[SHORT STORY] Secret Research

A flash of light notified a message coming from the small spaceship hovering outside of the Wei Han Federal Laboratories.

From: single-pilot corvette ARGO, serial number W-SR-213.

Crew: Space Ranger S-145 (Solar Federation)

Message: Asking permission to dock. Responding call for aid coming from this station.

A drop of sweat ran through Doctor Herrera’s brow, even though he had been the one to call the Solar Federation. Matters of law enforcement had never been of interest to him. He had always enjoyed his protected status and peaceful comfort as a perfectly obsequious model student in one of the many Federal Science Academies, and never had to suffer the sight of someone like a Space Ranger. Information about them was scarce, and the impression they left so strong that no one could tell if the stories about them were truth of legend. With an unusually high-pitched tone, he ordered the secretary to grant permission, cleaning his sweaty hands with a white handkerchief.

He forced his stone-like legs to get to the hangar, against the better judgement of his heart urging him to hide in his room until the whole matter had been settled. He arrived just in time to see the landed spacecraft hatching, and an armored man walking out, tall, bulky and imposing.

The Ranger identified Herrera in a moment. He held a small tablet in his hand.

“Greetings, Ranger” said the Director, clearing his throat. “I am so relieved that someone is available to help us. The situation is terrible.”

The Ranger gave a slight nod. He still had his helmet, giving not a single hint of the face inside.

“I have a Tier 1 permission” he muttered through the speakers in his gear, handing the tablet to the nervous Director.

“Oh, sure. The code.”

Pulling out a similar device, Herrera let it scan the barcode glowing on the screen. Both beeped and gave out a message: Permission granted.

“All right, your access is confirmed. Would you follow me to my office, erm, please?”

The Ranger raised his hand. “It seemed an emergency. If you want you can brief me right here so I can live just after.”

Herrera gulped.

“Excuse me, erm, sir” he whispered. “Doctor Robinson’s research was a secret operation explicitly requested by the Federation. It is… a matter of state, so to speak.”

“I understand, that was not clear on the message. Lead the way.”

None of them uttered a word as they strode across the cold and aseptic white corridors of the research station. Once inside the Director’s office, Herrera pointed at a chair on one side of the desk and sat on another, facing the screen of his own computer.

“What happened, exactly? The message was cryptic and the Federation forbid me access to any information.”

“As I said, Doctor Robison was working in great secret, and there are precise instructions not to mention his research via remote communication, in any way. Selected inspectors come here regularly to check the status of this research in person.”

The Ranger nodded again. This only made things harder.

“I am so thankful you came so soon; time is running short already. I do not know precisely when and how it happened, but it was during sleep time. The station’s main computer and the security system got hijacked, and the staff could do nothing but working to restore it – they were stuck in the control room, with a malfunctioning system! Eventually, they managed to repair it, but when Doctor Robinson’s assistants went to work again during work time, they found nor him nor anything related to the research.”

“Go it” sighed the Ranger. “Anything else? May he have escaped with the research?”

“Why would he ever do that? Erm, no, Ranger, sir. He has been kidnapped. We found this in his work device.”

Herrera searched for something in his computer and turned the screen. The Ranger saw a symbol he only knew from his colleagues’ reports and documents, stored in the Federation’s archive: a white alien skull, with long fangs clenched on a colorful snake-like creature, its coils all twirled around it. The sign of the Krazyt pirates.

“I have heard of them, but never such a clean work. They are used to raiding stations.”

“I cannot believe we have been fooled like this” whined Herrera.

“Did you call as soon as you discovered all of this?”

“Yes, sir. Immediately.”

“Maybe I can track them and bring back your Robinson and his research.”

“You alone against a band of outlaws!?”

“It is what we do.”

Director Herrera was about to protest, but then surrendered to the Ranger’s practical confidence.

“Very well. Please, Ranger, it is vital that you succeed.”

The Space Ranger nodded a last time. “You must understand that I do not know what the Federation will decide about this incident after the mission has been accomplished. You all got yourself in an ugly predicament.”

Herrera stared blankly at the table, as clean and anonymous as everything else in that station.

“I do” he sighed.

*

With a deep research in the Solar Federation Intel System, the Space Ranger was able to collect enough signals of the Krazyts’ passage and track an approximated route leading to them. They were know for leaving terror and destruction in their passage, for attacking any possible target they could find in their way, and for always seeking confrontation with the law. The traces they left were perfectly coincident with their habits, unlike the way they had operated Robinson’s kidnapping. The Ranger chose that the best course of action was to keep the attention high.

The Argo sprinted along the route until the pirate fleet became visible to the radars, and then to the human eye, the design of its ships so distinctive with its jagged points and heavy wings of a strange bronze-hued metal they used, and the red, gray, and black paint decorating them. The Ranger set stealth mode and approached them, looking out for the Captain’s vessel.

Small, agile, and technologically superior, the spacecraft managed to get undetected under the pirate fleet, thanks to its advanced tools and the lack of them aboard pirate vessels. It took little effort to identify the admiral ship, whose command position was signaled by red stain above the Krazyt skull sign.

The Argo attached like a parasite to the lower side of its hull. The Ranger got out activating a similar device installed in his boots, which allowed him to walk upon the bronze-like surface even though with great effort. Internal insulation prevented any kind of sound from announcing his coming to the crew inside.

Eventually, the Ranger found a small hatch used for maintenance operations. No sooner had he lifted it that a puff of air came out of the tunnel leading inside the ship. A trapdoor at the end brought him into a scarcely lit corridor.

He deactivated his boots’ attaching device and started exploring what seemed to be a storage area.

The pirates kept no monitoring system, as it was usual for their kind: no outlaw crew in the entire space would have accepted one, but no captain wanted to bother about it either. The Ranger crawled through heaped boxes, finding no one but a single guard sleeping on the job, his fanged mouth open and dribbling, his short but sturdy body abandoned on a metal chair.

Creeping behind the Krazyt he locked the alien’s mouth in the hold of his arm. Before he could wake up and understand what was happening, a handgun was poking at his ear.

“Do not struggle, Krazyt. Want to live? Then tell me where the prisoner is. Don’t feign ignorance of the common tongue.”

With a pirate’s typical cowardice in front of a proper soldier, the Krazyt started to shake and babble with agitation, his voice muffled by the armored arm blocking his maw.

“No prisoner!”

“Is the human scientist in another ship?”

“No, no. He no prisoner.”

“So he’s here, and walks free.”

The pirate nodded, heavily sweating with a gelatinous a.nd disgusting substance as he got increasingly anxious.

“Tell me where he is, and make sure to speak softly if you don’t want to taste a bullet. ”

The pirate hissed. “The command deck. He’s there.”

“I can understand if you’re lying, you know?” said the Ranger, pressing the handgun further on the Krazyt’s head.

“I swear, I swear! I’m telling the truth.”

Nothing in his body language said otherwise, even after attempting to get him. That was all the Ranger could obtain from him.

A strong hit on the top of his head, and the pirate collapsed to the ground with a thud.

The Ranger gave a last look to his informer’s narrow nostrils and scaly skin, pondering a way to get to the command deck, surely packed with henchmen and guards of any sorts. If Robinson was there, and not as a prisoner, something else was at work. And not a good thing.

He peeked outside, checking for further company, but those lower corridors were deserted. Storage and cells were rarely surveilled by more than one or two men, while the others toiled on more specific task proper of space travel.

The Ranger proceeded forward, looking for a way up, passing as silent as he could be under the pale lights of small lamps set on each side of the corridor. At last he found a ladder which brought him near a dormitory. Its metal doors were closed. The sound sensor gave no sign of activity inside.

A small ripple of sound on the wall of silence before him originated not far from his position, and soon became increasingly wider: someone was walking along the corridor, coming in the Ranger’s direction. He could hear no step at the start, but soon the sound of boots reached his ears. Behind him the way went on for far too many steps before he could get into a decent hiding place: all he could do was hiding inside the dormitory. Still quiet, he pushed the door open and slid inside before the Krazyt could notice.

The pirate, too, entered the room, but as he muttered something about someone running away from his work upstairs, a heavy punch crushed his face, breaking the long fangs and bleeding his reptile nose. The Krazyt slowly slid down the wall, losing consciousness.

In his pockets, the Ranger found what he needed most in the moment: a small tablet, easy to hold in a single hand. He looked through his functions and files until he found the plant of the ship, with approximate but useful information on its structure and functioning.

“I owe you one.”

Out of the dormitory, the Ranger turned to his left, always checking the sound sensor and the plant of the ship. Taking care at avoiding the main corridors, he reached the passage to the upper level: another ladder.

On that level, the rooms hosted the main functions of the ship: weapons, engine, and so on. According to the map, the command deck was on the opposite side of where the Ranger stood.

As he went on, it became harder to pass through unnoticed. One or two Krazyt would often get in his direction, and there were few places to hide. Often the Ranger had to enter adjacent rooms and took cover from those patrolling the corridors among the ones operating their tasks inside the room. Many times he had to knock a guy down, but eventually he got to the stern and located the ladder leading to the command deck.

He began climbing, but before he could reach the end he heard the sound of blasters charging behind his back.

“We’re not as dumb as you think. Climb down here, asshole.”

A group of Krazyt stood under the Ranger, all pointing their guns at him except one. He thought about jumping down and fight, but the blaster were near enough to hit him in any case. The armor would have protected him, but so many strikes at once would have damaged it heavily, putting him at a disadvantage.

The unarmed pirate look at the armor, recognizing the Solar Federation logo and the symbol of the Space Rangers. His wicked satisfaction depicted a distorted smile on his reptile face.

“A Ranger, eh?”

His voice was rough and dry. “I don’t know what the Fed could want from us.”

