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Issue #7
"Changes"
by
David Marshall

 

Unnamed Khundian World, Near Imskian Space

“Explain your presence in our catacombs!” barked a man in a flowing, hooded robe. A shorter man in an identical white robe stood by him. He appeared to be a generation older. Both men were angry. “This ground is sacred! You have violated our people!”

Lyle Norg hoped diplomacy meant something on the unknown world. “Our ship crashed here. We were looking for help and these catacombs were the only entrance we could find into your city. I apologize for our ignorance.”

The two men looked unconvinced. “Your story is impossible. The Khunds have sworn to protect our world from outsiders.”

“Why do outsiders frighten you?” Querl Dox asked.

The two men looked perplexed. “Us, afraid? Of what?”

The men seemed genuinely confused. Lyle wanted to keep them talking in hopes of gleaning more information about their situation. “We were operating a garbage freighter and had a misunderstanding with the Khunds. We tried to flee but were hit. We had no idea this world was here.”

“I’m not surprised,” the taller man replied. “We like to keep it that way.”

“What will you do with us?” Salu Digby asked.

The men turned to one another for answers. “I’m not really sure. We’ve never had a security breach before.”

“Are you going to kill us?” Dox asked.

The question was calculated and cold like one would expect from a Coluan. It seemed to catch the men off guard and put them on the defensive. Lyle was impressed. Maybe Dox had a stomach for espionage after all.

“The taking of life is not our way,” answered the shorter man. The anger subsided from his face and was replaced by a thoughtful expression. “We should take you to the Eminence and allow him to decide.”

His comrade quickly agreed.

Lyle was relieved to know their lives weren’t in immediate danger. He just hoped this "Eminence" the guards spoke of wasn't a Khundian Warlord...or worse.

Khundian Space, Near Imsk

“It’s definitely a modified Earthgov beacon. The signal is on private citizen band, but we can’t decode it,” said Rokk Krinn.

Luornu Durgo stood in the cargo hold with Rokk and Imra Ardeen. She walked around the battered beacon looking for anything they may have missed. The Legionnaires hoped retrieving the emergency beacon from the debris field near Imsk would provide a few clues to the whereabouts of the Earthgov operative working for Brande.

“Imra can you communicate with the circuitry?” Rokk asked.

“Sorry Rokk, no can do. My powers work on sentient beings only. Perhaps we can trace the ship it came from?”

Rokk looked disappointed. “I’ve done a complete sweep of the parasector and I can’t find any ships that match the beacon’s ion trail. They are either long gone as Garth said earlier or they’ve been destroyed. There’s a lot of debris in the area.”

“I’ll scan the debris myself,” said Imra.

Luornu felt like a third wheel, but this was her chance to prove herself. She knelt to the floor, a little deflated at her lack of success. What happened out there? Then she saw them! Blaster burns! They were hidden on the beacon’s underbelly, which was positioned nearly out of sight. The floor level view offered a new perspective. How could she have overlooked it? “Or there could be a third option.”

“A third option?” Imra asked.

“Yes,” Luornu answered as she stood. “Scan any planets or asteroids large enough to have an atmosphere.”

Rokk moved to an ops panel and maneuvered the sleek controls. Soon the panel beeped, bringing a smile to the young man’s face. “Lu, you’re a genius!”

“Me? A genius?” Lu asked and smiled wryly. “Well I’m no Coluan but....”

Imra crossed her arms defiantly. “If you two are through congratulating yourselves, lock in the coordinates and let’s find Brande’s operative and leave Khundian space.”

Rokk’s smile disappeared. Imra’s outburst caught him off guard as well.

Rimbor City, Rimbor

“Hey kid! Get outta there!”

Jo Nah looked over his shoulder. He had been caught again! He shoved his hand deep into the trash container and retrieved the half-eaten Baked Moison. Those who possessed richer palates than his own considered them a delicacy, but Jo wasn’t crazy about the slimy little fishes. Still, it was the bounty the Luck Lords had blessed his day with and he wasn’t about to let it go to waste. He knew from experience that a little salt rendered them nearly edible and salt was the one thing Rimbor had in abundance.

“The Khunds will hear about this!” the chef yelled.

Jo ran as fast as his legs would carry him. There was no way he would let a fat chef catch him and turn him into the Khunds. They didn’t particularly care for liars or thieves. Both were summarily executed, if the perpetrator was lucky. The chef’s yells faded into the distance as Jo put space between them.

