Dud the Fourth

“Val’Tia, seventeen,” Val’Tia said with a bow of her head.

Zeibs were identified by the number of people they killed. Their leaders were those of highest rank.

Val’Tia held a sword in each of her four hands. She was standing in the center of a combat arena. The arena was an oval, surrounded by stands that were packed with spectators. Standing on the gritty sand opposite her was a large male Zeib, with dark bronze skin, wearing nothing but a loin cloth. Hav’Nek had a white handprint on his face, that was a blessing to him from his master, the Baroness.

“Hav’Nek, two-sixty-seven,” he said, grinding his horse sized teeth as he attempted a smile but it came out as a sneer instead.

Two-hundred-sixty-seven kills made Hav’Nek elite. If number two-hundred-twenty-two hadn’t been murder he would still be leading a fair sized tribe of his kind. Hav’Nek wasn’t sad about that though. His sentence had been bought by the Baroness, who gave him the ability to keep killing. Bottom line he hated leading, loved killing.

Val’Tia had broken the laws of the space station Sanctuary, and was now to be put to death. That tended to be through execution, but since a Zeib can only be guaranteed a place in the Afterworld by dying in combat, Hav’Nek asked the Baroness to intervene.

Val’Tia was as good as dead either way.

The tone sounded to start the fight, and Hav’Nek caught glimpses of microdrones buzzing around sending video footage to different broadcasts, but mainly the projection that hung above the arena to make sure every spectator got a full view.

Most important to Hav’Nek was making the Baroness proud. She was the only spectator that mattered to him. He engaged Val’Tia, seeing three different openings he could have dispatched her in, but taking none to draw the fight out and make a good show.

The faster she attacked the more the world slowed down. Hav’Nek was once one of the best pit fighters on his home planet, and this duel was hardly even a spar. He had trained with and defeated the best..

To him the slightest twitch of her muscles gave away her next move. He let her weapons pass between his arms, listening to the gasps of the crowd. Parrying her attack he kicked her away. She stumbled and fell. He made a long, slow, executioner’s swing to give her enough time to dodge.

When she got to her feet, he resumed the dance. As slow as everything felt to Hav’Nek, from the outside it all happened in a blur.

Dud, a Terran crew mate of Hav’Nek, sat with the Baroness. Like Hav’Nek, Dud was also a slave. On the prison planet Dud grew up on he was trained to never get into a physical fights with Zeib’s. Most situations he was taught to just avoid Zeib’s. They weren’t much for bartering, but they were big on killing.

Sitting there next to his owner, he couldn’t get over the speed of Hav’Nek. The four armed man looked like a whirlwind of death. He was a spinning blur that Dud struggled to even track.

Two minutes into the fight, Hav’Nek sliced Val’Tia’s top right arm off at the elbow. At no point did she make a sound while she continued the fight. Her florescent green blood, that was so thick it was almost a gel, dripped to the floor of the stadium.

It was clear that Hav’Nek could finish the fight at any moment, but continued to prolong Val’Tia’s existence. Each time they clashed she slowed, her life flowing out of her.

Dud found it strange that this was a Zeib’s way of caring; to kill someone slowly.

Val’Tia dropped her weapons and fell to her knees. She crossed her remaining arms over her chest and bowed her head.

“May your victories be many, Hav’Nek two-sixty-eight,” Val’Tia said.

Hav’Nek took post beside her and raised one of his swords high into the air before slashing clean through Val’Tia’s neck.

Her head fell from her shoulders and the crowd went wild. The main screen showed her green blood oozing from her body, while all around Dud people jumped to their feet to cheer the combatants.

Dud, still fascinated by the computer wrapped around his forearm watched a stream of betting payouts. The odds were stacked in Hav’Nek’s favor, but people bet down to the fraction of a second that Val’Tia would be killed.

He had considered asking Hav’Nek to end the fight at a certain time, but cheating, like all crimes committed in Sanctuary, were punished by death. Sanctuary was a space station that housed thousands of people and served as a safe haven for a group of solar systems called the Commonwealth. This was necessary because the Commonwealth was a set of systems that no major civilization existed in, and was populated by pirates and mercenaries. It was a place that existed without any actual laws, and where anyone could set off to if they wanted to avoid the governing bodies of any other system.

The Baroness never got to her feet. She continued to sit as everyone celebrated the fight. Dud followed her lead and stayed seated. A Stiation female in purple robes walked in front of Lillith and then disappeared into the crowd.

Lillith took Dud’s hand and panic shot through him. She rarely touched him, and from what he heard of the outcome of all of her partners he feared her contact more than he did a Stiations.

Put that under your tongue, Lillith communicated to him through the metal implant at the base of his skull called a SLET. In Dud’s palm was a small gummy object about the size of a pupil. Dud didn’t hesitate, since he liked his brain in solid form, and placed the gum under his tongue. Immediately the gum molded to the bottom of his mouth and permeated into his body.

His head kicked back and his neck stiffened from an electrical current pulsing through the back of his neck. He covered his eyes, but it didn’t stop the swirl of images and words from passing through his vision.

“Let’s go,” Lillith said, getting to her feet. The crowd parted for her while the two of them made their way out of the arena stands.

They traveled down a corridor and to a bank of tubes that carried people through the Sanctuary at high speeds. A few minutes later they had arrived in Lillith’s personal apartment, a luxury that was worth most planets.

Waiting for them on arrival was her synthetic BOB.

“BOB, run a sweep for me,” Lillith ordered.

BOB, stood just as still as he had been when they entered, but a few seconds later he spoke in his sickly smooth voice. “You are safe to speak.”

“Then may I ask what I just put in my mouth, Baroness?” Dud asked.

“An information pellet. Information is genetically programed into the pellet, which is then absorbed by the body and relayed through the electrical signals of the body to the SLET. I had you take it in case it was poisoned and then took the information from your SLET.”

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said, but didn’t mean the thanks part. He had come to expect death at every turn, but the issue with always expecting it is once it becomes the normal status quo its harder to notice. He understood he was her property, and she would use him to shield herself from danger, but for just a few minutes he wished he could let his guard down.

“My dearest Dudley, we’ve got a new job,” Lillith said.

All the details flooded into Dud’s mind. A Terran emissary needs an escort through the Commonwealth. The emissary was going to travel through the Commonwealth on a Stiation ship, but she needed to keep her identity a secret, the best cover was to be the newest slave in Lillith’s group. No one questioned Lillith in the Commonwealth, nothing would guarantee no questions like being in Lillith’s crew.

“You won’t have your ship on this mission,” BOB said.

“Thank you, BOB. It is neccessary to have it appear to my brother than I am still on Sacntuary.”

Despite the fact that Dud had pretty much never seen anything he was seeing these days, a Stiation Cruiser was about as mind blowing as it could be. They were taken to the Cruiser in a small skiff like the one that had tried to pirate them, but the Cruiser was a sight to behold, both inside and out.

On the approach it looked like a fat arrowhead. Tallest at the top then fading into a narrow point. Dud didn’t get a chance to lay a hand to the outside, but it looked like a dull gray flesh, nothing like the Terran metal ships he had seen at Sanctuary. The last time Dud had seen the color of the Stiation was when he had seen a man drown back on Terra-One.

Inside the Cruiser Dud confirmed his suspicion that it was skin on the outside of the ship. His first three steps were full of caution as the spongy floor of the ship sunk ever so slightly with each step. An inch above the floor there was a hovering mist. The veins in the walls stood out against the gray flesh that made the corridors. Dud guessed the ship grew to its present size, as the corridors were in no way symmetrical.

“Keep up, Dud,” Lillith said, as he trailed her and Abastia through the hallway of the living ship.

Leaving the others behind seemed strange to Dud, since his second life had begun he had been with them. The plan was built for everyone to think Lillith was still on Sanctuary, but Dud felt vulnerable without the full crew. Especially knowing he was always the expendable one.

A voice came echoing through the corridors in Stiation, which Dud couldn’t understand, but based on tone and pacing he was pretty sure it was a count down. Not knowing what was being said, he continued following Lillith since he didn’t want to do anything to cross his owner.

Dud wondered if he was walking through areas that were similar to the WORDS in his own heart, just on a much larger scale, which made him them wonder if the animal ship thing felt him like Dud did when he had something caught in his throat. He tried not to wonder what would happen if the ship coughed him up in space.

Abastia and Lillith stopped as they entered a large oval room that was higher on the sides and sunk in the middle. Dud, with his head still searching in child like awe, walked into the back of Abastia who wrapped her long fingers around his arm to steady him. His heart took off waiting for some form of hell to course through him, but nothing happened other than the cool touch of her skin against his.

The walls of the central room were different than the walls in the corridor. They had a pinkish hue, covered in wrinkles and there was a slight crackle of electricity in the air. This was the command deck for the Stiation Cruiser, with two dozen Stiation’s at different stand-up stations.

A male Stiation came forward with a Terran female to meet them. She was identified as Jahnavi of the Kotapati and was the Terran they were hired to escort. They exchanged words with Lillith and ignored Dud and Abastia as if they were nothing more than breathing statues. After a small discussion Lillith sent Dud and Abastia to a room to wait in.

Dud wanted nothing more than to explore, but he knew he had to stay where he was put or risk death for disobeying. Since he wasn’t told he couldn’t sleep and Abastia wasn’t the creature he cared to converse with he decided to close his eyes and take a nap until he was called on again.

He wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but the wake up call was not one he expected.

The entire ship shuddered as an impact ripped through the entire hull. Dud was knocked from his feet, and as he caught himself on the floor he felt a sticky liquid creeping up his hands. The goo was cool on his skin. When he got to his feet there was already a foot of the gel filling the room.

He wanted to ask questions, but he knew better. Else in the room was panicking from the growing liquid level. Having no frame of reference for how to handle such a situation, Dud decided to do nothing.

The goo crept higher than his hips, then shoulders, then he truly felt a moment of fear as he couldn’t keep his mouth out of the rising liquid. He didn’t like the way the thick gelatinous goo felt sliding into his mouth. He held his breath as long as he could, but eventually his lungs won out and he had not choice but to inhale the mass that was filling the room and climbing over his head.

To his surprise it wasn’t like when he had fallen into the Trench and almost drown, his lungs worked the liquid in and out as if it was nothing more than air. It did require a little more effort to inhale and exhale, but from what he expected his lungs to have to fight, he was more than pleasantly surprised.

And he must have shown it on his face, since the baroness was smiling at him through the clear goo, which may have been the first time he had seen her smile.

It made her look far less terrifying, which wasn’t to say she didn’t still look terrifying, but just hat she was slightly softer, like a knife with a pretty handle.

Then there was a vibration. Not one he could hear but one he could feel. In his core. Like his own heart was the source, but he could feel it all around him, through him, and then there was nothing.

He was weighless. The world had gone black.

Then a speck of light. A flash. Like the stars were trying to signal him.

He was most definitely no longer in the Stiation ship. His entire room of people was floating with him through the vast nothingness in only the liquid blob that had surrounded them all.

Something in the back of his head said he should be scared as he hurtled toward a planet, but all he felt was the cool penetrating caress of the goo around him. For a moment he pondered if he was out of shits to give, or if there was some type of drug in the gel that was creating the euphoria.

Then the darkness was broken by a blinding light as they crashed into the atmosphere of a planet. As red fire burned around their encasement, he couldn’t grasp why the gel wasn’t heating up, or breaking apart. He had seen enough shooting stars to know what happened to objects that hit an atmosphere. And it was nothing good. Nothing good at all.

Somehow, beyond his realm of reckoning they passed through the atmosphere and into a night sky, hurtling toward the ground.

In all the falling and spinning and other motions that should have probably cost him his lunch, he was facing straight at the ground they were approaching. Somewhere in the back of his head a hardly whispering voice said put up your hands to catch yourself. It was totally asinine but he did it anyways.

He braced for impact. But the goo touched down as lightly as an insect on a flower. As if it hadn’t just been moving at asteroid speeds a moment before.

There was a brief moment as the goo ball reverberated with the settling, and then all at once it melted away into a puddle on the ground around them.

Dud dropped to his knees and began expelling the remaining gel from his lungs. It wasn’t until he looked up at the night sky that he knew where he was. He was home. Back on Terra-One.

The last place in the universe he ever wanted to be again.

Dud got to his feet and went to Jahnavi of the Kotapti and lended a hand to get her to her feet. Her hand was delicate on his forearm, but he could feel the power in her grip. She wasn’t as tall as most the people Dud had seen at Sanctuary, but she was nearly eye to eye with him. And those eyes. They were a steel gray, like metal untouched by air. Pure, and strong. There were dark lines snaking through the steel gray as if her pupils had sprouted roots.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No need to thank him, any more than you would a chair for letting you sit,” Baroness snapped, and Dud removed his arm from the Princess.

Jahnavi didn’t respond but gave him a wide smile, one that couldn’t be faked, He wasn’t sure if there was anything about her that could be faked. Which seemed totally out of character for a person of royalty, and made him question if she was just really good at faking everything.

Dud took in a deep breath of the familiar air. He hadn’t noticed the difference between what he inhaled here and what went through his lungs back on Sanctuary. He wondered if other pods might land around them, but it seemed like it might just be the four of them.

Abastia was still crouched with her knees high in the air like a frog ready to hop, while here beady eyes scanned in the darkness.

“Do we know what planet this is?” the stiation asked.

“I have no idea what we were near when the ship jettisoned us,” Lillith said.

“Were we just shit out? Was that how it works?” Dud asked.

“We have more important things to figure out, Dud, than give you a lesson.” Lillith snapped.

Dud shot her a glare, it was probably the most bold action he had ever taken against her, but for once he had the upper hand.

“The more important question is who attacked us and why?” Dud said his eyes darting between to two human females. He had a princess and the baroness with him, it was hard to say which was the higher target.

“I’d rather figure out where we are and find a way off this rock before whoever is after us comes looking,”

“We are on Terra-one, about ten kilos from where you picked me up,” Dud responded.

“How can you know that?” the baroness asked.

“First that star is called the Guiding Light, it never moves no matter the season. Second we are in the barren but not the desert. This area only exists in a small section around the Trench. Third that constellation is the Big Spoon. Fourth the air tastes like it always has. Do you need me to continue or do you trust that I know my home?”

Baroness just glared at him. Her piercing blue eyes would have been making him tremble, except he knew what reason number five was.

“You call Terra-One home?” Jahnavi asked.

Not knowing much about the universe didn’t mean he was too dumb to understand the connotation of calling a prison planet home.

“I was born here. Now might I suggest we head for water since we have no supplies or equipment and we are going to need a plan to make it anywhere that we can call for help from,” Dud said.

“I can just signal BOB,” Baroness said.

“Unfortunately you can’t. I am not even sure if you can melt my brain right now. The owners have many defenses set up against technology. Namely you can’t call out or in from Terra-One. So, before we are in need of water, I vote we are going to the Trench and from there we can figure out our best options.”

There weren’t any good options. He wasn’t ready to tell everyone that yet though.

“I will follow you,” Jahnavi said.

