Book: Empires



Empires




Empires


The Adam Cain Chronicles Book 2


T.R. Harris


Set in The Human Chronicles Universe




Copyright 2020 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!

Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude

Prologue

Chapter 1

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

Epilogue – Six Months Later

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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 a reward. 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.

In this latest adventure…

The galaxy is on the verge of war—again--and this time it’s over control of The Dead Zone. When a deadly incident occurs between Human and Juirean warships, events begin to spiral out of control. To head off a tragedy of galactic proportion, a peace conference has been set up, to be held on Liave-3 … and at Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill.

Nothing bad can come out of that, right? After all, it’s a peace conference.

If you believe that, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Adam Cain and friends are back. Let the alien ass-kicking begin!


Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude


His story continues.


Prologue

Captain Curt Bauer walked onto the bridge of the Naples at 0630-hours, holding a steaming serving of black coffee in a metal flask, before sliding into his command seat and settling in for another day of patrol duty in the Dead Zone.

“What’s our status, Dan?” the captain asked as his XO stepped up to the chair. Commander Dan Madden had relieved the night watch only minutes before.

“Nothing much to report, sir,” Madden answered. He referenced a small datapad in his hand. “Pressure in the portside aft air exchanger is down five percent. I have a team looking at it. Shielding is nominal, and the focusing rings are within tolerance. Master Chief Stokes has his people scheduled to begin maintenance of the Wainwright Coils at zero-900-hours, right after the morning’s festivities. It shouldn’t affect the comms much.”

“And our friend?”

“Still out there, although he slipped within two hundred thousand klicks of the ship overnight. Nothing to be alarmed about. But if he sticks with the routine, he should be cutting across our bow anytime in the next half hour, closing to within seventy or so. We’ll be ready.”

“Good,” said the captain.

Madden could read the frustration on Bauer’s face. “If we’d been in the Zone before the Juireans showed up, it would be us shadowing their squadron, rather than the other way around.”

“I know, but this whole thing seems childish.”

Madden smirked. “If nothing else, it’s giving us plenty of practice at setting GQ.”

“Sir, aspect change in contact Bravo-Charlie,” a scope-operator reported.

Bauer checked the huge clock on the bulkhead. “He’s getting an early start. You do the honors, Mr. Madden. Wake up the crew.”

In reality, the crew was already awake and anticipating the call to General Quarters. They’d become acclimated to the routine over the past twenty days, ever since the Naples entered the disputed Dead Zone and picked up their shadow. The other seven ships in the squadron had their own dance partners, and each took turns testing the skills—and patience—of the other. It was the Juirean’s turn; in the afternoon, Captain Bauer would initiate his own game of chicken with the Juirean Class-3 warship. It was necessary, as each side was determined to show they had just as much right to be in the region as the other. And the game would continue until either the Orion-Cygnus Union or the Juirean Expansion claimed the Dead Zone as their own. If that happened, things would become real and not just a game.

The klaxon blared, followed by a computer recording: “This is not a drill. I repeat this is not a drill. Battle Stations, battle stations, all hands man your battle stations. Set Condition Red. Secure the ship, seal all air-tight hatches, department heads report readiness to the bridge.”

With a sigh, Captain Bauer lifted from his chair and pulled out the thin environment suit from a slot in the stand. He slipped it on over his khakis, and a moment later had the helmet attached. He clasped a small air tank onto the breastplate and engaged the suit. It inflated instantly.

“Bridge secure, sir,” said Commander Madden.

“Very good; dump the atmosphere.”

A moment later, the pressure inside the bridge compartment matched that of outside the ship. This way, if the hull were punctured, a catastrophic depressurization explosion wouldn’t occur.

Bauer watched as seconds were added to a rectangularly shaped green-faced clock along the forward bulkhead. It began running the moment the GQ notice sounded. The screen read nearly two minutes. He frowned, as did Madden.

Reports continued to filter into the bridge until—at two-minutes, forty-four seconds—the ship was declared secure, with stations manned and all atmosphere evacuated.

Bauer shook his head.

“That’s pitiful, commander. Nearly three minutes.”

“Agreed, captain,” the XO said, his face twisted in anger through the lens of the helmet. “The crew’s becoming complacent. They know it doesn’t mean anything, and they’re getting lazy.”

“We need to do something about that,” said Bauer. “Call a meeting of division heads after we secure. Let’s light a fire under some asses.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Contact bearing 140-degrees, level plane, arching to cross course,” reported the weapons officer. “Now at one hundred thousand kilometers and closing.”

“Weapons status?” asked the XO.

“Shields active and at full strength; cannon charged; ballistics and missiles loaded.”

“Very good, lieutenant.”

Captain Bauer looked out the forward viewport at the glow of the planet Annadin sitting two-hundred thousand kilometers away. His small squadron entered the star system three days ago and was only now approaching the planet. Although it had a name, on all modern charts, it was now designated DZ-48—the forty-eighth world in the Dead Zone, a near-lifeless ball of rock that had once been home to a thriving civilization of over three billion souls. That was before the Mad Aris Kracion swept through the region, saturating over one hundred planets with deadly neutron radiation, rendering them uninhabitable and initiating the greatest exodus of living beings the galaxy had ever seen. That was nearly five years ago, and now the wealth of the Class-A planet lay under a veil of radioactivity. Although bathed in radiation, the planet—like all worlds in the Dead Zone—was being slowly stripped by intrepid salvagers willing to risk their lives decontaminating small sections of the planet to get to the riches waiting to be reaped.

And it was for control of these near-lifeless planets that Bauer and his fellow captains were playing this dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the alien warships. His was one of a dozen such squadrons from the Union demonstrating a show-of-force within the Dead Zone, matched by an equal number of Juirean vessels representing the interests of the Expansion. So far, only minor skirmishes had occurred between the two galactic empires; however, the frequency of these events was increasing. Bauer knew both sides were to blame. Although no one wanted an all-out shooting war, neither would relinquish the DZ to the other. It was too rich of an opportunity to let that happen. Control of the Dead Zone was the new Gold Rush in the Milky Way Galaxy.

“He’s nearing the redline, captain,” reported the weapons officer.

Bauer had set fifty thousand kilometers as the closest he’d allow the Juirean to approach. After that, it would be his decision to engage or not. Although he didn’t like it, the captain already knew what he would do if the redline were crossed. He wasn’t anxious to go down in history as the officer who started another Human-Juirean war. He would back down, giving way to the aggression of the alien warship. And everyone knew it, including his crew and the Juirean captain.

“Helm, prepare to change course. Ready 0-8-0, down twenty. Execute on my command—”

The bridge suddenly filled with a blinding white light, emanating from a single point dead ahead.

“Evasive action!” Bauer called out. “Accelerate to flank speed. Helm, come to 0-8-0, execute!”

The ship changed course, seeking to avoid the barrage of flash cannon bolts that had just been fired from the enemy vessel. At this range, they would be upon the Naples in less than three seconds.

“Sir, the Juirean did not fire on us,” said the weapons officer through the din of activity on the bridge. “I repeat, they did not fire.”

“Explain, Mr. Alfonsi.”

“It … it blew up. The flash came from the Juirean ship exploding, not from flash cannon fire.”

Bauer stepped over to the station with Madden at his elbow. Both officers studied the readouts on the screens. Lt. Alfonsi was right. The Juirean warship had exploded.

“Sir! Enemy vessels changing aspect,” said a scope operator. “They’re lining up on us.”

“Did we fire?” Bauer asked his weapons officer.

“No, sir! All batteries fully-charged; nothing came from us.”

“Mr. Forrester, plot an escape route,” Bauer said to the navigator. “No engagement unless absolutely necessary. Communications, release buoys every five seconds with updates. Let’s get this on the record. Release the squadron—”

“More engagements, sir. The Seattle and the San Diego are under attack. They’re returning fire.”

“Helm, belay my last. Plot covering vectors. Engage when calculated. Lt. Alfonsi, ready your cannon.”

“Aye, sir—weapons hot.”

The Naples moved to cover the San Diego. The ship’s shadow, another Juirean Class-3 cruiser, had unleashed a salvo of white-hot plasma bolts at the Union ship in response to the destruction of their companion. Now all warships in the Annadin system were engaged; however, with one of the Juireans already gone, this allowed the Naples to go where it was needed most. Unfortunately, the Union warship didn’t get a chance to help. Already, two of the Juireans had lit off bolts toward the Naples. Four of them hit the shields straight on, sending one of the panels into the red. A follow-up bolt overloaded the aft portside screen, causing it to fade.

“Get that shield back up!” Commander Madden yelled.

Beyond the bulkhead to the rear of the bridge, technicians in the Combat Information Center relayed the orders to the Damage Control teams. Power was rerouted to the shield, and the panel began to glow again, but at only twenty percent intensity.

And that’s when another three bolts struck the same section of the diffusion screens. The shield dropped completely again, allowing two full-force bolts to reach the hull. Metal melted and twin holes opened up. The roiling energy entered the ship and burned through half a dozen compartments, incinerating crewmembers and equipment alike. A critical power junction was severed, causing the aft section of the ship to lose shielding. Two more bolts entered the engine compartment unobstructed, tearing through the gravity generators, auxiliary control and striking a chemical propellant tank.

The death of the Naples occurred in two gigantic explosions. The first took out the aft section, while another rolling detonation blew out the forward section, including the bridge.

Five of the Union ships managed to slip into deep gravity-wells and bolt from the area. Four of the Juireans did the same. The battle only lasted sixteen minutes, but it resulted in the combined loss of seven warships and the deaths of two hundred eighty crewmembers, both Human and alien alike.

Communication buoys were received detailing the brief battle, including archival data showing the explosion of the first Juirean warship. The alert status on both sides of the conflict was raised within the Dead Zone, and all ships ordered away from their shadows. Neither side was ready to start a major conflict without assessing the situation fully. Leveler heads prevailed and a temporary truce agreed upon.

But a more permanent de-escalation of hostilities would have to be negotiated face-to-face. Delegations were assembled and ships sent off to a neutral location where the critical talks would begin.

That neutral location—where it would be decided whether or not the galaxy would go to war—was the planet Liave-3. And the meeting place for the negotiations was to be in the coastal enclave of Balamar, along a crescent-shaped beach and at a nautical-themed bar and restaurant known as Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill.

Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude.


1

He would kill an alien today, in fact, more than one.

For most people, this would have been extraordinary, even disturbing. But for Adam Cain, it was just another manic Monday…

Although Adam Cain didn’t set out to kill the aliens, it was becoming more of a habit than an exception. He blamed the region’s new-found prosperity for the increase in the figurative notches on his pistol grip.

The past year had been good for the businesses run by the Big Three Partnership, including Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill. Riyad’s outfitting business was also doing better, while Sherri’s hotel/brothel/opium den was always full of paying customers. Recently, there’d been an influx of business activity in the coastal town of Balamar. The huge galactic organization Maris-Kliss—makers of the ubiquitous line of MK flash weapons—had moved onto Liave-3, with several projects already underway. A mile down Lan Road from Adam’s bar, they were building a luxurious resort hotel on the picturesque crescent bay. Although the complex wasn’t completed, the hundreds of workers spent a fair amount of time at Cain’s, drinking his liquor and eating from the varied menu. Most of the workers lived in the nearby city of Kanac and were shuttled to and from the worksite. The shuttle now made frequent stops in front of the bar, knowing that some of the workers would make their way to Cain’s after a hard day’s work before heading back to the urban sprawl of the much-larger city.

In addition to the resort, MK built a huge warehouse at the Kanac Spaceport, where they stored gigantic tanks of decontamination foam. The organization was gearing up for an attempt to cleanse the radiation from entire planets in the Dead Zone in one fell swoop. It was an ambitious project, but trial efforts proved it was possible. Now dozens of refugee groups were streaming back to the Zone, fearing that MK would attempt to claim their former homeworlds for their own once the decontamination was complete. Knowing MK as he did, Adam had no doubt that was their intention. They hadn’t become the largest business entity in the galaxy by being magnanimous.

MK was also one of the chief investors in an expanded roadway between Kanac and Balamar, complete with a long tunnel that ran under the dinosaur migratory trail. When complete, the road would cut the transit time from Kanac to the coast to around ten minutes, aided by the rapid growth of the lawless boomtown toward the more peaceful shoreline community. Soon, the two settlements would link up, and the filth, overcrowding and crime of Kanac would infest beautiful Balamar, even more than it already had.

And that was why it was a good bet Adam would kill an alien or two today, during his walk to the nearby bank to make a deposit of his business receipts.

The bank was part of the Expansion Accounting System and consisted of a small building with a secure metal vault buried deep into the bedrock. Juirean credits were fed into a system of conveyors and stored where no living being had access to them. For withdrawals, a clerk would punch in an amount and the credit chips would be automatically pulled from the vault and transferred to the surface. All transactions were immediately logged into the Expansion system, keeping them safe from theft.

The security at the bank was why most crooks chose to attack the bank patrons outside the structure, rather than rob the bank itself. It was such a common occurrence that Adam made the short walk with a resigned attitude, knowing someone would make a move. Unfortunately for the attackers, Adam Cain was not the alien you wanted to rob.

A few days before, Adam had a new six-round, long-barrel, .45-caliber revolver shipped in from Earth, which he now wore holstered around his waist and tied to his right thigh. Sure, it was a little old-fashioned, even by Earth standards, being neither a semi-automatic magazine-fed handgun nor an energy weapon such as ninety-nine percent of all alien species used. But he liked the retro feel of the weapon, as well as the intimidating sound it produced. The incredible bang associated with the weapon would be enough to wake up the town and announce to all within earshot that the Humans were not to be messed with. The locals knew this already; it was the riff-raft filtering in from Kanac that had to constantly be taught the lesson.

Adam always made his walk during daylight, which had turned into a spectator event. The workers and regulars at the three restaurants he passed along the way nodded at him, nervous grins on their faces. They didn’t relish the violence and death that was invading their once-tranquil town, but there was little they could do about it. Perhaps from Adam’s frequent deadly demonstrations word would get out about the perils of engaging in such deviant—and pointless--behavior, making their own trips to the bank less of a challenge.

So, Adam Cain wasn’t surprised when a pair of stocky, yellow-skinned beings appeared from the foliage along the side of the road, blocking his path to the bank fifty yards away. They wore standard MK-17s around their waists, and their clothing was dirty and tattered. Adam felt a presence behind him and turned slightly to notice a third would-be assailant approaching from behind. This was ambitious; three against one. They must know Adam carried a fair amount of credits with him to the bank. With the increase in business at Cain’s, he had over two thousand credits on him, which would be a fortune to these three. He stopped, his body turned sideways so he could keep watch front and back.

“You sure you want to do this?” he asked the pair blocking his path.

“Give us the credits, and you will not be hurt,” said one of the aliens. His hand was on the butt of his weapon. He began to pull it from the holster.

“I can’t do that, so, why don’t you just move on. I’ve already killed my quota of assholes for the week.”

The aliens frowned, losing meaning in the translation.

“Give us the credits,” the alien repeated.

Adam looked to his right. The alien behind him was drawing his weapon.

It was nearing lunchtime, and Adam was hungry. Reasoning that diplomacy with the robbers wasn’t going to work, he let out a deep sigh … and went for his gun.

The three aliens already had their weapons out of their holsters, bringing them level and engaging the targeting computers. Adam’s .45 was out of its holster in the blink of an eye later. He aimed it at the alien to the rear and pulled the trigger. The report was deafening, and the heavy slug tore into the tender flesh of the alien, throwing him back ten feet in the light gravity of Liave-3. Then before the targeting computers on the other two MKs could lock on, Adam had the long-barrel pistol shooting flame and angry sound at the other assailants.

The aliens were blasted away with a pair of accurate, near-simultaneous gunshots, each center mass. As the last breath drained from the robbers, Adam took a few steps closer to the bodies, the barrel of the .45 aimed at the bloody corpses. There was no doubt they were dead. Soft alien flesh was no match for Human ballistic rounds, especially not from a .45. With the revolver, there was no burning of flesh or electric discharge as with energy weapons. Instead, rapidly expanding pools of blood filled the gaping holes left in the chests of his attackers.

With his daily chore complete, Adam did a quick twirl of his new gun using the trigger guard and his index finger, Old West style. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite pull it off. The barrel of the .45 ended upside down and pointed back at him, leaving him awkwardly fumbling with the weapon. He corrected the grip and placed the gun back in the holster, embarrassed, knowing people were watching. He grimaced; he would have to practice the move when he returned to the bar.

Adam stepped over one of the bodies and continued to the bank, knowing there would be no police coming to investigate, nor coroner to remove the bodies. Vagrants would strip the dead of their clothing and valuables, and overnight, various rodents and small dinosaurs would drag the bodies into the nearby jungle to feed upon. There was no law on Liave-3, only the law of the jungle. And in this jungle, there was no creature more dangerous than a Human late for lunch.




2

When Adam returned from his deposit run, he found Riyad Tarazi and Sherri Valentine at the long, polished bar at Cain’s, chatting with their two alien friends, Kaylor and Jym.

“I take it those were your fireworks we heard?” Riyad asked. There was a real bread and meat sandwich sitting in front of him, something unique to Cain’s, and not spit out of a food processor.

“So, how many does that make?” Sherri asked as she took a bite of her own sandwich. Jym set a plate in front of Adam as he slid onto a barstool.

“This week, or in total?”

Sherri smirked. “Never mind,” she mumbled with her mouth full of food. “Overall, it has to be in the millions by now.”

Adam nodded. “Sure, when you count the planets we’ve destroyed along the way. Remember Nuor?”

“That would make it billions,” Riyad said. He shrugged. “It’s a good start.”

“Hey, we’ve never killed an alien who didn’t deserve it … sorta.”

“Let’s not even go there,” Sherri said. “So, how do you like your six-shooter, Wyatt?”

“It’s great,” Adam grinned. “It was pretty loud, wasn’t it? Even for me—”

Adam and the other Humans at the bar noticed as a cloud came over Kaylor’s light-blue face. They turned in their seats, following the alien’s gaze toward the front door to the bar.

A flamboyantly dressed alien with silver-white hair had just entered. He came unescorted and with a mischievous grin on his dark face.

Adam took a quick bite of his sandwich before leaving the bar to greet the visitor. He didn’t want to face Dal Divisen on an empty stomach, although a single bite wouldn’t do much.

“My friend, Adam Cain, it has been too long,” said the alien.

“Not long enough, if you ask me.”

Dal was the founder of the city of Kanac and the top gangster on Liave-3. He and Adam had had their share of run-ins over the two years the Humans had been on the planet, and anytime he showed up at Adam’s door, trouble soon followed.

“May we sit? I have some news to impart.”

Adam shrugged. Dal had a lot of clout on the planet. He also controlled the fuel module franchise on L-3, making it necessary to deal with him to keep Riyad’s small fleet of salvage rentals moving through the Dead Zone. Adam waved at a table and chair and they sat down.

“Make it quick; I’m in the middle of lunch.”

Dal looked past Adam to his friends at the bar, who were watching the alien with contempt painted on their faces. He waved them a greeting. None returned the gesture.

Dal turned his attention to Adam, his expression serious. “I am sure you are aware of the recent incident between the Expansion and the Union within the Annadin system.”

“Of course, who hasn’t?”

“Indeed. It has set tensions on high throughout the entire Zone. As has been evident for the past few years, there is potential for a serious flare-up of hostilities between the major powers in the galaxy, and all focused on defenseless Liave-3.”

As the most settled and civilized of the remaining few non-radioactive worlds in the Dead Zone, L-3 was the de facto capital of the region. The fact that it had no government or system of laws also made it extremely vulnerable to outside forces.

“I have come to tell you that investigators and negotiators from both sides are coming to our planet to work on a resolution to the hostilities. They will arrive in ten days.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Adam said. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because they have chosen Capt. Cain’s as the location for these negotiations.”

Adam recoiled. “Bullshit. No one has said anything to me.”

“I am now.”

“No, seriously, no one checked with me first. You can’t just assume I’d say yes. Besides, we’re too small, and security here is crap. No way, it would interfere with my business. We’re just getting back on our feet after the last fiasco you pulled with the superweapons.”

“But the parties insist. They want Cain’s.”

Adam shook his head. “Why not use one of your places? You have a lot more to choose from, and most are bigger.”

“I offered, my friend,” said Dal. “However, they insist on coming to the coast. Kanac is not where they wish to spend their time.”

“Sorry, but they’re just going to have to deal with it. They can’t do it here.”

“They are willing to pay: ten thousand Juirean credits per day, in addition to food and drink. However, you will have to devote the entire facility to the event.”

Adam was again shaking his head. “Even that isn’t enough.”

“For six days?” Dal asked.

Adam’s head stopped shaking, and his bottom jaw fell open slightly.

“The conference is expected to take five days, maybe more, and with one day prior to set up the security measures. Trust me, Adam, I tried to get them to hold the event at one of my venues, but to no avail. And in the future, the MK resort will surely serve the purpose; however, for now, they want Cain’s.”

“Why? The talks are between the Humans and the Juireans. They have to know this place is run by Humans. Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?”

“One would think so,” Dal agreed. “Yet, it seems the lead negotiator for the Expansion is someone you know, a Juirean and a friend.”

“Who is it?” Adam only had one Juirean friend, that being Tidus Fe Nolan, the bounty hunter, and he doubted he would be heading a delegation of Juireans to Liave-3. The former Overlord was an outcast to his people for leaving the Authority.

“It is Councilmember Quanin Fe Doren”

Adam was taken aback. He searched his memory for the name but couldn’t come up with a match.

“I have no idea who he is.”

“It matters not; he has heard of you.”

Adam snorted and leaned back in his chair. “All Juireans have heard of me. And none could be considered friends—with one exception. Most of them want to see my head on a platter.”

Dal frowned at the reference. He shrugged. “Even so, Quanin is not among them. He was quite pleased to hear you were on L-3, and he agreed outright to hold the conference here. Of course, the Human delegation did as well. The negotiators will be staying in their ships at the spaceport or in orbit during their stay and will commute daily to the conference. It will be an important affair, and even though I will not be hosting, they did come to me to make the arrangements. This can go far in adding credibility to the planet. As you are aware, we are sitting on the knife’s edge. I implore you to agree.”

Adam grimaced. He hated being made an offer he couldn’t refuse; they never turned out as expected. However, ten thousand credits per day for six days—maybe more—was a lot of money. And they’d pay for food and drink, as well, meaning no open bar. And he would insist on his normal mark-up for food and beverages.

He looked over at the bar, where his friends and business associates were watching, unable to hear the conversation. They would insist that he accept. The bar would only be closed to the public for less than a week, and they could make a small fortune in the meantime. And these were peace talks, which were of vital importance to Liave-3 and the businesses they’d established here.

It was truly an offer he couldn’t refuse.

A grimace etched his face. All he had to do now was worry about the unforeseen shitstorm that was about to happen. He wasn't cynical; it’s just that these things always turned out that way, at least in his experience.


3

Adam Cain stood leaning against the wooden frame of the portal at the rear of Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill, staring out in the gloaming. Tiny waves lapped against the crescent-shaped beach, and lights from the peninsula that formed the northern boundary of the bay were just now flickering on. The near-constant sea breeze brought relief from the slightly higher-than-normal daytime temperatures, and most of the tables set out on the white sand were occupied by a menagerie of aliens enjoying the evening meal and the first of a long line of beverages Adam and his employees were glad to provide.

All in all, it was a beautiful, relaxing scene, perfect in every way—except for all the aliens around and the fact that he was on another world three thousand light-years from Earth. He thought back to his time in the Navy, and the myriad of exotic locales he visited on his homeworld, all on the water’s edge and mainly in the tropics. He enjoyed the humidity, both here and on Earth. That was why he chose Liave-3 as his new home when he and the others had once again banned from returning to their homeworld. That would eventually change; it always did—and he would return home, maybe to the South Pacific, to run Capt. Cain’s #2. Or perhaps he would settle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, around his second home of Lake Tahoe. Who knew? But the thought was always at the back of his mind, dreaming of a time when he could leave the galaxy behind—along with all these stinking aliens…

And that’s when he heard it, a faint, distant memory off to his right. He concentrated, attempting to cut through the din of the chattering aliens nearby and the constant slapping of the small waves on the shore.

