Meo grips the railing as the ship rolls through the upper atmosphere.
Gawj chuckles and slaps her on the back. “Little one still getting her legs.”
Spirals of golden clouds curl around the mountain rising from the surface of the planet, a lone spire in the field of grain. The grey compound squats at the base of the spire, figures moving in and out carrying baskets.
“Hold tighter, y’all. Rough spot to land.” Sekka yanks the controls as the ship glides around the spire. A trio of figures stand out in the field, one waving a long limb towards them.
The yellow crops flatten outwards as the solar treader thuds to the ground. Sekka flicks a switch and the doors hiss open, sweet air flooding the cabin.
The three emissaries bow, long foreheads to the ground, as the crew steps down from the gangplank. The figure at the head, an Apotheosian dressed in scarlet robes, offers a hand to the group. “Welcome, strangers. We are sure that your journey lent swift winds to arrive so quickly,” its sweet voice struggling with the common tongue.
Meo glances to Sekka, then back to the emissary. “We were not aware that you expected us, but your welcome is much appreciated.”
“But ofcourse,” The Apotheosian in blue pipes up. “Your arrival is heralded longpast. All arrangements are in order.” “Then you know that we come to trade.”
Each statement that the Apotheosian leader offers comes with a fresh bow, as deep as the first. “Our counteroffer is already calculated. Please, bring your goods and we talk.”
Meo turns to the others, eye ridge cocked.
Knuv shrugs, “Easy money, I guess. Some places are like this.”
The crew slips back into the ship while Meo holds the emissaries. The scarlet one holds an expression that Meo clocks as a smile, while the blue one watches with calm eyes. The third, the one in grey, doesn’t make eye contact but studies its hands. When Meo speaks up, it flinches. “I trust your harvest season has been well.”
“Oh yes, it yields twice as much as we need. You take enough for the metals you provide.” “Do we just?” Sekka slides down the gangplank with a maglifted crate. “That’ll have to be an awful lot of crop, then. This stuff doesn’t come cheap.”
The being in blue nods and waves a hand towards the complex, “You see.”
Two dozen crates are drawn out, their wagons pulled by six limbed beasts. The blue one lifts a lid to show shimmering heads of this yellow crop.
Sekka frowns. “This is plenty, but we have two dozen-” “This should be plenty for five crates of our nanoiron.” Meo cuts in, smiling at the Apotheosian.
The scarlet one nods. “This is accurate and exceeds our need for your metal. We thank you for this delivery.”
“The pleasure is ours.” Meo takes the cool hand of the Apotheosian and shakes it. “We will, ofcourse, need to stay a cycle to refuel our ship, stretch our limbs. Is that… amenable to your folk?”
The being in blue inclines towards the compound. “Your fuel is being prepared as we speak. You leave in a matter of hours.”
The crew pass comments while the Apotheosians turn back towards their compound. For a moment, Meo stands alone in the field, eye to eye with the Apotheosian dressed in grey. Their eyes were strange, large and ovular. As she stares, she realises that they aren’t just iridescent but transparent, large lenses hiding small green eyes. This one’s eyes dart from her to the rest of the crew, then up the gangplank into the ship at a silver crate set away from the others. Before Meo could speak, it turns and half jogs away. “Little one,” Gawj calls. “Come inside, time to plan.”
Sekka hunkers over the low table. A holographic display of the compound hangs above it, showing a detailed layout of the compound.
Knuv points to the main door, behind the solid outer wall and past the garden courtyard. “Just through there, that’s the quickest way to the mine. They don’t have much security so we can walk in, bust down that door, take this hallway, and then the elevator leads straight there. On the way out we can take a longer route out this side door.” He jabs a slender finger to the left of the main entrance.
“Never go out the way you came in,” Sekka mumbles. “You can get into their system then?”
Knuv chuckles, “These farmers? Yeah, I can manage.”
“How long will it take to crack that door?” “Only a minute or so, no more.”
“Gawj, how long would it take you?”