Even in the dark it was clear to see the grimace on Lillith’s face. Her teeth shone like bared fangs. Dud knew he would pay for this dearly, but at least for the first time in days he could think without worrying about his brain frying, even if it was on the shit hole that was Terra-One.

“Take us to the water then,” Lillith said, somewhere halfway between an order and surrender.

“If you guys want to live long enough to get to the water, make as little noise as possible when we hit the tree line. Night time is not the best time for us” -he shot a look at Abastia- “fleshbags to be wandering around.”

Dud looked at the sky for just a moment to get his bearings and set off at a jog. He knew Abastia would have no trouble bounding along and the two other humans would be augmented for speeds far beyond his range so no one should have trouble with the pace.

The barrens were an interesting area. They weren’t sand desert, but dried mud plains. Some of the mud flakes were as big as a rhinophant hoof, and others were as small as a hand. The cracked lines running through the dried flats gave them the look of shattered glass, if glass was brown and not transparent.

What he found more interesting was each step he took in the direction of the Trench his old senses rekindled. He could practically count the hairs on his arms from his heightened senses. The one thing that always held true on Terra-One was you were always hunting and being hunted at the same time. The Flats weren’t as bad for nocturnal predators, but if he had suggested his group camp there until light, they would have been dead by morning.

In the trees, they might not make it that long. But there was a chance they would see the morning light.

His best chance of survival would be to leave them as soon as he hit the tree line. They might all be stronger and faster than him, but none of them would be able to navigate the jungle in the dark like he could. Then he’d have three easy pieces of bait to distract whatever would come.

Only issue with that was if he let Lillith die, he would unlikely ever get off Terra-One again, and there was a chance the SLET would still kill him in the process. Neither of those outcomes sounded appealing to him so he would have to do his best to keep her alive. The other two time would tell.

The flats eventually gave way to short grassy patches, which in turn led to taller grass, which then became thicket, and shortly following they found themselves in a dense jungle of trees. The canopy was so thick is blocked out all the stars so Dud stopped to let his eyes adjust. To his dismay, and great strike against his pride, he was the only one breathing hard when they entered into the jungle. The good news was they were nearly halfway to the Trench and nothing had tried to kill them yet. Bad news was they still had a ways to go in the pitch black with plenty of predators to track them, not to mention the fact that the Trench alone was filled with plenty of things to kill them.

“Why did we stop, Dud?” Lillith asked.

Dud turned to face the three females. His eyes were adjusted to the dark, and he could see them on in the soft gray that night fades to when ones vision can pick up just the faintest of light. The two Terran stood tall and proud, and Abastia had returned to her animal like pose, sniffing and watching the dark.

“If you haven’t noticed it is a lot darker in here and there are a lot of things that will literally eat you alive. I’d like to see them coming,” Dud responded.

“Just hit the flashlight on your wrister,” Lillith replied.

“I’m not an idiot despite what you might think. Any form of light will attract all sorts of trouble, from any number of things trying to kill us.”

He was in fact an idiot. He didn’t know his wrister had a flashlight, but the reasoning to not use it was all the same.

The smell of rot was normal under the canopy as there were plenty of organics decomposing, but the scent that caught in his nose had something distinctly different to it. There was a slight pungency, the kind that came from old clothes when they had been too long without a wash.

His head snapped around and he let his eyes focus in the direction the wind was carrying the scent.

“Abastia, can you smell that difference or is it just in my head?” Dud asked.

“What difference?” Lillith asked.

“Yes, what is it from?” Abastia responded.

Dud should have felt all of the hairs on his arm stand on end in fear, but he didn’t. He was smelling rot wolves, but his body wasn’t telling him he should be running for his life.

“I need all of you to stay perfectly still and do nothing no matter what happens. Slime skin, that goes double for you, if you so much as activate a gland they will be on us immediately,” Dud ordered.

“What will be?” Lillith asked.

Dud ignored her again, enjoying his brief respite from being at her mercy and knowing the odds of getting off of Terra-One left little room for her to take retribution.

He took a careful step forward, extending his leg as far as he could and setting his toes to the earth as delicately as possible. The last thing he wanted to do was bring death to them all. Besides he might need the other three as bait to save himself before this was all over.

Part of him felt bad for thinking of using them as bait, but he was a slave who was purely bought to be used up on the job. If they could use him like that he had no gripe returning the favor. Especially on Terra-One where the name of the game was survival.

In all his time on this planet two people had actually cared for him, one had suffered a horrible death and the other was one of the very few who died of old age on Terra-One. The latter had accomplished all of that by making himself invaluable to everyone. Both had taught Dud important things about staying alive.

Dud had moved far enough away from the others to deem them safe. He could practically feel each of their eyes, not just on him, but exactly on him where they were looking.

During his short life Dud had many poor ideas, but this one was pretty high up there. He let out a high whistle which terminated before coming to completion and followed it up with a quick tweet.

Leaves rustled as the rot wolves, which he couldn’t see barreled for him. He held his arms out at his side and waited. There were three. Closing in from all directions. He still didn’t feel like this was the moment he was doing to die so he didn’t have to struggle to stay calm.

How wrong he was.

They hit him practically as once. Targeting both arms, and one of his legs. His body wanted to fall to the ground in three different directions which spent him spinning on his planted foot like an intoxicated ballerina.

Before he could plant his other foot they hit him again, this time all three from one direction pinning him face down on the forest floor. He had seen wolves hunt enough to know this wouldn’t end quick, and he wasn’t going to enjoy it.

He thought really hard about killing Lillith, thinking that if the SLET was working she might kill him and save him from being eaten alive.

Then a long rough tongue drug along the back of his neck, followed by another and another. Dud shook from laughter as his pack went about cleaning him.

This was truely a home coming for him.

“I missed you little shit sticks,” Dud said getting to his feet and patting down the rot wolves and for the first time realizing just how dirty they were as his hand came away covered in all kinds of gross. Last time he was equally if not more gross than they were, but now knowing what clean was made it slightly different.

Rot wolves were a cross between a large dog and a gigigigigantic rat. They were canine in most their features, but they could collapse their bodies to lay flat on the forest floor, and could even snake their way around like that. Their fur was in fact hair, but to the eye it looked like matted grass and leaves.

Dud’s wolves which he had raised from pups he called V, W, and X. V was a dark green and the tallest of the three, W was more brown and the stockier of the pack, while X was a light green and fell between the other two in height and weight. All three were circling him, rubbing against his legs, and fighting for their turn to be pet.

The joy of seeing them again had made him totally forget about his less civilized companions.

“All clear,” Dud called.

The females came forward, which put Dud’s wolves on alert as they put themselves between him and them, their fur raising to match their growls. The girls stopped, and Dud couldn’t help himself from smiling at the look of fear on Lillith’s face.

He had never seen anything like that from her in the limited time he had been with her, but it brought him great amounts of joy to see she wasn’t invincible. Though with all her augmentations he didn’t know if the three wolves couldn’t take her even if he let them, but he didn’t want to see that happen just yet so he gave two quick whistles which settled his wolves.

V and W went to sniff out the other companions, but X didn’t move from Dud enjoying his undivided pets all for himself.

Jahnavi held a hand down and let V sniff her before she pet the creature, but Lillith and Abastia looked anything but comfortable. They looked like stranded swimmers being circled by a fin.

Dud would be lying if he didn’t say it brought him great joy.

“I,” Lillith gulped, “don’t see any collars. How do you control them?”

“I don’t. I communicate with them. If they trust my judgement they listen, if they don’t they go for self preservation. I’m one of the pack, not the owner,” Dud replied.

Jahnavi let out a giggle as V ran her long, rough, tongue across her hand. “They are your pets?”

“What’s a pet?” Dud asked.

“You don’t know what a pet is?”

Dud looked to Lillith for help, she was none. Abastia saw the pleading in his eyes and saved him.

“Dear child, it is an animal a person owns, and it serves them as a companion.”

“Like a slave?”

W had moved behind Abastia and was lowering her haunches and wiggling her hips. X spotted his pack member moving to position and let out a short huff pulling away from Dud.

Dud’s eyes met with W’s and he looked her off, X seeing they weren’t hunting Stiation returned to Dud.

Jahnavi laughed, and Dud felt his cheeks go warm. A feeling that he wasn’t accustom to. On Terra-One he knew just about everything there was to know, outside of this damned planet he knew nothing.

“No, not a slave. They’re like a friend,” Jahnavi said.

“Do they have free will?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do they get to make their own choices? Where they go, what they eat, when they eat, breeding, all of that?”

“Well, no. They are part of your life.”

V, X, and W patrolled around the group, and Dud wondered how they would feel about being pets. He had been stolen from this planet and they carried on just fine without him.

“What about their life and wants?” Dud asked.

“They are kept safe, and know where their next meal is coming from. Pets are happy to be pets.”

Dud gave a shrug, it still sounded to slavery to him, but he figured pissing off the princess would be a good way to piss off the Baroness and that could lead to his brain being fried if they did survive this ordeal.

“We still need to get to water. We can discuss pets later,” Dud said.

Before anyone could get the conversation going, Dud whistled and the rot wolves moved out with him. The three others jogged to keep up with what was a fast pace for him.

Which pissed him off to no end. He was exerting himself, someone who had lived his life in the wild, not some sit on his ass jobber, and these people who could pay for their strength were just magically able to keep pace. Terra-One may be a prison, and in many ways a nightmare, but at least everyone had to earn what they had.

Things were going well on the run. He didn’t see the glow from any of the nocks, and he hadn’t heard the hunting cry of a burrock. They might just make the water without incident.

Then he realized it wasn’t just the predators he wasn’t hearing, it was all the creatures of the night. He stopped in place and the others skidded to a stop.

“What?” Lillith said, her eyes searching the darkness. He could practically smell her fear, which meant the girl in the darkness could as well.

The girl was sleek, a feline, a glossy black coat that looked like a shadow in the darkness. The cat was somewhere nearby, it was the only excuse for the lack of sound.

To confirm his suspicions the wolves started whining, and for good reason. A female pantera was larger, stronger, and faster than X, Y, or Z. Females of the pride did the hunting, and a prowling pantera was the last land predator Dud ever wanted to face.

Not wanting to make any more noise, Dud pushed his palms toward the ground and his three wolves went flat like carpets of grass. He waved the women in close though Abastia was the only one he cared about. Once she was in reach of her, he pulled her close, then slid his hand under her robe and placed it roughly where a Terran’s kidney would be.

“Take you hand-” Absastia started but Dud had already removed his hand. He knew everything he needed to know. His time on Terra-One had taught him how to tell which glands a Stiation had and which combinations that could make. Assuming Abastia’s missing fingers didn’t prevent her from doing what he needed they might actually live.

His heart rate picked up. The pantera had to be getting closer. Dud picked a branch off the ground that was around two meters long and snapped it in two thirds to get as much of a point as he could.

“Fire,” Dud ordered holding the sharp end of the branch up.

As Abastia ignited a small flame with a snap of her fingers, Lillith grabbed Dud’s shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“We’re being hunted. Shut up before you help it close in. Please,” Dud replied while Abastia made a charcol point.

“Poison the whole spear,” Dud said.

“You can’t hold it then,” Abastia replied.

“You’re sentiment is touching.” Dud rolled his eyes, hoping she couldn’t see it in the dark.

“Do what he says,” Lillith ordered.

Abastia rubbed her middle fingers together. Slowly a clear viscous liquid ran down her fingers and coated her hands. She rubbed it all along the piece of wood Dud was betting his life on. He took his makeshift spear back from her and wished he had his wrist rocket with him, but this would do.

“Laydown, all of you,” Dud said, and the three women laid on the ground. He gave a short whistle and X, Y, and Z crawled on top of the ladies, making them look like small mounts on  the forest floor.

Dud stepped away from everyone else and wished he wasn’t the hero right now. All three women were biologically more equipped for this, but he didn’t know if their speed or strength would substitute for his years of note being eaten.

The spear was warm in his hands as he walked forward. The toxin Abastia had was more potent than ones Dud had faced before, and he hoped that it wouldn’t get the best of him before he found the eyes in the darkness.

He had worked hard to build up a tolerance to most of the Stiations more debilitating abilities during his time on Terra-One, but as his hands started to burn he worried hers would best him. The only plus side was he doubted he would need more than one good attack to drop the feline.

“Come on. I’m here. Let’s get this over with,” Dud called into the darkness and the eyes responded.

Four meters in front of him the pantera was ready to spring. In the low light all he could see was the gleaming green eyes that were locked on him. They always had the same effect on him, also known as him fighting not to shit his pants. He carried many scars from many enemies, but these ladies of the night had cut him the deepest.

The green eyes disappeared, and if you listened ever so closely you could hear the soft pads of the cat pushing off the ground as the feline lept for its prey. Dud didn’t listen. Didn’t care to listen. He knew there was one hundred or so kilograms of clawed death in the air heading for his throat. That he did care about.

If he dodged he’d be dead. The pantera would relaunch the moment she hit the ground and be on him before he could find her in the darkness.

If he lifted the spear point first the cat would corkscrew, land, and then have him.

With his only option being what it was, he wished one of the women was in his place. Perhaps Lillith, but he worried his death would be tied to hers so maybe the princess instead.

His only chance was to let her take him to the ground and then fight to see who would walk away.

The claws wrapped into Dud’s back and sunk into his shoulders like the world’s worst hug. In his lover’s embrace he went to the forest floor, bringing the spear up only once the claws were hooked. He caught her broadside in the open jaws. As she closed down her teeth were close enough to just barely graze the skin on his neck before getting stopped on the wood.

The poison burned his hands, but the good news was he hardly noticed over the ten hooks in his back. She trashed against the toxin, whipping him around under her like he weighed less than a leaf.

He just had to stay alive until the second opening. They were locked together closer than if he had been trying to bed her. She wanted to pull away, but her claws were set. She was going no where until one of them was dead. Dud hoped that would be her. Like really, really hoped. And if she killed him, the wolves better finish her off. And then possibly Lillith afterward since it wouldn’t matter to him if his dead brain fried.

The pantera gave him the opening by turning her head to free her jaws from the poisoned wood. Dud didn’t pull the spear away, but checked it across her face, dragging the charcoal tip down her neck. The cut wasn’t deep. Hardly more than a scratch, but it would be enough. The stiation poison would enter her blood and soon she should be done.

The lady of the night let out a frustrated cry from the pain. A heart wrechning sound from a creature so beautiful, but Dud remminded himself that she was trying to eat him an couldnt feel bad bout staying alive. Her claws pealed his shoulders as her body spasmed and she pulled away from him.

She attempted to flee, but only made it a few steps before collapsing to the ground. The poison would take a while to kill her, and there was a slim chance she would survive it, but her scent would keep other predeators away until she died. A cover that Dud and his could use.

Struggling to get to his feet, Dud felt the full damage to his back. Blood was running down his tattered shirt and coating it to his skin. The pantera might cover their scent, but it wouldn’t be long until the blood invited the rest ofthe jungle.

