For the second time in less than a day, Trace awoke in the ship’s medbay. This time however, he wasn’t handcuffed to the bed’s side rail and he didn’t have Tsukiko leaning over him, inadvertently giving the teenage boy a clear view down her top. If she had noticed his embarrassed stammering and red-faced nervousness, she had tactfully decided not to comment on it. At least this time he was fully clothed.
He sat up in the bed, wincing at the grenade-like explosion of pain in his head that the movement caused. The bright overhead lights made the pain worse as he squinted. Trace clutched the side of his head and felt the presence of a bump where his head had struck the cockpit window. He cursed himself over his stupidity. Forgetting to fasten the safety harness, how could he have made such a rookie mistake?
Opposite the bed was a large window running the full length of the medbay. Normally it would provide an impressive view of the space outside the ship, but right now all Trace could see through it was a featureless grey void. “I really hope that’s astral space.” Trace said quietly to himself, referring to the medium that ships using a starcaster travelled through, “and not limbo or something.”
His leg, although no longer broken thanks to his earlier healing attempt, was still sore and a little tender. A twinge would shoot up it every time he moved or shifted his weight. There was probably still a hairline fracture in the bone and running around the ship and crawling through maintenance ducts hadn’t helped it any. Concentrating, Trace was able to summon a little bit of his healing energy, the blue glow repairing the last of the injuries he had suffered in the jumper crash and at the hands of the ISPD agent. There was even a little left to soothe the headache.
Trace slid off the bed and moved over to the window, pressing his face up to the glass. He knew they were only skimming across the “surface” of astral space, rather than entering it completely. The starcaster, like nearly all forms of teleportation magic, converted the ship into a mana stream and transmitted it through astral space much like a radio signal. This way they could take advantage of the astral plane’s tenuous connection with time and space to travel vast distances in the material plane, the plane in which the “real world” existed. Although it would seem to take several hours to travel a few dozen light years, to an outside observer on the material plane it would appear instantaneous. Long ago, mages had believed that all teleportation spells and rituals were instantaneous. However, back then they never travelled more than a few tens of thousands of kilometres across the surface of a planet. As the distance travelled increased, the time delay became more pronounced and noticeable; a few minutes for journeys across a solar system, a few hours for interstellar trips.
Outside the ship, Trace could see nothing. It was as if the ship was enclosed by a sphere of uniform light grey. Ambient light filtered in from all directions casting soft diffused shadows and there was no sense of movement. The lack of anything to focus on out there unnerved him.
Spacer legends had it that astral space was full isolated planetoids and the remains of forgotten, dead gods. Some also said that entire worlds that had been thought destroyed by the release of apocalyptic magical weapons during the Dragon War could be found here. There were rumours that the Imperial Navy and some megacorps had developed astral drives that allowed ships to physically cross the barrier between planes and enter astral space. If any of these experimental ships actually existed, no one was talking about them.
He shivered as he recalled some of the stories about astral marauders he’d heard told at the guild when he was younger. Huge beasts, the size of in Imperial Dreadnaught that inhabited astral space and could attack unwary travellers in mid-starcast. Trace laughed nervously and turned away from the window. He was too old to believe in those sorts of stories, only children were scared of phantom monsters that don’t exist, right?
Thinking about the stories he had heard as a child at the guild brought the recent events back to the front of Trace’s mind. He could barely remember his life before he was brought to Jurrika by Dorga; even remembering the faces of his family had become difficult in the last few years. They only seemed to come to him now in nightmares. Ten years of threats, beatings and worse was finally over, he was free. Dorga had never been much of a father and now he was dead, killed by the son he had abused and mistreated.
Trace still wasn’t sure how he felt about that. That Dorga had been an evil man was without question. In a universe where good and evil, order and chaos were definable and quantifiable aspects instead of vague philosophical concepts, that much was clear to him. His death was certainly deserved; he had caused a great deal of suffering. Not just to Trace either; many other people had had their lives destroyed by Dorga’s pursuit for power and wealth. Innocents like Toby and Samantha. Although again he’d had no choice about it, he had taken another life and the words that his “father” had said to him in that dream were ringing in his ears.
His train of thought was interrupted by a rumbling, this time not from the ship but from his own stomach. Trace became acutely aware at just how long it had been since he’d had a proper meal. “I’m not going to get anywhere on an empty stomach,” he said to himself. Pulling himself together and pushing the images of Dorga’s death from his mind, he left the medbay in search of something to eat.
“This is a noble’s ship, there ought to be some decent scram on board somewhere.” If he remembered the layout of the ship correctly, the galley should be just off the midship foyer. The foyer was a chamber located at the centre of the ship with a number of corridors and doors leading off from it. The stairs to the lower and upper decks also connected to it, making it the hub of the ship’s layout. Forward of the foyer was the ship’s forward lounge and the corridor to the rear lead to the crew quarters, the launch bay and the engine room. There were four doors leading out of the foyer. One led to the medbay he had just left and another opened into the storeroom that had been used as makeshift cell to lock him up in earlier. Of the other two, one had the universal sign for a washroom. Through a process of elimination, that meant that the remaining door must lead to the galley.
The galley door was unlocked and it opened onto a room of gleaming metal work-surfaces, lit by soft overhead lights. Trace looked around with a small amount of awe. The state-of-the-art galley was a far cry from the rusty and ancient appliances in the apartment he had shared with Toby and Sarah, and even further from the filthy kitchen at Dorga’s bar. In the corner of the galley was an autochef nestled in its standby alcove; a robotic cook that hung from a track fixed to the galley’s ceiling; it could prepare any dish whose recipe was programmed into its databanks as long as the ingredients were available. At the far end of the galley was a set of metal roller shutters covering a serving alcove that Trace suspected opened on to the forward lounge.
Eagerly, Trace opened one of the cupboards in search of food. His face fell as he saw that it was full of plain white cardboard boxes containing generic brand ration bars. “Aww come on, there’s gotta be better stuff than this.” After a minute of searching he found what he was looking for, opening up the door to the huge walk-in fridge that was home to a veritable grocery store’s worth of fresh food.
Trace’s eyes lit up and he grinned. He’d never seen so much fresh food in one place before, not at such high quality either. “Jackpot”
Korodo found him ten minutes later, sitting on one of the kitchen counters and stuffing his face with fresh fruit and cold cuts of cooked meat. The half-dragon looked at the boy with a raised eyebrow as he walked into the galley and headed towards the fridge. He took a cold bottle of beer from the fridge and closed to the door, leaning against it and twisting the bottle’s cap off. Trace sat opposite him, a chicken drumstick sticking out of his mouth and looking back with suspicious eyes.
“So,” Korodo said, breaking the awkward silence, “I see you’re feeling better.” He gestured at the bloodstains on Trace’s borrowed t-shirt. “You had us worried there for a while.”
“Meh, I’ve had worse,” Trace said around the drumstick in his mouth.
“And it seems you certainly got your appetite back.”
Trace shrugged. “Dorga threw me out on to the streets when I was eight to ‘toughen me up’. Back then, I’d go without food for days at a time while I tried to beg and steal enough to survive. I nearly died of starvation more than once. I guess because of that I don’t like feeling hungry, it brings back bad memories.” Embarrassed at what he had said, he looked away for a second. He didn’t know what had made him admit to that. “How’s everyone else?” He asked anxious to change the subject.
“Thanks to you, the only other thing that got damaged was the ship.”
“Erm, thanks, I think.” Trace blushed, unused to hearing sincere praise or gratitude directed at him. “How bad was the damage?”
“Well, the hull breach in the port cargo bay has been repaired, but the breach in the launch bay can only be patched. The spaceframe in that area was buckled so we’ll need to get to proper dock facilities to repair it. But, that’s the least of our problems. Apparently, the fuel transfer intermixer was destroyed by the missile blast and without it, both the main drives and the combat drives are out of action; we’re down to just our manoeuvring thrusters. Our only spare was in the port cargo bay.”
“Ah,” Trace said, realising what Korodo was getting at, “the one that got breached.”
“So what happens now?”
“Actually,” Korodo said, smiling a little, “I wanted to have a word with you about that. While you were out, we programmed a jump to the Primogen system where we’re going to put in for some repairs.”
Trace scratched his head. “What’s that got to do with me?”
Korodo finished off the rest of his drink before continuing. “When we land, I want you to stay on board. No ‘going exploring,’ no sneaking out or running off.”
“Even after saving their butts,” Trace thought to himself, “he’s still going to treat me like a prisoner.” Trace narrowed his eyes and glared at the half dragon. “And what if I don’t?” He said aloud, taking the drumstick out of his mouth and using it to point at Korodo.
“Simple, you’ll get arrested for illegally crossing into Domain Noros.”
“No disrespect intended Trace, but commoners like you are not allowed to cross Domain borders without proper transit papers. The Primogen system is in Domain Noros; if you leave the ship, they’ll arrest you. You’ll be charged with illegal entry into Domain Noros and if I remember correctly, that’s at least five years hard labour. That’s assuming that those black dragons don’t make up a few charges just for fun. Afterwards, they’ll send you straight back Mazorgrim where you’ll face similar charges for leaving their Domain illegally plus the fallout for that chaos back on Jurrika.” Korodo walked over to Trace and placed a hand on his shoulder, which the boy quickly shrugged off. “I know you don’t have a reason to trust us, but please, don’t go running off just yet.” He stepped away from Trace and turned to leave.
“After everything I’ve done,” said Trace, “why do you care if I get arrested or not?”
Korodo stopped at the door. “Well,” he said, speaking over his shoulder, “I can’t have my new pilot getting himself thrown in prison now, can I?” With his back to Trace, the confused boy couldn’t see the smirk on the half dragons face as he left.
“Well, that was weird,” Trace thought. One minute the noble was threatening to hand him over to the cops, the next he was trying to keep him out of jail. Not to mention the fact he had actually paid him a compliment; he couldn’t figure the guy out. It was also the first time that Korodo had called him by his name since they had met, instead of just calling him “kid” or “elf boy.” Trace laughed and stuck the drumstick back into his mouth. Crossing Domain borders without transit papers was the least of the things they could charge him with; with his rap sheet, especially after fleeing Jurrika and skipping out on certain legal restrictions, he would be lucky if he got less than twenty years. Trace hopped off the counter and went over to the fridge, searching for one of the bottles of beer he had seen. “Wait a minute,” he said, spitting out the drumstick as his eyes widened in sudden realisation, “what did he mean by ‘new pilot’?”
Standing over the body of the guild member, Caldrin wiped the blood off his knife. It’s clear crystal blade briefly assuming a red hue as it absorbed some of the blood of the victim. The second assassination attempt on the noble had failed. Unfortunately, his ploy to convince the guildmaster that the boy had betrayed him and was working with Lord Korodo to bring down the guild had backfired. He had fundamentally misunderstood the connection between Dorga and Trace; the guildmaster had been more concerned with getting personal revenge on the boy for some reason, than on killing him and the noble by simply destroying the ship as the drow had suggested. It seemed that the intelligence on the Jurrika Thieves Guild was not as complete as the ISPD had believed.
Nonetheless, the damage was already done. The assault on the noble’s apartment, the chase and fire fight through the skies of Jurrika City and the battle in orbit around Seastyl, all of it had attracted too much attention. It was time to burn everything and cover their tracks, literally.
The men under his command had stormed the bar the guildmaster had used as a cover for his activities. At the same time, strike teams had assaulted several other known guild locations. Along with a bombing campaign against guild-affiliated business, the assassination attempt would be masked by the apparent wave of violence sweeping across the city. Already the media was portraying it as a coordinated series of strikes by one underworld organisation against another, a dirty “black-war” spilling out onto the city streets. That another criminal syndicate would undoubtedly move in take advantage of the decimated guild would only add to the believability of the cover story.
“Sir,” his assistant said holding a communicator to his ear, “the probe team has returned from tracking the Chimera’s mana stream.”
“They were able to track the noble’s yacht to a position two light years outside this system,” the assistant said, relaying the report from the probe team on the other end of the communicator, “but there was no sign of the ship… There was a mana stream heading galactic east… but it was too faint to get a fix on their starcast destination.”
Caldrin looked around as his men mopped up the last of the guild members. “Set up a domainwide watch alert for the Chimera, Korodo and his staff. Extend it to the neighbouring Domains of Esmer of Osorus, they have to show up eventually. In the meantime, we’ll evacuate the staff from the office and set the demolition charges. When you’ve finished up here, I’ll meet you onboard the Nodachi.”
“Will the patch hold?” Barak asked Bolts as they studied the ship schematics being displayed by the holographic projector embedded into the centre of the table.
“It should last for one atmospheric re-entry,” the soulmech said, “but I wouldn’t want to chance a second. We really need to get that breach properly sealed when we get to Primogen.”
Tsukiko reached into a pocket and pulled out a small computer chip that she slid into a slot on the table. There was a beep as the built in computer read the data from the chip and a window opened up in the holographic display. The window showed a scrolling list of items, some of which flashed in red. “We’re running low on some supplies, mainly because we left port early but that breach in the cargo bay didn’t help. The ones in red are the ones I’m really worried about though.” She looked at the two men. “If we get into any more trouble, we’ll start running out of critical supplies, especially medical supplies.”
As she spoke, the door opened and Korodo walked in, a smile on his face. The half dragon held up three fingers and slowly began to count down. “Three … two … one …”
On one, Trace ran in through the open doorway. The boy looked at Korodo and then at the three adults sitting around the table. “Just what did you mean by ‘new pilot’?” He asked carefully.
Korodo walked over to the table and pretended to inspect the holographic projection. “Well, we need a pilot. Barak and Bolts both have a license and can handle basic manoeuvres, but if we get in to trouble again, we’re going to need more than just someone with a little training and a piece of paper; we’re going to need someone talented at piloting. Until we’re able to get in touch with our allies, you’re the best candidate.”
“Are. You. Insane?” Trace asked, striding over and turning the half-dragon around to face him, “there’s no way that I can be your pilot!”
Tsukiko smiled and leaned forward. “Are you saying that you can’t do it?”
“Yes … no wait, no … argh! I don’t know.”
Korodo placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. Unlike last time, Trace was too confused to shrug it off. “I saw the way you threw this ship around during combat; and the way you handled that jumper beforehand. We don’t need a ‘by-the-book’ chauffeur, we need someone one can pull off moves that the manual says this ship shouldn’t be capable of doing. That certainly describes you, doesn’t it?”
“Not having a little piece of paper didn’t stop you earlier,” said Bolts.
Trace sighed and took a deep breath before responding. “That was different; people were trying to kill us. Even if I wanted too, and I’m not saying I do or don’t, I can’t be a pilot for you; I’m only fifteen. I’ve got another year before I can get a provisional license and even then, I’m limited to non-commercial shuttles and orbital transfer pods for two years. If I was caught landing this thing at a starport, you’d just get a fine but I’d get arrested. I’ve been in prison enough times because of someone else that I never want to have to go through that again.”
Korodo looked at him for a few seconds before turning to the others. “Guys, do you mind giving us the room for a few minutes?” Once they were alone, he motioned for the boy to sit down. Trace hesitated, torn between staying to hear the man out or storming off. Then he realised that until they landed at Primogen, he couldn’t just keep avoiding him. The ship was small and there were only so many hiding places. Reluctantly, he sat down.
“I don’t need charity if that’s what you’re thinking,” Trace said, “I can take care of myself.”
The half dragon smiled. “I can see that,” he said before his face fell serious. “How are you doing though? It’s been a rough couple of days.”
Trace looked out of the window opposite; but it wasn’t the featureless grey void of astral space that he was seeing but the moment that Dorga’s shuttle had exploded. Korodo didn’t notice his faraway look, or the shudder that passed through his body. Trace blinked his eyes and shook his head, banishing the image from his mind. “I’m doing fine, why shouldn’t I be?” He forced a cocky smile, hiding his unease as he changed the subject. “Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m ungrateful or anything. Like I said before, you guys saved my life and if I’d never met you, I’d probably still be working for Dorga. He’s controlled my life for so long but now I’m finally free. Free to do whatever I want, free to decide what my future will be, everything. I might not know what I wanna do with my life now, but I know that I want to be one in control of it from now on.”
“I can respect that,” Korodo said. “I guess if I was in your position, I’d be hesitant too. Although I meant it when I said we could use you, I don’t want you to do it out of a sense of misplaced obligation.” He got up and leant against the table. “How about this? It’s going to be at least a week or two before we get to our final destination. Depending on how long it takes to get repairs on Primogen that is. If you’ll give us a hand with the piloting until then, I promise that if you still want to go your own way after that, none of us will stop you.”
Trace cocked his head for a couple of seconds, thinking it over. “Kinda like a trial run thing?”
“Precisely,” Korodo said, nodding, “for both of us. In addition, the people we’re going to see might be able to help set you up with a place to stay and a legitimate job. Or transit papers to wherever you want to go if that’s what you want.”
“Okay,” Trace said standing up and walking over to Korodo, “I’ll do it on one condition.”
Trace looked Korodo in the eye as he spoke, his expression deadly serious. “Tell me why the snakeheads want you dead.”
Trace scanned the controls trying to hide how much he was impressed. Rotational control thrusters, multi-vector tactile control sticks, holographic heads-up display, is that an overburn supercharger? Nice. There were a few controls he didn’t recognise though; like the arcane oscillator, his grandfather’s old dropship hadn’t had one of those, neither did any of Dorga’s shuttles. Still, the layout was identical just as he said it would be; he could do this.
