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Excerpt for Star Destiny Episode Three by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Star Destiny

Episode Three

Copyright © 2018 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com

 



Star Destiny

Episode Three





There’s no going back now….

Williams is determined to do two things – find Celena and…?

Hand her back to the Emperor or help her? He can’t get her tear-streaked face out of his mind. It haunts his thoughts as he heads to a shady mining outpost. With the Duke controlling this section of space, Williams has to find some new friends. It’ll cost him, though. As he’s drawn further down the rabbit hole of shady deals, merciless merchants, and ex Royal slaves, Celena must fight the Duke. For the Duke has plans that will not stop until they swallow the very universe, and he will use Celena’s own hands to achieve them.

Tune in for the thrilling third instalment in the action-paced, sprawling intergalactic fantasy, Star Destiny.

Chapter 1

Williams

Was he alive? Yeah, he was alive. For now.

It had been a week. Read that, an entire week since he’d managed to escape Halifax Two. He hadn’t reached Celena, but he had reached a mining outpost.

There were two things he could be thankful for.

His rust bucket of an old merchant ship hadn’t crumbled out from underneath him, and neither had the universe.

He kept scanning every single galactic and intergalactic news feed he could, looking for any information to suggest Duke Parin had made a play for universal control. Not of course that the idiot would be that stupid to play his hand that quickly. If he really planned to use Celena to overcome the Emperor, it would be no easy task.

Williams walked forward, dragging the merchant cloak he’d stolen from a trader at the Holcomb markets further around his shoulders. He hunkered underneath it, drawing his arms close, but most importantly, dragging it over his human features. Technically, there was no need to bother. This mining colony was out in the middle of nowhere Andromeda. Nobody cared what race you came from. All they cared about was how many credits were in your pocket. Which was why the first thing Williams had done had been to service the guns he’d claimed off the scavengers and pirates back on Halifax Two.

The range rifle had been a truly lucky find. A sophisticated range weapon, now he’d made some key modifications, it would be effective at short or long distances. It was exactly the kind of gun you needed on a shit-hole planet like this. It was a loud, blaring advert not to mess with Williams.

As he made his way through the back, cramped alleyways of the main city of this colony, he always kept his rifle on a strap over his shoulder – there for everyone to see as it swung with every purposeful step.

Just like the modified pirate gun he’d found in the patrol ship before they’d crash-landed on Halifax Two, he’d coded this gun into his neural link. All it would take was a single command – one that would take a split second to give – and the gun would swing up into his hand. Hell, this thing was so sophisticated, he could get it to shoot before it reached his finger.

As soon as he tugged his cloak sufficiently over his shoulders, he let his open palm and stiff fingers brush over the smooth metal of the gun’s power chamber.

He remembered times like this. Back when your weapon was your best friend, and just like your best friend, you treated it to everything it needed.

He’d already bought a new, more powerful zoom scope for it. One he would be able to make some slight modifications to that would ensure it could pick up Imperial armor, even at a distance of over 100 kilometers.

He rounded a corner, heading into an even darker section of the city.

The city, like so many around the universe, was built upward and downward. There were no squat buildings wasting space. One of the main mines on this colony world was only 50 kilometers due east. So the city was heavily populated. But it wasn’t a rich place. It didn’t have privilege and money like Jeopardy Station. It was just scummy, cobbled-together towers stacked on top of one another.

As he walked down the darkened alleyway, jets of atmospheric gases and steam escaped broken pipes above him, clouds of gasses breaking around his body as he strode forward.

He still had the armor he’d stolen off those pirates and scavengers. Better than that, he’d found some useful tech in the belly of the merchant vessel. Whoever had owned that ship, had possessed some skills indeed.

They’d been running Q crystals – the small belly of the ship had been full of them. Technically illegal, but insanely profitable.

Williams was carrying several in his pocket now as he marched toward the less reputable section of town. Not of course that a place like this was ever reputable.

