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First pages

Chapter One

Commodore Chemil Mohk, a pure-blood Nell, minor lord of the Imperium, stepped confidently into the cargo bay of the smuggler vessel, Ghost Star, his mottled grey and blue skin glistening under the harsh work lights of the bay. Humanoid, muscular and tall, the bulky Commodore’s most notable features, the most notable features of any Nell lord, were the two razor-sharp foreclaws protruding from just above his thick wrists. He paused and inhaled deeply. There it is, fear. Beautiful fear. Fear of . . . death.

Nothing made Mohk feel more alive than killing. He would be doing some of that in a moment—the up-close kind, with the real danger of your enemy fighting back. Yes. He felt more alive right now than he had in months, months spent cooped up on a spacecraft the size of a small moon. His people were hunters by nature, and the long distance battles of empire-building—spacecraft to spacecraft fighting, planetary bombardments, annihilation of entire species through seeded diseases—although necessary, left him cold and uninterested. Shortly, he’d be seeing and smelling the blood of his prey. Life is good, he thought. Taking a life is better.

A squad of marines, also Nell, snapped to attention, and Mohk’s small slit of a mouth puckered into a smile. Cycles of careful planning had led, first, to the turning of a crew member, which in turn had led to the vessel’s capture. Let no one ever say Chemil Mohk doesn’t know how to set a trap, he thought.

“Please follow me, Lord Mohk,” said a Terran marine colonel, shorter than Mohk by a head.

The Nell followed the Terran down the long central corridor, surprised at how the well-maintained interior of the ship contrasted so sharply with its broken-down exterior. The inside was clean and uncluttered, obviously geared toward efficient use and a clue as to why this ship had been so difficult to catch. The outside resembled a typical outlaw vessel that operated on the margins of Imperium law—its hull plates looked shot up and dented, poorly-maintained. Obviously meant to deceive, he thought. It’s a warship disguised as a freighter.

“Colonel, does anything about this craft strike you as unusual?”

“Unusual, my Lord? No, my Lord, it doesn’t.”

Of course it doesn’t. You’re Terran. Mohk frowned. The Terrans had their uses, particularly as battle fodder, but of all the subjugated races, they were famous for being the least intelligent and the least observant. Back at High Command, one was expected to have two or three “stupid Terran” jokes ready to tell. Here I am out on the edge of nowhere stuck with three Moon-class cruisers full of these dolts. “This craft stinks of your kind,” sniffed Mohk.

“Yes, my Lord.”

Mohk stepped through the bulkhead into the common room of the ship and paused. Sitting before him, bloodied, head slumped, hands plastripped to the chair he sat in, was Nolo Bray, the notorious, raven-haired captain of the Ghost Star which, until today, had been the most elusive smuggler vessel in the Rex Cloud. The rest of the crew stood against the far wall under the watchful eyes of Imperium marines.

Pulling up a chair, the Nell Commodore sat in front of Nolo and stared at him for several long moments before slapping him hard across the face. “Wake up.”

Mohk instinctively pulled back as Nolo lifted his head and made eye contact. The smuggler’s hard gaze felt like a pulse hammer boring holes into Mohk’s skull. “I'm awake.”

“Good,” said Mohk, turning away as he struggled to recover. There’s no fear stink from this one. That’s coming from the others. Who is this fool that he should unnerve me so? “You have been a hook in my tail, a spike in my backside, for the past ten cycles. That's a compliment, by the way. You may thank me.”

“And you may kiss my . . .”

Mohk wheeled around and slapped Nolo again, instantly regretting it as the smuggler fell backwards. He’d risen to the bait and momentarily lost control. “Pick him up.”

The two guards set the chair upright as Mohk grabbed Nolo by the chin and looked into his eyes. “Stim him.”

A female Terran stepped forward and jabbed a small hypo into Nolo's neck. He awoke with a start, eyes wild as he scanned the room before settling on Mohk.

“You still here?”

Mohk raised his hand to strike again, but thought better of it. “You and this bothersome ship—” He paused, glancing around at the interior of the warship. “—this bothersome ship pretending to be something it isn’t has eluded every trap I set, every effort I made to capture you.”

“What can I say? It's what I do,” said Nolo.

“It's what you did. Soon you won't be doing anything at all.”

