Basket’s Lodge was a small trinket shop on the outer edge of Cluster Nine, a crowded supply station somewhere in the middle of the Triptic System. The squat, gray building was flanked by a gun repair shop and a mechanical parts broker and for all intents and purposes didn’t seem to do much business at all. There was a small display stand setup on the outside.
“For you,” said the shopkeeper, a mutated human with pointy elf ears, holding up a small, ornate mirror for the raggedy urchin who happened to come out of the gun repair shop nearby.
Clad in a tatty mini dress, tights, and scuffed boots, Sumida stopped in her tracks. The gun hanging from the belt loosely strung around her waist bounced against her hip as she turned.
“It’s a lovely trinket,” she told the shopkeeper. “But I don’t need it.”
She spied her traveling companion, a Bolen with buggy, doe-eyes and steely skin named Klang weaving his way through the crowd some distance away. Sumida liked Klang. He was a timid sort with a generally nervous disposition, which was out of character for a Bolen. He was quite unlike the vicious and predatory Bolen that Sumida had read about in books. Klang was gentle but stalwart and had saved Sumida and Bex’s lives more times than they could count. He was heading for the warehouses in the opposite direction from their ship. Curious, Sumida followed. When Klang ducked into a warehouse, she frowned. What exactly was he up to? She was some distance away, so it took some time to catch up.
Sumida smelled the blood before she even opened the warehouse door. At first, her brain couldn’t even process what she was looking at. In the dim light, she could at first, only make out a bunch of dark shapes on the ground. Then her eyes adjusted. She gasped in horror. She was looking at ruined bodies. Bodies torn to pieces. Blood of various hues splattered everywhere. Sumida’s gut lurched. There was brain matter. There were scattered limbs. There was spilled guts. They were mercenaries, she could tell from what was left of their clothing and the bent and broken weapons strewn about the messy floor. Their weapons had been rendered useless by whatever had set upon them with viciousness Sumida couldn’t even imagine. There was a flutter of movement. Sumida stood there, frozen to the spot. Klang towered over the broken bodies. Klang was four armed, quadruple jointed, and deceptively delicate but all Sumida could see at the moment was a killing machine. A perfect killing machine. One mercenary was still alive. His weak, agonized moans reached Sumida. The blood-splattered, alien beast that brought his foot down and stomped the life out of that mercenary was a monster, not her soft-spoken friend.
Sumida drew in a sharp breath. Instinct said that if he saw her right then, he’d kill her too. She closed her eyes and backed out of the warehouse but not quickly enough. There was a rush of wind. In an instant, the overpowering scent of blood intensified. Sumida couldn’t move. Couldn’t run. Couldn’t scream.
Icy fingers gripped her shoulders so tightly she wanted to cry out from the pain but she was too scared to make a sound.
“You saw, didn’t you?” Came the deadly whisper.
“I d-didn’t see anything!” She stammered.
Klang’s grip on her shoulders tightened. “Don’t lie.” His voice was hollow and cold.
“Alright! I saw,” she cried. “Please don’t kill me,” she whimpered.
For what seems like an eternity, they stood there. Sumida could only wait to see what he would do. Seconds ticked by. She swallowed hard and prayed to whatever gods were listening out there in the cold vastness of space.
He let go abruptly and retreated into the dark.
Sumida stumbled backwards and out into the light. She fell on her butt, scrambled to her feet.
She didn’t know this violent creature! This was not a Klang she knew. Not the Klang she traveled with. Laughed with. Traded stories with.
She ran. She ran all the way back to their ship. She didn’t stop until she was inside the ship and in the presence of Klang’s beloved human friend, Bex. Bex was blue. Bex was strong. Was she strong enough to stop a murderous Klang?
Bex was seated at the ship’s controls, prepping the vessel for their departure from Cluster Nine.
“What’s with you?” Bex asked.
Sumida didn’t answer. She couldn’t. She just stood there, near tears and gasping for breath, her heart thundering in her chest.
“Do you think it’s weird?” Sumida asked, breathless. “Do you think it’s weird that no one has come after us in weeks?”
Bex shrugged. “Now that you mention it, sure. But isn’t that a good thing?”
“Bex,” Sumida drew in a deep breath and steadied herself. “Something is seriously wrong—”
“What?” Bex laughed. “You so used to being chased, you don’t know how to deal with peace and quiet anymore?”
“No, it’s just…” Sumida sighed. “Never mind.”
She couldn’t tell Bex about Klang, about what she’d seen. That was another thing that instinct told her. If Sumida told Bex about what Klang was doing, he’d probably kill her. Klang didn’t care about Sumida, couldn’t care less about the fate of Hegira. Klang only cared for Bex. To Klang, Bex was the only thing in the ‘verse that mattered. Everything that he did was for Bex’s sake.
Klang came back to the ship, cleaned up and serene. Who’d have guess he’d just butchered a warehouse full of mercenaries?
