Drajorfa, Jamad of the House Sokaf-Do, leapt from the back of her motokk bondbeast as he skidded to a stop, the many bones adorning her breastplate all a-clatter. Her chief huntresses awaited her at the top of the ridge. Her motokk roared, and Drajorfa was pleased by the thunderous response from her surrounding warband. Drawing her jekara, a wickedly sharp Neiran glaive, in one smooth motion, she took two long strides to the ridge's edge and thrust her weapon aloft.
"For the glory of Aoth and our Empress!" she cried.
"For the Firstmother and Her True Daughter!" shouted over a score of voices.
Drajorfa glanced at her second-in-command. "Hruanyedda, report!"
Her lieutenant saluted respectfully, then proffered a digiscope. "My Jamad," she began, "the arnts' outpost is to the east, just there." She pointed to a small settlement not far off. "I sent some Shadowsisters to reconnoiter the area. They report it is an Ultonium mining facility. Most of the inhabitants are only workers carrying small arms. There are some security bots and lookouts carrying rifles, but they are few in number."
"The GDF are not present?"
"There is no sign of them, my Jamad."
"Odd." Drajorfa peered through the device, scanning the settlement for herself, noting the hastily erected temporary structures and lackadaisical guards, snorting in open contempt. "They are as bribash to the slaughter! Still, their deaths will please Aoth, and our Empress will be pleased with the Ultonium." She held the digiscope out for her lieutenant to retrieve, then strode back to her motokk and leapt on his back, giving him a sound kick in the neck when he tried to nip at her heel. "Hruanyedda, take your bond pairs around to the north. Shandrettan, take yours around to the south. I will bring the rest straight at them from the west. When you see us attack, move in
to flank them."
"Should we slay them all, my Jamad?" Shandrettan asked.
Drajorfa scowled. "No," she replied. "Unless you wish for yourself and your warriors to dig for ore, leave those that surrender to continue their existence mining for the Empire. Those who do not wish to shall die."
Hruanyedda and Shandrettan saluted. "As you command, Jamad!" they chorused.
They collected their bondbeasts and departed as Drajorfa quickly made her way to her own troops. She dismounted to allow her motokk to fight unhindered and urged her warband forward at the brisk long-legged trot Neiran warriors could maintain for hours. The bondbeasts loped alongside, easily keeping the pace.
The failing light of the setting sun was at their backs as they raced toward the unsuspecting settlement. They were almost in range to use their longrifles. Drajorfa prepared to signal her warriors to attack when she noticed several places in the ground open up in front of them.
Heavily armored Galactic Defense Force vehicles rolled ponderously up hidden ramps to head toward them, bringing their pulsar cannons to bear on her warband. Her eyes widened.
Drajorfa brandished her jekara and broke into a full run, screaming for the attack to begin. The report of a dozen longrifles followed immediately, several shots exploding against the enemy vehicles as the pulsar cannons opened fire. The Jamad yelled encouragement to her bondbeast and her troops as she rapidly closed the distance, a grin spreading across her face.
This might prove to be a worthy battle, after all.
"So what can you tell us regarding the incident with the contractor? The miner?"
Renowned Earth scientist Dr. Helen Salinger accepted a cup of coffee from a GDF aide with muttered thanks before turning to address the assembled officers and officials before her. They sat in the main briefing room of the GDF's administration complex for their main base on Orton V. The planet was located in one of the more populated regions of the Outer Reaches which meant her journey there from her research facility on Terra Prime had only been slightly hellish. The transport she'd managed to hire was loud, cramped, and uncomfortable, so some sleep would have been welcome, but she contented herself with the coffee. Taking a last scan of her notes from her datapad, she nodded to the aide and gestured to the viewscreen behind her. She stepped aside as it flickered to life.
"Before I get to that," she replied. "If I may please direct your attention to the monitor, ladies and gentlemen." As she spoke, several visuals began flashing across the screen. "These are images of various Ultonium mining facilities, located in different areas of the Reaches as well as other parts of the galaxy." She paused the display, setting it to multi-view, and pointed to an area on each of the images showing a faint haze in an unusual starburst pattern. "These anomalous markings appear where the strongest concentration of Ultonium is found in each mine."
She continued with her presentation. "Now please note these images of various Ultonium fueled craft under power, paying particular attention to their stellar drives. Notice anything interesting?"
Lieutenant Priona Glau, adjutant to Orton V's Commander Garreth Wilco, spoke up in her fluid Alanti voice. "The images of the space craft appear to have similar anomalous markings."
Helen smiled. "Not just similar, Lt. Glau. Identical."
Security Chief Shra'zon raised a massive paw for the doctor's attention, then asked, "Could the anomalous markings be caused by the cameras that took these images?"
Helen shook her head. "We had that checked, sir. No."
He frowned, his ears flicking back. "I don't understand. Why hasn't this been reported before now? And what has this got to do with the mining incident?"
"I'm getting to that," Helen explained, "You see, these phenomenon are intermittent, not to mention brief, particularly the ones seemingly generated by stellar drives. They last perhaps only a fraction of a second or so. As for the mines, we think the miners thought their eyes were playing tricks on them, and that's why these anomalies haven't been reported, or if they were reported, they were attributed to fatigue and disregarded."
