Janwar stared at the endless array of stars that stretched before them. Quiet reigned on the bridge of the Tangata, a ship so technologically advanced that no other currently in existence could match it. An absolute beauty, it boasted engines that made Aldebarian Alliance ships appear to plod along like ancient navoxi pulling wagonloads of alavinin ore in comparison.
A good thing, since Janwar and his crew were pirates and often benefited from their ability to outmaneuver the law-abiding folk.
He glanced around.
His crew was oddly quiet tonight. Did they share the same peculiar feeling of unrest that had been plaguing him of late?
He frowned, unable to pinpoint the source of it.
“I miss Lisa,” Soval announced. The hulking Kilessian warrior slumped in his seat, face more somber than usual.
“And Abby,” Elchan, the Segonian in their midst, added.
The rest nodded.
Janwar smiled, thinking of Lasaran Prince Taelon and the Earth female he’d taken as his lifemate. Janwar actually considered Taelon a friend, as implausible as that seemed to others. Lasarans were well known for being stringent rule-followers. So for a Lasaran Prince to befriend a consummate lawbreaker like Janwar…
He grinned. Both men rather enjoyed the bafflement their friendship inspired.
When Srok’a had recently been stricken with a vision that compelled them to race to the outer reaches of explored space, Janwar had been shocked to discover that Prince Taelon’s ship had been attacked and destroyed.
Fortunately, Taelon’s Yona guard had shoved him and his new family into a royal transport and launched it in time to save their lives. Then Janwar had swept in and rescued them.
He’d enjoyed Lisa’s company in the month it had taken them to ferry the royal couple to Lasara. No other woman had stepped foot on their ship since its creation. And he had to admit her tinkling laughter had breathed new life into it. The Earthling had not experienced the lofty upbringing Prince Taelon had. Quite the opposite, actually. And she was delightfully uncomfortable with being treated like royalty, something that had amused his hardened, cynical crew and swiftly won them over.
None of them, of course, had been able to resist the plump-cheeked grins and high-pitched giggles of Abby, Taelon and Lisa’s infant daughter.
“Hopefully our usual methods of investigation will enable us to locate some of her friends,” Janwar commented.
At last count, only three of the fifteen women from Earth who’d been aboard the Kandovar had been rescued. The rest, some presumed, were either dead or soon would be when the provisions in their escape pods ran out. Taelon had disclosed in their latest communication that one of the rescued women—Ava, he believed her name was—had been captured by the Gathendiens and tortured, confirming their suspicions that the Gathendiens had risked everything and attacked the Kandovar solely to get their hands on the Earthlings.
Apparently, they believed the Earth women were the key to discovering why a bioengineered virus the Gathendiens released on Earth long ago hadn’t succeeded in eradicating all Earthlings and leaving the planet and all its resources ripe for claiming.
“Grunarks,” he grumbled.
His cousin Krigara glanced over at him. “Who?”
Janwar looked at Srok’a. “How much longer?”
His navigations officer studied his screen. “We should be able to see them without radar within minutes.”
Good. Most pirates’ strengths lay in their numbers, the weaponry they accumulated, and their complete lack of a moral compass.
Janwar and his small crew’s strength, however, lay in the intelligence they gathered and how they chose to use it. A primary source of his intel had located a Gathendien warship that had gone undetected by the Aldebarian Alliance’s various fleets, which—lacking the Tangata’s astonishingly powerful engines—still struggled to reach these distances without the benefit of the damaged qhov’rum.
The Gathendien ship was close enough to the wreckage of the Kandovar to draw suspicion and spark speculation that it had either taken part in the attack or was searching for survivors to either slay or capture.
Janwar leaned forward in his seat as a spec appeared among the stars visible beyond the large, indestructible crystal window that stretched before them.
“There it is,” he murmured.
“In all its drekking glory,” Krigara muttered. “I don’t know how they manage to travel such distances in those boxes of bura.”
Janwar nodded. The Gathendien ship that gradually grew in size as they approached it looked as if a boy not quite old enough to grow a beard had constructed it out of spare parts scavenged from a refuse heap. Even the color—a dark, putrid yellow that reminded him of vomit—lacked appeal.
