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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bonus Story: Snow White Skin

Hey, look at this! A bonus story!

Recently, I decided to challenge myself and see if I couldn't write a complete story in 100 words. And I meant 100 words exactly, not 98 or 101. This was the result. I'm rather happy with it. Let me know what you think!

Snow White Skin

He leaned in close to her, his breath hot and heavy. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. And as a prince, he had seen lots of women, and thought he had found his bride at his birthday ball before she ran off. But this young woman lying before him was worlds apart, by far the most stunningly amazing display of God’s creation ever. He was compelled to kiss her, his lips drawn to hers, like magnets. He hesitated. Kissing her would wake her. It seemed a shame to wake her, this girl with snow white skin.

The End

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Kings Justice

To say that my first case as a Justice didn’t go so well is a major understatement. I had just taken my final exam with my master two days ago, and had, in fact, just recovered from celebrating the successful conclusion of said tests. It was early morning, and I was eating in the common hall of the castle where we Justices meet when not on the road eating breakfast when my master came to me.

“Justice Relar,” he said, using my full name. Most of my friends just called me Rel, but my master insisted that as a Justice, I should always be referred to by my full name. “I have a job for you.”

The smile he had on his face made me uncomfortable, but I swallowed the last bit of eggs I had and followed him outside.

“Yes, master?” I asked.

“It is Justice Kord,” he corrected. “You are no longer an Arbiter, no longer my apprentice. We are equals now, Relar.”

“Yes, ma… Justice Kord,” I replied, catching myself in the familiar phrase. He smiled again, but this time it was far friendlier.

“I have your first assignment,” he said. “It is simple, and even you should be able to complete it quickly and without too much difficulty.”

I nodded. Kord liked to imply that all of the Arbiter’s under his tutelage couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a mirror. I learned that it was best to simply ignore him. He handed me a scroll, the official charge for my mission.

“You are to travel north two days to the small town of Greenrock. There, you are to find and get the status of another Justice, Vorik. He was sent up there as part of his normal rounds, but disappeared about a month ago. We have not heard from him, and that is odd, especially for Vorik, who is known for sending reports when none are needed.”

I nodded again. I knew Vorik. He was older than I was, and had been a full Justice for two years now, but he was a former Arbiter under Master Justice Kord, just as I was. It was highly unusual that no one had heard from him, especially as Justice’s had a magical means of communication. We each of us wore a special brooch, a bronze eagle holding a scroll clutched in both talons. When we touch it and speak a word of power, it will come to life, and our message will be scrawled on its parchment. It then flies back to the castle to deliver the message, and waits for a reply for up to a day before returning atomically. It greatly improves the speed upon which Justice’s can communicate.

“If I find that Vorik is in some sort of trouble?” I asked.

“Aid him in any way you can,” Kord replied. “Remember that Vorik is the lead Justice there, so follow his orders, but remember also that you are a full Justice, and not an apprentice.”

I nodded once again. Kord then did something I’ve never seen him do before. He gripped me by my arms and looked me straight in the eyes.

“Good luck, Relar,” he said in all seriousness. “Take care of yourself out there.”

Then, suddenly, he stood up straight, saluted me, and walked off to his other duties. I looked at the scroll in my hand and opened it up to read it. It mostly said what Kord already said to me, but it also had a recommended list of equipment. So, I took the scroll to the quartermaster, who gave me a pack with the requested supplies. I decided to not wait and went to the stables to get a horse. If you’re wondering why I didn’t wait, it’s usually not a good idea for a judge to hold back on a mission. Plus, I had a two-day journey by horseback, and wanted to get started right away.

I rode out that morning and was about half way there by early evening, when I spotted a roadside inn. This road must have been better traveled than I thought. At the moment, though, I was grateful, because sleeping outside was not one of my favorite things to do. I bought a room for the night and had some dinner, which consisted of some dried roast, a few dry potatoes and carrots and a rather watery ale. Still, it was better than the hard tack in my travel pack.

The next morning I decided against breakfast due to the smell, and ate some of my bread as I rode on. It really didn’t take me long to get to Greenrock that day, and I arrived late after noon. However, when I arrived, I was exhausted, and just wanted to sit and get something cold to drink. Thankfully, there are a few advantages to being a Justice.

“M’lord,” a young guard said as I pulled up to the town walls. I wasn’t really surprised to see the walls, given that Greenrock was near the border of the Wildlands. They probably had issues with goblins.

“Justice,” I said to the guard. “I am not a knight, nor a noble. I am a member of the King’s Justice. You can refer to me as Justice Relar, or as Your Honor, if you must.”

In all honesty, it never mattered to me that people confused Justice’s with knights, but it bothered the order in general. We were not nobles, and in fact our membership was mostly taken from the fourth or fifth born children of the poor. A Justice riding into a town or village alone was often beset by parents wanting a better life for one of their children. I myself was such a case. My parents approached Kord, and after questioning me and finding a sharp, inquisitive mind in my ten year old body, paid my parents and took me away. I haven’t seen my home in all that time, and even now have only been back once. Such is the life of a Justice.

“Yes, m’…” he stopped, catching himself. “Yes, your Honor. We don’t get Justice’s out this way often, and now we’ve had two in a single year. Is there something I might help you out with?”

“Yes,” I replied. “First, I would like to know the name of a good tavern, where I can get a cold drink. Then, I wish to speak with your captain.”

“Of course, your Honor,” he replied. Apparently, he didn’t like the idea of using my actual name. “You’ll be wanting the Happy Bull. They have the best drinks in town, and are the only place that can afford ice. I’ll send a message to my captain that you’ll be waiting for him there.”

He then gave me directions, which amounted to just heading straight down the road until I see the tavern’s sign, and I sauntered off. The tavern was by far nicer than the one on the road, and the food here smelled fantastic as soon as I walked in. The bartender saw me and motioned for me to take a table by the hearth, clearing a lone patron there before I could even protest. I was told that the first round of drinks was on the house. I thanked him, said I wanted something cold, and ordered a plate of whatever was making that wonderful smell. Just as my food was arriving, a man walked into the tavern in a chainmaile shirt and a cape. He was older, with salt and pepper colored hair, and had a scar running down his left cheek. This must be the captain of the guard.

“Your Honor,” he said as he came up to me. I motioned for him to sit. “I’m Captain Tarbel. This is an unexpected pleasure. We don’t get many Justice’s here, but…”

“Yes, two in one year,” I replied, completing his sentence. “I’ve heard.”

He looked slightly embarrassed. “I see.”

“Actually, that’s why I’m here,” I said, trying to relieve some of the tension this man was feeling. “The other Justice who was here, his name was Vorik. He hasn’t reported in for quite some time, and I’m trying to find him and make sure he’s okay.”

The captain’s jaw dropped. You might think I just kicked his mother from the look on his face.

“You mean to say, you don’t know?” he asked.

“Know what?” I said.

“Justice Vorik. He’s…” he hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath, looked me right in the eye, and let it out. “He’s dead, your Honor.”

“Dead?” I asked. “How?”

“He was killed,” he said, no hesitation this time. “It was Kaken. Justice Vorik, he was here to pronounce Judgment on Kaken and his band of thugs, at the request of the Count. Kaken has been taken advantage of us for too long, so the Count figured a Judge could get rid of him for good. Turns out he was wrong.”

“And you never sent a message to the Justices?” I asked in surprise. “How were we supposed to know he was dead?”

“Well…” the captain, obviously caught off guard by the question. “We thought you would just know. You know… magic.”

Right. I shook my head in frustration. This was a common misconception about both Justices and magic in general. While it’s true that Justices are taught a small bit of magic, it’s mostly for things like communication or faster travel. We’re not mages. That’s left to the Brotherhood of the White Tower. But, even at that, members of the Brotherhood are not somehow connected to each other. They can’t read each other’s thoughts, never mind that of anyone else, and they don’t instantly know when something has happened to one of their membership. And neither do Justices. Yet, for some reason, this belief continues to exist in the minds of most people in the empire.

“Okay,” I say, deciding to just move on. “Let’s just ignore that and keep going. This Kaken guy, you’re sure that it was him that killed Vorik?”

“Well,” he replied, feeling more comfortable to be doing something more in his line of work. “I don’t have any hard proof, but no one else here has the balls, never mind the ability to kill a Justice.”

I nod. While we’re not trained heavily in magic, we are trained heavily in combat, and are the equal of any knight out there in single melee. Not to mention we get some very good equipment, some of which is magical. Taking down a Justice is no small feat. Add to that the fact that killing a Justice is tantamount to attacking a member of the royal family from a legal standpoint, and it’s not something that a lot of people even contemplate. The fact that this guy, Kaken, had done it made me nervous.

And with Vorik dead, it fell to me, as a Justice, to find Kaken, judge him and deliver my verdict. Alone. I was not looking forward to this. I realized at that moment that I had been quiet and not looking at the captain. When I looked over to him, he seemed to have a worried look on his face. Damn, I must have looked as scared as I felt. I straightened up and tried to look authoritative. I would need to do something. I just wasn’t sure where to start.

“I assume that you still have Justice Vorik’s body?” I asked.

He nodded. “We didn’t bury it, assuming that one of your… er… another Justice would arrive and take him back for a proper burial.”

“Indeed,” I said. This was, in fact, how things were done. It would be another duty of mine. “I’ll need to see him. Perhaps there is some evidence there I can use to convict Kaken.”

“Sure,” he said, standing up. “Right this way.”

I grabbed another bite of food and then followed after him. Looking over a body isn’t at all as romantic as one might think it is. For one thing, they stink. For another, decay is a real issue, and it having been a few months, Vorik’s body was starting to decay already. Which really only adds to the smell. However, this was definitely Vorik. I looked over the body while holding a corner of my cloak over my face. The captain was doing the same thing. At first, I found nothing that would really provide me any evidence. Well, beyond that he was killed. Brutally, too. There were multiple stab wounds, and his hands had rope burns, indicating that he was tied up at the time he was killed, and there were several people doing the stabbing.

It was in looking at his hands, however, when I found something. It was silver and clenched in his fist. I started prying open his fingers to get to it. The captain noticed what I was doing, and started helping. It took some doing, but we eventually prided open the hand. The prize, however, surprised me. It’s a solid silver broach in the shape of a crown with the scales of justice behind it. The badge of office for a Justice. I absently fingered my own badge, worn on the vest I wore underneath my cloak. I stood up and looked down at Vorik. Just as I had expected to, I saw Vorik’s badge pined to his chest, right where it should be.

“Why was he carrying a second badge?” I asked to myself.

“An extra?” the captain asked. I looked up to him, surprised. I hadn’t quite realized I was speaking out loud. I shook my head.

“No, we only carry the one. They’re rather expensive,” I said. “In fact, I wonder why he had his still. Normally, on the rare occasion a Justice is killed, the killer takes the badge. Being solid silver, it’s worth quite a bit of money.”

“More than I see in a year, I’d wager,” the captain said.

“Whatever this means,” I said, “it’s important.”

I looked over poor Vorik once again. I then reached into my pack and pulled out one of the magic items we are given. It’s not one I enjoy using, even to this day. It’s called a preservation sack, and is designed to store a dead body, so that it is preserved for a proper burial. I handed it to the captain and told him to have Vorik’s body placed inside it. He looked at it with a questioning look, but nodded and passed the task onto a subordinate.

“So,” the captain said, turning to look at me, “what now, your Honor?”

