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Upon the Shoulders of Giants

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Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
doubting, dreaming,
dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
-Edgar Allen Poe, "The Raven"
          A harsh wind raked coarse dust across endless dunes and crags of sharp rock, pulverized after eons of relentless battering.  Nothing lived here except howling torrents, sunlight bleakly making its way to the surface after battling its way through clouds of dust and ash. 
          It had been the same desolation for millennia, and so it would be, most likely, until its star exhaled its last breath and consumed the world, erasing it from the cosmos as if it had never existed.
          However, on this day that would last for another several weeks, this world would see life on its surface, for the first time in maybe millions of years.  It would, however, also be the last time.
          A ship, black and shimmering, pierced the clouds, nimble as a knife in deft hands, and made its way toward the surface.  It was smaller, about the size of a Ghost class Federation ship, easily operated by a minimal crew.  But it definitely wasn't from the Federation.  Not only did it not look like any Federation vessel, nor did it have any of the appropriate markings, but a single ship so small would never be alone on an uncharted world so close to Simulacrum space.
          Yet here it was, and within minutes was landing on a relatively flat stretch of rock, its repulsor engines gracefully lowering the ship smoothly toward solid ground, small landing pads resembling claws lowering to soften the ship's landing.  With barely and thud it touched down, and for several seconds the roar of the engines quieted to a soft hum before yielding to silence, steam hissing out of exhaust ports for a moment before joining in the quiet vigil.
          For a while it stood there, a faint tick, tick as rough fragments reverberated off the thick metallic hull, until a hatch opened and a dark figure emerged.  She was fully covered, not an inch of her flesh exposed to the harsh atmospheric conditions.  A featureless mask covered her face, and a hood, grey in color, adorned her head, flapping in the intense wind.  Her body was covered in matching robes and black leather-like gear, with tougher carbosteel plating covering the more vital areas.
          She took a look around, ingesting the scene before her, the nothingness of this forsaken world eating at her like a disease.  It was hard to believe this place once supported lush wildlife, winding rivers, and dense forests.  Deciding not to dwell on it, she checked her monitor on her left forearm, noticing her arm felt heavier than usual on this large planet.  The display indicated her objective was not too far to the west, and she moved toward it.  It was when she started walking that the high gravity could be truly felt, and it was almost punishing to walk.  However, her task was far too important to worry about it, plus she wouldn't be here for too long, for the sooner she was finished the sooner she could leave this world forever.
          After a few minutes of trudging along, she came across a fissure in the face of a crag.  Standing before it, she placed her hand on one of the rough edges of the narrow opening and peered inside.  It appeared to be the mouth of a long passageway into the darkness, which could possibly go on for miles for all she knew.  However, she had to make the descent or risk incurring the disappointment of her brother.
          Looking out at the wastes behind her one last time, she began her excursion into the cave, hoping that her time within would be a short one.  Immediately the wind stopped, the calm silence interjected with the whistle of moving air past the cavern's entrance a welcome change to the roar of tumultuous gusts and the staccato of sand rasping her masked helmet.
Inside the cave her surroundings went from a bleary sand-blasted waste to an even darker, somewhat less sand-blasted cave.  She activated a built-in headlamp on her helmet, illuminating the path before her.  Her way was relatively unobstructed, the passage ahead of her gently sloped downward, curving to the left in the distance.  She started walking, and checked her monitor, which confirmed that she was most likely in the right place.  Continuing on for several minutes, her way twisted and turned every few dozen feet or so, and gradually began to narrow.
          The silence was almost maddening, her mind focusing on the sound of her own breath, and coupled with the high gravity and steadily tightening pathway, she was on edge much more than normal.
          Several mintues passed as she continued to make her way through the tunnel, and as the time went on, the rough, jagged walls of stone and dirt began to give way to smooth, polished masonry covered with a light layer of fine dust.  It was a welcome change, as even the ground she tread on became less effortful to find sure footing.
          Eventually she noticed upon the walls the sleekness was perturbed by intricate carvings and runes, barely noticeable through the dust.  They may have been carved as long ago as ten thousand years, or possibly millions, yet they were still perfectly preserved in the windless environment of the cavern.  Taking a moment to observe the designs, she noticed a few markings she recognized from her studies, yet many more she did not, and made a mental note to suggest to the arbiter or perhaps her brother to send a group of scholars to come and record it all.
          She continued on, and at long last she reached the end of the tunnel, the walls about her having narrowed to the point where she could no longer fully extend her lithe limbs.  In front of her was a flat wall barring her from continuing on, covered in runes and markings like the walls about her, partially obstructed by dust.  She brushed some of the dirt away, not that it would make reading the alien runes any easier, for she already had a general idea of what they represented, but to simply admire them, for they wer much more detailed, and, to her, beautiful, than all the rest before.  The patterns, the detail, the obvious care that was poured into every line she drank in, her sense of wonder sparking just like every time before she beheld such a sight, or when her brother told her tales of the Ancients when she was young.
          Her forearm display indicated that her target was very near, and therefore her mission was near completion.  Reaching into her robes, she pulled out her varitool, but for some reason she thought she sensed movement behind her.  Turning around, she flooded the pathway behind her with light from her headlamp, but there was nothing there.  The dust wasn't disturbed, no footprints other than her own had been made on the floor, there was no evidence to suggest she wasn't alone. The gravity, darkness, and cramped conditions were just putting her increasingly on edge, she surmised before refocusing her attention back on the door.
          Her varitool hummed lazily as the inner components sprang to life, and a small holo screen lit up before her, automatically beginning its analysis of the images carved in stone.  After a few moments of soft signals and tones as the device studied the designs, it ringed its conclusion.  Smiling beneath her mask, she collapsed her varitool and returned it to its place within her cloak, fixating her attention on a specific series of symbols.  Extending her long, thin fingers, she gently grazed a fingertip across the stone surface, etching an invisible design among the impeccable arrangements of patterns.
          Slowly but surely, a dim silvery light emitted from where her finger brushed along the rock, and disappeared as quickly as it came.  She stood, backing away in anticipation, and the rock melted away, as if it had never even been there, revealing the chamber it blocked from view.
          Taking a moment to collect herself, she paused before entering.  Experiences like these, for her, were few and far between, and never failed to take her breath away.  Despite the awe they inspired within her, the possibility of danger was always present in Ancient ruins, and it was important to maintain constant vigilance despite the urge to focus on the obvious.
          After a moment she stepped into the dark chamber, her senses sharp.  For a few seconds everything around her was black, until she was several feet within, and runes, even more detailed than those carved into the dissolving doorway, appeared on the walls and floor, all illuminating in their familiar dim silvery glow.  Despite the fact each individual symbol only gave off a small amount of light, there were so many, everywhere, that the entire chamber became well lit.
          She drank it all in, memorizing every detail so she could revisit this place in her mind later at her leisure.  There was no doubt about it now, her brother was right about there being an Ancient chamber here.  She was here as a favor to him more than anything, as an arbiter hadn't sent her here.  Her brother being as busy as he usually is, she felt like it was the least she could do for him.  She was eager to return to him with the news that he was right about this place, but she decided to do a little looking around to see what things of interest were here, if any.
          The chamber was illuminated enough with all the phosphorescent sigils giving off their sterling light, but after activating her headlamp she could see every detail in the room.  It appeared to be simply an antechamber as there was a doorway in the far wall that led to another, possibly larger chamber.  Removing from her robes the varitool once more, she made her way through the antechamber towards the next room, carefully watching her step as to not possibly disturb anything of value.  She set her device to auto scan, which would giver her an extra set of eyes as she looked for anything of interest.
          In the next chamber she was greeted with a similar welcome as the last, with the symbols along the walls growing luminous upon her entrance.  This chamber was far larger than the previous, however, and had several doorways to other rooms along the walls, and pillars rose from the ground, each exquisitely carved from the stone, to meet the dark canopy overhead.
          What was most interesting about this particular chamber, however, was what was set in the very center, set upon a pedestal of stone, illuminated from the base by a circle of much brighter silver light.  She moved closer to the pedestal, which atop rested a small, intricately designed dodecahedron shaped object.  It had twelve faces, each face having five edges, giving it an almost spherical shape, and upon its surface was carved the most detailed designs she had seen yet. 
          Upon looking at it, she felt a serene sense of familiarity, as if she had seen it before.  Then she realized she had, in a very old codex her brother was researching.  Upon one of the pages he'd shown her a sketch of an object that looked just like the one before her, and he had called it an Omnibus, an object which, when opened or activated somehow, revealed a wealth of information the Ancients had gathered at the height of their civilization eons past.  It was thought all were lost to the ages, for none that the Syndicate recovered were ever in such pristine condition.  This one, however, appeared as if in the right hands it could be awakened.
          A gasp of excitement emitted unintentionally from her pharynges as she reached to collect the omnibus, simultaneously returning her varitool to its place amongst her robes, eager to return the artifact to her Syndicate, namely her brother.
          "Well this is fortunate," came a voice from behind, chillingly charismatic and dripping with menacing insolence.  Frightened, she spun to face the voice's owner, her headlamp illuminating a dark figure clothed in tattered black robes, a similarly tattered hood concealing much of his face, and a dark gray metallic mask evoking the visage of some kind of insect.  The most eerie feature was, however, the two soft orbs of pale blue green light that exuded from where his eyes should have been.
          He, or it, was an agent of the Simulacrum, but she had no idea how he was here, this world being in Federation space.  His mere presence this far across the armistice line risked plunging the galaxy into conflict.
          "Well, for me, at least."  He had his rifle trained on her head, and yet she was so afraid to move, keeping his weapon ready wasn't necessary.  "Really, the coincidence is quite uncanny, if you think about it.  With all the vastness of space I just happen to arrive to this place mere minutes after you."  Lowering his weapon slightly, he began casually walking toward her.  "If I believed in fate, or destiny, or gods, I'd chalk it up to that. But, since I don't, let's just call it luck."
          As he talked, she inched her hand to her sidearm, hoping her head lamp blinded him enough to not notice.  With a bang, her lamp erupted, sending a shockwave through her skull and down her spine, dazing her, and the room went dark save for the phosphorescent designs within the chamber.
          "Still, bad for you." Smoke billowed from the barrel of his rifle.  She hadn't even seen him raise it again.
          "What are you doing here?" she demanded, her head pounding and ears ringing.
        "Ah, come now," he said, lowering his weapon once more, still nonchalantly moving in her direction "let's not be so hostile."  She made sure to position herself between him and the Omnibus.  "And don't take me for a fool.  It's rude, and I detest rudeness.  You know very well we're here for the same prize."
          Her fears confirmed, she had to act quickly if she wanted to escape with the Omnibus alive, for agents of the Simulacrum were not to be trifled with, and if this particular one had come alone, then he was among the most dangerous kind.  Unsure of what she should do next, she decided to try and stall the agent and hope she thought of something.
          "I am Corvae Shor'aur," her voice stammered, "a representative of the Syndicate of Whispers."  She was careful not to make any quick movements as she continued, "This Ancient sanctum, and all of its contents, are now under the ownership of-"
          "Oh, enough with your self-righteous blubbering, you pretentious little insect."  At this the agent, clearly agitated, lowered his firearm completely, drawing a blade and placing it at her throat, having closed the distance between the two of them.  With a flick of his wrist, the vibromotor encased within the hilt came to life, oscillating the blade to upwards of ten-thousand hertz.  "Let's get one thing straight, I could have ended you quite some time ago, but I'm under orders to not spill any blood unless I have to."
          With every word she couldn't help but feel helpless as those pale, almost ghostly aqua eyes pierced her being, his gaze, albeit from behind a mask, sharper than any blade.
          "Besides," he continued, "I needed you to open the chamber entrance for me.  Thanks for that.  But know I don't care who you are or who you represent.  I will have the Omnibus, and if I must watch the life drain from your eyes to do so, believe me, I will enjoy doing just that."
          With that, she was sure her time was up, so she stood aside, feigning allowance for him to access the Omnibus.
          "Good girl." he lowered his blade and moving to take possession of the artifact.  However, she was about to prove that she was not one to give up her prize so easily.
          She spun, elbowing him in the back of the head and kicking him square in the foreleg, tripping him up and causing him to fall to the ground.  Another opportunity to escape surely would not arise, and she took it up as a chance to grab the Omnibus and attempt an escape through the archway.  Her only chance was to get enough of a head start, make it to her ship, and get above the atmosphere.  She had to get a message to her brother, or to anyone for that matter.  Even if the Omnibus fell into Federation or Coalition hands, it would still be better than for the Simulacrum to get a hold of it.
          She ran as fast as she could, almost blindly down the passageway, the only light she had to judge where to put her feet came from the rune-lit chambers behind her.  However, that light quickly disappeared once she turned her first corner, and she had to resort to memory and her varitool to guide her.
          Thoughts raced through her mind: how did he find this place?  As far as she knew, only her brother and her arbiter knew of it, and that could only mean one thing.  Someone in the Syndicate had betrayed them to the Simulacrum.  She only hoped she could somehow get word to her brother, for he could be in grave danger.
          Another thing that she wondered was why didn't the agent just kill her outright?  He could have very easily, especially when she was enthralled by the sight of the omnibus.  She could only guess that the Simulacrum did not wish to risk leaving evidence of their presence past the armistice line.  However, if they were to get their hands on the Omnibus, it was highly possible that whatever secrets it contained would put them in a position to not have to worry about resistance from the Federation, nor the Coalition.  The entire galaxy would fall under their control.
          Quickening her pace as best she could despite the gravity, she dared not attempt a glance behind, for the agent could be mere inches trailing behind her, and given the Simulacrum's penchant for cybernetic enhancement, she was honestly surprised he hadn't caught up to her.  The ground beneath her began to grow more rugged, which meant that the cave exit was growing near.  Minding not to slow down or lose footing, she tapped a couple quick commands on the monitor on her left arm, sending a signal to her ship to fire the engines now that she was within range.
          Turning a corner through the tunnel, she saw the welcome sliver of grey of the exit.  Moving as fast as her legs could carry her she twisted her body to fit through the narrow gap without having to slow down.  Her visor scraped against the rock as she passed through, leaving her vision partially obstructed, but all the same resumed her sprint once outside, the taxing gravity beginning to take its toll on her energy.  The eerie silence of the cavern was suddenly replaced by the roar of the wind and the jagged tapping of sand and dust hitting her helmet and mask.  The ship soon came into view, the engines spewing exhaust out of the vents, and in her struggle she managed to breathe a sigh of relief just before commanding it to prepare for liftoff via her wrist monitor.
          The engines roared as she sped toward her ship, and it gently hovered a few feet over the sandy earth, blasting particulates in every direction.  Approaching the hatch, she felt as if her legs would soon give out beneath her, and with one last tap on her monitor it opened, the promise of sweet escape lying just beyond.  With all the strength she could muster she leapt for the hatch, her hand gripping a rail lining the doorway, and looked back from where she came, her eyes struggling to peer through the cracks in her visor.
          There he was, slowly walking toward her ship, a black silhouette against the unforgiving grey background, aiming his rifle directly at her.  Flames spewed from the muzzle, and her shoulder erupted with a searing pain as the projectile tore through her armor and flesh.  Her robes started to warm with her blood as she hastily shut the hatch and rushed to the ship's control console, panic flooding her thoughts as she took the stick in her hands and guided the ship upward.
          Loud bangs came from outside as the agent opened fire upon her ship, and she prayed to the Ancients as she put everything her ship had into its engines, speeding it towards the clouds.  Soon the grey atmosphere gave way to the cold blackness of space, and she traded one source of dismay for another.  Her displays told her that a fuel line had been hit, and by her calculations she deduced that after pushing her engines so hard to leave the atmosphere, she had barely enough to make one short range jump.  After that, her fate was no longer in her hands, but there was no way she could stay here.  She had lost a lot of blood, and was losing more by the second, and if in her dying moments she kept the Omnibus out of the hands of the Simulacrum, then she could rest easily.
          She had her computer plot coordinates that would take her deeper into Federation space, hoping the Simulacrum agent would not follow, signaled her automated distress message, and slammed the controls, commanding her ship to make the jump.  Seconds later, as the ship left the star system behind, her mind drifted to her brother, silently pleading for him to come save her as her consciousness slipped away.

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          Silence both filled and surrounded the ship as it lazily cruised along through the darkness, having yet to experience anything abnormal during its federation standard month long patrol.  The ship's sole conscious occupant had a feeling that that particular trend would continue until their relief came.  Also, he couldn't possibly be any more miserable.

          Kova sat at the bridge, multiple monitors surrounding him, bored out of his mind.  One of the screens was meant to show incoming radar pings, but it had been re-purposed for the intent of gaining access to the Federation's information network.  He hoped to catch up on the events of the brewing conflict between the Coalition and the Federation, but he was unable to gleam much outside of minor conflicts and territory disputes along the border worlds.  There was nothing on his previous assignment, meaning the Federal Council had most likely buried his involvement and used a cover up story to explain away the death toll.

          Something was coming, Kova knew it, and there was nothing the Federation could do to stop it.  The Coalition would strike again, or something else would be the catalyst that turned border disputes into something much bloodier and widespread.  No matter what that would be, he was still here, wasting away on pointless patrol duty, unable to be where he was needed most.

          Sometimes he wondered why he still pressed on.  He had served his time and earned his reputation.  Most would say his glory days were long behind him, that he clung to a shadow of his former self.  Never to his face, of course, but it was still said.  Many times past he'd considered retiring, yet something, somehow, had always managed to pull him back into the fire.

          Now was not one of those times, however.  If he were to leave it all behind, he would want it to be on a much higher note, not in a way that could be seen as a cheap means of getting out of a contemptible assignment.  So, even if perhaps mostly out of spite, he would do his duty until either a miracle got him reassigned to something better, or he no longer could.

          "You're not Vektor," came a soft feminine voice from behind.  Joule had come to relieve the station, not expecting to find Kova sitting there.

          "Couldn't sleep," Kova gruffly responded, never taking his eyes off his screen, despite the warm aroma of her cup of Coranthi spiced tea filling him.  "So I let him off early.  Besides," he turned to look into her bright teal eyes, "if something were to happen I wouldn't want him manning the guns half asleep."

          "Oh, yeah?" A smirk cracked her face, "And what happens when you need to maneuver this ship half asleep and jacked up on stims?"

          He responded with a grunt and turned back to face the monitors once more.  "Don't worry about me," he said, a slight hint of condescension in his tone.  She moved, letting out a somewhat irritated sigh, and leaned against the desk to face him.

          "Would it kill you to admit that I'm right once in a while?" She didn't expect a response, merely studying his face.  "You look like hell, Templar.  Get some rest."

          After a few brief moments, Kova let out a breath of futility and finally made eye contact.  "Fine," he said, slowly getting out of his chair, turning his gaze from her intricately tattooed indigo blue face before adding, "there's nothing to report, anyway."

          "That's not surprising," Joule sat down and set her tea upon the workstation.

          "Oh, you did get a message," Kova amended, stopping just before leaving the bridge, "from Anion I believe."

          "Great!" Joule perked up noticeably, "I was beginning to wonder when I'd hear from her."

          Kova voiced his approval with a soft grunt, lingering in the hatchway for a moment as Joule settled herself in and operated the computers about the station.  He found himself lost in thought, wondering how someone could remain so optimistic after everything that had recently happened while he was fighting his hardest to recuperate.

          "You good?" came Joule's voice, snapping Kova from his haze, prompting a mutter of affirmation from him as he turned and made his way down the short, cramped corridor.

          It didn't take him long to reach his quarters as his ship, the Intrepid, wasn't very large.  It was a Dauntless class light freighter that Kova had personally re-purposed as his own patrol and combat ship after his advancement to Redeemer status.  The bridge, living quarters, and common areas were all located along a large ring-like structure that spun to simulate gravity.  The central part of the ship was where lighter craft referred to as "Falcons" and "Ravens" were located, as well as some maintenance areas for the propulsion systems.

          Kova shut the hatch to his quarters behind him and drew in a deep breath, the haunting memories and sleepless nights starting to catch up to him.  He removed his shirt, revealing the physical scars of his past, and haphazardly dropped it on the deck.  He caught his reflection in his mirror upon entering his washroom, and silently agreed with Joule that he appeared rather grim before splashing his face with stale water.  One thing he hated most about being on patrol for long periods of time was how the recycled water smelled and tasted like several people had drank it before him.

          His quarters were modest compared to those of other captains, consisting of what he considered all that was necessary.  There was his rack, of course, along with a small cabinet and a desk where he took advantage of down time or worked on important documents on his personal computer.  Off to one side was a closet with his clothes and armor within, and on another bulkhead was the hatch to the washroom he was currently exiting.

          Deciding he should at least attempt to get a little rest, he sat down on his rack and removed his boots, trying to think of something to occupy his mind other than the increasingly tumultuous state of the Federation or his last failed mission. He got up and walked over to his small cabinet, opening it and removing a bottle of dark amber liquid, and poured some of the contents into a glass on his desk, savoring the aroma of one of his very few indulgences.  A moment later, he had downed the modest amount he allowed himself to imbibe, set the glass back upon the desk and sat back down on his rack.  Laying his head on the pillowless bunk he found himself slowly dozing off, his imaginings of serenity and requiescence gradually being replaced with dreams of horror and violence.


* * * * *


          Darkness surrounded him, darker than the blackness of space, stretching infinitely in all directions and permeating his being to the core.  He was breathing heavily and attempting to cry out but heard nothing, barely even feeling his vocal chords vibrate in his throat.  Dread and panic flooded him, since, for all he knew, he had been in this black emptiness since before the beginning of time itself and would be there well after it ended.  He ran, or at least he thought he was running despite not being able to see his own legs nor the ground beneath them in the void, in a meager attempt to escape the emptiness, but after an apparent eternity it seemed as if he hadn't moved at all.

          Hope was lost to him, despair flowing through his mind as he accepted his fate.  This was his punishment, his purgatory, for his failure, and he welcomed it, believing he deserved far worse.

          Eternities passed as he relived the worst moments of his past in his mind over and over, the idea of earning retribution for his transgressions and therefore the possibility of ever absconding his own personal hell had long since been replaced with the utmost certainty that he would exist forever in this eternal void.         

          Eons came and went, the madness of the endless vacuum having long consumed him, but in an instant he went from feeling absolutely alone to feeling like he shared this purgatory with someone, or some thing.  It came at him like a ripple, gradually increasing in intensity, until he felt he would drown with the sudden and long-awaited upheaval.  He looked in all directions, soundlessly calling out at whatever it was to make itself known, but other than his feeling there was no indication that he was anything besides alone.

          And then he heard something, if he even heard anything, since it was entirely plausible that in his madness he was simply imagining all this.  But what he thought he heard was familiar to him, a sequence of sounds he had heard quite often before he was here in this endless night.

          "Kova," it came again, and he spun around to look in the direction he thought it came from, only to find the same endless expanse of nothing he'd become all too familiar with through the ages.  Then, to his right, came a flash of brilliant white light that pierced the darkness, blinding him after having seen nothing but pitch black for millennia.  Then, however, the light dimmed and his vision slowly returned to him, allowing him to just make out the silhouette of a womanly figure encased in radiating white light.

          She seemed somewhat familiar, like a fleeting memory after a dream, but all the eternities couldn't wipe her image from his mind.  After all, failing her was the main reason he had been in this black prison.

          "Carina..." his lips moved and his vocal chords resonated but no sound was made, her light blue eyes piercing him from behind a veil of dark hair the only affirmation that he was correct.  As his vision finally fully returned to him after the shock of light that came from her, he noticed how her features seemed to fade to a blur before refocusing somewhat regularly, as if she was trapped in a place somewhere between his purgatory and some other existence.  Despite this, he took every chance to study her bare form so he could keep the image fresh in his mind for when she inevitably left him here.

          For a moment they simply stared at each other, Kova speechless, the nature of the void rendering him unable to voice his repentance for failing her.  But soon her expression changed from being calm to resentment and animosity, pointing her finger towards him in accusation before flinging her hand outstretched to her side.

          With that, his entire surroundings changed from blackness to flame.  His feet touched charred ground, the skies overhead darkened from smoke and ash, as if the entire world he stood upon burned.  It didn't take him long to recognize where he was: Adara, his homeworld.  He tried to scream at the sight, but as before no sounds emanated from him.  He looked at Carina who stood beside him, staring at him with righteous fury.

          "This is what you have wrought through your failure."

          Kova attempted to step forward only to feel something brittle crack beneath his feet, and looked down to see skulls and bones covering the ground with a thick layer of death's mementos stretching in all directions.  The horror of the sight made him want to scream even more despite he could not, the urge only doubling when he began to sink.  He looked to Carina, who merely looked on as he went further down, a look of furious satisfaction upon her wavering visage.

          Struggling to escape this particular fate, he felt as if his descent was slowing, and a small spark of hope ignited within him.  However, in the next moment, Carina moved to him, slightly bent, looking him in the eyes, cold damnation adorning her face, before placing her hands on his head and pushing him downward.  He looked up, fearful, silently crying out, just before he went under, to see her flash a look of victorious condemnation as the ocean of death swallowed him.

            "This will be your legacy."

          Kova was back in his prison, alone, in the dark once again, as if nothing had happened, left to dwell on the things he had just seen, and powerless to do anything about it.

          "Wake up." he heard, Carina's voice faintly echoing throughout the darkness.  He looked around him but didn't see her.  Turning, suddenly there she was, her face angrily lunging at him.

          "Wake up!" she screeched.


* * * * *


          Kova lurched up with a yell, sweating and breathing heavily, to the sound of faint knocking at his hatch.

          "Kova, wake up!"  It was Joule, and who knew how long she'd been at it.

          "What is it?" Kova sounded, still reeling from the dream and attempting to reconnect with reality.

          "I'm sorry to bother you, Templar, but I need you to come take a look at something at the bridge.  I don't know what to make of it."  Genuine concern was in her voice, and Kova knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't be disturbing him without reason.

          "Alright, I'll be right there." Kova sat up in his cot and wiped his eyes and face.  Shaking off the still present chills from the dream, he got up from his bed and walked over to his washroom.  Taking a good look at himself in the mirror within, he saw he was drenched with sweat and looked just as sullen as ever, and after a moment lost himself to the still terrifyingly clear images he had just seen.  He had had similar dreams before, but none so graphic, and never before had she been in them.

          Kova decided not to dwell on it, for he had a job to do, and it sounded like whatever Joule thought deserved his attention seemed pretty important.  So at that he turned from the mirror and dressed himself in his usual casual clothing to see what Joule had woken him up for.

          "Alright, what's got you all worked up?" Kova asked, moments later after returning to the bridge.

          "Well, like I said," Joule looked first at Kova then back to the many monitors as she continued, "I'm not really sure what it is."  She pointed to a screen designated for message traffic.  "It took me a while to find it but it's there.  Short range, on a frequency the Federation hasn't used in..." she paused, "centuries?"

          "Maybe a buoy malfunction?" Kova suggested.

          "My thoughts exactly, at first," Joule went on, "but then I tried to triangulate which one it could be, but it's not coming from any.  We're receiving it straight from the source."

