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PROLOGUE, PART THREE

Cobryn opened the throttle all the way. He'd never piloted an exploration buggy before, but the fundamental principles had to be the same as piloting a starship: faster was always better. The four-seat buggy surged forward, nearly tossing its passengers from their seats. Oops. Maybe that was too much throttle.

"Wheeee," Quig shouted gleefully over the roar of the engines and the howl of wind through the open cockpit.

Sahara was less enthused. "I thought you said you knew how to drive one of these things!"

"Obviously he does," answered Striker One. "We are already overtaking our quarry."

It was true, Cobryn noticed. The goblins were slowing their buggy down to navigate the rough-cut path – it didn't even deserve to be called a road – through the forest. They simply weren't willing to take the same risks he was. Of course, taking chances is what had gotten Cobryn into this situation in the first place.

He had taken a chance when he accepted a smuggling job for a client he didn't already know. The pay was great, but it turned out the cargo wasn't. Cobryn might be a lot of things, but he was no slave trafficker. The client hadn't liked Cobryn's change of heart. One thing had led to another, and Cobryn had lost his ship, his reputation, and his freedom. With no better options, Cobryn had taken another chance on a mysterious message. One thing had led to another, and now he was on the other side of the solar system chasing goblins with an annoyingly cheerful ysoki, a humorless android, and a lashunta woman who just might be a bigger gambler than he was.

"What are we going to do if we catch them?" Quig asked.

Cobryn scoffed, "What do you mean 'if'? I out-maneuvered that space pirate, didn't I? I think I can handle a couple of goblins in a go-cart."

"When we get close, I'm going to put this grenade in their driver's face," said Sahara.

Striker One was skeptical. "That may be unwise. Our mysterious benefactor has insisted on secrecy, but those goblins were clearly surveilling our arrival before they fled. It would be useful to know why and where they are headed."

"Whatever you're going to do, you'll need to do it quickly," said Cobryn. It certainly didn't take a pilot of his skill to catch these goblins; they could barely keep their buggy moving. Cobryn relaxed the throttle and pulled alongside them, coming eye to eye with the goblin in their passenger seat. It grinned. Only then did Cobryn notice the plasma pistol in its hand. His reflexes saved his life. (Again.) He jerked the wheel, and the pistol bolt blasted the buggy's windshield frame instead of his head.

"Decision made," said Sahara. She lobbed the grenade.

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PROLOGUE, PART TWO

Sahara twitched her antennae in nervous anticipation. Had she escaped from a noose only to face a firing squad?

"Surrender your vessel and whatever your cargo is, and I just might let you live," ordered the space pirate through the starship's radio.

Sahara toggled the radio to broadcast. "We don't have any cargo of value," she said. It was the truth. The holds were as empty as her pockets. Not even the ship itself was worth more than what a scrap yard would pay for it.

"I'll be the judge of that," came the reply. "Turn off your engines and prepare to be boarded."

An electronic signal from the ship's science station caught Sahara's attention. She looked at the android in the gunner's seat. "The pirate weapon has a target lock on us," Striker One said calmly.

Sahara looked at the ratman. "Are the shields working?"

The furry Ysoki nodded vigorously. "You can count on Quig."

"If you say so, Quig," said Cobryn, the ship's pilot. "But shields won't last forever. A pirate ship like that against a tub like this…. We'll never be able to outrun him or his lasers. Maybe we should comply and hope for mercy."

Sahara's three crew mates waited for her response. She hadn't asked to be captain of this vessel, but she wasn't a trained pilot like the human or a natural engineer like the Ysoki. And she certainly didn't have the artificial man's ability to talk to computers. That left her in the captain's chair by default. It was not a comfortable fit.

The last time she'd been the captain of a starship, it had been on a two-seat craft fleeing the slavers who had captured her and her sister. Their escape plan was Sahara's idea, but it had been her sister's beauty that lured an overconfident jailer into giving up the security codes to the ship that would carry them both to freedom. The plan had worked well, but an unlucky break, a guard's unpredictably overactive bladder, had resulted in her sister being gunned down on the launchpad. Sahara took off without looking back. She knew she would meet the same fate if the slavers ever caught up with her again.

That's why she had been willing to answer the mysterious summons that had led her into this latest pickle. She didn't know where they were headed or why, and she certainly didn't trust her crew mates. But so far as she was concerned, death was a better option than surrendering to a pirate who would only sell her back to her captors.

Turning back to the android, Sahara ordered, "Target his thrusters with our gyrolaser. Let's see if we can't even these odds."

She had made her decision. The die was cast.

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PROLOGUE, PART ONE

This particular starship was unknown to Quig, but he'd certainly seen its like before. Light freighters were the backbone of the solar system's shipping industry, after all. Therefore, it wasn't the unfamiliar surroundings that set the ratman's hairs standing on edge but the three strangers in the airlock with him.