What now indeed. I had no idea where to go from here. “Tell me everything you know about Kaken, and what happened when Vorik came to town.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding as if he expected that. “Let’s go back to the tavern. I’ll buy you a drink and tell the tale.”

And it was quite the tale. No one is really sure where Kaken came from, but about ten years ago, he arrived in town wounded on a half dead horse. He was obviously a warrior of some sort, for he wore the remains of a suit of chain, and carried a broad sword. Beyond that, no one could tell anything. The town took him to Brother Rav, the leader of the local church of Juntar, who nursed him back to health with a little magical aid. Kaken refused to talk about his past, only to say that he had escaped it.

For a while, he was welcome addition to the town. He worked hard for Rav, helping to build the addition to the church where the new priest would stay when he arrived. He worked for the town in other ways, too, mostly in physical labor ways. He would help at the various taverns, tending horses and fixing things as they broke. He helped the old man Til’s farm after it burned down. He became known in town as a handy man, the guy to call when you needed some carpentry done. This all lasted about five years, when Kaken’s past caught up to him.

See, throughout all this time, Kaken had been holding back. He was a very angry man and everyone in town knew this. Though they all generally liked him and welcomed his help, they were all also afraid of him. They had seen his temper get the better of him on occasion, which resulted in a dead horse and a broken bar table. So, it came as no surprised that one-day he just snapped.

A man arrived in town that day, a mercenary near as anyone could guess. He seemed to know Kaken, and Kaken seemed happy to see him. The captain didn’t know what happened for sure, but there were rumors that went around. Something about Kaken lying low, and the man surprised that he was playing the good little townie. He and Kaken laughed a lot, and started hanging out at Kaken’s house alone. Kaken started to skip on responsibilities, stopped going to the church, and in general started making everyone nervous. Finally, Brother Rav went to see him to find out what was going on.

All anyone knows for sure is that the Brother said something that angered Kaken, and before anything could be done, Rav was dead and Kaken and his friend left town. Only, it turns out, they didn’t really leave, they just headed out to the hills. They took up residence in the small, abandoned loggers village that was out there. It had been abandoned a long time ago when the tress started to run out in this area. Apparently, Kaken had been planning this for a long time, and it wasn’t long after the death of Rav that a lot of other mercs started appearing at the logger village.

The captain and his guards tried to arrest Kaken, of course, as soon as they knew he was still there. They were driven off by the mercs, who numbered about twenty at that point, killing two guards in the processes. Since then, the captain has just tried his best to keep the walls ready and the few guards he has prepared in case Kaken tries anything. For the most part, they left the town alone. Every now and then, they would arrive and tear through the taverns and leave. No one was brave enough to stop them. Last year, however, they started stealing cattle, and when old man Til confronted them about it, they killed him and took all his cattle. That was when a message was sent to the Justices.

Justice Vorik arrived and the town let out a collective sigh. Vorik did some questioning and brief investigation before he decided he had all the evidence he needed. A few days after arriving, he left for the logging village alone, despite the captain’s protests. The next day, Kaken and a few of his mercs rode down to town and threw the Justice’s body at the town gate. That was two months ago, and everyone in town has been terrified of Kaken ever since. He practically owns the town. Anyone that can kill a Justice is too much for this small town to take on.

“And that’s where I come in,” I said.

“I don’t expect you to do anything,” the captain said. “If you take Justice Vorik and leave, I’ll understand. I’d do the same. I just ask that you see if there’s anything you can do to aid us. Send help.”

I looked sharply at the captain. “Of course I’ll help,” I said. “I’ll take down Kaken. It’s my sworn duty, and I owe it to Vorik.”

The captain looked me up and down. Then, he nodded. “I’ll help you in anyway I can. Most of my guards are too afraid to face Kaken, but there’s about four or five of us that want to see something done. Don’t be like Vorik and do this alone. Let us go with you.”

I nodded. I hadn’t planed of facing Kaken alone, but to have the voluntary help of the guard was greatly appreciated. I had the beginning of a plan in my head. First, I needed to know the layout of the logger village. Captain Tarbel provided me with a few rough maps, as best as he could do from memory. He estimated that the mercenary count was up to about one hundred now. I poured over the map and consulted the supplies I had been given before leaving on this mission. I made my plans, consulted with the captain, and wrote a letter to the Castle. I sent off my eagle broach to deliver it, and went to bed that night. The plan would start tomorrow first thing. No need to wait and let Kaken learn that a new Justice was in town. The captain notified me he would gather up his volunteers and meet me at the town gates at dawn.

I was up well before dawn, making my own preparations. I clasped in my hand the Justice badge that I had pulled off Vorik. I wondered at it once more, then threw it into my belt pouch and finished packing for today’s adventure. I was at the gate a full hour before dawn, only to find that Captain Tarbel and four guards were waiting for me. We nodded at each other silently and no introductions were made. None were needed. We all knew this was a potentially suicide mission that could have disastrous consequences for the town if we failed. And so we would not fail.

We left on foot towards the logger village. Though it would take us longer, we would keep the element of surprise this way. We came up to the old tree line and saw the small village. It really wasn’t more than a dozen low buildings, all about the same size. One room shacks for the loggers to sleep in. There was an additional building, larger than the rest, which was likely the hall where the loggers would gather for meetings and probably drinks and food at the end of the day. It was pretty obvious at first glance that the place was crawling with mercenaries. There were about thirty visible from my vantage point.

I could see why Kaken wanted this place. With the trees gone, there was nothing blocking the line of site to the village. The guards that were placed all over it would see us coming before we were even half way there. That was perfect. I nodded to the captain, and our men split up, two of them circling around the camp at the extreme edges of the hill it was built on, while the captain and the rest followed me in the opposite direction, to the far side of the camp. The mercs didn’t seem to have any patrols out this far, trusting for the line of sight to warn them of any coming attack. I just hoped they would fall for the diversion we were setting up.

I practically held my breath while waiting. I had given clear instructions on how to use the stuff I had given the guards, but it was tricky, and with the sun not fully out yet, there might not have been enough light to see. Just as I was getting anxious and wondering what was happening, though, I heard to fizzle and pop of the alchemical mixture I had been given at the castle go off. As we watched, a sparkling firecracker went flying into the wall of one of the log huts, carried by an arrow, which struck home. A few seconds later, the firecracker went off, causing the hut to catch fire almost instantly. The fire spread faster than I had expected. These log buildings must have been really dry. Those firecrackers were meant to be signal flares, not to start fires, never mind to engulf a building all in one go.

The distraction had the desired effect, however. The two guards that fired the arrow could be seen fleeing. The camp broke out in chaos. The men inside the hut ran outside, while several others ran to the hut trying to find water to put out the fire with. Someone threw a tankard of ale on it, which of course only caused a small explosion and sent sparks to the neighboring hut, which also caught on fire. Most of the other men went chasing after the guards. These men were every bit as undisciplined as I had expected, which was good, because even a slight amount of discipline would have torn this plan to shreds.

The four of us rush across the field to the nearest house, one that the men inside vacated as soon as the fire started. We managed to make it across without being spotted. Now comes the hard part. We had to find Kaken quickly and extract him from the mercs before anyone noticed us. The fire was proving to be perfect for this. With two buildings burning now, the whole group was out centered around them, trying to put them out. I scanned the crowd looking for the obvious leader when the captain tapped me on my shoulder. I turned and looked where he was pointing. This had to be Kaken. He wasn’t very tall, but he was a solid mass of muscle. His face was hard, but handsome under the stubble and dirt that currently covered it. It was as if he were a good looking man trying to make himself ugly so as not to stand out in a crowd of ugly men. Which was a pretty accurate statement. He wore a shirt of chain, and wore it comfortably, and carried a broadsword on his belt. I signaled, and the action began.

We ran across the field, and I pulled out the second preservation bag I carried. Before he spotted us, we were on Kaken. The captain and the two guards threw themselves on him, tackling him and pinning him to the ground, while I threw the bag over him as quickly as I could. Sadly, that was as far as we got when I heard someone step behind me and demand that we let go of Kaken. I turned and saw a group of about ten men, all armed with swords and spears, pointing the sharp ends at us. I stood, my arms upraised, and faced them. When they saw my badge, some of them spit at me.

“Take them to the hall and tie them up!” Kaken shouted behind me, extracting himself from the bag. “We’ll deal with this fire first, then take care of them.”

Well, I thought, this was it. I was about to die, on my first mission. This couldn’t get any worse. Little did I know, it could. The guards were simply tied to chairs, including the captain, and placed in a corner of the hall. I, however, was tied to one of the posts holding the roof up. There, the ten men that brought us here all took turns beating on me. First, they limited themselves to my stomach and chest, and I knew that after a few moments of that, I had a cracked rib, at least, and internal bleeding. I would need a priest after this for sure, assuming I survived. I think at some point, they realized this, because they then moved to my face. By the time they stopped, I couldn’t see out of one eye, my lip was cut and bleeding, and I had lost at least two teeth. This was the worst job any Justice had done on any case, ever. I was convinced.

The worst part was the looks on the guard’s faces. They knew the stories about how hard it was to kill a Justice. They thought for sure I was invincible, or had some magic up my sleeve or something that would protect me from such a beating. The truth was, all I had was my chain shirt, which they had taken off me, and a necklace that provided me some small protection from piercing weapons, but they had taken that as well. They had even taken my badge. Badges are special, each one is unique to the individual Justice. They don’t offer any real magical protection, per se, but they do allow us to focus what little magic we are taught. I knew a Justice while I was in training that could actually focus enough magical energies through his that he could throw lightning bolts from it. The best I was able to do was camouflage myself, which only really worked in a jungle of forest. I had been aiming at invisible for a long time, but I never quite had it. Kord always told me that one day I’d get it. Now, however, was not that day.

I watched through my one good eye as Kaken entered the room. He shooed the men away from me and grabbed my head roughly in his hand. As soon as he touched me, I felt something start to burn at my side. At first, I thought it was my ribs, and tried to ignore it.

“So, the Castle is still trying to get me, are they?” he said. “Well, they’ll need to do better than a Justice just come by his scales.”

How could he possible know that? Who was this man? He roughly threw my head to the side, causing a new bruise to spring up on my chin. The pain in my side got worse, like a fire burning at my side. Then, I realized it was the wrong side for my ribs. It was coming from my pouch. But, there was nothing in there but a firecracker and… the other badge! It all came to me in a flash.

“And what about you?” I asked through a mashed mouth. “How long ago did you get your scales, Kaken?”

He turned slowly and looked at me, then laughed. “You’re the first Justice I’ve killed that knew that. Are they finally telling you who it is you’re after? Yes, I used to be a judge. I got my scales fifteen years ago, until the day those bastards at the Castle betrayed me. Now, I plan on raising an army and returning to the Castle, where I am going to burn it to the ground and destroy every last Judge in the kingdom.”

“You don’t really expect to get away with that, do you?” I asked. It seemed absurd. The burning at my side was getting hotter, though, it I was having trouble focusing. He continued to talk, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was going back to my exam, to my studies, something I had learned about punishments for renegade Justices. They were branded, on the forehead, with their own badge. Then, I remembered. Heating the badge in fire didn’t do it; that would melt it. It was a magic in the badge itself. This really was Kaken’s badge in my pouch. Vorik must have got it from him when he was here, before he died.

