Blue Guardian, page 1part #1 of Hybrid Series
BOOKS BY S.J. MADILL
HMCS Borealis series:
Realm of Elinth
(book 2 - coming late 2019)
Summoned: Magic Comes to Whiteport
© Copyright 2019 by S.J. Madill
All rights reserved
No portion of this book may be reproduced, scanned, altered, or distributed in any commercial or non-commercial use without the express written consent of the author. Exception is made for quotes used in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to individuals, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Once again, the 'Five Readers of the Apopsicle' have worked their unique and curious magic: they've turned something I wrote into something better.
I am lucky to share a universe with them.
Moms are awesome.
In the Earth year 1606, the Horlan invaded our galaxy. All that stood against them were the Palani: an ancient race whose genetic science had given them immortality but rendered them sterile.
When a plague drove away the Horlan, there were few Palani left: only five worlds remained out of an empire of thousands. Once-vibrant planets had become graves for the fallen race.
By the time the Horlan returned in 2304, a new race had joined the stars: the Humans. It was the young race's turn to bear the burden of fighting the Horlan. The humans were equal to the task, and one ship — the Borealis — undertook a daring mission that helped drive the Horlan from the galaxy forever.
As it had for the Palani before them, victory came at a cost for the Humans. Hundreds of worlds lay in ruins, including their beloved Earth. In the meantime, Palani geneticists had created the first Palani/Human hybrids; their final bid to avoid extinction.
Now, after forty years of peace, Humans look to the future. The Palani remember their past, as they patrol the uninhabited 'grave worlds' of their former empire.
But to the millions of displaced humans living in refugee camps, the empty Palani grave worlds are filled with ancient treasure, free for the taking…
Dustin stumbled through the frozen swamp. His legs were cold and heavy as he sloshed through the knee-deep water. The thin layer of ice cracked as he moved, leaving white shards floating in his wake.
"Keep going, kid," gasped Earl behind him. "Don't stop."
The gunfire had ended, but the red-treed swamp still echoed with eerie sounds: his and Earl's breathing, the sounds of splashing water, and the cracking of the ice. But there were other sounds, too, from the blood-coloured forest: the rattle of branches, the whistling of wind.
Dustin stopped, turning back to face Earl. "Look, maybe if we—"
"No," Earl grunted, shoving Dustin aside as he passed. He was dragging the heavy duffel bag behind him; it ploughed a path through the thin ice. "We aren't waiting. And keep your damn voice down. Just get to the ship."
Dustin heard a crack somewhere behind them, but all he saw was a wall of red: leaves and vines as far as he could see, stretching overhead to create a crimson canopy that blocked out the darkening sky. A jagged trail of broken ice led back the way they'd come; a blind man could easily follow them. Dustin swallowed, and started after Earl.
Just one week, the Jaljal trader had said. Three days out, three days back. There were hundreds of planets within easy reach, all covered with Palani ruins. What were once cities were now water-filled craters, but the smaller ruins were full of treasure, free for the taking. The Palani loved their gold: religious artifacts, ornaments, personal jewellery and effects. Sure, there was the occasional Palani patrol — the blue-bloods thrived on frozen planets like this — but that made the artifacts all the more valuable. And, Dustin thought, an empty stomach changed ideas about risk.
There was another sound behind him; it was closer now. Dustin glanced over his shoulder but saw only the wall of trees and vines, and the ripples he'd left in his wake. He gulped a deep breath and wiped his nose with his sleeve. He could hardly feel his legs any more. His hands were cold, and covered in red slime from the trees; his fingers slipped whenever he grabbed at a branch to pull himself ahead. Red-leafed vines dangled in front of his face, clawing at his head, making him duck. Dustin sucked in a breath and lunged forward, struggling against the water to catch up to Earl.
The older man was cursing under his breath. He yanked on the duffel bag, which was caught on an exposed root. "Come on, come on!" hissed Earl, hauling on the bag's nylon handles.
Dustin caught up to Earl, and stooped to help untangle the bag. His gaze ventured to the right, and he froze. There was a second path of broken ice, intersecting with theirs. It stopped right in front of—
"No, Earl, wait!"
With a last grunt, Earl pulled the bag free. The weight of it swung him around.
The red foliage shimmered, and Earl stumbled backward. Dustin threw up his hands up to protect himself as Earl bumped into him, and the two of them fell back into the freezing water. Dustin sputtered and fought, arms and legs tangled as they struggled to sit up.
"Don't move," said a voice. The voice was loud, and distorted as if through a speaker, but it carried harmonies like several voices speaking together.
Blinking away the dirty water, Dustin saw the forest in front of him shimmer once more. The red leaves, tree trunks and vines flickered. In their place stood a giant: a seven-foot suit of black combat armour, pointing a phase-pulse carbine at them.
"Hands up," said the voice. The massive soldier motioned with the muzzle of their weapon, to reinforce the message.
