Today I have a New Release for you, Star Thief by my friend T. Jackson King. It will be available on Amazon on Friday September 7th. Tom has also given us the First Chapter.
Jake Vitades takes rich aliens on trips to dead ruins. He gives them adventure and a chance at finding valuable tech. But looting ancient ruins is dangerous. And finding tech is rare. However rich aliens don’t mind bad odds. They like adventure on dead worlds. Whether they live or die in their adventures Jake does not care. He insists on advance payment. As an archaeologist specializing in dead cultures he prefers present day funds versus theoretical tech loot. It’s also safer. He and his crew like being safe and rich in a galaxy overrun by empires that don’t give a damn for new arrivals like humanity. But the world they are aiming to loot has surprises waiting for them. Still, Jake does what he is paid to do. Which is to help aliens loot dead worlds. No matter what happens.
Being wanted by two women is the primo fantasy for most guys. But it gets complicated when both are alien females with nicely feminine shapes. And messy when one alien is my Employer and the other alien is one of my crew. At this moment I wanted neither of them. A fact I guessed neither Laserta nor Sharp Claw wished to hear. So I focused on work. Which for me is scavenging alien ruins. I’m an archaeologist. Others call me a thief. I don’t care what anyone calls me so long as I’m paid. But looting a dead world can be dangerous. A fact I had shared with Laserta, my employer. She didn’t care. Being a super-rich member of the fox-like Mogel species made her arrogant. Manipulative. And demanding.
“When do we get to the Harl world?” she barked from her accel seat on my right.
I ignored the fox-like female with curves all too similar to a human woman and kept my eyes fixed on my ship’s front vidscreen. It showed a white-yellow star, tons of black space and the silver sparkle of the contractor spaceship hired by the Galactic Council to keep everyone away from the Harl ruins. Four hundred thousand E-years ago the Harl built the wormhole Gate we had just exited. They’d built tens of thousands of Gates throughout the Milky Way. Alien records said several species served them. Including the Tessene, who built my starship. Its AI had bonded with me, during my indentured work for Academician Lik Sotomor of Century Prime university on Primus 3 in the Noble system. My Greek parents had sold me to him on a seven-year indentureship. Which meant he paid them an annual fee for my work, I got room and board and worked in ruins found by the prof. I also got an education in galactic archaeology.
Five years into my indentureship I’d been exploring a wing of a Harl ruin when I came across the Tessene ship. Entering it led me to bond with its AI. Which fact prompted me to fly away from the ruins, breaking my indenture contract. I became a criminal with EarthGov certain to arrest me if I ever returned to Earth. But those were old facts. Now was the start of what I had been paid to do. Which was to get Laserta to the fourth world of this system and down to the ancient ruins of the Harl city. Leaning forward in my accel seat at the center of my ship’s Control Chamber, I fixed on our Astrogator, Meander the arthropod.
“Meander, distance to the fourth world?”
Up front the four-legged giant insect who resembled a praying mantis touched her control pedestal with one of her thorax hands.
“In Human terms it lies 41 AU distant,” she chittered softly. “A journey of six days. Closer, much closer, is the contractor vessel ahead of us. It lies 910,000 kilometers ahead of us.” Meander paused, her two head antennae laying down as her head twisted to look back at me. Her two compound eyes glittered under the chamber’s white-yellow lighting. “Will you protect our Nest?”
Laserta growled low, a sound I knew indicated impatience. Her short red fur stiffened. Shoulder muscles bunched under the leather straps she wore to support her personal gear.
“I will protect our Nest. This ship has powerful weapons. Sharp Claw is our Weapons manipulator. She will use them if I order it.”
Sharp Claw is a reptilian biped with the hour-glass curves of a human female. Now she turned to look back at me. Her two yellow eyes had slit pupils like cats and reptiles on Earth. Those pupils narrowed. The silvery scales that covered her from clawed toes to aquiline head glittered as the muscles underneath grew tense. Sharp Claw’s species had evolved on a jungle world where dinosaur-like creatures sought to eat anything that moved. For her, fighting equals survival.
“Shall I destroy the vessel ahead?” she hissed low.