Grasping the twin control sticks, Trace felt the ship respond to his command. Compared to a jumpcraft or one of Dorga’s shuttles, the Chimera was a lumbering giant. Looking at the readouts though, he could tell that the Chimera was faster in straight-line flight.
“Stop drooling over the controls and get with it!” Korodo’s voice focused his attention back on Dorga’s shuttles. Remembering how his grandfather had shown him, Trace jabbed at the holographic controls and brought up the ship’s external cameras. A series of windows appeared in the HUD showing the video feeds from the cameras and giving Trace the ability to view what was happening around the ship.
“Where are they?” Korodo said as he cycled through the various sensor systems at his station. “They’re not showing up on the sensors.”
“I know; they’re Guild shuttles, they’ve all got stealth mesh on their outer hulls.” Glancing at the various camera views, he spotted three shuttles. They may be masked on radar, but they couldn’t hide from the visual cameras without major technological and magical assistance. “Got ‘em, seven o’clock high, four o’clock low and six o’clock level. Each of ‘em are armed with twin laser cannons and four externally mounted missiles, radar guided. Top combat speed 22 thousand kph, but they don’t have starcasters. We can outrun them on our main engines, but on combat drives they’re faster and more manoeuvrable than us.” Trace knew they couldn’t switch to their main engines whilst they were still engaged; their manoeuvrability would drop drastically and they would be sitting duck for the shuttles who would have a clear shot at them for a least a minute. If they tried to take evasive action while accelerating, the immense stresses involved in the violent manoeuvres would tear the Chimera apart. “They’ve got no shields, and their polymeric armour plating is weak around the thrusters.”
“And how do you know all that?” Korodo asked, slightly impressed that the boy could rattle off such information so calmly in the middle of combat.
Trace glanced over his shoulder at the half-dragon and smiled. “Heh, you forgotten who I used to work for?”
“Okay, since you’re the expert at this, what do you suggest?”
Trace was thrown for a second, expecting to detect a hint of sarcasm in what Korodo had said; but there wasn’t any. Was that actually a compliment from the noble? “Erm … give me a second. This isn’t like getting away from police jumpers, it ‘aint as if I can dodge between skyscrapers and loose ‘em in the sprawl.” Glancing at the camera feeds, he saw one of the shuttles dart forward, aiming a strafing run at the Chimera’s side.
Korodo nodded and pulled on a headset. “Bolts, what’s the status of the starcaster?”
The soulmech braced himself against an overhead beam as the ship rocked. He was in the small engineering compartment at the rear of the ship. On either side of the cramped room lay the ship’s main engines. Although currently idling, the hum from the giant electromagnetic coils around their particle impulse chambers created a charged atmosphere, the air smelling of ionised oxygen molecules.
“Bolts, what’s the status of the starcaster?” Korodo’s voice crackled over the intercom. The engineer glanced over at the transparent crystal sphere nearly a metre across at the back of the room. Smaller, fist-sized hexagonal crystals orbited it, sparks of magical energy drifting from them and into the central crystal.
Bolts activated his internal transceiver and connected to the ship’s internal communication network. “It’s going to take some time,” he said looking at the holographic readouts encircling the starcaster, “when main power was shut down, the caster dumped its charge. It’ll be a few minutes before the mana levels are restored.”
“Is there any way you can speed it up?” The ship shook as another round of laser fire struck the ship and alarms starting to wail.
“I’ll try,” Bolts said, “even if I have to shovel mana into the caster myself.”
Tsukiko stumbled as the ship rocked, almost dropping the dermal regenerator she had been using. Barak caught her as she stumbled, catching her with his arm. “Careful Suki,” he said playfully, “I’ve got enough battle scars as it is without a new one on my forehead.”
“Pity,” Tsukiko said as she passed the regenerator over the orc’s head wound, knitting the flesh back together, “I like some of those scars.”
A particularly violent jolt shook the ship; the two of them felt the ship shudder as it sustained a direct hit. The deck plates beneath their feet transmitted the vibration of something exploding elsewhere in the ship and alarms started to sound. “Alert, hull breach in port cargo bay. Decompression contained.”
Barak sat up. “Please tell me we didn’t leave Korodo in charge of the ship?” The orc swung his legs of the side of the medical bed. “And don’t give any me any of that ‘you need rest’ doctor-speak.” He said when he saw the look that Tsukiko was giving him as he clipped his sidearm holster to his belt.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Tsukiko said handing him his pistol, “but I need to give you something first.” She reached forward as Barak looked up and kissed him.
“Echo two,” the shuttle pilot said into his headset, “swing around and attack the left flank. Echo three drop back and execute a flip six three in case the Chimera gets past echo two.” Dorga watched the man at work, manoeuvring the various shuttles around in an effort to engage the rapidly evading ship. Grinding his teeth in anger, he recognised the flying style of Chimera’s pilot. Although it appeared wild, chaotic and undisciplined, it was anything but random. He should know; he had watched as the young boy had developed his piloting skills over the years.
Earlier, Dorga had told Trace that the boy had been born to be a thief; that it came to him naturally. However, the guildmaster knew that he had been lying when he had said this. Trace may have been a good thief, but he was a better pilot. It was in his blood; this was what he had been born to do.
As the alarms rang, Trace scanned the video feeds, committing the position and flight path of each shuttle to memory. “Hang on,” he said over his shoulder, “this might get … a little rough.” He jammed the left control stick forward and pulled the right stick all the way back. In response, the starboard engines went into full reverse as the port engine went to full thrust; the Chimera began to swing around. At the same time, Trace rotated the control sticks within their gyroscopic mounts, triggering the rotational control thrusters. The Chimera twisted and turned, rotating in all three dimensions and scattering the three shuttles, its superstructure groaning in protest over the violent stresses.
Korodo gripped tightly onto the armrests of his seat, thrown about by the rapid and wild manoeuvres. The gravity field generated by the starcaster could barely keep up. The half-dragon could only watch as young boy in the pilot’s seat threw his ship through a series of seemingly random manoeuvres. Earlier, he had accused Trace of being reckless and insane. But watching him now, he had to admit that he had been wrong. In the reflection in the glass, Korodo could see the determined expression on the boy’s face, the depth of his concentration visible in the motion of his eyes and the set of his shoulders as he gripped the controls, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
Trace’s eyes flicked from the video feeds to the various system readouts to the view outside the cockpit window, all in rapid succession. Taking in all the information and processing it rapidly, he integrated all of it into a series of quick-fire manoeuvres. He wasn’t even consciously aware of what he was doing, barely even aware of the presence of Korodo. Trace was “in the zone,” a place he always went to in these situations, a place where all conscious consideration was replaced by acting on pure instinct and adrenaline. However, this time was different; this time he wasn’t trying to evade police jumpers who just wanted to stop and arrest him. This time people were actively trying to kill. His heart was thundering in his chest.
Jerking on the control sticks, Trace fired the RCS thrusters and halted the Chimera’s movements, its bow pointing directly at one of the guild shuttles. A single tone sounded and a flashing targeting box appeared over the shuttle in the HUD, the ship’s forward cannons had locked on using the visual cameras for targeting.
Trace hesitated; he knew that the shuttle in his sights was the one that Dorga was on, the one containing his father. There was no way he could possibly have known this, each of the shuttles was identical, but it was as if he could feel Dorga’s presence aboard it. His thumbs hovered over the firing switches on the control sticks. With just a push of a button, he could fire the cannons and destroy the shuttle. They were locked on, at this range there was no way that he would miss, no way that the shuttle would survive. All he had to do was push the switch.
“FIRE!” Korodo yelled from behind him, seeing the same targeting information as Trace.
The sweat dribbled from Trace’s brow, his knuckles white from his grip on the sticks. Even after everything that Dorga had done to him, the things that he had forced him to do over the years, the hatred he felt for the man, he hesitated.
Closing his eyes, he remembered the piercing sound of the alarm as the airlock on his family’s colony was breeched; watching from the balcony of the main house where he had been playing as men poured into the grounds of the compound, gunning down everyone they came across; men, women, children, it didn’t seem to make any difference to them. There was an acrid smell of gunfire in the air and the dull thumps of subsonic ammunition designed not to pierce the colony’s dome seemed to be everywhere. There was a crack and a white streak of tracer fire as a spray of gunfire lanced up from the men towards the balcony. Something warm and wet splattered across the side of his face, followed by the thud of something hitting the floor. Turning around he saw his cousin Carric lying on the floor, blood pooling around his bullet-mangled head. Killed instantly by the burst, he hadn’t even had time to scream as the bullets tore through his face, spraying his blood on to Trace; they had been best friends, the same age, sharing the same birthday, they had done everything together. He just stood there, staring at the body in shock, even as the men began storming the house. His mother came onto the balcony, scooping him up and carrying him into the house, holding him tightly. She tried to shield him from seeing the bodies, but there were too many of them. Cut off from garage and small hanger, they were forced to retreat to the bedrooms. She made him hide under his bed, telling him to be quiet and that it would be all right. Although he was scared, he nodded and tried to smile bravely. If she told him that he would be safe and that the bad men wouldn’t find him, then that’s what would happen; she wouldn’t lie to him. There were gunshots from outside his room and he heard voices, his mother and another man. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. They were speaking in the human language Common, but he only spoke Elven, the language of his mother and her family. She was begging with the man, pleading with him. There was a single gunshot; he didn’t hear his mother speak again. The door opened; from underneath the bed he saw his mother’s dead body lying on the other side of the doorway. A man walked into the bedroom and knelt by the side of the bed. The human looked under the bed and saw him cowering in the shadows. His mother’s blood was still on the man’s face, a face he would grow to hate over the next ten years; a gloved and bloody hand reached towards him as the man smiled cruelly.
“What are you waiting for?” Korodo yelled out, his voice breaking Trace out of the flashback. “Fire the cannons!”
Trace’s eyes snapped open and he retightened his grip on the controls. Screaming a wordless cry of rage and long suppressed grief, he jammed his thumbs onto the firing switches and opened fire.
Red warning lights flashed, a shrill alarm filled the shuttle. “Lock on warning!” The pilot yelled, “we’re being targeted!”
Dorga stumbled as the pilot rolled the ship to the side. “Evade, get us out of here!”
The railgun rounds from the Chimera’s forward guns tore into the shuttle, the hyper-accelerated metal slugs vaporising on impact and obliterating the target. Trace didn’t turn away as the shuttle’s power cells detonated, the flames of the explosion reflected in his tear-streaked eyes. Hull fragments scattered away from the explosion, pattering like hailstones on the hull of the Chimera. The other two shuttles peeled away to regroup.
Korodo leaned over and slapped him on the shoulder. “Great shot kid, you got them!”
Trace swallowed. “Yeah … I … I got him, them.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes.
The half-dragon heard the shakiness in the boy’s voice and saw the glisten of moisture on the boy’s arm, where he’d wiped his eyes. It was at that moment that Korodo realised who might have been onboard that shuttle. “Are you okay?” He asked carefully.
There was a pause before Trace responded, his voice still a little unsteady. “I … I’m …” Before he could finish the cockpit door and Barak walked in, stopping when he saw the boy sitting in the pilot’s seat.
“Okay,” the orc said scratching his head, “can someone explain why the kid’s sitting at the controls?”
“There’s still two of them out there,” Trace said quietly, focusing on the video feeds and the controls. The other two shuttles had fallen back but hadn’t left completely. Trace had a feeling that they were going to retreat to missile range and attempt to destroy the Chimera while staying out of range of the ships guns.
Korodo turned around and fixed the orc with a firm look. “Barak, can you take the other station and man the guns.” His eyes were saying “drop the subject and leave the kid to get on with his job.” The orc shrugged and sat down, fastening his safety harness.
Trace sat at the flight controls, staring rigidly forward and ignored the two men behind him as he piloted the ship.
“Bring us around to heading one eight zero mark six,” Barak said diverting weapons control to his station. “Did you hear me kid?” He added when Trace didn’t answer.
“I heard you,” Trace muttered, “and my name’s Trace, not kid.” Cutting the engines, he used the RCS thrusters to swing the ship around before reengaging the engines to reverse their heading. The two surviving shuttles had regrouped and were charging towards them. Another tone sounded, this time accompanied by a warning message.
“Alert, missile lock.”
Both of the shuttles fired their entire missile complement and eight missiles began to streak their way towards the Chimera. The missiles shot away from the two shuttles, scattering in all directions before arcing around to attack the Chimera from multiple directions. “Not good,” Trace said, twisting the control sticks and sending the ship into a barrel roll. Barak set the railguns to rapid-fire mode, targeting the heat blooms caused by the missile’s rocket engines. A barrage of hypervelocity slugs struck out at the missiles as the guns automatically tracked the incoming targets. First one, then two missiles were shredded by the guns. One after another, the missiles were intercepted and destroyed.
As the Chimera was buffeted by the exploding missiles, Trace struggled with the controls trying to keep the ship clear of the detonations. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flare of rocket exhaust as missile broke through the railgun barrage. “Hang on!” He yelled yanking desperately at the controls in an attempt to twist the ship out of the way but it was too late, the missile was already locked on and struck the rear of the ship. It penetrated the hull punching through the metal and ceramic hull plating into the launch bay before detonating. The blast shook the ship, destroying the small shuttle in the launch bay, rupturing fuel and power lines and triggering secondary explosions.
Alarms screamed and the ship rocked violently. Only their safety harnesses kept Korodo and Barak in their seats as the ship was thrown to the side by the force of the explosion, the extreme g-forces created completely overwhelming the starcaster’s ability to compensate. “Shiv!” cursed the orc when the ship stopped spinning as the RCS thrusters automatically stabilised the ship, “weapons control is out, the combat drives are offline, we’ve got a decompression in the launch bay and the damage control system is down.”
“My board’s down too,” Korodo added, readjusting his headset. “Bolts, Suki, you two okay?” He received affirmatives from both of them, although the engineer had some strong words in regards to Korodo’s flying skills. The half-dragon smiled as Bolts continued his tirade, wondering what the soulmech would say when he found out that Korodo hadn’t been at the controls. “Kid, what about you?” When there was no immediate answer, he turned around in his seat and looked over at Trace.
The boy was slumped over the controls, lying bodily on top of them with his upper body resting at an uncomfortable angle against the cockpit window. His was face covered in blood, streaming from a gash on the side of his head; the hair around the wound matted with blood. On the glass of the cockpit window was a bloody mark where his head had struck it violently. The safety harness, which Trace had forgotten to fasten, dangled uselessly at the side of the seat.
“Suki, get up here now!” Korodo said into his headset as he slapped the release button on his harness. He jumped out of his seat and reached over to Trace, pulling him gently back into his seat. The boy was unconscious and the head wound probably looked worse than it actually was. Still, he was bleeding quite heavily. Korodo tore of the sleeve of his shirt and pressed the material against Trace’s wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding, checking the video feeds. The two remaining shuttles were circling around for another attack run. This time, with the Chimera a sitting duck, it would be a killing blow. “Bolts, we could really do with that starcaster right now!”
“Field strength is at 87 percent,” Bolts said of the internal comms, his voice crackling over the bad connection, “and the mana flow is at six point two gans per second. That’s as good as we’re going to get until I make some repairs.”
“It’ll have to do,” Barak said, “punch it!”
Korodo leaned over the pilot controls, accessing the starcaster controls and programming the jump. There was no time to select a destination, all he could do was programme a blind jump and hope they didn’t emerge inside a planet or sun. Setting the starcaster for a 2 light year jump, he uttered a small prayer to the gods and pressed the jump button.
Well, it seems to have been a busy month. Uploaded three chapters, each for a different story.
An Unlikely Hero has been a pleasant surprise for me. So far it’s turned out quite well and the latest chapter (Chapter Four) has really advanced the plot. In fact this was the chapter in which I really worked out what the plot was going to be. When I first started writing AUH, all I had was in my head was the image of the main character being brutally killed in the first chapter yet somehow miraculously coming back to life.
Chapter Six has been a long time coming. The last chapter was posted way back in August of last year. I got pretty bad writer’s block at the start of the chapter. I knew that Trace (the main character) was going to save the day, I also knew that there was no way he could take out Dorga and his goons in combat. Unless of course it was in an extended “Home-Alone” style guerilla campaign. In hindsight that would have been kinda cool but would’ve taken ages to write. This chapter also revealed the final bits and pieces of the kid’s backstory and exactly what the relationship between him and Dorga was.
After taking a break to write four chapters of AUH, I returned to RS with The Tattoo. I’m glad to return to this story, as its the longest I’ve every written and there’s still so much I want to write. I really want to finish this some day. This particular chapter pretty much has nothing to do with the plot of the story, so it could be seen as filler. It does however ramp up the tension between Ryan and Boris.
These two almost came to blows in this chapter and only the timely arrival of Daniel prevented a knife fight from breaking out. This chapter also introduced Bucky. A last minuted inclusion, I never intended to introduce a dog but somehow, that section just wrote itself. Bucky is in fact the dog owned by my Mutants and Masterminds character, Jared Sanchez. Ryan’s little joke about the reason behind Bucky’s name is painful in origin, as it was originally the reason why I called my character’s dog Bucky in the M&M game. I pretty much got the same reaction from the GM and other players as Ryan did. As I said, its painful.
Exams are starting this week in programming and computing, as long as I don’t freeze up they should be a cake walk. Maths next week I’m less confident about.
