Monday, August 12, 2019

Chapter One Of Captain Hawklin and the Shadow Men

Copyright 2019 Charles F Millhouse
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July 10th, 1937
The Silver Avengers streaked through the air over the cheering crowd of the Crown City Airfield. The roar of their turbocharged Allison inline engines zipped across the sky sending ribbons of exhaust fumes in their wake. From his cockpit Captain Steven Hawklin had the best seat of the show. He peered down at the spectators, his only thought was to give the crowd a performance they wouldn’t soon forget.
The idea of his combat force, The Clandestine Wing, grew out of his desire to assistance in the protection of the west coast of America. The first and only privately-owned air militia was sanctioned by the United States Government with the blessing and support of President Roosevelt himself.
The journey from conception to achievement was long. After a decade of missteps, funding issues and other events that sidelined him a few times, Steven was proud to be leading the small squadron in their first official appearance to the public. Within six months, ten more Avengers would be ready to join the ranks – flown by his Crusaders. Pilots handpicked and trained in the country’s largest privately-owned aviation school. At long last Steven’s dreams were becoming a reality.
“Alright Crusaders, follow my lead and stay in tight formation,” Steven called into the radio.
“On your six, Captain,” Dawson replied.
“Right behind ya,” O’Brien squawked.
Several other replies followed, and Steven pulled back on the yoke of his Silver Avenger and sent the plane racing skyward. The aircraft handled beautifully, and flew smoothly as it climbed up, up and up. The steady hum of the powerhouse engine remained constant. Though there was some wind turbulence the plane handled it flawlessly.
Steven held his air mask up to his mouth and said, “Stand by… stand by… Okay, just as we did in practice gentlemen. And Break…!” He pulled a release handle at his left side discharging a canister of color smoke from the back of his plane and shoved the flight stick to a hard left.
The seven planes broke formation, each of them spiraling in different directions. Red, white and blue smoke trailed behind the fighters. Steven hoped his little show of patriotism was a hit with the gathering of spectators on the ground.
His Avenger shuttered as he leveled it back on the horizon. He glanced to his left to find Dawson and then to the right to see O’Brien, their planes falling into formation next to his.
“Yee Haw,” Dawson yelled with a boisterous laugh. “I bet that’s got them cheering down there, Captain.” Dawson had worked for Steven since 1934, flying cargo runs between America and Europe – he was a good pilot, and recently began to train new Crusaders. Where Hardy and Oz were Steven’s righthand men, Dawson was his left, working behind the scenes at the airfield and vetting new applicants.
“That maneuver worked better this time than it did during practice,” O’Brien said, his voice laced with a smile. O’Brien was twenty-two but had a good head on his shoulders. It was his idea for the red, white and blue as part of the airshow. His father died in the Great War and his mother soon after. For a man raised in foster homes most of his life, he had a good work ethic, and was loyal to a fault.
“I didn’t have any doubt,” Dawson replied.
“Really,” Steven said. “I was doubting it for a split-second. Considering we hadn’t done it with the smoke until today. I’m surprised it didn’t blind us.” He leaned toward his window. The red, white and blue had begun to mix together forming a purplish, green fog.
Suddenly, the colors mixed violently together, and from the swirling cascade a single engine fighter plane emerged, its wing guns opening fire.
“Scatter!” Steven shouted.
The attacking plane broke through the Crusader’s ranks, rocketing skyward. The aircraft was fast and maneuverable and quickly turned for another pass as the seven Avengers broke formation. The warplane had no discernible markings, even the cockpit’s glass was tinted, masking the pilot from view.
Steven clipped the air mask on his face and pulled his goggles down over his eyes. He hadn’t expected to be in an aerial dogfight, especially over Southern California. If he had, he would have made sure his planes were loaded with ammunition before takeoff.
The attacking craft sped by the Avengers, opening fire again and disappearing into a low cloud bank.
 “What the hell is going on…?” O’Brien yelled.
“I’m sure that’s not part of the show,” Dawson chimed in.
“Cut the chatter,” Steven snapped. “Scan the sky – where did that plane go?”
“I don’t see – wait…!” Dawson shouted. “Coming at us out of the sun!”
The sun washed out Steven’s vision – he shielded his eyes with the palm of his hand. He spotted a black speck charging toward him and he banked his plane right just as the attacking craft opened fire again. Steven heard the ting, ting, ting of shrapnel hitting the side of his craft.
“Who is this joker?” Dawson’s voice cut over the radio.
“If we were only carrying ammunition,” O’Brien exclaimed.
“He’s clearly singling me out,” Steven said. “We can’t take the chance of jeopardizing the people on the ground or losing any of the Avengers. I’ll lead him toward the sea, the rest of you hang back.”
“That’s a bad idea, Captain,” Dawson said.
“He’s right, Steven,” O’Brien said, followed by several of the other pilots protesting.
“This isn’t open for debate,” Steven barked. “Follow my orders and keep those planes safe.”
The radio fell silent, and the six Avengers dove out of the fight as ordered.
Steven turned his plane. On the horizon he saw the Pacific Ocean. Opening the throttle, the Silver Avenger shot forward. You might be armed, pal, Steven thought. “But I doubt you’ll be able to keep up with this plane.”
The accelerator wide-open, the plane’s engine hammered alive – the landscape raced below at incredible speed. The yoke vibrated in Steven’s grip, confident that his Avenger was unmatched, he set his site on the looming blue waters of the Pacific.
Assured he was alone in the sky, Steven drew an easy breath, but instinct took control and his automatic reflexes went to work. He jerked the control stick hard to the right as red-hot bullets zipped past him like enraged fireflies. He jerked the yoke to the left and then back to the right, uncertain how the attacking plane was able to keep up with him. Steven knew of no other plane as fast as his.
Jerking back on the flight stick, Steven sent his Avenger straight up. I might not be able to outrun him, but let’s see how high he can go…
More weapons fire whizzed past the cockpit window, and Steven looked back, pressing his face against the glass of the cockpit. He grimaced. The attacking warplane was matching his altitude and steadily gaining on him.
“That’s it,” Steven muttered. He shoved the yoke to the left and the Silver Avenger banked, and then he turned toward the pursuing warplane. “I’ve had about enough of you.”
Though the thought of suicide never crossed his mind, it was certainly something to be considered as he flew toward the oncoming attack craft.
More gunfire shot toward him, and Steven spun his plane, avoiding every shot. He quickly closed the gap between him and the other aircraft. Unsure how he was going to fight without bullets, Steven didn’t worry about that. His intention was to ram the other plane, and by doing so send them both to their deaths in the waters below. It wasn’t the way he wanted to die, but he’d be damned if he died and the other pilot survived. It didn’t seem fair.
When the enemy pilot understood Steven’s intention, he banked his plane to the right. But Steven wasn’t about to allow him to get away so easily and he turned to match the enemies new course.
The attacking plane opened fire again, but this time Steven wasn’t as lucky avoiding the bullets and his plane took several hits along the right wing. “Damn it!” he exclaimed. He righted his course, but the attack craft was gone.
Steven scanned the sky. Again, his instincts kicked in, and he shoved the control stick forward diving for the deck, the sea coming up fast, he jerked the plane right and there it was, the attacking plane swooping in on him. He had Steven dead to rights. Swallowing in a cottony throat, Steven waited for the blasts that would send him to the drink. But out of nowhere, four more attack planes shot in between the Silver Avenger and the approaching aircraft. Everything happened so quickly. Steven jerked his airplane up and pulled a hard right on his controls and there in front of him were the four planes. All the same design as the attacking craft.
The small squadron of fighter planes were black and sleek, also with no markings and cockpits just as black as the ship he’d been fighting. Whoever they were, Steven was at a loss as to why four identical planes, like the one that attacked him, were now in combat with one another.
Whoever they were, they were part of the same organization. But why fight one another? He wondered. It didn’t make any sense. Steven drew his attention back to the fight, when the first craft, well-outnumbered, bolted and raced across the sky. The other four planes followed in pursuit. For a brief instant, Steven considered giving chase, too. But when thick black smoke bellowed out from under the engine bonnet, he grimaced, he had no other choice but to get to ground.

