Book: The Enclaves of Sylox



The Enclaves of Sylox

The Enclaves

of Sylox

Book One

Jason King: Agent to the Stars

T.R. Harris

- FREE Bonus Book Included -

The Fringe Worlds

Book 1

The Human Chronicles Saga


Copyright 2014

T.R. Harris & Harris Publications, Inc.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The scanning, uploading, downloading or distribution of this book via internet or any other means without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal and punishable by law. No part of this novel may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holder, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-0-9913465-3-0

Email Address: [email protected]

Website: bytrharris.com

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Also by T.R. Harris

The Human Chronicles Saga

Part One (5 Books)

Book 1 – The Fringe Worlds

Book 2Alien Assassin

Book 3 – The War of Pawns

Book 4 – The Tactics of Revenge

Book 5 – The Legend of Earth

Part Two (3 Books)

Book 1 – Cain’s Crusaders

Book 2 – The Apex Predator

Book 3 – A Galaxy to Conquer

Jason King – Agent to the Stars Series

Book 1 – The Enclaves of Sylox

Contents

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

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

FREE Full Novel Included: The Fringe Worlds



The Enclaves of Sylox


Chapter 1


Nothing can beat that new starship smell….

In addition, the spacecraft was also agile, sleek, and could blow the doors off anything up to three times its size.

Yes, the Noreen II was everything it was advertised to be, and as I was finding out, a whole lot more.

So with giddy enthusiasm, I gripped the control stick a little tighter and sent the tiny craft diving in low toward the huge gas giant of Unilox, so close in fact that I could make out the swirling of the brilliant kaleidoscope of colorful gases below me. I’d been out here before in my little in-system flitter, but this was different. As I skimmed the tops of the roiling clouds of deadly methane gas, I felt more in control and confident that the ship could counteract the tremendous gravity of the giant planet, while allowing for the closest approach I’d ever made.

I also couldn’t keep from smiling knowing that my wild maneuver would raise the blood pressure of the salesbeing seated next to me. However, after so many years of being on the other side of the table, it felt good to be the customer now. And with such a huge commission on the line, it was my turn to have a little lighthearted fun with the salesperson.

Regrettably, however impressive the planet Unilox may be, our visit there was brief, lasting only a handful of minutes. Now the Jupiter-like globe was displayed on my rearview monitor and shrinking noticeably as we sped away, heading for the vast open space between star systems.

“You should know, the transit time to Cryus is only forty-six minutes at full power,” the salesbeing managed to say, having recovered from our close encounter with the gas giant. His name was Vol’ox and he was a Mulicorean, and even though the kangaroo-like aliens didn’t build the Noreen brand of starships, his boss did have the local dealership on Sylox.

I glanced behind me at my friend and business partner, Quint Valarie, and saw a silly grin plastered on his face. He seemed to be more excited about the N-Two than I was – and he wasn’t even sitting at the controls.

“Can we open her up once we’re in open space?” he asked Vol’ox.

“Of course; have some fun. It is not every day that one gets the chance to pilot a Noreen, and especially an N-Two."

The alien had that right. I’d checked out the original Noreen – the XL-1 – and found it to be only slightly more powerful and responsive than my old Fusion. I’d even flown some used Ortons and Novas, but they just didn’t feel right.

And even though the Noreen wasn’t huge – coming in at just over eighty feet – it was livable and with an interior similar to that of a Class-A motorhome. I have to say, I really did like the compact feel of the spacecraft. It provided for a more-intimate flying experience, and helped to make the teenage fantasy of piloting your very own starship that much more real.

However … it was still the raw speed and agility of the N-Two that really got my juices flowing.

I knew I should have been holding my cards a little closer to the vest with regards to Vol’ox – after all, I know how to play the game better than most. But it’s a little hard to be cool when sitting at the controls of a starship that could get me all the way back to Earth in only sixty-one days, a journey of twenty thousand light-years. And besides, how many people can say they own their own starship? And I mean a real beam-me-up-Scotty type of starship?

So cut me some slack; you’d feel the same if you were in my shoes….

“This particular model is available for immediate delivery, Mon King; we have four in stock,” Vol’ox said.

“And you’ll take the Fusion in trade?”

“Of course; however, you should be aware the value has dropped considerably since the new XL model came out with the 75-mag generator and Zilic converter.”

I already knew that, but I didn’t care. The trade-in would only knock a couple hundred thousand off the total price of just over five million. I’d been saving up for the purchase for over two years, and now with Undersecretary-of-something-or-another Mark Wilson arriving tomorrow, the commission from his deal would put me over the top. I already had four-point-nine in the bank, and if Wilson bought in the price range as did most diplomats of his rank, then I’d have it.

Still, that was a lot of money, and since all purchases of interstellar-class starships were cash-only, I needed the commission and not the credit. I have to admit, the cash-only requirement was a bitch, even though it made sense. After all, someone with a ship like this could head off across the galaxy at a moment’s notice, never be seen again – if that was your intention.

So it came down to cash or nothing.

But this ride was sweet, so I wasn’t going to let something as trivial as the cash-only-requirement keep me from getting her.

After all, I’m Jason King, President of Galactic Realty and Relocation Service, and a legend in the real estate industry on the planet Sylox. I knew I’d make quick work of Mark Wilson and his family, helping to bring their dream of homeownership into reality – even if it was an alien world thousands of light-years from Earth.

But it’s just what I do, and I do it well.

**********

We were now beyond the boundary of the Sylox star system and I cranked the gravity generators up to full power, increasing the well-intensity now that we were free of any conflicting gravity sources. The continuous series of microscopic black holes being created just ahead of the ship was now free to warp the fabric of space and place the tiny starship just inside the event horizon, at a point where the laws of nature no longer applied.

The Cainsian Gravity Drive also had the added effect of drawing in space from the opposite side of the singularities, effectively compressing interstellar distances in our forward direction to only a fraction of their true length. It was really quite a remarkable device, and at such velocities, we were soon halfway to the next star system, and without even coming close to redlining.

I pushed the control stick over to the left and watched the stars sweep across my field of view. And then I whipped it back in the other direction. The inertia compensators adjusted with barely a blip, keeping all of us from being crushed against the bulkheads by the incredible g-forces of the turns.

This was really something, to be out here amongst the brilliant stars and with an entire galaxy at my beck and call, even if this was just a test drive—

“What’s that?” Quint asked. “It looks like a star … with a tail.”

I scanned the star field before me until I saw what he was talking about. He was right. The object was just off our starboard quarter: a bright star with a prominent curved tail jutting out from its fiery sphere.

“I believe that is the Insit Accretion Disk,” Vol’ox said. “It is one of a dozen or so in the region.”

“An accretion disk – like you find with a black hole? And I mean a full-size black hole?” Quint asked.

“That is correct. As you know, these objects are carefully tracked and monitored since they are such dangerous obstacles to star travel. Insit, I believe, is the closest to the Sylox System.”

I felt Quint bump the back of the pilotseat as he strained to get a better look at the object. “I saw one up close on the way here from Earth,” he said. “The ship took a detour so we could get a better look. It was incredible. I mean, it’s a black hole … eating a star. Now that’s something you don’t see that every day.”

I looked over at Vol’ox. The long-eared alien appeared to be as excited as we were.

“Okay, then,” he said, “let us go take look!”

*********

It was only a short ten minute hop over to the accretion disk, and I had to back off on the throttle as we approached otherwise we would have shot right past.

As it turned out, Quint wasn’t exaggerating – the sight was awesome, and looked like something you’d expect to see only in a CGI-intense sci-fi movie. Yet this was real, with the deadly spectacle now unfolding right before our eyes.

The black hole was located about a million miles from a decaying white dwarf and was drawing in a wide swatch of material from the star across the gap between the pair. The gas was thick, yellow and white, and I could see it flow even from this distance. And as the roiling river of stellar ejecta approached the black hole, it formed into a tight spiral and turned a brilliant cobalt blue around the utterly black disk of the singularity’s event horizon.

Beyond that there was nothing. It was an eerie sight, and no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t see anything in or crossing the dark void. It was literally a hole in space, and I was in awe that so much material – essentially an entire star – would eventually disappear into such a tiny point in space, never to be seen again. This was the true power of the universe on full display.

The gravity drive of the Noreen operated on the same principle, yet on a microscopic scale compared to this voracious star-eater.

The three of us sat mesmerized for several minutes without speaking, entranced by the brilliant spectacle before us. The interior of the Noreen was now bathed in the soft glow of starlight, and with occasional flashes of yellow and blue sparkles helping to enhance our near-hypnotic state.

But then I shuddered, realizing that there were millions – if not billions – of these deadly objects occupying every region of space, including a supermassive one sitting at the very center of the galaxy. The incredible gravitational influence of this central behemoth was what caused the slow swirling motion of the Milky Way, and everything that made up our conglomeration of space dust – stars, planets, even me – had been attracted by its inconceivably intense gravity-well. And the monster was still growing, destined in some far distant future to consume the entire universe with one final, galactic-size belch.

From Sylox the Galactic Core was only eight thousand light-years away – just a skip in the park by galactic standards. I ruminated, thinking that once I got the Noreen, I might even risk a trip out there one day, even though it wasn’t recommended—

“Mon King, pardon me, but we really should be heading back,” Vol’ox said, interrupting my reverie.

“Yeah, of course,” I said. “It’s just that, well you know.” I cranked the stick over, and just before pressing the accelerator, a proximity alarm blared.

“What the—”

Quint leaned over my shoulder and scanned the monitors, as I desperately fumbled around the control panel trying to figure out how to turn off the screeching alarm. “We have three ships closing on us, fast.” Quint said.

“Are there pirates in the area?" I asked Vol’ox.

“There should not be. Not this close to Sylox.” The alien then wrapped his short tail around his waist and inserted the end into his marsupial pouch, before leaning forward at the comm station. “Approaching spaceships: please relay your intentions.”

The response was immediate. “Unidentified craft, you have entered restricted space. You are ordered to cease well-generation and prepare to be boarded.”

“But we are just an LPS – a Licensed Private Starship – on a test run. We were not aware we had entered restricted space.”

“If that is so, then transmit your C-14 license code immediately.”

The three ships had bolted in from different directions and I could tell from their energy signatures that their weapons were active. I should have been expecting this. After all, Sylox was the capital of the Galactic Union, so it only made sense that the area surrounding the planet and its star system would be full of military facilities, both known and unknown. Yet nowhere on the charts was this area marked ‘restricted.’

The Noreen II came equipped with a small flash-cannon – only one – for defense against the rogue pirate or other hostile threat, but certainly not one powerful enough to go up against three military-grade warships. I wasn’t comfortable with that, so I made a mental note that if I got the ship, I would beef up her weapons and defensive systems. After all, one can never have too much firepower.

“Very well,” the voice suddenly boomed from the speakers again after Vol’ox had relayed his professional dealer code. “Reverse course and proceed out of the region at optimum speed.”

Just then the data computer began to go spastic. “We are in the process of erasing all references and recordings of your incursion into restricted space. The rest of your data will not be harmed.”

I looked over at Vol’ox and whispered, “They can do that?”

The alien just shrugged.

Quint tapped me on the shoulder. “Get us out of here, Jason. I don’t think these guys are playing around.”

“Roger that, compadre; we’re outta here.”

**********

Two hours later I set the Noreen II down on the tarmac of the Executive Spaceport outside the Zanzibar Enclave. As the hull creaked and cooled, I stood off at a safe distance admiring the sleek lines of the starship, including the bright gold and red stripes painted along the length of the fuselage.

Quint was standing next to me, vicariously enjoying the moment as well. “Let’s get back to the office,” I said to him. “I have to get ready for the Wilson showing tomorrow. The sooner I close them, the sooner this baby will be mine.”

“Yeah, and when that happens don’t forget your friends.”

“What friends?” I said with a smile. “I have no friends – only victims.”

To my surprise, Quint didn’t find my little joke very funny, as evidenced by the skewed smirk he sent my way.

“Keep it up, smartass,” he said. “Someday you may need your friends … and I’m tellin’ ya, payback can be a bitch.”







Chapter 2


The transit platform was extremely crowded the next morning, with such an incredible press of flesh and a cacophony of sound as to be overwhelming to the uninitiated. That’s why when I detected Bill’s distinctive scent before actually seeing him I even managed to impress myself.

This special talent was called situational awareness, and I attributed my level of expertise to the many years I’d spent as an Army Ranger, honing that ability, plus many other, more lethal skills. Nowadays, my Army training wasn’t good for much more than staying alert and always expecting the worse. But still it was fun to play Special Forces Operative again, if only within a menagerie of aliens, while waiting for my newest clients to arrive on the Day-8 shuttle.

I knew Bill was approaching from behind but I wasn’t worried. He wasn’t a threat; however, my acute senses had also spotted the fat slob Jonk Limbor wending his way through the crowd in my direction. I shook my head, knowing that as much as I dreaded the inevitable conversation I had to have with Bill, having to deal with both him and Jonk in the same morning just wasn’t fair. Especially on a morning that had started off so well.

“Good morning, Minister,” I said without turning around. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Bill stopped suddenly and blinked several times. “My Captain, my Captain, is it that you now have eyes in the back of your head?” The voice was friendly and jovial. “Even so, it is fortunate that I spotted you. I have been meaning to make contact, either here or at your dwelling. Are you here today to meet new arrivals?”

Now I turned to face the tall alien. “That’s right; the Wilson family.”

“Are they destined to become our new neighbors?”

“Possibly, but you can never know about these things.”

A few years back I sold Bill his home in the Zanzibar community of Highland Estates, and even though we lived in the same Enclave, we could hardly be called neighbors. Bill’s home was easily three miles from mine, yet because of our past business association – as well as the fact that he played on my softball team – the Transit Minister felt a kinship to me that bordered on, well, creepy. I knew he meant well, and he was a very well-placed and powerful official within the local government. So I would indulge him, for that reason, and a couple more.

First, his frequent referrals often resulted in even more deals coming my way, and in my line of work it was always important to cultivate lasting – and profitable – relationships.

And second: Bill was a friend – creepy, smelly and quirky – but still a friend.

“How are you feeling?” I asked with genuine concern, yet not for the reason the Minister would take away from the question.

“I am completely healed and cleared for action, my Captain. And after so long without playing, I am quite anxious to take the field again with you and the rest of the team.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said, even though I wasn’t. “But I have to tell you, I moved Mike to second base after your accident. He’ll be pretty upset if I have to move him again.”

A look of panic came over Bill’s green-tinted face. “But I so look forward to the contests, Jason. If I cannot play at second base, then where can I play?”

For the past two weeks I had agonized over that very question, ever since Bill had taken a ball to the forehead and lay unconscious on the field for a full ten minutes. Granted, the ball had taken a wicked hop, one which would have flown harmless over the head of any normal second baseman. But with Bill’s reverse leg joints, the alien was able to jump ten feet straight up when startled – like when a softball was headed his way. So Bill had jumped into the ball, making the accident entirely his fault.

I used the injury as an excuse to sit him for the rest of the game, while also requiring a doctor’s clearance before allowing him to return to the team, sighting insurance concerns.

By the way, we won that game, as well as the two after that.

I know what you’re saying: What’s someone like that doing on a softball team in the first place? Well, it’s complicated.

To begin with, as a resident of the Zanzibar Enclave, Bill was naturally aware of the various sports teams I’d organized for the subdivision. His Zorphin race was native to the planet Sylox, yet they didn’t have any sports of their own to speak of. So soon after moving in, Bill began to badger me about letting him join the team. Eventually I gave in. Looking back on that decision now, it was a mistake. Yet letting him play did help with Human-Alien relations, and it also went a long way to enhancing my cred with the native population, as well as supplementing my bank account.

But now he was returning to the team and I had to find a place for him to play, and somewhere he’d do the least damage.

“What about catcher, splitting duties with N’xo? I know you won’t get as much field time, but I could compensate by moving you up in the batting order. Will that work for you?”

I was relieved when his knobby-skinned face lit up with joy. “I would welcome that greatly! You know how much I enjoy the thrill of batting, and I must say I feel I am quite competent at the endeavor.”

The alien had a point. Measuring in at just under seven-feet-tall, and with triple-jointed arms to go along with his reverse-jointed knees, Bill could indeed hit – just as long as the slow-pitched softball didn’t come directly at his head!

I breathed a sigh of relief, even though I could still envision both him and N’xo taking turns bumbling around the backstop like a pair of Keystone Cops trying to recover a ball. Yet there were only so many positions where I could play the four aliens on the team – and if two of the four could take turns at catching, then my problem was solved.

The other two aliens were ringers of the first-degree, products of various evolutionary processes that made them world-class players, no matter what world you were on. I had to play them!

“Very good, my friend, then I’ll see you in two days. It will be good to have you back on the team—”

Billork, you are a disgrace to your race!”

I had watched the rotund Jonk Limbor approach through the crowd, flanked by his two Rulian bodyguards. To his credit, Bill had noticed him, too. Now the hulking Zorphin leaned over the much shorter alien, appearing even taller and more threatening. “Caution, Mon Limbor, I do not take well to insults.”

The Historken wasn’t intimidated. “It was not an insult, but rather an observation.”

Jonk’s voice was gravelly and hard to follow, unless one had experience with his kind. Unfortunately, I’d had plenty.

Jonk was an arrogant bastard who had been a thorn in my side for years now. He was part of a group of building contractors who fought every petition the Humans brought before the regulatory and licensing boards on Sylox. Luckily, they were held in check by a thin coalition of Human supporters I had helped form several years ago. As a result, Jonk held me personally responsible for every setback his group suffered, even though I had been out of that side of the business for over five years.

Even though we had less contact these days, I still enjoyed pushing the alien’s many buttons and watching his fat face glow red when upset. You could actual feel heat radiating out to a couple of feet from his face when this happened. It was really something to experience.

His two bodyguards were standing off a few paces from us, watching me, not Bill. I was aware of the abilities of the Rulian, so I didn’t fear them. How they felt towards me was prominently displayed on their fat, grey faces.

Jonk was continuing to dig the hole even deeper with the transit minister. “It is well-known that your race has begun to suckle from the teat of the Humans. Even you, Billork, have adopted their housing and athletic activities. You should be aware, others are beginning to talk.”

“By others you refer to those within your minority cabal in the Assembly – the Linoreans,” Bill said. “It is obvious why your group would hold such distain for the Humans; they have taken much of your profits for themselves. Yet do not fault them for producing a superior product—”

“Superior product?” Jonk cried out. He began to choke, horking up green spittle in the process. This went on for several seconds until he finally recovered, only moments before his guards stepped in to help. “They build ugly boxes – above the surface – and creatures like you buy them. That is not the way of your people, or of many other species serving the Capital. It is bad enough that the Human plague has spread beyond the incorporated limits, yet your support is only helping to keep their malignancy alive.”

“Your constructs are dark and damp,” Bill said. “I – along with many others – now prefer to be on the surface, with space to roam as we take in the vastness of the open sky.”

“But your species have always been subsurface dwellers.”

“That was a necessity from our ancient past. Now we are safe above ground and have been for a thousand years, and yet still you insist we stay cloistered underground and not free ourselves to a more open lifestyle.”

“Disgusting, Bill—”

“That is Minister Billork, Mon Limbor. I would ask that you respect my position, if not my lifestyle.”

“So be it, Minister. But you must know that the time of the Humans is drawing to a close.”

This is the point where I would normally have entered the fray, teasing Jonk with some strategically-placed insults of my own. But Bill was doing such a fine job of raising Jonk’s blood-pressure that I let it ride. Besides, I still had twenty minutes before the Wilson’s shuttle arrived and it was fun watching the two aliens go at it.

“You speak of legislation your group is pushing through the Assembly; you must know that it will not pass. A moratorium on Human building in and around the Capital is uncalled for and has very little support.”

“You may be correct, Minister. It may not pass this Assembly, yet what it will do is reveal to us those who we must oppose and replace in the coming elections. We may not prevail at this time, yet we will in the near future. In fact, I am now in possession of a very interesting document which may change the minds of the Assembly and of the Council, and thereby accelerate that eventual result.”

“You are playing games, Mon Limbor, grasping for anything to disgrace the Humans. Your efforts are transparent and juvenile.”

Limbor smiled, a crooked, quivering movement of his too-small mouth. “We shall see, but this document pertains to the Simorean Crisis.”

Bill shook his head and frowned. “You have now confused me thoroughly, as well as destroyed what little remained of your credibility. How can an event that occurred over two hundred standard years ago affect the Member’s view of the Humans and their building activities? They have only been members of the Union for a little over ten years.”

“For the answer to that question you will have to wait, Minister Billork. Yet from your position within the Assembly, it will not be long, and then we shall see how long the Humans stay in favor with the Council.”

“Such dramatics will not be received favorably in the halls of government; it will only make you look more desperate.”

The reddish glow of Limbor’s face was growing even deeper and I could already feel the air temperature rise a little in his direction. “My patience with you is at an end, Minister Billork. Your refusal to accept reality is beyond reason.”

When Jonk turned his squinty eyes on me I smiled and said, “Jonk, you seem to be particularly – what word should I use – intense this morning. I hope that translates accurately. Did your mate reject you last night? If so, then I can’t blame her. I’m sure even Historken females have their standards.”

I knew that using his common name without the Mon prefix would raise the alien’s ire a little more, especially coming from such a low-life primitive as a Human. In addition, there were certain boundaries that were not to be crossed between species, and one of them had to do with sex. However, the way I looked at it, I hadn’t been consulted when the boundaries were set, so I didn’t think they applied to me, and especially not when it came to dealing with this obnoxious ball of obesity.

“Your insults do translate, almost to the point where I declare Priority and release my guards upon you. There is only so much I can take from you, Mr. King.”

I smiled and looked at his guards. To their credit they now looked nervous, obviously having done their research, even if Jonk hadn’t. I wasn’t really concerned. Jonk wouldn’t start a fight right here in the middle of the transit platform. Instead, our verbal battle continued.

“I only get intense when I see a long-term member of the Union consorting with upstarts such you Humans.”

“Your problem is not with me, Jonk, but with the developers,” I said. “I’m just a real estate broker now. I sell the homes; I don’t build them anymore. And I’ve even managed to sell a few of your underground mud pits. But I have to say, the Minister is correct; they are dank and depressing, and I question the sanity of any being that would prefer living underground to being on the surface. The surface is where all the action is.”

I knew Jonk lived underground.

“You try to downplay your status here on Sylox, Jason King, yet everyone knows you are one of the most well-connected and influential Humans on the planet. Your activities and opinions can impact not only other Humans, but also many on the Council. And with your help and encouragement, your savage race has spread out across the pristine surface of Sylox with your massive hives, taking up valuable surface land. My abodes do not disturb the peace and natural beauty of the surface. We live underground so that we may better preserve what is above us.”



“That may be true, but I still prefer wide open spaces, and I can’t help it if even some on the Council prefer our buildings to your burrows. Besides, there’s plenty of room to build here on Sylox and still preserve the natural landscape. And if that’s not enough, the damn Union consists of over forty-five hundred worlds, so I don’t think space is a problem.”

“Not now, yet your kind have only been members of the Union for a short time. Give it another hundred years and then see if there is still room enough on Sylox – or anywhere else – if your race has its way. The signs are obvious; the Humans are a disaster to the continued harmony of the Union, and have been since your questionable admission.”

“You have to remember, Jonk, the Union came to us, not the other way around.”

“That was a mistake!” Even from five feet away, Jonk’s breath could still peel paint. “Your race has no redeeming value and offers nothing to the Union.”

“What about our charming personalities?”

Jonk bristled. I was glad the translators had begun to incorporate more Human slang and nuance into the language synthesizers. It sure helped to make snide remarks that much more effective – and entertaining.

“Retain your flippant comments for now, Jason King, but soon your kind will learn its place on the ladder of galactic races. And that place is on the lowest rung, to remain there until you have paid your dues with time and contribution to the common good.”

“Yeah, but I feel just brightening your day must be a plus in my column.” I took a perfunctorily look at my watch. “Unfortunately, Jonk, I have to go now, to meet another family of primitive Human savages and help them take even more credits out of your pockets and those of your partners. But we really must do this again, soon.”

Jonk snorted, cast one last vicious glare at Bill, and then stormed off into the crowd, followed closely by his towering bodyguards.

After he was gone, I met Bill’s yellow eyes; we held the gaze for a moment … before we both burst out laughing. I have to tell you, if there’s anything I like more than taunting Jonk Limbor, it’s an alien with a sense of humor.

So despite being such a lousy softball player, Transit Minister Billork Kly Gon-Mok was okay in my book – at least for an alien.



Chapter 3


A few minutes later, Bill and I watched as the passengers from the Day-8 shuttle began to flood the landing platform. I glanced at the datapad in my left hand and pulled up the image of Jennifer Wilson. In the sea of creatures leaving the spacecraft, two Human females, along with three children, shouldn’t be too hard to spot.

“Do you see your new clients?” Bill asked.

“Not yet, but they’ll be along. So tell me about this Simorean Crisis. I’ve been here for a number of years and I’ve never heard of it.”

“It happened two hundred sixteen years ago, and was a constitutional crisis that nearly destroyed the Union.”

“No shit? What happened?”

“As you know, the Amelians formed the Galactic Union over a thousand years ago, and throughout most of that time, they dominated the command and control of the organization from the capital on Amelia. However, a few hundred years ago, the other Members began to exert more influence, and eventually gained control of the Council. That is when the capital was moved from Amelia to Sylox, as a means of establishing a more neutral location for all Members.

“Shortly after that, a proposal was brought before the governing chambers which the Amelians insisted should be approved. The Simoreans created an opposing voting bloc within the Assembly and the Council that resisted approval, and having only recently acquired their new power, the majority of representatives were not about to abdicate it back to the Amelians so easily. A standoff resulted, one which threatened to destroy the entire Union.”

“The Union’s still here, so I assume someone had to blink – to give in.”

“Yes, and it was the Amelians. Through their mature wisdom, they realized that the opposition was firm in their resolve and would destroy the Union before they acquiesced. And so to save the Union the Amelians blinked – as you say – and since that time they have been more subtle in their manipulations of the Council and of others.”

“What was this proposal that caused all the problems?”

“That has never been fully disclosed. In the end, it mattered not, for it was the dynamic between the two opposing forces – that of the old and the new within the Union – that was important. If it had not been that particular issue it would have been another. The important lesson from the Crisis is that the Union survived, and became more diverse in its distribution of power than before the event.”

“So how are the Humans involved in something that happened centuries ago, while we were still riding horses and reading by gas lamps?”

“Do not give any credence to what Limbor says, Jason. He was just attempting to create a rift between us.” Bill smiled and placed a huge hand on my shoulder. “Which is something that could never happen, my Captain.”

I smiled up at the huge, green alien. Oh, great, when will his infatuation with me ever end? The word bestiality came to mind, which only served to make me feel even more uncomfortable.

Desperately seeking something that would get Bill’s hand off my shoulder, I scanned the last of the passengers departing the shuttle. I squinted until I finally noticed a splash of blonde hair standing out from the field of brown fur, burgundy spikes and matted hair that made up the tops of most of the aliens on the platform.

“There they are, the Wilson family – and cousin,” I announced, with probably a little too much enthusiasm.

Cousin?

“It’s a relative, this one’s on the female’s side of the family. And to more fully answer your previous question, I don’t think they’re going to be our neighbors. Jennifer and her husband – her mate – are with the Embassy, and they prefer to live out in the city, as a way for their children to experience the local flavor of alien life, as they put it.”

I saw Bill smile wickedly and I knew what he was thinking: Wait until the children witness a Lymoriam Luia, with a fleshy Gorikean covered in local barbeque sauce, his eyes bulging out at the feasters, displaying a look of absolute terror as they literally eat him alive.

The kids will get a real kick out of that bit of local flavor.

I nodded, agreeing with Bill’s unspoken thought. “You’re right of course … never say never.”

**********

Over the years I’d lost count of the number times new arrivals to the capital city of the Galactic Union had expressed the same misguided wish; to live amongst the aliens so they could experience different cultures. Usually it took no more than two showings before they’d come running back to me pleading to be shown properties in the vast Human Enclaves being constructed by a number of builders from Earth, such as Pulte and D.R. Horton.

This transformation – from fearless galactic adventurer to that of humbled Human looking for anything familiar – was predictable and operated like clockwork. The only variable in the equation was the children.

Did I mention that I hate children, and I mean Hate with a capital ‘H?’ Not that I have anything against them as a group, it’s just that on far too many occasions they’d cost me a decent commission with their antics.

As a confirmed and childless bachelor – childless as far as I know – I couldn’t understand why parents would let their often ungrateful brood influence family decisions so much? Many of my clients came through the Embassy and were therefore part of the Diplomatic Corps. This meant that in the past these children had been shuffled from one assignment to the next. After a while you’d think they’d get used to it.

Of course, I realize there’s a big difference between an assignment in Brazil or Bangladesh, to one on the planet Sylox. But did the kids always have to freak out so often?

I’d lost many a deal to the wild temper tantrums of the children, who were often so scared and inconsolable when exposed to this strange alien planet that many of my potential buyers simply packed up their bags and went home. When that happened, my bank account suffered.

And now I had a starship to buy!

My preferred clients were single people and DINKS – couples with Dual-Income, No Kids. Unfortunately, this breed of client was few and far between here on Sylox. Instead, most of my customers were married couples trailing a herd of unruly rugrats after them.

Nearly all my new business came through a long-standing affiliation I had with the Embassy, and although the sprawling Consular Compound did have some housing units available, I was fortunate that most of these were taken up by visiting high-ranking officials or those with the shortest-duration assignments. This meant that the thousands of new arrivals to Sylox had to find accommodations outside the Compound, and that was where Galactic Realty and Relocation Service came into play.

I had come to Sylox seven years before as a site agent for Pulte. This was right at the beginning of the big influx of Humans to Sylox City, the Union Capital, and there was a lot of groundwork to be laid before major construction of the expat communities could begin. The Earth-based developers were anxious to gain a foothold on the planet, so they had been more than generous with their – how can I say it – gratuities. I had been instrumental in many of the negotiations with the Council in those days, helping to spread the wealth around and grease whatever palms, paws or tentacles that require greasing.

As a result, I established of a lot of long-lasting relationships with the powers-that-be in the Galactic Union, relationships which were paying dividends even to this day.

However, after a couple of years I realized I’d gone about as far as I could with Pulte, so I broke away and started my own firm, the first independent Human real estate firm on the planet. The major builders at the time were more interested in turning and burning their customers rather than building relationships. And with the constant turnover of diplomats, contractors and other Humans coming to the Capital for business, there was never a shortage of fresh blood for the developers.

I – on the other hand – realized early on that new arrivals to the alien world required more than just a familiar bed on which to lay their heads. They often arrived in a complete state of shock, overwhelmed by the sheer alienness of it all. They needed more than just a friendly real estate agent showing them properties; they needed the whole acclimation service my firm offered.

So we specialized in new arrivals – buyers primarily – although we did have a fair number of resales and rentals these days, with our property management division one of the fastest-growing of late. And the Embassy was the source of clearly ninety-percent of all my business.

Did I also mention that I love Embassy customers, almost with the same – yet opposite – intensity that I hate children? The reason was simple: they were easy sells.

All workers assigned to the Embassy were entitled to a hefty housing and cost-of-living subsidy while on Sylox called BAH, an acronym for Basic Allowance for Housing. This was the same subsidy I received during my military days back on Earth, yet for duty on Sylox, it was BAH-on-steroids. The allowance was so high in fact, that even the lowest GS worker could afford to purchase the average-priced expat home, which at the time was in the three-million dollar range.

And with the government actively encouraging homeownership – it made for a happier and more stable personnel roster – I was more than willing to do my part to help out.

Through my contacts at the Embassy, I managed to negotiate an extra half-percent commission for me and my agents, as a bonus for taking these bewildered and often lost souls by the hand and helping them to find not only appropriate housing, but also to feel more comfortable with their alien surroundings. We accomplished this through a series of pre-arrival seminars, personal tours of common facilities – such as schools and shopping centers – and by providing extracurricular activities within the subdivisions, including sports teams, movie nights and other distinctly Human events.

If we did our job well then the Embassy had more-contented personnel who would hang around longer. After all, it cost a not-so-small fortune to bring someone all the way out here from Earth, and it was inefficient and wasteful to have entire families bail after only a few weeks on the planet. If these new arrivals stuck around for at least a year, then I was a hero in the eyes of the Consulate personnel department, and became the recipient of more than just the extra half-percent commission. I also received preferential treatment in the halls of government, along with more new customers than I could shake a stick at.

My firm now employed a total of nine full-time real estate agents. We also had a four-person support staff, a three-person mortgage department, and a property management division, currently with four agents. I also had a native alien-affairs liaison with direct access to the Council and the Human Ambassador-at-Large. Even with that, we needed more.

There were several other firms now trying to compete with us, yet they were late comers to the game and had a lot of ground to make up. I didn’t worry about them. I was the top-dog on Sylox, and it looked as though I would remain so for a long time to come.

For the past year or so I had begun to back away from personally working with customers on an individual basis, preferring to spend most of my time fostering relationships with the various government entities beneficial to the business. However, occasionally a new Undersecretary would arrive on the planet who could command my personal attention. Because of their elevated rank, these diplomats often bought in the eight-to-twelve million dollar range. That wasn’t a client I couldn’t easily pass along to one of my agents. I was generous, but not that generous.

Even though the developers of the Enclaves only paid one-and-a-half percent commission to outside agents, we supplemented this reduced commission with the other half-percent from the Embassy. That ended up being plenty, since homes within these subdivisions were much easier to sell and still resulted in a decent payday at closing, even if it meant first having to indulge the all-too-common desire to live outside the boundaries of the Human settlements.

In truth, the homes For-Sale-By-Alien were often more affordable and paid a much higher commission, often in the five to ten percent range. Yet I was smart enough to realize that I often had a snowball’s chance in Hell of selling one of these little goldmines. The change of venue between Earth and here was just too drastic for most people to handle, and especially when the buyers had a viable alternative with the Enclaves.

For years now, the Human developers had gone out of their way to make these massive, multi-hundred-home subdivisions into little slices of Earth-on-an-alien-world. The communities were all gated with live security; they maintained their own schools and grocery stores, in addition to rec centers, movie theaters, sports fields and more. In fact, if you ignored the presence of a second moon in the night sky, you could easily mistake the Enclaves of Sylox for any upscale community on Earth.

Oh, and there was also the incredibly bright swatch of stars in the night sky that came as a result of being so close to the Galactic Core. This served as a constant reminder to my clients that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

So for the right price, I would personally suffer through a few extra days of leading these wanderlust souls through a short course in alien reality. By then, easily ninety-five percent of my customers were chomping at the bit for a little Earth-familiar cocoon they could crawl into and forget where they were.

This predictable routine happened with uncanny regularity, and the Wilson family would be no exception. In fact, I could already picture the Noreen II sitting in my hangar at the executive spaceport outside of the Zanzibar Enclave. The craft was the equivalent of owning a G4 Learjet back home – or at least when Learjet was still in business. But you get the point. The Noreen II was the jewel I would soon possess, and thanks to Mark Wilson and his lovely family, the commission from the transaction would make that possible.

That was if no one sabotaged my efforts. And the ‘no one’ I was referring to came in the form of the Wilson’s three children.

**********

I began to make my way through the alien crowd toward the lost-looking Jennifer Wilson, while Bill trailed alongside me, feeling some kind of license to do so as a friend and past client.

One of the concessions the Human developers made to receive the permits to build their communities was that ten percent of all housing had to be sold to natives or other members of the Union. The Council had originally wanted twenty percent, yet the negotiators – I had been part of the delegation – had successfully argued that Humans, in particular, needed a little more time and space to acclimate themselves to this new reality. Having a community with so many aliens roaming around could defeat the whole purpose of having the Enclaves in the first place.

Eventually, the Council relented, realizing that the technological level of the Earth, as well our cultural development, were unique among Union members. Unique in that we were more backwards and primitive than any other race to have ever been accepted into the community of alien worlds….

On that point, Jonk Limbor was right, when he said he saw no value in having Humans as members of the Union. I, too, had no idea what we were contributing. Earth’s location in space held no special strategic value to the Union, positioned as it was out in one of the six spiral arms of the galaxy. Also, our raw materials were more easily acquired from the billions of asteroids and uninhabited worlds throughout the galaxy. And we certainly weren’t contributing anything of a scientific nature. The aliens were light-years ahead of us in every respect.

I often equated our presence in the Union to that of an fourteen-year-old genius who suddenly finds himself on a college campus, most times feeling awkwardly out of place, and at others struggling to prove he belonged there.

Yet on a positive note, Humans had proven to be incredible builders, not only of housing units for our species, but also for commercial construction on the few worlds where we had received permission to build. Our structures were in demand, and there was a whole herd of Human builders, developers and real estate agents ready and willing to service that demand.

We had only been a member of the Union for less than fifteen years and were just now beginning to feel comfortable with the whole idea of alien worlds and civilizations. But surely, the aliens hadn’t come to Earth just so we could build three-bedroom, two-bath, ranch-style homes across the galaxy?

They wouldn’t do that, would they?



Chapter 4


Jennifer Wilson spotted me before I reached her, now focusing her attention on one of the few Humans she saw on the landing at that time of day. Her expression changed dramatically, from one of brow-furrowing concern, to that of immense relief.

We had video-chatted several times over the past six months, so I felt as though already I knew her. Still, I was a professional and as such I had to offer my most-professional presentation to my new, high-end customer.

“Mrs. Wilson, I’m Jason King of Galactic Realty and Relocation Service.” I flashed my brightest salesman’s smile. “I’m so glad to finally meet you in person.”

“Mr. King, please call me Jennifer,” she said, flashing her own bright smile. “After all the communications we’ve had, I think we can be on a first-name basis.”

“Then I insist you call me Jason.” I looked past the fetching blonde woman of forty-two and caught site of my nemeses – if that’s even a word. They came in the form of Heather, sixteen; Jonathan, nine; and Melissa, six. They were all huddled behind their mother, with the exception of Jonathan, who clung to a strikingly-beautiful woman with jet-black hair and eyes as deep as space itself. I’m sure my mouth had fallen open at the sight of Jennifer’s cousin, and it took me a moment to recover.

Although there were over forty-thousand Humans on Sylox, many of the women here were either married or too young for me. At thirty-six, I was finding it more difficult lately to find available dates on the planet; however, Jennifer’s cousin had just brought that gene pool to a fast boil.

Jennifer had mentioned that her cousin would be joining them on Sylox – temporarily – as she served a six-month internship at the Embassy; however, she had failed to include a picture of her in any of the correspondence. Now I wondered why?

I finally broke my gaze from the dark-haired woman, and was promptly embarrassed to see Jennifer staring up at me with an amused smile. “Jason, this is my cousin Miranda, Miranda Moore. I mentioned her in our emails. She’ll be staying with us while she’s here.”

I desperately tried to exude the most professional decorum I could muster, but it was too late. The damage was already done.

As a diversion I turned to Bill. “I’d like to introduce you to Minister Billork Kly Gon-Mok, of the Union Transit Service. He’s a friend and past client; he actually lives in the Zanzibar Enclave.”

Bill took a short hop forward. “I am honored to meet you, Mrs. Wilson,” he said with a bow. “I am actually a neighbor of Jason’s and we are both members of the same softy-ball team.”

I could see Jennifer Wilson trying hard to act nonchalant in the presence of the towering alien with the green skin, but she was having a hard time of it. “I’m pleased to meet you, Minister Billork … Gook; I’m sorry, but I’m terrible with names.”

“Perfectly acceptable; I am known simply as Bill to my friends and neighbors, which I hope to one day consider you both.”

Jennifer frowned slightly. “I find it fascinating that your kind would play soft … softball.”

“Jason introduced me to the activity, and it has been a most-exhilarating experience. He is quite the organizer of events within our community. It is a wonderful place to reside.”

Jennifer turned back to me. “You do recall that I want to live within the native community, and not in one of the Human Enclaves?”

“I do,” I said quickly. “I have six homes already selected within the city limits for us to see today. It’s a start, and hopefully next time we go out, Mark can join us.”

“With his new job, he’s pretty busy, but he has promised to join us on Saturday – or whatever they call Saturday here. But you can be assured that he’s given me full authority when it comes to finding us a home—”

“My name’s Jonathan – are you a real alien?” The tiny voice came from Jonathan Wilson. He had released Miranda’s hand and ran up next to the seven-foot tall alien. Now he stood with his mouth agape staring up at Bill’s green face.

“My friend Jonathan, I must correct you. Even though the Union built its capital on Sylox three hundred years ago, this planet is my home. I am a native. So you see it is you who are the alien here.”

“I’m not an alien; I’m a Human!”

“On Sylox, Humans are the aliens—”

“But we don’t stink.”

“Jonathan!”

“That is quite all right, Mrs. Wilson,” Bill said with a smile. He crouched down on his reverse-jointed legs until he was at the level of Jonathan’s head. He leaned in closer and flared his nostrils. “I’m afraid you do have a distinctive odor, young Human. It is not unpleasant, yet you do stink, as you put it.”

I watched as Jonathan’s mouth fell open even more and his eyes grew large, and then he slowly reached out his hand toward Bill’s face. “Can I touch you?”

“Jonathan, you’re being rude,” Jennifer said as she reached out to intercept Jonathan’s thin hand.

“It is quite acceptable, Mrs. Wilson,” Bill said. “I would be just as curious if my race had not had generations of experience with other species.”

Jonathan ran his fingers over the small knobs forming Bill’s skin. “They’re soft! I thought they’d be hard.”

“If they were hard, I would have difficulty speaking or making expressions – like this.” The alien opened his eyes wide and stretched out a toothy grin easily ten inches wide.

Bill then patted the precocious nine-year-old on the head and straightened up. “My friend, Jason King, I must attend to my duties. Mrs. Wilson – and family – I hope you find success in your search for a home. And if you do change your mind about living outside the city boundaries, I am sure you will find Zanzibar to be an acceptable substitute. I will see you for the game, Jason.”



Chapter 5


After Bill left, I was able to herd the Wilson family through the flow of pedestrian traffic on the landing and out the terminal building to my waiting van. The vehicle was large enough to accommodate the entire family, and as we climbed in, I made a conscious effort not to let my eyes linger too long on the beautiful Miranda Moore. If anything was going to happen between us, it would come later, after I completed my professional duties.

As always, my first priority was to make money, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that by coming off as some sex-crazed male who couldn’t think beyond his penis. However, in the presence of the alluring Miranda Moore, I was having a hard time maintaining the façade – the façade of not being a sex-crazed male who couldn’t think beyond his penis. And for that, I placed the blame squarely on Miranda – and her dark, mischievous eyes.

**********

Before leaving the vast parking structure at the terminal, I showed Jennifer pictures of the homes I’d selected for her on my datapad. None of them seemed to excite her very much, although she was polite enough to point out the positives in all of them. She did this more for the benefit of the children, even though I could tell she was disappointed.

“This one has a nice bathroom.”

Only half the homes we’ll see today have Human-acceptable bathrooms.

“The bedrooms in this one are really huge.”

They should be. The home was built for creatures resembling Minotaurs, standing six feet tall at the shoulders.

“This one is next to a park.”

Eventually, I’d have to let her know that it’s not so much a park … as a hunting preserve. And not hunting with guns, but with claws and teeth. It was a nice place to look at, but you wouldn’t want to go in there – ever!

We pulled out of the terminal complex and merged onto a familiar looking freeway – ribbons they were called here – with an abundance of traffic. Jennifer Wilson sat in the passenger seat next to me, while Miranda had taken a spot in the center of the wide seat behind me, flanked by young Melissa and the curious Jonathan Wilson.

The morose and pre-occupied Heather Wilson sat in the third row seat by herself, engrossed in the smartphone she’d barely pulled her attention from since first walking off the shuttle. I had no idea who she was communicating with. Even though alien telecom technology was beyond imagination, it still didn’t offer texting service across twenty thousand light-years. I knew her actions were just a way for the sixteen-year-old to deal with all she’d left behind on Earth. The move must have been especially traumatic for her.

The first home I had to show them was fifteen minutes away, so I passed the time getting Jennifer to tell me more about what she was looking for in a home. We’d been over this before, but it really looked like she needed to talk. Alien-Regret-Syndrome was beginning to set in.

“All I’m really looking for is a place that’s functional for us as Humans. As you know, I was in the Corps when I was younger. I ended up marrying another diplomat and that’s when I had my children. After the divorce, I met Mark when we were both in South Africa, and we’ve been married a little over a year now. I’m telling you this because I want you to know we’re not afraid of new things or new places.”

I nodded. “I understand, however this is your first assignment off-planet, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, but we’ve served in eight countries back on Earth, and have encountered a lot of strange cultures.”

I nodded again. I’d also spent much of my military career in foreign countries, but no matter how alien they appeared to be on the surface, the one thing they all had in common was that they were populated by other Humans. They may dress differently, speak a different language, and even have a different skin color, but they were all Human.

What Jennifer Wilson and her family were about to experience went far beyond anything they could expect from internet searches or even possibly running into a few aliens back on Earth. Even the space station where they had come from this morning was segregated, mainly by gravity and atmosphere requirements. The half-hour drop in the shuttle to the surface – squeezed in next to a myriad of other creatures – had been their first real encounter with what was to come.

Just wait until they witness first-hand how some of these aliens live within their homes. From years of experience, I carried a ready supply of barf-bags with me at all times, just in case.

The next few hours would be an eye-opening immersion course in alien cultures, consisting of a mixture of species that had spent hundreds of years interacting with one another. Humans were new on the scene, and we still had a hell of a lot to learn.



**********

I saw Miranda looking at me through the rearview mirror; her dark eyes locked on mine and wouldn’t let go. Only Jennifer’s exhalation at a near-collision with an alien truck-like-thing snapped me out of the trance.

Hell, I guess there’s no avoiding it.

“So Miranda, you’ve come a long way for an internship, haven’t you?”

She flashed a brilliant smile at me, made even brighter by the bronze tone of her skin. She was a total contrast to her blonde-haired, fair-skinned cousin. “I suppose so,” she said, “but I just graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Galactic Affairs, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll be at the American Consulate.”

Galactic Affairs; you can get a degree in that now?”

“It’s a new specialty, and I was in one of the first graduating classes at Long Beach State. The Consulate doesn’t know exactly where to put me – not yet – but I’m sure they’ll find a good place. After all, I come cheap.”

“If you need any help finding your way around, just let me know. I have a lot of friends at the Embassy, and it’s all part of the service.”

Damn, if that didn’t sound like some blatant come-on, then I don’t know what would!

I quickly turned my attention back to Jennifer before Miranda could respond. “I understand you’ll be staying at temp quarters in the Compound until you close on your home.”

“That’s right. I haven’t been to the Compound yet, but I’m told it’ll be all of us packed into a two bedroom apartment. Miranda’s getting a small studio of her own.”

“I wish they’d just let us stay there,” Heather Wilson said from the backseat, speaking for the first time.

“We’ve been over this before, Heather,” Jennifer said impatiently. “There’s no room for long-termers.”

“But then we’ll have to be bused to school.”

It was now my turn to offer some insight. After all, it was all part of the service – just like hitting on the hot cousin. “You’ll be going to either the Embassy school or out to one of the Enclave schools, depending on where we find you a home.”

Jennifer looked at me. “So you don’t have to live in the Enclaves to go to a community school?”

“They frown on it, but legally you can’t be turned away. It’s all part of the CC&R’s – excuse me: the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions.”

“We’ve owned homes before, Jason. I know what CC&R’s are.”

So, it’s already come down to this?

As a way of feeling more in-control of her rapidly shattering reality, Jennifer Wilson was going to exert her so-called knowledge and expertise over me. Yes, she may have bought and sold a few homes in her lifetime, but I’ve done hundreds. So no matter how much she believed there was an equivalency in our respective experience, she was sorely mistaken. I tried hard not to smile, something that would have definitely made our working together that much more difficult.

“I apologize; of course you have.” I feigned my most sincere smile. “I didn’t mean to talk down to you.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” she said, accepting my apology – kind of – while also confirming that she felt I had.

Just then I caught sight of Miranda Moore again in the mirror. Her eyes were laughing, not at me but at her cousin. I sent her a wink. And then much to my surprise – and relief – she winked back.



Chapter 6


Alien homes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and designs, ranging from the covered-over pits Jonk Limbor built, to nests made of flexible reeds and branches grown specifically for these structures. Finding properties compatible to Humans did limit my search, but not by much here in the galactic capital.

Most creatures advanced enough to have developed the technological and societal requirements necessary to be invited into the Union were mammals of basically the same design, the so-called Primes of the galaxy. These were generally two-legged, two armed beings having hands with opposable thumbs. In fact, it was the similarity of the hands that were the most-common feature among advanced species. It took a certain level of dexterity to create and operate complicated machinery and other devices. This also served to standardize most operating controls found throughout the Union.

Humans were not the most-adept at operating the trappings of modern interstellar technology, but we certainly didn’t have any problem with them either. During my time out in the galaxy, I’d run into a lot of different alien species, and I would have to place Humans within the top ten percent as the most-coordinated, quickest-thinking and even the strongest of all the races.

In fact, it seemed that the more advanced the species, the weaker and less-coordinated they appeared to be. This relative disadvantage may be why these particular races needed to invent such advanced mechanical, electronic and other artificial devices in the first place, just so they could do what came naturally to most Humans. At least that was the King Theory of Advanced Alien Design.

Look it up. It’s on the internet.

The first home we stopped at was located about six miles from the Embassy, and was a three-level stacked-box structure. The neighborhood couldn’t be classified as the most desirable on this side of the city, but it also wasn’t the worst. In fact, it reminded me of some of the Burroughs of New York City, only safer.

I used my standard lockbox key for entry. My key was actually a small electronic box with a keypad on which I could enter my specially-assigned code. The key was then placed inside a secure device on the door – the lockbox – that would then unlock it, giving us access. Lockboxes came in various models, depending on the value and security level of the home. This property ranked the lowest kind.

The first thing most people notice when entering an alien home is – of course – the smell. I’ve had many a conversation with my alien friends throughout the years, concerning the Human obsession with deodorant and perfumes. According to them, these add-ons actually cause a more offensive odor than without. I guess stink is in the nose of the smeller, and so I watched with amusement as the Wilson family exhibited some of the most horrific expressions I’d seen in quite a while as they entered the alien home.

All except Miranda. She seemed to take the sickening smells in stride, her eyes bright and inquisitive as she entered.

The occupants were at home – two bug-eyed, emaciated looking things about four-feet tall – and so Jennifer quickly took Jonathan by the hand and sent him a non-verbal order to keep his trap shut about the smell. To his credit, the boy was in too much shock to say a word in the presence of these truly strange-looking creatures.

Now I did my thing, efficiently guiding a tour of the three levels, being sure to spend a little too much time in the process. I could tell Jennifer was about to puke, which would have served my purpose if she had. I gripped the barf-bag in my pocket, just in case.

A half hour later we reentered the relative fresh air outside the home. I turned to Jennifer Wilson. “So what did you think? The home is over two thousand square feet and it’s only six miles from the Embassy, so the kids would go to Consulate schools.”

The slight green tint to Jennifer’s skin was slowly fading in the fresh air, but still her eyes expressed dismay. “It was nice, Jason. Certainly big enough for us, but I wasn’t too impressed with the kitchen. I didn’t see an oven.”

“You’d have to put one in yourself if you bought it. The current owners don’t cook their food….” I let the sentence trail off, allowing the Wilson family to take in all its implications.

“I see,” said Mrs. Wilson. “Then perhaps could we see some homes where they do cook their food?”

“Of course, the next one up, in fact; however, it’s the bathrooms that will need modification before you can live there. But it’s only seven-hundred eighty thousand, and has four thousand square feet.”

“Good. Please lead the way.”

The rest of the afternoon went pretty much like the first home, and by the time I dropped the family off at the Consulate Compound where they could claim their apartment, every one of them looked frazzled and dazed, again, all except Miranda.

I took her amused detachment to the whole day as a consequence of her temporary status on Sylox. She didn’t need to make the decisions for the family, so she wasn’t feeling any of the pressure her cousin was experiencing. This made Miranda appear confident and strong – unfortunately two of the most-appealing traits I find in a woman. Plus, of course, that undeniable sexual presence that could launch me into song, if I could sing a lick. Looking at Miranda Moore, I’d be tempted to try.

And now as she walked away from the van, Miranda turned and waved at me. I jerked my hand up a little too quickly and sent her a silly, schoolboy grin.

Damn, I could tell this woman was going to be trouble.

Just at that time had no idea how much.

**********

Two days later I took the family out again, this time with Mark Wilson tagging along. I say tagging along because he seemed very distracted the whole day, nodding and grunting as we toured four alien homes.

The day went pretty much like the first – except poor Melissa Wilson did throw up at one of the homes. But she only did it once, which was saying something considering what we saw. Hell, in one of the homes, even I had trouble holding back the hurl!

Yet for the already shell-shocked Jennifer Wilson, once was one too many. I had a fifth home to show them, yet after the disaster at number four, Jennifer shook her head and said that was it, she was done.

Her husband Mark then told her that whatever she wanted, he was okay with it.

“The Enclaves?” I asked.

“The Enclaves.” Jennifer concurred.

And that was that. After two days of traipsing through alien filth, I was finally on my way to getting serious about finding the Wilsons a home – and about earning my lofty commission. Now, as I drove back to the Zanzibar Enclave, I was almost tempted to call the Noreen starship dealer and place the order, but I knew I still had a little work to do, plus the escrow period. I put the temptation out of my mind, and instead began to concentrate on tonight’s game.

It would be the first in a while with Bill back in the lineup, and since we were only a game out of first, I was worried. But what the hell, it’s only a softball game, right? My mind was already somewhere off in the stars, at the controls of my very own starship Enterprise.

Or more like one of the shuttles off the Enterprise, I conceded.

Either way, I could play Captain Kirk to my heart’s content, and boldly go where no one has gone before – no one except about a thousand alien races before me.


Chapter 7


My third showing to the Wilson clan was the first in the Enclaves, and the day before, Miranda called me with a list of properties she had found online. I’m always upset when an online search is provided for me, since I don’t like the idea of third-parties – or even my customers – doing the selecting for me. I know the inventory better, and besides, I have a showing strategy I often employ that produces a much higher conversion rate than simply showing a bunch of homes at random. But since this list was coming from Miranda, I held my tongue. I was just happy to hear her sexy, accented voice.

“The Hillcrest property, really?” I said, looking over the list she’d emailed me. “That’s pretty far out of their price range.”

“It’s out of the range Jennifer has set, but not out of Mark’s. You do know he comes from a very wealthy family, don’t you? Actually, they made their money in real estate and construction, just like you.”

“I didn’t know that – not for sure – although I did sense a little of that on Jennifer’s part. I’ve only met Mark that one time two days ago.”

“Yeah, he’s rich, which is how he’s been able to spend most of his adult life working in the higher echelons of the Diplomatic Corps. That’s normally not the pursuit of the poor.”

The home on Hillcrest was my listing, which did offer the potential of a double-ender. And at the price of the listing, getting both the listing and selling sides of the transaction could be a huge payday.

The property was owned by the Velosian Council Member Morgus Orn. I had sold the home to him over six years ago while I still worked as a site agent for Pulte. Even at that time, it was one of the most palatial estates in all the Enclaves, and sold for a princely sum of six million dollars back then.

Now it was priced at twenty-two million, but it had been sitting on the market for over a year. With another two years left on Orn’s term on the Council, he was in no hurry to sell and so we hadn’t pursued an aggressive selling strategy up to this point. In fact, he hadn’t authorized a single price reduction in all that time.

Was it even feasible that Mark would buy the home? If he did, it would be my single-biggest sale – ever – and would ensure my acquisition of the coveted Noreen II starship.

“Jennifer’s going to be pissed,” I said. “She’s already upset about not finding anything good in town.”

“I’ll handle her,” Miranda said with confidence. “I honestly doubt Mark will bite the bullet on this home, but it will make the other homes you have to show him look like bargains.”

I looked a little closer at the stunning image of Miranda on the phone and wondered if she had ever sold real estate before? If not, then maybe she might consider coming to work for me? She seemed to be a natural at it – and she’d also go a long way to really dressing up the office….

Prior to the mention of the Hillcrest home, I already had a particular home in mind for the Wilsons. It was just what they needed, even if they didn’t know it at the time, and was priced at only ten-point-two million. Comparing the two properties side-by-side, most of the additional value in the Council Member’s home came from its location, plus the quality of the build and the extra square feet it contained. These were all important factors, yet for the uninitiated, the upgrades would be hard to spot, and hardly worth the dramatic increase in the asking price, even counting the added square footage. Miranda was right: the home in Sterling Bridge South would look like a steal after showing them Hillcrest.

I thanked Miranda and broke the connection, while suddenly feeling strangely nervous. I caught myself planning a thank you offering to her, which I knew would be only a thinly-vailed attempt at asking her out on a date.

What if she said no?

To me, Jason King? Nah … that would never happen.

**********

“Twenty-two million; that’s way out of our price range!” Jennifer Wilson was livid. I looked to Miranda for support.

“Jason says it’s been on the market for over a year. The seller may be willing to come down in price by now.”

“Like in half – or more? I seriously doubt it.”

“One can never know,” I said, now stepping into the conversation. “But it will give you a good perspective on relative pricing within the Enclaves. It’s also on the way to the next home in Sterling Bridge; it will only take a minute to drop by.”

“Whatever you say, Jason, after all you’re the professional,” Jennifer Wilson said, even though her tone didn’t match her words. “But you’ve been warned; Mark doesn’t like to waste what precious free time he has on useless endeavors, and neither do I.”

I cocked my head at Miranda after Jennifer turned and huffed her way back to the van. I had already shown them three homes. Hillcrest would be the fourth, followed by the home they would eventually buy.

So why didn’t I just cut to the chase and show them the home in Sterling Bridge first? Unfortunately, most homebuyers don’t know what they want until they see what they don’t. It’s all a process, and until it’s been followed to the tee, real estate sales can be a hit-or-miss game. I didn’t operate like that. I was patient enough to follow the strategy.

Besides, real estate is not an impulse buy; there’s just too much time between showing and closing for a buyer to change their mind. They have to truly love the home in order to carry the process all the way through to the end. And that involved educating the buyer on what they really want and need in a home.

So I’d suffer the wrath and dirty looks from Jennifer Wilson knowing that what I was doing was for the family’s eventual benefit. Besides, I enjoyed the game. It was challenging and rewarding, and also carried an almost obscene amount of power with it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the manipulation of other people is a bad thing. It can be quite satisfying at times, as well.

**********

Fourteen Hillcrest Summit; what can you say about it? It was simply the foremost home in the entire Zanzibar Enclave. Each of the four other Enclaves had their own equivalent property, yet I had the only one of these premier properties currently on the market.

I knew it was over-priced, but once the Council Member came closer to serving out his term and returning to Velosia, he’d get serious about selling. And then I’d be rolling in dough. Even at a more-realistic price of around eighteen million, it would still be my biggest sale.

But that would have to wait. Now I had to use this magnificent home to help sell another. Sometimes it went like that. Hillcrest’s day would come. It just wouldn’t be this day.

The Velosian Morgus Orn wasn’t home when I opened the property, which required the most-secure lockbox and key-code process available, complete with a biometric sample proving it was really me gaining access. But once the massive double doors swung wide, the Wilson family – and Miranda – rushed in with wide-eyed, Christmas-morning looks on their faces.

The home was fourteen thousand square-feet of absolute luxury and opulence, including twenty-four inch diagonal tile throughout, twenty-foot ceilings and a two thousand square foot great room that stretched to the twenty feet of patio doors with a jaw-dropping view of the ninety-foot long, freeform pool outside.

The home was also decorated with some of the most palatial furniture I’d ever seen. Yet what really set it apart from all the other homes in the area was the vast collection of alien artifacts displayed throughout, souvenirs from Orn’s lifetime of service to his race and his planet.

Which was what immediately caused me to panic.

Melissa and Jonathan were now rushing from room to room, insisting on touching everything within arm’s length. I knew that some of the objects in the home were literally priceless, and I was in no mood to replace anything that got broken. So I ran after the kids, grabbing Jonathan by the arm just as a weird-looking plate of some kind began to wobble on its stand.

“You guys are going to have to calm down,” I said to the two little ones. “What do you think your parents would do to you if they have to pay for something you broke?”

This got their attention. I looked around for Mark and Jennifer, but didn’t see them. Neither did I see Miranda or Heather. Damn, this was not how it was done. I was supposed to be in control of these showings. I was getting angry.

I led Melissa and Jonathan to the massive master bedroom suite where I found their parents. “Would you mind keeping an eye on these two?” I said in no uncertain terms. “There are a lot of expensive things in this home that can break.”

Jennifer pursed her lips and looked hard at her kids. That was good enough for me. I now went looking for Miranda and Heather.

I followed the scent of Miranda’s perfume into Morgus Orn’s private office. I was surprised to see that the room had been left unlocked; it had always been locked on every other occasion I’d been in the house.

Miranda was by herself, standing before a huge holographic picture occupying the central spotlight among a whole series of pictures depicting highlights in the diplomat’s long career. The one she was admiring was the largest of them all and showed the Velosian holding a small statue that seemed to sparkle with a life of its own.

Miranda didn’t take her eyes from the image as I stepped up next to her.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she said in a singsong voice.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these before, but they’re pretty neat.” I tapped the bottom of the picture and a thin scrollbar appeared with a cursor set at the center of the bar. I placed my finger on the cursor and slid it to the right. The image in the hologram began to rotate to the right until the vantage point had shifted a full 180-degrees, now displaying the back of the Council Member. I slid the cursor all the way to the other side of the bar and the view shifted 360-degrees to the left. I placed the cursor back in the center.

I now stood staring at the brilliant statue, just like Miranda, trying to reason with the spectrum of reflections coming off the hundreds of facets making up the surface of the two-foot-tall sculpture.

I tapped a small triangle at the bottom left of the frame and a caption appeared.

‘Velosian Council Member Morgus Orn accepts the Unity Stone from the Simorean Council representative as part of the decennial Passing Ceremony. The symbol of interspecies peace and cooperation will reside in the offices of the Velosian contingent on Sylox before returning to the Simorean government in ten years’ time.’

“I wonder what it’s made of?” Miranda asked. “It’s so brilliant.”

“It looks crystalline, probably some exotic material we’ve never heard of before.”

“It’s a diamond,” said a voice from behind us.

Both Miranda and I turned to find Heather Wilson in the doorway to the office, holding her ubiquitous smartphone up to her face.

“A diamond?” said Miranda. “That’s impossible. That thing is close to two-feet tall.”

“No, it says here it’s a diamond, a fragment from the core of a black dwarf star that apparently collided with another black dwarf, whatever they are? That’s the only way such a large diamond could have been recovered. The gravity on the stars is too great to mine them. It also says it’s the largest fragment of its kind in the galaxy.”

Miranda and I turned back to the image, while Heather joined us.

A two-foot tall diamond – dang! Even though diamonds were rumored to be a girl’s best friend, I found that I was amazed by the stone myself. “What does it mean by Unity Stone?”

Heather returned to her phone. “It says the original fragment penetrated the shields of an attacking Velosian flagship – the head of a four-thousand-ship fleet – during the last Velosian-Simorean War. This is freaky, but it says the power to the shields flashed briefly at the time, allowing the stone to penetrate the hull at that precise moment. The damage to the ship delayed the attack long enough for negotiators to reach an armistice and bring an end to the conflict. Both sides called this a form of divine intervention, and the stone was cut into its present shape to commemorate the event. The statue is now a symbol of peace between the two parties, even though tensions still exist – that sucks. But now the Unity Stone is rotated between the Velosian and Simorean delegations every ten years.”

“That’s all great,” Miranda said, still in awe of the statue. “But it’s still a frickin two-foot tall diamond….”

“It has a conversion function here,” Heather said. She tapped a button on her screen. “Twenty-eight thousand, six hundred forty-eight – that would be the Earth-equivalent of its weight in carats. The largest uncut diamond ever found on Earth was just over three thousand carats, and this one’s been cut.”

“Holy crap, that’s a big-ass diamond,” I said, trying to break the spell that had fallen over the two women.

It didn’t work, so I just shook my head and pitied Heather’s future husband. After seeing something like this, how could she ever be content with a simple one-carat diamond wedding ring? Miranda, on the other hand; well I could see her with a ten-carat ring one day, if not larger. Not from me, of course, but some other helpless sucker who would fall under her spell.

But right now I had to herd the women out of the office and get our minds back in the game. Orn’s house was truly a one-of-a-kind estate, yet the next one I had to show the Wilson’s was the home they would buy. I had to get on with it.

The home was in Sterling Bridge South – actually not too far from where I lived – and was still at the higher end of the price range set by Mark and Jennifer, however it had all the bells and whistles they required. I had the home under contract once before, but it had fallen out when my buyer bolted back to Earth, unable to come to grips with the alien environment of Sylox. The eventual sale of the home was now a matter of principle to me, an obsession almost.

I hate losing deals, especially ones in the ten-million dollar price range. However, today I would get my redemption.

**********

What can I say? I’m a professional.

So when Jennifer Wilson started to cry at the end of the showing of the Sterling Bridge home, I knew I’d made the sale – just as planned.

This was actually one of the best parts of my job, when I can find the perfect home for my customers. The choice of a home is a very personal and traumatic event for a family. There’s always so much worry, stress and trepidation that accompanies it. So when everyone winds up on the same page and ecstatic with the choice, then my work here is done, and I feel like I can now jump on my horse and ride off into the sunset – the hero once again.

In a quiet time, while Mark and Jennifer and the kids took one last run – literally – through the house, I took the opportunity to approach Miranda. We high-fived, feeling a bond that I hoped would itself become literal.

“So let’s celebrate,” I said. “Dinner’s on me.”

“I thought you’d never ask.” Her smile was warm and genuine, and I melted inside.

“Tonight then, if that’s not too soon?”

“Oh my, I’m going have to do some quick planning. Why don’t I meet you at the restaurant? Do you have one in mind?”

“Yep, and it’s just outside the Consulate Compound. I’ll email you the name and directions. You sure you don’t want me to pick you up?

“Nah, I can catch a ride from the Embassy. But you have to give me until eight. I wasn’t planning on going on a date tonight.”

“This is a date? I thought we’d just celebrate our little victory today. Now I’m getting nervous.”

“Call it what you want, Jason King, but honestly I can’t wait.”

And then she leaned over and kissed my cheek, her perfume even stronger and more seductive close up.

Then with a whirl of her silky black hair, she turned on her heel and bounced her way back into the house. Just then that old, crude saying came to mind: I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave.

If ever that was true, I was living the moment.

I gave myself a mental pat on the back. First, I just made a really big real estate deal, and now a date with the hottest woman – Human woman – on the planet. Things were really looking up for ole Jason King, if I did say so myself.



Chapter 8


The restaurant was called Belgon’s Consumptionary and it was located just outside the main gate to the massive Consulate Compound. Years ago I’d helped its owner, Belgon Cor, add a line of Human-like entrees to his menu for which he’s been eternally grateful. His business exploded thereafter and now he catered almost exclusively to people from the Compound.

The building was huge, and Belgon himself led Miranda and me to a private booth facing an open veranda, with an amazing view of Lomick River and the city skyscrapers beyond. A soft evening breeze filtered through the restaurant, and the mixture of smells from the fragrant blossoms of the Jacobin trees outside, along with the savory cuisine within, all set the stage for what was shaping up to be the perfect first-date.

I was still in awe of the poise and elegance of the ravishing twenty-six year old; she was much more comfortable in this alien world than was expected. Fighting to keep my eyes from wandering down the deep cut of her shimmering white gown, I decided to start the conversation with a compliment.

“How is it that you don’t seem overwhelmed by all of this, like your cousin appears to be?”

Miranda lifted a tall, thin glass of water and took a sip through her moist, red lips. She set the glass back down and looked to her right, at the brilliant lights of the skyline beyond the river. “I may not show it, but this is really something amazing. You have to remember I’m a Galactic Affairs major, so being here on Sylox is the culmination of a dream I’ve had for a very long time. There’s no place I’d rather be.”

That made sense, but still there was an unnatural calm about the woman.

Belgon himself came to the table to take our order. He was a Crimin, a thin, dark-skinned alien about six feet tall. He had distinctly Humanoid features – Prime features – so his appearance was not off-putting. I ordered a bottle of fermented Dolic wine to start.

“Jason was very instrumental in helping establish my Human menu,” Belgon said with enthusiasm. “He is a wonderful creature.”

“Before you get too excited,” I began, “many of the dishes are made from native plants and animals, and not Earth foods, no matter what the names may suggest.”

“Really, yet they taste the same as Earth food?” Miranda asked.

I smiled. “Just about everything in the galaxy can be made to taste like chicken, even native eel-snakes. But it’s best if I order for us without going into too much detail. Just think: if it tastes like chicken, then consider it chicken. You’ll enjoy the meal a lot more if you do. And remember, I’ve tasted everything on the menu, so nothing should make you sick. At least I hope not.”

When the wine came, Miranda sampled it with approval. “This is really good. I’m sure the rest of the meal will be perfect, as well.”

I shifted nervously as Miranda locked her eyes on mine and refused to look away. After a moment, it became too much.

“What?” I said with a frown.

“It’s just that you are such a fascinating man, Jason King. Don’t be mad, but I pulled your file while at the Consulate the other day.”

“You have access to that?”

Her eyes sparkled. “I have ways of getting what I want.”

“I’m sure you do,” I stammered. What was this spell this woman had over me? “So what did you find that was so fascinating?”

She raised her eyebrows. “What wasn’t?” she said. “Your time on Sylox is interesting enough, what with all your interactions with the Council and such, but it’s your time on Earth that I found so … so incongruous.”

“That’s a good word for it. So what you’re asking is how did an ex-Army Ranger turn out to be such an incredible real agent and entrepreneur?” I didn’t like to talk much about my time on Earth; that was a long time ago and in another reality, one that no longer had much meaning.

“Exactly, it did seem to be a rather strange career path you took.”

“I really didn’t have a choice, now did I?”

Miranda nodded. “We studied the early years just before and after First Contact, so I know what you mean. But you have to admit, the alien’s approach to the whole First Contact thing was pure genius.”

“Yeah, but it still caught a lot of us off guard.”

**********

It all began with a series of extremely popular science fiction books, followed by the movie trilogy. The story revolved around an alien race coming to Earth, and the reaction of the population to First Contact. The aliens came in peace, yet in typical Human fashion, we didn’t trust them and instead we fought. In the end the aliens left, taking with them all their advance medicine – including a cure for cancer – along with technology that would have provided free and clean energy for the entire planet. The aliens had indeed been benign, and the gifts they offered would have saved mankind from itself.

But we blew it. And that was the moral of the story.

The books and movies were extremely popular, with an estimated reader-and viewership of over half the population of the planet. So it really didn’t come as much of a shock when the aliens finally did arrive – for real – and they looked exactly like those depicted in the movies!

As the truth came out later, the aliens had been instrumental in the creation of the books and movies as a way of preparing the population for their eventual arrival. Just think: what if aliens had arrived on Earth a couple of decades before and they all looked like Mr. Spock? The shock of their existence would have been greatly reduced.

That’s what happened when the Amelians arrived. By then nearly everyone on Earth had already seen them – at least on the big screen or on their TV’s or the internet. And they came offering exactly the same gifts as in the movies and books; however this time mankind reacted differently – which had been the alien’s intention all along.

Of course, there were the skeptics. Yet as the years went by, and all the promises of the aliens came true, they became fewer and fewer. Now the Amelians, as well as all the alien species within the Galactic Union were accepted – not feared – by Humanity.

**********

“When the Amelians outlawed war among nations, that’s what basically ended my military career.”

“But that was a good thing, right?”

“Of course, Miranda, the last thing a professional soldier wants is war. However, there were still a few hot spots around the world, having mainly to do with terrorism. The aliens let us continue to defend ourselves against those threats for a while, yet when they stepped in to help with the effort, terrorist activities came to a screeching halt.”

“So what did you do then?”

I knew that the basic timeline of my so-called career path was contained in my file, yet there was still a lot of detail Miranda wasn’t aware of. She had leaned in closer to me by now and seemed genuinely interested in my story. So before the meal came, I decided to give her a little more insight into the life and times of one Jason King.

“I had been Special Forces – Rangers – in the Army and really enjoyed the work. It was challenging and I worked with a great group of guys. However, after mustering out, I found myself like thousands of others without a job.”

“But the economy was booming at the time, thanks to the Union.”

“You’re right. We’d never seen the economy so robust, but there also weren’t a lot of opportunities at the time for people with my particular skill set, especially with all the peace breaking out around the world.” I finished the last statement with a wide smile. I didn’t want Miranda to think I was some kind of crazed warmonger.

“Around that time, a former Ranger friend of mine got a job at a place in Nevada called Battlefield Vegas.” I saw the frown on Miranda’s smooth, tanned forehead. “It was a place in Las Vegas where civilians could fire a variety of assault and other weaponry. At the time, it was the number one tourist attraction in the city, if you didn’t consider gambling a tourist attraction.

“Anyway, I got a job there, too, and it was great at first. I knew the weapons and how to use them, and the management there was really great. My boss was a guy named Mario, who was ex-military as well as a former policeman. The dude was a genius when it came to weapons and tactics, and he pulled off a major coup when he got hold of some of the alien weapons. After that, business literally exploded. Everyone – and I mean everyone – wanted to fire the alien ray guns.”