The next part was something Dud hated more than the pain. He called the wolves over and they eached urintated on the same spot creating a mud puddle.

“You’re not about to do what I think you are?” Lillith asked.

“Would you like to get eaten?” Dud replied.

Abasita was at his side, with a tender, by Stiianian standards, on his shoulder. “I can put a healing salve on it.”

“Which will only bring more death to us,” Dud said.

Terra-One was unforgiving. Survival required endurance. Dud flopped back first into the piss puddle and rolled his wounds around until he was certain that his bleeding would be stemmed and he smelled horribly enough that the blood wouldn’t be the leading scent.

As he got to his feet the looks the three women were giving him made him feel like the peon he was. However he was still breathing and that counted for something. Until he collapsed facefirst into the puddle of piss.



3/4 the way through Dud

The third installment of The Adventures of Dud.

Dud wandered around the corridors trying to figure out where he was, but with no objects in the sky to orient himself to he was utterly lost. He figured his best bet was to keep walking along the metallic hallways until he met another being that could explain to him how to get back to the higher levels of the floating space station called Sanctuary.

Dud, why aren’t you back yet?” Lillith, his owner, said through the implant that was attached to the base of Dud’s skull. His fingers touched over the robotic parasite, pleased with himself for not dropping to his knees in pain for the first time.

Trying to find my way back, Baroness,” Dud thought in response.

His strength didn’t hold out, as his body wavered to the side and he crashed against the wall. When he closed his eyes he could see a schematic layout of the entire station with a blinking line that he could only assume he was supposed to follow. The device that was embedded in his brain allowed Lillith to locate and communicate with Dud regardless of their proximity, but that was just the simple function. It also had the ability to temporarily store information in his in his short term memory, which he liked, but also had the ability to fry his brain on command from his owner, which he didn’t like.

Sanctuary reminded him of an acorn in shape with layers like an onion. He couldn’t begin to guess how many kilometers of corridor looped around the floating city. Following the line laid out in his memory he tried to make sense of the layout, but having never seen more than a gathering of a few hundred people he couldn’t imagine how thousands subsided in a place that couldn’t have resources. Despite all the pondering he wanted to do, if he didn’t hurry he was likely to have his brain seared into a puddle.

Breaking into a run he followed the line around the corridor that seemed straight to him, but according to the blueprint he was gradually making his way along the outer corridor. Eventually he came another one of the machines that his crewmate, Mechboy had called an elevator.

The doors to the elevator slid open upon Dud’s approach and he stood inside. But nothing happened. He looked around the small box and tried to figure out how to work the contraption. Mechboy had pushed a button, but when Dud looked at the wall of buttons there were hundreds of them. He reviewed the schematic, but it didn’t tell him what button he needed to push.

Taking a deep breath he thought to Lillith which button he needed to push.

You are more incompetent than an infant,” Lillith replied. “Push number 1111, then when you get to the individual banks, let your SLET do the work.

Dud did as he was instructed. Once he pushed the correct button the doors whooshed closed and he felt himself traveling so fast through the elevator system he felt weightless. As he neared his final destination he realized that the elevator car was made of a see through material, not the metal he had been surrounded by in the shafts. In quick blurs Dud could see open spaces with beings inhabiting them, but they passed so fast that he couldn’t make out any details.

The elevator practically spit him out as he reached his floor. He moved forward on unsure legs toward something he recognized. It was a small green plant, that was growing out of a half wall. When he made it to the planted wall he clung to the edge of it like he would float away if he didn’t stay grounded.

What he saw on the other side of the wall was far more strange that the feeling he was recovering from. During his life on Terra-One the concept of clean had been slightly less dirty than everything else. The few settlements were practically made of dirt. This open area before him was the cleanest thing he had ever seen. The white walls shone with an incredible polish. The area in front of him was filled with people sitting at round tables. There were paper things he had seen once in his life before that someone had called cards. He remembered them because when he traded them he had received enough supplies to last him a month. They had been even more valuable than the occasional weapon he traded off a hunter.

And here they were at every one of the tables.

Besides the cards there were circular things that people would toss into or take out of the center of the tables. Some of the people looked ecstatic and others on the verge of tears. He wanted to stay and learn more about this place, but the image in his mind told him he still had a ways to go before he was safe from immediate death.

He followed the directions in his mind and skirted around the area filled with tables. Most the people playing cards were Terran like him, but there were a fair number of Stiations and Zeibs, as well as a handful of lesser beings.

Three loud sounds blared through the entire area, that reminded Dud of the sound a Rhinophant made when it charged. It had a similar effect as everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and looked up at the ceiling. What was a formerly white surface crackled with energy and it opened a view of something that wasn’t there. The scene on the ceiling showed a naked Terran woman who had her arms and legs bound hanging over a tank of yellowish liquid. Her brown hair hung over her face, and she seemed focused on something in the liquid below. Though she was dangling she held her body rigid, locked by fear.

A man appeared in front of the tank. He was short, which surprised Dud as he hadn’t seen many male Terran shorter than him since he left Terra-One. This man was broad though, more broad that the average Terran, and even under his black and gold uniform looked like he was made from rock. The man’s black hair came together in a horn like spike at the point where his hair met his forehead. His chin was sharp, and his eyes were soft, the only part about the man that looked weak.

The man held up a hand indicating the woman. “I present this as a reminder to each of you that here at Sanctuary we pride ourselves in being honest and upright. We are a refuge for those who need it and a safe haven for those in need of protection. All crimes committed on Sanctuary are punished by death. This woman, who I regret to admit was under my employ, stole from a room she was cleaning. I hold my staff to the same penalties of punishment as I would for any pedestrian. She has been proven guilty and is sentenced to death.”

At his final word she dropped into the tank, fully submerged. That’s when Dud noticed something familiar, one of the animals he feared back on Terra-One. It was a school of fish, each fish being about the size of his thumb. He understood why the tank was a yellow color, since the fish had a dark blue and white coloring it made them easy to see. These fish had a hard front lobe that formed almost into a beak. They had no teeth, but fed by spearing their way through another animal and swallowing the soft insides as they burrowed clear through the other side. He had known them as Spearheads.

The school of Spearheads swirled around the woman as she screamed out her air underwater. Dud hoped for her sake she could drown before the Spearheads attacked. The entire area, which held well over one-hundred people, was held in a single collective breath hold. As if exhaling was a crime, and no one wanted to face the tank.

She wasn’t lucky enough to drown. The first fish to strike shot through her open mouth and out the back of her head. As the yellow tank turned red the fish could be seen as a blue spot on one side of her body before they disappeared and a moment later appeared in a poof of red on the other side of the woman.

“Thank you for your attention in this matter and remember our number one priority in Sanctuary is the safety of you and your property. We keep all areas of under constant surveillance, but if you see something suspicious please report it to the nearest Guard,” the man said.

The image blinked out and the white roof returned. Everyone released their breath and sound came back to the room in a rush of chatter and clatter.

Dud continued on his journey, hoping to make it to the individual banks of elevators before his memory failed him. The one issue with the SLET was that after the initial upload it was up to memory to keep it. He had asked their Synthetic to upload his brain with all the information he would need to assimilate into the universe away from the prison planet he was born on, but had been informed that he would lose all of it since he wouldn’t be able to commit any of it to long term memory fast enough.

When he reached the other side of the area, he could just make out the place he had entered as a small speck. The wall he approached was lined with tubes that held oval capsules. Standing in front of each tube was a Synthetic. Each robot was put together in a unique shape. They all had one thing in common and that was a set of four arms, like a Zeib but they were more Terran in build. They all looked to him like a person with their skin peeled off, if their muscles and bones had been made of metal. The Synth’s had unique head shapes, and eye colors, they were even made to look more male or female.

As the approached the nearest tube a female Synth with orange eyes and a metal Mohawk held up her bone-like hand for him to stop.

“Present SLET for verification of ownership,” the Synth ordered.

Dud turned around and felt a warm charge run along his spine as the Synth placed a finger against the SLET.

“Ownership verified. Property labeled Dud belongs to the Baroness. Step into the tube,” the Synth said.

Doing as he was told, Dud stepped through the opening in the tube and into the capsule. It closed around him in a similar fashion to the pod, but it wasn’t skin tight. When the capsule peeled back Dud was standing in front of what looked like an old fashioned wood door with iron knockers, but it parted open down the center and slid to the sides. Dud decided that he shouldn’t trust anything here on face value.

The room inside was expansive. There was a sunken area that was line with cushioned seating. Over to his right there was a long black bar that had a neat stack of different sized glasses running down the center of it. Through a clear wall that ran the length of the apartment Dud could see their talon like ship sealed in an airlock. At the far end of the room there was a device Dud hadn’t seen before. It was shaped like his favorite letter, U, and was laid on a set of legs with a stool in front of the wide end. There was another door along the far wall.

Lillith sat in the circular sunken area, with Hav’Nek standing behind her. Dud had seen plenty of Zeib in his day, but Hav’Nek was the largest. He wore nothing but his tribal cloth which exposed most of his bronze colored, heavily muscled body. The male stood a full decameter? taller than Dud. The only hair on his entire body was the grease black pony tail that sprouted from a fist sized area at the top of his head. With all four arms crossed over his massive chest, Hav’Nek was formidable even without his usual arsenal of weapons.

The size of Hav’Nek made the man sitting across from Lillith look even smaller. It was the same man from the execution still dressed in his black uniform lined in gold.

“Baroness you have my deepest apologies. I hate to use anything other than Synths, but with the prison planet sales it hard to turn down such a good price. Your apartment will never be tended by a living being again,” the man in black said.

“Mordawrf, don’t burden yourself with any guilt on such an unevolved creature. My dress has been returned, the culprit has been punished,” Lillith said.

Dud’s brain put the pieces together. The woman he had seen killed by the Spearheads had been in charge of caring for Lillith’s apartment and had stolen a dress. An article of clothing she paid for with her life. On one hand he respected the code of the Sanctuary, but on the other couldn’t help but feel that was too harsh of a punishment.

“What I don’t understand is what she thought was going to happen? She could slip away dressed like a wealthy person and escape my employ?” Mordawrf asked.

“My dear Mordawrf, these prison duds are dumber than a newborn baby. They don’t understand our ways.” Lillith nodded toward Dud who hadn’t moved from inside the doorway. “I too have been lured by the excellent prices on these damaged goods, so for my forgiveness I would appreciate you giving my dud a tour of Sanctuary and explain to him the rules of this place so he doesn’t make a similar mistake to your former employee.”

“Absolutely, Baroness. What do you call your property?”

“Just Dud. Also if you could get him properly dressed so he looks more respectable and less like property I would appreciate that as well. Just add it to my credit.”

“It will be on the house of course. After I failed in my duty to uphold the protection of a patron, it is the least I can do.”

Dud didn’t want new clothes, he wanted his old Terra-One clothes back, but he knew he couldn’t argue with Lillith.

“Your services have always been above and beyond. Now Dud, how did the business down below go?” Lillith asked.

Dud gave a curt nod. “I delivered Mechboy to the mechanic, who agreed to fix him for ten marine suits.”

“I told you to offer him thirteen.”

“I am sorry, Baroness, but I thought that I could make you some extra money if he was willing to do the work for less,” Dud said, hoping that he was safe from her rage by disobeying her for a positive reason. He could see the anger pass through the features on her face as the scrunched tight, before relaxing and ending with a fake laugh.

“Of course that is wonderful. For a simple-minded creature you do think for yourself a great deal.”

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said bowing his head again.

Mordawrf rose from the cushions and walked over to Dud. He clapped him on the back and turned him away from the apartment. “Let’s get you the tour.”

Dud walked alongside the broad man and listened to him talk as they made their way down a corridor that was filled with doors that resembled Lillith’s. Dud was informed that this entire row, which wrapped all the way around Sanctuary were permanent resident apartments. These apartments cost more than most planets, and of all the people who called Sanctuary home, Lillith was the only one to actually own her spot. Lillith’s father, who was known as the Baron, bought it for her for her sixteenth birthday. Her ship was her twenty-first birthday present. Those two purchases could have bought most of a solar system.

Mordawrf spoke well of the Baron, and explained that he was the leader of the main syndicate of crime in the Common Wealth system. He was the closest thing they had to a governing body before he died.

His syndicate always expected Lillith to be the one to take over the family business, but her younger brother had other plans. Mordawrf said he was one of the few people who knew she was happy about that fact. She wanted to have a different life and was happy to hand her position to him. The syndicate didn’t feel that way though and it schismed the unification. Her brother still controlled the majority of the former syndicate that used to exist under their father’s rule, but there were many out there trying take control or force it to Lillith. This turned out to be a major issue as her brother now was constantly hunting her because he felt he could solidify his command.

Mordawrf put a hand on Dud’s shoulder. “My boy, I will kill you if you mention any of this to her. I just figured you should know what you’ve been drafted into.”

Dud hardly was listening as they were standing in front of a screen that was showing a bunch of Terran’s running around in an area lined by a rectangle. Different numbers were scrolling across the screen, but Dud couldn’t make any sense of it. There was an object they were fighting over.

“Are we watching a fight?” Dud asked.

“Of sorts. It’s called sports. They are competing against each other for points. The team with the most wins.” Mordawrf replied.

Dud shrugged and followed Mordawrf along as he went through an explanation of how the Sanctuary worked, though Dud understood few of the things he was actually saying. The entire outer perimeter was a solar array, and at the core was a Furenium reactor. Though the science of Furenium reactors made no sense to Dud he did grasp that is was worth more money than a dead planet and it had a rejuvenate power cycle where it would start with low outputs grow to a critical level over years, but instead of exploding it would die, only to start over again.

There was so much that Dud didn’t understand about this world and he needed to learn fast if he was going to stay alive long enough to keep seeing the universe.

“On Terra-One there were sages you could trade with for information. Are there people like that here?” Dud asked, as they stepped into an elevator.

“There are a lot of people here selling information. It’s probably the most traded commodity in Sanctuary. But I think the knowledge you’re seeking is free,” Mordwarf said, pushing a button.

“Nothing is free,” Dud said. That was one of the first lessons the Cartographer ever taught him. Everything had a price.

“I suppose technically you need to purchase a device to view the information on.”

“I have nothing to barter with.”

Mordwarf clapped him on the shoulder. “Here in the civilized world we have things called credits. They are how we pay for things.”

The elevator doors opened and they stepped out into a room that made Dud wonder if he was back on Terra-One. They were on a raised metal platform at the top of a circular seating area. Where the seating ended was where Dud felt home. The center of the seating area looked like a desert on Terra-One to add to the reminiscence there was a rot wolf and a rhinophant calf in the center. The rhinophant was a squat, broad creature, with a thick armor like hide. It’s head had a skull cap, then the snout formed into a stout trunk that reached the ground. The mouth was under the trunk and had a short horn that pointed down. In the wild it would use this to dig for food that it would then pick up with its trunk, but in defense it could be used just as well to impale an attacker, but the skull cap was its main deterrent.

Dud looked at the masses of people surrounding the center area hollering as the two animals tore and thrashed at each other. Dud had never seen so many people in one place before.