The entire group rejoiced in vulgar laughter, both sight and sounds almost provoking the Ranger’s pride. Before he could reply, the head of another Krazyt appeared from the open trapdoor above the ladder.

“Hanging around and joking instead of doing your job. Better for you to have a good reason.”

He noticed the Ranger just a moment later.

“We have one. Tell the Captain we have an important guest. And from the Fed, no least.”

The pirate on the upper level snorted and walked away. Heavy steps announced his return about a minute later, when he ordered them to come up.

“Bring him, but take his toys away first.”

The chief of his captors put his scaly hands on the Ranger’s armor, pushing buttons and pulling hooks, removing piece after piece. The man inside the armor was as fearsome as his armor, bulky, stern and frost-eyed, and even though they were many against one, the pirates were doing great effort to hide their trembling awe behind a tough arrogance.

“You want to get up there, don’t you? Move.”

It was in such arrange that the Ranger got to the command deck, defenseless and unarmed, guns pointed at his back, their tips pushing him forward. The room was not that big, half a dozen of Krazyt were stationed in front of old computers, monitoring the status of the ship with rudimental tools. The Captain awaited there with few guards, taller and broader than most of his men, his scarred face standing out as to mark his rank. Beside him, a middle-aged black man, still wearing the uniform of the Wei Han Federal Laboratories, eyed the Ranger with the look of a fox.

The Captain had an even wilder smile than that of his henchmen. He chuckled at Dr. Robinson.

“The Fed has already come for you, Doctor.”

“That’s why you had to escort me” replied the scientist. “We and your boss expected it.”

“You’ve got guts, Robinson, to betray the Federation” said the Ranger.

Robinson kept his clever smirk. “Some of us do sometimes.”

“Don’t think you can escape the Federation this easily. It won’t let you sell its secret so easily.”

“But I’ve already succeeded, Ranger. You’ve been captured. Before the Federation can react we will be out of reach already.”

The Captain was clearly enjoying the scene, his back leaning against the wall, but interrupted the exchange by addressing the Ranger.

“I think the boss will love to see you. But first, how did you come here? We didn’t detect any ship.”

“Sure you will find his one attached to this vessel somewhere. The Rangers have many trinkets” said Robinson.

The Captain’s eyes glinted with interest.

“Do you know how they work?”

“No, but I can study them if you let me near the ship. And also, I would like to look at his armor.”

“Very good. You, boys, lock him in the cell.”

The pirates pushed the Ranger away from the commander’s deck and back to the lower one, and locked him in a small room near the hatch he had entered through. As primitive as the rest of the ship was, the cell had the size of a storage closet, with a simple door of steel-like metal.

The simplest technology. The easiest to bypass.

“Sleep tight, Ranger. It’s the only thing you can do in there” cried one of the Krazyt. A vulgar laughter echoed across the corridor as they went back to their work.

The Ranger paid them no attention, being already busy making up a new plan to save the day and accomplish the mission. He had not seen anything yet that could contain the research, nor any document of sorts, as Robinson seemed to carry nothing with him. Still, he had to keep his treasure close somewhere.

He rested, waiting for the crew’s sleep cycle to begin and the pirates to go into their dormitories, leaving a small number to monitor the ship.

Metallic doors had never been a real problem to a Space Ranger. The Krazyt had taken his armor, yet the suit he wore under it provided useful emergency tools inside pouches hidden on the fabric.

A black stripe running through his left calf hid a lockpick. The Ranger pulled it out and started working on the door. Patience and skills did the job, and a low clack announced him his new-found freedom.

With the arrogance of all stupid people, the Krazyt thought it unnecessary to watch over their prisoner, and probably had done it against the better judgement of the Captain. Their neglect was about to ruin them.

Putting the lockpick back to its place, the Ranger exchanged it with a narrow blade hidden in his arm and started running nimble and silent. Being without armor left him completely vulnerable blasters but gave him the advantage of stealth.

His first objective was retrieving his armor, which must have been wherever Robinson kept his personal objects. He had an high chance to find the research in the same place. But first, he needed a fire weapon. A small dagger like the one he was wielding was not enough to take over an entire pirate vessel.

The Ranger traversed the lower deck carefully but swiftly. In his mind, he worked to remember as much as possible of the map he had taken from the Krazyt some hours before. His feet fell upon the floor making but the slightest rustle.

He got in front of the storage room again, and heard someone walking inside. A faint click echoed in the moment he pushed the handle of the door.

“Who’s there?” shouted the Krazyt inside. “No midnight snacks.”

The Ranger heard the sound of a handgun loading as the pirate approached the door. In the moment it opened, he sprang to the Krazyt and blocked his hands. Before the guard could react, a punch struck his neck.

The Krazyt fell to the ground gasping, leaving the gun in the Ranger’s hand.

“Keep quiet” he said. “Else I’ll shoot.”

The Krazyt was still grasping his aching neck. The Ranger walked next to him, pointing the gun at his chest.

“Where is Robinson’s cabin? Speak softly.”

“Near the Captain’s. Third level, just below the command deck.”

Using a technique he had learnt in his special training, the Ranger struck the Krazyt where his nerves were more exposed. The pirate bulged his eyes and lost his senses.

The first objective had been accomplished, now it was time for the second. The Ranger got to the third deck effortlessly, and finding the Captain’s cabin revealed an even easier task, given all the ornaments. Near it there was a smaller cabin on the right. From a narrow window above its door came a warm light.

The Ranger pulled out his lockpick and performed his trick again. Robinson did not hear the door opening, as its clacking was covered by the frantic clatter of a computer keyboard.

While the Ranger entered, Dr. Robinson kept typing unaware. When something cold and metallic pushed his nape, he almost jumped on his seat.

“Freeze!” hissed the Ranger. “Don’t dare alerting the crew.”

Robinson sighed. “These idiots pay well, but can’t manage to grant safety.”

“You should have realized it before selling them federal secrets. Where’s the research?”

“Look at your right.”

The Ranger pivoted around him, so not to lose his sight on him. Robinson was analyzing his armor, the notes on his laptop the first data he had acquired.

But most importantly, he saw a suitcase placed upon a drawer.

“Everything I’ve stolen is inside” said the scientist.

“Open it.”

“Smart move.”

Robinson got up and pulled a narrow electronic card: a digital key. He inserted it into an entrance on the suitcase. A beep notified that it could be opened.

“You don’t actually know what I was working on, mh?”

“Open the suitcase, Robinson.”

The scientist grunted. “Typical.”

He lifted the upper lid with extreme are. Black cloth covered the inside; pouches contained printed documents and an external hard drive. But the big thing was kept in the lower lid: in two different glass containers, their feeble form immersed in a dense liquid, there were two fetuses. Way bigger than a human one, their shape was like that of a small arrow, soft and malleable, coiled several times.

Robinson noticed the Ranger’s confused look. “They’re Xantos.”

The soldier’s brow furrowed with sudden realization. “The Federation wanted to study Xantos?”

Robinson nodded. “It did. You know, the people of Mars love freedom and martial prowess. The Federal Army can’t manage to break them, and the Space Rangers refuse to take part in this war. They’re still loyal to their original purpose: order and safety in the space routes. So, they needed something else. Maybe a bioweapon?”

He chuckled, enjoying the shock in the Ranger’s eyes.

“These are two clones, and here’s the purpose of the research. Xantos are too hard to hunt, right? They’re apex predators; catching one is extremely expensive in both monetary and human terms. Ask your friends at the Federation how many units and how much money they lost in order to bring a specimen to the Laboratories. If you can clone and breed them, though…”

Robinson left the Ranger to draw his conclusions.

“They’re a male and a female” muttered the Ranger.

“Of course. But to tell you the truth they were meant to be artificially fertilized. Letting them be in a group is not safe. The papers contain all the details. The hard drive has a digital copy.”

Robinson patted the suitcase. “These guys will be able to slay entire space crews by themselves. They’re extremely resistant to most weapons, and have a killer instinct that is unmatched by all other forms of life. The less literate call them “space demons” for a reason.”

He smiled. “If you wonder why I’m telling it all: I just want to let you know who you’re working for.”

“Did you sell the research to the Krazyt? Or are they just an intermediary?”

“Ikhvyt is very ambitious” said Robinson, his wide smile shining of pure white. “He’s the most respected Krazyt corsair, almost like their warlord at this point. All the Krazyt pirates are uniting under his banner, as well as scoundrels of other races. Can I close the case now?”

The Ranger nodded, and Robinson sealed the case.

“Now give me that key.”

Robinson replied. “Of course. I was actually the first to enter in contact with him and he was really interested. He started to assemble a group of scientist as I planned my escape with this band.”

He made a gesture as to point at the whole ship while giving the Ranger the electronic key.

“My guess is that he wants to finance his future endeavors by selling Xantos to the best bidder.”

“And you will share the profits with him.”

“That, and I will finally be free. Not confined anymore by the walls of my own workplace, I won’t exchange my former prison for a golden cage that has the sole purpose of keeping me quiet and under the Federation’s eye.”

Suddenly, a Krazyt’s voice echoed outside the cabin.

“Human! You’ve left the door open.”

Robinson was of quick thinking. In that fraction of second in which the Ranger averted his gaze from him to look at the cabin’s entrance, the scientist pushed the Ranger’s shoulders and darted out of the room.

“Ranger’s here! Shoot him!”

“Sound the alarm! I’ll try to get him!”

The Ranger pulled a short piece of furniture away from the wall and crouched behind it. The suitcase was still there, but it was not time to worry about that. Two pirates had entered the cabin, blasters ready to shoot.

With the speed of a well-trained soldier, he sprang out of his cover and shot at one of the Krazyt.

“Down!” cried the other, but his comrade was not fast enough. The Krazyt fell to the ground lifeless.