“Ray guns, really?”

“Well, they don’t actually shoot rays, but concentrated balls of plasma that move so fast that they look like rays. The aliens call them flash weapons. But the point is we were the only place in the country that had them, and for a time we ran five thousand people or more per day through Battlefield Vegas.”

“What happened?” Miranda asked. “I’ve been to Vegas before and I’ve never heard of the place.”

“Well, that’s the tragic part of the story. The aliens suddenly put an end to us shooting their weapons, and that essentially killed the business overnight.”

“What about the other weapons you had?”

I laughed. “It seems that after the aliens came no one wanted to fire the primitive Human weapons anymore. They were just too heavy and loud. The place quickly went under.”

“So those poor guys who owned the company, what happened to them?”

“Oh, don’t feel too sorry for them. They all made out like bandits, pocketing millions from the two great years we had with the alien flash weapons.”

“But now you’re out of a job … again.”

“And that’s when my life took an unlikely turn for the better.”

I put my story on hold when our meals came. By that time the wine had kicked in and the seductive smells of the night, along with the warm breeze and sparkling lights of the city were really beginning to take effect.

We wolfed down our meals, which to my delight Miranda found to be delicious. I never did tell her what the main course was made of – that was best left to the imagination. And besides, the truth would have been a little hard to swallow, literally.

After dinner we had room for a decadent dessert, which we shared from a common plate. And then more alien wine.

“So finish your story, Jason.” Miranda scooted over closer to me in the booth until our knees were touching. And that’s when I leaned over and kissed her for the first time. She welcomed it with a passion enhanced by the alcohol. The evening was shaping up as perfectly as could be imagined, and it was several minutes before we came up for air.

“Damn you, Jason King, are you trying to distract me from hearing the rest of your story?”

“You’re the distraction here, my dear, especially in that dress!”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry if you find my dress distracting. Maybe I should just take it off.”

Miranda lifted her arms and reached behind her neck, searching for the clasp holding the sheer, silky outfit together. I reached out and took her hands.

“I’m afraid they have decency laws here, just like on Earth.”

She laughed; a wild and free expression that sent my heart aflutter. And then she leaned against the leather back of the booth. “Finish your damn story! If not, then I’m going to sit right here until you do.”

“I could take you back to your apartment and finish it there.”

She shook her head, sending her silky black cascades swishing back and forth across her face. “Nope, not until you tell me who you really are. Are you some kind of trained-killer, adept at all aspects of special ops, or just a money-grubbing real estate agent out to make a quick buck off my unsuspecting cousin?”

“What if I said I’m both?”

She leaned forward suddenly, bringing her face to within inches of mine and stroking it with both her hands. “Then I’d say that’s really, really hot.”

It was obvious my date was feeling the effects of the alien wine. I was, too, but not to such a degree. That was perfectly okay by me.

“Fine, I’ll finish the story, but after that I really do need to get you back to your apartment. I think you’re feeling the wine a little too much … and you need to get to bed.”

‘Ooh, bed. That’s sounds wonderful.” She leaned back in the booth, a sparkle in her eyes.

I looked at her for a long moment, taking in all her smoldering sultriness. Damn, she was beautiful. I hurried to finish my story.

“I had another ex-Army buddy who had gone to work for Pulte at one of their huge subdivisions outside Vegas; it’s actually Quint, Quint Valarie, my business partner here. As you said, the economy was booming at the time and the builders were going nuts. Quint was making a small fortune, so I got a real estate license and joined him.”

“So … you are a money-grubbing vulture!”

“That’s right, and soon I was their top money-grubbing vulture.”

“Seriously, how did that happen?”

“I don’t really know; I guess I’m just a natural at sales. But in reality, real estate isn’t selling per se. I consider myself more of a facilitator; people come to me saying they want to buy a home, and I simply help make it happen. I found a lot of satisfaction in the business. I was helping people make their dreams come true, and Pulte built a pretty good product.”

“But now you’re halfway across the galaxy. That’s quite a leap.” Miranda burst out laughing, finding what she had just said to be hilarious – if only to her.

I was finding her beauty and relaxed openness to be intoxicating – along with the wine.

“As you know, with more and more Humans beginning to populate the Union, we had to find places to live, and alien homes are not always that compatible for us. You’ve seen what they’re like! Well, the major home builders on Earth saw a great opportunity. I was still young and restless, and pretty excited about the prospect of leaving the planet and traveling to the stars. So I volunteered to help with the development teams that were opening up new markets on some on the nearby Union worlds.”

“But there aren’t that many close to Earth,” Miranda countered. I was surprised she knew that, until I remembered her college major.

“That’s right, and only so many with the proper environment for Humans to live on. I spent eight months on a planet called Elipsion-C before transferring to Sylox with the first group of developers to come here. That was seven years ago, and for the past five I’ve run my own brokerage and mortgage company.”

I leaned in closer to the sultry woman and locked my eyes on hers. “Now that we’re done with all the foreplay, maybe we can get down to some real business.”

Her mouth fell open slightly and I fixated on her sexy bottom lip. She flicked out her tongue and ran it over her lips, coating them with a shimmering, moist sheen. “Lead the way, Mr. King,” she breathed deeply. “I’m in no condition to drive.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got that handled.”

We left the restaurant in a rush; I’m not even sure if I paid the bill. If not, I’m sure Belgon would understand.



Chapter 9


The Embassy Compound was only a quick five minute drive from the restaurant. Everyone there knew me, so I was waved through the gate without much fanfare.

Since I had met Miranda at the restaurant, I didn’t know where within the Compound she was staying; Jennifer had said she was getting a small studio until the closing took place. Yet when she directed me to Executive Row, I was surprised.

Executive Row referred to the area reserved for those with Executive Service ranks or higher – higher being corporate CEO’s, congressmen or members of parliament, and all the way up to presidents, kings and even dictators. There were only sixteen units in the section, along with twelve apartments. She couldn’t possibly be in one of those, could she?

But sure enough, she directed me to the first of the two apartment buildings. Something in the back of mind said this wasn’t right, but at the time, my mind wasn’t doing the thinking. We took the elevator to the top floor. There were only two apartments on this level and she opened the first door we came to.

I inhaled sharply when we entered. You have to remember, I’m a seasoned real estate professional, so it takes a lot to impress me when I comes to housing. But this place was huge, with a spacious foyer that opened to an expansive great room with a massive picture window looking off the Compound and toward the lights of the city. Being on the top floor, the room also had cathedral ceilings over thirty feet high, and everywhere I looked I saw only the most-expensive furniture and other appointments.

“What the hell, Miranda?” I said. I could say no more.

She walked further into the apartment and kicked off her high heels. “Oh, didn’t I mention that my family is fabulously wealthy, too?”

“Even so this place is reserved for visiting presidents and movie stars.”

She turned to me, and before I knew it, had unclasped her gown and let it slip as gently as a snowflake to the floor. All she wore underneath was a white thong. That was it. Nothing more.

“And as I said earlier, Mr. King, I usually get what I want.”

And at that point in the evening I stopped being a real estate broker and became just a man – a very, very lucky man.

**********

The silk sheets felt fantastic against my skin the next morning, as a thin yellow light began to filter through the slats in the vertical blinds covering the sliding patio door of the bedroom. But then the sheets moaned, and I realized the silky smoothness was that of Miranda’s skin against mine and not the sheets. I became aware of her head on my chest and the black mass of fragrant hair only inches from my face. I ran a hand over her smooth shoulder and felt a return caress from a delicate hand on my side.

As the sleep left my brain, I fought to hold onto every ounce of memory from the night before. This was something I would never want to forget, and seriously doubted I could even if I wanted to. After all, one’s best night of lovemaking – ever – was something to be etched upon every synapse in the brain, if that was even possible. I didn’t really care if it was or not. I was in Heaven and that was all that mattered.

As a gentleman, I won’t go into detail about what happened over the next hour, once Miranda also regained consciousness. Rest assured we were both willing and physically-fit participants, surrendering to our primal needs as naturally as breathing – if breathing meant shouting out to a variety of deities over and over again, for whatever reason I’ve never understood.

Later I joined Miranda on the veranda, where she sat at a small table, wearing only a short white cotton robe.

“You’re dressed,” she said with a pout.

“I’m sorry, but I have a contract to write this morning for Mark and Jennifer. Besides, I want to get over to Belgon’s as soon as possible. I just checked my account and it seems I forgot to pay the restaurant last night.”

She tapped the table. “Sit, have some coffee first. I know you’re not meeting with Mark and Jennifer until noon, so you have lots of time.”

I sat down and began to make my coffee. The cup was already full of steaming black salvation, but I still needed to enhance it with non-sugar sweetener and cream. Miranda frowned as she watched me mix the concoction.

“I like mine black.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, picking up on her unspoken joke. We both laughed.

“No disappointment at all, Jason. In fact, I know now why they call you King.”

“Other than it being my name, you mean?”

“Relax stud, and accept the compliment.”

As I sipped my coffee, I looked past Miranda and into the great room of the apartment. I had sobered up by now, and my other needs had been satiated, at least for the moment. Yet my curiosity was still piqued.

“Seriously, Miranda, how did you score this apartment? Don’t take this wrong, but you’re just an intern.”

“I told you.”

“So why don’t you just stay here instead of moving in with Jennifer and Mark?”

“You know, these places are only temporary, although they have offered me an extension if….”

“Don’t tell me!” I suddenly grew very angry.

“No, that’s not it.” She smiled at me. “My hero, come to defend my honor.”

“It’s just that I wouldn’t put it past some of the guys I know here. So if not that, then what?”

“It’s complicated.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? What do you have to do?”

Her face suddenly turned serious. She took a deep breath before looking back at me. “I’ve been assigned to the intelligence department with the U.S. Consulate. They seem to think I have certain attributes that could be of value.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, truly confused at this point.

“Let me explain,” she began. “As you know, the Earth is still made up of hundreds of separate nations. Once the aliens came, we all thought the planet would unite as one race – the Human race – and stop being a bunch of bickering opponents divided by nationality, religion and skin color. Well that didn’t happen. Instead, the nations of Earth are even more competitive with each other than ever before, all vying for their piece of the alien economic and power pie.”

“And how does that apply to you staying in this apartment?”

“I’ve been told that if I can dig up any information that could be of value to American intelligence, regarding the activities of other Earth nations, and particularly of alien activity here on Sylox as it pertains to Earth, then I’ll be rewarded with an extension here.”

For the record, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I had spent six wonderful years in Army special ops and I could spot a set-up when one slept with me the night before – as well as the following morning. There had always been something about Miranda Moore that didn’t sit right. She was too confident, too poised, too unflappable in the face of the shock that everyone felt when first arriving on Sylox. Hell, even I’d felt the shock. But not her, not this twenty-six-year-old recent college graduate, who according to her story, had just spent four years getting a degree in something as nebulous as Galactic Affairs – no pun intended.

And now this unpaid intern was occupying a lavish apartment reserved for kings – again, no pun intended.

And she had just seduced one of the most well-connected Humans on the planet, if I did say so myself.

I watched as Miranda’s face turned harder than I’d ever seen it. Her eyes burned into me. “Don’t jump to conclusions, Jason,” she said sharply.

“I don’t have to jump to shit; you’re CIA! And if not that, then NSA or some other obscure acronym I’ve probably never heard of before. Does Jennifer know?”

My last question shook her hard demeanor. “No she doesn’t, and I’d really like it to stay that way.”

“That’s not up to me, sweetheart. It all depends on how far you want to push this thing.”

“Look, Jason, all I’m asking for is information, just information. I’m not asking you to go out searching for it. Just keep your eyes and ears open as you go about your day and play your softball games. You know so many people and they all trust you—”

“And I intend to keep it that way! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a patriot – hell I spent six years serving America in the Army. But now I’m on alien world and I have no idea what I could possibly learn that would be of value to you and your handlers.”

“What about the true reason the aliens came to Earth?”

“What true reason?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“What?”

“What, what?”

“What exactly is the true reason the aliens came to Earth?”

“That’s what we want to know,” she said.

“So you don’t know?”

“No, do you?”

“No!”

“Then don’t you want to know?” she asked.

“Know what?”

“Why they came in the first place!”

“Maybe it’s what they said.”

“And what was that?”

“Shit, woman, we sound like an Abbott and Costello comedy routine! I don’t know why they came.”

“Well, neither do we, and that’s what we want to find out.”

I stood up from the table. “I’m leaving now, before my brain explodes. I want to thank you for a lovely evening; it will certainly rank among my top ten.”

“Top ten!”

“Well, maybe the top three. But the bottom line is I’m not a spy, for you or anyone else. I have a pretty good life going here and I don’t want to do anything to screw it up. You do know they expel spies here, don’t you? What do you think would become of my business, my house and all the other crap I’ve accumulated here if that happened?”

I headed for the door with Miranda right on my tail. “Jason, wait! I’m not asking you to spy.”

“You’re not?” I turned back to her just before opening the door.

“No, just for you to talk to me. Let me know what others are saying, both Human and alien. If you can do that, then we can continue to see each other.”

I considered her lovely face for a long moment. She was indeed a world-class beauty – except on the world of Cryus, where she’d be considered hideous, something to scare children with at night. “So if I don’t do this we can’t see each other again? Was I your assignment, your mark?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Listen, sweetheart, I really don’t think you’re cut out for this line of work. Sure, you’ve got an incredible set of assets, but I think your closing technique needs work. In fact, by this time you should have me begging to spy for you. Maybe you need to go back to school; is the CIA farm still at Camp Peary? Is that where you got your degree in Galactic Affairs?”

I accented Galactic Affairs with finger quotes, which was probably what pushed Miranda over the edge, because she reared back and slapped me hard across the face. Now I don’t care how others in the movies may react to that happening to them, but in real life it hurt like hell!

“Just get out!” she yelled. “All I’m trying to do is help my people – our people – learn more about the alien threat.”

“What alien threat?”

“Exactly!”

“Let’s not start that again. I’m out of here. Have a nice life, Bond, Jane Bond.”

I thought that last line was rather clever. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see Miranda’s reaction to it due to the slamming door in my face.



Chapter 10


Two hundred ten thousand dollars.

I kept chanting the number over and over again in my head as I drove back to Zanzibar to meet with the Wilsons. That was the commission I’d earn if I could get their ten-point-five million-dollar offer accepted on the home in Sterling Bridge South. The property was worth it, maybe a little more, and the commission would be just enough for me to get the Noreen II. That’s all I should have thinking about at the time: how I can put the deal together. So I kept chanting: Two hundred ten thousand dollars.

It also helped to keep me from slamming my fist through the thin plastic of the windshield.

What a disaster last night had turned out to be. Now I felt dirty, not because of the sex, but because of how I’d been used. Did she really think I was so weak and horny that I’d do anything just to keep seeing her? Hell, I’m Jason King. I’m rich, successful, and according to many of my past girlfriends, not that bad on the eyes,. The fact that they were all past girlfriends did put a damper on my little pep talk; however being out here in fantasyland did complicate a lot of my relationships. So it wasn’t entirely my fault when things hadn’t worked out. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

As a matter of fact, since coming to Sylox, I hadn’t seriously considered a long-term relationship to be my future, at least not until I returned to Earth. I knew that would happen one day, but just not any time soon. And with the sands of this alien existence always shifting, I had to stay agile and free to act when opportunity knocked, both personally and professionally.

Like the Noreen II.

If had a wife or steady girlfriend, I’m sure she’d be completely against me spending so much money … on a toy. But it’s a damn starship! A private starship! How many guys do you know who have their own starship? This was a childhood fantasy come true.

I soon turned off the ribbon and drove up the wide, freshly-paved roadway that led to the huge terraced waterfall near the security gate, where the words Zanzibar Enclave were emblazoned in twenty-foot-tall, gold-embossed letters, strategically placed on a prominent island in the middle of the water feature. I laughed when I read the smaller words on the marquee, which proclaimed: A Human Deed-Restricted Community.

Humans! You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them. Yet in some cases, you could legally kill them. Boy, I missed those days….

**********

The site office for Toll Brothers Builders was located at the entrance to the Sterling Bridge subdivision, along a row of five perfectly staged model homes, and in the garage of one of their smaller models, the 2552 Cambridge.

The huge Danbury model, which the Wilson’s had selected, was not one of the model homes. It was their largest plan, and this particular home had been a semi-custom build. The previous buyer had been one of those Diplo-Corps people who couldn’t hack the whole alien world scene and split for Earth before closing on the home. However, before doing so, he had added a number of expensive upgrades, such as diagonally-laid 20-inch ceramic tile in all the public areas, a built-in wet bar in the forty-by-forty foot great room, a third zoned air conditioning unit, as well as the coup de grace – a forty-five-foot-long, twelve-foot deep, freeform pool complete with over a thousand square-feet of cream-colored cool-decking.

In fact, the entire backyard area was a masterpiece of flamboyant, over-the-top design, built exclusively for entertaining. Off the main home was a thirteen-foot deep, by forty-one foot long lanai, covered by the contiguous roofline of the home. The lanai featured built-in radiant heating in the flooring, along with six broad-bladed ceiling fans. There was also a built-in summer kitchen with tapped-in gas and a small refrigerator – everything an up-and-coming Undersecretary would need to impress the brass and humble the lower-ranking.

Along with six-thousand square-feet of living space, this magnificent home was also located only a half-mile from one of the Enclave’s nine high schools, as well as one of its fourteen combined elementary/middle schools.

That was another thing I loved about my job: the product often sold itself. As mentioned before, real estate is not an impulse buy; there’s just too much time from contract acceptance to closing for the wishy-washy to back out. A buyer had to truly want to buy the home or the deal was destined to disaster.

But homes like these were a piece of cake to sell. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a home like this?

As it turned out, that person was Mark Wilson.

**********

The entire family was waiting for me when I entered the converted garage that served as the site office. Nine-year-old Jonathan was playing with a toy house the agents had given him that served to show sold homes on the large plat map on the huge, circular table that took up the center of the foyer area. Sixteen-year-old Heather sat in a chair behind her stepfather, nose buried in her omnipresent smartphone.

Six-year-old Melissa ran up to me.

“Jason! Look, Jason’s here.” She took me by the hand. I looked down at her and grinned, wondering if she was going to ask me to spy for her, too? As far as I knew, it was something that ran in the family.

I greeted everyone, including the Toll Brother’s agent Bridget Rothschild. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Bridget was about to become my rebound affair. We’d hooked up a couple of times in the past, so now it was time to resurrect the relationship. As they say, the best thing to do was get right back on the horse – and the tall, slightly chunky blonde was about to be ridden with a vengeance.

As I sat down at the conference table, I noticed Jennifer Wilson’s furrowed brow.

“Are there any last minute questions or concerns before we get started?” I asked, sensing some tension in the room.

Mark Wilson took the property flyer that was lying on the table in front of him. “Honestly, Jason, I’m not comfortable with the price, or if we actually need such a large home. We’re only going to be here for three years, maybe five at the most. It just seems like a huge investment for such a short time.”

So there it is. It’s not like this was the first time I’d heard this objection. I looked over at Bridget, who carried an expression mirroring that of Jennifer Wilson. She knew that large homes like this one didn’t sell as well as the smaller ones – there just weren’t as many qualified buyers around for the more-expensive properties. And she’d already lost one buyer, even after putting in all the extras. She really needed to sell this property.

“I understand your concern, Mark, but you have to think about Sylox real estate trends and not those of Earth. Three to five years is plenty of time to build up some pretty impressive equity, mainly from appreciation.”

I knew that the husbands usually approached these things from the money side, while the wives tended to look more at the amenities.

“But over ten million dollars? I admit it’s an impressive home,” Mark looked over at his wife, who still carried the sour expression, “but do we really need six thousand square feet? And what about furniture? We didn’t bring anything with us – we couldn’t. It’ll take a small fortune to furnish a place like that, and then we’d just have to leave it all here when we rotate out.”

Poor Jennifer Wilson, she had been so adamant about not wanting to buy in the one of the Human Enclaves, but now she was sold. This home was to be her foundation, her rock, something to cling to and call her own on this scary, alien world. And besides, the kids loved it.

In reality, I wasn’t too concerned. Mark Wilson was just marking his territory, showing who was in command of the transaction. I looked over at Jennifer and sent her an understanding smile. Mark Wilson didn’t know it yet, but he was outnumbered and overmatched. And he was definitely mistaken as to who was in command here.

“Toll Brothers has an incredible furniture rental inventory available for just this situation, even for homes of this class,” I said, countering one of his points.

“That’s right,” Bridget said, stepping into the conversation. She slid a brochure over to Mark. “Since it’s not practical to ship household furniture all the way out here from Earth, most of our clients rent their furniture from us. And we also have an Executive’s Club for people like you, our top-of-the-line buyers in Sterling Bridge South.”

Good girl, Bridget, stroke his ego.

Now I continued: “And over the past five years, the Human Enclaves have experienced an average appreciation of twenty-four percent per year. And for the upper-end properties, that number is closer to thirty to thirty-five percent. And that’s per year.”

“So we could make money off the home?” Jennifer asked, grasping.

“At your price range, you could make a small fortune. In fact, I’ve seen others like you make as much from the appreciation alone to equal the total monthly payments for the time they own the home. That means you could effectively live in your home for free, when all is said and done.”

“And with the BAH, it’s even better than that,” Bridget added, as we tag-teamed poor Mr. Wilson.

I saw Mark raise his eyebrow. A crack was forming.

“That’s right,” I said quickly. “Even though your payment will be around fifty thousand per month, your BAH is forty-two. So your out-of-pocket will only be around eight thousand. That’s not a lot to live in a home like this.”

“And the schools are close, and with only Humans. The kids won’t have such a shock to deal with,” Jennifer pointed out.

“They’d still go to the same schools if we bought something cheaper,” Mark countered.

“Actually, Rand Paul is one of the best schools in all the Enclaves,” Bridget said. “And the teacher-to-pupil ratio is the lowest for all the high schools.”

“Mark,” I said, leaning in a closer to him, “sure you can buy a little cheaper home, but just look at it this way: the government’s paying for over eighty percent of your house payment. And with the appreciation we get around here, you’ll leave Sylox with a huge chunk of money, and after living in one of the biggest and best homes in the entire Enclave. And another thing, your home is more than just a place for you and your family. As an Undersecretary, you’re required to entertain dignitaries and corporate types, and this home was built to impress. Just look at it as an investment in your career.”

By now Mark Wilson was done and ready for the garnish. He looked around at all the anxious eyes around the table. “I guess in the long run, it could be a pretty good investment. Okay … let’s do this. Bring out the papers.”

“Thank God,” Heather Wilson said from behind her stepfather. “That was rather tedious.”

From the mouths of babes….

**********

Once the paperwork was complete – and Bridget and Mark were going over some of the furniture inventory Toll Brothers had available – Jennifer Wilson came up to me.

“Thanks, Jason. I really thought he was sold on the home before we got here. You know we’ve only been married about a year and we’re still getting to know each other’s mannerisms. This has been a big step for all of us.”

“No worries; it happens all the time.” I smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Besides, he really didn’t have a choice, now did he?”

She smiled back. “Not really, I suppose. And I also want to apologize to you. You were right about living here in the Enclaves. It just makes so much more sense then what I wanted to do.”

“Again, it happens all the time. It’s just that each person has to discover things at their own pace. Now … I expect to be invited to your housewarming barbeque!”

“Of course you’re invited. And by the way, how did things go last night with Miranda?” Even though she and her cousin had a natural female competiveness working, she was still curious how things were going.

I guess the sour expression that crossed my face was all too obvious.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jennifer said before I had a chance to answer.

“Hey the dinner was great; it was afterwards when everything went to shit.”

“Should I ask?”

“Let’s just say she’s a great girl, but I don’t think we have that much in common.” Like she’s a spy and I’m not.

I left it at that. I didn’t feel like spilling the beans on her two-faced cousin; it wasn’t my place to do so.

Jennifer gave me a sad, yet understanding look. “You know, she’s my dead stepfather’s sister’s kid. In fact, I didn’t even know I had a cousin until about four months before we left for Sylox. And during this time, I’ve found her to be rather immature and aloof in a way.”

Instantly, the cockles rose on the back of my neck. Let’s see: A newly-discovered relative, only four months before the family was heading for the capital of the galaxy … and who just happens to be a spy. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jennifer Wilson was also being played for a sucker, just like me. But at least I had been kissed before I got screwed.

Speaking of that, where did Bridget run off to?



Chapter 11


The Wilson closing took place only three weeks later, since the home was standing inventory and Mark’s GS ranking – plus his family’s wealth – made the loan a rubber-stamp affair. During all that time, I didn’t see Miranda again, either at the home inspection or for the closing itself.

Maybe she’d found another naïve sucker to do here bidding and had been granted an extension at the fancy apartment. I didn’t ask and Jennifer didn’t volunteer any information. However, I knew the whole apartment thing was probably just part of the operation, Operation King. Once that went bust, I didn’t really care what happened to her.

Life on Sylox would go on with or without Ms. Miranda Moore. At least mine would.

A few days after the closing, I did take delivery of the Noreen II, even after learning of the surtax I hadn’t been aware of. That added another forty-eight thousand dollars to the price tag, and required me to borrow the money from Quint, my business partner. He’d asked for an ownership interest in exchange for the loan, but I didn’t give it to him. Fortunately, Quint knew me well enough not to take it personally. He knew I liked to be in control – of everything – and even though I was now flat broke, he’d get his money back, and with interest.

My business was continuing to flourish, and I’d be solvent again after the next few closings, arranged through my agents. Hell, I could even go slumming and take out a lower-ranking GS worker just to put some quick cash in my pocket. After all, I’d just found out that the fuel modules for the N-Two were about twice as high off-planet as they were on Sylox, so any long-distance road trip was going to cost more than I’d anticipated.

So cash-flow was the issue now, yet it would only be a temporary setback.

And now I was the proud owner of an interstellar starship. I could go anywhere I wanted in the entire galaxy. Honestly, I didn’t know where I’d go even if I had the time; however, just knowing that I could play Hans Solo anytime I wanted was a real head rush.

If I could afford the gas.

**********

It was a week after the Wilson closing when I spotted Jennifer approaching the dugout at the South Hampton softball field. We’d just finished the game – a win by the way – against the Hampton Hammers, so I was feeling pretty good about myself. I figured she was there to invite me to her housewarming party, even though it hadn’t been necessary for her to come all the way out here for the invite. I wasn’t even sure if I’d go, since I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Miranda again.

Jennifer stopped at the edge of the foul ball screen after I acknowledged her presence, yet even from the dugout I could see the worry on her face.

I grabbed my equipment bag and walked over to her.

“Hey Jennifer, is everything all right?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “You haven’t heard from Miranda, have you?”

The question took me by surprise. “’Fraid not; in fact not since the time we went out. What’s up?”

“It’s just that we haven’t seen or heard from her since the day before the closing.” She looked a little embarrassed. “She said she wouldn’t come … because of you.”

That was no surprise. In fact I would have been shocked if she’d been there. “So she hasn’t moved in yet? I understand all your furniture arrived a few days ago.”

“No, she hasn’t. In fact she hasn’t been to the new house since that first day there with you.”

“Did you call her office?”

“I sure did, but they said they couldn’t confirm or deny if she was at work. They wouldn’t even acknowledge if she actually worked there or not.”

“She said she’d been assigned to Intel; you know they’re like that over there. Do you want me to make a few calls? I know the Head-of-Station personally; I sold him his house.”

“Would you? I know you and Miranda had some sort of falling out, but now I’m worried.”

“What about Mark, has he tried to track her down?”

“Believe it or not, he got the same run around. It seems no one trusts anyone over there. It’s just like back home.”

“Could she have met someone? Don’t take this wrong, but a girl like her would have a really full dance card over at the Embassy.”

I could tell by her hesitation that I’d touched a nerve. “She did mention someone, but I didn’t want to say anything to you.”

“There you have it! She’s probably just out seeing the sights with her new beau. Frankly, there are a lot of powerful – and very rich – guys who work over there. Some of them even own their own starships.” I didn’t tell Jennifer about my N-Two; that would have been too pretentious. “She’s just out on a tour of the local systems.”

“Even so, can you call your friend and see if she’s all right?”

“Of course, I’ll do it as soon as I get home and take a shower. By the way, we won the game.”

Jennifer Wilson had already turned away, but then she glanced back over her shoulder at me. “That’s nice.” Her response was purely reactionary. She was really worried about Miranda.

I – on the other hand – wasn’t. I knew that in her line of work it was common to disappear on assignment for days and even weeks at a time. I’d done it myself. But of course, I didn’t have an unsuspecting family at home worried about me. It was, however, pretty rude of her to not come up with some kind of cover story as to why she’d be gone.

And then I wondered why Mark had been shut out, too. After all, he was an Undersecretary, and therefore pretty far up the food chain at the Embassy. I had assumed at first that Miranda was some rookie spook, on her first assignment and anxious to make her mark. Maybe she was more?

Honestly, I didn’t really care. Not my circus, not my monkeys. When all was said and done, Miranda Moore had been nothing more than a temporary blip on my screen. I’d make a few cursory inquires, and then drop it.

Unfortunately, Miranda had to learn that we all have to sleep in the bed we make. She was on her own now, and I wasn’t about to let this little episode ruin the joy I was feeling at the time, what with the team winning our last six games – even with Bill and N’xo catching.

In fact, I was a genius, Coach-of-the-Year, MVP of the league. Yep, I was something to behold!

And did I also mention that I now own a starship?



Chapter 12


It was after hours on what was a Saturday on Sylox, so I reached the CIA Head-of-Station at his home number. I could tell you his name, but then I’d have to kill you.

Not really: It’s Cyrus Blake, and his house is located three blocks over from mine. Of course, I would never just walk up to the front door of the head Human spook on Sylox unannounced. I’d probably get my head blown off if I did.

Even then, as he answered the phone, I knew we were on an unsecure line, and so there probably wouldn’t be a lot he could tell me, especially on an audio-only call.

“Hey, Cyrus, it’s Jason King.”

“Jason, you old pirate! Didn’t you make enough off me already? Sorry, but you took all I have; I don’t have any more to give.”

“Then you’re dead to me. I’m only friends with people who can make me money.”

“That would be funny … if it weren’t true. So what’s up, buddy? How’s the team doing?”

“The Highland Hitters are kickin’ ass and takin’ names. We just won our sixth in a row.”

“That puts us in first, doesn’t it?”

“That’s right, and with only two games left in the season. However, Sunset Ridge is breathing down our necks. It’s going to be tough to win outright without a playoff. Do you think you can play next season?”

“It’s a possibility, at least to be on the roster. You know how crazy my schedule can get.”

“Speaking of that, I wonder if you can help me? Do you know Mark Wilson?”

“I’ve met him a couple of times; new Undersecretary of Agricultural Development, or something obscure like that.”

“Uh-huh. I sold him his new home over in Sterling Bridge South—”

“Ooh, highbrow neighborhood, must have made you a bundle. By the way, how do you like your new Noreen II?”

It figured that the CIA station chief would know when a Human bought a starship. “It’s a flying hard-on, Cyrus, believe you me. We’re going to have to take her out, when you can find the time.”

“You’re on; so what about Wilson?”

“It’s actually about his cousin, Miranda Moore. She hasn’t come home for a week and her family’s getting worried. I understand she’s gone to work for you guys.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “I don’t recall a Miranda Moore in the department. Are you sure she’s with us?”

I smiled. Once a spy, always a spy. “I get it, Cyrus, just if you see her, can you tell her to call home?”

“Jason, I don’t know a Miranda Moore. I’m pretty sure I’d remember a name like that if it came across my desk.”

“Really? What about one of the other agencies?”

“I know them all, and I’ve still never heard of her.”

“I know you would tell me if you had, Cyrus, but then you’d have to kill me.” I never tire of that line from Top Gun.

“I don’t see any harm in disclosing when someone doesn’t work for us. It’s only when they do that we have to be careful.”

“No shit?”

“No shit, Jason. I think you’ve been fed a line of bull, my friend – and her family, too. But now you say she’s missing?”

“That’s right.”

“Maybe she never existed in the first place.” I could hear the humor in Cyrus’s voice. “Maybe she’s just a figment of your imagination.”

“More like a wet dream, if you ever met her.”

“You dog, you. No wonder you’re trying to find her.”

“I’m not doing this for myself; the woman’s basically a pyscho. I’m doing this for my clients. They’re worried.”

“Of course; I’m sorry. And any time a Human goes missing around here it’s serious. After all, we don’t want them to end up as an appetizer at some alien’s banquet, if you know what I mean? Send what you have on her over to my office on Monday and I’ll have someone look into it.”

“I’d appreciate that, Cyrus. Nothing like having a big-shot like you following up on a missing person’s report.” I didn’t want to mention his job over the phone, even though I was pretty sure everyone who cared on Sylox already knew.

“Hell, I’m not going to do it myself! I have underlings for that kind of thing.”

We shared a hardy laugh and a little more small talk before getting off the line.

**********

Now, as I stared out at the darkening sky through the large array of rake windows in my great room – as dark as night got this close to the center of the galaxy – I was in quandary as to what to tell Jennifer. I had no doubt Cyrus had told me the truth: Miranda Moore didn’t work for him, or any of the other covert agencies operating on Sylox, at least not the Human agencies. Yet there was no denying that the palatial apartment she’d used to try to recruit me was not a figment of my imagination. Somehow she had managed to arrange its use, and that took connections way up the ladder at the Embassy.

Also, the fact that she had said she worked for the Americans only added to the mystery. But that did leave a few other options.

The Human diplomatic mission to the Galactic Union was larger than any other, simply from the fact that the Earth still consisted of hundreds of separate countries, with each wanting their own representation, their own ambassador, and their own mission on Sylox. Fortunately, the Council wouldn’t allow that, otherwise the Embassy Compound would take up half the city. Instead they allowed coalitions.

The larger countries, like the US, China, Russia and India maintained their own delegations; however others, such as the European Union, the Pacific Coalition and Africa combined their missions.

It was from all these disparate interests and affiliations, that a small council of five was elected, who then selected the Ambassador-at-Large. The A-at-L had authority over the entire mission and all diplomatic affairs, after consultation with the other delegates, of course. The system seemed to work; it had too. The Union wasn’t about to let a hundred or more Human ambassadors attend each diplomatic meeting. After all, who did we think we are?

By the way, it was also a curious fact that the A-at-L always seemed to come from one of the big four countries. I guess power begat power; nothing unusual about that.

The bottom line was that the primitive, upstart Humans maintained the largest diplomatic presence on the entire planet, something that upset quite a few other, more senior Union members.

Was it possible Miranda worked for one of these other factions? I doubted it. Cyrus was the unofficial head of all Human intelligence on the planet. If he said she didn’t work for him, or anyone else in the community, it was a pretty good bet she didn’t.

So that left alien … or corporate.

That could be it.

Corporate Earth had only one interest, and that was to their individual firms, and since First Contact, big business had grown to astronomical proportions. The aliens had been extremely forthcoming with their technology and innovations, and the business community had scooped up everything they could get their hands on. Now factories spit out advanced medicines and energy modules, as well as a myriad of other useful gadgets covering every category imaginable.

Overnight, the world’s dependency on fossil fuels disappeared because of the aliens, replaced with compact fusion devices, as well as the gravity-nullifiers that all cars and trucks now ran on – the quintessential anti-gravity hovercraft of the pulp science fiction novels.

Even though some economies collapsed, they were quickly replaced with other, more profitable endeavors. The rich got richer; however, in the process, everyone else prospered, too. Business soared, and with it the demand for labor. The ranks of the unemployment dropped to near zero, now only inhabited by those who simply didn’t want to work. For those who did, their salaries were sky-high, and provided a standard of living across the entire planet beyond anything ever imagined.

But all this prosperity also brought about a rabid competiveness among the major corporations, and their business interests were no longer confined to just the planet Earth. Everyday new markets were being opened on any number of alien worlds, and that meant big money – really big money.

And all roads led to Sylox, where the licenses were issued and the permits granted.

So it was quite feasible that the vivacious Miranda Moore worked for one of these corporate giants. And if she did, then what the hell did they want with me?



Chapter 13


I wrote up a brief containing the little I knew about Miranda Moore and took it over to Cyrus’s office at the U.S. Consulate on Monday morning. Afterwards, I drove over to the apartment building on Executive Row, just on the off chance that she might still there.

The building had security, yet at this time of day, the front door was open. I went in and took the elevator to the sixth floor.

The hallway was quiet and deserted as I left the elevator. I walked up to the first door on the left and knocked.

A few moments later the door swung open.

“What the hell do you want?”

I recognized the person instantly. It was Franklin Smart, star of TV and the silver screen. He looked annoyed.

“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Smart, but I was wondering if Miranda’s here?”

The chiseled, tanned face of the movie star frowned. “Miranda, ain’t no Miranda here, buddy. And I didn’t know just anyone could come up here?”

“I’m with the Mission. I was here about three weeks ago with a woman named Miranda Moore. Do you know anything about that?”

“Dude, I’ve been here for the last couple of months, ever since we’ve been filming down along the river. No one’s been here that I didn’t personally invite, and no one named Miranda. There was a Tiffany … and a Diane, but no Miranda. And there was also a Monica, and I think two Heathers, but still no Miranda. You say you were here, in this apartment?”

“Yeah, I was.” I drew out the sentence as I let my exasperation become vocal. “On the fourteenth of last month to be precise.”

Smart frowned again and cast his eyes upwards and to the left. “The fourteenth, I think we were in the mountains around that time, shooting a big fight scene.” And then he frowned. “So you and your girlfriend crashed my crib when I was gone?”

“Sorry, man, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I just went along for the ride, if you know what I mean.”

This evoked a wicked smile from the sex-crazed actor. “So I guess it’s a good thing that I get the sheets changed every day. Now if there’s nothin’ else, why don’t you get the hell outta here?”

I smiled at the movie star, even though I preferred to plant my right palm straight into the larynx of this obnoxious rube. But I controlled myself, deciding to save whatever anger I had building for the next time I saw the conniving Miranda Moore.

As I entered the elevator, I decided it was about time I came clean with Jennifer Wilson. I didn’t give a damn if it blew Miranda’s cover or not. After all, she probably wasn’t even Jennifer’s real cousin. And if she did work for one of the conglomerates, then outing her wasn’t really that serious of a thing.

I was actually excited about telling Jennifer all I knew, along with my suspicions. Unfortunately, I never got the chance.

All I remember when the elevator door slid open was the brilliant flash of light and the excruciating pain in my chest. After that I welcomed the darkness that followed….

**********

When I came to I was strapped to a cot in a dimly-lit room with dirty concrete walls. The scene was almost too cliché as to be laughable – if it didn’t involve me tied to a cot in a dimly-lit room with dirty concrete walls.

The pain in my chest was from a Level-2 flash bolt. It hadn’t meant to kill – at least not a Human – only to stun. But whatever its stated purpose, it still hurt like hell.

So Miranda’s people didn’t like me snooping around, up to and including the point where they’d resort to kidnapping to make their point. Kidnapping – or Unlawful Detainment as it was called here – was a serious crime on Sylox, as it was on Earth, so this made me think these people were a little more serious than I’d first thought.

Now, as I looked around the room, I wasn’t really scared. I’d been trained to handle things a lot worse than this. Besides, I didn’t know anything. Miranda was a mystery to me, and if her people wanted me to back off trying to find her, well, you didn’t have to ask me twice. I wasn’t anxious to find her in the first place.

I was alone in the room and growing more impatient by the second. I had things to do today, including a closing at three. I just wished whoever abducted me would come in and get this over with.

“Hey, I’m awake!” I yelled out. “And I’m ready to answer your questions! Can anyone hear me?”

Silence was my answer.

Even though I was strapped to the cot, I was still able to see the dial on my watch. It was Mid-0:32, or twelve thirty-two. I was sure I would need a change of clothes and to put some ointment on the flash burn before the closing, so I figured I had to be out of here by one, one-fifteen at the latest.

I called out again. “Hey, dickwad, I don’t have all day! Let’s get this interrogation going. I can’t wait to spill my guts, tell ya everything I know, and then some!”

Finally the door to the cold room opened and two men entered, who were clichés themselves. Both had dark complexions, with coarse black beards. They wore functional khaki-colored pants and short-sleeve shirts, and each carried a compact MK-24 flash-repeater weapon.

“Why don’t you shut up, big-mouth.” The taller and fatter of the pair said.

“But if I shut up, how can you get any information out me? I’m ready to talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

My two captors exchanged confused looks.

“We don’t want to know anything, at least not yet,” said the second kidnapper.

“If not now, then when?” I asked, truly concerned. “C’mon, ask me anything. I’m an open book.”

My two guards looked at each other again.

“I have nothing to hide, so you’re just delaying the enviable. The sooner you get to the questioning, the sooner we can all go home, both kidnappers and kidnappee.”

Just then another being entered the room. This one was an alien. I’d seen his kind before on the streets, but I didn’t know the name of the species. He was a typical Prime, almost to the point of being a Human clone. But the hard-looking plates growing along each side of his face, along with the excessive amount of gray-colored hair on his head and arms, definitely classified this thing as an alien, and an old one at that. I watched as the two Human thugs deferred to his leadership.

“Lift him up.”

The Human lackeys untied my restraints, allowing me to sit up on the cot. My hands were still bound at the wrist in front of me but my legs were free. Obviously, these wannabes thugs hadn’t read the gangster manual on how to secure a potentially dangerous captive. I gauged the distance and relative positions of the each of my kidnappers, just in case I ran into a time crunch for my closing.

“You have been searching for a Human called Miranda Moore,” the alien stated.

“That’s right, but not anymore. I can tell that you guys mean business, so from this moment on, I’m done. No more looking for Miranda.”

“You do not know where she is?”

I pulled my head back a little. “If I knew where she was, I wouldn’t be looking for her, right?” I looked at the two Humans. They just shrugged.

“Have you acquired any information on where she might be located?”

“You’re looking for her, too? Why?”

“It is because she has taken the—”

One of the other Humans reached out his hand and grasped the arm of the alien. The fat thug shook his head at old plate-head. The alien turned back to me. “That is of no concern to you. Just tell us all you know and you will not be harmed.”

“Well, this is going to be a short conversation, because I don’t know nothin’.” I knew this was a double negative, but it did sound like something out of an old gangster movie. “She was here a couple of weeks ago, and now she isn’t. She said she was a spy, but all my sources say she doesn’t work for any of the agencies. So beyond that, I don’t know shit.”

Just then, a wild idea began to percolate in my mind. “However, if you guys know anything about me, then you know I’m a businessman. Offer me enough money and I’ll do just about anything – without you having to go through all this gangster-shit. Having said that, what would it be worth to you if I found her?”

“Worth?”

The leader-thug leaned over a little closer to his boss. “He wants to know how much you’ll pay him to find her for us.”

The alien’s face lit up and he nodded emphatically. “I see! Well, we would be in a position to pay … forty thousand credits to bring her to us.”

I’m sorry, but I just had to laugh; even the thugs looked embarrassed. “That’s barely sixteen thousand in Human money,” I pointed out. “Haven’t you guys done your homework? I’m Jason King; I don’t do shit for sixteen thousand dollars.”

“How much would you require?”

“Well, let’s see: Miranda’s taken off with something that you want to get back pretty badly, enough that you would resort to unlawful detainment – which is a capital offense here on Sylox by the way.” I said that for the benefit of the thugs. “I’d say a million would be fair. A million dollars.”

I swear the alien gangster nearly fainted. “We cannot pay you that! That is nearly two-and-one-half million Union credits. No, your fee is exorbitant.”

“Well, I’m willing to negotiate, but you should be aware that I have contacts all over Sylox, even within the Council itself. If anyone can find this bitc – this Human – it would be me.”

The alien looked to the two thugs. They nodded.

“I will have to consult.”

The alien boss walked to the other end of the room and placed a communicator to his ear. After a couple of minutes, he returned.

“The most we could offer you would be two hundred fifty thousand credits – I mean dollars.”

A quarter mil … not bad. I pursed my lips and nodded. “That sounds fair. Now how about you guys cut me loose?”

My wrists were bound in a thick tape of some kind. The smaller Human thug stepped forward, produced a black-bladed Ka-Bar Becker combat knife – which told me a little more about who these guys were – and sliced my bindings away. Much of the hair on my wrists came with the tape when I ripped it from my skin.

“Now tell me what she took.”

Finally the lead thug took over the conversation, having lost patience with his alien boss. “You don’t need to know that, King. Just find the girl and get her back to us.”

“What do you know about where she might be?”

“If we knew we wouldn’t be talking to you. But there’s possibility she’s gone off to a place called Hyben. There’s a group there who would find what she has to be valuable.”

“How valuable?” I said with a wide grin.

The thug shook his head and frowned.

“Is Hyben a city or a planet?”

“It’s a planet, and in the city of Lioren-Cur, if she’s there. You can take your fancy new spaceship over there in nothing flat,” the thug said, his voice thick with sarcasm – and jealousy.

So they had done their homework.

“And how will I contact you when I get her?”

“Don’t worry about that; we’ll contact you. And one last thing – the object she has with her comes back, too, and in one piece, or you don’t get a dime. Is that understood?”

“But you won’t tell me what she has?”

“That’s right, but you’ll know it when you see it.”

“So why not just tell me?

“You’ll figure it out, smartass. Now get the hell out of here.”

With our business concluded, we began to move toward the door, but just before getting there I turned to the Human thugs. “Oh, by the way, which one of you shot me?”

Before either had a chance to think, the smaller thug half-raised his hand. I then proceeded to plant a heavy right cross on his jaw, sending him crumbling to the floor, out cold.

The other thug raised his MK-24; I ignored him, and instead addressed the unconscious thug on the floor. “There, now we’re even, asshole.”



Chapter 14


It turned out that I been in a warehouse in a rundown section of Sylox City on the other side of Lomick River from the Embassy Compound, and with time running short, I took a very expensive taxi to my office. I would come back to the Embassy for my car after the closing. But now I only had forty-five minutes to freshen up and get over to the title company for the closing.

As I washed my face and slipped on a shirt I’d literally taken off Quint’s back, I filled him in on all that had happened that morning. Quint had served with me in the Rangers, and had been the person who introduced me to the wonderful world of real estate sales.

“You’re going to do it? Why don’t you just go to the Embassy police or your friend the spy?”

“Now I’m just as curious to find her as they are. She’s turned into quite the mystery girl. And you know how I could use the money right about now.”

“They may kill her when you bring her back.”

“I’ll be careful about that. Just let them pay me the quarter-mill and then I’ll get her someplace safe – like a jail cell.”

“Just be careful, Jason. You know I’d have to change the ownership papers for Galactic Realty and Relocation Service if anything happened to you.”

“Is that all I am to you, just a name on a piece of paper? Wouldn’t you miss me if I was gone?” I said with a grin.

Quint shrugged. “So the plot thickens,” he said.

“Guess it had to. You can’t bore the readers for too long without throwing in some action here and there.”

“You never take things seriously, do you? You were shot this morning and they could have just as easily killed you than not.”

“Yeah, but now I know something’s afoot, so I’ll be more careful from here on out.”

“Afoot?”

“Didn’t it sound sophisticated and mysterious enough for you?”

Quint shook his head. “Get the hell out of here, you jerk, before I shoot you myself. You have a closing to get to, before heading off across the stars looking for some hot babe with a stolen something-or-another.”

I may be the smart and devilishly-handsome of the pair, but Quint was the quiet, dangerous one. I knew that at any given moment he carried a minimum of three weapons on his body, including a knife, and two guns. I hurried out of the office before he could make good on his threat.

Seriously, I wished I could take him with me, but someone had to stay here and hold down the fort. Besides, how hard could it be to track down one incredibly good-looking Human woman on a planet full of aliens?

Really … how hard?

Looking back on it now, I know I should have asked the alien gangster for an advance.

**********

Transferring title on Sylox was similar to the process back on Earth, and several Human companies had set up shop on the planet to assist with closings and the selling of title insurance.

In fact, the process of buying, selling and financing real estate within the Enclaves was pretty much a clone of Earth-based procedures. The large developers had done all the heavy lifting, acquiring the land from alien owners and then dealing with all the title issues and currency conversions to make it possible. Once that was done, the developers then resold the land to their clients using traditional methods. It actually made a lot of sense and worked like a charm.

Yet there were always personalities to deal with, and my agent, Trish Dawson, had a real mess on her hands with her customers, Julio and Fatima Gonzales. They had been fighting constantly since the contract had been signed, and if the trend continued, it would be miracle if the deal actually closed.

Julio was with the security detail at the Embassy, so not in the category of client that normally would have attracted my attention. Yet Trish was fairly new to my office, so I felt a little display of the master-at-work would go a long way to gaining her trust and confidence in my leadership of the company. Besides, I liked her. She was trying her best, and I believed that with the proper training she had the potential to become a heavy-hitter.

As it is with most people, all the Gonzales’s needed was just a little affirmation that what they were doing was the right decision. So during the closing I was understanding and supportive – yet also firm. Homeownership – whether on Earth or on Sylox – was a great investment and served to stabilize most families. It established roots in the community and conveyed a sense of maturity in young couples.

And it sure beat the thin-walled, dilapidated apartment they were renting within the alien ’hood outside the Embassy Compound.

It was a good move for the couple, and after spending an hour longer than these closings normally took, Julio and Fatima left the office smiling and holding hands, excited about starting this new phase in their life together.

Now I could see the admiration in Trish’s eyes, something bordering on celebrity worship. I liked that coming from my employees, so when we got back to the office, I cut her commission check immediately and handed it to her.

“Thanks, Jason,” she said sincerely. “This is number three, and with many more to come.”

“That’s right. Just keep up the good work, Trish. I honestly believe you have what it takes to make it in this business.”

“If you just stay patient with me; I still have a lot to learn.”

Just then Quint poked his head in my office, a look of concern on his face. “You have company, Jason.”

Trish smiled at him and then quickly made her exist from the office. Quint stepped inside. “It’s the police.”

“No shit? Wonder what they want?” Considering the day I was having, I knew this wasn’t just a couple of guys looking for donations to the annual Guns and Hoses charity event.

“There’s six of them,” Quint added, “and they look serious.”

I got up from my desk and walked out to the lobby. The lead officer was a native Zorphin, yet there were also two Velosians with him, as well.

“Are you Jason King?”

“I am. What’s this—”

“I am Senior Enforcer Krimious Lim-Volic Sin, and I have to inform you that you are being placed in custody for transport to Central Command. There you will be questioned concerned a recent crime. Do not resist, we are authorized to use restraining force to initiate compliance.”

“I’m not going to resist, I just want to know what this is all about?”

The lead police officer looked at a worried-looking Quint and then at all the other stunned faces in the office. “Information will be provided at Central, but this is a matter of the utmost seriousness. Please allow us now to apply the restraints.”

“I said I won’t resist.”

“It is a requirement. Turn around.”

I complied, and the two Velosians moved in quickly and applied metal handcuffs to my wrists, jostling me a little too roughly for my liking.

“Easy fellas; I do break, you know.”

“Quiet!” said one of the Velosians as he stuck his thin, pink face up to mine. “You are fortunate that the local authorities have interceded in this affair. We would not have been so polite, not after what you have done.”

“What the hell’s your problem? I haven’t done anything.”

“I have studied Humans to some degree, and I believe there is a term that applies here: Bullshit.”

I turned to Quint. “Call Kevin at the Embassy and have him meet me at Central.” Kevin Anderson was the lead attorney for the American contingent at the Mission, who also did freelance work for a few of the expats, me included. I’d only used him for contract law up to this point, since I hadn’t needed a criminal attorney – until now. I wasn’t even sure if he could help, except to refer me to someone who could.

I was manhandled out of the office, in plain view of my employees, who by now had all gathered in the lobby area as my arrest took place. This was one hell of an embarrassment, and I knew who was directly responsible for it: Miranda Moore.



Chapter 15


I tried in vain to get the alien police to explain what was going on during the thirty minute drive to Enforcer Central Command. The natives remained stoic, while the Velosians continued to regard me with unabashed contempt.

This had to have something to do with Miranda Moore; I felt it in my bones, although I had no idea what it could be. From the events of this morning, I knew she had taken something of value – something valuable enough to command a quarter-million dollar fee to recover. Of course, all that had flown out the window when the cops came a-calling. Right now, all I wanted to do was clear up whatever misunderstanding had occurred. Even then, I would have a lot of explaining to do back at my office, and if word of my arrest got out to the expat community, it could also affect my business overall.

Galactic Realty took priority over whatever pie-in-the-sky bounty I could get from the alien thug.

As we arrived at the massive, pyramid-shaped building near the Capitol Complex for the Galactic Union, I began to worry. There were easily half-a-dozen field stations between my office and here, and the fact that I was being brought to police headquarters for the entire planet meant that I could be in some serious shit.

Since the Human Embassy was located only four miles from the Capitol Complex, I was relieved to see Kevin Anderson was already at Receiving when I was brought in. After a brief – yet heated – exchange between the lead officer and the Velosians, Kevin and I were allowed a brief moment together in private, if only off to one quiet corner of the processing center.

“Tell me you’re not involved in this,” Kevin blurted out.

“Involved in what? They haven’t told me anything.”

Kevin looked startled. “You don’t know about the Unity Stone?”

“I know what it is; what about it?” My heart began to pound even harder as I recalled the conversation Miranda and I had about the statue at the Hillcrest property. This was too much of a coincidence not to mean something.

“It’s been stolen,” Kevin said, “and it’s causing quite a shitstorm across the entire planet, hell, across the whole galaxy. You didn’t know it was stolen?”

I felt deflated. So there it was. This did have something to do with Miranda, and now I was involved; however, in what way I was afraid to ask. I did anyway.

“They think I’m involved?”

“That’s what they’re saying. Are you?”

“Hell, no,” I answered, without emotion. “But I do have a pretty good idea who is.”

“Who?”

I didn’t get a chance to answer. Instead, the Velosians took me by the arm and hustled me down a hallway and into a bare-bones interrogation room. After a couple of minutes, Kevin entered, along with the Zorphin Krimious and the most-vocal of the two Velosians.

“Sit down,” Krimious commanded.

Both Kevin and I obeyed.

“If this has anything to do with the Unity Stone, I can tell you who’s probably behind the theft,” I offered right off the bat. I saw little benefit in not being forthcoming.

Krimious raised an eyebrow, which crinkled the green knobs on his forehead.

“So you do admit complicity in the crime?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Let him speak first, Jason,” Kevin said to me, placing a hand on my forearm.

“Thank you, Advocate.” Krimious referred to a datapad he carried. “Here are the facts as we know them: The Unity Stone was stolen approximately nine hours ago from a secure vault at the official offices of Morgus Orn, the Velosian representative to the Union Council. The thief – or thieves – gained access to the vault using a code that we believe was acquired from a computer located at the Council Member’s residence. According to data taken from the entry lockbox located at the property, you, Jason King, accessed the home twice over the past four weeks, including the most recent visit only two days ago.”

“I didn’t go there two days ago. I’ve only been there once—”

“Are you not the agent assisting the Council Member with the sale of his property?” asked the Velosian.

“That’s right, but the last time I was there was four weeks ago, for a showing to the Wilson family.”

“And yet the data is incontrovertible that your code was used to access the lockbox two days ago,” said Krimious.

“That wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.”

“Then who did?”

“I’m pretty sure it was a Human female named Miranda Moore. She is supposedly a relative of the wife of Undersecretary Mark Wilson and she was present when I first showed the property. During the showing she saw a photo of Council Member Orn with the Unity Stone and asked about it.”

“How does that implicate the female in the theft?”

“I believe she stole my lockbox code.”

“Those codes are to be protected at all times from theft, and are the personal responsibility of the agent for which they have been assigned. If the code was stolen, then you have committed a major dereliction of your professional responsibilities. What proof do you have that the code was stolen?”

“For starters: The fact that I didn’t go into the home two days ago. I was playing in a softball tournament on that day.”

“What is softball?”

“It’s a sport … just look at the timestamp on the lockbox. You should be able to tell when the code was accessed.”

The alien referred to his datapad again. “Mid-14:32.”

“See, that was right in the middle of the day. Zorphin Transit Minister Billork Kly Gon-Mok is a team member, and he can verify that I was at the game when the code was used.”

“That is all very convenient,” the Velosian stated. “But it does not prove that you did not have an accomplice in the theft – this female Miranda Moore.”

“Mon Crick is correct,” said Krimious. “Your code was still used to gain access to the property, and you could have given it to someone else, while using the sports activity as a covering event.”

“But I didn’t. The key is biometric; was there genetic evidence, as well? Usually, all it takes is a simple finger swab to access a lockbox like the one on the Council Member’s home,” I said. “And since I still have all my fingers, what kind of sample was given two days ago? That’s in the database, too.”

Krimious frowned when he looked at the datapad again. He said nothing.

“Please, Enforcer Sin, what was the source?” Kevin asked, much more politely than I would have at the time.

“It states here that it was a reproductive fluid.”

“No shit?” I said. “You mean sperm?”

“Evidently.”

Kevin looked over at me, frowning.

I just shrugged. This was no time to be coy. “This Miranda Moore and I engaged in sexual activity over four weeks ago. She obviously got my lockbox code – and the other thing – at that time, and then used them later to enter the home.”

“That is supposition on your part,” the Velosian said.

The Zorphin Enforcer Krimious Sin was still looking intently at his datapad. Finally he looked up at me. “Do you know the present location of this female?”

“No, I don’t. She wasn’t at the closing on the Wilson’s home, and her cousin—”

“What is a cousin?”

“It is a relative; she’s supposedly the daughter of Jennifer Wilson’s stepfather’s sister.” I saw the eyes of both aliens gloss over. “Never mind that, but she told me that she was a spy for the Humans, yet none of my contacts at the Embassy can confirm that. I believe now that she came to Sylox just to steal the Unity Stone.”

Both aliens sat up straighter in their chairs. “She is a Human spy?” the Velosian asked.

“I told you none of the people at the Embassy can confirm that.”

“Again, Mon King, that does not prove she isn’t one,” said Krimious, his voice now thick with concern.

I looked at Kevin. He also looked more worried than normal.

“What’s going on? Why do all you guys look like you just swallowed a bug?” And then I wondered what the aliens ate as a staple. Bugs, maybe?

“It’s because the theft is causing a major crisis within the Union,” Kevin explained. “I’m really surprised you haven’t heard any of the news broadcasts.”

“I’ve been in a closing today, or getting ready for one. I haven’t had the news on.” I didn’t feel it was the right time to tell them about my brief kidnapping a few hours before.

Kevin was still talking. “The Unity Stone is a symbol of non-aggression between the Velosians and the Simoreans. Now that it’s missing, the two parties are about to go at it again.”

“But it was stolen.”

“That doesn’t matter. They’re really serious about this thing, and now that there may be a Human component involved, this could blow things all out of proportion, especially if this Miranda Moore woman does turn out to be a spy acting on behalf of the Human government.”

“But she’s not. I think she’s just a common thief, more interested in a twenty-nine thousand carat diamond than any political motivations.”

“That may be so,” Kevin said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a major political crisis on our hands, and now we have Humans right in the middle of it. Even if she isn’t a spy, she’s still one of us, and she took something that could potentially spark a galactic war.”

“And if the Humans are more actively involved than just through the actions of a rogue individual, then there will be a major price to be paid,” the angry Velosian added. He seemed to have already made up his mind that this was a conspiracy of some kind and with the Humans right in the thick of things.

I debated whether to tell Krimious that Miranda might be on Hyben, probably having gone there to fence the gigantic diamond. I hadn’t had a chance to research how the aliens on Hyben considered diamonds, yet I did know that trying to hock something as valuable and well-known as the Unity Stone would be virtually impossible….

However, a batch of smaller ones could be sold off, and without raising suspicions. Something that size could be cut down into a massive fortune in smaller ones.

Now I could see why others were willing to pay a quarter-mil to get it back. Looking at it now, the fee I’d negotiated with the thugs was way below-market for something like this.

“Are you now convinced that Mr. King didn’t have anything to do with the theft?” Kevin was saying.

“No!” cried the Velosian.

“Yes,” said Krimious. He looked at the pale-skinned Velosian and frowned. “Mon Crick, I understand this a sensitive issue for you and your people, but I believe our efforts would be better spent trying to locate this Human female.”

“King is not innocent. His code was used—”

“No rational being would use sperm as a biometric code marker, Mon Crick,” Krimious interrupted.

“It was a way for his accomplice to acquire the required genetic material—”

“There are far easier – and less messy – means of doing that, if Mr. King had been a willing participant in the crime.”

“Yet he admits he was a willing participant—”

“In the sexual activity, yet not the crime.” Krimious now turned to me. I have to admit, I was feeling more than a little embarrassed right about then.

“Jason King, you must understand that this is such a volatile issue, and that we as Enforcers are under tremendous pressure to solve the crime before events spiral out of control. Unfortunately, news of your confinement may have already filtered beyond official channels, so my releasing you without charges could cause serious repurcussions. However, I am convinced – that although you have had intimate contact with the likely perpetrator – you are simply a victim and not an accomplice—”

“How can you reach such a conclusion, Krimious?” The Velosian was apoplectic.

“Please, Mon Crick, I understand the release of Mr. King will not be popular with the Velosians, but I have no choice.” Krimious looked at me with desperate, alien eyes. “Mr. King, is there a possibility you could help us locate this Human female? You apparently know her on a personal level, and she does belong to your species.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I said. My mind was racing, trying to think of a way I could negotiate some kind of finder’s fee from the Enforcers, too. After a second, I dismissed the idea. I didn’t want to press my luck. Instead, I said: “I know it’s in all our best interests for her to be found, and as soon as possible, so do I have your permission to follow up on whatever leads I come across?”

“And why would you not simply reveal these leads to us as they appear?”

“Like you said, she is one of us. Also, my fellow Humans will trust me more than they’d trust you.”

“You cannot possibly be entertaining the idea of officially enlisting the assistance of this Human, Krimious?”

“Mon King is a prominent figure on Sylox, as evidenced by his association with your Council Member, Mon Crick. I will release him, yet I will allow him only eight days to locate the female and recover the statue.”

Krimious then turned back to me, his face stern. “After that time, I believe it will be necessary to offer you as a placeholder for this Miranda Moore, as a way to appease the forces that are demanding action.”

“But my client is innocent!” Kevin protested.

“Unfortunately, Advocate, by that time innocence will not be a major concern. If a responsible party is not offered up by then, there will be war, and I believe the Velosians fully intend to involve the Humans in the conflict, whether that is right or wrong.”

Kevin and I looked at the Velosian. He met our gazes with a smug, almost evil look of his own. I knew that even if I was able to serve Miranda Moore up on a platter, this alien would do all he could to tie me to her. So any evidence I come across to link Miranda – and only Miranda – to the theft would have to be beyond reproach. It would be the only way I could save my hide, as well as keep the Earth from falling victim of a vindictive alien race with the means of smashing the entire planet into stardust.

No pressure, Jason, I thought. Nothing riding on this … except possibly the survival of the entire Human race.



Chapter 16


Kevin and I left the Enforcer Command building the way we came in, through Receiving – and immediately ran into a pair of news crews, one Zorphin, the other a mixed race crew, but both from the most popular stations in the Capital.

“Mon King, is it true you used your association with Council Member Orn to execute the theft of the Unity Stone?”

“Why have you been released? Did you post security so as to make arrangements for your incarnation?”

“Why would the Humans wish a war between the Simoreans and the Velosians? Such a conflict could destroy the Union.”

We hurried to Kevin’s transport, as my attorney kept repeating, “My client is innocent. That is why he is free today. It has all been a terrible misunderstanding.”

Kevin’s statement didn’t register an iota with the broadcast reporters, who kept repeating the same lame questions, as if asking them enough times would make them true.

We pulled out of the parking lot with a huge, brightly painted news van right behind us.

“I can’t go home; they’ll be there already.”

“They’ll know where I live, too, if not now then in a couple of minutes.”

“Take me to the office. Quint and I made a few modifications – leftover habits from our prior occupation. I’ll be able to get out unseen.”

“Let me know where you go,” Kevin said as he entered the ribbon – and then made a quick, unexpected exit at the next ramp. The new van was caught off guard and missed the exit. They would have to circle back around.

Kevin spun the car back around in the opposite direction and reentered the freeway. We saw the news crew get off at the Juirean Street exit. They didn’t appear to notice us as we sped past on the ribbon going in the opposite direction.

Rookies, I observed, even though my mind was now a conglomeration of sickening thoughts that went far beyond our shaking of the news van. There goes the business! Publicity like this would be almost impossible to come back from, even if I showed up with Miranda and Unity Stone hanging from one of the many advertising dirigibles that filled the sky of Sylox City.

And Quint would be pissed. He had absolutely nothing to do with any of this, yet if the business went under, he’d be royally screwed, as well. But right now I needed answers and information. And there was only one reliable source for both.

Kevin slipped his transport into the underground parking garage at my office, and as expected, two more news crews where at the building waiting. Luckily they couldn’t access the garage, but as Kevin let me out, I spotted a bird-size drone hovering near the ceiling by the elevators.

I had no idea if the aliens would grasp the meaning of my prominently displayed middle finger aimed at the drone, but it did make me feel better.

By this time Quint had sent all the employees home and shut the office. This was all part of our SOP – standard operating procedure – in case one of us got into trouble. It wouldn’t do for a bunch of people to witness my return to the office.

There was a secondary entrance to the office, which was accessible from the floor above our suite, so I was able to enter the locked office without being seen. I’m sure the reporters were more than a little upset when the elevator coming up from the garage continued past my floor and stopped at the one above. They would be scrambling for the stairs or the next elevator. By then I was gone.

Call it paranoia or just being careful, but Quint and I had always retained an extra, unregistered transport in a utility garage off the main building, just in case we needed to get out unseen. In the five years we’d had this office, neither of us had ever had to use the transport, and I wasn’t even sure if the battery was still charged. But seeing that the vehicle was electric-powered, that turned out to be a non-issue.

After grabbing some supplies from the office, I raced to the utility garage and I was out the building and headed for the Zanzibar Enclave in only six minutes from the time Kevin had dropped me off. However, I also had to contend with the drones. They were everywhere, and I couldn’t guarantee anything with them hovering around. But so far, it looked good.

I knew I couldn’t go home. Even though the Enclave was located behind secure gates, I had no false illusions that the news people couldn’t finagle their way in somehow and be at my door waiting. And with each passing minute, more and more of them would be joining the feeding frenzy.

This was big news. Prominent Human land agent Jason King involved not only in the theft of the most influential artifact in the galaxy, but also the betrayal of trust with his highest-ranking client, none other than Council Member Morgus Orn of Velosia. Hell, if I were a reporter, I’d be all over the story myself.

I had to find a base of operations to get my act together. I knew that I’d have to get to the spaceport soon and off the planet in my Noreen if I expected to catch up with Miranda – that was if she really was headed for Hyben. And if she is, then why didn’t her handlers – the ones she’d obviously double-crossed – just phone ahead and have an army waiting there to greet her? That I did not know.

I only had eight days to complete my mission and most of one of them was already gone. But before I ran blindly off across the galaxy, I need more intel. And who better to get intel from than the head spook on Sylox.

I used the untraceable phone Quint and I had stashed in the escape vehicle years ago and made a call.

**********

When Cyrus answered, his tone was understandably icy. I told him about my arrest and got the distinct impression that he knew more of the details than even I did. Even though the phone was untraceable from my end, it wasn’t from his, so we talked briefly and generically about the arrest, with him telling me not to worry, and that it will all work out. And then we ended the conversation with an innocuous mention of the next softball game, scheduled for eight tonight at the Sterling Bridge South softball field.

I looked at my watch. The next game was actually scheduled for two days from now, and at the Newport Dunes field. That meant I had an hour to kill before the meeting with Cyrus at the Sterling Bridge South ball field….



Chapter 17


The field was only five minutes away, so I decided to kill some time by swinging by Bill’s house. He, of all people, wouldn’t turn me away.

Besides, I had decided to use him to help get me into the spaceport – another place that would surely be infested with news crews by now. After all, public records were a bitch, because if one wanted to, they could learn so much about a person – like where one parked their private starship.

I just had to get my ass into space. After that, it would be virtually impossible to follow me, especially in the Noreen. Only Class-3 military vessels could travel faster, and as far as I knew, Channel Three News didn’t have one of those – not yet.

Bill’s house had a side-entry garage, so I entered the driveway and swung the car parallel to the front entrance. I then scooted to my right and exited out the passenger side, crouching in the shadows until I was at the front door.

Bill didn’t seem surprised to see me.

“I know you are innocent, my Captain. You surely would not have done this thing.”

“Thanks, Bill. It’s good to know I still have friends left. Needless to say, my day has turned into a real bitch.”

Bill frowned. “I have noticed that when upset you have a tendency to lapse into fits of heavy Human slang; however, I do believe I understand your sentiment.”

“Sorry.”

“So what is it you wish of me? I will do what I can, but I regret to inform that my support can only be limited and private. I am a Zorphin government official. I cannot publicly advocate for you.”

“I understand that, and I do appreciate the risk you’re taking. But I’m meeting with Cyrus in a few minutes, and then after that I need to get off the planet.”

“In your new Noreen II? That is such a magnificent vessel. I hope to someday be invited aboard.”

“Of course, just not this trip.”

“Where are you going?”

“I think it best if I keep that to myself. With all the drones flying around, our meeting here may eventually come out, and I wouldn’t want you to feel you have to hide anything from the Enforcers.”

“Perfectly acceptable.”

“But I’d like you to get me into the spaceport, maybe in the back of your official transport, through the VIP entrance.”

“That would appear to be a very active participation on my part. I would suggest that you take my official vehicle yourself. That will get you through the gates without question. And if asked I can state that you illegally acquired the transport without my knowledge.”

“That sounds even better.”

“So do you know who did this?”

“Pretty sure it was Miranda Moore.”

“The cousin?”

“That’s right.”

I saw an expression of excitement light up Bill’s face. “I have met her! So I know the perpetrator of this fantastic crime! This is exhilarating!”

“I’m glad you think so. But she set me up to take the blame. Now I only have eight days to find her and return the statue.”

“Then you must know where she may be!”

“I have an idea. Once I meet with Cyrus I’ll have a better feel for things.”

“Is she affiliated with Mr. Cyrus? It is common knowledge that he is in the Human intelligence gathering business.”

“Nope; she’s just a freelancer – she’s independent – although I know for a fact that she’s had help from others here in the Capital.”

Bill frowned and his tone dropped an octave. “Who would that be?”

“I don’t know, just a few thugs trying to act tough so far. But I got the distinct impression that she screwed them – betrayed them.”

“So screwed means to betray? I was under the impression it meant something entirely different in the Human language.”

“It has many meanings, my friend. But now, I will take you up on your offer to appropriate your official vehicle. I have to get going.”

“Best of luck, my Captain.” Bill said, as he awkwardly attempted to shake my hand. He still didn’t have that gesture down all the way. “Take care at the spaceport. I know there are forces that would welcome a war between Velosia and Simore. Keeping the Unity Stone lost would make that happen, so there may be those out to stop you from accomplishing your mission.”

“No shit?”

“No shit, my Captain. Politics is a very disgraceful profession, even to those of us within it.”

**********

It was the normal gray shade of night when I arrived at the softball field, having used all my skills to make sure I wasn’t followed from Bill’s house. I knew it was probably all for naught, since drones and other distance-oriented devices could track me without me ever knowing. I hated those little bastards, which had been so prevalent back on Earth before I left.

But regardless of the risk, I had to meet Cyrus. If anyone had the answers about what the hell was going on, it would be him. Besides, I didn’t have much time to work up a more elaborate plan.

I found Cyrus – along with an alien – in the upper seats of the bleachers, under an aluminum awning. There were four lunchbox-sized electronic devices set around the area, obviously some kind of dampening field to keep our conversation private. Cyrus looked concerned.

“Looks like you’ve got yourself in some real shit this time, Jason, and just meeting you here could really screw up my career.”

That was a hell of a way to start a conversation.

“I appreciate the risk you’re taking, but I hope you know I had nothing to do with this?”

“Unfortunately, reality has little to do with the situation. You’re being set up to take a major fall, and I don’t know what I can do about it.”

“So what is going on, and why are they doing this to me?”

“It’s not just you, Jason It’s the entire Human race. Already information has been leaked to the alien media about Miranda Moore’s supposed affiliation with the Human intelligence services. They even have a partial of the report you turned over to me just this morning. And of course your name is plastered everywhere.”

“Why would anyone believe we’d want to start a galactic war?”

Cyrus turned to the alien. He was a X’ilon, a Humanoid/Prime with light pink skin and a set of furry antennae which could detect changes in air pressure around him. They made good covert agents – as well as exceptional lookouts.

“This is Yorf; he’s our resident expert on intergalactic relations and historical references. Since Humans are so new on the scene, we rely a lot on other species to fill in the gaps in our understanding. He’s been doing some good research on Earth’s involvement with the Union – both past and present – and has found some very interesting data. Go ahead, Yorf.”

“Yes, Mr. Cyrus. Although your planet has only been a member of the Union for fourteen years, it was first proposed for membership two-hundred fourteen years ago.”

“That long ago, why? Does it have something to do with the S’morean Crisis?”