There was a sickening crack as the skull cap of the rhinophant caught the side of the rot wolf sending it to the ground. Dud cringed as the rhinophant dropped its full weight, led by the horn onto the rot wolf. As the crowd howled or booed, Dud could only wonder how his three were doing without him.

“I don’t have much stomach for these creature combats, but I try to give the people what they want. This is the only arena I have and it’s small bones compared to the planetside ones. I can only host whelping weights, which is animals under eight hundred kilos,” Mordwarf said.

Dud didn’t respond, he was still trying to process the event unfolding before him. However a woman, standing in the top row turned around at the sound of Mordwarf’s voice.

She was tall and lean, like most everyone here, with long blonde hair, braided meticulously to stay in line with her spine. She wore a black uniform similar to Mordwarf’s with the only difference being a silver finishing.

“Boss, I didn’t expect you down here today. Did I miss a comm?” she said.

“Milla, you missed nothing. I wanted to see you in person. This young lad is Dud, I was hoping you could get him set up for Sanctuary living,” Mordwarf said.

Milla looked eye to eye with Dud, then back at Mordwarf. “Forgive me for asking, but why me over a synth?”

“The boy comes from Terra-One and I feel that a Terran touch would do best, and of all my officers I trust you most. Please keep in mind he is not just our guest but the guest of the Baroness.”

Milla’s face drained of all color.

“What all would you like me to do, sir?”

“Get him set up with a minimal lodging in a higher level, I believe we still have singles available there. Give him a tour of the places he will need to know, how to use our travel systems, oh, and please get him a wrister on my credit please.” Mordwarf clapped Dud on the shoulder. “I am leaving you in good hands. If you should have any need of me any Synth you see can immediately get in touch.”

Mordawrf went back to the elevator and returned to his day. Milla’s face regained some color, but her pale skin held a tinge of red.

“Follow me,” she said.

Dud did as she said and followed her back to the elevators. The pressurized tube that held the elevator moved them to the next location. The entire trip Milla never said a word. The car traveled lower and toward the center of the space station.

The area the elevator eventually opened up to was a gigantic open area that held most of the living quarters and shopping areas. The circular area of the first floor, where are the stores were located, was a kilometer round. The apartments and rooms were housed in the floors above, with each floor having a balcony that looked over the shopping area below. The open space of the community area was cone shaped with the living floors narrowing in the higher they were. The area was full of life as all different species of people went about their business. Outside of the Sanctuary many of these people were enemies, and with the exception of the business owners they were all freelancers, but in their safe haven they were all able to let their guard down without having to worry about getting shot in the back.

It reminded Dud of an ant hill, just without the biting. The thing that left Dud in awe was the amount of goods present in one location. There were items he recognized, things like clothes, and food, but there were so many different shops all dedicated to technology that Dud didn’t even have a guess at what it was.

Milla led him through the clusters of people until she stopped in a store that had walls lined with wristers which were clear sleeves that served as a computer device. It could handle locations, information, communications, and even had a flashlight. When the screen or projector wasn’t needed it could be rolled up into a bracelet.

Dud had one on his arm and kept hitting the command for the roll up and unroll. He could hardly feel he was wearing it. Milla grabbed his wrist as he was about to unroll it for eleventh time.

“You are such a Neanderthal. I give you access to any information in the universe and you are distracted by a convenience feature,” Milla said.

Dud cocked his head at her. “What’s a Neanderthal?”

She tapped a button on the wrister and it unrolled down his arm. She tapped a button and told him to ask again. This time the wrister picked up the question and the sleeve turned into an information filled screen loaded with information about the pre-evolved Terran.

Dud scrolled through the information when the Stiation shop owner walked to them and crossed her arms over her chest. She didn’t say anything, but Dud could tell from her amber eyes that she didn’t want him to keep using the device.

“Surana, we’ll take this one. Please credit the cost against this month’s rent,” Milla said with a smile.

Surana gave a curt nod and left them without a word. In her wake a Terran man who had been browsing the inventory came up behind Dud.

Dud heard him approaching, but didn’t turn around until he saw the color drain from Milla’s cheeks. The man approaching was Lillith’s Brother.

“That’s a good model, but you think you could have got the simple boy a top of the line model since you’re buying on Daddy’s credit,” GEORGE said.

Milla looked to Dud like small game did to his pack of wolves when it was finally run down and cornered. GEORGE stood there grinning ear to ear like he was the only one in on a joke.

“Are you jealous her Dad’s credit is better than yours?” Dud asked. Milla’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist with vice like strength, and pulled him away from GEORGE.

“I don’t think you have any grounds to be insulting anyone’s father when you are a dud made from criminals,” GEORGE said, as Dud let himself be drug out of the store.

Milla hurried down a zigzag line cutting through the crowds, still pulling Dud behind. “Don’t antagonize that man.”

“I thought all crimes are punished by death here,” Dud responded.

“They are, but there is a much bigger universe than Sanctuary.”

Dud wasn’t sure since he hadn’t heard the tone in years, but he felt like she actually cared about how long he would live.

Her color came back as they rode an elevator to the top floor of apartments. The pinnacle floor had only four doors that all were concave. She uncovered a panel that had a glass screen under it and tapped in a long code. She then had Dud place one hand at a time on the glass while looking into a smaller circular piece of glass, which scanned his hands and retinas. Then she had him create a sixteen finger tap combination in case he ever needed to override the scanner. The door parted in the middle and slid away as they walked into the room.

The room was shaped like a wedge of cheese. At the narrow end he could touch both walls, but it fanned out into an area that was about four arm lengths wide. Dud was expecting something technology laden, but the room was just a space occupied by a cot.

“For members of the Baroness’s crew we float you guys the first month’s rent. After that a bill will be sent to your wrister.,” Milla said taking his arm and showing him how to access his personal page on the device. By registering his retina’s and hands Sanctuary opened an account for him to put credits in which read 0. In an area labeled contacts Milla placed her finger there for three seconds and he watched the device register her name into that section.

“If you need me for anything tap that and it will hail me,” Milla said.

“Is it a safe assumption I shouldn’t worry about next month’s rent,” Dud said.

“Not paying rent will result in the confiscation of your belongings and a ban from Sanctuary that will be punished by death if you should ever return,” Milla said.

“I don’t expect I’ll still be alive then,” Dud said.

Milla looked away. “You’re the first one to make it to Sanctuary in a long time. Have faith.”

Faith was a foreign concept to Dud. There were a variety of religions on Terra-One but he had always been the master of his own fate.

“Did you know any of my predecessors?”

“Only one. My father usually has Synth’s take care of tasks like this.”

“What were they like?”

“As far as dud’s go, he was pretty perfect. Strong for not having any augmentations. Smart without having to use stims. Beautiful for no enhancements.” Milla’s eyes glossed over like she was going to cry.

Dud wasn’t sure how to comfort her. There wasn’t much personal interaction in his life. The cartographer had raised him to be tough, and he never once saw the old man shed a tear.

“If you’re good here, I have work to get back to,” Milla said, heading for the door.

Dud snatched her wrist. He wanted to say something kind, but he wasn’t sure what you told someone who had lost someone close to them. The only two times he had lost people in his life he had been alone.

So instead he said, “What’s the game played with the pieces of paper with numbers on them?”

“Cards. More specifically poker. You’ll have look it up past that since we offer hundreds of games. Have a good day, Neanderthal,” Milla said pulling her arm free.

“Thanks for your help. I’m not used to needing it, but these last couple days I’ve been in pretty deep,” Dud said, sitting on the cot.

“Just take it little by little.” And with that she was gone.

Dud was alone. The tiny little cheese wedge of a room was the first room he had had since his mother died. Part of him missed the great expanse of sky that seemed to stretch on forever, but it was a fair trade for a universe that did go on forever.

He poked at his wrister like a senile bird hunting for worms. Any information he could ever want was at his fingertips and it felt intoxicating. At the same time having such a wide ability to seek out anything made it difficult to find somewhere to start. Feeling like he should look up something more important than a card game, but unable to think of what he wanted to know first, he settled for learning about poker.

Milla hadn’t been lying. There were hundreds of different games. He navigated his way through a few different games. He figured out at the core they were all the same, using the same deck of cards, just the variation of hand size differentiated them.

Terra Hold’em caught his attention and he dove in. The game had four rounds of betting. At first each player was dealt three cards, then the first round of betting would happen, and each player would discard one card from their hand. Then the dealer would flip over three community cards called the river, followed by a round of betting. After that the dealer would flip a fourth community card called the turn, which was then followed by a round of bets. The fifth and final card was named the river and was followed by the final round of betting. The best five card hand won the pot.

The reason he liked the concept of poker was that it was asserting yourself mentally over other people. The only issue he had was that he had no credits. Without money he couldn’t play.

A ding came from his wrister and he looked down at a blinking notification that said message. He tapped the message and Milla’s head was on the screen.

“I figured you would want to try out poker by now. I got you a small loan for one-hundred credits. You have thirty-six hours to pay it back or you get hit with one percent interest each day thereafter. Just click accept if you want it. Good luck,” she said.

“Thank you,” Dud said before he realized it was a recorded message. The loan appeared on his screen and he clicked to accept it. He asked his wrister the fastest way to a Terra Hold’em game and followed the directions through a set of the super tubes.

Within minutes he was on the poker floor and sitting at a table. It was a small stakes table, and he noticed most the people at his table were also wearing SLETS, but in the dozens of high stakes players there was only one player with a SLET.

When he took his seat he was instructed by the Synth dealer to place his finger on the pad in front of him and Dud’s seat was credited with one-hundred dollars.

As he began playing it was clear why there was only one Zeib and one Stiation at the table with eight Terran. The Zeib had such a limited range of emotions that he had few options to bluff, while gambling was against the main Stiation religion.

All ten of them had one thing in common. They were all poor. Most of them were dressed in drab clothing and were unkempt. All but one was property.

An hour later Dud had figured the game out pretty well and doubled his money. He would have sat there for hours if his SLET hadn’t chimed in.

“Dud I need you to go check on the progress of Mechboy. I’m looking to acquire a contract need to know if we will be at full staff, but he’s not responding,” Lillith said.

“Yes, Baroness.”

Dud put his finger on the scanner and his money was transferred to his account. He clicked on the loan he had taken out, and sent enough money to pay it off. He consulted the best way to get back to the machine shop from the wrister and made his way down.

The machine shop was dark and poorly lit, with each different type of mechanic staking his claim by building an area out of supply boxes and parts. Dud set his wrister to illuminate and used the low light to help navigate through the area that reminded him of animal graveyards on Terra-One with the scavengers pecking about.

Eventually Dud made it to the part-man part-machine’s sector. There was a loud racket of whirling machines as Dud moved into view. Mechboy was laid out of a metal work bench. He was naked with his spine flawed open. He looked like he was in a deep coma as the mechanic dug around with one tool that looked like a miniature buzz saw and another that was a pencil sized soldering iron.

Ronald noticed Dud standing there and halted his work.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“The baroness wants to know when Mechboy will be fully operational,” Dud replied, looking at a pile of parts that used to be the marine suits.

“He will be mechanically fine in a few hours.” The mechanics wiped sweat from running into his robotic eye. “Is that all?”

Dud stood there contemplating how pointless his errand felt now that he was understanding how to use a wrister. There were any number of ways that Lillith could have found out when Mechboy would be operational.

“You know why I’m here,” Dud said, having no idea other than there had to be something more.

“And I’ll tell you the same thing I told that bastard brother of hers. You can’t lay harm to me here, and I can’t be bought. So, if you don’t mind I will get back to work,” The mechanic said returning to his task in a shower of sparks.

Dud figured that had to have been the information she was looking for, and he’d deliver it to her. Plus he was curious what their next job would be.

As he made his way toward the elevators, he wondered if Mechboy played any poker. It would be nice to have a familiar at the table. His thoughts were cut short as someone grabbed him by the wrist and threw him into one of the mechanic bays. The large supply boxes were stacked taller than him and formed a three sides of a rectangle. The area was small and based on the half built hover bikes this mechanic specialized in small transport. However it wasn’t a mechanic that drug him in.

George blocked his path out with two henchmen. One was a female Zeib, who was barely covered in her tribal wraps which snaked around her body covering her top and bottom breast pairs and her hips. The other was a male Stiation, one that Dud wished he didn’t recognize, but the Stiation’s right hand was replaced by a synthetic one.

“Dear boy, I am glad we ran into you,” George said.

Dud steeled himself knowing they couldn’t harm him here.

“I have the distinct feeling you were looking for me,” Dud said.

“Right you are. How would you like your freedom?”

That was something he wanted desperately. He didn’t mind the life style with Lillith but he did hate the fact that she was continually keeping him in death’s way and could kill him with a thought.

“What’s the price?”

“All you have to do is kill my sister,” George said. “I’ve even got our mutual friend here to agree to call off his Dablakahn  against you if you kill her. However I have to thank you for taking his hand, my syndicate has never been stronger since I was able to bring in Imota and those that stayed loyal to him.”

The Stiation smiled at Dud bearing his small dagger like teeth. Dud had been off his planet for a few days and he already made an enemy.

“And If I decline your generous invitation?” Dud asked, more to buy himself some time to try to find an out, than to actually get an answer.

“I’ll send word around to my darling sister that you are planning to kill her, and you will be dead before you can even think about it,” George said tapping the back of his head.

“Well, then, shall we get to it? Wouldn’t want her to die before I can get there,” Dud said. He wasn’t sure what he would do, but he knew his best bet was to go along with the plan.

“Val’Tia will accompany you. I can’t expect someone so devolved to be able to take on my sister. You just need to open the door,” George said.

Val’Tia placed her right hands in a fist against the open palms of her left hands and bowed her head.

“Follow me then,” Dud said pushing past George and shooting a glare at Imota.

Val’Tia followed Dud into the elevator and he navigated his way back through the tubes of the space station. As they moved closer to Lillith’s penthouse Dud couldn’t figure out how to get himself out of the situation.

George was right though, if Lillith got word he was trying to harm her, his brain would be mush. There was no way he could tip her off without letting his Zeib escort know what he was up to, and Dud stood no chance of going hand to hand with her. He wasn’t sure how any of this wasn’t going to end up with him being dead since he’d be violating the laws of Sanctuary.

As his tube took him closer to Lillith, he did his best to keep his thoughts away from the words Lillith and kill in case his SLET would alert her to the threat. She had told him on his first day that she’d fry him for even thinking of it.

No matter what happened Dud realized he wasn’t coming out of this situation alive. Lillith might be his owner, but she had freed him from a prison life. If it hadn’t been for her, he’d of died on Terra-One. He at least saw another planet in his life.

He was running out of time. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m coming to kill you. I’m coming to kill you. I’m coming to kill you.

The elevator stopped. He expected to drop dead. But he didn’t. He approached Lillith’s door with Val’Tia beside him. Nearing the door, he heard a beep from his SLET and figured that was the end of him. Instead the door opened.

