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Leonide Carcalla watched the viewscreen from the bridge of the Hydra, a battle cruiser that once belonged to the Imperium, and the largest class of warship still in operation following the destruction of all the known Imperium Class Battle Cruisers. Waiting on the dark side of Etajur’s moon, the captain was beginning to lose his patience. They’d been hiding in the moon’s shadow for a day, quietly monitoring the comings and goings of the local space traffic.

It wasn’t easy for a warship to stealthily enter a highly populated system. Approach vectors and exit points from the space lanes were monitored by the nearest occupied worlds, and even if the right trajectory was found to hide them from sensor detection, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t accidentally happen upon a patrol vessel, or simply be visually spotted by any random passing ship. Even if such craft weren’t a threat to his warship, they would still have to be destroyed, which meant that their absence would be discovered in short order.

Carcalla was a Lamagos and a member of the Exinorists, a militant religious order, but he was also the commanding officer of the ship under the former Stellar Imperium. He was an expert on conducting stealth missions, and in his time as a ship’s captain, he’d only been forced to destroy four patrol crafts due to unfortunate sightings. The truth was he didn’t regret the deaths of the people aboard those ships—people serving aboard them knew the risks of their jobs, after all—but those occurrences had forced him to hasten his operations in those systems which sometimes led to sloppy work. Carcalla could adapt to any situation, but he despised it when he had to risk his ship in reckless attempts to accomplish his objectives.

In this case, the Hydra was on a routine extraction mission. A spy they’d inserted had completed a deep surveillance of the primary government office of the planet’s starport. After six months of this operation, it was time to bring this operative home. Unfortunately, that operative was now twelve hours past due. Protocol dictated that if their agent was a full day late, it was safe to assume that the operation had been discovered and was a failure, at which point it was his job to jump out of the system empty handed.

Carcalla honestly didn’t care if their agent was alive or dead. Odds were that the intelligence gained from Etajur wasn’t worth their time, but he wasn’t the one who made such decisions. He wasn’t included in the higher functions of the Exinorist command structure, nor was he personally invested in the information they might acquire from this planet. Etajur was an important starport to the Relarrans, but the past several attempts to bring home worthwhile intelligence from here had been deemed successful only from an operational point of view. No useful information had been acquired.

What worried Carcalla was that if their agent had been discovered, the government of Etajur might have managed to learn about his mission, and that meant that they could be planning to ambush his ship. He’d gone over the various naval outposts in the system well ahead of time, and he knew the most probable approach vectors their enemies might take, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other ways to close in on his position undetected. Given the right set of circumstances, entire armadas could be hidden nearby.

In another minute and a half, he’d risk a sensor probe of the approach vector again. And again, he’d be hopeful that their delinquent spy would finally be detected en route. If the past twelve hours were any indication, it would again end in disappointment, followed by another thirty three minute wait.

Carcalla ran a hand through his full head of military-cut jet black hair, and kept his eyes on the screen as the seconds ticked away. He knew his anticipation was simple impatience. In his line of work, patience was a far more useful virtue. Frankly, he didn’t care. The fact was no ship’s commanders with the Exinorists were better at this than him, and while the other captains would stand on their ship’s bridge and casually trust their subordinates to complete their missions, he had firsthand knowledge of the implementation a dozen contingency plans that would ensure their mission was successful. Should that fail, he trusted that he had the skills to bring his ship through any unintended engagement intact.

As passive sensors became active, he watched the viewscreen at the front of the bridge, which was focused on the planned approach vector. In the distance, he thought he saw a tiny gray speck against the black of space that hadn’t been there the last time. “Report,” he said.

“Ship approaching,” said Kelvin Alil, a Lamagos kid, barely more than an initiate, who manned the sensor station. “It’s the Taralien,” he said.

Carcalla breathed a sigh of relief. Finally this mission was near completion. “It’s about time,” he said under his breath. “Break orbit and plot an intercept course.”

“Aye sir,” said Marul Bui, the angular featured woman manning the helm.

Carcalla felt the ship shudder slightly as the engines kicked in. Within moments, the moon fell away beneath them and they entered open space.

“Send an encrypted transmission informing the captain of the vessel to begin Operation Nanunchantu,” Carcalla said.

Alil nodded, pressed a couple buttons on his control panel, and the message was away.

As it grew larger on the viewscreen, they began to make out details of the ship. Small and rectangular, it had a simple non-streamlined hull. Designed to be fully operational with a maximum crew of four, it could be flown by a single individual, making it perfect for the completion of this mission.

Another two minutes ticked by and it became larger on the screen. Finally, the message they had sent was answered when an escape pod jettisoned from the ship. Carcalla expected the rest of the mission to proceed like clockwork.

The Hydra maneuvered to intercept the pod. Meanwhile, the Taralien began experiencing a series of system failures in its reactor core that would lead to a meltdown. As the Hydra’s docking clamps secured the escape pod, a distress call was sent out on an open channel. This would repeat for the next two minutes.