“Any indication they know we’re coming?” he asked.
“None,” Srok’a’s scarred brother Kova mumbled.
Any other answer would’ve shocked Janwar. His ship’s cloaking ability was unmatched, so ships only saw the Tangata coming if he wanted them to see it coming.
In very little time, the Gathendien battleship filled the window.
“Perform a life-form scan and see how many are on board,” he ordered.
Elchan studied his console. “Looks like they have a full contingent aboard.”
Janwar rubbed his hands together with glee. “This should be fun then.”
Every face lit with a smile of anticipation. All loved a good battle. It got the blood flowing and distracted them from the loneliness their status as rebels and outcasts sometimes spawned.
“That’s odd,” Elchan said, brow puckering.
Janwar glanced at him. “What is?”
“I think the life-form scanner may be malfunctioning.”
Elchan looked up from his console. “The Gathendiens’ numbers appear to be dwindling.”
Janwar stared at him. “What?”
“Their numbers are dwindling.” Elchan again consulted his screen, then pointed at it. “There! It just did it again. Two more disappeared. And a third.”
Krigara crossed to stand beside Elchan and studied the screen. His eyebrows shot up. “It’s true. The lights indicating life-forms are vanishing, one or two at a time.” He nudged Elchan. “Run a diagnostic.”
After a moment, Elchan shook his head. “Nothing. The scan appears to be performing as intended.”
“It can’t be,” Soval grumbled.
Janwar regarded the Gathendien warship with suspicion.
“Could they have obtained some sort of new cloaking mechanism?” Elchan asked hesitantly.
Srok’a scowled. “To borrow one of Lisa’s phrases, what kind of backward-ass cloaking mechanism cloaks the life forms but not the ship?”
“Good point,” Kova added. “The ship is still visible.”
Krigara motioned to Elchan’s screen. “But according to the scan, it will soon be bereft of life.”
Janwar’s eyes narrowed. “It’s a trick. They must know we’re here.”
“How?” Krigara countered. “We have the best cloaking system in the galaxy.”
Which wasn’t an exaggeration. “The life forms didn’t start disappearing until we came within shooting range of them. They must know we’re here.” It was odd, though, that they would conceal their life forms—and in such a ragged fashion—instead of the ship itself. Perhaps they hoped anyone approaching would think it a ghost ship bereft of life and become complacent? Or maybe they hoped other vessels would see the life forms disappearing one by one and fear contagion? Gathendiens did, after all, make a habit of genetically engineering deadly viruses in their labs.
“What do you want to do?” his cousin asked.
“Get close enough to board them,” Janwar ordered.
Before Kova could navigate them closer, Elchan shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Because I’m detecting heat signatures that weren’t there a minute ago.”
“More life forms?” Their bizarre cloaking device must be failing.
“What kind of heat signatures?”
“The kind that usually accompany explosions.”
What the srul was happening on that ship?
“Maybe their cloaking array is malfunctioning?” Srok’a suggested, his tone revealing his doubt.
But Elchan shook his head again. “Not unless by malfunctioning you mean blowing them all up, because—if my scanner is correct—Gathendiens are dropping like tikluns.” The fuzzy mammals on Segonia were known for keeling over as though dead anytime something startled them.
Janwar refused to let the rather amusing image of Gathendiens doing the same thing distract him. “Whatever is happening, we need the information those grunarks can provide.” Time was running out for the survivors of the Kandovar’s destruction. “Kova, pull up beside them and extend the docking tube. Soval, run a full diagnostic on all systems. If our life-form scan is malfunctioning, I want to know what else might be, too.”
Soval refocused on his console and went to work.
Kova began to ease the Tangata closer to the Gathendien ship.
“Wait,” Srok’a said.
Janwar sighed. “Now what?”
“One of the docking bay doors is rising.”
“Then it is a trap.” Janwar relaxed back in his seat, happy to be back on normal footing. “Arm weapons. Reinforce shields and cloaking.”
“Weapons armed,” Soval announced.
“Shields and cloaking at full power,” Elchan said.
Janwar turned to his cousin. “Krigara, get in a fighter and prepare to chase whatever leaves that bay. Wait for my command.”
Krigara strode from the bridge.