Bolts glanced around the room, analysing everything he saw. They were in the forward lounge, sitting on the floor with their hands cuffed behind their backs. A mixed-species group of men armed with blaster rifles standing guard over them. The intruders had surprised him in the corridor near the stairs to the upper deck. He had been on his way to the engineering room next to the cockpit to check on why they had just lost power when they had burst from around the corner and opened fire. The stun blasts had hit him first but the intruders had quickly moved to stun the others. Within minutes, they had been over powered. Tsukiko was lying on her side, still groggy from the stun blasts. Korodo was awake and alert, his larger body mass helping him to overcome the stun effects. Barak should have been awake to, but the orc had fought with the intruders and he had taken a particularly vicious blow the head. He was unconscious, blood dribbling from the head wound onto the floor.
A burst of static washed over his vision, his optical sensors still a little frazzled from the stun blast. Despite his human appearance, Bolts’ nickname was a reference to more than just his chosen profession. He was a Soulmech. A living soul contained within a cybernetic chassis. Although advanced robotics had been in use since before the founding of the Dragon Empire, artificial intelligence continued to elude imperial scientists. Theologians claimed that the reason for this was that for something to be sentient, it must have a soul and the creation of souls was the province of the Gods alone. Whether it was true or not, it meant that self-aware robots and computers were still the stuff of science fiction. However, like many such limitations, a way around it had been found using magic. At the heart of each Soulmech was the Soul Matrix. An enchanted crystal into which the soul of a, sometimes unwilling, volunteer is placed. In their new body, they are effectively immortal and immune from the daily needs of an organic body. All they need to do is replace the power cell for their robotic chassis every five years. Most Soulmech’s had an artificial appearance with pale plastic like skin and hairless bodies. Bolts’ chassis was different. Covered in a biosynthetic skin substitute, his “flesh” was warm to the touch with hair and imperfections designed to give a realistic human appearance. The stun blast had barely affected him but he chosen to act like it had when he realised how outnumbered they were. If the intruders had found out that he was a Soulmech, they would have used an EMP to disable him. As long as his systems still functioned, he could be off use. As it was, the electrical energy of the stun blast had knocked some of his systems offline but his self-repair routines had quickly repaired them.
“Don’t play games with me,” Dorga growled holding a bloodstained hooded top, “we got this from your sick bay and it has his DNA all over it. Where is he?”
“The kid?” Korodo said, “When he wouldn’t talk, my associate here got a little too rough with him.” The half-dragon shrugged, “we flushed his body out of the airlock hours ago.”
Tsukiko’s empathic abilities picked up a stab of anger from Dorga. However, beneath that anger, only barely suppressed, was an emotion that surprised her, concern. For a brief second, she felt the guildmaster actually concerned for the boy before he got his emotions under control again. Given what she had picked up from Trace and what the boy had told her, she found it surprising that the man who had spent more than half the boy’s life making it a living hell might actually care for him.
Suddenly, the lights flickered back to life intermittently. At the same time, computer screens around the room filled with static and garbled text. A siren started wailing, spluttering and stuttering before quickly dying. “Intruder Alert,” an electronic voice announced, “Warning: Computer Core at 45 percent.” The message repeated in draconic. “Athilal Aralath, Valathath: Kathar Kela ath kalathath 45.”
“What the hell is that racket?” Dorga barked at one of his men.
“I think the main computer is trying to reboot itself, probably some sort of disaster recovery system,” the gnome replied uncertainly.
“You think?” Dorga said pointedly. “Don’t you think you should find out? After all, this is what I pay you for.” The gnome began tapping away at a forearm-mounted computer, walking over to the console by the wall and plugging in a few leads. “Well, I’m waiting?”
“This isn’t right,” the gnome said nervously, “the access protocols have been scrambled; someone’s locked everyone else out of the system and activated the emergency systems. We’re broadcasting an automated distress beacon.”
“Well,” Dorga said coming up behind him, “fix it.” The gnome nodded and left the lounge heading for the upper deck.
The guildmaster sneered at Korodo. “You might be a red, scale face, but I somehow I don’t think that torturing a kid for information is your style.”
“Apparently you do it for fun,” muttered Tsukiko in retort.
Dorga heard her and he pulled his fist back and punched her. She grunted with the impact but looked back up at him defiantly. Snarling, he prepared to punch her again. Before he could do so, there was a noise from behind him followed by a grunt of pain.
“Hey boss,” one of his men said, a muscular dwarf carrying an assault blaster, “look what he found crawling through the ventilation ducts.” In front of the man, on his knees with his hands on his head, was Trace.
The guildmaster took a step away from Tsukiko, aiming his blaster at Trace. The red dot from the gun’s laser sight hovered over the boy’s head. “Well if it isn’t my favourite mongrel.”
“Screw you Dorga,” Trace spat.
“After everything I’ve done for you over the years,” Dorga said ignoring him, “this is how you repay me? By betraying the Guild to this noble scum.”
“Oh my gods,” Trace laughing out loud, “are you high or are you really that stupid? Is that what you think happened? They way I hear it you sold me out to the snakeheads so they could whack the scale face over there.” Ignoring the fact that he had a gun pointed at his head, Trace stood up and glared at Dorga. “I’ve a had a real bad day,” he said through gritted teeth, “I’ve been shot, tortured and nearly killed by a snakehead, and to top it off, been set up to take the fall for a murder. Right now, the Guild can go to hell for all I care.” To Tsukiko, Trace’s mind was a storm of conflicting emotions. She could sense the anger and hatred that the boy felt for Dorga. At the same time, there was fear and reluctance. She could tell that it had been some time since Trace had openly defied the man in such a way and he was scared of the consequences. In his mind, he was still a slave to guildmaster, a mentality that he was struggling to break. That was when she picked up something else, something beneath all the raging emotions. “49 dragon scales, 48 dragon scales, 47 dragon scales.” It was almost as if Trace was counting down to something in his head. “You killed my mum, my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts and uncles; you butchered my entire family in front of me. For ten years, you’ve made my life hell, beating and starving me to force me to become a thief. Well, I’m through working for you!”
The Guildmaster strode over to Trace and struck the boy’s face with his gun. Trace was knocked to the floor by the force of the blow, spitting a glob of blood on to the deck plates. Dorga bent down and picked Trace up by the collar of his top, shoving him against the wall. “And I’ve just about had it with you,” Dorga said jamming the blaster under Trace’s chin and switching off the stun mode. “It’s been fun watching you squirm and suffer, but I’m beginning to think you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Leave him alone,” Korodo yelled from the other side of the room.
“Any last words,” said Dorga, “before I put you out of my misery”
Trace looked down at the floor. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill everyone and leave me alive? What did we do to deserve that?”
Releasing his grip on Trace and pushing him into the arms of one of his men, Dorga stepped back from him, a sly smirk on his face. “How many times have I told you I own you? You’ve been the property of the guild since before you were even born. Your mother knew that when she fled. It may have taken five years to track her down, but no one steals from me and gets away with it.”
“I’m not your property,” Trace muttered under his breath before looking up. “I was never your property, I was your son!” He yelled the last part at Dorga, his eyes red with tears.
Tsukiko gasped, she knew that there had been something between Trace and Dorga beyond a simple Guildmaster to Guild member relationship. However, the idea that Dorga had been the boy’s father and had still done all those things to him made her sick. Judging by the shocked looks passing between Dorga’s men, the fact that Trace was the Guildmaster’s son obviously wasn’t common knowledge in the Guild either.
“And that’s the only thing that’s kept you alive until now,” Dorga yelled back, “that witch fled because she didn’t want her child growing up to be a thief like its father. That and she knew I would’ve had a half breed like you killed at birth.”
Trace wiped the tears from his eyes and in his mind, Tsukiko could hear the same countdown continuing. “22 dragon scales, 21 dragon scales, 20 dragon scales.” This time however, she pushed a little too hard and Trace felt the psychic intrusion. The only sign he gave that he had noticed were his eyes flicking towards her and a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “If that’s how you felt, then why didn’t you kill me when you found us?” Trace said focusing his attention on Dorga. It was at this point that Tsukiko realised that Trace was stalling, buying time and waiting for something.
“When I found you hiding under your bed I was going to do just that. But then I thought, what better revenge than to turn her darling little boy into the thing she hated the most, a thief.” An unfriendly smile came across Dorga’s face. He stepped in front of Trace and roughly grabbed his chin, forcing the boy to look up at him as Dorga looked down. “And you know what, despite how hard you tried to resist it, it came to you naturally. It’s like you were born to be a thief. Your mother would be so disappointed.”
“Shut up!” Trace yelled half-heartedly.
Dorga jammed the blaster into Traces gut, dialling up the power to its highest setting. The blaster emitted a high-pitched whine as it charged and upon hearing it, the man holding Trace’s arms let go and stepped aside. Suddenly the siren started wailing, this time strong and steady. Red emergency lights on the ceiling began to flash and they were accompanied by an announcement spoken in both common and draconic. “Alert, integrity of reactor controls compromised, magnetic containment field failing. Core breech in two minutes. All hands abandon ship.” Everyone looked around for a second in confusion. Everyone that is, except for Dorga who was studying Trace’s face intently. The boy was muttering “crap” repeatedly and as well as looking extremely nervous, he also looked slightly guilty. His eyes narrowed, Dorga unclipped a communicator from his belt. “Is that alert genuine.”
“I think so,” said the voice of the gnome, “I found something attached to the main computer, looks like a shuttlecraft power module. The whole setup looks like an improvised power source and they’ve used it to screw up all the safeties. There’s no way I can fix this in two minutes.”
“What did you do?” Dorga hissed at Trace.
The boy smiled mischievously. “I kinda set the reactor to explode.” Bolts and Korodo looked at each other. The half-dragon mouthing the word “What?” while the engineer shrugged in return. “I figured,” Trace continued, “in the chaos I could boost the shuttle from the launch bay and make a run for it.”
“Leaving these people here to die,” Dorga said waving a hand towards Korodo and the others.
“It’s not like I owe scale face and his lackeys anything.”
“Hey boss,” one of Dorga’s men said nervously, “shouldn’t we be getting out of here?” The guildmaster looked around and reluctantly realised that the man was right.
“Pack and pull out,” Dorga said to his men as he took out a pair of handcuffs and turned to Trace. He dragged the boy over to the wall and yanked one of his arms up, cuffing it to an overhead pipe.
“Hey,” Trace said pulling at the cuff as Dorga walked towards the exit, “you’re leaving me here? You can’t!”
“For once,” Dorga said standing at the door, “I’m a believer divine justice. You set the reactor to blow up; it’s only fair that you stick around for the fireworks.”
“90 seconds to reach minimum safe distance,” the computer announced.
“Say hi to your mother for me.” The door slid shut behind him. Trace yelled after him, pleading for mercy and one last chance. However, the smile on his face didn’t match the desperate panic in his voice. As soon as the door closed, he began to fiddle with the cuff.
“All right, what’s going on?” Korodo asked.
“Yeah,” Bolts agreed, “the Chimera doesn’t have a ‘reactor’, she’s powered by a mana tap.”
Trace looked over as he slipped his wrist out of the unlocked handcuffs. “But they didn’t know that.” He ran over to where they were sitting and started unlocking their cuffs with the key he had lifted from Dorga’s pocket.
“30 seconds to reach minimum safe distance.”
“I hoped that the alert would send Dorga and his goons running,” Trace had unlocked Tsukiko’s handcuffs first and she was already checking on Barak. “Of course, getting caught in the vents wasn’t exactly part of the plan.”
Korodo looked at the boy, a small measure of respect on his face. “You used the shuttle’s power module to jump start the main computer?” Trace nodded as he freed Bolts, “but you could’ve used the shuttle to escape. Why did you stay and help?”
“You saved my life, consider the favour returned.” Trace finished up by freeing Korodo.
Dorga’s shuttle streaked away from the noble’s ship, the guildmaster keeping watch on the rear scanners. The cramped cabin was silent; no one spoke as the pilot attempted to put as much distance as possible between the ship and the shuttle. Dorga’s reputation as a ruthless man was well deserved, but the fact that he had left his own son to die unnerved them.
“Boss,” the pilot said hesitantly, by my calcs, the Chimera’s reactor should have gone up by now.”
“Suki, take Barak to the medbay and get that head wound checked out,” Korodo said helping the orc to his feet. “Bolt’s see if you can get the starcaster up and running.” Everyone hurried out of the forward lounge leaving Trace standing there by himself feeling slightly out of place. A twinge of pain shot up his leg and he slumped down onto a chair. He concentrated again, trying to summon his healing energy but all he got was a weak flicker. As he sat back in the chair, he thought of the shuttle in the launch bay. It still had two out of its three power modules and that was more enough to get back to Jurrika. But, did he really want to go back to that planet. Dorga would find him again, no matter where he went and there was nothing left for him there anyway. He had no family, and his friends Tobs and Sammy would be halfway across the sector by now.
He was still trying to decide what to do when the ship bucked to the side, rocked by a sudden impact. Alarms sounded, this time real, as weapons fire struck the ship. Trace was knocked to the floor by a particularly violent impact. A blur sped past the window. In the split second it was visible, Trace recognised it was one of Dorga’s shuttles. “Not good,” he muttered under his breath.
Trace picked himself up off the floor and shuffled across the floor, holding on to the wall for stability. The stairs up to the upper deck were hard on his injured leg, but he gritted his teeth and forced his way up, stumbling onto the cockpit. Korodo was sat in the pilot’s seat. The cockpit was rather cramped with only two other seats. Hearing him enter, the half-dragon turned around. “What are you doing up here?”
“Let’s see,” he said smiling tiredly as he leaned against one of the vacant seats, “I’m where I shouldn’t be, we’re being shot at by bad guys, and by the way you’re looking at the controls, you can’t fly. Anyone else feeling déjà vu right now?”
The half-dragon scowled at Trace. “And I suppose you know how to fly a starship?” Korodo asked sarcastically.
Trace shrugged. “My grandpa taught me how to fly an old Kelenbaum dropship. It’s a bit smaller than a Kestral-Class but all of Kenelbaum’s ships have identical controls. That’s why they get all the big imperial contracts.”
Against his better judgement, Korodo slid of out the pilot’s seat and let Trace sit down. The kid was a reckless pilot, wild and undisciplined. Right now though, that recklessness is precisely what they needed. However, he wasn’t exactly confident about entrusting a 15-year-old with the controls of a two and a half thousand tonne starship. “So,” he said nervously, “your grandfather let you fly.”
“Are you kidding,” Trace said laughing, “what sort of person let’s a five year old kid fly a spaceship. But I watched him operate the controls.” Korodo stared at him in horror as he brought the engines online. The half-dragon was thrown back into one of the seats by a thrust of acceleration and he quickly buckled himself in as he realised that his life, and the lives of the others, were now in the hands of a kid who had never flown a starship in his life.
Caldrin stood at the window, looking out over the cityscape. Dawn sunlight was streaming in from the horizon, bathing the city in a golden-orange glow. The office in which he was standing was part of a suite that belonged to one of the many faceless corporations that did business on Jurrika. The corporation the suite was registered to, Universal Shipping, was a front company used to conceal sensitive ISPD operations. Operations like the covert assassination of a minor noble.
It had been nearly five hours since he had teleported out of the alleyway. By the time he had returned, his target was long gone. A search of the private starport used by the city’s wealthier individuals had revealed that Korodo’s yacht had taken off prematurely, leaving behind a very irate starport controller.
He glanced at the reflection of the drow standing behind him. His grim faced assistant was holding a data slate; a wafer thin, touch sensitive handheld computer. “Central’s sent another message via the ansible; they’re demanding an update on the operation.”
“Have we located Korodo’s vessel yet?” Caldrin asked quietly.
His assistant looked uncomfortable as he spoke. “You can’t keep ignoring Central. We’ve been able to keep the incident at the penthouse out of the news, but Central will eventually hear about it.” There was a long pause.
With a slight edge to his voice, Caldrin calmly stated, “You didn’t answer the question.”
“They’re in low orbit around Jurrika’s moon,” his assistant answered putting the data slate containing the ship’s coordinates on Caldrin’s desk.
“Good,” Caldrin said, “then they haven’t left the system. Find me some mercenaries with access to starfighters.”
“But what about Central?”
“That was an order.”
“Yes sir,” the assistant replied resignedly, leaving Caldrin alone in the office. As he watched the cityscape awaken, the first grains of a plan began to form in his mind. He chuckled as the thought strands coalesced together. “Two problems, same solution,” he said to himself as he picked up the comm. Caldrin was still smiling when the call was connected. “Dorga … it’s about the boy … we might have a problem,” he began.
Checking the feed from the security camera on a handheld screen, Tsukiko unlocked the door to the storeroom. Normally the room held a few extra spare parts and emergency food packs. However, since they had abruptly taken off ahead of schedule, the supplies had not been loaded and it was currently empty. Empty that was except for their young guest. Trace had regained consciousness soon after being brought on board and had surprised Tsukiko by healing his own wounds. Although the healing magic had repaired the most serious injuries, he had been left with multiple bruises and his leg still required a cast. Numerous aches and pains accompanied the newly healed bones.
After he had been treated for his injuries, Barak and Korodo had questioned the boy extensively for several hours on his involvement with the failed assassination. Although Trace had told the truth when he denied any involvement, his answers hadn’t satisfied the two men and they had locked him in the empty storeroom while they decided what to do with him.
