"Toesa, what shall we do?" Signe pleaded like a helpless child. She conspicuously used the honorific title of toesa, my sister who leads me, already setting up her defense.
“Be quiet!” Isolda snapped as she looked down wondering whose ugly hands were these?
Blobs of sweat rolled through her pixie-cropped brown hair and splattered on the backs of those wiry mitts. It cut her breath to see her fingers curled like hairless paws, trembling so badly that she could hardly get them to work. Perhaps it was providence that the United Earth Defense Force’s TAU Sword and its complement of Valfore star jets drifted past the window right then. The fright of it provided her with the proper motivation to unbuckle her subordinate and pull her to her feet. “Move quickly!” She speared through the thickening crowd with purpose.
“What are we going to do?” Signe whimpered.
“Just hurry and don’t panic.” Futile words, a measly utterance over a scene of bedlam. They didn’t soothe Isolda’s own pounding heart as she began to wonder if she’d have to face punishment alone, or if the mousy little wisp she was forced to align herself with would accept her share of the blame.
In a moment like this there were a lot of if onlys that played on the mind. Try as she might Isolda couldn’t block them out. If only their race hadn’t been driven to near-extinction by one careless act. If only the few surviving refugees had chosen to stay on their homeworld instead of taking up a nomadic life in space—which they were neither prepared for, nor did they know anything about. If only she could have remained a carefree girl running up and down the breezy hills of Ethanos. She would have taken a male by now. There would have been children at her hearth, and she would have known the useless blonde by her side only in passing in the village square. If only, if only…
“To all passengers,” the Muu captain’s wobbly voice broke across their backs like a cold wave. The ship-wide announcement crackled with static, but her anxiety came through loud and clear as she recited the United Earth Defense Force’s warning verbatim. “Acting under the Article of No Quarter, the UEDF has the right to search any Muu vessel for time-sensitive targets. Cooperation is mandatory.”
The cacophony of dread hit a new high note. There was no hiding the alarm of suddenly falling under the UEDF’s scrutiny. If the biggest, baddest standing army in the known universe found cause to put its eye on such an insignificant bug drifting through space, it certainly wasn’t to pass out gift baskets.
“Return to your assigned seat,” the captain ordered.
Which was impossible to do.
“And present your boarding pass and identification to the UEDF officers.”
Which no sane person would do willingly.
“They are going to search every inch of this ship,” Signe squeaked. “Perchance with scans and frightful probes.”
“For goods stolen from them by raiders. Nothing more.” Isolda took the announcement like a death sentence in spite of the optimistic words that came out of her mouth.
“But we stole from them, too.”
“Not goods, and that is all they are looking for!” She felt the need to qualify their position. After all, they weren’t greedy thieves trying to fill their pockets with more of what they already had, kindred to the panicked fools spinning around them like moths. “We are scientists. We will show them our manifest and say that our cargo is too sensitive to search—”
“AGH! We are all dust in space! The Youee will blow us to dust in space!” A man suddenly rooted like a rock in a stream. His eyes were glassed over. He’d sprung out of the grip of reality, vomiting a disastrous premonition that was hard to disregard as far-fetched. Everyone knew that the UEDF didn’t need the pilfered goods. This raid was a warning that would conclude with a dramatic show of force when they destroyed their reclaimed property. If the Muu transport suffered damage or if anyone dropped dead of fright, well so be it and all the better as a cautionary tale. Isolda would have stopped to give the man the motivating slap he so obviously needed if she had a moment to spare. No one should meet retribution beggarly with hands red on both sides from their sins. Unfortunately she had to let the flow of bodies in motion sweep her past that benighted soul, closer to where she needed to go.
The dingy Muu transport wasn’t built for comfort. It was all jump seats and cavernous holds mishmashed together on two of the most narrow, impassable decks Isolda had seen in all of their wanderings. She steered Signe over to the edge of the fast-moving crowd toward the churning clank, clank, clank of metal being assaulted.
The rusty stairs rattled under the weight of the stampeding herd as they tried to descend onto the cargo deck in a burbling conglomerate. Isolda rejoiced when the way suddenly cleared before them. Most of the forward lot chose to jump over the railing to the level now only yards below. Flags of colorful cloth billowed in the outrageous avalance and pretty day slippers took off in every direction. It was a comedy of reckoning that would have been worth the price of admission if she wasn’t about to go down hardest of all.
