Clalls walked into the captain’s meeting with his head held high, feeling rather satisfied with himself. They had transferred the latest lead communications officer, so now, he was at the top.
The male had not been happy when Clalls was hired, and so he had to play it casual until his commanding officer relaxed enough for Clalls to play his game.
The game: to remove the competition.
Two years later, Clalls’ predecessor was transferred to another destination thinking he was the clever one, really, it was all Clalls. He’d put out the bait a year ago. Pushed the idea of more money for less work. Focused on how planet jobs were better for making connections.
Lie after lie.
Captain Mosel had issued a request for a joint meeting and had invited Clalls because every staff meeting included the head of each division.
When Clalls walked in, the captain was standing with his shoulders back and his perfectly pristine white Federation jacket on. Clalls pursed his lips at the show of superiority. The male’s rank was clear on his shoulder, polished and sparkling. The garment was a power play because there was no other reason to wear a coat while in a temperature-controlled vessel.
Taking the seat near the center of an oblong table gave Clalls a good view of everyone who attended. It also put him directly across from the first mate, a Bolark by the name of Trenz. The male was older than Clalls but looked younger. Clalls knew the Bolark took pills for his scaly skin to keep him looking young. He also knew that Trenz had propositioned Vivra.
Clalls was pleased to have been silently lurking in the hallway as Vivra told Trenz what a scumbag he was to offer a liaison when he was married. Then, she made sure that he understood that even if he weren’t married, she would never touch him. She thought him the lowest Bolark trash in the Federation. She’d said that he climbed to his rank because of his family; he hadn’t earned even one second of it.
That was the day Clalls had decided he liked his cabin neighbor.
The Bolark had no idea that he’d recorded the whole thing either…you know, just in case.
“I think we can get started,” the captain said after clearing his throat. He remained seated as he began. “I have been contacted by Admiral Armsono to respond to an illness that is causing Eldon some trouble. I have notified the helmsman, and he has already diverted course. We will no longer be monitoring the division line of the Federation and the OutWorlds.”
Trenz sat forward. “What’s the illness?”
Captain Mosel shrugged. “I wasn’t given much information, just that the planet has declared a planet-wide emergency. They are requesting help from the Federation.”
Clalls wanted to capitalize on Mosel’s lack of intel. “So, this is an outbreak of some kind?”
Mosel looked at him sternly. “We don’t know what it is until we get more information. I had a video call with one of the planet leaders, and he’s asking for us to help with medical protocols.”
Clalls wanted to ask more but the first mate cut in. “Should we contact a medical ship to assist?”
Mosel tapped the table. “We have the resources to do everything. We have a large weapons and tactical response team that can help with anything, so we don’t need medical to help keep sick people from the healthy. And we have plenty of supplies, so I doubt it will be necessary.”
Trenz nodded in agreement.
Commander Ganne, a Yunkin and the head of the weapons and tactical division spoke next. “I can have twenty teams of one hundred ready when we orbit-dock with the planet. I will brief all my guys to wear hazardous material suits.”
“I will contact the leader again and see where he’d like us to deploy the first round of help,” Mosel said.
Clalls didn’t like waiting for the information to trickle down. The captain didn’t necessarily trust him, so Clalls had to find the information himself. Which was why he was waiting impatiently for the meeting to end so he could contact Edda and find out what was really going on. She was a communications officer stationed on Eldon. He may have lied about the information he had on her, but he was willing to do what it took to get the answers he wanted. Even blackmail.
He was motivated like that.
“If this illness has gotten out of hand, that probably means it’s airborne,” the Yunkin doctor said, rubbing his mouth. Looking at Ganne, the weapons and tactical response commander he said, “Make sure to use ventilators and take oxygen tanks.”
The doctor continued. “I’m sure whatever it is, it’s from another planet that someone brought in. When you talk to the leaders, see if they can give you any information on where the illness started. That way, we can back-track and research the incoming ships to see where they came from. I will look over my inventory, but I should have antivirals and antibacterials for all known illnesses across the galaxy.”
The captain was looking even more pleased. “Good, good. You check those, and I will find out what I can.” He looked around the room, waiting for any other comments. When no one said anything, he smiled. “All right, then this meeting is adjourned. I will contact everyone again if something comes up.”
The team stood up and respectfully nodded to the captain as they exited.
Clalls didn’t nod in respect, he was too busy pulling out his Minky pad and typing a quantum message to Edda. He was in the elevator when he finished, pushed send, and stuffed the Minky back into his pocket.
“I noticed you didn’t offer to help with anything, Clalls,” Trenz, the first mate said, looking at the door instead of at him as he and the W&T commander entered the elevator. Clalls never liked when people talked at him. He especially hated when higher-ranking officers didn’t look him in the eye.
Yes, he had teeth that were long and thick and scared the piss out of most children and delicate-minded females, but he still expected that when someone addressed him—or scolded him, as in this case—they would have the decency to speak directly to him.
Clalls peered over and stared at the male for a few seconds, waiting until he saw something akin to discomfort before answering. “My job is communications. If the captain chooses to communicate with the planet’s leaders on his own, then who am I to take that away from him?”
“You know, you could help with more than what your job description details. It’s called being honorable,” said Ganne. The Yunkin was looking at him, but since he was so much taller, it was irritating to have to peer up at the racist snob.
Clalls smiled. The expression was empty, and he hoped a little scathing. He resented the Yunkin accusing him of being dishonorable. Not that he was exactly honorable, he’d never admit to that, but to be told that he wasn’t doing his job…that was crossing a line.
Clalls didn’t have to look at the Bolark to know the snicker was from him.
Clalls hated being laughed at.
It seemed like a perfect time to remind them who he was. Pulling the Minky pad from his pocket, he located an audio file and hit play.
The first mate’s voice echoed from the Minky. “You’re lucky I’m even offering a liaison. With your record, you know that no respectable male would ever come near you. You’ve been black-labeled all over the planet.”
Then Vivra’s voice responded. “I have been blacked-labeled. You’re right, but you obviously didn’t look to find out why. It’s because of ugly scum-suckers like you, who think your rank is impressive enough to allow a liaison with beautiful females like me. But you can’t, and you never will because I’d rather blitz a Red Demon before I ever let your dry, flaky scales touch me. Oh…and I will be sending a message to your wife. She deserves to know you’re a bastard.”
At that point in the audio, Trenz lunged for Clalls. The action caused the weapons and tactical response commander to laugh out loud, not bothering to censor his amusement.
“You little tarq!” Trenz hissed, reaching around Clalls for the Minky pad in his hand.
“How dare you try and blackmail me?”
“Blackmail?” Clalls dodged the next lunge and pushed the W&T commander in the way of the Bolark’s attack. “I don’t remember asking for anything.”
Trenz reached around the commander and grabbed Clalls’ shirt, yanking it so hard it ripped. “You are the most annoying Demon I’ve ever known. And you will give me that audio.”
“I wonder what the captain would think if he heard this?” Clalls mused, shaking the pad right outside the Bolark’s reach.
“That’s enough,” Ganne said. “Delete the audio.”
The order from the weapons and tactical commander made Trenz smirk. “Yes. I’m ordering you to delete the audio.”
Clalls almost laughed at the absurdity of the directive. It was a part of the honor code, and both males in the elevator should have known that. “Sure, I can delete, it’s not like it’s the only piece of damaging evidence I have.” Then, just to bring home his point, he looked at the weapons and tactical commander and said, “That goes for you, too. I know about Heppa.”