If Williams paused long enough, he would start to appreciate just how far he’d fallen. Or maybe just how far he’d come. He hadn’t technically fallen yet. Nothing he’d done was illegal. Though he should have attempted to contact Imperial Forces as soon as he’d reached a colony, with Duke Parin in control of this entire section of the Andromeda Galaxy, he couldn’t be certain the bastard wouldn’t intercept his communication. In fact, he could be certain that Parin would try.

So even if Williams was still loyal to the Emperor, this was a legitimate course of action.

It took Williams a second to shake his head as he appreciated what he’d just thought.

He was still loyal to the Emperor, right? Because even if Celena had managed to tug at his heartstrings with her sob story, he was a rational man. Williams had always been a rational man. That was what had set him apart, goddammit. It was the sole reason he was still alive in an otherwise brutal universe that wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at his needless death.

Those thoughts and more swirled through Williams’ consciousness. They’d been doing that for the past week. There was something about being trapped in a rickety rust bucket of a ship that really locked you into your own circular thoughts.

Williams took another step, and his mind sharpened. It happened on its own, his senses kicking into gear. It was just in time.

He heard the percussive beat of footsteps falling into sync behind him.

Williams didn’t reach for his gun. He connected to it, though, and he got ready.

Just a few more steps, and he became aware of the fact that there were two glinting green eyes staring at him from on top of an atmospheric pipe junction only two meters above him.

It was a trap, ha?

Smart.

But it wouldn’t work today.

Just as Williams took a step underneath those barely-visible glinting eyes, he commanded his gun to blast out. It was just as it swayed behind him, and the seemingly random shot arced wide enough that it caught two attackers who’d suddenly appeared from holo camouflage behind him.

Williams instantly shifted, falling onto his back as he rolled, pushed, and lashed out with his fist. It connected to the creature above just as it sailed down. Before it could sink magnetic hooks through the back of Williams’ skull and kill him in a single, lethal move, Williams let out a blast of breath and kicked. His armored boot slammed into the chest of the creature, knocking it backward a good 10 meters.

Williams was still wearing his modified armor. There was no damn way he would take it off on a planet like this.

As the creature sailed through the air and struck the metal wall with an almighty clang, Williams recognized it.

A Na’irn assassin.

Sophisticated.

Part robot, part biological. Rumor had it they were a failed experiment of the Emperor’s.

Just another secret force Shan had created over the years to bolster his iron grip on the universe.

Unlike the Ares’ Daughters, however, the Na’irn assassins were uncontrollable. Vicious, too. They tended to turn on their commanders with far too much ease, and it didn’t matter how lethal your weapon was if you couldn’t damn well stop it from going for your throat. Which is precisely what this assassin did as it pounced with a hiss, its robotic arms moving in a flash as it propelled itself forward with a jump like a leopard.

Though the lucky shot Williams had managed to blast off behind him had caught his two rear assailants, it hadn’t been a direct blow, and with a hiss of metallic joints, he realized they were cyborgs too.

Fun bunch, he thought wryly just as he commanded the thrusters in his knees to engage. The next thing anyone knew, Williams jumped up a good 30 meters, the stored kinetic energy in his thrusters blasting out in one continuous pulse.

He managed to turn the gun around in his hand as he sailed upward, and just as he reached the zenith of his jump, he let out a blast. It wasn’t precise. He relied on force instead. With his neural link, he commanded the gun to discharge its special function, and a bolt of energy 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters powered down into the alley.

It hit the metal, warped ground plating of the alley and gouged a hole 20 meters across.

As Williams sailed down, his modified armor instantly kicked into gear, a shield protecting his body from the chunks of cascading molten metal spewing around him.

He reoriented himself as he fell so he didn’t land in the crater of smoldering bodies and hot metal.

He landed with a thump, one armored fist angled down as he drew his face up and stared at his handiwork.

The two cyborgs that had attacked him from behind were down, just a twitching leg left of one, and nothing more than a patch of visor remaining from the other.