**

Galen Bray awoke with a gasp in complete darkness. Every bone in his wiry body ached, but why? Regor, he remembered. He stunned me.

Galen lifted his hand, his skin coming into contact with a cool metal surface. Feeling around, he determined he was in some kind of upright box. Regor’s locker. He carefully opened the door a sliver and looked out into Regor’s bunkroom. Detecting no movement, he pushed the door open and stepped out, noticing there was something heavy in his pocket. His fingers touched the hilt of a curved blade. Galen lifted the weapon, brushed the long black hair out of his dark eyes and frowned. Nolo’s blade. What’s this doing here? His father had given him the ancient blade on his thirteenth birthday and begun rigorously training him in its use. Per Nolo’s instructions, the blade should be under his bunk pillow. “Always keep the blade close by, Galen, you never know when you’ll need it,” he always said. Need it for what? Now here it was in his pocket. Regor must’ve put it there. But why?

Galen tucked the blade into his waistband. “Bartrice, report.” He waited a moment for a response from Bartrice, the artificial intelligence of the Ghost Star, named by his sentimental father after his recently deceased mother, but heard nothing. “Bartrice?” Still nothing.

What’s going on here? He crossed to Regor’s workspace and pushed several weeks of accumulated work to the side before taking a seat in front of the vidscreen. Dragging his fingers across the screen, he called up the communication and security hubs. “Hex? Are you there? Report.” All he got back from the bot was a low level of white noise. Galen sat still for a moment, unsure of what to do.

Ship cams.

A few commands later Galen's vidscreen was covered with views from every security cam on the Ghost Star. To his shock, many of the views included Imperium marines. Some were lesser Nell, most were Terrans, and each was fully armored and armed with a rifer, the lethal Imp projectile weapon. Not good.

Motion near the bottom of his vidscreen caught Galen's eye. Was that what he thought it was? No, it couldn't be. Galen tapped the image and gasped. A Nell lord, made instantly recognizable by his bladed forearms, stood in the common room.

“Not good,” he muttered. The Nell was saying something. What it was, Galen couldn't tell until he remembered to turn the sound on. “Idiot!”

“—and so, with great pleasure, I place you all under arrest,” said the Nell.

Galen sat back and ran his hands through his hair. He leaned forward and adjusted the camera angle. What he saw next almost made him vomit. His father, tied up and beaten bloody, sat in the center of the room.

“Colonel, take care of the others. I shall deal with this one myself,” said the Nell.

“Yes, my Lord.”

Galen watched the marines herd the five-member crew of the Ghost Star out of the common room toward the cargo bay. A lone marine followed them, dragging a small girl with him. Trem. They’ve got Trem.

His sister quite literally screamed bloody murder as she struggled to free herself. “I’m going to kill you all and rip off your heads and then pull you apart into little pieces!” Galen raised his eyebrows. Normally sweet and good-hearted, Trem would sometimes, but rarely, fall into fits of anger, bordering on rage. Trem always unnerved Galen when she did this, but his father never appeared concerned by her outbursts. “Growing pains,” he’d say.

“Trem! Control yourself. That’s an order,” said Nolo in a calming voice. Trem settled down. “But they’re on our ship and they hurt you . . .”

The Nell Commander grunted. “This one has spirit. Where was she?”

“In the galley, my Lord,” said the marine. “Hiding in a refrigeration unit.”

The Nell passed through the frame of the vidscreen and paused near Nolo. “Perhaps I should adopt her instead of killing her or taking her to High Command. What do you say, Captain Bray?”

“I say you’d make an unworthy father.”

The Nell frowned, then gestured for the marine to leave, which he did, dragging a now quiet but still uncooperative Trem with him.

Galen flinched as the Nell grabbed Nolo’s hair and yanked his head back. “Now, how should I kill you, criminal? Quick and easy with a rifer, or slow and messy with my foreclaws?”

Galen gasped, then frantically searched Regor’s room for a weapon before remembering the blade in his waistband. I have to do something.” He made a move toward the door but stopped when Nolo started speaking again.

“I am a man of action, Lord Mohk,” said Nolo between ragged breaths. “I ask you to accept my challenge of hand-to-hand combat.”

