On a small desert world called Merivan stood a young man with dark, thinning hair. He had a serious look on his face as he wore the uniform of an officer in the United Planets Space Fleet. The name he had enlisted under was Celebrand. It was a name that already carried a certain mystique. He was known as a heroic soldier, a capable leader, and a somewhat pensive man with a troubled manner.
He shielded his eyes with one hand and lowered his scanner as his companions waited, cursing the heat and the dust once more. His group consisted of several other soldiers as well as a band of mercenaries the natives had paid to help the U.P. soldiers protect them against the periodic terrorist attacks perpetrated by members of the enigmatic group of aliens known as the Dominion.
“The Dominators are just over that sand dune,” said an earnest young soldier named Boltux. “We’re gaining on them. They won’t escape this time!” Boltux was a rookie. He was inexperienced and knew nothing of the ways of war, yet. He lacked the decade of experience that Celebrand already had. It was this degree of knowledge versus ignorance or innocence that separated the pair. Celebrand carried the weight of the world in his every gesture and did little to conceal conflicted emotions behind his dark and deep-set eyes.
Celebrand was already eager to complete the mission. He had become disgruntled with the Space Fleet, and he wanted nothing more than to end his military service. He was not a coward, but he had become jaded and felt that the fleet had lost much of its effectiveness. He was none too happy about working with some of the mercenaries, either.
A massive man who had a nasty scar across one side of his face grinned with pleasure as he fingered a long-handled weapon. He caressed the bladed weapon as he ran his hands over its handle.
“Good! Once the Persuader, here, cuts into those yellow-skinned freaks, the heart will go out of their terrorist raids for a long time!” he said.
Celebrand frowned. He didn’t like Wolf Behbach. The bloodthirsty brute was a skilled killer with no regard for anything beyond a love of violence for its own sake. As a young officer in the U.P. Space Fleet, Celebrand had no choice but to work with him, since Behbach and other mercenaries had been hired by the fearful Regent Nove of Merivan to help the U.P. troops drive away the Dominion terrorists who wanted nothing more than to see the U.P. pull back away from any settlement so close to their own disputed territory.
“Behbach, the way you call that ax by a name disturbs me,” said Celebrand. “You act like it was alive.”
Behbach grinned hungrily and said, “The Persuader is my partner. It’s as much an extension of me as my right arm! I found my destiny when it claimed me as its own.”
A blond-haired man with a beard and a dashing manner smiled and said, “Captain Celebrand is a man of particularly squeamish sensibilities. He doesn’t share your passion for carnage.”
A man with sharp features and a rather fastidious manner said, “Leave him alone, Haymar. You and your New Tortuga vermin could do with some scruples — not that I understand the need for them myself.”
“Kasmir, you would not last long in my homeland,” replied Haymar. “We may be pirates, but we don’t pretend to be anything more. You still delude yourself with a façade of virtue.”
Kasmir drew himself up in indignation. “I am more than a petty cutpurse. I am the master of my guild. On Thieves World, that carries as much honor as does the title of master artisan or doctor!”
A beautiful woman with long black hair shook her head; whether it was in amusement, disgust, or both could not only be guessed. She wore a tight black jumpsuit with an array of weapons slung over her back and across her chest. Celebrand could not determine exactly what motivated Valentina Armorr. She was a lovely woman, yet she earned her living as a hired soldier or bounty hunter. She practiced some arcane martial art while the others bickered. She seemed to be far above the ruthless types he found himself serving with on this mission.
Celebrand turned to six other fleet soldiers and said, “Admiral Allon wants us to round up this group and return to the ship. The end of this tour of duty can’t come soon enough for me.”
A young soldier named Boltux had approached closer to his commander, and he whispered insistently, “Captain Celebrand, I don’t understand how a man with your service record can have such an obvious disdain for his job.”
Celebrand sighed and said, “Boltux, I entered the U.P. Space Fleet years ago as a kid in search of a fight. I was a bit naïve. I thought I was embarking on a great adventure. I saw it as a crusade of sorts. Well, the reality of service has altered my views quite a bit since then. There are plenty of good men in the fleet. Admiral Allon is one of them. Still, there are others who want nothing more than a license to kill and to take any illegal reward they can grasp. They exploit the natives of the worlds we protect, and many commanders turn a blind eye to their actions. I’ve lost my faith in the fleet, and when this mission ends, I’m leaving. I intend to leave the service as soon as possible. I’ve had enough.”
Boltux remained silent. He knew Celebrand had earned several commendations for his service dating back to the time before the Dominion border wars had erupted. He had even heard that the troubled captain had once had a reputation as a bit of a brawler himself. He saw no signs of that trait in the man now.
“I share your sentiments, but I’m paid to complete the job,” said Valentina Armorr. “I’d like to get those credits and get away from this forsaken world.”
“You’d prefer other company, wouldn’t you?” said Haymar.
She raised an energy-blaster and said, “Of course I would. Haymar, you’re nothing more than a butcher. You belong back on New Tortuga with the other pirates. Kasmir, you’re a skulking coward who prefers to attack from behind. As for Wolf, he is clearly a psychotic.” She gestured to where the burly brute stood spinning the deadly ax.
