by Brian K. Asbury
The ship was sleek, blue, and fast-looking — not large, but certainly well-built, with smooth, finely sculpted lines that without doubt concealed an array of deadly weapons behind seamlessly disguised ports. A team of locals were working on refueling and re-provisioning it as Apollo, flanked as usual by a pair of scantily clad girls, led Elvo and Dartalg toward it.
A young brown-haired man seemed to be supervising the operation. He caught sight of the approaching group and waved to them. “Hi! Are you Apollo? I was told to expect you.”
Apollo stuck out his chiseled chin with pride. “Of course I am Apollo. Could you seriously mistake me for anyone else?”
“No-o-o!” chorused the two girls with a giggle. Behind them, Dartalg raised his eyes to the sky with an expression of hopelessness. Elvo grinned.
“All right, run along, ladies. You’ll see me again when I get back.”
“Awww…” pouted one of them, a blonde who looked as if her brain cells had gone on vacation. “Can’t we come with you, Apollokins?”
“Yeah,” echoed the other, a redhead. “What will we do without being able to feast our eyes on that hunky bod of yours, babe? We’ll die for sure.”
“For sure,” parroted her friend.
“Oh, I’ll show you plenty of me when I return,” laughed Apollo. “But you can’t come with me, I’m afraid. No room. Now back to work you go!” He patted one of them playfully on her round and mostly exposed bottom. The two of them slowly turned and walked away, shoulders hunched and expressions downcast. “Ah, it’s so wonderful being me!” beamed Apollo.
Elvo shook his head. “How does he do it?”
They were level with the young man now. “Are these two coming along?” he asked Apollo.
“That’s right — Elvo the Swordsman and, uh… Talon, wasn’t it?” Apollo said.
“The name’s Dartalg,” Dartalg growled.
“But you said–”
“Ask your boss. He’ll explain. Is this another of his recruits for this mission?”
“Call me Immorto,” said the young man, offering his hand to Dartalg, who looked at it doubtfully before accepting it. Elvo and Apollo also shook hands with him.
“Don’t I know that name from somewhere?” asked Elvo.
Immorto grinned. “You’ve probably seen me in syndicated vidshows. Immorto the Great. Immorto the Death-Defying. Immorto, the Man Without Fear…”
“Oh, God, another one with an ego as big as a planet,” Dartalg muttered under his breath.
“Ah, but in his case it’s justified,” said Elvo with a smile. “I have seen him in the vids. He’s probably the greatest performing acrobat in this quadrant of the galaxy. He does the lot — high wire, trapeze, rings, grav-hoops — and all without a safety net or gravity-dampening field.”
“That’s spot on,” Immorto said. “As my publicist used to say, there ain’t nothing this boy wouldn’t dare!”
“I note the past tense there,” observed Dartalg.
“That’s right,” Elvo said. “You were younger in those vids — a teenager, I think.”
Immorto shrugged. “What can I say? I don’t perform anymore. Public tastes change, and the circus just isn’t in vogue nowadays. Besides, I was bored with it. It wasn’t a challenge anymore. I found myself hankering after some real adventure, so I decided to become a mercenary.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“Still calling yourself Immorto, though, I note,” said Dartalg.
Immorto shrugged again. “My real name’s Irving Schreck. Wouldn’t you prefer to be called Immorto? And anyway, you’re not telling me that Dartalg is your real name?”
“That’s right, I’m not telling you,” said Dartalg. He headed for the ramp.
The others followed him on board. “That’s your cabin, Apollo,” said Immorto.
He opened the door, and they saw that it was already occupied by a frightened-looking young woman with white-blonde hair. As she caught sight of Apollo, however, her expression changed from fear to adoration. She straightened and smoothed out the wrinkles in her pink mini-dress. “Hello,” she said in a sultry voice.
“I don’t believe this,” mumbled Dartalg.
“Well, now,” said Apollo. “Now this is going to be a journey I’m going to enjoy.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“She’s not for that purpose, Tal Obrin!” barked a voice from the other end of the corridor. “The boss says your job is to keep her under control, that’s all. Nothing more.”
They turned to see a bald, pointy-eared, orange-skinned man stalking toward them. “A Durlan?” muttered Elvo to Dartalg.
The ex-assassin shook his head. “Don’t think so. No antennae.”
Apollo laughed. “Jall Tannuz!” he cried. “Well, well. Has the boss gotten you back in harness, then? He must be desperate!”
The alien drew a blaster. “I swore last time we met that I’d kill you some day, Obrin, and I’m tempted to do it right now!”
Before anyone could react, however, another voice rang out from behind him. “You do, shape-shifter, and it’ll be the last thing you do. Now calm down and get our newest recruits allocated some cabins.”
They all followed the sound to see a blue-clad human, an amulet dangling from his neck, calmly training a blaster at Jall Tannuz’ head. Tannuz snorted and put away his own weapon.
“That’s better,” said the newcomer, holstering his gun. He moved past Tannuz to the three new arrivals. “Apollo I know,” he said. “You must be Elvo and Dartalg. Welcome aboard.”