The two of them walked into the room. Dud felt sweat beading down his forehead and a tingle up his spine. The same tingle he had back on Terra-One when a predator was watching him but he couldn’t see it.

Val’Tia let out a scream as she fell face first to the floor. Lillith had her legs wrapped around the Zeib’s lower arms while she locked the upper set with her own arms. When she let go, Val’Tia was bound.

Her black eyes locked on him as a smile spread across her stoic face. “You’re lucky I don’t think you are dumb enough to come after me.”

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said.

She rose and came over to Dud. He froze. Waiting for her to strike. As the day had proven, he was wrong again. Her warm lips pressed against his cheek.

“My brother isn’t dumb enough to think this would work, he was testing you. Hail Mordwarf,” Lillith said.

Dud gave her a nod and carried out her request trying to forget the feel of her lips.

Adventures Part Duex

Yup, cause you’re all dying for it. Episode II. Again, don’t know the level of editing. Quality is questionable. The rights belong to me. And it’s free. Enjoy.

“You put his hand in a jar?” Dud asked. He circled around the jar, taking in every angle of the purple Stiation hand. The four fingers had a red line that covered the segments but skipped over the knuckles before they met at an outline of a circle around a solid circle. The jar sat on a wooden altar with many other bones and powders as well as different colored candles.

Dud had come to Abastia’s room upon her request. Abastia was their Stiation crew member, who kept her room in such a condition that one would think they had walked into her back water Hoven, the Stiation place of religious gathering. Like the rest of the crew she belonged to the captain, Lillith. Abastia had been jailed numerous times for practicing religion within the Commonwealth of Systems without a license. She was from a small sect of her race that believed in the old ways of their people and still held strong her beliefs. The one thing she was never willing to do was pay a tax to lead her Hoven as her type of beliefs didn’t gather any form of collateral from its followers.

Dud had learned all of this about five minutes earlier when another crewmate that went by the name of Mechboy informed him. Only having been with the crew a little over a day, Dud hadn’t wandered much out of his own quarters, and hadn’t even been aware there was more to the crew then Lillith, the synthetic robot, BOB, the four armed Zeib, Hav’nek, and the augmented Terran, Mechboy. Mechboy had filled him in that there was one and a half crew members he hadn’t met yet. Abastia was the one, and Dud couldn’t imagine what could be called a half.

Lillith made Dud a crewmember to have him die in service on the first mission she used him on, however Dud had managed to survive his first deployment. He had been bought at a dirt cheap price, as he was born on the prison planet Terra-One. Meaning he was sentenced to life there because the two people who created him were criminals. Mechboy had taken a liking to Dud after he not only was able to survive the mission, but get the wounded Mechboy back as well.

During Dud’s time on Terra-One he had interacted with the three primary species of the Commonwealth; Stiations, Zeib, and Terran, as well as many other lesser beings. Being Terran he was great at reading them, so they never gave him pause. Zeib were easy to understand. They wanted something to kill. You either were assigning them quarry or becoming it. Stiations were by far his least favorite of the species. They were amphibious creatures who were extremely slippery in all things. He never met one he could trust.

Abastia squatted with her long legs spread wide, and her arms separated with her palms to the ceiling. She seemed entirely unaware of Dud’s presence in the room. Her head, shoulders breasts, and hips were covered in a flowing golden wrap, which stood out brightly against her lavender colored skin. The slits she had for nostrils expanded and contracted with her deep breaths.

Stiations had four fingers with bulbous tips. Each finger extracted a certain chemical. Most Stiations could only produce a chemical that caused a paralyzing burn on contact, and this group made up the warriors and laborers of their society. The number of different chemical combinations continued all the way up to a total of eight different chemicals. Stiations that could produce eight combinations were the leaders of their species.

The first thing Dud noticed about Abastia was that she was missing the bulb of the fourth finger on her left hand. In purely Stiation controlled societies all crimes were decided by the removal of bulbs which was a permanent demotion in class.

Abastia muttered a few words in Stiation before opening her clear eyelids. Her eyes were a bright emerald color that seemed to shine regardless of light.

“I do not feel that you understand the full implications of your actions,” Abasita said, rising up to her full height, which was half a head taller than Dud, but she was skeleton thin.

Dud tapped the jar, causing the fluid to slosh from side to side. “A Stiation got his hand cut off. Am I missing something?”

The mission Dud had run with Mechboy took place on a Stiation planet. During the escape one of Dud’s attackers had lost his hand and knife into Dud’s pod.

“I have run a battery of tests on this hand,” Abastia said gently resting her hand on Dud’s shoulder. Dud went rigid, like a person might when they know the jaws of a predator are all but closed. Depending on the secretions Abastia could produce she had the ability to inflict a number of different pains on Dud. “This hand has three different chemicals. The tattoo signifies a General in Vicantian’s army.”

There were no armies that belonged to planets or sectors. Everything had become privatized. An army was nothing more than a large quantity of mercenaries that could be hired at bulk discounts. Vicantian was unfortunately one of the men Dud had learned about on Terra-One. He had had a few run-ins with some of the mercenaries who had befallen a bounty. The nutshell version was that they weren’t the nicest folk this side of the Milky Way.

“Running through all the possible combinations of logic lead me to believe that this Stiation was at least capable of five secretions. You have not only taken his secretions, but his entire hand. Not only will he lose his command, but he won’t even be able to serve as a soldier. I never would spare much thought to the life of a Terran, but due to our proximities my life could be endangered by this news. You need to be prepared. He will invoke a Dablakahn,” Abastia said.

A Dablakahn was when a Stiation declared themselves the living dead. They wouldn’t have to suffer the humiliation of losing their class status, but it all depended one being able to kill the person responsible for causing them to be cast out. The Stiation would never be able to return to a full life, but they would be remembered as dying at their position in life, which was the most important thing to a Stiation.

“You really think they’ll go walking dead over this?” Dud asked.

Abastia held up her tipless finger. “I did for far less.”

“Dearest playthings. We have a ship to board. Dud, Hav’Nek and Squeelch to the pods,” Lillith’s voice boomed inside of Dud’s head. He touched the metallic device that was attached to the top of his spine. The SLET allowed Lillith to know exactly where Dud was located at any point in time, as well as communicate with him, or if she wished kill him. He was her property.

Dud gave a nod to Abastia and left her room. He would have said something to her before he left, but he feared Lillith might explode his brain just for delaying. Though Dud had never been on another spacecraft in his life this one felt small, especially compared to the open world he used to explore.

The ship had been made from the claw of a Rag’Nok. A creature as old as the universe that could travel through space and destroy worlds. This made Lillith’s ship nearly invulnerable to weapons, and unmistakable to see, but almost blind to all ship detecting technologies.

The walk from the living quarters to the exit was about four strides. By the time Dud got there Hav’Nek the four armed Zeib was waiting and dressed for battle. He wore nothing but a covering over his groin and his body, which was a brick red color painted in black lines. There was an oval like rifle in each of his four hands. These rifles had a barrel over and under giving Hav’Nek the option between stunning and killing his opponents. Each of the four rifles butted against the inside of Hav’Nek shoulder with a horse shoe shaped stock that allowed him to pivot the rifles with this body. There were side grips that also served as the trigger mechanisms. Over his back were four handles of different melee weapons.

The other person, or thing, Dud wasn’t quite sure on what to call it, looked like one of the armored rodents that wandered Terra-One. However it walked upright like a man. It was covered in natural shell-like golden plates with long claws instead of fingers. The face was a peach color with an elongated snout punctuated by two beady black eyes. Its chest was the same color as the face and those two places seemed to be the only ones not protected by his plating. This creature was shorter than Dud, but much thicker and broader. He hadn’t met this crew member, or pet, or whatever yet, but he assumed it was Squeelch.

Lillith, or Baroness as the crew had to call her, appeared a moment later, dressed in the black outfit that looked like it was wrapped tight around every inch of her body by different strips of the material. She came up to Dud, and for the first time he was close enough to see the features of her face. Her jaw and cheekbones looked like they had been carved from marble, her nose was the perfect fit for her face, and amongst her black irises were tiny white flecks that made him feel like he was staring at a night sky back on Terra-One.

She smacked a simple set of pistols into his hands. They looked like hardly more than a bent pipe that could barely fit in his palms, but they did have a wrist holster. Once he figured out how it worked he couldn’t stop playing with it. He would throw the pistols straight down but they would swing back a lock to his forearm. With a snap of his wrist they would fling back to his hands.

“You only have stun rounds Dud, so don’t get any ideas,” Lillith said.

“Yes, Baroness,” Dud said with a bow of his head. He truly did not want to anger her. Despite the fact that she could kill him at will, he wanted to see the universe and she was his only chance at that.

Dud dropped to a knee and grabbed his head as a pain that started like a mild headache grew until he thought his head was going to explode.

“Please, Baroness, I’m sorry for whatever I did,” Dud said.

The pain stopped and when Dud looked around everyone was staring at him strangely. While his mind cleared he all the sudden had a memory, about a ship that was classified as a schooner, and had a crew of eighteen people. It was forty meters long, and he could clearly picture the blueprint layout of the ship.

“By now your SLET should have made a memory of the schooner that is pursuing us. The crew size is manageable so try to only stun so we can sell them,” Lillith said.

Hav’Nek was giddy with joy and bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Lillith handed Dud a metal device that looked like a mushroom cap. “Our bioscans show the crew is mostly in their hangar waiting to bring us in. You three are going to launch through the pods. Synth is going to open up their system to send you guys in. Hav’Nek your job is to subdue the crew. The scans say it is a Terran crew so you should have no problems. Dud you will proceed straight to the marker in your memory and plant the control device.”

Dud put the small half sphere into his pocket.

“Dud, not that I care if you make it back, but do remember anyone you face on this ship is more evolved than you. Stay out of the fight as best you can and just do your job. Hav’Nek, if he should die, finish the mission,” Lillith said, and walked away.

Their pod doors opened up and Squeelch entered his right away. Dud took a step toward his then stopped and looked at his pistols.

“Do I need to lead or do these do that for me?” Dud asked.

“Lead.” Hav’Nek’s voice sounded like he was chewing gravel. “Quick, ask me what my favorite party is?”

“What’s your favorite party?” Dud asked.

“A boarding party.” Hav’Nek rotated his top set of hands in circles as he pumped the lower pair in and out from his body and gyrated at his hips in one of the strangest attempts at dancing Dud had ever seen.

Dud shook his head and stepped into his pod, no longer nervous by the sounds of all the machines closing the metal capsule around him. Zeib’s didn’t have the range for humor or the ability to laugh. Their voice could be sad, angry, mad, murderous, monotone, but it couldn’t flip over to positive emotions.

As darkness enclosed Dud he wondered how well he would be able to survive in this universe. On Terra-One most people had no advancements. It was rare that someone wealthy enough to augmentation or enhancement would be sentenced to a prison planet, but even when they were Dud knew more about Terra-One than anyone alive. He had the advantage over anyone there. Now he was no longer the alpha, he wasn’t even the dirt on the shoe of the omega.

On Dud’s first and only ever pod experience he went from their ship to the ground and back up again. This was a different feeling being launched through empty space into the reception of another ship. He searched his memory for where he was as well as where he needed to go. He tensed his body to sprint away as soon as his pod retracted.

The pod slid away and for a minuscule moment Dud was able to see the look of shock on twelve Terran faces standing in their loading bay. Dud had no more time than that because what felt like a warm blanket wrapped around him, folding his body into a ball. In his cocoon he could dimly hear weapons fire as he rolled end over end.

Light flooded back to him as he was propelled onto his feet into a corridor, the same one his memory said he needed to take. Looking back Dud realized he had been a passenger across the loading bay wrapped protectively in the armor plating for Squeelch. The tall manamial rolled back into the fray.

In the few short days since Dud had left Terra-One he had tried to stop letting himself be surprised by every new thing, but when he was told they were fighting Terrans he expected people like himself. These were nine-feet-tall metal monsters fully covered head to toe in some sort of robotic armor. The room was larger than the entirety of Lillith’s ship, with a few square vessels that Dud predicted were almost the same size as his new home.

Squeelch rolled through a rack that had carried large rifles, so large Dud doubted he could manage one, and scattered the weapons everywhere. They must not have been expecting the counter boarding.

In the center of everything was Hav’Nek, still gyrating and dancing amongst the metal soldiers.

“Ain’t no party, like a boarding party,” Hav’Nek continued to sing, in the loosest sense of the word, as he fired off precision shots in multiple directions at once. The Zieb paused for a moment when his eyes settled on Dud. “You’ve got a job to do.”

Dud snapped his two pistols into his hands and ran down the corridor following the path the memory told him, while Hav’Nek resumed his chorus. There were two hatches he ran past that he knew led to crew quarters. The first door on his right was the mess hall, the first on the left was medical, the next was their armory, and back on the right was recreation. He knew everything about the ship.

Follow his path like a beacon was leading him, Dud found himself staring at the door to the bridge. Though he had seen doors in his life before right then and understood how they worked he was stumped. This just looked like a flat piece of metal to him with no handle or latch. He felt all over the door for something he may have missed. Each second that ticked by he grew more frustrated until he slammed his hand against the pad that he thought was glass beside the door. Upon impact the door whooshed open.

Inside there was a swivel chair with a half-circle of screens a monitors around it that looked out a massive window. Dud went to the chair and flung his hands down to holster his pistols then pulled out the small mushroom like device Lillith had given him.

He sat in the chair in looked around for a place to insert the device. His hand moved like it was following muscle memory and put the device into a small space that he’d never have found on his own.

“Good work, Dud. We have full control of the ship now,” Lillith’s voice echoed in his skull.

Having no other orders, Dud let out a long sigh and relaxed against the chair that encompassed his entire body. As he took a few more deep breaths he was surprised by the amount of adrenaline he felt. On Terra-One he had far closer encounters, and today he had hardly been in danger, but everything being unknown kept him on edge.

But not enough.

A wire descended over the chair, and practically reached Dud’s neck before he grabbed the hands of his attacker keeping the crackling wire just far enough away from his skin that he could feel the heat from it. The only thing he found reassuring while he fought a fraction of an inch from losing his head was that he was holding onto what was most definitely Terran wrists. The issue was they were far stronger, and it was a battle he would lose any moment.

Hav’Nek, who had been strolling down the corridor to find Dud, broke into a sprint when he saw his crewmate under attack. He reached the Terran with such momentum that the simple force he wanted to use to free Dud from the man’s grasp, ripped the man’s arms off his body with two loud pops. The attacker turned around and fell back against the chair.

Hav’Nek looked at the two arms he was holding in his upper hands when a sneer, the closest thing his face did to a smile, came across his face. His lower arms grabbed the dismembered arms by the bicep and began to throttle the armless attacker.

“Stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself,” Hav’Nek said as he continued the assault.

Dud came around the chair and stood beside Hav’Nek, wanting to wait for the Zeib to finish what he was doing to thank him for his help.

“Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha,” Hav’Nek said, dry and flat, in time with each blow he delivered with the man’s hands.

