“Her death had come suddenly, more horrific than the previous nights.”
Morning comes, an inferno of magma burns the planet’s surface, by mid-morning ferocious sandstorms wreck the desert landscape, at noon thousand foot tsunamis threatened to destroy the cities, but then Zeron plunges into the brutal freeze of the ice age. Finally, the people age and succumb to death-sleep.
Captured aliens reveal a pending invasion for control over the powerful Etholisk fuel, which gives its possessors a universal trade monopoly. The pace shifts to mach-speed when The Heiress awakens from her death-sleep with a dream – something no one has ever experienced. She realizes she has been chosen to perform a horrifying task to free the planet from its torturous cycle. Her brother, Nosalj, learns the aliens have found a way to elude the death-sleep and allow them to steal control of the fuel. A sexual terrorist seeking power has stolen the Etholisk bomb and threatens destroy the solar system.
This page-turner unfolds with powerful revelation of dominance and revenge, romance and betrayal.
New science fiction books
The Planet of Death-Sleep
Copyright © Vindal Vandakoff, 2009
For my wife and children—
my supporters and believers.
And for my mother and father, remarkable people.
The Planet of Death-Sleep
1: Day One
The First Death-Sleep
2: Day Two
The Dream Reveals
3: Day Three
The quest for riches darkens the sense of right and wrong.
—Antiphanes, ancient Greek dramatist 408–334 BC
For greed, all nature is too little.
—Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman statesman c.4BC–65AD
The First Death-Sleep
The stench of burning flesh drenched the air, mingling with the screams of agony that echoed around the darkened chamber. The human-like male chained to the black iron table, illuminated by an operating light, lay hovering on the edge of death as the liquid Etholisk ate through the flesh on his arms and legs like maggots gorging on a corpse.
“One last time!” hissed a voice from the darkness. “What were you doing in Sector Three?”
The distorted figure let out a horrific scream, his body quaking with spasms, the liquid doing its work.
“You were after the Etholisk, weren’t you?” demanded the unseen man.
The prisoner lay gagging on his own stench, his black hair drenched with sweat and blood, knowing death’s shadow was reaching for him, and confession was merely an illusion of survival.
“Perhaps some more will loosen your mind.”
A bony grey hand emerged into the light, gripping a vial of dark green liquid.
“Your last chance!” sneered the voice. “Tell me and you will die painlessly.”
With his remaining strength, the prisoner twisted his head towards the source and saw the devilish face. A few drops splashed over his chest—he screamed, his body convulsed, eyes bulging out of their sockets as the liquid burned into his chest and then through the arteries of his heart, blood splattering over the walls.
The head and torso of a ruthless, grey-skinned Russian emerged from the darkness.
“Bring in the next one!” he ordered, his grey eyes shifting to the other two aliens held by his men beyond the observation window.
Vladimir, a Russian captain from the planet Earth, was the leader of one of the elite Special Space Outfit units, or SSO units, in charge of protecting Sector Three.
Two soldiers unchained the mangled remains of the pilot and threw them in a heap with the other two bodies.
They dragged the next prisoner into position.
“Everyone out,” ordered Vladimir. They all quickly filed out through the hatch.
Slowly he came close, his wiry body leaning over the shuddering prisoner. He grabbed the man’s blond hair and pulled his face forward. “Want to live?” he hissed, glaring into the prisoner’s bloodshot eyes. “Want to sleep with a woman again? Hold your own baby? To feel love?”
The prisoner just lay trembling, knowing that even if he revealed his mission and were set free, the Empire would hunt him down, and he would suffer a death a hundred times worse than his comrades’, who lay dead on the floor.
“Speak, you alien bastard!” yelled his tormentor.
The prisoner closed his eyes, shutting out the nightmare, trying to find some comfort in his memories before death took them away.
“As you like,” the captain said, disappearing back into the darkness and out through the hatch.
Outside, he wrenched the last prisoner, a female, up by her long, red hair and rammed her face against the observation window. He pushed a button, and the outer door of the chamber opened a few centimetres. The void of space sucked the air from the chamber, and the prisoner was jolted out of his memories, back into the nightmare. His face turned red, and he began to choke.
“Tell me!” Vladimir’s voice boomed over the intercom.
There was no response.
The prisoner exhaled, allowing his life to be sucked away into the abyss.
“Bastards!” yelled the captain, throwing the female onto the floor.
“Prepare chamber F.”
They dragged the female across the floor and threw her into the chamber, bolting the door shut. She slumped in the corner, clutching her knees to her chest, her matted red hair falling to hide her face. Her first mission was a dismal failure, her dreams and ambitions about to be extinguished by her approaching destiny. She dropped her face into her knees and began to sob, crying out for her mother. Her mother’s face peered into her nightmare. “Mother!” she called. “Help me!” The face’s eyes bled tears before disappearing back into the darkness of her mind.
“Tell me!” he hissed, eyes flaming.
She looked up, tears streaming down her cheeks. The grey-skinned Russian stood staring at her through the observation window.
“Tell me and I will let you live,” Vladimir spat.
She shook her head, intoxicated with fear, and laid her face back onto her knees. Mother! Help me!
“Initiate frequency sequence,” he barked.
“Frequency initiated, sir.”
“Distort frequency,” he ordered, a malicious grin cutting across his face.
There was silence for a moment.
The female’s head shot up, searching for something.
She leapt to her feet, eyes wide open with fear. Crouching slightly, hands out in front ready for the attack, she circled the invisible prey, some creature from the deepest parts of her imagination. She lunged forward, tackling something unseen to the ground, smashing her fists into the floor, when suddenly she was flung into the wall. She staggered to her feet, blood gushing from her forehead. Her head snapped back under the imaginary impact of the next blow, sending her sprawling across the floor, breaking her arm as she smashed into the opposite wall. She stumbled to her feet, blood pouring from the protruding bone, and began to circle the invisible beast once more.
“Tell me!” a voice blared overhead. “Tell and you will have your freedom!”
All of sudden she was hurled across the chamber, slamming into the observation window. The impact broke her back.
“Cease distortion frequency!” spat Vladimir, glaring down at the limp body.
She was barely alive, lingering on the last thread of life—finished with her dreams, longing for the emptiness of death, pleading for life to be stolen from her.
“Tell me and I will finish you off quickly,” he said.
Knowing the empire and loyalty were now a fading ember, a meaningless atom in an infinite universe, she reached forward, blood dripping from her fingers, and slowly scrawled, “Prepare invasion Zeron.”
A wicked smile broke from his lips, and then he unbolted the chamber hatch, took out his laser pistol, looked into her pleading eyes, and pulled the trigger.
“Damn those alien bastards!” roared Vex. He jabbed a finger at the control screen. “They’ve taken out two probes, the sons of bitches!” He swung around, his sweaty face red with rage. “You!” He slammed his clenched fist on a subordinate’s desk. “Get off your arse and get me the RHM immediately!” He swung back to the control screen, scanning the probe network for alien penetration.
There was a buzz as the elevator door slid opened. The right-hand man, or RHM, stepped out. “What the hell is going on?” he demanded, his eyes focusing on the screen.
“We have lost probes DP102 and AR102. We are unable to monitor the flow of the Etholisk,” Vex responded.
“Replacements, how long?”
“On what?” the RHM demanded.
Vex pointed to the sea of lava outside the city. “That’s the problem.”
Outside the dome force field, the surface of the planet was an ocean of lava, spouts exploding thousands of metres up into the atmosphere.
The RHM surveyed the holographic monitors with green, catlike eyes and leaned forward to touch a key. A hologram displaying moving imagery of the environmental phases timetable scrolled before his eyes. “Get the ground crew ready to deploy; I want those probes in orbit by 0625 hours. That gives you twenty minutes, no longer—understand!” said the RHM.