“No!” I said quickly, reading the rapidly decreasing distance between my ship and the contractor vessel. We had exited the Gate at one-tenth lightspeed and would soon be close to the contractor. While our carbon-dioxide, gamma ray and x-ray lasers could destroy most alien vessels, attacking the contractor ship would bring the attention of the Council to this system. In the four years since I’d bonded with my ship I had learned that stealth and covert behavior was the best way to avoid being attacked by the warships of the fourteen alien empires that roamed the human side of the galaxy. And corporate warships were just as deadly, especially alien corporate warships that belonged to businesses which were old when humans invented agriculture. I looked up at the chamber’s ceiling.
“Akantha,” I called to the ship’s AI. “What is your analysis of the contractor vessel ahead of us?”
You could have just thought your question, she said in my mind, using the implant I’d gotten as part of the bonding with her at the Harl ruin.
True. But acoustic responses from you are reassuring to my crew. And expected by my employer.
A sense of amusement came to my mind. Then she spoke.
“The contractor vessel is a Wokan-built vessel with a hull covered in adaptive optic lenses that give basic protection from light spectrum lasers,” she said in a sing-song voice. “Domes on its spine, nose and ventral sides indicate CO2 lasers are its primary weapon. Four ejection tubes at the rear of the vessel indicate it can launch Fire and Forget missiles. Likely they carry thermonuclear or antimatter warheads. Its size is similar to my vessel.”
Which meant the contractor ship was at least 150 meters long. My ship might be alien-built but it had plenty of room for my five crew beings, valuables storage, a shuttle launch hangar, food and water storage, a Green Chamber now filled with alien grasses and trees, a Galley and my captain’s cabin just behind the Control Chamber. Exactly where Akantha resided I did not know, nor care. She was the ship. The ship was her. And the two of us had made a living by serving the greed of aliens.
“Neutrino com signal incoming,” called Lotan the Influencer in a flood of sharp-scented pheromones and clicks from his control pedestal next to Sharp Claw. The white and brown-furred mammal who resembled a standing meerkat twisted his body in the way that told me he was preparing to influence whatever alien was calling us from the contractor ship. While he talked with pheromones it was his entire body that had evolved to influence any living creature. Including aliens from other planets.
“Accept the signal. Display on the right side of the vidscreen,” I said, thankful my ship was outfitted with the Translator device that was one of the few universal elements of the alien-run galactic culture that mostly ignored humans.
A peach smell hit my nose. “Going up on the vidscreen.”
The vidscreen filled with the image of a triangular room covered in vidscreens, touch panels, tubing and benches. Seated on one bench was an alien who resembled a cross between an ant-eater with a long snout and a black and white-striped badger. It appeared to be a mammal, which along with reptile and avian were the standard bioforms on most inhabited planets in the galaxy. There were other lifeforms with no resemblance to Earth animals. Some of them had employed me. All of them were weird aliens. The only universal among them was the need to breath an oxy-nitro atmosphere, a preference for gravity, the use of the universal Translator and greed. Greed was innate among all species who left their home planet. It was an expression of the need to expand one’s home range, according to Professor Lik Sotomor. I didn’t care why any being was greedy or what type of animal they might be. I only cared for the number of Galactic Credits they paid me. The Credits and the Translator were the only cultural universals in the Milky Way. Everyone else did what they could get away with. Including me.
The proboscis lifted. Two black eyes focused on the image of me, Laserta and my five crew beings up front. A black tongue shot out from the snout, then sibilant hissing sounded.
“Visitor, this system is embargoed by the Galactic Council due to Harl ruins. Return whence you came through the Gate.”
Lotan the meerkat moved to the center of the Control Chamber, drawing the alien’s attention. His furry skin shimmered and flowed in a way I always found relaxing. His two arms with four-fingered hands wove a pattern of ellipses and curves. He clicked in a flow of soft, sharp and musical sounds.
“Contractor, I am Lotan, Influencer for the research vessel Akantha.” Lotan gestured back to me. “Researcher Jake Vitades from Century Prime university on Primus 3 of the Noble system is here to conduct approved research in the ruins.” Lotan leaned forward. “What is that yellow stain on your proboscis? Have you been sipping Nagen? Well we all have our entertainments. We will not mention this to your captain. May we pass and begin our research?”
Smooth conviction combined with the eliciting of personal elements was one of Lotan’s special abilities. Now it was time for me to do my thing.