Dustin raised his shaking hands above his head. Sitting in the cold water, he felt the chill of it seeping through the last layers of his waterproof clothing. Next to him Earl was panting, eyes wide, raising his hands. In front of them, the duffel bag was mostly submerged into the water, only its handles visible above the glassy murk.
The soldier stood motionless. Out of the corner of his eye, Dustin saw Earl licking his lips. "Look," said the older man, "We're unarmed. We didn't—"
"Shut up," said the soldier, the voice clipped by the speaker.
They fell into silence, hands still in the air. Dustin's arms were already tired, and he had lost feeling in his feet. His bunk on the ship seemed a long way away, and his cubbyhole on Tecumseth Station even further. The station was cramped and it stank, and it was a constant struggle to find his next meal, but he would've given anything to be there.
Behind him to his right, Dustin heard the sound of cracking ice and splashing water. Someone — no, several people — were approaching through the swamp. The trees and vines wavered like a mirage as people moved, the ice bursting apart on its own as the water was shoved aside.
The red swamp was replaced by four more soldiers in armour. They were shorter — human sized — and three wore dull black armour like the giant. The fourth soldier's armour was deep blue, with a gold stripe that curled across the chest from shoulder to shoulder.
The blue-armoured soldier stepped closer, until they stood a couple of paces from Dustin. The armour was pitted and scratched, with gouges and scrapes across the chest and arms. Under the soldier's left arm, near a deep gouge, the chest armour flickered, showing distorted glimpses of the red swamp.
Lifting one hand, the blue-armoured soldier pressed a button on the side of their helmet. They looked right at Dustin and shook their head, pausing before reaching up to grab their helmet with both hands. With a brief hiss of escaping air, the soldier removed their helmet
Underneath was a woman's face: a Palani woman. Her skin was pure white, and her eyes and close-cropped hair were the same vivid cobalt blue. As a frown furrowed her face, she held her helmet with one hand while poking inside it with the other. "Shin sa en-fedor," she muttered.
"Mahasa," said one of the other soldiers through their speakers. "Yan tullthel hahel?"
"La," grunted the woman in response, not looking up from her helmet.
"'Mahasa'?" said Earl. He sounded frantic and out of breath, and his head swivelled towards the woman in blue. "'General'? Are you General Varta?"
"Yes," said the woman, in accented English. "Shut up."
With a scowl of disgust on her face, the General wordlessly tossed her helmet to one of the soldiers behind her. She pointed at one of the others. "Antur," she said, gesturing toward Dustin and Earl. "Selet las tem."
One of the black-clad soldiers stepped forward, pulling something from their belt as they waded up to Dustin and crouched next to him. Their armour creaked as they drew near, and Dustin could feel cold breath coming from the black helmet's exhaust ports. The soldier's carbine was stored on their back, its butt sticking up past their shoulder.
Dustin leaned back as the soldier held up a hand-sized device in front of his face. With a swift movement, the soldier tapped the device against Dustin's forehead.
The soldier reached over and tapped the device against a recoiling Earl, then stood up and withdrew. For a while the soldier remained, holding the device in front of them.
General Varta stood quietly in the middle of the small clearing, her arms folded over her chest. She looked upward, a tired expression on her face, as a gentle pattering sound started in the canopy far above. After a few moments, freezing rain began to fall, plinking against armour suits and pelting against exposed skin.
Dustin turned to look at Earl, sitting in the frigid water beside him.
Earl's expression had changed. His shoulders were slumped, and his face was drawn. Dustin had never seen such a complete look of dejection and defeat, and it made his own blood cold. "Earl, what's—"
"Shut up," said the General. Looking down, she saw the submerged bag at her feet. She crouched, a wince flashing across her face. When she pulled at the bag's handle the bag fell partly open, and in the murk Dustin could see the glimmer of the gold and precious gems inside.
The soldier's handheld device gave off a soft chime, prompting the General to stand back up. With casual grace, she reached over her shoulder and grasped her carbine. It came free and she held it lightly in both hands.
Dustin's heart was beating harder now, and his mouth had gone dry. He stared, unblinking, at the soldier with the handheld device and gasped when they pointed at him. "An selet," said the soldier. They pointed at Earl. "La selet."
Beside him, Earl began to push away with his feet, his hands in front of him. Tears were forming in his eyes, and he was babbling as he tried to speak. "No… don't…"
Two sharp cracks shattered the quiet, twin gunshots that echoed through the swamp. Dustin recoiled, his hands shielding his face. Over the hammering of his heart, he heard sounds from Earl: a wet, gurgled cough, the creak of clothing as he slumped, and the gentle splash of water. When Dustin finally looked through trembling hands, he saw Earl crumpled on his side, his face below the surface, a red stain seeping into the water. A raindrop struck Dustin's face and he flinched, chest heaving, too scared to speak.
"You," came the General's voice.
Dustin's shoulders were hunched, his entire body rolling into a ball in the water. He'd long since lost feeling in his hands and feet, and his entire body trembled as he peeked over his fingers.
