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Phish and Sparks, Ep1

Episode 1: Preacher at Xanadu

The living eddies within the sweating glass of red rebyl mimicked the dust storms engulfing the Martian port city of Lachish. Guido Sparks pressed the glass to the scar transecting his cheek for a long breath. Finally he downed the bottom third of the whisky in a single gulp.

“Another round?” Phish, his Venusian companion, snatched the glass from Sparks’ hand before he could slam it down.

The grit beneath Sparks’ collar, combined with his growing unease from being in one place too long said yes. The jangle of his diminishing credits said no. He nodded. The two of them would simply have to ensure the next lead panned out, unlike the last several.

Phish had already risen and started toward the bar in his typical Venusian gate—a long-strided movement chewing up distances deceptively and without hitch. The shorter of the two men, Phish could outstrip Sparks in a footrace—something Sparks never incorporated into plan A, or any plan.

Sparks surveyed the unusual crush of patrons seeking shelter from the red clouds of dust that blew in the day before. A clash of languages battered his ears. Taken alone he could understand each. At the moment he had no interest in doing so. The Bloody Bucket remained a safe haven for space rangers, smugglers and the like. Even the rankest of outlaws, if intent on continued survival, honored the varied patronage’s shared need for discreet anonymity.

Sparks also respected the unwritten rule, despite the fact such anonymity remained possible for himself in scarcely a corner of the galaxy. Lazily, he noted the entrance of a lone woman amidst of maelstrom of red dust. Stirring up no shortage of curious half-glances, the woman made directly for his corner of the establishment.

Phish returned balancing three glasses of rebyl.

Sparks’s pale-grey gaze flicked from the woman, dressed in spacer’s leather similar to his own, to his partner’s crooked grin. “Expecting company?”

“Employ.” Phish whisked into his seat and distributed the glasses of rebyl while shoving out an empty chair with his foot.

Without dropping the Venusian’s gaze, Sparks watched the woman weave through the crowded bar. He could tell already her clothes were props. Not that she didn’t wear them well, or that the grip of the leather hadn’t been accustomed to the curves it concealed. But something about her posture and movement didn’t match the outfit.

Not waiting for their undisclosed guest, Sparks tipped back his glass. Surely the woman’s lack of wariness, something developed as a natural byproduct of lurking within the galaxy’s shiftiest shadows, hadn’t escaped Phish’s seasoned eye. If anywhere in the galaxy there was a man as worthy Sparks’s respect as the man sitting across from him now, Sparks had yet to meet him.

The woman must have impressed his companion via some other means, but Phish wasn’t letting on. At last Sparks disengaged his cloud-grey eyes from his partner’s turbid black ones in order to address the woman.

She stood before them wordlessly, returning Sparks’s stare without waver—something few accomplished. In a sudden movement that brought Sparks’s hand instinctively to the well-worn grip of the heat gun strapped to his hip, the woman whisked off her visor-less helmet.

An incredible amount of untamed, fire-orange hair spilled out from the helmet’s cramped confines. The radiant tussle lit her face and sparked an instant contrast with her emerald eyes. Sparks’s tense surprise registered in the woman’s awareness, proving she’d achieved the response she’d aimed for. The slightest of grins curled the corner of her lips as she turned toward Phish and nodded while filling the empty seat.

“Guy, meet Persephone,” Phish did the introductions. “Persephone, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, this is Guido Sparks.”

###

After Sparks had confirmed Persephone’s ledger, it had taken all of forty-five minutes to load the necessary supplies and clear the Tempest for launch. Even before that, both men knew they would take the job. As confident as the woman had been confronting nefarious outlaws, she’d been equally as terrified discussing the job—a bounty. And on a preacher no less.

Boring, conceited, sure. But a preacher capable of talking folk to death? Sparks’ curiosity had been indelibly impressed.

Of course not everything was on the up and up. The woman had strived too laboriously to weave a lavish false backstory. Most people who found themselves in need of the likes of Guido Sparks had long relinquished propriety.

As the Tempest cleared the thin Martian atmosphere, Sparks jettisoned the exhausted burn tanks and turned to discuss the matter openly with Phish. “What do you think?”

Phish removed his headset and reclined his seat. “She’s money.”

Sparks nodded. He understood what the cunning Venusian meant in both senses of the word. “Makes sense. She sure thinks highly enough of herself.”

“Only Black Pharol thinks higher.”

“What does that make the preacher? A runaway slave?”

Phish shook his head before riveting Sparks with his hungry black eyes, betraying his cherubic golden locks and pale skin with a deeper savagery. “You saw the terror when she spoke of him. I’ve no idea whether the preacher be slave or free, but I’ll bet the next case of rebyl he’s not a man like you or I.”

“Hardly seems like a fair bet,” Sparks locked course for Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and deployed the sails. “I suppose I’ll take it. In that case, how many do you think she’s sent before us?”

“Does it matter?”

“It’s just that, well you saw how she talked more about herself than the job.”

“As if it were her first time.”

“And she seemed to be more interested in hiding her own identity than describing the preacher’s.”

“As long as the money’s real,” Phish shrugged as he stood. “I’m going to get some rest.” With two long strides he exited the bridge and slipped into the tiny living quarters. “Wake me if you spot Patrol. It’s been over a week since I’ve gotten my blood up. I could use a good drill.”

“You and me both.” Sparks stretched and watched the nearer stars rush past. After a mesmerizing few minutes he lowered the blast shields and drifted off to sleep fully expecting to dream of a sun-haired woman and the terrifyingly sweet-tongued preacher who’d incurred her rancor.

###

Sparks awoke to an orchestra of tiny plinks and larger thunks against the hull as the Tempest plowed a path through unexpected debris.

Instantly blinking away the fog of sleep, Sparks slammed his hand into the controls and retracted the sails.

“Where are we?” Phish flowed into his copilot chair. He switched on the display to answer his own question.

“Right where we’re supposed to be, as far as I know.” Perturbed, Sparks fired thrusters in reverse. The tempo of metallic music playing against the blast shield slowed, then stopped.

“The Tempest agrees. Supposedly we’re one click outside of Titan’s orbit.”

Sparks retracted the blast-shield for a visual and scratched his head. The blue-green haze of Titan filled nearly half their view. “And we’re on course?”

Phish nodded.

“Why hasn’t the shipping channel been cleared?”

“Maybe they’re all at church,” Phish grinned.

“Including Patrol?”

Phish shrugged.

“This guy I gotta hear. Just as soon as he collects an offering to repair my sails.” Unamused, Sparks gripped the joystick and fired all thrusters into full descent toward Titan’s heavy atmosphere.

###

The bumpy ride intensified as they transitioned through blue swirling gases into green ones and finally a faded yellow, like that of the exhausted fields of wheat Sparks remembered from his childhood on Earth. He leveled their descent and corrected course according to Phish’s instructions until they punched through the dense clouds.

Visibility improved marginally as they emerged into a dry blizzard typical for Titan this time of year, or at least Sparks assumed. “What season is it here?”

“Summer, for another thirty-two days.”

“And the temperature?”

“Negative two degrees, or 28 of your precious Fahrenheit.”

The ground appeared suddenly. “Please, spare me the lecture on Earthmen hubris.” Sparks yanked the controls, assuming a course parallel to and no more than a hundred meters above the rugged, snow-covered terrain spanning much of the moon’s surface.

Phish yawned and stretched.

“How far to Xanadu?” Sparks queried.

Phish jumped forward, pressing his forehead against the windshield. “Did you see that?”

Without questioning, Sparks banked hard to port in order to come around for another look at whatever the keen-eyed Venusian had seen.

“By Black Pharol, nothing good has happened here.”

Sparks caught his breath at the sight. He banked into a low circle around the consumed ruins of what he assumed had been a mining outpost. “What does the map say?”

“New Rutan, a decade old settlement along the main vein of guarganite, home to 1,734 souls.”

“Not anymore.” Sparks righted the Tempest and followed the spiny ridge of mountains southwest toward the mining center of Xanadu. “Could have been an explosion from the mines.”

“I didn’t see a crater,” Phish frowned. “I did see bodies, dead but intact.”

“Raiders? Disease? Natural disaster?”

“Preacher.”

Sparks scratched the back of his neck. “Curious.”

The two partners completed the last minutes of their trip in silence, passing over another ruined settlement along the way. Finally, they arrived at Xanadu, a fortress of a town hunkered into the side of the mountain and overlooking the equatorial plains of Titan.

Near the equator, and only near the equator, Titan sheltered a small indigenous population. Tribal folk from a forgotten origin and forgotten time, they sustained themselves by raising herds of Gaugan along the narrow band of Titan tundra. Humans only dealt with them to improve their Gaugan breeding stock.

Here at Xanadu, the two commodities Titan had to offer merged: Gaugan, the cold-planet beast of burden and Guarganite, a volatile mineral used in space combat and interplanetary missiles due to its explosive properties when in liquid form. Concern over military use of the stuff typically rendered criminal access to Titan tricky, to say the least.

Patrol regulations should have dictated the Tempest be intercepted in orbit. While Xanadu appeared intact, no welcoming party had extended a hand of greeting, friendly or not. Sparks opened the com to all frequencies. He eyed Phish before clearing his throat, “Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry.”

No response was forthcoming.

“Hello? Smugglers and outlaws with a warrant here.”

Sniggering, Phish bit his lip.

Sparks continued, “We’d like permission to kill one of your citizens and return him for cash payment.”

Static popped over the connection, “Could you repeat that?”

With raised brow, Sparks stroked the stubble on his chin.

Phish shrugged.

“Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry,” Sparks repeated himself.

Static filled the connection for a full three seconds before, “Oh, yes. Sure thing, right after I send you back to the void from whence you came, you barbarous devils!”

Sparks’ eyes widened as a Patrol gunner ship plummeted out of orbit and streaked straight for them, a plume of entry smoke trailing in its wake.

“Black Pharol squats!” Phish swore.

Sparks jammed the stick forward and dove for the surface with little hope of outracing a gunner at full decent. The Tempest was fast, but—

“Weapons’ lock!”

Sparks jerked his eyes toward the Patrol vessel. It was falling at suicide speed. “There’s no way.” With the Tempest still descending toward the tundra at full thrusters, Sparks slammed his hand down to deploy the blast shield.

“What are you—” before Phish could finish, the Tempest sheered suddenly to starboard and down. Sparks stiffened as he wrestled to regain control of the stick. A moment later a deafening roar washed past the ship and the hull began to glow red-hot.

“Horizon?” Sparks forced the word through clenched teeth.

Phish snapped into action. “Fifty meters, ten degrees.”

Sparks continued his tug-of-war with the controls. “Little help.”

“Right,” Phish reached across. With his hands on top of Sparks’, he joined in the fight. “Nine degrees. Eight. Impact imma—”

The Tempest struck down hard, but didn’t tumble. Slowing rapidly, she listed slightly to port before coming to a complete stop, apparently in one piece.

“Damage?” Sparks cautiously reached for the button to retract the blast shield.

“As Pharol lives,” Phish scrolled through the readout. He breathed deeply and turned to Sparks. “She’ll take off when we need her.”

Sparks raised the shield with little effect. Instead of the sky or even the surface of the Titanian tundra, the two stared into a wall of ice and alluvial deposits. “Altitude?” Sparks questioned.

“Three meters beneath the surface,” Phish grinned.

###

The partners stood in the aft of the tiny ship, waiting for the heat of the Tempest’s hull to melt enough snow and ice for the hatch to open.

Phish stashed a knife in his boot. “How did you know the Patrol vessel had armed itself with gaurganite missiles?”

“I didn’t. Not for sure anyway. Something about their suicidal approach.”

“I’m surprised they even got a missile armed before it went off, as hot as their entry was. What do you think they were going on about with that barbarous devils bit?”

“Sounded like preacher talk to me.”

Phish cinched his gloves tight around his wrists and checked the hatch, finding it clear enough. “My thoughts exactly.”

###

The two men scrambled out the entry path the Tempest had left in the tundra and took their first look around from ground level. A small herd of guagan sniffed around the scene curiously.

“Wait here, I got an idea.” Phish disappeared back down the short tunnel.

A half hour later, and with a lot of coaxing, the rangers managed to mimic ranchers and herdsman effectively enough to hitch a half dozen of the beasts to the Tempest and tow her to the surface.

As the last of the guagan lumbered away, Sparks turned his attention to the fortress city of Xanadu. “What do you think?”

Phish shrugged. “Things have gone pretty smooth so far. Getting in shouldn’t be too bad.”

“Actually, I was wondering what the chances were of getting a bath. Otherwise I’m gonna smell like guagan leavings until the calendar switches.”

“The beasts were indeed a bit more pungent up close than I had imagined.”

Sparks rubbed filth from his gloves using relatively clean snow. “Still, it was a good plan. Now to find us a bath and a preacher.”

“Clean inside and out? Guy, what’s happened to you?”

Sparks set off at a fast clip for the walls of Xanadu, a few kilometers distant. “Don’t you worry, friend. Nothing a little rebyl won’t cure after this is all over.”

“About that, still think I’m gonna be buying?” Phish caught up and clapped Sparks on the shoulder.

“I hope not.”

###

After twenty minutes of hiking, the two mercenaries stared up at the towering gates built into the abrupt start of the mountain. Sparks had worked up a sweat and wasn’t fond to let it freeze between his parka and skin.

“How does one go about knocking at a place like this?” Phish stepped within reach of the looming metal doors.

Sparks eased his heat gun from the holster and stood ready beside his partner. “Try your fist first.”

Shrugging, Phish pounded three times. The cold metal creaked inward, revealing the doors hadn’t be locked or even latched. Knife in hand, the Venusian stepped aside and offered Sparks the lead.

As the Earthman stepped passed the threshold, a timid voice arrested him.

“Where would my masters wish to go?”

Sparks spun in the direction of the thickly-accented English, keeping his firearm lowered. “Who’s asking?”

A short, ruddy man, lessor in years than Sparks, advanced from the shadows. “Your servant does not deserve name, only task.”

Phish leaned close, “He’s a native.”

Sparks nodded. “Are you the doorman?

The queer man with ruddy oversized limbs and small torso bowed low. “At your service, my masters.”

“First off, stop calling me that,” Sparks demanded.

“As you wish, my—” the man stopped short, leaving an awkward silence.

Phish filled it. “By Pharol what has happened here?”

The native lowered his gaze further. “Much has happened in Xanadu for many—”

Holstering his heat gun, Sparks put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Wrong answer.”

Trembling beneath Sparks’s touch, the native quickly changed tactic. “The preacher comes. He brings truth with him. He speaks it to us, like in Charlton and—”

“New Rutan?” Phish finished for him.

The native nodded.

“What kind of truth tears down a city from the inside out?”

“I—” the man shook his head. “I am only servant.”

“Never mind.” Sparks cocked his head in the direction of a shuffling sound above them. He didn’t like how vulnerable they were at the base of a long set of stairs leading further up into the city. “Just take us to this preacher fellow.”

The native shrank back, spasming with tremors. “Would my masters not rather—”

“Preacher, now.” Sparks drew his heat gun.

“As you wish.” The man scurried ahead of Sparks and Phish. But rather than up the stairs, he hurried into a darkened tunnel at their base.

“What, no bath first?” Phish breathed in Sparks’s ear as he fetched a light from his pack.

Sparks ignited his own chemical stick while loping to catch up with the oddly long-limbed native. “I changed my mind. This place stinks worse than the gaugan leavings.”

###

The temperature inside the tunnel rose several degrees. Sparks had just unzipped the front of his parka when the native man stopped in front of a dimly lit lift carved into the rock. The man ran his fingers over a number pad until a bright red light shone from the ceiling.

Through the dispersing, eery glow Sparks glimpsed a moving shadow several meters further along the passage. He gestured to the native. “What else is down here?”

“Tunnel is direct connection to mines.” The man shook his head. “Few workers remain after preacher speak truth to us.” The red light turned green and the elevator door opened. Phish followed the native onboard.

Sparks stood a moment longer in the tunnel. He swore he heard human speech, but in a tongue he hadn’t heard in years. He understood a few echoing words despite not recalling the language from which they came—something about a mom and dad. Slowly, he backed onto the lift.

As the doors closed in front of him, a snatch of a children’s song rang in his head: “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” It was a Gaelic tune sung to children in the mining town near the farm where he’d been raised.

Pale faces smeared black haunted him until the lift jolted to a stop. The lights flickered once, then expired. Instinctively, Sparks’s fingers found themselves wrapped around the grip of his heat gun. “Doorman?”

“Nothing to worry yourselves, my—” he caught himself. “Is only electricity outage. Every lift is equipped with manual crank.”

A panel cracked open somewhere in the dark. Sparks placed his back against the doors and relaxed his grip on the heat gun.

The native man grunted. Slowly, the lift began again to rise. Rhythmically, the man grunted and cranked, and the lift rose.

After a few minutes, the extent of the distance they had yet to go along with the elevator car’s similarities to a coffin settled over Sparks. “Step aside.”

“But—” the native attempted to object.

“We’ll rotate the duty until we reach the top.” Sparks found the crank handle. Figuring the rotation, he started raising the lift and double the pace. A few minutes later, he recognized why the native had chosen the slower one.

As his muscles began to quiver, Phish stepped in. “My turn.”

The three men kept the rotation for nearly twenty minutes. When the car clicked against it’s moorings at the top of the run, Sparks had never been more grateful to exit a lift. But after the native pried the doors open and Sparks’s eyes adjusted to the light, the thrill abated. Drawing his heat gun, he swept the ruddy man aside and darted for the nearest cover.

Phish leapt to his partner’s side, cracking the skull of an attacker with a vicious elbow. Sparks sent another reeling with a steely-fist. Then, just as quickly as the attack had begun, it abated.

The two who’d been bloodied, tumbled into a drift of powdery snow at the feet of a half-dozen others. “Good show, you dim-wit.” A third man laughed as he bent over to assist one of the fallen. The moment he stabilized the man he delivered a hardy headbut, and both men fell down to the great amusement of the others.

“What the—?” Sparks helped the toppled native to his feet.

“It is true for these to act as such.” The man swept dry snow from his tattered cloak. “Now, unless you have changed your minds—”

“Not a chance. Take us to your precious preacher.”

Phish joined the two, a snarl on his lips. “And things were just about to get fun.”

Sparks scoffed as the three men resumed a quick pace along a cobbled street, “Nothing’s fun about killing a pack of brainwashed idiots.”