Wearing an oversized white t-shirt and shorts loaned to him by Bolts, Trace was sitting with his back to the wall facing the window. His cuffed hands in front of him, the short-sleeved t-shirt revealing the black guild tattoo on the underside of his left forearm. He was staring out of the window, looking at the cratered surface of the moon as the ship orbited the airless orb of rock. When the door opened, the boy didn’t seem to notice as Tsukiko stepped inside, closing the door behind her.
“There’s an old legend,” he said without looking up, “about the moon. Long ago, back before the Empire. Way before even the first explorer’s from the old Forongorn Confederation launched themselves into space on top of primitive rockets. It says that the sun never used to set and that the day lasted forever. Back then there was no sickness and no one ever died of old age.” As he spoke, Tsukiko sat down against the wall next to him. “The light from the sun bathed Jurrika in an endless noon. There were things though that shunned the light, despised it. Some say they were creatures that lived deep underground. Other tales say they were demons from beyond the sky and that they lived far beyond the sun’s rays. Whatever the truth, they attacked Jurrika bringing death and destruction. The Sun God and the World Spirit fought the darkness and drove it back but the damage had already been done. Weakened, the sun couldn’t remain in the sky all the time anymore. It had to rest, you know, to recover its energy. This was how the first night came about. Because of this,” Trace said the next unfamiliar word slowly, “en-tro-pe or something entered the world and along with it came illness and ageing. Without the sun in the sky, the world was vulnerable to attack by the darkness during the night. So to protect the life of the world, the sun and Jurrika used a portion of their essences to create a daughter. This daughter, Seastyl, would guard Jurrika during the night hours, defending it against the darkness. According to the old legend, that’s where the moon came from.”
“That’s an interesting story,” Tsukiko said carefully, “who told it to you?”
He paused before responding, as if embarrassed. “My grandpa told me when I was little, but it’s a load of crap isn’t it? We know the moon is a planetoid captured by Jurrika’s gravity during the early formation of the solar system. We have a night ‘cos the planet is round and turns on its axis as it orbits the sun. Seastyl is not a goddess, but a lifeless hunk of rock scarred by aeons of meteor impacts. Science robs all the magic from the universe.” Trace said with a hint of sadness.
“I disagree,” Tsukiko said after a moment, “without science we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Before science, other planets were just pinpricks of light wandering through the night sky. When the first telescopes came along, for the first time anyone could look and see the beauty of another world, not just mages and clerics using magic. As they got better, we could see them in greater detail and we could see even further out into space. Some of those pinpricks became huge nebulas, splashes of colour light years across. Paint on the canvas of the Gods if you will. Eventually we were able to leave the confines of our own worlds and look down on them from above. For the first explorers, this was a humbling experience. It is true, science does take away some of the magic but it adds so much of its own. Without it, we would only be able to appreciate a fraction of the Gods’ design. Magic and faith tell us who created the universe, science tells us how to appreciate it.”
Trace looked over at Tsukiko. “Never thought of it like that before,” he said smiling. She saw for the first time how tired he appeared.
She reached into her pocket, pulled out two plastic-wrapped ration bars and offered them both to Trace. “I thought you might be hungry after all those questions.” Trace snatched the bars out of her hand, ripped off one of the wrappers and stuffed the bar hungrily into his mouth. He didn’t care about its taste has he hungrily wolfed down the ration bar. Tsukiko laughed, “Guess I was right.” Trace paused mid-munch, crumbs tumbling from his mouth as he grinned sheepishly. With his mouth full, he mumbled an embarrassed thank you.
Swallowing a mouthful of the processed synthetic nutrients, Trace gave Tsukiko a sidelong glance. “I know what you’re doing you know.”
Tsukiko blinked nervously. “And what would that be?” She asked sweetly.
“You’re the good cop to their bad cop,” he said between mouthfuls, “it’s the oldest trick in the book. Shiv, I bet they were doing it before they even had books to write it down in.”
“Is it working?” She asked laughing. Trace smiled in response. “So, do you want to tell me what happened?”
Trace’s eyes narrowed and he stopped eating, his expression hardening slightly. “Why don’t you ask your friends? I already told them everything.”
“I could,” she explained, “but I want to hear it in your own words.”
“Fine, long story short, I was told to slice the security on scale face’s penthouse and boost his jumper. Only it turns out I was being set up the snakeheads. They used me to get past security so they could kill your boss. Afterwards, the blame was going to be pinned on me. Satisfied?”
“Why you though?” She asked.
“Because I’m an expendable ‘street punk’ and I narked off the guildmaster. The guild’s supposed to get a cut out of anything you take only I was cooking the books so to speak…”
“You stole money from the guild!?” Tsukiko said, cutting him off.
“Hey, it were my money to start off with and it’s beside the point,” Trace snapped. “The guildmaster found out and after a good beating he ordered me to boost the jumper if I wanted to keep breathing.”
“You could have ran, gone into hiding.”
“If I’d done that, Dorga would’ve had me killed within a week. I didn’t have any choice,” he said looking at the floor. “Turns out he was setting me up though, either way he wanted me gone. Looks like he’s finally had enough of me.”
Tsukiko laid her hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. “This Dorga was the guildmaster wasn’t he?” She asked softly. “Sounds like a real nice piece of work.”
“Lady,” he said quietly, barely above a whisper, “you have no idea.” When Trace had been brought into the ship’s medbay, during her examination she had noticed old linear scars criss-crossing his back. They were the telltale sign of repeated whip strikes and her medical scans had revealed a number of old bone fractures.
He shrugged her hand off and forced a smile. “Yeah, well that’s the past. Unless I can convince your friends, I ‘aint got much of a future have I. ‘Cept maybe getting shoved through the airlock without a suit.”
Shocked by the boy’s cynical words she knelt in front of him, making sure to make eye contact. “I give you my word, that won’t happen.” Trace grunted in response. He had no reason to trust her; he’d been lied to before by adults. She did sound sincere though and Trace wanted to believe her. She made her excuses to leave, saying that the other’s would be wondering where she had gotten too.
Tsukiko left the storeroom and headed towards the forward lounge. Located in the Chimera’s bow, the spacious lounge was an extravagance in the otherwise utilitarian Kestrel-class’s design. Originally intended as a military courier, Korodo had “acquired” the ship through his contacts with Galactic Insurgency. Heavily modified, the now elegant exterior allowed the noble to maintain an air of playboy respectability while simultaneously giving him a ship with some teeth. Something that came in useful when he needed to carry out work for the insurgents. Work that it now appeared that someone in the ISPD had discovered.
When she entered the lounge, Barak and Korodo looked up from hologram they had been watching. Projected from a device embedded in the six-seater dining table in the centre of the room, it showed the interior of the storeroom. Trace had curled up on the floor and seemed to have fallen asleep; the oversized clothes making him appear smaller to Tsukiko than he actually was. Bolts was sitting at the end of the table staring intently at several datapads.
“Well?” Korodo asked as she sat down at the table.
“He’s telling the truth.”
“What,” a surprised Barak said, “are you sure?”
“I’m only a talent, but I was able to scan him while I was in the room with him,” she explained, “I couldn’t go too deep otherwise he would have noticed. What I did get was that he didn’t know anything about the attempt on L K’s life and he was telling the truth about only being there to steal the jumpcraft.”
“Is that it?” Korodo asked leaning back in his chair.
Looking thoughtful, Tsukiko shook her head. She had sensed something else whilst scanning the boy’s mind. His emotional state suggested that a deeper connection existed between him and Dorga. The impression she’d received had been vague and pushing deeper would have tipped Trace off about the empathic probing. Still, whatever the truth behind the matter was, she felt it had no bearing on his trustworthiness. There was no need to bring it up.
“The question now then is what do we do with him?” Korodo asked the others.
Trace jerked awake suddenly, his head banging against the metal bulkhead. Cursing, he sat up rubbing the back of his head. A muted red light flowed in through the half-open door from corridor outside. The air was still and silent, the only sound was the sound of his breathing and the creaking of the ship’s hull. A sound that unnerved him, a ship should not make that noise. His hands still cuffed, he grasped the edge of the metal shelving and pulled himself to his feet. Carefully he made his way across the storeroom to the door, more out of concern for his still plastered leg than in an attempt to move silently.
The corridor outside was lit by red emergency lights, their glow imparting an ominous red hue to everything within sight. Acting as a hallway, the corridor was actually a large open area in the centre of the ship providing access to the sleeping quarters at the rear of the ship, the medbay and workshop on either side, the forward lounge, the bridge deck above and the small cargo deck below. A solitary handgun lying discarded in the centre of the corridor drew his attention. Cautiously he approached the weapon, unsure whether this was a trap or not. He was still technically a prisoner and it would probably be a bad idea to be discovered loose and wielding a weapon. As he looked around, a shiver ran down in spine. There was something terribly wrong with this situation. He picked up the gun and, checking that the power cell was charged, hobbled over to a computer panel on the wall. The screen was blank and the controls were completely unresponsive.
A sound from behind caused him to spin around, aiming the gun wildly at the source of the noise. On the opposite side of the open space, a door opened and a figure slowly stepped out. The figure was dressed in the same bodysuit that the assassins at Korodo’s penthouse had worn and his face was scorched and blackened from a blaster wound. “You … I killed you!” Trace said in horror, recognising the assassin as the one he had shot at Korodo’s penthouse. The assassin staggered towards him, its arms outstretched, sightless eyes staring blankly at him. Trace stepped back, his aim wavering until he backed against a closed door. Slapping the door controls was useless, the door refused to open. With the assassin was just a few feet away, Trace had no choice but open fire. Repeatedly pulling the trigger, he sent a flurry of blaster bolts towards the assassin. The bolts struck the assassin in the chest causing him to jerk spasmodically. Trace continued to fire as the assassin collapsed to the floor, the pistol bleeping softly with each trigger pull as the power cell ran out of charge.
With the body of the assassin lying on the floor in front, Trace leaned against the door panting, his heart pounding in his chest. The door suddenly opened and he fell back into the darkened room landing roughly on his back. Before he could react, a shotgun was shoved into his face; Trace could only stare helplessly down the barrel at the man holding the weapon. It was Dorga; he smirked cruelly as he pumped the shotgun’s cocking mechanism. “I always knew you had the killer instinct inside of you. Turns you’re just like your old man after all.” As Dorga’s finger tightened on the trigger, Trace screwed his eyes shut as a crash of thunder and a booming white light washed over him.
Barak opened the door and entered the storeroom. Trace was asleep, curled up against a wall and drenched in sweat. When the orc reached over to wake the sleeping boy, Trace bolted awake with a shout. The sudden movement caused Barak to jump back slightly. Panting heavily, the boy’s eyes were wide as the impact of the nightmare he’d been having remained fresh in his mind. “Up and at ‘em kid,” Barak said holding out his hand to Trace to help him up. The boy glanced at him with a tired and suspicious look as he took Barak’s hand.
“More questions? I’m exhausted; can’t we just skip to the airlock and get it over and done with?”
The orc laughed, “Kid, what is it with you and that airlock? You got a death wish or something?” He helped him up and led him out of the storeroom. Trace looked down at the floor as they slowly walked across the central corridor towards the crew quarters. As they walked, Barak glanced down at the boy. He seemed to not be paying any attention as they walked, operating on autopilot. Completely different to the cocky, street thief he had questioned earlier.
Normally Trace would have paid close attention to the route they were taking, memorising every detail of the corridors as they walked and looking for anything that might increase his chances of escape. He certainly would have noticed the signs pointing towards the launch bay as they left the central corridor, crossed the midline passage that ran between the launch bay and cargo bay and entered the crew quarters. However, he was preoccupied, hardly seeing any of this. The events of that last several hours had come at a rapid pace and he’d had precious little time to process any of it. Now, he finally had a chance to think. As he reflected on what had happened and what his part had been, part of him was troubled.
Trace wasn’t proud of what he was, although he was proud of his level of skill, the life he led was not one he would have chosen for himself. Forced into it by Dorga, he had learnt from an early age that he had little choice but to be very good at it if he wanted to survive. He had done things that he was not proud of and seen things that would probably haunt him to the day he died. Trace had tried to leave on more than one occasion, but he had always been dragged back by Dorga or one of his henchmen. The punishment he received had always been harsh and eventually he had given up trying to escape, accepting that this life was what the hand of destiny had dealt him. Despite this, there had always been one line that he had never crossed. One act that he knew, once committed, he could never take back, the taking of someone’s life. No matter what Dorga had forced him to do, no matter what the situation, he had never before killed someone. That had now changed. He knew that it had been self-defence, that he’d had no other choice but to fight for his life. Yet none of that changed how he now felt. He’d broken the one rule he swore never to break and it had shaken him deeply.
Bara shrugged as they entered the crew quarters, dismissing the boy’s docile attitude as the product of fatigue and exhaustion. The Chimera had quarters for six crewmembers, each of them single room berths arranged around an octagonal chamber that possessed an impressive skylight. He opened the door to the spare berth, his eyes lingering for a brief moment on the door to Duncan’s room. They had never been what you would call friends; Barak had served in the Imperial Legions while Duncan had served in the Navy. However, they had been shipmates and a certain amount of professional respect had emerged over the years they had worked together. Duncan’s loss had also put them in an awkward position, although both Bolts and Barak had received basic flight training to some degree, it was Duncan whose job it was to fly the Chimera, its shuttle and the jumpcraft stored in the cargo bay.
The room that Trace was led into was spartanly furnished. There was a single bed against one wall and a desk with a small computer display on the opposite wall. A small amount storage space for clothing was located under the bed and a triangular cupboard occupied one corner. Shelving, currently empty, ran along the wall above the bed. Lying neatly folded on the bed, slightly cleaner than they were the last time he had seen them, were the clothes Trace had been wearing when he had been brought onboard. However, what attracted his attention was what was sitting on top of the clothes. It was the photo of Toby, Sam and himself. “I thought I’d lost this in the crash,” he said picking up the photo and looking at Barak gratefully, “thank you.” Barak shrugged as he unlocked the handcuffs. Trace sat down the bed taking the weight off his plastered leg and rubbing his sore wrists. “So, what happens now,” he asked.
“Get some rest,” the orc said, “we’re still trying to decide what do with you.”
“You’re gonna hand me over to the cops aren’t you?”
Barak looked at the boy for a second before answering. “You may not have knowingly been a part of the attempt on Lord Korodo’s life, but you are partially responsible for Duncan’s death. That makes you an accessory.” Trace looked at the floor, as much as he wanted to protest, he knew Barak was right. “But, for some reason an ISPD agent wants you dead. Handing you over to the police now would be giving you a death sentence. I sent enough young men and boys to their deaths when I served in the Legions. It’s not something I want to make a habit of in civilian life.”
Trace smiled, and looked up at the orc. “You’re from the stonebreaker clan, ‘aint ya.”
Barak raised an eyebrow. “How did you guess?”
“The ritual scarification,” he said pointing at the orc’s upper arms, “my face recently got up close and personal with the fists of someone with those same markings.”
“What’s your point?”
Trace shrugged. “Nothing, ‘cept stonebreakers are a pretty honourable lot. When they give their word, you can count on ‘em meaning it.”
“Like I said before kid, get some rest.” With that, Barak left Trace alone in the room. As the door closed, the control panel turned red indicating that it was locked from the outside. Trace lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating his future.
The shuttle drifted through space, approaching the Chimera from astern. With the shuttle’s stealth characteristics, it was unlikely that the Chimera’s sensors would detect it. The Guildmaster was furious. After everything he had done for the boy, the brat had betrayed him and his client. Now the drow was putting pressure on him to “deal with the problem.” So here he was, piloting a smuggler’s shuttle with a team of his best men. It reminded him of a similar situation ten years ago, which was ironic given his current target.
Dorga brought the shuttle to a relative stop above and behind the Chimera’s stern. Either side of the larger vessels main engines sat the doors leading into the cargo bay and the launch bay. The cargo bay on the port side of the ship and the launch bay on the starboard side. They were drifting just a few meters away from the Chimera’s hull, the shuttle’s airlock aligned with the door to the hanger. Making sure that everyone’s suit was sealed, Dorga slowly decompressed the shuttle. When the atmospheric pressure inside the shuttle reached zero, one of his men opened the door of the shuttle and stepped out into the void. The man drifted towards the Chimera, propelled by little puffs of compressed gas from his EVA harness. He carried a line with him and he fixed it to the hull of the Chimera with a molecular bonding clamp. Carefully pulled a combat knife from an armoured pouch on the side of his suit and pried off the cover of the external controls for the airlock. He used a pair of leads to connect the door controls to a small computer device and set to work.
Trace, unable to sleep, was sitting at the desk looking at the computer display. He was idly searching through the ship’s entertainment library. This was all he could access on the computer without a proper login ID. If he wanted to, he could easily slice the system in order to forge one but he didn’t have the energy. Besides, the last thing he wanted to do now was antagonise his “captors.”
As he searched through the surprisingly extensive archive of old comics, the system slowed to a crawl. The terminal’s connection to the ship’s network faltered and froze as a “System Busy” message was displayed. “What the,” Trace said as he pressed a series of keystrokes and accessed the terminal’s command line functions. “Someone’s tied up the all the server’s processing power. This ship’s got a state of the art system, that shouldn’t be possible.” The lights suddenly went off and the terminal screen went dark as the power died leaving Trace sitting in complete darkness. “Unless someone was hacking the system in order to shut down main power.” A red emergency winked on bathing the room in a blood-red glow. The door lock clunked as it automatically unlocked, a safety measure in case both main power and backup power failed. He sat there, listening to the silence. With the power out, the life-support system was also out. The only reason why Trace wasn’t bouncing off the ceiling was that despite all the Empire’s technology, no way other than magic had been discovered to generate an artificial gravity field. The Chimera’s artificial gravity, like on most ships, was a by-product of the starcaster, the powerful magical artefact that made interstellar travel possible.
