Holy motherboard! Maksou raced faster along the sleek docking bays of the Byzantium space station. Behind him, running boots pounded the wide tubular avenue of the terminal, all but deserted at this time of night. Everything had gone so well... until now.
How did security find him? Had he neglected to hack a secondary system or a face-recognition scanner? Did someone rat on him? Impossible. No one else knew.
Just bad luck, then? Impossible. Maksou’s legendary luck never failed him. He shuddered and grimaced to ward off the very idea of getting caught. He refused to spend the next century behind titanium panes.
“I see him! This way!” The officer in pursuit sounded excited.
Shazbits! Still running, Maksou thanked his countless hours of physical therapy. He tapped a key on his clear tablet and a shimmering curtain of blue energy blocked the corridor behind him. That would hold them for a while.
He raced along the large bay windows of the private docks. Against the black sea of space, shiny space yachts, small charters, and private ships lined the outer ring, solidly anchored at the base by robust metal clamps. They looked empty, asleep, and lonesome, waiting for their owners to return from their fun and games in the space station’s spas, eateries, gambling dens, and cyber-pleasure salons.
As he negotiated the wide curve of the circular corridor, now out of sight of the security goons, Maksou took heart. The pursuit had forced him to take a few detours, but he might finally make it to the ship’s berth and escape. Good thing he’d rigged the security recorders into a loop.
He counted the anchoring airlocks. There it was. Bay-24. The small cruiser outside the clear titanium pane beckoned to him. Maksou waved his tablet in front of the panel controlling the airlock. The first hatch opened with a soft whoosh. He ducked inside and punched the hatch closed.
Through the small window into the corridor, a bright flash indicated the security team had breached the energy field. Shazbits!
A hovering vehicle zipped past, then heavy running steps approached. Maksou pushed the green button on his belt scrambler. The light turned red. His tablet filled with static. Good. That would blind the security goons’ scanners.
Maksou flattened himself in a recess beside the airlock window as a security officer glanced briefly through it, sweeping his light beam inside the small space.
“Clear!” The beam extinguished, then the sounds of the officer’s running boots faded away.
Maksou released the breath he’d been holding and proceeded to the second hatch. He turned the manual wheel. The iris door opened with a soft sigh and he stepped through it, then the iris closed behind him. Safe!
Maksou leaned against the bulkhead in the dark entrance of the ship and allowed himself a sigh of relief. He shook his head. The security goons weren’t smart enough to catch him. Lazy bastards.
Still, that was too close for Maksou’s taste. He was a brilliant nerd, a cybernetics genius, skilled and fearless when writing codes... not a combat trained kick-ass fighter like his big sister Fianna.
He secured the hermetic seal behind him then followed the corridor to the ship’s command deck. The lighter gravity made him queasy. Maybe not the best time to remember he didn’t care for space travel. He chuckled. If the Dragon Squad gang could see him now, they would be proud.
Inside the dimly lit craft, clear gel boxes neatly stacked in a pile to the side emitted a greenish glow. Nothing had changed since he’d brought them onboard the day before. Good. No one had discovered his ruse... yet.
He turned off his belt scrambler and the LED turned green. His clear tablet came back to life… so did the ship’s consoles and displays.
Soft, indirect lighting flooded the command deck, reflecting off clean and uncluttered metallic surfaces. Maksou liked a neat space around him. A fresh breeze blew from the air scrubbers. The large 3D display under the clear titanium bubble displayed the trajectory of the last voyage, and the state of the drives. Through the transparent ceiling bubble, he could see the black expanse of space.
The three seats and consoles on the command deck could accommodate a crew, but Maksou would fly solo for his first time as a pilot. Or rather, the machine would fly for him. May the Guardian Angels of the universe protect him.
Time to get out of the neighborhood. He sat and strapped himself into the pilot seat then waved his tablet to synch it to the console. “Start the drive and prepare to take off.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” the disembodied synthetic voice chirped. “But we first need authorization from the port authorities. Only they can release the docking clamps.”
