The Shadow Reaper

Publication Year: 2019

Print Length: 330 pages

 

The Shadow Reaper is a star-spanning tale of survival, doubt, and self-discovery in the 31st Century. A starship caught inside the mysterious GodStorm falls through a dimensional rift. Shortly after regaining control of the ship in orbit around an ancient ringworld, the crew faces a creature they struggle to even prove exists. Soon, that terrifying battle for survival engulfs the primitive inhabitants of the ringworld below, where a small town stands in the shadow of a dragon, and a reluctant knight must make the biggest decision of his life.

The Shadow Reaper is a smooth blend of science fiction, fantasy and horror set in the Cosmoverse, a universe where one seemingly insignificant person can change everything—not merely in one city or on one world, but perhaps even across the dimensions.

Illustrations and maps are included, as well as an overview of the Cosmoverse (the dying universe that most of our fiction is based in), and an excerpt from Voices, a novella by Bob Whitely.

The Shadow Reaper

Publication Year: 2019

Print Length: 330 pages

 

The Shadow Reaper is a star-spanning tale of survival, doubt, and self-discovery in the 31st Century. A starship caught inside the mysterious GodStorm falls through a dimensional rift. Shortly after regaining control of the ship in orbit around an ancient ringworld, the crew faces a creature they struggle to even prove exists. Soon, that terrifying battle for survival engulfs the primitive inhabitants of the ringworld below, where a small town stands in the shadow of a dragon, and a reluctant knight must make the biggest decision of his life.

The Shadow Reaper is a smooth blend of science fiction, fantasy and horror set in the Cosmoverse, a universe where one seemingly insignificant person can change everything—not merely in one city or on one world, but perhaps even across the dimensions.

Illustrations and maps are included, as well as an overview of the Cosmoverse (the dying universe that most of our fiction is based in), and an excerpt from Voices, a novella by Bob Whitely.

Excerpt . . .

PROLOGUE

More than four thousand years had passed since the reaper slipped out of the shadows and was ambushed by a being immune to his peculiar talents. A hyper intelligence encased in metal, the entity had defeated the reaper using a simple array of floodlights linked to a solar generator.

Trapped within the searing light, the reaper became inert, able to think, but not act. He wished not to remove the light, only diminish it, for without light, there can be no shadows.

Explorers came along and found the solar generator and disabled it, unaware of the creature they were releasing. In his impatience, the reaper made another miscalculation and found himself stranded, unable to escape the tiny world that had become his cage. Determined not to repeat his mistake, the shadow reaper went into hiding, knowing it was just a matter of time.

CHAPTER 1

Galactic Date: 08.12.7039 [Pantara calendar]
Galactic Spatial Coordinates: -156,+46,0
Western edge of the Dark Nebulae
CDF-E179 Dauntilus

 


In the distance, thousands of mammoth asteroids spun and collided, stirred up by dimensional tornadoes. Thus far only a few of the skyscraper-sized boulders had broken off from the pack and tumbled toward them, prodded by the tornadoes. Hemmed in on five sides, the CDF-E179 Dauntilus remained steadfast.


We all knew the Dark Nebulae was a dangerous region. No wonder the Interstellar Alliance never committed serious funds to exploring it. I wonder what makes the Colonial Defense Fleet think we’re up to the task? Lance Bendrik wondered.


Captain Raeden doesn’t seem overly concerned about the tornadoes, Lance thought. Perhaps I’m overreacting. I dunno. Maybe he’s right. I am only the XO. He’s a decorated soldier with many more years of experience than I have. Well, I’ve said my piece and he refused to head for safer skies until his precious probes return from retrieving data on the dimensional phenomenon.


Ensign Lorego was the nav officer on duty and Lance trusted him. He had worked with him previously on another ship and Lance had recommended him for a promotion, but his captain had disagreed. Now XO aboard the Dauntilus, Lance found himself in a similar situation. Once again he was working alongside Lorego, and once again he was at odds with his superior.


Before the tornadoes had escalated in size and intensity, the Dauntilus had only been hemmed in on three sides. That alone had been enough to inspire Lance to suggest they pull out. Our force shields should be able to handle the smaller annoyances, but I still say hanging around here is too risky. I’m sure Lorego would agree, but the Captain isn’t taking his advice. He doesn’t seem to think much of mine, either. Lorego’s talented, despite his age. I’m sure he’ll do everything he can to keep us out of harm’s way. Even so . . .


When Raeden addressed the crew, he painted a rosy picture, not only insisting they were already maintaining a safe distance, but suggested it was their duty—no honor—to gather intelligence. He called it a historic occasion.


Looks like we won’t be going anywhere for the next thirty-six hours, so I might as well try to relax while I can, Lance thought. He sat in his favorite mess-hall booth alone with his thoughts. He found them more than enough company, at least while his wife was still on duty. Their downtime usually overlapped by only a few hours, but he favored their time together immensely. Even when they were too tired to do anything but sit together in bed and read, he found satisfaction in it. Being newlyweds, even when they were tired, they regularly found the energy for more intimate pursuits.


Lately, something had been chipping away at Lance’s peace, but he hadn’t been able to zero in on just what it was that had him in a funk. My home life isn’t the problem, he decided. There’s not nearly enough of it, but it’s not as simple as that. He sighed deeply and tried to relax. Glancing around, he was pleased to see the cafeteria had finally emptied out.


