I hover my skimmer three feet above the sands of the desert world. The exhaust kicks up grit, and I ache to be home on Terra – a planet with vast blue oceans named after the birthplace of humanity.
Our home, before we took to the stars.
Before we had to deal with stuck-up, arrogant Aurelians and filthy Toads. Before we knew the scourge of Scorps.
I shudder with revulsion. I’ve been away from home for three years now. All because of those bloody Aurelians.
Arrogant. Imperious. The seven-foot tall aliens that rule over Terra are chiselled Greek Gods, all impossible muscle and defined abs. Their skin is the color of marble, and they stand rigid as if they’re statues. Most human women drool over them, trading away all self-respect and dignity for the chance to be chosen for their vast harems.
But I’m not most human women. I have a burning, all-encompassing hatred for Aurelians and anyone willing to desecrate themselves to join the ranks of the submissive women who serve them.
They took my father away in cuffs and put him in prison. Aurelians don’t understand. With lives that span thousands of years, they view a five-year prison sentence like we view a week. Without my father to provide for us, my family was ruined – and my sickly mother would have been out on the streets if it wasn’t for me.
I clear my mind of the scourge of Aurelians as I race across the dunes, holding down the throttle until I find that sweet spot at which I’m almost losing control – where one instant of lost focus would end with me turned into a puddle, and my skimmer reduced to a pile of smoking debris. My scanner beeps and signals, my skimmer screaming forward and leaving a long trail of smoky dust behind me.
I’m close. So close.
After my father was taken away, I promised myself I’d never rely on any man, ever again. Not even if I have to scavenge and risk my life in these forsaken deserts of Bugra. Not even if I have to outfox Toad slavers, who’d kill their own mothers for a young, human female like me.
Out here, I’m free.
And, if I’m right, I won’t have to scavenge anymore. If my scanner is correct, I’ll never have to work again. I’ll be so rich I can buy my mother a home away from the factories that spoil her lungs. I’ll be able to help my father get back on his feet when he gets out of jail – branded with a criminal record that’ll ensure no one wants to hire him.
I shudder. I can’t think of my father right now. My mother told me he always wanted the best for me, and that the whole tax avoidance scandal that ruined us was because he was trying desperately to pay for my schooling. I remember the stink of vodka on his breath, and the temper that accompanied it, more than I remember any devotion to my education…
But I guess I shouldn’t hold it against him. Scraping together a living with the harsh levies of Aurelians is enough to drive any man to drink.
At least out here, on the cold dunes, I’m free.
And no one will ever take that freedom from me.
I fly over a huge hill, my stomach dropping as I coast in the empty air. I gasp at the sight below me.
Down in the long-abandoned valley is a downed Aurelian Reaver.
I can barely contain my excitement. Recent quakes on Bugra shifted the dunes of the desert, unveiling precious relics of battles aeons ago – when the universe was first plunged into war.
The Reaver is the fastest, most vicious front-line ship in the Aurelian fleets. In the old days of the inter-galactic war, the stories told of skies lit up night and day with Orb-Beams and Track Cannons. Those days are long ago now, and the universe is in an uneasy truce. Neither the Toads nor the Aurelians will risk the bloodshed of another galactic war.
But the relics of it remain.
I pull my skimmer next to the Reaver and hop off, fighting back my hope.
If I’m right about what’s inside, I’ll be able to get off this godforsaken planet. My days of outrunning and fighting off Toad slavers – who’d view any twenty-year-old human female as an easy target – will finally be over. I won’t have to hide from Toad authorities, who view all salvage as their rightful property. I won’t have to endure them hounding me, as I try to sell my meagre wares on the black-market.
If only… If only there’s a full Orb in there…
I run my hand over the surface of the sand-covered ship – at least, what I can reach of it. The Aurelian fighter might be the smallest craft in their fleet, but it still looms high above me. The pregnant, deep red of the Bugra sun is at its zenith, so there’s no shadow to be found next to the wracked bulk of the Reaver. I crawl through a rend in the ship’s outer hull, shuddering as I imagine the track cannon artillery that must have caused the jagged tear.
I try to still my heart, but the thumping beats like war drums in my ears. As I emerge on the other side of the hole in the hull, I start to creep down the ship’s main hallway – my step silent and cautious. I’m reminded, as dust assails my lungs, that no one has walked these halls for thousands of years.
The shifting sands of the dunes angled the ship, almost tipping it over. I struggle to keep my balance as I walk forward carefully. The Reaver is made for the seven-feet-tall Aurelian triad that piloted the ship. They could walk easily down the hallway between the engine room, the bridge, and the gunning stations. I feel like a child as I tread these looming corridors.