          Kova grunted in speculation, though now clear why Joule saw fit to wake him, the number of questions going through his mind doubling.

          "Is it far?"

          "Not really, sublight would get us there in an hour at most." Joule implemented the proper controls to carry out the order without needing to be told to do so, and Kova felt the familiar feeling of the ship beginning to accelerate.  "But Kova, there's more.  I went through an old code book and translated the message.  It's a mayday, hasn't been used for about as long as the frequency it was sent on."  Kova pondered the information for a moment, his train of thought had already started to lean to a more tactical approach before hearing this, but now his next course of action was made clear.

          "Alright," he began, "set the autopilot to keep minimum safe distance and gear up."  Joule looked somewhat surprised at his last order, but did not question him, turning to the controls and inputting the proper commands into the navigation system.

          "Should I go wake Vektor?" she turned in her chair and stood up as her and Kova exited the dimly lit bridge.

          "I'll do it, go get ready." Kova replied, having already turned the corner and began making his way toward his other squadmate's quarters.

          He arrived at Vektor's hatch mere moments later and soon attempted to awaken him by way of two loud thuds with his fist.  Kova received no indication Vektor was stirred by this and tried again, yet was still met with silence.  Kova then opened the hatch and peered into the dark room, taking a step inside only to step on something soft.  With a wave of his hand the lights came on and he realized he was standing on some article of clothing.  Simultaneously a figure rapidly sat up in a cot at one corner of the room, indicating Vektor was awake.

          "What's going on, boss?" he blinked the tired from his eyes while removing an electronic device that covered his ears, the faint sound of music coming from it.

          "Gear up," Kova responded sternly, "we've got a mayday."

          Vektor flashed a similar look that Joule had given Kova when he gave her that same order, a confused expression creasing his young, dark and stubbled face, but he did not question.  He gave Kova and understanding nod and stood up, stretching.

          "And clean up this mess a bit while you're at it." Kova added, just before leaving and heading towards his own quarters.

          Quite some time later Kova once again entered the bridge, his thick metal armor clanking with nearly every move.  In one hand he held his equally thick helmet, and a cup of caffeine was held in his other.  Joule was already there, as it didn't take her very long to put on her light armor, which was made from a mostly silicon carbide mesh and some ceramic steel plating.  She had slipped on her appointed blue Psion robes above her armor, and, like, Kova, had her helmet, which was sitting upon one of the workstations.

          "Status," Kova barked upon entering, sipping from his cup.

          "We'll reach M.S.D. in just a few minutes, Templar, but any hails I've sent receive no response.  Scans indicated it's a small craft, smaller than ours, but doesn't identify as being Federation."

          "Interesting." Kova thought to himself.  They were somewhat close to Coalition space, so perhaps a smuggler had voyaged too far from home and ran out of fuel.  "Are we close enough for a visual yet?"

          "Not quite, but even if we were, we aren't close enough to any nearby stars to be able to see it very well.  We would have to render in infrared."

          "Hmm," Kova paused for a moment, "any change in the message?"

          "No, it keeps playing on a loop, probably automated.  None of our scans can detect if there are any life forms on board, either."

          "Strange," Kova murmured, just before Vektor strode in, adorned in his stealth combat gear, his own helmet in hand.

          "Alright, what's the stink?" he half asked, half demanded.  Joule proceeded to fill him in on the details of the mayday signal and the unknown vessel as Kova took another swig from his mug, pondering the situation.

          "We should be close now," Kova said just after Joule finished bringing Vektor up to speed, eager to find some clarity in this highly unusual turn of events.

          "Right," Joule turned back toward the monitors, and entered commands into the computer.  Seconds later, one of the larger monitors switched to a black screen, displaying the image of the nothingness of space.  Moments after, the image began to brighten, until the outline of a small ship could bee seen, the infrared accentuating the relatively warm exhaust ports.  From the looks of it, the vessel had been floating aimlessly for some time.

          "Definitely not Federation," Vektor mumbled, voicing the thoughts that came to everyone's mind.

          "Well, we have a job to do." Kova finished the contents of his mug and set it down.  "Vektor, man the bridge and take us in. Keep all channels open.  Joule and I will board and find out what in the hell is going on."

          "Copy, Templar," Vektor sat down at the console shortly after Joule got up, setting his helmet in the same spot she had just removed hers from.  Kova exited the bridge, Joule following closely behind, and headed towards the airlock hatch, stopping just before to type a code into a keypad on the wall.  After a few button presses, a smaller window opened, allowing access to Judgement, Kova's rifle. Joule did the same to her armory, located opposite his, and withdrew her sidearm, Denial.

          "To bridge," Kova commanded the intercom system to connect to Vektor, and a short pause came before a soft tone from the speakers, allowing the two to communicate.  "Alright Slayer," he began, looking through the airlock hatch and being able to make out the faintest outline of the ship as the rotation ring spun it into view, "kill rotation."

          Slowly, he began to feel lighter as the rotation slowed to a stop, and he nodded to Joule, activating magnetic undersoles in his boots to keep him oriented, Joule following suit shortly after.

          "Never do get used to that," she murmured.

          "Zero rotation," Vektor said across the intercom.  Kova saw that the airlock was lined up with the ship now, and slowly closing in.  "Awaiting command."

          Kova took a breath, clearing his mind and focusing on the task at hand.


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          Systematic chaos, that was the only way to describe it.  And to think, that this was happening in hundreds of thousands of similar places all over the planet at this very moment was almost mind boggling.  But this was life on Masara, as well as many of its fellow core worlds.  Almost the entire planet was covered in cityscape, and only the larger oceans and few wildlife preserves had been left untouched by the hands of technology and industry.  It was impossible to know how many people were on the planet at any given time, as many came and went about their business, which was par for the course for a world which primarily served as a trade hub, and lacked a major export like Sorien or Coranth.  Its markets were famous for selling goods not common to other worlds in the Federation, and its black market was infamous to the same degree.  Each sector had its own market district, and each quadrant, of which there were thousands, had hundreds of districts, which in turn had hundreds of sectors.  The amount of money that changed hands on an hourly basis was immeasurable to say the least, and Rayneir didn't get much of it.  He didn't dwell on it very much, for he was a firm believer that his luck would change very soon.  He pressed on through the packed crowd, the heat of the midday sun as Masara's bright star reached its highest point in the sky beating down on him, giving him another reason to want to leave this planet behind for good.  His good friend Talios trailed behind him through the crowd, both with their senses sharp as people went about their daily lives and hovercars zoomed overhead, casting shadows as they eclipsed the sun.

          "Where am I going, brother?" Rayneir feigned slight annoyance, turning his head to see his bronze skinned Hadaran comrade keeping pace behind him.  They weren't truly brothers, especially not by blood, but they had shared a common interest since before either one could remember, and found that working together towards that interest was far easier than separately.  And, of course, their goal was the acquisition of vast wealth.

          "Just up ahead," Talios answered, "there's a good sized marketplace we'll need to get through first, and after that it's far not." 

          "Not far." Rayneir corrected, the act of which after knowing him this long becoming reflex.  Talios had only recently left the Hadaran community from which he'd lived since he was young, and was still grasping the common language.  From time to time Rayneir had to correct him.  "And you're sure we can get a good score from this?" Rayneir ran his fingers through his dark, shoulder length hair and his blossoming youthful beard. He continued pursuing through the bustle of people, his long coat following lazily behind him, barely able to hear his friend's response among the crowd.  He could smell the wares of the marketplace already; meats, breads, and other such delectables he'd finally be able to afford once all was said and done.  He tried his hardest not to stare too much at the goods of the market as he transited, but there was one stall that predominately caught his eye.  Prime cuts of grazen meats were on display, and there was the benefit of there being quite the attractive young Silurian girl selling these goods.  Rayneir began to make his way over to her, and apparently caught her eye, for immediately she smiled at him and help up a particularly succulent flank dressed in a blend of local spices.

          Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder, bringing him out of his hunger induced trance, and as he turned to see whom its owner was, he looked into the face of his friend Talios.

          "It's this way, Ray," Talios pointed in almost the exact opposite direction with his other hand, then he, too, noticed the Silurian selling meat, and instantly had a look of confusion on his face, his large black eyes blinking as if in a frenzy. "I thought Silurians lived off water, mostly."

          "Whatever," Rayneir mumbled, "come on, let's go."

          They soon exited the marketplace and the crowd thinned, and Rayneir knew he was heading into an older part of the city.  The buildings and the walkways here were maintained much more poorly than those of the market and the city center, and fewer people were about here, as most probably avoided this area as much as they could help.  To drive the point home even more, fewer hovercars flew overhead, as if its occupants would get a foul smell coming through their air conditioning.  The two went on for a time down this road, deeper into the ever increasingly unpleasant district, and Rayneir noticed an increase in the amount of tattoos and body piercings among the denizens of the area.

          Rayneir paid it no mind, the promise of wealth being so close, a few questionable individuals and a deteriorated atmosphere wouldn't deter him so easily.  After a few minutes of travel Talios stopped and peered down an alleyway that stretched off to their right.

          "It's down here," he pointed down the alleyway with his long, bony thumb.

          "You're sure?" 

          "Mostly," Talios seemed somewhat nervous.

          "You are the embodiment of confidence, Tal." 

          "So I've been told." 

          With that, they gingerly began their trek down the alley, eyes peeled, and Rayneir noticed two very large men, one a Hadar like his friend, standing just outside an otherwise inconspicuous doorway, eyeing the two young men as they made their cautious approach.

          "You're sure about this?" Rayneir asked, second thoughts gaining prominence in his mind.

          "Nope." Talios was quick to answer.  One had to admire his unwavering honesty.

          "I hate you sometimes." 

          They reached the two men standing guard, whom upon their approach unfolded their arms and stared the two down in an obvious attempt at intimidation.  It was working.

          "Neeb soh-kah," the Hadaran spoke first, quickly followed suit by his human companion.

          "What's the code?" The man was huge.  Where the Hadaran surpassed him in height, he more than made up for it in width, tattoos and scars decorating his light brown skin.

          Code?  Talios never said anything about needing a code to get in.  Now instead of slight apprehension Rayneir was becoming gripped with panic.  Would they let them go on their way when they found out he didn't know the code?  Or would they become means to alleviate their boredom?  He looked to Talios, praying that between the two of them they'd figure a way out of this ever increasingly unhealthy situation.

          "Valnuc has no moon," Talios answered the guards, his calm demeanor never wavering.

          With that, the guards stood aside and unlocked the door, granting them access, never ceasing their stare down as the two young men entered the tavern.  Rayneir made a mental note to buy his very good friend a mug of the finest Coranthi spiced wine once all was said and done.  The two friends entered and the doors behind them closed as they disappeared into the dark, smoke filled pub.

          Inside was what one might expect.  It was very dim, smoky, and smelled of booze and body odor.  People sat at a bar, drinking, catching up on the latest current events on several holocons scattered throughout, some puffing on various cotine infused pipes and sticks, while others huddled around assorted gaming areas where the real action in the house was taking place.  Rayneir and Talios scoped out the place, hoping to find their respective favorite games and get the ball rolling on their goal.

          After a few minutes Rayneir found one, a Hierarchy table with an open chair, but before he attempted to sit, he checked out the game currently in progress.  An android officiated as house, clearly once having looked better than it currently did, any shimmering chrome it once had was now grimy from smoke and rusty from countless alcohol spills.  To its left was a large man, easily twice Rayneir's age, three times his size, and one of the meanest looking patrons in the place.  His face was shaggy and pockmarked, his head framed in messy shoulder length hair, and a thick roll of burning cotine leaves hanging upon his lips, filling the area around him with thick smoke.  His only opponent was a smaller yet not less intimidating Elyrian man, his skin a deep blue and covered with textured ritualistic tattoos and other markings.  The Elyrian was the only one of the two to pay Rayneir any mind, but it seemed his larger opponent had him on the ropes, his chips were all but gone, so he couldn't focus too much on Rayneir, requiring all his concentration to be spent on the game.

          The android inserted the deck of cards into its shuffle slot, and after a moment, withdrew it and began to deal as the two players placed tokens on the table.  The two looked at each of their hands and Rayneir circled around, taking a seat to the Elyrian's left, making eye contact with Talios, who would join them soon.  The two players didn't seem to notice him sitting down, and if they did they didn't seem to care, focusing on the game at hand.  The human set one card down on the burn pile, taking one from the deck, where the Elyrian set down three and took back just as many, noticeably not very happy with his hand.  The human bet a decent amount of tokens, and the Elyrian nervously matched the amount, putting all of the rest of his in.  Rayneir felt this wasn't a wise decision on the Elyrian's part, since he didn't seem to be all that happy with the cards in his hand.  Talios sat down next to Rayneir as the two players revealed each other's hands, and Rayneir was proved right in his assumption.  The human revealed he had three Lords and two Knights, whereas the Elyrian only had two Lady's and two Warriors.  Accepting his defeat, the Elyrian got up and walked away, and the man decided to finally regard the two newcomers.

          "Hello," Rayneir greeted the man cheerfully, "I'm Rayneir, and this is...?" he continued, feigning ignorance of the Hadaran "stranger" that had sat with them.

          "Talios, and you are?" Talios asked the man.

          He pondered them for a moment, looking back and forth  from one's face to the other, puffing on his cotine roll and taking a swill of ale from a dark brown bottle.

          "Bragg," the man answered.  "You boys know what yer doin'?"

          "Well I don't know about him," Rayneir piped in, indicating Talios, "but I'm just here for a couple friendly games of Hierarchy."

          "Same here," Talios added.  Bragg considered them for a moment, continuing to smoke his cotine and drink his ale and taking his time studying the two of them.  Rayneir wasn't sure the ruse was working, and the two of them would have to make a quick escape from the venue.  After a while the man nodded to the android, who then proceeded to shuffle the deck and Rayneir and Talios handed the android almost their entire inventory of Dariks.  He was in now, there was no turning back.  If this didn't work, it was back to begging, or worse.


*  *  *  *  *


          Just under an hour after the two entered the tavern the doors burst open and Rayneir and Talios came crashing out. Rayneir lost his footing somewhat, tripping up, but soon recovered, and the two bolted down the alleyway, angry cries coming after them from within the bar.  Rayneir went as fast as his feet could take him, his coat billowing frantically behind him, and he looked behind him and saw Talios was right behind him. He caught a glance father down from where they'd came and saw a very large man, Bragg, emerge from the tavern and take up the chase.  Apparently, he was less than thrilled that Rayneir had illegitimately taken him for everything he had.

          "He chases us!" Talios called out.

          "Thanks for the update Tal!" Rayneir didn't even bother to mask his annoyance.  "We have to try and lose him in the market!" He clutched his small bag of dariks as he shouted over his shoulder.

          Suddenly he heard the sound of something whizzing by him, and then again and again, and a part of the wall nearby exploded, showering him with structural shrapnel.

          "Is he shooting at us?" Rayneir called out frantically.

          "So it would seem. It looks like you underestimated his capability for retaliation." Talios started to breathe heavily.

          Rayneir could see the alley exit just up ahead, freedom laying not far beyond. 

          "Come on, Tal!" He yelled, Bragg's projectiles continuing to fly by them, some hitting the walls on either side.  All they had to do was make it to the market and they could lose Bragg in the crowd, and nobody would be the wiser.

          Finally they left the alleyway and entered open street, after which Rayneir immediately jolted left and looked for Talios behind him.  He took a moment longer than anticipated to round the corner himself, and he was breathing much more heavily than he should have been.

          "You alright, Tal?" Rayneir had grown genuinely concerned.  Talios was clutching his arm, and Rayneir thought he could make out a dark brown stain developing on his sleeve.

          "I'm fine, just..."  his facial expression gave away the fact he was both lying and mentally wrestling with what words to use, "I seem to be leaking."  He moved his hand to reveal his dark brown Hadaran blood starting to increasingly soak his sleeve.

          "Throck, you sure are." Rayneir let out, prompting a confused look from Talios upon his utterance of a human swear word.  "How bad is it?"

          "Well I'm not an expert on Hadaran anatomy," Talios seemed as if he didn't realize how serious his injury could be, "but I'm almost certain there are no vital organs in my arm."  Rayneir wanted to both laugh and punch his friend in the face when he said this, but decided the most important thing to do was to press on. They were still in danger as long as they were out in the open, and the denizens of this district that had walked the streets when the two had entered the alleyway were no longer in sight, presumably having retreated to safety upon hearing the sound of weapons fire.

          "Alright, come on, let's go." Rayneir beckoned, simultaneously looking ahead down the street where they needed to go and back toward the alleyway entrance, from which Bragg would be soon to emerge.  Talios gingerly nodded, gripping his wound in an attempt to slow the bleeding, and followed Rayneir as he began to resume his rapid pace towards the market.  He noticed he was sweating, his long heavy coat and the bright mid-day sun were beginning to take their combined toll.  It was times like these that he regretted his penchant for fashion over function, although for a miscreant who had spent most of his life on undercity core world streets, he had relatively very few opportunities to live by such a lifestyle.  After all, he may have to sell his coat the next day to eat for all he knew, especially in light of current events.

          They pressed on, Rayneir wishing he had something better to defend himself with than a knife should he need to.  Talios didn't even have anything, which made Rayneir feel even worse about the situation.  It was partially his fault they were in this particular predicament, since he had been the one to persuade his friend to find a suitable venue for him to practice his gambling skills.  The usual places they visited had started growing wise to him, and even though he technically never cheated at any games he played, mostly hierarchy, he never lost either.  Talios thought it was pure skill, but Rayneir knew better.  He'd been extremely lucky all his life, never losing a game of any type, whether it be skill, chance, or a mixture of the two.  It was only recently, namely since he'd become of the age where institutions could no longer house him, that he'd turned this luck of his into somewhat of a profession, and he was still figuring out how to use it fully to his advantage.  Betting too much too quick, getting greedy, were lessons he was still learning, as this wasn't the first time one of his adventures had gotten him into trouble.  He'd hoped things would have changed when he joined forces with Talios, as his new-found friend had a knack for listening to the grapevine almost as much as Rayneir had for winning.

          All he wanted was a chance for a better life, for the both of them.  He'd never known his parents.  He knew absolutely nothing of his mother, and his father was just a ghost of a memory.  And Talios, he felt sorry for him if nothing else.  His childhood had promise, with influential parents in the Hadaran community, but he left not too long ago for reasons he wouldn't divulge to even Rayneir.  They were generally a pretty tight-knit people, composed of prominent family groups that kept close ties to each other through arranged marriages to maintain bloodlines.  Rayneir didn't know what it took to deserve an exile from one such community, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

          The unfortunately familiar sound of weapons fire resumed its onslaught, and Rayneir looked behind himself to verify that Bragg had indeed rounded the corner as well and exited the alleyway.

          "Persistent fellow."  Talios chirped, prompting a grunt of agreement from Rayneir, both of them picking up their pace as best they could.

          They didn't have very far to go now, before they left this district and returned to the market, but it seemed like an endless road lay before the two, their destination growing ever farther.  Slugs zoomed by them, luckily hitting nothing except steel and concrete, yet Rayneir dreaded that if his luck ever decided to run out, it would be in a situation like this.

          Moments later they rounded another corner and there it was, the market, and freedom beyond. They never let up, though, almost tackling people as they ran through them, dedicated to eluding Bragg's line of sight. A few feet into the crowd, Rayneir turned to look behind once more and saw him, their assailant, scanning the crowd for the two.

          "Ray let's go!" Talios demanded, grabbing his arm, and as if on cue Bragg and Rayneir made eye contact, the former raising his firearm at him and the latter turning to run once more. 

          His right leg caught fire and went numb at the same time, and he found himself collapsing to the ground involuntarily amongst the now screaming and frantically moving crowd.  He clutched his leg where it burned the most, and felt a sticky wetness soaking through his pant leg.  He looked at his hands to see them covered in the shimmering crimson of his own blood, and felt his heart pounding from adrenaline.  It would seem his luck finally did run out.

          "Active shooter!" He heard someone yell, right before he heard gunshots come from a completely separate direction from where Bragg was.

          The sun bore down on him as he lay there looking at the sky, his vision beginning to blur, and he could feel the warmth of his blood spreading throughout his clothes. His fingertips and toes started to go numb.  He'd never been shot before but he was sure that he shouldn't be bleeding this bad unless a major artery had been clipped.  The numbness started spreading up through his arms and legs, and his vision continued to darken, soon coupled with his hearing starting to grow more and more muffled.  A dark figure eclipsed his vision, but he couldn't tell who it was, but he thought he heard them call out his name.  His wound caught fire again, despite his ever encroaching numbness, before his vision and hearing finally went totally black and he lost all feeling.


* * * * *


          A bright light shone above him as Rayneir slowly and painfully opened his eyes.  It wasn't the sun, the last thing he remembered seeing, but a very bright bulb fixed to the ceiling of wherever he was.  Slowly his senses came back to him, and he noticed first how unusual he felt.  He may have been drugged pretty heavily, since the amount of time between him trying to move any part of his body and said body part actually moving was quite significant.  It was very quiet, wherever he was, although that fact could be attributed to whatever substances he was on.  He looked around and realized he was in bed in some sort of hospital or clinic, the white sheets that covered him surprisingly soft.  There were monitors of various kinds all about him, giving off soft beeps and tones regularly.  There was a single door and one large window in the room, and said door was slightly ajar, a faint beam of light pouring through and soft voices coming from the other side.  

          Rayneir then remembered the probable reason for him being here, and looked down at his leg under the sheet. His pants and undergarments were gone, and his leg was wrapped tightly with white cloth where he had been shot. He attempted to peel off the bandage but it was wrapped too tightly and he didn't have the strength in his fingers to try and tear it free.

          Then he remembered Talios, and knew that he had to be somewhere nearby.  His wound probably wasn't as serious as Rayneir's, but it would have still required some attention.  He felt terrible, as all this was his fault.  He'd gotten too greedy playing hierarchy with Bragg, the prospect of a large payoff blinding him to the potential risks.  He silently swore to himself to make things right with his friend with more than just a stiff drink.

          The door opened and a nurse entered, a very pretty human girl with blonde hair and a tight fitting uniform that accented her slim yet full features.  She smiled when she saw that Rayneir was awake.

          "Well good morning Rayneir, how are you feeling?" She asked.  It took a moment for Rayneir to process her question, and when he responded his words were slurred, both probably due to whatever drugs he was on.

          "Uh, fine I think." He tried to say, but it sounded more like "finnithinck."

          "Well you're a very lucky man," she said as she rounded to his bedside, pulling up a monitor and looking at a display upon which showed his vital information, her tight shirt seeming like it would tear from the strain of her bust at any moment.  "You'd lost alot of blood when you came in but luckily we were able to stabilize you.  You're still on alot of painkillers so you'll feel a bit off for a while but you should be fine in not too long." She lifted up his sheet to look at his bandaged leg, prompting a feeling of embarrassment within Rayneir since his wound wouldn't be the only thing she could see.

          "Where's Talios?" He asked after she had lowered the sheet and returned her attention to one of the monitors.

          "Who?  Oh, the Hadaran who brought you here? He's fine, he was in and out of here in a couple of hours.  He's come to see you from time to time but I don't know where he is now.  I'm sure he'll be back soon."

          Rayneir relaxed in the bed as the nurse put the monitor away and headed for the door.

          "Get some rest, you've been through alot." She exited through the door, leaving it open slightly, leaving him to his thoughts.

          He hoped Talios would return soon, for there was much to discuss, and he needed to apologize and start making things right.  The fact that he didn't spend much time in this clinic allowed Rayneir to rest somewhat more easily, but he still felt terrible about the whole thing.

          His eyes suddenly felt heavy, and he was overcome with a wave of exhaustion.  Almost against his will his eyelids closed, and he succumbed to the overwhelming fatigue.

          He awoke some time later, just as groggy as he had been before.  He had just about forgotten he was in a clinic, but after a few seconds started to remember everything that has happened up to that point, including his conversation with the very attractive nurse.  He didn't know how long he had slept, but when he looked through the window to his left he noticed that it did seem to be somewhat darker outside than it had been before. He wondered how much longer he'd have to stay confined in this bed before he was fully recovered, and hoped that it wouldn't be too long until he was back on his feet.

          Suddenly Rayneir heard a noise, something similar to a faint snore, coming from his right, and when he slowly turned his head to look in the noise's direction he saw his friend, Talios, fast asleep in a chair to the right of his bedside.  It was surprising how well he looked, as if he'd never been injured.

          "I guess there aren't any vital organs in your arm after all," Rayneir murmured, a faint smile adorning his face and a soft, coarse laugh sounding from his throat.  At that, Talios stirred, and sheepishly opened his eyes.  "Morning."

          "How do you feel?" Talios approached the bed and looked down at Rayneir, his big black eyes blinking in contemplation.

          "Fine, thanks to you." Rayneir shifted around under the sheets to find a comfortable position.  "Listen, I'm sorry how everything turned out-"

          "You have nothing to be sorry about, I'm just glad you're well feeling."

          Rayneir smiled, not caring to muster the energy to correct his friend's speech.  Suddenly he felt like everything was going to turn out alright from this moment on.

          "You were worried?" 

          "Oh, yes, you'd lost alot of blood.  I had to tear off a part of my clothes and wrap your leg to stop the leaking, otherwise you wouldn't have made it I think."

          Rayneir studied his friend's clothes to see if there was any that had been torn off, but didn't see any evidence of it.

          "Oh, not from these," Talios pulled on his shirt sleeve and inspected it, "I just bought these with the money we won."  He pulled out a large bundle from within his jacket as he said this.  "Here's your half."  He set down the heavy bundle of dariks on the bed.

          "You'd better hang on to them, brother, we'll need them to pay for my treatment."

          "This clinic runs mostly on donations, and treats patients for free," Talios smiled.  "It's all yours."

          Rayneir couldn't believe the luck, all things considered.  With this money, after he was whole, the two could possibly buy their way off this planet.

          "So we've finally done it?"  

          "Yes, but first, I got us one more score, and after that, we'll have double this much."

          Rayneir pondered for a moment to himself, taking a moment to glance through the dimming window again.

          "What's the job?"
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          The air was hot, and thick with moisture, despite the sun only recently breaking the horizon, guaranteeing misery for any being that preferred cooler, dryer climates.  A rancid smell hung in the air, permeating even the best of purificators with foreign and unpleasant stenches.  To top it all off, the air was completely stagnant, there wasn't even a soft breeze circulating the air to provide some substance of relief.

          Torev almost preferred the coldness of space to this, and wondered how anyone could withstand living here as he surveyed the area around his ship.  He then imagined that the entire world couldn't be one massive swamp, only he just had the cruel misfortune of landing here.  It wasn't his choice to do so, of course.  If he'd had his way he wouldn't have come within a light year of this place, but a mid mission altercation with what he believed to be a rival smuggler had forced him here.

          His boots sank into the soft mud as he walked around the Infinite Horizon, his freighter, his pride and joy, wincing at the various pock marks and plasma burns that ornamented his hull.  He silently swore to himself that if he ever found out who his attacker was he'd destroy their ship and strand them on a planet far worse than this.

