Dawn split over the horizon like a sword of light renting the dark.
I pressed a hand over my sweaty brow as I watched it.
My face was covered in grit, a few smears of rust-colored mud tracking down my brow and along my neck.
Flicking my hand down my collar to dislodge the muck that had collected there, I tore my gaze off the horizon and pushed down to one knee.
I grabbed at the magnetic tool holster slung over my back, groping hands finally latching on the rotator lock.
“You there yet?” the foreman barked over my communicator.
I clenched my jaw muscles together to activate the communication implant lodged at the top left intersection of my jaw bones.
There was an audible click that ran through my inner ear. “I’m here.”
“Reset the pressure valves now. We can’t afford to lose another pipe.”
“Oh, and the weather network is detecting a sand storm headed your way,” the foreman added as an afterthought. “Hurry.” With that terse statement, he terminated the communication.
I clicked my jaw to power down the com link then pushed forward through the dust. I swiped at it with my bare, calloused hands. My violent moves sent clouds of grit billowing around my face. I ticked my head to the side, held my breath, and waited until the marching wind snatched the sand away.
As I pushed my hands further into the sand bank before me, my rough fingernails finally snagged against something metal.
I bent forward, my sand scarf bunching around my neck as I redoubled my efforts to push back the sand.
Finally I uncovered the pressure sensor. It was encased in a protective metal barrier made of inch-thick duverium, a compound substance so hard you could fire it into the center of a sun, and it would take a full year to melt.
Drawing a lock pen from my back holster, I engaged the tip and drew it across the metal case.
Inside, several locks unclicked, and the metal case opened.
Within it was a pressure sensor, a simple screen surrounded by a semi-circle of manual input controls.
I hunched over the controls, using the bulk of my back to ensure the wind didn’t scatter sand over them.
I worked methodically, checking the pressure sensors, one after another, trying to figure out where the problem was.
The wind began to roar through the valley around me. I glanced up to see it slice off the top of a dune to my left and send a billowing cloud of sand right at me.
I tugged up my sand scarf and covered my mouth, drawing a pair of goggles into place over my eyes. They sealed against my skin with a wet squelch.
“You found the problem yet?” the foreman barked in my ear.
“… I think there’s a problem with one of the secondary sensor arrays.”
“Goddammit,” the foreman spat, adding a few more colorful insults from his own native tongue. “Which array? Where is it?”
I crammed my fingers against the input controls. Now it was my turn to swear. “In the 12th district.”
The foreman sucked in a rattling breath. “Shit, that’s in breaker territory. Goddamn. Goddamn.”
I pushed back, hitting the close button and watching as the sensor pad disappeared back under the inch-thick sheet of metal.
I stood up, turning my back to the growing sand storm. Securing a hand over my scarf and ensuring it protected my mouth, I cleared my throat. “What do you want me to do?”
“Get your ass on your slider and head out to the breaker district. Get that sensor array back online before the breakers find you.” The foreman cut the call off without so much as a goodbye or a good luck.
I snarled, ticked my head to the side, and forced a ragged breath through my bared teeth.
The wind began to roar behind me, sounding like a starving pack of wolves chasing across the sky.
I flicked my gaze up to the once blue sky just in time to see it completely covered by the rusted-brown cloud.
I wasted no more time and trudged towards my slider. It was parked down a rise, and the sand scattered over my thick, well-worn boots as I descended towards it.
The slider was already covered in a mound of sand, and I had to kick it free as I mounted the bike.
Minimal shielding flicked into place around the front of the hover bike. It would take away the brunt of the sand, but it wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to eliminate it completely.
I secured my scarf higher over my mouth, ensured my goggles protected my eyes completely, and gunned the engine.
My bike shot out across the dunes, cutting a deep path through the sand as the downward directional thruster drives sent out waves of churning air.
Sand blasted against the blue shields at the front of the bike, sending arcs of electricity discharging into the air.