Vex was a dark, burly man in his fifties, with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, his face a scarred ledger of battles. Although he was heavily decorated and a former commander of the elite Defenders Squadron, he chose to wear the same uniform as his men, a simple brown tunic over black trousers. But recently he hadn’t been his usual self. His emotions were running contrary to his cool, logical demeanour. The slightest error would cause him to fly off the handle—something was troubling him. Every morning he appeared unshaven, shaky, reeking of alcohol, his grey eyes that usually shone with vigour were bloodshot. All his men were aware of his steady deterioration, but they kept their silence—it was as if he had pressed the self-destruct button.
The right-hand man, known simply as the RHM, was younger at forty, lightly built, short black hair and sharp green eyes that glinted with intelligence from a cold face. He was the second in command under the controller, and he wore his uniform proudly—a short purple jacket adorned with medals over a black shirt and trousers. He was known as a skilful war administrator and strategist. He didn’t suffer fools gladly—whether friend or foe, if they failed him, it was just another body to step over. He was respected but not liked by his men. Off-duty he lived a secluded life and was rarely seen outside his quarters. Stories of bizarre music and screams coming from his quarters circulated among his guards, and it was rumoured that he belonged to some homosexual cult.
The lift doors closed, and all hell broke loose. Vex was in his bombastic element. “Let’s get moving, you bastards. I’ll have the lot of you castrated if we don’t have those probes in orbit in nineteen minutes.”
Turning back, Vex surveyed the abating lava eruptions. In the distance parts of the planet were hardening into rock. “What is the prediction for the desert phase?” he questioned.
“Moderate sandstorms, winds not to exceed five hundred kilometres per hour,” replied a subordinate.
“Estimated time of first sandstorm impact?”
“I want the bloody information now!” he barked.
“Thirty minutes, sir.”
“Status on launch?”
“Probe deployment in approximately seventeen minutes.”
“Approximately?” he yelled. “What is the exact fucking deployment time?”
“All systems go for launch in zero fifteen minutes, sir.”
Vex stared out at the fuming landscape, a mirror of his own inner emotions. “What ships do we have in orbit?”
“Only one, sir. All the other are being serviced.”
“Who ordered them down?” he snapped.
“Senator Feft gave the order yesterday.”
Vex cursed the senator’s ignorance. “What ship is it?”
“The Hercus with squadrons V1 and V5 onboard, sir.”
“V1 is the controller’s son, the heir’s squadron, isn’t it?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Give the order to attack,” he commanded. “And inform the controller that his son is once again charging off into battle.”
Vex turned and look out across the surface. The lava was receding quickly, only a few lakes still dotting the rocky plain. He took a deep breath, trying to extinguish the fury that burnt within him. “Fuck!” he cursed.
Nosalj clapped his hands as the last note of his mother’s voice trailed off into the languor of the afternoon.
“Bravo, Mother, bravo,” he said, rising from the cushions that were strewn around the cooking hearth and moving out onto the balcony. His tall, muscular, twenty-five-year-old body towered over his mother. He brushed back his long, blond hair, his intelligent blue eyes set on her. “We have time for one more,” he said, smiling.
His mother stood, her straight, silky black hair tied back, revealing her pure, milky-white skin and hazel eyes. She looked at her son’s face, the sharp, handsome features so similar to his father’s. “You’re very insistent,” she laughed, “but I really must attend to more urgent affairs of the planet.”
“Please, Mother. Just one more,” he said, smiling like a little boy—a smile that he knew she could not resist.
Just then the inner door swung open, and Nosalj’s younger brother came skipping in. “I heard your singing,” he said, skidding to a halt in front of them. “I’m not too late, am I?”
“You are,” Nosalj said in a grumpy tone. “Mother says she has more important things to attend to than her children.”
“I did not say that,” she scolded.
“You did…” Nosalj turned to face her. “You didn’t…” he said, and the smile quickly widened into a laugh.
“You cheeky son,” she laughed.
They all laughed.
“All right, just one last one,” she said as she smiled, picking up the harp. “Only one or your father will have my head for not fulfilling my duties.”
Both sons seated themselves on the cushions as their mother began to stroke the harp; a soft music filled the room. She smiled at them and began to sing, an angelic sound dancing on the air.
Nosalj’s eyes fluttered open, and he sat up in bed, savouring the dream. He took comfort in being able to dream while off the planet, away from the aging and death-sleep.
It had been over a year since his mother and younger brother had been murdered, and these dreams kept his remaining thread of sanity intact.
Suddenly, guilt stole into his heart, and he covered his face with his hands. “It wasn’t my fault,” he insisted. “There was nothing I could do.”
Over and over he had repeated this, tried to convince himself, but to no avail.
He swung off his bunk and dressed in his navy blue flight suit, and then he stared out the porthole at the shimmering stars. “I miss you,” he whispered.
He looked down at his planet. Great continents of rock were solidifying across the fiery surface—it wouldn’t be long before the planet rotated into the desert phase.
He slumped into a seat, the darkness of space shrouding his face. He missed them deeply. His thoughts wandered back to the memories of his mother’s face, her smile, the songs she sang that brought brightness to the darkest hearts and tears to the most hardened warriors, and his memories replayed his brother’s mischief and annoying quirks. How he longed to quarrel over the most childish things again.
Tears welled in his eyes. He closed them, forcing the salty liquid back. He was the heir to the planet—not a single teardrop was affordable.
But he was tired, tired of death.
All of a sudden the intercom burst into life. “All crews report to flight deck.”
Nosalj stood, quickly compartmentalising his sorrow, locking it away where it would fester deep within his heart, torment his dreams, and gnaw away at his soul.
Nosalj stopped, unnoticed in the shadow of one the spacecraft. Although he had spent a large part of the last three years aboard the Hercus, the sight of the flight deck still amazed him. The main deck was enormous, stretching five hundred metres. Its transparent ceiling towered a hundred metres above, allowing a breathtaking view of space. Lining the length of the deck were grey, stealth, V-shaped attack craft with the most cutting-edge weaponry in the military. The area was buzzing with activity, small maintenance craft zooming up and down disconnecting weaponry chargers and engineers doing last minute checks. In the midst of the activity, six pilots, clad in navy blue flight suits with three lightning bolts emblazoned on their chests, stood casually in a circle.
Nosalj eyed the first two pilots. Tucexe, his second-in-command, was a big, solid man in his fifties with long, scraggly hair, dark eyes, and a scar on his left cheek—he swore it was from battle, but everyone knew he had got it in a bar brawl over a woman. Next to him stood Nazx, a tall, good-looking man in his early thirties, with short, blond hair and blue eyes. Tucexe was laughing as Nazx acted a scene that Nosalj assumed was a dogfight. He knew both men well and had flown hundreds of sorties together with them. He smiled to himself as Nazx overdramatised the scene; he was never without a tale. Nazx was a practical joker at heart, but a damned good fighter pilot. Tucexe laughed again, brushing his calloused hands through his hair. Tucexe was a real hero who would never accept defeat, a cunning and merciless pilot, and an old friend of his father. As a boy, Nosalj had listened to his father and Tucexe talk about their battles and adventures, and this had inspired him to become a pilot. But Tucexe had refused the many commands he was offered. He did not want to deal with the bureaucracy—he simply wanted to fight.
Next to them Nevar and Yrech stood chatting. Nosalj remembered the first time he had met Yrech three years ago when she was assigned to his squadron. She had been just twenty-three, short, a little plump, and with a round face and shoulder-length brown hair. She was shy, her green eyes always avoiding his. She didn’t say much, and he wondered if she had the right stuff to be a fighter pilot. But his doubts vanished after her first mission—as soon as she climbed into her cockpit, she changed from a quiet woman into a fighter pilot who knew no fear, shooting down twenty enemy craft.
Nevar grinned at her and then gave her a slap on the back. He was in his late twenties, muscular build, a square face cropped with short, black hair that mirrored his black eyes. A real straight shooter was Nevar—no drinking or socialising. While the others partied, he would be either in the simulator practising new attack and defence manoeuvres or working out in the gym. He was completely dedicated and a renowned crack shot.
