By Vicky Morgan-Keith
Mrrowl’s feet moved with practiced ease from a basic guard stance to the earliest attack form he had learned as a cub. Surefooted, he stalked across the cold deck plates of the Mako’s main cargo hold while his forepaws struck and blocked blows with an imaginary foe. He found the rudimentary exercise an excellent way to loosen muscles, warm the body, and focus the mind before practicing more advanced combat forms. Plus it was a way to honor his father’s training, one of the few pleasant memories he had.
He was grateful Captain Paz had given him permission to move about the ship, although he was sure any entry into the more vital areas of the ship were being closely monitored. Not that he cared. Whether they believed him or not, he had no intention of harming the Mako or her crew.
He had rested as instructed at first, sustaining himself on Quickfix rations rather than making trips to the galley for food. But after a few days, the confines of his cabin made him restless, leaving him with too much time to dwell on matters of the past. Matters he’d rather forget, but couldn’t. He’d ventured down to the cargo hold for exercise in an effort to maintain his combat edge as well as to occupy his thoughts.
His breath puffed with exertion and sweat tipped his fur as he repeated the form over and over, building muscle memory until the moves took hardly any thought to complete. And as if unwilling to leave him in peace, the memories rushed into his forebrain, demanding attention. The hard, cold muzzle of the gamma-gun digging into his side. Spar’s cruel laughter, colder still than the weapon threatening Mrrowl’s life. The push of a button. The brief, brilliant flare of an exploding light freighter. Mrrowl’s roar of grief and frustrated rage, deafening to his laid-flat ears….
“Anna maweh, ro’at.”
Mrrowl whirled about with a start. Nearby on a stack of crates crouched the little Shrinaar female, a wooden spear held loosely across her knees. She eyed him curiously.
Mrrowl backed his ears. Why hadn’t he seen her come in? Or heard her? Or scented her? He’d been distracted certainly, but still. All false modesty aside, he was a warrior of some prowess, after all. He should have noticed her intrusion, yet he’d been caught cub-napping. How long had she been waiting there? Mrrowl felt his ears grow hot with embarrassment and hoped the heat of his exercising covered it.
The formal greeting she’d spoken was old and outdated as was the title she’d given him. Ro’at. Hunter. A title adult Shrinaar achieved in more primitive times when the tribes had been various family groups banded together to provide for their members as a whole. And although she spoke a dialect of their language strange to him, she was perfectly understandable.
Unsure how to respond to her, Mrrowl pricked his ears forward and simply nodded.
She cocked her head to one side, then jumped lightly down and approached him. A pace or two away, she stopped. Resting her spear on its end, she drew herself up proudly. He still towered over her, but it seemed to disconcert her not at all. Brushing her free paw against her cheek, she extended it toward him, claws sheathed, palm out.
“I am Shre’ka, sa’uk ro’at of the Ravanti,” she told him. She dipped her spear, then waited expectantly.
Mrrowl flicked his ears. “I am…urr…Mrrowl.”
Her lovely blue-green eyes bored into his, and he felt heat flash through his body for an altogether different reason. “And your tribe?” She asked.
His ears dropped. F’laar, he longed to say. But Mrrowl had lost his family long ago. A slave most of his life, he’d been little more than a thug since a strange twist of fate had freed him from the Neiran only to eventually land him in servitude to Spar. I deserve no tribe, he thought sadly. Managing to keep his voice steady, he replied, “I have no tribe, little huntress.”
She frowned. “No tribe?”
He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
Her frowned deepened, then abruptly vanished. “No,” she said with assurance. “That is not so. You are Mrrowl, ro’at of the Mako’s Run now.” She smiled at him, obviously pleased with her proclamation.
Mrrowl found himself smiling in spite of himself. “Perhaps,” he conceded, not having the heart to argue with her. “But I don’t think the captain has made her final decision about that just yet.”
Shre’ka appeared undaunted. “Do not worry,” she said, waving a dismissive paw for his concern. “All will be well, Mrrowl, ro’at of the Mako’s Run.” She grinned at him, then made a gesture of apology. “Forgive me, hunter, I have interrupted your training. Please continue. May I respectfully request to remain and watch? I would like to learn more about the warrior’s path.”
Mrrowl said nothing as he walked over to pick up his axe from where he’d left it near the hull. He hefted the weapon and regarded her thoughtfully. He pointed to her spear. Its shaft was bound with several strips of leather and woven strands of beads. A spearpoint fashioned from some type of azure crystal was bound securely to its tip. “You know how to use that?” he asked.