The archives showed that the commander had flat out lied to Heppa’s family admitting to have being sick, which prohibiting him from returning to Yunkin for a arranged marriage. Ganne found an excuse every time. Clalls wasn’t sure if his family knew about Ganne’s frequent bed partners either, but he was willing to press the issue. That’s what made secrets so powerful.
The Yunkin was so quick, Clalls didn’t even see him move. The commander wrapped Clalls’ neck in a tight hold and lifted him until his feet dangled in the air.
A miscalculation on Clalls’ part. He didn’t think the Yunkin would respond so violently.
Between gritted teeth, Ganne started, “I will—”
The elevator pinged seconds before the heavy, metal doors slid back. Standing tall and imposing on the other side was none other than the indomitable Bolark female, Vivra.
Shoulders square, eyes alert, an expression devoid of amusement on her face. Stunning. And then she caught the first mate’s eye, held his gaze, and said aloud, “I’ll take the next one.”
The first mate’s nose turned up into the air, and his bony chest pressed forward as he walked out stiffly. His shoulder barely missed Vivra’s, but she didn’t so much as flinch when he walked past.
“Tarq,” the first mate hissed once he passed, but he’d said it loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Vivra didn’t act as if she heard. She just stepped into the elevator and peered over at Clalls, narrowing her eyes on the hand still wrapped around his throat. Then she snorted and acted like it was perfectly normal.
She pushed the level she needed to go to and waited for the doors to close.
Clalls finally looked up at the W&T commander. The male’s mouth was slightly ajar as he looked between Clalls and Vivra, then he suddenly seemed to remember that he was holding Clalls’ neck. The commander cleared his throat.
“I don’t normally choke the crew, but Officer Clalls was being—”
Vivra turned to the commander and slowly looked him up and down. “Don’t bother justifying yourself on my account. Clalls isn’t one of my favorite people either.”
Clalls couldn’t help but laugh quietly to himself. He had to respect her ability to hold a grudge for so long. It really was a thing of beauty. If she were a Demon, she would certainly be a Night Demon. They had way too much in common.
Vivra turned back to the door, ignoring Clalls’ amusement. She also didn’t bother addressing him. When the door opened for level six where medical, hydroponics, aquaponics and logistics, he decided to get off too, knowing this was her floor. He moved to get out first, then smiled his big, toothy grin that most were terrified of. Vivra never seemed to look at him with fear, though. He held out his hand. “After you, of course.”
“I’d decline, but I don’t want to be stuck behind you and your Demon stench. Plus, I just ate. I’d like to keep it down,” Vivra said dismissively.
She moved smoothly through the doorway like a snake and then sauntered away. Behind him, Clalls heard the other Ganne snickering. They thought she had dismissed him and hated his guts. But he didn’t think that. That was just her way. She was cold and sharp with everyone. But he was quick to notice that in all the time they had been on the ship, she’d never criticized his work. Which meant, she knew that he was the best.
Clalls followed her out the door and towards her division room. When she stopped to look back, he smirked. She knew he was following. But she just shook her head and entered her offices. He walked to the end of the hall and took the stairs down to level five, to the galley, picking up something to eat. While eating he noticed that he had fifteen missed calls from Edda.
The Minky pinged just then with an incoming quantum call. Edda, again. He looked around and didn’t trust the eavesdroppers. He declined the call and sent a message that he would ping back in three minutes.
It took all of the three minutes for him to return to his room so he could call the female back.
Call for Help
As soon as Edda answered the call, Clalls saw she was red-eyed with tears streaming down her face. “Clalls. Thank, Seth, you answered. I need your help! I swear I will give you anything and everything if you just get my daughter, make sure she’s safe with you. Please. Please. I swear, anything you want.”
Whoa. Clalls held up his hand and saw that Edda was in some kind of metal room. Behind her were hard plastic walls. Was she already quarantined? He needed answers.
“Edda, calm down and tell me exactly what is going on.”
The female was a Hetten working on Eldon, and her usually bright peach skin looked dull and pale today. “No time, Clalls. I’m already dying. And I need to know that my daughter will be safe.”
Clalls narrowed his eyes. He didn’t take offers, he dealt them. For Edda to push a deal was foolish on her part. He wasn’t going to be moved by the death of a child he didn’t know.
“Sorry, sweets, not in the business of rescuing children. I—”
She cut him off again. “I will send you the access codes to all our archives, security files, and personal communication from the beginning of Eldon.”
A treasure. An absolute priceless trove of secrets Clalls couldn’t even begin to fathom. His blood sang at the prospect. So many people to blackmail. So little time.
“Clalls?” A harsh whisper from a mother desperate and distraught.
He wanted to think on it, but this was something he might not get if she was already sick with…whatever this disease was. “Fine. I’ll get your little daughter off the planet. Send me the passwords.”
“You have to get her to my parents. She will be taken care of by them. Just get her there.”
Easy-peasy. “Done. Now, send me the passwords.”
The female started coughing, and he watched her vomit dark orange blood. She was going to die right in front of him, and he still needed those damn passwords! “Edda, send the codes or no deal.”
The woman spat and wiped the blood from her lips. Her skin looked even paler and more sallow. He cursed. She really was doing to die right in front of him. He needed the treasure she’d promised.
“Track…”—she breathed heavily—“my quantum call. She’s behind me. I locked…her in.” Edda licked her lips. “Code to the door is 44321. I just reprogrammed it….” More heavy breathing. “When you get here, punch in the code, and the smart room will send you the passwords.”
Then she jerked like she was going to vomit again. “I have to go.” The female ran from the screen. Behind her, Clalls saw a young female, maybe ten years old, banging on the plastic. He couldn’t hear her, but he saw the tears in her eyes, and saw her mouthing, “mama.”
He wanted to feel something. He wanted to know what it was like for a mother to give up her life for her daughter. To do everything in her power and use her last breaths to deal with a Demon.
Clalls kept the connection, knowing he was going to keep it that way until he could rescue the girl. But he couldn’t just stroll into the captain’s office and ask for someone to check on the female, he needed his own contractor.
Nova. The best tracker he knew, and the hardest one to deal with. A female with bright, wine-red hair who loved her knives. She was also…and ex-bed partner. So he had to be smart.
He sent a short message:
Have live package I need picked up on a diseased planet. You do this, I owe you a favor. Follow the coordinates attached. When you reach the smart building, the access code is: 44321.
It was the first favor he’d ever offered. But the treasure would be worth it. He just hoped that Nova could get to the girl in time.
He put his Minky pad away and powered up the Minky screen in his room. He looked up the current status of Eldon and noticed that it had not been closed off for access. So, he updated it as closed and began sending a notification to the current ships that were in-bound. And then he added a caveat to authorized vessels only. He would need the loophole for when Nova entered the planet’s atmosphere.
His Minky pad pinged, and he read the quantum message.
Headed to Eldon.
Ship is Alcontrite, make sure I have access. Seven hours.
And that was another reason he liked working with professional trackers. They knew their job, and they did it efficiently. He needed Nova to get access to that door.
He typed a quick Done, then returned to the Minky screen and used his access to search for all quantum messages that included the words illness, outbreak, disease, and sickness and then narrowed it down by words such as emergency. Then he filtered it to search from two months ago until now and pushed report.
Instantly, he was flooded with duplicate copies of the quantum messages. This was one of the reasons he needed his new position. More access to private intel. As a communications officer, it was his job to limit and control information benders, better known as hackers.
He then narrowed the list down more by the sender.
Then he checked the ranks and looked for the highest-ranking members on the planet and pulled up three messages.
From Commander Neel to Admiral Armsono
Eldon is dying. There is an unknown disease spreading fast. Medical experts say it’s airborne, and I’ve sent out a planet-wide emergency. We have blocked off the territories that are infected and restricted all entrances and exits so the disease does not spread to other planets. We need immediate help.
