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Dagar Ramanth stood tall at the center of his village, peering at the twilight sky as the red sun threatened to dip beyond the treetops of the forest surrounding them. The three moons of Caraben were high up in the sky, with the fourth still rising.
It was nearly time.
He turned to the men standing in the clearing. The sight of the shikara warriors was quite impressive. Dozens of men, each wearing the golden plate mail of their people. Their arms remained uncovered, and the short red fur on them stood up, just as alert as the owners. Waiting in anticipation.
Each warrior held his shika sword in one hand and a torch in the other. Dagar had yet to light his torch, but he gripped his sword tightly, his blood pounding in his veins as it did every night when he set out for battle.
An elderly female walked up to him—Merani, the tribe healer. A younger woman followed her with a cup of clamen juice. Dagar recognized her as Iana, the daughter of Faruk, one of the warriors joining them tonight. With her eyes downcast, she offered the cup to Dagar.
Dagar glanced at Merani, who seemed disinterested in the exchange. But her eyes betrayed her. There was a glint of knowledge and scheming in their depths, and Dagar narrowed his eyes at her as annoyance flared inside him.
He knew what this was about. Besides being the tribe healer, Merani had a penchant for matchmaking. She was presenting Iana as a potential mate for him.
Not accepting an offering made to a warrior before a battle would be rude. Besides, clamen juice was always appreciated, since it strengthened both body and mind. Merani knew this, and she was taking advantage of the fact.
Unable to politely decline, Dagar thanked Iana and accepted the cup. He downed the drink in one long swig and passed the cup back to her.
Dagar had no interest in the female. He had seen her in the tribe before—he knew everyone in his tribe—and he already knew he would never have her. He was waiting for his sinra, his true mate. And this female was not it.
“Good luck out there tonight, my king,” the female spoke in a quiet voice, her eyes downcast in submission. “May your fight continue.”
Dagar jerked his head in a nod. “May I continue to serve.”
Then, with a look at Merani that hopefully adequately delivered his annoyance, he turned back to look at the sky. The fourth moon had appeared just above the tree line. There was no more time to waste.
“Warriors!” he called out as he turned back to the crowd. “It is time to go! May we defend our village and its people on this night! May we protect our land and homes! May we continue to serve!”
The warriors raised their swords in the air, bellowing out a battle cry that shook his bones. The anticipation of the fight raged in his blood, pulsing through his veins. It had been bred into him. As the seventeenth king of Ramanth, he had been born to defend it. His father had fought for this village, as had his father before him, and his father before him.
And now, it was his turn.
With a cry of his own, he raised his shika sword into the sky and started to lead the warriors out of the village. The men marched forth in rows of four, each group following Dagar as he marched through the forest.
A shimmering barrier wall loomed ahead of them as they reached the edge of the village. It was as tall as ten men and infinitely wide. It surrounded their land, protecting the village just as they did.
The barrier was a new addition to the village, erected only a generation past by the Galactic Alliance. When the Alliance had first arrived, the planet had just been known as La—the nature, the world.
Dagar’s father had told him many stories of the aliens’ arrival. Even now, years after his father’s death, Dagar could picture the shock his old man had felt when the people of Caraben had discovered that they were not alone in the universe.
Before the Alliance had arrived, La had been a primitive world, unaware that life existed elsewhere. They had been too busy dealing with life forms of their own.
Such as the darkness that roamed his world and devoured everything.
The darkness that he was about to fight on this night.
In truth, the Galactic Alliance was not the first alien arrival on their world. A thousand suns past, a meteor had struck the plains of Garush, several days’ journey north of Ramanth. But the meteor had not been a mere rock. It had held an otherworldly passenger, a creature that had changed his people’s lives overnight.
Tribes that had once fought against one another had come together to fight a common enemy. A being that devoured everything it came in contact with, growing with each thing it ate. Soon, the plains of Garush had been no more and the creature had sought sustenance elsewhere.
Fields. Forests. Villages.
