It’s the future, and Earth is devastated by endless droughts. In an effort to reverse the destruction and restore balance to life on the planet, the Algore Corporation is formed by a pact between governments and launches a colonization program on three terrestrial planets in nearby star systems. The colonists on the planet Cendra are nearing the end of their first twenty-year settlement cycle, but they have a serious problem. Cendra has been invaded by a hostile race called the Paq’ill intent on using their resources and enslaving them. The beleaguered colonists who manage to evade the repeated raids are forced underground. A lone survivalist, a girl who’s half human, half Paq’ill, and should never have lived past birth because of it, comes across a warrior-trained colonist caught by the invaders and left to die in her desert hideout. Can the two unlikely allies convince the scattered humans to join forces and become the ones who conquer?
Warning. Assault scene, potential trigger.
72-hours earlier, Earth calendar Sunday morning
This was Marcus’s favorite part of the day on this small transport vessel, when his brothers were asleep, and he was allowed a six-hour watch at the helm. It only happened once in a 24-hour cycle, and he took advantage of the precious time to himself.
After four years of training and two years of space travel away from Earth, the star system they were aiming for was finally visible on the screen, meaning they had only days before reaching Cendra and the colony, and Marcus was antsy. He and his brothers had learned a lot during the flight and observed many amazing things, but he was ready for a change in routine.
His eyes moved over the instrument panels. Even though nothing exciting had happened during his watch in the last three months, his senses were attuned to potential alerts thanks to his intensive training. When they landed on the small half orange and half blue circle orbiting Onthar, Marcus wondered for the millionth time what it would be like to set foot on another planet.
Satisfied all was well, he reclined with his coffee and observed the stunning galaxy through the viewport. It wasn’t long before the blackness of space gave way to bright sun as he let his mind travel home, and he could feel the Wyoming breeze on his skin as it blew across the prairie grass blanketing the back forty of his family’s ranch.
The air was fragrant with the scent of wildflowers and the lake behind him as he perched atop his roan stallion, Comet. The jagged teeth of the Grand Tetons framed the horizon. Because it was a scene he’d conjured so many times since leaving Earth, he waited for another form to take shape in the distance and smiled when it drew rapidly nearer to reveal a buckskin horse and rider. Familiar pigtails flapped behind the blond head of his nine-year old sister, Melanie.
She always found him, no matter how many ways he snuck out of the barn. He was never annoyed though because after a brief time to himself, he liked it when she joined him on a ride. Her grin of triumph was infectious, and gleeful laughter floated to him as she reined in her spirited horse, Cassiopeia, and sidled close. The mare settled easily next to her equine brother, like always.
The horses touched noses in greeting as Melanie’s sweet high voice further disrupted the quiet morning. “You think you’re clever sneaking away on Comet, but you always come here, Marcus. You must not mind me finding you.”
He sighed. “At least I get some peace for the first twenty minutes.” He reached over and tugged hard on her braid and though she swatted his hand away, he knew she would be disappointed if he hadn’t given her his habitual hello.
She snorted, and said, “You should be glad then that I took time to check on the kittens.”
“Let’s find Dad and the boys,” he said as he laughed. “I think they’re working on the south fence today.”
As expected, his sister nudged Cassie’s flanks and was away before he finished speaking. He did the same to his horse, who might be calm but wasn’t named Comet for nothing.
They were soon neck and neck and continued that way until he edged past her just before they reached the ranch fencing and spotted three male backs hunched over shiny new barbed wire as they stretched it between posts. Three identical dark heads turned their way, and his brothers grinned while their father kept his face stoic.
Then John Mackenzie said, “Well, don’t just sit there, boy. Get down here and put your back into it.” Marcus never said no to a challenge and was glad he brought his leather gloves. He dismounted, handed the reins to his sister, and donned them.
His father turned to Melanie. “I hope you made yourself useful and brought us more water.”
Just like their mother, she refused to let his dour tone dampen her spirits, and she laughed and said, “Of course, father.” Marcus caught the answering sparkle in his father’s eye.
There hadn’t been much left to do on the fence work, so he and his sister got in a long ride that day. One of their best… and their last.