Phish wiped the glistening sweat from his face, a disturbing lust still lingering within the dark night of his eyes. “Says you.”

Sparks shivered, both from the cold wind and the reminder of the animal instinct just beneath the pale skin of every Venusian. Quickly, he shifted his focus to their surroundings.

The towering tops of stone buildings disappeared and reappeared as howling skiffs of snow coursed through the deep-cut arteries of the mountain city. Sparks knew the visible portion of Xanadu represented only a small fraction of the total, the portion inside the belly of the mountain certainly the greater.

That so much of his surroundings remained hidden made him uncomfortable. And though the ground beneath his boots felt solid enough, he knew it to be anything but.

For several minutes, they progressed smoothly through the city, seeing little signs of life, but many of decay. Shops had been abandoned, homes barricaded. Sparks gave up counting after they passed three dozen lifeless bodies, the cold preserving them from decay.

They passed a fire in an alley where several natives warmed themselves. A woman ran past them screaming about pursuers. Sparks raised his heat gun, scanning the dark doorways and windows in the direction from which she’d come. Nothing emerged.

It was then he noticed a grinning face amidst a heap of rags several feet in front of him. He lowered his weapon. The hairless face grinned wider, revealing a few isolated teeth, the last cogs on rusty and forgotten gears.

The man, at least Sparks believed it to be a man, smacked his lips and appeared to laugh silently. He raised a disembodied hand from the shifting pile of rags and beckoned Sparks closer.

Out of curiosity, Sparks did so. The closer he got, the more the beggar’s eyes roved over his body, growing wider all the time. From a few feet away, Sparks recognized the pile of rags contained various pilfered items: a cookstove, chemical sticks, full liquor bottles, an empty holster.

At this, Sparks jerked upright.

Again, the beggar shook with silent laughter. Then he nodded, and with a point of his chin directed Sparks’s attention to a darkened alley opening behind his pile.

As if he’d been watching the interaction, the doorman spoke, “Here is home of preacher.”

Phish stepped forward, “What, this guy?”

The doorman shook his head, “At end of alley.”

“No fancy temple?”

The doorman lowered his gaze straight down. “Is only humble messenger of truth.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.” Sparks strode toward the alley opening.

The doorman whimpered and fell to his knees.

Sparks turned toward the native and then his partner.

Phish nodded.

Sparks lifted the doorman to his feet and forced the man to look him in the eyes. “You’ve fulfilled your duties. Now go home, back to your family if you’ve got one.”

“But—”

“Go!” Sparks released the man, and he shot away from them aether in a jet wash. With a nod of his head, Sparks signaled Phish. The partners entered the alley shoulder to shoulder, one side of the two-headed mercenary armed with a heat gun, the other a crystal-sharpened, Venusian blade.

###

“So,” a withered voice rose from a darkened corner of the ground-level flat, “you come from across the system to wrestle with the truth?”

The door had been wide open. Sparks moved to his right on silent boots. Phish disappeared into the darkness at his left.

“There is no need for stealth. The truth is always free for the taking.” The voice paused for a long, raspy breath. “As a matter of fact, it seeks out those willing to accept it. To embrace it.”

“Like all the cold, lifeless bodies I stepped over to get here?” Sparks scanned the dark with his steel-grey eyes for any signs of movement. “Is that what happens to folk when they accept your version of the truth?”

“Oh, the truth is not mine. It belongs individually to those who grasp it. To each his own, Mr. Sparks.”

The earthman shivered at the sound of his name spilling from the preacher’s lips.

“Are you surprised I know your name? And that of your Venusian friend? Would not the truth be aware of such trivial details?” The preacher’s voice rose in timbre and steadiness, as if the man himself were aging in reverse. “Phish and Guido, no two men past or present have matched your lust for adventure or your thirst for violence.”

Sparks misstepped, his boot crunching something brittle beneath it. At the same time, his mind began to swim. He used his off-hand to steady his heat gun. He should just fire, slash the darkness wide open and burn the man until he pulverized the stone wall behind him. But he didn’t know where to aim, and he couldn’t fire without aim.

The voice grew more intense and angry. It vibrated inside Sparks’s head. “Haughty, arrogant, you consider every other form of life beneath your own.”

An aurora burst to life before Sparks’s eyes. Shaking his head, he couldn’t shake the swimming light that burned images of his own violent acts into his sight. He lowered his gun and pressed the heal of his palm to his sockets.

The preacher continued, “Oh, you have strength of will! An iron strength that crushes all else! Death in your wake!” The preacher’s voice rose to a tumultuous fever pitch as he began to sing. “Respecter of none, sower of chaos, you shall reap what you have sown. From boy to killer you have grown! Liquor your drink and violence your food, on nothing else you shall brood.”

Sparks jerked. “Shut up! Shut your cursed face!” His arm spasmed and a dazzling flame burst from the end of the barrel in his hand. Ripped open, the dark dispersed as Sparks flailed to the ground, lashing a beam of energy wildly across the room.

“Watch it, earthling!” Phish snapped as he danced clear of the errant ray.

Sparks only released the trigger when the cold blade of Phish’s knife pinned his wrist to an overturned chair. In the bubble of silence that followed, Sparks heard the preacher laughing quietly. Lost to his pain and confusion, Sparks freed his hand by removing the knife.

As he did so, the voice continued, once again withered and weak, “I have spoken all that truth has to say. Go. If in a day’s time you still desire to kill me, I will offer my life willingly.”

At the mention of killing, Sparks leapt at a thought as if a distant memory. He had come here to kill someone, but who? Killing. It was the only thing that felt right. He should do so now.

“Go!” The voice commanded.

Sparks jumped to his feet. Unthinking, he backed toward the door.

“Come back tomorrow,” the voice paused as its owner heaved a deep sigh.

Sparks wasn’t sure why, but the words seemed full of sorrow and pain.

“If you can.” The voice finished with these final foreboding words.

To Sparks they didn’t seem sufficient. He grasped at a question that seemed to be fleeing his mind  more quickly than he could ask it. He needed to know more. He needed some answer to a question he forgot.

“Out of the way, earthling, before you bleed on me.”

Sparks had reached the door, but before he could back through it, an angry Venusian barreled him over. Tumbling into a drift of snow in the alley, Sparks rebounded quickly. Leaping forward, he swept the Venusian’s legs and shoved him headlong.

A moment later the two men clambered into the street while exchanging blows.

“Out of my way! I’m thirsty!” Getting the better of him, the Venusian clapped a two-fisted hammer against Sparks’s jaw.

Sprawling to the street, Sparks struck the cobblestones and rolled to a hard stop. The punishment severed the final tether his mind had been grasping, and whatever it was he’d been attempting to realize sank into the cold stone beneath his cheek.

###

Sparks awoke to something tugging gently at his side. Reflex guided his hand to the grip of his heat gun where he fought off a frail, bony hand already in the process of removing the pistol from its holster. His other hand shot out just as quickly to grip the throat of the intruder.

Sitting up and blinking snow out of his eyes, he finally focused on the toothless grimace of a beggar. The man choked and sputtered. Sparks squeezed. “You’re not even worth the charge it would take to fry you.

The man attempted to shake his head, his eyes bulging. He slapped his ears repeatedly with open palms and again tried to shake his head.

Sparks squeezed. He didn’t know where he was, or who this man was before him. But he knew the taste and touch of killing intimately. The act of it warmed his insides.

The man slapped his own ears until they bled, his eyes now rolled into his head.

One last twitch and it would be done. Then it struck him. As bright red drops of blood stained the drift of white snow gathered where Sparks had lain on the cold cobbles, it struck him. The beggar was deaf.

Sparks released his grip, dropping the pitiful creature facedown in the street. Why should it matter? Who cared if the man was deaf. He had tried to steal another man’s pistol. For that, it was Sparks’s right to kill him, deaf or otherwise.

But for some reason it mattered.

Cold and sore all over, Sparks let it go. His stomach rumbled. His throat ached. He needed something to sooth it. He needed a drink. Wobbly, he rose to his feet and kicked the beggar out of the way.

A natural instinct for finding taverns and a vague recollection of his surroundings led him in short time to a doorway lit by flame and buzzing with laughter. Scattered chords of a familiar ditty played on a strange tonal percussion instrument greeted Sparks as he ambled across the threshold.

“About time you show up, slowpoke.” A gold-haired cherub of a Venusian called to him from the back corner. “I was beginning to think that beggar slit your throat.”

Sparks grinned, “Fat chance.” He turned aside to the bar. “What is there to drink in this shinta hole.”

“Why don’t you start with your own blood, you foul-mouthed devil!” A lumbering minor rose from his stool and slashed at Sparks with a roughly fashioned shiv.

Sparks casually drew his heat gun and burned a hole through the man’s chest. As the man slumped to the ground, Sparks slammed his pistol on the bar. “I said get me a drink!”

“Better make that two.”

Sparks spun to face the devious black-eyes of the Venusian.

For a split second, the confidence buoying the two terrible windows into a dark time before history deflated. “I seem to recall something about you owing me one.”

Sparks nodded. “You know, I think you’re right.” He pounded the bar again. “Two drinks!”

A ruddy-skinned, long-limbed bartender shook as he attempted to pour the drinks.

Sparks snatched the bottle and shoved the man against the shelves behind the bar. As the bartender struggled to catch bottles of turbid liquor before they shattered against the stone floor, the bar song rose in volume and intensity. An alien voice took up the tune.

Sparks seized, his muscles jerking, his consciousness dancing like a needle across the grooved surface an ancient vinyl record—the kind his grandmother kept on her high shelf. Something familiar resided in those grooves, but his mind couldn’t settle into them.

The musician sang the chorus with lilting tremolo as if from dual throats, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.”

In hostile resistance, Sparks’s mind skipped completely, returning control of his body to a baser instinct. He licked his cracked lips. Half swaggering and half dizzy, he sidled to the table where the Venusian sat. “The service around here stinks.”

“I think it’s you that stinks, my friend.”

Sparks slammed the bottle on the table and lunged with a slow haymaker.

The Venusian caught it while pulling a knife from his boot.

Sparks jabbed his heat gun into the Venusian’s ribs at the same time he felt the knife against his own. Both men looked down and laughed.

“This calls for a drink!”

Sparks attempted to cork the bottle after pouring two glasses of nose-curdling, blue liquid. He stopped short at a sharp pain.

“What happened to your wrist?” The Venusian pointed with his glass before knocking back a third of it and grimacing.

Sparks held up his hand, a curious look on his face. In the background, the harpsichord-like music plinked and plucked at a tune Sparks felt he could hum to if he were so inclined. Gritting his teeth, he dug his thumb into the wound. His hand twitched, but all the fingers still worked.

A memory flashed through his mind alongside the pain. The injury was recent. Why couldn’t he remember it? He battered the door of his mind in attempt to break it down, but failed. The earliest thing he could recall was the beggar. He hummed a bar or two of music. “Did you know that beggar is deaf?”

“Deaf? Why in the name of Pharol should I care about that?”

Sparks used his good hand to tip back his drink. The odor was like wet dog, and the taste diesel. But the burn. The burn took his breath away. Blinking through the fumes, he finally managed to gulp air into his lungs.

The Venusian laughed before taking a swig himself. When both men recovered, he continued, “How can a moon with so much snow be so dry?”

They clinked glasses and Sparks licked his lips in anticipation of that blessed burn.

###

Everything began to blur together. Hours passed, possibly days. Sparks couldn’t be sure. At first he thought it a nasty side effect of the booze, then something else. Possibly the Venusian had poisoned him. He couldn’t remember how many times they had fought, or why.

A strong heat brushed against his face. Laughter filled his ears. Suddenly he rolled onto his side and puked. The bile stripped the inside of his throat, leaving behind nothing but pain. Through the pain, he recognized the sound in his ears as fire rather than laughter. The burn in his throat became a combination of bile and smoke.

He rolled onto his stomach and pushed against the floor, heat radiating from the cobbled stones. His muscles trembled at the effort. What was wrong with him?

Finally, he reached his knees. He coughed in the thickening smoke and froze as a familiar tune tickled his ears. Chords of music rose over the cracks and pops of the fire, then an alien voice, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” A clot of fear lodged in his chest. His parents. He had to save them, but where were they?

On unsteady feet he plodded and stumbled through a maze of overturned tables searching for family to pull from the flames. With each uncertain step, the farmhouse and hay barn of his youth transformed into a tavern of stone and rough-hewn wooden beams.

With each rasping breath, his murderous lust evolved into duty, loyalty. But to what? And to who? The music grew off-tune, skipping notes and plucking dead strings. Sparks took up the tune himself. Mouthing breathless words, he continued the song. While his muscles deteriorated with each effort, his mind strengthened.

Xanadu. The bar, the city where he found himself. He remembered.

He caught a flicker of movement through the corner of his eye. Behind a wall of smoke, at the back of the bar, someone else struggled to survive. Hacking, choking, stumbling, Sparks wrenched a table off of a gold-haired Venusian. “Phish,” his throat constricted around the word.

His friend was burned, but angry—the anger a good indicator of life.

“Help me up, earthman.”

Sparks tugged with every dying ember of his strength and the two rose together. The music had stopped altogether and Sparks had lost the tune, but he remembered where he was and why he’d come—to kill a preacher for money.

The purpose lent him new resolve. As the mammoth timbers girding the tavern ceiling snapped and gave way to the hunger of the flames, Sparks and his Venusian partner rolled gratefully into the welcoming cold of a snow drift.

###

A cold trickle worked its way down the back of Sparks’s throat. His swallow reflex jolted him awake as the constriction of his burning throat shot pain up and down his spine. With difficulty he raised his head. A dazzling aurora swam in the sky above him. He watched the colors morph and dance in amazement. A trickle of melted snow ran down his nose and pooled at his lips.

As he licked the water, a thirst reared within him. How long had it been since he had drank anything but booze?

A quick movement caught his eye just before a cold puff of snow struck his head. He blinked away the dry flakes and focused on a man, a Titanian native with long ruddy arms and legs.

The native dusted snow from his hands and cocked his head.

“Do I know you?” Sparks whispered the words as loud as he could.

“Where would my masters wish for me to take them today?”

The accented English combined with the subservient tone sparked a memory in a dormant section of Sparks’s brain. “The doorman?”

“At my masters’ service.”

A rustling at Sparks’s elbow diverted his attention. “Phish, about time you wake up.” Sparks tugged his partner into a sitting position and helped dust off the snow that had drifted around them.

“Guy?” The Venusian’s voice cracked. He grimaced and attempted to swallow. Finally he whispered, “Where are we?”

Sparks smiled broadly enough to make his lips bleed. “Xanadu.” He turned toward the doorman and continued, “I think we came here on a bounty.”

“I remember. Something about a preacher.” Phish gripped Sparks’s hand, and they helped each other up on wobbly legs.

Sparks nodded. “A preacher we’re supposed to kill.”

The doorman drew cautiously near, “Would my masters like me to take them to preacher?”

Breathing shallow, Sparks rested his hands on his knees in an effort to stop the world from spinning. “First, stop calling me that. Second, yes, take us to this preacher. But could we get something to drink first?”

The doorman stepped back glancing nervously between the two men and the smoldering remains of the tavern.

Sparks understood his concern and shook his head. “Not booze. Water.”

The doorman smiled, his lips rising in the middle as well as both corners. His voice warmed and grew an added dimension, “As you wish.”

###

Slowly, the small party worked its way along cobblestone streets—one block, then two, and finally a third. The only visible bodies remaining in Xanadu not belonging to the three of them were dead ones. Sparks didn’t miss the fact that not one of the dead were natives. They stopped in front of large and luxuriously-one-storied building. The wooden shutters were shattered and listing, but the rest of the structure remained intact.

The doorman led them inside the abandoned structure and seated them near a window.

Sparks caught the doorman’s shoulder. “How long—” He fumbled over how to formulate his question, unsure of exactly what he was asking. “How long ago did we first meet?”

Without lifting his gaze, the native responded, “Five days have passed since first I serve my—” he caught himself, “since first we meet.” The man scurried off before Sparks could detain him further.

“Five days?” Phish grilled Sparks with black eyes and furrowed brows. “What have we been doing for five days? I barely remember arriving.”

Sparks met the Venusian’s intensity and raised it. “What are we?”

Phish cocked his head and raised a brow.

“I mean, what dictates who we are?”

“A man’s no better than his actions, why?”

Sparks nodded. “So we’re drunks and hooligans.”

Phish narrowed his eyes, a flare of anger sparking beneath their polished black surface. “We’re mercenaries and smugglers.” He straightened. “At least I think we are.”

The doorman returned with two metal mugs filled with water and two hard loaves of bread that clanked nearly as loud as the mugs when he placed them on the table. “I shall show you to preacher at your leisure.” He bowed and withdrew.

The two partners ate their meager meal in silence, finishing it as quickly as their parched throats allowed. Fifteen minutes later they followed the doorman’s lead as the three of them pushed through a newly invigorated northern wind carrying with it blinding skiffs of snow.

###

“You’re late,” a shriveled voice spoke from the shadows.

A dizzying sense of deja vu struck Sparks between the eyes. “Time flies.”

“For some,” the preacher wheezed, “but truth is eternal.”

Sparks closed his eyes, stabilizing himself with Phish’s shoulder. Slowly but surely his memory of their previous encounter with the preacher returned. “You,” he released Phish, “you on the other hand, are not.” He gripped an unlit chemical stick in one hand and his heat gun in the other.

“Despite your tardiness, I will honor our agreement. You’ve no need to fear.”

“Fear?” Phish interrupted. “As if we were afraid of an old man hiding in the shadows?”

“Oh you are afraid, my Venusian warrior. Do not mistake the willingness to die as lack of fear. Your fear stems from lack of necessity.” The man wheezed in an effort to catch his breath, his audience unable to override him. “But as I have said, you fear needlessly, for Guido Sparks has need of you, as have I.”

Sparks blinked a drop of sweat from an eyelash and grew suddenly aware that he’d raised his heat gun. He gripped it so tight, his hand shook. His chest heaved and his brow ran with sweat despite the cold. “Who are you?”

“Does it matter? You have come to kill me, and I have surrendered myself into your hand.”

Phish nudged Sparks.

Sparks shook his head.

Impatiently, Phish tugged the chemical stick from Sparks’s left hand and activated it. The pale, blue-green glow burst to life, pushing back the shadows and revealing a hunched figure no more than ten paces in front of them. The Venusian sheathed his knife and drew his own heat gun. “Burn him, or I will.”

