Book: Treasure of the Galactic Lights



Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Treasure

of the

Galactic Lights

Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Jason King:  Agent to the Stars

Episode 2

by

T.R. Harris





Copyright 2016 by T.R. Harris

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




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Treasure of the Galactic Lights


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Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

Epilogue





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 1

This was turning into the closing from hell, yet the worst part about it, I saw it coming. And you would think that with all my years of experience I could have done something about it.

You would be right, of course. But I have been distracted lately….

Sure, the whole galactic crisis thing had worked out in the end, but not before half the galaxy wanted to see my ass in a wringer. To this day, there are still a few alien jerks who think I was behind the whole conspiracy.

The Unity Stone Affair—as the media likes to call it—continues to shake things up even six months later, with arrests taking place across the Empire. Three-hundred-year-old organizations are crumbling, as guilty parties head for the hills—or the stars, in this case. From what I understand there’s a dozen or so warrants still outstanding for former members of the Linorean Foundation, with some of the more recent arrests taking place as far away as distant Earth. One would think that if you could get twenty thousand light-years away from Sylox you’d be safe from persecution. Well, that ain’t the case, not in this ever-shrinking galaxy. Either you end up on a member planet of the Union, or you take your chances on some savage ball of rock where the natives would just as soon eat you alive than give you the time of day.

But you get the idea.

Although I was officially cleared of any wrongdoing, some of the more vindictive Zorphin Enforcers still believe I was behind the theft of the Unity Stone. Fortunately, I still have a few friends in high places, and they’ve been running interference for me.  And of course the media loves me, so I make it a point to appear on every talk show and newscast I can to tell my side of the story. This has made it harder for the sore losers to make anything stick. After all, I’m a celebrity now, a big name, a somebody within the social strata of Sylox City. I’m—

********

“Jason. Jason King!”

I shook myself out of my musings and refocused on the group of people staring at me from around the closing table.

See what I mean? I get distracted.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the frustrated escrow agent. “I was just trying to work up a solution to the impasse.”

“I can’t see what can be done…short of postponing the closing,” said the buyer’s agent. His name was Donny Weir and he was a real asshole. He’d opened up a small realty office about four months ago, believing that he could siphon off some business away Galactic Realty and Relocation Services, what with all the trouble I was having at the time trying to stay out of jail. To his disappointment, I recovered nicely—as did my business—so all Donny ended up with were a few of my cast-offs, the jerks I didn’t want to work with in the first place.

“If we have to postpone the closing, then we have no deal,” I told Donny flatly. “The Hoover family is heading back to Earth later today. Either we close now or they’re going to rent the property.”

“But what about the baseboards and the fence?”

“You had your home inspection. You should have asked for the repairs at that time.”

“But the walk-through—”

“Is not the time to bring up new items,” I quickly countered.

“All we’re asking for is a little adjustment,” Donny pleaded. I could tell he was not only frustrated but embarrassed. He had assured his customers that he could force the concession out of my sellers. With them packed and ready to board the shuttle later that afternoon, he felt he had them—and me—over a barrel.

In reality, he did. The Hoovers had been trying to sell their home in the Sterling Bridge subdivision of the Enclaves for over six months, ever since transfer orders came in for their return to Earth. They’d bought the home only a year before, and in light of all the scandals hitting the Union these days, real estate prices on Sylox had softened. Now all their money was tied up in the house, and they really needed it to get a fresh start back on the mother-world.

Donny was asking for a five-thousand-dollar concession.

Yeah, I know, five grand isn’t that big a deal, not when you’re talking about a two million dollar property. And the Hoovers were still walking away with a little over five hundred thousand, which coincidently is right around the down payment they made when they purchased the home, so they weren’t losing any money on the deal.

But that’s not the point.

The point was not to let Donny win.

He was going up against the famous Jason King, broker-extraordinaire, and I couldn’t let some upstart get the best of me.

“So you’re willing to kill the deal over five thousand dollars?” There was disbelief—and panic—in Donny’s voice.

“Here’s the simple truth,” I began. “I’ll have the house sold again before my sellers reach Earth. Then we’ll do a remote closing and have the funds transferred in time for their next purchase. In the meantime, I’ll put a renter in their current property for ten grand a month. As you know, there’s a shortage of good executive accommodations at the Consulate Compound these days. I have people waiting in line for a furnished home like this, a place for them to crash for a few months while their new home is being built.”

Donny looked to his stone-faced buyers. Nick and Bobbi Russell had come to me first, but had been so demanding and unreasonable that I politely sent them on their way. In fact, I’m the one who recommended they go to Donny’s company. Through the grapevine, I’d heard he’d shown them over forty homes before they decided on the Hoover house. Even after all that, Donny had to cut his commission by a point just to make the numbers work.

And now it looked like he was about to give up another five-k.

“You told us you could get the repairs paid for,” Bobbi Russell said. She was a mean thing, thin-faced, steely-eyed and irascible. “We didn’t even notice these things until you pointed them out at the walk-through.”

“I was just doing my due-diligence.”

“Can they really cancel the contract?”

Donny knew the answer, but he looked to the escrow officer for support. Corrie Stout was thirty-two, tall, slender and hot. She was also very good at her job. “The walk-through is only to verify that the property is in the same general condition as when the buyers first looked at it, and that all negotiated repairs have been made.” She took a piece of paper from the stack in front of her. “Your buyers signed the repair release form. It’s not my place to advise your clients, but….” She let the unspoken threat linger.

Either they sign the docs, or they lose their deposit.

Sure, release of the funds would be subject to an EDO—an Escrow Disbursement Order—but that just meant no one could get their hands on the money anytime soon. And the Russell’s needed it more than my sellers—for a deposit on another home if this one didn’t go through.

Donny was screwed. He’d made a big deal out of the cracked baseboards and a loose section of fencing, hoping to play a little hardball at the closing table. Now he was about to strike out…and strike out swinging.

“We have nowhere else to go,” Bobbi stated, a slight warble in her voice and fire in her eyes. “We’ve given notice, and as Mr. King said, with the shortage of rental property in Sylox City, the new tenants are moving in three days from now. And we haven’t even been out looking for a place to rent—”

“Yeah, that’s because we thought we’d be moving into our new home by then,” Nick Russell added. This was not a man you wanted to cross. He was former military back on Earth and now worked with the security force at the Consulate. He was also one big muther.

It was time to go in for the kill.

“Tell you what, Donny,” I said with false compassion. “I’ll let my tile guy know about your situation. He’ll cut you a great deal on the baseboards. And my repair crew can make quick work of the fence. You’ve estimated the cost of the repairs to be around five thousand dollars; I could probably save you a thousand.”

While I make an extra grand or so by having my crews do the work.

“But I’ve already cut my commission.”

An embarrassed silence filled the room.

Donny Weir had just committed the most egregious of closing-table sins. Even rookie agents know you never whine about your commission at the closing. And for good reason. Most buyers are often in a state of shock with the amount of money needed to buy a home, while the sellers are never satisfied with what they’re netting from the sale. As a result, each party thinks they’re being screwed. Yet universally, everyone thinks the real estate agents are making way too much money on the deal. Period. End of story.

Besides that, the Russell’s could do the math. On a two million dollar sale, even a two percent commission is a lot of money. And Donny’s the broker, so it all goes into his pocket.

I locked eyes with my vanquished rival. While he glared at me, I just grinned. It was obvious he could read my mind: Put a fork in it, buddy, ’cause you’re done. Whip out that ol’ checkbook and let’s get this thing done.

********

Three hours later, I hugged a very appreciative Colleen Hoover and shook the hand of her husband, Blake. I even patted the heads of little Valerie and Saxon.  Then the family boarded the three o’clock shuttle for the space station. The jumpship would leave by midnight, taking them on a four-month journey back to Earth.

They had their half million in the bank.

And I had a check for sixty thousand dollars in my pocket.

All-in-all not a bad start to my week.

However, if I had any idea at the time how it would eventually turn out, I would have hitched a ride with the Hoover’s back to Earth right then and there. It would have saved me a hell of a lot of money, anguish...and the big toe on my left foot!

Yeah, hindsight can be a real bitch at times.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 2

Most adventures begin with some anonymous person waiting for you in your office. This one didn’t start out like that. I actually knew the guy waiting for me.

“No fricking way!”

The mischievous smile on the craggy face of my visitor was a sight for sore eyes. “Fricking?” the man said. “Have you gone all PC on me, lieutenant?”

“Just office decorum…dickhead.” The man stood from the chair and we engaged in one of those handshake-bump-shoulders kind of man-hugs. “I could have sworn I heard you were killed; something having to do with a bug-hunt working security on a Union mining planet.”

Xavier ‘Lefty’ Rodriquez rapped his left thigh with his knuckles, producing a hollow sound. “The damn thing chewed my leg off all the way to my left nut. I guess he’d never tasted Human before…and he liked it.”

“You okay?”

“I’m used to it by now, and the technology the aliens have has made me even better than I was before. In fact, I’m thinking about having the other one done. Oh, and about that bug? Me and the guys had him for dinner that night. Tasted just like chicken.”

“They never learn, do they? You don’t mess with the Humans!” I moved around my desk and sat down. “So what brings you to Sylox? Still working the security gig?”

“What else is there for people like us to do—except con your way into some cushy job hustling over-priced houses to a bunch of suckers?”

“Are you with the Consulate?”

“Nay, still working the private circuit.”

“And still no Mrs. Lefty?”

“Hell no! Been a few applicants, but no one could pass the physical.”

I laughed. “You remember that time in Kandahar—”

“Please, LT, let’s not even go there! It took the docs at the VA several months to cure me of that.”

I smiled at my old running buddy from our Army Ranger days. That was going back a ways, but the memories were always there, just waiting for any excuse to surface.

My business partner—Quint Valarie—was a really cool guy and former Army Ranger as well, but he hadn’t been in the same Special Forces unit as Lefty and me. Because of that he didn’t share the same war stories. Now the feeling of nostalgia was overwhelming. The dude had to stay for a while! I have no one else I can relate to.

“So again, what are you doing here? Passing through or will you be staying for a while?”

 “Could be a few days up to a couple of weeks,” Lefty answered. “Working security detail for some big-wig alien who’s here for one of those galaxy-shaking confabs.”

“The Third-Quadrant Survey Conference, no doubt,” I said. “It’s bringing in a lot of bug-eyed things from across the Union.”

“That’s it, I guess. He hired the firm I’m with to keep him from becoming target practice. Seems some of his rivals don’t like the direction he wants to take the conference.”

“The Third-Quadrant is the newest section of the galaxy being brought into the Union. It’s supposed to be overflowing with resources and everyone and their brother wants a piece of the action. Is your client from the region, or just looking to stake a claim?”

“He’s from there. That’s where we picked him up. You know, the damn place is clear on the other side of the Milky Way from Earth. You have any idea how big this fricking galaxy is?”

Lefty emphasized the word fricking for my benefit. Normally his language wasn’t so…restrained. At least that’s what I remember about him.

I had to think for a minute. Hell, it had been thirteen years since I saw him last, and except for a few—actually a lot—more wrinkles on his already crevassed face, he didn’t look any different. He still had the same head of closely cropped jet-black hair and a dark, swarthy complexion. There was also a tautness to his shirt that spoke of the rock-hard muscles contained within, the product of a lifetime of physical activity. The man was a trained killer, and the dark, confidant glint in his eyes was a warning to anyone who tried to cross him, be they alien or Human.

Of course, there’d been a time when I had that same glint in my baby-blues. Only now I use my killer instinct across a closing table, as evidenced by the wreck I’d made of Donny Weir earlier that day. Still, it wasn’t the same.

Even though I had a check for sixty grand in my pocket, that didn’t come close to how one feels after a successful military operation. There was nothing like returning to base and stowing your gear, all the while experiencing an almost physic bond with your comrades. It’s like being part of a sports team and sharing in the glory of an important win, thanks to a true team effort.

My real estate victories were more individual triumphs, internally realized. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I high-fived Quint after a closing. Maybe I should make that a new company-wide policy: High-fives after each closing.

Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll make a proclamation, a decree from on high. As my thoughts wandered, I couldn’t help but think: It’s good to the King. The Jason King, that is—

“Earth to Jason. Earth to Jason,” Lefty was saying. “Where’d you wander off to? On one of your ‘I’m-so-great-I-can’t-believe-it’ fantasies again? I see nothing ever changes.”

I laughed, more out of embarrassment than humor. Lefty could read me like a book, and it was scary that after all these years, I was still so transparent.

“Where you bunking?” I asked, changing the subject. “You’ve gotta stay with me. Not to brag or anything, but I’ve got one hell of a nice place.”

Lefty cocked his head to his right; leaning against the wall was a drab-green duffle bag I hadn’t noticed before. “I figured you’d offer. The rest of the team is stuffed into a couple rooms at the bug’s hotel. I’ve had my fill of foot odor and farts to last a life time. A room of my own would be preferred.”

“Excellent!”

“Hey, buddy, remember I gotta job to do. I can’t sit back and let my team do all the work…not like you can. We’ll get our time in, but don’t be mad if I bow out now and then.”

“Still play pool?”

The smirk on Lefty’s face told me all I needed to know. “Better than you, if I recall.”

“I’ve got a table at my house, so I’ve had a lot more time to practice. I hope they pay you well at that security company.”

“Not like you real estate con-artists, but I’ll be happy to take all the ill-gotten gains you’re willing to place on the table.”

“You’ve been warned,” I said, grinning. “Now, give me a minute to process this sixty thousand dollar check I just got and we’ll be on our way.”

“Sixty-thousand…for one deal?”

It was the reaction I was hoping to see from my old Army buddy. “What can I say? It was only a two million dollar house.”

“Well screw you, lieutenant, sir! That’s all I have to say about that…except dinner’s on you tonight!”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 3

It’s simply the nature of large, intergalactic empires—made up of thousands of different species of intelligent life—that someone was always getting pissed off at someone else. Although the Union kept a lid on most all-out wars, there were still plenty of skirmishes taking place across the galaxy to keep the news media ripe with stories to report on.

That’s why I knew of the small, regional war that had broken out recently within the Third-Quadrant. It seemed that several rival worlds each wanted to be the area’s primary representative to the Union, and were willing to arm-wrestle for the honor. The Quad—as the region was being called by the media—was a huge section of the galaxy, essentially a fourth of it, as the name would apply. Prior to petitioning for membership, there had been a dozen small empires spread across the region, with each being more-or-less of equal strength. A precarious balance existed, yet with the introduction of the Union into the mix that balance could be tipped in any number of directions. Therefore, alliances quickly formed, until two major factions now fought for supremacy of the Quad.

According to the news reports, the Union was opting to stay out of the conflict. Choosing sides this early in the game could prove disastrous, and without a dog in the race, they were content to wait and see who crossed the finish line first.

Lefty’s client was a creature named Enic Jor and he was president of the planet Annoc-Conn. The Conn controlled one of the rival alliances in the Quad, with their primary competition being the Suf-Dofinlops’brenns. Personally, I sided with the Conn, not because I knew anything about their politics, but simply because I could pronounce their name. Call me shallow, but since I’ve been out here in the galaxy, that was how I decided on most things. If I couldn’t pronounce it, I was usually let it go.

Now all the interested parties—not only from the Quad but from across the Union—were gathering on Sylox for the first real conference to determine the fate of the region. Winners and losers would be chosen, and it was a pretty good bet no one was going to leave the planet completely satisfied. This was just the beginning, and whether Enic Jor came out a winner or a loser, he was still a target for any number of would-be assassins, many of whom considered him just another alien and hardly worth a second thought before placing a plasma bolt between his wobbly bug-eyes.

The media was full of images of the Conn, and in this case the bug description fit them perfectly. They had football-size oblong heads, with two opposing eyes placed on three-inch-long stalks. Their bodies consisted of two segments, a smaller upper torso, and a larger lower one, with six legs for locomotion. They had two long, thin arms with standard looking hands—four fingers and an opposable thumb. I’d been told long ago that hands were often the determining factor whether or not a species rose to the top of the food chain, with five or six nimble digits being the guidepost. Apparently, it was hard to build sophisticated machinery using talons or claws.

The Conn were pretty smart, as well, having developed a form of star travel at about the same time as the Amelians. Yet unlike the founders of the Union, the Conn chose to remain within their relatively small neighborhood of the galaxy rather than branch out in an ever-widening sphere of influence. In fact, it had been other races within the Quad that first initiated the move toward Union membership, with the Conn going along for the ride. Being the predominant industrial power in the region, as well as having the strongest military, they were drafted into a leadership position ostensibly against their will.

Enic Jor had his own native security detail, yet once learning what was available through Union resources, his people decided that having a squad of Human warriors around couldn’t hurt. Already the creatures from Earth had developed quite a reputation across the galaxy as being some badass hombres, even if we were considered a joke from a technological standpoint.

In fact, the bulk of Humanity didn’t care much about developing technology anymore; it was just too easy to find work in the galaxy as builders, mercenaries, security guards…and most of all, entrepreneurs. This impacted just about every industry, and although we seldom built the product or provided the end service—except, of course, for our construction projects—we were exceptional middlemen and organizers. In fact, the galaxy had never seen anything like Humans before, so they were ill-prepared for what came next. I use the word gullible to describe the alien response to many of our more unorthodox business practices—unorthodox for them, anyway.

 Throughout the years I’d had my share of alien clients. When the Enclaves of Sylox had first been proposed, a stip had been written into the bylaws stating that at least ten percent of the homes had to be sold to aliens. To this day, I still cringe at how naive they are when it comes to negotiating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. As a matter of fact, whenever I pick up a new alien client, I usually go right out and place an order for a new car…or a starship.

And now the Quad was coming online, a place chock-full of gullible aliens.

Cha-Ching!

I operate the largest independent real estate, mortgage and property management company on Sylox—Galactic Realty and Relocation Services—and although we deal almost exclusively with Humans, I’ve been kicking around the idea of setting up an aliens-only branch operation. My Human clientele was limited, since the Consulate on Sylox only employed around twenty thousand of my blood-kin at any given time. That was still more than enough to keep my current business humming, but I was growing restless. There’s a lot more to the galaxy than just Humans, so getting to know Lefty’s client on a more personal basis might be a good idea. After all, it couldn’t hurt to know the president of a planet, let alone the potential leader of a quarter of the galaxy.

After dropping by my place and giving Lefty a jaw-dropping tour of my mansion-on-the-hill, I took us one of my favorite restaurants in the city, a place called Belgon’s Consumptionary. It was close to the Consulate Compound, and a while back I’d helped the owner modify his menu to a more Human-centric cuisine. His business increased four-fold after that as people from the Embassy flocked to his place. As a result, I always had a special table reserved, and I never had to pay for a meal.

I didn’t tell Lefty this—at least not about the free meals. I wanted him to think I was spending a small fortune on him, when in fact the bill would be shredded as soon as I left the premises. It always worked like this, especially when I was on a date with one of the hotties from the Embassy. Letting them believe I was spending the equivalent of four hundred dollars to wine and dine them often had a more beneficial effect on the date’s outcome than if they knew the meal was on the house.

“I’d like to meet your client,” I said to Lefty as we looked over the menu.

“Why?”

“I’m looking to open an office in the Quad and it wouldn’t hurt to know someone influential.”

Lefty laughed. “Dude, he may not live out the week.”

“I thought that’s what you’re supposed to guarantee?”

“Hey, we’re getting paid whether he lives or dies. We’ll do our best, but as you know, there are no guarantees in this line of work. If a person is dead set on killing someone else, it can be done, and in a variety of ways.”

“You didn’t tell your client that, did you?” I asked, smiling.

Lefty snorted. “I’m not that stupid. We negotiated for time and travel, but not results.”

“Still, can you arrange it?”

“I hardly know him, but I’ll see what I can do.” Lefty studied me with his dark eyes. “You’re always hustling, aren’t you, Jason? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this side of you before.”

“Yeah, I even surprise myself sometimes. After the damn aliens put an end to war back on Earth—knocking both of us out of a job—I didn’t know what I was going to do. Quint Valarie—you remember him—he got me my first job selling real estate. That’s when I discovered I had a knack for it.”

Lefty lifted his glass of high-class native wine in a toast. “Here’s to your knack, ol’ buddy! You’ve done quite well for yourself.”

“Speaking of that, if we get a chance I’d like to show you the starship I own. I call it the Enterprise.”

“Of course you would, nerd.”

And that’s when it started….







Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 4

Lefty’s phone rang; he answered it before the second ring. A cloud of concern came over his face. When he ended the call, he began to look anxiously around the room.

“Going to have to call it a night, Jason. Someone’s already taken a pot-shot at Enic. One of my guys bought it, along with four of his native security detail.”

“Sorry about your man,” I said. “Is Enic all right?”

“For now. My team has him on the move outside the hotel, looking for a place to stash him.” Lefty’s eyes suddenly focused on me.

I saw where this was headed and shook my head. “No way! It’s not secure.”

“There’s security to get into the Enclaves, and your house does offer a defensive location. Besides, what better way to get into Enic’s good graces?”

“While potentially risking my home—and my life—in the process.”

“C’mon, ol’ buddy, where’s your sense of adventure? And just think, you might also be able to wrangle some cash out of the old bug and his government. He’s paying big bucks to stay at the hotel…and look what that got him?”

“Like how much cash are we talking about?” Now my interest was piqued.

“He’s paying in excess of forty thousand a night—in equivalent currency—for his bank of rooms. Your place is plenty big enough to house them all.”

“Hey, let’s not go crazy,” I cautioned. “I’ll take in the president and your team, but I don’t want a whole colony of bugs infesting my place. I don’t think my termite bond would cover that.”

“So you’re okay with this?”

“For forty grand a night he can stay in my bed!”

Of course, afterwards I would replace the mattress and burn the sheets.

Lefty made the call to his team, and we left the restaurant with to-go boxes.

What could it hurt? And Lefty was right:  What better way to get an edge on the competition than having the president of Annoc-Conn forever in my debt?

Boy, am I just lucky at business…or am I really that good? I tend to believe I’m really that good.

********

I called ahead to the main gate of the Enclaves to allow the caravan of vehicles transporting the president to enter. They still had to get through the gate to my estate, but I would only be a few minutes behind.

My house was one of the most magnificent in the Enclaves. I had it under contract a year ago with Undersecretary Mark Wilson, but that deal fell apart when it was discovered he was one of the main conspirators in the whole Unity Stone Affair. He was now back on Earth, cooling his heels in a maximum security prison in California. His wife left him and returned to Earth as well, absent the orange prison outfit, of course.

With the home back on the market, and I went ahead and bit the bullet. Now I was the proud owner—mortgaged, of course—of a six thousand square-foot, seven-bedroom, nine-bath home with the most incredible backyard you’ve ever seen. The house was built to impress, and people of a lot higher rank and social status than my old Army buddy. And now it would play host to an alien, who by some estimates was the titular head of over nineteen trillion—that’s right, trillion—beings across his region of the Quad.

Yet as impressive my plan was, I had no idea how compatible my house would be to the alien. After all, Enic Jor was a bug. Would he even cast a second glance at all the wonderful Human amenities my place had to offer? As a matter of fact, would he even sleep in my bed if offered? Hell, he may dig a hole in the backyard and crawl into it at night. I had no information on the sleeping habits of the Conn.

And then I cringed at the idea of Enic using my bathroom, with the images I tried to purge from my mind being disgusting, even for me.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all….

********

There were nine vehicles cluttering the road outside my house when Lefty and I arrived. The eight remaining members of the Human security detail had stationed themselves up and down the street, alert to any approaching cars. A gathering of angry neighbors had already formed. I used the remote control in my car to open the gate, and the entourage entered, clearing the street in a matter of seconds.

I waved at my neighbors and cast them a shit-eating grin. They didn’t wave back.

The front door was also activated by remote control, so the president was already in the house by the time I parked. My phone was ringing as I approached the open front door.

“Jason, what the hell is going on at your house? I’m getting a boatload of calls about something big going on.”

It was the president of homeowner’s association on the phone. Stephen Arseneault and I were pretty close friends—or at least we had been until now. I quickly explained what was happening.

“Dammit, Jason, I’m sure there has to be something in the CC&R’s about hosting targets of intergalactic terrorism within the subdivision. If not, then there should be. You know if anything happens there could be some serious collateral damage.”

“Relax, Stephen. It’s only for a day or so, until new accommodations can be found for the president. Besides, there’s a squad of Human security guards onsite, as well as some of Conn natives who’ll be staying in the pool house.” I wasn’t sure about that last part, not after speculating about the bugs possibly being dirt-dwellers. Either way, at forty grand a night, I could afford to replace a little sod here and there.

“The Enclaves weren’t built to keep out terrorists and assassins,” Stephen pointed out. “And what about air assaults? Hell, the assassins themselves may be able to fly. Have you seen those things called Litamores? They look like big-ass angels.”