Clalls checked the date. It had been written two weeks ago. He found the next message sent from Commander Neel to Armsono, noticing that Armsono had never responded to the previous message.
For the love of Seth! We are dying. Over a billion deaths already and rising hourly. Get someone here, now. We need containment relief. I’ve had to shoot down my own ships. We are getting desperate for help. Planet-wide fear is uncontainable.
If you do not answer in one hour, I will send this message to every admiral on the council.
I demand your help immediately.
Clalls liked the way the commander demanded action. It was the second message that got a response from Admiral Armsono. It came one hour later.
I have notified Captain Mosel of the Garna. The star carrier is equipped for all situations. His contact information is attached. He will be there in less than 36 hours.
There was no further responses from the commander or the admiral. And Clalls noticed that there wasn’t a message or a call from the commander to the captain, which Clalls assumed meant that the commander had died.
Or he was running for his life.
Clalls didn’t have too many feelings, but he did hope that Nova was smart enough to wear a protective evo-suit when she arrived. And then his next thought was, hopefully, she packed two evo-suits, one for her and one for the daughter.
Clalls changed his search requirements, looking for anything one of the scientists might have sent to another colleague.
In several of the messages, the doctors sent requests to their families to leave the planet. In others, there were speculations that the virus was not a natural evolution but a created one.
Then, in the very last message, Clalls saw something that said there was a person who was immune to the disease. That individual was locked up and undergoing several blood tests to try and figure out a way to make an antigen. The only problem was, the doctors had stopped responding after two days.
Clalls wondered if the subject was locked somewhere, slowly dying because no one was able to unlock him from a containment ward. Most species died within a few days of having no water, and a month or so with no food.
Tilting his head back and forth, he wondered if it was financially beneficial to send someone to rescue this person, and how much money he could get from them.
But the individual was not Clalls’ best target. That was Federation medical. They would need this male and his advanced immune system. And even though the Federation was big on honor, they would choke the male with so much “for the greater good,” he would volunteer to be a lab rat for the rest of his life.
Clalls felt a smile. He could capitalize on this whole thing.
He would get recognition for finding the cure to this disease—an unknown illness that was wiping out the entire population. And, logically, Clalls knew the disease would come long after the planet was dead, but that was beside the point.
The primary objective was to be the one who alerted the crew to said person—and being seen as a caring and honorable team member.
His reputation would rise to another level, and certain commanders, captains, and admirals would learn to trust him.
And trust was indeed a currency.
Clalls wrote up a memo to Commander Ganne and attached the letter advising him that there was at least one person on the planet who was immune and might be worth saving to find a cure.
Eight hours later, Clalls was wide-awake and pacing because he still had not heard from Nova. Not that it was uncommon for the tracker to keep silent during an assignment, but still, he was monitoring quantum messages from hundreds of thousands of the population, begging for help.
The Garna was still two hours away, and for once, Clalls was starting to feel something. His fingers itched to call a medical ship to join them. Anything to help. But the captain had been very adamant about not inviting them. If Clalls did, the captain would see and might take issue with him.
Clalls also knew that the virus was peculiar, and sending more people could mean killing more, too.
He paced the length of the cabin as he periodically ran his fingers along his teeth, peering at the Minky pad and screen, both ready and online for any messages.
He checked the satellites, and saw they were still online. Even though the planet was closed for shipments, he knew that Nova would be able to get in. But then again, what if they had automated security? He didn’t have access to that.
He needed those passwords! He could already have eyes on the planet and every security system in the Federation if he did. The data was priceless.
His Minky screen pinged. A quantum video call.
He answered it immediately, almost overlooking the name.
“Captain?” Clalls answered quickly. “What can I do for you?”
“I noticed you sent a message to weapons and tactical alerting them to an immune person.”
“I’d like to advise you to send your messages and directions through me and only me from now on. You do not have authorization to send those kinds of messages, and considering it was a private message, and not an official one, we can’t substantiate the claim.”
It was worth looking into regardless. “You can verify it by going to said building in the letter.”
The captain’s nostrils flared. “This is your warning. Do not overstep your authority, Officer Clalls. I document everything.” And then the captain terminated the call.
Clalls should have been upset, but he had been treated thusly for too long. His long road of non-trust was standard for him as a person and also for his unique species as a Night Demon. He would get over it.
The Minky pinged again, and this time, Clalls checked the caller-id first.
“Nova,” he said as the image came online. He saw Nova’s wine-red hair and signature white leather jacket as she sat in the pilot seat of her small ship.
Clalls looked around the image, wondering where the other female was. He had not received an influx of information, so either Nova didn’t get her mark, or she was about to negotiate price.
For that reason, he breathed deeply, already pissed at her before she’d even said one word.
“Clalls. I’m running a little late.”
He almost…almost made a fist, but he forced himself to remain impassive.
“That’s unfortunate. I guess our deal is off, then. Thanks for nothing.” He lifted his hand to terminate the call.
“Hey, you toothy bastard! I said I was running late, not that I didn’t pick up the package.”
He lowered his hand. If she had completed his mission…where was his information? Where was the girl?
“Is that right? Do I have to ask for you to provide proof of life?” He said the words, realizing that he wanted to know if the daughter was alive or not. If he’d failed in a death deal. Those were some of the most precious in his opinion.
Nova made an arrogant face. “What? You don’t believe me?”
Playing the uncertainty game? How unoriginal.
“I guess you could say I have trust issues.”
Nova laughed, but it was mostly empty. “You and me both.”
“Where’s the girl? And did you use the code I gave you?” he asked pointedly.
Nova leaned one elbow on her chair. “In the brig, and yes, I did. The door didn’t open though, so that was a little frustrating. But that might have been because there was a storm, and the power was out everywhere within a ten-mile radius.”
Clalls was not at all happy about that. He wanted those passwords.
Nova held up a small, black, hexagonal device. “But I figured you didn’t just send me in for the girl. She said her mom was promising you something about passwords.”
Clalls was beginning to care less about the girl’s safety since the big mouth was singing like a Terran canary. A term he’d learned while doing a classic crossword puzzle.
He stared at the device in Nova’s hand and waited for the female’s counteroffer.
“I think I’m going to have to renegotiate our little contract.”
He was quick to retaliate. “I don’t see the girl anywhere. So, you don’t get anything from me until I see proof of life. Then, we’ll talk.”
The screen changed quickly, and he saw a bunch of bars and a plastic box. Then the screen blinked back to Nova in her pilot seat.
“I have no way to prove that’s on your ship.”
Nova sneered. “You have no idea how many dead bodies I had to walk over to get that little bit of attitude. I’m having flashbacks from the war for crying out loud.”
“Proof of life, Nova. I’m not going to negotiate until I know she’s alive.”
Her eyes widened. “Didn’t think you cared about the little waif.”
He stared harshly at the female. “You understand death deals. I take them very seriously.”
Nova stilled and then nodded. “Fine.” Then the line terminated.
When she didn’t call back in a few moments, he concluded that she left the daughter on the planet. And his original excitement and anxiety morphed into uncontained rage.
That old, crusty bastard.
Two hours later, Clalls still had not heard from Nova, and the ship had reached Eldon. He was forced to sit at his official designation on the bridge. Next to him was a seat for his backup, and the spot next to that was for the commander of W&T.
The bridge contained a full crew, including the captain and the first mate, who was now standing by Mosel’s side instead of sitting.
“Deploying galleon now,” Commander Ganne said.
The captain nodded.
Clalls waited and watched the front screen as the images from the ship’s video recorders appeared.