           But now was not the time to dwell on such things, as he had far more important problems to deal with at the moment.  First and foremost his ship needed repairs, and possibly a new jump drive.  Without this he'd never get to Cadmus, where he needed to unload his very delicate cargo and collect a large payday.  His employer wasn't the type to appreciate being delayed, and their relationship was a shaky one at best.  Jakko had made it all too clear that if he had any more problems from Torev, he would terminate any possibility of future employment with him and any of his associates.  Needless to say, this delay was probably going to cost him more than he desired.

          A faint beep emitted from his regulator, which was attached to a small air canister that hung on his hip.  He turned back around and quickened his pace as best he could through the mud towards an airlock door.  Hopefully by the time he got back inside Dardan or Zyro had some good news for him, because at this point he'd take any he could get.

          It didn't take long for the airlock to pressurize and fill with breathable air, as the planet's atmospheric pressure wasn't that much more than inside the ship, although Torev's ears did pop slightly.  Within moments he was navigating the tight corridors of the freighter in search of his crew mates.  He headed to the bridge first which was empty except for Boom, who was scrolling through one of the navigation monitors.

          "You seen Dardan or Zyro?" Torev asked her, gravel in his throat.  Boom started at his voice, not quite startled, but excited none the less.  A dark ponytail flapped about as she turned her head to face him, and light eyes met his brown ones with a genuinely happy look.

          "I don't know about Dardan, captain," she was somehow cheerful, "but Zyro's down in the drive bay I think."

          "Great, thanks," he turned to head down the corridor again, but checked himself, poking his head back into the bridge room.  "What are you doing?" 

          "Nothing major, captain, but since there wasn't any damage to the weapon systems and I don't know anything about shields, fuel lines, or jump drives, I thought I'd check and see if any of the settlements around here are linked with any kind of network.  You know, in case we need to source anything, it would be easier than going from town to town and praying-"

          "Alright, alright," Torev cut her off, "just let me know if you find anything.  And give one of the others a hand when you're done."  He headed down the corridor once again, thinking to himself.  Boom, her real name Kora Lerae, was the newest addition to Torev's crew.  Not long ago his old gunner had quit on him, but shortly after that Zyro had found her stowed away in one of the cargo holds, with barely a rag covering her malnourished frame.  Prior to that she'd spent most of her life as a slave of one of the wealthier Red Moon clansmen, and Torev had heard of the Red Moon's propensity for derangement and sadism, so the term "slave" was applied very loosely.  So naturally, after she was clothed and fed, she asked to become a crew member, a proposition that Torev had reluctantly agreed to.  She spent weeks after memorizing user manuals and maintenance publications for the various weapons and countermeasure systems, and during the altercation that stranded them here, proved that it was time well spent.  Every missile and probe that their assailant had fired upon them she effortlessly blew away, some even with dumbfire ballistics, and every time she hit her mark, she'd yell the nickname Dardan thought fit to bestow upon her shortly after.

          Speaking of which, shortly after leaving the bridge Torev ran into his Hadaran first mate, who was busying herself tracing various cables and pipes that lined the corridor's bulkhead.

          "Looking for something?" he brought Dardan out of her frenzied trance.  

          "Hmm?" She slowly diverting her attention from what she was focusing her mind on to Torev.  "Well, we have a fuel leak.  It's minor but needs to be isolated quickly.  It's along this line at some point but I don't know where exactly.  Hopefully we won't have to replace too much."

          "Alright, keep it up, D." Torev patted her on the arm as he walked past.  Dardan had been his first mate for years, and a crew member of the Horizon for far longer, almost as long as he had been.  She was very useful, not only at being a co pilot but also at aiding with ship repairs, her long, thin limbs and fingers proving most helpful at reaching hard to access spaces.

      Torev continued down the corridor towards the drive bay, and as he approached he heard the sounds of Zyro hard at work.  Torev came across a hatch in the floor, which opened to a deep lower area, the walls of which were haphazardly lined with cables, wires, and other circuitry.

          "Zyro!" He called, stooping to one knee and peering deep within, barely able to see a shadow move about as Zyro performed his maintenance and inspections.  A face appeared, half of which was covered in metal plating, a red eye glowing next to a human's blue.  His face also sported several burn marks and scars, and short, light brown hair peeked out from unmarred skin.

          "Yeah, boss?" Zyro looked at his caption with one of genuine concern.

          "Got any good news?" 

          "Afraid not." Zyro ducked back out of sight and returning with a steaming object clutched within his gloved hand.  "Got a bunch of fried jump cells just like this one.  Seems that last jump did her in."

          "Guess there's no chance you can fix them?" Torev was somewhat less hopeful than before.  Zyro didn't answer, he merely laughed histerically and disappeared from sight again.  "Guess not," Torev grumbled to himself, burying his head in his knee.  Those drive cells would have to be replaced, and they didn't come cheap.  That was, of course, if they came at all on this backwater world.  They could patch the fuel leak and top off what they lost all they wanted, but without those cells they would never leave this star system, the nearest stellar neighbor floating in space over ten light years away, and their destination, Cadmus, sitting over twice as far away.  And every minute they spent here Jakko back on Tlyr grew more and more impatient.  After a moment, Zyro returned to view.

          "Got about three more of them cells need replacing," he wiped grease off his hand with a dirty rag, "might be able to salvage the rest."

          "Alright, do what you can." Torev stood back up and let out a deep sigh.  His assailant, whoever it was, would pay dearly for this affront.  At least as soon as he found out whoever it was.  

          Suddenly his earpiece vibrated.  Someone was calling him, and he pressed a button on it to answer.


          "Captain, I may have some news for you if you wouldn't mind returning to the bridge."

          "Alright I'll be there in a minute." He disconnected the earpiece.  Torev couldn't imagine that there would be too many settlements on this rock.  From what he understood, the world was once considered for terraforming, but for some reason the federation long ago changed their minds.  Now all that was left here were scattered settlements, the ruins of such respective world sculpting facilities, and those few individuals who were left behind or had later settled here to scrape by a quiet living.

          He moved through the corridor back toward the bridge, his knees starting to grow sore from the gravity.  His usual destinations were orbital stations and Cadmus, which was actually a moon, not a planet in its own right, so the increased gravity was taxing for him.  It was just one more reason to spend as little time as possible here and get back to civilization.  He didn't run into Dardan again on his way back to the bridge, and he hoped she'd located the source of the fuel leak, if not by now then soon.

          "What is it?" Torev walked into the bridge and over to the station Boom occupied.

          "Hello, captain," she greeted before continuing.  "I've been able to get into contact with one of the locals in a settlement about a hundred clicks from here.  He says he can get us some fuel but he can't get us any drives."

          "Great." Torev let out an exasperated breath.

          "Don't lose hope just yet, captain.  He says there's another settlement we might be able to get some from, but it's on the other side of the planet, so I think-"

          "We get the fuel from him with a speeder and fly the ship to the other settlement for the drives."

          "My thoughts exactly, captain," she said, a full faced smile stretching across her face.  Torev then pressed a button on his earpiece.

          "Dardan." He spoke, and within seconds had a response.

          "Yes, Torev?"

          "Have you found the leak?" 

          "I have, and I'm patching it up now." 

          "How much fuel did we lose?"

          "About three kilos," she answered after a short pause.

          "Alright thanks.  Let me know when you're finished."


          Torev refocused his attention to Boom and her news.  He felt he should go to this settlement, but knew he shouldn't go alone.  Dardan and Zyro were both busy with their own repairs, so that left one other.


          "Yes, captain?" She didn't hesitate with her reply, having never taken her eyes off of him and maintaining a look of eager longing.

          "Gear up and meet me outside of the speeder bay in five minutes."  It was painfully obvious how excited this command made her, and although she was almost successful at hiding it, Torev could tell.  Her positive attitude was a curious thing, especially in light of the life she'd left.  He wondered how long she would be so cheerful and eager, for smuggling and piracy wasn't the easiest or illustrious trade.   However, seeing her become jaded and bitter like others he knew wasn't something he was sure he wanted.  She was too good for this life, he felt she deserved better than the hardships such a trade guaranteed.  Perhaps he should release her when her life debt was paid, but the question was whether she would accept. 

          "Right away, captain," Boom beamed, then leapt out of the chair and bolted from the bridge down the corridor toward her and Dardan's quarters.  Torev stared at the doorway, momentarily lost in his thoughts, then turned and looked out of the large bridge windows to the outside world.  He ran his light bluish-gray fingers through his thick facial bristles as he thought about the events leading up to this point in time, and started to wonder how events would play out from here.

          "I saw that," came a voice from behind.  Torev turned, and saw Dardan leaning against the bridge doorway, a look of contempt upon her face.

          "What do you mean?" he was genuinely bewildered. 

          "That look on your face when Boom walked away."  Dardan smiled.

          "I don't know what you're talking about," he crossed his arms.

          "Oh, please, don't try to deny it. You think of me a fool?"

          "Of course not, I was just-"

          "I've known you for far too long, Rev.  I've seen that look before.  Just don't do anything rash, you may not be very successful having children."

          "That's enough, Dardan!" Torev yelled, his arms stiffly at his sides.

          "My apologies, I sometimes forget non Hadarans don't appreciate our frankness." Dardan looked to the floor with her large jet black eyes.  Torev allowed himself a moment to cool off before responding.

          "I usually do but not on that subject, Dardan." He said, calmly.  "But there's nothing going on with Boom and I, and I have no such intentions."

          "If you say so.  Also, I'm done patching the fuel leak.  I was going to go check on the systems and see if I could give Zyro a hand."

          "That would probably be best." Torev moved towards the door as his first mate turned around and headed down the corridor.  He still felt bad for yelling at her like that, the stress of this whole predicament and her prodding had pushed him to a point he usually avoided.  He was sure in her own way she was just trying to help, and he was glad to know that she was thinking of his best interests.  It still stung when she brought up the sore subject of his heritage and childhood, even though she didn't directly mention it.  

          There weren't many cases of humans and Elyrians successfully giving birth to a child, and even among those, few survived.  Torev was no exception, coming close to death many times as a young boy.  An enzyme in Elyrian blood in high enough doses wreaked havoc with human immune systems, meaning children between the two races was nigh impossible.  Somehow Torev survived into adulthood, despite the usual life expectancy of such people was at best a few years.

          Knowing all this, he doubted he'd ever be able to have children of his own, and didn't need Dardan to remind him.  He shrugged it off, walking down the corridor in the opposite direction his first mate had, deciding not to think about it.  Still, she was right about one thing.  Kora was indeed very attractive, and he probably wouldn't find any difficulty starting a relationship with her if he wanted, being her savior and all.  But that was not something he should be thinking about at the moment, for there were much more important things that required his attention.

          Minutes later Torev stepped out of the airlock and walked toward the rear of the ship, a breather upon his face and an air canister on one hip, his sidearm on the other.  Boom was already there waiting for him, patiently, having already removed the speeder from its hold.  It had two seats and plenty of cargo space, which they would need to transport the fuel they hoped to get from the nearby settlement.

          "Ready to go, captain?" she stood there, resting her flechette gun on her shoulder haphazardly, her voice sounding in his earpiece since her words would become muffled through her breather.

          "Yep, let's get going, we don't wanna be here longer than we have to."

          The speeder was called so for a reason, as the hundred kilometer trip did not take very long at all.  It didn't take long to get out of the swampland and onto open plains.  Boom drove, and the two didn't speak much, her attitude growing serious with the task at hand, most likely trying to be as professional as possible while representing her captain.  This left him a little more uneasy than he thought it would, but he didn't mind, since after his conversation with Dardan, he preferred some time to think to himself.  All in all he was surprised, not with Kora's behavior, or lack thereof, but the fact that Jakko hadn't yet attempted to make contact with him, wondering why the shipment hadn't arrived yet.  As much of a hard time the slimeball had given Torev before they left, he thought he'd have gotten at least an angry message by now.  But there was nothing, and Torev didn't know if that was a good thing or not.  But before he could dwell on it for long, signs of intelligent life rose up over the horizon, and a small settlement came closer and easier to view.

          It was almost pathetic.  Very few large structures stood, many domes and buildings long having succumbed to decay and salvaging, and those that still stood the chance of being occupied didn't look much more appealing.  Torev felt that if he were to live here he'd quickly become depressed or insane.  It was just a bit too quiet for his taste.

          Boom parked the speeder in front of one of the still standing structures, the speeder lazily hovering just a few feet above the ground, and hopped out, her scattergun at the ready.  Torev followed, never allowing his hand to be far from his hand cannon, and looked around.  There was no movement anywhere, if he didn't know better he'd assume this place was completely abandoned.  He hoped putting faith in Kora wasn't a mistake, as he was growing more uneasy by the second.

          "This way." Boom made her way around the building.

          "You're sure?"

          "Uhm, yeah," her answer wasn't very convincing.  As they walked, Torev made out a door, alongside of which a small box with a built in speaker.  Boom reached it first, pressing a button on it with her thumb, and Torev could hear a buzzing sound from within the dome.  The door opened, and the two gingerly stepped inside, Kora's weapon still at the ready.  They came into a room with only one other door and the one behind them shut, within moments the room pressurizing.  Finally the door before them opened, and they stepped into a large, dimly lit chamber, within which stood a single occupant.

          He was human, and thin, yet strong looking, and of age similar to Torev, or maybe older.  His hair was graying and his clothes were tattered, but his eyes were still sharp as they eyed the two strangers that nervously entered.

          "I was wondering when you would arrive."

          "Wensel?" Boom asked.

          "Aye, and you must be Kora?"

          "Yes.  This is my Captain, Torev Aear." she gestured toward him.

          "Sir." he nodded respectfully.  "I realize that self preservation is likely at the forefront of your thoughts, but if you would have your underling lower her weapon, me and mine would be much appreciated."  He indicated a woman and a small girl that nervously stood several feet behind him, the child clearly much more nervous than the two of them.  Kora lowered her scattergun before Torev even had to say or do anything, the sight of this man's scared wife and child as they looked upon two fearsome individuals making him feel somewhat ashamed.  This wasn't at all what he expected.

          "Thanks much, would you like something to drink?  I take it you've been through quite alot these past few hours."

          "Um, sure, thank you," Torev was taken aback at the hospitality.

          "We have water and some juices, but perhaps you'd like something a bit stiffer?" Wensel winked.

          "Water's fine."  Wensel gestured to his family, who broke from their nervous trance and began shuffling about to carry out the order.

          "So what can I do for you?" Wensel approached the two.  "I hear you might be in the need for fuel and some jump drives?" he continued as his wife walked up to him and handed him a glass.  She was plain looking, with brown hair, yet still pretty in her own right.  But the look she gave him was anything but, clearly she wasn't happy about her visitors.  The child, an adorable girl of age seven at most trailed behind, eyeing the two with looks of curiosity, clutching at her mother's clothes and some sort of stuffed doll.  Torev smiled at her as she walked past, and she beamed back at him for a moment, before being pulled away after her mother had finished filling their cups.

          "Well, I've no drives, but I'm sure I can round up a bit of fuel to get you across world.  How much do you need?"

          "Three kilos should do it," Torev diverted his attention from Wensel's family back to the man himself, taking a sip from the surprisingly refreshing and crisp glass of water.

          "That shouldn't be a problem.  We've alot in reserve from an old fuel depot.  You know, back when this place was a bit, eh, busier."  Torev looked at Boom as Wensel spoke, catching her take a deep drag from her glass and allowing a bit of water to flow down her chin.  She quickly wiped it off with her sleeve, then turned red when she noticed Torev watching her.  This didn't prevent her from having a look of satisfaction on her face, obviously proud of herself for doing well for her captain.  He wanted to tell her how proud he was, but dared not here.

          "Excellent, how much?" Torev turned back toward Wensel, reaching into one of his pockets to pull out a bundle of coalition merits.

          "Bah, I don't even know what the going rate for fuel is out there, anymore," Wensel craned his neck upward as if to look upon the rest of the galaxy from within the dome.  "Probably alot more than when me and mine started out.  Any rate, we don't really need money, anything we can't make or grow we trade with others that live here on Nostir." he looked back at Torev.  "And there isn't much I can't make or grow," he grinned slightly.

          "You're sure?"  Torev was shocked.  Wensel's wife looked like she might protest, but changed her mind.

            "Yeah, wife might have a fit later but she'll get over it.  Must be my charm."  Both him and Torev chuckled at his words.  "Alright," Wensel moved toward the door from which they entered, and placed an older looking breather on his face, "let's get you loaded up."

          Minutes later the speeder was laden with fuel canisters and Torev and Boom were on their way back to the ship.  Torev couldn't believe how nice those people were.  They must not get visitors very often, which got him thinking that maybe a place like this wasn't such a bad place to end up after all.  All he needed was someone to spend time with and something to focus his time on, some trade, and the quiet life could be something he could get used to.

          Infinite Horizon's engines roared to life within an hour of their return, and they left the swamp behind.  Within minutes the ship was parked just outside of a larger settlement halfway across the world.  Torev and Zyro entered a similar structure Boom and himself had been in earlier not too long after that, and, while the man who greeted them there, a larger man by the name of Magre, wasn't quite as generous as Wensel, they still were able to get the drives they needed for next to nothing.

          "Alright," Torev said as the two of them re-entered the ship, "get these installed so we can get off this planet already.  I want us jumping to Cadmus within the hour."

          "You got it, boss." Zyro headed off towards the drive bay.

          Torev headed toward the bridge, where he hoped Kora was.  Dardan was there instead, going through a pre-flight checklist yet again.

          "It seems fortune smiles on us," she didn't even have to turn to see who had walked in.

          "Yeah, well, it looks like we picked up a good luck charm on Coriolis." Torev said, just as Kora walked into the bridge.  "Speaking of which."

          "Welcome back, captain." Kora smiled.  "Get those drives alright?"

          "Sure did, thanks to you."  At those words, stars erupted into supernovae in her eyes, her cheeks turned red, and he could tell that it took every ounce of strength she posessed to remain professional.  Dardan turned in her chair to observe the scene, and, if Torev didn't know any better, he could have sworn he saw her smiling as well.  "Now go help Zyro get them installed so we can get the hell out of here."

          "Right away, captain." Boom nearly sprinted through the doorway and down the corridor.

          "Do my eyes decieve me?" Dardan asked.

          "Shut up."

          "Torev, the 'Reverend' Aear, feared pirate captain of the Infinite Horizon, actually being nice to a new crew member?  And looking happy doing so?"

          "Stop it.  I just made her week."

          "Did you?  Or did that little gesture of kindness make your own?" Dardan took him aback at her questioning.  "No matter, it's a good look on you.  You should wear it more often."  She turned back to her checklist, leaving Torev standing there having clearly lost that particular battle.

          Within the hour, just as he commanded, the four crew members had each taken their place on the bridge, readying the Horizon to take flight.

          "Set course for Cadmus," Torev sat in the pilots seat.

          "Setting course," Dardan implemented the proper commands into her console and the Infinite Horizon left ground.

          "Take us home," Torev ordered, and they left Nostir IV forever.  But he would never forget the kindness of those who called it home.  No matter what he thought of the planet when they first arrived, he decided it wasn't such a bad place to be.
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          The ground shook as the airlock made contact with the unknown ship, and Joule busied herself with a monitor on the wall. With it she was able to access the short range scanners and hopefully be able to shed some light on the ever increasingly enigmatic situation.  A loud hissing sound echoed from the hatch as the compartment inbetween the other ship and their own pressurized, and seconds later their door opened, Kova walking through.

          "Getting anything?" Kova asked.

          "It's weak but it's there," Joule turned from the monitor and following him inside once she got all of the data she could. "One occupant, no movement. And they have at most a few minutes of life support left. Still not responding to any hails."

          Kova took a second to think and reflect upon her words.  "So you're telling me that who or what ever is in there has a good chance of dying if we don't do anything.  That is, if they're not dead already."


          "Can you see in there?"

          "I can try," she walked toward the hatch and removed her glove.  The Intrepid's airlock was attached directly to the hull of the other ship where its own entrance hatch was.  Since there was no reply to their hails, and the pilot hadn't extended their own airlock, the only way to gain access to the ship was to cut through the hull.  Such an action was reserved for only extreme circumstances, such as to prevent loss of life as it was in this case, among others.  Joule rested her palm on the hull of the other ship and closed her eyes, concentrating.  She was very gifted as a Psion, earning quite a reputation throughout the Redeemer community and the Federation, but using her gifts through thick metal and empty space beyond to "see" someone she didn't know was no simple proposition.  It took her a few moments to feel anything, the occupant's life energy was almost completely gone.

          "She's still alive but not for long," Joule removed her hand from the hull and donned her glove again.

          "She?" Kova slid his helmet onto his head.

          "Yes." Joule followed suit.  Kova grabbed a large tool that hung on the wall.  It was specially designed to cut through any bulkhead, but required a user of strong physical stature.  First it softened the metal hull through the application of intense heat and then, using a tough vibroblade, cut through with relative ease.  Kova got to work immediately, tracing the outline of the hatch to speed the process, and within minutes, the hatch was free from the rest of the ship.  As Kova was cutting, Joule was attaching a large device to act as a hinge, which, through suction, kept the freed hatch in place and prevented it from flying about in the zero gravity environment. 

          With a grunt Kova pulled the hatch inward, revealing the darkness within the mysterious ship.  It was dead quiet inside save for a distant sounding beep, the silence unnerving, and Kova illuminated the area before him with a bright light from an electric torch mounted on his heavy armored pauldrons.  It was a much smaller ship than the Intrepid, no more than a one man light recon craft, but it looked like a ship that would have been made a century ago, despite being well maintained.

          Kova took point, Judgement at the ready, followed closely by Joule, her Denial holstered at her side.  While his priority was safety, hers was the well being of the pilot.

          "Clear." Kova's voice rang in her helmet, and she turned left towards the cockpit, stepping carefully about, guided by his shoulder lamp.  His light illuminated wisps of silvery hair, suspended lazily above whomever sat in the pilot's seat.  Joule rounded to face the unconscious pilot, having removed a small portable scanner from her robes and through it taking a reading.  Faint beeps and clicks emitted from the scanner as it performed its functions, and she looked into the face of a young Hadaran female, clothed in grey, her robes caked in dark brown blood from a wound in her shoulder.

          "Hadaran female, twenty to twenty five years of age.  Unknown affiliations.  No matches in any databases yet.  Severe ballistic trauma to the shoulder.  Still breathing though, but it's weak."

          "This is getting stranger by the second."  Kova roved about the ship's cabin.

          "Well I can't do anything for her here," Joule put her scanner back into her robes and undid the safety restraints that confined the Hadaran to her chair.  "We need to get her to the med bay."

          Kova moved over to the Joule and gave her a hand with lifting the stranger out of the seat, and as the two moved through the cabin, a small trail of brown blood floated lazily behind them.

          "When you get her stabilized, come back and see if you can find a log or record or something.  I'd like to know what she's doing all the way out here." Kova ordered as the two moved back through the hatch and into the airlock compartment.

          "Copy," Joule pressed a button on the bulkhead to unlock the far door, Kova having taken over handling the stranger, and the two moved through the hatch and back onto the Intrepid.

          "Vektor, we're back on board." Kova had yet to remove his helmet, knowing the Slayer would be listening.

          "Copy that, Templar.  Shutting airlock doors and resuming gravitational rotation."

          Moments later came the strange feeling of the simulated gravity making Joule feel heavier and heavier as she walked, and its onset coupled with her magnetic soled boots caused her to come close to tripping over her own feet.  She removed her helmet, her blue-black hair falling lazily about her shoulders.  Kova left his helmet on, since his hands were occupied with carrying the stranger, who remained unconscious.

          "Will she be okay, do you think?" Kova looked down at the woman's face, concern in his voice.

          "I honestly don't know, she's lost a lot of blood.  I'm more concerned with how she ended up all the way out here.  There aren't any nearby star systems, or any popular jump routes.  Based on how fresh her wound looks she couldn't have come far from wherever she got it.  This is all very strange."

          "It's turning out to be one of those days." Kova remarked, the two rounding the corner toward the med bay, "But I share your concern."  Within minutes they had arrived, and Kova laid the woman on a cot inside.

          Suddenly, the entire ship shook violently, almost sending Joule crashing to her feet, and Kova bent over forward, almost falling completely on top of the strange woman.


          "Sorry captain, bogey just appeared out of nowhere and opened fire!" came Vektor's voice over the intercom system, and the ship shook again.  Kova took a moment to pause before responding.

          "Detach from the other ship and begin taking evasive maneuvers!" he ran from the med bay and sprinted down the passageway toward the bridge, leaving Joule to tend to her patient.

          Joule looked from where Kova had exited the bay back down to the strange woman, whose eyes were now wide open, two large, black orbs staring up at her in fear and confusion.

          "Do not fear, I'm here to help," Joule wasn't even sure if the woman heard or understood her, strapping her down to the cot for her safety.  But when she raised her hand, the stranger with an unpredictable feat of strength and speed clasped Joule's wrist.  The ship violently shook again, and Joule braced herself, her patient slowly looking about in confusion before locking eyes with Joule yet again. 

          Bewilderment left her gaze and was replaced with determination, and the Hadar pulled from her robes with her other hand a small silvery object.  At first glance Joule thought it was a simple sphere, but then she realized that it was much more complex, composed of many sides and facets, and upon which was the most intricate ritualistic looking carvings she had probably ever seen.  The stranger placed the object into the open hand attached to the wrist that she held in her grip, and Joule noticed that her breathing had sharpened, blood trickling from her mouth as she gasped for air.

          "Stay with me," Joule leaned in close to check her pulse.  It was very weak, and only growing weaker.

          The Hadaran then let go of Joules clothed wrist and touched the bare skin of her face, her fingers cold and weak as they gently caressed her skin, and almost immediately images raced through the Elyrian's mind.  There was another Hadaran, a male, cloaked in grey, someone the strange woman was very close to, perhaps family.  Then she saw a barren world, the topography of which was very bleak and colorless, strong winds blowing coarse dust across jagged stone.  Then she was in a cave, perhaps on the same world as before, surrounded by glyphs and runes carved by ancient hands, glowing silver.  The last image she saw was the most frightening, a metallic insect like skull with eyes of a ghostly blue staring back at her.

          "The swarm..." the woman coughed, struggling to form the words, as Joule's mind cleared, " coming." 

          Suddenly she became very still, no longer struggling for breath, and her hand fell to her side.  Joule stood up straighter only to have her dark assumption revealed to be true.  The stranger had passed in her arms, as if waiting to die only after giving her the strange object.  The ship shook yet again, but Joule wasn't much phased, taking a moment to study the strange Hadaran woman, her expression that of shock and disbelief.  Questions raced through her mind, making her wonder who she was, what kind of organizations she belonged to, what she was doing so far in deep space, and what this object she now held in her hand was.  The visions she had seen had done nothing to answer her questions, but had simply compounded them.  Moments later she snapped from her trance when she realized her name was being called over the intercom.

          "Joule what are you doing?" Kova's voice sounded, "Get up here now!"