Cursing, the second pirate fired back. His blaster burned and splintered the border of the Ranger’s cover while he dived back behind it.

Filled with rage, the Krazyt jumped upon the furniture ready to shoot down at the Ranger, but was met by a high kick hitting his chin. The Ranger exploited the moment and fired again, finishing his opponent.

Doubt crossed his mind as he eyed this armor, its pieces carefully laid upon Robinson’s working table. He wore gauntlets and helmet before taking the suitcase and one pirate’s blaster and running out of the room, where some of the reinforcements had already arrived. The Captain was with them.

“Kill this fucker!”

Both them and the Ranger raised their weapons at the same time, blasters against gauntlet. A white glow shone in his palm, its light growing fast until only the helmet prevented him from squinting his eyes.

The impact made the whole ship tremble. When the white light went out, the walls were torn apart and the floor was blackened and broken. Nothing was left of the Krazyt.

The entire ship was now on alert. Sirens blasted all around, almost covering the cries of the crew and the sound of people running. The Ranger ran beyond the Captain’s cabin; he had to make his way to the hangar and fly away as soon as possible. He may be not able to bring Robinson to Gaia, but at least his plans would be thwarted. This could buy time, or maybe, left without his exchange token, he would have lost his usefulness to the Krazyt’s eyes.

A small band of pirates jump from a sideways passage and stood on his way. They started blasting, but the Ranger jumped down, sliding across the pavement in their direction. A blaster shot put one down, and a wide low kick brought the other two to the ground: they fell, hitting their necks on the hard floor.

He kept descending. Red intermittent lights and pale white lamps flashed above him, the maddened whistle of the alarm attacked his ears on every side. Occasionally, some Krazyt would be in his way, but often they would run away on their own, or, too slow and still sleepy, they would be neutralized easily.

As he entered the hangar, he kept his breath. Krazyt corpses were all around him, and Dr. Robinson, a blaster in his hand, approached the launching pad, running toward the Argo.

The prospect of getting his ship stolen awakened a wild instinct in the Ranger. Stumbling on the bodies left by Robinson, he went after him, stopping from time to time to fire at him. The shots always missed by inches, yet hindered the scientist’s way to the spacecraft.

The Argo had been left open. When Dr. Robinson made his first steps on the ramp leading inside, the Ranger had already got near him.

“Hands up and blaster on the ground. Quick!”

Robinson complied, moving carefully, just in time for the pirates to get inside the hangar. Just as the Ranger had kicked the man’s gun away, a rain of blaster shots fell all around him, some shots hitting the Argo.

The Ranger pushed Robinson inside the ship, just in time to hear “Emergency mode. Ship under attack!” coming from the control panel.

“Here S-145! Initiate launch!” cried the Ranger, as he closed Robinson inside a small cell.

The Argo swayed as another charge of blasters crashed against the hull.

When the Ranger got to the cockpit, the Argo was ready to depart. He took control of the ship’s weaponry, aiming at the nearest group of Krazyt shooting him.

“Set route to Wei Han Federal Laboratories!”

He pulled the trigger. The blaster cannon wreaked havoc among them, as the impact burned them and shattered the floor. Many ran away as soon as they had seen the gun pointing at them, and rushed madly, caring not for enemy or friend, pushing and slamming against everyone who was in their way.

Setting course. Please wait…

The chaos gave him the chance to get out unpursued. The Ranger turned the cannon towards the closed shutter.

He fired as many times as he could before the weapon overheated. The pirate vessel trembled another time while as chunk after chunk of its hull were destroyed, until an overwhelming gust of air pulled the Argo out of it, dragging along living bodies and corpses, and boxes and tools, into the open space.

“Set maximum speed” said the Ranger. The Argo darted through the Krazyt fleet and far beyond before everyone could realize what had happened.

The Ranger let a sigh of relief. He was so tired that he fell asleep almost instantly.

*

The Ranger was woken up by the ship’s message. Destination reached.

The Laboratories stood in front of him, silent, most of its lights turned off. The Ranger typed a quick message for the station’s hangar.

Space Ranger S-145, single-pilot corvette ARGO. Operating under federal authority.

No response.

Space Ranger S-145. Please open the hangar and allow docking.

Still nothing came from the station.

S-145. Carrying important materials for this station. Let me in or I will force landing.

Nothing happened. It was almost like the Laboratories were deserted.

S-145. Forcing landing.

The Ranger lowered his ship to the same height of the hangar’s shutter. As it had done before, the blaster cannon fired against it, melting the hard steel until a hole was left which the Argo could pass through. Air started to pour out of the station; the security system inside activated at once, and the internal door leading inside the facility automatically shut to prevent further air losses.

The Argo entered the Laboratories and docked. No one was inside the hangar; complete silence loomed over it.

An emergency power armor was kept inside the Argo. Worried by this turn of events, the Ranger wore it piece to piece, and took a blaster rifle.

He walked through the hangar as fast as he the anti-gravity boots allowed. Beside the internal shutter sealing the area there was a security door. He turned the wheel at its center, so opening the door, and jumped in.

His feet slipped on something slimy and wet: a pool of red gore.

Gasping, the Ranger turned left and right. The corridor he was in was dimly lit by white lights projecting a scant and eerie glow. More blood had been splashed on the floor and the walls, leading further inside the station.

Turning on the lights on his helmet, he started following the red trail which had revealed to him. At its end, inside a dark room, four narrow fissures glared bright up in the ceiling.

A gut-wrenching screech pierced the silence, and the alien beast jumped on the Ranger. Though scarcely lit, he saw its body rotating on itself except for its center, where a circular maw showed lines and lines of sharp teeth. Around it, the eyes were surrounded by scales like steel. It was a Xanto.

The Ranger dived to the right, crashing against a group of steel chairs. Around the beast a set of thin antennae straightened to prevent a ruinous fall on the pavement, and not even a charge of blaster managed to make it lose its balance. All the Ranger could do was run away.

He zigzagged in search of a way of escape. The Xanto kept darting like an arrow behind him, trying to get its fangs on his head or his arms. Eventually, the helmet lighted a door in front of her.

He threw a small grenade behind his back to distract the alien. A flash of light sparked in the darkness and it exploded, burning a circular area around the beast. Its scales were unscathed, but the trick worked: the creature shifted its attention for just enough time to allow the Ranger to pass through the door.

Another wrathful screech echoed across the station. Apparently, the Xanto could not follow him through.

There was no hope for survivors. More blood and corpses lay all around. All the Ranger could do was finding another way back to the ship before the Xanto got him.

Another screech came from the distance: the alien had not called defeat yet. The Ranger moved carefully and silent through more corridors, hoping to avoid another encounter.

Its prayers were not to be made true. The Xanto’s cries became nearer each time, as he walked the long way to the hangar, until, just before he got in front of its security door, the alien screeched some meters to his left.

He quickly threw another grenade at it. The explosion burst just under the Xanto, distracting it as the Ranger rotated the wheel and opened the door.

Inside the insulated hangar, hold to the floor by the anti-gravity boots, the Ranger thought he could allow himself a sigh of relief, but when he looked at the place, a new problem had risen.

The Ranger had payed for his hurry and distraction. Robinson had found a way to escape and was now stumbling with his hands and feet on the handles dotting the pavement, his breath protected by a small oxygen mask, carrying his suitcase to the nearest spaceship.

He had thought about everything, it seemed. Who knew what other trinket he carried with himself.

Cursing his naivety, the Ranger strode toward him. He still walked slowly due to the absence of gravity, but the boots allowed him much more speed than the scientist could afford. With a desperate look, Robinson pulled a small pistol from his suit and shoot at the Ranger. Being in great hardship, as he clang to the handles trying not to lose his suitcase, he missed all the shots. The bullets all hit the ground around the Ranger.

Robinson made greater effort to reach a ship before the Ranger got him. He had almost got near one, when a strong arm grabbed his leg and pulled him back.

“You go nowhere but back to Gaia to face a trial” said the Ranger. “All this is your idea, isn’t it?”

The scientist looked at his visor with hateful fear. He could not reply, and the Ranger was happy about it. He wanted to hear no more from him, nor see him again once he was in the hands of the Federation’s justice.

Robinson kept on resisting him even now that he was powerless. The Ranger grabbed the suitcase, and the other clang on it with all its strength, discharging his pistol at him. Those bullets could only but scratch the power armor.

The Ranger punched Robinson in the gut. Even covered by the mask, he heard the man gasping painfully as he left the grasp on the suitcase and the pistol. Of those the Ranger took only the thing he needed.

“Now come with me” he said, when the angry screech of the Xanto echoed again.

They turned left and right as they heard the alien smashing the steel with its own body, the weird scales clanging like metal on metal against a shutter somewhere in the aeration conducts.

At last the shutter broke. Further air was sucked out of the station as the Xanto darted out and toward the two men, with nothing but lust for blood in its four glowing eyes.

“Get out of here!” cried the Ranger. He shot the beast with his rifle, aiming at the center of its mouth as it approached, but the teeth seemed as resistant as its scales.

Robinson dared not move, but the Xanto had a special gripe with the Ranger who had tried to fool him twice. It twisted its unearthly shape and it dived onto him.

The Ranger tried to step back, but he was too slow. The alien bit his shoulders, gnashing its teeth against the power armor. They were sharp as blades; with every crunch, the armor got greater damage than with a blaster shot, until the Xanto’s fangs were almost puncturing the Ranger’s shoulders.

Warning! Armor suffering heavy damage!

The Ranger grabbed the Xanto’s tail and pushed it away just before the alien sank its fangs on his flesh. It screeched when he shot a blaster charge toward its eyes, which did nothing but burst on its face, allowing him to put some distance. Robinson had left the suitcase and it was now hovering a few steps to the Ranger’s right. He took it as he stepped back, giving a quick glance at the Argo. The spacecraft awaited there, still and silent.

