The One Who Survives

By Mister Prophet

 

Royce Dagget was surprised by how old the Titan was. From his perch on the Spire Valley ridge he was quite safe. He knew this. The giant was at least over a mile away and the breeze was going in Royce’s favor. Nevertheless, the beast was most certainly there. Somewhere in the flats, Royce surmised. At the bottom of the deepest gorge. Even if he was spotted—which Royce knew was unlikely from his current position—he would have plenty of time to get clear.

Not unless the bastard catches my scent, he thought.

And sure, that was a possibility. The crisp western winds were coming over the landmass. Blowing the loose strands on Royce’s time-soured attire and carrying his musk through the air. Taking it—and quite possibly his location—over the high slopes of the ridge from whence he came. But Na Pali winds were fickle. At any moment they could alternate and bring his musk down into that valley. And if there was one thing the valley was rife with, it was predators.

Royce adjusted his position on the makeshift crow’s nest he had prepared atop a boulder resting on the incline of the larger formation. Much of the ridge in the immediate vicinity was young. He figured that some of the magma in the region had come up from a volcanic vent in recent decades. This kind of thing was not uncommon on the continent. Royce had seen it happen plenty. There would be a quake somewhere. Some light tremor. And when it happened, Royce would know that somewhere…perhaps not very far away…a fissure had opened, and a flash sea of molten rock had gurgled up from beneath the land and spilled forth onto the surface world. Many of the rocks were like glass and could cut his flesh as easily as diamonds if he did not tread carefully. And on Na Pali any wound could potentially be a mortal one. No, you don’t get wounds. You don’t break bones and you don’t get hurt.

With the binoculars in his palms he clocked the range dial up a few notches. A smirk rose in the corners of his mouth. Gotchya! He had tracked it for the last two days. But beyond the spoors, Royce had not actually seen the beast. Until now. The Titan in the distance came into focus. Royce could see the old scars on its hide. Ancient injuries. The beast was certainly an old one. A true stone giant. In the twenty long and arduous Na Pali years since his unceremonious marooning on the planet, Royce was surprised it had taken this long for him to actually find one. Not that it was something he had been particularly looking forward to.

The scars had long since hardened over. Nothing fresh. Judging by the looks of some of the wounds it was obvious to Royce that the Titan was not one to be trifled with. He saw one of the blades from an old Krall staff lodged between two plates in the middle of the beast’s shoulders—the hilt and trimmings long since eroded to ashes. Only the metal remained, and it was heavily rusted over and entwined in the abnormally healed tissue. From the looks of it, the weapon never penetrated the hide. In all honesty, Royce figured that he could have very easily mistaken the lump for a growth if he hadn’t had such an understanding of the Krall and their standard for weaponry. But most of the scars were from other Titans, and that was as good a litmus test for resilience as any Royce could imagine.  

The creature was basking. Royce had seen this before in younger specimens. Also from a distance. They could spend days doing this. Lying under a tree or a rock. Or in a cave somewhere. It was not like they were sleeping. An old Nali that spoke Vrenic in a village Royce had traded at a few years back had said that Titan basking was when the gargantuans siphoned molecular energy from their surroundings to slow their digestion. The Nali had not used the word “molecular”, but the transition from Nalish to Vrenic was rough sometimes. This very same Nali had also said that the Titans drew traces of their geology—geology, another one of those lost-in-translation words—into their own bodies with the energy they siphoned, and that over long periods of time it actually perverted their genetic makeup. Of course, most Nali that Royce came across were unable to make clear distinctions between their theism and their science. And this particular Nali was no different. Royce did not know if such a thing could be true or not. Siphoning energy and altering genes and what not. But as long as the Titan was going to do it all the way over there, he did not really care.

He lowered his binoculars and opened his satchel flap. His supplies were running light. It was not something he was going to be able to ignore for much longer. The seeds he collected would hold him over for a week at most. The batteries in his flashlight had been dead for a month and he had gotten his last remaining flares wet a few days back. There was no guarantee they would work. And then there was the ammunition issue. He had his “last” magazine locked inside his Automag for four months already. The machete strapped to his leg was developing brown spots, despite the frequent lathering with Nali machine oils. All in all, his inventory wasn’t so great. But then again Royce never remembered having very much to work with on this rock anyway.

With a dirty hand, Royce caressed the bristles that were gaining length around his square jaw line. Unearthing an old mirror fragment from his supplies, he studied his features.

Holiday Inn is coming up, old boy.

Warm showers. Shave and a haircut. Maybe even a massage…

Royce tilted the mirror slightly and caught the reflection of his torso. His clothing had become a jigsaw. To an onlooker, he surmised, he probably looked little more than a scurvy vagrant. Beneath the old Nali cloak he had procured years back—which now looked more like a quilt than anything—there was the barely recognizable crewman’s uniform he had arrived with two decades ago. Pieces had been torn off and chewed through so often that the stitched replacements for the gaps were borrowed from countless sources. Human or elsewhere.

Usually the latter.

But the Kevlar vest was military. When Royce had lifted it from a sealed UMS crate buried at the bottom of a clay gully twelve years prior, it had been brand new. But there—on the ridge over the Spire Valley—more was missing than what remained. One shoulder pad was still intact. Well, almost. And the color had completely changed from tan to dark brown. At one point it could have stopped a high caliber slug at moderate range. Royce doubted that it could even block so much as a razorfly sting anymore, if push came to shove. In all seriousness it was more for appearances nowadays.

Unsatisfied with his reflection, Royce withdrew a tattered map from his satchel and unrolled it. A Nali illustration was visible on the rag. Etched over it were various markings. Red X’s and circles. Places Royce had been and the unchecked landmarks he had yet to traverse. At the center was the illustration of a towering spire that stood higher than all the surrounding mountains. As he eyed it on the map, Royce looked up and gazed into the horizon. Cutting the sky like an erect dagger was the Sunspire.

I’m close…

His eyes found the map again. The edges flapped in the wind, and Royce repositioned himself to shield it. Using an index finger he traced an invisible line away from the Sunspire illustration. Guiding it to a landmark that was drawn right next to it. The Nali art changed here. The landmark was not another ridge. Nor was it a village or an outpost. Royce raised his glare back to the horizon. From where he was he could not see it yet. He could not see the ISV-Kran.

…but not close enough.

Royce muttered an obscenity under his breath in his native tongue and glanced out at the valley below. He did not like the idea of coming down from the ridge into the same area as a basking Titan. But the valley was big, afterall. Royce raised his binoculars again and began to search around.

It was then that he saw it.

A glare. There for a moment and gone the next. Clocking the range dial, he zoomed in. A region about a mile from the Titan came into focus. The first thing that caught Royce’s attention was the shack. A Nali house, and a fairly sturdy looking one at that. It appeared to be built for the storms. Or worse—the wildlife. The sides were tall and reinforced with a solid foundation. And Royce could tell from the cracks and the incomplete maintenance that it was in regular use up until recently. The door was wide open. No smoke in the chimney. No lights in the windows. That was a bad sign.

But not necessarily bad for Royce.

Using his binoculars, he zoomed in toward the surroundings of the abode. The glare did not return. There was tall grass and thick foliage blocking much of the area around the home. If there was something—or someone—there then Royce could not see it. Or them. He sighed. It was the only place around still standing. There was an unnatural collection of dead wood and fragmented bricks piled up alongside a pond some ways closer than the house. It could have been a watchtower once. But all Royce could expect to find in that sort of rubble was a razorfly hive, or maybe one of the big arthropods if he was particularly unlucky that day.

Royce thought it over.

Cutting through the Prometheus crash site was dangerous. That region was under hostile control. He figured that he could climb down, stop for a quick salvage run, and be back on the ridge in half and hour with enough time to make it to the Sunspire by nightfall. And not knowing what condition the Sunspire would be in when he got there, Royce knew that he had little choice in the matter. If the house had anything of value he would certainly need it.

And that was that.

A few minutes later he was hiking along the edge of the ridge. The twin suns pierced the sky at odd angles. Moving into their brightest positions along the horizon. Goza was glaring in from the western dawn, torching the clouds with pink fire. Gala was closer to the edge and coasting over the southeast. The southern skies were awash in an alkaline dusk. And Royce stood between them.

It was mid-day.

The mining boots Royce had “found” inside a cabinet during his stay at a Nali sanctuary a decade back helped him as he negotiated the terrain. But they were showing their age. They were durable, for sure. Good for any roughneck. But ten years on the move they were starting to look like the rest of Royce’s equipment. The damaged spots were treated with Na Pali leather and Royce had to make frequent repairs around the soles. The rubber on the bottom was made up of mostly Nali tar. Much of that had been applied less than seven months ago. But they held. And as long as Royce had owned them he had never once suffered from trench foot as he had a couple times in his early years on the planet.

At one point Royce slid on a steep side of the ridge. He reached out for a boulder to stop himself from barreling over, scraping his palm slightly on the sharp magma rock. He cursed at this, but it was nothing too serious. The wind kissed the sweat on his brow. His joints burned inside his sutured up garments. When he reached a spot low enough to rappel down, he pulled the tow cable from around his shoulder and tied it off on a tall boulder. Then Royce spent the next eight minutes guiding himself down the face of the slope. And eventually he reached the valley floor.

Grass replaced gravel and jagged rock. This was the part he hated. There was always this irrational fear gnawing at him that he would complete a scouting run and return to the cable only to see that someone had pilfered it. Being stranded was a feeling all too familiar to Royce, and he did not much like reliving it. With his Automag withdrawn, Royce treaded lightly amongst the foliage. There were always noises in the distance on Na Pali. Avian calls bounced off the air. Deeper emanations from other wildlife hung on the canyon walls like some grave warning. Some more frantic sounding than others. Something somewhere was always being hunted or killed.

Royce had no intention of adding his own screams to the air traffic.

He minded his perimeter. Pack hunters loved the tall grass and the tropical trees were common homes for razorfly hives. Royce hated razorflies, and this weather was just perfect for breeding them. Then there were always mantas to worry about. Hovering over rocks and being overly protective of their nests. Royce had gotten stung by a manta in his first year on the planet. Back when he was still a naïve strandee on this treacherous world. His left arm had swollen up quite badly and the fever he had endured was so bad that Royce had been hallucinating for the worst of it. It was only through blind luck that he came across the hut of a Nali recluse living nearby. That was when Royce learned to always keep a vile of anti-venom on him. It was an important lesson, and he was fortunate to have learned it early on.

He trekked the valley, taking the long route along the far wall of the terrain. Far from the Titan. It was a minor inconvenience. But the upside was that he would come to the Nali house from a better angle than he had seen back on the ridge. Royce continued for twenty minutes. Stopping occasionally near tall boulders to check the perimeter for dangers. But the day was kind. No angry razorfly swarms. No manta screeches. No pack hunters. Of course, Royce knew, there wouldn’t be.

Not with that Titan so close.

He was always tense on scouts. Royce had never enlisted during his life prior to Na Pali, but he always imagined that walking this world must have been akin to navigating a minefield. Every wrong step would be the wrong step. There were no second chances. You screw up and it’s over. That was the mentality Royce had forced himself to adopt. Even if he got lucky—and to survive this long he had a fine collection of luck—he had trained himself to always accept it as nothing more than that. A fluke. Not skill or talent. But a fluke. Because Royce knew that everyone was a professional until the day they made that one wrong step.

The tension on his scouts was more like dread. Every time…every single time…it was like it was his final walk. He hated that feeling. He hated it worse than he hated razorflies. The first time Royce had felt that dread was when he was five years old and his mother had left him in the backyard to play for only a minute. One minute. That’s sixty seconds of neglect that Royce never forgot. He tripped on a loose brick and fell into the deep end of the pool. The shock of the cold water against his skin was marvelous. How could water have been so cold, he had wondered. But that was forgotten quickly when five year old Royce looked up and saw that the surface of the pool was way up above him, and he could not swim. And even quicker than that, he realized that he could not breathe. That cold, icy water was up his nose and in his ears and the chorine was burning his eyes blind. He held his mouth shut for as long as he could as his arms and legs thrashed in panic. But someone had lit a furnace in his chest, and that primal need for air that was so much stronger than anything five year old Royce had known previously was forcing its way up his tiny throat and into his mouth. So he did the only thing he could.

He opened his mouth and let the cold water into his lungs.

A giant palm tree came up from a grassy knoll, with a litter of smaller trees growing off its foundation. Royce passed between them and folded back a long branch to get a clear view of the Nali hut. There were tall rock formations obstructing his path, and they seemed to line the clearing around the house on all sides. It was a Nali tactic Royce had learned in his travels. Build behind natural protection.

Royce cropped low and slinked out of the foliage lightly. His Automag held firmly in both hands and aimed. Aimed for what, he did not know. But he aimed it just the same. The dread was high here. He felt it as surely as he felt it that day at the bottom of his pool. Only this time his mother wasn’t around to fish him out and pump the water out of his chest. If he slipped here, the show was over folks. When he was close enough to the formation he pressed his back against the plated bark.

And peeked around the corner.

From where he stood he could see directly through the open door. It was dark inside. But he noticed it right away. Blood. Judging by the streaks, it looked arterial. It was sprayed over the door, and pooling droplets beaded the wooden boards of the porch. A trail led inside. Royce instinctively reached a hand down to his leg and undid the safety guard on his machete holster.

He counted to three and pushed off from the formation. Doing a quick pan of the area behind it. The rock jutted out into the yard, blocking his view around the next corner. It was then that Royce heard the sound. Shuffling.

There was something around the bend.

Royce moved slowly with his Automag ready. He cleared the edge of the rock and glanced across the glade on the other side. There was a dark skinned figure hunched over with its back to him. Going through a very human looking satchel. Some items were scattered about on the ground around the creature. Books, cigarette boxes, empty cans, and things of that nature.

When he saw it, Royce knew immediately that it was a biped. Taller than him and squatting on a rock, with a long staff leaning next to it against a larger boulder. It was a Krall. Reptilian. Very belligerent and nasty. The Skaarj used them frequently as foot soldiers. Royce had never seen one out on its own and quickly determined the possibility that there might be others about.

The blades at the top of the Krall’s staff were stained in something that appeared brown in the shadow of the boulder. Something very fine and fibrous was wrapped around one of the blades and seemed to be wet with the fluid—probably a strand of hair, Royce thought to himself. The same residue was on the satchel the Krall was examining, only on the satchel the flaps caught the daylight better as the Krall rummaged. And in that daylight the brown stains were red. As Royce watched, the Krall withdrew a small rectangular box. The creature shook it curiously, and suddenly opera music began playing from the device. The Krall recoiled—startled. Then it grunted, realizing there was no threat, and tossed the music player over its shoulder. It bounced on the ground and deactivated.

As he watched, Royce’s eyes came to marks stripped along the creature’s back. Whip lashes, they looked like. This filled Royce with momentary relief. The Krall might have been a cast out. Must have been by the looks of those lashes. That meant…if it was true…that he was a rogue. A loner.