He ducked into a nearby alley and followed the narrow passage to daylight. Before him lay several sets of abandoned rail car tracks left over from Rimbor City’s mining boon in the late part of the last century. The long-abandoned mining areas made even the usually harsh downtown Rimbor City seem tame. It was Rimbor City at its worst. Jo felt at home. He walked the abandoned tracks looking for a place to wash the soiled Moison. Eventually, he found an abandoned warehouse near the Old City’s East Side. Discarded mining equipment lay helter-skelter around the building. Piles of useless engine casings formed a small mountain of junk to the building’s left. Jo looked around and located an outdoor water spigot. He wrestled with the tight valve, but eventually loosened it and held his food under a clean stream of water. A briny stench wafted off the fish. Reaching to the ground, he scooped up a handful of Rimbor’s salty topsoil and rolled his meal in the ashen-colored dirt. He then cupped the Moison in his hands and held it underneath the spigot, allowing the water to wash away the salty dirt. At last the day’s meal was ready.

“Someone is out here, Rasa! I tell you I heard something!”

The unexpected voice caused Jo to drop his meal. He dashed behind the engine casings and hid by the warehouse. From this position he watched two tough-looking men as they searched the area. They appeared ready to give up when one of them found Jo’s Moison. He bent over and picked up the fish.

“Well now, what do we have here?” the man said as he held up Jo’s food.

Jo cursed under his breath.

“Probably just a dog or something, Rasa. Let’s go back inside. We have work to do,” the larger man answered.

The smaller man wasn’t convinced. “Moison? How many dogs on this side of town run around with Moison in their mouths? It looks clean too. Check that spigot!”

The larger man walked over to the spigot and touched it. “It’s cold and the water is still dripping. You know how tough this thing is to turn!”

Rasa stood. “Cold with the Rimbor sun shining as hot as Hell in the sky? I don’t think so. Fan out, M’iln. We have a visitor!”

The men broke ranks and began searching the area. Jo pressed his body into the metallic debris and preyed to the Luck Lords they wouldn’t find him. His breath roared in his ears like a Khundian Battlewagon. He had stumbled onto something big. Unable to see either of the men now, Jo inched over to a row of partially boarded-up windows and peered between the slats. The warehouse was full of World Skimmers! They obviously weren’t parked there by their rightful owners. So that was their game!

“There you are!”

It was the man the other called Rasa! He had circled behind the building and taken Jo by surprise. Jo pushed his way through the rubble as blaster fire soared over his head. He reached for his comm unit. If he could reach Tyz in time.... No! Tyz told him not to bother him until he got his act together. Besides, since the Khunds took over it was hard for a decent Tory like Tyz help out a street urchin. A second shot raced by Jo’s chest! Both men were firing on him now. Caught between the two crooks, Jo darted into the warehouse and found a Skimmer with an open cockpit. He ran to the craft and leaped inside. The thieves left a jumper mechanism in the ignition. For once it seemed the Luck Lords were on his side.

Jo turned the jumper and the small craft roared to life. The powerful engines shook the controls in his hands as they built up the energy for take off. It was a good machine. Tyz taught him how to drive a Skimmer last summer. He would have to thank his mentor, assuming he got out of this mess alive. A stray bolt of blaster fire whirred past, reminding him to lower the cockpit shield. Impervious now to the pesky blasters, Jo turned the Skimmer’s guns on the other ships in the warehouse. He watched the two men dive for cover as he showered the place with a barrage of blaster fire. At last, the engines built up enough power for takeoff. Jo pulled back on the steering mechanism and lifted the craft into the air with a familiar high-pitched whine.

The Skimmer didn’t fit too well through the warehouse doors, which suited Jo just fine. He made them a little bigger. “Wahoo! This is living, baby!”

Once outside, the little Skimmer rose high into the air. Jo switched the visual monitor to a ground view. He was about to have company. The thieves were boarding a Skimmer also. Jo strained his stolen vessel’s engines then glanced at the monitor once more. The crooks were in the air. He wasn’t worried. His Skimmer was fast and he felt confident with the controls. He raced the engines to full throttle and checked his visuals once more. Rimbor City was below him now and his pursuers were losing ground. He just may pull this off!

Just then a blast of heavy fire crossed in front of his Skimmer. It tempered Jo’s enthusiasm considerably. His comm unit blared a warning. “Unauthorized vehicle! Please land your vessel at once! You are in possession of stolen property!”

Jo switched the monitor to full view. The thieves had given up chase and he knew why. A Khundian Chariot was just off his bow. Jo knew better than to land and be found in a stolen Skimmer. There was only one chance. He jerked back on the Skimmer’s controls, sending it high into the upper atmosphere. He hoped to use Rimbor’s natural gravity to slingshot to the other side of the world and return when things cooled down. Maybe he could get in touch with Tyz and get him to intercede to the Khunds on his behalf. After all, they did sanction the Tories to operate still, even if it was merely a token gesture to Rimbor’s only police force.

