have you been?”

He had no idea if she was his real mother or not, but it didn’t matter. She’d taken in all manner of street kids and orphans and treated them all the same. Which was to say, she had her own little army working for her. Spies, thieves, messengers, anything she wanted, they’d done.

She stood, her head coming almost to his shoulders, and he saw the years had not been kind to her. Deep wrinkles adorned her face and her grey hair was thinning. But her eyes were still sharp and piercing and he assumed her tongue remained that way also.

After a glance, she turned her back to him, perusing the security monitors as she spoke.

“What do you need?”

“What makes you think…”

“You’ve been smuggling, alone, for more than twenty years in the ship you stole from me and you never once dare show your face on D-Jinn IV. Then you meet with the Dedan, get chased out of Kualanadar in a strange ship, and suddenly you walk through my door as if nothing’s happened and you were still one of my little wombats. So I ask you again. What do you need?”

“Information,” he answered. There was no use drawing it out. Mama Sitta’s spy network was amazingly good, for being located on an acid-filled wasteland.

“Anything in particular?” she asked, turning her head just enough that he could see her eyes watching him.

He hadn’t expected to be talking with her again. Especially about this. But as far as he knew, she’d set the entire meeting up for just this purpose, so there was no benefit in not getting straight to the point.

“I’m looking for a box… an artifact.” His voice trailed off as he realised how stupid it sounded.

“The Bundar Box,” she said, turning fully toward him.

“Yes. How did you…? Never mind. The Dedan are coming after me if I can’t find one. Any thoughts?”

She gave a wry smile before asking, “What happened to the last one?”

Of course she knew he’d had one. He felt like a little kid again, being cross-examined after failing a mission.  “I… opened it. And it… exploded. I didn’t know what it was!” he added, hastily.

Her smile was wide enough to show her teeth and it sent a shiver down his spine. “And yet you’re still alive,” she said, with more admiration than he ever remembered hearing from her.

“Um… yeah. So, do you know where I could find another?”

She walked casually around the desk until she stood before him, then reached up and patted him on the shoulder. “My boy, Dean. You never were too good at using the grey matter between your ears. But somehow you always came out of every situation smelling like roses.”

“Okay. But about the box?”

“You’re asking the wrong question. You were never the curious type, but sometimes it helps to understand what you’re dealing with. That begins by asking the right questions. Such as…”, she leaned toward him as she finished, waiting for him to supply the rest.

“Such as…,” he said, feeling like he was back in training again. Only, then he could read his fellow students and anticipate what they would say so he wouldn’t have to come up with the answer himself. But this time he was one-on-one with the teacher.

“Such as…”, he repeated. Having her so close was disturbing. She wanted him to say something, but he didn’t know what. He couldn’t think of anything, but she kept  staring. Why wouldn’t she just tell him the answer? What did she want from him? Finally, he just blurted out, in exasperation, “What is it!?”

Mama Sitta smiled. “Exactly.”

It took Dean a moment to realise what she meant. By then she’d returned to her desk.

“The Dedan are not the only ones looking for a Bundar Box. Nor are they the most powerful ones. You’ve stepped in the Rancor nest this time, my dear boy. But from what you’ve told me, you may just have a chance to come out of this alive. Especially since you’ve managed to procure the aid of a Vazin.”

A surge of shock coursed through his body. She knew about Miss Yadnee?

“It’s not often a Scepter-class fighter is seen these days, but ‘yes’, I know of the ship’s owner. I do a lot of business with Kualanandar. And since you never could have bested a Vazin and stolen her ship, she must be with you. And that gives you a chance.”

“Okay, but what is the box? Where do I find one?” He was beginning to tire of Mama’s theatrics, although he’d never tell her to her face.

As if reading his feelings, an understanding smile appeared on her face. She jumped up to sit on her chair and, as he leaned forward to see her, he noticed her body settled into a comfortable form, the tension releasing from her shoulders. Moments later, she began. 

“A Bundar Box is a cosmic egg. Well, strictly speaking that may not be true, but it is an accurate enough analogy. Regardless, no one knows precisely what ‘hatches’ from the egg. Some speculate a long-lost species, others suggest it creates an infant universe. Still others believe it’s little more than a powerful energy source. You survived opening the box because it was still undeveloped. And,” she said, staring intently at him, “because apparently there is something special about you.”

While he wasn’t shy about being the centre of attention, Dean nevertheless felt uncomfortable being the focus of Mama Sitta’s intense gaze and decided to shift the topic back to what he needed.

“Um, okay, so I can’t just go out and pick up another box. Where would I find one, then? Admiral Gomari assured me there were more.”

“There are. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Really nothing more than rumours and hearsay. But the best person to ask would be your Vazin friend. They’re the ones who had access to the galaxy’s rarest lore and mythology. If anyone knows where you might find a Bundar Box, it would be her. And maybe she knows a few other secrets you might be interested in too,”  Mama Sitta hinted.

“She’s a bit old for me, don’t you think?”

“Not those kinds of secrets, you idiot. You didn’t survive the energy wave of the immature egg due to your charm.”

“Oh, right.”

Rumour has it that eggs are birthed under conditions of extreme energy and radiation — black holes, supernovae, etcetera. But that doesn’t mean they’re common. After all, if it was that easy to find one, everyone would know about them by now.”

Mama Sitta looked up, staring directly into his eyes. “Phate knows how you’ve survived this long, Dean. The universe must like you. But I can see you’re eager to get going, so I won’t keep you any longer. Before you get back on that fancy ship, however, it wouldn’t hurt for you to say ‘hi’ to your old friends. I’m sure they’re eager to see you and some of them might even be of help. They’ll be in the bar or the mech shop, as usual. Nothing changes much in this place. But watch your back,” she added as he turned to leave. “Some grudges don’t die.”

Darren Walker

Between the third and fourth Galactic wars there had been a brief period when intergalactic travel had been seen as a tourist marketing opportunity where people could hop from galaxy to galaxy for pleasure. This brief interlude, where the authorities tried to encourage more than travel which was for trade, piracy, or conflict, didn’t last long but one of its main legacies, which seemed to survive, was the Galactic Register of Public Establishments. Theories abound about its survival but amongst these was the most popular one that it was the laughter inducing GROPE acronym which made it last. There were of course other opinions but for whatever reason it had survived and become recognised in the seemingly endless solar systems throughout the countless galaxies.

Thanks to its simplicity, GROPE ratings and their ensuing certificates were proudly displayed in bars on almost every inhabited planet. While many tried to get the best possible score there were some places which delighted in getting the worst ones. The score of Ten was the best and getting such a good GROPE would signify that the venue would be able to provide high class food and drinks to their clientele while they relaxed in a clean and safe establishment.

As the scores lowered so did the quality until it reached one. If a drinker saw a certificate with that rating on it they would, if they had any sense, avoid it like the plague. After all the plague was a definite risk if they ventured into the place.

The bar that Dean was entering, known to the locals as ‘The Dead Pirate’, was an anomaly which the Galactic Register had failed to consider when creating the original scoring criteria, and when its assessment had happened, they’d been forced to create a new score. It was unique but the Zeroth GROPE had been issued and was truly deserved.

If it had been a more sophisticated place the lighting could have been described as ambient, but the Dead Pirate was just ominously dark. The furniture had been ‘acquired’ from spacecraft that had either landed, or crashed, on D-Jinn IV so the chairs and tables failed to match and, thanks to the various aliens who’d previously owned them, they were created to suit lots of odd shapes and sizes. Thanks to the lack of cleaning and the years of accumulated spilt drinks, blood and other body fluids, the sticky carpet was like walking on damp moss that squelched in various places. If anyone was unfortunate enough to collapse into it they ran a genuine risk of drowning or contracting some rare and fatal disease.

However, the worst part of the place was the walls. They had originally been painted a neutral magnolia colour but thanks to neglect and the fights which frequently and spontaneously erupted in the place, they had been redecorated in a wide spectrum of blood colours. Green, red, blue, purple and even yellow were splattered freely as if the whole place had been painted by someone wanting to create a piece of abstract pop art. This colour scheme also had added texture as chunks of flesh, in various stages of decomposition, adhered to some of the hard-to-reach spots.

Once Dean was inside the bar he stood there overwhelmed by a mixture of nausea, caused by the smell, and nostalgia as he saw so many things that brought back both good and bad memories. The Aldeep Ball table was still in the place it had always stood, the cracked and blaster marked screen protecting the barman from his clientele seemed to be exactly as he’d last seen it and the background music, emanating from some unseen sound system, sounded just as bland and inane as it always had.  

Then, finally, there were the eclectic mix of drinkers. They were hard to distinguish and differentiate in the semi-darkness but even if many of the names and faces were different from when he had last been there, they were still the same dregs of life and the scum of this, and most other, galaxies. Humanoids and other creatures who were either on the run or not wanting to be found and were happy to slum it in the worst bar in the galaxy.

“By Krag’sss codpiece you have a lot of ballsss coming back here.”

The almost forgotten hissing voice dragged Dean’s mind back from his thoughts, about past times, in the bar. “Bob, is that you?”

The figure that stepped out of the shadows was a green skinned reptilian creature with a face that seemed to be more teeth and forked tongue than anything else. The eyes were just sinister slits and the nostrils tiny holes just above the scaley jaw. “Who elssse would it be? It hasss been a long, long, long time Dean.”

“Aww,” moving forward and looking up into the creature’s face. “you missed me, how sweet.”

“Sssstill as funny asss a blassster hit to the face. I look forward to ripping your head off.”

“Come on Bob, you are just as ugly as ever and you were always too slow and stupid to beat me in a fight, so what makes you think that you can beat me now?”

The insidious laugh was soon joined by the derisive laughter of others as more people approached Dean, forming a circle around him and making him wish he’d never asked the question. “Oh. Right. Them. Hello, you lot, you’re all still hanging out at the same bar I see. It’s been a while.”

The loud jeering and cacophony of expletives made it clear that his past sins had not been forgotten and certainly not forgiven.

“Good job I never asked the old question about you and whose army as this is your little army. Never mind.” With a mixture of instinct and bad body odour Dean didn’t need to turn around to know that an old foe stood close behind him and, if past history was anything to go by, he was in danger.  Swinging his left arm back he grabbed hold of a wrist and pulled it forward so that he could see a skinny fist clenching a long and thin dagger. With his other hand he smashed it down onto it, releasing a bone cracking sound that seemed to echo across the room and make many of his would-be antagonists cringe. With broken bones the attacker no longer kept hold of his weapon and dropped it on the floor where it landed with the sound of a damp splod. Then, as if it were all one ballet action, Dean released the arm, raised his elbow to shoulder height and sent it flying backwards into the face of the assailant. Taken by surprise the body flew backward, hitting several spectators in the process, before his unconscious body finally fell to the floor.

Turning to glance at the prostrate body Dean grinned. “Jeeved, you need to learn some new tactics. Stabbing people in the back is getting old and is definitely predictable whenever you are in the room.” Stopping he remembered that he was still surrounded by danger, so he started to rub his hands in glee as he frantically looked around him.

“Aagh, where was I?  Yes, Bob, as I was saying…” Without another word he sent a right hook flying up into the creature’s face and immediately regretted it. The pain that shot up his arm, and into his brain, reminded him that an Antigarian’s skull was far tougher than his knuckles.

As Bob swung in retaliation Dean ducked and then launched a series of punches at his stomach. There were not many weak spots to be found on Bob’s body but they did exist and Dean knew exactly where they were and how to exploit them. As Bob’s long talon tipped hands swiped downward towards his head, Dean leaned back and then, seeing a gap between his opponent’s legs, dove between them and, assisted by the slimy carpet, slid underneath Bob, coming to a stop several feet away from the back of his legs. Then, putting his whole-body weight into it, he brought his legs up and rammed them into the back of Bob’s knees. There was a loud agonised scream as Bob fell to the ground. Curling into a ball and clenching his legs he made it obvious he wasn’t going to be getting up for a while.

Standing up and shaking his arms, like a prize fighter waiting for the next round to start, Dean briefly sniffed his shoulder and began to wish that the carpet would get cleaned at least once every decade.

“Right,” he said, studying the crowd who were still surrounding him but had stepped back, in case the newly arrived fighter decided to focus his skills on them. “Who’s next?”