The old barge listed sharply and a gust of wind accompanied a terrible hiss. The TAU Sword’s umbilical had attached to the aft air lock. Isolda stumbled five full steps and caught herself against the wall only to be bowled down the rest of the flight by Signe’s uncontrolled fall.
“By all our craven gods, girl-ean, can you not help yourself!” Isolda despaired in their native language as she hauled them both to their feet, with a sharp stitch of pain hobbling her every step. She was tired of having to keep them gainfully motivated all by herself. She couldn’t understand why such a devious woman wasn’t equally as ambitious. “The crew will try to stall for time, but eventually the UEDF will board. We must keep going.”
“But to what end, toesa?” Signe mewled as they pushed past fat merchants frantically checking their inventory for anything that could be confiscated.
“Where did this come from? Fringe? That is a port that the Youee uses. Was it stolen?” A loud voice sounded the zeitgeist of their shared nightmare.
“We paid fair market value in good coin, madame. How can the Youee take it?”
“Because it is stolen!”
Frayed nerves sparked heated arguments in every corner of the great hold. Isolda tripped the door lock once they’d passed through to the private compartment area. That would buy them a minute’s peace and, hopefully, another to work with.
“We have to be quick!” she instructed as they turned into their small rented stow.
The eight-by-ten space was bathed in red emergency lights that washed out the wall-mounted display screens and exit signs. Isolda never understood the use of the color of blood as a warning. It just seemed like overkill. Wasn’t reality stark enough without glutting it with an intrinsic sheen of terror?
Their three crates were too big to destroy in a way that would absolve them. Most especially the gargantuan rectangular box that took up nearly the entire length of the storage. It sat there like a spotlit curiosity shouting Search me! I’m full of tickling wonders.
Isolda took crowbars out of one of the other crates, but Signe stood frozen in a stupor born of all of the things she inherently lacked, like the ability to plan on her feet and a reliable spine. “What will we do?” she continued to trill like a puling infant.
“Help me!” Isolda pried at the seams of the rectangular box.
Looking at it now—lucid with regret—the box was a piss-poor design. The kind of thing that criminals threw together on the fly. A crate made of wood should not have had painted-over metal vents or mechanisms that hissed at the slightest provocation. When the lid was breached a computerized warning sounded, "Stasis field interrupted," revealing a sophisticated, streamlined, medical stasis tube complete with its own power source and a naked man stretched out inside. Isolda lamented: there were so many unacceptable oversights that seemed perfectly reasonable during construction. The very least she could have done was tint the clear casing of the tube so that their illegal lading wasn’t in sensational view.
Isolda left her bygones to sort themselves out as she reached into the stasis tube. Signe hooked the man under his arms, finally ready to do her share. Isolda could admit that at face value both she and Signe were a pitiful amalgam of unfortunate genetics, meanly packaged in the tiniest, most useless bodies that any make of demi could come in. Isolda: skinny and dark, with not much beauty to speak of. And her polar opposite in Signe, barely more shapely, pink and twee, if not for the make up she slathered on her baby-cute face. Still, they were Kitteren demi-warriors. Hoisting the unconscious man out of the disguised stasis tube wouldn’t have been a great feat for either of them alone, much less working together.
“The shallow sleep never took full effect.” Signe, too, had noticed that his skin was degrees warmer and more supple than it should have been.
“Right now that works in our favor.” Isolda surprised herself with the depths of her newfound ability to speak the good of a circumstance. She opened the bag she had packed with clothes for the specimen. Never once in all her careful plotting did she imagine that she’d be dressing her subject in haste on the cold rusted deck of a ship with the UEDF bearing down on her head. She nearly laughed out loud wondering which star would burn out if she were allowed to succeed at one thing in life.
“Ogh!” Signe complained as she bullied the crisp fabric up his slippery arm. “We will never be able to dress him properly in time.”
“Anything above naked will do.”
“But a male would sooner be laid bare than be seen draped improperly in public. The parting of his legs alone is a pity enough to draw unwanted attention—”
“Oh for the love of fair gods, Signe, these are modern times!” Isolda shrieked. “The UEDF are about to show you such ferocious things wrapped in male’s skin—the likes of which only our trod-down ancestors could attest to—yet you feel spared enough to worry about the set of one cretin’s kuffiya? Off we go!”
