Book: The Dead Worlds



The Dead Worlds




The Dead Worlds


The Adam Cain Chronicles #1


T.R. Harris

Set in The Human Chronicles Universe




Copyright 2019 by Tom Harris Creations, LLC

All rights reserved, without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanically, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. *


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Contents


The alien with an attitude is back!

1. Three aliens walk into a bar…

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Author Notes

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Novels by T.R. Harris


The alien with an attitude is back!


The Adam Cain Chronicles

Moving to the tropical paradise world of Liave-3 was supposed to be a reward for twenty years of saving the galaxy from a variety of aliens with evil intent. But for Adam Cain, Sherri Valentine and Riyad Tarazi, it’s turning out to be anything but. It’s turning into a disaster.

Besieged by gangster thugs, alien assassins and troublesome dinosaurs, the Humans are learning they’ll need all their skills and natural abilities to survive.

And now a young Human friend of theirs has put them square in the sights of an enormously wealthy alien with an army of Gradis Cartel soldiers, who accuses the trio of stealing something they don’t have and know nothing about. But does anyone believe them? Not hardly.

Now it’s a race against time to stay one step ahead of a variety of parties, each out to kill them … or worse!

Just when our heroes were hoping to make a new start on a distant world, it’s soon back to the same old thing. More alien head-bashing, more incredible battles … and more lessons to be taught.


And Lesson #1:

You don’t mess with the Humans!

Ever!


1

Three aliens walk into a bar…

Jay noticed them the moment they entered. Each wore long, trench coat-like outfits, and their thin, beady eyes were intense and unblinking. Jay had seen their type before. They were professionals, serious and determined, and not here for the food and drink. They were looking for someone, and nothing would distract them from their goal. The aliens scanned the interior before locking their yellow eyes laser-like on a table of six seated near the large open portal at the back of the building.

Jay was a regular at the bar, so he knew the routine. He turned his attention to the long, polished bar to his left and noticed the bartender—Kaylor—checking his computer screen, concern clouding his light blue face. There were detectors at the front door, and the newcomers had come in armed, ignoring the signs proclaiming Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill to be a no-weapons-allowed establishment. A moment later, Kaylor was on a link, calling Adam for backup.

Jay’s four alien companions were oblivious to the newcomers, content instead to down another round of the finest intoxicants to be found anywhere in the coastal enclave of Balamar—at least the finest to Human standards. But their ignorant bliss didn’t last long. Moments later, the intruders made a beeline for the table with the six aliens, their attention focused, their purpose never wavering.

Then all hell broke loose.

The three aliens pulled back their coats and produced Xan-fi flash rifles, bringing them to bear on the unsuspecting patrons. To their credit, those seated at the table were quick to react and managed to tumble from their chairs before the first bolt launched. Unfortunately for two of them, it wasn’t fast enough.

Now, as the surviving targets scrambled away on their hands and knees, the assassins opened up on the rest of the bar, indiscriminately sending their deadly plasma bolts into the surrounding tables as they tracked their targets through the panicking crowd. Pandemonium broke out, followed by a cacophony of screeches, squealing and screams.

Jay lifted the bottom of his table and tipped it over, before diving unceremoniously behind it for cover. Flash bolts didn’t have much penetrating power, so the table would protect him. However, when he flipped the table, his four companions ended up on the other side and in full view of the killers. But they weren’t the primary targets; they would be okay. At least that’s what Jay hoped.

Just then, one of the aliens from the target table crawled around the end of Jay’s shelter. His left shoulder was a bubbling hunk of red meat and the side of his face a charred, hideous mess.

“Help me,” the alien pleaded in an anguished voice.

Jay placed a boot against the alien’s forehead and pushed him back into the open.

“I don’t think so.”

“Mercy! I will provide a reward.”

“A reward? What kind of reward?”

“No time now. Help!”

Jay poked his head above the overturned table. The killers were blasting through crowds of people, trying to locate their scurrying targets. They’d lost sight of the one with Jay, at least for the moment.

“I’ll help, but for a reward.”

Jay grasped the alien by the intact part of his shirt and lifted him from the floor. In the light gravity of Liave-3, it wasn’t much of a chore, not for a Human. Hunched over, Jay carried him through the back portal and onto the sand of the beach behind the tavern, before turning right and tossing the wounded alien into the dark alley between Cain’s and Sherri’s Golden Slipper Hotel next door. He then crawled back to the portal to see if they’d been followed.

Fortunately for him and his charge, the assassins were otherwise occupied. Jay looked inside just as one of the bar’s owners—Adam Cain—jumped from the second-floor balcony, landing on top of two of the killers. All three tumbled to the floor, before rolling over and attempting to get to their feet.

At the same time, another of the owners appeared—Sherri Valentine, this time—armed with a wooden club. The third alien assassin had his weapon lined up on Adam, but he never got the chance to finger the trigger. With all the skill of a major league home run hitter, Sherri swung the club at the side of the killer’s head, catching him off guard. The blow was so powerful that the alien’s head was nearly ripped off his shoulders, as every bone in his neck shattered with only the thick, pliable skin keeping it attached. The head flopped onto the alien’s chest, as the momentum of the blow sent his body tumbling over another table.

In the meantime, Adam Cain managed to grab the arm of one of the other killers and lift the rifle up and away from the fleeing crowd. A bolt lit off, splashing on the ceiling below the balcony. Adam then unleashed a powerful elbow straight into the alien’s chin. Even from where Jay lay, he could hear the cracking of bone. The alien dropped where he stood, dead before hitting the floor.

The remaining assassin was crawling away when he suddenly rolled over and brought his flash rifle to bear on Adam. Frozen in place, Adam stretched out a thin, almost sinister grin. A moment later, the targeting computer in the rifle locked on, and a brilliant ball of white flared out from the barrel. It hit Adam squarely in the chest.

Adam grimaced, the veins in his neck standing out in stark relief. A perfectly round hole formed in the fabric of his shirt, glowing red around the edges. Adam’s chest was exposed, displaying a raw crimson burn. The angry Human patted at the embers of his shirt, his grin now a savage growl.

Jay laughed when he saw the expression on the face of the would-be assassin. He’d seen the same shocked look three times before, on the faces of the unfortunate few who also shot him with level-two flash bolts. To a Human, all a level-two did was make them mad. A level-one was required to take down a Human, and only then if it was in the right spot.

Adam jumped, dropping a knee onto the chest of the stunned killer. An impossibly deep depression formed in the torso, as ribs broke, lungs collapsed and his heart burst. At least that’s how Jay imagined it. He had no idea as to the physiology of the alien. It didn’t matter. The creature was dead upon impact.

Satisfied that the show was over, Jay returned to the alien in the alley. In the dim light of the dangling lanterns on the canopy covering the beach area behind the bar, Jay could see that the injured alien was on his last leg. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be dead, although he was still breathing.

Jay roused him, shaking his frail body until his eyes opened from the associated pain. With sad, bloodshot eyes, he looked down at his toasted torso.

“I appear to be severely injured,” he groaned.

“That you are.”

“Will I survive?”

“I doubt it,” Jay answered honestly. “What was that all about? Those guys came in looking for you, and the others at the table.”

“They came to prevent us from speaking … about the weapons.”

“What weapons?”

The alien coughed, and droplets of blood stained his lips. He began to drift away again.

“Stay awake,” Jay ordered, gently slapping the unburned side of his face. “What weapons?”

“The weapons on Hax’on.” His watery red eyes then locked on Jay. “I promised a reward. I will now honor my pledge.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

“On Hax’on, in a warehouse at the Tainesin Manufacturing Works…in the city of Ko…you will find the weapons. They are prototypes, the most powerful energy weapons in the galaxy…” The words of the dying alien came out in descending intensity, trailing off to almost nothing at the end.

“In a warehouse?”

“Yes, number eleven,” the alien moaned. “The entry code is, is 0881.”

“How many weapons are there?”

“Many.”

“How do you know about them?”

“I … a contract to ship. Never the chance…”

The alien coughed again, accompanied by another spray of blood.

“Who was that trying to kill you?” Jay asked. But it was too late. When he leaned in closer, he could see the alien had died.

Jay leaned back against the clapboard exterior of Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill and considered what the alien said: There’s a boatload of prototype weapons in a warehouse on Hax’on. This could be interesting.

Jay knew of the planet Hax’on, although he’d never been there. It was one of the hundred-plus worlds the Mad Aris Kracion had irradiated a few years back, killing nearly all of the native population. Hax’on was one of the first to be attacked, and as such, the catastrophe came without much warning. Only a few thousand survivors made it off the planet, many of whom came to nearby Liave-3 as refugees. Even so, most of the wealthier and well-connected Hax’oneans didn’t stay long; Liave-3 was a hole-in-the-wall planet at the time without much to offer those with means. For that matter, it still was. By this time, the bulk of the more-affluent refugees had moved further into the galaxy, looking for more sophisticated planets to call their new home. Unfortunately for the alien in the alley, he was left behind on L-3.

Jay’s heart pounded, the excitement building. Weapons were a hot commodity for the thousands of salvagers pouring over the stricken worlds left in Kracion’s wake. Although dangerous to ship and often illegal to sell, they could still fetch small fortunes on the black market. They were part of the infinite variety of contraband that made up the gold rush taking place within what was called The Dead Zone. Staggering fortunes were being made by those resourceful enough to find and hold onto their salvages. The last part—holding onto their claims—that was the main challenge. The Zone was a wild and wooly place where only the strongest or most-tenacious survived.

Even so, it was obvious Jay would have to check out the validity of the alien’s claim.

He left the dead alien in the alley and returned to the bar.

There he found Adam Cain waving his arms and swearing up a storm while Sherri Valentine sat at one of the few upright tables, a drink in her hand. She chugged it, then called to the tiny bear-like alien Jym to bring her another.

The place was a mess. Burn marks dotted the walls, and there were easily a dozen tables broken or overturned, with chairs scattered everywhere. But worst of all, several bodies lay helter-skelter across the floor, creating huge puddles of dark blood on the wooden planks. Jay identified the five aliens from the original table—now dead—their clothing and skin still giving off sickening whiffs of pungent white smoke. They were all of the same race—Hax’oneans, like the one in the alley. The three killers were also of the same race, although Jay didn’t recognize the species. That wasn’t unusual, not with the incredible influx of people coming to Liave-3 recently.

Adam looked at Jay, his face red, his eyes wide. “Look what they did to my place!” he barked. “Damn aliens, every last one of the bastards!”

Sherri snorted. “And this isn’t going to help our reputation. We’re going to lose customers because of this … unless we can barbeque up the dead and serve them up at a discounted price.”

The funny thing, she wasn’t joking. With a galaxy full of carnivores, just about every species was a meal for another.

Jay didn’t have an interest in the bar; however, as one of the few Humans on the planet, he spent most of his time between salvage operations at Cain’s. He was a familiar face.

Adam and his partners had done a decent job of converting the old building into a faithful replica of a Key West-style dive bar, complete with fishnets on the walls and colorful canopies over the tables out on the beach. They even had a huge charcoal grill outside that cooked real meat. That was a rarity out in the galaxy, where everything spit out of computer-controlled food processors rather than being cooked fresh. For Jay, Cain’s was a pretty nice place to hang out, that was until a few minutes ago.

“Any idea what happened?” Jay asked. He wasn’t inclined to tell Adam about the weapons. That was his little secret, even though he knew the weapons were the reason for the killings. Someone wanted to keep their existence a secret, that someone undoubtedly being the weapon’s owners.

“I have no idea why they did this,” Adam answered in a growl. “All I know is my no-guns-allowed policy isn’t working! It’s as if aliens can’t read.”

“Most can’t,” Sherri pointed out. “They just rely on their translators.”

Another Human entered through a walkway connecting the bar with the outfitting business next door. The dark-haired, bearded man looked around, shaking his head in disgust.

“Looks like I missed all the fun,” said Riyad Tarazi. He was the third Human running a trio of businesses operating under the umbrella of the Big Three Partnership. He was also Jay’s friend. “Is everyone okay—except, of course, for these unfortunate souls on the floor? We belong to Allah, and to Allah we shall return. Except in their case, I don’t give a crap. Look what they did to the place.” He stepped over the body of an alien with a crushed chest.

Adam took a quick inventory. “Looks like they only killed three of the regular customers … besides the ones the assassins targeted.”

“Assassins?” Riyad queried.

“Yeah, it was a hit job. These three came in looking for those five.”

“Those six,” Jay corrected. “I managed to drag one of them out the back. And before you ask, he’s dead.”

Jay then looked around the bar, frowning. “Where’s my crew?”

Sherri waved a hand toward the front door. “Donal was hit in the arm. The others took him out the front, probably to the med clinic.”

The bar was deserted now, except for the four Humans and the two alien junior partners in the company, Kaylor and Jym. Other than that, anyone who wasn’t dead had executed strategic retreats as soon as the shooting began.

Jay shrugged, figuring it was a good time for him to leave, as well. Besides, he had things to do.

“I’m going to check on my people,” he said as he set off for the door. No one paid any attention, lost instead in their feelings of anger and frustration.

Outside in the warm, humid air, Jay turned toward the small medical clinic located a few blocks down the road. He’d make a quick check on his people and then hire a transport to take him to the nearby Kanac Spaceport. He had a small personal sprinter parked there that would get him to Hax’on and back. He couldn’t make any moves on the salvage until the alien’s information was verified. If true, this could be a pretty big score, possibly the biggest of Jay’s life. But until confirmed, he would hold his cards close to the vest. After all, knowledge of the prototype weapons could be hazardous to one’s health, as he’d just witnessed.

And Jay Williford wasn’t anxious to end up like the dead alien in the alley, not if he could help it.


2

Adam Cain was on his hands and knees, scrubbing on the burnt amber stain on the wooden floor of his bar. The blood from the killings two days before had soaked into the porous planks and would take more than elbow grease to remove. As sweat poured into his eyes from the effort, Adam was rapidly concluding that only a brisk sanding could reach the discoloration. That or a darker stain to hide the evidence.

There were only a handful of customers in Cain’s at the time, with most sitting outside at the tables dotting the white sand beach near the bay. Umbrella canopies protected them from the intense late summer heat, and a fresh breeze blew in from the sea, located a hundred yards from the back entrance to the bar. Sherri was right about them losing business. It had only been two days, and already receipts were down fifty percent. Killings like that didn’t happen in Balamar, at least not along what Adam called the Liave Riviera, the stretch of crescent beach south of the peninsula. Instead, such events were reserved for the rough-and-tumble boomtown of Kanac, located fourteen miles farther inland. There the fifty thousand mostly transient inhabitants were used to near-constant shootouts, murders and assaults. For them, it was a way of life—or death—the sad consequence of a town that suddenly sprouts from the jungles in only two years. There wasn’t enough time for traditions to take hold, at least not the traditions one would be proud to have.

Unlike Kanac, the sixty-year-old coastal community of Balamar had always been more peaceful, more laid back. Its twelve hundred permanent residents preferred it that way. But times were changing, with the violence and lawlessness of Kanac overflowing into Balamar on a more regular basis. Many of the long-term residents were quick to blame the newcomers to their community; the newcomers being the three Humans and two aliens who made up the Big Three Partnership and the trio of businesses they operated in central Balamar.

Adam leaned back on his haunches and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Painters were covering up the burn marks on the walls and ceiling from the plasma bolts while Sherri and Kaylor worked on putting the broken tables back together. With the lull in business, the little bear-like alien Jym was out at Copernicus’s old shipyard, attempting to get some of the derelicts starships working again. And lastly, Riyad was next door at Tarazi’s Outfitters & Expeditions tending to business. With the drop in revenue at Cain’s—as well as the residual effect it was having on Sherri’s hotel—it was imperative Riyad keep the outfitting business running at full speed.

Just then, a shaft of light shot into the interior of the tavern as the front door opened. At first, Adam couldn’t make out who entered, not through the glare. But as the male alien stepped further in and up to the monitoring turnstile that would read his body chemistry, Adam was able to see him more clearly.

He appeared to be slightly overweight—although it was impossible to tell with an alien. He was also a little taller than Adam—which was common—and with smooth brown skin tending to the darker side. His eyes looked to have eyeliner defining the orbs, making him look intense and intimidating. Again, that could be normal for his unknown race. But what set the alien apart was the luxurious cut of his clothing. He wore a shiny silver coat joined at a single point over his bulbous belly, with an undervest of shimmering gold. His pants were trim and made of dark blue material, and he wore a pair of pointed shoes with translucent scales on them, possibly made from the hide of one of the local dinosaur species. His head was basic Prime, looking quite Humanoid in shape and features and with a full crop of wavy silver hair atop his head.

The word dandy came to mind, even though Adam could never recall using the word to describe someone before. In this case, it fit, being both archaic and insulting at the same time.

The alien paused after entering the main dining area and looked around. As an alien, his expression was subject to misinterpretation, but Adam got the impression he was amused. Then with bravado in his step, the being strode up to Adam and looked down at him with a glint in his golden eyes, a thin smile on his face.

“Are you the owner?” he asked in a deep voice that resonated in the air as if he had sung the words.

Adam stood up and wiped his hands on the blood-soaked cleaning cloth.

“I am,” he answered.

“I am Dal Divisen,” the alien stated, using a tone which indicated he expected Adam to know who he was. When Adam didn’t react, he continued. “I have meant to come and introduce myself, curious as to who bought the Balamar properties from my good friend Hew Sans. Over the years, I, too, have been interested in purchasing these buildings, but now I see I am too late. My loss. May we sit?”

“Of course.”

Adam watched the computer screen on the table light up, indicating that Divisen was of a race called Lamanix, while also detailing a menu of food and drink that was compatible with the alien’s body chemistry. The alien took note of the screen.

“Quite impressive!” he said, pulling the rotating monitor around so he could read it in full. “I have heard of this technology. You undoubtedly read my chems as I entered. I have meant to try these in my establishments, but lack of time is often my enemy. For now, I am content to remain using the standard blood testing boxes.”

“If you’re interested, we have about eighty of them in storage around here somewhere. We could let you have them for a very fair price.” He didn’t mention he would need the money to replace the broken monitors from the other night. That bill was going to be around three thousand Juirean credits just by itself.

“I appreciate the offer, and I will keep it in mind.” The alien’s forehead then furrowed. “You are a Human, are you not?”

“That’s right.”

“I was not aware Humans owned any businesses on L-3; there are certainly none in Kanac.”

“Have you had much experience with Humans?”

Divisen bobbed his head. “Not to any degree; however, I have heard of your race, as has everyone in the galaxy. Correct me if I am wrong, but you are a fairly primitive species who rose to prominence over twenty years ago after successfully defeating the Juireans, Klin and Kracori in battle before temporarily assuming control of the Expansion. And now you manage a slowly growing empire in the Far Arm.”

“I might take exception to the word primitive,” Adam stated.

“All is relative, of course. But alas, most of the stories I have heard of your species revolve around the chronicles of a single mythical creature, who, according to the stories, has been the catalyst for multiple thrilling adventures involving the fate of the galaxy and beyond.” The alien laughed.

Adam frowned. “Mythical creature?” he asked. “Why mythical?”

“How could it be otherwise? No single entity could be responsible for all the deeds attributed to him, this greatest of all Human heroes. In my opinion, these are just tales, fantasies created to inflate the Human mystique to instill awe and mystery in your kind.”

Adam knew what was coming, but he played along anyway.

“And who is this mythical creature you’re referring to?” he asked, a thin smile now stretching across his face.

Divisen appeared confused. “Surely you must know; Adam Cain, of course. Even you are perpetuating the legend, having named your establishment after him.”

Adam nodded, amused, while at the same time, a little insulted. He remained quiet, setting the bait.

“And what name do you go by, my Human friend?” the alien finally asked.

Adam leaned back in his chair and grinned even wider. “My name is Cain. Adam Cain.”

Divisen frowned again while shaking his head. “Surely a coincidence … or an alias?”

“None of the above. I am Adam Cain, but I have to admit, most of the stories you’ve heard of me are exaggerations, at least to some degree.”

The alien’s tanned face was suddenly animated. “Surely you jest! You are the famous Adam Cain?”

Adam nodded.

Divisen looked across the room to the frazzled-looking blonde banging away on a wooden table.

“So that would make the Human female Sherri Valentine? Am I correct? And somewhere nearby will be Riyad Tarazi. It is well-known the three of you travel together quite often.”

Adam nodded again. “And you even pronounced the names right. I’m impressed.”

“I do attempt to keep up with current affairs.” But then the frown returned. “And now the three most-famous Humans in the galaxy are on L-3 and operating a variety of businesses in the little Balamar enclave. How can this be true?”

Adam shrugged. “We’re retired now and just looking for a little peace and quiet. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“Peace?” Divisen said, bobbing his head. “I heard of the attack that took place here the other night. It is rumored to have been carried out by professional assassins. That would hardly qualify as peace and quiet.”

“These things happen. It had nothing to do with us.”

“I find that hard to believe. Probably a residual effect from your storied past.”

Adam bristled at the statement. “It’s true, whether you believe it or not. It had nothing to do with us. Now, what can I do for you, Dal Vis-en?”

The alien looked around the room. Sherri had taken notice of Adam’s tense body language and sensed something was amiss. She was watching the pair like a hawk.

“The name is Divisen,” Dal corrected, returning his attention to Adam. Both the smile and the frown were gone, replaced now by a steady, non-blinking glare of his outlined eyes. “Have you not heard of me?”

“No, I haven’t. Sorry.”

“That, too, I cannot believe.”

Adam’s smile vanished, and he leaned forward in his chair. “A word of advice, my friend. Stop calling me a liar.”

The dandy-dressed creature held up his hands in mock defense. “Calm yourself, Adam Cain. Recall, I know of your volatile attitude and propensity for violence. I, on the other hand, am a true creature of enterprise. I prefer my encounters to be mutually beneficial and non-violent. And since you are ignorant of who I am, I will allow you a certain latitude, at least for the time being. Just let it be known that the two of us are presently at odds with each other, competitors in many ways. Just like you, I operate several drinking and eating establishments. In addition, I am active in the salvage business, and I own several temporary residences, such as the one you have next door. However—and most importantly—I also control the power module franchise on Liave-3, meaning that all ships coming to and leaving the planet that require refueling must deal with me. Because of that—as well as several other ventures I am involved in—I am able to help my friends.” The alien’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned in a little closer to Adam. “At the same time, I have the ability to punish my enemies if the need arises.”



By the end of his brief soliloquy, any trace of cordiality was gone.

“Is that a threat?” Adam asked, sitting up straighter in his chair. The cocky alien was pushing all the wrong buttons. How much longer Adam would put up with his veiled threats was anyone’s guess.

Divisen leaned back in his chair. “A threat … against the most-dangerous Human in the galaxy? I may be blunt and somewhat arrogant, but I am not stupid. Now that I have met you, just let me say I am here to offer you a lesson on how things are done on Liave-3. As it is in most communities, there are certain protocols and traditions one must follow in order to remain in business and safe from harm. And as you will learn, on L-3, I set those protocols. You are newcomers; I would think you would welcome this timely instruction.”

Adam had had enough. He leaned in closer. “Listen Dal, I don’t give a damn about your protocols or your lessons. My friends and I came here looking for a simpler life and not to get involved in local politics or play games with any small-time gangsters. I’ve seen enough of your kind to last a lifetime. We only want to run our businesses and be left alone. We’re not looking for any trouble.”

Divisen smiled and looked down at the red stain on the floor. “And yet trouble seems to find you, Adam Cain. If half the stories about you are true, then you are a magnet for chaos. I, on the other hand, seek only harmony … and compliance. If you tend to your businesses—and stay out of mine—there will be no trouble between us.”

“I’m not the one who barged into your place of business and started calling you a liar and making threats.”

Divisen stood up, announcing the sudden end to his so-called lesson. “Then consider this visit a courtesy. As I said; I seek only harmony and compliance. You do that, and we will get along.”

“Harmony I can deal with,” Adam said. “Compliance might be a problem.”

Divisen bowed slightly. “Then I shall depart and observe the evolution of our respective attitudes. In all sincerity, I wish you luck, Adam Cain, with the attitude you have exhibited over the years. It is well-known. However, it remains to be seen how well it will serve you on Liave-3.”

The Dead Worlds

As Dal Divisen stepped out into the bright light of midday, anger clouded his thoughts. He had not intended to become so forceful with the newcomers; that was something the just happened, thanks to the surprise of his learning their identity. And Dal Divisen hated surprises.

As he opened the door to his waiting transport, he caught sight of a familiar figure farther along the thoroughfare. He was there for only a moment, and now he was gone. Dal told his driver to wait and then headed down the street.

At an alleyway between buildings, Dal found him there, hiding in the shadows, trying to conceal his embarrassment at being sighted.

“Lion/El, my friend, I thought that was you,” Dal said to the plump, four-armed creature wearing a bright purple coat. “You are just the being I wish to speak with.”

Lion/El shifted nervously in place, clutching a small stack of datapads in two of his arms. “I was not aware you were in town. What urgent matter brings you all the way to Balamar … and to see me?”

Dal moved in closer, until he was only a foot from the shorter alien, forcing Lion/El to press his back against the side of the building and with no place to run. Dal towered over the creature, his stare drilling into the nervous eyes of the other, their bellies touching. “You know why I am here,” Dal growled. “Why did you not tell me you sold Hew’s properties to Adam Cain?”

Dal’s voice was like gravel, causing Lion/El to shrink even smaller under the intense onslaught of the kingpin’s powerful presence. “Adam Cain? Yes, yes, I did; however, it was understood that Sherri Valentine was the driving force behind the transaction, not Adam Cain. I did not think it significant enough to bother you.”

“Not significant!” Dal barked. “The most famous Humans in the galaxy move to Balamar, and you do not feel that is significant?”

“They are here simply to run minor businesses, away from Kanac and of no concern to you—”

I will decide what is of concern to me!”

“They said they came here to retire,” Lion/El blurted in his defense. “It is the practice of spending leisure time at insignificant activities in their advancing years.”

“I know what retirement means, you scab! And you believed them?”

“It is what they told me.”

“You are as gullible as you are fat. A creature like Adam Cain does not retire; he is always on a mission. And he did not come to L-3 to manage a drinking establishment or other ancillary businesses, as you were told.”

“He has not?”

“No. He is here for other, more sinister purposes.”

“And you believe these sinister purposes involve you?”

Dal slapped the shorter alien across the face, not hard, but enough to focus his attention. “Of course I do, you fool! He is here investigating my activities.”

“Did he tell you that?”

Dal slapped him again. “Of course not; he did not have to! You have met the Humans, so you should know they are not here to wallow away their remaining years in obscurity on Liave-3. And if the rumors are true, these three were most-recently involved in a potentially catastrophic event facing the entire universe. The universe! They are heroes, not merchants. And now you believe they would simply toss everything aside to what … to run a tavern?” Dal shook his head. “No, they are here seeking information. Why else? Liave-3 has become the center of the galaxy, with thousands arriving daily seeking their fortunes in The Dead Zone. We are a hotbed of both legal and illegal activity. And with the unique status of the region, there is no formal government nor law enforcement with authority over us or the dead worlds. What is legal or not legal is a relative question. What better place for Human agents to operate than here? Think, Lion/El! And who is it that controls most of the activities on L-3?”

“That would be you, my friend, Dal.”

“Precisely. And that is why Cain is here, and now operating businesses that put him in direct competition with me. A perfect excuse for him and his team to be here.”

“Competition? They have but three small enterprises, and in Balamar. You control nearly an entire city.”

Dal pursed his purple lips. “At one time, that was true,” he said sourly. “But we both know that is changing. There is an influx of upstarts and other powerful entities coming to Kanac, many representing enormous organizations, and all seeking their share of what I have.”

“Maris-Kliss,” Lion/El whispered.

“Yes, MK, among others. All want their piece of the dead worlds. And now they are intruding upon my interests, squeezing me in every direction. And into this unstable environment, you allow Adam Cain to enter.”

“Perhaps he is here for one of the others and not for you.”

“The others are newcomers to Liave-3, still vying for position and power. I am the establishment, a being with ties throughout Kanac and The Zone. No, he is here for me; I can feel it. He even pretended he had not heard of me. Who on Liave-3 has not heard of Dal Divisen?”

“What then are you to do about him? After all, he is Adam Cain.”

Dal looked out of the alley toward the main street of Balamar. He sighed before turning his full attention back to Lion/El. “The better question is, what are you going to do about him?”

“Me … as in me alone?”

“That is correct. You have a relationship with the Humans; you sold them Hew Sans’ properties without my permission or my foreknowledge. For that, you are most to blame for my current situation. You must make amends, Lion/El; otherwise, the consequences for you will be severe.”

“Anything, my friend, Dal! What is it you wish?”

“Stay close to the Humans. Learn all you can about their activities. And this time, you will report to me on every move they make, every bit of information you discover. I want to know everything they do even before they do it. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly!”

“Good.” Dal placed a hand on the shoulder of the trembling being and squeezed—hard. “And Lion/El, if you fail me again, you will experience first-hand what the inside of a gravity generator is like, as your atoms become fused with those of one of my deadly power modules.”

“There will be no need, my friend. Since the beginning, I have been your loyal associate. You know this to be true. I will not fail you.”

Dal leaned in closer, staring into Lion/El’s yellow eyes. He said nothing more, instead letting the moment sink in on its own. He then released Lion/El and abruptly left the alley, returning to his transport, leaving Lion/El shaking and sweating, an emotional wreck.

After instructing his driver to return to Kanac, Dal leaned back in his seat, fuming with rage—and concern. Unfortunately, this Adam Cain complication was just one of a dozen critical situations he was dealing with at the moment, with more seeming to arrive daily. Since he first arrived on Liave-3 two years before, the planet—as well as his precious city of Kanac—had always been a fluid environment. But in the early days, he controlled the flow of events. Now the tide was shifting. There was a flood of newcomers, each with their own agendas, many of which now overlapped with his own. It took all his cunning and experience to stay one step ahead of those who would attempt to bring him down.

And now Adam Cain was on L-3.

This did not bode well. Already the Expansion and the Union were in a tense political struggle for control of The Dead Zone. It was even possible events could spiral out of control, resulting in a shooting war between the two galactic empires. And where would that leave Dal and all he’d built on Liave-3? The famous Adam Cain must be working for the Union. Why would he not? He is a Human, and the Orion-Cygnus Union is a Human-run organization. And if so, then he is but a harbinger of more sinister operations to come, and all aimed directly at him.

Fortunately, Dal Divisen was experienced enough to recognize when he was a target. And knowing now what weapon others would use against him, it was his job to negate this threat before his enemy could strike. He’d done it before. He would do it again.

Adam Cain and the other Humans had to be eliminated.


3

The roof of Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill was covered in turquoise-colored metal and sloped at a radical angle to drain the frequent downpours that occurred at these latitudes. However, at the pinnacle of the roof was a flat section with a structure resembling a crow’s nest and topped with a similarly colored tin roof of its own. This area served as the private sanctuary of Adam and his friends, a place where they could retreat in the evening and observe the activities taking place, both on the street in front of the bar, as well as along the expanse of curving beach behind. The steady sea breeze was unobstructed at this height and provided them with a welcome respite from the heat of the day. A lone electric lantern hung under the tiny roof, casting them in soft, yellow light as the trio of Humans sat in comfortable wicker chairs around the solitary wooden table.

Thanks to the handiwork of their alien friends—Jym and Kaylor—the Humans were able to relax comfortably in their rooftop sanctuary in what approximated Earth gravity. The two had borrowed an internal gravity generator from one of Coop’s old derelict starships and installed it just below the building’s attic, which now served as Adam’s apartment. It was important for Adam and the others to maintain their Human strength in the lower gravity of Liave-3, otherwise their muscles would atrophy and they’d become just like every other being in the galaxy, weak and brittle-boned.

Adam was on his fourth rum and coke—or something similar to a rum and coke—with the alcohol lubricating his tongue enough that he was in the middle of a long diatribe regarding their current situation. Sherri had had her share of intoxicates as well, while Riyad abstained, as his religion required. They listened to Adam’s rant, not so much out of interest, but instead waiting for their turn to voice thoughts about … well, about anything. There was no agenda attached to the evening’s never-ending bitch-session.

“What is it with everyone?” Adam was saying. “They always read things into situations that just aren’t there.” He had related—ad nauseum—his earlier conversation with the alien Dal Divisen, and now he was venting. “We didn’t come here looking for trouble, but trouble always seems to find us. What are we, the three most unlucky Humans in the galaxy, or what?”

Riyad opened his mouth to speak, seeing an opportunity to answer the rhetorical question. But then Adam continued unabated.

“Fucking aliens! And who the hell does that Divisen asshole think he is? He called me a liar more than once. I’ve killed people for less than that.”

Riyad wasn’t so sure of that, but it sounded macho enough for the moment.

“And look down there,” Adam said, pointing along the radical slope of the roof to a clear view of Lan Road, the main street running through the center of Balamar. It was nearing midnight, yet the street was still filled with drunken and rowdy aliens of all makes and models. “It’s gotten so much worst since we came here, and most of the others in town are blaming it on us. It’s not our fault! They’re all from Kanac, where that double-asshole Divisen runs things.”

Riyad noticed a pair of burly aliens on the street below herding a half-dozen small four-legged dinosaurs along the thoroughfare, using periodic flash bolts fired into the air to keep them in line. Dinosaurs were the dominant indigenous animal life on L-3, which probably explained why there were no Primes at the top of the food chain. The planet was too primitive for Humanoid life to have evolved. At first, Riyad and his friends thought it would be fun living on a world inhabited by dinosaurs, but that wasn’t the case. Although most were harmless and about the size of cats and dogs, the occasional monster would wander into town and chew up a storefront before being scared off. However, this was rare since most of the larger animals shied away from the settlements. But the smaller ones were more ubiquitous and much more of a nuance. They liked to chew on power cables and forage through trash bins, reminding Riyad of rats back on Earth. But don’t be misled. There were also rat-like things on Liave-3, as well. However, they were five times as big as the terrestrial variety, disease-infected, and with nasty personalities. In many ways, they were worse than the dinosaurs.