It wouldn’t take long to reach the breaker district. It might take longer, however, to get out of it.
As I kept one hand locked on the bike controls, I twisted around in my seat and clutched at the magnetic holster unit slung over my back. Though I often fumbled to secure the correct tool, this time I had no trouble grabbing what I needed.
A level III blaster. Worn, old, and with a hairline fissure running from the muzzle all the way down the barrel. It still worked, though, and that’s all I needed.
A gust of particularly ferocious wind managed to slip past the shield, and it buffeted my scarf from around my face. The fabric half unwound, and flicked out behind me, slamming about in the wind like a wet sheet being punched by an angry mob.
I didn’t bother to grab it and secure it back around my face – it was more important to keep one hand on the bike’s controls and the other on the blaster.
A second later the bike’s rudimentary sensors beeped a hollow warning. It was just audible over the shriek of the wind and the crackle of the shields.
I’d just exited the relatively safe territory of the refinery, and entered the breaker district.
Immediately I cast my wary, quick glance over the sand hills and craggy peaks pushing through the dunes.
My heart quickened, and a cloying sweat slicked my brow and travelled deep between my shoulder blades.
I would have to travel a further 10 minutes before I reached the sensor array.
My skin began to prickle as sweat marched down the back of my neck.
I’d always had a sixth sense for danger. It was the only reason I was still alive. Working in the gas refinery plants of the Argoza sector had taught me how to survive.
So with bare white knuckles wrapped around my blaster, I scanned the sand dunes without blinking once.
I managed to reach the sensor array before I heard the first eerie cries split the air. It was loud enough and punchy enough that it ricocheted over the roar of the wind, sounding like a cruiser screeching into land.
The sensor array was a large metallic tower sunk into the sand. It had a ladder that ran up to the top which was approximately 50 m off the ground. Even under ideal conditions, the ladder was treacherous. The multiple sand storms that ravaged this planet had worn the grips smooth. It would be all too easy to slip off the rungs with sweaty fingers.
Behind me another grating cry cracked through the air.
I began to throw myself up the ladder as fast as I could, jerky legs missing the rungs a few times but never forcing me to fall off completely.
Though fear threatened to climb my back, I pushed it back as I threw myself up the ladder.
I was holding my blaster in my mouth. The first week I’d arrived at this refinery, I’d modified it, adding a rubber ring to the butt which I could hold comfortably between my teeth. It was much quicker to grab the gun from your mouth then to grope it off the magnetic holster at your back.
The wind roared even louder, and it pounded into my back with all the force of 10 men trying to beat me off the tower. It clutched and groped at my clothes, my scarf whipping around and slamming into my back and smarting the flesh beneath.
10 meters. I could see the access ramp above.
Below me, I felt the ladder shake. It was such a violent move, as it travelled up the metal it threatened to pitch me right off.
I wrapped my stiff white fingers around the rungs so tightly I could have wrenched it off the frame.
I threw myself up the remaining 10 meters. But I could feel it behind me. It was faster. Desperate. I heard its shrieking breath even over the thunderous roar of the wind.
Finally. Finally I reached the ramp. I threw myself onto it, the wind catching my scarf in full and tearing it from around my throat. It blasted off into the sandstorm, never to be seen again.
I didn’t bother to try to clutch at it, and instead grabbed the gun from my mouth. Rather than train it on the ladder and wait for the breaker to climb to the top, I skidded around and threw myself towards the control room.
Where there was one breaker, there would be hundreds. My only option was to finish my task, get the hell off this tower, and force my way back into safe territory.
I reached the door into the control room, and slammed my hand on the biometric scanner next to it.
There was a dull beep that meant one thing – it was malfunctioning.
“Fuck you,” I screamed, sucking in a lungful of dust.
I coughed it back as I leaned backwards, brought up my blaster, and shot at the lock. A powerful round of energy sank into the metal, blistering what was left of the paint that hadn’t been scratched off by the sand.