I have dreams just like anyone else. I do! But talent tends to favor those who don’t deserve it, while opportunity often comes when you’re ill prepared to capitalize on it. Or maybe it comes to awaken a potential you didn’t know you had? Yeah . . . right. One can hope, but I swear sometimes it comes just to remind me I don’t have what it takes.


I’m not in this to get rich. Having little is more than the rich enjoy. They just don’t get it—the burden of chasing after wealth or fame, as if either brings even a sliver of peace or happiness. My father was the happiest person I’ve ever known, and he wasn’t rich. I have no grand aspirations.


Lance removed his badge and set it down on the table before him. He stared at it, as if for the first time. A moment later, he picked it up and read: “Commander Lance Bendrik.” Above the name was the logo of the CDF: a stylized helm over a pair of wings encircled with stars.


Setting the badge back on the table, Lance sighed. I chose neither my name nor my title. I’m not sure how I even managed to attain the position of Commander. I didn’t want it, but no matter how hard I tried to blend into the background, I kept getting promoted.


Is it lazy to just want a regular paycheck and quiet evenings alone with my wife? Is that really all you want? Isn’t that enough? Maybe. It’d be a great start—certainly more than I deserve, but is it a crime to chase my own dreams, rather than those ascribed to me? Fact is, even if I had the talent, I’m not sure I’d want the opportunities that keep popping up.


There’s a reason for everything, just no simple explanations. He shook his head, recalling some of the opportunities he’d let slip away over the years—doors he hadn’t realized were open till they’d shut again. A friend once told him some opportunities disguise themselves as tribulations. Is this one of them? If it is, I just don’t see it. I know I ought to be grateful for the opportunity to explore the Dark Nebulae. Few have ever laid eyes on this region, and most never will, he reminded himself.


At this moment I want nothing more than peace and quiet and the comfort of my favorite booth, and favorite drink. Lance took a sip from his Dragon Mocha and enjoyed the view. A great window wrapped around two thirds of the semi-circular, domed eatery, so the view was naturally spectacular.


Although he couldn’t see the force shields, he knew they were there protecting them. He also knew they weren’t fail-safe or foolproof. I still say we’re too close. We can always return later to pick up the probes and study the phenomenon, but there’s no convincing Raeden. Don’t know why I bother. Still, I’m glad I’m not the one in charge. I have no desire to take on that much responsibility. I’m just glad my shift is over and I can relax a little before heading back to my quarters.


Private Telly came out from behind the bar, wiped down the tables, and then retreated to the kitchen. She was a shy, nervous girl, but nice. The officers liked her, but as far as Lance knew, she hadn’t dated any of them. She mostly kept to herself.


A few minutes later, the cafeteria doors sighed open and three officers walked in talking loudly amongst themselves.


 “ . . . never heard of Toro?” Corporal Harding said, his tone skeptical. “The guy’s stronger than an Althean bull!”


“I seriously doubt that,” another said.


Lance recognized the second speaker from Med Center and frowned. Doctor Nevins, he recalled. Ever since Janys told me about his bedside manner, I haven’t liked him. Considering I’ve never actually spoken with him personally, I suppose that’s not really fair, he realized, but something about the man rubbed him the wrong way.


Harding motioned with his head at the Commander and told his companions to keep their voices down, which Lance found amusing. He knew Harding well. The corporal was usually the loudest among the company he kept, but was pleasant enough, at least.


Waiving at Lance, Harding said, “Evening, Commander.”


Lance nodded and then took another sip from his mug. He avoided eye contact with the others, as he wasn’t fishing for a conversation.


Harding said, “I’m telling you, the guy can lift a bus!”


“A bus?” a burly officer said, walking a pace behind the others.


“That’s right,” Harding answered, as he turned to look over at the bar. He glanced back at the burly fellow and said, “Kord, I thought for sure you’d have heard—”


“Nope. Never heard of him,” Kord said and shrugged. He glanced momentarily at the Commander.


Nevins chimed in, shaking his head, “Harding, I’ve never heard of an orc superhero, period.”
“We talking a full bus, or empty?” Kord inquired.


That Kord’s a big boy. Big enough to be a superhero himself, Lance thought. He could have been a masters-at-arms instead of a biome technician, but I’m glad he’s doing what he enjoys. He reminds me a little of those wide-bodied xeelotians from the Alliance.


 “You sure he’s a superhero?” Nevins asked.


“Oh, I don’t know if he’s a superhero per se. He did rescue that dwarven diplomat on the sky train, but I think Toro was just a passenger at the time. He is an augment, though. Confirmed,” Harding said, his voice carrying over the others.


Lance continued listening, having given up on any notion of peace and quiet. He knew it was within his authority to order them to lower their voices further still, but didn’t want to impose. It was their downtime, too. Besides, he preferred to get along with everyone, when possible. The Captain had called that a flaw, but Lance didn’t like confrontation.


“Was this Toro fellow ever confirmed medically?” Nevins questioned.


Harding nodded and got to his feet. “You know, I think I saw a vid once where he lifted a bus. It was empty, but he lifted it as easily as you lift a mug of beer, Nevins.”


“You sure he was an orc?” Kord asked, adding, “I thought only humans could be born with the augment gene?”


“Apparently, you haven’t learned yet how to read,” Nevins snapped. “The gene is in all of us. It’s been found in numerous species. Augmentism—the manifestation of augment powers—it’s just far more common among humans—and humanus. For whatever reason, it manifests far less frequently in non-humans, but there have been cases on many worlds.”