Steven managed to land his plane back at the airshow without incident. His canopy pulled back, he heard the cheer from the crowd and the announcer assuring them that everything they witnessed was all part of the show.
Steven offered a wave, playing up to that idea. The last thing the public needed to know was they were watching an actual dogfight. The Silver Avenger spewed gray-black smoke from under its fuselage, but its engine didn’t falter, and Steven had no trouble taxiing his craft back toward the other five Avengers parked at the end of the airfield. He steered the plane off the tarmac and into the sod. A firetruck tore up the runway along with several cars and an ambulance.
Crusaders ran toward the craft with fire extinguishers in hand as Steven unbuckled himself and climbed out of the plane. He pulled off his flight cap and threw it to the ground. His blonde hair lay matted to his head with perspiration. Soot outlined his eyes and mouth – he hacked and coughed black mucus from the back of his throat and spat it at his feet. Fumbling with the hooks on his flight suit, Steven managed to open the front of the one-piece coverall and yanked the scarf away from his neck.
“You alright, Steven?” Dawson said upon approaching. He was tall and slim with dark curly hair. His eyes were equally dark, yet always mindful and attentive. Though a man in his early thirties, he still held on to that boyish innocence. His skin was milky and without blemishes.
“Give him some room,” O’Brien said. William O’Brien was the total opposite. He was shorter than Dawson, he had the same dark hair color, but at twenty-two looked much older. His eyes were deep blue but well-aged, certainly a man who had seen his fair share of tough times. His chin was cleft, and he wore a dark mustache – presumably to cover up a scar he’d received while living in a foster home.
Steven waved his pilots back, taking several deep breaths of the dry California air, the afternoon sun beating down on him, he looked up to the partly-cloudy sky and leaned against his plane as ground crews worked to contain a small fire in the engine.
“Who was that guy?” Dawson asked.
Steven stood erect. In his experiences the bad guy wasn’t always a guy. He unzipped his flight suit all the way and climbed out of it – unfastening the top button of his shirt, and said, “Beats me who it was –”
“It was odd that he singled you out,” O’Brien said.
Steven’s lips formed into a hard-little line and he said, “Not really. I’ve ticked off enough people over the last twenty years. It’s hard to tell who it could be.”
“Who do we call when something like this happens… the police?” Dawson asked.
Steven hitched a smile, and said, “Whoever it was, it’s too much for the police to handle and right now – without more to go on, we do nothing.”
“Nothing?” Dawson asked.
“Yes – nothing. Sooner or later, whoever attacked us will try again. And when they do…”
“We end up dead, when whoever wants you dead walks up behind you and shoots you in the back,” Dawson said.
“Not necessarily,” O’Brien replied. “Someone so bent on killing the Captain won’t do it by simply shooting him in the back. They’ll do it extravagantly, and in a way that will make them feel good about how they killed him.”
“Could we stop talking about how I might be killed please,” Steven said. “Until whoever it was tries again, its business as usual.”
“Damn right its business as usual,” a wheezily high-pitched voice shouted behind Steven. “What in blazes are you up to Hawklin? You scared the kids and their mother’s half to death. Mothers who are here with their husbands. Husbands I might add, who are paying. When you frighten people, they stop buying snacks and souvenirs, are you trying to bankrupt me?”
“Calm down Zeke – I promised I’d put on a good show, didn’t I?”
“You promised a show, not deadly combat.” Zeke Laszlo was a round short man in his late fifties. His hair had thinned away to almost non-existence. The saggy skin under his gray eyes jumbled when he talked. “Steven Hawklin and his Crusaders are a big draw… I made more this weekend than I have all year. But I suppose money is no object to you,” he said with his fingers hooked in the suspenders under his faded blue suit. “Might I remind you, you’re in a contract for a two-day appearance. The last thing I need is for you to run off on one of your well-known adventures leaving me high and dry.”
Steven put his hands up in front of him defensively, he looked to the sky for a second when he heard the next aerial performance taking off from the second runway and then leveled his eyes on Zeke, and said, “I will be here for the two days as contracted and my planes – all my planes will be performing as arranged.”
A toothy smile broke out on Zeke’s face, showing his yellow teeth, and he said in a victorious voice, “There, I knew you’d see things my way, Captain. Your next performance is at four o’clock. Will this plane be ready by then… because I warn you, if you renege on the contract you’ll be paying a hefty fee.”
Steven checked his wristwatch, twelve-thirty, and said, “All seven planes will be in the air come four o’clock, Zeke.”
Zeke slapped his hands together, the fat rolls around his neck tightened with anticipation and reminded Steven of a walrus. “I’m happy you said that, Captain, very happy indeed,” he said, taking a half-burned cigar out of his inside pocket and chomping it between his teeth. He offered a half smile and said before he sauntered away, “Otherwise I would have had to sue.”
Dawson spat in the dirt, and grunted, “You almost get killed and all he’s worried about is money.”
“Someone trying to kill me isn’t his concern. The bottom line is,” Steven said. “Besides, my problems shouldn’t be Zeke’s. I owe him – a contract is a contract. And I intend on honoring my end of it.”
“You’re taking this in stride Captain,” O’Brien said. “I mean, aren’t you a little bit concerned about what happened this afternoon?”
“Right now, I don’t have time. Whoever has a beef with me, will show their faces sooner or later. I’ll worry about it when the time comes. Right now, I want you two to check out your planes for the four o’clock show, and then give the ground crew a hand in getting my plane ready for flight.”
“Right on it,” Dawson said.
Steven made his way to the supply truck across the field away from the planes, pouring a cup of water from a cooler strapped to the bed and took a deep drink, clearing the soot out of his throat. He glimpsed a newspaper in the cab and reached inside, unfolding it to read the headline: Amelia Earhart Still Missing, Search Continues. He skimmed over the article but didn’t read it in depth. Earhart’s disappearance was a great loss for aviation. It was a flight he had contemplated a few times himself but decided to remain in the scientific and design part of aviation. He’d trekked all over the world at one time or another, just not all at once.
“Did you know Miss Earhart?”
Steven looked away from the newspaper, to find a man in his mid to late thirties, with wavy red hair, and dressed in a dingy tweed suit. At first, he thought him to be a reporter, but upon further scrutiny Steven believed him to be a government man. But with the man’s British accent, Steven was sure it wasn’t the American government. The man had the same characteristics as other government men he’d met before, but more refined, educated and smart-looking. Maybe it was because he wore wire thin glasses and stood assured of himself, Steven wasn’t sure. Cautious, and level-voiced, Steven said, “I knew her. She was a friend.” He remembered their first meeting in 1935 and the situation that brought them together. Amelia was smart, witty and the only person he’d ever met who could outfly him – that is, until this morning.
“I caught your performance today, it was more intense than I would have thought it to be,” the man said reserved.
Steven tossed the newspaper back in the cab of the truck, and replied, “That’s the thing about us flyers, you never know what kind of show we’ll put on.”
“You’re more than just a pilot, aren’t you, Captain Hawklin. A man of many talents if what I’ve read about you to be true.”
“Depends on where you’ve read it,” Steven replied walking cautiously past the man.
The man followed, said in a mocking tone, “It came from a very reliable source. I mean, hunting dinosaurs on Monster Island and stopping a two-thousand-year-old Jade Dragon from altering the course of reality is no easy feat for a mere pilot. I liked how you rectified that situation – but do you think tossing the Dragon into the ocean was the right choice?”
Steven spun around, snagged the collar of the man’s jacket and shoved him against the supply truck, his arm wedged in the man’s neck, he applied pressure, and demanded, “All right, talk. Who the hell are you and how do you know so much about me?”