“I’ve heard of them, but I’m pretty sure angels aren’t gunning for the Annoc-Conn president. An old Army buddy of mine is in charge of the security detail. He’s more than capable of keeping the bad guys—or things—from causing trouble in the neighborhood.”

“Like they did at the hotel?”

“That was a more public venue. Trust me, Stephen, everything will be fine.”

“It had better, otherwise it will both our asses. Now I’ve gotta go. I’ve already had four new calls come in since I’ve been talking to you.”

And then he was gone, and I was in my house, standing face-to—beak—with Enic Jor.

“I believe you are addressed as Mister King,” said the alien. The voice I heard came from the translation device embedded behind my left ear, which tapped into a database of literally millions of languages spoken across the Union. My words would be instantly converted to Enic’s language as well. The translation would be seamless, unless you counted the unsynchronized movement of lips, beaks, flaps, or whatever else was used to promote speech.

The alien was also smaller than I’d imagined, standing only about five feet tall, yet with his larger lower torso, his body did tend to spread out behind him more than the typical Human—or at least more than some Humans.

“Yes, Mister President, but you can call me Jason. Welcome to my home. I know it’s a different design than you’re accustomed, but I hope it will fit your needs.”

The alien swiveled his head around, his opposing eyes looking off in different directions at the same time. I wondered what the hell he was seeing and how the images were being processed in his brain?

“These are very nice accommodations, Jason. They will serve nicely. Although our physical bodies may appear to be radically different, I assure you the form of the chambers and the format of your furniture is very similar to Conn standards. You may find, however, that I will curl up on your seating platforms, rather than dangle my legs over the side, as I’ve observed Humans doing on occasion.”

“Perfectly acceptable Mister President.”

“And please address me as Enic. Titles are for official gatherings, not for everyday interactions.”

I smiled at the alien; I was actually beginning to like him, or about as much as any Human could like a talking, purple, bug-like thing.

I had to fight back a laugh; he was probably thinking the same thing about me.

“So who do you think attacked you?” I asked, not knowing if the subject was taboo or not. As a former Army Ranger, it was always a good idea to know who your enemy was.

“It could have been one of a dozen groups within the Janis Swath—the area you call the Third-Quadrant. I tried to warn others that the transition to members of the Union would not be a peaceful one. I saw the conflicts coming long before this. Yet your officials have a way of asking for a lot while promising even more in return. Many occupants of the Swath—the Quadrant—have fallen sway to the lure of great wealth and power.”

“Humans are also relative newcomers to the Union,” I said. “In fact, the whole galactic empire thing was a real shock to us. We hadn’t even developed star travel at the time we were contacted.”

Enic cocked his head in an almost Human-like display of confusion. “I was not aware that was allowed? I have read the guidelines prescribed for membership quite extensively. They are very specific.”

“I know, but an exception was made in our case. I don’t know why, but it was.”

Enic looked to where Lefty stood at my side. “Perhaps it is your skill at warfare that the Union values most.”

“Could be,” I said, “but so far Humans haven’t been involved in any of the conflicts taking place within the Union. Hell, there haven’t been any real wars to speak of.”

“Until now,” said Enic.

“I’m sure that will be resolved soon enough, perhaps even through this conference.”

“You may be correct, Jason, although it is not getting off to a very promising start.”

“Don’t let the bad guys get the best of you, Mister President. Disrupting the conference is their goal, trying to make themselves look bigger and more important than they really are. I’m sure this has very little to do with you personally.”

“Perhaps you have missed your calling, Jason. You seem to have a natural affinity for politics. What is it you do as a life-skill?”

“I deal in what we call real estate—land and homes. I help people buy and sell housing units, such as the one we’re in.”

“Ah, then you are skilled at politics…and at manipulation.”

I continue to smile at the big purple bug, not sure if I’d just been insulted or not. “As are we both, Enic.” I bowed. If being a good manipulator was a bad thing in Conn culture, I’d just thrown it back in the alien’s face—or whatever you call that oblong thing on top of his body.

Regardless, I was going to pull Lefty aside as soon as possible and get him to broach the subject of my compensation. The HOA president was right: There were no guarantees of Enic’s safety at my house, and I may need the money for repairs should his enemies prove to be more determined and resourceful.

All in all, the next couple of days were going to be…well, the word was still a mystery.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 5

A gaggle of Conn came into the house a few moments later and set up a complicated communications station in my living room. After talking with Lefty about getting paid, I wandered past the room and overheard Enic speaking with Kinness-Gok-Mor, the president of the Union. I could hear Kinness reassuring him that such behavior was not to be tolerated within Union territory. The empire was relatively peaceful, and the conflict within the Quad would not be allowed to spread to other regions. He was going on the broadcasts in a few minutes to make just that point, and that any race found responsible for promoting such aggression would be forever barred from entry into the Union.

I knew Kinness in passing. We’d been at several social functions together, before and after he became president. He was a native of Sylox—a Zorphin—and as such had weathered the shitstorm surrounding the complicity of several of his species in the Unity Stone Affair. One of my closest alien friends had been a mastermind of the conspiracy, which from his vantage point was designed to gain independence for Sylox after its forced annexation to become the new capital of the Union. Even with all the prosperity, power and fame the distinction provided, there was still a faction of natives who wanted their old world and old ways back again.

Kinness had a hell of time convincing others that he was not part of the movement, barely surviving a recall election in the process. And now an attack on a VIP within the capital would not look good on his resume. That was why he was making a point of zero tolerance for such things—not in his Union, not on his planet.

********

These proclamations and precautions all sounded good….

Right up to the point when the first drone-delivered missile struck my house.

The HOA president had been accurate with his prediction. The attack came from the air, and shattered the front left side of my home. Enic, Lefty and I were in the kitchen at the time, so we survived, yet two more of Lefty’s men didn’t, along with three of the Conn security force.

With my ears ringing and smoke burning my eyes, I fought through the thick haze filling my home to take Enic my one of his spindly arms and guide him to my safe room, while Lefty and two of his men forming a screen around us. Most homes of this caliber had safe rooms, especially when built on an alien planet. The Human owners insisted on it.

Mine was much more than simply a room. It was bank of three small chambers buried forty feet below the house and lined with four-inch-thick alien composite material as hard as diamond. I had supplies down there to last a month, although I had no idea what Enic would find edible.

With the president’s status—and the whole galaxy watching—I was sure we’d only be down here for a couple of hours before the entire Union army would be swarming all over the place. Even so, I slumped in a chair off by myself, feeling about as depressed as possible. A quarter of my home was in ruins and would have to be rebuilt, and at most I could only squeeze one day’s rent out of Enic. That wouldn’t even cover the cost of the furniture.

When I heard the second explosion from above, I nearly threw up. I had a lot of very expensive things up there, not to mention all the life-long mementos and documents. Luckily, the really important papers were in my wall safe. But what good did that do when the whole wall was demolished? I was also pretty sure my homeowners insurance didn’t cover acts of terrorism. Maybe it did. Of course, the policy was in my wall safe….

Sensing my mood, Enic scurried up to me. “I’m terribly sorry for the fortunes that have befallen your home, Jason. Please be assured that I will see to it that my government covers the expense of any necessary repairs.”

I fought the urge to jump from the chair and dance a jig. Although this was the best news ever, I didn’t want Enic to see my relief. Instead, I wanted him in my debt. I thanked him while remaining morose. He needed to feel guilty, responsible. It would pay dividends when I came asking for his personal endorsement of the realty company I was going to open in the Quad.

Just then a sour thought crossed my mind: With how determined his enemies appeared to be, there was a very good chance Enic Jor wouldn’t live long enough for me to call in the favor.

That sucked.

********

It was worse than I imagined.

My once magnificent home was in ruins, and all the furniture, pictures, mementos, clothing and more were nothing but smoldering heaps of black soot.

We remained in my safe room for three hours, until the fire crews extinguished the flames and Union forces secured the area. If my neighbors were pissed before, they were absolutely livid now. Houses on both sides of mine suffered superficial damage, even though the lots were an acre in size. Wind-blown embers set Hank’s house on fire, although it had been quickly contained. The Chapman’s weren’t so lucky. Their house was hit with a fragment from the second explosion and a section of roof collapsed, giving their nine-year-old daughter Amy a slight head injury. Her parents didn’t see the injury as slight and they had to be restrained by Union guards when I surfaced from the safe room. David Chapman was ready to tear my throat out.

Stephen Arsenault was granted access to my property, and told me in no uncertain terms that our friendship was over. He’d reassured all the neighbors that there was no danger in what I was doing. Now he had egg on his face.

At that point I nearly lost it. My entire home—everything that was me—was in ruins, and Stephen was more concerned with his status as the head of a rinky-dink homeowner’s association than he was about me. To his credit, he recognized the killer glint in my eyes and backed off. I was in no mood to apologize, not to anyone.

The only person offering any condolences was the alien Enic Jor. He showered me with apologies and was sick with remorse for my loss. He joined Lefty and me in a military transport vehicle for the trip to the Union security compound, while the three surviving Humans from Lefty’s security detail took a second vehicle. None of the Conn guards survived.

“As I said before, you will have all the resources necessary to either rebuild or purchase anew,” the alien said with conviction.

“I appreciate that, Enic, but right now I’m in shock over the loss of all my personal belongings. I never thought they meant that much to me, but damn, I was wrong.” This time, my moroseness was sincere. Little things, like yearbooks, pictures from my Army days, my discharge papers—even my souvenir first commission check—were all gone. Now as the car wound its way through the manicured lanes of the Enclaves, heading for the main highway into Sylox City, my mind was filled with even more once-trivial items I would miss and could never get back. They were the accumulation of a lifetime, a composite of who I am.

Sure, I could replace the house, but my home was lost forever.

I turned manic eyes on Enic. “I told you before that these attempts on your life weren’t personal, well I’m going to amend that. They aren’t personal for you, but they are to me. I need to know who these bastards are who just destroyed my home.”

“As I told you, it could be one a dozen subgroups.”

“But one of them is more determined than the others. Who’s that?”

“The Suf-D’s are fully invested in becoming the leaders of the Quad. They will do what they must to make sure I don’t secure that honor for the Janis Coalition, the group I represent.”

Lefty leaned forward. “But killing one creature would hardly change the outcome. In fact, it may garner more sympathy for your side.”

It was impossible to read Enic’s bug expression, especially with his wobbly eyes. But I sensed something deceptive in the way they both shifted to look out the window. He didn’t speak for several seconds.

“What is it you’re not telling us?” I growled at the alien. Decorum was gone. All I wanted were answers.

The weird eyes looked back at me and Lefty, one assigned to each of us. “This is information that must remain confidential, although a fair amount of it will become public very soon. As you know, not all the activities of the conference are made public. In fact, most of the observable events and speeches are for show only, while the real work is done behind the scenes.” I was startled when Enic’s eyes suddenly switched targets, and for no apparent reason. The movement caught me off guard.

He continued: “There are negotiations already underway that will guarantee the supremacy of the Coalition in the struggle for the Quad. The Suf-D’s are not happy about this.”

I could see Lefty’s muscles flexing under his shirt, tense beyond belief. He wasn’t the one who had just lost everything, but he was acting like it. That was a loyal friend.

 “I say again, how can killing one creature stop that?”

“That is because I am the key to what the Coalition is offering in order to guarantee our success at the conference.”

“Offering?” Lefty asked. “You have something to give to the Union?”

The edges of Enic’s beak curled up; I didn’t know they could do that.

“Some would call it a bribe, we call it an incentive. Yet in the long term it will be safest for all parties concerned.”

I shook my head. “Now I’m confused. What is it you’re offering…as an incentive?”

“Have you ever heard of the Galactic Lights?”

I was taken aback. Of course I’d heard of the Galactic Lights, just like I’d heard of Klyigon’s Horde and Sinic—The Diamond Planet, along with Blackbeard’s treasure and El Dorado back on Earth. Once you started making your rounds throughout the galaxy, you picked up literally dozens of rumors, legends and old wives’ tales about mythical treasures and lost planets. The Galactic Lights was one of them.

“What about them?” Lefty asked.

“I’m offering the Lights to the Union for a favorable outcome at the conference.”

“You’re saying they’re real?” Lefty’s mouth fell slack. “No way, they’re just a myth.”

“I assure you, Mister Rodriquez, the Lights are real.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“Indeed. I hold the distinction as being the current Keeper of the Light. Members of my organization have been their guardians for a thousand years.”

“Wait a minute,” I blabbered. “The Lights can’t exist. I’ve read stories about how they go against all the laws of physics and nature and every other kind of law you can think of.”

Enic didn’t respond. He just stared at me with one of his eye stalks while continuing to wear that silly grin.

Something in the alien’s confident manner set my heart racing. “They’re real?” I whispered.

“If they are not, that I am the Keeper of…nothing.”

Lefty fell back in the seat. “It can’t be. If the Lights are real, then they would be…be—”

“Impossibly rare and incredibly dangerous,” Enic finished for him. “That is why we have decided to relinquish control of them to the Union. We gain in status, while the Lights are placed in safekeeping away from our rivals operating within the Janis Swath.”

“What makes you think they’ll be safe with the Union?” I asked sarcastically. “There’s plenty of turmoil taking place right here, just like everywhere. Are you saying they aren’t safe now?”

“That’s very astute of you, Jason. With the conflict raging in the Quad—and the perceived power and influence to the victor—the Lights have become endangered. I may be the Keeper, yet I am not the only creature who knows of their existence. There is a desperate effort underway to keep me from completing my task.”

“You have the Lights with you, here on Sylox?” Lefty’s voice trembled.

“Of course not, Mister Rodriquez.” I noticed a visible slump in Lefty’s shoulders. “They are safe for the time being. Once negotiations are complete, I will arrange for their transfer—if they remain in my possession at that time.”

“Is it that critical?” I asked.

“Where the Lights are now stored is at the center of the heaviest fighting in the Quad. I believe this is not by accident. Opposing forces may be closing in, and I must say there are others—even within my own Coalition—who do not wish me to succeed. They do not trust the Union.”

“I don’t blame them.” I had my own reasons for not trusting the Union. “And that’s why someone destroyed my house, because of this mythical treasure?”

“The Galactic Lights are hardly a myth, and only I know their exact location. Without me, they would not be given to the Union, and the opposing forces would have more time to locate the treasure for themselves.”

Lefty’s brow furrowed. “You said the heaviest fighting is taking place near where the Lights are hidden. So they’re not on Annoc-Conn?”

“That much I can confirm, however, that is all I will say. Mister King, you asked why I am being targeted? Now you know. I hope this information provides you with at least a little understanding as to why your home was destroyed.”

“Understanding, sure, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to rip the spine out of every last one of the bastards who did it.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 6

I’d been to the huge central security building in Sylox City only once before, after I was arrested for stealing the Unity Stone. Now I was being hustled through a guarded entrance and pressed into a cold elevator before moving to a bank of small holding rooms several stories below street level. Enic couldn’t stay here long, certainly not for the duration of the conference. That would appear to be providing favoritism to the Annoc-Conn, even in light of the attempts on the president’s life. But he would stay here until new accommodations could be found. Considering the events surrounding his last two residences that task might prove problematic.

For my part, I wouldn’t be offered any special treatment since I hadn’t been the primary target. I was termed collateral damage, along with my house. After a debriefing, I would be released and dumped out on the curb to fend for myself.

Fortunately, I wasn’t poor. My house may be gone but my bank account was still intact. Quint would be along to take me to one of the more luxurious hotels in the city. The only drawback was I had no idea how long I would have to stay. I knew of three vacant and furnished houses my property management division had for rent. I could crash in one of them for a while, maybe even committing to something long-term, at least until Enic made good on his promise to cover my loss. Then I would have a whole household of furniture to replace, all the way down to the silverware and hand towels. I wasn’t looking forward to that. I hate shopping.

Lefty was Enic’s shadow, something the alien authorized and encouraged. He had lost six of his ten-man unit in just over a day since arriving on Sylox, and guarding the president was now a matter of principle for my old Army buddy. From the stern looks on the faces of his surviving team members, they also shared his determination.

I was in a room with Lefty and Enic when Union president Kinness-Mok-Gor strode in. In reality, he hopped in. The natives of Sylox looked something like kangaroos, only with flatter faces and reverse knee joints. He glared at me as he came in. He may not have been part of the Unity Stone conspiracy, but I got the distinct impression he would not have been sorry if the coup had succeeded. Even though he was the current president of the Galactic Union, I felt he preferred to have his homeworld back and run by Zorphins, instead of a coalition of a hundred different powerful races.

He looked at the short purple bug. “Are you undamaged?”

“Yes, I am quite well. I have my Humans friends to thank for that.”

Kinness shook his head. “They placed you in an indefensible location. You should have come to us sooner. We could have placed you in a bunker.”

“How can I do my job from the confines of a bunker, Mon President? Eventually I will have to journey to the conference and engage in meetings. That is why I am here.”

“Then we will provide escort.” He looked at Lefty. “I understand your Human mercenaries are now few in number. What will you do to replace them, Mon Rodriquez?”

“We’ll manage.”

Kinness continued to shake his head. “Silly names, these Humans have. In any event, I will not allow a visiting dignitary to be assassinated, not while I am President of the Union.”

He turned to me. “Mon King, you seem to have a propensity for involving yourself in affairs of state. I would appreciate it if you do not spread details of these recent events, at least not until the conference concludes. The Third-Quadrant is the largest single addition ever made to the Union at one time. It is of major importance to the Union and to the galaxy as a whole. Please do not interfere with the proceedings.”

“Me, interfere?” I could feel my face turning red. “Let me remind you, Mon President, it was my house that just got blown to bits. I didn’t start this, but now I’m curious in finding out who did. Aren’t your people going to investigate?”

“Of course we will, as will the Annoc-Conn. Yet you are a civilian. You have no authority to investigate or to be a part of any such inquiry. However, if you wish, we will inform you of any findings at the conclusion of the investigation.”

I turned to Lefty. “Mister Rodriquez, I understand you may be hiring. Looks like some positions just opened up on your team.”

Lefty gave me a sad smile. “Relax, buddy. Normally I’d jump at the chance, but I need men dedicated to protecting the president, not out for revenge.”

I couldn’t believe it. Lefty wasn’t going to make me part of his team! The red glow of my face and the firm set of my jaw must have made an impression on him, because he quickly amended his statement.

“Don’t get me wrong, Jason, you can certainly come on as an advisor. You know Sylox better than I do. But I can’t have you risking your life to protect Enic, not like the rest of us. I wouldn’t feel right if something happened to you, at least anything more….”

I turned to Kinness. “Looks like I now have the authority to be part of the investigation.”

The Union president turned to Enic. “Are you approving of this?”

“I sense some animosity between you and Mon King, yet I find him to be delightful. I would welcome his addition to my security team.”

“What about your home and land business?” Kinness asked me.

“Quint can handle things, he usually does—”

“Yes, when you engage in one of your all too-frequent and quasi-legal escapades.”

I bit my bottom lip. Kinness was beginning to irritate me. “Look, the same people who are out to assassinate the president are the same ones who destroyed my home. We may approach the problem from different perspectives, but if they’re found and stopped, then the end result benefits everyone.”



Kinness waved his short kangaroo arms. “I capitulate. Enic, do as you please, but I must warn you, Jason King is not what he appears to be.”

“That is what I am counting on.”

I smiled up at Kinness, flashing two full rows of pearly white teeth. He always hated when I did that. To Zorphin, toothy smiles were a threat, something harkening back to pre-historic days. In a way, it was a threat.

Stay out of my way…or suffer the consequences, be you Union president or not.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 7

I took a room at the Sylox City Marriott; that’s right, even hospitality companies were moving in and setting up shop on the planet, as well as throughout the rest of the Union. They catered to the Human population, as well as those aliens built most like us. Truly exotic types had their own places. Out of curiosity, I’d been in a couple of them, and I tell I left with more questions than answers. Some rooms had leather straps hanging from the ceiling and smelly holes in the floor. Hey…whatever works, right?

Since all three of my cars had been destroyed in the attack, I got a rental the next day and drove out to the remains of my house. There wasn’t much left. After the two missiles hit, there was enough residual fire to consume most of what wasn’t initially blown apart.

A couple of Zorphin investigators were on the scene, and after showing my ID, I was allowed to sift through the debris. If there was a silver-lining to the whole affair, it’s that I’d only moved in two months ago and hadn’t had a chance to establish a bond with the property. Besides, in my line of work houses are commodities; I seldom became attached to them. Also, most of my business records and other truly important papers were at my office. I did manage to find the wall safe, and in a testament to the manufacturer, it survived, although the wall that had held it was just a smelly, smoky pile of soggy ash and soot.

I knelt down and fingered the combination to the safe. Inside were my insurance papers, along with fifty grand in Union currency. That would come in handy—hell, every dime would from here on out.

In the cool of the morning, as my clothes took on the stench of burning dreams, I read through my homeowner’s policy. In all my years of doing real estate, I couldn’t recall ever reading one all the way through. It was just one of those official documents you couldn’t change even if you wanted to. But there it was, plain as day: No replacement coverage for deliberate acts of destruction, such as arson, terrorism or war. Only natural disasters and accidents were covered. My mortgage would be paid, but that was it.

The furniture was rented, so that was no great loss. Since it was far too expensive to ship bulky pieces in from Earth, most builders factored in basic furnishings in the price of the home, if needed. This didn’t include kitchenware, towels, linens and the like. Add to that, all my clothes were gone, as well as a lot of personal items that I’d accumulated over the years, souvenirs from the dozen or so worlds I’d visited.

I’d sold my other home and put a hefty four million down on the new one. That, too, was gone.

Now it became imperative that Enic Jor survive, at least long enough to make good on his promise to rebuild my house.

There was still a considerable amount of lingering smoke rising up from the debris, so when I saw the figure standing before me, I couldn’t tell if it was an illusion or the real thing. I stood, reached out a hand, and pinched her cheek.

“Ow!” the woman cried out, placing a gloved hand against her face and frowning. “Is that how you greet someone where you come from?”

I blinked several times, both to clear the smoke from my eyes, as well as to make sure this wasn’t some dreamy apparition, a product of my depression and lack of sleep. As a light morning breeze cleared the air between us, it became obvious this was the real thing.

The woman was gorgeous. She was about five-three, with long locks of flowing, sun-radiant blonde hair, and a compact, athletic body, all wrapped in a light gray pantsuit and blazer. Her lips were full and her eyes almost a hypnotic gray-blue. She had a small yellow case on the ground beside her and a pair of white surgical gloves on her hands.

“That’s right, Mister King, I am a Human female. You act like you’ve never seen one before.”

“Oh, I’ve seen them before…just not one as—”

“Save the charm,” the woman said, cutting me off. “I’m Angela Cole, from the Consulate Office of Investigations.”

“You are? I’ve never seen you before,” I stammered. “I would have remembered.”

“I’m new…and all business.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“Two-fold.” Her voice was clear and confident, with just the right amount of high-end range and Southern accent that made men go crazy. “With you being a Human, the Consulate has a duty to investigate such events as happened here last night. In addition, we’re assisting the locals in the attempted assassination of a visiting dignitary. I’m here with the Zorphin team.”

I reached out a hand. We shook without her removing the glove. So it was going to be like that—sterile.

“Sorry about the…well you know. I wasn’t expecting to see any Humans on site today. In fact, I don’t know what I was expecting. This has all been pretty traumatic.”

I was feeling depressed, but it never hurt to look even more hurt when in the company of a beautiful woman. They had this whole nurturing thing going on, and looking at this incredible creature before me, I could really use some nurturing right about now.

I noticed her face soften. It was working. Now what did she say her name was…Angie or Angela, something like that?

“What are you looking for?” I asked. “The house was hit by a couple of missile-carrying drones.”

Whatshername bent down, revealing shapely calfs and a hint of smooth, tanned thighs. She took an eight-inch-long probe and passed the end through a charred piece of plastic. She stood, presenting the object for my observation.

“This is what I’m looking for.” she said. “It’s part of the flight controller for a weaponized drone.”

“Looks pretty mangled.”

She brought the object close to her beautiful eyes. “That it is, but we’ll still be able to ID the brand, and from there, the type of drone it’s used in. Then we’ll check purchase records.” She placed the blackened object in a plastic pouch with a red Evidence label printed across the top.  “We’re just beginning the investigation. There will be more to find.”

“I’m part of President Jor’s advisory team, so anything you come up with, I’d like to know about it.”

The woman looked at me with suspicion. “I’ll check on that,” she said as she turned away.

I couldn’t let the moment pass. “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“It’s Off-Limits, Mister King. I’m sure that’s a name you’ll remember.”

Then she walked off into the smoke and rubble…and straight into my heart.

Corny, I know, but I was smitten.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 8

I left the ruins of my house and drove to a mall in the Enclaves to pick up a change of clothes; everything I had before was gone. Then I went to my office, where I received a less-than-warm welcome.

“Damn, you smell like rotten smoke,” said Quinton Valarie, my friend and business partner.