“You’re not listening, boy,” Kaken said, slapping me across the face to bring me back to attention. “Didn’t your teachers tell you that it’s impolite to ignore a ranting villain?”

He laughed again, and I took advantage. I spoke a word. A magic word, one that was taught to me when I first became an Arbiter some ten years ago. One that most Justices forget, I now realized. Kaken hadn’t forgotten, though, for he recognized the word. I spoke it again, and he backed up. The fire at my side intensified, and I felt my belt pouch start to burn. Kaken took another step back, and, raising my head, I shouted the word. The badge at my side finally broke free of my belt pouch and flew across the room. It immediately struck Kaken in the head, and the smell of burning flesh filled the room.

“Justice Kaken, you are charged with treason, murder, and the breaking of your vows as a Justice,” I said, staring coldly at the man before me, who was now on his knees, screaming. “You’re sentence is: Death.”

The fire from the badge intensified, until the man fell to the ground. His face was a bloody pulp, and I turned my face from it, lest I ruin the moment by throwing up. I looked around and saw nothing but startled faces. I faced the men that had been beating on me.

“Untie us right now,” I said. They moved quickly, and in moments the four of us were free. “Now,” I said again, “leave this place. Never return to this town, and you will not be arrested by me. Stay, and you will join Kaken in his punishment.”

I didn’t have to speak twice. All ten men looked down at their former leader and quickly fled. I heard them screaming at the rest of the mercs, who also all beat a hasty retreat. I stumbled then, and held myself up with a chair. Captain Tarbel came to my side, a huge grin on his face.

“You had this planed all along,” he said. “You let them beat you to lull them into a false sense of security, so you could judge Kaken. You sly dog… your Honor.”

I smiled at him weakly and nodded. My brain was too addled at that moment to try and explain to him the truth. Besides, what harm would it do to allow my reputation to start building here? Little did I know that the answer to that question was one I didn’t really want to hear.

But that’s a different story.

The End

Week 29!

Wow, 29 weeks! That's nearly 30! I'm excited!

So, sit back and enjoy this week's story. I had a good time writing this one, and even managed to get done early. In fact, I'm already working on next week's story, one that is close to my heart.

See you all next week!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Novel

“Please pick up, please pick up, please pick up,” Martha was chanting as she listened to the ringing over Bluetooth hands free set in her ear. This was the fourth client she had called in as many hours, and she was beginning to get panicked.

“Hello?” said a female voice on the other end.

“Katrina?” Martha said. “Thank God your there.”

“Martha?” the woman asked. “It’s been a while, how are you doing.”

The voice was pleasant, but it was also obvious that the woman on the other end did not want to talk to Martha.

“Katrina, I need to talk to you,” she said. “I’ve talked to several of my clients today, all of which have told me that they’ve switched to new agents, all at the same agency, some place called The Caspian Writer’s Agency. I’m calling to check in with you, make sure you’re still with me, and find out how that new manuscript is going.”

She winced. She sounded desperate, which she was, and also gave away way more information than she needed to. But Katrina was one of two clients that were all she had left. Whoever was behind this Caspian place, they knew an awful lot about her clients. But Katrian had been with Martha through thick and thin, through six books now, two movie deals and a third one on the way. She wouldn’t leave her. Not now, not in this time of need.

“Listen, Martha,” Katrina said after a long pause.

“No,” Martha said. “You too? Katrina, I thought we had something here. I’ve been to your kids piano recitals. Heck, I watched Thomas graduate high school with you. You’re leaving me?”

“Look, it’s just,” the other woman hesitated, “It was Anne. She called me about two weeks ago, saying she was starting up a new agency with some new partner. They offered me a better deal. She’s already sold my new book, and I’m not even finished with it. It’s nothing personal. I’m sorry.”

And with that, the phone call ended. Nothing personal? Of course it’s personal, this was her livelihood. How could it be anything but personal? Especially since it came from Anne. That bitch must have stolen Martha’s contact list, her entire database of customers was at her fingertips. And, being Martha’s one time partner, she had her own relationships with these authors. It would have been easy for her to drag them away. Martha’s eyes narrowed and she vowed vengeance against the skinny brunette that seemed to be out to ruin her life.

She stared glumly at her laptop, now displaying said database of clients, all of which were now working for Anne. Well, except for Edward, who said he was no longer interested in writing. And Conrad, obviously. But, he wasn’t on this database because he was a major recluse, and would only talk to Martha…

Conrad! Of course, that mad, brilliant genius. Anne wouldn’t have convinced him to her side, because she didn’t have his contact information. No one did, except Martha. Even if Anne had been able to get a hold of him, he would have refused. He didn’t work with anyone except Martha. And normally that would put him out of the business, except that Conrad was a certified genius, and wrote some of the most fantastic sci-fi/fantasy she had ever read. His first book was optioned into a movie a few scant months after being published, as was his second, which was actually a trilogy. His last series of books, which he finished the last one on last year, has just been optioned as a TV show. He was by far the majority of her paycheck, and she could keep going with him alone. She could also use still having him as a client to re-build her client base. She picked up her phone and made one more phone call.

“Martha!” came the smooth, male voice on the other end almost immediately. Martha couldn’t help but smile whenever she heard Conrad say her name like that. It was like she was the winner of a game show. “I’m so glad you called, I was just finishing my new novel, and I wanted to invite you out for the weekend and show it to you.”

“A new novel?” she said. “The one you were telling me about a few weeks ago? I can’t wait!”

“Actually, it’s a different one,” he said. “I didn’t like where that other novel was going, the main character just didn’t have that… spark. Still, I’ll probably go back to it. No, this one is like Jane Austin meets Die Hard, with a little steam punk thrown in. I think you’ll like it.”

“Wow,” she said. “You always were the most prolific author I worked with. I can pack up and be there by tomorrow after noon.”

“Sounds fantastic,” Conrad said. “I’ll have lunch ready for you when you get here.”

Yes, this was exactly what she needed. She spent the rest of her day getting ready to go, packing the things she would need before leaving tomorrow morning. She went to bed early, knowing she would want to start right away. It was a six-hour drive to Conrad, but it was always worth it. And she looked at those visits to Conrad as mini vacations as well as business trips.

The next morning she finished packing, piled everything in her car, and drove out to Conrad’s. The trip was mostly pleasant, and she played her favorite Wynonna Judd CD and enjoyed the countryside. However, about half way there, her mind automatically went back to the situation with Anne. Anne had seemed like such a nice girl when they first met, willing to work as Martha’s assistant to learn the ropes of the business. Apparently, the sweet little girl from UCLA actually came to steal Martha’s business out from under her.

About a month ago, Anne had called a meeting with Martha. That should have been Martha’s first clue. Anne was never the one who called meetings. With anyone. The second clue was that Anne had a cup of Martha’s favorite Starbucks waiting. Anne never got Martha coffee, even if she was already at the coffee shop.

“Martha,” Anne said as soon as Martha entered the room. Martha had been reading a manuscript when she arrived, and her mind was still on the adventurers of a band of pirates who were transported to a world where magic worked. “I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here.”

“Hmmm?” Martha said. She was hoping this wouldn’t take long, she had two meetings with new authors and a third with a publisher today, and she still had to finish reading this manuscript.

“Martha,” Anne said a little more harshly, causing Martha to look up. “I’m quitting.”

“What?” Martha came up short. “You can’t quit, I need you.”

“I know,” Anne said. “But the truth is, you need a whole lot more than just me.”

“What does that mean?” Martha said.

“It means, Martha,” Anne said, her voice dripping with venom and anger. “That you are the worst business woman I have ever had the misfortune to work for. You don’t know how to manage your office, your money or your time. You haven’t actually sold a book to a publisher for a year, and your client list is only ten people right now. Six of those people are new writers that don’t know any better, and the rest have a false sense of loyalty to you because you talk about their families.”

Martha was getting angry. How dare this woman, who had only been in the industry for eighteen months, tell her, a ten year veteran, how to run her business.

“You have no idea, Anne,” Martha said. “This is a highly competitive market, and things are done in a particular way, or they don’t get done at all.”

“This is exactly what I am talking about,” Anne replied. “You are getting things done, even using your ‘this-is-the-way-things-are-done’ attitude.”

Anne paused, and sighed. She seemed to get smaller with that action, as if this was something that truly pained her.

“Martha,” she said. “I’ve been offered a position at Davidson’s. With them, I’ll have the funding and power to truly help our clients. Your clients, Martha. I’m taking them with me. Oh, sure, some will resist, but eventually, you know, they will all come to me. They like me, and Davidson’s has a huge reputation for getting authors published. This is happening, Martha. I need you to understand that. I also need you to understand that I am doing this because you can’t. Because I truly want to help our authors get the best deals they can get, to get their books out there for people to read. And you’re not. Or you can’t. I’m not really sure which.”

And that was basically the end of that. Martha was awe struck. She didn’t know what to say. And Anne took her silence as a sign that the meeting was over. She walked out, and with her two clients left. A few short weeks later, and she was left with only one client, Conrad. Her last hope.

The rest of the trip was spent turning up the CD to try and drive the thoughts away, but it didn’t work. By the time she pulled into the little fishing village by the lake that Conrad lived on, she was just as upset as she was the day before. The originally named town of Lakeside always reminded Martha of those little Main fishing villages you always saw on horror movies or those travel programs on the Discovery channel. The lake always had boats on it, and the tourists came in to rent cabins in the forest by the lake and go fishing on the other side in little rowboats.

She drove through the main part of town, past the general store and the sheriff’s office. The sheriff even waved at her as she drove by. She smiled. It almost felt like coming home. She drove into the driveway outside the big house Conrad owned. It was a beautiful villa, on the top of a hill, with a fantastic view of the lake and a private path leading down to his own private section of the lake, where Conrad liked to go fishing. It also had a path leading into the woods, where the reclusive writer liked to go hiking. She never understood either of those interests. Conrad had insisted she go fishing with her, but all she did was sleep. She never even caught a single fish. She just couldn’t figure out why he found it so much fun. She wasn’t even halfway up the driveway before she could hear the man himself calling down to her.

“Martha!” he cried jovially. “Welcome! Come on, I have a fantastic lunch prepared for you.”

He always did. Conrad was not only a fantastic writer, but he was also a fantastic cook. He had prepared a wonderful fish dish that she couldn’t identify, but was yummy just the same. The two of them talked for a long time, but not really about much of anything. Martha told him about the boyfriend that had left her two months ago and had taken the dog with him when he left. He told her about his son, and how the latest woman he dated and decided that it was better to sleep with an entire motorcycle club than his son. Martha was suitably horrified.

“Okay, Martha,” he said. “It’s time for you to step up to the plate and tell me why you’re really here.”

“What?” she said. “To see you’re book, of course.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, running his hands through his salt and pepper hair. She was never attracted to Conrad herself, but she knew that part of the reason his books were so popular was because the older man was very handsome. Some women liked their men to be in their fifties. And divorced three times. And be a heavy smoker. Martha mused that she knew more things about Conrad than most people ever would. She thought that if he ever died, she could write a book on him and be set for life.

“But, let’s face it,” he continued. “You hardly ever call me looking for a book. You usually only come out here when something’s bothering you. So, out with it. What’s going on?”

She slumped down. She knew that she was going to half to break it to him. As much as he knew secret things about Conrad, he knew all her dark secrets as well. It was part of why the two made such a good pair.

“It’s Anne,” she said after some silence.