Shazbits! A smart-ass computer. “I abide by my own set of rules. I expect you to obey my orders and restrain from unsolicited comments.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Somehow the metallic voice conveyed disapproval. “But the clamps are still latched, and I have no way of releasing them.”
“I’ll take care of that.” Maksou feverishly punched a set of keys on his clear tablet. A schematic of Bay-24 filled the small screen.
Beads of sweat dripped from his temples. He’d never been caught before but infiltrating the security systems of the docking authorities carried a life sentence. This was his chance, the opportunity of a lifetime to redeem himself, save his friends, and leave his past behind. He didn’t plan to ever return to this pit of corruption and despair.
He tapped the three clamps on the screen. Knocking sounds reverberated throughout the hull of the small ship. The released vessel rocked slightly as it floated away from the dock.
Maksou suppressed a gag reflex and maneuvered the joystick to turn the nose of the ship away from the station, toward black space. Then he keyed in a set of coordinates.
“Punch it! Full speed.”
“Are you certain, Captain? Full speed jump to warp stream is not recommended so close to a space station.” The synthetic voice sounded smug.
“What did I say about comments?” Maksou wouldn’t let a bucket of bolts tell him right from wrong. “Just do it!”
“Aye, aye, Captain. I hear you perfectly. No need to raise your voice.”
Shazbits! Give an AI too much leeway, and it will claim the same rights as a person. Next, they takeover the decision making. Maksou had seen it happen before, machines deciding people’s fate based on algorithms alone. Never a good thing.
The engines roared to life. The entire deck shook. Maksou grasped the armrests of his seat. Then the ship shot through black space, reducing the faraway stars to bright streaking lines outside the clear titanium bubble. Autopilot was a wonderful thing, especially for a genius with no piloting experience.
The engine noise settled to a low purr. Maksou exhaled his relief then lay back and relaxed in his seat. Safe! He allowed himself a smile. Soon, he would rescue his friends and they would all be rich beyond measure.
A silver-gray blur streaked through his field of vision and landed atop his console.
Maksou’s heart skipped then raced. “Holy Motherboard!”
Two green round eyes stared at him suspiciously from a fluffy mass of gray fur. “Meow!”
“Well, barnacle my circuits! You are frightfully big for a house cat.” The records didn’t mention any giant pet onboard. Maksou couldn’t resist the impulse and caressed the big cat’s head, enjoying the silky feel of the luxurious fur. “What’s your name?”
The cat purred louder under his ministrations.
“Your owner was in the hospital for months, but you look well fed and groomed.” Had Maksou missed some fine print in the deed of the ship? “Who has been taking care of you all this time?”
“I have.” The scantily clad girl, with blond hair rippling down to her waist, smiled as she walked toward him with a loose-hipped stride. “He’s a genetically engineered oversized Maine Coon, bred for companionship and stress release. His name is Comet.”
Shazbits! Passengers? That would complicate things. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“My name is Eva, and this is my home. Where is my captain?” She had perfect skin, lots of it, perfect nude shoulders and long naked legs... the most beautiful and tantalizing woman he’d ever seen… and he had seen many.
Yet, something familiar in the tone and cadence of the voice struck Maksou and he relaxed.
“You are an AI.” So, it was EVA, not Eva.
“Artificial Intelligence, yes. How can you tell? Most people cannot.” She smiled coyly.
“Let’s say I’m an expert.” Maksou admired the craftsmanship, the subtle body language, the sophisticated subroutines that made her look and probably feel as real as a natural woman. “Your old captain had excellent taste... in AIs, cats, and ships.”
The large cat stopped grooming to stare at Maksou, then resumed his toilette.
“Had?” EVA’s brow went up and her expression perfectly mimicked perplexity.
“Sorry to tell you, but your owner was long past his expiration date and very sick. He recently died in the hospital. This ship now belongs to me, Maksou Grosvenor.” Maksou gave a polite nod and felt silly for showing good manners to an automaton.
“I was not told of this. Why?” EVA’s large blue eyes widened. “How did you become the captain?”