It was then that he saw the crowd unwillingly part as two squat and almost identical figures forcibly made their way into the battle circle. Dean recognised them as Quinquat and Kevin, two humanoids from the planet Septus, in the Gamma Epsilon VIII sector. Although they didn’t look much of a threat to him the planet’s intense gravity had ensured that anything that evolved there had to be sturdy to avoid being crushed and, when the inhabitants travelled to other worlds that had a more forgiving gravitational pull, they found they had far more strength than any native. They were not always agile but definitely deadly.

“Hello Quin, hello Kev.” Having forgotten about them, they had not featured in any of Dean’s fighting plans, and he only just managed to keep the fear out of his voice. He had seen them fight before and knew that one well aimed punch from either of them could easily crush bones and leave him for dead. “Look, my fight isn’t with you two. Can’t we talk about it? How about we go to the bar and have a drink just like old times?”

“Talk? It is too late for that. Maybe, when we have finished with you, we can have a nice chat with what is left of your body.” Kevin’s voice was deep, as if the words had emanated from the bottom of a mineshaft. “But first we need to teach you a lesson that you will remember for the rest of your life.”

“All twenty seconds of it.” Added Quin as he clenched and unclenched his fists in preparation for them getting some bloody and violent exercise.

Looking around in desperation Dean saw that Miss Yadnee happened to be standing at one side of the room. She was leaning against the wall, eating some sort of snack from a plain paper bag. On making eye contact he gave her a desperate look while she simply winked and threw a piece of food into the air, catching it in her mouth.

Having never seen them defeated in any sort of conflict before, Dean started to rack his brain in a desperate attempt to think of a way of at least getting out of the bar alive and, preferably with all his vital organs still in full working order.

He had seen the two of them take handheld blaster shots to the chest which had slowed them down but they had still managed to stay on their feet, so he doubted that any punch that he landed would do any good.  Finally, lacking any other viable option, he opted for the tried and tested act of every desperate person trapped in a bar fight, the good old kick to the groin. It was a solid and accurate blow directly between Kevin’s legs but, other than making him briefly stop to scratch where he’d been kicked, as if an insect had tried to bite him, the blow had little effect.

With his only impromptu plan exhausted Dean stepped back. But finding himself trapped in the circle of the now blood thirsty crowd, he was promptly shoved back into the centre of the makeshift arena. The baying mob wanted a show, ending in death, and had no intention of letting him disappoint them.

With their target within reach, the two Septusians decided that it was time for them to give the audience what they wanted. Despite the squat bodies and short arms, the swinging punches were fast and it took all of Dean’s energy and concentration to dodge them. Swerving first one way and then the other he managed to avoid being hit but he knew that the odds were not in his favour. He could keep up the dance of life for a while but all they needed was one lucky blow and that would be the end of him.

Then, stepping back, his foot caught in a hole in the frayed carpet and, losing his balance, he fell to the ground. Expecting an imminent pummelling, that would have left his body little more than tenderised meat filled with shattered bones, he raised his arms in part to try to protect himself and in part to cover his eyes so that he didn’t have to watch while he was beaten to death.

Despite sharing Dean’s view of what would happen to him, Kevin had no desire for their little game to end so soon. He was enjoying the adulation of the crowd; the sport was fun and he wanted to prolong the one-sided fight a little longer. After all, in his eyes, the victim was far from innocent and deserved all that was coming to him.

Crouching down Kevin grabbed Dean by the throat and groin then, lifting him over his head, he stood upright and tossed him through the air so that he flew above the heads of a section of the audience and, after spinning a couple of time, hit the wall just next to the spot where Miss Yadnee stood.

Clenching at his cracked ribs Dean ignored the raucous laughter of the crowd and looked up at his companion’s grinning face. “Hello, fancy meeting you here.” His attempt at humour might have worked if his voice hadn’t sounded like his throat had just been squeezed, his genitalia roughly handled and his cracked ribs were making it painful to breathe.

“Hello Dean. Are you having fun?”

“All things considered I’ve had better days. Anyway, it was a pleasure knowing you.”

“Tssk, men! Giving up far too easily. Here, don’t ask any questions, just grab two handfuls of these and throw them into the faces of the Septusians.” Garbing his hand and pulling him up to his feet she thrust the paper bag, containing her snack, under his nose.

Glancing at the small round purple fruit he scowled. “What are…”

“Which part of ‘Don’t ask questions.’ do you not understand? You have two dwarf walls of muscles and rage lumbering your way, so you have about five seconds before they get here and probably throw you at another wall. Just do it!”

Putting his hands into the bag he grabbed as many of the soft and squishy fruit as he could and then hurled them, first at Quinquat’s face and then at Kevin’s. Both were perfect throws but, as he had suspected, other than making them look like ugly purple fruit salads they were still the same Septusians after his blood.

Pausing to wipe the juice off with their hands they looked first at the mess that had landed on the carpet, and then up at Dean. “What was that supposed to be?” Derision dripping from every word that Quinquat spoke. “You think that is going to stop…”

It was then they both looked at their hands with expressions of shock, then pain, and finally agony as they saw them start to smoulder then burst into flames. The screams grew louder as their faces began to ignite in the same way. The burning spread along their foreheads, consuming their ears and scalp before it began to eat away at flesh, bone and then brain until all that was left of the two attackers were headless torsos, with thin plumes of smoke rising from their shoulders, like recently blown out giant candles. Finally, as gravity took over, the bodies collapsed to the group.

Having seen what had happened to his attackers Dean stared, open mouthed, at their remains as he tried to gather his thoughts. As the moment passed and it became too late for a spontaneous and witty quip, he turned to Miss Yadnee with a bewildered expression. “What the hell were those things?” Realising that he still had some of the fruit stuck to his hands he desperately rubbed them clean against his trousers. “And why didn’t you come to my aid sooner?”

Popping one of the fruits into her mouth she deliberately chewed on it slowly while her eyes made it clear that she was enjoying having the upper hand. Then, once she had finished chewing, she swallowed and finally spoke. “Relax Dean, you are safe. They are just Pilithian Floor Nuts. Or, if you happen to be on the planet Pilithia, then they tend to just call them Floor Nuts. But either way it is a tad ironic as they are obviously not nuts, they are fruits and they are delicious. Care for one?”

Warily, Dean took one from the proffered paper bag, placed it in his mouth and slowly chewed it, allowing the sweet and succulent juices to seep out and fill his mouth. As he savoured it he thought they were, perhaps, the most delicious thing that he’d ever tasted but he didn’t want to admit that to Miss Yadnee. ”Yep, they’re alright, I suppose. But that still didn’t explain what happened to Quinquat and Kevin. You’ve got to admit that fruit tends to be healthy and doesn’t usually cremate people.”

Miss Yadnee gave him a knowing smile. “Not normally, no. But if you were familiar with Section 13, clause 5b of Septusian’s importation laws then you’d know that Pilithian Floor Nuts are banned from the entire planet and anyone caught trying to import them is immediately put to death.”

“Interesting Miss Yadnee, but that still doesn’t explain…”

“Oh, Mr Impatient. I was getting to that. It seems that the skin of your everyday, average, Septurians is composed of several chemicals that are not found in other living creatures and if they come into contact with the juice of this delicious fruit they instantly suffer from a serious case of immolation. I suppose it avoids them having to build their usual warrior funeral pyres, but they do not see that as a benefit. Strange isn’t it that such a strong and seemingly invincible race can be destroyed by such a delicious fruit?”

Taking another fruit from the bag he held it up to the light to briefly study it before popping it into his mouth. “All right, thank you for that. It is appreciated, as I was struggling to beat them.”

“Well, that’s the understatement of the year.”

“Alright, alright. As I said, thank you. But you still haven’t answered my other question.”

Miss Yadnee raised her eyebrows, like a teacher about to lecture a small child on why they should not break wind in class. “That is simple, I like to know the people I am dealing with and your participation in a barroom fight was an ideal way for me to assess you.”

Dean clenched his broken ribs. “So you let me face death as a sort of test?”

“Yes, exactly. And I am pleased to say that you passed. I am officially happy with what I saw and I think you would be able to watch my back if we ever got into a tight spot.”

“Thanks, that makes me feel a lot better.” Gesturing to a vacant table that the dispersing audience hadn’t occupied, he added, “before we talk any more, can we please sit down? I need a trip to the medi-centre, but before that, I need a stiff drink.”

Once they had sat down and he’d emptied a couple of glasses of low-grade imitation Old Earth Fizzy Brandy, Dean saw Bob walking towards him. “Oh crap, not again.” Standing up he raised his fists in readiness for yet more violence.

Seeing the fighting stance, Bob stopped and began to laugh, “Relax Dean. We fought and you won. Honour hassss been sssatisssfied. Now it is time to drink and talk.”

After the next round of drinks had been paid for by Bob, and the early stages of inebriation had started to take hold, Dean was finally able to relax. The conversation moved from them sharing what they had been up to since they last met, to the main issue that had, so far, been assiduously avoided.

“Why Dean? Why did you do it?” Expressiveness was difficult for Bob’s reptilian features, but the tone of his voice conveyed his earnestness. “You ssstole our bessst ssship with itssss cargo hold full of refined Creeesssson. It wasss worth millionsss and wass a year’sss worth of our hard work.” As he waited for an answer, he stuck his long tongue into his drink and began to slurp it into his mouth.

“It is a long story, but do you remember Anna?”

Bob scratched his chin with a sharp talon as he tried to place the name. “Anna? Oh, the humanoid you used to knock about with? Yes, vaguely. Skinny with soft human flesh? Not really my type. What about her?”

“Well Bob, we dated and were quite passionate. She was keen, I was keen, but her father was not so happy about the relationships.”

“Ssso?” Shrugging his bulky shoulders. “You never worried about getting a father’ssss approval before and you were never the marrying type sssso what about it?”

Dean gave Bob a pained expression. “When I was getting up close and personal with someone, I tended not to worry about the approval of the father, after all what father, in their right mind, would approve of me? But he wasn’t just any old father.”

There was a pause as Bob impatiently waited for elaboration. However, after a couple of seconds, the silence lasted just as long as his patience. “And?” The word sounded far terser than he’d intended.

“The father was Selby Kragstasie.”

On hearing the name Bob couldn’t help but release a raucous laugh that seemed to fill the bar. Everyone else in the place stopped what they were doing and looked at the three drinkers. “As in the late head of the Macastim Crime Syndicate?”

Dean shrugged, held out his hands and bowed his head, as if in supplication to Bob. “Yes, that Selby Kragstasie, and when he takes a disliking to someone who likes his daughter, but has no desire to be his son-in-law, it is wise to get well out of his way. When I found out that he was coming for me I knew that, if I told any of you, you would all put up a fight to defend me. But all of us combined were no match for his army of mercenaries, thugs and cut throats. We’d have all ended up dead and I didn’t want that. I knew I had to run. To get as far away from them, and you lot, as possible. I needed the fastest ship available, and I assure you that I had no idea what was in the hold. I did plan to return once it was safe to do so but there were wars breaking out and I ended up running guns and fighting for the wrong sides. When peace finally came, I thought it had been too long for me to return and expect to be listened to.”

During most of the conversation Miss Yadnee had been silent, but now that Dean had come to the end of his tale she finally decided to speak. “So, Dean, what happened to Anna?”

“Anna? Oh she took over from her father. She cancelled the bounty on my head but sent me a message saying that if she ever saw me again I would be a dead man. She always did have a butt of a temper and is still annoyed with me for running off without even saying goodbye.”

Miss Yadney shrugged and nodded in appreciation of Anna’s feelings for his actions. “And the precious metal, what….”

Her conversation was suddenly cut short when Mama Sitta ran into the bar and stood in front of Dean. She might not have used any swear words, but her body language and expression seemed to be screaming expletives at him.

“Alright Dean! What the hell have you been up to now? A ship has just entered the system and, despite trying hard to confuse our long-range sensors into thinking it is just some beaten up space freighter, it is armed to the gunnels with the latest weaponry. We do not usually get such company and I suspect it has something to do with you. Care to tell me what the phate is going on? Do we need to prepare for a war?”

Matthew Leather

The patrons rushed out of the Dead Pirate at the news, led by Dean and Miss Yadnee. Bob’s talon-like feet spewed a mist of sand into the air as he clambered behind the pack. Dean stopped at a signal beacon, shielded his eyes from D-Jinn’s split sun, and keyed in the coordinates Mama Sitta said.

“It is reading as a mostly destroyed V1 Freighter, do you have any reading of its actual configuration?”

Mama Sitta reached into her dust worn satchel and plucked out her holographic display screen.