Pocketing the wire that had almost been his demise, Dud backed away to the entrance of the bridge to make sure no one else was coming down the corridor.

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

After minutes passed, Dud gave up on standing and slid to the floor waiting for Hav’Nek to finish so that he could get his next set of orders.

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

Dud thought he may have nodded off, because when he came to it was the long nose of Squeelch prodding him awake. At this time the attacker’s body was prone on the floor, but Hav’Nek was still HaHaing while continuing his barrage.

“Hav’Nek!” Dud said.

Hav’Nek dropped the two arms in a way that reminded Dud of when he scolded his moss-wolves for getting into things they weren’t supposed to.

“Did you like my joke?” Hav’Nek asked.

“Yes, and thanks for saving my life, but is there anything else I need to do,” Dud said, pushing himself to his feet.

“But you never laughed.”

“I’m not much of an external laugher, but I was cracking up in my brain.”

Hav’Nek gave a few nods then held up his top left arm, which Dud noticed for the first time had a clear sleeve over the forearm.

“Baroness, they have marine armor. Upload Dud the emergency release sequence,” Hav’Nek said, then tapped his forearm.

Dud braced for what was coming, but for this upload the pain was nothing like the first time. He hoped it would continue to get easier so he didn’t keep looking weak in front of the crew.

“The softies will be out for a few more hours. Go back to the loading bay and strip them of their armor,” Hav’Nek said.

Dud turned to leave. “Thanks again for saving my life.”

“I did it for the baroness, not you. You cost money to replace.”

As Dud made his way back to the loading bay, he tried to make sense of Hav’Nek. Dancing, singing, and jokes weren’t in the usual skill set of Zeibs, and slaves that wanted to protect their owner weren’t a common thing either.

Whatever Dud had been pondering left his mind as he stared down at what Hav’Nek had called marine armor. The large metal suit that surrounded the person inside was too heavy for Dud to lift. Luckily the SLET told him that the release was in the front anyhow. He pulled back the cover to a panel with four different buttons and punched in a combination. He heard the grinding of gears as the center of the robotic chest peeled itself back and opened up along the arms and legs. The armor continued to retract until a person lay on top of it like a metal bed. A person who was definitely not nine-feet tall like the goliath had appeared. Just a normal sized person in a robot suit that had built in hands and feet which accounted for the extra size.

The way the armor worked reminded him of how he felt in one of the pods, the major difference was the pod wasn’t shaped like a body, nor did he have a visor.

What he did know about the marine armor was he wanted one.

“Poor man mech’s,” Hav’Nek said walking into the loading bay and attaching clear rings around the unconscious people’s’ wrists. “Haven’t seen these since the Orc invasions.”

“Orc invasions?”

“Look it up later. I’m not your guide.”

Dud had no idea where or how or even what looking something up was, but he figured he could make due. He had survived in the wild without technology for his entire life until a few days ago. There was no reason he couldn’t manage with technology. It was just another unknown waiting to be discovered.

Since Hav’Nek seemed anything but welcome to conversation Dud sat quietly trying to figure out what was going on. Time was a strange concept to him now, since everything on Terra-One had something to do with the planet’s rotation around a star, but in space he wasn’t sure even what to call the different segments. He just knew he had been sitting and doing nothing for a really long time and was getting bored. Hav’Nek had long ago finished putting the bands on each person’s wrists and had left the loading bay, but had given Dud no further instructions.

Squeelch came and sat beside him, and not in the way Dud pictured the creature would sit. He assumed Squeelch would lay like the rot-wolves, but Squeelch sat in a more humanoid fashion, with his legs crossed and his back upright.

Squeelch delicately took Dud’s wrist in his claws, and dread followed suit. Dud had no idea what this creature was, or what it was capable of. For all he knew if it applied a single kilo of pressure too much Dud might be without his wrist. The creature turned his wrist so the black ink faced outward.

Squeelch’s circular mouth opened and a guttural sound came out. Dud stared at the creature blankly. Moving his head in a full circle in a way that reminded Dud of an eye roll, Squeelch tapped a claw to his chest and opened his mouth again. This time it was a high pitched squeal that made a sound Dud could understand.

“Squeeeeeeeeelch,” the creature said, then tapped Dud on the shoulder and took a deep breath. The creature tensed as it let out its next word. “Uuuuuuud.”

“You can read Common?” Dud asked.

Squeelch nodded his head.

“And understand it?”

Another nod.

“Just can’t speak it?”

Squeelch pointed a claw at his neck. “Cooooooors.”

It was Dud’s turn to nod, understanding Squeelch didn’t have the right vocal cords.


Squeelch clicked the tips of his claws together.

“Isn’t there some sort of,” Dud paused trying to remember the word. “Augmentation you could have done?”

Reaching out with his pointer claw Squeelch tapped Dud’s tattoo.

“Indent? Like Mechboy?”

Squeelch nodded.

“Really think it’s worth it just to be able to talk to a whole new group of idiots?”

The nods continued.

“To each their own. I didn’t mind hardly having to talk to people.”

Hav’Nek came back into the loading bay, and Dud noticed that his visit was perfectly timed with the awakening of the hostages. With the death of the captain there were fourteen survivors left.

“Anything you need me to do?” Dud asked.

“Keep doing nothing. It seems like your best skill,” Hav’Nek replied.

Though Dud had more than one retort he knew it didn’t matter what he had to say, the Zeib wouldn’t listen anyhow. Hav’Nek moved to the middle of the room and drew a long blade in his top right hand.

“Everyone on their knees,” Hav’Nek said.

Though a few of the survivors attempted to resist the order, Hav’Nek tapped the clear sleeve on his arm and all of the clear cuffs he had put on the survivors brought their wrists together behind their backs. With a second tap of the sleeve, the cuffs went straight for the floor in a way that reminded Dud of a magnet. There was some struggling and squirming, but no one was going anywhere.

“You have all been claimed by the Baroness,” Hav’Nek said.

“Holy Rag’nok, the captain never said that’s who we were hunting,” a female survivor said.

Hav’Nek continued like she hadn’t spoken. “You have two options. Sign yourself over as the personal property of the Baroness, or.”

Hav’Nek slashed the air with his sword.

Dud watched each of the survivors as they looked around at each other. He could read on their desperate faces that each of them was looking for a savior. Amongst them he didn’t see a single one that looked ready to fight back.

Then he realized they were all about to be turned into property. Just like he was, the only difference being they had lives. Part of him wanted to do something to help these people, then he remember the SLET and the fact that his brain would be turned to soup if he lifted a finger. Besides, these people planned to attack Lillith.

“Seal the contract with DNA, or forfeit your blood,” Hav’Nek said.

He walked around the bonded survivors and held the sleeve out to them, but now instead of being clear it displayed white words on a black background that made the contract with a tiny gray square. Over their heads he held the sword with his grimace that was meant as a smile.

Each person in turn touched the tip of their tongue to the gray square. With every signed contract the sleeve would say the person’s name, rattle off any augmentations, and their approximate market value as a slave. Bartering was the natural way of dealing anything on Terra-One so Dud had no idea what a good price or a bad price was, however he was super impressed by the sleeve. But he would be sad if there was no bartering in this new world.

Lights flashed as a deep chime rung. Having studied the calls of animals his entire life, Dud took it to be an alert, but not an emergency. All heads focused on the bay door, which was large enough for any of the service vehicles in the loading area to fit through. The entire door didn’t open, but a person sized hatch slid open, and Lillith walked in all dressed in black, with her hair pulled back, and a star flecked eyes glued to her own wrist. She swept her eyes repeatedly across her screen, then tapped the device. One of the men, from what Dud remembered a lower valued product, was launched up onto his feet.

“Come with me, please,” Lillith said.

Dud had no idea what was going on. Hav’Nek had an ear to ear sneer going, and the man Lillith addressed had his head hung so low it practically touched his chest.

Then one of the women, fought to her feet, shaking under the pressure of her cuffs. “Not him, you bitch.”

The cuffs brought the woman back down on her knees as tears streamed down her face. Hav’Nek was upon her, and grabbed a fistful of her hair forcing her face against the floor.

“Everything will be okay. I love you,” the man said as he kept walking.

Lillith laughed and ushered the man ahead of her, but stopped before she passed through the door.

“Oh, Dud, could you see to Mechboy. He has your next assignment,” Lillith said.

“Yes, Baroness,” Dud said, getting to his feet and following her out the door and through the airlock to her ship. When they entered into the mid of their ship, and Lillith was herding the man the other direction.

“Baroness,” Dud said, feeling a cold tingle of fear creep along his spine. “Might I ask to have my gear back. I haven’t seen my stuff since I came shipside.”

Lillith appraised him, and Dud found himself glued to tracking her eyes. The speckles in the darkness kept him entranced.

“Very well, BOB will deliver them to your room,” she said.

“Thank you, Baroness,” Dud said with a tip of his head.

He watched the clear shape of her body sway side to side as she led the man to her quarters. Until he could no longer see her, he waited in the corridor, and then left for Mechboy’s room.

Inside, Mechboy had been moved from his bed, to a flat trolley that hovered off the ground a few inches.

“Glad to see you’re still with us,” Mechboy said. Dud couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or just conversational. “Looks like you get to deliver me to the mechanic when we make it to Sanctuary.”

Sanctuary was something he had actually learned about from the Cartographer. A place that allowed all the criminals of the system to rest peacefully. A place where all crime was punished by death, and absolutely no weapons were permitted. It was a space station that orbited a dead planet and had impenetrable defenses. For people who lived their lives without law it was the one place a person could relax, resupply, and pick up new jobs. The Cartographer had painted such a beautiful picture of the place in his telling that Dud always wondered if it was real or if it was some sort of afterlife the man had believed in. It would seem that the old man had been telling the truth. That didn’t mean Dud was entirely without questions.

“Baroness just took one of the prisoners to her quarters. Had all the signs of a funeral,” Dud said.

Mechboy shook his golden locks. “You really don’t know shit about this system do you. The Baroness always kills her mate.”

Dud found himself lost in his own mind trying to picture the act and action.

“Does make you wonder, right? Would it be worth it?” Mechboy said.

“Yes it does,” Dud said.

He was glad he found Mechboy in a talkative mood, and took advantage of the time it took to arrive at Sanctuary getting many of his minor questions answered. He found out they would be selling off all the prisoners as well as the ship upon arrival, which was part of the reason why Lillith had picked a low valued slave. The main reason they were heading to Sanctuary was they had been away from port for a month and needed to restock. It also did well for Lillith to shake hands and search out deals that people weren’t willing to give out remotely.

Mechboy stopped speaking mid-sentence and then said, “They’re dropping us at a lower dock. It’s time to go.”

Dud grabbed the handle of the trolley and pushed Mechboy through the ship. They exited out the airlock and into a long corridor, that was well lit, and spotless clean. The walls reflected Dud pushing the cart an infinite number of times as he made his way down the long expanse.

“Any crime here is punishable by death. If someone hits you, just take it, and they’ll be sentenced for it. No weapons, no stealing, no cheating, no violence,” Mechboy said as they reached an elevator bank at the end of the corridor.

They stepped inside the circular elevator and Mechboy stated the floor they needed. The car plummeted so fast, Dud thought he was going to lose his stomach. There was a rapid dinging sound, which marked the passing of each floor. Dud couldn’t keep count, and was just barely beginning to grasp the size of the station.

“What’s wrong with Hav’Nek? I’ve never met a Zeib that wanted to be funny,” Dud said.

Mechboy laughed. “If there was one thing you couldn’t do, wouldn’t you want to do it?”

A few seconds later the elevator stopped and the doors slid open. The floor they walked into was nothing like the pristine corridor they had come from. The entire area was wide open with only supports dividing up the different areas. There was hardly any other light except when a torch would light or sparks would fly from a mechanic somewhere. Dud was dumbfounded looking at the vast array of metal beasts he had never seen. There were many small ships, and a ton of different robot parts. Each step he took deeper into the maze of mechanics let him see something he had never seen before. He tried to hide his amazement, but it was hard to blink for fear of missing something.

As they neared the area that was sectioned off by the mechanic Dud was being led Lillith’s voice echoed around his skull.

“Without informing Mechboy, offer the mechanic the fourteen marine suits as payment,” she ordered.

Dud wondered if her mate had met his fate yet, or if she was just taking a quick break to give him orders. He silently complied, and pushed the cart into an area that was cordoned off by large metal tubs in what looked like a capital U. At the bend a hammock hung low with the weight of the man resting inside. All around lay scattered parts, most of which Dud had no idea what they were but he did recognize a few pieces from the marine suits.

The hammock tossed as the man’s metal soled boots echoed off the floor. He stumbled forward and Dud realized they weren’t boots, but the man’s legs had been replaced with mechanical ones. The man’s left arm was also a mechanical replica of a Terran arm.

Unlike Mechboy, Dud didn’t think the mechanic chose his upgrades out of desire, but due to the scars that covered his face, as well as the robotic eye with red lit iris, made it look like they came from necessity. The scars were so pronounced they cut through the mangy beard like a mountain range.

“Ronald, long time no see,” Mechboy said.

Ronald spit of wad of something that smelled horrible against the perforated floor. “She hasn’t sent payment.”

“I’m here to discuss that,” Dud said, adding a nod of his head away from the damaged kid.

Ronald stopped away from his territory a few steps with Dud.

“Out with it then, boy,” Ronald said, pulling a palm sized, circular tin out of his pocket.

Dud was about to give Lillith’s offer, but hesitated. He hated to disobey her, but the only two ways his life could go at this point were dead, or earning her respect enough to not be expendable. He didn’t have Mech upgrades, or augmentations. He had no genetic advantages, but he did have his brain and his tongue and they had served him well this far in life.

“We have ten marine suits,” Dud said.

“That won’t even cover the kid’s broken back. And what about her outstanding debts?” Ronald said, removing the tin lid.

Dud hesitated to collect his logic. He was playing a game he didn’t understand. He had no grasp on the concept of values in this exchange.

“That will cover her debt in full. If I go back and ask for more she’ll kill me, and find a new supplier. Your call,” Dud said.

Ronald scooped a hefty amount of the brown paste out of the tin with his Terran hand and tucked it under his tongue. Almost immediately his red robotic iris turned green. “Business has been slow. Soon as the suits are delivered, I will get to work.”

Before Dud had time to feel proud of his bartering skills a Terran man, almost a foot taller than Dud walked past. He was dressed differently than all the grease covered mechanics, in a well fitted black outfit, lined with gold, that made the man look too important to be in such an area. He had pasty white skin, and short black hair. The part that set Dud’s innate predator instinct off was the way his black eyes, with white flecks settled on Dud even as the man had to crane his neck to keep his eyes trained.

“Do you know that Terran?” Dud asked.

“You must be a special kind of stupid, son. That’s the Baroness’s brother,” Ronald said, spraying some of the brown paste on Dud.

Dud watched Lillith’s brother until he was out of sight. If he was going to stay alive he would need to prove himself more useful to Lillith, but for today it was a win. He had survived another mission, and landed in a new location. He would deal with tomorrow, tomorrow.