“She’s your assistant, right?” he asked, obviously stretching his memory to remember who she was.

“Yes,” she said. “Or, she was. She left, and she took my entire client base with her. All my authors. Gone. Well, except you. Which is why I’m here. I needed to be reassured that you were still with me.”

Conrad looked at her with a quizzical look on his face. “Of course I’m still here with you. Martha, I don’t trust people, you know that. It’s why I live in the forest, by a lake. The nearest town is still two miles away from here, and my nearest neighbor is one. I don’t like people. But, I like you. I trust you. In fact, and I believe n this case more importantly, I don’t trust anyone else to edit or sell my books. It’s you, or no one, kiddo.”

She smiled, and tears started coming. He always knew what to say.

“Thank you Conrad,” she said, trying to choke back the tears. “I really appreciate it.”

They sat for a few moments, Conrad not saying anything and giving her the time she needed to get her emotions under control. Then, suddenly, he stood up and claped her hands, which made Martha jump a little in surprise.

“Well, now that that’s been said,” he said, waving his arms as if clearing the air of a foul smell, “let’s go get some fresh air. What do you say, fishing? A little hike? Some sun and air will do you good at this point. And I won’t take no for an answer, Martha.”

She smiled. He wouldn’t, she knew that to be true. Once, she had refused to go on a hike, and so he just picked her up and carried her up the side of the mountain, kicking and screaming the whole way. When he set her down, he told her if she still didn’t want to go on the hike, she was welcome to go back to the house. The problem being, of course, that she didn’t know where the house was from there. So, of course, she went along. And this time, at lest, he was giving her a choice. And given that choice…

“A hike would be nice,” she said. “You’re right, I could use some fresh air.”

He told her to go up stairs, put her things away, and get dressed for the hike. He was giving her an hour. After that, he was coming to get her and go hiking, no mater where she was in that processes. Needless to say, she was ready to go in forty five minutes.

The walk itself was rather nice, and was pretty easy, compared to the first few hikes Conrad took her on. She was always amazed at the scenery of the place Conrad chose to live in, especially compared to the kinds of books he wrote. Here he was, living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, surrounded by nature, and he wrote about heroes flying through space in tin cans, or elves and men fighting giant dragons in some massive mountain. It never made sense to her. Still, she supposed this was why she was an agent, and not a writer. The one book she had managed to finish, and eventually publish, was about a woman book agent that ended up with an author who had written a real spell book and wanted to sell it to the world. It did marginally well, and her publisher was always asking her for a second book, but she just couldn’t figure out what else to write about.

The were mostly quiet on the trek out, but on the way back, they both started talking about his latest novel. When he told her the basic story, she was in awe. It really was like Jane Austin meets Die Hard. She couldn’t wait to read it. When they got back home, he gave her a copy, reminding her that this was only the second draft, and there was still a lot of work to be done on it. Then, he made them both dinner. After eating, she realized how tired she was, and excused herself to go to bed.

“Good night, kiddo,” he said. She liked that he called her that, for some reason. It was comforting. “Just to let you know, I was planning on a camping trip to the other side of the lake. I’ll be gone for a few days, but you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. The fridge is kinda empty, though, so if you do stay, you’ll probably want to head into town and pick some things up for yourself.”

With that, she went to bed and slept. It was a restless sleep, though. Anne kept coming into her dreams and stealing away the other characters. She woke up at least three times that she could remember. Eventually, she just got up and decided to stay up. She did her morning yoga and tried to meditate, but Anne just kept invading her thoughts. Mostly, it was her imagining all the different ways she could kill the little bitch. Eventually, she shook her head and went to take a shower. The really nice thing about Conrad’s place was the fact that there were four bedrooms, and each one had its own shower. Conrad didn’t have guests over often. It was usually just her and his son, though never both at the same time. But Conrad never liked having to walk down the hall to the shower, and didn’t want his guests to either.

She dressed and picked up the copy of Conrad’s newest manuscript. It was gripping, right from the start. It was also something unlike Conrad had ever written before. Oh, sure, it sill had some of his tell tale writer finger prints in it, but over all, this story was very different from Conrad’s other books. She spent several hours reading it before she realized she was wearing only a towel, sitting on the edge of the bed, and was starving because she hadn’t had breakfast yet. Quickly, she dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. Conrad was nowhere to be seen, but she didn’t expect him to be, either. It was likely that he left very early that morning.

Just as Conrad said, the fridge was practically empty of food. A couple of turkey dogs, two cans of beer, half a carton of eggs, some milk and two packages of paper and saran wrap. From the smell, there was fish in there. Conrad probably used the last of his provisions making lunch and dinner last night. There was some pancake mix, coffee beans and his coffee grinder. But, cooking was never her strong suit. Instead, she decided to head into town to eat. She grabbed the manuscript and drove down to the little diner in town.

It was a great place that she had eaten at before. Not exactly a greasy spoon, as her daddy used to call such places, but very country diner. The food was good, and came in heaping piles, so she took some back with her. She read more while she ate, and then made a quick stop at the General Store to pick up some groceries. She had decided that she would be staying for a few days. She could use a vacation, although it occurred to her if she was working with Conrad on this book, she wasn’t really on vacation. Still, working with Conrad at his place was far more relaxing than working at her office, or even at her home.

On her way out of the store, she ran into a man in a sheriff’s uniform, though he wasn’t the sheriff. A deputy, she realized. He called her by name and asked her if he could ask her a few questions.

“Do you know Conrad Smith?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Have you seen him this morning?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “He said last night that he was leaving to go camping for a few days, on the other side of the lake. He probably left before I even woke up.”

The deputy nodded. “The sheriff was going with him. He was expecting to meet him at the campsite several hours ago, but Conrad hasn’t shown up yet. If you see or hear from him, please let us know. Thanks ma’am.”

Now concerned for Conrad’s safety, Martha rushed back to the house. That was when she noticed that his Jeep was still parked in the driveway. She started to freak out. Where the hell was he? She rushed into the house and immediately began calling out his name. There was no reply, but she wasn’t really expecting one. She continued to search throughout the hose, until the only place left was Conrad’s room. She hesitated. She had never been there before. Conrad trusted her a lot, enough that the man who admittedly did not like people allowed her to stay at his place while he was away. But even Conrad’s trust of her didn’t extend to his room. This was the most private of sanctums. To enter here, especially if nothing were truly wrong, would destroy all the trust she had spent years building. Her last, and now only, client would be gone.

Still, she didn’t know what else to do. The man refused a cell phone, so trying to call him would do no good. She had searched every where else in the house, including the garage, and he wasn’t anyplace else. And with the Jeep still parked outside, she doubted that he had actually left. So, that left here.

“Conrad?” she asked through the door. “Conrad, are you there?”

She even knocked, though even that felt like some kind of graven sin. Eventually, she knew she had no other choice.

“Conrad?” she called one last time. “If you’re there, I’m coming in. I’m just checking to make sure you’re okay, and you’re not answering. So, I am coming in.”

She gripped the door handle hard, turning her knuckles white, and then turned it. The door creaked slightly as she opened it, and it made her stop, as if she were about to be caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to. She shook her head, concern for her friend overriding her fear. She swung open the door and looked around the room. It was finely furnished, complete with a large bead, a find writing desk with a computer on it, and even a TV. But, no sign of Conrad. She saw the door to the bathroom, on the other side of the bed, open. She rushed over there, and that was when she found him.

He lay on the floor, one hand clutching his chest and the other splayed at his side. His legs were also at odd angles, as if he had just fallen where he stood. His eyes were closed, which Martha was thankful for. She fearfully crouched down and placed a trembling hand on his neck, feeling for a pulse. There was nothing. In fact, he was rather cold to the touch. She jerked her hand back immediately, as if a snake had bitten it.

He was dead. Conrad Smith, her best writer, the man that had single-handily made her career, the last hope she had of salvaging her career, now lay dead at her feat. From the looks of things, he died of a heart attack. She didn’t know what to do. She panicked and raced across the hall into her room, where she collapsed onto the bed in tears. Conrad was a friend, and that alone hurt. But, she couldn’t stop thinking about her career. What in the world was she going to do, if she couldn’t represent Conrad Smith? How would she get new clients without his draw?

She spent the next several hours just crying and sleeping. She would cry until she was exhausted and then sleep. When she woke up, she would remember what happened, and cry some more. Finally, she woke up and realized she was done crying. She felt kind of numb, and was hungry, as well, something that made her feel slightly guilty. Then she remembered the groceries still in the car. She rushed down stairs and pulled them out. Thankfully, nothing was lost, and she put it all away, and then made herself a sandwich while she thought things over.

She knew that she needed to call the Sheriff. So, pulling out her cell phone, she made the call. Strangely, she got the office voice mail. Upon reflection, that made sense. Everyone was probably out of the office, looking for Conrad. She left a message that stated she had information on Conrad, and to call back as soon as possible.

She then went upstairs again. She avoided Conrad’s room, and went to hers. She wasn’t quite sure why, but she started packing. She felt strangely calm. Almost devoid of emotion. Her actions were robotic, stiff and unhurried, as if she were simply acting to act, rather that to achieve any real end. Eventually, during her packing, she came across the manuscript. She stopped what she was doing and picked it up. It was good. Really good. And now she realized, it was the last book ever written by Conrad Smith. Well, probably not, but the last completed book he ever wrote.

Suddenly, a very wrong though crossed her mind. There was still a chance she could save her career after all, she mused. She ran back into Conrad’s room and, being careful to avoid looking at the other side of the bed, she ran to his computer and turned it on. Conrad didn’t password protect his home computer in his room, because he knew no one would see it. Looking through the files, she saw that Conrad had, in fact, three complete novels. Two were still on their first draft, but that was okay. Anne may have been right and Martha wasn’t a good businesswoman. But she was a damn good editor. She could clean and polish these manuscripts up and have three full novels ready to go in a matter of weeks. If she saved then, and released them one a year, she could live on those books alone. Plus, they would draw in other clients. She still had Conrad Smith, after all.

She shook her head. It was a horrible thought. She couldn’t do that. She might be able to hold onto the books, maybe release them later, after there was time for the news of his death to settle in on the world. Then, she could release them as “lost” manuscripts. She shook her head again. What she was contemplating here had to be illegal. It just had to be. Plus, what would she do with the body. No, it was just impossible. Still, she looked at the files. Several short stories, the three books, and a huge file of story ideas. It would be a shame if the world at large didn’t get to see these things.

Her phone rang just then, causing her to jump out of the chair and practically fall to the floor. Quickly regaining her composure, she walked out of the bedroom and answered the phone.

“Hello, Martha?” it was the deputy. Oh, shit, it was the deputy, returning her call. What was she going to tell him? “Martha?”

“Oh, right, sorry,” she said when she realized she hadn’t been talking. “What can I do for you, deputy?”

“Well, you called me saying you have information on Conrad?” he said, sounding kind of agitated.

“Oh,” she hesitated. “Right. Well, I do. It’s… his jeep. It’s still parked outside, but I can’t find hide nor hair of the man in the house. Some of his camping gear is missing, but he’s not here. I figured he must have decided to hike to the campground rather than drive.”

There was a pause, and the Deputy responded. “Yeah, that’s what the Sheriff said must have happened too. It’s good to get confirmation. Don’t worry, ma’am. We’ve got search teams looking through the forest right now. We’ll find him.”