Nothing was safe from the being.
Never since then had the warrior kings warred with one another. The only war that lived was with that being; the Formor.
When the Alliance had arrived, they’d helped the people of Caraben defend themselves against the creature by erecting walls around the villages. The barrier surrounded more than fifty tribes, with a city in the middle. It was made of electricity—a strange substance that the Alliance had introduced to them and that was now used to operate almost everything. Light could easily illuminate the villages and it powered things like computers and communication devices.
Dagar’s parents had grown up without such things, and most of the people on Caraben continued to live traditionally, in small hotara huts in the woods. But he couldn’t imagine a world completely in the dark. Just like the Formor had once done, the arrival of the Alliance had changed everything.
The barrier was the most important part of Caraben. Without it, the city of Engar would have never emerged. None of the tribal huts would be filled. The tribes may even have been devoured down to only a few, as had happened over and over in their history.
Even with the barrier, defense was necessary. The barrier kept the creature at bay, but that didn’t stop it from trying to get past it. So, from dusk to dawn, each tribe sent protectors beyond the barrier to keep it standing. Just as they would do tonight.
Reaching the edge of the barrier, Dagar disabled a small portion of it so that they could pass through to the other side. As soon as they did, the difference in the surrounding environment hit him. It always did, no matter how many times he saw it.
Large parts of the forest around them were nothing but ash. There were trees here and there, but the further you went from the barrier, the more dead the ground became. The world outside the barrier was a dry and desolate wasteland. What trees and plants had once stood there in times past had long since been devoured, leaving nothing behind but dust and exposed rock.
Dagar could only assume the Formor had not eaten all the trees because it possessed enough intelligence to realize that eating the entire planet would prevent new growth. There would be nothing to eat the following day. No planet to live on.
Despite being nothing more than a dark mass, the people of Caraben had long since discovered that the Formor was more intelligent than it seemed.
A group of warriors piled up logs on the ground and used their torches to create a fire by the gate. The other members of the tribe broke off and each began to travel to their positions along the barrier.
When everyone had passed, Dagar closed the gate, then turned and lit up his torch by the fire.
“Adimar, Lethos,” he addressed the warriors who had stayed with him. “Take position twenty steps to the north along the barrier. I will stay here by the gateway and tend to the fire.”
“Sir?” Lethos asked him curiously. “Do you think it is wise to guard the gate alone? I know the fire will discourage the creature, but the Formor could easily opt for a frontal assault.”
“That’s exactly what I’m hoping for, Leth,” he told his friend. “You will be far enough not to be seen among the trees but close enough to hear if there is trouble and rush to help. If the Formor sees me alone, it might believe I’m an easy target. But we all know better than that. Tonight, we will lure it out and fry it.”
The men smirked back at him as they caught onto his plan. With their torches and swords in hand, they rushed to their position. The fire would discourage the Formor—it was the only thing that did. Cutting the creature with a sword didn’t harm it, as the pieces would always crawl back to its main body and merge into one large unit again.
But fire… Fire could harm it.
In the old times, they had surrounded their villages with fire. It was not as effective as the barrier, but it had helped to keep his people alive. That was why they always set a fire by the gate. It was the only thing that could kill the creature, although not for good.
Nothing could truly destroy it. It was too vast. Too hungry. It would never be truly gone, not unless it took their world with it, but if it was chopped into small enough pieces and then burned, it would diminish in size. That was why each warrior carried a sword and a torch.
Dagar gripped his own in his hands as he stood by the fire, watching the sun as it disappeared completely beyond the horizon and cast shadows over the land—shadows that the Formor would use to its advantage. As darkness was its nature, it could easily slither in among the shadows and devour an untrained warrior if one was not careful.
Over generations, his people had developed a keen night vision to watch the shadows for this very reason. If you could not watch the shadows, you were as good as dead.
Dagar stood still in his spot. Listening to the sounds around him. Watching as the shadows darkened with the setting sun. Waiting to see if they moved.