            "Right away, Templar!" Joule answered as she re-adorned her helmet and slipped the unusual object into a safe place within her robes.  

          After she finished she bolted through the door and down the passageway towards the bridge as quickly as her legs could take her, momentarily losing her footing somewhat when the Intrepid shook yet again.  A brilliant white flash of light came from the airlock Kova and herself had just came from, and she feared the worst for the stranger's ship as she put it to her back and sped down the corridor.

          In that moment her thoughts shifted from the Hadaran woman to what was causing the ship to shake so violently.  Who was attacking them, and how did they find them so far out in space?  It was odd enough that Valiant squad across the Hadaran's derelict ship just moments before her death, but for whoever their assailant was to find them as well was extremely difficult to believe.  It did no good to worry about that at the moment, however, and she decided to put such thoughts at the back of her mind and focus on the task at hand: survival.  There weren't any major stations nearby that they could take the Intrepid to in order to get repairs should they need them, so it was up to the three of them to ensure that whatever conflict they had been engaged in resulted in as little damage as possible.

          Seconds later she arrived at the bridge while Kova and Vektor were maneuvering the ship and administering countermeasures, and she took her rightful place at her Templar's right, standing by for instruction.  In the meantime she accessed the medium range scanners in an attempt to lock on to their assailant and find out who exactly was attacking them, but both ship's quick movements proved that such an action was nearly impossible.

          "Shields at twenty three percent!" Vektor busied himself with directing power to the various shield sections and the different countermeasure systems the Intrepid had at its disposal.

          "Give it everything she has, Slayer!" Kova barked, the most determined look in his face Joule had seen in quite some time.  "Psion, find me a system!  Any system!  We take any more direct hits and it's all over!"

          Joule typed away at her station desperately in an attempt to follow his order, hoping that somehow she had enough time.  A few seconds later, she found one.

          "The nearest system is in Coalition space!" she knew Kova wouldn't approve but he still needed to know.

          "Give me the nearest Federation system!" Kova growled while jerking the ship's controls around, making the three almost fly right out of their seats.  Joule never stopped looking, knowing he would say something like this, as the ship shook violently yet again from another hit from their attacker.

          "Shields at sixteen percent!"

          "Come on, Joule!" Kova began sounding more and more desperate with each hit.

          "Kov, the nearest Federation system is nearly at maximum jump range and would take three times as long to charge the jump drives!  Recommend jumping to the Coalition system, at least to get away from-"

          "Fine, just get us out of here!" Kova commanded.  Joule plotted in the coordinates to the Coalition system and began the jump drive charging sequence.

          "Ten seconds to jump!" Joule shouted as Kova steered the ship hard to avoid the relentless attacks from their opponent, but the Intrepid still jolted from their endless barrage.  The G forces were starting to take their toll, as banking so steeply in a vacuum wasn't the easiest to do.  Joule felt blood rush to her head then rush in the opposite direction and back again, and hoped that she wouldn't be sick inside her own helmet.  Kova was the best pilot she knew, but even he knew his own limits, and it seemed that for the moment he was choosing to ignore them.  He still had to orient the ship in the right direction of their destination, and at the moment they weren't even close.

          "Shields at five percent!"

          "Five, four, three," Joule chanted loudly as the jump drives prepared to launch them far away from here.  The ship rattled intensely once again.  She commanded the system to show Kova the coordinates and the correct alignment vector, hoping he would notice and correct the Intrepid's trajectory by the time she finished her countdown.  If not, then they would end up who knew where, and she didn't fancy being stranded in intergalactic space.

          "Shields down!" Vektor screeched as the ship convulsed from the bombardment, the shields no longer protecting it, and their assailant now doing direct damage to the Intrepid's hull.

          "Two, one.  Jump!" Joule called out as her entire body felt like it was being forced through her seat, the blood in her veins rushing to the back of her head and her eyes feeling like they would sink into her skull.  The ship continued to rumble as they traveled through the Bulk, but the fact that they were still alive was comforting to her, and she hoped that in the time between the shields going down and the ship making the jump nothing was damaged too seriously.  Joule checked her monitor, and was relieved to know that somehow throughout all the confusion of the skirmish, Kova had managed to set them on the proper course.  She breathed a sigh of relief, and allowed herself to calm down and look through a window to her right and look beyond the Intrepid into the fifth dimension. 

          Traveling through the Bulk was always such a surreal experience.  Physics didn't exist here, there was no up nor down, no past, present, or future.  One could go mad from the revelation, and every time she traveled through, Joule wondered what it was like for those brave souls to make the very first journey through the unknown, the space outside of space and time.  One could easily get lost here, as a quick trip here took one many lightyears across the galaxy.  It was almost magical, she could see through the small windows of the bridge excited particles and the very fabric of space and time zooming by, carrying them to their destination. 

          She had once imagined jumping into the Bulk and simply never stopping, wondering where she would wind up.  Would she eventually reach another universe completely separate from her own?  Would she survive such a journey?  If the laws of physics were different there she could simply collapse into a singularity, or explode with the energy of a thousand thousand nuclear detonations.  Or she could survive and meet an alternate version of herself, or a version of her universe where she had never existed.  She often fantasized about such things but never actually thought to carry them out, the fear of the unknown winning out over her wonder and awe.

          Joule looked over at her Valiant squad comrades, and, like her, they had similar looks of relief upon their faces, the stress of the altercation alleviated.  As befitting of the captain of the ship, Kova spoke first.

          "Damage report."


* * * * *


          "What's wrong, Mika?" Wensel noticed that she had been quite flustered since the two strangers received the fuel he'd given them and left.

          "Nothing, love," she lied, having barely touched her supper, while Sira, his beautiful little girl, had almost finished hers.

          "Come, now," he had known his wife for far too long to be fooled by such a ruse.

          "It's just," she began, pausing, trying to find the right words to say, "should we have just given them that fuel for nothing?"

          "What would we have done with their money, eh?  There some new shoes at the market catch your eye?" He was joking with her, of course.  She wasn't that kind of woman.

          "You're right," she said, with a solemn tone.

          "They could have just come in, taken everything, and killed us if they wanted.  The fact that they were nice enough to ask first made up my mind for me.  They're okay as far as I care."

          "Don't talk like that in front of Sira, Wen!" Mika scolded, anger in her face.  Just then a buzz echoed throughout the structure, a sound Wensel knew well.  It was the motion sensors that he had long ago placed outside, all around his establishment.  They went off from time to time, the local creatures every once in a while liked to get curious and investigate this strange area that stood out among the trees of their lush world.

          "Just hurry up and finish your supper, love, so we can turn in." Wensel stood up to go check and see if he could tell what had set off the sensors.

          Suddenly a roar erupted from his front doorway, and a shockwave of air came at him and hit him in the chest like a brick wall had been thrown at him.  He recovered as quickly as he could and ran, instinctively, to one side of the room where he had his rifle mounted on the wall.  He managed to grab it and look toward his now nonexistent doorway, and knew that he and his family had minutes to get to safety before they lost all oxygen to the outside, of which the increased air pressure guaranteed that that wouldn't take very long.  

          A lone figure stood where his doorway used to be, silhouetted against the daylight that came from outside.  Wensel raised his rifle at the figure, but his hand and forearm erupted with excruciating pain.  He looked down in horror, and his stomach roiled at the sight of a bloody stump where his left hand used to be.  He heard his wife exhume a blood curdling scream at the sound of gunfire, and his daughter crying out.

          "Papa!" she yelled, tears raining from her eyes, and she ran to him as he dropped to one knee, wrapping her arms around his neck.

          "Sira, go to mother!" he beseeched her, pushing her away.  She did not protest, running to his wife who stood feet behind him, dumbstruck and shocked, a look of intense fear in her eyes.  "Take her to the bedrooms and lock the door, we're losing air!" he commanded Mika, whom after a moment moved to obey, holding their daughter tight in her arms.

          "Not so fast," came a ragged voice, the voice of the man who'd invaded their home.  Wensel turned his sight to him to see that he had a handgun trained on Mika, whom had been rendered unmoving through fear.  He wore all black, with a smooth, sleek helmet covering his head.  Countless weapons and ammunition hung all about his tight fitting combat garments, and Wensel had a feeling that they were all deadly in his trained hands.

          "You bastard," Wensel let out, fear and rage engaged in a tumultuous battle within him.  "What do you want with us?"

          "You entertained the company of those I seek," the man moved closer, keeping his handgun trained on Mika and pulling another, aiming directly at Wensel's forehead.  

          "They came, got some fuel and left!" Mika shouted through her tears, clutching Sira tightly as ever.

          "Where did they go, fools!" the man stopped short of burying the barrel of his gun into Wensel's head.  "Tell me or this will be much, much worse than it has to."

          "They went to another settlement to get jump drives." Wensel blurted, hating himself for being unable to defend his loved ones.  "Said something about heading to Cadmus after."

          The man let out a chuckle, which, through his helmet, sounded distorted and lightly robotic, but not any less chilling.

          "So they were able to make it off this planet," he lowered his weapons, but kept one aimed at Wensel.  "Jurai, prep the ship, we're going to Cadmus."

          For a moment Wensel was confused at what his attacker was saying, then he realized that he must have been talking to someone that worked with him through some sort of communicator in his helmet.  The thought that there was more than one person like this, and the fact that they worked together, was one that he cared not to entertain.  He began to feel light headed, and realized that if he didn't somehow stop the tremendous flow of blood from his arm, he'd faint, and possibly die.  His family was counting on him, and so far, he had failed them.  The pain was indescribable, but it was nothing compared to the pain within him, the knowledge that through his failure his wife and daughter were at risk of losing their lives.

          "No, we're done here."

          A brilliant flash erupted from the barrel of the man's handgun, and Wensel's pain was no more.

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          "This has to be the easiest four thousand dariks I've ever made," Rayneir moved casually through he exit of the quadrant's local federal building, sharply greeted by one of Masara's rare afternoon breezes.

          "If I didn't know better, I'd believe you made four thousand dariks often." 

          Their job was simple: since the clinic that treated the two of them couldn't spare the manpower, they were hired to make a delivery.  It was a thank you to some senator or whatnot, for making a sizeable donation to the clinic.  He had been expecting it, but to Rayneir it seemed the man was somewhat apprehensive about accepting it.  He assumed the politician had only made the donation to get votes, and didn't really care about the clinic, being rich enough to afford far better quality healthcare than the denizens of the undercity.

          But that was beyond Rayneir's capacity to care, as the bag of dariks swinging about on his hip under his heavy coat was his only real concern.  There wasn't much Rayneir wouldn't do for such a large about of money, and coupled with the payoff from the dingy casino, he sat on a decent fund cushion.

          "So what should we do now, friend?" He asked his Hadaran counterpart, whom sported a stylish new shirt since his old one was torn and stained with blood.

          "I'm not sure," Talios replied, the two walking nonchalantly through the upper district streets, "after all this time it felt like we'd never get this far.  Odds always seemed to be stacked against us."

         "You still doubt me?" Rayneir moved over to the edge of the walkway, looking down to the undercity below.  Hovercars zoomed past both below and above, and if he strained his eyes enough, he could see the industrial centers that made up the lowest level of the city sprawl.  

          "I'll admit I used to." Talios leaned against the railing with his back to the edge, watching the bustle of people as they came and went.

          "And now?" Rayneir asked.  Talios took a moment to ponder his answer, then looked his friend in the eye as he spoke.

          "Now, I'm certain that together we can achieve greatness." He smirked.  Rayneir didn't often see his friend smile, his tone was usually very serious or somber.  Rayneir turned from the edge and continued down the walkway at a casual pace, and Talios followed closely behind.

          "Then let's do just that." He smiled as well.  For a time they just walked in silence, no destination in mind, following the walkway as it twisted and turned through the inner district, buildings on the left and right tall enough to scrape the sky.  It still amazed him how quickly he recovered from his injury, he had only spent at most a couple of federation standard days, which was still less than a full Masaran day, at the clinic.  He took a quick second to think about how marvelous modern technology was.  At that moment Rayneir knew that things were going to turn out alright, the hardships that the two of them had endured since either of them could remember had come to an end.

          "So, what should we do now that we're rich?" Talios asked jokingly.

          "We're not rich yet." Rayneir chuckled, "far from it.  But we're not poor either."

          "I won't be satisfied until we're both filthy rich, with mansions on different worlds and servants in each and a fleet of ships to take us to them all."

          "You have no idea how good that sounds, brother." Rayneir said, stopping when he saw a sign hanging from a doorway that lay just beyond.  Upon it was an image that was universal in its meaning.  "But first," he said, turning around and resting an arm upon the shoulder of his comrade, "a drink!"

          Talios looked at him in confusion, then noticed the sign that had caught his eye and smiled again.

          "Just one?"


* * * * *


          Just under two hours later, the Masaran sun still making its slow crawl down towards the horizon, Rayneir and Talios emerged from the watering hole.  Rayneir was only slightly inebriated, having acquired much experience with alcohol over a long career, but Talios was quite drunk, with his smaller frame and lower tolerance, and had to put much more thought into each step.  As tempting as it was to go crazy with their newly acquired funds, they resisted the urge to drink the more expensive liquors and ales, as they knew that it could be all too easy to spend all they had and revert back to where they had started days ago.

          While they were inside they had a conversation on namely what to do now that they could afford to go offworld, and the chief concern was exactly where they should go.  They had no ship of their own, so they would have to purchase tickets on a commercial interstellar flight or hire a private crew to take them somewhere.  Talios had the brilliant idea that they could join up with a crew somewhere and not have to pay anyone.  Rayneir had never really considered himself the taking orders and committing to a career of spacefaring kind of person, but it was cheaper than spending much of their hard earned dariks.  One thing was for certain, staying on Masara was not an option.

          So Rayneir entertained the idea, and agreed that he would accompany Talios to the nearest port and check things out, see what kinds of ships had low key positions open, how long they'd have to remain with the ship, and how much they would be paid.  After all, he had no intention of working for anyone for free, even if a conscription was simply a means to an end.  If the two could make money in the pursuit of their goals, then the more the better, as far as Rayneir was concerned.  Still, he wished he had more now, so they could take passage on a nice luxury liner or something and be waited on hand and foot as they were taken to distant worlds.

          "Alright, brother, shall we be off?" Rayneir asked his counterpart as he scanned the streets, a noticeable lack of pedestrians making their way around.  The federation standard day was almost over, despite the sun still setting on Masara, and as usual the city's commotion had abated somewhat, but it would never entirely dissipate. 

          "Give me a minute," Talios took his time behind him, "my legs aren't working quite like they should."

          Indeed they weren't, as Rayneir turned to find out firsthand.  His Hadaran friend was having quite the difficulty functioning.  He had only seen him this drunk less than a handful of times, and surmised that drinking alcohol wasn't a very common practice in Hadaran communities.  Rayneir reached up and rubbed his own nose, and noticed a familiar numbness and tingling sensation upon the act.  He was pretty intoxicated as well, more so than he thought he should be.

          "Do you want to go sleep it off somewhere?" Rayneir asked his friend as he waited for him to catch up, then threw his arm around him to help him stand up straight.

          "I'm thinking that might not be such a bad idea, Ray," Talios replied, his huge black eyes blinking slowly and deliberately, a sure sign of his own failing attempts at concentration.  Rayneir was surprised at how coherent his friend's words were, based on how much trouble he was having with his own motor skills, he would think that his speech should be far more stuttered and slurred than it was.  In fact, his own words weren't coming out very clearly, despite still being quite understandable.  Rayneir mused to himself that Talios' tolerance was higher than he was letting on but for some reason was pretending that the alcohol was affecting him far more severely than it actually was.  It was possible that Talios was in no rush to start working for some random starship, but was too embarrassed to tell him.  Rayneir had heard before that the Hadaran people were very much honor centric, and signs of weakness to them were taken very seriously.  "But let's get to a quieter part of the city.  It's too loud here, even at night."

          Rayneir wasn't quite sure what his friend was talking about, but didn't bother to inquire further.  Perhaps Talios' ears were somewhat more sensitive than his own.  Regardless of the fact, he could sleep anywhere with usually no trouble at all.  But he didn't mind humoring his friend's request, since he was in no real hurry to sign up with some sort of merchant or transport ship himself.  Despite their goal still so very far out of reach, their recent gains allowed them to breathe somewhat easier, able to take their time in between jobs and scores, and live far more comfortably for a time now that they had the funding to do so.

          They only got a few feet down the walkway before the automated street lighting turned on, long tubes filled with excitable gases such as argon and xenon glowing brightly, piercing the twilight haze of the world city with brilliant hues of blues, greens, reds, and mixtures of the three.  Despite his strong dislike for Masara as a whole, when nighttime came he always found it much easier to find beauty here within the mass of steel and concrete.

          "This is nice."

          "Hmm?" Rayneir looked at his friend as they slowly made their way down the street.

          "This." Talios looked warmly at him for a moment, then looked away.  "I never really had friends back home.  Everyone was always so obsessed with their status, friendships came and went.  If it wasn't beneficial or convenient, it was simply tossed aside.  Even my parents only pretended to care about me when it benefited them."

          "Tal," Rayneir wasn't sure what to say at this.

          "They wanted to marry me off.  For money mostly, and status.  My family isn't as old or as important as most, so this would have been very beneficial for them.  I almost went along with it, because that's all I knew, really.  But when I met her," he looked down to his feet, "she was horrible.  Probably the most self-obsessed person I've ever met.  There was no love for me there, and I knew I couldn't live the rest of my life like that."

          Rayneir said nothing still, this was truly the first time Talios had opened up to him like this.  It was almost heartbreaking, but he didn't know what to do.

          "So I left, and eventually found myself here." Talios looked back into his friend's eyes, smiling.  "And then I met you, and found out what true friendship is.  The road ahead probably won't be an easy one, but as long as we have each other, I think we'll be okay."

          "Oh, Tal," Rayneir felt his eyes watering.  He had no idea he meant so much to Talios, and when he really thought about it, he felt the same way.  If it weren't for him, he'd still be barely scraping by in the undercity, where every day was a new challenge for survival.  The majority of his life he had nobody by way of friends or family, and after a while he'd grown to be quite bitter to others.  When he first met Talios nothing changed, he saw him as a means to an end.  But then the two started to become close, and Rayneir realized that a life without friendship wasn't living at all.  He swore to himself at that moment that he would never again put the two of them in danger, no matter the potential rewards.

          "Let's get out of here, alright brother?"

          "Okay."  Talios stared at the ground, watching his feet to make sure they didn't trip over each other.

          A loud roar resounded throughout the area, and the ground shook violently, causing Rayneir to lose his footing.  Talios didn't stand a chance, missing his step and falling to the ground.  Rayneir managed to hold on to him well enough to soften his fall, but not completely.

          "What was that?" Rayneir turned about and looked around, trying to get an idea of where the sound came from.  He helped Talios to his feet and listened, and screams began coming from the direction they'd came.

          "An explosion?"

          "Here?" Rayneir had never heard of such a thing happening on a core world, and he couldn't believe he was entertaining the idea.

          "Ray," Talios looked at him with one of utmost horror, "the delivery."

          "No." It couldn't be possible.  The clinic had given them the package, and the nurse who worked there was one of the nicest people he'd ever met.  There was no way they could have given them something so destructive.  People started running towards them frantically from the direction of the noise, covered in dirt and blood, and the looks on their faces confirmed his dark fear.

          "What should we do?"  Rayneir was thinking the same thing Talios was asking.  The first thought that came to his mind was to run, blend in with the panicked crowd and put as much distance behind them and the federal building as possible.  If the package they delivered did happen to be some sort of explosive, then they were now Masara's most wanted.

          Suddenly several more explosions could be heard, and they sounded like they were getting nearer.  Running seemed more and more appealing at this.  If the explosion was near enough to a major gas mane, then a chain reaction meant that their close proximity could result in their serious injury or death.

          "Let's go Tal!"  Rayneir grabbed his friend's clothing and pulled him in the opposite direction of the uproar and started working his legs as best he could.  The two tore down the walkway among the frenzied crowd, and for a time said nothing to each other.  They were focused on putting as much distance between them and the destruction, but Rayneir couldn't help but wonder what to do next.  He was wanted, or would be as soon as officials found out who delivered the package, which made his plans for leaving Masara virtually impossible.  Perhaps the two could go into hiding down in the undercity, safe from watchful eyes, and wait for things to die down before they emerged again.  Right now that seemed like their only option, as he was sure that within a very short period of time from now the entire planet would be locked down, and all non essential transports would be secured and searched thoroughly until they were found.

          Before long they made it into a neighboring district, the signs of disaster growing less and less as the crowd slowed and thinned.  People were still moving about frantically trying to locate loved ones from whom they'd become separated during the upheaval.  People native to the area were leaving various buildings and establishments to try and find out what was going on, as the sounds of the explosions could probably be heard for kilometers.

          Rayneir had a stitch in his side from running for so fast so long, and he doubted Talios felt better.  He slowed down to a brisk walk to catch his breath and turned to see if his friend was still behind him.  He wasn't, and upon a quick scan of the area he was nowhere to be found.

          "Talios!"  He was out of breath and his call wasn't the loudest, so he repeated a few times as he weeded his way through the crowd in search of his friend.  A few minutes later he found him.  He was hunched over a puddle of thick brown fluids and chunks of half digested foods.  It smelled terrible as Rayneir approached, but he only felt sorry for him, the strain of running coupled with the amount they ate and drank was never a good combination.  He felt somewhat queasy himself, but not to any great extent.  "You alright?"  Talios' response was another hurl as ale and stomach acid added its measure to the growing pool of vomit and saliva.  Rayneir moved to him and rested his hand on his friend's back soothingly, "Let it all out, man.  It's okay."

          "No it's not."  Talios looked at Rayneir, his eyes tearing and bloodshot.  "Who knows how many just died."

          Rayneir covered his friend's mouth quickly, not wanting any bystanders to hear.

          "You don't know it was the package."  His voice was barely a whisper, and dour in tone.  "And even if it was, we didn't know."

          "And if it was?"  Talios' expression was stern, a steel resolve dwelling among the jet black of his eyes.

          "What do you think we should do, then?  Turn ourselves in?  Run and hide?  Play dumb?  Neither option sounds very good, but none of them guarantees we'll turn out alright."

          Talios looked to the ground as he straightened himself, apparently the nausea subsiding.  "You know how us Hadarans are, and even though I'm no longer welcome among my people, I do still value my honor.  Running and hiding like cowards isn't something I plan to do.  You can go, though."

          Rayneir and Talios locked eyes for a moment as the former thought.  "Neither of us will last very long without each other, you know that.  But I don't enjoy the thought of being a prisoner."

          "Better a prisoner with honor intact than dead without."

          Rayneir looked at Talios, then about him.  The crowd was still frantic, and he doubted anyone overheard their conversation.  That was good, any interference would only complicate things.  Still, what Talios suggested went against his instincts and his judgement.  Rayneir urged his friend towards a nearby alleyway so they could continue their conversation without risking being overheard.

          "If we become prisoners we're dead anyway. If we run we at least stand a chance at staying alive and leaving Masara eventually."

          "Well the way I see it," Talios leaned his back against the wall, "we don't even know if we're responsible for this.  Until we know for sure we're wanted men, there's no reason we should slither into a hole."

          Rayneir pondered his friend's words.  He was right, hundreds of people were always coming and going through that building, and any one of them could be the culprits.  They were just two of possibly thousands of regular people carrying out their daily lives, and, whether or not their package was the cause of all this chaos, they were innocent.

          "Why hide when there's nothing to hide from?"  Talios's words moved Rayneir, as much as he would have hated to admit.

          "Alright, fine.  How are you feeling?"

          "I've felt better.  Sober, but a little hung over.  You?"

          "About the same.  Let's go."

          The two moved back onto the main street, where the frenzied crowd had calmed, and looked about.  Rayneir thought to himself that perhaps they should stick to their original destination, and head towards the ports and possibly find a crew to join up with.

          "Where should we-?"  Rayneir then saw his own face, enlarged hundreds of times, displayed on a massive holo screen mounted on one of the many tall buildings.  There were several of these screens, usually used for advertisements or public announcements and news, but now all of them were decorated with his and Talios' image.  Underneath every screen, in bright, bold red lettering, sprawled the words: WANTED FOR CRIMES AGAINST THE FEDERATION.  He heard screams through his shock coupled with angry shouts, but he was too dumbstruck to move or hide his face.

          "Don't throcking move!"  Rough, gloved hands forcefully grasped his shoulder and a sharp pain in his leg brought him to his knees.  Only then was he broken from his trance to realize that he was surrounded by Federation executors, a group of elite enforcers of law and order.  They dressed all in black, the only difference between them were various emblems upon their uniforms, of which Rayneir noticed they all had one in common.  A grey fist upon a red beveled shield, of which interjected a black saltire.  Both he and Talios were on their knees, and soon had restrictive clasps about their wrists, closed tightly and digging into their skin.

          This was it, everything they'd strove for so long to achieve was all for nothing.  They would spend the rest of their lives in a deep, dark pit, probably in a prison on a world so distant and hostile they would be forgotten as they were torn apart by maniacs and hardened criminals.

          "Everything's going to be alright, Ray."  The words shocked him almost as much as the situation they were in.  How Talios could be so positive still was beyond him.  Perhaps he truly believed what he said, that somehow they'd be cleared of this and the truth would emerge.  Rayneir highly doubted that, and feared for their lives.  Talios looked at Rayneir and smiled, "We have each other."

          A pair of boots moved toward the two, slowly and menacingly.  Their wearer was an older man, his hair starting to thin and grey, but his steel grey eyes showed no signs of age.  A faint scar from a years old conflict adorned his face, and a thick cotine roll hung from his lips, smoke billowing from it with every hit.  He was large, yet lean, as if five minutes prior he had been enduring intense physical training.  But the most unnerving thing about him was the chillingly calm, almost business-as-usual grin on his face.  This was obviously the man in charge of the men who apprehended him, of that Rayneir had no doubt.

          "We didn't do anything!"  Rayneir's voice cracked as his pleas escaped him nearly involuntarily and without thought.  "We didn't know!"  He looked to each of the executors with the eyes of a madman, desperately trying to ascertain some substance of pity from at least one of them.  But they all had their visors down, and none of their expressions or stances resembled anything near compassion.  They were all cold, hard, and resolute.

          "That won't help anything, Ray."

          "Looks like we got ourselves here a couple celebrities!"  Gravel filled the soldiers' leader's voice, mincing his words like sandpaper on concrete.  He was looking at the large screens that still prominently featured the faces of his two captives, then looked back at them, that eerie smile still splitting his face.  "What's a man to do?  Ask for an autograph?"  The troops surrounding Rayneir and Talios grunted and chuckled at their leader's dull joke.  "In any case, we shouldn't prolong this too much, I've got places to be."  At that, he unholstered his sidearm, a massive handgun that could have weighed over three kilograms, and stepped in front of the two of them.

          "What? No!"  Rayneir struggled to stand up and break free from his restraints, but an executor came up behind him and clubbed him in the shoulder while forcing him back to his knees.  He ignored the pain, he couldn't believe this was happening to them.  They weren't even getting a trial, or any form of justice whatsoever.  Something wasn't right, there were laws in place to prevent this kind of brutality.

