Can one pony-sized centaur save the galaxy?
Teo Azkuharaz and his fellow archeologists expected to be answering scholarly questions in the ruins on the planet the team is bound for. But the questions become those of life and death when their ship is attacked and survivors taken prisoner by the yfel, a brutal reptilian race defeated millennia ago by the Virinian Empire. Now returning to exact revenge, they refuse to believe their enemy no longer exists. As a linguist able to speak with the yfel, Teo is given a slow-acting poison, and promised the antidote in return for information that will allow the yfel to destroy the Virinians and their subject worlds. Resigned to dying, Teo pretends to cooperate, only to find himself a pawn in deadly plots and schemes among the yfel themselves. Can he use those against his captors to save his ship’s crew, fellow archeologists, and the countless lives on planets the yfel plan to destroy…before he dies?
The hyper-jump came in the middle of the free trader Klarhold’s Firstwatch…the triple ding of the warning bell followed seconds later by a brief sensation of stretching in extra dimensions and then mild vertigo while the body adjusted to its new location in the universe. Nothing Teotemzaral Azkuharaz had not experienced before. Yet as the spin in his brain slowed to a halt and Teo reached up to pull down his library visor and resume the book playing on it, a prickle slid back along his spine from head to withers to stubby tail and he found all four feet pulling under him on the couch, as if bracing to leap. He stuck out his tongue in embarrassed amusement at his eagerness.
But he saw others felt it, too. A glance around the commonroom caught the short-lifers among the ten archeologists in their expedition exchanging excited glances.
“That’s six,” Anzith Dee said. Eons of evolution separated him from his primeval ancestors, but a shadow of the reptile remained in his hairless yellow skin and sinuous movements. “We’re almost there.”
The velvety fur on Arshuur Kuur’ru’s chest, bared to let him enjoy the low temperature the Virinian crew favored, rippled, turning its color from silver to black. Sono Kridah-Peleo’s iridescent feather crest almost matched the rhythm, reflecting light in coruscating rainbows.
Teo ran a hand back through his hair and into his mane, eager for the end of this long journey. Not because they made it on a vessel without real passenger facilities, casually ignored or condescended to by the members of the Klar family who crewed her. At their destination lay possible answers to a million questions and an agony of speculation. Could the ruins these Virinians discovered really mark the prize Sodality archeologists had sought for so long…the home world of the iyatha. Or would it prove just another of the planets they colonized fifteen thousand years ago in this sector, including Virini, before mysteriously disappearing.
Kuiotala Besuamiamulo and Liahua Manakaseama, the expedition leaders, remained serene, of course, leaving the outward display of excitement to the short-lifers and younger colleagues like Teo. Light over their holoboard spilled from dark scales covering their scalps like lace caps to flow down liquid facial planes as calm and blue as the glacier lakes of their homeworld Miana.
“Only two more ship days and you can stop being excavation equipment, Dr. Az,” a voice said above Teo.
Excavation equipment. He stuck out his tongue again. The one joke both archeologists and crew shared was the description of them as “cargo” which Kuio and Liah asked Captain Vede Klar to use on her manifest… “To keep rival archeologists from wondering why two of the most prominent scholars of the iyatha are taking an expedition toward the Ananaellai Rift.”
He looked up at Derat Klar, a Secondwatch junior communications officer, one of the few crewmembers who spent any time talking to the expedition members…tall and whip-lean like all Virinians, with the ice-pale hair — hers in a braid she wrapped around her head like a brow band — and the yellow eyes and sharp cheekbones stamping most of the iyatha’s surviving descendant races.
“Then your ship can go back to being a freighter.”
“And leave the Rift!” another crewmember in the room said tartly. Henet Arvrin-Klar, the Secondwatch First Officer.
Henet spoke Bari, a Virinian language the crew used, not Panlingua, but Teo had occupied himself on the voyage adding it to his repertoire of languages.
He watched Henet move on across the commonroom, then glanced up at Derat. “She’s thinking of that rumor about ships disappearing out this direction?”
