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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2

— Episode 19

"The Heir Apparent: The Assassin"
by Steve Carter

 

Captain’s Journal

SS Blue Horizon, PA1138 

This is our first journey to the white planet, Argeia. Home of the semi-feline race the Kastani, Argeia is one of the wealthiest—but scarcely populated—and alien—worlds in the Alignment as a new member. From what I understand, it’s a very democratic trio of city-states that occupy one continent on the very large globe. The Kastani have until recently, been very averse to joining the Alignment, preferring to maintain their planetary sovereignty from a distance. The few Kastans who’ve ventured forth from their home world and learned our Standard language have been unusually quiet about the workings of their people, and have all been interesting characters in and of themselves. This leads most to believe that they’re a planet of oddballs, but I doubt that is truly the case.

At this time, the Kastani will not allow other races to live on their world. There are simple ambassadors from Earth, Sillon, and Hestra, but they are only allowed to go in certain areas of the capitol city-state, Donisia. The Kastani developed completely separate from the human and fur races that began on Earth, an original sentient species of their own. We will not be staying for very long, as visitations on Argeia are kept to a rigid schedule. They’ll allow us three days of recuperation time in the equivalent of their hotel and its many amenities, but we cannot leave and go out into the city itself. It seems odd that such would be the case, since their structures are vast and beautiful, and their flowing architecture is very appealing to the eye. However, considering that they’re just now opening up their borders, I’m prepared to accept a little bit of reluctance to throw the gates wide apart for what can often be a very hostile galaxy.

Our cargo is also unusual. We’re shipping six dozen blue diamonds from Earth, especially cut into prisms that would be practically useless for industry. However, their technology is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. They are no more advanced than any other world, they just do things so, for lack of a better word, alien. That part of the cargo can be carried by two people in a box the size of a footlocker. In addition to this extremely rare shipment, the bulk of our transport is two metric tons of frozen strawberries; apparently a delicacy among the Kastans. I’ve heard stories about what the fruit does to them, which lends to the humorous idea that we’re now bootlegging.

Still, it will be interesting to see firsthand the landscapes that have until recently been available only on vidscreens, and to finally meet these strange aliens in their own habitat.  

Merlin Sinclair, Captain  

*** 

It is very dark in space, a limitless, velvety void with simple pinholes of light, lifetimes away. In truth, space is a very bright place with incalculable flashes of brilliance filling trillions upon trillions of light years. But light diminishes as it gets further from its source, so the viewer sees only remnants of radiance billions of years old already, and only from the nearest sources. Few know where the light from distant stars goes.

There are dead stars, collapsed in on themselves and feeding like greedy insects upon the light of living stars. Their density is so powerful and their gravity so strong that even time slows down and collapses in their pull. It is whispered among many in short, punctuated sentences that there is a force behind these star-eating monstrosities. They devour everything in their paths and grow denser, more ravenous with every absorbed molecule. They are, by their nature, street cleaners of the universe. This is where the light goes.

Moving silently, relentlessly toward its cosmic nourishment, the dark stars spend millennia making their way through the universe, searching out and consuming everything in their paths. What science calls dark matter, religion calls evil.   

*** 

Legislature Speaker Jo Chan sat at her desk, poring over a slateboard. The silver fox had been preoccupied with matters most dire in the ruling body of the Planetary Alignment. Elected chancellor of the loose union of representatives of the worlds, she played the role of benevolent manager in times of strife. Things had gotten bad over the last several weeks. The introduction of Argeia into the Alignment was rocky, and a criminal element had arisen in the galaxy since the destruction of the pirate Sagan. Pretenders to his notoriety had cropped up everywhere; new faces looking to succeed the master and get themselves a reputation. Most had been dealt with swiftly and effectively by the Spatial Police Force under the new command of Breth Janes; “Killer of Giants,” as she was known.

Beneath the chaos and confusion, however, looting and posturing was a greater puzzle. Running like a resonant rhythm over which all the other problems played was a string of crimes that had no specific pattern, but did have similar circumstances. Locations across the Alignment had been targeted for terrorist acts ranging from destroying old and uninhabited buildings to specific murders of high profile celebrities and public servants. Added to that were the deaths of a handful of slaves on Quet, a military functional manager on Earth, and a recently abused child on Alexandrius. All had died quickly, with the same pattern of slashes across their bodies.

Accusations flew in all the usual directions. Dennier and Mainor blamed one another, Nalirra blamed everyone. A rat had arrived from Quet to demand an investigation into who was destroying his slave property and his cronies had made sure he got the chance to address the Legislature directly. The club owner had little of value, but many friends in the right places.  

*** 

Lucas Sinclair roused, his head limp on a sore neck. How long had he been asleep? The young wolf looked around to find himself in strange surroundings. He remembered falling asleep in a brothel where he had used the credit chit he had liberated from an unsuspecting tourist, but this wasn’t it.

There were lights here, painfully bright in his eyes, and the smell of antiseptic. His entire body ached, with the remnants of aches all over, twinges throughout his musculature here and there. It seemed a comfortable bed, but it was as though he had been sleeping on a table top. A long, clear tube flowed into his arm from a bottle of fluid overhead. He was in some sort of hospital setting.

Before him was a single figure. Swathed in a white cloak, an alien feline stood straight, peering directly at him with black, lifeless eyes. The grey creature was like no other he had ever seen, with the body of an Olympic athlete beneath the light wisp of cloth. Where the robe parted in front, he saw a dark grey uniform with silver lining, and a chrome belt the carried a variety of storage containers. On one side, he could see a short staff about three feet in length. The canine sat forward to speak, and realized that he couldn’t hear the stranger’s breath, nor perceive the rise and fall of its breast.

“You are awake,” came another voice.

Lucas turned to the new sound, a small slateboard datapak directly to his right. On its screen was a white silhouette against a black backdrop. It was smooth and unmoving; the canine figured it wasn’t a live picture. A small, red eye pointed at him, feeding his image to whoever was speaking to him.

“Where am I?” Lucas asked, wincing with an uncomfortable turn of his frame.

“You are in my care,” the image replied. “You’ve been here for five days.”

Lucas blinked, moving his stiff body a bit more and noticing how dry his mouth was. “Whuh-what am I doing here?”

“I like your work, Sinclair,” the electronic voice rasped. “I want to employ you.”

Lucas chuckled, a contemptuous smile spreading across his face. “Sure, what you want?”

“I want a technical advisor and computer hacker. You come highly recommended.” At the edge of Lucas’ vision, the grey alien moved slightly, drawing a small device from beneath the white cloak, clicked a switch and activated it.

Lucas crossed his arms smugly, “Sure, I’ll need an advance of ten—”

“You’ll do it for room and board,” came the reply.

Lucas grinned in oily smugness, “No, I only work for money. Up front. In advance.”

“Actually,” rasped the slateboard, “I know what you do things for. No amount of money can persuade you. You are motivated by personal comfort, which I can provide to you in spades.”