Unscathed, the man replied in an even tone, “I assure you Captain, I mean you no harm. I was told you could be trusted.”
“Who told you?” Steven asked, wondering if the man was referring to his sister, Juno. She was one of the few people that knew of his exploits in detail.”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” the man struggled to speak, gasping for air. “All I can tell you is that I am here to enlist your aid – and I think you’ll find we share a common threat – and the information I have, is beneficial to us both.”
Steven loosened his hold on the man, but didn’t remove his arm, and said, “Just who are you mister – and what common threat are you talking about?”
“My name is Reginald Brunt, and I have information about the plane you fought today.”
Steven reapplied pressure to Brunt’s neck and said, “I’m listening.”
Brunt made a choking sound deep in his throat, but remained calm, and said, “Not here. But I can take you some place, where you can meet some people that I work with and…”
“I don’t know you Mister! You’re not American that’s certain and the last thing I’m going to do is go anywhere with you. So whatever information you have, you can spill it here or you can go. There is no third option.”
“I assure you Captain Hawklin, you can trust me.”
Steven raised an eyebrow, said, “Why is that?”
A thin smile graced Brunt’s lips and he said, “Because, I’m British.”
Steven stood quietly for a moment and blinked a couple times before offering the only reply he had to such a statement. He took a step back, balled his hand into a fist and delivered a right cross to Brunt’s face.
Brunt hit the ground a second later, his legs out from under him, he leaned against the supply truck, his hand to his jaw and his gaze on Steven. “I say, she neglected to tell me how violent you can be.”
Steven’s theory was correct, it was Juno. “Where is she, where is my sister?” he demanded.
“Sister?” Brunt asked confused.
Steven fisted Brunt’s shirt collar and hoisted him back to his feet and warned, “Did she also tell you I don’t like to be kept in the dark?” He balled up his hand for another punch, only this time Brunt was ready for it. He blocked the punch, slipped out of Steven’s grip, passed by him, and kicked the back of Steven’s leg.
Steven dropped to one knee and used the supply truck to stop himself from falling to the ground. Brunt grabbed him at the scruff of the neck and pulled him. Steven pushed himself up faster than Brunt was prepared for, knocking him off balance. Both men tumbled to the ground, bearhugging each other, both scrambling to get back to their feet.
Steven was up first, deciding not to yell for assistance from any of his Crusaders. They would just get in the way. He looked at his hand discovering he held a fistful of Brunt’s dress shirt in his grip. He tossed the torn garment to the ground and righted his footing, squaring his shoulders – fists up in front of him, waiting.
Brunt scurried to his feet, confused, he looked down at his torn shirt, drew a sour look on his face and placed himself in a fighting stance, determination etched across his face, he dove forward, and Steven pulled back his fist to fire another strike – but he stopped when he heard: “Steven – STOP!”
Steven turned, recognizing the voice, but Brunt continued his charge. The two men went back to the ground – with Brunt on top of him, Steven absorbed most of the impact. He kicked Brunt away, and scrambled back across the ground from the fight, focusing his eyes on the woman who stood feet from him.
Brunt stopped his advance, noticed who Steven was looking at and shot to his feet in attention. Disheveled, his white tweed suit was soiled, the outer lining of his jacket hung below the hem and he looked like he’d been in a fight with a dozen stray cats. “My apologies, ma’am,” he said.
Steven got up, raked his hands through his mussed hair and cleared his throat, drawing a breath, he couldn’t speak.
“Hello, Steven.”
Enamored, Steven exhaled. Desa Wintergreen was the last person he expected to see. His heart did flipflops and his mouth bled dry. He stood there in silent recognition eyeing her. Desa was close to Steven’s age, lithe and petite, she stood five foot nothing. Her soft features gave her an old-world look, her face was round and supple. Her smoky eyes, alluring and lovely. No matter how many times he saw her, he was awestruck by her elegant beauty. She wore a dark skirt, a tan blouse, and flat bottom shoes. Her dark hair hung just below her shoulders; it was the longest Steven had ever seen it.
His emotions in overdrive, Steven quelled his desire to run to her arms. They had left things hanging upon their last encounter and he wasn’t sure if he should go to her or not. Steven met Desa many years ago when she was married to Orman Wintergreen, a business associate of Steven’s father, Thomas. Steven had harbored feelings for Desa, but never acted on them until a couple of years ago, well after Orman’s death.
“Well, say something…”
“Hello, Desa.”
A thin smile graced Desa’s lips and she said, “Well that’s a start, I suppose.”
Steven took half a step closer to her and said, “What are you doing here?”
Desa crossed her arms in front of her, her lips forming a hard-little line. Her voice became sharper, she eyed Brunt for a second and then said, “It wasn’t by choice, I assure you. Three days ago, I was in my flat in London until Agent Brunt here spirited me away… what did you say Agent, ‘a matter of life and death’?”
Brunt took a step forward, arms at his side in a less aggressive demeanor, he said in a cautionary tone, “I must insist Misses Wintergreen that you and Captain Hawklin accompany me. It’s for your own safety. When we are in a safer place, we’ll explain everything to you, Captain. Until then it’s... it’s our orders.”
Steven’s brow furrowed. “Orders?” he asked.
Coy, Desa shifted her footing, and drug her hair behind her right ear as if wanting to say something, but in a deep directed tone Brunt said, “This isn’t open to discussion, ma’am. There are protocols to maintain. We are compromised and must be going.”
Steven righted his footing, digging his boots into the sod at his feet, said in a sharp tone, “I’m not going anywhere until someone tells me what in the world is going on.”
“See, I told you,” Desa said.
Steven shot Desa a side glance but kept his attention on Brunt. Steven always prided himself of being in control of any situation, provided he had all the details. Not knowing something was unnerving. “Just a quick simple explanation,” he said.
“And then you’ll go with me?” Brunt asked.
“I’ll consider it,” Steven replied.
Desa threw her hands into the air, and said, “The world could be coming to an end, and you wouldn’t act until you have all the information. Sometimes Steven you have to give into blind faith.”
Steven turned to Desa, in a calm even tone, he said, “It’s how I do things. I figured after my little altercation this morning the answers would come together as to why I was attacked. Is it too much to ask to be given some answers upfront?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Brunt said. “I’ll sum it up for you Captain. I work for a secret British intelligence organization. Last week one of our agents went rogue, killing several of our operatives and stealing highly confidential records.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Steven asked.
“Please, Captain – I dare not say more until I have you and Misses Wintergreen in protective custody.”
Desa stepped into Steven’s line of sight and said, “You can trust him Steven. I do, and once you hear the whole story, I know you will, too. Until that time – will you trust me? Let’s go with Agent Brunt. You know as well as I, with or without their information and resources you’re in the thick of it. Wouldn’t it be better to know all the variables before you face what’s coming for you?”
Silent for a long moment, Steven stared into Desa’s eyes. No matter how they left things two years ago, he couldn’t get past the honesty on her face. He trusted her. He didn’t trust many people. “Alright,” he said with a hooked smile. “Alright, I’ll go and listen.”
Brunt let out a sigh of relief, said, “My car is parked just this way – we must hurry.”
Steven looked toward his Silver Avengers and his pilots, deciding the best thing was to leave them out of the loop. He knew them, especially Dawson and O’Brien. They would want to come along. But until he knew the whole story, the last thing he wanted to do was bring them into something that might get them killed. They were trained for aerial combat and they were good at it. But this was something more and he wouldn’t be held responsible. “Okay, let’s go,” he said.