Derat grimaced, stroking Teo’s arm lying along the back of the couch, smoothing the grey coat turned from short and silky to fuzzy by the ship’s temperature. “Five ships are on record as calling Channel Whites from this sector the past year with nothing found at the signal coordinates but debris…no pods, no survivors. The rumors include a shaeghan ship and pirate ship, too. Imagine a pirate calling Channel White.”
“Then why did your ship agree to this voyage?”
She grinned. “Because you offered triple fees up front for the hazard.”
“And rights to any technology found,” Anzith said.
A pale brow tuft lifted. “If there’s any to be found, for all the claims he…” She nodded toward Siilis Va-na-kiira. “…makes for what these iyatha supposedly had.”
Siilis’s feathers ruffled. “It existed! That’s why we have the trans-space communications we do. The t-com was part of what the Eosians uncovered when one of them decided there might be truth to the legend of technology sealed away for the future before the colony had to go primitive. They also found mention of technology not left with the colony…transdisc transport and deflector shields, for two. Those are corroborated in record fragments we’ve found in other iyathan ruins.”
“But our interest is history,” Teo said, “…and they’re your history.”
Derat shrugged. “Who went off somewhere and left the colonies on Virini and other planets to die.”
Kuio looked up from his and Liah’s game. “The reason for that being one question we hope to answer. It might be important. They colonized thirty worlds in less than three hundred standard years, if we understand their dating system correctly. That is faster expansion than they could have resources to support. Quite possibly the reason for abandoning the colonists. Why push so, in that case? Not to relieve over-population. The ruins of the failed colonies indicate populations too small to be viable and those few that managed to survive, like Virini, verged for generations on collapse from in-breeding before the fatal genes bred out. Most intriguing, however, is the fact that the colonies lie in a near straight line from the Ananaellai Rift to the Andvarian Commonwealth on the Rim. As if they were driven, or fleeing something. Does that explain their disappearance? It might be good to know.”
“You think there’s something still out here after fifteen thousand years?” Derat snorted. “Pirates I’ll worry about, but not star mon— ”
A sharp whistle from the intercom cut her off. “Level One alert,” a voice said in crisp Bari. “Level One alert. We have energy readings astern. Pattern unidentified. Repeat, Level One alert.”
Derat bared her teeth. “Fels!”
Teo’s gut knotted. The mere presence of another ship did not necessarily pose a threat, but an unidentified energy pattern after the talk of pirates and star monsters felt threatening. The Virinians must think so, too. Except for Derat, they scrambled from the commonroom, faces grim.
“Is an unknown pattern serious?” Arshuur asked.
“Considering we have the energy pattern of every drive known to us in our computers, including shaeghan and tzoldang vessels, yes.”
“Couldn’t it be custom built, some rich man’s yacht?”
“Not unless someone’s invented a new type drive in the past five— ”
The whistle changed to a hoot. “Level Two alert. Unknown vessel gaining,” the intercom said, and repeated the message in Panlingua, adding, “Passengers report to your quarters.”
“I’ll take you,” Derat said.
Kuio and Liah’s expressions remained unperturbed, but they shut down the holoboard and hurried toward an exit with speed Teo had not remembered them using since the dig on Xoan caved in on team members there.
Teo shoved the library visor into a pocket of his tote vest and scrambled off the couch after the Mianans.
In the corridor outside Virinians pounded both directions past them. Signal lights overhead at the center of each intersection flashed orange, then went yellow.
Derat broke into a jog.
“Level Three alert.”
The tone of the hoot rose. Rose again as the signal lights went white. The intercom changed to a different voice…spitting numbers too fast for Teo to follow, but their meaning easy to guess. The other ship had come too near, too fast for comfort. Sudden cold chasing across Teo’s hide had nothing to do with ambient temperature.
As though reading his thoughts, Derat grinned down at him. “Don’t worry. The Klars have always been more than a match for any rutting pirate. And my ancestors once owned this sector of space, remember.”
And lost it.
They swung into the short cross corridor where their assigned cabins lay. Derat said, “Dr. Besu, have your people stay in their cabins until the All Clear bell.” She turned to leave.