Royce took a step forward. As he did this the Krall sat upright, and paused. So did Royce. There was a moment where the two of them remained frozen where they were. In the next instant—and quicker than Royce was expecting—the Krall snatched for his weapon and stood to face the human. They locked eyes—Royce with his pistol aimed at the Krall’s face and the Krall with its concussion staff poised and its finger on the emitter switch. A deep growl filled the space between them as the Krall grit its razor sharp teeth. They were yellow and filthy, and when Royce saw the saliva glistening around the creature’s mouth the scent of raw carrion hit his nostrils. The Krall’s eyes were glaring at Royce with piercing severity.

He’s got an emitter!

Bastard’s staff has an emitter!

The wind carried another sharp stench over in Royce’s direction, over the smell of meat. He had forgotten how bad Krall body odor was. This was a bad situation. The concussion staff in the Krall’s paws had a trigger. A decade before, most Krall had energy weapons embedded onto their concussion staffs. But during the uprisings and the civil disputes, the slaveholders deactivated most of the things for fear of rebellions. But not all of them were switched off. Yeah, Royce thought. Stepped on a landmine all right. He thought quickly, and spoke.

“[Titan Nearby!]” Royce shouted in Vrenic.

Hoping against hope that the reptile understood the language.

When he said this, the Krall tilted its head to the side. Maintaining that constant growl that had the hairs on the back of Royce’s neck doing the tango. But the Krall said nothing. They both stood for a long moment. Weapons aimed.

“[You fire, I fire.]” Royce said again in the intergalactic dialect. “[And when we do, the Stone Titan wakes up and makes sure neither of us walk out of here.]”

“[I don’t believe you, fu-yoc!]” The Krall snarled in gargled Vrenic.

Royce did not know what fu-yoc meant. But he guessed it was unpleasant.

“[I could have killed you easy!]” Royce countered. “[One shot to the back of your head was all I needed. You want to be stupid, fine! We can both live…or we can both die. You’re choice!]”

The Krall growled louder. But beneath its display of aggression, Royce could see that the reptile was hesitant. Royce’s hands were greasing the gun with sweat and he tightened his hold. The beast raised the staff higher. It was then that Royce noticed there were cuts on the side of the Krall’s face. Scratches, they looked like. Not very deep. But they had broke skin at least. And they were fresh.

“[You’re lying!]” The Krall shouted back.

“[Am I? Your sense of smell is keen enough to detect it. It’s less than a mile from here. The proof is in the wind.]”

The Krall’s eyelids fluttered. Its lips widened back, displaying its gray, pockmarked gums. The growl devolved into a hiss.

“[Don’t move.]” The reptile said, slightly calmer.

Royce kept his aim on the creature as it sidestepped to a tree. With one arm held around its weapon, the Krall used its free arm to grab a sturdy branch and hoist itself up. The talons on its paws were like natural kleets, and the creature shimmied up a few feet quite easily. Royce watched as the Krall sniffed and tasted the air with its black tongue. Its expression—if Royce could call it that—seemed to change. The Krall slid back down.

“[Okay.]” It said. “[So you’re telling the truth. Turn around and go back the way you came!]”

“[I don’t think so.]” Royce replied firmly, centering his aim. “[You’re the one who is leaving.]”

The Krall snarled and hissed. “[You think you stand a chance against me, fu-yoc!? I’ll bleed you like I bled your friend over there!]”

“[No friend of mine.]” Royce shot back. “[Not if they lost a draw with a clumsy half-wit like you.]”

The reptile growled loudly and snapped at the air.

“[This is MY kill! YOU go elsewhere…before I decide to skin you right here!]”

“[I’m not leaving!]” Royce shouted. “[If you don’t take your little twig and get the HELL out of here right now, I will put three holes in your face faster than you can even reach for that lever.”]

Growling again, the Krall unleashed a fury of guttural noises.

“[You would have done it already, fu-yoc! You’re not so crazy that you’ll risk bringing the giant over here!]”

Royce shrugged casually. “[Crazy? All humans are crazy, don’t you know that you stupid lizard? I’d sooner put my shots into your hide and bring that Titan over here than let your stinkin paws get that satchel.]”

The Krall’s eyes narrowed. “[But…why? Why would you die like an idiot for a dumb bag filled with useless human junk?]”

“[Why?]” Royce repeated. “[The better question you should be asking yourself is…why would you die over a bag of useless human junk?]”

The Krall hesitated again. Glancing quickly at the satchel and back at Royce.

“[Fine.]” It said at last. “[Take it for all I care. There’s nothing it in anyway. I already got what I wanted. You better hope we don’t run into each other again, human fu-yoc!]”

“[I’d say the same to you.]”

The Krall backed up with its weapon still poised, kicking the satchel over roughly as it moved away from the clearing. Royce inched closer to the bag with his Automag aimed while the reptile edged off around the perimeter. For a long while Royce stood there, keeping a bead on the creature. When the reptilian alien was about two hundred yards way, it turned around and ran off in the other direction. Royce lowered his pistol. Watching the speck disappear into the distance.

Just another fluke, old boy.

When he was satisfied that the Krall had left, Royce squatted down over the satchel and the inventory scattered around the dirt. He picked up a diary that had a prison serial number on it and an Axon thundercrash symbol. Vortex Rikers, he guessed. Royce recovered the music player and stuffed it in his own satchel. He picked up the new bag and carried it over to the Nali hut. When he arrived at the door, he re-holstered his Automag and withdrew his machete from its sheath.

Using his foot, he pushed the door open wider, noting the blood spray as he did so. Royce placed the human’s satchel down on the stoop with his own and entered the hut with his machete ready at his side. It was dim inside, and the daylight coming in through the windows cast a shadow of the frame against the wall. The blood trail led to the corner, where Royce saw a figure slumped over near an old fireplace. There were ashes inside, but Royce guesstimated that nobody had used it in a good long while. Leaves carpeted the hardwood, and rays of sunlight penetrated cracks between the wallboards.

Royce resheathed machete and he knelt over the corpse. To his surprise—it was a woman. The right side of her cranium had been caved in and bits of gray matter were spread about in clumps on the dirty floor. The Krall had beaten her to a pulp. But not before he had his fun. Her shirt had been reduced to a shredded rag that was still wrapped around an arm, and her back was purple with bumpy contusions and dark with nasty gashes. A naked breast was visible from the angle that she laid. Royce forced his stare away and found her hands. They looked broken, and some of her fingernails had been pried loose and stood erect from their roots. Royce sighed somberly at what he saw. Her pants were around her ankles, and her legs were so swollen with bruises that they didn’t look human. From the quick glance he allowed himself, she looked as if she had been raped in half.

Royce felt his gag reflex buckle, and he headed out of the hut. He sat down on the porch and spat the unpleasant flavors out of his mouth and into the gravel. When his composure returned to him, he started looking through the dead woman’s things. Dumping the contents out onto the ground. He stowed some cigarettes and some shoestring. As he was going through a pile of largely unusable trinkets, he marveled suddenly when he found an intact candy bar. He read the wrapper as if it were holy text.

“Wonder Bar!” Royce said aloud.

She must have been saving it, he figured. He caressed the label with his thumb and felt his eyes well up. Royce smiled and kissed it. Then he stowed the candy bar and continued searching the woman’s bag. There was a leather pouch of Nali seeds—which he was really grateful for—and a magnifying lens. A pink object with stains stood out in the pile, and when Royce raised it up he saw that it was a lady’s razor. He scrubbed the bristled around his jaw, and pocketed the item. Next he found a tampon and pocketed that as well.

It was then that he saw a cotton handkerchief tied off with a leather string. Curious, he shook the pouch and heard a jingle. Royce opened it up and counted out about six—no, seven—Automag bullets. Two of them were bent and their caps were unscrewed, compromising the cartridges. He discarded the useless ones and rolled the remaining five around in his palm. Then with his other hand, he unholstered his Automag and ejected the empty magazine. One by one, he loaded the rounds. When they were in, he replaced the magazine with a click.

That feels better…

When Royce took everything from the woman’s supplies that he could use, he stood up. He glanced into the open doorway one last time, and headed off with his Automag withdrawn. About fifteen paces from the house, he stopped, and glanced back over his shoulder at the open doorway. His fingers rose up and found his old cloak. But he just sighed and continued on his way.

 

 

*          *          *

                       

One thing Royce remembered from his life before Na Pali was the darker nights. When there was just the moon, the stars, and maybe the air traffic. The nights on Na Pali were never black, and if they were then it meant Royce was stuck in some awful weather. If the red moon was at a crescent, the white moon was full and silver somewhere else. If the white moon was only a sickle, the other side of the sky might be blanketed in crimson. And that’s when Royce was lucky enough to get a night without a star in the horizon.

The flames from the campfire warmed his face and made him feel better about the woman he had left in the Nali house. He had only realized later—after he had caught his dinner—that the last human woman he had seen alive was Anna. That was nine years, 13 months, two weeks, and 31 hours ago. Royce closed his eyes and felt the heat on his skin. It had been a fire just like this, minus the howling wind. They came together in the fur of the inn bed, before Breach Mount had fallen. When there was…for a brief period…a time when Royce had been in one place more than a night. Her smooth body had been so hot against his. The kind of woman that might not have touched him—let alone looked at him—in the time before Na Pali. But there, in that inn, she had been his. And he had been hers. And they had done more than touched.

Royce sighed.

The rabbit was salty. But once he had gotten over the fact, years back, that they had only two legs and laid eggs, they did not taste much different than an Earth rabbit. He bit a piece of meat off as the wind beat the walls of his rocky enclosure. Royce had made it back to his tow cable—unstolen, despite his fears—and secured a sanctuary along the ridge for the night. The Sunspire stood up so closely in the sky he felt as if he could reach out and touch it. But not that night. No. He needed to rest.

The tampon fibers had proved useful for starting the fire. He could have spared it and hunted for some kindling. But that would have taken longer, and Royce had already spent enough time collecting and skinning the rabbit. Besides, in this wind? No, on Na Pali you take luxuries as they come. And you don’t waste them for sentimentality or a rainy day. That was just another thing that Royce had trained himself to accept over the years. Although, that one was not hard to learn.

After he ate, Royce withdrew his mirror fragment, the pink lady’s razor, and a small jar that used to be a container for baby food but was now filled at the halfway mark with axel grease. Royce applied a small amount of the grease to his palm and lathered the bristles of his jaw-line.

You don’t waste luxuries…

He dabbed his finger into the jar and applied a little bit more for the important spots. His ‘stache belt and sideburns. The stuff was pungent, but he much preferred the smell to some other aromas of Na Pali. That Krall he met earlier in the day being one of them. When his lubricant was set, he flicked some of the small bits of hair from between the razors—the woman must have used it on her legs or pubis not long before her unfortunate encounter with the Krall—and ran it across a cheek. Royce had gone years without shaving at times, but rediscovered the habit around the time he met Anna. And the thing about habits is that they sure die hard. He tried to procure grease or the Nali equivalent to petroleum jelly whenever he could. Nali did not grow hair, and shaving cream was harder to come by on this world than ammo. But the alternatives were better than splashing creek water on his face. When all else failed, Royce had gone it lumberjack style. But he didn’t trust dry shaving. Cuts meant blood, blood meant air scent, and scent…on Na Pali…was the kind of thing you did not want to advertise.

He sculpted his square jaw clean and smirked in the mirror.

Well hello handsome.

Goza’s light had snuck behind the horizon as the hours went on, and for a change it looked as if it was going to be a darker night than usual. Royce stared at the sky for a moment and judged that he had a couple of hours before he should pack it in. That was time enough for a little maintenance. He picked the rabbit pelt from the glass floor of the magma-rock quarry he had settled on for the night and withdrew his sewing needle and what was left of his thread. And he used those two hours to add some length to his dwindling cloak.

 

*          *          *

 

Royce awoke at the tail end of a nightmare. A recurring one, to be precise. He didn’t always have them. But when he did they were all the same. He snapped out of it roughly that morning, gasping for air and crying out. But quite quickly it wore off and he recalled where he was and wiped the grogginess out of his eyes.

When he was up, the fire was still warm and the sky was still dim. Royce stamped out the remaining flames and spread the ashes around his campground. He was well rested, fed, and had a little more luck on his side than he had the previous day.

The Sunspire stood before him, and he knew that his journey was coming to an end. A whole year spanning the globe. Avoiding the Skaarj outposts and the warring zones. Trading with whatever free Nali establishments he managed to come across—and there weren’t many of those—and trading less with the other non-natives he met that didn’t shoot first and pick-pocket later. He had been stabbed twice and hit in the back with a low-grade energy weapon that gave him a burn that should have killed him with infection if not for the aid of Nali alchemy. He had lost three toes to frostbite as well as a piece of his earlobe. He had come in contact with only three other living humans—all of them men—and he had to kill two of them in self-defense. Royce had nearly starved to death in Oraghar and picked up a nasty bladder parasite at the Dasa falls. He had slept with a Nali woman at a refuge on his way through the Land of Scales in exchange for a hot meal, and realized later that it wasn’t nearly as bad as he had imagined it would be when he agreed to it. He bit into some great tasting Nali fruit on the border of Nagomi and had diarrhea for six hours after. And he had eaten more razorflies than any human should ever dare to eat.

All of it led to this.

The end of the line. And what better place than where it began?

One more day. He smiled and clocked the range finder of his binoculars over the narrow strips of land sticking up from the volcanic abyss beneath the Sunspire. Just one more day, he thought to himself as he planned a good spot to rappel down and chewed over how best to navigate the flats to the old doors of the tower sanctuary. Wishing his boots still had their kleets.

Just another seedy motel on the way to the Holiday Inn, old boy.

You made it this far. Just don’t make any mistakes till we get there.

 

II

 

Royce left the tow cable dangling down a slope hidden behind a crumbling brick structure that might have been a gated archway once. There were long metallic bars lying about in the grass, and what wasn’t submerged in growth was red and coarse with rust. Yes, Royce thought. It had been gate or a checkpoint for sure.

As he began his trot down a hill towards the first plateau over the abyss, he paused to consider something. From where he was, he was probably closer to the ISV-Kran than he was to the Sunspire. Royce peered over the edge to the miles below, where the heart of hell was exposed to the world. A nether region of flames, and beyond that there was an ocean of molten rock. Even miles up the fissure he could feel the heat, and when his eyes traced the mammoth roots of the skyscraping monolith up its long stem to the apex tearing at the heavens…Royce felt humbled. It was if he was a flea. No, smaller than a flea. God had plunged a stake through the world and stabbed the devil in the heart. And Royce…standing under the shadow of that stake…was a lone molecule. A squiggly-line floating over the iris.

Behind him was his goal. That place he had fought so long and so hard to reach and for which he had done unspeakable things that would haunt him forever. He was moving away from it! There were no lava pits leading to the ISV-Kran. Just a canyon detour. It would only take a few hours. Perhaps less!

And then what?

Royce sighed. Yes. And then what? What was waiting for him at the Kran? What might be waiting for him along the way? He considered it. It would do him no good to have traveled all this way for most of a Na Pali year and suffered what he had suffered…all of it, not just the one year but all the years…and find himself face to face with an angry Titan or a hunting party of Skaarj commandos or a den of Krall slavers…and to meet them with only five maybe usable slugs, a rusting machete, and a pink lady’s shaving razor.

