Chapter 1: A Planet Destroyed
Rynah straightened her charcoal gray, form-fitting uniform as she hurried down the asphalt walkway to the tall, glass doors leading to the geo-lab. Her tailored, steel-toed boots (that laced up the sides) clicked on the pavement with each purposeful step. The sun’s invigorating rays barely registered in Rynah’s mind; too consumed with humming merrily to herself, she didn’t even notice when she had passed through the revolving door, her automatic movements from thousands of trips through it having dictated her actions. Absentmindedly, Rynah twirled the small (and loose) silver band on her ring finger, the one her new fiancé, Klanor, had given her that morning.
“Rynah,” greeted the lady at the front desk as she walked in. “You seem rather jovial this morning.”
Rynah blushed, her heliotrope cheeks turning a nice shade of pink. She couldn’t help but smile after receiving the engagement ring. She held up her hand.
“Oh, so he proposed!”
“Well, if you ask me, it’s about time.”
Rynah grinned as she took the holopad and signed in for her shift. “Anything new?”
“Nope. Quiet as usual.”
Rynah whirled around. General Delmar, her former commander when she had been part of the Lanyran fleet, stood behind her. “General, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I had a meeting with Doctor Sonorus. So this is where you work these days?”
“It’s much quieter.”
“Too bad. You were my best pilot. I don’t know why you left the fleet.”
“You know why,” said Rynah as thoughts about her grandfather and the trial that ruined his (and her family’s) reputation filled her mind.
“Yes, I suppose I do.” He spotted the ring on her finger. “When…”
“This morning.” Rynah blushed again.
“Well, he’s lucky to have you.” General Delmar tipped his hat and passed through the glass doors and into the sunlight.
“He seems nice.”
“He is my former commanding officer,” replied Rynah. “I’ll see you later.”
Rynah hurried away to the back elevators in the rear of the building (which only the security officers used) and placed her palm on the holopad, allowing the green light to scan it. It dinged as the doors opened and she stepped inside. Automatically, she pushed the button that instructed the elevator to go to the underground bunker and the lab itself. She tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for the elevator to reach its destination; her fingers fiddled with the amber ring that hung from a silver chain around her neck before shoving it under her shirt.
Glancing into the reflective, metal interior, Rynah realized that she had forgotten to put her hair up in compliance with uniform regulations. She shoved her hand into her pocket and found a clip, which she had put in there in her haste to leave for work. She scooped up the silky strands of her dark emerald hair and twisted them into a bun before securing it with the clip.
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. “You’re late,” said a rough voice as Rynah stepped out into the geo-lab.
“Sorry, sir,” Rynah replied in a businesslike manner.
Her commanding officer snatched her hand, noting the ring that had not been there the day before. “I’ll let you slide this time, but don’t make a habit of it.”
“Yes, commander.” Rynah hurried away to her station on the other side of the lab directly opposite the main door.
“All right,” said the commander to everyone within the lab. “Get ready to initiate the systems check.” Technicians punched sequences into their holomonitors, preparing for the one time a year when the computers within the geothermic lab had its systems purged of unnecessary data, though it meant shutting down all major systems. “On my mark. One… two… mark.”
The constant hum that filled the lab dwindled as the main computer shut off.
“System purge in progress,” said one technician. “Estimated time until completion is 15 minutes.”
“Understood,” said the commander.
The door to the lab thundered as it shook violently, rattling and vibrating against the concrete brick wall. Stunned, Rynah spun around, not believing what she heard. Another tremendous boom echoed through the room as something slammed into the door from the other side. Bits of dust and rock fell from above with each barrage of the invaders. As the realization that those on the other side posed a threat, lab technicians scurried about, desperate to flee the onslaught.
Another bang on the metal door echoed throughout the underground chamber, etching dimples into it. One frightened lab technician shuddered, sending papers flying in every direction.
“Brace the door!” yelled Rynah, her security uniform giving credence to her orders.
Other security officers raced to the protruding steel door, placing magnetic brackets on it in an effort to seal it and stop the invaders from breaking in. It did little to slow them.