“Escape pod secured,” Bui reported.

“Excellent. Let’s give our agent a minute to get aboard.”

Silence ensued as the various bridge crew continued about their duties. Everything seemed to be progressing according to plan, though Carcalla remained anxious that this rendezvous was occurring several hours behind schedule.

“Security has him aboard, and it is our agent, Scrowl.”

“Excellent,” said Carcalla. “Bring us about and initiate jump procedures.”

“Aye sir,” said Bui.

Carcalla’s eyes remained fixed on the viewscreen. As the smaller ship slid off to the right, he saw the first explosion in the ship’s aft. Debris and hot gasses flew in all directions. A second explosion occurred in the middle of the ship. This one was larger, as the ship’s sub-light fuel ignited. Finally, the bridge at the front of the ship exploded. When it all cooled, there would be nothing for the authorities to find here except for blackened metal debris.

Carcalla allowed a thin smile to appear on his lips. By all indications, other than the agent’s tardiness, this extraction was going exactly as planned. “Bui, you have the bridge. I’m going to go down to the landing bay and greet our new guest.”

“Yes sir,” she acknowledged.

Carcalla left the bridge through the double doors to the rear and activated the lift system. He stepped in, verbally indicated his destination, and a moment later the car sped away.

A moment later, the lift stopped, the doors parted, and he saw the encounter-suited Relarran, flanked by security.

“You’re late,” Carcalla said coolly.

“I’m within the extraction window,” Scrowl said through his translator.

“Explain why you missed the planned rendezvous time,” Carcalla said.

“While I was making final preparations to leave, I uncovered some information I thought would be valuable.”

Carcalla fought the urge to snicker. Valuable information from Etajur? This would be a first. “So you stayed a few hours longer to dig for more?”

“Yes, captain,” said Scrowl. “It’s all in my report.”

“Very good. I look forward to reading it.”

“Captain, the intelligence I brought back is of an urgent nature. If you fail to act on it soon, it will most likely be worthless to us.”

Carcalla arched a brow. While it was his duty to return their operative to port, it was within mission parameters to review the information and commit the Hydra to any operations the he deemed urgent. “Very interesting.”

 

* * *

 

Doctor John Wright clutched his dark gray robe about him as he walked down the hallway. Earlier, he’d made a discrete exit from the Aisling and checked into a room after the others had departed the craft. This was not his typical garb aboard the ship, but he went to some lengths to avoid being recognized whenever passing through a spaceport.

As he arrived at the door to his room, he reached into his jacket pocket, found the identicard that would grant access, and then waved it in front of the scanner. With a soft beep and a click, the door slid to the side, revealing what would be his abode for the next several days.

The room was small and inexpensive. In fact, it was one of the cheapest ones offered at the Crystal Star. It was also on the first floor, which would be helpful if he needed to beat a hasty retreat. Wright stepped into the room, the door hissed shut behind him, and he shrugged off his robe, then flopped down onto a bed that was barely large enough for someone his size, and certainly far from comfortable. Probably designed for those Tallinites, he mused.

After stretching for a moment, he leaned over to the computer console next to the bed and activated it. A message flashed, indicating he’d be charged two credits per hour of use. He tapped the screen to accept the charges and moved on to the next screen where he could access his personal message center.

As he looked through them, amid the junk, the greetings from family back on Earth, and the billing information for the extended kenneling of his cat, one message caught his eye. The subject was ‘Final Notice’ and it was sent by Chord Rolknar. He read through the message quickly, wincing when he finished. It was settled—they weren’t playing nice anymore, and if he couldn’t produce two-hundred-seventy-nine-thousand credits the next time they found him, he could expect to meet with a sudden and painful end. Unfortunately, that amount happened to be about five times his annual income. Since the message had been sent two days ago, it was entirely reasonable to expect that his soon-to-be executioners were already on the planet.

“Think! Think!” he said to himself, alarm beginning to set in. His options were limited. He could go back to the Aisling, or stay there until they left port, and truth be told that seemed like his best option. Another option would be to come clean with Captain Cline and hope the man would be willing to help him. He quickly discarded that notion since the captain would be far more likely to fire him rather than shell out the kind of cash he needed. He really wasn’t even sure the captain had access to that kind of money, which would make revealing the extent of his gambling debts a foolish risk. No, it was better to continue evading his pursuers, at least until an opportunity came along that would allow him to earn the money he needed to get out of the hole.

He went back to his messages and scanned through them. During some spaceport visits he would be asked to perform some medical procedure that wasn’t entirely legal, and that would result in a sudden influx of credits. In other cases, old patients of his would ask him to come out of retirement from his practice and diagnose something for them. When that happened, he could earn a few credits very quickly, even if it didn’t amount to a lot. Would he be able to raise enough to finally clear his debts? Probably not, but it definitely helped pad the amount earned under Cline, and might give him a chance at earning enough before his debtors caught up to him.

