Copyright © 2013, 2017 W.H. Mitchell
The Crimson Kiss was originally published as an online comic/graphic novel.
Fortunas IV, a backwater world on the outskirts of the Imperium, had no real water to speak of. The planet’s position along the trade routes between the core worlds and the outer frontier made it a useful refueling stop. Over centuries, merchants sprouted up in the arid landscape, either because their own freighters had ceased flying or they sensed an opportunity to sell their goods to others whose ships still operated. Eventually, a small marketplace grew into a sprawling bazaar containing hundreds of covered stalls where vendors, most of them not human, sold their wares to travelers passing through.
Rowan Ramus walked between the shops, his boots stomping over the hard-packed soil, worn down by the parching wind blowing endlessly across the barren planet. Ramus was captain of his own freighter, the Wanderer. Like most of the merchants in the bazaar, he was not human. From a race called the Dahl, his people looked a little like the elves of human folklore, with pointed ears and a short, lean body. Most of his species were devoted to the study of anything and everything that made up the universe. Ramus, however, chose a different path.
With bright red hair and silver rings piercing his ears, Ramus bore little resemblance to his brethren. He wore a pair of black pants with a red pinstripe down the leg, and a sleeveless shirt exposing archaic lettering tattooed down his arms. If his parents, whom he hadn’t seen in many years, could see him now, Ramus doubted they would have approved. On the other hand, they would no longer remember him anyway…
A few steps behind the captain, a silver and blue robot followed her master. A general purpose android, she went by Gen for short. About the same height as the Dahl, Gen had the curves typical of a petite woman and large, expressive eyes.
“You still back there?” Ramus asked without turning.
“Yes, sir!” Gen replied enthusiastically.
Ramus knew his ship’s engineer would have preferred a more rugged robot for the Wanderer, but the captain was unsympathetic. If Orkney Fugg had his way, the engine room would be filled with sexbots and fungus beer.
Gen carried a bag, stuffed with supplies, slung over her shoulder. Even if she wasn’t a heavy-duty workbot, she could still manage pretty well on her own, Ramus thought.
“Are we headed back to the ship?” she asked.
“No,” Ramus replied. “We’re seeing a client somewhere in town. Fugg’s supposed to meet us there.”
“Oh, that’ll be nice,” Gen said.
“Well, Fugg’s picking the place, so I’m sure it’ll be a dump…”
“As in garbage?”
“No,” Ramus said, “As in strippers…”
Life on the streets of Fortunas IV was neither glamorous nor long for many of the children who grew up there. For Storma Bane, nothing was easy since as far back as he could remember. Like all other humans, he could trace his ancestry to the first colonists who arrived in Andromeda seven centuries earlier. Since his forefathers weren’t part of the crew, they didn’t become part of the aristocratic class that developed over the years. Storma’s family tree started with low-level technicians and mechanics that might have made something of themselves but, for whatever reason, never did. His parents ended up on the far side of the Imperium with no money and no prospects. Stormas was born, discarded, and grew up in the alleys and slum housing of this arid world on his own.
Even without a leg up, Storma achieved more than most of the other kids. By age fourteen, he joined a gang and was running errands for the local mob. By eighteen, he had a gang of his own, although it numbered only three, mugging drunk tourists who took a wrong turn between the hotel and the bazaar or one of the seedy bars that made up the middle of town.
Tonight, Storma and his crew waited in a darkened alley for someone to wander by. Like coyotes in the desert, their keen eyes were always on the watch for an easy mark. Now in his early twenties, he crouched beside a garbage bin, smoking a cigarette. He wore a headscarf pulled down around his neck while his two friends had their faces covered to hide their identities. Storma didn’t care if people saw what he looked like. You couldn’t get a reputation if nobody knew who you were, he thought. Street cred had to be earned the hard way.
The sound of footsteps approached on the sidewalk outside the alley. From the metallic cadence along the cement, Storma knew one of them was a robot. This was a good score, he thought. Robots were expensive.
A man and a general purpose android passed by the alley entrance. Storma recognized the man as Dahl by his short stature and pointed ears. He had some strange tattoos, but that detail faded as Storma grabbed his men, stepping out into the lamplight.
“Nice robot,” Storma said, pulling a knife from his belt.
The android, blue and silver, stopped and turned.
“Why thank you,” she said, “I was recently refurbished!”
Storma glared at the Dahl.
“Hand over the bot or I’ll slit your throat,” Storma said.
Half expecting the Dahl to run away, Storma was surprised when he stood his ground, even taking a step closer. The tattoos on his arms were glowing, turning a little brighter each second, with an odd, radiant blue. Also, his eyes were blazing like fire.