Just then, another flash bolt lit up the street below. This one didn’t come from the rowdies harassing the herd of dinosaurs, but rather from a confrontation almost directly in front of Cain’s. An alien now lay dead as another approached, still holding his MK-17 flash pistol. He staggered up to his unmoving victim and yelled, before placing another bolt into the body at point-blank range.

There was no panic in the drunken alien’s demeanor; there was no law on Liave, merely a set of guidelines of which no one paid attention. There would be no police coming to arrest the killer or even a coroner to remove the body; the dinosaurs and rats served that purpose. In fact, the beasts were attracted to the area by the frequent killings, with each night providing a fresh supply of food for their hungry stomachs.

“Ain’t that some shit!” Adam said. “And right in front of the bar! You know we’re going to be blamed for that, too.”

“We need to do something about this,” Sherri announced, forcing herself into the conversation while Adam took a rare breath.

“Like what?” he asked. “No one’s willing—”

You need to take the initiative,” Sherri continued. “It’s hurting business and giving Balamar a bad name. You—” she pointed at Adam—“you have to get some of the other merchants together and start policing the area.”

“That will just suck us into this mess,” Adam countered. “We always do that, and what has it gotten us: alternately banned from Earth and then welcomed back, heroes one moment and goats the next. I wish the friggin’ galaxy would make up its mind. It’s worse than dealing with a wom—”

“Just do what I say,” Sherri demanded. “No one’s happy with what’s going on here. But you’re right; we didn’t come here for this, and it’s only getting worse. We have to do something to stop it.”

Riyad snorted. “Besides running the outfitting business, the bar and the hotel, you’re saying we should now take an active interest in local politics?”

“It’s not politics. It’s survival. I’ve sunk everything I have into our little venture. We have to make it here … or nowhere.”

“But there’s no law on L-3, not even a hint of it,” Riyad continued. “We knew that going in. And all that group of aliens over in Gantoc ever do is record things, as if writing it down makes it official.”

“That’s where the ownership for our buildings is recorded,” Sherri pointed out. “If not for that, anyone could just come in here and take our property.”

“I’d like to see them try!” Adam blurted, just as he pulled the glass from his lips after another swig of alcohol, spraying both Sherri and Riyad in some of the dark liquid. They looked at each other and shrugged.

“And what if they did?” Riyad asked. “What can anyone do to stop people like Divisen from taking over?”

“I’d like to see him try!” Adam repeated.

“Give him time,” Riyad said, ignoring his friend. “He essentially came out and said it. We either do what he says, or they’ll be hell to pay. He’s trying to be another Kroekus if you ask me.”

“He’s just marking his territory,” Sherri stated. “We’re such a small-time operation that I can’t see him starting a war with us.”

“I’d like to see him try!”

Riyad and Sherri looked at each other again and sighed.

“Perhaps the time has come to put our friend to bed,” Riyad said. “It’s been a long day.”

“I’d like to see you try!”

The Dead Worlds

In the end, Adam didn’t put up much of a fight. His friends guided him down the narrow stairway to the converted attic below that served as his apartment. Afterward, Riyad returned to his room at the back of the outfitting business, while Sherri retreated to the top floor of her hotel. She had the nicest accommodations, even as Adam had the largest. Riyad wasn’t that particular. He’d slept in worst places than his tiny storage room. At least here, he could be alone and contemplate his situation.

He wasn’t sure if his lot in life had improved much since coming to Liave-3. It just seemed like more of the same; asshole aliens and wannabe gangsters, all causing trouble. In a way, a lawless place like Liave-3 should have been right up his alley, considering his past. But that was a different Riyad Tarazi, a more brash and pragmatic Riyad. He was now in his mid-fifties and had lost a step or two along the way. He also had things to lose and friends he cared about.

Still, he dreamed of reliving some of that old adventure, some of that past glory.

Riyad fell onto his bed, sober but bone-weary. He had only sipped on a fruity non-alcoholic beverage all night—a lingering consequence of his Muslim faith.

Am I getting so old that now all I seek is the most peaceful path? There are riches beyond belief waiting in The Zone, yet here am I, a simple merchant letting the action pass me by. This is not like me. Or is it?

He closed his eyes and let depression lull him to sleep. The new day would bring more … more of what? He was afraid the answer was more of the same.


4

Jay Williford pulled back the throttle on his tiny speeder and prepared to make the transition from space to atmosphere. His spaceship was called the David Lender, after a former friend of his who had set him on his current path—and then abruptly deserted him when things were at their lowest. The ship’s name served to keep the anger alive in case he ever ran into the asshole again. It gave him something to look forward to.

The craft had two sets of stubby wings; a larger pair below with a smaller stabilizing set above the fuselage. The ship resembled an old fighter aircraft from Earth; that was the reason he bought it. It was small enough, and with the right aerodynamics, that he got a real sensation of flying, even in space, which was the reason he was out here in the first place. But that’s another story.

However, the tiny spaceship did have its drawbacks.

Jay was dressed in an environmental suit, strapped into the pilot seat, and had been like this for the four days it took to get to the planet Hax’on. During that time, he utilized the suit’s waste-removal system to full advantage. Although he had a small sleeping bunk and stand-up toilet in the back, it was easier to stay in the suit and deal with the smell once he landed. The ship was too small to have internal gravity, so it didn’t matter where he slept. It was just easier to stay dressed and doze in the pilot seat than it was to fight with the spacesuit when the time came to land.

Jay had been on a dozen of the dead worlds but never Hax’on; however, each of the planets presented the same strange dichotomy. Here was a large, Earth-like world with a surface dotted by literally a million cities and towns, yet there was no traffic in the space above the planet or electronic chatter in the airwaves—in fact, no electronic noise at all. The planet was a hole on Jay’s scanners, the very definition of a dead world.

At one time, Hax’on had been home to a vibrant six-billion-strong Prime population, with advanced technology that placed it right in the middle of the Expansion’s standardized civilization grid. Although none of the worlds in the Kidis Frontier were members of the Expansion, there had been interaction with the huge galactic empire for over a thousand years. Whether the Hax’oneans developed space travel on their own or had it thrust upon them in the distant past, Jay didn’t know. All he knew was that three years ago the Mad Aris Kracion—along with his fleet of Klin allies—laid siege to the planet, dropping hundreds of powerful neutron-like bombs on the surface. The intense radiation killed off nearly all life on the planet, both plant and animal. The radiation still lingered, although the type of weapons Kracion used had a limited half-life. The atmosphere had already scrubbed away most of the deadly effects, even as the soil remained barren. There was also the residual radiation that clung to the surface of most things, including buildings, cars and more. This lingering radioactivity was the bane of the salvager’s existence, making their job that much harder. Before anything could be removed from a planet, it first had to be decontaminated. The process wasn’t difficult, just time-consuming.

Jay scanned the surface again. It was deceptively quiet. He knew that even now there were dozens—if not hundreds—of salvage operations taking place on the surface, as it was on nearly all the dead worlds in The Zone; however, no one advertised their presence. Every planet had their share of raiders and pirates lying in wait for the salvagers to finish their decontamination so they could sweep in and steal away the treasures. That was why all operations on the surface were clandestine. That or the salvagers came with armies of security personnel.

Jay couldn’t afford any of that. To tell the truth, he couldn’t afford any salvage operation at the time. Things had been tough recently.

At one time, he owned a small freighter he used for his tiny operations. But then he’d lost a salvage to a team of raiders. The loss set him back so much that he had to sell the ship to cover the debt. He still had his small speeder and a loyal crew of four, but every operation after that was done on credit, as well as a share of the profits, leaving Jay with very little for himself after expenses.

Six months before, Riyad Tarazi and his friends came to Liave-3 and opened their small outfitting business. The major advantage Riyad had compared to other small-time operations was that he had access to three decent-sized freighters, which he also rented out. The ships were part of a shipyard full of old derelicts they acquired from another Human, an associate of theirs named Copernicus Smith. Three of the ships were operational from the beginning, and Riyad and his partners were constantly working on getting more of the derelicts up and running. But that was an expensive and slow process.

Jay Williford was one of only a handful of Humans on Liave-3, and he and Riyad hit it off immediately, even as Adam Cain and Sherri Valentine had their reservations about the salvager. Riyad helped Jay with his last several salvages, although none of the operations turned out particularly well for either of them. Still, it kept Jay in the game.

And now he had a lead on a secret cache of prototype energy weapons which could be worth a lot of money if they could be salvaged and sold. The selling part would be the most difficult. Jay didn’t have any connections in the black-market arms world which would allow him to safely dump the weapons in a single transaction. He would have to be more judicious, as well as patient. It may even require him to leave the Kidis Frontier and travel to another part of the galaxy someplace where the market wasn’t as saturated with contraband weapons. He also knew of a few shady characters who might be interested in brokering such a deal.

But first things first. Jay had to discover whether or not the dying alien told the truth.

Thanks to the galactic Library, everything there was to know about the planet Hax’on was available on computer, so it was easy for Jay to locate the city of Ko and the Tainesin Manufacturing Works. Ko was the third-largest city on the planet, and TMW was—had been—a major conglomerate. He guided the David Lender into the atmosphere and angled it toward the city. It was dark on this side of Hax’on when he swept in over Ko, again bothered by the eerie sight of towering skyscrapers, mazes of empty streets, and not a single light burning. The ship’s sensors directed him to the manufacturing plant.

The facility was huge, consisting of nine main buildings, as well as a vast field of dozens of warehouses set off on concrete pads. Jay set the ship down in a wide path between the warehouses. He buttoned up his environmental suit and put on the helmet. Although the outside readings showed only minimal radiation in the air, the ground was still hot. He wasn’t taking any chances.

A few minutes later—and with a flashlight in hand—Jay walked along the rows of warehouses, looking for number eleven. The buildings were cookie-cutter affairs, each about a hundred feet long by thirty wide and with double doors at each long end secured by electronic locks. Each was painted a uniform grey, which made them blend into the dark landscape, appearing as tombstones in the deathly quiet of a gargantuan graveyard.

Jay located number eleven and punched in the access code the dead alien gave him. The electronics still functioned, and soon the doors separated at the centerline and retracted into the walls of the warehouse. The light from Jay’s torch probed the interior.

The warehouse was full of standard A-9 shipping containers, each about twelve feet high by ten wide and thirty long. They were set up for muleship transport, able to be towed through space in long cargo trains called strings. A quick count showed six containers were in the warehouse.

Jay approached the first one, scanning the exterior for a locking mechanism. He didn’t find any—which was fortunate since he didn’t have a code for the containers. Jay worked the manual latching system and pulled open the heavy metal door.

Inside were stacks of metal crates, two rows across and four high. Jay moved closer and directed the light between the crates. Five rows went back, making for a total of forty crates in each container, assuming they all held the same cargo.

Jay took out a radiation gauge and ran it over the surface of the crates. They read very low levels of contamination, thanks to the hermetic seals of the containers. They were designed to travel through space and protect the contents against external radiation, as well as the heat and cold of the environment. But leaving the door open for an extended period would undoubtedly allow some of the residual contamination on the exterior of the containers to seep in. Each shipping container had to be swabbed before moving it into a freighter for transport into space. After that, they could be linked together for the journey to … to where? At the moment, Jay wasn’t sure. But if the crates contained what he hoped they did he would find a place.

He moved to the crates and unstrapped the first row. The gravity of Hax’on was Juirean standard—about three-quarters that of Earth—so it wasn’t hard for him to pull the top crate down so he could check inside. Again, after a little finagling of the latches, he opened the lid. And that’s when he gasped.

Placed in individual plastic cradles were rows of grey energy weapons, looking similar to Xan-fi rifles, yet definitely of a modified design. He lifted one from its cradle and studied the configuration.

The weapon was lightweight, with a uniform grip that could be easily switched out for more custom stocks. The bolt chamber was corrugated and twice as long as a standard Xan-fi, with a control pack underneath dotted with a myriad of strange electronic controls whose function Jay could only guess. He fingered the power pack control and was rewarded with an instant amber light. The weapon had a charge, even after sitting in a shipping container for who knows how long. Two small screens lit up on the upper surface of the weapon, presenting status reports in an alien language. But as it was with most devices in the galaxy, the reports were accompanied by a soft verbal reading which Jay’s translator could decipher.



“Status: Active. Power: Full. Capacity: 90 bolts. Charge: 70-plus.”

Jay inhaled sharply. Did he hear that right? He knew the standard setup for the typical Xan-fi flash rifle was only twenty bolts, with a level-one charge of thirty-five. This weapon could fire ninety bolts and at twice the power of a standard level-one.

“Holy crap!” he said aloud. “Who needs that much firepower?”

He shrugged off the question. It didn’t matter. If a weapon had this capacity, someone would find a use for it. It also meant this rifle would be deadly against any known species in the galaxy—including Humans.

Again, he repeated, “Holy crap!”

He did a quick count of the weapons in the crate: ten. So, four hundred weapons in each container and six containers. Twenty-four hundred super energy rifles.

Jay was already working the math in his head. A standard Xan-fi rifle went for four hundred Juirean credits. This weapon—even on the black market—could get double that. That placed the value of the warehouse and its six containers at just under two million Juirean credits.

“Holy crap!” His mind was locked in a verbal loop.

Jay took the weapon outside. Although all the electronics appeared to be working, he still wanted to fire this baby, if only to experience a 70+ energy bolt. He sighted a loading crane off in the distance about five hundred yards away. He took careful aim and fingered the trigger.

In the dark of night, the energy bolt appeared as a single beam of light streaking out from the barrel, rather than the intense ball of concentrated plasma that it was. But unlike a typical flash weapon, this beam was azure blue and of a much-tighter dimension. The concentrated light was intimidating in its color and compact size, but what made Jay stagger back in shock was when the blue beam contacted the distant loading crane, sending out a firework-like cascade of streaming white-hot metal from the contact point.

Five hundred yards! And with no apparent loss of power.

“What the hell is the range of this thing?” he wondered aloud. Xan-fis are good only out to about a hundred yards, at the most. After that, their power dissipates, and efficiency drops off exponentially.

“Screw eight hundred JCs,” Jay said to the empty night. “These suckers are worth thousands each!”

Suddenly feeling exposed in the quiet of the dead world, Jay looked around nervously. Although the blue flash beam was more subdued than a normal flash rifle bolt, the tiny explosion on the crane could be seen for miles away. He rushed back into the warehouse and sealed both the crate and the container. He kept the one rifle out as a souvenir.

Thirty minutes later, the warehouse was buttoned up again, and Jay was powering up his speeder. He could understand now why the owners were so adamant about keeping the existence of their superweapons a secret, even to the point of executing anyone who knew about them. These things were game-changers. Also, the killing at Cain’s happened only a few days before. To Jay, that meant the owners were getting ready to collect their property. He had to act fast to have any chance of getting them for himself.

He lifted off and blasted for outer space where he would pull out all the stops and return to Liave-3 in only three days. It was now a race against time. And a race to a potential multi-million-JC-fortune for the winner.

The Dead Worlds

The ship sat in modified dark status; not completely devoid of energy signature but enough to keep it invisible from the tiny speeder on the surface. High powered telescopic cameras recorded the location of the salvager, as well as the startling beam of energy that struck a loading crane in the storage yard.

Lospen Calos studied the data readout. The distance the beam traveled was over four hundred randels, easily tripling the range of even the most-powerful flash rifle. The raider stretched out a thin grin. He had no idea how many weapons the Human had found inside the warehouse, but it would be enough to justify the raid. He watched with interest as the alien ran back to his ship and lifted off. He would waste no time gathering the proper equipment for the decontamination and shipment of the weapons. Lospen knew the salvager’s destination; he would be back within ten days at the most.

Lospen would remain in orbit, guarding the site. It had been lean times recently for his small fleet of three raider ships. If this gamble paid off, it would satiate the rumblings of the crews. He would let the alien do the hard part, then Lospen and the others would drop in and take away the salvage. It was what pirates did, and for doing so, all would be richly rewarded.

Unfortunately, the alien salvager and his crew wouldn’t fare as well.


5

The morning air hung thick and humid in the thinning jungle near the old and seemingly deserted shipyard. Most of the discolored coquina wall around the facility had crumbled over the years, with a prominent section missing entirely from where a Juirean Class-3 starship landed on it several years back. Above and through the barrier, Jay could see an assortment of rusting behemoths sitting idle in the yard, awaiting their one-in-a-million chance of ever reaching space again. The yard’s three serviceable freighters were at the spaceport twenty miles away. Jay doubted any of their sisters would be joining them there anytime soon. Most were too far gone.

Earlier, Jay convinced his friend Riyad to meet him in a field adjacent to the shipyard an hour after sunrise so he could pitch him a new project—and without Riyad’s partners present to squelch the deal. Riyad hesitated at first but then capitulated. As a former space pirate, the surreptitious nature of the meeting piqued Riyad’s interest.

Jay had returned to Liave-3 the evening before, and he was anxious to get the ball rolling for the salvage of the prototype weapons. He’d made a few calls, seeking a broker for the weapons, if he could salvage them. For that, he needed Riyad and his resources. Riyad arrived a few minutes after Jay, in a small personal transport which bounced over the rutted ground heading to where the salvager stood. Jay had taken a paid transport to the field and had the driver leave him. He would catch a ride back to Balamar with Riyad.

The bearded Human stepped from the vehicle and approached, a neutral look on his face and bags under his eyes. It was early for him since he often pulled double duty working the outfitting business during the day and the bar at night. It was obvious he didn’t get much quality sleep the night before.

Jay watched as Riyad looked over at the broken-down wall surrounding the shipyard. There were flashes of memory behind his friend’s eyes, along with a fair amount of pain.

“You spent some time there?” Jay asked as Riyad came within earshot. He had heard a little of the story, but not too much detail.

“Some,” Riyad answered. “From there, Adam and I ended up being guests at the Klin Hilton until commandoes came to rescue us. I have to tell you, the time I spent as a prisoner aboard the Klin Colony Ship was the only time in my life I wished I’d died.”

“It wasn’t pleasant, I take it?”

Riyad shook his head. Then he looked around the field, realizing Jay was alone and with only a long object wrapped in a grey blanket resting at his feet.

“So, what’s up? Why all the secrecy?”

Jay smiled. “I think I have something that’s right up your alley, and a chance for us both to make a decent-size score.”

“But …”

“But Adam and Sherri probably won’t be on board, not until the cash comes in.”

“Sounds diabolically-illegal,” Riyad said, flashing a brilliant white smile that glowed against his dark skin and beard.

Jay shrugged. “What’s illegal around here anyway, right?” he quipped. “Let’s just say the market for what I’ve found is a little harder to find, although the payoff will be astronomical.”

Riyad looked down at the bundle on the ground. “Is that it?”

Jay nodded before bending down and unwrapping the advanced energy rifle. He breathed a sigh of relief when Riyad let out a whistle.

Sal-beh,” Riyad whispered.

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, it means awesome in Arabic. Sometimes I lapse into my native tongue when I’m excited.”

Jay lifted the black metal weapon and handed it to Riyad. He took it in his hands as carefully and reverently as if he was handling a newborn baby.

“Plasma, I take it?” he said.

Jay nodded. “Yep. But get this; it has a ninety-bolt capacity … and at seventy-plus power rating.”

Riyad looked at Jay, a frown on his dark forehead. “Bullshit. No hand weapon is that powerful.”

“This one is. And not only that, but the accuracy range is over five hundred yards with zero deviation. I tried it myself. Honestly, I don’t know how far this thing can shoot.”

“Where did you get it?”

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Although the line was archaic and grossly overused, Riyad laughed. “With this thing, you could.”

“Actually, I got it on Hax’on.”

“Hax’on? No shit? How many are there?”

Jay couldn’t hide his excitement any longer. “There’s a whole shipping container full of them. Four hundred, if I counted right.”

The statement got enough of a response out of Riyad that Jay didn’t regret telling him the whole truth, that there were really six containers of the weapons, not just one. At the black-market rate for such a weapon, Riyad had already done the math in his head and concluded that one container was enough to interest him. Again, Jay sighed. That left the contents of five containers for him and his crew, and without having to share the profits with Riyad and his partners.

Riyad was Jay’s friend. He just wasn’t that good of a friend.

“Fire it up,” Jay said. “The pack has held its charge for the past three years, which is another incredible feature about the rifle. Give it a go.”

Riyad fingered the power button and was presented with a fully activated weapon a split second later. He scanned the status screens, confirming what Jay had told him about the capacity and power. He whistled again. After aiming for the nearby jungle tree line, he opened up.

“What the … blue bolts? That is so cool!”

Riyad continued to fire, not only testing the capacity of the rifle, but also its range and accuracy. After thirty minutes, he still hadn’t drained the power pack. But the nearby jungle was a mess, with small herds of frightened dinosaurs and tiny mammals scurrying for safety.

Eventually, Riyad turned back to Jay, a silly grin on his face.

“What do you need?”

“A freighter, of course. And decontamination foam and some lift jacks. Also, provisions for me and my crew, along with a security team of five or six. And Riyad, I wouldn’t tell Adam about this until I’ve made arrangements to sell the weapons. He may not be too keen about getting involved with black market gunrunners.”

“That’s the reason for meeting out here?”

“You know him better than I do, but it’s just a feeling I have.”

“You’re probably right. And if not Adam, then definitely Sherri.” Riyad snorted. “There was a time when that wouldn’t have been the case, but now that we’re trying to get established here, mixing with the wrong people could give us the wrong kind of reputation.”

“But you don’t have a problem with it, do you?”

Again, Riyad flashed his trademark white smile. “Are you kidding? I live for moments like this. I only wish I could come along with you for the salvage.”

Jay smiled back, although inside, he cringed. “Best that you don’t; otherwise, Adam and Sherri might suspect something’s up.”

“I know. But I can still dream, can’t I? How soon do you need the equipment and the security team?”

“As soon as possible. I’m ready to go otherwise. If anyone else gets wind of this, there’ll be nothing left to salvage. That’s a guarantee.”

“I understand. Let me get to work. The Ed Gibson is at the spaceport and ready to go, and I have all the other equipment at the store. The security team won’t be a problem, either. We can use Rans Xaoc and his people again. They did a good job for us the last time you went out.”

“Sounds great.”

Then Riyad stepped in a little closer, handing the weapon back to Jay. “Oh, and I want forty percent of the net after deducting for all costs.”

Jay hesitated, appearing concerned. The normal split was thirty percent, but with him holding back five of the containers, he couldn’t seem too anxious to accept the deal.

“That’s pretty high, buddy.”

“I have to justify keeping this a secret from my partners. When the time comes, a decent payday will go a long way to smoothing ruffled feathers.”

“Thirty-five percent?”

Riyad shook his head. He knew Jay had absolutely no resources of his own. Either he partnered with Riyad—and on his terms—or there was no deal. “Forty. Take it or leave it.”

Jay shook his head. “That’s fine. What choice do I have?”

Riyad smiled.

And so did Jay—inside. All he had to do now was pay off the security team with some of the extra money he’d make on the other five containers, and he’d be home free.

And just think, he thought. After this, I won’t have to come begging to Riyad anymore—or to anyone else for that matter. I’ll be my own boss.


6

Adam and Sherri were too engrossed in their efforts to get business back up at Cain’s that they didn’t pay much attention to what Riyad was doing after his early morning drive. And two days later, when one of their three active freighters lifted off from the Kanac Spaceport, neither of them knew it was gone or where it was going. Jay let Riyad keep the rifle, in case he had to show it to Adam and Sherri should they get wind of the operation. Hopefully, a demonstration would be enough to convince them that what Riyad was doing was the right thing. But until that time came, he hid it away in his small apartment at the back of his warehouse.

Jay was upfront with his four-person crew as to the true nature and scope of the salvage, but not so with the security team. He would cross that bridge when the time came. Rans Xaoc and his team wouldn’t share in the profits from the salvage anyway; rather, they were paid a flat fee for their services. Jay figured they’d jump at the chance for a substantial bonus so long as they didn’t tell Riyad the true number of containers they recover. Already, Jay had in mind a small town on the other side of Liave-3 where he would stash the extra containers until needed. The remaining container would fit in the cargo hold of the Ed Gibson and probably stay there until a buyer was found.

Jay knew he was playing it pretty loose with his fellow Human friends. But that’s just how it was in The Zone. It was every Human—and alien—for him, her, or itself.


7

Jay Williford was only six when Earth learned of the existence of aliens.

The revelation came in the form of the devastating surprise attack by the Juireans that killed over two billion people. Jay and his family lived through the horror and the aftermath, the event forever changing him, along with all of Humanity. Science fiction was no longer fiction, and reality hit mankind like a rock.

For the next twenty years, Jay heard of the exploits of Adam, Riyad and Sherri, as they were alternatively blamed for catastrophes and then called heroes a few years later. It was confusing, what to believe or not. But no matter what the final verdict was on the trio of mankind’s three most famous/infamous Humans, Jay was often in awe that he was rubbing shoulders with them on a near-constant basis on Liave-3. He drank with them, joked with them, and even cheated them when the time called for it. He justified his actions with the firm belief that they would do the same to him if the opportunity presented itself. That was just being Human.

Jay joined the space Navy at eighteen, blaming Adam Cain personally for the decision. After twelve years of hearing about his adventures, Jay was ready to start performing some of his own heroics. It was common knowledge on the planet at the time that Humans were the badasses of the galaxy; stronger, quicker, more durable and much better at the art of war than just about any alien around. The young man was anxious to start playing Superman for real. At the time, the military was on the lookout for people like him, and he had to lie during his psych eval to hide the fact that the sole reason he enlisted was to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

To his surprise, he made it, and just in time to catch the tail end of the final conflict with the domestic Klin. He called them the domestic Klin because a few years later, the Mad Aris Kracion showed up with a different breed of Klin from another universe. That was when things got really dicey.

Early on, Humanity and their small galactic empire—the Orion-Cygnus Union—took the lead in the fight against Kracion. To Jay, that didn’t seem like a very smart thing to do. They were going up against a three-billion-year-old immortal genius who didn’t like Humans very much. His weapons were superior, and his desire for galactic domination knew no bounds. Any force that went up against him was summarily crushed. For several months, Jay and his fellow sailors were on pins and needles, wondering if they would be next.

Then Kracion began his campaign of terror in the Kidis Frontier, attacking and destroying the native populations of over one hundred worlds in what would later become known as The Dead Zone. He did this to make a point: that resistance to him was futile. After that, the galaxy not only offered their complete surrender, but they insisted on it. Kracion didn’t accept. He wanted the defeat to go beyond words and actions, all the way to the very soul of the galaxy. He was immortal, and therefore, aspired to become the permanent God of the Milky Way. He wanted not only capitulation but worship. He was very close to getting his wish when Adam Cain and his friends did something that caused Kracion to disappear from the galaxy. Even to this day, details were fuzzy and in conflict, but the mystery only added to the mystique of Adam Cain and his team.

That crisis was followed by another brief period where it was later discovered the universe—the whole friggin’ universe—had recently dodged a bullet, barely surviving an event that could have ended all existence. This time Adam and his super mutant friends—Panur and Lila—shared some of the blame for what transpired. This made the Human trio persona non grata on a number of worlds, including Earth, precipitating their move to Liave-3. That was a shame, because from what Jay could tell, Adam, Sherri and Riyad had just been doing what they could to save the universe, not destroy it.

Jay didn’t understand all the politics involved, because, after all, the universe was still here, and Adam and his people had done something to stop the impending apocalypse. That should count for something, shouldn’t it? Apparently not.

But for Jay Williford, all these galactic shenanigans were far above his paygrade. He found that being in the space Navy was not all it was made out to be. Being cooped up in a pressurized tin can for months on end wasn’t anything like he imagined. He trained as a helmsman, believing that piloting a starship would fulfill all his childhood dreams. Yeah, that didn’t work out. And being enlisted, he never got the chance to become a fighter pilot. Instead, he was assigned to a huge battle-carrier as one of the dozen helmsmen tasked with monitoring the computers and making sure they did what they were supposed to do. Carriers didn’t make wild Luke Skywalker-type maneuvers in space. They simply lumbered from one place to another, and often behind the lines and out of harm’s way.

That was until Kracion showed up. Even then, carriers were held back unless there was no option.

After his first four years, Jay decided to call it quits. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the opportunity to be shipped back to Earth. Instead, one of his buddies talked him into sticking around the Kidis to try their hand at salvage in The Zone.

As it turned out, a couple of twenty-three-year-old men with no money, credit or experience were ripe for the picking. Jay’s friend, David Lender, called it quits after six months when they had a small cargo stripped from them at gunpoint on one of the lesser worlds in The Zone. The experience scared the shit out of David, and to tell the truth, they were lucky to live through it.

Jay decided to stay on Liave-3 after that, hiring himself out to various security teams before picking up a few solo salvage jobs. That’s when he bought his speeder—the infamous David Lender. It was his pride and joy, the one thing that got his juices flowing. The problem: it took credits to run and maintain the vessel. It was also short-range, so he had to keep it within forty light-years of Liave-3. He couldn’t afford the power mods it would take for a return to Earth.

Jay’s fortunes changed six months ago when Adam, Sherri and Riyad came to Liave-3. Not only were there more Humans on Liave-3, but they were three of the most famous. After getting over an early bout of hero-worship, Jay fell in with the trio. As one of only a handful of Humans on the planet, Adam and his team accepted him into their exclusive clique, particularly Riyad Tarazi. In Jay, Riyad saw a lot of himself, albeit a younger Riyad. Jay was an adventurer and willing to take risks. Riyad went on to sponsor Jay with his first major salvages. Some were successful, but most not. Although it seemed like easy money from the outside, the life of a salvager was tough. Although neither of the Humans made much money, it was a great learning experience for both of them. Jay learned how to run larger-scale salvage operations while at the same time Riyad learned how to run an outfitting business. It was a win-win for both of them.

And now they stood to make a considerable amount of Juirean credits off the salvage of the prototype weapons, with Jay making considerably more.

Again, Jay justified his deception by knowing Riyad’s background as the former head of the Fringe Pirates. If the roles were reversed, Riyad would have done the same to him. It wasn’t personal; it was business.


8

Once the huge freighter set down on the tarmac within the forest of warehouses, Jay moved his tiny speeder from the cargo hold to make room for the shipping containers. Once the pods were transferred to space and linked together to form a cargo string, he would put one container in the hold, along with his starship. The other five containers would be towed to Liave-3 and stashed on the other side of the planet from Balamar, away from Riyad and his friends.

On the way to Hax’on, Jay tentatively devised a plan on how he would dispose of the weapons. Before leaving L-3, he made contact with a sales broker who would arrange a meeting with a specialty gunrunner. At first, Jay would only negotiate for the one container—the one he was partnering with Riyad. After that, he would come back and put a deal together for the rest of the containers, while also cutting out the broker. He was determined to squeeze every credit he could out of the deal. Opportunities like this didn’t come along very often, and this one had the potential to set him up for life.

Rans Xaoc and his team still hadn’t been told the true nature of the salvage, at least not yet. In most cases, the salvaged cargo wasn’t an issue. Security didn’t share in the profits; instead, they were paid a flat fee for the job. Upon landing, the six-alien team fanned out, establishing a defense perimeter, setting up huge double-action flash cannon on tripods, aimed outward from the warehouse and the nearby freighter. Although the team was there only for planetside defense, they had detectors that would alert them to any incoming starships. Most raider operations were small-scale and could be scared off easily with enough show of force. But not all. And if anyone knew what Jay was salvaging, they would come in guns a-blazing. There was too much money riding on the outcome to leave it to chance.

Since the salvage involved only one warehouse and six containers, the decontamination process shouldn’t take more than two days. After that, the containers would be carted to the freighter, where three at a time could be carried into orbit. This would be another critical time when the containers were left floating in space. Jay would use his speeder at that point to keep an eye on them as the others were shuttled into space. But with no weapons aboard his ship, there wasn’t much he could do if raiders came in to take them except watch all his dreams go up in smoke.

Jay’s second-in-command, a green-skinned alien named Donal, accompanied him to the warehouse, along with the security boss, Rans Xaoc. Donal still wore a bandage on his right forearm from the injury he’d suffered at Cain’s twelve days before.

Twelve days, Jay thought. It’s funny how quickly fortunes can change.

Everyone on the surface wore bright green decon-outfits, heavy-duty spacesuits the equivalent of Hazmat suits on Earth. Although the residual radiation was dissipating rapidly on the planet, a couple of days on the surface was enough to saturate normal suits. These uniforms came courtesy of Riyad Tarazi and would protect them for the time they were on the surface.

The trio stepped inside the warehouse. Rans immediately began pointing.

“Six containers, six containers,” he said, concern thick in his alien-accented voice.

Jay grimaced. Who in his crew told the alien about the scam they were pulling on Riyad? Or maybe Riyad himself told Rans that there would be only one container to guard. Even still, Jay didn’t understand what he was so concerned about.

“Yeah, so what?” he said. “One container or six, what difference does it make to you?”

“Untruthful to Riyad. We contract with him, not you.”

Jay shook his head. This negotiation was happening sooner than he’d expected. He knew eventually he’d have to throw some extra money at the security crew to keep them quiet.

“Yes, there are six, not one. And because of this, I was going to make you an offer as compensation. Do you want to hear it?”

“What offer?”

“An offer for bonus credits.”

“Paid when?”

“When I sell the contents.”

“What guarantees?”

“That I pay you, or that I sell the weapons?”

“Weapons?”

Jay was exasperated. “Yes, the containers hold weapons, an advanced form of energy rifle. I can sell them for a lot of credits, but it will take time. Are you willing to wait?”

“Wait for what?”

“For me to sell the weapons before I can pay you. Why are we having so much trouble communicating?”

“Because you speak not plainly.”