“Not yet,” Sparks barked through gritted teeth. He fought against his own urge to squeeze the trigger, to vent the building urge to sever the preacher’s connection to this world, to fulfill his word with the taking of a life. With quivering lips, he continued, “You speak of the truth as if you’re incapable of telling a lie.”

“Telling the truth and speaking it are two different things.”

Sparks shook his head, his hand cramping around the grip of his gun. “No. A man is more than what he does.”

“So Guido Sparks wants to be more than a killer? A killer for pay perhaps?”

“Guy, what are you doing? We can’t wait any longer.” Phish squeezed the trigger.

Sparks sensed the moment coming. Colliding into his partner’s shoulder, he forced the Venusian’s energy beam high. The stone ceiling crackled and burst into a spray of shattered rock as Sparks attempted to wrest the gun from Phish’s grip. “Who are you?!” Sparks continued to grill the preacher even as the ray from Phish’s heat gun slashed across the far wall. “I need to know!”

The preacher’s voice rose again in timbre and richness. He bellowed above the crackling thunder of the superheated rock exploding from the ceiling and walls. “One day you will find what you seek, Guido Sparks. I am not truth, but merely an unholy messenger, brought about through unrighteous means and unleashed as a weapon. Now, I beg of you, end me!”

Surrendering both to his own impulses and the strength of his Venusian companion, Sparks and Phish directed the beam of sizzling energy together. Four hands gripping the gun, and in singularity of action, the hunched figure of the preacher toppled and fell beneath the ray of unquenchable thirst.

Sparks blinked through the smoke of sizzling rock and burning clothes. Absent was the stink of scalded flesh. Clambering to his feet, he witnessed the collapse and consumption of the preacher’s cloak, but the old man’s body had gone. If ever he had possessed one, nothing now remained. No stink, no ash, nothing.

Phish rose and holstered his weapon. “What was that about?”

Sparks shook his head. “I wanted an explanation for the past five days.”

Phish raised a brow. “Explanation for what? The dust storms on Mars? For why we had such a long row of bad luck? And why in Pharol’s name would this guy know about any of that?”

Sparks stood dazed. “You don’t remember?”

Phish rolled his black eyes. “Fine, I owe you a case of rebyl. As soon as we find a tavern, I’ll pay up.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “First why don’t we follow up on that bath you mentioned?”

 

###

 

On their way out of Xanadu, Sparks did his best to explain what he could remember of the five day gap between the first time they confronted the preacher and the last. Part of him had hoped to run into the doorman, but the only living soul they encountered had been the deaf beggar.

Sparks had grilled him with narrow eyes and the beggar had merely shrugged and given him a toothless grin, as if to say “it was worth a try.”

Sparks couldn’t help but wonder why the natives seemed unaffected and if they had been what prevented Xanadu from descending down the same path of complete destruction that the other settlements had. Was their truth that different from his and Phish’s and the rest of the off-world miners’? Perhaps the recent century of oppression had been their salvation. Perhaps his experience simply couldn’t understand theirs.

After they did what they could to repair the Tempest’s solar sails and succeeded in punching through Titan’s thick atmosphere to establish orbit, Phish turned to Sparks with a question revealing what had been occupying his more practically keen mind, “Before we killed him, the preacher mentioned being unleashed as a weapon. If that’s the case, who do you think unleashed him and why?”

Before Sparks could respond, the Tempest’s com bleeped with an incoming message. Sparks hesitated, his finger hovering over the button. “Time to collect payment?”

Phish shrugged, “You’re gonna have to buy me a case of rebyl somehow.”

Sparks opened the connection and cleared his voice.

“About time you boys poked your head up through the clouds.” It was the cocky-smooth voice of Persephone. “I’ve been looking for your signal for some time. I hope everything went smoothly?”

“Your preacher’s dead, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sparks ran a hand across his face, realizing his stubble had nearly grown into a beard.

“Oh I never doubted that.”

“Trouble?” Phish laughed. “Oh no trouble, just transfer the ledger and we’ll be fine.”

Sparks detected the slightest of hesitations on the other end. He hated wrapping up deals of this magnitude via such impersonal means. People made dumb decisions from the anonymity and perceived security of great distances.

“Will do,” she finally continued. “Just give me a minute, and you’ll see it appear.” She sighed audibly. “I’m sorry we couldn’t share another drink together, Sparks.” She cut the connection.

Sparks exchanged uncomfortable glances with Phish and his skin began to crawl. “Did something about that sound—”

Phish nodded before he could finish.

Without even checking their ledger, Sparks fired full thrusters to break orbit. Sitting still had once again become intolerable.

A slim three seconds later, the coordinates where they would have been, had they not altered trajectory, collapsed and then expanded exponentially as a interplanetary ordinate tipped with gaurginite detonated less than a click off their port side. The ripple flipped the Tempest before Sparks could respond.

Held fast by his harness, he mashed his palm into the controls in effort to deploy the single-use, emergency sail. Succeeding, the Tempest tumbled even more violently to face the source of the explosion, as the sail worked like a pillowcase in a hurricane.

Bucking against his restraints and struggling to hold his chin off his chest, Sparks managed to ride the surge without blacking out. The moment they dropped from the wash, he fired full thrusters and manually steered for a course somewhere far away from Titan. “Coordinates.”

“For where?” Phish rubbed his bleary eyes in an attempt to focus.

“Surprise me!”

Phish punched in their destination and without wasting a heart beat, Sparks deployed what was left of their solar sails. Without looking back, he opened up the Tempest’s full capabilities, and to anyone who might still be looking for them, they became a blur streaking across the swirling backdrop of Saturn.

 

END of Episode One

Extinction Force, Ep1: Contamination

Click HERE for a downloadable version

The Tyranny bucked as its aft sloughed from the gate. Otto Jaeger breathed deeply while patting himself down, starting with his head. Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch. Everything remained in its proper place after another successful jump.

Sheer probability would catch up with him eventually. Someone could only be disintegrated and reassembled so many times before coming together out of order. Most of his men thought his pre and post jump litany a joke, but he’d seen scramble first hand. Messy stuff.

“Better acquire a visual, Commander, just in case.” Kade jostled Jaeger as he pushed past.

“Find a seat and strap in, XMO Christiansen.” Jaeger growled. “Half a nut would be enough to command this motley crew.”

Brista “Brick” Jenkins stood between the two and corralled Jaeger toward the bridge. “For Yuan’s sake, someone toss his grumpy highness the com so he can talk to his daughter before we pop the eye.”

“Mind your place, Brick.”

“Give it up, Otto, and admit you’re worried about her.” Ariza tossed a portable to Brick. She jammed it into Jaeger’s hand. “Ping the poor girl. She’s worried about you, even if you’re too pig headed to worry about her.” Brick leaned close. “We gonna be a month before extraction. She’ll be a roughhide on another squad by then. Show her you care, you prickly old frendol.”

Jaeger raised the com but hesitated to ping XLO Dalia Jaeger, his daughter and youngest child.

“If you don’t, I will.” Brick threatened.

Jaeger entered the coordinates on the handheld and pinged.

A response came seconds later. “EEF Ravager requesting authenticate.”

“It’s Commander Jaeger, I wanna talk to XLO Dalia—” he caught himself before he used the name she’d run off to escape, “Raven.”

“Your identification, Command—”

“Wilkes, you twit, I swear I’ll plug your pie hole with your protocol if you don’t—”

“ID authenticated. Roger that, Tyranny.” The connection fell quiet. Moments later Jaeger heard his daughter’s voice, rigid with formality.

“Commander?”

“Dalia.” A shadow of tension lifted from Jaeger’s shoulders. “We’re about to pop the eye on the Primal Instinct job.”

“Congratulations, sir.”

Jaeger gritted his teeth and checked to ensure the rest of his squad couldn’t overhear. “Baby girl, it’s me.”

Silence greeted him from the other end.

“Dalia?”

“Daddy?”

Jaeger allowed the familial title to nourish his heart. “I’m proud of you. I want you to know that. I still wish you could have spread your wings under my command, but I understand why you requested the transfer.”

“You’re not still angry?”

“A little, but mostly at myself. I can’t stay mad at you.”

“You always were a softy when it came to your baby girl.”

Jaeger changed the subject. “How’s the new squad treating you?”

“Fine. It’s different. Not bad, just different. I’m still figuring out the rules.”

“You’ll do fine.”

“I know.”

Jaeger laughed. “And your partner? The one with the deuce on his record?”

“You mean XMO Cruz?”

Jaeger could see his daughter’s expression despite the distance between them. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, missy.”

“Same old Commander, same old father. You know as well as anyone that reprimands are handed down for bogus reasons as often as legit.”

“He’s a pretty boy. I don’t trust pretty boys. Especially when they’re cheeks to cheeks with my—”

“Dad!” Dalia cut him off. “You like Tagg just fine.”

Jaeger hemmed and hawed. “Tagg’s an egghead who happens to look like a pretty boy.”

“Oh, so you admit looks can be deceiving?”

“Fine, you win. Just keep your guard, for now.”

“Don’t worry about me. Like father like daughter. Besides, we’re still two days out from babysitting some S&Es on a frickin’ explore and bore. I’m starting to realize how spoiled I got on your squad.”

“Hey, never forget the first rule.”

“I know, surprises kill.”

“And what causes surprises?”

“Unchecked expectations.”

“Exactly. No mission is ever as it seems. So keep your guard.”

“Speaking of keeping your guard, you’re the one heading into the cauldron. Primal Instinct for Yuan’s sake.”

“Just some big lizards.” Jaeger scanned the troop hold for any signs of the Client Representative. He knew they had to be nearing the Dyson Sphere’s fisheye portal. “I don’t have long before the eye severs the connection. I want you to know, I love you.”

“I know you do, daddy. I love you too.”

“Promise me you won’t get too many accommodations over the next month.”

Dalia was laughing when the connection turned to static.

“Baby girl?” Jaeger waited three seconds and sighed. It had been four years since he’d gone more than a week without seeing his youngest child.

Brick called out from the neck of the bridge. “We’ve popped the eye, ladies and gentlemen. Get ‘dem girdles on ‘cause we about to flush.”

Jaeger lowered the handheld and swore. “Where the shyet is that CR? Now the weasel’s got no choice but to spill the rest of the intel on this headache of a job.”


“The CR’s on the bridge. Our boyo looks a bit green around the gils.” Kade smirked.

“He’s gonna be black and blue around the eyes if he isn’t forthcoming with my intel, that smarmy little—” Jaeger’s rant faded to a mumble as he palmed open the door leading to the bridge. “Mr. Sigel!”

Sigel turned with a start. “Commander Jaeger, no need for—”

“Can the niceties. We’re inside the HC. You owe me full intel on this mission. Without it, none of my men are getting off this ship. But you might.”

Sigel swallowed. “I’m sure there’s no need for—”

“That wasn’t a threat. When I threaten you, you’ll know it. Now make with the intel.”

A large winged lizard flashed in front of the Tyranny’s viewfinder, jostling the ship in its wash. Sigel clutched a panic bar. “What was that?”

Forrester answered from the pilot’s chair. “Nothing to worry about. Just a welcoming party. They’re keeping safe distance.”

“Safe distance? Something just hit the ship!”

Jaeger shook Sigel by the shoulders. “I’m about to hit you if you don’t focus, Mr. Sigel.”

The Client Representative blinked several times before recognition settled in his eyes. He glanced toward the pilot. “Not here.”

“By Yuan’s light, what could possibly be so precious?” Jaeger allowed Sigel to slip past him into the neck of the ship. He closed the blast door to the bridge. “This is the last time I’m going to ask nicely. The mission.”

Satisfied no one could overhear, Sigel started in a low voice. “There’s a second Hibernaculated Culture, a secret HC concealed entirely inside Primal Instinct.” Sigel raised a brow suggestively as if this amount of information would impress the commander.

Jaeger leaned closer.

Sigel cringed and pressed into the hull.

“The mission, Mr. Sigel.”

Sigel sputtered. “A breach. There’s been a breach between the two HCs.”

“Contamination?”

“Unknown.” Sigel loosened his collar. “You must understand, Commander, the smaller HC is extremely remote. Completely isolated. Even the designer biomimetic dark matter is collected only twice a year. It has been four months since last contact, and at that time all indicators were nominal.”

“The imperatives?” Jaeger asked.

Sigel activated a holo-cube and offered it to the commander. “We have the coordinates of the containment breach.” Locate the breach. Assess, contain and cleanse possible contamination of the internal HC. Repair the breach.”

Jaeger’s lip twitched. “Is that it?”

“The integrity of the internal HC is paramount.”

The Tyranny bucked then banked hard to starboard. Jaeger braced himself and prevented Sigel from tumbling to the floor. “You mind telling me what I can expect to find inside this mysterious HC?”

Sigel panicked. “Shouldn’t someone be doing something!?”

“Just what sort of something do you suggest?” Jaeger smiled.

“I don’t know, like shoot those damn things down before they kill us!”

“I thought the mission was to preserve your precious HC.”

“Shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em all!”

Jaeger lifted Sigel by the collar and crammed him into a crash seat.

Forrester barked over the intercom as the turbulence increased. “One thousand meters from the surface. Less than two minutes until flush. You might have noticed, but we’re drawing some attention. Happy hunting, ladies and gents.”

“You heard the man!” Brick called out over the rattle and hum. “Strap in, cheeks to cheeks! Safeties locked until touchdown. After that, triggers green at your discretion!”

Jaeger leaned over until he was face to face with Sigel. “You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to tell me what’s inside the internal HC, or I’m strapping you into the spare exo and you can tell me on the surface.”

Sigel squirmed. “I can’t say! I don’t have clearance.”

“Either tell me or show me, Mr. Sigel.”

“It’s a cloud city. There are ancestral humans, a small population—seclusive, contained. They might not even be aware of the breach. You have to keep it that way, for Yuan’s sake. Each life is priceless.”

“Since when has an ancestral human been worth a pirate’s credit?” Jaeger clutched the CR’s collar and threatened him with a fist. “If you guys are hiding something that gets one of my men killed, I’ll burn down your entire pharmaceutical empire. That’s a threat.”

“Please, I’ve told you everything.”

Jaeger turned to go in disgust.

“Commander!”

Jaeger stopped.

“If you come across anything or anyone that doesn’t belong, kill it.”

“And what the hell is that supposed to—” The ship lurched violently as something slammed into it from above. Jaeger hovered in free fall until a second strike ripped away a section of the starboard hull. Jaeger clutched for a panic bar with one hand while clutching for Sigel with the other. The force of the ship’s spin tore the crash seat lose, and in the blink of an eye the screaming Sigel was sucked into the blue sky and gone.

Alarms blared. Jaeger clutched the bar with both hands. He tried to walk himself along the hull, but the centripetal force was too great. The Tyranny was in a flat spin.

“Commander!” A meaty hand clamped around Jaeger’s wrist and pulled him clear of the hull breach. It was Brick.

“The others!?” Jaeger yelled in her ear.

“They’re strapped in, but we’ve got a loose Exo—the Babiks in Gamma 2.”

“We need to flush now!”

Brick nodded. “Forrester’s not responding.”

Jaeger swore. The bridge door was closed. By the way the ship was spiraling out of control, they had to assume Forrester was gone.

“I can reach the manual lever.”

Jaeger wanted to object, but he knew Brick was the only one with a chance of success. “Do it, but set a ten second delay. I’ll see to the Babiks.”

“That gives you twenty. Ready?” Brick widened her stance.

Jaeger gripped her arm with his free hand and nodded.

“This is gonna hurt!” Brick roared as she threw Jaeger toward the troop hold in an arc against the centripetal spin.

The pull of the spin instantly dragged him down. Twisting his body just in time, he slammed into the untethered exoskeleton hands and feet first.

Maddy jolted at his sudden appearance. “Commander! Krystof’s unresponsive and my hatch is stuck!”

“Stay put! We flush in twenty!”

“But the tether!”

“We’re gonna piggyback. But you gotta get me to Alpha 1!”

She clenched her jaw.

“This is all you, Maddy!”

She jabbed her hands into the controls and ignited Gamma 2’s interactive matrix. Her eyes rolled into her head as the pure BDM entered her system. The right arm of the exo shot outward. Punching finger holes in the hull, she climbed the ladder hand over hand while Jaeger held on for the ride.

Within seconds, the Gamma 2 reached the tether that secured Alpha 1. “Tighten up!” Maddy gave a moment’s notice.

Jaeger tightened his core muscles as Gamma 2 gripped him around the waist and thrust him toward his own cockpit. As he popped the hatch, alarms blared throughout Tyranny’s troop hold. “Ten seconds!”

“We have to get Brick!”

“After the flush! Don’t worry, I’ll find her.” Jaeger heaved himself into the cockpit, slammed the hatch shut and ignited his matrix. As his awareness expanded beyond simple sight, Jaeger saw his first blurry snatches of the surface of Primal Instinct alternating with blue sky. The flat spin had begun to tilt sideways. “Grab ahold! We’re going in three! Two! One!”

The bottom of the ship fell open, releasing an array of jetsam that had broken loose from the impact. A second later the tether arms projected downward and released the exoskeletons in a staggered pattern—1.4 seconds apart. Jaeger’s was the first—with the Gamma 2 riding piggyback.


As soon as they cleared the tether, Jaeger spun the torso so his cockpit faced aft. He fired thrusters at full in effort to climb over the other exos and reach Brick before they hit the ground. He hailed Maddy on her personal channel. “Give me all your thrust. Match my trajectory.”

“Wilco. Thrust engaged at full.”

The jolt was immediate. Combined thrust slowed their decent to ten meters per second. The other exos dropped out of site on their way to the crash site—one that fortunately looked like a meadow. After twelve seconds, the last exo cleared the drop ship safely.

Jaeger magnified the view and scanned the belly of the Tyranny as it spun further away. Brick, where are you? Even the combined thrust couldn’t match the ship’s velocity. He hailed her. “You’ve gotta jump, Brick. Time’s up.”

“Glad to hear you made it alright, Otto. But I got a different plan.”

“For Yuan’s sake, you won’t survive in there. Jump, I’ll catch you.” But it was too late. Jaeger’s proximity alarm blared as the ground rose up to meet him. He shifted his focus. “Maddy, disengage in three, two, one.” He felt her exo push off from his the same moment he realized the meadow was actually a swamp. “Prepare for impact. I’m rolling right.”