“What the hell is this?” Storma muttered.
The Dahl was transforming, his hands and fingers growing longer. His fingernails curled into claws like a wolf and his mouth transformed into jaws full of fangs. Storma couldn’t look away.
“You should be running too!” the creature growled.
Storma peered over his shoulder just in time to see the other two gang members disappearing down the alley.
“You want to fight?” Storma shouted, trying to sound fierce.
“Don’t mind if I do,” the creature said, leaping at him.
Storma swung his knife, but missed badly, his arm going wide. With its claws, the creature slashed through Storma’s forearm. Both the knife and the hand holding it landed with a fleshy thud on the ground. Storma looked at the stump, spewing blood, like it was someone else’s.
The nightmarish monster prepared for another attack.
“No!” Storma screamed, but the paw swung around, slicing through his neck. His head rolled away into the gutter as Storma’s body fell headless to the pavement.
The Pink Persian was a gentleman’s club in only the loosest terms. Located near the Fortunas starport, the interior was almost universally pink except in places were purple seemed more tasteful. Upon entering, patrons found the bar on their left and booths on the right, with regular tables cluttering the middle. At the end of the bar, a stage was set up along with a metal pole. A female Tikarin, a cat-like humanoid, danced on stage, wrapping her body around the post to the beat of the music blasting from speakers in the ceiling. While technically naked, the dancer was still covered in tan fur like a lioness.
In an adjacent booth, with a good view of the show, Orkney Fugg watched disapprovingly.
“You call that dancing?” he shouted. “My dear ol’ nana could work the brass better than you!”
The Tikarin paused momentarily to show Fugg her middle finger before going back to her act.
“Rude!” Fugg replied.
The chief engineer for the Wanderer, Fugg was Gordian, a species of stocky, ill-tempered people with the face of a boar, including a pig nose and tusks. On his home planet, he would be drinking fungus beer brewed lovingly in the belly of the mountains. On Fortunas IV, he had to settle for the swill wine they sold domestically. Empty bottles of it littered Fugg’s table.
Through the gauzy haze of his stupor and a generally bad mood, Fugg recognized a familiar face. His captain, Rowan Ramus, and their robot were wading through the tables and chairs in his direction.
“You were supposed to be waiting for the client,” Ramus said, sliding into the booth.
“You didn’t say I couldn’t drink while I waited,” Fugg replied.
Gen the robot remained standing beside the table. Her eyes were fearful, as if she had seen a ghost.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Fugg asked.
Her eyes brightened and her lips contorted into a pained smile.
“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing horrible just happened.”
She laughed, but Fugg thought it sounded artificial, even for a robot.
“Never mind that,” Ramus said. “Our client just got here…”
A robot waited just inside the entrance, its casing painted in a dull orange color with areas worn down so the aluminum underneath showed through. Seeing the others in the booth, he walked toward them with a mechanical gait.
For Fugg, this was too much.
“We’re taking jobs from robots now?” he protested.
“Ignore him,” Ramus said, addressing the machine. “I’m Captain Ramus of the Wanderer.”
“I’m Bos Kacil,” the client said. “We spoke on the comm earlier.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the captain replied. “This is my engineer, Orkey Fugg.”
“Actually, Mister Fugg,” Kacil said, “I’m Parvulian, not a robot. We merely use these mechanized walkers as locomotion.”
With a hiss, the chest of the machine cracked and swung open, revealing a cockpit inside. A man, only twenty inches tall with pink skin and large, bulbous eyes, stared out at them.
“What the piss porridge…?” Fugg said.
“As you can see,” Kacil continued, his voice higher in pitch than the lower, synthesized speech of the robot, “I ride inside this machine, called a mech.”
“Good lord,” Fugg replied. “I’ve had turds bigger than you!”
The chest door slammed shut abruptly.
“Let’s get to business if you don’t mind,” Kacil said.
“Right,” Ramus agreed.
“I represent the Parvulian Trade Consortium. Several of our freighters have come under attack recently and our crews have been either killed or captured.”
“Sounds like Pirate Clans to me,” he said dismissively.
“Indeed, Mister Fugg,” Kacil replied, “but none of our cargoes were stolen.”
“Are these strictly Parvulian crews?” Ramus asked.
“Only the captains. The rest are humans, Tikarin, and even a few Gordians like your friend here.”
Ramus gave his engineer a sideways glance.
“Oh, we’re not exactly friends,” he remarked.
“At any rate,” Kacil went on, “another of our ships, the Konpira Maru, has failed to check in. We want you to investigate what happened to it.”
“My rate’s ten thousand per day,” Ramus said, “plus another five if we get shot at, not including the robot.”