I leant back, brought up my leg, and kicked the lock.
It was a powerful move. Strong. I hadn’t always been strong, but these days I had a reputation amongst the hardened workforce of the refinery. Nobody messed with me. Some of the other guys were big, better trained. None of them ever went as far as me. I couldn’t lose, and to date, I never had.
With one more pitching cry, I kicked the lock.
And it un-clicked.
The heavy duty metal door swung open.
I rounded my shoulder, thrust it into the door, and threw myself inside. I hit the ground, rolled to my feet, and punched towards the bank of control panels on the opposite side of the room.
Above the control consoles was a massive meter-thick viewing window. Not that there was ever much to view on this planet apart from endlessly encroaching storms. Still, it gave me a great view of the swirling dust and sand beyond. It scattered against the heavy duty glass.
My hands flew over the primary control panel as I ran the sensors through a diagnostic.
“Come on, you bastards,” I said through clenched teeth.
I heard something behind me. Most wouldn’t have. Most wouldn’t have been able to discern it above the grating cry of the sand-scattering wind.
I tensed, punching my blaster out behind me and firing at the door before I had even confirmed there was anything there.
My round slammed right into a breaker, sending it pitching back until it fell over the railing outside.
It was then that I saw them marching over the glass.
One, then two, then ten.
They were tall, sinewy creatures with flesh the color of rotting corpses. They had long, distended faces that ended in a pointed snout with two yellow tusks that glistened with perpetually renewed saliva.
They had one movable eyeball that could shift all the way around their head, travelling through their strange, gelatinous, almost water-like skin.
Though I couldn’t hear it now over the wind, I knew the sound well – as they stared at you, their eyes darting around to capture you in full, the movement was always accompanied with a spine-tingling squelch.
The breakers had adhesive paws that could lock onto most substances. They climbed over the window, heading towards the door.
“Goddamn you,” I spat at them as I hunched over the controls, begging my frenzied fingers to work as quickly as they could.
Finally the computer beeped. There was no critical problem with the array. It just had to be reset.
Before I could scream out in relief, I commanded the computer to go through a reset procedure, then I spun towards the door.
Just in time.
The breakers thrust through it and towards me.
I sat in my command seat, deep in the belly of my war cruiser.
The room was closed off to all other crew. Only a member of the Arterian Royal Family could enter this room, and I was the only one on board. Hell, I was the only one in the sector. The rest of my family always stayed safely behind our border. Leaving me alone to track down the Zorv.
As I thought of them, I clutched my chin harder, fingers drawing into the flesh until my nails dragged tracks down my skin.
Suddenly I shifted back violently, banging my shoulders against the headrest, my ice white shoulder-length blond hair scattering around my neck.
I opened my luminescent purple eyes and locked them on the bank of holographic screens that swarmed around me. If it weren’t for my superior intelligence and tracking abilities, I would not be able to pick up the information flowing off them. To an ordinary person, an ordinary alien, it would have simply been a confusing mess of light and sound.
I shifted forward in my seat, locked my elbow on the armrest, and propped my chin in my hand once more.
I stared at the data flowing across the screens. And every second I stared at it, my stomach clenched harder and harder.
There would be no end to this war. There was some powerful force behind the Zorv, there had to be. Though I had mooted that point to the rest of my family on many occasions, they refused to believe me. They kept saying that if I tried harder, that if I fought more bravely, I would soon uproot the Zorv and destroy their uprising.
I suddenly balled up a hand and struck it on the armrest as a true flash of anger swelled in my gut. I clenched my teeth, pared my lips back, and hissed through an expletive.
That’s when a screen on the far end of this blackened room caught my attention. It flicked on, just a burst of light in the darkness like a star being born in the depths of space.
My gaze sliced towards it and I lifted a finger up. It shot towards me, coming to a stop right by my face.