Nosalj’s eyes moved to the next two—Retech and Geve. Geve was just twenty, a skinny kid with curly red hair and a freckled face that held a pair of nervous brown eyes. He had recently graduated from the fighter pilot’s academy, and this was his first mission. He looked apprehensive, and Retech was rubbing his shoulder to calm him. Nosalj had had drinks with both of them a couple of nights ago. He had talked to Geve privately before Retech arrived, going over different attack and defence strategies. He had sensed a lack of confidence in the young man and was worried if he could perform in battle, but then he thought he may be another Yrech. Retech, the other female pilot, had arrived at the bar thirty minutes later, dressed in a black, one-piece evening dress, tall and elegant, her long, black, silky hair falling over tanned shoulders. She, too, had picked up the lack of confidence in Geve’s voice, and when he left the table for the restroom, she had expressed her worry about the new pilot. Nosalj chuckled to himself as he remembered how she had expressed herself—she had turned to him, her soft, brown eyes staring into his, but behind them he knew all too well lay a killer. She then leaned over and whispered into his ear, her warm breath exciting, her lips touching his lobe for a brief moment. Her attraction for him was no secret, and it was neither the first, nor likely the last time she would try to seduce him—but he had always rebuffed her and would do his utmost to continue to do so in the future, as he made it a point not to mix pleasure with business.
He emerged from the shadows, and the pilots jumped to attention. He saluted them, and they saluted back.
“The aliens have taken out two probes, making it impossible for the control room to monitor the flow of the Etholisk; our mission is to track down their ships and destroy them.” He paused, looking at them, their eyes burning with pre-combat excitement. “If there are no questions…”
“Sir!” Tucexe broke in. “Going to annihilate these bastards.”
“Kill every last motherfucker!” spat Retech.
“Get me some cute alien ass,” Yrech laughed.
“They’re all mine,” said Nevar coolly.
“Don’t be so greedy! There’s plenty for everyone,” joked Nazx.
Geve said nothing.
“Enough jokes,” said Nosalj, slapping Geve on the back. “Let’s go!”
They flew, hugging the planet’s curve just above the atmosphere in stack formation. V1, Nosalj’s squadron, took the upper level, and V5, the second squadron, covered the lower level. Both squadrons flew in V-formation.
Nosalj checked the coordinates. “Contact with alien craft, less than six minutes,” he said, his voice deadly. He touched the good luck charm that hung around his neck. “We’ll draw them in close, and then scatter and go into global offence formation.”
They soared around Zeron. Nosalj peered down at his planet. Half of the surface was still a fiery sea of lava that never changed, a perpetual hell. The other half of the planet had hardened into rock and was entering the desert phase. He was momentarily mesmerised by the beauty of the sandstorms which swept across that part of the planet, visible even from this distance, vast clouds of red, yellow, and brown dust swirling over the surface.
Suddenly his control screen lit up with blips.
“The alien attack craft,” he said, counting twenty blips. “Do not break formation until I give the order.” He waited for a visual. Twenty halos of shimmering light shot out from the dark camouflage of space. Glowing rings spun horizontally around their black fuselages, giving each ship the appearance of a small Saturn.
The two groups of enemy combatants bore down on each other at deadly speed.
“Hold formation,” Nosalj ordered. “Wait…wait…now, break off!”
The pilots split off in opposite directions as if performing a well-rehearsed air show. Lasers erupted from the alien craft, and a V5 craft lost a wing, spiralling out of control, and crashed into an alien machine. Both exploded in a small supernova.
“Shit, they have multidirectional cannons!” Nevar swore. “Never seen anything like them!”
“Go to global formation!” Nosalj ordered.
The V1 squadron scattered, forming an outer sphere, while V5 formed an inner core. The squadrons began to pick off the alien ships trapped between them.
“Who’s hit?” Nosalj demanded.
“It’s Spidler from V5,” Nevar replied.
“Spidler, this is Nosalj. What’s your status?”
“I’ve lost all air pressure from the cockpit.” His voice was on the verge of panic.
“Break off and return to base.”
But as the injured ship peeled off, two of the alien craft dropped vertically down through the pilots’ lines—so fast and unpredictable that no one had time to react.
“Spidler!” Nosalj tried to scream out a warning. “There are two on your—” But he was already gone, vaporised.
“Damn these bastards,” Nosalj hissed. “Give them death. Attack!”
The V1 pilots banked their craft inward and fell straight down on the enemy.
Neutron guns blasted thousands of shots per second. Instantly three enemy ships, caught by the ferocity of the assault, were blown to pieces. Nosalj released two lasers that took out another of the enemy. Without warning, half the black spheres shot outwards through the onslaught, breaching Nosalj’s lines and forming an outer perimeter. Nosalj and his men were now trapped between the outer sphere and the inner core of the alien offensive—a reverse of their own trap.
“We’re surrounded!” screamed the Geve.
“Group up and break through the perimeter,” ordered Nosalj, his voice outwardly calm. Two more of V5’s craft exploded, hurling lethal debris into the wing of Geve’s craft. He went cartwheeling towards the planet, hitting the atmosphere. The ship was incinerated. His screams echoed through the headphones of the squadron.
Nosalj and Yrech flew wing to wing, straight at the outer perimeter—corkscrewing, weaving, and dodging through the massive onslaught of lasers. Seconds before deadly impact into the perimeter, they yanked back hard on their controls, spiralling their craft upwards into a vicious loop, the skin stretched back across their faces in hideous grins.
Three alien craft immediately broke formation and accelerated, dropping just behind the pair and spewing out a wall of lasers; Nosalj and Yrech dived and rolled, narrowly evading martyrdom. Out of nowhere, Tucexe came screaming at them head-on—both pilots instinctively banked in opposite directions, leaving the three alien craft open for target practice. Tucexe, with a mouth filled with obscenities, let them have the unmerciful force of his arsenal until only fiery debris remained.
“Right on, Tucexe,” Yrech called.
“Let me at those motherfuckers!” Tucexe whooped, dropping wildly into a spinning dive, weapons ablaze. He blasted straight through the alien core, leaving the bewildered surviving craft easy prey for Nosalj and Yrech, who obligingly obliterated them.
With their inner core destroyed and the outer sphere disintegrating, panic had started to infect the enemy. Mayhem erupted, and the coordination of their attack began to falter.
“Tighter, I need you tighter!” Nevar ordered. Nevar, Retech, and Nazx flew in triangle formation, their cockpit canopies facing inwards only centimetres from one another. They looked like a gigantic arrowhead hurtling through space.
They began to rotate 360 degrees, faster and faster, unleashing a circle of deadly fire, blowing ships to pieces as they cut through the outer perimeter. They turned and came streaking back. Guns flashed like lightning, and another five craft were incinerated.
The surviving aliens, knowing the battle was lost, began fleeing into the blackness of space.
“Control, what’s the damage report?” asked Nosalj.
“Not good,” Vex replied. “Only the commander of V5 squadron survived.”
“Damn!” Nosalj replied, sorrow and anger lacing his words. “How about us?”
“All accounted for except Geve, burned up on reentry.”
“I knew he shouldn’t have been assigned to a combat position so young. It’s that RHM bastard who promoted him.”
“Speaking of the RHM, he’s ordered you and your crew back to the ship. Another squadron is on its way to take over.”
“Tell him he can stuff it. I’m going in—and going alone.”
“Well, we will be out of contact with you for about thirty minutes during the storm phase,” Vex said over the increasing interference. “The storms are predicted to be ver…”
His voice faded away into static.
Lightning tore across the sky, thunder shook the ground, and torrents of rain flooded the thirsty desert landscape—the planet was rotating into the storm phase.