Akantha, project the holo of Professor Lik Sotomor. Commence the programmed dialogue.
To my left the entry portal to the chamber spiraled open. Through it came the eight foot high form of Sotomor. A cross between an insect and a reptile who stood on two scaled legs, the professor moved his mandibles.
“Why do you question this research expedition? I am High Teacher Sotomor of Century Prime university. Perhaps you have heard of me?”
The long-snouted badger alien leaned forward and placed its furred arms over its chest in a criss-cross manner.
“Of course I know of you, great teacher of ancient wonders,” it hissed. “I am Podan, current watch being for the contract vessel Megundat. We represent the Megun corporation.” Its black eyes blinked, looked aside at Lotan, then back to the holo. “We have no record of your research visit. However . . .” Lotan’s fur shimmered and flared as his head moved in an imploring way. “However, I am aware of your research into Harl ruins at the star Loganilla. The pictographs of the Harl beings were an amazing sight. You . . . you may pass. I . . . I will send notice of your research visit to the Galactic Council.”
Akantha, have Sotomor speak response 43A.
Speaking as directed, young Vitades.
The holo of my former boss and life dominator tapped pencil-like fingers against the hard shell of his thorax. “That will not be necessary. Before we exited this local Gate I myself sent notice to the council. Do you claim I am lying to you?”
“No!” loudly hissed Podan, his clawed feet scraping his ship’s deck as he stood and bent forward, arms still over his chest. “Your assurance is accepted! I will provide a record of our discussion to my captain when she awakens. You may proceed to the fourth planet.”
Use response 21C.
Amusement filled my mind. That response is obvious, young mammal.
The professor holo gestured with a thorax arm. “Your permission is accepted. Your lonely duty here is valued by me and all researchers. We will share our research with you upon our departure.”
The image of the snouted badger disappeared. The detailed image of the contractor ship that showed in one corner of the vidscreen displayed the vessel moving to one side in a brief flare of fusion gases. The Sotomor holo vanished. I looked up front to the six-legged form of Draken.
“Engineer, activate our fusion pulse thrusters. Turn on the magfield maneuvering units.”
The alien who resembled a walking worm twisted his low-lying body to focus on his floor-mounted control panel. An arm reached out from below his buzzsaw mouth and tapped several times.
“Thrusters and magfield units are activated,” Draken honked. He twisted round to face me with a head that held two red eyes, a gaping mouth filled with circles of dagger-like teeth and two holes on either side of his head segment for hearing. The circular mouth widened a bit. A pink tongue moved quickly. “May I move to the Power Chamber? To monitor their performance?”
I almost smiled. Draken came from a desert-like world with a white sun that put out intense UV and other radiation. His white armor-plated skin had evolved to allow easy entry of stellar radiation. He particularly liked the taste of neutrinos, which were emitted by all fusion sources. My ship’s fusion pulse thrusters emitted neutrinos in abundance. As did our fusion reactor. As a result Draken loved to sleep partly wrapped around the hulks of the two thruster units that combined helium three and deuterium isotopes in a powerful magfield chamber. The thrusters were powerful enough to move us at one-tenth of lightspeed. Which was our inertial speed on exiting the Gate. Activating the thrusters made it possible for my fifth crew being to do her job. I looked to the purple-feathered form of Flow.
“Pilot, take us inward to planet four.”
Up front the sole avian in my crew reached out a short purple-feathered wing and tapped her control pedestal. The small hand at the leading edge of her right wing moved quickly. Then her two wings folded back and hugged her eagle-like body. Twisting around on two clawed feet, she focused blue eyes on me. Her red beak opened.
“We are moving inward,” she chirped. Her head glittered with silvery fibers she relies on to sense external radiation, images and fields. “The space out here feels cold. I will fly us close to the intervening five worlds to gain gravitational acceleration and for the . . . the beauty of skimming above the gas worlds.”
Now I did smile. Briefly. Flow loves to fly through space like birds fly through the air. She senses magnetic fields and the flows of interstellar winds and particles. While Astrogator is my expert at traversing the Gates, Pilot is the one who moves us through real space and even down to stormy winds on planets. I looked aside to Laserta. This being whose face resembled that of a fox while her body held two breasts, curving hips and slender four-fingered hands, she met my gaze. I noticed her shoulders were no longer bunched.