“Uhnnn… where?” The man began to come to as they bumbled down the hall toward the forward elevator banks. Isolda wasn’t worried, there were enough half-faint, sweat-soaked people hanging onto one other to make their little gang seem commonplace.
"Thirty-three life forms detected in forward cargo bay." The announcement of a remote probe’s discovery set off a fresh panic, but Isolda had come too far and done too much to be stopped short now. She hewed a path to the slowly closing doors and jammed both Signe and the groggy man into the elevator ahead of her reedy frame.
The passenger deck was awash with chaos. People rushed to and fro creating just the right amount of camouflage for an enterprising few who knew that, for all of the calamity and awe they were capable of under other circumstances, the UEDF Tactical Armored Unit’s officers had no authority to fire on nonaggressive civilians. All they could do was stand aside, huge phallic guns pointed at the ceiling, and let them flee, which would work just fine for the plan Isolda had come up with. She steered their little party into the deserted passenger cabin, right to front of the middle row.
“Leave him here.” She dumped the man into a seat.
“Ohhhh… where am I?” he groaned with burgeoning clarity.
“But our investment will be lost.” Signe huffed at the pitiful waste. She wasn’t alone in her lamentations. Isolda paused: months of extensive research, covert maneuvering, round-the-clock surveillance, and firing up the courage to follow through with the most daring scheme anyone was fool enough to conceive of—let alone actuate—was about to be left flopped down abandoned when they were so close to achieving their goal that she could practically smell the sweet air of their new homeworld.
“The crux unbound!” Isolda found her good sense and pulled her bumbling confederate along to rejoin the mob. She watched Signe’s bottom lip swell a full inch off of her face in a silly pout and marveled at how the greedy could always find time for greed.
Far forward there were tiers of escape pods being put to good use. Isolda decided to do the same with her demi-warrior strength and threw a shivering couple bodily out of the next pod set to depart.
Her words were as done as her deeds. She felt clean. The most incriminating of her burdens was coming to with no memory of who had done what to him. She strapped herself into the three-point harness and left Signe to do the same without instruction or go bouncing off of the bulkhead when the pod launched automatically. Once outside of the mothership, the tiny craft’s independent navigation system kicked up. It only took Isolda a minute to familiarize herself with the controls.
“Toesa, we are away.” Signe heaved a great sigh of relief as the surrounded Muu transport grew small in the rear hatch.
“Yes, sister,” Isolda agreed, finally able to exhale. She set the autopilot for the nearest planet. “Our accursed ancestors want to be avenged.”
Captain Whip watched the escape pods scatter into the black from the stillness of Kingdom Come’s cockpit. The Article of No Quarter was very specific, and rather favorable to the thieves; but they didn’t seem to know it by the way they ran.
His twin brother’s identical Valfore pulled slightly ahead of his in position. Glory Hallelujah’s vanes retracted. Her auxiliary flaps lengthened and locked into alignment with her maneuvering and high-lift flaps. Her slate-grey wings swept back against their fixed gloves as if she were getting set to live up to their squadron name and start administering some last rites punctuated with a bullet, which was probably making a lot of very scared people soil their good clothes as they puttered along helplessly in minimally shielded life capsules.
“Hey, Wether, what’re you up to?” Whip tittered.
“Just taxin’ an’ tormentin’,” Wether replied, confirming his suspicions. Glory Hallelujah’s echo location sent a ripple across the deep that lit up the position of each and every one of the transport’s errant pods on their instrument panels.
Whip kept a visual on the TAU Sword’s umbilical. If there was a vulnerable point in their offense it would be the delicate connection between the two ships. The desperate sort could seize a temporary—albeit ill-fated—advantage with a bit of sabotage.
“Lord Vahe sure loves to take his time.” He whistled.
“Hush up now!” Wether snapped jokingly. “You want him ta hear you? Remember, we ain’t but two hundred and twenty pounds sop wet. Even together we wouldn’t be half of a challenge on our best day and his worst.”
“Hee, hee, yeah.”
Inside the Muu transport, with an uneasy calm being enforced by his small squadron, Lord Vahe chose to ignore the COM chatter. He’d had his fill of the mischievous and the wild.
He had roamed away from the guard he stationed at the throughway to the Sword, reviewing the remote probe’s sweep one last time, before moving into the aft entrance of the passenger cabin. He imagined that the Valfore pilots wouldn’t be in such a playful mood if they were the ones trying to maneuver an armored battle suit through the constricted bowels of a rickety over-used storage bin.