The Adventures of Dud: Episode 1

So, what you’re about to get into is the first of a set of linked short stories I was working on a few years back. It was fun, but lost steam when I started back into the Primal Age Chronicles. There are a few more of these laying around, so hopefully you all enjoy.

Should go without saying, but these are my works and any use of them without my permission will result in bad karma, some stern looks, and possibly some legal action. So, don’t go stealing bones from my graveyard. PS, no idea what level of edited I left this in, so forgive typos and all that yada yada.


The metal pod surrounding Dud kept him securely in place as he plummeted toward the ground. He couldn’t even scratch the itch on his nose.

Until three days ago he had never been in space, or beheld what technology could do. He had been wandering on a prison planet staying alive by hunting with a simple weapon called a bow. The rest of the slave crew he joined was as impressed by the simple tool as he was by the craft that took him amongst the stars he had only ever watched from the ground.

Now he was hurtling at a speed he didn’t want to calculate toward a planet he had never heard of before today. Everything seemed new to him. It was like the awakening of a child though he was somewhere past his puberty years but before being a full blown adult. The experience would be positive if it wasn’t for the fact that he was a bought piece of property that’s lifespan was only a few hours until this mission was accomplished.

He was being dropped on a swampy planet that belonged to a species of sentient beings called Stiations, an amphibious humanoid. There had been plenty of Stiations on Terra-One, the prison planet he was born on, but few of them spoke the same language as Dud. During his years of wandering the planet he had interacted with enough Stiations for one lifetime.

It already felt like a lifetime since he left Terra-One. Terra-One was a planet that had been nearly wiped out of all useable resources. Dying planets like that were worthless to sustaining large amounts of life and were sold at low prices. Sometimes a religious cult would purchase them to try to escape the ruling government, but no one ever truly escaped the Central Powers.

Terra-One had once been two-thirds covered in water, but now there were five trenches that provided the only guaranteed water. These trenches spanned for thousands of miles but were mostly contained in the dried bed that had once been the largest ocean on the planet. Most of the inmates could be found in their own makeshift societies that condensed around these water sources. From orbit it was easy to track the population centers on the surface due to every inmate being ID tracker tagged.

Dud was raised for the first few years of his life by his mother on Terra-One. He didn’t know exactly how long because he wasn’t introduced to the concept of years until later in life. He also didn’t know if his father and mother had been a couple of inmates who fell in love with each other or if he was what was called a ‘forced child’. Besides not knowing any of that he didn’t even know his mother’s name or her sentence.

He did know the one memory that woke him up most nights was the day his mother died. His mother was trying to teach him how to write the alphabet. Even though Dud was up to par on speech she felt it was important he learned how to write in case he ever found a way off the planet. Dud was a stubborn child and refused to write a single letter. They lived in a hut so small his mother could hardly stand up but she had built him a spider tunnel that he could use if they were ever attacked.

There was such little technology left on Terra-One that they lived a primitive existence. The only people who had the remaining technology weren’t the type of people a single woman with a child wanted to come across. He could recount the day as clearly as if he had to relive it.

Dud had been sitting on the floor at a small table that had a bleached animal hide about a foot long that he was supposed to be writing on with a charcoal pencil, but was much more effectively pouting with his hands crossed over his chest. His mother had sat opposite him running a hand through her greasy blonde hair.

“Please, just one letter. Just one letter. Your favorite one. I don’t care which one,” his mother had pleaded.

Dud had just shook his head.

“Why can’t you just do this one thing to make me happy? Please, will you do this for-”

It had been the first time Dud had ever heard an engine, but it had been enough to stop his mother mid-word. She had sprung to her feet, rolled up his parchment and rushed to the makeshift mattress they both slept on. The bedding had a plastic liner to give them some insulation from the ground. Rolling the mattress back she had revealed an escape tunnel.

It hadn’t been the first time Dud saw this. His mother had made him practice escaping through it almost weekly. He’d wiggle his way through it like a worm until he came out the other side, then he would wait patiently until his mother came to claim him. Dud had known this wasn’t something he could pout through and went to the hole.

“Mommy loves you,” she had said as she handed him the parchment and kissed his cheek.

Dud had climbed into the hole and wiggled his way through the dark tunnel. To this day he hadn’t figured out why she gave him the parchment, and it haunted him he never told her he loved her too. In his child’s mind he hadn’t put together what was going to happen, that it would be the last time he ever saw his mother’s green eyes alive with the fire of life.

He had done like he was supposed to and crawled through the tunnel until he emerged in a thicket that he laid in for an entire day waiting for his mother to come. When she never did, he had climbed into his tunnel and wiggled back to their hut.

This was the first time he had seen a dead person.

His mother had been hardly recognizable. Her blood had been cold and soaking into the ground by the time he came back. He had shaken her remains hoping she would wake up, but even in his tiny brain he knew it was hopeless.

He had gone over to the table and unrolled the parchment. With his blood covered finger he made one letter. His favorite. U.

Two days later when he hadn’t moved from the table he decided to give up his vigil and go get some water. Being careful never to look at his mother he had retrieved the child sized bow and arrows she had made for him, slung their two water skins over his neck, and headed for the door. Before he left the hut he rolled up his parchment and stuck it in his little quiver.

It was a decent trek on small legs to get to the water. His mother had set them as far away as she could safely leave him behind to go get water. Water meant predators, not just of the humanoid kind.

Dud was tired, hungry, and thirsty though so he trekked on until he reached the water. The trenches were fascinating to him. Land ended then thousands of feet of water began. There was no gradual transition. One leap to the next.

When he hit the clearing around the water he inched forward making sure there was nothing to eat him lurking around. Sure he was safe Dud lowered his skins into the water.

“Mind sharing with an old man?”

Dud practically jumped into the water at the sound of the voice. An elderly man was standing behind him. This was a remarkable feat. Dud had never seen an old person before. This man had long white hair with a matching beard. He was wrapped in a coat and wore a backpack that didn’t look like it was made of any hide Dud had ever seen. The man leaned heavily on a walking stick. The lines on the man’s face were cut so deep into his face that Dud couldn’t understand how the man wasn’t in pain.

Judging the man was not a threat Dud held his water skin out to the man. When he offered the man his water he didn’t know that he would be acquiring a mentor. This man that he knew as George but the rest of Terra-One knew simply as the Cartographer, would provide him with protection and knowledge.

George was a legend on Terra-One. So revered by every faction he was untouchable. The man earned his legend by traveling thousands of miles from the trench to find areas that had once been civilization before Terra-One was dried up. George was a practitioner of map making which earned him his name.

In the ten years Dud traveled with George he learned how to make maps, handle wild animals, hunt, forage, haggle, trade, and survive with nothing but his brain. This is also when Dud learned the concept of years. George died in what he called his seventy-first year of life.

The one skill Dud had loved more than any other was being able to integrate himself with wild creatures. Terra-One had more than its fair share of man eating creatures. Few were more feared than the moss wolves. They looked eye to eye with a full grown man while standing on all fours, but had the rat like ability to lay their bodies totally flat. Due to their mangy coats they could lie on a forest floor and blend in completely. Even their green or brown eyes didn’t give them away.

After Dud lost his mentor, he needed to find protection he could trust. It took him a few months but over time he cultivated a following of three moss wolves. He had found them as pups and fed them from his kills. It didn’t take long for them to bond to him like a member of their pack.

At night when he slept they would form a triangle around him. He felt totally safe from any predator, be it man or creature. That feeling of safety was the same thing that got him in trouble two weeks ago. He lay like he usually did, curled around his pack, coat wrapped around him, his child sized bow attached to his wrist, and the three wolves quietly breathing around him.

What he didn’t know was that the owners of Terra-One had a fire sale on any noncriminal on the planet. People like Dud didn’t have trackers in them, or any form of registration that made them a real person outside of Terra-One. However their numbers and movements were tracked from orbit. Like any other form of property he was bought and paid for.

People living on Terra-One couldn’t make as much noise as his captures were and survive long. The first snag of a branch had Dud’s eyes open. It only took moments for his well-trained eyes to adjust to the dark. The people coming for him were unlike the primitive prison population of the planet. One was a Terran like him, but was encased in a large metal contraption that looked lethal. The second was a ten-feet-tall Zieb, a four armed humanoid that had a thick hide and basically made of muscle. In two of his hands he held high tech rifles that Dud had never seen before and in his other two he held long curved blades.

Dud knew his wolves were waiting for his whistle to attack or retreat, but he had no idea what these outsiders technology could do. As much as the wolves were expendable to his existence, they were still his pack and he felt responsible for them. His only option was to get more information.

Standing with his hands up Dud presented himself before the two people. With a simple whistle he could set his wolves to action. It took longer than Dud expected for them to see him, but eventually they both trained their weapons on him.

“We’ve got one,” the terran said.

Dud wasn’t sure who he was talking to but it definitely wasn’t the Zieb and there were no other people with him.

The terran turned to the Zied. “Pods are inbound.”

“Come with us, or I hurt you,” the Zeib said, flashing a horse tooth sized grin.

Dud knew they weren’t associated with any of the clans on the planet. With the tech they had on them they wouldn’t be trusted outside of any stronghold. They might be company men, but they would have no reason to come collect him. Occasionally someone would pay to hunt a prisoner, but if that was the case they would have already shot. They might be trying to take him off planet, and if that was the case he didn’t really care who they were. If he could get off planet he could have a chance at a different life. He trusted himself enough to be able to get out of the worst of situations, and wherever they wanted to take him couldn’t be worse than Terra-One. They were a chance he would accept.

“Okay,” Dud said.

A sour look replaced the Zeib’s toothy grin. There was a strange sound like air escaping a contained space before the three pods landed side by side. The pods looked to Dud like metallic coffins. They waved him toward the middle one. Dud stepped over his ring of wolves, which he could feel watching him, and walked up to the pod wondering what would await him when it opened next.

As his pod closed around him he let out a long whistle followed by two short ones. The three wolves sprung to their feet and took off through the trees. Catching one last look of his pack as they disappeared he wondered if he would ever see them again.

When the pod opened he had no idea the world he would be walking into. The Cartographer had educated him on everything he knew, but there were even more advancements that Dud could never have fathomed.

He was on what he was told was a small spaceship. Since it was the only spaceship he had ever seen he had no frame of reference. Despite Dud’s curiosity he didn’t even get to explore the ship. The moment he came out of his pod the four armed Zieb hauled him into a sterile room where he was strapped to a table.

Dud’s heart pounded in his ears, but he used a trick George had taught him to remain calm in the worst situations. Forcing his exterior to look calm it slowly permeated through him until he became calm both inside and out and relaxed against the restraints.

From where he lay he couldn’t see much of the room, but he heard a clacking sound like someone was walking with metal boots on the metal floor coming toward him. His heart tried to speed up again, but Dud wouldn’t let himself feel fear when he didn’t even know the situation.

Then a metallic head that reminded Dud of a bee peered over him. He released the leash on his heart and let it run as fast as it could. The bee-head was attached to a metal body that looked like a Terran with its skin removed. George had once explained these metal men to Dud as something called a robot, and Dud’s heart immediately slowed down.

For only a moment before a long needle extended from the pointer finger of the robot’s hand and slid into his elbow. There had been a few people on Terra-One that did experiments on other inmates. George dealt with everyone, regardless of if he liked them or not. Dud had seen an experiment once, and he wondered what type of person could do that to another being. Now he was the test subject.

Maybe he shouldn’t have come so willingly into a world he didn’t know.

The antenna on the robot clicked around a few different positions then all the hexagon eyes turned away from Dud.

The metallic voice sounded like a soft hide by a warm fire, and Dud couldn’t figure out how something so smooth could come from such a creature. “Pure dud. Absolutely no enhancements or mods. Biologically no different than the first Terran into space.”

From the foot end of the table a female voice spoke, but Dud couldn’t move his head to see the recipient. “Then he won’t be a waste. Insert his bug and then get him briefed with the Mech.”

For a moment he was glad to hear what sounded like a Terran voice, but lost any good feeling when his veins burned like fire was pumping through them. His muscles felt like acid was eating them away, then finally his mind went blank and he passed out.

When he came to he was in the same room but was no longer strapped to the table. He sat up slowly dangling his legs over the side of the table. His entire body ached like he had been trampled by a herd of rhinophants. He ran a hand through his hair to find the long hair he used to have had been cropped into a close buzzcut. Worst of all there was something metal sticking out of the base of his skull, like someone had installed a button on his head.

“You’ll get used to it, but it’s best not to play with it.”

Dud turned toward the voice and saw that man, correction teenager, who had been in the metal suit on the surface of Terra-One. However he wasn’t in his metal suit anymore. He was in a tight fitting outfit that covered him from neck to toe. The forearms and calves of the suit were black while the rest was a dull gray. The kid was blonde with eyes as bright as light reflecting off of water.

“What is it?” Dud asked.



“Spatial Locator Executioner Transmitter.”

Dud rubbed his eyes trying to make sense of the words. He thought he was well educated, but in the little time he was off planet his mind had been entirely blown. Perhaps George never expected Dud to get off Terra-One like his mother had dreamed, and didn’t teach him more than he needed to survive on their home planet.

“Mind explaining?” Dud asked.

“Rag’nok, you are worthless aren’t you?” the boy responded.

Rag’nok was something Dud fully understood. It was a creature so magnificent it was regarded as a god by the Zieb. The name loosely translated meant world destroyer. They were a four legged creature with long snouts and powerful tails, similar to that of the alligators that lived in the waters on Terra-One. Their hides were so thick no weapon could pierce them. They had a lifespan so long that the best guess for how long they lived was in the millions of years, and they grew until the day they died. The largest known Rag’nok in the universe was twelve-hundred miles long and still growing. This was the exact creature that had landed on Terra-One five-hundred years ago and made it nearly uninhabitable. Due to their ability to move through space as easily as swim through water the Rag’nok had long ago left to seek out other worlds to feed upon. While hurtling through space the monster was able to generate energy from light to keep it in a stasis state until it reached its next destination. The Rag’nok was every person’s boogey man on Terra-One.

“Wouldn’t mind learning some more to not be as worthless,” Dud said.

The guy grabbed Dud’s hand like he was going to shake it, but then rolled his wrist to the side. The skin was red from a new tattoo. Inked into his flesh so anyone shaking his hand could read were three letters that gave him the name he became known by: DUD.

“You’re the ninth dud we’ve had in the past two months. Sorry to break it to you, but you’ve got a brief life expectancy. No point in making you too worthwhile.” The kid grabbed a zipper at his elbow and opened his suit all the way to the wrist. He peeled it open to show the word MECHBOY running vertically along a ragged scar that went the length of his forearm.

“Mechboy?” Dud asked.

“My birth name is Caleb, Mechboy is the name she gave me,” Mechboy said.

“Who gave you the name?”