The assassin was still alive. Partially.

That blast had torn a chunk out of the side of the creature’s head. And though the blow would’ve been enough to kill any creature that actually relied on its brain, the assassin was still alive.

For now.

Confident that his shield could protect him from anything the assassin might be able to produce in its dying moments, Williams walked forward, allowing the rifle to swing back into his grip.

He approached the assassin, the rifle pointed down, the muzzle glowing with a fatal white charge of energy.

He didn’t say anything. The creature didn’t say anything, either.

Did someone send you?” Williams finally managed as his neural link used the limited proximity scanners of his modified armor to ensure that the assassin was really dying.

Opportunities cost.”

Williams snorted, the sound dulled as he kept most of his attention focused on the assassin.

The creature looked brutal. But just before he could conclude that all of Shan’s creations were just as hideous, he instantly thought of Celena, and his finger tightened on the trigger. “You mean you saw an opportunity to kill me? You should’ve thought more about taking on someone with my weaponry and skills.”

The assassin managed to chuckle. It sounded artificial. It was. It was no doubt just one of the many behavioral programs the Emperor had built into it so it could mimic the expressions and behaviors of other races.

We were built to kill. And we cannot help but do that which we were made for.”

Williams found himself twitching.

An image of Celena’s tear-streaked cheeks slammed into his mind.

No more playing around. Williams brought up the gun, lowering the firepower so he didn’t blast another 20-meter chunk into the already obliterated ground. “You’re wrong. The Emperor might have built you to kill, but you’re sentient. And if you’re sentient,” Williams said through a long hissing breath, “then you have a choice. We all do.”

With that, Williams tightened his finger on the trigger.

He paused as his own words struck him.

He lowered his gun.

The assassin was far too injured to attack Williams again.

So Williams turned on his foot.

He saw the assassin’s green eyes twisting to follow him.

There was a question there burning amongst the hatred in the Na’irn’s eyes. Why had Williams let the assassin go? Because he was still determined to prove Celena wrong. He was a good man. Goddammit, he was a good man.

Chapter 2

Celena

It had been a week.

Her cuffs should have degraded naturally by now. They hadn’t, because there was something she’d learned over the past seven days. Duke Parin was no fool. He knew precisely what he was doing.

The scavenger ship had quickly rendezvoused after four days of thrashing its engines with a Royal cruiser. It must’ve been the seat of Parin’s power in this section of the Andromeda Galaxy. Royal representatives like him rarely stationed themselves on planets in areas as poor as this. The money it would take to make some outer post, asteroid world, or mining colony appropriate for a representative of the Emperor was prohibitive. It was much smarter to simply have a ship. That way Parin could preside over his domain without having to get his hands dirty.

She was in his ship now.

Specifically, she was in his regeneration room.

As she’d already pointed out, and every single person in the universe knew, the Shan Imperial family had access to technology no one else did.

Though certain regenerative processes were available even with simple medical technology, the Emperor kept eternal regeneration for himself and his family.

Shan was over 2000 years old. He still looked like a 30-year-old man, but there was something about his gaze that betrayed just how many years he’d been torturing the universe for.

She shook her head as she thought about it now, even if it meant she made the pool of luminescent blue water around her splash.

Sensors on the far side of the pool protested that her movements were interrupting with the flow of the liquid around her.

Immediately, an impediment field squeezed into place, pressing against her shoulders, locking her arms down against her sides and shoving her head forward until her chin and nose dragged against the liquid. It wasn’t water. Water couldn’t keep you eternally regenerated, never allowing your body or appearance to degrade, no matter how many years passed.

She had no idea what this substance really was – what unique process allowed it to work its magic. It was yet just another incredible technology the Emperor had stolen. Even with the best scientists in the universe, most of Shan’s superior power came from objects and devices he’d taken from others.