General Varta re-holstered her carbine on her back, and the other black-suited soldiers did the same. Dustin's eyes met hers: they were deep blue and cold, without emotion.
She took a breath before she spoke, as if she was reciting a speech she'd given before. "Listen to me," she said.
The words bubbled out of Dustin's mouth. "I'm so sorry. I'm… my name is Dustin Berwick. I never meant—"
"I told you to shut up," she hissed.
Dustin fell silent.
The General started again. "Listen to me. This planet is a Palani grave world. You have been caught trespassing and looting. We now have your DNA as a record. Do you understand?"
"Say it," she ordered.
"Y-yes," he stammered. "I understand."
"Good." She nodded. "Under the terms of the Human-Palani alliance, I am required to show mercy to humans for their first crime." The General twisted her lips a little as she said it, as if it was distasteful to her. "If you are ever caught on a grave world again—" she pointed at the body face down in the water next to him, "—you will die. Do you understand?"
Dustin swallowed. "Yes. Ma'am. General. I understand."
"Good." Holding her right hand like a knife blade, the General pointed back the way Dustin and Earl had come, toward the ruins they'd plundered. "Your friends shot at us. They are all dead." She pointed forward, in the direction he'd been headed with Earl. "Your ship is in that direction, over the hill. Get in it and go." She made a shooing gesture at Dustin. "Go. Live your life. Be useful. Somewhere else."
With that, she turned and walked away. Dustin hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, watching the Palani soldiers pick up the bag and walk away into the swamp. They never looked back.
Zura opened her eyes. The interior of the shuttle was lit by dim white lights along the ceiling. Across from her, four black-armoured soldiers sat on the bench. All had their helmets off, holding them in their laps. Giant Irasa — her massive size a relic of ancient research — leaned against the bulkhead, eyes closed and mouth open. The other three soldiers — porcelain white faces, cobalt-blue hair and eyes — were watching her.
Zura met eyes with the one who had spoken. "Yes, Squad Leader?"
"We're arriving, Mahasa."
Behind the soldier's heads, the blackness out the windows was replaced by a flood of bright white light, as the shuttle entered the hangar of the Kahala Hila.
"Good," mumbled Zura. She picked up her helmet from the empty seat beside her.
"A good hunt today, Mahasa. An honour, as always."
Zura stood up, her armour plates shifting against each other. She grabbed a handrail on the ceiling above her. "As always the honour is mine, Squad Leader." It had been months since anyone had trespassed on one of her worlds; the break in the monotony was welcome.
The shuttle landed with a gentle thump, and the whisper of the engines faded away to silence. With a grunt, mountainous Irasa broke from a dead sleep, rising to her feet in unison with her squadmates.
A small hiss of air escaped as the rear of the shuttle began to open. Light spilled over the top of the door and into the cabin as the ramp unfolded down to the hangar deck. Zura was already headed down the ramp before it touched the deck.
Throughout the hangar, all activity had ceased. Soldiers and technicians alike paused whatever they were doing and stood up straight, bowing toward Zura as she stepped off the ramp and onto the hangar deck.
"La," she sighed, giving a dismissive wave of her hand. As she walked around the side of the shuttle, the crew resumed their duties.
Through a side door she marched into the ready room. Behind her, she heard the footsteps of the soldiers keeping up with her.
There were three aisles, each with armouring stations on both sides. Half-armoured soldiers leapt to their feet, bowing their heads as she passed.
Down the aisle she marched, the four members of the squad stopping behind her as they reached their own armouring stations. Some of the stations she passed were empty, but most held clean suits of identical black combat armour. Some suits had scratches or gouges in their plates: souvenirs from battles long past. The air was different in here; always the same hint of sweat and disinfectant.
At the far end of the ais
"Mahasa," said Sadan, bowing. His long blue hair was tied back in a ponytail; he wore a nirval-hide apron instead of his uniform jacket.
Zura smacked him in the chest with her helmet. "It failed again, Sadan."
Sadan winced, taking the helmet in his hands. "My apologies, Mahasa. How did it fail?"
She was already pulling off her gloves, pausing to tap at her left ear. "I pushed the button for the external speaker. The whole thing went dead."
Sadan rolled the helmet over in his hands, pausing to pick at a deep gouge with his fingernail. "I am responsible, Mahasa. It is difficult to keep an eight-hundred-year-old helmet working. I have asked before, but will you consider a newer set of armour? The wrist-mounted controls are more reliable—"
"This works well enough, because I still have my head. Fix it."
"Yes, Mahasa." Sadan placed the helmet on a bench, then stepped behind her.
With a click, latches released. Her chest and back armour swung open, coming away in Sadan's hands.
"Did the hunt go well, Mahasa?"
Zura's fingers found the catch at her waist, and her leg armour fell away, clattering to the floor. Murky water dribbled out. "The Pentarch," she sighed, "do not want it called a 'hunt' any more."
S. J. MADILL SERIES:
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