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It was still evening when Cline and Carter arrived at Terrell Pulver’s estate. Located five miles from the spaceport, it was far from where the ship’s captain wished he was at the moment. With an open invitation for Susan Brasher to join him for what might prove to be an interesting evening, the last thing Cline wanted was to discuss a new job. But, the man owned his ship, and Pulver’s invitation sounded both interesting and lucrative, so telling him to wait seemed like a bad idea.

As the hover-taxi arrived at the gates, the robotic sentries recognized him immediately and ushered him past the ornate concrete wall and onto the walkway through the lush garden just beyond.

“Any idea what this is about?” Carter asked.

“Not a clue,” Cline replied as he hurriedly made his way to the mansion’s double doors.

“What’s the hurry,” Carter asked.

Cline looked to his friend. All traces of frailty were gone for the time being. Had he not been aware of Carter’s condition, he’d think nothing was wrong with the man at all. Obviously his ailment wasn’t affecting his powers of observation either. “I might have plans for the evening.”

A smile crossed Carter’s face. “We just put in to port and I happened to notice that Susan Brasher’s ship was here too. I wonder if there might be a connection there of some sort…”

“Just mind your own business,” Cline said, all but confirming the other man’s suggestion.

“You do know I won’t be around to whine at after she stomps all over you again,” Carter said.

“There won’t be any more stomping,” Cline said. “I know what I’m walking into… and what I’m not.” As they arrived at the door, Cline waited until he heard the familiar clicking sound as the door unlocked and swung open automatically.

“Come inside, Captain Cline” said a jovial voice from a speaker just inside. “You know where to find me.”

“Just be careful with her,” Carter said.

“It was my idea,” Cline said as they walked up an ornate wooden staircase.

“I mean, I really won’t be around when she leaves you sobbing on the floor like a two-year-old again,” Carter reiterated.

“You can’t be sure of that. That lump in your head could go into remission without treatment. Things like that have been known to happen.”

“Not this time,” Carter said somberly.

“You don’t know that.”

“It’s better to just accept the inevitable rather than try and deny it,” Carter said. “It makes it easier to live with.”

“Or not live with, as the case may be,” Cline commented.

Carter looked as though he had something more to say, but they’d arrived at the door to Pulver’s parlor. Within, they saw the obese man in a black and white suit lounging in a wide claw-foot chair. Cline wasn’t sure how old the man was, but he assumed he was over sixty, and despite his fortunes, appeared to be on the decline. What little hair he had was white and formed a thin ring around the back of his head. His nose was bulbous and red, a sure sign of an alcohol problem, and the skin above his eyes sagged a bit, giving them a hooded look. Upon seeing them at the door, his wide mouth broke into a grin.

“Captain Cline! Carter! It’s so good to see you again!” He looked as though he was going to climb to his feet to greet them, then stopped, thought better of it, and offered his hand instead.

Cline gave the moist warm hand a firm shake, then turned slightly to the left, trying to hide the fact that he was wiping his palm clean on his pants. “Your message sounded urgent so we came right away.”

Pulver motioned toward a seat, then shook Carter’s hand. Cline noticed a slight tremor go through his friend’s arm. “No need to be nervous, good man,” Pulver said as he clapped Carter on the shoulder with his other hand. “There’s a terrific opportunity in front of us, and I’m pretty sure that you’re exactly the right people for the job.”

Carter took a seat, clearly trying to conceal a self-conscious look that appeared on his face. Cline bit back a slight frown of his own. If his friend wanted to be treated as if there was nothing wrong with him, at least until the end neared, he couldn’t be offended when people made assumptions when the symptoms of his condition showed themselves.

“Tell us more,” Cline said.

“Tell me, have you been following the news feeds?” Pulver asked.

“We just arrived in port a while ago,” Cline said. “We really haven’t had time to catch up on everything.”

“Ah, then I’m sure you haven’t heard about the destruction of the Dawn Archer,” Pulver said.

“The Dawn Archer… not so sure I have,” Cline said.

“Is that the ship that jumped back here in a rather… disintegrated state?” Carter asked.

“One and the same,” Pulver said.

“I read something about it. They’re reporting that some kind of system malfunction caused the reactor core to blow,” Carter said. “Somehow the jump engines and nav computer remained online long enough to deliver the wreckage back here.”

“That would be exactly the story the local officials want to sell you,” Pulver said. “The truth of the matter is far more interesting. Tell me, what do you know about the Belkure?”