Out here, beyond the barrier, his mind and purpose were clear. Keep the Formor on this side, and his people on the other.
A long, high-pitched whistle from the south alerted Dagar to the fact that the Formor—or at least some part of it—had been spotted. The sound of a shika strike rang out next, followed by several more. The surreal and frightening scream of the Formor pierced the air, making the hair on his body stand on end.
Dagar squared his shoulders as he readied his own weapon. A part of him always wanted to go help the warriors who were under attack, but he knew he couldn’t. They were too far, and he couldn’t leave his part of the barrier unprotected. So, he simply waited.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Leaves rustled in the small underbrush before him, slowly turning grey and shriveling to the ground. Then, he saw it.
The shadow was three times larger than him, dark yet somehow translucent. It came at him like a rippling wave, little bursts of static popping here and there inside the thing as it hissed at him menacingly. Dagar swung his shika blade in a wide arc, chopping into the eerie mass and breaking free a small chunk.
But the shadow did not falter in its movements, and the target Dagar expected it to attack was not the one it went after. Instead of attacking him—for flesh always fed it better than plants—the Formor went straight for the controls of the barrier wall.
Dagar’s eyes widened. Though there were poles placed ten steps apart all along the perimeter wall, only a few of those poles housed the controls that could be used to shut down a portion of the electrical energy field. Unerringly, the Formor went straight for the pole it needed, not even attempting to examine the others.
“Vraag!” Dagar cursed.
He knew that the Formor was intelligent, even if it was just a blob of darkness. It had tricked them before. Even taken the shape of a man in the shadows. But he had never thought that it would figure out that deactivating the controls on the pole would allow it to get inside the barrier.
With an angry, desperate shout, Dagar brandished his weapon and leaped at the shadows, intending to hack the Formor into pieces so small it would take it weeks to slither back to the size it was now.
The Formor twisted around and surged toward him. It made a sound, something like laughter sent through a crazy metal tube. Dagar rushed forward, slashing at the creature. But its movements were much faster.
Shock rattled through him as it struck back on his blade and attacked, faster than he could react. A portion of its blackness swiped right through Dagar’s chest, singeing the red fur where it made contact. Pain pierced through him and his jaw dropped open as he stared, the shadows swirling all around him.
An odd numbness took over him, likely an effect of the neurotoxin the creature secreted before devouring his meal, and Dagar staggered forward. Sounds disappeared around him and his vision went black for a second. From the corner of his eye, he could see his men rushing in to hack and slash at the Formor as he fell to the ground, wondering if this was the last time he would ever close his eyes.
Then, everything faded
The bussing box clattered heavily as Rose set it down next to the huge sink, grateful that she was not the one expected to wash the dishes during this shift. Not that Rose minded doing the dishes, since that kept her out of the path of the customers. She often wished that she had learned how to cook so she could stay in the back and never have to deal with any of them.
Scooter’s was supposed to be a family restaurant for all the tourists coming into the spaceport on Outpost VII. When she had first heard of the place, she had been poor, starving, and desperate enough to do anything that would make her life better.
The brochure had said that the Gamma Quadrant was one of the “up and coming” quadrants in the Galactic Alliance. For a limited time, transportation to get there was free and new jobs were aplenty.
For a girl desperate to escape her life of poverty on Earth, it had sounded like the perfect opportunity.
Except that in this case, there was no truth in advertising. Mr. Shadit, the owner of Scooter’s, was a perverted green blob who seemed to get more blobby each time she saw him, which was daily. He was an inconsiderate slave driver who wanted to get into her pants with—well, whatever sort of appendage he might be hiding under his globulous body. Rose had long since decided that she didn’t want to know.
Outpost VII was not the resort planet she’d been expecting. It was a joke. Families never landed there. But then again, why would any respectable family be this far out in the Gamma Quadrant anyway?
Cutthroats, pirates, and sex-starved space-jocks resting up between deliveries, sure. Rose couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a kid from another planet visiting. It felt more like she was working in the lowliest dive bar in the universe and not the classier establishment she’d left Earth for.
