“Everything’s broken,” she said.
It was hard for him to argue. The Nall hadn’t left much standing on this block when they pulled out of the Llivori capital on Kamsho. Their home, on the third floor of the Jarmol Building, had two fully collapsed walls. Most of the furniture that hadn’t been blown out onto the street below had been ruined by fire, smoke, or extinguishing chemicals.
“We can start over,” he said.
That got a smile from her, but it wasn’t a happy one. “Again?”
Merrick didn’t care much for the idea himself. They’d lost their entire home universe, it seemed, to the whims of the Kamir and their usual abuses of unspeakable power. Three years ago, they’d been with the refugees aboard Hancock Station during the voyage from Nocturn to Hiverspace. They lived in a shanty in an enclave aboard Comorro for about a year after that. Then they moved to Kamsho; got themselves a small apartment in the city of Vor. He thought they were done moving for a while. Maybe for good. He enjoyed the city. They welcomed Outversers here. Gave him a decent job working on their communications infrastructure. His wife, Carly, worked as a nurse in the main metropolitan hospital.
For a few moments, he just listened to the wind howling through the wreckage of the building. Then he said, “Yeah, again.” He shrugged. “What else are we going to do? Quit?”
She rested a palm against her forehead. “I’m tired of change.”
“It can be exhausting,” Merrick agreed. “But I doubt it’ll go away. Change is life’s only constant.”
Carly rolled her eyes, but at least that angry smile softened. “You’re an idiot.”
“Yeah,” he concurred.
“I love an idiot,” she said.
Merrick smirked. He threw an arm around her waist, drawing her close to his side. “No accounting for taste.”
“I want to go home,” Carly whispered.
Her husband frowned, tilting his head in thought. “Carly…Earth’s probably gone.”
“Probably isn’t definitely,” she argued.
He couldn’t differ with that. “I’ll find a way,” he said. “For you.”
The horse reared back on its hind legs, pistoning the front hooves just inches above the snout of a Nall warrior named Ralk of Hatch Kavir.
Heavy shadows danced along the pebbled flesh of the warrior’s snout as he cradled the plasma rifle, coils burning hot and ready to open fire. Several of his comrades lay trampled on the stone floor of the planetoid cavern.
The Light Singer never said anything about a horse.
Ralkkavir hadn’t seen one in the flesh before. This would’ve been the last place he would ever expect to do so, on some forgotten pirate outpost in the wilds of Hiverspace. Yet here it was, carrying a human rider and stomping his comrades to death.
And he would be next, if he failed to act. More Nall warriors scrambled down the ramp from the transport behind him. Ralk wouldn’t suffer this beast to survive long enough to hurt any more of his comrades.
A clawed finger tugged on the trigger. Surprisingly little recoil to the Atasuin Sundagger plasma rifle, especially after seeing so much use on Kamsho without access to a lot of spare parts for maintenance.
With an agonized squeal, the horse toppled over, nearly crushing the rider.
Ralk felt grim satisfaction as he watched the beast die. That soon faded, though, as the human drew his blades and rose in a fury to storm toward him. The softskin’s outrage impressed.
He almost didn’t feel the end when it came.
The squeegee squeaked against the dusty window of the fifth floor office building that overlooked downtown Eiru on Pyracan.
Billy Lucas carried that black plastic tool with him like a sacred scepter, a holy relic from a lost age, but he liked to think that he wielded it with the finesse of a sharp-eyed gunslinger.
He’d been using it that afternoon in 1985, high above the streets of Manhattan, to clean the windows of the Chrysler Building. Then came the eruption of luminescence, God’s own blue-light special or the hand of fate. Whatever. It snatched him out of the realm of Reaganomics and into a 27th Century universe full of aliens and humans who got around the galaxy in faster-than-light starships.
Pretty damned cool.
But he didn’t know how to fly a fancy spaceship. He couldn’t speak many Earth languages besides English, let alone all the weird tongues heard in the vaulted cavities inside Comorro Station. He wasn’t a techy. He didn’t know how to hunt.
He could clean a window, though. Knew how to make it shine. Everyone wanted clean windows, no matter what century, right?