“Simorean, Mr. King, not S’morean,” Yorf corrected. “So you have heard of it?”

“Just in passing. A few weeks ago Jonk Limbor mentioned it.”

I saw the alien and Cyrus pass a look between themselves. It seems I’d touched a nerve.

“So why were we being considered for the Union back then when we didn’t even have cars, planes or any real advanced technology to speak of?” I asked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Agreed, yet it was no less than the Amelians themselves who sponsored your membership. And when the Amelians brought an action before the Council, it was taken very seriously. However, the Simoreans took a most-adamant stand in opposition, which caused a rift that nearly destroyed the newly-reorganized Galactic Union.

“This was a formative time for the Union. The Amelians had backed away from total control of the organization, allowing other races a more active role. It was also just after the Capital was moved from Amelia – where it had been for seven hundred years – to a more neutral location here on Sylox. The Simorean Disposition, as it’s officially known, was the first major crisis to occur since the transition, and the other races – led by the Simoreans – were determined to make their authority known.

“Curiously, it also seems the Amelians tried two other times after the crisis – unsuccessfully – to make Earth a member. You were only allowed in this time through a thin coalition of smaller races who voted in your favor – once again sponsored by the Amelians.”

“So how does all this relate to my situation? Sorry to be impatient, but I don’t have a lot of time.”

“Quite understandable, Mr. King,” said Yorf. “It is now being circulated that the Humans are seeking revenge against the Simoreans for their opposition to Earth’s membership, by instigating a war between them and the Velosians.”

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“With a war between Velosia and Simore, both of those races would suffer in power and influence. You Humans have made remarkable strides in the short time you’ve been members, mainly through your building prowess, and as a result, your financial position is growing faster than any before you. A diminishing of the influence of the two aforementioned races would elevate the Humans to a higher level – if the Union survives the war.”

“The revenge angle is absurd on its face,” Cyrus said. “An all-out war does no one any good, and why would we seek revenge for an act we weren’t even aware of until now? There’s more to this.”

“There always is,” I said with a snort. “So you think it might be financial – all about the money? Someone doesn’t like all the business we’re taking from them, including my old friend Jonk Limbor and his building contractors.”

“Ain’t that always the case, Jason? But don’t underestimate Limbor. He’s in a group called the Linorean Foundation.”

“That’s a new one,” I said.

“They’re kind of like the Freemasons-on-steroids, only about a billion times more powerful. They’re made up of dozens of different races and have their tentacles in just about every industry in the galaxy. Yet their main activity has to do with construction, and not just of housing communities and hospitals, but of entire planets – or the things that go on them.”

I nodded my head. “Yeah, I’ve worked with more than my fair share of building contractors back home, and I know them to be the most ruthless S.O.B.s around. I can imagine what a galaxy-wide group of them would be like. So they want to shut us down, and the best way to do that is to have the Earth destroyed.”

“Or expelled from the Union,” said Yorf. “That would be the simplest solution.”

“And taking this big-ass diamond statue could make all that happen?”

“It could, if whoever is behind this allows it to go that far,” Yorf said. “Yet with even how pragmatic the Linoreans may be, I seriously doubt they wish a war to ravage the Union.”

“So returning the statue will stop the war, right?”

“If done in time. The two parties have always carried a tremendous amount of hatred for one another, and the disappearance of the Unity Stone is only an excuse to do what they have both sought for several hundred years – a final resolution to their conflict. Once forces are put in motion, it may be impossible to stop the momentum towards all-out war.”

“Can’t we go to someone with this information and lay it all out, just like we’ve done here?”

“Unfortunately, those who wish the plan to be carried to fruition are integrated into nearly every level of the Union government and military.”

“And we may not have time, Jason,” Cyrus added. “I’ve been getting directives all day from Earth for me to cut all ties to you, and to Miranda Moore – of which there are none with her.”

“They’re cutting me loose?”

“They’re not stupid, Jason; they can read the tea leaves just like anyone. If the Earth doesn’t throw you and Miranda to the wolves – and do it often and publically – then we could be drawn into a war we cannot defend against. The aliens are too powerful and too technically-advanced.”

I slumped down in my seat and stared out at the bright green grass of the outfield, still clearly visible in the quasi-darkness of nighttime on Sylox. I had really been counting on Cyrus – hell the entire Human delegation – to come to my defense. After all, I’m innocent. But now I was seeing that that didn’t matter, and that I was on my own. I was in the process of being sacrificed for the common good.

Well bully for me!

I went ahead and told Cyrus and the alien about my encounter with the gang-that-couldn’t-shoot straight earlier this morning. Of course, I left out the part about me actually working for them now. Cyrus found the information to be particularly interesting.

“You say this happened before the police told you what was going on?”

“Yeah, around nine this morning.”

Cyrus and the alien shared another seemingly telepathic look at each other.

“Jason, the Stone wasn’t taken until about four this morning. And the news didn’t break until ten.”

“So what? These guys are working with her. That’s obvious.”

“But they don’t know where she is, and that has them worried.”

“A double-cross? That’s what I thought, too.”

“Looks like it to me,” Cyrus said. “And now they believe she may be headed for a place called Hyben?”

Cyrus looked at Yorf as he mentioned the name of the planet.

The alien had his face buried in his datapad.

“Oh, this is not good,” Yorf said.

“What does it say?” I asked.

“Hyben is where the original black dwarf fragment was carved into its present shape. They are experts at working with precious minerals, such as diamond.”

“She’s going to have it cut down.”

“And if she does—” Cyrus began.

“—there will be no way of stopping the war,” I finished the sentence for him.

There was uneasy silence on the bleachers for several moments, as each of us digested the information we had so far. For my part, I felt like I was missing something – hell, a lot of something’s.

“So what’s keeping these two races from going to war right now? Why have I been given eight days to return the statue?”

“That is from an amendment to the original peace accords,” Yorf began. “Back at the time when the Capital was moved to Sylox, the ship transporting the Unity Stone became disabled and the Stone was lost for a period of two days. War nearly occurred at that time. Since then, the two opponents agreed to an eleven-day period of grace before acting.”

“So why do I only have eight?”

Cyrus smiled. “It’s because the Council believes either the Velosians or the Simoreans will act pre-emptily before the deadline, just to get a jump on the other side. Even though the agreement calls for eleven days to pass before war, everyone expects the first actions to take place a day or two before.”

“Unfortunately, that makes a lot of sense, even though it really screws me up. So exactly how did Miranda and I go about stealing such an important artifact in the first place? As one of the primary suspects in the theft, I’m supposed to know this.”

“Your Miss Moore placed a reading device on Orn’s data center when she first accessed the home,” Yorf answered. “It was able to record all of the Velosian’s entries and correspondences. It was from here that she learned of the access code to Orn’s office complex, as well as to the vault holding the Stone. Once ready to commit the crime, she returned to the property and reacquired the device and all the data it contained.”

“And none of the Council Member’s security firewalls detected the device?”

“Apparently not. It was not until after the theft occurred and a detailed scan of the data center was conducted, that signs of the device were detected.”

I looked to Cyrus. “Is that kind of equipment something that’s easily acquired?”

Yorf spoke again. “It is not. And most frankly, it is beyond the technology of the Humans, especially in light of the sophistication of the Council Member’s security protocols.”

“So she got the equipment from someone else, someone with the technology to bypass the security.”

“That’s right, Jason,” Cyrus said. “She’s obviously working with another race other than Human, and has been for a while. It took a lot of expertise and big bucks to forge the credentials to join the Wilsons for their trip to Sylox. And she also knew they would be working with you, the real estate agent who just happened to have the listing on the Council Member’s home.”

“I did think it was strange that Orn’s office was unlocked when I showed the house that first day. It had never been before.”

“That’s because it wasn’t unlocked – until Moore got there. It even took expertise beyond what we have to get through the security at the door.”

“Then why couldn’t she just access the house by herself? Why did she need me?”

“The external security is more sophisticated than that internally,” Yorf explained. “She could get into the office, but not the residence. For that she needed you.”

“And from what I’ve learned,” Cyrus interjected, “that house was way out of the price range of the Wilsons. Why were you even showing it to them the first place?”

“Miranda; it was her idea. Show them something extremely high-priced and then the other homes would look like bargains. Yeah, I fell for it, and so would you – if you’ve ever met the woman.”

“She also set up the CIA, as well. By going around blabbing about how she works for us, the entire Human government will be linked to the theft and held responsible. The operation is almost too transparent and amateurish in a way, but it looks like it may produce the desired results.”

“I’m glad you admire the tradecraft, Cyrus, but I’m being made the scapegoat in all this. Even though the entire race will be implicated in the theft, the government will do all they can to place the blame squarely on me and Miranda, just to cover their asses.”

“Can you blame them?”

“Nah, but that just means I need to do everything I can to recover the frickin statue before she has it cut down. Where exactly is Hyben? I haven’t even had a chance to check,” I asked Yorf.

“It’s about six hundred light-years from here. Your Noreen should make the trip in two days,” the alien said.

“Two there and two back,” I said. “Since I’ve already wasted a day, that only leaves me three to find her and the statue somewhere in a planet-size hiding place.”

“I will assist by researching all those on Hyben with the expertise to do the required work on the Stone,” Yorf said, “with a special emphasis on those who would accept such a contract. Many would not, considering the notoriety of the Stone and the implications of its destruction.”

“That would really be helpful, thanks.” I looked at both alien and Human and nodded. “The two of you are taking a terrible risk, but without your help the mission would be a failure even before it begins.”

“It’s still a long shot that this works out,” Cyrus said, leaving out the very important for you at the end of the sentence. “But we’ll keep working on this end to find out who’s pulling the strings back here. They have to be big, powerful and have a vested interest in the destruction of the Earth. And everyone leaves a trail, believe you me. Good luck, Jason. Oh … and Hooah!”

I looked hard at Cyrus. I had had my suspicions, but now it was confirmed. Sometime in the storied past of Cyrus Blake, he had been an Army Ranger, just like me.

“Hooah!” I replied back, just as the alien Yorf spoke up.

“I do not understand the translation – of which there is none. Is this a code of some sort among Humans?”

“For some Humans,” Cyrus answered. “Between the best.”



Chapter 18


I managed to get into the Zanzibar Executive Spaceport through the VIP entrance in Bill’s car, avoiding the four smaller news vans parked near the main entrance. The larger vans were reserved for my home and office; these were here just on the off chance I decided to bolt from the planet.

But even though I had gotten into the spaceport unseen, these bastards also knew where my hangar was located, so another cluster of vans sat on the tarmac blocking the large doors. Well, that would have to change. When the time came for launch, hopefully these crazed news hounds would be smart enough to clear out of the way, otherwise they would learn what a black hole looks like from the inside looking out.

I had the Noreen II for only six days before all hell broke loose, but during that time I managed to install some of the vital upgrades I’d been planning for weeks. My little Fusion flitter had been equipped with several armament upgrades, as well as two defensive counter measures. Fortunately, I’d never needed to use any of them here in the Sylox system. Yet with the Noreen, the entire galaxy was open to me, so having an effective means of protection was a priority.

Since the upgrades were not standard on the Fusion, I was able to remove them before Vol'ox came for the trade-in. I then spent three days reinstalling them in and on the Noreen II, which I had affectionately christened The Enterprise.

Yeah, call me sentimental and unoriginal, but I’m a big fan of the series, movies and spin-offs, even in reruns. And now that I had my own means of going where no one has gone before, the name seemed appropriate, if not a little pretentious.

I accessed my hangar unseen from the rear and once inside, I began preparing the tiny starship for my journey to Hyben. I was more than anxious to get off Sylox; there were just too many factions conspiring against me. I wished I could just start killing people. That was always a cathartic experience, but I couldn’t do that here on the planet. However in space, now that was another matter altogether.

With the upgrades I’d made to the Enterprise, I was confident I could counter any acts of aggression that befell me in space. Besides, no one who came up against me would be expecting the greeting they’d get. The weapons were well-hidden, and the specs of the N-Two didn’t show any of my upgrades. Call me arrogant, but I really wished some son-of-bitch would try me.

In reality, that was the last thing I needed – a battle in outer space. I was under the ultimate deadline, so I didn’t have time to dicker around with any would-be pirate, rogue or amateur advantage-taker in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.

I did a quick, yet detailed walk-around of the craft, and found two not-very-well-hidden tracking devices. Even though I suspected these were only the ones I was supposed to find – rather than those I wasn’t – I still took them through a side door to Simon Patel’s hangar and attached them to his Nova Model-Six. I knew he was heading out in a few hours for a hunting safari on some near-by exotic alien world, so this just might provide me with a little operating room before those who placed the devices realized their mistake.

I knew I was probably being overly cautious. Nothing in my seven years on Sylox had convinced me that the aliens – any aliens – were very sophisticated when it came to the ways of war, police procedures or even the commission of crimes. Their minds just didn’t have the same devious creativity as Humans. I was counting on this to help me do my job without too much interference, either from those trying to help or those who were not.

**********

Needless to say, it came as quite a shock to those waiting outside the hangar when the doors suddenly slid open and I maneuvered the Noreen out on the tarmac using chemical exhaust. The area filled with a thick gray smoke, made even darker by the dimness of the night. As news crews scrambled for safety, fighting for breath and cover, I initiated a very shallow gravity-well and lifted off. Much of the smoke was sucked up in the well, and I could see on the rear monitor a crowd of bewildered aliens staring up at me as I faded into the night sky.

Hasta la vista, suckers!

**********

The Noreen made quick work of the Sylox stellar system, and forty-two minutes after liftoff I was able to crank the engines up to full power without fear of disrupting any nearby gravity sources.

Hyben was forty-three hours away, and that time would pass with excruciating slowness. I didn’t have any detailed plan for once I got there – how could I – so I cleaned my weapons, tried to get some rest, and did my best to formalize a few the contingency plans I had bouncing around in my head in case I failed.

If failure was the end result of my little trek to Hyben, then I would be the only available scapegoat in the entire affair. Earth may be on the schedule for destruction, but it would be my hide that would be Earth’s only chance of survival.

So … would I surrender myself, admit to being behind the entire heist, and absolve Humanity of all responsibility? If I did, then I would be a hero back home, with monuments and high schools named after me.

Not!

I would be reviled, and my name would be synonymous with that of a Hitler or Pol Pot. I would be accused of risking the utter destruction of my homeworld – and its billions of inhabitants – for the sake of avarice.

Sorry, Jason, but there would be no statues in your honor or high school cheerleaders with your name emblazoned across their budding bosoms.

So as not to appear ungrateful – instead of being noble and sacrifice myself for the common good – I would simply disappear, trusting that the Earth would find some way of saving itself at the expense of my name and reputation.

Although the Noreen had a range of about five thousand light-years between recharging, before leaving the office earlier I had absconded with some seventy-four thousand dollars’ worth of Union credits from the escrow account at the office. It wasn’t much, but it would get me to the other side of the galaxy if I didn’t go balls-to-the-wall getting there.

And if everything did work out fine, then hopefully I could get the money back in the account before the regulators noticed.

At the time, that was the least of my worries.



Chapter 19


True to his word, Cyrus’s alien associate Yorf came through with more information about Hyben and its jewel-cutting industry. I was still twenty-seven hours out from the planet when his pink face showed up on my comm screen.

“The planet had once been much more prosperous than it is today,” he told me. “When the Capital moved from Amelia to Sylox, it left Hyben out of the major space lanes, a position it had once enjoyed. So you will find that the planet and its inhabitants may be on the rougher side of the spectrum.”

I wasn’t worried. I knew that Humans possessed certain advantages over the common alien, advantages of speed, strength and coordination – even though we had not had the opportunity to demonstrate any of this in the short time we’d been members of the Union. And with technology as it was, individual physical superiority meant very little to a battlecruiser in orbit dropping firebombs on the surface below. In this new reality, even Smurfs could destroy the Earth, if they had the right equipment.

But on a backwards world full of misfits and miscreants, I should be able to hold my own quite nicely.

“What about the jewel-cutters, are they still in business?”

“Some, but not nearly as many as before. The planet’s own supply of precious stones dried up long ago, so for centuries before they had relied on off-planet business to survive. After the Sylox move, most of that business went away.”

“So probably any of the surviving businesses would take on the job of cutting down such a large stone,” I concluded. “So how many are left?”

“Nineteen thousand.”

“Nineteen thousand! How the hell I’m I supposed to find the one Miranda has contacted – if any? Hell, we’re not even sure she’s heading there.”

“That I do not know, Mon King. Yet the original creator of the Unity Stone is still in business – at least the company is still operating.”

“But would they be willing to destroy their most famous and elaborate creation?”

“In light of the extreme sensitivity of the operation, and the consequences that would result, they could command whatever price they wish. Considering the current state of economic affairs on the planet, it is a possibility.”

“That’s assuming Miranda has a benefactor with deep pockets. But I get the impression she’s gone rogue.”

“Then a share of the Stone would be appropriate, I would imagine.”

Yorf had a point. A nearly-twenty-nine thousand carat diamond could be broken into hundreds of pieces, each worth a not-so-small fortune. And that would still leave plenty for Miranda.

I looked at my power gauge and saw that it was already maxed out; I couldn’t get to Hyben soon enough. Miranda wouldn’t waste time there. She would be in and out in a flash.

“Anyone else I should consider?” I asked. If Miranda was smart – and she was – she might even start a bidding war among some of the top cutters. That might just buy me a little time.

“I have five others who, according to their latest profit filings, might be very interested in taking on such a project. I will send their information in a burst message directly to your computer at the conclusion of our verbal conversation.”

“Any other news? I know things were moving pretty fast when I left.”

“I regret to inform you that Mon Cyrus Blake has been relieved of his post pending an inquiry into our meeting with you. As a subordinate, I was spared such humiliation, and I have yet to reveal your destination, although that may change as the questioning is scheduled to continue.”

Shit! I hated that for Cyrus. Maybe if my mission succeeded he could be reinstated. And I couldn’t assume my destination was a secret, either. I’m sure there was still some hidden tracking device attached to the ship. But I was fortunate to be in the Enterprise. It was faster than anything but the largest capital ships, so even if Miranda had left Sylox immediately after the heist, by conventional travel we would get to Hyben at about the same time.

And, of course, this also assumed Miranda was even heading for Hyben at all. For all I knew, she could be a hotel room in Sylox City, raiding the minibar and watching HBO, just waiting for the heat to cool down.

“What about Miranda, do you have any more info whether she’s left Sylox for sure?”

“Seventeen private spacecraft left the planet within a couple hours of the crime, and the Enforcers are in the process of tracking down each of them. So far, five still remain at large. Gravity trails show one of these missing vessels heading in the direction of Hyben.”

“That’s about the best news I’ve had in a while, Yorf, thanks. Let me know the moment these ships are found. I think my odds just got a little better.”

“Please be cautious on Hyben, Mr. King. The natives have been in a very bad mood for centuries. They don’t much care for the Union, or any of its current members.”

“Don’t worry, Mon Yorf, neither do I. And I’m in a pretty nasty mood myself. I think I’d welcome the chance to crack a few skulls right about now.”



Chapter 20


Although the Enterprise could zip through space at unimaginable speeds, it still couldn’t beat wormhole-communications across interstellar distances. So when I picked up a tail just this side of Hyben, I knew I had just met a small – yet expected – welcoming committee.

From the conversation with my kidnappers, I felt those behind this entire scheme didn’t really want a war, they simply wanted to blame the Humans for taking the galaxy to the brink. So I really wasn’t expecting interference in my mission, especially since it was to save the precious Unity Stone from destruction.

So when the much larger ship cut across my bow and fired a warning salvo in my direction, it came as a surprise.

“What the hell are you doing?” I screamed into the comm. “You have to know I’m under a deadline.”

“Your mission has come to an end, Mon Jason King,” was the scratchy reply. “Deenergize your engines and prepare for boarding.”

“Are you crazy? The Unity Stone will be destroyed if I don’t get to Hyben on time. If that happens, there’ll be a war – that’s for damn sure.”

“According to our employers, that would be a welcome outcome. Now obey … or you will be destroyed.”

Dammit, I didn’t have time for this! And now there was another faction that wanted a war. This was an unexpected kink in my plans.

I complied and shut down the engines. The huge ship would maneuver in closer and then attach an umbilical. Even though I wasn’t worried, this was still a delay, a delay I couldn’t afford.

However…. My attitude shifted when a thought occurred to me: The people on that ship may have information I need. This captain knows the agenda of his superiors; he’d just revealed as much to me.

So I’ll let them live, at least for a while, if they can give me what I need – information.

I waited until the large, gray, cigar-shaped spacecraft was about two hundred yards away, before I sent out a small missile with two thick cables attached. I knew the crew of the other ship would see the missile coming on their proximity screens, but because the sensors wouldn’t pick up any trace of explosives, their auto defense systems would not kick in before the missile reached the hull. That was a mistake. Because when it hit, the disruptor voltage sent through the cables was soon coursing throughout the hull, overloading all the electronics aboard the ship.

Immediately, systems aboard the attacker began to shut down, as circuits opened and relays tripped. Within seconds the behemoth was dead in the water – or space, in this case.

Next, I sent over a second missile carrying a small acoustic pickup. Once attached to the hull of the dead ship, it was capable of picking up sounds from inside the vessel, and also allowed for me to communicate with those inside.

When I cranked up the sensitivity on the pickup, a cacophony of confused and angry voices could be heard through the small speakers of the Noreen II. I activated a switch. “Shut the hell up!”

I knew my words would resonate throughout the entire ship, and there came a momentary silence in the speakers, as the crew stopped to question where the phantom voice had come from. With no apparent source, the bombast arose again.

“Be quiet, all of you! This is Jason King. I wish to speak to your captain. Just talk … and I’ll hear you.”

A moment later, I heard a weak voice say: “I hear you. This is Groff Nuer; I am the controller of this vessel. What have you done to my ship?”

“I gave it a heart attack. Do you understand the reference?”

“Yes … yes I do.”

“Good, and since your systems are all dead – including life support – I’m sure you realize you only have a short time before things get really uncomfortable over there. Also, you should know that my ship is fully functional and that I possess an eight-meg flash cannon, which is capable of easily penetrating your hull. You and your vessel are completely at my mercy. Do you agree?”

After a slight hesitation, the muffled voice of Groff Nuer concurred. “So what are your plans for us, Mon King?”

“That’s simple: I should just blow your sorry ass to smithereens, but you probably don’t understand what I just said, do you?”

“I grasp the meaning.”

“Good, now answer some questions, and depending on how well you do will determine the fate of you and your crew.”

“Understood.”

“Who are you working for?”

“I am not sure—”

“Wrong answer; I’m energizing the flash generators now.”

“No! I honestly do not know, not for sure.”

“Take a guess,” I said, smiling. I love it when my enemies squirm.

“They are on Sylox – and they paid in Linorean credits. I assume it is for the exchange rate.”

“The Linoreans; you mean the building contractors?”

“Among other things.”

“And they have their own credits?” That was news to me.

“Yes, they are exchangeable credits within their affiliate banks.”

“And what were your instructions?”

“We were only to intercept your craft, not destroy it, so as to delay your arrival on Hyben.”

“For how long?”

“Thirty standard hours, no longer.”

“Are there any of these Linoreans on Hyben? And who were you in contact with?”

“The Linoreans may be on the planet; they are represented by many races, including the Hyben, I believe. For a contact, I only know of one. His name is Limbor.”

Jonk Limbor, the fat slob of a building contractor! Suddenly the picture became a little clearer.

“And why would the Linoreans want a galactic war?”

“That is beyond my comprehension, Mon King. My ship is simply a security escort vessel that operates with several of the major construction companies in this part of the Union. We have a few weapons, enough to repel pirates – as well as overwhelm a private starship such as yours – or that had been our understanding. We do not hold any animus towards you or your mission. And on that note, we wish to survive this encounter, if you can find it within your manner to grant us forgiveness.”

“I’ll let you live, Groff Nuer, but this won’t be forgiven. I will release your ship, and your systems should begin to reboot in about twelve hours, so it may get a little stuffy – and very cold – over there between now and then. I’ve also attached an explosive device to your hull that’s impossible to detect or remove without detonation. So when your systems come back up, do not attempt to communicate with these Linorean bastards or I’ll set it off. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly, Mon King. We will comply.”

I hadn’t really attached an explosive device to their hull but they had no way of knowing that. And since they’d already underestimated me once before, I was banking on them not risking it again.

Ten minutes later, I left the stricken spaceship and bolted off in the direction of Hyben once again. I was now one hundred percent convinced Miranda would be there, since these Linorean characters – including my old friend Jonk Limbor – wanted the Stone to be destroyed. They wanted war, and it didn’t take too much analysis to figure out why.

War was good for business, especially the construction business. As things are destroyed, they have to be rebuilt, and the shadowy Linoreans would be there to accommodate – while the pesky Humans would not.

So who were the ones who wanted the Stone recovered?

It’s obvious that whoever did recover the Stone and return it to the Velosians would become heroes. From the gist of the conversation I had with the people who’d kidnapped me, they had naively expected Miranda to simply hand over the gigantic hunk of diamond to them after the theft. From there I could see them letting the tensions rise to a boiling point before showing up with the Stone. At that point they could point their alien fingers at me and Miranda, along with the entire Human race

I was convinced the thugs in the warehouse represented this second faction. They wanted me to recover the Unity Stone, so it could be preserved. Otherwise, why pay me to stop Miranda? So who were they, and what was their agenda? They appeared to be the ones who had originally planned the theft, with the Linoreans now simply taking advantage of the situation to further their own cause.

I laughed out loud. The warehouse people had really blown it when they chose Miranda to steal the Stone. They obviously had no concept of Human nature – especially female Human nature. Here was a woman with a twenty-nine thousand carat diamond in her possession – and they really expected her to just turn it over them?

Yeah, right, that’s not going to happen. Just ask any guy who’s ever given a woman an engagement or a wedding ring and then had the relationship go south.

And this Stone was the Mt. Everest of diamond rings.

Seeing that they had been expecting anything other than what had transpired only proved their ignorance of Humankind.

But now the Hyben star system was on my screen and in an hour I would be on the planet. I teemed with confidence, knowing that Miranda would be there. Now all I had to do was find one Human female hiding somewhere on an entire planet, and do it over the next few hours.

And if I fail? Well, no big deal – just the start of an interstellar war and the probable extinction of the entire Human race.


Chapter 21


The planet Hyben was your typical uniform brown and blue globe, with a few patches of light green wrapping the equator. In reality, this would be only the seventh planet I’ve set foot on, not counting Earth. I had been to Mars – briefly – and then a couple of other Union planets while working with Pulte, before settling on Sylox. After that I’d vacationed on a couple of the more-populated worlds in the surrounding stellar systems.

If I could get this damn Unity Stone affair behind me, then my Noreen II would take me to even more alien worlds. I just hope I won’t be running for my life when it did.

The data Yorf had sent me placed the Ionin Design Company in the city of Lioren-Cur, which jived with the information the thugs had given me in the dirty Sylox City warehouse. IDC was the company that had originally carved the Stone, turning a huge chunk of opaque, dirty-looking crystal into a two-foot tall, rather sensuous-looking, freeform work of art. So even though they had created the Stone in the first place, they were also the most logical start my search.

Lioren-Cur was the largest city on the planet, and was located at the edge of a dusty desert bordering a shallow, blue-green sea. The navigation program sent me right to the city, and I set down in the largest of three spaceports servicing the population.

While making my landing approach, I could see vast excavations to the north of the city, where the sand of the desert had been scraped clean revealing massive, striated slabs of stone. Even to this day, work crews were freeing the giant stones and cutting them into construction-size blocks. There were no forests visible, so the natives were using the only raw material that was available. The process seemed both ancient and practical at the same time.

The gravity of Hyben is about three-quarters that of Earth, so I would have a spring in my step while here, even if the noticeable drop in oxygen would require me to wear a small nose tube. I would also need a wrap-around sand-shield over my eyes to protect against the omnipresent blowing sand.

Overall, the planet Hyben was a real shithole, and I was glad I’d only be here for a few hours.

I strapped an MK-17 flash pistol to my right hip, a Ka-bar combat knife onto my right calf and placed a small Taser at the pit of my back, hidden under my khaki-colored waistcoat. The serious, big-bang weapon and knife were for any hostiles I may encounter, while the Taser was for Miranda – if she didn’t come along peacefully.

I opened the side hatch to the Enterprise and stepped outside, only to be immediately welcomed by a blast of lung-sucking hot air like I’d never experienced before. I gasped for breath, which with the lower oxygen level, required extra effort on my part, and tended to draw even more scorching air into my lungs. Damn, it had to be frickin 120-degrees out here, if not more!

This was unbearable, but the natives would have air conditioning inside their buildings – wouldn’t they? They couldn’t have evolved to a point where this was comfortable? For a moment there, I considered returning to the Enterprise and donning on of the spacesuits I had onboard. But then I dismissed the idea. I never did look good in spacesuits.

There was a soft breeze blowing which only served to exacerbate the heat and stir up the restless sand of the desert. I looked at the exquisite paint job on the Noreen, and hoped it wouldn’t be sand-blasted off by the time I concluded my business on the planet.

Within minutes, a small, open-air cart pulled up, with two brown and dusty natives riding in the front. As they climbed out, I saw that they were both about a foot taller than me – which was the case on most lighter-than-Earth-gravity worlds. Their hide was dry, wrinkled and tough-looking, evolved to accommodate the constant abuse suffered from the blowing sand of their desert world. Both wore equally drab, grey uniforms that looked like they’d seen better days.

The one carrying a datapad approached me first.

“Your transponder indicates Sylox as your planet of origin, is that correct?” His voice was as gravelly as the soil beneath my feet.

“That’s right.”

“What is right? I did not ask for a direction, but a confirmation.”

“I meant the information you have is correct.”

The native frowned. “Duration of stay?”

“Not more than a day or two.”

“The docking fee for two days is two hundred fourteen credits. How will you pay?”

“Electronic transfer; the funds are in the transponder account. And I’ll need transportation into the city.”

By this time the other native had moved up to the Enterprise and was running his hand over the smooth surface of the ship. “This is a fancy vessel you have here, traveler” he said over his shoulder. “It is unfortunate it will not look like this in two days’ time. Yet if you wish, you can rent a hangar for only a hundred-forty credits more.”

A hundred-forty for only two days of storage was highway robbery – but the Noreen was my new toy and I’d really hate to see the paint job ruined.

“Sure, that sounds fine. The keys are in the ignition. She’s restricted to only ground transport at this time, so don’t get any ideas about trying to take her for a spin around the system. It won’t work.”

The native looked at his companion and they both smiled. “We would not even think of it, traveler. The fee will be taken from the account; Hangar Thirteen, when you are ready to leave. A ground transport will now be requested. Enjoy your time on Hyben; we don’t get many visitors from Sylox anymore, so two in one day is rather rare.”

“You had another arrival today? How long ago?”

The talkative native turned to the one with the datapad. “Three hours ago – maybe a little less?” he said with a frown.

“Did you call a transport for her, too?”

“Yes we did, but how did you know it was a female?”

“Because we’re together; can you find me the same transport?”

“If she has reached her destination, then we can call it back. Let me inquire.”

My heart was racing. This was the first real break I’d caught since this whole thing began. If this same cab can take me to where Miranda had been dropped off, then I could be done here on Hyben in a matter of hours. And maybe it was the heat talking, but I was to the point where all I wanted was the Unity Stone. What happened to Ms. Miranda Moore was no longer my concern. If she resisted giving me the Stone, then she’d find out what a shitty mood I was in.

As it turned out, my lucky streak was continuing. The same cab was available for me; I’d just have to wait an hour for him to drive back from the city. I was sure – or at least I was hopping – that Miranda couldn’t work out a deal and have the cutting begin while I was waiting for the cab.

I began to pace nervously near the main gate to the spaceport, watching the long, deserted road from Lioren-Cur for any signs of an approaching vehicle. During the wait, I sought what shelter I could from the blistering heat in the shade of the guard shack. Still, it wasn’t much, and I was soaking wet and panting for breath within minutes.

The natives had been right; they not only had very little traffic from Sylox, they had very little traffic from anywhere, period. The place was a ghost town, which made the fee for the hangar seem all the more out of whack. Normally I would have haggled, but I had more important things on my mind than saving a few credits.

Like where was the damn cab?



Chapter 22


When the cab finally arrived, I apparently committed some kind of faux pas when I jumped in the backseat and began barking orders. The disgruntled driver simply hitched an elbow up on the barrier between us and sent me a scowl.

“Just slow down, alien,” he said in a drawn-out, gravelly voice. “It will be ninety credits just for coming all the way back out here. And then another hundred for the rush order.”

“You’re kidding? That’s more than they charge back on Sylox, and I don’t see a lot of people waiting in line for your service.”

“Only you.” The native met my eye with a steely determination. “In advance.”

I grunted, but began digging in my pocket. I handed him two hundred Union credits, and then he turned back to his controls and put the cab in gear – without giving back the ten credits in change. I bit my tongue as I slumped in the rear seat. At least the cab had air conditioning. I suppose that’s worth an extra ten credits.

Forty minutes later we were in the city and pulling up to one of the older-looking block buildings – if one stone building could be classified as looking older than any other.

“This is where you dropped off the other Human?”

“I don’t know what species you are, but this is where I let off the female of your kind. I have to say, she was just as rude and demanding as you. Do all members of your race act in such a manner?”

“Pretty much,” I conceded.

“Then I hope to never see your kind around here again.”

“Unfortunately, I’m going to need a ride back to the spaceport in a few minutes. Will you wait?”

I guess the expression shit-eating grin was universal, because that’s just what the cabbie flashed me. He hesitated before answering, while appearing to revel in the agony I was going through. I knew he’d wait – the question was for how much?

“Two hundred for waiting, plus another hundred for the trip back.”

Knowing that Miranda was already in the building with the Unity Stone – which could be broken into pieces at any time – I simply gritted my teeth and nodded.

“In advance.”

Bullshit! What’s to say you don’t just drive off?”

“That is a possibility; I suppose you will know when you leave the building. I will wait, but for only forty-two Hyben intervals. I hope you have a conversion timepiece.”

I did; my watch could link with the galactic Library – their version of the internet – and adjust to local time intervals. As it turned out, forty-two Hyben intervals were only twenty-two real minutes.

I dug into my pocket again and pulled out a money case. I had the credits in cash, but just barely. Just like on Earth, we don’t carry a lot of cash out here in the galaxy. And I’d left the escrow money back in the Enterprise.

I climbed out the cab and once again experienced the stifling heat of Hyben. I wanted to say more to the cabbie, but that would have to wait until after he’d served his purpose. At that point, it would be anyone’s guess how that situation would turn out.

I quickly entered the large stone building through a double foyer designed to keep the heat and sand from penetrating the interior. Once through, I noticed that the anteroom was air conditioned, large and could pass itself off as the lobby of most executive buildings back on Earth. I approached a reception counter where a bored-looking native female watched me with a frown.

“That is two in one day,” she said even before I had a chance to say anything. “Third floor, then turn to your left.”

I took the stairs rather than the elevator, just in case someone was watching, and when I reached the third floor exit, I was disappointed to find that the door there wasn’t equipped with a window. So I had to cautiously open it and stick my head out into the corridor for a quick look. It was empty, as far as I could tell, so I slipped inside and hugged the wall, MK-17 held firmly in my right hand. Ionin Design would be down the hall, past the elevators.

I was surprised that Miranda would bring such a massive diamond statue to the jeweler here by herself. After all, it was the most valuable sculpture in the entire galaxy. I couldn’t imagine her just walking in and saying to the creators of the Unity Stone, can you guys cut this into smaller pieces for me, please?

Having had that thought just cross my mind, I should’ve been expecting the electronic lash when it whipped out of nowhere and jerked the MK from my hand. The sharp crack of the whip stunned me momentarily, and then the hallway was suddenly filled with four of the tall, tough-looking Hyben natives. They were unarmed, except for batons and one with the whip, and they were upon me before I could pull the Ka-bar.

I saw the first baton come arching in towards me, and I sidestepped it with ease. Unfortunately, I stepped right into a second one, which caught me across the back of the head. The blow stung like a bitch, but it wasn’t debilitating. I spun around and placed a booted foot squarely into the chest of the nearest attacker. In the light gravity – and with my superior Human strength – the kick sent the native flying through the air, trailing an echo of crunching sounds behind him as ribs cracked and lungs were punctured. That left only three attackers to now contend with.

I have to say at this juncture, I was restless for some real action. Since leaving the Army years ago, I’d had absolutely zero opportunity to use the skills I’d learned in combat training. Now, as the muscle memory returned, and the frustration that had built up recently was released, I lashed out at the Hyben natives with a fury bordering on animal ferocity.

My lightning-quick fists found pliable flesh and brittle bone, and I continued to strike even after two more of my attackers went down and the last remaining native was attempting to escape.

I ran him down in a flash and yanked at his collar, sending him crashing to the floor on his back. I stomped a foot down hard on the arm still carrying the baton and felt the bone give under the pressure. The overmatched alien cried out in pain, but I didn’t let him suffer for long. As a punctuation point to the all-too-brief battle, I swiped my right foot across his face, sending the helpless native into la-la land.

Although brief, the fight had been tremendously satisfying, and I looked around to see if any other natives were anxious to join in. To my sadistic disappointment, the hallway was deserted – all except for a smiling Miranda Moore, standing at the open entrance to IDC, and holding a .45 caliber Glock 21 steady in her right hand, aimed at my chest.

**********

Miranda appeared to hold the weapon with confidence, so I held my hands away from my body. The Glock was a serious, big-bang weapon which wasn’t to be trifled with.

“What now, bitch?” I said, not trying to hide my distain for her.

“Now you get to see what this is all about, lover. I know you probably have a knife on you, too, so why not leave that on the floor here, and then, step inside.”

With one last, satisfying look at the carnage spread throughout the hallway, I lifted my pant leg and withdrew the KA-BAR from its sheath. I held the knife up in front of me and smiled past it at Miranda. Then I flicked my eyebrows a couple of times and let the knife tumble to the stone floor. I was hoping she would conclude that it was the last weapon I carried and she wouldn’t find the Taster.

I then slipped past Miranda and into the IDC offices. On the outside I displayed calm resignation, yet inside I was bristling with nervous anticipation. I was alert and ready, so what happened next would all depend on Miranda’s skill with the Glock.

This was about to get exciting.



Chapter 23


As I stepped into the office lobby I was immediately assaulted by the uneasy glare from easily fifty pairs of eyes, all looking at me with a combination of fear and resignation. As a matter of fact, the entire room was packed full of scared-looking Hyben. I was sure part of the reason for their outward display of fear was the mess I’d made out in the corridor.

Yet another could have been the half dozen or so armed aliens lining the large room, and each with Xan-Fi flash rifles aimed directly at them.

Well this changes things. It seemed Miranda had come with a little army of her own, a mixture of at least three different races – as far as I could tell – including one very pissed-off Hyben who was glaring at me, even as his rifle was aimed into the room. Some of his friends must be lying dead in the hallway, and he didn’t appear to be very happy about it.

I surveyed the rest of the office, and saw that Miranda and her entourage had the entire company on lockdown, with what I assumed were all the employees now crowded into this one room.

“They kind of freaked out when I told them what I wanted done,” Miranda said, as if reading my mind. “So I had no choice. I was going to offer them a shitload of money, but now it looks like they’re going to do the job for free. How do you like those negotiating skills, Mister-Big-Time-Negotiator-Real-Estate-Broker-Dude?”

Gone was Miranda’s exotic accent and classy demeanor, replaced now with a streetwise attitude boarding on cockiness. “You do know you’re about to start a war?”

“That’s bullshit, Jason. No one is going to start a war over a damn statue. If one does start, then the statue is not the cause, and I’m not to blame for what happens.”

“What you’re doing could destroy the Earth and everyone on it. Can you live with that?”

“What does the Earth have to do with this? I was hired by aliens; Humans have nothing to do with this.”

“That’s not what they’re saying on Sylox. They think we’re both working for the government and out to get some kind of revenge on the Velosians and the Simoreans. They now have the Earth squarely in their sights.”

Miranda hesitated ever so slightly before responding. “That’s just a scare-tactic they used to get you to come after me. All I was supposed to do was steal the statue and then hand it over to the aliens. They were then going to use it to blackmail another group of aliens into doing something, I never knew what.”

“No way, sweetheart. All hell is breaking out across the galaxy and all because of you. By the way, who told you to pass yourself off as spy for the CIA? That’s the main thing that’s put the Earth in jeopardy.”

“That was just part of the cover story – as much for your benefit as anyone else. It didn’t make much sense to me, either, but for seven million dollars I’d say and do whatever they wanted me to.”

“I hope you got your fee upfront, because now you’re being made the scapegoat, along with me and the rest of the Human race. They know about you, so every law enforcement agency and bounty hunter in the galaxy is going to be coming for you.”

A small cloud crossed over Miranda’s face. “I got half of it upfront, and I don’t care who they set up to take the fall or who they send after me. I’ll be long gone before they can catch their breath.”

**********

Miranda motioned with the weapon for me to enter a side room, leaving the rest of the party for a little more privacy. This had to be the CEO’s office because it had a massive stone desk and the largest, most ornate chair I’d ever seen. Miranda moved to the other side of the desk and sat down in the chair, looking small and insignificant in its immense volume.

I smiled at her. “So they thought you’d just turn the Stone over to them once you had it?”

She laughed. “Yeah, can you imagine that. Frickin idiots. Here, take a look at this and tell me if you would have given it up.”

From behind the desk, Miranda lifted a thick, briefcase-size metal carrying case and set it on the table. She snapped open the latches and opened it, before reaching into the case and pulling out an object covered in a blue, velvet cloth. She sat the tall object on the desktop and then pulled away the covering.

It was the Unity Stone all right – I’d seen the picture in Orn’s office – but in-person the object was even more impressive, and almost hypnotic in its beauty and electric presence.

It was about five inches wide and six deep, and its sensual, freeform shape flowed up to a height of just over nineteen inches, ending in a sharp point set off to one side. In person, the form reminded me of a bird of some kind, with its beak pointing almost vertical. But what really made the statue unique were the hundreds – if not thousands – of cut facets covering the entire surface. Some of the angles were wide, while others were only a millimeter or so across. The combination of all the different angles caused the light entering the massive cut diamond to break into a near-blinding spectrum of colors, and with every shift of the head or light source, the colors would dance and sparkle as if alive. Also, without a single defining edge the Stone appeared to have multiple depths and would breathe with the light.

I knew my mouth had fallen open, and I wasn’t sure how long I’d sat staring at the Unity Stone. I shook off the trance and turned my attention back to Miranda. She had been watching me all the time with a wicked smirk on her face.

“I told you. I bet if the roles were reversed you would’ve taken off with it, too.”

“Not hardly,” I said, trying to act tough and macho, not wanting to be seen slobbering over some big-ass diamond. “I don’t think it would go with any of my outfits.”

“It will mine. And when it’s cut down, I’ll have the largest collection of the biggest diamond accessories ever.”

“So you’re going to destroy this incredible work of art, just for your own greed.”

“Yeah, and that was essentially the same reaction the Hyben had. I thought they’d jump at the chance to make a quick buck or two, but no. All I wanted was the thing broken down into more manageable pieces. They wouldn’t even have to do the final cuts.” She hesitated, and then turned the Glock on the thirteen-pound statue.

“I guess if worse came to worst, a .45-caliber bullet would be just as effective in breaking it down into pieces other jewelers could then cut. The fragments wouldn’t be as precise, but there’d be a bunch of them.” She focused her intense stare on the statue and I saw the muscles in her bare arm begin to tense.

“Don’t do it! That would be insane!” I cried out as I jumped to my feet. Only Miranda’s quick shift of the Glock in my direction stopped me from jumping over the desk at her.

“So you are enamored by it, too?”

“No, I’m just thinking what a shitstorm it would cause if you destroyed it. I’m serious; it would start a war and probably wipe out the Human race in the process. Is that what you want?”

“Let aliens kill aliens, and I’m sure the people back on Earth will find some way of surviving this, even if it means eviscerating you, Mr. King, at the 50-yard-line during halftime of the next Super Bowl. Don’t you see, my love, it was planned a long time ago for you to take the fall. It didn’t realize that at first, but now I can see the larger picture. Someone has to pay, and that someone will be you.”

“They’ll catch you, too—”

Her sudden outburst of laughter stopped me. “I don’t think so. Unfortunately for you, there’s a lot more going on here than you realize. I’ll survive – hell, I’ll even return to Earth one day, where I’ll enjoy the trapping of all the incredible wealth I’ll get from the Unity Stone. And no one will ever be the wiser.”

“If there’s an Earth to return to.”

“Knock it off, Jason. If on the remote chance you are correct – and the Earth is destroyed – then I’ll find another place in the galaxy to call home. There are a heluva a lot of other worlds out here, and some are really quite nice, present company excluded, of course.”

“What a cold-hearted bitch you are.”

“Compliments will get you nowhere, Jason … at least nowhere you haven’t already been.” Her nasty smirk only made my stomach turn.

“You know I can’t let you destroy the statue. Pretty soon, I’m going to have to stop you.”

The smile vanished from her face. “Don’t do anything stupid, King. I’m quite proficient with this weapon, and I’d really prefer to have you alive to face all the crap coming your way.”

“Well, leaving me unrestrained was a stupid move then. You’ve read my jacket; you know what I’m capable of.”

I saw the first trace of uncertainly cross Miranda’s dark, beautiful face. Her eyes hardened and she slowly rose from the enormous chair. She wrapped the Unity Stone back in its velvet covering. “You’re right, of course. But why you would remind of this makes me nervous. Stand up!”

I obeyed, first raising my hands above my head, and then lowering them until they were behind me, near the pit of my back. I carefully lifted the waist coat and felt for the Taser, all the while keeping eye contact with Miranda. I shifted my position to keep my back to her as she came around the desk. She had produced a nylon cord from a pocket of her outfit, holding it in her left hand and the Glock in her right.

“Turn around, and keep your hands behind you.”

I began to turn around, but just then I tilted my head upward and opened my eyes wide in shock, looking at the ceiling. As was instinct, Miranda followed my gaze, if only for the briefest of moments. It was long enough for me to tilt the Taser in her direction as I continued to turn my back towards her. I pressed the trigger.

The double darts flew out and impacted her low on her abdomen, discharging its twelve hundred volt surge into the suddenly convulsing body. Once the contact was established, the weapon settled into its nineteen-per-second shock cycle.

The Glock fell from her hand, clanging loudly against the solid stone floor, followed there closely by a collapsing Miranda Moore. I turned to face her now holding the Taser firmly in my grip. I let the voltage coarse through her body for a few moments longer than was necessary – just because I could – before releasing the trigger.

With Miranda still writhing on the floor, I scooped up the Glock and moved to the office door, listening for any approaching threats. One of the advantages of stone construction was that sound didn’t carry very well through solid, twelve-inch-thick walls, so no one had heard the scuffle inside the office.

I looked at the still twitching body on the floor. Miranda Moore now looked pitiful and small, not the confident, galactic jewel thief she’d been only moments before. Suddenly all the pain and suffering she had caused me over the past few days – along with the serious implications of her actions – all came flooding out. I reared back with my right leg, but just before I laid a boot into her midsection, I held back. I wasn’t above hitting a lady – even if a lady had been present – but Miranda Moore was no longer a threat, and stomping on her now would be cruel and uncalled for.

But then again ….

I let loose with the kick – maybe not as forceful a one as I would have laid into a man – but it was still enough to cause a painful grunt to escape Miranda’s sensual lips.

Next I pulled the electrical leads from her body before picking her up in the light gravity and literally throwing her limp body into a huge chair set along one of the walls of the office.

It was at this point that I noticed the office had no window. I figured that with such a dismal lack of scenery outside, the Hyben didn’t feel they were missing much by not having one. However, a quick survey also revealed that the room had no secondary exit, either. There was just one way in and out, and that was right where Miranda’s six armed soldiers now stood guard.

Miranda would be incapacitated for another few minutes, but even then I looked around and found the nylon cord she was going to bind my wrist with, and did it to her instead. Next I tore off her blouse and fastened a strong seam around the back of her head and across her mouth. I really wanted to take her back to Sylox with me, just so I could offer her up as the true culprit in the crime. But I still hadn’t figured out how I was going to get out of the office and the building, let alone with an inert body draped over my shoulder.

I suppose I could tell the clerk downstairs that it was just some kind of Human mating ritual. After all, how would she know the difference?

But getting out of the office, now that was another matter.

And then I had an idea.



Chapter 24


I cupped my hand over my mouth and raised the tenor of my voice as high as I could. My voice is naturally low, so trying to imitate Miranda’s was a chore. I was hoping the aliens outside wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Although painful on my vocal chords, my little experiment produced somewhat satisfactory results.

I moved to the door and careful opened it a couple of inches. And then taking in a deep breath, I said in my highest falsetto voice: “One of you come in here and help me?”

I had to cover a cough as I quickly closed the door and moved to the side, out of view. A moment later the door swung open again, and one of the aliens stepped in. I shoved the door shut while crashing my right hand down on the creature’s right wrist, dislodging his weapon.

What happened next came as a complete surprise.

As I lifted my own weapon, I noticed a blur out of the corner of my eye, and where the alien had once been, he was no more. Instead, he was beside me and planting a powerful left cross to my jaw. I stumbled sideways from the blow, dropping my handgun while shaking my head in a futile attempt to clear the cobwebs from my brain.

And I thought I was fast! This thing was Spiderman-quick.

My eyesight refocused again on the massive alien, who now stood in the center of the room with a silly grin on his face. He made no attempt to raise the alarm; rather he shifted his stance as I moved around him toward the door. My own weapon had gone flying somewhere, but I didn’t risk taking my eyes from the alien to look for it, he was just too quick.

I feinted with my left fist, and managed to land a solid blow to the block-like head of the brown creature with my right. For a moment I thought my fist had missed the alien altogether and impacted one of the stone walls of the office. But no, it had found its mark. I sincerely hoped I hadn’t broken any bones in my hand.

The beast’s grin only grew wider now, as the bastard was just toying with me. He dropped his guard altogether, taunting me to hit him again, knowing now that even my strongest blows would do him little harm.

So this creature was not only incredibly swift, but also built like one of Hyben’s stone structures. I shifted to one side, only to have the alien cut me off with a fluid move of his own. I racked my brain trying to find a way of gaining the advantage. Our little dance could only go on for so long before the alien would grow bored and called for re-enforcements.

It was obvious that the lighter gravity of Hyben was aiding his speed – as it was mine – for what good it was doing me. And then a thought occurred to me. Even though the creature was about my height, he was easily three times my bulk. So could he lift his incredible mass as high as I could in this gravity? I was about to find out.

The ceiling of the office was a good twenty feet high, not only to accommodate the seven-foot tall stature of the natives, but also possibly as a design element in the construction; personally, I always favored vaulted ceilings….

And so I jumped, soaring a good six feet into the air in the light Hyben gravity. I had guessed right. The alien was quick with his lateral movements, but not so much in the vertical. I landed on one of his thick shoulders and quickly wrapped my arms around his huge head before he could shake me off. We spun around a few of times before my thumbs managed to find his eye sockets.

It’s common knowledge that no matter how tough and strong a creature may be, no one likes having their eyes gouged out, and Miranda’s soldier was no exception. He struggled to pull me off as I felt fluid squirt from the openings under my thumbs. I couldn’t see around the thick head to witness the damage I was causing, but the guttural roar of the alien led me to believe I was making an impression.

Eventually, the beast gained a grip on my right arm, and yanked me off his shoulders, throwing me on the top of the hard, stone desk. Expecting a follow up strike from the alien, I covered my head with my arms and bent into a fetal position on the desktop.

After a moment – and no hit – I opened my eyes. The creature was wobbling in the center of the room, covering his eyes with bloody hands. He was blind and in pain – my attack having done its job, at least for now.

And then as I slipped off the desk, my left hand found the cloth-covered Unity Stone. My hand closed around the object, and then I swung it like a club at the alien’s thick head. The huge beast spun to my right and fell face first onto the stone floor, landing with a prominent thud – and a fart. That’s right, the alien expelled gas as he went unconscious, and damn did it stink.

As I now stood over the supine beast, wrinkling my nose against the god-awful smell, I suddenly looked down at the statue I still held in my left hand, and I suddenly went weak-kneed.

What the hell was I thinking? I know diamond is the hardest natural substance in the universe, but what if it broke? It can break, right? After all, people cut and shape these stones all the time.

And what if it had? Then all my efforts up to this point would have been for naught.

I set the statue on the desk and felt through the cloth. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Unity Stone appeared to still be in one piece. I now took the time to carefully lower the statue back into its padded carrying case and secure the lid, thankful that I had just dodged a major bullet – and one I’d fired myself.

By now, the air conditioning system in the office was doing a half-ass job of clearing out the stubborn alien stink from the room, and my head was still throbbing from the blow I’d taken earlier. I’d survived that round. Unfortunately, there were another five rounds to go.

I took the alien’s flash rifle and recovered the Glock. There were five alien guards left, and even if I managed to neutralize them all, I still had an hour-long trek back to the Enterprise. I was sure that within that time the local Hyben authorities would be notified, at which point they might have a few questions for me and Miranda. Like what happened to four of their own in the hallway outside the office? They were all dead – I was sure – and it would be a little hard to prove that they were the aggressors, and not me. Besides, I didn’t have time to spend screwing around with the local Hyben police. My deadline was fast approaching; and here I was six hundred light-years from Sylox, and trapped in a room with an unconscious master-thief and five of her armed guards waiting outside.

**********

I heard Miranda moan; she was coming to. Regrettably, that was a complication I couldn’t deal with right now. So a strategically placed chokehold – a product of my Ranger training from years ago – helped to render her unconscious again, allowing me more time now to scour my memory to see if I could recall any more of Miranda’s thugs being of the same species as the hulk on the floor. I was almost positive he was the only one.

I knew I couldn’t call each of them into the office individually without someone growing suspicious, so there was no doubt that I would have to shoot my way out. Taking out five statically stationed targets in a burst attack wouldn’t have been too difficult for me back in the day. But I’d been out of practice for ten years or more. And besides, I remembered the guards as being spread along the perimeter of the vast room outside, watching the employees. Making five quick and accurate shots, at widely-spaced targets, would be a miracle, even when I was at the top of my game.

What I had to do was bring them all together in one place.

I moved to the door once again and cracked it open. It had worked once before, so let’s try it again.

“All of you get over here – we’re leaving.” My voice was really strained this time. I closed the door and gripped the Glock firmly in my hand. The flash rifle probably would have done the job, yet I felt more confident and familiar with the .45 caliber, 13-round, semi-automatic. I would come out blasting and see where the dust settled.

A moment later, I swung the door open and peered out. The guards had indeed clustered near the office exit, and when they saw me at the door they hesitated, thinking I was simply leading the parade out of the office. I don’t believe any of them noticed the weapon in my hand before I opened fire.

The sound of a Glock 21 going off in a confined space with solid stone walls was even more deafening than I had imagined – hell, the blasts even startled me! Fortunately, it only lasted a few seconds, but when it was over, my ears were ringing and a sharp pain was focused in the space between my eyes. I stepped over the bodies of the five guards on the stone floor and found one was still alive. I hesitated shooting him because I didn’t think my head could take another echoing blast from the Glock.

I did it anyway.

**********

Now I turned to face the huddled mass of Ionin Design employees, all staring at me with terror on their faces.

“Who’s in charge here?” I asked.

When no one answered, I began to get pissed. “C’mon, I’m not going to hurt you. I just saved all of you from these creeps.”

“I am not familiar with the species creeps,” an elderly Hyben said to my right. He stepped forward. “Is that what they were? I thought they were a variety of species, and that their leader was a Human?”

“She is. Creeps is just a general classification for creatures like these, the ones who were causing you harm. I’m here to rescue you – and the Unity Stone. I’m one of the good guys.”

“Is that a unit of the Union Enforcement Corps – The Good Guys?”

“You could say that. But now I need to ask you a favor.”

“A favor?” The head of Ionin Design looked down at the pile of dead aliens and the ever-widening pool of red blood spreading out over the polished stone flooring. “You have caused quite a mess, and now you ask a favor. What is it?”

“I need to get off the planet without the local authorities stopping me. Do you think you could hold off calling them for a couple hours? I think you owe me that much for saving your lives.”

“I believe I can accommodate your request—”

“Morick, pardon me,” said a voice along the front line of employees.

“What is it, Cruss?”

“I am extremely sorry, but I overheard your discussion with this alien, and I must inform you that I have just now called the Suforairee.”

The Suforairee?” I had to ask, even though I already knew the answer.

“They are our local Enforcers,” said Morick. “I’m afraid there can be no granting of your favor now.”

I shrugged. “Oh well, you tried. Can you point me to a back entrance to the building, somewhere I can exit without being seen?”

“Yes, I can do that.”

“Good. I’ll be right back.” I went into the office and came out a few moments later with Miranda draped over my shoulder and the Unity Stone carrying case in my right hand. “Lead on, my friend.”

In the light gravity of Hyben – and from her own slight build – carrying Miranda was like having a sack of potatoes on my shoulder – even though I’ve never once in my life had a sack of potatoes on my shoulder. Morick took me down to the basement level using the elevator and then had us move quickly across the parking garage to another exit facing the back street to the building. He stopped next to a black transport with a too-shiny surface for the harsh conditions of Hyben.

“This is my personal conveyance. Please take it and make your departure. I will attempt to lead the Suforairee to another of the spaceports. For which are you destined?”

“The one to the north.”

“I will send them to the south. That should allow you time to acquire your spaceship.”

“There’s a cabbie – a public transport – waiting for me out in front. Can you tell him to leave?”

Morick looked past me to a flat-screen monitor on the wall of the garage. It was a security monitor, and one of the split screen images showed the front of the building.

“We deal with many an expensive artifact, so the building is monitored closely. There does not appear to be a transport waiting in front.”

I just nodded, while slowly reciting: “The bastard.” The cabbie was long gone, and with nearly all my cash.

I placed the still unconscious and bound Miranda Moore in the front seat of the transport, and set the Unity Stone carrying case on the floorboard. I then turned to face Morick.

“Thanks for doing this. I hope you don’t get in too much trouble for helping me.”

“I shall not. Did you know that the Human wished us to break the Unity statue into various smaller pieces?”

“I know. That’s why I had to stop her.”

“The Unity is our greatest work, one we have boasted of for hundreds of years. I accept the fact that we would have eventually acquiesced to her demands, yet not before several of my employees had been killed, and possibly even me.”

“The Unity Stone is safe now, Morick. I’ll be getting it back to its rightful owners – if I can get off Hyben.”

“Then may luck and providence ride with you, Human. I suppose now not all Humans are evil.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” I said as I slammed the door in his face and flicked the ignition. I had an hour’s ride ahead of me, and my constant vigilance for the Suforairee would be exhausting. And my head was still pounding – both from the deafening sound of the shots I’d fired from the Glock and from the hit I’d taken from The Incredible Hulk.

Yet when all was said and done, my visit to Hyben had been a success. I had the Stone and I had Miranda, and with four days to make it back to Sylox.

That would teach them to mess with Jason King!



Chapter 25


Fortunately, the trip back to the spaceport was uneventful, and by the time I pulled the large black transport through the main gate I was feeling pretty good about myself.

My mood began to change for the worse, however, when I noticed the nervous look on the face of the guard who waved me through the gate. His bored and distracted manner shifted immediately the moment he moved up to the window and saw who was driving. As I pulled away from the gate, I saw him rush back into his shack.

Could the police already be here?

The spaceport was nothing more than a large expanse of open ground, with some large concrete slabs, but mainly just dirt. There were very few spaceships in the field, so it was easy to see if any activity taking place. Nothing; the place was as dead as when I left.

To the west of the main field were three distant rows of hangars, with the first row comprised of the smaller units, those that would fit the Enterprise. I raced across the spaceport toward the hangars, not paying any attention to designated roadways, just cutting across landing pads and leaving a growing cloud of sandy dust behind me.

When I reached the first row of hangars I slowed down and began to count the units I passed. Just as with all alien writing, I couldn’t read a lick of Hyben, but fortunately the imbedded translation devices we all had fitted behind our ears had a way around that. By simply chanting tanslate-KKL898 (KKL898 was my code), the device would pick up the electronic signal from any equipped sign, label or marquee and provide a verbal translation in my ear.

However even with this feature available, I didn’t need it to locate Hangar 13. I simply had to count as I drove the transport along the row of huge, articulated doors.

My blood pressure skyrocketed when I reached Number Thirteen – and found the door open and the hangar empty. I slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, shielding my eyes against the abrasive blowing sand and harsh afternoon light to scan the field once again.

My starship wasn’t there. Not in the hangar or on the field. I clenched my fists and could feel my heartbeat sound prominently in my ears.

What did those stupid port-jockeys do with my ship?

Now the panic on the part of the guard at the gate was understandable. Well, I was going to get some answers, even if that left the guard without any serviceable limbs once I was through with my interrogation—

Just then I heard a loud boom overhead, and as I looked up into the blindingly bright sky of Hyben, I saw a shadow coursing across the sky. My heart skipped a beat; it was the Enterprise, and she was coming in way too fast.

I only had a moment to drag Miranda and Unity Stone from the transport before the Noreen II came screeching across the thin concrete outside the row of hangars. Sparks flew and bleached pieces of concrete were thrown into the air as the metal skids scraped and tore along the surface. The ship was designed to drop straight down for a landing, not come in horizontally like an airplane. And now it was skidding along the ground – and heading straight for me.

The red radiant hull of the Noreen II smashed into Morick’s transport, sending it hurdling into the air before the nose of the ship came crashing into a closed hangar door a few down from Number Thirteen. I had ducked into the open interior of my hangar when it became obvious that the starship was going to land very close, and now I could feel the heat radiating off the hull as the Enterprise came to a rest a mere twenty feet from where I hid.

I gritting my teeth in anger as I saw the prominent dent left in the front quarter panel from the ship’s impact with the transport. The nose was also buried a good six feet into the other hangar, so I could only imagine the damage caused to that side of the ship. As you can imagine, I was ready to kill someone – anyone.

I didn’t have to wait long.

The side hatch of the Enterprise slid aside and the two Hyben port workers jumped out. They shielded their faces as they ran from the ship, lucky their clothing didn’t ignite from the intense heat the ship still carried from its rapid descent through the atmosphere. They were coming my way.

As the first one ran through the open entrance of hangar thirteen, I reached out a strong arm and grasped the frayed edge of his uniform. The cloth ripped, but he still fell on his back, looking up at me with wide, panicked eyes.

“They were shooting at us!”

This caught me off guard. “What?”

“They were shooting at us,” the Hyben repeated.

His companion now stopped in front of me. “We’re really sorry we took your ship,” he yelled, gasping for breath. “But you said you’d be here for two days. Please call off your ships before they kill us.”

“What ships? Who’s shooting at you?”

“The ships – three of them – in orbit. We only wanted to take a bolt out to the moon and back. We didn’t mean to cause any harm.”

“How did you get it to fly? It was supposed to be in ground-mode only.”

The one standing pointed to the Hyben on the ground. “He did it! He knows how to circumvent such controls. Blame him.”

“You came with me, Soris! You are just as responsible.”

“Shut up!” I commanded. “I don’t care about you taking the ship, only about those who were shooting at you.”

“They are not with you?”

“No, they’re not.”

Both Hyben looked at each other, and then the one standing turned to me and said, “Then it looks as though you have enemies coming this way.”

“They followed you?”

“Yes. Fortunately, your ship is smaller and more maneuverable through the atmosphere, so we got here first. But the others will be here within ticks.”

“Shit!” I bent down and picked up a still groggy Miranda Moore and the Unity Stone case. “Are the keys still in the ignition?” Both aliens nodded.

As I ran out of the hangar and toward the Enterprise, I yelled back at the port workers. “I’m going to expect a full refund of my docking and hangar fees because of this!”

I didn’t hear the reply – if there was any – as I became distracted by the scorching heat the closer I got to the entry hatch. It was all I could take as I darted into the ship and hit the close button on the wall next to the door.

Some relief came once the door closed, but not much. The interior was now contaminated with the heat from outside, taking the temperature inside the Enterprise to easily one hundred-thirty or more.

I threw Miranda on the sofa and the Unity Stone case into a small storage compartment near the refrigerator. Next, I cranked the air conditioning up to max while slipping into the pilotseat. The engines were already primed, so all I had to do for liftoff was to send a tremendous blast of lifting chemical flame out the bottom of the ship, knowing that the resulting fire would leave the skin of any nearby hangars burnt and blistered. If the two Hyben port-jockeys had moved from behind the hangar’s metal walls, they would be incinerated.

I didn’t wait around to check their status. Instead I arched the Enterprise into a forty-five degree incline, and in less than five seconds I had already reached the nearest puffy contrail left earlier in the sky when the ship had entered the atmosphere. I then fully-engaged the gravity drive, something that was not recommended this close to the surface.

Fortunately, I was far enough away from any ground structures that I achieved a clean gravity-well and shot out into space.







Chapter 26


The hull must have cooled instantly in the vacuum of space, because it suddenly became icy cold inside the ship. I turned down the a/c and then checked the proximity sensors. Whoever had shot at the Hyben – thinking it had been me at the controls – would be streaking for the surface, and not expecting the Enterprise to turn right around and head back into space. At least that was what I was counting on.

Sure enough, I picked up the other three ships below me and vectoring toward the spaceport. Their signatures indicated that they were of similar size as the one that had attacked me on the way to the planet – the lightly-armed escort ships of the Linoreans. They were small enough to land on the surface, yet too large to make radical course corrections within the atmosphere. I was bolting past the Hyben moon by the time my three pursuers had managed a long, arching journey back through the atmosphere of Hyben and into space. However, once they had cleared the atmosphere, they, too, engaged their gravity drives and set off after me.

If these were the only three ships following me, I was in no real danger. I was faster than they were, and only another ship angling in could catch me. Of course, any stationed ahead along my path could cause me problems.

I put my sensors out to their max.

Unlike the first encounter I had with Linorean escorts, these ships wouldn’t hesitate to blow me out of space without a second thought. The Linoreans’ intended goal was to destroy the Unity Stone; that’s why they had tried to delay my arrival on Hyben, so that Miranda could do just that. But now they could achieve the same result by blasting the Enterprise out of existence. Not only would the Stone be destroyed, but it would also deal very effectively with me and Miranda, the only two witnesses to the Linorean Foundation’s complicity in initiating a galactic war.

This new reality also meant that I would have to shoot first and ask questions later. I couldn’t risk any potential threat getting too close to me on the way back to Sylox.

There came suddenly a crash from behind, and I whipped my head around to see Miranda pressed up against the back bulkhead of the salon, her head and shoulders on the floor and her feet sticking straight up the wall. She was glaring at me and her face was beat red. She yelled something through the gag. Although it was unintelligible, the message was received loud and clear.

I set all the necessary autopilot controls and warning alarms and then slipped out of the pilotseat to help her back on the sofa.

Even though I was trying to help, Miranda still resisted, jerking from side to side and kicking me once very close to the family jewels. I eventually gave up being nice and just threw her on the couch.

“Dammit, Miranda, calm down! The game’s over, so just relax. I’ll take off the gag if you promise not to start yelling.”

She relaxed visibly and nodded. Her eyes were filled with tears – not from pain or sorrow, but from anger.

I approached the couch, and just as I reached over to undo the gag, she lashed out with her foot again, impacting my shin just below the right kneecap. In excruciating pain, I hobbled back to the chair on the other side of the salon and pulled up my pant leg. She had broken the skin and the wound was already beginning to bleed.

“You bitch!” I yelled. “Look what you did. That’s going to hurt for a week, if not more. So screw you; keep the gag on. I didn’t want to hear anything you have to say anyway.”

This got her to calm down completely, as I could make out a muffled, “I’m sorry.” It still took me a full five minutes before I chanced going near her again. This time she allowed me to untie the gag.

“Thanks; I’ll behave. Now, how about the straps on my wrists?”

“Not a chance,” I replied. “You’re as mean as a honey-badger, and I’m not even going to risk untying you. Believe me, Miranda, but you don’t want to suffer my wrath right about now. I’m liable to turn all alpha-male on you if you provoke much further.”

“I know that,” Miranda said. “And you are much bigger than me and more skilled at hand-to-hand combat. I’d be stupid to try anything.”

“You were stupid to steal the Unity Stone and set the whole galaxy on fire. But you did it anyway.”

“For seven million dollars, and originally it was just a heist. It wasn’t until later that I learned the significance of the statue.”

“That doesn’t mean squat in the whole scheme of things, now does it sweetheart?” I said. “You’ve managed to get the most-powerful creatures in the galaxy all up in arms and looking for us. Some want me to succeed; others want it to be you. Honestly, I still haven’t sorted out all the players yet, but I’m sure you don’t even know a tenth of the problems you’ve caused.”

“So what happens now? You return the statue, save the universe and become the hero?”

“Something like that. But you didn’t leave me any choice. It’s either that or billions of creatures will die, including our own kind. Who does something like that and then feels no remorse? Are you really that self-centered?”

Miranda shifted her gaze to her feet and actually looked embarrassed. When she looked up at me again, the tears were flowing freely.

“I’m sorry, Jason, really I am. I didn’t ask of any of this to happen. They came to me and dangled a boatload of money in front of me. And it is a nearly thirty thousand carat diamond. What girl could say no to that? I honestly didn’t know it would cause all this trouble.”

“Then why didn’t you just turn it over to your employers and take your money?”

“Because I saw through their scheme. If you haven’t noticed, these aliens have a nasty habit of underestimating us Humans. I knew they’d throw me under the bus as soon as I did the job.” And then she smiled though her tears. “Besides … it’s a nearly thirty-thousand carat diamond! I couldn’t help myself.”

“And another miscalculation on their part,” I said, managing a weak smile in return.

“And now we’re being followed?”

“Yep, and those people out there just want the Stone destroyed, which makes this ship simply a target on their screens. We have four days to get back to Sylox, and my enemies have wormhole comms and an organization powerful enough to print its own money to back them up. I’d say our chances of getting back safe and sound are somewhere between slim and not-a-chance-in-hell.”

“They’re my enemies, too, Jason. As you said, they were going to make me a scapegoat in the theft, just like you. So you see, we’re on the same side now, and only by returning the Stone and revealing all I know can I – we – be saved.”

“Nice speech, Miranda, but I’m not buying it. Now why don’t you just sit back and enjoy the trip. Oh, and by the way, the cuffs stay on.”

**********

I had to think. I had the statue and Miranda, and now all I had to do was get it back to Sylox and prove to the Union that I wasn’t the one who stole it. Unfortunately, those who wanted the statue destroyed knew where I was and where I’m headed. I could outrun the three ships behind me, but eventually others would join in the chase. And there would also be units heading out from Sylox, forming a gauntlet for me to run.

As if on cue, I noticed two more distant contacts appear on my screen, one to each side and slowly vectoring in. I did a few quick calculations and found that at my present speed – which was already at max – it would be six hours until intercept. They had the angle on me, and six hours would still leave me far short of my goal.

I had to disappear, and in a spaceship on full gravity drive that meant only one thing.

I went back to where Miranda was now sitting on the couch, glaring at me.

“Listen, we just picked up two more tails and they have the angle on us. In six hours their weapons will be within range and at that point we’re as good as dead.” I took the fact that Miranda wasn’t screaming at me as an indication that the message was getting through.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to make us disappear, but that won’t be enough. We also have to change course after we do, otherwise they’ll just project our path and continue the pursuit.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. You’re an amateur playing a very serious game of life and death. Those people – things – out there aren’t playing around. They know they have all the eggs in one basket now and all they have to do is smash the basket.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, asshole.”

She was really quite pretty when she was mad – which seemed to be all the time.

“I’m going to cut the engines and go dark.”

“Cut the engines? Won’t they be able to catch up with us if you do?”

“Very good, Miranda, you win a cookie. Yes they will, in a matter of minutes in fact. That’s why we also need to change course, and do it quickly.”

“But don’t you need the engines for that?”

“Damn, girl, you’re two for two. And that’s why I’m going to use the atmosphere from inside the ship to move us.”

“The atmosphere … from inside the ship? Won’t we suffocate if you do that? Can’t you use your chemical maneuvering jets?”

“That fuel leaves a trail. No, it has to be the atmosphere.” I was through with school for the day. “And that’s why I need you to cooperate and get into one of the spacesuits I have onboard. I’m going to cut you loose; however I won’t tolerate any bullshit from you. Do you understand?”

“Whatever.”

“Do you understand?” I repeated.

“Yeah, sure.”

“If you try anything, it may be simpler just let you die rather than risk a galactic war and the destruction of the Earth. Measured against that, your life rates a very distant third. Now don’t cause any trouble.”

I cut the nylon strap holding her wrists together, half expecting the woman to lash out me again. Luckily – for her – she didn’t.

We rushed to the utility closet and pulled out two self-contained space suits from inside. They carried their own oxygen supply good for up to eight hours. The ship also held three thousand gallons of water, which, with enough time, could be converted to an oxygen atmosphere, yet for the first several hours of our getaway, we would have to rely on just the gas from the suits.

Next I had to find a way of venting the atmosphere from inside the ship in a powerful enough jet to alter the course of the Enterprise. Fortunately, such venting was already planned for in case of a fire, so with a little adjustment to the nozzle aperture of one of the port vents to increase the velocity of the escaping gas, it only took me a minute to make the preparations.