Once the ship had broken the atmosphere, it was a quick descent. The video was shaky because the entry was never smooth.
Then, Clalls and everyone else watched as the dark ground started to clear. Realization washed over them immediately that what they saw was a series of bodies and all colors of blood.
“Captain? Do you see this?” Ganne said.
Clalls wondered again where the immune person was and where the daughter was. He didn’t even care about Nova anymore.
He wanted to tell the captain about the daughter.
“Follow proper protocols and see who’s still alive,” the captain said.
“Yes, sir,” the officer said back, and the images changed from the ship to the officer’s helmet camera.
The group of two hundred exited the ship and began walking. One male came running at them, covered in blood and flailing his hands.
The group pulled their phasers and yelled for the male to stand down. But the male didn’t, he kept running toward the ship.
Three warnings were given, and then they shot him.
Clalls felt his jaw tense, and then he turned to the captain. “Shooting the survivors is a new Federation protocol?”
“Shut it, Demon,” the first mate hissed.
The captain, on the other hand, said, “Was he a survivor or was he infected and mentally crazy?”
“I guess we’ll never know now that you put a fist-sized hole through his head.”
“Not sure why a communication’s officer is speaking during a weapons and tactical mission,” the commander said.
Clalls smirked. “Someone, apparently, has to be the voice of reason.”
“Keep up your comments, Officer Clalls, and I’ll remove you from the bridge,” the captain said.
Clalls chose to remain quiet.
The video continued, and the group moved forward. All they saw were dead bodies. They found even more at the hospital. The captain directed them to the next territory and found the same thing. No one was alive.
The next territory was much the same, and by then, it had been four hours since Clalls had last spoken to Nova. He had no choice but to imagine that the worst had happened.
His disappointment was dull and aching. There was nothing he could do to fix the situation.
Then he was pinged. A quantum video call from Nova. Without any qualms, Clalls stood up and headed to the door.
“Where are you going?” the first mate hissed.
“I’ve seen this one, dead bodies everywhere and no one left alive.” Then, Clalls paused and touched his mouth. “Oh, except the single survivor from the first territory. Good job of executing proper medical procedures.”
He walked into the elevator and accepted the video quickly, giving Nova a status update. “Garna is orbiting Eldon. They are shooting anyone alive. I’d steer clear of territory five.”
Nova rolled her eyes and then stood up from her pilot seat. “Well, since I’m on Hetten, I don’t really care.”
Nova was holding a Minky pad and walking down a small hallway on her ship that looked like a makeshift junker—something between a transporter and a sloop.
Next to her, Clalls could see the top of someone’s head, someone with light blond hair. The daughter. At the end of the hall, they came to a sealed door. Nova entered in a code, and the door lowered, turning into a ramp that extended all the way to the ground.
Nova looked down, and Clalls watched the young girl look up with her eyebrows pinched and her lip wobbly.
“Your grandparents are waiting for you. They are walking this way.” Nova pointed.
The young one’s face was so expressive as her surprise and happiness grew into a brilliant smile. Then, just as fast, the expression turned painful, and tears filled the little girl’s eyes when she saw where Nova was pointing.
Edda’s daughter rushed from beside Nova and down the ramp, screaming for her grandmother. The little twit almost tripped when she hit the bottom. An older woman with silver-blond hair, a large chest, and thick hips ran forward. She held out her arms as the child leapt into her hold. Both females wrapped their arms tightly around each other as if they needed physical reassurance that the other was real.
Clalls watched for three more seconds and realized that he was holding his breath. He despised himself for being curious about the reunion. It wasn’t like it was his child. He shouldn’t even care.
“Okay, let’s talk price,” Nova said in her husky voice.
The elevator stopped at the level for his cabin. In his room, he situated himself on his small desk chair and moved the incoming call from the Minky pad to the Minky screen because he was tired of holding up the stupid contraption.
The video immediately focused back on Nova, and her smile was heavily saturated with a look that said, “I’m going to squeeze you of every kelep you have.”
He didn’t doubt that she would try. He looked forward to the negotiation. Settling into his chair, he leaned back and pursed his lips, waiting for her opening demand. Money wasn’t something he valued, and if she wanted to empty his coffers, he’d let her. He could build it back up in a few days. That’s how easily money could be made—or hacked.
“Considering this last job had a less than one percent chance of success on my part and survival on the little mouth’s part, I think you know I’m going to make you do more than transfer funds.”
Clalls dropped his feet and sat forward, curious about where she was going with this line of thinking.
“Here’s what you’re going to do…” She flipped her dark red hair off her shoulder. “I have a friend who was sentenced to Debsa a week ago. Her ship is on the way. I was going to break her out, but I think it would be better if she got out legally. Do whatever you have to do to get her cleared of her charges. And do it before she is dropped on that planet and lost forever.”
Clalls was silent because he honestly hadn’t been prepared for a favor like that. It was ridiculous and critically time-sensitive. Hell, the ship could be there in hours or days, and he didn’t even know the prisoner’s name or what it was she had been charged with.
But…it wasn’t impossible. More like a challenge. And Clalls enjoyed challenges, especially when they had to do with the Federation.
Nova didn’t do a good job of keeping in her surprise. Her eyes were too expressive. The slip was long enough for him to see it and capitalize on it. If that’s all she needed, he would accept her payment demand.
“Her name’s Neu.”
“New?” He drew out the last bit, not sure if he was amused or dissatisfied with a name like that.
“Yes, Nue, as in N.U.E.”
The crazy spelling didn’t make it any better. Clalls had no idea what race that name could be common for. It sounded like a Lotus Nexis name, or maybe one from the port planets. Something unique that didn’t have a solid heritage root. But if he were going to guess, he would say it was Terran. Those weirdos always went to extremes to be unique.
“N.U.E. Got it. I will let you know when and where to pick up your friend.”
Nova laughed, but it was laced with something dark. “No, darling, you will be picking her up. And you will find a way to get her on as a FAVII on your ship.”
It was his turn to snicker. The Rana must be jesting. She wasn’t just asking for the unreasonable, she was demanding the impossible. A Debsa prisoner on his ship? No. Never. “That’s not happening.”
Nova held up her index finger and then flexed her hand. The black hexagonal storage device appeared. A Terran magic trick.
Children’s pastimes. He’d learned that when he was in the orphanage, and he was not amused.
“I’m not ignorant of your skills, Clalls. You will find a place for her, and you will do it in the next seventeen hours.”
He cursed out loud.
“I’d get to typing if I were you.”
He shook his head. Ranas were used to being the feared race in the galaxies. The ones that was so familiar with the shadows that they were thought to be Seth’s justice dealers. But Nova was forgetting that she was not dealing with just any Demon. She was dealing with him.
“I said I would owe you a favor, Nova. I’m not Seth of Stars. I don’t bend over backward to help people out. You want Nue free, I’ll pay the price. You’ll get your friend in the same way you probably left her.”
Nova’s eyes flared. He’d hit a sore spot. Nova had ditched her little friend. The price of knowing a Rana was that they didn’t have any loyalties. If turning you over to the Federation completed a contract deal, they’d do it in a heartbeat.
Clalls had no doubt that Nova was hoping to use her friend to glean information. Federation secrets. Well, those secrets belonged to him.
He’d called dibs the day he was accepted into the Federation.
“You want to use your friend as a little mole, you do it on another ship. Not mine.”
Nova’s expression hardened. Her jaw was tight, her nose flared, and she looked like she was trying to imitate a Krant.
“You save my friend, then we’ll negotiate for the storage device. Or you can be a tarq and do nothing, which means I will be unavailable for any other jobs you need in the future. I will also take this storage device and hand it right back to the Federation. For free.”