The Nell closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

He'll rip you apart, thought Galen as he lowered himself back into the chair.

“You know how you will die, don't you?”

“You’ll try to kill me by thrusting a foreclaw into my throat, severing my head from my body,” said Nolo.

“Try?” said Mohk, clearly delighted. “Oh, this will be most enjoyable.”

Mohk sliced the plastrips binding Nolo. What happened next was so fast and violent, Galen would be trying to sort it out for many a cycle. The second the bindings hit the floor, a huge and shadowy figure appeared out of nowhere and in a dizzying blur of action—an impossible-to-follow tangle of teeth and claws, fur and skin—attacked the Nell lord.

Then as soon as the chaos began, it was over and the common room was consumed by eerie silence—the only sounds were of someone panting heavily. Nostrils flaring, Galen kept his eyes locked on the vidscreen. Then slowly, he heard heavy scraping sounds as though someone was dragging something heavy across the deck. For an unbearable moment, Galen watched the vidscreen until the Nell, this Lord Mohk, entered the cam frame and flung himself into the chair. Mohk had several large gashes across his chest and another above his left eye which was bleeding heavily.

The Nell tapped the com link on his sleeve. “Colonel!”

“Yes, Lord Mohk.”

“Get one of your Meds here. I’ve been injured.”

“My Lord! How can that be?”

“Our Captain Bray was no mere smuggler. He was a Ruam Shre.”

A Shre? Galen sat back, so stunned he was unsure if he would ever be able to move again. What’s a Shre?

Chapter Two

For the millionth time, Galen wiped tears from his eyes. He’d been crying, on and off, for the past day or so while he hid in a concealed smuggling vault and waited for the Imperium forces, the Imps, to leave the Ghost Star. He still couldn’t believe his father was dead. That wasn’t how his life worked up until this point. Nolo was always there, looking after him and Trem—protecting them. Always.

A series of loud noises reverberated through The Ghost Star’s hull and snapped him out of the start of more tears. Galen did a quick systems check on a handheld he’d cribbed from Regor’s bunk. The readout confirmed the ship was now tethered to a Nell battle cruiser. Galen didn't want to think about what would happen once they reached their destination.

He slid the vault door open and peeked out into the passageway, which was dimly lit and empty. It was also cold. So cold he could see his breath. Odd. It never got cold on a space vessel. The Ghost Star’s interior was kept at a comfortable temperature. The bio-support must’ve been dialed way down or even off. Off? Not good. Space is a cold place. A deadly cold place. Galen knew he'd have to risk discovery and figure out what was going on before he froze to death or ran out of breathable air.

He stepped into the passageway and moved quietly toward his own bunk, his flips doing a poor job of protecting his feet from the extreme cold radiating from the gravplate flooring. Once inside, Galen pulled on as much warm clothing as he could find. It didn't matter if the socks were clean or not. His toes were so cold they felt like they were about to snap off. He slipped into a pair of maintenance coveralls and some heavy synthfur-lined work boots, then dug a hat out of the pile. Not bad, he thought. He was at least warming up a bit under all of those layers of clothing. His hands were still cold though. He could borrow some gloves from his father . . .

Galen closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Nolo Bray was dead and, by Ruam law and custom, everything on the ship and the Ghost Star itself belonged to Galen. There would be no borrowing from now on. Everything was already his.

Galen checked the blade in his waistband then stepped into the passageway, cocking his head and listening intently for any bio-generated sound. He relaxed after several long moments, having decided all he could hear were the dull hums of the active mechanical systems. Grabbing a ramball stick, Galen made his way toward the systems node. Life on a space vessel made it difficult to pursue any kind of regular field sport activity, but the stick felt good in his hands and Galen was glad he hadn't sold or given it away once he got past his “crazy fan” phase of a few cycles back. A ramball stick to the head was a powerful persuader in any context.

As Galen made his way through the Ghost Star, he took careful note of which systems were still online and which ones weren't. This was a lot easier than it sounded as everything, with the exception of the base system that did things like keep the doors and hatches closed, the artificial gravity functioning, and the ship from flopping around on the tether, was off. The Ghost Star was in hibernation mode.