“Gravity’s going down, too, so strap in,” Miranda slipped into the passenger seat next to me and obeyed.

“They won’t be able to detect us?”

“Only if they’re right on top of us and using magnetics. The problem is that with our momentum, once I cut the engines it will be hard to adjust our course by more than a few degrees. Theoretically, that will still leave us comfortably within a search grid.”

“So if they can still find us why do it?”

I didn’t answer; instead I simply killed the gravity drive and the internals simultaneously.

The effect was immediate and startling, as I felt my stomach climb into my throat as if I’d just breached the summit of the highest roller coast ride on Earth. The feeling of falling was short-lived, however, and soon replaced with lightheadedness and the sensation of floating in a crystal clear ocean.

I looked over at Miranda and saw her smiling. “Whew, that was cool. Can I unbuckle now?”

“No. I need to change course first. Even though it’ll be gradual, we may still feel the effects.”

I opened the relief value, and three things happened simultaneously. First, having left basic power still active in the ship until the course correction was made, I noticed the atmosphere content level on my screen begin to drop rapidly. Also an alarm sounded, which I quickly overrode. Next I saw our course begin to deviate from the yellow line I’d set on the screen to indicated our original path. The red line signifying our new course was separating slightly to the right of the yellow line, slowly but surely.

But then another alarm sounded. I looked to my board for the source but didn’t see it. The obnoxious sound continued.

“What’s that?” Miranda asked.

“I don’t know. It should be showing on my board—”

Just then I noticed a flashing yellow light below the dashboard, near the controls to the vent aperture. I brought up the appropriate display on my screen.

“Damn, the vent wasn’t designed to handle such an outpouring of gas, at least not through this one alone. There are eight vents, but I’m only using the one.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m going to have to reduce the airflow before it—”

The last word of my statement was punctuated by a loud bang, followed by an incredible surge of the ship to port. Miranda and I strained against our seatbelts as the vent blew and the entire contents of the ship’s atmosphere raced off into space in one gigantic fart.

The blast only lasted a moment before there was no more atmosphere to dump, and then weightlessness returned.

“What now? Do we still have a way of changing course?”

I looked at the nav screen again, but this time I couldn’t see the yellow line, just the red one with a pronounced curve to it from moments ago, but now running perfectly straight. I widened the screen view and found the yellow line again.

Well I’ll be damn; the sudden burst had changed our course all right. In fact it had jerked us about one hundred fourteen degrees to starboard, sending us almost backwards in an oblique kind of way. This was better than I could have imagined. Such a turn would place us in an area of space beyond even a full right turn. It would take a miracle now for our hunters to find us.

I unbuckled and drifted out of the seat. “Stay here,” I commanded. “We’ve managed a radical course change so we should be safe, at least for now. The problem is the hull was breached when the vent blew out. I need to repair it before we can start making atmosphere again. Just relax; this will take about an hour.”

True to Miranda’s nature, she didn’t obey. Instead, she unbuckled her safety harness, attached one of the spacesuit’s safety cords to the top of the copilot’s seat and began to float freely within a three foot radius above the seat. She closed her eyes and her slight smile told me she was feeling the joy of weightlessness. I didn’t protest. If she was like a lot of first-timers in zero-g, she’d be asleep in a matter of minutes and no longer a nuisance. What a relief that would be.



Chapter 27


By the graces of whatever gods there may be in the universe, Miranda slept for almost four hours before I saw her spacesuit begin to gyrate. I had fixed the hole in the hull and replenished the atmosphere, and was now sitting on the couch, dressed comfortably in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt while munching on an energy bar. An episode of The Big Bang Theory had just gone off on my laptop datapad, and I had just started another. After all, I had to do something to feed my addiction to Kaley Cuoco in short-shorts.

Unfortunately that was not to be, because Miranda suddenly threw off her helmet and began screaming – again.

“Damn you, King! My oxygen could have run out and I would have died. Of course, that’s what you want to happen anyway.”

I looked from Miranda to the frozen image of Penny now paused on my screen, and then back to Miranda. At the moment, she was right, but in the long run, I preferred her alive. I shut down the datapad.

“You were safe. The suits have about eight hours of oxygen; besides all sorts of alarms would have gone off beforehand.”

We were still in zero-g, drifting through space on minimal energy, so it was almost comical to watch Miranda wriggle out of her suit in midair. She was panting, with beads of sweat on her tanned brow by the time she finished, now dressed only in a sports bra and grannie panties. Still, she was an amazing figure to behold, and the whole episode reminded me of a parody of the movie Barbarella, with a young Jane Fonda stripping out of her spacesuit to the opening credits.

Miranda eventually pulled herself down to a nearby chair and strapped in. “What are you staring at, pervert?”

“Actually, a spoiled child who doesn’t appreciate the fact that someone just saved her life.”

“Bullshit, Jason, you only made things worse. If you hadn’t come along, I would have had the statue cut down by now and I’d be on my merry way, safe, sound … and fabulously wealthy.”

“See, that’s the child in you speaking. There are just too many parties out to either stop or silence you. In reality, your time left was numbered in days, if not hours. At least until I came alone. And if you had cut down the Stone, then that would have started a war that you would have been held responsible for. You may have had a sack full of diamonds by then, but with no one willing to pay you a cent for them and not a place in the galaxy for you to hide.”

I saw the anger welling up in her, even more than before. But I wasn’t finished. “Are you really that self-centered that you can’t see what’s going on here? You’ve been set up – we both have. We’re just a couple of insignificant pawns in a galactic game of chess. We’re expendable, and those ships out there are out to do just that. And that’s not all. How many others do you think are waiting for us from here to Sylox? They know our destination, and the deadline I’m working under. This little maneuver of mine was only a delaying tactic. It in no way has saved us.”

“So why not just call someone and turn the statue over to them – in exchange for our freedom?”

“Who would I call? Who do I trust?”

“What about your friend at the CIA?”

“He lost his job, thanks to me – or more correctly – thanks to you. Besides, the Humans are being blamed for the theft. For the CIA to suddenly show up with the statue would only confirm their beliefs.”

“What about Mark, Mark Wilson?”

“Again, you’re missing the point. The Humans cannot return the statue, period. We’ll be accused of having had it all along.”

“Then your goofy alien friend, Bob or Bill, or something dumb like that.”

“Bill,” I answered. Now that wasn’t such a bad idea. “I could try that, but we’d still have the problem of meeting somewhere. And as one of my closest friends, he may be under surveillance, too.”

“Okay, then,” Miranda said, her eyes growing wide and emphatic, “We could just give up and die, way out here in the middle of nowhere outer space.”

I brushed off her sarcasm, and then using the datapad on my lap, I accessed the ship’s comm system and sent a continuous wormhole link to Sylox and Bill’s private number. Even though we were still two hundred light-years from Sylox, I knew that if he answered we could talk with each other as if he was sitting at the other end of the sofa.

**********

To my relief, Bill answered almost immediately.

“My Captain, where are you?” Bill said once our images synced. “It seems as though the whole of the galaxy is looking for you.”

“For now, my friend, I think it best if you don’t know where I am. But I want you to know that I’ve recovered the statue from the person who actually took it, and I even have her here with me.”

“So it was your friend Miranda?”

“She’s not my friend?”

“Well, it appears on every broadcast and alert bulletin in the Union that the two of you are a pair. I’m afraid even the government of your own planet has also joined the effort to find you and bring you both to justice.”

“I didn’t take the damn statue!”

“It appears to mean very little what you claim. At the most, your proclamation is only worthy of a few words near the end of the occasional broadcast. I’m afraid that if you are not found – and your planet is not absolved of responsibility – that there will be a catastrophic event with regards to Earth. There will be war, and the way it is trending, the only path to prevention may involve the destruction of your homeworld as a concession.”

I turned and glared at Miranda, who had suddenly turned sheepish.

“That’s why I need to get the statue to you, Bill.”

“Me?”

“That’s right. You’re a disinterested third party who can help broker a deal that will put an end to all this. In a way, I’m handing you the opportunity to become the most famous Zorphin alive.”

I saw Bill smile. I knew him well enough to know that the civil servant had ambitions far beyond his current position as a Transit Minister. If this actually worked, then the name Billork Kly Gon-Mok would indeed become known throughout the galaxy, and more than just a mouthful of letters.

“Then I will accept this responsibility; when can you bring the statue to me?”

“Well, it’s not that easy. We’re not on the planet, and there are presently five starships – probably a lot more – out here trying to stop us from making it back.”

I saw a cloud pass over Bill’s green face. “And if I acquire the statue, then they would be after me, too?”

“If they know you have it,” I answered honestly. “And that’s why we need to make sure no one knows you have it until after you’ve cut the deal.”

Bill hesitated a long time before replying. “How do propose you deliver the statue to me?”

“It will have to be off-planet. Everyone’s expecting us to return directly to Sylox. That can’t happen. Can you get a ship, a fast one?”

“I am a transit minister, Jason. That should not be a problem.”

I unbuckled from the sofa and drifted into the back bedroom for a little more privacy. I winked at Miranda just before sliding the pocket door closed behind me. I turned my attention back to Bill. “Good, then this is what I’d like you to do….”

**********

After speaking with Bill I drifted out of the bedroom and over to the pilotseat. Since we were now well out of the search grid, I activated the gravity drive and the internals. Even then I steered the Enterprise completely away from Sylox.

Ten minutes later Miranda slipped into the seat next to me. We sat in silence for another two before she finally couldn’t take it any longer.

“So what’s your plan, hotshot?”

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

She grimaced. “I bet you’ve been waiting all day to say that. So really, what are you up to?”

“I asked Bill to meet us outside the Sylox system, at a place where I can give him the statue.”

“What’s so secret about that that? That was my idea to begin with. Where’s this special place?”

“It’s near an accretion disk created by a black hole feeding on a white dwarf. It’s near an area of restricted space surrounding a secret military installation of some kind.”

“You’re taking us close to a military base, why?”

“Look at it this way, if you’re going to meet someone for a handoff – and you’re expecting a lot of bad guys to be around causing trouble – what better place to meet than outside a police station? In our case, if a lot of ships show up to stop us, the military will notice and send out units to investigate. They were on our asses in nothing flat. If that happens, then we might be able to escape in all the confusion.”

“And what if the military decides to join those trying to stop us?”

“If that’s the case, then I’ll turn the statue over to them and let the bad guys try to do something about that. Shooting on a military vessel might not be the best course of action for them to take.”

“Now all we have to do is get to this secret location without getting ourselves killed.”

“Correct-a-mundo, sweet-cheeks. But with the speed of the Enterprise, I’ll take the scenic route. We should still get there with a day to spare.”

“The Enterprise … really? You named your starship Enterprise? You haven’t grown up much, have you?”

“At least I don’t go around stealing other people’s property.”

There was an awkward silence for a few moments after that exchange. And then Miranda snorted. “In the meantime we have to share this tiny motorhome-in-space.”

“Relax, sweetheart. You’re just going to have to control your animal lust for me, no matter how hard it will be.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, dork.”

“So, Miranda, when did you first decide to ruin my life? What did I ever do to you? And the poor Wilson family; it takes a really sick mind to pretend to be a relative just so you could hitch a ride to Sylox.”

“What do you mean pretend? I am a relative.”

“Cut the crap, Miranda. None of them even knew you existed until four months before the trip.”

“And I didn’t know them either, not until I was told.”

“Told what?”

“That I had an unknown cousin.”

“Who told you?”

“Mark did.”

“Wilson?”

“That’s right. He contacted me and said he’d found out through his diplomatic sources that Jennifer and I were related. He invited me over to their house for dinner, and then a week later asked if I wanted to come to Sylox.”

“Bullshit. Why would he do that?”

“He said he knew of my degree and thought it might be a good opportunity. He’d use his connections to get me an internship and then Jennifer and I could get to know each other better. He also thought it would be good for her and the kids to have someone else to spend time with on a strange planet.”

I looked at Miranda for several seconds, studying her face for any signs of deception. If there were any, then I missed them.

“So you really do have a degree in Galactic Affairs? I thought you were a jewel thief?”

“Not a very successful jewel thief, and the last time I was in jail I started taking some college courses figuring I needed something to fall back on. I always liked to travel, and with all the aliens running around, GA sounded like a natural fit.”

“So when did you get the idea to steal the Unity Stone?”

“That wasn’t my idea. I was approached before we left Earth and offered a sack full of money for the job.”

“Who approached you?”

“A couple of guys in expensive suits—”

“Humans?”

“That’s right.”

“You’re saying Humans wanted you to steal the Unity Stone? That doesn’t make any sense. And didn’t you say you were hired by aliens?”

“They were working for the aliens, which met when I arrived on Sylox. By then you had already been identified as the source of entry to Orn’s house.”

“And as a scapegoat for the theft.”

“That was never discussed. You were originally just a way to get into the house. All I was supposed to do was get close to you and get the lockbox code and some DNA.”

“So you screwed me – literally.”

Miranda’s eyes softened. “That wasn’t part of the plan, it just happened. But it did serve my purpose.”

My ego inflated to a level I refused to let Miranda see. So, she slept with me because she wanted to. Well look at you, Jason King, you stud, you.

“So what happened next? Obviously you didn’t do everything according to plan.”

“I did most of it. I got you to make contact with the CIA chief. That was also part of my instructions, I guess to establish your ties with the Human spy network—”

“I meant about the diamond.”

Miranda smiled, coy and seductive. “C’mon, Jason, it’s a twenty-nine thousand carat diamond. That’s ten times larger than anything ever found on Earth. And they just wanted me to turn it over to them once I had it. By then they’d already paid me half the money, so with over three million dollars and the diamond, it didn’t take much for me to screw them, too, especially with aliens running the show.”

That comment sparked an incongruity I’d heard earlier. “You say it was Mark Wilson who put you and Jennifer together?”

“That’s right. I had no idea who the Wilson’s were before then.”

“And he’s the one who persuaded you to come to Sylox?”

“That’s right, and I didn’t want to go at first. It’s a pretty drastic change, as you know. But he said it would only be for six months.”

“And then after that others came to you with the plan to steal the statue while waving millions of dollars in your face.”

“That’s exactly it! I didn’t set out to steal anything, or to hurt you. That came later.”

I placed my head in my hands and shook it. Could it really be true?

When I lifted my head again I saw Miranda’s eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. “You can’t be thinking that?” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“What … that Mark Wilson is the mastermind behind the theft? But it makes perfect sense. He and his people figured out that the way to access the Velosian vault holding the Unity Stone was to get the codes off Orn’s computer at his house. Then they needed a sexy, down-on-her luck jewel thief to get the codes and execute the theft.”

“You think I’m sexy?”

“Knock it off; this is serious. To gain entry to Orn’s house, all Mark had to do was look in the Multiple Listing Service to see that I had the listing and then arrange to be shown the property. I suppose that was your idea?”

Miranda pursed her lips. “It’s what they wanted me to do. They provided all the equipment for me to get into the office and bug his computer.”

“And other than Mark Wilson, you can’t say for sure who ‘they’ are?”

“I probably met no more than four or five people face-to-face. It’s obvious you’ve never done this kind of work before, but the fewer people you have direct contact with the better. But Mark never steered me in any direction.”

“He didn’t have to; he had others to do that.”

I suddenly had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. What about the kids? If Mark Wilson was the bad guy here – and he’s eventually found out – then it would devastate the Wilson children. Jennifer said they’d only been married a year, so it wouldn’t be so bad for Heather. But the younger one – Jonathan and Melissa – children of that age usually cling to a father figure with all their hearts.

I also hoped Jennifer wasn’t involved in this; I seriously doubted she was. But now she would have to deal with a possible counterfeit cousin as well as a new husband who could turn out to be an evil mastermind of galactic proportions.

But the kids, that’s what really bothered me. I have to admit, I kinda liked the little munchkins.

“It still doesn’t make sense that a Human would be behind this, not with the possibility of the Earth being destroyed because of it,” Miranda said.

“So you’ve finally accepted that?”

“Your friend Bill kinda confirmed it.”

“Well, the part about the Earth being destroyed only came up after you decided to keep the statue, making a war all but a inevitable. But I could see Mark’s plan working, if you had given it to them. Then the worse that would have happened is that we – both of us – would have been accused of working with the aliens to smear the good name of the Humans. Mark could then claim that the aliens’ goal was to get the Earth expelled from the Union so we’d no longer be competition for their builders. Jonk Limbor and his Linoreans would be disgraced, having risked a galactic war just to get rid of some business competition. After that, Mark’s people would become the premier builders in the galaxy. And they’d be heroes – very rich heroes.”

“Who’s Jonk Limbor and Linoreans? They sound like an old ’50’s rock and roll band.”

That was actually pretty clever and brought a smile to my face. “Hardly; they’re the ones following us now. They’re group of galactic building contractors and industrialists powerful enough to have their own money. And more-than-likely, they’re the ones you’ve had contact with, which could all be part of Mark’s plan. And if he did want to get even more ambitious, he could let the war happen between the Velosians and the Simoreans.”

“Why would Mark – or even these Linorean characters – want to start a war? Who benefits from a war?”

I looked at her with a cockeyed expression. Who benefits from a war? Was she kidding?

“A lot of people benefit from war, sweetheart, especially the contractors who’ll be there to help rebuild a ravaged galaxy.”

Were the ambitions of Mark Wilson that Hitler-esque? Would he go so far to start a war simply for the business he could siphon from it?

Whatever the initial goals were of Mark Wilson and the Linoreans, when Miranda absconded with the Unity Stone, all of them got turned upside down. Now it appeared everyone was just scrambling to make the best of things, while also trying to tie up any loose ends – such as me and Miranda Moore.

“So it’s about the money?” Miranda said.

“It’s always about the money.”



Chapter 28


As it turned out, I didn’t so much take the scenic route back to Sylox, just the long one. Space, for the most part, was just that – space – and with not a lot to look at. Sure, occasionally we would streak close enough by a star to express a few oohs and awes, but mostly it was bored-out-of-your-gourd tedium.

So it came as a great relief when sixty-four hours later I throttled back and began to drift in dark status within sight of the brilliant accretion disk I’d first witnessed about two months before.

Damn, had it only been two months ago since Miranda Moore first walked into my life? Of course, I knew now that there had been parties conspiring against me long before that – which made me feel both special and violated at the same time. I had less than a day to return the statue, so no matter how long this affair had been in the works, it was going to end – one way or another – in about nineteen hours.

I had given Bill my ETA, after adding seven hours to it. I wanted to make sure I could get in the area ahead of any traps that might be set. As it turned out, all was quiet, as far as I could tell.

Miranda was really getting used to this zero-g thing. In fact, I believed that if she had her choice, she would prefer to live out her life this way. I let her have her moment, flying around the cabin like a bird and laughing.

Seeing her happy like this also created a pang of sorrow in the pit of my stomach, because no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t see this thing ending well for her. She had been a willing participant in the theft, and simply giving back the statue wouldn’t get her off the hook that easy. She was destined for some serious jail time.

So as she did ball-rolls in mid-air, drifting across the cabin until kicking off the bulkhead at the rear and then soaring over me like Superman, I let her play. In our hectic, responsibility-filled adult lives, we get so few opportunities just to play.

But playtime ended about five hours later, when a proximity alarm began to clang, sending both our hearts racing. By then, Miranda had tired of playing bird and was instead drifting near the ceiling, half-dozing – at least until she would gently bump into something and wake up, startled. When the alarm sounded she looked like one of those cartoon characters with every limb shooting out in all directions in an exaggerated fashion.

I was in the pilotseat, with it spun around and facing into the cabin, while absent-mindedly admiring Miranda’s floating body. When the alarm sounded I spun the seat back around, as Miranda flailed away for a moment until her hands found something to grab onto. Then she propelled herself into the copilot seat.

“Is it your friend … or someone else?”

Unless Bill had brought company along, this wasn’t him. “Three ships, as far as I can tell. There may be more out of range.”

Even as I watched, the contacts maneuvered to a stop, and then winked out as they each went into dark status. My computer marked their last known locations.

“So they know about the meeting,” Miranda said. Her voice conveyed resignation and gone was her playful demeanor. “Do you think Bill told them?”

“I hope not. He’s a friend, and I was really counting on him to help us.”

“He may not have had a choice.”

“We’ll see – look, there’s another one.”

There were now four hostiles in the area, all dark and lying-in-wait for yours truly.

**********

The next two hours went by like molasses in January, or whatever month that saying referred to. I’d never actually seen molasses – let alone in any month of the year – but the saying conveyed my frustration with the wait.

But finally it was over.

A larger ship – evidenced by the gravity signature of its drive – appeared on the scene. It came to a relative stop, yet maintained a charge on the gravity drive, as well as its internal generators. This had to be Bill; he wasn’t trying to hide. I thought how those in the dark ships must be chomping at the bit, anticipating my arrival at any moment.

I didn’t disappoint them.

Fourteen minutes after Bill’s arrival, a small starship zipped through the region, carrying with it the energy signature of a Noreen II. However, rather than rendezvousing with Bill’s ship, the tiny contact bolted right through towards the accretion disk a half light-year away. Within seconds of the small craft’s passing, the four silent predators activated their gravity generators and shot out after it.

I watched for a breathless moment to see if Bill would follow. Luckily, he didn’t. He wasn’t in the mood to go looking for trouble, not after having already expressed concern about the bad guys coming after him once he had the statue.

A moment later I initiated a very small gravity-well and moved in closer to Bill’s ship.

“What just happened?” Miranda asked. She was not only confused, but I could also tell she was pissed.

“You’ll see.”

That was not the answer she was looking for, and I tried my best to tune-out Miranda’s latest tirade as I slipped the Enterprise into the gaping cargo hold at the rear of Bill’s ship. I shook my head, thinking that this woman either had a real anger management problem, or else she really loved the sound of her own voice.

Once the cargo bay was sealed and pressurized, I opened the side door to the Enterprise and stepped out. Unfortunately, Miranda followed, still chattering after me.

Bill was on the deck waiting for us.

“I suppose that play was part of your plan, my Captain?”

“I figured they would have your line tapped, so I had to come up with something to draw the hounds away from the fox.”

“What?”

“Never mind; any chatter?”

“Oh yes, quite a lot. Apparently your pursuers have followed the other Noreen into an area of restricted space. There’s a lot of confusion going on now, as military vessels are chasing your hunters deeper into the forbidden zone, while the Noreen has joined up with one of the military vessels.”

“What other Noreen?”

Bill looked hard at Miranda as she stepped between the two of us to ask her question. I could tell he was somewhat angry at her; it was just a guess, but probably because she had started this whole mess in the first place. I did a little dance and worked my way back between the two of them before Bill had a chance to react.

It seemed like an explanation was in order.

“I had Quint ask for his own a test drive of a Noreen II, with instructions to blast right through our meeting place and into the restricted area.”

“But he could have been killed, blasted by one of those ships out there,” Miranda said.

“I don’t think so. He came through too fast for ships sitting in dark status to get an accurate shot. And as Bill now reports, he’s cozied up to the nearest battlecruiser, screaming bloody murder about the pirates chasing him.” I smiled, thinking that if the salesbeing with Quint was the same Zorphin who worked with me – Vol’ox was his name – he would have been pitching a fit as Quint steered them right into a place he knew to be a forbidden zone.

Bill had passed his anger stage with Miranda by now and was instead shuffling nervously on the metal deck. “Perhaps we should get this transfer underway, before anyone decides to come back.”

I had grabbed the container holding the Unity Statue on the way out of the Enterprise, and now I handed it over to the alien.

“Will you be staying aboard as we enter the system?” Bill asked.

“Seems like a safe way to get in undetected. And you’re right, we should get moving. Full speed ahead … Captain Billork!”

The green-skinned alien was too nervous to appreciate his promotion. Instead he literally hopped away with the case containing the Unity Stone, heading for the bridge.

**********

After watching Bill leave the cargo bay, Miranda turned to me with a fiery stare. “That’s it? He just takes the statue and we remain here, trapped on this ship, completely at his mercy, or the mercy of whoever wants to stop us?”

“Why do you ask so many questions? Can’t you just relax and let things play out?”

“Because it looks you’ve just given away the only bargaining chip we may have had. Your alien friend will just hand the statue back to its owners and then ask them to be nice to us.”

“It was your idea to call someone.”

“Yeah, but we should’ve got something in return before turning over the statue. What guarantees do we have that he can cut us a deal? And not only that, but I think I’d feel more secure out in space in your souped-up motorhome, rather than locked in this flying storage locker.”

“That last part I can’t argue with, but Mark and his people are still going to be looking for us, especially when they find out they’ve been chasing Quint and not us. Someone’s going to make a call, and with a Noreen’s unique gravity signature, they’ll have the hounds out once again. Staying aboard means no one will see us coming.”

“So why did you give him the statue? Why not just hitch a ride to Sylox and let us broker the deal ourselves?”

“Stop with all the questions, and just let Bill handle his part. He’ll have a lot more credibility with the authorities than would the Human who stole it. And you notice I used the singular Human and not the plural, as it should be. Now follow me. We need to get all the names, locations and any other details you can remember about this operation down on paper. If Bill is going to save us, he’s going to need something more than just the statue to bargain with.”



Chapter 29


It turned out Bill had commandeered an old merchantman which normally carried a crew of five. Because of the vast distances these vessels often traveled, the accommodations aboard were spacious, including a fully-equipped galley and mess hall. After grabbing some Human-compatible food from the processor, Miranda and I sat down at one of the long tables and I began to make entries in a datapad as Miranda talked.

She was able to place names to the thugs who had kidnapped me, as well as three others, including aliens who matched the description of Jonk Limbor’s race – short, round and smelly. Of course, that also described half the aliens in the galaxy, along with a considerable number of Humans, as well.

When she finished, I sat back and marveled at the simplicity of the plan. The fact that entire races of intelligent beings could be so easily manipulated into a war amazed me. Yet the Velosians and the Simoreans did wear their animosity for one another on their sleeves. All it would take was a spark to ignite a war, and that spark was the theft of the Unity Stone.

Yet the one annoying factor in this entire plan was its reliance on Miranda to turn the statue over to the aliens after the deed was done. If Mark Wilson was indeed the brains of the operation, then he understood women even less than I did. It was understandable for aliens to screw up in this arena, but not a Human male.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to dwell on this anomaly for long. Bill had steered his ship back to Sylox, and I could tell by the hum of the generators that he was decelerating into an establishing orbit prior to making the final landing approach.

I knew that simply returning the statue to Sylox didn’t solve all of my problems. In fact, the situation only got more complicated from here on out. Bill not only had to find the right people to receive the Stone, but he also had to find those who he could present his case for leniency to on behalf of me and Miranda. And he had to do all this without tipping off the bad guys.

It was obvious from the information Miranda had just provided that her part in the conspiracy was just the tip of the iceberg. Who knew how high this thing really went?

But to the right people – creatures – the information contained in the datapad would mean power, and allow for a fair amount of blackmail to be employed. Otherwise heads would roll and entire corporations could crumble. In fact, the more I thought about it, the information in the datapad probably held more real value than the damn statue itself.

“I better track down Bill before we land and give him the datapad.”

I stood up from the table, but then I hesitated before walking away. I could see Miranda had turned pale, as she stared out across the room with vacant eyes and her shoulders slumped. She was coming to grips with reality.

We were now back at Sylox, where it was a very good chance she would be arrested for grand larceny and conspiracy. I was pretty sure at this point that I would be exonerated, but the best she could hope for was a reduced sentence. Even then, Miranda Moore was about to spend a good portion of her remaining years in an alien prison somewhere. She knew she was guilty as sin and deserved to pay the price, yet most people in her line of work refused to accept the fact that they could ever get caught. But they still do, most of the time.

That reality had just slapped Miranda hard across the face.

“Hang in there, Miranda,” was all I could say. “Even if you get some jail time, you’re still young.”

She looked up at me with desperate, moisture-filled eyes. “I’ve been in jail before, Jason, but this is different. I’ll probably end up in an alien prison. Do you have any idea what that could be like?”

“I can’t say I do.”

“Neither do I, but I can imagine.”

**********

“It isn’t pleasant … and some of your fellow prisoners may consider you food, rather than a cellmate.”

Both Miranda and I jerked our heads toward the source of the new voice in the room. The moment I saw him, I regretted that I’d left my .45 in the Enterprise.

It was Mark Wilson.

He stood in the doorway to the mess hall, smiling through his perfect teeth and immaculately-styled blond hair. He appeared to be alone, so I mentally calculated the distance between the two of us, knowing that with my training I could take him down in about three seconds flat.

I jumped – and was immediately jolted by what felt like a million sharp needles stabbing my body. I was flung backwards and landed hard on the metal deck, after tumbling over one of the stationary tables in the room. When my head cleared somewhat, I looked to see what had hit me. Mark Wilson was still standing in the doorway – alone – and with a smug grin on his face.

“Isn’t it amazing,” he said to me. “Alien technology at work; it’s a force field – or at least a force wall – out in front of me. As long as you attack from the front, I’m safe.” He took a few steps closer, smirking as he did so. “Did you really think I’d just walk in here defenseless against a trained killer like you?”

He moved further into the room until he was standing over me, glowering. “The thing you have to realize, Mr. Real Estate Agent to the Stars, is that I’ve always been one step ahead of you. I have from the start. Even before leaving Earth, your pitiful destiny had already been decided. There will be a war, and the Linoreans will take the fall for it, along with the two of you—”

All I saw was a flash of metal cross my vision, and then Mark Wilson dropped like a rock. The metal plate that had struck the side of his head clanged loudly on the metal deck as it spun and then came to a rest next to Wilson’s unconscious body.

I looked over to where Miranda now stood next to a stack of metal plates, with another one cocked and ready to go in case her first throw had been off the mark.

“Too much beach Frisbee as a kid, I guess,” she said with a smile. And then the smile vanished. “Asshole,” she said addressing Mark’s inert body. “He shouldn’t have told us how to beat his force field.”

I staggered to my feet, having trouble gaining control of my limbs as the excess electricity still coursed throughout my body. I must have been a sight to see as I jerked, stumbled and limped my way over to Miranda.

“Glob shhot, Muran-da,” I managed to spit out – literally – as a copious amount saliva drooled from my near-useless lips. “Blee carful, buf checc em.”

Fortunately, Miranda spoke basic gibberish, and so she cautiously approached the prostrate Mark Wilson. Now that we knew what to look for, we could detect the slight shimmering of the force field, now tilted away for Wilson’s body at a forty-five degree angle. Taking extra care not to come in contact with any part of the field, Miranda reached him and quickly rifled through his pockets, finding an MK-17 flash weapon along with a small silver control box. The lights on the display panel were still lit, but when Miranda pressed the one large button at the bottom, all the lights went out.

“Either I just turned off his force field, or I opened his garage door. I don’t know which.”

I tried to laugh, but all I did instead was spray my arms with more spittle.

Miranda returned and went to hand Wilson’s MK to me. But then she had second thoughts. “I think it’s better if I keep this for the time being.”

My nod looked more like I was having an epileptic seizure rather than a sign of agreement.

Miranda found some cord that was used to tie cushions to the hard metal dining seats and used it to secure Wilson’s hands behind his back and bind his feet. She then dragged his body over to the nearest wall and propped him up. His still-bleeding head hung limply against this chest. I could tell by the free flow of blood from the wound at his temple that Mark Wilson was still alive. Good. He had a lot to answer for.

I now cursed my useless body, as I wondered how many more of his henchmen were aboard. I was completely out of action, and it was a sure bet that Wilson wasn’t the only bad guy onboard. He wasn’t that cocky – or stupid – was he, even with a force field?

And what was Bill’s involvement with him? If I could ever talk coherently again, I would be sure to ask him.

**********

Miranda made me comfortable in one of the padded lounge chairs near what looked to be a game console in the mess hall, before she took up a defensive position near the door, MK-17 firmly in hand.

As the minutes passed, I could feel more sensation returning to my body, at least enough that I wasn’t slobbering all over myself anymore. This was embarrassing, after all, I believe in hiring the handicapped, but this was ridiculous. Mark Wilson had been right. He did have a very effective defensive weapon – when you weren’t being t-boned by a flying plate thrown by a desperate woman with nothing to lose.

I noticed Miranda become suddenly tense, and a second later Billork walked through the door with his customary bouncy gait. Even though he stood almost seven feet tall, he was still no match for the strength of your typical Human, and especially when an MK flash weapon was shoved up under your chin.

“Get over there, hurry,” she commanded, directing Bill to where I sat/trembled in the chair.

“What are you doing, Miss Miranda—”

And then Bill noticed me, which distracted him completely from the weapon now aimed at his head. “What is wrong with him? Is he having some form of an allergic reaction?”

“No, that’s thanks to your friend over there.”

Billork scanned the room until he saw Mark Wilson slumped against the wall.

“What have you done? Is he dead?”

“You don’t tie up dead people, stupid. But I’m out of rope, so don’t give me an excuse to shoot you.”

Again I cursed my twitching body; I wish I had said that!

Instead I managed to mutter, “Ho bity ore o is pleebol ur obod?”

“He only came aboard with two others,” Bill answered immediately, turning to me.

“You understood him?” asked Miranda.

“Perfectly; much better than normal, as facts would have it. Why?”

Miranda just shook her head

But then Bill looked again at the weapon pointed at him. “You don’t have to do this; I am not your enemy. My home and office had been monitored, so they knew when Jason linked to me. I was given no other option other than to bring them.”

“Uber er da achu?”

“It is still in the container you gave me, my Captain. Mon Wilson has left it entrusted with the others. I believe they are at this moment efforting to force open the lock.”

I managed to roll over … and promptly fell out of the chair. Miranda offered me a hand, all the while keeping the MK aimed at Bill.

“Usser banit uh dat,” I babbled, causing a deep frown to cross Miranda’s forehead.

“He said you don’t have to do that,” Bill translated. “I believe he is referring to you keeping me under guard.”

“Unfortunately, Jason is in no condition to make rational decisions. I think I prefer caution over trust.”

I managed to stand on my own, yet still with a tremendous amount of tremors. I was beginning to seriously wonder if the effects would be permanent. And with that thought, I would have smiled – if I could have – thinking that I could now avoid pound-em-in-the-butt-prison by being placed in a mental hospital instead, if it came down to that. I certainly fit the bill in my current condition.

Unfortunately, I began to feel a lessening in the tingling sensation, and was able to close my mouth and flex my hands. So, it looks like big-boy prison after all.

“It deems to be passin.” I said. I began to massage my arms and my neck, and then I reached down – carefully – and massaged my thighs. “Almost there. I’ll take the MK now, Miranda.”

The girl stepped back from both me and Bill. “I don’t think so, Jason. I think I’d feel more comfortable holding onto it for a while longer. But now that you’re back among the living, what are we going to do? Bill has been compromised, so who’s going to negotiate for us, even if we can get the statue back?”

“First off all, let’s get to the Enterprise, and bring Wilson along with us. You, too, Bill. We have to get off this ship before Mark’s people crack the safe.”

“But they have the statue—”

Miranda stopped mid-sentence when she saw my sly grin, or at least what I tried to convey as a sly grin. My face was still so palsied that I wasn’t sure what expression I was making.

“You bastard – you still have it!”

Bill jerked his head in my direction, glaring at me in anger like I’d never seen from him before. “Is that true?”

“I know where it is. And you were right, Miranda, I wasn’t about to just hand over our only bargaining chip until I knew if Bill was alone, and only if we got back to Sylox safe.”

“Where is it?” Bill demanded.

“It’s safe. And aren’t you glad it is? Now we’re still in the ballgame.”

“It’s still on the Enterprise.” Miranda asked.

“That I can’t tell you, but we need to get off this ship right now, and taking Mark Wilson with us will only add to our bargaining power. Now let’s move. Bill, can you help with Wilson?”

Miranda handed me the MK. “Here, take this. I think I can get Mark to the Enterprise better than Bill.” She looked up at the alien’s towering stature. “Nothing personal, Bill, but Humans are really strong brutes, even our women. And the gravity aboard your ship is a little lighter than I’m used to, so I got this.”

“Good plan, Miranda. Bill, take point – the lead – and let us know if you see anyone. Let’s roll.”

**********

It was actually pretty impressive to see Miranda hoist the limp Mark Wilson up over her shoulder and into a fireman’s carry and then plod off down the corridor toward the cargo bay.

We reached it without incident, and then all crowded into the Enterprise.

“Put Mark on the bed and leave the door open. After that, everyone strap in. I think I’m about to make an unceremonious departure.”

Miranda strapped in next to me, and was about to ask what I meant, when I initiated a micro-well directly ahead of us, near the exterior bay doors. The effect was immediate, as the huge double panels were literally sucked out of existence at a pinpoint directly in front of us. Of course, it happened so fast that none of us actually saw it. Just one moment there were doors, and the next there weren’t.

Now the Enterprise suddenly bolted out of Bill’s ship and flamed into the upper atmosphere of Sylox. A monitor on my console showed the transit vessel behind us begin to break into thousands of pieces of jagged metal, as the sudden loss of hull integrity literally blew the ship apart. Lost, too, were Mark Wilson’s two accomplices, along with the decoy safe they had been trying to open.



Chapter 30


The planet Sylox has highly-regulated airspace, and so it was only a matter of seconds before someone was screaming at me over the comm speakers, demanding my clearance and approach vectors.

I didn’t answer as I was too busy trying to pull the tiny craft out of its headlong rush toward the surface. When I broke us out of the cargo bay, I hadn’t realized we were so close to the planet. Now we were only about ten seconds away from becoming a new impact crater on the surface of Sylox.

“Holy crap, Jason, do something!” Miranda yelled.

“It might help if you could pull back on your stick, too. I know you’re strong enough.”

With the two of us straining with the controls, the Enterprise slowly began to nose-up. Whether it would be enough would be known in about two seconds flat.

We were coming in near the shores of Lake Ramfor, the largest freshwater lake on the planet, located in the southern hemisphere about two thousand miles from Sylox City. Most of the terrain surrounding the lake was marshland with very few settlements. This was fortunate, because we managed to hit the surface of the lake at an angle – yet flat-bottomed – at about four hundred knots. From there we managed to bounce a thousand feet back into the air and down range.

We dropped back to the surface again in a vast bed of tall reeds and mud, which splashed against the forward viewport, effectively canceling out my view ahead. We continued to skip over the shallow water of the marsh like an airboat in the Everglades for what seemed like minutes, before the ship finally moaned to a stop.

After catching my breath, I found that I couldn’t detect any wave motion in the ship, so I concluded we were on semi-solid ground and not back in the lake. The forward viewport was now a mass of black mud and green reeds, and the rest of the remote cameras were similarly coated in mud, so I had no idea what was outside.

What I did know was that our entry path would have been precisely tracked and that both rescue and Enforcer units would be only minutes away.

“Is the ship dead?”

I shook my head, still feeling some of the effects of the force field and groggily scanned my monitors. “I don’t know, let me see.”

I ran a check of the gravity generators and found they were still online, even though two of the four focusing rings were clogged and therefore couldn’t contribute to the well’s integrity. Even with that, the ship could still fly.

I adjusted the aim of the remaining focusing rings until they were pointed directly above and then created a gravity-well. The ship lifted off. Through a sliver of daylight now visible in the mud-covered viewport, I could see that the vast lake was located to port. I turned in that direction and took a jarring plunge into the blue water. I surfaced again moments later and climbed for the clouds.

The dip in the lake had its desired effect, as the front viewport was now clear, as were the other external monitors.

“We can still be tracked,” Bill said from back in the cabin. “I believe it is now time for me to exert my authority as a transit minister. I will need a comm link.”

Bill unstrapped and came forward. He leaned over the control console and spoke for several minutes with the units closing in on us, explaining how he had just made an emergency entry and was now safe and proceeding to a repair facility. No outside assistance was required.

When the creatures on the other side of the link questioned the fact that he was in a Noreen II – and possibly one that was an outlaw vessel – it took Bill even longer to explain how he was in the process of highly classified negotiations over that very issue. Finally, the rescue units relinquished, and let him proceed on his own.

“We need someplace to hide, where you can make your calls and open the dialogue for the return of the statue,” I said to the hulking alien still leaning over my shoulder.

“Of course, and I will require the statue, Jason. Where is it?”

“You’ll get it. But first here’s my datapad with all of Miranda’s information on it.” I pulled the tiny device from my pocket and handed it to Bill. “It clearly shows how all this has been a conspiracy involving both Mark Wilson’s people, as well as an alien – sorry – another organization called the Linorean Foundation. Wilson is a rogue, and he doesn’t represent the Earth government. This seems to be about building contracts, along with a dash of revenge thrown in. But mainly I think this has all been about money and influence. Miranda was manipulated into participating, and I was just an unsuspecting dupe. It’s all in there.”

“All this means nothing without the Unity Stone.” Bill casually slipped the datapad into the pocket of his tunic.

“You’ll get it,” I repeated. “Just get us someplace safe and then make your calls—”

“Mon Quint has it!”

“How would I have gotten the statue to him? He bolted past us faster than a beam of light.”

“Then it is on your ship.”

“That I cannot say is true.”

I narrowed my eyes at my alien friend. “What’s your obsession with the statue? You’ll get it, just trust me.”

Bill straightened up, bumping his head against the lowered ceiling above the control console. “Forgive my obsession, Jason, but you promised that I would be the one to return it, and thereby gain considerable notoriety for the act. You know how ambitious I am. I just wish to know that I will be able to deliver on any negotiations I begin.”

“You will, my friend. And after this is all over, I can see a place for you on the Council itself. Council Being Billork Kly Gon-Mok; it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” It didn’t.

Bill returned to the cabin.

“I know a sanctuary in the Polimor Mountains where we can base our operations.” he said as he fell back into the too-small chair. “It is an old family retreat, quite comfortable, yet remote.” He gave me the coordinates.

I now caught Miranda looking at me with narrow eyes of her own. She glanced back at Bill, and when he turned to look into the bedroom at the still unconscious Mark Wilson, she quickly leaned in closer to me. “It’s here, isn’t it?” she whispered.

“It’s safe,” I whispered back. “It’ll show up when it’s needed. Until then, I think you’re better off not knowing all the details.”

“You don’t trust me?”

I moved to within an inch of her nose. “Not a lick – my love – or anyone else.”

“You stinking rat-bastard!” This time her statement was at full volume.

I scanned the angry faces of both Miranda and Bill. “Everything will be revealed in due time. Until then, why don’t the two of you just back off?”



Chapter 31


The Polimor Mountains were located on the complete opposite side of the planet from Lake Ramfor; however it only took thirty-three very tense and silent minutes to reach Bill’s family retreat traveling through the Sylox atmosphere.

As Jonk Limbor had explained at one time, the native Zorphins had always been traditional burrow-dwelling creatures, at least until the Human builders came along. Since Bill’s retreat predated Human arrival on Sylox, it turned out to be a massive complex of underground tunnels, with the occasional surface mound for light and air, as well as ingress and egress.

There was an old landing pad near the largest of the access mounds and that’s where I set the Enterprise. Mark Wilson was beginning to stir in the bedroom by then and once the generators were cut off I went back to check on him.

He looked up at me from the bed, his eyes displaying rapid and wavy movements. He was still out of it, probably suffering from a severe concussion. At that moment I made a mental note: If we ever get out of this alive, I could sure use Miranda’s arm in left field. By then, of course, we may be playing on a prison softball team somewhere….

“I’ll have a cart brought for him.”

I looked up, startled to find Bill hovering at the doorway.

“That’ll be good. How many staff do you have here, and can they be trusted?”

“There are eight full-time, and two part-time. They have been with my family for generations, so they can be trusted.”

“Generations?”

“Yes. Many Zorphins take employment with wealthy families and are, in a sense, adopted by them. It is all quite symbiotic.”

“So you have some bucks; why didn’t I ever know that about you?”

“I understand bucks is Human slang for credits, but to answer your question, I have always wanted to present a more humble status, as my ambitions are for higher office. Although I am not aware of how it is on Earth, but on Sylox is takes considerable financing to reach superior positions. Even so, most of the population gravitates to those who can portray themselves as at a level equal to the masses. As a result, I found it not wise to display my wealth, so I survive on my Minister’s salary.”

“It’s the same on Earth, Bill. As a matter of fact, the more time I spend out here, the more I find that most intelligent beings seem to go about reaching their wants, needs and desires just like everyone else. It’s really quite amazing how similar we all are.”

Bill’s face seemed to cloud over suddenly. “You have only been a member of the Union for a short time, Jason. You will eventually learn that there are great differences, often irreconcilable differences between the races. Case-in-point is the current conflict. The only thing keeping the Velosians and the Simoreans from annihilating each other is the Unity Stone.”

“I didn’t say these similarities made us more compatible. In fact it may be the quest for these common elements that cause all the problems. If we all didn’t place similar value on similar things, then there would be no conflict.”

“Ah, a discussion of universal import; however one that must await another day. I believe I now have a job to do.”

Bill left the Enterprise and returned a few minutes later with another Zorphin. The three of us then carried Mark Wilson out of the spacecraft and placed him in a four-wheel electric cart. The other native took him away toward the nearest mound.

Miranda and I then followed Bill into his underground sanctuary.

**********

After stepping down a wide stairway and into a voluminous circular chamber furnished with oversize statues, tables and ornate seating, Bill led us down one of the three winding corridors radiating out from the room.

I’m sure that if it wasn’t for the fact that Bill’s species were all well over six feet tall and had a tendency to hop as they walked, then their burrows would not have been so spacious. As it was, they were huge, with ceilings over twenty feet high and hallways just as wide. And even though we had just entered a maze of underground passageways and chambers, I never felt claustrophobic. And the brilliant lighting and polished stone walls only added to my sense of ease.

“This is a pretty nice place,” Miranda said to Bill, as if reading my mind.

“It is one of the largest cells on this continent. I know you Humans place a lot of significance on square footage measurements, so I had that computed a few years ago. The entire complex is just over fifty thousand.”

“That’s massive,” I said. “And you can’t really tell it from the surface.

“The average cell on Sylox is around seven thousand square feet, and entire communities can be built with hardly a disturbance of the surface. Some even have master entrances, so even multiple access mounds are not necessary.”

“And yet you seem to really like your Sunrise Model at Zanzibar. It’s only a little over three thousand square feet, and all above ground. That must have taken some getting used to?”

“We adapt to the times, Jason. And since the Union made Sylox its capital, there have been many changes with which we have had to adapt to. Housing was only one of them.”

Bill stopped at a pair of doors set opposite each other in the stone walls of the corridor. “You may feel at home here. These chambers have private grooming stations and should be most spacious for Humans. You may take both of these, or elect to share, as is your custom.”

Miranda slipped past him and opened one of the doors. “We’ll need them both.” She turned back to the tall alien. “What about food? I’m famished.”

“There is a standard food processing unit inside, yet approximately two hundred feet down this corridor is the main consumption area for the complex. My family and I have a section to the north reserved for us and guests. You are welcome to use those facilities. The staff will provide whatever you seek. I will now proceed to the communications center to initiate my links. Wish me good luck, Jason King.”

“Without a doubt, my friend. Our lives are in your hands now.”

“That comment does not bring me contentment, but rather anxiety.”

“Sorry. I’m sure you will do your best.”

“That is all I can promise.”

Once Bill hopped off down the corridor, Miranda disappeared behind the closed door of her room, leaving me alone in the corridor.

**********

I entered my room, feeling slightly unsettled and nervous. Although I trusted that Bill would do his best, I wasn’t sure if it would be enough. I knew that a simple call to Council Member Morgus Orn would get the cogs in motion for the return of the Unity Stone, but this whole affair had blossomed into a full-scale conspiracy that went far beyond the theft of a valuable artifact. The mysterious Linorean Foundation was also involved. Cryus Blake of the CIA had mentioned them, too, calling them evil Freemasons-on-steroids. Now that was a scary thought.

There just seemed to be too many parties involved at the time to keep them all straight. Were they all connected, all working together toward the same goal? I then wondered if the Linoreans had made a foothold on Earth, and if that was how Mark Wilson became involved? He had only arrived on Sylox a short fifty-two days ago, so he could not have personally made all the arrangements necessary for Miranda to carry out her theft.

And yet stealing the Unity Stone was the simple part; it was what happened afterward that would determine the fate of planets and entire races of beings.

As I fell back on the extremely large bed, I realized I didn’t really care a lick about the warring factions of the galaxy. All I wanted was to be exonerated for the crime. And then if my business suffered because of all the negative press, I would return to Earth and pick up where I left off – if the planet was still there, of course.

I took a second small datapad out of my pocket and flicked it open. After selecting the proper channel, I could see the interior of the Enterprise, the image being relayed from a hidden camera tucked into the leather overhead above the control console. As I suspected, it hadn’t taken long for Bill to send a search crew aboard, looking for the statue.

I watched as the three Zorphins nearly tore the ship apart, searching. They pulled back the sofa, checked all the overhead compartments – they even opened the refrigerator and freezer.

After a half hour of fruitless searching, the three of them now stood in the center of the cabin looking uncertain, frustration painted on their narrow faces. And then one of them made a call, which I assumed was to Bill.

I knew that eventually I’d have to turn the statue over to him, just to complete the transaction. But in the meantime, I would hold onto it. There were still a lot of negotiations to carry out, and as long as I knew where the statue was – and no one else did – then I was in the catbird seat.

A strange, residual electrical spasm passed through my body, causing me a little concern. But then I realized just how tired I was. Sleep certainly couldn’t hurt, especially as the rogue electrical charges continued to dissipate. I shut off the datapad and closed my eyes.

I had no idea how much time I would have to rest before Bill came to me with a report. He had always had an annoying habit of letting me know every little detail of what was happening in his life. However, now I would actually welcome his next report. It could literally mean the difference between my life or death.

It must have been a side-effect of the massive electrical shock I’d taken, but even in spite of my last disturbing thought, I managed to doze off, at least for a while.

It was the earthquake an hour later that woke me.



Chapter 32


I tumbled off the bed and ended up on the floor on my hands and knees. I was thinking of heading towards a doorway for protection when my senses cleared enough for me to realize it wasn’t an earthquake I was experiencing, but rather the gravity landings of several large spaceships.

It felt like an invasion taking place on the surface, and I immediately became concerned for Bill and his negotiations. Those trying to stop me had obviously tracked us to the Zorphin’s retreat.

I had to get to the Enterprise.

I slid open the door to my room and jumped out into the corridor; however I didn’t get very far, as I was now face-to-face with my alien friend Bill, who now held an MK-17 bolt launcher aimed directly at my chest.

“What the hell’s going on, Bill?” I yelled, believing his aim to be a mistake.

Just then the door to Miranda’s room also slid open. “They’ve found us!” she cried out as she ran through the opening. Yet once she spotted me and Bill frozen in the center of the corridor, she focused her attention on the weapon in Bill’s hand. “Oh isn’t this special – you’re one of them.”

Bill managed a thin smile. “Correction, Ms. Miranda. I am not merely one of them. Rather I am The One.”

**********

It was fifteen minutes later when an extremely upset Quint Valarie was shoved into the room where Miranda and I now sat. And if that weren’t enough, Vol’ox, the Mulicorean starship salesbeing, stumbling into the room right behind, his already pale skin appearing nearly translucent as all the blood had drained from his kangaroo-looking face.

Quint focused his fiery stare on me as a pair of Zorphins pushed him into the chair to my right. “Well, that didn’t work out as planned, now did it?”

I have to admit, I was only half-surprised to see Quint show up.

“What happened?”

“Ha! What didn’t?” Quint said. “It seems that that restricted space you sent me back into is actually part of a Zorphin military base, and one conveniently controlled by your former second baseman, slash catcher, slash evil mastermind villain. Sure, they made quick work of the ships following me – those were just merchant escorts – but now they’ve taken particular interest in the second Noreen. You do know that if it gets damaged, the damn Mulicoreans are going to hold me responsible. I’ll tell you right now, buddy, I can’t afford no five million dollars. And besides, you still owe me over forty grand for your hot rod starship.”

He stopped for a moment and looked around the room. After a moment he looked back at me again. “We’re not going to get out of this alive, are we?”

I shrugged. “Probably not, but who’s to say for sure?”

And then Quint looked past me to where Miranda sat to my left. He extended his arm across my chest, and smiled, offering his hand to Miranda. “Hi here, you must be the alluring Miranda Moore; I’m Quint, Quinton Valarie. I don’t believe we’ve met. I have to say, I’m really pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Moore.”

She shook his hand while returning Quint’s smile with a seductive one of her own. “Oh look, a gentleman. Will wonders never cease?” Back was Miranda’s exotic and sensual accent.

Quint kept his dark, Latin eyes locked with Miranda’s. “Jason, she doesn’t appear to be the diabolical succubus you’ve made her out to be. In fact, she’s an absolutely ravishing creature.”

“Why thank you, Mr. Valarie. You’re not so bad yourself.”

“Knock it off you two,” I said, growing annoyed. “This is serious. Jiminy Cricket over there is about to start the show. You might want to pay attention.”

**********

Even though Billork had yet to deliver the classic James-Bond-Villain-Closing-Speech, I knew it was coming, at which time all would be revealed. The alien criminal mastermind had just been waiting for all the guests to arrive before he began.

Now, as the two Zorphin armed guards who had entered with Quint took up positions behind us, Bill set his weapon on the table behind of him and stood up.

“Jason, my Captain, you do know that I don’t actually need the statue for my plan to succeed. As a fact, its continued existence is more of a hindrance than a benefit. But I would still like to have it. It would not be good for it to show up at some point in the future.”

“What’s he talking about?” Quint asked. “He doesn’t have the statue?”

“If he did, I doubt if any of us would still be alive.” I met Bill’s eyes across the room. “So if you don’t need the Stone, why are we still alive?”

Bill smiled, that goofy-looking alien kind of smile of his. “I could say it is because we are friends and teammates, although I know you have never considered me to be either. Your fake friendship and camaraderie was so transparent, Jason. And your continued condescension throughout the years has been almost more than I could bear.”

“So all of this is because you’re pissed at me?”

“There you go again, seeing everything as being centered on you.”

“You noticed that about him, too?” Miranda said. “What a frickin ego.”

I jerked my head in her direction. “What is this, Gang-Up on Jason Week? And look who’s talking? You’ve been the prima donna throughout this entire affair. Besides, I remember you admitting that you rather enjoyed our one night together.”

“That may be so … but you’re still just a scruffy-looking nurf-herder in my opinion.”

“Who’s scruffy-looking? Yeah I get the reference, sweetheart, and thanks. But you’re the one who’s made all this possible.”

“Don’t blame her, Jason. You really had no control over events leading up to this very moment. It started several months ago when, with the help of the now-incapacitated Mon Wilson, we developed a profile of your perfect female and set about looking for just the one who we could get you to do our bidding. I must say, during our analysis it didn’t seem as though your requirements went much beyond simply being a Human female. And although I am a poor judge of such things – being an alien, as you call me – I get the impression that Mr. Wilson may have far exceeded our basic criteria when he found your Miranda.”

“Thank you,” Miranda said with a frown. “I think.”

“So you were supposed to be so irresistible to me that I couldn’t say no? Is that it? We’ll I did, if you recall. You know she wanted me to spy for her?”

“Will the two of you please shuddup!” Quint yelled. “You’re acting like an old married couple, while the big green alien thing over there is about to kill us all dead.”

“We’re not aliens – we are native to Sylox! How many times do I have to say that?” Billork now turned back to the table and grabbed his weapon. He aimed it at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. The resulting blast got our attention.

“If you will now allow me to continue, you may all learn something – before you die.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to work, in the movies,” I said under my breath, still pissed that everyone was picking on me.

“Are you not curious as to why I have done all this?”

“Yeah, you’re upset because everyone keeps calling you an alien.” Maybe I had gone too far, because Bill suddenly took one hop at me and slammed his massive fist into the side of my head. I tumbled into Quint, who himself fell into Vol’ox. We all ended up in a pile on the floor.

The Mulicorean was the first to retake his seat. “I am an alien, too, as they call me, so I am not a part of any of this. All I do is sell spaceships. Please let me go, and I will say nothing. I promise.”

Bill turned to glare at him. “I hate spaceship salesbeings as well. You are all carrion-eaters, you and home agents, as well.” The last comment earned me a glare of my own from the angry alien – I mean native.

Quint and I took our seats again, while Bill returned to the spot in the room where a podium would have been placed, if there had been a podium in the room.

“Maybe we should let him finish his story,” Miranda said. “He seems really intent on telling it.”

“Thank you, Ms. Miranda,” Bill said. “I am. And for some odd reason I feel I must explain my actions – at least to someone. And who better than those who are about to die?”

“Then by all means, continue Bill,” I said enthusiastically. Immediately the plot of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights came to mind. Reversing the storyline of the classic, I realized the longer I could keep him talking, the longer we had to live.

My other two Human companions were thinking along the same lines, too, because now we all nodded and cheered for the frustrated alien to continue. Bill’s face and manner changed, as he now found he had a rapt and willing audience for his tale of criminal genius.

In the meantime, Quint slowly passed me a small laser-pistol under the table, one of two he’d extracted from Vol’ox’s marsupial pouch during the pile-up. We would listen to Bill’s story, but we certainly weren’t going down without a fight.

**********

“That’s better,” said Billork. “And now, Jason King, you will gain respect for me once you have learned what I have managed to accomplish.”

“For what good it’s going to do me … when I’m dead.”

“That is unfortunate, but that eventuality is partially your fault.”

“And exactly how did you come to that conclusion?”

“It has been by studying your crime stories – Human crime stories – that my organization and I have been able to devise a plan that is foolproof, as you call it.”

“That’s obvious,” Miranda chimed in, looking at me with a silly grin.

To his credit, Bill was learning to ignore our snide remarks and get on with his story. “For example, we have learned that for any crime to fully succeed, one must not only have precision planning and execution, but also to provide the authorities with another party – or parties – to take the blame for said crime. If one can be created and supplied with irrefutable evidence to that effect, then the Enforcers will have solved the crime and will therefore have no reason to search further for the true perpetrators. By the Human definition, that would be the perfect crime.”

He paused for some reason, probably because he’d seen the villains do it in the old Bond movies – many of which I’d lent him over the years. The bastard! I don’t think he’d returned them all to me, either.

But then he continued. “However, at this point I must declare that I do not feel we have been perpetrating a crime by the true definition of the word, but rather a resolution to a problem than has plagued the Zorphin for over three hundred years. Even still, blame for recent events – as well those that are about to happen – must be refocused on others, and not on us. Those others, unfortunately, are you, Jason King, and you, Miranda Moore. And beyond that, others will additionally share the responsibility, including that disgusting creature Jonk Limbor and his Linorean Foundation. Included as well, will be the entire Human population on Sylox, and by extension, on Earth as well.

“You see, my Captain, we want and need a war between Simore and Velosia. It was because of their on-going animosity for one another that the Amelians conceded to move the Capital to Sylox, an event of which many of us – my ancestors included – were adamantly opposed.”

“So that’s what this about?” I blurted out. “You don’t want to be the center of the universe anymore.”

We are not the center of the universe, Jason. The Union Capital is, and it just happens to be on Sylox. And since the Union’s arrival, the entire culture and way of life of the Zorphin has been altered – not the least of which by the disgusting practice of scarring the surface with your ugly residential dwellings.”

This was a whole new side of Bill I’d never seen before – the confident, assertive, indeed powerful Bill. I kinda liked it. I had respect for decisive people, and for my old friend to put all this together meant he had more cojones than I’d given him credit for. I assumed Zorphins had cojones. I’m sure they had to.

“Jason, you have no concept what a tragedy it has been to watch the surface of my beloved planet be ravaged by off-planet developers, such as you and your associates. And it has not only been the Humans, although I must say your kind have been the most prolific and successful.”

“But Jonk builds underground homes; why are you pissed at him, too?”

“The Linorean Foundation is much more than simply residential builders. They also construct huge pinnacle structures – you call them skyscrapers. They also build traffic ribbons and mobile transports, plus they have investments in commercial and retail sales outlets, and so much more. They also supply weapons and other materials of war to any party capable of making payment.

“As you can see now, our plan is all-encompassing. And in one brilliant move, we will have managed to solve all our problems at once.”

“How is all this going to get your planet back?” Quint asked. Good! Questions required answers – and more talking – anything to keep us alive a little long while I did my best to formulate a plan.

“It is quite simple, Mr. Valarie,” Bill said. “The Velosian and the Simoreans will devastate each other in their war, while drawing in a number of other races for what will become a galaxy-wide conflagration. Yet since many of these worlds are far from Sylox – which I might add will declare its neutrality in the conflict – the bulk of the battles will take place at a distance, sparing us from any damage. At the war’s conclusion, the Union will be severely weakened. The Amelians, who never wanted to move the Capital to Sylox in the beginning, will elect to return the Union Capital to their homeworld.

“In the meantime, those entities complicit in the theft of the Unity Stone – and as instigators of the galaxy-wide war – will be expelled from the Union and banished from Sylox. Individual worlds, such as Earth, may even suffer catastrophic retaliation for their supposed involvement in the conflict.

“In the end, the Linorean Foundation will be dissolved, the Humans from Earth will be gone from Sylox, and the Union will return to Amelia, leaving Sylox to the native Zorphins. All the true aliens will then be gone from my homeworld.”

I nodded to Bill. “Damn, dude, that’s a pretty good plan.” And I meant it. It looked like Bill and his so-called people had it pretty well wrapped up. “So why didn’t you just protest in the Council and ask to have the Capital moved? If that happened – without a war – then the Human developers would move, too?”

“Unfortunately, not all Zorphins realize what a horrible thing it has been to have the Union Capital on Sylox.”

“But you have?” Miranda threw in.

“That is correct. My followers can see the damage being inflicted, even if others cannot. In the long-run, all Zorphins will benefit from our actions, and in time they will thank us.”

“But right now, how do they feel about your movement?”

Miranda seemed to have picked up on the flaw in Bill’s plan, because the big green alien was beginning to squirm.

“That is not important. We cannot be responsible for the narrow vision of some, those who cannot see the damage occurring right before their eyes. And then there are the traitors, the turncoats, as you call them. These are Zorphin who embrace the alien invaders and attempt to adopt their ways.”

“Jonk accused you of doing just that,” I pointed out.

“I had to play my role, not only for your benefit, Jason King, but also for the near future as Sylox goes through a major transition period. Yet as more and more of my people begin to turn to our side, I will rise up as the voice of the new Sylox.”

I laughed. “So screw ambitions for the Council, you want to be leader of the whole damn planet.”

“That is correct, Jason. And I will lead my people into a new era of peace, prosperity – and most of all – independence. I am sure you, of all creatures, can appreciate that.”

“So you have studied Human history, Billy.” I’d never called him Billy before, so I didn’t know how he’d react to it. It wasn’t good.

“I thought I would gain your respect by explaining myself, but I see that has not happened.” He began to walk towards the door.

Oh shit! Was the lecture over?

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“It seems as though I have been wasting my time here with you – with all of you. It is time for me get on with my affairs.” He stopped at the doorway. “Just to conclude, your bodies will be found in the wreckage of your pretentious spaceship, along with all the evidence necessary to prove your quilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That way, the file will be closed and I will be free to pursue the rest of my plan. The war will begin, and then I will start the push for independence. The Amelians will agree, as they have always wanted the Capital back on their homeworld. And without the Velosians or Simoreans to protest, it will come to pass.”

I had turned in the chair towards Bill and begun to rub my right leg as he talked. “Sorry, my friend, but we’ve been sitting for quite a while. But now I suppose it’s time for us to die.”

“Unfortunately, yes. But please go with the knowledge that with your deaths will come a new beginning for the natives of Sylox.”

“That’s good, Bill. I’m glad we could help. There’s just one last thing I’d like you to do for me – kinda of a dying wish and all.”

Bill frowned. “And what would that be, my Captain?”

“Catch!”

**********

I whipped off my right shoe, and in a flash, threw it directly at Bill’s head.

The ceiling of the room we were in was over twenty feet high; however the doorway where Bill now stood was only about twelve. Startled, Bill’s instinctive reflexes took over – and he sprung up on his double-jointed legs. His head crumbled against the door’s header, coming close to breaking his neck, but definitely knocking him unconscious.

At the same time, Quint took aim at the nearest Zorphin guard with his little laser pistol, and sent a pencil-width beam of red light through the alien’s chest.

For my part, after throwing my shoe, I also took aim with my own little ray gun at the last surviving guard, but I wasn’t so subtle. My beam entered the green alien’s right eye socket and then continued out the back of his head.



Chapter 33


To our credit, all three of the Humans in the room were up and moving even before the last guard hit the floor. Quint and I took the limp Billork by the arms and began to drag him into the corridor. That’s when I noticed Vol’ox wasn’t with us.

I looked back into the room and saw him still sitting at the table, his eyes wide and his mouth limp.

“Vol’ox, get moving!” I yelled.

The alien’s head shuddered in my direction, yet his eyes seemed to have difficultly focusing on me. He was that scared.

“Come on. You can’t stay here. They’re going to kill you.”

“But … but I am not with you.”

“But you know everything about their plan. For that, you’re going to die. Is that what you want?”

That got the Mulicorean’s attention. He rose unsteadily to his feet. “Get a move-on,” I yelled. “And help us with Billork. The sucker’s really heavy.”

Vol’ox made it over to the rest of us, and it seemed that having the task of helping us drag Bill’s body down the corridor shook him out of his trance.

Miranda grabbed an MK off the body of one of the guards and took point, as the three men – males – were burdened with the unconscious, seven-foot-tall grasshopper.

“What now?” Quint asked. We were rushing down the corridor with Bill’s leather shoes squeaking at a deafening volume as they slid over the polished marble floor.

“First of all, I can’t stand that any longer.” I stopped, which caused Quint and Vol’ox to fall over Bill’s body. As they were righting themselves, I stepped back and pulled off Bill’s shoes.

Whew! What a potent odor! Who would have known?

“What the hell is that stink?” Miranda cried out from ten feet away.

“Never mind, do you remember how to get out of here?”

We resumed our headlong rush down the corridor.

“You mean you don’t?”

“Hey, I was still suffering from the effects of a Taser-on-steroids shock when we got here.”

“But you’re supposed to be this super Special Forces dude—”

“For Christ’s sake!” Quint said, shaking his head. “Just keep going straight until you reach a wide corridor to the left. That will take us to the exit point. What the hell’s happened to you, Jason? You used to be better at this.”

“I’m sorry, but I haven’t eaten anything all day. Besides I took quite a shock a few hours ago.”

Quint looked toward Miranda. “What’s he talking about?”

“Oh, nothing; he’s just being a big crybaby.”

“Well screw you, Miranda!”

“You’d like to – again.”

“What is it with you two? Quint asked. “I hope I’m invited to the wedding. I love wedding cake. But on second thought, don’t invite me. I have enough stress in my life already.”

We reached the other corridor Quint had mentioned. So far we hadn’t run into any other aliens and no alarms had sound—

An alarm began to reverberate throughout the complex, echoing off the stone walls with a strange harmonizing effect. It was kind of musical in a way.

“How many ships came in with you, Quint?”

“Three medium-size warcraft. They piloted the Noreen in themselves because none of their bays were large enough to hold it.”

“About how many crew, if you had to guess?”

“Ninety or so. We only spent a few minutes with one of the captains before he spilled the beans about who they really worked for. But just moving through the ship, I can’t see more than thirty per ship.”

“And they won’t all be combat troops, either,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.

“But against two semi-useless laser pointers and one MK without any additional power packs, they probably won’t need more than a basketball team worth of fighters to take us down, not if they come packing.” Quint was always the more pragmatic of the founding partnership of Galactic Realty and Relocation Service. Now he was being almost too pragmatic.

“You obviously got my info packet from Vol’ox. What about that?”

“I got us the guns. And I have to say poor Vol’ox here was not the most-willing participant.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Miranda asked.

We were nearing the central access mound for the complex and already could hear a parade of alien footsteps on the marble floor. Luckily, the corridors throughout the complex weren’t straight line affairs. Instead they meandered through the underworld, either for aesthetic effect or following some kind of rock structure. We could only see maybe fifty feet down any given hallway before it curved off gradually. That also meant the bad guys couldn’t see us, either.

But now the hallways leading to our exit point were filling up with armed troops. We had to find a place to hide.

Quint tried one of the side doors and it slid open. “In here, quick before they see us.”

The three Humans and two aliens – one still unconscious – tried to squeeze through the standard size doorway all at once, which didn’t really work very well. Slender Miranda ended up being the only one to make it inside on the initial try. Then Quint jumped over Bill’s inert body and pulled him through. Next went Vol’ox, and I brought up the rear, taking one last check of the corridor before entering and activating the door controls.

“I repeat, what’s this about a data pack?” Miranda asked.

I ran further into the room, which turned out to be one of the many guest rooms the complex seemed to offer. It was almost a clone of the one I had spent a few restless hours in earlier. Satisfied that we were alone, I returned to the door to the corridor and took up a flanking position on the opposite side from Quint.

Miranda was standing next to Bill’s inert body, glaring at me, while Vol’ox stood beside her, allowing his debilitating fear to take over again.

It seemed Miranda wasn’t going to stop staring at me until I answered her question. “While you were enjoying one of your little naps in weightlessland, I sent a message to Vol’ox saying that Quint wanted to test drive a Noreen II for himself. I also sent an encrypted file along for him to give to Quint.”

“Why not just call Quint directly?”

“Hell, if anyone was being watched, it would be him. But I was pretty sure no one would be watching my starship salesman, person, thing.”

“So what was in the data pack?”

Quint moved over to the door and pressed his ear against it. The rest of us didn’t have to do the same to hear the sound of running boots in the hallway outside. Quint held his finger up to his lips. The three Humans knew what that meant, but when Vol’ox opened his mouth to speak, Miranda slipped an arm around his neck and clamped her hand over his mouth, pulling him to the floor in a lightening quick move. She had trouble covering the entire kangaroo-like mouth with just one hand, but it was the expertise with which she’d subdued him that made me take notice.

Miranda saw that I had noticed, too, but since we had to remain quiet, all she did was frown and shake her head at me.

I regarded her for a moment longer before breaking eye contact.

Quint surveyed the door controls from his location and found something that looked like it might be locking switch. With the universal translators working only on a verbal level, none of us had learned to read Zorphin – it hadn’t been necessary, until now.

Quint flicked the switch … but instead of locking the door, it slid open with a swish. A squad of four Zorphins military had just passed by and didn’t notice the door opening. But the two bringing up the rear did.

Quint stood up quickly and jumped into the hallway. “Hurry, Billork has been injured!” he cried out to the two soldiers, while pointing at Bill on the floor.

The two green Zorphins had brought their weapons to the ready position when seeing Quint, but now they looked past him and into the room. Spotting Bill lying unconscious on the floor, they hesitated. Miranda and Vol’ox where still wrestling on the floor next to him, their limbs interlocked and looking as though they were engaged in some bazaar interspecies sex act. I was still hidden from view, pressed up against the wall next to the doorway.

I held my breath – we all did – not knowing it these mere foot soldiers would even recognize their leader if they saw him; in fact I often wondered how any of them could tell themselves apart from the next Zorphin, since all aliens looked alike.

To my overwhelming relief, the two soldiers ignored Quint and rushed past him into the room. Once they were through the doorway, Quint casually entered behind them and flicked the same switch on the control panel. The two Zorphin soldiers didn’t even notice when the door to the hotel suite closed, trapping them in a room with three very pissed off Humans.

Fourteen seconds later Quint and I were standing over the two unconscious foot soldiers, sorting through the Unos-KM power packs we found on them, along with a pair of Model Series-33 flash handguns.

“Now these are some real weapons,” I said, admiring the solid feel of the military-grade handguns. The for-civilian-consumption MK’s were made mostly of plastic and always had a cheap feel about them. But not the S-33’s, and if all else failed I could always heave one of these at an attacker like Thor’s Hammer. It certainly would make an impression.

“It’s still not a lot against a company-size force of alien military,” Miranda said, as she released a very frustrated Vol’ox.

“Company size? And I suppose you just picked up that little bit of trivia sitting around the student lounge in the Galactic Affairs department of B.S…U?”

“No, smartass. You still don’t believe I went to college, do you? But to answer your question, I was a gamer – mainly military strategy – before the games all came to life and the aliens started shooting back. Now how about answering the question about the data pack?”

“It just had instructions in it, such as to bolt right through the region of space this side of the accretion disk and then go find the nearest military vessel for protection. I also asked him to bring some extra firepower with him if he was caught, hidden within Vol’ox’s marsupial pouch.”

Miranda shot a glance at Vol’ox. “You’re a female?”

“Do I look like a female?” The Mulicorean was offended, either from her question, or from the fact that Miranda had so easily taken him down.

I could tell by Miranda’s bemused expression that Vol’ox probably didn’t want to hear her true answer: I can’t tell, since you all look alike to me.

Vol’ox continued. “Yet to further explain, Mulicorean males do possess a shelter pouch, but not for the nursing of our young, but simply for protection during the males’ time with our tiegs.”

“Tiegs?”

“Tiegs … offspring. You Humans truly are uninitiated.” Vol’ox looked at Quint. “And I must believe now that you have no intention of purchasing the Noreen II, since all this was simply a ruse, a means to an end. I wondered why you would pay me a hundred credits just to carry the small container in my pouch. Now I know.”

“And that was all that was in the data pack?” Miranda asked. “You’re not about to pull out some big surprise right here at the end?”