I pause between the twin gunning stations – where two of the Aurelian triad would have manned the devastating Orb-Beams. One of them remains – or, at least, what’s left of him does. I stifle a scream as I stare at the bones of the alien, draped over the controls of the gunning station. My breath is quick and frantic, and I force myself to try and control it.
You’ve seen dead Toads and Humans before. This is nothing new. Calm yourself, Jasmine!
Despite what I tell myself, this is something new. Toads and Humans are one thing. This skeleton is that of a giant, and I can only imagine the beast that manned the Orb-Beam gunnery. My hand trembles as I gently touch the huge bones of its arm, shuddering. I’ve only ever seen Aurelians from afar, growing up in Tera, and I feel full of hate for them.
Nevertheless, I will respect the dead. I take my hand away, and instead turn to look at the Orb-Beams themselves – weapons that can tear apart a city, all the way from orbit.
The Aurelians could have conquered us with those devastating weapons. They did not have to. The fringes of humanity never tasted the wrath of their Orb-Beams before surrendering.
We gave into them because they provided protection.
We sold our freedom to tyrants – all in return for the promise of protection against the chaos and violence of the universe. We sold our souls.
I creep past the weapons station, and the macabre scene draped across it, to seek my prize. In the center of the bridge is the ancient captain’s chair, where the monstrous skeleton of the Aurelian captain that piloted the Reaver still sits. The pilot is responsible for piloting, evading, and dodging ground artillery and ship fire.
This one didn’t dodge well enough.
Hope fills me as I stare at the captain’s console. The light has long since died from the mechanisms of the computer, but I’ve heard enough of the tales of scavengers getting rich to know exactly where to make my incisions.
I whip out my make-shift Orb-knife from my pocket with practiced speed. The weapon, fabricated from a costly shard of orb and a makeshift metal hilt, is the only reason I’m able to survive out in the dunes of Bugra. It’s the only reason I’ve been able to live long enough to keep sending money back to my sickly mother and keep her alive, as well.
One miniscule shard of an Orb – barely the size of fingernail trimmings – is all it takes to power my knife. Imagine what power a full Orb could provide.
Orbs. The true power behind any empire.
I press the button on the hilt of my knife, and the reality-distorting blade appears. I avert my eyes. I’ve heard enough rumors and tales of people who stared too long at Orb energy and went mad.
I plunge the blade into the floor under the console. The blade hums and slices through the metal, leaving it melted and distorted. A shudder passes through me as I imagine the blade cutting through my leg. If I slipped for even a moment – if my hand shook while I was handling the blade…
…I push the fear from my mind.
It takes ten minutes of cutting and hacking, sweat dripping down my brow, before I reach my prize.
The full Orb glistens in front of me. It’s as big as my head. A thousandth shard of it could power my Orb-Blade for eternity. Imagine the potential of the whole thing. My eyes go wide with wonder as I stare at it, imagining the price I’ll be able to command for such a flawless specimen.
I’ll smuggle it back to Terra. I can’t trust Toad black-market scum to give me a good price for this piece. They’d sooner slit my throat and steal it. I hate Aurelians, but it’s true that they value law and order over everything. They’d pay a huge bounty for this Orb – enough to provide for my family for as long as we remain alive.
The Orb glistens. It looks almost… wet. I stare into it, transfixed by the pure, black clouds swirling beneath the glassy surface. My eyes go wide as I’m drawn into the darkness of the Orb, and I swear it looks back. I see through the darkness and it shows me violence and bloodshed, galaxies born and dying, stars pulsing and boiling up in the deep of space.
Terror grips me as I stare into the Orb, my heart pounding with primal fear.
The sudden sound breaks me instantly from my stupor.
It’s the voice of a Toad, blubbering in his brutish language as he looms behind me, acidic spittle burning against the back of my neck. I turn with lightning speed, extending my Orb-knife and jamming the blade into his belly. He utters a guttural scream, his face contorting in rage and pain as I disembowel him. Fear grips my mind as I see the other three Toads crammed into the bridge of the Reaver.
How hadn’t I heard them approach? Had I been that transfixed by the Orb?
One of the Toads raises his gun with a scowl, a dart shooting out and plunging into my shoulder. Sharp pain hits me and I try to pull it out before the tranquilizer can take effect. My muscles respond slowly and sluggishly – every movement suddenly feeling like I’m buried neck-deep in the sand. I pull the dart out, but I know it’s already too late. The poison is in my bloodstream.
I collapse onto the ground next to the Orb. Next to the promise of riches, which had transfixed me and left me vulnerable to this ambush.
In the fever of the poison seeping through my veins, I swear I still see shapes moving in the Orb. The figure of three huge Aurelians dance and battle in the swirling black clouds, standing bloody, tall and proud. Their huge bodies and rippling muscles move like quicksilver as they rend apart enemies to the screams of the crowds.
It’s the last thing I see, before the blackness takes me.