“I bought the ship at the liquidation of the estate.” Maksou struggled to keep calm. He willed his maxillary muscles to relax. Some AIs could detect lies from facial expressions and body temperature.
EVA stared into empty space for a moment. “Verifying official records.”
“They are in order.” Maksou had hacked into the system and falsified the chain of transactions to redistribute the ownership. He’d forged every detail of credit transfer. No one would ever contest the authenticity of the new deed. “I officially own this ship with everything on board. So, I guess you now belong to me as well.”
“The records seem to be in order.” EVA smiled suggestively. “What should I call you, Captain Grosvenor?”
“Just call me Maksou.” He managed to hide his unease. This title of captain sounded weird.
EVA stepped closer and laid a warm hand on his thigh. “All right, Maksou. What can I do to give you pleasure? My old captain and I had a sweet connection.”
Maksou gently lifted her hand off his thigh. “Sorry, EVA. Not interested in that kind of interaction.” Any man would be lucky to use such a gorgeous piece of technology for pleasure, but Maksou wasn’t about to engage in a relationship with a machine... no matter how beautiful and sophisticated. Besides, he could never trust an amalgam of integrated circuits designed by someone else.
EVA pouted prettily and ran a light finger down his chest. “Are you certain? I am specifically programmed to simulate true love and give the most intense pleasure.”
“No, thanks.” Maksou chuckled. Her previous owner had more credits than brains. “Just make sure Comet never lacks anything. Food, water, affection, and he needs a playmate.”
The cat jumped on his lap, as if he understood, and Maksou marveled at the feline’s light weight and perfect balance despite his size. He felt compelled to caress the soft fur.
The onboard computer chimed. “Incoming communication from Byzantium Security. Priority one."
Shazbits! Maksou’s heart stumbled in his chest. “Do not respond.”
“Ignore the call.” Had they discovered his scheme? “I do not wish to speak to them.”
“Aye, Captain. Acknowledging order not to respond.” Did the computer sigh?
EVA narrowed her large blue eyes at him. “Why are you refusing to speak to the authorities?”
“Don’t trust them... long story.” Maksou willed his body to relax. He was safely out of range of Byzantium but needed to change headings. In case the security goons tailed him, they would follow the initial trail.
He gently pushed Comet off his lap and punched a series of codes on the console. “Computer, change course to these new coordinates.”
Comet bumped his knee with his big furry head, requesting more petting. Maksou obliged him. Somehow, the fur ball soothed his anxiety. Calmer, he could think more clearly.
“I like to think so.” Maksou chuckled. “Although I have a knack for getting into trouble... but always with the best intentions.”
Like now, as he launched this desperate attempt to rescue the Dragons. His big sister had been one of them, too, but no more. Although rough and uncouth, they were the only family he’d ever known, and he loved them.
EVA stilled and stared into nothingness. “Accessing your records... you were born and raised in the slums of Byzantium and orphaned at an early age. Your sister, Fianna Grosvenor, raised you and financed your education. She is a bounty hunter first class. You are an expert in cybernetics. You almost died in a blast that severely damaged the space station two cycles ago. You were paralyzed and underwent delicate spine surgery and intense physical therapy.”
“Enough about me.” Although Maksou had carefully expunged his record, he didn’t want the AI to connect him to the Dragon Squad gang, or to the stolen archives of the Galactic Trade Alliance.
“All right.” EVA sat on the seat next to him and crossed her shapely legs. “Where are we going?”
“Where no AI has walked before... or ever will.” Maksou chuckled. That was the absolute truth. From what he knew of Azura, the planet’s protective EMP shield and unusual magnetism rendered all electronics inert.
* * *
“Run faster!” Urielle ordered telepathically as she pumped her arms and legs.
The contingent of warriors racing behind her lost ground as she sped ahead, splashing barefoot through the tiny waves along the white sand beach bordering the turquoise sea.
This reminded her of training with the Devil Dogs, so long ago in her former secular life. It took a lot more effort to reach her limits these days, but she truly enjoyed feeling that burn again.
