The taste of copper leaks on my tongue and I sigh with frustration. I’ve been chewing the inside of my cheek. Again.
“This is bullshit,” I exclaim, slamming both hands on the large, flat disk in front of me. It doesn’t help. Of course it doesn’t help.
My career is in free-fall and I’m stuck in the asshole of the galaxy, patrolling an area where I have as much chance of seeing actual combat as I have of seeing an asteroid belt made of puppies and kittens.
And all that because I can’t keep my mouth shut.
“Fuck!” Another curse bounces in the confines of my fighter’s cockpit. This time, I don’t hit the control wheel.
Boredom invades my brain as I patrol the emptiness, and my thoughts circulate once again to the events leading up to the disaster I find myself in. My eyes wander to the picture hanging at the corner of the large, dome-shaped window between my body and the sterile, endless void of space. Four people stare back at me, waving for the camera. Their laughter echoes in my head, although I haven’t heard it in more than twenty years.
My mother would have known what to say to Laura. She always knew what to say to everyone. But I didn’t inherit her way with people, that quality she had of making things better, smoothing the edges and building bridges where there had been only rocky ground before.
No, I inherited my father’s sense of humor, caustic and cruel, along with his manners. And his pigheadedness.
Maybe I should just call my sister. Tell her I didn’t mean all those things I said about her husband and his job. Tell her I lied, that I was just jealous of her happiness, like she accused me of.
It would be the first time I’d lied to her, but maybe it would work. I’m not past begging, either.
Yes. That’s what I’ll do. And if her cheating, lying bastard of a husband comes at me again, then I’ll destroy him for good. I’ll tell his superior what he did, show them the footage I took, and to hell with everything.
I’m about to hit the communication button to record my message for Laura when the ship’s alarm blares to life with all the deafening destruction it’s capable of. I curse, the sound of my voice muffled by the high-pitched howl. I slam my hand on the silencer, my mind racing, my focus laser-sharp. The instruments on my control board are going crazy, the magnetic disturbance one I can’t identify.
“What the fuck?”
Then a cold hand slithers up my spine like fingers of death traveling along my back up to my nape. I know what this kind of magnetic disturbance means.
Drakians. It means Drakians.
But I’m in Sector Eleven of the Human Alliance, a corner of the Galaxy so remote, so uninhabited that it hardly deserves to be patrolled at all. What would Drakians be doing this far from their territory?
I don’t stay around to ask. Grabbing the wheel, I take control of my fighter, disabling the automatic alarms that obscure my screens. I’m not supposed to as it also disables the automatic distress signal, but I don’t care.
This is my chance. If I can take down a Drakian ship, then I have a chance at saving my career. A chance at knocking my sister’s husband off his pedestal and into the mud where he belongs.
I scan the liquid blackness of space, most of my equipment useless with all the magnetic disturbance the Drakian ship generates. The string of numbers giving me the information I need go up and down, never settling for more than a half second.
Shit, it must be a huge one to create so strong a field.
Then, just as I finish my revolution around my position, I spot it.
“Holy mother of all that is fuckness.”
This isn’t just any Drakian ship. This is a royal cruiser, one of the Drakian’s most advanced ships.
“I got you, you filthy reptile.” I mutter my curse as I turn off all auxiliary power, keeping only my weapons and the pilot’s cockpit supplied with energy. This is my best chance at remaining undetected until I shoot him from the sky like a fat turkey. A savage grin splits my face as my hands dance over the controls, readying my most powerful missile.
I will have only one shot at this bastard. If I miss, then he’s got more than enough juice to obliterate me into particle dust.
“Wish me luck, Dad.” I blow my customary kiss to my father’s picture. “This one is for you.”
My equipment beeps and the sound is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. My grin stretches even wider, and I’m glad I can’t see myself. I must look like a monster. I don’t care.
Then I fire. My missile shoots out of the ship without a sound, so small and innocuous-looking in the void. It travels fast and I immediately know I aimed true.
The explosion ripples all the way up to me. It rocks my small fighter, sends it tumbling into the weightless emptiness. I grit my teeth, holding on to my control wheel, knowing full well it’s useless to fight it. When my ship finally stabilizes, I blink.