He finished his coffee as he lingered over the memory. That was the summer before the droughts followed one after the other across the planet until everything the Makenzie’s had built for two hundred and fifty years went to seed. He and his sister were forced to grow up fast, starting with the day they had to give up Comet and Cassiopeia.
Their father left them next when it became critical to find work. After the first year of updates, money, and promises to return home, he contacted them less and less, and the money eventually stopped coming. While the family struggled to keep things going, they, along with the rest of the world, learned about the formation of the Algore corporation by a pact between governments to pool resources in a belated attempt to restore the flailing planet.
Even more shocking to the world was Algore’s announcement that successful space travel had resulted in the discovery of three nearby star systems with potentially habitable planets, making terraforming and colonization its top priority. The governments all agreed that Earth needed to be depopulated before recovery was possible. The corporation found a way to achieve that and to generate critical resources at the same time.
Twenty years after the first team set out, the Mackenzie brothers gave up the search for their father, entered the Algore Planetary Annexation Academy, and focused on their future. Before they knew it, they were saying goodbye to their mother and sister and leaving their home planet with a plan to return in ten years, hopefully with enough money to recover their own lost homestead and find their family waiting for them.
The comm flashed. It was a message, but Marcus had to work to pull up the fractured bits on the screen. The only thing that was clear was the warning symbol across the header. Then a word started repeating. “Paq’ill.”
He was going to have to wake his brothers.
Present time, just before noon, Earth Calendar Thursday – The Planet Cendra
N’grell crouched in the shade of the two-story compactor as it paused to chomp on its sad contents like the knobby jaws of a Dwiredre beast that dwelled in the caves of the northern fjords.
She didn’t need her imagination to make that comparison. It was common knowledge that the shy, horned giants of the snow-covered north and this machine in the desert south shared the same diet of flesh and bones. Both beasts were equally efficient scavengers serving to rid the environment of waste. And these days, that meant consuming colonists left to rot by the invaders who murdered them.
It had been a quiet morning, other than the sounds from her slow-moving shelter, but now she listened in dismay to an approaching patrol craft, then watched as it landed a hundred yards away. Two Paq’ill raiders exited the compact flier, pulling with them three bound and barely clothed humans, bleeding out from the wounds that had subdued them.
The towering blue men paid no attention to the machine because they expected it to be there, but N’grell knew better than to move from its shadow, or their sharp reptilian eyes would snap right to her.
A scene unfolded that she was helpless to do anything about, one she’d witnessed too many times since choosing to live in the Paq’ill dumping grounds, a desert once pristine and beautiful that the humans ironically named Death Valley after a place on their home planet. The raiders hauled their unresisting captives away from the twirling rotary blades, then pushed them to their knees. Faint whimpers traveled to her hiding spot, otherwise it was clear the humans were past begging for their lives.
The two women knelt in the burning sand and watched in horror as their male companion was set upon first. One warrior mounted him, then the other, neither of them bothering to drop their britches. The Paq’ill uniforms were designed for a quick coupling because they engaged in it as often as they consumed food. The terror on the women’s faces was the hardest to witness because they knew they were next and that a slow death in the desert would follow.
The barbaric warriors had no issue with making noise even if their victims were silent in their hopelessness, and their bellows of triumph thundered across the desert as the human male collapsed motionless after their violent assault. Everything about the Paq’ills was huge, and they used their size viciously.
The colonists had discovered the hard way that it was territorial conquest driving them to abuse both sexes, but the Paq’ill were extremely virile creatures, and the acts the two carried out on the women were much more deliberate. One woman remained stoic. The other passed out halfway through.
When N’grell witnessed such things, she tried not to think about her own conception, what her mother must have suffered, and she understood fully why the colonists often took their own lives before being taken by the ruthless invaders. The medics had formulated a pill to make it easy. These three must be new arrivals, or they would have gone that route.
It wasn’t the first time N’grell wished she had training as a sharpshooter, and she promised herself the day would come to dare a trade for a blaster. She’d been close on her last visit to the hidden market under Mount Tandell, but she’d known it would take more than she had at the time because few colonists possessed the deadlier Paq’ill weapons and were reluctant to give them up.
If she ever got a hold of one, she would have no problem blasting the scaly beasts right between their cold silvery eyes, and there was one in particular N’grell would dearly love to laser full of holes. She clenched her jaw. Wishful thinking was useless.