“And you are?” asked Elvo, taking his hand. The man was slightly shorter than he and perhaps around Dartalg’s age — maybe older, judging by his bald head and a trace of salt and pepper in his beard — but he was heavily muscled and looked supremely fit.
“I’m your pilot and second-in-command on this mission,” said the man. “My name is Celebrand.”
“So, how do you think he does it?” asked Elvo as he and Dartalg settled into couches in the crew lounge.
“How does who do what?” Dartalg muttered, casting his eyes over the choice of alcoholic beverages offered by a small steward droid.
“Apollo, of course. OK, I know he’s a great big handsome beefcake of a guy, but don’t you think the reaction of women to him is, well, extreme?”
“Try showing yourself off a bit more if you’re jealous,” said Dartalg, taking a curious sip of a purple concoction. “For one thing, women might look at you a bit more favorably if you took that helmet off occasionally and left off those stupid goggles.”
Elvo removed the helmet, revealing a shock of black hair, but made no effort to remove his goggles. “These serve a function,” he explained. “My eyes were damaged in a battle a few years ago. The goggles electronically correct my lousy vision in a way no conventional eyeglasses or lenses could. I’d hardly be able to see without them. They also have a few further enhancements I’ve added myself to enable me to see in poor light or infrared or ultraviolet.”
“Still, they do nothing for your appearance. Have you considered prosthetic replacements?”
“I have, but I don’t trust doctors. It was botched surgery that caused me to be nearly blind in the first place.”
“I see,” said Dartalg, rejecting the purple liquor in favor of a clear bluish brew. “Well, I can put your ease on one score, anyway. I think I know what Apollo’s secret is.”
“I think he’s a native of a planet called Geeqou. Men of that planet are said to exude a super-powerful pheromone that renders them irresistible to women. I’ve heard tell that Queen Azura of Femnaz once offered a queen’s ransom to the Geeqouite women to revolt against the oppressive and exploitative rule of their menfolk, but there were no takers.” He snickered cynically. “Of course, the atmosphere of Geeqou is so saturated with those pheromones that none of the women there would ever dream of challenging the status quo. And the delegation that Azura sent to the planet to try and convince them fell under it too and switched sides. For all anyone knows, they’re still there!”
“You’re making this up, right?”
“No, it’s true, I swear. Every word!”
At that moment, Immorto chose to enter the room. “Settling in, folks?”
Elvo hooked a thumb in the direction of the nearest port, which showed elongated star-trails flashing past at hyperspeed. “I’d settle in a lot easier if I knew where we were going,” he said.
The young brown-haired man shrugged and seated himself opposite the swordsman. “I don’t know myself. Celebrand is going to brief us shortly, now we’re under way.”
“Celebrand? Not the boss?”
“No one meets the boss. I don’t think even Celebrand has met him face to face.”
“Oh, great!” muttered Dartalg under his breath. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
“I’m sure we’ll find out shortly, friend,” said Elvo. “Meantime, Immorto, maybe you can settle a bet. That guy Jall Tannuz — the one who seems to have a grudge against Apollo — is he a Durlan or not? I thought he was, but Dartalg, here, says Durlans always have antennae.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Immorto, but I’ve heard others ask him if he’s a Durlan, and he denies it pretty firmly. I don’t know much about him — Celebrand signed him on as chief engineer at our last port of call.”
“But he is a shape-shifter?” Elvo asked. “Celebrand himself said as much.”
“Apparently so, though I haven’t seen him transform. A word of warning, though — he doesn’t have a sense of humor. When I heard he was a shape-shifter, I dubbed him our Chameleon Chief. He didn’t see the joke. Went apoplectic! I think if Celebrand hadn’t reined him in, he’d have tried to kill me!”
“He wouldn’t have succeeded, of course,” Immorto said with a grin. “I’m not called Immorto for nothing. I’m unkillable.”
“Yeah, right,” muttered Dartalg. “You and half the cocky punks in the galaxy.”
The other two ignored the older man. “So,” said Elvo, “any more crew members we haven’t yet met?”
“Just Varnu, our co-pilot,” Immorto replied. “She’s an Imskian, I think. Oh — and the girl in Apollo’s cabin.”
“And who’s she?”
Immorto frowned. “That’s the strange thing. I don’t know. I think Celebrand probably knows who she is, but to the rest of us she’s a mystery. I hadn’t even seen her until I showed Apollo to his cabin.”
“Really? How long had she been in there?” asked Dartalg.
“Couple of days. She was delivered by courier ship en route to the planet where we picked up you guys. A pair of robots brought her on board, and we were all told to stay in here in the crew lounge till she was safely locked away. Celebrand wouldn’t explain why — just said she was dangerous, and he’d been ordered not to let any of us come into contact with her till Apollo was on board to control her.” He shrugged. “I don’t even know her name.”
“Curiouser and curiouser…” said Elvo.
In one of the cabins, a young woman dreamed. She was a girl again, barely into her teens, and she was among a throng of people making their way up a hillside to an altar erected there. Another young woman, who bore a familial resemblance to the dreamer, stood beside the altar, clothed all in green. Beside her stood a kindly looking old man in the robes of a priest.