Janwar stared at the Gathendien ship as a crack of light appeared along the bottom of the docking bay door.
Air and debris shot out as it rose.
“Their atmospheric shield must be down,” he murmured. Had it been in place, it would’ve maintained proper atmosphere and pressure in the bay so crew members could continue to perform their duties as craft came and went.
Soval grunted. “I hope they evacuated the bay before—”
Several Gathendiens tumbled out into space, limbs flailing, reptilian tails flicking, and mouths opening in screams no one could hear in the vacuum of space.
None wore protective suits. All died.
Had Janwar not direly needed information, he would’ve cheered. As far as he was concerned, the only good Gathendien was a dead Gathendien.
A figure in a white protective suit was nearly sucked out after them but managed to grab hold of the edge of the bay’s opening and jerked to a halt.
Janwar grunted. At least they’d found someone they could interrogate.
A small transport zoomed out of the bay, nearly dislodging the man who clung to the edge.
Janwar tapped the ship-wide comm button on his command chair. “Krigara, are you ready?”
“Get your ass in the seat now. A transport just left the ship.”
Curses carried over the line, accompanied by the thuds of boots hitting the deck at a brisk pace.
Janwar scrutinized the transport. It was Akseli in design and created more for fleeing enemies than for finding refuge in an emergency, so it would be faster than most transports. He didn’t worry though. The Tangata could easily catch it, as could their fighter craft.
“What the srul?” Elchan muttered.
Janwar returned his gaze to the Gathendiens’ docking bay.
The figure clinging to the bay’s frame wore a helmet that hid his features and a baggy white suit that lacked any noticeable accommodation for the long tail every Gathendien sported.
“That’s not a Gathendien,” Elchan stated.
Janwar considered the figure thoughtfully. “Perhaps he lost his tail in an accident.” The grunarks were prone to violence.
Drawing his knees almost to his chest, the figure in white shifted until his feet were braced on the edge of the bay. But he didn’t make his way inside as they all expected. Instead, he looked out at the transport for a long moment, then pushed off. Hard.
“What the drek is he doing?”
“Are you drekking seeing this?”
Janwar ignored his friends’ comments and focused on the figure.
Was he trying to catch up with his shipmates?
To what end? Even if he miraculously managed to utilize exactly the right speed and trajectory, it wasn’t as though the shuttle could just open the hatch and let him in. That wasn’t how transports worked. Once in space, the only way a shuttle could safely open its hatch was if a ship locked a docking tube to it that was capable of pressurization and, if they were smart, decontamination.
But the likelihood of the figure who currently cut through space with the speed of a morilium missile even coming close enough to the shuttle to—
“Drek!” Elchan blurted. “I think he’s going to make it.”
Janwar stared. Vuan if it didn’t look like it. And yet… “He’s going too fast to find a handhold.”
Srok’a’s face lit with excitement. “I’ll wager fifty credits that he makes it.”
“Done,” Soval responded, leaning forward.
Bets began to fly as swiftly as the figure in white did.
“Ha!” Srok’a crowed as the figure grabbed hold of one of the transport’s exterior ladder rungs and held on tight. “He did it!”
Those who bet against him all groaned.
Soval shook his head. “What does he intend to do now—cling to the exterior until the pilot finds a place to land?”
If so, the atmosphere of any habitable planet they sought to land upon would burn him up.
“Where exactly is the craft going?” Elchan asked, his expression baffled.
Janwar leaned back in his chair. “He’s fleeing us. They know we’re here.”
“How?” Elchan countered. “I’m still seeing nothing that indicates our systems aren’t fully functional. We’re still cloaked. They can’t know we’re here.”
Krigara’s voice floated out of the bridge speakers. “I’m in the fighter. Do you want me to deploy?”
“Hold for a moment,” Janwar murmured. He wanted to see what would happen next.
The figure in white crept along the exterior of the transport until he reached the front window. Tucking one arm in a handhold, he raised what looked like a tronium blaster in his other hand and fired.
Soval grunted. “He must be new.”
All nodded. Every space-faring craft—large or small—constructed during the past two centuries bore windows made of indestructible stovicun crystal. If the Kandovar had indeed been destroyed, Janwar did not doubt that the dislodged windows still floated through space, wholly intact, sporting nary a crack.