The scientist had at last found his strengths and was crawling to another ship just as before. The moment the Xanto eyed the Ranger grasping the suitcase, something awakened in its mind, and it started to look for Robinson.

The Ranger shoot at it another time, but once again a blaster rifle was nothing to him. The Xanto dived on Robinson and closed its maw on his head. He shook and trembled, trying to pull the beast away, his head entirely engulfed inside its mouth, as the Xanto moved frantically like a fish out of the water.

Eventually, the alien left him, and a pale, withered husk of a man started to hover a few inches above the hangar’s floor, like a ghost haunting a tomb in the middle of space.

Now, the alien turned to the Ranger again. It threw itself at him, faster than before, opening its horrifying jaw, making his steel-like fangs clack.

As a last resort, the Ranger faced the Xanto, waiting for its time to strike. The alien opened its maw to its full extent to attack him.

The Ranger shoved the suitcase in its mouth at the very last moment, and stepped back. The case managed to block the Xanto’s mouth, and the alien was now looking confusedly at him trying to free its maw.

The Xanto munched the case, breaking it with just a single bite. The security system activated instantly: the case exploded inside the alien. This was enough. Its steel-like scales fell off and jumped all around it, along with black chunks of weird alien flesh, very similar to that of a snail.

The mission was over. A total disaster, but at least the Xanto had been killed.

The Ranger walked tiredly to the Argo, and was inside set an automatic route to Gaia. Before going to rest again, he sent a report to the Federation.

S-145: Mission failed. Setting route to Gaia to make full report.

The Ranger looked at the Laboratories as the Argo left them to reach Gaia. He thought at the Federal plans Robinson had told him about, imagining the Federation using Xantos against communities of dissidents, or against the free people of Mars.

“Thank God this one failed.”


COMMENT: I wrote this story last year, with drafting occupying the whole month of January and revision occurring in the summer. I had initially thought of planning this anthology of short stories set in a sci-fi future mixing a bit of galactic politics that could feel related to current history (which is hinted here and there in the story), with my appreciation for atmospheres and situations you can find in Metroid games. I abandoned the idea, at least temporarily, since it doesn’t really resonate with me at the moment, and since the only story I managed to write in this setting didn’t get to that standard of quality I find acceptable for publishing (as it lacks at least a certain depth of theme to me), I chose to publish it here. Given that I haven’t posted on here for a while, too, it seemed appropriate.

Though I don’t see this story as optimal, I hope you enjoyed it a little bit, and thanks for reading if you got up to this point. Until next time!

[SHORT STORY] The Stone Demon

My consciousness awakened, and suddenly I found myself in a poor, dirty, decaying house. Imagine yourself in my predicament, opening your eyes and seeing that your home has disappeared, replaced by a decrepit hut in the worst of slums.

Yet, my confusion was soon subdued by a great anguish, and a sense of fearful urgency swelled in my guts while I looked at the maggots and spiders crawling all around the wooden hovel. By instinct I realized I was hunted by someone I knew not, and for reasons I was oblivious to, but which had been decreed so severe that they had to be punished like an unspeakable crime.

I dared looking at the windows, wondering if barring them all was the wise thing to do, and the strangest landscape revealed itself bright with unearthly gloom: under a purple sky with no sun and clouds of yellow and gray-blue, stood an entire city made of rotten, crooked huts like the one I was in, a place made to challenge the mind and body. Misshapen monsters born of several buildings cast one upon the other looked over streets whose broken stones had been pulled out, a war-like view where panicked throngs ran left and right in a wide-eyed frenzy, like ants to whose nest a cruel boy has laid siege.

An unknown force urged me to escape, and since no one seemed to care about me at the moment, I obeyed it at once, and rushed out of the house.

I felt I had to escape an evil punishment, but I had no idea where to go. I was disoriented while sinking into that human tide where everyone appeared so different and yet so similar. Against common sense I tried to stop someone and ask him what was happening; the bald middle-aged man, clad in rags, was the only one who would suffer wasting two seconds of his time.

“Someone has been condemned. We don’t know who he is, but they’re coming for his judgment!”

“What did he do?” I asked.

He looked at me as you would to an adult man asking things that only children can without looking like fools.

“His very life is an offense to them. Now out of my way! I don’t want to be here when they come.”

No other would heed me, so I was left with nothing but engage in the same mad behavior, and I began running along the streets, going wherever my heart told me it was safe. Traversing that miserable city, I saw the effect of its madness unravel: many took with them their few possessions like they were to run away forever, many trampled upon each other in the attempt to make as much distance between themselves and whoever was to come, many other entered the abandoned houses to pinch any barely valuable item left inside. I was disgusted by that show of misery.

As we heard the sound of hoofs clattering on the stone, a choir of screams arose in response; the crowd around me began swirling faster and more desperate. Their contagious frenzy, and the echo of that ominous steed galloping, took control over me and even I started running madly in no particular direction, just to gain all the possible distance between me and the horse.

As much as I could run, the source of our collective terror pursued me behind every corner, hunting relentlessly. The screams got louder and more frightened rising above the clang of a blade cutting through flesh, until the creature was behind my back, and turning I gazed upon him.

His steed was a rotten corpse, with bones peeking out of putrid flesh. The harness was of blackened steel and blood-stained rags. Swinging his scythe, the dead horseman harvested the life of an unlucky couple standing between me and him. His perennial grin reigned over all that death and fear. He was living bone, armored with spikes of black steel melded with his cranium, his shoulders, his forearms, and his torso.

My legs became like butter. I fell to the ground, unable to move, to lift my gaze from the demonic knight.

He moved his horse forward, reaching to me with his writhing hands. Chill ran through my spine when he clutched me by my shirt’s collar. The last residue of will and consciousness slipped away from me, as if the rider was absorbing and feeding on them. My sight became blurry and I fainted.

When I awakened, I found myself laying on sand. I had not fully recovered yet from the spell of the spectral horseman: I could barely move my limbs, and my mind was confused.

I was at the center of a hellish-looking arena. Spikes of black metal rose above platforms where grotesque faces and monstrous grins leered at me, shouting curses and blasphemies. Horrendous gargoyles adorned the circular wall.

We are used to think these images are cool, but what happens when you are actually stuck in one that looks so real and dangerous? I feared for more than my life. I feared my soul would be destroyed forever, the plaything of a demonic legion.

And then I heard steps coming towards me, and I saw a being of stone. She had strong feminine features, generous curves that would have been attractive if not for the rugged gray surface, and the featureless head at the top. It resembled a stone egg, with no eyes nor mouth, no nose nor anything else you’d expect in a face. Her hands were reptile claws.

She sprang forward and got on top of me, holding my back to the ground with unexpected strength.

I cried out before I could notice. “Why are you doing this? I did nothing!”

A low, yet hear-piercing hiss came out of the demon’s stone head. “And that is why we like you the most.”

Then she started clawing at me. Each cut on my flesh left me with overwhelming pain, and stained the sand with blood, and with each wound the crowd cheered more loudly. The demons licked their lips and laughed with sadistic excitement, enjoying my desperate screams and the sight of my blood.

I begged her to stop, but she kept ripping my body with more intensity and cruelty, until I could not move my head anymore, and I knew that my body had been completely torn out.

“Now the final part” said the stone demon.

From the middle of her blank head opened a vertical fissure. The narrow hole became a gaping maw covering the whole space of her head. Inside it, long fangs jerked back and forth with anticipation; a long, forked tongue licked them full of anticipation.

The maw bent over me, a portal into a deep darkness where my screams fell silent.

I woke up. My bed sheets were soaked with sweat, my heart was racing and my limbs trembled. And I knew my soul had been attacked.

[SHORT STORY] The Lovesick Prince

The sun kissed the minarets and domes of golden Parthulah the day her Prince became a man, His 20th birthday; and He arose early in the morning, when the sun is still cold and its shades jut toward the West, and gathered all the councils and all the court, and every servant and every outstanding citizen into his halls of marble, where tapestry told stories of old and visions of the future, and the mosaics praised Parthulah’s gorgeous daughters. Then the whole place was filled with people, rich merchants and fierce warriors, and holy men and humble peasants, who rejoiced to the music and the food and the wine that the servants had provided them. But then the Prince came, and He wore not His crowned turban, nor He bore the bright jewels of his family, but only covered in crimson pantaloons He slowly walked across the hall and sat in His throne.

The marble echoed with clapping and laughter and shouting and wishes of a long and glorious life. But the Prince was left unfazed, with His sad lips and black bags below His eyes, and He raised His right hand to command silence. As He had done so, Sound left the royal halls of golden Parthulah, and ran away to the river and the markets of far cities.

“I am now fully man, but I feel no joy and no strength. I have no will, for I am lovesick.”

Thus spoke the Prince of golden Parthulah, and all the councils and the court, and every servant and every outstanding citizen was troubled, and dared speak not.

A highly regarded courtesan approached the throne, for she had deep knowledge of many a young man’s heart and thought to find cause and remedy of that sickness.

“O sweet Prince, You are everything and own everything. You are the blazing sun and the gentle stars. Tell me, who made You sick with love and how, You that no woman would cast away?”

“I cannot tell” said the Prince of Parthulah. “I do not know her and may be that she has never heard of me, and I do not know how she enthralled me, because today I just awoke and realized I was lovesick.”

Now the courtesan smiled in her heart because she thought she knew what the Prince desired.

“O sweet Prince, I will give You the cure from Your sickness.”

She went away, and everyone waited anxiously. But she soon returned and ran to the Prince and extended her arm toward the entrance.

“Let her come in!”