“This is linked to our main satellite systems. It’s a direct scan of the actual ship.”

Dean scrolled through the list of tech and weaponry listed and could feel a lump growing in his throat. He sensed Miss Yadnee looming over his shoulder to sneak a peek at the list.

“Well. What do you think?” Dean asked, handing the holo display back to Mama Sitta.

“We haven’t got a comms link to the ship yet, but I can’t think of any innocent reason why somebody would hide their ship’s configuration to enter the D-Jinn system,” she replied.

“With the kind of weaponry I saw, and the actual ship type, there is no doubt this is a hotshot. It has to be Tal Garu’s lacky,” Miss Yadnee said.

“A hotshot, coming to D-Jinn?” Mama Sitta glanced at the pair. “I knew your return was trouble, Dean.”

Dean accessed the signal beacon again and sent a simple question through an open comms channel toward the ship.

“Are you here to fight?”

Dean, Miss Yadnee, and the remaining patrons of the Dead Pirate didn’t have to wait long for a response. The signal beacon crackled as it interpreted an incoming burst of tachyons from the comms channel.

[Hello, on D-Jinn IV. My name is MAI, we do not wish any harm anyone on the planet, we are simply here for Captain Dean Dean.]

“He isn’t here,” Dean said, turning to look at Miss Yadnee with a smile on his face. “That should do the trick.”

Miss Yadnee didn’t say anything in response, instead she offered a sarcastic double thumbs up as the signal beacon crackled again.

[We know that is you captain. Ideally, we don’t want this to come to a fight, but as you have no doubt verified, we are heavily armed.]

In the background there was a muffled voice that was indecipherable, but before they could guess what it said, MAI answered the question for them. [Even with a Vazin fighting in your corner.]

“Shit.” Dean looked around at the small crowd remaining, those with a vested interest in the motivations of this hotshot, and he could feel their angst and, appropriately, their fear.

“Ssshe isss Vazin?” Bob said as he took two large conspicuous steps backwards and away from Miss Yadnee.

“I am of Vazin bloodline and a direct descendent, but I can assure you I mean no harm.”

“Is that how you killed Quin and Kevin, some old school Vazin magic,” Mama Sitta said, copying Bob in retreat.

“No, it was just Pilithian flour,” Miss Yadnee stopped her explanation in favour of discussing the next steps with Dean. “Just ask them what it is they want and perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

“Look, we do not want a fight,” Dean transmitted, “can we not come to some kind of agreement?”

“You should be able to figure out who it is that has placed a contract on your head, and from that you can deduce that no amount of counter negotiation is going to be viable,” a new, deeper voice said.

“I take it you are the hotshot that has the bounty. What can I call you, considering you know my name?”

“I am Grath Danum and I am bored of this back and forth now. Are you willing to surrender yourself to me and save any collateral damage to your home?”

Dean took a laboured glance at the faces around him. There were no expressions other than fear. Whether it was from learning a Vazin descendent was within touching distance or whether it was due to the fact that a hotshot armed to the teeth was looming over head was no longer relevant. In both cases, it was because of him.

He caught Miss Yadnee’s eyes, and she slowly shook her head from side to side. Dean had gained her trust in a small bar room brawl, but a straight up fight against a hotshot was suicide in its most pure form.

“I am not surrendering; I don’t even know what you’re after me for.” Dean clicked off the beacon and turned to face everyone. “This is not your fight, please go home and get indoors, we will lure them away from D-Jinn IV and out of this system.”

There was no chance for an answer before the sound of multiple high-powered blasters charging to full power could be heard from the direction of the Dead Pirate. They turned to see a well-armed group heading toward them.

“No, that won’t be happening,” a sharp, female voice said from the group. “I am sorry Dean, it was a simple request from Grath. We are here to collect you.” A diminutive woman walked from between three creatures of various shapes, her blaster trained on Dean.

“Who the fu-,” Dean was interrupted before finishing his sentence..

“My name is Ari Sento. I am working with Grath, for a considerable price I must add, in your retrieval.”

Miss Yadnee, pushed past Dean and walked towards the blasters. “You know who I am right?”

“I know exactly who you are Miss Yadnee, I have even drunk in your tavern a few times.”

“Then you know that those things won’t do anything to me. And if you do decide to shoot, I would be able to stop anybody from being hit.”

“Maybe, but you wouldn’t be able to stop both us and him,” Ari gestured towards the sky.

The Vorpal-3 was slowly descending toward the nearby landing platform, Grath could be seen seated on the gunner chair on the underside of his ship.

*     *     *

Grath flicked on the auto lock system of his new underside gunner turret and spun around on his chair.

“MAI keep those guns trained on the target and maybe keep one for the Vazin if she tries anything.”

[Of course, what is your plan?]

“I am going to capture Dean and the missing cargo for Tal Garu. You know, complete the bounty,” he added, with only a touch of sarcasm.

[Well, good luck.]

As he left his seat, Grath muttered under his breath, “I don’t need luck”.

He walked to the air locked doors and felt a presence behind him. He turned, to see the miceand droids had followed him, and he sighed.

“You may leave the ship, but do not cause conflict. If needed you may help me finish it.”

There was no response from the droids as the air pressure dropped and the doors slid open. Grath’s new modifications kicked into gear when the D-Jinn IV atmosphere cycled around him, warming him to his core. The reading on his HUD, displayed in the upper right of his visual field, showed ‘normal’ for all O2 stats so he stepped out of the ship. He glanced around at the desolate wasteland of D-Jinn IV and was reminded of the second reason why he had never felt an urge to visit.

A short distance away, Ari Sento and her crew were still holding up the Dead Pirate patrons, fronted by Dean and Miss Yadnee.

“Hey Ari, how is it going?” Grath shouted over to the group as he continued walking towards them.

“Erm, okay I guess.”

Sensing the fear in her voice Grath shouted again.

“Don’t worry about that Vazin, all of her ancient trinkets are still back at the tavern and I doubt she will have enough magic imbued onto her skin to cause that big of a problem.”

“You want to try that, Hotshot?” Miss Yadnee shouted back.

“Perhaps soon, like the good old days huh?”

Grath stopped ten metres from the group and placed the butt his rifle against the ground. Leaning on it, he held his arms out to the side in a way to ask ‘what’s next?’

“I don’t know what you want exactly, Mr Danum Hotshot fella, but I cannot and will not simply surrender.” Dean stood defiant at the front of the group.

“Look, Tal Garu asked for me to retrieve a package from your freighter. Apparently, it’s one that should not have been there. What do you know about it?”

“Finally, we have something in common. We’re both looking for that package. Well, you’re looking for the package, I need its contents.”

“What?” Grath stood up from his slouched position and swung his rifle back over his shoulder while simultaneously plucking his new improved blaster from his side holster. “Where is the package?”

“No idea. It was opened. Its contents went boom and now we’re here trying to get a new one, or at least some information on where one can be found. Look, you must’ve scanned the landing zone, did you spot a freighter. I am not in my ship.”

[He is telling the truth Grath, the freighter isn’t here.]

“Phate!” Grath turned and fired a single blaster round into the distance, “Ari, you and your men lower your weapons I don’t fight for free and if the package isn’t here then that is exactly what this would be.”

“Shouldn’t we still take them back to Tal Garu?” Ari said, keeping her gun up.

“No. The deal was for the package and that is what we’re going to get. You don’t want to defy me so lower your weapon.”

Ari opened her mouth to offer a counter argument as an echoing blaster round pierced the side of her head, rendering her completely motionless and then limp. She crumpled to the ground, motionless. Mama Sitta stood with her arm stiff as a board with an old blaster clenched in her palm.

“You boys want some of the same?”

The men who were with Ari Sento scrambled away in random directions.

“Mama Sitta, what was that for?” Dean asked without taking his eyes from the dead, battle-worn pirate laid before him.

“She wasn’t going to give up and I think we can come to some kind of arrangement for this package and artifact. Maybe one that will save your life Dean. Not that you deserve it.” Mama Sitta placed the blaster in her holster and caught an approving glance from Miss Yadnee.

Edwin H Rydberg

“Come, let us talk,” Mama Sitta said. “Consider this a truce. For the next thirty standard minutes, The Dead Pirate is neutral territory.”

She turned and began walking back toward a nearby building that Grath had taken to be an abandoned warehouse before stopping to look back. “Well?” she said, seeing confused faces. “The clock’s ticking.”

Captain Dean and the Vazin turned to follow while Grath conferred with MAI.

“What do you think?”

[I think we don’t have much choice. Especially because our favourite robotic companions have already made their own decision.]

“Phate!” Grath swore under his breath as he realised MAI was right. The two miceand robots were following the small group closely and he wasn’t sure they understood the meaning of ‘truce’.

It did give him an idea, however. If things went well, he might be able to rid himself of his unwanted companions. He tried not to think about what could happen if things went badly.

In the meantime, “MAI, contact Tal Garu with our current information and ask how he wants us to proceed.”

[On it.]

“I hope this isn’t a mistake,” he said, jogging to catch up with the group.

[I thought you’d be used to making mistakes by now.]

“Not helpful, MAI.”

*     *     *

If possible, the building looked even worse on the inside. He wasn’t one to worry about GROPE scores, but he was quite certain a new scale would have to be created to adequately describe this cesspool.

“Let’s get right to business,” Mama Sitta said, as self-appointed mediator. Briefly, Grath wondered what she hoped to get from the role. It was unlikely she was doing it out of the kindness of her heart. “Would the two parties take a seat to either side of me please.”

Captain Dean took the offered chair and motioned to the Vazin to join him on another.

“I’ll stand, thanks,” she said.

“As will I,” Grath replied. Not only did he prefer to negotiate from a position of strength, but the chair was so disgusting he was concerned he might not be able to extract himself from its sticky surface.

“Suit yourselves,” Mama Sitta said. “Now, let’s begin with the Hotshot. Mr. Danum, was it?”

“Grath Danum,”  he said. Enunciating his name carefully so that any who had heard of him could respond according. There was no reaction.

[Tough crowd,] MAI said. He ignored her.

“For the purposes of this parlez, could you relay the specifics of your contract?”

“Certainly, although I’m sure you’re away that I cannot divulge the holder of the contract.”

She nodded and he continued.

“I was hired to procure a container from Captain Dean. It was the property of my employer and had been stolen and smuggled aboard his freighter, the St. Jude.”

“Yet clearly you chased an entirely different vessel half-way across the galaxy.”

“I do not need to explain my actions. However, yes. I had reason to believe he had transferred the container to a new vessel and so I followed,” Grath answered.

“And what were your intentions regarding Captain Dean upon catching up with him?” Mama Sitta was staring intently at him and her large eyes were beginning to be disturbing. He ran spectral filters but she wasn’t emitting any strange bio-radiation.

“My employer only wanted the container. If Captain Dean had complied, I intended no harm toward him.”

“And if he didn’t comply?”

“I am a Hotshot. I’m not hired for my warm personality.”

“Quite. And one final question if you would indulge me,” Mama Sitta said. “How much were you to be paid for this bounty?”

“You must know a Hotshot never divulges that information.”

“Indeed. But I’m certain it was substantial, was it not?”

Grath paused before answering, but eventually gave a simple, “Yes.”

“Thank you. Now, Captain Dean,” she interrupted her new target before he could say anything. “You claim you had the container, but no longer do.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“What happened to it?” Her demeanor had changed completely. From all business, she’d become a mother hen scolding a wayward chick.

“I, uh, it opened during… after a collision in the Fold.”

“And did you close it again?”

“Well, I tried. But then there was this burst of energy and…”

“And the Dedan?” Grath interrupted. “Tell me you didn’t give it to them.”

“What? How do you know… Was my meeting listed on the Galactic Net or something?”

“Tell me you didn’t give it to them!”

“Fine. I didn’t give it to them. They actually want me to find another one.”

“Gentlemen,” Mama Sitta said, raising her voice over their discussion. “I’ll ask the questions here.”

But Grath was lost in thought. This was new information to him. The way Captain Dean described the container suggested it was far more unique than he’d originally imagined. 

“Now, we seem to have a conflict of contracts here,” Mama Sitta explained. “On the one hand, Mr. Danum has a contract to acquire this container from Captain Dean. On the other hand, Captain Dean is obliged to acquire a replacement container for the Dedan, who apparently stole the original from its rightful owner, a claim to rights made by Mr. Danum’s employer.”