“That’s acceptable,” Kacil replied. “I’ll transmit the last known coordinates of the freighter.”
Gen, who had remained silent the whole time, perked up.
“Wait, what about the robot?” she asked.
The next morning, the Wanderer left Fortunas IV and jumped to hyperspace en route to the coordinates Bos Kacil had given. On the second day of the journey, Fugg was doing routine maintenance in the engine room with Gen assisting. For the engineer, routine meant swearing at a power coupling. After Fugg kicked the device and started hopping around on one foot, Gen decided to ask a question that had been bothering her.
“Master Fugg,” she said, “What kind of Dahl is Captain Ramus?”
What?” the engineer scowled, holding his ankle while balancing precariously on his other foot.
“I’ve met several Dahl, but he’s not like the rest of his people, is he?”
Fugg snorted loudly, falling over.
“People?” he said, now sitting. “Ramus ain’t got people any more. He’s one of the Forgotten!”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Dahl have long memories, but when Ramus turned his back on them, they turned their back on him. They literally deleted him from their memories. He’s not just an exile, Gen, he’s been erased!”
Gen stared at Fugg as if she had more to say.
“What?” Fugg shouted.
“It’s just…” she sputtered, “We were walking in town the other night and some gentlemen wanted a word with us. The one man was very complimentary, but then there seemed to be a misunderstanding and Master Ramus changed. He grew claws like an animal and killed the man right in front me! It was terrifying!”
“Oh, that’s just dark psi,” Fugg said.
“Well, not the kind regular Dahl learn. Dark psi is strictly forbidden.”
“Is that why they exiled Master Ramus?”
“Naw,” Fugg waved his hands. “He learned it after. He fell in with a group called the Psi Lords. They taught him all kinds of crazy shit. Anyway, he doesn’t use it much. He’s kind of weird about the whole thing.”
Gen was silent again. Fugg sighed.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Is Master Ramus a bad person?”
Fugg snorted. “We’re all bad people, Gen. Pay attention, dumbass!”
“I always thought I was good.”
“That’s because you’re a stupid robot! Deep down we’re all terrible in our own special way. It’s part of nature. We act good most of the time, but when push comes to shove, we’ll do whatever terrible thing needs doin’.”
“Listen, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.”
“But you just said…”
“Good. Bad. They’re just words, see? They can mean whatever you want.”
“I think I have a lot to learn,” Gen said.
“Just stick with me, kid,” Fugg thumbed his chest. “I’ll teach you all the ins and outs.”
Gen smiled. “Thank you!”
Along the border of the Imperium, His Imperial Majesty’s Ship, the Baron Lancaster, patrolled against the Pirate Clans and other marauders. At nearly 900 yards long, its long, spike-like hull flared near the stern where a tall superstructure, like an armored citadel, projected from the deck. Within the tower, the bridge was basked in red lights, casting crimson shadows on the faces of those manning them. Adjacent to the bridge, on the starboard side, a sliding door led to the captain’s office and, beyond that, his stateroom.
Lord Captain Redgrave and Lord Commander Maycare drank coffee in the captain’s office. The captain was in his late forties, with graying hair. His XO was over a decade younger, with dark hair cut short along the sides and slightly longer on top. Both officers, and nearly all members of the naval officer corps, were of noble blood. While neither belonged to one of the major families of the Imperial aristocracy, the captain and XO were entitled to preferential treatment in all things, including their assignments in the Navy. While many nobles took full advantage of the opportunities presented to them, Redgrave rose through the ranks more on merit than luck of birth, from a lowly ensign during the Third Imperium-Magna War to commanding officer of his own warship.
“What will they do with the privateer?” Commander Maycare asked, referring to a ship they had captured recently.
“Tow it somewhere and give it a good looking over, I’d imagine,” the captain replied.
“It won’t matter if you ask me,” Maycare said. “The Magna are going to keep sending marauders across the border, harassing our shipping, until we send a fleet to stop them.”
“I was there for the last war. I’m not eager to see another one.”
Maycare grinned wryly as he brought the mug to his lips.
The young voice of the chief communications officer crackled over the intercom on the captain’s desk. “Lord Captain, a courier ship has transmitted an encrypted message for you. It’s from Lord Admiral Hightower.”
The captain pressed a button on the comm. “Patch it through to my office, Ensign.”
“Aye, Lord Captain.”
A monitor recessed into the surface of his desk sprang to life and the face of a man, his face creased with age, appeared.
“Should I leave?” the XO asked.
“No, stay,” the captain said. “Computer, decrypt and play message.”
“Captain Redgrave,” Hightower began, “On behalf of the Fleet, let me congratulate you on your recent success against the privateers. Nevertheless, we must remain ever vigilant against the Green Devils and the steady diet of attacks they keep feeding us. Perhaps someday the Magna will learn we can’t be swayed by such nonsense.”