Lucas considered this for a moment. Maybe he could milk this sucker for something nice, if not credits. What the heck? Who needs wealth when he’s got all the things he wants at the end of a string?

“I can get you women if you want them,” the slateboard continued. “I can get you drugs, flashy cars, amenities of the most high. But no money.”

“My tastes run to the exotic,” Lucas said, testing for a reaction. “Certain things I only want to know about alone.”

“I can get you any compliment of beautiful boys you want,” the voice purred. “I have an associate who…”

“No!” Lucas choked, disgusted at the very idea. “That’s—that’s not what I meant at all…”

“I’ll expect you to be in your office tomorrow morning. You have the rest of today to get your things in order. Your personal dormitory has been laid out for you on the other side of the far wall. The dining facility is open all the time. I trust you’ll have no further questions.”

“Hey, I didn’t accept yet.”

The voice said nothing for a long moment. Then a small blip of sound came from the screen and Lucas pulled back. The grey feline at the foot of the bed snapped its fingers once, drawing his attention. Lucas watched as it pressed a switch on a device that it held. The device made a high-pitched squeal, and the wolf felt a sharp pain in the smallest toe of his left foot.

An instant later, the toe exploded with a sickening splatter, spraying blood, bone and cartilage over the sheets and the bed. Lucas screamed, pulling his wounded foot up to cradle it, to pinch off the bleeding and try to stop the pain. The grey creature handed him a swatch of gauze and a first aid kit before shutting down the hand-held device and returning it to its case on the chrome belt. Lucas wept openly, his cocky composure shattered by the raw agony of his punishment.

“There are one-hundred and twenty more of those planted all over your body, Sinclair,” the voice from the slateboard said. “Don’t try to remove them or scan for them, as they’ll all be set off one by one if you do. You’ll die slowly, terribly as your bones crack and your organs burst. If we detonate surface charges, such as what you just experienced, we can dismember you at every major joint. If we detonate inside you, we can cause ulcers, aneurysms, heart attacks… whatever we want. Do you understand?”

Lucas, barely cognizant through the throbbing pain, nodded in the direction of the slateboard.

“Good. Work well and you will be rewarded with all you want. Work poorly…” The voice trailed off, allowing a pregnant silence to fill the room.

The grey creature stepped forward to take the slateboard, its body moving like a serpent across the room. It left the room to allow Lucas Sinclair to bind his wound and consider his future.  

*** 

In a dark room, Var Briggs stood before a shimmering white projected image in a corner of the bridge of the Basilisk. The former first officer could feel the air grow heavy as the projection came to life in front of him. Standing nearly seven feet tall, it was an image of a white robe with a cowl. An unseen face was cloaked behind the hood’s shadow, disguising not just its identity, but its race as well. Even without seeing the dread face, Briggs knew that its mood was sour.

“I thank you for responding so quickly, sir,” Briggs said, performing the best bow he could muster with broken ribs. He shivered, hands shaking in the glow of the projected light. He was not accustomed to addressing Sagan’s master.

“Where is his body?” the hazy figure replied in a cold, mechanical voice.

“Sagan was destroyed with the Blue Horizon, sir,” Briggs added. “He…”

“His body, Briggs,” the voice snapped. “I want to know where his body is.”

“The Spatial Police Force retained him, sir,” Briggs stammered. “Maybe on Joplin. We don’t know where…”

“Sagan was destroyed.”

Briggs stopped, still quaking in the sight of the white image.

“His body experienced a metabolic breakdown,” the image replied in its cold, mechanical purr. “Sagan has decomposed by now, his body is a stew of fetid, broken pieces that the authorities will never be able to learn anything from. It was my design. He was wise in not telling anyone else about it.”

Briggs held his breath, unsure if he had just made a mistake. He fidgeted for a moment, and then attempted a smile. “That’s very wise of you, sir…”

“Do you think you will be able to command the Basilisk when it is refitted?” the voice purred.

Briggs stood tall, set his jaw firmly, “Yes sir, I’ll take her and destroy the Blue—”

“You’ll do no such thing!” snarled the voice. “Sagan was a fool off on his own initiative when he took on the Blue Horizon. He endangered my ship and the rest of his crew when he did that. Ships and crews cost, and I have no onus on Sinclair or his people. They have their problems to deal with at this point.”

“Y-yes sir,” Briggs said, nodding in agreement. “And what of Captain Natasha?”

Captain Natasha Khasho is also not a matter for your concern. You will receive new orders when the Basilisk is ready. See to your healing, Captain Briggs,” the voice trailed off as the image de-phased.

Briggs turned and ambled back to his lounge chair. He stared out the thick glass view port to the black cityscape outside. Captain Briggs… it sounded so alien.  

*** 

In a vaulted hall, ringed upward with seats and lit with pure white lights, the congregation of delegates from all the inhabited worlds had gathered in the Planetary Alignment Legislature. Each of the populated worlds had sent five representatives, with ambassadors from non-surrounding planets representing the ecological and political needs of the worlds without sentient life. The hall buzzed with voices here and there as the new representative from the white planet Argeia took the podium.

It was an intimidating place to say the least. Situated at the bottom of the egg-shaped hall, delegates had to look up to all of the other members of the PAL. A short, stout Kastan named Bon Widi addressed the Legislature with an air of confidence as he accepted the charter that welcomed Argeia to the Alignment. The alien Kastans were a felinoid race of unknown origins and even more obscure culture, having no genetic ties to any of the original Terran colonies.

Widi was broader than most of them that had ventured out into the cosmos—considerably less well known than hired killer Jape Devon or the musical group Superconductor, whose one album had to be circulated on black markets because it never should have left the planet Argeia.

Senator Ferry, representative of Alexandrius, stroked his chin in thought as the strange alien addressed his colleagues. It was the same tired diatribe about bright futures and such, and it ran boring in his ears. But the canine was more concerned with the dark figure standing just to the Senator’s left. Senator Widi had not introduced his colleague, whose dark leather clothing stood out in stark contrast to the Senator’s billowing white robe. It was like a black knight protecting an overlarge magistrate, and the expression on its countenance told Ferry that its owner did not want to be here standing on ceremony.

Until a month ago, the Kastani of Argeia had been reluctant to join the Alignment. However, a trade negotiation and the opening of a faster route to worlds with ore and resource deposits had garnered the Kastani the favor of their new friends. But Ferry sensed something was wrong with the situation—something he just couldn’t put his finger on.

Widi finished his presentation and was met with a standing ovation from the gathered Legislature. The dark figure bowed and whispered into his ear, then turned on its heel and left the Legislature Hall. It passed by Ferry as it left and the canine Senator got a glimpse of the tunic it wore beneath its black cape. It was a blanket of expressions; the tanned leather surface of  the skins of stitched-together faces of fallen enemies, sheared from their skulls at death. Ferry shrank from the grisly visage as it passed by, and the figure stopped to look at him. Beneath the cowl was an old, haggard face that had seen too many years and wars; the eyes burned dark green beneath gaunt brows. Ferry knew in an instant that the Kastan did not want to be here, watching his world’s sovereignty evaporate before his eyes. He turned and continued out the door as Bon Widi strode across the hall and took his seat.  