And behold, a young woman of unmatched beauty knelt to the Prince’s feet and locked her eyes into his. Her skin was like amber, her hair like silk, her eyes light as gems, her frame the work of a divine sculptor. She had the name of spring, and her voice was like placid rivulets flowing through pastures upon sweet hills.

The woman danced for the Prince and won over Him, and smiling He held her in His arms and carried her to His chambers. And they spent the day and night together, and they were merry, until sleep fell over them and they wandered together on the roads of Dream. But the sun rose again, and a new day had come, and the Prince told the woman to go away and never return, and that if He saw her again, He would have made her killed. She ran out of the chambers crying, and met the courtesan, who had come early expecting a happy Prince, and told her of how He had loved her the day before, and how He hated her now.

The courtesan entered the Prince’s chambers and saw Him lay on the pavement as a dead man, looking at the pictures of gods and heroes painted on the dome of His august nest.

“O sweet Prince” she said, “are you still lovesick?”

“I am still lovesick” he answered.

And then he ordered to summon all the courts, and every servant, and every outstanding citizen, and to gather them again in the throne hall. And the courtesan went to refer the Prince’s order, which quickly spread through the palace and out in Parthulah’s humbler abodes, and went to hid the young woman so that the Prince could not find her if some mad idea would come to Him. But in her mind she kept devising a new cure to His sickness.

“He thirsts for domestic warmth” she said to herself. “A warm fire and hot bread, and laugh and love and affection.”

So her feet flied through the roads of golden Parthulah and into the Prince’s palace, and she pushed her way through the throng amassed in the main hall.

“O sweet Prince, this time I really know what you need!”

And she took the Prince by her arm and led Him out of the palace and into the plebeian quarters of golden Parthulah, and knocked the door of a modest wooden building, and entered with him. They found themselves inside an inn and there a warm fire was lit, and the keeper served Him a jug of warm beer, and his wife the hostess cooked a commoner’s meal, of warm bread and tasty cheese and fried eggs, along with talks and laughs and warm affection. And the Prince ate and drank and was merry and heartened, and thanked many times His humble hosts, and prized them with gold and praise and friendship and many gifts. But when the meal was digested, and the honors had been given to the innkeeper and his wife, the Prince looked at the sunset and sighed again.

“I wish I could have shared that meal with my love, for I am lovesick.”

The courtesan worried again, but it was now late, and everyone was leaving for their homes. And later all but the Prince slept pleasantly, and had wonderful dreams, but the Prince strode right and left, up and down, and went around all the palace, restless as He was, until He was exhausted. But then the dawn came again, and He prepared and went to the hall where all the courts, and every servant and every outstanding citizen was waiting him.

“I am still lovesick” he said as soon as He had sat on the throne.

“O sweet Prince, this time I really know what you need!”

So the courtesan spoke, and then went into the crowd to gather all the actors she could find, and poets and musicians, and told them to arrange a great spectacle, a beautiful tragedy of passionate love. Quick and good they had to be, for the Prince must be cured soon, else He would grow restless and mad.

The artists toiled all day and evening, until the play was ready. And that very night in the theater the Prince sat to His honor seat and enjoyed the show, and praised it with enthusiasm.

“O sweet Prince” said the courtesan, “I am happy you feel better.”

“I do not” He replied, and His face became sorrowful again. “If anything, I feel worse. I wish I could be like the hero of that story, for I am lovesick.”

Thus the courtesan was distraught and called defeat. But the Prince put His hand upon her head.

“I am grateful for your help. I know that you really care for me, and that you felt no fear when I said to be lovesick. I will remember.”

And the next day the Prince woke up as the sun had peeked out of the eastern mountains, when the sky was still grey, and purified Himself and began to arrange His last resort. And then He called all the councils and all the courts, and every servant and every outstanding citizen, and brought them into His halls.

“I am still lovesick, but now I know what I need. And many thanks you all shall give to this courtesan, the one who helped me and trembled not when I said to be lovesick. Know now that she will be your queen, and that you shall be cursed if you do harm to her. But you, queen, you shall learn my next lesson and then be purified before sitting on this throne.”

As He had spoken, all trembled and asked questions among themselves, for those words had hit their pride and their hearts were now troubled. But suddenly the Prince arose, and took the new queen by His arm, and led everyone out into a great square in front of the palace, where He used to give speeches and receive praises and salutations. And He knelt on a white platform, and drew out an ornate dagger, a trophy of His youth.

“Each of you all shall stab me with this very dagger, else my curse will devour his flesh and soul. It’s my last order.”

All were scandalized, and the new queen wept, and the people said that the Prince had become mad, but He warned them again.

“Doubt me a second time, and I shall curse you. Disobey me, and I shall curse you a second time.”

So they were convinced, for the Prince of Parthulah had divine blood whose power could move the mountains. With sad faces and trembling hands, they stabbed Him countless times. And at last only the new queen was left, and she was weeping still.

The Prince was soaked in His blood of gold and crimson, which had filled the white platform like summer rain, but he was breathing still.

“Do it, future Queen of Parthulah, and your soul shall feel relief. I can see already the land where I will meet my love, and the temple where I will marry, and the middleman who will let each other meet.”

Then the queen stabbed Him, and His soul left His smiling body, taking Death by her hand, and was brought to where no living man can be.

[SHORT STORY] Snake’s Bite

Of all the memories of my time in the desert, when I, younger and bolder, worked in the African north, it is a weird dream to occupy the first place and rule all over the rest of my experiences. But this story, although developing in the realm of Morpheus, starts in the waking world, under the scorching sun of the Sahara.

As I said, I was working in the desert (the nature of my job is entirely useless to the means of this tale and altogether boring). How draining is that land, and how exhausting, but how fierce and fascinating to the human soul. The yellow dunes awaken something within you, that makes you feel what ancient men have felt when facing their primeval dangers in the first age of mankind. Despite the many warnings (and the somnolent security meetings), that place made me too distracted and rarely weary of my surroundings. Or maybe, my primordial instinct reborn sought the risk of death.

And as I had provoked Death, he struck in no time, brutal and unmerciful against his challengers. I was walking near an amass of rocks when suddenly I had him coiled around my left leg. Once I had noticed him, my convulsive reaction was followed by a strong bite on my ankle.

I cried help, and, luckily, I was near my colleagues and the local security agents, because that snake’s bite was poisonous and, as I discovered, potentially mortal. They instantly rushed to my rescue, killed the serpent, and brought me to our place where I was put into medication, already very feverish and debilitated. After treating me, the doctors assured that the fever would pass in a day and told me to just rest and relax.

However, I spent a hell of a night. Both fever and medicines made me feel sluggish and foggy; a weird, weak restlessness took over me, in which I could not fall asleep but had no strength to do anything else, either.

I had to wait until complete exhaustion, as my head started spinning and I began sweating profusely in spite of the colder climate of the desert night. My eyes rolled up like my irises were entering inside my head, and I fell into oblivion.

The fire of a luxurious hearth was the first thing catching my attention. I found myself in an extremely rich chamber from a time long past, which my consciousness recognized, but was unable to tell me. It was like it had been cut out from the rest of my perception, and even now, if I try to remember, I seem unable to connect the dots.

Suddenly, though, I felt another thing: that I was slithering above soft flesh… above the bosom of a woman!

Nay, it was not that kind of dream. I felt no desire for her, nor she did for me, however sensual her abandonment above her cushions, her parted lips through which her breath flew nervously, her heavy eyelids talking of sadness and despair.

Something made my guts clench, and that was the peculiar way I slid above her: not like a man, but like a snake, describing a S as I climbed upon her chest. She sighed, trying to hold her fear, but she could not prevent herself from trembling a bit.

I ignored her, yet once I was on her shoulder her resistance crumbled. She cried and raised her arms as to throw me away, but I was faster: as she had made the slightest, abrupt movement, my fangs were on her neck. Her spirit left her body as the cry died on her lips in a ghostly groan. And the dream died with her in a flash of light.

The bright white persisted, and my point of view changed. I was amorphous, and everything around me was heavy liquid. That sensation lasted for I do not know how much time, until a spark of energy and strength traversed my whole body. Just later, that white prison became suffocating and intolerable, and I began struggling with all my strength to break it down. I literally threw myself against the white walls surrounding me, which cracked and then broke. I was free!

I jumped raising a splash of liquid all around me until I landed onto the ground, realizing that I was a snake again. The furniture of the infirmary surrounded me, and I slid under the door on my way back to the desert. My desert, my land.

Abruptly, I came back to the waking world, just in time to see a reptile tail disappear beyond the narrow space between the door and the ground.  My fever had passed.

I never told this anyone, the reason being a certain shame the event left on me. The next day, I was fine and had no sign of complications, so there was no need to report my dream and be called a madman as result. Afterwards, I suffered no ill which I can relate to that event, yet sometimes in my sleep I can swear to see the desert again, and to slither above it, and to contemplate the daily lives of men and women, as a predator would lust upon a pray, already tasting my next rebirth.

The Floating Islands – VI

The shuttle made its way above the Islands’ trees, standing out against a sky of a thousand colors.

Maghbel looked curiously to the little dragon which was helping them to return to the Legacy.

Damian pointed his finger down. «It isn’t over yet»

Visible only from their position, two imperial cruisers stood imposing on the board of the island above which the pirates were flying, keeping a height lower than its surface.

«We must get back to the Legacy» said the Captain clenching its teeth. «Brace yourselves»

Mayweather pulled the horizontal bar and the aircraft rushed forward, diving inside the forest.

They found their airship in the midst of an assault by the imperial troops. The pirates had put together an improvised barrier, in a semi-circle around the ship, behind which they had positioned to defend it. Around them, dispersed among the trees, the imperial soldiers tried to make a breach.

Vice-captain Ernst ordered to fire, shouting above the enemies’ shots and everyone’s voices. He pointed his musket and pulled the trigger, followed almost immediately by the rest of the crew. The shots exploded in every direction.