Sonos’ crest flattened. “But I’ll go mad sitting not knowing what’s going on.”
Derat turned back. “Maybe I can help that.” She looked at Kuio and Liah. “You two have the Patriarch suite where Klar elders stay on board. I’ll patch the screen of its vid console to the bridge and you can see what’s on the main screen there.”
Kuio dipped his chin. “We would be grateful.”
Derat slid open the cabin door and with the whole expedition party following her in, hurried across to a desk with a large wall screen above it. Teo had assumed it was merely a fancy intercom, but under Derat’s manipulation a section of the desk top slid aside to reveal a panel of buttons and readouts. Her fingers punched rapidly.
In a moment, the screen blinked on.
Teo grabbed the back of the nearest chair for support. It was as though someone had jerked open a section of the bulkhead. Blackness filled the screen, the Ananaellai Rift, truly the Infinity of Midnight the name meant in Liah and Kuio’s language. The only visible stars lay on the far side, blurred by distance into a misty fog.
As Derat’s fingers continued to move across the buttons, a ship filled the screen…its length tapering to a pointed bow…sleekly menacing as a predator fish. Nothing at all like the knobby cylinders and eggs Teo was used to seeing leached to the docks of orbital stations. Graphs with numbers and Bari lettering superimposed over the stranger one after another in a blur.
Kuio, who knew Bari, too, said, “They’re down to yachts without a matching ID.”
Derat covered the panel and headed for the door. “If you have any items of value, hide them, and break out personal weapons. If we’re boarded, fight. Handing over valuables is no guarantee you won’t be killed anyway.”
The skin twitched on Teo’s withers. She could have left them with a more comforting thought.
He stayed near the desk to avoid being trapped where his height confined him to seeing only the middle of a colleague’s back.
Derat had given them sound from the bridge, too. The com officer ran through hailing sequences in some twenty languages besides Panlingua, and on reaching the end of the list, began repeating them, though he broke in the middle to say in Bari, “They’re still not replying, Captain.
The voice of Vede Klar said, “Keep trying.”
More letters flashed across the screen and the graphs vanished.
“No match,” Liah said quietly.
The screen jumped, shrinking the size of the ship to a pinpoint in the middle. It did not remain a pinpoint, however. Teo had no idea how to judge velocities from a vid scan, but the speed of the stranger must be tremendous to refill the screen so quickly. The stranger shrank again, and grew again. Light flashed at its bow.
Vede Klar replied evenly, “Call Level Five. Send a Channel White.”
A feminine voice gasped somewhere behind Teo. Sono?
Moments later a deafening klaxon reverberated through the Klarhold, blaring over and over.
Kuio reached for Liah’s hand.
Teo had no trouble following the chatter on the bridge now…range numbers and firing instructions. What kind of weaponry did the freighter carry to fight pirates? he wondered suddenly.
Light flashed from the attacking ship again.
“That one passed just five thousand kord aport, Captain.” Anxiety edged the voice.
Vede’s remained icy calm. “They’re still not in our range, Kaz. Hold fire.”
A series of lights flashed from the attacker. Moments later the Klarhold shuddered. Followed by another shudder, the reverberation of collision doors sealing.
Teo’s gut knotted. They had been hit!
A violent wrench slammed the archeologists sideways. Teo found himself pinned between the desk and a wall of fur. Arshuur.
On the bridge curses mixed with the chatter of sector damage reports. The voice named Kaz shouted range readings.
“All right, Kaz,” Vede Klar said, “blow the felsons out of space.”
Teo fought through fur to air again. Chaos! How could someone feel cold and hot simultaneously? Cold chewed at his spine at the same time sweat soaked his flanks and both cervical and thoracic shoulders. Did he feel the Klarhold firing or was that next shudder another hit? Firing, he decided moments later. Explosions flashed beside the attacking ship, lighting up a blood red hull but bouncing off the attacker.
It fired another salvo.
The Klarhold bucked. Lights flickered.