When it became clear that the window would not break, the figure holstered his weapon and gave the occupants a gesture known throughout alliance-occupied space to be obscene.
Elchan laughed. “I don’t think he appreciates being left behind.”
Janwar battled amusement as the figure crept along the shuttle’s exterior once more. “Any movement from the warship?”
Kova shook his head. “All is quiet there. Engines appear to be at full stop.”
This was so odd. “Follow the transport.” They’d piqued his curiosity now.
The transport began to swing back and forth in an attempt to shake off their furious shipmate. But the white figure clung tenaciously to its surface. Not far from the shuttle’s front window, he again anchored himself to the shuttle with one hand and fired a continuous stream from his tronium blaster at the edge of the hatch.
Quiet fell once more as all watched, unable to guess the outcome.
“What’s happening?” Krigara asked.
“The figure in white is trying to cut into the transport.” Janwar nodded to Srok’a. “Send him the feed.”
A moment later, his cousin let out a disbelieving laugh.
Elchan frowned. “He can’t actually cut his way in, can he?”
“With a tronium blaster?” Janwar shook his head. “It might heat the metal enough to make those inside nervous, but it won’t penetrate or puncture it.”
“What are those things on his back?” Krigara muttered.
Two dark stripes Janwar had originally thought part of the suit’s design moved back and forth as the figure was jostled. “Enhance visual.”
The image of the transport grew and sharpened, as did that of the figure in white.
He frowned. “I think they’re swords.”
As though hearing him, the figure holstered his blaster and drew a long sword. He took a moment to reposition himself on the transport’s surface, kneeling in such a way that both feet were wedged beneath a handrail. Angling the blade downward in front of him, he gripped the handle at the top, drew it back over his head, then plunged it down into the metal he’d just heated.
Again the man drew his sword up and drove it down into the metal.
“That grunark is really determined,” Elchan said.
Too bad he wouldn’t succeed. Janwar actually found himself rooting for the odd figure. Aside from rescuing Taelon, Lisa, and Abby, this was the most entertaining thing he’d witnessed in years.
But even heated, that metal wouldn’t give. It was designed to withstand atmospheric entry and planetary temperatures that would instantly kill— “What the drek?” he blurted and leaned forward once more.
A little plume of atmosphere rose in front of the figure.
“Did he just pierce the hatch?” Soval asked, eyes wide.
“How is that possible?” Krigara blurted, watching the feed down in his fighter craft.
Janwar could only stare. “I don’t know.”
Again the sword rose and descended.
He actually saw it sink into the hatch’s edge this time! No being Janwar knew of possessed the strength to accomplish that aside from the cyborgs the Akseli military had created.
Yet that was no cyborg. He knew it with absolute certainty. The Akseli had announced years ago that they’d decommissioned and destroyed all their biomechanical creations. The chances of encountering one on a Gathendien ship were nonexistent.
The plume of venting atmosphere grew.
Returning his sword to the sheath on his back with an ease that bespoke years of practice, the figure reached down and tugged at something.
Janwar gaped as the man wrenched the hatch open, exposing the cramped control room and the panicked Gathendien warriors inside.
None wore suits. Some bore weapons that venting atmosphere yanked out of their hands and deposited outside. All scrambled to hold on to something. One was sucked out into space, arms, legs, and tail waving. The figure in white reached in and yanked another out as easily as he would a helpless little gravi even though the Gathendien was big and bulky with muscle. Then he yanked out another and another, something that became easier as the cold and absence of breathable air slowed their struggles and weakened their hold.
A hush settled upon the bridge of the Tangata as all watched in stunned fascination.
His mission apparently complete, the figure in white sat back on his heels—toes still tucked in a handhold—rested his hands on his thighs, and lowered his head as though catching his breath.
Janwar had never seen anything like it. “Any movement in the warship?”
“None,” Elchan said. “Only a few life forms remain. None are moving.”
“And the ship is stationary,” Kova added. “It’s as if all engines have been shut off.”
Janwar kept his gaze on the white figure.
“What do you want to do?” Kova asked.
He pondered it a moment. “Disable cloaking.”