“How are they breaking through?” Rynah asked herself.
She whirled around to face her commanding officer as he pointed to the vents in the ceiling with a red laser beam poking through. Damn! Rynah snatched her side pistol and fired two laser pulses at it. The vent popped open as a man fell through it and onto the cold floor by her feet. She flipped the corpse over with the toe of her boot; she didn’t recognize him, but he bore the insignia of the Lunyra Movement. Perturbed, she pondered why he was there. Violence was not in their manifesto.
Another earsplitting thud against the door ripped her back to the present moment. She looked at the door to the lab. A gigantic dent emerged from it as the door weakened. It will never hold. “Commander! We need to get these people out of here!”
Her commanding officer nodded, barking orders at passing officers and motioning for them to follow him. Rynah did as well.
“Rynah, your key,” said her commanding officer.
She pulled a key from her pocket; it matched the one her commander had as well. Following suit, she placed her key in the hole, waiting for orders.
“On three. One, two… three!”
In synchronized movement, they turned the keys. A brick popped out of the wall, revealing a holographic screen with coordinates. Rynah typed in numbers and algorithms. A panel slid open, revealing a hidden tunnel as lights flickered on in the stainless steel interior.
“Get these people out of here!” ordered her commander.
“I’m not leaving you all here!” protested Rynah.
“Go! That’s an order!” He ran to the door with a troop of security officers.
Rynah watched him go, torn between obeying orders and fighting alongside her fellow officers. “Come on!” she barked at the lab technicians. Two hurried into the tunnel, fear etched on their faces. She waved more through as they carried what they could, their lab coats flailing behind them.
Another bit of thunder roared through the underground lab as the door was struck again. One of the hinges popped off, sailing to the far side of the room and landed with a distinct clink. The invaders slammed into it again, firing repeated rounds from their pulse cannon at it. The booms ricocheted off the walls.
Rynah turned just in time to see the steel door burst into a thousand tiny pieces. She ducked, shielding her face from the explosion. Eerie silence followed.
“In!” yelled Rynah to two more lab technicians. She turned back to the main door; waves of laser fire pelted her comrades who had taken defensive positions by the door. Screams of death filled the area as officers dropped before the onslaught. A laser blast struck the wall near Rynah’s head, barely missing her, but forming a blackened scorch mark. She ducked, twisted around, snatched her pistol, and fired at the man who had tried to kill her.
She scanned the madness before her until her eyes fell upon the opaque, orange crystal seated on its pedestal. How could I be so stupid? In all the commotion, she had forgotten to grab it.
Under normal circumstances, the crystal was never to be moved, but considering thieves had broken into the lab, Rynah figured that rule could be broken. She hoped to protect the crystal until a time when it could be placed back where it belonged.
Rynah left the tunnel opening, darting for the metal, spiral steps that led to the crystal. Fire rained down upon her, pelting the concrete floor with each step she took. Chunks of concrete dropped from the ceiling, crashing to the ground behind her; Rynah flung herself to the floor to avoid being struck by the shards of metal showering all within the lab. Assessing the situation, she crouched on the ground—more of the invaders swarmed through the smoldering hole in the lab that had once been a protective barrier—when she remembered the crystal. Rynah shot to her feet. She jumped on the stairs (ignoring the swaying motion as some of the screws and bolts had come loose) and charged up them, taking two steps at a time.
Laser fire whizzed past her. The slow creak of a dangling light alerted her to immediate danger. Rynah ducked just in time to avoid the swinging light, which had lost one of its cables and careened for her. She spotted an invader. Pulling the knife from her boot—something she had always carried when laser pistols were insufficient—Rynah slashed the other cable that still held the light; it stopped in midair before plummeting to the ground, crushing the invader that had aimed his weapon at her. Smiling to herself, Rynah continued up the staircase.
She had just reached the crystal when the explosion from a pulse cannon rocked the entire lab, sending bodies flying; one smashed into her, pinning her to the metal floor. Stunned, Rynah watched as men rushed into the lab, killing any security officer they found. Her senses returning, she shoved the dead weight off, only to discover that it was her commander.