No. That wouldn’t do. He could just climb back up the ridge and go at the Kran from the top, where it had crash landed into the terrain like a hot knife through butter and stuck those twenty some odd Na Pali years ago. And he would probably do that anyway. But he needed more in his pocket, and he knew it. The Sunspire might have nothing. It might have something. But most of all…the real reason Royce had planned to go there first…was because it was the highest point on the whole hemisphere. And if he needed to see what waited for him near the Kran, the top of the Sunspire was the way to do that.

It had been eating at him throughout his whole journey. That tension. That dread. What if he got into the Sunspire, what then? And it was chock full of sporelings and nomadic humans that wouldn’t pass on eating another human’s flesh—like the ones he encountered at West Ridge on his seventh year on the planet. Or what if a Krall slaver group had holed up in there? His eyes found the tower and he imagined all the ways it could be infested with countless dangers and countless perils. But this was it! The end of the line! It was a risk. Every day on this planet was a risk. A field of landmines. And they could blow at any moment. All it took was a step. One misfortunate step. And either Royce would die or it would be a fluke.

Royce sighed hoarsely.

The Sunspire had been a Nali haven for centuries. That is, until starships started falling out of the sky and the Nali found themselves at the mercy of whatever sense of opportunity or desperation their visitors had in their black hearts—and nearly all of the ones Royce had come to know over the years had either one of those, or both, and they were most certainly black. The Skaarj had been the worst, but there were also the Veganians and humans. Yes, the humans…who proved quite effectively that when it came to survival it didn’t matter if you were mammal or reptile, ape or cold-blood. In the end, everyone was a potential insect at their core. Royce had seen that first hand, and he had even washed that hand in it once or twice. When Royce had staggered out of the flaming wreck of the ISV-Kran and limped down that canyon only to find a flaming pit in the world with this massive alien dagger sticking out of it, he had wet himself. That was twenty something Na Pali years ago. And back then, when he stumbled inside of the Sunspire—expecting to see something worse than all the hyper-imaginative terrors of his nightmares lash out at him from the shadows—he only saw a somewhat terrifying thing. A being that stood eight feet tall if Royce stood six, reaching out to him with four—yes, four—outstretched arms. Muscular arms that were brown and covered in tattoos. And somehow that Royce from twenty years ago had managed to squeeze just a little more urine out of his pants.

What a different person he had been. That Nali had helped him. Put him off on a good start to survival where so many others that crash landed on this starship graveyard had not been as lucky. His name was Jarek—or at least what Royce could pronounce as Jarek. And if Royce had been smart enough then to know how to properly operate the safety switch to his Automag then he might have shot good Jarek on the spot. What a different person Royce had been then. And what a different place the Sunspire had been. Barely safe then, even with Jarek inside. Filled with spore monsters and those floating fart beasts that spat napalm. Aliens Royce would not have conceived of in his entire life if he had been allowed to live it out on Earth. Although, it took some time for the Royce from twenty years ago to get used to the idea that he was the real alien. Somehow good Jarek had survived in there, and he had taught Royce how to do the same. Oh how easily it could have all ended there. Right at the start.

Royce stared at the Sunspire. As he stared he wondered about Jarek. He never saw him again after he left the Sunspire behind. Had he remained there? Could Jarek still be inside somewhere? Hiding out. Royce shook his head. He didn’t believe it could be so. That was twenty years ago. In Jarek’s absence, what treachery had set up shop? In his memories, Royce remembered there being storage rooms filled with Nali survivables. Provisions, food, supplies. And weapons. Yes, weapons. The Nali were basically pacifists, in as much as Royce had ascertained in his twenty year stay. But that did not mean they were stupid. They had salvaged supplies from the fallen vessels that descended upon their world for centuries. Sometimes those supplies were weapons, and sometimes they traded those weapons. Or hid them. When the Royce from twenty years ago had last been inside, he had emerged with more than just his trusty sidearm. Of course, that was twenty years ago. On Na Pali you take luxuries as they come. And you don’t waste them for sentimentality or a rainy day.

Royce had not wasted anything.

He found his footing at the edge of the hill and crossed a rope bridge. Over the years he had gotten over his fear of heights, but somehow…staring through the old planks making up his creaking, splintering walkway and seeing how a sea of lava can tickle a man’s genitals with the rising volcanic heat as it goes up his trousers…well that’s enough to quicken any man’s pulse. Royce didn’t care how tough they thought they were.

He crossed the rope bridge and made it to the first plateau. Centuries, perhaps millennia ago…there had been an earthquake here, Royce figured. It was one of the first rational thoughts that came to him after he first stepped onto Na Pali soil and it was the same thought he had then, twenty years later. Maybe once it had been a jungle. Or a forest. Perhaps even some lush Eden. But it had all collapsed into the world, and what was left were these fragmented bits of land leading up to the spire. Islands in the abyss. Or maybe there was some other explanation that Royce could not conceive of. Had the Nali inhabited the spire before it had occurred, or did they hollow it out after? If it was after, that made Royce dizzy with all sorts of questions about how the Nali managed a construction project of that magnitude given what the workers were faced with outside. Suddenly—in an oddly timed bit of hindsight that seemed almost comical to Royce—he wished that he had asked Jarek about it all those years ago. Or some other Nali that he had met that might have known. If he slipped now and fell screaming into fiery oblivion, that question could very well be the last rational thought he would ever posses.

When Royce stepped off the second rope bridge and touched down on the coarse soil of the next plateau, he froze. Something…felt wrong. He allowed his eyes to trace the tower. Searching for a hidden danger. But there was nothing. Whatever it was, if it came now he would not see it. So he waited. Waited for something to happen. But nothing did. He allowed himself to resume breathing, and searched around aimlessly. Just his imagination. It happened sometimes. Royce would go all cold and get a sense of something in the wind. It was not something he had before the Kran crash landed. No, it had developed here. On this world. Every year getting a little bit keener. And ninety-nine percent of the time, it was just that. A feeling. But those other times it had been something, and had this been one of those times then Royce knew he would either be dead already or narrowly avoiding another near-demise.

He kept moving.

Finally, he reached the entrance. There had been more weeds around the tall, heavy doors of the Sunspire the first time Royce was here. But now there was just sand mostly. Sand and pebbles. An old, unlit torch hung over the door, thick with cobwebs. That was a bad sign. But not necessarily bad for Royce. If the place was abandoned, then he was only dealing with whatever wildlife had nestled inside. If the torch had been lit then he might have more cause to worry. If he was an optimist, Royce might have seen a lit torch and thought there might be Nali refugees inside. But he was a realist, and nine times out of ten all the good Nali havens had their original custodians run out.

With his Automag drawn in his hands, Royce used his boot to push the door open. Surprisingly, the door gave with little negotiation. The vestibule was dark. Royce cursed under his breath. He hated this part. Reaching through his satchel with a free hand, he withdrew one of his remaining flares. Royce examined it for a moment. Then he ignited the cap. To his relief, it lit. The pink flare sizzled and made Royce squint as it burned itself to life. But after the ignition subsided, he progressed with the hissing flare held above him and his pistol aimed at whatever he was staring at.

He knocked over some pottery that he did not notice at first and collected his bearings as the jingle of old ceramic echoed in the darkness. There were pillars about. Royce began to remember the floorplan of the foyer. There were two passages to the left and right of the room, and one in the back leading into the central atrium. And above him…

Royce had remembered there being a glass ceiling between the pillars, leading to a room above. But as he searched now with his flare he noticed an empty oculus. The wake of the flare was not large enough to see passed the blackness of the hole. But Royce could see clearly enough to know the glass was gone. Curious, he held the flare down as sparks popped off the sizzling wick. But all he saw was the stone tiles of the floor; dusty and laced with spiders silk. No shards or fragments. There was no telling how long ago the oculus window had broken. But what was clear to Royce was that at some point—in the time between when the glass was shattered to the time Royce stood there now—someone had cleaned it up.

Royce flared his nostrils. The place was musty. That old smell of stone-carved walls and aged dust mixed with the perfume from the burning torch and that concocted aroma filled the voids of the room. Everything Royce couldn’t see. He took another step beneath the oculus…

…when something clicked.

And suddenly a spotlight a hundred times brighter than Royce’s torch flashed over him. In a heartbeat, Royce flung himself behind a pillar and pressed his back into it. He held his pistol up against his chest with both his hands and kept his face close to the corner.

Damn!

Beyond his quick breathing and the sound of the fallen flare as it crackled on the floor beneath the bright beam that was now coming from the oculus, there was silence. Royce counted to ten in his head, and listened for anything. The grunt of a Skaarj commando. Someone whispering. But there was nothing. Just the flare. Just his breathing. Royce stole a glance from behind the pillar and pulled back into the shade. The torch was just lying there. He could not see anything beyond the glare. It was some kind of flood light, he guessed.

“Who goes there?!”

Royce went rigid against the pillar. The voice was human. A man’s voice—deep and loud. There was an accent but he could not place it. The voice echoed in the room, and because of the acoustical frenzy Royce could not determine if the voice had come from the room above or from elsewhere.

“Fine,” said the voice again. “I’ve got thermal charges placed all around that room anyway. Military grade. They won’t level the place, but I’ve heard they can punch a hole in the hull of a Skaarj dreadnaught. What do you think they’ll do to you? I hope you can speak English…cus I’m about to press my detonator here on general principle.”

“N-No!” Royce shouted from his position. “Don’t do that!”

He could tell now that the voice was coming from a com system. Somewhere in the walls maybe. Or from above. Point was, having been a brief resident of the Sunspire once before made Royce well aware of the fact that the place could take a hit far harder than any military thermal charge. He was at a tactical disadvantage. Facts were facts. And if the man behind the voice wanted to kill Royce, well…people who want other people dead on Na Pali don’t ask first.

“Ah good,” said the voice. “I had you pegged for one of those ‘walkin against the wind’ types. Truth is friendo, I’d rather not waste the goods on one guy if I can help it. Mines are hard to come by ‘round here, catch my drift?”

“I happen to agree.” Royce replied from his position.

The foyer was filled with hearty laughter.

“Well okay! What shall we do then? You know…the truth is…it’s been so long since I let anyone get this far inside the place. Come to think of it, I think you’re the first. Had a bead drawn on you from up top as you were comin in from the flats. I could have popped your head like a pimple from up there if it suited me. This here Pocket Howitzer and I are like kin, you see. Hell, sometimes…it’s like we finish each other’s sentences. I just think it…and Howie here makes the terrible things happen on impulse. And together, we never miss.”

Royce nodded his head against the pillar.

“I understand.” He said sheepishly.

There was another chuckle.
“I just want you to know where you stand, is all.”

“That’s decent of you.” Royce replied.

“Thanks, friendo,” said the man. “What’s going to happen

next is…I’m gonna ask you a series of questions. Based on how you answer…well, I suppose we’ll see won’t we? First thing I wanna know is…what are you doing coming into the King’s court unannounced?”

            “Well your majesty,” Royce replied sarcastically. “I didn’t see your banner waving when I stepped inside.”

            This time there was no laughter.

            “I suppose you got me there.” The voice said. “Kinda like it low-key myself, as you can see. But all the same…”

            Royce sighed and lowered his pistol onto his lap. He figured that there was no point in lying now. Not in this standoff.

            “Okay…” Royce trailed. “I just stopped in for the night. Wanted to get a look at where I was heading next from the roof. Maybe find some supplies…if there are any. That’s really it. If you don’t want to waste your charges then I’ll just be on my way and leave you alone.”

            There was a long silence. Royce peered out from behind the pillar again and saw that the flare had burned out. It should have lasted longer, but then again he did get it wet one time too many. The man in the darkness was taking a while, and this made Royce nervous. Whenever he ran into a hostile hold up somewhere before, if the guy running the shop didn’t like what Royce was selling then Royce would offer to leave quietly and that would be it. Nobody had ever thought twice about it.

            “What’s your name?”

            “Huh?” Royce muttered aloud.

            “Your name, friendo. What is it?”

            “My name is ‘don’t blow me up please.’ That’s what my name is.”

            The chuckle returned again.

            “You got anything to trade?”

            Royce considered this question before answering.

            “As long as what you’re proposing is trading and not thieving, then yes…I might have some things for trade. Do you?”

            Now the laughter was loud and boisterous, as if Royce had just uttered the funniest joke that any person had ever uttered in all the history of things uttered.

            “Yeah.” said the voice after the man collected himself, although his tone was still a little bit jittery with the chuckles. “Yeah sure…got me some things, yeah. I’m gonna send someone down to you. Do what he says and come meet me stranger.”

            There was silence again, and Royce sat where he was with his shoulder out slightly. Peering into the darkness. There was nothing but that silence for what seemed like a good while. But then Royce noticed it. Something at the end of the foyer, moving in the darkness. Torch light. A person was approaching. Right after his eyes acknowledged the flame, Royce began to hear the patter of footsteps. Whoever this person was, they were barefoot. Royce edged up on the pillar and got to his feet. But he remained shielded. As the pitter patter got closer, and the torchlight got bigger, Royce began to notice the height of the illumination.

            By the time the Nali had reached the glare coming down from the oculus, Royce had already identified it as such. Or him, rather…for it was a Nali man. When he stepped into the light, Royce saw his full features. Even after twenty years it took Royce time to tell them apart if he was in a room with more than one Nali. And for a second he thought the tall figure would step into the light and Royce would be reunited with Jarek. But Jarek had been much older than this Nali was. And shorter. This guy had softer features, and unlike Jarek’s many colored tattoos of priesthood and other designations…this Nali only had the traditional red marks of manhood and…was that black? Did he have black tattoos? Royce had never seen those on a Nali before. And when Royce saw something he did not recognize he automatically became defensive.

            “That’s far enough.” Royce said, and the Nali stopped.

            “This way,” said the Nali.

            Royce blinked. He spoke English. That…in itself…was an extreme rarity. In all his travels, Royce had only met two Nali that knew, let alone spoke English. One of them was a farmer he met in the Northern Vale ten years prior. The other was standing in front of him, holding a torch at the end of a long wooden staff. Not even Jarek…the first kind face in a short list of kind faces that Royce had known in two whole decades…had understood Royce’s speech in the week he had spent in the Sunspire after escaping the Kran. They communicated mostly through crude pictograms in the dirt and by pantomime.

            Very cautiously, Royce stepped away from the pillar.

            “Okay.” He said. “Take me.”

            The tall Nali nodded and turned. They began to walk between the pillars, both of them inside the torch light. Royce had kept the fact that he had actually been here before to himself, and it would remain that way for the time being. If something went wrong, the fact that the man on the microphone didn’t know that Royce actually knew the layout might help him escape if he needed to.

The Nali held the torch with his upper set of hands and the lower set hung listlessly at his sides. They passed under a gantry and then a doorway. Royce walked a few steps behind the Nali and kept his weapon out at his thigh. Every so often, the Nali would glance at him.