I grinned. “I never said that.”

“Yeah, about that….”

I jerked my head in Quint’s direction.

“They weren’t exactly enthusiastic about helping out,” Quint said, finishing his statement.

“Who?”

“The Marines at the Embassy; Jason and I play cards with most of them. Jason even dated their commander for a while.”

“And what is his name?”

“Very funny,” I said to Miranda. “So they’re not coming to help?”

“Wilma didn’t say they wouldn’t, but she sure did go into a long litany of all the reasons she shouldn’t.”

Wilma? Her name is Wilma?” Miranda’s eyes sparkled as a thin grin stretched her lips.

I ignored her. After all, Colonel Wilma Baskin was a very impressive figure, whether in uniform or out. But now the real question was whether or not she would send her two-hundred-strength force to our rescue. Quint had placed an encoded transponder on the test Noreen, with a burst voice recording capability. She would know where we are, but whether she would have picked up any useful audio to help make the case for the Marine’s intervention, well, that remained to be seen.

“Aren’t they authorized to protect Humans who are in danger?” Miranda asked.

“Sure,” Quint said. “But not two accused jewel thieves – along with their unwitting accomplice.”

“So it looks like we’re on our own,” I said, as I checked the power readings on the S-33 for about the tenth time.

“Too bad we don’t have more shoes to throw, other than what we’re wearing,” said Miranda sarcastically.

That gave me an idea.

I stood up abruptly and moved to the food processing station in the room.

“What are you up to?” Miranda asked.

“Just watch.” I made a series of entries at the processor terminal, and almost immediately, several three-inch-diameter, hard brown balls began to spit out the delivery chute.

“What the hell are those?” Miranda stepped over and picked up one of the balls. She smelled it and then took a bite. She frowned.

“Damn, they’re hard, but they taste like caramel.”

“They are – crunchy caramel balls. I have them quite often at my house. About the size of a baseball, right?”

**********

“You say we should throw these at the soldiers?” Quint asked. There was no enthusiasm in his voice. “You’ve got to be crazy. We won’t even get close enough, and then what happens if they do jump? What do we do then?”

“This is just if our weapons run short, and if they jump then we’ll have a distraction, a diversion.” More of the hard balls were now rolling out of the chute, and Miranda scooped up a couple of handfuls and took them over to Quint. She returned and filled her pockets with them, too.

“Just aim for their heads. They hate anything coming toward their faces.”

I went back to the door. “Quint and I will take lead once in the corridor, so I need Miranda and Vol’ox to bring Billork. I know we’ll eventually need him as a hostage. Our objective will be to get out of the underground complex and back topside, so we’ll be heading to the right when we leave here. Miranda, watch our backs for any troops behind us. Now we shouldn’t be more than a hundred feet or so from the central lobby area, and I’m sure that’s where most of the troops will be assembling, so be careful. Hopefully, most of the Zorphins will have their S-33 handguns set at Level-2 to give them more shots per battery pack—”

“Why hopefully?” Miranda asked.

Quint and I exchanged a knowing glance. “Because a Level-2 bolt can’t kill a Human. I learned that back at Battlefield Vegas a long time ago, and by accident, I might add. But that’s another story.”

“Oh good, so I’ll know if the bolt won’t kill me, after I’ve been shot.”

“Actually you can tell by the color of the bolt,” Quint said. “Pale blue – almost white – is a Level-2. Pure blue means L-1, and to duck for cover if you see that coming from the enemy.”

“Got it, Mr. Valarie,” Miranda acknowledged with a wink. “So where should I set the MK I took from the guard?”

“Two will be fine, for the aliens. It not only burns their flesh, but the electrical charge also causes cardiac arrest in most species.”

“Yum,” said Miranda. “Can’t wait to start racking up some points. It’s been a while since I played Alien Shooter on my computer – and I used to be really good at it.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “Just remember, these aliens shoot back – for real.”

We positioned ourselves near the door, and when all was ready, I nodded to Quint. He opened the door.



Chapter 34


The two of us moved out into the corridor, crouching and scanning both directions. No one was within eyesight, but we could hear voices coming from our right. We slipped down the hallway, Quint on one side, me on the other.

About twenty feet down, I was able to see around the curvature of the passageway and into the central foyer at the base of the wide stairway leading up to surface. I could make out a dozen Zorphin military troops, looking strange with their reverse knee joints pointing backwards, while displaying an impossible range of motion with their triple jointed arms. Half of the troops carried Xan-fi flash rifles, while the other half had S-33’s.

There were also four topless electric carts parked between us and the troops. Eventually the aliens would board the carts for a quicker trip through the labyrinth, but for now they would provide us with cover.

Quint and I sprinted forward in a low crouch and then slid on the polished marble floor up to the nearest cart. Peering through seats and steering sticks we watched to see if we’d been noticed. Once clear, I turned to Miranda and signaled for her and Vol’ox to drag Bill to the cart.

It was when the Mulicorean tripped halfway to the cart that our problems really began. He fell over one of Bill’s unnaturally long legs and fell with a grunt to the floor. The sound echoed off the stone walls of the corridor, attracting the attention of the two Zorphins closest to the cart.

I nodded to Quint, and together we took careful aim.

The two aliens began to walk toward the cart. There was some cover provided by the vehicles, but not much. So it wasn’t long before the approaching seven-foot-tall aliens spotted the tops of our heads from their high vantage point. And then one of them looked further down the corridor and saw the heap of bodies that was Miranda and Vol’ox hunched over Bill.

We opened fire – two shots, two kills. But then pandemonium broke out in the staging area. I cursed – aloud – when I saw the effectiveness of the alien troops as they turned, crouched and broke up into squads, taking cover within a second or two of our shots. This I hadn’t counted on and I wondered where the Zorphin had got their training. For a race of creatures who haven’t fought a war in centuries, these guys were well-trained.

The huge, circular room at the base of the stairway was also decorated with a variety of statues, settees, credenzas and the like, so the soldiers were able to find ample cover, including two of the electric carts that were closer to their position. Quint and I couldn’t get very few clear shots. I began to get worried, because the longer it took us to clear this force and make it up the stairway, the more likely other troops would arrive, both from down here and also from the surface.

And then to top it all off, Bill was coming to.

Miranda and Vol’ox had pulled Bill up to the cart next to where Quint and I were finding cover, but I could hear his grumbling even over the sound of the random flash bolt whizzing by. I looked over and saw that Miranda had planted a knee in Bill’s chest and stuck the MK just under his chin. Even then, the groggy look of Bill’s eyes showed that he wasn’t even aware of either. That would change, and then Miranda would have a heluva mess on her hands.

I took one of my crunchy caramel balls from my pocket. Quint saw me do it. “Hungry, or are you planning on throwing that thing?”

“Throwing it,” I said. “We can’t get a good shot on any of them, but this thing can arch over.”

“Like a hand grenade, but without the explosion?”

“That’s right.”

“Without the boom-boom and you expect it to work?”

“Oh ye of little faith….” And then I tossed the ball. The ceiling in the huge room was well over a hundred feet high, and was part of the mound on the surface. So I was able to get some pretty good height on the throw. But the ball landed short of my target.

Quint looked at me with disgust, shaking his head.

“Hey, it takes a while to gauge the weight and distance. The next one will be better.”

And it was. This time the ball made it over the barricade formed when a couple of statue tables had been pushed together. I heard a yelp – and then a Zorphin suddenly sprang up from behind the barrier, clearing it by a good two feet. He landed awkwardly on the tables and fell forward, losing his weapon in the process.

Quint and I both opened up, and soon another alien was dead.

“Well I’ll, be damned – it worked,” Miranda cried out from twelve feet away.

“Get ready,” I said to Quint. “I’ll throw, you shoot.”

Quint took aim toward the barricade and nodded. “Ready.”

I heaved another of the balls; another answering ‘yelp,’ and another jumping alien. Quint didn’t even let this one land before shooting him. It was a like playing a life-size game of Whack-A-Mole, but this time with bug-like aliens.

Since I had the stronger arm and better aim, I did the throwing while Quint did the shooting. Soon another five Zorphins were dead.

**********

“I need more balls!” I shouted to Miranda.

“I knew that already,” she called back with a smile. But then she rolled the ones she had over to me.

Quint slapped another power pack into his S-33, and we set about shooting skeet with the jumping Zorphins.

There were shouts coming from all over the enemy position, as officers pleaded with their troops not to jump when the balls approach. I spotted one of the officers exposed slightly as he yelled out. I took aim and let loose with one of my tasty treats.

He didn’t see it coming, so I yelled out as loud as I could, “Hey!”

This got his attention, just as the ball closed on his face. Seeing the ball, the officer instinctively jumped, and Quint nailed him just as he cleared his cover.

There were still ten or so of the soldiers remaining and I knew more would be showing up behind us soon. But now the survivors were beginning to break rank and panic. A couple broke for the stairway, where Miranda cut them down with two accurate blasts from her MK-17.

Let’s see: two running/hopping targets at a distance of about forty yards. Now that was some impressive shooting, especially for a person with no military experience.

But I didn’t have time to dwell on that for long, because the remaining troops were now retreating down the corridor at the other side of the lobby chamber.

“Put Bill in the back of that cart and then you and Vol’ox get over to the stairs. We’ll cover you!” I ordered Miranda. But she was already a step ahead of me, and the cart pulled away even before I finished my sentence.

“Quint, break right as I cover you. In three, two, one, break!”

I laid down suppressing fire at the retreating aliens as the rest of my party reached the wide stairway. Quint helped the other two carry Bill up the stairs. The alien was more aware of things now and his huge head wobbled around, trying to focus on what was going on around him. He was still groggy enough that they reached the top of the stairs without him protesting too much.

At the top, Quint took a knee and sighted his weapon along his cheek. I took off in a sprint for the stairs as Quint laid down covering fire; even as series of bolt splashes struck the marble floor around me as I ran.

I took the stairs three steps at a time – and was panting like a horse after a ten furlong race by the time I reached the top.

I slid in next to Quint and took aim. “I need to work out more,” I managed to say.

“I’ve been telling you that for years,” Quint replied, “and more than just your silly softball games.”

“Hey, my softball skills just saved our asses.”

“More like your culinary skills, dickhead.”

“There’s more coming from outside!” Miranda screamed.

I patted Quint on the shoulder and then took off toward the huge opening leading outside. The sun was low in the sky by now, so the light streaming through wasn’t too much of an adjustment for my eyes. Miranda and Vol’ox had Bill over at the right side of the opening, and now she was standing on his chest, pinning him to the floor. I saw the recognition in Bill’s eyes as I ran over to the trio. He knew me, but there was no animosity in this gaze, so he was still out in la-la-land somewhere.

“There,” Miranda said, pointing to a grouping of Zorphin soldiers near a supply truck and a small armored vehicle. There were a dozen of them, and then to the left three more vehicles were approaching, all loaded down with armed aliens.

Across the vast field I could see the Enterprise on the landing pad about two hundred yards away. That was too far to run, especially having to carry Billork.

“Hurry up,” Quint yelled from the top of the stairs. “Another dozen or so have turned up and they’re all moving this way.”

Shit! We were boxed in by overwhelming superior numbers and firepower. I looked down at Bill. His expression was changing; he was becoming angrier.

I got him to his feet. “You know who I am?” I asked, pressing the S-33 into his chin.

“Yes I do, and you should know you will not get out of here alive. You have no option but to release me and surrender.”

“Sorry, Bill, but you gave me no option when you sentenced us all to death. Now if I die, so do you.”

I hauled him out in front of me and into the open. The troops outside, now estimated to be about forty, saw that I had a Zorphin with me. I was hoping that even at this distance, someone would recognize Bill and hold their fire.

But no such luck. A barrage of flash bolts came flying my way, and it was all I could do to get us both back behind cover without getting either of us killed.

“That was a foolish move, Jason. There are easier ways of killing yourself than like that.” Bill said.

I ignored him. Instead I moved to the edge of the opening. “I have Billork Gon-Mok with me,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “He’s your leader if you weren’t aware of that. Call a superior to verify. But we are all going to be moving toward the launch pad, and if you don’t want your leader to die, then you will hold your fire.”

“Is that you, Billork?” A strong voice called out from the cluster of troops now facing us.

“Yes, I am here!”

“Careful, my friend,” I whispered to Bill. “Don’t say or do anything foolish.” And for emphasis, I stabbed Bill’s rib cage with the barrel of the S-33. He grimaced and then looked down at me with a frown.

“Was that really necessary?”

“Damn you, Bill, we’ve known each other for a long time. I still can’t believe you’re the mastermind behind this whole thing, and that you would do this to me.”

“My name is Billork! It is not Bill, or Billy, or even Billy-Bob. And actually the decision to involve you was an easy one.”

I was genuinely hurt. Even though I had spent the past seven years on Sylox, I didn’t associate with many aliens. I had Human customers, I shopped at Human stores, and I even ordered most of my major items from Amazon – which by the way had just opened a major warehouse in Sylox City. So I had really considered Bill – Billork – a friend, and certainly my closest alien friend. And now my friend was glaring down at me with open hatred.

But right now I needed him to save our lives.

“Answer him, or I’ll kill you now. You’re just dead weight otherwise.”

“Hornus, it is Billork. The Humans have me hostage. I believe they want to get to their ship in safety.”

I nodded.

“Of course, Billork. We do not want you to come to any harm. Proceed. You will be safe.”

“That went well,” I said. I turned to the rest of my crew. “Let’s get ready to move out. Quint, get over here!”

“No! We cannot go out there,” Billork said.

“Why not? You heard what he said.”

“It will not be safe, for you – or for me.”

I smiled. “You don’t trust your own troops? I thought you were their messiah, the Zorphin who would free your people from bondage and lead them to the promise land?”

“I do not understand what you are saying, Jason King, but Hornus Rul may see this as an opportunity to advance within our organization.”

“Well, like I said, we live or die together. Let’s go and see what Hornus does. Everyone get behind us and stay close. There’s cover about twenty yards away, behind those power units. If the shooting starts head for them.” I then looked up at Billork and smiled. “You first, Billy-Bob.”

Fortunately it was easy to find cover behind the huge alien, although staying close became problematic because his reverse knee joints kept getting in the way. We moved out into the open.

“If they’re going to try anything, they’ll wait until we’re in no-man’s-land, between the opening and the power units. Be ready. It’s about ten yards away.”



Chapter 35


I hate always being right, but when the first bolt struck Bill in the left shoulder I was already halfway to the power units before he hit the ground. The kangaroo-like Vol’ox was there in three hops, while Miranda beat Quint by half a step. Shit! I had been the most-prepared and got the first step, yet I still came in a distant fourth.

There were bolts splashing all around us now, and it was all the four of us could do to keep our arms and hands inside the ride at all times. We were behind a metal box about three feet high by five wide that was some kind of power substation. There was another one just like it about six feet away, but with all the bolts hitting around us, we had to stay put.

Off to my left I could see Bill. He was alive but injured, writhing in pain while clutching his bloody shoulder. He was lucky the bolt just grazed him, because even a shoulder shot could have sent an overload of electricity into his system, killing him.

I knew his time was up, because even if we got away, Bill’s friend and associate Hornus would finish him off once the fighting stopped.

So how does it feel to be betrayed by a friend, I thought.

“Movement on the right, Jason,” Quint cried out over the loud screams of the flash bolts. I knew they weren’t real screams, but rather superheated air reacting to the passage of the extremely dense concentrations of plasma energy. They still made a racket that it was hard to hear over the sheer number of bolts zipping by.

“Got any more caramel balls to throw at them, Jason?” Miranda asked. She was huddled next to me, holding her MK-17 close to her face and winching at every close strike of energy bolts.

I was about to make some snide remark when Quint’s shout got my attention. “They’re going to flank us.”

Behind the power modules and the troops firing on us was a grove of low-branched trees. They had been groomed, so there was still a lot of space between the ground and the branches, but at least the trunks were all about five feet in diameter.

“We’re going to have to get to the woods. Miranda and Quint go first. Vol’ox and I will follow as the two of you lay down cover fire.”

“Cover fire against a force of forty to fifty – from just two of us?” Miranda yelled, ducking from a bolt that hit a mere eight inches from her head. “That’s not going to suppress too many of the bastards.”

“If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.”

“I say we wait for that spaceship to land and then see what happens.”

I turned my head to her and then followed her gaze into the darkening sky. There was indeed a ship up there, making an approach. It was still a mile or so off, but even then I could see that it was a Marine L-16 landing craft.

My heart leapt, but then I thought: L-16’s only carried nine assault troops, and there were now over fifty aliens lining the barricades across the field and working their way to our right through the trees.

The aliens had seen the approaching spacecraft as well, and now their rate of fire was cut down considerably. Orders were being barked out across the field, and I chanced a glance around the power module in time to see about half the aliens load into two transport trucks and head off toward the anticipated LZ of the L-16.

The troops in the woods had also stopped their advance as they awaited orders. A minute later they were back on the march, and now only about fifty yards away.

Our S-33’s only had a maximum range out to about a hundred yards – far less than traditional projectile weapons – and even at fifty yards, their accuracy wasn’t guaranteed. And our power packs were also running low. Why anyone would use these damn flash weapons was beyond me? Yet the customers had flocked to Battlefield Vegas just to try them. We also had a mini-gun at BV, a multi-barreled Gatling gun that could shoot a hundred rounds a second. What I wouldn’t give to have one of those right now, mounted in front of me so I could hear the wiz of the gun and then the intimidating whirling down of the barrels after a firing.

My fantasy was cut short by the resumption of flash bolts exploding the ground close to my feet. I tucked in closer to the power box. We’d waited too long now to make a break for the trees. So Quint and I popped the last power packs we had into our S-33’s and then spread out on our bellies on the cold ground and took aim at the aliens in the woods.

Miranda actually shot first, taking out a Zorphin on the left.

“So what’s your score now, Miranda?”

“Closing in on Level Five. How ’bout you?”

“I’m sure I’m all the way to L-9 by now. Quint’s probably already earned some bonus games.”

Vol’ox had been vomiting for some time now – you know that putrid, acid-laced alien puke similar to the blood in the Alien movies. “Why do you jest at a time like this?” he blabbered between heaves. “We are all going to die.”

“So what’s your point?” Quint asked.

We continued to rain fire into the woods, which the fifteen or so aliens returned without pause. The gray night of Sylox had fallen around us, but the constant barrage of flash weapons effectively lit the scene like midday. And the sounds were deafening, from the mini-explosions around us, plus the popping of the S-33’s.

**********

But then I heard another sound, something out of sync with the others, yet familiar.

It was automatic arms fire – that of M27 infantry assault rifles – undoubtedly coming from the hapless L-16 and its overmatched nine-man assault team. I could tell the Marines were putting up a valiant fight, but unless there were more of them….

Just then the sound of the M27’s turned into stereo and the volume increased. There was a second front, and this one was coming from across the field.

I rolled over a couple of times and twisted my body so I could see across the field. There was a surge of aliens all moving to my right, and even as they hopped away I could see them looking back over their shoulders in a panic. The Zorphin were extremely fast creatures, able to hop not only about four feet into the air while running, but also another twelve feet down range with each jump. And now they were running/hopping away at close to fifty miles per hour.

But that still wasn’t enough.

The Zorphin are bug-like creatures, with a hard carapace on their backs and a near solid breast plate. But now their bodies were literally exploding as 5.56 mm NATO rounds tore into their bodies. In fact, I watched as what appeared to be a single round from an M27 ripped through three aliens in a row and still managed to blast a splinted hole in a tree trunk another thirty feet down range.

Miranda dove into the ground next to me and came up with a face full of dirt. She coughed, spit and blinked her eyes several times before she was able to speak. “Hey, I don’t do this for a living, so cut me some slack.”

“You don’t, huh? I would have never guessed it from what I’ve seen today.”

“Don’t jump to any silly conclusions just because a girl’s had a few self-defense classes. But on another subject, it looks like your girlfriend’s come through. Wilma, was it? That’s her name, right?”

“Jealous much?” I asked, actually with more sincerely than my eyes conveyed.

“You wish.”

“Dammit, you two, they’re still coming on this side.” I swear Quint looked like he was ready to shoot the both of us himself. I rolled back over next to him and proceeded to send another grasshopper to the happy hopping-grounds in the sky.

Another small spaceship soared overhead not much beyond the gravity limit and I felt the air being sucked out of my lungs as I suddenly became about fifty pounds lighter. Luckily, the ship was gone in flash.

“That’s not one of the L-16’s—” Miranda said before abruptly cutting herself off.

“Ah ha! I knew it. You’re a fake, lady, and if we ever get out of this alive, I want some answers.”

“That’s an Enforcer vessel,” Vol’ox said, finding his voice.

I looked at the vanishing dot in the sky. “I wonder what side they’re on?”

Finally, the few remaining Zorphins in the woods decided that discretion was the better part of valor and began to hop off in the opposite direction from Wilma’s advancing Marines. A wise move, because now a squad reached us and formed a parameter around our position. Corporal Hector Munoz was in charge.

**********

“Howdy guys, and gal,” he said, suddenly distracted by Miranda’s presence. Even covered in dirt and sweat, she was still a looker. Hector slipped off his helmet and offered her his hand. “It looks as though we may have a common ancestry, you know – brown all the way down and all-year round. I’d really like to discuss other interests we may have in common, after we clean up the mess Jason and Quint have made here.”

I envied the young man’s confidence – and impossibly white teeth. I saw Miranda raised an eyebrow as their eyes locked. I decided right there and then to never let him win at poker again. Next time, I’d be taking that bastard to the cleaners.

“Put your cover back on, corporal,” I ordered. “You don’t want Colonel Baskin to see you like that.”

“Once a Gunny, always a Gunny, huh Sergeant King?”

I ignored his sarcastic remark. “What’s your strength? There were probably about ninety hostiles, minus the considerable number Quint and I killed before you got here.”

“What about me? I killed some, too.”

“And she can handle a weapon, too….” Hector couldn’t take his eyes off Miranda.

“Mind in the game, Marine,” I said. “There are still alien bugs out there trying to kill us.”

“Not so much now, Jason,” Hector countered. “We came in with twenty-five, and the Enforcers with another fifteen of the natives. Even before I got over here, we were ripping through them pretty handily. There was another alien ship that came in about half an hour ago with more of the bad things aboard. They poked their heads out and we shot a few of them off, so they took off again.”

Hector lifted his Marine IAR – Infantry Assault Rifle – and kissed it. “Don’t know why the aliens haven’t embraced our weapon’s technology. My M27 here can shoot ten to one against one of their flash rifles and at three times the range. And we don’t have to worry about setting no ammo strength level. We just got the one, and it’s always set to kill.”

“Where’s the Colonel?”

The young Marine fingered the comm box on his collar. “Munoz here, requesting location of Colonel Baskin for Mr. King?” He listened for a moment, and then lifted his head over the power module. “Over there, near that big entrance. Looks clear, but we’ll escort. You’re our assignment.”

I looked toward the entrance to Bill’s underground lair and saw a number of Marines, along with a few Zorphin police. But then I noticed that Bill was gone, and no longer lying on the ground, writhing in pain. I could see traces of blood and a trail in the dirt as he had escaped off to my left.

“First things first, corporal. We have to go after Bill.”

“Bill? Who the hell is Bill?”

“He’s the mastermind behind this whole scheme. He’s been shot but he’s mobile. We can’t let him get away.”

“The mastermind is an alien named Bill? No shit?”

“Just bring your men. C’mon Quint. Vol’ox, you’re done. One of the Corporal’s men will escort you to the staging area.” I then looked to Miranda. “You can go with him, or come with us. The choice is yours.”

“No question. I’m going after Bill. I owe that son-of-bitch – or whatever he’s the son of.”

“Follow me, corporal.”



Chapter 36


I led the nine person squad to the trail left by Billork in the soil of his planet. He wasn’t headed for the underground complex, but rather around the large entrance mound to the left. I knew this was his turf, and no one knew it better, so there had to be purpose for his actions.

“Can any of you spare a 1911? I’m tired of using one of these cheap ray guns.”

Two of the Marines surrendered their Close Quarter Battle pistols to me and Quint.

“Don’t I get one of the big-boy guns, too?” Miranda said.

“Why, yes, ma’am,” Hector said with a smile. “You can have mine. Just be sure to return it – at dinner.”

I saw Miranda drop the magazine and check the rounds for the tan-color handgun. She snapped the magazine back in, drew back the slide and fed a round into the chamber – as confidently as any of the rest of us would have done.

She looked at me with exasperation. “Later, Jason. Right now you need to concentrate.”

She was right. We were around the tall mound now and the trail in the dirt was gone, replaced now by a low grass covering where the traces of blood were harder to follow. It was obvious from the straight line of the trail that Bill wasn’t making any evasive moves. Instead he was heading straight for a stone structure set off by itself and half-dug into the side of a small hill.

The structure looked like a bunker, and if that was the case, the Zorphin could barricade himself in there and we wouldn’t have any way of getting him out. We’d have to call for a demo unit, and I was pretty sure this small unit of Marines wasn’t equipped for the job. And who knew how extensive the underground labyrinth ran beneath our feet. Bill could exit at another point several miles away and we’d never know it.

The blood trail grew a little more noticeable as we neared the entrance to the bunker. This was an ancient cobblestone path and it led to a closed metal door devoid of a handle or other means of operation that I could see.

“Shit! You didn’t happen to bring any C4 with you?”

Hector tapped the pockets of his field jacket. “That’s a negative, Sergeant. Seems I must’ve left all my C-4 at home. The kids like making toy dinosaurs out of it.” Hector answered. “But really, we didn’t even come in equipped for a full battle, like the one we were just in. We were just supposed to drop in and pull you guys out.”

“Well, it’s going to take a Howitzer to break through this—”

Miranda had moved up to the tall metal door and placed her hand on it. She pushed, and to all our amazement, the door spun open, pivoting on a central pen. Even though it was clearly a foot thick of solid metal, it was so precisely balanced that a child could operate the multi-ton door.

“Looks like someone forgot to lock it.” Miranda turned to the gawking faces and smiled. “It’s a talent of mine,” said the jewel thief.

The Marines split into two units, one on each side of the entrance. There was light flooding from inside the bunker, exposing all of us to whatever defenses the bunker held. With Miranda being the closest to the interior, she suddenly darted inside and hugged the wall to the right. I went to yell at her, but she was already gone, and I didn’t want to alert anyone inside, if they hadn’t already been alerted.

“Junior, you and Carter get in there with her,” Hector commanded. Two of the other Marines moved inside in a combat covering formation and with their IAR’s glued to their cheeks.

A moment later we heard a loud whisper, “Clear.”

The rest of us moved in.

**********

This was even worse than I thought. We were in what looked to be a small subway station, complete with a lowered set of rails leading off in opposite directions through a circular tunnel, now dark and quiet.

“He could be anywhere by now,” Quint said. He leaned over the space above the tracks and looked both ways. There was no sign of lights or even the distance, echoing sound of a moving train moving away. “He can’t be more than a few minutes ahead of us. And I don’t even smell any of the things you normally smell in a working subway. I don’t think anything’s moved down here in a while.”

We were all lined up on the platform, assuming we had missed him. Now I turned back to the concrete flooring. “Look for blood tracks. If he didn’t get aboard a train, then he’s somewhere nearby.”

Just then, two of the Marines at the end of line took direct bolts to their backs, throwing them down on the tracks. The rest of us jumped down, too, taking cover in the recess area where the tracks ran.

I was relieved to see the two Marines up and hugging the concrete wall. They each wore Kevlar vests, and from the brief glimpse I caught of the bolts as they hit the men, these were Level-2 bolts. An L-2 bolt hitting a vest was equivalent to taking a sharp punch to the gut, nothing more. The Marines were unharmed, and now really pissed.

“What out for the third rail … it may be electrified,” Hector called out. “I’m sure these aliens use some form of anti-gravity to move their trains, but we can never be sure.”

“Did anyone see where those shots came from?” I asked. I popped my head up over the platform and looked to my right. There was a darkened passageway off in that direction.

“I think I see some blood over to the right,” one of the Marines reported.

“Okay, Victor, Stevie and Quint, make your way to cover on the right,” Hector said. “The rest of us will cover you.”

Just then I felt a deep rumble under my feet. The rest of us felt it, too, and we all hesitated, waiting to see if it grew stronger. It did, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that a train was coming down the tracks.

The three men Hector had called out earlier jumped onto the platform – and immediately were hit by a barrage of no fewer than six bolt trails coming out of the darkened corner of the station. However, unlike the first bolts, these were a deep blue. All three of the men were hit, with the two Marines taking the bolts in their vests. Quint wasn’t wearing a vest, so when he was hit in the right shoulder, he spun around and fell back onto the tracks.

Miranda and I were at his side in a heartbeat. His shirt had caught fire and we tamped it out with our hands. Quint’s body was twitching, having absorbed an overload of plasma energy from the bolt. His eyes were rolled back in their sockets and white froth came from his mouth. This didn’t look good.

I took off my waistcoat and placed it over the wound. If bolts hit just right, they tended to cauterize their own wound, and it looked as if this one had done just that. But Quint had suffered a third-degree burn and the blackened, sickly-smelling flesh was clearly visible through his burnt shirt.

And then his eyes suddenly reappeared and his mouth formed a large ‘O.’ He blinked several times before focusing on me and Miranda.

“Whew, that was something! Did I live?”

Miranda took the sleeve of my coat and wiped the froth from his chin. “Yeah, ya did. And when that burn heals you’ll have all the girls creaming over your sexy battle scar.”

“Little darlin’, that ain’t the only one. Someday I’ll have to give you the tour.”

With our concern for Quint, we hadn’t paid much attention to the thunderous explosion of M27 fire that was directed into the dark opening by the Marines. And when Hector sent an M203 grenade into the opening, it punctuated the assault with a ground-shaking exclamation point.

“Everyone up and out!” Hector ordered. “There’s a train coming.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a bright light appeared down the tunnel to our right. The Marines scrambled for cover, even though no return fire came from the dark corridor. Miranda and I helped Quint up on the elevated platform.

The train suddenly stopped down the tunnel, yet within sight of the station and I thought I saw several dark shadows pass between wall of the tunnel and the train. Several people – beings – had just boarded the train. Now I felt the rumbling begin anew.

“He’s on the train!” I cried out.

Hector and his men had moved into the corridor, and only the last couple of them on the platform heard me call out.

“Hector, I need another 203!”

The Marines were calling to Hector, their squad leader and the only one of them with the grenade launcher attached to his M27. Rifle fire wasn’t going to stop the train, only a grenade.

But now the train was at the edge of the station and picking up speed. It was a smooth-skinned, oblong-shaped silver pod, with a single large window in front and only a few others dotting the side. As it slid past, I saw a closed door, and then through a window, Zorphins – at least three of them – inside the train. I couldn’t tell if one of them was Bill, because they all looked alike to me, but I thought I saw one with a white bandage on his shoulder. That would have to be my old second baseman.

I took off running along the platform, trying my best to keep up with the departing train. It was gaining speed, but near the tail of the pod I saw a small ladder attached to the side, used to gain access to the roof. I reached out with both hands and grasped the warm metal. My left hand slipped off, but I held on with my right, just as the platform disappeared under my feet and the train entered the tunnel on the opposite side of the station.

I banged hard against the metal surface of the pod, as my feet scraped along the wall of the tunnel and the rest of my body flailed in the narrow space between the wall and the pod. We were already going about twenty miles per hour, and there was no place for me to fall if I let go, except to be bashed against the tunnel wall or sucked under the speeding train. And so I held on.

My right arm felt like it was being ripped from my shoulder, and I tried once, then twice to grasp the ladder with my left hand. On the third try I found a purchase with one of the rungs and was able to pull myself closer to the skin of the pod.

As the side of the tunnel raced by only a few of feet away, the air pressure inside the tunnel increased, and although the train was probably traveling at less than forty miles per hour, the velocity of the air streaking over my body felt like it was approaching seventy or more.

I managed to wrap a leg around the ladder and then threaded my arms through the outer stanchions. I was taking a beating from the wind, but I seemed to be secure with my holds – if this didn’t go on much longer.

The wind over my face and body was too strong for me to do nothing more than squeeze my eyes shut and hold on for dear life. But then my body was violently pulled away from the pod as we blew through another subway station and the air pressure inside the tunnel dropped suddenly. My left leg lost its perch and a moment later I slammed hard against the side of the station as we immediately reentered the tunnel at the other side of the platform.

I grimaced with pain and pulled the leg back onto the ladder. If it wasn’t broken, I would be surprised. But with the rest of my body being tortured by the hurricane force winds in the tunnel, the throbbing in my leg was just one more item on the inventory of pains I was feeling.

The one good thing about experiencing such an incredible rush of air over your body is that you certainly can tell when it begins to diminish. We were slowing … and none too soon.

I looked ahead and saw a slash of light illuminating the tunnel ahead. We were coming up on another station, and for all I knew, there could a hundred Zorphin Brown Shirts waiting there to greet their Fuhrer. I had done a foolish thing by grabbing on to the ladder. But now I was here, and if my leg wasn’t broken, then I had to do all I could to make sure Bill didn’t escape.

When the pod dropped below five miles per hour, I slid down the ladder and carefully let go. My momentum still caused me to fall forward when I hit the ground and I tumbled over painfully on my right shoulder. I stood up immediately, feeling a sharp pain in my left knee. This wasn’t good. I could deal with a broken leg, but a knee injury could spell the end of my softball playing days. I knew of too many guys who never fully came back from a torn ACL or meniscus.

I was fuming by now. Forget about the billions of creatures who could die as a result of a galactic war, now Bill was screwing with my softball. This was serious. Oh, yeah, that damn grasshopper was going to pay. Damn right he was!

The train stopped and I hobbled alongside it and up to the edge of the platform. I couldn’t see anyone waiting there, but then I crouched down as I heard the door to the pod swish open.

Two natives disembarked, while assisting another one between them. It was Bill, with his right shoulder wrapped in a mass of white bandages, and he seemed to be lucid and walking steadily. I watched as the trio moved away from the train, and when it became apparent there was only the three of them, I painfully lifted myself onto the platform with my battered and aching muscles. I felt along the front of my pants where I had shoved the .45 caliber Colt just before running after the pod – and was shocked to find it wasn’t there. I was unarmed, banged up and all alone.

And that’s when one of Bill’s assistants spotted me.

I’d already been impressed earlier by the proficiency of the Zorphin military personnel, but I had no idea what the two with Bill would be like. Regrettably, I found out in about two seconds flat.

Both of the natives flanking Bill spread out and produced flash rifles from seemingly out of nowhere. They crouched down on their weird knee joints and took aim.

“Hold!” I heard Bill call out. His troops obeyed.

He wobbled up to me, as the two other Zorphins rushed forward to frisk me.

“My Captain, my Captain,” Bill said. “So it has come down to this?” Bill moved to the edge of the platform and looked down the dark tunnel in the direction we’d just come. Satisfied that no one else was following, he turned his attention back to me.

“I’m sure you didn’t run all this way, so how you have come to be here, I am at a loss. But that is not important now. What is important is the fact that you are here, alone and without a weapon. I am sure you must realize the gravity of your predicament.”

“Your little coup is over, Bill – Billork. Enforcers came with my Marines, so it’s obvious the word is out about who’s behind all this. You’ve brought the galaxy to the brink of war. There won’t be a place for you hide after this.”

Bill laughed. “You foolish Human. You must realize now that the war will happen, whether it was sparked by a conspiracy or not. The Unity Stone is still missing, and I assume you are the only one of your clan who knows where it is. Once I dispose of you, the Stone will remain lost, and the war will occur.”

I pursed my lips. Damn, if he wasn’t right. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Exposing me has done nothing to stop the inevitable,” Bill continued. “Yes, my supporters will lose a leader, and the movement will be set back a number of years, yet we will see what happens at the conclusion of the war. The warring factions will still be diminished and the Amelians will still want the capital back on Amelia. I may not live to see it, but we Zorphin will reclaim our homeworld from the invading aliens.”

I felt a spasm in my left leg. I grimaced and reached down with my hand.

Bill’s two towering guards hopped forward and one of them knocked me to the ground with a kick from his powerful legs. I lay there stunned momentarily, trying to figure what had provoked the attack.

“I have fallen for your tricks before, Jason, and I see you have been operating for the past hour or so with only one shoe. I will not fall for that again.”

Oh, yeah, that. But this time I really did want to massage my leg.

“Do not get too close to him,” Bill ordered his two bodyguards. “He may attempt to strike out at your heads.” The guards backed away out of my reach. A feinted punch to the head would make the Zorphins jump, and Bill knew this.

As I climbed back on my feet, I looked hard at the Xan-fi flash rifles the aliens carried, trying my best to see the power settings. Even though they carried rifles instead of handguns, Level-2 was still the standard setting for the weapons. It doubled the number of bolts they could fire between power packs. Another weakness of flash weapons in general was that the energy level of the bolts bled off rapidly with distance. Against your normal alien, this wasn’t a problem, for even a weakened Level-2 could still kill.

I was dizzy, my right shoulder felt like it was dislocated and my left leg throbbed in time with my quickened heartbeat, but the way I saw it, I was about three seconds from dying anyway.

So I took off running – sort of. My left knee screamed out with excruciating pain with each stride across the platform, and I didn’t know how much longer I could stand it. But my sudden move had caught the armed Zorphins by surprise. Unfortunately, they recovered quickly, and the first flash bolt shot over my left shoulder when I was only about twenty yards away.

I knew Quint had been hit with a glancing Level-1 bolt and that these aliens may have been the shooters, with their weapons already set at the maximum level. I had no illusion that I could run away without getting shot, so here was the moment of truth. Level-2 or Level-1 – live or die.

Another shot went wide right, but then the third hit me squarely in the back.

I fell face first onto the hard concrete platform, the pain of the bolt radiating out from where I’d been hit to encompass my entire torso.

But I was alive.

As I waited for Bill and his guards to reach me, it was all I could do to lie motionless while my back felt like it was on fire. For all I knew, my clothing was, yet somehow I controlled the urge to scream out.

I could hear the rubber soled Zorphin shoes approach. Through squinted eyes, I saw a pair near my head.

“Farewell, my Captain,” I heard Bill say. “I would have wished to have done this deed myself, but alas, I have been robbed of that opportunity. Check him for vitals.”

I felt a large hand grasp my right bicep and begin to turn me over. The guard’s flash rifle was now slung across his chest, hanging down some, held there by a thin strap. As I rolled onto my burning back, I reached out with both hands and grabbed the alien’s weapon, twisting it so that the barrel was pointed up under his chin. I fingered the trigger.

At point blank range, the plasma bolt had the effect of a solid round, striking the brittle shell covering the Zorphin’s skin and causing his head to literally explode, showering me and the other two Zorphin nearby in bloody and sticky brain matter. With the creature’s head now gone, I was able to pull the strap holding the Xan-fi away from the collapsing body, freeing the weapon. My burning back was now causing me such terrible pain that I finally cried out, and at the same time, I brought the rifle above me and sent a second bolt into the chest of Bill’s second guard.

In the few seconds it took to dispatch guards, the alien mastermind himself had had time to recover from the shock of my attack. Now a large, smelly bare foot came crashing down on my face. The back of my head recoiled hard off the concrete of the platform, and for a moment I went numb. The second kick to my right shoulder sent me tumbling to the left, with the excruciating pain actually helping to shock me back to the moment.

I continued to roll, gaining distance between me and Bill, before I managed to stagger to my feet – just as the towering grasshopper propelled himself off the platform and right at me.

My weakened left knee actually helped me to drop back to the surface of the platform on my belly, while Bill soared overhead. I jumped back to my feet.

Now Bill and I stood about ten feet from each other, I in a crouched defensive stance, while Bill bounced lightly on his weird knee joints.

“So a final contest, my Captain, yet this one just between us.”

“Looks like it.”

Bill managed to smile. “You – and others – have always boasted how your race is so much stronger and more coordinated that most other beings. Now it is time to prove it. I have height on you, and from what I’ve observed over the years, quickness as well. You have managed to discover one tiny flaw in our instinctive makeup, but that is all. Winning by deception – as you have done so recently – is not a long-term strategy—”

“You talk too much!”

And with that said, I barreled forward, in my best fullback posture, catching Bill off guard as I laid a shoulder squarely into his front torso. Even though Humans may be shorter than Zorphin, we are built like brick outhouses. So when I made contact with the alien, he was lifted up in the air, with me now firmly ensconced in his midsection.

Bill landed on his back, while I fell hard onto his chest, knocking the air from his lungs. With the alien momentarily stunned, I managed to straddle Bill’s chest before placing a strong right cross against his long, thin head. I heard brittle bone crack – and so I sent my left fist sweeping across his face from the other direction, hearing even more cracking. Bill’s eyes began to roll back in their sockets. He had already taken one severe blow to the head earlier, so it didn’t take a third fist to his face before Billork passed out under me.

Thoroughly exhausted, I rolled off the huge alien, first landing on my back – which was a mistake – before continuing onto my stomach. I could feel the throbbing in my knee and the burning in my back, which seemed to be the most prominent of my many pains, which now encompassed my right and left shoulders, right wrist and strained neck. Other than that, I was in pretty good shape.

I managed to laugh out loud, my lone voice echoing off the empty walls of the subway station.

I was about to pass out – and wouldn’t it be just my luck that while I slept, Billork Kly Gon-Mok came to and escaped.










Chapter 37


As it turned out, there were other pods in the subway system, and Hector and his men – and Miranda – had managed to catch another train to the platform, where they found me unconscious, and with two dead Zorphin nearby – one now headless.

A corpsman nursed me back to consciousness and dressed my many wounds, as the rest of Hector’s squad searched in vain for the missing Billork Kly Gon-Mok.

Even though he had escaped, I found some joy in knowing he would need a lot of reconstructive surgery on his jaw before he could speak again. However, just one more hit would have done him in for good. Now that was a missed opportunity.

It was three hours later before I was finally transported back to the central access mound of Bill’s underground lair, which by now was teeming with Enforcers, Velosians, Simoreans and even a considerable number of Humans.

The Velosian policeman/creature Crick was among them, along with the Zorphin Krimious Sin, and even though there were nearly a hundred dead bodies strewn about the complex, the two of them seemed to have only one thing on their minds – where was the Unity Stone?

So when I eventually led a small entourage back to the Enterprise, Miranda exclaimed “I knew it!”

By now, she was in cuffs and under guard by Enforcers. She was placed at the dining table in the salon, with a towering Zorphin Enforcer hovering over her.

Quint had also been patched up by the corpsmen, although I must say the two of us looked more like the losers in the fight rather than the victors.

“So where is the damn statue, Jason?” Quint was also getting impatient. He knew that the sooner I turned over the statue, the sooner the two of us could get to a hospital for some serious medical care.

Miranda snorted. “You said the statue was not aboard the ship, asshole.”

“If you recall, I said I couldn’t say it was true. And that was the truth. If I had told the truth then you would’ve know it was aboard the Enterprise.”

“The Enterprise? Really, Jason?” It was now Quint’s turn to question my naming of the Noreen.

“I suppose you would have named it the Millennium Falcon?”

“For the type of ship it is, that would have been more appropriate. The Enterprise was much larger and carried—”

“Knock it off, you geeks!” Miranda ordered. “Just get the Stone, Jason. I got things to do. I can’t be wasting any more time sitting around here while you play your games.”

I looked at her and frowned. She met my gaze with a look of steely determination.

And then after taking in all the others who were looking at me with anticipation, I hobbled over to the ship’s refrigerator and slid open the lower freezer compartment. Inside was a large block of opaque ice. Taking a couple of small hand towels I’d laid out earlier just for this occasion, I reached into the freezer and withdrew the block of ice. I set it on the dining table in front of Miranda.

“You’re kidding?” Miranda said. She leaned in closer to the now steaming chunk of ice and squinted. “I can barely see the outline. And I know what I’m looking for.”

“It is incased ice?” the Velosian Crick asked. “You placed our most precious artifact in a block of ice!”

“Relax, it’s just fine. Not much can hurt diamond. However, one of its most interesting features is that it becomes nearly invisible when submerged in water – or frozen in ice.”

“We must liberate the Unity Stone!” Crick began to move toward the block of ice, and as he did, he took his weapon by the barrel, intending to use the butt as a hammer.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I said. “Diamond may be the hardest natural substance in the galaxy, but it can still be fragmented if you hit it just the right way. It’s best if we just let the ice melt.”

“Yes, that would be preferable.”

The Zorphin police officer Krimious came over to the block. “I will take custody of the Unity Stone and move it within the complex. We can expedite the thawing process by placing it under a stream of hot water in the Consumptionary.” He took a larger towel from the galley and wrapped the block with it. And then with considerable effort, he lifted the huge cube from the table.

I stepped forward and took it from him. “I’ll take that,” I said, even though every bone in my body ached. “We don’t need any accidents at this stage of the game, Krimious.”

The alien welcomed my help. “That is acceptable. Now let us move into the complex.” He turned to the guard standing over the handcuffed Miranda Moore. “Remain here with the prisoner. Once the statue has been recovered, we shall bring the spacecraft back to Sylox City.”

The entourage then moved out of the ship and into the early morning sunlight of Sylox for the short walk to the entrance mound. I had been up for easily twenty-four hours and couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. But still I managed to stay upright during my hobbled trek back to the entrance mound.

I saw well over a dozen armed military personnel of all races still roaming the landscape, with an untold number of them below ground. A large transport ship had landed about five hundred yards from the Enterprise, so there were even more troops and investigators arriving on the scene.

The Velosian Crick stepped up beside me. “I have just received notice from Council Member Orn that there will be no charges leveled against you. As a fact, he is authorizing a civilian service award to be offered to you.”

I could tell the words he spoke came at a considerable loss of pride, as he barely moved his lips reciting them. I’m sure that if it was up to him I’d be sitting back in the Enterprise, chained up and awaiting transport back to Sylox City, just like Miranda….

Just then I heard a familiar hum and a distance vibration in the ground. I stopped and turned toward the Noreen II.

The guard that Krimious had left with Miranda was now hopping away from the ship at full speed, which was understandable as the dirt on the landing pad surrounding the ship was beginning to lift up and stream into the air. A second later, the ship itself broke the surface, lifted by the invisible gravity-well forming above it.

“Stop that ship!” Krimious yelled to no one in particular. He had very few Enforcers on the surface, and the military personnel in the area took orders from someone else. The few of them who did hear his shout had to cover their eyes against the building dust cloud rising from around the Enterprise.

And then in a blink of an eye my ship was gone.

**********

I stared up into the empty sky feeling ambivalence towards what had just happened. Sure, there just went five million dollars’ worth of magnificent starship, probably never to be seen again. Yet on the other hand, Miranda was gone, too, and hopefully to never face justice inside an alien prison for what she had done.

My conflicted feelings seemed to cancel each other out. So I just sighed.

However, the Zorphin Krimious was still yelling, but now several military officers had picked up the call and were shouting into portable comm units. Soon ships would take flight in pursuit of my ship – and Miranda.

I smiled, knowing that nothing they had available could outrace the Noreen II. Miranda would get away, and in a spacecraft capable of crossing the entire galaxy.

But then a frown replaced the smile. I was confused by the fact that Miranda had so quickly escaped from her bindings and then expertly piloted the Enterprise off the surface of the planet. She had never indicated she knew the first thing about piloting a starship, and watching me over the past few days certainly wasn’t training enough for her to do so, and especially not for the rapid liftoff she’d just executed.

But considering all the other inconsistences I’d witnessed from the mysterious, dark-haired beauty, I knew I would continue to wonder just who was the real Miranda Moore for a long time to come.

The empty sky above told me I might never know the truth.



Epilogue


Fourteen days out from Sylox, Miranda Moore entered a region of space bordering the turbulent Core of the galaxy. This was a part of the galaxy where few ships ventured, as pilots and owners were fully aware of the untold number of unchartered and nearly-invisible black holes inhabiting the area.

By this time Miranda had expertly disabled the ship’s transponder and even tweaked the output of the gravity generators to disguise the distinctive signature of the Noreen II. And then once she was confident she hadn’t been followed, she opened a link through the continuous-wormhole system.

With the considerable distances involved, she still had to wait over ten minutes before the mysterious gravity strings involved in CW communications were able to establish the connection between sender and receiver. As was procedure, it was an audio-only link.

“We have been awaiting your contact,” said the raspy voice on the other end of the link. Miranda had no idea how far away the speaker was, but she guessed he had to be halfway across the galaxy. “I am sure you are curious about the news from Sylox,” the speaker continued. “It is encouraging. The war has been averted and your homeworld appears to be safe – at least for the time being.”

“That is good news. I’ve been out of touch for a couple of weeks and I was beginning to worry. What of the Linorean Foundation?”

“It is dissolving rapidly, with numerous arrests taking place, along with considerable embarrassment in high quarters. Jonk Limbor has taken his own life, and your Mark Wilson is now on his way back to Earth to face justice there.”

“And Jason?”

There was a slight hesitation before the speaker answered, carrying in his tone an amused, yet sympathetic quality. “He has survived quite nicely, even managing to appear on several broadcasts to relate all the adventure and intrigue he has encountered as a result of the crisis. He has become a minor celebrity of sorts, both on Sylox, as well on Earth.”

“And his real estate business?”

“No lasting damage.” The voice hesitated again before continuing. “We will allow his slight exaggerations to continue for a while longer, as long as he downplays your role in this affair. But it is now time to move on.”

“I understand.” Miranda looked at her reflection in the front viewport of the Noreen II. “I hope the change isn’t too drastic. I kinda like my look … oh, and to be twenty-six again!”

“The choice is yours; however if you wish to return to Earth then your appearance will have to be altered, again.”

Miranda felt the moisture welling up in her eyes. “So if I ever do see Jason King again, he won’t even recognize me. That will be a shame.”

“You did well, Yolanda, so you must not dwell on the melancholy. It was through your efforts that the largest and most-dangerous conspiracy to ever threaten the galaxy has been exposed and stopped. Your reward will be substantial.”

“I appreciate that.” She wiped the rogue tear from her cheek. “So when do you think you can let the people of the Earth know what’s really going on? Right now all they’re doing is reacting to situations instead of controlling them. Eventually that will have to change.”

“A while longer, Agent Moore, just be patient. In the meantime, we may find additional uses for your friend, Jason King. Would you like that?”

“I would, but I doubt if he’d feel the same – if he knew about it.”

“We shall see. He is a more heroic figure than even he is aware. Just be comforted in the knowledge that we Amelians will be keeping an eye on him. After all, his role in the affairs of the galaxy has only just begun.”

The End

And now … a special

COMPLETE BONUS BOOK

The Human Chronicles Saga

By T.R. Harris

Book 1

The Fringe Worlds


The Human Chronicles Saga

Book One:

The Fringe Worlds

(Revised & Edited Edition – Dec. 2013)

By

T.R. Harris

Published by

Harris Publications, Inc.

Copyright 2011 by T.R. Harris

ISBN: 978-0-9858849-6-3

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.



What other readers are saying about

The Fringe Worlds…

This book is just plain fun. It's a light, easy and fast read; it doesn't mess around or waste words; and it doesn't pretend to be anything that it's not. It's just a throw-down space fighting, barroom brawling, shoot-em up, tough-guys in the galaxy tale that anyone with a sense of humor and a love of sci-fi in the flavor of Douglas Adams will enjoy. – John Daulton

One of the best SF books I've read in a long time! Harris gives a concise story, efficient adventure and characters I cheered for! I can hardly wait for the next installment! – Genie233

A truly amazing piece of sci-fi literature that only has one flaw - once you start reading it, you cannot put it down, and that will make you reach the end of it rather soon. The story is extremely easy to read, amusing and leaves you hungry for the sequel. Read it if you look for entertainment that makes you feel better about yourself as a human. One of the best reads in the field of sci-fi that I have come across for years! – Urmas



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Books also by T.R. Harris

The Human Chronicles Saga

Part One 5 Books

Book 1 – The Fringe Worlds

The Enclaves of Sylox
Book 2Alien Assassin

The Enclaves of Sylox
Book 3 – The War of Pawns

The Enclaves of Sylox
Book 4 – The Tactics of Revenge

The Enclaves of Sylox
Book 5 – The Legend of Earth

Part Two (3 Books)

Book 1 – Cain’s Crusaders

Book 2 – The Apex Predator

Book 3 – A Galaxy to Conquer


See the back of this book for a Special Preview of

Alien Assassin

Book 2

The Human Chronicles Saga



Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude.

Here’s the reason why…


The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 1

Whoever designed this ship should be shot!

After all, with focusing rings so crucial to the operation of the gravity drive, Kaylor never understood why the designers had set them in the most difficult areas of the ship to reach—and this ring was for the main generator.

Annoyed, Kaylor felt another bead of sweat flow down his forehead and into his left eye. Cursing under his breath, he tried to regain focus in the eye, while adjusting the gripper unit for yet another stab at the focusing ring. Normally, fitting the ring back into its cradle wouldn’t have been such a chore, but the tool he was using was old and the gears kept slipping, allowing the ring to wobble. It was like this for just about everything aboard his ship these days, and like the gripper unit, changes and updates were long overdue.

In reality, Kaylor couldn’t complain too much about the condition of his ship, not considering the price he’d paid for her. The FS-475 was an old cargo hauler, and he had come upon her drifting out beyond the Silean Sector of The Void after having been attacked and stripped by the Fringe Pirates. He never learned the fate of the crew, content in the knowledge that the vastness of space was a very convenient place to hide the bodies….

After the salvage had been awarded, it had taken him over three years to piece together enough spare parts to make her space-worthy again. Then with an operational ship he could call his own, Kaylor had confidently entered the office of his current hauler boss, carrying with him a well-rehearsed plan for a substantial increase in his commission rate.

Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t go exactly as planned.

He’d entered the meeting as a senior pilot for a very large and well-connected shipping operation. He left as a freelance mule-driver with no contracts to speak of and all his savings tied up in the repair of the FS-475. But that had been fourteen standard years ago, and even though most of the intervening years consisted of barely subsistence wages, Kaylor had survived, if not living out his dream of fame and fortune among the stars, then at least managing to make ends meet.

Now if I could just get this finicky gripper onto the ring….

With his body contorted in the narrow access tube like some Castorian string dancer, all he had to do now was get the gripper unit up and over a protruding electrical conduit and around a blind ninety-degree bend in the access tube—and do it all by feel. So he reached forward once again, both arms outstretched to their max, carefully, until he felt the unit contact the ring. Then with a push of the control button on the gripper’s handle, he heard the click of victory as the unit finally gained control of the focusing ring. Then with another press of the button, he heard the welcoming whirl as the ring was tightened back into place.

Exhausted, Kaylor collapsed on the hard metal surface and closed his eyes, his breathing labored and amplified by the walls of the tube.

What an ordeal.

A recalibration hadn’t really been necessary, not with the ring out of focus by less than half a degree. But he’d decided to do it anyway, as a foolish attempt to escape the excruciating and mind-numbing boredom that came with transiting The Void. That was three hours ago. Now exhausted and soaked in sweat, he lay in the dim, confined space of the third-level access tube thinking about what an incredible waste of time this had been, and lamenting on all the other bad decisions he’d made throughout his life.

His quiet reverie was interrupted when a phantom voice echoed around him. “Kaylor, you better get down here.”

“What is it, Jym?”

“I have a contact.”

His heart skipped a beat as he was hit with the ramifications of those four innocent words. Without hesitation, Kaylor scooped up his tool kit and began shimmying down the access tube. “I’m on my way.”

It was only a short distance down the generator corridor to the second level access ladder, yet it was time enough for Kaylor to conjure up any number of dire scenarios for the news he’d just received. To be in the vicinity of another ship this far into The Void was almost unheard of; the odds went way beyond coincidence. And without the possibility of assistance from any planetary authority, it also meant that the two of them were on their own against whatever threat this contact might pose.

Sliding quickly down the ladder, Kaylor half-sprinted the remaining distance to the open doorway of the pilothouse. Entering, he slipped in past Jym seated at the nav console, engrossed in his calculations, and fell into the driver’s seat. On the screen before him was a bright blip of light in the upper right corner, moving slowly at a diagonal toward the center of the screen. The blip was extremely bright, indicating that the ship was either very large or at max-drive. Either way, the contact was a threat.

“Any indication he sees us?” Kaylor asked.

“None. We’ve been dark since you’ve been working on the generators.”

Fortunate for us, Kaylor thought. Maybe something good did come out of his ordeal with the focusing ring. The only energy signatures they would be giving off would be from the ship’s internal gravity wells, which were too weak to be detected this far out. Kaylor began to relax a little, as he watched the distance between the contact and his ship increase steadily from the momentum they still carried, even without the generators fired up. This just might be okay—

Just then the large blip separated into two smaller ones and began to expand into a shallow “V” formation. Simultaneously, Kaylor and Jym leaned in closer to their screens, looking for any indication of hostile intent. With none coming, they shared a collective sigh of relief.

“How long until we’re out of range?” Kaylor asked, not taking his eyes from the screen.

Jym tapped some keys on the nav console. “In about half an hour.” He then slipped out of his seat and headed for the doorway. “How about some Hildorian tea while we wait?”

“Sounds good, I’ll keep watch.” At least Jym seemed relaxed enough to accept the situation. Yet knowing the emotional tendencies of his copilot, Kaylor suspected Jym had the intention of dropping a little blue pill into his tea. Maybe Kaylor should follow suit….

********

Nearly half an hour later, Kaylor and Jym sat with their feet up on their consoles, sipping tea and enjoying the light narcotic effects of the intoxicants. The two contacts were now very close to the right edge of the view screen and in a few minutes would be out of range. Kaylor would then fire up the generators and bolt out of the area. It was only then that he would fully let down his guard.

Suddenly, the two blips flared brightly—and disappeared from the screen!

In unison, Kaylor and Jym dove for their consoles, Kaylor spilling the tea down the front of his tunic in the process. Ignoring the hot liquid, he began to prep the generators for power.

“Do you have them?” he barked out.

“I’m working on it.” Jym was feverishly tapping the keys of his console as two flashing red circles appeared on the screen where the contacts had last been recorded. “From the strength of the back-wells, it looks like they’ve come to a stop,” Jym said incredulously.

“They didn’t change course with the back-well?”

“It doesn’t look like it. They’ve gone dark … and are just sitting out there.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Kaylor continued his preparations, yet resisted activating the generators, a move which would clearly announce their presence. Taking a chance that they could still slip out of range undetected, he waited. Just a few more minutes. Still, why would—

Kaylor stopped in mid-thought as another blip appeared on the screen, this one carrying a massive gravity signature and entering out of the upper left corner of the screen. Kaylor glanced over at Jym, who stared back at him, his mouth half-opened. He simply shrugged, answering the silent question.

Then it all began to make sense, as yet another, smaller contact appeared on the screen, following closely behind the massive blip and in obvious pursuit. Kaylor didn’t need to comment. Both of them knew what was happening: Pirates!

“But there are three of them,” Jym announced to the room. “I’ve never heard of that many pirates working together before.”

“This is true, yet look at the signature of that ship. It’s incredible!” A few taps of his board and Kaylor had his answer. “They’re at 98% efficiency.” His ship operated at 75%, max. “Those generators would be worth a fortune.”

“If the pirates can catch it,” Jym countered, and by the ever-increasing gap between the large ship and its pursuer, it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen.

“They don’t have to catch it,” Kaylor said. “They’ve already laid a pretty good trap.” He was right. The pursuing ship was herding the large target straight for the two dark contacts. The outcome was inevitable, and in a few minutes the carnage would begin.

Fortunately for Kaylor and Jym they would not be around to see it, as their momentum was just about to carry them out of range—and to safety.

Still Kaylor felt a pang of disappointment. The gravity generators on that ship would have been something to see. He had never heard of 98% efficiency being achieved before, and besides the generators, what other treasures did a ship that advanced carry in her? Of course, Kaylor’s question was rhetorical, since the outcome of the attack was a foregone conclusion. Three pirates, operating in concert, would be able to bring down a ship that size with relative ease. And then they would have all the time they needed to pick it clean….

Suddenly Kaylor sat straight up in his seat, his eyes wide and focused on the screen before him. Jym noticed the movement. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I just got an idea.”

“No, no you didn’t.” Jym didn’t like the look on Kaylor’s face.

“Yes, I did, and this will work!” He leaned forward and began programming the piloting computer. “Pull up the ship’s inventory. I need to know if we still have those satellite drones on board.”

“You’re not thinking about doing what I’m thinking you’re thinking about doing, are you?” The sentence was awkward, but accurate.

Kaylor swiveled his chair until he was facing Jym. “This is a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” His voice was animated, his face alight with excitement.

Jym had seen this look before, and it made him nervous. “We can’t take on three pirates. We’re a muleship, with no weapons to speak of except for that pea-gun you installed last year. How do you propose we do this?”

“Remember a few years back, when we used a drone as a decoy to slip out of New Regian with those Regulators after us? We’ll do that.” He scanned the inventory list Jym had just posted on his screen. “We have six drones on board. We hook grapples on them, fan them out on either side of the ship and then set their front-and back-wells at maximum. To the pirates we’ll look like a whole fleet of Rigorian warships, six of them, plus us in the middle. There’s no way they’ll want to take on seven warships.”

“And then what; we just glide in and pick up the remains?” Jym still wasn’t buying it. “What if there’s still some crew left alive? You can’t claim a salvage without a derelict.”

Jym had a point. Kaylor hadn’t figured on the pirates not completing their kill by the time he scared them off. “In that case, we should get a reward from the ship’s owners,” he offered. But that still wasn’t good enough. Then softer, “Or we’ll let the pirates have a little more time to dispose of the crew before we move in.”

“Oh that’s really civilized of us.” Jym spat out sarcastically.

“We’re not the pirates here, Jym!” Kaylor countered. He was getting mad. This was a tremendous opportunity—for both of them. One big score like this and they wouldn’t have to keep towing cheap cargos back and forth throughout the Fringe. But Jym wasn’t seeing it.

“And what if the pirates don’t scare off? What do we do then?”

Kaylor turned back to his screen to finish the intercept calculations. Then half under his breath, he answered, “Then we’ll bolt out. We’re pretty fast—when we’re not towing a string.”

“You’re going to dump the string!” Jym yelled back.

Kaylor had had enough. He turned to face Jym again. “Just prep the drones! And yes, we’ll dump the string if we have to. We can always come back for it later. This salvage will be worth a hundred strings of smokesticks. Now I don’t want to hear any more objections. Just do it!”

Although they had crewed together for a long time, and were more like brothers than shipmates, Jym knew Kaylor was the boss. Besides, he had been right more often than not. So with one last defiant sigh, Jym turned to his console and began prepping the drones.

“I hope this works,” was all he said.

Me too, Kaylor thought. Me, too.

********

It was simply called The Void, an impossibly empty region of space approximately forty-eight light years long and eighteen wide. Devoid of even the most basic nebulae, dwarf stars, rogue asteroids or comets, The Void had been vacuumed clean a billion years before by a wandering black hole, until now it existed as a literal desert in space.

Along its inner rim lay The Fringe, a cluster of some thirty-seven stars of various classifications and supporting twelve habitable planets, ranging from the heavy rock giant of K’ly to the wispy and gaseous Dimloe, with its four-meter tall inhabitants known for their grotesque cannibalistic rituals.

Along the outer edge of The Void lay the Barrier, a dense, diaphanous cloud of pre-stellar gas, aglow in brilliant hues of red, green and orange. Though beautiful to behold, the Barrier was just that, the defining line between the civilized galaxy that reached to the Core and beyond, and the Far Arm, with its untold millions of unexplored systems stretching all the way to the very edge of the galaxy. Unable to be pierced by conventional scanners or optical telescopes, much of what lay beyond the Barrier was nothing more than rumor, myth or supposition.

The Void restricted the outward migration of civilization into the Far Arm, keeping that region of space a mystery to all but the most daring or foolhardy.

Along this frontier territory of the Juirean Expansion was where the true galactic pioneers plied their craft, made up of merchants, miners and entrepreneurs, along with some of the most vile criminals who had ever existed. Life in The Fringe Worlds was not easy, but for some, it was all they knew.

The Fringe was where Kaylor and Jym eked out their meager living, hauling strings of often forbidden cargo from one port to the next, staying mindful of the ever-changing political climate of each individual world in The Fringe.

Case in point: Silean Smokesticks. The Sileans prided themselves for the smoothness and strength of the herb that went into their ’sticks, which made them a valuable and cherished commodity to the Rigorians, who used them in many of their religious ceremonies—or so they claimed. If this were true, then the lizard-like Rigorians were some of the most religious beings in the galaxy, consuming smokesticks like candy. The problem was that to get from Silea to Rigor meant crossing Li’Polan space, where being caught selling any kind of intoxicant carried with it an uncontestable sentence of death.

So to avoid Li’Polan space, hard-working traders like Kaylor and Jym were often forced to endure a three-week-long transit of The Void, having to go so far out of their way that after each trip Kaylor swore it would be his last. And yet ’sticks were worth a small fortune on Rigor….

********

Having prepped and deployed the drones, Kaylor pulled the FS-475 far enough away from the range barrier so he could get a running start toward the pirates. The plan was to build up a pretty good head of steam, then go dark and coast in the rest of the way undetected. Then as they grew closer, he would fire up the wells and surprise the pirates. As Kaylor explained to a still-skeptical Jym, he didn’t want the pirates to have too much time to build up the courage to confront his phantom fleet. By dropping in at the last minute, he was hoping for a spontaneous reaction and an instinctive flight to safety.

At the right moment, Kaylor dissolved the well and went dark.

At this range, they were too far out to see the pirates visually, but the overlapping circles on the view screen began to creep ever closer to the left edge of the screen. The timing would be a judgment call. If they fired up too soon, the pirates might have time to analyze their gravity signatures and see through the ruse, yet if they waited too long, then the pirates might feel they had little choice but to stay and fight. So as the distance closed – and the tension in the pilothouse grew thicker – Kaylor began to have second thoughts about his entire plan….

In a few minutes they had closed to within extreme visual range and Kaylor and Jym got their first real look at their targets. In the center was a large disk-shaped ship, clearly ten times or more the size of the three oblong-shaped pirate ships surrounding it. One of the pirates had attached an umbilical to the large ship while the other two lay out at a distance, like wild beasts waiting patiently for their turn at the carcass.

There were burn marks along the hull of the target ship, with one prominent line running up and across a bulging pilot dome at the center of the disk. The ship had very few viewports along the fuselage, yet the ones that were present still had light shining from them. Kaylor tried to keep his imagination from conjuring up visions of what must be going on aboard the large ship. He knew pirates did not take prisoners; there was just no money in ransom in The Fringe since life here was so cheap. So it was only the hardware they were after. Soft-flesh creatures were just an obstacle to an end, and Kaylor was letting the killing go on for longer than necessary … for his own selfish goals. Oh well….

Finally, it was now or never. Either he was going to do this or not. About then, a strange calm descended over Kaylor—a resignation of sorts—and he engaged the wells.

The effect was almost instantaneous. Immediately, the two outer pirate ships fired up their back-wells and streaked off in the opposite direction from Kaylor’s line of approach. A few moments later, the umbilical tore away from the third pirate ship, and it began a wide sweep behind the large ship using its chemical drive.

But then the unexpected happened: The pirate ship continued its sweep, and ended up facing Kaylor and his phantom fleet, just sitting there.

“He’s not leaving!” Jym shouted the obvious.

Kaylor was staring so intently at the pirate ship on the screen that he almost felt as if he and the pirate captain were looking directly into each other’s eyes, daring the other to act. Yet neither wavered.

As the seconds passed, Jym began to fidget, glancing from his screen, then to Kaylor and back again, repeatedly. And still Kaylor stared.

Finally Jym had had enough. He reached for his own pilot stick, determined to change course if Kaylor wouldn’t—

Just then the pirate ship moved, and for an instant, both Kaylor and Jym stopped breathing … as the pirate came straight for them. Then at the last moment, the ship turned about, activated its gravity drive and bolted away in the opposite direction, disappearing visually as it sank into its own event horizon.

Simultaneous cries of victory erupted in the pilothouse — of victory and relief.

Collapsing into his chair, Kaylor closed his eyes momentarily, the pounding of his heart seeming to drown out all other sounds around him. The ruse had worked, but barely. As he sat there, Kaylor tried to imagine what madness the pirate captain could have been thinking? He knew that three pirate ships, working in unison, were a formidable force, yet not against seven warships – even imaginary ones. Whoever that captain was, he was either a reckless fool or a ruthless bastard. Either way, that was way too close for Kaylor’s liking.

********

The pirate ships were off-screen before Kaylor and Jym powered down and slipped in next to the stricken ship, but they knew they were still lurking in the area. Kaylor’s immediate plan was to attach an umbilical of his own and go aboard the ship for a quick survey and to see if anyone was left alive, including any abandoned pirates. Then they would attach grapples to the big ship and pull it away before the pirates worked up the courage to come back. There would be plenty of time for treasure hunting on the way to Nimor, where they would register the salvage and make the salvage all official.

Jym opened the outer viewport shield so he and Kaylor could get their first look at the huge ship in natural light. The ship was huge, easily five or six times the mass of Kaylor’s muleship, yet the configuration was all wrong. Very few ships were disk-shaped and it had only a few nodes interrupting the smoothness of its shiny hull. It was a beautiful ship, and Kaylor was literally salivating thinking of what riches it held inside.

And so it was with an almost childlike enthusiasm that Kaylor suited up and began the trek through the umbilical, and into what he had already began to refer to as his retirement.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 2

Even though the scans indicated that there was an atmosphere and gravity aboard the ship, Kaylor nevertheless wore an environment suit as he crossed the umbilical. There was a working airlock on the other side, and once he was safely through, he raised the visor on his helmet and took in a deep gulp of air. There was a strong trace of ozone, along with the distinctive scent of burning flesh. Even though the smell was offensive, he keep the visor open so he could hear better, cautious of any threats that might still linger within the ship.

He found himself in a wide corridor that curved off in either direction following the gentle circumference of the ship. Proceeding carefully, he soon came upon two dead Jakreans, their gray flesh burned in several spots, gray tunics stained with blood. He wasn’t surprised to find Jakreans aboard; after all, they were the workhorses of the galaxy; semi-intelligent beings who followed orders and had no imagination of their own. Kaylor was sure he’d find several more, just like these, during his survey.

Next he came upon a wide window set in the wall to his right. On the other side was a vast room lined with row upon row of what appeared to be hiberpods. He’d never seen so many pods in one room. Curious, he entered through an open doorway and found three more dead Jakreans, along with another being, this one taller and dressed all in silver. Its head was large, with a long sloping forehead and a crest of long white hair. The creature had been shot in the back and had fallen on its side. Red blood pooled under the creature, and there was a laser weapon still in the dead grasp of the creature. Looks like he at least tried to put up a fight….

Moving closer to the pods, Kaylor noticed that they were all occupied by creatures still hooked to the fluid tubes, yet oddly, each one he could see had a small, bloody puncture wound at its temple.

All the canopies on the pods were open and a quick count of the rows put the total pods at eighty. Moving quickly past the dead silver creature, Kaylor confirmed that each of the creatures in the pods had the same wound to their temples—the distinctive type of wound indicative of a laser weapon, such as the one held by the dead silver being.

All the creatures in the pods had been executed.

But that didn’t make any sense; the creatures in the pods were all primes, mostly male, well-muscled and about average height. Kaylor didn’t recognize the species, but that wasn’t unusual. With over eight-thousand known primes in the Juirean Expansion, he wasn’t expected to be up on every one of them. Yet these creatures had been intentionally killed, and not by the pirates, but rather by the apparent owners of the ship.

“Are you seeing this?” Kaylor asked through his communit.

Jym answered immediately. “This is strange. Those hiberpods are some of the most advanced and expensive I’ve ever seen. You do not transport just anyone in them, and then turn around and kill them all. But you better get moving, Kaylor. The pirates won’t stay gone for long.”

Jym was right. Once they got the grapples on and slipped into a well, he’d have plenty of time to come back for a more thorough accounting.

He left the pod room and proceeded further down the corridor, passing three more dead Jakreans and two more of the silver creatures. Everything was silent. There was no indication that anyone else was aboard the ship—at least no one left alive.

After a while, Kaylor came upon a wide stairway on his left leading toward the center of the ship. Logically, this would lead to the bridge.

The command center was situated in the central dome area he’d seen from outside. All the control consoles were located along the outer wall, and opposite them was a large central bank of equipment modules and computers towering about twelve feet high. Kaylor could clearly see where one of the blasts from the pirates’ flash weapons had penetrated the command dome, slashing through a section of the consoles before being contained by sealing foam. The room was airtight now, and even some of the electronics still functioned.

He moved to one of the consoles and began a quick survey of the control units he could see. They were magnificent, some of the most sophisticated he’d ever seen. Then turning his attention to the equipment bank behind him, Kaylor was equally impressed by the navigation and life support units he saw. This was the mother lode. Not only were there salvageable units here, but they were also probably the most expensive he’d ever seen, and he hadn’t even been to the generator room yet.

And there was the computer core—the single most valuable piece of equipment aboard the ship—besides the massive gravity generators. The cores of interstellar command computers were some of the most sophisticated pieces of equipment to be found anywhere, and with a thriving black market adept at reprogramming them for subsequent resale at astounding rates. Normally, the core would have been the first treasure removed from the ship, so it was a miracle that this one was still here. And unlike the bulky and impossible-to-remove gravity generators, the core was something he could easily haul back to his ship.