Rotten smoke? What’s that?”

“Well it’s not that sweet smelling, campfire-in-the-woods kind of smell, but more like burning rubber.”

“I’ve been out to my house.”

“That’s obvious.” Quint turned serious. “Sorry about what happened. That was pretty screwed up.”

“I’ll survive.”

Quint gave me a knowing smile…but he also shut the door to my office when he left. He didn’t want the stink infesting the rest of the office any more than it already had.

I logged onto my computer and looked up the Galactic Lights. I was anxious to learn more of these mysterious objects, now that I knew they were real. The reading was fascinating, if mostly over my head scientifically.

Apparently, when a supermassive star goes nova, it first expands and then contracts before letting loose with the gigantic explosion we’re all familiar with. When the star collapses in on itself, it creates an incredible amount of gravity that fuses elements together to create even more complex structures. This is how an object made primarily of hydrogen and helium can cook up all the other stuff on the periodic chart of elements. The old saying that we’re all made of stardust is true. All the heavier elements in the universe were created in supernova explosions, and then reformed to make more stars, planets…and people.

According to theory, very few stars collapse to a single point and with equal force on all sides. This is exceedingly rare, yet it does happen—according to legend. At this point the gravity is so uniform and so intense that a new element is formed, one that’s not even listed on the periodic table. It’s a type of crystal, and what it does is trap a minute amount of the star’s inner core—its last flash of energy—within a unique crystalline container. The finished product isn’t any larger than a softball, but perfectly round and opaque. From inside the crystal, an ever-changing lightshow takes place, supposedly making the Lights something to behold.

Yet like every good legend, they also had a dark side. According to the stories, if a Light was to be ruptured, it would release the remaining energy from the supernova, and although it contained only a miniscule fraction of the overall power of the event, it would still be enough to destroy a planet. So something the size of a softball could destroy a world.

That was some dark side.

The legend also spoke of there being only five Galactic Lights, possibly created from the original stars that formed the Milky Way galaxy. They were rumored to be located anywhere and everywhere, guarded by trolls that size of houses or leprechaun-like beings who hid them in underground burrows. The bottom line: no one knew where they were or even if they were real. Scientists debunked the existence of the Lights as being impossible, yet through the centuries the legend survived.

Now I was supposed to believe the word of a purple bug with an engaging personality that they were real, in fact real enough to get him killed. I would need a little more proof before I gave in fully to Enic Jor’s story.

By now people were passing the glass wall of my office and looking in, scowling and pinching their noses. I figured it was time to go back to my hotel room and change clothes. Then I would track down Enic and Lefty. I had a ton of questions for the alien.

********

On the way to the hotel I called an old friend. I had another mystery to solve.

“Cyrus Blake,” the man answered. His image showed up on the tiny smartphone screen.

“Hey Cyrus, it’s Jason.”

His eyes grew wide. “Sorry, about your house. I heard the explosions from my place; Jackie thought it was thunder. I knew better.”

Cyrus was the CIA Head-of-Station at the Consulate, which made him the top spook among all the Humans on Sylox. I’d known him for years, even sold him his house in Enclaves. He’d caught some heat for helping me during the Unity Stone Affair, but was vindicated when the facts came out in the end. He’d been relieved of his post temporarily, but now he was back doing whatever CIA guys did at the capital of the galaxy.

“Thanks, buddy,” I said. Then I snorted. “That’s what I get for being a Good Samaritan. But the reason I’m calling is I ran into a lady at my house this morning. She works for the Consulate Investigative Service. I figure with all your contacts you might have heard of her.”

“Knowing you, that has to be Angela Cole.”

“That’s it!” I exclaimed. “I couldn’t remember her name. Thanks.”

“Distracted, were you?”

“You could say that.”

“Yeah, she’s making quite an impression over here.”

“So…give me some vitals: Married? Attached…I guess that’s all I really need to know, except her name, of course.”

“Down boy,” said Cyrus, smiling. “She unmarried, but also very dedicated to her job. She came to Sylox about two months ago after assignments at a couple of off-world embassies and a stint with the FBI back on Earth. About every swinging dick over here has been hitting on her, but from what I understand, she’s shut ‘em all down.”

“So…she’s available?”

“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you? Of course, you are the famous Jason King, and nothing is beyond your reach, right?”

“You’ve got me all wrong, Mister Blake. I’m an ambassador of goodwill and support for all the newbies coming to Sylox. I would be shirking my responsibilities if I didn’t offer her access to my wealth of knowledge concerning the capital city and all it has to offer. It’s just part of the service we provide at Galactic Realty and Relocation.”

Cyrus laughed. “You would think that with your house getting blown to bits last night that you’d have other things on your mind than another notch in your headboard.”

“A man has to have his priorities. Where’s she staying?”

“Sorry, buddy, I haven’t keep track of the lovely Ms. Cole. Remember, I’m a happily married man, with two kids and a house in the suburbs.”

“Angela Cole,” I recited in a sing-song voice. “It’s a start. And the fact that she’s investigating the attack on my home means we’re destined to meet again.”

“Heaven help us all. As I recall, the last time you went head-over-heels for a woman it nearly started a galactic war and almost collapsed the Union.”

I laughed. “I’ve learned my lesson, Cyrus. Now I do my due diligence before I leap.”

“Yeah, right. The extent of your due diligence is whether or not she’s breathing, single, and…well that’s about it. Good luck, Jason. You’re going to need it with this one.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 9

After showering and changing clothes at the Marriott, I drove to the huge conference center on the outskirts of Sylox City. Security was everywhere, and it took me an hour to get through three checkpoints and half dozen calls before I was allowed into the ready room of the Annoc-Conn president.

My friend Lefty Rodriquez was there, and to my delight, so was the new love of my life, Angela Cole.

“Miss Cole, we have to stop meeting like,” I said, shaking her hand, this time sans glove.

“At last, something we can both agree upon.”

I caught Lefty’s eye; he was grinning from ear to ear, but still managed to send me a wink.

“The two of you have met?” Enic asked, studying the dynamic between Angela and me.

“This morning at my house,” I said. “Are you here with news for my good friend, President Jor?”

With a shrug, Angela turned her attention to the president. “Yessir, we have some information to relay. Do you wish me to continue, or would you rather hear it in private?”

The corners of the bug’s beak curled up. “It is quite all right to speak in front of Mister King. If it were not for his hospitality—and sacrifice—I would not be here to receive your briefing.”

With a sigh of resignation, Angela began. “Fragments found at the scene of both the drones and the missile components allowed us to identify the manufactures and the purchase records for the devices. An hour ago, a joint task force of Union, Annoc-Conn and Human personnel raided a warehouse complex in downtown Sylox City. After a brief firefight, we managed to capture two of the terrorists, along with a variety of computer pads and more. The data is being extracted as we speak, yet we’ve been able to identify the group responsible.” She looked at her datapad. “Does The Resurgence mean anything to you?”

Enic’s oblong head bobbled. “Yes it does. They are a fringe group out of the Suf-D Confederation that is against the Janis Swath joining the Union. They feel the Swath—the Quad as you call it—should be controlling the galaxy, and that joining the Union will diminish our prestige and heritage.”

“So if they’re against any of the groups pushing for Union membership, why are they only after you?” I asked.

“The Resurgence is a shield group, Mister King. As President Kinness stated yesterday, no worlds associated with such acts of terrorism will be allowed into the Union. By using a surrogate organization to perform such acts, no single world can be held responsible. Indeed, the Suf-D’s condemn the Resurgence as adamantly as do the Annoc-Conn, yet as you have pointed out, it is only Conn interests that are ever attacked.”

“Perhaps the prisoners will talk and reveal their true sponsors,” Lefty added.

Angela handed the datapad to Enic. “To go along with what you just said, we found a list during our preliminary search of the computer files. It’s both revealing and confusing at the same time. Perhaps you can shed some light on this matter?”

Lefty and I leaned over Enic’s shoulder so we could read the list. Angela’s lips grew tight and thin and her cheeks blushed. It was obvious she wanted the list to remain private.

“This mentions primary targets,” Enic said, “yet these are not names of individuals.”

“They’re planets,” Lefty said. “And why is Earth on the list? We have nothing to do with the merger.”

There were four planets listed: Annoc-Conn, Sylox, Amelia…and Earth. If this was the list of targets for a rebel faction bent on stopping the Quad from joining the Union, then the first three made sense. Annoc-Conn represented the opposition; Sylox was the current capital of the Union, and the Amelians are the founders of the empire. But Lefty was right; why include Earth on the list?

“And what is meant by primary targets?” Angela asked. “We have to assume they mean for terrorist activities,” she said, answering her own question.

As she spoke, Lefty and I shared a knowing look. We knew about the Lights and their potential destructive power, and if I was able to read Enic’s body language, I was sure he would have agreed with us: The Resurgence intended to destroy these worlds, if and when they acquired the Lights. If successful, then only the Suf-D’s would be left as a galactic superpower. At that point I was wishing Angela wasn’t there. I know how strange that sounds, but I really wanted to speak with Enic in private.

There were unsubstantiated claims of certain species within the galaxy having clairvoyant powers, and if I didn’t know better I would have sworn the Annoc-Conn were one of them. No sooner had I formed the thought in my mind, then Enic politely thanked the investigator and asked if she would leave to assume her duties, as he was want to do, as well.

Angela eyed both me and Lefty with suspicion, but then begrudgingly left the room.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Lefty said as soon as the door closed. “If the Resurgence wants the Lights, then why are they trying so hard to kill you? Didn’t you say you are the only person who knows where they are?”

“That is correct, Mister Rodriquez.”

Something wasn’t right. “There must be some contingency plan,” I said. “The location has to be known to others or stored somewhere in case something happens to you.”

“I will pass along the location to my successor…when the time comes.”

“What if you can’t pass along the information? What if you get killed beforehand? What happens then?”

Enic’s eye stalks looked from me to Lefty and then back again. He was debating what to tell us next.

“You need not worry, Jason,” the purple alien said. “The Keepers have been passing along the secret for a thousand years without interruption.”

“Then someone else must know location, or know where this information is held. That means someone else can get to it, too. No secret can be kept forever. If the location doesn’t die with you, and if this Resurgence group gets their hands on the Lights, then Earth is in danger, just like your world. You need to give me some assurance that Earth will be safe.”

“I will tell you more, if only for assurance.” The alien took a deep breath before continuing. “If in the case of my death, I have placed within my body a special container detailing the means of acquiring the Lights. This data is coded and only decipherable by the Keepers. Should I die, others of my following will collect this container and appoint a new Keeper. He will be given this information.”

“And if the Resurgence gets hold of the container, can you guarantee they won’t be able to access the data?”

“The device was designed so it cannot. I must believe that to be true.” The corners of his beak curled up. “I also have to trust in my Human protectors to make sure I survive long enough to return to Annoc-Conn.”

I shook my head. I was mad. How had Humans become embroiled in this thousand-year conflict on the other side of the galaxy from Earth? I may not be living there at the moment, but I was still partial to my homeworld. I turned to Lefty.

“You’re going to need more men.”

“I have another dozen coming in from the home office.” He pulled his flash weapon from its holster and handed it to me. “And I have you. Seeing that this just became personal for the two of us, I could sure use another hand, lieutenant.”

I took the weapon without hesitation.

Lefty turned to Enic. “You’re scheduled to make a presentation to the conference in an hour. Can that be postponed until I can get my men here and on station?”

“That will not be possible. The public portions of these events are highly choreographed and ridged in timing and structure. After my speech, there will be private meetings. The locations for these can be shifted to create uncertainty as to my location, yet my introductory presentation must go according to schedule.”

“Then make it brief,” I suggested. “Get on and off the stage as soon as possible.”

“Forgive me, Jason, but my presence here is important. I must be allowed to present the best case for the Coalition to represent the Quad. To abbreviate my points would do the process a disservice. No…I will appear as planned and give my prepared remarks in full.”

“How many Annoc-Conn security does he have?” I asked Lefty.

“Thirty. I’ll get them to form a screen around the president, and then—if you’re up for it—you, me and my three remaining men will be on stage with him. With the recent attempts on his life, I’m sure everyone will understand about all the extra security.”

We looked to Enic for approval. “Very well,” said the alien. “I hesitate appearing behind a shield of bodies, only to protect my own, yet I must be allowed to represent the interests of the Coalition.”

Lefty nodded. “Very good. I’ll go make the arrangements. Looie, stay here with Enic. And be careful.”

“Yessir,” I saluted the former enlisted man. I hadn’t heard the slang term for lieutenant for quite a while. It sounded good.

The salute caught Lefty off guard, but only for a moment. He flipped me off as he went out the door.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 10

It was awkward standing on the stage as Enic made his speech. I felt everyone was looking at me and wondering what the hell was a Human doing up there? Although the vast majority of those in attendance were from off-planet, and therefore didn’t know who I was, a few did know me. And now here was this real estate broker standing sentry behind the president of Annoc-Conn and the leader of the Janis Coalition, as well as the odds-on favorite to win the governorship of the Quad.

However, as the alien droned on, I began to feel more comfortable. I was on the stage with a VIP of the galaxy, and the more I thought about it, I realized this could be beneficial to my reputation. As they say, any publicity is good publicity, and this was good publicity. The two attempts on Enic’s life were well-known, and now here I was risking my life to protect a sympathetic figure. I would have to get a video of the presentation to pull out some stills for my brag-book, as well as advertising for my company.

I only half-listened to the speech, but what I heard was pretty impressive. At the conclusion, Lefty took charge. He shuffled Enic off the stage and down a side corridor. There were a dozen Annoc-Conn in the hallway, making the scene look like something out of a Disney cartoon, with purple bugs all scurrying about.

However, the Disney illusion didn’t last long, and soon devolved into a Quentin Tarantino blood-fest.

Our entourage stopped as another group of aliens appeared farther along the corridor. There was an awkward moment as the Annoc Conn guards confronted others of their own race, along with several taller, brown-skinned aliens sweating and appearing distressed. Then the firing started. All parties involved were pretty good shots, and even though a lot of the opposing force was cut down in the first few seconds of the battle, most of their shots were aimed at Enic Jor. Unfortunately, I was standing right next to him.

I had my own flash weapon up and spitting balls of hot plasma. Out of desperation, Lefty and I pushed Enic into a side room. It was a small conference room with a single long table and the ubiquitous alien chairs that were adjustable in just about every orientation to accommodate the infinite variety of life in the galaxy. Two of Enic’s native guards came with us, but were hit by incoming bolts and ended up blocking the door from closing with their fallen bodies. My old army buddy and I unceremoniously kicked them out of the way and shut the door.

“It’s hard to tell the players without a program,” I cried out. “Those are Annoc-Conn out there, Enic; your own people.”

“That is true. Either they are mercenaries or others opposed to my relinquishing the Lights to the Union.”

“That’s just great,” Lefty said. “How are we to tell who to shoot? Nothing personal, Mister President, but all you Conn look alike.”

“I would suggest shooting at any beings who are shooting at you,” Enic responded.

Lefty and I looked at each other. “Can’t fault his logic,” I said.

Lefty had a throat mic linked with the remaining three Humans in his security detail. At least we knew where their loyalties lie. “This is Lead,” he said into the mic. “What your location and status?”

I didn’t have a link to his men, so I watched Lefty’s face as he received the report. He grimaced.

“Dammit, I just lost Reynolds,” he told me. “Okay, Bennett, you and Klein get the car and bring it to the southwest exit. Secure the area. We’re on our way.” Lefty turned to me and Enic. “Sorry, Mister President, but I can’t take any chances. We’re going to shoot anyone—or anything—we see. How’s the charge on your weapon, lieutenant?”

“At forty-four percent.”

He handed me another power pack. “This is all I can spare, should give you a combined twenty shots or so. Now I wish I’d brought some M101’s with me.”

“I hear ya. These energy weapons are basically pieces of shit.”

We flanked the president and took him by the arms, with me on the right and Lefty, well, on the left.

Most of the fighting had moved down the corridor, so we left the conference room without drawing too much attention. Lefty guided us down the hallway until we came to a larger chamber with a series of other corridors radiating out from the central room. This place was a mess, with three clusters of aliens all firing at each other without any apparent rhyme or reason. It was also impossible to tell who was who. We hugged a side wall as Lefty assessed the battlefield.

“We have to get across to the corridor on the right. It’s about twenty meters. Get ready…go!”

To my surprise, Enic was amazingly fast on his six short legs and managed to sprint away from Lefty and me. This wasn’t good, because a number of the enemy spotted him and directed their fire in his direction. The temperature in the room soared as a dozen flash bolts ionized the air near me. The plasma balls splashed against the floor and walls coming precariously close to the three of us.

Then Enic fell. A bolt had scrapped across the back of his large lower torso. Lefty and I lifted him and scrambled into our target corridor, falling against a wall for cover.

“How badly are you hurt?” Lefty asked Enic.

His beak was contorted. “I am still functional, yet I am without feeling in two of my legs. I will not be as fast as before.”

“That’s okay, we don’t have much farther to go. Jason, watch our six, I’ll take lead. As before, shoot anything that moves.”

We headed out, but about thirty meters down the hallway, things went from bad to worse.

A flood of aliens poured in from a side corridor. Many were Zorphin Enforcers from the Union. They were distinctive with their reverse leg joints and kangaroo-like features. I advised Lefty not to shoot them. I was already in enough trouble with the locals. Killing them wouldn’t help my cause.

The maze of creatures caused Enic and I to get separated from Lefty. He ended up on the other side of a line of Zorphins and a gaggle of Annoc-Conn. He looked desperately in my direction and motioned with his hand for me to continue down the corridor then turn right at the end. I gave him a thumbs up.

The hallway cleared a little farther along, that was until it was lit up by a near point-blank plasma flash coming from behind me. I heard Enic scream and turned to see the alien slouch to the floor with a pool of blood under him. I didn’t have time to react before a purple bug jumped on my back.

As I said before, the Conn are about five feet tall with bodies separated into three segments. I dropped my shoulder and the bug rolled off me, but then he charged again, his six short legs moving in a blur. We came together, and the strength of the alien legs pinned me against a wall. He then reached out with his thin, spindly arms and wrapped them around my waist. The elongated head angled up at me and he began to poke me with his beak like a woodpecker. As I’d noticed before, the beak was more pliable than one would expect, so the strikes on my chest, neck and chin did little damage. It was annoying, however, being this close to such a smelly alien. His eye stalks were focused on me, yellow eyes intense.

The only thing the purple bug had going for him was the power in his six legs and they continued to hold me against the wall. With six of the little buggers, the alien had a couple of spares, which he used to kick at my gun hand as I tried to bring the weapon to bear. Then I noticed that the skin of the Conn was slick with a thin coating of mucus. I realized this just about the time I lost the grip on my flash weapon. The mucus was beneficial in one respect. It allowed me to slip both my arms free from the alien, after which I took his oblong head in my hands and twisted.

In the heat of battle, I had no idea how much force to apply. I obviously overdid it.

The football-shaped top segment of the alien spun easily, so easily in fact that it turned completely around before coming off in my hands. The rest of the purple body went limp and collapsed to the floor, leaving me holding the severed head with its pair of lifeless eye stalks draped to each side.

I heard a commotion down the hallway; three more angry-looking Conn were racing toward me. A flash bolt splashed against the wall next to my ear.

With no time to search for my fallen flash weapon, I took the head of the alien and gripped it like I would a football. Then I threw it at my approaching attackers. I have to say, if it hadn’t been for the disruptive nature of the dangling eye stalks, the toss would have been a perfect spiral. As it was, the lifeless alien head wobbled through the air, still managing to hit one of the Conn in the chest. He was knocked to the floor, and when examining what had hit him, he scrambled to his feet and ran off in the opposite direction, screaming like a baby.

The other two Conn weren’t so impressed. They were upon me a moment later.

This time I was prepared. I lashed out with a foot, planting it firmly into the larger, round lower torso of one of my attackers. The soft flesh gave way and my foot became impaled inside the body of the alien. Both eye stalks went straight and rigid, before drooping to each side. The alien collapsed to the floor, dead.

The second Conn ran into me causing the two of us to spin around in a pirouette.  I recovered before my assailant and took aim with my fist, planting a vicious blow against the side of the alien’s oblong head. As with the other Conn, the head twisted, but this one didn’t come off. It did, however, break whatever served as the creature’s neck. He joined his buddy on the floor of the corridor.

I rushed to Enic’s side. The pool of red blood had grown. I checked his body and couldn’t find the source of the injury.

With movement down the corridor, I took the president by his arms and dragged him into an adjoining room. Placing his body against the door as a barricade.

“Where were you hit?” I asked. “I can’t see the wound.”

“It is under my back carapace.”

I felt the skin on the extended section of his lower torso. I didn’t know he had this back plate. It was harder than the rest of his skin, but blended perfectly with the rest.

“How do I stop the bleeding?”

“You cannot, Jason. Only through specialized removal of the plate can it be accessed. I regret to inform you, but I am beyond hope.”

“Don’t talk like that. All I need to do is get you to the Union forces. I’m sure they have doctors who can help you.”

Enic’s head bobbled. “There is no time, and I have much to tell you.”

The alien reached a thin arm back and placed a hand under the back plate. He grimaced in pain, but then withdrew a small metal cylinder, now covered in blood.

“Take this,” he said.

I reached out my hand. That was when Enic flipped the cylinder around and planted it forcefully into my palm. I felt a pinch.

“Ow! What was that?” I looked at my hand and saw a small puncture wound, as if made by a needle. “What did you do that for?”

“I have just coded the key to your particular chemistry. It will only function for you.”

“Key? What key?”

Enic turned the cylinder sideways and slowly placed it in my hand. I was cautious this time, but I let him do it.

“It is the key to the Container of Light, where the treasure is stored.”

I was afraid he was going to say that.

“Where you have Galactic Lights stored? The extremely dangerous things that can destroy worlds?”

“That is correct. Jason King, you must complete my mission. You must recover the Lights and bring them to Sylox.”

I pressed the cylinder back into Enic’s hand. “No way, I can’t do that.”

“Is not Earth in danger as well if the Lights fall into the wrong hands?”

“Supposedly,” I said. “Nothing’s been confirmed. Besides, why not turn the key over to the Union and let them go in and get the Lights with all the force they can muster?”

“No one can be trusted, Jason. Look around you. Already you’ve seen my own people rebel against me and my mission. There are too many opposing forces to allow a wholesale effort to recover the Lights. At any time, an enemy may abscond with them, or worse, cause them to detonate. I can trust only you.”

“Why me…we hardly know each other?”

“That is precisely the reason. You came into this affair unwillingly. Even your kin Mister Rodriquez cannot be trusted.”

“Lefty! Why not? The man’s been risking his life—and the lives of his team—just to keep you alive. That’s a lot to ask for the money you’re paying him.”

Enic’s yellow eyes blinked. “I do not understand. I am not paying Mister Rodriquez.”

“Well, then, whoever’s paying him—”

“He is not getting paid at all. He volunteered his team to the protection detail.”

“What…what do you mean?”

“He came to us and offered his services without charge. He said he sided with the Conn and would be honored to offer his services for the prospect of peace in the Swath.”

“For free?” I shook my head. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like Lefty, but I’m sure he had his reasons. Are you saying he’s part of the conspiracy?”

“I do not know for sure. But the central point is I can trust only one person, and that is you.”

Enic placed the cylinder back in my hand. I looked at it before responding. “I thought you said others would come and remove this from your body. Others from within your organization would take over from there.”

“There is no time, and now I realize even they cannot be trusted. If it were merely a matter of maintaining the status quo, there would be no danger. But with my plan to give the Lights to the Union, there are now members of my own organization out to stop me.”

“And you want me to step into this mess? I think you’ve misread me, Enic. I’m not the hero type.”

The corners of Enic’s beak curled up. “That I realize. So I will offer you an incentive—other than saving your homeworld.”

I winced at the alien’s words. I’d forgotten about the whole saving-Earth-from-destruction thing. That should’ve been my sole motivator.

“What incentive?” I asked nonetheless. It never hurt to at least listen to an offer.

“The Lights are stored in a chamber designed to prevent stray cosmic rays and other forms of radiation from entering. It has been a precaution used for hundreds of years. With the volatility of the Lights, we could not risk the chance that they could be affected by such bombardments.”

“So? You better get to the point, Enic. We’re either going to be located pretty soon, or you’re going to die. In fact, in the time you’ve been telling me all this, I probably could have gotten you to a doctor.”

“Forgive me as I indulge in my dying speech, Mister King,” said the testy alien. “The least you can do is offer me your patience.”

“So tell me about this incentive.”

“The chamber where the Lights are stored is lined with a metal you find very valuable…gold. Once the Lights are transported to Sylox, the chamber will be of no further use. You may harvest the gold for yourself.”

“How much gold is there?”

“Enough to rebuild your home…and a lot more. On this you must trust me.”