Cline paused. There were hundreds, if not thousands of ancient civilizations committed to memory. Recalling them on a moment’s notice, particularly those he hadn’t researched personally, sometimes took a moment. He let out a small groan as the memory resurfaced.

“The Belkure… a race that supposedly disappeared completely close to a thousand years ago—those few species that have some memory of them say they possessed technology far beyond anything currently in use, at least within known space. Legend has it that they transcended to another state of being. Others think this is just wishful thinking and they might have moved beyond known space, or might have simply destroyed themselves. Many scholars dismiss them as purely mythical and never truly existed,” Cline said.

Pulver nodded. “Their claim to fame was super advanced nanotechnology…”

“…Which was so advanced and powerful that it bordered on the magical, as far as most scholars are concerned. I might reiterate that most scholars dismiss them as purely mythical. Their homeworld isn’t on any of the star charts, and no examples of their technology have ever been found.”

“That may have just changed,” Pulver said.

“I find that unlikely after all this time,” Carter argued. “If they had truly existed, someone would have found their homeworld, examples of their technology, pictures, or some other relic they left behind, no matter how insignificant.”

“I have to agree with my astrogator. Evidence of their existence has supposedly surfaced a number of times, and each time scholarly expeditions were sent, the fringe media was abuzz with speculation about the importance of the discovery, and every time it amounted to a whole lot of nothing. We might as well be talking about Atlantis here,” Cline said, referring to a mythical ancient Earth place that was commonly used by archaeologists as the ultimate example of a wild goose chase.

Pulver nodded slowly. “Of course I’m aware of all this, however, it now appears likely that the Dawn Archer’s demise was directly related to Belkure technology.”

Cline’s brows knitted together. If Pulver expected him to waste his time looking for this civilization, he wasn’t so sure he’d be interested. If there was payment up front for his time and effort, however, that might be another story. “I’m listening,” he said.

“I’ve obtained some interesting evidence from the ship’s destruction… evidence that was restricted from the media, and from the public in general. It seems that the government of Etajur wants to bury this information. Let me ask you, if a ship’s reactor were to blow, what condition would you expect the crew’s remains to be in?”

Cline shrugged. “I’d expect to find a lot of charred corpses. You might find parts of bodies if the crew was working close to the reactor. You’d probably also find people who died of exposure to the vacuum of space, if they happened to have been in compartments away from the reactor, and their remains would be frozen.”

Pulver waved a hand toward a monitor that occupied a quarter of the wall to Cline’s right. He motioned at his computer terminal, bringing up an image of ten skeletons laid out on a large gray surface. All the flesh had been stripped from their bleached bones. There was no sign of burns. “There were more bodies recovered, some within some barely intact compartments. All were in exactly this condition.”

“Hostile nanotech could have done that,” Carter said.

“True,” said Pulver. “But nanotechnology is notoriously slow moving. Should a starship happen to have an unwelcome nanotech incursion, odds are pretty good that they could have contained it and then made it to port for decontamination and repair.”

“True,” Carter said reluctantly.

“Is that all you have?” Cline asked. “Just a destroyed ship and some bleached bones?”

“No,” Pulver said. “The ship’s wreckage was surrounded by what appeared to be some kind of metallic dust, and it wasn’t of the same alloy as the ship’s hull. In addition to that, the size of each unit is uniform, and only a few microns.”

“So why not just analyze the nanotech you’ve recovered?” Cline asked.

“Because it appears that the final function of its programming is for the particles to fuse into a solid lumps of microscopic metal. In short, there’s nothing to analyze. Known forms of nanotech leave also leave behind all manner of trace residues that can be analyzed later. There was none of that.”

“And that,” Cline recalled, “Is exactly the way nanotechnology from the Belkure is supposed to behave, if sources are to be trusted.”

“Very good,” Pulver said. “And that is why we can rule out traditional nanotech. Aside from all that, the charter of the Dawn Archer was to explore unmapped and often overlooked star systems in the hope of expanding our knowledge about them.”

“So it was a long-range survey ship,” Cline said. “Was it run by the Archaeological Expedition Corps?” The organization was large and specialized in searching for dead worlds in the hopes of finding ancient advanced technology that could be useful.

“Actually, they deny they it was one of theirs. Rumor is belonged to the Guardians of Light,” Pulver said.

“The Guardians of Light are one of the few groups still actively looking for ways to defeat the R’Tillek,” Cline said. “I wasn’t aware they were snooping through ancient alien tech these days.”

“I think they’ll take any advantage they can get, and the culmination of Imperium research and development failed to win the day. At any rate, they obviously found something, and now there are certain individuals who believe that what they discovered was the Belkure homeworld.”