“Really?” Kord said. He seemed surprised.


“Perhaps if you spent more time reading than playing games on your wristcomp . . .”


Kord frowned. “For your information, Nevins, I learn all sorts of things from playing games. And in case you’ve forgotten, I could break you in half like a toothpick if I wanted to.”


Harding laughed. “That he could, Doc,” he said as the corporal strolled up to the bar.


Lance couldn’t help but smile.


Nevins gave the burly fellow a dirty look and then joined Harding at the bar.


Private Telly emerged from the kitchen to take their orders. Harding pointed at a glazed donut in the display case. Telly put it on a plate and slid it toward him. Glancing over his shoulder, he said, “Can I get you something to drink, Kord?”


“Sure. I’ll take two of whatever you’re having.”


Harding nodded and placed their order.


Kord turned and stared out the window for a time and then glanced back and called out, “Hey, Nevins? What does it take to become an augment?”


Nevins gave him a sideways glance and said, “Why do you ask? Kord, aren’t you pumped up enough on Metamaxall?”


“I’m all natur—al, baby,” Kord said. “Just curious is all.”


“Ah, I thought maybe you were hoping to moonlight as a superhero. I’d avoid the black market if I were you. Plenty of wrong ways of activating the gene—most of them will get you killed.”


“I meant legally, of course.”


“Oh, well there are two common triggers, birth being the first. The other I don’t think you’ll ever reach.”


“What’s that?” Kord asked as Telly set their drinks up on the bar.


Nevins took a gulp of beer, glanced at Harding and then back at Kord and said, “Puberty.”


Kord’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t make me come over there and pound you into butter.”


“Ever seen a xeelotian up close?” Nevins asked. He continued before Kord could respond. “Standing next to a xeelotian you’d look like a little girl.”


Lance thought about it and agreed. Even the orcs weren’t as big as the xeelotians.


Kord sneered. “Ever seen the inside of a trash can? Better yet, how ‘bout I just toss you out an airlock? Just answer my question, Nevins. Aren’t there any other ways to become an augment? I thought I read somewhere about a guy getting powers after being bitten by a bug.”


“I’m pretty sure that came from a comic book. And no, comic books aren’t scientific journals, in case you were wondering.”


“Never know when to stop, do you, Nevins?” Harding said and finished off his glass.


“You try working in Med Center!” he said, glancing between Harding and Kord. “Nobody ever cracks a joke. Talking boring? Kord, you know I don’t mean anything by it, right, big guy?”


Nevins took a sip of beer, set his glass down and asked, “Now, what was the question again?” He immediately raised his hand and then pointed at Kord. “Augmentism, right? I believe in some cases, a physically or mentally traumatic event activated the gene. Augmentism only manifests powers in roughly one in a million humans.”


“Huh,” Kord said, seemingly satisfied. He downed the rest of his glass and then picked up the second.


Nevins returned to the table with his glass and sat down.


Turning to Nevins, Harding said, “You forgot about the Pulse of 6120 and the GodStorm.”


Nevins shrugged. “It’s true that the Pulse simultaneously manifested powers within thousands of humans on numerous worlds, and affected several other species in smaller numbers. But that was an extraordinary event. Who knows when it will happen again? Now the GodStorm? There’s still not enough evidence to confirm it is linked to augmentism. We just don’t know enough about that phenomenon yet. I’ve read some compelling accounts, but again, they haven’t be confirmed.”


Kord gulped down his second glass and set it down on the table and frowned.


Nevins glanced over at him and said, “Don’t worry, Kord, maybe I’m wrong and you’ll reach puberty one of these days. Anything could happen.”

 
Kord stood up and cracked his knuckles, staring down at the mouthy doctor. Harding got up and took his donut with him. He wandered back over to the bar and sat down on a stool to watch his companions, shaking his head.


Private Telly vanished into the back room.


“Don’t make me have to intervene, gentlemen,” Lance muttered under his breath, not wanting to get involved. He’d seen Kord in a fight back on Taeros. The brute won the fight, but he hadn’t thrown the first punch. Lance had been there long enough to watch him throw the last. It had been a short fight. As far as Lance knew, Kord had never actually started a fight on his own. At least not since joining the CDF Academy.


Most folks were smart enough not to provoke him.


I think I’ve seen them in here before, so maybe Nevins knows how far he can push him. Don’t be stupid, Doctor, he thought. Anyone can be pushed too far, and sometimes you don’t know it till it’s too late.


Nevins remained seated. “Relax, Kord, my friend. Let me get you another—”


A teeth-jarring vibration and bright flash of light silenced Nevins as it rocked the ship, slamming the doctor to the floor. Harding’s donut went rolling off into the shadows, but the corporal had managed to grapple the bar in time to keep himself from falling off his stool. Lance was thrown onto his table, spilling the last of his Dragon Mocha.


Kord staggered backwards a step, but remained standing.


“Commander?” Harding shouted in alarm.


Lance’s ears were still ringing and there were halos before his eyes as he got to his feet. When the ship rocked, his badge slid off the table. As his vision began to clear, the wristcomp on his left arm flashed an emergency signal, followed by Raeden’s voice. “Commander? Get your butt up to the bridge. The One Above All has seen fit to drop the GodStorm on our asses.”