What is that? he asked himself. Credence?

The music was distinctive, as were the vocals. But how could it be? Who would be playing Lodi by Credence Clearwater Rival on Liave-3? He set off across the sand, attempting to locate the source of the enigmatic sound.

As he passed along the back of his bar and across the alleyway between his building and Sherri’s Golden Slipper Hotel, the music remained constant, neither growing louder nor fainter. That was truly odd, making him wonder if he was imagining it. But, no, it was still there.

“The man from the magazine said I was on my way. But somewhere I lost connection; I ran out of songs to play.”

He moved behind the hotel. Two of the suites had patios that extended onto the beach, with sliding doors to the interior. Curtains were drawn, but the lights were on. Strange, guttural sounds were heard from within. Adam tried not to imagine what was taking place inside the rooms; alien sex and other indulgences conjured up disturbing visions.

Above these rooms, balconies extended from the building, climbing the three stories up to Sherri’s penthouse suite. She had taken the entire top floor as her own, even though she spent a disproportionate amount of time in the upper reaches of Adam’s building, taking advantage of the small internal gravity generator he had installed there. The Humans needed to maintain their muscle mass and cardio-vascular strength in gravity that mimicked that of Earth, rather than that of L-3. Their secret strength and durability were a Human’s greatest advantage in the wilds of the Milky Way Galaxy. Remaining too long in light gravity would take away that advantage.

At the corner of the building and above him, a balcony was draped in shadow, the room unoccupied. Either that or the occupants preferred their perversions in the dark. Adam made a note of it and moved on, following the siren call of John Fogerty’s unique vocal stylings.

Adam’s sixth sense detected something only a hair’s breadth before a heavy weight landed on top of him. He was pressed face-first into the sand as desperate hands grasped his arms and shoulders, preventing him from rising. Then someone—a very strong someone—pulled his right arm onto his back, allowing Adam to roll to his left, going with the motion rather than fighting it. The person on top of him lost balance momentarily, allowing Adam more room to maneuver. He wrapped his left leg around that of his assailant and pulled. The positions reversed; Adam was now on top of his attacker, with the being’s face pressed into the sand and his right arm pinned behind him.

In the dim light behind the hotel, Adam sensed a familiar form to the being. Could it be?

“Hey, chill out, Captain,” a voice in the dark said off to his right. He looked over to see the bulky shadows of three other figures standing nearby.

“Okay! I give up,” the creature below him coughed, spitting sand from his mouth. “This was a friggin’ mistake.”

The voice was from Adam’s distant past. He took his assailant by the shoulder and flipped him over. Even in the dim light, Adam recognized the face instantly.

“You’re supposed to be old and out of shape,” said Gill Norris—AKA: Peanut—a friend from SEAL Team Six, his old Navy unit from over twenty years ago. “Obviously, you’ve been working out.”

Adam was speechless as he climbed off his former teammate. The other three men gathered around him, helping Peanut to his feet. Gill brushed the sand off his face and clothing.

“Or maybe it’s just me who’s gotten old and out of shape.”

Adam thought back; twelve, fifteen years—maybe longer—since he’d last seen his friend? And yes, Peanut was older and heavier. Adam was himself crowding fifty, even if that was a misnomer in his case. His body grew younger while he had the immortal mutant Panur’s cells within him. And even with them now removed from his body, his system mutated slightly to give him more natural strength and vitality. Chronologically, Adam Cain was forty-eight years old, but biologically he was still in his thirties and with physical strength easily twenty percent more than a normal Human with comparable training. Adam wasn’t ready to admit this to anyone. It was his ace-in-the-hole.

“What…what the hell are you doing here?” Adam was finally able to blurt. “I haven’t seen you since … since Melfora Lum, when we took out the Juirean communication antenna.”

“I’m glad to see your memory is still intact,” Peanut said. He was from Georgia, and his nickname was a natural extension of that fact. Adam quickly buried his nickname once he left the Team. He never liked it.

Adam looked around at the other smiling faces. Gill Norris was the only one he recognized. Two of the others were of similar age—in their forties. The third was a dark-haired man with equally dark eyes, looking to be in his mid-to-late twenties. He seemed out of place with Peanut’s companions.

“You ask: Why are we here?” Gill said. “Why does anyone come all the way out to this god-forsaken place: We’re here to get rich! We’ve been hearing of the Dead Worlds for years and thought it was time to try our hand at a little salvage. Of course, we knew you were here. It’s hard not to know what the famous Adam Cain is up to from moment to moment.” His face turned serious. “That was some shit about the whole merging universe thing. I’m sure you did what you had to do. It’s crazy to think you would have done anything that could have got us—and everything—wiped out of existence. But that’s another story.”

A hand was extended. Adam shook it.

“I’m Toby Wills, EM7, U.S. Navy, Retired.” The man’s smile stretched across his face from ear to ear. “I served with Peanut a few years back. “He tapped his right leg, which sounded artificial and hollow. “Had a little issue with my legs a while back. But the disability benefits are good and helps supplement my retirement pay. In all honesty, I think I’m better now than I ever was. I guess it’s true: They really do have the technology to rebuild a person, even if it is alien technology.”

The other older man introduced himself as former Navy Senior Chief Tim Robertson—also from the SEALs.

“Life can get rather boring after spending twenty-plus years on the Teams,” Tim explained. “And when Peanut floated the idea of a run out to the Dead Worlds, we jumped at it.” He indicated the more stern-faced, younger member of the team. “This is Mike Hannon. Former Delta Special Forces. We ran into him at the waystation on someplace called Dasnon. The dude has his own ship. It ain’t much to look at, but it does the job. We talked him into joining us on our treasure hunt.”

The man extended his hand, a firm, confident grip.

“Gill told us about the others,” Tim said. “This Riyad Tarazi guy and the hot Sherri Valentine. They’re here with you, aren’t they?”

“They are,” Adam confirmed. He pointed to the hotel behind them. “This is Sherri’s hotel, and Riyad runs the outfitting business. But are you guys sure you want to go salvaging? It’s not as easy as it looks, and most of the good stuff has already been removed. Most salvage these days is being done by the big boys and involves large machinery and other equipment that require huge ships and massive operations.”

Peanut smacked Adam on the shoulder. “That’s why we have a plan! Is there someplace we can go to have a drink and talk about it?”

“I might know a place,” Adam smiled. “And it’s not too far from here. But first, what was that music all about? How did you pull that off?”

Peanut looked into the sky behind the hotel. “You can’t see it, but we strung a black line from your bar to the end of the hotel. Then we put an old cellphone on it and Tim pulled it along as we lured you into our trap. That’s when I jumped down from the balcony. Cellphones aren’t good for much of anything these days except playing music. I’m old; CCR was in my playlist. If I remember right, they were also one of your favorites.”

“At another time, and on another world. A lot has changed since then.”

“No shit, buddy. Now … how about that drink?”


4

Adam and his four guests entered Cain’s through the wide, open portal at the rear of the bar. They pushed together a couple of tables and sat down. Riyad noticed and left his usual spot at the bar—where he homesteaded most evenings after closing the outfitting business next door—and joined the group.

Kaylor and Jym were at the table a moment later. “It is Mister Gill Norris, is it not?” Kaylor asked. The Belsonian worked with Peanut for a few months after Adam and his team of SEALs and scientists escaped the Earth just as the Juirean firebombs were falling. That was over twenty years ago, yet Kaylor remembered the huge, red-haired SEAL. Adam and his team would go on to lead a behind-the-lines guerrilla movement against the Juireans before Peanut and the rest of the SEALs rotated back to Earth.

“That’s correct, Kaylor; it’s been a long time. I see you’re still kickin’ around with this renegade.”

Kaylor had spent the past twenty-five years around Humans, so he understood their slang better than most aliens.

“It has been to our advantage to do so.”

The tiny bear-like Jym snorted. “Although it has been problematic at times because of Adam’s often reckless behavior.”

“I hear you, my friend,” Peanut said. “B.A. has always been like that.”

“B.A.?” Riyad asked.

“Yeah, that’s his tag, just like mine is Peanut.”

“For badass?”

“Nah, for Bad-Attitude! Adam’s always been known as the man with an attitude. You—better than most—should know that by now.”

Riyad looked at Adam and flashed his trademark white smile. “Why haven’t I heard of this before?”

“Because I never liked the nickname,” Adam mumbled. “I never thought it fit.”

“Look in a mirror sometime, my friend,” Riyad said with a laugh. “It fits you perfectly. So, Mr. Norris, what brings you to our fair planet?”

Gill grinned widely. “Besides the desire for a Human-like beer? We’ve come to do some salvaging, and I hear you’re just the man to see about that.”

Adam sent Kaylor and Jym off to fetch the first of many rounds of alien beer-like substance. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best one would find for a thousand light-years in any direction.

Riyad frowned at Peanut’s statement. “I don’t want to discourage you, my friend, but salvaging in the Dead Zone isn’t as easy as it once was.”

“That’s what Adam says.”

“He’s right. It’s gone corporate now. Most of the easy pickings are gone. Now it’s about heavy equipment, machinery and the sort. That takes big operations. MK, Prirous, and others are moving in. MK even has plans to de-con entire planets at a time.”

Peanut’s wide smile didn’t fade. “Yeah, but we have a plan,” he said, bouncing his red eyebrows.

Adam and Riyad shared a look. They’d heard that too many times in the past; in fact, Adam was surprised Peanut didn’t say he had a secret treasure map he’d bought off an old alien somewhere in the Fringe Worlds. That was another common scam being pulled on gullible fortune hunters.

“So, what’s this plan of yours,” Adam asked, trying not to sound too discouraging.

Gill looked at his companions. The three former SEALs each wore expressions of anticipation, even excitement. Adam was sure their lives had become more mundane following retirement, after long careers as members of one of Earth’s most-elite fighting forces. The one exception was the dark, almost brooding, former Army Delta, Mike Hannon. Although Adam didn’t detect any opposition, the younger man didn’t seem to share in the enthusiasm of the others.

The beers came, and Gill chugged half a mug before frowning at Adam. “Close, but no cigar. I can tell you’ve been off Earth for a while if you think this passes for real beer.” The statement didn’t stop him from draining the rest of the mug before continuing.

“Well,” he began. “The way we see it, Riyad is right. All the easy stuff is gone. But that’s because everyone has been concentrating on the major population centers, with the most stuff and the biggest banks. But I come from a small town in Georgia called St. Marys, population twenty-one thousand. Even there, we had a bank, a couple of small jewelry stores, and a whole lot of other businesses lined up along Main Street, U.S.A. I figure all these alien planets would have the same thing, thousands of smaller towns just like St. Marys. I tried to imagine what would have happened in my hometown if it were the Earth that was attacked by Kracion. First of all, the people there would not have received the advanced warning like the bigwigs in government or big business. Even if they did, no one would have the means of grabbing their wealth and leaving the planet. Most would rush home to their loved ones and head for the hills, thinking that would save them. Of course, it didn’t. Radiation goes everywhere and it’s indiscriminate. So, the way I see it, there have to be thousands of these smaller places with enough wealth still sitting there in the form of Juirean credits and precious gems to make it worth our while to go take a look. I can’t see there being that many salvagers to have raked over all these places. And by concentrating on just cash and jewelry, we don’t need no big cargo ship or crew, either. And hey, we ain’t greedy. Just a little will be enough to make us happy.”

Adam and Riyad once again shared a look, this time one of wonderment. Peanut had a point. There hadn’t been the time nor the manpower to check out every small town or hamlet on a hundred worlds. And he was also right that the inhabitants of these places would be the less-fortunate, part of the billions of unfortunate souls who fell to Kracion’s reign of terror. Sure, treasuries, reserve banks, museums, and other places where most wealth was held had already been raided by either those fleeing the worlds or by the first round of salvage teams. But that left trillions of unclaimed credits hiding in out-of-the-way places, like St. Marys, Georgia.

“By all that is great, that is a brilliant plan,” Riyad stammered. “Why did we not think of that?”

“Because the two of you are big-picture guys. We’re just a little private enterprise operation willing to take a little from a lot and do it over and over again. And with Hannon’s help, we already have a ship. We don’t need anything big and flashy, something that will attract attention. And before you ask Adam, we didn’t come here looking for a handout. We have money to pay for the equipment and supplies we’ll need. But it would be nice to have a guide along—for a split of the profits, of course. After all, we don’t know the lay of the land as you do.”

Riyad looked at Adam. “Although I have been advised by my partners not to engage in reckless flights of fancy any longer, I see an opportunity for me to help. I can supply all the de-con foam, suits and other equipment you’ll need. And I know the Dead Worlds better than Adam does. And I just happen to have some free time coming up.”

“What do you mean?” Gill asked.

Adam joined the conversation. “What he means is that Cain’s is to be the location of a high-level peace conference between the Union and the Expansion. It’s set to begin in four days. Because of security concerns, they require that we also shut down the hotel and the outfitting business during the week of the conference.”

“Great!” said Peanut. “Then you can come along, too, B.A.! It will be just like the old days.”

Adam grimaced. “Unfortunately, I can’t leave. I’m hosting the damn conference, so I have to stick around. But Riyad’s right; he can go. But a word of warning, it’s a dangerous time to be flitting around the Dead Zone. There are both Juirean and Human fleets headed this way, along with trigger-happy squadrons already here. That caused the problem in the first place.”

“I beg your pardon, my friend,” Riyad said. “But it is also true that both empires are making a point of keeping the peace, as a demonstration of who can best rule the Zone. Most large-scale pirate operations are on hold until they leave. In truth, this may be the best time for such an adventure.”

Adam couldn’t argue with that. He shrugged. “I hope it works out for you,” he said to Peanut and the others. “It sounds like a pretty simple plan.”

“Fantastic!” the former SEAL exclaimed. “How soon can we go?” he asked Riyad.

“Since you already have a ship, we only need a day to stock the vessel. I have a few places in mind already that would be perfect for this kind of salvage; the formerly most-advanced planets in the Zone with the most diverse populations.”

Although Muslim Riyad Tarazi didn’t drink alcohol, he took the carbonated beverage Jym knew to supply him with and lifted the glass for a toast. “Here’s to a smooth journey and a fruitful endeavor. It’s about time something went easy for us.”

Adam accepted the toast and drank from his mug, even though he knew it was too early for them to count their chickens before they hatched. His cautious—if not negative—attitude came from years of experience in such matters, and not because his nickname in the SEALs was bad-attitude. He hated to admit it, but looking back over his lifetime, the moniker was apropos.


5

Although the conference wasn’t to start for four days, everything had to be closed down a day early to allow for security protocols. Adam still wasn’t comfortable holding the event at Cain’s. In his opinion, it was too risky.

First of all, the bar was located on a major road, with the entrance only a sidewalk-width away from traffic. A car bomb or RPG fired from a passing vehicle could mess things up. And secondly, the rear of the building was exposed to the beach and ocean beyond. From a SEAL’s point of view, it would be a perfect place to launch an amphibious operation against the building. However, no matter how much he protested, the powers-that-be still insisted on holding the conference at Capt. Cain’s.

His protestations became less fervent as Sherri kept reminding him how much they needed the money. She was a broken record in that regard; they could never have enough money or the business secure enough. She was always going on about how close she was to pulling up stakes and moving on, even while the receipts recently were on the uptick.

In spite of that, Sherri was considering the week-long conference as a welcome reprieve from the constant need to moderate the daily conflicts taking place at her hotel. With no law on the planet, everything was allowed, if the customer was willing to pay for it. This brought out the pragmatic side of Sherri’s personality. She often explained to Adam and Riyad why she tolerated the often obscene and perverse activities in the hotel more than she would if only Humans frequented the establishment. These were aliens, she explained. As a way of life, they were often obscene and perverse naturally. So—according to Sherri—why not get paid for it?

But now she was looking forward to a week off from playing referee, hostess and housekeeper. After learning of Riyad’s latest adventure, she was even tempted to go along for the ride, but Adam talked her out of it. He would feel more comfortable having a large group of opposing parties crowded into this bar if Sherri was there to help keep him sane—and from doing anything rash. The specter of his SEAL moniker haunted him. He was determined not to let the bad-attitude side of his personality get the best of him. However, with a houseful of Juireans—along with their smug and superior attitude—that would take a Herculean-effort on his part.

Empires

The day after Adam’s encounter with his old SEAL buddies, the three businesses run by the Humans became a beehive of activity. Sherri had to evict all the guests from the hotel, some of which had to be carried out unconscious by their companions. For all she knew, some of them may have been dead. It didn’t matter. That was why she always insisted on payment in advance.

For his part, Riyad was as giddy as a school-boy readying Hannon’s ship for the expedition. The ship was a small Donovan-Class vessel called the Charlie H. after a favorite uncle of his and built as a mid-range space transport. Hannon was vague about where he got the ship, but he wasn’t shy about telling everyone about the upgrades. As a former Delta Special Forces, he never went anywhere without being properly armed. And although the D-Class ship had basic defensive capabilities, Hannon had several upgrades made to his vessel, making it more a predator cat than a passive kitty.



Even so, the vessel wasn’t that long, measuring in at one-hundred-twenty feet in length with a beam of only twenty. It was long and boxy, and with only a small cargo hold at the rear. With their intended bounty, that would be enough to carry millions of credits.

On the day before the expedition left, Sherri made a point of seeking out Peanut. He was a good ol’ boy from Georgia, while Sherri was a country girl from western Kentucky, and in the old days, they’d developed a pretty close friendship, although nothing sexual ever developed. Then Peanut and the other SEALs returned to Earth and that was the last they ever saw of one another.

Adam got a kick out of the reaction the other three men in Peanut’s party had to Sherri. Although she was in her early forties, she still retained a raw sexual energy most men found irresistible, including the delectable southern accent, which she would bring out when it suited her needs. It had been a while since she’d been around new Human men, but she slipped right back into flirt-mode without skipping a beat. The guys ate it up.

The one person her antics had the most effect on was Mike Hannon, the Delta. He was younger and more virile than the older SEALs, and it was obvious from the beginning that the attraction was mutual; however, nothing progressed much beyond a few sly winks before Riyad and the others departed on their salvage mission. Adam wondered what would happen when they returned, although he already knew the answer. Sherri usually got what she wanted, and it was apparent what she wanted was Mike Hannon.


6

Two days after Riyad left—and while the team was still in transit to the first planet they would checkout—the advanced delegations arrived at Cain’s to scope out the location. The teams were led in by both Dal Divisen, as well as the consummate fixer and slimeball of Liave-3, a rotund, purple-skinned alien named Lion/El. Although the advanced team for the Humans didn’t come with the head negotiator, the Juirean delegation did—Councilmember Quanin Fe Doren.

Adam was anxious to meet him since the Juirean was supposedly a friend.

Quanin was a member of the Council Elite, the ruling body of the Juirean Authority, the rulers of the Expansion. The Juireans created the Expansion a thousand years before from the remnants of their prior Empire, and—except for a brief seven-year-period when Humans ran the Expansion—the Juireans had ruled their galaxy-spanning empire for four thousand years. During that time, the Juireans acquired the default identity as rulers of the galaxy, and from that came their attitude of superiority. No one challenged the Juireans. No one questioned their authority or their right to rule. Not until the Humans came on the scene and kicked their butts. However, the Human race discovered early on that a galaxy was too large to be ruled by a single race of beings, not unless one employed breeding planets and pre-determined roles for every individual in the ruling species, as did the Juireans. Humanity wasn’t willing to devote such loyalty to the Expansion, and after only a brief time in control, they abdicated it back to the Juireans, in exchange for a much more manageable empire in the Far Arm—what became known as the Orion-Cygnus Union.

Throughout the years, Adam Cain and his friends played integral parts in most of the events that took place between the dueling empires. That was why he knew the Juireans so well, and why all Juireans—save one—wanted to see him dead. However, Quanin had given Dal Divisen the impression they were friends. Adam couldn’t see how that was possible.

As with all Juireans, Quanin stood around seven feet tall before his magnificent mane of white hair added another foot to his statue. The color of his mane signified his rank within the Authority: White for Counselors and Elites, blue for Overlords, green for Guards and yellow for Techs. The Juireans used their natural height, imposing manes and broad shoulders to exude strength and power. However, what Adam knew was that Juireans were like most aliens in the galaxy that had evolved on lighter gravity planets than did Humans. Although Humans were much smaller and less-imposing, they several degrees stronger, more durable and better coordinated than even the Juireans. One-on-one, a fight between the two species wasn’t a contest, with the Humans doing what they did best in most contests of physical strength. They won.

Now flanked by a pair of dark-blue haired Overlords, Quanin approached Adam with an amused look in his yellow eyes. Juireans—like most aliens—seldom smiled. To bare their teeth at another was often construed as a death-challenge, so, it was not in their nature to smile much. That left their eyes to convey most of their emotions.

“Adam Cain, it has been a very long time. I am pleased to see you again.”

The Juirean was familiar with Human traditions and extended his hand to Adam. He took it and they had a cordial greeting. The two nearby Overlords appeared concerned by the physical contact between Juirean and Human. Adam couldn’t blame them. He was concerned as well.

“Councilmember Quanin,” Adam began, “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. I’m sorry to say, but I don’t recall ever meeting you.”

“That is quite understandable.” Quanin dismissed his attendants with a glance so he and Adam could speak in private. “It was only briefly on Juir. I served with Counselor Wydor at the time, as his adjutant. I was present when you suggested he leave Juir before the Kracori attack, many years ago. If you recall, Elder Hydon insisted that we leave, knowing that if he did not survive, Wydor would become Elder. As you know, that happened, and I have served at Wydor’s side since then. In a way, you saved my life, as well as that of the current Elder. Without you pressing Hydon to send us away, we would have stayed on Juir and shared his fate.”

“Now it makes sense. Sorry I don’t remember you.”

“I was but a shadow figure at the time. You have no reason to remember me. But throughout the years, I have heard Elder Wydor speak of you often and in very pleasing tones. Yet now, as Wydor grows older, I am destined to become the next Elder, what is known as the Quid-Elder, although the timing for such advancement is still in question, depending on Wydor’s health.”

“Congratulations are in order,” Adam said, truly impressed. Humans were superpowers in the galaxy, yet their tiny Union was a tenth the size of the Expansion and with only twenty years of history. Quanin was soon to become Elder of the Juirean people, the default emperor of the Expansion, and therefore the most powerful being in the galaxy. That was to be admired.

“In light of what you just said, I’m surprised you’re here for the conference,” Adam said. “It seems to be below your status.”

“In normal situations, you would be correct. Yet I insisted. The Dead Zone is of crucial importance to the Expansion. Unfortunately, it is also important to the Union. And since it has never been in our self-interests to share, one empire or the other will eventually control the region. We both have semi-legitimate claims; the Humans because of the region’s proximity to your Union and the Juireans because the Kidis Frontier was once part of the Expansion.”

Adam smiled wickedly. “That was for a very brief time and was more of a political maneuver on your part rather than a full-fledged annexation.”

Quanin grinned—not smiled—but grinned. “And as I recall, it was through your rather brash efforts that the Expansion lost control of the Kidis, returning it to its independent status.”

Alien and Human had wandered to the rear of the bar and were now outside on the sand. Customers were still allowed in Cain’s at the time, and a few at the tables sat gawking at the impressive Juirean. Adam knew he looked like a child next to the tall alien. Fortunately, by now, most species in the galaxy knew size didn’t matter, at least not in this regard.

“All that we speak of was long ago,” Quanin continued. “Now our two empires have maintained a delicate balance of late, a situation fomented by the disruption caused by the Mad Aris Kracion. Although the Dead Zone is the primary focus, the Expansion—and to a lesser degree, the Union—is still suffering from the consequences of the mass migration from the region, although the refugees have been more problematic for the Expansion than for the Union, simply because more made their way to us.”

“Problematic?”

“Yes,” Quanin said. “Those who managed to escape Kracion’s wrath brought with them wealth and power that has had an impact on the worlds on which they settled, disrupting the traditional power structure of our member planets. Outside influences have caused rebellions and hard feelings. It is in our opinion that it be best for the refugees to return to the Kidis and their homeworlds, if possible.”