“Thank you, Deputy,” she said. “I know you will.”

She hung up and looked around the hallway. What the hell had she just done? She had just lied to the sheriff’s department about something she had no part in. The man wasn’t killed, after all. He had a heart attack. She was no guilty of lying to the police. She didn’t like that feeling at all. But once again, her eyes brought her to the manuscript; still lying across the bed she slept in last night. In a flash, it all came to her. She realized she knew exactly what she needed to do.

Flipping open her phone, she searched her database of contacts until she found the one she wanted. She dialed, and held the phone up to her ear, waiting. When the other line was picked up, it was a woman’s voice on the line.

“Rocketship Publishing, how may I direct your call?” she said.

“Hi Sandy,” Martha said. “It’s Martha. I need you to transfer me to Mr. Michaels. Tell him, I’ve got the latest Conrad novel, and this one is going to blow away your mind when you read it.”

The End

Week 28

Just my normal place holder to mark what week this is.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Land the Gods Forgot

Caius Valerus Saturninus looked down the mountain pass at the troops he had been assigned. It was only two centuries, about 160 men plus half a dozen horsemen, not counting himself and his two centurions. It didn’t need to be much more than this for this mission, however. He had been assigned by the Legatus himself, which was not surprising, as he had been picked by the Legatus to be a tribune in this legion. It was something that young Saturninus had been looking forward to, a life in the army. He would serve his three year term under the Legatus, and then return to the Senate, where he would help run the government, before returning to the army once again as a Legatus himself. For now, he was in his first year, and was still learning. Saturninus, however, had the good sense to know he was inexperienced, and thus relied heavily on his centurions. One of them was riding up to him now.

“Tribune,” he said, saluting, “I am here to report that our men are nearly in position. This pass through the mountains will be secure.”

“Excellent,” Saturninus said. “Tell me, Fabinus, are two centuries really enough to hold this pass?”

“Aye, milord,” the older man said. Saturninus studied Fabinus’ face, which was covered in small scars. The experienced solider had never lead him wrong so far. “The crux of this battle will take place in the foot hills below. We merely block this pass to prevent any enemy from using it as an escape route. Two centuries are perfect for such a task.”

Saturninus nodded. It was just as the Legatus had said. Still, something bothered him about the deal, and it wasn’t that he though the Legatus had just put him out of the way. Saturninus had been in battles already, and been cut and bloodied, and had even killed a few enemy soldiers himself. No, the Legatus must have believed that the enemy would really try to escape through this pass during the battle, and wanted to have it blocked off. Still, Saturninus could not shake the feeling that something was wrong.

He found out why a few seconds later when the ground started to tremble. It wasn’t just a shake or a tumble, he realized after a few seconds. This was an actual earthquake. The earth below his horse rolled like waves, causing his horse to panic and forcing him to take the reigns hard to keep it from running away. Rocks of various sizes were falling down the mountainsides into the pass, and he quickly realized that his men were right in the path of those rocks.

“Fabinus!” he cried over the rumbling noise, “Get the men out of there! Gather everyone in that flat area above the pass!”

The centurion was already racing off to execute the order before it was fully out of his mouth, and Saturninus was right behind him. The trembling got worse, and Saturninus almost fell from his horse a few times. Several of the other horsemen were dismounting, and he decided to follow suit, and discovered that it was easier to stand upon the moving ground that it was to ride on it. It took several minutes to move the men away form the rocks. Much of the movement was panicked, however, with men running in various directions just trying to escape death. Falling boulders crushed some, and the tribune flinched every time he saw it happen.

The quake went on for a good solid ten minutes, during which time everyone did their best to get to the flat top. It actually took longer to organize the troops and see what causalities were than the time the quake lasted. In the end, very few men were lost, and no horses. The pass, however, was completely cut off. It would take the two centuries days to dig out of this. But, there seemed little choice, as they were cut off on all sides. A few hours into the digging, something changed.

“Tribune,” the soldier was crying as he ran to the tent where Saturninus and Fabinus were discussing options. “Tribune!”

Saturninus opened the tent. He saw a young soldier, panting and sweating from the run. He motioned to his guards to let him in. The soldier came in and saluted.

“Report,” Saturninus said.

“Sir,” the solder stammered, still gasping for breath. “We moved some rubble aside just a few minutes ago, and discovered something that wasn’t there before the quake. A cave, sir. A giant cave.”

Saturninus turned to look at Fabinus, who only shrugged.

“Show me,” the tribune said, and the solder nodded and headed out of the tent. The traveled away from the camp and towards where the digging was happening. Most of the men had stopped their work and were standing around staring. Once they got in site of the cave, Saturninus understood.

The cave was truly gigantic, a gash in the side of the mountain. It went both up and down, a rough, wide path leading into it. It would be possible to take the whole company of soldiers and horses into the cave mouth ten wide, it was that large. Inside was also a wonder. It was mostly what one would expect to see from a cave, rocks, stalactites and moss. However, it was brightly lit, and it was clear that there was sunlight coming in from the other side, which implied that there was an other side. Another thing that was surprising was the appearance of plants. There were long, flat palm like bushes visible at the edge of the path that led into the cave before it turned around a natural bend.

Saturninus turned to look at Fabinus, who was still staring into the cave mouth. Eventually, the Centurion turned to look at his Tribune and shrugged once again.

“I have never seen or heard of anything like this before, mlord,” he said.”

“Neither have I,” Saturninus said. “But, I think it looks promising. Maybe a shortcut through the mountains.”

Fabinus nodded. “I suggest,” he said, “that we send a small scouting party through, and see what they find out.”

Saturninus smiled. “I agree.”

Fabinus turned about and started shouting orders at the troops. In short order, a group of four horsemen were presenting themselves before the tribune, awaiting orders.

“You’re mission is simple,” Saturninus said. “Go into the cave, explore and scout, and come back here to report what you see. Don’t spend more than four hours in there, we don’t want you caught in the cave when the sun sets.”

The four horsemen nodded, and then mounted up and rode into the cave. Saturninus had to forcibly move away from the cave entrance. It was almost enticing, and entering it would be easy. But, it might be dangerous, and that’s what the scouts were for. He turned and marched back to his tent, and listened as behind him Fabinus was shouting orders at his underlings to get the men back to digging.

A little over four hours later, the scouts returned. All four of them, Saturninus sighed in relief. Their report was astonishing.

“Sir,” the senior horseman said. “What we saw down there was a miracle of the gods. The plants you can see from the opening are just the beginning. The further in you go, it becomes more like a jungle. And the sky! There was a sky in there, complete with clouds, yet through it you can see the top of the cave. We never actually exited the cave, but there was a blue sky, and even a sun! It was small, but warm, very warm. There were signs of animals, too. Big ones, like the elephants of Africa, but we never actually saw them.”

Saturninus was stunned to hear this report. It was fantastical, something out of a Greek play or Homeric story. Yet, he knew this officer reporting before him. He was a trusted man, who never gave a bad report of his scouting activities. It was impossible to think that he was lying. But a sun and sky underground? It was equally as impossible.

“Thank you, Germanus,” he told the horseman. “Unless there is anything else to report, you are free to go. Feed your men and horses.”

Germanus saluted, turned and left. Saturninus let out a loud sigh and sat down in his chair. He looked about his tent. Right now, there wasn’t much in it, mostly because he didn’t bother to bring all of his stuff with him. He saw no point to it, what with there being a battle and his assignment to the mountain pass. The action would be over before he felt that they would need a tent. He almost laughed at such a though, for here he was now, using the tent as a command center as they planned on how to keep the troops alive.

Alive. That was the key. He looked up at the two other men in the tent, his two centurions. They had just been talking about food. There wasn’t enough in the rations that had been brought to last more than a day. And it was looking like longer than that would be needed to dig through the results of the quake. But this cave leads to a jungle. With animals. And that meant food. And still a possible quicker way through the mountain than digging.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “Given the food issue we were just discussing, I feel that it may be in the company’s best interest to go down into this cave and explore. If Germanus is correct, and there truly is a jungle in there, that alone could solve our food problem.”

The two centurions looked relieved. He nodded, confidant that he had made the best decision.

“Inform the troops. Have them pack and prepare for marching in the morning. We’ll enter the cave first thing.”

The two men saluted and left the tent. Saturninus rubbed his eyes. He was tired. This had been a very trying day, and he knew that it wasn’t over yet. The rest of the day, however, went by smoothly, and it didn’t seem like long before the tribune went to sleep. The next morning, he was up before most of his troops were, thanks to Fabinus making sure he was awake. The troops were organized and ready to march in quick order. This was something that they were well versed in.

At Fabinus’ recommendation, the troops marched into the cave at a normal pace, rather than a more cautious one that would be used in combat, so as to prevent the men from gawking or balking in fear once they were in the cave. It didn’t take long for them all to see that the scouts were telling the truth. The top of the cave seemed to stretch up, further than the top of the mountain, but that was obviously an illusion. One, no doubt, aided by the blue sky one could see. An actual blue sky. And in it, off in the direction that lead deeper into the cave, a small sun could be seen, suspended into the sky. It really was a miracle of the gods. Saturninus felt like he had just entered the god’s playground.

They marched for a few hours, cutting their way through the vegetation, as it got too thick for so many people to walk easily through. Saturninus had just rode up to the front of the line with Fabinus when he heard it. It was a thumping noise, rhythmic, like a large animal walking. But it didn’t sound like an elephant. Before he could contemplate it any further, the creature broke through the jungle and attacked them.

It was truly gigantic, at least twenty feet tall. Saturninus recognized it as a lizard like creature right away, but the size and length of it astounded him. Its mouth was filled with razor sharp teeth, and a large tail swung out behind it, keeping it balanced on its two large hind legs. It also had two tiny forearms that served no purpose Saturninus could think of. Not that he had time to think. The creature was moving fast, and straight at him and his troops.

His men, however, moved equally fast. Shields were up, positions were taken, and javelins were let loose. The creature obviously had thick skin, but several of the spears pierced it, causing it to cry out in pain and alter its course. Instead of charging straight through the men, it vered to its left. It still plowed through several soldiers, but it didn’t managed to grab any with those massive jaws.

As it rode by, one soldier raised up his heavy spear and jabbed out with it, scoring a direct hit on the creatures eye. When he pulled the weapon back, the creature was in so much pain it blindly thrashed about, sweeping it’s tail around and knocking down whole units of men. It turned and ran off before more damage could be done to it, thundering into the jungle as quickly as it came.

“What in the name of Pluto was that?” Saturninus said.

“I have no idea, milord,” Fabinus said. “Some kind of giant lizard.”

“Assess causalities,” Saturninus said. “We need to keep marching, and hope that there are not any more of those things around here.”

“Indeed,” the centurion said.

It didn’t take long to find out how the men were affected, the creature barley got into the front lines of the columns marching. There were no causalities, but there were a few serious injuries. Those men were pulled and sent to the back of the column, where they could be looked after. Some quick stretchers were built for the worst of the injuries, so they could be moved easier. After about twenty minutes, the army was on the march again.

As they marched, they spotted a large lake, and at Fabinus’ recommendation, they moved to set camp at a large clearing on one side of the lake. Once they got there, they spotted the foot prints that Germanus and his scouts had seen earlier. They did, indeed, appear elephant like, but much larger. And it also appeared that the creature that made these foot prints had claws on its feet. Whatever world they had marched into, the monsters that lived here were straight out of nightmare.