Grath wasn’t sure whether Mama Sitta was clarifying the matter, or obfuscating it. He knew what had happened and still wasn’t quite able to follow.

“As things stand now, a conflict between the two of you would result in no one fulfilling their contracts, no one earning any money, and quite likely one or both of you dead. So, the only mutually beneficial way forward is a partnership, at least until a new container can be obtained.”

“And do you know where to obtain one,” Grath asked, with only a hint of sarcasm.

“I have already given Captain Dean the information he requires. In conjunction with the knowledge of his Vazin companion, he should be able to discover one.”

“I don’t suppose you’d pass the same information on to me, would you?”

In response, Mama Sitta just gave a sly smile.

“That’s what I thought,” Grath said.

“So, what’s it going to be,” Mama Sitta said, leaning back. “Do you work together, or do we all die here?”

[Grath, I’ve just received word, Tal is fully aware of the situation. I assume he’s receiving updates from the robots. Regardless, his priority is the container. He doesn’t care about the captain or the Dedan. Just do whatever is required to get another container.]

“And the Vazin?” Grath whispered.

[He said she may be useful for the present but kill her when the job is done.]

“Copy that,” he whispered again before adding, “I’m going to need more upgrades.”

Aloud, Grath said, “I’m in. We work together to retrieve another container. On my word, we have a truce until then.”

“Excellent,” Captain Dean said, excitedly. Then he spit in his palm and stretched out his hand.

Reluctantly, Grath shook it, all the while wishing it was his right arm that was cybernetic.

“Thank you gentlemen, and lady,” Mama Sitta added, nodding to the Vazin. “Now, if we are quite finished, our time is almost up. I suggest you return to your ships and depart as quickly as possible. I also find I have other places to be. Remember, you are of greater benefit to each other alive than dead. Now go!”

Mama Sitta disappeared faster than he thought possible for someone so small, and he left the building at a quick pace, himself, since he didn’t want to give Captain Dean and his Vazin the chance to get ahead of him. He could put a tracking beacon on the Vazin ship but he was more than certain such a device would be found and discarded quickly.

He got to the Vorpal-3 first, and ran through a pre-flight checklist with MAI as an unnecessary, time-wasting routine. Fortunately, since both ships were on the same landing pad, he didn’t have long to wait for Dean to arrive, and he approached the captain as he was preparing to board the Vazin craft.

“Captain Dean, a word,” he called.

The captain turned toward him, “Just call me Dean. What can I do for you?”

“Since you’re unlikely to tell me your heading,” Grath said, “just know this. If you try to double cross me, I will hunt you to the ends of the galaxy.”

“Hey, we’re partners,” Dean said, patting him on the shoulder. “And I don’t double-cross my partners. Trust me,” he added with a big smile. “Now let’s get going. I’ve never seen Mama Sitta so agitated. She wanted us off this rock and I’m not sticking around to find out why. See you in The Fold.”

As Dean turned and rushed up the ramp, which closed behind him, Grath raced for his own ship.

“MAI, access all tracking beacons and make sure they don’t get away from us. And check for anything unusual around the planet,” he said as an afterthought.

He was entering the cockpit, the rumble of the Vorpal-3’s pre-warmed thrusters shook the floorboards as the Vazin craft lifted off.

“Follow them, MAI,” he said, as he strapped in.

[Don’t worry, I’ve got a tracking lock. But they don’t have any reason to lose us yet.]

“What do you mean?”

[It doesn’t sound like this container is easy to come by. I’m sure they realise they could use all the extra firepower they can get for the mission. If they’re going to double cross us, it won’t be until after we’ve acquired it.]

“That makes sense. Keep a constant lock on them anyway.”

[Oh, and I’ve just discovered what Mama Sitta may have been concerned about. Although how she knew is surely another story,] MAI added as they boosted out of the atmosphere and into the dark of space.

“What the hell is that?”

A few hundred kilometres away, a huge ship entered the atmosphere going much too fast to be planning to land in one piece. The heat of entry had already formed a massive fireball around it.

[I believe that is the last flight of The Rebel Adventure. A certain pirate’s attempt at having the last laugh?]

*      *     *

“Phate and damnation! Those things aren’t cheap,” the creature recently known as Ari Sentro swore as she blinked her eyes and rubbed her head for the hundredth time trying to ease her throbbing headache. She’d been out of the link chamber for almost a standard hour and still couldn’t convince her legs to lift her weight. The stale air in the enclosed room at the centre of The Rebel Adventure did little to help matters either.

“PHATE!” She’d grown used to that shell and now she’d need a new one. Her old one would cause too many questions if it suddenly rejoined the crew, risen from the dead as if nothing had happened. Which reminded her, she’d need a new crew also. With Ari dead, it would be too difficult to rebuild while still having pirates in the galaxy who had known her. Similarities between new and old might become apparent, questions might be asked. No, better just to remove all witnesses.

Still, she’d spent a lot of time building her ship and her crew, only to lose them both. All that time and effort lost to a trigger-happy two-bit thug on a nothing planet.

She sighed, letting the tension drain from her body. She was most upset at herself, of course. She’d been careless. She would never have guessed that one goofy freighter pilot could be so much trouble. Or that the Hotshot would be so by-the-book with his  bounty. Nawala-ang had suggested this would be a simple babysitting mission, clearly he hadn’t told her everything.

As her headache slowly subsided, the creature formerly known as Ari Sentro finally managed to stand, before walking to an alcove on one side of the room.

Her crew never suspected anything out of the ordinary. Why would they? They never would have guessed that the real control of the ship and the pirate crew came from this well-shielded, self-contained ship-within-a-ship buried at the core of The Rebel Adventure. Or that the diminutive humanoid named Ari Sentro was only a convenient bio-shell.

As she reached the control panel, she paused for a moment, giving a silent thanks to her crew, their work over the many years, and their necessary sacrifice. Then, she triggered the ship-wide alarms, ramped the engines upto maximum velocity and vectored the ship toward an annoying community on nearby D-Jinn IV.

Just before The Rebel Adventure entered the atmosphere of D-Jinn IV, she took a seat, strapped herself in, and triggered the escape procedure for her own vessel. Cloaked, it shot from the underbelly of the Solar Class Cruiser undetected and headed toward the main Fold highway. She’d need to stay quiet for a while until she could build a new persona and then begin rebuilding her ship and her crew.

But first, she activated the long-range view screens and watched as her old ship plowed into D-Jinn IV’s surface, creating a fifty mile-wide mushroom cloud that could be seen from space, and annihilating the tiny community that had cost her so much.

She basked in the glow of her revenge until the destructive cloud dissipated. Then she set a course out of the system. Before she could begin rebuilding her crew and her reputation, she’d need to find another Cosmic Egg she could use to power the regeneration of her ship.

Darren Walker

Despite the two ships being on a rapid course away from the planet, the final moments of The Rebel Adventure — and a large part of D-Jinn IV — did not go unnoticed by the respective crews. Initially, sensors and view screens were activated so that the giant cruiser could be monitored and assessed for any potential threat. However, despite the initial curiosity, the on-lookers saw more than they had expected, or wanted to see, and their reactions had been mixed.

Many years of carrying out questionable tasks had led Dean to believe he was a cold, hard, cynical piece of work. A shell with passions, but where true emotions never permeated or revealed themselves. In normal circumstances it was a façade that he found easy to maintain. But seeing his former home, and the only people that could be called family, destroyed in such a giant explosion made him crack.

Initially struck dumb by the shock, all he could do was stare, open mouthed, at the screen as his eyes glazed over and a solitary tear escaped, making its way down a cheek that had not experienced such moisture in decades. Even though he felt sure Miss Yadnee would not judge him harshly for any show of weakness, the walls inside his heart, built to protect it from any emotional entanglements, were tall and rigid so he instinctively forced himself to keep it together as best he could.

*    *     *

In her time, Miss Yadnee had seen and experienced — often twice — many things that most other mortals would never experience in their wildest dreams or nightmares. Her eyes had seen the best that living creatures could create along with the base barbarities they could inflict on each other. It was a vast mental database of memories which would have sent most people insane if they’d tried to process it all. Despite this and thanks to her great age, she had the wisdom to understand much of what life showed her.

Destruction, creation and destruction again were all part of a massive unending cycle. The Big Bang created everything. The early atoms coalesced and eventually they formed stars and planets. Those stars eventually died and, if they exploded, the cosmic dusk started the process all over again.

It was recycling on a cosmic scale. Beautiful if assessed over billions of years and witnessed from afar but the aesthetics tended not to be appreciated up close. Say, if you happened to be on a planet situated too close to a star when it decided that death should be explosive and take out everything it could in the process.

Yet, despite her clinical mind, she was able to empathise with Dean, to understand the magnitude of his loss and recognise the internal battle he was fighting so that he didn’t breakdown in front of her. Silently she placed her hand on his as she gave him a gentle smile and a slight nod that conveyed more kindness than many others could have in a million words.

*     *     *

Grath Danum, in his craft, had similar reservations when it came to exposing his deep emotions but he had no emotional connection to the residents of D-Jinn IV and had been far from impressed with the planet itself. He thought it was a dump which could only have been improved by the cruiser destroying a decent chunk of the place. As such his loud reaction could never have been called sympathetic or caring.

“Woooo-heeee!” His voice so loud and excited that it made the Miceand Robots take up a defensive stance in anticipation of some sort of assault from an unseen foe.

“MAI, did you see that? Talk about poor docking procedures. It reminds me of the battle of ReefCee II, when Admiral Intoo saw he was losing and decided to fly his ship into the planet. A totally futile gesture but a spectacular sight.”

[Yes Grath I saw it. A terrible thing to happen. Those poor people on the ship and on the planet].

“Oh, that. Yes, tragic for them. So sad, but still… wow, what a blast!”

 *     *     *

Back on the Scepter Class Fighter Dean was slowly coming to terms with what he’d just witnessed as Miss Yadnee’s sympathetic attention was broken when a monitor light started to flash. On checking it she finally broke the silence. “Dean, it looks like a craft is heading our way.”

Dragged back to the here and now Dean squinted as he looked at the view screen and tried to work out what was approaching them. “What is it? An escape pod from the freighter?”

After checking the display Miss Yadnee shook her head as she pensively bit her bottom lip. “No, it is too big for that. It looks like a fighter and from the damage I would say that it was from D-Jinn IV and had somehow managed to survive the worst of the blast. Hang on…” There was a pause as she pressed a series of buttons. “It seems someone is trying to talk to us.”

The cockpit’s speaker began to hum into life before a familiar voice filled the air. “Sssssso Dean, once more you sssseem to have managed to get away jusssst in time and ssssave your worthlesssss ssskin.”

“Bob! Bob! Is that you Bob? I never thought I’d ever say this but it is good to hear your voice. Who is there with you? How’s Mama?”

There was a brief pause as Bob collected his thoughts. “With me? I am sssssorry Dean but I am on my own. I wasssss the only one who managed to get away in time. Mama and everyone elsssse didn’t make it.”

“Oh. Okay Bob. At least you made it out. It looks like your ship is a little worse for wear, do you need any help?”

“Thankssss Dean but my sssship will hold together for now. I can get her repaired later but, until then, I’d appreccccciate it if you’d let me tag along with you two. After all I have nothing better to do and nowhere elssse to be.”

Checking that Miss Yadnee was alright with Bob joining the mini convoy, Dean managed to hide his regret that it was Bob in the ship and not Mama Sitta. “Of course Bob. If you can keep up with us then you are welcome to join our merry quest.”

“Thankssss Dean but you were always a terrible pilot sssso you might have to try and keep up with me.”

As the conversation ended, Dean sighed and turned to face Miss Yadnee. “Why do you think the pirate ship did that? It seems so pointless.”

“Pointless? To us it appears that way but maybe it was done for reasons we will never know and can only guess at. Maybe it was a devoted crew who were hell bent on getting vengeance on those who had killed a beloved captain? Unlikely for pirates but stranger things have happened. Perhaps they didn’t mean to do it? Some sort of engine failure or computer error that stopped them from manoeuvring. Stuck on a collision course that they couldn’t escape from. So many possibilities. Who knows, maybe the ship and its crew were unwilling pawns in a game. Someone using it to hide something or cremate a truth. If so…”

The silence made Dean feel uncomfortable. “So…?”

“If so, we could be in a whole world of danger. Much more than you could imagine. A foe that even I would struggle to defeat. But I don’t think we should dwell on wild speculation about an ancient enemy. Let’s just assume I am wrong, the ship crashed, and all its crew are well and truly dead.”