There were some emotions that Nali felt that were obvious to read. Fear and anxiety being the most common. Pleasure was another, but Royce had only seen it that one time. And pleasure—that kind of pleasure—was universally readable. There was a peculiar look to the Nali when they were happy or excited in a positive way. He saw it mostly on the children, since they displayed it easier. In pretty much all cases, it was unsettling. It reminded Royce of constipation. Yes, constipation. A Nali who was happy looked like a Nali who was constipated. And when there were dozens of them singing and having a party, well…it was a sight that had made Royce chuckle himself to sleep many a time just by thinking about it. Unfortunately, there were other emotions that Nali felt. All the ones humans did, and apparently some that were unique to Nali. And none of them were as easily identifiable. Besides extreme pain—which looked eerily similar to how humans laugh at something really funny—Royce was oblivious to them. Although, technically he had never been around any of them long enough to truly research the subject.

But he didn’t much like how this fella looked at him.

The Nali led Royce down a corridor and they passed some Tarydium lamps. Royce allowed himself to steal a glance at the crystals sitting behind the glass. A hundred thousand years from now, Royce though to himself, I’ll be long dead and nobody will remember I was ever marooned on this godforsaken planet. And the crystals in that lamp will still be glowing. Just like that. The Nali guide glanced at him again, and Royce was keen to let him believe that he needed a guide. He brought Royce to the end of the hall and stopped. The tall fellow gestured to a compartment on the wall, and the first thing that popped into Royce’s head was, I don’t remember THIS.

“Gun,” said the Nali. “Inside.”

Royce narrowed his eyes. “I think not.”

Nali have an impossible kind of patience, and the tall fella repeated the command exactly as he had before.

“Gun. Inside.”

Royce shook his head. “Not gonna happen.”

“Gun. Inside.”

This time Royce did not reply. He just stood and stared the Nali down. Normally, Nali were passive by nature. In the case of aliens on their planet, human or otherwise, anything that could be perceived as a threat brought about in them a tremendous amount of anxiety and nervousness. Royce had even had them bow down at his feet on sight, just because he was armed. It always took a long time to calm them down when they were frightened, even if they knew you. But this guy. He did not flinch at Royce’s defiance. And at this, Royce allowed himself a thin smile.

You’re a different kind of one, aren’t you?

“Gun. Inside.”

“No.” Royce said firmly.

The tall Nali turned his attention to a spot on the wall that Royce had not noticed earlier. It was small, circular, and dark. About the size of a golf ball. And it had a lens.

“It’s okay, Curly.” said the voice on the speaker suddenly. “Let him keep his sidearm. You will holster that for me, won’t you friendo?”

There were speakers in the halls too, it seemed. Royce chewed it over in his head, but decided to comply. He holstered his weapon and kept his hand near his hip as the Nali pressed a brown hand against the wall. A brick moved and slid back. This was new to Royce as well. Either Jarek had not shown him or Jarek had not known about it. A space on the wall moved to the side, and Royce moved his stance to a flanking position. It was an old habit. And they always died hard.

The compartment contained a wooden lift set to a wall-mounted tracking mechanism. Royce watched as the Nali stepped casually onto the platform and made room for him. After some hesitation, Royce stepped on also. The Nali pressed a switch and the wooden lift began to rise on the track. As they moved up the tower, Royce felt his stomach lurch and his ears pop. There was a loud rattle as they rose. Some sort of chain-fed line inside the track. The Nali only stood there. That blank, unreadable expression on his face. The ride seemed to go on for a while. Nali lift technology operated all on pulleys and weights, so it took longer than some of the lifts Royce remembered from the Kran.

And the Sunspire was tall…

Finally it stopped, and the wall slid open. And suddenly Royce was looking at an ornate room with chandeliers, rugs, and tapestries. Orchestral music was playing somewhere, and all the lights were electric. Royce had to blink twice to appreciate what he was seeing. The Nali moved ahead, passing him to deposit the torch into a vase filled with water. When Royce saw the flames sizzle out in the fluid, the only thing he could think was, he’s got enough water to waste for something like that?

Slowly, Royce stepped into the room. When his feet touched the rug, the Nali extended an arm to him. Royce’s thumb touched the butt of his gun.

“Shoes.” The tall alien said. “You must remove.”

Royce frowned. “Why?”

The Nali blinked.

“King not like it. He freak of clean.”

Royce allowed himself to smirk.

“It’s said clean freak.” He corrected.

But the Nali only nodded at this.

“That is what I say.”

With that the Nali turned and walked across the room. Before Royce could say anything, the tall being passed through an archway and disappeared into the next hall. Royce looked after him curiously, and then down to the floor. Beside the opening to the lift was a pair of sports sneakers—in impeccable condition no less—and a pair of Pack Hunter skin moccasins. The moccasins struck Royce as particularly durable. Reluctantly, Royce bent over and undid the laces to his boots. Some dry mud chipped off as he did this and sprinkled the stone floor just outside the rug line. Royce cursed.

“Don’t worry about it.” The man on the microphone said. “I’ll have Curly clean that up later.”

Royce nodded and pulled his feet out. His insulated socks were sweaty, and when he touched them down onto the rug, Royce massaged around the holes in the soles and at the stumps where some of his missing toes were. Or weren’t. The rug was soft and cool under his feet and he allowed himself to flex the toes that he still had. The tiny knuckles of each popped comfortably.

He walked around the room and examined some of the furniture. It was all Nali, of course. And while the Sunspire was vast enough that Royce knew he had not seen all the rooms during his first visit, much of the furniture did not belong in this region. In his travels he discovered many things about Na Pali and about its native population. While the Nali were globally unified with their culture, ethnicity, technological advances…where they different greatly among the many regions was their sense of craftsmanship. Most of the chairs were distinctly Oragharian in style, and the rocker was made of Strongwood, which was very similar to cedar back home and only grew on the northern continents. The globe was clearly R’uuvian in the way it was carved and how all the landmasses were feature upside down, since R’uuvian Nali were from the south pole and had a unique notion of their world being reversed from the rest of the native populations. This was South was always on top. The urns were mostly from the region, aside from the ones glazed with Tarydium heat. Only equator dwelling Nali made their pottery like that. Most of the other Nali trinkets were similarly mismatched. This amused Royce some. It reminded him fondly of his aunt and uncle, who had lived in the palisades back home and always seemed to have their house stuffed with all kinds of other people’s culture.

There was human furniture. A globe of the Earth and a map of the colonized expanse that was dated around the time Royce crash landed. There was a collection of films on laser code, but no code player to watch them on. And there was a knock off of the Mona Lisa on the wall. How he had gotten that in here, Royce could only guess. Most of this stuff was probably picked up from other starships. There was a wine rack with various human and alien ales. And a desk with a large, complex looking chair that seemed more like a throne than anything. A large tusk was leaning against a side of it and a long blanket made of young Titan hide was draped over the other. Behind the throne was a large Nali painting depicting many Nali that were praying and worshiping a giant saucer as it descended from the sky in a column of flames. Next to it, on the wall, was a bookshelf filled to capacity. And next to that was a wooden box with a music player set on top, where the orchestral music was coming from.     

“Cozy. Isn’t it, friendo?”

Royce spun quickly. Standing in the doorway was a squat man with a paunchy belly. He wore a very formal looking suit vest over a white collared shirt, and had matching slacks to go with it. His socks were red. But what got Royce’s attention most wasn’t the socks. It was the five-foot Skaarj sniper rifle at the man’s side—its butt on the floor and its pronged muzzle sticking just about at the man’s nose level. The other man seemed to be studying Royce with just as much scrutiny. He had a button nose and puffy cheeks. White whiskers stuck out from his chin in a pinstripe and his sideburns were long. His hair got darker the higher up Royce followed it, evening out at a moderate gray and tied into a tight braid that hung over the man’s shoulder. After a moment, the man nodded and gestured at Royce with the hand resting on his rifle.

            “Seeing as how you brought yours.” He said.

            Royce nodded in understanding. “Old habits.”

            The other man chuckled. “They die hard, don’t they?”

            “Funny. I was thinking the same thing.”

            The man sighed and smiled.

            “My name is Calhoun. I am King of the Sunpire.”

            “…Royce. Royce Dagget.”

            “Pleased to meet you Royce Dagget. Would you like a drink?”

            Royce shrugged. “Depends on what you have.”

            “You like Vrenic ale?”

            “Yes, actually.”

            Calhoun’s smile widened.

            “I’m sorry…but maybe we should exhibit some mutual civility if we are to do business…and if you are to spend the night.”

            Royce frowned.

            “I did not realize that offer was on the table too.”

            “Well, I don’t get company often. I hope you can forgive me for my entrance, but this world makes one cautious. And…perhaps if we both put our weapons down while we get acquainted, introductions will go smoother. Yes?”

            Royce shrugged and nodded. Calhoun directed him over to a sofa and a wooden coffee table, and when they both got there Royce took off his holster belt and placed it down. Calhoun did the same with his rifle. When the older man relinquished his weapon, Royce nodded again and unclipped his machete sheath as well. The both stood before each other, unarmed, and Calhoun smiled happily.

            “That feels better, doesn’t it?”

            “Not really.” Royce said sardonically.

            But this only made Calhoun laugh, and he directed the younger man to a dining table near the wine rack. They both sat opposite each other. When they were seated, Calhoun pressed a switch on his wrist and something beeped in the hall. Royce tensed up on instinct, but a moment later the tall Nali entered carrying two plates with smoking food in his upper hands and a bottle with two glasses in his lower set. The aroma of cooked meat hit Royce instantly and he felt his mouth water. These plates came with knives and forks. Knives and forks!

            Well old boy, if THIS is the seedy motel…

            …what will the Holiday Inn look like?

            “I hope you don’t mind the taste of barbecue manta, Mr. Dagget.”

            “No, not at all.” replied Royce. “I just haven’t been in a position to catch one in a while. And just Royce. I feel funny when people call me mister.”

            “Fair enough.”

            The younger man laid his satchel down on the floor beside him along with his cloak, and started fumbling with the knife and fork awkwardly. This made him chuckle aloud at himself, and his tension began to subside.

            “Been a while since I used these. Where did you get them?”

            Calhoun began to pour the Vrenic ale into their goblets.

            “Oh don’t let the looks of my abode fool you, Royce. I lifted these utensils from the mess hall on the Prometheus shortly after we…touched down. I didn’t grab a weapon or even a decent pair of shoes when I was setting out. But I made sure to grab these. If I was going to be stuck here, I suppose I felt I should still eat with dignity. All these years and I’ve never been without my set.”

            The older man let out a jolly cackle when he said this and his cheeks went rosy with amusement. Royce returned the smile and cut into his meat eagerly.

            “About all I had time for was a weapon.” Royce said. “Skaarj came upon us hard when we landed. You said you were Prometheus?”

            Calhoun nodded and swallowed. “And you were Kranleigh, by the looks of your uniform. Unless that was something borrowed. Dagget isn’t a Ruskie name, is it?”

            “I’m Canadian.” Royce replied. “Well, I was born in the Canadas anyway. Moved around a lot. Inuit is Russian run, Russian led. That’s a fact. Technically speaking, I’m Russian by blood. Both my parents were, but my father was out of the picture before I was even born. I inherited the Dagget name from my stepfather. He was a nice guy, but he worked in the frontier. Bought it out there too, when I was younger. Mom ran around with some other guys but never took a third husband. Got hired on account of the blood work, though. I can speak it too. But the accent is Canadian bred.”

            “I took you for a Yank at first glance.”

            Royce shook his head. “You?”

            “No, my stock is off world. Gaian. Although I was told I descended from Welsh ancestry. On Gaia, your lineage isn’t judged by where your blood originates. You’re judged by your wealth. Blood matters little there. Unless it can be traced to money, of course.”

            Royce had nothing to add to this, so he just nodded.   

“So.” Calhoun replied after a moment. “The Kranleigh. I heard most of you survived the crash, is that true?”

            “Yeah.” Royce said as he bit down on his food. He savored it slowly when it hit his tongue, allowing the warm lump to linger. Then he started to chew. “Though, that ‘Kranleigh’ jab might’ve picked you some fights with some of the crew. Personally, I don’t care about that sort of thing. Never was much of a nationalist. Only lost four people when we hit. Inuit makes strong ships. That’s a fact. Of course, once we were here…well…that’s another story.”

            “I heard you held the vessel for three months.”

            Royce shrugged. “To be honest, I wouldn’t know. When the Skaarj tested the hull that first day, I grabbed a sidearm and got out. The fires burned for days and I assumed everyone else had died. I didn’t find out until years later that the survivors pushed back that initial wave and held out as long as they did.”

            Calhoun gazed at Royce with a vapid expression and swirled his drink for a moment. Then he took a short sip, squinted at Royce, and replaced it to the table.

            “That must have been hard.”

            Royce looked up as he chewed.

            “What?”

            “Well,” Calhoun started. “Some might say that you left your shipmates to certain death. Obviously you didn’t know that was what you were doing. I don’t mean for that to sound rude. No, I can empathize. Really, I do. My situation was similar. When you learned about what happened…that must have hurt a great deal.”

            Royce stared at his meal. Somehow, it didn’t taste quite as good suddenly. He swallowed and palmed his glass.

            “I worked in the docks.” Royce said softly. “Moving cargo mostly. Sometimes I’d do maintenance on one of the bio mechs if the Foreman was feeling generous. It wasn’t a great job, but it was a job. I could handle my share and not much more than that. When we crashed I was about sixty pounds heavier than I am now, and what I lost that first month on the surface I rebuilt in muscle pretty quickly. I was a changed man. People change quickly on this world, I’ve learned. Or else they don’t make it very long. But…on that first day. When I regained consciousness and heard them…moving…around. Well, I wasn’t that man yet. But if I had been? Well…I can’t say what I would have done, even if I was in a position to do anything. In my experience, bravery gets you killed.”

            Calhoun nodded at this.

            “But you,” Royce started, changing the subject. “You look like you’ve been here quite a while.”

            Calhoun smiled and took a swig. When he replaced it, he brushed his braid off his shoulder as his guest continued on his meal.

            “Seven…no, eight. Eight years now. Before this I ran with several others for awhile. But they got taken in by that large nomad group that set their lair up just west of here, at that ruined temple and one of those old botany buildings those Veganians have set up around the planet. Managed to hold it pretty well from what I hear. At least for a little while. But I wanted none of that, and to be frank with you Royce I was already losing my taste for the band I was running with before they decided to throw in with those thieves and hooligans.”

            “You’re talking about the Dead Scorpions?” Royce said with a lump of manta meat inside his cheek. Calhoun eyed his guest and the ball of food bulging from his face.

            “Oh what an absurd name,” Calhoun replied sharply, trying to ignore his growing distaste for his guest’s table manners. Royce was, afterall, fresh from the wilderness. And quite ripe to the sensitivities of Calhoun’s sense of smell. The fact that the younger man was leaving a trail of dirt wherever he went was hard enough to ignore out of courtesy.

            “I’ve seen scattered members here and there.” Royce said as his fork screeched the dish. “They were the largest group of us. I heard there were hundreds. All from different ships. Say what you will about their methods and all…god knows I’ve heard the same rumors you have. But they were unified at least. I never thought anyone could pull that off. But they did.”