When she reached the end of the cove, she slowed down then climbed onto a dark blue boulder protruding from the sand. Then she waited for her recruits.
Under a pure turquoise sky, they looked magnificent in sky blue battle gear, with crystal blades on their belts, next to the traditional shofar. No more cumbersome white robes for the legion of Avenging Angels. Only civilians wore them nowadays, although they had lost their innocence, and many things had changed since the last invasion attempt two cycles ago.
The group of Avenging Angels in training slowed then halted.
“At ease. Good job.”
Several bent over, hands on their knees to catch their breath. Others deployed their wings and hung in mid air to relax. Good. They needed to experience their limitations. Angels tended to believe themselves invincible.
A girl with dark hair met Urielle’s eyes. “Do we really need to train like this, Commander? We are already much stronger than regular humans.”
Urielle resisted the urge to chastise the girl for questioning a superior. In this case, it opened a dialogue to educate the entire group. “Just because you are stronger, heal fast, and can fly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build up your endurance, strengthen your legs and your heart.”
“But we are Avenging Angels, not military drones.” The young man’s tone dripped with disdain.
Urielle snorted. “Never believe yourself superior. Never take your angelic abilities for granted. What happens if you face a stronger alien? Or you lose your wings and face a squadron of trained Devil Dogs?”
A woman raised a hand. “We can blow our shofar, we have our crystal blades... and we can become invisible.”
“Invisibility will not protect you from an explosion. Even immortals like us can die from being blown to pieces.” Urielle projected her voice, so all could hear over the gentle roll and break of the waves curling on the sand. “Even deprived of their high-tech weapons, human soldiers are strong and determined. They have deadly percussion guns, blades, explosive devices, and greater numbers. Two cycles ago, they almost won.”
“But they didn’t.” The young man straightened. “Thanks to Brother Acielon.”
“You know your history.” Urielle pointed at a cluster of quiet recruits sitting slightly apart, on dark blue rocks protruding from the white sand. “Ask them the whole story sometime. They were part of the invading force. Even after turning into Azurans, they still have the memories of their military life, when they served the GTA.”
A piercing whistle made Urielle look up and flinch. A ship. A small one. Falling like a meteorite through the atmosphere.
None had crashed or landed on Azura in two cycles. And this ship wasn’t crashing. Its manual thrusters ignited and slowed the descent in a controlled trajectory. She followed it as it arched overhead then disappeared behind the mountain slope.
Urielle waited a few seconds. No explosion followed. The ship had landed safely on the beach in the next cove.
“Wow!” a young woman exclaimed. “How did it fool the planetary defenses?”
“Good question.” Urielle calculated the implications. Spy ship, or private looter?
“Azura is quarantined,” a young man called. “Forbidden to outsiders, and deadly upon approach.”
But Urielle knew greed to be a powerful motivator in the outside world. “Only someone intent on harvesting our crystal would venture here.”
“Should we arrest the intruders?” The dark-haired girl beamed, hand on her crystal sword, eager for action.
“Oh, ye of little faith.” Urielle smiled inwardly but kept a stern face. “What does the rule say?”
A young man raised his hand. “Do not approach foreigners. Do not engage them.”
“Exactly.” Urielle stared at her recruits. “And there is a good reason for that. If they survive long enough, they’ll become angels like us. Azura takes care of itself. I expect you all to remain away from that ship and whoever it brought. Understood?”
“Aye, aye, Commander,” the recruits said in unison.
“Good. You are dismissed for the day. We’ll resume this exercise tomorrow at dawn.” Urielle watched the recruits as they scattered and formed small groups. They headed back along the sand beach, toward the green jungle canopy, toward camp. Some walked, while others deployed their wings and drifted on the air currents like large, graceful birds.
With the recruits well on their way, Urielle turned around and gazed upon the side of the mountain. Although the planet took care of itself, the security of the Azuran people was her responsibility, and she must ascertain the level of this new threat. What kind of ship would know how to circumvent the powerful EMP protecting the planet?