There had been countless races throughout the universe that had reached technological superiority only for their civilizations to fall to the ravages of time. All those races had left their unique technologies on abandoned worlds, floating through remote asteroid fields, or dotted in the pitiless Divides between galaxies.

Who knows what civilization Shan had stolen these regenerative pools from, but they undoubtedly formed the backbone of his control. Without them, Shan would eventually have to die like the rest of the sorry citizens of the universe he presided over.

This was not the first time she’d been in a regenerative pool. But while the pool had swiftly and quickly dealt with the remaining burn to her ankle that the medical equipment on Halifax Two hadn’t been able to repair, it wasn’t here to keep her young.

It was here to keep her cuffs functioning. A side effect of the pool was that it was regenerating the capacity of the cuffs to keep her locked in place.

It wouldn’t last forever. As soon as she was out of the pool, her cuffs would degrade, more quickly than before.

But that would be predicated on the fact she would ever be able to get out of this pool. As she’d already said, Parin knew exactly what he was doing.

Though she’d been alone with nothing to do but stare at the intricate, carved walls of this pool room until now, she jerked her head up to watch the door open.

Outside she saw two stunning members of crew bowing, their dresses shifting seamlessly around their legs as Parin strode in.

Anyone who worked directly for the Royal family in a serving position was nothing more than a glorified slave. You could not leave. You had to do what you were told, and at any moment, you could fall prey to the wrath of those who thought they were eternally better than you.

Celena controlled her expression as Parin walked in.

She stared at him, her lips pressed tightly closed, her face nothing more than stiff watchfulness.

He breathed, then the bastard disgustingly licked his front teeth, his tongue darting from between his stiff lips.

She could see the greed glinting in his eyes.

Have you come to stare at me and lick your lips again, Duke?” she asked, allowing disdain to filter through her tone.

It snapped him out of his greedy reverie, and she watched with some satisfaction as his lips jerked so harshly, he could have snapped the muscles beneath. “You will never use that tone on me again. I am your leader. I expect the same deference you gave to my cousin,” he said, snarling as he spat the word cousin.

She arched an eyebrow. “You mean, you expect me to outsmart you and outrun you?”

The Duke snarled.

He closed his fingers into tight, bloodless fists as he took an angry step toward her, rage opening his eyes wide.

Celena didn’t move. She simply smiled.

It took only a second until Parin’s anger subsided as reality caught up with him.

Though you are welcome to beat me, my Duke,” she spat with spite, putting even more derision into the word this time, “this pool will only heal me. You could remove me from it,” her lips tugged up into a wide, white smile, “but then you may not be able to beat me. Understand that even though this pool is preventing my cuffs from degrading for now, as soon as you remove me from the pool, the degradation process will speed up. Would you like me to detail what I will do to you once these cuffs are off?” Water sloshed around her, shifting slowly as she brought up her hands, revealing her cuffs.

Though her movement wasn’t sudden, the impediment field responded, locking her down until she became subservient once more.

She sunk, her chin sinking beneath the water as it lapped against her closed but smiling lips.

Parin took several seconds to compose himself. Then that look of total arrogance returned – the one that told Celena that at least in the Duke’s eyes, his victory over the Emperor, and thus the universe, was already a fait accompli. “In time, you will change.”

She snarled through laughter, as there was nothing the impediment field could do to stop her from showing her disdain as long as she stayed relatively still. “If you expect me to become loyal to you, understand that it is nothing more than a fantasy. I will fight you, every second of every day.” She tilted her head down as she said that, and even though she knew her eyes were dulled, she hoped they were just bright enough to remind this idiot of what she truly was.

He didn’t swallow, showing the fear that should be there. Instead, he laughed. It was a grating, truly unpleasant sound. “I do not expect you to show loyalty to me naturally. You will be forced.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t possess the same technology that Shan does. You cannot control me like he did.”

The Duke’s eyes glittered. It was such an off-putting move that even though she didn’t want to show weakness in front of him, she found herself swallowing.