The control room was cut into the sheer rock cliffs below the city, windows stretching for 180 degrees. Centred in the room was an oval control panel with an array of complex screens and panels. Suspended in the air above the control panels were vivid, moving holographic images, displaying the predicted environmental and climatic changes for the day.
Vex turned as he heard the elevator doors open. “Attention!” The control room staff jumped to attention.
An aura of power preceded the tall, broad-shouldered figure that emerged from the elevator’s shadow. He was clad in black, over which hung a grey trench coat that swept the floor. His thumbs rubbed the butts of a pair of silver, long-barrelled six-shooters slung loosely over both hips. They were a gift from the Earthlings as a token of their gratitude after he had signed the trade agreement—the agreement that gave the Earthlings the exclusive right to purchase all the Etholisk in exchange for the anti-aging spices the Zerons so desperately needed. His decision to sign had outraged the neighbouring solar systems, putting Zeron under virtual siege. He stopped, his black, penetrating eyes scanning the room with suspicion. Since the murder of his wife and younger son, he trusted no one, eyed everyone with contempt—all were on his list of traitors and assassins. Even his closest friends he refused to associate with outside formal duties. Although he was a merciless leader who ruled with an iron fist, he was lonely. At night he would sit alone, slumped in a chair, and drown his sorrow with whiskey, replaying the memories of his wife and son—cursing the murderer he could not track down. He had cut off everyone—all except Vex. Vex and he had fought countless battles together, had saved each other’s lives too many times for there to be any rift between them. He strode over to the control panel, his scraggly grey hair brushing his shoulders. His battle-scarred face gave him a wild, wolfish look.
He styled himself the controller of Zeron, and his power was unquestionable.
Vex and the RHM quickly saluted.
“Sit, gentlemen!” he ordered. “Have they returned yet?”
“No, sir. Your son insisted on going in alone.”
“Did you relay my order?” the RHM broke in.
“Of course, but communications went dead due to storm interference.”
The controller went over to the window and gazed out. Dark skies arched over the vast, churning ocean that now covered the inhabitable side of the planet. Waves driven by the tremendous storm thundered against the city’s force fields. The city was on a high tsunami warning.
“Bloody hell!” the controller cursed. “When will we be able to make contact?”
“I estimate in about twenty minutes, sir,” Vex replied.
“Damn him!” His face burned with anger.
A warning alarm sounded. Vex turned and peered at the storm holograph, pressed a few buttons, and a new image appeared. Everyone froze, staring at the hologram.
“Hell,” Vex blurted. “That must be at least…”
“A thousand metres high,” the RHM finished.
“Could be higher,” Vex added, his eyes still glued to the image. “We haven’t had one this big in years.” He pushed some more buttons on the console. “And it’s heading directly towards the city.”
“Sir, we will need to strengthen the shields,” the RHM said.
The controller, lost in thought, stared out at the tremendous waves crashing up against the city’s force field.
“Sir!” Vex’s voice was urgent.
With visible effort, the controller refocused on the situation at hand.
“We will need to double the energy flow into the shields,” Vex said.
The controller looked at the energy flow monitor. “There isn’t enough energy to double the flow in time.”
“If we divert energy from the city, we will have enough,” the RHM said.
“That would mean blacking out the entire city,” Vex said, his eyes not hiding his contempt for the RHM.
The RHM stared back at him with cold, emotionless eyes.
“We have no other choice. Initiate the reflow sequence,” the controller said, taking charge of the brewing disaster. “Then alert the people of the city by brain-chip.”
Vex touched behind his ear to activate his brain-chip. A screen appeared in his mind, and he mentally typed in a message of alert, sending it to all the people of Zeron.
“Perhaps it will just pass over us without breaking,” the RHM said, looking at the hologram.
Vex ran a quick scan, checking the formation of the ocean bed. “Shallows have formed about one kilometre off the city; it’s going to break right on us.”
The controller grabbed some binoculars off the wall and went over to the window. On the horizon a dark shape began to loom.
“Sir, it’s travelling about nine hundred kilometres per hour—impact in about one minute,” called Vex.
They all stood motionless as the dark shape rose out of the sea. The room was completely silent, except for the sound of their hearts pounding in their ears.
Up from the depths surged a one-thousand-metre wall of black water.
The crest threw out, and millions of tons of water came thundering down, exploding into a massive wall of white water. It hurled itself against the city’s shields, surging over the top and drowning the shuddering city in a deafening darkness. The whole city lurched to one side, threatening to tear from its foundations—buildings and houses collapsed into heaps of rubble.
Then it was gone!
Nosalj was attempting to evade the enemy’s detection by hugging the curvature of the planet; his ship glowed like the ember of a fading fire as it splashed in and out of the outermost layer of the atmosphere. He was going it alone, going to annihilate the alien bastards. Slowly a black crescent moon began to protrude from the curvature of the planet. Second by second it grew as he raced around the rim of the atmosphere to reveal a huge, black sphere.
It looked much the same as the smaller attack craft, complete with an enormous spinning ring, but minus obvious weaponry. Nosalj swung left, diving under the ship, searching for a way in. He noticed several access points, but they were all sealed. He was going to have to blast his way in.
At that moment, hatches all over the sphere slid open and guns dropped down. The space around him erupted with explosions. Instinctively, he put his craft into a spinning dive, outmanoeuvring the alien defence. As soon as he was out of range, he banked sharply, pushing the thrusters down fully and screaming back towards the alien ship, corkscrewing wildly through the wall of defensive fire. He released lasers, and a hatch blew open, air hissing out of the hole followed by loose machinery and equipment, lethal shrapnel careering straight towards him. He swung left, and then right, but there was the terrible wrenching sound of metal against metal, and his left wing was torn away. His craft went spiralling out of control, clipping the hatchway and cartwheeling end over end until it crashed to a halt at the far end of the docking bay. Immediately the emergency doors slammed shut, pressurizing the bay.
Nosalj kicked off the remains of the cockpit canopy and slid down the side, removing his laser sidearm. He was clad in the uniform of the Defenders Squadron, a one-piece, navy blue flight suit covered by body armour on the torso, shoulders, and upper arms. Both were made from a special organic material that changed colour according to surrounding terrain, providing the best camouflage Zeron had to offer. There was a holster on his right leg for the gun, mirrored by the laser knife on the left leg, both powered by Etholisk, which gave them a far greater range and firepower than conventional weaponry. Connected to the body armour were six antigravity grenades.
Nosalj studied the bay. It was completely empty except for a few severed cables dangling from the walls and the remains of his smashed, smouldering craft. His flight suit and armour had changed colour to melt in with the grey walls.
Time to move. Slowly he crept away from the cover of his wrecked ship towards a hatch on the far left. But without warning, the hatch was flung open and four alien soldiers thundered in, laser guns blasting. Nosalj took two ricochets on his chest armour that spun him around. His own gun fired wildly, taking out one of the attackers. He dived onto the floor as the assailants pumped a fresh volley at him, sparks and red-hot metal spraying him as he rolled frantically towards the shield of his destroyed craft. His body jolted violently and he let out a pained grunt as a laser tore through his thigh. He crawled behind the safety of his wreckage, the probability of his survival depleting rapidly.
He tore off an antigravity grenade and hurled it over his craft—the air went strangely blurry as if in a time warp, and the aliens collapsed, screaming. This insidious weapon had reversed the gravity from a downward pull to a violent upward thrust—blood surging into heads, exploding their brains.
The aliens lay dead, blood oozing from their facial orifices.
He quickly made a tourniquet to stop the gushing blood and then, limping badly, made his way out of the bay and down a landing to the next level. A long, dim corridor flanked with several submarine-like hatches stretched ominously into the dark hull.
He stopped as he heard footsteps approaching; he sank into the shadows of one of the hatches, eyes burning with lethal intention. The alien tried to scream, but the knife was already slicing into his neck. Nosalj withdrew the blade, scarlet, dripping with death.