He glanced into the cargo bay as he passed and came to an abrupt stop. On the floor were six bodies, the captain and crew of the good ship Ghost Star, bloodied and laid out in a row like pieces of firewood. All of the bodies were full-sized adults, some of them were missing their heads. No Trem. Galen breathed a ragged sigh of relief, then took a tentative step forward, his eyes fixed on the bloodied corpse of his father. Deep gashes and stab wounds from the Nell’s foreclaws were apparent on all of the crew, but special attention had been paid to Nolo’s body and head, and Galen had to fight the urge to grab a towel from the galley to clean up the now frozen blood. Not now, Nolo, he thought. I must regain control of your shipmy shipthen I’ll tend to you. He backed out of the bay and closed the heavy doors, shutting his eyes for a moment before continuing on.

Galen rounded the corner and heard the sound of broken glass crunching under his boots. He looked down. A small number of broken bottles of ship's brew sparkled in the emergency lighting. The brew’s pungent aroma filled his nostrils and set off memory bombs of every celebration he’d attended on the ship. Just beyond lay the motionless form of Hex, the Ghost Star’s maintenance bot, secured to the floor with Imperium magstraps. Galen cautiously knelt next to the ship's robot. What happened to you? He carefully examined the bot's shell and limbs. No rifer holes or scorch marks to be found. Then he noticed the open hatch. “Oh.”

Galen released the magstraps and found Hex's power-connect by touch. He reinserted it and pulled out his hand as the bot powered up and shot to its default hover height.

“. . . panel, Regor?” continued Hex.

Hex stopped for a moment. Galen could hear quiet clicking inside the bot and knew it was preparing to run diagnostics. Seconds later, Hex exploded into a frenzy of self-checks. The loud clicks and noises continued on for a full thirty seconds, and if Hex hadn't been a robot, Galen could have been convinced the bot was having an anxiety attack. Finally, the clicking slowed.

“Hello, Hex. It's me.”

“Hello, Galen. Yes, I confirm your identity. Other than yourself, there appears to be no crew onboard The Ghost Star. The ship itself is offline and I cannot access any of the onboard systems. There is also a thirty-six-hour gap in my consciousness, which was preceded by the ship's engineer reaching inside my carapace. What did I miss?”

“Regor turned you off and deactivated Bartrice. He also stunned me.”

“For what purpose?”

“Betrayal. He allowed the Nell Imperium to capture and board the ship.”

“I do not detect an Imperium presence onboard The Ghost Star,” said Hex.

“Do an exterior scan.”

A few more clicks and whirs filled the air for a second or two. “Ah yes, we are tethered to an Imperium battle cruiser, Moon-class. I presume the rest of the crew has been taken aboard their vessel?”

“Trem has. The rest of the crew is dead. Even the captain.”

“I see,” said Hex after a long pause. “You have my sincerest sympathies, Galen Bray. Nolo Bray was a man of rare qualities. An exceptional bio-form.”

“Thank you, Hex.”

“Why are you not in custody? Why was Trem spared? Are you cold?”

“At first I was concealed in Regor’s bunk room and then I hid in a smuggling vaults. I think Regor hid me, but I don’t know why. I also don’t know why Trem was spared and yes, I am extremely cold,” replied Galen.

“Follow me, Galen Bray.”

Moments later, Galen and Hex were in the Ghost Star’s command pod, the part of the ship that Nolo piloted from—used to pilot from. Galen glanced out a side viewplate at one of the most spectacular views anywhere. Having recently finished a lucrative smuggle of medicinal roots to a remote manufacturing colony, Nolo, as was his habit, had parked the Ghost Star, near a real-life ghost star or black hole. Named “Mael,” it radiated a fatal beauty. A blacker-than-black orb of unimaginably dense matter, Mael had more the appearance of a hole than a ball. A hole punched in the fabric of space that greedily sucked in anything, including light itself, which entered its impossible-to-escape gravity field. Most sane people avoided ghost stars the same way they avoided a deadly beast, which is probably why the ship was given its name. Nolo often said this “feature” was what made Mael the perfect hideout. That may be true, thought Galen. But how come I never see other smugglers hiding out here?

Hex took up a central position in the pod, and the tip of one of his appendages began to glow a dull red. “It is easiest for me to heat this room as it is one of the smallest on board this vessel,” said Hex. “Plus, it is well-shielded and should frustrate any scans for infrared signatures. Although why they would at this point . . .”