Saturninus insisted that the camp be moved further away from the central part of the clearing and off to one side, where their were fewer of those large footprints. Food was gathered from the surrounding jungle, most of which seemed pretty normal. Apples and other fruits from the trees were good, and a few exotic fruit no one had seen before were also gathered. Several small animals were also in the area, like squirrels and rabbits, and it didn’t take long before each company of men were cooking their own dinners.

Later that day, Saturninus noticed something. They had been marching for several hours, but the sun did not seem to move. He wondered if this strange world was daytime all the time. That would take some getting used to, and he hoped that the end of this massive cavern was found soon. Fabinus was pretty sure that there was still some good marching hours in the day, and the army had plenty of rest after that lunch, and so the troop was starting to pack up. Just then, several of the creatures that used this lake as a watering hole showed up.

They were every bit as large as the creature that attacked them earlier, and just as obviously lizards. But all similarly ended there. These creatures were massive, with large bellies and thick round legs. They also had long tails, similar to the one the toothsome creature earlier had. But the most striking thing about them was the long, graceful neck that ended in a tiny head.

The whole camp was stopped, staring at the beasts as they moved towards the waters edge. They ignored the Romans, much to Saturninus’ relief, and a few seconds later, he realized why. When they opened their mouths, he saw no sharp teeth at all. A few of them raised their long necks and ate a few leafs off the taller trees in the area.

“Leaf eaters,” Fabinus said. “They are not predators.”

Saturninus nodded. The remarkable creatures gave all the appearances of being gentle. The ignored the Romans completely. Apparently, men were not considered a danger. And rightly so. It looked as if a whole century would be needed to take such a beast down. Though, he thought, the meat on it could probably feed a whole village for a month.

As amazing as the creatures were, they needed to move on. He was about to turn to Fabinus and order the continuation of camp break down when one of the men further down the line started shouting something. He looked in the direction the man was pointing and saw what appeared to be a column of men marching their way. It didn’t look like a large number, no more than a century, but they were marching in formation. Fabinus started yelling orders for the men to get into battle stances, and Saturninus did not wish to counter this order.

As the other column got close, he saw that they were not men. They were more lizards, though much smaller, about the size of men. They were lithe, muscular creatures, built similarly to the first thunder lizard they had first encountered. They had two powerful hind legs, a balancing tail, and two thin but muscular arms. They had long thin necks that ended in an elongated head that reminded him of a crocodiles. They wore armor, as well, complete with helmets, some of which was plumed. They were armed with heavy tower shields and long spears. Some wore cloaks, and Saturninus figured they were the officers.

It appeared at first as if they were hunting the large leaf eaters, but when one of their soldiers spotted the Romans, they stopped their march and turned to face the new threat. Officers shouted commands, and they moved into new formations. They were unfamiliar to Saturninus, who had studied the tactics of the Germanic and Celt tribes. But it was clear that they were preparing for a battle. In short order, two of the capped officers broke ranks and strode into the clearing, half way between them and the Romans. Saturninus looked at Fabinus, who nodded, and the two mounted up and rode out to meet them.

The lead lizard man stopped and spoke something. The language sounded familier to Saturninus, but he couldn’t quite place it. The thing spoke again, and that was when he realized he know what it was they were speaking.

“Greek,” he said to Fabinus, “they’re speaking Greek.”

“Really?” Fabinus said. “Are you sure about that? I don’t speak Greek.”

“Yeah,” Saturninus said. “It’s an uncommon dialect, one I don’t recognize, and they pronounce things a little differently, probably due to the shape of their mouths, but that’s what their speaking.”

“Uh, Tribune?” Fabinus said, pointing towards the lizard men. “They seem to be upset that we’re speaking to each other and not them.”

“Oh, yes,” Saturninus said. He turned to speak to the lizard man captain. “I am Tribune Saturninus, of the Roman Legion.”

“I don’t give a sharptooth’s droppings who you are, human,” the thing said in his heavily accented Greek. “You are breaking the law by wearing that armor and carrying that weapon. Who is your owner? I demand, again, that you bring him to me at once!”

“What’s he saying, sir?” Fabinus asked.

“He thinks we’re slaves,” Saturninus said. He then spoke Greek again to the lizard man. “Sir, we are no one’s slaves. We are free citizens of Rome, and are soldiers in her army.”

“Rome?” the lizard man seemed confused. “I know not of this Rome. And humans are not free anything, anywhere, nevermind soldiers. If you refuse to present to us your master, I must assume you are renegades.”

“We have no owners,” Saturninus said.

“Very well, then,” the lizard man said, and turned to walk off.

“What now?” Fabinus asked.

“Now,” Saturninus said, “we prepare for battle.”

The lizard men didn’t wait long. As soon as their officers had reached their lines, the attack started. What surprised Saturninus was the tactics they used. Not only did they speak Greek, they fought like the Greeks of old did. Two armies on an open plain, clashing until one side had clearly won. The Romans, on the other hand, had been fighting barbarian armies for hundreds of years now, and Julies Caesar had turned fighting them into an art. Plus, the Romans outnumbered the lizard men nearly 3 to 1. There were causalities on both sides, to be sure, but the Romans had few while the lizard men lost nearly half their force before turning to run.

The two centuries regrouped and took stock of their situation. While they were doing so, the earth shook once again. It wasn’t as bad or as long as the last one, but all the animals in the area spooked, and the large leaf eaters, which had largely ignored the battle, stampeded away from the lake. When the quake was over, everyone was okay, but Fabinus ran up to the tribune, a grave look on his face.

“You look like you’re thinking what I am thinking,” Saturninus said.

“We must send scouts back to the cave entrance,” Fabinus said.

“Agreed,” Saturninus said.

It was decided that the camp would be kept for the time being, and the centurions had the men put up some defenses, cutting down nearby trees for simple fortifications. This work took several hours, but kept everyone occupied. During that time, there was no other signs of the lizard men, which surprised Saturninus, who expected them to return with reinforcements. Fabinus had an explanation.

“They think of men as slaves,” he said. “And we beat them, badly. They might not be willing to let their superiors know that they were defeated by a bunch of slaves.”

Saturninus nodded. “But, still, they will be back.”

“Oh, I agree,” Fabinus, “But my guess will be not until tomorrow. Our scouts will have plenty of time to return by then, and we can decide if we should move on or stay here.”

Saturninus nodded. This place was amazing, and it needed to be claimed by Rome. These strange lizard men would be conquered, to be sure, and the resources of this wonderful cave brought to bear for the glory of the empire. But all that assumed that the scouts would return with good news, and Saturninus had doubts that they would.

It was only a short time after that the scouts returned, their horses tired from the hard run. Their report was as grim as expected. The second quake had closed off the entrance to the cave. They were trapped in here, unless they could find a second exit. Fabinus suggested that they stay at the lake camp, but Saturninus did not want to wait around to be attacked by the lizard men again. With out the resources of Rome to back them up, the less that two hundred men under his command were it for the Empire. He did not want to loose them needlessly.

So, they tore down camp, leaving up the fortifications, and marched on. Unsure of which direction to move in, they decided upon the idea of going the opposite direction the lizard men fled in. As they traveled down the road, something extraordinary happened. Saturninus was riding along with the middle of the column when the notice came down that they were stopping. This intrigued him, as he did not give such an order. He road to the front to find Fabinus already there.

“What’s going on here?” the grizzled old vet was saying.

“Well, sir,” said a rather frightened looking soldier. “It’s a girl, sir.”

“A girl?” both Fabinus and Saturninus said at the same time.

The two ran forward, and sure enough, there was a girl there. She looked to be in her late teens, and scare out of her mind. Saturninus couldn’t blame her; she was surrounded by a large amount of heavily armed men. She was dressed in rather primitive looking clothing, cut from animal hides, but they also looked like they were meant to resemble a toga. He came up to her, and spoke to her in Greek.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “We are soldiers from Rome, a land from the surface, outside the cave. We have not come to harm you. My name is Tribune Saturninus. What’s your name?”

“I am Elpis,” she said. She never looked down and kept eye contact with Saturninus, which impressed him, given that she also looked terrified.

“Excelent, Elips,” he said. “Is your village near by? Can we take you there?”

He was hoping that her village would be large enough to support his army and give them a place to stay for a few days while they scouted for another exit. Or, better, they might know where another exit might be.

“It is near by,” she said. “You are not slaves of the Tarn’i? You carry weapons, and they have not killed you?”

“Tarn’i?” he asked, then he realized who she must mean. “The lizard men?” She nodded. “Yes, they have tried to kill us, but we fought them off. We are Roman soldiers, and we are not slaves.”

Her eyes went wide. She said something under her breath, and then looked back at him again.

“You must come with me,” she said. “You must. My father and the other elders will want to see you.”

And so the column changed direction once more. The village, as it turned out, was very close, less than an hours march. They arrived at a very simple village, but an ingenious one. It was hidden in the jungle, built on a large hill side in such a way that unless you were marching on it through the jungle itself, it would be nearly impossible to see. And it was a site to behold. There was farmland on the far side of the hill, but the farm animals were more of those strange lizards in this area. Saturninus learned from Elips that her peopled referred to them as Dinosaurs, or thunder lizards. It was an apt name.

The army paused outside the town, though they were clearly visible by the curious members of the town. Saturninus took a small troop, including some horsemen, into town with him. The locals seemed impressed with horses, having never seen them before. In short order, Saturninus and Fabinus were introduced to the town elders, a small group of five men who ruled the town. They all seemed impressed by the fact that they weren’t slaves.

“I am confused,” Saturninus said. “Are you not also free men?”

They looked at each other, before the eldest, and old man named Aesop said that they were renegades. Most of the people in the village had been slaves before, but they had escaped. There was a massive slave uprising several years ago, and enough slaves escaped into the jungle and survived that they built this town. Only the youngest, none older than five, were born free in the village. It is an unusual situation for them, but one they are willing to fight for. The lizard men, these Tarn’i, have been searching for this village for some time, because the younger men have been making raids on the slave camps to free more slaves.

Saturninus nodded. It took him some time to translate the oddly spoken version of Greek. It was like something from several hundred years in the past, but yet spoken like a living language. He then told them his story, and who the Roman soldiers were. Aesop and the rest of the elders were impressed. Warriors form the surface. Might as well have been from Olympus, for all that the surface meant anything to them.

Then the two set down to business. The Roman’s needed food and supplies. The villagers needed protection. It took some explaining that this was not slavery, but the village agreed to become a part of the empire, and in return, the soldiers would protect them. As before, the troops set about putting up fortifications.

It turned out to be a good thing. The Tarn’i had found them. It wasn’t the small force that had been before, but a full army, thousands strong. Saturninus’ heart sank when he saw them. This time the Romans were outnumbered. But, Fabinus came up to his side.

“Sir,” he said. “We can take them.”

“What?” Saturninus said.

“They may outnumber us,” Fabinus said, “but we can outfight them. If our ex-slaves here are any indication, these lizard men have never seen fortifications like this. We have a small but effective highly trained soldiers who have fought larger numbers of foes before. I say again, milord, we can take them.”

Saturninus nodded. He had little doubt that he and his men could save this little village and route the enemy army. And it was only fitting, he reasoned. It was likely the path through the jungle created by his men marching through it that lead the lizard men here. Aesop tried to tell Saturninus that this was not the case, that it was only a matter of time before they had been caught, but Saturninus didn’t care. He needed to protect these people, and that was all there was to it.