Voices yelled on the bridge. Teo pictured the scene, lights flashing emergency blue on the panels circling the room and crewmen feverishly attending them, mentally counting the lives of kinsmen affected by each of those lights.
Vede Klar’s voice remained unshaken. It cut through the bedlam, cold and hard as steel. “Keep firing, Kaz. They won’t take us cheap.”
More explosions lighted the attacker’s hull while skidding off again.
They had deflector shields…reminding Teo that the earlier discussion of iyathan technology included deflector shields. It brought an appalling thought: could that ship be iyathan? Or a heretofore unknown teyathan race that still possessed their ancestors’ technology?
Whoever crewed it, the weapons found the Klarhold. The freighter recoiled like a wounded animal. The lights went out, and this time remained dark. The screen and bridge voices died, leaving Teo and his colleagues in suffocating blackness and a silence smelling acidly of sweat and fear.
Liah said, “Open the door. The corridor has emergency lights.”
Kuio added, “I think we should also arm ourselves as suggested.”
A rectangle of light marked the doorway and they fought out through it. The corridor seemed bright only by comparison to the total darkness of the cabin, but at least it had some light. As almost the last out, Teo found his colleagues already scattering to their cabins, presumably to grope through their luggage for knives and needlers.
All but Arshuur, who stood pressed against one side of the corridor, hands closed into fists. “Abomination.”
No need to ask what he meant…the deaths. The severe environment of R’raeth made Arshuur’s people treasure every scrap of life. How they viewed situations of self-defense remained to be seen. How well prepared were any of them to defend themselves, for that matter? Had even one of them killed another sentient being before?
The deck heaved, almost knocking his feet from under him. The emergency lights flashed, then a klaxon blared, keeping time with the light.
Fear pumped icy heat through Teo. He started around Arshuur into the cabin they shared with Anzith and Siilis.
A voice shouted from up the corridor…Derat, pounding toward them. “We’re abandoning ship. Everyone follow me to the lifepod!”
Expedition members poured back into the corridor. “Abandoning ship!” Siilis cried. “How can we? Our equipment— ”
The ship heaved, cutting her off and screaming the protest of metal stressed beyond tolerance. Gravity bounded, ceasing momentarily, then just as everyone began to float, cut back on with intensity that slammed them to the deck.
Derat backed toward the intersection. “We’ll be lucky to get out with our lives!” Her voice grated with fury. “Those felsons are cutting us to pieces! Now dust!”
They raced after her.
Gravity bounded again and the ship heaved, groaning.
Teo’s tail tucked tight into his hindquarters. If the attackers did not kill them, the obvious damage to the gravity grids could pull them apart. Would the ship last long enough to reach the pod?
He glanced back. Most were keeping up, except Siilis, who could not fly in corridors this confined and whose short legs made him clumsy on the ground.
Liah followed the direction of Teo’s gaze. “Let him ride you.”
Of course. He was light enough to carry easily. Teo turned.
But Anzith, also toward the rear of the group, waved him on. “I’ll take him.”
Teo wheeled away. The deck heaved with another wild bound of gravity, and this time the entire corridor flexed. A section of overhead buckled. Teo stretched into a hard gallop. Down the corridor ahead flashed the blue lights marking the lifepod entrance.
Gravity changed again, doubling. The corridor flexed once more while metallic groans rose to a scream. Derat and the Mianans, running just ahead of Teo, fell sprawling. Teo stumbled, but he had grown up in similar heavy gravity, and despite a long absence from Azkar, he kept his feet.
To his horror, though, the walls bowed out sideways, bringing the deck and overhead buckling before him, grinding toward each other like closing jaws. Cutting them off from the pod. He caught a blue arm in each hand and dragged Liah and Kuio forward over the rising plates, past Derat.
The overhead brushed his mane. Wind hissed in his ears.
Wind? His mind jolted. How could there be wind, unless — unless they had been breeched and were losing air!
Terrified voices rose behind him, echoing the shriek of metal.
Teo started to look back.