Desa folded her arm into Steven’s, but jerked him to a stop and asked, “Wait a second – Steven, where’s Hardy and Oz?”

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Absolution: A Novel in the Serena Darkwood Adventures Chapter One

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Copyright 2019 Charles F. Millhouse

“I said, no…” Serena Darkwood stood in the center of the room and tightened her arm as she leveled her Old Galactic Equalizer in front of her. Killing someone in the saloon was bad for business, and shooting a potential client gave her a frosty reputation that kept other business prospects from approaching.

“No… no…?” Don Jonor, stuttered. He stood several paces away from Serena, frozen in place – his eyes scanning the spectators lining the walls. He licked his trembling lips and drew an anxious breath. Jonor was a Timmoson, a cowardly race of people who liked to hire others to do their dirty work. Assassination, smuggling, warmongering, it didn’t matter as long as they weren’t seen getting involved. For a Timmoson, money was no object, and everyone had a price. Everyone except Serena Darkwood.

No one in the crowded saloon said a word, silence replaced the laughter and only the clatter of the gambling wheel at the back of the saloon was heard clicking to a slow stop. The anticipation of death put everyone on edge.

Those in the saloon, knew Serena’s reputation as a smuggler and kept their distance from her. Outsiders like Don Jonor learned a hard lesson when confronting her.

“I don’t think I understand,” Jonor said licking his lips again. His long alabaster ears glistened with sweat. His ashen eyes staring helplessly into the end of the pistol.

Serena’s gun didn’t waver. Her eyes ablaze, she said flatly, “I don’t know what you heard about me, Timmoson, but I’m not an assassin. I haul cargo and I get paid, that’s it.”

Downtrodden, Jonor’s eyes glistened, and he said in an uneven tone, “I… I don’t want any trouble, I was told you were reliable… and… and… you came highly recommended.”

“By whom?”

Don’s lower lip trembled, but he offered no reply, except in saying, “Please, this was a mistake. I meant no harm… can’t we pretend, act like, this – never happened?”

Serena flipped her thumb on the weapons handle and the Equalizer powered down. She holstered it on her hip and turned toward the table at the back of the bar.

“Wait,” Don said.

Someone in the room let out a low gasp.

Serena paused, but didn’t turned back toward the Timmoson.

“That’s it… nothing else…?

Serena fisted her hands to prevent her loose fingers from snatching the pistol back from its holster. She would enjoy killing Don Jonor, for any reason, even her own satisfaction. She noticed the glares coming from the saloon’s patrons, scrutinizing her every move. So instead, Serena returned to her table at the back of the room and the tension in the saloon lightened. From the corner of her eye, Serena caught sight of several uniformed officers from the planet Rygail, as Don Jonor slithered past them on his way out of the room.

An inundation of Rygailian officers and troops arrived on the outpost several days ago, and although they hadn’t been causing trouble, they had been searching for something, though Serena didn’t know what.

The gambling wheel at the back of the saloon began to turn again. Music from a sound synthesizer blared and drowned out the mixed voices in the room. Serena could only imagine what they were saying. But she didn’t pay them any mind. The saloon was her second home, she’d spent a lot of her life in the establishment. Grew up learning to play cards with the rough-cut men who also taught her how to drink, how to swear and how to know who to trust, and not to trust.

She lost her virginity under the gaming table to a guy she lost a card game to. Kissed her first woman at eighteen and killed her first man just outside the saloon’s door. And although Serena never considered herself a happy person, she was content. What more could you ask from life, than to be free. Live by your own rules and to make things up as you go along. Yes, Serena was content – it was more than most wealthy, happy people would ever be.

Serena sat back in her seat, and surveyed the room, Broker Rodune had the reputation of being an outpost for some of the roughest beings in the star system. Card players, swindlers, outlaws and smugglers from the outer planets congregated to the mining platform in the middle of the Galveron Cluster. Some people came for work, others came to the outpost because they weren’t welcome any place else in the galaxy.  

The Dobien beer Serena ordered before her altercation with the Timmoson was flat when she took a drink. She wiped a dribble from her chin with the sleeve of her tunic. Another mug came to the table without order and the pretty Dolphian waitress who served it, pointed at the Rygailian officer at the bar.

The officer was humanoid, in his mid-forties. Tall, his body well-defined. His muscles conformed to his crisp clean uniform in every detail and looked like an extension of his skin. The officer’s long onyx hair hung to his shoulders framing out the sharp lines of his face. Serena regarded him with interest and bit her tongue in the corner of her mouth. The sharp pain reminded her, that with every gesture, even small ones, like a glass of beer, came with a price. She nodded in recognition, thanking him for the new drink and he saluted back to her with a tip of his own mug.

Serena nodded toward him, calling him over to her table. As he crossed the floor and neared her, she noticed his dull gray – lifeless eyes, as if his soul had been stripped from him. His features were less-defined and callous. A dark shade of stubble pricked his unshaven face and conveyed a lack of discipline. Rygailians were a mysterious race, rarely leaving the confines of their world. Many of the rumors about them, were that the Rygailian Royal Family kept their people enslaved. Of all the planets that Serena had hauled cargo to, Rygail wasn’t one of them.

“I was hoping you’d allow me to come over,” the officer said in a clear charming, yet hollow voice. He spoke in the common language, the intergalactic idiom that hundreds of worlds in the galaxy shared. Though each planet had their own indigenous tongue, the common language helped many species communicate with each other.

Serena studied the officer curiously, she prided herself in reading facial cues from many different races and knowing what to expect when meeting them. Humans were the easiest of the races to interpret. Maybe because she was human, or maybe humans weren’t as good at lying as they believed themselves to be. But the more Serena scrutinized the Rygailian – the less she knew about him.

“May I sit?” the Rygailian said brushing his dark mane away from his face.

Serena nodded toward the chair opposite her and noticed a whelp of flesh on the man’s neck, partially hidden by the shirt collar. When he turned his head upon sitting, she got a better look. It was a brand. A circle surrounding the royal crest of the Rygailian monarchy. Serena tried to look as if she hadn’t seen it and she took a drink of her beer and waited for the officer to speak.

The officer looked at her, sizing her up. Serena hauled cargo through the systems since she was nineteen. In that time, she’d gained a reputation and since striking out on her own, she knew when someone sat across from her, they were looking to hire.

Before the officer had time to speak, Serena spelled out her terms, and said, “I don’t assassinate – I’m not a killer for money. I haul cargo and from time to time I procure special items for people. My rate is two-hundred Old Galactic coin a day. If I have to go into a restriction zone it’s five hundred.”

“Precise and to the point,” the officer said, his lips turned up into a thin forced smile. “You’re taking a chance giving me that information, since I’m an officer in the Rygailian military. How do you know I won’t turn you in?”

Serena took a thin petite green cigar from the inside of her beige flight jacket and clamped it between her teeth. “To who? Broker Rodune is neutral territory and has been for twenty-five years, you know that,” or maybe he doesn’t, Serena thought and enlightened him, “Since the System Civil War that returned sovereignty to each individual planet, Broker Rodune, along with all the Galveron Cluster became neutral. There’s no law here, none of consequence anyway, besides the small contingent of men who are on the take from the local crime boss. It’s the only way the mining can get done. The systems need their Travivic Ore mined here, and without it everything comes to a standstill.” 

The expression on the officer’s face didn’t change, he said, “It seems you live up to your reputation.”

“How so?” Serena asked, lighting the end of her cigar and taking a long draw into her lungs.

The officers voice deepened, and he said, “It’s said, you are as smart as you are beautiful, and I believe that. Common knowledge is you don’t get along well with others. Your display a few minutes ago, with the Timmoson, proved that. It’s also said that you’re a loner and no one would miss you if you disappeared.”

Serena slid her left hand down to her Equalizer, her voice business like, she said, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here… and why there are so many Rygailian officers and troopers on Broker Rodune?”