Summoning his nerve, Quig asked in his high-pitched voice, "Excuse me, but is one of you the person who sent for me?" He dialed his personal communicator to the anonymous message he'd received a week before and held it up for the others to see.

The pale, broad-shouldered android raised an eyebrow in a good simulation of how other races would display surprise. "You're willing to expose your data to persons you do not know? That seems… unwise." Artificial men like this one made most sentient organics existentially self-conscious, but Quig had always found them distracting for other reasons. What made these mechanical marvels tick? He'd love to take one apart and find out.

The scruffy-looking (real) human man leaning against the starship's bulkhead smirked. "I was just about to say the same thing. Maybe I got a message. Maybe I didn't. How do I know you didn't send it?" Across the galaxy, no race was as capable of deceit as humans. Quig made a mental note not to trust this one.

"This is getting us nowhere," complained the female lashunta, her forehead antennae twitching in apparent irritation. She kept glancing out the ship's porthole at the docking bay entrance. Was she expecting more company? "Yes, I got the message. Obviously, we all did. The question is what are we going to do about it?"

The android shrugged almost naturally. "I believe we should do as instructed and take this ship to the coordinates indicated. Why else did we come here if not to uncover the mystery behind our summons?"

The human interlaced his fingers and extended his arms to crack his knuckles. "Works for me. I've been itching to get back in space."

"I think we're walking into a trap," said the woman dourly. "But as there are some… people around here who I'd rather not run into again, I don't see as I have any choice."

That was more or less how Quig felt, too. He couldn't go back home where The Families were looking for him. That was certain death. Better to take his chances with this motley crew. Besides, he'd always liked tinkering with alien technology, and if he had to walk into a trap, at least it was a trap well baited with the promise of getting his claws into an advanced starship's innards. “I'll start the engines,” he volunteered cheerfully.

The adventure had begun.

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A series of murders have been committed in one of the seedier quadrants of the space station. We have been assigned to investigate.

This is my space station. My partner is Obo. My name Kesko. I carry a badge.

We were directed by witnesses to the scene of the crimes in a portion of the station which has recently seen a dramatic increase in reports of theft. A thievery ring was suspected.

We had barely entered the area when we were accosted by pair of aggressively threatening space goblins. I attempted to diffuse the situation, but they refused my telepathic communication. After goblins ignored a secondary verbal warning, my partner subdued them with force. I confiscated their weapons to prevent them from being reused.

My partner and I proceeded to investigate the corridor the space goblins had come from. The first door in the corridor was closed. We declared ourselves and our official business but received no response. My partner heard some noise behind the door, and we entered by force.

Room was a storage room occupied by a single unregistered human vagrant. Although initially rude, the vagrant (identifying himself as "Bruxo" but presenting no identification) eventually recognized our authority after a little telepathic persuasion. Vagrant claimed ignorance of any murders but agreed that goblin activity was a growing problem.

In response to further questioning, he tipped us to a creature deeper in the station which he said may be working with the goblins. Warning that the creature is "immune to fire," he offered us a weapon to aid us in subduing it. Weapon was taken from a sealed crate in the storage room. Vagrant was unable to prove ownership. I was suspicious; If he had a weapon that could defeat said creature, why give it to us instead of using it himself? When pressed, vagrant said he was "just trying to help." I declined weapon per department regulations re: accepting potentially stolen goods.

(Note: My partner did take possession of vagrant-offered grappler, a tool she judged potentially useful should we need to descend into the guts of the station. Tool to be returned to the vagrant at such time as we return for a follow up investigation re: potential weapons theft.)

We continued our search of the corridor. Corridor ended in some sort of engine room. On close inspection, I determined that the engine reactor was functioning smoothly, though I lacked the technical understanding to know what it did or exactly how. Partner and I judged it safe to proceed through the room to continue pursuit of space goblin origins.

As we passed the reactor core, we were ambushed by a previously undetected entity that had been lurking within. The unknown and unidentifiable entity appeared as a humanoid comprised of pure energy. Like the goblins, it also resisted telepathic communication. Energy creature moved to touch me. It's hand passed through my chest. I felt a chill, but was otherwise unharmed. I tried to back away. It pursued, touching me a second time again causing discomfort but not harm.

My partner moved to separate creature from me with her department-issued doshko. The doshko passed through the creature in the same manner its hand had passed through me.

I used a telepathic strike to repel the creature to no apparent effect. Creature responded by redirecting energy from the reactor into a controlled explosion aimed at me. I was incapacitated.

My partner issued a verbal warning and fired a warning shot at the creature with her department-issued rifle. Energy creature phased its hand through partner's weapon. It overheated and shorted out. Partner was incapacitated.

Energy creature was unharmed.

Add two more murders to the series.

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To be continued...

 

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