“Not as well as I would like,” she admitted.
Mrrowl took up a basic ready stance with his weapon. “Then, no, you may not remain and watch,” he mock growled at her, much like his father had to him as a cub. He rapped the end of his axe on the decking beside him. “Take up a stance like mine, my fellow ro’at, and let’s begin.”
By Vicky Morgan-Keith
Wiping grime off his hands with a utility rag, Sparg scrutinized his work a final time before replacing a panel over the locking mechanism of the damaged hatch. He’d removed his coat while working and picked it up after tossing the soiled cloth in his tool bin. The air had become a bit chilly and he shrugged the duster back on, welcoming its warmth. Captain Paz had powered down as many systems as possible during repairs to conserve their fuel. She hadn’t said anything, but Sparg knew she was concerned about the delay in getting the Mako’s Run back underway.
The Illyrian pilot was just grateful he’d been able to get the hatch repaired and the access tube connecting them to the pirate vessel to release from the Mako. They’d salvaged what they could first–spare parts, foodstuffs, medical supplies, fuel cells and the like. Mrrowl had even showed Captain Paz several crates of quality bot parts well worth taking. Perhaps that was why she’d offered the big Shrinaar an option to take the pirate ship, his freedom, and leave. He’d surprised Sparg by declining the offer, although Mrrowl had insisted on retrieving a small arsenal of weapons before they finally cut loose from The Last Chance, setting it adrift. Sparg wasn’t sure why Mrrowl had decided to throw in his lot with them. He didn’t think the Shrinaar meant them harm, but he intended to keep his eye on him–at least for a while.
He entered the cockpit which had been restored to relatively normal operations. He found the captain busily studying star charts while making calculations on her techpad. She looked up.
“Entry hatch is secure,” Sparg told her. “Locking mechanism is operational again, but it’s just a patch job and should be replaced as soon as possible. Pressure’s holding and outer door seals check out, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to give it a more thorough going over when we put into port somewhere.” He eyed the charts before her. “Speaking of which, you got a plan for where we’re headed, Captain?”
Paz tapped the chart thoughtfully. “I’d considered continuing on our scheduled route, but I don’t think that’s wise after the attack. I’d rather go somewhere closer and check our damage first, but I’d also like to make some profit during the stop if possible. Sure wish we had the facilities to take that jump drive shutdown gear, that’d bring us enough to keep us running for a good while.” She sighed. “We’ll have to make do with selling those bots Mrrowl pointed out to us. I don’t see a lot of options, though. Any ideas?”
Sparg looked the maps over, shaking his eyestalk. “Not much out here, that’s for sure.” He tapped a point on the chart with a stubby finger. “This our current position?”
“There’s an ultonium mining outpost on this planetoid near the trailing edge of The Scattered Sands–or there was. We could maybe sell the bots there,” he suggested.
“How do you know that?” The Alanti asked.
“Fresh out of school, I was an engineer for the Illyrian Ship Works,” he replied. “They have a huge database of ultonium mining operations and suppliers located all over GCW space.”
“Well, you’re right about the bots; the miners could probably use them, but there wouldn’t really be any facilities for us to make repairs,” Paz pointed out.
“Hmmm…,” Sparg mused, pointing to a different location on the map, not too much further than the mining outpost. “I’d discounted this at first, but it occurs to me we have Mrrowl for security now. Maybe we should go here.”
“Aron 5?” Paz asked. “Why? What’s there?”
“Fringe settlement,” he replied. “Not frequented by the authorities much, which is nice for those trying to keep a low profile. They’ve got a small trading outpost. Even have rocket bike races sometimes. We should be able to find a buyer for the bots as well as check our repairs.”
“You’ve been there before?”
Sparg nodded. “It’s been a while,…but it was part of my old circuit, back when I was racing.”
Paz glanced at the planet’s data file, then looked back to her first mate. “You think it’s safe?”
“Not really, no,” he conceded. “But with Mrrowl and his intimidation factor..,” the Illyrian shrugged. “…we should be safe enough.”
Paz waved him to the pilot’s seat. “All right, I’ll set coordinates. Let’s go!”
“Aye, Captain…just one other thing….”
“What?” Paz asked, annoyed. If the ship was ready to move, she was anxious to get underway. They’d lingered here far too long.
“Shre’ka,” Sparg said simply. “What’d those pirates want with her?”
Paz grimaced, then shrugged. “Slavers, I guess. You heard Mrrowl. How in the Freezing Fathoms should I know?!”