On top of the tight fit, the integrity of the old deck plates were in serious question. Every footfall left impressions in its thin face. Lord Vahe had mapped the vessel’s skeleton, and cautioned his people not to bunch up, and to walk along the support beams as much as they could before he let anyone take a single step out of the Sword’s sure umbilical. Yet still, he expected to find himself in a free fall through to the lower deck at any given moment. His master-at-arms suggested the use of their Personnel Body Armor. Certainly the no-mecha gear would have been worlds easier to negotiate and just as intimidating on all of their no less than six-foot-seven, three-hundred-fifty-pound bodies, but they wouldn’t be nearly as protected.
No Quarter calls were rare, but always memorable in some unanticipated way. On the last one, the ship they boarded had been hastily boobytrapped just for them. As soon as they entered the cargo hold a daisy-chained link of grit grenades, seeded along the hull timed out and half of his detachment was blown into space. They were lucky to have survived the rending explosion and the vacuum considering how damaged the PBAs were; and there wasn’t a single uncracked helmet among those who had escaped the ejection but not the blast radius. It was a costly debacle that made Lord Vahe even more judicious and completely untrusting of people who quailed en masse. There were wolves hidden among them, the very same ones who had been bold enough to steal from the Youee in the first place. They only feared the UEDF up close. If given half a chance they wouldn’t hesitate to strike.
“What end, what now?” Vahe grunted, mid-slinging of his M256 assault rifle. His second-in-command, Commander Enver, was escorting the Muu captain to him for an audience. The woman had a harrowed look about her, as if she were going to the gallows unsung.
“Please, my lord.” She knew who he was by the sight of his onyx black armor alone and how to address him so as not to supplementarily incur his wrath. “When can we be on our way?”
“Just as soon as we offload our stolen goods,” he answered her without prevarication.
“I would not know yours from whose. There were three hundred sixty passengers on board, each with their own cargo. My only occupation was to ferry them safely to Godgin II.” Her words sputtered and dipped.
All of his intra-helmet display panels lit up before his eyes with reports of the chemical changes in her body: elevated heart rate, increased serum calcium and neutrophilic leukocytes. Constriction of the peripheral blood vessels, piloerection and dyspepsia inducing flatulence. He didn’t need bloated scientific terminology when he could see the fear dancing in her eyes. She was in a roll-around fight with her every self-preserving impulse to continue speaking calmly while staring up at the ghostly Rorschach image savagely painted on his faceplate.
Vahe resolved to flip her out of the hot seat as quickly as possible. Of all the things indicated, lying wasn’t one of them. “I suggest you go scoop up your peas. There are at least fifty escape pods bobbing in space nearby and thrice that many making good time across the far away. Leave us to finish without further ado.”
“Yes, my lord.” She bowed respectfully as she beat a hasty retreat.
“Sir.” Master Sergeant Yehu radioed in. “We have located our supplies.”
“I am on my way down,” he responded as he started toward the forward elevators with his soldiers trailing closely behind. Vahe took little notice of the lone passenger still in his seat no matter how the bioscans warned of his affected condition.
“W-wait… Lord Vahe… please…” The man clamped an iron grip on the last TAU officer in line.
“Sir, we are not here for you.” Commander Enver carefully unfolded the man’s damp hand from his gun belt.
“Admiral Vahe!!” the sickly man screamed with strength he couldn’t spare. His pulse’s readout revved dangerously.
Lord Vahe turned, a little weary of having to placate the overwrought one by one, but willing enough to give such a last-ditch effort the attention it deserved. Besides, precious few—even within the UEDF—called him by his rank, and he was curious to learn what made this stranger-out of-nowhere so bold.
“Sir… UEDF… Captain Aaron Hjorth… squadron Crazy Eights… I’m…” The pleading face was slick with anxious tears. He fought his own frailty to speak, but his consciousness gave out before he could finish.
“Captain?” Commander Enver took alarm at the prospect of this supposed stranger being one of their own.
“Confirm his identity.” Lord Vahe opened the man’s collar as his second administered the stick test. He didn’t need a DNA field screening to tell him what his old friend’s tattoos could. In the entire universe, the citizenry of the Nation Fleet were the only ones who wore markers on their flesh as a personal choice. Captain Hjorth was very proud of his full suit. It took the artists of the Hori Guild years to complete the masterwork of ancient mystical creatures locked in combat and beautiful renderings of floral genueses that hadn’t bloomed on any planet in a thousand years. He’d show off his art with a lack of restraint that neither suited his age—or his station—but such was the human spirit. Its boldness galvanized three galaxies and kept them all banded strongly together.