Okay, this had just gotten a little more interesting. I liked the idea of a chamber of gold as a reward for saving Earth and keeping the Lights out of the hands of the bad guys. There was just one problem.

“Where is the chamber?” I asked. “Where are the Lights hidden?”

“You must go to the planet Ackonnon and to the summit of Mount Hibress. There you will find the entrance leading to the chamber. Yet beware, there are challenges along the way.”

Of course there are. That’s the way it always was with treasure hunts and hidden vaults.

“Where’s Ackonnon?”

“Look it up. It is not hard to find.”

Smartass alien!

“And challenges? You mean like booby-traps?”

“Booby-traps? That is a strange word.”

“It means hidden obstacles that could cause me to die.”

“Then definitely, there are booby-traps within the mountain. Several.”

I thought for a moment. If I didn’t take on this mission, then a lot of bad things could happen. And if I did take it on, then a lot of bad things could happen…but I could also come out rich beyond the dreams of avarice. I liked the sound of that.

“All right, I’ll do it,” I said. “But what about this key? How does it work?”

“The key is your final challenge. You will see how to use it at the chamber. Once inside, you will find the container for the Lights. They are held in a bath of water to maintain a stable temperature. Do not remove them from the water or else they could overheat.”

I shook my head. There had always been something bothering me about the whole exploding Galactic Lights thing.

“Explain this to me, Enic. The Lights supposedly hold in the explosive force of a supernova, yet somehow they can be broken? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“That is a very good question,” Enic said with a cough. He was on his last leg. He’d better finish his briefing soon, otherwise I’d be screwed. “The Lights are a delicate balance between the forces without and those within. The outer shell wishes to collapse, yet the opposing force inside does not allow it. Yet by applying strong enough pressure to the exterior, that balance can be disrupted. By compressing an area, the opposite side of the Light will reach an imbalance and the shell can be ruptured. That is all it will take.”

“But you’ve never actually seen this happen?”

“Of course not! There are only five Lights in existence. They are much too valuable to experiment with…and far too dangerous.”

“So this is all theory?”

“It is expert opinion, Mister King. You must trust what I say.”

“It doesn’t look like I have much of a choice. Okay, President Jor, you’ve got yourself a surrogate. What kind of opposition can I expect between here and this planet Ackonnon?”

“That depends on if others find out you have the key. And one final word of warning. When using the key—”

And then Enic died.

It happened so suddenly and without warning that I thought he was just pausing before the final reveal. But his yellow eyes snapped shut and the stalks fell to each side of his narrow head. I shook him a few times, even going so far as to place an ear against his chest, but not knowing where his heart was, I couldn’t rely on that.

I stood and looked down at the dead purple bug on the floor. I shrugged.

Now all I had to do was decide if I was really going to do all those things I said I would? That was still open for debate.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 11

I pushed Enic’s limp body aside and cautiously opened the door. No one was in the corridor directly outside, but there was still plenty of activity off in both directions. The flash weapon was on the floor, resting in a pool of blood from the three Annoc-Conn I killed earlier. I went for it…and promptly fell on my ass, slipping in the slick liquid on the tile floor.

The fall saved my life, as a scorching-hot bolt of energy flew past my head. I pressed my body into the sea of red, soaking my clothing to the skin in alien blood. But I now had the flash weapon. I looked in the direction where the flash bolt had come from and was sickened to see it had been fired by a Zorphin. He had a couple of his buddies with him. Our eyes met and a glimmer of recognition reflected in the alien’s dark eyes.

It was Inspector Krice, one of the natives still hounding me regarding the Unity Stone Affair. I could see in his eyes that he saw this opportunity as a way to settle some old scores. He lifted his weapon, and with a shitty grin, took aim.

I winced as another flash bolt streaked over my head, but this one came from the opposite direction. It struck the Zorphin Enforcer in the chest, sending him reeling backwards with a smoking hole in his uniform. His buddies ducked for cover as more bolts streaked over me.

Someone slid into the pool of blood beside me.

“Where the hell have you been?” It was a very agitated Lefty Rodriquez. “We’ve been waiting for you. Where’s Enic?”

“He’s dead.” I was already on my feet when Lefty grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me against a side wall.

“Where’s his body?” my friend growled. “We can’t leave him here.”

“It’s okay. He gave me the key.”

“The what?”

“The key to the vault where the Lights are kept.”

“Give it to me!”

I still hadn’t bought into the whole idea of Lefty being part of the conspiracy to prevent the Lights from getting to Sylox, so without hesitation, I handed over the blood-covered cylinder to him.

“He poked me with the needle tip. He said it’s now coded to my DNA.”

“Did he tell you where the Lights are hidden?”

“Yep…but this isn’t the time or the place to have this conversation. What’s your escape plan?”

The question shook Lefty out of his insane trance. “The way to the parking garage is blocked, but we have a hovercraft on the roof. Follow me.”

We ran down corridors at break-neck Human speed, firing our weapons at a variety of aliens we encountered along the way before scaling a short series of stairs.

“You killed a Zorphin back there,” I panted as we ran.

“Tough shit. He was getting ready to kill you. I had to do something.”

“Thanks. You saved my life.”

“That almost makes us even.” He was referring to the three times I’d been credited with saving his life during our Army days. Two were legit. The third time he was so messed up that anyone could have taken credit. I took it anyway, since it meant the huge Hispanic wrecking-ball-of-a-man would be even more in my debt.

We reached the roof of the building a minute later. The sun was setting over Sylox City and an orange glow painted the scene. The hovercraft was an octocopter, exposed blades set above a surprisingly small passenger globe. Lefty’s two men were inside and the props were spinning. I was shoved into the back and then Lefty piled in on top of me.

The craft was only built to carry three people; a pilot and two passengers in the back. The carrying load was relative, however, depending on how big the alien passengers were. Humans were a little below average, so the motors shouldn’t have any trouble lifting the additional load. It was the close quarters inside globe that turned out to be an issue.

The Human mercenary Klein was in the pilot’s seat, leaving Lefty, Bennett and me all stuffed in the back. I was sitting cherry, with an armrest invading my ass crack. The aircraft lifted suddenly, gaining speed and altitude at a reckless clip.

“Where to, Sarge?” Klein called out over the hum of the propeller blades.

“Any suggestions, LT? You’re holding all the cards.” Lefty asked me.

“We have to get off planet before others find out what happened to Enic. I have a starship at the Zanzibar Executive Airport.”

“Where’s that?” Klein queried.

“Head northwest, over the downtown area and toward the Enclaves. Don’t get too high or they’ll spot us.”

“Roger that, sir.”

Klein ended up being a top-notch pilot, aided by the fact that hovercraft were easier to fly than conventional aircraft. They operated much like a ground vehicle. Give it more gas and the props tilted forward and the blades spun faster. There no torque to fight, like in a helicopter, or rudders and ailerons to contend with like on fixed-winged aircraft. Klein followed directions and kept the hovercraft low, zipping between towering buildings and skirting along the rooftops of traffic barely fifty feet below. After a few moments of hypnotizing maneuvers, I completely forgot about the pain in my ass, more concerned now with the obstacles whizzing by only a few feet away.

Eventually, we cleared the downtown area and emerged into open air over rolling hills covered in brilliant green grass on the way to the Enclaves. The huge housing complex covered most of the landscape before us, the planned community painting the hills with winding streets, red-roofed shopping malls, along with schools and playgrounds. The perfect place to settle down and raise a fam—

“Where’s the airport?”

I took off my imaginary Realtor hat and donned a Ranger beret. “Head south. It’s just beyond the boundary of the subdivision. There,” I pointed to a wide thoroughfare. “Follow that road. It’s Executive Airport Drive.”

Moments later, Klein pulled back on the controls and the hovercraft came to a startling stop, hovering in air above a wide expanse of tarmac.

“My hangar is along the front row, toward the end.”

We moved slower now, until I directed the pilot to land next to a huge metal hangar with a wide rollaway door. The opening to the passenger globe popped open and the four of us literally poured out. I climbed to my feet and ran to the small side door of the hangar.

“Why the rush?” Bennett asked. He hadn’t said anything on the way here, but seeing the urgency in Lefty and me, he realized something was up.

“The lieutenant’s learned the location of the Galactic Lights,” Lefty told him. “Now we have to get off the planet before anyone can stop us.” I found it odd that neither of his men asked any questions about the Lights. They must have already been briefed.

Upon entering the hangar, I slammed a white panel on the wall and the doors began to roll away, bathing the interior in the warm orange glow from outside. The skin of the Enterprise glistened in the radiance of the setting sun. I always felt a sense of pride gazing up my own personal starship.

“That’s your ship?” Bennett asked. “Kinda small, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and slightly hurt. “It’s a civilian starship. It’s not made to carry assault troops. I’m sure you’ll find the accommodations much nicer than you’re used to.”

The man grunted.

I triggered the entry door and the hatch slid open. “There’s seating for four in the pilothouse forward, room for a pilot, co-pilot and two passengers. Mr. Klein, care to join me in the co-pilot seat?”

He looked at Lefty, who nodded.

Moments later we were strapped in and I was lighting off the generators. Mechanical wheels engaged and I steered the sleek, hundred foot-long spacecraft out of the hangar.

The Enterprise didn’t look anything like the spacecraft from Star Trek. On the contrary, it looked more like a long airplane with stubby wings and a truncated tail rudder. Two bulbous gravity generators were located to each side of the center fuselage and the forward section tapered down to a sharp point just below the single viewport.

The interior was another thing all together. It was more box-shaped, resembling an oversized Class-A motorhome than the interior of a traditional aircraft. The only concession was a bulkhead separating the pilothouse from the main salon, along with an air-tight hatch.

This was my second Noreen II-model starship, actually the new XL version. The first one had been stolen by the mysterious Miranda Moore at the conclusion of the Unity Stone Affair. Insurance bought this one for me.

Having moved the craft outside, I quickly ran through the take-off checklist. Klein paid attention, barely. “Basic stuff,” he eventually said. “Generators charged to lift-off markers. We can take off anytime.”

“Roger that,” I said, slightly irritated by the soldier’s nonchalant attitude about lift-off protocol. “All right, here we go.”

I shifted the focus of the gravity generators directly above us while at the same time activating the chemical lift-off jets. The view through the forward window was obscured by a roiling cloud of gray-white smoke. A roar vibrated through the hull, and my majestic starship began to climb into the evening sky. The gas cloud fell off below us and I initiated a shallow gravity-well once we were clear of the landing field.

We began to climb faster now. I shut down the chem jets and angled the ship at a steep seventy-degree incline toward the heavens. The gravity-well intensified, drawing us toward the invisible singularity that was only a few molecules in diameter at this speed. We cleared the atmosphere thirty seconds later and I engaged a full-well at that time.

It’s illegal to initiate a faster-than-light gravity-well within a million miles of a populated planet; there was too much traffic in the area that could be affected by such a strong gravity influence. But I was careful to make sure I was clear of any local vessels. I also figured I was already in enough trouble that one more charge on my rap sheet would hardly be noticed. The Enterprise shot away from Sylox at such velocity that the rear monitor showed the planet growing noticeably smaller, even to the naked eye. Six minutes later, it was just another bright dot against the black backdrop of space.

Everyone relaxed. Safety harnesses were unlatched and Lefty and his men took the opportunity to get their first real look at my starship.

“Where are we headed, Mister King?” Klein asked a few minutes later. Eventually, I’d have to learn his first name.

“Someplace called Ackonnon.”

“Never heard of it,” Lefty said.

“Me neither. Enic said to look it up.”

Lefty nodded to Bennett and the man slipped over to a computer console, one of three that lined the outer bulkhead.  Thirty seconds later he made his report.

“It’s relatively close, right at the edge of the Quad. I’m feeding the coordinates over to you, Mister King.”

I programmed in the location and then did a travel time estimate. Three days, nine hours at full gravity-well. It was going to get stuffy inside my little starship.

“Where’s the head, lieutenant? Killing aliens always makes me want to piss.” Bennett remarked.

“In the back, next to the processing station. And speaking of that, we’re going to have to be judicious with the rations. I don’t normally stock enough food for four.”

“We’ll make do,” said Lefty.

After Bennett left the pilothouse, I broached the subject of the key with Lefty. He hadn’t returned it to me after I handed it to him at the conference center. “Can I have the key back? According to Enic, it won’t do anyone but me any good.”

“What key?” Klein asked.

Lefty took the small metal cylinder from his pocket. Enic’s blood had dried on it, forming an abstract pattern on the surface. He handed it to me.

This was the first time I had a chance to really study the key, and now I was joined by the other two men in the room. The object was about three inches long by an inch in diameter. I could clearly see the thin needle point at one end—the needle that had punctured my palm. Apparently, a sample of my blood had been collected and the internal workings of the device programmed to respond only to my actions. What those actions would entail, I had no idea.

There was a thin dial at the other end of the cylinder. Notches were cut in it, which angled back and forth, like hashtags in old webpage addresses. I went to turn the dial.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Lefty cautioned. “You might screw up whatever code has to be dialed in to open the chamber.”

“How about some details, Sarge?” Klein asked.

Lefty nodded. “The object Mister King is holding is supposedly the key to entering the chamber where the Galactic Lights are stored.”

“On this planet Ackonnon?”

“Exactly.”

“How does it work?”

I hesitated telling the others that Enic had died just as he went to warn me about certain aspects of operating the key. Instead: “Enic said I would know how to work it once I reached the door. It must not be that complicated.”

Lefty suddenly moved to his right, eyes focused on the entrance hatch to the pilothouse. Bennett had returned…with his hands held above his head and his eyes shifting back and forth.

Klein and I rose from our seats, allowing me to spot I the figure standing behind Lefty’s man. It was a short person with bright blonde hair, now pulled back into an adorable ponytail.

“Easy does it,” said Angela Cole, following Bennett into the room. She had a conventional Human pistol aimed at the man’s back. She quickly scanned the room. “Where’s Rod—?”

Lefty came at her from the side, moving with purpose and skill. He slapped at her gun hand, dislodging the weapon. That’s when things got really weird.

In a flash, the short woman had executed a perfect spin kick, catching the six-foot two-inch tall former Army Ranger in his left kidney. He bunched over from the force of the kick, as well as the unexpected nature of its delivery. But Angela wasn’t through. She jumped and brought the heel of her other foot down on the back of Lefty’s head. He dropped to the deck with a thud, a grunt and a torrent of curse words I was more accustomed to hearing him speak than the aforementioned ‘fricking.’

In the meantime, Angela focused on where the weapon had fallen. She dove for it, nearly clashing heads with Klein, who had the same idea. To my surprise, the tiny woman surrendered the weapon momentarily…just long enough for her to plant a short, but powerful blow to the side of the mercenary’s face. His eyes crossed and he lost his grip on the weapon.

Angela had the gray-metal forty-five in her hand a split second later, swinging the barrel toward me and Bennett. Lefty had recovered by now and dropped hard on top of the woman. He reached for the gun.

The sound of the Smith and Wesson going off was deafening within the small confines of the pilothouse. I slapped my hands against my ears to shield them from any further damage, but it was too late. The ringing consumed my thoughts and actions for a few seconds after the discharge—at least until a strange cracking sound penetrated the ringing. I turned to the source. In my horror, I saw a spiderweb of fractures splinter the forward viewport.

“Everyone out! Hurry!”

The three mercenaries were up and out of the room a moment later. Angela still lay on the deck, the wind knocked out of her from Lefty’s heavy bulk. I grabbed an ankle and pulled her out of the room behind me. Her chin smacked the bottom hatch partition, and in the brief moment before the panel slid shut, I saw her eyes roll back in her head and the lids close. There was only a split second of escaping air from the inner compartment before the hatch sealed, locking all of us safely away from the deadly decompression in the pilothouse as the cracking viewport exploded outward.

I sat on the deck, still holding Angela’s ankle. She was unconscious and bleeding from a cut under her chin. Lefty also had a cut, this one on his forehead from when he was pummeled to the deck by the feisty criminal investigator. Klein’s right eye was nearly swollen shut. Bennett hovered over Angela, anger in his eyes.

“Who the hell is this?” he yelled down at the sleeping woman.

“Angela Cole, an investigator from the Consulate,” I replied.

“What’s she doing here?”

“Probably her job. Is everyone else okay?”

Lefty moved up beside me, looking down at Angela. “We’re fine, but let’s get something to tie up Miss Kung Fu Queen before she wakes up. And check her for more weapons. I wouldn’t be surprised to find she’s packing more than just the forty-five.”

Lefty followed my look to the now-closed pressure door to the pilothouse. “How bad is it, LT?” he asked.

I shook my head. “There’s a small airlock in the back, and I do have two spacesuits onboard. Also, like most spacecraft, this one does have a blast door for the viewport. Unfortunately it’s operated from inside the pilothouse. One of us is going to have to go outside and enter through the shattered window.”

“At light speed?” Klein asked. “Is that even possible?”

“I wouldn’t think so. So the first thing, we have to find a way to shut down the gravity drive from out here. I’m not sure how to do that. It’s never come up before.”

“LT, you and Mister Klein work on that,” Lefty ordered, “while Bennett and I tend to our uninvited guest.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 12

The generators and gravity drive for a Noreen II were located in the aft section of the small spacecraft. There wasn’t an actual engine room, just a series of compartments hidden behind wall panels. It took Klein and me nearly an hour to remove all the bolts and screws to access the innards of the engine, at least to the point where we could refer to manuals as to what to do next. I learned Klein’s first name; it was Dominic, and Bennett’s was Roger. That would help…I guess.

With the ship barreling through interstellar space on full gravity drive—and with no monitoring pilot—it was probably a bad idea to take a break from trying to disable the engine when Angela came to, but what she said to Lefty made me do it anyway.

“How can they think I killed Enic?” I asked, flabbergasted by the revelation.

“Eyewitnesses have you pulling a healthy Enic Jor into a side room at the Center. When you came out, he was dead. They also say you stole something of importance from him before you left.” Angela’s voice was almost a growl. With piercing blue eyes, she glared at us. Both her hands and lethal legs were bound as she sat on the ship’s only couch. She had regained consciousness a few minutes before and immediately erupted with a torrent of her own colorful language after discovering her predicament.

“I didn’t kill him—why would I? He was going to rebuild my house.”

She looked at the others. “And then you killed some Zorphin.”

“It was only one,” Lefty countered. “And that was in self-defense.”

“What are you doing aboard my ship?” I asked, cutting to the chase.

“I learned of your private starship during my investigation. When I heard everything had gone to shit at the conference center, I figured you’d try to get off planet. I got here a couple of minutes before you arrived. You took off too fast for me to do anything before we left. Now, I have to warn y’all, you’re only making things worse by not turning around and returning to Sylox immediately. By now, the entire Union has been alerted to your escape. It’s just a matter of time before you’re located.”

“Even if we wanted to, we can’t turn back now,” I said, “Not until we can get back in the pilothouse. You should know better than to use a projectile weapon aboard a spacecraft.” I shook my head in frustration. “I’m not even sure the blast doors are airtight.”

“In the meantime, we’re lighting up a straight line path right through the middle of the Union, and without any evasive maneuvers,” Lefty chimed in. “We won’t be too hard to track, that’s for sure.”

I leaned in closer to Angela. “I believe you have a pretty good idea what’s going on here, detective. I didn’t kill Enic. He was killed by the same people who have been trying to do it since he arrived on Sylox. And now they’re after us.”

“You’re probably right about that,” she conceded. “But I still have a duty to bring you in. It shouldn’t be hard to clear yourself of the charges—except for the killing of the Zorphin. Yet under the circumstances, you might even skate on that, too. But you have to return to Sylox…as soon as you can access the pilothouse.”

I straightened up. “Even after that, we can’t. Not yet.”

Angela studied my body language. “What did you take from President Jor?”

I removed the key from my pocket.

“Think about what you’re doing, Jason,” Lefty cautioned.

I looked over at my old friend. “She’s along for the ride, no matter what. And she is a Human.” I looked at the blue-eyed beauty and smiled. “And she does have skills. She could come in handy.”

“Handy for what?” Angela questioned, her jaw firmly set. Then she focused on the shiny cylinder in my hand. “What’s that? Is that what you took from Enic?”

I held the object by my thumb and middle finger. ‘It’s a key.”

“To what?”

“To the room where the Galactic Lights are kept.”

Angela leaned back on the couch and spent the next few seconds scanning the faces of the men in the room. When she detected no shock or surprise, her eyes locked on mine.

“Bullshit. The Lights are just a legend, nothing more. Scientifically, they can’t exist.”

“Then I guess ol’ Enic died for nothing.”

I went on after that to explain all that had happened over the past two days. When I was done, I placed the key back in my pocket and left the salon to get back to the job of cutting off the faster-than-light gravity drive.

“You expect me to believe all this, without any evidence?” Angela called after me.

I turned. “Without evidence? How about three attempts on Enic life—one successful—along with the destruction on my house and the loss of nearly all Left’s men? Isn’t that evidence enough for you? We didn’t start this, but now we’ve been drafted into possibly saving the Union, and Earth in the process. Now you can remain tied up for the duration, or you can help us. If the Lights do exist—and they fall into the wrong hands—a lot of bad things are going to happen. Aren’t you at least curious to see if they’re real?” I went through the motions of symbolically checking my watch. “We’ll know in a little over three days. So Ms. Cole, are you with us or against us?”

********

An hour later, Angela came back to where Dominic Klein and I were trying to disengage generator two from the primary gravity focusing ring. We’d already disconnected gen one, and our velocity had dropped in half. Even still, the ship sat just on inside the edge of the black hole’s event horizon, making it far too dangerous to go outside.

The detective had a bandage on the lower part of her chin where she’s hit the edge of the hatch. “Any broken teeth?” I asked.

“Nope, and lucky for you. I take great pride in my teeth.”

She almost smiled.

“I guess I could have left you in the pilothouse to be sucked out of the viewport.”

“You expect me to thank you for saving my life?” Her temper flared. “You and your hulking brutes put me in that situation in the first place.”

“So guess my proposal of marriage will be a negative?”

I looked at Dominic and we both started laughing.

She opened her mouth to reply.

“Relax, sweetheart, I’ve decided you’re not my type.”

Angela blinked.

I answered the unasked question. “It’s hard to be attracted to a woman who can kick my ass. Where did you learn to fight like that?”

The change of subject settled her emotions. “It started with basic self-defense and take-down training back at Quantico—in the FBI. I liked it so much that I kept going. Seemed like a more beneficial form of exercise than Pilates or yoga.”

Dominic grimaced. “So what type do you study?” He was having trouble seeing through his right eye, even after a few minutes with an ice pack on it.

“Tae Kwon Do and Krav Maga . I’m also a big fan of Mixed-Martial Arts combat techniques.”

I beamed a proud smile at my workmate. “I told you she’d come in handy.”

“Anything I can do to help with the engines?” Angela asked.

“Not unless you have training in NX-4 gravity drives. You don’t, do you?”

“Not NX-4’s. But I have tinkered with Cyrilis Eights and a few AX-3’s.”

My jaw dropped, mirroring that of Dominic Klein. “I’m not even going to ask where you got your training,” I said. We made room for Angela to examine the circuitry panel.

“The primary runs through this junction. It meets over here.” She moved to the next open section along the wall. “Safety switches can be tripped at this location. It’ll shut off all internal gravity as well, but it’s a simpler reboot process afterwards.”

Two minutes later the Enterprise was dead in the water.

Lefty drifted down the center passageway to check on us when he heard and felt the engine go silent. “Good job,” he said to me and Dominic Klein.

“You’re welcome,” replied Angela. She flew past the huge mercenary , heading forward.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

We just shrugged and drifted past Lefty as well. I had a spacesuit to get into.

Angela was already stuffing her voluptuous body into the second suit.

“What do are you doing?” I asked.

“You may own this flying motorhome, but it’s obvious you don’t have a clue about its operation. You’re going to need me to help repair the damage.”

I had no comeback. Besides, I wasn’t too keen on venturing outside the Enterprise on my own. Too many things could go wrong during a spacewalk. Or so I’d been told. I’d never actually been on a spacewalk before. This would be my first.

“Don’t try anything,” Lefty warned Angela.

She smirked. “Like what? We’re about two hundred light years from Sylox and in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like I’m going to run away.”

Lefty didn’t have a comeback. Instead, he grabbed Bennett by the neck and placed a flash weapon against his head. “If you do, I’ll waste Mister Bennett.”

Angela tried to look concerned. “Do what you must, Mister Rodriquez. And Roger, it was good while it lasted.” She placed the helmet over her head and twisted the locking ring.

I was glad were we all in good spirits since I still had about a million concerns about the mission, not the least of which was determining where Lefty’s true loyalties lie.

It was going to be an interesting three days aboard the starship Enterprise.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 13

Angela and I exited the ship one at a time, since the airlock could only hold single person at a time. Once outside, I gasped at the vast expanse of nothingness surrounding me. Sure, there were hundreds, if not thousands of fiery suns lighting the void—some of magnificent brilliance and color, and located only a fraction of a light-year away. Yet it was still a strange sensation knowing that distance beyond the hull of the ship was measured in time, rather than in miles or kilometers.