Jay took a deep breath before continuing. “All right. Let me start over. There are six containers of advanced weapons. Riyad only knows about one. I want to pay you and your crew a sizeable bonus for keeping this a secret from Riyad. But to get the bonus, you’ll have to wait until I sell the weapons. As a guarantee that you’ll get paid, you can tell Riyad if I go back on my word. You know what he’ll do to me if he finds out I tricked him. Is that plain enough for you?”

Rans Xaoc was silent for far too long, making Jay nervous. But he’d been out in the galaxy long enough to know that not all creatures thought as fast as Humans. He bit his bottom lip, waiting for Rans to respond.

“Sizeable.” It was a statement, not a question.

Jay relaxed. He stretched out a thin grin, being careful to keep his teeth from being fully exposed. That signified a death challenge in a lot of alien cultures. He didn’t want to take the chance of upsetting the security boss.

“You are being paid ten thousand Juirean credits for this salvage operation, to be divided among six of you. I will give you another ten thousand—each. All you need to do is stay quiet about the true number of containers we salvage.”

“Each?”

“Each.”

“Fifteen,” Rans said.

Jay pursed his lips. “How about this? Twenty for you and ten for each of the others.”

Jay wasn’t sure, but he thought he detected a slight widening of the alien’s eyes. It was hard to tell through the lens of the helmet.

“Agreed.”

Jay shook his head, not from disagreement, but frustration that he had to go through that.

“Good,” said Jay. “Now, can we get to work? The longer we stay on the surface, the hotter it gets.”

The Dead Worlds

After that, things began to happen.

Jay’s crew unloaded drums of the decon foam that they would use to douse the containers. Then it had to sit for sixteen hours and do its thing, absorbing the radiation before slowly dissolving on its own and draining away.

After that, the containers could be safely carried in the cargo hold of the Ed Gibson. Even then, a slight amount of radiation would remain. Jay would have to save a little of the foam for the cargo hold. After transferring six containers, the residual contamination would be high enough to be detected by Riyad and his people, a dead giveaway that more than one container had been inside the hold. That was fine; Jay planned for it.

With everyone at work, Jay stood back and scanned the desolate field of abandoned warehouses at the facility. He casually wondered what was in the other buildings. There could be another treasure trove of riches inside. He shrugged. That would have to wait for another day. Two million credits would be enough for this trip. Then with the profits, he could return to Hax’on with a full-scale operation if he wanted. There was something like eighty warehouses in this section of the factory. Not all would contain products, but some would be. Jay was curious to see what else was in them, but without the locking codes, he would have to blast open the doors, and that might attract attention. But first he had to finish this job. Get the weapons, make an enormous profit, and then he could figure out this next move.

Jay Williford loved it when a plan came together.


9

It had been a day already, and the spacesuit was becoming stuffy and hot, and even if one went to the Ed Gibson, it wasn’t safe to take them off, at least not for an extended period. It had been fourteen hours since the decon foam had been applied, with another two to go before it would be safe to transport the containers. It was going to be another long day on the surface of Hax’on.

After trying his access code on several warehouse doors—with no success—Jay began to think more about the mysterious—and deadly—owners of the weapons. They attacked the aliens at Cain’s a couple of weeks ago, and he was wondering why they hadn’t done it earlier? After all, Hax’on had been attacked by Kracion over three years before—so why start the killing now? Were they only now getting ready to move on the weapons? He knew one of the reasons they hadn’t recovered them earlier was because the surface of Hax’on was much hotter than it was now, more than any suit could protect against. Also, Kracion was still active in the region for several months after the attack, so no one dared approach any of the dead worlds until he was neutralized.

But it had been a couple of years since salvage operations began in The Zone, yet only now the owners felt the need to keep their prize a secret. Jay figured the dead aliens at Cain’s had tipped their hand that they were about to reveal the existence of the weapons. That, or, as Jay figured, the owners were getting ready to make their move on the warehouse and didn’t want to risk anyone revealing their existence, either before or after the salvage. That was why he kept one eye on the space above. They could show up at any time and spoil the party.

The development and manufacture of such incredible weapons involved a substantial investment, both in time, talent and money, and after all that, who would want to lose their investment? Add to that the fact the rifles were built on Hax’on—which was not known as a center of weapons manufacture—and that meant the mysterious owners had come out to the Kidis Frontier to keep their invention a secret from the bulk of the galaxy. There was a sinister purpose behind the weapons; there always was. Twenty-four hundred super-rifles would make a sizeable dent in any hostile action, especially if they could be introduced all at once and by surprise. Somewhere in the galaxy, a revolution was brewing, and the prototype flash weapons were the key to its success.

The Dead Worlds

While waiting for the decon foam to work, Jay made his way to the main administration building of Tainesin Manufacturing Works, hoping to learn more about the weapons and who ordered them. And that brought up another interesting possibility: somewhere there had to be design plans for the rifles. They would be extremely valuable in their own right, although any competent weapons manufacturer could easily reverse engineer the rifles if they could get their hands on one. Even so, the plans would be worth a fair number of credits. Besides, companies like Maris-Kliss and Xan-fi would pay handsomely just so they could lock the plans away from their competitors. The plasma rifles were game-changers, and the big players would know that. Jay would be doing himself a disservice if he didn’t make an effort to learn more about their design and manufacture.

And another item—and probably the most important—if the owners were willing to kill anyone with knowledge of the weapons, it would be a good idea to know who they were so he could keep an eye out for them. Jay knew that seldom did great gain come without risk, and a little preventive care could go a long way to mitigating that risk.

The huge building was spooky in its emptiness. Although the attack on Hax’on had come with little notice, there had been enough for the natives to run to their homes and families before the bombs began to fall. Even so, there were still a few bodies lying about, horribly ravaged by the intense radiation, yet preserved to a point by the lack of surviving bacteria and other organisms that would have contributed to decay.

Jay discovered early on in his salvaging career that most planets in The Zone had automated cold fusion power grids that still functioned to some degree, although more were failing as time went by with no one to oversee their maintenance. However, the Tainesin Manufacturing Works was a large operation that couldn’t afford power outages. Because of this, the company had dedicated reactors as backups, which kicked in when the off-site systems broke down. However, with the entire population of the planet either dead or gone, there was little call for them to activate.

Jay held his breath as he powered up one of the larger computers he found in the building. To his relief, lights came on, and the screen lit up. How long that would last, he didn’t know. He would have to hurry.

So, where to begin? He’d thought of this already, so he spoke to the machine, letting the universal translator convert his words into Hax’onean. “Seventy-plus power rating.”

The power level of the rifle was one of its most unique features, and searching for the subject rather than a general reference to plasma rifles might produce more fruitful results. He wasn’t disappointed. The search produced nine results, with most referring to appliance ratings and other general information about flash cannon power levels. But there was one that referenced the Saxon Order. He followed the thread.

With the computer now keyed to English, most of the text was converted into his native language. He began to read. To his surprise, there was very little security surrounding the order for the weapons. Tainesin was primarily a builder of household and commercial appliances, such as refrigerators and food processors, items that hardly required security clearances to produce. Even so, it did take some back-dooring to eventually reach the main file on the Saxon V-18 EJK Special Boost Weapon, or the SV-18.

For all the gratification he felt at having traced the weapons, Jay was disappointed with some of the information he found in the main file. The order was placed by a being named Kalses U’nlo, representing a company called Rosnek, located on the planet Fes’do. Jay had never heard of Fes’do before, nor had he heard of the company Rosnek. A later search of the Library would fill in the gaps, but that would have to wait. He had just noticed an interesting reference key, one that made his heart skip a beat. It was more of a footnote, but it was significant.

In one reference to the name Kalses U’nlo, the word Gradis was next to it, set off in parentheses.

Jay leaned back in the chair and thought about the significance. In a way, it made sense. The Gradis Cartel was one of the largest criminal organizations in the galaxy, and they were located primarily in the Kidis Frontier, as was the planet Hax’on. Who better to handle the production of surreptitiously built super-weapons than the Cartel? It also helped explained the gangland hit at Cain’s. The Cartel would have ready access to any number of professional killers for the job. But this also meant the Gradis was merely the brokers for the transaction. He doubted if he would find the name of the end-users in any of the computer material; otherwise, they wouldn’t have used the Cartel to coordinate the manufacture of the weapons. Jay hoped to learn their identity so he could avoid them in the future. That wasn’t going to happen. And it was impossible to identify Cartel members since they came in all shapes, sizes and of every species.

Frustrated with this line of inquiry, Jay began a search for any schematics, drafts, or anything else that would show how the rifles were built. He was deep into this new search, having transferred some plans to a thumb drive he found in the desk when his communicator screeched and Donal’s voice sounded in his ear.

“Jay, where are you?”

“I’m in the admin building. What’s going on?”

“Rans is picking up approaching contacts, three of them coming out of the Northwest.”

“From space?”

“Yes. Starships, each of varying signatures.”

Both Jay and his second-in-command knew what that meant. Raiders. Pirates seldom had more than two ships from the same manufacturer, as their fleets were made up of an amalgamation of whatever vessels they could scrounge together. On the contrary, Union or Expansion ships would all have the same energy signature.

“Three, you say?”

“Yes. Rans is orienting his weapons toward the approximate landing area.”

“That’s a lot. I hope we have the firepower to scare them off.”

“As do I. The crew is taking up arms as well. And we do have the rifles.”

“Good point. How long until they land?”

“They are on final approach; five minutes, no longer.”

“I’m too far away to help. I’ll monitor from here, see if I can outflank them.”

“I do not understand?”

“I’ll see if I can sneak up on them from a different direction.”

“Ah, that would be good. Maintain contact.”

Jay removed the thumb drive and shut down the computer before sprinting for the exit. It would take five minutes for him to leave the building, and then another twenty to reach the warehouse grounds, even using his enhanced Human muscles in the light gravity of Hax’on. Whatever was about to happen would be over by then. Still, he had to do what he could to help. He was armed with a standard MK-17 flash pistol and two extra battery packs. That wasn’t much against three raider ships and their crews.

Dammit! he thought as he ran. I was really hoping we could get away with this clean.

The Dead Worlds

The three pirate starships made no attempt to hide their intentions. They came in low over the warehouses then hovered until they found a suitable landing area where they would fit. Rans and his security team were pros, armed with powerful weapons designed specifically for this type of action. The raiders would land and send out individual troops. They were after the salvage as much as the others, so an attack from the air was impractical. The pirates would have to overcome the ground forces before they could claim the prize. The security force was there to prevent that from happening.

Rans stationed his troops at the corners of the warehouses, with line-of-sight to the landing starships about four hundred yards away. Double-barrel flash cannon had that range, and Donal had taken the opportunity to unload a few of the prototype rifles from their crates, handing them to his crew. Although he’d never seen the weapons fired, Jay told him what they could do. He grinned, thinking what a surprise they would be to the invaders.

It was late afternoon, and the sun was at their backs, while the raiders had to contend with the blinding light in their eyes. Donal walked along the line of defenders, patting each on the back and giving them words of encouragement. They had multiple factors going in their favor. It would all turn out fine.

The Dead Worlds

What Donal didn’t know at the time was that twenty armed fighters were approaching on foot from the opposite direction, having been waiting on the surface for several days before their ships made diversionary landings on the other side of the compound. They moved quickly, yet cautiously, around the warehouse buildings, hugging walls and watching that their elongated shadows didn’t attract the attention of their prey.

The defenders were in a perfect position to respond to the starships; however, their backs were exposed to the unseen force approaching from behind, and now only yards away.

That’s when the inevitable happened. A restless defender turned for some reason, spotting the approaching raiders and yelling out the alarm. He opened up with a powerful flash rifle, firing repeating rounds of strange blue energy.

Captain Lospen Calos began shouting orders to fire, even as three of his troops fell to the deadly fire from the strange weapon. But even this super rifle wasn’t enough to prevent the slaughter. Within a minute, most of the defenders were dead, with only a few scrambling for the cover of a small speeder nearby.

The Dead Worlds

Rans Xaoc pulled the microphone close to his bloody mouth. He’d been hit in the side by a grazing bolt from a Xan-fi rifle, and although most of the wound was cauterized, there was still blood, the result of internal injuries. He struggled for breath as he sent out the distress call.

“Xaoc calling Riyad Tarazi. Hax’on expedition under attack. Raiders. Surprise approach. All defense eliminated. Final reporting …”

His voice trailed off, along with his breath. He died with the microphone still clutched in his hand.


10

Jay didn’t witness the slaughter of his crew, but he did see the aftermath.

From a hidden position at the edge of the warehouse field, he saw the pirates loading the bodies into the hold of the Ed Gibson. Raiders didn’t like leaving reminders around of their handiwork. They wanted the salvagers to believe they were thieves, not killers, and the fewer horrific murder scenes broadcast around The Zone, the better.

He checked his watch. Another hour and the containers would be safe to move. With three ships and a workforce of over twenty, the pirates would make quick work of the pods, leaving Jay not only with nothing to show for his efforts but without a ship, a crew, and in even more debt to Riyad than before. His friend would be especially upset with the loss of the Ed Gibson. They only had a few serviceable ships and no money to buy new ones. The loss of the freighter would be significant. The death of the alien crew they would shrug off, as would Jay. One could never become very close friends with aliens. They were just too … too alien.

But having Riyad pissed off at him was the least of his worries. He was in a bright green protective environment suit, using filtered air to breathe. That was fine, but the planet had absolutely nothing to eat and only toxic water to drink. If what they said about the Survival Rule of Threes was true, then he had about three days to go before he would die of thirst, maybe sooner since it was hotter than hell in the suit.

It was a given that the pirates would take the Ed Gibson. But what about his speeder? It was too small for hauling cargo and was unarmed, making it useless in combat. Would they assume all the salvagers were dead and just leave it? Jay was an optimist, but that would be asking too much.

As far as he could see, he only surefire way off the planet was to stow away aboard one of the raider ships. He had no doubt they would eventually show up at Liave-3, and if not there, then Dasnon, the other oasis planet within The Zone. But Dasnon was nothing, just a half dozen waystation settlements on a desert world. But at least there he could catch a ride back to Liave. Maybe. There was just too much uncertainty in his planning; however, the only certainty was that if he didn’t get off the planet with the raiders, he would be dead within the next few days.

The Dead Worlds

It was dark by the time Jay made his way into the warehouse forest. He had to get closer to the three grounded starships to look for a way in. Most of the crew was out near the main warehouse, beginning to pull out the containers and place them on squat transports. The raiders came prepared, equipped with everything they would need to load the containers into their ships. The six decontaminated pods would fit easily in two of the ships, if not one. They were larger than the Ed Gibson, with gaping holds designed to carry as much booty as possible.

Early on, the aliens entered the warehouse and emerged with a few of the loose rifles. A crowd formed around them, gawking at the weapons. Then one of the aliens stepped back and began firing into the air. This set off a literal stampede into the building, with each of the pirates emerging with a rifle of their own. Moments later, the dark sky was ablaze with bright blue streaks, looking like a 4th of July celebration. Other shots were aimed at the nearby warehouses, sending fiery explosions into the air as sun-hot plasma met steel.

A muscular black-skinned alien ran up to the unruly mob and began yelling, pulling several of the weapons from the hands of the crew. He was the captain of the pirates, and his orders were obeyed. Calm returned to the night, but not before someone noticed that a door to a neighboring warehouse was hanging open. Others of the crew went inside to investigate, seeking even more treasure.

Jay crawled on the tarmac on his stomach to get a better look. It wasn’t easy, staying concealed while wearing a bright green Hazmat suit. Fortunately, Hax’on only had one moon, and it hadn’t risen yet, casting the field into thick, gloomy darkness laced with a trace of fog.

A couple of minutes later, an electric excitement began to move throughout the pirate community. They scrambled outside the second warehouse, as others ran to neighboring buildings, blasting at the locking mechanisms with their new toys. The aliens would run in, then emerge a few moments later, even more excited.

Jay wondered what they found inside, so he rose to his feet, and in the confusion, sprinted to the side of his speeder where he could get a better look.

Crew members were running up to their captain, talking with wild hand motions and amplified voices. Jay’s translator struggled to make out the chatter, fighting among the multiple languages being yelled across the tarmac. What he could make out sounded a lot like, “More! More!”

There was a tall light pole close to one of the warehouses, one of dozens that laced the warehouse field, but which were all dark. Jay ran up to it and crouched behind. He was within twenty yards of one of the open warehouses. Inside, light beams from the aliens lit up the interior, giving Jay a look at another building filled with the same pods as he found in the original warehouse. One was open with a loose crate sitting on the floor. An alien pulled a prototype rifle from the box.

Holy crap, Jay thought. There are more rifles … a lot more.

The raiders were now going systematically along the rows of warehouses, blasting open doors, and taking inventory of the contents. Jay could tell when they hit paydirt. Someone had dialed back the power setting on a rifle and was using it to mark the doors with charred circles. In stunned silence, Jay watched as door after door was marked.

Eventually, the excitement waned, and the raiders began concentrating on a specific set of warehouses. It was hard to tell, but Jay guessed that as many as eight or nine of the warehouses had weapons containers. Jay wasn’t a math whiz, so it took him a while to work the numbers in his head. Six containers to each building came to fifty-four containers. And four hundred weapons in each container … the number was over twenty thousand. He adjusted his math and came up with twenty-one thousand six hundred. He couldn’t be sure that each building contained exactly six containers, or if the pods were full. Besides, the number was odd, so he concluded there were twenty thousand weapons in what was known as the Saxon Order. More math followed. At a thousand Juirean credits each, that was two hundred million. No, wait, twenty million, Jay corrected himself. Still, that was a hell of a lot of JCs. And that was if the rifles were only worth a thousand each. Undoubtedly, they could be worth a lot more, maybe double. The numbers were staggering.

Jay sank back on the tarmac, resting his back against the concrete base of the lamppost. As much as forty million credits, and at one time, potentially all his. He snorted. More correctly, he was about to leave ninety percent of it on Hax’on unclaimed. As it was, he had nothing now. Even his life was in jeopardy. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

After a moment, he rolled over onto his belly again and peered around the base of the pillar, looking to see what the aliens would do next. Even though they had around fifty containers, only six were decontaminated. To use their ships to transfer that many pods into space to form transport strings would turn ships into radioactive wastelands. And unless they came with a boatload of decon form in their ships, there wasn’t much they could do with the containers. They would have to come back—

That’s when Jay noticed a group of the aliens break away from the others and run toward the Ed Gibson. They sprinted through the open cargo bay and disappeared inside.

Dammit, Jay thought. They’re going to use the EG to move the containers. Once in space, it wouldn’t matter how hot they were. They could be hooked together and towed to a secret destination, there to be decontaminated at the pirate’s leisure.

And they had six deconned containers that could fit in a cargo hold. That would be the ship heading for the raider’s base of operation.

Jay suspected Liave-3 to be that base. The planet was overflowing with contraband of all kinds. All that product had to get to the planet somehow, and Jay had never witnessed massive freighters unloading cargo at the Kanac Spaceport, other than that by legit salvagers. Even so, an incredible amount of additional product showed up for sale at the large open-air markets or was bargained over in smoky bars, back rooms and restaurants.

That was the ship he had to get aboard.

But which one would it be? Then he shrugged. It would be the one with the leader on it—the muscular black alien. All Jay had to do was see which one he went aboard.

The raiders were already carting containers toward the Ed Gibson. At most, the ship could carry three of the pods. Subtracting out the six that could go in a hold of one of the pirate ships, that still left fifteen shipments into orbit. That was a lot of liftoffs and landings and would take well into the next day. Daylight would not be his friend, not if he hoped to stow away aboard a specific starship. It was dark now. He had to make his move. What choice did he have?

He retreated from the activity, using the darkness to mask his movements. He took a wide berth and then doubled back, approaching the cluster of pirate ships from the opposite direction of the loading operations. Before daybreak, he surveyed the layout, finding his best approaches and access points. Then he waited to see which one the captain would go aboard.

After that, things would get dicey, as if they weren’t already.


11

Jay found it impossible to sleep during the night, as the near-constant liftoffs and landings of the Ed Gibson rocked the area with sound, light and vibration. He was exhausted by the time the fiery yellow orb in the sky greeted him, promising another day of roasting in his thick environment suit. He was already dehydrated, and his stomach grumbled for food. His sour mood grew worse when he realized that just getting aboard the alien spaceship wouldn’t solve his problems. He would then have to steal food and water while staying hidden. And it was a given he couldn’t keep the Hazmat suit on, not aboard the starship. That would involve him stealing clothing as well. But it sure beat the alternative. Or did it? Being tossed out of an airlock and into the vacuum of space was not his idea of a good time.

It was well into the afternoon when the six decontaminated pods began to be carted to one of the pirate ships. As was expected, it was the largest and newest of the small fleet. The Ed Gibson also took on the last of the hot containers. That was also when his last best chance of guaranteed survival ended. His precious David Lender was loaded aboard the radioactive starship, and the rear cargo doors buttoned up. The Gibson would be scuttled once the cargo made it into space; it was no use to anyone at that point. And the speeder was just more evidence of who had been to the planet. His options were now down to stow away or die, with the modifier: stowaway and die as a real possibility.

Taking a chance that a few minutes of breathing the slightly radioactive air wouldn’t hurt much, Jay stripped off the environment suit, leaving only the lightweight undergarment—similar to a pair of long pajamas—and the heavy boots to protect against the hotter ground. He smelled like a yak in heat, and the pajamas were soaked in sweat and other bodily fluids. The suits the pirates wore would keep them from detecting his ripe scent. That was if he didn’t die of radiation poisoning first.

He scooted along the side of the closest warehouse to the ship, approaching along the midsection. Most of the activity was at the rear cargo ramp, and any raiders on watch would be on the bridge, with a view in the opposite direction. He ran under the short stabilizing wing and up to the side of a bulbous gravity generator until he could work his way under the ship. The vessel rested on landing skids, with a gap of about four feet between the hull and the ground.

Jay had spent enough time aboard starships to know that there were several access panels on the underside of the hull used to reach cable runs and sensors. There should also be an auxiliary docking port and maintenance hatch. He crawled along until he found the square hatchway, knowing that the more time he spent laying on the ground, the better his chances of receiving a stronger dose of radiation. The port operated manually since it would be impractical for everyone aboard to have access to a security code. Jay set to work spinning the release wheel. It was obvious it hadn’t been used in a while. But fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of rust accumulating while a ship was in space, only on the surface of a planet. And this newer vessel hadn’t had time for the mechanism to bind up, making it impossible to turn without tools. Jay’s Human strength was enough to get the hatch open.

The inner chamber was small and oriented strangely. That was because access to the small airlock was below the internal gravity line of the ship. Here, objects would be oriented toward the ceiling; on the other side of the well-barrier, to the decks. Jay worked his way in and then closed and dogged the hatch. He was in an area of the ship that would be rarely visited. Now all he needed to find was a change of clothing, food and water. It was also a good bet this part of the ship—although pressurized—wouldn’t be heated or cooled. There was no need. Anyone accessing the airlock to do work outside the ship would be in an environment suit.

The bottom line: He couldn’t stay here, at least not until he was better provisioned.

The airlock opened to a series of narrow stand-up passageways, all below the gravity line. They gave workers access to the focusing rings and other elements of the internals. Jay moved along the corridor, walking on what was now the ceiling. Eventually, he came to a transit tube that took him into the main part of the ship, where he would potentially run into any number of raiders.

Jay had to act fast, while the loading was taking place. The main spine corridor was empty of crew members, so he made his way forward to where he would find the galley. As he got closer he heard voices. Peering around a corner, he spotted two raiders at one of the processor stations. They were joking but in a hurry. His translator revealed that they were on an unauthorized break from bridge duty, grabbing a snack while the captain and the other officers were in the aft section, supervising the loading of the pods. They didn’t linger long and were gone a moment after their food spit out of the machine.

Jay rushed to the same station, scanning the controls to see if they were anything out of the ordinary. Fortunately, they weren’t. Most starships were of a universal design, able to be used by a variety of species. This one was no different. He spotted the testing port and inserted a finger. After a sharp prick, he pulled it out and began punching keys on the screen. Human chemistry was now included in most programs, and the menu displayed was for Human compatible food and drink. He selected a variety, knowing that his food would have to last at least four days, maybe longer. As the solid items began to spit out, he ordered up a quantity of plain old water. He wouldn’t be fancy. Besides, at the moment, water was his most immediate need.

With a hefty load of food and water, Jay then looked around the room for something in which to place his booty. It was a pretty good armful, and he didn’t want to risk dropping any on the way to the access airlock. He noticed that the cushions on a nearby couch were clad in pillowslips. That would work nicely, leaving the crew only slightly curious as to what happened to the cover. With his bag full of goodies, Jay set off back down the corridor but checking as he did several of the side doors, looking for the crew quarters.

As he hoped, the room was empty, with everyone on watch or working on the loading. There was clothing scattered around, and after a few samples to check sizes, he left the compartment with a thick jumpsuit and an oversized jacket. It would get cold in the airlock, and this would help. He made it back to the airlock without incident, exhibiting a nervous grin at his efficient scavenger hunt. But the feeling was short-lived when he thought of the days ahead, and the possibility that some alien worker would find him in the airlock. He’d only managed to clear the first hurdle. There was a whole track full of them ahead. And each would only get taller as the days passed.

The Dead Worlds

Two hours later, the ship left the surface. As expected, the internal gravity kicked in, and he found his orientation change abruptly. The ceiling was now the floor, and the heat inside the room slowly faded away, replaced by the expected cold. Jay huddled in a corner, wrapped in the huge, tent-like coat, thankful that most aliens are larger than Humans.

The ship didn’t enter a gravity-well right away. Instead, it hung around in orbit while the shipping containers were formed into long transport strings of twenty or so. Then they were off. Jay could tell by the sound of the generators reverberating through the hull when they entered a well. Four days or so, and hopefully, they’d be at their destination. Immediately, Jay began rationing his food and water. There was no way of telling for sure how long the trip would last.

Now he sat, listening to every pop and whine of the hull, and for any signs of approaching crew. It had already been a long three days on Hax’on, and his journey wasn’t over … not by a long shot.


12

As Jay Williford’s journey was beginning, another was coming to an end.

The huge, modern starship descended from the sky above the Tainesin Manufacturing Works only two days after the raiders left and settled down at nearly the same spot as the three pirates had sat. The ship was only one of seven that made the trip to Hax’on; the others were still in orbit, awaiting instructions. The hard work was ahead of them.

The vessel on the surface was of an entirely different breed than that of the raiders. For one, it was larger, larger than should have been able to land on the surface of a planet. But it did and with grace and efficiency. The vessel was also made of a smooth welded surface without seams. Normally such construction was frowned upon since starships required some flexibility in their hulls to accommodate the strains placed on them. But it didn’t seem to bother this behemoth. Everything about it spoke of high-tech, capability—and money. There were gun emplacements on the hull, but the vessel didn’t have the look of a warship. This was a privately-owned starship, the property of a fabulously wealthy individual or corporation.

The starship carried a crew of forty-eight, with accommodations that would put luxury liners to shame. Even the protective suits the occupants wore as they stepped onto the surface were shiny and new, extremely thin and comfortable, although rated higher against radiation than even the uniforms worn by professional decon crews.

On that subject, the owner of the expensive starship had come prepared, knowing that the decontamination of fifty pods was a big operation. The professional decon crews were in orbit and ready to drop down at a moment’s notice to begin the arduous task ahead of them. Even so, they had enough ships, crew and supplies to complete the job in a day. The sooner they left the surface, the better.

This moment had been a long time in the making, and all they had to do now was recover their precious weapons.

The owner of the starship was named Sirous Fenn. He was a tall, yellow-skinned alien with some of the largest eyes found among Prime species in the galaxy. As a consequence, he wore dark, protective glasses in the bright glare of daylight. But at night, he had perfect vision, as did all the members of his race. Unfortunately for Sirous, there were only two others of his kind aboard the ship; the captain and his primary assistant. Everyone else was made up of a menagerie of species, a cross-section of membership in the Gradis Cartel.

Although Sirous owned the shiny new and expensive starship, it was crewed by criminals, a necessity based on the Cartel’s involvement in the manufacture of the weapons. Keeping knowledge of the rifles to only a few of his race was imperative, at least until he could show his co-conspirators what he had done. Surprise would be the key element. After that, his place atop the new government would be assured. And if any resisted, he would have the means to enforce his authority. Either voluntary or forced, the ultimate path for his ascension was up to others. Sirous would accept either option to ultimate power.

But first, he needed to recover his magnificent weapons.

The Dead Worlds

It only took a moment outside the starship for Sirous to notice something was amiss. He turned to the Cartel captain—a gravel-throated creature named Pannel. Sirous never cared enough to learn his last name; he simply called the alien Pannel.

“Is this the proper location?” Sirous asked. “You coordinated the order; you should know.”

The grey-skinned alien was tense; the expression through the helmet lens one of suppressed anger.

“This is the right spot. However, as you can see, the warehouses have been opened.”

“And the weapons?”

“We shall see as we get closer. But why would the doors be open yet the supply remain?” The alien scanned the rows of warehouses. Not all the doors were open, just the ones in the general vicinity. This was not a random act. The thieves knew exactly what they were looking for.

At the first warehouse, Sirous entered in a rush, then slipped out a moment later, visibly shaking with anger. “They are gone! They are all gone!” He turned to Pannel. “You said they were here.”

“They were, as recently as a full candoc.”

“What is a full candoc?”

“Forty-one days, on my planet. That does not matter. The weapons were here, and now they are gone.”

Sirous led the small survey party to another warehouse, then to another, as Cartel members spread out to check the other buildings.

“I do not see evidence of decontamination,” Sirous pointed out. “That would be extremely dangerous.”

“The thieves must have been in a hurry.”

“Where are my weapons? I have spent nearly my entire fortune on this venture, as well as risking my life with its execution. Without them, my cause is lost.”

“Captain!” a voice shouted through the comm link. “We have found something.”

The main group moved to the indicated warehouse. A Cartel soldier came out, holding up a silver canister. “Decon foam; it is empty.”

“Some of the pods were cleaned before removal,” Pannel stated.

Sirous moved to the alien holding the container and studied the label. It was in an alien language, but there was a second tag placed on the metal exterior, sitting at an odd angle to the main sticker.

“Does anyone have a reader?” Sirous asked the assemblage surrounding him. A datapad was handed to him.

He took the device and ran it over the cock-eyed-attached label. A translation into his native language appeared.

Tarazi Outfitting and Expeditions. Balamar, Liave-3.

“Liave-3?”

“Yes, it is the major hub planet for the Dead Zone,” Pannel explained. “It is where most salvage operations originate.”

Sirous was furious. “This Tarazi Outfitting either sold the decon material to the thieves, or they are responsible for the salvage itself.” Sirous then turned to Pannel. “I now recall Liave-3! Is that not where you sent the team to address the Hax’onean problem? I understand there were complications.”

“No complications, Sirous. The Hax’oneans were dispatched, as was the order, even though my team was also killed.”

“Your professional assassins … were killed?”

“Yes. I did not pay much attention to the details of the outcome, not after learning the targets were neutralized. Liave-3 is a very dangerous place. I saw the outcome as beneficial. I did not have to pay the remainder of the assassin’s contract.”

“So, I will be due a refund?”

Pannel paused for a moment before nodding. “I suppose that would be appropriate.”

“Keep the credits, Pannel,” Sirous said impatiently. “Just find out who has my weapons. Nothing can begin without them.” The yellow-skinned alien then leaned in closer to Pannel. “And just as you were not required to pay the balance of the contract to your assassins, without delivery of the weapons and your subsequent support of my coup, I am not obligated to pay the remainder of my contract to the Cartel.”

“Kracion’s attack was unforeseen. If not for that, you would have had your war long before now.”

“That is why I have not pressed the issue with you until this point. But now that the weapons are gone, I will insist on no further payment until they are recovered.” Sirous held up the datapad, showing Pannel the translated label. “And you have a very good indication as to who did this. Fifty radioactive A-9 shipping containers cannot be easily hidden. And the sale of such devices undoubtedly will cause a ripple throughout this part of the galaxy. So far, we have not detected such a ripple. And as you say, forty-one days ago the weapons were here. The theft occurred recently. You must hurry to prevent any of my rifles from being sold. I cannot afford knowledge of them becoming known outside our circle. Is that understood?”

“That is the reason I dispatched the assassins. As far as we know, all loose ends have been tied off.”

“All the loose ends except knowing where twenty-thousand of the most powerful energy weapons in the galaxy have gone. A hope you do not consider that to be an insignificant detail, Pannel of the Gradis.”

“I will find your weapons, and when I do, I will eliminate anyone with knowledge of their existence. After that, the Gradis will do what is expected of us. We will expect payment in full at that time. Even now, this operation has gone on much longer than planned. My superiors are growing restless.”

“As am I, Pannel. Let us not have any more delays.”

Pannel turned from Sirous and began waving his arms, calling everyone back to the ship. He keyed his helmet comm and opened a link with the rest of his fleet.

“Attention. Prepare your ships for departure. Plot your course for Liave-3. Have the enforcer commanders shuttle to my ship as soon as we gain orbit. There is much to discuss.”


13

“Spit it out! Do it now, goddammit!”

Adam Cain had the huge green alien by the mouth, yelling at him while holding his jaws open, as two spindly legs extended from the opening, thrashing about wildly. Sherri Valentine had her ubiquitous baseball bat, pounding on the head of the thick, round creature. Nearby, others of his race were shouting, screaming at the Humans to stop before they kill their companion.

Eventually, Sherri stepped up and took a dangling leg in each hand and pulled with all her might. She fell backward, bringing a squat, pink alien with her. He plopped onto her lap, choking and covered in slimy yellow goo.

“You insanity!” the tiny pink being screeched. “How dare you attempt to eat me!”

Adam let go of the round-bellied alien, falling back himself against a wall of the hotel room. The air was thick with the cloud from a dozen smokesticks. Even the second-hand smoke was making Adam dizzy. This was some strong shit.