The enemy didn’t even bother with an officer this time. Saturninus wasn’t surprised. Why send an officer to deal with escaped slaves? He smiled a grim smile and Fabinus, who returned it. Let them come. Today, there would be a reckoning. Today, the Roman empire would come to this land forgotten by the Gods, and it would leave its mark. Today, Saturninus would move from an inexperienced officer to the ruler of a small village, and perhaps even his own empire.

Today was the beginning.

The End

Week 27

Well, here it is! Very late, but still on Sunday. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Zack’s Rules of Life

Zack’s Rules of Life, Number 12: When borrowing money, never borrow it from the mob.

Especially when said mob hires four hundred pound aliens known as Vraks.

“Come on, Zack,” the Vrak that was holding me a good meter off the floor said. His breath smelled of a sickening combination of cheap alcohol and stale hot dogs. “Mr. Spumoni wants his money. He told me to collect either the money, or you. Which is it going to be?”

Vrak’s are strange aliens, about seven foot tall at the shoulder and look like small, fury elephants, complete with tusks, that have a hand on the end of their trunk. Said hand was currently wrapped around my neck, making it difficult to actually answer him. I expressed this by pointing to my throat and making inarticulate gasping sounds. It took a few moments, during which I could feel my face actually turning blue, before he got the point and dropped me to the floor. I collapsed in a heap, but was ignored the pain in gratitude for the oxygen I was sucking into my lungs. I whipped the tears from my eyes and looked up at the alien between coughs. He was glaring at me impatiently. It was a very human expression, coming from such a non-human face, and that made it all the more intimidating. This, in retrospect, may have been done intentionally.

“Guido,” I said, “good to see you.” I coughed for effect.

“My name,” the Vrak said very slowly. If he had teeth, he’d have been saying these words through them. “is Qued’no, not Guido. If you call me that again, I will break your legs. Mr. Spumoni said nothing about you being mobile when I bring you back.”

Another thing you need to know about Vraks is that they are a warrior race. Their home world is set up along the lines of one big military, with everyone being a soldier. There are no true civilians in Vrak society. Children are just considered new recruits, training in all the disciplines they need for whatever job the military government has decided they will do. Most end up just being grunts, at least for a good portion of their early adult life. Some, however, are considered too violent or undisciplined for even the great Vrak training houses and society to control. These are either killed outright or, worse, ‘Dishonorably Discharged.’ This means that they are flung out to an unsuspecting galaxy. My friend Qued here is one of those.

You might wonder why I know so much about Vraks. Let’s just say that I wasn’t always a civilian, and leave it at that.

“Sorry,” I cough again. “My poor human ears don’t hear much of a difference.” Vraks like to think that humans are all def, what with our tiny ears and all. They also don’t understand sarcasm.

“Listen, Qued,” I say, pulling myself into a standing position. “I was just on my way to get the money, so I could pay Mr. Spumoni.”

“I’ve heard this all before Zack,” Qued said. I don’t remember talking to this particular Vrak before, so I’m confused by his statement. Then, he qualified it. “You’re kind always has the money somewhere else. You never have it on you. And then I’m forced to remove a limb.”

My eyes go wide. He’s reaching for my leg with his trunk.

“Woah, there, Qued,” I said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If I recall my contract correctly, I still have three days to make my payment back to Mr. Spumoni.”

The Vrack stops for a second to consider this, his trunk hand rubbing the underside of his chin in another disturbingly human like gesture.

“Yeah,” he said after a long think. “Yeah, you do. So?”

“So,” I said. “in order for me to GET the money, I have to take this job. It’s not supposed to take longer than a two days, and I’ll be back in time to pay Mr. Spumoni.”

“I’ve heard this before, too,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

“Yeah,” I said, realizing that he probably has, “but I got proof.”

I whip out my data pad and punch up a command, then turn it his way. He pulls it out of my hand and raises it to his eyes. I can see his mouth move as he reads it.

“Sell swords?” he reads. “Do people still use swords?”

“It’s a phrase,” I say, snatching my pad back. “It means mercenaries. This guy’s paying a lot of money for a milk run. And to top it off, I’m just applying as the pilot. Isn’t a think in this universe I can’t fly. I’m just going to drop this guy off where he’s going, let him and his armed thugs get what he’s after and fly back. Easy peasy.”

“Yeah,” Qued said. I noticed that he said that a lot. It was never a happy word when he used it. “Just as long as you come right back to Mr. Spumoni when you return. In fact, I think I’ll be waiting for you. I got the registration number for that ship. You just make sure you got the money when you disembark from that ship. And if you’re later than three days, don’t disembark at all.”

He turns and walks away, all four feet pounding the floor. I gulp. Then, I shake my head. What am I worried about? A rich alien wants some flashy bodyguards to help him pick up something of his, probably a fancy painting or statue, and bring it home. Milk Run. What could go wrong?

*****

I turn around the corner to where the rich boy’s ship is supposed to be berthed, and stop in my tracks. There’s actually a line. I know this guy is offering good money, but a line? And most of the people (and I use that term loosely) in line are armed to the teeth, some quite literally. A quick scan reveals only one or two that are not. I figure those to be my competition for the pilot job. In the mean time, I stand in line, like everyone else, and wait for the airlock doors to open.

When they finally do, it is to surprisingly less fanfare that one would have thought. The creature that came out was one that I had never seen up close before, but I recognized it right away. The race are called neuvonians, and really, it’s down right impossible to tell the men from the women at first glance. They all tend to look mostly like crabs, about three feet wide and just as tall, complete with three eye stalks, six legs, an exoskeleton and an pair of muscular arms that end in three digit pincers. Humans had little contact with the Nuvonian Empire, which was on the other end of known space from us, so it was odd to find that the rich boy in the ad was one of them. They were basically friendly, but were known to be arrogant and selfish. As soon as this one showed it’s blue shell, most of the people in line disappeared.

“Welcome,” it said in what sounded amazingly like a human woman’s voice. I found out later that the voice came through a translator that was attached to her shell. “I am the Duchess Shalena. I am here to hire four sentients to aid me in the recovery of my property. If you are willing to aid me on this quest, please step forward. I will begin interviewing now.”

With the line shortened, it didn’t take long for the Duchess to pick her crew. Her interview with me was pretty brief, seeing that I was the only pilot left. She made it pretty clear that I was to follow her every order, and I made it pretty clear that I was only doing this for the pay. She seemed to like my honesty with her, and we signed a contract. The amount she was paying, including a bonus if we were successful in a short period of time, would not only pay Mr. Spumoni, but leave some over afterwards for me to get off this damn station.

When all the interviewing was done, the five of us entered her ship, which she informed us was called the Dalliance, a joke her fifth husband seemed to think was funny. Besides me and the Duchess, there was another vrak named Kor’do, who had blond fur as opposed to the normal dark brown fur vrak’s sported. Kor’do wielded a plasma rifle and had the look of a seasoned vet. I wondered briefly what he did to be working with non-vrak. Next to him was Leeann, another human, who claimed to be a computer and security specialist. That meant she was a hacker and a safe cracker. She was also a looker, not to mention the only other human in the crew, and so I was happy to have her along, whatever she called her self. Rounding out our little troup was a man from a species I’d never seen before. He said in name was Dek, but that was about all the info I got from him. His was a solid mass of muscle; with chalk white skin and eyes that were pure black orbs. There was no hair that I could see. He other wise looked human. He didn’t carry any visible weapons beyond a knife in his belt, but I figured he was well armed.

It was obvious that whatever the Duchess was after, she needed disreputable people to get it, which probably meant that this little job was less than legal. Which was actually okay with me, as long as I got my money. None of us were much for standing on ceremony, and so the Duchess gave me the location of our job, and I set course. The Dalliance was amazing. Completely state of the art, combining cutting edge hard technology with the latest in bio-tech, something neuvonians are known for. Beyond her sleek curves and comfortable interior, she was a joy to pilot. The controls were intuitive, in more ways that one. The more I used them, the more they reacted to me and my needs.

Once the ship was in hyperspace, there really wasn’t much for me to do, so I joined in on the debriefing that was happening in the main hall. This room was a combination mess area and study, complete with couches, some data pads probably pre-loaded with books on them, and a library terminal. I saw that everyone was there, and apparently, they had been waiting for me before starting. I grabbed one of the mess table chairs, spun it backwards and sat on it, my arms folded over the back. Shalena’s eye stalks looked at me, bent down slightly and looked back up. It almost had the appearance of a nod or bow. Then, she addressed us all.

“I have hired you all,” she said, “to help me prevent a war.”

She paused for effect, but no one said anything. I think we all thought she was joking. I mean, come on, the ad read that she was looking to retrieve something that was stolen from her. How does that relate to stopping a war? Shalena pushed a button on the table she was standing by, and a holographic image sprung up form the center of it. It was showing several jewels, most of which looked like bracelets, but one looked like an oddly shaped crown, like it was designed for a truly huge head.

“These,” the duchess continued, “are the crown jewels of the Neuvonian Empire. They have been held by the current dynasty for over four thousand years, before we had achieved space travel. And they were recently stolen. It seemed like an impossible task, with all the security we had around it, but stolen they were. And our cameras caught the man responsible.”

The image shifted, and what came next surprised me. The image displayed a humanoid clearly taking the jewels out of a specialized glass case. What made the image even more shocking was that he was wearing the uniform of a United Nations of Earth marine.

“What would a human marine want with the crown jewels of the neuvonians?” Kor’do asked. “I mean, they don’t even border each other, or even compete for the same uncharted space.”

“That’s not just a marine,” I say. I go up to the screen and point out several of the badges displayed on the screen. “These indicate that this man is part of a special forces unit. And this one indicates that said unite reports directly to the president himself.”

Everyone paused for a second, and Shalena did that same strange head bob. “Can you tell me anything else about this picture that would seem odd to you, Mr. Zack?”

“Yeah,” I said, my head nodding. “If this really were some kind of op preformed by this kind of unit, and that seems unlikely given what these men are trained to do, then there are several things wrong. First off, he wouldn’t be wearing that uniform, never mind one with identifying badges. Secondly, taking out the security cameras would have been the second thing on their task list. This picture was obviously a set up, designed to frame humans for the act. I haven’t the slightest idea why anyone would want to frame us for such a thing.”

“Indeed,” the duchess said. “However, my people were unwilling to look at the evidence closely. My appeal of their decision was also rebuffed. The people back on my home world, however, would never believe that this video was anything but the truth. They will demand war. So, I figure the only way to stop things from escalating into total war is to get the jewels and bring them back.”

“And that’s where we come in,” Kor’do said.

“Exactly,” Shalena said.

“So,” Leeann, “what’s the plan? Do we know who really stole the gems?”

“I do not,” Shalena said. “I do, however, have the ident-signal for their ship, and have traced that signal to a system in the uncharted areas.”

“Wait a second,” I say, something else bothering me about all this. “How does a duchess get this kind of information? The video, the knowledge about human military uniforms, the ident-signal of the enemy ship… that’s all gotta be classified information, otherwise your government would have to mount this operation on their own, even if it was just to make themselves look good.”

The duchess’s eyestalks bowed once more. “You are correct,” she said. “The answer to that is quite simple. My late husband worked closely with the military, and I called in several favors that were owed him to get this information.”