The Captain landed the shuttle behind the imperial army, at an extremity of the semi-circle where there were few men and seemed easy to pass without being intercepted and assaulted.

The pirates got out and took their guns. Kieran charged his pistol, which he had used before against the monster.

Maghbel took the little dragon in her arms. Mayweather turned to her.

«If they see you with us, they’ll come for you. You can go away if you want»

The creature denied. «You could have left me inside the fortress, but you didn’t do it. And you saved me from that beast. I’ll help you»

«You won’t be safe here anymore, I fear»

«I’ll come with you. I’ll finally stop being bored»

«I don’t know if you can live among humans. Are you sure?»

Maghbel nodded.

«As you wish. Stay behind us and be cautious» said the Captain.

They stealthily walked towards the Legacy and finally met an imperial platoon. The pirates had fired again and hit one of the men.

The nearest comrade cried. «Man down! Man down!»

The soldiers answered to the fire, but their enemies were already crouched behind the barrier. Shots flied above their heads or crashed into the defenses.

«Damn!» shouted the officer, hidden behind a tree at the tail of its group. «It’s nosense to keep on like this, we must charge the barrier!»

Another of the soldiers answered angrily. «Of course, we can’t wait to be chopped up! We don’t go there alone!»

«Call the others, then!»

The pirates, stalking among the trees behind the imperial squad, chose silently their next targets. While shots and curses raged in front of them, toward the glade where the Legacy stood, they took position in different spots of the wood.

Mayweather waited for another series of shots by the airship’s defenders and for the Imperials to expose themselves again to answer to the fire.

The same soldier as before turned another time to the officer. «The communicator doesn’t work!»

The Captain made a silent gesture with his hand, ordering fire. The four pirates aimed the Imperials.

The officer was going to rant against his soldier, but his voice was covered by the bangs. He fell to the ground with the great part of his squad, without noticing that he had been hit in his back. Only one of the soldiers was left and when he saw the Captain and his men running in his direction he rushed crying in the thick of the forest.

The defenders were about to shot again. They heard Ernst’s orders. «Aim!»

Mayweather ran to the border of the glade. «It’s time! We must take advantage of their cover!»

He untied his bandana and waved it in the air. Behind the barrier, at about twenty feet from him, the defenders in front of him noticed the Captain’s blue cloth and red mane.

They acknowledged him. One of them gestured him to reach them while the others aimed their muskets at other directions to cover the group.

When they finally got beyond the barrier, panting and purple-faced, the little dragon saw the great ship and began to shrill excited, trying to slip away from Maghbel’s hands.

«Let it go» gasped the Captain. «Maybe we have found a way to run away»

The animal run over the ramp and entered the airship, ignored by the imperial soldiers’ fire. The Captain hoped it could solve the situation soon, because their enemies became ever braver and began to try different ways to make a breach in the barrier. The pirates started to have some difficulty.

They did not have to wait much, but they got another surprise. The engine of the Legacy turned on, causing an air vortex nearby. From the hull went out two gigantic wings like fish fin, of the same color of metal, glistening in the sunlight. Fluid and mobile at the start, as they were organic, these stiffened just later.

Imperials and pirates were both shocked. The fire had ceased and all the fighters were now looking at the airship, incredulous.

«Inside the Legacy, you all! Care not about the wings» cried the Captain.

Some pirate threw grenades to distract the enemies and allow the retreat. Some of the ones who had gotten to the ship were shooting to the Imperials to cover those who remained behind, the rest of the men went to execute the actions necessary to leave.

«Be quick!» shouted Mayweather. «Reinforcements won’t get here late, their fleet is near»

«Captain» called Ernst. «The navigation tools are all working, but the computer is giving me unreadable messages»

«It’s the little one. Ignore the messages and make the ship leave this place»

The Legacy lifted in the same moment the imperial airships came to give support to the soldiers on land and block the pirate vessel. But its cannons shot first. One of the enemy ships went down and fell behind the clouds.

The Legacy gained speed both steadily and quickly. The propellers were pushed at their maximum. The wings the little dragon had molded on the hull started to move again, giving further push to the airship, which left behind itself the multicolor glow of the Floating Islands and an imperial fleet angry and powerless.

Drying the sweat on his face, the Captain thought that if the Rebellion really wanted that weapons cargo, they would have to be ready to pay double price to compensate for the disturbance. But he did not do it, in the end. After all, he had left the Imperial Fleet not to exploit the Rebels, but to join them.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Floating Islands – V

«What…»

The Captain went near the monitor, staring at it with wonder. Another squeak from the dragon drew his attention and it exchanged his gaze, unfolding its wings with a satisfied look. It was in that moment that he saw the protuberances grown from the little one’s chest, inserted inside the computer’s ports, which radiated an unnatural glow at regular intervals, like they were crossed by electric impulses.

Mayweather had no words. Lightly pulling its body, the dragon detached them, and they became gradually shorter until they disappeared inside it. The monitor turned off and the computer stopped working. The lamps set on the wall grew dim but were still active. The glow reflected on the glass and the strange liquid, giving a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere in return.

The Captain giggled nervously, trying to caress the head of the reptile. It closed its eyes and let itself be petted, reclining its head with a pleased look.

«Er… good boy, I think»

«How did it do that? » shouted Kieran striding toward them.

«Strange things grew out of its belly, while it tinkered with the computer» answered Mayweather. He took the dragon in his hands and lifted it to look at it. It was white and smooth, and left no trace of that sort of limbs with which it had to connect to the fortress’ electric net.

«Anyway, we have to return to the ship. It is not safe here anymore» he cut short pointing with his head at the monster which slept at the center of the laboratory.

«The beast has likely destroyed the stair» said Vince sharply. «We’ll have to climb»

«Pray that there are airships here, and that the hangar is right in this floor» murmured the Captain in response.

While they waited for Maghbel to finish her sleep, or whatever it was, the pirates searched in every room they could get in, Mayweather keeping the little animal in his arms. Obviously, the current had been reactivated in the entire fortress. They went to a shutter that opened itself in the moment they got near it. Whatever it had done, the dragon made sure that at least the base functions of the building were working again.

Beyond the entrance a vast hangar waited for them, inside which there were some shuttles, turned off, but already in position to lift off. The bulkheads to exit from the base had remained open for ages: from their top hanged lianas and vines of several kinds.

They went near a little airship. It had a structure similar to that of a normal vessel from their time, but it had also few, important differences: the prow was pointed and the wings tapered, the helm consisted in a short horizontal bar. The cockpit was open, big enough to host both the pirates and Maghbel.

Mayweather got the dragon near the ship. «It’s your time again!»

The little creature emitted a happy cry and slipped away from the Captain’s hold. It went to the dashboard. The protuberances grew out from its body again and connected to the airship’s control panel. The motor began to vibrate lowly and the ship lifted of a few inches off the floor. The engine began to heat up.

The Captain threw a sigh of relief. «It’s time to return to the Legacy. You two, stay here with the little guy» he said to Vince and Damian. «Kieran, let’s go to take the sleeping beauty»

The two pirates went back to the laboratory. Their mood was calm and relieved, but the hurry to reunite with the rest of the crew was such that they run at all their speed toward the room.

They found her in the same position they had left her, at the center of the pool. Her bark was green and young again, but she seemed to be still sleeping.

«Um… Maghbel?» said lowly the Captain, drawing near the pool. «We’ve to go»

The creature squeezed her eyes and stretched. She pulled out a leg, long more than three feet, and climbed over the border of the pool. The two men raised their gaze to Maghbel’s face, high above them.

«How the hell can you do that…» said the Captain.

Maghbel shrugged. «I just can» she said, while her legs shortened to their natural height. «But it’s very tiring. Because of it I took advantage of the Sap»

The creature pointed at the luminescent liquid.

«The Sap?» repeated Kieran.

Maghbel nodded. «You can find some everywhere in the Islands. But I never saw this much in a single place»

«What does it do, precisely?» asked the Captain.

«To me, it’s the best nutrient substance I can find. I couldn’t have recovered so quickly if it hadn’t been here. But its effects can be different depending on who takes it»

«It’s clear it comes from this fortress»

Mayweather bended toward the liquid. «What if it’s this to make the Islands what they are? The same thing we call Magic?»

«It could have magical properties, but we’ve got no magic expert» answered Kieran.

The Captain took his canteen. «Give me yours, too» he said, while filling it with the liquid. «And anything else that fits»

They took samples of Sap, filling how many containers they could manage to use; luckily, everyone of them brought some vial in the inner pockets of their clothes.

When they had finished, the trio hurried to join the others. In the same moment they passed through the door, the monster recovered from its sleep. Its limbs slammed the floor with such violence that they echoed around them like a marching army.

Mayweather reacted abruptly, taking Maghbel in his arms. «Run!»

The two pirates rushed towards the hangar; Kieran pulled out his gun to protect the Captain, slower for the load he brought and with busy hands.

The former defeat had made the monster more wrathful than ever. It jumped with all its strength to the wall and penetrated inside the hallway, preceded by an avalanche of debris. The fortress trembled again.

Kieran turned around and saw the massive figure crawl swiftly at their back, shortening the distance ever more quickly. Its giant maw was open, ready to plunge and close them in a fatal grip, its tongue swung wildly snapping on its sharp teeth.

The pirate stopped his run and aimed his weapon to the monster’s throat. The shot hit it inside its mouth, giving them time to join the rest of the group. They rushed inside the airship.

The Captain sat on the piloting place. Just at his side, between his and Vince’s seat, the little dragon had found a free space for him and was still connected to the control panel. The engine buzzed low.

The Captain swore. «How do I get this thing to lift off?»