“What’s wrong with all of you?” Sherri yelled. She climbed to her feet, scraping away the gooey slime from her clothing. “You know the rules. You can do anything you want in your rooms, but you leave the other guests alone.”

“But he was in our room,” said one of the frog-mouthed aliens.

“After you ambushed me in the hallway and pulled me inside!” the hapless victim pointed out.

“That is simply an interpretation of the rules.”

“No, it’s not,” Sherri corrected. “With nothing illegal on L-3, I allow my guests to indulge in any pastime they wish. But you are not to harm anyone else. Isn’t that clear enough for you? We have food next door if you get hungry, including freshly-cooked meat.”

Cooked meat?” asked the talkative frog. “Why?”

“Yes, away is the taste if not consumed fresh.”

The last statement came from the alien who tried to eat the other guest. Adam could see from his eyes that he was as high as a kite, as were all of them. Unfortunately, episodes like this were a constant occurrence at Sherri’s Golden Slipper Hotel.

Since its opening, Sherri had tried a variety of modifications to the place-to-sleep motif of a standard hotel, looking for something that worked on the planet. It seemed that in Balamar, sleep wasn’t what most of her guests desired. That made the rules basic and simple. If it was sex they wanted, they had to bring their own. And as for narcotics—as she said—nothing was illegal on Liave-3, so she couldn’t very well restrict that. As it turned out, each of the fourteen rooms she rented out was used for just about anything, becoming dens of iniquity rather than strictly hotel rooms per se. Most of the time Sherri didn’t care. When clusters of aliens got together for a bender, she could charge extra. The hotel was a decent profit center for the partnership.

That’s if the guests didn’t try to eat the other guests.

With grumbles and complaints, all parties returned to their respective rooms. Adam stood up, shaking his head.

“Whose idea was it to come to this godforsaken planet in the first place?”

“I believe that would be you, dickhead.”

“What’s the answer then; larger signs detailing the rules?” Adam suggested.

“Yeah, signs worked fine at the bar, until a hit squad came in and shot up the place. I vote for a couple of big-ass Rigorians as security guards. I know of some who would take the job.”

Adam cringed at the mention of Rigorians. They were huge, upright-walking alligator-like beasts who set Adam on edge. It was a primal thing for him, as was his fear of spiders. Rigorians were also the first breed of alien he ever killed, and as they say, you always remember your first.

“Make the call,” Adam conceded. “We’re going to need them for Cain’s as well when the no-weapons-allowed notice comes down.”

The two Humans were distracted by Kaylor running down the hallway toward them.

“Riyad wants to see you,” said the blue-skinned alien in a panic. “He received a distress call from one of his sponsored expeditions.”

Adam and Sherri looked at each other. “Which expedition?” Adam asked. “I didn’t know he had any out, just equipment rentals.”

“Dammit,” Sherri said. “He’s fronted the money again. We can’t afford this!”

“And he didn’t tell us, either.”

The trio left the hotel and made the short walk through Cain’s Bar & Grill to the outfitting business run by Riyad. The situation in the hotel had already set them on edge. They were in no mood for more bad news.

The huge open warehouse building that served as the outfitting business was packed full of environment suits, decon tanks, netting, meters and sealed rations, along with a disorganized assortment of just about everything else under the sun. The business had only been up and running for six months, and it was turning into a continual learning curve for the owners. Salvage operations came in all shapes and sizes, and someone was constantly coming in and asking for something they didn’t have. Out of the three businesses run by the partnership, the outfitting operation was the least profitable. There were a lot more inventory costs than first anticipated, and more often than not, the deposits they required didn’t cover the losses. Salvagers were not the most upstanding citizens, and either they absconded with the equipment, or they lost it to raiders. It was getting so bad that Sherri was almost to the point of charging one hundred percent of the cost as just a deposit before allowing anything to be taken out of the store. But that would hamper business. Most salvagers didn’t have a lot of credits, and only recently Adam had learned that a certain dandy-dressing alien in Kanac was one of the main suppliers of high-interest loans required to finance what they needed.

In a way, that was fine for the Humans. Without Dal Divisen’s money to lubricate the process, there would be very little business. However, when inventory was lost or stolen, it had to be replaced. At that point, it became just a trade-off transaction, which was no way to run a business. Adam even learned that sometimes the salvagers would sell off their equipment just to pay back Divisen. Unlike with Adam and his people, the mobster had ways of enforcing his contracts, often at the end of an MK-17 flash pistol. He always got paid.

Riyad was in the small office at the back, sitting before a large electronics array tied to the Continuous Wormhole communications network located in the jungle between Balamar and Kanac.

“What’s going on?” Sherri asked—demanded. “You have a sponsored expedition that we didn’t know about?”

From the look on Riyad’s face, he was expecting the rebuke. “Save your condemnations for later. It’s something I did with Jay Williford.”

“Jay?” Adam said. “He was just here a few days ago. How did he get something going so soon … and without telling the rest of us?”

“You know him,” Riyad said. “He doesn’t think the two of you like him very much.”

“Well, we don’t,” said Sherri. “But that doesn’t mean you should sneak around behind our backs. What’s happened to him?”

“I don’t know, not for sure. Listen to this.”

Riyad pressed the playback, and the short recording played.

“Xaoc calling Riyad Tarazi. Hax’on expedition under attack. Raiders. Surprise approach. All defense eliminated. Final reporting …”

“Rans Xaoc?” Adam asked. “How much security was there?”

“Six people, all experienced.”

“What the hell were they doing on Hax’on?” Sherri asked.

Riyad shrugged. “I’m going out there. I need to find out what happened.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” Sherri scolded. “They got themselves killed. And what about the equipment? I bet it’s all gone.”

“Wait a minute,” Adam said. “Six security guards, along with Jay and his crew. That’s eleven people. How did they get to Hax’on?”

“They took the Ed Gibson.”

“The Gibson!” Sherri’s voice could be heard all the way through the bar next door and out onto the beach. “That’s our best and biggest ship. And I suppose you didn’t get any deposit, not from your little buddy.”

“We’re getting a share of the salvage.”

“What salvage?” Adam asked sarcastically. “Doesn’t sound like there’s any salvage to share in.”

Riyad stood up, his face a study in stone. “Yell at me all you want, but my little buddy—as you call him—is probably dead. And if he’s not, then I need to find him.”

“Along with our ship,” Sherri added.

“And our ship.”

“I don’t know,” Adam said. “You could go out there and get yourself killed, too.”

“I can take care of myself, as you well know. Now stop bitching at me. Yes, I screwed up, so let me make this right.”

“The only way to make this right is to get the Gibson back,” Sherri said. “At this point, the ship is the most valuable asset we have—or don’t have, in this case.”

“I’ll let you know what I find.”

Riyad didn’t ask permission. He simply picked up his go-bag and headed for the door.

“Be careful,” Sherri yelled after him.

Adam knew she was not only mad but worried. That came from the fact that her ex-husband was heading off into the unknown, angry, humiliated, and with a lot to prove. People with that mindset seldom make rational decisions. But Riyad was right. He could take care of himself. With a chuckle, Adam pitied the poor aliens who got in his way, especially with the mood he was in.


14

Four days after leaving Hax’on, the raider ship dropped out of the gravity-well and engaged its chemical drive, settling down on a light gravity world. As soon as the internals were turned off, Jay knew this wasn’t Liave-3. That planet had a familiar gravity; this one was a lot less. The stowaway was confused by this fact. There weren’t a lot of habitable planets four days from Hax’on, which meant this had to be a smaller planet or a large moon. So why stop here?

Then it dawned on him. The pirates had a huge number of container A-9 pods. And most were still radioactive. They would have to be stored somewhere until arrangements could be made to decon them. The other possibility is they would sit here until a buyer was found for the lot. A little discount in price for their current condition and the deal could be made as-is. It made sense.

That still left the clean containers on the flagship. The raiders had to work for someone; that was a given. And from the reaction of the aliens on Hax’on, they weren’t expecting to find such a motherlode. The captain would be anxious to show off his treasure to the boss. And it was a good bet Mr. Big wasn’t on some airless rock.

Jay checked his rations. He was running low, having budgeted for five or six days at max. Now he had no idea how much longer the next leg of the journey would take. At some point, he would have to risk another foray to the galley, late at night, while only the minimum watch was on duty.

The ship remained on the surface for eight hours, during which time Jay imagined the containers were being shuttled to the surface. He didn’t feel any vibrations that would signify landings and takeoffs, but that didn’t mean much. Then he thought that if the pods didn’t remain hidden in space somewhere, the Ed Gibson could be used for shuttle duty once more. That could mean his speeder was nearby, as well, even if contaminated with radiation. It could always be sterilized. But how would he ever find this place again? It could be anywhere, some uninhabited world in The Zone passed over by Kracion. There would be thousands of hiding places.

But then his fortunes changed for the better, which wasn’t something Jay was expecting, not the way things had gone for him recently. Forty-eight minutes after liftoff, the ship came in for another landing, and this time on a world which felt familiar.

Only four days from Hax’on and with Juirean Standard gravity. This had to be Liave-3. He was home, and the hiding place for the pods was somewhere in the Liave system. He quickly searched his memory for likely candidates. One stood out from the rest.

It was called Masnin, or Liave-7; a rocky world out near the boundary between the inner planets and the outer gas giants, similar to the Solar System. It had a cold, thin atmosphere, like that atop of Mt. Everest. There had been a few mining operations on the planet at the time Kracion made his sweep through the area, but everyone took off for the stars at that point, abandoning their mines and facilities, never to return. There would be dozens of these huge mines in which to hide contraband. Extrapolating from there, Jay figured the planet might be the main repository for confiscated raider wealth, at least until it could be moved to Liave-3 and sold.

Wheels spun in Jay’s head. If he could find the location again, he could steal from the thieves, with most of the heavy lifting already done. Nearly all the items stored there would be radiation-free.

Even considering the fact that he was hidden away in a service airlock aboard a raider vessel, smelling of excrement and piss, his spirits were boosted. He now had something to look forward to. All he had to do now was get off the ship without being seen.

He listened carefully to the activity taking place on the ship. Metal hulls carried a lot of information if one knew how to listen. What he didn’t hear, however, was the opening of the rear cargo doors, where the pods would be offloaded. Instead, he felt pressure changes as hatches opened, and people began to leave the ship. There could be as many as four or five pods on the ship, but it seemed the pirates had no intention of removing them, at least not until they figured out what to do with them. That made sense.

But Jay couldn’t wait around for that to happen.

He moved to the airlock door and carefully unscrewed the hatch. Gravity wanted to pull the heavy door open, and he used all his Human strength to keep it from falling. Additionally, lights were going off on the bridge indicating a broken seal in the ship’s integrity. It was the same as on Hax’on, but on the surface, there could be a variety of reasons for this to happen, with crew members moving about doing their chores. He wasn’t worried, not about the hatch. What he was worried about was being spotted as he dropped to the ground.

It was just his luck that it was daylight on L-3. He wiggled his body out of the opening and dropped to the tarmac four feet below, holding the hatch up with his shoulders as he searched for legs moving along the side of the hull. He froze as a pair of long-legged aliens walked by, their tall, lanky forms keeping the underbelly of the ship hidden from their view. He dogged the hatch closed and then waited for an opportunity to make a break for it.

He was definitely at the Kanac Spaceport. He could see the control building in the distance, along with a dozen ships of all shapes and sizes between him and the building. Fortunately, there was little security at the spaceport. The only sort of authority came with landings, takeoffs and ship placements, and this was done more for safety reasons than anything else.

Jay still had on the bulky heavy coat; he took it now and draped it over his shoulders, covering the back of his head. The garment reached to the ground, forming more of a cloak than a jacket. Taking a deep breath, he rose up from under the starship and began to walk purposefully out from under the stubby wing that still radiated a fair amount of heat from the landing. He knew it would look odd him wearing a heavy coat in the warmth of Kanac, especially on the blistering tarmac. But confidence was his disguise. He strode off as if he belonged here, heading for the terminal building.

The Dead Worlds

Captain Lospen Calos was met by a waiting transport and driven into town. He carried with him one of the super energy weapons, anxious to show it off to his boss. In his opinion—and based on his experience—he was one of the smartest of the pirate captains, bringing with him a military background. It allowed him a small command of his own early in his career with the raiders. However, this latest find would make him a legend in the corps.

With the help of the ship’s computers, Calos already had a rough estimate of the value of the weapons. It was hard to believe, and at the standard captain’s cut, Lospen was about to become a very rich pirate, in fact, richer than anyone he knew, except for his boss.

The ride into Kanac was short; however, getting to the central district took longer through the traffic. When the vehicle pulled up to the building, it was nothing to look at, just a prefab construction made of unpainted laminate and standing six stories tall. Not much in Kanac had paint. It didn’t need it. Most of the town was so new—less than two local years old—that there hadn’t been time for weathering. Even so, many of the older buildings had already been torn down and rebuilt to make way for newer structures as fortunes shifted or needs changed.

Captain Calos made his way into the building, carrying a sample of his precious cargo in an arc-welder case he found in the workshop of his ship. It fit nicely, while not giving away any of its secrets. Lospen wanted the weapon to be a surprise.

He entered the outer office and was greeted by a pair of burly guards who eyed him with suspicion, even though they knew who he was.

“What is your business?” asked a leather-skinned creature with double sets of fangs curving out of his mouth. His name was Eksee, and he knew Lospen well.

“I have something for the boss. I am sure he will want to see this.”

“What is it?”

Eksee reached for the carrying case. Lospen pulled it back.

“He will want to be the first to see the item. You do not want to take that pleasure from him? Don’t delay. Tell him I am here.”

For a tense moment, the two aliens faced off before Eksee reluctantly backed away and entered the next office. He returned a moment later, motioning the raider captain to enter.

The Dead Worlds

Dal Divisen didn’t get up from his desk. He remained seated, scrutinizing a computer screen, looking frustrated. He shook his head and then turned from the monitor, as if noticing the pirate for the first time.

“I have told you never to come here unannounced.” Dal’s voice was deep and melodic, although the message was clear; he wasn’t happy. “I see you also landed at the Kanac SP. There is a chance your ship could be recognized. You do not kill all you encounter. There are witnesses.”

“Forgive, Dal, but I bring great news … the greatest news.”

Dal leaned back in his chair, his dark eyes boring into the pirate captain. “You presume a lot, for a scab pirate with neither home nor family. Who are you to be the judge of what is great and what is not?”

Lospen remained standing, but now shuffling nervously in front of the desk. Dal Divisen was the most powerful being in Kanac—indeed, on L-3—and his spontaneous temper was legend. The captain set the case on Dal’s desk and opened it, wanting to impress his boss before he lost control over the unexpected nature of Lospen’s arrival.

Dal rose from his seat, his eyes focused on the dark grey instrument inside the case.

“What have you brought me, Captain Calos? Is this a gift to celebrate the date of my birth?”

“Is it your birth date?” Lospen stammered. He was not aware.

“No, it is not, you scab. I was being light.” Dal removed the weapon from the case and cradled it in his hands. “A strange design; where did you find it?”

“On Hax’on. It is a weapon of superior capabilities, more than I have ever experienced, even during my military days.”

Dal had already fingered the power control, being shocked by the sudden energizing of the rifle. “It is light. And what is this?” Dal listened to the faint report made by the weapon, announcing its status. Once local translation bugs were identified, the display screen switched to the dominant language. Dal’s mouth fell ajar as he read the stats.

“Unbelievable,” he breathed. “And in such a compact size.”

“It is as it says. And I have not recharged the batteries. It is operating on those originally placed within.”

Dal pointed the rifle at the other side of his spacious office and pulled the trigger.

“No, do not!”

Lopsen was too late.

The brilliant blue ball of excited plasma shot out of the barrel, striking the opposite wall and burning a tiny round hole in the material. Someone in the adjourning room screamed, and Dal’s two guards burst into the office, MK-17s at the ready. Flash weapons—even rifles—would not normally penetrate walls, but this one did, as well as the wall on the other side of the second office.

“I am all right,” Dal said almost nonchalantly to the guards while gazing dreamily at the rifle. “I was merely testing the gift our friend Captain Calos has brought us. Step outside.”

The guards hesitated only a moment—eyeing Lospen with contempt—before departing. They had allowed Lospen to enter Dal’s office carrying a weapon. They knew that once Dal came to his senses, there would be punishment coming their way.

“We fired the weapons on Hax’on. Adjustable power, incredible range, and as you see, ninety bolts even at full power. Lower settings would place the capacity in the hundreds.”

“You say you fired the weapons, as in more than just this one?”

“Yes, Dal. We found a large number of them, all ready for shipment.”

Dal frown and turned his attention to the pirate captain. “How many?” his tone had shifted, something which confused Lopsen.

“Fifty A-9 shipping containers. I estimate a total of twenty thousand rifles.”

Dal remained staring at the captain for a long time until Lopsen began to once again shift in his stance. There was no expression on the dark face of his boss.

“As I said, there are many,” Lospen finally said, trying to elicit a response. “I’ve estimated the value of the lot at over sixty million JCs. Governments would pay in excess of three thousand credits each for these. This must be the largest salvage in the entire Zone. And it is all yours, Dal. Yours and mine.”

“You say you found these on Hax’on?”

“Yes, Dal.”

“The planet Hax’on?”

“Yes,” Lospen replied again, even more confused. “In the Tainsin Manufacturing facility.”

Dal laughed, which made Lopsen relax, somewhat. “I know of Tainsin. We have Tainsin food processors in the building. What are twenty thousand super weapons doing at Tainsin?”

“They were stored in their warehouses, crated for shipment.”

“To where?”

Lospen shook his head. “I know not.”

Dal casually moved the barrel of the weapon until it pointed at Lospen’s chest. “So, you found twenty thousand of these rifles, awaiting shipment at a manufacturing facility where they should not exist.”

“I … I.”

“And your scab-mind has placed their value at sixty million Juirean credits.”

“With computer assistance I estimated the value.”

“And how did you happen upon this incredible treasure, Captain Calos?”

“I followed a speeder from L-3 on the chance he was out to survey a salvage. When he returned with a crew to complete the operation, we set upon him and took the weapons.”

Dal frowned. “The salvager had a large enough operation to decontaminate fifty A-9 shipping containers? Why have I not heard of such a large operation? I control the salvage business in Kanac.”

“I do not know, Dal. However, I believe the salvager was not aware of the total count. He only deconned the contents of one warehouse. My crew and I discovered the rest.” Lospen puffed out his chest a little larger, signifying pride in the initiative he and his crew took in finding the hidden cache.

Appearing exhausted, Dal returned the weapon to the case and then slumped down in his chair. He motioned for Lospen to sit.

After a long pause, Dal spoke. “I suppose you are pleased with the news you have brought me today?”

“Of course. This is a huge find. The largest.”

“And you see no problem with that?”

Now Lopsen was truly confused. A problem with sixty million Juirean credits? What is wrong with Dal?

“Allow me to put this in perspective, Captain Calos. Twenty thousand superweapons, built in a secret location and worth—in your estimate—sixty million Juirean credits do not just happen to appear. Entities somewhere designed and ordered these weapons, enough weapons I might add to win a war. Now tell me, Captain Calos, what happens when those willing to engage in a war learn that their secret weapons are secret no more? What will they do when said weapons begin appearing all around the Kidis Frontier and beyond? And what of MK and Xan-fi? These devices are superior to any they now produce. Will they sit idly by while their businesses collapse?”

“But, but we sell them. Once knowledge of the weapons become known, they will become the standard.”

Dal nodded. “That is correct if the knowledge is disseminated in any large-scale manner. Is it not more likely that the powerful entities with the technological means to devise such weapons—along with the credits to build them—might not be too happy to learn we have spirited away their secret cache?”

“How will they know? We sell them—”

“To whom, Captain Calos? Anyone who buys them will become instantly known, and that will undoubtedly lead back to us. Yes, the builders—these creatures about to wage planetary or regional war—may simply forgive us for upsetting their carefully laid plans. Or they may not. I may be strong on L-3, but compared to the beings who own these weapons, I am but … but a scab, much like you. I am afraid, Captain Calos, that you have stolen items which will be impossible to sell safely, and unbelievably dangerous to hold. The mere knowledge of their existence could spell our doom.”

“But, Dal, this cannot be. They are worth a fortune!”

Dal leaned back even more in his chair and waved a hand at Lopsen. “Then, by all means, Captain Calos, take the weapons, and you sell them. You are a being of intelligence and ability. Such action is not beyond you. You are welcome to try.”

“I, I do not have the resources for such a transaction. And if you are correct, even selling a few will advertise the fact that I have more.”

“And now you grasp my dilemma.” Dal leaned forward, locking his dark eyes on the captain. “I maintain a very careful balance on L-3 and in The Zone. I cater to all sides of the transaction, from salvagers and suppliers, to starship power modules, to the buying and selling of the riches coming out of the dead worlds. I also maintain the largest—and most secretive—pirate fleet in the region. I must maintain my cover as a semi-legitimate business-being else I lose one or both of my operations. Either I become a renegade pirate, or I remain a respected operator of various planet-side businesses. At the moment, I have it both ways. However, the special gift you have brought me today has put all that in jeopardy. So, what am I to do with you, and with your fifty containers of deadly energy rifles?”

“I, I do not know.”

“They are on Masnin?”

Lopsen nodded. “Well hidden underground.”

“Good, let them remain there. Now, tell me, Captain Calos, who initiated the original salvage? You say a being came from L-3 and that he knew what he was looking for, at least partially?”

“That is correct. He knew the exact warehouse to search.”

“I assume he and his crew are no more?”

“Yes, Dal. As protocol, we removed all evidence of the raid.”

“Who was he, this lead salvager?”

“I do not know him specifically, but from a species survey, I believe him to be a Human.”

Once again, Dal sat transfixed, staring at Lopsen with an expressionless face. When he spoke again, his voice was even lower than normal and lacking any of its usual singsong quality. It was now as cold as ice.

“A Human? Was his crew Human as well?”

“No, an assortment.”

“And you are sure this Human is dead?”

Lospen hesitated only a second, but it was enough for Dal to notice.

“Is there a question?” Dal asked.

“I did not supervise the removal of the bodies. I am the captain; I have others who do that. But all the crew and security forces were killed. We set a trap and surprised them from behind. Everyone onsite was killed and disposed of in space. I assure you.”

“Yet, you cannot verify the death of the Human?”

“Not personally.”

Dal took a deep breath. “It is too late now to verify. This is something I will have to accept unless other information comes forth. But you say the Human knew the location of the weapons?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Then we are in luck, Captain Calos, for I just happen to know where the Humans on Liave-3 congregate. It is conveniently located at the same place they run a salvage business.”

“The other Humans know of the weapons!”

“It would appear so. Fortunately for you, Captain Calos, that may be a benefit to us.”

Lospen frowned. “I do not understand. How can the Humans knowing of the weapons help us?”

“Leave that to me. Are all the weapons on Masnin?”

“No, I have four containers on my ship.”

“The ship you have at the Kanac Spaceport?” Dal let out a deep sigh.

“Yes.”

“And your crew, where is your crew?”

“Some are aboard, while others were released for leisure time. I was anticipating unloading the containers at the spaceport … for you.”

“Collect your crew, all of them. Make sure they have not spoken to anyone regarding the weapons. If any have, find out to whom and let me know. Then you are to leave Liave-3 and return to Masnin. Unload your cargo and then wait there for my instructions. None of your crew are to be let off your ship, not until I say so.”

Lopsen stood up, anxious to leave the office. He reached for the case and the super energy rifle.

“Leave that here. And make sure none of the weapons are removed from your ship or from Masnin. I hope now you realize how dangerous that could be. Are my instructions clear?”

“Perfectly, Dal. Again, I apologize for my shortsightedness. I did not think the matter through completely. I will make amends.”

Dal smiled, although it did not convey humor. “I know you will, Captain Calos. I know you will.”


15

Riyad didn’t feel guilty about not telling Sherri and Adam about what salvage Jay was after, at least not a lot. Yes, he had one of the superweapons, but he was only going to reveal its existence to justify the expense of the operation, to give him time to sell the rifles and make his profit. But with no salvage to sell, it would have only infuriated his friends more to know he’d sponsored a gunrunning operation. He left the store as soon as possible, knowing that if he stayed any longer he would have been forced to tell them about the weapons.

Now he was in the one thing the team had retained from their affiliation with the Arieel Bol and the Formilians; a Bokiss-Class starship which Sherri cryptically named the Tirrell Joyner. The ship wasn’t a cargo hauler, but it was armed—and to the teeth. Considering how dangerous it was to transit The Zone, Riyad felt he could handle just about anything that came his way in the Joyner. And in his present mood, he was actually hoping someone would challenge him. He hadn’t killed an alien in a long time. He was having withdrawals.

And now he was depressed, having screwed up big time, risking not only the best freighter they had but thousands of credits worth of supplies, as well as the life of a friend. And all in pursuit of a potential payoff. Sure, it would have been a substantial payoff, but that was beside the point. He should have let Adam and Sherri know what he was doing. That would have been the right thing to do.

As he neared Hax’on, he had the location of the manufacturing facility on his screen. Jay had given him the coordinates before he left as a sign of good faith. Riyad sighed. He wasn’t holding out much hope that Jay and his crew were alive. Although many pirate raids resulted in nothing more than stolen goods without the loss of life, he knew that when weapons were involved, no one was left to talk about it. He came to Hax’on on the very slim chance that the Ed Gibson would be sitting on the surface, abandoned by the pirates. It could even have been damaged in the raid to a point where it couldn’t fly. That would be okay, too. Kaylor and Jym could get it going again, of that he was sure. Return of the ship would appease Adam and Sherri, to a degree.

He was also hoping to find some leads as to who attacked Jay and his people. Most pirate raids were accepted and quickly forgotten since there was no governing authority in The Zone to investigate the crimes. Maybe the pirates got careless. All Riyad needed was a thread to follow. And if he did manage to locate the pirates who did this, then it seemed only fair that they should donate one of their larger ships as compensation for the Ed Gibson. And Riyad wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He brought the Formilian warship down through the atmosphere then circled above the vast grounds of the facility, getting his bearings. He could see clearly the patchwork of warehouses set off by themselves, which in better times, would have been full of product awaiting shipment to various parts of the galaxy. Unfortunately, he didn’t see any starships resting on the ground. A detailed surface scan using the magnification feature also failed to pick up any bodies strewn about. Like good little pirates, the killers picked up after themselves.

After scanning the scene below for a few minutes, another possibility came to Riyad. He set the ship down on the surface so he could investigate his newly formed suspicions.

Wearing a heavy protective suit, Riyad began to walk along the rows of grey buildings. He didn’t have to search them all; only a relative few showed signs of having been opened. However, what piqued his curiosity from the air only made him more so on the ground.

Jay said there was a single container of superweapons at the facility. However, more than a dozen of the warehouses had their doors blasted open, and by something that launched bolts similar to the super rifle he’d fired on Liave-3. Why would they have to do that, when Jay already had the combination to the warehouse with the single storage container?

After inspecting a number of the open buildings—and finding them empty—a very disturbing thought clouded Riyad’s conspiratorial mind.

Perhaps his good friend Jay Williford had lied to him.

Standing there in the dead silence of the vacant warehouses, Riyad pursed his lips, growing angrier by the moment—at himself. Why had he simply accepted the fact that there was only one container of superweapons? Who does that, anyway; go through all the time, development and money to create such a superior weapon and then only manufacture four hundred of them? In hindsight, it was naive of him to think that was all there were. And now, looking at the gaping doorways of the warehouses—and all isolated to a single area of the facility—he had no idea how many weapons there truly were. It had to be in the thousands, tens of thousands. Enough to supply a war.

Why would Jay lie to him? The answer was obvious: so he could keep the bulk of the weapons for himself. But to get away with it would require the ultimate ruse, such as a fake attack by anonymous pirates and the death of everyone involved.

Riyad wasn’t buying it, at least not any longer. Jay swindled him. He’d taken all the weapons for himself and even stolen the Ed Gibson.

However, Riyad knew how much decon foam Jay had with him, and it wasn’t enough to even come close to cleaning a dozen warehouses worth of shipping containers. Unless the warehouses had kept the pods radiation-free; that was a possibility. Or perhaps Jay made other arrangements to haul the hot cargo. But to where?

The only possibility that came to mind was Dasnon. Sure, it wasn’t as populated as Liave-3, but it was deep in The Zone, and another of the oasis planets passed over by Kracion. Jay could stash his cargo there until he could sell the weapons. And he could take his time. After all, who would be looking for him? He’s supposed to be dead and the cargo lost, never to be seen again.

At this point, the details didn’t matter. Riyad was convinced Jay was behind this, and that he’d played Riyad for a sucker. The hustler had been hustled.

Riyad spent another thirty minutes on the planet before returning to his ship. He couldn’t let Jay get away with this, and the highlight of Riyad’s ruminating was that there was a good chance the Ed Gibson was okay, and just sitting somewhere waiting for him to find it. That would go a long way to patching things up with his partners. And above all else, that was Riyad’s main priority. That, and killing Jay Williford—for real this time.


16

The fact that the pirate ship returned to Kanac with its payload of prototype weapons confirmed Jay’s suspicions that the city was the raiders’ base of operation. And since they had intimate knowledge of his salvage operation, it was also a given they knew his identity. To show up in public could be a problem. Pirates didn’t like witnesses.

Keeping the oversize coat covering his head, Jay made it into the spaceport admin building. The rest of the property was fenced to keep stray dinosaurs from entering the grounds. For pedestrian traffic, the building was the only way in or out of the property.

As he entered, he was nervous as a cat. Pirates didn’t wear uniforms identifying their occupation; they could be anyone. And Jay was fairly well-known in Kanac. He’d been working either security or engaging in salvage operations for over a year, and Humans weren’t that common on L-3. He stood out like a sore thumb.

He had to find a place to hide; however, he had no money, and the only true friends he had were several miles away in Balamar, through open jungle too dangerous to cross on foot. Jay would have to make it into Kanac instead and hopefully get lost in the mad crush of the frenetic population.

Jay did have one ace up his sleeve, someone who might provide him shelter or at least front him the money for a ride into Balamar. He was the broker Jay was working with to sell the weapons. He had a couple of offices in the area, one in Kanac and the other in Balamar. With luck, he would be in the boomtown, where most of his activities took place. Getting to his office without being recognized would be the issue.

Kanac had almost magically appeared out of the forest two years before, following a huge fire that started near where the spaceport now sat. When monsoon rains finally extinguished the flames, a large swath of the jungle was clear, and enterprising individuals moved in to erect prefab structures, providing a place for the recent refugees and other transients to stay. The city grew from there, following no civic plan. With the proliferation of cold fusion reactors for power and ample rainfall in the area, buildings were placed just about anywhere without regard to utility hookup or even sewer considerations.

It was after Kracion disappeared, making it safe to reenter The Dead Zone, that the population of Kanac exploded. Within a relatively short number of light-years were a hundred worlds, each of which once supported advanced civilizations, along with all the trappings that went with that distinction. And everything was sitting there, waiting to be reaped.

Now even Kanac couldn’t keep up with the influx of fortune hunters, as well as the peripheral industries that supported them. Six other settlements were experiencing similar booms, although Kanac was still the largest; however, unlike some of the newer cities—which were employing at least some semblance of planning in their development—Kanac was a big, ugly, smelly mess. And add to this the fact that there was no law on Liave-3, and you had the makings of a disaster waiting to happen.

Jay came to the city with his ex-friend David Lender, two of the thousands of beings from across the galaxy with dollar signs in their eyes. Of course, for the bulk of the Milky Way, that meant Juirean credits. Either way, it was the lure of easy money that built Kanac. It would eventually be its downfall.

It was hot in the city—it was always hot—and Jay’s coat/cloak only made it worse. Not only that, but he’d worn the same undergarment and bulky overalls for almost a week. He’d used whatever hidden corner in the sub-gravity barrier corridors to urinate and defecate, but the smell still lingered on him. Fortunately, all aliens had a particular odor; his just happened to be especially overpowering.

He was jostled by the constantly moving crowds along the muddy streets, many of whom expressed their displeasure at being so close to him. As a Human, and therefore smaller than the bulk of other aliens, he was often pushed into the street to keep his offensive smell away. This had the benefit of keeping him anonymous. No one paid him much attention, preferring to put as much distance between them and the walking cesspool as possible.

Jay made it to the broker’s building an hour after leaving the spaceport. There was no security, so he entered and climbed the first flight of stairs. However, when he entered the outer office, the assistant stood up suddenly and aggressively, demanding that the bum leave the premises.

Removing the coat, the assistant recognized him. His name was Cazaa; he frowned and nearly puked.

“Mon Jay, I could smell your approach up the stairs. What has happened to you?”

“It’s a long story. Is he in?”

“He is; however, I suspect you will not be welcome.”

“Just let him know I’m here.”

A moment later, Cazaa opened the inner door to the office and backed away.

Lion/El sat behind his desk, dressed in his customary purple coat, one of his four hands clutching an orange-colored drink.

“I wondered what that smell was. Now I am told it is you. I do not know for how long I can tolerate.”

“I need your help, Lion/El.”

“Indeed … to a washing.” The face of the fat, short alien then brightened. “You had embarked on the recovery of the weapons! Have you returned with them? That would be a most pleasing result.”

Cazaa came into the room, carrying a pile of mismatched clothing. He dropped them on the floor next to Jay. “These are surplus. Please change into them so I can burn your existing clothing. I will wait outside.”

Jay didn’t argue. He began to undress, experiencing no embarrassment at stripping in front of the alien. It was like changing in front of your dog. He continued talking as he changed clothes.

“We hit a snag. Raiders attacked us. All of my team was killed except for me. And they took the weapons.”

“Then, the operation has failed?”

“For now.” Jay could see Lion/El had no sympathy for the loss of life. All he cared about was the salvage and his commission.