“No!” Derat shouted. A booted foot planted hard against his rump. “Keep moving!”
Gravity bounded once more and ceased altogether. Only momentum carried Teo the remaining distance to the pod door, and through it.
Derat slammed down the hatch lock. “Everyone wrap in a safety net.”
Teo obeyed numbly, pulling a net around him and fumbling with the edge until it snapped closed. He felt as though he moved in a dream.
An urge to laugh rose raggedly through him. His family encouraged their young adults to travel, to accumulate education and experience before they came of age at eight hundred and took on family responsibilities. But surely this surpassed their intention.
He looked for Kuio and Liah. They clung together in a single net, faces no longer serene but blank with terror, eyes glazed. Totally uncharacteristic. This must be a dream.
It was his last thought before a neck-wrenching jerk hurled him into darkness.
* * *
Teo had no idea how long he floated in the net, unfeeling, unseeing.
Derat opened it and turned him out. “Wake up! You’re still alive; act like it!”
He flailed helplessly in midair until Derat grabbed a pocket on his tote vest and towed him to a handhold on the bulkhead. There he looked around for the rest of his colleagues. And gasped in shock. Liah and Kuio floated secured to holds with belts, their eyes closed and hands crossed over their chests in meditation. Arshuur drifted motionless in another net, unconscious or dead. But the only other person in the pod was Derat. None of his other colleagues.
The chill of horror spreading through him, Teo started to push toward Arshuur.
Liah opened her eyes. “He lives…but leave him alone for a while, Teo.”
Teo wished Derat had left him alone. Five survivors. Everyone else… He could not finish the thought.
At the front of the pod, Derat grasped a handhold with one hand and pounded on a viewport with the other fist, cursing in Bari. “Rutting felsons!”
Looking out another port, he understood her rage. The Klarhold receded rapidly from them, hardly recognizable. Gaping wounds crossed the lumpy egg shape from bow to stern. On the bow and along the top to the stern, whole chunks looked bitten out.
The skin on Teo’s withers twitched. “I don’t understand. Why would pirates do that? There’s nothing left for them to plunder.”
“Those felsons aren’t pirates,” Derat spat, still using Bari. “They were shooting to kill! And did you see, our fire never touched them? They have the best deflector shield I’ve seen.”
After a moment, it occurred to Teo to wonder what light out here lit the freighter, until he realized it came from inside the ship. Brightening. He snapped his eyes closed just as a globe of blinding light enveloped the freighter, a fireball visible even though his eyelids.
“My ship,” Derat gasped. “Mother…Dad.”
Teo’s throat constricted. He had lost colleagues, but she lost home and family. “Maybe your parents escaped, too.”
Derat pushed away from the viewport. “Only Mother’s body. She’s Dren Klar, the Secondwatch captain. Klarhold was her soul, hers and Aunt Vede’s. However many shareholders, they owned Klarhold. They built her. They left Virini together when they were twenty and signed on with the Gevard Company out of Thaja. In ten years they worked their way up from cargo jaks to bridge officers, then they quit, went home, and recruited shareholders and kin to crew a ship of their own. Mother told me she fell in love with Dad when he pinned her in a station bar brawl but married him because he’s an engineering wizard.” Her mouth pressed into a grim line. “I’m going to have every rutting one of those felsons! After the sandie ship answers our Channel White and picks us up, I’m going to use their t-com to call Virini. Then the Klars will go hunting!”
“Unless our attackers find us before Security and Enforcement does,” Kuio said quietly. “I believe our pick-me-up automatically activated as the pod launched.”
Derat swore. She swore again as the pod jolted and faint gravity tugged them aft. Something had caught and was towing the pod.
But after a moment of horror, Derat’s eyes flamed even brighter yellow. She grinned. “Come on, then, felsons.” A compact needler appeared out of one boot. “Show me the color of your blood.”
“May I advise caution?” Liah said. “Let us assess the situation before attacking.”
She might have been speaking an alien language instead of Bari for all the attention Derat paid her. Derat just tightened her hold on the needler…loaded with explosive ammunition, no doubt.