          "As Judicator Vaelghemer of the Grey Fists, I find you guilty of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and the bombing of a place of public use, resulting in death."  Rayneir couldn't believe the words he was hearing, this couldn't possibly be real.  "By the powers bestowed unto me from the Federal Primarch and the Arch Council, I sentence you to death."


          Rayneir looked at his friend, tears in his eyes, as he looked back at him.  Talios was smiling still, somehow.  Despite the tears rolling from his black own, a look of peace rested on his face.  Even at the very end, his inner serenity was uncompromised.  Rayneir knew nothing of Hadaran religion, if they even had any.  But something kept him from being afraid, or angry, or feeling helpless, a mixture of which filled Rayneir to the point of pouring from him like a glass overflowing.  A loud click emanated as the Judicator


          "I'll see you soon."

          A loud blast filled the street as Talios' head exploded with a brown mist, covering Rayneir's face with a spatter of his blood.  He wanted to scream, and for all he knew he may have been.  His heart sank, and his vision narrowed and blurred with an outburst of tears.  His entire body went numb, the only feeling was from within, rage and fear dominating him, filling his veins with a cold fire.

          "It's always strange seeing Hadaran blood.  Like something that would come out of my rear."  

          Rayneir fixated his eyes, seething with hatred, upon the man that had killed his best friend before his eyes.  Judicator Vaelghemer.  There was no man he hated more, and were it not for the restraints around his wrists, he would choke the life out of him and every one of his comrades if he could.

          Another loud click resounded and a second later Rayneir was staring down the barrel of the large handgun.  A moment's pause ensued, yet he never took his eyes off of the man he swore the most severe of curses he could think of.  Then the barrel lowered, and Vaelghemer's face was inches from his own.

          "Looks like someone's got different plans in store for you, Rayneir."

          His vision went to black, and something heavy hit the back of his head, sending his consciousness into dreams of hatred and brown blood.

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          The Infinite Horizon gently vibrated as it touched down on Cadmus' dusty surface, and Dardan went to work on her console to kill the engines.  She never liked it here.  It was hot, dirty, and smelled like a mixture of rust and dried blood.  At least she didn't have to wear a breather outside of the ship, but whether or not that was a bad thing had yet to be determined.  But she preferred the coldness of space, the calm distantness of the void.

          Upon landing, Torev started using his usual commands.  "Systems check."

          "Engine and fuel systems go."  Zyro listed off his response in a bland tone.

          "Weapons and shield systems are go."  Boom's expression was cheerful as usual.

          "Communication and navigation systems online." Dardan made it abundantly clear that she was in no way enthusiastic about being here.

          "Alright, the sooner we get our cargo offloaded the better.  Zyro, Boom, stay with the ship and make any necessary repairs.  Top off on fuel if need be.  Dardan, you're with me." Torev got up out of his pilot's seat and exited the bridge.  Dardan finished her post landing sequence and put her station in sleep mode before standing up and following her captain out.  She noticed her two remaining crew mates had already begun to do the same as she left.  Kova was just ahead of her on his way to his quarters when he turned and spoke.  "Meet me outside the cargo bay.  Waltyr's envoy should be here soon, so try not to take too long."

          "You got it, Tor."  They parted ways as she headed to her own cabin, mentally preparing herself for the discomfort she was about to endure.  Waltyr was never pleasant to interact with.  She always got a bad feeling whenever he was around, and he had a sinister air about him.  His envoys weren't much of an improvement, and she'd heard stories of the depravities he and his inner circle engaged in.  Whenever they finished a transaction with them she felt the urge to scrub herself clean, as if they brought a plague or a cloud of filth with them wherever they went.  

          She entered her chambers which were sparsely decorated.  Only the essentials were within, and there were no decorations or other sentiments.  She cared not for such things, her only concern was fulfilling her duties to her captain.  She began to change out of her loose fitting voyage garments and into a tight fitting black bodysuit.  It covered her all the way up to her neck, and other than her face not an inch of her body was otherwise exposed. Then she strapped on her weapon harness, which wrapped around her shoulders and torso and was made for carrying her two handguns.  They were smaller than Torev's large caliber weapon, but were suitable for mobility and concealment.  Over that she wore a medium length dark green hooded robe, which was better for hiding both her identity and weapons. Being Hadaran, Dardan never knew if she would ever meet someone from her old community.  It was a prospect she was not keen on.  Over her eyes she wore a dark visor, knowing the brightness of the day would be quite intense.  Finally she attached to her wrist an older model device that allowed her to maintain contact with the ship.  She then made her way out of her chambers and headed outside toward the cargo bay.

          It was a bright, clear day on Cadmus, its bright blue sky a vivid counter to the oranges and browns of the world's regolith.  The air temperature was warm, but not unbearable, but still and humid as well.  All about people were moving to and fro, as this was one of the busiest ports and one of Cadmus' busiest port cities.  For miles ships stood upon their docks, and from time to time some took off, others landing.

          Torev had not yet left the ship so Dardan got to opening the cargo bays and, with a special lifter, began the unloading process.  It was her full intention to minimize the time they had to interact with Waltyr's men.

          A moment later Torev emerged from the ship and joined his first mate.  He sported a red shirt and black pants, a weapons belt around his waist, and a long brown coat.  She never really looked at men as anything other than just other people, and certainly didn't care for romantic relationships, but if she did, she would find him quite the specimen.  His eyes squinted as they adjusted to the brightness of the outside and his weapon belt hung lazily on his hip as he strode toward her.

          "Started without me?"

          "Almost finished actually.  Any word from Waltyr's man?"

          "Yep, they should be here soon." Torev began helping Dardan unload all of the cargo crates as they spoke.  "Brace yourself, I think Waltyr's coming too."

          Dardan didn't respond immediately, merely letting out an irritated exhale before she replied.  "Why would he do that? Doesn't he have some sex slaves to torture?"

          "I know, Dardan.  Trust me I don't much care for him either, but a job's a job. Plus we're not on very good terms with Jakko as it is being how our little stop on Nostir held us up so much. Just," Torev rested momentarily, breathing heavily and sweating some.  He looked about as various ships, speeders, and people made their way about the large port trying to find the words to use, before looking Dardan in the eyes.  "Let's just get through this, and I promise you that before long we'll never have to deal with Waltyr or Jakko ever again."

          At this she herself stopped unloading, not quite believing what she'd just heard.  "You plan to terminate your employment with Jakko?  You don't have near the amount of merits, or the reputation-"

          "I haven't quite figured everything out, but the endgame's the same.  Come on, don't you like the idea of being Vice President of Reverend Enterprises?"

          Dardan came as close to laughing as it was possible for her.  "I thought you always hated that nickname."

          "It's grown on me.  Think of it, though, no more having to deal directly with slime like Waltyr ever again."

          "That does sound appealing."  Dardan got back to work, a trickle of new found resolve lending some speed to the evolution.  Before long everything was fully removed from the cargo bay.  They'd worked up quite a sweat during the whole process but, thankfully, Boom had thought to bring them both some cold water before returning to her shipboard duties.  Dardan wasn't sure what to make of her new crew mate, as she had yet put forth the effort to get to know her.  Other than Torev, she was the longest running crew member, Zyro only having joined a few years prior.  She'd seen quite the assortment of gunners and specialists come and go, and long ago realized that entertaining friendships with them was a waste of time.  If one were to ask, she wouldn't have even been able to say with any confidence whether or not she was friends with even Torev.  However, she was still amicable to them all, while remaining indifferent.  But so far she had no ill feelings towards the new gunner, who was very nice, respectful, and hard working, qualities highly valued aboard the Infinite Horizon.

          "And now we wait."  Torev leaned up against one of the crates, breathing hard, and lit up a cotine stick.  Dardan never understood why people smoked, it was linked to all sorts of terminal illnesses, but hundreds of billions of people throughout the galaxy did it anyway.  It didn't bother her too much though, so she never complained when Torev or Zyro smoked around her, but she would never try it.  "You don't have to hang around, D."

          "You'll need me by your side if things turn sour," Dardan crossed her arms.  Torev didn't argue, and the two stood in the shade of the ship in silence for a few minutes while they waited for Waltyr and his men.

        Ships and other vehicles continued to come and go, until a luxurious looking large hover car approached their landing area.  It shone in the sunlight with brilliant reds and silvers, almost blinding Dardan.  Her eyes were accustomed to dark places, as before they found space travel the Hadaran race spent millennia in vast underground nations on their home world.  Thankfully her visor dampened the brightness significantly, otherwise she would be blinking incessantly.

          The hover car stopped before them, its engine humming a low growl as it idled.  The vehicle was spotless save for a very slight buildup of dust about its lower areas, making it obvious the care that went into maintaining its beauty.  Dardan half expected to see it pulled by a harem of barely covered women, but thankfully did not.  A moment later the doors opened and several people got out, among them a handful of dangerous looking men, several downtrodden looking women, and lastly Waltyr himself.  Behind him trailed a frightful looking young girl, barely of womanhood age, carrying a long staff with a mesh like fabric stretched out with skinny metal arms.  She held it up over Waltyr to protect him from the sunlight despite not being under it herself.

          Waltyr was disgusting.  His cheeks flopped about as he took every step and thin patches of wispy hair held on for dear life in the breeze.  Grease and sweat ran down his face and stained the neck of his opulent robes of red and gold.  Not a single one of his fat stubby fingers was ringless, and a thick gold chain swung about his neck.  He sported a facial expression that gave Dardan the impression that he thought that he was too good for his current environment.

          "Hello again, Torev."


          Dardan assessed the other members of Waltyr's company as her captain addressed him.  There were three other men and four women, the former all armed and dangerous looking and the latter all barely clothed and looking forlorn.  The lifestyle Waltyr enjoyed sickened her, and if she had her way she'd put a piece of hot metal in every one of these men's skulls.  She eyed them all individually through her visor, always keeping in mind exactly where on her person her weapons were positioned, and going over in her head the fastest, most fluid way possible to unholster them and open fire.

          "This delivery was supposed to arrive yesterday."  Waltyr eyed the containers as he spoke, his jowls bouncing with every word and spittle ejecting from his lips.  He spoke slowly with a deep voice, federation standard clearly not being his primary language.  "Your Jakko assured me it would arrive on time."

          "We had some trouble on the way.  There's nothing else I can say about it."  Torev's expression was stone like, but even then there was no way to completely mask the disdain in his voice.

          "Well if any of the merchandise damaged or expired, Jakko will hear my complaint and then do with you as he will."

          "Sounds fair."

          At this Waltyr's servants got to work loading the large crates onto his hovercar while Dardan and Torev looked on.  It happened as routine until the last one when an audible, repetitive thud started coming from it.

          "The throck?"  Torev broke his resolve and moved towards the crate.  Immediately Waltyr and one of his men ran towards it as well.

          "Stop! Do not-" his words were cut short by a hand cannon in Waltyr's face.  Torev stared him down for a moment, never faltering despite having three other weapons aimed at him.  The slave women stopped moving entirely, obviously fearful, including the one who carried Waltyr's shader.  For a brief instant Waltyr was subjected to direct sunlight because of this, a look of annoyance on his face.  Dardan moved at the same time, drawing her two pistols and aiming them at two of Waltyr's men.  For a moment they just stood there at a stand still, waiting for something to happen, thuds still emanating from the crate.

          Torev was the first to move, and with his free hand unlatched the clasp on the crate.  With a single movement the lid was flung from the crate and into the dusty ground, its contents revealed for all to see.  

          Inside were three young human girls, barely old enough to have children, and none of them clothed.  Two were unconscious, one was awake, the latter apparently the one responsible for the noises that had come from the crate.  She looked up at Torev and the rest, fear in her eyes.  She tried to cry out, but couldn't, and touched her throat to feel stitches running up the center.  Dardan looked at Waltyr's other slave women, and now that she thought about it, they all had scars upon their throats running the same length as this new girl's stitches.

          "What kind of sick-"  Torev couldn't find the words, and Dardan was filled with immense rage.  There was no way she could stand for this, Waltyr had to be punished.  Jakko would feel her wrath as well if she ever had the chance.

            "Hey, what is problem?"  Waltyr asked jovially, despite Dardan now training bother her pistols on his revolting face.

            "It was never in out agreement for me to transport slaves!"  Dardan didn't think she'd ever seen Torev so furious.

          "But is Jakko's agreement.  Not my problem he not tell you.  Maybe you go take up with Jakko.  This is Coalition, perfectly legal here."

          As much as it pained Dardan to think, Waltyr was right.  The Coalition had yet to outlaw slavery like the federation had, but that didn't stop her from having a bad taste in her mouth at the thought.

          Torev lowered his weapon, and after a moment of consideration, Dardan did as well.  She had half a mind to put a bullet in the head of every one of Waltyr's men, take his slaves aboard the ship, and take them somewhere safe.  She knew Torev wouldn't be opposed to the idea but wouldn't allow it, as this would only compound the problems they faced.  The other men lowered the weapons as well, and gestured to the other slave women to finish loading the crate onto their hovercar.  They hesitated for just a moment, but that was plenty of time for one of the men to walk over and strike one in the stomach with his collapsible club.  The women then got to work immediately, not wanting to incur any more of Waltyr's wrath.  

            They finished and prepared to close the hovercar's cargo hatch, buy Waltyr stopped them.  He then looked to one of his men and gestured to the girl carrying his shader.  The man walked up, unholstered a pistol, and shot her in the head without hesitation.  

          Torev took a step back at this, but Dardan didn't move whatsoever, silently swearing that she would put an end to Waltyr's evil someday, and watched as the other slave women dragged the body to the back with the other cargo crates and the men begin to enter the vehicle.

          "Have good day!" Waltyr smiled as he allowed the slave women to enter before him, then got in the hovercar himself.

          "Throcking slimy bastard."  Dardan watched as the vehicle moved away and left, picturing in her mind the depravities those poor girls had to endure on the way to that sorry excuse of a man's pit.  "I'll kill him.  I'll kill all of them."

          "He'll get what's coming to him, but there's not much we can do about it right now.  But I am going to have a chat with Jakko about this, believe me."  Torev turned and headed back to the ship, leaving Dardan to her dark thoughts.  If someone didn't take the chance from her, she vowed to herself that at the first opportunity she'd erase Waltyr's filth from the galaxy.  She then turned about and headed towards the ship, a desire to scrub herself coming to prominence in her mind.

          Inside Zyro and Boom were nowhere to be seen, presumably both checking various areas of the ship for any problems that would need to be corrected.  Dardan headed to the bridge, from which she could hear Torev talking very angrily.

          "Why didn't you tell me there were slaves in my cargo hold?"  Torev was talking to Jakko on a holo screen as Dardan entered.  She didn't join the conversation, merely leaned against the wall out of line of sight of the holo screen and listened.

          "Because I knew you would refuse.  All my other pilots are out doing jobs for me, you were the only one available."

          "But when you said not to ask questions I assumed it was just narcotics or booze.  How many other times in the past have you secretly had me transport slaves?"

          "Never, and you can trust me on that!"  Dardan had the feeling Torev did not, as neither did she.  "Anyway, why were you late?  Waltyr's already contacted me to complain.  You're lucky none of them died, otherwise I'd make you pay for them."

          "Make me pay for them?  You just try it and see what happens!  Besides we ran into some trouble on the way, had to make a stop for some quick repairs.  You're lucky I don't make you reimburse me for them!"

          "Come on, Torev, don't be like this.  Trust me, I don't much care for slave trading as much as you, but money is money, and Waltyr pays well."  Dardan had never much cared for Jakko, but he was an honest business man, and looked out for his pilots.  The crew of the Infinite Horizon could do worse, she supposed.

          "Well I want more for my troubles, Jak.  And insurance that this won't happen again."

          "You're putting me in a troublesome position, Torev, you know I barely break even on many of these deals-"

          "Then charge more, I don't care."  Dardan was impressed with Torev's brashness, only ever rarely seeing him this way.  "I'll see you back at Gammonis in two days."

          "Wait, Torev, I have a shipment on its way to Cadmus I need you to pick up and bring to me."

          Torev bowed his head in frustration for a moment, then looked back to the monitor.  "When?"

            "A day or two. Three at the most.". Jakko gave Torev a moment to consider before continuing.  " Your people have been running from station to station for the better part of two months now, this is a great chance to give them some free time.  Leave Cadmus for the time being if you want but I need you there when it arrives. "

          "Alright."  Torev looked behind him, probably noticing Dardan for the first time.  "But this conversation isn't over."  With that he shut off the monitor and turned to his first mate.  "Don't tell Boom what happened out there, alright?"  

          "I hadn't planned on it.  Are we staying here, then?"

          "Might as well, we'll save fuel that way.  Pass the word, but make sure they have communicators with them for when his shipment arrives."

          "You got it."  Dardan turned and left the bridge, Torev following behind.

          "I need a drink."  With that they parted ways, and Dardan began looking for her other two crew mates.  

          It didn't take very long to do so, as Boom's cheerful voice and Zyro's brutish shouts were difficult to miss.  They were down on the lower maintenance level, Boom carrying a large bundle of heavy piping and Zyro's get protruding from underneath one of the large evaporation tanks.  Boom looked over at Dardan as she entered, nearly dropping her load.  She took a moment to ponder Kora, the ex-slave turned smuggler that had proven herself quite the gunner, and thankful that she had not been one of Waltyr's.  She wouldn't have been the same without her ever joyful voice.

          "Finish whatever necessary repairs need to be made.  As of now you're both on liberty until further notice."

          "Um, alright."  Boom nodded, then continued her work as Dardan left. 

          Dardan wasn't sure what to do with herself.  There wasn't anything for her to do around the ship, but she wasn't about to head into any of Cadmus' city areas and subject herself to the filth and grime such places were replete with.  Plus her interaction with Waltyr and his awful men had left her feeling filthy enough as it is.  She headed back to the bridge, if anything to check and see if they had received any messages, however doubtful.

          Once inside she noticed that Torev had left something on the station where he had his conversation with Waltyr.  She moved closer to see what it was, and noticed it was his box of cotine sticks, and knew that if he were to be drinking alcohol he would want them.  She picked them up and headed toward the exit, hopeful that he hadn't left yet.

          Outside he was nowhere to be found, and one of the speeders was gone from the bay they kept them in.  The only way to find out where he was was to contact him over the communicators, but she thought that perhaps it was too soon yet.  She turned around to head back into the ship, but only made it a few steps.  She looked down at the contents of her hand, the cotine sticks that she had never really had any interest in, and looked around.  People all about were moving about, not paying her any mind, as were the countless ships and other vehicles that roamed around.

          Dardan continued to ponder for a few moments, part of her wanted to try one, to see what the fuss was about, and find out whether or not they had the calming effect she had heard about.  Another part of her urged her to refuse the temptation, as she could become addicted and, years down the line, suffer from all kinds of respiratory illnesses.  Yet another part of her wondered why she was considering it at all, it wasn't like her.

          She opened the box and took one out, inspecting it before putting it to her lips.  She activated Torev's lighter, and took a drag.  She'd seen Torev do this countless times, and was very attentive to detail.  Her throat itched, but the flavor of the smoke she drew in was soothing, almost paradoxically cooling.  She felt it enter into her lungs and circulate through her bloodstream, and knew instantly why people did this, as she could feel her head start to cloud and mellow.  It wasn't as strong as drinking alcohol or imbibing some of the more intense narcotics, which was probably why it was still legal in the Federation, but it was strong enough for the needs it was used for.  She exhaled a thick puff of smoke into the air, and not long after took another drag.  She almost immediately felt less tense about everything, and actually started to contemplate picking up this particular habit.  She decided against it, however, as there were very few situations where she felt stressed like this.

          While Dardan was smoking, she noticed a bright light in the sky.  Soon a dull roar could be heard, and before long she realized it was a ship entering the atmosphere, albeit crudely.  Then she heard a sonic boom, followed by another as, through deceleration, the ship broke the sound barrier.  The ship was coming closer and closer to the port, and didn't seem to be slowing down enough to land safely here.  She started to worry perhaps it would crash and cause damage to the Infinite Horizon, but then when she looked closer, she realized that the ships trajectory would take it directly overhead, despite cutting it close.  She was right, and the ship, some parts of which were on fire either from the atmospheric entry or possibly combat, flew right above her to areas eastward, only about a thousand feet or so separating them.  If she had to guess, it was a Federation vessel, based on the markings.  If that were true, then the crew of that ship wouldn't last long here.

          Dardan shrugged as she took another drag, the outcome of the ship and its crew beyond her capacity to care.  She finished the cotine stick and threw it to the ground before heading back to the ship, where she could cleanse herself of the impurities of the day.

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           A lone dark ship floated in the blackness, a planet of brown and orange suspended in spacetime before it.  On the ship's bridge sat two men, one dressed in a black tight fitting combat suit, the other in loose dark red every day clothes.  The one in the combat suit, Grieg, an Eid'kos of the Kynigos Protathlima, his clan of head hunters, sat smugly in his chair, his black featureless helmet upon his knee.  He surveyed the planet before him with cold dark eyes, his shoulder length blond hair slicked back on his head.  His hairless face lent to an illusion of youth but his malevolent smirk betrayed any potential façade of innocence.

          "Send word to D'Skalos that our mark is on Cadmus."

          "Tell him yourself, he's contacting us now."  The other, R'charios Jurai, pressed controls on his console as he spoke, allowing the video message to be displayed on the bridge's large, main monitor.  Upon it the face of D'Skalos appeared, a man without a name, only the most important title anyone could ever possess.  With it, he commanded legions of skilled warriors and hunters, including Grieg and Jurai, and had many times proven himself in combat as the one deserving of the title.  Upon his face he bore the marks of years of such a lifestyle, but his sharp grey eyes seemed ageless.  His mouth and lower jaw were hidden from view, as over them he wore the large jawbone of a primordial beast as a trophy.

          "Grand D'Skalos.  To what do I owe the pleasure?"  Grieg's tone was mixed with reverence and disdain.  He'd worshiped this man all his life, but recently he felt his time as D'Skalos was coming to a close.

          "Eid'kos Grieg, do you have a report on your current objective?"

          Grieg's eyes darted to his partner then back to the screen before he responded.  "I've tracked my prey to Cadmus, a heavily populated-"

          "Very good, but you've been reassigned."

          Grieg was shocked, and couldn't find the words to respond.  This was unheard of, especially for a high ranking Eid'kos such as himself.

           "Reassigned?" Jurai seemed just as perplexed as Grieg, as this was as much his mark as well.  Grieg shot Jurai a harsh look, an order of silence in its meaning.

          "Honorable D'Skalos, with all due respect I have a lot of time invested in this bounty.  A few hours at most is all I'll need to complete the contract."  Grieg remained stalwart in his composure, but knew it was fruitless to argue.  As D'Skalos, his leader had final word on such things no matter what, and, despite his own relatively high rank, Grieg could do or say nothing to sway his decisions.

          "That will not be necessary.  I've already dispatched another to finish your contract, someone who will find this meager mark a bit more of a challenge than you will."

          Grieg grimaced somewhat at D'Skalos' veiled insult.  What came across on the surface as a compliment and mild sarcasm stung just as bitterly as an open accusation of incompetence.  But Grieg knew he should have finished his target in deep space, and could have since it was merely a smuggler ship, barely held together with common adhesives and hope.  But he preferred looking his victims in the eyes, and aimed to finish off the ship's crew on Nostir.  He had to settle for some insignificant settler and his family, but it had to do for the time being.  However, his thirst for blood had yet to come close to being quenched.

          "I've been hunting my mark for quite some time and will see it through to the end."

          "You will do as your D'Skalos commands you, whelp!"  Whenever D'Skalos got angry it always instilled fear in those on the receiving end of his wrath, and, although he never would admit it, Grieg did as well.  He did not reply, allowing D'Skalos a chance to calm himself and continue.  "If you disagree with the commands of your master, then feel free to challenge me in combat as is our way.  Until then you will obey or be punished."

          Grieg remained silent in submission to his master.  He did fully intend to challenge him and take the mantle one day, but he was far from ready.  Being D'Skalos meant that the title's bearer was ever subject having one's authority tested by lesser warriors.  It was almost a fact that one's ability to rule the clan was determined by their combat prowess as much as their leadership capabilities.  Grieg had seen firsthand the skills his leader possessed, equal in efficiency and brutality, and knew he possessed not the abilities to be his equal.

          He gave thought to the instructor's commands for a moment before speaking.  "So which of my brothers gets to reap the bounty?"  Despite sounding earnest, he already knew D'Skalos' answer.

          "I have chosen Ana for this task.  Do you object?"

          Of course he did.  Ana always seemed to be nipping at Grieg's heels, always vying for opportunities to win favor with D'Skalos.  Females of rank in the clan were rare but not unheard of.  She had only been active for a relatively short time whereas Grieg had spent several years clawing his way upward.  She was skilled, yes, but it seemed D'Skalos favored her too much, and that her skill alone wasn't solely responsible for her success.  He shot another look at Jurai, his junior, then looked back again at D'Skalos, smirking.

          "Your favorite little pet.  You keep coddling her like this and she may end up dead."

          "Again, if you have a problem with the way I run the Protathlima, come challenge me.  Yes, I do favor her, but I also favor you as well, Eid'kos.  If I didn't, I would not tolerate this insubordination and disrespect."

          "Apparently not very much, otherwise you'd have her do this fecal assignment."

          "As a matter of fact, you're the only Eid'kos who can carry this fecal assignment out.  It requires the most precise of targeting, and you're my best shot."

          Grieg took a moment to ponder the words his D'Skalos just uttered.  There weren't many situations that required his sharpshooting skills, for usually he made his kills relatively up close.  One of his few stipulations for accepting a contract was that he wasn't restricted by proximity.  But D'Skalos was right, nobody else in the clan could land a shot at ranges above a kilometer as accurately and precise as he could.  It was a gift he didn't particularly care for, but it was one he was proud to have.  He believed a warrior's victim should know the one responsible for their end.  His tone went from being rebellious to one of genuine curiosity.

          "What's the assignment?"


* * * * *


          A chilling silence filled the unlit room, its sole living occupant watching, waiting.  The sound of a large crowd nearby could be heard, despite the doors and windows inside the room were all tightly sealed.  Grieg saw everything, though, even through the closed window, with his helmet.  He could cycle through the various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum with it, and nobody could hide.  In the middle of the day like this on Adara, the building he was in was mostly empty, save for a few.  A little over thirty meters to his right a young couple was making love.  Below him an artist painted.  Above him a mother coddled her child.  Yet all were oblivious to what had happened in this room, and nobody could fathom what was about to.

          Grieg sat in one corner of the room, inspecting every inch of his rifle for defects.  Every angle, every curve was looked over painstakingly, no detail left unobserved.  

          His earpiece vibrated.

          "Status."  It was his junior, R'charios Jurai.

          "Vantage point located."  Grieg's response was low and toneless, his featureless helmet sightly digitizing his voice.  He looked to the pile of bodies he'd stacked in a corner of the room.  "Area secure."