Cline sighed. “Suppose they did. Suppose there’s all kinds of amazing technology there to be plundered. It’s an exciting prospect to be able to go to this mythological planet and see what kind of fancy toys they once got to play with, but that doesn’t change the fact that there seems to be a pretty high degree of danger to any ship that finds it, assuming we find what they found—a scavenger hunt like this might tie up me and the crew for some time.”

Pulver nodded. This was where the negotiation would begin. “Of course, I wouldn’t expect to send you out without some kind of guaranteed compensation. On the other hand, I have to protect myself against the possibility that the expedition might prove fruitless.” Pulver took a sip of wine.

Cline nodded. “Or destroy the ship. You know my usual rate for this kind of job is a base pay for me and the crew, plus ship maintenance costs. Of course, there’s a pretty serious element of danger in this one, so I’ll take double the usual rate.”

Pulver immediately coughed, spraying wine in the process. “Double?”

“Double, or we go on our way to investigate things of more traditional archaeological value,” Cline said.

“I can’t afford double,” Pulver said. “Would you accept your usual rate, plus a bonus of one third, as hazard pay?”

It was a generous offer, but Cline decided to press his luck. “Make it a bonus of half, and we’ll go looking for it. But we’ll turn back if it looks like something that’s likely to destroy the ship.” Whoever ended up with the technology would be able to sell it to one of the parties who might be able to mount a credible defense against the R’Tillek, not to mention other adversary worlds, and that made it extremely valuable. It would also put a target on the head of that party, which was why most ship’s captains would want nothing to do with trying to sell it themselves. It was better to take whatever profit it brought and turn it over to whatever patron hired them to find it.

Pulver seemed lost in thought for a moment. “You have a deal,” he said, “provided the expedition not exceed half a solar year. If it does, I’ll require a status report, and then I’ll decide whether to continue the search.”

“I can agree to that,” Cline said.

“Then we have a deal,” Pulver said.

Cline was happy with the deal, but he was far from certain he liked the prospect of the dangers that would come with chasing the Belkure.

 

* * *

Arnach Rielyr sat before Brasher’s Relarran patron, Ghuurkek. As expected, their meeting had gone well, with Brasher grudgingly accepting the job to seek out the Belkure. Surprisingly enough, Ghuurkek was in possession of the Dawn Archer’s flight plan, which provided them with an excellent place to begin their search. Shortly after Brasher and Rielyr had been excused from the meeting, Rielyr had received another message, this time asking to meet with her patron without her present.

“I assume Susan would be irritated if she knew this meeting was taking place without her,” Rielyr said, the clicks and faint high-pitched noises of his species’ language converted to Common through a translation device mounted on his collar.

The Lamagos with short-cut black hair and the blue skin had assumed the role of second-in-command aboard Brasher’s ship, though he’d been known to exceed his authority, going so far as to slyly countermand her orders and issue his own on occasion. This had been a source of tension between the two for some time, but her style of command was to pull him aside and admonish him for his behavior rather than dressing him down in front of the other members of the crew, and his actions had so far not been so egregious for her to kick him off the ship. He knew it was likely that Ghuurkek wanted to speak with him alone to issue orders she wouldn’t be comfortable with.

“I suspect your assessment is correct,” the Relarran replied.

“How can I be of service?”

The short whiskers on Ghuurkek’s face gestured to the sides, the Relarran equivalent of a smile. “We both know this expedition is likely to be dangerous. More to the point, there will most likely be other interested parties.”

“Of course,” Rielyr said.

“I expect one of those who might end up in your way will be Steven Cline.”

“Brasher’s former lover,” Rielyr said. Though he’d never met the man personally, nor had Brasher spoken openly about him since he came aboard, he’d heard stories about the man and his history with their captain.

“As luck would have it, he’s on the planet now, and my sources tell me he met with his patron earlier this evening.”

Rielyr nodded. “I understand your concern. Let me assure you that I won’t allow Susan to let her feelings to interfere with our job.”

“So happy you have such control over the captain,” the Relarran said sardonically. “But what I want from you is a bit more… involved.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Rielyr said. His ability to control the ship was limited to Brasher’s tolerances. The fact was she was the captain, he was acting as her employee, and if he overstepped his authority too badly, she had every right to not only put him back in his place, but confine him to the brig, or even drop him on the nearest habitable planet.

“Put simply, Cline is the biggest immediate threat to the success of this mission. I want you to use every bit of authority you have aboard that ship to impede Cline’s progress.”