“Commander,” she whispered, feeling guilty for being so rough.
Her commander’s eyes fluttered open, focusing on her. “I thought I told you to leave,” he coughed as blood trickled out of his mouth. His head rolled to the side and his eyes closed for the last time.
Infuriated, Rynah raised her pistol and shot one of the invaders in the chest. She jumped to her feet and dove for the crystal. Her fingers almost touched it when a steel grip seized her wrist and yanked her back.
“I can’t allow you to do that,” said a voice she recognized.
“Klanor,” breathed a surprised Rynah as she looked at the man in charge of this entire invasion. “What…”
“I told you not to come in today,” Klanor said as he released her.
Rynah couldn’t believe it. The man she vowed to marry, the man who professed love to her only hours before, now stood before her with a demeanor she had never seen, or thought possible with him. It was as though he had locked all of his emotions away.
“You’re so gullible, Rynah,” said Klanor. “Why not?”
“But you and I—”
“A means to an end.”
Rage boiled within Rynah at Klanor’s betrayal. She glared at him, watching his every move as he snatched the crystal from its pedestal. For a few moments, Klanor held it in the light, admiring its beauty and power.
“You take that and you condemn this planet—our people—to death,” said Rynah. As though to add credence to her words, the ground jerked.
Klanor just smiled malevolently at her. “I sincerely hope so.”
The ground split open beneath their feet as steam and spurts of molten rock spewed forth. Panicking, some of Klanor’s men ran. Rynah lunged for Klanor. He blocked her attack, sending her flying. Snatching a bit of fallen rubble, Rynah charged him again, catching him in the forehead; blood poured from the wound. Infuriated, Klanor punched Rynah, crystal in hand. He grabbed her arm, wrenching it behind her back and positioning her ear near his mouth.
“You thought I actually loved you,” he whispered. “The crystal is mine, and soon, the others will be as well.”
With fluid movement, Klanor released his grip on Rynah, sending her tumbling down the stairs. Dazed, Rynah lifted her head and stared straight into Klanor’s black eyes. He ripped out his laser pistol, aiming it directly at her. They glared at one another as Klanor’s finger strained against the trigger, shaking as he inwardly debated killing her, turmoil reeling within him. At that moment, his animus face showed a flicker of sorrow.
The ground quaked, knocking Klanor off his feet. Some who had fallen over rolled into the cracks that had formed; their screams indicating a painful death. Jagged cracks shot up the concrete walls, stretching to the ceiling as it split and fell apart. More rubble crashed around her. Knowing she would never get the crystal back, Rynah gripped the metal bar of the railing and leapt over it, landing on the unstable ground below. She pitched forward and somersaulted when the ground jerked again. Desperate, Rynah raced for the still open tunnel.
“Get her!” shouted Klanor, charging down the steps. The toe of his boot touched a slender, shiny object, inadvertently nudging it; its clinking caught his attention: Rynah’s ring. It had slipped off her finger in her haste to escape. With a delicacy his beefy fingers would otherwise portray, Klanor picked it up, twirling it before ramming it into his pocket.
One of his men lunged for Rynah. She dodged, grabbing his arm and flinging him to one of the cracks where black, fluidic rock poured forth. She stretched her legs, running as fast as she could. A concrete block crashed into the ground in front of her. Rynah jumped over it. The top of the doorframe to the tunnel began to crumble. Putting all of her effort into it, Rynah flew over the ground and dove through the opening before it caved in.
“Forget her!” Klanor yelled as the ground quaked again. “Time to move out!”
On the other side of the rubble, Rynah paused, catching her breath as she glanced back at Klanor, encumbered by sheets of holographic paper falling from the split in the ceiling amidst the swirls of smoke, and the bodies of those she had left behind. Emotions reeled within her at the loss of her friends and the betrayal of the man she loved. Vowing revenge, she straightened and raced down the tunnel. The entire area shook and jerked, making her efforts to flee difficult. With each step, she had to land differently so as not to lose her balance. A piece of the wall fell before her. Rynah swerved around it and continued on. Her boots clopped against the stone floor as she raced for the exit, hoping to escape the rage her planet flung at her.