So, Billy bartered his grandfather’s silver pocket watch, hitched a shuttle to Pyracan, settled in among other human refugees, and found work as a freelancer. He’d been here for about a year.
It wasn’t hero work, but it kept a roof over his head. A few more gigs like this, Billy figured he could afford a ring for Meghan.
He dipped the squeegee in the water bucket, shaking it about, getting it soaked again for the next pane. Then he felt the suspended platform rattle. Earthquake? Not unheard of in Eiru, but rare. Billy looked up to make sure the ropes and pulleys weren’t tearing loose. So far, they looked fine. He looked down toward the street. Flashes of blue light – a bunch of them – rips in space and time, he thought, just like the one that grabbed him from the 20th Century.
He didn’t recognize the sinuous little bipedal reptiloids that came out of them, armed with really big rifles. The absurdity of the sight would’ve made him laugh under other circumstances. The thing is, they almost immediately started gunning people down in the street. Sooner or later, they might look up and shoot him. Or Meghan might be down there. Nothing funny about that.
Billy fumbled for the commlink in his pocket. He wanted to call Meghan and warn her. But then the rifts snapped shut with a thunderous consequence. Billy was staring at his own reflection in that perfectly cleaned window pane, link in one hand and dripping squeegee in the other, when it exploded.
The one thing he liked most about the office was the chair. Cushiony, but firm. It felt used, but not worn out.
He hated the coffee, though. Didn’t stop him from drinking it.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Raleigh?” asked Garrett Underhill, chief therapist for the San Angeles Police Department. He glanced at his PDA display. “Six and a half months?”
Raleigh Devrees didn’t care much for the therapy, either. Didn’t stop him from coming. When he needed it. “Seen the news? I’ve been busy.”
“Interim chief, yes, saw that,” Garrett said with a faint smile. “Congratulations, I suppose?”
“Good days and bad,” Raleigh answered.
“You’re here now, so…bad day?”
“Not great,” the chief agreed.
“They find that missing Wildfire player yet? What was his name? Bodette?”
“Bodean,” Raleigh said. “Still missing, as far as I know. The CIS spooks aren’t exactly forthcoming with information about their ongoing investigation.”
Garrett chuckled. “I’d ask how that makes you feel, but we both know that answer, don’t we?”
“Oh, I was fucking pissed the night this all went down,” the chief said. “Fit to be tied. Spitting Nall fangs. Now, though, I’m just…worried, I guess.”
“About?” the therapist prodded.
“Volstov and his thugs swooped in to grab that crime scene too fast for my liking. Y’know, like they expected it? Knew it was coming.”
Garrett raised his eyebrows. “Do you remember what happened the last time you were convinced a conspiracy was in the offing?”
Devrees frowned. “Just because I couldn’t prove it doesn’t mean I was wrong. Pettinjay was dirty. He was on the Vaxian clan’s payroll. They just tied up the loose end before I could get to him.”
The cop nodded, sighing. “I know how it sounds. I know what people will say. That’s why I’m keeping my mouth shut for now. I need to be certain. I want proof. That means getting close to the investigation.”
Garrett tilted his head. “How do you expect to do that?”
Raleigh gave a smirk and said, “Charm.”
The scaled hand drew back the pale yellow sheet, revealing a gaunt olive-skinned face framed by loose-hanging silver hair.
“Yes. That’s him. Odalath. Emissary of the Order of Mystics on Val Shohob.”
Balthazar didn’t weep for his son. He shed no tears. That time had passed. He looked toward the Zangali coroner and asked, “Did he suffer?” But the leader of the Shohobian Mystics knew the answer before Zototh “Too-Tall” Salaban replied with a lie.
“No,” the Zangali grumbled.
The Mystic gave a vague smile to the coroner. He appreciated the sentiment behind the deception, but it didn’t matter. Balthazar knew the truth. Odalath suffered for at least a few minutes after the knife penetrated his abdomen once, twice, thrice.
“I am sorry for your loss,” the large reptiloid said.