“Not likely,” Maycare said under his breath.
“In a related matter,” the admiral continued, “Intelligence has informed us that another Parvulian freighter has been attacked. As before, the crew was kidnapped, but the cargo was left undisturbed. Obviously, this is a serious matter, but the Parvulians have seen fit to hire an independent party to investigate. Confidentially, we can’t have these xenos acting on their own without the Imperial Navy’s involvement. Pretty soon they’ll start asking why they need us at all. At any rate, I’m ordering the Baron Lancaster to the enclosed coordinates. It’s imperative that you find out what’s going on, and if you can dissuade this independent party, all the better! Lord Admiral Hightower out!”
The image blinked off.
Commander Maycare got up and headed toward the door to the bridge. “I’ll have Ensign Clark plot a course, sir.”
“Hmm,” Redgrave murmured as the door slid open and the XO made his exit.
Like a ripple in a pond of stars, the Wanderer emerged from hyperspace above a turquoise planet. A gray freighter with long, twin engines at the back floated in high orbit above the world. Except for running lights, the ship was dark.
In the cockpit of the Wanderer, Captain Ramus flipped on the intercom.
“I see the Konpira Maru,” he said.
Fugg’s voice came from the speaker.
“How’s she look?”
“Not great,” Ramus replied. “She’s probably on auxiliary power.”
“Are we boarding her or what?”
“Meet me by the airlock.”
Ramus brought his ship alongside the freighter, extending a gangway tunnel between the airlocks. At 75 yards long, the Wanderer was only half the size of the Maru.
By the time Ramus reached the airlock, Fugg and Gen were already there. The engineer held a blaster in one hand and Ramus’ holster in the other. Ramus took the belt and strapped it around his waist, double checking his weapon was fully charged.
“Gen,” he said, “go to the cockpit and keep an eye on the sensors. Let us know over the comm if anything shows up.”
“Neat!” the robot replied.
Ramus took a tiny plug-like comm and placed it into his ear while Fugg did the same. Concealed from the casual observer, the comm would allow them to talk to each other or the ship.
Ramus and Fugg crossed to the other ship. Once they were safely in the airlock, Ramus checked for a breathable atmosphere.
“It’s got oxygen,” he said.
“Good,” Fugg replied. “We can’t burn things without that!”
“We’re not burning things.”
“Sure, you say that now…”
The airlock opened into a dimly lit hallway of smooth aluminum walls and steel grates along the floors giving access to the pipes and electronics running beneath. The air smelled heavy and stale.
“Could use a spot of paint,” Fugg remarked. “Their decorating is bullshit.”
“Shut up,” Ramus whispered.
Fugg rolled his brown, beady eyes.
“Life support is minimal,” he said. “This ship’s dead as a doornail.”
“Really? Then what’s that?”
Ramus pointed the barrel of his blaster at a shape farther up the corridor and partially around a bend. As they crept closer, the shadow took on a mechanical shape.
“It’s a Parvulian mech,” the captain said.
The walker, scorched and smoldering, lay on its side against the wall. The hatch in its chest was open and something lay outside it. Something pink.
Ramus rushed to the Parvulian’s side. Bending on one knee, the captain leaned closer. The Parvulian wore a gray bodysuit similar to the one worn by Bos Kecil, except burned in places.
“He’s breathing,” Ramus said.
The Parvulian’s eyelids fluttered and opened. Seeing Ramus looming over him, he screamed in terror.
“No! Get away!”
“Take it easy!” Ramus shouted. “Bos Kecil sent us…”
The Parvulian rubbed his eyes and stared at the captain more closely.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I thought you were one of them.”
“Who?” Ramus asked.
“I don’t know exactly, but they looked a lot like you.”
“The Dahl attacked your ship?”
“Never trusted them myself…” Fugg muttered.
“No, not exactly,” the Parvulian said, coughing. “Their skin was dark violet and their hair was bright white.”
He coughed again. “And their eyes… their terrible eyes…”
“Where’s the rest of your crew?” Ramus asked.
“Gone. The female Dahl took them away. They hypnotized the men somehow.”
“Then why didn’t they take you too?” Fugg asked.
“They shot my mech-walker, but they must have thought I was a robot.”
“You’re safe now,” Ramus said, “We’ll get you to sickbay.”
From down the corridor, a bolt of energy seared the darkness, blowing the tiny Parvulian into pieces.
Ramus jumped up and sprinted towards the attacker, firing as he ran. When he reached the source of the fire, he found only a stack of cargo containers.
Fugg caught up moments later, his chest heaving.