Light spilled from up ahead. Hoping that she had reached the exit, Rynah picked up her pace. Chaos trailed behind her as she raced against the savagery of her planet for the opening at the other end, which was her only salvation. Sparks flew from the lights that blew out and crashed. Rynah reached the end of the tunnel just as a crack burst open behind her. She jumped over the steps, taking them three at a time, until she burst through and into the open sunlight.
Rynah stopped. The horror that lay before her took her breath away. How has it come to this? Smoke rose in swirls from the ground as lava shot forth, covering what used to be fertile grassland. Fire swept over the trees and foliage that had once brought life to her world. Rynah looked straight ahead. The shipyard lay not far away. She needed transportation.
Running to the transport area, Rynah scanned the line of hover crafts for one she could easily steal. People darted about the compound, fearful of being killed. One man stopped in front of Rynah, noting her uniform, and looked at her with pleading eyes, asking what he should do. “Make your way to the shipyard and get on the nearest transport,” she told him.
Rynah pushed past him and continued on to the transport area, where she found an open top hover vehicle. She leapt into it, pulling off the paneling under the gear shift, and hot-wired it—a skill she had acquired in her youth—thus turning on the engine. “Who needs keys?” she whispered to herself.
Rynah put the craft in forward and sped off. Wind ripped through her long locks—she had lost her hair clip during the firefight, as they never hold when one is darting about in an effort to avoid death—as she steered her way to the nearest shipyard. A hover vehicle rushed past her. The driver was just as desperate as her to escape the carnage. The ground split open in front of her, spewing molten lava and creating a deadly geyser that melted any who strayed too near. Rynah pulled back on the accelerator and twisted the joystick so the craft banked to the right, going around the inferno. She straightened the hover vehicle and punched the accelerator once more.
A group of people on the side of the lane waved at her, calling for help. For a brief moment, Rynah considered leaving them, but the small voice in the back of her mind reminded her that she was still a security officer. Rynah steered the craft towards them. Grateful, the small group of five gathered around her with their bundles.
“Leave it!” yelled Rynah, tossing one of the bags over the side and onto the black dirt. “Just get in!”
The frightened people leapt into the vehicle too afraid to argue. Cursing about the time lost, Rynah slammed the hover craft into full speed and sped down the lane towards the shipyard. Her heart sank as she watched several spacecraft take off. Knowing she only had minutes before the last ship left them for dead, Rynah pushed the hover craft to the point of breaking; its violent jerks indicated it had reached its top speed. The child in the group she had picked up wailed. Rynah ignored his screams; there wasn’t time.
They entered the shipyard. Suddenly, the ground beneath them burst open with a shower of steam. The force of the impact knocked the hover vehicle off balance until it slammed into the dirt. Once the spinning had stopped, Rynah crawled out.
“Is everyone all right?”
A few nods answered her question.
“This way! Quickly!” Rynah helped the others up and pushed them towards the nearest transport ship. The vibrating ground beneath their feet made each step they took wobbly. They reached the stairs leading to the open door. Rynah turned around, pushing the group of five ahead of her. A man stood in the open hatch of the ship, waving them onward.
The child and its mother went first, followed by the two men and elderly woman. Cracks and splinters appeared on the steps as they bent and curved unnaturally. Rynah hoped they would hold a bit longer. Once the last of the group had entered the ship, she paused and looked around for any stragglers—a fateful decision. A tremendous quake shook the earth, sending Rynah flying over the railing and tumbling to the ground below. Pain rocked her body as she slammed into the black dirt with trails of smoke enveloping her.
Dazed, she looked up. The hatch had been sealed as the man had passed her off as dead. A low rumble filled the area as the engines of the ship sprang to life and carried its load to the open atmosphere above.
Cursing her luck, Rynah glanced around, as all of the transport ships lifted off in an attempt to carry their passengers to safety, leaving her behind. Frantic, she searched for a lone ship that she could board. Nothing. A plume of smoke and steam burst from the ground as a new split suddenly appeared, forcing Rynah to jump back and warning her that the lava geysers neared. Time ran short. Rynah jumped to her feet and ran hysterically towards a transport ship that slowly ascended into the air.