We attached safety lines to the airlock, as well as each other, then using magnetized boots, set off for the forward section of the ship, taking measured steps on the metal skin of the Noreen II. The comm system was controlled from the pilothouse; however, we could still communicate between suits.

“Careful,” I cautioned. “If you go drifting off into space I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“I think if anyone’s going to take a misstep, it would be you.”

“Excuse me, Ms. Cole, but you seem to have a nasty habit of putting me down every chance you get. Is it all because I pinched your cheek back at my house—or what remained of my house?”

I saw her shake her head inside the helmet. “I’m sorry, Jason. It’s just that everywhere I go, I run into people discounting my skill and expertise.”

“Because of your looks?”

“You said it, not me. But that seems to be the consensus.”

“Count your blessings, Angela. You not only have beauty and brains—but as I mentioned before—you also have skills. You may not know this, but all of the men aboard are ex-Army Rangers. It takes a lot to put one of us down.”

Angela laughed. “Yeah, surprise is often one of my most valuable assets, at least initially. But then size does matter, as it does in most things.”

“I understand Bruce Lee was only five-three.”

“I match him at that.” Angela turned to look at me in the glow of her helmet light. “I think I could have taken him.” Her smile was intoxicating.

But now we were at the forward viewport, or at least what remained of it. The pressure explosion had removed most of the glass from the opening, but not all. We used our boots to knock away some of the more threatening shards, knowing that a rip in a suit would not be advisable. Then Angela glided through the opening and into the dimly lit pilothouse. I followed a moment later.

Most of the control consoles were still lit and the first thing I did was activate the blast shield. The thick metal door emerged from a hidden compartment above the shattered viewport and vibrated shut. There was no sound through the airless compartment.

Angela located the atmosphere controls and slowly began to feed air into the pilothouse. I took a small fire extinguisher off the wall and began to spray tiny blasts of the white, powdery discharge near the seal on the blast shield. As I feared, it streamed out along multiple paths around the metal barrier as the pressure inside the compartment increased.

“Sealing foam,” Angela announced. She looked around the dimly-lit room. “Where’s it kept?”

“On the starboard bulkhead, that box with the double circle on it. That’s the alien symbol for emergency equipment.”

Sealing foam was some pretty neat stuff, similar to polyurethane foam back on Earth. A tiny bead would expand fifty-fold, filling every crack and crevasse and hardening in a matter of seconds. Once solid, it formed an air-tight seal good for about forty-eight hours. After that, the hostile environment of space and stellar radiation broke down the chemical compound. By then either another coating was required or more permanent repairs had to be made.

Although I lived on an alien planet, I hadn’t spent very much time in actual outer space. The journeys I made were mainly aboard huge passenger ships with their attendant staff and crew. Maintaining my own starship was new to me. Before buying my first Noreen II, I had a small Nova flitter. It was pretty basic; no air lock, no separate pilothouse. It was more like an SUV in space, whereas my Noreen was an opulent motorcoach. However, my experience as a starship captain was limited.

Case-in-point: this was the first time I’d applied sealing foam to a breach. With the miniscule amount required, I naturally thought I wasn’t using enough. So when the bubbling cream-colored foam began to expand, it surged out from the edges of the blast shield a good three feet. The pilothouse was small enough already. Now I’d just cut the space by a third.

“You do know we can’t cut this stuff once it hardens?” Angela asked. “We’re going to have to wait until it degrades to chip off that gigantic tumor you just made.”

“Sorry.” I stared at the giant glob until it stopped expanding toward me. “How do you know so much about starships? You’re a cop.”

“When I get interesting in something I go all-in. As I made my trips off Earth, I spent a lot of time with the crews.” She smiled through her helmet visor. “In that case, my looks came in handy. The guys liked having me around. Knowing how things worked also gave me a greater sense of security when hurdling through space in a metal can.”

The seals were holding allowing Angela to pump more air into the pilothouse. Pressure gauges climbed and then settled out. The temperature inside the pilothouse also climbed to an acceptable level until we could remove our helmets.

The internal gravity was still off and would only come back on once the generators were rebooted. Angela and I pulled ourselves into seats and fastened safety belts. I reached out to activate  the pressure door.

“No, wait,” Angela said, placing a gloved hand over mine. “Do you believe the Galactic Lights are real?” she asked.

“Everything seems to be pointing that way,” I replied.

“And you know where they are?”

“So I’m told.”

“This could be a game changer.” Her voice carried no excitement, just concern. “Five objects the size of softballs that can destroy worlds. You better make sure they get into the right hands.”

“I could use your help making that happen. Enic told me not to trust anyone, even Lefty.”

“That could be wise.” She was surprised by the revelation. “I did some research on your friend—in fact, on everyone who had access to the president. You do know he has a pretty checkered past, at the least the parts that showed up. There were a lot of gaps in his history. Seeing how connected the Union is, it’s hard for someone to fall off the grid for years at a time, unless they were doing it intentionally.”

I wasn’t ready to tell her about Lefty lying to me about how he got the job protecting Enic, but I was glad to have an ally in my suspicions of my old Army buddy. Lefty had always been a ruthless and pragmatic individual. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own operation working, contrary to mine.

“I’ll keep an eye on him. We served together for six years. I know him pretty well. Hopefully I’ll be able to head off any issues that come up.”

“Be careful, Jason. He’s at the top of his game, while you’ve been selling real estate for the past decade. Hardly an occupation that hones ones military skills.”

I took the off-handed insult with a smile. “You would be surprised how ruthless and cold-blooded the real estate industry can be. One must constantly be on the lookout for hostile forces trying to take you down.”

Angela wasn’t buying my cavalier attitude toward Lefty.

“Just watch your back, and I’ll watch mine.”

I realized then that Angela’s hand had remained on mine during the conversation. Now she removed it and I activated the door release, wondering how much I should read into the gesture. I shrugged. Who knew? At least I was making progress.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 14

It took Angela about five minutes to reboot the gravity drive and restore internal gravity. By then, Bennett was yelling from the pilothouse.

“Approaching craft, five at last count,” he reported. “They’re on a straight intercept course.”

Lefty was in the salon. He called down the corridor at me. “Does this luxury liner have any weapons?”

I left Dominic and Angela to finish replacing the wall panels over the engine compartments and rushed to the pilothouse.

“My other Noreen had more. I took them off the Nova. This one only came with a single flash cannon for warding off pirates and other threats. But I did get some of my buddies at the Consulate to let me have a small Nexus Repeater and a Dynamic diffuser shield. Force of habit; one can never have too much offensive and defensive capability.”

“That’s not much against military craft,” Lefty pointed out. “Bennett, any designations yet on the incoming?”

I took the pilot seat while Lefty slipped into the second seat.

Angela entered the pilothouse. “I don’t suppose you have any experience space-borne weapons systems?” I asked her.

“Sorry, I’m a little limited in that category. The boys never let me play war with them.”

“How about you, Lefty? Any experience in open space combat tactics?”

“A little, but you tac board doesn’t give us many options. My advice would be to run like hell.”

“I agree, what with discretion being the better part of valor and all that. This little craft is pretty fast in its own right. Are all systems back online, Angela?”

“As they were before. You can punch it anytime.”

And punch it I did. We entered a deep gravity-well moments later and raced off toward the Quad. Lefty reported that the pursuing starships were only slightly faster than we were. After all, they were large military warships with a lot of tonnage. A quick calculation showed it would take five days for them to catch up to us. By then we’d be at our destination.

Unless they called ahead and set up a roadblock. We couldn’t outrun intergalactic comm relays. To that end, I began to make course deviations to keep the Union ships from guessing our destination. At this pace, nine hours would be added to our transit time, but that was an acceptable tradeoff in my opinion. Better safe than…dead.

********

The next three days passed without too much drama, and I spent most of the time studying Angela Cole and her interactions with the other men onboard. For a woman who had been so defensive about her looks and the quest for respect, I found she could certainly use her attributes to her advantage when the situation called for it. She seamlessly transformed into the sweet, Southern belle, very attentive and complimentary of everything the three macho military men did and said. I knew she was simply trying to extract information, yet I was amazed by how effective the strategy seemed to be working. Without hesitation or reservations, the men began to fill in the gaps in their mercenary histories that Angela had mentioned before, even bragging at times about all the illegal shit they’d pulled.

I wondered if I was as gullible as Lefty, Dominic and Roger, so easily seduced by the Pink Side? I concluded I wasn’t. I had a lot more common sense than to let a beautiful face and knock-out body manipulate me that way. Not me…not Jason King.

********

There were two single bed staterooms in the Enterprise, and the five of us hot-bunked it throughout the journey. On the third day out from Sylox, Angela and I bumped into each other coming out of our respective compartments across the passageway from one another.

“Good morning, Jason, did you sleep well?” Her voice was as sweet as a morning breeze.

“I did, for a change. I’m feeling better about the mission with every passing light-year.”

We pressed against each other in the narrow confines, her splash of brilliant gold hair at chin level. I don’t know how she did it, but she smelled of lavender. I didn’t have any lavender anything aboard.

“Can I see the key again,” she asked, looking up at me with sparkling eyes.

I didn’t ask why she wanted the key; I just handed it over to her.

She studied it. By then all of Enic blood had been cleaned off its surface and it caught the overhead lighting with flashes and flickers. She placed her finger on the tip of the needle. “You say Enic poked you with this and that somehow coded the key to your DNA?”

“That’s what he said. I wish he’d asked first.”

“That would have been more polite,” Angela agreed.

Then she punctured her palm with the needle.

“What hell are you doing?” I kept my voice low—yet emphatic—not wanting Lefty to know what just happened.

“Now it’s coded to my DNA.”

“You don’t know that,” I countered. “I could be a one-time thing once removed from his body.”

“I know, and that’s why we need to stick together. We don’t know who it will actually work for.”

“And if Lefty gets the same idea, there may be five of us with needle holes in our hands. Worst still, you may have cancelled everything out, making the key useless.”

“I’ll take that chance.” Angela suddenly threw her arms around my head and kissed me.

“Am I interrupting something?”

The deep, gravelly voice came from the main salon. Lefty was looking at the two of us. He wasn’t smiling.

I felt Angela palm the key in her left hand before releasing me. She snuggled behind me, pocketing the key while displaying a coquettish grin.

I smiled. “Sorry, dude, but it was love at first sight.”

I wrapped my right arm around Angela and pulled her to me again, planting another hard, wet kiss on her full lips. I held it for as long as I could, even as Angela dug her fingernails into my side.

“Yeah, whatever,” Lefty grunted. He looked suspicious, but he always looked suspicious. “The two of you better knock it off and come to the bridge. We’re entering the Quad, and already we’re picking evidence of space battles taking place. Enic said the Lights were located where the worst of the fighting was taking place. It looks like he was right. We may have a gauntlet to run before reaching Ackonnon.”

Lefty returned to the pilothouse.

I flashed Angela a lecherous smile. “Was it as good for you as we for me?”

For an answer, she wrinkled her nose. “Damn, when was the last time you brushed your teeth? You’re disgusting.”

I shrugged off the insult and stayed back a moment, admiring the scene as the feisty beauty huffed her way toward the pilothouse. What was that saying: Hate to see you go, but love to watch you leave?

Then I shuddered. I was fortunate Angela hadn’t handed my balls handed back to me on a silver platter. As previously noted, Angela Cole was a man-eater, and in more ways than one.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 15

We were a thousand light-years out from Ackonnon and relay stations in the region showed two active engagements taking place, along with another that had just concluded. The number of units involved in each battle were relatively small—only about twenty-five ships on each side—but they were deadly. Forces from the Janis Coalition had emerged victorious in the largest battle, if counting nine remaining ships for the winner to five for the loser as a victory.  Now the remnants of the small fleets were bolting away from the area, with neither side having the ability or willingness to hold the ground.

The bottom line was there was a lot of traffic between our present location and Ackonnon, and all with nervous alien trigger fingers for any newcomers wanting to play their sandbox.

The ships from Sylox were still with us but now only two hours behind. We would have to slow down as we entered the systems around Ackonnon, allowing them to gain even more ground. The only thing we had going for us was our small size. Any cursory scan could tell we weren’t a warship, yet those following us definitely were.  I offered to my small team a plan, wherein we’d sweep close to one of the opposing fleets—preferably the Suf-D’s—and have them engage the Union ships following us, believing them to be reinforcements from the Conn. I was sure at that some point comm channels would be linked and the confusion cleared up rather quickly, but it might give us time to get to the planet and lost in ground clutter.

I took the controls and banked the Enterprise toward the staging area for what remained of the three Suf-D fleets. There were fifteen gravity signatures clustered just outside the planetary halo of a small yellow star. They already had us on their screens before I made the course change, yet had chosen to ignore us. But when I moved in their direction, that attitude changed. The surviving warships formed into a small cone shape and engaged gravity-wells to meet us. I slowed to barely ten-light and the Union ships moved up on us rapidly and without hesitation.

All the players were known to each other, and the Suf-D’s could tell by the signatures of the ships behind us that they were huge vessels with quad engines. As the forces converged, the weapons on the Union ships went hot, glowing with increased energy on the tact screen. Well…it wasn’t a real tactical screen, not on my little ship. It was simply a proximity monitor that could pick up energy radiation. But still it served the purpose

I took a microphone from its cradle and opened a channel in the clear. Everyone in the area would be able to hear me. “Nearing target forces; charge all weapons and prepare to attack,” I said in my most authoritative command voice. “You are ordered to disregard any comm chatter without proper encryption. The enemy will attempt to mask their true intentions and identity. Follow your tracks to target vessels and engage once optimum position is achieved. Command out.”

Lefty’s creased forehead said it all. “They’ve gotta be some dumb lumps of rock to believe that bullshit,” he said.

I snorted. “They’re aliens. You’d be surprised what I’ve been able to feed them over the years. Let’s just hope they fall for this, as well.”

I shifted course again and accelerated, taking a more aggressive tac toward the oncoming fleet. “Ms. Cole, send all available energy to the weapons and shields. Light us up.”

“We’re not really going to attack, are we?” Angela asked as she went to work at one of the spare consoles in the pilothouse.

“No, I just want to get them thinking. These guys just came out of a fight that was essentially a draw. They’re battle weary and scared. This new engagement will look like fifteen against six—maybe five-and-a-half, according to our gravity signature. I’m hoping they’ll be looking to salvage a victory for the day by taking on a much smaller force.”

New communications erupted from the wall speakers, originating from the Union warships. “Attention oncoming forces. This is Sub-Captain Vendos of the Galactic Union. You are requested to stand-down as we pursue a fugitive starship escaping from Sylox. We are not a threat to you, yet any actions against us could result in serious diplomatic repercussions.”

I fingered the microphone again. “Steady now. We were expecting this. Do not let the enemy infiltrate your lines. Ward them off at maximum range.”

No sooner had I cut the connection than the space between us and the Suf-D’s erupted in a shower of oncoming plasma bolts. I whipped my small starship around one hundred eighty degrees and raced off toward the five Union warships. We were within their bolt-range in seconds.

“Are you trying to get us blown out of space, lieutenant?” Lefty asked after my unexpected maneuver.

“I’m counting on the Union ships having orders not to destroy us, but rather to bring us back alive. Kinness knows about the Galactic Lights, and he probably suspects we know where they are. With Enic dead, he would lose his best chance of securing them for the Union if the ships open fire on us.”

“That’s a lot to assume,” Angela said in a whisper.

We all inhaled sharply as the Enterprise shot through the line of Union warships, and without a single bolt being released in our direction.

That’s not to say the warships didn’t fire; they just didn’t fire at us. Instead they had other things to worry about, like the twenty-two incoming cannon bolts from the Suf-D fleet.

Most of the bolts fired from the Union ships at that point were defensive in nature, designed to intercept those released in their direction. But that was a tenuous proposition. The tiny balls of intense energy were extremely hard to target and hit, plus there were a lot more of them streaking their way then the Union ships could counter.

A few moments later—and after launching a small answering salvo aimed at the Suf-D ships—the Union force split up and turned away. The fifteen enemy ships broke into smaller squadrons and lit off after them.

In the meantime, I gunned my small private starship and followed a long and distant arc back to our original course. None of the Suf-D’s followed—we were too minor a target to bother with, especially after Angela shut down all our weapons and shields. Ten minutes later we were off their screens and free of the pursuit from Sylox.

“Reckless as ever,” Lefty commented.

“I prefer to call it bold and decisive.”

“No…it was reckless. Attacking a war fleet in a motorhome is reckless.”

The other four people in the pilothouse sided with my Army buddy, at least verbally. But deep down inside, I was sure they were experiencing nothing but awe and admiration for yours truly. As well they should.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 16

It took us another four hours to reach Ackonnon. As the planet grew on the screens, I referenced Grac’s Planetary Guide for more information. I entered my species as Human and all the specifics were converted to compare with Earth standard.

Location: The Janis Swath, Section Eight-A. Political Affiliation: Although within the Suf-D Coalition status, unaffiliated. Atmosphere: Nitrogen-oxygen, compatible to Humans. Gravity: .89 percent. Population: Two billion, nine hundred million. Primary industries: Mining, fishing and tourism.

I pulled up some pictures of the natives and found them to be about ninety-nine percent Humanoid—Prime in the vernacular of the galaxy. Curious, I scanned some images of their housing units. Bingo! Above ground and tiny boxes, just the type of units I specialized in. Sure, Ackonnon wasn’t the capital planet of the Quad, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a branch office here someday.

As we swept into orbit, I got real-time images of the landscape below. On high magnification I noticed most of the planet was covered in rows of towering mountain ranges that flattened out into wide plains with a mixture of deserts and cultivated regions near clusters of cities and towns. But it was when I tapped into their broadcast system that I got my most-startling bit of news.

“Hey, get this,” I said, transferring the video feed to the main screen. Everyone was in the pilothouse at the time, so they all shared in my discovery.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Angela said after a couple of minutes of watching. “I thought the Galactic Lights were supposed to secret?”

As I flicked through the channels, there was commercial after commercial mentioning the mythical Galactic Lights. There advertisements for souvenir shops, offering replicas of the Lights, for treasure hunting tours led by experienced Light-Guides, along no shortage of books and datapads detailing how so-and-so had discovered the Lights, proving once and for all that they were real. It reminded me of some of the small towns in Northern California claiming to be Big Foot-Central, with proof-positive that the elusive beast was real. You could even purchase a plaster cast of his big foot to take home with you….

After a few minutes of watching the ads, we came to two conclusions. One: The natives truly believed the Lights were on Ackonnon—if they really did exist. And two: They didn’t have a clue where they were.

I searched for any references to Mount Hibress, the place Enic had told me was the resting place for the Lights, expecting at any moment to run across guided tours of the Chamber of Lights and its walls of gold. To my relief, I found the mountain, but it didn’t seem to be part of the Lights lure on Ackonnon. This was either by design and part of the Guardians well-crafted misdirection campaign. Or the natives really were that stupid.

I concluded it was probably a combination of both. Sometime in the distant past the planet had become associated with the Lights, so why not exploit that notoriety for the benefit of the masses? But don’t steer them in the right direction. In fact, when I pin-pointed Mt. Hibress, it wasn’t anywhere near where most of the Lights tourist activities were concentrated.

It was in the southern hemisphere; just an average burned out volcano reaching a mean altitude of around nine thousand feet about sea level. A few small villages sat at the base of the mountain, with fishing as their primary means of commerce.

Like most planets in the region, Ackonnon was suffering from the war being waged in the Quad. It had no military to speak off, so it had no means to ward off unwanted visitors. There had once been a planetary space traffic control system, but that had been abandoned when forces from the Coalition and the Confederation began to drop in on the planet uninvited. Now any ship could come and go without as much as a challenge from the surface.

Dominic Klein was at the controls of my small starship when we zeroed in on Mt. Hibress. A few quick circles of the peak revealed that the top of the mountain was an ancient caldera about three miles in diameter and covered now in a light blanket of summer snow. The ground was littered with huge boulders and shear drop offs, all except for one small area that looked like it had been carved out of the side of a small secondary mound near the center of the caldera. Klein set the Enterprise down on the narrow landing platform. This was where Enic said I’d find a tunnel leading to the Chamber of Light. The artificial landing pad was encouraging. Others had been here before us.

I scanned the external video images for any signs of an entrance into the mountain.

It didn’t take me long to realize that finding an entrance wouldn’t be the problem. The problem would be deciding which one.

All along the steep slopes creating the bowl of the caldera, literally dozens of lava tubes stared back at me with their solitary black eyes. Some were barely ten feet in diameter, while others spanned several hundred feet across.

“You don’t have a clue which one, do you?” Lefty asked after I expressed my misgivings.

“Enic didn’t give me a clue. He just said I would find the entrance.”

“After about a year of searching,” Roger Bennet added sarcastically.

Angela snorted. “Seeing how it is on this planet, all we have to do is look for the tunnel with the ‘This Way to the Chamber of Lights’ sign out front.”

“I hope it’s that simple,” I said.

During my research into the Lights, I’d found literally hundreds of worlds claiming to be the hiding place of the Lights. Yet Ackonnon was the only one in this region of space. It wouldn’t take the Union long to realize the planet was our destination. They’d shake the Suf-D fleet and get back in the hunt.

We didn’t have year to find the entrance. We probably had less than a day.

********

“You wouldn’t happen to have any winter gear onboard,” Lefty asked as he flipped through the series of exterior camera views.

We’d all come aboard with what we were wearing at the time back on Sylox, without anything extra. I had a new shirt, pants and shoes I’d bought earlier in the day of Enic’s speech, along with a light gray blazer. Lefty and his men were also dressed in casual business attire, designed to blend in with the crowd at the conference center. They certainly hadn’t worn combat gear on the job, at least not in any outwardly display of firepower. Concealed armament was the order of the day, however nothing that could protect them against the cold of a desolate alien mountain top.

Even Angela looked like she was on her way to a business meeting. Fortunately, she was wearing a pair of sensible flats and not high heels.

The bottom line: None of us were ready for a hike through dark volcanic passages looking for ancient treasure.

“There’s a couple of light jackets in the staterooms,” I answered. “Might even be a shirt or two. But no boots, parkas or anything like that.”

Bennett checked the outside temperature. “It’s about sixty degrees outside; it looks colder,” he reported.

“We’ll survive,” Lefty grunted. “Just find us the goddamn entrance, Jason. We don’t have all day.”

I recovered my blazer, and with the collar turned up to protect against a light breeze, I stepped outside the ship.

Honestly, the cool fresh air was a welcome relief to the stuffy, odor-infested atmosphere inside the ship. Angela covered herself with one of my old windbreakers, leaving the long sleeves to cover her exposed hands like gloves, and joined me outside.

It was mid-morning on Ackonnon, and the relative warmth of the local sun felt good against my face. This was only the ninth planet I’d been on, but its similarity to Earth made it fail to trigger any feelings of wonder. Instead it was a brief stopover, like when you land at an airport in a foreign country but never leave the terminal.

Fortunately I did have a pair of binoculars aboard, and now I used them to survey the numerous lava tube openings dotting the walls of the caldera. They all looked alike. The thin layer of snow on the ground had masked any paths or signs of prior visitation leading to them. The only way to find the right one would be stand in the entrance and look in.

Angela was staring at a particular tunnel, one directly in line with the front of the ship. She looked the other way, following a line from the rear of ship toward the opposite cliff. Another opening was lined up there with the Enterprise.

“Could it be that simple?” she whispered.

I focused the binoculars on the tunnel behind the ship. Both the forward and aft tunnels had similarly-sized entrances and were located at about the same level as where the ship now sat.

“See how the landing area is aligned with those two openings,” Angela said. I was ahead of her, having already noted the significance.

“Like markings on a compass.”

“Exactly!” she exclaimed. “Maybe the platform was cut with a dual purpose in mind.”

There was only one way to find out. Both openings were about a mile and a half away. The mound we were on sloped down farther into the caldera before the sides of the began to rise to form the cliffs.

“You ready for a morning stroll?” I asked.

“Just so we don’t have to hold hands.”

Damn, I’d been counting on that.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 17

 I had a set of walkie-talkies onboard—just standard issue for starships—so, Lefty and Dominic Klein set out for the tunnel at the forward end of the ship, while Bennett was assigned to accompany me and Angela to the tunnel at the rear. We each had a flashlight and an emergency first-aid kit. Call it a throwback to my Army days, but I believed in being prepared, at least for minor problems and injury. I hadn’t been expecting a treasure-hunting expedition when I stocked the Enterprise, so this was the best I could do.

Traversing a maze of rocks and uneven ground, it took us forty minutes to reach the opening of the lava tube. It was evident from the beginning that people had been here before, lots of them. I called Lefty and was informed that his tunnel was virgin ground and that he and Klein were on their way to us, double time. We were told not to go inside until they got there.

