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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.]
[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.]
[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.”
“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?”
“Sounds good. I never did get my drink.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
Dean blasted the final remaining drones and they were free and clear.
They surged through the gate, past a few small ships waiting for clearance and out into the empty space beyond the pirates haven.
“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.
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?”
“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.]
[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!”
The Dedanite Empire
The Bunda Empire
Kualanando, the pirate haven
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.