Lance doubted the GodStorm was the One Above All’s doing, but now wasn’t the time to argue particulars. I hate when I forget to put the comm on privacy mode. He rushed over and retrieved his badge. “On my way,” he said and snapped the badge back onto his uniform. “Everyone okay?” he waited for the officers to confirm their status before continuing. “Nevins, check on Private Telly. I want all three of you back at your stations. Let’s move!” he shouted, as he ran toward the exit.

* * *


Overnight, the orc’s eyebrow hairs had grown down past his chin, his nose and ear hairs farther still. Through a curtain of wavy black locks, he stared at himself in the mirror, shaking his head in disgust. “Dreadlocks are one thing, but this? I look like a girl—a human girl with this head of hair!” he said through gritted teeth. “How is this even possible?” He shuddered when he thought back over the past forty-eight hours. “The GodStorm  . . . it did this to me,” he whispered, as if to speak of it louder might summon the magical anomaly. He recalled the stories he’d been told in his youth of Deamond, Ariam, Lorel, Vomix and other gods who were swept up in the storm, lost forever, their spirits becoming one with the storm. He shuddered again.


“You say something, Mardag?” came a muffled female’s voice.


Behind him, a large mound in the center of his bed stirred. Parting his eyebrow hair, Mardag watched the mound through the mirror. She’s still under the covers. Good. She must not see me like this!


“Go back to sleep, Rodna. You were dreaming,” he said as he walked into the restroom. The door slid shut behind him. Mardag listened for his companion and sighed in relief when she began snoring again. Opening a drawer, he pulled out a trimmer. First, he trimmed his eyebrow hairs and then shaved his head, eager to rid himself of the long locks.


I wish I were dreaming, but the GodStorm taints everything it touches.


The magic-spawned GodStorm first appeared in the Audrysi system more than two centuries ago. Since then, it had resurfaced numerous times across the Pantara Galaxy. Hundreds of ships and humanus space mechs had been disabled by the arcane storm. Dozens had gone missing and some of them had still not been found.


The exploration ship, CDF-E179 Dauntilus, was just inside the Dark Nebulae, only three parsecs from the orc homeworld of Taeros when the devastating GodStorm appeared. The anomaly immersed the Dauntilus in arcane energy and supercharged the dimensional tornadoes now raging all around them. Blindsided, and struggling to navigate a shrinking corridor, the Dauntilus was faced with few options.


The Dauntilus’ crew attempted a short jump, hoping to escape the arcane storm. Instead, their jump was magnified by it, catapulting them over thirty-five parsecs, through the hazardous Shipbane Expanse and into the dimensional rift located there. When the ship’s sensors came back online, the Dauntilus found itself hurtling toward a largely unexplored ringworld in the Cosmothereal dimension. It was a region about which precious little was known. Regaining control of the ship, they reassessed their situation from orbit.


Mardag had heard of the ringworld and knew it was called Cathor, but as he was only a supply officer, he figured his superiors weren’t in any hurry to share details. Grandfather told me there were orcs on Cathor. If the legends are true, Chronus, the god of knowledge, came to our world and built an arcane stargate and then left. Decades passed before my brethren figured out how to activate the gate. An orc scout went through and came back telling of fertile valleys, forests and lakes. Then many went through, hoping to find a more hospitable world. Few returned. As is our lot, wherever we go, we find war. Or make war. I know not what the case was on Cathor, but I doubt I’ll ever set foot on it regardless. If I do, I certainly don’t want any orcs to see me like this. It would bring shame upon my clan. He sighed and continued repairing his appearance, removing his dangling nose and ear hairs.


Once satisfied that he was more or less back to normal, he opened the restroom door. Rodna was still snoring, but one of her meaty arms had slipped out from under the covers. Mardag gasped when he saw that it was covered in a thick rug of black hair. He was about to wake her with the news, but decided to let her sleep.


Being a farmer is far less stressful than life in space—a simple life has simple problems, he realized. Father was right. I should never have joined the CDF.


With a deep sigh, he slid down in front of his terminal and contacted Med Center. He soon learned that Kord, the only other orc on board, had also reported explosive hair growth, while several dwarven and human personnel experienced severe hair loss. Mardag was relieved that he wasn’t the only one suffering. He was encouraged to remain calm and was reassured that most GodStorm side effects were only temporary.


Most?


Tangible aberrations were not uncommon during GodStorm manifestations. One ship might report the sudden appearance of flowers or butterflies on board, another, feathers or even snowfall. The Dauntilus had been filled with motes of light that danced and changed colors as they drifted about the ship for hours. The motes were all gone now, but more than a few of them had exploded into harmless, but annoying clouds of confetti.


The GodStorm often played havoc with ship controls, fouled up sensors, drained power plants, and caused other bizarre effects. Arcane shapers—or mages as some call them—were assigned to capital ships as advisors. They usually took on other roles as well, since the GodStorm was thankfully still an uncommon hazard. The Dauntilus had no such magic advisor.


Mardag made his way down to his station. Far from home in another dimension . . . could things possibly get any worse? he wondered. I doubt we’ll ever find our way back home. Turning a corner, the orc was sideswiped by Ensign Dromo riding inside his shell, an antigrav hoverball. The little frog-like orynii was moving faster than he could properly steer.


Realizing he had tempted fate with such negativity, Mardag blurted out an orcish adage, “On my way to a perfect day,” but it was far too late for that. The orc sighed, wishing he’d taken a different path. 

 
Plagued by agoraphobia like most of his kind, the bulging-eyed Dromo would sometimes make a nasty remark and then hide inside his hoverball until the offended left the area. No one on board liked Dromo, and the feeling was mutual.