“Laserta of the Mogel, we are embarked on our voyage to the Harl ruins.” Her two green eyes scanned me.
Her slim arms rested on the sides of her accel seat. Then she touched the silver release buckle that locked the accel straps across her red-furred body. She stood up with a jangle of sensors and devices that hung from a leather belt at her waist. Below the belt she wore green shorts and open-toed shoes. Above it her two fur-covered breasts swayed enticingly. She moved away from me toward the entry portal.
“So we are,” she barked bluntly. “I will reside in my cabin until my evening meal arrives. Bring it to me. Your physical presence is required.”
I wished Laserta would give up on demanding sex with me. She had made clear her breasts were similar to human female breasts in their ability to give milk to an infant Mogel. And Mogels mated the same way humans did. A fact she had made clear by dropping her shorts and showing her entry slit. But there was no romance in her approach. And I had not been with a human woman since my general lyceum girlfriend Akantha. She’d been a thorn in my side the same way the mythical Akantha had been to the god Apollo. Among the cold alien stars I did not need a thorn. Or romance. Romance was an illusion. Only survival mattered. So I told myself. I worked hard to believe it.
Sharp Claw scanned the laser controls that spotted her control pedestal. Next to them were spots that would launch Fire and Forget missiles from the Akantha’s six rear launch tubes. On the other side of the pedestal was the electromag repeller control that served to deflect stellar radiation of lesser power than neutrinos. She watched closely the local space energy vidscreen, noting the moving neutrino source that was the contractor vessel Megundat. It had not moved from its position a million kilometers inward from the Gate. Disappointment filled her. To live was to fight and survive. She yearned to fight something. Perhaps when they took up orbit above the fourth world some Harl device would attack them. It had happened on other Harl worlds. She expected such from this world. In truth she yearned for it. With a sigh she scanned the rest of the system. There were no moving neutrino sources that betokened other vessels. It would be a long six days.
She looked back to where Captain Vitades sat alone, still strapped into his accel seat. The female Laserta had left. Which left only her, Meander, Lotan, Flow and the captain. He was the only alpha male aboard the Akantha. His embrace and his mating with her was needed to quicken the eggs within her inner womb. But mating with the captain would cause her Mating Fangs to latch onto his neck, killing him. While such was normal among her people, she had grown to like the alpha male in the years she had worked for him. Perhaps she would find another bipedal alpha male to mate with in another system. She hoped so. Her body burned with her need to mate. On her home world of Rogain it was the duty of every female to mate and then birth eggs to replace the male lost in the mating ritual. While technology kept the giant predators confined in jungle reserves, her Notem people still needed to sink fangs into an enemy. And a mate. Perhaps at this Harl world she would face a bioform worthy of her ferocity.
Meander relaxed as Flow guided her Nest through the cold empty spaces of the Harl system. While she enjoyed Flow’s genetic ability to weave a pathway through stellar magnetic and plasma wind flows, she yearned to again travel through the Gates. She had yet to find her birth star and home world of Dominion. Both had been lost to her when she’d been taken captive while repairing a graviton sensor platform at the edge of her system. She’d learned what slavery meant when she’d been sold to an amphibian of flexible limbs, sharp claws and an unforgiving mind. But her owner did not know her Dosune people possessed a defense against capture. Her breathing spiracles could emit a cloud of deadly gas that was a neurotoxin to anything that breathed. She’d been rendered senseless during her capture and while aboard the captor ship, only to awaken inside a stone amphitheater filled with aliens who bought beings brought to the sandy floor of the stone enclosure.
She had waited until her owner took her to its seaside residence. She had done the water misting chores it demanded and and had cleaned its habitation of the body refuse it ejected. When she learned the method by which it controlled a floater transport she waited for her owner to fall asleep in a tide pool enclosed within its residence. As an amphibian her owner needed to breath regularly. Every tenth of a light arc her owner extended its air tube and inhaled. That night it inhaled her gases. It died at the bottom of the tide pool. She had escaped in the transport, sold it at the local star port and escaped to a world where she worked and learned the science of Gates. She became an Astrogator of Gates.