Sparg snorted, giving her a dubious look. “Come on! Looking for Shre’ka in particular?”
Paz sighed. “Yeah, I know,” she muttered. “It’s got me concerned, too.”
“Wish Mrrowl said more. Think he’s holding anything back?”
Paz shook her head, uncertain. “I’m not sure. I don’t think so…The information he did give us checked out, but I’m not ready to trust him completely. Maybe we can find out more at this fringe settlement of yours.” She gestured impatiently to the pilot’s seat again. “If you would kindly get us under way?”
But Sparg didn’t budge. Her irritation increased.
“Yeah…” he drawled, “…so why did you think the pirates were after you?”
Paz’s face darkened ominously. “That’s two things,” she grated. She pointed emphatically to the pilot seat. “Now shut up and fly!”
Sparg gave her an impudent grin as he practically leapt into the chair. “Aye, Captain!”
By Vicky Morgan-Keith
There was little room in the cramped confines of the cabin for Mrrowl to move about–let alone stretch. They’d locked him in here at gunpoint once the ship was secured after the failed attack. Mrrowl winced slightly as he flexed and twisted his side, then nodded in satisfaction. One would think the shot had done little more than singe his fur, but he knew better. He’d felt the blast, and he’d seen the blood spread across his xenon mesh vest. But now, just a few hours later, the injury was all but healed. He flicked his ears in amazement. The little female. She’d healed him. Healed him with no more than a touch!
The big Shrinaar’s brow furrowed in thought. He’d heard of such things years ago, before the Neiran had captured and enslaved him. While growing up on the GDF outpost on Orizon 2, his father had told him stories while home from patrols. Legends of strange Shrinaar who were living conduits for the power of the stars and knew hidden mysteries of the universe. Cub tales, his mother had always grumbled, but Mrrowl had never tired of listening to his father speak about the Sa’uk vo’ats, sky river elders, of the various Shrinaar tribes.
There was Ya’lar of the Taum’o’nan tribe, an esteemed oracle, who used his powers of precognition to save not only his own tribe from a massive earthquake, but several nearby tribes as well. Shar’na’lo, Healer of All Tribes, left the clan of her birth to wander her world, tending to any sick or injured she encountered. So great was her healing power it was said, that Shar’na’lo’s own body rejuvenated itself, causing her to live many centuries beyond a normal lifespan. But the mighty warrior Chur’wor was Mrrowl’s favorite. Skilled in the use of weaponry as well as formidable cosmic forces, Chur’wor protected his tribe for many years. His battle prowess was nothing short of legendary.
Now few tribes even had a Sa’uk vo’at. Mrrowl shook his head, the guard hairs of his neck prickling. He thought he might have met one when he was still a slave. Before Norg found him and took him in. Before his friend died and Mrrowl had fallen in with Spar’s gang.
Mrrowl’s ears went back, his lips drawing back in a silent snarl as he reflected on the events that had trapped him in servitude to Spar. Working for the Alanti had proved worse than his early days as a gladiator enslaved to the Neiran. At least in the arena those he had slain had possessed weapons of their own and could fight back! Spar possessed no such sense of fairness, preying almost exclusively on the unarmed or helpless. Regret and shame caused an angry roar to well up in Mrrowl’s throat, but the cabin door suddenly whisked open, and he swallowed it.
The female Alanti stood in the doorway, flanked on her left by an uneasy Illyrian wearing a dark brown leather duster coat. The beautiful little Shrinaar who had both shot and healed him stood quietly on her right.
“I’m Paz Valador,” the Alanti informed him, taking a step into the room. “captain of the Mako’s Run.” Her right hand rested lightly on her holstered pistol while she gestured to the Illyrian with the other. “This is my first mate, Sparg.”
The Illyrian gave Mrrowl a wary nod, which he returned. The little fellow held his weapon out and ready, although not pointed directly Mrrowl’s way.
“…and this is Shre’ka,” Captain Paz continued, with a nod to the Shrinaar healer hovering uncertainly in the doorway.
Mrrowl pricked his ears forward and gave Shre’ka a slow blink, a friendly gesture. She merely stared at him out of her great blue-green eyes and said nothing. I could get lost in those eyes, he thought. Tearing his gaze from hers with an effort, he looked at Paz. “I’m called Mrrowl,” he offered.
“What did your gang want with me, Mrrowl?” the captain asked, her voice terse.
Mrrowl blinked in surprise. “What?”