His jaw tightened at the idea of losing the valuable information. The intel he had been promised! It was his, and he resented having to pay for it twice. And the tarq threatened to give it back for free…
He had never been so offended.
Clalls pinched the top part of his lip, thinking.
Nova held up the black, hexagonal device. “If you want your precious garabyte of data, you’re going to do more than my simple favor to free my friend and give her a decent job. I’ve taken a preliminary look, and I have to say, my deal may not even scratch the surface of how much this baby could get me. For starters, I want a new ship, one with a bigger cargo area, and of course two evo-suits for the ones I had to trash so that we didn’t transport the disease to my ship. It needs to be clean and untraceable, too, I’m tired of being tracked by the Federation battleships.”
As if ships were made in candy shops.
She was reaching for the stars, and the redhead was about to get burned. “A ship is out of the question. I don’t have those kinds of contacts, and I don’t have that kind of scratch.”
“Then you’re not getting the device.”
“Here’s my counteroffer,” he said, pulling up the Federation flight routes and flashing them at her.
Her eyebrows rose slightly.
“I know you like to go to the OutWorlds. You’ve been caught and detained because of it. I will send you the routes of where and when to pass to avoid a certain captain.”
“That’s not a counteroffer, Clalls. Even that little brat I just dropped off would know you’re trying to skip out on this payment. Not going to happen.”
“Fine. I’ll erase your record. It will be sparkling.”
Nova was more than nonplussed. “I’ve been detained too many times. I’ve been to Debsa, for crying out loud. Hell, I even have a captain who has been in love with me for the past twenty years. There is no way you can clear my record and have it stay clear.”
Exhaling through his nose, Clalls was not surprised by Nova’s reputation. She was known to be the sexiest thing on two legs, although Clalls had never thought so. He didn’t respond to anyone in that way. Sometimes, he forgot that most species thought with their dicks or the female equivalent. Maybe she assumed he would be happy to do her favors because she was female. She was dead wrong. “I’m a Night Demon, Nova. I negotiate as a profession. I can go all day and night, and I don’t think your friend has that kind of time.”
“You’re a child, Clalls. I was negotiating with your kind before they were called Demons. Don’t try and handle me, just do as I say,” she said dismissively.
No, this was in his blood. “Sorry, I’m not good at being told what to do. Next time you take a deal from me, you might want to negotiate the price beforehand. But then again, you should have learned that from all the other Kircas you’ve dealt with. My price is simple: I’ll get your friend free. I can even get her into the Federation, but that’s all you get. As for the garabyte you’ve probably already made a copy of so you can sell it to the highest bidder…giving it away would be so stupid, even an old bertha like you wouldn’t do that. You think this through. See things my way and send me the original in a quantum-pod, and I’ll replace your evo-suits and throw in one hundred thousand keleps. You can contract to get an upgrade on your ship. That’s my final offer.”
Nova was quiet for a moment. “I like it, but Nue gets on a ship, not anything planet-side. Space is safer.”
He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. Ships were safer? From whom?
Then it occurred to him that Nova was not inserting a mole, she was stashing a victim. Now, he was interested in this female and what she knew.
“It’s a deal.” He couldn’t help it, his lip curled up at the very idea of free information from the little Nue.
Nova leaned in. “Sixteen hours and change. I’ll send the pod when I know she’s safe.”
He needed the passwords. The price was way over the top. So help him if he ever called on Nova for another job. He never would. But at least they had finally closed on their negotiations.
Terminating the video call, he took in a deep breath and logged into security. He found the record of his time in the elevator and erased it. He didn’t want anyone knowing who he had been talking with.
Then he searched the court records and found a record for Nue. The ship was fifteen hours away, they were ahead of schedule, apparently. He couldn’t call in a rescue for obvious reasons. He would have used Nova for that, but now, he had to make it legal, and that was a headache in itself.
But when he found out why she was hiding, it would be worth it.
First, Clalls had to find out why she had been sent there and then fabricate a reason for why her file was wrong to get her released on grounds of false imprisonment. Time was ticking, and he had to get it processed before they even entered the atmosphere. Because once they did, they wouldn’t check the records again until after the ship was headed back.
Then he pulled up the Federation records and hacked his way into the prisoner database.
“You clever girl,” he said out loud when he saw what Nue had been arrested for. Then he shook his head and walked to his small refrigerator and pulled out a Niffy drink. “This is too easy. Nova got short-changed. I’m loving this.”
Paid in Full
Clalls got lost in recreating a life for Nue that closely aligned with the one she’d had before she was shipped to Debsa for breaking into the Federation star charts and changing them. Not maliciously, but because they were ambiguous in some sections, and she’d clarified them. A helpful criminal. The Terrans would call her a white hat hacker.
It was an easy thing to clear her name and award her a spot in the Federation’s navigation division since she already had the knowledge.
Getting her out was going to be a little bit more time-consuming because Debsa was a prison planet. He would have to imitate an admiral to get her out.
“Who to choose, who to choose,” he mumbled to himself as she pulled up another screen and looked over the fifty high admirals. He scanned the ones who responded the least to their messages and who never left the planet.
Perfect, he thought and quickly drafted the authorization letter for Nue’s release. He scanned it twice and pushed send.
He closed his messages and the admiral list and pulled up the captain’s lists, looking for a ship. He stopped and thought Nue’s transition might be easier if he sent her to Verrain first to finish her training, then he could probably get her on any battleship.
He sent in the pick-up orders for a Luri transporter to Debsa.
Then he created false transfer orders for Nue on Verrain, the planet that was more machine than organic. The cyborg planet as most called it. It was where nearly all the cyborgs were created.
Five months there, and he would put in a delay order to have her transferred to the Garna. He set up a room on board so she didn’t have to step foot outside her room, so she’d be safe and sound. He didn’t want anyone else getting access to whatever information she had.
First favor, complete.
Now, for the two evo-suits. Clalls wrote up a quick message.
Need two evo-suits in working order. Delivery to the Alcontrite.
Z was the best dealer in the expanse of the universe. Not too many people knew what he looked like. He did a good job of keeping his identity private. But he worked and operated out of Lotus Adaamas, so he was most likely a Demon. The fact that he didn’t try to schmooze like a Red Demon or haggle like a Night Demon meant that Z was either a Roth or a Silk.
Clalls had tried to set up several deals to find out what the male looked like, but he never could. It was disappointing. It was a secret he would have loved to exploit.
The Minky pinged with Z’s response.
Ninety-five thousand keleps, and the suits will be delivered in two days. Payment first.
Pulling up his financials, Clalls wired the funds into the known account that Z accepted payments with.
A moment later, he was sent a shipping manifest. And that concluded that part of the deal.
Lastly, he pulled up his secondary savings and wired Nova the one hundred thousand keleps and made sure to have the transfer list a payment accept option. She wouldn’t be able to say that she didn’t receive it.
The last part of his favor was finished. He let the moment soak in and it somehow felt…dissatisfying.
His Minky pinged. An incoming call from the captain.
“Be in my office in ten minutes for your captain’s mass.”
“On my way.” Clalls checked the time and noticed that he’d left the bridge over four hours ago.
Using his hand, he pulled up a fresh screen and checked the status of the mission and the crew members on the ground.
They weren’t on the ground anymore.
The three galleons had just docked in the cargo bay.
Closing up and locking his Minky with his encryption, he left for the captain’s mass. A proceeding of non-judicial punishment. The disciplinary action that could range from reprimand, to reduction in rank, a correction letter or a confinement.