The officer’s emotionless eyes darkened, he leaned in and lowered his voice, said, “We’re looking for something and we believe it to be here. There are parts of Broker Rodune my troopers cannot go without drawing attention. You blend in, you know the locals. If anyone can get information from the miners, the drug dealers and the scum that live here. It would be you.”

Serena might not be able to read his facial emotions, but the lilt of the officer’s voice was laced with half-truths. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for,” she said flicking the ashes of her cigar into a tray on the table.

“I can’t tell you, unless you agree to work for us,” the officer said.

“I live by one rule Officer… officer…?” Serena fished for a name.

But the officer ignored the attempt and asked, “What rule would that be?”

Serena hooked a grin, and continued, “I don’t take a job unless I know what I’m getting into. I live longer that way.”

Stone faced, the officer didn’t offer a reply. Serena thought him as ruthless a card player as any she’d sat at a table with. The truth was, she could use the money, and by the way this was shaping up, she could have a lot of it once she completed searching for… for whatever it was the Rygailian had lost. Serena cleared her throat and decided to gamble, and said plainly, “I can’t help you officer, unless I know everything… it’s how I work. So, unless you have someone else you’re thinking of hiring–”

Someone at the back of the room shouted with laughter and applause followed from around the gambling wheel. Serena ignored it, keeping her emotions tight. The officer leaned in, his lifeless eyes narrowed, and he said, “What I’m about to tell you is sensitive… I could be shot for giving it to you, before your agreement to work for us. But you’ve left me no choice.”

Apathetic, Serena waved her hand toward the officer, said, “It’s your decision, tell me if you want, either way I don’t give a damn.”

Don’t overplay your hand, Serena. Think about the money.

The officer drew a hesitant breath, as if to speak, but before he had a chance, Serena heard a familiar voice ask, “Is everything alright here, drinks to your liking…?

The officer jerked up from his chair so fast it fell backward and made a hard slap on the floor. Eyes turned toward Serena, as if the people in the bar were waiting for another quarrel on her behalf. She ignored them. The officer bolted from the saloon in a mad rush without another word, sidestepping other patrons on his dash to get out of the establishment. Serena sat back in her seat, she felt like a hunter that lost a prey. “You did that on purpose,” she snapped eyeing Alvic DeVry.

Alvic DeVry, was the saloon’s proprietor. A native from the planet Nygron, an aquatic species that lived both in and out of water. Bipedal, the lanky indigo-skinned man dressed in a fine silk suit, a darker blue than his skin. The rich pupils in the center of his large oval eyes stared at Serena, the gills along the crook of his neck fanned open and close.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Serena pushed herself away from the table and headed toward the long bar in the center of the room; the cigar clenched in her teeth. She skirted around a crop of tables that were scattered around the bar.

Alvic followed Serena and stopped at the bar as she crossed behind it. His puffy lips pursed, and he asked, “How should I look at you then? You were about ready to break a promise.”

Serena poured herself a glass of Cyprus juice, her eyes fixed on the orange liquid and she replied, “I was not…” she glanced up at Alvic and assured him, “I can do more than one job at a time. I could have made a lot of money working for that Rygailian.”

I’m paying you a lot myself, for you to slip into Dragoon territory and get me a shipment of Star Steel Brandy. You’ll be well-compensated. Rygailians are well-known for buying loyalty. If you would have agreed to work for them, only the Great Maker himself would know when you’d get to my business – and I’ve already paid you.”

Serena crossed to the patron side of the bar and hiked her dark boot up onto the brass railing that circled it and said, “You’re just not seeing the bigger picture Alvic. I haven’t worked a lot in the last year, and my ship’s engines need an overhaul. Every galactic coin helps. Even from the Rygailian military.”

Alvic grabbed a bottle of green liquid from the end of the bar and poured it into the Cyprus juice and said, “My dear woman, that last time you worked with an army, you got half of Broker Rodune shot up, and nearly got yourself killed. I did you a favor. Besides, there’s word coming in from the back channels. Rygail has been going through some internal conflicts the past several weeks. I heard the royal family has lost control of their kingdom. All hell is breaking loose.”

Serena smelled the mixed drink and rolled her nose at the sour odor but swallowed it down anyway. Sweet, it went down her throat smooth. Then, a fireball burned in the pit of her stomach and exploded a moment later, she belched – tears flooded her eyes and after a long quiet moment she was able to talk. Her throat on fire she asked, “What did you put in that?”


“Isn’t that what they embalm the miners with when they die deep in the caverns?” Serena said and pushed the remainder of the drink away from her.

“It’s something new, I’m trying… what do you think?” Alvic asked. His blink-less eyes waiting for a reply.

Serena shook her head and said with a sore throat, “I’d have to vote no.” She placed the palm of her hand on her chest, volcanic lava bubbling up her throat. Alvic broke into a laugh and Serena chuckled along with him.

When Alvic placed his webbed hand on Serena’s gun arm his face went slack, and he said, “You might not like it, hell I know you’re not the kind of person to acknowledge it, but I care what happens to you.”

Serena pulled her arm away and didn’t offer a reply. She and Alvic’s relationship had always been marred by business – ever since her father died and she worked to pay off his debt to Alvic.  She crushed her cigar into an ashtray and said, “Tell me more about this Rygailian conflict.”

Alvic sighed, drummed his fingers on top of the bar and said, “There’s not much to tell. There’s been a lot of ships coming and going on the planet. More than usual.”

“I’ve never been able to get a parsec near the planet before being warned away,” Serena said. “If there is an insurgence of activity to and from the planet, plus the sign of all those troops here, I’d say something is amiss. Maybe you’re right, I shouldn’t have taken the job. The last thing I need is to get involved with an internal conflict.”

“Now you’re talking sense,” Alvic said with a dry grin. “When are you going after my brandy?”

Serena stepped away from the bar and slapped Alvic on the back as she passed and paused to say, “Alvic, you’ve got a one-track mind. I’ve set the rendezvous for tomorrow – is that soon enough for you?”

“No,” Alvic looked over his shoulder and added, “but I’ve learned to be disappointed.”

“I’ll see you in a couple days,” Serena said as she exited the saloon.

If the saloon was her second home, Serena’s first home was her ship. The Caspian Star. The Old Galactic troop transport – a star racer class vessel – was used in heavy combat areas during the Galactic Civil War. Sleek and fast, the ship’s engines were modified to go faster than originally intended, Serena’s father, Quint saw to that.

The Caspian Star got Serena in and out of tight situations when many ships would have faltered. The vessel was large, it’s silver hull scored with dull black markings, caused either by objects in space, or weapons fire. Besides running guns during the Galactic Civil War, her father flew the ship into some sticky situations and Serena did have the tendency to take questionable contracts that sometimes put her under the gun. It wasn’t the best way to make a living, but it was the only way she knew. 

The ship had its flaws, she was old and in constant need of repair and upgrades, but, it was the only thing Serena had to remind her of her father.

The Caspian Star’s hanger was dirty and cold. A smell of engine oil hung on the air. The floor was stacked with crates of disused engine parts, along with some of Alvic DeVry’s fruitless entrepreneurial ideas that Serena risked her life and ship to procure. The hanger’s lighting was dim, there were a lot of dark spots throughout the bay – shadows of mechanics working on other vessels kept her attention sharp. If Serena would have been anyone else, she might be afraid to venture through the hanger by herself. It was difficult to tell who she might encounter.

She slowed the approach to her ship and listened – her ebony skin pricked alive, a wave of apprehension raced across her flesh. Out of instinct, Serena’s hand went to her pistol. She stepped up to the Caspian Star’s gangplank. An unexplained tension hung in the air. Serena drew a breath and called out, “REVO?”