“Trem is on that thing,” said Galen, changing his position to look out the pod's largest viewplate. Floating before them was the massive battle cruiser.

“Yes, she is,” said Hex.

“We have to get her.”

Hex took a moment before responding. “How will we do it?”

“Good question. We get closer to their base with every breath. Once we get out of range of Mael and leap into tripspace, it will be pretty much impossible to rescue Trem. We have to go from this ship to that ship and back again without being discovered.”

“A difficult task at best.”

“If only we weren't tethered to this thing. Why aren't we in one of their docking bays?”

“It is standard Imperium protocol to tether captured vessels to protect against contagions and sabotage, explosive devices in particular.”

“That's pretty smart, I guess. Not sure how we can get around it, though.”

Hex hummed quietly for a moment. “Even though we are tethered, you could still pilot the Ghost Star to one of the smaller bays—moving slowly, of course, so as to avoid notice. Space hop across with a spare maintenance suit for Trem, then sneak through the cruiser undetected and liberate Trem before returning to the ship, cutting the tether, and making a clean getaway.”

Galen snorted. “Is that all?”

“As I said, ‘a difficult task at best.’ In fact, I’d say this plan is more than likely to fail as it depends on no one onboard the Imperium vessel noticing us—”

“Fine. I get it.”

**

Onboard The Lingering Death, one of the three Moon-class cruisers, Lord Mohk watched his Terran second-in-command, Dur, enter his quarters and drop to one knee.

“I beg forgiveness for disturbing your recovery, Lord Mohk,” said Dur, without looking up.

Mohk gingerly scratched his bandaged chin with a razor-sharp foreclaw before turning to look at Dur, wincing as he moved. As were all Terrans, his underling was small and weak, but his loyalty and usefulness made up for this shortcoming.

“Regor, the traitor who revealed Bray's location, wishes to speak to you.”

“Send him in.”

Dur opened the port and motioned for the disheveled smuggler to enter.

“Kneel,” said Dur.

Regor kneeled and waited.

“You have done well, traitor,” said Mohk.

“Please don't call me that. This has been hard enough,” said Regor.

“I will call you what I choose to call you, traitor,” said Mohk.

Regor opened his mouth to argue, then caught himself and closed it again. “Of course.”

“What do you want?”

A puzzled look momentarily passed over Regor's face. “My family, Lord Mohk. You promised—”

“So I did,” said Mohk. “And I do keep my word. Dur, you are dismissed.”

“Yes, Lord Mohk.” His lieutenant slowly backed out of the chamber catching a glimpse of Mohk as he approached Regor, a predatory look in his eyes.

“Your family has been executed, traitor,” said Mohk.

All color drained from Regor's face. “What?”

“They supported a known criminal and the Nell Imperium takes a dim view of such things,” said Mohk.

“But you said—”

“I needed you to reveal the location of Nolo Bray and his crew. You did that and I am grateful. But now you are under arrest, traitor, and I shall carry out your sentence.” Mohk moved forward, raising a foreclaw as he did.

**

Dur waited outside the chamber and shook his head when a gurgling scream briefly penetrated the door. He knows he’s not supposed to kill in his chambers, but he does it anyway. They’re all bad, but this particular Nell takes arrogance to a new level, he thought before summoning a cleaning bot with his handheld.

The traitor had been a naïve fool. Any bargain entered into with Lord Mohk almost always ended poorly for everyone except Lord Mohk. The Ruam vessel he’d delivered into Mohk’s hands, however, was interesting—very interesting. Not only was its captain able to transform into a beast of legend and almost kill the Nell lord—almost—they now had the captain’s daughter, and as any student of Ruam biology knew . . .

A few more swipes on the handheld gave him an overhead view of the girl’s holding cell. She looked up, a defiant snarl on her lips, and Dur flinched. He turned off the feed and put the handheld on standby.

Yes, very interesting.

**

On the Ghost Star, Galen sat in the command chair dressed in a maintenance exosuit, a spare exosuit in a case next to him.

“Are you ready, Hex?”

Outside, Hex had positioned himself below where the tether claw was latched on to The Ghost Star's tow bar. “I am in position, Captain Bray.”