He accidentally pushed the handlebar and suddenly the airship launched itself forward, across the launching pad, generating a force that made the pirates startle, held only by the security belts. The dragon squealed with concern and the cockpit’s glasses closed themselves.

Mayweather managed to gain control of the airship before it was too late and it flew out of the fortress, its passengers safe and sound. They heard the monster’s raging cry while they plunged into the surreal and multicolor sky which encircle the Islands.

The Captain gave a look at the glass and then at the little animal beside him.

«… you’re smart» 

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Floating Islands – IV

The pirates stood hidden, silently praying that the monster grew weary searching for them, when the Captain noticed that something near his cheeks radiated heat. Lowering his sight on the piece of furniture behind which he was crouching, he understood that what was giving him that feel was a saber stored there. The hilt and the scabbard were embellished with engravings he could not distinguish well due to the low light.

They heard the monster’s heavy claws; it was coming back toward them. Maghbel crouched more down, her face contracted in an expression of terror. Mayweather grabbed the weapon; the hilt was hot, but not enough to burn his skin.

Roaring, the alligator crashed against the armory wall. A rain of iron bars, tiles and debris fell upon the room. Someone swore, but his voice was covered by Maghbel’s cries and the predator’s din.

The Captain jumped out of his cover and unsheathed his new saber, running through the cloud of dust rising above the room. The blade vibrated lowly, but he had neither the time nor the calm to think about it.

The monster had seen him and raised one of his enormous claws to crush him. The Captain jumped forward and barely was not smashed by the mighty limb of the creature.

He thrusted his blade on its side. A purple glow flashed in front of his eyes, burning the gray hair and the scaled skin of the monster, which howled with pain and flung itself on one side to avoid a second attack, breaking another portion of the wall into pieces. Mayweather heard cracking spreading about the entire room.

He tried to shout above the monster’s gurgles and his fellows’ surprised cries. «The sabers! Take the sabers and give me a hand! »

The alligator attacked again and thrusted his maw inside the room, running over the furniture. The Captain barely managed to save his life and turned just in time to see another flash of light clashing against the creature. It staggered and cried again: one of the pirates had left a deep cut on its front leg.

The monster should have had enough, but certainly he was not going to run away. It raised on its back legs, reaching the ceiling, and smashed itself down the floor to crush its enemies.

The entire room collapsed in the moment the giant landed. They felt the pavement caving in under their feet and plunged in a whirl of stones, steel and lime down to the inferior floor, followed by the monster and a big portion of the fortress.

To the pirates the landing was not painful, luckily. The Captain and his fellows ended up in a pool deep a few more than six feet. The saber slipped out of his hand and began to hiss at contact with water.

He floundered out. The collapse had defeated the monster, which was now standing still, breathing slowly, keeping its eyes shut and its body laid weakly down the pavement. Big stones and pieces of furniture had fallen over it.

Mayweather turned to his men. «Are you fine, guys? »

He understood they were saved by Maghbel, who had directed their fall. Her limbs were longer than before, knotty and curved like those of a normal tree, and coiled around them as snakes, protecting them with green foliage that was not there before. She seemed to have become bigger, the Captain had just the time to notice it. The creature’s arms let them go and returned to the previous size, while the leaves came off and softly landed on the liquid surface. Maghbel was now at her usual size.

The four men could not believe their own eyes. She giggled nervously as she was used to do.

«Barely, but yes» she answered. «You all should wait a moment, though»

«What’s the matter? »«That required a lot of energy. Let me recover some of it»

The others reached the Captain outside the pool. At another analysis, the liquid in it seemed more than simple water: it was thicker and gave out a faint luminescence which took the place of the lamps, now broken because of the fall. This light reverberated all about the great room where they were, for the strange liquid was stored inside other pools and capsules. Some of them had been shattered by the collapse and now poured their content onto the floor.

Maghbel closed her eyes and relaxed, her legs slightly bended and her arms gently abandoned beside her hips. In that moment, the Captain saw that her bark was more wrinkled and the ivy and growth covering her body were dried and pale.

«You’ll have a lot to explain» said the Captain.

Suddenly, they heard a shrill squeal behind them, beyond the giant, unconscious monster. They walked past it to get to the source of the sound, made anxious by their curiosity and fearful by the unknown.

A small animal, similar to a lizard, was making its first, trembling paces. Its soft skin had stripes of white and black which coiled confusedly around it. Its tiny claws weakly clutched the pavement and slid on the luminescent liquid. On its back two frail wings were folded.

The little dragon went towards what resembled a computer leaning against a wall and began to tinker with ports and inputs totally different from the ones on the Legacy. Mayweather saw the dragon’s skin and flesh itself moving and twitching.

The little one squealed again and the computer turned on, followed by some lamps set up on the wall, revealing them an ancient laboratory. The monitor high above the Captain’s head showed a series of unreadable characters, belonging to a culture he did not know.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Floating Islands – III

The data of the expedition, stated in the logbook, marked the position of the fortress, too. Starting with just an estimation of the area where the target should have been, the Imperials managed to find it a few days after they had landed. It was easy to the pirates to follow those directions and get to the fortress.

It was built under a small cliff raising along the border of the island, not too distant from the place where the abandoned cruiser was. The front gate was covered by herbs and plants, but the knowledge left by the imperial research team allowed the pirates to walk with confidence among the fronds. A thick stone architrave rose above two steel sliding shutters. One of them came out crooked by the left side, the other had been uprooted and thrown away a few feet forward.

In front of them stretched a dark hallway, so large it could have been crossed by all five of them at the same time and high two times a man. The Captain made the first steps in the inside, with prudent caution, followed by Maghbel. The roots at her feet snapped in the moment they touched the fortress floor. The sound boomed across the entire tunnel, similar to a stick fallen on the ground.

Mayweather sprang up and drawn his saber, waiting for something to jump out from the darkness. Vince pointed his gun towards the hallway, while the echo still spread in the dark. Silence followed, charged with tension.

Every group member throw out a sigh of relief since no reaction came from the inside of the fortress. The Captain turned to Maghbel with an irritated grimace.

The creature shrugged. «I’ll be as silent as possible»

«Maybe you should just go away» said Mayweather.

She frowned and shook her head vigorously. «No way! You’re here thanks to me, so I come, too. Try to stop me»

The Captain sighed. She seemed harmless, but Maghbel was a creature of the Islands nonetheless and try to challenge her could be a reckless act, even for him. And she could be of more help there. He turned to Damian and Kieran. «Make some light»

The two gunners had lamps hanging at their belts. They tinkered with them for some seconds until a small area around them lit up. The lamplight fought against the dark ruling the fortress, but it wasn’t strong enough to allow a sight of the entire corridor. The end wasn’t visible yet.

They explored the first floor without any problem. In both sides there were numerous doors placed at regular intervals, which brought in the living areas of the fortress: the chambers were full of beds, chairs and furniture of different kinds. A pair of them were united in an unique hall which the pirates identified as the canteen. Two long marble tables crossed it, and at the end there were the remnants of a kitchen. The hallway ended in two flight of stairs that went down to the lower level.

The sound of Maghbel’s feet, who walked just behind the pirates, kept on echoeing lowly around the building despite she attempted everything to be silent. When she got to the second floor, something reacted to itand started to slither in the dark. This new hallway had the same length of the one before and there, too, the lamplight couldn’t reach the end, preventing them to see what was hidden there. In the darkness, though, they managed to distinguish a huge mass moving towards their direction.

«Stop» murmured the Captain.

The being covered by the dark repeatedly sniffed the air , crawling forward a bit at a time. Two big yellow eyes glittered, while it hissed. Two reptile eyes.

The pirates jumped the moment the monster revealed itself. So big to fill the entire space in front of them, a gigantic alligator moved vibrissae as long as an arm, which come out from the point of its muzzle. The scale were covered by sparse hair relatively thin. At the tip of its forelegs, pale claws, as those of a rodent, scratched the hallway tiles. Legs that could crush them, if slammed against them.

The monster focused its gaze on the group and roared a deep and deafening cry. The men put their hands on their ears, terror-stricken while the giant in front of them was bristling. Maghbel stepped back, making herself as small as she could.

«Jump down!»

The Captain ran towards the stairs, preceded by his comrades. He took Maghbel in his arms and jumped over the stairs railing, landing with so much heaviness his legs were about to buckle. Puffing, he used all the strenght he had in his body to stand up again and run towards the others. They had already dashed to the nearest door and now were making sign to hurry up.

The alligator was trying to rush down to them while Mayweather followed his men inside an armory. Various sabers and weapons similar to muskets filled cabinets and shelves ordered in many lines, near cases containing ammunition and other military instruments.

Maghbel giggled softly while the Captain put her back in the ground. «For a moment I feared the worst. I’m not so fast»

«The worst isn’t over yet» he answered. «Everyone, hide behind the shelves and stay still»

Everyone crouched where it most suited them and focused on the sounds made by the monster.

«And let’s hope it’s enough» said Mayweather through clenched teeth.

A thudding and the crashing of a collapse announced that, sweeping away every obstacle, the monster had made his way to them. The rubbing of hair and scales on the walls and the floor was every time nearer to them, until it went further the room. The alligator was checking the entire floor.

Part I

Part II

Part IV

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Floating Islands – II

The creature screeched, sounding like two sticks scratched one against the other. Without ceasing to observe the pirates, it started to speak an incomprehensible language, made of puffs and gurgles that rang in the wood. A strange kind of music, sometimes similar to a rough recorder, sometimes to the sound of water poured in a glass, that returned at the end to the initial screeching.

The Captain frowned and jumped back, drawing his saber. The creature didn’t seem to threaten them, but the group’s nerves were tense all the same: they expected mortal dangers to fall on them in a moment and the excess of caution had made them distrustful. The others put themselves in guard, too.