It was no place for a single human woman like her. Unless, of course, the woman in question was into extraterrestrial sex experiences. That appeared to be another matter entirely. Every alien she’d met out here—and there seemed to be a wide variety—would gladly sample her if she let them. At least, that was the way it seemed to Rose with great regularity.
“Dammit, Anna, I can’t believe how many things have tried to grab my anatomy this evening,” Rose complained as she brought her another load of dishes.
Anna just smirked. “Yeah? And how many of them succeeded?”
“I don’t know,” she grumbled. “Why don’t you go out there and count how many of them pulled back with a stump?”
Anna giggled. “Girl, it’s no wonder Mr. Shadit is always complaining about you. Your demeanor—well, how do I put this? It’s not exactly inviting.”
Rose scoffed. “Inviting? You mean you want me to actually encourage those things? Look, Anna, I don’t know about you, but tentacles trying to worm their way into places they don’t belong is not my deal. I didn’t sign up for any of this.”
“Well, what did you think it would be like out here when you got that ticket from Earth?” she scoffed. “Did you even read the brochure?”
Rose sighed. “I skimmed it, yeah. But back then I figured anyplace had to be better than the sloppy neighborhood I lived in on Earth. Now I’m stuck in this dead-end job on some low-life world out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, can’t a girl catch a break?”
“Do you want the long answer or the short?” Anna replied, rolling her eyes dramatically.
“Better make it short—that jerk Shadit is due any minute,” Rose said. “I can’t wait for another lecture about how I should show a little more cleavage if I hope to get any tips. As if he should have a right to keep them for himself.”
Anna started to reply, but before she managed to say a word, her face blanched milky white and her eyes bulged, fixated on something behind Rose.
“That jerk, Shadit, is already here,” a masculine voice said behind her.
Rose grimaced inwardly, fighting to keep her expression neutral as the tall, bulky alien stepped into the kitchen. His bulbous green mass was just as sickening as usual, but his swagger was even worse.
“And Rosy, we do need to talk about those tips,” Shadit said. “See, I pay you to buss those tables and entertain the customers, but it seems like you’re just not giving these boys what they want. So, here’s the deal. If you wanna keep workin’ this job, you’re gonna need to step it up. And until you do, well—I’m just gonna have to keep the rest of your money too.”
Rose’s jaw dropped.
“Shadit, no! You can’t do that! My rent is already overdue! If you don’t pay me enough this week, I’ll be out on the streets.”
“Not my problem, doll,” he said, smirking. “Now, if you’d like to negotiate—say, over a bottle of neumian brandy after closing—maybe we could work something out. I like to think I’m a pretty reasonable guy.”
“Yeah?” Rose burst out, suddenly more outraged at his audacity than she was desperate to get her pay. “Well, I like to think that you’re a total prick!”
“You oughta watch what you say to me, doll.” Shadit frowned, casting her a glare of warning. “I’m reasonable enough, but I don’t take crap from no one—least of all some uptight little Terran.”
Her jaw clenched around a retort. She couldn’t afford to get herself fired. Without any other way to pay her rent, she would find herself out in the streets within a month. And she sure didn’t have any way to get herself back to Earth if this guy gave her a bad reference. She could end up like one of those Arvinian bag ladies who caught and sold space rats just to make enough coins to eat. Not happening!
Shadit seemed to know he had her pinned down now and moved in for the kill.
“Look, doll, it’s real simple,” he said. “You’ve got to start putting out. Either you give it to me, or you give it to them. But this prudish little Terran crap has got to stop. This world is hard, and you gotta take it by the balls. Trust me, this is gonna be a good lesson for you. So, you think about that while you’re cleaning up. And if you come around, you can join me in my office.”
Rose felt her blood pressure rise to the boiling point, and then it blasted off. The nerve of this man!