“Thanks for waiting for me!” he said.
“Whoever it was is gone…” Ramus replied.
“Well, the Parvulian’s toast,” Fugg replied. “Also, you’ve got bits of him in your hair.”
Ramus and Fugg searched the ship, hunting for whoever killed the Parvulian. When they reached the crew quarters, Fugg took the cabins on the left while Ramus took the ones on the right. Each stateroom contained double berths, storage lockers, and trunks full of personal effects.
The whole place was a ghost ship, Ramus thought. It was giving him the creeps.
Reaching another cabin door, Ramus expected another carbon copy of the half dozen before. The hatch slid open and Ramus stepped inside. This time, he saw a woman lay on the bottom bunk, her arm hanging over the side. Ramus came closer, noticing something rusty-brown on her neck. With his weapon drawn and ready, he moved to the center of the cabin, only a few feet from the bed.
“What the hell?” Ramus said.
The woman’s head was facing towards the wall, her neck fully exposed. Along her jugular were two puncture marks and dark, dried blood.
Ramus felt someone behind him. He turned in time to see a man with long silver hair in the doorway. His skin was a shade of violet and his eyes were white with black slits.
The man smiled, revealing a pair of protruding fangs.
Despite a strong desire to move, Ramus couldn’t. The blood in his veins ice cold, he was frozen in fear.
From the corridor, someone fired a blaster, its bolt of energy slamming into the stranger’s back. He fell face first onto the cabin floor.
Fugg stood in the doorway.
Ramus glanced from the smoldering corpse to his engineer.
“We needed him alive,” Ramus said.
Fugg glared at him. “You’re welcome!”
In his earpiece, Ramus heard Gen’s voice come over the comm.
“Master Ramus,” she said, “things are happening!”
“What kind of things?” Ramus replied.
“Well, first a ship just appeared on sensors, next to us,” she said. “It wasn’t there a second ago and then it just materialized and jumped to hyperspace. Also, another ship is approaching at high velocity!”
“Okay, Gen,” the captain said. “Power up the engines. We’re heading back.”
Fugg and Ramus returned across the gangway to the Wanderer, leaving the body of the strange Dahl behind. The captain headed to the cockpit while Fugg went to the engine room. The hatch to the bridge opened and Gen, still sitting in the command chair, turned.
“I’m so glad you’re back!” she said.
“Get out of my chair,” Ramus replied.
Settling into his seat, he checked for a visual on the incoming ship. The vessel was at least ten times the size of the Wanderer, with a looming superstructure from which masts extended like a crown of spikes.
“Jump capacitors are charged,” Ramus said under his breath. “Navcom calculating escape vector…”
The ships radio crackled.
“Unidentified ship,” a stern, official-sounding voice said, “This is the HIMS heavy cruiser Baron Lancaster. Power down your engines and prepare to be boarded!”
“Are we getting out of here or what?” Fugg said over the intercom.
“It’s a Navy ship,” Ramus replied. “It looks like they want to talk.”
“Oh, well in that case,” Fugg growled, “let’s invite them over for some goddamn tea and biscuits!”
“Shall I prepare the tea and biscuits, sir?” Gen asked.
Ramus, who hadn’t realized Gen was still in the cockpit, stammered.
“What? No! Get out of the cockpit!”
Aboard the Baron Lancaster, Ramus sat on a metal chair behind a metal table while the captain of the Imperial warship, Lord Redgrave, asked questions in the hot, suffocating interrogation room.
“I already told you,” Ramus insisted, “the Parvulians hired us to investigate that ship!”
Redgrave leaned forward, his hands spread flat on the table. His shadow fell across Ramus in the chair.
“The Imperial Navy fights pirates,” the officer said. “The Parvulians should have contacted us, not some Dahlvish exile like you.”
“Maybe they got sick of losing their crews under your nose.”
“We are an empire of laws,” Redgrave said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, one way or another.”
“Meanwhile,” Ramus said, “more people go missing…”
Redgrave took a palm-sized disk from his uniform pocket and placed it on the table. The holo-emitter projected a translucent image of a ship with a black fuselage and wings of thin, purple membranes. Bone-like structures within the wings ended in sharp barbs.
“As we approached,” Redgrave said, “this ship decloaked and jumping into hyperspace. Ever seen a ship like this?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“I thought Dahls knew everything,” Redgrave said.
“Not always,” he said. “Sometimes we forget.”
“I guess you just remember the good stuff…”
“What about the dead woman with the blood drained from her body?”
“I already told you,” Ramus said, “she was dead when I found her. Why don’t you ask the guy with the vampire teeth?”
“He’s not talking…” Redgrave said, tapping the holo-emitter.