“She is our owner and handler. That SLET in your head connects you directly to her. Think of it like a metal parasite that was woven its tendrils inside your brain. She can use it to communicate with us, monitor our locations, and if our thinking puts us against her orders it will alert her. That is the scary part, with nothing more than her making up her mind to execute us that SLET will terminate you. Anywhere. Anytime. I can’t tell you who she is, because I have been told not to. Like I said you aren’t expected to live past tomorrow, so she isn’t taking any risks.”

Tomorrow was the day they were going to execute their contract on the Stiation planet. The only thing Dud was told about the job was his own part. He would drop down to the planet with Mechboy. They would set themselves up to intercept a supply ship. All he knew was he was supposed to pull shoot the ship with a tracking device. No one would tell him anything more than that.

Right before they dropped Mechboy donned his engineered exoskeleton. Metal reinforcements ran down his spine and legs. The metal suited gave him an extra foot in height and each arm was equipped with a variety of different weapons he could access with the flick of a switch. Over his shoulders were two different heavy weapons that ran off of his brain’s commands. Most of Mechboys bones had been replaced with a titanium alloy that allowed him to exist harmoniously with the exosuit.

“Why would you do something like that?” Dud asked as they prepared for the drop.

Mechboy looked down at him with pity. “I didn’t want to be a dud. It was the cheapest route I could sell myself into.”

“Sell yourself?”

“You’re a slave. Property. She owns you. I am an indentured servant. Three years ago she paid for me to have the mech upgrades and in return I have to work until our contract is up.” Mechboy swallowed hard. “I fulfill my contract tomorrow.”

Dud stepped into his pod. “What stops her from killing you with the SLET?”

Mechboy stepped into his own pod without looking at Dud. “Nothing.”

Dud’s pod closed around him and he was jettisoned into the atmosphere. Falling to the Stiation planet he embraced that fact that he was supposed to die on this job. Made peace with that fact. However he would die happy as long as his feet hit this planet’s surface. His mother had always dreamed that he would one day make it off of Terra-One, and now he had.

Dud sang his alphabet as he fell from the sky.

His pod hit the ground hard, but inside he had no idea. The machine retracted from around him and then launched back into the sky.

“Now I know my ABC’s.”

Dud heard the wheezing and clanking of the Mechsuit as Caleb joined him. There was a case on the ground that had been spit out by the pod like an owl pellet. Dud opened the case and took out the long thin piece of metal that looked to him like a rifle, but he was told it was a highly advanced piece of tracking equipment.

“Follow me,” Mechboy said and took off at what looked like to him to be a jog, but required Dud to sprint to keep up.

The entire planet smelled like rot, and Dud’s feet sunk into the ground on more than one occasion. There were no large trees on the planet, but it was fully covered in large ferns and other ground cover. Since Stiations were amphibious creatures they tended to prefer swamp planets. Dud now understood why they were always clustered into these types of environments of Terra-One.

Mechboy stopped running and a mask flipped down over his face. Dud stared off toward the horizon where the swamp gave way to a larger body of water. He could just make out the large bubble like structures the Stiations used as buildings. It created an environment that allowed them to live above and below water.

“Flight patterns show the supply shit will come directly above us from the east which is-”

Dud faced east before Mechboy finished his instructions.

“You tag it, I blast it. The ship will splash down in the water, and we haul ass back to where we dropped in.”

Dud inspected the tracer gun in his hands. It was long but light and perfectly balanced. He had seen firearms a few times in his life, but he had never fired one. Though he got the basic concept: aim and pull the trigger. He looked through the fancy scope which told him the distance and air speed to his target.

“What will you do your freedom?” Dud asked.

“Dud I don’t want to talk to you. Your life expectancy is almost up, and if it comes down to you or me making it out of here I am picking me,” Mechboy said.

“I don’t see the big deal with this mission. It felt more dangerous to survive until tomorrow on Terra-One.”

“I’m not sure either. This has been the safest brief I’ve had. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things I don’t know. Ready up. The ship should be here.”

Dud heard a loud roaring sound as a ship penetrated the atmosphere. This thing was a large oval that reminded him of a sideways wish, but it was huge. Gigantic. Larger than most the villages on Terra-One.

He tucked the stock of the tracer to his shoulder and aimed through the scope. Like he had always been taught he led his target and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He pulled the trigger again. Still nothing.

Then he watched the entire front end of the colossal ship explode and drop toward the water. He pulled the trigger one more time, but still nothing happened, and then his target passed overhead.

Mechboy had a smoking barrel of one of his shoulder mounted rockets beside his head, while he kept watching the ship with his mask down.

“Dud, why isn’t it tagged?”

Pods launched from the ship in every which direction. Making it look like the giant fish was crying.

“I kept pulling the trigger, but nothing happened,” Dud said.

He had a sneaking suspicion he had been set up. The weapon had never been loaded in the first place.

“You put the site on the ship, and pulled the trigger?”

Dud looked at the mech in confusion. “If you don’t lead a target you’ll miss.”

Even behind the mask Dud could tell Mechboy’s face was fire red.

“Why would you aim away from the target? You put the site on the target and it locks on so the tracer hits every time.”

The ship crashed down into the water a mile away.

Dud ground his teeth and glared. “Maybe if you would have told me that instead of assuming I wasn’t worth talking to we would be on our way out of here.”

“Shut up. I can’t go back without the job being done or she’ll fry my brain. Go trace the ship before it sinks. I’ll keep you covered.”

Dud wasn’t sure what had him most angry; that he had screwed up or that it could have been avoided by communication. He took off in a sprint toward the crash site. It didn’t take a smart man to realize that the pods were dropping people to defend the site, and Mechboy would only keep Dud alive long enough to finish the job. He would be damned though if he died a failure.

Splashing through puddles he kept his ears open for any sign of the people from the pods. He came to a stop when he had a clear line of sight on the target, but when he put the site on the ship and pulled the trigger a message flashed in the scope that he was too far away. He let out a frustrated growl and kept plowing through the swamps, aware of the whirring of the mechsuit keeping pace with him.

Then the first Stiation appeared. A slender creature with green skin and black spots dressed in flowing tribal garb. This one held a rifle that was two large half ovals joined by two handles. The thing fired the weapon and a blue blast of energy vaporized a fern that Dud had just left.

There was a loud bang and the Stiation’s head popped like a zit.

“Keep going,” Mechboy yelled.

From all around Stiations were closing in on them. Mechboy spun as delicately as a ballerina as he swapped through a variety of weapons to do the most damage as fast as possible. Dud kept pushing until he crested the next hill. The ship had mostly submerged. He aimed at the little bit that was still above water. The crosshairs turned green and he pulled the trigger. There was a soft pft as a gel like slug flew out of the end of the gun and arced through the air until it smacked against the hull and spread like a drop of rain.

The tracer gun got so hot Dud had to drop it, and watched as it sizzled in a puddle until it consumed itself leaving no evidence of its existence. Dud turned to tell Mechboy to get moving, but he was already long gone with a group of Stiations heading after him.

Completely unarmed, Dud threw himself into a puddle. Forcing his outside to look calm, he slowly crawled his way forward staying covered in murk. If he just had his bow he wouldn’t feel so helpless. He wasn’t sure what his best course of action was as he continued along. Mechboy had left him for dead, so there wasn’t much of a chance he would be picked up even if he could return to the drop zone. Not to mention there were a ton of angry Stiations between him and there, and he didn’t have so much as a branch to defend himself with.

He needed a weapon no matter what, and he knew where there were plenty lying around. Pushing himself into a crouch he searched the area for any signs of movement. It seemed like everyone had gone after Mechboy, so Dud made a run for where the dead Stiations were scattered about. He picked up one rifle and slung it over his back, then retrieved a second and set off after the pack that was chasing Mechboy.

They were almost too easy to track. The Stiations left three toed prints everywhere they ran, and Mechboy left large divots everywhere he landed in his long gait.  He heard the firefight before he saw it. Mechboy was laid out, his legs no longer working, keeping himself up with one arm and firing with the other. A shield of energy was absorbing the blue blasts, but it didn’t seem like it would last for long. There were a dozen Stiations that seemed more concerned with surrounding Mechboy than killing him.

Dud thought really hard about abandoning the mission.

Get clear we will call you in a drop pod and cut our loses, a voice echoed in his brain as if he had heard it beside him. It was the same voice he had heard when strapped to the table. Dud wasn’t quite sure how the technology worked, but he hoped she could hear him in return.

I’ll get him out. Send two pods to his location.

Dud rushed behind the nearest Stiation and slammed the rifle into the back of his bulbous head.

He’s dead either way. Get out or I’ll fry you too.

Dud kicked the legs out from under the next Stiation and smashed the butt of his rifle into his head. Mechboy might have been willing to leave him for dead, but Dud was going to do this on his terms or not at all.

Call in two.

He tucked the stock to his shoulder and opened fire. The blue energy from his rifle slammed into another Stiation hurling it off its feet. A long sigh escaped him since he was glad to find out there were no complicated processes to operating their rifles.

He found his next target and fired while his feet made their way toward Mechboy.

I’ll fry both your brains.

Rolling out of the way a blue blast singed a puddle. Coming back up on his feet soaking wet he found his attacker and opened fire. He kept squeezing the trigger sending blast after blast until he hit his target. The energy these weapons used was so different than the arrows he was accustomed to that he had trouble adjusting his aim.

Then get it over with, Dud countered.

He found his next target, but nothing happened when he squeezed the trigger. He had no idea how to tell ammunition without a quiver, so he dropped the rifle and drew his next. Firing more shots than he wished he dropped the Stiation. Finally making it to Mechboy he nudged his side with his knee.

“Our pods should be here soon,” Dud said.

For the moment Dud didn’t see any more threats, even though he could hear them splashing through puddles somewhere in the ferns around them.

Mechboy pointed a gigantic barrel at Dud. “She said she’d cook my brain if I didn’t kill you. I’m sorry.”

Dud lowered his gun. “If you shoot me who is going to get you into the pod?”

A look of defeat passed over Mechboy as he lowered his arm. “It doesn’t matter. They broke my spine. Even if I live I don’t have a way to afford repairs.”

There was a loud croaking sound as four Stiations leapt fifteen feet into the air and landed all around Dud and Mechboy. They both opened fire as fast as they could. Two of the Stiations dropped before they could reach them.

Dud spun toward his nearest attacker and pulled the trigger when it was practically touching the Stiation’s chest. The moment he pulled the trigger a spear smashed the gun out of his grip. The spear wielding Stiation swept Dud’s feet out from under him, then leapt high in the air coming down at a trajectory to impale Mechboy.

Dud doubted the energy shield would protect the mech from a primitive weapon and hurled himself at the descending creature. He didn’t have enough momentum to knock the Stiation away, but the spear passed through Mechboy’s shoulder instead of his chest. The spear stayed behind as Dud and the amphibian slopped down into the swamp. Dud got himself on top and squeeze hard on the creature’s throat. The Stiation’s gills opened and he sucked in water from the puddle they were fighting in, then placed two fingers on Dud’s neck. His skin burned like someone was tearing it from his body. He released the neck and knocked the hand away.

“Get back,” Mechboy groaned.

Dud threw himself away from the Stiation, and a moment later Mechboy’s shoulder rocket blew him to sushi.

The pods landed and opened up waiting to receive their quarry. Dud rushed over to Mechboy and fought with all his strength to get him to his feet. Mechboy grabbed the outside of the pod with his hand to keep his own weight up when Dud started to give out under the massive weight of the exoskeleton.

The moment Mechboy was inside the pod filled in around him. Dud watched it lift off before he went for his own pod. He knew there were still more Stiations around but he didn’t want to take any more risks with his life.

He climbed into his pod, and listened to the gizmos and gadgets adjust to his body before they closed in on him. As the process started a Stiation hurled itself directly at him. The creature flew through the air knife first. Dud had limited mobility, but moved just enough for the knife to pass between his arm and side. For a brief second he stared into the large red eyes of an angry Stiation, before his pod snapped shut, slicing the creature’s hand off in the process. Through the outer shell of the pod, Dud could hear the dimmed screams of the dismembered Stiation. He felt the pod lift off and a new kind of fear took hold.

Whoever she was would be waiting for him to return. She hadn’t killed him remotely yet so he felt he might have a chance to escape death.

The ride back up in the pod felt a thousand times longer than the descent. After what felt like an eternity his pod opened releasing him and the knife wielding hand into the ship. Mechboy was sprawled on the floor.

Dud let out a long breath and a short laugh. He had survived the mission and already surpassed his life expectancy. Though it could end at any moment.

“For what it’s worth, thanks,” Mechboy said trying to right himself.

Dud just gave a nod.

Then she came into the corridor. She was a Terran, practically eye level with Dud, with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes were such a dark blue that looked black. A grimace covered her tan face. Her body was wrapped in a tight black fabric that had many overlapping pieces which revealed her streamlined muscles. A gun belt hung loosely around her hips, where a white pistol was housed. Even though she looked like she could tear Dud’s heart out through his chest, her youth surprised him.

“Now, now, now, what will I do with you?” she cooed.

“I’ve been told I am your property, so I guess whatever you wish,” Dud said.

“Poor Mechboy. I hope you enjoy your freedom. We’ll be dropping you at our next stop,” she replied.

“Lilith,” a scream followed the word as it left Mechboys mouth. Dud could only guess his SLET punished him for disobeying an order. “I’ll die without medical attention, and I’m worthless without a mechanic.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. You won’t die. Dud, drag him back to his room,” she said.

“I know I don’t have the best business sense here, but if the kid signed himself into your service to get turned into that thing, why wouldn’t you extend his contract and pay for his repairs,” Dud said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I told you to take him back to his room, I didn’t ask for your opinion,” she replied.

“Please, Barnoness. Repair me. One more year,” Mechboy pleaded.

“Three years.”

“That’s how long I signed on for the full augmentation.”

“I’ll gladly release you as a paralyzed mech if you would prefer,” she said.

“No, ma’am. We have a contract.” Mechboy said, hitting a set of controls on his apparatus that caused the suit to retract from his body.

The bee-headed robot came down the pathway, his footsteps pinging with each stride. He stopped over Mechboy and lifted him into his arms.

“I’ll draw up the standard contract and see to his medical needs,” the robot said and kept walking.

Dud was alone with Lilith. The air felt like it was chilling as she moved closer to him.

“No augmentations, no enhancements, nothing but balls. I hate to admit I am impressed with you, Dud. You might just be the best value I’ve ever received for my money, but you’ve already crossed me twice-”


“Don’t ever interrupt me. Twice is one more time than anyone else. As long as there isn’t a third you might just get a long time spot on my team. If I even suspect you are going to disobey me again, I will fry you where you stand. Hear me?”


Lilith patted him on the chest and then walked down the corridor.

“Ma’am?” Dud asked.

“What is it, slave?” she replied.

“I have a lot of questions.”

“I’m not a tour guide, bugger off.” She kept walking and Dud watched her muscles move until he couldn’t make them out anymore.

He stood where he was to avoid angering Lilith. Where he was going, both on the ship and in life, he wasn’t sure. However he was alive, and off Terra-One, both were things that made him thankful. He still had far more questions than answers and he didn’t know what a tour guide was, but he would find one and figure everything out.