The old man raised his hands. “Assembled faithful of Yardal Village, welcome. We are gathered today in the tradition that we have upheld for a thousand years to honor the gods who have protected our world of Dalnar for a thousand years, since our ancestors first fled here to escape the tyranny of the Dominion, and who have this year granted us a truly bountiful harvest.”
His hands indicated the offerings of grain, fruit, and other produce upon the altar. “As is our tradition, the pyre of our offerings will be lit by Dione, daughter of Orphos, a virtuous maid whom you have elected this year’s Queen of the Harvest.”
The crowd cheered, and none louder than the dreamer, who swelled with pride at seeing her sister up there, looking so beautiful in her verdant costume. Someday, she would be up there, preparing to take the torch, lit from Fire Mountain near to the site of their ancestors’ original landing on this world. And some day, as Queen of the Harvest, she would do as Dione was doing now, and plunge the torch deep into the heart of the kindling beneath the altar, lighting the offering fires.
Another cheer went up from the multitude as the first flames licked up — but then the cheering stopped as a louder noise split the air. They looked up to see strange objects descending — metal constructs, more or less cylindrical in shape, and trailing fire and smoke in their wake. And, as they grew nearer, they saw that the objects were being ridden by men as though they were horses — men clad in metal and with round, transparent bubbles about their heads.
The crowd began to mill in confusion, not knowing whether to flee or to greet these newcomers. They looked to the priest, who stepped forward, Dione at his heel, as the first of the newcomers landed. “I greet you in the name of the people of Dalnar,” he said. “However, while it is our tradition to offer hospitality to all visitors, I must ask you to remove those vehicles which you ride to a respectful distance. Our ancestors eschewed the use of advanced technology, and this is a sacred site dedicated to their memory. So…”
“Shut up,” said the rider gruffly. He raised a cylindrical object and pointed it at the priest. “You’re in charge here?”
“I am High Priest of Yardal and the surrounding valleys, yes.”
“Then in the name of Roxxas, you will order your people to turn over their harvest to my men. We need provisions, and you have exactly what you need.”
“Sir, we will gladly give you food if your people are going hungry, but what do you mean — turn over the harvest? Do you mean all of it?”
The rider grinned evilly. “That’s precisely what I mean. So come on — gather it all up, and pronto. I haven’t got all day.”
“But that is outrageous! If we give you all of our crops, what will we do for food? We will starve.”
“Tough.” The rider dismounted from his metal steed and walked up to Dione. “I’ll take the girl, too. She’ll fetch a good price where we’re going!”
“Wanna bet?” The man shoved the priest roughly to the ground. He grabbed Dione’s arm. “Now listen, you grubbers, and listen good. You heard our demands. So get moving before we start shooting. Resistance is futile!”
“No! This is wrong!” cried Dione. She wrested free from the man’s grasp and stared at him. His expression changed suddenly to the deepest love.
“Oh, my darling, forgive me,” he said. “How could I have ever threatened my dearest love? We will depart immediately, never to bring evil to this world again.”
Dione smiled. “Then go, with our–” She never spoke again. A ray-blast lanced down from one of the other flyers and cut her in two.
“Dione!” cried the dreamer’s younger self. There was sudden pandemonium around her as panic struck the crowd as more ray-blasts flashed among them, cutting them down one by one. Some tried to fight back as Dione had, using their natural empathic powers to overcome their attackers, but these were killed as the flyers realized who they were.
Then the priest stood up and held up his arms. “Enough! We surrender! We surrender! We will do whatever you ask!”
Another flyer landed near him. Its rider raised his hand in command to his men. He removed his helmet and faced the priest. “If any of you make any more attempt to use those freaky powers on us again, old man, you all die. Is that understood?”
“It is, it is. We will offer no further resistance. But no more killing, please!”
“I am Roxxas,” said the space-suited man. “I am calling down my ship now. You will load your harvest into its hold — every last bit of it.”
“But how will we survive the winter?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. You’re lucky I haven’t slaughtered you all, and I swear that the next world that refuses my demands will be left a dead world. I’ll leave no one alive at all. No one! Now do as I say.”
He looked out over the terrified remnants of the crowd. The dreamer’s youthful self seemed to catch his eye. “And to make sure you remember your folly in resisting me, I’ll take all your children, too. I know a slave trader or two who could make good use of them.”
“Our children? No–!”
Roxxas leered at the old man. “I’d better not hear the N word again if you want any of your people to survive. Now start gathering them together! Now!”
The dreamer woke with a scream. “Steady, steady,” said a smooth voice from nearby. “Were you having a nightmare?”
“Yes…” she sobbed.
“Well, don’t worry. You’re safe now. Apollo is here.” He took her into her arms and hugged her. “Come on, we have to go.”
“To a meeting. Captain Celebrand is going to tell us where we’re going and why.”
“All right,” she said, getting up off the couch. She slipped on her shoes and started to put on long, black gloves.
Apollo studied her admiringly, his head on one side. “By the way, my darling, I don’t know your name yet. The boss never told me.”
“M-my name? It’s Psyche.”
“Well, Psyche, you’re a very beautiful woman. I hope we’ll get to know each other better. Much better!”