The image of the ship vanished.
“I’ve got a missing crew and two dead bodies,” Redgrave said. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t throw you into the brig!”
“Because I can help you,” Ramus replied.
“You’ve been fishing for these guys for a while now, but without any luck.”
“Well, maybe you’ve been using the wrong bait…”
A week later, the Wanderer was traveling alone in a nearby star system. In the galley, Fugg sat at the table, drinking from a 24 ounce can of Genuine Draft Fungus Beer, while Ramus leaned against the counter with his arms folded.
“We’re wasting our time,” Fugg said.
“Maybe,” Ramus replied.
“Explain it to me again…”
“This is the same trade route that was attacked before. If we keep on this heading, there’s a chance we’ll get hijacked.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“If we want to know where those missing crew were taken to, yes.” Ramus said. “The nanos we swallowed will let the Lancaster track us, no matter where we end up.”
Fugg pounded his chest, releasing a thunderous belch.
“And you think Redgrave is going to just swoop in and save our asses?” Fugg asked.
Gen’s voice came over the intercom. “There’s a contact on sensors, Master Sirs!”
“I’m on my way,” Ramus replied, heading toward the cockpit.
“Send her down to the engine room!” Fugg called after him.
Once the captain was gone, the engineer pressed the beer can against his forehead until the aluminum crumpled. Using his bulbous fingers, he felt for the ring-shaped indention on his skin. Grinning with satisfaction, he dislodged himself from behind the table and staggered down the corridor toward the rear of the ship.
In the engine room, Fugg punched the call button on the intercom.
“What do you see up there?” he asked.
“It’s the ship that Redgrave showed me,” Ramus replied.
The Wanderer shuddered.
“They’re firing,” Ramus said over the speaker.
“No shit,” Fugg said to himself.
Another hit jolted the ship, followed by two more in rapid succession. A control panel near the ceiling exploded and Fugg threw up his hands to protect himself from the shower of sparks.
“Son of a bitch!” he swore. “She’s not built for shit like this…”
Gen stepped through the hatch.
“Thanks for showing up!” Fugg yelled.
“Always happy to help, Master Fugg!” Gen replied cheerfully.
At that moment, an explosion rocked the Wanderer, sending both Fugg and the robot to the deck.
“The shields appear to have failed,” Gen said, lying on her back.
Sprawled on the floor, facing down, Fugg mumbled “Ya think?”
Struggling to get to her feet, Gen managed to stand upright while the heavy-set engineer took a few seconds longer.
“The engines are offline too,” the robot said. “Is this part of Master Ramus’ plan?”
“Can’t you tell?”
The captain’s voice spoke again over the intercom.
“They’re coming alongside,” Ramus said. “Gen, make yourself scarce…”
Gen hesitated, looking perplexed.
“He means hide, stupid!” Fugg said.
“Ah, very good,” she said. “But where?”
“Try the trash compactor.”
“Really?” Gen asked.
Ramus met Fugg at a corridor junction just down from the Wanderer’s airlock. Both were armed, each with a blaster in their hands.
“Let’s make this look good,” the captain said.
“I want a raise,” Fugg replied.
The hull of the ship reverberated as a vessel docked and secured itself to the airlock. The hatch swung open as Ramus peered cautiously around the corner. The figure who stepped through the doorway, while similar to the man who attacked Ramus on the Parvulian freighter, carried himself with a sense of authority, even arrogance. His skin was a shade of violet and his hair had a silvery tinge of white, but his ruby-like eyes revealed someone who commanded a room the moment he entered.
“My children,” he said, “the ship is ours!”
Three more people, all women, boarded. Each wore black and red robes, with heavy collars tight around their necks. The man stayed by the hatch, but the three females came toward Ramus and Fugg, who still hid behind the corner. One of the women took the lead while the other two walked slowly behind her.
Ramus nodded at his engineer and both leaped out, firing their blasters. Following the plan, their shots went wide, purposely missing the intruders down the corridor.
The women stopped, but made no attempt to avoid the plasma bolts searing the bulkheads around them. They stared directly ahead, fixing their gaze on Ramus and Fugg. The engineer stopped firing. Ramus looked at Fugg, standing with his mouth open and his weapon hanging loosely at his side. Ramus glanced back at the women. It wasn’t their eyes at all, he realized. He could hear them in his mind like sirens singing, numbing his senses and clouding his thoughts. The hallway grew darker, like a heavy fog seeping in around the edges. His head wobbling, Ramus saw the light go out and felt his body hit the floor.
Ramus woke with a splitting headache, but at least the pain proved he was still alive.
“Welcome to the larder,” a voice said.