You think I would’ve been foolish enough to make such a costly move against Shan,” he spat out the Emperor’s name, “if I did not have the correct tools under my belt? Do you think you are the only Ares’ Daughter who has crossed my path?”

Her lips pressed together as chill recognition shook through her chest. She wanted to deny what he was saying, but the look in his eyes couldn’t be mistaken. “You managed to capture another Ares’ Daughter?” Her voice shook.

In a manner of speaking,” he said with a smile that marched up his lips and pressed high and hard into his brow.

That, right there, was the look of a man who was insane. Not the maniacal kind of insane of someone who was simply disconnected from reality. It was the kind of insane of somebody who disagreed with what reality currently was and had every intention to break it and remake it anew.

Be silent. Rest. It will be your last chance to recuperate for some time,” the Duke said as he ticked his head down, his chin nestling close to his chest. Shadows pooled under his eyes.

It was a look of pure menace. Though Celena had seen such looks before, with the unstable quality the Duke seemed to embody, it had a rawer, rougher edge. It reminded her of a dagger. One you could use to slice right through the fabric of the universe, let alone flesh.

She found herself swallowing again, the move hard as her throat bounced in and out.

She sank down so he couldn’t see her neck. She never stopped staring at him.

If you think Shan will simply roll over, you’re a fool.”

I know Shan better than you.”

She laughed. “I doubt that. Whatever your plans are, Duke, I wouldn’t—”

My plans have been in motion for hundreds of years. They are the fruition of many a man’s sacrifice. Worry not about them, Ares’ Daughter. Worry instead about your future.”

Her stomach twitched at that threat, and it reminded her of the signet ring she’d seen when they’d been traveling through the halls of the scavenger ship.

The Undone Sect.

She’d always thought they were nothing more than a terrifying myth. Or perhaps Shan had conveniently told his followers they were a myth to hide the fact he could have such a terrifying adversary.

The sect, according to the few stories she knew, was ancient. Their roots reached right back into the oldest space-faring races.

She had no idea what they stood for – no one did. But they were killers. And acquirers. They would gut ships out in the Divides where no one would miss them. They would shadow worlds. They would blast through transports, killing everyone and scrounging every scrap of technology they could.

And here was Parin wearing a ring that hid their mark.

Parin took several more seconds to smile at her, the look in his eyes disconnected as it was clear he paid more attention to the thoughts and greed ravaging his mind than the world around him.

With one more curling smile, he turned and walked out, leaving her alone once more.

She pushed down into the pool of viscous blue water, feeling it lap around her.

She closed her eyes, forcing away that sense of unbelievable calm that came with resting in a regenerative pool.

She settled her mind on the task ahead.

Though she would’ve done anything and given anything to destroy Shan, at the same time, she could not let a man like Parin ascend to the throne of the universe.

But Celena had to be realistic. She was only one woman, and even as an Ares’ Daughter, there was only so much she could do.

She was alone, and as long as she remained alone, her actions would not count.

Chapter 3

Williams

He’d been in seedy bars like this too many times to count. Not so much over the past 10 years, but there were memories buried deep in his muscles of the time he’d worked the transport routes.

Brutal memories, to be exact.

You walk into a shady bar like this in any of the outer colonies of the numerous galaxies of the universe, and you’ve always got to be prepared for one thing – fights.

You combine alcohol with gambling with poverty, and you always get an eruption of the chaos that seethes in the cesspits of the universe.

This place was no different.

As he walked down the metal gangway, every single step echoing out as his armor jostled heavily around him, he let his sharp, trained gaze skip over the bar.

It was a horseshoe shape made of reclaimed flight decking that sat in the middle of the room.

Brightly colored glass circular bottles of liquid were arranged in what looked like recommissioned weapons racks behind the counter.

The staff who worked the counter – expertly combining drinks and handing them over to the foulmouthed patrons – all wore weapons. Knives and guns hung off them like jewelry might hang off some esteemed guest at Jeopardy Station.