Of course I didn’t follow instructions.

The opening was about thirty feet in diameter, with evidence of prior lava flows forming a gently sloping ramp up from the base of the caldera. Just inside we found several abandoned crates, shoring equipment and even a rusty set of tracks. At one time, alien beings had worked this tunnel, yet by the looks of things now, no one had been this way in several years, possibly hundreds.

There were also a generous of skeletons scattered about. In most cases, it was hard to tell if they were from animals or intelligent life. They came in such varying size and shape that I concluded it was a combination of both, but mainly animals, possible food for the workers.

The floor of the tunnel was well-worn, especially following the path of the rail tracks. Angela and I ventured a couple of hundred feet inside before Bennett called us back, saying Lefty would be pissed if we went any farther.

We were waiting innocently at the entrance when Klein and Lefty jogged up. They weren’t even winded, the bastards.

“Looks like this it,” Lefty said redundantly. I’d already come to that conclusion.

We entered the lava tube, with Klein in the lead. I stayed close to Angela, not because I felt any manly need to do so, but just because I liked looking at her. Besides, if I did encounter any trouble, I knew she’d be there to save me. That was no joke.

As we made our way in, the passageway narrowed. The rail tracks spanned the floor, but it was obvious they hadn’t been very effective. Several long sections were missing and the space between them wasn’t always consistent. About a quarter mile into the mountain, they ended altogether.

That was when we came to our first challenge.

It was a wide canyon along our way, jagged and deep, which dropped off into a pit full of fallen boulders about three hundred feet below. If necessary, we could have climbed down and back up the other side—if we’d brought any climbing rope and equipment, which we hadn’t.

With the beam from his flashlight, Dominic Klein illuminated a mass of roots growing from the ceiling. Several dangled to our level.

He turned to look at me and smiled.

“No frickin’ way,” I said.

“C’mon, lieutenant, this is your chance to play Tarzan.”

I wasn’t buying it. Besides, it didn’t make any sense. I was sure Enic’s people didn’t swing from vines when they brought the Lights to the mountain.

“Klein, you lead the way,” Lefty ordered. “We need Jason alive to work the key.”

“Is that the only reason?” I asked. I was curious.

“In this particular case, yeah.” Lefty’s smile was disarming, but not reassuring.

Dom found a vine to his liking and jumped on it several times, testing its carrying capacity. Then he stepped back as far as he could before racing forward, swinging across the narrow abyss with his legs held out in front of him. This was child’s play for an Army Ranger, and he made it across with grace and competence.

But as he stood on the other side, something caught his attention off to his left. He laughed and shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” Lefty called out.

“Nothing, Sarge, just that there’s a bridge about forty meters to your right.”

All of us on this side of the fissure turned our flashlight beams in that direction. The trail narrowed here and disappeared around a rock outcropping. We shuffled through the channel single file until rounding the huge rock. Here the path widen, and as Dom had said, met up with a rickety-looking bridge made of frayed rope and wood planks.

That’s right. It was quintessential rope bridge you see in all the movies, the one that breaks at the last minute, leaving everyone stranded on the other side to face ancient dinosaurs or whatever.

I was growing more frustrated by the moment. This was so much bullshit—

Before I could voice my opposition, Angela was already halfway across the thirty-foot-long bridge. It swayed with her movements, but otherwise appeared solid and functional. She made it across without a problem. She turned to us, displaying a giddy smile. “C’mon, that was fun!”

She was acting like this was part of Disney ride. I knew better.

I wanted to go last, but Lefty insisted I go next. Both he and Bennett outweighed me, and they didn’t want risk breaking the bridge before the key-master made it across.

Remarkably, the crossing was easy and uneventful, again something we’d trained for in the Army—so many years before. Klein met up with us and we were soon back on the main path leading deeper into the mountain.

Ten minutes later the trail widened into a ball-shaped cavern. A strong and bitterly cold breeze whistled through it, causing us all to quicken our steps to reach the shelter we saw as a smaller opening on the other side of large stone cavity. I could tell where the wind blew in from right to left, originating from an opening in the ceiling and then following a flat, sloping path to an exhaust tunnel several hundred yards to my left.

We coughed from the thick dust in the wind.

The going was pretty easy here, with the floor of the cavern relatively flat.

Klein was racing ahead of us, blazing the trail…right up to the point he disappeared from view.

Lefty was ten feet behind him and skidded to a stop right about where Dom was last seen. The rest of us were at Lefty’s side a second later.

Dom surfaced a moment later, coughing and covered in thick, brown ooze. As he struggled, he upset a thin layer of dust and dirt that covered what looked to be a slowly moving river of mud. A shallow coating of water now created waves in the surface, showing us the edge of the flow. We ran along the side, staying parallel to Dom, who didn’t seem to be having too much trouble staying above the surface, as long as he didn’t struggle too much.

Lacking any kind of rescue rope, Lefty removed the belt from his pants and tossed the buckle end toward Dom. It was far too short. Quickly, we all removed our belts as well and joined them together. This almost worked, but by now, Klein had drifted farther from the shore. He was also picking up speed as the floor of the cavern began to slope more toward the exhaust tunnel.

Lefty turned to Bennett. “Take my arm; Jason, his. I’m going in.”

“Don’t do it, Sarge,” Klein yelled out. “This stuff’s like quicksand.”

Bennett already had Lefty by the arm when my Army buddy stepped into the brown ooze. He slipped immediately, finding no foothold, and sank up to this chest the thick mud. His free arm splashed in the shallow top layer of water, casting the belt out as far as he could. Dominic was drifting farther away.

Bennett, Angela and I grabbed Lefty by the arm and struggled to pull him from the mud. The suction fought us all the way, until we had Lefty free.

Dom decided not to give up without a fight and began to work his arms against the slow-moving tide hoping to make his way back to the shore. All this did was liquefy the mud even more around him. He sank deeper in, and a few seconds later, his head fell below the surface.

We waited a full minute for him to resurface, but he never did.

Lefty’s selection of curse words echoed off the lava walls of the cavern, tripling in number before fading into oblivion. We sat on the hard rock floor for several minutes before I eventually climbed to my feet.

“Let’s go. You can see on the path continues on other side, so just like the bridge before, there has to be a way to cross.”

No one protested my need to keep moving. They climbed to their feet, and with almost slow-motion movements began to help me scan along the side of the river of mud for a way to cross.

“This had better be worth it,” were the last words Lefty spoke about Dominic Klein.

********

As before, a way was found to cross the river. It wasn’t a bridge, but a rock archway where the river flowed beneath. The surface of the rock was hard, and the constant breeze in this part of the tunnel kept it clear of any traces of footprints left by other explorers. Once on the other side, we skirted the shore until meeting up with the main path.

No one spoke as we continued our journey, ducking under low arches or squeezing through narrow openings. The going was slower here and considerably more restrictive.

I couldn’t help but question how the Guardians had transported the Lights to this unlikely hiding place. Sure, I had no idea how they were carried, but this seeming like a pretty dangerous path to take with objects—that if broken—could destroy worlds. I began to seriously doubt we were in the right tunnel, believing this to be some long-abandon mine, and not the final resting place for the Galactic Lights.

I changed my mind when we came upon a wide open area at the edge of another deep crevasse. However, this abyss was spanned by a shiny metal bridge leading to a ten-foot high door, also made of metal. We definitely had come upon something special.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 18

Our arrows of light lit up the bridge spanning the dark abyss. It was only about twenty feet across by three wide, and ended at a wall of red rock. In the center of the wall was the door. It was perfectly smooth and devoid of any markings or attachments. The adjoining walls were also missing of any control panels, coding boxes or any other thing that looked like it could fit the key.

I assumed it was a door. From here it looked more like a panel set into stone.

Enic said I would know how to enter the chamber once I made it this far. Well, here I was. Now what?

“Check out the ceiling,” Bennett said.

Our lights titled upward, revealing two modestly angled slabs of polished stone forming a shallow tent-shaped design. They joined directly over the bridge, and both huge sections of stone appeared to be connected by a huge hinge system along the crest.

“A trap?” Angela inquired.

It was obvious the slabs weren’t naturally-occurring formations, and they hadn’t been placed there to provide an appealing cathedral-like architectural feature for visitors to the vault. We turned our lights on the lower ends of the slabs and could see they were easily two feet thick. If released to swing down on their hinges, anyone caught in the middle would be smashed thinner than a pancake.

“You first,” I said to Lefty.

“No way, amigo. I elect Angela. That’s just being polite. You know…women and children first.”

“And what if she’s the key-master?” I’d told Lefty about Angela poking herself with the needle. He hadn’t been too happy with the news, but seem to gain some respect her spunk after that.

Lefty shrugged. “Then we go by rank. Mister Bennett, care to volunteer?”

“We ain’t in the military no longer, Sarge,” Bennett protested. “And I ain’t volunteering for nuthin…not again.”

I picked up a rock and tossed it across the bridge in a low underarm arc. It landed at the other end of the bridge before tumbling to a stop a few feet from the metal door.

“That doesn’t tell us much,” Bennett pointed out. “It could be triggered by someone on the bridge.”

The next rock I threw was onto the metal runway. The ceiling slabs remained locked in place.

Angela picked up more rocks and began to cast them onto the bridge. A few seconds later, we were all scrounging the area for loose stones. Pretty soon, the ramp was covered in a hodgepodge of rocks, ranging from pebbles to basketball-size boulders.

“Looks safe,” I concluded. And with that statement, I volunteered to go first. I removed the key from my pocket and handed it to Angela. “Just in case…and if you need any of my body parts to help trigger the door, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of me to scrape off the slabs. Now how about a kiss for good luck?”

“I don’t think so, but I will as a reward if you make it across. That seems like more of an incentive.”

“Risking death for a single kiss…sounds like a fair trade.”

And with that I raced onto the bridge.  I was hoping that even if the slabs were triggered, my blinding speed would get me across before they slammed together. That was my thinking anyway, up until I caught a foot on one of the damn rocks littering the bridge and felt my ankle buckle. I fell forward, reaching out with desperate arms to break the fall. My head smacked a large basketball-size boulder, a rock now lit by sparkling stars within my addled eyesight. I rolled on my back, stunned and groggy.

“Get up, clumsy!” I heard Angela yell. “Hurry!”

Shaking off the throbbing in my head, I set off like a drunken track star. The thirty remaining feet of the bridge were covered after a few seconds of lopsided staggers and even more stumbles. Eventually, I skidded to a stop in the thin dust outside the tall metal door. I wobbled around until I could see my companions.  “No problem, come on—”

I stepped backwards, this time tripping over the first stone I’d thrown across the bridge. Falling again—this time backwards—I smacked the back of my head against the unforgiving metal of the shiny door. The impact wasn’t as traumatic as I expected, however…because the door had twisted inward, pivoting on a tall central axis.

Before I could regain my feet, I was surrounded by the rest of the team. They helped me up—I needed the help—and I staggered into the vault room, Enic’s Chamber of Light.

“These aliens need a course in fine art of booby-trap making,” Lefty said. “That was rather anticlimax.”

“Speak for yourself,” a babbled.

He took my head in his huge hands and scanned my eyes. “You okay, buddy. That looks like a pretty nasty bump on your forehead.”

I blinked several times and nodded. “I’ll survive.”

The door to the chamber began to close. Lefty rushed over and tested it. It spun easily with barely any effort. No latches or locking mechanism.

Angela was beside me now, holding up the shiny metal cylinder. “So this isn’t the key to the door—”

“No, but it probably fits into that,” Bennett’s voice interrupted.

All eyes turned toward him.

As the beams from our flashlights swept the chamber, we were mesmerized by the brilliant flickers and reflections dancing off the glistening walls. Enic was right. It was made of gold, and it was everywhere; lining the walls, on the floor and even the ceiling. Lefty and I stepped closer to a wall and ran our fingers reverently over the sensual surface. It was smooth as a baby’s butt and made up of thousands of brick-sized blocks of the yellow metal. The chamber expanded out from the swinging door, forming a circular room easily a hundred feet in diameter.

My near-hypnotic trance lasted only a moment until my eyes locked on the subject of Bennett’s announcement. It was a four-poster formation placed at the center of the circular room, with pillars resting on bases of gold and joining with the thirty-foot-high ceiling, also made of more blocks of gold. Each column was about ten feet apart, forming a square. And resting on a raised platform at the center of the enclosure was an ornately-adorned rectangular box with four handles and glass sides resembling an aquarium. From inside the container a myriad of shifting and dancing colors escaped, colors of infinitely more variety and brilliance than our simple flashlights.

This was a temple to the Galactic Lights.

Bennett stepped toward the formation.

“Hold up,” Lefty ordered. “Check out the litter at your feet. There seems to be a line of demarcation between the pillars.  You live on one side, die on the other.”

Lefty was right. The skeletal remains of several creatures, most small rodents of some kind were scattered on the dusty floor. I moved closer and examined the remains of something about the side of a dog. There were nothing but bones remaining, but it was the skull that told the whole story. The elongated snout was no longer elongated. Instead, there half the head was missing, having been sliced off along a perfectly straight line. The other half of the skull was gone. Obviously the unfortunate animal had stuck its nose where it didn’t belong.

All the remains on the outside of the pillar enclosure had this same distinctive feature, including a couple of remains from creatures that were of more Humanoid form. As Lefty had stated, the area outside the enclosure was littered with carcasses, while the area inside was pristine, including the dust-free floor, revealing glimmering tiles of gold.

Angela scooped up a handful of dirt from the floor and tossed it toward the center of the formation. The tiny particles ignited as they passed through the invisible plane between the pillars and evaporated in a shower of tiny glowing embers.

“Damn, that could’ve been me,” Bennett breathed.

The four of us circled the structure, surveying the columns for any evidence of the force field, as well as for a way to disarm it. There were no other objects in the room, no control consoles and nothing on the walls—nothing except a shitload of gold. I continued until I’d completed a full circuit the structure.

We saw where the lasers could be originating from. Within the gold blocks making up the pillars and their bases, we noticed a conspicuous gap measuring about half an inch wide. The line was obvious because all the other bricks fit together with machine-like precision. The laser generators had to hidden within the center of the pillars.

“Everyone…turn off your flashlights,” Angela demanded.

“What for?” Lefty asked.

“I may be imagining things, but I thought I saw something change in the Lights.”

Fingers clicked off the four individual flashlights. The room fell into quasi-darkness, illuminated now by only the glow of the Galactic Lights and their ever-changing patterns.

“Circle the enclosure again,” she ordered.

We obliged, although I didn’t have a clue what she was looking for.

“See! They’re shifting. The light’s moving with us.”

It was nearly imperceptible, but she was right. As we slowly moved from pillar to pillar, the intensity of the light did shift. However, what got my heart racing was the fact that the Lights seemed to be following me.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Angela handed me the key. “Go ahead, do it again.”

I followed orders, and a half a dozen steps later, we had our confirmation. The Lights were following me.

“That settles it,” Angela said. “The key is still coded to your DNA, not mine. It was probably a one-time programming feature, for security reasons.”

“The Lights followed him, even when he didn’t have the key,” Lefty noted. “It’s already be in contact with the Lights and passed along Jason’s aura, or however it works.”

“There’s an opening along the top of the water tank,” Bennett pointed out. “That’s what I saw at first. Looks like the key would fit in there.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t do us any good if we can’t get through the laser shield,” I mocked.

“Maybe the shield’s also coded to your DNA,” Bennett offered. “It doesn’t make sense that someone with the key could get this far and not be able to get to the Lights.”

“That makes sense,” Lefty agreed. “Go on, Jason, test Mister Bennett’s theory.”

“And how do you suppose I do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe reach across with a body part you can afford to lose.”

I looked at Angela. “Don’t say it.”

“Say what?” Her feigned look of innocence confirmed we shared the same ribald thought.

“You may not want it, but there are plenty of others who do.”

“Stop talking about your dick, LT, and get on with it,” Lefty ordered.

“Wait a minute, I haven’t agreed to anything yet. There has to be another way.”

Everyone was looking at me. You would think they were kidding, but from the serious look in their eyes, they weren’t. I had to risk a body part.

I stepped up to Lefty’s line of demarcation and extended the tip of my new, patent leather dress shoes. I’d bought them only four days before and wasn’t anxious to throw away ninety-five dollars just like that.

When I moved my foot forward, smoke began to rise from the tip and a tiny flame burst forth. I pulled my foot back and stomped it on the floor of gold, extinguishing the flame.

“That doesn’t tell us anything,” Bennett said. “The shoe could be worn by anyone.”

I glared at the man. “You really think the key-master needs to strip down naked to pass through the field? I don’t think so. Accept it; the field is still active.”

That was when I felt a burning in my foot. I looked down to see that the flame had reignited and was in the process of spreading to more of my shoe. None of us had any water with us, so I once again began to stomp the floor with my flaming foot. More smoke rose up and the flame died down. But was also when I brought my foot down on one of the numerous bones covering the floor, a hard, round bone shaped like a pencil. It wasn’t much, yet since I was already dizzy from my head injuries, I lost my balance completely and my foot shot out in front of me.

The pain was almost unbearable, sweeping over my left foot and extending up my leg. I screamed and fell back, landing on my butt. I was afraid to look at my foot, fearing there would nothing there to see.

Angela rushed to my side and cradled my body in her arms, allowing me to survey the injury. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. My foot was still there, but now the end of the shoe was gone, sheared off like the skulls covering the floor around me. I screamed out again when Lefty pulled off my shoe and the black sock.

The end of my left toe was gone, leaving only a black-tipped stump. There was no blood; the intense heat of the laser having cauterized the wound. My toe had been burned off at a slight angle down to the inner edge of the toenail. Tiny whiffs of smoke still rose from the charred end.

I gnashed my teeth and squeezed eyes tight against the pain. I was already in a mild state of shock from hitting my head. Now I felt my skin go clammy and my vison begin to blur.

“Stay with us,” I heard Lefty say. “Dammit, Jason, it’s just a toe. Get a grip, pussy.”

His assault on my manly grit helped to bring me back. My eyes bore into him. “It’s not your goddamn toe, asshole! This hurts like hell.”

Lefty smiled and squeezed my shoulder. “That’s better. Imagine what it’s like to have your whole leg chewed off? And did I tell you, that damn bug took his sweat old time doing it, too.” He looked down at my missing toe. “Yours is just a scratch.”

“Hey, look at this!” Bennett called out. “There’s markings on the pillars.”

Lefty rushed over to see what he was talking about. Angela looked at me with pleading eyes.

“Go ahead,” I said. “I’m okay.”

She kissed my cheek and then ran off to join the others, leaving me alone in my pain and sorrow. I was embarrassed by my initial reaction. This was minor compared to some of the injuries I’d seen during my Army days—although this was happening to me. I’d been damned luck during my Army days. The worst I’d personally suffered was a piece of shrapnel in my back once. I still had it in a jar—or I did. It had been kept at my house.

 “He’s right,” Angela was saying. “They’re slashes, like those on the key. Some forward, some back.” She leaned in close to a nearby column and ran a finger over the tiny engraving. “Barely noticeable.”

“They’re different on each column,” Bennett added.

Angela turned an animated face toward me. “Let me have the key, Jason.”

I was sitting up, with my arms extended behind me for support. “Go ahead.” If she wanted it, she’d have to come get it.

She retrieved the key from my pocket then rushed back to the pillars. “Okay, I see the markings,” she began. “They’re obviously significant, a combination of some kind, possibly. But in what order?”

Bennett was scrambling from column to column. “They’re different on each pillar. They’re also different sizes.”

“Rank them according to size,” Lefty ordered. My three teammates began to rush from symbol to symbol, acting like school kids playing a game of chase. They also conveniently ignored me and my charred and still-smoking stump of a toe.

Screw them. I had to fend for myself.

Each of us carried a small first-aid kit; mine was the lower pocket of my now mud-caked and torn blazer. There was another two hundred ninety dollars down the drain. I strained to keep my balance with one arm while pulling out the kit out with my right hand. I used my teeth to pull back the Velcro flap on the pouch and then removed a small bottle of aspirin. With just a thumb, I popped open the lid and took a swig, capturing four or five of the coated pills in my dry mouth. I did my best to swallow them before rifling through the kit for the syringe of painkiller I knew was there. One-handed, I took the self-contained injector and stabbed my left thigh through the cloth of my pant leg. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, but just knowing relief was coming gave me a psychological boost.

“Okay, we know the symbols from smallest to largest,” Angela was saying. “Now which way do we dial them in, large to small, or small to large? We may only get one shot at this.”

All eyes turned to me. When I noticed, I shook my head. “I have no idea,” I groaned. “Enic didn’t say anything about a combination. He also didn’t say anything about a damn laser shield.”

 “We’ll have to chance it,” Angela offered. “I’ve never known aliens to be that creative. Most progressions are small to large, growing in intensity. I say we dial the symbols in like that.”

Again, they looked at me. “Just do it, dammit,” I snapped. “I don’t have an opinion either way.”

Angela lifted the cylinder so she could more closely examine the hash markings on the black ring at the opposite end of the key from the needle. She knew the order, so like with an everyday combination lock, she twisted the dial, lining up the first symbol with a conspicuous mark along the flat end of the cylinder. Then she turned it back in the opposite direction, past the first symbol and then matched up the mark along the top with the next largest hashtag. She repeated the process two more times until the progression was complete.

There was no Eureka moment, nor click or sign of any kind that the laser shield was deactivated. As a matter fact, no one knew for sure if they had done anything at all except waste five minutes they could have used to help me.

“Did it work?” Bennett asked, giving voice to what we were all thinking.

Lefty took him by the arm and pretended to throw him through the space between the pillars. “Let’s find out.”

There was no danger, but Roger still he jerked away and scowled at his commander. “Knock it off, Sarge. That ain’t funny.”

Angela lifted one of the bones off the floor and tossed it toward the aquarium holding the Lights. It flew through without a problem and clattered to the floor at the base of the platform.

 “That did it!” Angela exclaimed. Even then, no one rushed to test the theory with real flesh.

“Don’t look at me,” I growled. “I’ve already gave at the office.”

Lefty steeled his jaw and stepped into the enclosure, albeit in extreme slow-motion. He survived, with all body parts intact.

If I thought deactivation of the laser shield meant my teammates would now turn their attention back to helping me, I was gravely mistaken. The three of them invaded the holding area around the Lights and pressed in close to the aquarium, their noses as close to the glass as they dared to get a closer look at the Lights.

“Angela, try the key,” Lefty prompted.

“Wait!” I called out. “Opening the container could be dangerous.”

They stared at me with blank expressions for a good five seconds, before all turning in unison back to the container. Angela examined the opening for the key. “There’s a hole at the other end; it must go in needle-first.”

Despite my warning, she inserted the key. It stopped with about half its length still showing.

The ornately carved lid began to slide quietly off the top, gliding along on hidden bearings until it extended a foot-and-half over the edge. Then it cycled downward and locked into place along the side, obscuring one of the smaller faces of the aquarium.

The platform on which the Lights rested was about three feet high, and the container itself was less than two feet tall. Lefty and Bennett could lean over and look down into the calm water at the Lights. Angela had stand on her tip-toes to do the same. At least she had both her toes to help her….

From where I sat, I had to settle for the view through the glass sides of the container. I could see the individual Lights—five of them—each resting on an assigned cradle made of three arms extending up from the bottom of the tank. The water was crystal clear, allowing the brilliance of their illumination to dance throughout the room.

Even then, the damn things weren’t what I expected.

Sure, they were each about the size of a softball, but contrary to my assumptions, they weren’t perfectly round and with a smooth, unblemished surfaces. In fact, each Light seemed to be of a slightly different shape, and more oblong than round. Also, there were knobby clumps of material on their exteriors, made of what appeared to be calcified deposits. I reasoned this could be a byproduct of their thousand-year immersion in water, and not part of the Light’s original crystalline material.

They were, however, just as beautiful and hypnotic as I’d imagined in the way the fire burned within the deadly objects.

After a moment—and to my relief—Angela withdrew the key from its holder and the top panel returned to seal the container. I’d been expecting someone—either Lefty or Bennett—to reach inside and extract one of the Lights, just so they could say they held the center of a supernova explosion in their hand. Bravado fortunately gave way to caution.

Angela came to my side again and helped me to my feet. The drugs were kicking in, and I hardly felt the pain anymore. I sat on a ledge of one of the pillar platforms as she took an antibacterial ointment from the first-aid kit and coated my blackened toe in it. Next, she wrapped the whole disgusting mess in a generous helping of white gauze. Infection was the primary worry with burns, and I classified the vaporizing of the end of my big toe as fitting that category.

After struggling to get what remained of my sock on over the gauze, Angela loosened the strings of my ruined shoe and placed it on my foot. The white, lumpy gauze oozed out the now-open end, as if I was wearing a very expensive sandal on my left foot. Still, it would help contain and support the injury, allowing me to walk without too much discomfort. After that, I took my turn staring through the sides of the container at the magical Galactic Lights.

