“We will enter the planetoid’s atmosphere in less than three cycles, Commander. Should I initiate launch protocols for the thermal mesh?”
Phahlen halted in his rapid progress toward the bridge of his vessel to consult a small screen mounted on the wall to his right. He hit several keys on the keypad beneath to activate a temporary viewing holo-panel. The contours of the planetoid that was their current destination appeared before him as though suspended in the air just a few feet away. He noted the tell-tale amber glow that fringed the outer rim of the gravitational shield surrounding the tiny world. This would grow and darken, amplifying quickly now that the inevitable end of this planetoid was close. A thermal implosion was imminent, hence the presence of the Vahlean salvage and reclamation craft, which he commanded.
The implosion would create a vast surge of heat energy, a source of power that their thermal mesh would collect and harvest. This raw power would be transferred into their thermal extraction tanks for conversion to kinetol, the primary fuel for propulsion of Vahle’s interstellar craft. It was valuable, a vital resource for a race so devoted to space travel, exploration, and discovery.
“Have the scans been concluded?” Phahlen lifted his hand to speak into the communicator device strapped round his wrist. As well as serving as a microphone and transmitting his words to any of the seventy-three crew members who needed to hear him, it was also a universal translator. The device could make his words understood by speakers of over seven thousand languages, a useful tool indeed for a man who daily interacted with races from across three galaxies. “Are we certain the planetoid is deserted?”
“It has never been inhabited, Commander,” came back the response from the control room.
Phahlen knew that to be true. Planetoid three seven nine beta Mercule was too small to generate any significant atmosphere, and too cold to support even the most primitive of life forms. Still, he was a careful man and the procedures were there for a reason. Checking was always good.
“Run the scan, please.” He waited beside the holographic image for the confirmation that all was clear.
“Shit! What are they doing there?” The lieutenant’s aghast tone was not what Phahlen had expected to hear.
“What have you detected, Baren?” He addressed his second in command by name. “Who the fuck is down there?”
“Galeians, sir. About sixty of them, I’d say.” There was a brief pause, then, “Sixty-three, sir, and according to our instruments they’re all located within three acrets of each other, clustered around the northern pole. Shall I hail them?”
Phahlen glanced again at the now ruby glow surrounding the planet. “No time. Can you get a lock on all of them at once and port them direct to our forward lounge?”
“I believe so, sir. Lucky they’re so close together. Still, they won’t be happy…”
“Just do it,” bit out Phahlen, then he closed off the communicator, spun on his heel, and sprinted toward the lounge where his unexpected guests would soon be arriving. Galeians meant just one thing. Trouble.
The isolationist world of Galeia was located on the outer fringe of the Septerne solar system, in a galaxy they shared with Vahle though the races had nothing at all in common. Galeians were known for being hypersensitive to the point of paranoia. They loathed other species, trusted no one, guarded their technology with a zeal that could only be described as fanatic, and rarely ventured very far beyond their own bit of space. Visitors were discouraged, usually by a barrage of interplanetary artillery fire. Galeians would always shoot first and ask questions later.
Despite their desperate plight on their doomed world, Phahlen knew this reclusive race would not have even responded to a hail from his ship, the Empyrean, and would definitely not have accepted their offer of rescue. The Galeians would be convinced the Vahleans had somehow brought about the catastrophe and would probably have already started to demand retribution and compensation.
Sure enough, the clamour of raised voices assailed his ears before he even reached the doors to the forward lounge. The irate Galeians were barely aboard and already screeching venom and spouting their ridiculous rhetoric. Phahlen slowed his pace, but entered without hesitation.
Sixty-three confused and visibly shaken Galeians milled around him, the tallest among them less than half his height. Their high-pitched, enraged tones were at odds with their diminutive stature, though the reptilian features exuded a characteristic malevolence. It was fortunate, Phahlen thought, and not for the first time, that the reclusive Galeians had never managed to master their inherent xenophobia sufficiently to enable them to cooperate with other life forms. As a result, their technology was minimal and their access to the wider galaxy curtailed. Thank the gods it was so, Phahlen mused as he regarded their pompous posturing. If these little demons ever got the run of the place, they’d be lethal.