“How did you return to L-3?”

“I stowed away aboard the main pirate ship. It landed here at Kanac.”

“It did?”

“Yeah, and there’s more. I think I know where the weapons were taken. And not only that, but there may be a lot more treasure there than just the weapons. I think I’ve found where the pirates are storing all their stolen goods. It’s all there for the taking.”

Lion/El’s face turned red, and he shook his head. “I see not why you feel our prospects have improved. This location you speak of must be a raider stronghold.”

Jay finished dressing then carried his soiled clothing into the front office, tossing them onto Cazaa’s desk. He wasn’t sure if the change of clothes helped; he could still smell himself. It was pretty gross.

Back in Lion/El’s office, he resumed his briefing. “It’s somewhere on L-7, not far from here. They’re probably storing things in some of the larger mines. Although the planet has a pretty thin atmosphere, I understand some of them are pressurized and have recycled air. There can’t be many like that.”

“Are you proposing venturing into what is essentially the pirate’s bank and stealing from them? There will be guards.”

“Sure, but a small security force could probably take them out if we come in unseen. Just think of it, Lion/El. Not only the weapons but a lot of other stuff.”

“It is too risky.”

“Too risky … for a forty million credit payoff?”

Lion/El blinked several times. “I … I do not understand. You said the weapons were worth two million. Are you assuming we take everything the pirates have accumulated? That would be insanity and require an army … and a fleet.”

“I’m just talking about the weapons.”

“I do not understand.”

“I underestimated the number. There’s something like twenty thousand of them, not twenty-four hundred. And get this, they have all been taken from Hax’on and moved into the Liave system, less than an hour by spaceship from here. Convenient, wouldn’t you say?”

Lion/El couldn’t decide whether this was good news or not, and the erratic bobbing of his head conveyed that fact. “There are still guards. And, and twenty thousand weapons would require larger and numerous transports.”

“Which you could get for us,” Jay said, pacing the room, refusing to sit. He’d been cooped up in a tiny airlock for the past five days. And now he was too excited to relax. “Just think, no one’s going to get upset if we raid the pirate’s secret hideaway.”

“None but the pirates.”

“That’s true, but once it’s done, there’s not much they can do to get their treasure back. They’ve been stealing from the salvagers of Liave-3 for years. No one’s going to feel sorry for them.”

“But … the logistics. And the risk.”

“No pain, no gain, as they say on my planet.”

“Humans are known to be insane. This only proves it.”

Jay had dealt with the broker before, and he knew that eventually, the idea of making millions of credits would win him over. He would let the idea simmer with Lion/El, at least until he had a chance to hook up with Riyad and the others. At the moment, Jay needed a bath and some food, as well as a safe place to stay.

“Just think about what I’ve told you,” Jay said. “In the meantime, can you get me a room and something to eat? And since the pirates came to Kanac, I don’t want to be seen in public. They think I’m dead.”

Lion/El hesitated.

“C’mon, buddy. Don’t you want to make a shitload of credits?”

“Pardon? I … I do not know if I do, not if the translation I just heard is correct.”

“It means a whole lot of credits, more than you’ve ever imagined.”

Lion/El sighed deeply. “I will place you in a secure location, temporarily. I imagine you will be contacting your fellow Humans, enlisting their assistance, especially Riyad Tarazi. He will not be happy to learn of the failure of his current sponsorship. Will he wish to help a second time?”

“It will be his loss if he doesn’t, leaving more for the two of us. After I get cleaned up and fed, we’ll take a drive over to Balamar. You’re pretty good friends with Sherri and Adam. It would go a long way in getting their help if you were with me.”

“I am not that good of friends,” Lion/El admitted. “However, I will consider your offer. But for now, please leave my office. Cazaa will show you where to go. Do not return until you smell better.”


17

After Jay left, Lion/El spent the next several minutes in silent contemplation. He was anguished, the choices before him greater than any in his life.

On the one hand, the Human had a point. Lion/El had the potential to make millions of credits by assisting him. But did he really? He knew things which the Human did not, factors that negated much of what he had said.

Yes, the raiders used the planet Masnin to stage their bounty prior to sale. Few beings in The Dead Zone knew this. Unfortunately, Lion/El was one of them. And it was because of that fact that everything else Jay Williford said—about the guns, about the hidden treasure, about raiding the raiders—did not matter.

Lion/El was born on Liave-3 many years ago in the coastal settlement of Balamar, and long before the planet became the center of the universe. His birth parents came here looking for a new start, a place where they would be accepted by the other immigrants who had settled this unknown land. He’d grown up with pet dinosaurs, and with friends who had long since departed, either dead or driven away by the ugliness that L-3 had become.

Lion/El survived because he had a different mindset. He knew everyone and everything that happened in Balamar and the neighboring communities, becoming one of the premier facilitators; a being who could get things done. The problem was there wasn’t a lot that needed doing in quiet Balamar in those early days.

Several years ago—before the time of Kracion—a renegade Human starship repair technician named Copernicus Smith established a small shipyard and repair facility just south of Balamar, along the picturesque coast. For a few years, he helped bring relative prosperity to Balamar, spending credits to clean it up and make it a more attractive place to live. But then that ended abruptly when a Juirean warship landed at the shipyard without warning. After that, Copernicus was never seen again, and Balamar regressed back to its former state.

Then the Mad Aris Kracion arrived in the Kidis Frontier.

The tiny planetary population lived in fear for many months, too poor to afford passage off the planet and with no resources others found worth defending.

In the end, Kracion decided Liave-3 wasn’t worth the bombs and passed them by. At first, those on the planet were relieved, but then reality set in. This entire region of the Kidis Frontier was now a wasteland, and the planet fell off the transit lines, depriving the population of fresh supplies and even the little commerce that had once helped sustain the fledgling communities. Food processors ran out of stock, fusion reactors of pellets, and even the few short-range starships based on the planet saw their power modules drain away to nothing. The people of L-3 returned to a more primitive existence, hunting for food and cooking over open fires.

Then suddenly, it all changed.

It began with the arrival of a dozen refugee ships from the surrounding systems; however, this only made the situation worse. The refugees fled from their homes with barely the clothes on their backs—except for the incredible wealth they carried in the form of Juirean credits, precious metals, and other trinkets of immeasurable value. Financial lords and powerful politicians were the first to arrive, having looted their institutions on the way off their homeworlds. The problem came when they found nothing on Liave-3 worth buying.

For the time being, most of the refugees stayed aboard their ships, since no accommodations were available for them elsewhere. Then a few enterprising individuals pooled their fuel mods and sent ships to other parts of the Frontier to buy more. Soon they returned, and the first wave of refugees left the planet with their recharged starships, moving farther into the Expansion in search of worlds where their wealth meant something.

That was about the time one of the refugee ships crashed just inland from Balamar, with the subsequent fire clearing a small section of the jungle, creating the first traces of what would become the Kanac Spaceport.

Dal Divisen arrived a month later.

He was a refugee himself, but not from the dead worlds. Although his past was mostly a mystery, Lion/El learned that he came from a planet on the side of the Expansion, having once been a successful entrepreneur with a somewhat seedy reputation. His reasons for leaving were clouded, but Lion/El got the impression it was not Dal’s choice to do so.

Lion/El and Dal paired up almost immediately, as the new arrival began scouting land to purchase around the recently cleared crash site. Through Lion/El, he made an offer on a large tract of jungle, stretching from the clearing northward toward the foothills. Members of the local council in Gantoc were confused, wondering what one would want with such a vast region of nearly impenetrable jungle? They even questioned whether or not they had the authority to sell him the land. No one owned the jungle, and there was no legal authority with jurisdiction. That’s when Lion/El pointed out that Dal was offering them half-a-million credits for a tract of worthless land. Whether they had the authority to sell the land or not didn’t matter. Dal was willing to pay, and all they had to do was take his credits.

Documents were drawn up which appeared legal, and then they were placed in the archives in Gantoc. The papers remain there to this day, having never been challenged.

A month after the transaction was finalized—and the credits shared secretly among the top members of the council, Lion/El included—a massive fire once more ravaged the area. The fire burned for nearly thirty days until the monsoon rains extinguished the blaze. When it was over, nearly all of Dal’s land was now cleared of jungle. The area of the current spaceport occupied the bulk of the flat lowlands, and what would become the city of Kanac began a little further inland and up into the hills.

Lion/El always suspected Dal of starting the fire.

Dal Divisen was instrumental in securing the first major shipments of building materials—mostly prefab construction—that soon began to take shape as the nascent beginnings of a town built over the ashes of the great fire. Two years later, fifty thousand beings reside in Kanac, with hundreds more arriving daily to stake their claim to the dead worlds. Either that or die trying, which was the more likely outcome.

Since that first questionable transaction, Lion/El and Dal had worked closely together. As a result, he knew all of Dal’s secrets, including the fact that he controlled the major raider operations in The Zone. Lion/El knew of the planet Masnin and the treasure stored there, plus a lot more about Dal’s nefarious activities.

And that was why Lion/El had no other option than to link with Dal and tell him what knew of the Human, Jay Williford. He relaxed somewhat when he realized there never was any real possibility of him brokering the deal for the weapons, and especially not twenty thousand of them. And he would never dream of raiding Masnin. That was just crazy talk.

But he was dealing with a Human, and the species was not known for their sane and rational thoughts or deeds.

The Dead Worlds

After Dal cut the link with Lion/El, he was on the verge of a major emotional eruption. His species was known for their volatile tempers; however, Dal had learned to control his, at least most of the time. But this situation pushed his limits. Not only had someone survived the raid on Hax’on, but it was a Human, and one closely associated with Adam Cain. But what upset Dal the most was he’d learned the secret of the planet Masnin. And now the Human had the gall to contemplate a raid on his storage facility on the planet. What made Humans so unstable?

After taking a moment to calm down, Dal set about putting plans in motion. First, he linked with this security force on Masnin and gave them instructions. Next, he located Captain Calos. He was still on Liave-3, apparently having trouble rounding up his pirate crew and learning if any had spoken of the weapons. That tidbit of information only made Dal angrier. He instructed Calos to come to his office for a second meeting.

The next link was to other specialists Dal had in his employ. There was another loose end needing tending. And thanks to Lion/El, he knew right where to send the tailors.


18

Adam Cain was pissed, which was rapidly becoming a habit for him.

He wasn’t a businessman; never had been. He was a soldier, part of a venerable organization that had century-long traditions and procedures. If he needed an answer, all he had to do was look up a reg. Even SEAL operations were run by a set of principles and guidelines, although sometimes it took improvisation for mission success. Even then, it was by the book.

However, running a series of businesses was turning out to be much more challenging than anything he’d ever done before. And now with Riyad off checking on the fate of his secret salvage operation, Adam was covering the outfitting business, while dividing his time running Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill. The only consolation: it was obvious Riyad had the same problem running a business as Adam did. His books were a mess, and now Adam was trying to make sense of them.

Sherri would be fit to be tied if she ever took a close look at how Riyad ran his side of the partnership. He was way over budget and operating at a deficit. He’d bought too much useless supplies and equipment, while fronting the costs of a dozen salvages over the past six months, with only three making a profit. But one thing Adam gave him, he was creative with his bookkeeping. But it all went bust with his sponsorship of Jay’s last operation. Not only were lives lost, but also valuable equipment and a starship. That was something from which the partnership may never recover. As Adam scrolled through the computer files, it was evident the outfitting business would have to close before it bankrupted them all.

The customers who entered the store at that moment were more a distraction to Adam than a potential source of income, at least they were in his current state of mind. But when first one alien entered, followed by another and then another, Adam took note. Something other than salvage equipment was on the minds of his guests.

There was soon more of a variety of aliens in one place than Adam had seen in quite a while, and nearly all physically fit and imposing creatures. As a precaution, Adam surreptitiously unfastened the safety loop on his MK-47 flash weapon, which he now wore every day. By the time the first group of aliens approached the counter at the back of the building, Adam counted seventeen of them in the store.

A tall, slender, yellow-skinned alien wearing a pair of dark, wraparound sunglasses stepped to the front of the entourage.

“Are you Tarazi?” It was more of a demand than a question, spoken by someone used to giving orders.

“No, I’m not. He’s not here at the moment. What can I do for you?”

The alien studied Adam for a moment through the dark lenses. “You are a Human, as is Tarazi. Are you affiliated?”

“Yeah, we own the store together. What’s this about?”

More of the hulky aliens moved in, flanking Adam.

“I will be direct,” said the alien. “Where are my weapons?”

Adam was taken aback. That was the last thing he expected him to say.

“Weapons? What weapons?”

“You know what weapons I speak of. This company supplied the salvage equipment; you may also be the instigators of the recovery operation.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Adam stood a little straighter, sizing up the competition. Seventeen was pushing it. But then it dawned on him; they wanted information, and until they knew if he could help, they probably wouldn’t try to kill him. Lucky for them.

Another alien stepped up to the counter. He was of a different race than Sunglasses, tall, muscular and imposing. A professional soldier; Adam had seen enough of them in his lifetime to know.

“I believe you know more than you are suggesting,” he said. “Next door is a tavern. Several days ago, there was a shooting there. Do you recall?”

“Yeah, everyone does. What does that have to do with anything?”

Soldier-Boy looked at Sunglasses, and they shared a thought.

“Too coincidental,” said Sunglasses. “You do know where my weapons are; there is no denying it.”

Adam shook his head. “I can see you guys are upset, but I’m serious when I tell you I don’t know anything about any weapons. You’re obviously operating on some bad information. Sorry, but I can’t help you.”

“Tarazi,” said Soldier-Boy to Sunglasses. He nodded.

“You say Tarazi is not here. Where is he?” asked the yellow-skinned leader.

That was it for Adam. Either they were going to fight or not. He would just as soon find out without having to go through all this superfluous bullshit.

“That’s none of your business. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ask all of you to leave. I’m trying to run a business here, and if you’re not going to buy anything, then get the hell out.”

Sunglasses puffed out his chest. “You are an arrogant Human, as I have heard is a quality of your race. Do you not understand the danger you are in?”

Soldier-Boy pressed his way in front of Sunglasses. “He understands, Sirous. He is just overconfident regarding his abilities.” The alien stared into Adam’s eyes. “My organization has had much contact with your kind in the past. As a result, I understand the dynamic we face. I came with adequate force, as you can see.”

“You’re Gradis, aren’t you?”

Soldier-Boy nodded approvingly. “You are astute. But are you also rational? That is the question we will soon answer—”

“The customer complaint department is currently closed for business,” said a feminine voice near the front door.

Heads turned to find Sherri Valentine standing in the front doorway; a Xan-fi flash rifle cradled confidently in her hands.

The Cartel captain grinned before turning back to Adam. “Two against my troops is still not sufficient. All a battle will leave are casualties. That is not what we desire. All we want are our weapons returned.”

“I keep telling you, we don’t have your weapons or know anything about them.”

Soldier-Boy nodded. “Now, I believe you; however, your partner Tarazi surely does.” He turned back toward a serious-looking Sherri. “Knowing Humans—and coupled with the seriousness of the situation—I was prompted to take extra precautions before coming here. I see now my instincts were correct.”

Shadows passed behind Sherri. Through the open doorway, more Cartel troops appeared, each armed with Xan-fis. Soldier-Boy turned back to Adam.

“Is this a fight you wish to press? Even if you die in the exchange, we will wait for Tarazi’s return. You will have gained nothing. Please think carefully about your next move.”

“All right,” said Adam. “What happens next? I don’t know when Riyad will be back, and I’m not sure I would feel right letting him walk into a trap. Any suggestions?”

Soldier-Boy looked at Sunglasses—Sirous, as he’d been called earlier. “Hostages? Leverage for when their partner returns?”

“That would be appropriate, Pannel.”

Pannel! Soldier-Boy was named Pannel. Adam really wished people would introduce themselves at the beginning …

Pannel turned to Adam, a satisfied grin on his face. “And that is how reasonable beings negotiate. Please remove your weapons. You are to be taken away and held hostage until your partner complies.”

Adam grimaced. “Yeah, I also don’t think I’d feel right about that, either. As an alternative, why don’t all your people leave and none of you will get hurt.”

Pannel looked disappointed. He shook his head. “I implore you. Do not resist.”

“Too late.”

Sherri reacted first, as she tumbled to the side, breaking the targeting lock on the Xan-fis. The aliens outside opened up with their flash rifles, sending white-hot bolts into the interior. But with Sherri hiding behind the front wall, all the bolts did was kill three of the soldiers in the store. Two of the Cartel fighters reacted to the killing of their companions, not sure where the bolts came from. They fired through the open doorway and into the street. The confusion only lasted a second before the troops began searching for their real targets. Some lived long enough to focus their attention on Sherri. Most didn’t, as the hot-headed blonde rapid fired into the crowd of enemy troops.

With everyone distracted by the firefight at the entrance, Adam grabbed Pannel and pulled him over the counter and onto the floor. He placed a glancing blow to the side of the alien’s face. The slightly-off-target hit saved the alien’s life. Even so, he was now unconscious and out of the fight.

The wall behind Adam became awash with bolt strikes, setting some of the wood on fire and sending a small cascade of embers down on him. Adam pulled his MK from its holster before sitting down on the floor and kicking at the bottom panel of the counter. The wood gave way, opening up a jagged hole. He twisted around and began firing through the opening, aiming at the legs of the aliens spread throughout the store.

But his targets were moving, using the mishmash of equipment, displays and clothing racks for cover. A few of the Cartel troops fell as their legs were shot out from under them. Adam finished them off with more direct shots.

His upgraded ’47 had a level-2 bolt charge of fifteen; even so, he was dry only seconds after the attack began. He reached back and pulled another battery pack out of a loop in his utility belt. Just then, a pair of burly aliens flew over the counter and landed on him. Each had heavy metal clubs in their hands. They began to wail on Adam. Even though the aliens were weaker than a Human, the clubs were more effective than if they’d used their fists. Adam was stunned, but he managed to roll to his side and free up an arm. He blocked the next blow and then landed a fist into the chin of one of his attackers: one hit, one kill. Now there was only one more on this side of the counter to deal with.

Adam worked his legs in front of him, bracing his feet on the alien’s chest. He pushed with all his might, sending the lightweight, thin-boned creature flying into the air. He hit the back wall and rebounded, smashing his head into the edge of the counter as he fell. Adam rolled over again and peered through the hole.

He couldn’t see Sherri.

He stood up, poking his head just above counter level, looking for her. Two brilliant flashes blinded him momentarily as bolts splashed nearby. Armed soldiers were still in the store, and in position to cover the counter.

“Sherri! Are you all right?”

No answer. Shit!

Out of desperation, Adam crawled to the end of the counter and looked into the store. It was hard to see, as a thick cloud of white smoke now filled the interior, the residual effect of dozens of bolt launches. He crouched, preparing to make a run toward the side door, leading into Cain’s. That’s when he saw stars and tasted the dirt, his head bouncing off the floor.

A moment later, he was rolled over, his mind in a daze but able to make out faces. The Cartel leader Pannel was standing over him, his mouth draining blood and the left side of his face swollen and red. He was also holding a metal club in his hand, like one carried by his recently deceased troops.

Slowly shaking off the cobwebs, Adam realized his hands were being clad in heavy metal shackles.

“Special restraints,” said Pannel. “You see, I know my prey, aware of the phenomenal strength your savage species has exhibited in the past.”

“Sherri? Where’s Sherri?”

“The female was shot, yet, as you well know, it did not kill her. Rather, it turned her into a raving beast. She has subsequently been subdued and restrained. The two of you will now be taken to a location in Kanac and held there until your companion returns. At that time, he will cooperate; otherwise you and the female will die.” Pannel shook his head. “You have suffered for no reason. A simple surrender would have been better.”

“I thought you knew Humans. We don’t surrender simply.”

Pannel reached up to gently probe his damaged face, grimacing as he did so. “That part of the lesson I apparently missed.” He addressed his subordinates. “Take him away.”


19

Nineteen miles away in Kanac, Jay Williford stepped from the shower in the small, bare-bones room Lion/El set up for him. He was revitalized, and now, with only a towel wrapped around his still dripping torso, he sat at a small round table where a tray of processed food waited.

Although feeling refreshed, he still had a lot of troubling thoughts rumbling around in his mind. It all seemed so overwhelming. But at least now he had an ally and someone who knew his way around Kanac and Liave-3. The rotund, four-armed alien had resources as well. If Riyad wouldn’t join him in another attempt at recovering the superweapons, then Jay had a backup.

After eating, he put on the pants Cazaa provided, finding them much more comfortable and not as smelly the second time around.

The room he was in was much like the bulk of Kanac’s transient residences. Four basic walls made of a composite material that fit together like an erector set. Not a lot of building trades were represented in the diverse population of the city, so the simplest method was often the best. Just slap some structures together, run a power line from a nearby cold fusion reactor, and you were in business. Most of the buildings also had cisterns on their roofs to collect the ample rainwater that then fed through pipes embedded in the walls. Sewage was flushed through a central pipe and dumped into the closest stream or river. Other than that, there wasn’t much more to do. Beds were made of chopped foam, and the furniture was either snap-together or constructed out of local materials by street urchins trying to make a few extra credits.

As mentioned, this was how the bulk of the citizens of Kanac lived. The more affluent were up the hill, in much nicer accommodations. Jay stood at the small open window, allowing a light breeze to dry and cool his body; there was no heat or air conditioning in the room. From here, he could see where the wealthy lived, thinking that someday that could be him.

Then he caught himself. Hell, if I make this score, Kanac is the last place I’d want to live. He could even return to Earth with enough credits to live like a king for the rest of his life. And for sure, he’d track down his old buddy, David Lender, just to rub it in.

A creaking sound distracted him from his reverie at the window. A problem with this type of construction was that it wasn’t very sturdy. There was a constant symphony of noises that made it hard to sleep, although he doubted he’d have much trouble tonight. It was nearly a week since he slept in a real bed, and that had been a bunk aboard the Ed Gibson. Even the basic pad in the hotel room was better than that.

However, unlike other sounds, these seemed to be getting closer to Jay’s door. He was suddenly alert, snapping back to the reality that he was in a lot of danger being in Kanac and with a ship-full of killer pirates roaming the streets. Had they found him? Did the creaking portend an attack?

Jay slipped on the shoes Cazaa had given him and was just pulling the alien t-shirt over his head when the door to his room shattered inward. He dove for the floor on the other side of the bed as four grey-skinned aliens burst in, each armed with deadly MK-17 bolt launchers. Flares shot out, striking the bed and setting it on fire.

Jay grabbed for the leg of the small table, where moments before he’d downed the brown mush that served as food in the alien universe. The table wasn’t heavy; few things were heavy for a Human on Liave-3.

Jay pulled the table to him, and then with one hand, hurled it over the burning bed at his attackers. They dodged the incoming with aplomb, yet it was enough of a distraction for Jay to jump up and get moving. He was athletic, twenty-five-years-old, toned and muscular. He was also quick and coordinated, at least by alien standards, even if he wasn’t a trained fighter. He’d been a helmsman in the Navy, which didn’t provide him with a lot of experience in hand-to-hand combat; however, his time in the bars of Kanac gave him a little taste of what it was like to fight the standard alien. With a sadist grin, Jay jumped, thinking to himself, this is going to be fun.

It was anything but.

He body-slammed the first alien hitman, his heavier-than-expected weight toppling the assailant and throwing him into another of the attackers. His advantage lasted a total of three seconds before the other two fell on top of him. With frantic hands, Jay reached for any alien body part he could find. Grasping the fingers of a hand, he twisted with all his strength, evoking an ear-piercing screech of pain from one of the grey creatures. Next he lashed out with a knee, catching another in the rib cage. Something snapped, accompanied by another guttural grown.

But now the other two were hitting him, using their MKs as clubs. He took a decent blow to the forehead that momentarily stunned him. Fortunately, he stumbled back into the second unhurt assassin, knocking him off balance. Jay recovered before the alien with the weapon could strike again.

Aliens weren’t only weaker than the typical Human, they also had slower reactions, and in the heat of battle, as Jay’s eye and hand coordination increased, it was as if his attackers shifted into slow motion while he became The Flash. Each thrown punch was easily blocked or avoided, and the speed of his fists became blurs, often striking tender flesh with not so much as an effort in defense.

The entire attack took less than thirty seconds. By then, all four of his attackers were either dead or severely injured. And that’s when the other four rushed into the room.

These guys were fresh and unhurt. They also came with weapons, sending more brilliant balls of plasma streaking into the room and setting what wasn’t already ablaze on fire.

That was it for Jay. The room was burning, and there was no way out except through the single door, which conveniently was nothing but kindling at this point. He dropped a shoulder and ran forward, crashing into the mass of aliens like a fullback hitting the defensive line. They flew away to either side, allowing him to enter the hallway, where another two aliens were approaching from the main stairway.

He turned in the opposite direction, dodging incoming flash bolts as he made for the end of the corridor. There was no way out, but there was a set of doors to either side. He picked the one on the left and smashed through it as if it was balsa wood—which was a very real possibility on L-3.

Two green aliens huddled on the floor near the opposite wall, cowering in fear from the sounds of the fight taking place down the hall. Bug eyes watched Jay as he sprinted to the window and threw it open. There was no fire escape, but the next building over was only about twenty feet away. He backed up, then quickly gathering his will, ran forward again, jumping through the opening just as more flash bolts raced past him.

Human muscles gave him an extra boost, and he flew through the humid air like Superman. Yes, Jay Williford was finally having his Superman moment.

The problem: he wasn’t Superman, and rather than land with grace and skill on the roof of the adjacent building, he tumbled head-first onto the mold-and-puddle-soaked tar that covered the top of the structure. The heat of the day had turned the black sealant into a sticky mess, which pulled at his thin clothing as he rolled head over heels, coated now in the gooey fluid.

At least he was alive—if he could avoid the flash bolts fired from the window of his former hotel. Fortunately, aliens were miserable shots, relying primarily on targeting computers in their weapons rather than natural ability. The problem with targeting computers was they were notoriously bad against rapidly moving targets. And Jay was moving … rapidly. He ducked behind a water cistern to catch his breath. His attackers wouldn’t—couldn’t—make the leap to the rooftop, and after he was out of sight, they left the window, having to run down four stories to reach the ground floor before moving into the new building. By then, Jay would be long gone.

Jay jumped up and ran, long-jumping to another rooftop and then another, putting distance between himself and the killers. At one point, he found an external drainage pipe and used it to slide down to ground level. He was covered in black tar, his shirt barely hanging on his shoulders, and he was bleeding from several places. That’s when he realized he’d been grazed by one of the flash bolts. That was okay; they were firing level-2s. The wound was angry and stung like hell, but it was far from fatal.

He reached one of the main roads for this part of Kanac. The wooden sidewalks were crowded, as they always were, while a few electric-powered transports slogged their way along the muddy thoroughfare. To his surprise, very few people paid him any attention. That was Kanac for you. Its inhabitants came in all shapes, sizes and manner of dress. Perhaps his species coated their clothing and skin in black tar. Who were they to judge? Additionally, the sight of someone being chased down the street by a gang of killers wasn’t that uncommon. Those on the street simply stepped out of the line of fire and continued with their day.

But Jay wasn’t anxious for a rematch with the killers. He had to get away from Kanac, and as fast as he could.

There weren’t a lot of cars on the road, and those that were would be buttoned up as tight as Fort Knox to avoid just what Jay had in mind. With no law on the planet, hijackings were common, so most of the vehicles were essentially armored cars, or they carried security personnel with them inside. Jay had done a stint as vehicular security. It was decent money, but boring as hell.

He focused on a smaller transport heading his direction on the muddy street. It was too small to have a security passenger, but it would undoubtedly be locked. Jay looked around the sidewalk, finding a pile of stones used to weigh down a store sign. He took a large one and stepped out into the street.

The driver sped up, sensing something was up. He wasn’t wrong. Jay raced to catch up, hurling the stone at the back window. It spiderwebbed but didn’t break all the way. Then using his Human speed—and on a slight downslope—Jay caught up with the car and jumped on the back. The vehicle fishtailed, its driver attempting to dislodge his unwanted rider. Jay crashed a forearm into the already cracked window. It gave way, crumbling into the small back seat.

Jay dove head-first through the opening and felt a hot burning pain across his back from the bolt fired by the panicked driver. It hurt like hell but wasn’t enough to slow him down. Jay reached forward and grabbed the gun hand. The driver fired wildly, without regard to the targeting computer, while steering with the other hand. The transport careened into the edge of the sidewalk, tearing up several wooden planks and upending half a dozen pedestrians. The vehicle was going slow enough that most were able to get up and run away. But some didn’t.

Jay was now on his knees in the backseat, twisting the wrist of the driver until the MK fell from his grip.

“Get out!” Jay yelled. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will if I have to.”

The driver didn’t argue at that point. He opened the left side door and rolled out onto the muddy street.

The car began to slow without the driver applying forward pressure on the central joystick. Jay crawled over the single front seat and straddled the controls. Grabbing the stick, he shoved it forward while twisting it slightly to the left, steering the car off the sidewalk and back into the street. He picked up speed, even though his progress was hampered by the ruts and guck in the street. That was fine; it would be better on the less-traveled road leading to Balamar.

The Dead Worlds

Once settled in, Jay reflected on a dangerous truth. The armed and organized killers arrived at the hotel an hour after he left Lion/El’s office and knew exactly where to go. It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that the broker ratted him out. But that didn’t make sense. Why would Lion/El throw away the chance to make millions of credits? And not only that, but the broker knew exactly who to call to get a hit squad up and moving.

Jay chuckled. Of course, he would. He’s Lion/El. That’s why Jay sought him out in the first place; the alien knew everyone and everything. Then it dawned on him. The fat bastard was probably tied in with the raiders. And why wouldn’t he? He dealt with the seediest of the seedy. He was probably even the one who tipped off the raiders to his salvage in the first place. How could Jay have been so stupid?

His only safe refuge was now twenty miles away in Balamar. But how much cover would Adam Cain and his friends provide? Riyad would be apoplectic after learning Jay lost the Ed Gibson, along with thousands of credits in supplies. And with nothing to show for it. Then he flinched. The Ed Gibson actually belonged to the partnership and not just to Riyad. That meant Adam and Sherri might be a little pissed, as well. Maybe more than a little. And now that he’d been found out, his back-up plan to recover the weapons was a bust. They would see him coming from a light-year away, even if he could muster the resources to attempt a raid of his own.

Jay steered the stolen car onto the main road between Kanac and Balamar. It would pass by the spaceport, where undoubtedly the main pirate ship still sat, its crew now aware he survived the attack on Hax’on.

He had about ten minutes before reaching the spaceport, just enough time to decide if it was smarter to continue to Balamar … or better to steal a small speeder and get the hell off the planet.

He decided on Balamar. Like cars in Kanac, starships were well-guarded or had advanced security systems. And he had no weapons … except for his surprising natural Human abilities.

Unfortunately, even Superman would run out of luck at some point. He wasn’t sure if he’d survive another fight-to-the-death so soon after the last one.

The Dead Worlds

It took fifteen minutes after the fact for Dal Divisen to learn of the failed hit at the Human’s hotel. Three of his people were dead, and four were seriously injured. And all from one unarmed alien. He sat at his desk, putting events into perspective. His initial trepidation regarding Adam Cain and the Humans was only reinforced by this recent tragedy. This Jay Williford was supposedly an untrained salvager, whereas Cain is a skilled warrior. If Williford could do what he did to one of Dal’s best crews, what could Cain and the others do if confronted head-on?

That was when the picture became even more muddled.

His comm link chimed; it was Lion/El.

“They failed,” Dal said as soon as the image of the fat alien appeared.

“Who failed?”

“The team I sent to the Human’s room.”

Lion/El was stunned. “Was he … was he forewarned?”

“Not that I am aware. He simply exhibited the latent Human abilities we have all heard of for so long. Experiencing it first-hand is quite disturbing.”

“Then you will find the information I bring you now to be even more so.”

“Explain.”

“I have just been informed that another assault occurred at the Human’s buildings in Balamar, this time concentrated on the salvage business.”

“What do you speak of? Who attacked whom?”

“A sizeable force of what has now been identified as Gradis Cartel personnel attacked the Humans.”

“The Gradis! Why?”

“I do not—”

“I know,” Dal said, the truth hitting him a moment later. “It is because of the weapons. The Cartel must be working with those who own them. They have traced the theft back to Liave-3 and the Humans.”

“Yet, the Humans do not have the weapons.”

“The Cartel does not know that, not yet. We must endeavor that they never find out the truth. Did the Humans repeal the attack?”

“That is the most disturbing part; they did not. Although over half of the Cartel force was killed, Adam Cain and Sherri Valentine are now missing, presumedly taken by the Cartel.”

“The Cartel defeated the Humans?”

“It was not that great a victory, Dal. My sources say there were only the two Humans against over twenty Cartel. The odds were heavily against them.”

Dal cocked his head. “I suppose you are correct. But you say the Humans were taken, not killed?”

“Their bodies were not found.”

“Where is the third Human, the one known as Riyad Tarazi?”

“Unknown. He was not taken, nor is he a casualty.”

Dal snickered. “He is the one who originally sponsored the salvage on Hax’on. He is the one the Cartel is after. And now they have the others to use as leverage.”

“But the Humans do not know who has the weapons.”

“The young one does.”

“The one your people failed to eliminate.”

Dal glared at Lion/El through the screen. “I do not need to be reminded of that.”

“What do we do next?” Lion/El asked.

“Leave that to me. There are weak points in our cover that I am attempting to remedy. But the young Human is a problem. Have your spies watch the buildings in Balamar. Williford will undoubtedly seek shelter there. He cannot know of the attack that just took place. He was too busy killing my people at the time. Order him shot on sight.”

“I will convey the instructions. What are you to do?”

“As I said, there are other weak points needing tending. One such problem should be here any moment. Keep me informed as to the events in Balamar.”