How would the figure in white react when an unidentified warship suddenly appeared beside him?
Janwar knew the moment the figure saw them from the corner of his eye. His heaving chest stilled. His helmet rose. Then the faceplate turned their way, their massive ship reflected upon its surface.
A heartbeat passed. Then the figure threw up his hands in a gesture of exasperation Janwar had seen Lisa make a time or two while she blurted, “Are you kidding me?”
Vuan if it didn’t make him smile and bite back a laugh.
Some of his crew didn’t bother, their laughter filling the bridge.
“I’m starting to like this man,” Soval declared, his deep voice full of mirth.
Janwar was, too. But he would still have to capture and interrogate him… along with the rest of the Gathendien crew.
The figure in white clambered inside the transport and disappeared from view.
Like the Gathendien warship, the transport now floated before them like a ghost ship. “He isn’t going anywhere,” Janwar decided after a minute or two. “Elchan, I want you to join Krigara in his fighter and board the Gathendien ship. We need to know if those life-form scans are accurate. Gear up in case they are. There may be a contagion of some sort.”
Elchan left the bridge.
Janwar turned to the Rakessian brothers. “Srok’a, Kova, take a second fighter and accompany them.”
Nodding, the two rose and departed.
If the scans were wrong and the ship was still heavily populated with soldiers, Janwar was confident the four would nevertheless be able to take out enough Gathendiens to commandeer the ship. They weren’t the most feared pirates in the galaxy for no reason.
He and Soval waited quietly, dividing their attention between the transport and the warship.
Two sleek fighters raced toward the ugly Gathendien ship and boldly entered the docking bay.
Long minutes passed.
“Looks like someone disabled the atmospheric shield from inside the bay,” Krigara commented.
Janwar frowned. “Is it still operational?” He needed live Gathendiens to question.
“Give me a minute.” One minute stretched into several. “Got it,” he said with a touch of triumph. “We’re going in.”
Mere seconds ticked past before curses erupted over the comm.
“I see why the one in white didn’t want to be left behind,” Krigara commented. “There are a srul of a lot of dead bodies here.”
Janwar frowned. “How many?”
“Enough to make me think the life-form scan was accurate.”
“Cause of death?”
“Battle,” Krigara disclosed grimly. “This was no contagion.”
“Stay alert.” Janwar and his crew weren’t the only pirates in the galaxy. Another party could’ve snuck aboard the last time the Gathendiens docked, intending to wrench control from them.
A quick search of the ship yielded more dead and several wounded. All of the latter were unconscious but would likely survive.
Yet the ship appeared to be free of hostile forces.
What had happened? Had there been a mutiny?
Janwar’s gaze slid to the transport.
Had the figure in white been trying to escape the bloodbath, or had he instigated it?
“Elchan, lock down the bridge controls. Then I want you all to return to the Tangata.”
If one man had wrought that much damage, he wanted his entire crew back on board when they confronted him. That was a srul of an amazing feat. Gathendiens did not go down easily. Their thick reptilian hide was difficult to penetrate with a blade and could even withstand a few e-blasts. Throw in fear of the punishment their volatile emperor would mete out to any who failed in their missions and they became even harder to kill, most choosing to fight to the death rather than face his wrath.
Janwar studied the transport and detected not even a hint of movement inside it.
Once his men returned, he and Soval confirmed the Tangata’s shields were still functioning at maximum efficiency then headed down to the docking bay, pausing only long enough to visit the armory.
Krigara, Elchan, Srok’a, and Kova exited two fighter craft and discarded their protective suits as Janwar and Soval entered the bay. Once everyone armed up with O-rifles and Bex-7 stun grenades, they retreated to the safe zone near the innermost wall. A small control station resided in front of it, boasting multiple consoles and data entry pads.
At the press of a button, an invisible shield rose up in front of them that could withstand the direct hit from a missile.
Beyond the open bay door, the transport floated placidly against a midnight backdrop that sparkled with distant stars.
Janwar glanced at Kova. “Bring the transport aboard.”
Kova stepped up to one of the stations. “Locking acquisition beam now.”
A beam of light shot forth from the wall behind them and streaked toward the idle transport. As soon as it touched the shuttle, the light spread like water until it engulfed the entire surface, effectively closing off the open hatch so the figure inside could not escape.