The creature’s eyes gleamed. «Calm, calm!» she shouted, hastily. «You’re humans, aren’t you? Of course you’re humans! I can speak your tongue, can you hear?»

They understood her now, but her vocal timbre still was as before, and shrill whistles pierced the pirates’ ears. She giggled nervously. «Put down those goads»

The Captain didn’t obey. «What… are you?»

The creature’s bust put itself up. The bark of the tree seemed to melt and become malleable, the veining in the crack waved and twisted, until two slender and flexible limbs detached from the trunk, green as sprouts. With a puff, she got up on her feet, now totally parted from the tree. She was smaller than him for almost one foot, a mix between a young plant and a girl, hardly describable. Mayweather’s eyes focused on her hands: from each protruded three short branches, which closed and opened up again while the creature was apparently stretching herself after a long sleep. A tangled mane of leaves and lianas, dotted with little yellow flowers, crowned her head.

She raised her arms as to answer the Captain’s question. «Humans rarely come here. What are you seeking?»

She didn’t seem aggressive. Mayweather sheathed his weapon, but kept watching suspiciously the strange creature. «Our enemies ran after us and damaged our airship. We stopped here to hide and make repairs»

«Airship» repeated the creature, bringing one of her thin branches to her mouth, as to think. «Do you mean those shells with a strange shape inside of which you travel? There’s one in this very island»

Despite the unexpected stroke of good luck, the pirates didn’t want to cheer up, yet.

«What end did the crew meet, then?» asked Vince.

«I’ve never seen them, but I know the humans disappeared after a few days»

Damian swore.

Mayweather turned to his fellows. «Let’s give it a look and hope to find the spare pieces»

Damian grimaced, unconvinced. «If they’re compatible. And still working»

The Captain shrugged and talked again to the creature. «Can you bring us to this ship?»

*

Damian was right.

The airship was in a state of neglect: where the vessel wasn’t covered with plants, it had developed a dark layer of rust. It was impossible to see the original color or to read the names and the symbols it displayed once. From the size and what they managed to recognize of the shape, it was an old imperial cruiser, got there for some reason. The ship towered over them, as a massive mountain.

The area was inhabited by a large group of monkeys, with shorter limbs than usual, but their muzzles and ears were typical of a cat. One of the effect of the wild magic which permeated the Islands: the more one is exposed to it, the more his shape changes and mixes with those of other living beings.

Maghbel – this was the name of the creature that led them there – pointed at the monkey-cats and then the ship. «They live there. You should offer a gift to make them your friends»

«Food?» asked Kieran.

Maghbel shook her head. «No, they’ve got plenty. Give them something shiny, that draws interest»

The Captain slipped a silver bracelet off his wrist. «Let’s try with this»

Pushed forward by the roots she had on her feet, Maghbel led the pirates to the entrance of the airship. The hatch, left down, made a ramp that brought to the open entrance, but it was swallowed up by the forest. The monkey-cats that strolled about the ship started to follow them and utter shrill cries in their direction. The pirates followed Maghbel’s advice and ignored them cautiously, walking at a slow pace, taking care not to send unintentional signs of challenge.

Arrived at the entrance, the one that had to be the alpha male of the pack loomed up in front of them. A little taller and bigger than the other ones, it stopped at a short distance from the intruders and uttered a low and guttural sound.

The Captain showed the bracelets and came closer to the pack leader. It looked at the thing with prudent interest for some time, until, grasping the jewel, shouted friendly. The monkey-cats relaxed: some began to crowd merrily around them, the others moved away.

Mayweather got closer to Maghbel. «Was it that easy?»

«Just because you’re with me. Let’s enter, but keep caution»

The pack allowed the pirates to explore the ship from top to bottom and examine what was inside it. The wear and tear of time and humidity, unfortunately, had taken the better of it and no piece could be useful anymore. The only thing they managed to recover was the logbook: the airship was send on the island purposely; it was part of a research project about the technology used by the Ancient Peoples, who had understood magic better than anyone else and had infused it in their artifacts. The Empire believed to have located one of their fortresses and had arranged an expedition to take and analyze every instrument or project could be found there.

The Captain’s curiosity stirred up again.

Part I

Part III

Part IV

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Floating Islands – I

A boom shook the entire airship, preceding the announces from the on-board computer.

Warning! Navigation systems damaged. Can’t set a route. Can’t log to the radar and the virtual maps. Helm control settings have been transferred from “Semi-automatic” to “Manual” due to system errors. Helm unlocked. Lower cameras not functioning.

The vessel began to wave and roll without control, pushing some members of the crew from one side to the other of the bridge. A second flurry of cannon shots centered the hull and a tremor spread again through the entire ship.

Stern bridge damaged.

Marion rushed towards the helm, with an effort that seemed superhuman to her. She slipped on the floor in the moment the ship leaned to the right, but managed to clutch the control post and not to crash against a wall.

The helmswoman rose up, swearing, trying to put the Free Spirit back in balance. With a quick jerk she avoided another series of cannon shots coming from the small imperial fleet which was running after them.

Marion activated remote communication and send a message to the stern deck. «Captain, we’re in a bad one»

The captain’s voice came croaky from the control post loudspeakers.

«Everyone understood it»

«What do we do? We can’t cross the Great Route like that!»

«Give me a moment. One… two… farewell!»

Marion turned to watch the back screens. A lightning flashed horizontally in the air, between their ship and an imperial corvette. The high intensity electric current spread through the enemy aircraft shutting down its information systems. Its engines suddenly stopped working.

The men on the bridge held their breaths while the target started slowly losing height, sinking into the clouds.

«I like this stuff» said the Captain. «It’s a shame it needs twenty minutes to recharge»

The functioning cameras showed that the enemies had slowed down, made cautious by the pirates’ sudden display of strength. A pair of other corvettes went down, certainly to aid the ship that was swallowed by the clouds.

A message from the frigate Albatros of the Imperial Navy!

Marion activated again the microphones. «Captain, they sended us a message»

«Ignore it. We’ll bring the weapons to the Rebellion, and no imperial doggie’s gonna stop us. Lead the ship towards the Islands, I’m joinin’ you»

With her heart in her throat, Marion looked at the frontal screens, where the blue sky was interrupted by the infamous Floating Islands. At different heights, chunks of rock and earth levitated into the nothingness, like they had been torn out from the soil and put to hang in the skies by an invisible and unknown hand. The surfaces of the Islands were covered by a thick growth, sign that the man’s hand could never rule that place, nor will it ever. That place was impregnated with magic, wild and unstable, and where it is so strong life is too dangerous for men.

«Are you sure?» murmured the helmswoman, hesitant.

«We haven’t choice. We must shake them off and repair the Free Spirit»

Marion made the airship veer towards the archipelago. From the borders of the Islands overhung plants and bushes as big as a man, of species and varieties unknown to the helmswoman, along with roots of trees that seemed very ancient. Into the green stood out flowers with fleshy petals and big juicy fruits that seemed to emit their own light. In truth, the entire woods that covered the Islands emitted a glow unnatural and bewitching at the same time: different colors were reflected into the atmosphere returning to the Free Spirit‘s screen a rainbow aura that drew the crew’s curiosity and attention.

Captain Mayweather reached the bridge precisely when the airship inserted itself between two islands, entering in the heart of the archipelago. In the back screens, the imperial fleet had stopped, keeping itself at a reasonable distance from the shining mist of the Islands. Mayweather looked at that scene until the fleet disappeared behind the foliage, tiding up the bandana on his head.

«Let’s see if they’re ready to follow us here»

The Free Spirit landed with difficulty on a grassy clearing. The low growth, however, was as high as a man and the crew had to go down there and labor to bring it back to an acceptable height before the ship could finally touch the ground.

They did a complete analysis of their situation. It was impossible to think they could set out again without repairing the navigation instruments and they lacked some necessary spare parts, but at least the hull was still in decent condition and the weapons cargo for the Rebels wasn’t damaged.

«Do what you can» ordered the Captain to the man in charge of the on-board computer. He nodded with the resigned look of a soldier sent to war with poor equipment.

Near the Captain, the airship command waited for instructions.

«I want to explore the island, since we’re here. It’ll be a brief check. Vince, you come with me» said Mayweather pointing to the first officer.

Then he turned to vice-captain Ernst. «You’re in charge until my return»

Two gunners were added to the exploration team, named Damian and Kieran. The four pirates took their weapons and ventured into the wood.

They walked stealthily between the trees, making their way trough high grass and fronds taller than them. Over their heads, a various twittering signaled the presence of fauna, along with a rustling that could not be caused from the wind, which did not enter in there. The air, in fact, was damp and almost still, and in little time the scouts’ shirts were damp with sweat. It was an entire different weather in comparison to the clearing where they had landed, struck by strong cold winds.

About an hour passed since the start of the expedition. It was then that they found the tree.

They encountered it by chance and at the start they didn’t understand clearly what their eyes were watching. The trunk had a great vertical split at the center, the two halves were open like they were a book. But their marvel came from what there was inside it.

It wasn’t easily to distinguish from the rest of the wood, it seemed made of the same material. Following the ivy clinging around her they managed to find the neck, then the chin and the head.

«A statue?» asked Kieran, to himself rather than to someone in particular. This was in fact the first impression the figure embedded in the tree could give: the statue of a woman shaped with the same wood of the tree, so that only a part of the figure came out from the plant. The hips were the point in which the statue became one with the tree.

The group came closer, won by curiosity. A green bark had developed around the statue, like that of a young tree.

The Captain was now at a span from her face, when the woman’s closed eyes trembled.

The eyelids of green wood opened with the same fluidity of the human skin, revealing two dark eyes, like two pools of water containing a yellow twinkle in the center, a far glow that hinted intelligence.

The creature looked at Mayweather with a curious expression.

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.