20

Adam Cain was impressed. The shackles the Cartel leader clad them in were heavy-duty, and of better quality than most of the others Adam and Sherri had experienced over the past twenty years. It seems the reputation of the Humans was getting around, to their detriment. Standards didn’t work on them, requiring special precautions.

Adam had run-ins with the Gradis Cartel before, including a time when his immortal, mutant daughter, Lila, nearly eradicated them for good with an attack on their headquarters. But an organization as diverse and decentralized as the Cartel was hard to kill. Within a very short time they’d recovered. And although a very small percentage of their members had first-hand experience with Humans, the stories circulated, to the point where the leader of this particular cell—this Pannel creature—wasn’t taking any chances with his dangerous hostages.

“And we don’t even have our ATDs,” Sherri said cryptically as the pair rode into Kanac, blindfolded and stuck in the back of a cramped transport.

Although Sherri couldn’t see it, Adam shrugged. She was right. For years, Adam and various members of his team had implanted in their bodies brain interface devices created by the Formilians. These Artificial Telepathy Devices—as Adam called them—allowed for telepathic communications, as well as the manipulation of electronic devices containing the ubiquitous Formilian control units. They could also gather static electricity from the air to form intense hot balls of energy which Adam and the others used on more than one occasion to escape their enemy. The devices were still in their bodies; they’d just had the internal circuits fried—on purpose—by the Formilians at the end of the Kracion episode. Now Adam and Sherri were just a couple of normal Humans, adrift in an alien universe.

Adam snickered, trying to remember back to the beginning of his space opera adventure. He was just a naive, lost kid back then, with no special devices and/or super-human powers. Fortunately, what he did have was enough natural abilities to impact the affairs of an entire galaxy, as strange as that sounded. He questioned if it would be enough this time around. Aliens were wiser these days when it came to Humans, as evidenced by the unbreakable shackles. They weren’t about to underestimate the earthlings like in the old days.

During the ride, Adam tried to sum up their current situation in his mind. The assholes holding them hostage were looking for a supply of weapons which they believed Adam and his friends stole from them. That assumption was possible when one threw in Jay Williford and Riyad’s secret salvage mission. They probably did steal the weapons, at least up to the point where raiders attacked Jay’s operation on Hax’on.

Now it made sense.

“Hey, Pannel,” Adam spoke into the car. The Cartel boss was in the front seat. “I think I know who has your weapons.”

“I thought you knew nothing of them?” came a muffled voice in the darkness of the blindfold. The alien was suffering from the hit Adam laid on him. This made Adam smile.

“There was a salvage operation on Hax’on that we fronted the equipment for. But we received a distress call the other day, saying the site was under attack by raiders. Everyone was killed. That’s where Riyad has gone to see if he can find out what happened.”

“Such a convenient story.” Adam could hear the pain in each word the alien spoke. “Blame it on the raiders. I suppose you will next charge the Gradis with being the culprits. It will not work.”

“I just thought you should know. Riyad’s going to tell you the same story. We don’t have your weapons … never did.”

“And yet you admit you sponsored a salvage operation for the very weapons you have previously said you know nothing about. Your lies have only revealed your other lies. I thought Humans were smarter than that? Your admission may have just spelled your fate. Knowledge of the weapons has been a death sentence in the past. I suspect Sirous will insist on a consistent policy going forward.”

“Is that a fancy way of saying we’re going to be killed at the end of this?” Sherri inquired.

“I believe I just said that.”

“Thanks, Adam,” she griped. “Next time you want to volunteer information, don’t.”

Adam spent the rest of the ride in silence.


21

Jay kept a sharp eye out for any pursuit. It was twenty miles to Balamar along a single road. He could run, but he couldn’t outrun electronic communications. Lion/El was from Balamar; he knew everyone and news of Jay’s escape would already be the highlight of the bad-guy news channel. They would know where he was headed and would do anything they could to keep him from hooking up with the other Humans. There may only be a handful of Humans in this part of Liave-3, but the three he was attempting to join up with were the most famous and accomplished of his entire race. Still, Jay had no idea what he expected them to do against an army of pirates and gangsters. But it was more than he could do alone.

The car crested a ridge that provided a narrow view down into the town and the shimmering sea beyond. There were two vehicles up ahead; one parked on each side of the road, barely visible in the overgrowth. Jay slowed and steered his stolen transport onto a rough-cut trail into the jungle. There was logging in the area, with several such roads reaching far into the interior. Most of these trails didn’t last long unless they were used frequently; otherwise the jungle reclaimed the land.

He continued for about a quarter-mile before stopping. It was still a couple of hours before dark. Those watching for him knew his route and the timetable. When he didn’t show up, they would start to worry that he may have slipped past them somehow. At that point, they would abandon the roadblock and go into town. When they did, he would return to the main road and get in as close as he could in the transport before walking the rest of the way. He knew the area around Balamar fairly well; it shouldn’t be too hard.

The Dead Worlds

The jungle was strangely quiet; even the constant buzzing of insects was gone. He sat up in the driver’s seat and looked out the front window. The shadows were deep, bringing an early night under the dense jungle canopy.

Jay shifted in the seat, the pain from his various injuries making it impossible for him to get comfortable. That’s when he heard the first rustling. It was accompanied by a low vibration radiating through the ground. He let out a deep sigh. He knew what it was. It was also the reason why most sane people didn’t venture into the deep jungle after dark.

A few stray shafts of light broke through the canopy, with one landing on a massive, fang-lined head emerging from deep in the foliage. Huge nostrils sniffed the air, as large golden eyes locked on the unfamiliar shape of the transport. The beast moved forward until it stood in the center of the dirt road directly in front of where Jay sat.

The creature stood twenty feet tall and resembled a T-Rex, yet with the tusks of a rhinoceros and a spiny plate of bone encircling the thick neck. It was just his luck that he would encounter the king of the beasts on Liave-3, a thing they called a Cryonous. Occasionally, one of these huge beasts would pass through town, creating havoc. Most people didn’t fear them; they could be easily scared off. At least in town they could; in their natural habitat, it was harder.

Jay remained frozen in place, not wanting to draw attention to the car. But the great beast was curious. Hopefully, it wasn’t hungry.

On massive haunches, the Cryonous stepped closer, lowering its terrifying head barely above the ground as it sniffed the strange electronic smell of the intruder. It moved beside the car, a single leg half the width of the vehicle’s length. Jay wasn’t too worried; these transports were tough. Then the gigantic head discovered the broken out back window, allowing for the unfiltered presence of the living creature inside the vehicle to reach its acute food sensors. It was just his bad luck.

The damn thing was hungry.

The beast swung its huge head, using three-foot-long tusks to probe the inside of the car. The padded seat in the back was torn to shreds as Jay pressed forward, sliding to his right. There wasn’t much of a dashboard, but still he was forced up against the front windshield and in full view of the towering animal.

The Cryonous withdrew its tusks from the back of the car, inadvertently hooking one on the metal frame. The car surged upward, the incredible strength of the prehistoric beast effortlessly lifting it off the ground. Jay rolled more to his right, ending up laying against the right-side door. His elbow accidentally pressed the release latch, spilling him out of the car and onto the muddy ground of the logging road. The dark mass of the transport hovered above him, like a giant anvil about to fall.

Jay scurried away on his hands and knees, massive ferns slapping his face as he crawled deeper into the jungle. Behind him came a thud, as the transport fell to the ground, the deadly beast having shaken it free from the tusk. Jay had only just gained his footing when he felt a hot blast of foul breath on his back. He jumped to his left, just as a dirty, bone-colored tusk plowed the ground where he had just stood. He ran, blindly thrashing through the overgrowth, occasionally being thrown back when he hit something tougher than he.

The jungle behind him was alive with horrific sounds. The ground vibrated underfoot, and a guttural groaning echoed around him. The damn thing was giving chase, and unlike the tiny Human, not bothering with having to find a trail through the jungle. It made its own.

In the gloom, Jay saw a monstrous shape ahead. It was a junalle tree, similar to a banyan on earth, only about three times as large. Jay wound his way through the thick shroud of stalks, uncertain where the trunk began. The dinosaur reached the tree a moment later and began thrashing at the vines. Jay was small enough to get lost in the tree, working his way around it, keeping the huge beast on the other side as best he could. The Cryonous grew more frustrated by the moment, letting out huge puffs of air as the groaning grew louder. At one point, the creature lifted its massive head and bellowed a terrifying roar that echoed throughout the forest. Jay had heard the distant call before; it was fairly common during nights in Balamar. Now he knew it was more than just part of the mating ritual. It meant the animal was pissed, which could also be part of the mating ritual.

It was also impatient. The tiny morsel of food was elusive and hardly worth the effort; there was easier prey in the jungle. After a few more defiant grunts, the Cryonous ambled off into the night, leaving Jay leaning against a house-size tree trunk, panting, drenched in sweat and rainwater, his feet caked in sticky jungle mud.

The encounter was unexpected, yet on par with how his day was going. Now if he could just get to Balamar. On foot. Through the jungle. At night.

Fortunately, Jay had an idea where he was. The ground sloped down from here toward the coast, and all he had to do was let gravity be his guide. He had about a mile to go to reach the outskirts of Balamar. It was fully dark now, which wouldn’t make the journey any easier or safer. But he couldn’t stay here.

After listening for any further signs of the Cryonous, he set off, essentially feeling his way through the darkness. Bugs crawled on him, as other creatures of the night rustled leaves as they moved out of the way to avoid him. That was good. For anything with nasty thoughts, he would be easy prey.

At this point, Jay didn’t care. His legs were on autopilot, his body staggering forward, the constant downslope keeping him moving in the right direction.

Eventually, the jungle began to thin out, unable to grow well in the sandy soil along the coast. He came upon a wide clearing with homes on the other side. Most had lights on, and dog-like pets began to bark and growl at him even before he could see them. They were used to keep the dinosaurs away.

Jay knew there were five residential streets on the jungle side of the main road of Balamar, although most of the inhabitants lived north of the crescent-shaped bay, in a flatter tract of land that had once been part of the bay. He was approaching central Balamar.

He passed between a couple of homes—the ones without dogs—and soon reached the backsides of the various restaurants and other businesses that lined the street known as Lans Road, the main thoroughfare through Balamar. Only a few aliens were in the restaurants, seated under canopies to keep the frequent rain showers off their heads and dining tables. He grinned at them as he emerged out of the decorative landscaping. These plants were placed here for aesthetics and were not a product of the dense jungle half a mile away.

There was a slight drizzle falling, which helped wash away some of the grime from his body. Even then, the strips of shirt that clung to his shoulders were just a suggestion, and the angry red marks along his back and right side were clearly visible. The guests eyed him with combinations of fear, curiosity and disgust. These were the sophisticated patrons, here for early dinners before the rowdies of late-night made their presence known. Most of them would still be in the bars, saturating their systems with intoxicants before beginning the nightly parade along Lans Road.

Jay didn’t congratulate himself on his uncanny sense of direction when he looked across the street and saw the edifice of Cain’s Bar & Grill. He was too tired to care. But not too tired to be cautious. He hung back in the fan-like leaves of a grandor tree, hidden in the shadows, surveying the road.

It didn’t take long for him to identify no fewer than six aliens watching the entrance to the bar, as well as the hotel and outfitting business across the street. He frowned. In the lights along the roadway, he could see that the interior of Tarazi’s Outfitting was dark, yet the front door was open, with broken glass and wooden planks strewn across the sidewalk. Cain’s also looked to be closed, with no one coming or going, as they should be at this hour. Even the hotel looked empty. A single light lit up the lobby, but all the windows to the guest rooms were dark.

Jay plopped down onto the muddy ground, not caring as he soaked up more water and filth. His last hope of coming out of this alive just vanished. His powerful friends were gone, more-than-likely unintended victims of his greed and reckless behavior. And now the bad guys were waiting for him; undoubtedly, others would be inside in the dark buildings, hoping to catch him off guard—

Just then, a light came on in Riyad’s store. Through the open doorway, Jay saw the Belsonian Kaylor Linn Todd approach from inside. The blue-skinned alien shut the door, having trouble keeping it closed because of a broken latch. Eventually he got it to stick.

At least Kaylor was there. That meant Jym probably was, as well. What happened here was focused more on the dangerous Humans and not the aliens. Jay had to get to Kaylor to learn the fate of his friends.

He slipped out from his hiding place and moved north along the road, taking advantage of any cover he could find. About a quarter-mile away, he scurried across the road and slipped between a couple of buildings to reach the beach. He headed south.

There were few people on the beach, fewer than normal, becoming deserted as he reached the back of Cain’s. Whatever took place here earlier that day affected the whole town. Everyone was giving the place a wide berth. The portal in the back—that was usually open into the interior—was now covered with folding doors. It was obvious Cain’s was closed until further notice.

Jay entered the water and dipped down until only his head was above the surface. The water was warm and refreshing, although the salt stung his burns. He stayed undercover until he passed the warehouse that was the outfitting business. He couldn’t see anyone watching the rear, so he left the water and sprinted across the sand, pressing himself into the shadows falling along the back of the building.

There was a back door; Jay tried the knob. It was locked.

But Jay wasn’t to be denied. He gripped the knob while laying a bruised shoulder against the wooden door. He pushed hard. The frame split and the deadbolt came free. He slipped inside the dark interior of Riyad’s private room.


22

It was dark when Riyad reached Balamar. He was exhausted, frustrated and angry—the trifecta of shitty emotions. He had been like this for a week, ever since leaving L-3 in search of answers. He was returning with only more questions.

He’d tried to link with Adam after landing the Tirrell Joyner at the spaceport but received no answer. That was fine. He was probably so pissed off that he was avoiding Riyad’s calls. And that was before he thought of Sherri. Ex-wives were particularly cruel. This time, Sherri had a good reason for her anger.

The detour to the planet Dasnon was a bust. No one had seen Jay or heard of any great salvage brought there recently. The place was so small, and the contacts he had reliable, that he believed them. He was convinced more than ever that Jay took the Ed Gibson—and whatever salvage he managed to extract from Hax’on—and left The Zone. Although Riyad tried to convince himself that Jay was fully at fault, he was more upset with himself than the kid.

After all, he was Riyad Tarazi, former Al Qaida commander, and later, leader of the dreaded Fringe Pirates. At one time, he was a force to be reckoned with, and even after hooking up with Adam and his merry band of renegades, he was often the most cunning, the most unscrupulous. Now a snot-nosed kid in his twenties had worked him like a marionette. It was obvious Riyad had lost a step or two along the way. He just didn’t like having it thrown in his face.

But what bothered him most was that he would soon have to face his friends. He’d lied to them—actually it was an act of omission rather than an outright lie. But that didn’t matter. They would still be pissed. It would take time and a lot of effort on his part to regain their trust. And that was what really had him steaming—as well as nervous—as he turned onto Lans Road and pulled up to the front of his store.

Although he was upset and exhausted, he wasn’t distracted enough to miss the broken window and splintered wood on the sidewalk.

Fuck! Those damn drunks! What have they done now? Even the front door is broken.

But what he saw when he stepped inside stopped him in his tracks. His store was a disaster, with every display, rack, and piece of equipment broken and cast about on the floor. He’d been robbed—no, not robbed—vandalized. Why?

That’s when he saw a dark figure move in the shadows at the back of the store, coming out of his apartment. His private apartment. His sanctuary.

All Riyad saw was red. He charged forward, slamming into the figure and throwing him back into the apartment. Pity the poor alien who tries to steal my stuff!

But then Riyad was shocked when a powerful fist caught him across the chin, knocking him sideways. He tumbled across the floor, staggered by the force of the hit. On shaky legs, he scrambled to his feet, trying to make out the figure in the dark of his apartment. The thief then moved past the doorway, where the single light in the store lit up the face. Riyad’s mouth fell open from shock.

It’s that bastard, Jay Williford!

Riyad didn’t think after that; not why Jay was in his apartment or why he was still alive. All he did was react.

Riyad tackled the younger man around the waist, tossing him to the floor, and in an insane fit of rage, began pummeling the kid’s face and body. But Jay was surprisingly strong. Or was he? Riyad hadn’t fought a Human in a long time. He was out of practice.

To Riyad’s surprise—and his detriment—Jay fought back, kicking and hitting, moving faster than him while grabbing anything his hands could find and tossing it at Riyad. Dodging the incoming wasn’t hard; he didn’t care, not until a metal lamp hit him square on the forehead.

“Stop it, goddammit!” Jay yelled. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“Fuck you, you lying goatfucker! I’m going to kill you!”

“You, too?”

Riyad dove at Jay again, and again they became a tangled pile of swearing, kicking, and fist-a-cuffs. This went on for another minute before the combatants were suddenly blinded by the lights in the room snapping on. By now they were standing in the center of the demolished room, wobbling on weak legs, eyes swollen and mouths bloody, with fists held out in front of them like a pair of bare-knuckle prizefighters from the early nineteen-hundreds. Jay was shirtless, having had whatever he was wearing ripped off early in the fight. Riyad wasn’t much better. The kid was a scrapper; Riyad had to give him that. On the scorecard, Jay beat the hell out of the older man.

Just then, Riyad had a moment of panic. Using a bloody finger, he ran it over both rows of his teeth, breathing a sigh of relief to find they were all still there. His brilliant white smile was his trademark. It would have been a disaster to have it ruined.

Coming to his senses, Riyad looked around to see who turned on the lights. Two aliens stood near the doorway, one pointing an MK-17 into the room. Both had their eyes narrowed and frowns creasing their foreheads, appearing confused.

“Are you done?” the one without the weapon asked.

Ignoring the alien, Riyad looked at Jay. Between heavy breaths, he asked, “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead.” The sarcasm in his voice was evident.

“I survived,” the kid breathed.

Riyad took in the variety of wounds and bruises covering most of Jay’s body and face and questioned that assessment.

“So … raiders really did attack you?”

Jay blinked with surprise. “How did you know that?”

“Rans sent a message just before he died.”

“No shit?”

“No shit. I just got back from Hax’on. I thought you stole the Ed Gibson.”

Jay buried his bloody and swollen chin in his chest. “You did? Why the hell would you think that?”

The unarmed alien at the door made a kind of grunting sound. “Give me your attention,” he demanded.

Jay looked at him. “Watch out, Riyad! They’re the pirates who attacked us. They took the weapons, and they’ve been trying to kill me all day.”

“Pirates?” said the alien, sounding insulted. “We are not pirates!”

Jay blinked. “You’re not?”

“No, we are of the Gradis Cartel.”

Riyad nodded knowingly. “Same thing.”

“Why are you trying to kill me?” Jay inquired.

“We are not trying to kill you. We are not here to kill anyone. I do not even know who you are.”

“You don’t? Then you didn’t take the weapons?”

“No, we did not take the weapons.”

“Then it was the pirates.” Jay breathed.

Riyad sat down on the edge of his bed, unable to stand any longer. He looked up at the tall alien. “So, if you’re not the ones who attacked Jay on Hax’on, and you’re not here to kill either my tough little friend or me, then what are you doing here?”

The alien appeared relieved that he could now relay his intended message.

“Riyad Tarazi, I am here to inform you that we have captured your friends, Adam Cain and Sherri Valentine, and we are holding them hostage.”

Riyad let out a deep breath and shook his head.

You’re holding Adam and Sherri hostage?” He smiled. “And you’re still alive?”

“I do not understand. We are the ones holding them hostage.”

“Yeah, sure. That’s what I thought.” Riyad had heard that story before. He wasn’t too worried. “And why are you holding them hostage?” he continued, indulging the alien.

“We will hold them until you reveal to us the location of the weapons you have stolen.”

Riyad laughed … and then winced in pain. He was sure he had a bruised rib or two.

“And these would be the same weapons the pirates took from my friend? Why do you think I would know where they are?”

“You sponsored the expedition, but that is not important. What is important is that your friends will surely die unless you tell us what we want to know. I have informed my superiors of your arrival. We have been waiting. Now that you are here you have but an hour to reveal the location. Otherwise the other Humans will die.”

“But I don’t know where they are. Isn’t that obvious from what you just heard?”

“What you said is confusing, but it does not matter. All I know is that if you do not know the location, then your friends will die.”

The alien stepped back into the store and removed a communicator from his pocket. He began to open a link.

“Wait!” Jay called out.

Riyad looked at him suspiciously. So did the alien.

“What do you wish to say?”

Jay looked at Riyad and let out a deep sigh.

Riyad’s eyes grew wide. “I knew it, you lying bastard!” He rose to his feet, which wasn’t an easy task now that his body had stiffened up. “You do have them!”

“I don’t—honestly. But I may know where they are.”

“Tell me,” the alien demanded.

Jay hesitated.

“What the hell, Williford; tell him! This is Adam and Sherri we’re talking about. Do you want to get them killed?”

“Of course not.” Jay looked at the alien and took a deep breath. “I think they’re on the planet Masnin. It’s here in the Liave system, less than an hour away. It’s also known as L-7.”

“You placed them there?”

“No, I did not!” Jay said emphatically, looking at Riyad. “It was the raiders. I think that’s where they hide most of the stuff they steal. It’s close to Liave-3, and no one goes there anymore.”

“Where on the planet are they to be found?”

“That I don’t know. All I know is we landed there with the shipping containers and then left several hours later. But twenty thousand weapons shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

“Twenty thousand!” Riyad exclaimed, wobbling where he stood. “What happened to the four hundred rifles you said were on Hax’on?”

“You said there were only four hundred devices?” the alien queried in shock. “You would lie to your own kind?”

“I didn’t know there were that many,” Jay said in his defense. “Not initially. The raiders opened up some of the other warehouses. They were in there.”

“I saw the open warehouses,” Riyad confirmed. “I just didn’t know there were that many.”

“Neither did I. And now the pirates have them.”

Riyad stepped up to the alien. “There, now you know where the weapons are. And as I told you originally, I never knew where they were. So, tell your people and then let my friends go.”

“I will inform Pannel, but I doubt he will release them, not without confirmation.”

“What confirmation?” Jay asked in a panic. “They’re on Masnin, probably in one of the old mine shafts, and guarded by an army of pirates. That’s all I know. You’re going to have to take my word for it.”

“I have heard your words, yet I do not have to take anything. Any what? I am confused by your remark.” The alien’s eyes began blinking rapidly.

“It means you’re going to have to trust me. I have no way of proving they’re on Masnin, or where they’re being stored. That’s just my best guess.”

The alien considered the two Humans suspiciously for a moment before backing out of the room again and making his link. He returned a few minutes later.

“You are to be taken to Masnin,” he said to both Jay and Riyad. “There you will find the hidden weapons and assist in their recovery. You will have two days to complete the mission.”

“We can’t go there,” Jay gasped. “The pirates will kill us, kill us all.”

“We have considerable forces at our disposal. The Gradis does not fear pirates. You are to come with us. We will meet Pannel and our sponsor at the spaceport. We leave upon your arrival.”

“I told you I don’t know where they are!” Jay screamed.

“You said they are on the planet Masnin.”

“I don’t know where on Masnin, you idiot. What are we going to do, move into orbit and start surveying the whole fucking planet? Yeah, no one’s going to notice that, especially not the pirates.”

“Leave the methods to us. You will guide us. Then once the weapons have been recovered, your friends will be set free. However, delay in the search—or fail to find the weapons—and they die.”

“You want to put some money on that?” Riyad asked with more humor than his aching body deserved. The confused alien stared at him for a moment more before leaving the room in a huff. Armed aliens moved in after that and began to lead the two Humans from the room.

“Wait,” said Riyad. “Can I at least take my toothbrush?”

The brilliant smile he flashed at the aliens was dulled by the coating of blood on his once pearly whites. Even so, one of the creatures took exception to his supposed death challenge and smashed his pistol over Riyad’s head. After that, Riyad had to be carried to the waiting transport. He couldn’t walk while unconscious.


23

Captain Lospen Calos arrival was announced by the guards, and he was led into Dal’s office without delay.

“Forgive, Dal, but my crew has been harder to locate than expected,” he began without prompting. “That is why I have not left. Once they were released, many were absorbed into the taverns of Kanac. I have now located all but two of them, and in only one instance was information divulged about the weapons. I have personally remedied that situation.”

Calos spoke fast to get his excuse on the record before Dal could react to his insubordination.

“I understand, Captain,” Dal said pleasantly. He walked around his desk and placed a comforting hand on the shoulder of his nervous employee. “You need not worry about your missing crew members. You could not find them … because I already have.”

Dal could tell Calos wasn’t pleased with the statement, but he tried hard to hide his displeasure. “Then, then where are they? May I take them back to my ship? One is my third-officer and a friend.”

Dal grimaced. “I regret to inform you that that will not be possible. It seems both have been dealt with in a very deliberate and permanent manner.”

“Did they reveal information regarding the weapons?” Calos asked quickly. “If so, then I fully support your actions, no matter how harsh they may appear.”

Dal smiled. The captain was intuitive; he could sense something was out of the ordinary. Talking about the weapons in a drunken stupor would not normally carry a death sentence since the pirates had not been instructed to keep the information a secret before leaving the ship. However, Calos was not about to argue against Dal’s actions.

“It is good to know that I have your full support,” Dal said, “for there is another matter on which I seek your advice.”

“Advice? Of course! I can help.”

“Good. First, I must draw the scenario for you, then ask what you would do if you were in my place.” Calos nodded emphatically. Dal began. “Suppose during a clandestine operation a witness was left alive when you were told specifically that no such witness survived.”

Dal held up his free hand to stop Calos’ panicked protest.

“But there is more. Suppose this non-existent witness somehow managed to stow away aboard a vessel under your command and arrive back at the home base, possessing knowledge of said clandestine operation and anxious to spread the news, news which would be catastrophic to your employer should it become known. Given this hypothetical scenario, what actions would you take to remedy the situation, Captain Calos?”

Through the hand on the raider’s shoulder, Dal felt Calos trembling, with his breath coming in fits. “Dal, I am sorry. There has been a complete breakdown of security protocols. I take full responsibility and will personally see to the discipline of my crew and the crews of the other ships. It will never happen again. I promise.”

Dal nodded. “I am glad to hear that. Now, what about the witness? What steps would you take to stop him from talking?”

“That is obvious. I would send assassins out to find and kill him.”

“That is also good, especially since in this scenario, you know exactly where he is hiding.”

Calos’ rapid nodding made it look as though he was having a seizure. “Yes, that is fortunate. Then it should be a simple matter of eliminating the witness.”

Dal continued to grin as he returned to his desk, opened a side drawer, and withdrew a projection dagger. The tiny weapon fit comfortably in Dal’s hand, appearing as just the handle, minus the blade. Calos focused on the weapon, his eyes wide with terror. The blade was contained in the handle but could be extended with a simple press of a button. Then the microscopic laser beam running along the edge of the blade would be activated, heating to two thousand degrees in an instant. Although small, the blade could slice through nearly any material as if it wasn’t there.

Calos nervously stood his ground as Dal walked back over to him, again placing his free hand on his shoulder. Dal was enjoying this, seeing the pure terror in the eyes of his big captain. He so wanted to flee, but that would only guarantee a certain outcome. Calos was hoping—no, praying—he was reading Dal wrong.

“The problem with your assumptions, Captain Calos, is that the single, unarmed witness happened to be the Human leader of the expedition, and he managed to kill or injure most of the assassins and then escape. His location is now unknown, yet it is believed he will attempt a rendezvous with the other Humans in Balamar.”

“I will lead the next raiding party!” Calos announced with passion. “I will take my entire crew if required. I will personally correct his tragic turn of events. You can trust me, Dal. I will not fail you.”

“I am glad that you have reaffirmed your loyalty to me. That is quite reassuring. Experienced captains, such as yourself, are hard to find and even harder to replace—”

Dal swung the hand holding the dagger into Calos’ stomach, catching the big alien off guard. Calos’ eyes bulged out, and his stomach sank in as he reacted to the dagger.

It took a moment for him to realized Dal had not extended the blade. It was merely the handle pressing against his midsection.

He began to breathe again, a nervous smile on his face.

“Your lesson has been learned, Dal. I repeat; I will not fail you, not again.”

“That is good to know, Captain Calos. And not surprisingly, I believe you.”

“You do?” Calos questioned without thinking.

“Not really.”

And that was when Dal pressed the button and extended the blade.


24

“Interesting,” Adam Cain said as he kicked at the bottom of the composite wall panel in the room in which he and Sherri were being held captive. They were in Kanac somewhere, where there were very few well-constructed buildings in the city. Most were thrown-together hovels. The rooms looked imposing enough, and the doors guarded. But the walls themselves were another story.

Sherri let out a short laugh as she received Adam’s message loud and clear.

“Will they never learn?” she whispered. Even if the room was bugged, Adam was confident the aliens wouldn’t understand what they were talking about.

Adam and Sherri still wore the heavy-duty shackles on their wrists, clasped in front of them; however, their feet were unbound, so they were free to move around the room. There wasn’t much here, just a bed, a table, two chairs, a partitioned off grooming station. And no window. The room was lit by a single row of fluorescent-type light bulbs.

Adam had a severe headache; probably from a slight concussion when the Gradis leader clobbered him with the metal club. Sherri wasn’t any better. Her left arm was red and inflamed from where she’d taken a level-2 flash bolt. She had on a sleeveless blouse at the time, so the rest of her clothing was intact. Even though they were alive and in relatively good condition, they were both humiliated at having been taken hostage. That wasn’t an easy thing to do.

But there were over twenty of the bad guys against just the two Humans, so they cut themselves some slack. They could delight in the knowledge that nine of the Gradis troops were dead and six seriously injured. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived at the building in Kanac and their blindfolds removed, reinforcements were in place. The building was swarming with Cartel troops.

Even so, Adam and Sherri had no doubt they could get out of the room. A battering-ram-like attack on one of the walls would be enough to rip out the whole panel. What they would do after that was the question. They would still have their hands shackled, which could get awkward in any prolonged fight.

So they decided to wait it out. The problem is they didn’t know for how long. They had no idea when Riyad would return or if he would have the information the Cartel wanted. It became a game of wait-and-see.

The door opened thirty minutes later, and the aliens Pannel and Sirous entered, the Cartel boss carrying an MK flash pistol in a holster around his waist. As they entered, Adam noticed two giant alien beasts flanking the door, armed to the teeth, standing guard.

Both of the aliens who entered the room showed signs of the earlier battle. The side of Pannel’s face looked angrier, beginning to yellow and appearing more swollen than before. The side of his mouth was contorted, and Adam imagined he would have a hard time talking, even harder than before. Adam smiled again.

Sirous had various cuts on his face and arms from shrapnel flying through Riyad’s store during the battle. Adam lost sight of him as soon as the shooting started, assuming the big-eyed alien ducked for the nearest cover, cowering in fear until it was over. That’s what people like him did in a time of crisis.

But now Sirous was in a better mood, despite his minor injuries.

“I have news for you,” he began. “Riyad Tarazi has returned to Liave-3 and will now be presented with the ultimatum regarding your welfare.” Sirous had removed the heavy sunglasses he wore outside, and now Adam knew why he wore them. His eyes were the size of golf balls, with the dark pupils filling nearly the entire volume. They were both disturbing and hypnotizing to watch, making Adam speculate on the lighting conditions on his homeworld. Either his sun was dim, or the planet was perpetually shrouded in cloud cover. Sirous seemed to even have little trouble with the dull lighting in the room.

“Then I suppose you’ll be setting us free pretty soon,” Sherri said. She was baiting him for information, Adam knew. The alien didn’t disappoint.

Sirous let out a low-pitch squeak which Adam figured passed for a laugh on his planet. “I would have assumed you would realize the helplessness of your situation.” He looked at Pannel before continuing. “For over four standard years, I have been treading very dangerous ground, struggling mightily to keep knowledge of my activities a secret. This pertains to more than just the prototype weapons I built. You see, I have been planning a revolution on my homeworld, designed to place me at the head of the government.” He squeaked again. “Indeed, beyond the government. I feel it is my rightful place to be in complete control.”

“We call that being a dictator where I come from,” Adam offered.

“Ah, very good. Dictator, as in to dictate terms without opposition. I shall use that. Thank you. But continuing, you can imagine how that might go over on my world if others were to find out. That is why anyone with knowledge of the weapons, or my intentions, is put to death. That will include you, as well as Riyad Tarazi.”

Adam looked at Pannel and frowned. Sirous caught the expression. He smiled and looked once again at his much taller companion.

“Ah, certain elements of the Gradis Cartel are exempt from this requirement, since a number of them will be providing the initial military insurgency I will need. In truth, my friend Pannel will lead the assault armed with the weapons I have been endeavoring to recover for nearly three years.”

“You’re putting a lot of faith into an organization that hires itself out to the highest bidder.”

The smile on the alien’s face widened. “I do not worry since I am always the highest bidder. I am commonly ranked as the wealthiest being on my world, so I can afford to self-finance my revolution. And my Cartel partners are to be richly rewarded when the weapons are recovered. Nothing can go forward without my devices.”

“If you were already so rich and powerful,” Sherri began, “why would you go through all this to take over a planet you already control?”

“It is not that simple. I come from a place called K’wess. We are a very organized and authoritarian species. There is wealth, and then there is power. I have the wealth; I now seek the power.”

“Typical,” Adam said. “Just another asshole out to conquer the galaxy.”

Sirous shook his head. “That is where you are wrong, Adam Cain. Even though I have incredible wealth, I am using it only to interfere in the affairs of my homeworld. Unlike so many other powers within the galaxy, I seek not the conquest of other worlds and other populations. I care not for the affairs of aliens. I have very little in common with them and would find no pleasure in dealing with them as their ruler. I have confined my ambitions to only my kind, beings I understand and to which I can relate.”

“Beings you also want to kill,” Sherri added.

“Of course. There will always be casualties. Yet enough will survive. And once my superweapons are introduced onto the battlefield, even more lives will be saved because of the futility of the effort against me. Surrender will come sooner, rather than later, sparing the lives of millions. I know you may find the logic strained, but my superweapons were designed to save lives, not take them.”