          "Copy."  Silence came across the communications channel and Grieg continued to scrutinize his weapon.  Once he was finished he fancied smoking a cotine stick.  It wasn't like the former occupants were in any position to complain.

          He removed his helmet and immediately the smell of blood, like stale iron, filled his senses.  It was a wonderful smell, the smell of victory, and power.  His victims this time were hardly a challenge, and reminded him of the family he'd eliminated back on Nostir the day prior.  They were both weak, pathetic, undeserving of an existence in a galaxy that favored strength and skill.

          Grieg ran his hand over his hair as he placed his helmet on his knee.  His cold dark eyes dilated as they adjusted to the dimness of the room, which had been highly illuminated through his helmet's display. 

          He removed a stick from one of his many pouches adorning his tight fitting combat suit and ran it under his nose.  There weren't many people in the Coalition that could get their hands on Coranthi spiced leaf, and Grieg had never betrayed his sources to anyone.  Pulling a light from the same pouch he set it aflame, he savored the spicy sweet blend of the cotine leaf as its smoke entered his lungs.

          "Should have asked you to leave me one of those."

          "No smoking on the Black Hand."

          "Well when it's my ship I just might change the smoking rules."

          Grieg made his response after taking a deep drag from his cotine stick.  "You mean if it's your ship."

          Jurai didn't respond right away.  They'd had similar conversations before, and he was never very successful.  But Grieg always appreciated his ambition, a quality no man of the Kynigos Protathlima should be without.  But Jurai, despite being R'charios, still had a long way to go before he was piloting his own ship, much less Grieg's.

          "I don't know about you but I'll take this over looking for some smuggler nobody."

          "Political assassinations were never of much interest to me.  I'll take a good hunt over sitting in this stuffy room waiting for some bureaucrat snob to show his face and feed his people lies."

          "Well that smuggler will probably be more of a challenge for Ana than it would be for you."

          Jurai was right, but it didn't change the fact that Grieg had somewhat of a low opinion of the young warrioress who had taken his assignment from him.  There truly was no need, as soon as he was done here, he could have been back on Cadmus within hours, free to resume his hunt.  Plus an Eid'kos like himself to get reassigned in the middle of a mission was unheard of, and he bore much resentment to his leader for it.  Especially when his task was handed on a silver platter to a lower ranking M'peiros like Ana.  This was just one more instance to add to the list of reasons why he believed she was using more than just her skill to succeed.  Grieg would be nothing if it weren't for his strength and skill, and didn't believe that she deserved even to be a rank under him.

          "You know I like to see jobs through to the end, no matter the challenge.  Besides, D'Skalos coddles her too much.  He'll get her killed one day.  Either she'll take a job too far above her or make an enemy in the wrong person."  If she wasn't careful, Grieg could be that wrong person.  After all, there were only a limited number of Eid'kos in the Protathlima at any given time, and he could very well be the one she chose to challenge when the time came.  He would make short work of her.

          "You never did like her."

          "Well you and her were both E'diseis at the same time, and now look.  She's M'peiros and you're still just R'charios."  Pausing to take another drag, Grieg knew his words would sting Jurai but he felt the occasional condescension helped to increase motivation.  "D'Skalos favors her too much."

          "He favors you too, he hand picked you for this assignment."  Jurai spoke the truth, D'Skalos had chosen him for his superior marksmanship, of which nobody else in the clan could compete with.

          "True.  But if I were you and saw my equal rise in rank so quickly I'd be furious.  Could you best her in combat?"

          "It would be an interesting fight, to be sure, but even if I had to guess I couldn't say.  But if I challenged her and lost, yet survived, I couldn't live with the shame."

           "Neither could I.  But I don't fear her, and she knows that she'd fail.  That's probably why she has yet to challenge me."

          "I pity whoever does."

          Grieg grinned slightly.  He would never admit, but his words were somewhat hypocritical.  He'd risen to the rank of Eid'kos remarkably quickly.  Many of equal rank in the Protathlima were ten years his senior, but they never much troubled him.  The Eid'kos from whom he'd taken the title was a fool, and had made a mess of one too many assignments, where D'Skalos never trusted him with any that required any sort of skill.  It had been all to easy to best him in combat, and Grieg often wondered to himself how the man had become Eid'kos at all.

          But that was long ago, and there was only one direction to go for Grieg: upward.  One day he would challenge D'Skalos and beat him, or die.  In the case of the former, he'd take up the title of D'Skalos, his one true goal.  But until then he would satisfy himself with his current rank for now, focusing on honing his talents and passing down his knowledge, technique, and skills to the whelps entrusted under his care, such as young Jurai.

          "How much longer?"  Grieg took another drag from his cotine stick, his tone that of annoyance.

          "Not too much longer, thirty minutes at most.  They've still got some preliminary speakers before Sumari makes his appearance."

          "How much do you think our anonymous benefactor is paying for this job?"  Grieg, finished with his cotine stick, flung it to the corner where he'd stashed the former occupants' corpses, a faint sizzle sounding as the blood extinguished it.  He wished to know who had hired the Protathlima for this task, but only D'Skalos knew that secret.  Grieg knew from experience that nothing short of killing the man and demanding the information as he bled out on the ground would get him to relinquish such information.  Of what he could guess, there were two likely possibilities.  Perhaps it was either Federation loyalists that believed the Coalition should be annexed, or Coalition radicals that wanted to instill conflict between the two powers and weaken the Federation enough for a hostile takeover.  He could only guess that a hefty sum had been paid to eliminate the leader of the administration that allowed the Protathlima's continued operation without reprieve or interference.

          "Well, based on your cut, I'd fathom several hundred thousand merits.  I don't suppose I'll see any of it."

          "I haven't decided.  Did you find out anything about the Masara bombings?"

          "Nothing new.  No official statements have been released, but the Federation media's been covering it constantly.  Dozens of people have been imprisoned, some even rounded up in the streets and executed by Judicators.  No names released.  I didn't think you cared."

          "I don't, really, just somewhat curious."  As unlikely as it was, there was a third possibility for whoever wanted this man killed publicly.  Someone out there knew, or at least heavily believed, that he was responsible for these bombings, and wanted justice, or revenge.

          "Just let me know if any major information gets released."

          "Sure thing."

          Grieg paused for a moment before asking a question that had been at the back of his mind since he received the order from his leader.

          "Did D'Skalos say we were to return to Ost'Fengar after this?"

          "He wasn't all that clear.  Did you have something in mind?"  Grieg had a feeling that Jurai already knew the answer to that particular question.

          "Just entertaining a thought."

          "I don't have to remind you, Eid'kos, that interfering in another hunter's mission is forbidden."  With that statement, Grieg's suspicion had been proven true.

          "You don't have to remind me, R'Charios, but that wasn't at all what I was thinking."

          "Not at all?  Then what were you thinking?"

           Grieg paused again while he thought of the right words to say. "Well, maybe you were half right.  But maybe after she takes out that smuggler and his crew we take her out."

          "D'Skalos wouldn't like that."

           Grieg knew that.  The hunters of the Protathlima had their ways, and backhanded deception had no place among them.  He wasn't truly serious about the proposition, but it was an interesting idea.  "He doesn't have to know."

          "He prefers we kill each other in the arena.  There's too many variables out in the field"

          "Maybe the smuggler was too much for her and I had to finish the job after her unfortunate death?"

          "Just wait for her to challenge you if you want to kill her so much."

          "Honestly I don't really care, she just annoys me."  Grieg wondered if Jurai knew that he was jesting, and not serious about their conversation.

          "So, just kill anyone that annoys you?"

          "Possibly."  Grieg grinned, knowing that Jurai would grow nervous.

          "I'll keep that in mind."

          "Be sure you do."

          "Do I annoy you?"

          "Not at the moment, our conversation is helping the time go by."  Grieg's grin widened as the words left his mouth.

          "Trust me, I want to get this over with just as much as you."

          "I think this assignment excites you much more than it does me.  Whether or not anyone outside the Protathlima knows it, we'll change the course of history today."

          Silence contaminated the communications channel as Jurai dwelled on Grieg's words.

          "What do you mean?  What happens after this?"

          "We'll just have to see."

          "Right."  A few moments passed as the channel again fell to quiet.  "Eyes up, Sumari is about to make his appearance."

          Grieg didn't respond, but got up, withdrawing from his combat suit a long blade, and placing his helmet and rifle on the seat.  With the press of a button, the vibromotor within the blade came to life, humming quietly.  He moved over to one of the corpses in the opposite corner of the room and grasped one of their limbs.  With barely an effort, he managed to cut it free, careful not to allow too much blood to pour from the amputation.  Over where the bodies had been piled he used the severed limb to write upon the wall.  The message was simple, yet he knew it would be fairly easy to comprehend its meaning.

          Finished, Grieg moved back to his seat and scooped up his helmet and rifle.  His helmet slid snugly over his head, having been made to fit only him.  He could see everything again, and was able to confirm Jurai's words.  An older man, dressed in ceremonial attire, walked across the stage before a packed courtyard.  Cheers rang out as he appeared, and he waved to the crowd, smiling.  Grieg didn't care about politics, and never followed current events on such things, but it was common knowledge that Derrin Sumari was rather well liked among the Coalition.  It was rumored that even some people of importance in the Federation openly respected him.  What Grieg was about to do was sure to upset a great many people, of that he was certain.  Whoever wanted this man dead, be it someone from the Coalition or the Federation, probably knew what the repercussions would be.  No matter the who or why, either way, he had a feeling that with this assignment even the stars would shine red with the ensuing bloodbath.  With this assignment, he could very well be the spark that ignited the flames of war.

          He smiled as he raised his rifle and took aim, breathing slowly and taking note of his heartbeat.  Part of him hoped things got entertaining, as he was somewhat curious about what he could do during a period of open war.  There was only one way to find out.

          His sights focused on his target's heart, Grieg exhumed one last breath, and, inbetween heartbeats, pulled the trigger.  His high caliber round flew through the window of the room, through the windows of the next building, over the courtyard, and finally hit its mark.  Blood sprayed over those who stood behind him as it exited and hit the person directly at his back.  Grieg smiled again as he oversaw his work, confident the heart of the man now fallen to the ground had been completely rended by his round.

          "Remember the hundred and nine."













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          Her feet rapidly hit soft wet earth as she hysterically fled for her life.  All about her people cried and screamed, and the smell of burning flesh filled her senses.

          They'd attacked without warning, and she didn't even know who they were.  But they brought death with them, and she could only begin to hope that her family was safe.  Her village was small, only a little over a hundred people lived here, but on foot it could take quite some time to get from one place to another.  Despite the low population the buildings were quite far apart, especially if certain homes housed farmers.

          She had been at the river collecting water to be purified when she heard the sounds of explosions, weapons fire, and the screams of the wounded.  She'd dropped everything and cautiously made her way to her town's limits where she discovered what was happening.  She didn't truly know, however, for she was young and not as knowledgeable of the galaxy in which she lived.  Once she saw the horrors these evil men and women were inflicting upon her home she sprinted in the direction of her house, not caring if she was seen or injured along the way.  All that mattered was whether or not her family was still alive.

          Her mother and father loved her very much, and she them, but she was most concerned with her little brother.  He was still young and quite helpless, and she could never live with herself if something happened to him through her absence.

          Her legs and feet ached as she pushed them to carry her further, faster, her muscles starting to ache in complaint and a pain in her side swelled as her lungs struggled to keep up.  Dirt and sweat covered her face, her hair matting to it, but she didn't care at all.  Her goal was all that mattered to her, and nothing short of her own death would stop her.

          Everything about her was a blur, but she couldn't help but see the atrocities committed here.  People she knew, her friends and their families, lie butchered in the street, their homes burning.  She saw none of the attackers along the way, a fact she paid no mind to, her thoughts only on her family.

          After what felt like ages she finally saw her home, burning just like the rest.  Tears welled up in her eyes but she didn't slow her pace until she was at the door.

          "Mama!  Papa!  Egi!"  No sounds came from within.  Her heart was pounding, from fear and from the exertion.  Slowly she opened the door and tried to peer through the smoke as it poured out.  Her eyes stung and her throat itched, but she wouldn't let that stop her from saving them if she could.  She grabbed the collar of her shirt and placed it over her nose and mouth, something she'd seen grown ups do when they put out fires.  

          She could barely see through the smoke and her tears, but there was no way she would turn back now.  She squinted and scoured the main room of her home, where the vast majority of her family's indoor time was spent, moving slowly.  She still heard nothing but the crackle of flames as the wood and acrylic house burned.

          She stepped in a pool of something viscous, and focused her sight downward.  She'd found her mother and father, lifeless and wide eyed, laying in pools of their own blood.  She wanted to scream, but with all the smoke in the air she knew she couldn't.  She looked vigorously for any signs of her brother, but Egersi was nowhere to be found.  At that moment she decided she no longer wanted to be here and moved to the door as fast as she could without tripping over rubble.

          She turned and, through her tears, saw a figure slowly walking around outside, and she froze, praying whoever it was couldn't see her through the smoke.  She dropped to her hands and feet as quickly and quietly as she could, and slowly crawled to the wall separating her from the outside.  She stopped and leaned against it, just under the window, straining her ears to hear footsteps if she could.  There was nothing save the sounds of the flames eating away at her home.  She couldn't stay there forever, otherwise she'd suffer a similar fate as her parents.  She had to decide which was better, burning alive or being killed by the evil man outside.

          Very slowly she rose, just enough to barely peek over the window sill and get a look at the man.  His back was turned to her, but he was turning to survey the area.  Perhaps her cries and her coughs had prompted his investigation of the immediate area.  He continued to turn around, his long, tattered black robes rippling in the breeze.  A similarly tattered black hood covered his head and hung low over his face.  He stopped turning around, yet thankfully he didn't seem to be looking in her direction.  She couldn't get a good look at his face because a scary silver mask covered it, and his eyes glowed with a ghostly bluish green.


* * * * *



          Her head shot up at the sound of her name, her consciousness returning to reality.  Right away she noticed her neck was sore from sleeping upright, but she ignored it as she turned and looked at the one whom had woken her.  Her eyes met those of her fellow Iron Warden Ehren, the only other female that shared her position, despite being much older.

          "The Grand Marshall's about to take the stage and you're sitting here sleeping?"

          "Apologies, Ehren. It won't happen again."

          "Pray it doesn't.  Come on."  Ehren turned and left Meshiré alone in their barracks room, allowing her to be alone with her thoughts for a moment.  

          She ran her fingers through her shoulder length dirty blonde hair, and noticed she had been sweating.  She looked at her hands and there was some bruising on her palms, apparently from clenching her fists too hard.  She got up from the chair and walked over to a mirror hanging upon the wall opposite, her reflection staring back at her with deep blue eyes from sunken sockets.  She hadn't gotten much sleep the past few days, after the bombings several accusations and threats had been made against the Grand Marshall, Derrin Sumari, and she grew worried.  

          She cupped her hands under the faucet and washed the sweat from her face, jolting her awake with the icy feeling of the water.  She had a bad feeling about the ceremony to begin with, but the dream she'd just had made her even more uneasy.  She didn't have it often, but when she did, it was so vivid it was almost as if she was there again.  She could feel the heat on her skin, smell the bodies burning, feel the fear of the little girl she'd once been all over again.

          They'd found her days later, starving, living amongst the rubble of her old village searching for evidence of her brother's fate.  She never found anything, but she was told there was no way he survived.  The barbarians that sacked the village left none alive, yet didn't seem to be after valuables, food, or slaves.  In fact they seemed to leave no trace, and despite the Grave Marshall's best efforts, the raiding party was never identified nor found.  It seemed to be a random act of violence, and it was beyond Meshiré's comprehension that anyone in a modern society could be so animalistic, so blood drunk.  Some time after, supposedly stories of what had happened had reached the recently elected Grand Marshall, and he'd met Meshiré personally to hear her version of the tale.  He let her live in his palace for several weeks after that, and she was seen after by his attendants for all of her wants and needs.  She'd never met a nicer man, and never selfishly took advantage of his hospitality.  During her time with him she'd met members of his personal guard, the Iron Wardens, and decided that when she was old enough she'd join them, so that she could repay Derrin Sumari for his kindness.

          And so here she was, dressed in the deep red and gold ceremonial robes of the Iron Wardens, prepared to lay down her life for her Grand Marshall.  She turned to leave the barracks room and join with her fellow Wardens, grabbing her ceremonial helm from her rack.  She never cared for this particular piece of headgear, as it covered much of her face, but it was tradition, and hopefully she wouldn't be wearing it for much longer.  It was polished red and gold to match her robes, and only left space about the eyes and mouth exposed.

          On her way out the door she grabbed her ceremonial halberd from a weapon rack, its haft red but its blade silver.  She had always found this odd since silver isn't found on any other part of the ceremonial uniform, but she never questioned.  It was a simple blade from a simpler time, a lone remnant of an age before space travel and plasma weapons.   She quickly slid her helm over her head and tucked any loose, wet hairs away from her face as best she could, hurrying towards where the rest of the Wardens, and her Grand Marshall, were waiting.

          Meshiré strode through the passageways of Sumari's palace, which was built in the center of Adara's largest city.  It was simple, lacking the lavish decorations and opulence other people in power were said to have.  The previous Grand Marshall lived in some far away place, removed from the bustle of the city, but when Derrin Sumari took the title, he tore down several buildings that had long ago fell into disuse and decay.  After a few years, the worst part of the city was turned into one of the most beautiful, and crime seemingly disappeared.  He turned the economy upside down, and brought the people of Adara out of poverty and hunger.  He was so well loved by his people that they voted to exempt him from the laws that put a ten year limit on holding the title of Grand Marshall.  He nearly refused, however, and it took his family, and, as Meshiré liked to think, her imploring that he stay to change his mind.  

          It had been twelve years now since she'd first met Derrin, and a little over thirteen since he'd been elected Grand Marshall.  She'd all but forgotten about her life before becoming an Iron Warden, and before that a member of the Defense Corps, having finally come to peace with her tragedy, so it made no sense to have that dream now.  It served no purpose except to add to her unease, and she did her best to put it in the back of her mind and forget about it.

          A few minutes of walking through the palace and she arrived at a common room near Derrin's personal chambers where the rest of the Iron Wardens were waiting.  A dozen red and gold faces turned to look at her as she entered, the flat expressions on the masks betraying the range of looks beneath.

          "My apologies for my delay, brothers and sister." Meshiré had been long used to the formal speech the Wardens employed, yet always felt so awkward when she used it herself, being from a small farm village after all.  Nobody ever teased her about it or anything, but the feeling was still present.

          "There is still some time to spare, young Meshiré," Hambardt lent a faint smile through his mask as he spoke, "the Grand Marshall is still readying himself in his chambers."

          "Ah, very well."  Meshiré was relieved that she hadn't delayed Derrin, and had some time to catch her breath.  She noticed the sound of the crowd after a moment, her focus on reaching the common room seemed to have drowned it out at first.  Someone else was speaking, she wasn't sure whom, and the crowd was cheering from time to time.  She began to fidget, adjusting her uniform to make it a little more comfortable to stand in, especially in the warmth of the day.  Inside was well cooled, but the common room they were in had doors that were opened to the outside where the speech was to take place.  Meshiré started to sweat inside her helmet, and went to remove it until she noticed that none of the other Wardens had removed theirs.

          One of her brothers moved in front of her and regarded her with a look of slight distaste.  "Something wrong, cub?"  It was Logan, one of her fellows she had never really gotten along with.  Many of the other Iron Wardens had been in the military all their lives, and felt that to "bear the red" as they called it was one of the most prestigious acts in all of the Coalition.  When Derrin decreed that Meshiré were to become one after only being in the Defense Corps for three years, many of them spoke openly against it.  She knew Logan was one of them, as well as Ehren and Rossi, but Hambardt and Blackette had never given her any problems.

          "Nothing is wrong, Logan, it's just a little hot in here."

          "A small sacrifice in service of our Grand Marshall.  A few drops of sweat is a fair penance for your tardiness." Logan moved away after his rebuke, allowing Meshiré to reflect upon her actions.

          "Indeed."  Her eyes moved to the floor during her light scolding.  She had been reprimanded countless times before, mostly in the Defense Corps, but this was the first time in the Iron Wardens where she was truly at fault.

          "It is pretty warm in here." Hambardt proceeded to reach up and remove his own helmet, revealing sweat dripping from his own forehead and hose.  He was older than Meshiré, as they all were, with short brown hair with some graying at the roots.  His face was square, but hardly wrinkled, and he sported a graying chinstrap beard.

          "Indeed so."  Blackette followed suit, removing his helmet as well, his shoulder length auburn hair clinging to his face and neck.  Both glanced Meshiré a friendly smile at this, while the others, through their body language, seemed to object.

          "We're no good to the Grand Marshall if we succumb to heat exhaustion."  Hambardt looked to his fellow Wardens, especially Meshiré, the faintest playful wink momentarily gracing his face.  "Everyone remove your helms, and relax your robes if that's not enough."  Hambardt was the oldest of the Wardens, effectively making him their leader in Derrin's absence.  He was also the kindest, and, apart from Derrin, the man Meshiré looked up to the most.  He had personally come to congratulate her and welcome her to the Wardens when she was appointed.

          One by one, her crimson brothers and sister removed their helms, each revealing sweaty, flushed faces.  Meshiré followed suit, silently relieved and thankful for Hambardt's kindness.  Logan and Ehren even followed his suggestion by unbuttoning the first two or three top buttons of their robes.  Meshiré considered the same, but her helm was really the only thing contributing to her discomfort.

          An awkward silence ensued for a moment after this, the sounds of the rally outside continuing to echo through the room.  Meshiré thought about Derrin's speech and grew worried.  She believed a public speech like this with only his personal guard was a recipe for disaster, but he'd told her that he would not openly show cowardice.  His people needed their leader to stand firm during such times, he said, otherwise what kind of leader was he?  She still didn't like the idea, especially since he was one of the few people she looked up to, trusted, or respected.  But what the Grand Marshall says, he does, and there was nothing Meshiré could say or do, despite their friendship, that would sway him.

          After several minutes, a man from Derrin's administration that Meshiré vaguely recognized appeared from outside, signaling the Wardens that it was nearly time for the Grand Marshall to appear.  Hambardt nodded to the man, then turned and headed towards the door to Sumari's chambers, lightly knocking before entering.  The rest of the Wardens then proceeded to fix the relaxations they'd applied to their uniforms, obviously wishing they'd had more time before having to do so.   A moment later Hambardt returned to the common room, followed by the Grand Marshal himself, whom had retained his youthful, positive appearance in the face of dark accusations.

          The Wardens then instinctively lined up as their Grand Marshall prepared to make his entrance to the stage.  He took his time to look over each of them, brushing off dust from one's shoulders, and moving on to the next to adjust their helm.  He also struck up a bit of small talk between them, asking how their families were, or how they were doing with their hobbies.  He'd always been quite vocal with his respect for those who'd vowed to lay down their lives for him if need be, which only served to strengthen the bond between him and his personal guard.

          He then stood before Meshiré, whom had found herself looking towards the ground for reasons unbeknownst even to her.  Perhaps she didn't want him to see her so flustered, or maybe she was embarrassed for being so late, or possibly she still didn't truly believe that she belonged here, being surrounded by veterans with reputations far more impressive.  It was conceivable that it was a mixture of all three, but Meshiré would never want to fully express her feelings, especially to the man who'd given her so much, for fear of being viewed as ungrateful.

          "What troubles you?"  A gentle hand touched her chin and lifted her face to make eye contact with Derrin.  He smiled warmly at her, like her father had done when she scraped her knee as a child.

          "Nothing sire, just a bad dream."

          "Well, a dream is a dream.  You alone possess the strength to regard them as such or let them cloud your mind and control you.  Now gather your courage, and show the galaxy this dream doesn't control you."

          "Yes sire!"  With his words her mood took a sharp upturn, and all her doubts washed away.  Derrin moved along the line of his personal guard, then stood at the exit, waiting for his time to approach the stand.  The morning sunlight eclipsed him, and for a moment he appeared to her as almost prophetic, and she silently reaffirmed her vows to do all she could to protect him if the time came.

          Seconds later and they were all lined up behind him as he stood before the enormous crowd.  They all cheered as he made his entrance, and Meshiré had to do her best not to smile as the man she revered received the recognition he well deserved.  She was positioned a few feet behind him and to his right, but she could still see everything that was going on, and, from time to time, stole glances across the crowd and to Derrin himself as he began to speak.

          He stood, passionate and confident, before a simple podium outfitted with basic microphones connected to an equally basic amplification system.  He believed in simplicity and humility, never one to garnish himself with expensive clothing, and his home reflected such an ideal.  The crowd was literally gathered in front of his home, a home guarded mostly by the twelve Wardens.  It was only large enough to house himself, his family, his guard, and a few staff members comfortably.  But, since its construction, had been made the unofficial center of the city, and, in turn, the city had become the unofficial capital of Adara, and, by extension, of the Coalition. 

          "Good morning, my friends!"  Derrin spoke to his constituents not as a leader, but as an equal.  He could only say a few words before the crowd cheered so loudly yet again as to drown him out, forcing him to wait before continuing.  "There are some who would say I am not the man I claim to be.  There are some who say that my actions do no reflect my words.  The same people, I feel I can rightly assume, are those who wish to try and soil my name and implicate me as having been involved with the bombings on Masara.  A tragedy, I think we can all agree.  My response to my faceless accusers is this:  what do I gain from such a distant massacre?  On a world hundreds of thousands of lightyears away?"

          The crowd cheered loudly as he paused, to the point Meshiré thought her ears would burst, and couldn't help but wince at the slight pain.           

          "So, if you're listening, you spineless cowards,"  he turned to look at Meshiré for a moment, and before turning back to the crowd slipped her a quick wink.  

          He opened his mouth to speak but all Meshiré heard was a loud thump followed by distant thunder.  Just after warm blood splattered her face, and it took a moment to realize what happened as she witnessed her idol collapse to the ground.

          Screams erupted throughout the plaza and hell broke loose.  Meshiré paid none of it any mind, all she could do was stand there, frozen, and watch as Derrin bled out on the ground.  It felt as if her entire life were crashing down around her, and she was helpless to stop it.  Her legs moved on their own and a moment later she was on her knees, cradling him as the life slowly drained from hidangled limply  Her ceremonial pike clattered to the ground, forgotten in the heart of the moment.  Warm tears ran down her face, mixing with the spatters of his blood as they made their descent.  Blood poured from his lips as he gasped for breath, but she knew it was only a matter of time.  His heart had been shredded, the projectile having fully penetrated his chest.

          "Don't leave me," she pleaded, her tears falling onto his face as the life left his eyes.

          "Don't give up," his words stabbed through pained breaths and coughs of blood, "hope."  His body went limp and his head rolled back, his eyes shutting.  He was gone.

          Fear, anger, sadness, and despair mixed with countless other emotions within her, welling up like magma through a fissure.  Her heart hardened and her mind went numb.  Her lips widened as far as they could as a scream erupted from her mouth, then widened further.  Her vocal chords raked against each other, pushed to their limit, and she tasted blood in the back of her throat as another breath fuelled her anguish, and another, and another.