The Zorv were not the only problem I had to worry about. There was an issue of far more importance always playing at the back of my mind. It shadowed my every thought, always coming to the fore when I lay down at night.
My betrothed. I still had not found her. Most of the other members of the Arterian Royal Family had found their betrotheds long ago.
Me, I couldn’t sort her out from the rest of the noise constantly playing in my mind. If I was more powerful, theoretically, I would be able to find her anywhere in the galaxy. Instinctively know where she was. And yet, the most I could manage was this diffuse sense that no matter what I did, I would never find her.
I balled up a hand and struck it on the armrest once more. I felt the power in my muscles, the strength at my fingertips.
It wasn’t enough.
It never had been and never would be.
She strode through the crowded marketplace, purple cloak obscuring her features.
She cracked her neck from side to side, pushing past several alien traders.
As she did, she subtly used her scanner on them, using its sophisticated sensors to not just assess what goods they held, but to steal every scrap of data she could from every one of their devices.
There wasn’t a data encryption method known in the modern universe she couldn’t break.
Or rather, the old Illuminate technology she possessed couldn’t break.
As a member of the Arterian Royal Family she had full access to the royal cache of technology.
It was the Arterian’s edge.
And also, conveniently, the means by which they maintained a stranglehold on power throughout the galaxy. Power he was threatening.
As she thought of him, of his hubris, of his goddamn arrogance, she clenched her teeth so tightly she could feel the muscles in her neck twinge.
She pushed through the crowd harder now, faster, not caring who she had to shove away.
They would all recognize the royal purple and yellow of her cloak, all know what it meant.
To wrong her would be a permanently fatal move.
Suddenly the device around her wrist beeped, and she brought it up, looking at it from under the protection of her cloak.
She’d been through here.
The one who could destroy everything.
The assassin walked faster now, gathering speed as she shoved through the crowd with all the force of a battering ram.
Finally she pushed her way into what looked like a Baryian merchant’s den.
She had to push past several electrified laser sheets.
Primitive security meant to keep intruders at bay. Suffice to say, it had no possibility of working on her.
As soon as her resounding footfall struck the metal floor beyond, several traders lurched for their weapons. Simple blasters and directional pulse rifles.
With one hand behind her back, she clicked a button on her portable fire suppression device.
Static suddenly filled the air as the device kicked into gear.
The closest trader tried to shoot her, a sneer puckering its fat lips.
His gun clicked, but nothing could discharge.
Slowly she tilted her head to the side and smiled. “I suggest you take the talking option.”
“Talking option?” the nearest trader said as he latched a hand on his belt and withdrew a knife.
She didn’t pause as she faced the two remaining traders. Nor did she stay her hand, as she quickly, seamlessly spun forward, clutched the knife, and used it to split the merchant’s throat.
The blow was vicious enough that it almost lopped his head off. He was dead long before he struck the floor.
The other two traders lurched back, eyes opening with pure undiluted fear. She walked towards them, head tilting further to the side, cloak never moving from her face.
She reached them both, and they were smart enough to cower in the corner without foolishly trying to fight her.
She brought her face close to the nearest trader, until she could practically taste his putrid breath. “Where is she?” She began her familiar routine as she plucked the holographic drive from her pocket. She brought it out, thumbed it on, and waited for that perfect hologram to appear.
“Where – is – she?” she labored over every word, pushing her lips around them until they formed with full, punching clarity.
Though the idiotic traders may not be able to appreciate it, she possessed many arcane skills of manipulation.
And right now, she employed them in full.
She continued to stare into the closest trader’s eyes, even though he could not see her own.
“Where – is – she?”
“I… don’t… know…” The trader eventually managed.
She tipped her head all the way to the side until it felt like she’d wrench it off her neck. “I will break you in half if you do not tell the truth.” She put even more effort into snarling out her words. She also put more effort into controlling the man.
But when he stuttered out once more that he didn’t know, she balled up a hand and struck him in frustration.