“Hey!” she yelled, waving her arms, “I’m here! HEY!”
She stopped. It was useless. No one would hear her, much less bother stopping for her. A lone building lay ahead. The sight of it sent a memory slamming into her—the way asteroids crash into the earth—as that building had once belonged to her grandfather; she remembered he had stored a ship there. Willing to gamble that no one had moved it, and desperate to escape, Rynah raced for the hangar, its faded and stripped paint a welcomed sight, stretching her long legs as far as she could and hoping that she made it in time.
A lava bomb crashed into the once well-tended lawn, flinging bits of rock and dirt at her. Shielding her face, Rynah continued in her race against her planet’s clock. Drops of water pelted her skin—one of the underground pipes had burst and poked out of the ground—and drenched her.
She burst through the door to the hangar, her lungs heaving, and stared at the archaic ship, whose systems had been deemed outmoded. But the ship was not entirely unpleasant to look at, as its copper paint still glittered—as though it had been freshly painted—and beckoned her to come forth. The ship’s stubby wings, a sleek design from 50 years ago, seemed ready to stretch and fly. In fact, it was, for this ship was no ordinary ship; this ship had a name painted in dark gold lettering on its rear near the hatch: Solaris.
Rynah paid little attention to the aesthetic value of the craft, her only concern being if it would fly. She ran up the ramp—though she could have sworn it wasn’t open a second ago—and into the belly of the ship. Racking her brains to remember the layout from the time her grandfather had brought her there as a child, she charged down the corridors—the ship was much larger on the inside—to what she believed was the flight deck. Ray beams shot out of the walls, stopping her.
“DNA scan in progress. DNA match. Welcome, Rynah,” said a feminine, and remarkably human-like, voice.
The white beams dissipated. Rynah didn’t remember the ship having a female voice, or any voice for that matter. She shook her head. Now isn’t the time. Her steel-toed boots clomped on the metal grate that formed the floor as she raced through the winding—yet what seemed surprisingly straight, corridors—going upward until she reached a set of steps—just above them and to the side was another set leading to the weapons array—which she scaled in one leap.
Rynah surveyed the area. She had found the command center, though it was unlike any she had seen before, with the flight console (and not even a trace of dust) directly ahead and two polished chairs next to it, each possessing a helmet that telepathically linked one with the ship, all of which looked out a 20-by-25-foot (and remarkably clean) window. Mesmerized by the practically brand new state of the ship, Rynah forgot about her plight, taking the time to stroke the smooth, marbled console as she eased into the soft, cushiony seat. She had half-expected to find coffee stains from when pilots neglectfully spilled their cups, or smeared mayonnaise from a late-night meal that someone accidentally dropped, or nicks and scuffs from normal wear and tear, but no stains, smears, nicks, or scuffs were to be found. Only her reflection from the glossy surface stared back at her.
A furious grumble resonated beneath her, reminding her of the danger she remained in.
“The planet appears to be in peril,” said the same feminine voice. “What are your orders?”
Rynah rammed the helmet onto her head. Her mind was filled with the ship’s systems, charts, status reports, how full the fuel tanks were, and anything else the ship’s sensors recorded.
Depart, she thought.
What about launch procedures? asked the ship, Solaris, using the same telepathic link.
Solaris obeyed. As the ground quaked one last time, the ship plowed through the ceiling of the hangar, leaving a hole that would anger the groundskeeper under normal circumstances, and charged into the smoke filled sky, a sky that had once been a light lavender in color. Rynah listened to the engines as she glanced down at the devastation below. Overwhelming sadness filled her. Her planet gone. So many people dead. And why? Because Klanor wanted the crystal. But why did he want it?
The purple atmosphere gave way to the inky darkness of space as the ship exited the upper stratosphere. There was no sign of the other ships.
To the Chestur Nebula. Unable to think of anywhere else to go, Rynah decided she could hide there until she figured out what to do next.