The raiders ended their victims’ suffering with a blaster bolt through each heart, a mercy they inexplicably provided on occasion. Otherwise, they preferred to prolong it by leaving them in the desert. It didn’t take long for the damaged humans to die under the heat of Onthar without water.
There were a few instances when N’grell tried to offer help if she was close enough to get to them, more than willing to share food and water. But she only ended up scaring the incoherent victims with her appearance and prolonging their suffering with her lack of resources. The inevitable failure tore her up every time.
Once, one of the poor souls begged her to end his suffering. She’d agonized over it for twenty minutes after hydrating him, then gave into his plea for mercy. She’d learned he’d been a slave for years before they ended his life so callously, dumping him like a piece of garbage. His pain filled eyes, emptying of life while she held his hand, still tormented her.
It was guilt that roiled through N’grell’s insides this time at the relief from not having to worry about saving anyone today.
The raiders adjusted their uniforms, pumped the air with their weapons and called out to the desert in satisfaction and triumph a last time. Except for the hum of her motorized shelter, an eerie silence filled the desert after they were gone.
She honored the three lives by prolonging the silence, then put the tragedy from her mind and went about her business, doing her own scavenging like the machine that offered her its shadow.
As her own sharp eyes scouted the remains sprawled across her path, she indulged in the irony that these colonists would have argued when they were alive that she was worse than the machine that composted them because she scavenged their carcasses for valuables, picking through the bodies before the compactor scooped them into its maw. It was a philosophical argument she had with herself often, but it didn’t bother her much anymore. It was simply survival.
Her days were spent stuffing clothes, shoes, and chrono bands into her camo bag; pulling rings off fingers and even gold from teeth, though the precious metal was extremely rare. Sometimes she retrieved heirloom pieces, which she stored in the hopes of returning such items to the victims’ families. And it wasn’t just bodies she scavenged. The claw bucket under the patrol craft that brought the dead ones here, often picked up tools, weapons, or mechanical parts along with the victims. The Paq’ill never seemed to care what they gave up to the desert.
When she wasn’t busy collecting or hunting food, she was trading carefully selected treasures for supplies. Except for the gold. That she stashed in a secret place. She’d learned as a child that it might buy her transportation off the planet. She knew her chances were slim, but there was no future in this place, and she couldn’t see herself living in her compactor forever. So, she dreamed of the day her life might change. It didn’t have to be a change for the better. Any change would do.
She sighed. Today was not that day, and on that thought, she took a moderate swig from her water, tucked it under the folds of her cloth and tugged a heavy covering over her already covered face. She settled her protective goggles over the top of both, then stepped away from the shadows of the only shelter within miles.
She kept her ears open and eyes scanning the terrain for signs of life or more patrols as she picked her way through the desert graveyard. But Onthar was near its peak, which it maintained for a good portion of the day, and not even a fire rat made an appearance. The desert rodents knew better than to be out in this heat.
It was nerve-wracking each time she exposed herself and left the comforting noise of the whirring servos and the banging, grinding, and thumping, as it carried out its grisly task. It was moving shade and her own fortress after all.
Though its purpose was still a mystery as it traveled in an ever-widening circle over the desert floor, she was familiar with every inch of the six-and-a-half-meter square contraption, having equipped it to be her home, sheltering in it as it whirred methodically across the desert, even learning to fix it when it had mechanical issues.
From her experience, it seemed to operate completely on its own using the composted humans for fuel. But it wasn’t just humans it harvested. N’grell’s best guess was that they were only a byproduct as it hunted for minerals. Every so often it would leave a two-meter deposit behind. She never went back to learn if anyone retrieved the pile because there was too much on the path ahead requiring her attention, and what was behind them was in the past.
The giant machine had no communication equipment, and she suspected that if it quit, it would simply be left where it stopped, becoming derelict.
A shadow flitted across the rays of Onthar, followed by a high-pitched screech, and N’grell smiled. Even with her goggles she had to shade her face with her hand as she looked at the sky and reached out her other arm. A bird of prey forty centimeters tall landed with familiarity, shook its wings, tucked them in, then cocked its bronze-feathered head. A beautiful bronze eye several shades lighter than the feathers peered at her covered face.