“Who is in command here?” demanded one of his guests, thrusting his way through the throng of lizard-like bodies. Although Galeians were bipeds, as were Vahleans, they used their long tails as almost a third lower limb and could balance upon it to raise their height. Thus the Galeian was able to look Phahlen more or less in the chest as he glared at him. “I demand to be returned to our home world at once.”
“You are a long way from your home world, my friend,” observed Phahlen calmly, “but we shall endeavour to convey you to a suitable location. First though, I must trouble you for your name and an explanation of how you came to be on a planetoid under Vahlean jurisdiction without our knowledge or permission.”
“I am Feelan, chancellor of this mineral extraction colony and a Tharl of Galeia. We are not impressed by your expansionist threats, Vahlean. Galeia has the right to roam freely, and we—”
“Commander, we missed one.” The voice of his second-in-command broke into the self-important vitriol. Phahlen raised a hand and, incredibly, the Galeian was silenced, at least for the moment.
“Same coordinates, Commander, but the signal is much weaker. It’s fading in and out.”
“Stable, Commander, but there’s a lot of interference. We can’t establish a reliable lock on the target.”
“The implosion hasn’t started yet. There shouldn’t be such intense atmospheric disruption that our transport systems are affected.”
“No, sir, but I believe the target is located some distance below the surface of the planetoid. And sir, this one’s not a Galeian.”
Phahlen turned to face his adversary again, his gaze stony. “Who or what do you have confined beneath the surface of three seven nine, Feelan?”
“Our prisoner is of no concern to you, Vahlean.”
“Your prisoner is about to be vaporised, unless we can establish a strong enough link to extract him from the planet.”
“Not him, sir,” Baren interrupted again. “The remaining life form is a female. And she’s human.”
There was a brief silence as Phahlen considered the implications of this latest twist. He knew his second in command was equally mindful.
“Any joy with the transport lock?”
“Negative, sir. We might be able to reach her with a surge amplification device, but there’s no way to get it to her, and even then she might not know how to activate it.”
“We could take it to her.”
“Affirmative, sir, but—”
“A human female, Baren. Worth the risk, don’t you think?” Phahlen turned his back on the irate form of the Galeian, now hopping about and demanding recompense for the coerced extraction of his people from the jaws of certain death. “Bring me the device and a thermal shield cloak. I’ll go get her out of there.”
He closed off the communicator and turned to once more face the ophidian being. “Our discussion will have to wait. It seems I must leave you briefly. You will find nutrients and other hospitality in this lounge, and I will expect to resume our discussion on my return. You have some questions to answer, Feelan. It seems that not only are you engaged in the illegal extraction of mineral resources from a territory which interplanetary treaties have placed under the control of Vahle, but you have abducted and imprisoned a member of an allied civilisation.”
Feelan hissed at him. “The human is a spy and a thief. She is nothing, worthless.”
Phahlen was spared the need to respond as Baren entered the lounge, accompanied by three armed Vahlean guards. The rotund lieutenant was greying at the temples and inclined to question his commander’s orders on occasion. Even so, he was the best engineer Phahlen had ever met and he trusted the man implicitly. Baren held two small badge-like implements clutched in his fist, and a heavy metallic cloak draped across his other arm. He also carried a full-face helmet.
“Sir, I have the equipment you require.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Phahlen clipped one of the badges to his shoulder, the other he pocketed. In moments he had pulled the helmet onto his head. The visor completely obscured his features, but he flicked a switch on the side to activate the integrated camera and speaker system.
“The cloak, please.” Phahlen’s voice had dropped several octaves, distorted by the technology.
Baren handed him the cloak, which Phahlen used to drape his entire frame of over six feet. The garment had a hood that covered the helmet, effectively sealing him off from the external world. He would need the protection in order to pass through the intense heat now consuming the planetoid.
“Time to implosion?”
“Ninety par-beats at best, sir.”
Phahlen nodded. “And the worst case?”
“Right,” Phahlen acknowledged. “Are the coordinates loaded?”
“Make sure all our guests remain in this room until I return.” He watched, satisfied, as the guards took up positions at each of the exits from the lounge. “Activate.”
