[Editor’s Note: Read the whole story from the beginning!]
Several hours later, Lozlian awoke aboard a battered old scow. It was the kind of ship that served a number of different purposes. And because such ships were used throughout the Imperium, only someone paying close attention might have found it odd that this particular vessel had taken off on a deep space trajectory. As if happened, on an average busy day in the capital city of a colony planet, no one was paying attention at all. After a generation and a half of low-key browbeating by the Kroleni, the Yonopcry operatives that ran the civil service had learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
For his part, Lozlian was oblivious to everything except the agony that had jolted his eyes open. His entire body was a mass of aches. His head throbbing, it took a good minute before he could make out the high-pitched sounds coming from somewhere in the room. As his senses came into sharper focus, he recognized the high-pitched voice of a human female. After several painful tries, he raised himself to his hands and knees.
“Eli …Eliza … beth?” he asked.
The light scamper of small, bare feet reached his ears as the human visitor ran to his side and stopped about half a meter to his right.
“Lozlian!” said Elizabeth. “I didn’t know if you were ever … Oh, I’m so glad you’re all right.”
“Not sure about that,” said the Yonopcry. “Gonna try standing. Better back up in case I … case I fall over.”
Elizabeth retreated to the other side of what Lozlian would soon recognize as the ship’s narrow cargo bay. Through half-squinted eyes, he made out the bay’s stark, functional design and drab, gray interior. Now if only he could only get his stiff back to cooperate! Maybe, he thought, if he pulled his legs under him, and started in a crouched position, he’d have a better chance of standing. With his arms outstretched and fingers spread, he eventually did get his feet under him. He took a deep breath and, with one hand gripping the corner of a large crate to his left, pushed himself up most of the way to a standing position.
If he paused halfway, it was only because it seemed his knees were a bit too … no, they were holding and with one final push, he was upright, if still too dizzy to think of walking. Hands firmly planted on the crate; he looked up cautiously at Elizabeth. Her human face, smudged with dirt, marked with bruises and wet with tears, told the story of the rough treatment she must have received.
“How long?” Lozlian croaked.
“Feels like forever,” said Elizabeth, “But I doubt it’s more than a quarter rote.”
“Are you, you know, OK?” asked Lozlian.
Elizabeth flipped her disheveled hair out of her eyes.
“Could have been worse,” said Elizabeth. “I’m just grateful that none of them were human. Don’t ask.”
Puzzled, Lozlian realized he had more important worries than every nuance of her conversation. He shuffled over to her side of the cargo bay, settled down on the edge of one of the larger wooden crates, and glanced up at the bay’s gently sloping ceiling, which was studded with bolts and layered with conduits for, he assumed, electricity and water.
“So where?” he said.
“A ship, I think,” said Elizabeth. “But I’m not sure we’re moving or still in a spaceport.”
Lozlian stared at the cargo bay’s bare metal floor.
“Probably in space,” he said. “No sense bringing us here otherwise. Maybe I can … can find the navigator’s thoughts.”
He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the bridge of a typical space vessel, based on the few times he’d been offworld for training sessions with the Kroleni. Sometimes on a small ship, there was no separate navigator. Instead, the pilot relied completely on the ship’s AI to plot its course. Lozlian’s brow furrowed. If he’d been able to study with the shaman in his old village, the task would have been much easier. But the Kroleni had arrived when he was still a young boy and changed … everything. The only thing he remembered was an odd phrase he often heard the shaman say to his mother:
Purify your thinking.
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Though he had no clear idea what the elder Yonopcry had meant, the phrase stirred something in his imagination. Almost immediately, the minds on the ship’s bridge began to come into focus. Despite being insectoid, the familiar patterns of sentient thought slid into view, like pieces in a kaleidoscope, slowly converging into a coherent mental image.
Soon, Lozlian seemed to see blue Kroleni numbers and letters displayed on a small, navigation console through the eyes of the pilot. Though these characters were as unfamiliar to Lozlian as the astrometric details they spelled out, the young Yonopcry could now tune into the mind viewing them. The ship’s position and destination were as clear to him as if he were reading the display himself. A moment later, he heard the insectoids mulling over the next stage of their mission.
Lozlian lifted his head and let his eyes blink open. Sitting opposite him on another crate was Elizabeth, her expression glum, her body tense as a drumhead.
“We’re halfway to the Nashturi asteroid belt,” he said. “About six light years out. Any idea what that adds up to?”
“Thought you’d never come out of it,” said Elizabeth. “And no, the flight data means nothing to me, except I assume the Chitinists must have a base there, you know, off the radar.”
“Guess they plan to use us as hostages,” said Lozlian. “Or maybe you. Maybe they think they can turn me into a double agent and send me back to spy on their own government.”
“Sounds about right,” said Elizabeth. “But tell me, if you found out all that out … telepathically … couldn’t you also signal for help? You know, contact one of your superiors on Tuvulot?”