After offering the bird water, she gave it her words. “Chadra. You always know when I need someone to talk to. Did you witness the latest atrocities from on high?” A deeper light flashed across the brilliant orb then the bird settled into stillness to peer at her, which meant he was telling her something.
He launched into the air and spiraled several times, his black tail feathers split into two lengths like swords trailing behind him. Each turn he made in the brilliant sky urged her to head towards the east.
After some time easing her way through the bones and rotting flesh, N’grell halted when she noticed Chadra circling over one spot. Sure enough, a flash of smooth shiny fabric caught her eye. Could that poor soul under the heap be sporting a colonial jacket? Most didn’t make it to the dumping grounds with many clothes, let alone top layers of sturdy warm material. It had to be the remains of another new arrival. Though she usually avoided the fresh ones, the jacket was too valuable to pass up.
She swallowed down the repugnance for what she was about to do and made a plea to her mother’s god. “Please forgive me.” The smell hit her despite her face covering. “Ugh.”
As she drew closer, it became apparent that two human males were piled together in that horrible fresh stage of decomposition. They must have been brought from the dark side and dumped here in the middle of the night. Grimacing at the charbug larvae already writhing around a deep hole in the back of the body on top, she held onto her determination and moved the stiff limbs to get a better look.
Those laser blasters were a bitch. For all the Paq’ill’s fearsome reputation, they really were cowards, shooting their victims in the back. The poor man had a death grip on the body underneath, but she managed to clear a path. She reached for the gleaming fabric. The jacket moved.
N’grell stifled a shriek as a hand grasped her wrist.
55 hours earlier, Earth calendar Monday evening – on board the colonial transport
Marcus pulled his dinner from the sim bank and took his seat across from his brothers. He refused to pick at the lump on his plate and instead pretended it was the juicy steak he’d selected for replication.
The crappy machine hadn’t gotten one request right since they left the San-Lin stopover, which was a year ago, no matter how many times he took it apart to fix it, but he wasn’t going to let it win. At least this time it was hot, and it smelled a little like beef. Mostly, it was nutrition.
He stared at it, braced himself, then dug in with gusto as Jack, the oldest of the three of them, and their commander, reported the latest while he picked through his own mysterious pile that loosely resembled spaghetti and meatballs. “We still haven’t received any communication from the surface. It’s more than a jammed signal, which would be alarming enough, but other indications are that no one is manning the communications tower. How long this has been going on is hard to determine.
“As you know, we passed our turnaround point at the last jump, so we need to stay on course. The two transports ahead of us have also gone silent, but they must have landed by now. We haven’t been able to decipher the entire beacon, but the word, Paq’ill, gave Mason enough to dig for information.”
The gooey lump turned gooier as it stuck in Marcus’s throat, so he swigged his simulated beer. It was too warm, but it helped, then he piped in. “So, what do we know?” Their grim faces didn’t bode well.
Mason said, “As you determined, Marcus, the looped communication is patchy and that’s because it was literally jerry-rigged to make it through a damaged communications tower. But I picked up enough, and what I learned isn’t good. In summary, they’re a race who thrive on raiding colonized worlds, taking advantage of the work already done, and refusing to live peaceably. Instead, they plunder the colonists’ resources and occupy themselves with hunting them for sport, then enslaving them, or worse.”
Marcus tipped back the rest of his beer, which forced the last bite of steak glop down his gullet, pushed back his plate, and said ruefully, “The only thing worse than being prey or slaves is death. Sounds like a delightful race. Do we know anything else about them, what they look like, their strengths, weaknesses?”
Jack said, “Other scant reports were pieced together by the computer and if the conclusions are accurate, only males make up the raiding parties that are launched from a space barge they call home, and they might be humanoid and seven feet tall, which should add up to make for an equally delightful welcome party. We will assume these hostile aliens will be waiting for us because it’s the only explanation for the old message and no new ones since.”
His blue eyes pinned Marcus with a look that always reminded him of their mother, the one she got when she couldn’t help thinking of him as her baby, no matter what age he reached, or that he had a younger sister. He was still her youngest boy.
Jack even sounded like her at her most stern when he added, “You still have your seventh level of combat to complete. We knew it wouldn’t happen before arriving, but you will practice with Reggie until we land, with only four-hour rest periods. We touch down on the dark side of Cendra on Wednesday, two hours before dawn.”