          Time seemed to stop, and Meshiré was oblivious to all around her.  She sobbed, her throat sore, as she looked down to the paling face of the man she loved.  At that moment she was a helpless little girl once again, desperately searching for signs of her little brother amongst ruined homes and scorched bones.  She wished it had been her, not this man, her only beacon of hope, because the pain he felt in his last moments was nothing compared to the pain she felt now.

          A hand grasped her shoulder, and she looked into the sad eyes of her fellow warden Blackette.  "We have to go now, child."  Meshiré pondered him for a moment as her mind returned to reality.

          "I'm not leaving him here."  She looked back to the still face of her Grand Marshall.

          "We'll take him to his chambers."

          Slowly and deliberately she put her feet under herself and rose, struggling to lift the dead weight of the man.  His neck rolled as her knee went from under it, and she staggered somewhat before fully catching her balance.  His arm dangled limply as she made her way back through the wide courtyard doors and into the common area.  She was careful not to hit his head or loose limbs on the door frame as she passed through, and turned towards his chambers right away.

          A figure in Warden crimson lay in the center of the common room, two people in paramedic uniforms huddled over.  Meshiré couldn't tell who it was right away, his or her face was hidden from view.

          "Will he be alright?" Blackette inquired towards one of the medics.  She looked up with blood on her face to answer.

          "We're not sure."  As she spoke, Meshiré saw that the injured man on the floor was Hambardt.  He had been standing directly behind Derrin, and had likely been hit with the same projectile.

          She didn't know her heart could sink any lower than it already had, but seeing her senior Warden lying on the floor in a pool of blood proved her wrong.  Tears returned to her eyes and she almost collapsed.  The only two people in her life that mattered had just been shot, and she was helpless to do anything.

          "He'll be alright, child."  Blackette tried his best to sound reassuring despite his own despair.  "He's been through much worse."

          It was the best hope Meshiré could hope for at that point.  She'd already lost one close to her, she didn't want to hang on the edge of despair waiting for another to do the same.  The two made it to Derrin's chamber doors, and Blackette opened it for her.  His wife wasn't inside, and Meshiré was grateful for the fact.  The last thing she wanted was to bear witness to more grief.

          She lay him on a simple bed within, and positioned his body in a more peaceful manner in an effort to preserve his dignity.  It was the least she could do for the man whom had given her so much.  But she would never forget the way he fell, shattered and broken like a poorly made doll.  Her tears returned yet again as she stared at Derrin's face.  She tore a still clean portion off of her robes and wiped the blood from his face. 

          "Come, child."  Blackette's soft, sympathetic voice stung at her.  How dare he suggest she leave his side?  He had no idea what she was going through.  She glared at him for a moment, prompting him to hold up his hand in supplication, despite holding a ceremonial pike in one and two in the other.  "I know it hurts, but standing there, wallowing in your own grief, is not what he would have wanted."

          "I told him not to."  She spoke through pained sobs.  "I told him it was too soon."

          "You wouldn't have been able to convince him otherwise, any more than Hambardt or myself."  He was right.  Derrin Sumari was nothing if not stubborn.  But it didn't make her feel any better.  She wanted to simply remain here and be by his side, and not talk to anyone else for the rest of her life.

          There was a commotion outside.  Blackette turned to see and hear what was going on.  

          "They've found where the shot came from, it seems."  He turned and looked back to Meshiré.  "Will you stay here?"

          She thought to herself for a moment, torn between the desire to remain and to possibly find out who had done this vile deed.  Derrin wouldn't have wanted for her to go out and seek vengeance, but now it seemed with him gone that revenge was all that was left for her.  Someone had pulled the trigger and taken him from her.  Someone else likely orchestrated the whole thing.           She would find out who, and drown them all in a sea of their own blood.













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          Despite being a Redeemer, a Federation Elite, there was nothing he hated more than travelling through the Bulk.  A multitude of things could happen that would make what was left of his life extremely miserable.  There were copious rumors of what the first brave souls experienced while traveling through the void, and even more rumors to explain those who didn't return.  It was possible they ended up in a distant galaxy, without enough fuel to make a return journey.  They could have travelled to another universe entirely, and with different laws of physics their atoms could have imploded or released their energy in brilliant nuclear explosions.  But there was another possibility that frightened Kova the most.  They could have simply remained in the Bulk, doomed to surf the endless waves of the void for all eternity.

          It was for these reasons his hair stood on end and his muscles tensed every time he made such a jump.  He knew such fear was irrational, for jump travel had long since been mastered by his civilization.  Despite this knowledge, he never could fully purge himself of this phobia.

          And so a breath of relief escaped him once the Intrepid left the Bulk and he could gaze upon the system before him.  It was an eerie feeling to view an entire solar system from so far off.  The gas and ice giants were clearly visible, but the smaller rocky bodies were too faint to see in the bright light of their star.  Fortunately the ship's display was programmed to highlight them for him.

          "Damage report."

          "Shield generator is shot.  Hull integrity at sixty three percent."  Vektor worked his consoles as he spoke, his voice flat and grim.

          "Navigation and communication is online.  But targeting seems to be malfunctioning."  Joule was slightly more animated than her fellow Redeemer, but only somewhat.

          "Alright, what are our options for repairs?"

          "There is a sizeable orbital station near the sixth planet, a class II giant.  More specifically it orbits one of its moons."  Joule pointed to the correct location on the ship's display as she spoke.  Simultaneously the screen zoomed in to display a rendering of the station and the surrounding area.

           "This is Coalition space, we can't risk getting scanned.  Any other options?"

           "The only other possibility is the system's second planet."  As if on command, the display zoomed back out and reoriented on the planet in question, showing a dull orange and brown sphere.  "It's a dry world on the inner edge of the habitable zone, and sits in-between two asteroid belts.  I'm detecting a few sparse major settlements on the surface.  It seems to be our only hope."

          "Can we make a jump to the nearest Federation system?"  Kova turned towards Vektor as he asked.

          "It's too far, Templar."  Joule piped in.

          "She's right, Kov."  Vektor stroked his short, thin beard as he answered.  "The jump drive couldn't handle the journey, it was overloaded during this last jump.  The hull might barely be able to handle atmospheric entry as it is, but I wouldn't push it much farther than that."

          Kova pondered the advice given by his Psion and Slayer, murmuring inaudibly to himself.  He didn't like their chances at all.  His options were to attempt repairs on a dangerous planet or remain here, adrift in space and wait for either someone to answer a distress call or for their attacker to find them and finish their work.  He had to weigh each option's risks versus their rewards, and both were extremely bleak.  It all came down to which one held the higher chance or them getting back to Federation space alive and intact.

          "The second planet, what's its name?"

          "One second."  Joule worked away at her console for a moment.  "Cadmus, sir."

          "I think I've heard of this place, Kov."  Vektor had a look of caution on his face as he spoke.  "And from what I've heard, we must be very careful."

          "Trust me, caution is ever at the forefront of my thoughts."

          "Shall I set a course?"  Joule sat at the ready, prepared to implement the proper commands into her console.

          "Yes.  Just outside a major settlement.  We don't want to attract too much attention."

          "Copy, Templar."

          Minutes later the ship had long been on its way toward Cadmus, and slowly the world grew in size in the display as they made their way toward it.  Kova turned toward his Psion as the autopilot continued to take them towards their destination.

          "Go check on our guest."

          A somber look eclipsed her face and Joule looked to the ground.  "There's no need.  She passed just after we came under attack."

          "Oh," Kova though of the right words to say.  "Any idea what she was doing so deep in space?"

          "No.  She..." Joule paused for a moment.  "Right before she died, she mentioned something about 'the swarm', but I have no idea what she meant."

          "Interesting.  Any thoughts, Slayer?"

          Vektor pondered for a time, but his befuddled expression gave away his speculation without him having to speak.  He shook his head, "Doesn't ring any bells, mate."

          "I hate not knowing what's going on."  Kova grumbled, slouching in his command chair.  "And, of course her ship logs were left on her ship.  There's no way we can get back there and glean any information from them."

          "I doubt her ship's even salvageable at this point, Templar.  I think it was destroyed during the attack."  Joule's tone was somber.  

          "I think we can confidently say our attacker was the same person who mortally wounded her.  Vektor, were you able to get an I.D. from our assailant?"

          "That's a negative.  Didn't get as much as a ship model from it.  Whoever they were, their signature wasn't in any of our databases."

          Kova responded with a grunt.  Silence ensued for a while as they continued to make their way to the planet.

          "Arrival imminent, Templar.  Shall I allow to autopilot to take us into the atmosphere?"

          "Only to release the transport ring into orbit.  After that, I'll take us in."  With that, Kova gripped the controls tightly, a determined look on his face.  Atmospheric entry in a ship so damaged as theirs was a dangerous proposition.  However, if anyone was capable of pulling it off manually it was him, and his fellow Redeemers knew it.  That was why neither of them voiced any objections, for there were none to be had.

          A sudden shake throughout the ship signaled separation from the transport ring and the Intrepid was free.  Standard operating procedures dictated that it be set on an ascending orbit around the planet to prevent it from entering its atmosphere.  It would stay in orbit, gradually moving away from the world for millennia to come as long as no outside interference altered its trajectory.

          Cadmus loomed before them on the display as the ship began to shake, calmly at first, but growing more violent as they went deeper and deeper into the atmosphere.  Plumes of red and orange eclipsed the outer areas of the display as the outside of the ship began to heat up from friction.

          "Angle's good, Templar, but you might want to ease up on the throttle a bit."  After the years of working with him, Kova knew that Vektor disliked entries more than anything.  With or without an autopilot, Kova had always performed such maneuvers successfully.  But the ship had never been so damaged like this, and, though Kova would never openly admit it, he was slightly nervous as well.   He heeded his Slayer's advice, pulling back on a lever to his right.

          After a minute of clenched teeth, the Intrepid calmed, having survived entry.  Kova breathed a sigh of relief as he turned to Vektor.

          "All right, let the autopilot take us the rest of the way."  Vektor gave him a nod, working his console, a look similar to how Kova felt upon his face.

          "I've set us to land a few clicks away from a major settlement.  The terrain is pretty rough, but we should be able to cross it within a matter of hours.  Night's about to fall, so our movements should be relatively well hidden."

          "Good thinking, Joule.  How long until we land?"

          "Just a few minutes."

          "Alright."  Kova looked to Vektor, standing up.  "You stay with the ship and make any repairs you can.  Joule and I will head to the settlement and get anything we might need.  I'll expect a detailed diagnostic by the time we reach there."

          "You got it, boss."  Vektor stood up as well, ready to follow his Templar's orders.

          Kova turned to Joule.  "We can't go in our Redeemer armor.  Change into something to better blend in, but you can still conceal Denial with."

          "My thoughts exactly."

          "Also, this is Coalition territory.  Elyrians are scarce here, so try not to draw too much attention to that."  Kova wasn't trying to sound insensitive, he was simply trying to keep his companion's better interests in mind.  She knew he was right, but the look on her face when he spoke told him he could have chosen better words.

          "Copy, Templar."  She spoke meagerly before exiting the bridge, followed closely by Vektor.  He and Kova made quick eye contact, and what he saw didn't make him feel any better.

          It was all his fault, this mess they were in.  Kova obviously didn't know that the would be set on by an unknown assailant, but he felt like there was something he could have done differently.  Perhaps his maneuvering and evasion techniques were sloppy, or his counterattack commands were delayed.  There was nothing he could do about it now, and he knew his comrades would never say anything negative about his reactions or decisions.  Still, he felt that he should do something for them once they got their ship repaired and got back to Federation space.  Perhaps an extended leave period was in order.  He was sure Joule would love a chance to visit Anion.

          As Kova prepared to leave the bridge himself he felt the ship rattle as she landed.  Her systems would soon start to shut down and go into standby so that Vektor would be able to run a full diagnostic while Joule and himself searched the nearby settlement for repairs.

          He recalled what he had seen of their destination as he made his way down the passageway to his quarters.  From what he saw the world was barely habitable, and he was surprised the settlements were as large as they were.  Tall buildings sat among a vast city center, eventually bleeding out into pockets of smaller buildings and to an outskirt of landing strips and docking stations.  Possibly up to a hundred ships sat there, if they weren't talking off or landing, and to and from small specks hurried about as people went about their business.  The whole structure was like the roots of a great tree, or the webbing of a busy spider.

          But beyond that was the most intimidating scene.  An endless wasteland of dull browns and oranges, rolling dunes and rocky dessert stretched as far as they eye could see.  And the Intrepid sat in the middle of it, two of its crew preparing to venture out towards the world's setting star.

          Today was definitely not the easy day he was hoping for.

          His quarters were a mess, anything left out had been heavily disturbed during the skirmish.  Broken glass lay scattered on the deck near his desk among a pool of amber.  Kova groaned at the sight, for that was his only bottle, meant to last him the entire patrol underway.  He teased the idea of getting more when they were at the city, but quickly dismissed the idea.  He needed his mind sharp, especially while he was here, and could afford no distractions.  He had no way of knowing how long they would be on this ball of dirt, and he had to be ever prepared for danger of any form.  Exotic beasts could prowl the wastes between them and the city, and once inside he would trade the threat of being mauled with that of being set upon by marauders of ill intent.

          Kova got to work cleaning up what he could with the little amount of time he had.  His main focus was the broken glass on the floor.  Using an old, dirty shirt he gathered the larger shards up and threw them in a waste bin off to the side, making a mental note to himself to clean up the rest when he got back from his mission.  

          He removed his Templar armor and put it away in his closet, replacing them with a long sleeve shirt and pants suitable for casual wear while underway.  He had nothing significant for traversing a hot desert world, but was thankful that for the time being it was almost night on this planet.  His only footwear were his armored boots and relaxed shoes, and put on the latter hoping he didn't develop too many blisters on his mission.

          Lastly, he grabbed a standard issue sidearm and a holster, strapping the latter around his torso.  Unlike Joule's burst fire Denial, this simple weapon was merely semi automatic.  Kova never much cared for pistols in general, but regardless, his was always well maintained and ready for use.  He loaded a full magazine into the weapon before holstering it and grabbed two extras, hoping that none would be needed.  Lastly he pulled his loose fitting shirt over them, concealing them from view.

          Kova ran into Joule in the passageway after he finished changing, herself having done the same.  Her garments were loose fitting, like his, and if he looked close enough he could vaguely make out Denial's profile at her lower back.  Except for her head not an inch of her azure skin was exposed.  All about her head sat loosely hanging strips of cloth, presumably for the purpose of wrapping about her face to conceal it.  Atop those sat a pair of lightly tinted goggles.


          A soft sigh escaped her before she spoke.  "Yes, Templar.  Let's make this trip a short one, shall we?"

          "I would like nothing more."  

          The two went on in silence down the passageway, Kova dreading the journey ahead.  He had a feeling that Joule had similar worries despite the fact she did not voice them.  He had to remind himself to keep a clear head. It did him no good to maintain an anxious mind.  He had to maintain his composure and focus on the task at hand.  He had put his life and the lives of his squad mates in danger by landing here, and he fully intended on ensuring their survival and return to the safety of the Federation.   

          Minutes later they arrived at the exit hatch, and Kova took a deep breath as Joule hit the controls.  The hatch slowly opened, allowing hot air from the outside to wash over them.  Kova got a slight chill from it which quickly gave way to a feeling of discomfort.  It wouldn't take long before he was drenched in sweat, he knew, as his body was used to the cold of space after so many weeks.  Again he felt terrible in Joule's stead.  If it weren't for him she wouldn't be accompanying him on this journey through peril.  And, yet again, he silently vowed to himself that he would make things right with both her and Vektor when all was said and done.

          "My goggles see in infrared, so navigating the terrain should be easier than without."  Joule pulled said goggles down over her eyes as she said this, which gave her an insect like appearance.

          "Good thinking, Psion."

          And so they went out into the darkness, afraid, yes, of what lay ahead, but nonetheless resolved to overcome any obstacle that lay before them.  The terrain was treacherous, as they took one step in front of the other, but other than reaching their destination, nothing mattered.

         For a time they walked in silence, struggling to see the ground before them as they took reach step.  The planet's star, large and orange, had just finished its descent below the horizon, and the night sky was springing to life with hundreds of brilliant specks of light.  The planet didn't seem to have a moon, at least not one large or bright enough to illuminate the path before them, forcing them to rely on their wits and Joule's goggles to press on unhindered.

          "Do you think we'll be able to get everything we need here?"  Joule looked to the ground, carefully making one sure step after another as she spoke.

          "I can't foresee any reasons why we shouldn't be able to.  I saw a large docking area as we flew overhead, so finding repair parts shouldn't be difficult."

          "I hope you're right."  Joule's tone was still as cheerless as it had been since they came out of the Bulk.  This was very unusual for someone who tended to be a much more positive person.  Something was bothering her, and for some reason she had chosen not to let Kova in on her thoughts.  He wanted to know what was causing her such great concern, but didn't know how to start that particular conversation.  Elyrians were a strange race, to him at least.  A human can feel sadness, or anger, or joy for a time and such feelings went as quickly as they came.  But with Elyrians, particularly Joule, he noticed that they experienced the same feelings in a profoundly much more intense and prolonged fashion.  The death of a loved one could result in a depression so dark and deep that it could take them decades to recover, or they could slip into an incurable madness.  They also tended to hold grudges for an equally long period of time, both as individuals and as a race in general.  In fact, many of them still mistrusted other races for wars that had taken place centuries ago, mainly because there were some Elyrians who were still alive that had fought in those wars.

          Joule was relatively young for an Elyrian, despite being a century old.  She'd grown up among humans, and had taken on a few of the nuances of the species, yet still held onto the naiveté of a woman in her twenties.  She had given birth to Anion at a young age as a result, but the circumstances of which even Kova had yet to learn, including the identity of the father.  He had tried to find out once, and only once, and Joule had made it crystal clear that that subject was off limits to him, despite being her superior.  That's how he knew that, whatever was bothering her now, it had to be something serious for her to refrain from talking to him about it.

          Or, perhaps, he was overthinking things, which he tended to do.  She could very well be simply focusing on the mission, and currently feel that small talk had no place at the time.  So he decided then that he should focus on taking one step in front of the other, and if the time came for Joule to reveal whatever was conflicting her, he would let her do so when she felt the time was right.

          Kova looked back to the Intrepid, which by that time had nearly sunk beneath the horizon behind them.  He imagined Vektor was hard at work, hurrying from one party of the ship to the other, and readying his damage report for when the two had arrived at the settlement and were able to receive it.  His thoughts migrated to the strange Hadaran woman they had taken aboard, yet no matter how hard he tried was unable to construe her reasons for being so far out in deep space.  She had to be there for a reason, and he hoped to find that out, as well as the identity and purpose of their attacker.  If, whoever they were, were responsible for the stranger's injury as well, then that made it all the more important that he eventually find out the answer to his many questions.

          The sound of bones cracking, or rocks rubbing together, brought him from his trance.  He turned to see Joule's silhouette struggling to maintain balance, and she let out a sharp cry as the ground gave way beneath her.  Kova lunged to her and stretched his arm out as far as he could, hoping to grab hold of something, anything, that was attached to her.  His fingers intertwined with soft, thin fabric and he clenched his fist about what he imagined was one of her sleeves.  Immediately he felt the weave start to tear as her weight was applied to the garment, and his first reaction was to swing his other arm around and grab hold of her arm underneath.

          "I've got you."  The words came out of his mouth as soon as he remembered to breathe.  He had to act fast, there was no telling whether or not the ground he stood on himself would evacuate as well.  Thankful he maintained a workout regimen while underway, he bent his knees and lifted her up out of the sinkhole.  As soon as her feet touched solid ground they took several steps back to catch their breath.  "Are you alright?"

          "Just a little shaken up.  I'll be fine."  Kova felt that her words could be applied to recent events other than just this particular incident.  For a moment the two of them stood there, catching their breath and allowing their heartbeats to quiet, Kova employing a breathing technique taught to him which helped abate adrenaline rushes and maintain clear thoughts.

          Without warning he felt Joule wrap her arms around him.  She didn't say a word, but he could feel that her breathing was sharp and her heart rate was elevated.  He felt like he should say something, but was at a loss for words.  Nervously he slowly laid his hands on her shoulders in an effort to calm her, but didn't know if it was any good.  Kova always thought of Joule as a little sister, despite her age, since she was newer to the Redemption Corps than him.  He had never felt any attraction to her, so this act was particularly unexpected.

          "Promise me we'll make it home."

          Kova was stunned, as Joule had never before shown any signs of distress before now.  She was always the positive one, ever inciting courage and hope within her fellows.

          "Only death may hinder me."  His words were a part of the Redeemer code, but the words fit well with the situation.

          As quickly as it happened she pulled away, turning back towards the sinkhole, gingerly walking towards it.

          "It's deep, even with the goggles I can't see the bottom."

          "Just one more obstacle to put behind us."

          They moved on, giving the hole a wide berth as they continued toward the settlement.  The rough, rocky wasteland began to give way to rolling dunes, and Kova's feet began to sink a couple centimetres into the sand with each step.  They reached the top of the first dune and Kova paused to take a breath, sweat starting to soak through his shirt.

          "Can you see it from here?"

          "Yes, Templar.  It's just beyond these last two or three dunes."

          "Good. Well, let's get moving."

          Many minutes later Kova bore witness to civilization as he descended the final dune, the lights of the settlement nearly blinding him after being in darkness for so long.  Even at night the port area was chaos as ships, vehicles, and people frantically moved from place to place.

          "Alright, we made it.  So what's the next move?"

          "Well, we need information.  Specifically the identity of someone who can discreetly do business with us."

          "And how do we do that?"

          "Where you always go for sensitive information.  A tavern."



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          Time crept by as he spent an uncertain number of endless days in darkness, left alone to dwell on grim thoughts of anger and despair.  He didn't know how many interrogations he'd undergone, how many beatings, by prison guard and inmate alike, he'd endured.  Spending the majority of his life in Masara's undercity had taught him how to fight well enough, but there was only so much he could do when facing four opponents twice his size.  He felt it had almost become a game to them, something to break up the monotony of the daily routine, and, as long as he wasn't killed, the gaurds tended to look the other way at the expense of a mass murderer.

          After all this time Rayneir had yet to hear even the slightest murmur of a trial, or of any sort of due process whatsoever.  When he wasn't suffering tortures he was in this cell, left to waste away with just enough food to keep him alive.  That, and his pain and anger were all he had to keep himself going, but for what he wasn't sure.  He had nothing, everything he'd had he lost along with his only friend.  Once again Rayneir's thoughts drifted to Talios, his poor Hadaran comrade.

          He didn't deserve what happened, he was still such an innocent being, thrust into a cruel world Rayneir had long since learned how to survive in.  A large part of him wished it had been him to go, not his friend.  He'd come to accept that the package they delivered contained the explosive used at the federal building, and Rayneir blamed himself with his lust for money for accepting the job that got them in that situation.  There was no way either one of them could have known of course, but he shouldn't have allowed himself to be so blind to easy money.  They were easy targets, he mused, two young men without any connections eager to acquire wealth.  Manipulating them was simple, parade a beautiful woman in front of them and offer them what they wanted most and there wasn't anything they wouldn't do.  Rayneir cursed himself constantly for his blind ignorance.  He should have known better, for Talios sure would not have.

          His death haunted his dreams, during those times he allowed himself to sleep.  The calm look he had on his face seconds before he died was burned eternally in his mind.  His kind black eyes and innocent smile shattered into a hundred pieces over and over again to the sound of thunder, and Rayneir felt more and more helpless every time he relived that moment.

          But the despair he felt was not alone, for that was not the only part of the memory that played on repeat in his mind.  Another face looked at him from the depths of his dark thoughts.  Judicator Vaelghemer.  His merciless eyes and careless smirk incited the most intense hate Rayneir had ever felt.  When he wasn't reliving his close friend's death he was imagining the foulest acts of revenge he could think of.  He expected he would spend the rest of his natural life in this prison, but should chance favour him, he would stop at nothing to make his darkest dreams come true.

          "Are you alright?"  A voice of honey bright him out of his trance.  His neck sore, he slowly craned his head up to see the source.  After a moment of his eyes adjusting to light, a woman appeared in his sights.  She was vaguely familiar, like something out of a dream.  Perhaps he was indeed dreaming, or had finally fallen completely over the edge of sanity.  Confused, he looked around, and saw the familiar surroundings of his prison.  He sat on the same dirt floor, covered in filth and excrement, and was surrounded by three walls of cold steel.  The fourth was a solid pane I'd some sort of extremely tough glass, and was his only bleak window to the outside world.  He'd tried to break it, as likely had countless many before him, yet had only managed to almost break his arm.

          On the other side she stood, fair and beautiful, and after a moment's intense thought he finally recognized her.  It was the nurse from the clinic, the same whom had treated his gunshot wound.

          "Are you alright, Rayneir?"  Concern filled her voice as she peered at him through the glass with thoughtful eyes.  For a moment he struggled to find his own voice, and even longer to find the words to respond.

          "I'm... alright." His speech was slurred and incomprehensible, and had to take another moment to lick his chapped lips and clear his throat.  "Why are you here?"

          "You and your friend were all over the holo net as soon as the attack happened.  I've been trying to find you ever since."

          This was most unexpected.  Rayneir wondered why she would risk her freedom like this for someone she barely knew.  He didn't even know her name.  Surely the executors would have realized that Rayneir and Talios had gotten the package from her clinic.  

          "But... the package." 

          Her expression saddened at the mention of it.  "I don't know how that happened.  It was delivered anonymously under the guise of our parent facility.  There was no way we could have known what was inside.  I'm sorry you and your friend got tangled up in all this."



          "His name was Talios."

          "Was?  Is he not in another cell?"  Rayneir didn't answer, having faith that that was all the answer she needed.  She looked down, her face growing even sadder than before.  "Oh."

          For a while there was only silence, Rayneir sitting on the floor of his cell and the woman appearing to be fighting back tears.  Finally she looked back up at him, her depressive look replaced with that of determination.

          "They questioned me after the incident, and I told them several times you were innocent.  I don't think they believed me, or cared.  But now that I know you're here, I'll visit you as often as I can.  And I'll do my best to convince my superiors to petition for your release."

          Rayneir looked back up at the woman, her crystal blue eyes overflowing with tears.  He didn't have words to say to her, not even in appreciation.  No words from even the most righteous mouths could convince him that he'd do anything except die here, if not from torture, then from starvation.  He hadn't the heart to portray these feelings to her, however.  He wouldn't have felt right to take that from her, why, he didn't know.  There may yet have been a soft spot in his heart for others, as little as he wanted to admit to himself.  It did him little good in the end.

          "Don't bother.  As far as the rest of the Federation is concerned, I'm already dead."

          The woman said nothing at this, defeat in her eyes.  Rayneir looked back down towards his squalid surroundings, hoping that she would not linger for long.  After everything that happened, he realized he didn't want her to see him like this, pathetic and alone.  The best thing for her to do was to leave him to suffer in peace, hopefully happy with the knowledge that because of her, he experienced one last somewhat happy moment during his final days.