No reply…

“REVO?” Serena said, and tightened her hand on the gun’s handle, but relaxed when she heard–

“Here… here… here…” REVO called from inside the ship. Her android co-pilot wheeled out of the vessel, gliding along on a single metallic ball at his base. A dull orange, he was slender with a pointed head that turned three-hundred and sixty degrees. REVO’s eyes flickered a bright yellow and his mouth flashed in the same radiance when he spoke.

“Why aren’t you out here working on the lift thrusters like I told you?” Serena asked.

REVO unfolded his long arms outward – the seven digits on each hand extended, gesturing as he spoke, “Yes… well it’s been a trying, trying day. If I told you the kind of day I’m having – well, I scarcely think you’d believe it.”

REVO was always condescending, Serena had grown use to it over the years. And in all those years she knew when something was out of sorts with him. She pulled her pistol, but before the gun could clear the holster she heard a voice from inside her ship say…

“I wouldn’t do that.”

The skin on Serena’s arm pricked alive. She gently slid the pistol back into its holster when several armed men appeared from the hanger’s shadows and encircled her. She drew her hands up and away from her body, eyeing the men – scrutinizing their every movement. She knew them in an instant. Not military, or off-worlders, but hired guns for Tobias Gray.

Serena rolled her eyes toward The Caspian Star’s gangplank watching him appear from her ship. Tobias’ eyes sharp and assiduous.

“I have a business proposition for you, Serena. I daresay it is in your interest to consider it, considering it might be the last job offer you’ll ever get.”

Order from

Monday, November 5, 2018

Origin Expedition Chapter One

COPYRIGHT 2018 Charles F. Millhouse

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Dalnaspidal Breeding Facility

Earth – Scotland

April 14, 2442

The Fortitude class transport blasted its way into the restricted area, thrusters on full. Alarms of the ORACLE system blared throughout the cockpit. Its screeching drowned out the simplest of thoughts. The Lady Da’Mira Tannador stood next to the old scar-faced pilot watching him glare at the controls in front of him. He’d warned her that overriding the computer watcheye came at a risk. She grimaced. He kept his hands poised over the holographic control board, erratically flying his craft to confuse whoever might scan the area.

Holding on to a tarnished railing in front of her, Da’Mira steadied her footing. She refused to protest. The pilot, although paid well for his criminal act, could turn and fly his ship away on a whim, if she provoked him. Out the main view port Da’Mira’s golden skin reflected on the stall glass. Her scarlet hair hung in contrast against the borrowed green camouflage overalls that smelled of someone else’s body odor.

Beyond her reflection, people gathered on the ground, the thunderous wail of the transport’s engines drew them out of their shoddy dwellings. The facility’s inner building's moss covered with green-gray walls were dirty and rundown, the ground dry and brittle from lack of rain.

Along the outer area of the facility, a cascading laser field of tratonic energy fenced in the compound. Power surged between tall reflector polls that stood several yards apart and encircled the area. Da’Mira clenched her fists. More people appeared from the buildings. They looked skyward, in shock that a transport flew so close to them.

“There’s so many.”

“Yes Milady, nearly a thousand live here,” the pilot told her, his tone rough, curtly.

Da’Mira leaned on the railing to get a better view. Some of the breeders struggled to stand. Skinny and malnourished she worried the back blast from the shuttle’s engines could knock them over. Their clothes were filthy, and thread worn. Breeders were considered nothing more than cattle; Da'Mira loathed that term. The slaves only function was to breed more slaves. How could our society have fallen so far? She wondered.

Dozens of haggard women gathered below the ship. Breeders kept dazed and docile through drugs. The women bore children several times a year and destroyed their bodies by the time they were thirty. “They look so hungry.”

The pilot flipped a switch and silenced the alarm. “It won’t be long before the Orlanders send a security detail, if there aren’t some posted in the facility already,” he warned.

“Take us closer to the ground. I’ll go to the back and release the cargo.”

He banked the transport to the left. Its hovering thruster roared to life, Da’Mira clung to hand grips anchored along the wall to steady herself while she walked to the back of the vessel. For a transport ship the cargo area wasn’t big. The old Fortitude ships weren’t built to haul large amounts of cargo. At least not the amount Da’Mira hired the ship to transport. To contract a newer vessel, like wearing the wrong attire, would have drawn unwanted attention.

She squeezed herself into the hold, pushed past stacks on stacks of silver cargo crates. Da’Mira didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the right cargo ship to come along, even food disks expired. The black marketer took a gamble selling them to her, but she paid him well. The fact that a high-born wanted to feed breeders came completely as a shock to the man. After all, the high-born didn’t care about the deprived, right? Da’Mira had found it more than a struggle to persuade anyone to listen to her pleas. If her father had caught wind of her conspiracy to feed the breeders, she wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Working in secret took precise timing and planning. How many of them died before Da’Mira put her plan into action? The number incalculable... intolerable. She pushed forward nonetheless until she stood in the back of the cargo ship ready to make her arduous efforts a reality.

A series of lights came on when Da’Mira entered the cargo bay, along with a holographic control panel near the back of the hold. As she reached the illuminated panel she turned and looked out over the vacuumed sealed crates. She smiled grimly toward them, wishing there could be more. How many will this feed and how many more will die because there isn’t enough?

Da’Mira placed her delicate hand inside the spectrum of lights of the control panel. The scanner read her palm and she manually typed in a code. The transport’s back cargo doors opened, sliding downward. The wind from the ship’s engines kicked up dust and debris, stinging Da’Mira’s eyes. The inrush of natural air took her lungs by surprise. The high-born were given synthetic oxygen since the day they were born. She struggled to breathe, the gusts of wind tore at her green camouflage overalls and she steadied her feet so not to slip out the back of the ship.

Yellowed dead grass flocked the grounds of the breeder facility. The trees around the camp stood leafless, dead from lack of nutrition in the soil. A byproduct of the chemical dumping and other hazardous materials pumped into the Earth over the centuries, it leached the soil fallow, a key reason the high-born left the planet almost three hundred years ago.

Activating another code into the control panel, a conveyer belt began to deliver the silver crates full of much needed food to the people below. Da’Mira smiled. The transport ship hovered less than twelve feet from the ground. The crates fell out onto the dead sward. Da’Mira hung out the back of the ship and watched them land. Her lungs were finally acclimating to the natural air, though she still struggled to take deep breaths. Below the ship she saw the women swarming over the crates. They ripped them open with their bare hands. The food disks fell to the ground and scattered about. The hungry women dove for the disks, gathering up all they could… before–

Da’Mira stood in the back of the shuttle helpless as a handful of rough security men, armed with clubs and blunt instruments shoved the breeders aside. They swung their weapons wildly driving the ravenous women back, beating them brutally while the men looted the food disks for themselves. They shoved the disks into bags and baskets. Da’Mira’s fingers itched for a plasma rifle.

She had been warned about the security men, true to their reputation. Da’Mira bit her lower lip, ashamed to be a member of the same race. The idea that anyone could treat another human so callously tore at Da’Mira. The women were weak and starving, with little time for recovery before becoming inseminated again.

The practice sickened her. How many children have these women produced in their short lives? There were few like her – few who questioned the way things had been for nearly three hundred years.

Questions like – How can the high-born families, the Nine, allow this to continue?

The continuous breeding programs produced thousands of children a year, yet there had been no increase in population. Where had all the new-born slaves gone?

Valid questions, but the answers eluded her. Da’Mira found herself stalled at every attempt. Her questions infuriated her father and blackballed her in high-born society.  

Da’Mira watched helplessly while the guards stockpiled the food disks for themselves. The handful of women in attendance cowered away. Some wept and some protested, but none had the power to fight back. Then she noticed something odd. None of the guards wore the insignia of the family Orlander. The crest they bore unmistakably belonged to the illusive family Everhart. The secretive family that hadn’t been seen or heard from since the old patriarch Baylor Everhart died nearly two hundred years ago.