Paz scowled. “Don’t be coy!” She snapped. “I asked you a question! Your pyswan boss said to take the female and kill any others! Why was your gang after me?”
“But!–Spar wasn’t after you,” Mrrowl protested, sliding a glance to Paz’s right.
Both Paz and Sparg followed Mrrowl’s gaze.
“Shre’ka!?!” the Illyrian squeaked in astonishment.
Paz, too, was dumbfounded, but she managed to hide it. “Why?” she inquired sharply. “What could he possibly have wanted with Shre’ka?”
“I don’t know,” Mrrowl growled. “Spar and I weren’t particularly close. I just know when he told us what the job was, I decided not to remain part of his gang any longer. He crossed a line!” The big Shrinaar’s lips skimmed back from his teeth in a silent snarl. “I’ve been a slave; I wasn’t going to help Spar enslave someone else!”
“Like hell!” Paz retorted in disbelief, drawing her pistol. “You almost took my head off with that axe of yours!”
Mrrowl drew himself up, casting Paz a baleful glare while his face rumpled into a disquieting grin. “If I’d wanted to take your head off, guppy-girl, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“He speaks truth,” came a quiet voice.
All eyes flashed to Shre’ka. Paz considered her a long moment, then asked “You’re sure?”
“Really sure?” Paz reiterated, with a dubious look and gesture toward Mrrowl. “I mean, he’s a really big guy!”
Shre’ka nodded again.
Paz frowned as she considered the little Shrinaar. Shre’ka hadn’t been with them long, but she had certainly exhibited abilities Paz found…unsettling. They were too akin to the powers of the Alanti pysci for her liking. Paz had never felt at ease around members of that subrace of her people. Their appearance and the forces they wielded struck her as somehow unnatural. She didn’t know how Shre’ka knew the things she knew, but so far the little Shrinaar had always been correct, and Paz had begun to trust her counsel.
She let go a long breath. “All right then,” she said, reluctantly holstering her weapon. “He stays for now. Let’s let our guest get some rest.” She waved Sparg and Shre’ka out, then followed, pausing by the door controls.
Mrrowl made no move to follow. Or to lie down. “What’s going to happen to me?” he asked. “You going to drop me off somewhere?”
“Not sure,” Paz replied, “By any chance, would you be interested in a security job?”
Mrrowl’s ears came up in spite of himself. “Maybe. What’s it pay?”
Paz felt disdain sweep across her face. “Merc, huh? Money all that’s important to you?”
Mrrowl said nothing, but Paz could see the muscles of his jaw clench. He glared at her, and she glared right back, refusing to look away. “You know who hired your boss? Who his contact was?”
A shake of the head.
“What were your ports of call since your previous job? Can you at least tell me that?”
Mrrowl’s ears flattened. He snarled suspiciously. “You want me to confess to something so you can turn me in to the authorities for a reward!”
“Hey! You intruded on MY ship, remember?” Paz pointed out harshly. “Who’s got more cause not to trust the other?”
Mrrowl’s ears sank. He rumbled a gusty sigh. “You do, I suppose,” he conceded. He sat silent several moments. Paz thought he was going to refuse to answer, but finally he continued. “We’d been by a trading outpost on Kaskar II, Danev Station, and the Bazaar on Osshk.”
“Your ship’s name?”
“The Last Chance.”
Paz made a few quick notations on her techpad. “All right, here’s how this is going to work,” she told him. “You’re going to stay locked in here while I check this out. Then we’ll see.”
“We’ll see what?”
“We’ll see about you taking on that security job.” The Alanti gave him a wry smile. “As you probably noticed, we could use a little muscle on this ship. So behave yourself, get some rest, and try not to tear things up in here. If everything works out, these might be your new quarters.”
Amused by Mrrowl’s astonished expression, Paz walked out, but not without securing the door behind her, of course.
By Vicky Morgan-Keith
The Mako’s Run slewed abruptly to one side, rocking Paz violently about despite being strapped securely in her seat in the cockpit. Several control boards at her station sparked and flared brightly before all but one went out, followed immediately by the interior lights. Emergency lighting kicked on, dim amber glows that did little to push back the darkness that enveloped the young female Alanti captain, but Paz’s eyes were accustomed to the dark waters of her ocean home world, Oshiana. Her pupils dilated until her eyes were huge circles of black ringed with the barest edge of gold. She kept working, her webbed three digit hands darting across what few controls still functioned. Her mouth grimaced in dismay at the information they gave her, exposing rows of diminutive, but razor sharp teeth.