Balthazar nodded, lacing his fingers together. He certainly knew sorrow. The day he said goodbye to Odalath on the landing pad at Overlook Mesa, he had wept, for he knew the doom that awaited his only child. The vision had come to him a week before that. The Voice, that which guided the Mystics along their path, had placed within his mind the understanding that Odalath must go to Earth, to the city of San Angeles, with a warning about the crisis. The tampering had to stop. Humans, ever ambitious, tread once more where they should not.
The Eye had seen: Odalath in half-shadow, talking to a figure obscured in twilight. Insistent. Pleading. “You mustn’t use it anymore. The damage is getting worse. If you persist, I will have no choice but to report your actions to the media.” Then comes the knife. Flash of silver and splash of crimson.
Balthazar could have stopped this from happening, but he did not. He had a choice, but he chose to let his son die, for he had seen what would come to pass if he intervened.
The guilt for one son’s death, he could endure. Balthazar could not suffer the loss of the multiverse in total.
“Where is it?”
The pasty-skinned Light Singer sounded friendly enough as he loomed over the grayish-brown furred Lotorian chained against the rough stone column. Nothing friendly about that crimson aura, though. Or the eyes. Cold. Icy blue, like the frozen B’hira wastes.
Zoznazz tried avoiding the eyes, staring toward the broad maw of the planetoid’s cavern entrance, which opened onto a shimmering starscape. It might be the last thing he ever saw. That disappointed him. His final view should be something far more magnificent than a glimpse of stars from a Medlidikke pirate hideout. He’d seen plenty of stars before. What he had never seen, though, was his homeworld of Lotor. Not that he would ever be likely to see that fabled chunk of rock again. Zoznazz wanted to stand on the ancient grasslands, stare up at an impossibly blue sky, and smell the scent of–
Sharp stabbing pain, just above the right wrist. Spear point, rammed in by one of the Vollistan Light Singer’s companions – this time, a Hekayti pirate with skin the color of bruises, half a nose, and a broken horn jutting from the left side of his pock-marked skull.
“Difficult to focus?” the interrogator asked. He cradled the Lotorian’s whiskered snout in slender white fingers, tugging so that Zoznazz was looking at him again. “Come now.” A forced smile. “The sooner you tell me, the sooner this suffering can end.” The Light Singer released his snout, then clasped his hands behind his back and started pacing around the column. Six Hekayti pirates watched, while a dozen Nall warriors waited in gleaming black armor next to a shuttle that was aimed toward the stars. “You may think that I enjoy what I do,” he said, behind Zoznazz. Coming around to the Lotorian’s right shoulder, he leaned over to whisper, “You would be right. I do. Very much.” The smile wasn’t so forced now. He stopped, staring directly down at Zoznazz once more. “Imagine my disappointment if you deprive me of further amusement. I cannot tell you how angry I would be if you suddenly told me exactly what I wanted to know.”
The Lotorian gazed up at the interrogator, mouth falling open in confusion, eyes glazing. What he said made perfect sense. Just tell him. Take his fun away. He wouldn’t like that. No, he wouldn’t like that at all.
“You can do it,” the Light Singer assured him. “I won’t like it. But you can do it.” He turned to look out at the stars, the faint blue haze of the atmosphere containment force field barely visible. “The artifact’s location. Tell me.”
Zoznazz’s angular ears swiveled as he tried to work his way through the tangled confusion of his thoughts. He didn’t want to say anything. It felt like a trick. He knew all about the deceptions of the Kamir and their ilk. Like most Lotorians, he trusted no psionic aliens, but he was especially distrustful of Aukami, Light Singers, Timonae – direct descendents of the ancient and manipulative Kamir. Yet he wanted very much to make this Light Singer furious, and it seemed obvious to him that talking about the Kamir artifact he had seen on the derelict in the Plosa Nebula at coordinates…
“There we go,” the Light Singer said, aura shifting to a cool blue as a smile broadened across his face. He turned to the Medlidikke with the spear stabbed into Zoznazz’s arm and said, “Ready your crew. We have a location.”
“What about him?” the pirate growled, nodding toward the chained Lotorian.
Still smiling, the interrogator said, “Oh, I’m so enraged that I couldn’t possibly stand here and look at him any longer. So I want you to take him into the cell and finish him off for me. Don’t take too long, though. The Vox is waiting. He’s much less patient than I am.”