Trace got out of the chair and went over to the door. Grunting, he forced the door to slide open. Dim red lighting illuminated the chamber beyond. A feeling of déjà vu overcame him and a shudder ran down his spine as he realised the scene was similar to the dream he’d had earlier. Creeping out into the octagonal central chamber, the boy froze when he heard a voice filtering in from the corridor beyond. It was Dorga. “Tear the ship apart if you have to, but find that boy. Oh and Brak, I want the little brat alive.”
“Crap, Dorga,” Trace thought as he retreated into the room, “this doesn’t sound like a rescue attempt.” He looked around the small cabin but apart from the small cupboard, there wasn’t anywhere to hide. He started to panic but then a thought hit him. He knelt next to the bed and looked underneath. In the darkness beneath the bed, he saw the metal grill of a ventilation duct. Grabbing the photo, trace crawled under the bed, pulled off the grill and climbed into the vent. It was a tight fit but he was small for his age, irregular meals and surviving off food scraps had seen to that. For once, Dorga’s mistreatment of him was working in his favour.
As soon as he had crawled inside, he heard footsteps in the chamber outside of the room. Hurriedly, he scrambled down the vent, tumbling headfirst into the maintenance crawl space beneath the deck. The crawl space was illuminated by the dim green glow of phosphorescent strips fixed to the ceiling, another emergency measure. It was dark, but the strips gave off just enough light for him to see by. Once again, he was thankful for his mixed-race heritage.
Behind him, he heard someone enter the room and begin roughly searching it. “He’s not in this one, check the next room.” Trace breathed a sigh of relief. “Trickster,” he said, silently addressing the god of thieves and rogues, “why does my life have to be so interesting? Did I offend you somehow in a previous life or do you just enjoy tormenting me?” His musing was interrupted by the sound of blaster fire. Trace ducked instinctively but the fire wasn’t directed at him. The distinctive sound of blasters set to stun was reverberating down the crawl space from another part of the ship. Maybe it was just paranoia, but Trace was scared. He was alone, unarmed and trapped on a space ship with a man that probably wanted him dead; he had to escape.
He started crawling through the crawl space, eventually he found a hatch leading up into the launch bay. Lifting the hatch slightly, he peered into the bay. Like the rest of the ship, the bay was in darkness and lit only by battery powered emergency lights. The bay was empty apart from a single shuttlecraft. He climbed up out of the crawl space and crept over to the shuttle. The shuttle wasn’t locked and its hatch opened when Trace pushed the button. “Talk about piss poor security,” the boy muttered as he climbed in and closed the hatch behind him. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, Trace looked over the controls. With main power down, he’d have to use the shuttle’s cannons to blast the launch bay doors. It wouldn’t be subtle but it would do the job. He was about to begin the shuttle’s start-up sequence when he hung his head and sighed.
The people on this ship had saved his life. Was he capable of abandoning them like this? A conscience was normally a hindrance in the world in which he moved and right now, it was telling him that he couldn’t just run out on the people that had risked their lives for him. Trace aborted the power up sequence and got out of the chair. He lifted up one of the deck plates in the floor of the shuttle and disconnected one of the glowing power modules. Looking at it, a mischievous grin spread across his face.
After dumping Korodo in the alleyway, it took Trace nearly ten minutes to skirt around the city core. The flight from the noble’s penthouse had left him on the opposite side of the city from the guild garage where he needed to take the jumper. He could have taken a short cut through the core, but in a stolen and damaged vehicle, it was not worth the added risk. So he had been forced to fly a circuitous route avoiding the known police hot spots. Eventually he arrived at one of Jurrika City’s sprawling industrial zones. Although traffic here was relatively light at this time of night, there was still activity taking place below. Alchemical furnaces belched noxious fumes into the night sky and robotic manufacturing complexes operated without biological oversight. The scarcity of people at night made this particular area a haven for illicit activities.
As he flew over the industrial sprawl, certain that any danger of pursuit had passed, Trace failed to spot the assault jumper close rapidly from behind. Before he had even realised that he was being followed, Caldrin’s jumper had fired its plasma cannons. The bolts of superheated matter struck Trace’s jumpcraft, shearing off the remaining thruster pod and disabling the vectored-thrust lift fans. Robbed of its propulsion and lift, the jumpcraft tumbled out of the sky, careening towards the ground. Emergency levitation enchantments tried to slow the descent as Trace struggled with the controls but it was all in vain; the vehicle was already flying low and it lost altitude rapidly, clipping an exhaust vent. Caldrin watched as the jumpcraft smacked onto the low roof of a warehouse, scraping across the top before tumbling into an alleyway and out of sight. After circling around the crash site, Caldrin landed his assault jumper nearby.
Trace dragged himself out from under the upside-down wreck of the jumpcraft, still dazed by the crash. Crying out in pain when he tried to stand, he looked down at his left leg. His leg was broken below the knee, the fractured bone piercing the skin, blood flowing freely out of the wound. He glanced up as Caldrin entered the alleyway. Trace immediately recognised his black body suit as the same type as the one worn by the assassins earlier, although the drow’s appeared to be significantly bulkier. Drawing his pistol, he brought it up in an attempt to fire at the approaching figure.
Caldrin was quicker, bringing up his weapon and shooting the gun out of the boy’s hand. As he strode towards him, Trace reached down and pulled small knife that had been tucked into his sock. Before he could do anything with it, the knife was kicked out of his hand. The drow picked up the boy by the collar of his top, the muscle enhancers of his suit making it seem like he weighed almost nothing, and threw him down the alley.
He grunted as he struck the ground, rolling twice before coming to a rest against a support pillar. The drow was on him in a second, binding his hands behind his back. As he lay slumped against the pillar, Caldrin knelt down in front of him. “Hmm, compound fracture to the left tibia. I expect that’s extremely painful.”
As Caldrin leaned in close, Trace recognised him. He had seen the drow at Dorga’s bay two or three times over the last couple of weeks. Rumour had it that he had been an ISPD agent and it looked like for once the rumours were right. “Screw you snakehead,” muttered Trace painfully, using the street slang for an ISPD agent.
Caldrin merely smiled as he leant forward, grasping the broken bone and applying pressure. Trace screamed as Caldrin gripped the wound tightly, the sudden and intense pain bringing unwanted tears to his eyes. The drow released his grip and stood up. “Where is Lord Korodo?”
“Who?” Trace responded, failing utterly in an attempt to look innocent.
Caldrin slapped Trace across the face angrily. “Don’t play games with me boy,” he hissed, “you know exactly who I’m talking about.” He punctuated his point with kick to Trace’s side. The boy grunted with the strike.
“I ain’t telling you nothing,” he answered defiantly.
The drow stamped on the broken leg, causing Trace to scream again. “Fine,” he said unclipping a length of black rope from his belt, “we’ll do this the hard way.” Placing one foot firmly on Trace’s chest in order to prevent the boy from crawling away, Caldrin looped the rope around a crossbeam connected to the support pillar. Hoisting Trace up on to his feet, he tied the loose end into a noose around the boy’s neck, pulling the rope taut. Trace was forced to half-slump against the pillar, placing all his weight on his right foot. If he slipped or fell, the noose would quickly tighten and strangle him. “Let’s try this again,” Caldrin said quietly, menacingly, “where is Lord Korodo?”
“Get bent!” The ISPD punched him twice in the stomach and chest hard enough for Trace to feel at least one rib crack. The blow caused him to stumble slightly, the rope tightening around his neck.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know, the last time I saw him was ten minutes ago. He could be half-way across the city by now!” The answer failed to satisfy the drow and it earned Trace another blow. This one to the face, breaking his nose with a wet crunch and smacking the back of his head against the metal support. The questions continued, as did the beating. Blow after blow, alternating between his body and his head. With each blow, Trace got dizzier, finding it increasingly hard to stay on his feet. “Please,” he begged, “I don’t know where he is, I swear.” In truth, he could no longer remember where had had left the noble, he was having trouble thinking clearly through the pain.
Caldrin paused and looked at the boy. Blood was pouring from his broken nose and several gashes to the face. One eye had already swollen closed and with every breath, he seemed to cough up more blood. He leaned in close and whispered in Trace’s ear.
“Honestly, I think you’re telling the truth.” He began to walk back and forth in front of Trace, cracking his knuckles. “It was supposed to be a simple operation. Hire someone from the Guild to bypass the penthouse security system so that my men could perform their mission. Afterwards, planted evidence would point to a bungled theft and the Guild thief would be blamed for Korodo’s murder.” He fixed Trace with a smouldering glare. “You were perfect, a no name street punk with a record a mile long. No one would care when they frog-marched you to a firing squad without even bothering with a trial.”
“Dorga set me up.” Trace whispered.
“Not quite, I doubt he even had an inkling of what the plan was. In fact, he actually seemed concerned about your welfare.”
“Nevertheless, the plan is dead now. All that’s left is to eliminate any loose ends that might lead back to the agency,” Caldrin said, smiling cruelly. Trace realised at that moment that he was one of those loose ends. The realisation made him struggle even more in an attempt to free his hands. A blow to the side of his head stunned him, almost knocking him off his feet. Without being given a chance to recover, more blows followed. Trace could feel himself starting to pass out but he struggled to keep awake and on his feet. If he lost consciousness and fell, the noose around his neck would tighten and then it would all be over. He started to panic, crying out for help. Desperately hoping that someone, anyone, would be able to hear him. At the back of his mind however, he knew that the chances of anyone being nearby were slim indeed. Eventually he fell silent except for the occasional plea for mercy, his vision starting to blur from the pain and blood loss. He knew that he only had a few minutes left until he could no longer stand.
Fastening the straps on the body armour, Korodo turned to the orc at the controls of the jumper. “Barak, are we still locked onto the homing beacon?”
Barak tapped the small screen in front of him and nodded. “Yeah, we’re still getting a strong signal. It hasn’t moved in the last ten minutes though.” Like Korodo, the orc was wearing body armour. Unlike Korodo’s, which was relatively clean, Barak’s was scuffed and scarred; a veteran of many battles, like its wearer. “ETA two minutes, I’ll set us down some way off. No telling what sort of situation we might find, this area is not a good place at night.”
“That’s why I employ you and your big gun,” Korodo said, smiling.
Behind the two of them, in the armoured passenger compartment, sat a young human women, also in body armour. Her armour only barely fitted he slight form and she didn’t appear comfortable wearing it as she played nervously with her pendant. Korodo leaned round in his seat to look at her. “Tsukiko, when we land, stay here in the jumper in case we need you.”
“You got it L K,” she responded.
“I mean it, no heroics. You’re the only one with proper medical training and I’ve already lost one person tonight.”
“Activating stealth mode,” Barak reported, tapping several buttons on an overhead control panel. “Time to see if that enchantment was worth the money we paid for it,” he muttered under his breath. Magical energy flowed through special conduits to a series of small crystals embedded beneath the bodywork. Together they created a field around the jumper rendering it invisible. The enchantment also dampened the sound of the jumper’s engines.
The now silent and invisible jumper approached the location of the source of the homing signal. Luckily for them, although the security system and tracking device on the stolen jumpcraft had been disabled by Trace, the manual homing beacon that he had activated as they escaped the penthouse was still transmitting. After being picked up by Barak and Tsukiko, they had tracked the jumpcraft into the heart of the industrial zone. As Barak piloted the jumper, Korodo looked down at the warehouse and saw the damage inflicted on its roof. “Looks like it crashed onto that warehouse and slid into that alleyway.”
“I’ll set us down a short distance from the alley’s entrance.” Barak said as he brought the jumper in for a landing. “You remember our little talk on the buddy system?” He asked Korodo.
“You lead, I follow.”
As soon as the jumper had landed, Korodo and Barak jumped out, weapons ready. Barak took the lead, advancing stealthily towards the alleyway, assault blaster in hand. Approaching the alleyway, he held his fist up, signalling to the following Korodo to stop. He could hear sounds from around the corner. Barak signalled again to Korodo, his hand a blur of signals. The half-dragon responded with a blank look unable to understand the complex military signals. Barak rolled his eyes and, as clearly as possible, indicated that they would enter the alleyway on the count of three.
With their weapons ready to fire, they quietly ran into the alleyway. Halfway down its length, they ran up behind the wreckage of Korodo’s jumpcraft, using it as cover. Korodo looked over the top of the jumpcraft, shocked by what he saw. Barak, a former imperial legionnaire, acted as his training took over. He fired a warning shot, a single blaster bolt striking the wall near the drow. “Step away from the kid!”
Caldrin slowly turned, facing Barak and Korodo. At the sound of the voice, Trace forced himself to look up, his blurred vision focusing on the figures behind the jumpcraft. Confused, he recognised one of them as Korodo. For a few brief tense seconds, no one moved or said anything, and then Caldrin turned his head slightly towards Trace. A sly smile was on his face, a smile that only the semi-conscious boy could see. In a blur of speed, his foot lashed out and connected with Trace’s right ankle. With a sickening crack, Trace’s ankle snapped under the force of the muscle-enhanced kick. The pain caused him to scream, but as he fell, the noose tightened choking off his cry. Caldrin rolled to the side as Korodo and Barak opened fire, blaster bolts and gyrojet rounds streaking down the alleyway. Crouching behind a dumpster, the drow fired his own weapon at his attackers, the yellow beam of his laser gouging rents and pits in the crumpled bodywork of the jumpcraft.
As Barak stitched the dumpster with sprays of blaster fire, Korodo looked over at Trace. The boy was desperately trying to stand up, but with a broken leg and ankle, it was proving to be impossible. As he watched, his struggles were becoming weaker and less coordinated. From his position behind the dumpster, the drow had a clear shot at Trace. If he wanted to, he could shoot the boy in the head, but it was obvious that he wanted the boy’s death to be slow and painful. Realising that he only had one chance, Korodo took careful aim at the rope. Breathing out, he squeezed the trigger severing the rope with a single gyrojet round.
Trace dropped to the floor just as his vision darkened. Although his body weight was no longer pulling on the noose, it was still tight around his neck preventing any air from getting into his lungs. Unable to remain conscious any more, the boy passed out.
Caldrin looked to Trace as he fell, the boy’s lay still on the floor and his eyes were closed. The agent was considering shooting him in the head just to make sure he was dead when a burst of blaster bolts finally ripped through the metal of the dumpster and struck him in the chest. The armour weave of his body suit absorbed the energy of the bolts but the force of their impact drove him to the floor, gasping for breath and dropping his weapon. When he reached to pick it up, he discovered the barrel was a mass of melted plastic and burnt wiring. One of the bolts must have struck it, rendering it useless. Thundering footsteps heralded the imminent arrival of Korodo and his damned orc lackey. Unarmed and outnumbered, Caldrin sighed and activated his internal teleport web. Magical energy surged from spellware, erupting from his body like cracking electricity. In an instant, space around his form seemed to implode inwards and he vanished with a pop of inrushing air.
Barak rounded the dumpster, his weapon aimed at the spot where Caldrin had lain and cursed. Korodo meanwhile had rushed over to the unconscious boy. He quickly loosened the noose and removed the rope from around his neck. “Tsuki, we need you over here pronto.” Less than a minute later, Tsukiko ran around the corner clutching a medical kit. Korodo looked up as she knelt down “He’s got a pulse but I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“Gods, I thought you just wanted to ask him a few questions not beat him to a pulp!” She said as she began to treat him. Korodo scowled in response and was about to reply when Tsukiko continued. “These injuries are bad, I can’t treat them here. We need to get him to a hospital.”
Korodo nodded reluctantly and pulled out his comm. Before he could dial the number, Barak placed his hand over the comm. “Taking him to a hospital would be a mistake.”
“If we don’t take him, he could die from these injuries,” Korodo said.
“If we take him to hospital he’ll die for sure,” Barak explained, “because if his injuries don’t kill him that drow will find a way to finish him off.”
“Excuse me,” Tsukiko interrupted, “while I’m sure this is a fascinating conversation, whilst you two are dithering, this kid is probably bleeding to death internally.”
“What do you suggest then Barak?”
“We take him back to the ship; Tsukiko can use the facilities in the medbay to treat him.”
“Fine,” Tsukiko said as she began to make Trace ready to be moved using the force stretcher from the medical kit. “But I still say he should be taken to hospital.”
“We can better ensure his safety on board the ship,” Barak stated as Korodo activated the force stretcher generating a horizontal wall of force between the folding handles. “He’s still got questions to answer and he can’t do that if he’s dead.”
Tsukiko looked up at the orc, an amused smile on her face. “Aww, and here I was thinking you had gone soft on us.”
Helping her move Trace onto the stretcher, Barak smiled back. “Hey, beneath this gruff exterior lies a caring, sensitive soul that just happens to wear body armour and carry a very big gun.” The two men carried the stretcher to the jumper, securing it in the back with Tsukiko. As he sat down in the pilot’s seat, the orc picked up a communications headset and started the jumper’s systems. “Bolts, wake up.”
Back on Korodo’s luxury yacht, a man shorts, t-shirt and trainers had his feet up on the console. The three seat cockpit was cramped, almost every spare surface covered in controls. Bolts, the yachts engineer, put down his comic book when a voice came over the communicator. “Very funny; what’s up?”