Nosalj knew he had to go deeper to set the charges. The pain in his leg was almost unbearable, and his right leg and boot were soaked with blood. He forced himself on into the darkness.
He held his gun outstretched and moved in deeper, his mind sharp with the predatory hunger to kill. He stopped dead; voices echoed from the darkness. He cursed mentally. He refused to be defeated so easily. With an unvoiced snarl, he slid back into the shadows, sensing the peril closing in. He waited for the voices to draw near, and mustering all his strength, he gave out a terrifying shriek and hurled himself at the enemy. Lasers lit up the hall, the Etholisk-powered lasers ripping through the stunned soldiers, flinging them back against each other and spraying the walls with their blood. Within moments the floor was littered with the dead, the injured yielding and pleading for mercy.
Nosalj, completely stoned on the savagery of battle and maddened by the taste of blood, withdrew his knife and systematically slit the surviving soldiers’ throats.
Slowly he stood, hands dripping, adrenaline pulsing through his veins, eyes bulging with satanic lust. Then he vanished into the depths of the hull.
Seconds later the corridor was illuminated by the red of the flashing emergency lights that seemed to increase the throbbing in his leg. He insisted his sanity return, but he couldn’t cajole it—he was still drunk on butchery. He staggered to the end of the corridor and hauled himself up a ladder.
He crawled through a hatch and out onto a catwalk that overlooked a vast cargo bay. He slipped on the blood that had puddled out from his leg as he hobbled to the centre. Systematically he unpacked the explosives and set the timers, placing them under the catwalk. He grabbed the railing and pulled himself up—then he froze, stunned by the sight of the figure glaring at him. Nosalj went for his gun, but the alien raised his hand to his forehead and quickly dropped it down over his face. Air gushed from Nosalj’s lungs, his eyes bulging in disbelief as he fought against the invisible creature that was crushing the life from him. His mind whirled in panic, and then he collapsed, writhed, and went limp—the life crushed from him.
The alien grinned, and then his body convulsed as two lasers thundered into his back. He hit the railing and went over. Out of the darkness Tucexe and Retech belayed down ropes onto the catwalk and ran over to Nosalj, checking his vital signs. “Nothing,” said Tucexe.
Retech removed two sound healers from her field med-bag and placed them on his chest and stomach. These devices used one form of energy to carry another—in this case, sound to carry a holographic image. Circular in shape, they scanned the damaged cells and then reproduced a holographic image of healthy cells. This image was fixed into sound waves which oscillated the damaged cells, reprogramming them with healthy cells. She then injected him with a large dose of adrenaline.
Seconds later, Nosalj, gagging on the essence of life, struggled back to consciousness. His eyes sprang open in search of his enemy.
“It’s okay,” came a husky voice.
“What happened?” His voice was still groggy.
“We’re not sure, but that alien used some sort of mental power on you,” Tucexe replied.
Retech went to put the sound healers around the wound on his leg, but Nosalj grabbed her wrist. “We’d better get the hell out of here. I’ve already set the charges.” He staggered to his feet; both of them wrapped his arms around their shoulders and helped him towards the elevator at the end of the catwalk.
Moments later the doors opened out onto a deserted flight deck, empty except for their own two spacecraft.
“How did you find me?” he asked as they rushed across the deck.
“Did you really think we were going to let you go in alone?” Tucexe questioned. “We saw you crash, so we went in through one of the top entries, which was a lot simpler after your colossal diversion.”
“You need a nice girl like me to take care of you,” Retech said with a laugh.
“Let’s just get off this ship before it blows,” Nosalj said, grinning weakly.
Retech helped Nosalj into her ship. They fired two lasers, blowing the bay doors open, and they blasted out just as the alien ship erupted into a fiery inferno.
Captain Vladimir stood in the darkness, staring out at the stars. “Have you traced the coordinates of the aliens’ entry point?” he barked at his subordinate.
“Sir, they came through entry point FG-564.”
“What!” He stepped into the light of the ship’s bridge, his grey eyes narrowed. “That magnetic corridor runs to Sector Eight—the Zeron sector.”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Take us up to warp speed two,” he ordered.
He looked back out at space, watching the stars streak past as the Etholisk engines thrust the ship close to the speed of light. How could they have known the entry points? Only the Zerons and we know the entry points to the magnetic corridors that crisscross the universe. If they have access to the coordinates and have gained a supply of the Etholisk, this could destroy Earth’s monopoly on trade throughout the universe.
“Sir, approaching the speed of light.”
“Coordinates locked. Entering magnetic corridor FG-564 in—three, two, one.”
At once space vanished, to be replaced by a steel-grey cylindrical corridor. There was no sense of acceleration even though they were travelling hundreds of times faster than the speed of light.
Vladimir sat down to consider the implications. The Zerons wouldn’t be so stupid as to risk destabilisation of the treaty. They need the anti-aging spices as much as we need the supply of Etholisk. The treaty gives us the sole rights to the Etholisk in return for the anti-aging spices. Earth alone controls trade throughout the galaxies. Unless… An evil sneer cleft his grey visage.
There was a tremendous flash as the ship exited into Sector Eight.
“Reverse thrust,” he commanded.
The ship decelerated. He got up and glared out at space, his eyes narrowed. In the distance he could make out the shape of a black sphere with a huge, rotating ring. “Zoom in,” he ordered.
The front window went blurry for a moment and then focused, the black sphere floating right in front. Just then two arrowhead-shaped craft shot out from the black sphere, immediately followed by a binding flash. The sphere exploded into a fiery inferno.
The evil smile slit the bony face again. “Unless…”
Vex turned in his chair with an almost undetectable grin hidden in his features. “Sir, the alien mother ship has been confirmed destroyed. Your son and his crew are returning to their battleship.”
“Send them a message of congratulations and tell them to report directly back to me the minute they touch down.”
The controller sat down. Beyond the force field, the ocean was completely still, a mirror reflecting grey snow clouds, crusts of ice spreading like water lilies across a pond. The ice phase had started.
After Vex had finished sending the message by brain-chip, he checked the holographs. “Sir, I think you’d better come and have a look at this.” His voice resonated with concern.
The controller moved over to stand beside the RHM. “That’s the formation of the terrain yesterday.” Vex pointed to a holographic image. “This is today’s image—you’ll notice it’s almost the same as yesterday.”
“Where do you expect the Etholisk to flow?”
“Probably in the vicinity of Sector Fourteen, but I can’t be sure yet.”
“Does anyone inhabit that area?”
“Yes, Hamlet 14-08H, a small, subtropical biosphere inhabited by several families.”
“Send them a message warning them that the Etholisk may flow under their settlement; they are not to bring down their force field.”
“Message sent, but there is no response,” said Vex.
“Blast!” cursed the controller. “I thought you said all communications were back up and running?”
“My system shows that they are,” he replied, pushing some buttons. “But the hamlet is not responding.”
“Fuck!” he thundered. He turned to the RHM. “Take a squadron and make sure the hamlet is secure.”
The RHM nodded and strode out of the room.
The controller walked to window; outside heavy snow was falling on the frozen landscape. It wouldn’t be long before the blizzards formed, burying the hamlet beneath the snow.
“I have a visual on our ship,” Nosalj communicated to his pilots. “Assume docking formation.”
Without warning, two black spheres shot between Nosalj’s men and their battleship, unleashing three lasers that slammed into the side of the ship. It ignited into a ball of fire, exploding and sending a wave of energy that rolled their ships. When they looked again, there was nothing.
“Shit! Those motherfuckers!” Tucexe bellowed.
“They’re heading for the planet,” came Nevar’s flat tone.
“Sir, permission to engage?” Yrech’s voice sought revenge.
“Kill them all!” Nosalj’s words were as cold and dark as space itself.
Retech, with Nosalj in her backseat, banked hard and fell into a dive with the others on their tail.
