I’m sitting in one of the window booths of the Meteorites Café, staring out through the thick glass. There’s movement below me as processed Armium metal is loaded onto a freighter bound for Earth. I sip on my expensive imported coffee, inhaling its comforting aroma. So freaking good. I have missed this stuff so much. Here on Fortuna Tau, luxuries like coffee are a rarity.
Its delicious smell reminds me of Earth.
I glance across at my friend Jia, who’s also savoring her coffee. “This is heaven,” she sighs, taking a slow sip. “I can’t believe they got some in at this time of year. The Earth shipments are usually too full to take luxury items on board.”
“Bree’s got connections,” I shrug, winking at the cafe’s manager, who’s standing behind the counter. She’s too far away to hear me, but she smiles back all the same. “And, did you hear they brought in chocolate?”
“No way. You mean the real stuff?” Jia’s eyes go wide. “Where? Who? I need it now.”
“Relax. I know a guy who works in stores. I’d reserved some way back. Asked him to put some aside for you, too.”
“You’re the best, Abbey. How come you always know about the contraband before anyone else?”
“Connections,” I reply with a deadpan expression. I taste my coffee, enjoying its smooth, slightly bitter taste. “By the way, you missed a spot.”
“Huh?” A look of confusion spreads across Jia’s delicate features.
“Right cheek, grease monkey,” I say. She rubs at her face with the sleeve of her coveralls, wiping away a black smear.
“Occupational hazards.” Jia rolls her eyes and I laugh.
We’re a sight for sore eyes, sitting in this super clean café dressed in our work uniforms. Jia’s got her grey mechanic’s jumpsuit on, and I’m wearing my green scientist’s scrubs.
“You’ve got plant bits in your hair,” Jia observes. I run my fingers through my short locks. Sure enough, a few bits of twig and some scraps of leaf come free. I groan.
“Man, I can’t wait to get back to Earth. I’m sick of this damn gardening work.”
“Yeah, but without you guys, we don’t eat and we don’t breathe. You bio-sci guys literally grow the station’s entire food supply. I’d hardly call it just ‘gardening.’” Jia pops a cube of recombinant strawberry between her delicate pink lips. “How much longer do you have on this junk heap anyway?”
“Two years,” I sigh. “When I applied to the Federation, I didn’t think I’d end up on an asteroid mining station of all places.”
“Same here,” Jia shrugs. “But you take what you can get, huh?”
“True. It’s impossible to get a job on Earth these days without off-planet experience. So I just need to do my time, then boom, I’m out of here.” As I shovel a spoonful of pudding into my mouth, a red light flashes from the loading dock below, and the huge airlock doors start to open. “Incoming,” I mumble between mouthfuls of artificially flavored vanilla mush.
We both look down, staring at the giant space below. The grey floor of the loading dock gleams under the impossibly bright lights. A squad of peacekeepers runs across the floor, taking position beside one of the landing bays. They’re fully armored, their bolt-cannons drawn.
“What the hell is going on?” I put down my coffee, my attention captured by the unfolding scene. The doors of the airlock are fully open now, and a sleek black spacecraft glides into the dock.
The thing is huge, easily the size of one of our freighters, but where the freighters are built for stability, this thing seems designed for speed and destruction. It’s all sleek, aggressive lines, and it has some mean-ass looking artillery bristling from all sides. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s definitely not Human.
“You recognize that thing?” I turn to Jia, who is gaping. Her mouth is actually wide open in shock. I’ve never seen her wear that expression before. Normally, she’s as tough as nails and totally unflappable.
For a moment, she says nothing.
“Jia,” I say slowly, a bad feeling rising in my chest. “Who the hell are those guys?”
“What are they thinking, letting them in?” she murmurs, staring at the sinister looking craft with an expression of mild horror.
“Who, Jia?” I don’t like the way she’s gone all quiet.
“That’s a Kordolian battle cruiser,” she says. “Alpha class. They’re packing so much firepower in that thing that they could blow Fortuna into oblivion if they wanted.”
“Kordolians?” I shudder. “You mean those scary silver skinned guys? What the hell is command thinking, letting them in?” I shake my head, echoing Jia’s thoughts. “They’re a long way from home, aren’t they?”