“Roger. I’ll take left.”

The blue sky disappeared, swallowed by blurs of green and brown. The stench of decaying organic matter greeted him. Feet first, his exo crashed into the bog. He tucked in attempt to roll, but his legs stuck tight and slammed the rest of his exo into the mud face-first.

Other than sucking sounds, everything fell eerily quiet, and dark. He spun the torso. To his relief, he discovered he hadn’t embedded completely. “Report.”

One by one, the rest of his squad responded—all six twin-manned exoskeletons had reached the surface more or less intact.

“Krystof’s still not responding,” Maddy reported. “Any sign of Brick?”

The ground shook with a nearby explosion—the Tyranny. Jaeger pushed the thought out of his mind. “Anyone have a free line of sight? I’ve got nothing but sky.”

“Yes sir.” It was Tagg, XMO of exo call sign Echo 2. “Bao and I landed on a tuft of semi-solid ground. But, uh, you might want to stay buried in the mud. At least, I suggest no sudden movements.”

“Out with it.”

“We’ve got incoming, Commander, from every direction.”

Jules chimed in. “Unless I miss my guess, their Deinonychus. Nasty buggers, about the size of a person.”

“They’ve got wings.”

“Flightless, but I suppose it helps them tread lightly.”

“Numbers?” Jaeger asked.

“Seventy-three, give or take.” Tagg responded without hesitation. “Probably more waiting beyond the tree line to see what happens.”

“Threat assessment?”

“I suppose they could bite through hydraulics if they could get their beak in the joints.”

Jules added, “I wager the boney ridge on their head could spider a viewfinder.”

“Triggers free.” Jaeger gave the order. “Just remember, what you’re carrying is what you’ve got for the next month. Tagg, you cover Maddy. Kade?”

“Aye?”

“You and Zip good for lead on this one?”

“Give the word.”

“I’m giving it. Gamma 1, take the lead. First line of business is the crash site.”

“But Krystof,” Maddy interrupted.

“Tyrrany’s wreckage should provide enough cover to dismount. We’ll tend to Krystof there.”

Silence.

“Maddy?”

“Commander.”

“Your brother’s a survivor. You know that better than anyone.”

Bolshoe spasibo.”

“Now move out, and keep your eyes open for Brick.” Working double duty in Brick’s absence, Jaeger armed the flame thrower and baked the mud beneath him, intensifying the stench in the process. After a few seconds, he dug his feet into the crust and climbed out of the impact crater.

His squad had already engaged the Deinonychus raptors. Tagg laid down sporadic fire for the exos mired in the mud while Zip and Kade stretched their legs with close quarters combat. Jaeger rolled his eyes. There had to be better ways to discourage a man-sized dinosaur from trying to eat you, but he supposed the alternatives weren’t half as fun.

“It’s time to stop acting the maggot, boyos, and start sucking diesel!” Kade cackled over the open channel.

Jaeger tuned out the chatter and joined Shasta and Ariza, the rest of his Alpha fireteam, on the left flank. He fired thrusters on a limited basis to keep himself from bogging down. An occasional flame kept the dozens of Deinonychus at bay as the squad worked their way toward the edge of the swamp.

One curious Deinonychus didn’t mind his distance, and Jaeger lit it up. Flames consumed the reddish-orange plumage and sent the raptor crashing into three others. Moments later, a domino effect spread the fire to two dozen feather-covered lizards.

“Crikey! That showed ‘em a thing or two,” Kade chimed. “Ground’s solid over here, gang. Crash site’s two clicks beyond the trees. I’m reading lots of action over there.”

“More Deinonychus?” Jaeger fired thrusters hard enough to clear the edge of the swamp and land next to Echo 2 and Gamma 1. He helped Jules and Sable’s exo out of the edge of the muck.

“Something’s cheesed ‘em off good. Looks like a bloody feeding frenzy.”

“Brick.”

“If you’re right, boss, we better bolt.”

Jaeger had already taken off at a sprint. “Keep up if you can. Call out if you’re in trouble. Otherwise mouths shut and eyes open.” He slammed his exo’s fist into the jaw of an angry Deinonychus and burst into the dense stand of trees. Thrusters in skate mode and forearm blades fully extended, he slashed Alpha 1’s arms back and forth to clear a path through the vines and branches. At five meters a second, he scorched a hole through the jungle and burst into the clearing beyond in under a minute.

Still in skate mode, he broadsided a large, stampeding dinosaur and wedged a blade between two scales in order to hitch a ride. Behind him, Gamma 1 emerged from the tree line, followed quickly by the others. Shasta piloted Alpha 2 gracefully onto the back of a passing Stegosaurus while the others chose to remain on foot.

“Brick, do you read?” Jaeger hailed.

“You know me, keeping them home fires burning.” Brick responded over a thunderous hail of ballistics.

Jaeger should have known better than to worry. “Report.”

“Whenever I drop one, a dozen others stop to pick its bones as if they starving.”

“Roger. Can you hold the crash site?”

“Affirmative.”

“We’re bringing in casualties. Mark my position. Pinging now.” Jaeger pinpointed his location via radar.

“Copy that. Redirecting fire. You’re clear for approach, Otto.”

“Roger. Coming in hot.” Jaeger engaged a forearm chainsaw and plunged it into the meat of the dinosaur he’d been riding. The animal screeched as it plunged headfirst into the young, rocky soil. Jaeger rolled before regaining full skate-stride. As Brick had predicted, several stampeding dinosaurs pulled up to devour the wounded one.

Jaeger switched to the common channel. “Triggers free, men. Give these things something to eat other than us.”

Within seconds over a hundred dinosaurs had been killed or occupied with a kill. For the first time, Jaeger secured a visual of Brick and understood how she’d touched down safely—by detaching the cannon pod moments before impact. Having parachuted safely to the ground within thirty meters from the crash site, she was currently using the 75mm cannon to generate a ring of carnage.

“‘Bout time you lolygaggers got here. I need a snack pie break.”

“No breaks yet.” Jaeger vaulted over the snapping jaws of a feasting dinosaur and landed within the protected zone Brick had laid down. “Krystof’s unresponsive.”

“Hell’s gist. Get that boy over here. I got med supplies in the pod.”

“Maddy?”

“ETA right now, boss.” Gamma 2 smashed its way through the pile by slicing off the head and neck of a large raptor and swinging it like a club. The rest of the squad fanned out to assume Brick’s defense of the perimeter.

“Bollocks, these things are bloodthirsty.” Jules and Sable plowed a dead dinosaur out of the protected zone while punching two others that were attempting to eat it.

“Keep ‘em busy. I’ll play goalkeeper while Brick and Maddy tend to Krystof.” Jaeger switched to his flame thrower.

Maddy parked Gamma 2 next to the cannon pod and blew both hatches.”

“Maddy’s in the breeze.” Brick relayed. “I’m joining her.”

“Got you covered.” Jaeger flanked the cannon pod to ensure nothing bigger than a butterfly got close to his exposed crewmen. He glanced their way long enough to see Brick hoist a bloodied Krystof from his cockpit as Maddy supported her brother’s head and neck. Jaeger swore. If Krystof had been bleeding that much the whole time, and this early into the mission…

He focused on the perimeter and toasted a raptor that leapt onto the growing pile of carcasses. Several more followed that one, each oblivious to the fate of the last. Something had shifted their instincts. “This should be enough dead meat for weeks. Why do they keep coming over?”

Tag responded. “Call me crazy, but they’re acting like they’re trying to get away.”

“They doing a shite job of it,” Kade replied.

“Not from us, from something worse.”

The ground shook beneath Jaeger’s feet. “Anyone been watching the long range?”

“Uh, boss, we got trouble.”


Jaeger climbed the pile of dead meat to gain a visual. What he saw was a dinosaur three times the size of anything they’d encountered so far. And the beast wasn’t slowing down for any of the roadkill they’d left behind.

“Brick, we’ve got a problem, ETA thirty seconds.”

“Fat wallop, I got problems of my own.” Brick fired back.

“Jules?”

“Client’s gonna be pissed if we kill something like that. We’ve already set ‘em back a pretty penny.”

Kade interrupted. “Fetch that! I’m wondering if killing that bloody monster’s even possible.”

“Can we outrun it?” Jaeger asked.

“Not if it pursues.”

Jaeger checked the distance of the Gigantisaur and corrected his earlier estimation. “Fifteen seconds! Brick, we gotta go!”

She grunted as she held Krystof over her head so Maddy could load him in Gamma 2. “I’ve stopped external bleeding and administered a slo-mo, but it ain’t gonna do much on Immunity Faction. Best option’s to fall back outta the fire and let his core take over.”

“Fine, get in.”

“Hold on, I gotta get more supplies from the pod.”

Jaeger swore. “Brick’s still in the breeze. Bao, Shasta, Zip, form a wedge and head for the genitals. The rest focus ballistics on the face. Stay out from under it.”

“Boss, your six!”

Without turning to look, Jaeger activated his forearm blades, took a knee and plunged an arm backward. His gears ground as the hibernaculated steel blade buried wrist deep in the jaw of the beast that had intended to bite off his head. With a violent lashing, the dinosaur swung its neck and slammed Alpha 1 into the ground. “Focus on the big one!”

The beast jerked Jaeger off the ground. Before it could slam him down again, he spun in midair and scissored his arm blades together. Crunching through bone and sinew, the blades severed the neck and Alpha 1 promptly tumbled back to earth.

Chatter crowded the common channel.

“Watch the teeth!”

“I’m out. I’ve lost visual!”

“Ballistics are bouncing off!”

“Get your sorry asses out a the way!” Brick bellowed. “Get down!”

Jaeger rolled onto his side in time to glimpse Brick braced against the cannon pod with a slag humper draped over her shoulder. It was a weapon intended only for air to air combat.

“Slag humper!” he yelled while flipping onto his stomach.

“Fire in the hole!” Brick screamed.

A moment later, the wash tossed Alpha 1 head over heels. A bath of carnage rained down the moment Jaeger came to rest. After that, nothing but a ringing in his ears. “Report.”

“Bollocks, Echo team’s good.”

“Alpha 2 is in one piece, mostly.”

“Crikey, Zip and I are still here. Maddy?”

Silence.

“Maddy?” Jaeger pushed his exo onto its feet. He spotted the Gamma 2 on top of the Tyranny wreckage and under a giant slab of dinosaur meat. “Shasta, get her down from there. The rest of you secure the perimeter.”

“I’m here. I’m good.” Maddy finally responded. “My exo’s damaged. I think the hydro for one of the legs is cut.” She pushed the carcass off and struggled to maneuver her exo clear of the Tyranny wreckage. “Should Krystof and I dismount?”

Jaeger swore. “Stay put. We’ll drag you out of here if we have to.” He scanned the debris field for signs of Brick. All he saw were oversized chunks of grizzle, meat and bone. And blood. Lots of blood. “Brick?”

“Little help.” Her hand waved from underneath the overturned cannon pod.

Jaeger hurried to her side. “This is a first.”

“What’s that?”

Me lifting something heavy off of you.” He carefully flipped over the pod.

Brick slowly stood. “You calling me fat?”

“I have no response to that.”

“Well then, blow the hatch, ‘cause I’m climbing in.”

“Wilco.” Jaeger blew the hatch and Brick bounded into her cockpit.

“The natives are regrouping, hungry as ever.” Echo 2 had stabilized the Gamma 2—three good legs between the two machines.

“Where to, boss?” Kade asked.

Jaeger remembered the holo-cube Siegel had handed him. He found it still secured in his vest and plugged it into the dash of his exo. “Uploading coordinates now.”

Kade paused momentarily as he processed the 3D imagery.“Stop the lights! This whole manky operation has been about a bloody secret HC?”

“That’s right, so pull up your socks and take us there.”

“You heard the man. Get up outta this fire!” Brick roared.

“Wilco, boss.” Gamma 1 blasted a path through the ring as the other exos followed in a spear formation. “I don’t mean no offense, Commander,” came Kade, “but if this holo’s the only intel we got, how do you know—”

“The frying pan from the fire?” Jaeger interrupted. “We don’t, and yes, the whole thing’s gone arseways. But we can’t stay here, so hoe the row—lips shut and cheeks tight.”

“Roger that.”

The channel went dark as the squad bolted in a straight line for what looked like three lifetime’s worth of jungle primeval. With any luck, Primal Instinct would afford them a tiny window to catch their breath. If not…either way, Jaeger supposed the heat had just begun.


Jaeger hailed Brick over the internal com. “You had me going for a minute.”

“Even surprised myself.” Brick chuckled. “Hell, I’m just glad I packed my snack pies in advance.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission.”

“Can’t say it’s sitting friendly so far.”

“How’s Maddy dealing? You know, with Krystof.”

“That girl done blanched worse than her brother. But I reckon she’ll push the fear down deep, like always. No telling what those two went through together before EEF found ‘em on that toxic popsicle planet.”

Jaeger shook his head. “I’m more worried about what we’re going to go through on this adrenaline-steeped hellhole.”

“You and I both know it’s the people pulling the strings that are dangerous.”

“That’s a lesson Siegel should’ve seen coming.”

“Poor expendable fool. He ain’t had a clue.”

Jaeger scanned his peripherals for incoming dinosaurs. All but a few curious sorts had abandoned the caravan of exos in preference for the dead meat they left in their wake. The jungle lay another click ahead. The density of the growth would protect them from any predator bigger than their exos. But in Jaeger’s experience, jungle flora usually sheltered threats of its own.

He thought about the last thing Brick had said. “That’s what troubles me. Siegel was a low-level pawn, too expendable for a mission this important.”

“You saying his fate wasn’t no accident?”

“Dangerous secrets tend not to leave survivors, Brick. I’m saying I wouldn’t put it past the benevolent people of Crystalline Magic Co. to eliminate a few loose ends to preserve their bottom line.”

“If that’s true, life just ain’t worth what it used to be.”

Jaeger sighed. “For now we’re in the driver’s seat. They need us, and we’re about to know more than they do. We’ll carry out the mission, like always. In the process we gotta make sure we find the right leverage to guarantee extraction when the time comes.”

“You ever get tired of thinking three steps ahead?”

“All the time.”

“When are we gonna give up this fool game?”

Jaeger gazed overhead. Through the clear blue sky, he saw a glint of the Dyson sphere that caged them together with countless prehistoric specimens that had been brought back to life for the singular purpose of generating a drug-fueled profit. “After the next mission.” He steeled his will toward the mission at hand. “Always after the next mission.”


At the edge of the grassland, the jungle greeted them with menace. Its clutching tendrils, choking branches and thick trunks seemed to enslave the land it claimed and terrify the rest—even threatening the sky.

Jaeger craned his neck upward and gawked at the sheer scope of it. If the jungle hadn’t of dwarfed them, their exos never would have fit through the dense foliage. As it was, they’d have to battle the underbrush and whatever they encountered living on the jungle floor.

Kade broke the silence. “Looks like the meat eaters have broken chase.”

“This looks like as good of a breather as we’re gonna get,” Jaeger said. “Full diagnostics. Dismount in fireteams, starting with Gamma.” He knew the Baliks needed immediate attention. “Breathe the air and taste the soil. Bao, I want you and Tagg to scout the best way forward.”

“Roger that.” The squad echoed in chorus.

“Oh, and make sure all injured check in with Brick. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you what happened to Kade last time he overlooked a scratch.”

“Oy, I thought I’d never shite all those buggers out.”

The internal com activated. Jaeger could hear the rustling of a wrapper as Brick shoved one of her repellant snack cakes in her mouth. He’d never understood what she found appealing about their combination of spongy, processed ingredients.

“You gonna be alright without me?” She spoke with a full mouth.

“No, but we can’t let our feelings for each other get in the way.”

Brick snorted and choked for several seconds before managing to swallow the snack cake. “Dang it all, I think some of the filling went up my nose.”

“I saw my advantage and took it.” Jaeger laughed.

“You win this time, Otto. But we gonna be on this rock for a long time. You better watch your back.”

“I thought that was your job.”

“Of all the dirty tactics…messing with a girl’s snack break. Just for that, I hope you get a parasite.” Brick blew her hatch and bailed, leaving Jaeger alone with his thoughts.

He recalled the last thing he’d said to Dalia. No mission is ever as it seems. So far this mission seemed like a salt-za-da-gin bresz-nyet. If they had only uncovered the half of it, they were going to be in for a deep burial at the end of long ride.


Bao and Tagg took point in Echo 2 as the squad carved a tedious path through the jungle. At least Tagg had managed to patch the hydraulics on Gamma 2 enough for the machine to hobble forward without assistance. After an hour of trekking, the density of the massive tree trunks forced the squad to halt while Bao used his chainsaws to remove a trunk one meter in diameter and create a gap wide enough for the exos to fit.

Jaeger maneuvered Alpha 1 next to the only husband and wife pilot duo on his squad and sat. Jules Barnes and Morgan Sable piloted Echo 1, and they were a complicated couple. Not only had they married inter-factionally, but rarer still, Sable was Chaos—a Hibernarii faction that disavowed any and all attempts to manipulate or harness the forces of nature. According to Chaos, nature itself was the highest form of intelligence in the universe, and any attempts to control it would ultimately prove futile.

At moments like this, Jaeger keenly felt the futility. He needed perspective. And more often than not, he found that perspective in the tandem of Jules and Sable. Jules had become the black sheep of a noble Fortitude family even before his rebellious act of marrying a Chaos woman with skin as black as his own wool. Together they provided the squad with an intuitive thoughtfulness.

Jaeger hailed Echo 1 privately. “A penny for your thoughts.”

“That might prove a high price in today’s market, my friend.” Jules sighed.

“So you feel it too?”

“Aye. I get the distinct feeling that independent thought was not the quality our clients were after when hiring us for this job.”

“Then they hired the wrong squad,” Jaeger asserted.

Sable interrupted. “Either that or our nuisance has surpassed our usefulness within the Exploration and Extinction Force.”

“You think someone within the EEF has it in for us?” Jaeger rolled the thought around in his head.

“Wouldn’t you?” Jules laughed. “Just look at us. The Babiks are targeted outcasts who have recently worked off their debt. Bao would have been discharged multiple times for insubordination if you hadn’t of protected him. As Equality faction, Ariza has made command nervous from day one. Shasta’s a borderline BDM heretic. Kade and Zip are loose cannons at best.”

“And yourselves?”

“Well, that goes without saying—a Chaos and Fortitude in union. I suppose my beliefs have offended more than a few.”