“Yeah, that is kind of fucked-up,” Sherri snorted.

The translation jarred the alien at first, then he continued. “However, none of my plans will succeed unless my revolution comes as a surprise. The K’wess are a strong and competent race. Our military is powerful and the citizenry courageous. Only by overwhelming strength and firepower will I be able to impress upon my enemy the logic of a timely surrender. Therefore, all potential leaks must be tied off.” He squeaked. “In fact, I must give thanks to Kracion in a way. Before his attack on Hax’on, I was prepared to detonate my own nuclear device at the Tainesin Manufacturing Works, once my weapons were shipped, of course. There were too many there who knew of the Saxon Order. It would be a tragic yet necessary action taken to preserve the secret.”

“Sounds like you have it all worked out,” Adam said. “Assuming you can find the weapons. What are these superweapons anyway? If you recall, we’ve never seen them. As a matter of fact, Sherri and I never even heard of them until today.”

“They are a hybrid plasma rifle, similar to the Xan-fi model R-17. However, my weapons are rated for ninety bolts at maximum charge, and that charge is seventy-plus.”

Adam and Sherri shared a stunned look.

“You’re not kidding, are you?” Sherri asked.

“Kidding? Ah, joking? No, I am not kidding,” said Sirous. “I can tell by your expressions that you now understand the significance of the devices and how they would play such an important role in my upcoming revolution.”

“I suppose so,” Adam agreed. “But do you really have to kill us? Frankly, Sirous, we don’t give a damn what happens on your planet. It’s not going to impact us one way or another. Go kill each other to death for all we care. What if we promised not to say anything, just let bygones be bygones?”

“I am having difficulty with the literal translation, yet I believe I understand what you are asking. I will answer you. Even after recovering my weapons, it will still be several months before the events I have set up can be placed back into motion. After Kracion, I had to bury many of them for fear of discovery. Now they must be resurrected. This has created a delay in the start of the revolution. Therefore, I cannot risk a possible leak, not over the time involved. I am sure you understand.”

“Ah, yeah,” Adam said, nodding. “Perfectly. I’m just sorry we put you in a situation where you have to kill us to keep us quiet. I know it must be hard on you.”

Sirous frowned and looked at Pannel. The Cartel soldier’s expression had remained neutral during the conversation, probably from the fact that his face was as swollen as a balloon. Now he frowned and pursed his lips. When he spoke, the pain was evident.

“He is using sarcasm, Sirous,” Pannel mumbled.

Sirous nodded knowingly. “Thank you!” There was little concern on his face for the other alien’s pain. He looked back at Adam. “Humorous. However, you will find I have no emotional attachment to your lives. Killing you will not affect my life … one way or another.” Sirous appeared to congratulate himself for throwing Adam’s words back in his face.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Adam said. “So, when is all this glorious and justified killing supposed to begin?”

Sirous frowned. “My revolution, or your demise?”

“I’m a little more concerned about the two of us,” Adam answered with a grin.

“You have a while longer. It remains to be seen what information Riyad Tarazi can provide. In addition, he may ask to speak with you before releasing the information. For the moment, you can live.”

The communicator in Pannel’s pocket chimed. He answered it, speaking in grunts. He then motioned for Sirous to join him, and the two aliens left the room.

The Dead Worlds

Sirous and Pannel returned fifteen minutes later. Adam and Sherri had heard increased activity outside the room through the thin walls. People were moving as orders were barked. Something was happening.

“Good news,” Sirous announced, his face animated, his large eyes even larger than before. “We have learned the location of my weapons.”

“Riyad knew where they were?” Sherri asked incredulously.

“In truth, it was the younger Human who told us.”

“Younger?” Adam asked. “Jay Williford?”

“I do not know his name.”

Adam looked at Sherri. “It has to be Jay.”

“I thought he was dead, killed when the pirates attacked.”

“Ah, yes,” Sirous said. “It would seem the pirates do have the weapons, and on a planet call Masnin.”

“Masnin … here in the system?” Adam said.

“That is true. Very convenient. Pannel says it is only an hour's flight from here. We are preparing to make the journey and recover my property.”

“From the pirates?”

“That is true. Fortunately, I have a small Cartel army at my disposal plus one of the most advanced starships in the galaxy—my personal vessel. If the pirates act like normal pirates, they will flee at the first sign of a more powerful force.”

“What about Riyad?” Sherri asked, a slight tremble in her voice. Adam could see the agony on her face. Did they kill him once the location was found?

“He and the young one are being taken to the planet. We know the weapons are there, just not the precise location. They are being tasked with helping find them as a condition for your safe return.”

“Which is all bullshit,” Adam said.

Sirous had the typical alien reaction to the word bullshit, struggling through the translation for meaning and context.

“You lied to him,” Adam said, helping him out.

“Yes … we lied to him. But the other Humans do not know that. They will assist, then all you Humans will die.” Sirous smiled broadly and looked over at Pannel. “I find the prospect of that happening to be quite satisfactory. From my understanding, Humans are very difficult to kill, although I have not experienced that first-hand. Even now, you have not been much of a challenge.”

Adam looked at Pannel. The alien raised his thin eyebrows at him, an indication that he knew the truth but wasn’t going to argue with his employer. It was Pannel’s soldiers who died capturing Adam and Sherri. Sirous lost nothing during the battle, with the possible exception of his bowels. Everything he needed he could buy, and therefore nothing had value, not even lives.

Adam tensed; he saw Sherri do the same. Would they stand there and let Pannel place level-1 bolts into them without a fight? They were caught off guard when Sirous suddenly turned away and left the room, Pannel right behind him.

Adam couldn’t leave it alone. “What about us?” he called after them.

Pannel stopped at the door. “Once the weapons have been recovered, you will be dealt with.” The alien grimaced. Adam drew satisfaction from the difficulty he was having talking. If Adam’s hit had been an inch farther to the left, Pannel wouldn’t be here slurring his speech. “Until that time, you are being held in reserve. Your friends may not be telling us the truth. We must retain our leverage over them until we are certain.”

Adam and Sherri breathed sighs of relief when Pannel left and closed the door. “They’re leaving,” Sherri said with a smirk.

“Not all of them.”

“Enough.”

Adam nodded. “Riyad’s going with them—”

“Meaning the Tirrell Joyner will be at the spaceport.”

“One of these days, you’re going to have to tell me who Tirrell Joyner is?”

Sherri smiled wickedly. “Maybe. Someday. If we live through this.”

“You’re on, sister. I’ll make sure we survive … just to learn your secret.”


25

Riyad and Jay left Balamar in a four-vehicle caravan and arrived at the Kanac Spaceport fifteen minutes later. They were waved through the gates and pulled up next to one of the most beautiful and awesome starships Riyad had ever seen.

First off, it was huge, almost the size of a Juirean Class-4, yet this thing was sitting on the ground. C-Four’s couldn’t land on a planetary surface, but this ship had. That spoke of a sophisticated and advanced entry and liftoff system, probably a combination of both gravity and chemical drives. The fact that the vessel sat a fair distance from any other ship confirmed that. It would make one hell of an entrance and exit.

Six other ships sat off in the distance with Cartel troops preparing them for departure. Six ships—plus the shiny, new behemoth—would definitely make an impact on the pirates, Riyad conceded. But then again, he had no idea how many pirates there would be on Masnin and how aggressively they would defend the main depository of their stolen treasure. They weren’t the bravest of creatures, but they did fight for money. Let someone try to take it from them and see what they’re really capable of.

But the Cartel attack would come with little warning. Riyad was curious how big of a fight was coming. Fortunately—or unfortunately—he wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. Masnin was just a short jump within the Liave system; only a shallow gravity-well would be required to get them there in under an hour.

He and Jay were jostled out of the transport and paraded onto the fancy starship, the lead message-boy alien leading the way. Riyad knew he wasn’t the big dog in the pack; that person would make his appearance momentarily. Then he wondered if Sherri and Adam were aboard? That would be great. He smiled, grimacing as he did from his various injuries. Then I won’t have to go looking for them after I kick the ass of all hundred or so of these alien bastards. It’s been a while since I got to be the hero.

He limped aboard the starship, wincing from a sharp pain in his side and the throbbing of his head.

Yeah, just let me at them!

The Dead Worlds

Riyad and Jay were led to the bridge and placed in luxuriously padded seats made of supple leather before being strapped in. No time was wasted. It was the middle of the night on Liave-3, but the mission was beginning anyway. Time was variable depending on which planet you were on and where on that planet. These beings could be working on an entirely different schedule.

A few minutes later, another entourage of aliens swept into the room. The one with enormous bug eyes had to be the owner of the vessel since he wore the most expensive clothing and had an air of importance about him. The other alien with authority was a tall, stocky creature with grey skin and a severely swollen and bruised face. Riyad smiled. He had the look of so many aliens who tangled with Humans in the past. He must have been in on the capture of Adam and Sherri. He wore the badge of honor for such a folly.

The fancy-dressed alien with the enormous black eyes walked up to the pair of Humans. He turned to the Cartel soldier, the one who had escorted them aboard the ship.

“Did you do this to them? They were not to be injured. They had vital information.”

“They did it to themselves, attempting to kill one another.”

“They did? Why?”

The soldier shrugged.

The big-eyed alien turned back to the Humans. “My name is Sirous Fenn, and you are the ones who originally had intentions of stealing my property. Now because of you, I have gone through a measure of steps that have cost me both time and credits. I do not appreciate that. However, cooperate and you and your friends will be released. Is that understood?”

“We’ll do what we can,” Jay blurted out. “But as I told the other guy, I don’t know where the weapons are on L-7.”

Riyad was mesmerized by the alien’s eyes, watching them stare unblinking at the young Human. “You will do your best, or you and everyone else will die. Is that not a simple proposition?”

“I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t have your weapons. The raiders do.”

The alien waved his hand dismissively. “That matters not. The arrangement is simple. Do as I say or you will die.”

“Are Adam and Sherri onboard?” Riyad asked. “I’d like to know if they’re okay.”

“They are not aboard. They shall remain on Liave-3 until the successful completion of this operation.” Sirous squeaked unexpectedly. “In truth, they will remain here whether our mission is successful or not. Only the state of their existence is now in question. That will be up to you.”

“But they’re okay?”

“Yes. Your friends are leverage over you. It would not be wise to kill them prematurely.”

He turned away abruptly and addressed the crew on the spacious bridge. “Liftoff when the Cartel vessels are ready.”

“Confirmed; all ships prepared,” said a voice. “Lifting in twenty seconds.”

Riyad was curious how something this big could lift off the surface, and when the time came, reality was both enlightening and anticlimactic. There was very little sound or vibration, although an enormous cloud of exhaust gas rose up to obscure the forward viewport before it was sucked upward by the engagement of the gravity-wells. The transit was remarkably smooth and efficient—the best money could buy, in Riyad’s opinion. Soon they were in space, and the curious wavy circle of starlight ahead of them signified a shallow gravity-well had been established. In less than an hour, they would be at the planet Masnin.

Riyad had passed L-7 dozens of times but never thought to stop and have a look. It was a desolate, grey ball of nothing, with barely an atmosphere and no permanent settlements as far as he knew at the time. It had once hosted various mining operations, but the workers hightailed it out of the system when Kracion began his run through the Kidis Frontier. Thinking about it, the planet was the perfect staging ground for the raider’s ill-gotten bounty. It was close enough to Liave-3 so that small and constant shipments could be brought in that wouldn’t attract attention. There were also several ready-made hiding places in the various deep-underground mine shafts, many of which were enormous and had once been pressurized to accommodate the miners. The planet was also a little smaller than L-3, with a gravity half that of Earth. Although Riyad wasn’t anticipating having to fight in this environment, he did recall other times in his long career when he had. Giddy was the word he would use to describe his feelings back then. On Juirean standard worlds, Humans were already quasi supermen. On a place like Masnin, they would be even more so.


26

Adam and Sherri waited until most of the activity outside their room died down. Just the fact that they could hear so well was a testimony to the flimsiness of the building’s construction.

There would still be guards outside their room, and if they were the same ones as earlier, it might be a little harder than usual to escape. Because of that, Adam would wait by the door for when the guards came to investigate while Sherri did the busting through the wall. He was bigger and more skilled at fighting. He didn’t say that to her, of course. He wasn’t that stupid. He just took up the position and then motioned for her to take out the wall, not giving her the option.

There was nothing in the room they could use as weapons, at least nothing more lethal than their Human fists. They were still shackled, but hopefully, the guards would have the keys.

Sherri pressed against the far side wall from the door, feeling for the spongiest area. Even in a prefab building there were a few support cross beams. It wasn’t hard to find the voids. She then prepared herself, stepping across the room as far as she could to get enough running room, ready to drop a shoulder and barrel through the wall.

With a nod from Adam, she took off.

Sherri is not a very big woman; five-foot-four and about one hundred ten pounds. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to break through the wall on the initial try. Instead, the give in the wall created such a recoil that it tossed her back into the room where she landed hard on her butt.

However, the noise she caused was enough to alert the guards.

The door opened, and one of the huge, muscular monsters entered, with the other one standing back, his weapon also at the ready.

There was a moment of confusion as the alien looked down at Sherri, sitting on the floor as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Not until Adam barreled into the hulking beast, grabbing him around the waist and driving him out into the corridor. They plowed into the second guard, who maintained his balance as he bounced off the opposite wall. Adam and the first guard fell to the floor, with the much smaller Human lost in the grip of tree-trunk-size arms. Adam had encountered creatures stronger than Humans before, but most were slow and not very bright. This bastard was the exception. Adam was being crushed by the incredible embrace even as the beast climbed to his feet and slammed Adam into the wall.

Sherri came to his rescue a heartbeat later, having recovered the guard’s fallen gun. She sent a deadly level-one bolt into the chest of the second guard. He staggered back while unleashing a wild bolt of his own, missing everyone. However, the mighty beast didn’t go down, not even from a level-one.

Sherri fired another, this time aiming for the head. This time the shot made a difference. The intense heat and residual electricity fried the brain of the huge being, sending him to the deck, after which Sherri turned the weapon on the first guard.

But he was quick and aware, twisting to put Adam between him and Sherri. She hesitated firing.

“Dammit, do something,” Adam groaned. Air had been squeezed from his lungs causing his words to come out as barely a whisper.

Sherri aimed at the legs of the guard and fired. The beast reacted by kicking out with the other leg, catching Sherri on her shin. She went down.

The burning pain in the alien’s leg was enough for him to loosen his grip on Adam ever so slightly, allowing him to lift his shackled arms so he could press against the guard’s chest, forming a tiny gap. He could breathe a little better, but the relief lasted only a second.

The guard suddenly released him, causing Adam to staggered back, still on his feet—until he caught a powerful right-handed fist to the side of his head.

He went down, finding himself a dazed second later next to a screaming Sherri Valentine. She didn’t appear to be too badly hurt, just mad. With her target now clear, she fired again at the guard, aiming at his head. To everyone’s surprise, the beast dodged the bolt and took a step toward Sherri, kicking the weapon away with a swing of his elephant leg. He followed up with another kick, this one catching Sherri on the shoulder and sending her careening down the corridor.

Adam was on his feet a moment later, and in front of the guard, his still-shackled hands held out in front of him, forming a club as he stepped away from the advancing alien. He kept his distance, taking swipes at the beast as best he could. The thing was about eight feet tall, so it was a chore to reach his chin. Instead, Adam concentrated on the mid-section. He landed a couple of powerful blows to the thick body, which seemed to surprise the alien by their intensity but didn’t slow him down. In response, the guard lashed out with another fist of his own, attached to the end of a four-foot-long arm.

Adam barely avoided the hit, ducking under it and then planting a double-fisted strike to the alien’s kidneys. Of course, Adam had no idea if the damn thing had kidneys, but it did have an impact. Something snapped under the skin, and the creature howled in pain. Adam grinned. It was a start.

The dance continued down the corridor, with the fighting pair passing the dead second guard and an unconscious Sherri Valentine. Adam didn’t have time to inquire as to her condition; there was nothing he could do about it until his most immediate problem was dealt with.

And that’s when someone grabbed him from behind.

Adam could tell this was another species of alien by the thinness of the arms and the weakness of the grip. Even so, it was a complication Adam didn’t need. He lowered a shoulder and bent down on one knee, pulling the second alien over his back, where he toppled to the floor. The much smaller, green-tinted creature was now an obstacle for the rampaging hulk. The guard casually kicked his fellow Cartel soldier to the side, where he slumped down, either dead or unconscious.

Adam was at a loss what to do next until he noticed the bubbling mass of flesh on the leg Sherri shot with the level-1 bolt. The creature was favoring it even as he ignored the pain.

Adam jumped forward, slipping along the smooth floor until he crashed into the leg with one of his own. The collision made an impression. Again, the beast wailed and stepped sideways. Adam continued sweeping the leg, hitting the bloody wound straight on with his shackled wrists, using the metal like brass knuckles. This time the leg gave way, and the alien fell to his knees.

Adam was up a moment later, using momentum to deliver a powerful roundhouse, double-fisted hit to the right side of the guard’s head—now that he could reach it. With Human speed, Adam followed up with two more club-like blows.

The guard was punch drunk by this time, his pea brain rattling around in his skull. His eyes crossed, and Adam could tell he was on the verge of passing out. Adam cranked up for another—and final—hit on the guard.

But he didn’t get the chance.

Sherri elbowed him out of the way, stuck the barrel of an MK-17 bolt launcher into the mouth of the alien, and pulled the trigger.

No matter how many aliens Adam killed in the past, he couldn’t recall ever doing it in such a manner. The bolt entered the thick skull of the guard and was trapped there as it expanded. The eyes blew out, showering Sherri and Adam in red and grey matter, while another set of spray shot out from the ears like geysers. The guard fell against the wall of the corridor, staring up at the Humans with black, empty eye sockets, his huge mouth hanging open.

“Are you okay?” Adam asked Sherri.

“I am now. Search him for the keys to the handcuffs. I’ll check the other one.”

The second guard had the keys, and thirty seconds later, they were free.

Adam recovered the weapon from the second guard and then looked down at the smaller dead alien. “I wonder how many more are in the building?”

“We’re about to find out,” Sherri said. “We have to hurry. It’s only an hour to L-7. There’s no telling how long the Cartel is going to keep Riyad alive.”

“And Jay,” Adam added.

“Yeah, him, too.”


27

It was interesting what happened when the small fleet reached the planet Masnin. The six Cartel warships—none of the same make or model but each possessing considerable firepower—were stationed around the planet at a fair distance away, closing off the planet from ships either leaving or arriving. Sirous wasn’t taking any chances that his precious rifles wouldn’t be spirited away in the cargo holds of a dozen raider ships.

In the meantime, the huge flagship entered orbit as dozens of sensor screens lit up, scanning the surface with the most advanced tools available in the galaxy. Jay and Riyad were moved to one of the main stations and told to get to work. They looked at each other and shrugged as if to say, what do we do now?

What were they to do now?

“You said there were fifty shipping containers of weapons,” Riyad said to Jay. “If they’re all in one place, shouldn’t that give off some kind of magnetic field?”

Riyad wasn’t a scientist; he was just grasping for anything.

Neither was Jay.

“Hell if I know,” the kid said, panic evident in his voice. Then his eyes lit up. “Wait! Almost all the pods are still radioactive! Shouldn’t we be able to detect that?” He looked over his shoulder at the bruised-face alien behind him, a question mark in his expression.

“Possibly, depending on how deep the containers are stored.” He turned to other technicians. “Scan for hotspots.”

Riyad suppressed a laugh, seeing the effort the alien made to talk through the pain of this bashed up face. Yes, that definitely had the look of Adam’s handiwork.

“Unidentified vessels appearing on the surface,” someone on the bridge reported.

“Location?” Rocky asked. Until he learned his name, Riyad would refer to the bruised alien as Rocky, seeing that his face resembled Sylvester Stallone’s at the end of the original movie.

“Various locations.”

“Even so, helm, take us on a tour of the launch points. Scan for radioactive signatures at each”

Sirous stepped up to the alien. “Pannel, order your ships not to destroy the departing vessels. They could contain my weapons. I do not want them destroyed.”

Dammit, his name is Pannel. Riyad really was looking forward to calling him Rocky for the duration …

Rocky/Pannel looked askew at Sirous. “How do we keep them from departing?”

“Disable the vessels.”

“I do not have enough ships for that. There can be no guarantee.”

Sirous scowled. “I need every device.”

“There is no evidence the ships carry the weapons—”

“Pannel, I am detecting a faint trace of increased radiation,” said one of the crew, stopping the debate.

Pannel and Sirous rushed to the station. “Where?” they asked in unison.

“Near the termination zone; I have marked the location.”

“Helm!”

“Proceeding to location. We will be over it in three minutes.”

“And my ships?” Pannel asked Sirous.

Bug-Eyes hesitated, then nodded. “Have them cover us from orbit. If the signal strengthens, we will affect a landing. I doubt much of the items stolen by the raiders would possess enough residual radiation to show up at this distance. It must be the shipping containers.”

Riyad bumped Jay’s shoulder with his fist. “Good job, kid. This thing could be over before it begins.”

Sirous heard him.

“You are also tasked with helping us recover the weapons. If the pirates offer no resistance, that would be preferred. Yet I doubt that will be the outcome.”

“Signal gaining strength,” said the scope-tech. “There is definitely a mass of radioactive sources at that location.”

“How strong?” Pannel asked.

“Detectable, yet safe with the appropriate gear.”

Pannel turned to Sirous. “Do you have enough environmental suits aboard for my soldiers?”

“For twenty, no more.”

“I have more on the support ships.”

Sirous nodded. “Bring them down. Prepare your assault. Captain, prepare to land. What is at that location?”

Another Cartel officer was on the Library, researching Masnin. “That is the location of the primary mining effort on the planet. There are huge chambers below ground. Access is through a large central airlock and two secondary points.”

“How large?”

“Not large enough for a ship. We must go in on foot.”

“Exterior atmosphere readings?”

“Breathable, but thin. Without assistance, no longer than five minutes.”

“Pannel, have your best troops suit up. Take the Humans with you. I understand they are accomplished fighters.”

“If they fight for us.”

“They have no choice, not if they want their friends to live. Hurry, the moment is almost at hand.”

Riyad could see the excitement building in Sirous. He had a hard-on for the rifles, although Riyad and Jay hadn’t been told specifically what he was going to use them for. Obviously, it would involve the death of a lot of beings. Riyad shrugged. Better them than us.

He and Jay obediently followed Pannel from the bridge to join the ground assault party.


28

Sherri and Adam encountered only two other aliens in the building before they made it out onto the street. Although the Cartel soldiers were alerted to the fighting taking place on the third floor, neither chose to leave the building nor join in the fight. Even so, the Humans didn’t care. They simply blasted them with their MKs and left the building.

That’s when they discovered that one part of Kanac looks like any other, especially late at night. They could be anywhere, but their main problem now was there were no transports on the street outside the building. The neighborhood was buttoned up for the night, and they had no idea how far it was to the spaceport. Without transportation, it wouldn’t matter. What was happening on Masnin would be over by the time they reached the spaceport on foot.

“There have to be cars somewhere in these buildings,” Adam said. “Look for anything that looks like a garage door.”

There were plenty of candidates, and they probably were garages from the heavy metal bars guarding their exteriors. Adam approached one and began tugging on the metal grill. His head still hurt from the initial hit he’d taken earlier in the evening, and Sherri was limping from the kick to her shin. Together they managed to rip a side of the metal barrier from the thin material making up the building. A little more effort and they had the screen off and the door open. Inside was a small, rust-red electric vehicle.

“Stop! That is not your property!”

The Humans turned to the surprise voice, coming face-to-face with a long-eared, hose-nosed creature holding a Xan-fi rifle in his hands.

“Sorry, buddy,” Adam said, “but we really need your transport.”

“I care not for your needs—”

Sherri lit off a level-3 bolt, fired from waist level, the weapon hidden by the angle of her body. Level-3 was meant to stun the average alien, and that it did. His body spasmed and then went rigid. He dropped the flash rifle while staggering forward. By the time the majority of his senses returned, Adam had the weapon scooped up and was gently setting the alien on the ground while patting his back.

“You’ll be fine. All we want is the car. Thanks.”

Sherri was in the driver’s seat, already straddling the joystick controller. Adam pursed his lips.

“I want to drive,” he said, pouting.

“Tough luck, dickhead. Get in the back.”

Electric-powered transports seldom had keys, and this one was no different. Adam waved at the still groggy owner of the car as Sherri pulled the vehicle from the garage. A moment later, they were racing along the deserted streets of Kanac, following the slope of the land to get their bearings.

The streets didn’t stay empty for long. A few minutes later, they found the main road through Kanac in the part of town that never slept. The sidewalks here were packed with drunk salvagers and other miscreants, and the roads were filled with vehicles driven by equally drunk drivers.

A couple of the more aggressive aliens tried to block their path, intending to steal the vehicle. That was common in this part of town. Adam simply lowered the window in the back of the vehicle and fired a couple of level-3 bolts into the would-be hijackers. He didn’t try to wing them; he was in no mood for that. His bolts hit them square in the chest and sent them writhing to the ground.

A few minutes later, they made it to the main road out of town and were racing toward the spaceport. In Kanac, a transport either had to be well-armored or fast. Fortunately for Adam and Sherri, theirs was fast. They made it to the spaceport ten minutes later and barreled through the gate and out onto the tarmac/dirt field. No security vehicles took up pursuit since there were none in service at the time. Nor had there ever been.

“Do you see it?” Sherri yelled from the front seat.

Adam was looking frantically, both out the sides of the car as well as the back. “Not yet. But it has to be here—”

“I see it!” Sherri yelled.

The Formilian Bokiss-Class starship was parked between a couple of huge freighters and was hard to see. Sherri skidded the car to a stop right at the side entrance, and they climbed out. Adam fingered in the security code for the door, and it slid open. Sherri jumped in before Adam.

“I’m driving this time!” he yelled after her.

“That’s fine. I’m on weapons.”

“I hope you’re not planning on taking on a fleet of Cartel warships,” Adam asked as he slid into the pilot seat and began firing up the controls.

“I’ll take on anyone I have to. This is my ex-husband we’re trying to save.”

“That will be a first for an ex-wife to say. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you still have feelings for him.”

“Right now, all I feel is anger that he got us into this mess in the first place.”

“That’s our Riyad, always working an angle.”

“Get us going … aren’t we there yet?”

“Patience, sweetheart. True love is so demanding.”

The Tirrell Joyner lifted off, churning up clouds of dust, dirt, and chemical exhaust on the way into space.

The Dead Worlds

The Joyner was not only a powerful warship, featuring some of the most sophisticated electronics in the galaxy. It was also fast. The journey to Masnin took only thirty-nine minutes, with a brief jump into faster-than-light speed.

“I have multiple contacts, some leaving the planet, with others concentrated at a location in the northern hemisphere,” Sherri reported.

“I see it,” Adam said. “Looks like seven ships on the surface; correction, one is lifting off. Probably coming up to dance with us. Looks like you’ll get to use your weapons after all. But one-on-one is hardly a contest.”

“I’m not looking for a contest,” Sherri announced. “I’m looking for some shock and awe. Powering up. Set me up for some good angles, Adam; it’s been a while.”

“We’re both a little rusty, my dear. I’m looping. Here we go.”

Adam’s calm belied his internal excitement. It had been a while since he’d been in a space battle, blazing through space at thousands of miles per hour, engaging in wild maneuvers while firing bright balls of star-hot plasma at an enemy warship. It was every kid’s fantasy. Somehow, the job of a barkeep just wasn’t the same.

Then reality set in. This was a true life-or-death situation and not child’s play. He got serious as he twisted the control stick to the left, whipping the Joyner into a wicked loop.

The Cartel warship responded by banking to its right, taking up the pursuit. But Adam didn’t speed away; rather, he closed the loop and came in broadside to the enemy vessel. Sherri opened up with the forward battery, spitting out a wide spread of six bolts, leading the Cartel ship.

All the bolts missed except the last one, which bounced harmlessly off the aft diffusion shield.

“Sorry,” she said. “I told you it’s been a while. I’ll get the feel back.”

At the speeds they were traveling, it was crucial to anticipate the movements of the enemy. Flash cannon bolts were ballistic, and once released, their course couldn’t be altered. That was also the reason near-telepathic communication and intuition between pilot and gunner was so important. Both had to be in sync, knowing what the other was going to do to make an effective team. Sherri and Adam had been doing this for twenty years, but nothing in the last two. It would take a little practice to shake off the cobwebs.

Now it was Adam’s turn to go on the defensive. The Cartel ship completed its own loop, coming over the top of the Joyner while unleashing a barrage of bolts. Adam corkscrewed out of harm’s way, eliciting a squeal of excitement from his gunner. The inertial compensators kept them from being tossed about or even feeling the sensation of movement. But the graphic representation of the battle on various monitors around the bridge was like being in the middle of an exciting virtual-reality video game. Good moves were appreciated.

“I’m coming about,” Adam said. “Portside lineup.”

“Got it. Bolts away.”

Sherri’s shots were not expected to strike the Cartel ship. Instead, they were intended to make it move in a certain direction to avoid being hit. Adam adjusted course, intercepting the other ship right where he was hoping. Sherri released more armament, filling the path of the enemy ship. Two bolts hit the portside screens. On Sherri’s monitors she saw one of them flicker, signifying a direct absorption of the energy bolt. This was both good and bad for the crew of the Cartel ship. It meant they were spared any lasting hull damage. It also meant that that diffusion screen was at full capacity, and another hit would knock it out of service.

“Damn!”

Adam was too busy marveling at his fancy maneuver that he wandered into an enemy spread. A bolt contacted the forward starboard side screen, showing sixty-percent absorption. One more solid hit and that screen would be down.

“I’m going under,” he called out to Sherri.

“Go for it!”

As he shoved the control stick forward, the focusing rings for the bow gravity-well changed orientation, pulling the ship down and then over. The starfield blurred through the viewport before settling down once the circle was complete. The move placed both ships only a few thousand feet apart and traveling in essentially the same direction. With the proximity of the combatants, the need to lead the target was gone. Fortunately, Sherri was quicker at the button than was the Cartel gunner. Adam felt a succession of burps through the hull as Sherri fired another spread, striking the enemy warship the blink of an eye later.

Bolts fed into the diffusion screens, overloading two of the panels before the trailing bolts reached the hull. Adam spun the Tirrell Joyner away just before the Cartel vessel exploded, preventing them from catching any stray shrapnel.

“That was fun,” Sherri said as Adam adjusted course back to Masnin. “I told you I’d get my mojo back.”

“Never any doubt. But you know next time, they won’t send just one ship after us.”

“So, what do we do? We have to get to the surface. And I don’t mean as a ball of flaming wreckage either.”

“How about this?”

Just then, all the power on the ship went off. Screens turn black, gravity disappeared, and even the ventilation system shut down. The Joyner was now in dark status, giving out no outward energy signatures while zipping through space on momentum only, aimed at the planet Masnin.

“That’s great,” Sherri said. “We’re invisible. We still need power to land.”

“I’ll power up when the time comes. We’re about ten minutes out at this speed. I’ll use gas bursts to move around to the dark side and try to disguise a short gravity burst behind that giant volcano.”

The volcano was one of those Olympus Mons monsters, easily reaching twice the height of Mt. Everest. Adam could keep the Joyner in its shadow most of the way in and then skim along the surface the rest of the way to the landing site.

Sherri had downloaded the schematics for the various abandoned mines of the planet, and now she studied them on a battery-operated datapad, focusing on the one at the location where the Cartel ships were parked.

“This seems to be the main mine site. Huge place and really deep. Not sure how the Cartel decided on this location, but it makes sense.”

“Riyad told them.”

“But how did he know?”

Adam shrugged. “Jay?”

“That’s possible. And how did he find out? This is a raider location. I don’t think Jay is part of the raiders … or is he?”

“I don’t think he’s smart enough to keep that a secret for so long. Somehow either he or Riyad found out where the weapons are being stored. That big-eyed bastard only moved after Riyad got back, and then they took him and Jay with them.”

“Insurance in case they weren’t telling the truth?”

“That’s also a possibility. But more likely, they still need their help.” He snorted. “These are all good questions that will be answered in a few minutes. Get ready to break out the environmental suits. I’ll get us in as close as I can, but we could still have a little hike ahead of us.”


29

Captain Belan Belash entered the vast chamber leading a force of sixty enthusiastic raider troops. Just as he, they were excited by the promise of one hundred thousand Juirean credits each for the defense of the fifty shipping containers in the mine. That was a lot of money, especially for a raider—even a captain.

Belan often wondered why so many creatures gravitated to this line of work. He knew his reasons; command of fighting troops and a decent share of the bounty. But he’d already spent time as a military commander by the time he immigrated to The Dead Zone. He was offered more of a share going in.

But the common raider made very little, a practice Belan learned later was intentional. Worker pirates weren’t allowed to make a fortune off a single raid, otherwise captains would be replacing their crews after every operation. Instead, they were paid just enough to keep them satisfied, but not enough on which to retire.

However, for most of the sixty fighters waiting for his orders, a hundred thousand credits was a fortune.

But it wasn’t Belan offering the credits to the raiders; Dal Divisen did that, although he and Belan’s second officer were the only ones who knew it. The average raider wasn’t aware who pulled their strings; only the top captains. And Dal had personally tasked Belan with the defense of the containers.

The captain figured that was because he knew what was in them. He had commanded one of the three ships that raided the Hax’on salvage site, even as Lospen Calos was in overall command. Belan was surprised not to find Calos here. He knew why the third commander—Captain Kammos—wasn’t; his ship and crew had been lost only the day before, the result of a freak explosion aboard their vessel. It was tragic, but these things happened. Even so, it seemed to Belan events were moving fast. It had only been a handful of days since he and the others offloaded the shipping containers on L-7, and now Divisen was concerned others were coming to steal them back. Again, knowing of the weapons, Belan could understand. The thousands of prototype flash rifles were built for a reason, and one did not simply write off the loss after they disappeared. Attempts at recovery must first be made.