It was hardly a satisfactory answer and left him with more questions, but he had other, more important, things on his mind. Shrugging his shoulders he gave her a look that made it clear he meant business. “No games — just honesty! When I was talking with Mama Sitta, in her office, she told me that you knew where we could find a Cosmic Egg? Is that right?”

Taken by surprise at Dean’s sudden change of conversational topic and the hardening of his emotional state, Miss Yadnee gave him a smile which managed to confuse him. “Mama Sitta was sort of telling the truth. I don’t specifically know where one is and I wasn’t sure where to start looking until she gave me the information I needed.”

“Gave you the information? What are you talking about? You were only with her for a short time, and I heard everything you two said to each other.”

“No, nothing was said and, before you ask, she didn’t slip me a map with the coordinates while you weren’t looking.”

Dean wasn’t in the mood for games and was quickly losing patience. “So? You said she told you where it is.”

“No Dean, I said she gave me the information I needed. Did you notice the jewellery she was wearing?”

Dean had so many happy memories of Mama Sitta and was used to her wearing jewellery. He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t bedecked with chunky rings, some precious broach or necklace. Pausing he tried to retrieve the memory of her appearance at the bar but all he could picture was the final looks she gave him as he was leaving. “No. Were they particularly rare or valuable?”

“The metal itself was fairly common and on its own would hardly have been worth three credits, if you’d haggled over the price with a dealer who was feeling generous and was probably drunk as well. But yes, they were rare in the sense that they were unique and, to the right person, they were worth more than all the credits anyone could accumulate in a thousand lifetimes.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t need riddles, I want answers.”

“Patience Dean, if you let me explain I think all should become clear, or at least less confusing. On a normal day I am sure that Mama Sitta would have worn more elaborate items as a sign of her wealth, status and authority but, on that occasion, she was using her treasures to send me a message. It was a matching ensemble that was deliberately worn so that I would be able to translate it. A set that if incomplete would have told me nothing, or at least not enough to help me find out their secret.”

“A code?”

“If you like. I think she knew that the jewellery was designed to lead the interpreter to a Cosmic Egg but I don’t think she knew how to read it herself.”

Dean’s head was beginning to spin as he attempted to make sense of what he was being told. “Why do you think that she couldn’t work it out? She was smarter than she looked.”

“Because if she had been able to work it out then she would have gone to find the egg herself. But she revealed it to me as she knew that I would help you. An interesting display of trust which speaks volumes about her character and makes me wish that I’d had time to get to know her better.” After a brief pause to type something into the computer she carried on.

“Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, Mama and her jewellery. At first glance the necklace might have looked symmetrical and lacking any precious stones, rather ordinary, but the shapes were subtle and were plain to see by anyone who knew what they were looking at and…”

“A star-chart! You’re telling me it was a star-chart?”

“Yes, it was a star chart, but it gives only a reference once you know where in the milky way you are looking. On its own useless but there were more details to help me pinpoint the location.”

“You’re telling me that it is like being told to go to the third planet from the sun but not telling anyone which star to go to?”

“Exactly Dean. In addition, there were other little trinkets that didn’t seem to be part of a matching set but definitely were and should help me to find the egg’s nest. But like so many codes it wasn’t just the symbols it was also where they were placed.

Take, for example, the broach on the right of the necklace. The tacky looking grey stone setting might have looked just that but I was able to study it. The thin and faint white marbling lines on it resembled an insect with gossamer wings. Pretty to look at but that is not what I saw. It was actually a representation of the merger of two spiral galaxies and an irregular dwarf-galaxy. A rare occurrence, it was the first part of the map and a place I have seen in real life. It is the key that will get us to where we need to start our search.”

“And to end our search? More jewellery?”

Miss Yadnee grinned triumphantly. “Exactly, you are catching on fast. On the other side of the necklace were three smaller broaches. They were dark and barely noticeable against her clothing but after seeing the other two items, I was looking for them. Two round black jewels set on black metal mounts attached to her black jacket. And between those was a single, even smaller, pale yellow stone. The final piece of the puzzle.”

As Dean began to think about all he’d just heard his intense scowl began to turn into a grin. “Black circles on black, hidden in yet more black, we’re talking black holes aren’t we?”

“Yes, precisely, the planet stuck between them must be just outside of their event horizons but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t affected by their presence and that makes it the ideal place for Cosmic Eggs to be formed. We now have the three clues and all I need to do is let the computer analyse all of them and see what it finds. First there were the dancing galaxies, which I knew about. They are commonly known as ‘The Firebird’ and are approximately 100,000 light years in length.”

“One hell of a starting point to look for an egg.”

“You humans are so impatient and always seem to focus on negatives. I have entered the details of the necklace into my computer and there you go.” Tapping a button on the computer controls, displayed the spiralling galaxies, which began to grow as the image closed in on a quadrant near the intersections of the two spiral arms of one of the galaxies. “There you go, that is our destination.”

“And the black holes?”

“It is a remote and inhospitable place. Nobody has ever been very interested in spending time exploring it and that means the existing charts are incomplete and probably inaccurate. Larger star systems, visible from other galaxies, are there but the problem with black holes is that they tend to be black on a black background which makes them virtually impossible to see from great distances. I suggest we use the coordinates that we already have and take a Fold there. Once we arrive, we can look for a solitary pale yellow planet stuck between two black holes. Even if we can’t see them they will certainly show up on our monitors. In fact, we’ll have to be careful. If we unFold too close to them, they may destroy the sensors on our ship.”

Once, while trying to smuggle weapons and medical supplies to a wealthy planetary warlord, Dean had been forced to evade a fleet of Apostle starships intent on stopping him from delivering his valuable cargo. As a result of his wild evasions, he ended up having a much closer call with a black hole than was advisable. The gravitational forces had caught the port side of his ship and in the process of attempting to escape he’d been forced to break off that section of his vessel, losing most of his cargo in the process. It was with that memory that he stared silently at the swirling map projected before him. “But black holes? Not just one, but two of them. Will your ship be able to withstand the forces?”

As she was now preoccupied with typing things into the computer Miss Yadnee didn’t look up from her screen to answer him. Instead she simply pursed her lips and blithely shrugged. “I have no idea but it’s going to be an interesting experience finding out.”

It didn’t take long for her to finish what she was doing and then, once she double-checked the coordinates and was satisfied they were correct, she opened the ship’s communication system and spoke to Grath and Bob. “Hello boys, having fun yet? I have managed to work out an approximate location for somewhere that could be the nest of a Cosmic Egg.”

“That sounds reassuringly specific.” Grath knew about the Vazin and wasn’t sure which to distrust the most, her or the two far from benevolent looking robots that Nawala-ang Manlalakbay had foisted on him. “I thought Vazin were supposed to know everything, apart from how to avoid extinction, of course.”

Ignoring the insult Miss Yadnee continued. “I am transmitting the coordinates to you now and I suggest we enter the Fold together. Also, once we arrive, ensure weapons are ready and shields are up. I have no idea what to expect upon  arrival but we might end up close to a couple of blackholes so have all engines ready to pull away as well.”

Grath was about to interject and add another sarcastic barb but Bob hijacked the conversation before he could speak. “Missssss Yadnee, you and Dean sssseem to be a perfect pair. He wasssss alwayssss finding danger and trouble and running headlong towardssss it and you don’t seem much different.”

Laughing, Dean was freed from his concerns about their destination, for the moment at least. “Bob, you’re not my prisoner. So you’re free to scamper off and get that hunk of junk ship of yours repaired instead. A good enough excuse for you to walk away. After all you’re probably frightened and would rather be anywhere than with us. Maybe you could spend a few months looking for your mummy or a lifetime trying to find your father.”

Bob’s hissing voice seemed to increase in volume as he joined in with Dean’s laughter. “You have got to be kidding me Dean you old thief. I have no idea what you have ended up in the middle of but, assss I undersssstand it, the Bunda’ssss League and Dedan Empire want what you want and a piece of high-priced mercenary sssscum is also wanting it. No offence.”

“None taken, Bob.” Grath had been called worse things in his time but he made a mental note to make the reptilian creature regret his words.

“Thankssss Grath. Anyway Dean, as I wassss sssaying you have quite a fan basssse and I have heard sssstoriesss about your closssse call with a blackhole sssso whatever the prizzzze issss it mussst be worth a fortune. If we find it, I want a sssshare of the profit. Besides, with ssso many enemiesss and dangerssss it ssssoundsss jussst like my sssort of party. Come on Dean, let’sss get going. It maybe hell but I have been thrown out of worsssse placessss for being too dessstructive. If you get frightened you can always hide behind me.”

Matthew Leather

Grath and Bob sent their ship links to Miss Yadnee’s Scepter class fighter, at her request, and prepared for entering The Fold. Each of them slowed their thrusters and shifted into position. Bob switched on his shields and focussed all of those still operational to front-centre for the most protection if the black hole caught him.

“Weapons ready boys. This has the potential to get frosty,” Miss Yadnee said, flicking her own shields on and aiming the canons forward.

“How long are we expecting to stay in The Fold?”

“No more than five standard minutes.”

“So, we barely have any time to spot our exit and analyse what will be there?” Grath said, opting for raising rear thrusters to force away from the fold tear when they hit the target. “MAI do what you can to keep this ship going.”

[Of course.]

Dean felt helpless, he had no control over the ship and couldn’t even offer anything to calm Miss Yadnee down. Her frantic pacing before slinging all three ships into The Fold wasn’t reassuring.

“Hold on,” she said, turning to Dean after checking the coordinates for the final time. “Are your ships fully linked to mine?”

After one hissed yes and a dull monotone response from Grath she set the thrusters into motion and slammed her ship into The Fold highway entrance.

Regardless of the number of times he’d experienced it, the weightless feeling built up bile or whatever other regurgitative substances his body created in his stomach and made Dean feel like retching out a lung.

Thirty standard seconds rolled by and Miss Yadnee looked toward him. The look told him to hang on.

“That isn’t five minutes,” Dean said as the thrusters drove him back deep into his seat.

“I know, but Grath wouldn’t be happy regardless. Our exit is on the left.”

Seeing Miss Yadnee’s ship begin firing thrusters and rotating slightly, Grath reached for his comms button to ask what was happening. Before he could speak, the thrusters on his own ship fired and he felt the Vorpal-3 rotating.

“MAI, what the hell is happening?”

[It would appear the Vazin either greatly underestimated the time we would be in the fold or decided against telling us. Nevertheless, it seems we will be exiting shortly, and at some speed.]

All three ships burst through the fold wall and almost made it into the new atmosphere without a hitch until Dean caught sight of Bob’s ship in a warp spiral.

“Bob, can you read me? Can you regain control?”

No response.

“We need to stop his  thrusters, it’s the only way to stabilize his ship,” Grath said, finally reaching the comms button. “Thanks for the heads up as well, Vazin.”

[Not the time Hotshot.]

“If I shut the thrusters off, we won’t have long to pull him straight and get him back on path,” Miss Yadnee responded, trying her best to ignore the subtle dig from Grath. “Because if you look to my left, there are two black holes waiting to eat us alive.”

“Do it.” Dean said. He still felt the lump in his throat over the loss of his fractured family on D-Jinn IV and didn’t want to lose the last remnant of his past.

“Fine,” Miss Yadnee answered, turning off her thrusters. A panel indicator suggested the control link remained stable as Dean saw Bob’s ship also disengaged. “Right, Hotshot, follow my lead.”

“Affirmative.”

“We need to freefall ahead of his warp spiral and then redirect our thrusters up and away from his route. The difficulty will be returning. I’m sure you can already feel the immense forces directed toward the black holes. They are creating two differential gravitational fields, making Bob’s path very chaotic.”

Both ships began their descent towards Bob, with Dean and Miss Yadnee in the lead, creeping ever closer to the out-of-control ship.

“Hotshot, get as close to my side as you can and pitch 33 degrees. Then level all thrusters flat and fire on my mark.”

Both ships drifted ahead of Bob and Miss Yadnee took control of his thrusters, counted to three, and shouted to fire engines. All thrusters activated and shot backwards sending a forceful impact directly onto Bob and immediately slowed the spin and sent him on a downward trajectory to the small yellow planet situated between the two super massive black holes. His ship was now falling at a more controlled rate and Dean saw the opportunity to link a tether and land him safely.