“Command would have to be drunk to think they could get away with outright eliminating us.”

“When has command ever been sober?”

“Good point.” Jaeger acquiesced. “Sable, your take on Primal Instinct?”

“Atrocity. Gross atrocity. Nothing good will happen here. Nature has been poisoned to the level of self-destruction.”

“That good, huh?”

“Nothing on this planet should be trusted. Death is its only release.”

Jaeger exhaled. “I was afraid you would say that. Have either one of you seen any animal life larger than your fist since we entered this forest?”

“Nothing dares to enter by design,” Sable replied.

Out of breath, Bao hailed the squad. “I have cut through the trunk, but it is held in place by neighbors. I recommend shoving the base out of the way, but the canopy could destabilize in the process.”

Jaeger stood. “Give it a try. Everyone else, standby to assist. We move as soon as we can fit through. I don’t like sitting still.”

“On three, two, one.” Bao fired Echo 2’s thrusters while shouldering the massive tree. Gradually, he shoved the trunk aside while the other exos skirted it. Alpha 1 passed through last and supported the weight of the wedged-in trunk while Echo 2 cleared the gap. They let go together and the trunk fell into place, as if it had never been cut.

“Mark these coordinates, incase this proves to be the only way out,” Jaeger ordered.

“Roger.”

“We’ve got movement, two o’clock.” Sable alerted the squad.

“I saw it too,” Tagg confirmed. “Something ropey, less than a dozen meters away.”

“Spread out. Sable and Jules take the lead,” Jaeger ordered. “Stay within reach of each other, but no bunching up. The forest’s roomier on this side. Maybe we can reach the breach without further delays.”

They squad progressed another hundred meters in radio silence until Ariza spoke up. “I’m reading increased levels of nitrous oxide and sulfur in the air. Still breathable, but—”

“Did you see that?”

“We’ve got movement to the southeast.”

“And the north.”

“It’s everywhere!”

“Does anyone have a positive ID?” Jaeger attempted to steady their nerves, but he felt it too.

“It’s the trees themselves. They’re getting closer!” Zip swung a forearm chainsaw and severed an encroaching vine. The act of aggression sparked the jungle into writhing life. Green tendrils and wooded vines encircled the squad.

A large vine slashed across the front of Alpha 1 and spun it off balance. “Fire!” Jaeger ordered.

Brick had already ignited the flame thrower on Alpha 1’s shoulder and unleashed a river of burning fuel.

The trees screamed in response. A dozen green tendrils attacked the exo, confining its movement. Jaeger spun his arm blades, dipped and dodged in attempt to sever them all. But they were too many.

A thick vine entwined Alpha 1 around the neck and slammed it into a tree. Jaeger severed it with a quick swipe, but not before three more had lashed the exo to the trunk. An impact alarm blared. “They’re squeezing us!”

“Ground yourself! I’m gonna give ‘em a spark!”

Jaeger yanked his hands out of the control docks and detached his mind from the interactive matrix. “Clear.”

Brick crossed the fusion drive in order to electrically charge the exterior of the exo. The machine jolted as its gears locked tight. Smoke and fire blocked out what little light pierced the dense jungle canopy. “That’s all she can take. Clear to reintegrate.”

“I’m in.” Jaeger resumed control of Alpha 1’s locomotion. “That did the trick. We’re free, but I can’t see the others.”

“Switching to night vision.”

Jaeger and Brick leapt into action, combining blades with fire to fight back the angry vines and untangle the other members of the squad. “Has anyone seen Echo 2?” Jaeger had lost sight of Tagg and Bao.

“Coming down, Commander. Watch your nine.” Tagg replied.

Jaeger stepped aside as Echo 2 landed gracefully next to him. “What was that about?” The commander asked.

“The canopy is the source of the vine,” Tagg replied. “We climbed all the way to the top.”

Bao said, “It’s parasitic. No way to sever at its base.”

Another wave of tendrils attempted to overtake the squad, but now that they had clumped together they burned the vines back on all sides.

“Stop!” Sable commanded without explanation.

The squad responded immediately by shutting down their flamethrowers.

The vines moved to surround them, but remained outside of the small clearing.

“Shut down all systems,” Sable continued. “Completely black.”

“Are you bloody crazy?” Kade protested.

“Commander, there’s no time to explain.”

Jaeger knew better than to question Sable. She never intruded unless she sensed something strongly. “Do it. Everyone, disengage.” Jaeger detached from the interactive matrix and left the exo completely powered down. If Sable was wrong, the machines would be torn limb from limb by the vines before they could power up again. Without power, they couldn’t even communicate via radio.

Everything fell eerily quiet. Jaeger spoke over his shoulder loud enough for Brick to hear him. “You seeing anything?”

“A couple dem vines creeping around the perimeter, but so far nothing’s encroached on this side.”

“Nothing over here either.”

“You reckon it was our aggression that set ‘em off?”

“Possibly, but if that’s the case, how are we going to—” a wrapping on Jaeger’s viewfinder startled him. Through the blackness, he identified the whites of Sable’s eyes—her large brown irises attentive on him.

“It is safe to dismount.”

Jules waved for Jaeger and Brick to join them on the ground. “What she means is we’re on foot from here on out.”

Jaeger and Brick blew their hatches and dismounted. Jaeger covered his nose and mouth.

Brick gasped. “Lordy, that’s a gaudy stench.”

“I recommend you don’t rub your eyes.” Jules pulled Jaeger’s hand away from his face. “The oxide and sulfur that Ariza detected just before the attack has intensified since. The plants seem to emit a sort of toxin. Look at the exterior of your exo.”

Jaeger turned around. “Yuan’s Light.”

“Indeed.”

Deep etchings had burned into the hibernaculated platinum exterior of Alpha 1’s breastplate. “It’s a miracle we didn’t lose hydraulics.”

“Yes, well, god must favor you. We lost our right arm midway through the conflict. That’s how I noticed the toxin.” Jules motioned toward the other exos, their pilots still oblivious that anyone had dismounted. “We better get the others before someone decides to do something rash. I’ll start with Kade and Zip.”

Jaeger smiled despite the desperate nature of their circumstances. He wrapped on Shasta’s viewfinder and indicated for her and Ariza to dismount Alpha 2. The thought of venturing across the surface of Primal Instinct without the protection of their exos should have made Jaeger cry. But Jules’ dry British wit always comforted him when things were their darkest. At the moment, he couldn’t imagine things getting much darker. That thought wiped the smile off his face.


After giving the orders to attach breathers and night vision masks and to pack everything useful they could carry, Jaeger strapped on his own breather and stood watch from the center of the small clearing. The preparations took less than a minute.

Brick crept to Jaeger’s side and proffered his favorite sidearm, a Stieg 270 sonic thumper.

Jaeger gladly strapped the weapon to his thigh.

Jules and Sable joined them, followed quickly by the rest of the squad. Krystof groaned as Maddy and Kade attempted to distribute his weight evenly between them.

Brick tutted. “Hand the boy over before you tear him in half.”

Maddy wanted to resist, but she knew it would be fruitless. Brick never allowed such duties to fall on anyone else in the squad. As a member of the Might Faction, her body had been bred and built for ten times the strength as a normal Hibernari. She hefted Krystof gently over her shoulder and carried him as if he were no heavier than a modstock rifle.

Jaeger led the way while picking up the conversation with Jules and Sable from earlier. “You still haven’t explained how we’re safe out here.” He nodded at a vine less than a meter distant. It seemed to raise its tendrils in response to his comment. Jaeger held his breath, but none of the vines advanced.

“They are a defense, like everything else in this jungle, meant to protect the inner HC.” Sable answered through her breather.

“Then why aren’t they attacking us now?”

“Without the bulk and might of the exos, we are no longer a threat.”

“Speak for yourself, honey.” Brick chuckled.

Tagg butted in from behind. “How on earth did you figure that out?”

“The vines did not appear until after we breached the tree wall. It made sense anything small enough to fit through the trees would be safe from the vines.”

“But I haven’t seen any animal life save a few creepy crawlies.”

Brick made a face. “I hate bugs.”

Jaeger nodded. “If the vines aren’t dangerous to small creatures, how come this place isn’t crawling with them. There’s food. There’s water. Plenty of shelter. It doesn’t make sense.”

“She said the vines weren’t a threat. She didn’t say nothing was a threat.” Jules explained. “Speaking of bugs. Has anyone seen anything dead or decaying since we cut our way past the tree?”

“Negative.”

Jules glanced from side to side. “Exactly. Keeping the forest floor clean of decay is the insect’s duty, and this is the cleanest forest I’ve ever seen.”

“Hell’s gist, I wish you hadn’t said that.” Brick flipped down her night vision mask.

Jaeger decided it wise to do the same.

“One click to the coordinates.” Kade called up to the others. “We should be there within the hour. Not that we have any idea whether being there is gonna be any better than being here.”

“Being there is about completing this mission,” Jaeger responded, “and that’s all you need to—”

Jules held up his fist, stopping the squad dead in their tracks, sidearms drawn.

Jaeger couldn’t see anything. He strained his ears for any sign of life outside his line of sight. The breather deadened his sense of smell, but Jaeger thought he detected something sickly sweet.

Jules gestured the squad forward in fireteams, one left, one right, one center. Jules, Sable, Bao and Tagg—Echo team—formed the tip of the wedge, shuttling forward as a seamless unit. Jules held up his fist. Without a sound, the squad froze. Slowly Jules removed a flare stick from his pack, crushed it to ignite the chemicals, and tossed it twenty meters ahead. Before the flare hit the ground, the forest floor swarmed with movement.


“I’m out! I’m out!” Shasta screamed while scrounging in her pack for another fuel cell.

Jaeger covered her with his sonic thumper, fragmenting the over-sized roaches as fast as the weapon could recharge. “They’ve gotta be coming from somewhere. There’s too many of them. We need a clear path!”

The darkness all around them blazed sporadically with muzzle fire from the members of the squad using ballistics. Each fighter called out in turn.

“No good!”

“They’re everywhere.”

“We’re surrounded.” They screamed over the incessant hissing of the roaches and the concussive bursts of ammo.

“Their blood burns!”

“Zip’s down!” Kade yelled. “Boss, we’re getting eaten alive in here!”

A meter-long flying roach blind-sided Jaeger, knocking him to the ground and spraying the side of his face with a burning toxin. He rolled and fired, splattering the bug with focused sound waves.

Resisting the urge to wipe his face with his hand, Jaeger buried it in the dirt instead. After a quick swipe back and forth, he jumped to his feet. Their best hope at this point was the inner HC. Anything had to be better than this.

“Converge on the coordinates. Stay in fireteams. Keep moving!” He tugged Brick’s arm. She grunted and followed. “Put down fire to cover our retreat!” Jaeger commanded, but no fire followed. “Shasta? Shasta, report!”

Brick stumbled over the discarded flamethrower. “Otto.” She kicked the flamethrower to Jaeger.

He holstered his thumper and created a curtain of flames. The massive bugs cooked and popped. “Where’s Shasta?”

“We gotta go, Otto. If we get stretched out—”

“Over here!” Ariza called. “I’ve got her, let’s go!”

“Go! Go!” Jaeger kept the nozzle open, trailing continuous flame with one hand while firing his sonic with the other. Both Brick and Ariza were weighed down with wounded. Between the three of them, they had four arms, and it took all four to beat back the encroaching waves of roaches.

They covered the rough ground as fast as they could. Eventually Jaeger ran out of flame. At this rate, half a click seemed an endless span. Jaeger’s heart thumped in his chest. Blood surged in his ears. His breather clogged and his breath came in ragged gulps.

The forest closed in around him. Finally the canopy began to spin. He couldn’t go on, and if he needed to catch his breath, so did the others. Dropping the flamethrower, he gripped his sonic thumper in both hands. What did he have to lose? He widened the field, spun the weapon up to full, and waited for the hissing to overtake him. When it did, he fired.


The closeness of the jungle absorbed and defrayed the worst of the reverb, but the kick was ample enough to wash Jaeger backwards several meters. His body plowed a path through the bracken and brush until he slammed into a massive trunk and rolled over onto a cool, metallic surface.

He rested his face against the smooth metal for several seconds before his mind made the connection between metal and manmade. He shook off his daze and sat up. The hissing had temporarily subsided, but so had the sounds of his squad. He brushed aside the leaves to reveal what appeared to be a secure tunnel entrance. But how? And who? Primal Instinct was supposed to be lower life forms only. No mission is ever as it seems.

He fumbled in his pack for a handheld and hailed the others. “Echo, Gamma, this is Jaeger. I’ve found a manmade hatch. Converge on my location. Pinging now.” He dropped the radio and scanned the area for his lost thumper. “Now I just need to find a way to get this thing open.”

“Stand aside you crazy fool.” Brick laid Krystof down gently and positioned her feet on either side of the hatch. Rather than sit around and look stupid, Jaeger continued the search for his thumper, eventually finding it.

He turned in time to see Brick give up her efforts to open the hatch. That was when he spotted the release mechanism behind her right foot. “Those snack cakes have made you weak. Give me a try.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll just waste our—”

Jaeger kicked the lever with his boot and tugged the hatch open.

Brick grunted in disgust.

Jaeger threw the hatch back and aimed his sonic thumper downward into the pitch black. “See anything?”

“Just a second.” Brick crushed a flare and dropped it down. It bounced off a metal stair rung once before landing on the bottom, some ten meters below.

“Nothing’s moving down there.”

“That’s better than up here.”

“Commander.” Ariza huffed as he emerged out of the jungle with an unconscious Shasta over his shoulder. “I got your message.” He stopped when he saw the opened hatch. “What in Yuan’s name?”

Ballistics echoed in the distance.

“Sounds like Kade and Zip.”

“Let’s hope Echo team is with them.”

Jaeger nodded. “I’ll head down to check it out. When I give the all clear, bring the injured.” Jaeger took the first few steps carefully before placing his boots on the outside of the rails and sliding the rest of the way. He dismounted next to the flare, crouched, and leveled his sonic thumper.

The steady, blue chemical light revealed no movement—just an empty, hand-carved tunnel. “Bring ‘em down!” He activated a second flare. Using it as a torch, he shuffled along the tunnel, searching the walls for signs of bugs or cracks.

The rapid pop of ballistics intensified until the rest of the squad reached the hatch in a state of distress. After a moment of shouting, Ariza slid down the stairs too quickly with Shasta over his shoulder. He crumpled onto the tunnel floor and rolled out of the way moments before Brick and Krystof landed.

Jaeger holstered his thumper and helped Brick lay Krystof next to Shasta. The chaos overhead ended with the hatch slamming shut. Without warning, a roach dropped down the shaft and landed on Brick’s back.

Whipping out his thumper, Jaeger whacked the bug off.

“Not in the tunnel!” She yelled.

Aware of the close quarters, Jaeger used his pistol as a hammer. He cracked the armored shell with the first blow, but the hissing beast scrambled to get away until Jaeger brought the butt of the pistol down a second time. The meter-long monster bled a viscous ooze.

As the rest of the squad dropped into the already cramped quarters, they forced Jaeger’s hand into the pool of stinging blood. He pulled it away and clutched his wrist.

“Sorry, Command—”

“Forget it,” Jaeger growled. “We’ve got worse injuries to deal with. Did everybody make it?”

“Echo’s all here.”

“Gamma accounted for.”

“Frozen gods! What happened to Shasta?” Krystof sat up, his sudden resurrection catching the squad off guard.

Maddy knelt beside her brother and hugged his neck. “Brother, good to hear your voice.”

Krystof shook his head and pointed at Shasta.

Jaeger picked up the nearest flare and illuminated Shasta’s face. “Yuan’s Shadow.” It was gone. He stooped to check her pulse. “She’s dead.”


Too many questions rattled inside Jaeger’s head. He defaulted to protecting his remaining men. Ariza insisted on remaining by Shasta to guide her BDM into it’s next assimilation. Jaeger didn’t believe in the ritual himself, but Shasta had. It seemed she’d converted Ariza. Jaeger would never begrudge anyone anything that brought them comfort during or after this hellish life.

Bao and Kade came through the ordeal relatively unscathed, so Jaeger sent them to scout the extent of the underground complex. He knew better than to assume they were secure, but the temporary calm allowed them to tend their wounds and mourn their loss. At least Krystof seemed to be on the mend.

“Alright, Otto, you’re next.”

“I’m fine. Tend to the—”

“You’re last, so shut up and let me have a look,” Brick demanded.

Obediently, Jaeger held out his arms and turned a circle. He was Integrity Faction. He and Brick both knew it would take more than acid blood to chew through his nearly impervious skin. As long as he watched what he put inside his body, he fared well. Nothing was going to get in else ways.

None the less, Brick shined an electric torch on his face. “Hold still.” She swabbed him with a sterile.

The stinging caused Jaeger’s eye to water. “What was that for?”

“Still had some of that bug blood burning a hole in ya.” She showed him the sterile. The black ooze smoked for another few seconds until fully neutralized. “Now your face is healing.”

Jaeger touched the damaged spot on his cheek where the ooze had burned to the bone. He lowered his voice. “Is this what got Shasta?”

“Best I can tell.” Brick shook her head. “Zip nearly lost some fingers. I put his hand in a bath. Looks like it’s gonna regenerate, more or less.”

“If we just would have cleaned her off quicker.”

Brick took Jaeger aside. “You need to get your mind right. Start thinking about your next three moves. We’re stuck down here until we figure a way out. Back up them steps ain’t an option anyone’s gonna embrace.”

Jaeger nodded. “It all starts with this hole.”

“You mean the hole that ain’t supposed to exist?”

“Exactly. If we figure out the who and what-for of this tunnel, that might be the leverage we need. At this point, I’m sure of one thing.” Jaeger nodded.

“Other than the steadfast and mountainous beauty of your partner?”

“Yes, other than that.”

“Well, don’t let me get in the way of your moment.”

“Our ticket out of here is learning the one thing no one wants us to learn.”

“Boss, do you read?” Kade hailed him on the handheld.

“This is Jaeger. Go ahead.”

“We’ve found something you need to see.”

“What is it?” Jaeger raised a brow.

“I’ll let you decide.”

“Roger that. Brick and I are on our way. Over and out.” Jaeger stuffed the radio in his pack, drank a slug of water and handed the canteen to Brick. “Let’s hope this is a significant clue.”


After a lengthy jaunt through the never tarrying tunnel, Jaeger and Brick encountered Kade standing sentry in front of a metal door. He checked them over with his torch as they approached.