“What now, Sarge?” Bennett asked.

He tapped the attached handles that made up the golden frame of the container. “This thing was built to be carried. Now we have to carry it back to the ship.”

“It’s still going to be heavy with all that water. And we still have to disconnect the water lines,” Bennett pointed out.

He was right. Rising out of the golden base, were two metal tubes connected to the tank. Water was being circulated through the container, both to keep the fluid clean and to regulate temperature, according to Enic. I was told not to remove  the Lights from the water, or they could overheat.

Lefty looked at me with a scowl on his face. “I suppose you’re going to wimp out and not help us get this thing back to the ship.”

“Dude, I’m a casualty of war, but I’ll be more than happy to supervise.”

“I can help,” Angela offered. No one questioned her ability. “It’ll take about an hour to get out of here. Fortunately, we know where to go and what to expect.”

“What about the gold?” Bennett asked.

Yeah, what about the gold? I looked around the room and began to make some mental calculations. All the bars making up the structures and lining were of a uniform size. There had to be ten thousand or more of them, each weighing at least twenty-five pounds. Two-hundred fifty thousand pounds of gold. And that was just in one layer. The walls, floor and ceiling could be made up of multiple layers beyond what we could see. That would certainly be enough to rebuild my house. Hell, I could probably rebuild the entire Enclaves with that much gold.

“Once we complete the mission, we’ll come back,” Lefty told Bennett. Then he turned to me and smiled. “Of course, with a much larger ship.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 19

In reality, it took us over two hours to haul the half-filled tank of water and planet-destroying eggs back to the Enterprise. Even pumped full of drugs, I was the limiting factor. My left foot pulsed with excruciating pain and Angela ended up spending most of her time helping me along rather than spelling the men carrying the container.

By now it was mid-afternoon on Ackonnon, but to the four of us it was well past midnight in relative time. Even as weary as we all were, we knew couldn’t stay on the planet. The sooner we got back into space and clear of Quad territory, the sooner we could relax.

I was shot up with even more drugs, while Lefty and Bennett volunteered to take the first watch. They would pilot the ship off the planet and back to Union space while Angela and I got some sack time. There was still a three-day journey ahead of us, and I couldn’t wait to get to a real hospital and have my left toe taken care of. If I could sleep all the way back, that would be great. So without protest, I collapsed onto the bed in the starboard stateroom and was in la-la-land two minutes later.

********

The burning pain in my foot woke me three hours later. I cursed at my watch, frustrated that I hadn’t slept any longer. What I needed was a booster shot…and then another, enough to knock me out for the duration. I wouldn’t complain.

I found the steady hum of the gravity generators soothing, along with the otherwise relative quiet of the ship. I hobbled to a supply cabinet and removed another syringe of painkiller and injected myself. I met my eyes in the mirror, barely recognizing the person looking back at me. There was an angry red bruise on my forehead, swollen to the size of a half dollar, while my black hair was mussed and matted. Prominent dark circles painted the area under my eyes and the lids would hardly stay open. I was also starving and dehydrated. I would wolf something down from the food processor before returning to bed.

But before that, I wandered into the pilothouse, wanting to thank Lefty and Bennett for helping me. It had been an eventful week—to say the least—but now we were on the downhill stretch. Another couple of hours would move us out of the Quad and back into the relative safety of Union space. I was curious how much farther we had to go.

The pilothouse was dim, lit only by the light from the monitors. Bennett was in the pilot seat, arms folded across his chest and dozing. Lefty had his long body draped over the two back seats, his butt in one, his legs straddling the other. He was also asleep. So much for maintaining discipline while on watch….

I didn’t want to wake them; proximity alarms would do that just fine if need be. The nav screen was lit, so I took the opportunity to check our location. There were only a few stars highlighted, but there was something odd about them. I almost shrugged it off, but instead I leaned in closer to the screen and read the labels assigned to each star. Andeson and Kannados. I reached past the sleeping Bennett and tapped a key to insert a track line for our course. It was broken into a solid line for where we’d been and a dashed line for where we were headed. It bisected the screen from the lower right to the upper left.

Unless the screen’s orientation had been changed, we were headed in the opposite direction from where we should be going.

“Wake up, Roger, we’re off course!”

Bennett bounded forward, startled awake instantly and ready for action. This was a trait shared by most experienced military personnel.

He scanned the screen and then looked up at me, desperation in his eyes.

Lefty was awake, as well.

I plopped down in the co-pilot’s seat and reached for the controls. “How’d we get so off course? We’re heading farther into the Quad, not out of it.”

“Relax, Jason, everything’s under control.” Lefty delivered his words without emotion or concern. In fact, it was the steady cadence in his voice that made me stop in my tracks and turn to face my old friend.

He stared at me with sad eyes, lips pursed and a slight shake of his head. I looked at Roger Bennett. He’d shifted his position so he could face me; muscles tense, ready to pounce.

“What’s going on, Lefty?” The throbbing pain in my foot faded away as more pressing matters took priority. Call it sixth sense, but I already knew the answer to my question.

“Sorry, LT, but there’s been a change of plans.”

I shook my head. “That I doubt. I think this has been the plan all along.”

Lefty looked at Bennett. “I told you he was smart, one of the best squad leaders I ever had.”

“Where are we going?”

“Annoc-Conn.”

“To destroy the planet?” I shouted. “And then after that, the others on the list, including Earth?”

Bennett slipped out of the pilotseat and stationed himself at the door to the pilothouse. He had a flash weapon in his hand, ready if Angela decided to join the party.

“I don’t know anything about that list of targets. It wasn’t part of the original operation,” Lefty answered.

“What do you mean, not part of the operation? Who are you working for?”

“We’re actually working for Enic’s group of Guardians.”

“His own people had him killed?”

“No, that was someone else. In fact, the whole thing became a three-ring circus, with so many parties involved it was hard to keep score.”

“Maybe you should begin at the beginning…ol’ buddy.”

Lefty sighed. “I suppose I owe you that.” He looked at Bennett. “A few years back, about the time I got this—” he rapped his prosthetic left leg—“my team and I shifted focus, from working security gigs to specializing in galactic treasure hunting. We saw the decision as having the potential to be a lot more lucrative and far less dangerous. We would either find things for people willing to pay us by the job, or we’d track down exotic treasures on our own and then sell them off to the highest bidder.” He stretched out a wicked grin. “Sometimes the items we acquired weren’t actually missing; they just belonged to someone else at the time.”

He paused and leaned toward me, turning serious again. “Then we got a line of the granddaddy of them all, the Galactic Lights. By then, there were plenty of rumors circulating about some major event about to take place involving the Lights, all of which led us to believe they were real. That’s when we learned of the Guardians and our friend Enic Jor.”

Lefty leaned back and locked his hands behind his head. “By that time, me and the boys had acquired a reputation as people who could get things done. I arranged a meeting with a member of Enic’s group who didn’t want the old bug to give up their greatest treasure. Unfortunately, even this dude didn’t know where Enic kept the Lights.” Lefty beamed me a smile. “However, we did know where they would eventually end up. So my team got the gig protecting Enic on Sylox. Eventually the Lights would be brought there and that’s when we’d make our move.

“Unfortunately, others found out about the Lights and Enic’s plan to bribe the conference leaders. A third party showed up on the scene, wanting to make the Suf-D’s the sole superpower in the galaxy. They needed the destructive power of the Lights to make that happen. Bottom line: Everyone was gunning for poor Enic.

“And that’s when you came along and befriended him. Once you learned the location and had the key, plans changed.”

Lefty stopped his briefing and smiled. “And that brings you up to date.”

“So what happens to the Lights?” I asked.

“We’re going to fulfill our original contract.”

“With the Guardians?”

“Exactly. And get this, Jason…they’re paying us fifty million in equivalent Union credits, good anywhere in the galaxy.” He looked at Bennett. “And that’s not counting the chamber of gold. Tell you what, lieutenant, if you go along, we’ll cut you in for a share.”

A piece of fifty million…plus the gold. Damn.

But wait….

“What about Earth? I’m all for making a buck, but not at that cost.”

“Didn’t you hear me? We’re giving the Lights back to the same people who’ve been protecting the galaxy from them for a thousand years. If you ask me, letting the Union have them is more of a risk than anything else. Most of the damn aliens don’t like Humans; you know this better than most.”

“What about Angela?” I asked. “I don’t think she’ll see things the same way as we do.”

“Even for a few million dollars slipped her way?”

I shook my head. “She has this whole by-the-book thing going on. I think she’d rather go along with Enic’s original plan and see where things settle out.”

“But you’re okay with the plan?” Lefty asked, literally sitting on the edge of his seat.

“I can’t see a downside…as long as Earth doesn’t be blown to bits.”

The relief on Lefty’s face was sincere and evident. “That’s great man. For a moment there, I was afraid I was going to have to kill you.”

“You could try,” I said, the defiance in my words masking my hidden concern. I’d been worried about that, too. But if Lefty was still planning to kill me, I’d rather pick the time and the place for him to try, rather than the other way around.

********

Before I returned to my cabin, we discussed how to keep Angela from learning our true destination. She had a lot of hidden skills, and celestial navigation was probably just one more. Even then, she’d find out, and then Lefty would have to replay of his sales pitch for her. He was counting on me helping when the time came. After all, Angela and I had a bond, or at least I thought we did.

I was sacked out when Angela woke up and began to wander around the starship. Roger Bennett came to my cabin to give me a heads up.

“How much farther to go?” I asked.

“Another six hours,” he answered. “She doesn’t seem that curious about our course, but I think you should get up and distract her.”

I liked the sound of that. The other men onboard had conceded the contest to me. Angela was mine…if she agreed. A minor detail.

********

 “Hey you,” I said as I entered the main salon. Angela was seated at the solitary dining table, poking at a plate of processed brown stuff.

“I thought you wanted to sleep all the way back to…to Sylox,” she said with little emotion. “How’s your foot?”

“I got up a few hours ago and gave myself another shot. It doesn’t feel that bad now. Thanks for asking.”

“Glad to hear it.” Again with that bland, almost cursory response.

I poured a cup of coffee and joined her at the table. “What’s wrong? You seem down.” She didn’t answer. “C’mon, cheer up. We won.”

She lifted her head and our eyes met. There was no joy in her beautiful orbs.

“I would, if I didn’t know how screwed I am.”

Her reply caught me off guard. She spoke again before I could say anything. “And the really sad part about it, I don’t know how involved you are in all this?”

I blinked several times, growing more nervous by the second. “What are you talking about?”

Her smile was sour and sardonic. “Are you going to sit there and tell me you don’t know we’re not headed for Sylox? You think I’m really that stupid? This is my job…I’m an investigator, and a damn good one.”

“I…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Knock it off, Jason. I’m not one of your gullible real estate clients who believe everything that comes out of your mouth. I can read a nav chart as well as anyone.”

She had me dead to rights. “We’re returning the Lights to the Guardians,” I explained. “It’s the best thing all around.” Then I tried to sweeten the pot. “And we’re all going to make a shitload of money—you included.”

Her gray-blue eyes bore into me. “You really believe that bullshit? Hell, maybe you are just a simple-minded dupe in all this.”

I was too nervous to react to the insult. “Giving the Lights back to the Conn is better than letting Kinness and his band of alien crooks controlling them. There’s too much political maneuvering going on behind the scenes for my tastes. Just look what happened to me with the whole Unity Stone Affair.”

“You really don’t know, do you?” she asked, shaking her head.

I didn’t know what to say.

“As the lead investigator into the attempts on Enic’s life, I had access to all the resources the Union has available. Did you know your friend, Lefty Rodriquez, received a six million dollar payment weeks before he began working security for President Jor?”

“That was probably just a deposit from the Guardians. It was his job to intercept the Lights on Sylox.”

“That would be fine…if the money came from Annoc-Conn.”

“It didn’t?”

She shook her head. “The aliens in the Quad think they’re pretty smart, but they don’t have a clue what the Union and the Amelians are capable of. I was able to trace the money to a depository on Masnix-4.” When she saw the blank look on my face, she explained. “It’s a planet within the Suf-D Confederation. From there, I tracked it to Diplophern, the home planet of the Suf-D’s. It wasn’t too hard follow.”

I was desperate for a counter to her argument. “Not all Guardians are Conn, Angela. Just look where the Lights were hidden. Ackonnon is in Suf-D territory. Maybe there’s a contingent of Guardians on Diplo…matic, or whatever you called that planet. And there were Conn fighting us back on Sylox. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in this game.”

She studied my face. “I’m glad to see you’re an innocent in all this, Jason, but you’re coming down on the wrong side. Believe what you want, but Rodriquez isn’t delivering the Lights to the Guardians. The money originated from a Resurgence account. He’s giving the Lights to the same people who want to destroy Earth.”

I sat up straighter and looked toward the open door of the pilothouse. With all the natural masking sounds a starship produced—along with our whispers—I was sure Lefty and Bennett hadn’t heard our conversation.

“What are you going to do?” I asked the Consulate criminal investigator and Kung-Fu master.

“It’s too late. Remember, I’m damn good at my job, especially at reading body language. Rodriquez already knows. I saw it in his eyes. He’ll be ready for anything I try. And I’m more than expendable; I’m actually a dangerous liability. I’ll be surprised if I survive the journey to Annoc-Conn. There’s no reason to keep me alive.”

“What about me?” I said. “They think I’m one of them.”

Angela smirked. “Don’t take this wrong, sweetheart, but you’re a cripple. And besides that, there’s nothing keeping you alive, either.”

“Lefty and I are friends—”

“Friends who lie and deceive each other. Good luck hanging your hat on that hope, Mister King.”

Angela barely reacted when Lefty entered the salon from the pilothouse. She simply placed a small forkful of brown mush in her mouth and began crewing.

I turned my gaze upon Lefty. Our eyes met, and for a moment time stood still. Then my old Army buddy pursed his lips and shook his head.

“Dammit, Jason, now what am I supposed to do with you?”

Shit!

“You still need me to open the tank,” I blurted.

“How do you figure?”

“The key’s coded to my DNA. You don’t think the Guardians would allow the key to work unless the key-master was still alive? Otherwise, just having a sample of my blood would be enough.”

“They’ll just cut the damn thing open.”

“And risk rupturing one of the Lights? Remember, no one knows for sure what it takes to break them. Five of the damn things going off at once would make for an exciting Fourth of July in whatever section of the galaxy they go off.”

Lefty was silent for a moment. “Okay, that gives you a reprieve, but not your girlfriend—”

“I’m not his girlfriend.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say. Give it time, Ms. Cole.”

“I would…if you’d let me.”

Lefty laughed. “Good comeback. Hell, I may keep you around just for the comic relief.”

“She stays alive, or I won’t help!” I declared.

“The key is operated remotely. As long as you’re alive, you don’t have any say in it.” He cocked his head at me. “Or are you telling me you’ll kill yourself to keep me from turning the Lights over to the Resurgence? Spare me the dramatics, lieutenant, but you’re not the type.”

I was getting frustrated that everyone seemed to be able to read me better than I could read myself. “I would do it…to save Earth,” I huffed.

Lefty nodded. “If you were sure you could save it. But you can’t, and you know it. But I’ll tell you what.” He stopped and smiled. “I’ll keep Angela alive as long as you cooperate and not give me any trouble. After that—and I get my money—I’ll let you both go. At that point, it’ll be too late for you to do anything.” He paused and we locked eyes again. “Otherwise, I’ll be glad to take my time with the lovely Ms. Cole. As I recall, I still owe her for giving me this.” He rubbed the still-red gash on his forehead. “Do we have a deal, or do I toss her out the airlock right now?”

“Chill out, Rodriquez, I’ll behave…as long as you leave her alone.”

“Good. I’m glad that worked. You know, I’ve seen this same scenario play out a thousand times—in movies.” Then Lefty’s forehead furrowed and his eyes burned into me. “I’ve also seen how most of those plots turn out, with the good guy saving the day. But trust me, ol’ buddy, I’m not going to be stupid enough to let you get the drop on me.” He looked at his watch. “Be smart and chill for another six hours. After that, the two of you can go…and live happily ever after, if that’s what you want.”

“Do I still get my cut?”

I was curious.

Lefty burst out laughing and left the room. He also didn’t say no.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 20

Angela and I weren’t allowed in the pilothouse for the descent to the surface of Annoc-Conn. Although injured, he knew I was a trained Army Ranger—rusty, of course—and Angela was a threat in her own right. But even with the blast shield covering the broken out viewport, we stood in the salon looking into the control room as the ship landed, with Bennett standing guard, flash weapon at the ready.

For a man about to make the lion’s share of fifty million, Lefty didn’t appear to be in a very good mood. He snapped orders at Bennett, who grunted and obeyed. Angela and I were hustled to the main exit hatch, about to get our first look at the famous planet of Annoc-Conn.

When the hatch cycled open, we were hit with a combination of dry, dusty air and a blast of heat, along with the blinding brilliance of a late morning sun. Bennett ordered us out, and as my eyes adjusted, I found we were in the middle of an arid desert made up of rust-colored sand. In the distance, pillars and spires of the same ruddy hue rose into a blue sky, where wisps of dust danced on rising torrents of heated air.

As Bennett prodded me with the barrel of his weapon, I was relieved to find that the gravity of Annoc-Conn was pretty light, probably only half of Earth’s. This lessened the pressure on my injured toe—although I had to admit the latest injection of the miracle painkiller was doing its job just fine. I felt almost stupid good.

Lefty appeared at the hatch and scanned the landscape. He focused on something and followed his eagle-like stare to an approaching dust cloud descending a nearby hill. Moments later, a tiny caravan of three bulbous-tired vehicles pulled up alongside the Enterprise. A trailing cloud of dust engulfed us momentarily, and I was disappointed to see Bennett staring intently at us, despite the cloud. The man was a professional; it would take more than a passing distraction for me to get the jump on him.

Three tall, brown-skinned aliens exited the lead vehicle, huffing and moving in slow motion. I’d seen creatures like this before, but only briefly, during the battle at the conference center on Sylox. Were these Suf-D’s, or just some other random race? It really didn’t matter, because nine more of them poured out of the other trucks, all armed with flash rifles.

Whoever they were, they were in charge.

Lefty strode past us and up to one of the aliens. The leader was about the same height as the others, but he seemed a little heavier, and the craggy texture of his skin told me he was older than most of the others. He wore an expensive-looking outfit made of gray cloth—almost like a Human business suit yet with no collar, just a v-shaped dip exposing coarse brown skin. The focus of his large, brown eyes seemed to dart around frenetically. I couldn’t tell if this was natural or from a state of excitement. The high timbre of his voice convinced me it was from excitement.

“You have the Lights…here with you…Mon Rodriquez?” The alien’s voice was stilted and came in short bursts. He also seemed to be straining to breathe.

“As requested,” Lefty answered, squinting against the drifting dust and brilliant sunlight. “Did you bring the payment?”

The alien turned to the row of vehicles. “It is underground…in the preparation center. You will join us…for the trip.”

Lefty studied the numerous armed guards. “Why so many?” he asked the lead alien.

“You…have the Lights. It is a precaution…against others.”

“Just so it’s not for us.”

“You are our friend. You have brought…the greatest treasure. We worship you.”

I recoiled when I heard the word worship, hoping it was just a figure of speech. Lefty didn’t seem too impressed, either. Rather, he turned to Bennett and motioned for him to herd Angela and me to the lead vehicle.

A squad of aliens entered my ship and exited a few moments later carrying the container with the Galactic Lights. A cloth was draped over the tank. The leader ordered them to stop, then he pulled away a corner of the covering. He inhaled sharply as the flash of the Lights danced on his brown skin, even in the stark light of day. He replaced the cover and then directed the others to place the Lights in the second vehicle. They opened the back, and I got the impression a space had been prepared for the tank, one that would keep it safe and secure for the journey to wherever we were headed.

The transport was roomy inside, and Bennett slipped into the third-row seat with me and Angela next to him. The lead alien and Lefty took the seat in front of us, while two more aliens sat in front, one driving.

The old alien turned his head to look at me and Angela. “I do not recall…seeing you before.”

Lefty answered for us. “The male is the coded key-master.”

“And…the female?”

“She’s along for the ride.”

“I am Porlok Grunge, of the Uniform Resurgence of Light and Righteousness Committee Four.”

I blinked. That was one hell of a name for an organization. But with a last name of Grunge, it all seemed to fit.

I focused on the number four in the title. “Are there more branches of your organization?” I asked.

The alien frowned and didn’t answer.

“You said you were committee four. I’m asking if there are more committees?”

“I do not…understand. It is…Committee Four.”

“Never mind; I was just curious. Where are we going?”

“You don’t need to answer him, Porlok,” Lefty said. “He’s not part of the team.”

“You said…he is the key-master.”

“The result of unforeseen circumstances is all. He’s here for a specific purpose and that’s all.”

“Will he…remain behind?”

I locked eyes with Lefty. “He’s going to blow up the planet, isn’t he?”

Before Lefty could answer, the alien rambled on in his odd, stilted way. “Of course…it is our destiny. And then…others.”

“Including Earth?”

“Don’t answer that!” Lefty ordered.

“He doesn’t have to!” I cried out. “You just did it for him. What the hell are you doing? You’re a Human, and you’ll let this sweating piece of alien shit destroy your homeworld?”

A vein pulsed in Lefty’s neck. “So what if Earth is destroyed? You’ve been out here long enough to know that there’s an unlimited number of Earth-like worlds, all offering a great place to retire in luxury. And, buddy, I mean in real luxury! I’m not getting any younger. Fifty million will take care of me for more years than I have left.”

“You can’t be serious? It can’t be all about the money…and what you can buy with it. What about the Human race. Don’t you care about anyone but yourself?”

“There’s already about a billion Humans out here in the galaxy. The race won’t die off; we’ll just resettle on other worlds. Besides, I’m not the one who’s going to destroy the Earth…he is.”

“But you’re giving him the means to do it, dumbass!”

“If not me, then someone else.”

I’d heard enough. Now I nearly scaled the back of Lefty’s seat, ready to ripe is throat out with my bare hands. In my rage, I’d forgotten about Bennett.

Lefty’s sidekick laid a savage blow to the back of my head with the grip of his flash weapon. Although the weapon was made of hardened plastic, he delivered the hit with such ferocity that it felt like I’d been struck with a twenty-eight ounce framing hammer. I already had a bump there from when I fell against the door to the Chamber of Light, and so I got the message. I fell back in the seat and let my eyes roll back in my head. Then I passed out.

Well, not really. Fortunately for me, the drugs coursing through my body mitigated the pain to just about nothing, but I wasn’t going to let Bennett know that. To my joy, I heard Angela screaming, protesting what just happened. She took my head in her arms and pressed it tight against her ample breasts. Until then, this was the closest I’d gotten to second base with the woman.

My right hand fell limply against her left butt cheek. I squeezed it. Angela jumped; luckily it coincided with a bump in the road we were on. Aware now of my ruse, she moved my supposedly sleeping head to her lap, much to my disappointment. Oh well. It was great while it lasted.





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 21

Through closed eyelids, I noticed when the light outside the vehicle dimmed considerably. The alien Porlok had mentioned something called the preparation center being underground. We must have arrived at our destination.

Wherever we were, we were in the middle of a desert on a heavily-populated planet. But it made sense. When one has the means of destroying an entire world with something the size of a softball, why press your luck by placing your secret lair around a lot of people who could upset your applecart. This also meant the cavalry probably wouldn’t be riding over the crest anytime soon.

The preparation center had to be some specially-designed bunker where one of the Galactic Lights would be set to detonate at a future date. Porlok didn’t strike me as the type who would sacrifice his life for the cause, not unless he had to. So the question became: what lengths was I willing to go to prevent it.

As my head rested in Angela’s lap, I mentally debated the topic. Lefty said I wouldn’t do anything crazy unless I was sure my sacrifice would save the planet. It was also fact that if Porlok was left free to follow his ambitions, my shimmering blue world would be destroyed. Now I wondered if I really did had the balls to save it?

I thought back to my Army days. I was a different person back then, and the prospect of committing the ultimate personal sacrifice for the sake of duty, country and honor was a given. Most of us had no doubt what we would do if the time came. But things were different now—I’d changed. But had I changed enough that my own life was worth more than the lives of nine billion of my fellow Humans?

I know it shouldn’t have even been question; however, I didn’t know any of those nine billion people. At this point, it was a toss-up.

Besides, this was no easy task I was contemplating. For me to prevent the destruction of Earth, all the Galactic Lights would have to be destroyed. This line of thinking also left me with the name Annoc-Conn echoing in my brain. The Lights were here, and if I could find a way of destroying them to save the Earth then, Annoc-Conn would have to be sacrificed.

I mentally shrugged in my fake unconsciousness. So be it. I had my own priority list of worlds whose welfare I valued above all others. So sorry, huge purple bugs, but Earth took precedence.