Moving to the equipment bank, Kaylor flicked the four securing latches at each corner of the three-foot-square module. He grabbed the two side handles of the core and pulled the unit from its rack. Instantly, he noticed that the three steady orange lights in the equipment bank above the core suddenly turned yellow and began to oscillate from right to left. Before he could ponder why, he was interrupted—

“Kaylor!” It was Jym on the communit.

“Yes, I know, I better hurry up—”

“No, that’s not it.”

“Pirates?”

“No. You’re not going to believe this, but I just started detecting gamma signatures.”

Kaylor was stunned by the comment. “Strong?”

“Yes. I think the source is right there in the room with you.”

Kaylor couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Why would they have a nuclear device onboard?”

“It could be a self-destruct of some kind,” Jym offered.

“Can you pinpoint the source?” Having let the computer core fall to the deck with a metal-on-metal thud, Kaylor frantically scanned the room, looking for any kind of unit that looked like a self-destruct control. Seeing none, he was about grab the core and head for the exit when Jym spoke again.

“The source is about four feet in front of you, somewhere in the equipment bank. And Kaylor, the signal’s getting stronger.”

Directly in front of him was the recess opening left by the computer’s central core. Bending down, Kaylor inserted himself into the gap and turned on his helmet light. In the back of the opening was a rectangular box with a control panel with a lighted display – and on the display was a counter, methodically clicking down numbers…

Kaylor knew Jym could see this, too. “What do you make of this?”

“I’ll run it through the Library,” Jym said, and in a moment he came back on the line. “It’s a self-destruct all right. A timer is counting down. At zero we’re nothing but a cloud of radioactive debris.”

“How long do we have? Can we get out of range in time?” Kaylor gritted his teeth in anger. He was so close to the big score, and now it looked as though he’d have to abandon the salvage.

“Oh no!” Jym screamed in his ear.

“What’s wrong?”

“At the pace of the countdown, the device will activate in less than seven minutes.”

Kaylor was stunned. It would take him at least five minutes just to get back to his ship. Even Jym would need at least seven minutes or more just to charge up the generators to get away on his own. Escape seemed impossible.

As the sense of resignation once again descended on Kaylor, he simply stated, “Then we’ll have to disarm it.”

There was a moment’s silence on the comm-line before Jym came back on. “I’m scanning to see if there are any instructions in the Library for disarming such a device. Give me a moment.”

“A moment’s all we have.”

Less than thirty seconds later, Jym came back on the line. “I’ve got something. The controls appear to be a simple degradation program. It says that if we can reverse the contacts, the process should be reversed, adding time instead of subtracting it.”

Could it really be that simple? Kaylor didn’t ponder the question long. Instead he inserted himself further into the opening until he was only inches from the control panel. Then pulling a small tool kit from a utility pocket in his environment suit, he took out a motorized screw extractor and set to work removing the outer panel to the timing device. The work went quickly, and soon he was looking into the guts of the control unit. There were wires and connectors and several circuit boards. “Which one is the timer?”

“It says to follow the leads from the display panel.”

“It’s right here in front.”

Removing a gripping tool from the kit, Kaylor reached into the unit, past the maze of wires and to the circuit board beyond. Positioning the gripper, he was just about to lock down on the board when he suddenly felt a painful clamping on both of his ankles—and he was violently yanked out of the opening!

He flew across the room, landing hard on top of the command console, shocked and dazed, his ribs burning. As he regained his senses, Kaylor found he was face-to-face with one of the primes from the hiberpods, naked except for a sheet wrapped around its lower torso. But this creature definitely was not dead. Instead, it glared at him, clenching its fists and baring its teeth in a sign of open challenge.

And then it charged!

Raising his arm in defense, Kaylor did so just in time to block the strike from the insane creature. Instantly, Kaylor let out a high-pitched scream, as he felt his arm break from the incredible impact. Intense fire-like pain coursed through his arm, before the suit could inject a pain killer, bringing with it at least a bearable degree of relief.

But the creature wasn’t done. The crazed beast grabbed Kaylor by his environment suit and threw him off the console, sending him once again flying across the room. Even in his pain-filled stupor, Kaylor was amazed at the strength of this creature!

Landing hard on the floor with another spasm of pain, this time in his right shoulder, Kaylor rolled to his right and managed to pull his MK-17 as he did so. He pointed it at his attacker, who hesitated, staring at the weapon. But when no bolt came forth, the creature pounced again.

Just in time, the targeting computer locked onto his attacker, and Kaylor depressed the trigger. A ball of blue lightening flashed out of the barrel, striking the creature directly in the chest. The alien was thrown back against the control console, screaming in pain—but it didn’t go down. Instead, the insane beast swatted at its chest and at the already-blistering skin and burned hair. The creature was stunned, but only momentarily.

Kaylor was shocked that the creature was still alive, but his shock soon turned to terror as his assailant pushed off from the console and leapt in the air toward—

Just then, Kaylor’s stomach rose up in his mouth and he nearly vomited, as the gravity wells for the ship dissolved, leaving Kaylor—and his attacker—weightless and disoriented.

The charging creature was caught unprepared. The sudden loss of gravity caused it to remain airborne in its flight—and it soared directly over Kaylor; even as it passed overhead, the beast still tried to reach down and grab him. But it missed by a hair, and with its head turned back toward Kaylor, the creature slammed into the opposite wall with a dull thud, striking a sharp protrusion on the bulkhead. Instantly, the wild beast went limp, as small droplets of blood began to fill the air around the drifting body.

Kaylor lay on the deck, bruised, battered and in shock, the medicine from the suit fighting a losing battle against the pain of his shattered arm. In the zero gravity, he began to drift upward slightly, until the magnets in his boots activated and he found himself in an upright position.

He became aware of the screaming in his helmet. It was Jym.

“I’m…I’m all right,” he said unsurely.

“The BOMB, Kaylor! Hurry!”

The bomb? THE BOMB!

Regaining his senses, Kaylor ignored the pain in his broken arm the best he could and dove for the computer core opening. The timer was down to 94-93-92. Looking around, Kaylor found the gripper tool now floating near the top of the opening. Grabbing it with his good right hand, he quickly positioned it onto the circuit board and pulled.

The board did not move. It would not come out!

“Try again!” Jym screamed.

With only one good arm, Kaylor did his best to reposition the gripper more to the center of the board and pulled again. This time it popped out. Kaylor quickly turned the board around, letting it cycle through the zero-gravity before grabbing the gripper once again with his good hand, Three times in rapid succession Kaylor tried unsuccessfully to place the board back into the slot, then on the fourth try, success.

Instantly, the counter—which by now was down to 16—began to click upwards. 17-18-19.

Kaylor was in too much pain to celebrate his victory. His ribs burned, his broken arm screamed with pain and his right shoulder throbbed in time with his rapidly beating heart.

“Are we going to live?” asked Jym’s equally exhausted voice.

“For a little while longer, I’m afraid..

A few moments later it was time to get back to work. Extracting himself from the recess opening, Kaylor spotted the still unconscious creature drifting near the ceiling to his right. The blood bubbles hadn’t grown more numerous, so the wound must have sealed itself, and from the slow, rhythmic movements of the creature’s chest, Kaylor could tell it was still alive.

Making a decision he hoped he wouldn’t live to regret, Kaylor pulled a connecting cord from his suit and fastened one end of it to a corner latch on the computer core. Then reaching up with his right arm, he grasped a bare foot of the creature, and began to move toward the exit, trailing the core and the creature behind him like a pair of bizarre, mismatched balloons.

“Set the grapples, Jym,” he commanded. “I’m on my way back.”




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 3

Within the hour, Kaylor and Jym were back in a well, half a million kilometers away from the location of the attack and with the large derelict ship in tow. Kaylor found Jym in the aft cargo hold, cinching down the last of five cargo straps around the still-unconscious creature, now firmly secured to one of the work benches in the room. Jym wasn’t taking any chances; he’d seen what this thing could do.

Kaylor wore a blue cast encasing his broken left arm and had placed a torso brace around his bruised ribs for support and comfort. The pain medication was helping, but still his arm throbbed. In any event, he didn’t question Jym’s caution.

Finally Jym asked the question: “What are we going to do with it?”

Kaylor had thought about this. “I believe it’s a male of the species, and he may come in handy,” he began. “This creature obviously was cargo aboard the ship. He could be a witness to what happened, verifying that pirates attacked the ship, and not us.”

“Why did he attack you? We were not the ones who attacked the ship.”

Kaylor let out a snort. “Well, only my ass was sticking out of the opening in the equipment bank. He probably thought I was one of the pirates.”

“Then we’ll have to convince him that we’re not.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, if this thing is intelligent enough to have a spoken language and if he doesn’t go berserk when he wakes up. I don’t know how civilized this thing is, but he acted like a wild animal when he attacked me.”

“You should consider yourself lucky that you’re not dead. Take a look at this.” Jym led him over to a computer screen set in the wall above a small work desk. Punching a few keys, he pulled up an image that Kaylor recognized as a transparency scan.

“Before I bandaged the head wound, I took a scan of the skull to see how deep the puncture was. Look at this…” Jym pointed at the image, to a section indicating the thickness of the skull. “The bone structure is extremely dense and thick. The wound is shallow, but the trauma caused a slight swelling in the brain, right here. It will go down, and there shouldn’t be any permanent damage.”

“So? Good for him.”

Jym glared at Kaylor, annoyed. Then he switched images. “Since the skull structure was so thick, I also did a full body scan, and here, look at the bones in the arm.” On the screen was a cross section of what appeared to be an almost solid structure.

“That’s a bone? It looks like some sort of metal rod.”

“No, it’s bone all right.” Jym answered. “But just look how thick it is, easily twice as thick as yours or mine. No wonder your arm snapped like a twig when this thing hit you. And look at the muscle density. I’d hate to go up against this thing—ever—even in full body armor.”

Kaylor studied the scan closer. He knew something about anatomy, since operating as an independent mule-driver on the fringe of civilization often meant having to fend for oneself for medical aid. He also knew from these scans that only the most primitive creatures had skeletal structures like this, an animal closer to the lower side of the evolutionary scale. Yes, Kaylor had been incredibly lucky. And now he had brought this thing aboard his ship…

“Put a monitor on him. We need to be very careful when he wakes up.”

********

Jym and Kaylor were in the common area of the ship; Kaylor resting on a couch, his injured arm resting on his chest, and in the other he held a ’stick, with its burning end quickly filling the room with a pungent cloud of dense, white smoke.

Jym was seated at the central table, gnawing on a piece of green filiean bark. He enjoyed its sweetness and texture, savoring each strand peeled from the bark as if it was a sexual experience. Even his eyes were glassy, but that may have had more to do with the smokestick in the room than anything else.

It had been over three hours since the meeting in the cargo hold, and during that time Kaylor had taken a shuttle pod over to the big ship and brought back a nav computer unit, a set of calibration tools and a few other smaller treasures he could easily stow in the pod. And now they were discussing their game plan for the upcoming salvage claim.

Between ripping bites of the bark, Jym was complaining. “I’m just saying: Reg 4 will hang us if we’re caught.”

Kaylor took another long drag off the ’stick and then blew the smoke into the air with a flourish. “I know what Reg 4 says, Jym. If anyone asks, we’ll just say the pirates must have taken the equipment before we got there. I just want to make sure we’ll get something for all our effort, even if the salvage isn’t granted.”

Reg 4 was the law governing interstellar salvage procedures, and what they were referring to was the restriction that stated no items could be removed from a derelict until the salvage was registered and the proper chain of ownership investigated. Otherwise, it was simply piracy. By removing the computer core, along with the other items Kaylor had stored in the pod, they were technically just as guilty of a crime as were the pirates.

“I’ve checked the charts,” Kaylor was saying. “We’ll pass within a million kilometers of an asteroid belt once we get in the Nimorian system. I’ll send the pod down to one of the bigger ones. They’ll never find anything aboard the ship.”

Jym knew Kaylor would be careful; he just liked to complain. All they had to do now was keep the creature in the cargo hold from seeing any of the booty and they would be home free.

Almost on cue, Jym glanced over at the screen on the wall above Kaylor where the monitor in the cargo hold was displayed, and noticed the creature begin to stir on the workbench. He was waking up….




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 4

The first thing he noticed was the smell. It was a sickly cross between rotting garbage and bad breath, and it almost made him gag. But as a dull consciousness returned, Adam fought with all his instincts to remember his survival training. First, he tried to remain still, learning all he could about his surroundings from the smell and sounds around him.

Yes, the smell was strange—like nothing he’d ever encountered—but the sounds he heard were non-threatening, just the soft whirr of a ventilation system and nothing else.

Then carefully, Adam opened his eyes, just a little, just enough to get a quick sense of where he was. He was in a large room with crates stacked against the far wall and three rows of light fixtures set into the ceiling. He was laying on some sort of hard surface, facing upwards. He didn’t sense anyone else in the room.

Next, his training told him to assess his physical condition. He knew his head was injured, not only from the dull throbbing of his left temple, but the fact that he could now recall flying through the air and striking a hard metal wall with more force than he could imagine. Then he became aware of the burning sensation in his chest, and remembered a blue bolt of lightning flaring out at him—

The bastard shot me!

Trying to piece together the fragments of his dream/memory, Adam was at a loss to explain the sensation of flying he had experienced as he jumped at the thing in the blue tunic—and just kept going. He remembered all sense of balance leaving him and –it was all too confusing.

Anger swelled up inside him. Adam had no idea what was real or imagined, as the memories exploded in his head, filled with images of the Afghan mountains, of a burning white light, and of a soft bed with warm liquid flowing down his arm….

********

He awoke to find himself in a canister of some kind, and he pushed open the clear plastic dome and sat up. He was in a large, curving room with dozens of long canisters just like the one he was in, each with a clear, dome-shaped cover. From where he sat, Adam could see into six of the other canisters and each held another person; four men and two women, all naked, all asleep with needles and tubes in their arms.

He looked down at his arm. The needles had come out, and a warm, clear liquid was flowing from the tubes. He climbed out of the canister, his bare feet finding a cold metal surface; he stumbled, but caught himself against the side of the canister. His legs were weak, but he managed to regain his balance quickly.

And then came the most bizarre part of his dream/memory. To his left, he heard a high-pitched, screeching sound, and when he turned to investigate, he found himself staring down at an image he recognized from just about every science fiction movie he’d ever seen. It was about four feet tall, with a long gray head and large black eyes as big as pears. The thing was dressed in a one-piece gray jumpsuit—and it was yelling at him!

The tiny creature was upset, gesturing with its impossibly-thin arms, in an obvious fit of temper. Adam had seen enough. Grabbing a sheet from the canister, he turned on his heel and ran off in the opposite direction from the gray creature, wrapping the sheet around himself as he went. He was dizzy and confused, not knowing if this was a hallucination or reality. So he ran, past rows and rows of identical canisters, each containing a tranquil, sleeping person.

There was a doorway to his right, and he bolted through it into a wide, curving corridor. Turning left, he sprinted down the hallway until he saw a single door set in the wall to his right. Approaching it, he could not find a knob, so he placed his hand in a small depression about halfway down the door, and the panel slid silently into the wall on its own.

Adam slipped inside. It was a small utility room, with a single recessed light in the ceiling. Shelves lined three of the walls, all filled with boxes of various sizes. He closed the door and immediately the light went out.

He didn’t panic. The darkness was his friend, giving him comfort from his nightmare. He crouched down and tried to calm his breathing in an effort to hear if anyone—or any-thing—was following him. But all was quiet.

He must have remained in the room for what seemed like twenty minutes or more, and then just as he was building up the courage to look outside, all hell broke loose.

He was in some kind of earthquake. The floor heaved up, and then dropped out from under him. He fell hard on his shoulder, as the whole room seemed to buck from left to right. Boxes from the shelves rained down upon him and he covered his head with his arms before crawling onto the lower shelf for cover.

And then it was over.

All was quiet again — for a moment.

Next, he heard – and felt – an explosion reverberate throughout the entire building, followed quickly by the sounds of running in the corridor, along with electric popping sounds and high-pitched screams of agony.

Staying perfectly quiet, Adam dared not venture a look into the corridor. The popping sounds soon ended, but he could still hear movement outside in the hallway. He was in total darkness, yet mentally he prepared himself for the moment the light would pop on and the door would open….

But it never came. Instead, about ten minutes later, there came more sounds from the hallway. This time there were voices, and frantic ones at that. He didn’t recognize the language, but after half a dozen missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, not recognizing a language wasn’t all that unusual. Besides, what about the tiny gray creature….

People were calling out to others, and there was the sound of running on the metal floor, all in the direction to Adam’s right. Then silence once again descended on the scene.

When all was quiet for another ten minutes or so, Adam slipped out of his hiding place in the shelving unit and felt his way in the darkness to the opposite wall where the door was set. Feeling the surface of the door, he found the recessed area again and the door slid open, light flooding in, temporarily blinding him. Cautiously, he stepped out into the corridor, listening intently for any signs of danger.

He knew that people had run down the corridor to his right, so he turned left. After about twenty meters, he came upon a bundle of sickeningly-burning flesh that had once been one of the gray creatures from before. He had seen some grisly things in war before, but he never got used to the acrid odor of burning flesh and hair. It was obvious a battle had taken place inside the building, and here he was, unarmed and naked except for a sheet wrapped around his waist.

Just then he heard a noise, as if a heavy metal box had hit the floor. He moved toward the sound, which seemed to come from the top of a wide stairway on his left. Climbing the stairs silently in his bare feet, Adam found himself in a narrow, circular room with what looked like a series of computer consoles to his right and to his left—it was the rear end of someone sticking out of an opening in a rack of equipment modules!

Approaching quietly, Adam wasn’t about to let this—whatever it was—fry him like it had the little gray things….




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 5

Kaylor and Jym watched the monitor as the creature shook his head, then noticing the straps holding him down to the table, began jerking and twisting, doing his best to break free. Then frustrated, a sound came through the speakers, loud and primal, as the creature let out a scream: “Let me go, you motherfuckers!”

Moments later, Kaylor and Jym entered the cargo hold, Kaylor armed with his MK-17 bolt launcher. This time he made sure to set it at level one. It would reduce the charge to only five bolts, but he was sure it could now stop the creature, should the need arise again.

The creature’s piercing blue eyes flared as he watched the two of them enter the room, his mouth displaying double rows of long, white teeth. Definitely a meat eater, Kaylor concluded, which sent a shiver down his spine.

Approaching the bench, Kaylor rested his good hand on the butt of the launcher and tapped it gently with his fingers. The creature noticed the movement and seemed to acknowledge the fact that Kaylor had a weapon. Not so dumb after all, are you?

“Who—what are you?” The creature asked in a deep, strong voice. There didn’t seem to be any fear in the question.

“I’m Kaylor, and this is Jym. And what is your name?”

The creature cocked his head slightly. “I don’t understand. Are you speaking Farsi?”

This was strange. Kaylor and Jym exchanged a look, before Jym moved closer to the bench and reached out his hand toward the creature’s head.

“Stay away from me, you stinking freak!”

Ignoring the protests, Jym pulled back the ear of the creature and felt the skin. Nothing—no trace at all. This thing truly was primitive.

Jym hurried out of the room, while Kaylor leaned against a crate and watched the creature, who stared back at him with a look of fierce defiance. Go ahead and glare at me you animal, Kaylor thought. I’m not about to let you get the best of me. Not again.

********

The thing was just standing there, staring at him. By this time, Adam had accepted the fact that he wasn’t dreaming, and that this was all too real. Even if it was a ruse, the makeup and special effects were far beyond anything the Taliban or Al Qaeda could do. Besides, why would they even bother? Terrorists weren’t known for their subtlety or sophistication.

So this was real … which meant this was a real alien standing in front of him.

The creature stood about his height, with pasty white skin that showed the pale purple traces of veins underneath. Its build was slight, yet proportional, even though it didn’t appear to be very muscular. Yet it was the face that was so—alien. The nose was extremely wide, with hardly a rise associated with it, and the eyes were very narrow and set wide apart. The mouth was small with thin lips, and when it spoke, Adam noticed upper and lower rows of very small, slightly rounded teeth. There was very little hair on the head, grayish in color and mainly at the sides, wrapping around two very small, almost nonexistent ears. And just below the ears dangled two, inch-long fingers of skin – for what purpose Adam was afraid to speculate.

The alien had two thin arms—one with what was clearly a cast on it – which ended with normal looking hands; four fingers and a thumb. Around the torso the creature wore a white wrap of some kind, fitted tightly over a light blue set of coveralls.

The overall effect was both alien and familiar at the same time. But whatever it was, this thing had him tied to a table, unable to move – and that made this alien his enemy.

The smaller, hairy creature came rushing back into the room carrying a small box about the size of a ring case. It moved up along the side of the table, opened the box and took out something. Adam struggled to move away as the alien reached toward his head; then he felt a warm sensation on the skin behind his ear. The warmth quickly turned to a burning, stinging pain that quickly subsided. The small creature backed away.

“Can you hear me now?” The phrase caught Adam by surprise, not so much for its content, but from the fact that the movement of the creature’s mouth did not match the words he heard.

Hesitantly, Adam responded. “Yeah, I can hear you. You speak English?”

“Your language is in the Library, that’s all,” the thing said. Again, the non-synchronized mouth and sounds reminded him of watching T.V. with the sound slightly out of synch. It was unnerving.

“What the hell am I doing here? And what … what are you?”

The two creatures looked at each other, and Adam noticed a mutual reaction from both. The big one stepped forward.

“Like I said, I am Kaylor, and this is Jym.” The voice came over as strong and confident, if slightly higher-pitched than Adam’s. “Who are you?”

Alarms went off in Adam’s mind, and again his training took over. “I’m Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Cain, United States Navy. That’s all I have to tell you.”

The big one—Kaylor—gave a look of disgust. “That seems like a very long name. Do you prefer to be called Petty? Or Officer … or what?”

“No, petty officer is my rank. Petty Officer 2nd Class. My name is Adam Cain.”

“Greetings Adam Cain.”

“You can just call me Adam.” This was getting ridiculous.

Kaylor’s head bounced from left to right. “Very well, Adam, as for background, you are now aboard my ship … and you are safe.”

Adam jerked against the straps holding him to the table. “If I’m safe, then why am I tied down here?” Then not waiting for an answer, Adam went ahead and asked the most monumental question of his life: “Are you … aliens?

The two creatures exchanged another look, and then the small one spoke. “If you refer to a being who is not from where you come from and is different from you, then I submit it is you who is the alien here, and not us.” The tone, even for an alien, was sarcastic and condescending.

Kaylor placed a hand on Jym’s arm. “To you, Adam, we would be aliens, yet the term does not have much meaning to us. There are so many other worlds and races that by your definition everyone is an alien. Where are you from?”

“I’m not tellin’ you shit! I saw what you did to those other … things.”

“I did not do that. I came aboard later—”

“He saved your life!” Jym blurted out.

If he had not already seen the tiny gray beings, Adam was sure he would have been in complete shock and awe with the fact that here he was talking with two very real-life aliens. But that moment had passed, replaced now with a seething, burning anger. He was being held prisoner, and that was all that mattered now.

He tried to calm down; he closed his eyes for a moment and took in a couple of deep breaths. He would have liked nothing more than to spend time trying to reason with these aliens in an effort to release him, but that wasn’t going to be possible … not now. When he regained his composure, Adam Cain had only one thing on his mind.

“Listen,” he said slowly, “if you don’t let me loose pretty soon and show me where the closest bathroom is, we’re going to have a real mess around here.”

“Bath … Room?” Again, the two aliens looked at each other.

“Yeah – bathroom, restroom, head, latrine … whatever you call it here. I have to relieve myself, and I mean right now!”

The two aliens appeared to panic, while Adam got the distinct impression that they hadn’t planned for this. Finally Kaylor spoke. “We can’t risk untying you; you nearly killed me before. Is there anything else we can do?”

“Like what, give me a bedpan? No, you’re going to have to let me loose, and I mean quickly.”

Reaching a decision, Kaylor stepped away from the table and drew his weapon. “This is set for a level-one max bolt – this time it will kill you. Do not attempt to attack either of us.” His head shook back and forth again, this time in the direction of Jym. The tiny bear-like creature stepped forward and began to loosen the straps.

Soon Adam was free, and when he jumped off the table, he found he was lightheaded but could still function reasonably well. “Follow Jym,” Kaylor commanded. “I’ll be behind you at a safe distance.”

Obeying, Adam was led out of the warehouse and into a narrow, dimly-lit hallway. About ten meters down, Jym slid open a door and Adam stepped into what was a restroom of strange familiarity. There was a bank of sinks and even some dirty mirrors on the wall above them. Against another wall were two seats rising up from the floor with holes placed in them. What do you know, aliens use toilets!

Adam quickly slipped past Jym and plopped down on the nearest seat, separating the filthy sheet he still wore as he did so. Then looking over at the two aliens, he said, “Do you mind; how about a little privacy?”

“While relieving yourself? Why?” Kaylor asked.

“It’s just how we do it. Please.”

Reluctantly, the two aliens backed out of the room and slid the door shut, at which point Adam should have been thinking about looking for a way out. But first things first—he really had to go.

Once he was done, he looked around for toilet paper and a flush handle, but found neither. All he spotted was a blue button on the wall to his right; he pushed it and immediately felt a warm sensation on his butt, followed by a small puff of smoke that was immediately sucked into a vent at the toilet bowl lining.

And that was that; he felt clean and there was no residue in the bowl. Pretty neat, he thought. Advanced alien shitter technology….

Now it was time to get down to business. Standing up, Adam quickly began to survey the room for another door or a window, any avenue of escape. Then his gaze fell upon an image in one of the dirty mirrors; it was of a gaunt man with a short, straggly beard and a twisted crop of longish, oily blond hair. Was it him?

He moved closer to the mirror. What had happened? This was indeed a reflection of him in the mirror, but now his formerly clean-shaven face easily displayed a two-to three-week growth of beard, accompanied by two to three inches of hair on his normally crew-cut head. Being a sailor—and especially with his rating—he had kept the hair on his head down to a bare minimum. Now look at him. He must have been unconscious for a lot longer than he thought.

Yet the scariest part of it all was that it seemed like only a few hours had passed since he was on patrol in the Kush, with Zack and Peanut and the rest of the men from his Team. And he’d lost weight, too—a lot of it in fact. So he must have been under for a good two to three weeks … probably more.

Then as he stood staring at the stranger in the mirror, another thought came crashing down on him: Maria and Cassie!

He broke out in a cold sweat and began to tremble violently. If he had been unconscious for what could be weeks – either in the warehouse room or in that canister – then what was happening with his wife and two-year-old daughter? If he had been captured—wait, abducted—then he would have been reported as missing-in-action, along with all that implied. His knees suddenly grew weak and he nearly collapsed. He steadied himself on the sink. What are they going through? he thought. My God, they must think I’m dead!

Just then, the door to the restroom slid open and the tall alien with the gun entered. “That’s long enough. Let’s get back—”

Adam suddenly spun around facing the alien, his eyes wide, his bottom lip trembling. “My family—they think I’m dead!”

Kaylor gripped the weapon tighter, preparing for something that never came. Instead, Adam dropped to his knees and held his head in his hands. Then looking up at Kaylor through tear-filled eyes, he said, “You have to get me home. They can’t go on believing I was killed – or even worse – captured by those savages.”

Kaylor began to say something, but then stopped. Slowly he lowered his weapon; Jym moved up next to him. “What are you doing?”

“Let us all go down to the common room,” Kaylor said. “I believe we have much to discuss.”




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 6

A few minutes later, Adam had regained his composure – to a point – and was seated at a table in the center of the common room, an area that resembled a combination dining hall and lounge. He felt as if he was losing his mind, as the events of the past few hours all came crashing down on him. A strange numbness filled his body and he appeared to be just going through the motions as he was led down a series of ladders and then into the room where he now found himself. Even looking at the strangeness of the other two occupants of the room didn’t seem to faze him.

“Would you like something to drink?” the tall alien asked.

Adam simply nodded, but was surprised when the creature—Kaylor was his name—placed a small box on the table in front of him. Adam just looked up at him.

After a moment Kaylor reacted. “You truly are primitive,” he said with disgust. “It’s a sampling box. It is used to test your blood to see what food and drink you can tolerate. Do you not have anything like this where you come from?”

“Nah, we just eat whatever don’t make us sick,” was Adam’s feeble reply. Kaylor told him to stick his finger in the box; there was a slight prick of pain and then the alien took the box away. He placed it in a slot above a table that jutted from the wall and almost instantly a panel slid open revealing a glass of brownish liquid. Kaylor brought the drink over to the table and sat down opposite Adam. The smaller one—Jym was his name—was seated on a couch, and about as far away from Adam as he could get.

Still in a daze, Adam took the glass and sampled its contents. Not bad, kind of like Coke, even with some carbonation. It was then that he noticed how dry his throat was, as the liquid burned a painful path down to his stomach. And then it hit there, setting off an explosion of gurgles and rumbling like he’d never experienced before.

“How long was I out for?” he asked once his stomach settled down.

“Not more than a couple of hours.”

“How about in that canister, where the other people were?”

“That I do not know. Like I said, we came upon that ship later on, after the pirates had already attacked it.”

Pirates? Ships? What was this … a Disney ride? But wait—

“You’re not talking about ships at sea are you? We’re in space?”

Adam was beginning to recognize the look of confusion on the faces of the aliens, and here it was again. “Of course we’re in space,” Kaylor answered.

“And this is another spaceship, a different one than I was on before?”

“Correct. This is my ship. Mine and Jym’s.”

So he was in outer space, aboard a starship and with a couple of real aliens. Damn!

This was all fascinating, and in a different circumstance he might have felt more excited. But now was not the time. Instead, he cut to the chase. “I have to get back home. Can you take me there?”

“Where are you from?”

“Cali—I mean I’m from Earth.”

Jym appeared to burst into laughter, or what Adam took as alien laughter. “You’re from the planet Dirt? That is not a very creative name for a planet.”

Adam had already decided he didn’t like this particular alien very much. “No, Earth … not dirt.”

Kaylor stepped into the conversation: “The translation we’re hearing has it as dirt, soil, ground—things like that, but we can amend the translator to give your planet the designation of Earth.”

“Thank you. And speaking of that, how can I understand what you’re saying now?”

“It’s the translator bug—device—Jym placed behind your ear. Everyone has one, everyone except you. Your planet appears to be very primitive.”

Even through his stupor, Adaqm felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise from the backhanded insult. But he said nothing. Instead, he watched as Jym crossed the room and sat down at a small desk. He punched a few keys on an in-laid keyboard and began to read. Adam could see the writing on the screen, but he couldn’t read any of it. It was all Greek to him.

“Earth, the home planet of the Human race,” Jym began, “including the Afghanis, Americans, Armenians … whoa! There’s a whole list of races that come from your planet.”

“Those aren’t races, they’re countries, or people from those countries.”

“You mean your planet is divided into all these different groups? But you’re all of the same species, correct?” Jym’s voice was again laced with a condescending tone.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Adam took the last gulp of his drink. “Can you take me there or not?”

Jym turned back to the screen. After a moment of scanning the readout, he turned back toward Adam. “Not feasible. Earth is rumored to be located in the Far Arm, actual location: unknown.”

The words hit Adam like a punch in the face. “What does that mean … the Far Arm? Don’t you guys have charts or maps you can follow? And how can it be unknown if you know my language?” He could feel the panic growing in his chest. “Hey, I didn’t sign up for this. I’ve got to get back home!”

Kaylor took a deep breath. “Languages are assimilated into the Library without reference or source. This simply means that your planet has been visited before—as your presence here also testifies. But being in the Far Arm – which is a wilderness to us – means that the location of your world has never been accurately ascertained. And if this is the case, then there is nothing we can do to get you back—”

“And even if we knew where it was, it would cost a fortune to take you there.” Jym interrupted.

“This is bullshit!” Adam yelled.

That look of confusion crossed Kaylor’s face once again. “I do not understand the connotation between some sort of animal excrement and your situation,” he said.

“Bullshit. BULLSHIT! It means this is unbelievable. Like I said, I didn’t ask to be here, and I demand that you take me back.”

Kaylor stood up and began to draw his weapon, yet before his hand reached the grip, Adam grabbed the alien’s wrist. Kaylor winched in pain.

“Don’t even think about it.” Adam spat out between gritted teeth. “I don’t want to hurt you guys; I actually believe this isn’t your fault. But I’m pretty pissed off right about now and I’m in a terrible mood.”

Kaylor fell back in the chair and placed his hands on the table in front of him, while Jym sat at the little desk, stunned, his mouth agape.

“You don’t seem to understand me, pal,” said Adam, leaning in closer and staring straight into Kaylor’s eyes. “I have a wife and a kid back home, and they’re probably going through hell right now thinking that I’m dead, and that’s something I can’t live with. Someone, somewhere is going to take me back to …” he found it so hard to say, “… back to Earth.”

Kaylor began to bob his head back and forth again, a movement Adam now recognized as a nod of agreement. “We will do everything we can to help you, Adam Cain, but you must realize, we do not know where your planet is located and our ship is not capable of finding it. The Far Arm is a mostly unexplored region of space for us.”

“What about that other ship, the one you said I was on? They should know where Earth is. After all, that’s where they kidnapped me from!”

“All the occupants of the other ship are dead.”

“What about any records, logs, computer disks, or anything like that?”

Kaylor tensed. “The computer core was stolen by the pirates. I’m afraid there are no other records.”

“Who are these god-damn pirates?” Adam slammed his fist down hard on the table, denting it and sending a loud report throughout the room.

“We don’t know who they are. They are a menace here in The Void and throughout the Fringe. No one knows who they are or where they come from.”

“Bullshit! Somebody knows.”

Kaylor hesitated, and then said, “No…no bullshit. All I can promise you is that when we get to Nimor, we will turn you over to the Ministry and maybe they can help you.”

Adam leaned back in the chair, exhausted, pissed off and confused. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. What should have been the greatest adventure for all of mankind was rapidly turning into a freaking nightmare. If no one knew where he came from—and he could never return home—then he might as well be dead. After all, in the eyes of the military, as well as those of his wife and young daughter, he already was.

As he sat there with his eyes closed, in a room with two very smelly aliens, Adam had to once again fight to maintain control. He was supposed to know how to handle difficult situations like these, but the rollercoaster of emotions he was experiencing wouldn’t stop. Never in the training manuals did they cover how to cope with being abducted by aliens!

Suddenly he felt a wave of hopelessness sweep over him. Maybe he should let Kaylor pull out his weapon and blow his brains out. It really didn’t matter anymore and at least then all the pain and confusion would go away. It would end his nightmare, as well as all the memories.

But Kaylor didn’t draw his weapon. Instead he motioned for Jym to follow and the two aliens left Adam alone in the common room, lost in his thoughts and despair.

********

Once back in the pilothouse, Jym spoke first. “That was close; we can never let him know about the computer core.”

“Agreed, but I believe we could use his testimony regarding the pirates and the salvage. But we have to be careful with him.”

Jym’s ears were flicking wildly. “Agreed – that thing is dangerous,” he said, as he paced the room. “We need to get rid of him as soon as possible. And can you believe that he wants us to shuttle him back to some unknown planet in the Far Arm! That is crazy. Does he think we’re made of credits? I don’t know how it is on his world, but everything has a price in the real galaxy.”

Kaylor let him vent; it was just his way.

“Put him in number three and make him comfortable. We’ll be at Nimor in about twenty hours. After that, he will be someone else’s problem.”



The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 7

In a daze, Adam allowed himself to be led to a room with a small bed and a desk set into a wall. The chair for the desk was affixed to the floor and on the desktop sat a small monitor. Adam chose to sit on the end of the bed rather than at the desk. Jym handed him a blue tunic and a pair of slip-on shoes, similar to what Kaylor wore.

“I’ll bring you some food in a while,” Jym said. “Until then, please attempt to rest.” He then pointed out a small control panel near the door. “If you need more or less gravity to make yourself comfortable, you can do it from here.”

This comment snapped Adam out of his stupor. “You can adjust gravity?”

“Of course.” Jym had to fight back the urge to add another comment about Adam’s primitive pedigree, but instead he simply said, “There are five individual wells which control the ship’s internal gravity. You appear to come from a heavy-gravity world, so you may want to adjust it up a little. We’ll be on Nimor in about twenty hours.” The tiny alien then abruptly turned and left the room.

Adam looked around at his surroundings; again familiar, yet strange. His mind knew he was so far away from anything native to him that it was unimaginable, and yet here he was, alive, in relatively good condition and in the company of two very real aliens who didn’t appear to be a threat to him. Yet all of this didn’t help his overall situation or his mood.

He stood up and went over to the control panel by the door; he touched it and the panel lit up. There was a digital scale with a cursor – again familiar – and when he moved the cursor up, he immediately felt as if a weight was pressing down on his body. The sensation quickly passed, so he moved the cursor up a little more, with the same effect. One more adjustment and he felt as if his weight was maybe a little heavier than what he was used to. Since there was nothing to compare it to he went simply by feel.

It suddenly occurred to him that maintaining his strength advantage in these alien surroundings would be very important. He already knew he was much stronger than these two aliens, and that if he didn’t keep that advantage it could spell trouble. Not being familiar with their technology or customs it may be the only thing that he had going for him. So he cranked the cursor up even more and felt the corresponding pressure on his body.

He returned to the bed and fell back on the soft cushion, resting his head on the pillow he propped against the bulkhead. As he lay there, Adam began to take inventory of his predicament. The first thing he had to do was get his mind around the reality of his situation. As much as the physical, his mental condition would also play a major role in determining if he survived or not.

He chuckled; just moments before he didn’t give a damn whether he lived or died. Now he was thinking about how to survive. The Human spirit was indeed resilient….

********

Adam Cain was a 26-year-old E-5 in the US Navy and a member of the elite DEVGRU group, which most of the Team and media still referred to as SEAL Team Six. In his SMU – or Special Mission Unit – he was classified as a sniper and weapons expert, even though nearly everyone in his unit carried the same designation. He was on his fourth excursion in-country, this time on a recon of the rugged mountain area between Afghanistan and Pakistan known as the Hindu Kush, following a lead on a Taliban commander who had taken credit for a recent bombing of the US Embassy in Kabul … when his reality had been suddenly jerked out from under him.

Adam’s future in the Navy was looking bright. He had just completed his advanced sniper instructor training, and had also taken the First Class exam the month before. He felt confident that he would make E-6, since SEALs were a pretty dedicated group of sailors and he was no exception to that rule. If he made E-6, then there was a good chance he could come back to Dam Neck as an instructor and thereby reducing the number of his overseas operations.

Seven months ago, he and Maria had bought their first home, located in a quiet cul-de-sac off Lynnhaven Parkway in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was a small three bedroom, two bath brick home, with a one-car attached garage. More than anything else, Adam had bought the home for the garage, where he kept his mint-condition 2006 Mustang GT under a blue canvas tarp.

His daughter Cassie had just turned two, and every time Adam left on a mission, he felt guilty having to leave Maria on her own, what with the new house and the terrible-two’s all at the same time. But if he made First Class, he could apply as an instructor and that would guarantee him at least three years in Hampton Roads. And with the war winding down, it could possibly be even longer.

Adam’s father had been career Navy as well, and he was extremely proud of his only son. David Cain lived in Northern California—Monterey to be precise—and he and his son exchanged emails nearly every day, at least when Adam wasn’t off on a mission somewhere or in advanced training.

The thought of his father sent a spasm of pain through Adam’s heart. By now his dad would have also accepted the fact that his son was dead, more than likely taken captive and tortured to death by the Taliban. Since Adam knew his body would never be recovered – and no publicity extracted from his capture – that would be the only assumption most people could make. After all, his Teammates would never have left his body on the battlefield … if there had been a body to recover.

In addition to his immediate family, Adam enjoyed a large circle of friends and other more-distant relatives, who by now would all be mourning his death. Most of them knew what he did for a living, and in reality, the odds of being violently killed were much higher living in Chicago these days than it was spending time in a combat zone. However, death was always a possibility, even though most of his people chose not to dwell on it.

Damn! His future was—or had been—pretty set. Adam had always been a man of ambition and purpose, but his goals had never been to travel into space and meet aliens, at least outside of his childhood fantasies. Now – in a matter of what seemed like hours to him – his entire life had turned inside out. All his friends and loved ones were suffering from his supposed death, and yet here he was, very much alive but unable to prove it to anyone.

Lying on the bed aboard the alien spacecraft, assessing his situation, Adam Cain needed a plan. It was obvious he could easily overpower the two aliens and commandeer their spaceship, but then what? He didn’t know how to fly it, and more importantly, he didn’t have any idea where to go if he did. Space, after all, was a pretty big place, so that course of action was out of the question.

Also, Adam had gotten the impression that the alien Kaylor didn’t feel too confident that the creatures on the planet they were heading for could actually help him; his statement to that affect sounded more like a way of pacifying Adam’s anger rather than any real possibility.

Adam felt the blood drain from his head as he struggled against the onset of yet another anxiety attack. He had been trained to overcome and survive the most harrowing of situations—but this was ridiculous! How was one supposed to prepare for something like this?

Returning back to Earth was now his only priority, but this was a lot different than trying to make it back to friendly forces after having been separated from your Teammates during a mission. He was light years away from his home, his family thought he was dead … and—well damn, his prospects weren’t looking very good!

As an alternative, Adam could just give up and hasten the inevitable. Or … he could learn to survive in this alien environment and bide his time until a solution could be found.

Adam closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. When he opened his eyes again, he felt a strange wave of relief flow over him.

In reality, it doesn’t matter what I do. I can either live or die; after all, what do I have to live for? Everyone I know thinks I’m dead already, and I’m in a universe where I’m the alien! The only thing that matters now is getting home, and if I can’t do that, then who cares what happens to me? I’m like the walking dead….

Adam suddenly realized that not caring—really not caring—about what happens to you can be a very liberating experience. And unfortunately for those around him, if he didn’t care what happens to himself, he cared even less for anyone—or anything—he encountered along the way.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 8

Riyad entered the communication room where an underling was preparing the link. He sat down before the large monitor and nodded to the tech. An image appeared on the screen; it was the interior command room of Captain Angar’s ship. Angar was facing him, but talking with someone off screen. As soon as he noticed the link had been established, he straightened up and gave his full attention to Riyad.

“General Riyad, sir, we have a solid link.”

Riyad loved the title of ‘General.’ Out of all the possibilities available, he had chosen this one for himself, and it sent a thrill drown his spine nearly every time he heard it. Yes, he knew he commanded a fleet of pirate ships, not land forces, but he was the only one who seemed to notice the inconsistency. However, looking at his subordinate on the screen, the thrill quickly passed, and he sent a steely stare at his senior captain.

“So what happened? I understand you had the ship completely under your control but then you gave it up.”

Angar shifted nervously in his chair at the directness of the question, but then quickly regained his composure. “In my defense, I was the last one to bolt out. There was nothing I could do by myself, not against a fleet of Rigorian warships.”

“And yet it ended up not being a fleet at all.”

“That is correct, my General. It was a deception. But we had no way of knowing that at the time.”

Riyad took a deep breath. “But Captain, you know, as well as I, that the Rigorians are not that aggressive against us. Also, we have never encountered them that far out in The Void.”

“Again correct, my General. But when Jiden and Meldeon left, I had no choice but to follow.”

“The two of them will be dealt with.” Riyad stated acidly. “So where is the ship now?”

Angar glanced to his right, and then turned back to Riyad. “They are just now entering the Nimorian system. They should be making planet-fall in about six hours. We could attempt to catch up to them, but we will not be successful.”

“Please tell me you were at least able to secure some treasure before you gave up the ship?”

Again, Angar shifted in his seat. “Unfortunately, no. There wasn’t time, and the only cargo we could readily see appeared to be a room full of primes placed in stasis.”

Even through his anger, this news piqued Riyad’s curiosity. “Was this a slave ship?”

“Hard to tell, General. The primes were all in good condition and contained in very sophisticated hiberpods. There were around seventy to eighty of them in the room.” Angar hesitated before continuing. “And they had all been recently killed by the ship’s crew.”

Riyad was taken aback by the last comment. “Killed, all of them? Why?”

“Impossible to tell. But it appeared they had been killed at about the same time we were assaulting the ship.”

“What species were they?”

Angar seemed to grow even more nervous; Riyad noticed the body language. “What is it, Captain? What’s the problem?”

“Well, my General,” Angar began hesitantly, “they appear to be of the same race as you.”

Riyad was sure Angar saw the look of total shock sweep over his face, and even though his mind was exploding with a thousand questions, he knew it was important to maintain his composure in front of his underlings.

“Can you confirm this information, Captain?” he managed to say, hoping that the timbre of his voice didn’t give away his excitement.

“I saw them with my own eyes. I have no doubt. You are the only other one of your species I have ever seen … until today.”

Riyad remained silent for a long moment, digesting the information. He had always suspected that this day would come. Now this changes everything.

“Captain Angar, I have new instructions for you,” Riyad began evenly. “By my orders, you will have Captains Meldeon and Jiden return to K’ly. Then you will proceed to Nimor, and secure that ship’s computer core and bring it to me immediately.”

Angar looked stunned. “But General, the ship will be locked down until the salvage is settled.”

“Do you think I care about that? We’re pirates, after all; we don’t go by the rules, Captain. Contact our allies in the Ministry. I want to know everything about that ship and where it came from. And Captain Angar,” Riyad leaned in closer to the screen, “no one else is to get that computer core except us – no one. Don’t screw this up again.” And then he cut the link.

Riyad rushed out of the comm room and proceeded quickly to the forward section of his ship. As he neared his quarters, he felt the welcoming increase in gravity, a consequence that kept most of his crew out of his private sanctuary.

He entered his quarters and shut the door. Too excited to sit, Riyad began to pace the room, nervously.

Humans – and lots of them!

He had not seen another Human, for how long now? Six years, maybe longer? And here was a ship carrying dozens of his kin. Granted, Riyad had been more than a little surprised to hear that they had all been killed, but once he thought about it, it made perfect sense.

The aliens must know of our abilities.

This could also be the reason they were transporting the Humans in stasis. After all, look what Riyad had done with the Fringe Pirates – and he was just one Human. Imagine how hard it would be to transport dozens of conscious Humans aboard one ship. Yes, these aliens definitely knew the capabilities of the Human race … and they had taken the only sensible course of action.

But the question had to be asked: What were they doing with that many Humans aboard their ship? And where were they taking them?

Mentally, Riyad shrugged off the questions. He was only obliquely interested in the answer, as just a curiosity. What he really wanted to know was how did they know the location of Earth in the first place?

Within the computer core of that ship would be the Holy Grail of his existence for the past six years – the coordinates to his homeworld!

And quite possibly, the realization of a dream he had been cultivating for a very long time….

********

Riyad Tarazi had challenged the ship’s captain for his position after having been a crewmember for only three months, but that been time enough for him to learn the operation of the ship, as well as the pirate hierarchy aboard.

The captain was a Fil-nipon – not even a native of The Fringe – but he was tough and strong and had been part of the pirate community for almost twenty years. It had been a duel, and by this time Riyad had no doubt as to the outcome. The captain’s weapon had not even cleared its holster by the time Riyad had placed a level-one bolt through the creature’s chest.

And now, according to pirate law, Riyad Tarazi was the Captain.

Nine months later, Riyad’s next challenge was for the supreme command of the pirate organization. Those nine months had given him time to study how the pirates operated, and how their rag-tag operations could be greatly improved – under the right leadership, of course. At that time, the Fringe Pirates were just a loose-knit group of privateers, with no real purpose other than their own individual gain. They didn’t operate as a unit – and considering their numbers – if they did they would be a force greater than that of any single planetary military this side of the Juireans. Riyad figured they would do much better under his leadership … and only the senior captain stood in his way.

The pirate leader was a Rigorian named Kymore and he had already heard of Riyad’s prowess with a bolt weapon. So when he accepted the challenge he did so with one condition – it was to be a physical contest and not one with weapons. Riyad had accepted his terms without a second thought.

Rigorians were the toughest, strongest and meanest natives of the Fringe, giant lizard-like creatures, with scales for skin and double rows of razor-sharp teeth lining a protruding, foot-long snout. In all the history of the Fringe, no other being had ever bested a Rigorian in hand-to-hand combat, so as the day of the contest neared the Rigorian captain was feeling very confident about his chances.

Yet once again, Riyad had studied his opponent before making the challenge so the outcome was never in doubt.

On the day of the challenge, a crowd of several hundred pirates gathered in a field near the K’ly city of Calaa. A stage had been built where they would fight; it was all a festive and jubilant occasion.

Kymore began the event by loudly proclaiming his superiority with a series of loud grunts and howls, while prancing around the stage showing off his size and quickness. Riyad just stood off to the side and let the lizard do his thing.

And then the fight began.

As the alien attacked, Riyad easily slipped around each of the creature’s initial thrusts, and then after a minute or so of dancing around the stage, he placed a swift kick to the Rigorian’s side. The kick knocked most of the air out of Kymore’s lungs and brought a look of startled confusion to his yellow eyes. Riyad then slipped in quickly behind the pirate and placed a solid blow to the back of the lizard’s head. Kymore fell forward onto the stage, but he quickly rolled over and regained his footing.

There was an even greater look of concern now on the Rigorian’s face, and for the next few seconds, Riyad pummeled the pirate leader with lightning-fast rights and lefts, causing prodigious amounts of blood to flow from the creature’s mouth. And then – simply as a display of his superior strength – Riyad stepped in and hoisted the seven-foot tall alien above his head and threw him into the front row of stunned pirates, all in perfect Hulk Hogan fashion.

A dozen pirates fell into a heap below the Rigorian, but they soon recovered and forced the panicked pirate captain back onto the stage.

During his time with the pirates, Riyad had heard where other challenges for the pirate leadership had ended simply with the demotion of the current leader and not his death. This didn’t make sense to Riyad; after assuming his new position, he did not want any lingering loyalties for his predecessor or grumblings for his return.

So for the finale, Riyad grasped the massive jaws of the lizard and pulled them open wide. He continued to spread them apart until he felt the bottom jaw of the Rigorian break. The creature let out a piercing, blood-curding scream and fell to his knees, his bottom jaw dangling limply from his head. The crowd was stunned into silence.

Riyad then moved ceremoniously behind Kymore; he took a brief moment to survey the silent crowd … and then drove his right fist all the way down into the lizard’s skull, killing him instantly – while also assuring there would no challenges to Riyad’s leadership for a very long time, at least until memories faded.

That should get their attention, Riyad thought, as he looked out at the silent mass of pirates before him. He knew pirates were like a pack of wolves, subservient to the alpha male, and at that moment the alpha male of The Fringe Pirates was the Human Riyad Tarazi.

He was now the Pirate General.

********

As Riyad paced his quarters, recalling his ascension to the leadership of The Fringe Pirates, he nodded his approval for the actions taken by the mysterious aliens aboard the transport ship. Yes, they had been wise to assassinate the Humans rather than have them fall into the hands of the pirates. After all, they couldn’t afford to have dozens of super Humans out wandering the galaxy, causing all kinds of havoc, now could they?




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 9

Over the 24-hour transit to Nimor, Adam and the two aliens had very little contact. Jym had dropped off some bland tasting food – yes, it tasted like chicken – and then left without saying a word.

During this time Adam was able to get some rest – however fitful – and he even managed to find a shower in the ship’s only restroom. He dressed in the blue tunic and then waited in his room for the next hammer to fall. He didn’t know what form this new shock to his system would take, but he was about to make landfall on an alien world where it had been decided Kaylor and Jym would turn him over to other group of aliens – and from there, who knew? Even though he’d only been aboard their ship for a few hours, Adam did feel a strange familiarity with them and his surroundings. What this new alien world held in store for him would be just one more shock to his already frazzled system.

Kaylor allowed Adam to join them in the pilothouse as he released the alien spaceship into an orbit above the planet Nimor. Another alien – short, hairy and husky – came aboard with an entourage of assistants and Kaylor led them through a quick inspection of his ship. Apparently satisfied, the burly alien had Kaylor sign some paperwork and then he left, indicating that his crew was now going aboard the big disk-shaped ship to start the salvage inventory. The completed survey would be transmitted to the Ministry in about three hours Kaylor were told.

Jym opened the exterior shield to the pilothouse viewport, allowing Adam to gaze out at the vast and brilliant alien world below them. It looked very similar to Earth, with shimmering blue seas and ruddy brown land masses, all with patchy white clouds casting dark shadows on the surface below. This world didn’t appear to have as much landmass as Earth, just a modest-sized continent to the north and a large island to the south. He didn’t know if there was more land on the other side because they didn’t seem to be moving around the planet while in orbit – they call it geo-synchronous, he believed.

Jym asked Adam to strap himself into a seat next to him and Kaylor began the decent to the planet’s surface.

Adam was struck by the fact that he felt no sensation of falling – or any movement at all as a matter of fact. He simply watched as the features on the ground began grew larger until he could make out the cris-crossed pattern of a city below. As they got closer, the ship slid over toward a large open area dotted with various craft of different shapes and sizes. As they descended, Adam was amazed at how large the area was, and how massive some of the ships actually were close up.

His view was suddenly obscured by dense clouds of dust that streamed upwards past the viewport. And then he felt a slight bump.

“Prepare yourselves, I’m dissolving the well.” Kaylor announced to the room. Instantly, Adam felt lightheaded and a good portion of his bodyweight seemed to melt away.

Jym noticed Adam’s reaction. “This planet’s gravity is about three-quarters that of standard. I’m guessing that would make it a little more than half the gravity of your homeworld. You should get along fine here … if you don’t stay too long.”

“We’ll see,” was all he could muster.

The three of them left the pilothouse. Kaylor informed Adam that Jym would be staying on the ship while the two of them went into the Nimorian city of Gildemont and to the Ministry Compound to register the salvage. Adam was surprised to see Kaylor was wearing his weapon around his waist.

“So what’s this place like?” he asked.

“It is not the roughest place in the Fringe, but close. They’ve only been members of the Expansion for about twenty years, so they still have a lot of tribal factions who go by their own rules. The Ministry is more of a suggestion here rather than any real planetary authority. They have a compound not too far into the city. All I want to do is get the salvage officially registered and then we can leave. It will take a couple of months before any resolution is decided.”

“What does that mean?”

“Simply bringing in a derelict ship doesn’t convey ownership rights. The ship will have to be matched against any missing vessel reports, and then if the rightful owners come forward we’ll get a salvage reward of ten-percent of the ship’s value. If the owners cannot pay, or no one comes forward to claim ownership, then we will be awarded full ownership. All of that takes time, but once we file the salvage, our rights will be protected.”

“That makes sense.” Adam said. “So this is a pretty big deal for you?”

“It could definitely be worth the effort … eventually.”

They now were standing before a door set in an outer wall of the cargo hold; Kaylor pushed a button on a small control panel and the door slid open. Warm, dry air rushed in, smelling sweet and fresh. Adam hadn’t realized just how stale the air in the ship had been. This was refreshing. They stepped down a metal ramp that that had projected from the ship, and soon Adam Cain set foot on an alien world.

“That’s one small step for man…” he said softly.

“What did you say?”

“Oh nothing … at least nothing that’s important anymore.”

It was a pretty good hike through the forest of alien spaceships parked in what Kaylor told him was a modest-sized, yet apparently rundown spaceport. Even so, Adam found it to be fascinating. All around them there was a menagerie of exotic creatures; tall ones, short ones, disgusting looking things and even some that were kind of pretty. They all went about their business not giving Adam or Kaylor a second glance, and eventually the pair passed through a gate with a bored-looking blob of a creature manning a rusting metal booth who seemed to not even notice their passing.

The sun was warm on Adam’s skin and it helped to loosen the tense muscles in his neck, muscles that had been knotted up a lot more than he realized. The humidity was low and it actually felt a lot like the climate of his native Southern California. A slight breeze stirred brown dust, adding a musty smell to the landscape as they proceeded down the side of a dirt road toward the city proper. Adam found it all incongruous; starships and dirt roads, high tech combined with low tech.

Adam was also very aware of the light gravity of this world. On Earth he weighed in at around 190 pounds, so here he was just over a hundred.

So can I jump twice as high or run twice as fast? He certainly felt as if he could. The feeling was exhilarating.

So he thought he’d experiment. Falling back slightly behind Kaylor as they walked, Adam crouched down on his haunches and then sprung upwards with all the effort his leg muscles could muster. Up he went, easily soaring as high as Kaylor was tall, which was close to Adam’s height of six-foot-one. Kaylor was startled by the sudden movement, and he jumped back, placing his hand on the grip of his weapon.

“What did you do that for?” Kaylor yelled, a look of concern plastered on his alien face.

“I just wanted to see if I could.”

“A word of advice: Don’t go showing off around here,” Kaylor said, leaning in close to Adam’s smiling face. “Most of the inhabitants are barely out of the trees and they will take most actions as a challenge.”

Adam continued to smile. Yes, it might be better to keep any special abilities he may have close to the vest for now. First he had to size up the locals; he had done this on numerous occasions before during his Navy career. Just be cool until you learn the local customs.

They were soon in the town and walking on a wooden sidewalk past storefronts with glass windows. It was so Old West that Adam had trouble remembering he was on an alien planet. However, all it took was for a hairy, rodent-looking creature to walk out of a doorway on its two hind legs and Adam was suddenly shocked back into reality.

Looking around, Adam was disappointed to see numerous wheeled vehicles moving along the road – no hovercraft or anti-gravity machines. The vehicles he did see were very similar to small SUV’s, and they even appeared to be obeying traffic rules rather than running around all helter-skelter. So much for his first impressions of an alien civilization….

Regarding the Ministry complex, Kaylor wasn’t kidding when he’d called it a Compound. The official government headquarters for this entire planet was nothing more than a sprawling arrangement of buildings all sequestered behind a massive four-meter-tall stone wall, with one large opening guarded by four gruff-looking creatures a little shorter than Adam. Each of the alien guards were covered with a black coat of hair or fur and wearing leather-like vests and pants, and were of the same species as those who had come aboard Kaylor’s ship earlier. They carried long-barrel weapons, along with sidearms like the one Kaylor wore.

Kaylor informed one of the guards that he was there to register a derelict salvage and was directed to Building Five without so much as a second glance by the other guards. So far, everything Adam had seen on the surface of Nimor was of this same nonchalant – even uncaring – manner. No one seemed too concerned with security or protocol.

Building Five was built of red brick and stood four stories tall, as were all the buildings within the compound. Adam and Kaylor entered through double glass doors and were directed to the second floor, Room 12. Inside the office was another black-haired creature – obviously the natives to this world – who directed them to take seats on the other side of his wide, metal desk.

“I am Fredic Dess,” the hairy creature stated in a deeper-than-expected voice. Adam still wasn’t accustomed to the unsynchronized movement of lips-to-voice, but after a moment of conversation he tended to ignore it quite well. “You are the ones who have brought in the Class-5 salvage?”

“That’s right. I am Kaylor Linn Todd and this is Adam Cain. He was cargo aboard the ship and the only survivor.”

Dess turned his attention to Adam. “Are you a slave?”

“Hell no!” Adam protested, caught off guard by the question.

Kaylor placed a hand on Adam’s arm. “There were eighty of his species aboard. You’ll see in the survey that they were being transported in sophisticated hiberpods and in good condition, so definitely not as slaves.”

Dess regarded them both for a moment, and then just grunted. He wrote something on a form in front of him. “How did you come upon the derelict?” he asked without looking up.

“We picked up a strong gravity wave in The Void and went to investigate. There were three pirate ships surrounding the derelict and they left the area as we came on the scene.”

Dess looked up. “They just left? You pilot a cargo-hauler, don’t you?”

“That’s right, yet we, ah, made ourselves out to be more than just a cargo-hauler using some surplus satellite drones we had aboard. We didn’t want to leave the ship to the mercy of the pirates. In The Void, all peaceful transports have to look out for one another. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Again Dess grunted. “And you had nothing to do with the attack that disabled the ship and killed the inhabitants?”

“Correct; this being here will testify to that.”

Dess looked at Adam. “Is this your testimony?”

“All I know is that the ship I was on was attacked, and then after a battle onboard, the attackers left in a hurry. After that Kaylor showed up, by himself.” Then Adam looked over at Kaylor. “And he saved my life.”

“How is that?”

“I was the only one left alive on the ship. If Kaylor had not chased off the pirates, they would have eventually found me and I’d probably be dead by now, just like everyone else. And if not that, then the power would have failed and I would have died from the cold or lack of atmosphere. Yeah, I guess he really did save my life.”

Dess turned his attention back to Kaylor. “What were you doing that far out in The Void?”

“We were transporting a string of smokesticks to Rigor.”

Dess nodded, and Adam got the distinct impression that he and Kaylor had just shared an unstated moment. Then the bureaucrat asked: “Have you removed anything from the subject vessel prior to registering the salvage with this authority?” It sounded like an official question.

“Nothing has been removed; I know the law.”

Dess scribbled some more on the form and then punched a button on his desk. A keyboard rotated out of the top and he began to transcribe the information from his paper form into the computer. It took several minutes to enter the data, during which time he didn’t say a word or acknowledge Adam and Kaylor’s existence. Adam followed Kaylor’s lead and sat patiently waiting for Dess to finish his typing.

Finally: “The survey will be completed in about an hour. Return here at Day4 and I will give you a copy and the registration documentation.”

And that was it, the interview was over.

But Adam wasn’t done.

“Wait a minute, what about me? I need someone to take me back to Earth.”

The bureaucrat stared back at Adam with a blank stare.

“Kaylor said you could get me back to my home, to my planet—”

“I said he might be able to.” Kaylor interjected.

“Where are you from?” Dess asked.

“Earth, I’m from the planet Earth.”

“Dirt? What kind of name is that for a planet?”

“Yeah, we’ve been through this before. Can you get me there or not?”

Dess tapped a few keys on his keypad. “This planet Earth is rumored to be in the Far Arm,” he said after scanning the screen for a moment. “I will stop right there; there is no one, official or otherwise, who can return you to a world located in the Far Arm.”

Adam felt as if an elephant had just sat on his chest. He broke out into a cold sweat and turned to Kaylor, pleading. “You said—”

“I’m sorry Adam. I told you the Far Arm is mostly unexplored territory. The computer doesn’t even have a location for your homeworld. It would be impossible to find it without specific coordinates.”

“What would it take to get me to the Far Arm?”

“First of all, you would need a long-range starship, Class-4 or better, and then probably several million credits.” Kaylor answered. “But you would need to know where you’re going first, otherwise you’d spend a thousand years jumping from system to system until you found the right one. What is the lifespan of your species?”

Adam didn’t like Kaylor’s tone. He stood up, hovering over Kaylor. “It’s a lot longer than yours … if you keep feeding me bullshit!”

“What was I supposed to tell you … that you’re probably stuck here for the rest of your life with no chance of getting home? Would that have made you feel better?”

Dess slapped his hand down on his desk, getting both of their attention. “Take this outside of my office. This subject has nothing to do with the Ministry.”

Kaylor didn’t say another word to the official, but instead quickly ushered Adam out of the room. Once in the hallway, Kaylor turned to him.

“You better come to terms with your situation, Adam Cain. No one is going to take you back to a planet with an unknown location, especially not in the Far Arm.”

“But I was abducted, kidnapped. It’s not fair!”

“No, it’s not, but this is not my problem.”

“Then you should have left me on that ship—” He stopped suddenly and his eyes grew wide. “The other ship!”

“What about it?”

“It’s been to Earth.”

“Yes, but the computer core is missing. There is no way to find where it has been.”

“But the people who own the ship would know; the people who may come to claim it!”

Kaylor was taken aback. He was right, if the ship is claimed, then Adam could talk with them about its travels..

“Then you must stay here and wait to see if the ship is claimed,” Kaylor declared.

“You mean you’re not going to wait here yourself?”

“No, we’ll come back later, if and when the claim is made.”

The scenarios began to run through Adam’s mind, and none of them looked good. What would he do here if he stayed on Nimor? How would he survive? “You can’t just leave me here,” he finally said. “You also said it could take a couple of months for the claim to come through. What if no one ever comes to claim it?”

And that was exactly what Kaylor was hoping; then the ship would be his. He made a quick decision. “This is against my better judgment, but I’ll let you stay with us – at least until the salvage is claimed or the salvage is awarded – if you cause us no more problems. Two months at the most. After that, you are on your own.”

Adam didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. It was obvious he wasn’t getting home anytime soon, and he had no money and no profession in this alien universe, so now he was grasping for anything even remotely familiar. Staying with Kaylor and Jym would give him time to think, as well as acclimate himself to this strange, new universe. He nodded. “Thanks, Kaylor. I’m sorry I keep flying off the handle at you, but I’m pretty messed up right about now.”

“I don’t quite understand the phrasing,” Kaylor said, “but I believe I understand what you mean to say. I can only imagine how strange all of this must seem to you. But if you attempt to remain calm, and stop flying off the handle, things will get better. Jym and I will help you get through.”

Jym! How was Kaylor going to explain to him that Adam was going to be his new shipmate for the next two months? He’s not going to like this … not one little bit.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 10

Adam and Kaylor left the Ministry Complex and headed back into the rustic, Old West town just as the sun was setting. Kaylor explained that they would take one of the wheeled transports back to the spaceport, but first he wanted to stop off at a tavern he knew of – a bar – and have a drink. Never one to pass up the opportunity to throw one back – especially after the day he was having – Adam didn’t resist.

Kaylor stopped at a doorway with a placard hung on a post, written in a scribble Adam couldn’t even begin to decipher. The alien pulled open the door and quickly disappeared inside. Like a baby duckling, Adam followed.

The interior of the bar carried such a foul odor that Adam almost gagged as he stepped inside – which was something he was coming to expect every time he came in contact with a new set of aliens. It’s as if none of them have a sense of smell! The bar was dark inside, as was to be expected, and populated with a circus of creatures far more exotic and gritty-looking than the cantina scene from Star Wars. Also, there were no dancing girls or music playing, just the deafening cacophony of discordant alien voices and the clinking of glasses on wooden tables. There was also a heavy haze in the room, and to Adam the smoke smelled vaguely familiar, yet combined with alien sweat and breath the pleasant scent was easily lost in the mix.

They took seats near the center of the room at a table with one of the small blood-sampling boxes affixed to its center. Kaylor poked his finger inside, pulled it out and then rotated the box over to Adam. Without protest, Adam let the box take a sample. In a few moments, a waiter came over – another of the burly, hairy creatures – and Kaylor ordered drinks for the two of them. Adam was also starving, having not eaten in – well he had no idea – but he decided to wait until their drinks came before mentioning anything to Kaylor. Drinking alien liquor was one thing. Eating alien food was a whole other subject.

Adam scanned the room, fascinated in the reality he now found himself. Over in a far corner, he noticed a group of the skinny gray creatures like those he’d seen aboard the big ship – like the one who had yelled at him and then ended up getting fried during the battle for the ship. There were six of them, all huddled together and looking nervous.

Not too far from the tiny gray creatures sat another group of patrons; four huge lizard-like beings, all dressed in black leather and wearing bandoliers across their chests. Even from where he sat, Adam could hear them carrying on, obviously drunk, and with the numerous empty glasses covering their table as testimony to their state of inebriation. There’s some in every crowd, Adam thought, the loud-mouths and the arrogant drunks.

Adam then noticed that Kaylor wasn’t paying attention to any of this. Instead his gaze was fixated on another creature seated at the bar, a being of the same race as he, yet smaller and with smoother features. Adam watched as Kaylor’s nostrils flared, sniffing the air.

“Stay here,” the alien commanded abruptly, as he lifted out of his chair. “I’ll be back.” Kaylor then made a beeline toward the other alien at the bar.

Stunned, Adam watched transfixed as two members of the same species met and began to size each other up. It was all kind of creepy, as they first smelled each other up and down, and then began to rub their necks together, making contact with the inch-long fingers of skin dangling from under their ears. Then the weirdest thing happened – Kaylor undid his pants! Next, the female turned her back to him, while Kaylor grasped her waist and attempted to mount her – right there in the bar!

Almost immediately, the bartender came over and angrily yelled something to them. Frantically, the two of alien lovebirds hurried out the front door, leaving Adam sitting at the table alone, confused and more than a little embarrassed.

Holy crap! What was he supposed to do now, just sit there or follow?

With no experience to guide him, Adam attempted to look as nonchalant as possible, propping one arm up on the back of his chair and crossing his legs. When the bartender brought the drinks, Adam quickly snatched up his and took a long, healthy gulp. Expecting a cola-tasting drink like he’d had aboard Kaylor’s ship, Adam was caught completely off guard by the unexpected burning sensation from the taste of nearly pure alcohol. Tears erupted from his eyes, as the potent liquid blazed a trail of fire all the way down to his stomach.

Adam tried his best not to choke; that would have completely destroyed the air of masculinity he was trying to project. Instead, he blinked several times and swallowed hard to dispel any linger traces of alcohol in his throat. Once somewhat recovered, he continued to scan the room with a silly grin on his face, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

The lizard-like creatures in the corner caught his attention again, this time as a frail, rodent-looking thing passed too close to their table. The big lizard in the middle reached out and grabbed the rodent’s tail and pulled, causing the big rat to fall back into the group. The lizards feigned anger and slapped at the rat’s head several times before the biggest of the bullies kicked the rodent back into the room, sending him crashing into an empty table nearby. The other lizards laughed loudly and hysterically, cancelling out all other sounds in the room. Penitently, the abused rat rose to his feet, righted the table, and then scurried off without comment or a glance back at his tormentors.

It was then Adam noticed that the big, dominate lizard was staring at him. Their eyes locked for a moment, before Adam looked away quickly. After a moment, he chanced a glance back, just to find that the lizard was still staring at him, a slight grin now curling the edges of the creature’s elongated snout. This was getting uncomfortable, especially without Kaylor around to narrate the scene.

So it was with infinite relief that Adam saw Kaylor reenter the tavern a few minutes later. When he was seated, Adam leaned forward, “What was that all about?”

The confused look returned to Kaylor’s face. “You mean the mating? Does your species not mate?”

“Of course we do, but just not so fast, and in public – at least not all the time. Who was she?”

“I do not know,” Kaylor said dismissively, lifting his drink and taking a gulp. “It doesn’t matter; we see so few of our species out here that we need to take advantage of all encounters.”

“So you just jump each other whenever you meet, just like that?”

“I don’t see why you are so shocked. I’m sure that if another of your kind showed up you’d do the same.”

Adam had to think about that for moment, but he was distracted from his thoughts when he noticed that the large lizard was still staring at him.

“Who are those lizard-looking things in the corner? One of them keeps staring at me.”

Kaylor didn’t look over as his voiced tensed. “They’re Rigorians. I would not mess with them if I were you. They’re the meanest, strongest creatures in this part of the Fringe. Their clan is also the largest, and they know it.”

“Yeah, they seem like real assholes.”

“That’s graphic, but accurate. Just be careful around them. They know they are at the top of the food chain here, except, of course, for the Juireans.”

Adam looked over at the lizard. Concerned that his furtive glances may be sending the wrong signal, Adam decided to try and defuse the situation, before it got out of hand.

Kaylor was still talking: “Whatever you do ….”

Adam flashed a big, toothy grin at the lizard—

“… never bare your teeth at them. They will consider that as a life-challenge.”

Almost instantly, the big lizard jumped to his feet and stalked over to Adam’s table. Towering a good seven feet tall, the yellow eyes and long snout were truly intimidating. Adam leaned back in his chair, looking up at the creature – as Kaylor nearly fell off his.

“You, creature,” the Rigorian called out, “so you challenge me?”

“Nah, it was just a misunderstanding,” Adam blurted out, his voice cracking as he spoke.

“Yes, you challenge me. I therefore challenge you!”

The whole tavern fell silent as Adam carefully rose out of his seat, slowly so as to not spook the lizard any more than he already was. “Listen, I don’t want to fight you. Like I said, it was just a misunderstanding.”

The Rigorian placed his hand on the butt of this weapon, but then noticing that Adam was unarmed, he cocked his head slightly toward Kaylor, while never taking his eyes off Adam. “Give him your weapon.”

Adam was shocked to see Kaylor immediately begin to unbuckle his holster without so much as a word of protest. He handed the holster to Adam. “What are you doing? I’m not going to fight this thing!”

“But you have been challenged,” Kaylor stated flatly. “You will either fight, or he has a right to shoot you dead where you stand.”

So either I fight … or I die. That’s not much of a choice, Adam thought.

Taking a deep breath, Adam reluctantly took the holster and strapped it around his waist. At least this was something he was familiar with; a weapon at the ready and an enemy before him. This was basic … and this he was good at.

The lizard turned and walked back to his group as a path was cleared of patrons and tables between the Rigorian and himself. There was more chatter in the room now, as the reality of the situation spread rapidly throughout the bar. There even appeared to be some betting going on. Adam didn’t want to know what odds he was getting, but he was sure they weren’t good.

Adam moved out from behind the table, giving himself a clear line of sight to the Rigorian just as Kaylor moved up beside him and removed the weapon from the holster. “Have you ever fired an MK-17 before?”

Adam shook his head.