“Maris-Kliss might help with that,” Adam stated.

“Yes, and no,” said Quanin. “As you are aware, they have the technology to dissipate most of the residual radiation on the Dead Worlds. Yet that will not solve the problem of soil pollution, crop destruction and oxygen degradation in the atmosphere for the returning refugees. And that is if MK allows the natives to return. Two hundred thousand surviving natives for a particular planet will have very little power to go up against MK. That is where our empires come into play. We have the power to enforce our laws in the region. However, with authority over the Dead Zone comes power, and even more power than from traditional control of an area. A hundred virgin worlds are waiting for us, and each with resident technology and infrastructure. The resources of these worlds would be open to the empire—whichever one prevails—no matter the status of the relatively few refugees. That is why I am here. The Zone is too important to the welfare of the Expansion to be left in lesser hands. I have come to impress upon your delegation the seriousness with which we take this matter. We do not want war with the Union; however, this most recent provocation is very disturbing. It appears as though the Union is provoking a war, as a way to settle the ownership of the Zone once and for all. I hope for your sake that adequate explanations will be provided at the conference; otherwise a state of war will exist between our two empires. The Expansion cannot allow our ships to be destroyed. So, as you see, unless an accommodation can be found, I see no other resolution for the question of the Dead Zone than an escalation of hostilities. That is why I am here, to make that determination. ”

Adam pursed his lips. Besides the possibility of all-out galactic war, Adam was now a resident of Liave-3, one of only two habitable oasis worlds left in the Dead Zone. This made the planet not only the center of the Zone, but also of the Kidis Frontier, and now the galaxy. As such, Adam knew what was riding on the outcome of the conference. He also knew what war would mean, not only to Liave-3 but to, well, everything. Because of that, he had to believe that what happened in the Annadin system was some kind of tragic misunderstanding, and once the facts were known, the situation would calm down. But Quanin was speaking the truth about what the Juireans had riding on this conference. It was the same for the Humans. Just as with the Expansion, the Union saw potential in the Zone, and the last thing they wanted was to surrender control of the Dead Worlds—or the entire Frontier—to the Juireans. Not this close to the border.

The Kidis Frontier—and the Dead Zone—was located on a small spur of the galaxy next to the arm with Earth and her fledgling empire. Call it manifest destiny, but Earth always considered the Kidis a satellite of their Union, although unofficially. The easiest way for the Union to grow—until Kracion made his attack in the Frontier—was to simply annex the Kidis and double the size of their empire overnight. At one time, they could have done just that, and without any resistance from the Juireans. Several years ago, after regaining control of the Expansion, the Juireans suffered through a period where keeping their core member planets in line was their priority. They had no interest in the distant Kidis Frontier. For the Humans, that was a missed opportunity.

And now the Dead Zone brought all that tension and ambition back to the fore. Neither empire would back down, and it was Adam’s solemn opinion that war was coming. How soon, and to what degree, was anyone’s guess. He just hoped it could be delayed long enough for his friends and him to be forgiven for their non-crimes and allowed to return to Earth. If a new galactic war was to break out, he didn’t want to be living at ground zero, as he was now.

For his part, Adam Cain was sick and tired of all the conflict. He just wanted to go home and forget that the galaxy ever existed. Unfortunately, he’d been thinking the same thing for the past twenty-five years, and to no avail. For some strange reason, the damn galaxy kept hanging around and screwing with his life every chance it got.

Empires

“So, my friend Adam Cain, I see you have met your Juirean friend.”

Adam didn’t have to turn around to recognize the baritone voice of Dal Divisen. The alien gangster had been watching Quanin and Adam have their private conversation before approaching after the Juirean left. Lion/El was at Dal’s side, as he was wont to do.

Adam turned and smiled at the pair of aliens, unabashedly displaying his pearly white teeth. He didn’t care if they considered it a death-challenge, which, in a way, it was.

“Yes, Dal, I do have friends in high places, and Quanin says he’s to be the next Elder. So, you might be careful what you say to me. The Juirean and I are tight.” Adam was sure the two aliens didn’t understand when he crossed his index and middle finger together and held up his hand for them to see.

Dal dismissed the gesture and changed the subject. “I hear you have visitors, more Humans from your homeworld. Have they come for salvage or to assist in your various business ventures?”

“A little of both. They’re some of my old military buddies, trained Human killers, just like me.”

Adam was glad to see a look of terror come across Lion/El’s face. The rotund alien was a shyster and master manipulator. He was also Adam’s Realtor, or what passed as a Realtor on Liave-3. But what he wasn’t was a fighter. It was good to see he appreciated the havoc a group of trained Human soldiers and sailors could bring if provoked. Dal wasn’t so easily intimidated.

“In all honesty,” the alien began, “it will be good to have a stronger local force available as a deterrent. As you know, all of our enterprises are in jeopardy if a war breaks out between the empires. We have no legal status, and our world is the only logical location for a military base. At one time, I had hoped to have garrisons from both parties on L-3, as a counterbalance to the other. In addition, we would all benefit from such an arrangement concerning our businesses. Unfortunately, that possibility is quickly fading. I hope you will not do anything impulsive to upset the parties even more than they currently are.”

“Why do you say that? That’s the last thing I would want to do.”

“That may be so,” Dal said. “But a study of your past interactions with—well, everyone—shows that your best intentions often lead to the most tragic turn of events. Let us hope your past does not become a prelude to the future of Liave-3.”


7

Riyad was at the controls of Hannon’s ship, being a much better pilot than any of the SEALs. It took them two days to reach Annadin, a place he knew well, but recently was in the news as the site of the inciting incident between the Human and Juirean forces. Riyad had been to the planet a few times before when he was more involved in salvage operations. Back then, he would take an active part in an operation for a share of the profits. It seemed like a good idea at the time and satisfied Riyad’s need for adventure. But it also ended up costing the Big Three Partnership a lot of money in the long run. Seldom did the salvages pay off; some even resulted in a loss of life and equipment. That was the reason Adam and Sherri forbade him from actively participating in any future salvages after the debacle with the superweapons and Jay Williford. However, the deal with Gill Norris was different. He was a friend of Adam and Sherri’s, although Riyad also knew Peanut from the past. However, at the time of their prior association, Riyad had yet to ingratiate himself with the others as he had since then. Back then, he was still the former terrorist from Earth and ex-leader of the notorious Fringe Pirates. He had yet to make the full transition from bad guy to good guy. That came with time, but back then, his status was still in limbo.

Even so, Peanut and the others treated Riyad with respect, making him feel at home on the team. They’d been hearing of his exploits with Adam and Sherri for a couple of decades and felt he deserved a second chance. He’d proven his loyalty and friendship on countless occasions, making it easy for the SEALs to consider him a friend rather than an enemy.

Besides, Riyad knew how to pilot a starship, as well as the way to their first destination.

“Annadin once had a population of three billion,” Riyad was explaining. “It also has more landmass than Earth, meaning those people had more room to spread out. According to the Library, there are over three hundred thousand of the small towns you’re looking for, Peanut. And only five years of salvage operations in the Zone means most of them should be untouched. I have to compliment you again, my friend, on the genius of your idea.”

Peanut and the others were on the bridge, crowding the forward viewport, watching the planet grow larger by the minute. They were only moments from entering the atmosphere, their first location already locked into the nav computer.

“Let’s just hope I’m not blowing smoke,” Peanut said. “But if I’m wrong, then it would go against all laws of probability.”

“And if not on Annadin,” said Tim Robertson, “then there are ninety-nine other worlds in the Zone to check out.”

Gill smiled at his friend and teammate. “Now that’s the positive attitude I like. Better than that of Captain Cain—the old sourpuss.”

Riyad continued with his briefing. “Since Annadin was the site of the most recent flare-up between empires, I’m expecting most salvage operations on the planet have packed up and left, at least temporarily,” he said. “The more operations taking place, the better the chance of pirates being in the area.”

“I thought you said all pirate activity had stopped,” said Toby Wills.

“I said that more for Adam’s benefit than as a fact,” Riyad admitted. “I pay more attention to such things than he does.”

“You mean there are pirates in the area?”

“There are, but that’s why I picked Annadin. If any place is free of major pirate activity, it will be here. Relax, my friends. We are in a single small ship, not a freighter. Even if pirates are in the area, we are too small for them to bother with.”

For the next several minutes, Riyad busied himself with landing procedures. The small town he’d selected was in a mountain range bisecting the central continent, with terrain that didn’t allow for a spaceport of any size. According to the Galactic Library, the town once had a population of twenty-five thousand that supported a pair of banks and a decent-sized commercial district. Riyad reasoned that without a spaceport, the residents of the town of Lasvic would have been unable to escape Kracion’s attack leaving everything they had in the hamlet, including their slowly decaying bodies.

Fortunately, during his previous expeditions, he’d found that bodies weren’t as prevalent as one would expect. Most people fled the cities with their families before the attack, so their corpses would be found in out of the way places like caves, basements or underground bunkers. Unfortunately, the radiation still penetrated most shelters, and for those who did survive the initial neutron attacks, they later starved to death in their hideaways. The result was that the streets of Annadin—as well as on the other Dead Worlds—weren’t strewn with rotting corpses numbering in the billions.

The Charlie H. was small enough to land just about anywhere, even without a spaceport. Riyad set the ship down in a central park, now covered in black dirt rather than grass and dotted with hideously shaped stalks of former trees giving the scene the look of a set from an old black and white horror movie. The park was in the middle of the commercial district, and according to the maps, was within walking distance of the banks. The team was dressed in environmental suits and out the airlock almost before the landing smoke dissipated.

Riyad could tell that at one time, the community of Lasvic must have been idyllic. There were majestic, snow-capped mountains surrounding the wide central river valley and the remnants of now-dead forests were everywhere. Everything was now grey, brown or black, contrasting with the stark white of the snow at the higher elevations. Riyad could see from the expressions of the SEALs that the reality of the Dead Worlds was much more impactful than were the stories. The idea of dropping down to a dead world and scooping up the discarded wealth of the former natives was an alluring idea. Seeing it in action took some getting used to. Here was an entire planet with only the basic forms of life surviving, including some hardy vegetation near the poles. Otherwise, it was stark and depressing, exacerbated by the unnatural quiet, broken only by the sound of a distant river and the swirling of the wind. No birds sang or insects buzzed. For Peanut and his friends, this was their first exposure to what Hell would be like in real life.

“Let’s get this over with,” Peanut announced solemnly through his intercom.

He set off toward the nearest bank, carrying a supply of explosives in a satchel over his shoulder. If there were anything SEALs knew how to handle, it was explosives. If money were in the banks, it would be in vaults requiring forced entry. They came prepared.

As it was on most civilized worlds in the galaxy—at least those that cater to Humanoid life—there was a familiarity with what they saw, even though non-Humans had built everything. But most advanced mammals had the same wants, needs and desires, and with basically the same physical form, their structures were very similar. The result was the four Humans strolling down a normal-looking street lined with shops, all of which still had product on display. The team was encouraged. The natives didn’t have time to take anything with them, nor had they come back afterward. Neither had any salvagers, as far as they could tell.

To their surprise, they found the front door to the first bank unlocked. Uneasy about what they might find inside, the team nervously entered. To their relief, no bodies littered lobby area.

“All right, spread out,” Peanut said. “Check teller drawers—if they have them—and find the main vault. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

Rather than a long counter of teller stations, the interior of the bank was divided into private cages, with a quick count showing twelve placed in the large room. Riyad entered one and went to a central kiosk. A computer screen jutted from a counter. He moved behind the table and looked for a drawer of some kind. He feared that the bank was built like the one in Balamar, with all transactions done through remote access to an underground vault. However, Riyad had enough experience with how things operated in the galaxy to know that was unusual, the result of the heightened security requirements for the facility on Liave-3. In a peaceful community like Lasvic, there should be no need for such precautions.

There was a drawer, and Riyad opened it. To his relief—and joy—he found a series of trays containing Juirean credits of various color denominations. JCs were a little smaller than credit cards and color-coded. The credits were of a hybrid composite material that made them virtually indestructible, including from high levels of radiation. The chips still needed to be decontaminated, but it would be safe to put a large supply of them in a tumbler with the de-con foam, and a half-hour later, they’d be ready to go.

“I’ve got credits here!” a voice called out in his helmet.

“Me, too! Bonanza!” said another. “How about the vault?”

“There’s a locked door back here. It leads further into the building. Bring up the charges, Peanut.”

Riyad quickly cleaned out the drawer, placing the loose chips in a sack he wore on his utility belt. He made a quick count as he did so: about a thousand JCs. It was a good start. He wouldn’t be able to take them aboard the ship until they were either stored in a container or de-conned. But he just wanted to have them with him. The practice was a throwback to his pirating days when it was good to take a few smaller items with them in case they had to ditch the main treasure along the way. It was better to have something than nothing.

By the time Riyad got to the door in question, Peanut already had set a small charge on the locking mechanism and was stepping away for cover. It wasn’t a powerful explosive, just enough to break open the lock.

“Fire in the hole!” Peanut announced moments before he triggered the explosion. The door drifted open on squeaky hinges.

As expected, this wasn’t the entrance to the vault, but it did lead to it. The huge safe was secured with a familiar-looking grey metal door and a complex locking mechanism. Peanut stepped up to the door and tried opening it, on the off chance it had been left open. It was locked.

After studying the door for a few minutes, the SEALs set to work, placing a series of five charges at key points on the door. Then they returned to the lobby area. This explosion would be much more powerful than the other.

Unable to cover their ears through their helmets, the sound was muffled somewhat, even though it was still pretty loud.

Before the smoke cleared, the team was back in the corridor leading to the vault.

The door was a mangled mess, sitting cockeyed in the opening, with most of it off the hinges. It took some effort by all four super-strong Humans to get the door to move. Next time they would bring crowbars.

Peanut was the first into the vault. Riyad couldn’t make out the interior too well from the residual smoke trapped inside. But he did hear Peanut whistle.

“Holy shit! You guys ain’t gonna believe this!”

As the smoke cleared, the four men stood mesmerized, staring at neat stacks of Juirean credits in plastic holders. The back wall of the tiny vault was full of them, blue ones, green ones, and even a fair amount of the high-denomination red ones. Riyad stepped up to the chips and ran a Geiger Counter over them. To his delight, they showed no sign of radioactive contamination, having been protected by the airtight walls and door of the vault. Even so, he knew the air outside still carried trace amounts of radioactivity, although it was mainly the soil that held most of the contamination these days.

“Next time, let’s bring sealed containers,” Riyad suggested. “If we can get the credits back to the ship without too much exposure to the air, we may not have to de-con them.”

“What I like most about what you just said was: Next time,” said Tim. “Just think how many vaults there are just like this one on the planet. I’ve made a quick count. There are almost half a million credits in this room alone. Not a lot by big-city standards, but big enough for little Lasvic. And there’s another bank in town.”

To an outsider, it would have appeared silly for four, middle-aged men to celebrate as they did for the next few minutes, hugging and slapping backs. This was their first bank in the first small town they tried. And they still had jewelry stores and other businesses to check out. Riyad could already see a multi-million credit take just from this one town. This was a game-changer, a way for not only he but Adam and Sherri as well, to escape L-3 and possibly return to Earth. After all, money had a way of making a lot of problems disappear.

For Riyad Tarazi, he was no longer a simple merchant, selling and renting out salvage equipment. He was now a full-time salvager and on his way to making a friggin’ fortune.

Empires

As quickly as the high of success arrived, it faded just as fast, but only by a little.

As the team walked to the next bank, they passed several retail stores, although none were exclusively jewelry stores. They entered a few, finding all the cash drawers empty and the selection of jewelry and precious gems to be lacking. And it wasn’t that the merchandise had already taken. It was that it didn’t exist in any great quantity in the first place. That’s when Riyad realized expensive ornamentation—such as they were searching for—was subjective and varied from species to species, culture to culture. As it turned out, he natives of Annadin weren’t that into personal decoration. Even their fashion sense lacked style, as evidenced by the clothing still hanging in the stores. That was fine, Riyad thought. They would only take cash from the planet, which was preferred. To be worth anything, jewelry had to be converted into cash first. Cash, however, was already cash.

The second bank was a larger version of the first, which made the men salivate with anticipation, imagining the fortune awaiting them inside; however, Riyad got a sense of foreboding when there were no Juirean credits left in the cash drawers at the kiosks. The SEALs turned their attention to the vault they found at the rear of the building, keeping their concerns to themselves. It was too early to panic.

To their delight, the heavy metal door wasn’t locked, but when they opened it, they got the shock of their lives.

The room was filled with the slowly decaying remains of a couple of dozen corpses strewn about the floor in a twisted mass of agony. Apparently, when Kracion’s attack came, some of the natives sought refuge in the secure and highly shielded vault to protect them from the radiation. It worked—to a point—because the dead didn’t have the tell-tale signs of radiation poisoning. Rather, some had died from starvation. But there was more to the story. After finding that the food and water supply in the town was contaminated, several of the natives returned to the vault and set about eating their companions. This didn’t go over very well for the victims. The last few hours in the vault must have been even more horrific than before, as native fought native for the right to survive. In the end, dried blood now covered the floor and even a few of the bodies had died while still in the throes of combat.

After a few moments of staring at the horrific scene, the team moved farther into the large vault looking for the cash. There was some, but not much. Someone—and not salvagers—had already raided this particular vault. Even so, they were still batting .500 when it came to finding money in the banks.

“There’s still a few credits left,” he said to the dejected SEALs. “And we have hundreds of other towns to check out. Let’s not get discouraged.”

“It’s just that we started with such a bang,” said Peanut, unable to hide his disappointment. “I should have known it was too good to be true. And without any jewelry…” He let the sentence trail off.

“It’s not a problem, Peanut,” said Toby. “As Riyad said, we still have a lot more places to check—like the whole friggin’ planet. And really, all we need is one decent-sized bank with all the money still inside and we’re set. Already, we have almost a million credits, and we’re just getting started.”

“You’re right,” Peanut agreed through a weak smile. “Let’s get back to the ship and get this money cleaned enough so we can take it aboard. And then let’s go find ourselves another bank to rob.”

“Hoorah!” the men called out, albeit without a lot of enthusiasm.

For the most part, they would hold their disappointment until they’d checked out more locations on Annadin, while reminding themselves that there was another ninety-nine dead worlds in the Zone. They still had a viable plan, although just not as viable as it once seemed.


8

The conference eventually got underway at Capt. Cain’s Bar & Grill, much to the chagrin of the residents of coastal Balamar. Lan Road outside the bar was closed to thru traffic and rerouted two blocks further inland. Pedestrian traffic was also restricted, having to be screened by security personnel and only allowed to pass on the other side of the street. The practice impacted several of the businesses nearby, creating even more discontent.

Adam was disgusted—but not surprised—with how things started. Even before the conference began, there was a major negotiating session to determine the size of each delegation. They settled on the odd number of nineteen people each. And then they moved to the security guards. That number was twenty from each empire. The number was so high because each station had to be manned by a member of each race—Human and Juirean—to ensure the integrity of both. It seemed stupid to Adam, but who was he to complain? He was getting paid, and already the crowd in the center of his bar was wolfing down drinks and munching on his food. The Humans jumped at the chance to have fresh barbeque off his outside grill, and even the Juireans took a liking to it, harking back to their primal past as carnivores. For too long, they’d subsisted on processed food stock. Having the real thing was a delight, although Adam could anticipate bouts indigestion since the aliens weren’t used to eating real meat.

It seemed odd that Adam felt more of a kinship with the Juirean Quid-Elder Quanin than he did to the Human delegation. Here were the most Humans he’d seen in one place for over two years; one would think he’d gravitate to them. But these were bureaucrats and State Department officials, with only a spattering of military personnel thrown in. And their attitude toward him and Sherri could be described as cool. They knew their reputation and Adam got the sense they were intimidated, expecting the two famous Humans to insert themselves into the proceedings somehow. The officials agreed to meet at Cain’s because there was a Human connection with the location. Some appeared to be having second thoughts.

The Human delegation was led by a rather stunning woman named Jeanne Euker. She was a roving Ambassador with the Union State Department, and although she was in her early fifties, her smooth skin, long black hair, and piercing blue eyes defied her age. She exuded intensity and seriousness that would be respected by the Juireans, who were themselves intense and serious.

Before the conference, Adam explained how his bar wasn’t set-up for such an event, but no one would listen. Now it was apparent he was right. He had no long conference tables, only round ones for dining. These were now set up in two long rows with the inner edges of each table touching. The Humans sat on one side while the Juireans sat along the other row. Ambassador Euker and Councilmember Quanin sat in the middle facing each other. Two large roll-down monitor screens were hung from the ceiling at the end of each row and electronic technicians set up equipment for the displays. Within the main conference room, four sets of guards stood at the front and rear of the bar, looking outward, wary of any threats.

Adam and Sherri were begrudgingly given seats at the end of the Human row near the bar. In other parts of the bar, staff still worked, including two aliens cooking on the outside grill, along with four more in the kitchen. Kaylor and Jym were behind the long bar, keeping the delegations hydrated with a combination of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Adam was surprised to see the Juireans had no restriction on drinking on the job, potentially setting up some interesting negotiations as the day wore on.

Adam didn’t know if a coin toss decided who would go first, but it seemed appropriate when Quanin opened the proceedings.

“I would like to officially announce the beginning of this conference and state at the outset that we are here for dual purposes,” he began. “The first is to investigate the incident that occurred recently off the planet Annadin, using this opportunity to study data from both sides, which until now, has been unavailable. The second purpose is to see if an accommodation can be reached that will de-escalate the tensions in an attempt to prevent what we all anticipate is about to begin—a new war between the Expansion and the Union. I will state here that the Expansion would not welcome a war with the Humans and their allies, although we are prepared if necessary. In light of the information I have surveyed to date, the facts seem indisputable: A Human warship destroyed a Juirean vessel without provocation, inciting a brief battle that costs the lives of Expansion members and the destruction of a total of four of our starships.”

“The Union also suffered loss of life and vessels,” Ambassador Euker stated.

“As a consequence of defensive actions on the part of the Expansion ships,” Quanin explained. “As I stated, the facts are incontrovertible. The Humans fired first and without provocation.”

“Councilmember Quanin, that fact has not been established, at least not by our side. All the data we have indicates that the Naples did not fire on your warship.” Euker waved her hand at the Juirean to stop his protest. “But I realize that is why we are here; to share information to learn the truth. However, I must caution that the Orion-Cygnus Union is fairly certain of our facts—just as you are of yours. Let us proceed with the evidence. After this, we will determine the proper course of action for both our sides.”

Adam noticed the veiled threat in the statement. The Juireans may be prepared for war, but so were the Humans.

“Very well,” Quanin stated. “For the presentation of evidence, I will turn the floor over to Overlord Oseem Ra Enock.”

The Juirean to Quanin’s left stood up, holding in his hand a small remote control. “The events so described were captured on a variety of electronic and visual records which I will now present,” the Overlord began.

Images appeared on the large screens at each end of the row of tables. There was a long-distance view of a grainy, dark shape set against the bright background of the planet Annadin. Adam could tell this was the Naples, viewed from several hundred thousand kilometers away through the clearness of space. A cryptic time stamp was on the image, displayed in Juirean time.

“Please observe.” Oseem began the video playback.

Nothing happened for a few seconds before a bright flash suddenly appeared near the silhouette of the starship. It was there for only a moment, and then it was gone.

“According to the record, this flare occurred only a few seconds before the explosion that destroyed the Juirean Class-3 starship, the UN-2212. This is evidence that the Human warship fired on the Expansion vessel without warning or cause.” The image shifted to an equally grainy and distant image of another vessel one Adam recognized as a Juirean warship of moderate size. Without narration, a massive explosion erupted from the dark shape and a moment later, the shattered debris had drifted far enough away that the glow of the planet erased any trace of the ship’s existence. It was gone and in the blink of an eye.