Not that the figure tried.
Janwar found himself hoping the man wasn’t dead in there. He’d like to see the face of the one who had managed to conquer so many… and ask why he’d done it. Was he an assassin who had merely plowed through all the other Gathendiens to reach his intended target? Was he the sole survivor of a small pirate crew who had attempted to commandeer the ship? Was he perhaps someone seeking vengeance?
The Gathendiens had amassed an impressive list of enemies.
If the figure were any of the above, he might just be worth recruiting.
Guided by the acquisition beam, the mangled transport floated into the hangar and made a gentle descent to the deck. Magnetic clamps rose from the floor and locked onto the new arrival with a series of thunks.
The beam shut off.
“Seal the bay,” Janwar murmured.
The large bay door began to lower, shutting off the view of space.
“If nothing else,” Krigara murmured, “we’ve acquired another transport. Once we repair the hatch and rid it of the Gathendiens’ stench, it’ll make a nice addition to our fleet.”
Janwar nodded absently.
The figure inside the transport opted not to make an appearance.
“Do you want a ziyil?” his cousin asked.
“Not yet.” Raising his voice so the figure in white would be able to hear him, he called, “You may exit of your own accord, or we can force your hand. The choice is yours.”
A faint sound reached their ears.
Soval arched his brows. “Was that a snort?”
Janwar would’ve answered in the affirmative, but the figure in white chose that moment to step into the open hatch. After pausing a moment to sweep the bay with what Janwar guessed was a very discerning gaze that missed nothing, the figure hopped down, landing nimbly on the deck.
He was smaller than Janwar had supposed. Clearly the baggy suit he wore had been made for someone larger.
The figure raised his wrist, drew back a flap, and consulted the screen embedded in the suit.
Was he confirming that the bay had a breathable atmosphere?
“No blasters or O-rifles,” Krigara whispered. “His only weapons appear to be the swords.”
The figure’s helmet turned in their direction.
Had he heard Krigara? If so, his helmet must be amplifying sound because Janwar had barely heard his cousin, and he was standing right next to him.
Circumventing the shield, Janwar strode toward the newcomer. Krigara remained behind to man the controls should the figure choose to attack. The rest of the crew followed Janwar and fanned out behind him.
A heartbeat passed.
In a bafflingly fast blur of motion, the figure suddenly doffed his suit.
Someone sucked in a breath.
Janwar’s eyes widened.
Or rather her suit. A slender woman garbed all in black now stood before them: black pants with many pockets, a form-fitting black shirt that hugged a narrow waist and full breasts, and heavy black boots that were similar to those he and his crew wore.
The fingers of both small hands now clutched the handles of long, gleaming swords.
Janwar stared. Her clothing was torn in several places. Her pale skin bore multiple gashes and splashes of red blood. Her long black hair shone beneath the bay’s lights. And her face…
She was beautiful… even with a scowl creasing her forehead and her jaw jutting forward in defiance.
Judging by her appearance, she was a Lasaran, a Segonian, or an Earthling. Segonian women tended to be taller, often matching the men in height. And a Segonian soldier facing a possible enemy would’ve long since activated her camouflage. So he omitted that option. Her smaller build resembled than of a Lasaran woman. But a Lasaran wouldn’t wear a shirt with sleeves short enough to bare her arms the way this woman did. Which left… Earthling?
Could they be so lucky? Could they have inadvertently stumbled upon one of the very beings they hoped to rescue?
Not that this woman needed rescuing, he thought with growing admiration.
She did remind him a little of Lisa in appearance.
Lisa was an Earthling. But her eyes were a soft brown. This woman’s bore a bright amber glow that fascinated him.
Srul, everything about her fascinated him.
When he and his crew continued to stand there in what he hated to admit was dumbfounded silence, she arched a brow.
“Well, boys, are you friend or foe?” She spoke Earth English but with an accent Lisa had lacked. “If you’re friend, I’m afraid I must take my leave of you. There are a few Gathendien bastards left that I need to slay before I steal their ship. And if you’re foe…” She swung her swords in a showy display, then sent them a wicked smile. “Whose ass am I going to kick first?”
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