Paz was of the pyswan subrace of her kind–slim and lithe, possessing a quickness and agility not often matched by the more powerful and often brutish pyscrif or the malformed and physically fragile pysci. Her ship was a modified Alanti Manta-class freighter, a prototype crafted by her deceased father. Government officials had attempted to confiscate the freighter, but Paz had managed to spirit the vessel away before they could do so. She’d been on the run ever since.
Since her escape, Paz had only managed to access a few of the Mako’s secret design files after breaching considerable security encryptions and protections. Those snipets of data alluded to alterations her father had made to the vessel, but Paz had been unsuccessful in determining exactly what those modifications entailed. Although she was considerably skilled in technological security codings and how to bypass them, several of the files remained unavailable to her. Those she had managed to retrieve were either partially erased or severely corrupted due to her abrupt departure from the experimental vessel testing station orbiting Quantus 2. And unfortunately, as far as she’d been able to discover, augmented weaponry did not appear to be among the improvements her father had given the Mako.
Even worse, her crew–if one could call them that–consisted solely of one unlikely, but very game Illyrian pilot, and a young Shrinaar refugee. The Illyrian, called Sparg, she had found stranded on a refueling station looking for work. He’d jumped at the offer to pilot the Mako’s Run. Paz had wondered about his reliability, but was forced admit to herself she was hardly in a position to quibble. Despite her suspicions, Sparg had proven quite capable, getting them safely away when a couple of Alanti pursuit ships closed in. Although they escaped to the relative safety of jump space, the ship incurred damage, forcing them to set down for repairs upon one of the many uncharted moons in the little known Sorn system. There they encountered the little Shrinaar, Shre’ka. Paz still didn’t know what to make of her, or if bringing her along had been such a good idea.
Still, she was captain, and they were her crew. They would be looking to her for guidance. And she wasn’t about to let the Mako’s Run go without a fight. Franticly flipping switches, she managed to reroute power to the boards, punching the intership com as she went.
“Sparg! Get up here! Shre’ka…get somewhere safe!”
She got a garbled response that sounded like an affirmative wrapped in a curse and kept running checks as fast as she could push buttons and hit toggles. A row of ominous red indicators swiftly got her attention. Paz drew a sharp breath over even sharper teeth. Their jump drives showed complete shutdown! A chill ran up her spine like a wave on a beach.
What in the depths of the Freezing Fathoms had happened? If their jump drives had failed out here on the underside of the Reaches and they couldn’t get them repaired, they’d probably never even make it to the nearest star system before their supplies ran out.
Another indicator red lighted. An audible alarm sounded hard on its heels, pinging away faster and faster. Proximity alert! There was another ship out there! Paz was astonished. Someone had managed to drag the Mako’s Run out of its jump field into real spacetime! Were they pirates? Government authorities? Or something worse? She shook her head. Whoever they were and whatever they wanted, they were closing in fast!
“Sparg!” She yelled again, unbuckling herself from the pilot’s seat. She turned as she heard the door to the cockpit hiss open and he rushed inside.
“I’m here, Captain!”
Paz vacated her seat, motioning for Sparg to take the controls even as she drew her sonic blaster pistol from its holster at her hip. “Secure the door after me,” she ordered as she prepared to head to the main deck. “May be pirates, though how they hauled us out of our jump field is beyond me. Only the GDF are rumored to have equipment like that, but maybe pirates got lucky on the black market. Do what you can to stop whatever they’re up to, and don’t let anyone up here–I don’t care what they do!”
“Aye, Captain, but–!” Sparg protested as the door hissed shut on the rest of what he meant to say. Engaging the locks with a curse, the Illyrian ran to buckle himself in the pilot’s seat and got to work, his one eye squinting in the dim light.
Once satisfied the cockpit hatch was secure, Paz stepped lightly across the decking, searching the shadows, her weapon ready. No sign of young Shre’ka. Most likely she had retreated to hide in her quarters. Paz could have used her help, but supposed it was better she was out of the way. The Shrinaar was oddly unfamiliar with technology and had insisted on transforming her cabin into a small metal terrarium, filled with thriving plants from her home world. Paz hoped the little felinoid could remain fairly well hidden in her peculiar little garden. The ship shuddered and she pushed that worry from her mind, gripping her pistol tightly.