Elation fills my mouth and I hoot, all alone in my cockpit. I know I got him, I can feel it in my belly. No one can survive a direct hit like that. All I need now is to collect evidence that I shot down a royal Drakian cruiser and I’ll come back to Earth a hero.
As I maneuver the ship back into position, I frown. Where is all the debris? An explosion this large with a ship this big, space ought to be littered for a hundred thousand square miles or more. But all I see is smoke and a few pieces of metal floating idly by. Like they’re just taking a stroll or something.
Then alarm bells ring from that place deep inside my gut where I know I’m fucked.
I send my ship surging forward, my hands on the wheel, holding it so hard my knuckles scream in agony. I just know I’m going to get hit before it even happens. The explosion makes my teeth clench and the taste of blood fills my mouth, almost making me gag. My head rolls in a dizzying spell and I scream as the ship rolls around in the vacuum of space, no gravity to hold it down, to slow its maddening roller coaster into the unfeeling dark.
Panic races around in my skull like a vicious little beast baring its teeth.
Listening to my years of training, I slap on the controls, bringing power back to my ship at full strength. It won’t last long, not with the hit I took, but I have no choice. No point in being sneaky now. The cockpit comes to life, lights blaring, sounds deafening what little brain I have left into sensory overload. Still, I grit my teeth and pull on the wheel, ordering the thrust engine to stabilize my ship.
My eyes scan the emptiness of space as the ship slows its rolls and I see nothing. Nothing but the green orb of some uncharted, uninhabited planet to my right.
“Where the fuck are you?” I howl in the empty cockpit, my stomach convulsing, my brain hurling straight into panic land. He’s still out there and I’m wide open for the killing blow if I don’t act right now. Then my ship makes one last roll and I come face to face with it.
With my enemy.
The Drakian cruise ship floats, smoke rising from its starboard where my rocket hit it. It’s damaged, I can see that, but not as badly as my small fighter is.
My hands go to the controls without me even thinking about it. Instincts take over as I maneuver my light fighter into position, the cockpit filling with sounds as all systems scream failure. My brain scrambles for a plan, but there’s none to be found. I don’t have long. My thrusters are toast so I can’t escape. I can’t stay and fight, either. My enemy has ten times the fire power I have.
Fuck. I won’t make it.
I’ve been stupid and now, I’m going to die.
In a last Hail Mary for my survival, I quiet the thoughts in my brain to a dull winding sound between my ears and aim. I have only one chance to blast this asshole into oblivion where he belongs. I’m aiming for his thrusters, that tiny target just at the tip of the belly of his ship, where his fuel cells are located.
I exhale one final time and fire my two remaining sub-ionic torpedoes at the Drakian royal cruiser. This time, I don’t wait to see the result. I swiftly redirect what little power my ship still has to my computers.
A mighty explosion rocks the emptiness and a vindictive sneer lifts my lips. I might die, but at least I’ll take the reptilian motherfucker down with me. There is no way he’ll survive the direct hit from my two torpedoes. At the very least, he’s going to be drifting off in space aimlessly until someone comes for him. All I can hope is that this someone is from the Human Galactic Alliance and that they’ll blow his scaly butt into a million pieces.
A light blinks to my right. That’s it, my ship’s computer has finished its calculations. That uncharted planet I saw before is my only chance. If I want to survive, I have to act now.
I engage the emergency ejection protocols.
There is an eerie clicking sound as my cockpit disengages from the fighter, turning into a self-contained survival module. For a surreal second, I float in the vacuum of space in a tiny glass bubble, feeling so small I could be a single atom in the infinite, endless void.
Then the glass surface suddenly turns to liquid black as the polymerization cascade completes. The survival pod moves, automatically directing its trajectory to the uncharted planet. It hurls me around at an ungodly speed, blind and deaf into space. The pod shakes, the temperature inside rising to a burning degree as it penetrates the atmosphere of the uncharted planet. As the metal around me keeps heating up, fear rages on in my chest, my heart beating so hard it hurts.
As the heat turns to burning agony, I begin to scream.
Then my scream turns to a mindless animal howl as my fall stretches into infinity.