“Continuing,” said the blue-haired Overlord. “The UN-2212 was in the process of navigating around the path of the Human warship at the time, showing no hostile intent. Immediately upon the destruction of the vessel, other ships in the Expansion squadron took action to defend themselves. They opened fire on the Human warship and subsequently destroyed it with a barrage of accurate plasma cannon bolts. The battle at Annadin lasted only briefly, yet because of the proximity of all vessels, the damage was extensive. Following the destruction of UN-2212, three other Juirean vessels were destroyed along with a catastrophic loss of life.”

The Juirean scanned the silent faces along the other row of tables. “These are the facts, as recorded for all to see. There can be no argument. The evidence is clear.”

He sat down.

Ambassador Euker bit her bottom lip. “Overlord Oseem, I appreciate your presentation, yet there is an argument to be made. Our facts do not support your version of events.” She turned to her right, at a youngish-looking slender man in a well-tailored Human suit. “Mr. Robert Lorenzana will now present our side of the defense.”

The man stood up, he, too, holding a small electronic remote control in his hand. A data stream of readouts, copied from the memory of a ship’s computer, spread across the screen.

“These are the energy readouts from the Naples weapons systems. They were released only moments after the Juirean ship exploded and cover a five-minute period before the explosion. As I run the data, you will see that at no time does the energy level change, even during the time of the assumed shot fired from the Naples. Whatever that flare was, it did not come from the Naples. It could not have.”

“Your data could be falsified,” said Overlord Oseem.

“Please, my Lord, let me continue. We gave you the courtesy of not interrupting. I would expect the same from you.”

Sherri nudged Adam under the table. He knew why: Juireans did not like to be reprimanded, especially by Humans. The look on Ossem’s face was priceless.

“Could you please run the footage of the explosion of the UN-2212 again?” Lorenzana asked.

A moment later, the grainy image of the ship exploding came back on the screen.

“Please observe,” the Human began. “I would assume at the time the UN-2212 made its aggressive move across the bow of the Naples that its shields were fully charged. That would be standard procedure and one which had been observed during the numerous passes made by both ships in the days prior to the incident. However, as you watch the video, you will not see any of the panels glow, the result of the absorption of an incoming energy bolt. And now look again at a slow-motion view of the explosion. It erupts from a single point and completely destroys the ship. How could a single shot pass through your diffusion shields and destroy a Class-3 warship with a single bolt, and without the screens glowing?”

“We do not know what secret weapons your race employed,” said Oseem, seeing the question as an opportunity to reply.

“We have no secret weapons, Overlord Oseem. Believe me; if we did, then you would have lost your entire squadron and without any losses on our side. Not only that, but the question remains: Why would we do this? There have been shadowing maneuvers like this going on within the Zone for years, yet never has the Union—or the Expansion, for that matter—committed such a blatant act of provocation. Like you, we do not want war with the Expansion.”

“Then why is the UN-2212 gone?” asked Quanin. “There has been no evidence that the destruction of the ship was an accident, a generator explosion or such. We, too, had data feeds sent out from the UN-2212. All systems were normal. And then there is evidence of the shot coming from your vessel. That is too much of a coincidence for the two events to be unrelated.”

“I’m sorry, Councilmember Quanin,” said Ambassador Euker. “But as you see, there is a dispute regarding the so-called facts. You have yours and we have ours. The question comes down to who’s are the true facts of the incident?”

Adam and Sherri silently slipped away from the table an hour later when the discussion became overly repetitive. Both sides kept running the same video and seeing two different realities. Each had valid points to make, yet in the absence of new evidence, they were both right … and wrong. But they couldn’t be.

Adam and Sherri knew nothing was going to be resolved today, or even the next, or the next. That was fine. They were making ten thousand credits for every day the argument continued. They could live with that, as long as a shooting war didn’t result from the disagreement.


9

The treasure hunt continued, although with a limited modicum of success and nothing like they’d hoped. Riyad and the three SEALs scoped out another four banks over the next two days, finding one with about as many Juirean credits as the first bank in Lasvic. The other three were total busts. Riyad knew the money was somewhere, probably at the homes of the bank owners or managers or hidden away in a cave somewhere. Either way, they didn’t have the time nor the resources to search too deeply.

They even took a quick jaunt to one of the larger cities on Annadin to check out the banks there. As expected, they were dry, having been cleaned out years ago.

On the third day, Riyad took the Charlie H. into orbit to scan for other potential towns. They had the most luck with mountain communities and ones with only one or two banks. It was while using the high-magnification cameras aboard the ship that he spotted the anomaly. After informing the SEALs, he dropped the ship back into the atmosphere and made a beeline for the spot.

It was on a level rock outcropping about two hundred meters square and at eight thousand feet elevation. Riyad set the Charlie down, and the team was off across the barren rock dressed in environmental suits a few minutes later.

“It’s some kind of rocket launcher,” Toby Wills reported. “And it’s newer. This thing came after Kracion’s attack.”

“But why?” Riyad asked rhetorically. He couldn’t see Toby shrug inside his suit.

The men moved around a twenty-foot long shiny metal tube, mounted in an elaborate cradle and pointing nearly straight up. A pair of small guidance computers sat twenty meters away, linked to the firing tube by wireless signals.

Peanut was standing near a stack of small circular bundles wrapped in cloth. “This isn’t a railgun type launcher, but more like a cannon. It almost looks like something you’d shoot fireworks with. These must be the propellant charges.”

“Fireworks … on Annadin?” Tim Robertson asked. “That doesn’t make sense.” He was at the targeting computers, linking them to his datapad. “Alien origin, but there’s a translation coming through.” He studied the data for a moment. “The launcher is designed to fire phosphorous bombs up to an altitude of about ten thousand feet above the launch site. That would still put it well within the atmosphere.”

“That makes sense,” said Toby. “Can’t have fireworks without oxygen.”

“So, what were they celebrating?” Riyad asked facetiously. “It’s a safe bet that salvagers didn’t bring this thing here. And I don’t see why MK would, either. But they have done some work on the planet, testing their de-con methods. Maybe this has something to do with that.”

“Hey, look at this,” Peanut said, pointing to the rock floor around the launcher. There were a series of footprints in the light dust. The tracks were fainter than their own, meaning they were older.

“About normal size—normal for us—and someone dressed in an environment suit. The prints look familiar.”

Peanut pressed his suit-covered shoe into the dust next to the mystery print then pulled his foot away. The tracks weren’t exact matches, but they didn’t have to be. Most species had a variety of environment suits, but the one thing they all had were distinctive foot patterns. Humans made these prints.

Riyad followed the angle of the launch tube into the clear blue sky, trying to imagine what the phosphorous bombs meant. It had to be a signal of some kind, a notice that could be seen across a quarter of the planet, if not more.

“I don’t know what to make of this,” he said. “What are Humans doing on Annadin? And if it was MK, I know there aren’t a lot of Humans working for them.”

“Well,” said Toby Wills. “The one thing this mystery doesn’t do is make us any money. We only have a limited amount of lifting propellant left to go along with our rapidly diminishing food supply. I say we get on with it. We can only check another two towns before its time to go back to L-3. Riyad, where’s our next destination?”

Riyad looked beyond the rock outcropping to the vast plains stretching into the distance far below the mountain. He pointed. “Down there, about a hundred kilometers.”

Peanut lifted his right arm and made a circular motion with his hand. “Let’s move out. Toby’s right. Let stay focused.”

Riyad took one last look at the shiny metal tube, knowing it was out of place on the dead world. Instinctively, he knew it meant something, although, at the moment, he couldn’t imagine what.


10

For the past three days, Adam watched as Councilmember Quanin’s face grew tenser, his mood more inverted. At the end of each session, he would move to the large portal leading to the sandy beach behind the bar and gaze out at the sunset. His eyes remained unfocused, and Adam got the impression he sought solitude during these respites, rather than the tranquility of the setting. After a few minutes, he would return reluctantly to the bar to join the rest of the delegation for the short ride back to the Kanac Spaceport and their starship hotels. Then the next day they would return for another grueling marathon of butting their heads against the wall.

It was the same for the Human delegation.

This evening Adam was positioned outside near the smoking grill when Quanin made his sojourn, hoping to have a conversation with the huge Juirean to get a sense of his thoughts. The conference hadn’t moved beyond the investigation stage and to the negotiations for a truce, while each side scrambled for more evidence to bolster their case. Adam was worried nothing would get accomplished and that a shooting war was on the horizon. He was anxious for any hint of what the Juireans were thinking.

“You look troubled, my Lord,” Adam said as he approached the Councilmember. A pair of guards—one Juirean and one Human—watched Adam but didn’t interfere.

The tall alien looked down at the Human with sadness in his yellow eyes.

“It does not take perception to read my mood, Adam Cain; however, I appreciate you noticing. Yes, I am troubled.”

The Juirean suddenly turned toward Adam, stepping in closer. “May I speak with you clearly and confidently? I know this is a lot to ask, yet for an odd reason, I feel a kinship to you that I do not have with even my own kind. I trust your common sense, as does the Elder.”

Adam was taken aback. He hadn’t expected such an honest, almost desperate, admission by the Juirean.

“Of course, you can. We’re all in this together, and unless progress is made during the conference, I worry about what’s to come.”

“As do I.” Quanin eyed the guards, his steady stare sending them back several feet and out of earshot. Then he turned back to Adam. “The information presented during the investigation has been slim and subject to various interpretations, as you have witnessed. In my capacity, not only as leader of the Juirean delegation but also with my eventual role as Elder, I have added responsibility to ensure the right decisions are made. I seek not simply an advantage over the Humans and your Union, but the truth. I refuse to be led to a conclusion based solely on loyalty to one side or the other. There is too much at stake.”

Adam raised his eyebrows and stretched out a thin grin. “I’m glad to hear you say that. That is the kind of thinking that will make you a great Elder.” Adam didn’t know if his patronizing was sincere or not, but it sounded good. He hoped he could be as objective as the alien.

“Again, I thank you. And in an effort to remain open and impartial, I sent out inquiries of my own. The information I have since received is disturbing and only adds to the mystery of the events.”

“What information, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I would not be speaking with you if I intended to keep these revelations to myself. My inquiry involved the fact that the UN-2212 exploded from a single point and without signs of energy bolt penetration of the diffusion shields. I found this data to be perplexing and incongruous with logic. Therefore, I sent an order for the surviving vessels of the attack to be inspected. I received the results only a few hours ago.”

“What were you looking for?”

“Bombs, Adam Cain.”

“And you found them?”

“Yes, we did. Small, but strategically placed explosives on the hulls of the other ships, well-hidden and difficult to locate.”

“So, it was sabotage!”

“Lower your voice, Adam Cain,” Quanin scolded. “Sabotage may not be the right word. A covert action might be better.”

“But—”

“But this does not exonerate the Humans from the affair. Human agents could have placed the bombs on the ships.”

“Why place them there and only detonate one?” Adam asked.

“That is a question I cannot answer. However, at the time of the incident, only two vessels were engaged in the antics both sides were employing at the time. If all Juirean ships exploded, there would be no question as to the meaning of the event. There would be war.”

“And the flare?”

“Yes, the flare. That, too, is a question. But in light of the discovery of the explosive charges, it could be argued the flash was an added piece of evidence used to implicate the Humans.”

“You don’t believe we did this, do you?” Adam asked outright.

“I am beginning to have my doubts,” Quanin admitted.

“And the Juireans wouldn’t have blown up their own ship. So, who’s behind this?”

“Is the answer not obvious to you, Adam Cain? I suspect a radical refugee group is to blame. It is no secret they have been petitioning for an annexation of the Dead Zone for quite some time as a means of protecting their legacy rights to their homeworlds. As it stands, there is no abiding legal authority over the region. Any entity with the power can claim the planets, and the relatively small refugee population would have no means of contesting the action. And with the aggressive moves being made recently by Maris-Kliss and others, these refugee groups are growing more desperate.”

“But a war?” Adam said. “That’s a pretty drastic solution.”

“It will put an end to all action on their homeworlds, and eventually, one side would prevail.”

Adam shook his head. “It makes sense, but by the look of things, the refugees are making the Humans out to be the bad guys. Why would they do that?”

“I have been working on that question, and it may come down to the basic philosophies of our respective civilizations. Juireans are more concerned with the overall management and discipline of the Expansion than we are with the individual actions of the members. That was the purpose of the Expansion in the first place, offering semi-autonomous rule in exchange for protection and tribute. The Union is not like that. You take a more active role in the management of your member worlds, going so far as to invest in the economic activities of your members. Perhaps the refugees believe the Humans would be more inclined to insert themselves into the financial aspects of the Dead Worlds.”

Adam smiled. “Yeah, we would definitely want a piece of the action.”

Quanin stared at Adam for a moment as his mind worked through the translation. Then he nodded. “Precisely. Humans would not be content with simple membership. You would want your share of the wealth from the Dead Worlds.”

“They’re right, of course. But losing a war to the Juireans is not a foregone conclusion. I know that for a fact.”

“That is true. And if the Humans did win and assume control of the Zone, that outcome would still be more desirable to the refugees than losing the planets completely to corporate interests and power. Politically, the Union—just as the Expansion—would be obligated to respect the ancestral claims the refugees would have to their planets. In that regard, these groups are taking the only logical path open to them. They are too few to resist the companies, or even the salvagers and cartels, for that matter. Their only remedy rests with the power of empire to protect their sovereignty. So, war it must be, and with little concern for the eventual winner, although the refugees appear to have their preference.”

Adam wasn’t excited nor depressed by the information. It was logical; it was reality. But creating a war was a drastic step to take. He would prefer if the empires could agree to a sharing of the Dead Worlds, but he knew that wouldn’t happen. Humans and Juireans didn’t share anything; they owned and controlled. That was the way of their existence.

He let out a deep breath.

“So, what are you going to do?” he asked the Juirean. “The information you have, and the argument you present will shake things up. And going after the refugee groups will only delay the inevitable. At some point, someone has to take control of the Zone.”

“You are correct, Adam Cain. Fortunately—once this crisis is defused—we will have time to work on a better solution than war. And if I become Elder before the resolution, I will make it my mission to come to an amicable agreement with the Union. In the meantime, I have transcribed this information on a disk on my ship at the spaceport. I will be presenting it tomorrow at the conference. Perhaps at that time—”

A warm spray of liquid suddenly blinded Adam. The taste and feel were familiar. It was blood.


11

Once Adam’s vision cleared, he gazed in shock at the shattered remains of Quanin’s head. The Juirean Councilmember lay on the sand outside Cain’s, his skull deformed into an unrecognizable mass of blood, brains and flesh. The blood spray continued behind the body to where it formed an oozing circle of red and grey sinew on the outer wall of the building.

Adam’s military mind clicked into gear, and he dropped to the warm sand next to the body, seeking cover as he followed the line from the stain on the wall to the body, looking off into the dark for the trajectory of the bullet. The fact that he didn’t hear the shot meant it came from either a suppressed weapon or from far away. The line led out to sea, and from the damage caused by the high-velocity ballistic round, he knew it was a large caliber bullet. It was clear the shot hadn’t come from the beach—it was only a hundred yards wide at this point. And a shot such as this from a bobbing boat would be a miracle.

Then he noticed the lights out in the dark of the sea. They were from the peninsula that formed the northern boundary of the crescent cove. But that wasn’t right either. The prominence was over three miles away, maybe more, making for an impossibly long shot.

Adam didn’t get a chance to dwell more on the origins of the deadly kill shot. Bodies were falling on him, with strong arms and hands shoving him into a sitting position. Restraints were clamped on his wrists from behind as a dozen guards swarmed the beach. People were screaming, and orders barked out. Somewhere in the din, he heard Sherri’s high-pitched voice, demanding access to the beach.

A second later, a large body fell on the sand next to him. It was one of the Juirean guards. Sherri followed a second later, kneeling next to the alien she’d knocked unconscious in her zeal to reach Adam.

“Are you hit?” she breathed.

“No, I’m okay. But Quanin…”

“I know; he’s gone. Who did this?”

Sherri was jerked away by a pair of huge Human security guards. She tried to fight back, but unlike with the Juirean guard, the Humans were too strong. She was pulled out of sight.

Adam was lifted to his feet, and one of the Juirean Overlords stepped in front of him.

“What happened?” he asked. “Did you kill the Quid-Elder?”

“No, I didn’t. It was a long-range shot, probably from the peninsula.”

“Who did this?”

“I don’t know.”

“You know something about this. You had the Councilmember engaged in conversation. It is the first evening you have been observed doing so. It allowed the assassin to take aim—”

“Release him!” said another angry voice. Ambassador Euker stepped into the light. “It’s obvious he didn’t do this. Let him go.”

“He could have been complicit in the act,” countered the Overlord. “He will remain in our custody until the truth is discovered.”

“I protest,” said Euker, her voice lacking sincerity. She faced Adam. “I’m sorry, Captain Cain, but it will only be temporary until we find out who did this.”

“Check the peninsula. That’s where the shot came from. And the bullet fragments; they’ll tell you a lot.”

“Thank you, Captain, but I have people who can handle this.” The Ambassador’s deep blue eyes burned into him. “In the meantime, try to control yourself. Don’t do anything stupid. I know your reputation. And Mr. Cain, I pray to God you didn’t have anything to do with this.”

Adam was hustled away.


12

A Class-3 Juirean warship is the largest vessel in their fleet that can land on the surface of a planet. The one at the Kanac Spaceport was where the late Quanin Fe Dornen and his delegation stayed while on L-3. However, in orbit, there were twelve other warships of Juirean design, including a Class-5 battle cruiser.

Not to be outdone, the Humans had a matching force in the system, both on the surface and in space.

Immediately upon learning of Quanin’s assassination, both small fleets went on high alert. The ships in orbit moved farther out into the Liave star system and set up defensive perimeters. The Juireans were already on edge after the attack on their squadron at Annadin. The Humans knew this and did their best not to provoke the maneheads. Even still, Juirean commanders were warned about taking action on their own. To most of them, a state of war already existed between the two empires. Only their adherence to discipline and the chain of command prevented the Second Juirean/Human War from beginning to moment Quanin died.

Adam was taken to the Class-3 at the spaceport and locked in a barebones stateroom. It could have been the captain’s cabin for all he knew; Juireans didn’t go in for luxury aboard their ships. A few minutes after his arrival, two Juireans arrived, one a blue-haired Overlord he hadn’t seen before, along with a white-haired Counselor who was a regular at the conference. Adam remembered his name being Danette or something like that.

“I am Loncet Ra Veseem, the commander of the Juirean forces in the Zone,” the Overlord introduced himself. “And this is Counselor Dansee Fe Wys, the special assistant to Councilmember Quanin. “In my capacity as area commander, I am assuming control of the situation and announcing an end to the charade of peace talks taking place on Liave-3.” The alien’s blazing yellow eyes bore into Adam. “I am told you are aware of the status of Councilmember Quanin. He was not an ordinary Juirean. He was the Quid-Elder, making his death tantamount to the killing of an Elder, something you, Adam Cain, are quite familiar with. If you have once again engaged in such behavior, I fear there is nothing I can do to stop what is to come. I also know you and Quanin were acquaintances, which makes this betrayal on your part even more insulting.”

Adam shrugged uncomfortably. In reality, he’d saved one Elder from immediate death and killed another. In his opinion, that made him even. Loncet didn’t see it that way.

“I didn’t kill Quanin; we were friends,” Adam said in his defense. “We respected each other. Why would I kill him? He’s the only one around here making sense. Did he tell you about the evidence he found, and about how he felt it was a renegade refugee group behind the attack at Annadin and not the Humans? I bet they also killed the Councilmember.”

“We know who killed the Member,” Loncet stated, much to Adam’s surprise. “The murder weapon has been recovered. Perhaps you are familiar with such a device.” The Overlord referred to a datapad he carried his hand. “It has been referenced as a McMillian Tac-60 type long-range ballistic rifle, of both Human design and manufacture. It was found on a spit of land south of Balamar and with a clear line-of-sight to your establishment.”

Loncet reveled in Adam’s shock and silence. “And you mentioned Quanin’s discovery of bombs aboard the surviving ships involved in the Annadin incident. Were you aware those ships made a stop at Dasnon before meeting up with your squadron? Are you familiar with the planet?”

“Yes, I am. So what?”

Dasnon was the second oasis planet in the Dead Zone, similar to Liave-3 yet with about a tenth of the population. It was a poor man’s L-3.

Loncet looked to Counselor Dansee with surprise on his face. “He freely admits it. Unbelievable. I am sure you are also aware that a group of Humans were on Dasnon at the same time my squadron was there. And now those same Humans—friends of yours, I have learned—are now on Liave-3. The coincidence is too much to ignore. Bombs were planted on our ships, and our Quid-Elder assassinated. And in both cases, the same Humans were present. Do you still deny you had nothing to do with this?”

“Of course, I do because I didn’t. And neither did the others.”

“And where are your friends now?”

“They’re off-planet, doing salvage in the Zone. That destroys your argument, doesn’t it? They weren’t even on the planet when Quanin was killed.”

“And where are they?”

Adam hesitated, which was noticed by both aliens.

“Is there a problem, Adam Cain? Where are the other Humans?”

“Annadin. They’re on Annadin.”

Again, the two aliens shared looks of astonishment.

“And you do not find that unusual, that the prime suspects in this conspiracy would be in the very system where a battle between our two empires recently occurred? Even a Human must see the irony in that.”

“They’re just doing a salvage. It was Riyad’s idea to go there—Riyad, my partner.”

“And again, he provides evidence against himself.” Overlord Loncet appeared almost giddy, feeling as though Adam was making his case for him. “You state that you are not involved, and by extension, the Humans who reside on Liave-3. However, you also reveal complicity in your actions. I wish you would simply come out and admit to everything. This deception you are attempting is becoming embarrassing.”

“I don’t care how it looks, but none of us had anything to do with this.”

“So you say.” Loncet looked at Dansee. “Do you have anything further to say to Adam Cain? I must leave now and prepare my communication to Elder Wydor. He will want to know what we have learned. In the meantime, I am ordering in my main fleet from the fringes of the Zone. I do not know how far this conspiracy goes. Ambassador Euker might also be complicit for all I know. This operation is more widespread than I first suspected.”

“I have nothing further to say to the Human, except that I am disappointed. Quanin genuinely respected you. What you have done to him is unforgivable.”

“I’m innocent; you have to believe me.”

“That, Adam Cain, I do not have to do. I cannot.”

Empires

Adam stood in the center of the stateroom for several minutes after the aliens left. He was in shock. How could so many things go so wrong in such a short time? And was Peanut and his people involved? He couldn’t believe that. He trusted Gill, and because of that, the others by extension. Besides, they couldn’t have been involved in the assassination. They weren’t even on the planet. No, this had to be the work of the refugee group Quanin suspected. The Humans were being set up. But why? In order to start a war? That was crazy. There had to be something else at work here. And he certainly wasn’t going to find any answers in his makeshift prison.

He looked around the small stateroom. He’d escaped from many a prison before, but if there was anyone who knew his capabilities, it was the Juireans. They would be overly cautious guarding the infamous Adam Cain. He sat down on the edge of a hard bed to think. If there was one thing he knew for certain, it was that he was innocent.

He tried to relax. After all, an innocent man has nothing to worry about, right?

Empires

“We’re heading back right now,” Riyad told Sherri over the CW link. She had just finished telling him about what happened on Liave-3. “We’re in transit to the next planet on our list, so we’re already in space. It shouldn’t take us too long to get back.”

Riyad didn’t feel anger, only concern. He was enough of a strategist to see the implications, and they didn’t look good. If this was a setup—something to incite a war—the evidence was piling up fast against the Humans.

“They’re trying to blame all the Humans for this,” Sherri continued, exasperated. “At least they can’t pin any of this on you. Y’all were four and a half light-years away at the time the Juirean was killed.”

Riyad’s expression turned sour.

“What’s wrong?” Sherri asked.

“Not all of us have an alibi.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Mike Hannon isn’t with us. He stayed behind on Liave-3.”

Empires

“What do you mean he stayed behind? He didn’t tell me.”