Ramus opened his eyes. He was lying on the floor of what looked like a cargo hold, his back against a wall. Fugg was in a fetal position, still unconscious, beside him. People of various races were arranged randomly about the room. Most looked sick.
Only one person was standing and he was talking to Ramus.
“Nice to see you awake,” he said.
His head cocked to one side, Ramus looked up at the man, a human dressed in dingy workman’s overalls.
“Who are you?” the captain asked.
“I’m Marcus,” he said, “first mate of the Konpira Maru.”
“I talked to your captain,” Ramus said.
“He’s still alive?” Marcus asked.
“No, I’m sorry. One of those things killed him.”
“They’re called the Dokk,” he said.
“Why did you call this the larder?” Ramus asked.
“They keep us here,” Marcus said, “to feed on our blood.”
“What the hell for?”
“Apparently they’ve been in space so long, their bodies can’t produce hemoglobin. I guess we provide them with a steady supply.”
“That’s sick,” Ramus said.
Fugg began to stir.
“Where’d those blue bitches go…” he groaned.
“They were purple, you idiot,” Ramus said, shaking his engineer awake.
“They’re Shadow Maidens,” Marcus said.
Fugg opened his eyes, only to scowl at the first mate.
“Yeah? Did they give you that hickie?” he said.
Ramus noticed, for the first time, that Marcus had two puncture wounds on his neck.
“It’s not a love bite,” Marcus said. “They’ve fed on me several times. Luckily, I haven’t been here very long, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to walk.”
Fugg sat up, his face full of rage.
“That ain’t right!” he shouted. “I don’t care how hot they are!”
Ramus gingerly got to his feet. Unsteady, he kept his balance by leaning against the wall.
“We’re getting out of here,” he said. “That I can promise you.”
Across the room, a large hatch opened with a screech, the mechanism grinding from age and lack of maintenance. A Dokk male entered holding a blaster pistol.
“Captain Ramus,” he said. “Come with me.”
The Dokk led Ramus down several poorly lit passageways. Ramus guessed this was a space station, one that had seen better days. From the rust and mildew, it looked to be a hundred years old.
At the end of a corridor, a hatch opened into a large room. Through the window ports in the ceiling a bleak, barren planet was visible. In the center of the room, steps led to a raised platform where another male sat on a chair built like a throne. Ramus recognized him as the Dokk who boarded the Wanderer. Flanking him were the three women.
When he started speaking, the words sounded like gibberish until Ramus recognized some of them as High Dahlvish, his own native tongue.
The man stopped.
“I apologize,” he began again, this time in the Imperial, human speech. “I should have known our languages have diverged too much to be comprehensible. I am Tomil Druril, Blood Prince of this brood.”
“You’re saying you’re Dahl?” Ramus asked.
“Long ago…” the man said.
“Who the hell are you people anyway?”
Druril laughed, his fangs evident.
“I assume you’ve never heard of the lost tribes of the Dahl?”
“I can’t say that I have…”
“Then we are truly one of the Forgotten.”
Ramus’ eyebrow raised.
“Ah,” Druril said, “so that is familiar?”
“Then, perhaps we are more brothers than you first realized.”
“Well, I may be an exile,” Ramus admitted, “but what’s your story?”
Druril rested his chin on his hand thoughtfully.
“Centuries ago,” he said, “my people — this brood and others like it — were banished from the Dahlvish home world into the vacuum of space. The Dahl removed us from their memories as well, as if forgetting could erase us from history. In time, we learned to exist here in the void, but not without… changes.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Ramus remarked.
“Forever living on ships, traveling from system to system, we were no longer exposed to sunlight as we once were. We tried producing the needed proteins for our blood, but nothing seemed to work. We grew weaker, almost to the point of extinction. Finally, we did what we needed to do. We drank the blood of those we captured, and we’ve survived ever since.”
“But those people in the cargo hold,” Ramus said, “they won’t be so lucky.”
Druril’s eyes narrowed in anger.
“Survival has a cost, Captain! Those men are the price we must pay to live!”
Ramus paused, silently staring out the windows in the ceiling.
“Well,” he said finally, “I guess we all have to pay sooner or later. Sometimes, it’s just a lot sooner than we thought.”
Through the windows, the nose of the HIMS Baron Lancaster appeared from behind the dead planet. Within seconds the warship began firing, strands of orange pierced the darkness, exploding along the surface of the space station.
The room shook violently.
“What have you done?” Druril shouted.
“That’s the Imperial Navy,” Ramus replied. “At least they haven’t forgotten you.”
The blood prince motioned toward the door.
“Take the prisoner back to his cell,” Druril said, “He can die with the rest of them!”
The impact from a plasma cannon rocked the cargo hold, sending the first mate to the deck.