“Just us.”

“Sorry, boss. This place is giving me the sour willies.”

“Can’t blame you for that.” Jaeger pointed with his chin. “What’ve you got?”

“A Catholic crazy house, that’s what.” The heavy door creaked as Kade pushed it open and led the others inside. “Make your own interpretations. Careful, Bao’s in here somewhere, checking for breaches topside.”

Brick and Kade pointed both torches into an underground base of operations that looked as if it had recently endured a skirmish. “Any signs of life?” Jaeger asked.

“Um,” Kade stalled, “yes?”

“Was that an affirmative?”

“Why don’t we start with the dead guy.” Navigating carefully through the overturned mess, Kade led them across the room by the light of his torch. “Looks like he bled out.” He stood aside while shining his torch on a mildly deteriorated corpse.

Brick squatted for a closer view. “Don’t stink hardly at all, I suppose due to the dry, cool conditions down here.”

“And he ain’t been eaten,” Kade said.

Jaeger nodded. “No bugs.”

“These lacerations look almost like claw marks.”

“Could he have gotten torn up topside before making his way to safety?” Jaeger asked.

“Anything’s possible.” Brick scanned the dented metal storage locker behind the body with her torch. “But then what slammed the poor fella into this locker?”

“Concussion grenade?”

Brick stood up. “Why we poking around in the dark? Ain’t there lights in here?”

“What, like a light switch?” Kade asked.

“Power, you nitwit. You know, electricity from a generator or solar panels.”

“Hey, I only look. Touching stuff is above my pay grade.”

“I’m gonna touch you if you don’t find the power,” Brick threatened.

“Roger. One light switch coming up.” Kade scampered away. “There’s a conduit over here. Shouldn’t be hard to track it to the source.” His torch worked its way quickly along the wall. “Here we are.” He stopped next to a panel with two big levers. One had been flipped off. “Still think I should—”

“Flip the lever already,” Jaeger commanded.

Kade shoved it upward and stood aside. A nearby shattered console showered them with sparks as lights flickered on across the entire room.

Brick mused, “Looks like a research station.”

“Manned by a single individual?” Jaeger looked to Kade.

“Not quite.” Kade led them toward another tunnel entrance, this one without a metal door. “The other, uh, less substantial sign of life is over here.”

Jaeger focused on the dark opening until Kade pointed down. Finally Jaeger spotted the object of curiosity—a severed, extremely hairy leg, bisected just above the knee.

“What the hell is that?” Brick knelt for a closer look. “This thing been cut clean off.”

“I think that much is obvious,” Kade said.

“Not that, you smart ass. I mean the cut’s almost surgical, like it was made with an energy beam a some sort.”

“Maybe while trying to escape into the inner HC.” Jaeger removed the holo-cube from his pack.

“What you thinking?”

He activated the cube and pointed at the blinking green light visible inside the three dimensional holographic schematic. “That’s us.”

“I’ll be jiggered.”

“Yep, we’re right on top of the breach.” Jaeger pointed down the tunnel. “Which means this leads to the inner HC.” He stepped forward, but Brick yanked him back.

“Hold on.”

“What? This is it. Sooner or later, we’re gonna have to find out what Crystalline Magic Co. is hiding in there.”

She shook her head. “The leg. Why you think it’s laying right there, cut clean the way it is?”

Jaeger didn’t make the connection.

“Come on, Otto, think. Where you seen that kind a cut before?”

It clicked. “Energized barriers.”

Brick nodded while stooping to pick up a loose rock. She tossed it down the tunnel. Less than a meter away, it shattered. Tiny, rainbow-colored ripples temporarily revealed the location of the barrier.

Jaeger scratched his forehead. “Huh, look at that. I wonder if this means we fixed the breach?”

“It means you’re a dunderhead who’d be toast right now if not for me.” Brick shook her head. “Hold on a minute. I think I seen something else I recognize.” She scooted over to a nearby console and dusted it off. Yup, right here. She flipped open a guard and clicked a red button. A nearly imperceptible hum cut off. “Toss something else down the hole.”

Jaeger reached for Kade who promptly jumped back. “Ha ha, ya wanker.”

Jaeger shrugged before tossing a dirt clod down the tunnel. “Nothing.”

Brick entered the tunnel a short way and ran her hand over the transition where the wall turned from smooth metal to rough rock. “There’s a diverter built into the circumference of the tunnel. Turn it on, and you fool the barrier into thinking it’s intact when it ain’t.”

“Enough of the yammering. Kade, you stay here. Report to the others and wait for Bao,” Jaeger ordered. “Brick and I are gonna scout the inner HC. I’ll report in fifteen minutes. If you haven’t heard anything in twenty, close the barrier and assume the worst.”

“Delightful.” Brick shook her head. “We better not find any more a dem roaches.”


The rock tunnel continued straight for twenty meters before bending ninety degrees and continuing another twenty meters. At the end, Jaeger found a metal ladder like the one they’d descended a half hour earlier. “Here we go.” He started up the ladder. “Whaddaya think we’ll find up there?”

“For our client’s sake, it better be something worth Shasta’s life.”

“Not possible.” Jaeger reached the top and slid back a bolt to release the hatch.

“You don’t believe in what we’re doing anymore, do you?”

“I haven’t for nearly a hundred years.”

“Then why we still doing it?” Brick tutted.

Jaeger wiped the sweat from his brow. “Who’s gonna take care of these guys if it ain’t us?”

“So you and I is guardian angels, is that it?”

Jaeger laughed. “Only you would think of calling me an angel.”

Brick shrugged. “I read some a them angels were nasty buggers. Killed a whole lot a people.”

“That sounds about right.” Jaeger gripped the hatch handle. “You ready?”

Brick nodded.

“On three, two, one.” Jaeger pushed the hatch open without a sound and nimbly leapt topside.

Brick followed with a little less grace but equal stealth.

Jaeger stood and turned three hundred and sixty degrees. A dense fog bank muffled all sound and limited vision to a few meters. The temperature was moderate. Light filtered from overhead.

Jaeger took a cautious step forward. Something crunched beneath his boot. When he lowered his gaze, he realized the ground had been strewn with bones. Bleached white, moderate sized—human.

The size of Brick’s eyes confirmed his speculation. But how could a small HC cycle through so many people? More importantly, what was killing them? No mission is ever as it seems. Jaeger drew his sonic thumper.

Something whistled toward them from overhead. Brick shoved Jaeger out of the way a split second before a human body slammed into the ground between them. “Hell’s gist.” She craned her neck upward. “Where do you think they’re coming from?”

Jaeger knelt over the body. “You ready for things to get even stranger?”

“Not even remotely.”

“Then you better not look down.”

Of course Brick looked. “Tell me that ain’t the same fella we just found in the bunker.”

“Oh, it most certainly is.”

END of Episode One

Read More Schism 8 Episodes

Ranger’s War, Ep0: Duel

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The hollow beneath the bandage radiates more questions than pain. I depress the empty socket in effort to see something I missed on the surface of Sizlack Prime. The revelation is there somewhere, even if my eye’s gone.

A proximity alarm buzzes.

I pound the release for manual navigation. Nothing happens. A quick reference to my skin temperature, -54 degrees celsius, reveals my grag-level mistake. Too much belly-button gazing.

The proximity alarm intensifies. I close my good eye, engage sub-thermal survival protocols, and spin them up all the way. As the frost covering the backs of my hands sublimates, I slam my burning hot palms onto the frozen controls.

The proximity alarm counts down the distance until collision with what appears to be a significant scrap of debris—2500 meters, 1400 meters, 300 meters. A slight tremor throughout the vessel reveals manual controls are active before the OnBoard Artificial Intelligence announces the fact—thanks for nothing, Pearl. I flick a booster in time to narrowly avoid a breach in the stasis ring I’m relying on to return me and my dead partner to Core Space. The last thing I need right now is another hole to patch.

I deactivate my sub-therm and chew out Pearl. “At this rate, we won’t even reach the Torriad Medical Ring, much less return Ranger 799’s body to Al-Aqsa. When were you gonna help? After my frozen body floated out the viewfinder?” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Pearl?”

“Awaiting your most precious instructions.”

“How about, don’t let us die out here.”

“Am I correct in assuming you desire to authorize proactive engagement protocols on the behalf of your OnBoard Artificial Intelligence unit?”

“Oh for the love, I said I was sorry. How many times do I have to explain it? It’s standard protocol to leave one OBAI in charge of a ring vessel in absence of a Templar. Ranger 799 had seniority. I deferred, for Yuan’s sake.”

The thought of my terminated Templar partner tempts me toward a fresh cycle of naval gazing. I busy myself by manually computing and setting a new course for the Torriad Medical Ring, named after the Mid-Hibernal doctor who first discovered how to diversify an entire slave population from the genetic material of a single ancestral human.

I spin my chair to face aft and throw of my harness. “Forget it. I’m going for a walk.” I manually climb up through the docking shaft and into the ring.

Ironically, I suppose I owe Doc Torriad a debt of gratitude. His technique was the basis for the creation of myself and all my Templar kin. Unfortunately, the renegade Technocrat Riarin manipulated the same technology to infest the universe with his Chromiums. Heterochromia iridum—one green eye and one brown eye—has become the calling sign for chaos and insurrection throughout all of the Hiberverse.

But without Chromes there would be no Templar. And for twenty years, I’ve found what I suppose primitive humanity would have called satisfaction in killing Chromes.

Not that the killing itself is satisfying, although I suppose it could be for some. I find satisfaction in being effective at my designed purpose—highly effective. Even with ninety-three weeks of STL travel interspersed throughout my span as Templar, I’ve logged 6,322 kills.

Each of them individually, by hand. No cowardly orbital attacks, no collateral damage. Not a single innocent killed. Never a Chrome surviver, until Sizlack Prime.

My perfect record destroyed. I search my catalogue of primitive human languages until arriving at French—my favorite for expressing melancholy. C’est la vie. The French must have been an interesting people.

The immortal words of my combat instructor interrupt my introspection. No matter the circumstance, he had the same three words—shake it off. A poked out eyeball? Shake it off. I dead partner? Shake it off. No problem. I can shake all that off and more. But my gnarled thought process, that’s another matter entirely.

With arms stretched overhead, I drag my knuckles along the smooth membrane of the ring as I walk. The hibernaculated steel of the ring is only three millimeters thick and yet strong enough to repel most advanced ballistic weaponry.

Now a slag humper, as old-school and nasty as they are, no hiber-steel barrier will protect against one of those. And of course no amount of armor will defend against a black hole. The downside of detonating black holes is of course the inquiries and reports—that is, unless you’re a pirate.

Ah, fringe space. Allez savoir pourquoi.

Slag humpers, pirates, and black holes are all part of the change of pace made possible by jaunty rambles into fringe space. I enjoy all those things, truly. It’s the days and months of introspection that weigh down a man’s soul—if he has a soul to start with.

I’ll leave the debate over the metaphysical and spiritual status of the Templar up to the Technocracy. Those sorts of academic debates have little value when making split second, life or death decisions. Besides, during the 450 years since the conception of the Templar Cloning Program no definitive answer has been provided. And I doubt an answer’s coming during my fifty.

A full diagnostic on the ring shows no further degradation. Operational efficiency remains at 82.6%—a surprisingly high number considering the three months of STL travel. I optimize climate controls for mechanical systems and high step back to my Razor-class vessel. “Pearl, synthesize and replay all visual feedback from the mission on Sizlack Prime.”

“I’m gonna need a little more relevant information, slick, unless you want me to begin with your space dive?”

“Sarcasm parameters?”

“35%. A full 36% higher than yours.”

“Hilarious. Start sixty seconds before engaging the zealots.”

“There isn’t much to look at. Your left eye was responsible for visual recording.”

“It hadn’t dumped the footage into my brain?”

“Defaults are set to dump every twenty minutes. First dump came eighteen seconds into your engagement with the zealots, and your eye was damaged before the next one.”

“Peaceful fifty.” I press the heels of my hands into my eyes. Green streaks of lightning radiate across the blackness of my closed right eye. Nothing but frustration radiates from the empty socket on the left. I find it intolerable that my long-anticipated trip to Sizlack Prime ended in chaos and failure. “Display the eighteen seconds you’ve got.”

“Will do, boss. Starting sixty seconds before engagement.”

I settle into the command chair to relive the 3D projection within the cramped space of my Razor. The visual of the water-slicked stone courtyard of the temple is immediately accompanied by the humidity against my skin and the ever-present scent of blossoming mosses and flowering vines—decay balanced with cimarron honey.


The grounds are too quiet. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Ranger 799 pushes the brim of his hat further over his eyes. From across the courtyard, he nods at my silent inquiry. He feels it too. The temple grounds are pregnant with conflict before the engagement has begun.

Our mission dossier lists one Chrome, a zealot assassin, dwelling at this location. Known combat training: Krazlin martial arts culminating with mastery of the water dagger. I struggle to subdue my excitement over finally deploying the most brutally graceful weapon in all the Hiberverse in hand to hand combat with the most mysterious and long-standing sect in any hibernaculated culture.

Krazlin zealots had not been scripted in the original architecture of the HC. Their sudden appearance early in the development of Sizlack Prime had never been explained. And until now, never have the Templar been deployed to the remote HC. Never has a Ranger fought a Krazlin zealot. For thirty years, I’ve longed to be the first.

I glance at the charged water dagger in my hand. I flex my fingers on the hilt. As a result, the blade of water widens into a razor sharp fan. With a subtle adjustment and a mild movement of my wrist, the blade returns to a blunt dagger designed to impact on the downstroke and tear with the up. When it comes to blade fighting, I like my opponent to know they’ve been cut.

I reach a small channel in the stone floor of the temple courtyard. Crystal-clear water accelerates through the channel until it reaches the edge of the continent-sized hibernaculum—an invisible barrier less than a meter to my right. For the cloned human chattel that dwell within Sizlack Prime, all of existence and knowledge ends at the edge of their hibernaculated culture. Nothing exists beyond the invisible barrier except forbidden ocean.

The barrier itself, in this particular instance, is visible only by the uprising curtain of water. Despite my water dagger being fully charged, I run it and my hand through the tiny river curtain. The uprising water glimmers with replete designer biomimetic dark matter—the sole purpose for this continent-sized charade. The DBDM swims and eddies around my flesh, repelled by Templar design.

A very different strain of designer biomimetic dark matter powers over one hundred hibernaculated augmentations to my human body. Contamination between the two could not only kill me, but destroy decades of fine-tuning for Sizlack Prime.

I leap the channel. As my boots touch down, the silent glint of water daggers from across the courtyard indicate my partner and I have stumbled into a choreographed assault from zealots capable of curtain swimming.

I flare my fingers on the hilt of my dagger. With a flick of my wrist, I lash out with the weapon more as a razor-sharp tendril than a blade. My whip slashes through the uprising water as I take a knee to avoid the incoming assault.

A boot collides with my back and sends me head over heals. I squeeze the hilt of my weapon to project the water of my blade into a long sword. The moment I spin to face my attackers, the blade unfurls, giving me four feet of reach.

Even that length isn’t enough to engage the three zealots that have danced into a cautious semi-circle while backing me against the invisible hibernaculum barrier. Bred to believe in the taboo of the barrier, they can’t understand that it means nothing to a Templar from outside their pathetic world. Still, plunging into the ocean would provide little to no strategical advantage.

I focus all sensory perception on identifying the Chrome from among the attackers. Radical BDM swarms the temple grounds preventing an accurate scan, and the zealots’ hoods shield their eyes. The window to determine innocents from targets closes as a zealot clothed in a red robe fans his dagger into a sail and leaps overhead.

Brown Robe lunges forward. Morphing his weapon from short sword to trident, he jabs directly at my face. I slice through the prongs of the trident with my sword, dispelling a fair portion of his water. Dipping to one knee, I spin toward the only zealot in black.

Black Robe repels my strike by bounding his forearm off the broad side of my blade. The brazen counter catches me off guard. More importantly, his tactic leaves his dagger free to attack.

I release my index finger and squeeze my pinkie on the hilt of my weapon. While reversing the momentum of my swing, the water blade coils around my arm just in time to block a strike that would have cut my in twain.

A fluttering overhead reminds me of Red Robe. I tap my fingers on the hilt in succession and slam a javelin of razor sharp water upward. Slicing flesh and bone the same as air, a scream is the only indication that my water weapon has hit home.

Brown Robe attacks with a new level of vigor, perhaps acknowledging his dying comrade. Black Robe positions himself to block my easiest retreat. Dead or alive, Red is a split second from falling on top of me.

The projection blanks.


“The end, slick. The rest is nothing but thermal imaging recorded by your intact eyeball.”

Peaceful fifty! I didn’t even record a single face?”

“You didn’t die either. Small victories, or so they say.”

“Who says that? Under multiple circumstances, survival doesn’t even constitute as victory. I can’t even—”

“It’s an expression, you twit.”

“Scale back hostility parameters 15%.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

I lace my fingers behind my head and rack my brain. “Show me the view.”

“One-hundred and eighty degree external view, coming up.”

The top and front portion of my ship disappear suddenly, leaving nothing but the expanse of space. The experience catches my stomach in my throat, even after all these years. I feel the captain’s chair beneath me. I know the ship’s hull still cocoons me. But my heart thrills for just a moment at something fleeting. Before I can identify the sensation, it’s gone. Full awareness of my confounding situation returns.

Nothing about my encounter on Sizlack Prime makes sense. Then again, the whole process had been muddled from the moment the report reached Templar Central on Al-Aqsa.

Within seconds of noticing the report, I had logged my interest. Minutes after that, the report from Sizlack Prime had been flagged as potentially erroneous. Even when reinstated, the priority had been lowered. As a low priority, fringe space assignment, the report languished for months.

During the wait I redoubled my regular sparring routines with the water dagger. I reread the entire file on Krazlin zealots. I appealed my higher-priority assignments a dozen times, until forcing the matter before Lord Porcilous himself. Three months ago, I’d been ushered into his chambers for a rare face-to-face.

“I’m fully aware of your private obsession with Sizlack Prime, Ranger 878.”

As an Apex Lord of the Remembrance Faction, Porcilous’ physical appearance, as well as his chambers, reflects his belief in mind over matter. Though I know his habit of maintaining one physical artifact on or near his person, his abilities are too flawless for me to identify the real from projection. I stop within three paces of his desk, not daring to draw nearer.