Lozlian rubbed the back of his neck.
“Wish I could,” he said. “But they’re too far away. I haven’t had the training the old shamans had. And anyway, my mother said they used to sit in a circle, hold hands to combine their thoughts when they needed to reach a mind on a nearby planet. Even if I knew how, connecting to my homeworld at this distance on my own would probably fry my brain.”
The young human female stood and began pacing.
“Not worth it,” she said. “But there has to be something we can do. I don’t want to think about how worried Father must me.”
Lozlian tried to reassure her that Achimlemoor and the other members of the Kroleni Council must know where the Chitinist home base was and would anticipate their moves once the ship arrived in the asteroid belt. Yet all the while he was talking, Elizabeth foraged around the cargo bay for anything that might help them escape.
Sadly, instead of uncovering a crate of contraband lase rifles, all she found was several large crates of food. Lozlian’s eyes widened as the seemingly fragile young woman smashed a heavy metallic orb containing, who-knows-what into one of the lightweight wooden crates.
“Dried fish,” she said. “Who knew insectoids ate that?”
“Pretty sure this is a Yonopcry ship,” said Lozlian. “Far as I know, the Chitinists don’t yet have wealthy backers. They probably hijacked a mini freighter from a local delivery service. Surprised it could travel this far. Hey, can I ask you something?”
Cautiously, considering the tight quarters they were in, Lozlian asked Elizabeth if there was any truth to the story Ralshinatinoor had told him the night before in the town square — or to Humsecta’s warning about the Kroleni’s plan to weaponize her father’s star drive.
“What?” said Elizabeth. “No! The star drive has only one purpose, as far as I know. And to your other question, my father hates non-humans, sorry to say. But he hopes the new star drive will earn us back a little independence. I don’t what it was like for your people. We had a high-tech culture of our own, going back hundreds of cycles. We put up a bloody fight, except the Kroleni … they were too far ahead of us in every way. They were also more unified.”
In response to Lozlian’s quizzical expression, Elizabeth explained that one of the obstacles the humans faced was their own internal division. A significant faction of human opportunists wanted to capitulate to the Kroleni right from the start, in exchange for special treatment. Worse, they couched their political position in false religious terms and claimed that one of the humans’ most ancient sacred texts had prophesied the arrival of the insectoids
“It’s sickening,” said Elizabeth. “But our history has always been mixed.”
“It was different for us,” said Lozlian. “Our shamans fought hard against the Kroleni, but we were a simple people. Still are, really. When the chance came for me to go to a Kroleni school and live a better life, my mother pushed me into it. Now, I don’t know any other way to live. But my father was a little like yours.”
“Was?” asked Elizabeth.
Lozlian’s shoulder shook, and he covered his round eyes with one furry hand.
“I barely knew him,” he said. “He got a rare infection, maybe from the Kroleni, that made his pelt fall out.”
Though the Kroleni were more than capable of curing him, Gastrilan refused any help from ‘the bugs’ and preferred to die when the local shaman’s last treatments failed.
“Sorry to hear….” said Elizabeth.
“Yes, so sorry,” said a reedy voice behind them.
The two captives turned around to see Ralshinatinoor leaning against the round entryway to the cargo bay with his spindly arms folded across his narrow chest.
“Sorry to interrupt this melodrama,” he said, “but we’ll be landing soon, and you’ll need to strap in. Tough luck. Our luxury passenger cruiser is in for repair. Come on, get up.”
“What do you care what happens to us?” asked Elizabeth. “I’m more inclined to stay here and get squashed between two big crates than be your bargaining chip.”
“Oh, my child,” said the Chitinist. “You’re as bad as my fuzzy friend. So much to learn.”
Ralshinatinoor made a hand signal in the air. A bulky servicebot clomped in and dragged them to a pair of low-slung acceleration chairs at the back of the bridge. Despite Elizabeth’s futile resistance, she was strapped in almost immediately. Lozlian, who had no illusions of making an heroic escape, did the robots’ work for them.
“Soon, my children,” said Ralshinatinoor, “you will witness the future of the Kroleni Imperium. In a way, I envy you, seeing this vision for the first time.”
Lozlian shook his head.
“I’ve seen it,” he said. “At the bottom of a trash can.”
In a blur of motion, the Chitinist produced a e-mag knife from his sleeve and held it up to the Yonopcry’s neck — close enough to singe quite a few strands of fur with its quietly buzzing blade.
“Yes!” said Ralshinatinoor. “Just the sharp wit we want in our new order. But it needs … redirection.”
With that, he stormed up to the front of the bridge, only to call out over his shoulder.
“You’ll see who holds the upper hand in this universe. I’ll give you a hint: If you want to win your freedom from the Imperium, you’ll have to fight like the sand devils of Caliens 3. You’ll never take it back with weakness.”
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Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.