Marcus turned to Mason and sighed when he met the same concern in equally blue eyes, and he nodded to them both because it was no use telling them he was ready. He could never be ready enough for these two. It didn’t matter that Marcus was twenty-six. Jack was eight years older and would always be a surrogate father, which was as important to him as being their commander, and Mason, three years younger than Jack, was second in command. They were his superiors, but more importantly and forever, his big brothers.
Affection for them welled up, catching him off guard. He cleared his throat, then stood with his empty dishes. “I’m on my way to Reggie. You know I love training, and now I have an enemy to prepare for.”
Everything on their small ship needed to serve more than one purpose and Marcus headed to the cargo hold where Reggie and Mason’s research station coexisted with the supplies they were bringing, including medicines and weapons, though now Marcus worried the latter would get into the wrong hands. Of course, that was a risk they had prepared for, which is why the weapons were in a secret hold disguised as mundane supplies.
Mason walked with him, quietly at first, then he spoke. “I’ll add my two cents to Jack’s. Though you still have a level to complete before becoming a full-fledged warrior, you’re already an excellent fighter, Marcus, a natural, probably better than me, or Jack. Still, I have a bad feeling about what we’ll find when we land. Your skills are superb, but you lack experience.
“You’re also a good student, so I will only say this one time regarding what we might find at the end of this god-awful long journey. Do not act the hero. Let your training take over. If the three of us are threatened and you have an opportunity to get away, take it. Don’t look back. You can always return for us so long as you survive.”
Marcus’s shoulders stiffened with foreboding, but he shrugged it off and faced his brother. “There won’t be much point in surviving without you two.”
Mason laid his hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “Remember, Jack and I will be doing the same. We’ll find each other again. And if only one of us returns to Mom and Melanie, it will make all the difference.”
“Melanie would never forgive us if we didn’t all come home.”
He thought back to the last time he saw his sister. The only reason Melanie wasn’t with them on this ship was that none of them wanted to leave their mother completely alone. So, she’d given up the Academy and stuck with her plan to become a veterinarian.
Still, she hardly spoke to them for months before they embarked, and only showed up at the last minute to join Mom, who stood behind the rope, tears pooling in her eyes but never dropping. The two of them looked nearly identical in their stiff-lipped goodbyes, chins trembling.
Though Melanie never said a word, her green eyes told Marcus everything he needed to know as she watched her brothers board the transport. He nodded to her and mouthed their code words, “Strawberry Pond.” She nodded back, acknowledging their promise to each other. They would meet there in ten years.
Mason said, “I wouldn’t put it past her to come after us. Did you know she was entering the Academy when we left?”
Marcus came to a dead stop. “That explains a lot. Dammit, Mason. I should have known.”
“Well, she better not try such a hair-brained thing, considering the threat we might be facing. But threats like these are why the Academy has increased the military component. Our little sister will probably end up more badass than us. Now, I want to see Reggie’s CPU belching smoke when you’re through with him tonight.” He slapped Marcus upside the head and Marcus playfully fended him off, then left him to his research.
Marcus had no problem spending the night with the hollo warrior and his sword. It had been his calling since he was a kid, as natural to him as breathing, like Mason said.
He thought about the likelihood of meeting hostility when they landed and was grateful the corporation had stepped up the battle training. Reggie was top of the line in warfare simulation. Colonizing had basically become a thrill sport, and those who chose the lucrative occupation did so at significant risk. It was a risk the family had decided on, despite the devastation of being split up for so many years, because it was the only chance the Mackenzies, and their ranch, had to thrive once again.
He shook his head. If Melanie did follow them, that chance would be significantly slimmer. But there was nothing he could do about his sister’s choices out here, so he shrugged off his worries and punched in his battle sequence.
In addition to swords, he faced Reggie with a variety of knives and six different firearms. Then they went weaponless as they hammered each other with ju-jitsu moves. Reggie might be a hologram, but he could manifest solid objects that punished Marcus as much as Marcus punished his wispy warrior friend.
When they were finished and both still standing, though Marcus felt every bruise, he bowed respectfully to Reggie who bowed back. Marcus’s brow creased when Reggie gave him an odd sentient look no hologram should have, before winking out of existence.