Knowing the rules all too well, as Williams strode down the steps, he kept a hand clasped over the freshly polished barrel of his gun.

He pulled his cloak away until it was no longer on his shoulders and everyone could see the glinting armor that covered his torso, shoulders, hands, wrists, knees, legs, and the back of his head.

He would look like a mishmash. That was the point.

Any fool with even bare knowledge of functioning armor units would be able to tell that Williams had scrounged together armor from three different forces, including Imperial fighters. Which would tell everyone two things – Williams was a hell of an engineer, but his engineering skills were outmatched by his fearlessness. Only a fool would attack the pirates, scavengers, and Imperial Forces and steal their goods.

More than a few men and women turned and stared at him as he strode through the cramped bar.

The first thing you noticed in a bar like this – other than all the goons reaching for their weapons to kill you – was the smell. Every single offensive scent you could imagine was all wrapped up in one and sprinkled on top with liberal amounts of alcohol.

It was an insult to the senses. He often wondered if it was designed that way so that sensitive humans like him would be so overcome by the stench, it would be easier to steal their stuff.

Williams wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted.

The half helmet clamped on the back of his skull had a range of shield modulations, and he currently had it set to an atmosphere filter.

It would filter out the worst scents, ensuring Williams didn’t drop dead by the time he reached the bar.

He sauntered over to it. The tables before the bar were cramped, and the huge-bodied men and women sitting on the reclaimed stools were just as big. It meant you inadvertently had to jostle people to get to the counter.

And yeah, Williams shouldn’t have to tell you that jostling someone in a bar like this was the equivalent of punching their grandmother.

Sure enough, his armored shoulder banged harshly against a massive Bora warrior.

As soon as it did, the warrior jumped to his feet, the flashing look in his eyes telling Williams the guy had probably deliberately sat there just for the opportunity to knock out any fool dumb enough to rub shoulders with him.

The warrior had a chance to open his mouth.

Williams reached forward, opened his armored hand, and sent a quick neural command to it.

He’d spent a lot of time over the last seven days modifying his armor.

He’d pulled several of the magnetic pulse coils out of the merchant ship – the ones the engine could run without – and he’d linked them up to the wrist units of his armor.

With just a command, he could send a near-lethal charge zapping between his fingers.

Which is precisely what he did now. He reached up, pushing onto his tiptoes to get to the warrior’s shoulder. He slammed his thumb and finger down onto the guy’s massive shoulder blade, and he growled, “Sit down.” He sent a charge zapping from his armor unit into the guy’s shoulder.

It wasn’t enough to kill him or throw him across the room and shatter his big body against the wall. It was, however, enough to turn the man’s legs into jelly.

He wobbled and fell back down onto his stool.

As the guy’s idiotic friends went for their guns, Williams spread a hand toward them, charges of electricity zapping between his thumb and little finger. “If anyone else wants to play, I’m more than willing.”

The large aliens looked at each other, then sank back down.

Williams let his hand drop, though he didn’t immediately allow the electricity to discharge.

He finally made his way up to the bar.

He didn’t lean down, lock an elbow against it, call the closest bartender, and pick his poison.

Because it probably was poison.

He’d spied one or two humans crammed in between the large aliens frequenting this bar, but he could bet they would have brought their own booze.

On a mining world like this, you didn’t want to die from a batch of poisoned alien alcohol. It was a heck of a lot more pleasant to be squished in a cave-in or to be mugged by assassins.

So sure as hell Williams wasn’t here to drink.

He made that clear as he reached into his pocket, brought out the Q crystals from the merchant ship, and slammed them down on the counter.

He wasn’t trying to crush the crystals. He used his metallic armor to make contact with the counter instead, ensuring the sound of it rang out above people’s voices.

With one hand still on his gun, Williams turned around, arranged the crystals before him, and shrugged his shoulders. “Who’s interested?”

Were these crystals illegal?

You betcha. Williams had already pointed that out.