The shell whirred to a stop and then backed up, almost hitting Mardag a second time. A tiny portal slid open and the green-skinned orynii poked his head out. “Mardag! You wouldn’t believe what I’ve had to put up with already today!”


The orc kept walking and avoided eye contact.


“Mardag? Mardag. Mar—dag!” The orynii called out in his annoying nasal voice.


“What is it, Ensign?”


“Have you noticed that most everyone on board is going bangy?”


“I just left my quarters.”


“Well, everyone’s going—”


“Bangy?”


“You’ve noticed it then. Not you too, I hope?” He didn’t wait for Mardag to answer. “My fellow high elven and human officers have been demonstrating severe mood swings and I just bet they’re going to blame it on the GodStorm!”


Mardag shrugged. It probably was the GodStorm, he thought. He knew better than to comment, as that would only prolong their interaction.


“I haven’t experienced any side effects,” the orynii said haughtily. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his portal frame and cupped his chin in his hands. Dromo stared at the orc with enormous eyes and it was creeping the orc out. What’s worse, Dromo’s fully extended, worm-like arm nubs were tapping on the orynii’s temples as he had a nervous habit of doing when he was thinking hard.


“What now?” Mardag said, growing irritable.


“Nothing. I just didn’t remember your ear hairs being so freakishly long. You should braid those or something.”


Embarrassed, Mardag turned around and ran back to his quarters without saying another word. Arriving late to his station, he was pleased to find his commanding officer wasn’t around.


Only one other officer was present and mostly kept to himself. Glancing up from his terminal, the officer said, “Mardag, you’re lucky you weren’t here earlier. Our illustrious leader made me clear all the shelves of confetti. Right after that, things went seriously bangy.”


“How so?” Mardag asked, glancing down at the floor. Clearly his fellow officer had merely brushed the confetti off the shelves and let it fall where it may.


“We were in her office going over the inventory log and she . . . well, her irises just vanished.”
“What do you mean, vanished?”


“I’m telling you they vanished. Her corneas started glowing red like a banshee’s—it was so extra-dimensional!”


“You serious? Where is she now?”


“She became dizzy and went back to her quarters.”


“Unbelievable,” Mardag said and leaned back against a shelf. He felt his nose hairs twitch and rested a hand on the pocket of his uniform jumper, to confirm he had remembered to bring his trimmers with him.


“You think we’ll ever make it back to Mortalis? Back to our own dimension?”


“It can’t happen soon enough for my tastes,” Mardag said, as he reviewed his shift schedule.
The other nodded and held out a broom. “Here, you can finish up.”


Glancing down at the broom, Mardag frowned. His ears itched and he was in a foul mood.


“Hey, might as well keep ourselves busy, right?” the other said, eyeing Mardag strangely.


Mardag sighed and took the broom, then understood the strange expression on his comrade’s face and rushed off to the restroom.

 

CHAPTER 2

Once the GodStorm’s bizarre side effects appeared to have finally wore off, some of the crew members became excited over the prospects of exploring the ringworld—no one more so than Captain Neal Raeden. Neal was confident he could turn over the situation and come out on top. “Commander, I hope you have some good news for me,” Neal said, as he entered the bridge.


“Captain on the bridge,” Lance announced, and everyone stood at attention. As he exited the command station, the commander added, “Sir, the status report came in from Engineering.”


Neal met the commander halfway up the ramp separating the upper and lower bridge stations, eager to move on to other matters.


The officers on deck saluted and then returned to their stations, avoiding further eye contact.


“Summarize it for me, Commander,” Neal said, as he continued up the ramp. Lance followed him. As soon as he stepped onto the upper bridge, Neal snapped his fingers to get Ensign Lorego’s attention, and then pointed to a piece of confetti on the floor.


“Sir, yes sir,” the ensign said, and rushed over to pick it up.


Neal had never lost his taste for power. Turning back to Lance, he frowned. “You’re the XO—take pride in our ship.”


“Yes sir,” Lance said.


Looks nervous, Neal realized and found himself smiling. He masked his amusement and motioned with his head for the XO to continue. Impatient, Neal said, “The report?”


“Yes, sir,” Lance said, nodding. “The Dauntilus is in relatively good shape despite the GodStorm, but the JumpGate Drive suffered significant damage. Chief Engineer Rojyr Maeson said repairs and calibration will take approximately three weeks, assuming nothing else goes wrong.”


As the captain listened, he noticed his XO casually rest his hand over another stray piece of confetti laying on the top of the rail surrounding the upper bridge. When a moment later the commander withdrew his hand and slipped it into his pocket, the confetti was gone.


“I figured as much,” Neal said, staring at his subordinate, smiling knowingly.


“You seem in a good mood, sir,” Lance said after a moment, giving the captain an odd glance, but he said nothing further.


Neal had already spoken with the Chief Engineer and knew about the damaged drive, though he refrained from admitting he had actually been pleased when he heard the news. Even so, he realized Lance might have guessed he was in no hurry to leave the Cosmothereal dimension. “While waiting, we owe it to the Republic to take advantage of this unique opportunity, wouldn’t you say, Commander?”


“I’m not sure what to think at this point, sir,” Lance said, without a hint of enthusiasm.


Ensign Lorego glanced over, eyeing them, until Neal turned his head and Lorego quickly returned his attention to his nav screen.


Neal was barely able to contain his excitement and frowned at the XO’s response. He knew Lance believed it was in their best interests to focus on reviewing their data on the hazardous Shipbane Expanse in preparation for their return voyage through the rift.