They could see the alien ships begin to glow and slow as they hit the edge of the atmosphere.
The ice phase had wreaked havoc across the planet—blizzards of unimaginable strength had torn across the surface, wiping out several hamlets that didn’t have enough strength to hold their force fields.
“Sir, it looks like the terrain is going to form up to ninety percent the same as yesterday,” Vex called across the room.
“Can you track the flow of the Etholisk?”
“It’s coming up now.” Vex adjusted the holographic image, and a red dot began flashing.
“What are the coordinates?” the controller asked, looking at the dots.
“Sir, it’s going to flow directly below 14-08H!”
“Alert them at once. Tell them not to lower their force fields for farming. Also alert—”
The room shook as a mountain just outside the force field surged up out of the ice, grinding up above the city. The sound echoed through the newly formed valleys. The formation phase was at full throttle.
“Alert the RHM that the Etholisk is located where he is heading.”
A warning alarm sounded, and the controller and Vex both looked at the planet’s holographic image. Two blue dots were heading straight for the hamlet, followed by four green blips.
“That’s squadron V1.”
“Put me in contact with my son immediately,” he commanded.
Vex tried all channels of communication, but something was jamming them.
“Something is interfering with our signal.”
“It’s also down!”
“How the hell can brain-chip be down?” he cursed. “What the fuck is going on?”
Vex spun to face his men. “Fix this mess, or I’ll have you all locked away for the rest of your lousy lives.”
Neither the message nor the RHM had reached the tropical hamlet. The villagers had brought the force field down so they could get their huge machines out to plant crops just as two black spheres appeared in the distance. Within seconds, the two black spheres were blasting a path of destruction down the main street. The village centre was in total chaos, people gunned down as they ran out of their burning houses, bodies strewn everywhere.
Nosalj and his team rocketed just above the palm trees in pursuit of the aliens. These bastards knew exactly where to come before we did, thought Nosalj. “You three take the one on the right, and we’ll take the other one out,” he ordered.
“Roger that,” grunted Nazx.
Tucexe pulled up high as they went after the alien ship that was destroying everything in its wake. Nevar peeled off and went for the underside of the alien craft, sweeping hard and fast over the housetops. The alien spun the sphere upside down and blasted off Nevar’s wing, sending him exploding into a house. Tucexe saw the chance, swooped down, and blew it out of the sky.
Retech and Nosalj were engaged in a lethal dogfight, the alien craft rotating fully within the spinning ring, firing in all directions and making it impossible to get near for the kill. Suddenly it halted, hovering, guns silent as if beckoning its own doom.
“Fuck him!” yelled Retech as she hit the thrusters and raced towards it.
“No, it’s a trap!” screamed Nosalj.
She had it in her sights, her eyes meeting the alien’s. His hand passed over his face, and without warning, Retech pushed down hard on the controls, sending their ship into a fatal dive. Thinking she was hit, Nosalj quickly unbuckled and leaned over the seat to grab the controls; he was shocked to see her fully conscious. With no time to assess the situation, he did the only thing possible—he grabbed the controls and tried to pull it out of the dive, but it hit the earth and bounced, shattering the cockpit shell, hurtling Nosalj and Retech out onto the ground.
Nosalj lay on his back, looking blurrily up at the alien ship. He drew his pistol and began firing, but the lasers simply bounced off the hull. There was a humming noise, and a black, spiderlike machine crawled out from an underground bay and scrambled towards the protection of the nearby foliage. The alien craft spun around and blew off two of its legs, sending it crashing to the ground. Four people crawled out from the wreckage, a pretty woman whose face was badly lacerated, a teenage girl, and a man carrying a smaller girl covered with blood.
The alien ship moved slowly forward as if savouring its prey.
Nosalj tried to stand but fell to the dirt. “Run!” he shouted
But the family was frozen, huddled together—terrified.
The last sounds Nosalj heard were the sobbing pleas for mercy before the alien ship vaporised them.
“No!” he screamed, forcing himself to stand. The alien craft slowly rotated to face him. Nosalj blasted a useless volley of lasers that ricocheted off the craft, and in response the alien ship let loose a horrendous wave of lasers that tore through the ground around him, the shockwave throwing him violently backwards into a ditch. As he lay on his back, dazed, he caught sight of a black figure falling through the air directly above the alien ship. It decelerated and landed, clinging onto the craft. The alien’s head jerked up in shock as the figure unsheathed its sword, smashed the cockpit, and dropped into the interior—the alien taking the full blow of the sword in his chest.
Battered from the crash, Retech crawled over to where Nosalj lay, mumbling deliriously. “I could have saved them. Mother, it wasn’t my fault. Forgive me.”
“It’s okay, Nosalj, I’m here,” said Retech, trying to comfort him.
“It’s my fault,” he said, his mind swinging between guilt and sorrow.
“Quiet, love,” she whispered, cradling his head in her lap.
“My fau…” he tried to repeat, but passed out, exhausted.
Behind her, landing gear unfolded, and the black sphere with the dead alien touched down. The glowing ring slowed, and a dark figure brandishing a sword jumped from the craft, running at them. Retech sprang at the attacker, knocking the assailant to the ground, the sword skittering away in the dirt. They rolled around, gripping each other’s throats in a violent struggle. Retech was lifted and thrown over the attacker’s head, landing hard on her back. The two of them rose simultaneously, the dark figure drawing a dagger, Retech unsheathing her laser knife. Retech lunged at her enemy, and sparks ignited as she was easily fended off. She spun, slashing at her opponent’s neck, but was kicked in the gut and went sprawling along the ground. The attacker jammed a foot against her neck and raised a dagger to strike.
Without hesitation, Retech’s opponent whirled around and sheathed the dagger. A tall warrior, completely clad in black except for a slit revealing his eyes, stood behind the victor, sword drawn by his side.
“Attend to the heir,” he commanded.
The victor went over and knelt by Nosalj, cut open his flight suit, and smeared some ointment over his wounded leg, and then quickly bandaged it.
The commanding warrior moved over to the limp body lying face down in the dirt and rolled it slowly over with his foot. Retech’s hand shot up, pointing her laser pistol at him, but in one fluid movement the commander’s sword sliced the gun in half, the blade now resting coldly on her neck. Retech froze.
“Make the slightest movement and I shall cut the life out from within you,” he rasped.
She lay rigid, scarcely breathing.
He looked towards Nosalj. “What’s his condition?”
“Not good, sir,” the victor answered.
“Call them in.”
The victor stood, sword raised high, unveiling a female face. Her long, red hair swirled like flames in the wind. Moments later ten more dark warriors descended on gliders, unfastened their straps, raced over to Nosalj, and picked him up.
The movement aroused Nosalj. “Where am I?” he murmured.
“You’re with me,” replied the woman. “I have bandaged your wound, and we are taking you back to the shrine.”
“Salishis! Is that you?” he said, clutching her arm tightly.
“Yes. It is I.”
“The people of the hamlet need my help.”
“We will see to it—now rest, my noble one,” she said, bending to kiss his forehead.
Retech’s eyes narrowed with hot jealousy. She wanted to plunge her knife into the red-haired woman’s neck and bleed her of her beauty. But she lay pinned by the deathly cold blade as he was carried to the gliders.
The gliders looked delicate with a thirty-metre wingspan, bamboo woven together with rope, and thin animal skin stretched across the top. Underneath, a small, triangular frame was suspended. A series of ropes attached the wings to the pilot’s arms and legs, enabling the pilot to change the contour of the wings much the same as a bird. The huge wingspan and the lightness of the gliders allowed them to take off in the slightest breeze. Once they gained sufficient altitude, they could ride the thermals that rose up like gigantic, invisible fires across the planet’s surface.
Nosalj was strapped to Salishis’s glider, which pointed to face the gusting wind. She adjusted the wing contour, and the glider lifted, turned, and began to spiral upwards, the others following.
The chill of the blade pressed harder against Retech’s neck, threatening to draw blood.