“I’m not cleaning anything for you ever again!” she spat, pointing a finger at his flobby green chest. “I don’t care anymore! I’ve been tolerating your little jibes for months, but this is completely over the top. If I gotta have sex with my boss to make a living around here, it sure isn’t going to be a fat, ugly, disgusting slime like you!”
Anna’s jaw dropped as she looked from Shadit to Rose and back again.
Shadit’s green coloring darkened and his jelly-like skin flubbered strangely in what Rose could only guess was anger. If Rose had felt like she was going to blow, Shadit looked like he would actually blow.
To everyone’s relief, he didn’t.
“Anna, you clean up,” he spat as he stalked toward the door. “Rose, get outta here. You’re finished here. You might as well pack your bags and fly to some other crap hole planet. Nobody on this one is gonna deal with a hotshot little bitch who thinks she’s better than the rest of us once I spread the word.”
Rose glared. Now that she knew she wouldn’t have to clean his jellied guts from the floor, she was back to being angry.
“I don’t think I’m better than everyone. I just know I’m better than you! No need to fire me, because I’m leaving!”
She tugged off her apron and threw it at Shadit, hitting him in the back of the head. Then she turned on her heels and stormed out the back door.
The three Vendoran smugglers who had been bothering her earlier were standing around by their air-speeders, and when they saw her passing by, they all started chortling their weird mating call and then buzzed something at each other in their native language. For a moment, Rose worried that they were going to chase after her, but thankfully, they got onto their bikes and flew off in the other direction.
The adrenaline pumping through her body carried Rose most of the way home, but the inevitable drop hit as the building came into view.
What the fuck was she going to do?
Lights flashed all around her like a disco ball and the sound from the advertisements that were always playing on repeat pierced her thoughts. She looked at the huge monitors on the buildings that surrounded her without seeing them. Her building had more monitors than she could count. It had taken sheer exhaustion to fall asleep when she’d first moved in because the volume was never turned down. But now, they were the least of her problems.
She padded up to the double doors of her apartment complex and stepped inside. Depression began to set in when she pulled a note off the front of her apartment door—one she didn’t need to read to know it meant trouble.
She read it, of course. A ten-day notice to pay or vacate. And on this world, there were never extra days. When someone said ten days, you would be lucky if thugs didn’t show up on day nine and throw you out by force.
“What the hell was I thinking?” Rose groaned as she wadded up the sheet of paper and tossed it across the room. “What am I gonna do now?”
Throwing herself on her bed, she wanted to wallow in despair and eat some ice cream. But with ten days left, she definitely didn’t have time for that.
As she lay there thinking, Rose took out her laptop. Soon, she found herself surfing for jobs either on the outpost or other planets in the nearby sector. Unfortunately, the market didn’t seem to be hiring unskilled laborers. She released a frustrated sigh as desperation and despair began to mingle in her mind. She leaned forward, banging her head against the wall a few times.
The noise from the ads outside her window wafted into the room, and this time she listened. What else was there to do?
“Are you ready for a break?”
Hell yes! That was exactly what she needed.
“Want to win your dream vacation? Supernova Escapes will create the perfect dream vacation just for you! Engineered with your DNA, based on your innermost desires! Sign up today and win!”
Rose paused. It was so unlikely that she would win a dream vacation with her luck that she would have discounted the whole idea and never bothered. But with just ten days to find a place to go, she couldn’t discount any idea that could help her keep a roof over her head—even if it was an unlikely dream vacation.
Turning back to her computer, she found the website of Supernova Escapes and followed the instructions to fill out an application form. Then, she continued browsing for jobs, this time expanding her search to planets slightly farther away. Maybe if she sold her laptop, she would have enough for a ticket…
Not half an hour later, her email beeped and she received an invitation from Supernova Escapes to visit their facility. And best of all, she didn’t have to pay for the ride! So what if this was far-fetched, she could use a dream vacation just about now. Any vacation.
“Let’s just hope the DNA testing part of it isn’t too much to handle,” she muttered as she headed for the door. “My eternal optimism has bitten me in the ass before.”