“Launch prep ASAP, we’re coming in hot plus one. ETA 8 minutes,” responded Barak’s tinny voice on the other end.
Bolts paused, rubbing his temple before answering. “You know I’ve got idea what you’re saying when you lapse into military jargon.”
“He means,” Tsukiko said into her own headset, “we’re on our way back and you need to fire the ship up ‘cos we’re taking off as soon as we arrive. We might have someone following us, oh and power up the medbay, we’ve got an injured kid to take care of.”
“Then why didn’t he say that,” he said tapping commands onto a forearm-mounted computer. “See you in eight.” He accessed the ships control systems by remote, entering the codes to start up the main reactor and switch to internal power, disconnecting the starport umbilical.
Swallowing his pride, Trace got up into a crouch and ran across the gap between the two jumpers, blaster bolts striking the concrete floor behind him. Firing his blaster wildly, the boy dived into the backseat.
“Move over scale face,” Trace said as he clambered into the front, “I’ll drive.” Although he bristled at the racial slur, Korodo nonetheless relinquished the driver’s seat to Trace and climbed over onto the passenger seat.
“Be my guest squirt, she won’t start.”
“Course not,” Trace said punching the keypad, “I reprogrammed the start code, it’s easier than hotwiring it.” Trace quickly started the jumpcraft, and seeing the display lights shining a solid green, wasted no time in accelerating out of the garage as the assassins sprayed the back of the jumper with blaster fire. Fortunately, the jumper’s bodywork was made of a special material designed to be impervious to personal blaster fire.
Streaking out into the cityscape, it took all of Trace’s concentration to weave in and out of the heavy traffic. A collision at these speeds and at this altitude would be fatal. He was dodging under a large commercial jumpcraft when twin bolts of plasma skimmed the sides of the jumpcraft and plunged into the trailer of the commercial jumpcraft, detonating its cargo in a massive fireball. Korodo and Trace whipped their heads around to look at the falling flaming wreckage just in time to see two jumpers burst through the smoke in pursuit, both sporting plasma cannons.
“We’ve got company!” Screamed Korodo as the jumpers gained ground and began to spray the air around the jumpcraft with plasma. The half-dragon leaned forward and pressed a small red button on the dashboard.
“I know, I know!” Trace yelled back as he jinked the jumpcraft around a third jumper that appeared from the canyon like gap between two megalithic skyscrapers. Within seconds, they had all three jumpers hot on their tail in an aerial chase over 400 metres above the ground and at speeds over 300 kilometres per hour, weaving between skyscrapers and other vehicles in a deadly dance. A glob of plasma from one of the chasing jumpers sheared off the port thruster pod, a few inches to the right and it might have taken off one of their heads. As the engine spiralled away to crash into a building, the jumpcraft lurched as Trace tried to correct for the imbalance in the thrust. “Crap they got one of the engines,” muttered Trace.
Korodo’s scales flushed red and he turned to face the chasing jumpers. “Stop blowing holes in my jumper!” He roared. “And you,” he said turning to Trace, “fly faster, you’re supposed to be a jumper thief aren’t you? Well fly like one.”
“Will you just shut up and let me drive!” Trace snapped as Korodo pulled a brace of clips from the glove compartment. Slapping a clip into the socket, he took aim at the pursuing craft. As one the jumpers jockeyed for a firing position, Korodo fired. The gyrojet stuck the side of the jumper, just behind the cockpit. It was a glancing strike however, the round ricocheting as it struck the armour plating.
Trace flipped the jumpcraft on its side as he banked it violently around a tight corner. Behind them, plasma fire stitched across the side of an office block. Korodo slammed to the side, almost dropping the pistol overboard. Cursing, he braced himself and took aim again only to have his shot ruined as the jumpcraft dove into the skeletal structure of a half-completed tower, weaving between girders and cross bracing struts. “Keep her steady, I can’t get a clear shot!” Korodo yelled over his shoulder.
“If I give you a clear shot, I’m giving them one as well and they have considerably better guns than that peashooter of yours.” Trace yelled back as he held on to the controls with one hand, using the other to wipe away blood from his eye that was dribbling down from a cut on his forehead.
“Err … keep up the good flying kid. Don’t let them get a bead on us.”
With the three jumpers still on their tail, Trace piloted the jumpcraft through the mammoth building site. A new arcology complex was under construction, the whole site a hive of activity 24 hours a day. As the jumpcraft streaked through the site, Trace spotted an opportunity ahead. “Hey, crane load at 12 o’clock,” he called out to Korodo. The half-dragon looked where Trace was pointing and grinned, realising instantly what the boy’s idea was. Korodo took careful aim at the chains holding the stack of pipes together as the crane lifted them and fired. The gyrojet round struck dead on target, snapping the chain and sending the pipes tumbling to the ground just as the enemy jumpers passed beneath them. One of the jumpers was obliterated instantly, destroyed by the bulk of the pipes pulverising its front half and detonating its fuel cell. A second jumper collided with the debris of the first, spinning out of control and crashing into an electricity substation. With a flare, the power died plunging the entire area into darkness. The only exceptions were the few towers with their own generators. Flaming debris from the first jumper rained down on to the construction site sending workers scurrying for cover.
Looking back at the carnage, Korodo grimaced when he saw the scale of the damage. “Kid, take us up out of the cityscape, we’re putting innocent people at risk.”
“Buckle in,” Trace said as he secured his own seatbelt. He waited for a few seconds for Korodo to do the same before turning to the half-dragon, smiling as he did so. “Hold on.” Before Korodo had time to answer, Trace threw the jumpcraft into a vertical dive. Despite himself, Korodo let out a scream as the jumpcraft fell through several intersecting layers of traffic.
“Are you trying to get us killed? I said take us up, not down.”
“YES!” Trace yelled glaring at Korodo, “my lifelong goal is to die aged 15 in a horrific jumper crash while being chased by gun wielding psychos who want the arrogant noble in the passenger seat dead.” As he yelled, Korodo started pointing out the front windscreen. “As you can see, I’ve had a real bad day. Now if you’ve finished giving orders, Your Highness, kindly shut up and let me get on with saving our collective asses.”
“Kid?” Korodo asked meekly.
“WHAT?” He asked, still glaring at the half-dragon.
“Oh,” Trace said nonchalantly, “that.” Pulling back hard on the controls, Trace pulled the jumpcraft out of the dive. The sudden strain sent a spasm of pain shooting down his arm from the blaster wound and causing him to wince. Skimming along the ground a few metres above the heads of scattering pedestrians, the commercial buildings were nothing more than a blur as they whipped by. Carefully, Trace piloted the speeding jumpcraft into a deepening trench down which ran a pair of magrail tracks. Korodo watched in horror as Trace piloted the jumpcraft down the trench, parallel to a speeding maglev. Passengers pressed against the windows of the maglev as the jumpcraft passed by. With a determined expression on his face, Trace ignored Korodo’s protests and pushed the throttle all the way open. The jumpcraft surged forward as the trench swept around a wide corner towards a pair of tunnel openings. Behind them, the assassin’s jumper dropped down into the trench, following them close behind and lining up a shot. Ahead of them, a pair of lights from the oncoming tunnel heralded the arrival of a rapidly approaching maglev. With seconds to spare, Trace swerved in front of the maglev slotting the jumpcraft into the tunnel entrance as the oncoming maglev rushed out of its tunnel. With both tunnels blocked, the assassin’s jumper pulled up sharply, narrowly avoiding smashing into the trench walls or pedestrian walkways.
Whooping in triumph and pumping his first, Trace piloted the jumpcraft through the tunnel one-handed. Korodo punched him lightly on the arm, “Great Father, you’re insane.”
“Relax,” Trace said wincing slightly. Korodo’s punch had stuck him right on his blaster wound. “We lost them didn’t we?”
“No I won’t ‘relax’, you’re reckless and dangerous,” Korodo lectured sternly as they exited the tunnel and anonymously joined the traffic flow. “You put hundreds of lives at risk with stunt of yours; do you have any idea just how stupid that was?”
Trace didn’t answer, instead he stared straight ahead, his mouth a thin line of growing anger and his knuckles white as he gripped the controls. He jerked the controls to the left, setting the jumpcraft down in an alleyway. Before the half-dragon had a chance to continue berating him, he pulled the blaster pistol he had tucked into the front of his pants and stuck it in Korodo’s side. “Get out,” he hissed angrily. Korodo looked down at the boy, seeing nothing but hatred and anger in his eyes.
“What do you think you are doing?” He asked carefully.
“Perhaps it didn’t penetrate that thick skull of yours earlier,” Trace said, keeping the pistol trained on Korodo as he reluctantly got out of the jumpcraft. “I told you, I’m stealing your jumper.”
As Trace gunned the engine, preparing to take off, Korodo leaned in towards the boy. “So, you’re just going to leave me here?” Trace seemed to hesitate a second before his face hardened, his eyes devoid of any trace of childish innocence. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out a comm and tossed it to the half-dragon.
“Call someone who cares.” The jumpcraft tore out of the alley, rising up to join the westbound traffic lanes. Left behind in the alley, Korodo watched as the jumpcraft disappeared from view. Looking down at the comm, he dialled a number and waited for an answer.
Caldrin sat at the controls of the assault jumper and banged the dashboard in frustration. The operation had deteriorated, and then finally collapsed into utter failure. He had lost one assault team during the botched attack on the penthouse. Then he had lost two of his best pilots during the chase across the city before finally losing his quarry at the magrail tunnels. By the time he had circled around to the exit, Korodo and the boy were long gone.
He was still contemplating the consequences of his failure, hovering stationary beside an advertising board, when a familiar looking jumpcraft flew in front him; flying along on only one intact thruster. Caldrin could not believe his luck, right in front of him was the target, completely unaware that Caldrin had spotted him. The drow slowly manoeuvred his jumper a few vehicles behind the target and began to follow him. As he concentrated on the target, his heart sank when he realised that Lord Korodo was not in the jumpcraft, only the guild thief. They must have parted ways somewhere between the tunnel and the time that Caldrin had reacquired his quarry. If this mission was to be salvaged in any way, he had to find out where the boy had dropped off Korodo. With the resources of the Imperial Special Police Directorate at his disposal, he could blanket Jurrika City with satellite surveillance but even with all the technological and magical knowledge that the Dragon Empire possessed, located a specific individual amongst the tens of millions that inhabited the city would be impossible. If he could narrow the search to a specific area of the city, it would increase the chances of located him. Should the boy choose not to cooperate, that decision would cost the boy dearly. Part of Caldrin hoped that the boy would be stubborn, after what had happened he wasn’t in a very forgiving mood.
Yawning, Lord Korodo chewed on his breakfast as he watched the news. Death, destruction and mayhem in the Outlands. Ever since Emperor Mezzenbone had taken the throne, it seemed the Dragon Empire had set itself on a path of aggressive expansion, with legion after legion sent to primitive pre-technological worlds on missions of conquest. The policy sickened him. He may have shared the blood of the red dragons, but that was all, he did not share their love of conquest. Some members of House Mazorgrim seemed to revel in the bloodbath their Emperor was causing and after 5 thousand years of relative stability, the Empire was entering a period of turmoil. That this period coincided with the first royal house of Asamet to take throne was not a coincidence. Five thousand years ago, the Pact Draconis had ended the terrible war between the metallic dragons of the Kingdom of Qesmet and the chromatic dragons of Asamet, a war that had almost brought both kingdoms to the very brink of destruction. The Pact was an agreement between both kingdoms to end the war and form a joint empire under the rule of the dragons. Each noble house would rule for one thousand years before handing over to the next. The Houses of Deserene, Sarava, Handor, Aranath and Golion, the five royal Houses of Qesemet would be first to rule. The Houses of Mazorgrim, Osorus, Noros, Esmer and Altara, the five royal Houses of Asamet, would follow them. It was not an ideal solution, but it was the only one that had a chance at ending the bloodshed. For five millennia, the Empire had prospered under the rule of the metallic dragons but fifty years ago, House Mazorgrim had taken up the baton of lordship. Since then, many of the reforms enacted under the Qesemet houses had been repealed and many were predicting the Empire would tear itself apart. No one seriously believed that the stability of the Empire could survive the rule of even one chromatic dragon.
The half-dragon switched off the TV and walked over to the window. A hundred floors up, he was afforded an impressive view of the city that sprawled from horizon to horizon in all directions. Korodo sighed as he looked out over the urban landscape of towering megascrapers and downtrodden slums. Despite being born into the nobility, he knew that he had as much ability to change things as the teeming throngs of commoners below. The sound of a throat being cleared alerted him to the presence of someone entering the room.
“M’lord, your jumpcraft is ready whenever you are.”
Korodo turned to face the person addressing him. It was his driver, and pilot of his personal yacht, Duncan. The cat-like Pershalan, unlike Korodo, appeared smartly dressed even in his old flight suit. Korodo on the other hand looked more like a street-gang member than a scion of the empire’s nobility. “Excellent, I need to get out of the city and kill something.”
Duncan took one look at Korodo’s ripped sleeveless t-shirt, spiked bracers and choker and pants with torn knees and grimaced. “Sir, I wish you would wear something more suitable to your station.”
“Duncan old friend, I’m going hunting in the royal preserve, not negotiating with a bunch of bankers,” he said picking up a well used but lovingly maintained hunting rifle. “Besides, I wish you would just call me by my name once in a while.” Checking that the rifle’s power pack was fully charged, he made his way through the penthouse and down the stairs to the private garage. Duncan followed close behind, talking into a wrist communicator and informing building security that Korodo was leaving. The lights in the skygarage automatically activated as the security sensor registered their presence. Duncan climbed behind the controls of the Utility Jumpcraft as Korodo sat in the passenger seat. After receiving the all clear from building security, Duncan piloted the jumpcraft out of the garage into the city.
As Korodo left the city, deep below the base of his luxury apartment building, Trace was connecting a handheld computer to a junction box. He was in the undertunnels, a vast network of passageways that spread out underneath the city and provided access to utility conduits and communication lines. Although they were meant to be watched at all hours of the day by surveillance systems, their coverage was patchy and the private company contracted to maintain the security system was often slow to respond. Trace hated travelling through the undertunnels; more than just the odd criminal called the tunnel home. “Things” hid in the darkness and people who ventured down here had a habit of disappearing. However if he wanted to break in to a noble’s penthouse, this was his only chance of defeating the security system. The only illumination in this part of the tunnel was the soft blue glow of the computer screen and the small chemical light stick attached to his cap. Although it did not give off a great deal of light, it was more than enough for him to see in the darkness thanks to the diluted elven blood flowing through his veins.
With the computer connected, Trace executed a series of programs, his fingers racing over the keypad at near zen-like speeds. Within seconds, he had logged onto the building’s mainframe and was navigating through its maze-like file structure. An indicator in the top left of the screen alerted him that his connection had been flagged for attention by the security system. Trace had been expecting and waiting for this and he activated a subroutine that when the system interrogated his connection, it responded with a coded response that identified the user as an authorised maintenance worker. However, that was merely the subroutines secondary function. Its primary purpose was to piggyback a signal back to the security system giving Trace access to its inner workings. It was ludicrously easy, the sign of a complacent security force. Now that he had full access, Trace loaded a special program of his own devising on to the system. The program cross-connected the security system with the building’s communications hardware. Lying dormant in the comm software, it waited until the building’s switchboard received a call from one specific number. Until then it was completely undetectable, but when activated its effects would be fast and devastating. It acted by reprogramming the security system to ignore all input from the sensors in the penthouse. Surveillance systems would begin looping their feeds and alarm systems would be silenced. Even the panic buttons in the penthouse would be disabled. Trace figured it would be at least twenty minutes before anyone noticed this quick and dirty hack once the program activated it. The only problem would be the door lock system. They were on a different circuit, separate from the main security system. Although the system monitored the door locks, it did not control them. Trace would have to bypass them manually when the time came.
After logging off the system and erasing his tracks, trace disconnected the computer and packed it carefully into his messenger bag. The nearest street exit was at least a kilometre away but it was in the heart of Jackson’s Gate, one of the richest and most tightly controlled areas of the city. A safe exit was at least five times that distance. Trace unclipped the jetboard from his belt and extended the front and back footpads, the crystals beneath each pad glowing blue as the levitation enchantment activated. The magic allowed the jetboard to float, its altitude controlled by a mental command from the rider but horizontal propulsion had to be provided by the microjets mounted on either side. As Trace hopped onto the board, the microjets emitted a high-pitched whine as the board began to move down the tunnel rapidly picking up speed.
Trace had only travelled a dozen or so metres when he collided with a metal pipe which appeared out of nowhere in his path. The pipe stuck him lengthways across the chest, stopping him in mid-air as he doubled over the pipe while the jetboard continued without him, clattering to a stop several metres down the tunnel.
Winded by the impact, Trace crashed to floor gasping for breath. “Sonuva…” he groaned, looking up just in time to see the metal pipe swing down towards his head. Rolling to side, the pipe struck the ground where his head had been just moments before, its impact chipping the concrete surface. A man dressed in the filthy remains of a maintenance worker’s outfit held the pipe. With emaciated skin and stringy hair, it bared a fanged mouth as it howled a scream of feral rage. Springing up into a crouch, Trace realised with a cold dread that the creature in front of him was a ghoul and that he was probably on its menu. He reached behind him, drawing a scuffed blaster pistol from where it had been tucked into the belt of his pants. Holding it with two shaking hands, he fired at the ghoul, its blue-white particle beam illuminating the tunnel like a bolt of lightning. The shot went wide, missing the ghoul and harmlessly striking the wall behind it. Reacting to the shot, the ghoul launched itself at Trace intent on using the metal pipe to crush the boy’s windpipe. Knocked back to the floor by the ghoul’s leaping attack, Trace lost his grip on his pistol and watched helplessly as it skittered across the floor coming to a rest just beyond his reach. It took all his strength to keep the pipe from pressing down on his throat and the ghoul’s face was just centimetres from his own, its foetid breath making Trace gag.