“While your behavior thus far has been deemed negligible divergence, I find the regularity of your appeals over these last few months highly disturbing.”

“I’m by far the most qualified for a mission that has been inexplicably marginalized for over six months.”

“Sizlack Prime is on a fringe world three months removed from the nearest jump gate. Do you challenge my strategic leadership of the Templar?”

“Never, my Lord. You know such a thing is an impossibility for me.”

“I know, my son. I shouldn’t speak such words.” Porcilous turns away from me. “You know how stretched the Templar have been these last months. With the rise of the Immunity and Chaos Factions, we must play our cards even more cautiously, lest they remove unanimous Council support of the Templar and our efforts.”

“No High Race would dare. The Hiberverse would bleed green within a dozen years without the Templar.”

“You and I know this to be true. The newer Apex Lords take our work for granted. They’ve not been exposed to the Chromium plagues, nor grappled face to face with the warrior infested.”

I step closer to Lord Porcilous, risking his ire. From this close, his two-and-a-half-meter projected frame towers over me. “You and I both know the immense value of Sizlack Prime. During the centuries that the Templar have eradicated Chromes, never has there been a report involving Sizlack’s first and most prized hibernaculated culture. For these past six months, we’ve risked corruption there. What do you think the Fortitude would do if Sizlack Prime were to erode beyond viable parameters?”

Porcilous bends down and leans forward until our foreheads nearly touch. “There would be war among the seven.” He blinks, turns away, and exhales. “Very well, your request is granted. But you must take another Ranger of Grand Master status and a ring ship.”

“Thank you, my Lord.” I retreat toward the door.

“Ranger 878.” Porcilous hails me.

“Yes?”

“Do not let your enthusiasm for the culture of Sizlack Prime fog your judgment.”

“Wise words, my Lord. I will act by them.”

  I let the stars blur out of focus in an attempt to regain the sensation of floating. “Pearl?”

“Ranger?”

“Is it possible the zealots could have known we were coming?”

“After three months of floating out here, they probably could have smelled you.”

“Dial back sarcasm by—”

“No offense, boss, but there are multiple ways they could have known you were coming. The one with the highest probability of 1.8% presumes you unknowingly triggered a perimeter alarm.”

“That’s not what I mean.” I thump my fist against my forehead. My empty eye socket pulses with each pounding. “I’ve studied everything known about Krazlin zealots. Unannounced strangers should be openly challenged, not attacked without warning. The one thing I respect the most about Krazlin zealots is their adherence to protocol and discipline—just like the Templar.”

“Um, would you like to provide a more detailed inquiry?”

Pardonne moi, I don’t mean to be rude.”

“I find it one of your most endearing qualities.”

“Pearl, don’t make me alter your—”

“Your inquiry, boss?”

I stare intently at a shimmering blue star in a part of the sky I’m familiar with. It’s Arcturus, the closest sun to Al-Aqsa, the moon-base of the Templar. When all the distance in the universe can be spanned instantaneously, home never seems like much of a concept. Certainly not to a Ranger. But this far from the nearest jump gate, I feel the unfamiliar ache for a more familiar space.

“What is the probability that the zealots knew we were Templar?”

“Sir?”

“Answer the question, you confounding knot of circuits.”

“Analyzing all known data on said inquiry.” The span of a few seconds pass. “0.0023%.”

“So it’s possible?”

“All things are possible, boss. This one is highly improbable. I see no evidence from any other recorded behavior on Sizlack Prime that anyone within any of the mainstream societies has deciphered the reality behind their enslavement.”

“Pirates are rampant in this quadrant. You’re telling me you actually believe they haven’t compromised Sizlack Prime?”

“Thus the 0.0023% chance. Boss, pirates are notoriously cautious about tipping their hand by compromising hibernaculated cultures. As dumb as they might be, they’re smart enough to know any hint of their presence will bring down the full thunderous arm of the High Council.”

“The only contamination the Council are concerned over is that of their precious DBDM. Cultural knowledge of smugglers, or Templars for that matter, beyond Sizlack’s dyson sphere wouldn’t disrupt the DBDM strain in the slightest.”

“Boss, are you suggesting that the zealots where fully aware of the timing and nature of your mission?”

“I don’t know. If I were?”

“The probability of such a thing is significantly lower than the percentage I gave you before.”


Brown Robe attacks with a new level of vigor, perhaps acknowledging his dying comrade. Black Robe positions himself to block my easiest retreat. Dead or alive, Red is a split second from falling on top of me. A grunt from Ranger 799 ratchets my urgency higher. Red’s weapon will only retain its charge for a heartbeat once he releases it. But if I can reach it in time…

A pulse rushes outward from the palm star BDM fission reactor in my chest as I steal seconds of my future for my present. Call it a hack if you must, I call it survival. Templar Central has labeled it negligible divergence.

Before Brown Robe’s attack can reach home, I reshape my weapon into a squat dagger, thrust it into his stomach and release its full charge at a speed faster than his eyes can transfer signals to his mind. Before he’s aware of his death, the rising water released into his stomach rips his body upward with no more sound than the fluttering of his robes.

As sure as Brown Robe rises, Red Robe falls.

Weaponless, I’ve got two options: go for Red’s or recharge my own. I decide to attempt both. The moment I reach upward I feel the wash of time retaking me—my cheat having run its course. Slogging back into realtime is always hell. But doing so in the midst of such a delicate procedure…

My hand slams into Red’s just as it releases the hilt of his water dagger. A quarter of the water discharges before I manage a full grip. Simultaneously, I stab my fully discharged hilt into the nearby river curtain and shed Red’s limp body off my back.

Black Robe seizes the opportunity. I barely fend off his driving downstroke by forming Red’s dagger into a round shield. My own weapon needs another second to charge from the rising water.

Black Robe’s Katana lurches to life and wraps around my round shield in a manner I’ve never witnessed—as if it were sentient rather than an extension of the zealot’s own movements. With a tug, the water serpent wrests Red’s weapon from my grip. The hilt clacks to the stone pavement as its water whisks skyward. Twice, Black Robe’s water serpent lunges for my eyes.

Fully charged or not, I jerk my dagger from the curtain and unleash a sail in time to lift me over Black Robe’s furious attack. The wind from his assault chases me as I flick my sail to sword and hit the pavement running. My attention now shifts from Black Robe to my Ranger partner.

In the nearly thirty seconds we’ve engaged the enemy he’s felled only one of his three attackers. The two remaining are both robed in brown and are simultaneously attacking from forward and rear.

“Ranger.” I hail him on the run.

“I made a mistake.”

“We both did.” Catching the rear attacker off balance with a bull rush, I knock him from his feet and slide to a stop with my knee in his chest, his weapon in my grip, and my water dagger in his throat. His hood falls open to reveal one green eye, one brown—the Chromium.

That’s when I notice that 799 is trailing a crimson thread across the stones. He’s injured.

Recklessly, Black Robe caroms into the fray with too much emotion. I slash the blades of my twin water daggers together, discharging a small amount of water like razor-sharp flak. The spray slashes across Black Robe’s face, knocking his attack off course and momentarily stilling his assault.

“How bad is it?” I ask my partner.

“Bad enough.” 799 coughs and a spurt of blood fans across the pavement at his side. “But I can finish.”

“It’s done.” I move in close until we’re back to back. “I’ve terminated the Chrome.”

“They’re all Chromes.” He growls through clenched teeth. “And I’ll warrant there’s more. We’ve gotta kill ever last one.”

I’m surprised I hadn’t considered the possibility that all the attackers where Chromes, except that we’ve never engaged such a coordinated resistance. And the report mentioned only one. “But in your state.”

“I’m dead meat.” He covers his side before coughing again.

Most likely, it’s true. On the surface of an HC we’re limited to the same healing arts as the slaves we protect. And in his condition, 799 would never survive the elevator back to his orbiting Razor.

“I’ve lived forty-eight of my fifty. All that’s left is to finish.”

I observe the remaining zealots. Black Robe is the more talented assassin, but his movements are tentative in the presence of the remaining brown robe. Brown is in command. Both of them seem to be waiting for 799 to die. I face Brown Robe and mask my voice. “I’ve already terminated three of your assassins, and disfigured your best.”

Black Robe gargles in disgust.

Brown Robe whistles a single tone through his teeth. It’s the Krazlin equivalent of “mind your place.”

I’m proficient enough in the assassin language to whistle my response. “A trade. My man for yours.”

Brown Robe whistles. “One for one?”

“You must die,” I whistle while nodding.

Brown whistles his command to Black. “Flee unashamed.” He follows it up with an imperative and an expletive for good measure.

“What the hell you two going on about?” 799 grunts.

Brown Robe lowers his weapon and steps forward.

“Just kill that one quickly.”

Without hesitation, 799 dispatches Brown Robe with a clean stroke through the midsection, but he’s forced to take a knee in the process.

By the time I turn, Black Robe is gone without a trace.

“Get the last one. I’ll hold on long enough to make sure no one discovers me.” Droplets of blood have formed on his forehead and neck. He’s already begun the process of shutting down his most volatile augmentations before they destabilize. “Go!”

Without a word, I leave my partner slumped against a stone column to pursue the remaining Chrome zealot.


A buzzer cuts through the closeness and intensity of the dream.

Pearl attempts her least abrasive manner. “Dream cycle’s over, boss. You’ve been regenerating for exactly forty-eight hours, just as requested. Nothing out of the ordinary to report during your, uh, absence.”

“It’s called sleep. And just because I don’t need it, doesn’t mean it’s a waste.” I wipe the film from my eyes, confirm the proximity of the medical ring, and initiate the parking process. Gravity reduces to next to nothing. “You recorded everything, right?”

“I suppose redundancy is something I can understand, but boss?”

“Yes?”

“Dreams aren’t like visual data, even the dreams of such an astute flesh pot as yourself.”

“Clear to disengage?”

“Disengage clear.”

“Disengaging and setting trajectory.” I unlock the clamps on my Razor and thrust clear of the stasis ring. “No, I suppose not. Still, dream data is better than no data at all. Plus, you can compare it to the heat vision recording I got with my right eye.”

“Done and awaiting your oh-so-infallible human evaluation.”

I lock the controls, unlatch my harness and push off into the gravity free environment. “Can you simulate the gravity of the medical ring?” My feet touch down under the EM simulated gravity, and I start my calisthenics. “Now if you can tell me how long until the docking sequence with the Torriad Medical Ring, and without your infernal sarcasm.”

“You know you love it.”

I sigh. Puzzlingly, I do in fact love it.

“Heads up.”

“What is it this time?”

We’re being pinged again. Text only.”

“Same channel as before?”

“Same exact message: Urgent—return to Al-Aqsa for medical procedure.”

I proceed with my regimen of pull-ups. “An unaddressed message via an unofficial channel. What are the chances it could be someone trying to phish?”

“The likelihood that smugglers intercepted your original transmission and fabricated a response in order to gain your exact location is somewhere between piss poor and crazy like a fox.”

I chuckle despite trying to hide my amusement. “What culture and era does that last bit of color stem from?”

“Twentieth century Earth. You like that one, do you?”

“It’s interesting, considering what I know of the mammal, the most solitary of the Canidae.” I flip upside down and grip the overhead bar with my feet in order to do sit-ups.

“Many earth cultures considered the fox to be cunning, sometimes to the point of complex deception.”

“Employing unorthodoxy to his advantage.” I belch as I adjust my internal pressure to match the gravity on the medical ring. “I like it. Maybe I’m the fox.”

“That’s why you insist on receiving medical attention on Torriad?”

“Receiving medical attention from the nearest Hibernal facility in this quadrant is well within protocol. The six month round trip to Al-Aqsa and back to finish my mission would be impractical, to say the least.”

“You plan to return to Sizlack Prime?”

“I believe you still owe me a count down for the docking procedure.”

“Two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.”


The corridor leading from the docking bay to surgery seems extravagantly oversized. With two transparent walls, it boasts a sweeping view. But I suppose the design is intended to offset the fact there’s no planetarium or herbarium onboard a relatively small yet permanent station.

Upon docking, the registry listed a crew of twenty four souls and an equal number of bots. One doctor, two medical assistants—the rest all support crew—no doubt serving an undesirable stint in a festering backwash of space. Two other patients were listed for procedures ahead of me, but my clearance automatically demoted their status.

The thinking behind small medical stations such as the Torriad is to keep them underwhelming enough to avoid interest from local pirates. Since most pirates operate under varying degrees of permission from at least one of the High Hibernarii Races, any direct attack on a station protected by the Council must involve a valuable prize—one worth dying for.

During my stay, Torriad’s most valuable asset will undoubtedly be the palm star locked in my chest. Twice, pirates have made the mistake of trying to cut it out. I believe the Fortitude Faction is still harvesting the ship graveyard left over from the last attempt. That was three years ago. Pirates.

The corridor is lined with green runway lights all the way to the preparation chamber. I don’t spot the medical assistant until the last second, a Clarity female. She’s clothed in nothing but ebbing, luminescent gasses. Her projection is some sort of organic spirit I vaguely recognize from Ortlacian lore—more humanoid than necessary, perhaps in anticipation of caring for me as a patient.

“Ranger 878, my name is Clarisandra. I’m here to ensure that every aspect of your medical procedure is flawless and contributes fully to your overall healing experience.” She whisks her arms around me and places them lightly on my back. While her exterior is cold, the touch is warm.

Fully aware of the suggestive intent behind the swirling placement and shifting nature of Clarisandra’s etherial coverings, I keep my good eye squarely locked on her face. “Clarisandra, while I’m grateful that anyone would consider my overall healing experience, I’m here for a new eyeball—a left eyeball to be specific. I assure you, I don’t intend to be rude, but my OBAI insists I can’t help it.” I smile as kindly as I can manage.

Undeterred, Clarisandra dips a shoulder and leads me toward the preparation chamber.

I sigh. I don’t deal with Hibernarii females very often, but when I do, it’s not unusual to fend off sexual curiosities. Ancestral humans are rare outside of Hibernaculated Cultures—the intramural races they’re called. The majority of those you find on the outside are desexed slaves. Since Templar have to blend in on HCs across the Hiberverse, we have all the standard plumbing. The pipes just don’t go anywhere, so to speak.

“Please, for your health we require all clothing and possessions be removed before surgery.”

“I’m sure you do.” I tear the seal at the neck of my bio-mimitating reclamation suit. “Just point me toward the locker.”

“Clarisandra bats what I suppose must be eyelashes, although they look more like electric filaments. “I will personally transfer your possessions to the place of your recovery.”

“Of course.” I roll my remaining eye while tearing off the rest of my suit. I make sure to keep it in one piece, just so she doesn’t lose any of it between here and there. Next to my BDM reactor heart, my BMR suit is the most irreplaceable part of me.

I remove the last section from around my foot and hesitate to hold the suit out to Clarisandra. She probably assumes I’m demonstrating some sort of bashfulness. She has no idea how naked I am without my suit. It’s my ticket into the 561 Hibernaculated Cultures across the Hiberverse. Without it, altering my appearance and coverings to adapt to each one would be virtually impossible.

I can’t afford any misunderstanding. “This suit is worth more to me than all the left eyeballs in the Hiberverse.” I soften the effort. “Value it with your life.”

The color storm of gasses surrounding Clarisandra’s torso shutter and thin nearly to nothing before she regains her composure. “Your life is mine, Mr. Ranger.”

I suppress a chuckle at her throaty melodrama. Naked as the day I sloughed from my birth pod, I slap my thighs and step into the preparation chamber. “See you on the other side, nurse.”

Clarisandra nods slowly and gracefully while floating toward the controls. Her fluid movements resemble willow branches in the wind. “To your healing.”

Finally, the door slides shut. As inert gasses swirl around the chamber, I take the opportunity to scratch in several places. After all, I haven’t taken off my BMR suit in ninety-three days.


The drifting clouds of Clarisandra’s chest make a convenient and effective distraction for my right eye as Doc clamps the empty socket of my left into position for the regenerative surgery. The worst part is always the scaffolding, which is just pretty talk for scraping out the goo in order to find a solid foundation to start the regeneration. But I do my best to never get in a doctor’s way.

Legend has it a squeamish Ranger once influenced a doctor to start the regeneration of his thumb before the doc had removed all the foreign debris. Some of that debris hadn’t been human. Supposedly, as a result, the Ranger grew back half the torso of a field mouse instead of a thumb. They had to cut off his hand and start over—now that’s some serious scaffolding.

“You’re sure you’re okay with my beginning the scaffolding before you’re fully anesthetized?” The Doc’s dubious eye and furrowed brow hovers above me, up side down from my perspective. The Integrity Faction male doctor is clearly hesitant to scrape the eye goo of a conditioned killer under the banner of the Council while said killer is still awake.

Integrity publicly disavows projection, instead stressing the value of the flesh, so the doc is corporeal for the surgery. His frame is older than mine, but that’s not saying much for a Hibernari, especially considering that Templar are programmed with exactly fifty years before our tickers pop. Overall, Doc’s augmentations haven’t altered his humanoid appearance significantly—not nearly as bulky as most Integrity males.

“This isn’t my first rodeo, Doc.” I pause for breath—the drugs already setting in. “Scrape the eye and get on with it.”

Doc looks unamused. The gasses swirling around Clarisandra’s chest pulse between vermilion and purple as she finishes clamping my head in place. Doc retreats to his command console to drive the procedure. I feel the laser grid activate. I try to stiffen, but that’s already been done for me. I focus on the wisps of colored gas twining around Clarisandra’s neck.

When the scaffolding starts in earnest, I’m grateful for the rapidly accelerating effects of the anesthesia.


I’ve left the zealot compound, still hot on the trail of the black robe. I jog across a cobblestone and mud street in front of an oxen drawn cart. The sucking mud would have claimed a boot, had it not been a seamless part of my BMR suit.

I filter the cacophonous racket of the logging and fishing village in order to reduce the possible paths of my Chrome zealot. Out of a mixture of disgust and fear, normal life on Sizlack Prime pauses every time a zealot passes.

There. The fish market—an unnatural wave of silence progressing from the south end of the street toward the north. I tip my hat to an elderly lady on the front porch of the apothecary and use an alley to cut across from Main Street to the Fish Walk. I resist the urge to plug my nose from the reek of the local fish—a brackish breed by the name of Foishtervallgn.

I stride northward along the boardwalk and finger the hilt of my discharged water dagger through the fabric of my duster. Strictly taboo outside the temple compound, I had to dump the rising water. At least I got to use it once outside the training simulator on Al-Aqsa.