The massive Kerrogi shoves the heavy lid off of the silver crate. “With my daughter here, maybe three seconds. Two if you don’t want the metal to cool before you walk in.” He laughs and slaps Knuv on the back. “Yes, subtle.” Knuv rubs his shoulder.
“I’m not after subtle. I doubt these folk would be able to stop us just gunning the place down, but I’m not looking for high casualty rates - we couldn’t afford the ammo for that.”
“What about me?” Meo breaks the group’s laughter. Sekka reaches into the silver crate and pulls a crystal rod. “We’ll all have stunsticks, in case anyone spots us. You and I will watch the way while Knuv opens the doors. We’ll also stop Gawj from starting a massacre.” “Hey, I only kill what needs killing.” “You seem to think that’s everything.”
“Am I wrong?” Gawj’s rasping laugh fades out into the field with the dying light of sunset.
Knuv slides down the rough stone wall, landing amongst tall grey flowers. Meo and Sekka follow, with Gawj scrambling behind. The four of them stand in the soft glow of this planet’s small moon, filtered through the garden of tall flowers, reflecting off silver leaves from rows of bushes, casting shadows from the whorled statues arranged throughout.
The semicircular door across the courtyard give a faint hum. The others crouch low behind a wall as Knuv creeps across the yard, his nanocloak shimmering purple black. He reaches the centre of the courtyard, metres from the front door, when a hiss pierces the evening air. The half dozen statues begin to glow along their swirling forms, and out shoot grey metal cylinders.
Cobalt lances of energy bounce around the garden, setting the neat rows of hedges ablaze. Knuv, his cloak thrown about him to block wayward shots, sprints back towards the low wall. A single shot skims his leg and stumbles, screaming out in pain.
“Gawj, grab him!” Sekka shouts. “We need him.”
The large Kerrogi thumbs his wrist and a lightshield encases his arm. He grabs Knuv’s flailing arm then ducks back behind cover. Knuv curses faintly under his breath as the jolters continue to rain fire down on the stone wall.
“Not so unawares then, right.” Says Sekka.
“Fuck off, Molgan.” Knuv hisses, hand clutched around his wound.
“This is why we make backup plans, little Kerrogi. The side door.” “The escape route?” Knuv says.
“I don’t like to come out the way I go in but it’s our only option.”
“If they have guns like that, what else do they have? Where did you even get those plans, Knuv?” Meo pipes up, knuckles white against the stunstick.
“My source has been good for a hundred jobs. Small things always fall through the gaps.” “I’d hardly call six jolters small. We still have time to get out before we all get killed.”
She looks at each of them in turn. “No one has to know.”
Sekka sighs. “I didn’t hire you to sew doubt. Pose questions once we have the ore and we’re living rich on some custom made pseudomoon, okay? Knuv, can you still crack the side door?”
He takes his hand away from his leg, dripping with orange blood. “Yeah, boss. I can manage.”
“Great. Big guy, help your brother.”
Gawj slips an arm under Knuv’s pit and pulls him lightly to his feet.
The jolters settle as the four skirt their way around the garden, keeping low and silent. Knuv pulls ahead to the side door, out away from cover, and slides a panel free. The only sound in the cold night air is the hiss of his arc-hacker.
“He can’t do it.” Gawj mutters.
Sekka taps his stunstick against the stone wall and raises his eyebrows.
Knuv glances back but doesn’t stop rewiring. “I could do it.” The larger Kerrogi mutters, slipping the cannon from his shoulder. “Only a second or two.” Sekka lets out a low whistle, taps the wall again.
Knuv’s hands dart across the wiring.
“Could do it from here even. Won’t take a moment.”
Sekka looks up to the grinning Gawj, silhouetted against the violet sky.
The door slides open as Knuv sighs, letting the arc-hacker drop limp by his side. He stabs a glare at his brother as the three slink closer.
“Trying to steal my cut?”
“Just helping. You know me, I love to help.”
Meo keeps well behind them, Sekka at the head. The hallway beyond is pristine marble, small lights blinking along its walls. Twenty feet away, it opens up into a larger room.
“So what’s the route from here, boss? The other door went-” Knuv is slammed back as Sekka dives to the ground. A blast door slams to the ground where the boss had been, missing his leg by an inch. Another door closes them in from behind.