“Hey, look closely.” Jia points to the craft. “It’s taken damage. Two of the thrusters are out and there’s a tear in the hull.”
“You’re right.” I shake my head, trying to piece it all together. “But who would be stupid enough to attack a Kordolian ship?”
“Beats me.” Jia shrugs. “Space pirates get a bit trigger happy sometimes. Maybe they didn’t know who they were messing with.”
“Or maybe they’re insane.” I watch as the peacekeepers get into a defensive formation around the ship’s hatch. The doors start to open, revealing the muted glow of the interior.
The air around the craft shimmers with blasts of heat, and for a moment, nothing happens.
Jia and I are glued to our seats, as if we’re watching a suspenseful movie. We share an astonished glance as the Kordolians appear. They walk down the ramp with their weapons raised.
“Those are Kordolians?” I whisper, trying not to sound too awed. Everyone’s heard of Kordolians. Because of their warlike tendencies, they’ve somehow ended up owning half the galaxy, but for some reason, they’ve never bothered with Earth. Most Humans, including myself, have never seen one in the flesh.
So why haven’t they colonized us?
There are lots of random theories out there. Earth’s too far. Too insignificant. We’re not a threat to them. They can’t afford any more expensive incursions. We’re an important trading partner. Blah, blah, blah. They have analysts on the Network debating this stuff all the time. I’ve never paid much attention to it all. Interplanetary politics isn’t exactly my area of interest.
Are they a threat to us? Hell, yeah, they are if they want to be. They have the most advanced military in all of the Nine Galaxies, and judging by the looks of these soldiers, they don’t mess around.
There are around a dozen of them, and they sure as hell look intimidating. They’re clad from head-to-toe in some kind of form-fitting black battle armor. Their features are hidden under menacing looking helms, with even their eyes covered by a black visor, and they’re packing some serious looking artillery. There are weapons strapped to their bodies that I’ve never seen before. I squint. Are those freaking swords sheathed at their backs?
“Um, is this about the time we initiate an emergency distress call to Earth?” I watch them with a mixture of horror and fascination. My coffee’s starting to go cold, but I don’t care. I’ve lost my appetite. “Is this where our backup arrives three months later and finds Fortuna Tau empty? Are we about to become another episode of ‘Great Space Mysteries of the Twenty-Fourth Century?”
Before them, the peacekeepers somehow look small and not very threatening. If it came to an all-out shitfight, they’d be no match for the Kordolians.
But it seems the boss peacekeeper has some sense in her, because she holds up a hand, signaling to her soldiers to lower their weapons.
“Good call, lady.” Jia sighs with relief. “Lucky they sent Sergeant Varga and not some irrational musclehead jacked up on growth hormones.” She rolls her eyes. “Peacekeepers. You know how they are. Varga’s different, though. She’s got a cool head on her shoulders.”
“You know her?”
“Yeah. She runs security for us in the grease pits sometimes. She’s a good sort.” A look of mild relief crosses Jia’s delicate features. “And now it looks like the Kordolians aren’t going to kill them after all.”
As the two groups lower their weapons, the Kordolians do something that seems to make their headgear melt away, revealing their faces.
“Nano-armor?” I mutter, grimly fascinated. It’s scary how advanced these guys’ technology is.
Without the helmets, we can see their features clearly.
Jia and I exchange a look of wonder. Of course, we’ve learned about Kordolians. We’ve all studied Universal Planetology in school. But seeing them up close is a shock.
“Wow,” Jia whispers. I throw her a sidelong glance. Is that a blush spreading across her porcelain cheeks?
I sort of get where she’s coming from. I hate to admit it, but these Kordolians are oddly attractive, in a surreal, alien kind of way.
I’m glad for the thick one-way glass windows of the café, because I’m staring like crazy. The Kordolians have light grey skin that appears almost sliver under the harsh lights. They’re too far away for me to see their eyes, but I can make out strong, aristocratic features and hell, are those pointy ears? Impressive physiques seem to be a characteristic of their species. They’re all tall and athletically built. Under that freakish black armor it looks as if there’s a whole lot of muscle, but that’s probably to be expected, because this seems to be some sort of team of super soldiers. I bet not all Kordolians look like these guys. There are probably imperfect looking ones somewhere back on their home planet. At least, I hope there are.