Peanut stepped in front of the camera. He and the rest of the SEALs were watching the conversation on the main view screen on the bridge of the Charlie H. “Yeah, Mike begged out of this first expedition because of a stomach bug he caught. Said he was heaving his guts out in a hotel in Kanac and that he’d catch up with us for the next run. We didn’t think anything about it.”

“He’s not with you?” Sherri asked again, not believing what she heard the first time.

“No,” Peanut confirmed. “And lookin’ back on it now, it does sound like he was feeding us a barrel of chicken dung about being sick and all. The man’s as healthy as a horse. And now with this assassination thing happenin’, I’m thinkin’ the worst.”

So was Riyad. His stomach was twisted in knots as his conspiratorial mind cut through the clutter. Mike Hannon was Delta Force, masters at covert operations and expert marksmen. And he wasn’t part of the group of SEALs which Peanut could vouch for. And now he was somewhere on Liave-3 and Sherri didn’t know about it. That was odd. Riyad noticed the attraction between the two, and in the six days the team had been gone from L-3, it was a pretty good bet the two would have hooked up by now.

Unless Mike was too busy planning an assassination to get laid.

“Be careful, y’all,” said Sherri. “The Juireans are pissed at everything Human, and they have itchy trigger fingers. If you run into any of them, don’t give them an excuse to settle the score. Just get back here safe and sound.”


13

Mike Hannon wasn’t new to black ops. What was new to him, however, was conducting them on alien planets. That wasn’t part of his job back on Earth, even though he did make a couple of deployments during the Nuorean Conflict at the beginning of his career. That experience was what soured him on the whole idea of traipsing about the galaxy in search of adventure. The conditions were cramped, the ports-of-call hideous and the action sparse. Especially for what he got paid.

That was the reason he left the service after eight years and began hiring himself out as a freelance jack-of-all-trades, with an emphasis on assassination. He was able to pick and choose his assignments and the pay was infinitely better.

Hannon stood to the side of a window on the sixth floor of a rundown hotel in eastern Kanac, watching the street below for any signs of activity. He’d just arrived from Balamar thirty miles away to meet the people who would get him off the planet and back into Union territory. He was anxious to go before the blowback from his most recent assignment reached Kanac. He snorted. If his employers’ plan worked, the blowback would reach far beyond Liave-3, creating a ripple effect across the entire galaxy. In a way, Mike felt a sense of awe, thinking how the actions of a single person on a throwaway planet in the middle of a dead region of space could make such an impact on the affairs of a galaxy. It remained to be seen whether or not the assassination would have the desired effect, but that was not his concern. He’d done his job, not only on L-3 but Dasnon as well. Now he would let fate take over, and all the while thinking about the millions of credits he had hidden in various accounts across the galaxy. The money would be enough for him to weather any coming storm and from any part of the galaxy.

He knew suspicion would fall on him; that was by design, and eventually, the planet would be locked down, looking for any Human foolish enough to stick their head out of a hole. Timing was critical. He had to be on the move within the next half an hour if he wanted to beat the rush hour traffic off the planet.

He didn’t need to worry about a new identity after this was over; the one he was using now was the alias. The name Mike Hannon would be identified as the assassin, with a legend created to show he was on assignment from Union Intelligence to kill soon-to-be Elder Quanin. There were references not only to the Dead Worlds but Quanin’s imminent ascension to the head of the Counsel Elite and the title of Elder. The battle at Annadin would remain a mystery, although he was sure his chance meeting with the three SEALs from Earth on Dasnon would steer investigators toward the Humans. That was a bonus, and one more nail in the coffin of the conspiracy.

His employers confided in him that they didn’t wish for a galactic conflagration. Instead, they wanted to shame the Orion-Cygnus Union into conceding the Dead Zone to the Expansion, in return for a promise not to let the conflict spread. Knowing how his fellow Humans thought, Mike saw the logic in the plan. Although government officials would deny any involvement in the tragedy, the people wouldn’t believe them. The member worlds would demand capitulation over war, especially if the assassination of Councilmember Quanin was viewed as a reckless and irresponsible act. Let the Juireans have the Dead Worlds, they would say. It’s better than an all-out war.

All this meant was that Mike Hannon could eventually return to Earth to spend his ill-gotten millions on a life of decadence. This was his last mission; he priced it that way. Now all he had to do was wait for his contacts to arrive.

Empires

He checked his watch again. They were late. They had never been late before. Everything had worked like clockwork—until now. Forty minutes and still no one was here to spirit him away from this shithole of a city and planet.

Mike had been around the block enough times to know when something didn’t feel right. In his line of work, suspicion and caution worked hand-in-hand. Even if someone showed up now, he would be on guard. Things weren’t going according to plan.

A creaking floorboard outside his room set him on alert. Although he’d abandoned the hybrid McMillian Tac-60 A2-R4 sniper rifle in Balamar after shooting the Juirean—as per the plan—he was still armed with the latest MK-88-Silver flash weapon, along with a fifteen-shot nine-millimeter Glock and a small stiletto knife he carried in his boot. He was also a Human, which gave him a physical advantage over almost any alien in the galaxy, although he wasn’t anxious to test it out.

Another creak, followed by silence. That was the tell. Anyone other than those trying to hide their presence would continue walking down the corridor, paying no attention to the sound, even people who were coming to help him. The enemy was closing in, and he was sure it wasn’t the Juireans or the Humans. This was the real enemy.

He was six stories up, which even in the light gravity of Liave-3 would be too much of a jump to guarantee he’d reach the ground unharmed. He couldn’t take the chance of getting injured from the fall. That left only the hallway outside the room as an escape route, which meant he would have to fight his way out.

He didn’t notice anyone entering the hotel from the street below, so whoever was about to burst into his room had to know he was watching the street. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a good feel for the hotel. Even so, his instincts and situational awareness gave him a rudimentary layout of the building. It wasn’t very well-constructed, with opposing elevators and stairways at the end of each hall. These would be guarded. He checked the charge on the ’88. It was the top-of-the-line MK bolt launcher with a level-1 capacity of twenty shots, with double that at level-2. The lower setting was enough to kill just about any alien species—just about any except Humans. But these would be aliens coming at him. And depending on the size of the force sent against him, he might need all the bolts he could get. He kept the setting on the weapon at level-2.

He moved to the right side of the doorway, placing the flash weapon at what he estimated would be head level for an alien, which was a little higher than his. The lock clicked free, indicating his attackers had a key, which was another giveaway. He was in the act of being double-crossed. That only made him angrier.

The door cracked open. Mike pushed the barrel of the MK through the narrow opening and pulled the trigger. Being this close to the target meant a bloody spray from a normally bloodless shot. Then he was through the door a second later, taking instinctive aim at four—no five—other targets in the hallway. The flash bolts lit up the dim corridor as the bodies fell. Each of the dead carried their version of MK weapons, and a quick glance down at them on the floor gave him the bad news. They were set at level-1 with the targeting computers off. Mike shrugged. This many guns firing during the ambush would be enough to take out the target, even without computer assist. It also meant a stray shot could take him out.

Mike crouched in the hallway, spinning around, checking forward and behind him. Other attackers had ducked back into the elevator and stairwell to his left. Behind him, it appeared clear.

A Human is about twice as fast as the average alien, even without a bunch of deadly assassins on his ass. Now Mike Hannon set a world speed record during his sprint toward the stairwell at the end of the corridor. Although he was fast, he wasn’t faster than the energy bolts that now streaked down the hall, barely missing him. He didn’t bother opening the wooden door to the stairs, choosing to crash through it instead. His momentum carried him forward and over a metal railing, sending him tumbling head over heels down a central chimney. With flailing arms, he managed to grab hold of another rail, stopping his fall and sending his body bouncing off more metal and concrete as he dangled in the chute. Somewhere along the way, he lost his MK-88.

There was noise above him, and he looked up to see a group of four green-skinned aliens enter the stairwell. Surprisingly, they didn’t notice him hanging from the railing three stories down. But that was about to change. People were yelling out directions.

Mike looked down. Three stories to the floor below. But what choice did he have? He let go of the railing, trying to maintain his balance on the way down so he would land on his feet. Timing the landing as best he could, he buckled his legs and tumbled, cushioning the fall. As expected, something twisted and pain shot into his leg, but not too bad. He rolled, placing himself behind a flight of stairs even as brilliant balls of energy began to land around him.

Something glinted off to his right; it was the MK-88. He dove for the weapon, scooping it up before performing a somersault back into a standing position. He lit off a couple of bolts above him, which caused the shots from above to cease for a moment as the shooters sought cover. Then Mike dashed through a doorway and into the back lobby of the hotel.

But he didn’t leave. As best he could tell, four bad guys were still chasing him—only four. He needed a clean getaway without anyone following him. So, Mike ducked behind a counter and waited.

With reckless abandon, his four pursuers burst from the stairwell, weapons ready but expecting to give chase to their target. Instead, their target greeted them with a quick succession of level-2 energy bolts.

Confident he could leave the hotel, if not unseen, then without being followed, Mike ran out the back door and into the cool—almost cold—air of evening in Kanac. The neighborhood around the hotel was as seedy and rundown as the structure, with several aliens meandering along the roadway. They all noticed the sprinting Human, but no one dared follow. The creature was hopping along at remarkable speed and with a silver MK pistol in his hands. His gait seemed odd, but who were the aliens to tell if that wasn’t the normal way of running for a Human.

Eventually, Mike worked the pain out of his ankle, at least to a tolerable level. The sprain wasn’t bad. He continued for what had to be a mile from the hotel, zigzagging down side streets and alleys until he reached a quasi-residential neighborhood. The entire city of Kanac was only about four years old, but already sections of it looked much older. In the beginning, there were no construction standards. There still weren’t. It’s just that the more recent structures were built to last longer, while the earlier ones were built for expediency.

A male alien with what appeared to be four arms was climbing a short flight of thin wooden stairs toward the front door of a building. Mike slowed and watched, scanning the street for other pedestrians. There was no one.

The Human raced across the street, leaping past the stairs and crashing into the back of the alien just as he opened the door to the building. The pair stumbled into a room, with Mike holding the alien to keep him from falling. He turned and shut the door behind them.

He had the alien pinned against a wall a second later, holding him firm with a forearm across his chest.

“Does anyone else live here?” Mike asked, hurriedly.

Most aliens had tiny translator bugs implanted behind their ears, so understanding Mike’s question wasn’t a problem. But still, the alien was frightened into silence.

“Say something! Is anyone else here?”

“No. I mean, not now. There will be later.”

Mike felt something brush across his stomach. He backed away, letting the alien go, but keeping the MK-88 locked on him. He could now see that the alien had six arms, rather than four, and the bottom set had tiny pinchers on them. There was also a flap in the alien's clothing covering his stomach. Mike had seen creatures like this before, if not this specific species. They had a separate mouth in their stomachs which was fed by the bottom set of arms. They could talk, breathe and eat all at the same time.

“I need a communicator.”

“Yes, yes, I have one,” said the terrified alien. With one of his middle arms, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a standard localized comm unit.

Mike snatched the communicator away, then took the alien by the shoulder and shoved him down the hallway. “In there,” Mike said when he saw a doorway on the left. “What’s in there?”

“Another room, sleeping.”

“Get in there. And if you come out, I’ll kill you.”

Wide black orbs stared in terror at the crazed and desperate Human, just the effect Mike was hoping for. The alien jumped through the doorway and closed the door behind him.

Mike scanned the apartment, choosing another room to the right and out of earshot of the bedroom. He holstered the MK and then took the communicator and dialed a number he’d committed to memory a week ago. It took a while for the link to be established.

The image of an alien with light blue skin, displaying thin spiderweb-like veins and a pair of odd appendages dangling from his earlobes, appeared on the tiny screen.


14

“Capt. Cain’s Bar and Grill, Kaylor speaking.” The alien frowned, looking at the image at the other end of the link. “Is that you, Mr. Hannon? From where are you calling? Is Riyad with you? Are you aware of what has happened?”

“Hello, Kaylor. I need to speak with Sherri. It’s urgent.”

“Yes, of course. I will find her for you. Wait.”

The screen went gray and stayed that way for an agonizingly long three minutes. During the wait, Mike moved to the front door and checked outside. Everything was quiet.

The screen lit up again, this time displaying the angry face of Sherri Valentine.

“Mike Hannon, you son of a bitch! What have you done? Do you know how much shit we’re all in because of you? Just who are you anyway? You know Adam has been arrested by the Juireans? You son of a bitch.”

“You already said that once,” Mike said when Sherri paused to catch her breath. “Listen to me. I know I’m not your best friend at the moment, but what I have to say is important. Can you calm down enough for me to tell you what I have to say? If not, I’ll hang up right now.”

Sherri glared back at him through the tiny screen. “What could you possibly have to say that will make this right? You killed Quanin, didn’t you? What are you, some kind of alien assassin?”

“I’m going to hang up if you don’t calm down.”

Sherri pulled the communicator away from her face and sucked in a big breath of air through her nose.

“Good, that’s better,” Mike said. “Yes, I killed the Juirean, but I was just getting paid to do a job.”

“So, you are an alien assassin—”

“Please, shut the hell up! I’m trying to save us all.”

“And how can you do that?”

“I’m not stupid. I kept records of who hired me and why. I need to get that information to someone who can cut me a deal and get me off the planet. It will expose everything that’s been going on.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because my employers are after me now.”

Sherri laughed, loud and hearty. “That’s perfect. Just what you deserve.”

“Listen to me. If my employees can silence me, there’ll be no one left to tell the truth. You, and all the Humans on L-3, will be held responsible, and there will be plenty of evidence to make it stick. I’m your only hope. Besides, these refugees are playing with fire. The slightest push either way and the galaxy could be at war again. Is that what you want? I’m responsible for most of this, but that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is I can help stop this, and in the process place the blame on the real criminals. If you want Adam freed, I can make that happen. Help me, Sherri.”

“What? What do you want me to do?”

“I need to get off the planet—”

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere until you tell me who’s doing this.”

“Refugees, a group of powerful refugees trying to protect their planets from MK and others like them. They’re willing to start a war to stop them.”

“Who are they?”

Mike smiled. “Not so fast. I’ll let you know once you have transportation arranged for me.”

“What makes you think I can do that?”

“You and Riyad have a salvage business. You rent out spaceships. I need one.”

Sherri sighed deeply. “And here I once thought you were kinda cute. Okay, but not the spaceport. We only have one big freighter there at the moment. It would make too much of a scene if it took off. Besides, they’re locking down the planet until they catch the assassin—until they catch you! But I may have an alternative.”

“What?”

“There’s an old starship repair facility just south of Balamar, along the shore road. Jym and Kaylor have been rehabbing some of the ships there. We have a small speeder ready to go. It’s not long-range, but it could get you out of the Zone and back to civilization.”

“That will work.”

“Where are you?”

“Kanac. I’m in Kanac.”

“Where in Kanac?”

“Hell if I know. I only know that the hotel they told me to meet my exfil team at is in the eastern part of town.”

Sherri grimaced. “Damn, that’s pretty far. You’ll have to make it out of Kanac and through Balamar, and with the whole planet looking for you. Hell, they’re looking for any Humans right now, thanks to you. Why did you set us up like that? We’re all the same species.”

“I’ll explain when I see you. How do I get to this shipyard?”

Sherri was silent for a moment, her brow furrowed and troubled. “It’s going to be next to impossible, not without a guide. Dal Divisen could help, but I doubt he will. If he got caught, it would make the Juireans mad.”

“You say Adam’s a prisoner? I’ve heard stories about you guys. So far, there hasn’t been a jail cell that could hold you.”

Sherri laughed again. “You want Adam to break out of a Juirean Class-3 starship … so that he can save your ass? Good luck with that, dickhead.”

“Believe me, once the information I have gets out, you’ll be heroes, no matter what happens in the interim. Come on, Sherri, help me out. Help yourself. I’m your only way of making this situation go away.”

Sherri stared unblinking at Mike for several seconds before nodding slightly. “I’ll try to get in and see Adam and let him know what’s going on. It will be up to him to decide what to do after that. If he says no, I’ll go see Dal. Can I call you on this number?”

“For now. Listen, if you do convince Adam to help me, I’ll be at that central bridge in Kanac, where it crosses the river. I think it’s called the 22nd Bridge, although I’ve only seen three in town. Look for me there.”

“I can’t promise anything. Even if he wants to, it doesn’t mean Adam will be able to escape from the Juireans.”

Mike smiled. “Have faith, sweetheart. You’re talking about the famous Adam Cain. He’s some kind of superman.”

Sherri snorted. “You forget I’ve known him a lot longer than you have. And believe me, he ain’t no superman.”


15

Sherri wasn’t taking any chances. She rounded up Kaylor and Jym and sent them off to Copernicus’s old shipyard to prepare the speeder. She also instructed them to come up with some safeguards in case Mike Hannon tried to double-cross them. Then she drove to the Kanac Spaceport and up to the huge Juirean Class-3 starship.

A line of green-haired Guards stopped her and asked why she was there. They recognized her as a Human and surrounded her with their weapons drawn. A senior Guard made a call to someone inside the ship.

After several minutes, Sherri was only mildly surprised when she was allowed to enter the ship and escorted through a series of corridors to a nondescript door with two Juirean Guards stationed outside. Normally, she would not have been granted access to Adam, but she knew whoever was in charge was curious about what they would say to one another. The room was bugged, and this could be a way of gaining information from the Humans. And for that, she had a plan.

Empires

Adam was genuinely surprised to see Sherri when the door opened. She was led in by two Guards who remained in the room with them. The Humans hugged passionately, while Adam whispered in her ear, “Careful, the walls have ears.”

“How are they treating you?” Sherri asked. Some normal conversation was necessary.

“Perfect, the best I can expect. By the way, they found the weapon that killed the Councilmember. It’s Human. I hope they find whoever did this. Quanin was a friend. He said a refugee group was behind this. They must have hired a Human for the killing, but that doesn’t mean we should all be held responsible.” Adam said that last part for the benefit of those listening. “I’m glad there’s nothing that can link us to the killer since we didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Me, too. I’m sure everything will work out fine. In the meantime, I thought you’d like to know I got a call from my cousin, you know, the youngest Corleone.”

Adam frowned. Cousin? Adam knew nothing of Sherri’s relatives. But he did recognize the name Corleone, as in The Godfather. The youngest of the brothers was Michael, Michael Corleone. The only Michael Adam knew that would have significance in the conversation was Mike Hannon, but he was away with Riyad on the salvage mission.

“Of course, I remember him,” Adam said, nodding. “Travels a lot in his job, doesn’t he?”

“Well, it seems he’s been sick lately, so he’s been staying home more often.”

Adam’s eyes widened. Mike Hannon wasn’t on the salvage with Riyad and the others. He put two and two together. Hannon was still on Liave-3, and he was Delta Force. If anyone could have made the impossible kill shot on Quanin, it would be he.

“So, he’s been sleeping with the fishes? That can make a person sick.”

He knew the reference was awkward, but it was the best he could come up with on the spur of the moment; he hadn’t seen The Godfather in decades. He was referring to the famous line that said Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes, meaning he was dead. He’d just asked if Mike killed Quanin.

Sherri nodded.

“But now his company is tired of all the missed time and they’re threatening to fire him,” she said. “He’s avoiding toll booths while looking for something new.”

That reference took him a while to decipher before he remembered that Sonny Corleone was gunned down at a toll booth by the bad guys—the other bad guys. They were all bad guys in The Godfather.

He pursed his lips before smiling. So, Mike Hannon kills Quanin, and now those who hired him want him dead. And he’s come to Sherri for help.

“I wish I could offer him something in Balamar, but you know the state of our businesses at the moment. He’s on his own,” Adam said firmly, not understanding why Sherri wanted to help the killer. Was her attraction to him that strong?

Sherri’s face remained serious. “He told me about this new business plan he has. It could really help with our finances. It’s an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Adam’s expression turned sour. Really? He saw that one coming from a mile away.

“I’ve heard that from him before,” Adam said, his tone as sour as his expression. “Besides, I’m booked at the Hilton. Tell your cousin thanks, but no thanks.”

“He’s willing to lay all his cards on the table, and he has a pretty good hand, a sure winner.”

Adam was shaken by the sudden transition in metaphors, from The Godfather to gambling, but he got the message. He thought about what to say next. Talking in code like this wasn’t as easy as it first seemed. But Sherri was adamant; Hannon had information that could exonerate them, and he was willing to do that, but for what in return?

“Okay. I’m willing to go to the mattresses if you insist.” He rubbed his face with his hands and mouthed the word How, hidden from the Guards.

“Thanks, Adam. He’s my cousin; I appreciate this. Right now, he’s cooped up near the River Kwai. Once this thing with Quanin is cleared up, I’ll get the ball rolling.”

“I’ll think about it, too. But I’ll be counting on a little Ringo Starr, as well.”

“What are friends for?” Sherri said, indicating she got the reference.

The conversation was over, and now there was work to do. Adam and Sherri hugged again, and this time he whispered in her ear, “That was exhausting.”

She nodded and left.

Empires

In another room aboard the Class-3, Overlord Loncet, along with two Guards, listened several times to the conversation that took place in Adam Cain’s holding cell. The Overlord knew it was a code, but the references were so strange, so out of context with Juirean understanding, that it was impossible to decipher. However, just the fact that they spoke this way indicated that something surreptitious was underway. Or was it? Could it have simply been an innocent conversation regarding a wayward relative?

Loncet knew full well who he had captive aboard his ship. It was Adam Cain, the most famous and deadly Human in the galaxy, as proven time and again, and mostly to the detriment of the Juireans. The Overlord watched the live video feed from the room, seeing the pink-skinned alien now reclined on the bed with an arm across his forehead, staring at the ceiling. Cain had escaped from every attempt to imprison him. Would he try again, or would he be content to let the politics of the situation play out? The alien was adamant about his innocence, of which Loncet knew much about. And then there were the Humans on Annadin. Surely, word had gotten to them about the situation on Liave-3. Would they stay away, or would they make some foolish attempt to either rescue Adam Cain or to prove their innocence? Loncet had patrols out looking for them.

For the time being, the Overlord would keep a vigil on Cain, while watching the female more closely. Information had been passed between the two, secret information. It was Loncet’s job to learn what information that was and to act accordingly.

Empires

Adam lay on the bed, summarizing the information he’d gotten from Sherri during their awkward, silly conversation. The deception probably worked, but it certainly wouldn’t make his highlight reel of clever strategies.

First of all, Mike Hannon was the assassin, having stayed behind on L-3 to commit the act. He must have done a good job of convincing the others that the reason was legitimate for them not to mention it to either he or Sherri. Secondly, he was now being tracked by those who hired him, with the desire for him to sleep with the fishes. But he also had information that could clear up this whole affair, and he was willing to share it for safe passage off the planet. Adam got that part of the message from Sherri’s reference to him cooped up. Coop was the nickname of their friend—and Sherri’s former boyfriend—Copernicus Smith. It was his shipyard in southern Balamar that the Big Three Partnership took over upon their arrival on L-3. They had a small starship there ready for flight. He must be counting on that to get him away from the planet. The Juireans would close down the spaceports on Liave-3 and restrict personal flights off the planet until the assassin was caught. But the tiny speeder, lifting from the shipyard, would be gone before anyone noticed.

The last reference was to the river Kwai. Adam was enough of an old movie buff to know that referred to the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai. There was no River Kwai on L-3, but there is one in central Kanac. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was easy. If Hannon was at the 22nd Bridge, and he had to get to Copernicus’s shipyard, then he would need help getting there. Adam was to be that help, a guide, as well as muscle backup. And that was why Adam asked Sherri for A Little Help from My Friends, Ringo Starr’s most famous song with the Beatles. That could refer to either Riyad and the SEALs, or to Dal Divisen, the head honcho in Kanac.

And now everything was crystal clear, everything except how he was going to get off the Juirean starship and into Kanac. Then there was the question of the thirty-mile trek through city, jungle and beach community to reach the shipyard, and all while hunted by the most powerful entity in the galaxy.

Adam took a deep breath. He didn’t know how this would play out, but one thing he did know, things were about to get a lot more exciting.