            “Hogwash!” Calhoun exclaimed, and by his tone Royce thought he might have offended the man. “Unified. Unified as what? They started off as criminals. Criminals led by one big criminal. And most of them died as simply that. And nothing but. The Vortex Rikers was a prison ship, afterall. Figures a space yacht filled with hundreds of beautiful playmates couldn’t have landed here. No! What is Na Pali fit for? It is fit for thieves.”

            “You trade with them? Scorps I mean.”

            Calhoun shook his head.

            “No. They tried of course. Telling me they just wanted to ‘negotiate terms’ and what not. But I knew they just wanted the spire so they could box the Bloodpack in when they took over the Kranleigh…sorry, the Kran. They came around every other month. Then they stopped coming around, and I heard they had been run off.”

            Royce’s expression dropped slightly at the mention of the Kran being occupied. Calhoun noticed this. The younger man tapped his fork against his dinner plate softly.

            “Oh?” said Calhoun in understanding. “The Bloodpack is it? Yes, they were pretty much in control of it about ten years ago.”

            Royce nodded. “I know. And I know they got run off. What I’m wondering about is who showed up there after them.”

            Calhoun’s eyes flashed as Royce said this. His smile widened.

            “Every once and a while, I spot a Krall slaver group moving through the area. They usually pass by the spire. Usually. Not always. Sometimes it’s not Krall…sometimes it’s a lone Veganian. Or nomadic humans. Mostly, I see Nali refugees passing through. The Krall try to come near the spire, I can always take them out from my crows nest before the last one left standing begins to realize why the heads of all his friends just up and started poppin. Veganians are even easier. You wouldn’t think that they are, cus they have all that technology. But the head is always vulnerable, and their trackers can’t account for the distance between us. It actually slows them down I believe. One time I clipped one on the shoulder. Only time I missed the headshot…believe you me, I may not look like much…but with my Howie I can match your pistol any day young fella.”

            Royce smirked at the older man.

            “It’s my oldest possession.” The young man said. “Besides the uniform that is. So what happened to the Veganian you winged in the arm?”

            “Shoulder.” Calhoun corrected. “And he shielded up. Those…energy fields they put up around themselves when they sense danger. Cowards I say. Technology makes us all cowards in the end. He up and ran. Would have made it too, and I was happy to see him off. But he tripped up on one of the rope bridges out there and pulled it loose from its peg. With his shield on, I could spot the glow as it cascaded down the cliff into the volcanic layer beneath this spire. Those shields…let me tell you, they’re strong. But they sure as hell ain’t invincible.”

            Calhoun chuckled at that and took another swig of his drink. When he replaced it to the table he pressed the switch on his wrist again.

            “How do you like the ale there?”

            “Oh.” Royce replied. “You can’t go wrong with Vrenic ale. What do you do when the Nali come?”

            “Well.” Calhoun said, refilling his glass. “Nali are a special issue. They usually just want shelter, and I’m fine with that as long as they understand I don’t take charity cases. I claimed the Sunspire seven…no, eight years ago. It’s mine. The only times I turn them away is if they are escaped slaves. I don’t need that kind of attention. I like the home I’ve made here and I take its protection very seriously. They want some food and water, that’s fine. But every one of them has to know that they’re just visiting.”

            A figure emerged in the doorway. It was the Nali, and he had a fresh bottle of ale with him. Calhoun took it with a smile. The tall Nali glanced at Royce as the older man took it. Still that unreadable expression. Royce found himself wondering about this Nali.

            “Thank you Curly.” said Calhoun. “We might need this a bit later.”

            The Nali bowed, stared once more at Royce, and disappeared into the hall. When he left, Calhoun gestured after the tall creature.

            “I make an exception for him.” The jolly man said. “After my first couple of years here I got a bit lonely. And Curly’s needs are few. He’s very helpful…and absolutely dependable.”

            “Why do you call him Curly?”

            Calhoun chuckled.

            “Because that’s his name! Well, okay I’ll be honest. I can’t rightly pronounce his name. And teaching him English hasn’t made him able to say it any clearer for me. We started with yes and no, and now I can get him to say hippopotamus. But his name…no luck. There were three of them originally. Curly I mean, and two others. I could not get their names right either. Obviously, I gave them new ones. They were brothers, so you can guess what names I selected for the other two.”

            Calhoun laughed loudly as if he just uttered an obvious joke, slapping his palm to the table as he did so. But Royce didn’t get it, and merely smiled to oblige his host. Calhoun noticed the reference was lost on his guest and dropped the subject.

            “What’s with the black stripes?”

            Calhoun perked an eyebrow at the question, and swirled the fluid in his glass.

            “The tattoos? To be honest, I don’t really know what they mean. All three of them came here with them, and after the other two left…Curly is the only remaining Nali that I’ve seen with black tattoos. The Nali have a sort of color guard with those things. Red is the ascension into the manhood, everyone knows that. Other colors mean different things. Blue is clergy, green is teacher, yellow means they like to eat cats. I really don’t know much about it to be frank with you, Royce.”

            Calhoun went to take a sip. But paused, as if he had another thought.

            “But I will say this.” He added. “All colors have to be applied to Nali men by a matriarch. A female elder. But black…well, I happen to know for a fact that Curly and those two others applied them to themselves. And when Curly has been in the presence of visiting Nali…he’s always been very timid around them. And they, well, they take one look at him and they get expressions on their faces that look like someone farted. Or at least…that’s how they look to me. I’ve never been good at detecting emotions in those tall bastards. And after seven…no, eight years…Curly still can’t tell me very much about native life I’m afraid.”

            The two men kept eating a little longer. When they had both finished and sat back in their chairs, fed and full, Calhoun poured the remainder of the Vrenic ale into their goblets.

            “Now.” He said. “Since we’ve both eaten, and I’ve got a better sense of my guest…I suppose we could talk trade.”

            Royce nodded. He lifted his satchel up and dropped it on the table.

            “I don’t have too much,” Royce replied. “And I can’t trade the gun, obviously. But everything else is more or less on sale. If you got any spare batteries for a flashlight and some munitions for my pistol I’d be happy with that. Anything more than that and I’d be in your debt. Assuming you can part with it and there’s anything I have that’s worth it to you.”

            Royce started pulling items out of his bag. Calhoun looked less than thrilled at first. The lady’s razor sat out like a sore thumb on the carpentry of the table with all the ugly hairs sticking out of the razors. And when the haggard man slapped the cigarettes down next, Calhoun cringed internally…remembering his old addiction to tobacco. His expression didn’t get much better when Royce laid out the jar of axel grease, the non-functioning flashlight, and the two water damaged flares. Royce pulled the dead woman’s journal up and was about to put it on the table when he paused and thought against it. Calhoun’s eyes did not exactly light up when he gazed upon it anyway, and all Royce had to do was stare at the bloated bookshelf to see the kind of reading material the older man was used to. But the Wonder Bar garnered raised eyebrows from his host. His eyes followed it to the table and stayed on them. So much so that he didn’t look at Royce’s next item—the small music player—until the younger man had placed it down next to the candy car.

            And then Calhoun turned white.

            “Is that what I think it is?”

            Royce nodded.

            “Does it…play…anything?”

            Royce only smiled, and pressed a dirty thumbnail to a silver button on the side. The room suddenly came to life as a woman’s voice filled the air. She cooed and wailed in a feathery tone. Royce did not know the dialect in which she sang. But even to a non-classical guy like him, it sounded pretty. However, he was unprepared for Calhoun’s response to the song. The old man slumped back into the chair as the woman’s voice struck him. His mouth went wide and the gray in his hair went whiter somehow. It was as if all the blood had pulled out of the poor man’s face, and for a second Royce was worried his host was having a heart attack.

            “Ssss….Sigma…Mon…toya…”

            Royce cocked his head. “Pardon?”

            Calhoun found his young guest’s stare.

            “This…is Madame Sigma Montoya.” Calhoun muttered in disbelief.

            But Royce only frowned. Calhoun fell forward onto his elbows, looking like he was about to faint. The older man held his face in his hands, and Royce—terribly concerned—reached across the table as the woman broke into a sorrowful yowl of anguish. But when Royce saw Calhoun’s face rise, he thought it was his host that was the one in anguish. The older man’s eyes had suddenly gotten red and glossy with tears, and the sloppy salt water was streaming down his face and beading the fine carpentry of the Nali equivalent of cedar. A long guttural noise escaped a wide, sagging mouth and Calhoun nearly fell off his chair. Royce jumped up to grab the man’s shoulder and righted him.

            However, Calhoun was a million miles away.

 

*          *          *

 

The older man beat his fist against his chest and sobbed uncontrollably. The tears rolled down the slope of his neck and sprinkled his freshly ironed suit vest. But Calhoun did not care about the suit vest, or about the damage the salt water from his tears might do to the carpentry of the table. Or that he had spilled his Vrenic ale over, and he did not worry that he only had eight bottles of the stuff left in stock. He did not care about the young traveler that had the table manners of a drunken Krall. Calhoun—who would never tell anyone that his first name was a dullard one, and simply John—did not care very much at all about anything except for the self-destructing swansong of Madame Sigma Montoya’s La Amour. His heart popped in his chest and bled within him a passion he had buried twenty years ago. Buried and wrote the eulogy for. A life he had sent out sailing into the burning sunset on a bed of waves, and he had lit that arrow head and set it loose into the air…where it fell upon the coffin that was his old life. A funeral pyre for the old John Calhoun. And the only one that rose from that pyre was Calhoun, King of the Sunspire.

            But there it was. That life flashed before him as he lay hunched over in Royce’s arms…oblivious to the young man’s screams. No, Calhoun was passed that now. He was somewhere deep inside. He was ten years old again and standing in the hall of his old home. Dressed in those hideous garments he used to despise so immensely. The little buttoned up shirt that was always too tight around his throat in the summer. Those formal dress shorts that embarrassed him with their terse length, exposing his goose-bumped little boy thighs to everyone that saw him. It was the hall of his grandparents, and it was his grandparent’s house. General Calhoun and his wife…and years later after she was gone he would realize that he had only ever known her simply as Nana. For him, in all the memories he would languish over in years to come, there would never be another name for her. As the wife of a General of the EG military, she could not have a name for herself. No name other than the General’s wife. Or Nana. Nana, little Johnny’s guardian. The frail woman who smelled of old lady perfume and had neck fat and who had loved him intensely within an inch of his life. They were the only parents he had ever known, and she was—by default—the only mother he had ever known. She taught him to be patient. To appreciate and hone his tastes for the classical and the prestigious. Because he was a Calhoun. Grandson of the great General Calhoun, and he had to know such things. And she had made him know them. Know them and love them, as he had loved her.

            But he was a tyrant. Social royalty to the outside world, of course. Nothing less than the definition of prestigious. But even as a boy of ten years, Calhoun the younger knew such things to be fraudulent. The General was fraudulent. He only heard the music because it was tasteful that he should hear it. He heard words that had no meaning for him. No real meaning. General Calhoun had married into money young and time had made the world forget. He became famous for a technicality on the battlefield. His name was toasted by the chardonnay of presidents, but his heroism was written with the blood of the young nameless men that had died needlessly to win a decisive battle in a war of choice…but a war that was advertised as anything but.

            Calhoun the younger was the lone heir to a legacy that did not belong to the man he was raised to respect and fear, and not necessarily to love. From his grandfather, he was taught that love was weak and fear and respect were the only constants in the universe. Calhoun was an orphan, and even at the strapping age of ten he knew that his role in his grandfather’s legacy was to be the replacement for the son that was lost. The doctor father that Calhoun had never known. A father that had died with his mother in a skiing accident. He knew nothing of the man that was really his father…aside from the bitter remarks made by his grandfather—the General, the replacement father. Bitter and ugly remarks. Statements made in drunken anger and vulgar spite. That Johnny Calhoun the younger was born from the seed of a faggot, and if he did not watch himself…the General warned…he might grow up to be one too. Another leftist, liberal faggot with no regard for protocol and civility. But young Johnny did have civility. The only difference between his civility and the alleged civility of the elder General was that Calhoun the younger actually possessed such a trait. Such a fine quality, and one truer than the hypocrisy of his grandfather. The old belligerent man that made his old wife sob in the middle of the night as he committed debaucheries to her. It was not the way grown-ups made sex in the movies. In the movies they were always happy, and when the women screamed it was a different kind of scream. Not like Nana’s screams when the General did it to her. And the way he did it was not the same. It was a way young Johnny never thought it could be done. And when the General did it he was always angry. Closing his wrinkled eyes so tightly as Johnny Calhoun watched from the doorway with terrified pupils. Because young Johnny knew what the old man really saw when he shut those eyes. He knew because he heard the heavy footsteps pacing outside his own doorway those nights when Nana was away. Restless and troubled, those paced footsteps were. He knew because he had snuck into the General’s study when the old man was off-world and saw the evidence first hand…downloaded onto a sealed data node on the General’s private computer. Dark memorabilia of a sick old man. Pictures and videos of little boys Johnny’s age, wearing little shorts that were too high on the thighs and dress shirts their tiny bodies looked uncomfortable in.

            But Johnny Calhoun the younger had his music. He had his Nana and from her he had all the love that he needed. And despite the fears of his pre-adolescent years, he reached the age of reason—thirteen—and discovered quite quickly that he was not a faggot. That he liked girls, and liked liberal arts, and appreciated conservative taste, and that the world was not black and white and fear and respect. And one night the heavy, drunken footsteps grazed the outside of his bedroom door. But this time the door opened. And that old General entered with his shirt unbuttoned and his old, peach-fuzzed chest matted with cold sweat and blood. A half empty bottle in one hand, a revolver in the other. The scent of gun powder was on his clothes as the old man staggered to Johnny Calhoun’s bed. Gun powder, sweat, and whiskey. His liver spots glistened in the moon light from the window, looking like lizard scales to the little boy. The whites in his eyes and the brown of his teeth glistened too. And so did the blood. Yes, Calhoun the younger realized, the blood! The old man’s trousers were open at the fly, and what should have been there waiting for young Johnny wasn’t. There were just severed sinews painted as black as oil in the moonlight and a hanging vein tied off with a rubber-band. The old man had castrated himself. But what was worse is that young Johnny soon learned that the old man…all liquored up and hysterical on hate…had pressed the muzzle of that revolver against the back of Nana’s sleeping head and pulled the trigger. And that was why the General’s clothes smelled of gun smoke. And why the officer’s revolver was as slick with the black moonlit oil as his trousers.

            “Couldn’t let her live.” The old man hissed at the boy. “She knew too much! She would have compromised the mission objective! And you know too! Don’t you! You little tease! Always mocking me! Mocking me with your faggotry and your weakness! Don’t lie to me! Not like he lied to me! Don’t you start, too!”