A Demon’s Honor
With two minutes to spare, he walked into the single room that was usually used for a captain’s mass. The sour expression on Mosel’s face made it evident that this was going to be a lecture. If Clalls were to be dismissed from the ship, the captain would have had the first mate there as a witness.
Clalls sat down in the single chair and waited for the captain to begin.
The captain didn’t say anything until an alarm went off two minutes later. Then he looked up with his hard, blue eyes. “I do not appreciate the tone and comments you had during the mission.”
Clalls probably should have watched his words, but he was a Demon, and the captain didn’t have anything to use against him. Talking bluntly was not dishonorable. It was just… something Yunkins weren’t used to.
Being that Clalls was the highest-ranking communications officer in command, the captain would have to get used to it. But Clalls didn’t get a chance to say so, the captain had more to say.
“And I don’t appreciate you leaving your post and making someone else cover for you either.”
“I already put in the quarantine and closed the planet for anyone to enter. My job was done before the mission even began.” Clalls was already thinking of everything he could use to prove that he’d done his job.
“Your job is never over, or have you forgotten that we are a specialized ship? That we are never done. There is always a mission. Always someone needing help or something needing to be handled.”
Ah, the honor code.
A grey area for Clalls. He could probably fight any captain’s mass with a court martial if this were a meeting of dismissal.
“And your job is never to assume a personal call ranks higher than a Federation-assigned mission,” the captain said between his teeth, clearly working himself up.
Clalls wasn’t going to go into details about the rescue mission with Nova. And it took everything within his control not to send a message to Nova to send over the garabyte. He still had a few hours to go until Nue’s ship orbit-docked on Debsa, and with any luck, the Luri transporter would arrive at the same time.
Time was ticking, and chatting with the captain was not on his list of things Clalls wanted to do.
The things a Demon like he had to put up with to sustain employment…
The captain waited for a bit before leaning forward. “I was told you tried to blackmail my first mate. In that, you failed, but I know that you’re the reason my communication’s commander left.”
Denying anything would be a waste of breath. Clalls was smart enough not to say anything, at least nothing that could be used against him. And if the captain had something, he would have started with it.
The captain shook his head. “Your ancestors, whichever one was Yunkin, should have taught you honor. Because I’m sure you have none.”
Clalls didn’t have many pressure points. But his parents were one of them. Yunkins saw his skin and his hair color that matched theirs, and they assumed that he was like them. Honor-bound.
Or at least they thought so for a few seconds.
But then they saw the teeth and rejected the notion that he could be like them. Demons and Yunkins didn’t mix. The two races generally hated each other more than any two species in the galaxy.
Words filled his mouth, and Clalls fought to keep them in.
He stood up without being dismissed. “My childhood is not up for casual conversation. If you have disciplinary actions to take against me, I think it’s time you said so.”
The captain’s eyes widened at the disrespect. “You are not fit to be in the Federation. You don’t have the honor code to work with a team for the greater good.”
Clalls didn’t even hear the words. Mosel was lecturing, and he was itching to leave. The only thing keeping him in the room were the ramifications of walking out.
So, he remained standing as the captain continued to list his faults of character.
An hour later, the captain was done speaking, but he didn’t dismiss him.
Two hours after that, still standing, the captain finally broke the silence and said, “If you ever walk out of a mission again, you’re gone. If you ever try to blackmail another person on this ship or anyone in the Federation, you’re gone. This is my disciplinary warning, and I will be documenting it. Even if I’m gone, your next captain after me will have grounds to discharge you under the same warning.”
Clalls didn’t like it, but he respected the strategic move.
The captain finally stood. “Honestly, I don’t really care if you do or not. I doubt you will last much longer with me. I don’t see the value of Demons in the Federation. Your kind brings no honor or loyalty with you. And a team can’t abide without it. You are dismissed.”
Keeping the snide remark in his mouth, Clalls turned on his heel and walked out.
It took ten minutes for Clalls to leisurely walk to his office. There, he opened his most recent messages. One was a summary of the mission on the planet. It had already been written up.
That was fast.
He flipped through the video and shook his head at the massive devastation. The planet was pretty much one massive grave.
He couldn’t even fathom it.
And the Garna, for all its bells and whistles, couldn’t do anything. At all.
Because everyone was dead.
Clalls wasn’t a stranger to unspeakable atrocities. He was a prime example of one. Being left in the middle of a zoo for anyone to pick up and take home. To misuse. He’d lucked out by being picked up and then handed over to an orphanage on Marnak, a refugee planet, but it wasn’t home. It was a cold building. Not even any real teachers, just androids. Not even cyborgs.
Males separated from the females. Then separated again by age. The food was bland, and the rooms were impersonal. Clalls had spent his young life in isolation from others because he was so different.
He’d kept to himself and avoided being taken advantage of by the others—the older ones who preyed on the younger and weaker ones. He’d watched and listened, and when he was confronted, he used his looks to scare and his attacker’s secrets to intimidate.
Thinking on his past, Clalls remembered when several kids had gotten sick and were pulled from the orphanage. It took two weeks to find the records to see what had happened.
They’d died. From the same poison.
A few months later, another child died from being pushed down some steps.
And the death tolls continued until Clalls was finally able to figure out who was doing it.
A little girl. Black eyes. Hollow expression.
She’d confronted him in the attic where he stayed. He had already found her little traps earlier that day. She’d probably come up to see if she’d succeeded in killing him. Or at least he assumed so when she looked disappointed that he was sitting on the bed reading a Terran adventure book.
“You’re still alive? How? I did everything right. Poison. Traps. Knives in your bed. You should have been dead for hours already,” the little monster said.
“Because I’m a Demon,” he said as casually as a twelve-year-old could.
“That means nothing,” the little eight-year-old said.
That’s when he put the book down and turned to her. “It really does.” He touched the recorder, rewound it, and played it back for her.
She ran at him, screaming at the top of her lungs, missing the rope on the ground and the trap of his own he’d set. The rope tightened around her ankle, and she hit the ground before being lifted into the air.
He left her hanging while he delivered the recording to the androids. They took her down and removed her from the orphanage. Clalls checked her status in the court systems and was not pleased to find that they’d put her in a detention center stating they would review her case in a few years.
That’s why he valued secrets. They paid, and they’d saved his skin more times than he could count.
His Minky pinged, and he pulled it out of his pocket to check the message. The Luri ship had docked on Debsa.
The prison transporter would arrive shortly.
Preparing for his soon-to-be-delivered garabyte, he needed to stock up on food and drinks for the hours he would spend looking over the contents of the storage device.
That took about an hour. After, Clalls waited impatiently in his office for the time to tick by.
Clalls was filing away a damaging letter sent from one of the commanders when his Minky pinged. An incoming call from the captain.
“Patch me through to every Minky on the ship.”
Clalls hesitated for a brief second before he quickly pulled up the list and ran an override. He pointed at the captain. “Go ahead.”
“This is Captain Mosel. There has been a breach in containment, and I am ordering everyone to return to their rooms. An immediate quarantine for each level will be effective in twenty minutes. Doors will be locked, and medical ships are en route. You will be safest in your rooms. Get to them as quickly as possible.” Then the captain terminated his side of the call.
Clalls felt something close to numbness as he terminated the overriding message.
An immediate quarantine? A breach in containment.
At first, Clalls stared at the black screen, unsure of how he felt. Uncertain about everything. The Eldon disease had wiped out an entire planet in days.
How long had it been since the mission crew members had returned?
He pulled up the time.
Fifteen hours. He swallowed.
Fifteen hours of contaminated people compromising the air quality.
Two hours left for the first responders.
Depending on where the contamination had happened, the ventilation system could have spread it to the entire ship by now.