Something clanged and thumped against the hull, startling her. Grapples most likely, as their attackers secured an access in preparation to board. How many of them are there? Paz wondered. She cursed herself for not thinking to hire someone to provide security for the ship. Even a bot would have been better than nothing. She’d been floundering along with the Mako, uncertain of everyone and everything since her parents and brothers had been assassinated. Yes, assassinated! The young Alanti female bared her teeth in anger. She couldn’t prove it yet, but her family’s deaths weren’t merely a “tragic accident” as Alanti authorities claimed.
She heard a loud thud against the main hatch and felt the ship shudder again. She crouched down behind a partition near the main hold lift for cover. Paz rested her weapon on a crate shoved up against the short wall, giving the pistol a cursory glance. Sonic weapons were an Alanti innovation, their compressed blasts of sound capable of throwing targets back or even knocking them off their feet in addition to doing damage. The stun setting on Paz’s weapon was disabled, had been since her family was destroyed and she first began her flight from the life she had known. Paz had vowed in her grief to never let an enemy come at her more than once.
Another heavy clang resounded against the hatch. Paz thought she heard faint cursing and she grinned a fearsome smile. She reasoned their unwelcome guests had attempted to bypass the security codes of the hatch’s locking mechanism and had run into a bit of trouble. Paz had coded those locks herself after fleeing from her home to discover the truth about her family’s demise. If the intruders did manage to find a way around them, which was unlikely, Sparg had proven fairly competent in ship security systems as well. Hopefully he could delay them a bit more. Perhaps if they were thwarted long enough they would give up and leave to find easier pickings, or before someone else happened along to witness their piracy.
Paz shook her head, berating herself. That was a fool’s thinking. No one was going to show up to help her and her crew. Not out in the midst of a jump through the belly of the Outer Reaches. If something or someone did show up, they would have more to worry about than pirates. If pirates indeed they were. Paz’s nerves jangled, and she fingered the grenade she had clipped to her belt. Despite her assurance to Sparg, she held little confidence their attackers were indeed pirates. Something didn’t add up. They were well away from normal shipping lanes. Equipment that could force a ship to drop its jump field was not only rare but expensive. Only the most powerful flagships of the GDF were even known to possess such equipment. It was highly illegal for non-military vessels to possess such a thing. Paz’s heart thudded in her chest. Perhaps she had finally been found by the Alanti authorities. She had covered her tracks carefully, believing herself free of pursuit, but perhaps her cousin had betrayed her.
An angry buzzing began, followed by yellow sparks cascading from the hatch seam onto the decking. Paz took a deep breath and let it go, holding her pistol at the ready. It appeared the intruders had given up on finesse and avoiding damage to the Mako. They’d resorted to cutting their way in with torches.
“Sparg?” She called over the open ship com. “You watching this? They’ll cut through shortly! Fire on their ship!”
“Been tryin’, Captain,” came the Illyrian’s static-ridden reply. “They’ve got someone tryin’ to take over ship’s controls, probably to cut off our life support. I’m tryin’ to keep ’em out while I get the top turret alined to fire, but–” he broke off into a string of curses. “You did NOT just clear that, you scum–!” The rest was unintelligible.
“Do your best, Sparg,” Paz muttered, leaving him to his work and focusing her attention once again on the door.
It was fortunate she did. Without warning, the hatch shot abruptly up, recessing into the hull with a thump. Immediately, several individuals garbed in mismatched armor leapt through. Paz fired instantly in response, her first shot striking a human in the chest. The bolt left a scorched hole in his armor and flung him back into the access tube they had connected to the hatch. He did not get up. Her second shot merely glanced off the battered armor of an enormous Shrinaar who dodged the body of his fallen comrade without so much as a glance. He charged toward her with a roar, swinging a bizarre looking axe studded with blue stones. Paz ducked, the weapon whistling just above her head to bite deeply into the metal of the partition. The powerful felinoid yanked the weapon free with a snarl as an Illyrian with a particle beam rifle moved to flank Paz on her right. If she tried to retreat down the corridor to her left, the Shrinaar would cut her down before she got two strides. Paz despaired, engaging the countdown timer on the grenade she now clutched in her off hand. No one would take her father’s ship!
An Alanti pyswan male stepped through the hatch waving impatiently at his henchmen. “We’re only interested in the female,” he announced. His voice was sibilant and harsh. “Kill any others.”
Paz’s blood froze. They were after her! She prepared to toss the grenade, hopefully right at the Alanti male’s feet, when an energy bolt struck the big Shrinaar. He staggered, grunting in pain, and both he and Paz looked in surprise down the main corridor of the ship.