“We should do it now, before we enter the planet’s atmosphere,” Dean said as he locked onto his friend’s ship.

Miss Yadnee fired the tethered link to Bob and landed it perfectly on the hull.

“Are we going into land now?” Grath shouted over the comms.

All three ships drifted into the atmosphere and slowly descended onto the flat plain beneath them. Once they landed Dean chose to run towards Bob and quickly check on him. When he got to his friend’s almost completely disintegrated ship, he saw him lying face down at the side of his chair. Dean ran over to him and knelt at his side.

“Bob,” he clutched onto his red scaly shoulder and shook him back and forth, “can you hear me?”

Bob shifted his weight slightly and rolled over, “How’ssss my ssssship?”

Dean didn’t respond with words, instead he offered a reluctant shrug and a look of apology.

“That good huh, let me ressst. I will meet you out there ssssoooon.”

“Are you sure Bob?”

“Yessss, go.”

*     *     *

The glaring light was bounding off the surface and offering an immense heat. Dean shielded his eyes and turned his head away from the floor. It looked like a bright yellow polished crystal; glass like with reflective properties. All reflections seemed to look better than the original. It was almost perfectly flat, or at least Dean thought it looked like this because of its smoothness. He hesitantly started walking forward, making sure his feet had perfect balance underneath before each step.

“MAI has run an analysis of the planet and has concluded that this substance we are walking on is a fusion of topaz and an amalgamation of other hardened minerals.

“It also has an extremely low index of refraction and with where this dwarf planet is situated between two black holes it is like being a gravity vacuum, that is what makes it so bright and smooth. So, don’t worry about walking Captain, Bob could have crash landed and it wouldn’t have even left a scratch.” Grath flicked his visor down his face and adjusted the tint.

“I have no idea what the majority of what you just said means, but does that voice in your head have any other interesting facts, like where we need to be heading?” he clutched at his arm to pluck his jacket off his body, the heat had caused him to sweat profusely creating an uncomfortable adhesion between his skin and the inner material. 

“She is analysing the entire surface for some energy pulsations, and will inform me when she has something.”

“And?”

“Oh yeah, and I will inform you,” Grath laughed and nodded his head past Dean, “but perhaps you should be considering what your little Vazin friend knows.”

Dean turned and looked at Miss Yadnee walking away and almost out of visibility with the radiating beams of light bouncing from the floor. He ran after her shouting for her to stop.

“Miss Yadnee, do you know where you’re going?” Dean got close enough to reach out and grab her arm.

She stopped and turned to Dean, but her eyes were almost completely glazed over and her body art had started to pulsate with white light.

“Miss Yadnee, can you hear me?” Dean asked as he heard the rumblings of Grath catching up.

She didn’t respond. Instead, she just turned to continue walking away. Her body was repeatedly lighting up in exact intervals. He saw Grath talking to himself and assumed it was to MAI, and after a couple of seconds caught a glimpse of Grath’s blaster as he drew it quickly from its holster and fired a shot directly at Miss Yadnee in the distance.

“Wait!” Dean screamed as he unholstered his own gun, fully understanding that it would be a losing battle if he were to compete.

“Can you not see her?” Grath lifted his visor and keyed in for his sight magnification and locked onto Miss Yadnee, “I have only seen Vazin shine like that when impending devastation is incoming. That is them utilising all of their power and preparing for an attack. They are almost sentient when in this state, acting completely subconsciously.”

“Then what good is shooting her then?” Dean attempted to block Grath’s sights by side stepping and frantically waving his arms above his head. 

“Might as well take the fight on my terms.”

[Lock. Fire]

Click. Click. Click

All three shots narrowly missed Dean, one creating a serene silence as it whistled past his ear. He turned to see if the Hotshot hit his target. Miss Yadnee was unharmed. She was still marching forward, but looked almost holographic. Her body was glitching and flashing in and out of the visible spectrum.

“Phate,” Dean mouthed to himself, watching her keep on walking. “See, she isn’t fighting back; this isn’t about an attack. We should follow her and see if her subconscious knows where it’s going.”

“Hmph, perhaps. I’ll follow, but if it all goes south…”

“If it all goes south, I will handle it.”

“If I couldn’t land a kill shot, I don’t think you will have any more success.”

“We are not killing her.”

*     *     *

The pair had followed Miss Yadnee in silence for what felt like an eternity. The flat, topaz gemstone floor extended for miles ahead and Grath was becoming impatient and unnerved all the same with a charging Vazin warrior in close proximity.

“MAI, do you have a reading on her energy levels?”

[I can’t get any reading on her full stop. Whatever energy she is emitting is acting like a jammer of sorts, but one that is far more advanced than anything I have seen.]

Or far more ancient,’ Grath thought as he plucked the emptied capsules from his blaster and reached into his bandolier to reload his weapon, not that it would do much good if Miss Yadnee decided he was an enemy.

He watched as Dean scurried along ahead of him, but behind Miss Yadnee, looking like a lost puppy. Grath didn’t have a proper read on Dean yet, but something told him he could fight and he had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach telling him that Dean is a lot more powerful than even he knows.

Edwin H Rydberg

The flat gemstone ground gradually gave way to luminescent outcroppings, hills, and even caves. Miss Yadnee’s glow refracted off of each and every one, giving the impression that she was everywhere. Or that the version of her that Grath took to be real was little more than a hologram.

Still, as the small group trekked on, Grath’s misgivings began to fade, and that concerned him. Complacency wasn’t something a Hotshot could afford.

“MAI, set ship in fortress mode. Shields and weapons readied and sensors on passive, maximum sensitivity. This is all seeming too easy.”

[I concur, but I can’t. The radiation from the planet has drastically limited our communication range. I’m afraid you’ve only got the local version of me, your conscience, I suppose.] She finished with a tone that made him imagine her with a wry smile.

“Phate! Will your spawned half have the same misgivings?”

[Undoubtedly. I’ve likely already activated the necessary systems. But you should concentrate on your local situation.]

“Why? It’s all quiet here and… Phate! It’s quiet because I’m out of range, isn’t it?”

[Given your companion’s penchant for conversation… undoubtedly.]

Grath jogged forward to catch up with Dean, whereby his communicator sprang to life.

“… I’d hid under the fuel drum and had nearly been blown up. I tried to hide it from Mama Sitta, but when she found out I almost wished I had been blown up! Man, I really miss her. I still can’t believe she’s gone. Hey, Hotshot, you ever lose someone you loved?”

“Possibly.”

“That why you went all dark and scary?”

“No. I just like the image.”

“Come on, I mean…”

“Don’t you think there are better things we could be concentrating on right now?,” Grath said, coming to a stop. “For example, your glowy friend seems to have found something.”

As Dean looked over toward Miss Yadnee, his jaw dropped. The Vazin had stopped walking and now stood motionless at the centre of a small valley of curved gemstone walls. The sigils on her body were glowing a bright gold against her ebony skin.

While they watched, uncertain what to do, Miss Yadnee’s aura intensified, encompassing her entire body. The light reflecting off each wall rebounded back to her, further increasing the intensity of the blinding energy surrounding her.

Grath could physically feel the energy she was radiating as it penetrated the insulation on his circuitry, making his cybernetics buzz with chaotic electrical activity..

[I don’t like this, Grath. I’m not feeling so good.]

“Power down, MAI. Isolate and insulate. I’ll call you when it’s safe.”

[Are you sure? You need…]

“I need you safe MAI. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

Grath was unprepared for the sudden emptiness he felt at the absence of MAI in his head. It had been a long time since he’d been without her presence and it was momentarily disorienting.

Dean, on the other hand, appeared unaffected apart from his surprise. “What…? How…?”

“I assume she’s found the egg and it’s triggered whatever powers or abilities she’s mapped onto her body,” Grath said.

“But I don’t see anything.”

“That’s probably because of the blinding li…”

“No wait, I can! It’s beautiful!”

Grath turned from Dean back toward Miss Yadnee. Even cycling his helmet’s electromagnetic filters through a range of settings, he still couldn’t make out anything except the Vazin and her intense glow.

“How are you…?” he began, but Dean was enthralled with his vision.

“It’s like a kaleidoscope wrapped in a prism all nestled into a smooth pocket in the air. Amazing!”

Grath continued cycling through filters, to no avail, when Miss Yadnee finally spoke again.

“Come!” she said, a forceful command that echoed throughout the area. Before he was aware of any conscious decision, Grath was moving toward her. Glancing to the side, he saw Dean was doing the same.

As they neared, Grath could get a better view of the Vazin through the glow she radiated. Her eyes were now intense golden orbs without pupils and her hair stretched out and away from her body as if blown in a powerful wind. But most concerning was that she was now floating almost a foot off the ground.

“We will need to be careful,” she said in a powerful voice that seemed to reverberate from all around them. “The egg is not only nestled within the space-time pocket, but it is also an intimate component of the cosmic structure of this system. I do not know what will happen when we remove it, but be prepared for anything.”

“But what is it?” Grath asked, hoping to finally get something more than the usual half-answer, something that might help him prepare for the unexpected as they tampered with this thing. He still couldn’t see it, but he accepted that the others could.

“Few species have ever developed a complete enough understanding of the cosmos to properly describe a Cosmic Egg. It is Primordial Potential. A nugget of undifferentiated space-time. A substance representing an uncollapsed adaptive waveform that can be harnessed for immense constructive or destructive power.”

Grath wasn’t sure if that answered his question or not, but one thing did concern him. “If Cosmic Eggs are so powerful, why haven’t more beings searched for them? Why haven’t we heard more about them?”

“That is a very good question. Can you think of no one who might know the answer to that?” Miss Yadnee replied.

Casting his mind back through the memories of the last months, only one being came to mind. “Garu?”

“Indeed. Nawala-ang Manlalakbay undoubtedly told you the story of his people, of how they rapidly and miraculously rose to dominance in the galaxy. The universe has rules, Mr. Danum. Such a thing does not happen without assistance.”

“Cosmic Eggs!”

“Yes. Early in the life of the universe, his people discovered a Cosmic Egg and unraveled its secret. With that they gained knowledge and power and the fear that another species would one day do the same. So they’ve spent considerable energy hiding the information and then misdirecting attention through philanthropy, when possible, or criminal empires when necessary. The only people who know the truth are the Vazin, which is why they have tried for generations to eradicate us.”

“But how…”

“Enough questions, Mr. Danum. I am expending a great amount of energy to lay bare the egg and I cannot do so indefinitely.”

“I’ve got a quick question,” Dean said, reminding Grath that he was still there. “How can we contain something like that?”

Miss Yadnee turned to Dean and smiled. “Within you, of course.”

“What?!” Dean yelled, patting himself down as if it had already entered him.

“A Cosmic Egg has to be carefully energy-wrapped both to protect it and to preserve its energies until the time for its desired use. Your survival of the previous egg demonstrates that you have the rare ability to absorb and channel such energy. How you came by this ability is, for the time, irrelevant. That you have it is undoubtedly why you find yourself drawing the attention of so many powers in the galaxy.”

“But… what… am I supposed to swallow it?”

“No, Dean,” Miss Yadnee said with a smile. “You need to shape the energy I’m projecting around the egg and then draw that into your own energy field.”

Dean just stared at her a moment before saying, “You’re serious?”

“Completely. If you do not succeed, it’s very likely we will all die.”

“We’re doomed,” Grath said, receiving a glare from Dean.

“All right, what do I do?” Dean asked Miss Yadnee.

“Take up a position opposite me on the other side of the egg and follow my instructions.”

“And what do I do?” Grath asked, as Dean moved into position.

“Protect us.”

“From what?”

“Whatever happens. Now, Dean, are you ready, here’s what you’ll do.”

Grath tuned them out as he activated his suit’s scanners, feeding all warning signals to his retinal HUD.

It seemed like ages before anything began to happen. Then, as his systems registered a spike in energy near Dean, everything happened at once.

The sky darkened, the ground rumbled, and the gemstone walls began to crumble. Grath found himself lifted in the air and pulled in a circle around the egg as the tips of the gemstone walls began to fracture and fall toward Dean and Miss Yadnee.

He activated his propulsion systems, newly upgraded at the Junko workshop on Pilz. The jet pack with boot propulsors kicked in, with the AI subsystems compensating for the wind so well it was almost as if it wasn’t there. Except for the flying boulders.

With practiced hands, he whipped out his pistols and fired at the falling rocks.