He swallowed again, but his throat wasn’t working. He felt himself stand, but he didn’t really feel his feet.
Exiting the office, everything was a blur as he made his way through the bodies into the stairwell and up the levels until he exited and briskly walked down the hall, ignoring the blank faces and the voices. Questions about the disease. Queries about evacuation. Speculations of help coming.
Help wasn’t going to make it in time.
Telling them would be senseless. And Clalls didn’t have it in him to even speak.
Once inside his room, he hit the bed and left himself fall down. He dropped so hard that he was knocked back against the wall.
The sting and the pain barely even made a dent in his mind.
Dead. He would be dead in less than a day.
He had hundreds of years left. All the secrets he had… All the deals he had made; all of a sudden, they had no value. Not one bit of value. They wouldn’t save him from his fate. And with the ship quarantined, he couldn’t get out.
Even if he did, he would be taking the illness with him.
He hoped that someone had locked the lifepods down. Because if he didn’t know what he knew, he would have escaped in one of them.
How did this even happen?
Someone didn’t follow proper procedures, obviously. Someone… Clalls sat on that thought of bubbling injustice for a second and then thought it could have been more than one person. He would never know.
He ran his hand through his hair and thought about his miserable, isolated life. He looked around at all the things he loved. Nothing made him feel any better.
The irony was that he was now going to die with them all.
He remembered the Terrans’ ancient kings who’d lived in triangular houses. They were buried with their most prized possessions when they died. Clalls had thought that was neat, which is why he always kept his valued possessions close.
He turned his head and saw his mint-condition crossword puzzles. Behind it was an Oxford dictionary. On either side of those, he had the history of Kirca, a planet he’d never actually set foot on.
He wished he hadn’t put it off for so long.
A small lump was forming in his throat, and he refused to give it another second of his time.
He pushed himself up and looked around, wanting to give in to another emotion. Anger.
Picking up his books, he threw them at the wall. All his important tomes that were no longer in print. Priceless items. He threw them all against the wall, wanting to break them into a thousand pieces.
Instead, they flapped in the air and plunked against the unwelcoming grey wall anticlimactically.
Reaching into his refrigerator, he pulled out a Niffy juice and wished that the container was made of glass like they were on Marnak. These were hard plastic instead.
He let it fall.
Then he stood there, feeling so much that he didn’t feel anything at all, his eyes looking for something that he couldn’t remember, his body feeling as if it didn’t belong to him anymore.
The Minky screen. His eyes settled on it. Without knowing what he was doing, he walked to it and called Vivra without thinking.
“What could you possibly have to say right now?” the Bolark’s heavy, emotion-riddled voice said. Her mouth was wobbly, but her eyes were still dry. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, not her usual look.
He could see the same emotions he felt on her face.
Her face…the one and only person he liked on the entire ship. The only one who was like him. The only one who would see him through the last few hours of his life. And he would do the same for her. They wouldn’t have to die alone.
His death wish. His last Demon’s deal.
“No one should die alone,” were the words that came out of his mouth. It was his voice, but he didn’t think he’d actually thought about the words before he said them.
Vivra’s head shook back and forth as if she wanted to say no or she was saying no. But she didn’t get up from her bed.
She was sitting with her back against the wall, her knees pulled up to her chest, and a vacant look in her eyes.
“This is such crap,” she whispered.
He heard her, but he didn’t say anything in response. He did sit back on his bed and watch her as she stared at nothing. Every once in a while, she would just shake her head.
“I’m going to keep the video call on. No terminating. For any reason,” Clalls said, hoping Vivra didn’t notice that he was telling her what to do. She was Vivra, after all.
She didn’t seem to even hear him. She just shook her head again.
It had been twenty-four hours, and he wasn’t dead. He didn’t even feel sick. And he had been watching Vivra sleep. She didn’t look sick either. The light in her room was on, and he could still see her vibrant green and yellow, scaly face.
Keeping the video call on, he pulled out his Minky pad and checked the video feeds. He saw a few bodies in the hallway on their level. There was a Yunkin on the floor, shaking as if he were having a seizure, legs jerking back and forth and his arms tight against his chest. Grey blood oozed from his eyes.
Clalls switched the camera and looked in on the other levels. He found several others in the same position, but not thousands. The others must be in their rooms.
He continued checking and saw a lot more bodies in the docking bay. He also noticed that several ships were scattered.
Someone must have tried to escape. Or maybe several someones.
He pulled up the lifepod feeds to see how many had gotten out.
The captain had secured them. Smart.
Then Clalls checked the outgoing calls because he was still a nosy bastard. He wanted to know what the others had been doing in their last hours.
Except when he checked his Minky, it errored out.
“What the hell?” he mumbled.
He exited out of the communicator and pulled up the ship’s quantum server. The video to the room was dark, and there was no power light on the machine.
It was off.
As in someone had disconnected it?
“Please tell me that the last few minutes of your life are not being spent working,” Vivra said through the Minky screen.
He peered up at the messy-haired female. He was about to answer her when he decided to ask a question instead. “If you had a last wish, what would it be?”
Her eyes widened for a half-second. He’d surprised her. He didn’t think the question was too outside the norm. They were going to die.
Then her eyes lowered. “Answer my question first. What were you doing?”
Her tone was so…her. Not worried or heavy with emotions, just her. He anchored himself to her calmness and easily slipped back into the Clalls he was. For the first time since he’d become numb with fear, he could feel his skin again.
His stomach wiggled with glee. Vivra was actually conversing with him. He needed to keep her talking. She had to keep him grounded. Alert. Fearless.
“I imagine your last wish to be …” He paused dramatically, tapping his mouth.
“I’m not telling you anything.”
“Afraid I’ll use your secrets in a few minutes to get a few hundred keleps? I’m over deals for money. Not my thing anymore.”
“Not anymore, or because we’re about to die.”
He just stared at her, holding his answers close to the vest.
She stared back.
This lasted a good three minutes.
“You’re not going to tell me? Or are you waiting for my answer?” she asked.
He didn’t speak. Silence made a bigger impression than words ever could.
“Fine. If I had a last wish, it would be that I wasn’t on this stupid ship.”
“And?” he prompted, wanting something more. Something deeper. Anything he could work with to get to know the female with a Demon soul better.
“I wish I had a mate. A good one. One that was nothing like a Bolark.” She pointed at the screen. “And if you’re recording this, so help me, Seth, I will find a way to haunt your ghost with endless misery.”
She wanted a mate.
Not what he was expecting. It was so…domestic, nothing like a Bolark should be. He wanted to be disappointed. He wished he could joke with her. But she was still Vivra, and even though the ship was dying, she might actually kill him before the disease—and probably in a more torturous way.
Except…she wanted a mate?
It had to be the fear talking.
Fear did crazy things to females. Some males, too. He let the disappointment fade and decided to answer her original question. He was a Night Demon, after all. He always came through with his side of the deal, even if it was just a secret for a secret.
“I was checking the quantum server. I think someone powered it off.”
Vivra furrowed her eyebrows. “I already knew that.”
He imagined that she felt cheated with his answer.
“Why don’t you deal in money anymore?”
He decided to toss in a quick freebie. “I don’t like making deals for money. Money is not a valuable enough currency. Anyone can get rich, but he who has all the secrets has the power.”
“Oh, yeah,” she drawled. “You look awfully powerful,” she mused darkly. “Turn your head a little to the side.”
“Yep. I can see it. All-powerful Clalls is about to die just like the rest of us.”
The cut should have made him respond in kind. But he couldn’t. Her moodiness was just too…amusing. So much like his own dark humor.