New images sprang up on the monitor. "I've been conducting some experiments in my lab to research the extent of Ultonium's power. Despite its widespread use, we still have much to learn regarding its potential energy yield. Using only the minutest quantities of Ultonium in an attempt to create what amounted to a miniature controlled explosion, I discovered the exact same pattern. And I was able to sustain it long enough to obtain some scans of the phenomenon."
Helen pointed once again to one of the markings on the viewscreen. "This is a singularity. There is another side through this formation, and on it is a mirrored starburst pattern just like the ones you've seen."
"A counterblast," Lt. Glau murmured.
Tink pressed herself against the factory's duracrete wall as the beam of a security officer's searchlight swept past, trying her best to make her pear-shaped body become just another shadow. Steps came closer and she held her breath. If the guard had a security bot with him, she was sunk. The darkness might hide her from the guard, but the bot's scanners would detect her immediately. Tink cursed inwardly, closed her single eye, and clutched her particle beam pistol tightly. She knew she shouldn't have let Neeg sweet talk her into this!
The steps moved away. Tink slowly opened her eye. Anxiously waiting several moments to be sure, she listened as the guard’s footfalls grew fainter and fainter. Working up her courage, she crept from her hiding place, heading toward her goal when Neeg's soft voice came over the com in her leather helmet. Although quiet, it was unexpected, and she bit off a yelp of surprise.
"What are you waiting for? We haven't got all night!" he hissed. "That guard'll be back soon. Get a move on!"
"I'm going!" she hissed back. "Forgive me for not wanting to be arrested! What we're doing isn't exactly legal, you know!"
Neeg's low chuckle infuriated her. "You worry too much, Tink. Even if it wasn't your first offense, who could incarcerate a cutie like you? Besides," he drawled as she made her cautious way forward, "Jikaal's got your back."
Tink didn't know if she found that comforting or not. Jikaal was a Neiran female, living in exile for some unknown reason she never cared to mention, and the rest of the crew was too scared to ask. Tink entertained the thought it was maybe because Jikaal was incredibly haughty and unfriendly, but Neeg had laughingly informed her all Neiran tended to be that way, at least to non-Neiran. Jikaal had been with them two cycles now, and even Tink had to admit she'd proven herself useful. She was an excellent shot with her powerful Neiran longrifle, providing covering fire for the rest of the crew if they were pursued during one of their heists, or often acting as a sniper to remove troublesome targets, like she was tonight. And although she kept to herself, the Neiran made little complaint and had proved loyal enough--so far. Tink cast a wary glance at the roof of the adjacent building where Jikaal was hiding. The little Illyrian had been against allowing Jikaal to join the crew, but Neeg and the others had overruled her. She wondered if Jikaal had taken offense and was plotting to seek revenge one day, perhaps this very evening.
A low beep roused her from her musings as she turned a corner to stand face to face with a hovering security bot. A beam shot from its optic lens to scan her. Tink groaned, fully expecting its lightbar to activate as it went into alarm mode, when she heard the unmistakable low thwump of a Neiran longrifle. The unit crashed to the ground almost instantly, peppering her with little shards of plastic and metallic shrapnel. Fortunately, the goggle of her helmet protected her eye.
"Neeg's right," she heard Jikaal's impatient voice say over the sound of the Neiran chambering a second Ultonium cartridge into her weapon. "Quickly! The guard returns!”
Tink cast caution aside and hurried on, wiping at tiny rivulets of blood trickling down her eyestalk. She sweated with fright, sure any moment the guard would overtake her. She heard a second thwump, followed by a soft thud that told her she was no longer being followed.
"All clear," Jikaal needlessly advised.
Tink reached her goal. She stood before a secured gate leading into a large lot. It was posted with all manner of signage warning of dire consequences for unauthorized entry. Taking out her techpad, the little Illyrian got to work breaching the gate's security codes. Within moments the gate was open and all security protocols deactivated. Her one-eyed gaze scanned the lot and she grinned, her earlier fear forgotten. Row after shining row of brand new Barracuda rocket bikes were theirs for the taking.
"Jackpot!" she exclaimed gleefully.
A shot thwumped into the gate post beside her. Tink dove for cover, cursing Jikaal, certain the Neiran was trying to do her in, now that she’d served her purpose. "Traitor! And after we took you in, you no good ---!"
"Not I," Jikaal cut her off, with something in her voice the Illyrian had never heard before--fear. "By the Firstmother! It is the Zu Zarah!"
Tink's eyestalk peeked from behind a crate. "The Zu Za-who?"
"Zu Zarah," the Neiran replied grimly. “Fanatics of the goddess, Aoth,…and hunters of exiles."
Tink heard several curses from her crewmates follow fast on the heels of Jikaal's answer. Loudest was Neeg, who yelled over com for everyone to hold the Zu Zarah off while he brought the ship around. Tink steadied her pistol on the crate as she peered into the laser-streaked darkness to see several Neiran-shaped shadows advancing rapidly.
"I knew we shouldn't have let her join the crew," she grumbled.