“Sir, about the probes  .  .  .” Lance started, falling silent when Neal gave him a warning look.


The captain turned to his XO and motioned for him to join him in the Ready Room. “Lieutenant Commander Falorin? You have the bridge.”


“Yes, sir,” the young lieutenant commander said, glancing up from reviewing a report with an officer on the lower deck.


As the door to the Ready Room closed, Lance said, “Sir, I recommend sending out two probes . . . record some vid, analyze the data. That should be sufficient, don’t you think?”


“Have a seat,” Neal said and walked over to his desk. When he glanced back, Lanced seemed about to say something, but took a seat instead.


“That would leave us with only five probes. If you recall, we lost three probes in the Dark Nebulae.”


“True, but—”


 “Something to drink, Lance?” Neal interrupted, hoping his relaxed approach would derail the commander. He stood, waiting.


“Thank you, sir. No, I . . . I’m fine,” Lance said, relaxing his posture slightly.


Lance was tall. Neal preferred to stand while talking with his crew, but never felt comfortable sitting for long regardless. He needed to keep moving, and so he walked over and poured himself a drink, then strolled back over. Neal was in no particular hurry to engage the commander, enjoying the tense atmosphere his silence was creating. Neal knew the commander felt uncomfortable in his presence. All of the officers did. He also knew Lance would eventually back down. Leaning on his chair’s backrest for support, Neal sipped his wine as he glanced at the star map projection on the wall behind Lance. Now for some fun  . .  . “There’s a trash receptacle in the corner. You may dispose of the confetti in your pocket there, if you wish,” he said, unable to resist revealing what he had seen earlier.


“Thank you, sir. I’m fine.”


“Go on. It will ease your mind.”


Lance stared at him for a moment and then sighed. “Yes sir,” he said, and quickly disposed of the tiny strip of confetti. He returned to his seat looking deflated. “Thank you, sir.”


“Neal, please.”


Lance seemed nervous, uncomfortable, and sat up straight in his chair. “Sir—Neal . . . the Alliance is ahead of us on every front. They have superior technology. They have bases set up along the northern edge of Dwarven Space, much closer to the dimensional rift than the Republic, and—”


“All the more reason we need to get down there.”


“But the Alliance has considerably more experience handling extra-dimensional affairs. We have little intel on the hazards of Cosmothereal space. The Alliance found the ringworld first and quarantined Cathor after only a single trip to its surface. My guess is they must have had a good reason for doing so.”


 “Lance, you worry too much. Caution is a good thing, but frequent caution starts looking like cowardice,” Neal said, grimacing.


“Why don’t we send out the probes and see what they find, then decide?” Lance urged.


“We’re going to send out the damn probes, Lance. I already know what they are going to find.”


“You do?” Lance said, and leaned forward on the edge of his seat.


“Yes—something we’ll want to take a closer look at.”


Lance shrank back into his seat.


“This isn’t your decision,” Neal said, taking another sip of wine.


“I know, sir—uh—Neal. I appreciate your willingness to hear me out. By the way, I spoke with Ensign Lorego this morning. He took it upon himself to scan the Keth Rudar system in his spare time and it looks like he may have gathered some promising data. I believe he intends to double check his findings before approaching you with them.”


“I’m aware of the Ensign’s activities,” Neal said, lying. “He has initiative. We could use more of that around here.” He stared disapprovingly at the commander over the lip of his glass. After a moment, he set the glass down on his desk and said, “Aren’t you at least a little curious?”
“More than a little, but—”


“Have you considered that the Alliance might be simply trying to discourage us from going down there because they found precious metals or caches of architechnology, and want to hoard it for themselves? Maybe they set up secret mining operations and not even the Galactic Senate knows about it. The fact is, they have no jurisdiction in the Cosmothereal dimension—nor in the Shipbane Expanse for that matter.”


“It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind, but I have to advise against setting foot on Cathor. Neal, we’re just not ready for this. We don’t even know how we’re going to make it back home yet.”


Neal slammed his fist down on the desk. “Why can’t you see we’ve been given a gift?”


“Frankly, I—”


“We may never get another chance to find out what juicy secrets the Alliance doesn’t want to share with the Republic.” Neal’s frustration was mounting. Knowing Lance was generally liked by the crew, Neal had hoped the commander would support him publicly on this. He didn’t need it, but he wanted it. More than anything else, he wanted someone to take the blame if things went poorly. “We’re going, Lance, and that’s the end of it,” Raeden said. No matter what the probes find. “Tell Ensign Lorego I want that report,” he said with an edge to his tone, adding, “and shut that door on your way out, Commander.”


“Yes sir,” Lance said and exited the Ready Room without another word.


Neal watched him leave and then sighed deeply.


He glanced at the map projection, and then poured himself another glass of wine. Would you have agreed with my decision if I had revealed there had once been dozens of primitive, magic-centric empires of elves, gnomes, dwarves and other species across the habitable portions of the ringworld? Or that those empires apparently thrived for millennia, and then for reasons unknown, fell into war and ruin, leaving behind scattered pockets of civilization? Would that have made a difference, or would that knowledge have only bolstered your reservations? He’ll find out soon enough, he thought, and slipped down into his high-backed chair and sipped his wine.


Well, at least he had the backbone to speak his mind. I’ll give him that much. Didn’t think he had it in him. As he finished off his glass of wine, Neal stared at the star map, wondering what they would find on Cathor.