16

After leaving the Juirean warship, Sherri drove into Kanac and to the residence/main business run by Dal Divisen. It was a huge building, three times the size of Capt. Cain’s and served the same purpose, to feed people and get them drunk. It was one of fifty or so businesses Dal ran, not only in Kanac but across all of Liave-3. And, also like Adam, he lived in the upper penthouse of the building, albeit without the use of a small internal generator to simulate the gravity of Earth.

It was past midnight on this part of L-3, but Sherri was sure she would find Dal awake. Most of his business occurred in the evening and into the night.

Sherri entered the noisy and offensive smell of the bar and elbowed her way through crowds of rowdy aliens, nearly all much taller than she. She didn’t want to cause a scene by using her inherent Human strength, but at times she had to. Eventually, she made it to the main bar where a server she knew to be a close associate of Dal’s greeted her.

“Sherri Valentine, I am surprised to find you here. I have heard of the events in Balamar. I am sorry for your misfortunes.” The alien’s name was Canc, and the expression on his angular, blue-skinned face belied his words of sympathy. Dal’s crew and Sherri’s crew didn’t get along. That was no secret.

“I need to see him,” she yelled through the cacophony of the bar.

Canc considered her for a moment, reading the stern determination in her troubled face. “A moment.”

After speaking with someone on an internal intercom, he turned back to the tiny, blonde-haired Human. “You can go up.”

There was less of a crowd at the rear of the bar, but there were more guards present. They let her pass, and she climbed a long open stairway up three flights to Dal’s private domain. She’d only been here twice before, and neither were social calls. This wasn’t either.

Dal was seated on an extra-wide cloth sofa that could almost pass as a bed. He was dressed in one of his many flamboyantly colored overcoats, garments he wore throughout the year and of which he had an inexhaustible supply.

“I’ve been expecting you. I knew there would come a time when you would ask for my assistance.” He waved a hand at a flask of golden-brown liquid, offering her a drink. She declined. “However, I know not what I can offer. Events are out of my hands. All I can hope for is that through your sacrifice, the Juireans see fit to leave L-3 to the New Natives.” Dal and his ilk had begun to call themselves the New Natives, thinking that would give them subliminal claim to the planet should either of the empires decide to take over.

“You know we had nothing to do with Quanin’s murder,” Sherri said as she slipped into an equally spacious chair across from the couch/bed.

“Of course. The assassination was perpetrated by the Afinn Refugee Alliance. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.”

“They’re the ones protesting the MK warehouse at the spaceport. They also have people outside the resort they’re building in Balamar. Aren’t they pretty small?”

“Their public persona is small; however, their true strength lies in the capital they have behind them. All of the main refugee groups that made it out of the Dead Zone took with them unimagined wealth. They are now putting that wealth to use in an attempt to manipulate politics and military power to do their bidding. Unfortunately, in this particular scenario, they have made Humans the villains.”

“If you know who did this, why don’t you say something?”

Dal laughed, his rotund belly jiggling as he did. “I just said, the Afinn has great wealth. They have the means to cause me much trouble. Besides, I have no direct proof of their involvement, just a feeling. A very strong and confident feeling.”

“I know how to get the facts out, and in a way that will expose the Afinn Alliance as the killers of the next Elder of the Juireans. It will be hard for them to pick on you when they’re running from the Expansion.”

“What facts?”

“I know who the killer is. He’s contacted me and is willing to reveal everything he knows.”

“Why would he do that?”

“The Alliance is trying to kill him.”

“As well they must to maintain their secret. If I were running the operation, that would have been my plan all along.”

“Whatever,” Sherri said, exasperated by the alien’s bluntness. “There’s a chance Adam will guide him out of Kanac and to Balamar. But he’s going to need help along the way.”

Dal was shaking his head. “Adam? Is he not being held captive aboard the Juirean vessel at the spaceport?”

“He is at the moment, but that situation may change.”

“At which time you initiate the direct wrath of the Juireans. No, I cannot offer direct assistance. Not against both the Juireans and the Alliance. I’m sorry.”

Sherri stood up. It was worth a try. If Dal said yes, then Adam could stay where he was, and with the resources Dal had, he could have guaranteed Mike’s safe passage to the shipyard.

“However,” Dal said before Sherri could leave. “I can give you an address.”

“An address? What’s there?”

“Assistance, of sorts. Remember this: Thirty-One Street, building 48.” Aliens seldom named their streets or their businesses, especially in Kanac, which Dal helped found. Balamar was the exception. It was founded decades before and by a different group of aliens. Copernicus even had a hand in creating the town’s Key West-like persona.

“Thirty-one and building 48. Got it. Thanks.”

“If your source does have information that will exonerate the New Natives of L-3, then it is in our best interests to make that information public. The future of our little world is at a precarious crossroads. We must all work together to preserve it.”

Sherri nodded and then hurried from the building and back to her transport. She’d taken a chance coming here directly from the spaceport. Undoubtedly, she was being followed. Now she’d placed Dal under suspicion. That couldn’t be helped.

She took her communicator and dialed the number for Mike Hannon. He had to know what progress she’d made.


17

Spaceships seldom run on the same schedules as the planets they land on, and the Juirean Class-3 was no exception. Even so, Adam began asking for food, even though it was late at night in this part of L-3. The Juireans didn’t think anything about it.

Now the door to his room opened, and a slender alien steward brought in a tray of standard processed muck. No one bothered to take a sample of his blood to see if his chemistry was compatible with the ingredients before preparing the meal. Although most of the crew aboard the ship was made up of aliens of various species, the Juireans in charge didn’t think to offer their prisoner the courtesy. He was counting on their obstinance.

The young alien set the tray on a small table and then left. Through the open doorway, Adam saw the other two sentries outside the room before the door closed. They were Juireans, bigger, and more serious looking than the steward. Adam shrugged. Oh, well.

He began to eat, stuffing the warm, near-tasteless mush into his mouth with his fingers. Silverware had not provided, and the small serving of water was in a paper cup. He continued eating for a couple of minutes until the tray was almost empty.

Now it was showtime.

While still leaning over the tray, Adam suddenly reached up and grabbed his throat with his right hand, while pushing away from the table with his left. He tumbled backward from his chair, his eyes bulging, and with some of the brown meal frothing from his mouth. He tried to cough but couldn’t. He writhed on the floor, grasping blindly in the air for help.

“Poison! I’ve been poisoned!” he finally managed to scream.

There was a chance those in the hallway couldn’t hear him through the metal door, but others who were monitoring the cameras and microphones surely would. He continued with the act for several minutes, thrashing about on the floor, kicking furniture, and upsetting the solitary table in the room.

When no one came, he eventually collapsed and lay still on the deck.

The door unlocked, and the Guards from the corridor rushed in, accompanied by a pair of smaller aliens with medical cases. The techs fell to his side and began checking his vitals while referring to datapads looking for the tolerances unique to Humans. Adam’s race had been around the galaxy long enough for medical and biological information to be included in most standard databases. That was both good and bad. Bad in this case.

Even so, Adam feigned unconsciousness. Although his readings may be in the green, EMTs often had to deal with unknown circumstances. This pair was no exception. Adam was unconscious, and they couldn’t figure out why.

“We must take him to the medical center,” one called out to a hovering Guard. The tech then fingered a communicator on his uniform, requesting a transport of some kind. Thirty seconds later, another pair of non-Juirean aliens arrived with a motorized gurney. It remained in the corridor as the two Juirean Guards lifted Adam’s lifeless body from the deck and carried him to the cart.

Once in the hallway and out of view of the room’s security cameras, Adam quickly and expertly removed both the Guard’s holstered MK-17 flash weapons, one with each hand. And he wasn’t trying to be subtle, either. He triggered the weapons the moment he had them, placing level-two bolts into the bellies of the Juireans at point-blank range, with the proximity hiding the light and sound of the shots.

He was off the cart a moment later, with both weapons aimed at the four alien medical techs. None appeared particularly brave; instead, they huddled against the metal wall of the hallway until one panicked and sprinted away. Adam shot him in the back with barely a movement of his hand. The other weapon remained locked on the other three. Adam waved the weapon, guiding the survivors along the corridor.

It was instinctive by now that Adam would study every step and turn he made when entering a potential prison. One never knew when one would have to retrace one’s steps. He moved along, with the terrified medical techs leading the way as he pushed the gurney ahead of him and behind the aliens. He might need it for cover.

Adam had been aboard enough Juirean warships in his life to know that security wasn’t a major concern. There was no need to monitor the movements of the crew, only the creatures they imprisoned aboard, which didn’t happen very often. That was why he felt confident no one was following his movements, although at some point those monitoring his room would want to know his status in the medical center.

As mentioned before, starships seldom shared the same time schedule as the planets they landed on. However, this one had been on L-3 for ten days, with the conference being held within a prescribed time each day and tied to Liave time. This meant the crew was in the process of acclimating to local time, which was around two in the morning. Very few of the crew were wandering the corridors at this time of night.

This allowed Adam to make it nearly to the quarterdeck before encountering any of the crew, and when he did, it was another non-Juirean. The tall, four-armed creature was only half awake at the time, probably on his way to watch shift, having just woke up. He slipped past the three terrified med techs, not even noticing their expressions. Then he passed Adam, who strategically placed his pair of weapons under the sheet on the gurney. It worked to a point until the sleepy alien was a couple of steps past the Human, and his mind registered what he just saw. He stopped and turned and caught the barrel of an MK-17 in his face. Adam was so hyped up at the moment that he used more force than was necessary. The face of the alien caved in and the body collapsed to the deck.

Adam whipped his weapons around toward the three med techs. As expected, they were waiting for an opportunity to run. Adam stopped them with a word.

“Don’t!”

They froze.

“Put him on the gurney,” Adam ordered. The aliens looked at him with confusion and panic. “The cart. Put him on the cart.”

Once the body was on the gurney, Adam covered the crushed and bloody face with the sheet. Unfortunately, the sheet was white and the blood that soaked into it was bright red, creating quite the contrast.

The tiny caravan moved on. Adam was almost to the quarterdeck and a way off the ship. Juirean Guards would be there, along with a security detail on the ground outside. There would also be security cameras watching the station 24/7. He would have to act fast. There would be nothing subtle or slick about his escape at that time. People were going to die. Alien people.

Empires

The corridor opened into a larger area near an airlock. The interior door was open, but the outer door was closed, as per in-port regulations. Another guard station was outside, covered by a small, portable canopy. Guard pairs patrolled the area around the huge starship, making their rounds continuously while the ship was in port.

Adam coaxed the three alien med techs into the lobby and up to the reception desk. Two bored-looking Juirean Guards sat leaning back in their chairs behind the counter, watching their monitors and paying little attention to the smaller crewmembers.

Using the techs to shield his approach, Adam lurched forward, swiping the barrel of one of the MK-17s across the face of one Juirean before bringing the butt of the same weapon down on the shoulder of the next. The first Guard was down, but the second one was only stunned. Adam backhanded him with his right hand, and the alien was down for the count.

Turning once again to his still-living captives, he moved them into the airlock and clustered them at the outer door. He made a quick scan of the outside security monitors, orienting himself to the opposition. Then he fingered the door controls, just as alarms began to blare.

The door cycled open, letting in the cold air of late night on Liave-3.

“Run!” Adam shouted, before lighting off an MK bolt in the airlock. The med techs didn’t have to be told twice. They sprinted into the night, running off in different directions as the Guards outside fought to identify them. This wasn’t an assault on the ship. The runners came from inside. It was enough for the Guards to pause a moment before taking up the chase at the fleeing aliens.

Adam fired again into the air, the brilliant flash temporarily blinding anyone looking in this direction. There were ample lights on across the spaceport, but nothing like a plasma bolt shooting into the sky.

Adam slipped out of the ship and hugged the hull, moving behind the outer security station, now empty as the Guards raced after the med techs. Bolts lit off and Adam noticed one of the techs fall to the ground. The others regained their senses and stopped running, allowing themselves to be tackled by the Juirean Guards.

Adam picked up the pace. The Kanac Spaceport was a busy place these days, be it day or night. However, with the lockdown of the planet by order of the Juireans, no ships were arriving or leaving at the time. Still, there were plenty of them resting on the dirt of the landing field; Liave-3 was too poor to have a concrete-covered spaceport. Because of the number of ships in port, there was still a lot of activity and vehicles moving about, loading and unloading cargo, anticipating a lifting of the embargo very soon.

Adam found a patch of dark between floodlights and sprinted away at Human speed, reaching the closest cargo ship a few seconds later. Although there was a security buffer around the Class-3, the field was cluttered now more than ever thanks to the moratorium on flights in and out of the facility. Crouching in the shadow under a freighter, Adam scanned the field. Off to his left was a Bainbridge-Class destroyer, the ship where the Human negotiating team was staying. All other vessels—both Human and Juirean—had left the port minutes after Quanin’s assassination, a precaution against getting trapped on the surface. But not the two ships carrying the delegations. Ambassador Euker was aboard the destroyer. Adam thought for a second about seeking asylum aboard the ship but thought better of it. There was a good chance he would be denied entry. Euker wasn’t about to harbor anyone who looked even marginally guilty of killing the next Elder of the Juirean race.

There were several transports nearby, some occupied, some not; however, they were not those made for commuters, but rather for cargo and other materials. Any of them would get Adam past the terminal and outside the fence surrounding the spaceport.

He jumped aboard an open-cab transport with a long flatbed and pressed the accelerator. He shot off, half expecting someone to yell at him. No one did. He glanced back at the looming mass of the Juirean warship, still able to hear the alarms sounding outside the ship. Dozens of aliens were spreading out around the ship, with flickering shafts of searchlights dancing everywhere. The search was expanding, as the word was out that the infamous Adam Cain had escaped the ship.

He was through a gate and racing along a frontage road toward Kanac before the search reached the perimeter of the spaceport. Even so, he couldn’t outrun radio communications. He steered the truck into the jungle foliage on the right until it was well off the road. He’d hoof it from here, using his Human speed and endurance to his advantage. This was where his habit of keeping the internal gravity generator below his apartment running every night as he slept came in handy. It helped maintain his Earthly badassness if that was even a word.


18

It was colder than normal this night; even then, the jungle was covered in moisture, with droplets falling from the leaves above enough to make Adam believe it was raining. It wasn’t, but after only a hundred meters, he was soaked to the skin and shivering. Fortunately, it wasn’t far to the edge of the city from here. Kanac was growing at a fever pace and would soon overtake the surrounding jungle from the Foothills to the sea. But for now, there was still a strip of jungle a couple of miles wide between western Kanac and the spaceport.

He made it to the city without incident; most of the indigenous dinosaur species had already moved to more fertile grounds, knowing their habitat was about to disappear. Many of the structures on this side of town were newer, as most of the urban sprawl was in this direction. However, being this close to the spaceport and the constant noise of take-offs and landings, meant this wasn’t the best part of town. Most of the buildings were multi-unit dwellings with windows dark as their residents slept. That didn’t hold for the streets, however. There was always someone staggering back to their homes or hanging out on corners, looking for people to rob. That was the way of the lawless planet of Liave-3. Adam wouldn’t be surprised if the murder rate in Kanac was around thirty percent or more. And it would be higher if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone wore guns. They were necessities for self-defense since that was the only kind of defense available.

Adam spotted a group of three younger aliens under a dim lamppost a block down the road. He wasn’t looking for trouble, but what he was looking for were fresh energy weapons and a communicator. He had to call Sherri.

He tucked the two MK-17s he had into his back waistline and confidently strode up to the small gang of thugs.

“Does any of you have a communicator? I need to make a link,” he said unabashedly. His lack of fear caught the aliens off guard.

A horned creature with a prominent bony brow stepped forward. “You can make a link, but there is a cost.”

“How much?” Adam asked, wide-eyed and innocent.

“Your life, you scab!”

“That seems rather expensive,” Adam said with sincerity. “Perhaps we can negotiate … like I take your communicators and weapons, and I let you live.”

The three aliens were taller than Adam, much taller. But in his experience, the taller the alien, the weaker they were, thanks to the effects of low gravity on evolving species. Even so, by towering over the much smaller Human, the aliens had unfounded confidence. They stepped forward, encircling Adam, hands now on the butts of their cheap MK-17s.

Adam was in a hurry, so he stepped forward with faster-than-expected reactions and planted a fist into the side of a blubbery green-skinned alien. This creature was by far the biggest and most imposing of the trio and Adam had a moment of doubt as his fist sank deep into the blubber before hitting anything substantial. But the hit had the desired effect. The creature let out a gush of foul-smelling air and bent sideways, buckling from the blow.

Next, Adam spun, using the back of his right hand like a club, catching the second—and not so tall—alien in the lower chin. The jaw slid sideways, followed by a prominent snap. Adam was onto Horn-Face before either of his first victims reached the ground.

He clamped his left fist around the neck of the ugly alien, unable to reach his head with his fist without having to jump. He released him immediately, as the pain from a dozen tiny needles stuck Adam’s hand.

He stepped back, able to now see in the dim light that the alien had hundreds of tiny horns covering his skin. They were everywhere Adam saw on the exposed flesh, all except his palms. Adam had never seen anything like him. The alien’s MK was out of the holster and pointing at him.

Not wanting to get stuck again, Adam reached for the barrel of the weapon rather than a body part, gripping it and twisting it up and over until it pointed at the chest of the alien. Horn-Face tried to hold on but couldn’t. With the MK now firmly in his grip, Adam used it to club the chin of the young alien thug. A moment later, all three were on the ground, two unconscious, with the third gripping his side and moaning.

Afraid of getting poked again, Adam left Horn-Face alone and rifled through the pockets of the other dead or unconscious aliens. He found a communicator and two spare battery packs for the MK. Another battery was in the pocket of the big blubbery creature.

With his tiny treasure trove, Adam continued along the street, leaving his victims behind. He activated the communicator as he walked and dialed the number of Sherri’s comm unit.

She came on the screen after the first buzz.

“You’re out!” she exclaimed. “How?”

“Not important,” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m in Balamar, winding through some of the back roads. I was being followed, and I had to lose them before heading for the shipyard. And you?”

“I just got to Kanac. So, just to make sure, Hannon is supposed to be at the 22nd Bridge.”

“That’s what he said. He doesn’t know a lot of landmarks in town, but that one he does. And Adam, I went to Divisen.”

“Will he help?”

“He said no, but then he gave me an address. It could either be a place to hide or where you’ll find weapons.”

“What is it?”

“Thirty-one 48: 31st Street, building 48.”

Adam grimaced. “That’s on the other side of the bridge. We’ll have to go in the opposite direction from the coast after I find Hannon. I don’t know if we can do that.”

“That’s up to you, but I got the impression you’ll find help there, not direct help, but something you can use.”

“Okay, I’ll decide once I see what resistance we’re up against,” Adam said. He was nearing one of the main thoroughfares for Kanac, a street leading to the 22nd Street Bridge. “Just to be clear—because we weren’t before—Hannon has information that will clear us, right?”

“That’s what he says. He sounded sincere. We’d do the same thing if our employers were trying to kill us.”

“Yeah, as if that would ever happen.”

“Funny, dickhead,” Sherri smirked. “Be careful. Dal said a group called the Afinn Refugee Alliance is behind this. And they have money, lots of money. They could field an army if they want, especially in Kanac. And now you’ll have the Juireans looking for you, too. And watch the roads. It sucks that there’s only one road between Kanac and Balamar. That will be blocked. You’ll have to go cross-country.”

Adam smiled into the tiny screen. “I’d say something about this being a typical Tuesday, but Tuesday’s already been taken. Don’t worry about me. Just get to the shipyard and lay low. I’ll figure something out.”

“Keep that address in mind. I think Dal wanted to help; he just couldn’t come out and say it.”

“I will. I’ll keep the communicator with me. Wish me luck.”


19

Kracor Hafnin and his associate, Olis Sinifen, had their agent on a link, staring at him in disbelief.

“Dead? All dead?” said Kracor for verification. “But you sent eleven.”

“I did,” D’ness Acker confirmed.

“But he is a Human,” said Olis pointedly. “You should have sent more.”

“That is obvious now, but it does not help our situation. The assassin is loose and possessing information that could be detrimental to our cause.”

“It is worse than you think,” said another creature on a secondary monitor. “Adam Cain has escaped, and it is believed he is in Kanac to help your assassin.”

“Two Humans!” Kracor exclaimed. “How could this be so? Cain was aboard a Juirean warship.”

“As D’ness has stated, the how is not important, only our response to reality.”

“Hannon will attempt to get his information to the other Humans,” said Olis.

“That will be impossible,” said the person on the screen. The spaceport is under Juirean control, regardless of the Human protests. Soon, the Expansion fleet will be here, and it will secure the planet ensuring no one will leave. The information Hannon has will remain on Liave-3. After that, it will simply be a matter of killing everyone with knowledge of it.”

“Including the Human dignitary?”

“Her, too, in response to the horrific insult that has been perpetrated against the Juirean people. You want a war; you shall have one.”

“War is only an option. We prefer something quicker, less destructive,” said Olis.

“But we will take one if that is what results from our actions,” said Kracor. “In the meantime, I propose we start one of our own—in Kanac. The population there is desperate and comprised of savages who will do anything for credits. Let us mobilize as many as we can to stop Hannon—and Cain—from causing us more harm. We have the resources; put them to use.”

“I concur,” said the creature on the second screen. “I will do my part; you do yours. But remember, these are Humans we are hunting. It will not be easy.”

“Against an entire city?” asked Kracor with a thin, evil grin. “Even Adam Cain cannot stand against that.”

“Do not underestimate him, Kracor: Kill him instead.”

“That is the plan.”

Empires

“This is an act of war!” Ambassador Jeanne Euker said over the comm unit. “You cannot force us to remain here.”

“War?” said Overlord Loncet. “If that is the case, then your Union is getting what it has desired all along. It is not the Expansion that has brought us to the brink. But at some point, we must defend ourselves. First Annadin, then Councilmember Quanin. And now your most savage operative, Adam Cain, has escaped from my ship after killing a number of my crew. He has been tracked to Kanac, where it has also been learned, the assassin Michael Hannon is in hiding. Yes, we know, Ambassador Euker.” Loncet referred to a datapad in front of him. “Michael Hannon: A Human of extraordinary skill at deceptive operations and an expert with the weapon we discovered in Balamar. He is the killer of our Quid-Elder. It is our belief he will meet up with Cain in an attempt to escape the planet. And Ambassador, if we had not found Cain’s transport outside the boundary of the spaceport, we would at the moment be looking for the fugitive aboard your vessel.”

“That would have been a mistake,” Euker scowled. “The war you say we want would have begun the moment you attempted entry to my ship.”

“That is why it is fortunate Cain is in Kanac. We are beginning an extensive search for him within the city. And since Liave-3 has no formal government of which to protest, we will use every means possible to locate him and Michael Hannon.”

“I understand, Overlord Loncet. You must do what is required. But I assure you, neither Hannon nor Cain have acted with authority from my government. If they are captured and found guilty of such crimes, you are welcome to them. My protest concerns your effort to keep my ship on Liave-3.”

“It is merely a precaution, Ambassador Euker—as well as a message. The Expansion will not bow to the aggression of the Union. I do not wish you harm; therefore, do nothing to antagonize me, and soon your ship will be released. But not before we capture or kill Adam Cain and Michael Hannon.”


20

Maybe it was paranoia, but Adam got the impression the city of Kanac was waking up several hours before daybreak. Lights were flickering on, and there was more activity on the streets. Transports zipped along the roads and sound filtered down from windows as Adam hurried along the wooden sidewalk.

He was expecting a reaction, both to his escape, as well as from the refugee group after Hannon. What did Sherri call them, the Afinn Alliance? But what was happening here was something else. Something bigger.

The 22nd Street Bridge was only a few blocks away. It was one of three bridges across the Us’nor River that ran through the middle of Kanac. It flowed down from the Foothills and emptied into the ocean south of Balamar, in fact, not far from Coop’s shipyard. Adam crossed the street and looked down at the shallow, slow-moving river. Was it possible for he and Hannon to take the river to Balamar? He’d never heard of the river being used to ship goods. It was wild, with deep pools followed by raging rapids. Then it wound around the hills between Kanac and Balamar before ending at a hundred-foot waterfall at the ocean’s edge. Maybe it would be possible, but they would need a boat, but since the river wasn’t used for much, there wasn’t a lot of them in the area. Adam would keep the river as a last resort.