Preparing to leap from the shuttle platform, Da’Mira hesitated when she saw a young, dark haired girl bolt forward into the group of security men. The child slipped between them and scooped up an arm full of food disks before running back out. Two of the officers gave chase. The nimble young girl, no older than fourteen, did her best to stay ahead of her pursuers, but the rugged men gained ground on her.

Da’Mira activated the transports communication device through the holographic interface. “Pilot we need to pick up that girl!” No reply followed. Da’Mira yelled her intentions again and still no reply followed.

She raced back to the cockpit, but the pilot refused to look at her.

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“I did,” the pilot replied, his voice was gruff and unconcerned.

“Well… pick up that girl before it’s too late.”

“That was not part of our agreement. I wasn’t paid to land. Now my long-range scanners have picked up Orlander patrols closing in fast. We need to retreat.”

Da’Mira wondered if the patrols belonged to the Orlanders or Everharts, but she refused to listen to his surrender attitude. From inside a zipped pocket on her overalls she pulled a small dainty plasma weapon fit for a lady. She pressed the barrel against the pilot’s right cheek indenting it into the man’s hardened face and spoke clearly. “You will pick up that child or I will shoot you here.”

“Then who will fly this ship?”

Da’Mira’s voice didn’t waver. “I will fly it, or I will die trying. Now pick up that girl.”

He spun the transport around in a quick maneuver. Its landing thrusters kicked up even more dirt and rock when it landed between the fleeing girl and the two pursuing men.

From the cargo hatch Da’Mira waved for the girl and held out her hand. “Come here. Trust me!”

The young girl hesitated. Her large round lavender eyes narrowed, studying Da’Mira.

“There isn’t much time!” Da’Mira shouted over the roar of the engine.

The two men rounded the ship, their weapons help high.

The sullied girl dropped the food disks and sprinted for the transport. She leapt up into the back of the craft taking hold of Da’Mira’s hand.

“Go!” Da’Mira yelled into the communication device. The pilot blasted the transport straight up into the sky leaving a white trail of fuel vapors in its wake.

Da’Mira led the young girl to the cockpit. Her dark suntanned face was covered with dirt and her clothes, thread-worn, barely fit her body. Clearly, she’d been wearing them for a long time. Da’Mira saw herself in the girl’s strong will.

“You don’t have to worry. You’re safe with me,” Da’Mira told the girl, but mistrust flared in the girl’s eyes. “Do you have a name?”

The girl did not answer. She looked out a small port window; her breathing shallow, rapid.

“You’ll get use to the regulated air. It’s cleaner than what’s on Earth.”

“You think so?” the girl responded but did not look away from the window.

“I am Da’Mira… what’s your name?”

“My name is my own, you cannot have it,” the girl replied in spiteful Scottish tone.

Da’Mira stood and gave the girl a pleasant smile and joined the pilot at the controls. “What about the Orlander patrol?”

The pilot shot Da’Mira an uneasy stare, and grumbled, “I don’t know. If their ships were close enough, they could have identified us. It could be bad… for both of us. I should have never taken this job.”

The Orlander and Tannador families were old rivals. The Nine were held together by uneasy alliances. Da’Mira’s actions could rekindle old hatreds. She looked back at the dark-haired Scotts girl. Just by freeing a breeder from the facility, she might have brought more trouble than needed. I should have left her there.      

A deep bellowed alarm rung throughout the cabin indicating an ORACLE system reboot.

“I thought you bypassed the watcheye,” Da’Mira said.

“We are coming into high orbit. The watchtower is within range. No bypass in the world can shut that out. It has master control over all ORACLE systems, even one as old as this.”

The Watchtower came into view. The two massive black onyx towers that hung in stationary orbit above the earth – watching, scanning evaluating everything within range and reporting it all to the high-born. How else could the Great Houses ensure compliance with those who serve them? Da’Mira stood motionless.

- Inquiry, the ORACLE system came online with a question.

“Proceed,” the pilot said glancing at Da’Mira.

- Why has this system been off line?

“Maintenance,” the pilot spoke again, like he had told this lie before. Da’Mira winced.

-No maintenance was scheduled.

The pilot cleared his throat. “It was unscheduled... the unit’s primary system was indicating a fault and closed it self-down for minor repair.

The ORACLE system hummed. The reflective red light on its base pulsated. A bead of sweat ran down the pilot’s indented face. The pool of perspiration hung off his chin while he waited – his eyes circling, assessing the threat.

The Fortitude transport hung in a high orbit. The massive Watchtower, the ORACLE system control station, loomed close. Da’Mira stood as stiff as the pilot, her breathing shallow. Once the watcheye scanned the ship it would detect her and the dark-haired girl. Questions would be asked. Would she be discovered?

 -State your destination.

The pilot gave Da’Mira a hardened look. “I’m on special assignment for the Lady Da’Mira Tannador.”

Da’Mira’s hazel eyes widened. She grabbed the pilot by the arm, but he shrugged her off snapping his arm away from her grasp.

“I request permission to proceed to Tannador house, to offload my cargo,” the pilot said, his voice low, humble.

Again, the red light on the watcheye pulsated. The human benefactors, the family Lexor sat in the looming Watchtower making ultimate decisions. Time slowed, giving way to thoughts, indecisions, and miscalculations. Da’Mira knew she could have done things differently, but none of those thoughts had a pleasant outcome.

 -You may proceed to Tannador house.

The ORACLE system’s voice thundered an added warning.

–Do not waiver from the following flight plan.

Coordinates flashed on the computer console, and the pilot turned his vessel accordingly. The transport flew past the Watchtower. It grew larger and larger in the view port. Da’Mira followed it as it towered over them. She looked back at the dark-haired girl who sat on the floor of the flight deck. She pulled her legs up into her chest and hid her face.

Da’Mira wanted to tell the girl not to be afraid, that everything would be all right, but Da’Mira wasn’t sure if even she believed that.

Tannador house orbited two hundred miles above the Earth and traveled more than seventeen hundred miles an hour, fully orbiting the planet every ninety minutes. A gyrating axis constantly turning at the center of the orbiting mansion mimicked Earth’s gravity. Several dozen small sensor probes surveyed the area around the station, continually scanning for any potential thing that could cause damage or be a threat to the Tannador Family. In the distance along the same orbit Evergarden loomedthe home of the secretive family Everhart. Da’Mira felt a strong connection to Evergarden, a connection that eluded her since she’d never been on the platform.

“Fortitude transport.” A man’s voice cut across the communication system. “This is Tannador House operations. Follow the prearranged flight path. Once inside the station you will be instructed where to land.”

The pilot adjusted the transport’s speed to match the large station’s pitch and rotation. Da’Mira’s stomach lurched with queasiness. She closed her eyes. Landing on an orbital platform always made her sick. As a small girl, her brother Quinton made fun of her when she turned seven shades of green upon an approach. Memories of him pestering her brought back the past. Da’Mira took a deep breath and opened her eyes just in time to see the transport fly through the docking port. The massive landing bay’s bright light blinded her. She shielded her eyes with the palm of her hand.

The transport flew along a guided flight path and moved toward a raised platform. Bright yellow landing lights flashed in unison. The pilot fired the ship’s landing thrusters and gently maneuvered his craft into position. When the ship touched down the platform lowered into a second well-lit chamber, coming to a slow secure stop on the deck.

Outside the ship several security officers assembled in formation, dressed in the purple and yellow colors of the family Tannador. They drew their weapons, but aimed them down toward the deck, they rushed the ship.

“I knew it,” the pilot said shooting Da’Mira a scowl.