When years before he had befriended an Alliance dignitary with a fondness for wine, Neal was pleasantly surprised when he started talking about Cathor. The dignitary claimed an organization funded by the Alliance government had made several unofficial trips to the ringworld. Neal had found his descriptions of Cathor amazing, but wasn’t sure how accurate the tales were, or how he would ever make use of such information. He was pleased to have such knowledge now, but wondered if Cathor was really as dangerous as the dignitary claimed.


He had no intention of revealing that the ringworld supposedly had an active defense network, nor had he planned on sharing evidence suggesting its structure underwent repairs within the past century, despite the alleged absence of the ancient Architects. They’d just get cold feet if I told them. Lance, that frikkin’ coward . . . he can find out what’s what along with the rest of the Away team.


Returning to the bridge, Neal took his place in the command chair. He noticed Ensign Lorego glance over at him nervously from his sensor display then look away. Knowing the ensign was working feverishly at his report, Neal held his tongue and reviewed his notes.


Five minutes passed and then ten, before Ensign Lorego approached and stood at attention.


“What is it, Ensign? You know I don’t like it when you hover over me like a bloatfly. I’m busy.”


Ensign Lorego flicked on his wristcomp, and displayed a holo of one of the moons of Cathor. “Sir, if I may? During my downtime, I’ve been mapping the Keth Rudar system.”


“You stole access to expensive CDF equipment without my permission?”


Ensign Lorego’s eyes widened. He glanced over at the XO.


“Don’t look at him. I’m the one in charge here, Ensign.”


“Sir, yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”


“Commander Bendrik?” Neal called out, spinning his enormous chair around to face Lance. “What is the typical punishment for violating Article 42?” Is it 42? Who knows? Ah, the pleasure of power. I was born for this. He winked at the commander. Turning away from the ensign to address Lance, Neal allowed himself a smile.


Lance didn’t respond right away.


“Commander?” Neal prodded.  


“I’m sorry, Captain, but you said the ensign stole access without your permission. I’m not aware of a regulation requiring authorization prior to stealing access, or for stealing anything for that matter.”


Neal exchanged his smile for a frown. “Careful, Commander, or should that be Lieutenant Commander?”


“My mistake, sir. Did you say Article 42? Ah yes, that one,” Lance said, looking nearly as nervous as the ensign. After a moment, he added, “Sir, Ensign Lorego did seek my advice regarding the matter, and I believe his research may interest you.”


“It better . . .” Neal said as he spun back around to face the ensign. “Lorego, don’t compound your mistake by keeping me waiting. If you show me something worthy of my time, I’ll consider forgetting your breach of conduct this once.”


“Sir, I thought—I’m sorry, sir. I . . . It won’t happen again, sir.” A trickle of sweat ran down his cheek.


Neal glanced back at Lance and frowned. He shook his head at his XO and stood up, feeling uncomfortable with Lorego looming over him.


Lorego motioned with a hand and the holo responded, zooming in on one of Cathor’s moons. “Sir, the sensors located three enormous, geometric structures on the surface of Moon Thirty-Seven,” he said, pointing at a highlighted region of the moon on the holo.


“I have eyes, Ensign.”


“Sir, yes, sir. I encountered some scanning interference, making progress sluggish, but I pinpointed the source to this structure here. I compensated for the signal degradation by alternating the—”


“Bottom line it, Ensign.”


“Sir,” the ensign said and wiped his brow. “My scans revealed significant subsurface construction.” He displayed the subsurface structure model, pointed at potential areas of interest and smiled.


Neal found himself smiling, too, and decided to end his taunt. “Well done, Ensign. Your sins have been forgiven.”


“Thank you, sir.”


“We will investigate those structures prior to setting down on Cathor.”


“Sir, yes sir. I should be done with subsurface mapping by—”


“Yes, yes,” the captain said dismissively, and motioned for Lorego to return to his station. After a final glance at the main viewscreen, Neal said, “Ensign? As soon as you complete your report, send the XO and myself a data link and alert Bay 1 to prep a shuttle. I’ll be waiting in my quarters for your report. Contact me when we’re in position and ready to deploy.”


“Sir. Yes, sir!”


“Commander, notify the rest of the Away Team.” Approaching Lance, he added in a lowered voice, “On second thought, don’t mention anything to Master-at-Arms Valenora until shortly before launch.”


“Sir, Master-at-Arms Valenora—”


Neal glared at the commander and added, “I’m fairly certain my order was clear enough for you to understand.”


“Yes, sir. I—”


“XO, you have the bridge,” Neal interrupted. He turned and walked down the ramp to the lower stations.


Lance nodded as Neal passed. “Yes, sir.”


Neal exited the bridge and headed for a lift. He couldn’t suppress a smile, but as he got to thinking about setting foot on one of the ringworld segments, he also became more than a little concerned. Lance is right. We should wait and send out probes, analyze the data—the whole nine yards. Neal had never understood the ways of magic and knew there might be worse things in store for them down there if half of what his dignitary friend had said was true. He hoped he wasn’t putting the Away Team in harm’s way, but felt compelled to uncover Cathor’s secrets.


Upon arriving at his quarters, Neal activated his holodisk, one of his favorite mementos from his only trip to Alliance Space. The tiny, floating holo projector displayed a massive, three-dimensional model of the ringworld. He lay down on his bed and stared up at it. Are we getting in over our heads?