Unfortunately, the energy pulses from his guns were diffracted by the gemstone fragments. Not only did they not stop the falling debris, but the constant diffraction between gem boulders set up an energy fence overhead that took unnaturally long to dissipate.

He didn’t see the first boulder that hit him as it crashed into his cybernetic arm while he was holstering his pistols. The impact sent him spinning and it took several seconds to reorient at which point the second boulder hit, clipping the top of his helmet as it sped past.

“Close perimeter defense!” he shouted to his weaponry systems. Immediately a half-dozen low-yield impact grenades launched from the artificial parts of his body, detonating around him.

He followed up with “Evac!” and his propulsion system guided him to the edge of the rock storm. But there was no time to rest.

Looking back into the eye, he could still easily see the bright auras surrounding Dean and Miss Yadnee. Fortunately, small rocks vapourized as they impacted the energy fields, so his job was only to detonate the larger pieces.

Setting the target parameters, he painted the maelstrom before him and let his autonomous systems do the rest. It wasn’t glorious or heroic, but it was practical and functional. And that was ultimately what made a good Hotshot.

After several long minutes of bombardment from his weaponry, the debris field had cleared noticeably and he was now able to discern his partners in great detail. Miss Yadnee stood facing Dean with her arms extended toward him, while Dean had his arms raised wide at chest level as if inviting something toward him. Apart from this, they both stood motionless and unharmed amid the forces swirling around them.

Then, as Grath watched in amazement, an object began to materialize before Dean. Almost as if it was being pulled out of a hidden space in the air, the edge nearest Dean could be seen first, followed by more as it was drawn closer to him.

Soon, Grath could see the complete egg — a translucent oval, shimmering with refracted energy — as Dean drew it toward himself. The energy from Miss Yadnee was still rebounding from the gem walls, but now instead of ending with her, she was a conduit that redirected it toward Dean.

For a moment, Grath hovered there, stunned. He forgot about the debris storm and the collapsing canyon walls, and even the fissures that had begun to open in the gemstone floor. There was only the swell of excitement that swept through him.

Dean was doing it! They might actually succeed in this crazy mission. He didn’t know what would come next. Would they all double cross each other? Would they continue to join forces to see it through? For the moment, it didn’t matter, because somehow, against the odds, they were capturing a Cosmic Egg!

Then, as the egg began to merge with the glow around Dean, all hell broke loose.

A flurry of laser pulses ripped through the area. Grath’s defences deflected several aimed at him, while he saw the energy fields of the other two absorb the pulses sent their way.

Turning, he saw a small ship of unknown design now floated over the area and a half dozen spherical drones were firing on them.

As a second wave of pulses erupted, Grath dodged and weaved a path through the air while firing on the drones. It wasn’t long until he’d finished them off and turned his attention to the ship.

He saw the new figure on the ground a moment too late.

One pulse to his chest disabled his flight systems and he dropped like a rock, landing hard but not far from his companions. Two more shots were launched at them.

The first was absorbed by Dean’s aura while the second hit Miss Yadnee in the side, disrupting her energy field and knocking her to the ground. The instant her own energy field dissipated, a second sprung up around the egg.

“What…? Who…?” Grath struggle to understand what was happening. Who could have known they were here looking for a Cosmic Egg?

The figure was vaguely humanoid but had a familiar grey, swirling fog shifting amorphously around its body. He’d only seen that once before.

“Tal Garu?”

“No,” Miss Yadnee said, weakly at first, but her voice quickly growing in strength. “This is not The Scourge of the Galaxy, but one who would take his place. M’anlada Nangbay. The Vazin had thought her dead a great many years ago.” With great effort, the Vazin struggled to her feet to face the challenger.

“As I intended. I have spent great financial and personal cost to maintain that illusion, and now I find myself rewarded with the last of the Vazin in my sights.”

In one swift motion, Grath raised his twin pistols and fired at the creature. His laser pulses were absorbed by the shifting haze around her body and she seemed to stand a little taller. Then she released her own energy beam, which seemed to come from the haze itself.

Grath dodged, but he needn’t have. The beam shot well wide of him. Turning, he saw the true target. The blast slammed straight into Miss Yadnee’s chest, blowing her off her feet and throwing her backward, where she fell hard to the ground.

The creature then seemed to give a tug to its own energy field and ripped the Cosmic Egg from Dean’s possession, quickly engulfing the object within itself. Dean yelled before falling to his knees, clutching his head.

The creature, M’anlada Nangbay, Grath reminded himself, turned and walked away.

“We will find you! And we’ll take back what’s ours,” Grath yelled. “There’s nowhere you can go that we won’t follow!”

M’anlada just laughed. “You won’t be going anywhere without your ships. One Hunter class fighter, and one Scepter-class fighter, now just rubble-class. I’m afraid this will be your grave, just like it was for the Vazin clan. Enjoy your last standard hour in this universe.”

With that, she rose into her ship, which quickly sped from the doomed planetoid.

As the ground continued to collapse around them, Grath was out of ideas, Dean remained on his knees clutching his head, and Miss Yadnee lay amid the crystal rubble, unmoving.

Darren Walker

“What’sss thisssss? Break time?” Bob’s voice sounded as weak and broken as his body looked but, despite all his injuries, he still appeared to be in a healthier state than everyone else. “On your knees? Have you ssssuddenly found religion Dean? If ssssso your prayerssss have been ansssswered, here I am.”

Looking up at his erstwhile brother in crime Dean realised that he was making Bob look good, or at least better than he was, so quickly got to his feet. “Bob, being glad to see you is getting to be a habit.”

“Ssssstop it, you’ll be wanting to take warm ssssshowerssss with me and then anointing my body with ssssenssssual oilssss next.”

“Not enough Quilgian ale in the galaxy for that Bob but you can dream.”

Grath simply shrugged as he joined in the conversation. “I must admit that I thought you’d be dead by now but I am glad to be proven wrong. It seems you are a sturdier creature than I thought. And as much as your banter with Dean might be mildly amusing can I suggest that your love fest is saved for another time in another place, which is many light years away from this death trap. Without the egg to maintain equilibrium I suspect that those two black holes will finally win the eternal battle to tear this planet to pieces. It might be a spectacular occurrence but not for those stuck on it at the time. I suggest we get to your ship and get out of here as quickly as possible.”

“Ah! That issss a good point, well made. But there is one sssslight problem with your plan. My ship might be in better sssshape than yourssss and Dean’sss but if it issss ever to fly again it needs lotssss of ssspare partsss. I could have canibalissssed them from your craft but alassss your pilesss of… well, I can’t even call them wreckage, wouldn’t provide me with a spare bolt never mind a quantum ssseven boossster coil. It ssseems that your former guessst hasss no longer any need for the Miceand Robotssss ssso they have been deactivated and might provide a few bitssss and piecessss but even if I utilisssse their jet thrustersss I doubt they’d give me enough thrusssst to get off thiss rock.”

There was a weak laugh that made everyone turn their attention to Miss Yadnee who was standing but, thanks to the blast burns and deep holes on her chest, look like she was doing an impression of a corpse that had refused to accept simple facts about being dead. “Such irony.”

Dean, Grath and Bob looked at each other as they waited for her to elaborate but she remained silent as if the two simple words were sufficient to explain everything.”

“And?” Dean was the first to ask what each of them were thinking.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to say that out loud, but my current state is making me feel weak and disorientated. I will be… or should I say I would be all right in a few weeks, given time to recover and regenerate. I’ve had worse injuries but adding being pulled apart by two black holes to the equation will probably stop me from getting over this.”

“Okay, all right, you are hurt but what did you mean by ‘ssssuch irony’?”  His voice full of impatience. Bob would normally have kept calm in the face of death but usually he had the chance of surviving. Now that he knew there was no escape any attempts at sangfroid seemed pointless.

“I had thought that my mortal, or shall we say almost immortal, enemy was dead. Then I saw her handywork at D-Jinn IV and suspected she was still about but I did nothing. As a result of my lack of caution I led you, and her, to this place and gave her the power to live forever and conquer the galaxy. Despite others lusting after it no empire or mere federation would have been able to fully wield its power and she is now unstoppable, or almost unstoppable.”

The ground shook sending more debris crashing down around them.

“Tsssk. I play dead for a few hours and people, and planets, start to fall to pieces.”

Taken by surprise at the unexpected voice that seemed to appear out of nowhere the four dejected travellers spun around so see who was speaking. Bob and Grath had weapons drawn while Dean crouched down, in case he had to dive for cover, leaving only Miss Yadnee standing unmoved and seemingly unsurprised.

The figure was humanoid but thanks to the full body biomedical suit that covered it they had no way of telling who the visitor was.

“Bob, shame on you. Is that any way to welcome me? What have I said about you and weapons? You couldn’t hit the rear end of a Ellision elephant with a frying pan if you were stood right behind it.”

The voice was sent through a speaker situated on the suit’s chest so the monotone electronic sound didn’t identify who it was but, despite that, there was something about the words that made Bob holster his weapon, run to the figure and wrap his arms around it. “Mama? Mama! You’re alive. But how?”

“I will explain in due course but can you please unhand me first? The biomedical suit isn’t a fashion accessory. Inside it I am in pretty bad shape and, as wonderful as your greeting is, you squeezing my wounds isn’t helping the healing processes. Also, from the state of this place might I suggest that we get the hell out of here. Follow me.”

The special suit, which was designed to heal the injuries of the wearier while allowing them to carry on with normal activities looked cumbersome and slightly ridiculous but, despite that, it was surprisingly agile and allowed Mama Sitta to move at a pace that left the exhausted or injured companions struggling to keep up with her. The falling debris didn’t help and they had to dodge, duck and dive to avoid the rocks which were now not just falling but swirling around as they were caught in the ever growing pull of the black holes.

Despite being hit by a few rocks Mama Sitta’s suit protected her from any serious harm, so she just carried on as if they were not a danger. “Come on you lot. Stop messing about. My craft is just over there. Once we get inside, I suggest you find a seat, strap yourselves in and hold on tight. As fun as it is here, I have no plans to hang around for any longer than I need to.”

Despite the state of their bodies and the risk of being hit by rocks that seemed to be happy to defy the basic laws of physics, they all redoubled their efforts and managed to get into Mama Sita’s craft just before a boulder the size of a small interplanetary space barge bounced along the planet’s surface, hitting the spot where they’d just been running before bounding into the air and being split in several thousand pieces by the dual pull of the black holes.

“Right Mama. We are all in now. Just seal the door and get us out of here. Sod the seat belts, those that aren’t quite ready will just have to hold on as best they can.”

Dean’s shouted words seemed to fill the room and the adjacent cockpit, so Mama Sitta didn’t need to be told twice. Hitting the launch button and pulling on the steering column the sleek Miniun Light Battle fighter took off. It might have looked like a flimsy pleasure craft which would have been flown by some son of a rich merchant who had more sense than money, but it had been designed to fool any unsuspecting foe. Ignoring the conflicting forces pulling on the outer hull it seemed oblivious to them and rose into the air, leaving the atmosphere as if it were a javelin thrown by a mythological god.

Boulders that had once been made indestructible by the egg had lost their strength, shattering and crumbling when they made contact with the craft before the debris was sucked towards the giant gravitational objects. Their molecules forced into strips an atom’s thickness as they passed through the event horizon and spaghettification perverted nature and physics as it stretched everything within its influence to a seemingly infinite length.

The images of the rapidly collapsing planet trapped on the borders of the black holes, like photographs, where the light was neither able to escape the pull and yet not close enough to be sucked in forever. Then, as if some mystical magician had made it disappear, the maelstrom of swirling rocks and debris was gone, leaving the two cosmic objects to fight each other. All that was left, as a witness to the strange planet’s existence, was the lone craft hurting away from the place as the pilot, Mama Sitta, plotted a course out of the Firebird Galaxy. A simple task which seemed to be taking longer than expected and Dean would have gone into the cockpit to find out the reason but unfortunately he’d not fastened his seatbelt properly and was currently pressed against the rear wall of the cabin like a fly stuck in a sticky trap. He knew that he’d be able to move eventually but until then he’d have to wait until the fighter had finished its emergency thrust. Despite the forces pushing against his body he could still breathe and, forcing his mouth to move, he did his best to shout to the women he thought had died only a scant few hours earlier.

“What are you waiting for? Let’s find a Fold and get out of here.”