As the ghoul’s strength started to overpower his own, he began to panic, his mind scrambling to find a way out the situation. The boy thought back to the stories told by some of the older, more experienced guild members. A few years ago, an eleven-year-old Trace had sat listening with a small amount of awe to a story told by an old fortune hunter. The old man had been all too eager to tell an impressionable youth about the time he and his partners had raided an ancient tomb complex on some outland world only to be ambushed by undead. As the ghoul lay on top of him, Trace remembered something he’d been told about the undead, the one thing that could possibly save him. Undead gained a semblance of life from being imbued by negative energy. Healing magic worked on living creatures by imbuing them with positive energy. If negative energy magic harmed living creatures then perhaps healing magic had the same effect on the undead.
With no other option, Trace decided to take a chance taking his right hand off the pipe and pushing it into the ghoul’s face. As he did so, the ghoul presse the pipe against his throat, preventing him from breathing. Struggling for air, he realised that he would only have one shot at this so he focused all of his concentration on his healing ability. The ghoul screamed in pain as the positive energy surged into its body and it fell off Trace, writhing in agony. Scrambling to his feet, Trace wasted no time running over and picking up his pistol. Firing two shots into the ghoul, Trace didn’t wait to see if they slowed it down and instead ran to his jetboard. Jumping on board, he sped down the tunnel as fast as its microjets would allow.
Several kilometres away and in the parking lot of a drive-through fast food restaurant, Caldrin watched on the small screen of a datapad as the boy fled from the ghoul. He smiled, mildly impressed that the boy had actually gotten away unscathed. A small surveillance drone that Caldrin had tasked with following the boy was relaying the images. Although he had been ready to intervene to save the boy’s life if necessary by using the drone’s suicide mode, Caldrin would rather not jeopardise the mission by revealing its presence. However, the boy’s use of magic had surprised the experienced ISPD agent. There had been nothing in the boy’s file or criminal record that even hinted at possessing such a power. “Remind me to update his file later,” Caldrin thought as he instructed the probe to continue following the boy at a discrete distance. “Perhaps Dorga wasn’t overselling the boy’s resourcefulness after all,” he said to himself as he munched on a cheeseburger.
While the drone followed the boy, Caldrin rewound the recorded video footage to the fight with the ghoul and focused on the weapon as it flew out of the boy’s hand. The drow freeze-framed the footage and rotated the image, zooming in the weapon and starting an image-recognition algorithm. Accessing a number of databases through the Imperial Infonet, the empire wide communications system connecting the various local networks via magical ansibles, the datapad was quickly able identify the make and model of the weapon.
“This is Caldrin; arm the assault team with Infernix Arms mark 19 hand blasters.” With the boy’s weapon identified, another hole was filled in the boy’s intelligence file, not that its accuracy would matter soon. More importantly, the assault team now had a weapon that would leave identical forensic traces to the boys making the set-up much more convincing.
Trace slammed the door to the apartment closed and leaned against it. He was still shaking from the “fight” with the ghoul, adrenaline still pumping through his system. After leaving the undertunnels, he had returned straight home. Sliding down the door into a sitting position, Trace took several deep breaths and closed his eyes in attempt to calm down. Slowly he started to laugh, quietly at first but getting stronger by the second as he succumbed to the sheer exhilaration of being alive. Eventually he calmed down, wiping the laughter tears from his eyes and going into the kitchen area of the cramped two-room apartment. Opening the fridge, Trace took a bottle of water and twisted off the cap with his teeth while rooting through the dregs looking for something to eat. In a few hours, he would have to go back to Jackson’s Gate to get ready for tonight’s job. However, first he needed to get some food into his stomach. As he closed the fridge, holding a can of beans in one hand, something stuck to the fridge door caught his eye. Attached to the fridge by a magnet in the shape of a chubby red dragon holding an imperial flag was a photo. It was a picture of Toby and Trace leaning against each other with Samantha in between the two sucking on a sugar stick, the two boys grinning for the camera. The photo had been taken during the Empire Day celebrations two months ago.
“Looks like I couldn’t stay out of trouble for very long eh Tobs,” Trace asked as he plucked the photo from under the magnet. Looking at the photo as he sat down on the sofa, he sighed and placed the folded photo in a pocket before reaching for a relatively clean fork. Twisting the bottom of the can activated its internal heating element and while it heated, Trace turned on the small portable TV and channel surfed. After a minute, the can beeped and Trace carefully opened it, grimacing when he smelt its contents.
“Ahh re-heated cardboard.”
Trace spent the next few hours preparing for his attempt to break into Lord Korodo’s skygarage, making sure his “intrusion bag” was packed and programming his comm. As the sun sank below the horizon, he reluctantly mounted his jetboard and set off for Jackson’s Gate, more than a little apprehensive about what he had to do.
By the time Caldrin spotted the boy approaching, it was nearly midnight. Putting down the digital binoculars, he turned to the squad behind him. They were already in their intrusion suits, armoured body suit made of phototropic duraweave. It created a form-fitting hologram around the wearer and his equipment that matched the colour and texture of the surroundings. Coupled with the built in thermal wiring, the suit rendered the wearer almost invisible to sensors. For the last couple of hours they had been getting increasingly impatient waiting for the ISPD agent to give the go order.
“Get ready, the guild asset is here. If he’s able to disable the system as promised, you move in on the target.”
Trace bit his lip as he fiddled with the door’s electronic lock, a bead of sweat dribbling down his face. He brushed his hair out of his face and connected the leads to the keypad next to the maintenance door. As alphanumeric sequences rapidly flashed across the screen of the small electronic lockpick, Trace took a moment to look around. He was kneeling on a narrow ledge a hundred floors above street level outside a maintenance hatch that led to the skygarage. It had just gone midnight when he had decided to make his move, dialling the building’s main switchboard and triggering the logic bomb. Getting up here had been a chore in itself, the police came down hard on jetboarders in the richer sectors of the city so getting this far had been a challenge. As long as Korodo stayed upstairs in his penthouse, this job should be a cakewalk. With a beep, a sequence of numbers on the lock pick’s display flashed green indicating that it had found the unlock code. Trace unclipped the leads and closed the keypad’s cover before punching in the code. With a buzz, the door lock disengaged and the door opened with a click.
Stuffing the lockpick into a pocket, Trace stepped into the darkened garage closing the door behind him. There were two jumpcraft sitting in the parking bays, even in the low light one of them caught Trace’s eye. Sleek and low slung, with its propulsion units lying flush against the body, it was a four-seater luxury sports model. As he traced his hand across its smooth surface, Trace whistled. “Now this, this is a thing of beauty.” He peered in at the dashboard, the odometer was only a few points above zero; the jumpcraft was practically new. “It’ll be a shame to see a slimeball like Dorga get his hands on you,” he sighed. The other was a rugged looking utility jumpcraft that looked like it had seen a lot of use.
Slapping a button on the wall, the garage door slid open allowing the cool night air to stream into the garage. Using a small pocketknife, Trace popped open an access panel on the side of the jumpcraft and began to disable its alarm system and tracking device.
Upstairs in his penthouse, Korodo was cleaning a disassembled plasma sword. A modern version of an ancient weapon, the plasma sword had fallen out of favour as ranged energy weapons became more reliable and versatile. Korodo had spent years hunting for parts and schematics in order to build one. He was reconnecting the plasma emitter when Duncan entered into the study on his way to bed.
“Are you still playing around with that, we’ve got an early take-off in the morning,” Duncan sighed, leaning tiredly against the doorframe. Korodo smiled and looked up from the plasma sword, opening his mouth to answer. Before he could speak, the blue-white beam of a blaster shot ripped through Duncan’s chest, leaving behind a smoking and cauterised wound. The half-dragon watched in horror as Duncan slumped forward onto the floor. In the corridor behind the now-lifeless body was a ripple in the air, reminiscent of the heat-haze that rises of tarmac on a hot day. Korodo could just make out a vaguely humanoid shape and the effect was only ruined by the pixelisation of the background seen through the haze. The figure lifted an arm, pointing what Korodo assumed was a weapon at him. Instinctively, the half-dragon inhaled and breathed out sharply. A gout of flame erupted from his throat engulfing the would-be assassin.
“Bet you didn’t expect that eh?” he yelled at the figure wreathed in flames. The hologram flickered and died as the assassin died with it. A second assassin leaned around the doorway, firing into the room. “Damn,” Korodo muttered as he dived behind the desk, the blaster shots striking the desk, gouging great pits in its surface and scattering the equipment on it onto the floor. Korodo looked down as the cylindrical hilt of the plasma sword rolled against his clawed hand. He had practiced and trained with it over the years but had never considered that he might have to use it in anger. Now it appeared that he would have no choice.
Taking a deep breath, Korodo grasped the hilt tightly and rolled out from behind the desk. The half-dragon charged at the assassin, dodging around several shots and thumbed the plasma swords activation switch. The hilt thrummed as powerful emitters within it created an enclosed and focused magnetic field. With a hiss, white-hot plasma flooded into the space enclosed by the field creating a 6-foot long blade of pure energy. Surprised by the sudden appearance of the unfamiliar weapon, the assassin stepped back around the door into the corridor outside. With a bellowing roar, Korodo impaled the sword into the wall, its plasma easily burning through the thin wall and stabbing the man in the back. Slumping dead to the floor, his comrade gritted his teeth and combat-rolled into the room. The third assassin brought his blaster pistol to bare and shot at Korodo. Luckily, it was a glancing shot that skipped across Korodo’s scales. Turning to face the assassin, he reactivated the blade and leapt across the small coffee table. The assassin nimbly sprang out of the way, rolling under Korodo’s swing and pressing a button on his left wrist. The wrist-mounted device generated a circular plane of force. Its magical energy was capable of deflecting or resisting any form of energy-based attack. Korodo again tried to strike at the assassin but his blow was blocked by the energy shield. The assassin tried to shoot his target but Korodo deftly dodged the blaster bolt, spinning around and striking the assassin’s left leg with his tail in an attempt to sweep him off his feet. Although knocked back, the assassin stayed on his feet but his shield arm was knocked aside by an elbow strike. Using the opening, Korodo brought the sword into a sweeping strike across the assassin’s abdomen. As the insubstantial blade struck the assassin, his body broke through the magnetic containment field and met the plasma. The extreme temperature of the plasma melted through the duraweave of the intrusion suite and burned the unprotected flesh of the assassin. Howling in pain, the assassin collapsed towards the carpet and as he fell, Korodo span bringing the plasma sword slicing down onto the man’s unprotected neck. The searing heat of the plasma burned through the flesh and bone of the neck, decapitating the head.
Panting heavily, Korodo turned back to the door into the study and went to kneel by Duncan’s body. After feeling for a pulse and finding none, he gently closed the man’s eyes. “Goodbye old friend,” he said quietly.
“Dammit to pus-spewing, blood-gutted hell!” Caldrin yelled as the third assassin fell, “this op is getting more fubar’d by the second.” He turned to face the two men behind him in flight suits, a human and a fellow drow. “Fire up those jumpers, if the second team fail as well, we’re going to plan B.”
Korodo pressed a red button on the wall next to a comm panel, expecting to hear the comforting tone of the security alarm. When no tone was forthcoming, he tried to contact security on the panel but the system refused to connect. In the reflection of the monitor, he saw the telltale distortion of two more assassins, about to fire. Ducking under their shots, Korodo began running down the corridor towards the stairs the led to the skygarage. As he ran, he slapped at a set of door controls and a heavy-duty security barrier slammed down trapping the two assassins. Wasting no time, Korodo reached the top of the stairs and virtually bounded down them in to the garage below. He skidded to stop at the foot of the stairs when he saw a figure silhouetted against the open door of the garage. The figure was smaller than the assassins were and clothed different. Snarling and in no mood for games, he drew the plasma sword and advanced on the figure facing away from him.
At the sound of the plasma swords activation, Trace, who hadn’t heard the blaster fire from upstairs because of the skygarage’s soundproofing, span round and jumped backwards as the point of the plasma blade pointed threateningly in his direction. Korodo’s scales flushed from a dark red to a vibrant blood red. “What in the nine hells are you doing in my house?” Korodo yelled.
“Technically,” Trace smirked nervously, “I’m in your garage.”
Korodo stepped forward, bringing the point of the blade towards Trace’s face, the light from the plasma illuminating it with a harsh white glow. “What then, are you doing in my garage?” He asked growling.
Trace took a step backwards, the heel of his left foot hanging off the edge of the ledge. He glanced behind him at the hundred-story drop and gulped. Holding his hands up in what he hoped was a placating manner; he turned back towards the irate half-dragon. “Looks like it’s painfully obvious,” Trace said, glancing nervously at the open access panel in the side of the jumpcraft, “I was trying to steal your jumper.” “If you can’t tell ‘em a good lie”, the guildmaster had once told him, “then surprise ‘em with the truth.” It seemed to work as the half-dragon’s mouth opened as if he was trying to come up with something to say, and the point of the blade lowered. He was interrupted as a blast from upstairs rocked the skygarage and the sound of the heavy-duty doors being blown open could be heard.
“I haven’t got time for this elf.” Korodo said dismissively.
Trace’s face flushed red with muted anger. “HALF-elf!” he retorted back in a raised voice, glancing upwards at the ceiling.
“Whatever kid,” Korodo said as he deactivated the sword and turned his back on Trace. Ripping the leads from the jumpcraft’s computer ports, he slammed the access panel closed and jumped over the door into the driver’s seat. The seat automatically adjusted itself to accommodate his tail as he sat down at the controls but when he entered the start-up code, the jumpcraft refused to respond.
As Korodo got in the jumpcraft, Trace quickly unclipped the jetboard from his belt and extended the front and back footpads. Standing at the door of the skygarage, he prepared to jump out on the jetboard when a blaster shot from the stairs struck him in the upper arm causing him to cry out in pain. He dropped the jetboard, damaging one of its microjets as he stumbled behind the utility jumpcraft, clutching his arm. Trace tried to focus his healing ability, but the weakly flickering blue field around his hand told him that he would have to wait until tomorrow before using it again. The incident with the ghoul earlier had used up what remained of his finite healing energy. Cursing his luck, Trace gritted his teeth as he tried to stop the bleeding; ducking as another shot struck the bodywork of the jumpcraft above his head.
Korodo’s head snapped up from the controls of the jumpcraft at the sound of the blaster shot just in time to see the boy fall behind cover. Reaching for the glove compartment, he pulled out a gyrojet pistol and fired at the two assassins as they came down the stairs. As the rounds left the barrel, expelled by magnetic repulsion, miniature rockets ignited and small spin-stabiliser vanes deployed. The gyrojets rocketed across the skygarage, striking the wall by the assassins with enough force to punch their way through the wall. Leaping into the skygarage and taking cover, the assassins returned fire. Exchanging fire with the assassins, Korodo saw that the blaster bolts were not solely aimed at him. Quickly, he stole a glance towards the boy and saw with some surprise that he was bleeding. He had assumed that the boy had been in league with the assassins, albeit in some minor form. Yet there he was, as much a target as he was.
Trace, for his part soon got over the shock of being shot; it wasn’t the first time that he had been shot but the amount of pain was always seemed to surprise him. He looked over to jetboard lying on the floor of the skygarage. The left microjet was damaged but it was not beyond repair, if he could just reach it, he might be able to fix it. With this thought, he reached out for the jetboard only snatch his hand back as blaster bolts lanced towards it. “Screw this,” he muttered pulling the pistol from where it was tucked into the back of his pants. Trace considered uttering a short prayer to the Trickster, or any of the twelve Gods of the Unification Church that happened to be watching. However, he figured a deathbed conversion is more likely to draw their ire than their blessing so instead; he cursed the name of the man that forced him into this crazy venture. Screaming, he knelt up behind the utility jumpcraft and fired at the assassins. His aim was unsteady, partly due to the pain from his wound and partly due to fear. Fear that increased when two more men came down the stairs to join their comrades. One of his blaster bolts lanced across the skygarage and struck an assassin between the eyes. With a spurt of evaporating blood and cauterised flesh, the assassin dropped, dead before he hit the floor. Trace froze for a brief second when his shot connected. A shot from the one of the assassins ricocheted off the jumpcraft’s bodywork, a sliver of the fuselage striking Trace just above the eye and slicing a cut across the forehead. He ducked back down behind the jumpcraft, shielding his head with his hands as he glanced over at Korodo.
Across the skygarage, Korodo looked over towards Trace at the same time and their eyes met. The boy’s earlier cocksure attitude was gone, replaced by wide-eyed fear. Rolling his eyes and questioning his own judgement, Korodo made a decision. “Well kid, you waiting for an invitation? Get in.”