Adam surveyed the bridge, which had a stone base on each bank with wooden planks joining them. It wasn’t a very impressive bridge, but it could carry four lanes of traffic while the other two only carried two. Most of the city’s commercial enterprises were found along the river, following Nineteen and Eighteen Streets. Most streets in Kanac were numbered. The problem: They didn’t follow any logical pattern.

So, where was Hannon?

There was more foot traffic on the bridge than would be expected at this hour, with groups of aliens essentially running in packs. Something was certainly afoot, and Adam knew he and Hannon were the cause. He checked his weapons inventory. He still had the two MK-17s from the Juirean ship. Each had limited bolts left, but he did have four extra battery packs, giving him a combined forty shots. That wasn’t a lot against an entire city mobilizing against him. He had no idea what Hannon had with him, but knowing Delta Force as he did, he was sure Mike wasn’t unarmed.

He moved closer, hugging the buildings until he had a clear view of the bridge. Where was Hannon?

A strong arm suddenly wrapped around his throat and pulled him back. The power was incredible—and unexpected. He tried to twist around but was held firmly in his assailant’s grip. Then he relaxed.

“You can let me go now.”

Adam turned to see a grinning Mike Hannon in the shadowy haze.

That’s when Adam slugged him, sending Hannon to the ground.

“Fuck you, Cain!”

“No, fuck you, Hannon. You killed a friend of mine.”

“He was a Juirean.”

“So what?” Adam asked, hovering over Mike, daring him to get up. “I liked him.”

“Like in some alien bestiality way?”

“I should leave you here and let this town tear you apart.”

“Then you, Sherri, and all the rest of the Humans will be taken away by the Juireans and locked away somewhere, or worse. And the Union won’t do a damn thing to help you. You’re all part of the conspiracy to kill Quanin and start a galactic war. You think you’ve had it bad before, wait until that happens.”

“You son of a bitch!”

“Yeah, I’ve been called that recently.”

Hannon got up from the ground and dusted himself off, keeping a wary eye out for another fist from Adam.

“I have information that will make you all heroes.”

“We’re already heroes, or haven’t you been paying attention.”

“I can place the blame on where it belongs. Without what I know, you’re all screwed.”

“Screwed because of what you started.”

“Does that matter now? Come on, let’s get to this shipyard Sherri told me about.”

He turned and began walking back the way Adam had come.

“Not that way,” Adam said. “We have to go east.”

“But isn’t Balamar this way?” Hannon asked.

“It is, but we need some help. We have to go this way.” Adam began moving toward the bridge.

“If you haven’t noticed, pal, but you really stirred up a hornet’s nest when you escaped from the Juireans. We can’t go that way. That’s right into the middle of the city.”

Adam snorted, and the two men came chest to chest. “If you haven’t noticed, pal,” Adam repeated, “these aren’t Juireans mobilizing for a fight. These are people hired by your friends, not mine. The Juireans don’t hire out their kills. I have an address where we can expect to find help, and it’s this way. Are you coming or not?”

“Fuck you.”

“Not in a million years. Now let’s go.”

Empires

“What are you carrying?” Adam asked as the pair slipped from shadow to shadow until they were at the base of the bridge. Unfortunately, 31st Street was on the other side of the river. They would have to cross the busy bridge to get there.

Hannon pulled a shiny object from his waistband. Adam whistled.

“An ’88; I’m impressed. But, of course, an alien assassin like you would have the best equipment.”

“I also have this.” He produced the Human handgun from his pocket.

“And a Glock. How many magazines?”

Hannon grimaced. “Just the one. I wasn’t planning on fighting off an entire city; in fact, I was supposed to be long gone by now.”

“While leaving the rest of us to take the fall. Nice.”

“That’s right. So, I guess Afinn betraying me is the best thing that could have happened for you and your friends. This way, you guys get off scot-free.”

Adam waved a hand toward the people on the bridge. “That’s what you consider scot-free?”

They stopped at the last place they could hide before exposing themselves.

“So, how are we going to do this?” Hannon asked.

“The only way we can,” Adam said. “We just walk across as if we belong there. There are so many alien species around here that it may take them a while to recognize us as Humans.”

Hannon shrugged. “I don’t see where we have a choice. Lead on, Captain Cain.”

Everyone in Kanac wore weapons out in the open, some around their waists, others across their chests; therefore, the two Humans didn’t hide theirs, either. Adam had his two MK-17s, one in each hand, while Hannon carried the Glock in his right and the MK-88 in his left. They boldly walked onto the bridge and merged with the dozen or so people already there. An increasing number of transports passed along the commuter lanes, while the pedestrian traffic stayed to the sides of the bridge.

The Humans watched alien eyes, pods and stalks as they walked, looking for any signs of recognition. They were about a third of the way across when it happened.

It began with a pair of purple-skinned aliens wearing nose tubes to supplement the oxygen level of L-3. Black orbs set in large seas of white suddenly grew larger and unblinking as the pair approached from the other side of the river. They had MKs on their waists, and cautious hands began to move toward them.

Adam and Mike didn’t wait; there was no point. They lifted their energy weapons and fired.

The dual flashes lit up the surface of the bridge, getting everyone’s attention. Some aliens ducked for cover, while others stood frozen in place, confused. But then the guns came out and greed took over. The targets were here, right in front of them.

The Humans began running, staying to the side of the bridge and mingling with the panicked crowd. They saved their shots, letting others do the bulk of the work for them. Creatures were falling all around from friendly fire, as everyone took aim as best they could at the sprinting Humans and opened fire.

Suddenly, it was like the 4th of July in central Kanac. Night turned into day as a volcano of activity erupted. Transports tried to veer out of the way of the streaking energy bolts, with one of them crashing through the side of the bridge and plunging the short distance to the river below.

Adam and Mike were across the bridge and racing for the cover of the buildings on the other side. There was so much panic in the streets that no one knew what or who to shoot. The Humans ran in a crouch, hiding their identities the best they could while firing only when necessary. Hannon saved his Glock for later, not wanting the loud and distinctive sound of the weapon to give away their position.

“Where’s this place we’re going?” Mike yelled as they ran.

“Not far; about three blocks from the river.”

At the speed Humans could run in the gravity of L-3, it only took a minute to reach 31st Street. Adam stopped, checking the addresses to see which direction to turn. Naturally, it was to the right, and even further in the opposite direction from where they would eventually have to go.

They were in a warehouse district, with little pedestrian traffic nor people leaving their homes in search of an unknown bounty. But by the response Afinn’s offer was having, it had to be sizeable. It seemed everyone wanted in on the action.

“Here it is!” Adam cried out. “Number 48.”

Adam checked the door and found it was locked. But not for long. He lowered his shoulder and smashed the metal panel inward, breaking the lock. The Humans stepped into a pitch-black interior.

“Lights,” Hannon said. “Find some lights.”

They felt along the wall next to the broken door until they found a switch. When Mike flicked it, the men gave out audible gasps.

“Now, this is what I’m talking about!” Hannon exclaimed.

They were in a large warehouse, or more accurately, a department store chocked full of weapons of every imaginable make and model. They lined the walls, as well as in stacked crates filling most of the room. Adam’s heart skipped a beat. Could it be? Could some of the superweapons from Hax’on be here? He knew Dal had them, even though he couldn’t prove it. Until now.

He raced to a stack of crates and pulled one open: Xan-fis and nothing special. He tried several more crates until near the back of the warehouse he struck paydirt.

Adam was somewhat familiar with the rifles, having been designed to be game changers on some distant world engaged in a civil war. They had all the bells and whistles anyone would want in an assault rifle, including ungodly bolt capacity, a grenade launcher and even ballistic rounds, which was uncommon in the alien universe. They were also lightweight and with near-instant charging.

“Bingo!” he called out. “I just found our salvation.”

He surveyed the warehouse, looking to see where Hannon had gone.

“I did, too,” Mike said from a dim corner of the huge room. Adam took a couple of the superweapons from the crate and went looking for the assassin.

That’s when he saw it.

It was about twelve feet high, made of a non-reflective black material, and with a pair of matching barrels protruding from the front.

“It’s a fucking tank!” Hannon called out from his perch atop the vehicle.

“Not sure what it fires, but she’s a beaut, and looks to be brand new.”

“Far out. Here, take these.” Adam tossed the two rifles up to Hannon.

“What are these?”

“Just the most-advanced rifles in the galaxy, even better than anything made on Earth. One hundred shot capacity at level-2 with forty at level-1. Grenades, too; the whole kit and caboodle.”

“The whole what?”

“It’s a saying, obviously from before your time. I’ll get more of the rifles and meet you back here. Then we have to go. People saw us come in; they’ll be massing for an assault pretty soon.”

Mike’s wide smile glowed in the dark corner of the warehouse. “Let ’em try.”


21

Two minutes later, Adam and Mike were ensconced in the small crew compartment of the tank. It was nice that they had a heavy-duty assault vehicle—if they could just figure out how to start it.

“It has to be one of these buttons—”

“Don’t!” Adam protested.

A thundering explosion filled the room, blasting away the huge roll-up door and part of the outer wall.

“You don’t know what it does,” Adam said, finishing his sentence.

The sound from the flash cannon bolt was deafening in the enclosed warehouse. It was the first time Adam had encountered a space-rated cannon blast in an atmosphere and at such close range. It was awesome.

“At least now we know how to fire the main gun,” Mike said through an embarrassed smile. “Okay, I have pedals, and these sticks must steer it. It’s like driving an excavator.”

“Two to operate,” said Adam. “One drives while the other one shoots. That’s fine; I just need to find out how to aim the cannon. Let’s go; I’ll learn along the way.”

The tank lurched forward on heavy tracks. The vehicle was designed for off-road terrain, which was just what they needed. Adam knew that if they tried to make it to Balamar along the main road, they would hit not only local resistance but Juirean as well. They would have to cut through the jungle, and they just happened to have the vehicle that could do it.

But that wouldn’t stop the Juireans for long. Once the maneheads realized what the Humans had and where they were going, they’d bring down some of their fighters from space. The Class-3 may even launch, although it wasn’t capable of in-atmosphere operation. It would have to reach space and then drop energy bombs on them.

There was no point in dwelling on that now. First, they had to get out of Kanac.

The tank rumbled out onto 31st Street and turned left, going west. As predicted, people were moving in—around fifty of them. They didn’t hang around long after seeing the tank emerge from the shattered façade of the warehouse. But the incoming fire was constant, coming from roofs and alleys, as well as the numerous transports that were now careening onto the street.

Xan-fi energy bolts skidded off the angled black surface of the tank, causing little to no damage. Then someone got ambitious and steered their car into the front of the tank, bailing out at the last minute. The big assault vehicle lurched to a stop, with the car wedged under the front, between the tracks.

“Reverse!” Hannon yelled. “There has to be reverse in this damn thing.”

Adam couldn’t help him look for the controls as dozens of aliens scrambled for the tank, hoping to climb aboard. He lit off two blasts from the dual cannon, sending the brilliant, starship-grade balls of energy down the street before gravity pulled them down to the dirt road. They splashed and spread out, igniting fires in the surrounding buildings and incinerating more of the attackers.

Giving up on finding reverse, Mike steered the tank sharply to the left, allowing a track to dig into the crumpled car and travel over the wreckage and back onto the road. They were away again.

“Turn here,” Adam instructed. “We have to cross the river.”

Mike twisted the tank to the left and chugged down the road leading to the bridge.

“Ah, shit,” he said, looking at the video monitor in front of him.

Adam knew what he meant.

Word was out about the tank, and now a dozen or so abandoned vehicles were stationed on the bridge, blocking their way. Adam lit off more cannon blasts. It worked, to a point, throwing the first row of the cars and trucks high and to the rear. Unfortunately, all it did was pile the vehicles higher on the bridge. Adam fired again, and again.

“Be careful; we may only have a limited number of shots,” Mike cautioned.

“The river,” Adam said. “It’s shallow here. I’m pretty sure we can make it across.”

Mike blew out a breath. “Okay, let’s find out.”

He steered the tank to the right and down the shallow embankment to the water. They splashed into the river, feeling the stones churning underneath. The tank fought for traction, losing some from the buoyancy of the water. They sank lower, watching the monitors as the river climbed precariously close to the top of the tank.

The river was deeper here than Adam thought, and he had the terrifying fear that they could become submerged in the middle of the river with a dead tank. The cameras were underwater now, but before the tank sank deeper, he saw hundreds of aliens lining the bank, flash weapons ready. If they had to swim for it, they’d be sitting ducks.

“Damn, we’re floating!” Mike called out.

The tank was indeed floating, drifting in the light current and beginning to turn downriver. Fortunately, the vehicle was still watertight. But the motor ran on electricity, and unless the vehicle was amphibious, something would eventually short out.

The tank jerked as it struck something in the riverbed.

“We’re moving again!” Mike said. “We must be on a sandbar. I’m giving it gas to see if we can make it to the other side with one big surge.”

The engine hummed louder in the tight, closed compartment as the tank bounced along the bottom of the river, gaining purchase here, before floating again a little more downriver. Eventually, the nose angled up, and the water level fell below that of the cameras. They were on the opposite bank and digging into the mud, climbing up.

The scene outside was chaotic, as a constant barrage of energy bolts struck the tank as it emerged from the river. The brilliant flashes caused the cameras to whiteout at times, blinding their path forward. The tank leveled out, and Adam sent another dual round of cannon fire indiscriminately ahead of them, just for effect. The crowd cleared, making way for the deadly black vehicle.

More transports harassed them as they made their way westward toward the city’s edge and the jungle beyond. They’d been on the road for ten minutes, which was plenty of time to notify the Juireans where they were and what they had. Adam didn’t worry so much about the natives of Kanac. The maneheads were another matter. He and Hannon had to get to the cover of the jungle as fast as they could. Otherwise, they’d be sitting ducks for cannon fire from above.


22

Adam was back to the spot where he’d attacked the three thugs, which was both good and bad. The jungle was just ahead, but it was also close to the spaceport. To reach Balamar by way of the jungle, they would have to turn south and cross through virgin growth with no roads or maps to guide them. It was still dark and two hours before dawn. They would have to navigate by feel, hoping they could keep going in the right direction. Not unless the tank had a navigation system, and they could learn how to use it on the fly, even though on-the-job training hadn’t worked for the Humans so far. Adam still didn’t know how to aim the cannon, and Mike hadn’t found reverse. The other option was navigation by the stars, which would be invisible to them through the jungle canopy. All that was left was the sense of feel, as the terrain sloped gently toward the ocean. Adam hoped it would be enough to keep them from getting lost.

They crashed into the overgrowth at the edge of Kanac and immediately dropped to a third of their previous speed. The tank was effective at barreling over ferns and smaller palms, but they had to steer around the larger Banyan-like trees that filled the jungle. And the cameras were becoming useless, as mud splashed up on the lenses and stuck.

“I’ll go up and guide you,” Adam said, clutching one of the superweapons and heading for the escape hatch above them.

He opened the hatch and poked his head out, being immediately slapped in the face by long stalks of vegetation dangling from branches higher up. There was also a plethora of insect life and smaller animals that were falling onto and into the tank, shaken loose by the passage of the vehicle. A snake-like thing fell past Adam and into the driver’s compartment. The tank lurched to a stop, and the light from a pair of flash bolts filled the night, accompanied by Mike’s profanity-laced tirade. After a moment, the tank was moving again.

Adam kept yelling down at Mike, telling him to steer left or right to avoid the thicker trees. They were in an all-terrain vehicle and it was doing a pretty good job with the muddy muck on the ground.

Then a series of flash bolts streaked overhead.

Adam ducked before looking behind them.

The tank had been cutting a rough road through the dense foliage and now two four-wheel-drive carts were racing after them. Each vehicle was full of crazed-looking aliens, firing their weapons widely at the slow-moving tank.

Adam energized the rifle and aimed the weapon at the aliens. He kept the charge setting on level-2 to preserve his ammo. The range of the weapon was far beyond that of standard energy rifles and he used this to his advantage to keep the carts at bay.

“Yo! I can’t see!” Mike yelled. “Help!”

Adam stopped shooting long enough to give Mike crude directions, before going back to firing. The super rifle had an added feature most Xan-fi-type weapons didn’t have, and that was a telescopic sight. Normal flash rifles only have a range of a hundred meters or so, making the sights unnecessary in most applications. But the superweapon was accurate up to five hundred meters or more, making the scopes essential. It was also infrared, giving a greenish glow to the dark of the jungle.

Adam’s heart skipped a beat when he sighted through the scope. The aliens were pointing a tube in their direction. He recognized it instantly as a seismic sounding rocket, something used in mining operations on the planet. It was the closest thing to an RPG on L-3, and the aliens were about to light one off at the ass end of the lumbering tank.

“Left! Go left!” Adam yelled. But it was too late.

The rocket shot off, covering the relatively short distance in a flash. The tank bucked, nearly throwing Adam out the top.

“What the hell was that?” Mike yelled from inside the tank.

“Just a rocket,” Adam replied. “Brace yourself; they’re firing another one!”

This one hit the right-side track, breaking the linkage and causing it to feed out onto the mud. The tank shifted hard to the right. All it could do now was go in circles.

“We’re bailing!” Mike said as he handed another of the superweapons to Adam while taking two for himself. He looped the strap from one across his back while holding the other in firing position.

Adam was on the ground, ankle-deep in smelly muck when Mike appeared at the hatch. In the dark distance, the four-wheel carts were coming closer. Occasionally, the gloom illuminated by flash bolts going off in their direction.

That’s when Adam saw a towering dark figure appear out the jungle and scoop up the lead cart in its huge, teeth-lined mouth. The aliens in the trailing cart opened fire on the T-Rex-like dinosaur, illuminating the scene for the two stunned Humans. They didn’t stay transfixed for long. Something solid hit Adam in the back, throwing him forward a good five meters. He landed face-first in the mud before rolling over as a dark form stepped over him and scooped up the tank in its mouth.

The creature was called a Cryonous. It 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. Adam caught a glimpse of Mike falling from the open hatchway as the tank turned upside down before being tossed to the side once the second dinosaur realized it wasn’t food. But then the huge nostrils flared and the beast followed the scent to something that was. Unfortunately, it was Adam.

A heavy foot—correction, a toe—pressed down on his body, pressing him further into the mud. A car-size head angled toward him, yellow, beady eyes reflecting the occasional energy flash from the aliens as they made a vain attempt to fight off the first beast. Even the seismic rockets were no match for a Cryonous. They were the king of the beasts on Liave-3 if one didn’t count the alien mammals that had invaded their domain.

Out the corner of his eye, Adam spotted Mike, kneeling near a Banyan tree, while bringing a superweapon to bear on the huge dinosaur. The rifle had grenades and ballistics, but Adam doubted if even that would stop the beast from having Adam as an appetizer. The huge head came closer, the animal taking an instinctive sniff of its meal before devouring it.

Then it hesitated, the yellow eyes locked on Adam. It made a sound, a whine or whimper before the long tongue fell out of the mouth and the animal began panting.

“Don’t shoot!” Adam called out.

“What … what?”

“I said, hold your fire! I think I know her.”

“Her?”

As the huge head moved away, Adam sat up in the mud. He reached out with a hand and stroked the rough skin on the animal’s snout.

“Hello, Ginger,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”

Adam climbed to his feet, covered in mud and soaking wet. The dinosaur stepped back, coming to her full twenty-foot height. Adam looked around and found his weapon. He took it and turned it on, pointing the pair of LED displays into the night, lighting the scene to a degree.

Another loud rumbling came from his right. He cringed as he saw the first savage dinosaur racing toward him, having dispensed with the aliens in carts before turning on Adam and Mike.

Ginger lowered her head and let out an ear-shattering growl at the other creature, stopping it in its tracks. The two huge beasts squared off. Adam ran to where Mike was hiding, huddled behind a thick, moss-covered tree trunk, mesmerized by the battle about to take place.

But no battle took place. Instead, the first dinosaur gave out a frustrated return grunt and then backed off; its hunger already somewhat satiated with the tiny alien morsels from the carts.

Adam stepped out from behind the tree. Mike grabbed at his shirt but missed it.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s okay,” Adam said. “She won’t hurt you.”

Human and dinosaur met in the bluish glow of the LED panels. Like a dog greeting its master, the huge head dropped, allowing Adam to scratch the coarse grey skin. It wasn’t so much the feel as it was the gesture that the animal appreciated.

Mike stepped next to Adam, his jaw slack.

“I’d like you to meet Ginger,” Adam said. “She’s Coop’s old pet dinosaur; he raised her from a pup, or whatever they call baby dinosaurs. I met her over ten years ago, maybe more.”

“And she remembers you? Bullshit.”

“Maybe not me, but she must recognize the smell of a Human. To her, Humans are friends. After the Juireans attacked Copernicus’s shipyard, she must have gone back into the wild.” Adam snorted. “She also grew up. Back then, she was about a third of the size she is now. She hasn’t wandered too far from her old home. We must be getting close to the coastline.”

Mike shook his head. “I’ve been hearing about the famous Adam Cain my entire life, wondering how you’ve been able to do all the things you’ve done. Now I know. It’s because you’re the luckiest son of a bitch in the galaxy.”

“No argument there. However, it’s the universe, son. I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the universe. And multi-universes, at that. Read the stories. They’re fascinating.”

“Yeah, whatever. Now, if you’re done basking in your glory, we still have a lot of jungle to cover, and now we’re on foot. This is your planet; lead on.”


23

The sky was growing brighter as the first traces of the new day gave form to the thick jungle. Ginger happily went her way after the brief reunion, following the trail of the first dinosaur—probably her mate. Good for her. She’d found love in the jungle. Adam hoped he treated her well, although he seemed like a real jerk.

At one point, the two Humans came to a small break in the forest. They’d been going downhill for a while, which meant they were getting closer to shore. And there in the opening was the dark, solid mass of the ocean, viewed from several hundred feet above sea level. Adam could see the swath of the coast road that hugged the shore. He was familiar with this part of the bay. The swells came in at an angle here, creating a decent break not too far from the shore. Adam had a surfboard made in Kanac, and he often surfed the break in the winter months when the waves were the biggest. He recognized this particular stretch of beach, knowing they were only about a mile from Coop’s shipyard.

With renewed vigor, he led the alien assassin out of the deep jungle and into the thinner forest of the littoral plain.

The shipyard was to the north, just past a wide-open field. The crumbling white coquina wall surrounding the compound was visible, along with several rusting hulks of derelict spaceships Copernicus had collected over the years.

Adam had known Copernicus Smith for over ten years. They were friends, even though the relationship got off to a rocky start. It began when Coop kidnapped Adam and Riyad, eventually selling them to the Klin for a boatload of cash. In truth, Coop was a deep-cover spy for the Orion-Cygnus Union and was using the pair as bait to track down one of the last surviving Klin Colony Ships. He operated using the cover as an unscrupulous a starship repairman, one who would work for any client willing to pay. It gave him access to most of the criminal cartels operating in the Kidis Frontier. His headquarters was the shipyard he had on Liave-3, just south of the beautiful coastal enclave of Balamar. This was long before Dal Divisen came to the planet to found the wild boomtown of Kanac.

Eventually, Copernicus joined Adam’s tiny band of adventurers, becoming a dear friend of both Adam and Riyad. He became especially close to Sherri, who paired up with the handsome renegade for several years until he’d returned to spy work at the end of the Kracion affair.

Coop’s former shipyard Coop had seen better days. Since the Big Three Partnership assumed control, activity at the facility had been limited to a few rehab jobs Adam’s alien friends Kaylor and Jym did to some of the salvageable derelicts on site. It was this inventory that Riyad got his three working freighters which he now rented out to salvagers. There were a couple of other vessels ready to go, including a tiny speeder which was of no use in salvage operations but was always nice to have around for quick jaunts around the Dead Worlds.