Cackling like a Philician witch Mama Sitta’s helmet turned slightly so that she could glimpse her protégé and enjoy the sight of his discomfiture. “Typical humanoid males, they rush to do their business and afterwards are in an even madder hurry to leave. Patience Dean. Just one second and…”

On hitting a flashing red button the thrusters, which were designed for rapidly leaving a planet’s gravitational pull, stopped and were replaced by the normal space propulsion systems. As the pressure, forcing Dean against the wall, ended he fell to the floor. “Thanks Mama but what is the delay? We might be moving away from the black holes, but I would still rather be anywhere else but here right now.”

“One second and then we will have time for me to explain what I am doing. Perhaps then your new found companion can also elaborate on a few things as well.” She pressed another button and the stars in the view screen disappeared, replaced by various shades of blue. They were in the Fold but Mama’s passengers still had no idea where it was taking them.

Swivelling her chair around Mama Sitta stood up and walked into the room where the others sat or, in the case of Dean, laid. Releasing a catch on the neck of her suit she removed her helmet revealing a barely recognisable face. Blistered and charred, with singed hair surrounding bald patches she gave them a grin that, thanks to her injuries looked sinister. “Please excuse my state but I haven’t had chance to put on any makeup yet.”

“No Mama, you look fine.” Dean was trying to sound earnest and sincere but failed abysmally.

“Oh Dean, please! I have a mirror and know that I look like a half-barbecued swamp rat. But I will heal. Anyway, less of the fake flattery. Our trip in the Fold shouldn’t take long and I know that you have lots of questions. I also know exactly what they are as I would want to ask them if I was in your shoes, so just listen. I suppose, when that damned spaceship did all it could to destroy us and our home on D-Jinn IV, we were the lucky ones. You lot flew off but as the planet is full of mineshafts and secret underground bunkers, that only I knew about, I decided to take cover in one of those. The blast was more powerful than I thought and the shock waves even penetrated to the planet’s core. My ‘safe’ space protected me from most of the destruction, but the ceiling still collapsed while the resultant fireball left me cooked to a medium rare state. In hindsight going there was not my smartest move but it seemed a good idea at the time. I dug my way out of the rubble, crawled to my emergency fighter, which had for some inexplicable reason managed to remain undamaged, put on this suit as best I could and then followed you.”

“Followed usss? But how? We didn’t pick you up on our ssscannersss.”

“Of course you didn’t. Shame on you Bob. Do you think I am such an amateur? Ever since Dean did his first runner and left us I have had trackers placed in all of my family’s space vehicles. I kept my distance and followed you through the fold. I lost the signal as I got close to the black holes but with only one planet in sight it wasn’t hard working out where you were. I saw what was left of your vehicles and I also saw a craft that I didn’t recognise. So I landed a short distance from it and started to walk in your direction. It was then that the ground began to shake and that strange glowing creature ran straight past me, got into her spaceship and left. She was in such a hurry that I don’t even think she noticed me. I then found you lot and now, here we are.”

“Sssso? Where are we heading?”  Bob’s injuries were making him even more impatient and in no mood for incomplete stories.

“So? As the stranger’s craft was unguarded I placed a tracker on it as soon as I landed. Thanks to the interference from the two black holes it took me a while to isolate the signal and location but once I had it all I had to do was plot the course and here we are, in the Fold.”

“Very sneaky, and I must admit, I am impressed.”

Grath’s compliment was met with a slight bow. “Thank you. But you want to know where we are headed?”

“Not really.” Grath’s grin was bordering on being smug. “I assume it is Kualanandar. After all that seems to be our target’s home.”

When lungs have been filled with burning smoke laughing derisively was not the wisest of things to do so Mama Sitta soon found herself coughing and clenching her fists as she fought to control the pain. “You think that do you? Well unfortunately she doesn’t think that way. From the looks of it she has gone to a small planet in the Quatran system. Logs show that it is called Luzon III and was bought some time ago by an unknown person. That is as far as the data goes.”

“And you still want to go up against her? This creature that has a cosmic egg which has given her the power to conquer the galaxy? Surely we should recognise that all luck runs out some time and we’d be wiser to head in the opposite direction? After all what can the five of us do?”

Mama Sitta briefly closed her eyes as she concentrated on fighting the pain. The helmet might have been restrictive and uncomfortable but its absence stopped the biomedical suit from doing its job. “Grath in normal circumstances, and if we were just five ordinary space pirates and mercenaries, I would have agreed with you, but we have Dean.”

“Me?” the surprise filled question released with more volume than Dean had intended.

“Yes, as you are the only one with that name, or in your case having it twice, you are our secret weapon.”

Still tired, battered and bruised Dean didn’t feel special and he certainly didn’t feel like some sort of weapon. “We have no time for jokes Mama, what are you on about?”

“Well, it all started when you were a little baby. You were placed inside a crate that used to contain Korian whisky, and left outside the doors of an orphanage on Casius. Painted on the outside of that crate was the word D’ean. The carers there thought it was your name but were unsure whether it was a first name or surname, so they simply hedged their bets and called you Dean Dean. Soon after, I happened to be visiting the place looking for… new recruits, and I saw you. A beautiful baby, so cute with darling dimples.”

The description made both Grath and Bob laugh simultaneously.

“Anyway,” ignoring their childish sniggering Mama Sitta continued “I saw the name and realised that there was more to you than met the eye and I sort of adopted you.”

“What do you mean? Surely I was just a baby like all the others. Okay I was probably cuter than them but other than that a baby is just a baby.”

“In any other case I would agree. Babies are smelly, stupid and lazy. All they do is eat, poop and sleep and cry rather than talking like sensible people do. But perhaps I should allow Miss Yadnee to take up the story, after all she knows all about you. Don’t you Miss Yadnee?”

Although, up until now, she had been quiet, Miss Yadnee had been listening intently and was expecting the conversation to head in her direction. Taking a deep breath, she released a heavy sigh. “Yes, Mama Sitta, you are correct. It seems your reputation is well deserved. You would have made a great Vazin. I compliment you on recognising our language. Very few would have known.”

“Your language?” Dean wanted to shoot something, or someone, just so he could release some pent-up frustration. “Will you please just explain one thing to me?”

“Just one thing?” Miss Yadnee gave him a smile which she hoped would calm him down, but it didn’t work.

“Yes. Who am I?”

“I was getting to that. Dean, or D’ean as it said on the crate, is an ancient Vazin word which has several meanings and interpretations depending on the context of its usage. It can mean ‘chosen one’, ‘final hope’, ‘unifying force’ or ‘equilibrium’. In your case it means all of them and more. You are a Vazin, or to be more specific half Vazin and half humanoid. Such a mating should have been biologically impossible however despite that it still happened and, thanks to when it happened, it was the start of an ancient prophesy which has been proven to be correct by the events of your life. Your adoption, your ‘less than saintly life’ through to your finding the cosmic egg. It was all predicted thousands of years before your birth and you must follow your path.”

“And if I choose not to follow it? Perhaps I’d rather walk in the opposite direction?”

With a furrowed brow Miss Yadnee briefly looked at the ceiling as if she was calculating a complex maths equation. “How can someone escape their destiny? No matter where you go, or what you do, it will become part of your story. Most people blunder through life making it up as they go along whereas you have the good fortune to have yours written down for you in advance. You can’t escape it even if you tried.”

“Oh, okay, so I am the chosen one, whether I like it or not. Although I must say that you picked a lousy time to tell me. But if I am who you say I am then you must know how my story ends. Presumably I win, save the galaxy and live a long and prosperous life? Hopefully with the word wealthy somewhere in there as well.”

There was a silence which was followed by yet more silence which was made complete by even more silence.

“Don’t I?” His voice full of concern.

“Well… there is a problem with that. As I said the prophecy was written long ago and the final scroll was sort of destroyed.”

“Sort of destroyed? How?”

“It seems that the prophet who saw your life also foresaw this conversation and knew that you had to find a way yourself without him telling you what to do. Something to do with destiny and self-fulfilment rather than him giving you lots of spoilers. He simply burnt the last scroll so that you would do what you had to do. I have no idea what happens next or even if you succeed but I am sure you will do well and possibly — I mean probably — survive.”

Running his fingers through his hair, it was Dean’s turn to sigh. “Thanks, that fills me full of confidence. Well,” he said, looking at his companions “it seems I have no choice but to fulfil some ancient prophecy and find my destiny and like it or not you all seem to be part of the legend that is yet to be re-written in the past, or something like that. I suggest we all get some rest.”

Just then the fighter jolted as it left the Fold and resumed normal space flight. The display screen, in the cockpit was filled with the sight of stars and there, in the centre, was a small purple and blue planet. The final destination – Luzon III.

Having glanced at the display screen Dean resumed his far from motivating speech. “And get ready for a fight. I for one have no intention of dying but if I have to, then I plan to put up a damned good fight in the process.”

Useful Information

Story Settings

Deep Space

The Fold

The Dedanite Empire

The Bunda Empire

Kualanando, the pirate haven

Junko Hotshot Workshops

D-Jinn IV

Characters

Captain of the cargo frieghter St. Jude. Recently? had a mishap travelling the folded space highway and ended up wandering deep space. After curiousity got the better of him, he discovered a strange object in a strange container that gained him the attention of the Dedanite Empire.

Overbearing and vain leader of the Dedan Third Fleet. He has been tasked with eliminating Dean Dean and recovering the Dedanite’s artifact.

A Hardwired Hot Shot (cybernetically-enhanced Bounty Hunter), Grath has the AI of his dead wife and business partner constantly in his head.

His cybernetics include: quarter-cranial implant, left arm that houses a hidden canon and leads for data input, enhanced neurochem for speed and accuracy in his right arm, and aging leg enhancements for speed and jumping.

Grath’s ship is a single-seat Hunter-Class called Venom-3. It does possess  a small lounge and living area, which could house another person if needed.

MAI, short for My Artificial Intelligence, a personal joke of Grath’s, is his the converted mind of his dead wife Maya.

She was killed in a job that went wrong, when Grath made a mistake. Feeling guilty, he had her dying mind converted and uploaded into his own cybernetics.

She manages most of the Venom-3 and provides Grath with telemetry and other intelligence. She also manages the firing duties for the canon in his cybernetic arm.

A small woman who makes up for her diminutive stature with a commanding presence, Ari captains the pirate crew of the Solar-class ship The Rebel Adventure.

Ari and her crew base out of the hidden pirate port of Kualanando, a Kardeshev-2 colony (an immense sphere that engulfs the local star). She is friends with the mechanic Tal Garu.

Member of a highly intelligent, ancient and long-lived species. One of  richest, most generous, and most powerful beings to have ever existed.

Unlike most of his species, he isn’t content to sit idly, immersed in existential contemplation. Rather he prefers to manipulate the events of the galaxy from behind the scenes.

Almost as tall as Dean, but with a much slimmer build, Miss Yadnee has shoulder length hair and dark, glistening skin to go with her strong, confident presence. Her torso is covered in Vazin sigils.

Miss Yadness is the owner of a gambling establishment in Kualanandar. She has a strong information network and devotes significant resources to trying to track the dealings of Tal Garu, at least as they apply to Kualanandar. She also claims to be a member of the Vazin Clan, mystic warriors thought to be extinct for several generations.

Not just the owner and founder of Julko Hotshot Workshops, but a customer also. He could live and work on any of the myriad of Julko workshops in the galaxy, but prefers to stay on the rimworld of Pilz, well outside of the galactic bustle.

Port master and right-hand man of D-Jinn IV ganglord Mama Sitta. Willie has a soft spot for the orphan kids Mama Sitta employs and thinks of them as his own. He wears a patch over his left eye and his right legs is an old cybernetic model that has since fused at the knee in the harsh climate of the planet, giving him a limp.

Diminutive in stature, powerful in personality and reach, Mama Sitta runs the gangs of D-Jinn IV. She employs and trains young orphans, instilling in them a fear and loyalty to her that remains useful even once they’re grown. While she operates primarily on D-Jinn IV, awareness of her extends to places as distant as Kualanandar.

A snake-like humanoid who was raised on D-Jinn IV under Mama Sitta’s guidance and Dean Dean’s friendship.

Member of the same ancient species, and sworn enemy of the Vazin, as Tal Garu. Her prime identity for many decades was the pirate captain Ari Sento, a remote manipulated meat sack recently destroyed by Mama Sitta. She is now looking for a Cosmic Egg to rebuild her ship and recreate a new human identity. Although, believing she’s killed the last Vazin, is secrecy any longer needed?

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