“Try anything and I will hunt you down through eternity.” The commander turned, strode to his glider, and was gone.
The wailing of the injured and the suffocating stench of smoke and charred bodies jolted Retech back to the holocaust that surrounded her. Through the burning haze she saw that the tropical biosphere had been totally devastated: body parts littered the road, parents wept over dead children, and others were frantically trying to trace the screams of loved ones still trapped in burning houses.
Retech clambered to her feet and staggered into the mayhem to help the dying and injured.
She came across a small girl who was whimpering in agony, clutching her intestines that were draping from a massive wound. She knelt down, took out two sound healers, and placed them next to the wound, and then pushed the intestines back inside the girl’s stomach. The girl let out a short scream and fainted. Retech activated the sound healers, and within minutes the wound closed and then disappeared.
She worked frantically, helping the injured children first, using her two sound healers to save the badly injured. After she could do no more, she slumped to the ground and began to cry—not for the dead, but for the maimed and orphaned children.
“Retech!” Distant voices echoed through her despair. “Are you all right?”
She looked up to see the blurry faces of Tucexe, Yrech, and Nazx standing over her.
“What happened to Nevar?” she asked, noticing he was missing.
“He didn’t make it,” replied Tucexe.
Her head slumped again, overwhelmed by grief.
“Where is Nosalj?” they asked.
Pulling herself together, she got to her feet, and very calmly, like the well-trained warrior she was, she explained what had happened.
“The warrior monks!” exclaimed Nazx.
“I thought they were only folk legend, old wives’ tales,” said Yrech.
“No, they’re real. They are the protectors of the death-sleep. Only the controller and the heir know the location of their shrine.”
“You mean the stories about them awakening us from our death-sleep are true?” Yrech questioned sceptically.
“It’s all true,” confirmed Tucexe.
“So what about Nosalj?” Retech asked anxiously.
“I have no idea,” replied Nazx. “But rumour has it that Nosalj has had contact with them.”
“What rumours?” pressed Retech. The image of the woman warrior monk bending over Nosalj flooded her mind.
“Let’s just say I have some contacts in the Senate. There has been talk,” Nazx answered.
“We’d better return to the city and inform the controller,” said Tucexe. “Retech, you ride with Yrech. Let’s get moving…there is nothing else we can do here.”
The Defenders soared through newly formed valleys; mist cloaked the troughs like pearly rivers. The ice and snow had melted away, and to the west a calm ocean lapped at the sandy feet of a mountain range that stretched away to a rocky plain. In the south a plateau rose thousands of metres out of the barren desert. The day’s terrain was complete.
Trees and vegetation erupted from the soil, the dull roar of growing timber filling the mountains as trees twisted upwards out of the mist. Dark green vegetation raged through the bare mountains, and great trees climbed hundreds of metres into the air—a dense rainforest swept over the landscape.
The planet had moved into the growing phase.
Below, the pilots caught sight of a huge driller, a black disc craft that was covered with grime and dust and heavily armed, being towed by two zeppelins to the decimated hamlet where it would extract the Etholisk.
In the distance, an extinct volcano encased in the blue sphere towered thousands of metres above the horizon. Embedded in the crater was the capital city, Siloportem. Four sections made up the city, the first being the business area that accommodated banks, financial institutions, and most importantly, the market where all the goods and Etholisk were sold to the Earthlings in exchange for the anti-aging spices. The second section consisted of government offices and apartments. The third was the entertainment sector—a vast area scattered with thousands of restaurants, brothels, and bars, including the infamous “Square of the Round Bars.” The last was a residential area, a clutter of low-lying, whitewashed buildings that took up the east side.
Siloportem houses were—in the main—based on a few designs, and they were typically constructed of stone and had red slate roofs. Though there was little imagination in the variety or design, no one could deny the houses were beautiful. Generally, a tiny archway with wooden doors led into a spacious living area adorned by a cathedral-shaped high glass ceiling. Tree trunks cut to mould naturally into the shape of the house supported the roof. Branches sprouted from the trunks to form beams and supports for the walls, and often knots were left to hang pictures and decorations. In the centre, a large cauldron hung by chain from the ceiling over a rectangular cooking hearth that was surrounded by cushions. Off to each side, arched hallways led into the sleeping quarters. At the far end off the living room, ceiling-high glass doors opened out onto a garden that was usually built around one enormous tree. These were called eiznob trees, and they were considered works of art. Many years of cutting and splicing enabled them to grow four or five times their usual height.
Tunnelled below the city were three levels, running the entire circumference of the volcano. The top level, Defence Level One, was an intricate maze of tunnels that cut in and out of the sheer cliffs, housing the control room, the right-hand man’s office, and other military departments. Mounted every few hundred metres on the side of the cliff were enormous, eight-barrelled laser cannons, which were purposely designed to shoot only up, not down.
Level two consisted of two parts. The outer ring contained the controller’s chambers, the banquet hall, offices, meeting halls, servants’ quarters, and the heir and heiress’s chambers. All this was connected by a series of tunnels which led directly to the enormous stone inner chamber of the Senate.
Level three, Base Defence, was on ground level. Thousands of two-manned laser hover-tanks, capped with four-barrelled domed turrets, patrolled a tunnel cut in and out of the cliffs.
Set deep in the bowels of the mountain was the Defenders base, a massive natural cavern that housed the entire Defenders fleet and their weapon stockpiles.
Deeper still was the real power of Zeron—a reactor fuelled by Etholisk, thousands of times more powerful than any fusion reactor.
Connecting the different levels was a network of supersonic vacuum elevators that zigzagged throughout the volcano, making any part of the defence complex accessible in a matter of seconds.
“All communications are back online,” Vex reported, looking up from the console.
“What was the cause?” the controller questioned sharply.
“We’re still working on it, sir.”
“Well, find out what the fuck happened!”
The controller narrowed his eyes at Vex. “Don’t bloody ‘Yes, sir’ me—find the fucking source of contamination before I make you the virus.”
Vex was accustomed to the controller’s abruptness, and he actually enjoyed his uncouth bluntness, so different from most commanders.
Vex turned back to his men. “You heard him! Initiate a virus trace.”
A small beep sounded.
“Incoming message,” called Vex.
“From whom?” the controller asked, eager for news of his son.
“V1.They have just landed.”
“Order them up immediately!”
“They’re already on their way.”
Within moments the elevator doors hummed open, and the V1 pilots stepped into the room and saluted the controller.
“Where is my son?” demanded the controller.
Tucexe, unfazed, stepped forward. “We believe the warrior monks have taken him to their shrine.”
“What do you mean?” he shouted, his face contorting with rage.
“He was injured, and they took him into their care,” Retech interrupted.
“Silence!” He turned away and strode over to the window. No one moved a muscle as he stared out into space. “Was one of them a woman?” he asked, his voice distant.
Retech stepped forward nervously. “Yes, sir. I think I heard him call her Salishis.”
“Salishis, the head monk’s daughter,” he said, noticing Retech blush. “We will see him soon enough.”
“Sir!” Nazx said, holding up a grey flight suit. “We found one of the aliens wearing this.” He spread it out over the table, and the controller began to examine it.
“Vex, what do you make of this?”
Vex studied the suit. It was steel grey with a lightly blue-tinted helmet. Mounted on the right side of the helmet was a telescopic sight that could be flicked down over the eye. Tubes ran from the shoulders to the hands and from the waist down to the feet. On the back was a thin, flat pack that seemed to be its energy source; attached to the right shoulder was a miniature, armour-piercing laser cannon. On the right arm was a laser gun, and on the left arm six explosive-tipped arrows protruded from a square projectile device. Concealed in the left leg was a short, curved sword.
“It seems like a standard soldier’s suit—except for these hexagons attached throughout the entire inner surface.”
“What do you make of them?” asked the controller. He noticed Vex’s hands were trembling.