Baren hit several keys on the hand-held control device, and in the next instant the tall, cloaked form in the middle of the lounge started to shimmer. Seconds later Phahlen disappeared from before their eyes.
The heat was excruciating, even with the protection of the shielding cloak. Phahlen’s eyes would have been irreparably damaged but for the helmet, and he doubted the flimsy physique of a human female would survive the ordeal of traversing the outer thermal crust of the searing atmospheric layers that now surrounded three seven nine unless he could ensure she remained completely shrouded in the heat-repellent fabric. He would address that issue in a moment. First, he must find her.
He was surrounded by darkness, but that was of no consequence. The camera in his helmet was able to penetrate the gloom, and he saw at once that he had materialised at the intersection of four narrow subterranean corridors. A built-in and pre-programmed positioning device informed him which direction he needed to go in, and guided him along a short underground tunnel. He came to a halt at a huge steel door.
The positioning technology informed him that his target was beyond that door, perhaps eight or nine feet from where he stood. Phahlen attached small magnetic explosive devices down both edges of the portal, set a two par-beat time delay, and turned his back. The devices detonated and the door collapsed away from him with a resonating thud.
Phahlen turned to peer into the space beyond.
The human huddled just beyond the now prone door, dust billowing around her. She gazed at him, her features frozen in shock and disbelief at the apparition in the ruined entrance.
Phahlen, too, required a moment to take in the sight. The girl was small, not that much taller than the Galeians as far as he could see. Her long, dark blond hair was tangled and matted, and she wore some sort of sleeveless garment, a smock or similar. Her bare legs were bruised and filthy, though her startled features were dainty. He thought she might be perhaps twenty earth years in age. He could not be sure in the half-light offered by the camera, but he believed her eyes might be blue.
“Come,” commanded Phahlen, beckoning her to follow him.
The female remained where she was.
“Now, female. Hurry.”
Still she did not rush to obey him. Phahlen stepped forward the three paces required to reach her, and saw that she was secured to the wall behind her by a chain of some sort. He crouched to lift it, tested the weight, and opted for the speediest method of disposal available to him. He blasted it with his laser pistol and the links separated to free the captive.
“Come,” he repeated, this time seizing her wrist in his hand and pulling her forward.
She resisted. Phahlen was at first astonished, then irritated. They had but a few par-beats before they would both be incinerated, and still this obstinate earth girl hesitated. Surely the unpredictability offered by throwing in her lot with him was far outweighed by the certainty of her fate if she remained where she was. There was no reason to suppose she was aware of the imminent threat to the planetoid, but the very fact that he found her chained up in a subterranean prison should have been sufficient impetus for her to take her chance with him. There was no time to attempt persuasion. He hauled her to him and scooped her into his arms, then sprinted back along the corridor to the slightly wider intersection where Baren had first deposited him. He dumped her on the ground, and was amazed as she immediately scrambled away from him.
“What the fuck…?” He grabbed her and yanked her back, then pulled her to her feet. He swung her to face him, and was rewarded for his efforts by a well-aimed knee connecting with his groin.
He let out a muffled grunt and started to double over. This ridiculous and ungrateful human he had risked his life to save was still intent upon making herself scarce and once again wriggled free. Driven by the certain knowledge of what would befall the pair of them if he allowed her to delay their departure even by a few par-beats, Phahlen found the strength to stifle his natural response to the assault. He straightened and managed to seize a hank of her long, wildly tangled hair, and drag her back into his arms.
Not a man to repeat a mistake, Phahlen kept her facing away from him this time, and avoided her flailing bare feet, though they would be ineffectual against his muscular legs. He pulled both her arms behind her, twisting them cruelly until she cried out and went limp.
“Be still, girl,” he warned, tightening his grip just slightly by way of clarifying what would be the consequences if she disobeyed him. “Do you understand?”
There was no response, just low, laboured breathing.
“Shit.” The girl didn’t understand him. Why would she? He wrestled his communicator from his wrist and strapped it to one of hers, then repeated his question.
The girl lurched in his arms and he knew she had his meaning now. She managed a small nod, her entire body quivering within his ungentle embrace.
Phahlen extracted the spare surge amplification device and attached it to the tattered fabric at her shoulder. Then he turned her to face him, pulling her to his side to thwart any repeat attempt to bring him to his knees. He pulled the cloak tight around her, lifting her up to ensure her feet were fully enclosed too.