“I’ll do my best,” Rielyr said. “Though I think you might be overestimating my ability to do so.”

“Let me put this another way,” Ghuurkek said. “I have the means to provide you with nearly unlimited resources. I can supply software that can silently interfere with another ship’s operations. You can use whatever credits you need for armaments, as well as any other equipment you need. In fact, I’m willing to set up an account for you with a very high credit limit for your personal use, provided that it’s used to stop Cline. I trust you know how to keep your activities hidden from your captain.”

“Of course,” Rielyr replied. “I can freely bring data and equipment aboard the ship at any time without her knowledge. She doesn’t inspect my personal belongings.”

“Perfect,” replied Ghuurkek. “I expect you have the discretion to keep your activities quiet, but should she find out what you’re up to, have her contact me and I’ll clear your conduct.”

“I don’t think she’d like it, even if she knew the orders came from you,” Rielyr replied.

“Nevertheless, it could save you from some of the more… extreme punishments she could come up with, should she learn of your activities.”

“Very likely,” Rielyr conceded. “Then I’ll have the account created and I trust you know what to do with the credits.”

“Of course,” Rielyr said.

“One more thing,” Ghuurkek said. “You’ll have sole authority over how to spend it, but if I learn you’ve misappropriated even a single credit for your own purposes, or if you simply take the money and attempt to flee, I’ll make sure you won’t find safe haven in any port. There will be no place in known space where you can hide, and I guarantee my retaliation will be far worse than anything Susan Brasher would come up with.”

Rielyr fixed him with a solemn look, hoping the Relarran could interpret his sincerity. “I’ll be most… judicious… in the use of your funds.”

“I trust you will.”

 

* * *

 

Steven Cline opened the door, revealing the interior of his spacious hotel room. The walls were a clean off-white color, the trim was dark brown, as were the cabinets above his small kitchen. In the other room was the bathroom, which included an entire subsection complete with hot tub. It was a lot more room than he needed, but given his typically cramped quarters aboard the Aisling, it was a luxury he usually allowed himself while at the starport.

He tossed his entry card onto the kitchen counter and looked to the unopened bottle of wine sitting next to the fridge. The bottle cost more than the room. He sighed, collapsed to the white semi-circular faux leather couch and flipped on the holovid projector… Another local report concerning the destruction of the Dawn Archer. They were now discussing the lengthy task of identifying the remains recovered from the wreckage. The coroner was going on about how difficult it was to determine who these people were because of the significant burns many of them had suffered. Cline sighed, knowing it was all a lie, and flipped off the projector. Apparently the media was either in on the misdirection, or they were being used by the planetary government. Either way, it was clear that the public was being fed all sorts of misinformation.

Cline pulled the small, square shaped communicator from his jacket and opened up the menu screen. He went through his list of contacts, finding the one he most wanted to speak with. He was about to press the button to initiate a connection… then paused. Instead he patched in to the room’s sensor suite to see if anyone had come to the door this evening.

No one.

Cline sighed, and tossed the communicator on the floor. He grabbed a pillow, pulled a complimentary blanket from the back of the chair, covered himself, then rested his head. Tempted to open the bottle and drink it himself, he instead closed his eyes and tried to relax.

The night was still young. He would wait patiently and try to silence the nagging voice in his head reminding him of the troubles surrounding him. An impossible mission, a dying friend, and a lover he’d secretly give anything he owned to have back in his life…

Cline closed his eyes and waited for a knock at the door that wouldn’t come.

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About the author

Darrin Drader

Bio: I was born and raised in the sleepy college town of Pullman Washington. It was here where I first began writing, learned to play Dungeons and Dragons, and imagined the life I want to live. Since graduating from WSU, I have worked on Dungeons and Dragons, video games, and more roleplaying game products than I can even recall right now.

Fiction has always been one of my passions. As a high schooler, I wrote constantly, and my Junior year on the first day of English class, I told my English teacher that I planned to be a writer. I've spent the rest of my life making good on that declaration.

My preferred form of fantasy is heroic swords and sorcery. I had an early flirtation with dark fantasy, but found it not really my cup of tea. As a reader, I want to follow likeable characters who are trying to make their worlds better by battling corruption and the various other dark powers that be. I used to be an avid reader of Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, though because those lines of fiction are barely supported, I don't get enough of it. As a writer, that's the kind of material I want to release into the world.

It wasn't that long ago that sites like this didn't exist, and there was no way for authors who weren't traditionally published to find readers. I just learned of this place, and I'm excited to dive in, release some fiction, and see what's happening.

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