The Chariot couldn’t pursue, but three Demon Fighters were now on his tail. Shunning the atmosphere altogether, Jo ascended into the blackness of space. The Khunds followed suit and broke formation, with two circling wide to intercept him while a lone pursuer followed close behind. These Khundian pilots were good!

Jo was a decent pilot. Unfortunately he wasn’t much of a strategist. Then again, most street kids weren’t familiar with the intricacies of Khundian pursuit tactics. The maneuver was elementary but effective. In layman’s terms, they headed Jo off at the pass. The pursuer unleashed a hail of laser fire at his engines. His vessel was hit. His Skimmer was dead.

Jo wasn’t sure which was worse, the eerie silence, the darkness, or his impending doom. He peeked out the roof shield. What was this? He could hardly believe his eyes! The Khunds were leaving him to drift! Maybe he could set out a beacon and be rescued by a passing ship! Maybe....

What was that? Something was moving out there! Jo removed the jumper mechanism from the ignition and opened the emergency compartment. He rummaged the small hold and found a penlight and a transuit, in case this was a Khundian trick and he was about to be blasted into space. He tossed the other items aside.

There it was again! A shadow, long and serpentine.

THUD!

The Skimmer shook with the force of a tremendous impact. Something was slamming into it.

THUD!

Again and again, Jo’s vessel was reeled by an unknown assailant. He removed a panel from underneath the jumper and brought the emergency systems online. The external visual monitors weren’t as agreeable. He needed to see what was out there. Frustrated, he banged on the panel. His aft monitor blinked to life. He was pleased with himself. His smile faded quickly when he saw the creature on the screen. He rubbed his eyes and dared a second look. It was true! For centuries Rimborian parents kept their little ones in line with tales of the Super Moby Dick of Space, an energy-digesting whale-like creature who returned every century or so to feast on the planet’s rare ores. Unfortunately Jo was the first Rimborian in recent history who could attest to its existence. To make matters worse, the creature seemed to be attracted to the residual ore energy of the Skimmer’s engines.

The large creature opened his jaws wide. Jo’s screams reverberated off the cramped interior of the World Skimmer as the giant beast swallowed him and his stolen ship. He couldn’t help but think of the Moison he didn’t get to eat. Damn all the Luck Lords to hell!

Unknown Khundian World, Near Imsk

The Eminence sat elevated above the rest of the room. He appeared to be a little past middle-aged. His salt and pepper hair hung to his shoulders in kinky, tight curls. His long, flowing robes were an impressive sight. To his right sat an attractive middle-aged woman. She was dressed in a flowing courtesan gown. To his left stood a young man about Lyle’s own age. Like the Eminence, he too wore a long, white robe. He appeared to be a younger version of the Eminence but his hair was blonde and his face had not yet suffered the ravages of time and gravity.

The Eminence spoke at last. “This unfortunate circumstance places me in a rather awkward position. As the Eminence, I am sworn to uphold the traditions of my people. One of those traditions is the sacredness of the Catacombs of Change. However, my own people are entitled to a full judiciary hearing and I believe you should be allowed the same due process.”

Salu let out a greatful sigh. The Eminence seemed like a reasonable man. He reminded her of her own father, careful with his thoughts and actions. She wondered how such a man could get mixed up with the Khunds. Her father. Would she ever see him or her home again? If only she could be back home in her bedroom watching holovids. Instead, she was shot down Gods-knows where with two total strangers, carrying a disk filled with information that could cripple Khundian space supremacy, and awaiting trial for charges she didn’t understand. She took a deep breath and tried to kindle her courage. In her mind she could see unnamed couples marrying, babies being born, the elderly dying. She thought of the MicroBowl game her father loved so much. Proms. Broken hearts. A free Imsk. She exhaled deeply. Her people needed her and she would see her mission through even if she had to die.

The Eminence arose. “Bishop Garan will serve as prosecutor. He is a noble man, just and fair. I trust him with my own life.” He pointed to the young man on his right. “My son, Jan, will act as your counselor.”

The young man beside the Eminence looked surprised and turned to his father. “Me? Father, I’m not sure I’m ready for such a responsibility. With all due respect, I am afraid my own prejudices will interfere with my ability to defend the off-worlders.”

The Eminence smiled. “All the more reason to do so, my son. You will be Eminence one day and you will be forced to make decisions that may be hard for you but right for our people and our traditions. It is a wise leader who can see beyond the bounds of his own bias.”

Salu grimaced. It was bad enough to be on trial, but couldn’t she at least be given a willing attorney?

“I have spoken, son. Serve your people well,” said the Eminence.

The Eminence’s son bowed politely to his father. “Yes, your Eminence.”

A Catacomb guard rushed into the room. “Your Eminence! Another group of humanoids have arrived! They are engaged with Khundian forces outside the city!”

“Is that so?” asked the Eminence. He turned to the prisoners. “This may change everything.”

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