Gravity shifted downward, increasing to a bit over one gee. Light streamed in through the ports.
Teo looked out. The illumination came from a high intensity light bank on the wall of a hangar bay. Against that he could tell little about the beings backlit by it except that they looked tall and thin with long heads and oddly-bent legs.
One of the beings pounded on the hatch and shouted.
Teo frowned. What language was that? It sounded almost intelligible.
“Incredible,” Liah murmured. “Hemra.”
Yes. Now Teo recognized it. Hemra, an old Virinian language unspoken as such for nearly three thousand years, but once the trade language of the Virinian Coalition, evolving into Galactic, Pangalactic, and finally, Panlingua. As a historian, he had become fluent in it, though more to read than speak.
Still, when the voice shouted again, the sounds of ancient recordings rose out of memory and this time he followed the sense of it…open up or they would burn their way in.
He saw Derat understand the tone. She gripped her needler tighter yet. “Everyone stand out of the way so you won’t be hurt.”
“There’s no reason for anyone to be hurt,” Kuio said. “Consider the value of remaining alive and learning who these people are. We may be able to negotiate our way free.”
Derat’s lip curled. “Not rutting likely!”
Something hissed outside. She took aim at the hatch.
Liah said, “If they see a weapon, they are sure to shoot first.”
Derat glanced sidelong at her for a long moment, then lowered the needler and pushed up the hatch lock.
A single being ducked in through the opening…sinuously graceful in a scarlet uniform, two kord tall Teo estimated…a head above Derat, scalp brushing the pod’s overhead. Fine, iridescent scales glittered in coppery red, blue, and green lights on the long, bony neck and egg-shaped head. Sky blue eyes had such clear, bottomless color that the horizontal oval pupils seemed to float there. One three-fingered hand clasped the vertical stock of a weapon — the fingers long enough coming around the stock for the points of their talons to touch on either side of the thumb’s — the other supported the weapon’s barrel…the talon of the thumb resting on a raised button. The odd shape of the legs came from a long, vertical metatarsus leaving just toes on the ground and a short femur and tibia sharply flexed at the hips and knees.
The weapon’s muzzle pointed at Derat, though the tiny opening looked hardly threatening. Accent making him — gender Teo arbitrarily assigned — barely intelligible, he said, “In the name of The Supreme Conqueror Emperor Dtamu Chequdtai and the yltai ship Dominator, I take you prisoner.”
Teo doubted Derat would have heard him even if she understood Hemra. She gaped, apparently mesmerized by the play of light on the hide of his neck and head. “Fels.”
“Close,” Kuio murmured. “Yfel, to be exact.”
Which explained why the being spoke Hemra. It had been the trade language when this species tried invading the Virinian Coalition. And been chased back across the Ananaellai Rift, leaving a twisted version of their name as a Virinian swear word.
Derat’s eyes flared. “Yfel!” She whipped up her needler and fired.
The yfel’s chest exploded, showering the pod’s interior with blood and flesh.
A shout outside echoed the burst. Almost before the yfel’s body had fallen to the deck, another filled the doorway. Derat fired again, catching the head this time. But a third yfel, this one with purple gemstones on his uniform, came in over the collapsing body of the second, the muzzle opening of his weapon gleaming blue-white.
The needler dropped to the deck, Derat’s arm still attached.
Teo gaped at it, then Derat, who stood staring in stunned disbelief from the arm to her shorn shoulder. Incredibly, there seemed to be no blood. A moment later, her other arm fell, too. Teo wanted to turn away but horror paralyzed him.
Derat howled in rage and leaped forward, kicking. To land on her back…legless. Still snarling.
“Yfel!” She spit at him.
Whatever beam the weapon produced sliced through her neck and torso. And finally there was blood.
Teo grabbed a handhold for support.
The blue-green hide of the yfel’s neck and head rippled, throwing off gold, red, and blue lights. “You remember us.” He hissed softly through pointed teeth. Pale blue eyes left ice where their gaze touched Teo. They focused on what remained of Derat. “We remember you, too.”