An angry heat rose out of Lord Vahe’s heart when his eyes met the familiar ink. Captain Hjorth was a friend. This pale recreation with the slimy, clammy skin was the leftover someone forgot to take home. His biology had been altered away from its original design. This form of desecration wasn’t common, but it was easy to recognize. Captain Aaron Hjorth, leader of the UEDF fighter squadron Crazy Eights, had been scrambled.
“Identification confirmed.” Commander Enver read the results, visibly struggling with his own memories of the affable captain to maintain his professional objectivity. “How is this possible?”
“Captain Whip, an unexpected development,” Lord Vahe reported. “We have come upon Captain Hjorth. ID confirmed.”
“Aaron?” Whip bolted up straight with the shock. “What the fuck is he doin’ on a Muu transport? Wether, can you get an update on the status of Crazy Eights Squad?”
“Already on it,” Wether said.
Through their melded bond Whip could hear his brother’s thoughts and the response from the Southerland’s communication’s tower that Wether reviewed in his mind before he made a mission-wide announcement.
Wether’s voice was measured and low. “Basilisk confirmed the Eights checked in on time ten light-hours ago. Their next check isn’t due for another sixteen shots. I told ’em to give them a shout.”
Everyone already knew that it was a pointless exercise in protocol. Just rules to follow and to trip over to keep them neatly in line. Loyalty, duty—the life’s blood of a soldier—could never be run dry by policy. Certain things would always be elementary. If their captain was here, half a galaxy away, abused, debilitated, and left in ruin, then the rest of the Eights were dead.
Foundation Hill Men’s Hospital.
“Ahh, kind Healers, one moment if you would!” Dr. Sunduvall’s singsong timbre echoed through the main lobby in time with the click of her heels on the polished marble floor.
Vladimir and Tendart paused in their steps. It was most unusual for such a conservative warrior to raise her voice, let alone run to catch them before they could exit the building.
“Good Doctor, have you forgotten something?” Vladimir asked once she had closed enough of the distance between them. They had just left a consultation meeting with the team she was on. A lot of words had been passed and less than half of them lingered on any one point for very long.
“Oh no…” she sputtered as she tried to catch her breath, “I thought… that is…”
The Micromales faced her with their curiosity. Not only was she acting out of character, she was stumbling over her own thoughts, unable to find the words to express whatever it was that had her so frantic.
“Well…?” Sunduvall hemmed. “Is it true that the Hand goes wherever you are needed?”
“Indeed we do,” Vladimir responded, his interest boiling to a pitch.
“Have you employment for us?” Tendart cut to the chase. They had a full day’s worth of caseloads to transcribe, which would take long enough without the delay of a protracted conversation.
“Since it is so, I do have need of your services, at least I fear that I do.” She grew more shy with each word until they could hardly hear what she managed to drizzle out by the end.
Scandal was on the tip of her tongue. Sunduvall was a mindful family woman—long willed and deeply rooted in
the community—but it seemed that even the most stalwart warrior was no better than she should be.
“I assure you, madam, we are the soul of discretion. Whate’er need you have we will endeavor to serve you utterly.” Tendart hoped that was the last assurance he’d have to offer her.
“I fear this enterprise.” She strengthened enough to finally come clean. “It is too strange a thing, but I cannot feign ignorance o’er the matter. ‘Tis on my father’s account why I have come to you. It is likely that he breeds.”
“Oh?” Vladimir found her concern quite puzzling. What could possibly be unusual about that?
“I have seen the signs of it, yea my father is a Human.”
“Well…e’en so, Human males can be caught by the loins,” Vladimir shrugged a little. “We are not strangers to delivering such men…”
“But a man such as my father?” She cut him short as she dared that one step closer than a warrior should to two lone men in public. “His age is advanced,” she whispered huskily, “sixty-five years are on him.”
The men alarmed and finally understood. They came within a yard to keep as much of her confidence as decorum would allow.
“Y-you say?” Tendart’s brow tightened into something just outside of a judgmental frown.
“Aye. Just so.” Sunduvall nodded firmly. “When would it be possible for you to see him?”