Torture is supposed to be painful, but this was ridiculous. It wasn’t as if he had anything of strategic or tactical value to tell them, either.
There’s no point, he thought. Death is preferable to hanging on any longer.
But then, it wasn’t in his nature to give in.
Abruptly, the pain ceased. Capt. Jace Spade fell to the floor in a ragged heap of bones.
Two Craaldan guards stood over him. They were all muscle and sinew, coated in form-fitting black body armor. Their yellow eyes looked down from behind faces of taut gray skin.
The guards reached down and scooped him up, dragging him by the armpits from his cell.
The Craaldan guards walked briskly down the dark corridor. They were infantry soldiers, about seven feet tall.
Spade was taller than your average human, but only the toes of his boots dragged across the floor behind him as the towering Craaldans pulled his limp body along.
They dropped him on the cold, black floor.
“Captain Jace Spade?” said a voice from above.
“That’s me,” he answered from the floor. Spade struggled to focus his one eye to see who he was talking to. His other eye was missing, and he tried to keep his eyelid closed over the empty eye socket. It was always uncomfortable to have cold air blowing around inside his skull.
“You are a human from the Naos moon in the Roga System?”
“Affirmative,” Spade answered.
He pulled himself to his feet and finally focused his eye on his Craaldan interlocutor who was sitting above him, looking down from behind a large black bench. The big Craaldan wore black body armor like the guards, but centered on his armored chest was a silver rank in the shape of an eagle-like creature—the rank of a Craaldan colonel.
“I give you two options, Captain,” the colonel said. “Accept my demands, or face decapitation forthwith.”
“How forthwith?” Spade asked.
The Craaldan guard next to him brandished a four-foot blade that gleamed in the artificial light.
“Forthwith, as in here as soon as you give your response.”
Spade stood in his gray flight suit looking up through the harsh light at the Craaldan colonel who was glaring down at him from behind his large bench of black metal. Spade shifted uneasily in his boots.
“What are the demands?”
“I offer you a mission to transport a negotiator to Naos,” the colonel said. “Once on Naos, you and a squad will infiltrate enemy lines so that our negotiator can parlay a cease fire with the Diocon aggressors.”
The guard next to Spade tightened his grip on his blade.
“And if I don’t accept your mission, this thug here cuts my head off?”
“Affirmative,” the colonel said.
“Mission accepted then,” Spade said.
“A wise choice,” the colonel said.
The guard sheathed his blade.
Spade shook his head and looked down at his boots. “You Craaldans have got another thing coming,” he muttered.
“Say again?” the colonel asked.
“Nothing,” Spade said. “Disregard.”
Spade dreaded the thought of returning to Naos—his home world, and the scene of an awful crime committed by the Diocon Empire against his fellow humans.
“Take him away,” the colonel said.
The guards seized him and dragged him out of the chamber. They pulled him outside onto an endless tarmac under a dark sky.
They tossed his limp body into the back of a transport craft. The tall Craaldans sat stiffly beside him. The transport hovered upward several hundred meters and then began to coast over a tactical assembly area that appeared endless in scope. Military machinery and troops were lined up from horizon to horizon. Column upon column of artillery, armored vehicles, battle tanks, interstellar destroyers and infantry troops stretched as far as the eye could see. This bleak planet was nothing more than a giant staging ground for the Craaldan war machine.
At one time, this planet—Goff—had been home to a vibrant ecosystem. Several civilizations had developed here over tens of thousands of years, each with rich histories and impressive records of cultural and technological development.
But then, the Craaldans arrived, and now all that was left was rock, wind and ash.
Spade pulled an eye patch out of a pocket in his flight suit and put it on over the empty socket that once was home to an eyeball. He slicked back his black hair and tried to get as comfortable as was possible sandwiched between these two oversized armored guards.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Spade asked.
The guards ignored him, so he lit up a cigar and puffed on it.
The transport circled over an airstrip. Spade saw his interceptor below—still red, black and deadly with shark’s teeth painted under its nose. Its mammoth engines affirmed it was a ship built for speed. Painted on the hull was the drop dead image of a nude female cyborg sitting atop a skull and crossbones and holding the ace of spades in her hand. Stenciled underneath the cyborg were the words “Red Wrath.”
“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” Spade said.
The guards were uninterested.
The transport alit on the tarmac. The guards hustled Spade out the hatch and shoved him along to his ship. They tossed him inside. He crashed into a bulkhead and fell to his face.
“Attention on the deck,” said a lazy, monotone voice.
It was his navigator, Tanaka, who remained seated in his chair gazing down through glowing green spectacles. Tanaka wasn’t the type to stand at attention for anyone.
“Give me a hand,” Spade said, extending his arm upward.
Tanaka clapped slowly, staring blankly through his green lenses.
“Funny,” Spade said.
Tanaka had the thin, weak body typical of humans from the low gravity planet of Paltros. His slender limbs were encased in mechanical prostheses that allowed him freedom of movement in the relatively higher gravity of this planet. Tanaka was eccentric and wasn’t exactly the life of any party, but he had his talents. He was an information addict who would sit in a trance for days on end sifting through databases, files and technical documents. He knew more about every corner of the galaxy than anyone Spade had known. As a navigator, engineer and information technician, Tanaka was second to none.
Spade was happy to see that Tanaka was still aboard and still alive.
Spade’s cigar lay on the deck of the ship, still lit. He picked it up and popped it into his mouth and rose to his feet.
“Where’s the rest of my high-speed crew?” Spade asked.
Two massive humans lumbered into the cabin, crouched down in the confined space. The two big humans were almost as tall as Craaldans, and even more heavily muscled.
“We thought you were dead,” said a hulk of a man.
“I ain’t the dying type,” Spade said.
The large man’s name was Leonard Brute, and he was Spade’s copilot. Brute had a bald head and a long, black goatee that touched his chest. He was from the planet Meglos, which was a high gravity planet that humans had settled generations ago. The Megalans had adapted to the gravity of their planet by developing huge, muscular frames.
Brute’s companion was a Megalan female named Mingus, who was as big and muscular as Brute. She had a square jaw, but an otherwise attractive face, and long black hair. She was Spade’s crew chief.
Mingus smiled broadly at Spade. She looked honestly surprised and relieved to see him. She rushed up to him and gave him a crushing bear hug. “Oh, Jace,” she said. “We are so happy to see you.”
Brute pulled the two of them apart. He held Spade suspended a few inches from the floor with a tight grip from one of his enormous hands.
“We’re not that happy,” Brute growled.
Brute dropped Spade to the deck.
“OK,” Spade said. “Listen up. Due to recent developments, we’re going to make a detour before we voyage back to the Outer Galaxy. We’ll be making a short stop at Naos.”
Spade’s crew groaned and then exchanged nervous glances.