Belan didn’t question Dal when the link came through two days ago, assigning him the defense of the containers. The crime boss had better information than Belan. If he said the weapons were in jeopardy, then it was so. Someone was coming to Masnin, and they had to be stopped. And when the most recent link came in from Liave-3 only minutes before, telling him the enemy was on the way, Belan was ready.

He was now in one of the deeper sections of the abandoned mine, with three ways into the chamber. The main access tunnel was wide and tall, allowing motorized vehicles to transport the containers to and from the cavern. The other two tunnels were smaller, too small to move the pods through them. There was also a small emergency escape tunnel at the rear of the chamber that the raiders dug when they first came to Masnin. It was narrow, able to only accommodate a single column of raiders in the case of emergency. Belan developed his defense plan only the day before. Now he was about to put it into motion.

Belan called over his fellow officers and began issuing orders.

“Set charges at the main entrance, as well as C-Corridor. Collapse the tunnels when all is clear.”

“Collapse?” asked one of the officers.

“Yes. We have been tasked with protecting the containers and their contents. If we are driven out, then the contents will have to be moved from the cavern in their individual crates, rather than in the larger containers. In that contingency, we will reform and launch a secondary effort to reacquire the contents.”

“Would it not be wise then to collapse all three corridors and escape through the rear tunnel?” asked another.

“That would be one way of defending the contents. Yet if we did, we would have no way to remove the contents until the tunnels are cleared. With other parties interested in their retrieval, I am told we do not have the time nor resources for that. We have here a very defensible position, and we are being paid handsomely for our efforts. I will follow my instructions, as will you.”

Belan was ordered not to divulge the nature of the contents to those who didn’t already know. To violate this restriction meant forfeiture of the bonus. He was also told not to go in the containers, lest someone learn of the contents. Even so, he could see on the faces of the other officers that they wanted to ask. But no one dared. They were curious, but not curious enough to risk one hundred thousand JCs.

“Once the other two tunnels are blocked, we will have only B-Corridor to defend.” Belan continued. “There are side passageways along this tunnel. Station troops at each intersection in crossfire positions. Prepare them to fall back successively if need be. Place the bulk of our defenders at the entrance to the main chamber. Now go, direct your crews. I have been informed the invaders have landed outside. They will be here soon.”


30

“Did you hear that?” Sirous asked.

He was in the rear of the large column of Cartel soldiers moving through the wide central tunnel, following the directions of a technician with a radiation meter. They were about half a mile from the main source, and on a constant downward slope.

The rumbling vibration continued through the bedrock.

“Explosions?” Pannel questioned.

“To block access to the chamber?” The big-eyed alien had removed his thick glasses, content in the dim lighting of the abandoned mine. There was a single strip of gas lighting pods tacked to the high ceiling, guiding their way. They passed dusty mining equipment and electric haulers, all of whose batteries had long since drained. Still, the center of the tunnel was clear of dust, having been cleaned by the hundreds of tracks from the raider’s transports moving through the passageway.

Riyad could tell there had been a lot of traffic through here, but he wasn’t convinced it was only for the shipping containers. Already the hundred or so heavily armed and suited-up soldiers were checking each side room, ostensibly for enemy troops. Instead, they’d found a wealth of stolen goods—tons of it, in fact—taken from the hundred worlds in The Zone. The place was packed with treasure, and Riyad could see the soldiers becoming anxious. They were Cartel members, used to being on the receiving end of pirate operations. They were leaving a lot of money on the table.

Riyad laughed. He’d witnessed a strange dynamic recently, watching as the Cartel looked down their noses, snouts, or trunks at the raiders. Pirates, it seemed, were a lower breed of criminal in the eyes of the Cartel, even as Riyad saw them as one and the same. He had once commanded a fleet of pirate vessels, molding them into the most-feared fighting force in The Fringe. He didn’t feel pirates were second-class crooks. But to Pannel and his people, they were.

Now the Cartel captain was having difficulty keeping his people in line. They were passing millions of credits in contraband and doing nothing about it.

The sound of the two distinct explosions served to refocus their attention. So far, they hadn’t encountered any enemy fighters, but evidently, they were here. The small army passed through the huge airlock without incident and were now only minutes from their destination. Pannel warned about traps and sent a small advance force up ahead looking for them. So far, nothing.

Riyad squinted into the dim distance. The tunnel seemed to come to an end up ahead, and the pressurized air was beginning to fill with smoke and dust, coming from in front of them.

A soldier ran up to Pannel.

“The tunnel is blocked ahead. Scouts have detected a second collapsed tunnel.” He held out a datapad. “That leaves only one tunnel leading deeper into the mine. That one appears to be clear.”

“We are being steered in that direction. There is no other entrance?”

The soldier shook his diamond-shaped, bright orange head. “Not on the charts. But there is no guarantee that our information is accurate, seeing that these records are several years old.”

Sirous was listening. “I do not think the raiders would engage in much tunneling of their own. There was no need. They have come here for convenience. The storage chambers are ready-made.”

“I agree,” said Pannel. “We will move along the last tunnel. Prepare for action.” The soldier rushed off.

“Shouldn’t we have weapons, too?” Riyad asked. “Seeing that you want us to assist in the recovery.”

“So you can use the weapons against us?” Sirous questioned.

“All one hundred of you heavily-armed soldiers? Yeah, sounds like something I’d do.”

“Save your sarcasm. If the time comes, you will be provided weapons. Until then, stay quiet.”

The Cartel force shifted over to a side tunnel and then continued deeper underground. Six minutes later, the first sounds of fighting echoed through the corridor.

“We have engaged,” Pannel announced after listening to his comm.

“Like, duh?” Riyad said. He looked at Jay. The salvager was terrified. Riyad knew it wasn’t because he was afraid of combat. He was terrified of what was to come after the battle. Whether the Cartel, or the pirates came out victorious, he was pretty sure both he and Riyad were fucked. He didn’t believe Sirous would let them go. Neither did Riyad. And that was why he was looking around desperately for a way out. Sirous was right not to arm them. Riyad wouldn’t take on all one hundred Cartel soldiers, just enough so they could get away.

People were moving now, deploying into squads and pressing forward. Riyad was back with Sirous and Pannel, out of harm’s way, but he could still see into the battlefield.

Flash bolts lit up the smoke-filled corridor. Defenders were stationed at cross passageways, firing desperately at the advancing troops. It was a losing battle. The Cartel came equipped with hundreds of small grenades, anticipating this kind of action. The explosives were anti-personnel; not strong enough to affect the granite walls, but enough to rip alien flesh to shreds.

Intersection after intersection was being cleared with very few Cartel casualties.

However, the pirates were putting up a stiff defense, and the closer they got to the source of the radioactive signal, the more intense the fighting. Here the raiders were employing larger, tripod-mounted flash cannon. The powerful bolts from these weapons streaked down the corridor, even ricocheting off the stone walls and tumbling along the floor before dissipating, striking Cartel soldiers along the way.

Pannel had his people lay back and fire more powerful missiles into the chamber. The fighting continued unabated.

The Dead Worlds

“It’s not on the plans,” Sherri said, checking her datapad again. “But it’s definitely an airlock. It has to lead somewhere.”

“It’s better than trying to follow the Cartel bastards into the mine through the front door,” Adam agreed. “And from the booms and vibrations below us, the battle has already begun.”

“We have to find Riyad.” Sherri didn’t have to say more. With the start of the fighting, there was no telling how much longer Sirous and Pannel would keep him alive. Sherri was being driven by fear. It gave her courage where maybe caution should have been the plan.

Adam brought the Tirrell Joyner down behind the massive volcano as planned, then skipped along the surface to a point about three miles from the entrance to the mine and sitting atop a low-lying hill. As far as they knew, their approach was unseen, but by the time they made the short hike to where they now stood, the battle was already underway.

The odd-looking metal box/tube stood out against the grey landscape, being hard to miss. It was a salvaged airlock from a starship, barely large enough for two people to fit inside. The electronics worked, tied as they were into the main grid for the mine. That was encouraging. The airlock was here for a purpose and not just a remnant from the old mining operations. Adam and Sherri crowded in and activated the mechanism.

It worked, and to their relief, they were able to open their helmets for breaths of fresh, pressurized air once the lock cycled through. They were now in a tunnel carved crudely out of the bedrock, with a series of equally rough-cut stairsteps leading down. There was no light in the tunnel, so they used their helmet lamps to light the way.

Before leaving the Joyner, Adam and Sherri armed up. They each had double-holster utility belts around their waists, with MK-17s in each holder, along with six extra battery packs. They also carried Xan-fi Model AX-4s energy rifles. These were short-barrel weapons better suited for close-quarters-combat. In backpacks on their backs, they had five extra battery packs for each.

Adam also carried an eighteen-inch long projection sword dangling from his utility belt. It was the closest thing he’d found to a lightsaber in the galaxy, and it had become his backup weapon of choice recently.

The pair was ready for just about anything.

Anything except what came next.


31

Captain Belan had a flash rifle in his grip, frustrated at the slow rate of fire from the targeting computer. This was a problem with such weapons during close combat situations. Smoke tended to fill the air, making it harder for the sensors to identify and lock onto targets.

He wasn’t the only one having trouble. His raiders had resorted to untargeted firing, which tended to waste battery packs rather than increase the casualty rate of the enemy. One could not be expected to hit a target without computer assist; to ask otherwise was madness.

Overall, the battle wasn’t going too badly for the pirates. They were holding back the attackers, keeping them from entering the chamber; however, the writing was on the wall. With the rate at which his troops were going through their power packs, Belan’s fighters would soon run out of ammo, and long before the vastly superior number of invaders would run out of theirs.

That’s when Belan had an idea. He glanced back at the cluster of shipping containers stacked toward the back of the large cavern. Belan knew what was in them, and he knew what such weapons could do to turn the tide of the battle.

But could he go against his orders?

Then he realized a fatal flaw in his original plan.

He had planned for a strategic retreat through the emergency tunnel should their position become indefensible. At that point, his troops would regroup and reengage the enemy as they moved the weapons from the chamber a crate at a time. He was expecting to stop them with this second offensive.

The flaw in his plan hit him like a flash bolt—literally. The enemy would have access to the superweapons. His troops would not.

He’d seen the rifles in action on Hax’on. They had incredible range and power, plus a top-level capacity of ninety bolts. What could his raiders do against such firepower?

The answer was nothing. To decide on retreat would mean the battle was lost, along with the weapons. There would be no recourse after that.

Belan had no choice. If Dal Divisen chose to remove the hundred-thousand-credit-incentive for the defense of the position, then so be it. Belan had to believe he would be more sensible. Belan could save the weapons … or he could lose them. Also, he could either save a few of his troops, or they could all die here in the cavern fighting a losing cause. The third option was he could take a supply of the superweapons and wreck-havoc on the enemy, only to suffer the consequences of victory afterward.

He made a command decision.

“You three, come with me,” he yelled through the din of the battle. The sounds were amplified by the granite walls, making it hard to hear anything below a yell. The four raiders set off across the wide stone floor for the nearest shipping container.

All his fighters wore light environmental suits, both in case they had to evacuate the mine, and also as protection against the radioactivity associated with the containers. It wasn’t that strong by itself. But with so many pods in the chamber, as well as the insulating nature of the stone walls, extended exposure could be dangerous.

He reached the first container, and with gloved hands, pulled up the release mechanism and slid it to one side, tugging on the handle to open the container door. It was dark inside the chamber until Belan flicked on his helmet light.

He staggered back, stumbling into one of the other raiders who was crowding him, anxious to get a look inside. Regaining his balance, he ran to the next container, panic in his movements.

A moment later, he stood in shock, staring with disbelief at a second empty container.

“Check more!” he frantically ordered.

His helpers weren’t stupid; they realized what was happening.

They were dying to protect a bunch of empty pods, being sacrificed for nothing.

Belan triggered his throat comm unit, linking him to the surviving officers under his command.

“Call the retreat! Fall back in covering units. Do it quickly. Make for the emergency exit.”

“What of the containers, of the bonus?” a voice asked in his ear.

“They are empty. They are all empty.”

The silence in his ears was telling. No one protested; no one shouted their anger. All they were concerned about now was for their survival.

From where Belan stood, he saw a marked difference in the complexion of the battle. His people began running, some moving back to take up defensive positions. This strategy held for only a few moments before it became a wholesale retreat, one of disorganized panic. These were pirates, not true soldiers. Discipline disappeared with their courage.

It was now every being for himself, and Belan was no exception. He raced off for the escape tunnel, arriving only moments before anyone else. He entered and began climbing the long and narrow stairway. Other raiders crowded in behind him, shoving and yelling. The tunnel was made for only one person at a time to move up the stairs. Now three or four were trying to shoulder their way up.

Belan had gone up only about fifty steps when he noticed a bouncing light off the curving walls of the tunnel, coming from above. He cradled his weapon, thinking this could be the enemy attempting to outflank them. That wasn’t necessary, not any longer. The battle was lost. But the advancing Cartel soldiers could cut off his only means of retreat.

Belan fired without a target, attempting to clear the tunnel.

An answering barrage of return fire splashed against the walls. Raiders behind him were hit, screaming in pain and answering with their own volley of blinding flash bolts.

It was never decided whether Captain Belan was killed by enemy fire, or from friendly fire from behind. It didn’t matter. No one investigated the incident.

Now the raiders reversed course, heading back into the huge cavern in a panic.


32

Adam kept firing even though he didn’t have a target. The passageway was too narrow for anyone to get past him and too narrow for him to proceed without laying down a scorching series of flash bolts first. Bodies began to pile up along the stairs, making it harder for him and Sherri to move.

But they kept going, popping in new power packs when the current ones ran dry. At one point, the enemy fire died off, and below they could see light filtering into the tunnel from another room. This had to be the main cavern with the shipping containers. Beyond the narrow tunnel, the battle continued, although everyone who tried to escape through the emergency tunnel had backed out and were in the large chamber.

Adam crouched down at the exit and peeked around the rock edge. The site he saw was shocking.

It was an enormous dome-topped chamber with a smooth, flat floor. Smoke was accumulating at the higher elevations and beginning to drift lower. Flash bolts streaked through the air, smelling of ozone … and death. Bodies lay everywhere, and if there had once been defining lines between offensive and defensive forces, they had long since disappeared. Aliens were scrambling about in all directions, firing almost indiscriminately at anyone who came within their sights, be they friend or foe. There were no distinctive uniforms between the combatants, only ubiquitous environmental suits of various colors.

Adam placed an arm on Sherri, holding her back. She was apoplectic, with her anger and fear guiding her actions. In her desperate need to find Riyad, she was willing to race into the melee without regard for her own safety.

“Let me go!” she yelled, struggling to get past.

“Take it easy; give it a little time. It’s a clusterfuck out there.”

“Riyad—”

“I know. Just hold on.”

Adam surveyed the battle, looking for any pattern, any signs of leadership on either side. He was pretty sure Riyad would be with that group, more than likely unarmed, held back with the brass as the grunts were pressed forward.

Then he saw an opening, a way to reach the stack of storage containers. That’s where the big weapons would be. He grabbed Sherri by the shoulder of her environmental suit and pulled her from the tunnel exit.

They didn’t sprint to the containers, rather they leaped, in bounding arcs twenty feet long. Running in half Earth’s gravity was a delight, even if it took a little getting used to. Without knowing how to do it, a person would mainly bounce up and down rather than move along in a straight line. But Adam and Sherri were experienced in variable gravity scenarios. They leaned forward radically, giving direction to their momentum. They reached the stack of containers three seconds later.

Sherri blasted an alien who surprised her as he appeared around the corner of a pod. Adam then slipped past her and moved along the thirty-foot length of the container. The front end was closed but not locked. Adam set to work opening it, hoping to get his hands on one of these superweapons he’d heard so much about. A moment later he knew why the battle had disintegrated into a wild free-for-all.

The damn thing was empty.

The Dead Worlds

Riyad and Jay were on their bellies, arms covering their heads, as flash bolts flew wildly around them coming from all directions. Pannel and Sirous weren’t too far away, also seeking cover wherever they could find it, with the Cartel leader shouting orders into his comm, which no one seemed to be obeying.

The breakdown began a few minutes ago when the raiders in defense of the containers ran for the far side of the chamber. Victorious Cartel soldiers entered after that, content to let the retreating troops go. Then suddenly, the raiders returned, catching the Cartel by surprise. Everyone scattered and began firing at anything that moved.

Riyad was at the entrance to the cavern, pressed against a rock wall, when a soldier close to him fell to an energy bolt to the chest, his Xan-fi rifle sliding smoothly up to Riyad as if delivered by angels. Riyad snatched it up—and grabbing Jay by his environmental suit—pulled the kid with him around the corner.

They were now in the cavern itself, which wasn’t an improvement from where they’d been a moment before. Random bolts filled the air, and there was no place to hide—only the distant stack of shipping containers at the far end of the chamber.

“Let’s go!” he called out to Jay before he took off in gigantic leaps in the low gravity.

A moment later, he noticed Jay wasn’t with him. He slid to a stop, crouching low to make himself less of a target. The kid was on his way, but having a hell of a time getting the hang of running in low-G. His powerful Human muscles were causing him to soar eight feet into the air with each stride, while only covering five feet or so of distance. It was like he was on an invisible pogo-stick.

“Lean forward as you run!” Riyad yelled at him. Jay looked at him with wide, panicking eyes. But the next couple of times he made contact with the floor, he began to make more forward progress with each stride. Eventually, he reached Riyad and raced past him. Riyad took up the chase.

They reach the cluster of containers without getting hit and bounded into the metal side of a open pod with a crash, coming to a stop.

“That was cool!” Jay exclaimed, having been caught up in the moment—at least for that moment. Now Riyad pulled him inside the open container for cover.

An alien with the same idea was inside, crouching in fear against a side wall, his weapon drained of power. Riyad glared down at him, confused. How could he be out of ammo when he was in a shipping container full of … of nothing.

The dark void of the container sucked all of Riyad's attention from the raging battle. The fucking thing was empty. The weapons were gone.

Jay had the same reaction. The two Humans looked at each other.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jay said.

“If not here, then where?” Riyad asked.

A movement from outside caught their attention. Both men dropped to their knees and turned, raising their weapons toward the threat. Riyad fired first, his bolt contacting the edge of the door, driving back the attacker.

A head made a quick look-see around the corner and then pulled back. Riyad fired again but missed.

“Riyad! Is that you?”

“Adam! What the fuck?”

Riyad reached out a hand and pressed Jay’s rifle barrel toward the floor, just as Sherri and Adam came around the corner and entered the pod.

Sherri didn’t hesitate. She tumbled into Riyad, who was still on one knee, not only knocking him down but also causing the both of them to skid along the smooth metal floor of the container in the light gravity. Now spread prone above him, Sherri laid a hard, wet kiss on his lips.

She followed up the passionate kiss with a loud, hard slap to the side of his face.

“You bastard! You’re alive!”

“Would you prefer that I wasn’t?”

“I’m not sure; give me a minute.”

Adam yanked Sherri’s light body off Riyad. In the gravity of Masnin, it was a very … emphatic move, causing her to bounce off the ceiling of the container before falling to the floor.

“Knock it off!” Adam said, slightly embarrassed. Sherri was shaking her head, trying to get her senses back. “There’s still a big fight going on outside,” Adam concluded.

“Not anymore,” Jay said from the doorway.

Everyone scrambled to take a look. Jay was right. There were still a few sporadic flash bolts going off, but other than that, an eerie silence was filling the cavern.

Then came a movement at the entrance to the chamber where the assault was launched. More figures appeared there—a lot more—and soldiers by the look of them. They carried energy rifles and came in the same varied shapes and sizes of the Cartel troops. The tunnel was filled with them.

“Reinforcements!” Adam called out to his team. “We have to get back to the exit.”

“What exit?” Jay asked.

Adam noticed that the scared alien fighter was still in the pod. He looked up at Adam and nodded. If the Humans weren’t going to kill him, then he was more than willing to tag along. That wasn’t going to happen.

“There’s a tunnel cut into the mountain behind the containers,” Sherri explained. “That’s how we got inside.”

“Then let’s go!” Riyad yelled.

The alien jumped to his feet.

“Not you, dickhead,” Sherri said.

“Fuck!” said Jay. “It could be too late.”

This new force now raced into the chamber, spreading out and covering all sides. Adam checked his battery strength, as did the others.

“I’m running low,” he reported.

There was a chorus of me toos.

“It’s going to be touch-and-go if we can make it to the tunnel before we go dry, but we don’t have a choice,” Adam said. He unhooked his projection sword from his belt as a last resort.

“Aw, hell,” Riyad said. “There are more of those bug-eyed aliens with them,” he reported, watching the huge alien entourage as they made their way straight for the pod the Humans were hiding within.

“What do you think they’ll do when they find out the weapons are gone?” It was Jay asking.

Adam shrugged. “We’re about to find out. Lay down your weapons,” he ordered. “Let’s see if we can talk our way out of this.”

The four Humans—and one alien—presented themselves at the entrance to the container, holding out their hands, showing they were unarmed. Bruised and battered, Pannel led the way, with another of the big-eyed aliens next to him. But it wasn’t Sirous. He came up a moment later, his arms secured in front of him with what appeared to be nylon bindings.

Now that was something Adam wasn’t expecting. He led his people out of the container and up to the aliens.

Pannel was appropriately startled to see Adam and Sherri. Sirous didn’t react one way or the other. He had the look of total defeat in his demeanor.

Aliens rushed forward and entered the container. They came out a second later, confusion on their faces.

“They’re all like that,” Adam volunteered. “The weapons are gone, removed by the pirates before you got here.”

Pannel wanted to ask how Adam and Sherri got here, but he was pushed aside by one of the big-eyed aliens who stepped past Adam and entered the container.

After his brief eyewitness inspection, he walked over to Sirous.

“I can tell by your expression that you are as surprised as we are. You knew nothing of this?”

Sirous didn’t answer. Instead, he appeared deflated and defeated, a look of abject failure on his face.

The alien turned to Pannel.

“It appears as though the revolution Sirous so wanted shall never be. We give thanks to the Gradis Cartel for your assistance in stopping this catastrophe.”

“What the hell?” Adam asked. “The Cartel was working against Sirous?”

Pannel stepped up to the Human. “It did not start that way. As you stated earlier, we of the Cartel are pragmatic. We go to the highest bidder.”

Adam couldn’t restrain his smile, full teeth and all. “And our friend Sirous was outbid! Now that’s rich.”

“Rich had a lot to do with it,” the big-eyed alien replied, missing the point. “We had been suspicious of Sirous for a long time. Yet only recently did we discover who was assisting him in his attempted coup. We were relieved to find it was the Cartel.”

“Relieved?” Riyad asked.

“Yes. That meant his army could be bought, and not made up of ideologues who could not. Pannel received instructions from his organization to assist Sirous until the weapons were recovered. After which, we would arrive and place him in custody.”

“But the weapons haven’t been recovered,” Sherri pointed out.

The alien made a shrugging motion. “It matters not, just so long as they are no longer under the control of Sirous or his co-conspirators.”

“But the pirates have them.”

“As long as they are not used against us, we do not care. That is the concern of others.”

Adam leaned against the doorframe of the pod. “Well, hell,” he sighed. “Now what? What about us?”

Again, the alien shrugged. “That is not our decision.” He looked over at Pannel. “You are now in the hands of the Cartel. All we wanted to do was stop the rebellion and capture Sirous. We have done that.”

Adam looked at Pannel and grinned, keeping his mouth closed as he did. At this crucial juncture, he didn’t want to antagonize the Cartel boss.

“We have no instructions regarding your welfare other than that dictated by Sirous. That contract has now been voided.” He stepped in closer to Adam—a good head taller than the shorter Human—and glared down. “Personally, I want revenge. However, if the roles were reversed, I would have reacted the same as you. You, Adam Cain—and the others—are free to go.”

Jay took Riyad and Sherri by the arm. “You don’t have to ask us twice. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Sherri and Riyad pulled their arms away.

“That’s it?” Sherri asked. “After shooting up our business, terrorizing us, and with us losing a perfectly good freighter, we’re just supposed to walk away as if nothing happened?”

“The Cartel was not responsible for … for most of that,” Pannel replied. “You should be content that I am setting you free. In my mind, I know this to be a mistake. Eventually, our paths will cross again, and I fear for the outcome. It would be easier for me to deny you the opportunity to interfere again in the affairs of the Gradis.”

“C’mon, Sherri,” Adam said. “Let’s call it a day. We have a lot of clean up to do once we get back.”

With a last show of defiance, the four beaten, exhausted, and defeated Humans made their way back to the escape tunnel. At the entrance, Adam turned to the skinny alien tagging along.

“Shoo! You’re not coming with us.”

The alien hesitated until Riyad took a step toward him and flashed his brilliant white smile. The creature’s eyes grew wide before he turned and scurried off into the cavern, terrified of Riyad’s death challenge.


33

Fortunately for everyone, the trip back to Liave-3 from L-7 was a short one; otherwise, the tension aboard the Tirrell Joyner would have been unbearable.

Riyad avoided Sherri and Adam, guilt-ridden and frustrated, while Jay hung out in the cargo hold away from everyone out of an instinctive desire for self-preservation.

In the end, the universal sentiment was depression and disillusionment. There was no fantastic salvage worth multi-millions of Juirean credits waiting for them, or even compensation for the damage done to the outfitting business. They’d lost their best freighter, and Jay’s speeder was also gone. And to top it off, each of them was suffering from a variety of injuries, inflicted either by an assortment of aliens or by each other, as in the case of Jay and Riyad. All in all, it had been a pretty shitty couple of weeks.

Adam guided the Tirrell Joyner to the Kanac Spaceport, obeying the quasi-landing instructions issued from the surface by the semi-trained tower crew. Basically, they were directed to the northwest quadrant and told not to land on any other vessel in port. That was the extent of most landing instructions.

When the exhaust smoke cleared, Adam remained in his seat for a full minute, the motivation to continue his day absorbed by his melancholy.

“C’mon, Adam,” Sherri prodded. “Things won’t get better on their own.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

A couple of minutes later, the hatch opened, and the four Humans reluctantly exited the vessel. Jay hung back a distance; Adam could tell he was afraid of him. The kid isn’t as dumb as he looks. Adam blamed Jay for most of what happened recently. A reckoning was due at some point. Fortunately for Jay, it would wait until Adam was feeling better.

And then, just as if Adam’s day couldn’t get any worse, it did.

A large black transport pulled up to the side of the Tirrell Joyner, and the rotund form of Dal Divisen climbed out the back, accompanied by a set of long-tusked and hulking bodyguards. His amused grin only made Adam angrier, along with the fact that the gangster knew his schedule down to the minute. Did he have a tracker on the TJ? Adam wouldn’t put it past him.

“What the hell do you want?” Adam said as he approached the alien.

Dal raised his hands in mock defense. “Calm yourself, Adam Cain. I come in peace.”

“I’ve heard aliens say that before.”

Dal frowned, missing the obscure reference.

“Truly, I have not come to upset.”

“Then to gloat? I know you have the weapons. You cleaned out your little hideaway before anyone got there, making us all look like fools. And of course, I didn’t see you on the ground fighting beside your pitiful pirates. You prefer to sit back and let others get their hands dirty for you.”

Dal shook his head. “I am confused as to what you are implying, my friend. Are you saying you suspect me of having some influence over the actions of the raiders?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“That is preposterous. I would not dream of such! My businesses are all legitimate, and sponsoring the actions of criminals would be detrimental to my interests. And now you accuse me of gunrunning, as well. Surely such activity would attract the attention of both the Union and the Expansion. I would not be that foolish.”

“Says you.”

“Please, Adam Cain, let us not squabble.” Dal took in the four very angry and frustrated Humans, obviously unaware of the danger he faced. Adam was only a few seconds away from hauling off and flooring the obnoxious alien. One hit; one kill. That was his motto. He looked at the bodyguards, itching for the chance. Beating up on aliens was once a hobby of his. And there was no denying Adam his favorite pastime.

“I did not come here to fight,” Dal continued. “As fact, I have something to show you. Please, look into the sky.”

Everyone was distracted by a deep rumbling coming from above. They gazed into the glare of midday, squinting as an object appeared at nearly the same point in the sky as the star Liave. It competed against the blinding light before descending further on a cushion of flaming landing jets. It was large, oblong, and with a bulbous tail end; a form that was imminently familiar to them all.

A moment later, the Ed Gibson landed a hundred yards away, the hot grey exhaust reaching the dumbfounded observers a second later.

Once the choking and coughing passed, Adam was even more upset.

“I knew it, you rotten bastard! That’s our ship! What are you trying to do, rub it in?”

“Rub what, in what?”

“That you stole our ship.”

“I assure you I have not stolen anything. I purchased the freighter according to all accepted standards. I have all the documentation to prove it.”

Adam was a second away from losing it when Jay stepped up.

“But it was contaminated; too hot for normal operation.”

“Yes, it was, young Human. And that is why I was able to acquire the vessel for a very reasonable price. It has since been cleaned and is ready for operation once again.”

“That’s our ship, and you know it,” Sherri scolded, also taking a step toward the alien. His bodyguards began to move in; Dal stopped them with a gesture.

“And that is the reason I am giving it to you as a gift.”

Adam saw red. This was the last straw. “I’m going to tear you a new one—wait, what?”

“I am gifting you the vessel,” Dal said, his amused grin having returned. “And as a bonus, within the hold is a small transit speeder, which I believe was once owned by your associate, Jay Williford. Do with it as you wish.”

Jay’s face was animated, grinning from ear to ear.

“He is not an associate of ours,” Riyad corrected, glaring at the young man.

Jay’s smile vanished. He took a step away from his former friend, moving out of range.

“I don’t understand,” Sherri said. “Why are you doing this?”

Dal gathered his thoughts before speaking. Then he focused his attention on Adam once again. “When I first learned that you and your friends had come to L-3, I suspected you were here on some notorious mission to spy on my operations. I have since come to dismiss that thought. I see now that you are here for your stated purpose, to make a life on Liave-3, such as I. This means we are to be neighbors for the foreseeable future. In addition, I have witnessed the perseverance and awesome power Humans are capable of, verifying many of the stories I have heard of your race, and of you, in particular, Adam Cain. As you are well aware, times are changing on Liave-3. It cannot sustain its current posture. Eventually, civilization must come to the planet, including laws and government. I accept this; in fact, I encourage it. Outside forces are moving in which threaten both our interests. Without reliable laws and structure, all could be lost.” Dal grinned fully, exposing his teeth, knowing that Humans did not subscribe to the standard meaning of the expression. “And in all honesty, when the time comes for this transition I would prefer to have you as my friend, rather than my enemy.”

“Friend?” Adam questioned. “That’s pushing it.”

“I do not understand. Pushing what?”

“Never mind; it’s just a saying.”

Dal shook his head. “You Humans have such an odd way of expressing yourself. But as I was saying, I no longer want conflict between us. So, consider the return of your ship a demonstration of goodwill. As I stated to you once before, all I seek is harmony.”

“And compliance, if I’m not mistaken.”

Dal nodded. “Yes, compliance, as well. However, at the moment, I will settle for harmony. Compliance will come later.”

It was Adam’s turn to grin, displaying a full set of white Human teeth. In this case, the meaning of the expression was two-fold.

“I wouldn’t count on that. If you hadn’t noticed, Humans ain’t the complyin’ type.”


The End

With more great adventures to come…


Author Notes

So, this is it, the first book in the revamped Human Chronicles Saga, now titled The Adam Cain Chronicles.

Still set in the expansive universe of The Human Chronicles, I continue to follow the adventures of our heroes Adam Cain, Riyad Tarazi and Sherri Valentine, but now it’s back to the basics. Just a trio of ordinary Humans doing superhuman things in an alien universe.

From the very beginning, I wanted to make ordinary Humans into Supermen (and women), blessed with natural abilities that set all of us above the alien population in the galaxy. I was tired of all the stories where we get our asses kicked by every blob, spore or tentacled thing that comes to Earth or that we meet among the stars.

I wanted Humans to be the thing everyone feared.

Hence, The Human Chronicles Saga, all 29 books in the series.

And now the adventure continues with The Adam Cain Chronicles (soon to be a Saga all its own).

This first book—The Dead Worlds—sets the stage for further novels, introducing people, places and things that will be constants throughout the series. However, a key feature of this new series is that every book should be able to be read as a standalone, without having to read all those before it. (For those first being introduced to the characters and concepts, you have the entire Human Chronicles Saga to read if you need context. And for my loyal fans, it’s more of what you’ve come to expect from Adam and his friends.)

In other news…

I’m working on book #5 in The REV Warriors SeriesREV: Retribution—which is due out on Dec. 20, 2019. (Available for pre-order). I’m also hoping to get more Adam Cain novels out on a regular basis, shifting between REV and Adam Cain every month or so.

I’m also developing several new series and spinoffs. In fact, it’s hard to go a week without coming up with a new story idea! That’s just the life of a writer; there’s always another book to write.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Be sure to check your email for updates, features and release notices (For those of you who have signed up on my list, or course. If you haven’t, then shame on you! Do it now by clicking here: Subscribe to My Email List.)

I hope you enjoyed The Dead Worlds. It’s fun and light space opera entertainment … and there’s a lot more to come!

T.R. (Tom) Harris

October 2019

P.S. October 2019, marks the eight-year anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Fringe Worlds, way back on Oct. 12, 2011. It’s been an incredible ride, fulfilling a life-time ambition of mine to be a full-time—and successful—author. For this I thank every one of you. Without readers to buy and read my stories I would still be just a dreamer. Don’t get me wrong; I still am a dreamer. Only now I get paid for it.

Thanks again for your loyal support throughout the years.

-T.R. Harris


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