          "You should go.  Don't waste your energy on me."

          Her expression changed from sad to hurt.  "Alright.  But when things seem hopeless, think of me.  I'll be happier knowing that at least I can help in some small way."

          Rayneir wanted to tell her that she already had in the moments she stood there awaiting a response.  He wanted to say that in between the countless times ahead that Talios' last seconds played over and over again in his mind, her face would appear and help ease the pain.  He said nothing, however, not wanting to prolong the awkwardness of her prolonged presence.  He preferred the solitude of his own mind, and wished to return.  

          After what seemed like forever she turned and walked away, leaving him to his thoughts.  He wasn't sure exactly what to make of her visit, perhaps fate had seen fit to suspend a glimmer of hope in front of him before someone decided to finally end his misery.  Right before she disappeared from view she slowed, looking back at Rayneir.  She looked as if she was about to say something, and opened her mouth to speak, but quickly shut it again.  A second later she was gone.

          His mind quickly descended back to the depths where they'd spent since he arrived in this place, forcing him to resume his regular gradual decline into his own personal madness.  He did notice, however, that, while his thoughts did circulated around the memories of the worst day of his life, they weren't quite as bitter as they were before.

          There was no way to know how long he sat there after the nurse left.  Several times he drifted off to sleep and back to reality again, his dreams just as haunting as his waking thoughts.  He wondered how long he would remain here.  Rayneir wondered if his misery would ever be directly ended, or if he would simply be allowed to waste away in the cell.  He determined that the latter was the most likely outcome, since he wasn't worth the energy or the bullet.

          "For once you're right."

          Rayneir's head spun about at the sound of someone speaking.  He was still alone.  There was nobody on the other side of the glass, nor was there anyone in the cell with him.  The voice sounded eerily familiar, but he knew there was no possible way it was who he thought.  He watched him die.  Perhaps his isolation was finally starting to take hold of him.

          The sound of multiple sets of footsteps echoed throughout his cell.  It was a rare event for someone to walk by, reserved usually for guard watch changes or for one of said guards to get board and taunt the prisoners.  Rayneir was a favorite among them, he assumed, due to the frequency of their visits.  That, and the enthusiasm of their interrogations.  He dreaded the beatings at first, but now he welcomed the pain.  It was a reminder that he was still alive.

          Three men came into view from the left side of the window.  One was a guard he recognized, but the other two he did not.  A younger man, barely older than Rayneir walked to the guards left holding a display, upon which he scrolled through thick text.  Behind the two was a very intimidating Elyrian man.  Rayneir couldn't guess his age, but even if he tried he'd probably be wrong.  As a race they aged much slower than humans, so it was almost impossible to tell.  He looked no older than forty but it was very likely he could be over a hundred or more.  Apart from the blue skin he looked no different from a human male, with facial hair turning from a dark blue to grey and sparse wrinkles adorning his face.  He looked at Rayneir, pondering him for a moment, then looked to the smaller young human.

          "What about this one?"

          The young man looked to his senior, then to Rayneir, then back to his display.  He browsed through the texts, a confused look draping over his face, then looked back to the Elyrian.  "According to this report there isn't supposed to be anyone in this cell."

          "Oh?"  The Elyrian curiously looked to the guard, who shrugged.

          "He's the Masara bomber.  Well, one of them."

          "I thought both the perpetrators of that crime were eliminated by executors."

          "Well, it looks like one was kept alive for some reason.  I was never told why.  Just to keep him alive, have some fun if we needed to let off some steam."

          The Elyrian nodded with approval, acceptance on his face.  "Well, then, he's a perfect candidate."  He moved toward the glass and eyed Rayneir feverishly.  "You there, stand up.  Let new have a look at you."

         Rayneir had no idea what to think or say at this.  He wondered what exactly the strange man meant by a perfect candidate.  A candidate for what? Perhaps some sort of experiment, where his death meant nothing.  After all, he confirmed Rayneir's belief that the general public believed him to be dead.  He still wondered why Vaelghemer hadn't shot him in the street like he had done with Talios.  The public probably hailed him and his men as heroes for apprehending them, and wouldn't have given a second thought about their quick apprehension and death.  He had said something about someone having plans for Rayneir.  Was this that plan, or happy chance?  Perhaps, with whatever it was, Rayneir's pain would finally end.

          "Stand up when the Imperator commands you!"  Rayneir was brought back to reality at the sight of the younger man entering his cell, anger on his face and a club in his hand.

         "Reeves!"  The Elyrian called sharply.  "Stand down, there's no need for that.  Look at him.  Look in his eyes.  There's nothing you can do that would affect him now."

          The younger man, Reeves, stopped in his tracks, still staring Rayneir down.  The two never broke eye contact, a defiant look in the eyes of the broken prisoner.  Reeves looked back at his Imperator in protest, then again at Rayneir before slowly turning and walking out of the cell.  Reeves returned to his master's side, defeated, and at that the Elyrian slowly approached the glass.

          "What's your name, son?"  The Elyrian regarded him with the eyes of a father figure, not of the hardened veteran he was expecting.  Rayneir wasn't sure how to react, he had grown so used to hardships he didn't know what to do when presented with kindness.


          "Not anymore.  That boy is dead."  Rayneir looked at the Elyrian with confusion and acceptance as he entered his cell.  He finally was able to get a good look at the man through his unkempt long hair.  The Imperator towered over him dressed in all black and grey, robes covering plate beneath, and a cloak draping his back down to his ankles.  He seemed to be unarmed, although with his loose fitting robes it was almost impossible to tell.  However, he didn't seem the type to necessarily need any, as he possessed an air that hinted that he was a formidable force in and of himself.  "How would you like to come work for me?"  

          Rayneir looked up at the Elyrian in shock.  He couldn't believe what he was hearing, and something in the back of his mind told him that this was some sick joke, or a hallucination.

          "And if I told you to go throck yourself?"

          "You watch your tongue!"  The younger man shouted at Rayneir from behind the glass.

          "Reeves."  The Imperator didn't even turn his head, simply sporting an annoyed look on his face.  "Well, then I'd simply respond with 'Stay here, and rot in this cell for the rest of your short natural life'.  But if you come with me, you would have a chance at redemption."

           Rayneir thought for a moment about his proposition.  There was no reason to trust him, and for all he knew, whatever he had in mind would lead to certain death.  Still, if there was a chance to get out of this prison and breathe open air again, he was certainly going to take it.

          "That's such a difficult choice to make."  The Elyrian chuckled at Rayneir's words, and extended his hand to him.

          "I am Imperator Herion Brask."  Rayneir clutched his hand and, with Brask's help, got to his feet.  "Welcome to the Grimms."




          "Why must they always choose the hard way?"  A lightly distorted voice echoed through the passageways off the Intrepid as black boots stepped over Vektor's bloody corpse.  A dark figure looked over his fresh victory through a blackened metal mask.  Bluish green eyes pierced through a tattered black hood as the figure surveyed the immediate area, careful not to step in pooling blood.

          His victim didn't need to die, at least not so messily, but when he refused to answer the simple questions presented to him he had chosen his fate.  So, now, he lay on the ground, growing cold, and the dark figure was forced to find the answers to his questions on his own.

          He looked around to get his bearings.  The passageway stretched in either direction away from him and curved out of sight.  An open door nearby revealed the ship's bridge, and another opened to what appeared to be some sort of common area.  He might have been able to glean some information from the ship's logs on the bridge, but with the little amount of time he had given its crew after they intercepted his prize, he doubted there would be much of any worth.  The common area was also useless to him, so he strained to peer down each direction of the passageway in turn.  He had a masterful understanding of the Federation standard tongue, but his knowledge of its alphabet was somewhat lacking.  Still, he was able to get by for the moment.  In one direction he saw an arrow labeled "CREW QUARTERS, ARMOURY" and in the other, another such arrow labeled "ENGINE ROOM, MED WARD," and one other phrase he couldn't decipher.

          "Inevitability."  The figure moved down the passageway towards the med ward, stepping carefully over his fresh kill.  He took his time dodging the red puddles, and once clear, made his way to his destination.  "It is inescapable."

          Minutes later he stood before the door to the ward, which during his attack was rendered inoperable.  It sat half shut, and upon his approach, failed to open, catching on a piece of debris that had lodged itself in its track.  But he could see his target within, the foolish girl that had tried to escape him on the barren world.  Her body was still as stone, his efforts having evidently not been in vain.

          If he weren't wearing a mask, a smile would have been visibly cracking his face.  He shifted sideways and slid through the semi open hatch, resuming his inspection of his work immediately after.  He saw where he had hit her with his rifle, the cloth around the wound caked with dry brown blood.  Her brown skin and large eyes confirmed another guess he'd made to himself, which pleased him.  He made it his priority to be correct as often as possible.

          His gauntleted hand ran the length of the cold metal table she lay upon, the other caressing her face.  He wished he didn't have to kill her.  "Such a waste."  She would have been of great use to his Queen. 

          The importance of his mission brought him out of his fantasy and he carefully began searching her body for the Omnibus.  He wished not to linger here for too long and risk being surprised by the rest of the crew.  After a few moments of his search bearing no fruit his efforts became more hurried, careless, and borderline panicking.  He searched every inch of her body, within her robes and without, and soon came to the realization that that which he came here for was gone.

          It wasn't here, nor was it on her ship.  He had searched it meticulously after he assaulted this ship, and could say without a doubt it wasn't within.  There was only one possibility as to its whereabouts.  The girl had given it to one of the crew.

          He spent the next half hour feverishly searching the ship for it, even checking the body of the dark skinned human he'd slain.  His efforts were of no avail.  That meant that one of the remaining crew members had it on their person.  This complicated things.  He had no idea what they looked like, and they were likely among the general population of the nearby settlement.  The success of his mission was no nearer than it was when he first set out.

          An idea struck him, one that was both bold and in direct violation of his mission parameters.  But it was the only way to ensure his success.  

          He found himself back in the med ward, studying the girl from her Syndicate, his blade in hand.  With a quick extension of his thumb, the motor in the hilt sprung to life.  He then effortlessly cut through the straps that secured her to the table, killed the motor and returned the blade to its rightful place within his cloak.  Carefully he slid his hands under her body and raised her up, her arms hanging limply from her, and made his way from the ship.








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          The heat of the day slowly abated as the great orange sun crawled under the sandy horizon.  Cadmus' night sky began to pepper with the light of bright, distant stars capable of penetrating the city's light pollution and haze of industry.  The sand and dirt were still quite warm on her bare skin as she crawled up a dune, Dardan doing the same on her left.  The two maintained silence between them, as they didn't want to alert anyone at their destination before they got there.  The compound, thankfully, was relatively remote compared to other similar areas of the city.  Kora could only speculate at the many possible reasons, each seemingly just as horrible as the other.

          Dardan didn't tell her much about the place and the people who lived there, but Boom could infer that any redeeming qualities about them were few and far between based on the venomous expression her comrade took on when describing it.  That, and the revealing garment she had Kora wear, caused her to fear the worst about what she was about to experience.

          After what seemed like an eternity of crawling up and down dunes, Dardan signaled for the two to stop.  The two made eye contact before Dardan spoke, her voice barely over a whisper.

          "Should be just over the next dune.  Keep your head down, and stay quiet."

          Boom nodded, then looked back toward the dune's peak ahead.  She moved deliberately, conscious of every move she made and every breath she took.  Her heart started beating harder and harder as she made her way closer to the summit.  Dardan reached the top first, her longer arms and legs allowing her to cover ground more quickly.  A moment later Kora was beside her, panting slightly.  

            A large compound sat before her, consisting of several brown, domed buildings.  People came and went between them, mostly an assortment of mean or dangerous looking men.  From time to time a woman or two, clothed in barely concealing white fabrics, made an appearance, each looking just as somber and oppressed as the other.  At the sight of them she understood why Dardan had dressed her up in such a fashion.

          "I still don't know why you had to hit me."

          Dardan studied the compound while she spoke.  "You need to look convincing."  After a moment she turned to Boom, carefully inspecting her left eye with her fingertips.  Her face was still sore from the hit, accentuating with each touch.  "That's bruising nicely."

          "Thanks?"  Boom remained still during the process, finally able to relax again when Dardan turned her attention back to the compound.  "But why couldn't you have dressed up and done this?  Why do you need me?"

          "Waltyr has a propensity for young human girls.  I'm too old and... not human."

          A smirk briefly flashed on Boom's face.  "Is that what Hadarans consider a joke?"  Dardan shot her a scornful look, and the smile on her face melted away.  "So what's the plan?"

          "Well we need to get in there.  That's the reason for your disguise.  There are guards posted at every major entrance.  But I have a feeling... yes!"  She pointed to one of the smaller buildings, as one of the slave women exited a back door carrying a bundle, and Kora guessed it contained food for one of the guards.  "That's our way in.  You need to sneak in there and open that door for me.  Most of the buildings are connected, so once I'm inside it should be relatively hassle free.  But I didn't know he had this many slaves, so getting out with them all might prove difficult."

           "What do you plan to do with them all if we do successfully get them out?"  Kora knew that Torev would never approve of allowing them passage on the Horizon, and therefore was curious indeed as to Dardan's intentions.

          "Let me worry about that when the time comes.  Your only job is to get in there and unlock that door."

          "And how exactly am I supposed to do that?  The entire place is swarming with armed men."

          "It's dangerous, I know, but once you get me inside I'll take care of everything, providing no alarms sound."

          "And if they do?"

           Dardan paused before continuing on.  "Run.  As fast as you can."

          Kora swallowed hard at Dardan's words, looking back to the compound.  She was surprised that the vast majority of its security consisted mostly of armed guards, especially with the technology available in their day and age.  This observation led her to believe that something far more sinister was going on than appeared to be.  She'd been through some hard times herself, but couldn't fathom what could be worse than what she'd seen.

          "Dardan, I don't like this.  Can we just forget about them and go back to the ship?"  Kora hated slavery, after all she had recently been one, and was all for freeing these women.  But she didn't like the idea of risking going back to that life, since she thoroughly enjoyed her new one.

          "You're welcome to.  But how would you feel knowing you could have done something, but didn't?"  She was right, and for a moment Boom hated her for it.  The thought of those poor girls enduring what she had gone through for so many years saddened her.  There was no way she could abandon them, nor Dardan for that matter.  Her and Torev had been so kind to her, where they could have just as easily returned her to her former master on Coriolis.

          She looked toward the ground in resignation.  "Terrible."

          Silence ensued for a moment as the two watched the compound's activity.  Kora's anxiety was on the rise, but Dardan seemed as calm and composed as ever.  For a while she had wondered about her crewmate, what she had been or done before joining the Infinite Horizon.  She didn't know much about Hadarans except for what they looked like, but she got the feeling they were a very introverted and exclusive people.  These musings were, of course, based solely on her interactions with Dardan and the word of others, and therefore could very well be wrong.

          "Alright there's a group of them." Dardan pointed to four women walking closely together.  "Get in there, blend in, and get that back door open."  While she spoke she adjusted Boom's garments with careful slender fingers, making a point to ensure that her throat was covered for some reason.  "And don't say a word."  

           Boom nodded, and slowly stood up.  She surveyed the ground before her, and realized she had to move quickly without attracting attention, or risk losing sight of her target group.  The sand was warm in her bare feet and she moved towards the compound, the sinking ground beneath each step making the action difficult.  She quickly assumed position behind the group, which was moving slowly and quietly.  For a few minutes they walked in silence under the night sky before rounding one of the buildings and heading toward an entrance.  

          A single guard stood watch at the door, a look of intense boredom upon his face.  When he saw the group moving towards him he stood off to the side to allow them entrance.  The women bowed their heads as they passed by him, and Kora did the same.

          "Hey you!" The guard called out, and Kora hoped his words weren't directed at her.  A firm grasp clasped her arm and she looked into the eyes of the guard, who meet hers with a look of malice.  He looked her up and down hungrily.  "Your clothes are filthy.  Clean yourself up."

          She looked down at her garments, which were dirty from the crawl to the complex, then looked back at the guard, wide eyed.  Fear gripped her as she wondered what she should do.  Some of the other women in the group looked at her curiously, and she looked back at them, hoping they would do or say something to help.  

          "Answer me when I'm talking to you, slave!"  She looked back at the guard, his stare relentless.  She didn't know what to do.  Dardan had told her several times not to say a word to anyone, but she didn't want to disobey and give herself away.  She formulated the words to apologize in her mind and began to open her mouth to speak when the unexpected happened.  The guard grinned sinisterly and let go of her arm.  The rest of the women resumed walking into the building and she followed suit as soon as the guard turned his attention away from her.

          Kora resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief as her eyes adjusted to the brightness of the building's inside.  It was cooler within, almost to the point that her skin developed bumps.  Her mission returned to her thoughts as she collected herself. 

          Suddenly her arm jerked to the left, and she was pulled by a slave into another room.  The slave said nothing as the door closed behind them, and Kora was confused as to why she had pulled her in.  The slave got to work digging into a bin that was against the wall.  Kora said nothing through the process, not wanting to give herself away.  The slave then straightened up and tossed fresh garments to her.  The fabric was thin, and ghostly white.  Kora looked from the garment in her hands back to the slave, who stared at her.  Her message was clear, and Kora began removing her dirty garments.  A confused look came from the slave once Boom's undergarments were revealed, and she noticed that the slave wore none.  A sinking feeling grew in her stomach upon the realization, and the slave came up to her and inspected them.  Fingertips grazed the outline of the clothes for a moment then they stopped, a shocked look coming across the slave's face.  Her hands touched Boom's throat, then her own, and Boom saw a scar on hers.  Suddenly it occurred to her why Dardan had emphasized that she should not talk while she was here, and why she had taken such care to ensure her neck was covered, and anger welled up within her.

          A sound came from the other side of the door, and Kora turned her head to look.  The slave grabbed her undergarments and ripped them clean off, then draped the fresh garments over her naked body just as the door opened.  Another slave came in, looked at the two, and went over to another bin clutching a bundle of clothes, evidently oblivious to what had just happened.

          The slave grabbed Kora's hand and guided her out of the room.  The two went down the hallway for a little while until the slave opened another door.  The room was empty save for them, and as soon as the door was closed the slave turned and looked at her.

          "What are you doing here?" She mouthed the words angrily.

          Boom didn't know how to respond, and was unsure if she should elaborate her mission to this woman.  She could easily give her away, not wanting to incur her master's wrath.  Kora knew the fear a master instilled in their slaves all too well, and would fully understand her reasoning if she chose to do so.

          "I'm here to-" the slave's hand covered her mouth, silencing her already low whisper.  The slave put a finger to her lips.  Kora simply mouthed her next words.  "I'm here to free you."

          Excitement, sadness, and disbelief all filled her expression simultaneously with varying degrees of intensity.  Tears slowly welled up in her eyes as she mouthed, "You need to get out of here."

          Boom wanted to heed her advice.  Every moment she was here her heart broke more and more.  But after what she knew of the place, the degradation these women were subjected to every single day, she would never be able to live with herself if she left without them.

          "I need your help," she mouthed.  "There's a door to the south building I need to unlock."  The slave considered her words for a moment.  After this the situation could go in one of two ways.  The slave could aid her in her mission or turn her in to the guards.  Kora sorely hoped the slave would choose the former.

          A look of steeled resolve came over the slave, and again she grabbed Boom's hand.  The two left the room, nearly trampling yet another slave girl in the process, from whom the two received a dirty look as they made their way further down the passageway.

          Going through doors and rounding corners, Kora couldn't believe that anyone could know their way around this awful place.  All the halls and doors looked the same, and there weren't any markers of any sort to help someone get their bearings should they become lost.

          They went through yet another door only to be greeted by a particularly dangerous looking man, and nearly ran into him.

          "Watch where the throck you're going, slaves!"  Kora and presumably the slave as well flashed him an apologetic look, stepping to the side to allow him passage.  As he walked by, Kora stole glimpses of him as she looked downward in supplication.  He was older, human, and bore facial scars that suggested he'd been in the slaving business for a long time.  He regarded the two with utmost disdain as he walked past through the door and continued on his way, but she could feel his eyes piercing the thin fabric barely covering her body, chills running up her spine from the animalistic look on his face.

          The two went on, Kora and the slave, for only a little while longer until they came through a door to an empty room.  Finally they had reached their destination.  Her heart was pounding by this point, fearful from being discovered by those horrible men and what they'd do to her if she was.

          There was a door on the far wall, and inbetween it and Boom were dozens of crates filled with preserved food.  It was some kind of store room, presumably so that the numerous guards could be fed while they were on duty without having to take many steps to prepare their meals.  The slave slowly made her way to the door, Kora following in her footsteps, careful not to hit any of the crates or catch her loose fitting garments on one.  The slave put her hand on the door's primitive latch and gestured with her other for Kora to join her.

          "I have to go back," the slave mouthed.  "Please be careful."  At that she unlocked the door and turned to walk away.  Boom watched her hastily leave the room them turned back to the door.  Hopefully the hard part of her mission was over once this door was open.  She carefully undid the latch and slowly opened it.  Luckily Dardan was just outside and quickly squeezed through the doorway.

          "Excellent.  Have much trouble?"  Her whispers were a little too loud for Kora's taste, prompting her to put her finger to her lips and simultaneously shake her head in response.  "Good. Let's get this done."

          A commotion could be heard coming from the other side of the room's entrance.  "Hey you! Where's the other slave?"  Kora looked to the door, fear in her eyes.  Thinking quickly, she turned back to Dardan and put both hands on her, shoving her down to the floor out of sight as the door opened.  Turning back her view fell on three particularly reprehensible looking men.

          "There she is." The one in the middle spoke, a chilling grin on his face.  It was the same guard that Kora and the other slave had run into before.

          "You were right, Ren, she's a pretty one."  The one in the left said, a fatter man with a full beard.

          "Must be one of the new girls that came in earlier today."  The third was thinner than the other two, and sported some sort of optical device.  "Looks like she already pissed someone off, check out the eye."

          Out of the corner of her vision Kora could see Dardan stirring, possibly readying herself to attack these men.  Slowly, she gestured with her right hand that Dardan should stay out of sight.

          "Look how scared she is.  Come, love, we ain't gonna hurt you."  The one in the middle, Ren, was apparently the de facto leader of this little gang.  He held out his hand, beckoning Boom to come to him.  

          "Boss isn't gonna like it if you have too much fun with her, Ren." The fat one said.

          "Long as we don't leave any more marks on her how can he know?  He's got so many slaves.  Besides, she ain't gonna tell him or nothin'."

          Boom swallowed, a tear welling up in her eye.  These men had the worst intentions and there was nothing she could do about it.  Even if Dardan did something, there was too much of a risk that one of them would escape and warn the others that there was an intruder.  She would just have to let this play out for a little while and hope that Dardan would save her before anything truly horrible happened.  Slowly she walked to them, careful not to get her garments caught on any of the crates.  She could feel each set of eyes studying her figure, sickened by the repulsive looks she was getting from the men.  

          "That's a good girl, come to Ren.  All the new girls have to do this, so just consider yourself lucky it's with me than someone else."  He grabbed her arm once she was within reach, his two comrades chuckling sinisterly.  He led her back out of the room, eyeing her with a sickening look.  The other two traded looks with her and each other as equally repulsive.

          As they exited the door she looked back into the room and could just make out Dardan's face peeking out from behind one of the crates.  The two made eye contact up until the door closed, and with its shutting went any hopes of Boom getting through this ordeal unscathed.

          She was led down the passageway, all three men in tow.  Minutes went by as they walked, the three of them breathing heavily.

          "Stop staring at her like that, Nikil, you're scaring her."

          "Sorry Ren, but she's awful pretty.  Waltyr must have paid a high price for this one."

          She looked up at the fat one, Nikil, then back to Ren, who meet her gaze.  He looked deep into her frightened eyes for a moment, never blinking.  "It would seem so."

          The look he had gave her chills, but not in a threatening way.  She couldn't describe it, but she felt like something was off about him.  Were the situation different, she may not have been so scared in his company.  He looked away, down the passage.  "Here we are."

          They stopped before another featureless door in the bare hallway.  Ren was silent add his two friends chuckled to themselves menacingly.

          "I've got this, boys.  Me and this fine little lady gonna have some quality time together."

          "Now just a minute!" The skinny one stood in front of Ren as he voiced his objection.  "Why do you get to have all the fun?"

          "Easy, Fior.  You'll both get your turn."

          "See that we do."  Fior backed off, returning to his place by Nikil.

          "I'll come get you two when we're finished."

          "I think we should wait out here, make sure you're not disturbed."  Ren looked to Nikil, then to Fior, an irritated look on his face.

          "If you must."  He opened the door, a dark room beyond, and forcefully pushed Kora inside.  Her heart was racing, tears in her eyes,  flashbacks of her old life racing through her mind.  She didn't know how many times this had happened to her at the hands of her old master and his cronies.  She'd learned to shut herself down when it did, but after a while she had found it difficult to come back.  She'd be numb constantly, to the pain both physical and emotional, and to anything else.  It was like she was dead inside, an empty shell walking around with eyes glazed over.  She learned to feel again under Torev's care, which wasn't the easiest thing to do.  Now it was back to get slave years all over again, and she didn't want to regress back to the person she'd been.

          A light turned on, and Kora turned to see Ren looking at her sternly.  "Alright, who are you and why are you here?"  Her heart skipped a beat at his words, she'd been discovered, and Dardan seemed so far away from her.  She wasn't sure what to do, and said nothing.  "You're not one of Waltyr's, I know just about all of his girls, and you weren't in the shipment that came in today.  I would know, I was there.  Now I'll ask again.  Who are you, and what are you doing here?"

          Kora still didn't know how to respond.  She was unsure if she should tell him about her mission, her purpose for being here.

          "I'm Kora," she spoke as softly as possible, daring not to alert the two men outside that anything but what they thought was going on in here.  "I'm here for the girls."

          Ren laughed sharply, a look of confusion and amusement on his face.  "All by yourself?  You seem to be pretty successful so far."

          "I'm not alone.  I have a friend here."

          "Well let's hope her luck is better than yours.  You run a great risk coming in here like this."  He stepped forward, and Kora fearfully moved back.  "I'm not gonna touch you, sweet.  I've never touched any of these girls.  Frankly I find Waltyr detestable, but he pays."  Kora found his words somewhat difficult to believe, but she needed a glimmer of hope, no matter how small.  It wasn't like she felt she could trust him, not yet, but perhaps she could convince him to help her and Dardan.  "And now I see two options.  I can turn you in, or turn a blind eye, maybe even help you.  But why should I do that?  I owe Waltyr no true loyalty, of course, but why should I give up my meal ticket?"

          Kora couldn't believe the words she was hearing.  Could this possibly turn out in her favor, or was this all some clever ruse to let her guard down in the name of some twisted jest?  Whatever it was, she never found out.  A commotion was heard from the other side of the door, coupled with the sounds of muffled groans and bodies hitting the ground.  

          The door opened.














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