            But Johnny Calhoun the younger did not know how to start. He was too frightened to speak. The old man turned the bottle end-up and the whisky splashed over his snapping gullet and down his chin like a polluted waterfall, and as brown as the old man’s teeth. Running down the old, spent flesh of his torso and spilling over his severed loins, where the alcohol met the exposed fibers left where the hasty surgery had been applied. And it stung the old man. Made him holler and laugh. And keep laughing.
            “This is your legacy now!” He shouted at the boy. “Your’s now, soldier! Your legacy…your curse. All of it for you. All of it ever for you, my little faggot! My weak…spawn of spawns! This is my rifle, this is my gun! This is my rifle, this is my gun!”

            The old mad General waved the revolver around the room and shot out the windows. Shot out the lamp. And the wallpaper. Johnny the younger was too terrified to scream. He just stared. Stared in brilliant horror. He tried to hear his Nana. He tried to hear Madame Sigma. But the General’s voice was louder than the world. Louder than the revolver.

            “THIS IS MY RIFLE THIS IS MY GUN! THIS IS FOR FIGHTING THIS IS FOR FUN!”

            Another shot rang out and blew out a bedpost above young Johnny’s head. Splinters rained down upon him and the piercing stink of gun powder fumes burned the boy’s nostrils. But he did not cry. Did not shout. Somehow, there was still the music. And he knew that there was only one bullet left in the gun. One for the bedpost. One for the wallpaper. One for the lamp and another for the window. And one for Nana, which meant there was only one left for him. One bullet for the boy in the bed. The old General aimed the revolver at the boy’s face and paused. Leering downward at the spawn of spawns. And the boy only stared back. Too scared for tears or words. He just stared. And the old man stared back. Somehow that grin spread wider.

            “That’s the spirit!” The old General said, the only statement of approval he had ever given Calhoun the younger. “Now that is what I was waiting for, soldier!”

            Then the old general pressed the revolver to his own temple.

And Johnny Calhoun became John Calhoun.

            Sitting there in the chair of his abode in the Sunspire…clutching his old withered body and crying his eyes out for the first time since that day…all Calhoun could hear was the music. The immaculate tones of Madame Sigma Montoya. He had buried her in that coffin too. When John Calhoun became Calhoun, King of the Sunspire. And he had buried love in it too. Because love could not exist on Na Pali. Not for him. To accept this new life, he had closed the door to his old one. And he let fear and respect into his heart. Because Na Pali was the black and white world that his replacement father General had prepared him for. Nana had been the guide for his old life. But in this place? If he was to survive, he had decided…all those years ago…that he needed another guide. One that had not made him patient, but had made him strong as well.

            Over the music came a sound. Something distant and far away. But the rhythm of it as it rang through his head in waves. Those waves bounced off the hollow wall of his skull and collected resonance. It was shouts. A man’s shouts. And Calhoun the King…Calhoun the last remaining elder…looked up, and smiled at Royce Dagget.

 

*          *          *

            “I’m terribly sorry about that, friendo.” The older man said whimsically, wiping away his tears. “I know that must have given you a fright. But I want you to know…letting me hear that…I will never forget that you did that for me. Never forget.”

            Royce stared at the older man, dumbfounded. When the older man had regained his composure, he reached across the table and cradled the device so carefully in his hands that Royce thought he looked like he was handling an explosive. Then he smiled again, and looked up at the younger man with glassy eyes.

            “Do…you…know…what this is worth?” Calhoun asked. “What it’s worth to me? Is it…a single-song memory node, by chance?”

            Royce shook his head and pressed the flip switch. And the cover opened, revealing a data module. And written at the top of that module, Calhoun squinted…and read the title, “MADAME SIGMA MONTOYA: GREATEST HITS.”

            The tears came again, and Calhoun let out a happy moan.

            “You’ve come back.” He muttered under his breath. “Priceless…this is priceless.”

            A curious frown rippled along Royce’s brow.

            How priceless?”

            Calhoun looked up at him.

“For this…I will give you anything you need for your  journey. Everything in this

room. Batteries. Food. Weapons. Shelter for the night.”

            “Weapons?” Royce repeated.

            Calhoun stood up suddenly and wandered over to where the throne was. He moved to the wall, where the bookshelf was. He removed a white book. Royce could read the title written on the spine. It said, “Tricks and Traps.” Calhoun reached into the void where the book had been and pressed something. There was a click, and the large Nali painting Royce had seen earlier thumped. And then it slide upward, revealing a hidden alcove.

            An alcove filled to the brim with weapons.

            Royce walked over to them. He saw energy pistols. Assault rifles. Energy repeaters. Land mines. Grenades. Rocket launchers. Knives. Brass knuckles. Magnums. Crossbows. Shotguns. Explosive tipped ammunition for all calibers and shell types. Human weapons. Alien weapons. Things that were shaped weird and had purposes Royce could only speculate on. Snipering weapons. Phaze rifles and plasma charges.

            Calhoun had all the guns in the world.

            “How…much?”

            The older man strained to hear his guest.

            “I beg your pardon?”

            Royce gulped.

            “How much…can I take with me?”

            Calhoun chuckled.

            “Well my boy, as far as I’m concerned you can take as much from this compartment as you can carry. To be frank, I’m quite fine with my Howie. And cleaning these guns every month is an awful lot of work for Curly and me…ah, well…mostly Curly. You can take as many and as much as you need, plus anything else you see in here.”

            Royce swallowed again. His mouth had gone dry.

            “The moccasins by the lift? Can I take those?”

            Calhoun nodded. “Sure. I barely go outside anymore, aside from tending to my garden on the roof. But I like how the grass up there feels on my feet anyway. You’re welcome to my stock of food and water if you like, too. I have a self-replenishing aquifer in this place. Do you need any medical assistance for your journey?”

            “Huh?”

            “Well,” Calhoun started. “You know. Anti-biotics. Fresh bandages. Maybe a survival kit from the Chantilly wreck, I have a few of those. Also got plenty of penicillin.”

            Royce Dagget felt dizzy, and sat down in his chair.

            “I think I’m gonna faint.”

            Calhoun laughed heartily at this, and returned to his seat across from the younger man. He used a napkin to dab the ale he had spilled earlier.

            “Well that settles that,” Calhoun said as he moved the music player away from the rest of Royce’s belongings, and away from the wet spot. “I will take this off your hands. And you…well, you’ll still spend the night won’t you? I have plenty of rooms. You can also go to the roof and get a good look at the surroundings out there. I’ve got a high-range Skaarj telescope mounted up there that can see the dingle berries on a horsefly sucking on the elbow of a nude beach goer on the beaches of Fire Island, New York.”

            “Yes, of course!” exclaimed Royce.

            “Good.” Calhoun said, satisfied. “But first! Dessert.”

            He pressed the button on his wrist. A moment later, Curly appeared.

            “Cheesecake.” Calhoun said.

            But Curly only stood there blankly. The older man sighed.

            “Cake of cheese.” Calhoun said, correcting himself.

            Curly nodded with understanding, and vanished.

            “He gets most things.” Calhoun muttered softly. “But other times…”

            When the host turned back to his guest, he saw that Royce looked almost pale.

            “What’s eating you? I expect you just made the best deal of your life, right?”

            Royce nodded. “It’s just. I almost didn’t make it here. You won’t believe how close.”

            Calhoun nodded. “We all almost didn’t make it, friendo.”

            Royce bobbed his head in agreement.

            “May I ask you something?” said the older man.

            “Sure.” Royce replied. “Anything.”

            “I find myself…curious, as to where you’re headed. If you wish it, you can stay here as long as you like. With me and Curly. I’ve always been looking for a suitable third party to throw in with me and the tall guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fond of him. I really am. I probably would have lost my sanity years ago without another face to look at. But conversation isn’t always our strong point. And I suspect that he cheats at chess, but I can’t prove it. What do you say to that?”

            Royce rocked himself in the chair. A flat smile crossed his lips.

            “I appreciate the offer. I truly do, Calhoun. More than you know. I stayed with someone once on this world, and it was the happiest time I knew in twenty years. But I’m too used to the move. Can’t sit still in this place. I want to stop. I want to slow down. That’s sort of the reason why I’m going where I’m going. So I don’t have to run ever again.”

            A curious look blossomed on Calhoun’s face.

            “What do you mean exactly?”

            Royce took a deep breath and leaned in.

            “You ever think about leaving Calhoun? Like…leaving.”

            Calhoun folded his hands.

            “You mean…leave the Sunspire?”

            Royce shook his head. “No. Like, leaving the planet. Na Pali.”

            The younger man expected immediate laughter and ridicule. If it had come, then he would not have minded. In fact, he had come to expect it. But Calhoun did not laugh at him. Calhoun looked deathly serious.

            “Leave?” said the old man, as if he had never heard the word before.

            Royce nodded. “Yeah, leave.”

            Calhoun unfolded his hands and scratched his chin.

            “How does one accomplish that?”

            “It’s been done.” Royce said. “I’ve heard about it. Some say the military has the planet quarantined. Because of the Tarydium ore neutralizing the nav systems on all the starships. Because the Skaarj are the only ones that can bring big ships in and shuttle the stuff off-world. Because were at war with them, and an ungodly amount of other things. That’s why they never mounted any kind of large-scale rescue. That’s what I’ve heard. They’re all sitting out there, just outside of the gravitation range. Waiting for this feud with the Skaarj to pan out.”

            Calhoun shook his head in affirmation.

            “Yes, I’ve heard that too.”

            “Well,” Royce explained. “I…can’t wait any longer. I’ve tried. But I can’t do it. I saw a woman yesterday. She…had been raped to death by a Krall. And I couldn’t put my cloak over her body to cover her up. She was lying there all brutalized and exposed to the world…lying like that. There was no dignity in it. No dignity at all. But I could not give her body my cloak. Because I could not afford to. Because if I didn’t have my cloak and the wind got too bad at night, I might catch a cold. And if I catch a cold…I might die. That’s what this planet does to people. That’s what it’s doing to me, Calhoun. And I can’t take it anymore. I need to get away. I need to get home.”

            “Home.” Calhoun repeated with a smile, like it was another mysterious word. “My home is right here.”

            Royce nodded. “Not for me. I’ve got to leave.”

            “Who’s waiting for you?” Calhoun asked. “Back home, I mean.”

            The younger man shook his head.

            “I had a mother…I guess, if she’s still alive…she’d be there. I was seeing a girl before the Kran shipped out, but she’s probably like forty now and married and stuff. If I went home tomorrow and my mother was still alive she’d be shocked that I look the same as when I left.”

            This made Calhoun laugh.

            “Yeah.” He said. “That’s something that continues to baffle me. The age issue that we benefit in this place.”

            Royce smiled. “Yeah.”

            “Truly,” Calhoun continued. “It’s truly a cosmic joke, it really is. One of the great punchlines of the almighty…if there is such a thing. The Nali seem to think there are several. But in all seriousness, we come here in balls of flaming metal…stranded on a hostile world that’s swarming with alien beasts that want nothing more than to have us for lunch at every turn. Days are long, and years are longer. Nobody is coming to help us. And there is no hope. But what is the benefit we get in return for all of this? What is our one saving grace?”

            Royce chuckled. He had asked himself this very same thing many times before and knew where the old guy was going with it.

            “Our little bit of encouragement,” Calhoun said. “Is that…the natural…latent…radiation from all the Tarydium ore on the planet…makes lifeforms live extraordinary lifetimes. Far longer than they are supposed to. For every decade a human spends on this world, he will age perhaps a standard Earth year. I am 82 years old, Royce. But I look and feel like I am 60. In ten more years, I will look and feel 61. In two hundred years, I will look and feel the age I should be now.”

            His smile faded, and he appeared almost somber.

            “Days are long on Na Pali, and years are longer. If there is an almighty…he is twisted of the likes I cannot even fathom.”

            “I agree with you there.” Royce said. “Technically speaking, I should be pushing fifty.”

            “We should all look as good at fifty.” Calhoun said with a smirk.

            Royce obliged him with one of his own, and polished off the last of his ale. As he did this, Curly emerged from the hallway and carried a new dish over to the table with a flat, bland looking cake.

            “I know what you’re thinking.” Calhoun replied as Curly set it down and began serving out a piece in each dish with a knife. “But it looks…far better than it tastes.”

            This made Royce laugh aloud and he forked his piece without delay. Taking big jabs at it and stuffing globs of the stuff into his mouth. Calhoun, by contrast, sliced even slivers from his wedge and brought them to his lips.

            “You were telling me about your desire to leave.” said the older man.

            Royce nodded as he ate.

            “Or more precisely,” Calhoun added. “Why you want to leave. But you have yet to tell me how you plan to accomplish this feat. I hope you don’t plan on doing something stupid and trying to hijack a Skaarj escape module.”

            Royce shook his head. “And drift between here and the quarantine line when my fuel runs out? Yeah, that’s not exactly what I had in mind. No. I’m heading to the Kran.”

            A tight smile crossed Calhoun’s lips.

            “A journey ended where it began” said the older man.

            “Exactly.” Royce replied.

            The smile devolved into a frown, and Calhoun found himself curious.

            “But how?” He asked. “I still don’t understand. It isn’t like there are any aircraft on the Kran that can break orbit. There might be some Skaarj Skimmers lying around in the hangars they constructed ten years back. But they would have been sitting there for years, collecting dust. You’d have to refuel them and fix them up some first, and to do that you need to know Skaarj engineering. And even if you did…there lies the fatal conundrum. Skimmers cannot break the atmosphere. So the way I see it, your plan has holes my boy. For starters, I can tell you with absolute certainty that nobody with means to re-power that place has come around since the Bloodpack were run out. All I see coming and going are squatters and looters. And this is Titan season, and you know how they are attracted to crash sites.”

            Royce slashed a chunk of cake off the wedge and swallowed it whole.

            “You are absolutely correct about all those things.”

            Calhoun folded his arms and sat back in his chair.

            “So what’s your angle, friendo?”

            “My angle?” Royce repeated. “Well, for starters…as long as I have some fresh batteries and flares…speaking of which, do you have those?”

            Calhoun nodded. “I do and I’ll have Curly fetch them from storage for you later.”

            “Thanks.” Royce said, and then he started to continue. “As long as I have batteries and flares, which you’re gonna help me with, all I have to do is get to one room. I don’t need an engine core to get off the planet. I don’t need a PHD in engineering to turn one of those Skimmers…assuming there is one…into a shuttle capable of orbital departure and space worthiness. I can’t use the radios because I know that was damaged in the crash. And even if I could get it working, we both know that only orbital to surface messages can get through. I can’t transmit below the atmosphere. But what I can use is a little briefcase-size machine that we had in our secure navigation hold.”

            “…And that is?” Calhoun asked.

            Royce smirked. “The ISV-Kran’s O.W.S.”

            Calhoun frowned.

            “What the hell is that my boy?”

            “Every Inuit vessel carries one.” Royce explained. “It stands for One Who Survives, and it’s essentially an indestructible template. And what this thing does is record every line of text the central computer reads. Every article of data that passes through the ship. Every crewman log, private or classified. Every transmission transcript. Every security holo tape and last standing catalog of cargo and weaponry. Everything that happens to an Inuit vessel from the moment it leaves the shipyards to the moment it returns is imprinted onto this template. The military calls them Fox Trackers, and they are similar to the little black box you guys use in your service ships, like the Prometheus.”