“Of course you have not.” Kaylor displayed the weapon to him. “You must follow this procedure to fire the MK: Withdraw the weapon from the holster, bring it up to level, and when the targeting computer has locked on you will feel a slight vibration in the grip. You can then pull the trigger and your target will be struck. I have set the weapon for a level-one bolt. That is the maximum setting. It will produce a concentrated bolt but you will only have five shots per charge. It was set a level-two when I shot you. That produced a larger, more diffused bolt, but it gives the shooter ten shots instead of five. You will need a level-one bolt to kill the Rigorian, but you will also need to be very precise with your targeting.”

He returned the weapon to the holster and then stepped away. But then as an afterthought, he stepped forward again and raised his arm. “This is my weapon,” he announced to the room. “I will be reclaiming my property after the challenge is satisfied.”

Adam leaned in towards him, “You don’t sound too confident about my chances.”

Kaylor just shrugged, and then moved away to put more distance between Adam and himself.

Adam turned his attention to the Rigorian, and was just about to ask how this was supposed to go down when he saw the lizard’s hand move quickly towards his gun. The Rigorian grasped the butt of the weapon and began to draw it from the holster….

Oh shit … it’s happening now!

Without thinking, Adam reached down and withdrew the MK-17 from the holster. The weapon was light in his hand, and in a single move he aimed the weapon at the lizard and instinctively depressed the trigger. A tiny, brilliant ball of blue light shot out of the business end of the MK and impacted the left shoulder of the Rigorian, spinning him sideways. Adam fired again; this time the shot struck the thick neck of the lizard, nearly severing the head from the torso.

Adam then noticed another movement; the Rigorian to his right had also pulled his weapon and was bringing it to bear on Adam. Shifting his aim slightly, Adam let loose with another shot; this one found its target center mass in the lizard’s chest.

Not taking any chances, Adam swung the weapon to the left, lining up the other two Rigorians in his sights. Each had their hands on their weapons, but they quickly pulled them away as they stared down the barrel of Adam’s gun.

It was only then that Adam felt a slight vibration coming from the grip of the alien weapon.

For some strange reason, this made Adam chuckle, an expression that made the two surviving Rigorians shiver with fright. The entire fight had taken less than two seconds … and just now the computer was telling him it was okay to fire.

“Take off your holsters,” Adam demanded of the two remaining Rigorians.

“What?” one of them said. “We’re not taking—”

Adam rushed forward, until he jammed the barrel of his gun up into the neck of the taller, defiant lizard. “Take off your god damn weapons – or I’ll take off your heads!”

In unison, the Rigorians unbuckled their holsters and let them fall to the floor.

“That’s better. Now get the hell out of here,” Adam ordered.

Without looking back at the fallen and bloody heap of flesh that was their dead companions, the two surviving Rigorians dashed out of the tavern. Adam bent down and picked up the two sets of weapons. When he turned back to the room, he noticed how deathly quiet it was, with dozens of pairs of wide eyes staring back at him. Taking advantage of the stunned fear, Adam returned to his table, lifted his drink and threw it down in a single gulp. He then turned to an equally-stunned Kaylor and simply said, “Pay up; we’re leaving.”

********

Outside in the early evening afterglow, Adam and Kaylor walked silently back to the spaceport. Kaylor didn’t ask for his weapon back, and chose to stay about half a pace behind Adam all the way to the landing field.

Entering the ship, Kaylor retracted the loading ramp and secured the door, after which they made their way to the common room.

As they entered, Jym turned from his computer console – and nearly fell off the chair at the sight of Adam.

“What is he doing here?” he blurted out; Kaylor silenced him up with a firm shake of his head.

Adam was still so jacked up that he didn’t sit down. Instead he dropped the two sets of weapons on the table and then began to pace back and forth between the couch and the table. “I didn’t want to fight him – you know that,” he finally said.

Kaylor stood near the doorway. “You had no choice,” was all he said.

Regaining some of his nerve, Jym pressed the subject: “What happened? You’ve only been gone for about two hours—”

“Adam just killed two Rigorians in a life-challenge at Jklena’s Tavern.”

“He did what? That’s impossible.”

“No it is not,” Kaylor countered. “It was the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen. Then he disarmed two more and had them leave the tavern in exchange for their lives.”

Stepping forward, Kaylor held out his hand to Adam. “Let me have the weapon.”

Adam stopped pacing and looked into Kaylor’s eyes. A tense moment passed, but then Adam slowly began to unbuckle the holster. “No, keep the holster on,” Kaylor said.

Surprised, Adam obeyed and handed just the weapon over to the alien. Taking the MK-17, Kaylor popped the bolt cartridge out of the handle and then handed the weapon back to Adam.

“Let me see you draw the weapon again. It is disarmed, so just draw and shoot, like you did before.”

Doing his best John Wayne imitation, Adam whipped the gun out of the holster, raised it and pulled the trigger. He heard an audible gasp from Jym.

“What’s the big deal?” Adam asked. “I’ve always had pretty fast reactions, and I’m actually a damned good shot.”

After a moment, Kaylor answered. “You should not be able to do that. I’ve never seen anyone even come close to how fast you can draw a weapon. Also, you didn’t use the targeting computer. How is it that you can hit a target without targeting assistance?”

“Well, that part seemed pretty silly to me. Why do you have to wait for a computer to tell you when to shoot?”

Kaylor persisted. “You should not be able to hit a target without assistance. If you do, then it is simply luck. Yet what I saw today was not luck.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but we don’t use targeting computers on our handguns. We do with missiles and rockets and things like that, but not with handguns or rifles. Besides, he was only about twenty feet away. I’d have to be blind to miss at that range.”

Jym coughed. “I don’t mean to spoil the moment, but what about the salvage?”

Kaylor seemed relieved at the change the subject. “It has been registered. We are to go back tomorrow at Day4 for the final inventory and receipt.”

“And him?” Jym nodded toward Adam, who was still practicing drawing the MK-17, seemingly getting faster every time.

“The Registrar said he couldn’t help him get back to his planet … so I said he could stay on with us until the owners showed up for the claim or the verdict on the salvage is rendered. His hope is that if the owners show up they could help him find his home.”

“But that could be months from now! You mean he is to remain here for all that time? You can clearly see how dangerous this thing can be.”

“I told him two months—”

“Hey, I’m right here in the room with you,” Adam said.

“We’ll put him to work, doing something,” Kaylor continued. “But I could not leave him on-planet without any resources.”

“It looks like he can take care of himself,” Jym countered.

“If killing is an occupation….”

Adam turned toward the two arguing aliens: “Listen up you two; I’m not going to be any trouble. I’m a hard worker and a fast learner, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me so far, really. Just right now I need a little time to figure out what I’m going to do.” He then took a few steps towards Jym. “Remember, from my perspective, it’s only about a day since I was back home, and without ever dreaming that I’d be here and going through all this shit,” he said, while leaning over the seated alien. “Besides, this is your reality, not mine. So Jym, why don’t you try to cut me a little slack!”

Jym had recoiled from Adam as his diatribe grew more impassioned. Now he recovered slightly. “That’s understandable, Adam Cain. I’m just not used to someone disturbing our routine. If it’s okay with Kaylor, then it is surely okay with me.”

“That’s better,” Adam said forcefully. “Now can we all just try to get along?” And with that last plea, Adam took off the holster and handed it back to Kaylor. He then gathered up the two other weapons he’d taken from the Rigorians and left to return to his room. He had a lot of thinking to do….




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 11

Overlord Oplim Ra Unis was having a terrible day. He had just received a report that tax revenues for The Fringe were down seventeen-percent and that the mining operations on Castor were stalled because of a delay in getting a new drilling unit shipped in from Sector Seven.

But what frustrated the young Overlord the most was the reality that his superiors back on Juir would not care. To them, The Fringe was so inconsequential, such an afterthought, that they treated the region as a bonus to all their other operations. So no matter what Oplim did, he would never be noticed.

And that was why so many of his colleagues in the Juirean Authority had been shocked to learn that Oplim had actually requested The Fringe. With such a vast and growing Expansion – and so few Juireans available to fill vital posts – he could have had his pick of any of a dozen Sectors. Yet he chose The Fringe.

Oplim closed the file on his computer, leaned back in his chair and stared out through the huge plate-glass window that made up the entire right wall of his office. Before him lay the urban expanse of Cyol, the city on the planet Melfora Lum where the Juireans had established their sector headquarters some seventy-odd standard years before. It was the largest city in The Fringe – as would be expected – with skyscrapers and traffic routes, even elevated arrow trains that shuttled the inhabitants to and from their daily tasks. The planet itself offered a temperate climate, ample farmland, and even the gravity was nearly that of Juir. But it had been Oplim’s hobby – indeed his obsession – that had brought him to Melfora Lum, and out to the very edge of the civilized galaxy.

So when his secure computer link had buzzed a few moments before – and he read the attached file – his heart began to race rapidly, and his breath came in shallow gulps.

Could this be it? Could this be what he’d come all the way out here to find?

Oplim had traces on all communications throughout The Fringe, including vidcasts, link transmissions, ship chatter – and even salvage registrations. Search parameters were entered and any hits, even the most obscure, were correlated and weighed against all known databases.

This hit came from a salvage that had just been registered on the planet Nimor. Undoubtedly, Oplim had received the information only milliseconds behind even the bureaucrats on the planet, but unlike them, he was privy to information they were not.

The configuration was correct, the technology consistent, and even the dead occupants coincided with the archives. This was definitely a Klin ship. At last he had his proof!

For over twenty standard years, Oplim had tracked every credible sighting, report, rumor or myth regarding the elusive Klin. Within his program, he had noted each of these, no matter how vague, no matter how reliable. And then, after so many years, a pattern had begun to emerge.

As the Juirean Expansion grew larger, the locations of the most recent reports would move inexorably further out, away from the more populated regions of the galaxy. It was obvious what was happening: The Klin were moving. And now there was no place further out than The Fringe.

It had been a remarkable gamble on Oplim’s part. After all, many in The Expansion did not even believe that the Klin still existed, and to be labeled a Believer did not sit well with the Elites or the Juirean Council. Besides, with a whole galaxy to govern, most Juireans had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue fairy tales. The Klin had been eradicated during The Reckoning, and to most Juireans, they no longer existed as a race.

And yet here was a Klin ship – a living relic of a time long forgotten.

Oplim watched the video that the survey crew had taken, and even though the ship itself was not conclusive evidence – after all, it had been nearly four-thousand years since anyone had seen a Klin spaceship – it was the bodies they found onboard that cinched it. Evolution does not work so fast that in four-thousand years a species would not be recognizable. The Juireans had plenty of records that showed what a Klin looked like, even though it had been four millennia since anyone had verifiably seen one in the flesh, even a dead one. There were definitely dead Klin aboard the derelict starship.

But just finding hard evidence that the Klin still existed wasn’t enough for Oplim. If the Klin still lived, then they had to have a base of operations somewhere, and more-than-likely it was right here in his sector.

Oplim quickly scanned the report until he found what he was looking for – and then he slammed his fist down hard on his desk! He was afraid of this … the ship’s computer core was missing. That core would hold the location to the Klin hiding place.

Reading more detail, Oplim saw where it was reported that the damn Fringe Pirates had attacked the ship and then removed certain items, including the core, before abandoning their kill. He read with disbelief – as well as a little admiration – how a pair of lowly mule-drivers had tricked the pirates into running away. Unfortunately, before they left they had taken the core.

But wait, what was this? He read further. There was a survivor! Not a Klin, but another creature who had been aboard the Klin ship at the time of the attack. The vids were both informative and confusing. There had been eighty of these creatures aboard – Humans they were called – and they had all been intentionally killed by the Klin, all except for one. And he was currently on Nimor.

Oplim’s mind quickly assessed the situation and then formulated a plan, as Overlords had been trained to do for thousands of years. Tapping the communications tab on his desk, he commanded that a secure and direct link be established between himself and Fleet Commander Giodol Fe Bulen.

********

Commander Giodol was surprised to receive a link directly from the Overlord; he answered immediately.

“Commander, where are you at this time?” his Overlord asked without preamble.

“We are near Silea, My Lord, showing our force to the natives,” he answered. With no real enemies in this part of The Expansion, the tiny Fringe fleet was used primarily for intimidation purposes, as a reminder of just how powerful the Juireans were.

“I have a vital assignment for you,” Oplim stated. Giodol perked up. He was so tired of simply showing the flag to these backwater beings. “I need you to launch an assault on the pirate base at K’ly and extract information from all the captives.”

Giodol was stunned. Was he hearing his Overlord correctly? This was real action, and against the only menace – if minor – within the region. The Fleet Commander was aware that recently the pirates had become much bolder and proficient with their activities, even going so far as to stage raids on planetary cities. They also appeared to be working better as a unit, rather than as independent ships with no real organization governing their actions. Now the young Overlord was finally going to take action against them. “Of course, My Lord, I will do as you wish with enthusiasm. It is time we subdue the pirate activities—”

The Overlord continued, interrupting: “Yesterday a vessel was attacked by three pirate ships in The Void, near the planet Nimor. The pirates made off with the ship’s computer core. That is what you must recover, Commander.”

Giodol was surprised by the assignment. This was something different than punishment for the pirates’ sector-wide activities.

“Commander, you are authorized to use whatever means necessary to recover the core.”

“Was it removed from a Juirean ship, My Lord?” Giodol asked, trying to find the reason why this particular core would be so important to the Overlord.

“No, it was not, but that is not your concern. Just bring me the core as soon as it is recovered.” Then the Overlord broke the link.

Giodol stared at the blank screen for a few seconds more, wondering why the Overlord was acting so strangely. Oplim had come to The Fringe only two years before, while Giodol had been there for nearly ten. He had experienced no particular issues with the young Overlord in that time, and even now, this was not an issue he would dwell upon. The Overlord must have his reasons. And we’re Juireans; we never question the motives of another Juirean.

Giodol knew the location of the pirate base on K’ly; it was one of the least kept secrets in The Fringe. It’s just that no one had ever taken the initiative to go there before. Now he had a mission, a purpose. And as he had told the Overlord, he would accomplish his assignment with enthusiasm.

After breaking the link with his Fleet Commander, Oplim next opened a link to Counselor Deslor Lin Jul on the planet Castor. Deslor was one of three Counselors assigned to the Overlord, but by far his favorite. He also shared Oplim’s belief in the existence of the Klin.

Once the link was established, Oplim spent the first few minutes briefing Deslor regarding the Klin ship and the actions he’d set in motion against the Fringe Pirates. The Counselor, too, was ecstatic.

“Deslor, I need you to go to Nimor and interview the mule-drivers. They are not to spread any information regarding this ship … is that clear?”

“Perfectly,” Deslor said. “I assume you have put a lock on all references to the ship and its recovery?”

“Of course I have. All files have been blocked from dissemination. After you have interviewed the parties on Nimor, I want you to bring the ship – and this survivor – to me here on Melfora Lum. As far as we can tell, this creature has had direct contact with the Klin. We must know the connection between the Klin and …” he looked down at his notes, “… these Humans. How long until you can get to Nimor?”

“I can be there in seventeen hours.”




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 12

The next morning, Adam learned that Day4 meant four hours after sunrise on Nimor. Everyone seemed to be in a better mood this morning, even Jym, as the three of them crowded into a transport cab for the trip to the Ministry Complex.

There was a marked increase in activity in the compound this morning compared to the day before, with literally dozens of the hairy creatures scurrying about with obvious purpose. Maybe yesterday they’d just hit the place right around closing time.

It doesn’t really matter, he thought, because today is the day I’ll begin my journey home. He had begun telling himself that, while holding onto the optimistic belief that the ship’s owners would soon come to claim their property. The chant was cathartic, even if comprised primarily of wishful thinking.

As he sat in the back of transport, he proudly displayed the MK-17 bolt launcher he wore on his hip. He felt much better wearing the weapon in this strange, new environment. As a military man, his weapon was his best friend. He’d even found a ribbon of leather in the cargo hold which he used to tie the bottom of the holster to his lower thigh, just to keep it from riding up when he drew the weapon. This had allowed him to quicken his draw even more.

In addition, Adam carried with him a slight superiority complex, based on the reactions he’d witnessed from Kaylor and Jym the day before. They made him believe that he’d accomplished something pretty spectacular against the yellow-eyed lizards. It also meant that if this was the best these aliens had to throw against him, then he really had nothing much to worry about.

As a matter of fact, Adam kept playing the fight scene over and over again in his mind, and each time he did, he realized that he had never been in any real danger from the lizard-things. The speed of their draws was like watching it in slow motion, and even if they had equaled him in drawing speed, they would have stood there for a second or so before firing, waiting for the damn targeting computer to do its thing.

Was this how they all did it? If so…well damn!

Adam followed Kaylor and Jym as they entered the brick building once again and took the stairs to the second floor. The building was packed, but the office of Fredic Dess was empty, except for the ubiquitous bureaucrat.

Dess was especially friendly this morning, much more cordial than the day before, yet he did start the conversation with an apology. “I’m terribly sorry, but I must insist that you remove your weapons and place them over there.” He indicated a table set against the left wall, next to the second door to his office. “We have a dignitary arriving today and we have instituted new restrictions for today only.”

Even though Adam was just getting used to his new sidearm, he obliged, as did Kaylor; Jym was not carrying a weapon.

Once they were all seated in front of the desk, Dess leaned back in his chair and locked his gaze on Adam. Suddenly, seven black-vested guards burst into the room from both entrances, each pointing their long-barrel weapons at him. Adam jumped up from his seat, but after a quick survey of the situation, he sank back into the chair with a sigh of resignation.

“You, the Human known as Adam Cain, are to be detained pending investigation of the unprovoked death of two Rigorian primes yesterday late-day,” Dess announced to him.

“That was self-defense.” Kaylor countered, much to his credit. Adam remained silent, surveying the armed guards.

“That is not what the witnesses relay. A Council will be convened to weigh all the evidence.”

Adam leaned over closer to Kaylor. “I thought you said there wasn’t much law around here,”

“I was present,” Kaylor said, ignoring Adam. “The Rigorians initiated the challenge. It was a fair fight.”

“Two Rigorian warriors dead in a life-challenge against a single being?” Dess shook his head. “I’m not a judge here, but I find that hard to believe. He will be held within the Complex as we investigate.”

It was then that Kaylor noticed the guards were also pointing their weapons at him as well. “What are you doing—?”

Dess cut him off. “And the two of you are also to be detained, pending the arrival of, and the questioning by, Juirean Counselor Deslor Lin Jul.”

Adam saw the utter look of shock on the faces of his two companions, a blood-draining mask of terror different from any previous expressions Adam had witnessed. In was a look of pure fright.

“A Juirean Counselor is coming here – to see us?”

“That is correct. The Juirean Authority has taken over the case of your salvage. It is no longer under local jurisdiction.”

Kaylor started to say something before nearly choking. Once he regained his voice, he asked, “When will the Counselor be arriving?”

“He will be here later today, approximately Day10. You will be held here until his arrival.”

“But we haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Immaterial. I am only following orders.”

“But we’re not going anywhere. Why can’t we leave and return when he arrives?”

“That is not my decision to make. Take them away.”




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 13

Riyad Tarazi had just finished a rigorous workout when the link came through from Angar in Gildemont. Bare-chested, he wrapped a towel around his shoulders and opened the link.

“What do you have to report?”

Angar was seated before a computer screen in what appeared to be a planetside room, not aboard his ship. “The Ministry has completed their survey, and the computer core is not on the ship. The report says the pirates took it.” His tone was incredulous.

“Well, seeing that it was your crew that went aboard, do you have it?”

“No sir, absolutely not!” Angar cried out in his defense. “We didn’t have time to do any salvage before – well – before we left.”

“Then the bastard mule-drivers must have it.”

“The report indicates that his ship passed a cursory inspection.”

“They wouldn’t keep it on their ship. They probably took other things as well.”

Angar looked down at a screen in front of him. “Yes, there were several small units missing, but again, all supposedly taken by us.”

“They would have hidden them somewhere along the way to Nimor.” Then the obvious answer popped into his head. “The asteroids; they hid the core there.”

“There are millions of them, sir.”

“Yes, I know. That’s why we need to get the drivers to tell us where they hid it. Where are the bastards now?”

“They are being detained at the Ministry.”

“Detained, why?”

The blood seemed to drain from Angar’s face. “They are awaiting the arrival of a Juirean Counselor for interrogation”

Juireans! Why did they care about this salvage?

“When will the Counselor be arriving?”

“Very soon; the Ministry is making arrangements for the interrogation of the two mule-drivers as we speak … along with the one survivor.”

“Survivor? What survivor?” Riyad was upset that this was the first he was hearing of this.

“Yes, there seems to have been one survivor.” Realizing his mistake, nearly all the blood drained from Angar’s face. “One of the beings from the hiberpods is still alive.”

“A Human is still alive? Why wasn’t I told of this?” Riyad nearly flew out of his chair, while the facial recognition sensor on the vid camera followed his movement, keeping him on-screen with Angar.

“Apologies, My General. When we went aboard there were dozens of hiberpods. All the creatures were dead – except this one, evidently.”

Riyad stared at the captain for several long moments, while Angar shifted nervously waiting for Riyad to say something. Finally, Riyad spoke. “Where is this survivor now?” His speech was slow and cadenced.

“He, too, is being detained at the Ministry. But he is being held pending a murder investigation.”

This was the last thing Riyad had expected to hear. “What do you mean, Angar? Explain yourself.”

“Early the prior evening, the survivor apparently killed two Rigorians in a life-challenge. Witnesses say it was unprovoked, that’s how two of them could have been killed by a single creature.”

That’s not so unbelievable, not in light of what I’ve just been told, Riyad thought. Another live Human, and it didn’t take long for his abilities to manifest themselves. But that was information Riyad would have to deal with later. Right now he had a more urgent matter.

“Captain Angar, I’m giving you the most important task of your life; fail this and you will not have a life left to live.” Angar swallowed hard, his eyes wide with fear and anticipation. “The mule-drivers must be freed from the Nimorians – alive – and brought to me. If the driver is killed, with him will go the location of the computer core. You can use any of our contacts in the Clans and in the Ministry to secure their release. Do what you must. And one last thing,” his voice lowered slightly, “if you cannot subdue the survivor without risking the lives of the mule-drivers, then you must kill him. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir! I already have a major contact within the Ministry. I will begin planning for the rescue as soon as possible.”

“Keep me informed of your progress, Captain Angar.” Riyad cut the link.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 14

Well this is just great, Adam thought, as he led the parade out of the office and down the stairs.

The jail block was located in the next building over, and on the way there Adam tried to think if there was any way out of his current situation. Being on an alien planet took away most of his options, and even if he could escape, where would he go? He knew he was innocent of the charges against him; after all, he had killed the lizards in a fair fight. So as the entourage approached the four-story brick building, Adam decided he would just let things ride and see how they played out, even though he had no idea how fair alien justice was.

Solid metal doors greeted them at the prison building, and they entered into a processing room with high counters manned by grim-looking natives wearing tan vests instead of the black ones the guards wore. The three detainees were herded through another security gate made of thin metal bars and taken down a wide corridor to a series of jail cells.

The familiarity of the cells once again amazed Adam. About the only thing that made this scene alien were the creatures escorting him. The room itself was long, with ten cells along the right side. Each cell was made of the same thin metal bars as the security door, running up from the floor to the ceiling with no parallel supports between them, and they were all open to the other cells except for a wall of bars separating them. Inside each cell were two cots, one placed along each side wall of the cell, and with a sink and toilet set along the solid back wall. There were no windows to the outside. The three of them were the only prisoners in the cell block.

Adam was placed in one cell, while Kaylor and Jym were placed together in another. Once the gates were locked, the guards left.

Adam walked over to the sink and splashed some water on his face. Looking around, he didn’t see a towel, so he pulled up the sheet up from one of the cots and dried off. Then he sat on the cot facing the cell of his alien companions, where the two of them were in an animated, yet hushed conversation.

“Hey,” Adam called out to them, “what just happened in there?”

Kaylor and Jym continued their conversation.

“Hey … alien dudes!” This time he got their attention. “What are you two so excited about? You’re not the one accused of murder.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Kaylor said dismissively. “I’m sure they’ll get it all worked out once they interview more of the witnesses.” He then turned back to his conversation with Jym.

Adam decided to use a different tact. “So what’s a Juirean Counselor?”

Both the aliens suddenly stopped talking.

Kaylor moved closer to the bars separating the two cells. “Didn’t I tell you the Juireans rule the civilized galaxy? Having a Juirean come here to with meet us – well there must be something very special about that ship I found you on.”

“That’s not my area of expertise. Remember, I was just cargo.”

Kaylor looked annoyed, while Jym settled on the far away cot and sat down. “You don’t understand how serious this is,” Kaylor said. “The Juirean Expansion encompasses over eight-thousand stellar systems. Juireans don’t bother themselves with every little thing that goes on within them, especially not way out here in The Fringe. I’ve been out in this part of The Expansion for almost twenty standard years, and I’ve never even seen a Juirean in person.”

“I saw one once,” Jym interjected. “But that was at a big celebration on my homeworld, and it was from pretty far away.”

Kaylor ignored the interruption. “A Counselor is only one step below an Overlord, and the only other level above that are the Elites – but they never leave Juir. I’ve heard that there are only about ten Juireans in the entire Fringe. Do you see now why we are so concerned?”

“I guess so. But you didn’t do anything wrong, either. So relax; it will all work itself out,” Adam offered, with a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

Kaylor placed both his hands on the cell bars – favoring his broken left arm – and hung his head slightly. “It also looks like they may take away our salvage.”

Adam could tell that the two aliens were really worried. “So, tell me more about these Juireans. How did they come to be the top dogs in the galaxy?”

Adam’s reference to top dogs seemed to confuse Kaylor for a moment, as he listened to the translator work through the reference. Then he sat on the cot and leaned back against the bars at the front of the cell.

“First of all, the Juireans are not to be taken lightly. They control the technology and manufacturing capacity of The Expansion. They also have the strongest weapons and largest fleets. They are the ones who have tied the entire known galaxy together, and their Expansion encompasses the other side of the Core, and onto this side of the galaxy and The Fringe, at the edge of the Far Arm – the place where you apparently come from. There’s still a lot of galaxy to explore, and it is believed that eventually the Juireans will control it all.”

“That doesn’t answer the question about how they did it.”

Kaylor leaned his head back against the bars of the cell and closed his eyes. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts for a moment before opening his eyes again and staring at the ceiling. “I have never encountered a being before who has not heard of the Juireans. Yet if you insist, I will tell you the history, as much as I know it. Seeing that we have nothing better to occupy our time, you may actually gain a better insight into our dilemma with this information. First of all, you must go back about four-thousand standard years ago and to the time of the Seven World Common Alliance.” Kaylor began. Adam could tell this line of conversation was helping Kaylor take his mind off of his current situation. It was also doing the same for Adam….

“The way it all began, according to the stories, was that within a small stellar cluster of four dominate stars, seven habitable worlds orbited within close proximity to one another. This was long before interstellar travel and gravity drives, but during certain periods their orbits allowed most of these planets to come very near to one another, near enough that powerful telescopes could pick up the lights on their surfaces along with other signs of intelligent life. So as each species evolved, their primary purpose became to make contact with their neighboring planets.

“According to the stories, science and technology advanced very quickly on these worlds, as they bypassed the normal beliefs in religion and such that most other civilizations hold to be true. With the natives of these planets aware from the beginning of their civilizations that other intelligent life existed on their neighboring worlds, the belief in one god – or in even their own uniqueness based upon some divine creation – was an obsolete concept. My own homeworld of Belson – as well as most of the others I’ve visited – still hold onto these ancient religious beliefs even to this day. Studies have shown that such superstitions and restrictions tend to slow the progress of science by thousands of years.

“But not so in the Alliance. While my people were riding steeds and building our first wheeled carts, some of the races in the Alliance were already constructing rockets and developing wave transmitters in an attempt to communicate with the other worlds of the cluster.

“So in a relatively short time, some of these races began traveling back and forth between planets and sharing technology. The Klin, the Diphorians and the Oanneans were some of the first, establishing the rudimentary Alliance. They eventually set criteria for entry into their organization, the most important of which was that each planet must be united under one government before they would be offered full membership.

“The Juireans, according to these stories, were still divided and tribal at this time, yet they, too, knew of the beings on their neighboring worlds and wanted to join them, but the other worlds considered them too barbaric and warlike for membership. This made the Juireans mad. In fact, at that time, the planet where the Juireans come from was called Axlus, and it was made up of hundreds of city-states, with the city-state of Juir being just one of them.

“But then a leader arose on Axlus, a Juirean citizen named Malor, who began a concerted effort to unify the planet. After a long and bloody campaign, he eventually succeeded, and he changed the name of the planet Axlus to Juir in honor of his home. When he was done, The Others – as they were called – arrived.”

Kaylor stretched, giving himself some relief from the hard metal bars against his back, then seeing that Adam was actually paying attention to his lecture, he continued.

“By then, the Alliance consisted of six of the seven worlds in the cluster. Even though Juir was united now, they were still not granted full membership in the Alliance. The other civilizations still considered them too violent and belligerent. This caused an incredible amount of anger within the Juirean population, since they had killed millions of their own kind just to bring about the unification that had been required for membership. So Malor devised a plan to remedy this.

“At the time, the Klin and the Oanneans were in a minor struggle for control of the Alliance, and Malor convinced the Klin that the Juireans could use their more militaristic abilities to provide protection and security for the Klin, a race who had never had to fight before, either among themselves or against others. So the Juireans were eventually granted full membership in the Alliance and given complete access to all the technology the coalition had to offer. This was a mistake – but not if you listen to the Juireans tell it.”

Adam could tell from the tone of Kaylor’s story that he had no love lost for the Juireans. Yet Adam was finding the story fascinating. Here was a tale of real galactic conquest by real aliens. This was better than any movie or science fiction book.

Kaylor continued.

“Juireans live for a very long time, often a couple of hundred years or more. And over the fifty years or so since Malor had unified the planet – and they were still denied membership in the Alliance – the Juireans had developed an intense hatred for the other members of the Alliance, especially the Klin, whom they considered responsible for this insult. So once Malor and the Juireans gained access to the Alliance technology, including the newly-developed gravity drive for interstellar travel, they attacked. To the Juireans, this is a time of immense pride and accomplishment in their history, and they celebrate The Reckoning, as they call it, as their most hallowed accomplishment. Throughout the cluster, the Juireans decimated the other races, who similar to the Klin, had never developed an advanced military or fighting skills equal to that of the Juireans. Yet the Juireans focused the brunt of their revenge on the Klin. They sterilized the Klin homeworld and exterminated the race.”

“Not all of them!” Jym finally spoke up.

“What do you mean?” Adam asked.

Kaylor answered for him. “What he means is that there are accounts – rumors really – that some of the Klin escaped and went into hiding. The tales say that the Klin will someday rise again and vanquish the Juireans … and reclaim the Alliance as their own.”

“You don’t believe that?”

“It’s been almost four thousand years and there has never been any verifiable proof that the Klin still exist.”

“They’ve been to Fulqin!” Jym countered.

“Fulqin is Jym’s homeworld,” Kaylor explained. “Nearly every race has their myths.” He turned to Jym, “Admit it Jym, no one has actually produced a real Klin for the vids, now have they?”

“They’re just being cautious.”

“Go on,” Adam said to Kaylor.

“Once the Juireans had conquered the Alliance, they set out bringing other worlds under their control using the new gravity drive. But soon wars were breaking out all over the place, and the Juireans found themselves assaulted on all sides.

“By this time Malor had died, and the Juireans went through a series of ineffective leaders until Arolus Ra Un came to power. He was a strong and fearless leader who decided that the best way to bring unity to the warring factions of the Alliance was to give them all a new purpose, something new to fight against, other than themselves. So he built The Mass.”

“What was that?” Adam asked.

“As the name suggests, it was a massive fleet of ten-thousand starships, that fanned out in all directions across the galaxy, conquering worlds through force, intimidation or by politics. Some races resisted, but none were able to hold out for long. The Mass lasted for five hundred years, until it became so large and unmanageable that the Juireans had to stop to catch their breath. By this time, the lust for power by the Juireans was fairly well exhausted, and they found that the task of governing all the worlds of the new Alliance almost too much to bear.

“So they retreated briefly, letting thousands of systems fall back to their pre-contact existences. As it turned out, this caused more harm than good. Once most of these worlds had experienced the wonders of the Juirean technology – stolen from the Klin, I might add – they longed for more. So they fought regional wars for what was left by the Juireans. I know this to be true, because my homeworld was involved in one of the bloodiest and most protracted of these wars.”

“So what happened next? Obviously the Juireans didn’t stay quiet for long.”

“No, they didn’t,” Kaylor agreed. “They came out with a new strategy: The Expansion. Realizing that a galaxy is too big for one race to control, the Juireans allowed for regional alliances, as well as individual planets to petition for entry into The Expansion, yet still retain a high level of autonomy and self-rule. Through this strategy the Juireans were able to gain control over thousands of additional worlds by giving the local authorities more freedom, and all in exchange for their allegiance, as well as a tribute paid to the Juireans.

“The strongest of these local authorities gained access to the most technology, yet the Juireans had learned from their past. To this day, they maintain strict control of the technology, only doling out bits and pieces, and never the means of production. In fact, the Juirean culture these days is built almost entirely on managing their Expansion and the manufacture of the technology.”

“Sounds like a pretty reasonable thing to do,” Adam said. “These Juireans don’t sound that bad.” As soon as Adam finished his statement, the look of disgust on the faces of the two aliens told him he didn’t have all the facts.

“How can you say that?” Kaylor asked, scorn in his voice. “The Juireans are heartless animals who have stolen everything they have from others.”

“Sorry,” Adam said. “It just kinda made sense. How else are you going to govern a whole galaxy?”

Kaylor shook his head, a dismissive gesture toward someone who knew no better. Then he continued: “Since they are only one race, the Juireans insist that the ultimate authority in The Expansion is always left to a Juirean. So they have breeding factories; they don’t have traditional mating pairs like most races. Children are analyzed for ability, and then separated at an early age to be trained to perform various tasks within the Juirean structure.

“Like I said earlier, at the very top of their hierarchy are the Elites, followed by the Overlords and then the Counselors. Below them are the various administrators and technicians. The Overlords are the governors of The Expansion, along with the Guards, who run the military side of the society. But the Juireans are the sole arbiters of their actions. No other race, only other Juireans, can even question the decisions of an Overlord. The Counselors are more of the regional administrators, answerable only to the local Overlord. Located at the very edge of The Expansion, The Fringe has very few Juireans of any classification. We just aren’t that important to them.”

“And that’s why you’re so concerned about this Counselor coming today?” Adam said. “I can see that drawing the attention of a Juirean – let alone a Counselor – must mean there’s something very strange about that spaceship I was on.”

Kaylor just bobbed his head, yet it didn’t take an alien body language expert to read the worry on his face. Finally Kaylor asked Adam, “And you know nothing more about the ship or where it came from?”

“How could I?” Adam answered. “You know I come from some backwater world that doesn’t even have space travel – not real space travel like you have. Hell, we’ve only been to our own moon a few times. I honestly have no idea where the ship came from, or why I was even aboard.”

“But there were a total of eighty of your race in the pods. That must mean something?” Jym said from the faraway cot.

“Hell if I know. Remember, to me I’ve only been awake in your universe for about two days, and already I’ve been shot by you,” he pointed at Kaylor, “been in a gunfight with two crazed lizards, and been arrested for murder. To top all that off, back home they think I’m dead, and all the people I know and love have already put me six-feet under. Damn, this adventure is getting off to a great start! I wonder what new discoveries tomorrow will bring?”

Kaylor grunted. “At least you don’t have to face a Counselor.”

“That may be true, but you do realize that my chances of meeting the owners of that ship are now virtually nonexistent? And if that’s the case, then I’m truly fucked!” With that outburst, Adam slammed his hand hard against a bar of the cell – and was shocked when it bent outward by an inch or so!

He looked over at Kaylor and Jym to see if they had noticed it, too, but they hadn’t. So he quickly shifted his position on the cot until he was seated like Kaylor, with his back against the front bars. Next, he stretched out his legs on the cot, placing his left foot against another bar of the cell, and then using the bars at his back as a backstop, began to push with his leg. With some effort, he felt the bar begin to give.

He stopped pushing and looked again at the two aliens. Jym had fallen back on his cot, while Kaylor was staring straight ahead, toward the rear of the cell, lost in thought. Adam wasn’t sure why he wanted to keep his latest discovery to himself, but he felt he had to. He had no doubt that he could easily separate the bars enough so he could slip through. Of course, the bars on this side of the cell simply lead to another cell, but he knew he could also bend the front ones just as easily.

Adam reclined further on the cot until he was staring at the ceiling, eyes wide, his mind clicking. Now that he knew he could escape from the cell, he was at a loss as to what to do with the knowledge. This whole planet – hell this entire alien universe – was a prison for him. Without a workable plan of action he was still screwed, and at this time he didn’t have enough knowledge or experience with his surroundings to even begin to formulate one. However, as the mantra went: He would adapt, innovate and overcome – when the time came. Of that he was sure.


The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 15

The next few hours passed without much interaction between the three prisoners, yet they all sat up when they heard a commotion coming from the processing room. The door to the cell block opened suddenly and a flood of creatures began to enter.

Kaylor and Jym jumped to their feet, while Adam remained seated on his cot.

A dozen or more Nimorian natives entered, followed by five of the nasty-looking lizard creatures Adam knew now to be Rigorians – like the ones he’d killed the night before. Their eyes locked on him instantly, and Adam knew that the news had spread quickly about the deaths. He simply smiled back at the glowering aliens, which only seemed to agitate them more. Good.

After the lizards, the Juirean entered. Adam reasoned this had to be the Juirean because of the deference granted him – as well as the fact that he was about a foot taller than anyone else in the room, even the seven-foot-tall Rigorians. Adam quickly noticed, however, that most of the Counselor’s added height came from his magnificent mane of yellowish-blond hair. It flowed from his wide forehead and puffed out on top for a good foot, before cascading halfway down his back. The Juirean’s swarthy complexion stood out in stark contrast to the light-colored hair, allowing the alien’s face to remain slightly obscured and mysterious; a long, angular face that tapered down from the wide forehead, past a simple, normal looking nose and smallish mouth, to culminate at a pencil-thin chin thrusting out from the narrow jaw line. Adam couldn’t tell much about the creature’s physical build since he was draped in several layers of flowing capes of greens, blues and reds. It was all made for quite the spectacle.

The Juirean’s entire dress and demeanor had been created for show and intimidation, and even though Adam wasn’t that impressed, it appeared to be working on the other aliens in the room.

The Juirean Counselor stepped closer to the bars of Kaylor and Jym’s cell and took a screenpad from one of the Nimorians. After scanning the screen, he locked his steely gaze upon Kaylor. “You are the salvager?” His voice was extremely strong and projecting, something Adam reasoned came from centuries of being at the top of the food chain throughout much of the galaxy.

“Yes … yes I am,” Kaylor stammered. In the brief time he’d been with Kaylor, Adam had never seen him this nervous.

The Juirean cocked his head slightly to the right. “Bring the two of them. I will require a room without listening devices or imagers.”

The Juirean then moved to Adam’s cell. Adam remained seated on the cot. The Nimorians – and especially the Rigorians – went ballistic, demanding that he stand before the Counselor. Adam just flashed another big, toothy grin at the lizards, and the crowd of creatures outside his cell erupted into a near-riot.

“SILENCE!” the Juirean commanded. It still took a second or two more for the Rigorians to ceased their chatter. Adam remained seated.

The Juirean spent a few moments unabashedly looking Adam up and down before he abruptly turned to his right and headed for the exit. Then just before disappearing though the doorway, and without looking back, the Counselor barked out a command: “Bring him, too.”

The three prisoners were escorted to a smallish room in the same building, furnished with a solitary desk set near the center. Chairs were brought in for the Kaylor, Jym and Adam, while the Juirean slipped into a massive chair Nimorians placed behind the desk. He then signaled for everyone except the four of them to leave the room. Adam didn’t question the Juirean’s confidence in being left alone with the prisoners. After all, who would dare accost a Juirean?

Adam glanced over at Kaylor and Jym, who each looked as if they’d just pissed their pants. They sat hunched over slightly, occasionally daring a furtive glance at the Juirean. Then without ceremony, the Counselor began speaking:

“There will be no salvage awarded for the derelict spacecraft,” he stated bluntly. This got Kaylor attention. “The ship is being confiscated by the Juirean Authority, and all records of its discovery have been purged from the Library.”

“Forgive me, Counselor,” Kaylor said feebly, “but that is a legitimate claim. Why can we not receive a salvage, or at least a recovery fee for our efforts?”

“That ship is of unknown origin and therefore is to be taken to Melfora Lum at the demand of Overlord Oplim Ra Unis. You will provide all data regarding the location of the find, including the vector from which the ship arrived, the circumstances of its recovery, as well as any observances once you entered the vessel.”

Kaylor appeared crestfallen. Adam knew he had placed so much promise on the salvage … and now it was being ripped away from him. Even so, Kaylor did not offer any resistance to the Juirean’s request – order – and began reciting exactly what had occurred over the past two days.

Damn! Has it only been two days since all this started? The thought suddenly made Adam very tired.

While Kaylor droned on, Adam noticed that the Juirean kept looking at him. Their eyes would lock, and then the Counselor would casually return his attention to Kaylor. Yet once Kaylor finished with his deposition, the Juirean turned his full attention upon Adam.

“What were you doing aboard the ship?”

“I don’t have any idea,” he answered. “Like I’ve been telling everyone, I was kidnapped – abducted. I woke up in one of those pods not knowing how I got there or why.”

The Juirean stared at him for several seconds before finally asking, “You did not interact with any of the ship’s crew or owners, or have any conversations with them?”

“The only living creature I saw was one of those little gray things – that was until Kaylor showed up.”

“And where are you from?”

“I’m from the planet Earth.” Adam waited for the expected comment about dirt and such, but it never came.

The Counselor spoke: “Why would the owners of the ship be transporting your kind aboard? Does your planet have relationships with them?”

“No … I don’t think so. We haven’t had any confirmed contact with aliens – with other races – even though there have been a lot of stories.”

“Your people should now begin to believe the stories,” stated the Juirean, an edge of sarcasm in his tone.

“I suppose so.” Adam was getting tired of all this. “Listen, I just want to get back home. I’m not interested in any of this bullshit or any of your politics. I didn’t ask to be here and I couldn’t care less about whose ship that is and where it came from. We are not a star traveling species—”

“Then why were eighty of your kind onboard the ship? What value are you to its builders?”

“You’re not listening to me, pal. I … don’t … know.”

Adam could see the veins in the Juirean’s neck begin to twitch; he was sure the Juirean had never been spoken to like this before. But he didn’t give a damn. This obnoxious blowhard was just another flamboyant, self-important bureaucrat on some kind of power trip.

“It is decided!” the Juirean announced suddenly. “You will be transported to Melfora Lum to be interrogated by the Overlord himself.” Next he turned to Kaylor and Jym. “And the two of you will be subjected to a brain cleansing to erase all memory of your recent encounter with the derelict ship.”

Adam was almost too pissed off to notice the look of utter shock that swept over the faces of his companions. “But we’ve done nothing wrong!” Kaylor cried out. “We promise we will not say anything about this.”

“I can guarantee you will not. Guards!” A squad of armed Nimorians entered the room. “Take them back to their cells, and arrange an immediate link with the Overlord,” The Counselor continued to glare at Adam as he and the other two prisoners were removed from the room.

Adam just smiled back at him … and sent him a wink.

A few minutes later – and in another room in the Ministry – Fredic Dess listened in on the conversation between Counselor Deslor and his Overlord, reporting on the results of the brief interrogation with the mule-drivers and the Human. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

KLIN! Could this be true?

Whether it was or not, this information would make him rich! Angar had promised to pay him handsomely for any information he could provide regarding the prisoners – yet this was so much more. He had already provided the pirate with the location of the detention center, as well as instructions on how to best affect a rescue.

And now this!

He fingered the communication device and Angar answered immediately….




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 16

The moment the cell door was closed and locked, Adam was already planning his escape. He was desperate now, determined to do anything necessary to avoid accompanying the yellow-hair Juirean to yet another alien planet and more banal questioning about something he knew nothing about. But he would need Kaylor and Jym’s help, and at the moment he didn’t have any idea how much help they would be.

Kaylor had fallen back on one of the cots in his cell and was just lying there, staring at the ceiling. Jym was on the other cot, but he balled up in the fetal position, rocking back and forth and giving off soft whimpering sounds.

Adam moved to the bars separating the two cells. “Listen up you two,” he hissed. “We’ve gotta get out of here. There’s no way I’m going with that son-of-a-bitch.”

Kaylor continued to stare at the ceiling.

“Snap out of it! I need the two of you to pay attention.”

Kaylor cocked his head slightly in Adam’s direction. “It’s no use, Adam. There’s nothing we can do at this point.”

“Bullshit! What was he talking about in there … about some sort of a cleansing?”

“A brain cleansing,” Kaylor said. “They are going to erase our memories. It is supposed to be selective, but I’ve never heard of a perfect cleansing. We will probably lose a couple years of memories, if not more, and then beings who have had it done are never the same again.”

“Then we have to get out of here while we have a chance.”

Kaylor looked at him as if he was crazy. “Do you not see where we are?”

“I can get us out of here. But then we’re going to have to get off this planet, and that’s where you come in.”

Kaylor sat up and Jym stopped his whimpering. “How … how can you get us out of here?”

Rather than tell him, Adam moved to the front of his cell, braced his back against the left side bars, and pushed against a front bar with his right leg. After a few grunts, the bar began to move. He then shifted sides and pushed on another bar until he had a separation wide enough to squeeze through.

Jym and Kaylor stood near the bars of their cell, staring in shocked disbelief. “What are you?” Jym asked.

“Never mind,” Adam said as he moved over to the bars between the two cells. Bracing himself against the cell wall as he had done earlier, he bent the bars wide enough for the two aliens to slip through and into his cell.

Soon the three of them were all outside of the cells and in the corridor. Adam knew that the processing room was located to the left, so they hurried down the corridor in the opposite direction. Adam had no idea what was beyond the door at the other end of the cell block, but he was willing to take his chances. The only plan he had was to make it back to Kaylor’s ship and get off the planet. With so few options available, doing something was better than just sitting in cell and waiting.

At the door, Adam motioned for the two aliens to remain silent while he tested the handle. It was unlocked. He opened the door a crack, just enough so he could see two Nimorians sitting at a desk, one gnawing on some food, the other typing on a keyboard.

After taking a deep breath and firming his resolve, Adam suddenly burst through the door, and before the two Nimorians could react, he was upon them. He caught the typist with a vicious right cross to the alien’s chin – and in a cascade of blood and shattering bone felt his entire fist sink deep into the alien’s skull. Jesus Christ – I just ripped off half of his face!

Next he brought his left elbow across his body, striking the other Nimorian on the back of the head. Again the cracking of bone and the spray of blood, and soon both aliens lay on the floor, dead beyond doubt. With his right hand covered in alien blood and brain matter, Adam quickly removed the sidearms from the guards and strapped one around his waist. He tossed the other holster to Kaylor – who promptly had it fall through his hands and onto the floor.

“Pick it up, damn it, and put it on!”

Kaylor bent over and obeyed, his mouth hanging open as he surveyed the carnage Adam had just caused. Adam shrugged it off; casualties of war….

They were in a large foyer area, with a flight of stairs leading up and a long, deserted hallway leading away from the desk. At the far end of the hallway was a set of double glass doors with what looked to be a large room beyond and natural light streaming in. With an MK-17 in hand, Adam hurried down the hall toward the exit. Kaylor and Jym followed close behind.

Almost immediately, three burly, black-haired Nimorians appeared through a side door and nearly collided with Adam. As they panicked and went for their weapons, Adam calmly placed three quick bolts of blue fire into them as he sped past while hardly breaking stride. In this case, the weapon’s targeting computer never did vibrate, as it found nothing to lock on to. What a worthless piece of shit, Adam thought.

Suddenly, the entire building was rocked by a violent explosion. The double doors at the end of the hallway shattered inward as clouds of black smoke billowed into the hall and toward the trio. Screams and yelling could be heard all around, interlaced with a cacophony of electric popping sounds.

Cut off from his original exit point, Adam lowered his shoulder and crashed through a door on his right, trailing Kaylor and Jym behind him. They entered what was a large stock room, occupied by a solitary Nimorian, who alerted by the explosion, was running toward the same door Adam had just shattered. Adam continued barreling forward and crashed into the alien with enough force to send him flying backwards a good twenty feet. The unfortunate alien slammed into a stack of crates and fell limp to the floor.

Adam quickly scanned the room, looking for another exit. There was metal shelving easily thirty feet high lining the outer walls and stacked with boxes and other items, while the interior floor space was filled with several multi-level rows of stacked crates. At the far end of the room Adam spotted a second door. “Follow me,” he called out to the two panting aliens behind him.

More explosions rocked the building, along with deeper sounds of electric popping, apparently coming from larger flash weapons. The whole damn building is under siege. What the fuc—

Just then, four Nimorians – along with a trio of Rigorians – burst through the far door. They spotted the escapees immediately, and not knowing whether they were friend or foe, brought their long-barrel weapons up to firing position.

Proclaiming to be a foe, Adam chose to get off the first shots, yet before he could the seven aliens opened up with their more-powerful flash rifles. The air in the room erupted with a barrage of recklessly-aimed electric bolts in Adam’s general direction. He dove behind a stack of crates just as the first balls whizzed past. Even though the shots were high and wide, they continued to arrive in rapid succession.

Kaylor and Jym piled on top of him as they, too, dove for cover. Adam shoved them off and crawled to the edge of the crate he was behind. A quick glance verified that the guards were spreading out, moving towards them. He spotted one of the lizards about thirty feet away and in plain sight. He let loose with a bolt, striking the Rigorian in the gut. Another came right behind him and Adam fired again. This time he missed slightly to the right, but when he corrected his aim and depressed the trigger, nothing happened.

“Your charge is dry!” Kaylor yelled. Adam twisted a lever on the handle of the MK, dropping the spent charge pack to the floor. He pulled another from the holster belt and snapped it in. There no more packs on his belt, so he reached over and pulled two from Kaylor’s belt; it was obvious Kaylor wouldn’t be using them.

Performing a quick pop-up recon, Adam could see where a stacked row of crates to his right would provide a path on its second level and shielded from the view of the aliens.

“Stay here,” he said to Kaylor and Jym, then he slid off to his right, and in a single bound in the light gravity, jumped to the top of the first layer of crates, about six feet high. Moving quickly along this level, hidden by the upper layer of crates, Adam managed to get behind the two remaining Rigorians. Grimacing at the reckless act he was about to commit, Adam vaulted into the air and landed on the floor about ten feet behind the aliens. As they turned, Adam let off two precise shots, killing them both instantly.

The Rigorians carried long-barrel rifles of some kind, so Adam snatched one up – and dropped for cover just as the four Nimorians opened up on his position, with shattered pieces of wooden crating raining down around him.

Adam picked up a thick piece of the packing material near him, and after testing its weight, tossed the piece of wood high and to his right. As it landed, the Nimorians shifted their fire toward the sound. Adam stood – rifle stock pressed securely into his right shoulder – and found he was looking straight down a line of aliens, all in a row and looking to his right. Taking aim at the first one in line, he fingered the trigger.

A bright bolt of electric blue light escaped from the barrel of the weapon and struck the first alien in line along the front of his chest; the bolt then continued onto the second alien and penetrated the creature’s neck. Both went down. Two with one shot, not bad. A quick second bolt dropped the third Nimorian in line. As the fourth alien turned to watch his comrades collapse to the floor, the last thing he ever saw in this lifetime was an ever-growing ball of blue energy … heading straight for his face.

With the resistance neutralized, Adam darted between crates and back to where he’d left Kaylor and Jym. As he rounded the box and slid in beside them, Jym let out a high-pitched scream, while Kaylor’s eyes rolled back in his head and he nearly fainted.

“Don’t surprise us like that!” Kaylor scolded, his face now whiter than normal.

“Let’s go.” Adam commanded, ignoring him. Yet just as they stood, five more Nimorians entered the room through the far door. Seeing the bodies spread across the floor, they cut loose with new barrage of blue bolts in their direction. Once again, the trio dove for cover again behind the crate.

Now desperate for an alternative exit, Adam noticed a break in the metal shelving units lining the wall. He had an idea.

“Follow me, and stay low.”

Adam took off in a crouch, with the other two following close behind. They reached the break in the shelving and crowded in for cover, as splashes of blue bolts danced around them. With his back pressed against the wall, Adam struck the surface with his left elbow … and was relieved to feel the wallboard break. He had been hoping that this was an interior wall; the outer walls of the building were made of brick and he wasn’t sure he could break through those. But these thin, inner walls were a breeze. He smashed his elbow into the wall several more times until he had created an opening about three-feet wide. Next he pressed his full weight against hole … and suddenly fell through the wall and into another room. He landed on his back with his legs still in the hole, the flash rifle lying across his chest.

To his shock, two Nimorians had just sped past his position, heading toward the battle at the other end of the building, with weapons held firmly in the grip. They stopped and turned at the sound of the breaking wall behind them and immediately brought their weapons to bear on the creature lying on the floor, covered in white dust. Adam quickly rolled onto his right shoulder and fired his rifle twice. One of the aliens fell, but the other bolt missed its target. Adam fingered the trigger again, sending out another deadly ball of energy. Yet the other alien had already triggered his weapon releasing the bolt in Adam’s direction. Rolling onto his back, the bolt ripped across the front of Adam’s tunic, burning through it and exposing his chest and the angry red burn from where Kaylor had shot him two days before. His own shot found its mark, striking the guard in the forehead.

Adam jumped to his feet, while breathing a sigh of relief that he was still alive. He then reached through the hole in the wall and yanked Kaylor and Jym through. They all ended up in the middle of the corridor, coughing and covered in white dust and bits of broken wallboard.

There were several large windows set in the opposite wall of the corridor, with dim yellow light shining through. Adam crossed to the nearest one and smashed out the glass with the butt of the rifle. The window was large enough to crawl through, so Adam shoved Jym and Kaylor through the opening, before following himself.

Once outside the building, Adam pressed his back against the warmth of the brick wall and then with his left arm forced Jym and Kaylor to do the same. They were in the greenbelt area between two of the Ministry buildings, separated by about sixty feet. To their left a battle was raging, with two groups squared off against one another, firing from concealed doorways and from behind vehicles positioned outside the south entrance of the building.

The three escapees were fully exposed, with dozens of windows from both buildings facing the grassy area. Luckily for them, the sun was beginning to set, and deep shadows were beginning to fill the space between the buildings. The blue tunics both Adam and Kaylor wore – along with Jym’s dark green one – would help provide some camouflage, but at any moment they could be spotted.

To his right and about a hundred feet away, Adam saw the outer wall that enclosed the Ministry Complex. He turned to the aliens. “Stay low and close to the building,” he whispered, and then they set off for it, hugging the side of the building as they went.

If anyone in the buildings noticed their movement, they chose to ignore them in light of the intense fighting taking place at the other end of the building. They made it to the wall without incident.

Adam fell against the barricade and then surveyed each direction for guard towers. Seeing none, he stood and grabbed Jym by his tunic. “Trust me,” he said … and promptly proceeded to toss the much smaller creature up to the top of the twelve-foot high partition. Jym clung there, with an arm and a leg dangling precariously over each side. Kaylor was more cooperative, and soon he, too, had been hoisted atop the wall.

Adam then tossed the bolt rifle over to the other side, and with an easy leap in the light gravity, was able to reach the top of the wall with both hands propel the rest of his body over in one fluid motion. He landed softly on the ground below and then called for Jym and Kaylor, one at a time, to drop into his arms.

They were in a not-so-green greenbelt area about ninety feet wide between the wall and a road running parallel to the Ministry Complex. Beyond the road were several streets heading away from the Compound and lined with buildings of various heights and design. A short distance to their left was the nearest street intersection; several clusters of creatures had gathered there, looking in the direction of the Ministry, curious at all the explosions and gunfire taking place. In the gray light of dusk, none of the spectators had noticed the three escapees scale the wall, so Adam grabbed the rifle and led them in a sprint for the cover of the nearest building.

Crouching in a darkened entryway, Adam noticed both Jym and Kaylor panting heavily, trying to catch their breath. Out of shape aliens, Adam observed. Go figure!

Inside the Ministry Complex the sounds of the battle could still be heard, but they were growing less intense. Adam pulled Kaylor near. “Which way is it to the spaceport?”

Kaylor pointed to their right. “That way,” he panted. “It is about twenty minutes away by foot. Perhaps we should find a transport for hire?”

“You want us to call a cab?” Adam shot back. “I have a better idea.” He handed the rifle to Kaylor and then took off in a sprint down the street.

Along the road were parked several of the native wheeled transports, with a number of aliens of various shapes and sizes milling around them, chattering and pointing toward the Ministry. Near the end of the row of vehicles, one of the drivers had climbed out of his car and was standing at the open door, looking toward the Compound and the rising column of black smoke, now easily visible in the late afternoon sky. Adam moved up behind him and then used both his hands to grab the alien by the back of his shirt and the seat of his pants. He tossed the startled creature high into the air; he landed hard about ten feet away in a patch of bushes at the side of the street.

“Get in!” Adam yelled, as he slid into the driver’s seat.

Of course, Adam had never driven an alien car before, but he had observed how it was done during the drive to the Ministry Complex earlier that morning. In the center console was a joystick with a flat handle on top, and once Jym had climbed in the back and Kaylor into the front passenger seat, Adam pushed the stick all the way forward and with purpose.

But nothing happened.

He pushed it again … still nothing.

Then Kaylor calmly reached over and flicked a switch on the dashboard.

The vehicle suddenly lunged forward, sideswiping another car before Adam could throttle back and steer back into the center of the road. Embarrassed, he glanced over at Kaylor and flashed a silly-looking grin. “Oops!”

Adam quickly got the feel of the controls, and soon they were racing down the road and toward the spaceport. Most of the traffic on the road was heading in the opposite direction, towards the Ministry Complex, so they made it back to the spaceport in less than five minutes.

Barreling through the main gate, Adam half-expected to come upon a contingent of Ministry police waiting for them; after all, they couldn’t outrun radios or telephones – or whatever they used on this planet. But no one of authority seemed to be present, not even the incredibly-bloated alien at the guard hut. However, there were other creatures in the spaceport, but most were scurrying about in a frenetic panic, readying their ships for liftoff. They paid no special attention to Adam’s speeding vehicle.

News of the raid on the Ministry Complex had spread rapidly, and even though no one knew exactly what was happening, very few in the spaceport were willing to wait around and find out. Like true mariners everywhere – whether at sea or in space – they preferred their chances off-land during a time of crisis, rather than as sitting ducks stuck in port.

Adam pulled back on the joystick and the car skidded to a halt at the base of the ramp leading up to the cargo hold of the FS-475. Kaylor jumped out and ran to a covered panel set in the skin of the spaceship. Flipping it open, he punched in a code and the door to the cargo bay slid open. The three of them ran up the protruding ramp and into the ship.

As Jym secured the door and retracted the ramp, Kaylor and Adam hurried to the pilothouse. Jym was only steps behind.

“How long until we can take off?” Adam asked, as he sank into a seat and began to fasten his safety harness.

Both Kaylor and Jym were frantically pushing buttons and pulling levers. “When on-planet, I always keep one of the main generators humming, just in case we have to bolt-out fast,” Kaylor answered. “Even then, it will still take about five minutes before we’ve built up enough compression to pull us up.”

Adam didn’t have any idea what Kaylor was talking about – but he did sound convincing. So for the next few minutes, as the two aliens went about their pre-flight chores, Adam nervously peered through the open viewport and across the ever-darkening spaceport, expecting at any moment to see streaks from electric balls of energy, or hear the deafening blast of an explosion.

Instead … there came the sickening feeling of vertigo as the ship’s gravity-well engaged and overrode that of the planet’s own attraction. Then, without any sense of movement on their part, it was as if the whole spaceport moved away from them at incredible speed. The entire city below them fell away quickly, followed by the surrounding land and then finally the planet itself.

They were back in space, and to his surprise, Adam began to relax.

But not so Kaylor and Jym. As the spherical shape of the planet became more pronounced, and the bright layer of atmosphere grew thinner, the two aliens were staring intently at their view screens, Kaylor’s forehead furrowed with deep creases.

“Is everything okay?’ Adam asked.

“It looks like two other craft have slipped in behind us,” Jym answered.

“From the surface—”

“No,” Jym interrupted. “They were already in orbit.”

“What are you going to do?”

Kaylor leaned back in his seat. “Nothing right now,” he said. “They’re not closing on us; just holding back, following.”

“So where do we go now?” Adam asked.

Jym whipped his furry head around in Adam’s direction. “Maybe you should have thought of that before you broke us out of the Ministry!” he barked. “I don’t have any idea where we can go—”

“I have a suggestion.”

The new voice came from behind them, from the door to the pilothouse.

In unison, the three of them jerked their heads around, only to find a tall, dark figure standing in the doorway, bolt weapon aimed at them. More creatures stood behind him in the passageway, each with their own weapon pointed into the room.

Leaning into the pilothouse, the speaker handed Jym a piece of paper.

“What is that?” Kaylor asked Jym.

Jym looked up from the paper. “It is the coordinates of the Kyllian Asteroids.”

Adam didn’t hear any of the exchange, nor did he notice the look of shock on Kaylor’s face at the mention of the Kyllian Asteroids. Instead he sat in stunned silence as he stared at the creature in the doorway.

It was another Human – and he was smiling and staring directly into Adam’s eyes!




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 17

“You must be Adam Cain,” the Human said. He stepped further into the room, until he was about six feet from Adam. “I am honored to meet you. And I am Riyad Tarazi.” The man then turned to his backups and nodded.

Adam was shocked into inaction and offered no resistance as Riyad’s troops swept into the room and disarmed them all. He then turned to Jym. “Enter those coordinates into the autopilot … and then let’s all go up to the common room for a friendly chat.”

The man – Riyad Tarazi – led the small party up the corresponding ladders and to the lounge area of the ship, during which time Adam had a chance to get a good look at him. He was right at six-feet tall, heavily muscled and with tight, jet black hair on his head and full beard. His eyes were dark, as was his complexion … and if his name didn’t give it away, the accent was unmistakable. Riyad Tarazi was of either Arab or Iranian descent.

An odd nervousness filled Adam’s senses, although he couldn’t quite explain why. Here was another Human, someone just like him in this strange, alien universe. He should have been feeling overwhelming joy at the moment, yet all Adam could see before him was a threat. And remarkably, it was a greater threat than anything else he’d yet encountered….

Jym and Kaylor sat on the couch as Riyad took a seat at the table; Adam chose to stand. “Come, sit my brother,” Riyad said, offering a seat at the table, while the four other creatures with Riyad fanned out around the room, maintaining their guard with weapons ready.

Reluctantly, Adam sat down.

Leaning forward, Riyad reached out and grasped Adam’s arm. “I am so pleased to see you, Mr. Cain.” The words sounded sincere, and his incredibly bright smile was disarming. “I was wondering if I would ever see another Human again. Later we must talk at length about our adventures. I’m sure we have much to share.”

Then releasing Adam’s arm, he turned his attention to Kaylor. “But first things first,” he said as he locked his dark eyes on the pale alien. “You,” he said directly to Kaylor, “You have something of mine – and I want it back.”

Kaylor was trying to look more upset than scared, yet with little success. He sat on the edge of the couch and said, “Who are you to come aboard my ship with weapons upon us? I do not know you, and I’m sure I have nothing that belongs to you.”

Riyad just smiled. “Oh, I’m afraid you do. As a matter of fact, you took it from me a few days ago after my men had spent considerable time and effort to secure it.” Kaylor’s eyes grew wide and Adam could see him begin to visibly shake. “And then to make matters worse, you managed to abscond with the one thing that had more value to me than all the other riches aboard that alien ship – the ship’s computer core.”

What did he just say? Adam turned to Kaylor. “Is that true? You have the computer core? Why didn’t you tell me! That thing can help me get back home.”

“That’s exactly right, my Human brother,” said Riyad. “That one item is more important to the two of us then they could possibly imagine.” Riyad looked over at Adam again. “So he didn’t tell you he hid the computer core somewhere in the asteroid belt while on the way to Nimor?”

“No … no he didn’t,” Adam said between gritted teeth. “And why the hell not?”

“I couldn’t tell you.” Kaylor pleaded in his defense. “We are not allowed to take anything from a derelict until the salvage is awarded. It was for your own protection.”

“That’s a bunch of bullshit! So why did you take it?”

“Because, as I told you, it can take months for the salvage process to go through, and then there can be counter-claims and other disputes. I wanted to make sure we’d get something for risking our lives—”

“So you chased away my captains and took my prize.” Riyad rose from his chair and walked the short distance over to Kaylor. Then in a move almost too swift to see, he lifted Kaylor by his tunic and pinned him against the bulkhead, his feet dangling easily a foot off the floor. “And now with your lie, the damn Juireans think my pirates took the core, and they will not rest until they get it!”

Riyad released him, letting the alien fall unceremoniously to the floor. He then walked casually over to the food counter, pressed a few buttons, and returned to the table with two drinks in hand. He sat down, placing one of the drinks in front of Adam. Kaylor sheepishly returned to the couch.

After taking a long gulp of his drink, Riyad leaned back in the chair and propped his booted feet onto the table. “Neither of you know the significance of that spaceship, do you?” he said to Kaylor and Jym. “Well, let me inform you.” He took another long swig off his drink. “The ship you so brazenly took from my men …” – he paused for effect – “… was a Klin starship.”

The two aliens – and even Adam – were shocked by the revelation.

Klin! Are you sure?” Jym had found his voice.

“I’m positive, my little friend. And now you understand why the Juireans have interceded – and why your lies have put me and my men in such a dangerous predicament.”

He waited for the full impact of his disclosure to sink in, and then he gave a subtle nod to his guards. All four of them descended on Kaylor and Jym, holding them down on the couch as they locked ankle bracelets on each of them. It only took a few seconds, and then the guards resumed their silent vigil.

“What are you doing?” Kaylor yelled, as he grasped at the foreign object now attached to his leg.

“Each of those bracelets carries a small explosive charge,” Riyad said. “It should be small enough not to cause any widespread structural damage to your ship, but definitely strong enough to blow off both your legs – and undoubtedly bring about your untimely and very agonizingly-painful deaths. I have taken this action to guarantee that you will cooperate with my demands.” He took another gulp of his drink. “Now … the two of you will recover my computer core and hand it over to me. If you do this without any resistance, I will release you and send you on your way unharmed. If not ….” He pulled a small black box out of his pocket, “all I have to do is press in a code … and you will not live to see another day.”

Riyad seemed to revel in watching the look of horror on the faces of the two aliens. Then after finishing off his drink, he asked, “Do I make myself clear?” Both of the terrified aliens nodded emphatically.

“You don’t have to do this,” Kaylor said. “The computer core has caused me enough problems. I just want to get it out of my life.”

“Good,” said Riyad. “Then we have an understanding. I just want to make sure I have your full cooperation for the duration of our time together.”

Adam was somewhat surprised at the drastic action Riyad had taken. He wanted the information from the core as well, but this seemed like an extreme way to go about getting it. Kaylor looked at him. “Adam, is there anything you can do to help us? If you remember, I did save your life on that ship….”

“Yes, but you lied to me, Kaylor. I didn’t want to take the core from you; all I wanted was to learn the location of Earth from it. After that, it was all yours. And as far as you saving my life … I believe I just saved the two of you from having your memories scraped clean by the fucking Juireans. I think we’ll call it even.”

Even as he spoke, Adam couldn’t believe the harshness of the words that were coming from his mouth. He’d never considered himself a particularly cruel person, but right now he was seething with anger and frustration. For the past few days, he had been riding a rollercoaster of emotions; one moment feeling as if he had a real chance of getting home and back to Maria and Cassie, and then the next having his hopes crushed underfoot and replaced with nothing but bottomless despair.

And Kaylor had the computer core all along.

He locked eyes with Kaylor. “Just get the core and everything will be okay—”

Just then, Adam felt something tight grab his ankle, and when he sprung out of the chair and looked around, he saw Riyad bent over under the table. Adam backed away and looked down at his ankle – he now had a bracelet fastened on his ankle as well. “What the fuck, Tarazi!” The guards moved in, weapons pointed at Adam.

Riyad calmly leaned back in the chair, a look of incredibly satisfaction on his face. “Sorry, my friend, but you are an extremely dangerous person. I cannot take the chance that you will not attack me or my men. This is also for your own good.”

“My own good; how do you figure?” He placed his foot on the chair and began to examine the device. It was a simple black metal band with a small box about the size of a cigarette pack welded on it. There didn’t seem to be any access to the box or latch on the band.

“Mr. Cain, we both need the computer core and we both want to get home. I may have to do some pretty nasty things to get the cooperation I need, and I don’t want you to start growing a conscience. Besides … you are a Human, and I could certainly use you in a fight, if it comes down to that. I just want to make sure you’re going to be on my side, if and when that time comes.”

Adam was a trained SEAL and an underwater demolition expert. He knew explosive devices, along with a fair knowledge of how to disarm them. But this was not the time to reveal this information. After all, he certainly wouldn’t be allowed to disarm the device – even if he could – while in the same room with Tarazi and his guards.

What he had to do now was put this Riyad Tarazi character at ease. The pirate definitely thought he had the upper hand, and considering the fact that the ankle bomb was made from some alien technology of which Adam knew nothing about, there was a pretty good chance he was right.

Calmly, Adam sat back down. “Listen Riyad, I don’t want to be any trouble,” Adam said softly. “I just want to get home, just like you. Promise me that once you get the core that you’ll keep your word and take these things off.”

“As one Human to another, you have my word.”

Regrettably, that statement didn’t make Adam feel any better….




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 18

Feeling as if he no longer had to keep all the players under constant guard, Riyad allowed everyone to return to their routines; to clean up, go to the restroom if needed, and to get something to eat. In five hours they would be at the asteroid belt, so the two Humans departed for Adam’s cabin where they could have a more private conversation.

As they entered, the first thing Riyad did was crank up the gravity to a more respectable level. He said to Adam, “I rarely leave my ship because of the gravity issue. K’ly – the planet where my pirate base is located – is a little more than three-quarters Earth’s gravity. If I spent too much time there, I’d grow weak and lose my edge.”

Adam sat backwards in the chair, resting his arms on the back and facing the bed, which Riyad had already claimed. The pirate leader propped pillows against the bulkhead and leaned back, stretching his legs out in front of him and locking his hands behind his head.

“There, Mr. Cain, now we are both comfortable – so let’s catch up.” He flashed a wide grin. “So where are you from? I take it you are an American.”

“That’s right, and you’re Middle Eastern.”

“Lebanese originally, but I spent most of my adult life in Pakistan, and even some time in your country, Florida to be precise. So please tell me, Adam, what year and day is it back on Earth? I have been out of touch for such a long time.”

Adam was surprised by the question. “I’m not quite sure. I don’t have any idea how long I was asleep on the … on the Klin ship. But the last day I remember was October 23rd, 2011.”

“Ah ha!” Riyad exclaimed. “I was so close! I had no way of telling time – Earth time – that at one point, years ago, I counted one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two and so forth until I estimated how long a minute was. Then set a device to count off the intervals. I figured it was around 2011, but I was off by about four months or so by my calculations. Not bad for an estimate, wouldn’t you say?”

“So how long have you been … out here? And how did you end up being the leader of the space pirates?” This was actually something Adam was anxious to learn.

“I’ve been here for about six years, and I’m sure my story is very similar to yours. One day was in the mountains near the Afghan-Pakistani border when I remember seeing a bright light – and then nothing. I woke up to find I was aboard a spaceship of some kind – but certainly without the fancy accommodations you had onboard the Klin ship.” He flashed his bright smile at Adam again. “I was in a cell – a cage really –with three other Humans and several other creatures. The conditions were horrible; we slept on straw pads and drank filthy water. The food we were given was alien and without the computer testing like you have here. We were all sick with food poisoning for several days. Two of my fellow Humans died during the trip.

“Then we were transferred to another ship – sold, I believe – to a group of pirates. After about a week – I think it was about a week – we landed on a planet and were taken out to be sold again. Not taking too kindly to the idea of becoming a slave, I fought back and started a mini riot right there on the auction block. My one remaining Human companion, a gentleman name Ashbar from India, was killed during the riot.

“Yet I survived, and instead of becoming a slave, I caught the attention of one of the pirate captains. He was impressed with my fighting skills and offered me a place in his crew. Sorry bastard.” Riyad said with a wicked smile, as if sharing an inside joke.

He stopped his story and narrowed his eyes. “You must know by now, my friend, that we Humans have certain advantages over most of the other creatures out here. In fact, I understand you defeated two Rigorians during a duel your first day on Nimor. That is no easy task.”

“I didn’t pick that fight! They challenged me,” Adam said in his defense.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’m not being critical. I’m just pointing out a fact. In the six years I have been out here, I have found creatures who were faster, who were stronger and who were tougher than we are. Some even exhibited remarkable intelligence and coordination. Yet none combine all these traits into one being as we do. Out here, we are the supermen. No, we can’t fly, and we can certainly be killed by the weapons they possess. But none of the creatures I’ve encountered can stand against us in a fair fight.”

“What about the Juireans?”