“Sounds like the Lancaster is here,” the Gordian said, still sitting. “Humans love being punctual if it means killing people…”
Flat on his back, the first mate sat up on his elbows.
“Won’t they help us escape?” he asked.
“Only if it’s in a body bag!” Fugg replied, pressing a finger against his ear. “Can you hear me, robot?”
“Loud and clear, Master Fugg, sir!” Gen’s voice came over his earpiece.
“Amazing!” Fugg replied. “I can’t believe you didn’t screw it up!”
“I interfaced with the Wanderer‘s nav computer,” Gen said. “He wasn’t very helpful until I explained you were in danger. Also, he’d like to be known as Gary from now on…”
“Oh, sorry!” Gen replied. “I’ve docked at the starboard airlock, but you may want to hurry. The station’s breaking apart!”
The hatch to the cargo hold rattled open, followed by a scream and a severed arm holding a blaster. Standing over the Dokk guard lying dead in the outer corridor, Ramus was engulfed in blue light as his body changed back from wolf to Dahl form.
“It’s about goddamned time!” Fugg remarked.
“Whatever,” Ramus shrugged. “Did you hear from Gen?”
“She at the airlock,” Fugg replied.
“Get everyone to the ship,” Ramus said, “I’m going after the leader.”
“You haven’t killed him yet?”
Ramus bent on one knee, prying the blaster out of the dead Dokk’s hand.
“I’m working on it!” he yelled.
Turning down a hallway, Ramus spied a sign pointing to the hangar. He took off running, wary of the floor buckling under the stress of the Lancaster’s bombardment. He fought to keep his balance, reaching the hatch he was looking for. As the door opened, he saw the Dokk ship on the far side of the hangar. Black and dark purple, the vessel perched on the deck like a bat with wings extended. Druril and the rest of his brood were climbing a loading ramp extended underneath.
Ramus pointed his blaster, but hesitated.
The Dokk, the lost tribe of the Dahl, boarded the ship as the ramp retracted.
As an exile himself, Ramus understood the hardships and the hard choices one had to make. Survival sometimes meant doing terrible things, things that changed you forever. Was he all that much different from these people who traced their blood line back to a race that no longer even acknowledged their existence?
Ramus watched the ship taking off.
“Screw it,” he said and fired. A bolt of hot plasma struck the ship in the tail section. Bits of hull near the thruster exhaust smoldered orange for a moment, but quickly fizzled out. The craft hovered while its landing gear retracted and disappeared through the open hangar door into space.
Silently, Ramus watched it go.
Aboard the Lancaster, Redgrave balanced on the edge of his command chair, his hands balled together like a knot. Computer consoles, each manned by bridge officers, fanned out in a semi-circle, everyone watching a panoramic screen at the front of the bridge. On the screen, the space station was breaking into pieces as heavy plasma cannons pummeled it mercilessly.
“Report,” Redgrave said.
The chief tactical officer turned, her blond hair pinned tight against her head.
“An unknown vessel is emerging from the station hangar, Lord Captain,” she replied.
A ship like a winged demon appeared.
“Lock onto target!” the captain shouted.
Like an ephemeral spirit, the Dokk ship faded on the screen while the captain watched helplessly as it disappeared.
“The vessel has cloaked,” the tactical officer said. “We’ve lost sensor contact.”
“Goddamnit!” Redgrave shouted.
“Wait,” she replied. “I’m detecting a particle trail. It must be damaged.”
“Can you get a lock?”
“Well, what are you waiting for, Lieutenant? Fire at will!”
Along the hull of the Lancaster, a cannon turret swung around, a shaft of plasma erupting from its barrel. Like a lance of fire, the bolt hurled toward a patch of space, empty except for a nearly indiscernible trail of green vapor leading back to the station. The plasma struck the cloaked vessel, its structure outlined in an orange explosion. Now exposed, the Dokk ship became an easy target, suffering another hit before disintegrating into fragments.
The tactical officer pumped her fist in the air.
“Got it!” she said excitedly.
“What about the Wanderer?” Maycare asked.
“She’s also pulling away from the station,” she replied.
Behind the captain’s chair, Commander Maycare leaned closer, glancing questioningly at the captain.
“Let her go,” Redgrave said. “A deal is a deal…”
“Sir?” Maycare asked.
The captain trained his eyes on the XO.
“I have a hunch we’ll be needing them someday,” Redgrave said quietly. “Besides, it never hurts to keep a card up your sleeve…”
On the main screen, a tiny vessel of yellow and gray accelerated off into the distance before jumping into hyperspace with a flash. Left behind, the abandoned space station broke apart, its forgotten pieces falling across the surface of the dead planet below.