For the last four years Meander had worked for the Soft Skin biped who called himself Jake Vitades. He was a fair and generous Soft Skin. So she was loyal to him. The vessel Akantha was her new Nest. It was a place she would protect with all of her abilities. It was also the sole means she had of exploring the Gate system in the hope of finding her home star. No one knew the location of all Gates, though some suspected the council had a detailed inventory. But the empires that controlled parts of the galaxy always compiled a regional list of Gates and the stars they served. Hopefully in time she would find her yellow-orange home star. Until then she would navigate her Nest through the Gates, earn Galactic Credits and feel accepted by the other Soft Skins who served their captain. She had the time. Her people lived long. But she was lonely. Perhaps a future employer would be like her, composed of chitin skin plates, a thorax, an abdomen, with four legs and two griparms. She hoped so. Until then she would be loyal to Vitades.
Lotan felt satisfaction. His empathic reading of the contractor being Podan had been accurate. The alien’s natural suspicion had been allayed by Lotan’s movements while his comment on the being’s use of the addictive liquid Nagen had put it on the defensive. Captain Vitades’ use of the hologram of his former teacher had been useful and made the process of securing compliance go faster. Lotan felt he could have obtained entry permission solely by himself, but the captain’s relationship with the vessel’s artificial mind was a valuable tool. While such minds existed on many empire vessels, Lotan had never met one with the independent personality of Akantha. And this Tessene vessel was a wonder he had spent the last four annual cycles observing. Lotan felt certain he could ‘bond’ with the artificial mind if his captain ever terminated. He looked back as the entry portal closed on the employer Laserta.
The infrared glow of the captain’s body showed elevated temperature and hormonal arousal. It was an obvious reaction to a female who closely resembled Human females. While he had never met another Human, the captain was like most bipedal omnivores. Sexual responses came first while survival came second. All such bipeds would deny this fact. But it was true. And while Lotan currently identified as a male of his Torsen species, he was self-fertilizing. Which meant he would change into a female Torsen format when he wished to birth an offspring. Such dual sexuality was normal to all Torsens. Not so for most bioforms from other stars. Though he had the impression Draken the Engineer might also be dual-sexed.
“Captain, should I visit with employer Laserta before you see her this evening?” he said in a mix of clicks and pheromones. “I might convince her to be . . . less physically familiar.”
His captain’s short black hair atop his cranium shone in the white-yellow light of the chamber. The Human’s black-haired forearms tensed. His amber eyes squinted. Clearly he was exhibiting captain mode versus sexual pursuit.
“No. No thank you, Lotan,” the Human said in a mix of acoustic verbiage. “While your work with the contractor being was well done, leave my personal issues to me. I can handle this employer. As I have handled other employers in the past.”
“As you wish.” Lotan turned back and observed the yellow star of the Harl system.
The alpha male being who called himself Jake Vitades could indeed manage this employer. Lotan had observed him do similar handling—a strange Human term—with prior employers. He could accept the captain’s decision. There were plenty of other bioforms who were subject to his Torsen ability to convince them to do whatever a Torsen requested. That memory brought to his mind the image of the prairie that surrounded his clan’s homestead on their world of Calitot. The large predators still roamed the grasslands, forests and mountains of Calitot. But none of them ever attacked a Torsen. The body shimmers, hand and leg gestures and seductive pheromones had evolved to protect every Torsen from such attack. Contact with other thinking beings had given his people welcome employment among alien stars and corporations. They were jobs meant to serve a purpose. The duty of every Torsen was to act in a way that protected Calitot. Which was why he had studied the Tessene vessel and its artificial mind. While he enjoyed working with the Human Vitades, he was prepared to claim the vessel and take it to his home world if Vitades ever passed into the afterlife. But he would be loyal to Vitades until some other bioform or natural disaster claimed the captain. Loyalty was the inbuilt nature of all Torsen. And he enjoyed the surprises that ancient ruins often displayed.