He wondered if she also had his dark curiosity. Focusing back on the Minky, he set his algorithm to break the captain’s universal password and set his Minky aside. If he were still alive when it found the password, he would scour the captain’s things and find out how soon the medical ship was supposed to arrive.
And then he would read a few goodbye letters. He didn’t know why the idea of reading them sounded so fascinating. Maybe he would read a few to Vivra.
“Is it horrible to say I’m bored of waiting to die?” Vivra said while pushing herself off her bed. Maybe he wouldn’t read her the goodbye letters. Her reactions could go either way. She was incredibly unpredictable.
“You’re asking a Night Demon that?”
“I’m asking a being that. You, in particular.”
He fake-huffed and answered honestly. “Seems like a personal problem. I doubt you’ll be thinking the same thing when your eyes start to bleed.”
She blinked her eyes and dabbed at the corner of one. “I don’t think blood is really going to look good on me.”
His Minky pinged, and he turned to it, pleased that he was still alive for the password.
“I should feel sick, shouldn’t I?” she said from somewhere in her room, he didn’t look up to see where. He was too interested in the captain’s personal files.
He found the order that closed off the quantum server. It disconnected everyone from use except him. Clalls scanned the last few messages.
Not one of them was a message to the medical ships.
Instead, it was for the cleaners.
Cleaners! To evacuate the ship’s insides and burn the dead bodies.
No help was coming.
Why was he not pissed off? Probably because this sounded so much like the captain. Clalls shook his head. Vivra said something to him, but he was too busy to reply. He needed answers. What else was the captain planning?
Skimming the last messages, Clalls saw that Mosel had updated his legal power of attorney to his son. But he didn’t send either of his sons, his daughter, or his wife a goodbye message.
Clalls checked the call log. Maybe he’d called them.
That was weird, right? Then he stopped and looked up at the Minky screen. Vivra was drinking a Niffy juice.
“I am going to miss Niffy juice. It’s my favorite.”
Okay. But more to the point… “Why haven’t you tried calling your father?” She had family. He didn’t, but he assumed that family did those kinds of things. Shouldn’t she have at least called hers?
She turned and sat on the chair and pointed the top of the bottle at him. “That one goes to the grave with me.”
That said more than she probably knew. Estranged from her father, then.
That made him think. Yunkins had a lot of arranged marriages. If the captain didn’t call his family, maybe he was estranged from them, too.
It took a while before that settled in. Then Clalls’ curiosity pointed him to the timeline. How long until the cleaners were supposed to arrive?
“What are you doing now?” Vivra asked.
He was checking the status of the cleaners. There was no expected time of arrival listed. Even if they came in a few days, everyone would be long gone by then.
They had days left, and yet it seemed like everything was taking forever.
He looked at his crossword puzzle and didn’t like the idea of anyone trashing his priceless items.
Dropping his Minky, he picked up the crossword puzzle and riffled through his Terran items to find a pen.
“What is that?” Vivra asked.
He didn’t answer until he sat down and held up the book for her to see. “A Terran word puzzle. It lists questions that have only one answer and each fits perfectly with the other answers.”
He carefully opened the old book and turned to the first page.
“It’s a what?”
“A crossword, a Terran game.”
“Oh, for the love of Seth.”
There were three boxes available for the answer.
“I don’t know what’s worse, the wait, or you playing a Terran game. A Demon who likes Terran games? What’s next?”
“Shh,” he hissed. He needed to think. He wanted to finish all the puzzles before the cleaners arrived.
“Don’t shh me. I’ll shh your face.”
“What is a three-letter word for a shade provider?”
“I’m not playing your stupid game.”
He shrugged and then read the next question. Then the next. This was going to be harder than he thought. He moved his hand holding the pen to his chin and cracked his neck to let out the tension.
“Fair enough. Enjoy your unproductive last hours of life.”
Then he heard her groan and ignored her flop back onto her bed. He ignored her for the next two hours, and then she said, “Hat. H. A. T. Terrans wear hats on their heads to block the sun from their eyes.”
He looked up at her and smiled. He’d already gotten that one, but she was playing, so there was that. He rewarded her with, “The Eldon disease kills in seventeen hours. It’s also airborne, so it has already covered every inch of the ship through the vents. Depending on when we were exposed will determine when we die.”
She sat up. “Seth of Stars, are you serious?”
She stared, shaking her head back and forth. “I have the latest vent filter that keeps out all contaminants.”
She was holding onto hope. He didn’t know if he respected that or not. “I guess time will tell.”
She didn’t say anything else. She wrapped herself in her blanket and began staring again.
Then his Minky pinged, and he lifted it up. A system failure report to the captain. The heater was out. The engines were out. They shouldn’t be. They should have lasted for another fifty or so years.
He checked and found that the captain had set a ship lockdown. That included all systems.
Clalls cursed and then forced himself to turn on the video to the captain’s Minky. The screen was face down. The video blacked out.
He turned on Mosel’s Minky screen in his room.
The captain was face up, eyes gone in a puddle of grey blood that pooled around his head. His body was contorted. The comforter was half on and half off the bed. Grey blood was everywhere.
“Do you think anyone else is still alive on the ship?”
Clalls didn’t think so, but that didn’t stop him from looking.
Vivra growled at him, wrongfully assuming he was ignoring her. He was pulling up video of each of the levels. He brought up the docking bay and scanned the video again and then stilled.
A female was moving through the bodies of people. She was walking slowly and on her tiptoes between two pools of blood.
Not wanting to get any on her?
He followed her movements to the end of the hall and then to the stairs. He watched her in the stairs until she exited on the galley level. She moved through more bodies and frowned.
She made her way to the little shop that had looked destroyed and rubbed her nose before walking in. He switched to the shop’s camera and watched her take a four-pack of Niffy and some Terran candies—the main thing the shop sold for food.
Then she left just as slowly as she came, not touching any walls, bodies, or anything. Back at the docking bay, he was surprised when she headed straight for a sloop and opened the door to slip in.
There were at least three survivors out of…what? Almost six and a half thousand?
He checked the next level and didn’t see anything. And then the final level of engineering where he saw a body moving past the video screen. But the camera was on the floor instead of in the upper wall like it should have.
He sat back and prepared to go through every room to get the priceless numbers because…he had that kind of time.
“What’s a six-letter word for insignia?” Clalls said out loud, remembering the last question he had yet to answer.
“What’s a word for shut up I’m cold?”
He smirked. It was getting colder.
“Not sure it’s safe to eat the food. Your race can live a long time on just water before it becomes detrimental to your health.”
“I don’t have any water packages.”
“You have a faucet in your bathroom.”
She mocked like she was throwing up. “I think not.”
He hacked the system and looked at the incoming messages held at bay and saw one from Nova. He opened his Minky quantum address and let the dispatch through.
Tracking quantum pod… Arrived. Garna star carrier.
It had arrived. He should have been ecstatic, but with no guarantee of life, he couldn’t muster up any excitement.
Actually, he found some amusement, after all. When talking to Nova, he’d said that he wasn’t Seth of Stars. He didn’t bend over backwards to help anyone. But, apparently, he did. He would never see payment for helping Nue. Or for the two first-rate evo-suits. Or the cargo bay he’d paid for.
At the end of his life, Clalls realized that he was in the wrong business. He should have focused on helping others get what they wanted, that’s where the big money could be made.
Where people paid in favors instead of keleps. And favors were always the better currency.
Clalls wished he had a second chance. One where he could make his mark. It would be so easy. He already knew what most everyone wanted on the ship. Although most were dead or going to die soon, but he could have helped them. Easily. He could have affected countless lives.
He could have been a legend.
If only he had a second chance to be the most legendary Night Demon of all time.