The access door of the transport blew open. The hydraulics hissed, and the door filled with coolant, spilled over from the ship’s engines. The guards ran in. They quickly secured the pilot and the girl, but no one laid a hand on Da’Mira.

“This is uncalled for. These people are under my protection!”

“I beg your pardon Milady,” the lead officer said. “I am under orders to secure anyone in this ship and have you escorted to your father.”

Da’Mira stiffened. “No harm will come to them?”

“I’ve been instructed to hold them in the security area and await orders.”

Da’Mira looked at the girl. She wanted to reach out for her, but the child looked away, lowering her eyes to the floor.

The long walk from the landing bay through the empty corridors of the mansion gave Da’Mira time to rehearse what she planned to say to her father. She knew their exchange would be more of a lecture and less of a conversation. Her father, Hek’Dara loved to hear himself talk, and Da’Mira often suffered on the receiving end of many of her father’s rants.

Da’Mira blocked out all her past experiences with him and focused on what she needed to say this time. The palms of her hands began to sweat, and her heart raced when she entered the cathedral room. A massive flamboyant chamber that, when empty, echoed from even the slightest sound. Hek’Dara loved to hear his voice resonate off the walls.

Her father stood at the balcony, hands tucked behind his back. His freshly pressed dark suit bore a stiff collar around his thick neck. His equally dark beard spilled over his clothes and melded seamlessly into one another.

A massive window towered as high as the vaulted ceiling and frightened Da’Mira as a child. Her teacher Kab’ic Gear had trouble getting her to listen to his lessons when their day ended up in the ornate room. Even many years later, Da’Mira found it difficult to concentrate in here. Her father’s reflection shimmered off the glass. She ignored his abrasive stare and fixed her eyes on how his image looked with the Earth shining behind him. The thought of Kab’ic Gear flooded her mind and she bit her tongue.  How can I ever forgive you for what you did to my teacher? He was a good man and didn’t deserve his punishment.

Hek’Dara’s nostrils flared. He eyed Da’Mira’s clothing and cleared his throat drawing her eyes to him. “That will be all,” he told the guards.

The security team saluted and turned, no words were spoken, the sound of the men’s boots echoed throughout the room.

Da’Mira stared past her father at the Earth. Dark patches littered its surface, dead areas where life no longer thrived. The planet merely existed as a cesspool for the breeders, dirty and disease ridden.

“Look at you,” Hek’Dara said, and waved his large hand at her attire. “How could you wear such a thing?”

“Don’t you mean to ask how could I do such a thing?”

“Of that I have no misgivings daughter. You have always been a disappointment.”

Da’Mira glared at her father. He’d never been the type of man to mince words. Why would he start now? “I…” She held her tongue and refused to tell her father she was sorry – she wasn’t.

“Do you know what you’ve done and how many favors I had to ask of Avery Lexor, so your mercy mission would go unnoticed. If Iris discovers what has happened, I won’t be able to protect you. Why did you do something like this, daughter?”

“I thought that might have been obvious. The people are starving.”

The angered look on Hek’Dara’s face turned grim. “Those aren’t people down there Da’Mira, they’re cattle. They breed, we care for them. It’s the way it’s always been. We high-born take their wellbeing seriously.”

Da’Mira pointed at the Earth behind her father. “That isn’t care, that’s mass genocide! There may be less people on the planet than ever before. We’re devolving them into animals. We’ve destroyed our culture, our vast history and our inevitable future… and for what?”

“You know what for!” Hek’Dara shouted. “Our way of life would be over if we didn’t move to orbit. The slaves are the –” He lowered his voice, realizing it was carrying off the walls. “The slaves are our backbone. If it wasn’t for those people you champion, our society would crumble.”

“Has it ever occurred to you father, that we are destroying who we are as a race?” Da’Mira turned her back on her father, surprised that she could be so bold. “Perhaps we deserve to crumble.”

Hek’Dara’s voice thundered through the great hall. Da’Mira winced. “How long do you think the human race would have survived if we hadn’t taken steps to ensure our culture? Earth is a dying world – we had no other choice. If it wasn’t for the hierarchy, we set in place our way of life would have ended… long ago.”

Da’Mira turned back to her father, her voice hardened, “And what about the rest of humanity? Are the nine families the best we have to offer the future? It frightens me. As long as we remain here in orbit of Earth, mankind will not survive. We need to colonize another planet.”

Hek’Dara exhaled. “We’ve had this conversation before.”

“One of the many worlds we’ve excavated and claimed for our own could be a suitable planet to move to.”

“The Union Charter clearly states that the human race must remain on Earth and never sacrifice our home planet. We are humans of Earth,” he said.

“Don’t recite the litany to me. It was crafted by the Everhart family who wanted to keep us here for some made up reason. Humans of Earth. Haven’t you ever wondered why? Isn’t it strange? What unearthly experiments are the Everhart’s performing in those breeding facilities of theirs?”

“Enough Da’Mira… enough!”

Da’Mira’s demeanor sunk. How can he be so blind?

“We might not be the best. We may have made some mistakes along the way. But we keep to the Union Charter. It’s our judgments here and now that will secure a future for those that will follow in our footsteps.” Hek’Dara took a deep breath. “Your devilish actions might have jeopardized our status with the other eight families today my daughter. Partnerships that have delicately allied us for almost three hundred years. The family Orlander will discover sooner or later that it was you who interfered in one of their facilities. When that happens, I won’t be able to protect you. It was my quick thinking today – and a few favors called in with the family Lexor – that prevented your discovery.”

“You don’t owe me any favors.”

Hek’Dara tightened his large hands into fists but relaxed them. His dark beard furrowed. “I am your father Da’Mira. I protect you even if I don’t condone what you do. But, sadly I can no longer trust you. So, I have taken steps to see that you don’t do it again.”

Da’Mira’s brow tightened. “What do you mean?”

“A one-man expedition on one of the new planets, designated Kepler 369, has stopped sending out its regular signal. I intend on sending you to investigate.”

“Me – how?” Da’Mira straightened her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips.

Hek’Dara’s eyes narrowed. His bushy eyebrows rolled down tight over his eyes. “On our exploration ship, of course. With your penchant for adventure this should be the perfect quest for you, daughter.”

Da’Mira placed her hand to her mouth to hide pursed lips. “But Quinton is on Requiem.”

“I’ve recalled your brother. He is on his way home. In a few days, you will depart as the ship’s new master.”

Da’Mira drew down the zipper on her overalls. She swallowed into a dried throat and hoped her father was joking. Yes, that’s right, it’s a joke. “I’ve never been master of a ship before, especially something big as Requiem.

“The crew will see to the mastering of the ship, you will simply accompany them and oversee any discoveries the archeology team might uncover.”

Da’Mira tossed her hands in the air, she caught a whiff of the previous owner’s body odor from the overalls and she put her arms back down. “Why must I go?”

“A Tannador must command the ship to claim the planet as ours. Otherwise the claim is forfeit, you know the rules, Da’Mira. Besides, productivity is down from Requiem and I hope you can put it right and bring it back up.”

Da’Mira glared at her father. Was he telling the truth or not? She hadn’t paid attention to acquisitions and claiming of a planet when her lessons fell to that. To be master of Requiem was her brother’s destiny. Not hers. “I don’t want to…”

Hek’Dara waved his hand in absolute ruling. “I’ve made up my mind Da’Mira. I mean to send you away, so you can’t cause this family anymore trouble. Sending you into deep space will put an end to your anarchist ways.” His nostrils flared again, and his eyes brightened in triumph.
Da’Mira acquiesced and clenched her jaw, she wanted to lash out, refuse to go and refuse to be treated like a… like a slave. She wasn’t a slave – she was his daughter, which in many ways was worse. At least a slave wasn’t the daughter of Hek’Dara Tannador.

COPYRIGHT 2018 Charles F. Millhouse

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