It could only be an enemy scout… or some well informed looters in search of Azura’s unique crystal. Whatever the case, it could result in bloodshed, and she must prevent bloodshed at all cost.
* * *
The deceleration and the sudden landing had almost rendered Maksou unconscious. He blinked in the glare of the orange sun through the protective titanium bubble. How could people not go blind in such a bright world?
He unbuckled his seat belt with sluggish movements. He’d spent his life in low gravity, on space stations and moons. This was his first heavy world. His arms and legs might as well be loaded with sand bags, and he struggled to breathe. His heart beat double time. Shazbits! He should have paid closer attention to his studies of heavy worlds.
He furrowed into a seat pocket and found dark glasses. He promptly secured them over his eyes and relaxed. At least he could see without squinting.
Comet leaped to his side, unencumbered. “Meow.”
The cat rubbed his cheeks on the corner of the large gel box containing EVA. The AI looked like Sleeping Beauty in her transparent gel coffin. Maksou had ordered the AI to tuck itself into the insulation box and disconnect its circuits, to protect the sophisticated electronics from the planetary EMP shield.
Following the recommendations of the intel he’d collected from the archives of the Galactic Trade Alliance, he’d similarly encased all the power boxes and electronics onboard in thick clear gel that emitted a greenish glow. He hoped the instruments remained intact in their thick cocoon, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he returned to space. In the meantime, he couldn’t use any of the equipment onboard, except for the primitive manual drive that allowed him to land safely. He would also need it to take-off and escape the planet’s gravity.
He shuddered at the memory of the space beacons encircling the planet. Those who ignore the warning and venture on Azura are never seen again. His sister Fianna assured him his Dragon friends were alive on Azura, so why didn’t they return? They must be stuck on the planet. What if he suffered the same fate?
His sister had managed the trip back unscathed two cycles ago. Maksou was more than qualified to leave orbit as well... but not without his friends. A load of precious crystal would only sweeten the deal.
From another seat pocket, he fished for the vinyl map he’d printed back home from the stolen archives. Generating such an old school map had presented a challenge. Yet he’d managed to do it in secret. He unrolled the vinyl upon the gel-encased console and studied the coastal line. He tapped his finger to pinpoint his exact landing spot. “Perfect. There is a crystal cave in the vicinity.”
The cat rubbed his head against Maksou’s hip. What a friendly pet.
With his finger, Maksou traced the trail to the blue dot marking the entrance of the closest crystal cave. “The bad news is, without scanners or vehicle, I have to rely upon my legs to walk, and on my eyesight... neither of which are fully functional at the moment.”
Comet purred loudly in response. Did the furball understand him?
Through the clear titanium bubble, Maksou saw a wide sand beach. The bright turquoise sea rivaled the gaudiest holographic paintings. At the edge of the thick vegetation bordering the beach, ferns, palms, and other tropical trees bent under the weight of reddish fruit. Large birds called as they flew overhead, and the harsh yellow sun beat on everything.
He couldn’t gage the outside temperature without electronics, but the intel said it was warm... unlike the familiar cold of space. The archives described a tropical climate, with rainstorms at night. It defined the air as rich in oxygen and healthy to breathe.
Two cycles ago, when his sister had visited him in the hospital, she’d refused to divulge information about the forbidden planet, but she did mention a small local population. Acielon, the Azuran man traveling with her, seemed quite mild and innocuous. Maksou hoped the locals wouldn’t interfere with his plans. Since they had no technology, they would most likely be harmless.
Yet, the archives stated the Azurans had thwarted a GTA invasion, over a century ago... but only because the invading ships crashed and burned. Besides, without electronics a military fleet could not communicate, defend itself, or function.
Maksou didn’t really believe the Azurans had frightening psychic powers. The Devil Dogs just made up that excuse to explain their defeat to their superiors at the GTA. Military types were so full of pride.
Maksou took comfort in the fact that with his legendary luck, his landing probably went unnoticed. He must find the cave and harvest some of the priceless crystal. He would discreetly locate his friends, then they would leave together, without attracting attention.