*** 

“This is incredible,” Cindy mewed as the ship sailed under a massive, arching column. A shy glint of light blue shone on the horizon as the only indication that there was something beyond. All around, smooth white buildings seemed to fall with liquid ease into one another. The city was no mongrel conglomeration of edifices built independently of one another, but a single, flowing ocean of architecture that stretched on to the horizon. Several crew members stood before the front vidscreen as the city-state spread out before them, a gleaming white and silver ocean seemingly made of crystal and ice. In fact, the glittering structures were composed of a metal that could only be found in one other location, and that had dried up six years prior.

“An entire city made of Siilv,” Renny whistled, awestruck at the spiraling, organic buildings and crossways that hung in space.

Captain Sinclair, however, found himself having to pay more attention to the flying than he usually did. Something about the Siilv metal in this quantity was playing havoc with his instruments and he had to fly into the spaceport manually. Something about the way the buildings caught and scattered light made even that difficult, as angles changed and performed in ways he was not accustomed. He stayed in the open as much as possible, but often found himself compensating for the strange effects when he had to pass close to structures or under the vaulting walkways.

“Samantha,” he said, diverting his attention when the chance came.

For a long moment, there was no reply, and then the canine responded in a whisper, “Yes?”

Merlin pulled his eyes away from the vidscreen long enough to see his crewmate staring at the city vista, clutching at her lapels. Tiny streaks of tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Snapped back, she caught herself. “Sorry… it’s just… so beautiful.”

“I know,” he replied. “Please get on the Com and get some landing details?” 

She turned with slightly more professional air than usual to her console and keyed in the information they had received from the shipper on Earth. The key-code would connect the ship with the spaceport where they would land, meet the customer, and deliver their refrigerated goods.

Before she had a chance to hail anyone, a strangely-accented voice responded in Standard on the audio communicator, “Release your controls. We have you.”

The sticks suddenly became heavy in Merlin’s hands, and the wolf fought the urge to wrestle them back into his power. However, he released the controls and found them moving on their own.

“Excuse me,” he asked at the panel, “but what’s going on here?”

“We have you in our guidance beacon, “the exotic voice replied. “We will guide you to the Nikke dry-dock. Relax and enjoy the ride.”

Merlin’s heart suddenly leapt into his throat as the ship began to speed up. It glided through quickly-shrinking apertures in the structures before it and rounded corners that seemed to converge against the horizon in unhealthy ways.

After several seconds, he realized that even though the ship shot through the structures, slashing around the flowing, organic buildings at wild speed, that they were not touching any of them as they moved. After several seconds of heart-pounding fear, the vidscreen filled with an immense, eggshell-colored dome. This, he had seen in a manual, was the Nikke Intergalactic Dry-dock and Spaceport — or NIDAS as it was commonly called.

Merlin studied the screen before him and drew back. The structure below was seamless, a sheen of chromatic energy on its surface flamed like a bubble on a soapy counter. At the base of the dome, a few dozen bodies moved.

Then the ship got closer to the beige dome, and the other crew members began to turn his way. The Blue Horizon’s speed had not diminished, and they were fast flying toward the structure as it almost seemed to lurch out toward them.

“Captain?” Renny asked, a worried expression crossing his face.

“Uh—” Sinclair said into the receiver.

A black fissure appeared in the bubble—a vertical slot that stared back at them as if a feline eye. The ship turned onto its side with a lurch, shot through the opening, and into the bubble, continuing its rotation until it slowly came to a stop inside the massive structure.

Inside the dome, a plethora of ships from all over the galaxy sat docked, as their cargoes were loaded and unloaded. The Blue Horizon moved toward an occupied stall before banking right and gliding into an empty spot on one of the three ringed levels within the dome.

“Thank you for flying Kastani Air,” Pockets chimed.

As the ship settled, Merlin checked his instruments to find that the engines had been shut down several minutes before, and that the landing gear had already been engaged.

“Who—?” he looked to Renny, but the cheetah shook his head in response.

“Full service, I suppose,” Merlin replied a little uneasily, knowing an outside power could govern his vessel so well. “All right everyone, we’ve got cargo to unload. Snap to it.”

The pack filed out of the bridge, through the corridor to the lift, down to the cargo hold. Settled into the NIDAS, the crew still felt apprehensive about their arrival. The beauty of the city below had been muted somewhat by the loss of control upon approach, and they wondered exactly how much control the Kastani actually still had over the ship. When they reached the hold, Durant detached the braces with a hiss of escaping gas as a hydraulic whir engaged and the bay door slowly yawned open.

Merlin stepped away from the cargo and looked around the inside of the NIDAS port. Three stories of vehicles parked inside the behemoth structure, all along the curvature of the inner dome. Each compartment was sealed off from the next by a series of force fields that resonated in regular pulses of energy. The wolf looked to the outer wall to find a gleaming black machine attached to one wall. The spherical object had, as its one decoration, a blinking red eye and a hum as it made slight calculations.

“What is that?” Pockets asked, sidling up to the captain.

“Oh, they’re gravity regulators. We’ve seen those on Hestra. They adjust to conform to the specific needs of the ship crews that park here. See the force fields?”

He nodded.

“Those compartmentalize each of the sections, so that each crew that arrives can have enough time to acclimate to the heavier gravity on this planet. If we’d just stepped off of the ship into Argeian gravity, we’d all weigh about 250% of what we do now and it would be difficult to breathe, much less move. The GRs will slowly break us in so we can get used to it.”

Near the black sphere, a door spiraled open and the bay filled with flashing yellow light. A tall, metallic figure emerged from behind the door and stepped forward. Durant and Pockets both turned to the sound of a warning klaxon and grinned. The white-gold figure strode quickly, despite its mass and apparent weight, toward the ship.

“Everybody step back, okay?” Durant said to the other crewmembers, busily unlocking cargo straps.

The form stepped forward with heavy mechanical movements, and the captain saw that it was actually a Kastan in an augmented suit. The alien gave him a friendly smile, extended one of the thick, robotic arms and spun the large pincer. From a small portal on it, a slip of paper emerged from a slot.

Merlin took the paper and read: 

SS BLUE HORIZON, PA REGISTRY #1138.

SHIPMENT K-T421, BLUE DIAMONDS AND

FROZEN STRAWBERRIES. PLEASE STEP BACK. 

He motioned to the rest of his crew, and the mechanical loader stepped up into the cargo area, wrapped pincers around the nearest crate, and pulled it with a frozen crackle up from the floor. He then turned and stepped down the ramp, loading the crate onto a floating pallet that had sailed in after him.