Shre’ka stood in the darkened hallway, the pistol she’d fired still smoking in her paw. The weapon looked completely at odds with the primitive leather loincloth and halter she wore, and Paz marveled that the little Shrinaar had managed to fire the weapon at all. Shre’ka’s ears were back, her eyes wide with shock as she stared at the feline intruder in astonishment. Oddly, Shre’ka’s target stared back at her, equally transfixed, appearing even more astounded than she was.
Paz took advantage of the diversion and fired at the Illyrian intruder while the felinoids were distracted. She dropped him, but the Alanti cursed and swung his gun around. Paz started to lob the grenade, even though she was certain the Shrinaar would cut her down with his axe. She stopped as she realized the Alanti pirate wasn’t aiming his weapon at her after all.
The next moment he fired, his shot going wide into a wall partition, setting the circuitry behind it to sparking. The lights dimmed even further, but Paz still made out her target going down beneath a furious axe-wielding ball of fur, fangs, and claws. She hastily deactivated the grenade, watching the brief struggle in bewilderment.
Shre’ka padded softly up to stand beside her.
“The ro’at…the hunter…he has changed his prey,” the little Shrinaar told her with a smile.
“Yes, he has,” Paz agreed, keeping her pistol trained on their remaining intruder, crouched over the body of the Alanti male.
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By Vicky Morgan-Keith
Her Most Excellent Grandness Messilina IV, Beloved Daughter of the Divine Firstmother Aoth, Wielder of Life and Death, Foremother of all Neira, and Empress of the Neiran Empire furrowed delicate feathered brows to scowl down from her hovering throne of alabaster marble. She watched her Grand Oracle’s slow and stately approach intently. The Empress’s throne, inlaid with precious gems and gold, was carved with beautiful scenes depicting the various achievements of her young and privileged life. Few could look upon its pale and glittering surface without feeling at least a touch of awe.
Alas, Grand Oracle Azhia was one of those few. Now blind, she couldn’t see the throne. The Empress doubted her ancient counselor would be impressed even if she still possessed her vision.
Messilina narrowed her luminous amber eyes. As always she marveled at Azhia’s ability to “see” her way about despite her sightless eyes, clouded over forever by prolonged use of Fahz Jiin, the holy dust of their goddess, Aoth.
Instead of being roused from sleep as Azhia had feared, Messilina had been enjoying a series of private gladiatorial bouts arranged in her honor by Orenatha, Jamad of House Tur-Saf. Several high ranking Jamada had also been in attendance. Despite being an obvious ploy by the Tur-Saf Foremother to curry Messilina’s favor and that of the elite Neiran Houses, the bouts had proved quite entertaining. Orenatha had spared no expense on her gladiators or her guests’ refreshments. The young empress smiled, but whether it was at remembering a particularly bloody battle between the exotic combatants or the exquisite vava pear wine served at the event was anyone’s guess.
Stopping precisely five strides away from her sovereign, though how she knew this was a mystery, Azhia curtsied deeply. She bowed her head on an elegant neck amazingly unwrinkled with age, gracefully spreading her long and slender arms wide, palms up. The folds of her feathered robe rustled softly about her as she made her obeisance. She wore no weapons, but with the power of The Deep at her disposal, the Grand Oracle was far from defenseless.
The Empress studied her Grand Oracle and chief advisor a moment, noting the lack of a headdress or any other adornment in her hair except for a simple string of fire pearls. The precious pearls were woven within a loose braid that fell straight down her back. Nor were Azhia’s robes the most official or formal, although Messilina found herself admiring the pastel green plumes which adorned them. They were the feathers of a picaki songbird, found only in isolated mountain jungles of the Shrinaar home world, Shrinaa. Very rare and difficult to obtain. Her Oracle did not carry her stave of office, although the finely wrought and bejeweled metal belt binding the robes at her waist was inscribed with the holiest symbols of the High Priestess of Aoth. Azhia had come before her garbed to remind the empress of the elevated place the Oracle held as the chief interpreter of Aoth’s will, but also as Messilina’s advisor and confidant. Her intent was not to intimidate or threaten, but to evoke trust, camaraderie, even…friendship. And the hour! That the Grand Oracle had roused herself to come before her empress in this way, at this time–Messilina was intrigued.
Smoothing her brow, she crooked a long, slim, delicate finger. “Rise and speak with us, Grand Oracle. What does our Chief Counselor wish of her Empress? And,” she added, ever so softly, “with such urgency it could not wait until the morrow?”