Flow loved the feel of the star’s magnetic field. This far out it was a soft caress. Further inward it would strengthen into a gale. At least the plasma wind and charged particles it brought were weak this far out. Sensing ahead to detect the cluster of plasma that came with a coronal mass ejection was a talent she had developed over the years of piloting in her home star system of Evangellia and its life world of Windy Air. Working with Captain Vitades over the last four years had sharpened her abilities. Her ability to sense gravitational sinks and use them to gain both speed and shelter from the stellar winds was something she enjoyed. Almost as much as the vision of the colorful striped worlds that were gas giants. It was sad that the other crew of Akantha had never experienced the joy of flying through the winds of their home world. They only knew of flying by non-sentient birds who were part of the biome of most every oxy-nitro world that hosted life more complex than single cells.
The sound of the entry portal closing on the red-furred female who was their employer allowed her inner self to relax fully. She did not like the bipedal female. She carried the scent of a hunter. And her efforts to control the captain disturbed Flow and the other crew beings, based on what she could tell of their body language. While not an expert at body language like Lotan, her people had evolved the ability to read the intentions of groundside beings. In particular the clawed hunters. The vegetation eaters did not worry her or any member of the Lunteen. They had been a steady source of meat protein over the millennia as the Lunteen learned how to grow seed crops, build cities atop high aeries and eventually to ply the cold dark winds of space. The ground predators were few now, confined to lands empty of Lunteen. But such was ancient history, brought forth by the feel of the stellar winds and magnetic fields.
What mattered most to her were finding lifeforms who might become allies to her people. There were very few avians flying the black depths of the galaxy. The Lunteen were the only ones in this portion of the galaxy. Based on her observations of the captain she felt his Human people might become the allies her people needed. While the Humans were new to galactic society, like the Lunteen, they were energetic and willing to take risks. The captain had taken many risks in prior visits to planetary ruins. He did so now as they flew toward the Harl ruins on the fourth world. She would do her best to make this visit less risky and very rewarding. With the galactic credits she was paid she could hire researchers to gather wind songs about how Humans now behaved in the areas overseen by the Galactic Council. While she had learned much from talking to the captain, she needed more knowledge for her people. Their world Nest was at risk from an empire expanding in their part of space. She must discover if Humans could make and deploy vessels able to fight in the cold depths of space.
Draken joyed in the feel of neutrino particles passing into his body. Lying next to the fusion reactor and fusion thrusters of his vessel’s Power Chamber was a constant reward for his efforts to track and analyze the neutrino flows and gamma ray leakages from the ancient devices of this Tesseene craft. He again felt surprise at the consistent flows coming from this ancient vessel. It was older than any vessel now plying the dark depths of the galaxy. Yet it was regular in its function, reliable in its provision of hard-wired and broadcast power to all parts of the vessel, and the chamber’s ability to feed energy to the weapons mounts of the vessel was unsurpassed in his memory of service on other vessels. He was always ready to alert the Human Vitades if any malfunction occurred within the two power sources. But in the four annual cycles he had served on Akantha there had been no malfunction. Not even a momentary burp in the consistent transitions of neutrinos among their three basic forms. That consistency was a pleasure to feel.
This vessel’s power sources were less than the blasting curtain of radiation and particles which bathed his home world of Kaken. The white-blue star that provided light, warm and radiation to the lifeforms of Kaken was a stable source, despite frequent flares. Those flares had taught his Woomba people the necessity of hiding in the lava tubes that lay just below the surface of Kaken. Being in the tubes had led to the discovery of malleable metals. Melting and refining of those metals had led to congregations of Woomba and the knowledge of science and technology. Their first flight to another star, by way of the Gate at the outer edge of their system had taught them the ways of co-existing with beings used to much lesser gravity. It was a lesson Draken observed on the Akantha as Captain Vitades set the ship’s Control Chamber gravity to the level he called ‘seven-tenths gee’. That was half the gravity he and every Woomba was used to. But it was higher than the ‘one-half gee’ gravity that ruled on the world of the avian Flow. While she could fly through the air of some worlds, she treated him as he were a Lunteen like herself.
Draken valued such acceptance. It would be vital when he changed into a female and had eggs within that needed exposure to unfiltered stellar radiation. Then he would need the help of Flow, his fellow crew beings and especially the captain to find a world close to a suitable star on which he could deposit those eggs. They would eventually become white-skinned sextupeds who would have their first meal of stellar radiation. While dense metals were the normal Woomba food, unfiltered radiation could sustain Draken and any Woomba for a long time. And his inner self told him the Change was coming closer.
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