Durant grinned at Pockets, approving of the mechanized loader and making a note to check price and availability when he got the chance.

Renny crossed to stand beside the captain, but looked off into the open central area of the NIDAS. A low hum of energy filled the place, sounds of machinery and the occasional shower of repair sparks echoed off the walls. But in the center of the place was a circular station with three Kastans moving to answer questions, distribute information, and help a few other aliens gathered around the circle. The station was in three concentric rings, the two inner rings stacked progressively higher.

“Help desk,” the captain interjected. “Why don’t you go down there and see what’s going on about accommodations?”

The cheetah looked around for a ladder or staircase, but his eyes lighted on a panel near the edge of the compartment. He leapt out of the cargo hold and approached it, to find the words “For Help” written in Standard above a green button. Smiling to himself, he pressed it and waited for a representative or elevator lift to come to his response.

Instead, the second ring of the circular desk rose—with no visible means—to the second level and hovered in mid air. At his feet, a shaft of light sliced across empty space and ended at the edge of the help desk. When he did not move, the pretty alien behind the desk smiled and motioned him forward. Gulping his courage, Renny stepped forward onto the shaft of light and found it solid. Then, with a pleasant grin, he crossed the space between himself and the help desk.

“Welcome to the NIDAS,” she purred in the exotic, throaty Kastan accent. “You had a question?”

“Yes, we’re the Blue Horizon, delivering blue diamonds and strawberries… we were wondering about accommodations, hotels, food places?”

The alien tapped a floating keyboard before her and a blue-green screen appeared before Renny, flashing a series of images, symbols, and snowy data too fast for his eyes to process. A moment of shock overcame him and he stepped back in reflex, but then the images disappeared and the pretty Kastan was handing him a grey sliver of metal. “This is the key to your suite.”

“But… what?”

“Thank you,” she said, and motioned for him to return to the ship. Renny turned reluctantly around, pocketed the key, and mumbled to himself about the inefficiency of the service as the ringed desk floated up to answer a question on the third level. He noticed also that as he walked, the light bridge disappeared the moment after his foot rose from it. Uneasy, he quickened his pace—only to find the bridge kept pace with him—until he reached the safety of the docking bay structure.

He approached the captain and extended the key. “Here we are… this is the key to our suite.”

The captain turned it over in his hands, “Only one?”

“One,” Renny replied, “but it’s in ten different compartments with three baths and a common living area. We’ve got a decent view of the city from a large window and an allowed pair of five-star restaurants within walking distance of it. We all have one dinner for free at one of them during our stay, included as thanks for bringing the strawberries.”

“What about recreation?”

“There are hover, battleball, and other zero-G rec areas in walking distance, plus traditional tennis and volleyball courts and a pool as well. Actually we can leave now and get rested right away and the bay crew will take care of everything.”

Merlin had to do a double-take at that, “Oh… your assistant was that informative?”

“She hardly said—” Renny started, but caught himself. The cheetah suddenly realized the wealth of information he had just passed to his captain, having heard only a few words from the alien girl. “She barely said anything, actually. She just showed me this blitz of… images and… other things…”

“She put it directly into your brain,” said a new voice. “It’s more efficient than having to work a map or brochure, isn’t it?”

Merlin turned to see a small, thin Kastan approaching them. He was coal-grey, with slightly darker hair draping his shoulders. He wore a lighter grey uniform with highly polished jackboots. “Hello, I’m Cibao. Welcome to Nikke. I would have been here sooner, but there was a holdup with welcoming one of our military commanders back from a long journey. Please accept my apologies, as we’ve been having some troubles with customs and miscreants in recent weeks. Perhaps you are aware of the goings-on in the Legislature?”

“We are, but don’t worry, we understand that there are many responsibilities all around,” Merlin extended his hand, but the diminutive Kastan did not take it.

“Please, come and rest yourselves,” he invited, oblivious to the gesture. Merlin motioned to his crew to follow, but Durant elected to stay back to close and lock the ship when the unloading was done.

After the others had filed out of the bay, the large grizzly bear stood watching the single Kastan unload the cargo. The alien handled the material with the competence of years of steady performance, seeming to dance in the heavy mechanical suit. Then his attention was drawn away by a shaft of white light the sliced into the dome, and a single ship entering the protected area inside. Durant could make out a faint trace of grey lines running to the ship’s hull and decided that those were the attractor beam emissions. But as the new ship moved toward its compartment, something strange happened.

The unloading Kastan turned abruptly as the sound of engines flared in the center space, and the clumsy black vessel began to shudder. The soft blue lights of the port suddenly went red, and an alarm sounded, piercing and shrill.

Durant heard a Kastan curse, delivered in the hissing language of that people as the black ship was hastily dropped into the nearest cubicle without the grace extended the Blue Horizon. Red lights ringed the cubicle as the force fields glowed orange and a voice from inside the ship began to scream, “For Shällachma!”

A moment later, a thunderous roar shook the NIDAS as the cube filled with flame and slashing shrapnel and the ship blew apart inside the containment field. A billowing, scorching cloud smashed against the energy field, boiling uselessly against the defensive wall until, its rage spent, it evaporated into a cloud of thick black smoke.

The clatter of running feet and raised voices, shouts and warnings filled the air as an emergency crew sped to handle the situation.

“What was that?” Durant inquired aloud.

“Terrorist,” came the eccentric Kastani accent. The unloader continued, “From the planet Brandt, they continue to attack us supposedly in the name of one of their gods. They think us abominations so they hire other alien ships to do this.”

Durant ground his teeth in a snarl, watching as a stream of white liquid pumped into the damaged docking chamber.  

*** 

Cindy snuggled into the comforter on her bed, luxuriating in the unbelievable softness of the fabric. More delicious than velvet and smoother than satin, the Kastan bedclothes were already proving to be the best she had ever felt. Quartered with Samantha, both had to resist the urge to strip naked and enjoy the comforter when they had first touched it. No doubt this was material that had provoked the creation of many cubs and kits in the past.

Samantha withdrew from the washroom shower in a bathrobe, still roughly toweling her fur dry, to see Cindy soaking up the luscious feel of the bed. She grinned at her friend and indicated that the shower was now free. Cindy moued softly, but went into the washroom to get rid of several days of accumulated yuck. When she had closed the door, Sam eyed the bed with particular delight, dropped her robe, and nestled into the comforter again.

She decided that she could learn to like it here. Then, as the comforter slithered across her thighs, she realized just how long it had been since she and Merlin had spent time together.  

*** 

“Having fun?” Merlin inquired, also emerging from the shower as roommate Renny pummeled a wooden structure in their room. Standing six feet tall, the thick object could spin at its base, but occasionally locked into a spot to offer resistance as the cheetah launched fists, feet, elbows and knees at its many protruding arms.

“This is great!” he chirped, slamming against one appendage. It spun around and swung another arm at the back of his head, but the cheetah was too fast for it. “It’s like they made all these rooms specifically for us!”