But would they be popular?

Absolutely.

Sure enough, as the people closest to the bar saw the crystals neatly lined up on the counter, they rose. One or two actually licked their lips.

Williams chuckled, his voice raspy. “I’m gonna want a pretty penny for these, boys,” he said as he flashed his gaze toward two particularly poor-looking transport captains. “Only highrollers, please.”

He heard one of the bartenders grumble from behind him. “This is a decent establishment.”

Williams tipped his head back and laughed, making no effort to modulate the force of his voice as it bounced around the room. “Sure it is. I’ll be sure to let you bid too.”

That shut the bartender up. He took a step back, even reached forward and polished the bench of a splash of acidic alcohol so it wouldn’t distract from the view of Williams’ crystals.

Was this dangerous?

Unquestionably.

Williams had to continuously scan the environment with not just his eyes, but his neural link.

There were so many weapons in this establishment, even with a full set of functioning armor, he would still have difficulty tracking them all.

As it was, he had to rely on his instincts.

They were rough and raw after nearly two weeks of being on the run.

But they were still functioning, and that’s all that counted.

He made quick assessments of anybody who came up to the bar, brutally telling those who couldn’t afford it to piss off.

Problem was, that left him with the truly shady characters.

It usually takes criminals of fine repute to be able to make it on worlds like this.

If you have even a scrap of conscience and try to do the right thing, then you will never rise through the grime.

There will always be people who are trying to take advantage of you.

And as five potential buyers lined up in front of Williams, he could see from only looking in their darkened gazes that they would be the worst of the worst on this mining world.

He straightened up. Not once did he ever take his hand off the butt of his gun.

He was connected to it sufficiently that with only one thought, he’d be able to make it fire.

Though technically the muzzle was directed at his feet – he wouldn’t blow his own leg off to make a point. He’d set the gun for a wide pulse, one that would momentarily blind anyone foolish enough to get too close to it. It would give him all the time he would need to hightail it out of here.

A particularly shady looking Banya took a step in front of the four other criminals.

The guy was huge.

Maybe he had a little human in him, because his otherwise blunt Banya features – from his massive, wide, drooling lips, to his huge three-slitted nostrils –were softened by two very human eyes. “I have buyer,” he said with broken syntax as he licked his lips with a purple tongue that only tracked more saliva across the glistening flesh. It trickled down the side of his face, splashed over his chin, and marked his collar.

You’d think the guy would wear some kind of waterproof fabric, or at least something that would wick his constant saliva up and dry it. He didn’t; there was a permanent wet patch that spread down the front of his chest.

Williams reached over, curled his fingers around the three Q crystals, and brought them in until they were hidden by the bulk of his gauntlet. “I’m not interested in potential buyers. I’m interested in real buyers. If you don’t have cash on you right now, then I’m not going—”

The guy took a step forward. It was threatening. And with a bulky, seven-foot muscular form like his, he could pull off threatening alarmingly well.

Williams didn’t allow a single one of his features to twitch. He slowly pressed his lips together as if he was bored by the man’s intimidating act.

He also slowly lifted his gun. He didn’t point it at the guy’s drool-covered throat, but he did tap his armored finger against it, the sound ringing out for everyone to hear. “This is not my first rodeo. I will not respond to threats. I will only respond to cold hard universal credits. Now, if you don’t have them, I suggest you back off.”

What does human want?”

So many things. But for one crystal, I’m gonna settle for 8000 credits.”

Two of the criminals behind slumped as they realized they couldn’t pay.

Though greed still flashed in their eyes, they were obviously wise enough to know that Williams was not the kind to be bargained with – especially not with a gun in his hands.

They peeled off.

That left the three criminals including the drool-covered idiot in front of Williams.

For two crystals, I’m going to cut you a deal for 15,000 credits. For three crystals, that’s going to skip up to 30,000 credits.”