“What about me?” asked Celebrand. “Do you have an equally low opinion of me and my troops?”
She smiled and said, “You intrigue me. I know you’ve literally beaten some rather tough customers to bloody pulps in the past on your periods of leave. Yet you also seem reflective. You are a warrior at war with himself. That dichotomy stimulates me.”
They moved swiftly across the white sands, and Celebrand pondered the female bounty hunter’s words. A warrior at war with himself, he thought.
He led the motley group over the sand dunes until they came upon a small group sheltering within a recessed area. The five Dominators wore brown robes that did little to conceal their yellowish skin or distinctive mannerisms.
Wolf smiled and said, “Five? They sent a paltry pack to do their killing. Still, the Persuader will feed without being sated.”
Celebrand gripped his arm and whispered, “Hold it. We need to take them alive. I can’t imagine this small a band is working out here alone. They must know where their allies are hiding. If we can learn more, then we can stop the group that has been attacking the villagers.”
Boltux nodded in approval. He was clearly nervous, but he wanted to look bold and decisive in front of his peers.
“As you say, Captain,” said Haymar. “Still, I rather agree with Wolf, here. End them now, and we’ll never have to fear these particular Dominators again.”
Kasmir smiled and said, “What’s wrong, Haymar? Can’t you sleep easy at night?”
“Listen to Celebrand,” said Valentina. “Take them alive.” She moved effortlessly and silently down the dune and dropped with catlike agility into the center of the small camp below. Before the startled Dominators could react, she had spun around to deliver a side-kick that dropped one of them to the sand.
Wolf roared and raced forward with his gleaming ax spinning over his head. He charged into the camp and brought the sinister weapon down across the chest of the nearest alien. It hummed slightly as it sliced through him with lethal ease.
“Behbach, you butcher!” said an angry Celebrand as he ordered his men forward. They swiftly secured the camp as he bent to examine the injured alien.
“Nebulae! You nearly cleaved him in half! You ignored my direct orders. I’ll see you pay for this, you bloodthirsty savage,” he said, glaring at the other man.
“War is nothing but a series of murders,” said Wolf Behbach. “Get used to it.”
Kasmir held a slender curved blade to the throat of the tallest Dominator. He looked to Celebrand for approval and said, “Tell us where your partners are. The Dominion wouldn’t send a mere five soldiers to fight a village.”
The Dominator hissed and insisted in a husky voice, “We are alone! You have our purpose wrong. We are here not to drive away the settlers but to protect them. We are not in agreement with the regime that rules the Dominion and threatens to tarnish our culture with aggression and fear.”
“Slice his throat,” said Wolf. “It don’t make any difference if the yellow freak is for or against us.”
Valentina Armorr crossed the camp in the blink of an eye and stood eye to eye with the unshaven Wolf. “Back off!” she said. “I won’t hesitate to kill you. Your head would be worth a few credits to some sources I can reach.” She stared at the bigger man, but her resolve was such that she failed to flinch or back away from him in spite of his mass.
Celebrand moved closer to her. Something about her appealed to him. She was a bounty hunter, but she had certain qualities that lifted her above most of her profession. He hoped to protect her from Wolf, but he doubted she needed his help. She stood firm, and Wolf finally lowered his gaze.
“Bah! Do what you want,” he grunted dismissively. “I’ll find more sport in time.”
Valentina caught Celebrand’s eye and inclined her head slightly. She had good features. Her face was pretty and almost delicate in nature, but she had a warrior’s soul.
He said nothing, but he felt as if they shared something unspoken. If their surroundings had been different, much more might have been said or done.
“Now that the butcher has been satisfied, perhaps we can get the data we need,” she said.
Celebrand ordered his men to secure the camp, and he began to question the Dominators. As an expert linguist, he could speak dozens of languages. “We are here to stop a band of your people from harming the settlers the United Planets has placed here. If you truly are opposed to the policies of your world’s government, then perhaps you could tell us where to find them.”
The Dominator stared at Celebrand in an appraising manner, and then she spoke. “We are against the caste. We have adopted numbers in defiance of the norm. I am 3452. We wear no caste dots and adopt a diamond emblem in place of a dot. We are known as the Diamond Sect. We have chosen to oppose our government and those in the higher castes. We fled here for our own safety.”
“You won’t find much of a welcome here,” warned Celebrand. “Your people have attacked the locals again and again. I fear many of them would respond to the mere sight of you in the way Wolf did.”
“We expect nothing more from outworlders,” said 3452. “We are truly people without refuge.”
Haymar opened a flask of Venusian ale and swigged it carelessly before saying, “Such is life. Now, can you lead us to the terrorists? We can offer you protection for as long as we need you.”
Celebrand stepped forward and said, “Help us, and we’ll take you with us. The U.P. can offer you safety in exchange for your help.”
The Dominator calling herself 3452 nodded slowly, and her eyes met those of her allies. They looked to her for the decision. “Agreed,” she said. “We can track our brethren. They are not far from here.”
“Sir, night is falling,” said Boltux. “What are your orders?”
“We enlist the help of this Diamond Sect,” said Celebrand, “and we complete our mission.”