Merlin grinned at his crewmate; it was true. Perhaps as a portent of things to come, the nightstand by each of their separate beds contained prophylactics of various shapes, textures, and species-friendly proportions. Both of their full sized beds were covered in the most wonderful bedding, and a sliding partition could be pulled out for privacy should one or the other decide to invite company for the night.

“Go,” Merlin waved a finger in the direction of the washroom, “get clean. You smell like old socks.”

Renny quit his pummeling and struck a martyred pose. “Aah! My feelings are cut to the quick!” Then, in a flurry of motion too fast for Merlin to see clearly, he finished off the practice dummy with an all-out assault that spun it to and fro several times before spinning it completely around. Then he went into the shower with a grin. 

*** 

Renny and Merlin stood outside Cindy and Samantha’s room, and the door opened as the cheetah stepped up to inquire on them. Cindy appeared in front of him with a grin.

“We were just going to see if the two of you were hungry for dinner,” Renny said with a smile.

“I would be delighted,” Cindy said, offering a dainty hand for him. As he took it, she looked past him to Merlin. “Captain, Miss Holden needs to see you.”

Merlin shrugged at the mouse’s formality, moved past the pair of them and into the room. Cindy stepped quickly through the door and closed it behind her.

“What was that about?” Renny asked, perplexed.

“I think,” she purred, “that they need some time alone. Now, how about that dinner?”

It took a moment to dawn on the cheetah, but then a face-splitting grin crossed his lips. He curled an arm around the mouse’s shoulders and led her away.  

*** 

In the room, Merlin stood in shock as Samantha Holden stretched out on the bed before him, a rumpled bathrobe on the floor beside it. Something in the geometry of the room—or perhaps the color palette—seemed to accentuate every smooth curve and taut line of her body as it lay on the comforter. Her silken, quivering form melted into the fabric as if she were a drop of honey, and she ran her fingers through the luxurious stuff in a lover’s caress. She was the vision of a ripe, succulent peach in the eyes of a starving man.

The captain gasped despite himself. He had never seen her looking this gorgeous. His eyes found themselves riveted to hers as his ears alerted to the excited, almost laborious breathing, a throaty growl punctuated it. He saw a look on her face that communicated more than words, more than volumes of words, ever could. That face was one without shame or fear or reservation. It brooked no questions and offered no apologies: it was the kind of face he would remember until his dying day.

Merlin moved purposely toward her. She did not have to tell him what she wanted.  

*** 

The Auryn building on Sillon was a broad, tall structure composed of glass and steel. Lit up with a thousand lights, it was one of the most glittering night spots in the Planetary Alignment. Under a velvety blanket of stars, a gala event was taking place in the name of Intergalactic Aid, the charitable foundation responsible for brokering the newfound resurgence of industry on the planet Brandt. With the inauguration of the New Peoples’ Party, the economy was starting to pick up again.

In truth, Intergalactic Aid had armed a group of insurrectionists, and an ensuing bloodbath had been swept under the carpet by a willing and obedient media. Key figures from the IA had received positions in the new government, complete with large salaries and extremely loud titles.

A grey-cowled figure moved silently, gliding across the glistening floor like a shark. It passed through a throng of overly-dressed politicians, the kind who hugged your wife and kissed your children a little too long when a camera wasn’t around. Here was a priestess of a High Order on Alexandrius in her decorous raiment, and there a famed philanthropist from Ganis in a pressed suit and rings that flashed too brightly in the harsh light. Over there was the businessman from Brandt, flanked by his obese human wife with cosmetics caked so thick that her face resembled a Kabuki mask. Voices passed in thick accents, dribbling through the room like globs of mayonnaise as the parties spoke of the bright future and their plans for helping business and industry grow now that Argeia had joined the Alignment. Strange it was that no Kastani had been invited to attend. A nearby band banged out a strained blend of several musical styles that merged in a stew of artistic incoherence.

The figure wove its way through the crowd almost unnoticed. It was too small and unobtrusive to be a threat, and the neutral grey clothing made it less than a wisp of smoke through the cigarette-choked room. It stopped in the dance hall and set a small, grey cylinder in a corner, then silently exited as quickly as it had come.  

*** 

Morning broke on Argeia and found the Blue Horizon crew at breakfast.

“I can’t believe this,” Renny said as he tapped his ursine friend with the back of one hand. The cheetah sat up straighter in his chair as his lip curled in disgust. Even Max turned away from his hand-held video game to see what was the matter.

“Whuzzat?” Durant asked through a mouthful of vegetables. The cheetah turned up the vidscreen volume:

This is Chung Wong reporting live from the Auryn building here on Sillon. With the terrorist bombing of the Intergalactic Aid Foundation’s gala last night, several key leaders in the organization are now presumed dead. SPF and medical forces are still clearing out the rubble, but spirits remain low. In this, the most desperate act of terrorism in recent history, there is little hope.”

“Whoa…” Durant added as the woman on the screen moved under a line of security tape and across ruined landscape. Then he noticed that the short Asian woman wore a RESCUE jacket reserved for qualified personnel.

“Excuse me sir,” she jammed a thick microphone into the lined face of a worried rescue engineer. “This is quite a lot of devastation. Do you think you can handle it?” The man’s jaw dropped as he sought a response, and she pressed the mike further toward him.

Suddenly the screen snapped to the shocked and angered face of Holly Harken at the INN correspondence desk. The brunette snarled, “What is that stupid bit—”

“Holly,” a voice sharply called from off-camera, “you’re on…”

“Jon!” Holly faced the camera, “get her off that scene, NOW!”

Renny and Durant both winced from the screen. They had never seen this side of Holly Harken before.

“Someone better tell Samantha,” Durant rumbled.

Without another word, Renny dismounted his chair and was out the door.  

*** 

Samantha Holden ambled to the door and parted it only a crack. She and Merlin had not emerged for dinner, or for breakfast the next morning. When Renny reported the news, her fur was rumpled and she had a hastily-tied bathrobe around her body. However, he had never seen her look more relaxed and glowing.

“The Auryn building is on another part of Sillon,” Samantha sighed, “but thanks for letting me know. There’s no reason for Master Tristan to be in that part of the country, so I’m pretty sure that he should be okay right now.”

“You sure?” Renny inquired.

“Yes,” she responded. “I got a call from Senator Ferry, an old family friend who keeps track of things like this for me.”

“Whoa… okay then,” Renny smirked in appreciation. He knew that Sam was connected to people in high places, but a PA Senator was outside his imagination until that point.

“Who’s there?” came another voice from behind her. Renny looked over her shoulder and saw his captain wrapped in the luxurious comforter, sipping from a steaming cup. He also noticed rumpled clothing lying helter-skelter on the carpet.

“Just me,” Renny said. “A couple of us are going down to the rec area to see what all’s available. Either of you interested in coming?”