            “That’s all well and good,” Calhoun replied, unconvinced. “But how does recording equipment help you get off the planet?”

            “Because.” said the younger man. “There’s something else that the One Who Survives does that not many people know about. I only discovered this myself a few years ago. Every unit comes equipped with a sealed compartment that only responds to the fingerprint identification of a registered crewman. It doesn’t matter if you’re the captain or a knuckle dragger like me…or the guy who scrubs the septic tanks. If you’re employed by the corporation and logged in the crew manifest during the time the vessel leaves the shipyard, the emergency override will react to your DNA…as long as you’re still alive that is. And once you have that open, you have access. And what you have access to is a state-of-the-art sublight broadcasting dish. These things aren’t sophisticated enough to open channels. But what they can do is send a message of approximately 37 words along a carrier relay that comes coupled with the automated activation signal. This beam will reach Inuit high command in about a month from here.”
            Calhoun chewed at his fingertips, pondering this.

            “Interesting.” He said finally. “How do you know high command will care enough to send a rescue for one person? One…no offense, Royce…one dock worker that has trouble getting his Foreman to let him clean the robots. And even if they did, what about this military barricade? They aren’t going to break protocol for a corporate errand. They won’t break wartime quarantine for that.”

            But Royce only smiled, and crossed his arms.

            “They will send it.” Royce replied confidently. “But not for a man. For their missing One Who Survives. That’s why they call them that. Because the One Who Survives…gets all the spoils. And do you know what the spoils are? A state-of-the art recording module that has picked up every piece of recordable data that has taken place within the walls of that ship since the day the Kran crash landed. Everything. The Bloodpack...the crash. Everything. Oh yes, I think they’ll come for it. I’m betting my life on it by coming back here that they’ll come for it. That Inuit will be greedy enough…as any corporation is…to bring back the winning piece of recon that helps win the war against the Skaarj. That the military will break quarantine for a rescue operation. Yes, I’m betting on it.”

            Calhoun nodded, visibly impressed with the surprise astuteness of his young companion. He drilled his sideburns with his index finger and put his arms up on the table.

            “That’s good, Royce. I’ll grant you that. But what if someone’s thought of this already, and they’ve already done what you’re trying to do? What if Inuit gets the relay activation signal, but decides that twenty years is a long time. Too long to risk manpower for old recon. I’m sorry to say this, my boy. But if you had thought of this early on…then maybe it might have been a brilliant idea instead of just a very good one. Because the war was new still. But twenty years is a long time. We know that better than most. And the things that can happen in that time…well, it goes without saying much more. Does it not?”

            But Royce simply nodded.

            “Yes.” He said. “You’re right. I accept the risks involved. I’ve already dedicated myself to this…even if everything you just said is a distinct possibility. I’m committed to leaving this place. I have to. I have to try.”

            “Committed? Truly?”

            Royce nodded.

            “And there’s no way I can talk you out of this…try to convince you to stay here with me and Curly? Where we’ll be safe for the time being?”

            Royce studied his host. Studied his kind smile, his ruddy cheeks, and his button nose. He looked almost like Santa. If Santa was in better shape, had an alcove stuffed with hundreds of guns, and was marooned on an alien planet.

            Royce sighed. “I appreciate the gesture. I really do. And after all I’ve been through, it is tempting. But I have to decline.”

            Calhoun nodded in defeat, accepting his companion’s answer.

            “Alright young fella. Alright. I can only wish you luck. And I hope you make it. I’ll give you what you need to do the job…if the job can be done, that is. And if it can’t, well. You’ll always have a home here. You know, I think this calls for a farewell celebration. Just in case you do make it.”

            “Or get stepped on by a Titan.” Royce added dryly.

            Or that.” Calhoun said, and began uncorking the brandy that Curly had brought out earlier. “This stuff is vintage. I was gonna toast you just on the basis of our meeting, since I was so happy to get another person in here. But now the moment seems all the more special. I hope you have a taste for this stuff though. It’s rather…potent.”

            “I’ve had Krall beer.” Royce replied. “I think I can take it.”

            “Challenge accepted.” said the older man, and popped the cork.

            The dark fluid trickled into Royce’s goblet, and then Calhoun splashed his own as well. The younger man snatched the glass up and held the rim under his nose. The Vrenic ale had been rough on his palate at first, although Royce had hidden that fact from his gracious host. But since it had been so long since the tattered traveler had such a drink, he weighed it. Afterall, chances were good that he might never get another opportunity to dine in such class ever again. But this stuff? The scent was sweet and pleasant. When Royce took it to his lips and allowed the grapey liquid into his mouth he was delighted to know that it tasted just as good. He sloshed it around some with his tongue and gulped.

            “It’s unusual.” Royce said at last after he finished his glass in a single chug.

            Calhoun was still sniffing his, and had the stem of his glass held between his middle digit and his ring-finger. Swirling the contents of his own goblet as he watched his disheveled companion down his ration as if it was a mere peasant’s beer. That word stood out in his mind as he thought it. Peasant.

            “Peasant.” Calhoun replied, as he poured Royce a fresh glass. “Peasants and Kings.”

            Royce’s brow furrowed at this, but ignored it to swallow another glass-full. He appreciated his second serving a little more than the first, and Calhoun refilled his guest’s glass again with a chuckle. As he blinked away the tart from the second glass, Royce licked his lips and cleared his throat.

            “What was that?”

            “Oh.” Calhoun said softly as he allowed his first, untouched serving to breathe some more. “Just a thought that I had. Forgive an old man for thinking out loud.”

            “Not at all.” Royce said “Indulge me with your thoughts. I’d like to hear them.”

            Calhoun perked his eyebrows and placed his glass down. With his left hand he held his braid in his palm and caressed it with his fingers, leaning back in his chair with the other arm draped over his paunch.

            “You’ve seen my throne? Have you not?”

            Royce nodded.

            “We all came here as nobodies.” Calhoun said. “Well…some of us might have been somebodies. But even if we were…that status was revoked the moment we stepped out of our broken metal cans and set foot on Na Pali soil. We were shipwrecked then. Scared animals. Fighting to survive…and that was a fight a lot of us lost very early on. And those that didn’t? Well, we’ve been dying off every day for twenty years. Some like that woman you came across before we met. She had survived all that time. Twenty years. Through hardships the two of us can probably relate to…and those that we can’t. Na Pali is hard, and I suspect it’s even harder if you’re a woman. And it did not matter. All she must have learned in those twenty years. For her, all that knowledge and experience just wasn’t enough. She died just as easily and just as pointlessly as all the rest.”

            Royce nodded somberly and took another sip. He didn’t know if it was the Vrenic ale or the brandy or both, but he felt that old familiar warmness come into his cheeks.

            “We all came out of those ships as peasants,” Calhoun continued. “And experience doesn’t help a peasant climb any higher in the social order. What’s prey one day is prey twenty years later.”

            Royce felt a little lightheaded and put his drink down. “Uh huh.”

            “Truly.” said the older man. “You think you’ve seen all there is to see. All the pitfalls. All the ways a person can die here. But that’s the thing! There’s always another danger. Running doesn’t work forever. No. Sooner or later…if you want to last…you’ve gotta change the game. Stop being the prey. Stop being the peasant. You’ve got to be stronger than that. Bigger.”

            Royce rubbed his eyes.

            “I think your brandy might have turned, old buddy…”

            But Calhoun kept speaking, as if he had not heard.  

            “I used to value the kinds of things human beings have come to value. Because they can value them. Compassion. Friendship. Love. All those things that make us humane. Oh what a concept that is. To be humane. You think Skaarj have an equivalent? I suspect that they don’t, and never will. And never have. Because for them, space is as cruel as Na Pali. And they learned long ago to rise above the weakness that is peasantry. Or maybe they never had to learn because they were always strong. Oh look at me, it sounds like I almost admire the scaly bastards. Ha! I suppose that I must, in some sense.”

            Royce forced a smile as he held his stomach uncomfortably. And burped.

            “I’ve grown quite fond of Curly’s company.” Calhoun said. “Really, I have. But he knows where his people stand. And so do I. They are peasants by choice. And that’s why they are always going to be under someone’s thumb. Be it the Skaarj or whoever claims this world next. I can be friendly with the peasant. I can even enjoy his company. But respect him? Well, a King can never truly respect a peasant, can he? What is there to respect?”

            “Not feeling so good here, Calhoun.” Royce said, his eyes watering. He glanced up to see an expressionless stare on his host’s face. With blurring vision, Royce glanced down as saw that Calhoun’s goblet had not been touched.

            “No.” Calhoun replied distantly. “I expect you don’t.”

            Royce reached across the table and grabbed the bottle of vintage brandy. Frantically, he twisted it around in his hands so he could find the label. It wasn’t written in English.

            “It’s war christening.” Calhoun said in an apologetic tone. “Skaarj brand. They prefer it before going into battle. You know, some Earth cultures consume the venom of snakes because they believe it will make them strong. War christening is imbibed for mostly the same reasons, only the Skaarj actually brew it to be dangerous. It’s sweet on the human palate though, for some reason. To them it tastes something akin to diesel, or so I’ve read. But they have stronger stomachs than we do. And I mean that literally of course, pluralizing the stomachs. It thins the poison out. Unfortunately, we don’t have that option. Oh no. What starts off sweet becomes nausea. And before you know it…paralysis.”

            Royce began to feel his heart rate quicken. The cold sweat came over him and the bottle of brandy—now heavily greased by the perspiration of his palms—slipped from his grip and rolled around on the carpet, where the neck gurgled forth the dark fluid.

            “Oh really, Royce!” Calhoun snapped, rising to his feet and snatching the bottle off the rug. “It isn’t necessary to ruin my Oragharian wild cat, is it?”

            Calhoun pressed the button on his wrist, and a moment later Curly rushed in with a vile of seltzer water, table salt, and some napkins. The tall creature dropped to his knees and got to work with Calhoun standing over his shoulders. From the table, Royce tried to stand up. His eyes were fixed on the coffee table. The coffee table where he had allowed himself to be deprived of his pistol. That same pistol he never had more than an arm’s length away from him in twenty years. But this jolly old man had somehow convinced him to part with it. Put it across a room. A space of maybe fourteen feet. And that fourteen feet was going to kill him. Royce managed two steps before his legs disintegrated. He landed on his chest and grunted.

            Get the gun, old boy! It’s not that far!

            But it was. He crawled on his belly with his hands. But they were going numb.

            “No you fool!” Calhoun yelled. “Dab it! Don’t dig into it with the rag! Honestly, Curly.”

            The Nali humbly complied and began to dab at the salted seltzer as Royce Dagget crawled for his life.

            “Okay.” said the older man. “That’s fine, let it sit now. Go get the tarpaulin and the rope.”

            Curly stood and left the room. Calhoun glanced over, surprised to see that Royce had made it within three feet of the coffee table before he lost muscle control.

            “Well I’ll be.” Calhoun replied in an amused tone. “That must be some sort of record. You almost made it.”

            The jolly man with the button nose and the formal suit vest placed the bottle of brandy on the dinner table and recorked it. As Royce lay there motionless, Calhoun brought the haggard man’s satchel up and placed it on the chair. He began to search through it and withdrew the candy bar.

            “I never told you this, friendo. But I have a vicious sweet tooth.”

            He waltzed over to a cupboard and placed the candy bar neatly inside next to a box of sugar cubes and a glass jar of licorice beans that was half empty and barred with lines made from a felt-tip pen. When he closed the cupboard, the older man walked over to the coffee table—where Royce Dagget’s right arm had fallen to the ground, outstretched—and picked up the pistol. He carried the Automag behind the throne and replaced it in the weapon alcove.

            “You kept it in good condition.” Calhoun said aloud. “I’ll give you that. If only you managed your hygiene with such scrutiny.”

            He pressed the switch to the painting and placed the book back into its slot. Finally, he turned and glanced down at the body lying in his study. With his hands behind his back, Calhoun approached quietly and knelt down to the motionless man.

            “Alright,” He muttered as he rolled Royce over. “Let’s see how you look, as they say.”

            He righted Royce onto his back, and the younger man’s eyes rolled around in their sockets like wild marbles. Scowling in disgust, Calhoun removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the trail of saliva from Royce’s mouth.

            “I really hate that.” said the older man with spite. “If only there was a way a little more dignified. I’ve seen a man choke on his own tongue once.”

            Royce’s eyes were wide and fluttered about at Calhoun and the ceiling, frantic with fear. Calhoun reached down and casually extended a finger under Royce’s nose. He felt the quick in-out of rapid breathing.

            “You’ll hyperventilate if you aren’t careful, young fella. But then again…that just might be agreeable to you, under the circumstances. Trust me, a doctor knows these things. Well, I wasn’t a doctor very long to be honest with you. Guess the old man’s way was in me all along and I just never realized it. You’d be amazed how high a man can step into the service with a PHD and a distinguished family name behind him. But Royce, really. I want you to know that this isn’t personal. Personal has nothing to do with it. In fact, I kind of like you. Table manners aside, of course.”

            The skins of Royce’s eyelids trembled, but he found that he couldn’t move them. After awhile they began to sting and Calhoun’s profile blurred. Pattering drew near by the hall, and Royce strained his eyes to the left to get a glimpse of what was coming for him. We wanted to reach up and throttle that old bastard to death. He wanted to jump up and grab the Howie from the coffee table and fill the room with holes the size of Calhoun’s dinner plates. But he could not do those things. His body would not listen. Royce could not even get his eyelids to blink. And then the patter grew louder, and Curly entered the room.

            A rolled up tarpaulin over a brown shoulder and a loop of rope on the other.

            This can’t be good, Royce thought to himself.

            “Yes yes.” Calhoun replied as the tall creature entered. “Set it down alongside of him.”

            Royce rolled his eyes around in his sockets as the patter of Curly’s naked feet circled around his head and came to his right. He saw him kneel and begin spreading the tarp out flat. His eyes unblurred slightly as the tears began to run down his temples. But Royce could not feel them.

            “Get his shoulders.” Calhoun ordered from Royce’s legs.

            Royce knew he was being lifted, but he could not sense that the ground had been removed from him. He did not also notice the rough way Curly cupped his hands around his armpits, and he did not feel the subsequent pressure point that was suppressed in the process. But he could smell the Nali. One thing he could say about them was that they were clean. Always using perfumes and oils on themselves for their prayers. Curly smelled this way. Like burning jasmine or some other kind of incense. The tall creature had a stoic expression…or what looked stoic to Royce. He stared into the Nali’s eyes as they lifted him. Hoping the tall guy would stare back and see the fear. And do something to help. Nali weren’t like this! They weren’t! Were they? Or maybe, Royce surmised, it was Calhoun. Perhaps Curly was a slave to the older man in some way. He stared. Hoping against hope that he was right, and that Curly would…could…help in some way. But Curly did not look at him.

            They laid him down on the tarp and began to roll him into it. The green fabric came over his eyes. For a second he could see through the layer and had an opaque view of the room and his two executioners. But then they rolled him into another layer. And another. Suddenly the breath he took into his noise was tighter and carried the old, stagnant musk of the tarpaulin. Breathing out blew the hot air against his face—or what would have been hot air if he could feel it. But he knew from the strain in his chest that breathing had become harder.