His eyes paused on a message near the top of the list. A hidden sender had messaged him with the heading, Rare Opportunity. Granted, many messages that started like this were scams, but they were usually caught and filtered out before he saw them. Intrigued, he opened the message, which said nothing other than to initiate a video call to a set of special coordinates. He copied the series of numbers then opened a program that would allow him to trace it back to the sender. It revealed a communications satellite that routed information within the solar system. Whoever sent this wasn’t on Etajur, and that might mean this was a more likely a serious offer.

Wright considered his options again. The smart thing would be to delete this and pretend he’d never seen it. There was still a larger than average chance the message was simply junk that had escaped the filters. It was also possible this represented a lucrative opportunity that might allow him to put his debts behind him.

Wright dialed up the number, then paused before motioning for the computer to connect him. This was probably a bad idea, and it still wasn’t too late to avoid making contact with the sender. On the other hand, if he never took a risk, he would certainly never break even, which meant he’d be perpetually in fear of being caught by the wrong people. He decided he had nothing to lose, pointed at the screen, and initiated the call.

A message appeared indicating the call was connecting, and then the screen went black. Wright frowned, wondering if the call went through. A moment later, text appeared: Please Wait. His frown deepened. “Can’t even have a person answer the call, huh?”

With a wave, Wright terminated the connection. It was probably a scam anyway.

He rolled over on the bed, put a pillow over his face, and attempted to relax. This situation had existed for far too long for him to succumb to panic. Alarm, yes. Panic, no. That didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned.

And then the computer began beeping at him.

Wright sat up, smoothed out his shirt and ran his hands through his shaggy gray hair. Satisfied he was at least minimally presentable, he motioned for the console to connect the call. The blank screen was replaced by the live image of a man he’d never met before. Roughly fifty years of age, blue skin, with steely colored hair that was cut military style, the man had a sinister look about him Wright immediately disliked. He decided diplomacy wasn’t necessary for this situation. If it was a potential customer for his services, he’d apologize later.

“What do you want?” he asked.

The Lamagos managed a slight smile, but Wright could tell there was no warmth behind it. “Doctor John Wright, I presume,” he said coldly.

“That’s me,” Wright said, a defiant look on his face.

“I can see niceties are lost on you,” said the Lamagos on the other end.

“If this is about the credits I owe, you can go tell your boss…”

“This is about the credits you owe, but I don’t work for the one you owe them to,” the other said. “I’m not here to try and collect money from you… quite the opposite, actually.”

Wright paused a moment, letting that sink in. This was not a situation he was expecting. “Explain.” If this guy wasn’t trying to get money out of him then maybe he was here because he needed some back alley medical procedure—Lamagos anatomy was close enough to human that questions persisted whether the two species were related despite the massive distance between their homeworlds. If he wanted illicit work done, Wright knew he hadn’t put his best face forward to a potential customer.

“My name is Leonide Carcalla. I represent an… interested party… You very likely have something that would be extremely valuable to me and my associates.”

“And that would be?”

“I’m well aware of your… financial problems. I could wipe that away in an instant and give you enough extra to go retire to whatever world you’d like. Would that interest you?”

Wright frowned. Coming out of hiding, getting off that starship, and living his life in comfort was a goal he’d come to accept was unattainable. “I’m listening,” he said.

“Your captain is no doubt being offered a job to recover long-sought after nanotechnology from a presumably dead race known as the Belkure. My associates and I want that technology and we’re willing to pay handsomely to get it.”

“What’s my role in this?”

“I simply need to know where your ship is jumping to once you leave the starport. I’ll stealthily follow along until the nanotech is recovered. When the time is right, I’ll procure it myself.”

“You want me to betray my ship and my captain.”

Carcalla smiled. “Come now, doctor, betray is such a harsh word. The fact is that this technology shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, and I’m more than happy to keep that from happening. Don’t forget the R’Tillek pose a threat to the Lamagos too. Aside from that, helping someone else beat him to his goal isn’t so much a betrayal as… aiding in a minor disappointment. He need not know your involvement.”

Wright sat silent for a moment. Regardless of what Carcalla said, it was still a betrayal. That said, failure to obtain something they searched for wasn’t that unusual of an occurrence. Sometimes other parties beat them to the destination. Other times they found the location they were looking for, but the objects they sought turned out to be irrevocably broken or purely mythical. Disappointment was part of archaeology, and Cline knew it. If Carcalla could pay back the credits Wright owed, how could he turn him down?

“If I help you, promise me the Aisling and its crew won’t come to harm.”

“You have my word.”

“And payment?”

“Will be transferred to your account just as soon as I have confirmation of a final destination.”

“Unacceptable,” Wright said. “Half up front. If you have half the resources you say you do, you can afford it, and it lets me know you good for it.”

A stern expression crossed Carcalla’s face. “I’ll give you half the credits to cover your debts. I’m sure that will go a long way to appease those who are seeking you out. I’ll deliver the other half, plus a lot more, after the job is complete.”

“Agreed.”

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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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