The vehicle came to a stop. As everyone began to exit, I knew I couldn’t keep up the charade much longer. But that didn’t mean I had to snap out of it completely.

I stumbled and bobbed my head, letting my eyeballs wander around in their sockets.

“How hard did you hit him?” Lefty bitched at Bennett, as Angela was led away by a pair of brown-skinned aliens.

“He must’ve already had a concussion,” Roger said in his defense. “It shouldn’t matter; he’s still alive.”

“Make sure he stays that way.”

“What about blondie? With King out of it, what do we need her for?”

“Keep her around. I’d like to see the look on her pretty face when we get the fifty million dollars. Besides, we’ll them both here on Annoc-Conn when we go. Jason’s a friend of mine. I’ll let the Lights kill him for me…and his girlfriend, too.”

I was helped along by two tall aliens, who appeared winded and distressed. Either they were both terribly out of shape, or the gravity of Annoc-Conn was getting the best of them. This opened up some interesting possibilities, should the opportunity present itself for some close-quarters combat.

“Bring the Lights…into the chamber,” I heard Porlok order.

We entered a room and I was placed in a chair. When I opened my addled eyes, Angela was seated next to me, tight-lipped and firm-jawed. Her eyes were locked on the tank holding the Lights, and I knew her thoughts were consumed by the same objective as mine. One of us had to destroy the Lights before they could be used to destroy Earth.

That’s when I realized that I may not be the one who turns us all into radioactive stardust. In fact, Angela had a much better chance of doing just that. All her toes were intact.

********

That bastard Bennett was watching Angela and me with an eagle’s stare, as half a dozen aliens scurried about the room, doing whatever aliens did to prepare to destroy a world. We hadn’t been unrestrained, and Roger wasn’t taking any chances with us.

I was still recovering from the most-recent blow to my head—the third to my cranium in less than a day. Although I’d faked my unconsciousness, that didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling the effects of the trauma my head had suffered. The bottom line: Most of my wooziness was an act, but not all. I also knew the drugs wouldn’t last forever. Something had to be done soon, otherwise I’d be out of it for real.

The container with the Galactic Lights had been placed on a metal table about twenty feet long. Also on the table was bolted a magnetic rail system running about half its length, with a bullet-shaped projectile eight inches long by three in diameter resting in a slot at the near end. A three-sided cradle sat at the end of the run, designed to hold one of the Lights firmly in its grip. The set-up was simple, yet effective. A timer could be set to release the projectile long after the bad guys had gone. Then wham—one ruptured Light, followed by one missing planet, as well as a couple of star-crossed lovers.

Lefty handed Porlok the key to the tank. Once inserted, the obedient lid slid off as it had before, then using a specially-designed set of tongs, the alien reached into the tank and removed one of the Lights.

As before, I found the object to be different than I’d imagined, and now that it had been removed from the magnifying effect of the water, it appeared even smaller than before. Its form was also misshapen and covered in crusty nodules. The glow from within continued—even out of the water—yet the effect was diminished.

Porlok placed the Light in the cradle at the end of the rail gun. An assistant carefully closed the arms of the holder around the object, hoping that even this slight pressure wouldn’t be enough to fracture the surface.

“How can you let them do this?” Angela spoke for the first time. “I don’t give a damn about Annoc-Conn, but they’re going to use the Lights to destroy Earth.”

“Shut up!” Lefty barked. “Keep talking and I’ll end you right now—”

“Yes…Earth.”

Lefty turned to Porlok. “What about Earth?”

“Strange.”

“What’s strange?”

“Sponsors insisted…no reason.”

“I don’t understand,” said Lefty. He began to pace the room.

“Added at…the end. We obey…Earth will be…destroyed.”

“What do you mean?” Angela asked. “Earth wasn’t one of your original targets?”

“Correct.”

“Don’t bother with her,” Lefty snapped. “Can we get paid now? I don’t want to be anywhere near this system when that thing goes off.”

The wide-eyed alien turned and purred. It was a strange scene. “Yes…you may. And your key-master…no longer needed. Lights will be transferred…into a new container. Illoc…show them credits.”

Bennett and Lefty were out the preparation room a moment later, having shoved Angela and me ahead of them and into the corridor. A brown-skinned alien took the lead.

“How can you let them do this?” Angela said again. “Aren’t you Human?”

“I said shut up. You’re about to see why I don’t give a damn about Earth anymore.”

A door slid open and we entered another room, a larger storage area with twenty-foot ceilings. In the center were two metal pallets, each stacked with bundles of Union credits four feet wide by three feet high. From the blue indicators on the credit card-size chips, I could tell they were thousand-unit denominations. I knew the approximate conversion rate for dollars to Union currency. Fifty-million dollars would be about a hundred and fifty thousand of the Union chips.

“How the hell are we going to get all those back to the ship?” Bennett asked, gasping at the fortune before him.

“I’ll worry about that,” Lefty snapped. “You keep your eye on Jason and Angela.”

He turned to the alien who had escorted us to the room. “Do you have a forklift—some kind of lifting device—so we can load this into a transport vehicle?”

“Yes…I will arrange.”

The creature ducked out of the room.

Lefty and Bennett relaxed visibly, at least as far as their bodies went. Their faces told another story. Both huge men were smiling like babies. Lefty stepped up to the closest pallet and took a stack of thousand credit chips in his hand. He walked up to Angela. “This is why I don’t give a damn about Earth anymore. Who needs it?”

“How about the nine billion people who still live there?”

“Relax, sweetheart. Getting rid of nine billion Humans would be a good start. In fact, erasing all that bloody history from the homeworld might give us all a chance at a fresh start.” He looked at Bennett with that wide, silly grin. “Starting with us!”

I took a step toward the pallets, leading off with my left foot. Bennett lifted his weapon, but held back from firing when I lost my balance and stumbled forward. I fell against the stack of credits, upsetting about a million dollars’ worth of the chips in the process.

“Dammit, Jason,” Lefty yelled. “I should make you clean that up.”

That’s when I placed a hand under the first full stack of chips and flung them at my old Army buddy.

Union credits are pretty thin to begin with, but in the reduced gravity of Annoc-Conn they were as light as a feather. The space between Lefty and me filled with a blinding shower of plastic confetti, allowing me to launch my drug-numbed body through the air. My normal one-hundred eighty pounds weighed only about a hundred on Annoc-Conn, providing my leg muscles with enough extra oomph to send me flying Superman-like through the air. I buried a shoulder into Lefty’s stomach, knocking him to the floor, me on top. All pretense of injury was gone; I was going in for the kill.

Unfortunately, so was Lefty.

Something strong and solid lifted me off Lefty and flung me into the air. I flipped over and landed on the concrete floor. Fortunately, the light gravity lessened the impact, but I was still at a loss at to what just happened.

I scrambled to my feet, wincing as I applied pressure on my left foot. Lefty was also climbing to his feet, but with the use of only one of his legs—his prosthetic left. He squared himself to me and grinned.

“Buddy, you messed up now.” He rapped his left leg. “This thing is my secret weapon.” And with that, he launched himself in the air. The ceiling was twenty feet high. Lefty reached it easily and pushed off his hands, propelling his body toward me with the speed and power of a locomotive.

I couldn’t get out of the way before Lefty landed on me. It felt like I’d been hit by a sledgehammer, and if not for the pain-numbing drugs in my system, I would have passed out. Instead I was flattened out on the floor with Lefty on top of me.

I could see Angela and Bennett from where I lay, becoming momentarily distracted by the incredible scene I witnessed.

Bennett—having himself been distracted by my attack on Lefty—allowed Angela to deliver a staggering roundhouse kick to his chin. In fact the windmill move was so powerful that Angela spun in the air like a pinwheel from the momentum. She hadn’t taken into consideration the light gravity of Annoc-Conn and ended up high-jumping over the six-foot-tall man in the process. Bennett staggered back into her, pinning them both against the wall.

A flash bolt lit off from the weapon in Bennett’s hand, more a reaction to the hit than any defensive move. It struck the floor and flared out in my direction.

Lefty saw it too, and rolled to his right. I covered my head with my arms as the wave of intense heat swept over me, singing hair from arms, the sickly smell now filling the room.

It was my turn to roll, and none too soon. The moment I cleared the area, a shuddering thud echoed in my right ear. I looked over to see Lefty’s left foot resting in a section of cracked and splintered concrete, which just as easily could have been my skull.

I did a Superman pushup which propelled me off the floor and into a standing position. Lefty hesitated a moment before attacking, his face twisted into a savage snarl. He appeared confident in the outcome of the fight. He was probably right. I hadn’t counted on him having a bionic leg.

I looked desperately around the room for a weapon—any weapon—to help counter his deadly appendage. All I saw was Bennett’s flash weapon.

Another bolt erupted from the barrel, but this one was aimed harmless away from Lefty and me. In the meantime, Angela continued to pummel Bennett with a series of powerful blows to the man’s solar-plexus. He was already stunned by the kick, and a moment later he dropped the weapon and spun to face his attacker. That was a mistake. The much shorter woman answered by jumping off the floor, smashing the top of her head into the prominent chin of the ex-Army Ranger. The contact shattered teeth and bone. Bennett went erect and then tumbled to the floor like a falling redwood.

I focused on the gun. It was only ten feet away.

Lefty saw it, too.

I launched myself again in an all-out dive through the air. Ten feet in the light gravity wasn’t a problem. The problem came from the fact that for Lefty’s bionic leg, it was even less of a challenge.

I lie face down on the warm concrete floor, staring at the black laces of Lefty’s boot, placed strategically positioned between me and the gun. I half rolled over and looked up at the towering figure. I grinned.

Lefty didn’t grin back.

But he did disappear.

More correctly, he was sent cascading stage left as Angela’s flying body struck him from the side. The two of them tumbled apart a few feet away.

I refocused on the gun, reaching out with my right hand. I gripped it and rolled, aiming the barrel at my old friend. He was on his feet, his prosthetic leg raised and ready to be lowered onto Angela’s moaning body.

The flash lit up the room. Lefty fell away, screaming as he clawed at the right side of his face. Even though it had been a glancing strike, it was enough to sear flesh, turning it into a bubbling mass of charred and smoking skin. Lefty’s agony didn’t last long. In shock and blinded in his right eye, he collapsed to the floor and fell silent, wisps of pungent smoke rising from his scared and blackened face.

No matter how strong the drugs had once been in my system, the combination of time and abuse was causing them to wear off at an exponential rate. I limped over to Angela, feeling each agonizing step in every part of my battered body.

She had been knocked silly after tackling Lefty, but now her senses were returning.

“The Lights!”

“That’s the next thing on my to-do list.” I helped her to her feet. “Are you okay?”

She frowned and eyed my bleeding lip, torn clothing and swollen face. “Better than you, by the look of things.”

“Good. We have about twenty aliens to fight our way through.” I checked the charge on the flash weapon. “And only two bolts left.”

“I’m not worried. You saw these aliens trying to deal with the gravity here. Should be a cakewalk.”

Putting my macho tendencies aside, I stepped away and waved an arm toward the exit. “Lead on, my lady.”

“Today I’m not any kind of a lady.”

I looked back at the sleeping Lefty Rodriquez and the two pallets of Union credits. A few moments later I joined Angela at the door.


Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 22

We made first contact with the aliens when she opened the door. The one who had directed us to the room was in the corridor, blinking rapidly at the surprise encounter. Behind him were two more aliens manning a basic forklift like contraption. It had an L-shaped lifting component running attached to a thin frame with screw tracks and four wheels. There was a small control panel behind the five-foot-tall back section.

To my surprise—as well as the alien’s—Angela bowed. Instinctively, the aliens followed suit. That was their last mistake.

Angela slipped past the lead creature, leaving him to me, and moved to engage the two at the forklift. As the leader lifted his head, he met my incoming fist. I was startled to see the neck extend out by several inches, stretching the skin almost to the breaking point. He slumped to the floor, his head having snapped off his neck. The only thing holding it on was the leather-like skin.

I didn’t see how Angela handled her two aliens, only the aftermath. They were on the floor and no longer a concern.

Only the leader was armed, so I took his weapon and handed it to Angela. “This will help.”

“So will this.” She stepped behind the forklift and the shield formed by the tall back panel. She twisted a hand knob and the device moved down the corridor.

“I hope they don’t detonate the Light once they see us coming,” Angela said.

“They shouldn’t, not until they decide they can’t escape with the rest of the Lights. At that point all bets are off.”

The entrance to the preparation room was only a hundred feet along the corridor. Six aliens were standing outside the door, looking exhausted. Now they stared at the narrow forklift humming toward them. All these alien bastards were armed.

There wasn’t a lot of room to hide behind the forklift, so our ruse was discovered almost immediately. Flash bolts erupted from the barrels of alien weapons, striking the metal shield. Angela and I huddled close together, doing our best to remain sheltered. I fired my last two bolts, eliminating two of the guards.

Angela was a crack shot, and took out the other four, yet by the time we reached the entrance to the prep room, more guards had been alerted. They staggered from the prep room, not looking to have much enthusiasm for a fight in their movements. One more shot from Angela’s weapon and it was dry, after which the fight—if you call it that—devolved into close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat.

I took out my share of the brittle-boned aliens, but then with gentlemanly-like manners, I deferred the remainder of them to my beautiful partner. It was something to see.

Angela Cole was a deadly martial arts master. Combine that with the light gravity, and she looked like something out of a cartoon, a tornado of deadly spins, kicks and vicious blows. At one point I even heard her yelp with excitement. She was having fun.

It was no contest, and soon nine more aliens lay limp to the floor. All too soon, the fight was over, with no one left to kill. Angela was hardly winded. For my part, I was rapidly being consumed by the plethora of punishment I’d been through. The painkillers were wearing off.

We entered the preparation room…and immediately had to dive away from a flash bolt splashing against the metal door. More hair was singed, this time off the top of my head.

Porlok Grunge and two remaining guards stood at the far side of the room, firing at us with reckless abandon. We took cover under the long rail table. Even if we had weapons, we wouldn’t fire, not wanting to risk striking the tank holding the other four Galactic Lights.

In the end, we didn’t need weapons. The aliens exhausted their supply of flash bolts and Porlok ordered his two guards to rush us. They obviously hadn’t gotten the message we’d left in the hallway.

Obediently, the two aliens attacked. Angela and I came out from under the table and waited patiently for them to cover the distance. They looked like they were going pass out. Unfortunately—for them—they reached us. What we did to them wasn’t pretty, but it was artistic.

“Give it up, Porlok. It’s over.” I said.

“Give what…up?”

“Give up your plan to rupture the Lights,” I clarified. “All your guards are dead. You’re the only one left.”

As we cautiously approached the alien, I saw his eyes darting back and forth. We were approaching the point along the table where the exposed Light rested in its cradle at the end of the railgun. The tank with the other four Lights was located another six feet along the table.

“Easy, Porlok,” Angela said. “Just give us the Lights and you can go. You can even keep the Union credits you were going to give Lefty—to the Human. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”

“I do not…do this for credits. The Suf-D Confederation…must rule the galaxy. We have been…promised.”

“Promised?” I asked. “By who? Who has the right to promise you the galaxy?”

“Powers greater than…all of us.”

The alien stepped to his side, revealing a control station behind him. There was an illuminated display with a series of glowing numbers. The numbers meant nothing to me—not until Porlok twisted a knob and they all changed to zeros.

I reached over to the table and picked up the metal tongs the alien had used to lift the Light from its tank. I reared back and let loose with the two-foot long tool, sending it twirling in the air at incredible speed, the result of my superior Human strength.

Call me lucky…but the damn thing impaled itself into the brown-skinned alien at mid-chest; a perfect throw, as if I’d been doing it my whole life.

But this didn’t stop Porlok, at least not immediately; the bastard’s heart was probably located in his ass. He fell to his knees but still managed to place a trembling hand on a button on the control panel. He died a split second later.

“Jason!”

I didn’t need Angela to tell me what just happened. A loud electronic cycling hum filled the room, just as the thick iron bullet at the end of the rail began its journey. It accelerated—perhaps not as fast as I had suspected it would—but fast enough.

I dove for the cradle holding the Light; Angela did the same. In the light gravity of Annoc-Conn we both went airborne before landing on the smooth metal surface of the table. I slid closer to the Light, my arms extended in front of me, fingertips grasping for the tiny globe.

I was too late.

The speeding bullet struck the Light, shattering it.

I closed my eyes, praying that if there was an afterlife I wouldn’t have to recall for all eternity what the insides of a supernova looked it.

Then water splashed my face.

It took my mind a long moment to come to grips with this odd reality. Angela and I should be dead, along with everyone on the planet Annoc-Conn.

Instead, I was alive…and wet.

I turned my head toward Angela. She was also drenched in the colorful liquid, which danced over her skin in a rapidly dimming light show.

“What the hell just happened?” she asked.

I pushed myself off the table just as some of the water entered my mouth.

Saltwater.

I followed the path of the speeding iron slug, seeing how it shot off the rail and flew through the air before imbedding its mass into the masonry wall near Porlok’s control panel. It missed the tank holding the other Lights by an inch.

Back at the remains of the fifth Light, there was a scattering of small, curved shards. I took one in my fingers to get a closer look. This was the shell of the Light, and that was what it looked like to me: a shell.

It was thin and opaque, and when I squeezed my fingers, the material crumbled.

All the energy drained from me at that point as a new reality dawned on me.

Angela reached into the pool of water below the cradle and sifted through the remaining fragments. She removed something and held it up for my observation.

It was charcoal gray and about the size of a small marble.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a goddamn a pearl.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 23

With Lefty and Bennett incapacitated, and all the aliens in the complex dead, Angela and I sat on the floor of the prep room, staring out with blank expressions. There was no urgency any long. No one was going to attack us and no worlds were going to be destroyed, at least not by a set of alien oysters.

Angela jumped when I laughed out loud, breaking the tomb-like silence.

“Damn you Jason! You sacred me.”

“Sorry,” I said with a wry smile. “I can’t believe I lost my big toe…for nothing. Hell, less than nothing.”

“Just be glad the Lights aren’t what everyone believed they were. We wouldn’t be sitting here if that were the case.”

“Yeah, but all this over a bunch of…oysters. How could this have happened?”

It was Angela’s turn to smile. “The scientists always said the Lights couldn’t be what the legend said they were. They were right. I can see it now.”

“See what?”

“How it all started.”

“Please enlighten me, Miss Special Investigator Lady-Person.”

“It’s really quite simple. About a thousand years ago, some wandering con-artist came upon some of your so-called alien oysters, but these contained a form of phosphorescent micro-organism that caused them to glow with shifting colors. To the primitives of the time, they naturally assumed this be fire inside the shells. The huckster—probably a Realtor of the time—finagled a meal and a place to rest for the night with stories of the Lights’ origin, that being from the center of a supernova explosion. The myth grew from there.”

“And no one ever tried to verify the information?”

“Would you want to tinker with something that could destroy a world, especially when you have no idea what it would take to rupture one of the things?”

“I guess not.”

“Over the years, the rumors grew more outrageous, and a cult developed who saw it as their sacred duty to preserve the Lights, while protecting the galaxy from their destructive power. And now we have the Guardians. Everyone wants to believe they’re part of some higher purpose. So there you have it.”

“People are going to be really embarrassed when the truth comes out. Hell, there’s a war being fought over these things and with the balance of power in the galaxy riding on the outcome. I can’t wait to see the look on Kinness’s face when he learns the Lights are nothing more than a bunch of crusty old oysters.”

“Screw them,” Angela said. “We didn’t start the rumor, but it looks like we’re going to end it.”

Wham! It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

I turned Angela and took hold of her shoulders, my heart pounding in my throat. “Why does he have to learn the truth? Why does anyone?”

  “What do you mean?” she asked, blinking rapidly.

“You said it…screw them. There’s no reason to tell anyone the truth. Let them go on believing in the Lights. It would serve them right to continue to fear them, when only the two of us know the truth.”

“But we’d…we have to….”

“Do we?”

“But there’s only four of them left. What are we going to say happened the fifth Light?”

“We say we don’t know. Let them worry about it—The Mystery of the Missing Light. That’ll keep them awake at night. It might even provide us with some cover for all the shit that’s come down on us over the past week. You know: Don’t mess with the people who may have a Galactic Light stashed away somewhere.”

Angela leaned forward and kissed me. “I owed you that for making it across the bridge back on Ackonnon.” Then she kissed me again.

“What was that one for?”

“For being such a diabolical—yet lovable—rogue.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Chapter 24

I resealed the remaining four Lights in the security container and then Angela and I departed Annoc-Conn for Union space. It wasn’t long before we encountered a Union fleet out looking for us. This one was larger and even had a massive carrier as its flagship.

At first they didn’t let us get that close to them, not until a security crew came aboard and removed the Galactic Lights from our custody. Then the Enterprise was moved into a huge hangar bay for transport back to Sylox.

The powers that be wouldn’t leave us alone after that, even as the doctors doped me upon on some really good drugs to help with my missing toe. They grilled us over and over again about the missing Light, about the Resurgence and our involvement in the whole affair. We gave them the location of the desert complex on Annoc-Conn—having removed all evidence of the shattered Light beforehand. They found Lefty and Roger Bennett still a live yet in pretty bad shape. They also found the Union credits. Or at least most of them.

In one of our quieter moments, I showed Angela the stack of chips I’d stuffed in my pockets just before leaving the warehouse. I figured I needed something to help rebuild my house. I didn’t get away with the full cost, but it was a start.

And we were heroes. Everyone still believed the Lights to be these incredibly dangerous bombs, for a lack of a better word. And Angela and I had saved the galaxy from the evil-doers plan to use them…well, for evil. Yea for us.

Union President Kinness got on a link with the two of us and thanked us profusely, at least for the record. I found his presentation to be insincere and superficial. He still hated me; that was obvious. But I enjoyed the moment.

He asked about the missing Light. I shrugged. “Not sure what happened to it, but I’m sure it will turn up…eventually.”

“That missing Light could destroy a planet. It cannot remain at large.”

“I don’t know what to say, Mon President.”

“And you have no idea where it could be?”

I shook my head, but I couldn’t resist smiling—full tooth and threatening.

Later that night, Angela and I stood on the observation deck of the huge fleet carrier, watching the streaks of colorful suns stream past. Angela held me tight and whispered in my ear. “You truly are a diabolical son-of-a-bitch.”

“I thought that’s why you love me.”

“Love may be a little too strong of a word…but you sure are interesting.”





Treasure of the Galactic Lights

Epilogue

Lefty Rodriquez was transferred to the carrier and given medical treatment. I was told he would live—but for how long, I had no idea. There was capital punishment in the Galactic Union.

A few days later, the ship’s captain and I ran into an entourage of security personnel moving my old Army buddy along a corridor, retuning him from the sickbay and back to his cell. He was shackled, with a thick bandage wrapping half his face and a sling on his left arm.

The captain let me have a couple of minutes alone with him. The guards stood nearby.

I limped up to my ex-friend.

“Hey, LT, how’s it hanging?” Despite his current predicament, the craggy-face ex-Ranger appeared to be in good spirits, or was it just his acceptance of the inevitable? This wasn’t going to end well for him.

“How’s the arm?” I asked. “Are you going to get a new one of those, too?”

“We’ll see. It’s pretty mangled up, as is my handsome face…thanks to you.” He snickered. “I would have thought that after all these years you would have lost a step or two. You surprised me, Jason.”

“I surprised myself. But something’s been bugging me: Why did you involve me in this thing in the first place? I’ve been out of the game for too long.”

 “I didn’t involve you in nuthin. You did it all on your own.”

“Bullshit.”

“No really. When I came to your office that day all I was looking for was a place to crash. I figured that a big-shot real estate agent like you probably had some pretty fancy digs. And I was right. Everything beyond that was your own doing. Of course, I should have known. You always did have a habit of sticking your nose into things that didn’t concern you.”

“I lost my big toe because of you.”

Lefty laughed. “I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m sure the aliens also have artificial toes. You’ll be better than new in no time.”

“So I’ll be Jason King: the Man with the Bionic Toe? Hardly the makings of a new galactic superhero.”

“Hey, don’t knock it.” Lefty rapped his prosthetic left leg. “I wouldn’t leave home without mine.”

The guards moved in after that and perp-walked him down the corridor. Yet just before disappearing around a bend, Lefty turned back to me, and with a big grin, winked with his one good eye.

I found out a week later what the wink was all about.

It seems that Lefty’s artificial leg served a dual purpose. Besides allowing him to leap tall buildings in a single bound, it also contained an array of tools and weapons which he later used to escape from custody. He stole a small fighter from the flagship and fled into a massive nebula with the Enforcers on his tail.

The official report had his ship burning up in the corona of a nearby star, but I have my doubts. He apparently steered for the star at the last minute, and Xavier ‘Lefty’ Rodriquez never did anything without a reason.

And I’m sure it wasn’t to commit suicide.

He just wasn’t the type.

The End





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