He sighs. “Sensors. Get this damn door open.”
The high pitched whine starts again as wires are cut and replaced. Gawj leans against the wall, hand tracing the grip of his cannon.
A boom echoes through the hall as another door slams down. Between it and the entrance, vents spray a violet mist.
“I’ve got it.” Knuv says.
Another closes a few feet further, bathing the hall in more mist.
Sekka taps his stunstick against the wall.
Another, halfway along the hall.
“He doesn’t have it.” Gawj says.
The acrid smell of the violet mist, the door only feet away.
“I have it.”
Another boom. The stunstick taps the wall.
“It’s just - just a little longer and-”
“Boss, he doesn’t have it.” “I have it! Just a few more seconds and - will you stop tapping?”
In one swift motion, Sekka fires his blaster through Knuv’s head. He taps the stunstick one more time.
The remaining brother slips the cannon from his shoulder and jams the trigger. A green beam of light melts the door and he holds out his arm.
“Small ones first.” His chuckle is cut off as a blast door closes beside his foot.
The room beyond connects several hallways, an ornate fountain at its centre.
Sekka points at a door set in the far wall. “Should be that elevator, runs straight down to the vault. Meo, check the halls. Gawj, crack it open.”
Meo paces the room, staring down empty hallways. She watches as Gawj laughs, unleashing another blast.
He looks up, his stance wide. “We will be rich, little one. You will see.”
Meo nods, hand gripping the stunstick.
Globs of molten metal drip to the floor of the elevator. “It’s functional,” Sekka says. “Just barely. Come on.”
Floors fly by the open door of the elevator, swiftly descending into the heart of the complex. At regular intervals, it slams against the shaft with enough force to knock the two smaller occupants out. Gawj grips them both by the collar.
“What would you do without me, ah? Squished between hard stone and harder metal! Lucky I love to help or-”
All three crash to the ground as the elevator jolts to a stop. A red light flickers on in the ceiling, half hidden by twisted steel.
Sekka sighs again. “Gawj, get up there and fix it.”
“I won’t fit through that tiny hole.”
The two look to Meo. “I’m not a mechanic, I just do the talking.”
“Want something done right, do it yourself. Give me a leg up.”
The elevator carriage sways gently in the dark shaft, moving with Sekka’s motions.
Meo hears him grumble as he pulls free a panel. A hum starts up as he clicks on his own arc-hacker.
Gawj slaps the barrel of the cannon against his palm, staring at Meo. He raises his eyebrows and glances up to the thin metal ceiling between them and the boss. “What?” Meo says.
Gawj shrugs. He slaps his palm again, eyeing the ceiling.
“All good up there boss?”
“Shut it. Some help you are.”
Gawj smiles. “Just doing my best, boss.”
He slides the barrel off his palm and points it upwards. Meo takes a step forward but the big man holds one finger up to her.
Sekka grunts and snips a wire.
“What’re you gonna do after the job?”
“I’m going home. Gonna give the Cartel a taste of my medicine.”
Meo pushes herself against the wall. Gawj’s arm is fully extended now, barrel flat against the ceiling. “Which Cartel?”
Sekka barks a laugh. “The Dalamond Cartel, you idiot. The ones who stole-”
Meo sees him fall limp as the green blast sheers the roof half. The beam glances off the steel ropes holding up the carriage. They creak, long and piercing, and then snap.
“Wake up, little one.” Gawj hefts a bent segment of steel, his other hand cupped around Meo’s face.
She coughs and batts him away. The elevator carriage was crumpled around them, lodged a foot off the ground at the base of the shaft. Gawj had wedged open the door with a piece of scrap and stood between her and the room beyond, which shone with teal light.
“What did you do?” Her hands tremble as she pulls herself up.
“I told you, we will be rich. You will see.” He smiles, almost confidently, and turns.
The walls are rough hewn from the rock, but a polished steel wall bisected the chamber, set with a thick glass door. Gawj stands transfixed by the source of the glow beyond the wall, piles of crystalline ore pulsing blue. While he gawks, Meo glances off to their right.