And just as the world explodes in a teeth-shattering impact, my brain finally shuts down and I’m swallowed into a blessed darkness.
No emotion is allowed to enter my mind as I deftly negotiate the landing of my cruise ship in the middle of a large clearing next to an open body of water. This isn’t the ideal location for my landing, but I have little choice. My engines are overheating and the breach in the hull on the side of my ship has only enlarged the damaged area during my entry into the atmosphere.
Those two last torpedoes took me by surprise, but I still managed to move my cruiser in time. If that shot had landed where it was supposed to, I would have been blasted into a trillion pieces in the endless void of space. Whoever he was, the human pilot was a good shot and had nerves of steel.
It doesn’t matter now. He’s dead, I’m sure of it.
A pang of regret pierces the cold veil inside my mind at the thought of the human’s fate, but I push it down under the surface where it belongs. This is no time for emotions. Humans chose their fate long ago when they dragged half the sentient species in the Galaxy into a devastating war, all because of their endless greed for power and riches. Five decades later, the Galactic War still rages on, devastating worlds, destroying civilization after civilization in a pointless string of battles that border on butchery.
All for the profit of a few.
Not for long. Drakians are slowly winning the war, determined to return the Galaxy to the peace it was starved of for too long. At long last, I have the one piece of the puzzle we need to put a stop once and for all to those who call themselves the Senators.
Only I have to get this evidence in the right hands, or it won’t do much good. So many lives have already been lost just to secure it. If mine joins them, then they all died for nothing.
No. Not on the Silent God’s name.
The cold veil of my training falls down like a curtain and I concentrate on landing the ship. A few moments later, my cruiser lands in a great burst of steam and dust, temporarily blinding me to its surroundings. I stand in the control room, waiting for the cloud of dust to settle. This is it. My cruise ship is not going to fly again, not without extensive repairs.
I’m on an uncharted planet and the only thing I know for sure is that the air should be breathable, or my ship’s alarms systems would have warned me. Still, no point in taking unnecessary chances.
Lights blink and alarms sound all over the control panels. A quick scan shows me the reason: the oxygen levels inside the ship are failing, probably thanks to the breach in the hull and the auto-reseal. The numbers fall as the air becomes thinner and thinner. I have no choice; I cannot wait any longer.
I press on the aeration command and the next second, the vents open, breaching the last of the seals that isolate me from what lies outside. In the next few seconds, a great wind blows inside the control room. I breathe deeply, filling my lungs with oxygen.
There is no point in waiting, so I go to the landing and activate the door. I need to see this world, need to assess its dangers. Before it can fully open, I activate my exoskeleton and watch as the tiny black scales cover my entire body, turning my skin into impenetrable armor.
Then it’s there, sprawling in front of me. An uncharted planet, full of unknown dangers.
The air smells of water and salt, iodine and living things. My ship has landed on the shore of a wide inland sea, so large I can’t see the other side. The water is soft, its smell sweet in my nostrils. I can see animals moving under its reflective surface, slippery and fast. The lifeforms don’t stop at the water, as a sprawling forest stretches beyond the shore and into the distance. Vegetation grows, furious and wild, trees tall and wide, entangled with lower growing species. My keen hearing notices movement there, in the deep shadows under the canopy. Whatever lives in there is small and poses no great threat to me, but I must be vigilant.
Life is plenty on this planet. Where life grows freely, there is always more life ready to reap it. If there are prey, like the small things I can hear moving around, then there is bigger life as well. Predators.
I don’t hesitate as I step on the wet rocks of the shore, turning around to stare at twin suns, one large and so bright it’s almost white, the other smaller and a burning red. Their heat spreads on my scales like a warm embrace as I scan the horizons.
This is where I will have to wait until my energy cells are replete enough to send a signal to my brothers. The fate of the Galactic War depends on it, along with countless lives.
As I walk in a semi-circle on the rocky shore of the sea, I see it. A column of smoke rises up in the distance at the foot of a rocky mountain, black and angry.
Nothing but the crash-landing of a spaceship could generate that amount of foul smoke.
My lips purse in an involuntary snarl. The human pilot landed on the same planet I did, then. I move in the direction of the rising smoke.