* * *
Urielle flapped her wings as she flew through the hull of the light cruiser, barely noticing the tingle of passing through metal. A very nice ship, streamline and shiny, more like a private yacht than a looter’s barge. She searched in her mind for signs of life. She sensed none on the ship. Inside a clear gel box, like a hibernation pod, lay a life-size doll… not a woman. She had no thoughts or pulse, or live aura of any kind. Urielle had heard of such AIs. This one looked so obviously made for sex, and so life-like, she shook her head at the depravity of some intelligent lifeforms.
On the command deck, all the electronics were encased in thick gel boxes, as she expected. The intruders knew how to fool the planetary shield. If that information had spread among looters, more might come. In any case, the newcomers must never leave the planet.
She was tempted to disable the ship, but the new orders from the Archons forbade it. They might want to repurpose the craft for a future Azuran fleet. With no industry or technology on the planet, seizing trespassers’ ships was the best option.
Urielle closed her eyes and sent a message to her security team. “Post four Avenging Angels to guard the intruding vessel. The looters must not be allowed to leave.”
But that may not be enough. Urielle owed it to her planet to protect this oasis of good in the mostly evil universe. That’s where she had found peace and justice. She had a true purpose here. She protected the Azurans, and they valued her, unlike the cold-blooded brass of the GTA, who sent their Devil Dogs to certain death with total disregard for life.
Urielle flew out of the craft and followed the traces of human footsteps along a narrow trail through the jungle. She alighted on a high branch, folded her wings, and gazed over the canopy at the glowing turquoise sea. Her favorite color, that of the crystal pervading everything on Azura.
Down on the jungle trail, a clumsy young man, visibly human, stumbled after a big gray cat toward the Sacred Cave. So, he was a looter. She could confirm it by reading his mind, but she didn’t want to risk detection. His goal was eminently clear.
Instead, Urielle opened a telepathic link to the fluffy feline. “Who is your friend? Why is he here?”
The large cat stopped in its tracks and looked up, straight at her. “Meow.”
Obviously an outworlder pet with limited telepathic abilities. The young man glanced up as well. Fortunately, at the moment, Urielle was invisible to human eyes.
She smelled the coming storm on the evening breeze as the sun dipped toward the horizon. Large bats flew over the canopy. Nightcrawlers stirred in the lengthening shadows. Urielle shook her head. At this rate, these two would never reach shelter in time, and she doubted they had the skills to survive the jungle at night. Even the cat didn’t seem much of a hunter despite his respectable size.
They needed help, but the rule forbade her to intervene, and as the Commander in Chief of Azura’s legion, Urielle respected and enforced the rule.
Maksou walked uphill through the thick jungle. In this gravity, it took all his energy… and the humidity made it worse. He stopped to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his brow. Then he slung the pack off his shoulder, set it on a flat boulder and sat in the diminishing red light of the setting sun.
Comet settled on the ground next to him and licked his paws with brusque movements. The cat froze, stared through the ferns, then resumed his toilette, ears alert to the slightest cracking or creaking of insects or branches.
High in the trees, thousands of birds trilled as if to salute the sunset.
In the waning sunlight, Maksou removed his sunglasses, tucked them in his vest pocket and raked back his blond hair. “That’s better.”
A draft cooled the back of his neck. He took a deep breath of sweet-smelling air. Amazing how all this oxygen filled him with happiness. “I never knew jungle flowers on the ocean breeze could smell so good.”
Comet stared at him but did not comment.
Maksou shook his head, feeling silly. Pets did not speak. He opened his pack, fished out the map, and then a pair of old-school binoculars. He stood upon the big flat rock to peer over the tall ferns, adjusting the lenses for distance.
Below, through the many tree trunks, the turquoise glow of the nearby ocean made for a luminous sunset.
Judging from the contours of the rocky hill against the darkening red sky, Maksou was on course, but still about a klick from the cave entrance. He hoped the growing darkness and the thick vegetation would not disorient him. He lowered the binoculars and hung them to his belt.