A bucket flies out of the shadows. I shatter the wood slats with my forearm, only to be slathered in tepid fish. Through the scales and slime, I spot Black Robe disappear along a narrow boardwalk plunging unsteadily into the heart of a brine forest.

A Chrome will die the same among rotten timber grown from sewage, decay and salt water as he will in the pristine courtyards of the Krazlin zealots. And yet, my disappointment reveals I had been clinging to the hope of a second round with daggers.

Five steps into the forest and a foul humidity creeps into my clothing. Ten steps and the light of the sun flees. I feel for the irregular progress of the boardwalk with my feet. Even less permanent trails finger into the floating wood along every gap or width broad enough for a child to squeeze through sideways. Without the robe, my opponent might very well be slimmer than me—a problem I had not factored.

I stand still and close my eyes. Why had the black robe tarried in the fish market if his plan had been to hide here? Had he merely thought of it last second? Or had he lured me? This latter thought shoots my eyes wide open. How could such a thing be fathomable? Of course he couldn’t know I’d been created for his destruction.

I check the time stamp in my peripheral vision—58 minutes until my elevator window. It’d take twenty-six to scrub the temple courtyard and remove Ranger 799 to the safe zone. And that meant humping it the whole way.

Out of completely irrational frustration, I pursue a gap through the brine forest at random. No more than two steps along the way, I notice a small scrap of black cloth dancing from a sharp snag on a slimy trunk.

Rhythmically the boardwalk rises and falls with the ocean, allowing the forest to expand and contract ever so slightly. Like human lungs, the brine forest breathes. Except with each expansion it sucks my breath involuntarily from within me.

It’s hypnotic. I nearly stumble from the boardwalk at the spot of a fresh tree removal. Shocked fully awake, I check my time stamp. Seven minutes have gone by. I’ve waisted enough—

A misplaced crack draws my eyes downward just as a thrusting shard of boardwalk rises upward. Mired in the humidity and the stench, inexplicably, I see the shank coming and yet fail to respond before it embeds into the socket of my left eye.

Black Robe squeals as I shatter his forearm and heft him upward through the remains of the splintered boardwalk. With my right eye, I stare intently into the spent expression of my attacker. I see her face for the first time—a pale skinned female mottled with pink scars from the spray of my water dagger. A matt of black hair clings diagonally across her face, bisecting her two eyes—one brown, one green.


I wake lying on my back, a star scape unfurled above me. With my right eye, I scan from horizon to horizon. Beneath the bandages, I feel my left eyeball tracking with the right. So far so good. I sit up and slide my legs over the edge of the steri-mold table. Autonomically, I attempt to rub my eyes. I succeed in clubbing myself in the face with a rubber mitt. “What the—”

“Good morning, Brown Eye.” Clarisandra’s disembodied voice projects into the empty space right next to me—close enough for her to lay her hands across my still bare back. “Apologies for the protective measures, but due to your unusual physiology, we couldn’t be sure how long you would remain asleep.”

I stare at the two seamless rubber mitts baked onto my hands. “How long exactly have I been asleep, nurse?”

“Please, call me Clarisandra.”

“Okay, Clarisandra, how long have I been counting sheep?”

“I’m not privy to what you do in your sleep, Ranger, but the duration has been a little over five hours.”

“Seems long enough. I gotta itch I need to scratch. A little help?”

“I’m afraid removal of your bandages would be premature for another thirty-eight minutes.”

I bite into one of the rubber mitts. It’s spongy, but not so much that I can’t get a grip with my teeth. I tear a small chunk off and spit it across the room. “And how long do you think it’ll take me to chew through these mitts and scratch it myself?”

“I see. I suppose less than fifteen minutes. You’re more naughty than I had expected, Ranger.”

A blush runs up my spine at the tone and word choice Clarisandra choses. “Pardon me, Ma’am. But where I’m from, directness and impatience are usually virtues.”

“In that case, I’ll hail the doctor immediately. In the meantime, I highly suggest you refrain from tampering with your bandages. Premature exposure to the air, even sterile air, can result in loss of sight and the deformation of the soft tissue surrounding the regenerated area.”

I remove the mitt from my mouth and swallow. “Ah, gotcha loud and clear, nurse.”

“We can only hope reason is also a virtue on Al-Aqsa.”

“Ouch. You don’t have to get nasty.” I attempt a bit of friendly banter, but I can tell that Clarisandra has already redrawn her presence. Not sure how the human mind learns to detect such a thing, but you figure it out after a while. I attempt to scratch my head and bounce the blasted mitt off my skull. “Of all the confounding… Remove a man’s BMR suit, leave him in a loincloth and take away his only means of satisfaction. This constitutes cruel and unusual if I’ve ever experienced it.”

A flash of a lost thought scurries across the surface of my brain. I clutch at it but miss. I come close enough to remember I’d been dreaming about something before I’d woken up on the steri-mold table. Something to do with my mission on Sizlack Prime.

I can still smell the brine forest, so I must have been dreaming about the black robe. There was something unusual, something new in my dream that I hadn’t registered about her the first—wait. Her? How could I have missed something like that in real time? I catch another glimpse of my resurfacing dream. I’m holding her shattered arm in my right hand. Her face in full focus—pale skin, dark hair, pink scars.

No. I shake off the image. Pearl’s right. Dream imagery can’t be trusted, especially when induced by anesthesia. Clarisandra’s got my brain sexed up to the point where my subconscious would probably project femininity onto anything.

My mind floats back to the image involuntarily. I find more proof that the whole thing is a fabrication—Black Robe’s expression. It doesn’t make sense. If I’d just shattered her arm and removed any defensive posture she had left, why would she be staring at me with anticipation? Victory even? Her eye, her terrible green eye, stares up at me in something akin to mirth. But that’s unreasonable, unnatural. When confronted with death, humans don’t deviate from one of three possible responses: anger, fear or resignation. Even zealots, even Templar, can’t avoid their nature at the very end.

Then again, I hadn’t killed the black robe, had I? Female or not, how could the zealot have foreseen an unforeseeable outcome? From the beginning the zealots had known things they shouldn’t have.

The door whooshes open and the doc strides into my recovery chamber. “Good, I see you’ve abstained from chewing off your protective gloves.”

I growl beneath a half smile, enough to keep the doc on edge. “Just a touch of cabin fever, Doc. That’s all.”

“Cabin fever, eh? I suppose that’s how you got a sliver of brackish timber embedded deep enough into your brain to effect your gross motor functions and possibly even a portion of your longterm memory?”

I make a show of twitching my head to the side. “I got a what now embedded in my whozit? Slow down there, Doc.”

Doc grills me with the same dubious eye from earlier. This time he’s right side up so the translation is a bit less comical. “Nothing to be concerned over at this point. It took a bit of extra scaffolding, and I had to widen the laser grid after you were unconscious, but everything should have regenerated nicely.”

The doctor steps forward. A stool materializes and he seats himself in order to scrutinize my good eye. “You aren’t suffering any loss of memory surrounding the moment of the injury are you? Not that you need to recall it for my sake.” He trails off with a mumbling comment about the less he knows the better.

The first thing that comes to mind is the dream. With a second effort, I’m able to pull up the direct memory—or at least portions of it. The more I try to pin down the specifics, the more they blur together with the dream.

Luckily, Clarisandra’s bodily projection enters the room just in time for a splendid distraction. The Doc gestures to the space by his side. Clarisandra fills it while keeping her pouty eyes affixed on my nonbandaged one.

“Sure thing, Doc. I remember it all just fine.” I smile.

His expression doesn’t change.

“Now that you mention the whole gross motor thing, that makes a lot of sense. It took me a whole second longer to respond in the moment than would have been normal.”

“Yes, well.” The doc takes a deep breath. “Muscle memory can be effected temporarily by shocking injuries of this nature. That’s all totally normal.” He checks his time stamp. “Now then, I suppose we’ve waited long enough to take off the bandage. And now that Clarisandra is here to assist.” He starts with the wrap on my head.

“It’s these things that are bothering me the most.” I hold up the mitts. “I got itches all over, Doc. And unless you want Clarisandra here to scratch them.”

“Very well, hold still.” He removes a tiny instrument from his frock and touches it to each glove. They disintegrate immediately, the dust gone before it can hit the sterile, seamless floor.

The first thing I scratch is the back of my head. Then my thigh and that little, hard-to-reach spot in the middle of my back.

All the while, the doc does his best to remove the bandage around my eye without displaying his frustration. Overall, he seems like an overqualified candidate for this far-flung outpost. Perhaps he crossed the wrong Technocrat. He removes the last of the gauze and hands it to Clarisandra. Immediately, he taps the soft tissue of my cheek with his finger and checks the elasticity of my forehead. “Everything’s consolidated perfectly. Now would you mind opening your eye?”

Only then do I realize I’ve been holding it shut. “Sure thing, Doc.” The eyelids are gooped together slightly, but with a little effort I blink them apart. Gloriously, everything seems to work as it should. But my extra sensory perceptions tell me that’s not the case. The balance in the room has shattered. Clarisandra’s exterior is the clearest tell. She loses complete control over her coloration.

The doctor comes to the realization second, perhaps less perceptive than his Clarity Faction nurse. But he sees it now too, and his response is one of horror and self preservation. It’s a response that typically doesn’t bode well in close quarters.

I’m the one currently at the disadvantage. A flick of my restored eyesight discovers the reflective surface of the wall behind the doc. In the time it has taken Clarisandra to drop the gauze in her hand—in the time it has taken Doc’s jaw to gape—I sharpen my mind around the sight that has tipped the moment from jovial to deadly.

Reflecting back at me from across the room, I see my left eye as clearly as I see the doctor’s off-hand gripping the instrument he had used to disintegrate the rubber mitts. As I watch him plunge it upward toward the meat of my thigh, I’ve already determined my immediate course of action—seen it spiderweb to the next and the next. In a fraction of a second, I’ve interpreted all of this through the emerald green iris of my regenerated left eye.


I seize Doc’s wrist and turn his weapon on himself. One stab to the chest and his nervous system crashes. Before his body can topple from the stool, I leap from the examination table and sweep Clarisandra from her feet.

With my mouth pressed to her ear, I delay her impulse to withdraw her projection via emergency severance. “No matter what anyone says,” I press into her, “death is always personal, and you can only do it once. It’s best to make it special.”

She shudders beneath my grip as I twist her neck and drop her bodily projection limply to the floor. Pearl taught me that little trick—when dealing with projections, making it intimate delays the mind’s ability to sever the cascading sensation of physical death. Pull it off perfectly, and the mind crashes before it can convince itself nothing’s happened.

I slide to a stop near the door, scoop up my BMR suit, and slap it on. The nano tendrils activate and pull the skin-tight suit together. The snap at the neck completes the circuit, and I project a fire retardant flight suit. “Pearl.”

“Awaiting your directives.”

“Activate Torriad’s contamination protocols and elevate to critical.”

“Boss?”

“No time for explanations. Key on my location and open a path. I’m coming in hot.” The moment I sweep out the door and into the corridor, the lighting shifts to red and a siren blares. Contamination barriers slam shut to my right. I dial my flight response to full and push my at-once-blanched and sweating body full tilt toward the docking bay.

Pearl’s voice is muffled by the blood pounding in my ears. “Destination in T-48 and counting. Forty-six. Forty-four.”

“Enough of the play by play!” I momentarily take a wrong turn and slam into the corridor wall before I can correct. In less than two seconds I’ve returned to my max foot speed—72 km/h. I pass two mechanics before they can ask what’s happening.

I smash a bot around the final turn. The sound distracts the docking attendant who had undoubtedly been trying to figure out why contamination protocols had failed to lock out my ship and my ship only. He looks up the moment my arm strikes his throat, lifts him from the ground and snaps his neck against the corridor wall.

“Boss?”

“I’m in.”

Immediately the barrier between the Torriad docking bay #3 and my ship slams shut behind me. “Disengage! Thrusters 100%!”

“Which direction?”

“Away from the impending fire ball!” The ship rocks free. I steady myself with a handhold as the thrusters fire.

“Detonation in eighteen.”

“How far do we need to be?” I wrap my legs around my captain’s chair and pull myself into the seat.

“Further than thrusters can take us.”

“Is the stasis ring safe?”

“Unlikely. I wish you would have given me a little more notice—”

“Can it. Heads—shielding. Tails—speed.”

“Come again?”

“Shielding or speed? Which is it?”

“Shielding has a higher probability of—”

“Shielding it is. I’m about to phase the hull, you better hide yourself as deep as you can.”

“I hate it when you—”

“Go now!” I pause for the count of three seconds just to make sure Pearl has enough time to double and triple firewall herself inside the safest systems of the onboard computer. What I’m about to do is considered borderline behavior for anyone other than a pirate. But phasing partway into extra-dimensional space is the best way I can think of slipping past a catastrophe in the three dimensions we call home.

Unfortunately, it gives you one hell of a headache.

I grip the dash, squeeze my eyes shut, clench my teeth, and pour my thoughts into overload. Phasing is a matter of remembering every nightmare and close call of an entire career’s worth of killing. The trick is to convince yourself that they’re all happing at once, and yet to keep from destroying yourself and everything within a ten meter radius by initiating a black hole.

I just need a black wave.

The attacks come in unthinkable proximity—men, women, children—all of them one eye green, one eye brown. My mind spins down a tangent I can’t control. I see the dead doctor, Clarisandra, Ranger 799, Porcilous, followed by everyone I work closely with. All of them die at my hand.

This isn’t real. It’s not real. None of this has happened.

Technocrats I barely know, Hibernarii I’ve never seen. One after the other, I pile the bodies high. No one can stop me. Not even the Apex Lords. I thunder into the Council.

No. None of this is real. My breathing spikes, I can’t catch my breath. My grip on the dash slips. None of this is possible. As I crush the dust-brittle trachea of an eon’s old Apex Lord, his face disappears—replaced by Black Robe’s. She laughs at me. Her green eye sparkles with laughter.

A shockwave washes over the ship, slamming my forehead into the dash. The cascading thoughts seize and then disappear. I pick myself up, scan the proximity for incoming debris, and quickly pilot into a green zone. I check for visual evidence of the Torriad through the rear viewfinder. It’s gone completely—nothing bigger than my captain’s chair.

“Pearl?” I smear sweat and blood from my brow. I swallow and check to make sure my tongue is where I left it. “Pearl? You can come out now. Looks like we made it. Can you analyze the condition of the stasis ring?”

“Um, boss.”

“There you are.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “You had me worried for a second. I was just wondering if we were stuck out here.”

“You’re eye is green.”


I gaze at my reflection in the polished hiber-steel of the console beside me. I haven’t had time to consider an official explanation. I haven’t an unofficial one either. “My eye is green.” I repeat Pearl’s simple statement of fact in hopes it will trigger the rest of the truth. “And the doc said no one would notice.”

“Should I be concerned?”

“About us being stranded three months STL travel from the nearest jump gate? I would be.”

“I was referring to the fact I just detonated a medical facility under the protection of the High Hibernal Council based on what I can only assume are false pretenses. I found no failure in the Torriad’s contamination protocols.”

The hair on the back of my neck rises. Of all the close shaves I’ve experienced in the last few days, this could be the most precarious. If I lose the trust of Pearl, I’m as good as dead. Not only can she detonate the palm star in my chest with a simple frequency emission, but she’s my lifeline. She’s my protector. She’s my companion.

“About that, sorry I couldn’t bring you in before hand. It appears my pirate theory—”

“Incoming ping, highest priority.”

I catch my breath. “Authentication?”

“Classified, but it’s an official channel.”

“Classified? I’ve got the highest clearance.”

“Would you like the message?”

“Visual.” The projection scrolls past my face as I read: Distress signal received from Torriad Medical Ring—apparent catastrophic loss due to contamination containment failure. Requesting confirmation on eye regeneration procedure… I roll with the unexpected message from Templar Central without hesitation. “Response: Eye regeneration procedure complete.”

Pearl pings central with my response. Moments later we receive the incoming: While total loss of Torriad Medical Ring is deemed unfortunate, the outcome is acceptable considering the station’s duplicity. Proceed with infiltration of pirate operation suspected for illicit transportation of chromiums. Mission: leverage illegal framework to terminate indeterminate population of chromiums dwelling outside of hibernaculated cultures. Activation: Immediately. Closure: open ended…

“Response: Mission accepted, Ranger 878. Pearl, can you authenticate?”

“Authenticating. Mission confirmed.”

I rock back in my captain’s chair and mask my thoughts for Pearl’s sake. Her mollification is still pending. I can feel her tension. But I can hardly stomach the multiple maddening implications of the mission just handed down to me personally—anonymously no less.

“Boss?”

“Pearl?”

“You gotta cut back on the theatrics.”

“Oh? What part didn’t you like.” I feel a plan amorphously coming together.

“You couldn’t simply tell me you had to look like a Chrome to hunt Chromes?”

I shrug and smile.

“And when did all of this come about? I’ve never seen our new mission on the roster, even at low priority.”

I nod my head slowly and scratch the three day’s growth on my chin. “You dismissed it as paranoia, but I didn’t like the unofficial pings we’ve been soliciting since the botched mission on Sizlack Prime.”

“Along with the zealots’ apparent awareness of your identity?” Pearl seems anxious to assist my explanation.

“Exactly. I knew something fishy was going on, so I opened a secure channel from the Torriad and shared my suspicions. Word came back that pirates have been suspected of a massive Chromium smuggling operation in this quarter. But Central needed confirmation. Even the doctor himself had been under suspicion of providing cosmetic eye regeneration for Chromes able to pay, or pirates willing to pay for them.” The ease with which the pieces fall into place rattles me.

“Thus the phony contamination protocol.”

I nod. “I pressed the doc into confirming that a steady stream of Chromes have been pouring through his clinic. I conveyed the information, and Central deemed it important enough to activate us immediately. Lacking a plan to secure the Torriad, I deemed it acceptable to eliminate the station before word of our mission could spook nearby smugglers.”

“And your eye?”

“That was my idea. What? Too much?”

“I suppose it will take some getting used to, slick.”

I breathe deeply. Pearl’s onboard, for now. Hell, I’ve almost convinced myself. It’s all part of the plan. “Right. Down to business then. Status of our stasis ring?”

“Inoperable. Barely better than space junk, I’d dare say.”

“Hmmm. All the more reason we need to find us some pirates, sooner rather than later.”

END

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