I have to know if my enemy is still alive. I hope for him he’s not. I will stop at nothing to extract information from him, even torture. The time for mercy is long past.
Walking in the strange forest of the uncharted planet is slow and frustrating, the vegetation growing madly, making progress arduous, reducing the bright sunlight to a dim twilight on the ground. The smell of life and decay is strong down here and I can feel countless eyes settling on me. I am a stranger in a strange world.
It doesn’t matter, not really. No matter where I stand, I am the biggest threat there is. No teeth or claw can pierce my exoskeleton, no poison can enter my bloodstream.
Drakians are the most powerful warrior species in the Galaxy for a reason. We have been warriors since before humans took to the stars and spread their greed to the Galaxy. The only reason humans are such a threat is the ease with which they adapted, reproducing quickly everywhere they landed. Drakians are not so lucky and our numbers remain low, each warrior precious in itself, his bloodline a resource impossible to replace.
A few hours later, I crouch behind the leaves of a plant so large it covers my body entirely.
There it is, the human ship. Only it’s not a ship but a polymeric escape pod, its black surface shining softly under the blazing sunlight, perched on a rocky outcrop of the mountainside. After a few moments of intense listening, there is still no sound or movement coming from the pod.
I move slowly out in the open, my exoskeleton instinctively rearranging itself into long daggers at my fingertips. The scales covering my body move, following my conscious and unconscious commands, stronger than any metal and yet moldable like soft silk. My exoskeleton is a marvel of evolution, making Drakians feared as warriors throughout the Galaxy. It’s also going to be the undoing of the human who managed to shoot down my royal cruiser.
I pause just outside the pod. I can smell the human trapped in there, blood and sweat, the acrid stench of fear overpowering the other smells. A long crack runs the length of the side of the egg-shaped pod. It takes a surprising amount of force to pry it open, the human technology more resilient than it looks.
Finally, I tear a long gash in the black surface of the pod and discard the useless shard to the ground, then look inside. The human is hunched over, his face concealed by his posture, his body covered in a metallic fabric.
Blood trickles in a steady flow from his side, where a shard of polymeric glass is embedded, deep. I can hear the faint sound of the pilot’s breathing, its ragged, uneven rhythm. I hesitate, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to leave him to his fate. I wanted to kill him anyway, so why not let him die?
I won’t, though. I need to know how he found me. This is too much to be a coincidence. Someone betrayed us. Someone who needs to pay. And this human pilot is my only link to the traitor.
I pull the human from where he lies, curled up against the broken wall of the pod. He’s surprisingly light, his limbs long and fine-boned under his uniform. I’m careful not to remove the long shard of glass from his side, knowing it could trigger a hemorrhage that I would be powerless to stop so far from my ship and its medical equipment.
As I lay the human down on the damp ground, I pull the hood of his uniform away. I want to see his face, the face of the one person who almost bested me.
And stare in shock.
The pilot’s face tilts toward me, the delicate, dainty features on skin of light brown, glistening under the faint light. My eyes land on a mouth round and full, with lips so plump and ethereal they seem made of flower petals and not flesh. High cheekbones frame large eyes lined with heavy lashes on a face so perfectly oval it seems carved by an artist.
This human pilot, this great shot with nerves of steel is no male. This is a human female.
My body responds to the screaming beauty of her face. My stomach tightens into a painful knot as my fingers spread, kneading the soft, light flesh of her body. I pull on her hood, revealing a heavy, fragrant cover of hair that cascades down her back to her shoulders. I stare at her face, the face of my enemy, for long seconds, like under a trance. The emotions I so deftly shoved under the cold veil of battle emerge with a vindictive fervor as I take in the pallor of her sumptuous brown skin, the way her plump lips are devoid of any color.
She’s a wonder, but she’s a wounded wonder. She won’t make it long unless I bring her back to my ship to heal her.
My entire body moves with a single-minded urgency. Never before, not even in the midst of the bloodiest battle have I felt such an urge to save a life. This human, this female who should be my enemy.
I will save her life at all costs. This is the only thought that drives me as I run like the monster that I am through the dense forest of the uncharted planet.
She is my enemy. She is mine. She will live.