Azhia straightened. Her pale vacant eyes met Messilina’s in an unnervingly direct stare. “My Empress, I have received a vision from the Firstmother.”
A vision! Messilina felt annoyance sweep through her. Only her knowledge that Azhia was not prone to the petty trickery and shams of lesser priestesses kept her from dismissing her advisor outright. She sighed impatiently. “And you wish to discuss this now?! Surely it can wai–”
“No!” Azhia shouted, then caught herself, shocked at her own impertinence. The Empress’s infamous guards, the Praetoris, had immediately drawn their weapons and advanced from their positions around her throne and along the throne room walls. Messilina held up a hand to stay them, then flicked it once, sending them back to their posts.
“This dream must be disturbing indeed,” Messilina grated. Her expression dark, she leaned forward on her throne. “You dare interrupt your empress, Azhia? You forget your place!”
The Empress deliberately omitted using the Grand Oracle’s title, calling her by her familiar name only. A Jamad would have had no choice but to draw her jekara and attack to avenge the insult and implied threat to her House, but Azhia was an Oracle, Grand Oracle, and therefore technically houseless. She advised the Royal House, true, but above and beyond that her responsibility was to Aoth Firstmother and the Neiran people as a whole.
Azhia flinched slightly, then resolutely set her jaw. Her duty to warn Aoth’s Daughter and protect the empire was greater than the threat to her life. However…again she bowed very low. “Forgive me, Most Beloved Daughter of Aoth,” she replied with deference. “I meant no disrespect to Your Majesty. And my Empress is correct–the vision was most…disturbing. I have no doubt it is a warning from Aoth. It should not–can not–be ignored…despite its history.”
“History?” Messilina snapped irritably. “You have had this vision before? Why have you not spoken of it before now?” She was regretting her overindulgence in wine that evening. Fatigue was finally catching up with her. “We wish to retire. How much longer will this matter delay us?”
“First Daughter,” Azhia replied. “Aoth has not shown me this vision before, but it has been shown to other Oracles in the past. It was,” she continued in a hushed voice, “the vision of…the Destroyer.”
Messilina stared at Azhia in shock. That of all Aoth’s many priestesses, oracles, and acolytes, the Grand Oracle herself would come before her with such news was almost beyond comprehension. The Destroyer Prophecy had existed for centuries, and nothing–nothing!–had ever come of it. All those who had pursued the vision in the past had eventually fallen victim to ridicule, and she feared for her aged advisor. Messilina admitted herself fond of the Grand Oracle, but if Azhia persisted in folly, exposing the throne to derision, the Empress would not hesitate to destroy her. She wanted to laugh, to wave aside the Grand Oracle’s concern and dismiss it forever before it could become a problem, but found she could not. The weight of certainty in Azhia’s expression wouldn’t let her.
Frustrated with her impotency against this intangible threat, the Empress’s temper flared. She slammed a fist against the arm of her throne. “Visions! Dreams! Legends! Myths!” she exclaimed, angrily hurling her scepter to the floor. “Sands in the desert wind! If it were anyone other than you, Grand Oracle, I would name it so!” An Illyrian slave scuttled forward to retrieve the scepter and meekly proffered it to the Empress with bowed eyestalk. She snatched it from his grasp, waving him away, then turned back to Azhia, her voice still incredulous. “You profess Aoth warns our empire is to be brought low by a mere houseless arnt?” She indicated the slave with an angry swing of her scepter. “A miserable, pathetic non-Neiran?!” The question almost choked her.
“Indeed, so She warns, my Empress,” Azhia replied. “The Destroyer comes! What Aoth warns is the truth! I have seen it! I swear it! By all the Foremothers of my former House, may it fall to ruin if I speak falsely! The empire faces destruction unless we can find a way to deal with this threat!”
“I will not allow all the Firstmother built to be toppled by a mere arnt!” Messilina declared, all thoughts of sleep forgotten. She gestured sharply to a slave. “Bring my steward!”
“At once, Empress,” the slave replied as he scurried off.
“I will gather the Jamada,” Messilina informed the Grand Oracle, “Meditate further on Aoth’s vision for clues to aid us in our search, Grand Oracle. We will hunt this Destroyer down,” she assured Azhia with a grim smile, “and we will get the arnts to assist us.”
The Grand Oracle bowed low with all the grace she could muster. “My Empress.”
Messilina waved her away. “We thank you for Aoth’s warning, Grand Oracle. Now leave us.”
Azhia bowed once more, then swiftly departed. There was much to do.