You’d think raising the price like that wouldn’t make any sense, but when it came to Q crystals, three was the magic number. Get three Q crystals, and you could potentially upgrade a simple intergalactic pulse drive to one that could take on a Divide.

The two other criminals behind Mr. Saliva peeled away, their faces alive with disappointment and rage – but fortunately the rage was mollified as soon as Williams tapped the side of his gun once more.

That just left the Banya.

I take it you don’t have the credits on you, ha? No deal.” Williams swept up the crystals and put them in his pocket, keeping a magnetic lock on his gun while he did. Even though he didn’t have his hand around the trigger, it floated up beside him using the thrusters on its back.

The Banya kept looking at him, his gaze sharp. “Buyer. What does human really want?”

Williams doubted this guy was a counselor who was trying to get at the heart of Williams’ troubles – Williams’ many troubles.

He would be a go-between.

Yeah, a lot of people on mining planets like this claimed they wanted credits, but quite often what they really wanted was to get the hell out of here.

Williams pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

He decided to gamble.

I want two things. I want a cruiser – one with split drives. And I want information.”

The guy’s eyes widened. Either they were human, or he had DNA from a similar race, because Williams could tell they were widening with interest. “Information I can provide. Come. You can get your ship, too. It will cost you more crystals, though.”

Williams laughed. “What makes you think I have more crystals?”

Human arrogant. Humans are weak, small, useless. Only arrogant when they hold all the cards. So you must have more crystals.”

Williams couldn’t fault the man’s logic. But perhaps he could fault his own. If Williams was back working the transport routes, there was no damn way he would trust an alien like this.

Yet Williams still took a step forward.

He quickly assessed the other aliens in the bar, concentrating primarily on their expressions – not the way they were looking at him and his coveted Q crystals, but how they were looking at the guy.

Were they frightened?

Yes. Though people in bars like this knew that the last thing you wanted to look was frightened, when it came to this hulking great Banya, obviously that rule did not count. Which meant one thing. This guy, whoever he was, was a force to be reckoned with. Or, more likely, whoever he worked for was a force to be reckoned with.

Williams had to make a decision. He’d lied. A cruiser wasn’t the most important thing he needed. His mission, whatever the hell it technically was anymore, would live and die on information. He had to find out more about the Duke, and critically, where the bastard had taken Celena.

Before Williams could question once more what he would do once he had that information – whether he would break her out or whether he should call the Imperial Forces, he focused on the Banya.

We’ll only meet on neutral territory,” Williams said. “I don't like making deals in places that I don’t control.”

Neither does Susie.”

Williams used his neural link to replay what the man had said. The guy had a considerable lisp considering how much saliva perpetually ran down his lips, but he had said Susie, right?

Sure, the universe was full of many races, and each one of them pronounced the Standard Universal Language differently, even if they knew it to begin with, but Williams got the impression this idiot really meant Susie.

Not a great name for a criminal mastermind. But whatever. If he could get information, Williams didn't care if he had to deal with someone who sounded like they served pies at a space diner.

He nodded. Then he pointed upstairs. “Let’s take these negotiations to the next level, shall we?”

The Banya smiled. It was a specific kind of smile. Williams didn’t need to look up the empathy database on Banyas to figure out what it meant.

It was the smile of a spider that had just caught its prey.

Yeah, well, Williams had brought enough firepower to blast out of any web.

Time to show the universe he wasn’t messing around.

He shrugged forward, and together he left with the Banya.

Chapter 4

Celena

There was a limit to how long the Duke could keep her in this healing pool, and that limit was reached later that day.

It was just when an impending sense of doom started to build in Celena’s gut, twisting high into her throat, that the door opened once more.

She could feel the woman long before she walked through the door. Specifically, she could feel her power.

Though Celena knew that the impediment field would snap into place if she attempted to push out of the pool suddenly, that didn’t stop her from jerking back.

Her face rose just a few centimeters out of the viscous liquid before she felt an impossible weight pushing down on her shoulders and locking her in place.


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