By now, Adam had to assume the Juireans knew his destination. The tank cut a path into the jungle heading south and then west. They would figure he was trying to get to Balamar. But did they know about the shipyard? There was no reason they would. It was five miles south of the town, and with only sketchy recordkeeping on L-3, there was no paperwork showing the Human’s ownership interest in the long-abandoned facility.

Still, they approached with caution before scanning the interior grounds through a broken-down section of the wall at the southeast corner of the compound.

Sherri’s transport was there, parked outside the single wooden structure that had once been Coop’s home and office. The repaired speeder had been moved into a clearing at the right of the building, ready for Hannon to make his escape—once he gave them the information they needed to clear their names. Since it was still a few minutes before sunrise, the lights were on in the building.

With superweapons firmly in their grip, the Humans climbed through the broken wall and made their way to the side of the building. Adam signaled that he would open the door as Hannon made the breach. On his count, Adam flung open the door.


24

Mike was through the doorway a heartbeat later, coming in low and fast, ready for anything. What he saw inside made him stop, sigh and stand up, lowering his weapon.

Adam came in a second later, having the same reaction.

Sherri and Kaylor were in the center of the room with a pair of green-haired Juirean Guards at their side, Xan-fi flash rifles held to their heads. Not only that, but Ambassador Jeanne Euker was also there, along with Quanin’s assistant, Counselor Dansee. Two other aliens of the same race were in the room but not under guard, with sly smirks on their lips. Another eight Juirean Guards were positioned around the room, weapons ready. A pair of them moved in and relieved Adam and Mike of their rifles before beginning to search them for more weapons. The men voluntarily gave up an MK-17 and the shiny silver ’88, while keeping Adam’s spare ’17 and Mike’s Glock-19 hidden in their mud-caked clothing. The gullible Juireans accepted the weapons without searching further.

Adam wondered about Jym; he wasn’t among the prisoners, assuming he had to be somewhere on the grounds since he and Kaylor were inseparable. Adam thought about the hidden room Copernicus had at the back of the building where he once ran his shadow spy business. Was Jym there, planning something? If so, Adam had to be ready for anything.

Adam was shaken from his thoughts by a familiar voice. “Please join us,” said someone from behind the entourage of towering Juireans. Overlord Loncet Ra Veseem stepped around one of the Guards, a full-tooth grin on his long, angular face. “I must congratulate you on your perseverance,” he said to Adam. “You made an incredible journey and against all odds. Everything they say about you is true, with the exception that you are invincible. It appears your reign of good fortune has come to an end.”

One of the other aliens came forward to stand in front of Mike, draped in an elaborate cloak that shimmered with bands of real gold.

“A friend of yours?” Adam asked.

“More like my boss. A very bad boss. This is Kracor Hafnin, leader of the Afinn Alliance.”

“You have become a serious problem for us, Michael Hannon. You were supposed to have died at the hotel.”

“That’s what you get for sending aliens to do a Human’s job.”

“Arrogant to the last; however, you have served your purpose and will soon no longer be relevant.”

Adam then frowned at Ambassador Euker. “I’m surprised to see you here, Madam Ambassador. I assume this was a joint effort. You can’t believe what they’re saying about us? Just because Hannon is a murdering asshole doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”

“I’m afraid you’re misreading the situation, Captain Cain,” she said. “I’m just as much a prisoner here as you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s simple. It seems the Afinn Refugee Alliance—of which we have their two main leaders present—have had an accomplice within the Juirean Authority all along, someone who helped set up this entire tragic episode.”

Adam scowled at Counselor Dansee. “Why would you do that? You were his friend. You’ve been with Quanin for years.”

“Again, you are mistaken, Adam Cain,” Dansee said defiantly. “I am not the co-conspirator. It is Overlord Loncet.”

“Loncet? No shit?”

Dansee was thrown off balance for a moment by the translation; however, he quickly recovered and glared at the senior Juirean Overlord. “In truth, there was more information to be gleaned from Councilmember Quanin’s inquiry as to the movements of the Juirean tracking squadron involved in the Annadin affair. Once it was discovered the squadron had gone first to Dasnon, Quanin wondered why. No previous Juirean force had gone there; the settlement is too small, too inconsequential. Further investigation showed that it was Overlord Loncet who ordered the units there. In addition, he also assigned the squadron to track the Human ships heading for Annadin, a fact made available by the Union’s openness regarding their fleet movements, a show of defiance that they can go where they want within the Dead Zone.”

Adam looked at Mike.

“Yeah, I planted the bombs, so what?” Hannon admitted. “It was part of the assignment. But this is the first I’m hearing about the Juireans being behind it. I was given approach vectors and supplied with a small personal transport to reach the ships. Then on Annadin, I placed a signal cannon on the surface to simulate a flash bolt when seen from space. When the Juirean ship made its move, I triggered both the cannon and the bomb on the appropriate ship. We didn’t know which one would be involved, so I wired them all. What happened next is history.”

“You mean murder, don’t you!” Sherri growled.

“All’s fair in love and war, sweetheart. Just doing my job.”

“I should have left you in Kanac,” Adam said, taking a threatening step toward the assassin. Guards moved between them.

“But the point is,” Ambassador Euker spoke up, “the Juireans helped conspire to kill one of their most influential citizens. When Counselor Dansee learned of Loncet’s collusion, he contacted me. Unfortunately, he was already under surveillance, and when we met outside my ship to discuss the situation, we were captured and brought here.” She looked at Overlord Loncet. “I suppose you have plans for us, as well?”

“Of course. As it will be related, you and Dansee have been working with the assassins to maneuver Quanin into the killing zone. Then Hannon and his fellow Human associates completed the assignment and all in an effort to start a war with the Expansion. It is all so conspiratorial. In truth, it was I who arranged for the Annadin incident as a way to bring the Quid-Elder to the Dead Zone. I even suggested the peace talks take place on Liave-3 and be held at Cain’s. The more Humans I could involve, the more convincing the ruse.”

“Why do you want a war?” Adam asked. “No one truly wins a war. We just got rid of Kracion, and now you do this.”

“You are mistaken in your assumptions, Adam Cain.”

Adam pursed his lips. “I seem to be doing that a lot recently.”

“Once the propaganda becomes circulated, the members of your Union will ask whether or not the Dead Worlds are worth fighting a galactic war over, especially when the war is a contrivance of factions engaged in a fruitless political assassination. My Afinn associates will get what they want: protection for their homeworlds against the corporate invaders. And the Expansion will get control of the Dead Worlds without having to go to war. The truth is, I did this to prevent a war, not start one. And now that I can include Ambassador Euker as part of the cabal, the outcome is virtually guaranteed. Pragmatic voices will say that control of the Zone is not worth the lives of trillions of innocent beings, brought about by the sly machinations of sinister forces who want to incite another war with the Expansion. It is a logical progression. All that remains is the prevention of any counterarguments from being made in an open forum, which would dispute the facts as we relate them. Therefore, you must all die. The reports will show how, in a desperate final standoff, all the conspirators died while attempting to escape the planet. It is a story which all will believe.”

Adam looked at Sherri, watching as she directed his attention to the back of the building with her eyes. Then she began slowly blinking. A countdown? Was something about to happen? It had better; they didn’t have much time. Adam hoped Jym realized that, too—if he was even here.

Having been left unshackled, Adam placed his hands on his waist, in a show of defiance. It also moved his hand closer to the MK-17 he had hidden in his waistband.

“It sounds as if you have it all worked out,” he said to Loncet. “Too bad you’re wrong about people believing you. You see, this entire conversation has been recorded and broadcast to the galaxy. Your game is over, Loncet.”

There was silence in the room for several seconds until the Overlord laughed. “Are you insane? There are no recording devices present. You say such simply in an attempt to distract. For what, I do not know.”

And that’s when the lights went out.

It wasn’t much of a distraction, but considering the time of day and the fact that the room had only a couple of small windows, it was enough to cause a moment of confusion.

Sherri grabbed Kaylor by the arm and pulled him toward her. Together, they crashed into Euker and Dansee, sending all of them tumbling to the floor. Adam’s MK was out and blasting away at the closest Juirean Guards. Only a second later, he heard the loud report of Mike’s Glock-19 going off, a testament to his quick reactions.

Now it was a race to the front door. Adam and Mike laid down covering fire as Sherri and her group regained their footing and sprinted for the door. The Juireans and two Afinn aliens were diving for cover between the momentary flashes from Adam’s MK. The fight took less than ten seconds, and they were out into the open and rushing to the graveyard of derelict starships for cover.

Adam hadn’t planned on using the MK when they entered the building, secure in the superior utility of the super rifle. Because of that, he hadn’t placed a fresh battery pack in the weapon. The current pack drained in five shots. He snapped in one of his three spares as he ran.

By the time they skidded to a stop behind a rusting hulk of a broken-down starship, Mike’s Glock had fallen silent, the fifteen-round magazine now empty. That left only Adam’s MK, and against a small army of Juirean Guards. They’d killed four or five of the aliens inside the building but encountered another four outside. All the aliens had Xan-fi rifles and MK handguns, and Adam prayed they didn’t realize what they had with the two superweapons they’d taken from them earlier. Then he laughed. What difference would it make even if they did? He was down to about to his last 30 shots. The Juireans could wait them out, drawing occasional fire until the MK was empty.

Sherri had her arms draped over Kaylor, Euker and Dansee, keeping them low behind a jagged piece of orange metal. He looked into Sherri’s eyes; she could see the concern in his.

“We’re pretty well screwed, aren’t we?” she said.

“About the same as inside the building,” Adam answered. “But this way we get to die with a view.” The shimmering blue ocean was visible across the street from the compound.

Then something caught Adam’s attention.

The sounds of ballistic rounds going off are distinctive. When he heard them, he first thought the Juireans were using the super rifles, which had a ballistic component. But this was different. This was something he recognized. It was the sound of an M2 assault rifle, which didn’t necessarily change his mood. Copernicus could have had a few of the weapons hidden in the building and the maneheads found them. But why were the sounds coming from different directions?

Adam chanced a look around the side of the broken-down starship. In the light of dawn, he saw several of the green-skinned aliens fall to the ground. The ones who weren’t already dead ran into the open, away from the building and the southern wall of the compound. That’s when Adam saw Riyad hurdle a section of the wall and sprint for the cover of the speeder. Peanut was on his six, and soon, they had the remaining Juireans in a crossfire with Tim Robertson and Toby Wills. The firefight didn’t last long, not against heavily armed ex-Navy SEALs and a former Islamic terrorist space pirate.

Adam watched as Loncet and the two flamboyantly dressed alien refugees ducked back into the building, seeking what cover they could find.

“Hoorah!” Adam yelled into the sudden quiet in the aftermath of the firefight. He stepped out into the open and joined the SEALs and Riyad as they closed on the door to the building. They didn’t hesitate. It was best to make an entry before the people inside could organize a proper defense. Peanut was through first, followed by Adam.


25

As when Adam first entered the room, he stopped, sighed and lowered his weapon.

But this time it was because Jym had the three enemy aliens held at gunpoint, a satisfied grin displayed on his short, bear-like snout.

A moment later, everyone was back in the building, with Loncet and the two Afinn aliens sitting in chairs with Robertson and Wills guarding them.

“Well, that was a quick turn of events,” Adam said. “Where’d you guys come from?” Adam asked Peanut.

“We were almost back to the planet when we got word from Jym that you were in trouble. I figured I owed you one after what happened in the Kush. We set down not far from here. Lucky for you, Hannon had a small arms cache in his starship.”

Years before, Peanut and Adam had been on a covert mission in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. That was when the Klin abducted Adam, a fateful event that set the whole series in motion. At the time, Peanut felt responsible for Adam’s disappearance. Today, he got a small dose of redemption.

Adam suddenly panicked. He looked around the room, not seeing him. Where was Hannon?

Just then, a thunderous roar sounded outside, and hot, pungent lifting gas filtered into the building.

“Keep an eye on them!” Adam yelled to the SEALs, pointing at their prisoners. He rushed outside, waving the hot exhaust cloud away as the tiny speeder rose into the sky. The hull reflected the first light of day as it rose into the heavens. The ship angled up, and a moment later, the gas and fiery exhaust vanished as the craft engaged the single gravity generator. The ship was gone a second later.

Dejected, Adam returned to the building.

“It appears as though your evidence has departed,” said Overlord Loncet, smirking in an alien way. “Now, there is only my word against yours. And there is no question that a Human killed the Quid-Elder. No one will believe I had anything to do with his killing.”

Adam was about to wipe the satisfied smirk off the alien’s face but figured that in his mood, he would rip his head off his shoulders. The Overlord was right. He’d set the Humans up to take the fall, and without any hard evidence to counter the story, they were still guilty by association. Also, Adam and the other Humans had just killed several Juireans at the shipyard, not counting those he’d killed at the Class-3 starship. All of that wouldn’t go over well with the Juirean Authority. Counselor Dansee would give his testimony, but supposedly he was part of the conspiracy. His word wouldn’t carry very much weight.

What Adam needed was Hannon’s hard evidence, including data files of his contract with the refugees, along with payment records. That still wouldn’t implicate the Juireans, but it would the Afinn Alliance, proving they hired a Human to do their dirty work. The question was how many Humans did they hire?

He let out a deep breath, staring at the smug blue-haired Juirean. Of course, Adam could blow his head off, along with the Afinn, as one last show of defiance. It may not exonerate them, but it sure would feel good.

“We do not need any more evidence,” Jym said into the silence.

Adam turned to him. “What do you mean?”

“We have the confession. Not only us, but so does Juir and Earth by now.”

“What are you talking about? What confession?”

“The recording made of the prior conversation.”

Adam shook his head and waved him off. “I wasn’t serious about that. I was making it up to scare Loncet.”

“That may be so; however, I recorded the conversation, complete with the Overlord’s confession of his complicity in Quanin’s assassination. It is all there. Then I used the CW comm link in Copernicus’s hidden chamber to send it to both Juir and Earth. Afterward, I turned out the lights.”

Adam was stunned. “You mean there really is a recording?”

“That is what I just said. Are you suffering from some battlefield injury so you cannot comprehend what I say?”

“No,” Kaylor said, stepping up to his tiny alien buddy and placing a hand on his hairy shoulder. “He is just being Adam Cain.”


26

The old shipyard was a beehive of activity. Two hours after the revelation of the hidden recording, a small Juirean frigate landed in the field adjacent to the facility, and a fresh crop of Guards and Overlords swarmed over the grounds, this time under friendly command. They recovered the dead and moved the three prisoners aboard the ship for transport to the fleet waiting in orbit. Counselor Dansee assumed control of the Juirean forces on and around Liave-3. He sent other troops to arrest the crew of Loncet’s Class-3. They were the Overlord’s hand-picked crew and were complicit in the scheme from the beginning.

“So, you’re not holding me responsible for the killings on the ship?” Adam asked Dansee.

“That is true. In my opinion, they were enemy combatants, just as was Loncet. You did us a service. However, the destruction you wrought in Kanac will have to be adjudicated by local authorities.”

Adam laughed. “In that case, I have nothing to worry about. There are no local authorities on Liave-3.”

Dansee frowned. “That sounds … unsettling. How can you exist without law and order?”

Adam shrugged.

“What about Hannon,” he asked the Juirean. “Any trace of him?”

“None. We had multiple vessels in the vicinity, and he still managed to escape detection. We are continuing the search. Although he was only part of a much larger conspiracy, he is still a guilty party.”

“If you need any help finding him, I happen to know a pretty good bounty-hunting team. They could find him—for a price.”

Dansee nodded. “I appreciate the gesture, Adam Cain, but we Juireans are fully capable of finding a single fugitive. Even a Human fugitive.”

Adam smiled, but he had his doubts. Mike Hannon was Delta Force. He also had at least some of the money the Afinn Alliance paid him for the assassination. If he didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t, that was Adam’s belief. But he would let the Juirean believe what he wanted.

Adam dismissed himself with a bow and went to join Sherri with the others.

“Another last-minute rescue,” said Riyad while flashing is trademark white smile. “I believe next time, it’s your turn to save me.”

“That’s not fair; you had help.” Adam looked at his SEAL friends, Gill Norris, Tim Robertson and Toby Wills. Although he hadn’t spent much time with them since they arrived on Liave-3, he still sensed the camaraderie that came from working within a team. And there was no closer bond than the one between SEAL team members. “So, what’s next for you guys?”

“You’re not going to get rid of us that easy, Captain Cain, sir,” said Toby Wills. “Hey, we’re family. Besides, there’s still a lot of treasure to siphon out of the Dead Worlds. What are we, about two million up? And now we have a ship, thanks to Mike Hannon.”

Adam looked at Riyad. “Two million credits, really?”

“Like taking candy from a baby. But I think I’ll leave the grunt work to the youngsters. It’s obvious I can’t leave you and Sherri alone for a minute without the two of you starting a galactic war. It’s better that I stick around here for a while.”

“And you, Captain Cain?” Tim asked. “What are you going to do now?”

The Liave sun was full in the sky by now, with the cool of the night only a distant memory. Adam looked down the hill at the shimmering blue sea half a mile away.

“I’ll tell you what. I’m going to grab my board and go surfing.” He raised his hand, displaying an extended index finger and little finger. He waved it at the others. “Cowabunga, dude!”


Epilogue – Six Months Later

On the third day after his arrival, he took a rented transport and traveled inland from Kanac one hundred kilometers. There were only a few roads in this direction beyond the city, and none were in very good condition. They led mainly to the mountains and the mining operations scaling up to help provide the raw materials for the new MK processing facilities. Liave-3 was growing, and it was time for the planet to stand on its own, rather than depend on expensive imports from other parts of the galaxy.

They’d picked up his trail coming to the planet, then lost him for a couple of days after his arrival. Then after spreading a few credits around the rental agencies, they got a hit. He left the city just after dark, which made following him harder. The road was narrow and often straight, allowing their headlights to be seen from miles away. And they couldn’t go far with them off. There were roving herds of dinosaurs in the surrounding jungle. Smashing into one of the huge beasts would leave them stranded and miles from the city, if not someone’s evening meal.

They pulled over on a long stretch of roadway and waited for him to return. There was only one road, and eventually, he would come back this way.

Four hours later, lights appeared on the road up the hill. It was the only transport they’d seen during that time. It had to be him returning.

“Gear up,” said Tidus Fe Nolan. “Summer, you and Monty take the north side of the road; I’ll take the south. Remember, shoot the tires. We can’t take a chance at killing Jroshin. He’s worth nothing to us dead.”

“And a million alive,” said the diminutive Summer Rains. “That’s quite an incentive to aim straight. Don’t worry; we’ll be careful.”

The trio of galactic bounty hunters crouched at the side of the roadway. They were armed with small ballistic assault rifles, weapons better suited for shooting out rubber tires than flash weapons. Summer also had her ubiquitous compound bow strapped to her back, along with a quiver of blunt-tipped arrows—just in case.

The car was drawing close, moving along at a fairly good clip on the downhill slope from the mountain highlands. “Ten seconds out,” Tidus spoke through his open throat mic.

He considered their strategy. Grabbing Jroshin wouldn’t be a problem; he was not a soldier of any kind, but rather a government official from one of the Dead World. The problem would be getting past the tough-as-nails Rigorian guards. Fortunately, there was no bounty on them, so they were expendable. But to get to Jroshin, the aliens would have to be taken out. That’s where the possibility of accidentally killing their mark came from.

“Get set. Here he comes—”

Suddenly, another set of headlights blazed to life behind them, coming up the hill and straight for the oncoming vehicle. The second car just appeared, having approached in the dark before blinding everyone with its high beams. Jroshin’s car swerved to the left, crashing into the thick foliage before the driver gunned it and fishtailed back onto the road. The second car continued past them up the hill

Summer and Monty opened fire, shredding the tires of the second car with a thundering barrage of bullets. It wasn’t Jroshin’s car, but it had interfered in their plans for a very lucrative snatch. Anger and frustration got the better of them.

Tidus was out in the road, aiming his rifle at Jroshin’s rapidly fleeing car. It had spun around past the ambush and was speeding away downhill at full speed. Tidus didn’t have a shot.

He ran uphill, meeting Summer and Monty at the point where the second car had careened off the road and imbedded itself in the jungle. The shredded back tires spun for a few moments more before coming to a stop.

The three bounty hunters surrounded the vehicle; their weapons pointed into the dark cab of the transport. Whoever interfered in the capture of their bounty was not on the acquisition list and was therefore expendable. But before they opened fire, they wanted to know why the driver had intervened. Was he a competitor, or an associate of Jroshin? They were about to find out.

Monty Pitts—a big bear of a man—ripped at the front door. He then reached in and unceremoniously pulled out the smaller occupant, throwing him to the ground. Gun barrels aimed at his head as flashlights flicked on, identifying the target.

A handsome, blue-eyed face with a stubble of a beard smiled up at them; his hands held up in surrender.

The three bounty hunters gasped.

“Hi, guys,” said Copernicus Smith. “How’s it going?”

“Copernicus! What the hell?” Summer yelled. She and Monty lowered their weapons, but not Tidus. “What are you doing here … and screwing with our bounty?”

Cautiously, Coop climbed to his feet.

“It’s a long story. Why don’t we run down to Adam’s place in Balamar and I’ll explain it to you. It’s quite an amusing tale.”

The End


Up Next:


BATTLE PLAN

The Adam Cain Chronicles #3

February 2020


Author’s Notes


Thanks so much for reading book #2 of

The Adam Cain Chronicles,

Empires.

Next up is

Battle Plan

I want to take this opportunity to let you know what’s in store for 2020 and beyond, as well as updates about The Adam Cain Chronicles, and how it differs from its predecessor, The Human Chronicles Saga (THC).

First of all, each new book in The Adam Cain Chronicles (ACC) will come out once a month, generally around the 20th. Unlike what I did with many of the books in THC, the Adam Cain books will not be available for pre-order through Amazon. The reason: They’ll be out at the same time each month, so there’s no need. Just look for my email announcements or check on Amazon around the 20th of each month for the next Adam Cain adventure.

Another thing about the series: The books will be a little shorter than normal, generally around 40,000 to 50,000 words. Because of this, they’ll be priced lower than those in The Human Chronicles, at only $3.99 (compared to $4.98). I know, big savings! But every little bit helps, right?

This new writing/release strategy is designed so I can keep my loyal fans fed with more Adam Cain adventures, while also freeing me up to explore new series and story ideas. These new books/ideas include more volumes in my REV Warriors series, as well as the misadventures of galactic Realtor Jason King. I’ll also be introducing new series along the way, including a set of fantasy books I’ve been working on for a while (with a science fiction twist to them). They should appeal to readers of both sci-fi AND fantasy. At least that’s the plan.

In other news, I’m currently working on getting all my books into paperback. With almost 40 books on the market and only a handful of them in paperback, this isn’t a simple task. But I’m determined to get them all done by the end of the year, as well as having all the new releases for the year in paperback so I don’t fall behind—again.

Also, I currently have the last two REV Warriors books—REV: Revolution and REV: Retribution—being made into audiobooks. This takes a couple of months, so be looking for the announcements when they’re ready in your email (if you’re on my email list—which you SHOULD be!). Getting all my books into audio is another goal of mine for 2020. At the moment, I only have eight books in audio, with 30 to make up, not counting all the new releases for the year. Again, an ambitious goal, but something my readers have been asking for.

And while I have you here, I want to make another pitch for you to 1) Sign-Up for my Email List and 2) Join my private Facebook Fan Page. Both are free to join and are great ways for me to stay in touch with my fans. I love the interaction on Facebook. (And I often use the names of my Facebook fans in my books. That’s always fun.) Just click on the links provided to get things going.

And if/when you sign up for my email list, you’ll have the opportunity to get three free books as a bonus. For those who are on the list, you know I don’t spam you, only sending emails when I have something important to say, like when I have new releases out or other key information about my various series and writing projects. I encourage everyone to sign up. I don’t sell or share the list with anyone, so you won’t get inundated with emails from other writers. Again, follow the links in the Sign-Up Section to get on the list.

That’s it for now. Be looking for the next Adam Cain book coming out in February, along with all the exciting new stories I have lined up for the new year.

T.R. Harris

January 2020


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