“Okay, then,” Leeann said. “What do we know about where we’re going?”

“Next to nothing,” the duchess said. She pushed the button again and the image changed once more, to that of a small solar system. “There are five planets in this system, only two of which are capable of supporting life.”

The image zoomed in and showed two of the planets, the second and third. In orbiting around one were three small moons, and the second had a single moon, but something else orbiting around it.

“I believe that this is a space station,” she said. “I believe that this is where our target lies.”

“Seems like they’re doing their best to remain hidden,” Leeann said. “We can’t just fly in, they’ll shoot us down before even contacting us.”

Suddenly, Dek grunted. “I think this is where I come in.” It was the most he’d said since I met him. “I know how we’re going to get in. Listen closely, because I don’t repeat myself.

*****

Our ship sailed into the system, straight towards the station, with power off and our engines at minimal power. They did take a few shots at us, but they were mostly warning shots. After our ship continued to head straight towards, very slowly, they scanned us. Eventually, they put out a tractor beam and pulled us into the station. When their people came onboard to search the ship, they found it empty. Even the cargo containers were empty, according to their scans. I even overheard one of them say that he hoped he got assigned this ship as his own when they erased the computer and added it to their fleet.

After they left to go get some computer techs, we came out of hiding. We were all crammed into one of he large cargo containers. It was uncomfortable, but it worked, and so I was willing to over look having a vrak ass in my face. I looked over at Dek.

“How did they not find us,” I asked, “even with the up close scanners?”

He held out a little device, about the size of a human thumb. “This blocks scans, makes it look like there’s nothing inside. I’ve gotten into places far more secure than this station using this before.”

I wondered briefly what it was he did for a living that he had such a device. I let it go, however, as we got to work. We snuck out of the ship before the tech crew came back. The duchess informed us that it would take them several hours to crack the security encryptions on the ship before they could start erasing everything. We should have plenty of time to get the jewels and back. I, unfortunately, had to go with everyone, as there was no way I could stay hidden on the ship.

Leeann took over at this point. I learned on the journey to the station that she was used to work for a large corporation, and her job was breaking into competitor computers and getting useful information. She left to do some work for the government, something she found far more exciting. And she left that when she found that private interests would pay her far more than either the corporation or the government. Her job at this phase in the plan was to find our target and get us there. It only took her a matter of seconds to hack the computer and find the room where the jewels were. Now we just had to get there.

Dek took over once more. It was apparent that he was really good at sneaking around places, as he practically disappeared before my very eyes. If it weren’t for his rough clothing, I would swear that he was invisible. Sadly, it turns out he’s not so good at keeping the rest of us hidden.

As we rounded a corner, a guard spotted me, the last in line, sneaking across the hallway. With no warning on his part, he fired, and lanced a hole through my leg. The pain was excruciating! It felt like a white-hot bar of metal shooting through my knee, and extended up and down my leg as fire, straight up to my eyes, which felt like they were going to bug right out of my face to escape the flames. I passed out a few seconds later.

When I woke up, I found my self in prison. It was pretty normal looking, if a little small. One look around, however, told me it wasn’t normal. There was a wall missing, leading to another small room where a guard stood. I knew instantly that this was a military facility, and the missing wall was a force field. I’d seen these before. Escape was not a possibility, and my guard was only for show. I looked at him and was surprised to see that he was human. And not just that, but wore a UNE Marine uniform. This wasn’t a fake, either.

I decided to play along as the dumb prisoner, and toss my shoe at the force field. As expected, the field flares to life and bounces my shoe back at me. I’m sure if I had touched it, I would have been gifted with a fine electrical shock. Not enough to really injure, but enough to keep me from touching it again. The guard didn’t even turn to look at me. This guy was a professional. I was contemplating my next move when I heard the unmistakable sounds of gunfire outside the door. My guard raised his own weapon, but did not actually move from his post. The gun fire stops and there is silence for a few seconds. I look at my guard wondering if he’ll even move towards the door. Just when it looks like he will, the door bursts open and blaster fire comes in. The marine ducks and fires back. It’s a brief battle, but eventually whoever is outside hits his target and my guard falls to the floor dead.

I look up and find, to my surprise, Kor’do stands looking at me. Without a word, he moves across the room, slings his gun around his trunk, and pulls off the key card from the guard on the floor. He then opens the force field. I am so dumfounded that I simply sit there and stare at him.

“Well,” he grumbles, “you coming human, or would you rather just stand there?”

“You came to rescue me?” I ask.

“Of curse,” he replies. “You’re part of my team.”

“But… I’m human,” I say.

“Look,” he says, dropping the key card and grabbing his weapon once again. “I’m not happy about rescuing a human any more than I am sure you are about being rescued by a vrak. But, as I said, you’re part of my team.”

“No one has ever done that for me before,” I say, almost under my breath. He hears it, though.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” he said. “Now, come on. We’re going back to the ship to wait for the others. Climb on.”

I pause, unsure I heard him correctly. “Climb on?”

“My back,” he says, obviously upset. “Climb on my back. Unless you can walk?”

I realize that with the hole in my knee, walking is out of the question. So, I awkwardly climb onto his back.

“The others,” say, catching up to something he had said earlier. “Where are they?”

“They went after the target,” he says, leaving the room.

When we get outside, I am greeted with another surprise. On the floor is another dead marine. Next to him, however, is a dead vrak wearing the uniform of their military.

“Hey,” I start to say.

“I know,” Kor’do says. “I’m not thrilled about this either. Apparently, this little conspiracy goes further than any of us initially expected.”

With his lead, we both head back towards the ship. We only have one fire fight on the way, where Kor’do managed to take down two more guards, both vrak military, outside the Dalliance. We got on board the ship and he takes me immediately to the pilot’s chair and I set about warming her up. Kor’do opened up a comm. channel.

“Leeann,” he said, “We’re back on the ship, ready to go. What’s your ETA?”

The comm. crackled, and then there were the sounds of gunfire. “We’ve got the target, but we’re running into heavy resistance. The three of us are holding our own pretty well, but we’re running out of hallways to dodge down.”

Kor’do and I look at each other. What the hell can we do? The Dalliance is unarmed, so it’s not like we can fight back. I’m pretty handy with a blaster, but it’s not my specialty. Not that I could go out there anyway, lame as I am. Besides, I’m sure that Kor’do could out shoot me with his eyes closed. But what good can he do against this whole base apparently filled with professional soldiers? Apparently, he thought he could do more than I did.

“Keep the engine’s warm,” he said, then heads towards the airlock.

“What?” I say. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To get the rest of my team,” he says, turning to focus one eye on me. “I realize none of you are vrak, but your still my team, and that means something to me. I plan on going to help them and get them and the target back to the Dalliance. Keep the ship ready to go as soon as we’re aboard.”

Without another word, he turns and leaves, and I am left aboard the ship by myself. I listen in on the comm.

“Leeann,” Kor’do said, “I’m on my way.”

“Rodger,” she says, as if she expected that. “We’re on deck twelve, section two, corridor A.”

Then, I sit for a moment and think about my situation. I’m sitting in a state of the art yacht, waiting for a team that is likely dead as they face overwhelming forces. This mission is screwed, and it’s been so from the beginning. I could easily leave now, and it probably wouldn’t make a single whit of difference. If it’s true that this set of jewels would start a war betweens humans and neuvonians, and the neuvonian government isn’t all that interested in the truth of the situation, that war is likely to start even if they do rescue the jewels. What good is it risking my own life for a doomed mission?

Then, it occurs to me that my life is likely forfeit if I return to Mr. Spumoni without money. However, I go back to the yacht. I can easily sell this for ten times the amount I owe the mob. I could pay them, and purchase a small ship and go into business for myself. It would be easy. So easy, in fact, that I find myself actually taking the ship out into space, orbiting the station. I could just go out a few thousand klicks and head to hyperspace and put this whole business behind me. Then the comm. comes back to life.

“We’re under heavy fire here,” Leeann is screaming.

“I’m on the other side of you,” Kor’do is saying, “but there’s too many for me to break through. I can’t make it to you.”

I look at my computer screens and see where they are. Then, I see something that is nearby both of them, and I realize that there’s a way for them to get out. There’s a way I could get them and pull this mission off. I just need to give up everything I was just thinking about, and put my team before myself. I take a deep breath. I really want to just leave and sell the ship. It would be so easy, so very much easier. Instead, I punch open the comm.

“Kor’do, Leeann,” I say. “Listen up, I know how to get you guys out of there.”

“Speak to me, human,” Kor’do says. Leeann doesn’t reply.

“About ten meters away from you’re positions, to the station’s west side, is an airlock,” I say, looking at the map. “Head there.”

“What good will putting us in a dead in do, Zack?” Leeann asks. I can hear the blaster fire pass by her.

“You’re not going to stay in there,” I say.

“Are you mad?” I hear, and realize the voice is Dek. “You’re honestly suggesting that we throw ourselves out an airlock into the void of space?”

“Yes,” I say. “I can pick you up from there.”

“Pick us up?” Leeann screams. “We’re not leaving a bar, Zack. We’re jumping out into cold space. You’re talking about doing something impossible!”

“It’s not impossible,” I say. “Just very improbable. But, I’ve done it before. I can do it again. Trust me.”

There’s a brief pause, and then Leeann comes back. “No,” she says. “No, it’s too dangerous. We’re going to find…”

“We’ll do it, human,” I hear Kor’do say. “Leeann, do as Zack suggests. He’ll get us.”

There’s another pause. “You’re both crazy,” she says. “We’re on our way. ETA, two minutes.”

I watch the computer to monitor their position, and then take manual control of the ship from the computer. I maneuver my way around the station to position the ship by the air lock they are heading to. Setting up geosynchronous orbit with a planet is relativity simple. Planets are big. Setting up a stable orbit like this with a station without docking with it is more difficult, and it takes a pilot of the highest skill level. Thankfully, I am such a pilot.

“We’re at the airlock,” Leeann calls over the comm. exactly two minutes later. “all of us,” she adds.

“Go ahead and open the air lock,” I say. “Expel all your breath and close your eyes just before doing so.”

There’s a frustrated noise on the other end, then I heard Kor’do. “Okay, human. Opening the air lock in three… two… one…”

I see the tell tail burst of oxygen coming out of the opened air lock and briefly see three small figures leave them. I’m just slightly off on my figuring where they were and have to adjust. I move quickly, they only have a few seconds. I already have our own airlock open. I just need to scoop them up. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Finding something as small as a person, even a big one like Kor’do, is very difficult in space. Thankfully, I have their comm. signals to lock on, which makes it easier. I swing the ship around and move it in quick short bursts. When the computer indicates that all the comm. signals are onboard, I close the air lock and re-pressurize. Then, I punch the after burners and when I get far enough away from the station, I jump to hyperspace.

*****

Later, we’re resting in a quit, little moon that takes all kinds of medical patients and doesn’t ask questions. I’m checking in on Kor’do. The other’s are all fine, if suffering a little from vacuum exposure, but on the mend. I have heard that Kor’do may loose a leg, though.

“You did well, human,” he says when I walk into the room. “You did well.”

I nod. I come up to him and offer my hand, and he reaches out his trunk and awkwardly takes my hand and we shake. I feel a strange sensation of loyalty to him in that moment. I realize right then and there that I have made a friend. And not just any friend, a good one.

Which reminds me of Zack’s Rules of Life number Six. But that’s a different story.

The End