“Klang, what took you so long?” Bex demanded.
“Sorry,” He murmured. “Things got a bit tricky with the information broker.” His glance shifted to Sumida, who stared at him, saying nothing. “It took a while to persuade the old bat.”
“Did she give you the coordinates?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “Of course.”
He tossed a small tablet to Bex. She caught it easily and immediately went to the ship’s controls. “Get ready,” she called back to Sumida and Klang. “Time to head out.”
Sumida and Klang got into their seats and strapped in. Sumida never once took her eyes off Klang. He in turn, regarded her serenely. That look used to reassure Sumida. Now it just made her skin crawl. She’d never be able to look at Klang the same again. He was a threat, a ticking time bomb. Sumida had no idea what he’d do next. What would he do to her the next time they were alone together? That singular thought sent a shudder down her spine.
The ship shook as the engine started up.
Sumida wondered if Laila was faring any better than she was at the moment. Unlike Sumida, who set off on her journey across the stars with Bex and Klang, Laila had set out alone. Laila had always been fighting alone. Scarred and scared but beautiful and brave. This time, Sumida would do something for Laila. The most important thing yet. Sumida steeled herself. She couldn’t afford to let Klang get in the way of her objective.
“It never happened,” she said lowly.
“Say again?” Klang turned slightly in his seat.
“I didn’t see anything,” she said, resolute.
Klang nodded. Sumida nodded. Good. They had an agreement. Sumida released a shaky breath. She had no doubt that Klang would keep killing to protect Bex. In any case, his actions played in Sumida’s favor too, whether he was doing it for her sake or not. Whether was doing it for Hegira’s sake or not.
The ship buckled.
“We have company!” Bex announced.
“How many?” Sumida asked.
“Six. Maybe seven.” Bex cursed furiously. “Now they’re firing at us!”
Sumida and Klang sprang into action. Klang took the forward gun controls. Sumida took the rear.
The ship shuddered, and metal screamed as Bex punched it, pulling off an evasive maneuver. “We need those guns now!”
The targeting system’s monitor flickered. Sumida locked on. She fired. She missed.
Klang was having better luck. He delivered a sweeping barrage that took out two of their pursuers.
“Get ready for hyper jump!” Bex announced.
A deep growl rose up from the belly of the ship.
Sumida fired again. She hit her target this time. “Yes!”
Something bored through the hull and clattered to the ground. They all stared down at it dumbly for a few seconds.
“Torpedo!” Sumida cried, backing away from the wildly spinning thing.
“Looks like a dud.” Klang said.
“Somebody plug that hole!” Bex growled.
Klang grabbed a patch kit and hurried toward the spot where a hole had been ripped in the hull by the torpedo. It was a small hole, inches in diameter but they were losing air, and fast.
“Sumida!” Bex yelled. “We’ve got more incoming! Keep them off our asses until we jump.”
Sumida ran to the gun turrets. She set up another wide, sweeping barrage of shots and fired. And fired again.
“Klang, how’s that hole looking?”
“All patched up.”
“Good, we jump in—”
The spaceship banked. Sumida and Klang both went flying. The hyper drive ignited while they were still mid-air. Time slowed to a crawl. There was a light, a blinding blue light. It washed over the entire ship. A sort of white noise filled the pregnant silence. There was a sound, the eerie rattling song of a stellar body. The pair remained afloat, as if suspended in liquid. The light dimmed. The noise faded. Time fast-forwarded. Gravity returned. The sudden shift sent Sumida and Klang flying. Sumida slammed into a console and crashed to the ground with a yelp. Klang smashed into the hull, he too crumbled to the ground. They both lay there, unmoving.
Bex, still strapped into her seat, jabbed at the console, desperately trying to get the ship back under control.
“Anyone back there still alive?” She called out to the pair behind her.
Sumida was the first to respond. She whimpered, then groans. “Fraggin’ stars, that hurt!”
Blood dripped from her nose and a gash in the side of her head. She struggled to get into a sitting position.
“Klang,” Sumida called out. “Are you—”
“I’ll live.” Klang muttered, sitting up. “I think I broke one of my arms.”
Bex wiggled out of her harness and rushed over to where they kept the first aid supplies.
She patched up Sumida first. Cleaned the wound, then used a gel to cover the wound. The gel congealed and sealed the gash.
Klang sat and meekly bore the pain as Bex probed and tugged on his broken arm.
“It’s only dislocated,” she declared and before he could react she twisted hard and popped the joint back into place.
Klang screeched then curled up into a whimpering ball. It would take some time for the pain to subside.
Sumida gathered the bloody bandages and limped over to the back of the ship and dumps them down into the trash chute.
“Please,” she turned to Bex. “Tell me we’re, at least, near the place we need to go.”
“Not just near,” Bex answered with a triumphant grin. “We’re here.”