“Keep your eyes closed, press your face into my body, and if you value your eyesight as well as your life, you won’t move. Got that?”
No answer. He gave her a little shake. “Do you understand me, human?”
Her response was a feeble nod, sufficient in Phahlen’s view. He grasped her wrist to lift the communicator to his lips again.
“Bring us in, Lieutenant.”
Phahlen let out a grateful sigh as his legs solidified beneath him. When he had given the command to transport him down to the doomed planet, he had not been entirely certain he would actually see the Empyrean again. At that stage he had been convinced the opportunity to acquire a healthy human female would justify his actions. Baren had concurred, though he never verbally expressed that view. There was no need, it was understood. All compatible females were precious to Vahle, fertile ones beyond price. If Phahlen had not donned the cloak and helmet, Baren would have. With hindsight, Phahlen doubted his second in command would have returned.
Now he was less sure of the wisdom of his decision. The wench now crumpled at his feet was scrawny, near enough emaciated. That could be put right, he supposed, with some decent nutrition suitable to her species. But her belligerent, awkward attitude down on the planetoid dismayed him. It was not that he was averse to providing the stern discipline required to ensure her compliance, but he feared the little human would not survive it. Would not survive him.
“Sir, look.” His musings were interrupted by the terse tone of his lieutenant. The man’s gaze was fixed on the large viewing window that afforded them a perfect vision of the planet they now orbited. The glow surrounding the doomed world had darkened to a deep, angry crimson and bursts of flame now erupted to send tendrils of scorching heat out into the atmosphere and beyond. “Any moment now, Commander.”
Phahlen removed his helmet and the cloak. He handed those to a crewman who had approached him, then he moved to stand beside his deputy. “Is the thermal mesh in place?”
“Affirmative, sir. I set it all up while you were on the surface.”
Phahlen nodded, and they watched in silence as the glowing shell deepened and expanded. There was a low, rumbling roar as though the planet even now refused to surrender, but the end was inevitable. The small world crumpled in on itself as the pressure became too much, disappearing before their eyes.
The Galeians chattered and fussed, clamouring indignantly around their leader, their strident twittering an assault on Phahlen’s ears. He couldn’t understand their babbling without his communication device, but got the distinct impression these unreasonable little fools held him responsible for the loss of their illegal mining enterprise. He shook his head and turned away.
“I need a communicator,” he announced. A guard scurried off to deal with his request as Phahlen strode back to where the human female still huddled on the floor. He leaned down to offer her his hand. “Get up,” he instructed her.
She stared at his outstretched hand but did not move.
“I said, get up.”
The girl started to shift, seemed to tentatively lift her hand to take his, but was suddenly sent sprawling by a kick to her ribs. Feelan had darted around Phahlen and now stood over the girl as she curled into a ball to avoid the further blows her attacker seemed intent upon delivering.
“Evil little bitch! Murdering, thieving whore! What did you do? How did you succeed in betraying us? You shall pay dearly for the wanton destruction of our property…” The Galeian danced about the prone figure, then drew back his scaly foot to deliver another blow.
He never got the opportunity. Phahlen seized him by the collar of his tunic and lifted him from his feet. The reptilian leader dangled from one of Phahlen’s hands, twisting and squealing in irate, impotent fury.
“Try that again and I’ll eject you through one of our escape portals, and I have no intention of wasting a life support pod on you. Do I make myself clear?”
There was more malevolent screeching from the diminutive bully. Phahlen put a stop to that by simply tightening his hold and cutting off his adversary’s air supply. At last good sense prevailed and the Galeian hung silent from the commander’s fist, though his venomous gaze never left the human on the floor.
The guard returned with a spare communicator and Phahlen held out his free hand for the man to strap it to his wrist. He thanked the crew member, then turned his attention back to the matter in hand. Phahlen lowered Feelan back to his feet and gestured with his thumb that the chancellor was to re-join the other Galeians. Feelan shuffled away, but halted after a few paces. He turned to face Phahlen again, his expression brightening.