A race of perfect, deadly super-beings is just too overwhelming to think about.
But of all the aliens I’ve come across in the galaxy, these guys are the most humanoid looking I’ve ever seen. They have the same number of legs and arms and eyes and everything. No slimy bits, or scales, or tentacles. At least as far as I can tell. It’s hard to know with all that armor. But they kind of remind me of big grey-skinned evil elves. I say evil, because they sure as hell don’t look warm and cuddly.
One guy stands out amongst the group of Kordolian soldiers. He’s obviously their commander, because he’s the one doing all the talking. I squint, trying to get a better look at him. To my surprise, I can’t tear my eyes away.
This guy commands attention. It’s in the way he stands; arrogantly, threateningly, looming over Sergeant Varga as if he’s expecting her to kneel or bow down in front of him.
He looks like he’s used to being the biggest, baddest thing in the room, but even though he’s intimidating, Sergeant Varga doesn’t back down. She stares up at him, her body tense and rigid.
I haven’t met the lady, but I decide I like her.
But this Kordolian boss is exactly the kind of guy I can’t stand, alien or Human. I don’t get along with arrogant jerks.
Jia draws my attention, a luminous expression on her face.
“Jia,” I breathe, shaking my head. “Don’t say it.”
She looks back with wide eyes, her peachy lips slightly apart. “I’ve gotta say it, Abbey.”
“Don’t go there, Jia,” I warn, my voice low and threatening.
Jia raises an eyebrow, ignoring my warning. “Gotta admit, they’re kinda hot.”
I resist the urge to drop my face into my hands. She went there. “They’re killers.”
“Shut up, idiot.” I make a face and gulp down the rest of my coffee, which has gone cold. I don’t know why Jia’s joking around irritates me so much. I slam the cup down, shovel in a few more mouthfuls of vanilla protein sludge and stand up, refusing to look at the Kordolians again. “I’m going back to work,” I announce. “Break’s over, anyway. And even if we’re being invaded by evil elves wearing nano-suits, the bio-plant won’t run itself. Meet you here same time tomorrow, if we’re still alive?”
Jia blinks in confusion. “Elves? What?”
“You should read the classics. You know, Tolkien and so on.” I wave my hand in the air as I slide out of the booth, turning my back on the scene unfolding below. As I exit, I tap the register with my hand, leaving my bio-print. It’ll go to that nonexistent place in the digital ether and take payment from my already depleted account. “Come tomorrow,” I call over my shoulder at a perplexed Jia. “I’ll bring chocolate.”
Then lunch break, with all its weirdness, is over, and I’m rushing back to the bio-plant, trying to forget about the Kordolians.
Damn mean-looking, pointy-eared, scary alien-elves. I just hope they don’t try to kill us.
* * *
I stare down at the Human soldiers, trying to ignore the growing ache pounding inside my skull. The bright artificial lights of the dock don’t help, but at least they aren’t ultraviolet. This is only the second time I’ve been to this planetary system, but I’m already dreading facing the star Humans call the Sun.
My kind aren’t used to such conditions. We’re sensitive to ultraviolet light. It’s one of our few weaknesses.
“I told you,” I growl in Universal, looming over the female soldier who has identified herself as the head of this rabble, “we are not assuming control of this station. We have no interest in Humans. We only require that you provide us with the resources and personnel to repair our craft. You will also clear this dock of any unnecessary Human workers while repairs are underway.”
My team surrounds me, tense and ready to burst into action if needed. So far, this Human female has been sensible enough not to threaten us. For that at least, I have to applaud her instincts.
“With all due respect,” she snaps back in passable, heavily accented Universal, “you and your men represent an unsanctioned arrival, and that is a breach of security protocol. There are procedures we need to follow before we can assist you with anything. I don’t even know who you are. You could begin by at least having the decency to identify yourself.”
I glare at her. Are all Humans this entitled? Is this female somehow confused? I’m a General of the Kordolian Empire. I don’t have to explain shit to any species in the Nine Galaxies. Beside me, Rykal, our newest recruit, bristles, raising his plasma cannon. “Respect, female. Would you like me to remind you what it means?”