She struck him once more, and he fell. Unconscious, and unlikely to ever wake again.
She now moved towards the last trader. He was down on his knees, hands pulled over his head, body shaking, practically convulsing with fear. She got down on one knee right next to him. She brought a hand up and brushed the cloying sweat from his brow. Then she brought that same thumb up and licked it. Letting the taste linger on her tongue she smiled. “You’re afraid. You’re right to be afraid. You have everything to fear in me. Everything,” her voice bottomed out low, ringing with a truly ominous note.
The man shook. She suddenly jerked a hand forward, locked it on his shoulder, and pushed him against the wall.
His eyes were so wide she could have scooped them from his skull with a spoon.
“You know where she is. She’s been here. I’ve detected her presence.”
With those wide shuddering eyes he continued to stare at her. She grabbed his head and pushed it down until his eyes locked on the hologram once more.
“Where – is – she?”
“I’ve… never… seen her.”
The assassin hissed with true frustration, and balled up her fist, anger ready to punch from it and tear into the man. But with a deep breath, she barely managed to control herself. “She’s been here. I’ve detected her presence.
Suddenly the man’s desperate gaze tore off her and locked on something at the far end of the room.
Still pushing him against the door with a grip that was impossible to break, she slowly arched her head and let her gaze dart around the room.
There. She could see something.
She pushed to her feet and languidly walked over. She had implants in her eyes, and she detected a familiar electronic signature.
The only person in the entire galaxy with the power to destroy the perfect Arterian Empire.
The assassin bent over, sweeping an arm over the desk to get rid of the mess that covered it.
Finally she saw it.
A goddamn sand scarf. A mere scrap of fabric tied around a blaster gun.
“We… bought it off a refinery worker in the Argoza sector. Nothing more than a blaster. It’s yours. It’s yours,” the trader stuttered, obviously wanting to buy his life by volunteering information.
The Assassin inclined her head towards the merchant. “Argoza sector?”
“A fuel refinery worker. Blaster is yours. Take it.”
“The owner’s not here?” the assassin asked, though she knew the answer.
Anger started to burn in her gut. She’d come this far, but she would still have to crawl further….
“Argoza sector,” the merchant said, gurgling through his words as fear constricted his throat.
Bitter realization sank through the assassin’s gut as she shrieked with anger.
Without even thinking of it, she clutched the gun from her side, spun, and without even locking eyes on the man, shot the trader.
She shrieked, letting her full anger punch from her throat. Then she clutched the scarf and gun and strode from the room.
She would claim that woman’s body and burn it to ashes.
But first, the assassin would have to head to the Argoza sector….
I can’t tell you where I learnt to fight. It just happened. My life had never been an easy one, and destiny had somehow conspired to throw every danger my way since the day I’d been born.
I had always fended for myself. Belonging to a lower class of the socio-economic strata, there was no one I could rely on but myself.
If I wanted to live, I had to fight.
So I fought.
As the breakers kept throwing themselves at me, in a swarm of teeth and tusks and claws, I used every weapon at hand. At one point I even locked my blaster on a section of the door, blew it off, and used it as a ramp to push several breakers right over the edge of the rails.
I didn’t wait to hear their bodies crash below, because in all likelihood, they wouldn’t. The breakers didn’t just have an advantage in numbers, but they were some of the hardiest enemies I’d ever fought. They could latch those suckers on the ends of their hands and feet onto most surfaces. Sure enough, far below, down the base of the tower, I heard more rattling thumps as the breakers latched onto it. They, like the rest of their kind, would power up the side of the tower to join the fight.
I knew I had one option. Get out of here, get on my bike, and get back to the facility.
Though the breakers would give chase, they would not pass the border and back into the primary facility grounds. They weren’t that stupid. The perimeter was protected by ion pulse cannons that could easily isolate the breakers and pick them off through the sand. Why the facility engineers didn’t build more ion cannons this far out, had to do with one simple fact – it wasn’t worth the money. Losing the occasional refinery worker in breaker territory was much cheaper than building and maintaining sophisticated weaponry.