Merlin chuckled and took another lap from his cup. “Nope, no interest whatsoever,” Sam purred. “We’ll catch up later, okay?”

Renny shook his head and departed with a giant grin.

Samantha closed the door behind him and turned to sit at the table with Merlin. In truth, she had already spoken with Senator Ferry. He had also relayed the growing tensions in the Legislature about the recurring acts of terrorism and the unease some had about Argeia joining the PA.

“Has anybody checked the ship recently?” Samantha asked.  

*** 

Pockets gasped audibly as the flat grey portal to the docking bay spiraled open as a great iris. Beyond the faint glow of energy shielding the Blue Horizon, a small ship hung in space above the customer service desk. Resembling a slender wedge of black ice, the craft was gently moved to occupy the space on the other side of his ship. Along its outer edge gleamed a bas-relief carving of a chaotic slash mark, a symbol of the house to which the pilot belonged. The raccoon grinned despite himself, and suddenly realized the bear standing beside him had moved forward to the ship.

The Blue Horizon sat where they had left it, still upright on its thick landing gear beneath the dense Liquid Crystal engine. The weight of the engine made the stowed forward gear unnecessary, but it remained an unusual sight.

“Cool!” Pockets called after his friend. The bear turned to face his friend, and then followed the raccoon’s gaze to the second bay where the black ship had landed.

“What is it?” the bear asked.

“That’s good news!” Pockets responded.

Durant eyed the scene as a sliver of the black ship slid back and a short, compact body emerged from it. There seemed nothing unusual about the pilot; merely another Kastan. It was the first time he had ever seen one pure white, but that hardly mattered to him. The lithe creature dismounted his sleek craft and gathered a pack out of an unseen pocket in the hatch he had just emerged from.

“Oh-dee-ay!” Pockets called. The Kastan started at the cry and turned to face them. His face lit with a small smile before Durant’s mouth fell open. This creature had the darkest, most soulless eyes he had ever seen. Unlike the other Kastani, whose eyes glittered with vibrant hues like normal, this one’s sockets were a deep, flat black that reflected no light. Durant couldn’t exactly put his finger on why that bothered him, even though he had seen many strange races throughout the galaxy.

“Oh-dee-oh!” the Kastani replied in the grating, hissing Kastan accent. He approached the energy wall and tapped a series of switches on a nearby conduit, causing a ripple to appear in the fabric of the wall. A blinking green light on Pockets’ side demanded a response, and the raccoon tapped an “okay” button near it. The ripple became a hole and the alien stepped through.

“Jape Devon,” Pockets said, softly so as not to be overheard by too many.

Durant found himself taking an involuntary step back at the sound of that name. Easily one of the most infamous of all creatures in the galaxy, the dark-eyed alien had a reputation as one of the most vicious killers in the PA — and yet his friend greeted him with jollity and affection.

“Just here for a few hours,” the Kastan rasped. “Want to get a female?”

“No, sorry,” Pockets replied. “I’m on the job. Here, may I introduce Durant?”

The bear was cognizant of a greeting, and extended his hand out of courtesy, but Devon didn’t take it. He merely waved and spoke in his own language: “prehtu nama.”

“Come around to our place, I’d like you to meet my new boss!” Pockets invited.

“Certainly,” came the response. As the two chatted, Durant turned to his ship to look it over for anything amiss.  

*** 

Lucas Sinclair sat back in the comfortable leather chain before his computer terminal. It had taken him three weeks of constant work, thirteen hours a day and no weekends. Crosschecking, verifying and strengthening the code. This program, specifically ordered by his still-unseen employer, had to be the best that he had ever written.

His programming skills had come out naturally, fluidly as productivity had become his new goal in life. The young wolf stood and hobbled over to a second computer system, sliding a thin, black crystal into the reader. The system immediately scanned the crystal, a small green light indicating that it was in sync. Normally the light would go off, but this one stayed on.

The screen flashed once, filled with a nightmare of flashing lights and colors, then fell silent as a curl of smoke spilled out of the hard drive. Lucas took the destroyed computer apart and withdrew the primary drive to find that it too, was suddenly a worthless piece of plastic and metal cables. He tugged the crystal out of the drive with a grimace. It was ready. His heartbeat thrummed in his ears, his face hot with blood. He stripped off his clothing.

He thumbed a keypad and waited. Two minutes passed before a featureless white face appeared on his slateboard monitor. “Sir,” he stated, holding up the disk, “the computer virus is finished.”

“Excellent,” came the reply. “Put it on the counter and lie down.”

Lucas licked his lips in anticipation and obeyed, stretching out on a padded bunk nearby. A series of tones sounded in the empty room, and his body filled with an unbelievable pleasure. The disrupters placed throughout his body could not only bring pain, but ecstasy as well. This one sent him into paroxysms of bliss; a one-way ticket to Nirvana as his heart raced, his brain activity spiked, and his entire body burned like a brand. The young wolf whimpered like a pup as the spasms wracked his form, howling with labored breath as all his pleasure centers threatened a surge coursing through his body. Over and over the undulating gratification continued, until it abruptly stopped as he was filled with a cold emptiness. It was like slamming into a wall.

Lucas sat up immediately, gasping and choking at the sudden deprivation. “But I did it!” he cried to the room. “Please!”

“I believe you,” the voice rasped, and the image faded. “Deliver it to me.”

Lucas leapt up, struggled into his trousers, and hustled down the hall to pass the thin crystal on to one of the nameless other lackeys his employer kept as a transporter.  

*** 

“Well, this is great,” Merlin growled. A screen flashed before his face, stating in Standard that all transports were quarantined for another day while the assassin’s vessel was investigated. While the lupine captain understood the need, he disliked the inconvenience. The Kastani had offered to contact the next shipper and inform them of the delay, but Sinclair declined. It would be better to make up the time in flight than call ahead and risk the possibility of losing a job on an unscheduled stopover.

A bell chimed and Merlin approached the door. Finally out of the bathrobe, he was fully dressed and ready for almost anyone. However, on the other side of the door was an alien he had never seen before, with a bright and beaming Pockets standing beside it. “Yes?”

Pockets bowed slightly, “Captain Sinclair, I have someone you should meet. May we come in?” A strange look crossed the alien’s face as it regarded the captain. Devon pressed one palm over his breast in approximately the place his heart should have been and whispered something in his language.

“Sorry?” Merlin asked.

Prehtu nama,” Devon responded. “Just noticing how close you’ve been to death.”

Merlin shrugged and led them to the table in the center of the room. Cindy had taken up with Renny and he had moved in with Samantha for reasons nobody bothered second guessing. “Who am I meeting today?” The captain didn’t extend his hand this time, now aware of Kastan rituals.

The dark, lifeless eyes reflected none of the pure white light in the room as it spoke, “Jape Devon.” A look of astonishment and chilled fear crossed Sinclair’s face. He took a step back despite himself.

“It seems my reputation precedes me,” Devon said with a tight grimace.