            He heard the patter of footsteps. Both of them were moving, and that meant that he was being carried again. Occasionally Royce would see the glows from passing torches and electric bulbs as they glanced over the face of the tarp.      

            “I was hoping I could spare you this.” Calhoun said as they carried him. “You were almost in the clear too, friendo. That is until you said a little more than you should’ve.”

            Royce heard their steps begin to echo as the acoustics changed. They were going down a spiral staircase of some kind.

            “You see,” said the older man, continuing. “It took a lot for me to settle here and make this place my castle. To make my home the way I wanted it. To live as the King I knew I could be and not the peasant I had been for so long. And the way I maintain this castle so well without the aid of anyone except Curly here…is because I maintain anonymity. Nobody usurps my sovereignty here because nobody knows. That…is how I survive. And if you went to that starship and went digging around…well, chances are you might’ve stirred something up. Maybe not, I grant you. But on the off chance you found that little box of yours and called in the troops and got yourself rescued…well, that is something the Skaarj would notice. They may not have gotten here in time to stop you. But they would have been in the area…my area. And that can’t happen! Not to me. So you see, Royce. From the moment I knew I couldn’t convince you otherwise…you sealed your fate. I’m truly sorry about this. Really.”

            Something happened. Royce heard a thud.

            “Grab it will you!”

            There was a rolling sound. Heavy thumping. And suddenly the tarp was pulled from Royce’s face. The world was spinning in all directions. Floor. Wall. Red socks. Ceiling. A burning torch there, a line of manifolds here, and an electric fixture elsewhere. In one of the rotations, Royce saw Curly and Calhoun scrambling down to him—although his view of them in that instant was upside down. The thuds continued.

            I’m falling…

            They’ve dropped me, and I’m falling!

            Something—the slab of a step maybe—hit his face and blinded him a moment, skirting dust into his eyes. He wished that he could blink and right his vision of the spiral. He wished he could reach out and stop himself. But he was helpless. His torso corkscrewed and his limbs flailed with the motion listlessly. Sometimes they went under him. Royce doubled over himself and fell a good three feet down to another slab of steps. When this happened he heard something snap.

            Oh my god…

            There was another thud, and through everything he could hear a trickle of water somewhere. Above him he heard Calhoun cursing and the sound of footsteps chasing after him. Finally the world stopped moving, and Royce’s eyes came to rest facing a brick wall. The footsteps were far away it seemed. So were the shouts. But they were certainly coming. Royce could hear them getting louder. It was as he was thinking this that something came into his vision. Something moving across the slab from under his eyes—or under his head, more directly. A dark line of something forming on the stone. Royce began to panic even harder when he saw it was blood.

            No…no no no!

            Finally, shadows broke the light casts on the wall. Calhoun and Curly had caught up to him, and Royce could hear the older man panting.

            “Oh that’s just great, Curly!” Calhoun shouted. “I sure hope that war christening numbed you up Royce. Sometimes…it doesn’t work that way. Not that you could tell me anyway.”

            They hoisted him up—ankles and arms. This time Curly had the rear, and with his head angled up Royce could see that the Nali had the tarpaulin over his shoulder. But what Royce also realized was that the angle also provided him with a glimpse at himself. His eyes traced his chest, then his pelvis, and his thighs…

            ...Oh please no…

            One of his feet was facing the wrong way. A heel lined up with toes. The shin on that same foot was crooked, and there was bump of something…something yellow and red…sticking up some from his pants. His leg was broken. Broken badly. That’s when he knew. That’s when Royce Dagget knew for sure that he was going to die. Everything else aside, he knew enough about this planet to know that you don’t break bones. You don’t do it.

            They brought him into a larger room. Some sort of crypt by the looks of it. Another section of the Sunspire Royce was unfamiliar with—and he thought it odd that under the circumstances, he was still thinking about how big the place was. Something was trickling somewhere. Water. But he could only see the height of the ceiling. The gantries and the supports. And the cobwebs. But then…he realized…he did recognize this room, and the central pillar in the center. He was…

            I’m in the cistern.

            They laid him down and Calhoun reappeared, sitting next to Royce on the ground as Curly spread the tarp out somewhere out of the younger man’s viewing range. Calhoun’s forehead was beaded with sweat and he wiped his old, flushed face with his handkerchief. When he replaced the cloth, he stared down at Royce and smiled weakly.

            “Sorry about the spill there.” He said with what sounded like genuine apology. “Curly can be rather clumsy.”

            The older man caught his breath and gestured to Curly to wait. Wait for what, Royce could only guess. Calhoun took his braid into his hands as he sat with his legs up on the slabs of the floor.

            “That music.” He said after a moment. “I meant it when I said that I’ll…remember you for it. As unfortunate as this business is, I want you to know that you’ve…done me a great service. I know you think you were meant to…travel here, so you could reach the Kran and escape this world. But I happen to think you were meant to come here and bring that music box to me. So that I might…”

            He stopped in mid-sentence and looked away from Royce. Another moment passed, and Calhoun stared off to his left. Royce watched him reach down for something, and heard a splash. When Calhoun brought his hand back it was soaked with water, and he wiped his brow. The sight of the water chilled Royce’s soul.

            No…

            …not that…

            “I lost my collection when we crashed.” Calhoun replied absently, as if he was speaking to no one. “I ran so fast. Such a peasant I was. Such a coward. I didn’t think. And by the time it dawned on me that I had left my Nana’s collection behind in my cabin…well, it was too late. I like to think that it’s all there still. Sitting in the Captain’s quarters of the UMS-Prometheus. I thought I had lost it all. When I buried myself out here I tried to forget the music too. But…I can’t forget that. I always hear it. What you’ve brought belongs to me. Wherever you found it…I guess it matters not where you found it. But it was mine. That was my music. And it’s so unfortunate that I must do this. It really is. But you can’t get to that wreck and you can’t find what it is you were looking for. I just can’t risk it! You understand? All the others…I could not risk them either. For one reason or the other.”

            He paused and flicked his braid away. His jolly face went hard.

            “But no apologies!” He barked. “I’m not making any apologies! A King does not need to explain himself! He simply speaks, and his will is done. You were a peasant for twenty years, Royce Dagget. If for nothing else…that is why you’re on your back in my cistern.”

            Then a dark, sad smile crossed Calhoun’s lips.

            “You know what my nightmare is? That one day that quarantine line will break. And they will come. They will come to rescue those that were left behind. That they’ll come here and ask me my name…and I won’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.”

            Calhoun looked down at Royce’s frantic eyes once more and nodded to Curly. The two of them laid Royce out on the tarpaulin.

            So close. I was so close…

            …is this really how it happens?

…was all my traveling meant for this?

They rolled his body, and the last thing Royce Dagget saw before the musty fabric covered his face was a downward glance at a large circular well of algae infested water. But somehow through the green mask, he saw them. Dark sacks, like the one he was currently being wrapped in. Dozens of them. Maybe more. A watery cemetery. And then he was blind to the world. All he heard was the grunting of Calhoun and Curly as they roped off the tarp. And then something drowned them out. Air on the fabric. His breathing. In his terror, Royce Dagget was hyperventilating. The whole of this new, dark world was the swishing of his nasal exhalations on the thatched cloth of the tarpaulin.

And then they tossed him in.

The sound of the world changed. There was an instantaneous splash as his body slapped the surface. But it devolved immediately into muffled pressure as freezing water bled through the fabric from every direction and consumed him. Royce held his final breath in for as long as he could. But the hyperventilation attacked this seal immediately, causing urgent stress. Move, he thought to himself. Move! But all that moved were his thoughts. He could taste the algae. It was an awful flavor akin to rotting seaweed. He wondered if the water was already pouring in.  Was he swallowing it already? But he realized quickly that it wasn’t. Somehow, he was holding it out. Royce did not have to see to know that the surface of the water was high above him. The cold, icy water was up his nose and in his ears and the algae was burning his eyes blind. He held the air in as long as he could as his mind thrashed in panic. But someone had lit a furnace in his chest. And that primal need for air was so strong. So strong. It was forcing its way up his tiny throat and stressed the weak barrier between what remained of Royce’s life and what came after. So he did the only thing he could.

Royce opened up and let the cold water into his lungs.

 

*          *          *

 

III

 

Calhoun, King of the Sunspire sat on his throne with his Titan skin blanket wrapped around him. Resting in his lap was his newly rediscovered music player, and Madame Sigma Montoya was filling the room with Dance of the Reeds. His eyes were shut and the tears were drying on his cheeks.

Curly did not know why the human cried. He only knew that Calhoun preferred silence after…it was done. Quietly, Curly collected the last of the leftovers from the table and bent over slightly to check the stain on the rug. The sodium crystals and that awful tasting water Calhoun preferred with his rum sometimes had done the trick. Mostly. Curly would come back later and sprinkle some lifting oils there to pull out what remained. The stain had certainly corrupted the rug. But not ruined. No. What had been done could be undone.

The tall Nali left the room and put the dishes in the kitchen rinsing well. This never got easier for him. Never. The killing. It was not his way. Even after all he had done at the order of this short two-armed tyrant and before him, he could not find normalcy. Normalcy? Another human word that he was forced to learn. He had not understood its meaning for many years. And there was a reason for that. Because for Curly, normal was a word that did not exist.

The rinsing waters washed the dishes clean and Curly placed them in the steams to soak. Curly. That was not his name. But he had been made to use it for so many years now that he found himself using it even in his own thoughts. Even in his own mind he was Curly, custodian of the Sunspire. And in a way that suited him. Because it was easier to be someone else sometimes.

The truth was he did not mind that part of it. Caretaking this ancient refuge had been the easiest his life had ever been. The small human fancied himself a tyrant. That was fine. Let him fancy, Curly thought. Despite what he did to outsiders, to Curly he had been kind. And Curly had known two-arms who were not so kind. And he had known others that were worse. The brown creature sighed to himself. It was a patient sigh. All Nali were patient. All Nali were meek, and subservient when necessary. Even those who were shamed, like Curly.

Yes. Shamed.

He told himself that he deserved it. Deserved to be an accomplice in this little tyrant’s paranoid self-defense of a refuge he did not own by right. None of them had the right to any of it. They all came and they all took. Normalcy, Curly thought to himself. What means Normalcy to a Nali? That, he could not answer. Not even the elders in his old village had known. All that was had been that way before them. And as long as the sky continued to rain chariots from the heavens, it would remain that way.

But Curly had something the little human in the other room did not. Even the shamed, like Curly, knew that patience and meekness were divine by nature. Yes they would suffer. They would suffer and die horrible deaths and no Gods would come. That was not what the Gods were meant for. Calhoun had tried to tell Curly of a human god once. A lone god, who had…according to Calhoun…interfered in the ways of two-arms in the history of old. Although, the small tyrant had remained sarcastic about such discussions. Sarcasm. That was another word that was hard for Curly to understand, and detecting it was even harder. So many peculiar traits for a peculiar race. Lone gods. Strange words with meanings that seemed pointless.

But Curly had faith in his Gods. The humans—well, most of them at least—seemed inconsistent with the faith in their lone god. They would praise them one moment and curse them the next. Curse them! Such a concept was as alien to Curly as his companion’s mannerisms were. The Skaarj had no gods, and Nali faith had always seemed humorous to the Skydemons—as some Nali still referred to the Skaarj. And that name, Skydemons. It had become synonymous to all of them. Curly knew more than most. He knew that they were not demons. But beings as mortal as he was. He had known because he had…he had…

Anguish took a hold of Curly as the steams cooked the air around him. Yes, he had faith. He was faring. Because that’s how Nali were. Believers. Calhoun had said that belief runs its course eventually. For humans, perhaps it did. It explained their actions, and the actions of the others. Like the Skaarj. The scriptures spoke of the great cataclysm. They spoke of how the lands healed and how the Nali found peace and unity. A whole world bound as one. The Golden Age. Even as a child, he had dreamt of how such a time might have been. Before the Skaarj came and brought new words of their own. Words like slave. Words like death. The humans brought words like murder, and that explained to Curly the many ways death could happen. How one person could die and another could be killed. Be killed, as Curly had once killed. Killed to survive, as Calhoun would call it. But Nali do not kill to survive. Nali do not kill.

But Curly had.

That was why he wore the dark colors on his back. He and his two brothers had murdered a Skaarj who was hunting them. They had caused an avalanche of rocks as they were being pursued. The rocks did not kill the Skaarj outright. But they maimed him in a way that never left Curly’s mind. It had been Curly that was tasked with putting the Skaarj to sleep. That is what Nali had called it before words like murder existed. Curly had told himself for years that it was their fault. Their fault for teaching Nali that such things could be. Teaching slavery. Teaching murder. No Nali would have ever done it if not for them. Curly would not have done it. The dark colors would simply be a myth. A relic from the ancient times. Never spoken of and never tested. Nali were not that way.

Not until they came.

Then Curly knew what it meant to hate. That was the worst word of all. And that was a word that needed no explanation, because he had felt it before he knew of it. And that he did all on his own. Because of them, and because of what they made him become. That was not something he could fault them for. He knew it. All he could do was pray. Pray that he never again allowed himself to drift from his culture, even if it might cost him his death. Because death was not the worst fate for a Nali. No. This was. And Curly knew that he must live to atone for it. To die better rather than worse. Somehow. That was his task.

He tried to warn the two-arm. He tried to warn all those that entered this place. But they did not heed the warnings. They did not read the face of peril. Calhoun did not kill Nali. That was Curly’s only request. That they be spared. Calhoun would tell Curly later exactly what he wanted to hear. That the man was dangerous and had to be disposed of. For their safety. But why did Calhoun have dinner with him? Or any of them? And what else could Curly do? The two-arms, the Skaarj, the living machines, the Krall, and all the rest did as they please…how it pleased them to do it. Nali did not do as they pleased. They did as they were told, or as they were taught. It was not Curly’s hand that delivered them unto death, even if it was his hand that helped carry them there. It was a task. Not his own, but asked of him. By those who had the power that he did not.

Or this is what he told himself.

Because it was all he could hear.

Most of all, he hated himself. For what they he allowed them to impart on him. What he had been taught by their corrupt ways. He had been corrupted. Trillions of Nali resisted the worst of it and died as they were. But Curly had been one of those touched with the dark hand. And he knew that he was one of the first. And where one follows, others follow. It made him ache to know that he was progenitor to what could be the next great fall. Before the cataclysm, it had been Nali corrupting Nali. But now? Would we survive this blunder, he asked himself. He knew where it would lead. Where he succumbed, others would succumb. And for them it would be worse. Worse and worse, as more dark thoughts are passed on. Until the next cataclysm. Yes. It was a corruption. And he had been one of the first to be corrupted.

But not ruined. No, not ruined. What was done could be undone. Because Nali were humble. They were meek. And above all else, they were patient. What fell would always rise, and be golden again. And in the end all that would be left in the world…was them.

He would atone. He knew that he would.