I swung to the side just as a breaker pushed itself through the door, bolted towards me, and stretched its yellow, glistening tusks towards my face. The tusks were not simply lodged in its jaw, but rather could protrude on stalks.
It meant the breakers could use them like nunchucks. They could swing them around, the perilously sharp tusks flying about their face and slamming into their prey with deadly force.
I dodged to the side just as a tusk whistled past my ear, slammed into the meter thick glass behind me, and sent hairline fissures cracking over it.
My foreman would not be pleased if I trashed the sensor array. So I did an impossibly brave, if extremely stupid thing, rounded my shoulder, and thrust towards the door, firing with my blaster as I screamed with an ear-piercing pitch.
My blaster caught several breakers just as they were pushing over the rails alongside, and my shoulder caught one more just before it could release its tusks and slice across my throat.
I let out another shriek for good measure, then powered forward towards the ladder.
This would undoubtedly be the most dangerous part of my plan. For it would leave me very exposed.
I actually had no other choice.
So I thrust forward, firing at a breaker just as it popped its head above the railing. My blaster bullet sailed over its shoulder, taking out a chunk of its neck. The thing managed one final shriek until its suckers detached and it fell back into the ever-growing dust storm.
I jerked my head up for a fraction of a second and stared at the sandstorm. It roared around me, clutching and grasping at my clothes as if it wanted to pull me apart.
I pushed forward, reached the ladder, and clutched my hands on it. Then I began the truly perilous journey down.
My mind became a blur, of action, of desperation, and of grit.
Fortunately my blaster didn’t cut out. It was my own personal weapon, and I looked after it as if it were a child. Every night I pulled it apart and lovingly cleaned the sand from its innards. Almost every scrap of spare change I had, I worked on improvements. Because there was no point in earning money if I’d never be able to use it. And down here, your weapon was almost as important as your food rations.
My first day on this godawful refinery planet, I’d had to sell a blaster and scarf to a Baryian trader to buy my uniform. The second I’d scrounged enough money, I’d bought another and treasured and preserved it as if it was my own child.
So I had supreme trust in my blaster as it fired off white-blue rounds into the swirling rust-colored sand.
As I desperately threw myself down the ladder, it happened again.
… I entered some kind of zone. Some peculiar realm where my body almost felt as if it were being controlled by an external hand, some ethereal force that reached in and told me where to fire. There was something uncannily accurate about each one of my shots.
I didn’t think about it. Just went with it. Let my body do what it knew best, until finally, finally I reached the base of the tower. At first I couldn’t believe it when the ladder below cut out – it wasn’t as if I could see the ground below through the storm. But then I took a leap of faith, let go of the rungs, and a second later, landed in the sand, rolling and punching to my feet immediately.
Somehow I still knew where my bike was, even though every landmark was totally obscured by the sand.
I pitched towards it, shooting two more breakers, until finally I threw myself astride.
Then I activated the engine. Or at least I tried to. For several terrifying seconds, it refused to start. The engine made some truly unwelcome clicking noises.
“No you don’t, you bastard,” I screamed, voice screeching through the broiling, pitching storm.
I balled up my hand and struck it into the control panel. Once, twice, then three times.
Just as a breaker bolted towards me, its glistening tusks snaking into my peripheral vision, the bike gunned to life, and I shot forward. The breaker missed me by mere millimeters.
I hunched over the controls, keeping the blaster in one hand, and firing off in every direction. To an untrained eye it would simply look as if I were laying down covering fire, and yet what should have been potshots into the dark were not. Every bullet found its mark.
Because that force – that force that told me how to fight, that told me where to turn – it was still controlling me, still keeping me safe.
And it shadowed me, protecting my every movement until finally I made it back into safe territory.
The rest of Shattered Destiny Episode One is available from most ebook retailers.