“Oh no,” Pockets reassured him, “nothing to be worried about, Captain. Jape’s harmless when not on assignment.”

“I’m—a little shocked, actually. When I got into this business I wanted to keep a low profile,” Sinclair said, warming to the idea that his life would never be what he predicted.

“I wish I could say that this visit is all social, but there’s business involved. My employer allowed me a bit of time off to visit some family here on Argeia, but didn’t stay around to wait on me. She gave me a deadline to get to a rendezvous point and I’m a bit low on fuel. I’d like to contract your ship to transport my vessel and myself to Earth.”

“Can’t you just refuel here?” Merlin asked.

“Uhh…” the alien’s eyes narrowed to slit, unaware of how much he should tell the wolf.  “My vessel uses a particular type of fuel not indigenous to this world.”

“Okay,” came the uneasy reply, “don’t all space traveling vehicles use liquid crystal engines? Or do you incorporate the blue diamonds?”

“Neither. Mine is… unique.”

“He works for Natasha, remember her?” Pockets interjected in a whisper. Devon started at the mention of that name, but Merlin only scrubbed his chin with one finger. Apparently this was fairly common knowledge. He shot the raccoon a grim look that told him to mind his manners.

“We’d be traveling empty anyway. Can you pay a fair fee?”

Devon took a pen and a slip of paper from the table, scribbled a figure, and passed it to Sinclair. The wolf regarded it with interest, and nodded.

“Well then, we’ll be leaving as soon as the NIDAS releases us. As you probably know, there is some investigation going on and—”

“I’ll take care of that. When would you like to leave?”  

*** 

Master Tristan sipped his evening chamomile tea from an exquisite china cup. Clad in only his black velvet robe, the tall and elegant unicorn-like Silloni decided that tonight would be a good night to turn in at a sane hour. Having dedicated a good portion of his staff and resources to assisting the wounded and dying at the Auryn building for the past three days, exhaustion was starting to take its toll on him. Here in his ivory tower, Tristan could look out from any of eight tall, wide apertures on the entire spread of his resort. For some evening air, a short path led to an observation balcony extending like an outstretched palm from the bulb atop the thick tower. It was gravy, he knew, to have a sanctuary like this: pretentious and vain, but he had earned it. From this vantage point, the red-purple horizon stretched out as a ghostly ribbon in the failing light of dusk. None of the chamber lights burned now; he liked the dark of evening.

Tristan took the chance to look out from the nearest view-port. Below the tower was a celebration in full swing, with music, lights and fireworks. He sighed quietly, used to the distraction by now. An act of terrorism on one part of the planet did not halt the merriment in another. A good party, after all, did not stop for anything.

He felt—rather than heard—a soft footfall near the edge of his massive, open chamber.

“Peri?” It was common for the servant girl to deliver a nightcap — and sometimes a luxurious back rub — as he readied himself for bed. However, she did not emerge from the doorway. Tristan swept the vista with his eyes and saw nothing apart from the violet draperies blowing in the warm, gentle wind.

“Who’s there?” the dark Silloni called into the billowing draperies. Stepping out of the darkness like a jaguar, a small, compact shape entered the master’s private chamber. Swathed in an all-concealing grey robe, it could not have been more than five feet tall. A hand peeked through the draping fabric, revealing a metal staff a good three feet long. The staff glistened with slick, dark blood.

Tristan knitted his brow, dropping the cup to the floor where it burst in a shower of fragments. He backed instinctively, the tang of danger suddenly hot on his tongue. The door was behind him, and no one could climb the sleek walls of the ivory tower. The intruder made no movement save a slight cant of its hooded head as Tristan drew a heavy metal blade from behind the headboard of his massive bed.

“Who are you?” he asked in a voice that surprised even him.

The stranger snapped its wrist once, spinning the small staff in a peculiar arc. One end of the short staff telescoped back as a double-curve of polished blade licked out in a hiss of pneumatic pressure, and the metal snapped open like a spider’s unfolding leg. The intruder moved it coolly in the half-light of evening, as if offering it for examination. It was a double sickle, its second curved blade bolted on a hinge at the tip of the first. The robe parted on the other side, and a mocking, gloved hand beckoned him forward.

Tristan swapped the sword from hand to hand, weighing his adversary unsurely. If it was astute enough to find its way unannounced into his private chamber, it was likely an adroit fighter as well. The grey form did not move, but merely waited for the Silloni to strike first. Tristan moved cautiously forward and the intruder let him. Nearer and nearer he was allowed to draw before a slight flutter appeared in the grey hooded garment before him, like the arch of a coiled serpent about to strike. He was almost on top of it, and with his superior size and reach could easily smash it in two. This above all else warned him to be cautious of this adversary.

The sword flashed, slicing down on the grey form and striking the marble floor with a sharp kang as it missed its deftly moving target. Like an adder, the intruder lashed out with its hinged weapon, whistling through the air as it made a full revolution. The scorpion’s-tail weapon reached further than he had anticipated, and nicked the Silloni’s nose with its razor tip.

Tristan closed the distance between them and slashed out with the heavy blade, finding purchase and knocking his attacker back a good eight feet through the air. Its body was solid, hard and dense, but he was certain that it should have been a killing blow: nothing could have survived that swipe without being cleft in half. Still the whirling grey dervish slid across the floor to a stop before curling back around itself.

It moved across the smooth, marble floor, close to the ground as the wicked, hinged blade whipped back and forth before it. The hood concealed its face, but beneath he could see the blackest of eyes set deeply beneath a heavy brow. It opened its mouth to snarl, revealing translucent fangs slick with blood.

“What are you?” the black Silloni rumbled in a cold, astonished tone.

It snaked across the floor toward him again, whirling low. Most enemies tried to launch themselves against his impressive height and were easy to deflect. However, this one stayed low, beneath his normal reach and keeping him off guard. The Silloni parried in a tempest of flashing steel, striking low and on either side of his adversary before bringing his weapon up to strike from above. The stranger raised its weapon high to deflect the blow, only to see the Silloni blanch and pull the blade back. Tristan rotated his hips and planted a hoof in the stranger’s breast with all the strength of his massive thighs. The intruder shot across the floor in a straight horizontal line to smack against a pillar in a bone-crushing impact. Stunned, it nonetheless regained its footing and stepped back into the battle.

Metal crashed against metal in the close quarters, neither of the combatants gaining much ground. Tristan’s body and mind, forged like fine steel through countless decades of combats real and exercised, worked in harmonic concert. However, this foe was as well trained in the arts as he, and in several that he was not. He found himself matched, despite his long years of many disciplines.

Tristan slashed down with his blade, cleaving a glancing blow on the whirl of grey fabric as the stranger spun to the left, legs flailing out to anchor its acrobatic leap. The Silloni compensated with a flick of his wrist, swinging the blade on its axis up to follow the movement. In a rush of adrenaline, he felt the blade find purchase in a whorl of cloth. He spun the sword, twisting it in the offending fabric—too fast, too easy.