Underneath her ridiculous oversized helmet and bulky armor, the female soldier stiffens in outrage. “Is this how you Kordolians rule your empire? With threats?”
It’s true, but I ignore her taunt. I hold up a hand, motioning for Rykal to stand down. “Patience,” I murmur in Kordolian, too low for any of the Humans to hear. “Let me handle this. Fighting will just waste time, and we don’t have much time.”
I’m irritated as fuck, but I make the effort to soften my tone. “I am General Tarak al Akkadian of the Kordolian First Division. We have experienced an enemy attack and request temporary refuge on Fortuna Tau to repair our battle cruiser. We have been engaged in mid-space warfare and have arrived here unintentionally. We are not here on hostile terms.”
The woman clearly doesn’t believe me, because her expression hasn’t changed. “You threatened to blow up the station if we didn’t allow you to dock. How is that not hostile?”
I take a step forward, and a few Human trigger fingers twitch. They don’t know that I can smell their fear. Even though we’re outnumbered three to one by the Humans, they seem to recognize their natural predators.
Once upon a time, our ancestors might have considered them a food source.
The Humans are a strange looking species. Their skin comes in all shades of brown, from very pale to very dark, and their eyes are odd colors. Blue, green, brown, black. The soldiers before me are wearing old fashioned non-symbiotic combat gear. It doesn’t suit the wearer’s needs as well as our exo-suits.
I size them up and find them to be little of a threat.
I tower over their female leader, staring down into her blue eyes. To her credit, she doesn’t flinch.
“Make no mistake,” I say softly. “We can be hostile, if we wish. I am offering you the easy option. Are you going to waste my time, or not?”
“That’s not my decision.” There must be something in my voice, because she steps back, holding up her hands in surrender. “I’ll take you to the Station Boss, but you all need to disarm.”
I smile then, showing my fangs. Humans don’t have fangs. They have straight, flat herbivore’s teeth. “How about we keep our weapons and you take us to your boss?”
“But protocol dictates that—”
All this talk of protocol and rules. It’s making my head hurt. The headache has crept behind my eyes, turning into an insistent, stabbing pain.
I’m out of patience.
“Rykal,” I mutter, making a discreet signal with my hand. He knows what to do. Before the Human can blink, he moves, becoming a black blur of motion. He comes up behind her and disarms her. The Human’s simple weapon drops to the floor with a metallic clatter. Her soldiers raise a sea of guns against us, but Rykal has a Callidum dagger pressed against her throat.
“Any of you so much as twitch and your boss dies. And so do you.” It’s not an idle threat. We’re bigger. Faster. Stronger. Our technology is better. They’re outmatched, and they know it. “As I said before, it’s not a request. It’s a demand. And I am not interested in your ‘protocol’. We will not disarm. We are not going anywhere.”
The Human captive glares at me with her odd icy blue eyes, but she’s smart enough not to resist.
“You stay here,” I add, “as security. Any one of you decides to do something stupid, she dies. Rykal, that’s your responsibility.”
“Sir.” He nods in assent.
I point to another Human, a male. He stares at us with a look of dismay. No doubt the ease at which Rykal took their commander hostage has shocked him. “You. What’s your name?”
Such strange sounding Human names. Such fear and hesitation. We don’t have time for this shit. I resist the urge to close my eyes and drop my face into my hands. My headache is getting worse. “You will show us the way. Call ahead and warn them not to mount any resistance. Any attempt to attack us will be met with consequences. Do not try my patience, Human. The rest of you stay here, and drop your weapons.”
A muscular Human steps forward, outrage twisting his features. “Fuck you, alien. Think you can just enter our territory and do whatever you want?”
“Yes.” My response is matter-of-fact and honest, but it sends him over the edge. He raises his cannon.
“Stand down, private, stand down!” The female commander shouts at him, straining against Rykal’s strong arms. “They’re fucking Kordolians. What do you expect to achieve here? You want to get all of us killed? Stand down. That’s a direct order.”
The Human looks at us, then at his boss, then back at us. There’s anger in his eyes, but he can’t disobey her command.
He lowers his weapon, laying it on the floor. Reluctantly, his comrades follow suit.