It took Galen a moment to figure out who Hex was talking to until he realized he was Captain Bray. “Uh, good, Hex. Beginning ascent.”

Galen sat back in his father's chair, now his chair, and went over the control surfaces. He had flown the Ghost Star numerous times with Bartrice, the ship's AI, present to back him up, but this would be the first time he'd done it on manual. Nolo used to do it “for fun” sometimes, claiming this was how they did it in the old days and that any pilot worth anything should know how to fly this way. Each of his manual runs usually ended with half the crew mad at Nolo and the other half puking their guts out.

“Let's see if I'm worth anything.” Using only the Star's docking thrusters, he eased the ship toward the massive Nell cruiser. “This sure is a lot easier when Bartrice is helping out.”

“Your father preferred this method,” said Hex over the com.

“I know, I'm just saying.” Galen relaxed a little more, flinching when the comlink crackled, then popped on, filling the command pod with an ear-splitting screech followed by a serious voice.

“Attention smuggler craft, designation 'Ghost Star',” said the serious voice. “You are commanded to cease all motion and remain point fixed until secured by our boarding detail.”

Eyes wide with panic, Galen stopped the Star by throwing the docking thrusters into reverse. “They spotted us!”

“Yes, Captain Bray, that appears to be the case. As I mentioned, this plan’s chance of success was predicated—”

“I know!” Galen buried his head in his hands. “What am I going to do?”

“Might I suggest we run?”

“I can't leave Trem on that ship.”

“I am afraid you must if you wish to survive. Might I also suggest you make up your mind speedily as a squadron of arcships has been dispatched?”

Looking out the viewplate, Galen could see arcships pouring out of a large launch port like enraged zipas swarming from their hive. “Cut it!”

Outside the vessel, Hex lifted his blade appendage and sawed into the tether. The huge cable was composed of countless smaller cables or threads which snapped and straightened like dried bota noodles when cut.

“Hurry, Hex,” said Galen, his voice noticeably nervous.

“I am almost through,” said Hex as the tether split and drifted away from Bartrice. “Tether has been severed.”

“Okay, get in here and get Bartrice back online so she can take us into tripspace,” said Galen. “I'll do my best to keep us moving until you do.”

“Yes, Captain. Good luck.”

“Thanks. I’m gonna need it.”

Chapter Three

Galen powered up the main engines. Here goes everything. He thrust the steerstick full forward and watched as the dazzling stars visible through the viewplate turned into sloppy streaks of light. His vessel had gone from zero to just below light speed in a blink. Fast, for sure, but not fast enough to outrun the pursuing arcships. “How’s it looking, Hex?”

A deck below, Hex was hovering outside of the node and scanning the inside of the space with a snake cam. “Not well. The traitor Regor removed two key components of the ship's AI. We will not be going into tripspace anytime soon.”

“Snat!” said Galen. “We've got at least forty arcships on our tail. Can’t you do something?”

“Perhaps. Weapons have been disabled. I shall attempt to cobble together a rudimentary ship’s consciousness that can jump us into tripspace.”

“Do it!”

“Yes, Captain.”

Several bolts of white-hot plasma streaked past the viewplates. Galen had received his first, and most likely last, warning shot. He punched at the shield trigger, but nothing happened. “Hex! Where are my shields?”

Hex’s voice crackled over the battlecom. “Apologies. Try them again.”

Galen flicked the shield trigger and was greatly relieved when a coating of pre-plasma spread over the surface of the ship. The arcships opened fire, and the Ghost Star shuddered and rocked with the impact of every bolt on her hull. Galen knew his ship could hold up for a while, but it was only a matter of time and distance before the cruisers opened fire with their big guns. A direct hit from one of those would knock Bartrice out of commission, if not destroy her outright. Galen glanced at the tripspace vidscreen, which featured Mael’s deadly gravity well on its matrix. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you.

**

Lord Mohk strode angrily onto the command deck of The Lingering Death, followed by Dur. The Nell colonel from the boarding party turned away.

“Report,” said Mohk.

A young mid-lieutenant snapped to attention. “Lord Mohk! The smuggler vessel has severed the tether and is evading our second squadron. Our boltfire is having little effect on the vessel's shielding.”