Riyad pursed his lips. “I’ve never met a Juirean before, but from what I’ve heard, they may be a fair challenge. But I had also heard how tough the Rigorians are, and both of us have made easy work of them. Yet I have to admit it, I have been trained at combat and am considered an accomplished warrior where I come from.”

Adam tensed. His one advantage over his fellow Human was the fact that Riyad didn’t know Adam’s profession or skill-set. In fact, he was beginning to believe Riyad might have been a terrorist in his past life.

“You were in the military?” Adam asked, trying to pull more details out of the conversation.

Riyad laughed. “I guess you could say that. As an American, I’m not sure I should tell you this, but for a while I was a face in a deck of cards that your military carried with them in Iraq.”

Adam couldn’t play ignorant any longer. “You were a terrorist!” Adam tried to display as much shock and outrage as possible.

“I was a freedom fighter,” Riyad corrected without a trace of indignation. “My cause was just, and I have no regrets fighting the infidels who invade our lands and kill our women and children,” he continued, his voice nearly musical in nature. Adam got the sense Riyad was reciting a standard line. It all seemed strange.

“Why do I get the sense that you don’t believe that anymore?” Adam asked.

“Well … look around you, my friend.” Riyad said with a sweeping motion of his hand. “You can’t tell me that your belief in the Christian god has not been shaken over the past few days? It’s hard to maintain your faith in light of the reality we both find ourselves in.”

“You mean with all the alien life in the galaxy? I was never that strong of a believer in the first place,” Adam offered.

“Oh, don’t be mistaken, neither was I. That’s why I was a leader in the movement, and not just one of the foot soldiers. The honor of suicide bomber is reserved for the youngest and most-devout of our faith. The only time you’d see one the senior commanders take his own life – to meet Allah and our seventy-two virgins – was if he had no choice in the matter.”

“By the way … we got Osama,” Adam interjected, just to pick the scab.

“Captured?”

“No, shot dead … and in his pajamas.”

“That’s a shame,” was all Riyad said, with little emotion. “But he was more of a figurehead in the movement rather than our true leader. You do know he was not the one who planned the attack on your country? He was just the money man, and helped supply some of the manpower for the attack.”

“We got Khalid Sheik Mohamed as well.”

Riyad just shrugged. “We all knew the risks we were taking. But that is all in the past now, my friend. We have both been shown a new future for our planet, as well as for our Human race.”

“What do you mean?”

The pirate leaned over onto one elbow. “Mr. Cain, the Klin have plans for us; why else would they be transporting eighty Humans through hostile territory unless we’re important to them. The Juireans have now learned that the Klin still exist, and they certainly will not let the Earth remain unharmed knowing that the Klin find us of value.”

“What do the Klin want with us?”

“My guess is they are aware of our abilities. There is no telling how many of their ships have made it to and from Earth over the years, bringing Humans to some unknown destination.” Then he grew very serious. “I believe the Klin are building an army … of Humans.”

Adam was shocked by the revelation, but he couldn’t dispute it. “Why … so we can fight against the Juireans for them?”

“That would be my guess.” Riyad laughed and leaned back on the pillows. “And they couldn’t have picked a better race for the task. We are pretty proficient killers; just look at what we do to our own kind. Imagine what we could do against an alien enemy.”

Adam shook his head. “You come from a different culture, one that doesn’t value life as much as we do,” Adam countered. “I don’t think we’re as blood-thirsty as you believe.”

“Bullshit, Mr. Cain! We’re as blood-thirsty as they come. You’ve only been out here for a few days … and how many of these aliens have you already killed?”

“This isn’t a god-damn video game; we’re not keeping score!”

“Sure we are,” Riyad shot back. “It’s us against them; it’s always been that way. The only variable is who we determine to be us and who we designate as them. When we’re faced with an enemy, we tend to put aside all of our so-called humanity and treat our enemy as essentially as non-Human, just objects to the eliminated and not deserving of life. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

“I think you’re wrong, Riyad,” Adam said, shaking his head. “We may fight, but the killing is always something normal people feel bad about.”

“On the contrary, let me prove it to you. Let us take a normal person, say someone who works in a convenience store, who later joins the military and is sent out to kill other people – other Humans. When he comes back home, to the so-called real-world, he is celebrated, and can sleep peacefully at night, content in the knowledge that his killing was justified. He may have killed dozens of his fellow Humans, yet no one considers him to be a murderer.

“Now let that same man walk into an office building and indiscriminately kill a dozen people. Now he is the most-vile of creatures, a mass-murderer, to be scorned and ridiculed, the basest of our kind.

“So you see, Mr. Cain, when you kill in war it’s different, and yet in both of my scenarios, wives, children, mothers and fathers have all had their lives shattered by the same event. It all depends on which side you’re on as to whether the killing was a form of self-defense or simply murder. That’s why you Westerners call us animals and savages, because you think we are killing indiscriminately, without cause. We are not. We are at war, and that makes all the difference, at least it does for us. So returning to my original premise, if we treat our own kind – mankind – in such a callous and arbitrary manner, then the act of killing aliens … well, we wouldn’t give that a second thought … and we’d feel no remorse in doing so.”

“I thought you said all of that was in your past – my friend,” Adam said sarcastically.

“Forgive me, but old habits do die hard. I apologize for my rant, yet you must agree my points are valid.”

Regrettably, most of what he was saying was true. As a Navy SEAL, Adam had never concerned himself too much with the enemy he’d killed in combat; in fact, he never gave it a second thought, until now. Granted, he had seen horrific things on the battlefield, and that had upset him to a degree. The burned and maimed bodies, the bloody, ripped apart corpses, the vacant, hollow eyes of the dead – that he had trouble getting used to. But score one for the good guys, is how he often justified his missions. It was them or us – just as Riyad had said. And to agree with another of Riyad’s points, when he had killed the Rigorian lizards – as well as the Nimorians guards in the security building – he hadn’t felt any remorse in doing so. It had been like stepping on a bug….

Riyad was studying Adam’s face as he went through his mental exercise, a sly smile on the terrorist’s face. “You know I’m right,” he stated. “For the Klin, we would be the perfect warriors.”

Adam shook his head. “This is not our war, Tarazi. I’m really sorry that the Klin were screwed over by the Juireans thousands of years ago – talk about holding grudges! But we have no motivation to fight the Juireans.”

“Not yet. However, once the Juireans learn of our importance to the Klin, they will come down on us with everything they have. And then it will be our fight.”

Damn it! This asshole keeps coming up with good points! Then he shrugged. “So what can we do about it?”

“For starters, we can keep the computer core out of the hands of the Juireans.” Riyad sat up and moved to the edge of the bed, suddenly very animated. “We have a great opportunity here, an opportunity to bring to our homeworld the gift of the universe.” Riyad’s eyes grew wide, even wild-looking. “Imagine what a power we could become if we had the technology of the Juireans, of star travel and of energy weapons. With our skill at waging war, we could direct our talents toward other enemies, and not at our fellow man. We’ve never been able to do that before; we’ve never had an enemy outside of ourselves. If given the opportunity, Humans could become the new force in the galaxy!”

This line of thinking sounded oddly familiar. In fact, it was what Kaylor had told him about the early Juireans, the ones who had built the ten-thousand spaceships just so they could redirect their own primitive, warlike nature against outside enemies – real or perceived. And here Riyad was saying that Humanity should follow the same path as the Juireans.

Adam studied the terrorist as he spoke; he had an almost insane look on his face while describing his vision for how Humans would enter the community of civilizations in the galaxy. Is this how Adam would have imagined it? He had never put much thought into it, having never been that big of a science fiction fan or visionary thinker. Yet he hoped that Riyad’s way would not be the only way, where Humans would be introduced to the galaxy as a savage horde of warmongering beasts, spreading out among the stars like a plague. Of course, Adam may have been a little melodramatic in his assessment, but on the other hand, he also knew the dark side of mankind. He wasn’t sure if Humanity was ready for the universe. Not quite yet.

“Let me ask you, Riyad,” Adam said, “why do we have to go out as a force at all? Why not go as friends, as partners with the other races in the galaxy?” Even as he spoke the words, he knew they sounded hollow.

Riyad just smiled back at him, almost a sympathy-smile for an innocent child. “I don’t know what kind of life you had back in America, Mr. Cain, but I do not hold such a naïve view of our fellow man. I have seen incredible injustices done by man towards man—”

“And often in the name of religion, I might point out,” said Adam angrily.

“No doubt, but that doesn’t change the fact that we, as a species, have survived and spread across our planet by killing our own kind and taking their land and possessions. And that, my friend, is the only way we will spread across the galaxy as well. It is simply our nature. And now we have the opportunity to direct that natural aggressiveness against creatures other than Human.”

Suddenly, Adam saw the truth behind Riyad’s speech. “With you as our leader, I suppose?”

Riyad stared back at him for a moment before answering. “And why not; someone has to lead and I have more experience dealing with the aliens than anyone else,”

Now it was all coming clear; this megalomaniac wanted to return to Earth as its ruler, using the advanced technology of the Juireans to make that a reality. Then he would lead mankind in a galactic holy war that would cost millions, if not billions of Human lives. He would create enemies where none exist, just to turn mankind against the aliens. It was one thing to defend oneself against a real enemy. It was quite another to instigate a war just for one’s own selfish ambitions. It may very well come down to Humans having to defend themselves against a Juirean threat, but the way Riyad made it sound, he wanted to provoke a war just so he could become the savior, the hero of any such conflict.

Then Adam suddenly burst out laughing, as the absurdity of the conversation hit him. Riyad recoiled slightly. “What’s so funny,” he asked, sounding insulted.

“Are you frickin serious? Just look at us,” Adam began. “We’re two measly Humans, sitting in a room aboard a starship, thousands of light years from our home – and we’re seriously talking about leading an entire planet in a galactic war against an alien empire spanning thousands of worlds. When did we enter the Twilight Zone? What the fuck, Riyad! We probably won’t even survive the next few days, let alone long enough to return to Earth and lead our entire race on some holy crusade against an alien empire. You really have to be crazy to think like that.”

Riyad stood suddenly, his jaw locked in anger. “You are wrong, Mr. Cain! Humans have a destiny that must be fulfilled, and believe it or not, the events of the next few days will determine whether or not we fulfill that destiny. I will get the core, and I will find my way back to Earth. Then we’ll see which one of us is crazy!”

Riyad then stormed out of the room, leaving Adam wide-eyed and a little stunned at his reaction. It was all so surreal. But then he figured it probably wasn’t the first time in his life that Riyad Tarazi had been called crazy.






The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 19

With Riyad gone, Adam had his first real opportunity to inspect the bomb strapped to his ankle. The band itself seemed to have melded together leaving no latch of any kind, and the box where the explosive was held was seamless as well, leaving no way to gain access to the interior.

The only solution he could see would be to cut away the device from his ankle. But what could he use, and was the metal even capable of being cut? He tried bending it, and found the metal to be malleable. That would make it easier to slip a cutter between his ankle and the bomb. He spent an hour or more rummaging through the stateroom trying everything he could find to cut through the band, but with no luck. Eventually, he decided what he needed was something like a flexible pipe-cutter, a sort of serrated wire that he could use to file through the metal.

There might be something like that in the cargo hold, Adam thought, and with free-reign of the ship, he could go there now and see what he could find. Yet just as he was preparing to leave the cabin, the door slid open and he found himself face-to-face with Jym, who looked frazzled and nervous.

Startled, it took Jym a moment to collect himself, then he said, “We are nearing the asteroids and the pirate wants you to come to the pilothouse right away.” Jym seemed to be numb with fear. Besides everything else that had taken place over the past two days, Adam knew the bomb on Jym’s ankle was freaking him out, as it would anyone.

Silently, Adam followed Jym back up to the pilothouse, which was packed with people. Riyad didn’t acknowledge him as he entered, so Adam leaned against the far wall, next to the doorway.

The outer viewport shield was open and Adam could see out into the darkness of space. If there was an asteroid belt out there, it was impossible to tell. He couldn’t see a single thing outside except for the blaze of stars off in the far distance. There was no great conglomeration of spinning rocks, looking like giant potatoes, and all in close proximity of each other like he’d seen in all the movies. As it had been with most things he’d experienced in this strange universe, he was mildly disappointed.

Riyad stood behind Kaylor, who was busy working the control stick of the ship. And then Adam thought he saw something off in the distance. It looked like a dim flare that seemed to be growing brighter by the second. Soon he could make out a small cylinder, with its far end spitting an occasional burst of white gas. It was the pod, approaching them on chemical power.

Riyad looked back at Adam, no kindness in his gaze. “You have weak thoughts, Mr. Cain,” he said to him. “You will always be a weak man, a man without vision.”

Ouch. He’s still pissed at being called crazy, Adam thought, smiling back at the pirate. You just wait until I get this bomb off my ankle, you asshole. Then you’ll see just how weak I really am.

Moments later Kaylor had brought the pod back into the ship, and by robotics, moved it into the cargo hold. They all adjourned to the larger room as Kaylor entered the pod and emerged a few moments later carrying the elusive computer core.

Once again, Adam was disappointed. The almighty computer core that everyone was so enamored with was just a relatively plain looking metal box about three feet square. But even though it didn’t look that impressive, Adam found himself growing ever more excited at the prospect of what information the box contained. In one form or another, it would reveal the location of the Earth; whether or not Adam could use that information to actually get home remained a mystery. But first things first….

Kaylor brought the box over to the workbench with the computer screen imbedded in the wall above and Jym stepped up to begin connecting cables to the device. Soon the lights on the face began to illuminate and Riyad moved in closer. Everyone began to focus on the screen in the bulkhead as Jym began to type feverishly on the keypad on the workbench.

Symbols began to appear on the screen. Adam couldn’t read alien, so unless the information could be spoken and deciphered by the translation bug, he would never be able to understand the data. This he had not counted on.

Riyad seemed to be growing just as distraught as Adam. His eyes were wide and his jaw was set. He grabbed the back of Jym’s tunic, “What is this crap?” he yelled at the sweating alien.

“I’m sorry,” Jym pleaded, his voice shrill, “but it appears to be encrypted, or else there’s a compatibility issue with our system.”

“Don’t fuck with me, you rodent!”

“No, no – I can’t make it work! It needs to be hooked into a compatible module.”

Riyad released Jym and began to pace the room, with all eyes upon him. Then he abruptly stopped and faced Kaylor, “Take us back to Nimor; we have to get aboard the Klin ship.” Then turning to the guards: “Secure the core. No one is to get near it except me. No one.” He looked directly at Adam as he spoke the last words.

Soon everyone had left the cargo bay … everyone except Adam.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 20

It’s almost an impossible task to sneak up on someone when using a gravity drive; with the right sensors you can be detected for millions of miles away as you approach. So when the Juirean Fleet arrived near K’ly, alarms sounded at the pirate base and crews scrambled for their ships.

Pirates lived life on the edge, constantly looking over their shoulders for any real or perceived threats. One of their major concerns was that one of the more ambitious governments in The Fringe would one day try to gain political points by attacking their home base. So escape plans were honed and drills run until a pirate crew could have their ship up and in a well within ten minutes of an alarm.

And so like roaches when the lights come on, twenty-three pirate craft were bolting into space in a myriad of directions, following an escape plan designed to make it nearly impossible for an attacker to catch more than a few of the stragglers. Practice made perfect, and for the others – well the outcome was not so perfect.

Captains Jiden and Meldeon were on perimeter duty when the Juirean Fleet appeared. Their current assignment was a temporary punishment for their cut-and-run abandonment of the ship they’d attacked a few days earlier. The real price for their cowardness would be paid when General Tarazi returned from Nimor….

Stationed about one-and-a-half million miles from K’ly, and in the plane of the stellar ecliptic, the two ship’s captains spotted the massive gravity signatures moments before those on the planet below. Immediately on a link with each other, they quickly discussed their options. Their first impulse was to cut and run, just as their comrades were in the process of doing down on K’ly. But then they hesitated. They had been fooled before by this very action, and how would General Tarazi react if they fell for the same ruse a second time?

So they stayed, charging up their weapons, battle crews at the ready – just in case the threat was real this time.

One can only imagine the captains’ shock when sixteen Juirean battle cruisers – the entire Fringe Fleet – came into extreme visual range, and fanned out over an arc of ten thousand miles so as to avoid overlapping wells. Now turning to run, the two pirate ships didn’t make it very far before multiple bolts of intense plasma energy struck them from behind, taking out their maneuvering ports, as well as most of their generator capacity. Their ships remained in real space, drifting together, as two large battle cruisers slid in beside them and activated magnetic grapples. The rest of the Juirean fleet continued toward K’ly.

Jiden and Meldeon kept their links open as they expressed confusion as to why the Juireans had not simply blown them to dust. But they were still alive, and that had to count for something. So deciding that resistance was futile, they instructed their crews to stand down and allow the ships to be boarded without a fight.

It’s a mistake to assume that a fleet of Juirean starships was manned solely by Juireans. In fact, out of the over fifteen-hundred beings occupying the fleet, there was only one Juirean aboard, and that was Fleet Commander Giodol Fe Bulen. Once the pirate ships were secured, their two captains were brought before the Juirean in his spacious stateroom aboard his Class-5 flagship.

Two heavily armed Rigorians forcefully dumped the captains into chairs before the commander, who remained seated behind a massive desk, casually stroking a rare MK-34 high-velocity bolt launcher resting the desk.

“I want information,” Giodol began slowly. “Three days ago, a group of pirates attacked a ship in the Void near the Nimorian system. Do you have any knowledge of this action?”

The two captains looked at each other, then back to the Juirean. Meldeon spoke first: “There are a number of pirate ships here, My Lord. We’re not aware of this particular attack.” Both shifted nervously in the chairs.

The Juirean bore a dagger-look at them. “Are you sure? You’ve not heard anything of this attack?”

“Nothing, My Lord,” Jiden offered.

The Juirean just nodded, then after a moment, he lifted the MK-34 and sent a stun bolt into Jiden’s chest. The captain was thrust backwards by the blast as the chair tumbled over. Hurt, but not severely injured, the two guards righted the chair and threw him back into it.

The Fleet Commander then took the weapon and dialed up the charge by three clicks before placing the weapon back on the desk. He returned his attention Meldeon.

“Again, I’ll ask the question—”

“Yes! Yes, we know of the attack.” Meldeon blabbered. “We are two of the three captains who were there. But we were just following orders, My Lord.”

“That’s not important. What is important is what you took from the ship before you departed.”

The captains looked at each other again, confused, Jiden grimacing through spasms of burning pain. Then Meldeon spoke again, “My Lord, we took nothing from the ship. We didn’t have time. Captain Angar had just finished his sweep for survivors when we were – when we departed.”

The Juirean cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “You took nothing? Are you sure?”

It was Jiden’s turn to plead their innocence. “It was Captain Angar who went aboard. But we know for a fact that he did not take anything. We all expressed our frustration at having nothing to show for our efforts.”

The Juirean began to nod his head. “That’s very interesting. All I’m really concerned about is if anything was taken. And you both say there was nothing removed?”

Both captains nodded emphatically. Then the Fleet Commander lifted the weapon again and blasted a hole through Meldeon’s forehead. The level one bolt was clean and tight, and Meldeon simply slumped down in the chair, his head falling forward.

Stunned, Jiden began to tremble uncontrollably, his eyes wide with terror, saliva flowing from the corners of his mouth. The Juirean stared at him. “I’ll ask the question again: Was anything taken from the ship?”

“No My Lord! I swear as such. We took nothing!” He began to sob uncontrollably.

“Now, now captain, pirates are not supposed to cry,” Giodol said soothingly. “I believe you. I just had to be sure.”

Jiden sat up a little straighter and wiped the moisture from his face. “Thank you, My Lord. I’m telling you the truth.”

“I know you are.” Giodol then lifted the weapon and placed a bolt through Jiden’s chest. Next, he pressed a button on his desk. “Open a link to the Overlord – immediately.”




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 21

Moving quickly throughout the cargo hold, Adam looked for anything he could use to cut the bomb from his ankle. The cargo bay was filled with a plethora of tools, but most of them were robotic. From his brief time with the aliens, he had noticed that they weren’t very coordinated, and this carried over to their use of tools as well. Nearly everything was automated.

And then he found it ... a thin length of wire with a corrugated edge. Taking a length of the wire, he threaded it between his ankle and the strap and then gripped the two ends of the wire with a couple of cloth rags. With determination, Adam began to saw back and forth against the strap.

It wasn’t long before metal dust began to accumulate on the chair. After about a minute he could see the wire making progress, cutting into the edges to the strap. This was going to work!

So he stopped.

It was too early in his captivity to chance having Riyad learn he’d escaped from the ankle bomb. And besides, Kaylor and Jym were still wearing theirs. He’d have to make sure the two aliens were also free of their bracelets before he took any action against Riyad and his pirates. He would pocket the wire for now, and then formulate a plan later.

Adam returned to his room. The journey to the asteroids had taken five hours, so they should be arriving back at Nimor in another three. In the meantime, he had a lot of thinking to do.

Reclining on the bed, Adam began to run the conversation he’d had with Riyad back through his mind. So we’re the Supermen of the galaxy? Funny, he didn’t feel like one. Yet he did have to admit that any preconceived notions he had had about the great alien empire and their vast superiority to Humanity had been completely dashed by now. There was little out here that impressed him. Sure, they could travel between stars and they did have some pretty neat energy weapons, but beyond that, just about everyone and everything he’d encountered had been a big letdown, including the almighty Juireans.

So was it possible that Riyad could return to Earth and conquer the planet using the Juirean technology? Then he decided that conquer probably wasn’t the right word. After all, what good would it do him to inherit a planet ravaged by war?

Tarazi’s plan would be more subtle. All he really had to do was allow the Juireans to learn of Earth’s existence and its importance to the Klin. Then offering himself up as the most-qualified person to defend the planet against the alien threat, he could simply be appointed leader of the world. That would satisfy his ambition, but what of the fate of Earth?

Could one planet really stand up against the combined might of the Juirean Expansion? Not likely, even with the help of the Klin. In fact, Adam had no idea who or what the Klin really were. Were they friend or foe? Would they simply use the Humans as fodder to further their own need for revenge, and if so, were they any better than the Juireans?

These were serious questions for a 26-year-old sailor from California.

Again, Adam let out a laugh. Was he really taking this line of thinking seriously? Could the activities aboard this tiny spaceship over the next day or so really impact the entire future history of the planet Earth, possibly of the entire galaxy?

Damn! This is some heavy shit, Adam thought.

He closed his eyes, and when he did a vision appeared, an image of his wife Maria, her dark eyes filled with tears, her bottom lip trembling. She had tried to remain strong on the day he left for Afghanistan that last time, but it was getting so hard on both of them. No matter how much you prepared mentally and emotionally for a moment like this, it was never as you planned. This time it had been especially hard….

Adam opened his eyes in an effort to make the vision go away; that line of thinking was just too painful to take.

He stared at the ceiling, having no idea how all of this was going to work out, but he did know one thing for certain: He had to get home. If there was any way possible, he would do it. And if Riyad had plans for involving Earth in a galactic war – which could bring harm to Maria and Cassie, as well as to everyone else who was important to him – then he would have to be stopped.

Just then an announcement came over the ship’s intercom, interrupting Adam’s thoughts: “General Tarazi, please come to the pilothouse immediately!” It was one of the terrorist’s guards calling him.

Curious, Adam left his room and went to the pilothouse as well. He arrived the same time as Riyad.

“What is it?” the pirate leader demanded, anger and disgust displayed on his face and in his tone.

“We just received a link from your command ship. The K’ly base has been attacked by the Juirean Fleet!”

Adam saw Riyad’s dark face grow a few shades deeper as veins in his neck began to protrude. Kaylor and Jym entered the room just then and Riyad spun to face them.

“See what your lies have done! The Juireans think we have the core so my base has been attacked. This is all because of you!”

Adam expected to see Riyad draw his weapon and shoot the aliens dead right there on the spot, but instead he turned to the guard. “Any word on the damage?”

The guard was listening on a headset. “So far, only five ships are unaccounted for. Your emergency evacuation plans were successful. The fleet is regrouping at the backup location.”

“Who did we lose?”

“Filor, Caporian, Jiden, Sim and Meldeon,” the guard reported.

“Jiden and Meldeon … good,” Riyad said aloud. Then to the guard: “Send Captain Angar’s ship to the rendezvous point with orders to coordinate all survivors. Backup supplies and weapons are to be distributed, and send out perimeter guards immediately. The Juireans will not rest until they have what they seek – and they did not find it on K’ly.”

He turned to face Adam, fire in his eyes. “If you – or your alien friends – give me even one more problem, I will kill all of you without a second thought.” He then stormed out of the room.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 22

Adam spent the next couple of hours with Kaylor and Jym in the common room, sipping on carbonated drinks and chewing on some sort of granola-tasting cake. The aliens were scared to the point of incapacity; Jym had even vomited a couple of times, sending such an incredible stench into the air that Adam almost followed suit.

Although Adam could sympathize with them, he was also a little disappointed in their total lack of courage in the face of danger. Were these the same aliens who had scared the pirates away from the Klin starship? He knew a showdown was coming with Riyad and his guards, and he dreaded the thought of having to rely on these two for help of any kind.

A guard appeared at the door and summoned them to the pilothouse.

“Take your seats,” Riyad demanded of Kaylor and Jym. “We’re at Nimor. Now take us to the Klin ship.”

Kaylor seemed to be fighting the urge to say something. Finally he summoned the courage to speak. “The Ministry and the Juireans are probably going to be looking for us here. We haven’t been gone very long,” he said nervously.

“That’s why we can’t waste any more time. Just get us in and out as quickly as possible.”

Kaylor and Jym got very quiet and very serious. Through the open port, Adam could see the planet sweep into view, still impressed by the sight of another planet from space. But then he noticed the aliens begin to frantically work their controls, while repeatedly checking the view screens.

Riyad noticed this, too. “What’s wrong?”

“The Klin ship … it is not there.” There was panic in Kaylor’s voice.

Riyad moved closer, until he was looking over Kaylor’s shoulder. “What do you mean it’s not there?”

“These are the coordinates. It is where we left it in orbit by direction from the Ministry.” Kaylor was near hysterics. “Honest! This is where we left it.”

Riyad straightened up and stared out the viewport. “The Juireans have taken the ship away,” he stated flatly.

Adam spoke up, “Where did they take it?”

“Probably to Melfora Lum,” Riyad answered without turning. “That’s the Juirean headquarters for The Fringe.” Adam could tell that the terrorist was working multiple scenarios through in his head, as was Adam. They had the core, but it would do them no good without the Klin ship. And now that ship was headed for the Juirean stronghold for the region. How difficult would it be to get in and out of there unscathed? Adam was the rookie here; he had no idea.

Riyad turned to one of his guards. “Have the core transferred to my ship.” He then turned to Adam: “I don’t like you, Mr. Cain, and I certainly do not trust you. But I’m also not going to leave you here either. You’re coming with me.”

“What about us?” Jym asked, a little too loudly.

Riyad glared at him with a look that sent Jym recoiling back into his chair. “The two of you are the reason I’m in this mess in the first place. I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for—”

Just then, a brilliant blue light filled the pilothouse. Everyone turned toward the viewport and saw three spacecraft appearing in front of them just as a massive blue bolt of energy deflected off one of their hulls. An elongated craft sweep into view from behind the FS-475 and cut across the bow, just as another bolt of energy erupted from a point just above its pointed tip, targeted at the three approaching warcraft.

Almost simultaneously, three return bolts shot out from the attackers, striking the side of the elongated ship. Adam could see two of the bolts slide off the hull, while the third one scorched a path across the forward third of the ship.

Riyad turned to Kaylor. “Do you have any weapons on this tub?”

At first Kaylor didn’t understand the question, but soon it dawned on him. “Only a 45-ML launcher. It cannot puncture a battle hull.”

Adam knew the fourth ship was Riyad’s ride, and he also knew the ship was doomed. It had sped off to the right and was still barely visible when the three attackers changed course towards it, letting loose with another barrage of blue balls of electricity as they turned. This time all three bolts penetrated the hull, and the ship exploded in a giant ball of yellow and green fire. Adam was astonished by the sudden evaporation of the explosion, as the great fireball flared briefly, and then vanished, as if sucked up by a giant vacuum. Yet even at this distance, Adam could see pieces of the ship flying off in all directions.

Riyad stood stoically watching the scene before him unfold, while the guards in the room appeared visibly shaken. That had been their ship, and now all of their shipmates were dead.

The three attackers changed course again and Adam could see bright flashes erupt from their sterns as they maneuvered closer to Kaylor’s ship. It was apparent from their approach that they did not intend to fire.

A buzz sounded in the pilothouse; Kaylor reached forward on his console and threw a switch.

“This is the Nimorian Ministry Forces,” a voice announced through hidden speakers. “You will cease resistance and prepare to be boarded.”

All eyes turned to Riyad. “Do as they say,” he commanded.

“What about the core?” Adam asked. “Are you going to let the Juireans have it?”

Just then a mischievous expression crossed the pirate’s face. “Don’t worry,” he said, as the corners of his mouth curved upward slightly. “We’ll just have to take this fight to another venue.”




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 23

The FS-475 was soon flooded with a myriad of aliens, all filled with a determined purpose. They quickly placed Riyad and his pirates in one of the extra staterooms under guard, while sequestering Adam, Kaylor and Jym in Kaylor’s stateroom, also under guard. Other pilots were brought in, and they set the ship on a course for Melfora Lum, a trip they were told which would take about two days. After that, everyone settled into a tense routine. Food was brought and bathroom trips supervised. Adam and Riyad had no contact for the duration of the trip.

While in Kaylor’s stateroom, Adam was able to remove all of their ankle bombs, much to their immense relief, especially the aliens. But now the question became: What to do with the bombs? They had not seen the trigger device removed from Riyad, but that could have happened by now. If not, then the bombs could go off at any time Riyad felt doing so would be to his advantage. And if the device had been confiscated, could one of the Nimorians inadvertently trigger the detonations?

So during one of the bathroom runs, Adam hid the bombs in a towel and deposited them in a trash bin in the head. Then asking for permission to dump the trash, Jym jettisoned the bombs out into the vastness of space.

Immediately, there was a profound change in the mood of Adam’s two alien companions – at least up to the point when they remembered they were on the way to meet a Juirean Overlord … a being who would decide the ultimate fate of them all.

The moment soon came when everyone was summoned to the airlock off the ship’s cargo bay, and the four of them – Adam, Riyad, Kaylor and Jym – were transferred to a smaller shuttlecraft for the journey down to the surface of Melfora Lum. Riyad’s fellow pirates appeared to have disappeared somewhere along the journey to the planet….

Through the viewports, Adam could see a sprawling city sweep up from below, complete with skyscrapers, paved roads and abundant traffic. Now this was more like it, Adam thought. This was a lot different from the Old West version of an alien city he’d experienced with the Nimorian city of Gildemont.

They landed in a parade field next to a massive pyramid-shaped building that easily measured a mile on each side. It soared forty stories tall and glowed a golden yellow color as the bronze-glass walls reflected the light from the setting Melforean sun. The prisoners were herded into the building under no fewer than fourteen guards.

The large entourage entered an even larger elevator; Adam once again marveled at the familiarity of it all. It was just a normal-looking elevator, yet he imagined the mechanism for moving the car up and down was probably a lot more high-tech than just cables and pulleys. At least that’s what he hoped.

They entered an extremely large office, easily a hundred-feet-square, and lined with numerous full-size statues of exotic alien creatures, all garbed in bright uniforms and holding a variety of weapons. Oversized plants were scattered throughout the room, and the troop had to wind their way through some of them before coming upon a massive desk, apparently carved from a single stone crystal. The desk was smooth along the front and back sides, but each of the opposing sides featured ornate carvings depicting various animals, all with savage, threatening expressions. The scene was clearly designed to intimidate.

And behind the desk sat the Juirean Counselor Deslor Lin Jul. He wore a slightly amused expression as the four prisoners were placed in chairs before the desk. This time the guards remained in the room, their beady yellow eyes unblinking as they never took them off the prisoners. Adam could tell these guards were of a different caliber than the ones on Nimor. These were real pros.

As he waited for the Counselor to begin speaking, Adam wondered when they would be meeting the Overlord. After all, Adam had already seen this movie….

Then the interview began.

The Juirean informed them that he was now aware of Riyad’s identity, and had also taken note that he was of the same race as Adam. This had piqued his curiosity.

“I see we now have two of you, one a pirate captain and the other proclaiming ignorance as to how he came to be aboard the derelict ship. Does that seem inconsistent to either of you?”

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Adam said. “We all know it was a Klin ship I was on.”

The Juirean was sincerely taken aback. “So you know?” He seemed visibly upset. It was obvious this with information that was not for public consumption. Someone back on Nimor must have leaked the information, unless Adam knew more than he was letting on.

“And this makes it all the more unlikely that you are simply an innocent victim of an abduction, with no knowledge of how or why you came to be aboard a Klin spacecraft.”

He turned to address Riyad. “And you, of the same race, are a pirate leader and apparently quite adapt at our way of life. So which is it? Are you a primitive race, with no knowledge of the existence of The Expansion, or are you skilled warriors, as evidenced by your position with the pirates and your recent escape from the Nimorian jail?”

Neither Adam nor Riyad answered. Instead Riyad tilted his head toward Adam and said, “So this is a Juirean? I’m not impressed.”

“That’s just what I thought!” Adam replied emphatically.

The Juirean bristled. “Play your games as you wish, but I should tell you, we have recovered the Klin computer core.”

Both Riyad and Adam were shocked. Before being boarded, Riyad had hidden the core within Kaylor’s ship. They were hoping the Juireans still believed that the pirates had the core, and then when – not if – they could escape, they could recover the core and match it up with the systems aboard the Klin ship. In fact, Adam and Riyad were both quite ecstatic about getting both the core and the Klin ship back in close proximity to one another. But now….

“That’s right,” the Juirean said smugly, watching the expressions of the two Humans. “Your two captains were quite effective in convincing us that the pirates never did have the core in the first place. That only left the two of you,” he said, addressing Kaylor and Jym. “After that, we didn’t have too much difficulty finding the core aboard your ship during the trip to Melfora Lum.”

Damn it! Now the Juireans are going to learn the location of Earth, Adam thought. Where does that leave me now?

Almost on queue, the Juirean spoke, “All of you are to be transported to the Klin ship to meet the Overlord. He is quite anxious to meet the two of you,” he said addressing the two Humans. He turned to Kaylor and Jym. “As for the two of you, I have no idea what plans he has for you.”

Adam saw Kaylor turn even paler than normal – while Jym simply went ahead and fainted.




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 24

Two hours later, Adam was handcuffed and walking across a narrow metal plank in the umbilical corridor connecting the Counselor’s private shuttle to the Klin starship. At the end of the plank, the group entered an airlock, and soon Adam found himself back in the same wide, curving corridor he had been in only six short days before.

Technicians had reestablished gravity, atmosphere and temperature within the ship, and even the air smelled like it had been disinfected, countering the stench of the dead bodies left by the pirates.

As he passed the wide window to the hiberpods room, he felt slightly nostalgic. He noticed that all the pods were all empty now, the dozens of dead Humans having been removed for disposal – or for who knew what else.

They soon passed the wide stairway leading to the command dome and kept going. The party continued along the corridor, until it intersected with another corridor that cut through the center of the ship under the command dome. There were numerous doors on either side of the corridor, and Adam reasoned this must have been the living quarters for the crew.

A wide door slid open to his right, and the guards hustled them through, following the Counselor in his flowing and colorful capes.

The room they entered was long and narrow, with a large viewport at the opposite end. There was a living area off to the left, complete with a bed and working desk, partitioned off with half walls from the rest of the room. Along each wall were displayed colorful and strangely brilliant pictures that appeared almost to be alive. They were advanced 3-D images or holograms of some kind, and depicted landscapes of rolling hills, towering mountains and tranquil, azure blue seas. One picture was of a large obelisk surrounded by manicured grounds. And within all the pictures were numerous beings – all the same tall silver creatures he’d seen when he’d first awakened on the ship. They were smiling and some were even holding children. Adam recognized the images immediately for what they were. These were scenes of home.

Adam noticed a figure standing near the photo of the obelisk, with his back to the group. A billowing crest of blue hair covered the head and cascaded down the back and over a long purple cape. Without turning, the Overlord spoke: “This is an image of the Eternity Monument on Klinmon. It was destroyed nearly four thousand years ago … but still they remember.”

The Overlord turned, and Adam was immediately struck by the impossibly deep blue color of his eyes. They were almost hypnotic. The Overlord’s face was similarly shaped as that of the Counselor’s, but it appeared to have fewer creases around the eyes. A young Juirean? Adam wasn’t sure, but thought it was a good bet.

The Counselor had taken a seat off to the right of the simple desk that was set near the rear viewport. He remained silent, as he waited for the Overlord to guide the conversation.

The Overlord swept his arm around the room. “This is all Klin. We are all standing in a memory, an ancient memory that has now been brought back to life.” The Juirean’s voice was almost singsong as he appeared enraptured by the moment. “This is living history. The Klin should not exist – but they do.”

He walked over to the group and stopped in front of Adam. “They not only exist, but they appear to be thriving.” The smell of the Juirean was of thick body odor, and his breath was a little sour. Adam did his best not to wince – at least not too much.

The Juirean continued. “I am Overlord Oplim Ra Unis and the four of you are all responsible, in one way or another, for this great moment in Juirean history. Because of your actions, I will be remembered forever in the chronicles of the Juirean people.”

He walked over to the desk and leaned against it, facing the group. From the tone of the conversation, Adam almost felt as if the Juirean wanted to thank them for what they’ve done. Was that even possible?

He continued: “But do you know how close I came to not making this moment a reality?” His voice lowered. “Just having the Klin ship, without knowing the location of the Klin hiding place, would have caused more problems than it solved. It would simply have confirmed that the Klin still exist, and that they have advanced technology developed over thousands of years, technology and capabilities completely hidden from The Expansion. The result would have been Klin sightings all across the galaxy, a mass hysteria that would have undermined the Members’ confidence in the Juirean Authority.”

Then he stared at Kaylor. “And you – you had the computer core from the beginning.”

Kaylor’s eyes grew wide with terror, as Jym tried to slip in behind him, hiding from the steely gaze of the Overlord.

At that moment, a communicator on the Counselor’s belt buzzed, distracting the Overlord momentarily. The Counselor quickly answered; he whispered into the device and then stood and moved next to the Overlord.

“My Lord, the technicians have tried all they can to decipher the information from within the core, but there is a compatibility issue. They believe the core must be linked to its original system.” There was a slight concern in his voice.

The Overlord firmed his jaw, and then instructed the Counselor to have the core transferred to the Klin ship immediately. He stood silently for a long moment, looking into the room without seeing. All the others stood silently, shifting nervously. The Overlord was used to doing things in his own time.

Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “Now you see why we have purged all evidence of the discovery of this ship. The only beings that know of the ship’s true identity are here in this room. Only after I have learned the location of the Klin hiding place, and purged The Expansion of their plague, will I let the rest of the galaxy know what I have done.”

After being confined to a small room near the Overlord’s chambers for an hour or so, the four prisoners were eventually herded up to the command dome where the Overlord and his Counselor were waiting. The core had arrived and technicians were preparing to install it back into its original slot within the equipment tower. Adam noticed Riyad separate himself from him and the two aliens, to stand closer to the Juireans. The rest of the room was crowded with guards and various service technicians.

The last time Adam was in this room was when Kaylor had shot him, and the wound on his chest – as well as the one on his head from the collision with the bulkhead – still had not healed completely. Adam noticed that Kaylor and Jym were becoming ever-more agitated, almost panicky. They had been petrified with fear for quite a while now, but this was something different.

The technicians lifted the core and struggled to line it up in the opening in the equipment tower. Then it slid in. Immediately, three steady orange lights above the core opening changed to yellow and began to flash in sequence.

Kaylor and Jym literally ran for the exit, but were quickly subdued by the guards. The twos Juireans didn’t notice the commotion; instead, they had turned their attention to the command consoles as a screen in front of them suddenly flashed to life. A technician sat down at the console and began to type on the keyboard before him. Data began to stream across the screen. The Juireans leaned in closer.

Adam was curious, too, but of course, he couldn’t read any of the data. What really piqued his interest, however, was how strangely Kaylor and Jym were acting….

“There!” the Overlord yelled, pointing his finger at the screen. “Stop,” he commanded to the technician. “Surrender your seat and leave the room.”

When the seat was empty, the Counselor slipped into it. Only the two Juireans could now see the screen. They began to read intently.

Kaylor grabbed Adam’s sleeve. “We have to leave!” he whispered to Adam.

“What? We can’t leave.”

“But we have to!”

Adam shrugged off Kaylor’s grasp and returned his attention to the Juireans. If they learned the location of Earth, they might reveal something Adam could use later – if there was to be a later. He couldn’t read the screen – even if he could see it – yet he could listen in on their conversation.

“Amazing.” the Counselor was saying. “Annan.”

“Yes, but that is not what concerns me the most,” said the Overlord. “Look what it says about these Humans….”

Both the Juireans turned to look at Adam and Riyad, who in unison backed away quickly, trying to look as innocent as possible. Did the Juireans look … scared? Adam thought. Then they turned back to the screen.

“There! That’s it—” the Overlord said.

A heartbeat later, Riyad shoved a shoulder into Adam’s chest, sending him crashing into Kaylor, Jym and the guards behind them and they all tumbled to the floor in a heap. Next, Riyad kicked the Counselor in the ribs, and grabbed the much-taller Overlord around the neck from behind, pulling him backwards.

Guards rushed into the room, weapons drawn, but Riyad swung the Overlord in front of him for cover and the guards hesitated. The pirate backed further into the room, almost disappearing from Adam’s view due to the curvature of the disk-shaped starship. Then with his free hand, Riyad reached down and flipped his belt buckle inside out, revealing the trigger device for the ankle bombs! He grinned at Adam – and then pushed a button on the device … at the same time he ducked around the equipment tower.

But nothing happened.

A few seconds later, Riyad peaked around the corner, with the Overlord still firmly in his grasp. Adam had regained his feet, and seeing Riyad’s dark eyes staring at him, he smiled at the pirate while pulling up his pant leg and revealing a bare ankle.

A look of exasperation came over Riyad’s face, but then a toothy smile stretched across his face. Riyad gave Adam a wink, and then moved back out of sight, dragging the Overlord with him.

Guards rushed past Adam, nearly knocking him over, and went to help the Counselor to his feet. Others headed after Riyad, who had exited the command room through a secondary doorway.

Adam felt a strong tug on his arm. “Come Adam, we must go – now!” Kaylor had an absolutely terrified look on his face.

Using the confusion left over from Riyad’s abduction of the Overlord, Adam sent an elbow into the jaw of the one remaining guard standing between them and the stairway out of the command room. He scooped up the guard’s weapon and the three of them bounded down the stairs and into the wide corridor. Three more guards ran past them and up the stairs, ignoring them completely. It seemed that rescuing the Overlord was of a greater priority than subduing the three of them.

And so they ran, back down the corridor, past the hiberpod room and into the umbilical tube. The hatch to the Counselor’s ship was still open and they shot through it, Adam leading the way. Finding no one aboard, they quickly located the pilothouse and Kaylor fell into the pilot’s seat a seat, punching buttons as he did so.

“What the hell’s going on?” Adam yelled, as Kaylor fingered a switch that closed the outer door to the ship. Next, Kaylor grabbed the control stick and sent the craft tearing away from the umbilical.

“The bomb!” Jym answered.

“What bomb?”

Kaylor cranked the stick to the left and Adam could see the large Klin ship began to shrink away quickly.

“The nuclear bomb that’s aboard the Klin ship,” Kaylor said, as he switched the screens to an aft view. The Klin ship was now about the size of the full moon and rapidly shrinking as the distance between the two craft increased.

“There’s a nuke aboard the ship? How do you know?”

“The core was hooked to a self-destruct mechanism,” Kaylor explained. “When I removed the core originally it activated the countdown. I was trying to disarm the bomb when you attacked me.”

“So, why is this a problem now? You obviously did deactivate it.”

“The lights,” Kaylor said, not taking his eyes from the view screen. The Klin ship had disappeared from view by now. “Before I removed the core, the lights were orange. When I removed it, the lights turned yellow and began to oscillate, just as they’re doing now.”

“But why would the self-destruct activate when the core was returned?”

“Because I reversed the controls. The device now thinks the core has been removed – again. We have about seven minutes to get to a safe distance.”

Without further comment, Adam joined Kaylor and Jym in their silent vigil at the view screen….




The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 25

Riyad pulled the struggling Overlord through the side door to the command room and dragged him down a hallway. Although he was unarmed, Riyad did have the most valuable hostage in the entire Fringe. The guards would not risk hurting the Overlord in an effort to save him.

Riyad had planned for the ankle bombs to go off and take out most of the guards. Then in all the confusion he could have easily slipped away with the Overlord virtually unseen. But that didn’t happen, and now he had to come up with a new plan on the fly.

From the reactions of the two Juireans, he was sure they had learned the locations of both the Klin hideout and of Earth. Now key to his entire future was held firmly in his strong right arm. He just needed to have a few moments alone with the Overlord.

After that he could dispose of the Overlord and fight his way off the ship. A piece of cake!

Guards could be seen cautiously moving down the hallway toward them, safely keeping their distance, when all of a sudden the ship rumbled, and Riyad felt an explosion vibrate through its metal structure. Almost immediately, the sounds of plasma bolts filled the air; the guards seemed confused, as some stayed to watch the Overlord, while others broke off and disappeared down the hallway.

Just then a stream of high-intensity electric bolts shot over his head from behind and in the direction of the guards. The soldiers returned the fire, and Riyad now found himself caught in the middle of a firefight.

He dragged the Overlord through a doorway on his right and threw him to the floor. There was a battle going on in the hallway, and this could be his only opportunity to interrogate the Overlord. Riyad straddled the Juirean, grabbing him firmly around the neck. The eyes of the Overlord were wide and angry as he struggled vainly to escape, yet Riyad was able to keep the him pinned to the floor without too much effort.

“You found the location of Earth – give me the coordinates.” Riyad demanded, squeezing tighter on the alien’s neck.

The Overlord tried to shake his head, but Riyad’s grip restricted the movement.

“I will not,” the Overlord managed to say through gritted teeth.

“Then I will crush the life out of you with my bare hands. You have about two seconds to tell me!” He squeezed even tighter.

“Yes! Ecliptic plane … minus 4, section 21 …” While his heart began to race, Riyad loosed his grip slightly, allowing the Juirean to speak more freely. He almost had it—

Just then, Riyad heard a strange scraping sound on the metal floor of the hallway outside the room. The sound grew louder and Riyad looked over at the open doorway – just in time to see a small, puck-size disk come sliding up and stop at the doorway.

Riyad’s eyes grew wide – it was a grenade, like those his pirates used when boarding a hostile ship!

He rolled off the Overlord and further into the room … just as the bomb exploded.

A hot searing pain flash across his right side before being replaced by a cold, comforting blackness….

Counselor Deslor found the unconscious Overlord in a side room, bloody but alive. Guards swept in and helped their leader to a nearby couch, just as he was regaining his senses.

“Where are the Humans?” he asked the Counselor through the spasms of pain.

“I do not know. We are searching the ship.”

The Overlord reached up and grabbed the Counselor’s cloak. “Open a link to the Fleet Commander – now!”

“Of course, my Lord. But shouldn’t you receive medical assistance?”

“Only after I speak with Giodol.”

The Counselor spoke to a guard, who then hurried out of the room. Moments later, a tech arrived with a portable transmission unit. He placed the device on a table at the end of the couch, and after a few moments, stepped away so the two Juireans could operate the communicator. Deslor sent everyone out of the room.

********

The pain woke Riyad from his blissful sleep; he became aware of people around him, and he opened his eyes to find he was lying across a console chair in the pilothouse of a shuttlecraft. Through groggy and filmy eyes, he could see Angar seated at the controls, with the blackness of space displayed through the front viewport in front of him. Riyad’s entire body ached and suspected his right arm was broken from the throbbing pain emanating from that part of his body. He groaned and instantly several people were at his side, helping him to sit up in the chair.

Angar turned to face him, a large, satisfied grin on his face. “I’m so glad to see you’re awake, My General,” he said. “The meds should make you feel better.”

“Where am I?” Riyad managed to force out of his dry throat.

“You’re in a shuttle. We’re almost back to my ship.”

“How…how did I get here?”

“We rescued you.” Angar’s voice was proud and animated. “I brought a boarding party and pulled you out. You are safe now, My General.”

Memories began to surface in Riyad’s mind, and he soon remembered sitting atop the Juirean Overlord, hearing him recite the coordinates of planet Earth – and then an explosion!

“You idiot!” Riyad screamed at Angar, as loudly as he could manage.

Angar recoiled with shock. “My General, is something wrong?”

Riyad managed to stand, cradling his broken right arm in his left. Between gritted teeth and spasms of pain he answered the question, “Of course something’s wrong. I was about to learn the location of my homeworld – until you interfered!”

Angar’s jaw went slack and his eyes wide. He didn’t know what to say, so Riyad stepped into the silence. “Turn around; we have to go back.”

“But General, we … we can’t—”

“Do it, damn it! Do it now!”

Angar sat back down in the pilot’s seat and cranked the stick over. The star field changed ahead of them, but they were so far out that the Klin ship was not yet visible. Riyad stood weakly behind the pilot seat, overflowing with anger. He was so close! The Juirean had been in the process of telling him where his home was located. He had half the coordinates: Ecliptic minus 4, sector 21. Another second and he would have had it all.

********

The link to the Fleet Commander was established and Giodol watched his screen as Oplim and the Deslor crowed together so they could be seen by the Fleet Commander. “Are you injured, My Lord?” Giodol asked, seeing the bloodied and battered Overlord. This was unheard of. No one in his memory had ever even struck a Juirean, let alone injured one as badly as his Overlord.

“Listen to me, this is important.” the Overlord said. “The Klin exist!”

The Commander’s mouth fell open as his eyes grew wide. “Are you sure?” He was so shocked by the statement that he abandoned all decorum with his superior.

“Yes Commander, it has been confirmed. They have a secret base in the area. But that is not our biggest threat.”

“What … what could be worse?”

“It is a race of beings called Humans. I will give you the coordinates to their home planet. Then Commander, you must assemble your fleet and—”

Giodol’s screen went completely blank, no static, no ghost images. He pressed the controls to regain the link, but nothing happened. After a few more tries, he called in a technician. Another few minutes went by while the terrified technician tried in vain to reestablish the connection. Finally, he had to tell the Commander that there was nothing wrong with his equipment.

There was simply nothing left to link to….

********

The blast first appeared as tiny, yet brilliant dot against the distant star field. Adam and his two alien companions watched in horror as the dot grew almost instantly to fill half the sky. They turned away to shield their eyes, before the view screen darkened to lessen the light intensity within the pilothouse.

A nuclear explosion in space is quite different than one within an atmosphere. The fire was not as intense from of the lack of oxygen to feed the flame, and there is no shockwave from the compressed air. But the radioactivity from the explosion created an almost perfect sphere of light, as the force expanded outward, equally in all directions. But what was most startling to Adam were the bolts of electric blue and yellow lightning that shot out from the point of origin. It reminded him of one of those static electricity globes he used to see at Spencer’s Gifts at the mall. The ribbons were beautiful and filled most of their view, traveling away on their own, while slowly losing intensity as the minutes passed.



The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 26

Riyad cradled his shattered right arm and fought the wave of nausea flowing through his body. He had no idea what just happened to the Klin ship. Had it been destroyed from the outside, maybe by the Klin themselves? Or was there a bomb aboard … a booby-trap of some kind? Either way, he was beyond anger, literally shaking from hatred for all things alien.

His vision had been so real – and he had been so close. Riyad Tarazi, ruler of the planet Earth! And now his vision had evaporated in an instant, along with the computer core and the Klin ship, all in a fireball of splitting atoms and radioactive debris.

Through the viewport, he watched as the last of remnants of the explosion dissipated into the nothingness of space above Melfora Lum – sparking ribbons of blue and yellow radiation. And then there was nothing, just the myriad of steady lights dotting the blackness of space.

But that’s not exactly true, Riyad thought, as a glimmer of an idea swelled up from his gut. I know that the Klin exist, and they not only know the location of Earth, but I sincerely believe they’re building an army of Humans, probably somewhere right here in The Fringe.

With a new-found determination borne of hatred – as well as his lust for power – Riyad swore then and there that he now had a new purpose in life. He would round up the scattered remains of his pirate fleet, and then spend every waking hour, every ounce of his being, on the singular quest of finding the Klin hideout and their Human army.

Riyad Tarazi would make his vision come true. He knew now that it was possible. He would find the Klin, and he would return to Earth. And from that moment on his homeworld would never be the same….

********

On the other side of Melfora Lum, Adam stood at the viewport of the FS-475, watching as the last remnants of the nuclear blast evaporated into ribbons of sparking blue and yellow electricity. He couldn’t believe it. He had been so close to finding his way home – and now nothing.

In reality, he didn’t care what happened to the Klin – or to anything else for that matter – in this nightmare universe he now occupied. All he’d ever wanted to do was get back home.

And now what was he to do….

Kaylor and Jym stood behind him, not knowing what to say. Adam finally spoke without turning, “Well, my friends, I guess I’m really stuck here now. There will be no joyous homecoming for Adam Cain in the foreseeable future.” He turned to face the two aliens. “But it looks like the two of you are off the hook for now. The Juirean did say no one else knew about the ship and the Klin other than a small handful of people. Now most of them are gone – all except us.”

There was an awkward moment of silence before Kaylor asked: “What will you do now, Adam Cain?”

Adam just shook his head. “Good question. If I’m going to be here for a while, then I guess the first thing I need to do is find a way to make a living. The two of you can’t keep carrying me forever.”

Kaylor nodded vigorously, much to Adam’s surprise. “What were you trained to do on your planet … on Earth?”

Adam thought for a moment. He knew the long answer, but the time didn’t seem appropriate to go into detail. Finally, he simply said, “I was a trained killer.”

Both Kaylor and Jym recoiled slightly from the answer. They had held their suspicions and now it had been confirmed.

Seeing the disgust on the faces of the aliens, Adam explained further, “I was in the military … a warrior I guess you could say.”

This seemed to appease the aliens, but then Jym blurted out, “Maybe you can go to work for the gangs – as an assassin!”

Kaylor jabbed him in the ribs, shooting him a stern look.

But Adam wasn’t offended. In fact, he gave them both a sly smile and said, “So … I could kill aliens for a living? I like that idea. That’s something I could get used to!”

The End

of

The Fringe Worlds

Book One of

The Human Chronicles Saga



Next up in

The Human Chronicles Saga:

Alien Assassin

NOW available on Amazon.com

In the exciting continuation of The Human Chronicles Saga, ex-Navy SEAL Adam Cain finds himself attempting to make a living the best he can in the alien universe he's been dropped into – as an assassin! After all, with his kick-ass attitude and instinctive hatred for aliens, he's a natural at it.



As a Human among aliens, he's stronger, faster and tougher than just about everyone – and everything – he encounters. In this reality – Adam is the Superman.


Alien Assassin is a whirl-wind adventure of incredible space battles, shoot-outs with galactic criminals, and even a love interest that is ... well, a little different. And as all this is going on, the political forces of revenge and 4,000-year-old grudges converge on The Fringe Worlds. But even as galactic forces close in on Adam and his gang, there's one message that all the aliens begin to grasp: Don't mess with the HUMANS!

Don’t wait. Pick up your copy of

Alien Assassin

today.

And let the adventure continue…



Please see this exciting excerpt from Alien Assassin,

Book Two of The Human Chronicles Saga….

Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude.

His story continues…

The Enclaves of Sylox

Chapter 1

Adam Cain had an alien to kill…

… Yet before setting out on the mission, his professional training dictated that he take inventory of his equipment and run a weapon’s check….

Adam was in a pressurized hotel room in the Hildorian city of Jaxas, and spread out on the bed before him was a full array of energy weapons and other tactical gear. Although the tactics and strategies he’d learned during his formal U.S. Navy SEAL training had very little carryover into his present occupation, the habits developed during those years were hard to break. So with methodical precision, Adam went down the mental checklist and triple-checked his weapons.

His formidable weapons cache ranged from the standard MK-17 and XF Flash Rifle, all the way up to his prized MK-47 High Energy Bolt Launcher. The ’47 had cost him nearly an entire contract fee, but it had been well worth it. Being the top-of-the-line for handguns, the weapon boasted a standard level-one charge of twenty bolts, and its targeting computer carried the fastest rating in its class.

Personally, Adam never used the targeting assist, but just carrying the weapon often gave those who sought to challenge him second thoughts.

Honestly, Adam didn’t really care if they challenged him or not. He would kill anything that walked, slithered or crawled in this god-forsaken galaxy. In fact, Adam often referred to himself as The Exterminator, and every time he did a hit, he felt about as much remorse as The Orkin Man did when he wiped out a colony of termites back home.

Adam lifted the ’47, feeling its weight and the comfort of the grip in his hand. All his pistol grips were customized, as was the stock on his Xan-Fi Flash Rifle. With over 8,000 species in the Juirean Expansion, weapons manufacturers had to provide an extensive selection of grips and stocks to fit the variety of hands, tentacles and even robotic nerve attachments of their customers. Luckily for Adam, Human-style hands were quite common. Even still, he chose to have his stocks and grips molded to fit his hands exactly, providing even more control and confidence than was probably necessary. But Adam Cain was a professional, and nothing but the best would do.

For the past three days, Adam had donned the uncomfortable pressure suit and breathing attachment, and scouted the mark. His name was Kunnlar Bundnet, a high-level gang leader who had offended an even higher-level crime boss – and now had to pay the price. As it was back on Earth, most gang hits were within and between the gangs themselves. Adam didn’t really care. As long as they paid, he would kill. After all, it was the only thing he was really good at.

Satisfied that all was in order, Adam gathered up the tools of his trade and placed them in one of the backpacks on the bed, while reserving the ’47 for this oiled leather holster. He then strapped the clear plastic breathing cup over his nose, and scooped up the other knapsack from the bed. Lastly, Adam placed the camouflage boonie hat atop his head – the trademark of his SEAL persona – and cinched up the cord under his chin.

It was game time.

********

Bundnet lived in a fortified compound on a hill about 30 klicks outside of town. Adam drove the rented transport to within a kilometer of the house, and after applying streaks of dark green grease to his face, he slung the flash rifle across his back and secured four slide grenades to the MK’s utility belt. And then with the small knapsack secured across his left shoulder, he set off for the compound, covering the remaining distance in about a minute, through a combination of jogs and long leaps in the weak gravity.

In fact, gravity was an integral part of his attack plan. Rated at just .69 of standard, Adam estimated the surface gravity of Hildoria to be a little over half that of Earth’s. That was one of the reasons the atmosphere was so thin and the air pressure too low for him to function without the light pressure suit. It also produced natives who were all well-over two meters tall with huge, barrel chests. Apparently it required large lungs to inhale enough of the thin oxygen to survive….

The singular yellow sun had set by the time Adam reached the compound, and a deep darkness descended on the landscape of thick woods and bristled bushes, yet the compound itself stood out like a beacon. It was illuminated by numerous floodlights, and with at least a dozen heavily-armed guards patrolling both sides of the surrounding wall. The place was hard to miss.

His sources had informed him that Bundnet may have been forewarned of the impending hit. This didn’t concern Adam too much – it simply came down to whether or not this would be a surgical strike or an all-out scorched-earth campaign. To The Exterminator, either way would get him paid.

Crouching in a clump of bushes at the tree line, Adam watched as the first set of guards covered their route, flash rifles of their own held casually at their sides. Once they passed, he dashed off toward the wall, to a point he had selected earlier as his best point of entry.

Leaning against the warm stone surface, Adam estimated the height of the wall to be about five or six meters. Now comes the fun part, he thought with a smile. And then in a move that would have made any NBA center green with envy, he jumped straight up, enjoying the momentary sensation of flying, and easily reached the top of the wall with his outstretched arms. Then with a quick, fluid motion, he swung himself over the top and descended – essentially in slow motion – to the ground below.

Immediately, alarms began to blare, as motion sensors along the wall were tripped. Adam scrambled to a dark patch of trees and vegetation and lay on the cool, moist ground, watching as more guards rushed toward the clearing between the wall and the house. Each held flash rifles, and their large size and bulging chests produced a menacing, ominous scene.

Removing the small knapsack from his shoulder, Adam quickly released the binding cord and opened the pouch. With angry growls, two furry creatures –looking like large squirrels with spiked tails – shot out of the bag and ran off into the clearing. The guards spotted the animals almost immediately, and began chasing after them in a vain attempt to corral the elusive creatures.

As planned, Adam watched as one of the guards placed a communicator to his mouth, and a few moments later the alarms were silenced. The obedient rodents continued their flight to freedom across the field and away from Adam’s position, with the guards following closely behind.

Soon Adam saw his opportunity, and in a low crouch, took off for the house. Without breaking stride, he vaulted to the top of a small pagoda-type structure, and then onto the roof of the main building. He fell in behind a towering chimney stack, and waited to see if anyone had spotted his movement. Satisfied that he was unseen, he proceeded along the roof, until he came to a large skylight made up of numerous individual glass panels. A dim light filtered up from a single source in the room below.

Adam peered over the edge of the skylight and saw a large bedroom below; an expansive bed to one side, a set of dresser drawers against one wall and a wooden writing desk against another. And seated at the desk was Kunnlar Bundnet, leaning forward slightly, his arms on the desk.

Anticipating that the skylight frame would be wired for security, Adam removed a roll of tape from his bag, and quickly and quietly covered one of the glass panes with a large ‘X,’ leaving a rise of tape at the center. Next he took out a pen-laser, a special one with a muted tip, and began to silently cut through the glass along its edge. Then holding the rise of tape at the center, Adam lifted the glass away from the skylight frame and set it to one side.

Next he stood and withdrew his MK-47, and with a deep breath, stepped through the skylight opening to begin a slow-motion drop into the room below.

********

Landing with a muffled sound, Adam crouched on one knee, pointing his weapon at Bundnet’s back, fully expecting the crime lord to spin around in his chair toward the sound. But no movement came.

Cautiously, he moved closer to Bundnet, weapon at his cheek, sighting along the barrel. Still no movement. He slid up to the side of the desk, and leaned forward to look into Bundnet’s face.

The large, beady alien eyes were wide open, with a look of sheer terror frozen in them. And across his neck was a smooth razor cut, filled with dark, coagulated blood that had soaked into the front of his gold and green shirt.

But what surprised Adam the most – this was not Bundnet!

Adam sensed another presence in the room—

He dove to his left, just as a bolt of electric-blue energy slammed into the desk, sending splinters of wood trailing after him. Rolling on his shoulder, Adam came up on one knee, just as a large, boxy figure appeared out of the shadows near the bedroom door. He leveled the MK-47 and fired. Instantly, a shimmering wave of blue light enveloped the figure, and then quickly dissipated. A diffusion screen! His sidearm would be unable to penetrate the shield; he would need something larger – like the flash rifle he carried across his back.

Yet before Adam could un-sling the rifle, the large figure lumbered further into the room, and stopped. It made no further threatening moves, so Adam slowly stood to face his attacker.

It was Kunnlar Bundnet, very much alive, and encased in an exosuit. He had an MK-17 leveled at Adam – and he was smiling.

Hildorians often wore exosuits when off-planet, to help compensate for the heavier gravity they encountered on nearly every other world in The Fringe. The suits were mechanical transports, attached to the limbs of the wearer, providing added strength and support for their brittle-boned bodies. They also carried their own power supply, to which Bundnet had apparently linked a diffusion screen. Diffusion screens were very basic shields against smaller bolt launchers, yet because they often required an external power source, they were impractical for personal protection – unless you were wearing an exosuit.

“So you must be the assassin Amick sent to kill me,” Bundnet stated in a rough, gravelly voice. Adam couldn’t help but notice how the movements of his mouth were not in sync with the words he heard, a common occurrence with the translation bug implanted behind his ear. This oddity was something Adam had never gotten used to.

Adam did not answer. Instead he glanced around when he heard heavy metal shutters quickly lower over the windows to the bedroom, effectively trapping him in the room with the mechanically-enhanced Hildorian crime boss.

“Yes, I’ve been expecting you,” Bundnet said. “You see, I have my sources as well, and I can assure you that plans are in the works that will have Amick paying the ultimate price for sending you against me.”

Adam heard the servos whine, as Bundnet stepped further into the room, until he was only a few meters away. With the alien already standing well over two meters tall, now encased in the exosuit Bundnet presented a truly intimidating figure, towering by a good meter or more over Adam.

“I’ve heard of you,” the alien continued, confident in his control of the situation. “At times, I have even considered enlisting your services for my own ends.”

“You should have,” Adam finally said. “You would have lived longer.”

Adam saw a look of confusion cross the alien’s face. “You don’t seem to realize the position you are in, assassin. You’re as good as dead, and I have options as to how I will bring about your final demise. I can either shoot you – or I can rip you apart limb by limb, while reveling in the agony you will be experiencing. Personally, I prefer the second option. It will bring me more satisfaction hearing your screams.”

Adam just smiled, which did nothing to fit into the Hildorian’s vision he had of this moment. Here we go again, Adam thought. And then aloud: “Bring it on, asshole!”

Knowing that the weapon he held was useless against the diffusion screen, Adam reeled back and heaved the ’47 at Bundnet. With the weapon carrying no electrical charge of its own, it passed through the screen as if it wasn’t there, and struck Bundnet’s hand with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking his own weapon away.

Bundnet roared with anger and pain; he lurched forward, swinging his right arm as he did so, with the exosuit adding extra quickness and agility. Still, it wasn’t enough. Adam blocked the blow easily, and then lifted the entire mechanical/alien contraption off the floor and shoved it to his right. The suit was able to maintain balance, but Bundnet now found himself twisted around, with Adam behind him.

Rather than attack, Adam simply waited for his opponent to spin back around. The smile had vanished from Bundnet’s face.

“You missed,” Adam said, through a toothy grin of his own.

The Hildorian literally growled at him, displaying a double row of long, sharp teeth. Bundnet lunged again, yet this time a mechanical hand was able to grasp Adam’s left bicep, sending a spasm of pain through his arm and shoulder. Adam reached across with his free hand and ripped the clamp from his arm, breaking the thin metal from its joints.

Bundnet screamed in agony, as his own flesh and blood hand was twisted and bones snapped. But he was still able to counter with a swipe of the other mechanical arm. Adam was struck hard against the side of the head and knocked to his knees, temporarily stunned. Bundnet used the opportunity to step forward, crashing his metal-encased left leg forcefully into Adam’s chest.

Adam flew backwards in the light gravity and landed heavily on the wooden chest next to the bed. Bundnet ran forward.

Quickly regaining his senses, anger flared in Adam. He pushed off of the chest, and the two combatants crashed into each other in the center of the room. Adam scampered on top of the suit’s metal frame and began to rip at the upper cage above Bundnet’s head. Metal bars broke easily from their joints, as Bundnet’s mechanical arms flailed wildly, trying to pull Adam from atop the cage. Then the assassin dropped in behind Bundnet and ripped the power cords from the battery pack.

Instantly, the servos fell quiet, and Bundnet found himself trapped in the suit, only able to move it with his own feeble strength. He stopped struggling, and watched as Adam moved slowly back in front of him.

Adam just shook his head. “You don’t have any idea what you’re up against, do you?” The alien’s bottom lip was trembling. He didn’t answer.

“This is what I do. I kill aliens for a living. And I’m very good at it—”

Adam then shot out with his right arm, clamping his hand around the alien’s neck. He squeezed, and could feel – and hear – the crunching of cartilage as the alien’s windpipe collapsed. In another moment, it was all over.

Adam Cain, Alien Assassin, had successfully fulfilled yet one more contract.

********

After a brief moment of contemplation, Adam quickly gathered up his backpack and recovered his MK-47 – just as he became aware of the wailing of alarms outside the building. How long they had been going off he couldn’t tell; his mind had been on other matters.

But Adam didn’t panic. Yes, he had been discovered, but all he had to do now was get out of the compound, and that he had no doubt he could do.

The windows of the bedroom were shuttered and the exterior walls of the building were made of stone, so his only escape route was through the bedroom door. Gripping his ’47 firmly in his right hand, he flung the door open and immediately came face-to-face with two guards, just as shocked to see him as he was to see them. With lightning-quick reactions, Adam blasted the first one through the chest with a bolt from the MK, and then swung his left fist at the second guard. Much to Adam’s surprise, his fist sank completely into the guard’s skull and exited out the other side, effective hooking the alien’s head onto Adam’s forearm, all in a bloody spray of brains and shattered bone material.

Damn! What else could go wrong?

Just then, a whole array of bolt streaks filled the hallway, as yet another group of armed guards appeared to his right. Adam needed a new exit strategy….

********

One of the good things about a low-gravity world was that construction did not have to be as strong and sturdy as one with more gravity. Even though atoms were atoms everywhere in the universe, the strength of the compounds and building materials varied from world to world. So what Adam had discovered about construction on Hildoria – and Bundnet’s house in particular – was that everything was essentially built of material about as strong as balsa wood and popsicle-sticks.

So Adam leapt across the hallway, through the blaze of energy bolts, and smashed through the opposite wall with little effort, dragging the dead alien on his arm as he did so.

Stumbling through a fallen metal shelving unit, Adam found himself in the home’s kitchen area, and as he ran between rows of preparation tables, he continued to try and shake the stuck alien off his arm. At that moment, he could hear the words of Riyad Tarazi echoing in his head, as the Human leader of the Fringe Pirates had told him how Humans were the Supermen of the galaxy. As he feverishly tried to dislodge the lifeless guard from his arm, Adam was pretty sure Clark Kent never had to deal with a problem like this….

Finally, the lifeless alien slipped from his arm and Adam was able to holster the ’47 and pull the flash rifle from across his back. As he did so, he whipped the weapon around, spraying a barrage of bolts at the guards entering through the hole in the wall he’d just made. Then he continued the arc, blasting more holes in the walls, cabinets and other aliens – kitchen staff he reckoned – in a full circle around him. The sights and sounds were deafening, of crumbling ceilings, burning wallboard and wailing creatures. Then fires began to flare up, from grease, fabric and burning wood. It all added to the confusion Adam was hoping for.

Soon he was out of the kitchen and blasting his way across a large dining area. He was surprised to see even more guards rush headlong into the hall, wondering just how many of them Bundnet had on the grounds. There seemed to be a lot more than when he’d reconned the compound over the past few days.

Oh well, just more score to rack up….

Then to his shock and surprise, Adam felt a heavy thud hit his back. He flew forward and fell, sliding several meters on the polished stone floor. He knew he’d taken a hit to the back, but was relieved to find that his own makeshift diffusion screen had apparently worked. Since flash bolts from all the various energy weapons they carried were made up of concentrated balls of electricity, Adam had fashioned a series of wires sewn onto the exterior of the pressure suit he wore. Not as strong or long-lasting as a full-fledged diffusion shield, his experiments had shown however that the electric bolts would dissipate along the wires, heating them up and melting the wires, but also lessening the impact of the hit. The concussion still knocked him off his feet, but that was about the extent of the damage. Of course he also knew that the wire mesh was only good for one bolt. The next one could prove fatal.

Rolling on his back as he slid along the floor, Adam aimed the flash rifle between his legs at the three guards who had taken up positions behind him. His aim was true, and the bolts from the rifle had a devastating effect on the thin-boned Hildorians. Then he was on his feet again and running for the main entrance of the home.

The ornate, double front doors were made of a metal of some kind, so instead of barreling through them, Adam jumped and crashed through the thin glass transom window above the doors. His action took the seven remaining guards stationed outside by surprise. As he flew over them, they did their best to follow his movement with their weapons, but like most aliens, their shots came slow and several meters behind.

Landing softly on the brick walkway leading up to the entrance, Adam rolled once and came up on one knee. With the flash rifle married to his chin, he sent a stream of bolts into the guards, literally ripping them apart at their waists.

He then scanned the front of the building, his movements, and those of his rifle, acting as one. When he was satisfied there was no further movement in his direction, he slowly rose to his feet.

No one appeared to be left alive in the compound, or those who were chose to stay indoors and out of sight. It was a wise decision.

Calmly, Adam Cain snugged down his boonie hat and shouldered the rifle. Then he turned and walked casually down the long driveway and through the open gates of the compound, his back illuminated by the flickering light from the now fully-involved fire, as it quickly consumed the building behind him….

The end of this Special Preview of:

Alien Assassin



Also by T.R. Harris

The Human Chronicles Saga

Part One (5 Books)

Book 1 – The Fringe Worlds

Book 2Alien Assassin

Book 3 – The War of Pawns

Book 4 – The Tactics of Revenge

Book 5 – The Legend of Earth

Part Two (3 Books)

Book 1 – Cain’s Crusaders

Book 2 – The Apex Predator

Book 3 – A Galaxy to Conquer

Jason King – Agent to the Stars Series

Book 1 – The Enclaves of Sylox

Please click HERE to be taken to the Interlude section

to learn more about upcoming books

by T.R. Harris


Also go to bytrharris.com for more information about the series

and to help contribute to future volumes.


Please contact author T.R. Harris directly at

[email protected]

He welcomes all comments, critiques and suggestions.



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