I issue orders to my troops in Kordolian, selecting two soldiers to accompany me. The rest will stay behind to guard the ship and keep an eye on the Humans.
A nervous silence has settled over the Humans as they watch us, fearful and unsure of themselves.
It’s a look I’m used to. Our reputation is well known throughout the Nine Galaxies, even in this shitty backwater of the Universe. Luckily for the Humans, they seem to have above average intelligence, or at least their leader does.
Some species would have attacked by now, inviting all-out slaughter.
“Jacobs.” I motion to the Human I’ve randomly picked out.
“Sir?” His response is instinctive, an automatic reaction to my commanding tone of voice. Military personnel are the same, the Universe over.
“What are you waiting for? Lead the way.”
He looks back and forth between me and the female commander. She signals for him to move with an irritated flick of her head. Underneath his armor, he looks young. I don’t know much about Human lifespans, but he seems to be little more than an adolescent.
With small, hesitant steps, he starts to lead us out of the dock. I come up behind him. “I’m impatient today, private,” I whisper in his ear. He shudders and picks up the pace. Two of my soldiers, Arkan and Kalan, follow behind, their plasma cannons ready.
If anyone tries anything, we will set them to vaporize and blow a hole out the side of this fucking rust bucket.
“Speed it up,” I growl, taking position at the back of the formation. It’s my preferred location in any team. I like to guard the back and see what’s going on at the front.
My headache is pounding now. It’s almost unbearable, but I grit my teeth and force myself to ignore it.
We’re running out of time.
In the middle of a speedfight with enemy Xargek, we were accidentally sucked into a wormhole, and it spat us out in this remote corner of the Universe. Now, the unstable wormhole is collapsing. We need to get off this station. Somewhere out there is a ship full of Xargek monsters that I need to hunt down and kill.
And I’ll die before I end up stuck on some poorly maintained Human outpost in the middle of nowhere. The sooner we’re gone, the better.
* * *
On the way back to the lab, I hear footsteps behind me. Because we’ve just been invaded by terrifying aliens, I’m a little bit on edge, so I whirl around and come face to face with the very last beings I wanted to see.
Three Kordolians glare at me. They’re accompanied by a very scared looking peacekeeper. The poor kid looks barely seventeen, his eyes nervous and wide in a pale, freckled face.
The alien commander looms at the back of their little convoy, silent and scary. He wears a thunderous expression on his face. I freeze in shock, taking in his otherworldly appearance. Up close, he’s even more striking, his luminous grey skin almost shimmering under the artificial light. His eyes, I realize, are a deep shade of red, the color of wine. They’re hard, brutal eyes. He has the look of a killer, and he looks pissed off.
These Kordolians are huge. They tower above the kid and I, filling the wide passageway, making it seem small. A claustrophobic feeling works its way into my gut, and I press my back against the wall as they pass, trying to appear as insignificant as possible.
I hope to hell they don’t notice me. I pray that they’re too busy with whatever it is they’re doing and that they’ll just get on their merry way.
But at the last minute, the commander turns, his harsh gaze fixing on me. My heart sinks. He gives me a quick up-and-down, and I do my best to keep a neutral expression on my face.
Stay calm, I tell myself. I figure these guys are like most predators. When they smell fear, it only encourages them.
The Kordolian narrows his eyes, his nostrils flaring slightly.
Why do I suddenly feel as if he’s the hunter, and I’m dinner? It’s making me squirmy. I get an overwhelming urge to sidestep him and scurry off back to my lab, but I don’t think he’d take that too well.
Don’t make any sudden moves.
I don’t want him to think I’m about to try something reckless. The last thing I want to do is end up as Abbey mincemeat, splattered across the service corridor.
The Kordolian inclines his head. He really does have pointed ears, like an elf.
A stupid, irrational giggle threatens to burst from my lips. I suppress it with all my might.
Wrong place, wrong time. Being scared out of my wits is probably making me delirious.
Stop it, Abbey. Don’t make the big, bad alien angry.
Is this what happens in life-or-death situations? I think I’ve read about something like this. Detachment from reality. Inappropriate hysterics. These are the symptoms of temporary insanity.