Mohk watched intently as the small freighter wove in and out of the swarm of arcships with relative ease. At one point two of the arcships collided with each other and produced a fireball that made everyone on the command deck wince.

“He is gifted, I'll give him that,” said Mohk. “The question is, Colonel, why is there a ‘he’ on that ship? Did you not tell me you and your men searched it thoroughly?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And yet, there is a pilotless vessel running circles around my arcships.”

The Colonel had broken out into a full sweat at this point, and those who were standing or working near him when Lord Mohk walked in were now a minimum of ten feet away.

“Lord Mohk, it is my theory that either the autopilot was somehow activated or someone was able to get on board the vessel after we had departed.”

Mohk moved deliberately toward the now quivering Colonel, stopping within striking distance. “Somehow? Someone? Those are never good words to use when you're trying to make a convincing argument, Colonel. Your theory is beyond stupid—an autopilot that flies with such skill, the fact that we're nowhere near civilization—I don't think you have a leg to stand on.” Mohk stepped forward and, with a swipe of his foreclaw, severed the Colonel's left leg above the knee.

The Colonel cried out, then collapsed to the ground, clutching his leg. A tech jumped up and, after receiving a nod from Mohk, used his belt as a tourniquet to stop the eruption of blood.

“Take him to the infirmary,” said Mohk, turning away. “But under no circumstance are the meds to reattach his leg . . . yet.”

The Colonel gasped. “Thank you for your mercy, my Lord.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Colonel, and you are more useful to me with two legs. Still, a little suffering always helps to drive the lesson home.”

“Y-yes, my Lord.”

Mohk sniffed, then walked to the viewplate. “I've had enough of this,” said Mohk. “Is he outside the safe zone?”

“Just inside it, Lord Mohk,” said the mid-Lieutenant. “He's still too close for us to use our blast cannon or the smart nukes.

“Instruct the ships to drive the smuggler vessel into the kill zone.”

**

Galen couldn't help feeling giddy as he flew the Ghost Star in and around the arcships like it was second nature to him. Years of practice in the battle sim were paying off and he finally understood what Nolo had meant. Any pilot worth anything prefers it this way.

The arcships broke off their attack and turned back toward The Lingering Death. Something’s not right.

Galen frowned. “Hex? You got something for me?”

“Yes.” All the command panels lit up and then went dark again. “No.”

“Keep working—”

Galen paused. Out in the distance, a cloud of forty small lights was headed directly for his ship. Odd, he thought. Galen hit the maxmag button on the chair's vidscreen and enlarged the image. It was the arcships arranged in tight formation, all firing their bolt cannons. The Ghost Star was in for a world of hurt if he didn't get her out of the way. “Hex! Secure yourself—now!”

“Understood.”

Galen pulled back hard on the steerstick and flipped the Star, pointing her in the opposite direction of the arcships. Then, punching the stick forward, he fired the engines at full capacity. A lesser ship would have broken apart from this extreme move, but not the Ghost Star. Built on the sturdy bones of a military vessel and customized by Nolo, she not only had it where it counted in the engines, but was structurally reinforced to withstand just such a maneuver. Galen tore off in the opposite direction and, with a flip of the wrist, easily avoided the barrage of boltfire. The arcships peeled off and took up positions a short distance away.

Galen puzzled over this for a moment until he realized he was now far enough out for the cruiser to use its main guns on him. In an instant, every big gun battery on the cruiser opened fire, and massive bolts of hard plasma raced toward the Ghost Star.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Roger Eschbacher lives in Los Angeles, California with his family and their two couch potato Border Terriers. In addition to writing YA fantasy and sci-fi adventure novels, he's also an Emmy-nominated TV animation writer.

Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
My cover features Galen's spacecraft, the Ghost Star, exiting a wormhole. On the outside, the Ghost Star appears to be a beat-up smuggler's ship, but is that crusty exterior hiding something? Unseen, but lurking nearby, is Mael--a deadly black hole.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
I plan on making this a three book series. In the next two books, Galen will discover old allies and new friends -- eventually taking the fight to those responsible for his family's suffering. Wish him luck because he's going to need it.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
I invite readers to check out the social links included on this page. They can see what I'm up to on my blog, Facebook Author Page, and Twitter. I've also included LinkedIn, in case they're curious about my animation writing credits.

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