“My apologies for the trouble our prisoner has put you to, Commander, and I thank you for salvaging our property. If you would be so kind as to convey this creature to your brig for the duration of our onward journey…?”
The Galeian race was renowned for their tendency to twist facts and disregard anything that failed to support their view of a situation. Even so, Feelan’s ability to ignore the tension crackling in the room and behave as though nothing was amiss astonished even the seasoned Vahlean commander. Phahlen narrowed his eyes at the small being who now strutted before him. “What?”
“Or if it’s more convenient we can take custody of her again.” Feelan beckoned to some of his crew to come forward. “Take the prisoner, secure her well, and—”
“Keep your hands off her,” growled Phahlen.
The Galeians paused, looking from him to their own leader and back.
“If you wish to purchase her from us, the price will be ten thousand trimets.” Feelan beamed up at him, avarice gleaming in his beady eyes. “A fair price, I think. Given your… predicament.”
“Our situation has no bearing on this matter, and is none of your business,” Phahlen ground out. His lips thinned as he regarded the greedy little alien. “How did this human come to be in your clutches anyway?”
“I explained that. She is a thief and a spy. She and her comrades intended to rob us, so we shot down their invading craft before they could unleash their evil on our people. We are a peaceful race, as I am sure you are aware, and—”
“Am I to understand that you not only illegally occupied Vahlean territory, but you also fired on an unidentified spacecraft and took the survivors prisoner?” Phahlen’s tone lowered, his eyes hardening.
“Not unidentified. Spies, as I said.”
“From what planet? Under what treaty or declaration did you use lethal force against them?”
“How? How did you know? Did the vessel fire on you?”
“They would have, but we succeeded in neutralising them before they could inflict harm upon our civilians.”
“Were there other survivors?”
“Three, including that one. The other two died soon after the crash.”
“How long has she been in your… care?”
The Galeian shrugged, a peculiarly awkward motion. “Three lunar cycles, maybe four…”
“And what did you intend to do with her?”
“She will stand trial on Galeia for her crimes.”
“I doubt she would have survived to do so, even without the thermal implosion. And in any case you left her on the planet to perish.”
“We had little choice, Commander. You abducted us without warning, we had no opportunity to—”
“You would not have alerted us to her presence on the planet. Would you? We had to discover that for ourselves. If my lieutenant had not made a final check, she would have died.”
Again the Galeian hunched his shoulders in a dismissive shrug. “She is a criminal, of no importance.”
Phahlen’s smile was cold, calculating. “And yet, you see fit to attempt to sell her to me for an exorbitant sum.”
“Ah, well, such are market forces, Commander. I could accept seven thousand, at a pinch.” He smirked at the Vahlean. Feelan’s features still bore that inane, avaricious smile as he was again lifted from his feet and sent hurtling back to where his comrades clustered. The other Galeians had listened to the exchange with interest, clearly sharing their chancellor’s view that there could be a profit to be made here. That belief appeared to dissipate as Phahlen strode in their direction. The ophidian group fell back, wisely putting some distance between themselves and the Vahlean captain.
He crossed his arms over his chest and raked the group with a blistering gaze. “The girl is mine. She is in Vahlean custody now. I intend to investigate the circumstances which led to her presence on a craft orbiting three seven nine. If I learn that you shot down a peaceful, authorised scientific or civilian mission, you will regret that action. You will regret it most bitterly.”
“And if she was a spy? Then you shall return her to us?”
Phahlen glared at the chancellor and arrived at the conclusion that the man never knew when to quit. He turned to Baren, who had watched the exchange in silence. “Please ensure none of our ‘guests’ leaves this room, then set a course for Galeian Federation space. The sooner these… individuals… are off my ship, the better I’ll like it.”
“Aye, sir.” The lieutenant consulted his hand-held monitor. “We’re three days from Galeia, Commander, give or take.”
Phahlen offered him a curt nod. “See to it I don’t hear a peep from this lot until we arrive there.”
He strode back to where the human still crouched, her wide-eyed stare riveted on his features as he bent over her.
“You need to come with me, little human. Yes?” He offered his hand again. This time she took it and clambered to her feet. “Follow me,” Phahlen instructed, and marched in the direction of the door. He never looked back to make sure she was behind him. He had no need to.