It began in the smoke.
Night never really fell on the tropical wasteland of Sares 6. Once verdant and rich, the Taur had ruthlessly mined that world with every able-bodied slave worker they could find. Long ago the planet had been known as Kendarra, a largely forested place populated by ebon-skinned giants who lived on the massive fish found in the nearly endless rivers and who hadn’t gotten past what was essentially a primitive stage. Now no one would ever know how far they might have advanced, since the entire species had been wiped out down to the last egg sac.
What a shit hole…lucky me, I find all the vacation spots.
Rike stood on the deck of The Marauder, an inappropriately named frigate he’d booked passage on to take him from the Taur docking port of R’dek to the Bloodthorn Monastery, located in a thick forest the Taur identified as Sector 7G/Grid 48 but that early Ro’daan explorers (back in a time when the Auran Union had planned to leave Kendarra alone except to send science expeditions to see if the planet’s fauna could produce something useful for medical research) had simply called “The Deep of the Trees”.
Ro’daan aren’t terribly good at naming things, Rike thought.
The air was rancid and thick and tasted like something burning. Rike kept swatting at the heat like there were insects to drive away even though there weren’t, at least not the kind he was used to, because from what he understood the bugs on Sares 6 were the size of house cats. He smelled fuel in the air as he gripped the railing. The deck was slick underfoot.
The structures in R’dek was made of burnished metal, stained and pitted and leaking industrial fluids. The entire port was partially submerged, built around a delta where every ounce of rocky beach was occupied by quad-chambered cannons and industrial crawlers that tore the earth with their oversized treads. The buildings were slanted and looked somehow molten, equipped with enormous landing pads for the Taur Heloraptors or massive toothed doors which constantly seemed to be opening and closing for the mining and slave ships. Smoke churned from every structure, thick fumes which washed through the once-blue sky and stained it black.
It reminded Rike of New York City, not that he’d ever actually been there. He’s grown up in Washington State, then lived in Florida for all of two weeks before he’d woken up somewhere else, a place he was still trying to understand. It had been at least fifteen years since he’d arrived, and most days he still didn’t feel like he had a clue as to what the hell that place was about.
“We’re ready,” said the captain, Krek. He was a shifty Loraithian with charcoal skin. His body was rune-painted with spirals and blades, and he was clothed in even more black than Rike, which was an accomplishment.
Rike nodded. He was hot beneath his shra half-cloak and dark armor, flexible leather-like material with plates that had come from the shell of some bizarre lizard from Senega 2, another in a long list of inhospitable sounding desert planets he had no intention of ever visiting. The plate was strong enough to repel some blades and small arms fire, nothing as protracted as a plasma blast but enough to push back the bullet-like projectiles the Taur and most species with large military forces tended to use, since firearms were much cheaper and easier to produce on a mass scale than energy weapons. The Auran Union actually used pulse rifles and phase pistols more than anyone else, and even they couldn’t afford to distribute more than a few of them per ship, as the cost was just too great.
The weight of his blades pressed down on his back, and he felt the pistol and custom-made hand cannon at his side. He’d been forced to leave the rest of his weapons behind with his ship – the KL12 assault rifle, the scatter gun, all of his grenades – but with any luck the Viper would be ok back at Coda 11. He’d paid the chief engineer and the station constable nearly all of the credits he could spare to keep the fighter safe, but he trusted those two about as far as they trusted him, which wasn’t much at all.
It would have been nice if the Ro’daan, who’d essentially controlled the Union for the past decade, could have gotten their shit together and booted the Taur off of Sares 6, or any of the other worlds they’d “aggressively occupied” that past year (Second phase varec, he reminded himself, not year), mining until they turned once promising planets into steaming piles of shit. The Taur seemed to have an insatiable need to search out precious ores, especially quantrillium, which from Rike’s limited understanding was a sort of cross between gold and steel, with all of the monetary value of the former and the functionality and durability of the latter. The Taur used it for everything: currency, construction, even breaking it down to consume in drink format, which Rike thought was just damn strange. Did that mean they could melt down their weapons and liquify them to make a protein shake, he wondered, or could they just trade their equipment like it was currency, knowing it held the same value? Or did they break off parts of their buildings and use them for coins?
I’ve seen stranger, he thought. Antarra, where every creature has a twin, and each one can only experience tactile sensation through their sibling...that has to be some of the weirdest shit yet. He hadn’t been to Antarra for years, back when he was still on the Union vessel Vigilant, an annoyingly well-run ship he’d only managed to book passage on because he’d saved the lives of a few of its crew. As repayment, the Ro’daan commander Kira Jun had taken Rike under her proverbial wing and made the poor stranded human her project, to educate and prepare for his future in the Auran Galaxy.
That was worse than being in high school.
The steel doors of the nearby hangar groaned open (they weren’t steel, he knew that, they were quantrillium, like everything the Taur made, but no matter how long he’d been away from home he still thought in the terms he’d grown up with, still observed things in his strange perpetual nightmare from the point of view of a stupid Business major from Seattle who still waited to wake up even though he’d been having the same dream for nearly half of his life). The darkness from inside the hangar seemed to leak out, an oozing fog of black vapor borne of the ore-refining equipment located inside.
A Tauran frigate pulled out of the bay, all forward pointing guns and rockets, a bladed hull like a fistful of knives and slanted view ports reinforced with armor plating. It was a war-class aerial vehicle capable of turning a few square miles of wilderness into a lifeless waste when it deployed its load of soldiers and land rovers. Rike saw Taur moving about on the deck, large and horned humanoids with dark skin and bloody red eyes, studded armor and wicked blades, and in their thickly muscled arms they toted clunky assault rifles and hand-cannons. They were slightly shorter than he was, which was about the only advantage he felt over them physically – a typical Taur was as thick around as a wrestler and mean as hell, with so much adrenaline and testosterone flowing through their veins they had to take special sedatives just to keep from constantly killing one another.
For a brief moment it looked like the Heloraptor was going to fire on the Marauder, and he watched the crew tense up with fear. It wouldn’t have been the first time – the Taur had absolute control over Sares 6, and they only allowed others there for trade purposes and exploration, access that had only been granted since they’d come to the point where they’d largely wiped the planet clean of its natural resources. Those few areas they had yet to harvest were well protected by outposts and military patrols.
As the Marauder pulled away from the port and started down River 12 (the Taur had an annoying tendency to number everything, a trait they unfortunately held in common with many other races of the Auran Galaxy) it passed an open cargo barge. Corpses were piled high on the face of the craft, a bloody and smoldering mound of expired slave workers, but from a distance they didn’t look like bodies at all – the flesh and clothing were too jumbled, too soaked with gore and disfigured by burn marks and blades, cut to pieces, a mountain of broken skin and entrails surrounded by a sick mist lit by the glare of the morning sun. The stench was what gave it away, an overpowering miasma that hit Rike square in the face; it was strong enough to make his eyes water, and it took effort not to wretch behind the black cloth he used to cover his face. He steadied himself, looked away from what must have been hundreds of cadavers there on the trawler, individuals from all over Taur-controlled space, entire lives and stories lost in a smelly heap of refuse.
Rike kept his eyes on the river. He had a job to do -- it was no use dwelling on things he couldn’t change. Just like on Earth, the rich got richer, and those in power stayed in power. Nothing really changed, no matter how far from home he was.