Nestled between the cavern wall and the steel one, hunkered over a computer terminal, sits an Apotheosian. Its long hands moved over levers and dials, eyes locked on the flickering outputs.
“Hey!” She calls. “What are you doing here? You have to leave!”
The Apotheosian, dressed all in grey, taps away at keys unflinching.
Gawj growls. He has the battered cannon raised, taking even paces towards it. “Oi! On the ground, now.”
In the sonorous voice of Apotheosis, it speaks. “I cannot. You understand.”
“Did I - do you understand me? Get down or I will shoot you. Now!”
It’s tapping continues in an unbroken pattern.
“Listen to me! Why does no one li-” Gawj takes a step forward and the Apotheosian draws a slender blaster. Before its arm is fully extended, a green ray severs it across the middle.
Gawj curses in Kerrogi and shoulders his blaster.
A low thrum emanates from the room and that pulsing glow increases. Meo dashes past the Apotheosian’s sizzling body to the terminal. It stares up at her with green, unblinking eyes, and she tears her gaze away to the outputs.
Her breath quickens. “It says radiation levels are rising, Gawj. Nearing critical.” An alarm sounds overhead. “Explosion imminent!”
“Fix it! The native must have been doing something!”
Meo’s shaking hands begin turning dials and levers, adjusting the shielding in the chamber, and the radiation levels plateau.
“Good, good, hold that.” Gawj leans his cannon against the wall. “Open this door.”
“What? No, Gawj, we have to get out of here. The job is over.”
He stands silhouetted by the blue light. “Not a request, little one.”
Meo finds a switch marked to open the door, protected under a bright red cap. She flicks it.
The thrumming increases, waves of heat radiating from the doorway.
“The output says they won’t last long without maglevs, there should be some-” She glances around the room to a steel trolley near the entrance. “Bring as much as you can out here.”
“Rich, little one. I will show you.” Gawj palms crystals and piles them up in his arms.
Where they touch, small blisters begin sizzle out from his skin.
“Hurry up! It’s nearing critical.”
Gawj nods and turns back to the door, arms piled high, but stops. A piece of ore as large as his head pulses by his foot. He leans down, hand extended.
Meo’s eyes go wide. Her hands slams the red switch as a sliver of crystal, high atop the stack, slips from Gawj’s arms, bounces once, and explodes. Blinding light of every colour blasts from the room.
Her eyes snap open. Through the haze of half blindness, she sees herself tied to the arms of a chair. The room around her is dark, figures shifting on the edge of her vision.
“Hello?” Her voice is dry, painful to use. “I’m sorry, we were just - trying to make money.”
The high tone of an Apotheosian drifts from the darkness. “What is this word, ‘sorry’?”
She frowns. “It means I feel bad for what I did.”
A chorus of strange humming comes from the figures. She thinks it might be laughter. “We do not have such a concept, it is novel.”
“Are you gonna kill me?”
“We do not kill. We only facilitate favourable outcomes.” The figure speaking glides close, dressed all in scarlet robes. “We facilitated the passing of your associates, but their deaths were their own doing.”
“To stop us taking the ore?” Her sight begins to return to her, revealing the complex shapes of her captor.
“That is one outcome. We know the dangers of the ore, what ruin it brings.”
“You are the other.”
She swallows nothing in her dry mouth.
“The ore is one of our many gifts, we who will dwell on this planet. It is the least dangerous, should the outside world find it. We need your help to stay safe.”
Meo nods. “Kept me alive so I could tell the tale, okay.”
“You will ensure this planet’s isolation, and then you will return to live her.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Once you wield our gift, you will not see another way.” The Apotheosian reaches up to its face. “Do you consent to this gift?”
She takes a deep breath and breathes it out staring down at herself, bruised and bleeding. “You already know what I’ll say, don’t you?”
“The question is an important formality. Do you consent?”
Its slender hand removed the transparent lens from over its true eyes, small and green. Meo’s pupils glimmer a deep emerald, and green tendrils fill her irises, and then the whites of her eyes.
She gasps, blinks once, and then smiles.