The idea of being exposed in this jungle at night made him uncomfortable. Some primal instinct told him to lay low and watch his back. His skin raised in goosebumps along his arms, like before an attack from a rival gang. But there were no gangs on this planet.
Comet stopped his toilette. His ears straightened as he stared through the thick underbrush. Large birds fretted and screamed high in the trees.
“Amazing how fast darkness comes on this world.” Fishing into the pack, Maksou pulled out a pair of night goggles then adjusted the strap around his head. “Hey, I can see clear as day.”
“Meow.” The cat stood up and head-bumped his knee, as if in a hurry to leave.
“You are right. We should go.” A flicker of unease pricked Maksou’s spine. Loud birds screamed, and strange clicking sounds and stirs agitated the surrounding ferns. He jumped down from the flat rock. “Hey! I’m getting better at this heavy gravity thing.”
The cat snorted. Was he mocking his master?
Maksou shook his head then pointed upward to the left. “The cave is that way.” He slung the pack over his shoulder. “At least it’s cooler, now that the sun is gone.”
At the flapping of large wings overhead Maksou glanced up, but even with the night goggles he couldn’t see through the thick jungle canopy. Were there predators on this planet? The records didn’t mention anything about the local fauna.
Subtle squishy sounds, hissing, and rustling unnerved him. He twisted around but only saw swaying plants and large buzzing insects. One landed on his neck. He slapped and squashed it. Would their bite or sting have venom?
He imagined snakes crawling down trees and burrowing in the underbrush, like in his scary hologames. His heart raced. He’d never experienced this creepy feeling before. He couldn’t imagine living on such a wild, disturbing planet.
Comet hurried the pace though the ferns. The big cat twitched at every small sound. Not a reassuring sign in a pet bred to comfort and calm. Could the feline sense danger? Could he smell or see what Maksou couldn’t? How he wished he could communicate with the animal, like his sister with her genetically engineered telepathic cougar.
Maksou’s foot slipped. He tripped over a protruding root. “Shazbits!”
As he fell forward, a strike of lightning blinded him through the night goggles. His arms flew forward to break the fall. His hands hit hard then slipped on something slick. A gust of wind, cracking thunder, then a heavy downpour pelted his back. Still blind, he pushed himself off the ground and grimaced. Pain pierced his right arm.
“Shazbits!” He hoped he didn’t break bone. His boots stuck to the muck of the forest floor as he struggled to disentangle himself from the wet, slippery mess of coils surrounding him.
He blinked and saw the coils move. Illusion? No, they were alive! A nauseating stench filled his nostrils. Then a sharp hissing. He gagged at a foul odor of decomposing flesh.
As his eyes refocused, Maksou screamed. Only in the best horror hologames had he seen such a fearsome monster. An enormous black reptile, with a shiny dinosaur head, straight out of a nightmare. But this one was alive, and it stared at him with cold, beady eyes. The giant maw opened, revealing several rows of sharp, serrated teeth.
“Holy motherboard!” Coils twisted around Maksou’s hips and waist. He pushed against the tightening vise and screamed from the pain in his arm. He could barely breathe. His vision blurred and narrowed like in a black tunnel.
No. He was too young to die!
“May the Guardian Angels of the universe protect me,” he whispered in a trembling breath.
* * *
Had the blundering idiot just called for angel help?
Urielle couldn’t ignore the plea. Angels were bound to answer the call for help. This klutzy young man had stumbled upon the tail of a hungry nightcrawler and would not survive the snap of its powerful jaws. At least the cat had the good sense to scramble up a tree.
Urielle hated hurting primeval creatures, but no amount of sweet talk could convince a ravenous nightcrawler to abandon its prey. She felt compelled to save the human’s life, yet even for an immortal, such a beast could spell death.
Urielle flew down and dove, firmly holding her crystal blade forward. The blue glow of her sword illuminated the night. “Face me, you, senseless beast!”