Trace was picked up off the floor of the office by one of the guild’s enforcers, an orc and shoved roughly back on to the wooden chair. Wiping his split lip, the young half-elf contemptuously spat a glob of blood at the orc. This earned the 15-year-old another blow to the face, almost knocking him back off the chair. The coarse skin of the orc’s fist scraped across his cheek leaving behind a series of rough scratches and the force of the punch sent a tooth clattering across the floor. Only the grip of the thug’s partner kept him in the seat. Pulling his fist back for another blow, he was stopped by the dark-skinned human sitting behind the desk. “That’s enough,” the guildmaster Dorga ordered, “You’re getting blood all over my floor.” Growling, the orc cuffed Trace across the back of the head, hard, causing him to grunt in pain. “Brak!” Barked the guildmaster, “I said enough.” Sneering down at Trace, the orc stepped back. Standing up and walking around the desk, the guildmaster stood in front of Trace. “How many times do I have to beat it into you? I own you, you work for me. What’s yours is mine.” Dorga grabbed his chin, forcing the boy to look him in the eye. “Now, I’m only going to ask this once. Where’s the money you owe?”
Without blinking, Trace calmly answered. “I spent it.” Dorga looked into the boy’s face, searching for any sign of deception. Finding none, he slapped Trace angrily across the face. Pulling over a chair, he sat down in front of the boy. Gingerly rubbing the bruises on the side of his face, Trace looked at the guildmaster who seemed to be appraising him like a slice of beef. “You know, I’ve got a camera if you want a picture,” Trace said sarcastically.
As Dorga reached forward with his hand, Trace flinched involuntarily, his reaction causing the guildmaster to smile. “I like you Trace,” Dorga said stroking Trace’s face affectionately, an action that made the boy squirm with discomfort, “you’ve always been one of my favourites. You’re one of the best boosters in the guild and, until recently, you’ve been a good earner for me. I’d hate to see something happen to that pretty face of your’s.”
Trace smirked and hitched a thumb at the two orcs standing behind him by the door. “Bit late for that, looks like Teeny and Tiny over there already happened to it.” One of the orcs cracked his knuckles in anticipation of being told to continue the beating. Dorga, however, merely smiled. “Crud,” Trace thought to himself as he saw the guildmaster’s smile, “that is NOT a good sign.”
Dorga went back to his desk and picked up a tissue. “Kid, in a way, you remind me a little of myself when I was your age. Guess that’s why I’m giving you this one last chance.” He tossed the tissue over to Trace and looked at the boy sternly while he used the tissue to wipe away some of the blood from his mouth. “But this IS your last chance. You screw this up, or if I find out that you’ve been keeping the guild’s cut for yourself again, you’ll get a one way trip to the pound with the other mongrels.” Trace bit back a retort, if there was one thing he hated more than being called an elf, it was being called a mongrel but now was not the sort of time for backchat. Those sent to the “pound” quite literally ended up as dog food, or worse.
“So,” Trace asked sullenly, “what’s the job?”
“Nothing you can’t handle. You’re going to steal Lord Korodo’s new jumpcraft,” Dorga said smiling, his hand running through his short black hair.
“What!” Trace cried out in disbelief. “Are we talking about THE Lord Korodo, of House Mazorgrim, fourth nephew to the emperor umpteen times removed? THAT Korodo?”
“Yes, is that going to be a problem?” The guildmaster asked innocently.
“Gee Dorga, why don’t you just shoot me now and save the cops the trouble.” Trace said sarcastically.
The guildmaster shrugged, pulled a pistol from a shoulder holster and aimed it at Trace’s head. “If you say so.”
“Okay okay, I’ll do it.” Trace said holding his hands up.
“Good,” Dorga said smiling, “I want that vehicle at the usual place by noon tomorrow, no excuses. Now get out of my sight before I change my mind.” Brak grabbed Trace by the arm and roughly dragged him towards the door out of the office. “One more thing,” Dorga said as Trace reached the door. As he turned round to face the guildmaster, he caught a small object that Dorga tossed towards him. Looking down at his hand, he saw that it was his tooth that Brak had punched out earlier. “Don’t leave your crap on my floor.”
With that, Brak pushed him out of the door, down the short corridor and into the back alley bar that served as one of the guild’s safe houses. It had only just turned midday and there were already several people sitting at the bar or in traditional dark corners. Trace recognised a couple as being members of the guild, one or two of which smirked when they saw the bruises on his face. Brak shoved him of the front door and into the alley. On the way out, Trace tripped and landed in a dirty puddle cursing. The orc learned over him, sneering. “See you tomorrow kid, unless the cops get you first.” Laughing, Brak went back into the bar leaving Trace sitting in the puddle, the water soaking through his tatty pants.
“Great,” Trace said to no one in particular as he picked himself up, “either way my ass is toast.” Keeping his head down, Trace exited the alley and made his way down the street towards the nearest magrail stop. Trace smiled however as he looked down into his hand. In his hand was a wallet, he had lifted it from Brak’s pocket as he was manhandled through the bar.
Back in the bar, Dorga looked up from his desk as the door to his office opened. A drow strode in acting, as they always do, as if he owned the place. Without waiting for an invitation, he sat down opposite Dorga. “Are you sure that we can entrust this task to a child. My superiors are paying you for results, not for a baby sitting service.”
“Come in Caldrin, take a seat why don’t you.” Dorga said sarcastically.
“Don’t be facetious, we are concerned that the success of our operation depends on the skills of a mere youth,” snapped the drow. “This isn’t like bypassing the security on a convenience store’s safe, how can we be sure that the boy will be able to handle the pressure.”
“He may be young but he is the best slicer I know. That noble’s security system stands no chance.” Dorga said in an attempt to reassure the drow. The drow, however, still seemed unconvinced. “He may have a smart mouth on him, but he knows who’s calling the shots. He’s pistol-whipped worse than an unwanted puppy. He’ll do the job ‘cos he knows that he’s got no choice if he wants to see next week.”
The drow sat back in the chair, contemplating Dorga’s words. “There’s is a very good chance that the boy will not escape unscathed from this operation, are you so willing to sacrifice him considering that he seems so valuable to you.”
Dorga hesitated before answering. It was only a momentary hesitation, but it was enough for the attentive drow to note its presence. “He’s an asset, as long as the money is good, I don’t care if you put a bullet in his head to keep him quiet once the job is done.” Despite the fact that Dorga was skilled at deception and manipulating people to do his bidding, the drow was better. He could immediately tell that Dorga was lying.
The drow smiled as he handed Dorga an envelope containing several thousand credits. “I’m sure it will not come to that,” he lied, “if he is truly as skilled as you say, then I’m sure he will be returned to you safely.”
“Don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why you wanted the security taken down?” Dorga asked as he started to count the money.
Caldrin stood up and walked over to the door before turning to answer. “There are certain aspects of our operation that my superiors wish to minimise our connection too. An outside contractor is necessary. See to it that your boy does his part.” Not waiting for any answer, the drow left the office and headed outside. Once on the street, he walked over to a jumpcraft parked some distance away. The jumper’s cab was lined with a special material designed to both soundproof the cab and block any concievable type of surveillance device. It also acted as a magical Faraday cage, disabling any sort of magical communication making the cab secure for private communications. Activating the comm system, Caldrin connected to a number only know to a few people on the planet. The video screen showed nothing but static and the voice that emitted from the speaker was heavily distorted.
“Everything is proceeding according to plan. The local thieves’ guild has provided us with an expendable asset to bypass the security system.” Caldrin reported.
“Then the mission will proceed as planned?” The voice queried.
“Affirmative, by tomorrow morning Lord Korodo will be dead and nothing will link his assassination to the ISPD. Given the criminal record and background of the guild asset, the local authorities will have no trouble assuming that the death of Lord Korodo was due to a botched robbery attempt. We can expect a quick conviction followed by an even quicker execution.” Caldrin said devoid of emotion.
Trace’s short ride through the slums of Jurrika City, planetary capital of the planet of the same name, was an interesting study in the mindset of the average citizen. On any other world, a teenage boy with extensive bruises to the face and blood on his clothes might have attracted at least some attention or wary looks. However, House Mazorgrim, the royal house of the red dragons, ruled Jurrika and people learned at an early age to keep their heads down and feign ignorance in regards to what happened around them. Whether the bruises on his face were from a mugging, a punishment at work, an abusive family life or just the general violence a scruffy looking teenager might get involved in; people just didn’t care, especially in the poorer regions of the city.
Eventually the graffiti covered magrail pulled into Crystal Point, a warren of run down tenements and labyrinthine alleyways that served as Trace’s home. The buildings here were packed claustrophobically close, single and double story shacks filling the space between high-rise blocks of cheaply built apartments. Despite thousands of years of continuous habitation, Crystal Point was still without a decent power supply and they were still relying on the crumbling and ancient water system constructed before the chromatic dragons conquered the planet during the Dragon War over five millennia ago. Only the ministrations of the local temple kept the slum free from a deadly cholera outbreak.
Picking his way carefully through the garbage and rivulets of raw sewage overflowing from the drains, avoiding some of the darker alleyways, Trace made his way through the throngs of people packed together in the street. As he passed one of the market stalls, he stopped and slapped several of the notes from Brak’s wallet down on the counter, purchasing a few old loafs of bread and other food items. Keeping a tight hold on the bag of food, Trace eventually made it to a derelict tenement block that jutted up against the elevated magrail track. A steel security barrier blocked the front entrance. Fixed to it was a notice reading “Condemned – Unsafe Building” in common and draconic. Ignoring the sign, Trace went around the side of the building and climbed up an access ladder onto the magrail track. As he got to the top, one of the three-car maglevs swept passed at over 320 kilometres per hour. Trace had to hold onto the top of the ladder to avoid being blown off by the blast of wind. Once the maglev had passed by, Trace clambered onto the track and jogged over to a hole in the wall of the tenement abutting the track.
The hole opened up on to a cramped corridor that provided access to the various apartments. Trace had to be careful climbing in through the hole in order to avoid touching the heavy duty cables running through it. The cables connected to the power line supplying electricity to the magrail’s superconducting electromagnets and illegally tapping into to it to provide the building with power. Although the cables were insulated, Trace was not going to take a chance with several thousand volts flowing just centimetres from his face.
Flickering lights illuminated the corridor as Trace quietly made his way down it. Strange smells assaulted his senses; smells of cooking, of rubbish and filth, smells of decay. The walls were scrawled with graffiti in a melange of languages, common, elven, draconic, dwarven, orcish and goblinoid, languages from across the empire. The odd discarded needle or drug patch on the floor joined the occasional bloodstain on the wall. Eventually he made it a door at the end of the corridor and holding the grocery bag in one hand, rapped a sequence of knocks on the door.
An eight-year-old girl opened the door; she looked up and smiled when she saw Trace. “Hey sprocket,” Trace said in greeting as he tussled her hair.
“Hi T,” she said taking the bag of food from him as he entered. “Toby, T’s been fighting again.” She called out as Trace closed and bolted the door.
A ten-year-old boy, her older brother, entered from the next room. “Shiv,” he said as he saw the bruises on Trace’s face, “what the hells happened to you?”
“Just a disagreement at work,” Trace explained as he headed towards the bathroom, “nothing to worry about.”
Closing the door behind him, Trace looked in the mirror as he filled the sink with water. He grimaced as he saw his appearance, he hadn’t realised just how bad he actually looked. Underneath his scruffy blond hair, his face was a mass of bruises and dried blood. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his dislodged tooth. Trace opened his mouth and pushed the tooth back in place, wincing with the pain. Concentrating, he called on his one special ability and a blue aura of energy enveloped his hand. Passing the hand across his face, maintaining a contact with the skin, the bruises disappeared and the cuts healed instantly. The tooth also reattached itself to its root, a process that wasn’t exactly painless. Trace had no idea where his healing ability came from. As far as he knew, healing was the province of divine magic and only the faithful followers of the Gods had such magic bestowed upon them. Trace was not particularly devout and couldn’t remember the last time he had been inside a temple. However, on days like this he was glad to have it and didn’t question its origin. Trace finished by washing off the dried blood and changing into his favourite orange hoody and a new pair of cut-off pants.
When he opened the door a several minutes, he was confronted by a stern faced Toby. Trace could not help but laugh aloud; Toby didn’t have the face to make an intimidating presence. With his blond hair, freckles and short statue, he was just too cute looking. That didn’t stop him from trying as he stood there with his arms crossed. “I know what you’re doing T, but you can’t keep taking the chance. One day they’re going to loose patience with you.”
Trace sighed and scratched his head, “It’s not as if I have a choice Tobs, we need the money.”
“I know,” Toby said as Trace flopped down on the sofa, “but there has to be another way. If you keep narking the Guild, they’ll kill you like … like they did to my dad.”
Toby’s and Samantha’s father had been a police officer, one of the few in Jurrika City that was honest and sincere in his job. He had never taken a bribe or been “persuaded” to look the other way. This integrity had unfortunately been his undoing when he refused to bow to intimidation during a drugs investigation. The Thieves Guild had decided to make an example of him, to show other honest cops what their integrity might cost them. During the night, gunmen broke into their small apartment and shot him and his wife while they slept. Toby and his sister were awoken by the gunshots and fled the apartment using the fire escape, evading the guild hit men. Later the landlord had evicted them from their apartment and their neighbours turned their backs on them, refusing to get involved over fear of reprisal. With no living relatives on the planet, the two orphaned children were forced to live on the streets. It had been here that Trace had found them a month later and, out of a misplaced sense of guilt, decided to take them in.
Trace got up and walked over to Toby. “That’s why I need to keep…” he began but was interrupted by Toby.
“How many times do I have to tell you, it wasn’t your fault? You didn’t have anything to do with their deaths. Just because you’re a member of the guild doesn’t make it your fault.” Toby looked into the older boy’s eyes as he continued. “You’ve done more than enough, if it weren’t for you I don’t think Sammy would’ve made it through last winter. It’s time we started paying you back. I could help you out when you…”
Trace grabbed Toby and shoved him against the wall forcefully. The sudden movement shocked the younger boy. “Don’t you ever say that. I never had a choice about doing what I do but as long as I am around, YOU do. What would your father think if you started stealing? You’re smart, you went to school and everything, don’t waste that.” Trace left the room, heading for the small bedroom, leaving Toby rubbing his arms. Less than minute later he returned holding a crisp white envelope. He smiled and tossed the envelope at Toby. “Happy birthday, I know it’s a couple of days early but it couldn’t wait.”
“Thanks,” Toby said smiling as he opened the envelope, “how did you know my birthday was coming?”
“Sam told me.”
Toby pulled two ID cards and two slips of paper. When he read what was on the paper, his eyes widened and he looked at Trace in confusion. “Are these what I think they are?”
“I managed to track down your grandparents; they’re living on a planet in the Rosa system. Those are tickets on a commercial transport and travel papers to get you and Sam out of Mazorgrim, across Osorus and into the Domain of House Deserene where Rosa is.”
“Trace,” Toby said, his voice breaking, “these must’ve cost you a fortune! I … I don’t know what to say”
The half-elf pulled Toby into a headlock, rubbing his head. “You can promise to stay out of trouble and look after your sister. Those goldies can be a little uptight.” Both boys fell to the floor laughing.
Two hours later the three children exited the magrail station at Jurrika City’s spaceport, Toby and Samantha each clutching a bag containing their meagre possessions. Overhead, the sky was full of spaceships arriving and departing. Ships of every size, from small one-man shuttles to massive superfreighters, roared overhead representing almost every Imperial House or megacorporation. As they approached the plate glass doors of the civilian departure terminal, their way was barred by a 3-metre tall oruk in the uniform of an Imperial Legionnaire who levelled his assault blaster at them.
“All right you punks,” the oruk, a cross breed of ogre and orc, barked in heavily accented common, “Unless you got papers you ‘aint getting in. You street rats are trouble enough with letting you in to rob decent folk.”
Smiling innocently, Toby presented his and Sam’s travel papers to the soldier who inspected them carefully.
“Humph,” the oruk grunted, “they look genuine enough.”
“They should be,” Trace thought silently to himself, “after what they cost me.”
The oruk handed the paper’s back to Toby and turned to Trace, prodding the boy in the chest with the barrel of the gun. “Where’s your’s?”
Trace grinned sheepishly. “I er, haven’t got any.”
“Then take a hike shorty.”
“Aww come on,” Trace whined, “these are my friends, I’ve come to see them off, can’t I at least go as far as the gate?”
“Yeah,” Toby added, “it might be the last time we see each other!”
“Please mister,” Sam said sweetly, looking up at the oruk with big puppy-dog eyes.
“Then saying you’re goodbyes now won’t make a difference will it? No papers, no entrance, got it yet elf boy?” The oruk said smiling, brandishing his tusks.
Toby hurriedly pulled Trace away from the heavily armed soldier before he could make a scene. He knew that being called an elf was one of the few things that could make Trace loose his temper. After Toby had calmed him down, Trace realised that he had a problem. He didn’t know how to say goodbye, he had never had anyone worth saying it to before. There was an awkward moment while Trace tried to figure out what to say. Toby broke the silence by hugging a surprised Trace.
“Hey now, don’t get all emotional on me or anything.” Trace stammered as an embarrassed Toby let go. He bent down and hugged Sam. “Take care of your brother now, promise?” The little girl nodded.
“You stay out trouble too T,” Toby said, “as much as you can anyway.” Trace grinned in response and looked at his watch.
“You two better get going, you don’t want to miss your flight,” he said as he helped Sam with the straps on her backpack.
Toby grasped his hand and hugged him one last time. “Thanks for everything Trace, I mean it.”
“No problem, you take care now.”
“You too, see you around.”
Watching as they disappeared into the crowd, Trace waved as the closest thing he had to a family entered the spaceport. He was completely oblivious to the drow watching his every movement from a nearby parked jumpcraft.