A movement at the edge of his vision caught his attention, and he swung the cloth-wrapped blade out to meet it. The attacker, now devoid of his concealing cloak, glided to a stop on padded boots, sliding underneath the blade’s arc and smoothly under the Silloni’s hooves. Tristan leapt straight up, barely avoiding the wicked sickle’s serrated edge as it slashed toward his belly in a flash of polished steel. Too late, he could not recover the blade as the wrapped fabric snarled the edge of a bedpost. The Silloni released it as he struck the marble floor with a deep, resonant thud of his hooves.

He could see it now, fully in the evening light. It was a rough humanoid shape; an alien he had never laid eyes on before, in a soft grey tunic that made its movements difficult to track in any light. It was as though a collection of ashes had formed into a man’s body. Soft-soled boots made its steps soundless. A slash of dark blood mottled the front of the tunic, but Tristan could not tell if it was its own. Its arms were open, its empty hand spread wide to invite another round of combat. However, most horrible, the wicked, translucent teeth split the face in a hideous, taunting grin.

It charged him, now sure of success. However, the direct assault was met with a heavy fist from the Silloni, swiping across the killer’s face and sending him sprawling to the marble floor again. Tristan moved to crush it, stamping heavily on the stone as his foe tumbled end over end to evade him. The elder Silloni followed it around the floor, determined never to allow it to gain equilibrium enough to rise.

Then in a swift movement, one hoof slammed down on his attacker’s left wrist. Tristan pressed his weight on the captured limb, but the bones remained unsplintered, the flesh untorn. A crack appeared in the marble as he ground down on it, but the wrist remained intact. The assassin planted both heels into his prey’s gut and Tristan stumbled backward.

The assassin moved again, a pirouette of deadly motion as its dark grey tunic fluttering with its impossible, gymnastic revolutions. It was dancing toward him, arrogantly sure of itself. With another volley of slashes, the killer pummeled his prey while Tristan deflected the blows with his metal vambraces. The steel sparked, flashing in the half-light like lightning bugs in a cacophony of musical pings! It was fast—almost too fast for the Silloni. The venerable warrior could feel his age creeping up on him in his ragged breath. This invader was a warrior in his prime, moving like quicksilver and driving him toward his own balcony.

Drapery billowed around the pair as Tristan was forced out onto the walkway overlooking his resort. The music and revelry below drowned out the vicious battle high above, and his own guards were heedless of his plight.

Tristan dropped to the floor, slashing a hoof under his opponent and whirling it in a practiced sweep, tangling the legs of his attacker. The cocky assassin was caught off guard and plummeted to the hard, smooth marble with a smack. Tristan recovered quickly and launched himself forward to tackle his foe.

In the split second between that moment and his striking the ground, the assassin was up on its feet again, flashing the curved double blade over his prey’s neck. Tristan felt a sudden, stabbing agony in the center of his forehead. Fingers of anguish slashed out above his eyes, clawing down the sides of his skull as another vicious slice of the blade crashed down a second time. The pain shot down his neck and into his shoulders, weakening the already stumbling Silloni with its sheer intensity.

In another moment, the pain slammed into his head and neck with a force unimaginable. The blade slashed down another time, hacking through the spiral bone in the center of Tristan’s forehead. The horn separated with a terrific, thick boom that sounded like a cannon in the master’s ears. He screamed despite himself as his drained muscle and sinew quivered in torment.

The pain reached down into his breast, tearing at his living heart as he collapsed to the cold marble. The master ground his teeth, overcome with a wave of nausea and hopelessness as the reality of what had just happened set in. A deep, eviscerating despair filled him like a vile acid. For a long moment he lay unmoving on the floor, eyes and teeth clenched as he awaited the inevitable blow.

The blow never came.

Tristan raised his face to see the assassin standing above him, unmoving even to draw a breath. The black, lifeless eyes reflected the glittering lights of the resort below, and a cold smile spread across its face as it regarded the spiral of bone lying in a pool of its own fragmented dust. With a smooth, effortless movement, the killer kicked the master’s horn over the edge of the balcony where it spun into the blackness below.

Pausing long enough to see the terrified look on Tristan’s face, it whirled again and disappeared over the edge of an aperture, seizing its discarded grey cloak from the heavy blade in a smooth movement of one arm.

Tristan reached up gingerly to inspect the thick nub of bone between his eyes, nerves flaming like sentinels when his fingers touched the exposed marrow. Far below, the celebration continued. A good party, after all, did not stop for anything.  

*** 

A receiver flashed on the wall as the com-link bleeped, demanding Merlin Sinclair’s attention. Odd, he thought, that he would be getting any communications at this location. Nonetheless, he put down his bag and moved to the console embedded in the wall. The letters across the screen read HESTRA in Standard, and the wolf wondered who would be calling from there. He tapped keys.

“Yes?” the wolf asked.

“Captain Sinclair?” a husky, tired voice rumbled over the speaker as the vidscreen displayed a simple message: image not available.

“Yes,” Merlin replied. “How can I help you?”

“It’s Taro,” the voice rasped. In two words, the sum of months of worry and wait slammed into Merlin like a physical blow. All of time and space stopped in that moment as his mind fought to grasp the image of Taro Nichols. She was there, wounded and bleeding from the belly in the dark corridor of the broken Blue Horizon, flashing red and yellow lights filling her face with an eerie glow as she ended the life of the dread pirate who had wanted to kill him. He felt the moment like a weight on his breast, forcing the air from his lungs. He blinked twice before remembering to breathe. “Taro?”

“Yes,” the voice replied. “I’m on Hestra with relatives. They’re taking care of me.”

“But…” he stumbled for words, “well, not to be rude but…”

“Why am I still alive?” he could hear a grim chuckle through the receiver. “I’ve been asking myself that for months now. Nobody’s explained anything to me and I have decided not to look a gift over too well. I don’t have long to talk so please tell everyone that I’m okay.”

“Sure,” he said, still bewildered.

“I’ll contact you later when I can. Thanks for everything.” Her last words bore the ring of a heart making a supreme effort to force air through lungs. As the line went blank, Merlin stood in stunned silence before falling to one knee on the floor, catching his face in his hands as the flush of relief filled him. His whole body shook as he accepted the knowledge and allowed his emotions to overcome him.

That was how Samantha Holden found him when she opened the door to summon him to his ship, now ready and cleared to depart.  

*** 

As the Blue Horizon lifted out of the Argeian atmosphere, Baath Cibao sat before a vidscreen watching the news. Holly Harken was reporting yet another act of terrorism in the Planetary Alignment. The sixteen hundred block of apartments near the Legislature had been detonated an hour ago, but only a few casualties had been reported. A few building workers, some passers-by, and only one resident who had gone back for a report he had left there accidentally.

Harken sat grim-faced as a photo of Senator Byron Ferry of Alexandrius scrolled up the screen.

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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.