Some of the greatest minds and most powerful ships in the Pantara Galaxy belong to the Alliance. They had everything going for them, it seemed, but their greatest scientists, the taagers, had retreated into the shadows after numerous blunders. Their absence sent shockwaves across the galaxy.


The Alliance must be kicking themselves to have let the taagers go—but they’ll be back in the mix soon, if there’s anything to the rumors, he thought. If I’m going to make a name for myself, I need to act now. The Alliance won’t sit on the fence for long. With or without their precious taagers on board, they’ll return to Cathor soon, if they haven’t already. I just don’t know how much we can accomplish without their help. The CDF—the whole Republic—wouldn’t even have JumpGate Drive technology without the Alliance’s help, though we paid dearly for it. They showed us that monsters were real and we became their meat shields against the Hordaq Imperium. Frikkin’ Alliance. I think we earned this.


He rubbed his temples to assuage a throbbing headache and tried to sleep, but he couldn’t turn off his thoughts. He felt old and his eyes ached, begging to close. Instead, he reviewed the CDF records on Cathor and on magic, in hopes of finding something he’d missed in his earlier readings, something the Alliance dignitary hadn’t shared with him. How could primitive cultures pose any serious threat? Sure, they know magic, but just how powerful is their magic? We may be an exploration vessel, but we have advanced technology and weapons.


The moment he thought it, he recalled reports he had read of the troublesome grey elven mages of Seluthenara, and realized magic-wielding mages could indeed pose a serious threat regardless of their level of technological sophistication. What marvel or horror did the Alliance discover there? If the Alliance deems Cathor too dangerous, what can I hope to achieve? Neal wondered.


Unable to sleep, he got up to take a shower to refresh himself and calm his nerves before briefing the Away Team.


While stepping out of the shower, he slipped and broke his ankle in two places. He never made it to the moon, much less down to Cathor.

* * *


Two successful missions to Moon Thirty-Seven passed while Neal was recovering. The crew found evidence of an ancient Architect Base. It was a valuable find, for the Architects were the most advanced AI’s in the known Cosmoverse, and it was assumed that Cathor was their handiwork. Neal was pleased to hear there were no active defense systems on Moon Thirty-Seven.


Ultimately, he acquiesced to Lance’s wishes and had authorized the use of probes. The vids they had acquired suggested the ancient ringworld was incomplete, its creators nowhere to be found. Two great parallel rings held seven equidistantly spaced rectangles of metal, earth, and water. Each segment was framed with high mountains and held an atmosphere. Their surfaces were dotted with the ruins of ancient civilizations and newer ones, too.


The ringworld circled an artificial sun—such technology was far beyond anything the Humanus Republic had or hoped to have within the foreseeable future. Many moons orbited the vast structure, some of which Ensign Lorego theorized had been moved there, apparently as additional building material, but were never utilized. Lorego found evidence of ruins on three of the moons, but Neal was losing interest and wanted to get to the surface of Cathor.


Though still recovering from the broken ankle, he was losing patience and announced he would be the first member of the Republic to set foot on the ringworld. Stalling while he healed up, and because the team had found a huge Architect machine on Moon Thirty-Seven, he sent them back to retrieve the machine, and several smaller devices they’d found there. Although two members of the team were scientists, they were not taagers, and had no clue as to the architechnology’s purpose and function. Even so, the Dauntilus had standing orders to bring back architechnology whenever crew members found it. Lance wondered what new ship he’d be given to command to go along with his assured promotion.


Neal glided toward his wine cabinet, pausing the hoverchair close enough that he could lean on the counter for support. Behind him, the holo projection on the wall displayed the structures Lorego found on Moon Thirty-Seven. Though it pained him to stand, he glanced over his shoulder at the Ready Room door, and then gingerly got to his feet and opened the cabinet. Putting more weight on his bad foot than he’d meant to, he winced with pain. Frikkin’ pain meds are wearing off again, he realized. Another glass of wine should help take off the edge.


The captain rarely shared his wine with others and never let anyone—not even the commander—touch his wine cabinet. The crew knew better. He removed three bottles and reached his hand in and felt around the back of the cabinet. He glanced once more at the door and then pulled out an oddly shaped metal object, long and thin with strange protrusions on one side. He had no doubt if others saw it, they would know it was exotic and he didn’t want anyone asking questions.


Master-at-Arms Manning had owed him a favor, and the object was payment, a minor bit of architechnology the master-at-arms brought back from Moon Thirty-Seven and conveniently forgot to put in Lockdown with the rest. There was no official record of it being on board. It was a smaller memento than Neal would have liked, but one that he was confident he could sneak back home without getting caught. He hoped to sort out a way to sneak back even more of the valuable artifacts, and was itching to get down to the ringworld.

   
What the hell is this thing? It’s metal, but it’s warm. Why were you made? Frikkin’ thing doesn’t seem to be broken. Sure is an odd gizmo. He turned it at different angles hoping to guess its purpose, but was at a loss. Why were you on that moon? I’d toss you out an airlock if you weren’t architechnology. Probably worth more than I’ll make off this trip, unless I find something truly fantastic. He set the strange object down on the bar with a sigh, as he poured himself a third glass of wine. I’m definitely tossing this frikkin’ hoverchair out an airlock once I’m healed up.


Neal stared at his treasure while he drank, taking his sweet time. Upon finishing the glass, he hid the object back in the cabinet and put the bottles of wine back in front, then closed the glass doors and returned to the bridge.



 

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