Say something. Make him go away.
“Er, hi there,” I say in Universal. Everyone who goes into space has to learn Universal. It’s a Federation requirement. “You guys seem to be in a hurry, so I’ll just get out of your way.” A tiny, nervous laugh escapes me, and immediately, I’m kicking myself.
Seriously Abbey? Was that the best thing you could could come up with?
I hold my breath, waiting for his reaction. I try not to stare at his pointy ears and menacing red eyes and rather overwhelming, muscular torso. Because that nano-armor stuff is quite, ah, sculpted. It doesn’t really leave much to the imagination.
“Is something amusing, woman?” His deep voice resonates in the confines of the corridor. It’s exactly how I was expecting him to sound. Arrogant. Authoritative. A guy who always gets his way.
If he weren’t so intimidating, I’d find him annoying, but the only word that comes to my mind is scary. I hold up my hands in what I hope is a placating gesture. “I’m not amused,” I blurt. “Far from it. I was just thinking about all the things I have to do this afternoon. You know, DNA splicing, plasmid engineering, cleaning oxygen filters, that kind of thing. So I may have come across a little preoccupied.” It’s half-true. I was thinking about those things, but I was somewhat distracted by the fact that we’ve just been overrun by some of the most dangerous beings in space.
He stares at me blankly, saying nothing.
As if he has no idea what I’m talking about.
“I’m a scientist,” I elaborate. “Cleaning biomeric oxygen filters isn’t glamorous, but someone has to do it.”
Still, he says nothing. I have a bad habit of saying too much when I’m nervous. It’s gotten me into trouble on occasion.
His deep red stare never wavers. He narrows his eyes, reaching out with a black-gloved hand. I flinch.
You’ve gone and done it now, Abbey.
Then his fingers are plucking something from my hair. It’s a piece of greenery; a bit of leaf from a passionfruit vine. It probably got stuck there when I crawled through the hydroponic vents, looking for fruits that had been missed in the harvest.
He stares at the leaf critically, then at me, then back at the leaf, shaking his head. He mutters something under his breath in his native language.
Then, in a rush of weapons and armor and sharply issued commands, they’re gone, storming down the passageway, disappearing from view. And once again, the service corridor feels empty, as if their departure has left a vacuum. It’s as if our little encounter never happened.
Relief rushes through me and I let out a deep breath.
On a positive note, at least I didn’t get killed.
“Crazy Kordolians,” I grumble, running my fingers self-consciously through my hair. Why should I care about what some muscle-bound, galaxy-colonizing, silver-skinned asshole thinks?
Why is my heart still pounding?
I sigh, shaking the tension out of my body, blowing a puff of air through my lips. I don’t know what they’re doing on our station or what they want, and I really don’t care.
I just want to get back to work. As long as they’re not here to colonize the station in the name of the Kordolian Empire and ship us all off to some remote outpost for nefarious purposes, then I’m fine. They haven’t blown anything up yet and they haven’t shot at anyone, so I’m secretly hopeful that they’re just passing by.
Maybe they just want a place where they can fix up their battle cruiser before taking off to carry on with whatever they were doing in the first place.
They sure as hell aren’t here because they want to be here. We Humans and our little planet don’t rank very highly on the intergalactic desirability index, and ever since the Nine Galaxies were mapped, we’ve come to the realization that we’re actually not the center of the Universe. Far from it. Most aliens consider us a far-flung, underdeveloped backwater, not worth even fighting about. We’ve already damaged enough of our own planet without the help of aliens, thank-you very much.
I’ve never even heard of Kordolians traveling this far out of their way. Has a Kordolian even set foot in the Solar System before? I sure as hell hope they’re just lost, because with everything that’s happening on Earth right now, the last thing we need is a dominant alien race coming and recruiting us under the guise of benevolent rule. Maybe their Galactic Atlas malfunctioned.
I shudder a little before pulling myself together, catching my errant thoughts before they spiral downwards into full-on scary panic-mode territory.
No point in worrying about things I can’t do anything about.
On the other hand, the oxygen filters won’t change themselves, and I have chocolate stashed in my locker. It always does wonders for curing feelings of imminent doom.
Just the thought of it is making me feel better already.