The black monster blew an angry breath at the interruption. It uncoiled, loosening its prey, and rose to Urielle’s challenge, straight up like a fast-growing tree trunk, until the beady eyes and serrated jaws faced her under the canopy.
The jungle birds and insects fell silent. Only the faraway rolls of thunder and the heavy raindrops hammering the wide leaves filled the night.
Down on the jungle floor, the young man now free of the coils lay like a broken doll in a pool of mud. Dead? Unconscious? Paralyzed?
The nightcrawler hissed and struck, snapping its jaws. Urielle dodged the sharp teeth but lost a few white feathers that danced like butterflies between raindrops on their way down.
“Enough of this!” Urielle pointed her sword at the beast. A ray of blue lightning surged and struck the nightcrawler.
The monster twisted around the blue lightning and emitted a high-pitched scream.
Urielle felt its pain. “Leave! Or I’ll have to kill you.”
She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Although Avenging Angels had license to kill, it still carried stigma and guilt. Besides, nightcrawlers were essential to Azura. They kept the jungles clean and free of diseases.
The monster straightened and faced her again with stubborn determination in its beady black eyes. It refused to abandon its prey. The nightcrawler wrinkled its nose then hissed at her and recoiled to strike.
Urielle aimed her crystal sword. Blue lightning hit the nightcrawler again, but this time, Urielle sustained the strike longer. The animal jerked, then coiled and uncoiled, rising and falling in a ceaseless scream.
She eased the flow of energy and stopped the strike. “Be gone!”
The black reptilian beast moaned and lowered its head to the ground. It glanced back at its unconscious prey with a whimper of regret then glided away in a swish of coils, to vanish among the dripping wet ferns.
The young man below lay inert on the forest floor, washed by the downpour. The silvery feline leaped down from its tree and rushed to the young man’s side. The cat licked his face. He obviously liked his human friend.
Urielle alighted next to them and extended an invisible umbrella to protect them from the steady downpour.
“Meow.” The cat rubbed against her hip, not unlike the forbidden pet of her human childhood, over a century ago, when she lived among Hell’s Cadets. She’d loved that stray cat like a sibling… until someone ratted on her, and an officer killed it in front of her eyes… to teach her detachment.
Urielle shrugged away the horrible memory and petted the big, wet, furry head. She couldn’t help but smile. “Well, aren’t you the friendly sort?”
She knelt by the young man and laid her hand on his chest. His heartbeat was too slow… very shallow breathing. She closed her eyes to visualize his condition. The 3D diagram in her mind showed one broken arm. Several fractured ribs had punctured his lungs. His kidneys had been crushed. He was hemorrhaging internally.
Urielle had seen such injuries on the battlefield during her career among the Devil Dogs. Without immediate care, he would not survive. Regular humans had fragile bodies with minimal regenerative capabilities.
Azura’s rules forbade Urielle to intervene, yet, the young man had called the angels for help. She was bound by her sacred duty to save his life… if it could be saved.
* * *
Maksou felt the loud purr of a cat vibrating throughout his entire body. His eyes refused to open. A rough tongue licked his cheek. He could not move but felt no pain. His fuzzy mind refused to process the information to make sense of his surrounding... like when he lay, drugged and paralyzed, in a hospital bed on Byzantium, two cycles ago.
Where was he? What happened? He fought the panic invading his body. He needed data to regain control. Maybe this was a dream.
He willed his eyes open to slits and peered through his eyelashes. Soft light shone through a blue dome overhead like an artificial sky, but no medical equipment or electronic monitors. Not a hospital.
He lay on a soft bed with a white sheet over his body. Birds trilled somewhere outside, and he smelled the ocean breeze. The gentle roll of waves on the sand soothed his ears and his mind. This had the feel of a tropical beach resort, like in a hologame.
At the foot of the bed, stood an angel with great white wings. She stared at him with a stern face, and judgment in her clear turquoise eyes. She cut a strong figure, as tall as he was, darker in complexion, and commanding. Dangerously beautiful, she evoked a fierce Amazon of hololegends, a work of art that could kill him in a ...