“They could be some sort of life-support system. I will have to run some tests.” His eyes were becoming blurred.
A beep made them look up from their examination.
“Bring it up on virtual-image,” said the controller.
“Coming up on V-I three.”
The pale, bony face of the Russian captain floated above the console.
“We have intercepted some intruders in Sector Three,” he said, peering narrowly at his audience.
“What planet are they from?” the controller asked, staring directly into the skeletal face.
“Never seen this type of craft before,” he hissed, looking the two females over with a predator’s instinct. “Probably from beyond Sector Ten.”
“There has been no discovery of intelligent life beyond Sector Ten, and even if there were, they would not be able to travel such a distance. It would take them hundreds of thousands of years.”
“Not if they had Etholisk,” he said, leering at the women. “Their ship was powered by it.”
“Are you sure it was Etholisk?”
“Positive! Would you like to send one of your females up to collect a sample?” he said in his guttural tone.
“Fuck you, Captain!”
A smile stretched across his bony face. “By the way, they left a message for you!”
Everyone gasped as the image of a young, red-haired woman with the left side of her head blown off filled the control room. The image zoomed in on the bloody message scrawled on the window. “Prepare invasion Zeron.”
The controller didn’t flinch. “When did you intercept this ship?”
“A few hours ago.”
“Do you have any prisoners?”
“Unfortunately, extracting information was somewhat…difficult.”
“You mean you tortured them all to death?”
“We Russian Earthlings have achieved the highest level of information retrieval.”
“I need more information, you moron!” the controller bellowed, hot blood flooding his face. “How can I get it if they’re all dead?”
A menacing grin slit the Russian’s pale face.
The look stung the controller with rage. “I will have my revenge on you sooner than you think.” His eyes glinted venomously.
“They are from a planet called Erutuf—and fuck you, sir!”
The image went blank, and silence filled the room.
“Bloody animal!” he roared. “Demented, callous bastard let loose to kill in the name of intergalactic law.”
The elevator opened, and the RHM strode in, his face emotionless, but his eyes sought out Vex. “You gave me the incorrect coordinates, you imbecile.” A blade of contempt sliced through his voice, cutting Vex’s nerves.
“Bullshit! You cowardly bastard!” Vex retorted, his deep hatred of the RHM steaming from his skin.
“Cowardly bastard? You dare to call me a cowardly bastard?” the RHM snarled, drawing his pistol and aiming it point-blank at Vex. “Insubordination!” He squeezed the trigger.
Nazx and Tucexe tackled the RHM to the ground as Vex dived for cover, the laser exploding in a shower of sparks behind him.
“Enough!” the controller bawled over the turmoil. “Both of you, back off!”
Vex rose, maddened.
The RHM stood, his cold, dark, green eyes betraying neither anger nor revenge. But inwardly he cursed. He had lost control—something he wasn’t accustomed to. The drugs the Earthlings were giving him were taking their toll.
“Half of 14-08H has been destroyed due to his incompetence,” bawled Vex, his hands shaking.
“Silence!” demanded the controller. “The hamlet would have been completely wiped out if not for V1.” He looked at the four pilots for a long moment and then said, “Well done, V1—I owe you an apology.”
“Sir, it is us who owe you an apology for disobeying a direct order,” replied Nazx.
“Enough! Join me in my chamber tonight. Dismissed!”
The elevator had closed behind them when Yrech dropped to her knees and began vomiting.
“What’s the matter?” cried Retech.
After a few moments the fit passed, and she got shakily to her feet.
“I have never met a man with a scent so putrid and full of rage as I just did.”
“Who?” they asked.
“The right-hand man,” she replied with loathing. Part of Yrech’s inheritance was the ability to smell the traits of men. She was never wrong.
The controller’s eyes bore into the RHM and Vex. “Whatever you do off-duty is your own bloody concern, but at the moment we have an unknown threat to uncover. If you two idiots can’t handle it, I’ll replace you so fast your heads will spin.”
“I’m fine,” replied the RHM.
“And you, Vex?”
“Fine,” he blurted out, a trace of whisky stinging the controller’s nostrils.
The controller ignored the smell, dismissing the rumours of Vex’s deterioration. “Right.” He fixed them with an icy stare before turning back to the holographic displays. “Launch a fleet of armed defence satellites at a perimeter of five thousand light years. Set them to destroy any unauthorised ships that enter.” He paused. “Give orders to postpone the festival and the race until this threat has been eradicated.”
The RHM’s eyes narrowed. “What? Are you going to let these Erutufens influence what we do and don’t do? Are we Zerons going to waver under their threat?”
The controller glared at the RHM. He knew now that it had been said, it would be a sign of weakness if he cancelled the festival and the race. “Disregard my last order.” He quickly went on. “RHM, I need you to run some tests on that spacesuit.”
“Right away, sir.”
“Vex, find out what galaxy the planet Erutuf is in.”
The doors to the elevator swished open, and the controller’s daughter, the heiress, entered. Though she was only twenty, the controller’s daughter had an aura of authority about her owing to her long experience working for her father as an emissary to the populace. She glided up to her father and kissed him lightly on his cheek. He didn’t return her kiss; never since the death of her mother and brother had he shown her any love. She hugged him, but like so many other times, it was as if she was hugging a statue. There was nothing—no warmth—nothing.
“What’s the matter?” her father asked, pushing her arms away.
Tears welled up, but she fought them back. “The southern part of the city has been devastated by the tremors from the tsunami. We need more manpower and machines to rescue the trapped,” she replied, looking into his cold eyes—eyes that were once kind and loving. What had happened to him? Why couldn’t he accept her love?
“Sir, I am heading that way. Would you like me to take charge?” offered the RHM.
“No, my daughter is quite capable. Just organise whatever she requires.”
“Thank you, Father. I must go; the people need me,” she said, kissing him on the cheek again, hoping he would return the kiss, wishing he would show some sign of affection—but there was none, his cheek was cold as stone.
She turned and entered the elevator with the RHM. The eyes of every man in the room followed her movements.
The RHM stood slightly behind her and breathed in her lavender scent; she was elegant, garbed in a long, white lace dress, brown hair tumbling past her shoulders. The light from the elevator seeped through her dress to outline the perfect contours of her body, and even though he couldn’t see her face, he could visualise her beautiful hazel eyes.
They stood in silence as the elevator sped quietly upwards to the city surface. The doors opened, and there was a gentle brushing of hands, a meeting of eyes, a whisper of “Tonight.” And he placed a small snippet of foil into her hand.
She entered her chamber, closing the heavy wooden door behind her. Soft cream carpet met sandstone walls, which held up a dark timber ceiling. At the far end, large glass doors led out onto a stone balcony a thousand metres above the base of the city, giving a panoramic view of Zeron. She didn’t believe in cluttering a room, so furniture was sparse. In the centre was a wood-framed bed covered with a white lace quilt, a small stone altar stood beside the glass doors, and an antique writing desk and chair sat against the left wall.
She took off her shoes, her bare feet enjoying the softness of the carpet, and walked over to the bathroom. A few moments later, she emerged wearing a grey jumpsuit and black army boots, ready to oversee the rescue mission. She sat down on the bed, rubbing her temples with her thumbs; something was wrong, terribly wrong. Over the past few days, she had been getting flashes of a barren, rocky landscape; the images were blurred, but something or someone was standing in the distance. Her death had also been coming quicker, the aging somehow accelerated, and not even the anti-aging drug could slow the advance of death. Last night, death had come swiftly, much more horrific and agonizing than past evenings. She lay down, running her fingers through her long, brown hair. This morning she had awoken from the death-sleep covered in a cold sweat, and blurred images she could not comprehend whirled around her mind. At first, she thought she had dreamt them, but quickly she dismissed this thought as no one had ever dreamt during the death-sleep. It was impossible—unless she had been chosen by the Higher Energies to fulfil the prophecy.